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NASCAR Chairman Brian France discusses sport’s future, young drivers, series sponsor

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HOMESTEAD, Florida — NASCAR Chairman Brian France praised Monster Energy for what it has done in its first season as the sponsor of the Cup Series and said that “we’re very pleased with where that relationship is.’’

As for if Monster Energy is expected to renew as title sponsor beyond 2018, NASCAR President Brent Dewar said: “We work on those things all the time.’’

France, speaking to the media before Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, noted the challenges with a new sponsor.

“This is only the first year and there are always growing pains, but as I said earlier, we’re thrilled,’’ France said. “The promises they’ve made, they’ve kept, with the young demo, edgy shows, edgy marketing, putting our drivers in different places in different light. That’s what we want. They’ve delivered on that. 

“And like anything else, I think it will get better as they ‑‑ this is also a hard program. It’s a complicated program. It’s the best program, but to execute across all these platforms, it’s a big, big sport. There’s nothing like it, so you don’t get an opportunity to just go, well, we’ll do it like that guy did it or this guy does it over here because nobody can have, today anyway, in a major sports league, an entitlement position like this, so it’s a great program, but it ‑‑ and I think it will get better next year.’’

France and Dewar spoke on several other topics Sunday. Here’s what he said:

On race lengths:

Dewar:  “Race lengths, which interestingly we got a great research and analytics group, and you’ll love this, we asked these things, and one-third like them exactly the length they are, one-third want them to be longer, and one-third want them to be shorter.  So it’s unanimous that they love racing, and so ‑‑ but that’s part of what we work with the track partners, the race teams and the broadcast partners to find that optimal distance so we have the right show.’’

On drivers not being able to continue because of lack of sponsorship:

France: “The reality is, as Brent said a minute ago, Matt (Kenseth) has had a long 20‑year plus career.  That’s unthinkable in most sports, and he’s performed at a high level.  We’ll wish him well, but he may be back, too.  He’ll have to get the right opportunity for him.

“And the rest of it is a performance sport.  If it’s difficult for anybody ‑‑ this is not picking on any one driver, but if you’re not performing at a high level, it may be difficult for you to stay in this sport.  It will be difficult for you to stay in the sport, for any driver.  That’s not picking on anybody.

“I think for those reasons, that’s where we’re at.’’

On the young drivers in the sport:

France: “They are here, and they’ve got to develop their performance, but they’re doing well. You look at Ryan Blaney, you look at Chase (Elliott) almost making the final here in Miami. Go down the list. We’ve got a loaded group. But it’s true, we’re in a transition, too. But that happens from time to time. Not usually in the concentrated manner that we have now, but it happens. But we’re excited. We’ve got a great, great bunch of ‑‑ 19, 20, and they’re talented, so we’re in good shape.’’

On his biggest worry in NASCAR:

France: “Well, I’m really more optimistic right now, and I know you may expect me to say that, but we’ve made the transition largely. We’ve gotten the council meetings going. We’ve gotten charters in position so we can get our interests aligned more closely with drivers, OEMs and the charters and the team owners. We have the young drivers already in place. We’d like a couple more, of course. We’ve got some diversity with Bubba Wallace going in the 43 car. We like that. We’d love to see more of that. And we like all the changes that we’ve made in the last four or five years, including stage racing this year. It has created the things that we thought were important.

“Now, there are things out of our control, how millennials and other fans of ours are consuming not only our sport but all the sports. That’s obviously a challenge for everybody. Attention times, the platforms they want to view and consume, they’re changing.  TV is still ‑‑ always will be linear TV, critically important, but other things now will give us a great opportunity, and we’re positioned well there. But it’s true, there is always disruption when you have the kind of changes on a macro level in sports, and then couple that with our transition stuff, it’s understandable.

“But I’m glad we made all the decisions that we made in the last five to eight years.  hank goodness we did each and every one of those.  Just imagine if we didn’t. Imagine where we would be.  We wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the things that are available to us today.

“So we’re excited about ‑‑ and the biggest thing we’re excited about is, and Brent is leading the charge here, and I attended the last team owner council, is we’re on a fast track to get ‑‑ and it’s hard. It’s always been hard, to get the competition level up, and some of that is done by formats like stage racing and cutoff events and so on, has obviously stepped up the competition level. But there are other things we can do that are important to us.

“So we’re realistic about things that are changing that we don’t control outright, but we like where we’re at and we like where we’re going.’’

Rick Ware Racing acquires NASCAR Cup charter for 2018, will also field ‘open’ car

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Rick Ware Racing (RWR) announced Friday that it has acquired a NASCAR Cup Series charter for the 2018 season.

However, RWR did not identify which Cup team it acquired the charter from.

As a result, RWR will be able to compete full-time in the Cup Series with the No. 51, beginning in the 60th Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018.

The team will also field an “open” team – one that will not have a charter and will have to qualify for every race it enters – sporting the No. 52 car number.

In addition to not identifying where it acquired the Cup charter, RWR is not identifying at this time what manufacturer it will field for either car in the upcoming season.

In a media statement, however, it did say that will be both be building and acquiring cars both during the off-season and in-season, including Chevrolet Camaros, Ford Fusions and Toyota Camrys.

The Thomasville, North Carolina-based organization is also increasing the amount of personnel, updating equipment, adding engineering support on and off the road, as well as upgrading its 20,000-square-foot shop.

The team said it will finalize its driver lineup for both the No. 51 and No. 52 “in the immediate future,” it said in a media release.

Six drivers drove a combined 29 races for RWR in the 2017 NASCAR Cup season: Timmy Hill (9 races), B.J. McLeod (8 races), Cody Ware (5), Ray Black Jr. (3), Kyle Weatherman (2) and Josh Bilicki (2).

The team’s two best finishes were both by Hill: a 28th-place showing at the spring race in Kansas, followed the next week by a 29th-place finish at Charlotte.

The team also entered three Camping World Truck races, with 2 starts by Jordan Anderson and one by Spencer Boyd. It also competed in one Xfinity race.

‘Old dog’ Matt Crafton preparing to make USAC Midget debut Saturday night

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Matt Crafton is proving it’s never too late for to try new things in auto racing.

Crafton, the 41-year-old driver for ThorSport Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, will break new ground Saturday night.

It all started a few months ago over dinner with Jack Irving, the director of team and support services at Toyota Racing Development.

“We were just sitting down, having dinner one night a couple of months ago and thought it would be a great idea for me to drive a midget,” Crafton said last Saturday during the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series awards banquet.

“I didn’t think it was too crazy when (Irving) brought it up,” Crafton said. “At that point, it was just casual conversation. I said ‘Yeah, let’s do it’ and he texted (Keith) Kunz to see if it was okay. Two days later, he told me, ‘Okay, pick where you want to go.’”

Crafton chose Saturday night’s USAC Indoor Junior Knepper 55 in DuQuoin, Illinois, as the place to make his midget debut.

He will make it in a car owned by Keith Kunz Motorsports.

On Dec. 6, the two-time Truck Series champion found himself sitting in a midget for the first time, getting fitted for the dirt car.

“About to find out if you can teach an old dog new tricks,” Crafton later tweeted.

But Crafton has already been fine tuning his dirt racing skills over the last five years. Since 2013, the Truck Series has visited Eldora Speedway, the Tony Stewart-owned dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio.

Crafton has been in every Eldora race, but before 2017 his best finish was eighth in the inaugural event.

Before this season, Crafton decided to really figure out dirt racing.

He and his father worked together to rebuild a Modified dirt car and in the downtime between Truck races, Crafton took it racing.

It worked out quickly, with Crafton coming in second in an event at Volusia Speedway Park in February.

Then in July, Crafton triumphed over Stewart Friesen to win the fifth Eldora Dirt Derby.

“It helped a lot,” Crafton said after the race. “Just learning what the track does. In the years past, I didn’t know what I was looking at to be totally honest. Just kept studying and kept studying.”

That Eldora win was the only victory for the No. 88 ThorSport Racing team in 2017, but it put Crafton in the Truck playoffs.

When the prospect of a midget race was raised to him by Irving, the pursuit of a third Truck title kept Crafton from it until the offseason.

“I wouldn’t say the Eldora win propelled any of this … but it’s definitely opened up some more doors,” Crafton said last weekend. “Now, everyone realizes how much I enjoy it and how much of a racer I am and that I love to race.

“I’ll say it again: I’m a racer. There’s a reason why I race dirt races and do everything that I do, and it’s because I want to go out and race anything and everything I possibly can. That’s why I got my own dirt modified, that’s why I got a go-kart … to be able to perfect road courses and that style of racing as well.”

One of Crafton’s teammates in Saturday’s race will be the defending Truck Series champion and dirt veteran Christopher Bell. Crafton’s also received advice from Chase Briscoe, who drove for Brad Keselowski Racing this season.

“(Briscoe) won’t be my teammate, but he sent me some in-car footage of him racing at DuQuoin and I’ve watched it 10 times, just to see what I can learn,” Crafton said. “I mean, you get about four laps, and then you try to race your way into the main event. There’s gonna be a lot of cars there, so it won’t be easy.”

“I talked to Bell this week, and he has a simulator with the midget on it, so I may go over to his house and run the simulator a little bit and see if I can figure out anything there.”

Crafton said he keeps getting pressured to take his dirt experience one step further and compete in January’s Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But Saturday’s 55-lap race comes first.

“I’d love to give (the Chili Bowl) a shot in the future. But we’ll see,” Crafton said. “I’m going out to DuQuoin to have fun; that’s the main goal.”

Four young Ford NASCAR drivers to compete in IMSA opening weekend at Daytona

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Four of NASCAR’s up-and-coming young stars – all Ford drivers – will get a nearly month’s head start of sorts for the 2018 season opener at Daytona.

A pair of 23-year-olds, Chase Briscoe and Ty Majeski, and 19-year-olds Austin Cindric and Cole Custer will all compete in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge January 26, part of the Rolex 24 weekend (Jan. 25-28) at Daytona International Speedway.

The four drivers will be mentored by Scott Maxwell, who won the Continental series championship with co-driver Billy Johnson in 2016.

Maxwell will also compete in the event, which will feature the four young drivers being part of a two-car Mustang GT4 team in the GS class. The pairings of which drivers will drive with each other will be announced closer to the four-hour endurance event.

“We have an outstanding group of young drivers coming up and we feel putting them in this kind of environment with Scott Maxwell will benefit them for the rest of their careers,” Ford Performance Motorsports global director Mark Rushbrook said in a media release. “You have to be good on all types of tracks to compete for a NASCAR championship and this will give each of them valuable road course experience in our exciting Mustang GT4 with Multimatic Motorsports.”

Cindric, Briscoe and Majeski were recently named to share driving duties for the No. 60 Ford in the 2018 Xfinity Series for Roush Fenway Racing, in collaboration with Team Penske and Ford Performance.

Custer will enter his second full Xfinity season for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.

The four drivers plus Maxwell will take part in a three-day test session at DIS from Jan. 5-7.

When asked about how much they’re looking forward to the opportunity, here’s what the five drivers had to say:

CUSTER: “I’m really excited about this opportunity. I’ve never done any endurance racing, but I’m looking forward to having some fun and learning what it’s all about. This is obviously a big race and great way to start the season. Being able to race with the other guys is going to be a lot of fun as well because we’re all pretty much the same age and have a lot in common. I never thought I would get the chance to do something like this, but road course racing has really grown on me. I think it’s fun to learn the different sides of things and this is going to be a chance for me to learn as a driver and make myself better.”

CINDRIC: “For me with my background some of my biggest moments in the early part of my career have been with Multimatic racing Mustangs in the Continental Tire Series, so for me I’m coming home. I come from a different background than the other guys and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun, learn a few things and hopefully bring home some hardware because I know those Mustangs are pretty strong around Daytona. Scott and I have become really good friends and he’s been a big help to me in my career and I look forward to being teammates with him again and having a little fun throughout the weekend.”

BRISCOE: “This is something I certainly never thought I would get an opportunity to do, but I’m super-excited for it. This will be something new and I’m going to do a lot of it this year, so I think it’s going to be a good learning curve. I’ve only run two road courses my entire life and even though we ran decent, I didn’t feel like I ever knew what I was doing. Hopefully, I can get to the point by the end of this year where I know what I’m doing on a road course. Even though I’ll be driving two different kind of race cars, the principals of how you drive and the technique it takes will be something I can learn. I’m also looking forward to having a teammate and competing in an event where both of you have an impact on how well you run.”

MAJESKI: “I have virtually no road course experience at all. I’ve been on one road course my entire life and that was this past summer when I was sent out to the Ford Performance Driving School in Utah. Outside of that, I have not been on a road course, so this will be great for me to get some experience and be around people who know a lot about it. I’m looking forward to working with Chase, Austin and Cole as well. They’re good guys and I’m excited for the opportunity Ford has put in front of us.”

MAXWELL: “The Ford Mustang GT4 has been a great project from the start, and I’m glad to get back in the seat in Daytona. It’s just a fun car to drive. I’m happy to work with the young NASCAR drivers Ford has signed up, too, to help these drivers get acclimated.”

Report: Two race attendees sue NASCAR, Daytona for 2015 Coke Zero 400 crash-related injuries

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Two additional persons have filed suit against NASCAR, International Speedway Corp. and Daytona International Speedway for injuries sustained in a July 2015 race crash, according to a report by ESPN.

Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was involved in a last lap crash that resulted with Dillon’s car flying into the catch fence during the July 2015 Coke Zero 400.

Debris and fluids from Dillon’s car got through the catch fence and impacted several fans in the seating area. One lawsuit has already been settled, and two other men – Florida residents John and Wayne Vanpatten – have now filed suit for injuries they claim they suffered as a result of the crash.

MORE: Austin Dillon talks about Daytona crash on Today show

MORE: 5 fans treated, one at hospital for injuries from Austin Dillon’s airborne crash at Daytona

 

According to the ESPN report, the Vanpatten’s claim they were hit by a toxic fluid from Dillon’s car that was ingested by John Vanpatten and which sprayed onto Wayne Vanpatten’s arm. The men claim they are still recovering from their injuries.

The Vanpatten’s lawsuit falls within the four-year statute of limitations to file such a claim per Florida state law.

According to ESPN, NASCAR, ISC, DIS officials and the Vanpatten’s attorney all did not comment on the suit.