Long: New season leads to new questions after Clash

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — So many questions. And so much work to do before next weekend’s Daytona 500.

While Brad Keselowski celebrated his first Clash win a few hours after Alex Bowman won the Daytona 500 pole, a level of uncertainty permeated the garage Sunday.

The elimination of the ride-height rule made the cars look like low-riders and altered their personalities. Drivers talked about getting big runs but having balance issues with their car when they made a move.

On a day when temperatures reached into the 80s, handling again was a key word. While Harry Hogge famously told Cole Trickle on the movie screen that “loose is fast,’’ reality Sunday was that loose was a handful.

It also was a day where slimmer pit crew — cut back by one over-the-wall person — debuted, creating an assortment of ways to service a car that will have teams studying videos of each other.

Although the Clash was not the jaw-dropping, eye-popping finish that a restrictor-plate track can produce at times, remember this was an appetizer, not the main course that the Daytona 500 is.

“Who would have thought they would have run single-file for 30 laps?’’ Kevin Harvick said after his ninth-place finish in the Clash. “In an exhibition race, there really shouldn’t be any strategy to it. That was a little bit surprising to me. I was trying to be aggressive and do things in the back and the next thing I know I’m losing the draft because everybody is single-file.

“Usually, they get mixing it up, two-wide and you can pull back up and get yourself back in it. My bad for losing the draft for trying to do something.’’

Sunday was the first race for drivers with the elimination of the ride-height rule. Stability is key. Not every car had it.

“You would think when the cars drive worse that the guys would wreck more, but the exact opposite happens,’’ Keselowski said after his first Clash win. “Everybody loses confidence and they fall in line and they don’t make as risky of moves, and then they don’t wreck, which is, it seems, completely backwards and counterintuitive for sure, but I think that’s what you saw today.’’

Now be careful of trying to take what happened in the Clash and projecting it to the 500. Teams will have time to adjust the cars and make the drivers feel more comfortable before next weekend’s checkered flag.

Even with the challenges, there were still some aggressive moves. Running third, Ryan Blaney dropped below reigning champion Martin Truex Jr. and squeezed back in front of Truex on his own.

“It was an aggressive move,’’ Blaney said after his fourth-place finish. “I had a big run. I was clear. I was looking in my mirror the whole time. I don’t care if I’m clear by 3 inches or 3 feet, I’m coming up.’’

Another time Chase Elliott pushed Denny Hamlin through part of the field with a big run. 

“He and I worked really well together,’’ said Elliott, who finished 13th after being collected in a last-lap crash. “He had a fast car and so did we. I think we kind of understood what we needed and was able to push our way forward a couple of times. It’s just all numbered dependent, who’s behind you, how good a pusher they are and how scared they are.’’

Such runs were attention-grabbing.

“The game may be a little bit quicker,’’ runner-up Joey Logano said.

“Just think the runs happen quicker. It’s kind of like in the Xfinity race. In the Xfinity races, the cars get these huge runs, and they’re hard to stop. This is maybe not quite to that extent, but the runs you can build are way bigger than they used to be, but that bubble, that imaginary bubble in between the cars that we always talk about seems to be — stop us just as hard. So we get a bigger run, but it kind of stops us just as much.’’

They’ll work through that just as teams will continue to refine pit road. New spec air guns and only five people servicing the car instead of six slowed the pit stops.

Racing Insights stated that the fastest four-tire pit stop Sunday was 16.6 seconds by Jimmie Johnson’s team. Last year, the fastest four-tire stop in the Clash was 11.8 seconds by Elliott’s team.

“We’ll have to go back and study all that and see,’’ said Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe, whose team only did a two-tire stop. “I’m sure there was a lot of different ideas and theories on pit road of what was going to be the fastest pit stop.’’

Among the different way of servicing the cars, Keselowki’s tire carrier had both front and rear tires when he went over the wall. When Harvick’s pit crew went from the right side to the left side of the car to change the tires, the jackman raised the car and then placed the left rear tire on. After the tire carrier placed the left front tire on the car, he went around the front changer and dropped the jack for Harvick to go.

“It was a learning day,’’ Wolfe said.

A new day, a new way to do things.

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Podcast: Front Row Motorsports explains how it improves with smaller budget, unique sponsor deals

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Running a Cup Series team is not a cheap endeavor.

One person who knows this is Jerry Freeze, the general manager of Front Row Motorsports.

Owned by Bob Jenkins, the two-car team runs the No. 34 of Michael McDowell and No. 38 of David Ragan and has a technical partnership with Roush Fenway Racing.

Freeze sat down with Nate Ryan on the NASCAR on NBC podcast to discuss how FRM works with smaller budgets and its unique business-to-business sponsorship deals through Jenkins’ trucking company, MDS Transport, and restaurant business, Charter Foods.

Freeze calls Love’s Travel Shops, which sponsors half the races on McDowell’s car, a “textbook example” of such a deal. Their partnership began in 2013.

“Bob owns a trucking company with about 300 over the road truck on the road,” Freeze said. “They’ve got to get fuel somewhere. That’s kind of how the Love’s Travel Shop deal started for us.”

Freeze describes it as a “slightly smaller scale” version of the relationship between Team Penske and Shell.

Unlike larger teams, Front Row doesn’t yet have an optical scanning station at its shop like the one cars are inspected with at the track.

“We went into it thinking, ‘We’ll never need to have one of those, NASCAR’s got one, we can go over there whenever we want,'” Freeze said.

The team also relies on the scanner located at Roush Fenway Racing. But it’s a challenge to take cars to Roush, with its shop in Concord, North Carolina, about an hour away from Front Row’s in Statesville.

Buying its own scanner is beginning to look like a “necessary evil” for Freeze, who said he’s heard it would cost $300,000.

“I think if you’re really going to try to optimize the car through each step of what you do, that might be the way to go,” Freeze said.

When it comes to becoming more competitive, Freeze and Jenkins have been encouraged to invest more resources and money into the team by moves NASCAR has made to lower costs, including requiring teams to use engines in multiple races, spec radiators and the controversial common pit guns.

“It put it in a place where, yeah, it’s still pretty tough for Front Row to get to, but it’s not as high as it use to be,” Freeze said of the engine rule. “With spec radiators, we were spending $9,000 for radiator in the past. Now a spec radiator is, I don’t know, a third of that.”

Freeze also addressed the future of one of the team’s three charters, which is leased to TriStar Motorsports this season.

“You can’t do that forever with the way the rules are set up,” Freeze said. “We’ll have to make a decision, either we’ve got to operate (it) ourselves or maybe we sell it to TriStar some day, I don’t know. … Even though we weren’t in a position to run three cars and we’re still not today, it’s kind of nice to have in your pocket just in case something came along that was just phenomenal and we needed one.”

Click on the embed above to hear the podcast. It also is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.

August Cup race at Michigan to be called Consumers Energy 400

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The Aug. 12 Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway will be sponsored by Consumers Energy as part of a multi-year deal, the track announced Thursday.

Consumers Energy is Michigan’s largest energy provider, providing natural gas and/or electricity to 6.7 million of the state’s 10 million residents.

The company takes over for Pure Michigan, which sponsored the race from 2011-17.

“We are excited to expand our collaborative relationship with Consumers Energy,” said track president Rick Brenner in a press release. “We strive to work with Michigan-based companies like Consumers Energy who continue to give back to the community. We are looking forward to working together to provide our guests an awesome experience each August for many years to come.”

Consumers Energy will also sponsor the inaugural MIS Charity Dinner on June 9 and the track’s 50 Years of Racing Exhibit in the fan plaza for both of the track’s race weekends.

The MIS Charity Dinner, which benefits the Henry Ford Allegiance Health Foundation Patient Immediate Needs Fund and the MIS Cares Fund, will feature a strolling dinner, dessert and drink stations, live and silent auctions, music, a photo booth and more. The event will also feature a question and answer session with Dale Inman, Rusty Wallace and Leonard Wood.

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Weekend schedule at Richmond for Cup, Xfinity

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NASCAR heads to its third short-track race of the season this weekend at Richmond Raceway.

Kyle Larson won the Cup race at Richmond last fall and Joey Logano won there last April.

Here is this weekend’s schedule at Richmond:

(All times Eastern)

FRIDAY, APRIL 20

7 a.m. — Xfinity garage opens

8 a.m. – 9 p.m. — Cup garage open

8 – 8:45 a.m. — Xfinity practice (No TV)

9:40 – 10:25 a.m. — Final Xfinity practice (Fox Sports 1)

11:05 – 11:55 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

12:35 – 1:25 p.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

4:05 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (FS1)

5:10 p.m. — Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting

5:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (FS1, MRN)

6:30 p.m. — Xfinity driver introductions

7 p.m. — ToyotaCare 250 Xfinity race; 250 laps/187.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

SATURDAY, APRIL 21

1 p.m. — Cup garage opens

4:30 p.m. — Driver/crew chief meeting

5:50 p.m. — Driver introductions

6:30 p.m. — Toyota Owners 400 Cup race; 400 laps/300 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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NASCAR America: Short tracks are Clint Bowyer’s favorites

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It was a question that needed to be asked, although the answer was not a surprise to anyone. What is Clint Bowyer’s favorite type of track?

“Short tracks are obviously my favorite,” Bowyer answered. “I think they’re probably everybody’s favorite. That’s what we grew up doing. That’s probably where we feel most comfortable.”

“I love back-to-back short track races because the drivers don’t have time to forget about who they’re mad at,” Steve Letarte interjected.

But Bowyer’s love of short tracks is not limited to Martinsville, where he snapped his long winless streak earlier this year. He is even more excited about coming to Richmond Raceway this week.

“I feel like Richmond is the perfect-sized race track.”

Bowyer went one step further, suggesting there is a way to add more tracks like Richmond to the schedule.

“I feel like, some of these mile-and-a-half tracks, we need to just use as parking lots and build Richmond in the infield,” Bowyer said.

For more of what Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to say about short track racing, watch the video above.