Jeff Burton

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Charlotte Motor Speedway road course to end first round of 2018 playoffs

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Charlotte Motor Speedway will be shifting its calendar spot and track surface next fall, ending the first round of the 2018 Cup playoffs on a road course.

Next season’s move from the 1.5-mile oval had been hinted at for months, and Charlotte initially considered using the road course this year. Tuesday’s schedule announcement revealed that the race will be on Sept. 30, ending the first round of the playoffs.

Charlotte, which opens the second round this season, is swapping spots with Dover International Speedway, which will move its second annual race to Oct. 7, 2018.

Dover had been the cutoff race for the first round of the playoffs since the playoffs were overhauled in 2014.

Here’s the release from Charlotte Motor Speedway:

CONCORD, N.C. (May 23, 2017) – Known across the world as a trailblazing innovator, Charlotte Motor Speedway ushered in a thrilling new era of excitement with NASCAR’s historic Tuesday scheduling announcement that next year’s Bank of America 500 will be contested on Charlotte’s ROVAL on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. The road course oval announcement carries with it several groundbreaking connotations, including:

  • The first road course NASCAR race in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 58-year existence;
  • The final event in Round 1 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs;
  • The first road course race in the 14-year history of the Playoffs;
  • The first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in September at Charlotte Motor Speedway;
  • The first new track on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule since Kentucky Speedway joined the circuit in 2011.

The Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL is a daunting, new 13-turn, 2.4-mile road course incorporating part of the infield and all but 400 feet of Charlotte’s iconic 1.5-mile oval on which drivers will race 500 kilometers over 130 laps.

“Charlotte Motor Speedway has always been about innovation,” said Marcus Smith, president and chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. “Hosting the first road course race in NASCAR’s Playoffs, as well as the drama of closing out the Playoffs’ first round, means that tension will be high and competition will be fierce as soon as the green flag drops.

“Fans are going to be in for a thrill, and drivers had better be ready for the most physically and mentally challenging race in the Playoffs. With a 35-foot elevation change between ROVAL Turn 4 and ROVAL Turn 10, drivers in next year’s Bank of America 500 will truly experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.”

Accomplished drivers including Mario Andretti, Jeff Gordon, A.J. Allmendinger, Jeff Burton and Max Papis have driven the course and witnessed its considerable potential to entertain fans and challenge drivers and crews.

“Road courses are something I look forward to during the season,” said Kyle Busch, last week’s Monster Energy All-Star Race winner. “Road racing is like a vacation for me, because it’s not something we do week-in and week-out so I just try to go out there and have fun with it.

“Now that we have the Charlotte ROVAL on the schedule, we have every type of track in our postseason. It will be interesting to see how it plays out with a completely new challenge for the drivers and teams during the Playoffs.”

The ROVAL also drew praise from one of the world’s most acclaimed road racers.

“It’s very difficult sometimes to really create a road course where you can ‘stretch your legs’ inside an oval,” said Andretti, who competed in the 1967 Bank of America 500 and is known as one of the most successful American drivers of all time.

“From that standpoint, I think they did a good job by giving it rhythm by putting some banking to the hairpin corners – which obviously invites some overtaking. It’s wide enough that you can choose a line. You’re not really trapped. … It’s got a multiple-line (groove) that you can choose from, depending on the capability of the car.”

In January, Allmendinger became the first active Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver to drive a stock car on the ROVAL.

“The track has definitely got potential,” Allmendinger said. “I had a lot of fun driving it. It’s a perfect mix for a race team to set up, whether you go for a full oval setup or somewhat of a road course setup. It’ll definitely be a big challenge for the teams.”

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the NASCAR XFINITY Series will compete on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL Friday through Sunday, Sept. 28-30, 2018.

Ryan: Why the outcry over the All-Star Race location now? Many reasons for a tipping point

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The debate over moving the All-Star Race reached critical mass this past weekend.

At least a dozen drivers, media pundits and broadcast analysts (including NASCAR on NBC’s Jeff Burton in this compelling column) called on NASCAR to consider leaving Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The points are well-taken: The 1.5-mile track’s smooth surface (high grip plus high speeds = slot cars) magnifies aero-sensitivity at the expense of slam-bang action.

But why did the tidal wave of dissent finally crest this year?

It’s been no secret for many seasons that Charlotte hardly was conducive to holding this event.

Though Kyle Busch took the lead with a nifty pass to begin the final segment, he still led the last 10 laps – the fourth time in five years the winner has managed that feat. Aside from last year’s pass of Kyle Larson by Joey Logano with two laps remaining, the last All-Star Race whose outcome was in doubt after the green flag of the final segment was when Tony Stewart beat Matt Kenseth in 2009.

In 12 All-Star Races since Charlotte was repaved, there have been two lead changes in the final five laps.

Perhaps the cumulative dearth of action from the past decade was why this year became a tipping point. But there also might have been these factors that had many speaking out:

Stage racing: In case you missed it, NASCAR began splitting all of its races into segments in 2017. The enhancements have been a tremendous addition this season (stay tuned for a NASCAR on NBC podcast with Burton this week discussing their impact and origins), but they inadvertently have created another layer of redundancy for the All-Star Race.

It’s analogous to the addition of double-file restarts to points races nearly seven years ago. When two of the main features of the All-Star Race becoming part and parcel to the everyday routine, it’s worth asking if the approach and format of the event still makes sense.

–Swiftness of change: To its credit, NASCAR has become much more nimble over the past couple of years about 1) trying new ideas; and 2) quickly implementing them. This initially was illustrated in a fast and total reversal of its rules direction (resulting in lower downforce) midway through the 2015 season, and it’s been evident in many ways since then.

And those that don’t work also aren’t kept (good riddance to heat races in Xfinity and the caution clock in trucks), so there seems less tolerance for anything perceived as the slightest drain on NASCAR momentum (undoubtedly, much of this is driven by social media, but that’s a topic for another day). When something doesn’t meet the standards of quality, and the All-Star Race at Charlotte certainly qualifies in recent years, the drumbeat for revamping begins almost immediately.

Tire problem: There’s no getting around the fact that the option tires didn’t deliver as many had hoped. With the race predicated on a primary selling point that didn’t deliver, it naturally stoked a loud reaction.

This also held true with last year’s wacky and hastily assembled format, which actually delivered a decent race. But the much-ballyhooed rules were so impenetrable, they naturally became the focus.

–All-Star existentialism: NASCAR can find solace in having good company in seeking relevance for its all-star extravaganza. The NFL, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball have wrestled with the same philosophical conundrums of events whose purposes have become diluted over the years.

Here is the question that needs to be answered well in advance of next year: What’s the main objective of a NASCAR All-Star Race?

Should it be nonstop action? Showcasing the drivers’ personalities? Highlighting their skills? Saluting the heritage of stock-car racing?

You can say all of the above, but this is a zero-sum game. There needs to be a singular focus.

Answering this question would go a long way toward solving one of NASCAR’s greatest identity crises. In the meantime, here is one certainty about the All-Star Race.

When the 2018 schedule is released Tuesday, expect Charlotte Motor Speedway to remain listed as the host.

For now.

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One consensus positive opinion about this year’s event: Ending it well before everyone’s bedtime on a Saturday night was a good move. Though event sponsor Monster brought many of its athletes, there was a decided reduction of the pomp and circumstance that prolonged past events (e.g., a concert happened after the race instead of before or during the event).

It’s unclear if that was by design, but for the pace of the show (particularly given Saturday’s mediocrity), this was certainly an improvement.

The goal should be ending every All-Star Race by 10 p.m.

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Though a change in venue would be a wise move for the All-Star event, how about switching up the surface, too?

Kyle Larson’s slide job on Jimmie Johnson for second place on the final lap conjured images of Cup cars … on dirt.

If only there were a dirt track that already had been playing host to a NASCAR national series for the past, oh, four seasons.

A dirt track that already is built around segmented races.

A dirt track where aerodynamics matter so little, hitting the wall actually can be an advantage instead of an impediment.

Hmmm.

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Whether it’s Jordan Anderson’s truck at Atlanta or Erik Jones’ Toyota in the All-Star Open, the splitter has become the new scourge of drivers and mechanics everywhere because of its incompatibility with grass on the straightaways and car setups in general.

What is amusing: When the much-maligned Car of Tomorrow was being introduced, the splitter was hailed as the key to its aerodynamic success.

Many of the rules for the COT were written around the splitter. At an October 2005 test of the new model at Atlanta Motor Speedway, much of the work was devoted to finding the “sweet spot” of the splitter and trying to mimic the success NASCAR felt it had in the truck series with splitter designs.

This isn’t a defense of the splitter (an aesthetic blemish that deservedly seems headed for the boneyard) but a reminder the “fix” assuredly won’t be as simple as just removing it. That probably is a good start for Cup cars, though.

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The return of the souvenir haulers at Charlotte Motor Speedway seemed a big hit with longtime fans, per the anecdotal evidence available. But it also highlights another example of the tug of war between keeping the old-guard fan base happy while appealing to Millennials and younger.

There’s a distinct dichotomy in the push to make the races shorter (for the youth with shorter attention spans) while making the race days longer (for those who have grown up spending several hours on the midway before the green flag).

The downsizing of the souvenir truck fleet was sold in part as a way that NASCAR would reduce its carbon footprint, which matters to a younger set that has rallied around environmentally conscious topics. Many of today’s youth also have come of age in the on-demand era of same-day shipping and drone delivery.

While the souvenir haulers might hold some sentimental value and offer a natural gathering place, how many of the fans of tomorrow would prefer to buy at-track retail instead of shopping via online or mobile, where they spend most of their waking hours anyway?

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Speaking of mobile, a good guide for the success of an event these days is how easy it is to follow via social media.

If you kept abreast of the All-Star Race with only a Twitter feed, Saturday night was borderline incomprehensible in 140-character dispatches. That needs to be fixed.

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The ouster of Ford CEO Mark Fields shouldn’t have any impact on NASCAR in the short term. Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing are in long-term deals with the manufacturer.

But the reason for Fields’ exit – Ford’s sluggishness in developing autonomous cars – should be watched by those in NASCAR and the racing industry.

In an environment where electric car maker Tesla recently became worth more than General Motors (becoming the most valuable automaker despite selling about 9.9 million fewer cars), the discussion about the evolution of the street car — and its potential impact on stock-car racing – will remain an important one.

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With an aggregate win total of 173 in Cup, Xfinity and truck, there’s been much talk about Kyle Busch reaching 200 wins across the three national series. Largely unnoticed is that Busch has 48 wins in the Camping World Truck Series, three short on the circuit’s all-time list behind Ron Hornaday Jr. The all-time winner in the Xfinity Series (87 victories) hinted after Friday night’s win at Charlotte that the truck series might be an eventual victory lap.

“I look forward to hopefully being able to pass Ron and be able to set that (mark) a little bit higher,” said Busch, who has titles in Cup (2015) and Xfinity (’09). ”Hopefully, one day when I’m all said and done with the Cup stuff, maybe I’ll run my retirement tour in the truck series and win the championship and get the trifecta.”

Busch takes his share of grief for “stealing” wins from the regulars of the junior circuits. But his commitment to the series (and reinvesting millions through Kyle Busch Motorsports) is around racing and building roots, and the purity of essence should be lauded.

Dustin Long contributed to this report

NASCAR Next Class for 2017-18 chosen

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images
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Nine drivers have been selected to the 2017-18 NASCAR Next Class.

The latest class includes three series champions and the 2016 NASCAR Whelen All-America Series Rookie of the Year.

Alumni of the program, which is in its seventh year, include Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez.

The selection process includes input from industry executives, NASCAR Cup Drivers Council and media members. Drivers must be between the ages of 15-25 and show potential on and off the track to reach the Cup Series.

Of the nine selected, Harrison Burton, Ty Majeski and Todd Gilliland were also members of the 2016-17 class.

The 2017-18 class includes:

Harrison Burton (Photo: Jared Tilton/Getty)

Harrison Burton – In his second year competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, the 16-year-old from Huntersville, North Carolina, has earned wins at Bristol Motor Speedway and Virginia’s South Boston Speedway. The son of former NASCAR Cup Series driver and current NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton also took home the pole award at Bristol for the second consecutive year.

Hailie Deegan – The 15-year-old Temecula, California, native has made a name for herself in the Lucas Oil Off Road Series. Last year the daughter of FMX legend Brian Deegan became the first female to reach the podium in the series’ history, was the 2016 Modified Kart champion in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series and was named the Lucas Oil Off Road Driver of the Year.

Todd Gilliland – The son of former NASCAR Cup Series driver David Gilliland has made quite a name for himself in the sport’s history books. The 16-year-old from Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, has 12 wins in 30 K&N Pro Series starts and became the youngest champion in NASCAR national or touring series history last year when he took home the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship.

Chase Cabre (Photo: Bob Leverone/Getty Images)

Chase Cabre – In his rookie season competing for Rev Racing and the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, the 20-year-old Tampa, Florida, native captured his first two pole awards in the twin features at South Boston Speedway and also earned his best career finish (fourth) at the Virginia short track.

Riley HerbstThe 18-year-old Las Vegas, Nevada, driver is coming off a successful rookie season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. In 14 starts last year, he compiled seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes.

Cayden LapcevichOnly the third Canadian-born driver to be chosen for the program, the 17-year-old from Grimsby, Ontario, won three times in 2016 en route to becoming the youngest NASCAR Pinty’s Series champion, and briefly held the title as the youngest NASCAR champion before being dethroned by Gilliland. Lapcevich is the first driver in Pinty’s Series history to earn both the Josten Rookie of the Year honor and the series title in the same year. 

Ty Majeski – A Roush Fenway development driver and one of the country’s top Super Late Model drivers, the 22-year-old Seymour, Wisconsin native kicked off his 2016 winning the Super Late Model championship at the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway. He continued his NASCAR Whelen All-American Series season with a third-place finish in the national standings on the strength of 14 wins and 21 top-fives in 26 starts. He will make his Xfinity Series debut June 24 at Iowa Speedway.

Chase Purdy (Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty)

Chase Purdy – The 2016 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Rookie of the Year made a splash last year when he took home both the rookie of the year and track championship at South Carolina’s Greenville Pickens Speedway in NASCAR’s weekly series. The 17-year-old from Meridian, Mississippi, is chasing another rookie title this year, competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.

Zane SmithSmith, 17, from Huntington Beach, California, broke onto the national scene in 2015 when he won the Super Late Model championship at New Smyrna’s World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing. He capped the season with a runner-up finish to Cup Series driver Chase Elliott in the Snowball Derby. 

Bump & Run: What to do about the All-Star Race?

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NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan, Dustin Long, Jerry Bonkowski and Daniel McFadin tackle this week’s topics as NASCAR heads toward the All-Star Race:

Is the All-Star Race still necessary on the Cup schedule since the same drivers are competing against each other every race?

Nate Ryan: It’s a fair question given that Cup races have adopted an All Star-type aesthetic with stage racing this season. I think there still is a purpose for an All-Star event in NASCAR, but there need to be hard questions asked about defining its objective and making aggressive moves in accordance with that.

Dustin Long: It is necessary if the purpose is to use it as a way to test ideas that could be transferred to points races, much like double-file restarts with lead-lap cars in both rows, the idea of stage racing or the use of a softer tire. If NASCAR goes away from that notion, then it would be better to replace the All-Star race with another points race or make it an open weekend.

Jerry Bonkowski: After more than 35 years, the All-Star Race remains a very viable and vibrant tradition that fans still love to attend or watch on TV. But it may need some revitalization going forward. How to revitalize it and draw even more interest is a fine line to balance. Most importantly — if changes do occur, keep them in place for several years to come. Fans oftentimes get confused when the race format changes from year to year.

Daniel McFadin: The Cup season is really long, so having one weekend devoted to a race just for fun, money and sometimes testing new aero packages is a welcome respite in the march from February to November. The second half of the season could use one as well.

What change would you make to the All-Star Race?

Nate Ryan: Rotate the venue, have fun with the personalities and take major chances with the competition. My feelings haven’t changed much since writing this three years ago: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nascar/2014/05/15/nascar-sprint-all-star-race-failings-improvement-suggestions/9142915/

Dustin Long: Move it. If it’s going to stay in Charlotte, take it off the weekend and run it the Thursday night before the Coca-Cola 600 instead of Cup qualifying. The challenge in changing sites is that it is an event at an Speedway Motorsports Inc. track, so moving it would create an issue for SMI in terms of loss revenue. Until that matter gets resolved, the event will stay in Charlotte. However, I do like Jeff Burton’s idea of moving it to a short track like South Boston or someplace NASCAR used to run years ago.

Jerry Bonkowski: Would it be wise to move the race around from track to track each year, giving other facilities the opportunity to see what kind of show they can put on? Would perhaps two 20-car heat races to determine a final race of 20 for the $1 million prize be better than the Open or the fan vote? Heck, let’s shake it up even more and maybe run part of the race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course, similar to this past weekend’s IndyCar Grand Prix.

Daniel McFadin: Take it on the road. The 1.5-mile tracks – and increasingly the night races at them – are the least popular venues in the sport. Hold the All-Star Race under the lights at Martinsville, Bristol or maybe even a track the Cup Series has never been to. If NASCAR wants to get back to its roots, taking its high profile exhibition race to a famous short track could do wonders. It’s worked for the Truck Series at Eldora. If you really want to have fun, throw the rulebook out on All-Star Weekend. No inspections at all (aside from lug nuts). Let the engineers go crazy and see who wins.

What’s been a surprise to you about this season so far?

Nate Ryan: That Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t have a victory this late for the first time since 2007. It isn’t a surprise so much that a team’s performance is cyclical as much as it is that it’s been that long since JGR went winless this deep into the season. JGR seemed less competitive throughout much of the 2014 season than this year, so there shouldn’t be any reason to panic. Its depth and the success of Furniture Row Racing ensure that the team will get things sorted.

Dustin Long: Overlooked by the discussion of Joe Gibbs Racing still winless is that Kevin Harvick remains winless. He’s had at least one win by the season’s fourth race since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Also, other than Kurt Busch’s Daytona 500 victory, Stewart-Haas Racing is winless. Yes, Stewart-Haas Racing faced challenges with the switch to Ford in the offseason but did many think that the only victory that organization would have would be due to a last-lap pass because the leader ran out of fuel?

Jerry Bonkowski: Several surprises, actually. First, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s decision to retire at season’s end. Second, Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers have yet to reach victory lane. Third, how quickly and readily drivers have adapted to the new stages format. Lastly, Kyle Busch continues to be fast enough to win, but he’s still winless since last July’s Brickyard 400. What has JGR done with the real Kyle Busch, and who is the imposter in the No. 18?

Daniel McFadin: When I woke up the morning of April 25 to an email saying Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to retire. Also, Earnhardt only being able to finish in the top 10 once through 11 races. 

NASCAR America: Jack Roush sits down with Jeff Burton to talk his team’s big win

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Very few people know Jack Roush better than his former driver and now NBC Sports analysts Jeff Burton.

Burton sat down with Roush a few days after Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s big win at Talladega Superspeedway to discuss his team’s revival this season, two years after their last win.

“It’s hard to keep your chin up sometimes through a drought, but you have to have the spirit and people’s excitement to drive you to heights they might not otherwise reach,” Roush said.

Roush and Stenhouse’s breakthrough win came after the team contracted two Cup cars prior to this season. With Greg Biffle‘s departure, Roush’s hopes are behind Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne.

“We thought as we recommitted ourselves and got ourselves organized on 2017, that we need to focus on the two young drivers and not focus on Greg’s program,” Roush said. “I was limited in the number of talented people I had for pit crew, I was limited in the number of talented people I had for engineers and technical positions. I thought it was better to concentrate the efforts on two programs, rather thin them on three.”

Watch the video for the full exclusive interview.