Kasey Kahne

Bump & Run: Should Kyle Busch’s team be frustrated or encouraged?

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Parker Kligerman joins Dale Jarrett, Slugger Labbe, Nate Ryan, Ato Boldon and Carolyn Manno from 5:30 – 7 p.m. today on NASCAR America. Kligerman, Ryan, Steve Letarte and Dustin Long discuss this week’s hot topics.

If you were on Kyle Busch’s team, what would be your mindset? Frustrated the team is winless this season or encouraged by the fact the car has been fast and in position to win races?

Steve Letarte: If I was the crew chief, I’ve been in that position before and I think the important thing is you be honest with your guys. You let them know it’s OK to be frustrated. You should be frustrated. You want to win, you expect to win, you’ve had cars fast enough to win, but you need to temper that frustration by showing them how bad it could be. I’d give them some examples of teams that just don’t have the speed. I’d show them how many laps we’ve led and continue to give them reason to be excited to go back to the race track, but at the same time I’d encourage their frustration because it’s real. I think if you hide from it, it’s just going to get worse.

Parker Kligerman: Simply, keep doing what you’re doing. In my opinion, this is the sole in-house JGR car that has rid itself of the speed woes of earlier this season and has only been held back from victory lane by circumstance. I will go on a limb to say the No. 18 will win at least one race before the regular season is done. 

Nate Ryan: If you are employed by a master motivator such as Joe Gibbs, you will maintain a positive mindset despite all the adversity and agony this season. Busch feasibly could have as many as eight victories this season if execution and events had broken a different way. Gibbs will keep the focus on being in position to win so many races rather than having so many that were lost. The recent improvement of his teammates (Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth ran well at Michigan) lessens the pressure on Busch carrying the banner at Joe Gibbs Racing, and the team’s resurgence will be stamped by a Busch win within the next three weeks.

Dustin Long: To go this long without a win would be frustrating. This team is built to win and expected to do so. Adding to the frustration is how this stretch could hurt this team win a championship. Look at all the playoff points that have slipped away in this winless streak. For as good as this team has been — Busch has led at least double-digit laps in each of the last six races — the No. 18 crew needs to see a reward for all its work. And see it soon.

Name one driver you will be watching in the coming weeks and why.

Steve Letarte: Without a doubt the 88 of Dale Jr. has to be the biggest one. He had a good run at Michigan but didn’t really gain a lot of points and that’s my fear for the 88. I don’t see them pointing their way in. I just don’t see it. There are too many good cars that haven’t won a race. I think the 88 is going to have to look for victory lane. I’ll be keeping my eye on the 88 to see if they can turn that good run at Michigan somehow into a win.

Parker Kligerman: Dale Earnhardt Jr. And no it’s not because of him being so popular. I believe over the next 11 races we will either see a resurgence out of the 88, or we are saying thanks for participating. As the rest, the focus moves onto the playoffs and eventually who will be in the 2017 champion. But, for the 88 fans, there is hope. I can confidently say that at Michigan the 88 was a top-five car. If he was able to get track position in that race (not being the first car on two tires) he would have easily finished in the top-five speed wise. Add in the great recovery through the field in the final couple laps to get to ninth and this momentum is exactly what they need going into two unique races. Lastly, I believe he has actually had one of the best average finishes at Sonoma in the last three years – maybe we are talking about Dale Jr.’s first road course win come Monday? 

Nate Ryan: Matt Kenseth. Is this the last season of his career? His last season at Gibbs? The answers are scant about the veteran’s future, but the 45-year-old has indicated he wants to keep driving, and his results during this upcoming stretch might carry a long way in determining how he closes an impressive career on the premier circuit.

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson. Does he show he is a true championship contender? Can he and his team continue to hold an advantage on the field or will they be caught heading toward the playoffs? All signs point to Larson being a leading title contender at this point, but how often have you seen someone excel in the first half of the season only to fade at the end and not be in the championship hunt?

With 11 races left until the playoffs start, these drivers are outside a playoff spot: Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Trevor Bayne, Daniel Suarez, Kasey Kahne, Ty Dillon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Which of these is most likely to make the playoffs?

Steve Letarte: I think it’s Erik Jones. I think he’s driving the best equipment of that group, going off how fast (teammate) Martin Truex Jr. is. I like Daniel Suarez and the same argument could be made for him, but I think he is just a little down in the experience level of Erik Jones. I don’t know the reason why, whether it’s the fact that Erik Jones had more time to mentally prepare for the Cup Series where Daniel just found out in January. But in that list, I feel the best about Erik Jones finding a way to bounce his way in.

Parker Kligerman: Clint Bowyer, as he has been the fastest of this group consistently. I would say his main foil could come in the form of an Erik Jones win or stretch of solid races. But with Bowyer’s prowess at Sonoma, I think he will start to build solid momentum and propel himself into the playoffs. 

Nate Ryan: Bowyer should be able to scratch his way back into a playoff berth, and Jones has matured quickly enough that the speed might allow stealing a win in the next three months. Short of a Daytona swan song by Earnhardt, I can’t see postseason spots for any of the rest.

Dustin Long: Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins a race to make the playoffs. It most likely comes at Daytona, but if not there, it will happen before the playoffs begin.

Kyle Larson keeps winning, adds another dirt track triumph; Kasey Kahne second

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Kyle Larson is proving unbeatable regardless of the series or track.

He continued his hot streak Monday night, winning the Ohio Sprint Speedweek race at Wayne County Speedway, a 3/8-mile clay oval in Orrville, Ohio.

The Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions sprint car victory came after Larson won Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. Last week, Larson won a World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series race at Eagle (Nebraska) Raceway.

Kasey Kahne finished second to Larson on Monday night. Former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Rico Abreu was 18th. Former Cup driver Dave Blaney, father of Cup driver Ryan Blaney, finished 25th in the 26-car field.

The All Star Circuit of Champions is owned by Tony Stewart.

Larson is scheduled to compete in Tuesday’s Ohio Sprint Speedweek race at Sharon Speedway with the All Star Circuit of Champions. The track, located in Hartford, Ohio, is owned by Dave Blaney and associates.

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Ryan: In sizing up silly season, the most recent winner could be among first again on the move

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Amidst seemingly infinite permutations of potential impending driver movement in the Cup Series, there is one constant in the swirl.

NASCAR’s latest fairy tale has a finite shelf life.

The Ryan Blaney breakthrough at Pocono Raceway represented many positives: the furthering of an omnipresent youth movement expected to carry NASCAR to the next generation; the resurgence of a storied organization that seemed headed for the boneyard eight years ago; the expansion of a playoff field that promises to be Cup’s first winners-only championship invitational (despite including some unexpected qualifiers).

But the 23-year-old’s inaugural victory also signified a mostly overlooked reality: Blaney’s tenure with the venerable No. 21 Ford has an expiration date that rapidly is approaching.

Blaney’s initial contract was with Team Penske, which essentially has farmed him out to technical affiliate Wood Brothers Racing since 2015. The partnership strengthened when the 67-year-old team returned to a full schedule last year for the first time since 2008 and took another step in the offseason with the relocation of Wood Brothers Racing headquarters in close proximity to Penske’s sprawling shop in Mooresville, N.C.

But just like Trevor Bayne, Elliott Sadler, Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty before him, Blaney isn’t expected to stay long since earning his first Cup win with Wood Brothers Racing.

Jarrett was off to Joe Gibbs Racing within six months of his August 1991 win at Michigan. Petty had moved onward within three years of February 1986 at Richmond.

For the team’s two previous winners before Pocono, Sadler was announced as joining Robert Yates Racing roughly 15 months after March 2001 at Bristol Motor Speedway, and Bayne’s plans for a full-season ride at Roush Fenway Racing were unveiled barely theee years after his  2011 Daytona 500 shocker (a departure that probably was delayed by the driver’s illness while running a partial schedule).

Because of his existing contract with Penske, a parting with Blaney could be announced more suddenly than any of those.

But it’s become an accepted way of doing business to survive for Wood Brothers Racing, which deserves credit for evolving over the past quarter-century from a storied powerhouse (99 victories with the likes of David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Neil Bonnett among more than a dozen winners in the No. 21) to a solid satellite of Penske in the Ford Performance stable.

As Petty noted on NASCAR America this past week, other legacy teams belonging to Petty Enterprises, Junior Johnson and Bud Moore couldn’t make the transition because they didn’t embrace the mandatory survival instincts as well as Wood Brothers Racing did.

Team co-owner Eddie Wood was candid when asked by NBCSports.com about the understanding that Blaney can’t stay long-term.

“The relationship we have is great,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said. “Nobody can ever take this away. Just like with Trevor Bayne, nobody can ever take that win away.

“When Ryan came to drive our car, it was actually kind of understood that he was going to be moving on probably the next year, and then it didn’t happen, and whenever it happens, that’s fine. Everybody will move on, and he’ll go on to bigger and better and greater things. He’s going to win a lot of races, and I think he’s going to win some championships. Whatever we do from there, it’ll be fine.”

Blaney’s thoughts? “What (Wood) said,” he said. “I like where I’m at.”

The most authoritative voice on the matter belongs to Roger Penske, who wasn’t heard from in the postrace news conferences at Pocono. “The Captain” already had tipped his hand a week earlier in a USA Today Sports story that quoted Penske hinting Blaney would join the Team Penske fold “sooner rather than later.”

There have been rumblings since May of overtures about Blaney’s availability since Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced the 2017 would be his last season in the No. 88 Chevrolet.

Consecutive axle failures at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway for the No. 21 prior to Pocono (perpetuating the negative perception of whether the team’s purpose was partly as an R&D outfit) helped fuel the conjecture, and Penske’s recent on-the-record reaffirmation of keeping Blaney under his umbrella seems conspicuously timed, considering contracts can contain escape clauses predicated on teams fielding cars for their drivers.

Blaney’s future fits into a larger tapestry of teams that could reshuffle driver and sponsor lineups based on an array of factors ranging from performance to preference to purse strings.

Who could be involved? Here’s a lap around the Cup circuit.

Brad Keselowski: He reiterated his loyalty to Penske this week and said he hopes to announce his plans soon, but there hasn’t been a definitive declaration of his landing spot.

The 33-year-old, who also owns a truck team that has lost seven figures annually, needs to secure the most financially lucrative deal possible while in the prime of his career (“Some great charts show a driver’s best years are right around age 39 … so I still have six of the best years of my career left”), and he has leverage. 

When he left to join Team Penske, Rick Hendrick famously said he would like to bring Keselowski back, and Earnhardt’s vacant No. 88 offers that option.

It still would be stunning to absorb Keselowski exiting Penske, where he has emerged as a star over the past eight seasons. He shares Michigan roots with Penske (whose empire is based in the Detroit area) to make the pairing a natural fit.

Yet a move doesn’t seem improbable. Asked six weeks ago whether he’d be interested in the Hendrick ride, Keselowski replied, “Do I have to have a yes or no?” with a smile.

“It’s a Hendrick car, which by nature means it’s going to be one of the best cars available for a long period of time,” he said. “But I also would say the car that I’m in is one of the best available. The team I’m with, I have a lot of equity in, so I’m pretty darn happy where I’m at, but I’ve learned in this world to never say no.”

If Keselowski made the surprising decision to depart, Blaney would be an obvious choice in the No. 2 for Penske.

Besides an established working relationship with teammate Joey Logano (who re-signed with Penske through 2022 in February), Blaney would be an easy sell to primary sponsor Miller Lite. The iconic beer brand surely took notice of Blaney reveling post-Pocono in a beer-swilling celebration on social media while also promoting an edgier side through a weekly podcast that has dabbled in a swath of Barstool Sports-esque ribald humor.

Kasey Kahne: He has a contract with Hendrick Motorsports that runs through next season, but the team would appear to hold all the cards on whether it’s fulfilled.

Whether via performance (Kahne hasn’t won since 2014 and is on pace for his worst points finish since 2005) or sponsorship (the No. 5 Chevy appears to be far short of a full slate for 2018), there are many indicators this could be Kahne’s last season with an organization that recently restructured management (and that Johnson conceded is exploring “a lot of options”).

A cryptic Twitter posting did little to allay this assessment.

Danica Patrick: She said last week she intended to drive next season, but it’s questionable whether it will be in the No. 10 Ford of Stewart-Haas Racing. 

Similar to Kahne, she signed a deal through 2018 (in concert with Nature’s Bakery, whose troubled sponsorship will end a year early in a greatly diminished capacity), but her middling results coupled with financial uncertainty left her status murky beyond this year. The Associated Press reported this week that her contract now will end this season, and the Sports Business Journal has reported Patrick and Stewart-Haas Racing have discussed whether she will drive for the team in 2018.

Erik Jones: His rookie season with Furniture Row Racing’s second car has been a success, but similar to Blaney, his primary contract is with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Team owner Barney Visser, whose bluntness is legendary, made it clear he has Jones locked down for only one year, and that he expected Jones would leave after ’17. If Jones returned to Gibbs, the only available opening would be the No. 20 of Matt Kenseth as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez are under contract beyond 2017.

Kenseth: His deal expires after this season, making the 45-year-old’s future the source of seasonlong speculation that has revealed little (aside from an unwelcome reminder of the Internet’s unreliability as a purveyor of journalism). Kenseth recently addressed his outlook with a nugget in his fan club newsletter.

Kurt Busch: Stewart-Haas Racing announced a multiyear extension with Busch in October 2015 that included expanded sponsorship from Monster Energy. The energy drink company became the title sponsor of NASCAR’s premier series this season with a deal for two years plus a two-year option.

After two seasons with SHR and Busch, it’s worth pondering if this also is a contract year for Monster’s team sponsorship, and whether the overlapping outlays might complicate a team renewal.

Paul Menard: His family’s home improvement chain sponsorship typically is an annual renewal that gets negotiated and announced during the summer. After making the playoffs in 2015, Menard is ranked in the mid-20s in points for the second consecutive season, his seventh in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 27 Chevrolet. Prior to RCR, Menard drove for Ford teams from 2009-10.

Carl Edwards: He has passed so far on returning, but the smart money still is on trading in his tractor for a stock car at some point.

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While the attention was focused on Lowe’s committing to only one season with Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet as part of the driver’s three-year extension, the silver lining was the news that the company would be continuing its primary sponsorship for 38 race weekends (36 points races, plus the two exhibition events).

Several companies (such as Miller Lite) have balked at full-season commitments and elected to reduce their investments in recent years. It might be looked at as a preferable compromise to the decrease the length of a deal’s terms in order to maintain the integrity of the $20 million-plus price tag.

If Lowe’s, a full-season sponsor of Cup for more than two decades, had reduced its slate of races, it certainly would have been viewed as a major canary in the coal mine on the state of team sponsorship.

“I certainly would hope and think that it would go on further, but very excited to have a one-year contract with them now,” Johnson said of Lowe’s. “Thirty-eight races at a full-time primary sponsorship is nothing to sneeze at.”

Now that Hendrick has secured Lowe’s at least for 2018, the focus shifts to what Nationwide chooses after Earnhardt leaves the No. 88. Hendrick has signaled optimism about keeping the company, but the decision inextricably will be linked with the car’s next driver.

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Crew chief Chad Knaus also is signed through next season with Johnson. Knaus indicated this weekend he planned to stay until at least 2020 (when he turns 49; he doesn’t intend to work as a crew chief past 50), and he said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast in February that a record eighth championship with Johnson is the goal.

“I don’t see why there isn’t an opportunity for that to happen,” Knaus said on the podcast. “Obviously we all know the structure of the industry is changing with the rules, the formatting, the competition is tougher than it ever has been. Racing is a harder thing to do now than at any other point in our lives because the culture and the environment has changed so much.

“Technology has come into play that has taken a little bit of the basic racer — which is what I am. I’m just a racer, I’m not an engineer. I’m not as smart as half the people that work for me — out of our hands to a degree. You approach it differently. My job has changed significantly since the first time I was a crew chief in 1999. We’ve got possibilities. We’ve got a lot of good stuff coming. There’s a lot of really neat things coming on the horizon that will be good for the 48.”

Listen to the rest of Knaus talking about his future on the podcast here (it starts around the 32-minute mark).

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Chevrolet program manager Alba Colon was a guest on the most recent NASCAR on NBC podcast and shed some light on the new spirit of cooperation between Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing.

Colon, who has worked in NASCAR for General Motors since 1994, said the teams’ collaboration on a wheel force transducer project proved the spirit of unity was at an unprecedented level.

“One team was building the vehicle, the others were testing and sharing the information and going to the tests together,” Colon said. “We didn’t see that before. They all realize the goal is to beat the other (manufacturers). We have to do it working together.”

Part of that cooperation has stemmed from a Chevy Racing simulator that opened in Huntersville two years ago. Ford Performance and Toyota Racing Development were ahead in building and unveiling their driver simulators to the public, but Colon said Chevy recently has been validated by buy-in from several drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. tested on the simulator before Dover International Speedway, and Colon said Johnson logged several sessions of making laps in virtual reality.

“You see drivers asking for that, you’re doing something right,” Colon said.

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The afterglow of Blaney’s win at Pocono also fueled a debate over exposure values. Brett Wheatley, executive director of North America for Ford Customer Service Division, said Friday that Blaney’s 2017 season had delivered “upward of $50 million” in media value for Ford, Motorcraft and its other brands that sponsor the No. 21.

Jon Wood, the director of business development at Wood Brothers Racing, tweeted the metrics were derived partly through Joyce Julius. That prompted several social media posts about the authenticity of exposure values, which isn’t a new discussion.

In a Twitter exchange earlier this year, Richard Childress Racing’s chief marketing officer noted many NASCAR teams had moved away from Joyce Julius to relying on Nielsen’s Repucom to measure sponsorship impact.

Interestingly, in the most recent post on Joyce Julius’ site, Blaney was listed as the 10th most mentioned driver during Cup broadcasts in the 2017 season through Dover (the race before his win).

Kasey Kahne evokes Hendrick Motorsports’ first winner with Geoff Bodine scheme for Southern 500

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Hendrick Motorsports has a long, entrenched history of winning in NASCAR with the likes of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip.

But the team’s winning ways began with Geoff Bodine.

Hendrick Motorsports and Kasey Kahne will honor Bodine by using his Levi Garrett paint scheme from the 1985 season in the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Kahne and his No. 5 Chevrolet will be sponsored by Great Clips.

Bodine raced for Hendrick Motorsports from 1984-89 and won seven times. Among those was his victory in the 1986 Daytona 500, which was Hendrick Motorsports’ first of eight wins in the “Great American Race.”

Kahne’s paint scheme is the third throwback scheme in Cup to be announced for the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, joining Ryan Blaney’s and Brad Keselowski’s.

Bodine made his first Cup start in the 1979 Daytona 500 and his last in the 2011 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In the intervening 32 years, Bodine made 575 starts and earned 18 wins. His first, in the April 1984 Martinsville race, also was the first Cup win for Hendrick Motorsports.

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Kyle Larson wins World of Outlaws race

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Kyle Larson used a late-race charge to win Tuesday night’s World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series race at Eagle (Nebraska) Raceway.

Larson passed Daryn Pittman, who drives for Kasey Kahne‘s team, with two laps to go to win. Larson was racing for a team co-owned by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Shane Stewart, who drives for the team co-owned by Larson and Justin Marks, finished third. Brad Sweet, who drives for Kasey Kahne Racing, placed fourth. Donny Schatz, who drives for Tony Stewart Racing, finished fifth.

Larson was second in qualifying to Kerry Madsen and won his heat race.

The feature victory is Larson’s first of the season.

Click here for more on the race and complete results.

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