Nate Ryan

Nate Ryan’s ballot for the 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame class

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Nate Ryan cast a ballot Wednesday for the NASCAR Hall of Fame as NBC Sports’ digital representative.

It’s the ninth consecutive year of voting for Ryan, who is one of 57 members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting panel (including one online vote determined by fans).

His ballot for the ninth class (followed by his ballot for each of the preceding eight years, which included six at USA TODAY Sports):

  1. Ray Evernham: Voted the greatest crew chief of all time in a 2006 media poll, the impact of Evernham, 57, transcends his sterling statistics. He won three championships with Jeff Gordon during a virtually unbeatable stretch of 1995-98 while introducing innovations in car building, pit crews and strategies that still are used today. His legacy remains visible through the many careers he shaped as a team leader and car owner: Two of the last three championships have been won by crew chiefs (Chad Knaus and Rodney Childers) who spent time in Evernham’s tutelage.
  2. Red Byron: The first NASCAR premier series champion, capturing the Modified Division in 1948. The Anniston, Alabama, native competed from 1949-51, winning twice and starting from two poles in 15 starts. Byron was named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers.
  3. Robert Yates: A championship car owner and engine builder, Yates already had an influence on several members of the Hall of Fame in his multiple roles as a NASCAR fixture. He won the Daytona 500 three times as a car owner (twice with Dale Jarrett), and his engines have 77 victories.
  4. Alan Kulwicki: The 1992 champion’s life was cut short at 38 by a plane crash the year after he won the title in a watershed season for NASCAR. A true driver-owner, the Wisconsin native also was among the first college-educated engineers to have a major impact in stock-car racing.
  5. Buddy Baker: The winner of the 1980 Daytona 500 and 1970 Southern 500 was one of NASCAR’s home run hitters, counting several major wins among his 19 career victories on the premier circuit. One of NASCAR’s greatest ambassadors Baker also became a beloved broadcaster on TV and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Ryan’s previous NASCAR Hall of Fame ballots:

2010: Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Bill France Jr.

2011: Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Lee Petty

2012: Waltrip, Yarborough, Dale Inman, Raymond Parks, Curtis Turner

2013: Fireball Roberts, Turner, Fred Lorenzen, Herb Thomas, Tim Flock

2014: Roberts, Turner, Lorenzen, Flock, Joe Weatherly

2015: Lorenzen, Turner, Weatherly, O. Bruton Smith, Rick Hendrick

2016: Turner, Smith, Hendrick, Ray Evernham, Bobby Isaac

2017: Hendrick, Evernham, Benny Parsons, Parks, Red Byron

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

Slugger Labbe exits Richard Childress Racing as Austin Dillon gets crew chief Justin Alexander

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Richard Childress Racing made multiple crew chief changes Monday that included the departure of longtime employee Richard “Slugger” Labbe.

Justin Alexander was named crew chief for Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet in replacing Labbe, who is leaving RCR to pursue “other opportunities,” according to the team.

Alexander, who previously worked as the crew chief for Paul Menard, was promoted from RCR’s No. 2 in the Xfinity Series. Randall Burnett, who recently left AJ Allmendinger’s team, will take over Alexander’s job in the Xfinity Series.

Labbe had been a Cup crew chief with RCR since 2010. He initially worked with Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 with Labbe as crew chief. He had been with Dillon since midway through the 2015 season.

In 500 starts as a Cup crew chief, Labbe has five victories, also winning three times with Michael Waltrip and once with Jeremy Mayfield.

Here’s the release from the team:

Richard Childress Racing Announces Competition Changes to its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series Programs

Justin Alexander to take over No. 3 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Crew Chief Role;

Randall Burnett to take over No. 2 XFINITY Series Crew Chief Position

WELCOME, N.C. (May 22, 2017) – Richard Childress Racing has made a change in crew chiefs for its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series programs, effective immediately.

Justin Alexander, who has served as the crew chief of the No. 2 Rheem/Menards Chevrolet for RCR and earned two wins last season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, will assume crew chief responsibilities for the No. 3 Dow/American Ethanol/AAA Chevrolet SS team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with driver Austin Dillon. Alexander holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University. Prior to RCR, Alexander served in various engineering roles with Hendrick Motorsports. Alexander’s first race in his new role will be for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, replacing Richard “Slugger” Labbe. Labbe is leaving the company to pursue other opportunities.

Randall Burnett, who previously served as a crew chief for RCR’s technical partner JTG Daugherty Racing, will assume a new role as crew chief of the No. 2 Rheem/Menards Chevrolet in the NASCAR XFINITY Series beginning at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 27. Burnett holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from UNC Charlotte. Prior to JTG Daugherty Racing, he spent 10 years as an engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Regan Smith will replace Aric Almirola for All-Star Race weekend

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Richard Petty Motorsports announced that Regan Smith will drive the No. 43 Ford in place of Aric Almirola in the Monster Energy Open Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The event offers transfer spots to Saturday’s All-Star Race.

In a brief advisory Wednesday, the team didn’t provide details on who will drive beyond the All-Star weekend. RPM will hold a news conference Friday at the track with Almirola to discuss his recovery plan from a T5 compression fracture in a crash Saturday night at Kansas Speedway.

Almirola slid into a high-speed collision with the cars of Joey Logano and Danica Patrick during the Go Bowling 400. The contact lifted the rear of Almirola’s car up a few feet.

Safety workers cut the root off the car to extricate him and placed him on a backboard. He was airlifted to the University of Kansas Medical Center and spent the night there. He was released Sunday morning. The team reported that he was mobile.

The accident started when something broke on Logano’s car. That caused him to veer into Patrick’s car. Almirola was further behind but could not avoid the incident.

Two weeks ago, Almirola was in a position to contend for a playoff spot.

He finished fourth at Talladega Superspeedway and was one point out of the final playoff spot at that time. NASCAR announced three days later that his car failed the “post-race rear wheel steer” of the Laser Inspection Station. NASCAR docked Almirola 35 points and suspended crew chief Drew Blickensderfer three points races. Blickensderfer also was fined $65,000 and the team was docked 35 owner points.

Smith has built a reputation as a “super sub” in NASCAR, filling in for Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. since 2012.

Dustin Long contributed to this story.