homestead-miami speedway

Five questions heading into Cup playoffs

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Can anyone catch the Toyotas?

That’s the challenge facing the field heading into Sunday’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. EST, NBCSN). Toyota drivers have won six of the last nine races and their speed has competitors worried.

After Richmond, Kevin Harvick said: “I think the Toyotas have run better than the rest of the field. In order to be where we need to be, we have to get the most out of our car and we haven’t done that the last couple of weeks. We’ve struggled in the race the last two weeks and got to get it figured out quick or we’ll be looking for something to do the last 10 weeks besides race for a championship.’’

While Martin Truex Jr. was in position to win the last two races — he was leading with five laps or less left and didn’t win at Darlington and Richmond — don’t overlook Kyle Busch.

When he won the title in 2015, he wasn’t the favorite. It was Harvick that year, but Busch scored enough points to advance through the first two rounds. He advanced to Miami after top-five finishes in each of the three third-round races.

“It’s really similar,’’ Busch said of how he feels he’s entering this year compared to that 2015 title season. “(Truex) is the car to beat week in and week out. (Kyle Larson) and myself are tossing it up for who is second best. Hopefully, we can do our job and execute and everybody does the right things and gets ourselves to Homestead to have a shot for the championship.’’

Is Hendrick Motorsports sandbagging?

We’ll find out. Since Kasey Kahne’s win at Indianapolis in July, Hendrick’s three playoff drivers — Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kahne — have not finished better than eighth in a race.

Last year, questions were raised about Hendrick after some struggles entering the playoffs. Then Johnson led 118 laps before finishing 12th in the opener at Chicago, and Elliott led 75 laps before finishing third. Both advanced to the second round. Johnson moved to the third round after his Charlotte victory and advanced to Miami after his Martinsville win.

Then Johnson won in Miami for his record-tying seventh series championship.

The point is, it’s difficult to count out at least Johnson, if not the organization.

“My 10 best tracks are coming up,’’ Johnson said after Richmond. “So, I’m excited about that. I’m excited about Fall being right here right around the corner. We will just go racing. You never know. This format really keeps things up in the air. 

Is this Martin Truex Jr.’s title to lose?

He’s got a big advantage with 53 playoff points — 20 more than the next driver. That should get him through the second round and likely the third round.

Odds are he makes it to Miami, but the twist is that some might not view him the favorite in the season finale even for how dominant he has been this year. The reason would be if Kyle Larson, who was eliminated in the first round last year, makes it to Miami. Larson is exceptional at Homestead-Miami Speedway — provided he can avoid hitting the wall while running the high line — and would provide a worthy challenger for Truex in the title race.

“Cars have been just lightning fast and team’s been doing a great job,’’ Truex said after Richmond. “We’ve got a few little things we’ve got to work on, but all in all, I feel like we’re definitely one of the strongest teams. Hopefully, we can just continue to perform at the level we’re capable of, and hopefully we don’t need those bonus points, but it’s going to be nice to have them, that’s for sure.’’

Will youth be served?

Five of the 16 drivers entering the playoffs are 29 and under.

They are Chase Elliott (21 years old), Ryan Blaney (23), Kyle Larson (25), Austin Dillon (27), and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (turns 30 on Oct. 2).

The last driver under age 30 to win the title was Brad Keselowski in 2012. He was 28 years old. Kyle Busch turned 30 during his championship season in 2015.

Larson is the favorite of this group to win the championship and would be the youngest champ since 1995 when a 24-year-old Jeff Gordon won the first of his four series championships.

The average age of the last 10 champions when they won the championship is 34.9.

What’s the biggest storyline?

Admittedly there are so many from Jimmie Johnson going after a record-breaking eight series title to Martin Truex Jr. seeking his first crown after dominating so much of the season.

While Chip Ganassi Racing and Furniture Row Racing go for their first Cup title and Richard Childress Racing looks for its first Cup crown since 1994, it’s hard to top what the Wood Brothers seek.

The family team first competed in NASCAR in 1953 but has only won an owner’s title. That came in 1963, less than three weeks before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Wood Brothers often ran only partial schedules so the team never had the chance to win many championships. This is the team’s first time in the playoffs (the Woods never competed in the Chase).

While the victory lane celebration at Daytona after Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 remains memorable for the Wood Brothers, it would not compare to what the celebration would be like if Blaney drove the No. 21 to the series crown.

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Homestead-Miami Speedway sustains only minor damage from Hurricane Irma (video)

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Homestead-Miami Speedway suffered only minor damage from Hurricane Irma and that damage is not expected to impact the track’s ability to host the season-ending NASCAR weekend Nov. 17-19, according to a statement from track officials.

“During the course of Hurricane Irma, Homestead-Miami Speedway sustained minor and cosmetic damage to non-essential parts of the speedway. None of this damage is expected to impact our ability to host Ford Championship Weekend, November 17-19.

“We are working with city and county officials to fully assess the situation, as all of South Florida was affected by this event. We are ready to assist local officials in Miami-Dade County with any available resources to aid the community in the recovery efforts from the storm.

“We will have further updates as more information becomes available.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone throughout the state of Florida and elsewhere who have been impacted by this hurricane.”

Daytona International Speedway also issued a statement Monday.

“Daytona International Speedway has experienced moderate damage from Hurricane Irma. The damage to the facility was cosmetic and will not have an impact on the event calendar. Daytona International Speedway Ticket Office and Tours will remain closed on Tuesday for facility cleanup.

“Hurricane Irma has left a significant impact on the community and Daytona International Speedway is working with local, regional and state officials to assist on recovery efforts. Daytona International Speedway is once again serving as a staging site for Florida Power & Light crews who are working on restoring power in the area. Our thoughts continue to be with everyone who has been impacted by this powerful weather system.”

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An emotional moment Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t forget

Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images
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DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has pondered what it will be like when he climbs into his No. 88 Cup car for the final time, how he’ll feel as he takes the green flag and what his emotions will be when the checkered flag waves not only on that race but his career in NASCAR’s highest series.

His sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, knows how she’ll react.

“I’m going to cry because at most events when there is anything historical or involves my family or something coming to an end or something changing, that’s just what I do,’’ she said.

Maybe Earnhardt will, but it might not be at the time he expects.

As Earnhardt looks ahead to what will be the 631st and final Cup start of his career in less than three months, he thinks about the last race with crew chief Steve Letarte, now an analyst for NBC Sports.

I never really thought about what that would be like until Steve ran his last race with me at Homestead,’’ Earnhardt said of the 2014 season finale. “He was as cool as a cucumber all weekend, at least in front of everybody, in front of me and the guys in the hauler and everything.’’

Letarte says he didn’t get emotional that weekend as he spoke to his team before the race or had pictures with his family on pit road. 

He was fine when he leaned into window to give Earnhardt his final instructions before cars pulled off pit road. Letarte started talking about the race, how he’d coach Earnhardt off the top lane and run the middle of the track.

“Then I wanted to let him know something, like, ‘Hey, it’s been great,’ ’’ Letarte said. “Disaster.’’

Earnhardt said: “(Letarte) just fell out and started crying and bawling like a baby. And I thought, man, and I started crying too, to be honest with you. It was a difficult moment.’’

Letarte said: “I think it would have been better if I had looked at (Earnhardt), and he would have been like a tough guy … but I look at him, and he’s crying. We’re a complete mess.

“There was that moment that I didn’t anticipate, didn’t expect and there was no way I could keep it together. That was without a doubt the toughest 30 seconds or so of the entire weekend. It’s tough thinking back to it.’’

Earnhardt knows for as much as he tries to steel himself that final weekend, surrounded by family, friends and teammates, it will be the unexpected moments that likely will hit him the most.

“I imagine that is going to be part of it for me, and it’s going to be hard to not have those emotions at that last race,’’ he said.

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Four-time Olympic medalist to explore different aspects of NASCAR for NBC Sports

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Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist and 10-year NBC Sports track and field analyst, will join the NASCAR on NBC broadcast team as a features contributor for this season.

NBC broadcasts the final 20 Cup races of the season, beginning with the July 1 race at Daytona International Speedway. NBC also broadcasts the final 19 Xfinity races of the season, beginning June 30 at Daytona.

Boldon will make his NASCAR on NBC debut July 1 at Daytona.

At Daytona, Boldon will be embedded with the die-hard NASCAR racing community. He will  report on what makes NASCAR fans so loyal to their drivers. Boldon will experience the infield firsthand, and will look back at what it was like to race on the packed sand of Daytona Beach where the sport first began.

In addition to his role at Daytona, Boldon will contribute to NASCAR on NBC’s coverage of four additional races during the 2017 season, including Cup Series races at Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Reporting assignments will include serving as a NASCAR hauler driver, joining Joe Gibbs Racing’s pit crew, and becoming a driver himself, when he takes the wheel of NBC Sports’ on-track car to experience piloting a 750+ horsepower stock car on 20-degree banked turns.

“As an athlete, broadcaster, and lover of speed and adrenaline, I’m eager to experience the fascinating intricacies of NASCAR,” said Boldon. “It’s an amazing opportunity to bring fans even closer to the action, and I hope to bring a perspective that viewers have not previously seen.”

Boldon had his first taste of NASCAR last year during a ride along with NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Boldon’s hot laps around the 1.5 mile oval can be found here.

Boldon, who joined NBC Sports Group in 2007, serves as NBC Sports Group’s lead track and field analyst. Boldon has covered four Olympics for NBC Sports, including the 2016 Rio Olympics, 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, 2012 London Games, and 2008 Beijing Games.

In 1992, Boldon represented Trinidad and Tobago in the 100m and 200m competitions at the Barcelona Olympics. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Boldon won bronze medals in the 100m and 200m events. Four years later, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Boldon won a silver medal in the 100m, and a bronze in the 200m.

Long: 2018 schedule provides big test for one track; other musings on changes

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For all the talk about Indianapolis’ move to the last race before the playoffs or Charlotte’s road course event, the track that will face the most scrutiny from Tuesday’s 2018 schedule announcement is Richmond International Raceway.

Although the racing has been better when the track hosted day races, Richmond will go back to two night races next year and its September event moves into the playoffs after serving as the cutoff race since 2004. 

The change comes at a critical time for Richmond, a favorite among drivers but a track that has seen waning fan interest — thus the flip-flopping from night to day back to night events to please a fanbase that wants good racing but doesn’t want a sunburn. The spring crowd, no doubt affected by unseasonably warm temperatures in the 80s, was disappointing.

What makes the schedule change more critical for the track is what could be next. International Speedway Corp., which owns the facility, has slated Richmond as next for upgrades after Phoenix Raceway’s $178 million makeover is completed late next year.

While crowds have thinned at all tracks in the last decade, Richmond has seen its seating capacity cut from 110,000 in 2009 to its current capacity of 59,000, according to ISC annual reports. The 46.4 percent decline is the largest percentage capacity reduction among ISC’s 12 tracks that host Cup events.

The question becomes if the crowd continues to thin — even though Richmond is a day’s drive for nearly half of the U.S. population — will it be worthwhile for ISC to make the investments to the track? Or would it be better for ISC to invest in another of its facilities?

Something that could help Richmond is what will take place this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track’s upper groove is being treated by the same PJ1 TrackBite compound used at Bristol to improve the racing.

What’s unique is that the compound is applied to an asphalt track instead of a concrete track such as Bristol. If it entices drivers to use the high lane for part of the race, that will be significant. The challenge is that as the race moves into the evening and cooler temperatures, the bottom groove will be the fastest way around.

Richmond seemed to have a good solution when it sealed the track from 1988-2002 but hasn’t done since. The time seems right to do something to the track with two Cup night races. 

Drivers say that the best racing is during the day when conditions are the hottest. That’s not the most enjoyable conditions for fans. So fans who wanted night racing back at Richmond will get it for both events.

Fans should be careful what they wish for because cool, evening temperatures are not conducive to the best type of racing.

DAYTONA CHANGES

Another alteration to the schedule is that Daytona 500 qualifying and the Clash will be held on the same day, Feb. 11, a week before the 500.

It’s a nice move to tighten the schedule, but why can’t more be done?

Does Daytona need to be held over two weekends?

“I would say certainly we talked about a lot of things,’’ said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR vice president of racing operations when asked about shortening Daytona Speedweeks. “But when you kick off the season with your biggest event of the year, and you have a number of races to support that kickoff of the season, Daytona has a portfolio of races that commands a number of weeks. I think our fans look forward to spending a lot of time in Daytona in the month of February.

“Certainly there’s consideration around the race teams, the amount of time they spend. But when you talk about the biggest event of your season, it certainly warrants a couple of weeks based on what we have from a content standpoint.”

I’m not convinced. I think you could compress it into one week and make the week more entertaining.

Here’s one possible way how:

Tuesday: Cup haulers park in garage.

Wednesday: Cup teams practice and qualify. Truck teams park in garage.

Thursday: Cup teams compete in the Duels. Xfinity teams park in garage. Truck teams practice.

Friday: Cup teams practice. Xfinity teams practice. Truck teams qualify and race. Cup teams in the Clash practice.

Saturday: Cup final practice for the Daytona 500. Xfinity teams race. The Clash is held an hour after the Xfinity race ends.

Sunday: Daytona 500.

A doubleheader with the Xfinity Series and the Clash the day before the Daytona 500 creates more reasons for fans to be there for the weekend.

Maybe there’s a better way, but the point is cut a weekend out of Speedweeks and that can give teams a break at some other point in the season (or just start the season a few days later).

As the sport looks to be more efficient with its race weekends — Pocono, Watkins Glen and Martinsville each will have qualifying a few hours before the race in the second half of the season — cutting a weekend out of Daytona only makes sense.

Also, watch for more two-day Cup weekends if the experiment works this year.

INDY THE RIGHT RACE BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS?

Indianapolis taking the spot as the final race before the playoffs raises some questions.

When Richmond was there, at least many more teams had a chance to win. At Indianapolis, those that can win are fewer. Typically, the best teams excel at Indy because they have the best aero and engine packages. That’s not something a smaller team can overcome as much as it can on a short track.

The notion of an upstart winning their way into the playoffs is less likely at Indianapolis. Those who need stage points in a last-gasp effort to make the playoffs will have to gamble. Truthfully, that could make Indy more dramatic in some ways. Paul Menard won the 2011 race on a fuel gamble, but such payoffs are not likely to happen often and then what you are left with?

Something to consider is that the Xfinity cars will race there in July with restrictor plates and other modifications. If those changes enhance the racing, then it would make sense for the Cup cars to go with something similar. If NASCAR can get its cars to make passes like the IndyCars (there were 54 lead changes in last year’s Indianapolis 500), then you’d have something worth talking about.

If that doesn’t work, maybe you’re left with the tradeoff that Richmond gives the playoffs two short tracks.

A NOVEL IDEA BUT WILL IT WORK?

Charlotte’s roval for the playoffs will smack of desperation to some, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Still, one has to applaud the sport and the track looking for a different way to entertain fans. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come after the greatest risks.

While drivers will race on the infield road course, they still nearly will race all the way around the 1.5-mile track. If the action on the road course section mimics what fans see at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, then this will be a good move. If not, what then?

Charlotte’s format will present challenges for crew chiefs in setting up the car, but the key is going to be action. Few people go to races to watch the crew chiefs. It’s about the drivers. And it will be about contact on the road course.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Even with all the changes to the front half of the playoff schedule, three of the final five races are on 1.5-mile speedways.

Cassidy said NASCAR isn’t as concerned about that.

“I wouldn’t get too hung up on the number of intermediate tracks because I think what you’ve seen, if you want to focus on the back end of the playoffs, focus on the racing that we’ve seen at intermediate tracks, each of the intermediate tracks as kind of taking shape from having its own distinct personality from a racing standpoint,’’ he said.

“I think you saw that at Texas this year with the changes they made, again, a vision to change things up on that side, and to create a different racing dynamic at a mile‑and‑a‑half track.

“What you saw at Kansas a couple weeks ago kind of speaks for itself.

  “And then I don’t think you could argue that Homestead has provided some of the most compelling racing you could ever imagine to bring home a championship.’’

Miami is the best 1.5-mile track and has produced some good racing in the season finale. Nothing wrong with it where it is. Kansas has had its ups and downs but did have 21 lead changes earlier this month in what was viewed as an entertaining race. With its new track surface, we’ll see where Texas goes from its race in April.

If all three can provide entertaining racing and allow drivers to move through the field instead of being stuck in a line, then they should stay in their spots. But if they can’t do so, then NASCAR should not be afraid of making further changes to the playoff schedule.

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