Jeff Burton

Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR

Friday 5: Looking to the past to enhance NASCAR’s future


As some of its most popular drivers retire, NASCAR has the chance to tap into their knowledge to help push the sport forward.

Question is if NASCAR will do so.

The sport is in the midst of a generational change in its driver lineup. Gone are Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth (at least for now). Likely to be gone in the near future are Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Elliott Sadler — all drivers 40 or older.

Think about the wealth of knowledge they carry about the sport. Think about how NASCAR could benefit from their consultation. Both Burton and Gordon were a part of the group NASCAR assembled that created stage racing, so it’s clear their opinions matter.

Admittedly, some drivers will have other plans for their post-racing career and won’t have the time or interest to do so, but for those willing to help the sport, NASCAR needs to find a role for them. 

There’s plenty former drivers can do. They can help bridge gaps, provide a different perspective, be a listening board and an agent for change. 

Harvick has become more vocal in the last year about ways to improve ties to grassroots racing. He’s suggested that the Camping World Truck Series run more races at local short tracks and questioned why the K&N Pro Series West no longer competes at Phoenix and other big tracks.

“Sometimes we look at our sport from the top down instead of the bottom up,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” this week. “At this grassroots level, that’s where all your hardcore fans live.’’

One doesn’t have to listen to Harvick long to hear his passion for short track racing. As a former Cup champion and host of a national radio show, his words carry weight. He also is one of action. Thursday night, he competed in the K&N West opener at Kern County Raceway in Harvick’s hometown of Bakersfield, California.

Even for all the behind-the-scenes work he’s done, Harvick still has to focus on his racing career and there will be times throughout the season he won’t be able to focus as much on such issues.

That’s where a retired driver can help. It’s becoming more difficult for former drivers to find a role in the sport. Ownership isn’t a viable option for many because it has become so expensive. There are only so many TV jobs available. Same with executive roles for teams.

If there isn’t a place in those areas, that’s where NASCAR should enter and provide a spot.

Could former Cup drivers play a role in strengthening the bonds between NASCAR and local tracks? It’s certainly worth a look. (Photo: Getty Images)

For all the work Harvick has done on grassroots, he could use help tightening the bonds between NASCAR and local racing. Burton, whose son, Harrison, has come up through such ranks, has seen the sport from many levels and could provide a way to work on such solutions. Earnhardt often has expressed an interest in short track racing and noted how he might just show up a track to race at some point. Short-track racing is a passion for Stewart. There are likely others who could also play a role in needed.

It’s not just grassroots racing these experienced racers could help.

A retired driver could serve as an adviser to the Drivers Council. Just as with any work-related group, a lot of good ideas can arise, but it can be difficult for those involved to take a deeper look into matters because of how busy they are. Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt have served on the council before, although such experience shouldn’t preclude someone else, maybe someone such as Dale Jarrett or Burton or Labonte, from a role to make that group even more effective.

Whenever Sadler decides to no longer race, he is someone who could be looked at in some advisory role to help raise the Xfinity Series’ level should he want to do something like that. Sadler’s passion for the sport is evident, and his experience, even now, is invaluable for a series that gets younger each year.

One of the things NASCAR recently touted with Ben Kennedy moving into an executive role for the Camping World Truck Series is that he was coming from the driver’s seat and would lend a fresh perspective.

While NASCAR doesn’t have to hire every former driver, why not have some serve as consultants?

There are many of them out there. And there are enough issues in the sport where they could help.

2. Time’s a ticking A subtle change this season is that Friday Cup practice has been shortened at some tracks by as much as 35 minutes compared to last year.

The result is that teams spend less time in race trim — if any at all — in Friday practice because that is the only session before qualifying. That can make an impact.

“You don’t get that little bit of baseline,’’ Erik Jones told NBC Sports of not running in race setup on Friday. “We were able to take that baseline from Friday (last year) and then adjust from it from there for Saturday and maybe have a little bit better fire off. It makes the (simulator) more valuable and makes the team guys more valuable to unload well.’’

Erik Jones says less Friday practice time can prove challenging for young drivers, especially rookies. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones benefitted from the longer Friday practice sessions last year as a rookie. He often started in race setup to run multiple laps and get his braking and turning points set before his team switched to qualifying trim. But that was when teams often had 85 minutes for practice on Friday.

At Las Vegas, Friday’s practice was 30 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran seven laps in practice this year compared to 16 a year ago.

At Phoenix, Friday’s practice was 35 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran 10 practice laps this year compared to 16 a year ago.

Practice today at Auto Club Speedway is 35 minutes shorter than Friday’s session last year. The only concession is that the first practice Saturday will be five minutes longer than that session a year ago. Still, teams have 30 minutes less practice time for the weekend.

Jones can’t imagine the challenge Cup rookies William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. face with the shorter Friday sessions.

“You go to these tracks, and the Cup cars just drive so different,’’ Jones said. “You don’t really have a good idea of what you’re looking at. It’s just more valuable as a rookie to fire off in race trim and only take, hopefully, that one (qualifying) trim run you’re going to get from the time it’s going to take to switch over. There are times even now I struggle firing off in (qualifying) trim. It’s not an easy thing to do.’’

3. Which three-peat is better?

Kevin Harvick enters this weekend having won the past three races in a row.

Kyle Larson enters this weekend having won the past three races on 2-mile tracks.

Harvick’s streak was done in consecutive weekends at three different tracks – Atlanta, Las Vegas and ISM Raceway.

Larson’s streak was done at two different tracks — Michigan and Auto Club Speedway — but over a period of nearly five months.

Which streak is more impressive?

4. Fast start

Kurt Busch said before the year that a focus for the No. 41 team was stage points. With that in mind, it wasn’t surprising that crew chief Billy Scott kept Busch out during the caution just before the end of stage 2 at Phoenix last weekend. Busch won the stage but then started deep in the field.

After four races, only Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick has scored more stage points than Busch. Harvick has 53 stage points and Busch has 42. Busch had eight stage points at this time last year.

5. March Madness

With so much talk about the college basketball tournament, there’s a form of March Madness in NASCAR for many competitors.

In a way, Kevin Harvick’s hot start isn’t surprising. Seven of his 26 Cup victories since 2011 have come in March. No other month compares for him.

Harvick also can finish strong with five wins in November and four in October since 2011.

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Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman climb up NASCAR record book

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A bit overlooked from last weekend’s race at ISM Raceway was that both Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman moved up a spot for most consecutive Cup starts.

Both started their 580th consecutive Cup race last weekend. That moved them ahead of Ken Schrader (579 career starts) into ninth on the all-time list. Kevin Harvick has 572 consecutive starts. He’s set to pass Schrader at Kansas in May.

Next for Johnson and Newman is Mark Martin, who made 621 career Cup starts.

Jeff Gordon is the record holder with 797 consecutive starts. At this point, both Johnson, who is 42 years old, and Newman, who is 40, would need six years to reach Gordon’s mark.

To put the streak Johnson and Newman have compiled into perspective, rookies William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. would each need to not miss a race for 16 years to match them (provided there continues to be 36 points races a year). Both Byron and Wallace will need 22 seasons to match Gordon’s mark.

Most consecutive Cup starts 

797 – Jeff Gordon

788 – Ricky Rudd

704 – Bobby Labonte

697 – Rusty Wallace

655 – Terry Labonte

648 – Dale Earnhardt

628 – Jeff Burton

621 – Mark Martin

580 – Jimmie Johnson

580 – Ryan Newman

579 – Ken Schrader

572 – Kevin Harvick

571 – Matt Kenseth

548 – Jamie McMurray

521 – Tony Stewart

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Friday 5: While not a perfect 100, Kyle Busch comes closest

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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He amazes and angers, riles and riffs, and leaves no one on the fence. One is either a Kyle Busch fan or not. Just as Busch rarely takes the middle ground, it is the same for those watching.

In a career in its 14th full-time Cup season — and likely another decade for the 32-year-old — Busch is headed for the NASCAR Hall of Fame having already amassed 43 Cup victories, 91 Xfinity wins and 50 Truck triumphs (the latest coming Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway).

There’s another way to judge what Busch has done. Look at his body of work since he returned from injuries in the 2015 Xfinity season opener at Daytona.

Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway marks Busch’s 100th Cup points event since coming back from the crash that broke his right leg and fractured his left foot. Busch has 14 wins in the previous 99 starts.

  • No driver has won more Cup races than Busch in that time.
  • Only one driver has more top-five and top-10 finishes in that span.
  • Busch is the only driver to make it to the championship race in Miami each of the last three years, winning the 2015 title.

He missed the first 11 Cup races of the 2015 season after that Daytona crash, got a waiver from NASCAR to be eligible for the playoffs and won in his fifth race back.

Even in his remarkable championship season — he won four of his first nine races back from the injury — the haters said he shouldn’t have been competing for the title because he missed nearly a third of the season.

No matter what Busch does, there will be detractors. Just as there are his defenders. While not as loud, they enjoy his triumphs on the track and treats off it from him signing for unsuspecting fans at campsites or in traffic after a race and saying what he feels — even to a competitor (as he did on Twitter to Brad Keselowski last year after Keselowski’s comments about Toyotas).

For those who boo Busch, you will likely have plenty of more chances. Just as those who cheer him will have many chances to do so.

Here is who has won the most times in the last 99 Cup races (dating back to the 2015 Coca-Cola 600):

14 — Kyle Busch

13 — Martin Truex Jr.

10 — Jimmie Johnson

9 — Joey Logano

8 — Kevin Harvick

Those five drivers have combined to win 54 of the last 99 Cup races.

Among Busch’s 14 wins are back-to-back victories at Indianapolis (2015-16), the Sonoma shocker in 2015 for his first win since returning from his injuries, the 2015 Homestead finale to claim the title and two of the last four races at Martinsville.

Top 5s in last 99 Cup points races:

47 – Kevin Harvick

43 – Kyle Busch

43 – Joey Logano

40 – Denny Hamlin

38 – Brad Keselowski

Top 10s in last 99 Cup points races:

69 – Kevin Harvick

64 – Kyle Busch

64 – Joey Logano

62 – Denny Hamlin

62 – Brad Keselowski


Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is in the worst drought of his career. Consider:

He is on a 25-race winless streak, longest of his career.

He has eight consecutive finishes outside the top 10, longest of his career.

He has five consecutive finishes outside the top 20, longest of his career.

He comes to Las Vegas with four top-10 finishes in his last six starts at the 1.5-mile track. Can it undo the struggles he’s faced since last fall?

The drought began last fall at Talladega when he was involved in a 16-car crash late in the event. His race ended when the spotter told team members during a red flag that NASCAR was rescinding it, and they could work on the car. That wasn’t the case, and NASCAR parked the team for the infraction.

From there, it was on to Kansas.

Johnson spun twice at Kansas in the final 80 laps before rallying to finish 11th. He spun in morning qualifying before the Martinsville race and started at the rear for unapproved adjustments. He fought an ill-handing car to place 12th at a track he once dominated.

He then was 27th at Texas, finishing three laps behind the winner in a race Johnson had won four of the previous five years. A right-front tire went down and sent Johnson into the wall at Phoenix the following weekend, ending his title hopes with a 39th-place finish. At Miami, Johnson closed the season with an invisible 27th-place finish on the day the championship was determined.

3. Pit crew pirouettes

Take the time to check out the analysis by NBC’s Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton on how Cup teams are using different methods on pit stops

Atlanta was a good testing ground for teams with so many four-tire stops required. Watch how teams do it this week at Las Vegas. In the race to shave time off stops, if a team sees someone else completing their stops significantly quicker, they’ll start doing the same thing.

Eventually, teams will settle on their best plan for the season, but there’s still experimenting and refinement taking place.

4. Kyle Larson one to watch

Kyle Larson finished no worse than second during the West Coast swing last year, winning at Auto Club Speedway. While it’s easy to discount the results of the test Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at Las Vegas because not every team participated, Larson posted the fastest lap each day.

Could Larson be the one to give Chevrolet its first win on a non-restrictor-plate track with the new Camaro this weekend?

5. The Final Word: Kevin Harvick

From the Stewart-Haas Racing’s weekly release for the No. 4 team with Kevin Harvick talking about having all four SHR cars run well at Atlanta:

”The thing I took away from it was the No. 10 car and Aric Almirola were more competitive for us and that is important for us to have that extra set of notes that we really hadn’t used the last several years because that car hasn’t performed well enough. It hasn’t been competitive enough to really bring anything to the table. To see that No. 10 car running well is great for myself, Kurt (Busch) and Clint (Bowyer) and, really, everybody at SHR.”

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NASCAR America at 5 pm ET: Kurt Busch interview, Las Vegas preview and more

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NASCAR begins a West Coast swing in Las Vegas this weekend. We will look ahead to the action in the desert and discuss how race teams will approach the weekend now that the track will be part of the playoffs. Marty Snider hosts and is joined by analysts Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Parker Kligerman. Show airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
On today’s show:
We’ll have an in-depth and personal conversation with Kurt Busch, and Parker Kligerman continues our analysis when he jumps in the NBCSN Race Simulator – with Jeff Burton alongside – to give us an iRacing look and evaluation of Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The No. 22 team is looking for a new perspective after a difficult finish to last year. Dave Burns talks with crew chief Todd Gordon about their start to the new season.
Jeff Burton breaks down the evolution of Atlanta winner Kevin Harvick. How has he developed from his feisty, younger driving days to a more mature leader and a champion of the sport?

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/ If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Daytona 500 victory 50 years in the making for Austin Dillon’s tire changer

Photo: Dustin Long
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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The younger members of Austin Dillon’s team, full of adrenaline-fueled energy and excitement, celebrated their Daytona 500 victory Sunday with a late-night visit to a tattoo parlor to permanently etch their achievement on their rear end.

Terry Spalding didn’t make it that far. It was time to turn in.

That’s OK, Sunday was a big enough day for the 50-year-old front tire changer, who experienced his first Daytona 500 win.

Yes, Spalding is 50 years old and changes tires for a Cup playoff team. Age alone gives him a different perspective on the Daytona 500 victory.

“I’m really able to appreciate it,’’ Spalding told NBC Sports. “I’ve been doing it 20-some years. Only since I’ve been at RCR in the last seven or eight years have I really been able to win the races that I won.’’

Dillon says Spalding doesn’t need a Daytona 500 ring to note how special he is.

“Terry is just a champion in life, period,’’ Dillon said. 

Spalding grew up the son of a racer in Pennsylvania and moved to North Carolina to pursue a job in the sport in 1990 — the same year Dillon was born.

Along the way, Spalding has worked in Cup for car owners such as Travis Carter, Ray Evernham, Richard Petty, Michael Waltrip, Richard Childress. Spalding has gone over the wall to service cars for drivers such as Jimmy Spencer, Elliott Sadler, Tony Raines, David Reutimann, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard and Dillon.

Spalding went to in Victory Lane at Indianapolis in 2011 when Paul Menard won. Spalding was in Victory Lane last year when Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600.

That he is still going over the wall is a feat considering the radical changes for pit crew this season. With NASCAR eliminating one of the over-the-wall positions, pit crew members are having to redefine their roles. Those that haven’t adjusted as well have lost jobs or been dropped down a series. Spalding’s duties have changed. He now carries a 60-pound tire with along with his air gun.

He’s always managed to adjust through the years. When he turned 40, he often was asked how much longer would he wanted to change tires. He randomly said 50. It’s a nice round number. Realistically, as pit crews have become more athletic and younger — many are in their 20s — that seemed like a pipe dream.

Now that he’s 50, how much longer will he go?

“I feel as good as I did when I was 40,’’ Spalding said. “I thought about when I can’t go over the wall anymore, starting to coach.’’

He’s got to find time. He plays in the same basketball league Denny Hamlin hosts at his house that includes Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Blaney and others. In recent years, Spalding competed in slalom ski races. He’s also played in a roller hockey league. He’s competed in mountain bike races.

“I still go in the weight room, I don’t hit it as hard as I used to,’’ Spalding said. “I like to do things … and stay active that way.’’

He’s not ready to quit any time soon.

“I want to go as long as I can,’’  he said. Barring some freak injury, I honestly think 55 is no problem.’’ 

That would be at least five more Daytona 500s.

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