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Aric Almirola returns to Kansas for first time since May’s crash there

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The last time Aric Almirola left Kansas Speedway, it was in an ambulance after being involved in the hardest wreck of his racing career.

That three-car wreck on May 13th – which also involved Joey Logano and Danica Patrick – fractured the Tampa native’s back and sidelined him for two months. Almirola missed seven NASCAR Cup races in the process.

He climbed back behind the wheel for the first time after the wreck on July 16 at New Hampshire, where he qualified 21st and finished 24th.

Almirola returns this weekend to Kansas Speedway with confidence and some unfinished business in the race.

“I have no hesitation heading back after the accident there in the spring,” Almirola said in a team media release. “It had nothing to do with the track and was just a product of hard racing.

“I’m fully healed and ready to head back out there. We had a good week last week (fifth at Talladega) and really fought for a top-five finish. We’ll try to use that momentum this week to get a good finish as we near the end of the season.”

Where Almirola goes after this season remains a question mark. Almirola has already announced he will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports next season.

So for the remaining five races of the season, Almirola will continue to give a best effort and keep talking with other teams for a potential ride next season.

“I always like going to Kansas,” he said. “It’s a track where we’ve been able to compete up front in the past, so we are always excited to see if we can improve on that.”

Best of NASCAR America episodes from NASCAR Hall of Fame

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One of our favorite days of the week is Wednesday, because that’s when NASCAR America comes to you live from the NASCAR Hall of Fame in downtown Charlotte.

We’ve had numerous NASCAR Cup drivers come through over the last few months including Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Daniel Suarez, Kyle Larson, David Ragan and teammate Landon Cassill, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin (still bothered by lobsters) and earlier this week with Danica Patrick.

On Thursday’s NASCAR America, we went back in time to check out some of the highlights (or comedic lowlights, depending upon the driver) of many of the shows we’ve aired from the NASCAR Hall in the video above.

And don’t forget next Tuesday — a special episode from the NASCAR Hall — with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Keep track of NASCAR Silly Season with this scorecard

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Landon Cassill became the next driver to become a part of Silly Season when Front Row Motorsports informed him that he will not be back after this season in the No. 34 car.

Cassill said he’s exploring his options, joining a number of drivers who are looking for rides for next season.

Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands as Cup teams head to Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s playoff race.

ANNOUNCED RIDES FOR 2018

Kasey Kahne will join Leavine Family Racing and drive the No. 95 car. (announcement made Sept. 19)

Ty Dillon signs a multi-year contract to remain at Germain Racing and drive the No. 13 car. Sponsor Geico also extends its deal with the team (announcement made Sept. 5)

Chris Buescher signs a multi-year contract to remain at JTG Daugherty and drive the No. 37 car. (announcement made Aug. 18)

Matt DiBenedetto will remain with Go Fas Racing in the team’s No. 32 car (announcement made Aug. 12)

William Byron will drive the No. 24 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Kasey Kahne (announcement made Aug. 9)

Paul Menard moves to Wood Brothers Racing to drive the No. 21 car (announcement made July 26)

Ryan Blaney moves to Team Penske to drive the No. 12 car and signs a multi-year contract extension (announcement made July 26)

Brad Keselowski agrees to contract extension to drive the No. 2 car for Team Penske (announcement made July 25

Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. (announcement made July 20)

Erik Jones will drive the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth (announcement made July 11)

OPEN/POSSIBLY OPEN RIDES

— No. 10: Danica Patrick is out after this season at Stewart-Haas Racing. No replacement has been announced. 

— No. 27: Richard Childress Racing states it will announce plans for a third Cup team at a later date with Paul Menard joining the Wood Brothers for next season.

— No. 34: Front Row Motorsports informed Landon Cassill on Oct. 9 that he would not be returning to the team next season. The team has not announced its driver lineup for next season. 

— No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up the option on Kurt Busch’s contract for next year on Aug. 1. Even so, the team tweeted that it expected Busch back with sponsor Monster Energy for next year. Busch told reporters Aug. 5 at Watkins Glen that “there are a couple of offers already, so we’ll see how things work out.’’  

— No. 43: Richard Petty Motorsports announced Sept. 12 that Aric Almirola will not return to the team. Smithfield also is not returning. Smithfield and Richard Petty Motorsports exchanged terse statements about their parting. RPM is selling Darrell Wallace Jr. to prospective sponsors.  

— No. 77: Furniture Row Racing has sold the charter to this team. Although the team is still looking for sponsorship for the team, Joe Garone, team president, said the chances of the organization running only one car next year is “high.’’

AVAILABLE DRIVERS

Matt Kenseth: Out of the No. 20 after this season. Doesn’t have anything announced for next year. At Bristol, Kenseth was asked about his plans for 2018. He said: “I’m not worried about (2018) even really one percent anymore to be honest with you. I’m just not concerned about it.’’  

Kurt Busch: With Stewart-Haas Racing declining to pick up his option for next year, Busch is a free agent. Even with Stewart-Haas Racing’s action, there’s still a good chance Busch signs a deal to remain with the organization.

Danica Patrick: She will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing after this season. Patrick has not announced any plans for next season. She’s not looking for a ride in the Xfinity Series. “Cup only,’’ she said.  

Aric Almirola: Won’t return to Richard Petty Motorsports, team announced Sept. 12.

Michael McDowellWill not return to Leavine Family Racing with Kasey Kahne joining the team next season.

Darrell Wallace Jr.: Richard Petty Motorsports is selling Wallace to prospective sponsors for the No. 43 car for next season. He gained interest from RPM after driving in four races for the team while Aric Almirola was injured.

Landon Cassill: Searching for a ride after being informed he will not be back at Front Row Motorsports. He said Oct. 10 that he did not have sponsorship to bring with him at the time.

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NASCAR Chairman Brian France discusses penalties, costs & manufacturers

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NASCAR Chairman Brian France called into SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” show Wednesday and discussed various topics with co-hosts Jim Noble and Chocolate Myers.

France offered his thoughts to the family of Hall of Fame inductee Robert Yates, who died Monday at age 74. France remembered Yates as “one of the pioneers” of the sport.

France was asked a variety of questions. Here are some of his responses:

Q: What is taking up your attention?

Brian France: “It’s always aligning everybody’s interest. It’s really that simple but hard to do. Things are different than they were five years ago, 10 years ago. I think aligning the interests, getting the costs out of the system … So the team owners can compete with less resources than they otherwise would need to and still do it at a high level. It’s all about that. It’s very hard to do because every stakeholder has their own interest and there’s institutional things that go on that either you can’t change or are hard to change. In the end, my dad used to say what makes it successful, he would always say that everybody has to win. The bigger we get, the more complicated it is, the harder it is to deliver. That’s where our goal is all the time.’’

Q: How do you see the sport’s future with all the young drivers?

France: “That’s the exciting part. The other part is we are in a transition. That happens if you go through our history. Sometimes it happens the way it is now, where a number of the top drivers exit for one reason or another. You didn’t mention Carl Edwards, who left for different reasons. That happens. Usually it’s more of not so many at one time but every once in a while we’ll have these moments. Everybody steps away at their choosing. The good news for us, you’re exactly right, there’s a lot of talent here that is coming through the system that are really going to be competitive and show their thing and that’s the beauty of sports. You can get a different group to put some … fingerprints on success and being a part of NASCAR. We’re looking forward to it.’’

Q: There often has been a lot of talk after races about penalties. How do we keep that from dominating things in the future?

France: “Boy, do I dislike two things. One is having to deal with penalties or infractions even though we have to. We have to keep the playing field even, and we have to do what we have to do. The second part that I would prefer to not have to talk about is the business side of NASCAR. That’s important, too.

“Because all of it takes away from what happened on Sunday or Saturday or Friday night in any of our national series. I look at it this way, I never get worked up over anything because I know the teams are pushing right to that last inch and then every once in a while they flop over the line, and there’s very rarely where it’s somebody just egregiously trying to get an advantage. It’s true that we have to have restrictions and tight rules and so on and it’s also true that the teams are so close to that line they’re going to create a P1 or P2, whatever it’s going to be, I don’t get worked over that because that’s auto racing.

“If we weren’t having some of that, then they’re not competing hard, they’re not trying to out-think, out-engineer, out-do some other teams. I don’t get so worked up over that. Frankly, I’d rather not talk about it. I’d rather we do what we do, which is we issue the penalty and we phrase it in a way … whatever the penalty is and our results on that and just not make it a big deal, but I realize it is easy to get caught up in it.’’

Q: One report that NASCAR is helping find sponsorship for Danica Patrick and Darrell Wallace Jr. for next year and how important is it that both are on the track next year?

France: “We get involved all the time with sponsorship arrangements with individual teams. That’s not inconsistent with what we do. As far as those two drivers, of course we would like to see both of them have a real good opportunity. We can’t control all of that. At the end of the day, you’ve got to compete, and both of those drivers have shown that they can compete at some level. The question is, is it high enough to attract the right sponsorship and interest? We’ll have to see how that plays out.’’

Q: What about new manufacturers?

France: “There’s two that have shown a lot of interest and are examining just how you go about it. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to come in and get the right teams. They all want to come in and compete at a very high level as fast as they can, which makes the challenge even harder. There are two and we’ll see how it plays out. Our preference would be to be able to add one more. Interestingly, the other car manufactures are open to that, too. They’d like to compete themselves with one another and take a lot of pride in that. My hope is that as soon as it can work out, we’ll add a fourth. We’ll have to see how that goes.’’

Q: What would you say to fans who are concerned about the financial future of the sport and the costs associated with racing?

France: “I would say look at history. There’s always cycles. Sometimes we have too many teams. I remember not that long ago, that Richard Petty, when he was racing couldn’t make the event for example. That happened. We’re working on it all the time. That stuff works itself out.

“Every sport has different cycles where it’s better than it was or less than it should be, whatever it is, that will work out. Our job is that if there is a way for us from a policy standpoint, as an example, getting the cost out of the system, that we are going to work, that’s where the charter agreements that we did a couple of years ago allow us to, get at those things.

“I wouldn’t worry about that for one minute if I were a fan because it just works itself out. We will make good decisions and the teams are working very closely with us to take any shortcomings out of the system and figure it out. I wouldn’t worry about that for a minute if I were a fan. I am a fan.’’

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Long: NASCAR’s young stars provide lessons for many at Dover

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DOVER, Delaware — As NASCAR transitions to a younger generation of drivers, they will have their chance to influence the sport as Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and others have.

This past weekend’s racing at Dover International Speedway gave the sport’s new kids a chance to show how to do things and possibly influence younger competitors elsewhere.

Ryan Blaney set the tone after winning Saturday’s Xfinty race. He celebrated at the start/finish line by giving the checkered flag to a youngster — one wearing a Kyle Larson hat.

Blaney’s action is far from the first kind act bestowed upon a child in the sport, but it provides a reminder of what’s important for NASCAR moving forward.

“He seemed really pumped up to be at the race,’’ Blaney said of the child he handed the checkered flag to through the fence. “There were a lot of kids here today, which was really cool.

“I kind of saw a little bit of myself. I was a little kid coming here and watching races. Anything we can do to try to keep them coming back and show them a pretty great experience, hopefully he enjoyed that experience and the race.

“He was pretty happy when he got (the flag). Whatever we can do to make their day, I feel like, is part of our job, to be honest with you.’’

Blaney’s comment is a sign of how NASCAR’s elders have passed their wisdom to the next generation.

With Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards no longer racing, Earnhardt out after this season and Matt Kenseth’s future in doubt, the sport is moving beyond some of its most popular drivers who helped mold NASCAR. It also likely won’t be too long before Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, among others, retire.  

While Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano should be in the sport for at least another decade, it is the drivers behind them that will help lead the sport further. That’s Blaney, Elliott and Larson, along with Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Austin and Ty Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr., Christopher Bell and William Byron

Maybe Blaney’s checkered flag giveaway becomes as much a tradition as when Edwards gave his trophy to a child after a win. No doubt others do the same thing at local tracks, but what if more people did it or something similar? A driver giving away a checkered flag or trophy in NASCAR’s premier series could show competitors at various levels that while winning is special, sharing it with a child is more meaningful.

Another key aspect of the weekend, though, was more subtle.

As Kyle Busch reeled in leader Chase Elliott in the final laps Sunday, there was a moment when there could have been chaos. Instead, there was a clean pass.

Elliott could have blocked or could have forced Busch into the wall when Busch tried to pass on the outside as they ran to the white flag. Busch noted Elliott’s actions after winning.

“Coming off of (Turn) 2 there, he could have pulled up and checked my momentum, and I did kind of check up because I wasn’t quite sure, but then he gave me enough room,’’ Busch said in victory lane.

Just like that, Elliott’s bid for his first career Cup win went away again, leaving him heartbroken.

NASCAR is a contact sport and there will be such battles for wins for races to come — maybe in the upcoming second round in the Cup playoffs — but there’s also something to be said for fair racing.

Admittedly, there will be those who will recall it was Elliott who bumped Ty Dillon out of the lead to win a Truck race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2013. Two of the four races there since have ended with the second-place truck making contact with the leader to get by to win. It has seemingly become OK to do so at that track.

One action doesn’t make a driver a saint or a devil, it’s what they do over a period of time. The more others see how the sport’s young drivers react in pressure situations, the more it could influence drivers as they come up through the NASCAR ranks.

An episode few saw this past weekend with a young driver came from Todd Gilliland. The 17-year-old son of former Cup driver David Gilliland, entered the K&N Pro Series East season finale eight points ahead of Harrison Burton for the championship. Gilliland’s title hopes ended when a right front tire blew and he crashed before midway in the race. Burton won the championship. Despite the devastation, Gilliland answered media questions in a mature fashion.

THREE AND OUT

The winners of three of the biggest races of the season all failed to advance to the next round of the Cup playoffs.

Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500, Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 and Kasey Kahne won the Brickyard 400. None was closer than four points from the final transfer spot.

This marks the second time in the four years of the elimination-style playoff format that there wasn’t a winner of any of those three races in the championship race.

The only driver to have won any of those races and make it to the championship race is Kyle Busch. He won the 2015 Brickyard 400 and went on to win the championship. He won the 2016 Brickyard 400 and finished third in the points.

DROUGHT CONTINUES

With Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman eliminated from title contention, it means that Richard Childress Racing will go a 23rd consecutive season since its last Cup championship, which came in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt Sr.

The organization started the season with the goal of winning races and did that with Newman winning at Phoenix and Dillon the Coca-Cola 600. But the organization had a lack of speed at various tracks, showing that more work needs to be done for it to return to being a title contender. Still, some goals were accomplished this season.

Questions remain about next season. Newman and Dillon are back, but Paul Menard will leave at the end of the year to join the Wood Brothers. That leaves RCR with an opening in a car that has a charter.

Among the options for Richard Childress Racing is to run the car or lease the charter to another team for a year, giving the organization more time to find sponsorship and return to a three-car lineup in 2019. Certainly, if sponsorship can be found for next season, the team will run it. 

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