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NASCAR executive defends rules package after lackluster All-Star Race

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After an All-Star race that featured three lead changes in 70 laps, a senior NASCAR executive defended the rules package but conceded that the option tire “didn’t make a huge impact.’’

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, told “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that one race isn’t going to lead to significant rule changes.

“I think we’ve got to keep it in context,’’ O’Donnell said Monday. “I find it ironic that you can go from one week of everyone saying this is the greatest rules package and then you walk into one race with a bit of a different format (and opinions not as high). We feel still really bullish on the rules package we have, the work we’ve done with the industry to get where we’re at. Certainly you want every race to be the best it possibly can be.

“We’ve got to look at the facts and the facts are a lot of different organizations winning this year, the (manufacturers) having an ability to win, Kyle (Busch) his first win ever (in Cup) at Charlotte, which is surprising to me, and a lot of young drivers really putting their names out there competing out front. Really like where we’re at right now.

“Our job is to look at the whole year. If I reacted to every comment you had on Twitter, it would be very different. It’s one of those things we’ve got to look at the overall picture, we’ve got to take the input from everybody in the industry and we do that. I think from a rules package standpoint we continue to see the sport moving in the right direction in terms of what we’re seeing in competitiveness from different organizations. That’s really how we judge it from an overall standpoint and not just one race.’’

Heading into this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, there have been eight different winners in the first 11 races. There have been at least eight different winners in the first 11 races in three of the last four years.

Among organizations, seven different teams have scored victories this season: Chip Ganassi Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Four organizations had won a race in the first 11 events last year and in 2015.

In the five races run on 1.5-mile tracks this season — Atlanta, Las Vegas, Texas, Kansas and the All-Star Race — lead changes are down compared to the same events last year. There have been 63 lead changes in those five events this year compared to 94 in those same events a year ago and 99 two years ago.

The three lead changes in the All-Star race were the fewest since 2007, although Saturday’s race had the fewest laps (70) since that 2007 race, which was 80 laps.

Still, the hope was that there could be plenty of cars moving forward and backward with the use of a second tire compound, a softer compound. The goal was for the tire to be a few tenths quicker at the onset but wear more quickly than the regular tire.

“Goodyear delivered on exactly what we had asked,’’ O’Donnell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We wanted three to four-tenths on a tire and by the practice times and the early part of the race we saw that. Kudos to Goodyear. I think what you saw Saturday night was really the difference probably in the car versus the tire and maybe a need to go even further if you were going to pursue that avenue in terms of difference in speed. That’s something we could look at for the future. Obviously you guys saw what I saw, it didn’t make a huge impact.’’

Asked if the option tire is something still on the table for future events, O’Donnell said: “I think so. I think you look at what may be the impact versus the car. I think the bigger thing is, when you look at tires in general, continuing to focus on rain tire, what should be our priority. There’s talk, I don’t want to tip the hand, but way down the future could you ever run Martinsville if the track was damp because Goodyear is able to, in terms of the speed, put something together.

“It’s a balance for us of where do we put their focus. Obviously they’re capable of doing all things. I think something we’d look at All-Star for sure, not sure in terms of a points race.’’

Another question was about the splitter after Erik Jones’ bid for the lead in the final laps of the Monster Energy Open was foiled when he ran below the apron and through grass on the frontstretch. He damaged his splitter in the incident.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was critical of the splitter on Twitter.

O’Donnell defended the splitter’s purpose on the car.

“Why we have it, I think everybody, including the drivers and the industry wanted to look at going toward the lower downforce package,’’ O’Donnell said. “That’s part of the package. It’s part of what we worked on with the (manufacturers). We’re actually very happy with the product we’ve had.

“If you look back to Kansas, one of the better mile-and-a-half races we’ve had. It’s always interesting with one incident and everybody jumps on, ‘Hey, why do we have this on the car?’ Certainly something down the road you can always look at, but it’s part of the overall aerodynamics of the car. It all fits in.

“For now, we continue to like the direction of lower downforce and going to continue down that and see if there are certain tweaks we can make. We absolutely would do that but that’s where we’re at today.’’

O’Donnell also said that the 2018 schedule is expected to be released this week.

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Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer lead Monster Energy Open practice

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The only practice session for the Monster Energy Open was led by Erik Jones, who posted a top speed of 189.056 mph around Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The top five was filled out by Clint Bowyer (187.970), Chase Elliott (186.400), Ryan Blaney (186.021) and AJ Allmendinger (185.893).

Filling in for the injured Aric Almirola, Regan Smith and the No. 43 Ford were sixth fastest.

The Monster Energy Open will send three drivers to the All-Star Race. A fourth driver will advance via a fan vote.

Click here to see the full practice report.

Toyota executive: Low downforce, not new car bodies, root of early season problems

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A Toyota Racing Development executive says the manufacturer “not sweating the numbers in terms of wins” after 11 races in the NASCAR Cup season.

David Wilson, president of TRD, also said NASCAR’s new low downforce package is more to blame for the lack of wins than Toyota’s new Camry bodies, which debuted a new nose design this season.

“Overall, we’re pleased with its performance,” Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Tradin’ Paint. “I know when we came out of the gate a little slower than normal, human nature is you point to what’s different. ‘Well, they’ve got that new Camry.’ Honestly guys, that’s really not been the biggest contributor. I think adjusting to the lower downforce stuff; our aero program the past couple of years has been so strong and the amount of work we put into more downforce, more downforce, more downforce.”

Through 11 races, Toyota has two Cup wins, both coming with Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and last Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

Toyota’s flagship team, Joe Gibbs Racing, hasn’t visited victory lane since last fall’s race at Texas Motor Speedway with Carl Edwards.

While Truex leads the series in stage wins with five, Joe Gibbs Racing only has four combined stage wins among its four drivers.

Also, all four drivers — Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez — have combined for just seven top fives.

Wilson’s observation of the impact of the lower downforce package goes back to last season when the series tested a variation of this years’ lower downforce package in both Michigan races and at Kentucky Speedway.

In those races, JGR only recorded one top five (Carl Edwards, Kentucky) and four top 10s. Truex added a fifth for Furniture Row Racing. The Gibbs’ teams earned 46 top fives in all of 2016.

“When NASCAR cuts a thousand pounds or so off (the car), it kinds of eats into our competitive margin we spent so much time and energy building up,” Wilson said. “We’re working on a number of things. Mechanical grip, we need our cars to turn through the center of the corners a little bit better and just aero, not just downforce.”

Hamlin said two weeks ago at Richmond International Raceway that it would take more than a month for Joe Gibbs Racing’s problems to fixed.

“Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better,” Hamlin said.

With the next points race a week away, there are only two Toyota teams in the top 10 in points. Truex is second, 44 points behind Kyle Larson. Busch is seventh, 150 points back. Denny Hamlin the next highest Toyota driver in 12th.

“We tend to get a little frustrated because we set the bar so high,” Wilson said. “Coming off the past two seasons, we have good cause to set that bar pretty high as we ran pretty darn well.

“What we have to keep in perspective, we’re leading a lot of laps. It’s one thing if we’re not bringing the wins home at the end of the day when we’re not leading laps. It’s another when we’re leading a lot of laps, we’e just not closing. We fall victim to whether it’s a pit miscue or just bad luck. We’re not sweating the numbers in terms of wins. We’ve won as many stages as any manufacturer. Just not enough of the third stage.”

The top Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing – which are part of a technical alliance – have led 1, 367 laps. Truex (536) and Busch (521) lead the series.

“On the whole, we feel pretty good about where we are,” said of the Toyota program at the All-Star break. “This next stretch, we said to ourselves before Kansas, this is a very important part of the season because we’re going to hit these tracks where we’re going to come back during the playoffs.

“So Kansas, Charlotte, Dover and that’s going to be obviously important that we do well and are able to keep our performance high, because those are going to be somewhat predictive of our playoff performance.”

The Charlotte and Dover races have swapped spots on the schedule. Last year, Truex dominated and won the Coke 600 and Kenseth then won at Dover. Toyota didn’t visit victory lane again until New Hampshire with Kenseth, six races after Charlotte.

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SiriusXM sponsoring Erik Jones for six races, beginning with All-Star weekend

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The upcoming All-Star Race weekend will mark the beginning of a six-race sponsorship deal with SiriusXM radio and Furniture Row Racing’s No. 77 Toyota, driven by Erik Jones.

Jones appeared on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” Wednesday afternoon to make the announcement.

Source: SiriusXM

The satellite radio provider will be on Jones’ car in the Monster Energy Open as he attempts to race into his first Monster Energy All-Star Race.

SiriusXM will then be on the No. 77 at Pocono, Kentucky, Richmond, Dover and Martinsville.

The rookie is still finding his way in his first full season of Cup competition. Through 11 races Jones is 19th in the point standings. He has just one top 10 (Phoenix) and three DNFs.

“It’s definitely the first year where I’ve felt like a true rookie,” Jones said on “Tradin’ Pain.” Jones was the 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion and came in fourth in the Xfinity Series last season after earning four wins.

“In Truck and Xfinity we came right out of the box and were contending for wins and running up front,” Jones said. “In the Cup Series, it’s definitely taken more time. We’ve had fast cars and we’ve had moments where we were running up in the top 10 and top five. But I don’t feel we’ve truly contended for the win. I hope that day is coming soon.”

Jones is currently tied in the points with former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Suarez.

“Obviously one of your goals this year is to win Rookie of the Year,” Jones said on “Tradin’ Paint.” “We want to make the (playoffs), win Rookie of the Year and I think that’d be a good year for us. It’s something I pay attention to throughout the week and keep up on and make sure we’re still in contention. It’s been close all year. … It’s good to see a close rookie battle like that. It’s good for the fans and good for the sport. It’s a strong rookie class.”

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Cup rookies in close points battle going into All-Star break

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The 2017 rookie class in the NASCAR Cup Series is noteworthy to say the least.

The drivers competing for Rookie of the Year honors are 2016 Xfinity champion Daniel Suarez, 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion and eight-time Xfinity winner Erik Jones, Germain Racing’s Ty Dillon (brother to Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon) an BK Racing’s Corey LaJoie and Gray Gaulding.

After 11 races in the season and the All-Star weekend looming, the competition between three of the five drivers is narrow.

Following Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway, Suarez, Jones and Dillon are 19th, 20th and 21st in the point standings.

Suarez and Jones, former teammates in the Xfinity Series at Joe Gibbs Racing, are tied with 217 points. That is 258 points behind leader Kyle Larson.

Jones is coming off a brutal race where his No. 77 Toyota caused three separate cautions. After spinning on his own twice, the third accident occurred when Dillon tagged Jones’ left-rear quarter panel exiting Turn 4 and sent Jones sliding into the infield. He finished 22nd.

Suarez had a quietly impressive night. He finished seventh for the third time this year. He’s the only rookie with multiple top 10s.

Ty Dillon is 13 points behind the Toyota drivers.

After spinning himself early in the race, Dillon placed 14th at Kansas. Outside a DNF in the Daytona 500, Dillon has finished on the lead lap in all but one race (Martinsville).

Meanwhile, Corey LaJoie is the only other rookie to start all 11 races so far. The son of former Xfinity champion Randy LaJoie, he is 34th in the standings with 77 points. He placed 27th at Kansas and has yet to finish on the lead lap this season.

Gaulding has started in 10 of 11 races. He is 36th in points with 51 points after finishing 34th at Kansas.

All five rookies are outside the top 16 in the standings, meaning they would not be in the playoffs if the regular season ended today.

All five drivers will try to qualify for the All-Star Race via the Monster Energy Open or by the fan vote this weekend.

Here’s a breakdown of each rookie’s season so far.

(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Daniel Suarez, No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Points Position: 19th

Top fives: None
Top 10s: Three
Laps Led: None
Avg. Finish: 17.4
Best finish: Seventh (Phoenix, Auto Club, Kansas)
DNFs: One

 

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Erik Jones, No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota

Points Position: 20th

Top fives: None
Top 10s: One
Laps Led: Two
Avg. Finish: 21.1
Best finish: Eighth (Phoenix)
DNFs: Three

 

 

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Ty Dillon, No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet

Points Position: 21st

Top fives: None
Top 10s: None
Laps Led: Six
Avg. Finish: 18.8
Best finish: 13th (Talladega)
DNFs: One

 

(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Corey LaJoie, No. 83 BK Racing Toyota

Points Position: 34th

Top fives: None
Top 10s: None
Laps Led: None
Avg. Finish: 30.5
Best finish: 24th (Daytona 500, Bristol)
DNFs: Two

 

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Gray Gaulding, No. 23 BK Racing Toyota

Points Position: 36th

Top fives: None
Top 10s: None
Laps Led: None
Avg. Finish: 32.1
Best finish: 20th (Talladega)
DNFs: Three

 

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