Ryan: NASCAR needs a Daytona 500 warmup act in South Florida

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Why does NASCAR start the Sprint Cup Series season with its version of the Super Bowl?

There are myriad explanations for a question that perpetually arises each winter, but there’s one succinct answer.

It shouldn’t.

That revelation has come into sharper focus through a scheduling change that resulted in an extra weekend between the Super Bowl and the start of Speedweeks in 2014 and ‘15.

There were many years in which the Super Bowl and the run-up to the stock-car equivalent butted against each other – five years ago, NASCAR moved Daytona 500 qualifying to Saturday because of a direct conflict with Super Sunday. Yet the past two years have provided a stark contrast that leads to a glaring conclusion.

On arguably the most lackluster weekend of the year in pro sports – with basketball and hockey in the doldrums, football in its offseason and baseball in pre-spring training lull – NASCAR is missing a chance to dominate the conversation.

This isn’t an indictment of the Daytona 500’s drawing power, nor the suggestion of a waning cachet. The Great American Race will command the widest audience regardless of its spot on the calendar, and last year’s scintillating victory by Dale Earnhardt Jr. – which didn’t seem dampened despite a six-hour rain delay – reaffirmed its stature on the NASCAR schedule.

The placement could be improved, though, and there is precedent for it.

From 1970-81, the season opened in mid-January at Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway before heading to Daytona Beach Fla., a month later. Considering the two greatest finishes in Daytona 500 history (’79 and ’76) occurred in that span, it hardly diminished the luster of the crown jewel.

Riverside still had its failings as a season opener. Why start a month earlier at a road course on the other side of the country?

Three decades later, there’s an optimum location that makes as much sense competitively as it does logistically.

Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Just four-and-a-half hours south of Daytona (which should make a turnaround for Speedweeks relatively easy) is a track that has made a deserving case for hosting a second annual Sprint Cup race ever since its 2003 reconfiguration.

Amid a rash of ill-conceived repavings over the past decade, Homestead’s progressively banked surface has become the gold standard for the 1.5-mile layouts that comprise 11 of the season’s 36 races and have been maligned for producing their fair share of processional racing.

There’s no such conundrum at Homestead, whose thrilling 2014 season finale punctuated the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff  It’s a crime the track is allowed to flaunt its considerable action only once a year – and then just before the circuit is mothballed for three months.

A new testing ban exacerbated the lack of buzz during this offseason, which mostly is a good thing. Overworked teams need the rest, and it also helps to have a break from incessantly flogging the marketing and promotion of Sprint Cup stars who are competing for 10 months annually.

But Thursday’s Daytona 500 Media Day will underscore the downside of a preseason with virtually no on-track activity. Though a bevy of rules changes (causing lower horsepower and downforce) offer much to discuss, the interviews figure to be an echo chamber of last month’s preseason Media Tour, where stars already were asked the same questions they will face Thursday.

Imagine if they were analyzing their results from Homestead, and what that portends for the rest of the season – particularly in the Chase for the Sprint Cup?

Racing a week earlier at Homestead adds another championship dimension to the Daytona 500. If a team mightily struggles in South Florida and is concerned about its speedway prospects, the restrictor-plate roulette wheel of Daytona suddenly promises the relief of a golden ticket to the Chase.

Bookending the schedule at Homestead will present some scheduling hassles (namely, would a race need to be dropped for the new opener), but they are outweighed by the benefits. This is the ideal way to tie the beginning and end of the season together in a Florida-shaped bow.

Dropping the green flag before Daytona won’t make NASCAR’s most iconic event any less super. It’ll make it more special.

NASCAR mourns Kobe Bryant

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Joining their brethren in other sports, the NASCAR world took to social media upon learning the tragic news of the death of Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant, killed Sunday morning in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Bryant had met a number of NASCAR drivers in his career, including Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano. They were among a number of NASCAR notables who took to social media to mourn Bryant:

 

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Chad Knaus and wife expecting second child

Photo courtesy Brooke Knaus official Instagram account
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Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion crew chief Chad Knaus and wife Brooke are expecting their second child.

Brooke made the announcement Saturday on her Instagram account.

The couple, already parents to one-year-old son Kip, will soon be adding a daughter to their growing family.

Brooke Knaus’s Instagram post said the baby is due in July.

Kip figured prominently in the baby revelation, coming at the end of mom and dad’s ski run while vacationing in Telluride, Colorado:

 

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Kyle Larson flips, misses finals of Australia’s biggest sprint car race

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Kyle Larson’s hope of following up last week’s Chili Bowl win with a triumph in Australia’s prestigious Grand Annual Sprint Car Classic fell far short Sunday.

Larson’s bid to race his way into the 24-car finals of the three-day race at Premier Speedway in Warrnambool, Australia, ended when he flipped (uninjured) on the opening lap of a last-chance qualifying heat race earlier in the evening.

Instead of being one of the featured drivers in the Classic’s 40-lap finale – the largest and most popular sprint car race of the year in the land down under – Larson was left to watch the event from the pits and cheer on Dyson Motorsport teammate and fellow American Carson Macedo.

Even that didn’t go very well, as Macedo flipped his own sprint car on the first lap of the Classic, resulting in a last-place finish. The highest finishing American was Cory Eliason, who ended up fourth.

Meanwhile, it was an all-Australian podium, with James McFadden winning the Classic for the second time in his career, followed by James Veal and Kerry Madsen.

In eight days, Larson went from capturing what he called the biggest win ever of his racing career on all levels – the Chili Bowl in his 13th try last Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma – to nothing but bad luck and utter frustration throughout his Australian journey.

Larson’s first race on Wednesday in the King’s Challenge at Borderline Speedway was rained out.

Then, in the first night of the Classic on Friday, Larson wrecked heavily in his first heat race, including flipping (he was uninjured). After his team repaired his car, Larson went back on the track, only to suffer a blown engine that knocked him out of contention to race in that evening’s feature event.

After not being on the schedule to race in Night 2 of the Classic on Saturday, Larson had one last chance to make Sunday’s featured championship event.

A total of 80 drivers battled it out in the B, C and D Mains for the eight remaining spots in the A Main, but Larson would end up not being one of those — as can be seen in the second line of the following tweet by his team:

Larson now returns to the United States to prepare for the Daytona 500 on February 16.

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Kyle Busch feeling like ‘the new guy’ during his Rolex 24 debut at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kyle Busch was looking forward to his first stint at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

The two-time Cup champion was less enthused about his second turn behind the wheel in the IMSA season opener. Busch will climb back into the No. 14 Lexus RCF GT3 at 2 a.m. Sunday, just past the midpoint of the endurance race classic at Daytona International Speedway.

“That’s going to suck, yeah,” Busch deadpanned. “That’s exactly when I told them I did not want to run, and I got it.  Thank you very much.

“(I’m) the new guy.  I pulled the short straw.”

Click here to read more about how Busch felt about his AIM Vasser Sullivan car.