Five things to watch in tonight’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – With sincere apologies to the NASCAR number-crunchers who faithfully and fastidiously compile loop data, Sprint Cup drivers have a simpler suggestion for measuring the quality of tonight’s Southern 500.

Ignore the statistics. Count the spins.

“I personally always feel like you can always measure the best racing based on how many times you see someone spin out by themselves,” said Brad Keselowski, whose No. 2 Ford will lead the field to the green as the pole-sitter at Darlington Raceway. “If you go a whole weekend and nobody spins out by themselves, then the cars are driving too good to me. If you go a whole weekend and 30 people spin out by themselves, then the cars aren’t driving right. I feel like there is a magic number for our races as to how many people wreck by themselves.

“When you hit that number just right you almost always see the best racing.”

The quality of tonight’s show will be integral in determining the direction of the rules in NASCAR’s premier series next season. The 500-mile race will mark the last use of a low-downforce approach before returning to the standard rules for the final 11 races of the 2015 season.

A reduction in downforce and horsepower resulted in drivers often complaining about a lack of off-throttle time that made passing difficult while keeping cars glued to the track and the leader often comfortably ahead of the field.

But the debut of the low-downforce package in the July 11 race at Kentucky delivered a 132-percent increase in green-flag passes and a track-record 22 green-flag lead changes.

Better yet, it made the cars more difficult to drive – producing 11 caution flags, including five for single-car accidents.

“Over the past year or two, it has been pretty rare that you see somebody spin out by themselves,” Keselowski said. “I was rewatching the Kentucky race, (and) there were four or five people that spun out by themselves. That means the cars and drivers are right at their limit. When you hit that sweet spot, that is when the racing is really strong and compelling to watch.”

With NASCAR poised to announce its 2016 rules probably by the end of this month and no later than mid-October, Darlington will have a major impact on the frequency of low downforce – particularly if the feedback is as strong as it was in Kentucky.

“My hope is it’s something that stays in our sport permanently,” said Denny Hamlin, a member of the drivers’ council that regularly has become meeting with NASCAR brass to discuss big-picture issues. “We found at Kentucky that’s the way we need to go, reducing the size of the backs of these race cars.

“Ultimately, the cars way back in the day were really small in the back, and so the trailing car had more air getting to it. That’s something we need to look at going forward is making the backs of these cars as small as possible to make it where it’s not such an advantage being out front.”

Though there have been no firm indication of the plan, it seems likely it’ll center on more track-specific rules designed to a circuit’s length, speed and banking. The only certainty is that there’ll be no return of the high-drag package that flopped at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway.

“We need to do the best job to understand what each race track wants and what won’t be too costly for the teams,” said Kurt Busch who will start second Sunday. “But putting on a good show is not necessarily looking at a survey for green-flag passes or lead changes. Looking at statistics, that’s one thing, but all the other racetracks have their own unique characteristics, and they might need their own balance. But we also have to keep the costs under control and not be switching it back and forth too randomly.

“As a group, I think we can come up with a collective solution. And I do see (low downforce) coming into play next year.”

Keselowski said the Southern 500 will be a validation of why.

“If I win, then I want to be able to look anyone in the media or look at a fan and be able to feel like I earned it,” he said. “This is a step in that direction and I feel like whoever will win this race, with more likelihood than previously, will have earned it. And that is exactly why this is the right direction to go.

“You want to see people who end up in victory lane as the guys that earned the win. That is what true competition is. This rules package in a sense is an acknowledgement toward that.”

Other storylines to watch:

Kurt Busch’s pit stops: The Stewart-Haas racing driver will be the first to use a digital dashboard that will become mandatory next season. While Busch won’t have access to any special data, he will have a precise tachometer reading that might make him the envy of the field during pit stops.

Because their cars aren’t equipped with speedometers, drivers must judge their speed in the pits off tachometer readings on gauges that often are off by 300 to 400 revolutions per minutes. Busch’s will be exact, which could be critical to avoid running afoul of NASCAR’s electronic monitoring of the pits.

Clint Bowyer v. Jeff Gordon: The two drivers nearest to sliding off the Chase for the Sprint Cup bubble seemingly are in comfortable position with two races remaining in the regular season. But with the embers still faintly burning from a feud that started three years ago, the pressures of staying in title contention could trigger a flare-up between a star trying to end his career with a flourish and another facing an uncertain future.

Clinch mode: It’s been the summer of Kyle Busch with four wins in 13 starts since returning from injures that sidelined him for the first 11 races. Sunday could mark another highlight even without a checkered flag: Busch will secure a spot in the Chase with a strong finish Sunday.

Tire talk: Unlike Kentucky, there was time for Goodyear to manufacture purpose-built tires that should provide more comfort and grip with the lower-downforce rules. But there still will be complaining aplenty about tires that are wearing more quickly as the track surface returns to its more abrasive origins.

NASCAR fines seven crew chiefs for lug nut violations at Las Vegas

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NASCAR announced Tuesday it has fined seven crew chiefs for lug nut violations from the Cup and Xfinity races this past weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway,

In the Cup Series, NASCAR issued fines to crew chiefs Matt McCall (Kurt Busch), Greg Erwin (Matt DiBenedetto) and Seth Barbour (John Hunter Nemechek) for having one lug nut not safe and secure on their cars. Each crew chief was fined $10,000.

In the Xfinity Series, NASCAR fined crew chiefs Bruce Schlicker (Ross Chastain), Dave Rogers (Riley Herbst), Ben Beshore (Harrison Burton) and Brian Wilson (Austin Cindric) for having one lug nut not safe and secure on their cars. Each crew chief was fined $5,000.

 

Chad Knaus to move off pit box for executive role at Hendrick

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Chad Knaus, whose success as a crew chief is nearly unparalleled in NASCAR, will step down from that role after this season and move into a leadership position at Hendrick Motorsports, the team announced Tuesday.

Knaus will become vice president of competition. He will oversee technical development for Hendrick Motorsports, including implantation of the Next Gen car in 2022. He also will be responsible for personnel for each of the four teams, including crew chiefs, pit crews, engineering, fabrication, assembly and other team-related staff.

Knaus won seven championships as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief. Only Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman won more titles. Inman won eight, scoring seven with Richard Petty and one with Terry Labonte. Knaus has 82 career Cup wins. All but one came with Johnson. William Byron scored his first career Cup win in August at Daytona with Knaus as his crew chief. Byron was eliminated from the playoffs last weekend. The 49-year-old Knaus is the only crew chief to have competed in NASCAR’s postseason all 17 years.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus before the 2005 Coca-Cola 600. They combined to win that event four times.  (Photo by Harold Hinson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

“When I started at Hendrick Motorsports (in 1993) working for Ray Evernham, my goal was to be a crew chief,” Knaus said in a statement from the team. “Starting at a young age, I wanted to win every race we entered and battle for every championship.

“Mr. (Rick) Hendrick has given me the chance to do exactly that, and I could not be more thankful to him. After all these years, my competitive desire has not changed at all, but now I have a family that deserves my attention. This new executive role will allow me to compete in a different way with all four of our teams while spending more time with my wife and two young children.

“I appreciate the company supporting my decision, and I’m truly excited about the challenge ahead of me to help us grow and win. I’m also looking forward to working closely with Jeff (Andrews), who I admire and have great respect for. I owe so much to Mr. Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, and I’m ready for the next chapter.”

Knaus and his wife Brooke welcomed a baby girl July 30. Vivienne Mae Knaus is the couple’s second child. Son Kipling was born in 2018.

A new crew chief for Byron will be announced at a later date.

Chad Knaus, car owner Rick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson displaying their rings after Johnson claimed the 2013 Daytona 500. (Photo by John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“In life, it’s rare to witness true excellence first-hand, but that’s precisely what we’ve been treated to with Chad,” Hendrick said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is bittersweet because, in my opinion, he is the finest crew chief our sport has ever seen.

“Although we’re going to miss him atop the pit box, I’m heartened that Chad has made this decision for himself and his growing family and that he is energized about the opportunity to move us forward in a new capacity. There is no one with higher standards or a stronger passion for winning. He will continue to elevate Hendrick Motorsports and instill his championship mentality throughout the company.”

Knaus served two races as crew chief for Casey Atwood in 2000 and then did one race for Stacy Compton that season. In 2001, Knaus was paired with Compton. Knaus rejoined Hendrick Motorsports to be Johnson’s crew chief in 2002. They remained together until 2019 when Knaus moved to Byron’s team.   

Knaus will report to Andrews, 55, who has been promoted to executive vice president and general manager, effective immediately.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus celebrate their seventh NASCAR Cup championship after winning the 2016 season finale in Miami. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Andrews joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1992 and most recently served as vice president of competition. He had held that role since 2017.

Previously, Andrews held a leadership position in the team’s engine department, including director of engine operations. In his expanded role, Andrews will oversee all competition-related departments, including powertrain, manufacturing and racing operations. He will continue to support the organization’s technical relationship with Chevrolet and remain its primary liaison with NASCAR’s competition group. Andrews reports to Hendrick Motorsports president Marshall Carlson.

“In my almost 29-year NASCAR career, I’ve been fortunate to work for just one organization,” Andrews said in a statement from the team. “Mr. Hendrick is a racer and a fierce competitor. His drive to win is contagious, and I’m grateful to have a team of like-minded people who share that passion. Racing is all I have ever done professionally. When I left my home and my family 33 years ago to pursue this dream, I never could have imagined the opportunities that have been provided by so many people, most importantly Mr. Hendrick.”

Said Hendrick in a statement: “As we look to the years ahead, Jeff and Chad are going to play significant roles in our success. They’re tremendous leaders who are respected within our organization and across the entire auto racing world. In addition, they each bring unique strengths and skillsets that will complement each other extremely well and benefit all of Hendrick Motorsports. We’re in the business of winning, and this combination is going to help us do just that.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick still No. 1 after quiet Vegas

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Kevin Harvick didn’t have a flashy night Sunday in Las Vegas, but it didn’t keep him from retaining the No. 1 spot in this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings.

After winning the Bristol night race, Harvick finished in the top 10 in the first two stages in Vegas before placing 10th at race’s end.

Kurt Busch’s win at his home track vaulted him into the top 10 as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Las Vegas

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): In the last eight races he’s won three times and finished outside the top 10 only twice.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 5): Placed fourth for his 11th top-five finish in the last 14 races.

3. Alex Bowman (Last week unranked): Finished fifth for his second top five and fifth top-10 finish in the last six races.

4. Denny Hamlin (Last week unranked): Left Vegas with a third-place finish to snap a three-race streak of finishing outside the top 10.

5. Kurt Busch (Last week unranked): Snapped a 46-race winless streak with his victory and advanced to the Round of 8.

6. Kyle Busch (Last week No. 3): Finished sixth after a “dismal” night. He has four consecutive top 10s.

7. Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): Finished 13th to give him two finishes outside the top 10 since he won at Richmond.

8. Chase Briscoe (Last week unranked): Opened the Xfinity playoffs with his second consecutive win.

8. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 2): Led 73 laps, but had to settle for a 22nd-place finish in Vegas.

8. Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Finished 14th for his second straight finish outside the top 10.

Also receiving votes: Erik Jones and Chris Buescher.

NASCAR announces changes to Kansas playoff weekend

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Citing “programming changes,” NASCAR announced shifts in the race dates and start times for its visit next month to Kansas Speedway.

The Xfinity, ARCA and Truck Series races have been shifted, while the Cup race remains at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 18.

The biggest move is the Truck Series race shifting from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.

Here are the changes.

Friday, Oct. 16, 8:30 p.m. ETARCA Menards Series on FS1 or FS2; network TBD at a later date (previously at 10 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. ETTruck Series on FOX (previously Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET Xfinity on NBCSN (previously 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)