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Matt Crafton, the last Truck series lifer

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FORT WORTH, TEXAS — Matt Crafton has been around awhile.

“The 1902 testing grounds for the first automobile created? You drove on that track, right?” jokes Ben Rhodes in the cramped confines of Crafton’s hauler on a hot June day.

It hasn’t been that long. But Rhodes, born in 1997 and one of Crafton’s ThorSport Racing teammates, is part of a youth movement in NASCAR that does its best on a weekly basis to make it feel as if it has been.

Crafton, a two-time champion of the Camping World Truck Series, first ventured into the series on Oct. 28, 2000, when Rhodes was 3 years old.

Crafton was 24 and months away from the start of his first full season on the Truck circuit.

He also was 16 years away from being its last, true lifer.

MULLET MAN

There once was a mullet.

It belonged to Matt Crafton, high school student.

“It was probably my senior year of high school,” Crafton says, standing in his hauler at Texas Motor Speedway two days shy of his 40th birthday. “I know I didn’t leave it on much longer than that.”

The day before, a picture of Crafton smirking in a high school class photo with the “party in the back” hairdo surfaced on Twitter thanks to “#NASCARThrowbackThursday.”

“I showed that to Jesse Little, he had the mullet, same deal as me,” says Crafton of the 19-year-old who has made one series start this season. “I said, ‘See, everybody made fun of my mullet and now they go ‘Look, look at Jesse Little. He’s got a mullet.'”

When Crafton’s mullet was vintage and not “vintage,” the Camping World Truck Series didn’t exist. Its inception was still at least two years off in 1995.

Crafton and his mullet resided in Tulare, California, 60 miles north of Bakersfield. His dream for racing was fueled by watching his father, Danny Crafton, a nine-year veteran of NASCAR’s old Featherlite Southwest Tour.

“I didn’t get to do a lot of things that I wanted to do in high school because I was working on a race car and being at race tracks and stuff like that,” Crafton says. “So I didn’t get to go out to parties and dances, the cool things at that time. I thought, ‘Man, I’m going to regret this one day.’

“But at the end of the day I could always say it would pay off if I worked hard.”

The love affair that kept him busy began at 7 when Danny Crafton bought his son a go-kart. Matt Crafton’s earliest vivid memory of his racing career came a year later, and it hurt.

“(I was) leading it and spinning out with probably three or four laps to go,” Matt Crafton remembers. “I had such a big lead, I tried to pull right back in front of everybody and absolutely got nailed in the left side and people went over me.”

When his father arrived on the scene, tears streaked Matt Crafton’s face and tire marks were visible on his helmet.

“My dad asked me ‘Are you going to cry or you going to race?'” Crafton says.

CALL TO ACTION

While preparing for the 1996 St. Patrick’s Day 100 at Altamont Motorsports Park, Danny Crafton blew a radiator hose on his No. 46 Ford. His car backed hard into the wall and hurt Danny Crafton’s back “really, really bad,” Matt Crafton says.

The injury led to Matt making his Featherlite series debut a month later at Mesa Marin Raceway, piloting the family’s No. 46 to a 15th-place finish.

But the No. 46 wouldn’t appear again until two races later as Danny Crafton tried to give it a go at Sonoma Raceway. His attempt didn’t last long. After the first practice session at the road course, Danny Crafton emerged from his car “pale white” from his back pain.

“I can’t do it, you want to try it?” he asked his 19-year-old son. Matt Crafton had never started on a road course outside of the go-kart circuit.

He made the race. He spun out once, putting the car atop a tire barrier.

“It was quite a learning experience,” he says.

GOING SOMEWHERE

After two championships and 13 wins, Matt Crafton doesn’t consider the Camping World Truck Series the most competitive series he’s ever raced.

That would be the Featherlite Southwest Tour.

“The greatest NASCAR touring, fiberglass body, late model, whatever series there was,” Crafton says 10 years after the series had its last say on the track.

1997 brought Crafton’s first full season in a series his dad had competed on a part-time basis since 1988 — the series Ron Hornaday Jr. won two championships before leaving for the fledgling Truck series.

Outside Hornaday, the series had title winners with the names of Roman Calczynski, Dan Press, Chris Raudman and in 1999, Kurt Busch. Crafton joined their ranks in 2000, when he earned two of his five series wins plus 11 top fives and 12 top 10s.

“Matt Crafton has been a lifer this whole time,” Hornaday told NBC Sports last year. “It seems like everything I’ve done, he does the same, but he’s three to five years behind me.”

Crafton’s last full-time season in the Southwest Series was 2000. He caught the attention of Duke Thorson, owner of ThorSport Racing. The team had been competing in what was then the Craftsman Truck Series since 1996 with Terry Cook as a driver.

HAMPTON, GA - FEBRUARY 28: Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Fisher Nuts/Menards Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Hyundai Construction Equipment 200 on February 28, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Crafton had “never missed” watching a Truck race in its early years.

“I always remember it was such an awesome, awesome series,” Crafton says. “It reminded you of the Featherlight Southwest Tour. Just the beating and banging, running on a mile race track.”

Crafton signed to drive for ThorSport in 2001 as Cook was leaving to start his own team. Crafton got an early start in the 2000 season finale as Cook drove for his team.

The California native made his Truck debut in the Motorola 200 at Auto Club Speedway. He qualified 17th and finished ninth. It was his first of 217 top-10 finishes in the series.

“The biggest thing I ever ran (before that) was one or two races at Las Vegas (Motor Speedway) in a late-model with a restrictor plate on it,” Crafton says. Before that October weekend, Crafton had also never driven anything 180 mph into a corner.

Other drivers who finished in the top 10 that day were Busch, Jack Sprague, Greg Biffle, Cook, and Joe Ruttman. At 24, Crafton was one of two drivers in the top 10 under the age of 30 — the other was Busch, who was 22. The average age of the top 10 that day was 32.1.

In the June 25, 2016 race at Gateway Motorsports Park, in which Crafton recorded a DNF, the average age of the top 10 was 25.

MR. CONSISTENCY

“Crafton should be winning, my God, it’s been long enough,” Jack Sprague told NBC Sports last year. “He’s not a youngster anymore either.”

When the 2015 NASCAR season began, Crafton was 38 and had five Truck wins after 14 full-time seasons. It had taken until 2008, his eighth season in the series, to get his first win.

“There’s some guys out there that do that,” Hornaday says. “He’s just consistent Matt Crafton. Once you get that taste in your blood, it comes pretty easy after that.”

Even though he won only three times from 2013 – 14, Crafton became the first back-to-back champion in the Truck series behind 20 top fives and 36 top 10s.

Then at 38, Crafton embarked on his best season, doubling his win total with six victories. He’s added two more in 2016 to make it 13. Crafton proves it’s never too late to achieve firsts in your career. While it took 18-year-old William Byron less than 10 starts to win consecutive races, Crafton earned that distinction a month earlier after his 366th start.

The mark was highlighted for Crafton with his first win at Dover International Speedway in 16 starts.

DOVER, DE - MAY 13: Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Chi-Chi's/Menards Toyota, poses with the trophy in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series JACOB Companies 200 at Dover International Speedway on May 13, 2016 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“Dover was one of the best ones I’ve had in a long, long time just because the fact I had so many big wrecks there,” says Crafton, who once suffered a concussion at the Monster Mile and stayed overnight at a hospital

So excited, Crafton doesn’t recall setting the trophy down until he arrived at his home in Mooresville, North Carolina.

Eventually, all of the “hard-nosed racers” Crafton came of age competing against in the truck series were replaced by those who’d have trouble growing a mustache.

Sprague, a three-time champion, made his last Camping World Truck Series start in 2008. Mike Skinner, the first truck series champion, made his final full-time start in 2010. Todd Bodine, a two-time champion, was last seen in 2013. Hornaday, the all-time series leader in wins with 51, hasn’t driven a truck since the fall Texas race in 2014.

Then there’s Crafton. He’s the only truck champion from the last 10 years competing full time in the series, and he’s doing so with the same sponsor, Menards, he’s competed with every year but one since 2002.

Of his early years against the founders of the series, Crafton admits “I probably didn’t lean on them as much as I should have.”

But that shouldn’t be a problem for those following him. Crafton is a constant presence for his three young teammates at ThorSport, all of whom are 24 years of age or younger.

“He’s been huge,” said rookie Rico Abreu, 24. “Off the track, on the track, mountain bike riding, wherever we go … Just so detailed about everything he explains and describes and what he feels, he’s been doing it a long time. Being able to run over to his truck throughout practice or him come over and look underneath the splitter or work with my crew chief.”

But his teammates are not the only drivers benefiting.

When Crafton’s interview time is up, he and Rhodes walk out of Crafton’s hauler into the bright Texas sunlight. They’re on their way to the mandatory rookie meeting held at every track that Crafton leads.

Who better to advise the “youth movement” than a lifer enjoying his prime?

NASCAR Next Driver Zane Smith Wins Menards 200 at Toledo Speedway

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NASCAR Next driver Zane Smith won the Menards 200 at Toledo (Ohio) Speedway Sunday by a margin of .773 seconds over fellow program member Chase Purdy.

Smith passed Purdy for second on lap 116 and then stalked and caught leader Chandler Smith – who is not related. When Chandler ran across the lapped car of Mike Basham, Zane pounced and made a three-wide pass.

In the second half of the race, the two NASCAR Next classmates swapped the lead with Smith grabbing the top spot for good with 15 laps remaining.

Zane Smith’s victory was his first since being named to the 2018 NASCAR Next class and the third win of the ARCA season in five races this year.

Smith won the Music City 200 April 7 on the Nashville (Tenn.) Fairgrounds Speedway, finished second in the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers 200 at Salem (Ind.) Speedway April 22 and won the General Tire 200 at Talladega Superspeedway April 27.

His Toledo win is the fourth consecutive first- or second-place finish in the ARCA Series for the 19-year-old driver.

Another NASCAR Next driver, Riley Herbst finished 19th. Herbst was involved in a lap 100 accident and finished 45 laps off the pace.

Winning is becoming the same old, same old for Kevin Harvick

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Winning is never mundane for a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver, but it’s starting to look that way for Kevin Harvick.

After winning Saturday night’s All-Star Race, Harvick walked into the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway notably subdued, which prompted a question regarding his seeming lack of enthusiasm.

“I got a 4-month old baby at home,” he said. “I showed up this morning. I held my little girl at, I don’t know, 7:30, 8 a.m. I drove to the race track. I practiced. I went back, watched my son’s baseball game. I drove back for the drivers meeting. I had four appearances. I sat and laid on the couch for an hour, watched the race. Then I came back out and did driver intros, ran the race.

“If your ass wouldn’t be tired by now, I don’t know who you are. But I’m beat. I felt like I gave it a full effort today. If I’m subdued, I’m sorry. I’m really happy that we won the race. I’m really excited for my team and organization and sponsors and everybody. But I’m tired. Got to remember, I’m old. When I leave here, I’m going to go home, I drink too many more of these Busch beers, I might be asleep in the car.”

Before he hauled his tired butt into the media center, Harvick did something no one thought possible in 2018. He drove away from the field in the All-Star Race with a new rules package that was supposed to keep that from happening.

In a race marked by a substantial amount of passing throughout the field, Harvick took the lead from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Lap 6 and built a sizable lead in the first of four stages.

After losing positions during the pit stop at the end of the first stage, Harvick had to fight his way through traffic and did not regain the lead until near the end of the third stage.

“Hey, everything’s going our way,” Harvick said. “We have really fast cars. Everybody is executing. The pit crew didn’t have a great first stop with the tire getting hung in the fender, but they rebounded with a great pit stop on the next stop and gained a spot or two there. That’s what you want out of an experienced team, whether it’s the pit crew, the crew chief, the driver. When something goes wrong, you got to be able to overcome it, refocus, move forward.”

It was Harvick’s sixth win of the year, and although it was a non-points event, it marks the second time this season that he has won three consecutive races – putting another stamp on his claim to be the most dominant driver on a weekly basis.

The trick to success is not to allow winning to become mundane – no matter how it looks to the competition or the fans.

“It’s racing like you’re losing,” Harvick said after winning his second career All-Star Race. “If you can trick yourself into doing that every week, not get too high during the highs, really feel like you need to keep pushing to make things better, that’s really the mindset that everybody has right now.”

It might be easy to dismiss his current string of success in the belief that Harvick, crew chief Rodney Childers and the No. 4 team have found something through the first 12 races of 2018 that everyone else is missing. And while that may be partially true in terms of his success in points paying races, that element was missing from his All-Star victory.

The commonality between Harvick’s win Saturday night and the five points victories so far this year is the dedication and experience of the team – something that predates 2018.

“I don’t feel like that’s really a different position than we’ve been in four out of the five last years,” Harvick said. “Last year was obviously a building year for us. I think that’s the one thing that is the great part about this team, is we’ve been in a position to obviously win the championship in 2014. ’15 had a great year, won a bunch of races. We’ve been in position to have been successful before. I think that the experience of the team and the organization and all the racers that come into that shop day after day kind of sets the tone of the expectations, but also having been in a lot of these situations before with each other.

“I’m proud of them all. That to me is more important than the money and everything that comes with it because everybody puts so much time with it. There’s nothing better than seeing them all high-five in Victory Lane.”

Two weeks after taking home one of NASCAR’s most distinctive trophies – a concrete Miles the Monster holding a diecast replica of the No. 4 car for is AAA 400 win – Harvick was excited to give his son Keelan another piece of art for his playroom.

“Man, I like the trophy, to tell you the truth. I’ll take the money, for sure. All the kids think it’s Lightning McQueen’s Piston Cup. I’m sure that’s (what) mine will think about it when he wakes up and sees it in the morning.”

Harvick’s son was impressed, but he is beginning to reassess his priorities. After waking up the morning after Kevin’s $1 million win, Keelan said “cool trophy where’s the money?”

Transcript: What NASCAR said about the All-Star Race

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After Kevin Harvick’s victory in the Monster Energy All-Star Race on Saturday night, the focus turned to what NASCAR will do next with the rules package that was used in the race and created closer competition.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief racing development officer, met with the media after the race and talked about the event, what NASCAR saw and what’s next. Here’s what he said:

STEVE O’DONNELL:  From an eye test, we were certainly pleased with what we saw.  I think you’ll hear drivers say directionally there’s some things we can look at.  We agree.  But would certainly say we’ve got to take time to digest what we saw, look at a lot of facts, see where we go from here.

THE MODERATOR:  We’ll open it right up for questions.

Q.  You obviously said there is some tinkering that needs to be done.  What kind of things are you looking at?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  I think it’s really premature.  We just got off the racetrack.  It’s even going through the stats.  We haven’t had a chance to look through a lot.

I can throw one out.  We had zero lead changes at the loops last year.  I think we had 38.  That’s more than the last four years.  Pretty good data when you look at that.

You also look at being able to approach the leader, what are some of those challenges we may want to look at.  Certainly from first to tenth throughout the night, much closer.  At the end of the day the best teams and the best drivers are going to go out there and win.  We also saw that tonight.

Q.  Where do you go from here?  What would be the timeline if you wanted to integrate any of these concepts into the 2019 package?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Good question.  I think one of the things in getting to tonight and talking to the industry was we knew going in that we had a lot of data through what Eric did and a lot of CFT data.  Especially with the OEMs, a lot of things to work on.  Didn’t want to push too much with what we do because we didn’t know what we would see on track.

I would say now, directionally you do like some of the things you see, now you’ve got to get together with the industry, debrief like we always do with the race teams, the drivers, certainly listen to the tracks and the fans, then the OEMs, talk about how do we continue to look at this and look at it in a smart way, look at it in an efficient way.

Can’t really put a timetable on it other than we know we have some meetings set up that we’re contingent upon what we saw tonight.  Those will take place, then we’ll try to put a timeline together to look towards 2019.

Q.  For fans who watched tonight’s race and liked it maybe better than a normal mile and a half, would want to know why this can’t be implemented sooner, what would you tell them?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Well, I probably would wait to see that, first of all.  We just got done with the race.

I answered that with Bob.  We have a process in place.  Talk to the industry about what we wanted to do to see if even directionally this was right.  You don’t want to assume that what you put on track is going to be a home run.  We certainly hoped it would be, but there’s certainly some things that you look at that you could tweak if you went this route.

For us, we’ve got to take the time, be smart about this, really look at it, see where we can go from here.  But I think it’s fair to say that this is something we absolutely want to look at.

Q.  Talked to Martin Truex Jr., he said it was very racy.  He liked it, had some ideas obviously.  For you up in the box, you could see it like the rest of the fans, were y’all high-fiving, thinking we’re moving in the right direction here?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  That’s a good question.  I think no, we’re not high-fiving because we got to control ourselves up in the booth.  I think you judge it by the fans.  I think you look down the last 10 laps, everybody is standing up.  Marcus has a suite next to us.  I can say that last year’s All-Star Race was fairly silent.  Don’t know if everybody stood or everybody was even still there, but it was packed.  We heard screaming in the suite next to us.

People were enthused.  I think the one thing, you saw Kevin Harvick go out there and win, and he certainly dominated this year, but you didn’t know who was going to win that race in turn three.  You saw drivers out there competing.  You saw three lead changes in one lap at the end of the third stage.

A lot of drama built in.  For us in race control, I think you look at it and you certainly saw things every lap that you wanted to watch a number of spots on the racetrack.

Q.  Joey Logano mentioned earlier that this is naturally more exciting with everything that’s on the line and no points.  How do you kind of adjust how you view the excitement in this race compared to what you would see if you incorporated this package in an actual points race?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  I think if you asked Joey Sunday night at the Coke 600 if he’s going to race just as hard, he is.  We have the best race drivers in the world that are going to go out there and go after it every lap.

This race package, it’s important for people to know, we saw a lot of things even coming into this about this being a superspeedway package.  That’s not the intent.  The intent for us was to really look at taking the best of our short tracks, taking the best of the superspeedways, trying to find that balance where you could bring the cars closer together.  You were not going to see, we didn’t expect to see, pack racing.  We expected the best cars would still win, but we thought they would be running close together.  We saw that tonight.  That was the goal of this.  The goal will be to continue to look at how we can continue to dial that in.

Q.  I understand what you’re saying about lead changes at the loops.  Harvick led the final 10.  It seemed like once the leader got up front, he was harder to catch.  Would that be something you would look to address?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Yeah, no, we’d absolutely look to address that.  You always want to see that.  I think Kyle Busch won the All-Star Race last year by 1.1, 1.2 seconds.  Tenth place was 1.5.  There’s a big difference there.  I think you knew on Lap 7 that Kyle Busch had won the All-Star Race.  I think we all knew that last year.

It was different this year.  But still certainly something when you look at this package, very similar to Indy last year, when you looked at the ability for someone to get up to the leader, then that stall, that is something we want to look at.

I’d go back also to looking at our guys with Eric and the crew.  This was a package really meant for the Indianapolises of the world, Michigans.  We wanted to try this at Charlotte to see what we could learn.  I think that’s part of what we would look at for sure.

Q.  Is it fair to say this package could be used again this season?  Is that in play?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  I would never say never, but our intent is we’ve talked coming into this, was to try this here, then really take a deep dive into how do we make this the best package possible for 2019 if we liked what we saw.  Again, it’s still very early.  You all watched the race, we just watched the race as well, so we have to digest a lot of information and see where we go from there.

Q.  I think it’s fair to say bringing this to a mile and a half track compared to Indianapolis, being so flat, this package would behave differently.  Did it behave how you anticipated it coming in here or were there some things you may have been surprised by tonight?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Again, still fairly early.  I asked Eric in our really quick five-minute debrief, I think you’d say yes.  One of the things we looked at even prior to coming here was the wheel force data from the car.  Eric went out and looked at that.  It was almost an exact match for us coming in.  We felt like we were on the right track.  We felt like we’d see what we saw tonight.

I think the question mark was, can you potentially draft, if you got behind the leader, what would happen, could somebody really get away.  We saw a mix of that tonight.  I think it was stage two or maybe even in the open where a bunch of cars got loose but were able to get back up and close to the front.

A lot of things to look at throughout the field.  Could you move from back to front?  What could you do when you were out front?  So we’ll look at all those.  Each track has different characteristics, for sure.  I’d applaud the team for getting us here and really seeing I think the results we hoped we would see on track.

Q.  I saw the Truck race earlier this year in Vegas.  Did that spark some ideas about bringing that pack or closer racing to this track?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  That’s a great question.  I think if you look back to where we were 2013, 2014, we were more of a high downforce package, had a lot of discussions in the garage area about the racing, what we could do.  We chose to go all really low downforce at that point.  That mixture produced some good racing, but some challenges as well.

When we looked at that, one of the things was the speeds at which the cars were going.  If you look at Charlotte, Atlanta, higher speeds usually make it tougher to pass.  There’s usually one groove.

I think the angle we all looked at, certainly at least what I hear from our fan base is, I love the Trucks, Trucks are great.  I don’t really hear anybody talk about the speeds of the Trucks.  They say it’s great racing.  That was the goal tonight, too, is to put on a great race, but also be able to showcase the best drivers.  I think it did accomplish that still early.

But Kevin Harvick winning for us is by no means a negative.  It’s the best team right now.  He went out there and proved it.

Q.  If there is a big buzz off of this race and people did leave excited about what they saw and you want them to come back next week for the Coca-Cola 600 but they’re not going to see the same thing, does that hamstring NASCAR and the track?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  I think it’s a fair question, but I’d also say that we’re proud of the race product that we have on track each and every week.  We always look to improve it.  One of the ways that you improve it and you do it in a smart way is to work collectively with the industry to make sure that you have all your bases covered.

The last thing for us to do would be to roll something out with a number of unanswered questions.  That would be the case if we did that.  We’ve got a lot of work to do.  We’ve got a lot of work to do on the garage area to make sure we’re on the right track.  We feel we are.  I want to make sure the OEMs are comfortable with where we’re going, the direction, so we continue to have that fair playing field across the board.

I would say certainly the direction that we saw tonight is one we would like to pursue, but you need to have continuing conversations.  Again, go back and really analyze everything that we saw.  It’s a one hour eye test for us.  We haven’t gotten into all the data as of yet.

Q.  When you woke up this morning, what was your mixture of excitement and nervousness for today, the significance of what you were trying to do today?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  A lot of prayers this morning probably.

You know, a lot of anticipation for the race because I knew how much work went into it, especially from our team.  So was certainly cautiously optimistic, but you never know, all kinds of things to look at.

Really just wanted to see it play out.  Knew that either way we would have a direction from this.  We would know that this is something we want to continue to pursue or we would also know that we collectively tried something and it’s not a direction we want to go.

I think all in all, was excited beginning of the race, honestly was excited throughout the race.  I thought every lap had something to watch out there on the track.

Q.  How many packages do you feel you can have in the sense of if you want to go this route, how many races would you want to use it, or are you looking for something you feel like you can use on short tracks, intermediate tracks, everything but Daytona and Talladega?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Great question.  I think that’s one of the things when we analyze this.  We did a lot of work over the offseason, Bill, Gene, crew, with the engine builders, to look at how could we be more efficient with the engines.  This was not part of that.  When you look at this race, one of the challenges was are we going to create an entirely new engine package.  That is not the intent at all.

If we were to pursue this route, that’s one of the things we’d want to look at, is how do you keep potentially a restricted engine package, then just one other, not go to three different engine packages.  Very similar to the rules for the racecars, what they look like.  You want to be as efficient as you can, but also put on the best racing possible.  That’s something we’ve got to look at and make sure we can limit the number of packages, but certainly make it so that it’s the best racing possible for the race fans.

Q.  When you have these conversations in the future about this race package, what is going to be in terms of how should it put it?  The conversations that will be had in terms of what could work for a Charlotte and Michigan, then thinking what could be something similar that may work for Richmond or Bristol or Martinsville, or even one of the road courses?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  I would say it’s fairly simple when you think about all that.  I think the team owners, the tracks and everyone would say the same thing.  If Marcus Smith’s phone is ringing, I got to get to that race, I haven’t been in a while, that’s a good sign.  If NBC and FOX are calling saying that business is good, ratings are good, that’s a good sign.  If you’re seeing more sponsorship inquiries to the race teams, that’s a good sign.  That all comes from race fans speaking up.

If this is something the fans liked, hopefully we’ll hear that.  We’d continue in that direction.  But that’s ultimately how you dial in.  If it’s 36 different packages or if it’s three, you want to end up on the right one.

We believe we can keep it simple with the number of race packages we put together.  We want to be as efficient as possible.  Ultimately it’s about the fans and putting on the best race we can.

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Daniel Suarez powers from Monster Open stage win to All-Star runner-up finish

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CONCORD, North Carolina — Entering the first turn of the overtime finish of Saturday night’s All-Star Race, Daniel Suarez thought he had a chance.

Then the gut feeling he had before the green flag waved proved accurate.

“I knew that two Fords together are dangerous,” Suarez said after finishing second in the race.

Suarez, who had raced his way into the main event by winning Stage 2 in the 50 lap Monster Energy Open, began the overtime restart in second in the inside lane.

Behind him was Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin.

But in the outside lane was leader Kevin Harvick and fellow Ford driver Joey Logano.

“I was trying to somehow on the radio, obviously that didn’t work, to keep them away from each other,” Suarez said. “Kevin did a good job. I think in the previous restart, he went on the bottom, then he went up top. I think he did the right decision, trying to find the right guy behind him to push him to the lead.

“Denny, like I say, he did a very good job. For whatever reason, we just disconnected. He couldn’t keep moving forward.”

When Hamlin’s push failed and Logano’s succeeded, Harvick pulled ahead of Suarez’s No. 19 Toyota as the field charged down the backstretch.

In a two-lap shootout, no one had a chance.

Until then Suarez thought he “had the car capable to win the race.”

The 26-year-old driver was competing in his second All-Star Race. For the second consecutive year Suarez won a stage in the Open to make the field. He led a race-high 18 laps in addition to his stage win.

Suarez didn’t think the 50 extra laps in the Open offered him any advantage over his competitors in the main event when it came to figuring out how to master the special rules package, which included restrictor plates, a taller spoiler and larger splitter.

“What I learned is that the top came in actually faster and quicker than what I was expecting,” Suarez said. “I’m sure that these guys, they find out at exactly the same time (as) me. Maybe even sooner, because they were watching everyone, and I was just watching a few cars.

“I don’t feel like I had any advantage. For sure I was able to adjust my car a little bit for that. But other than that, I feel like we were in the same boat.”

Suarez never led a lap, but he came within a corner of winning the third stage before he was passed by Harvick.

Of the three drivers who advanced to the All-Star Race from the Open via a stage win, Suarez was the only one who finished in the top five.

“I feel like we did everything that we could,” Suarez said. “If I would have to do it again, I’m not sure what I would do different. The car was driving well, maybe a little bit tight at times, but I was loose as well. I don’t know. I feel like just different circumstances maybe could give us the victory. Just didn’t work out.”