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Mayor’s platform: NBC’s Jeff Burton discusses Jeff Gordon, Chase Elliott and the racing this season

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Jeff Burton was nicknamed the Mayor when he raced in NASCAR for his view on many topics. Those opinions remain for the NASCAR on NBC analyst, who addressed questions about the sport, Jeff Gordon, Chase Elliot and others as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Watkins Glen this weekend for Sunday’s race on USA Network.

Here’s what Burton had to say:

Q: How good of a chance does Jeff Gordon have of winning at Watkins Glen in his third race in the No. 88 car for Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

JEFF BURTON: I don’t think you can discount Jeff’s skill. At the same time, being perfectly blunt, it wasn’t like Jeff lit it up last year. I know that Jeff won Martinsville and made it to the Chase with a real chance to win the championship, but if you look at the number of laps that they led and if you look at the year they had last year, it wasn’t great by any means. And I believe that Hendrick Motorsports isn’t the Hendrick Motorsports we’re accustomed to seeing, but you’re going to a road course race and Jeff Gordon is a really good road racer.

Everything I heard from the test was that the track is different than it used to be. I think that this race is an opportunity for a lot of people to make something happen. I don’t necessarily think that Jeff is going to go out there and outrun, just go flat outrun say the 16 people that he’s going to have to just flat outrun, but I, without a doubt, believe that they can win the race. I know he’s good enough. I know he can make enough pace to put himself in position to take advantage of some things that can happen at Watkins Glen.

When you’ve raise your hand and said ‘‘OK it’s time for someone else to do this, I’m ready to go to the next phase of my career, my life’’ and you come back, it’s a different attitude. I think we saw that with Tony Stewart, too. I think Tony had moved on. I think Tony had emotionally said, ‘‘OK, I’m not having fun, I’m ready to do the next thing.’’ They put him in the position to win at Sonoma and he executed. Boom, like it’s a whole different Tony Stewart. I think the same thing can happen to Jeff Gordon.

When you put a guy like Jeff Gordon, when you put a guy like Tony Stewart, you put a guy who is competitive in nature and has a tremendous amount of pride and has had a lot of success and is considered one of the best ever, you put that guy in the right situation and light that wick, man, fantastic stuff can happen. That’s why I say that they can win, but by far they are not my favorite. You just can’t look at a champion like Jeff Gordon, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, going to Watkins Glen and not say that those guys that those guys will have a chance to win.

Q: Chase Elliott has finished outside the top 20 in five of the last six races. Although he’s still in a Chase spot, he’s fallen in the points. What kind of concern is there with five races to go?

BURTON: I think as a young driver or an experienced driver, when you have a string of races … where you’ve been in wrecks, it forces you to have to look at things a little differently. I think he summed it up best after the race. ‘‘Hey, I’ve got to figure a way to do something different’’ is basically what he said. I think that is astute. I think that is recognizing the situation that you’re in and understanding that there is five races to go. You have a good enough point lead, you don’t have to be spectacular and don’t slow your pace down, keep your pace up but be a little more in those few moments in the race where there’s a decision to be made, error on the side of caution a little bit.

That’s hard to do. You race the way you’re comfortable racing. When you start to change that it’s easy to get you knocked off your rhythm. It’s a fine line. It’s easy for me to say in the booth to say that Chase needed to not to make that mistake because of the position he’s in. It’s much harder in that race car to change who you are as a driver. That’s how you gotten there. It’s a delicate balance, but I do think that he has to look — and not every wreck that he has been in is his fault by any means — but as a driver you have to look at every wreck that you’re in as if it were something you could have done different. Because if you don’t look at it that way, you never learn. The attitude of any driver should be I always need to be doing something different.

He clearly said after the race what I thought was 100 percent correct. People get on Chase because he’s so hard on himself and people act like that is a sign of weakness. I believe the exact opposite. It’s a sign of confidence. It’s a sign of strength. It’s a sign of ‘‘Hey, I have confidence that I can do what I need to do … I have confidence to do what I need to do just that I need to experience it.’’ That’s what he’s saying. I’d much rather hear that than just say those (drivers) around me running all over people. I’d much rather hear what he says than what some other people say.

Q: Martin Truex Jr. had awful luck at Pocono and damaged the car he dominated the Coca-Cola 600 with. Should the team not have parked it after they went to the garage instead of going back out on track, which led to further damage to the car?

BURTON: For years our sport has been about having pride in getting back on the race track and doing everything you can do to never quit. I think there’s something to be said for that. Now, it is a different time. I could fully understand someone say we have nothing to gain. I get it. I still believe that there’s experiences can be drawn from every situation. I like a team that collectively says we’re not going to quit. Also it prepares the team and the driver to go through those situations because that might the difference between you moving to the next round or not. I think having done that experience is helpful.

As far as having a magic car, I think those days are over. If you have a car that goes to Charlotte and kicks everybody’s ass and you can’t replicate that car, there’s something wrong with your system. I would say that Cole (Pearn) would say if you can’t make the next car better, something is wrong with your system. As far as destroying cars and all that, we’re in a time where with all the technology available to the teams, teams should not have a favorite car. Those days are over.

Q: Kyle Larson raced Austin Dillon cleanly for the lead at the halfway mark Monday at Pocono when competitors thought the race would end soon. It was similar to how Larson raced Matt Kenseth at Dover for the win in May. What do you see out of how Larson raced at Pocono?

BURTON: I thought Larson on Monday didn’t have as fast a car as Austin had. Austin kept putting pressure on him, kept putting pressure on him. I thought he blocked Austin and did everything he could to slow that momentum down but Austin was coming. Once he got there, he had not choice but to give him room, which is the same thing he did earlier in that run and he was able to beat Austin off Turn 3. This time it didn’t work out because Austin got loose and ran into him.

I don’t know what else (Larson) could have done. When somebody behind you is faster, you’re trying to push your car a little harder than it needs to go because that’s the only way you’re going to stay in front of him. He blocked and didn’t make it easy for Austin. Ultimately, there was nothing he could do because Austin got loose and into the side of him.

Q: What else is on your mind?

BURTON: I would say this, after leaving Indy and all the negatives from Indy, fan attendance, quality of race, the next race on a 2.5-mile flat race track was freaking awesome. If you look at the number of the people that were at the race track (at Pocono) on Sunday and you look at the number of people that came on Monday. For a day when to be honest with you not many of us thought we were going to race, then you look at the quality of the race on a 2.5-mile race track, long straightaways and flat corners, to me it shows me the state of the sport can’t be valued on one race.

There was so much negativity, although the number of people that watched on TV was awesome, but there was so much negativity leaving Indy, like leaving Pocono was a completely different feel. I don’t think we should lose sight of that. Granted, I’m the ever optimist and tend to find the good things in that stuff. You compare the state of the sport after Indy versus the state of the sport of Pocono. It’s two completely different universes. I think that is worth noting. We can’t look at our sport after one great race or after one poor race and say that’s what NASCAR is. NASCAR is a collection of races that run throughout the whole year. There’s going to be good races, there’s going to be bad races. It’s just how it is. No different than football, basketball, and baseball.

Pocono was so good to me that the guy that had the fastest car on the race track without question was Kevin Harvick. I think it’s fair to say that Kevin Harvick did not get the majority of coverage. That’s because there were so many things going on … there were so many different strategies, Kevin Harvick wasn’t the main talking point even though it appeared to me he had the dominant car. I just left Pocono thinking about Indy and it just reminded me that we as a sport, the fans, the competitors, everybody involved has to be careful not to look at the sport as one race and look the sport as the collection of races and understand there’s good days and bad days. In whole, this year has been really good.

Long: 100 days left in 2020, what else can happen?

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What’s next?

In a season of change that has zoomed through NASCAR like history did in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” 100 days remain in the year. That’s plenty of time for more upheaval.

Remember the beginning of the season when talk centered on the championship race moving to Phoenix Raceway this year?

That was back when teams practiced and qualified before races, before drivers chose what lane to restart, before midweek races.

The novel coronavirus pandemic forced NASCAR and all sports to change, but when NASCAR returned after a 10-week break in May to Darlington without spectators, that was only the beginning of a season unlike any other.

Michael Jordan’s entry into the sport Monday night capped a day that started with Chip Ganassi hiring Ross Chastain to drive its No. 42 car next year and a report that NASCAR would add another road course to the 2021 schedule and move the All-Star Race.

The 2021 schedule has not been released so that is something to look forward to at some point in the next 100 days. The timeline on when it will be revealed continues to change, so let’s just say it will be out by Christmas, if not sooner. Who knows, there still might be more road course races on next year’s schedule. 

This is what we know of 2021: It won’t feature the Next Gen car, which has been delayed to 2022; the Daytona 500 is scheduled to open the season on Valentine’s Day; and Nashville Superspeedway will host Cup cars for the first time in June, the first in a four-year agreement.

Oh, and we also know where Bubba Wallace will be racing in 2021. He’ll drive for a team co-owned by Jordan and Denny Hamlin. JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty says of the three: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The sport’s quiet rock star, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, is watching his final full-time season — don’t worry he hints that he’ll look to run a few Cup races when his IndyCar schedule allows — end with muted fanfare in front of empty stands or socially distanced crowds.

Hendrick Motorsports has yet to announce who it will add to its driver lineup with Johnson’s departure. That’s just among the unknowns with 100 days left in the year and 145 days until next year’s Daytona 500. Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez and Matt Kenseth have yet to announce plans for next year. The status of Kyle Larson’s return looms over all of them.

One of the bigger questions on the track is if Kyle Busch can win a Cup race this season. He’s won at least one series race in each of the past 15 years, a streak that ranks tied for sixth on the all-time list with Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Tony Stewart.

“It’s really important,” Busch said of the streak. “Think about it, it’s a 16-year investment that we’ve placed on that being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons. Hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and then to 18 or however many that I’m here.”

Busch came close last weekend at Bristol, the first time that track hosted a playoff race. It was part of the revamped playoff schedule that has Bristol, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville as elimination races, NASCAR’s way of ramping the intensity as the season comes to a close.

There weren’t fireworks on the track but the 30,000 fans at Bristol saw a spellbinding battle between Harvick and Busch for the win over the final laps. Harvick prevailed for his ninth win of the season. Only two drivers in the last quarter century have won 10 or more races.

Fans are slowly returning to the track, although there won’t be any at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. Charlotte Motor Speedway found out Tuesday that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper will permit outdoor arenas with seating capacity of more than 10,000 to be filled to 7% capacity. Charlotte races in May were run without fans and the All-Star Race was moved to Bristol in July because Bristol could have fans and Charlotte could not.

Social initiatives, including the banning of the Confederate flag at NASCAR races and tracks, were added this summer.

“Ultimately,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in June, “when we get back to full grandstands, everyone who walks through the gates or on to our property or one of our tracks or where our races are being held will understand that they will not see the Confederate flag.”

That was among the key changes that Jordan said drew him to joining Hamlin as an owner of NASCAR’s newest Cup team.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners,” Jordan said in a statement. “The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Jordan’s entrance is significant. But the way this season has gone, a global sports icon joining NASCAR? That’s called Tuesday.

With 100 days left in the year, there’s plenty more change ahead.

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NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick back at No. 1

NASCAR Power Rankings
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Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Kevin Harvick is the No. 1 driver in this week’s NASCAR rankings.

Martin Truex Jr. held the top spot for just a week before Harvick reclaimed the crown with his series-leading ninth Cup win of the year Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This week’s rankings includes three ties as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Round of 16

Harvick takes his power rankings lead to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the start of the Round of 12.

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has three wins in the last five races: Dover, the Southern 500 and Bristol night race.

2. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 7): Finished seventh at Bristol for his third top 10 in five races. His 11 top fives so far matches his total from each of the last two seasons. He scored a career-high 12 top fives in 2017.

3. (tie) Kyle Busch (Last week No.  9): Finished second in Bristol after he started from the rear due to inspection failures. Has three consecutive top 10s for the first time this season.

3. (tie) Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Followed consecutive third-place finishes with an 11th at Bristol.

5. (tie) Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 1): Finished 24th in Bristol following contact with Denny Hamlin after an unscheduled pit stop.

5. (tie) Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): After winning at Richmond, Keselowski had a rough night in Bristol. He finished 34th due to power steering problems.

7. (tie) Aric Almirola (Last week unranked): Finished fifth in Bristol for his third consecutive top 10 and his fourth in five races.

7. (tie) Clint Bowyer (Last week unranked): Placed sixth in Bristol for his third consecutive top-10 finish and to keep his playoff chances alive.

9. Austin Dillon (Last week No. 3): Placed a respectable 12th to finish the first round after consecutive top fives.

10. Erik Jones (Last week unranked): Placed third in Bristol for his seventh top-five finish of the season and his second in the last three races.

Also receiving votes: Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin

NASCAR Silly season features Bubba Wallace, Michael Jordan

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NASCAR Silly Season took a twist Monday. A day that started with the announcement that Ross Chastain would drive for Chip Ganassi Racing next year ended with the news that Denny Hamlin would co-own a team with Michael Jordan and have Bubba Wallace as the driver in 2021.

As JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty said: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full Cup season. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

A team name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors will be announced at a later time.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 10: Aric Almirola extends deal with Stewart-Haas Racing for 2021 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through 2022.

No. 42: Ross Chastain takes over Chip Ganassi Racing’s ride for the 2021 season.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

No. TBA: Bubba Wallace joins the new team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA great Michael Jordan. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter. Germain Racing will not continue after this season.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto said Sept. 17 that Wood Brothers Racing has an option to pick up his contract for next year and the deadline is the end of September.

No. 32: Ride is open with Corey LaJoie announcing he will not return to Go Fas Racing in 2021.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021, the team confirmed on Sept. 10.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Spire Motorsports purchased the charter and assets of Leavine Family Racing and will be a two-car operation in 2021.

No. 96: Daniel Suarez and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Sept. 15 that they would part ways after this season.

 

Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is ‘huge moment’

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Brad Daugherty calls Michael Jordan’s ownership of a Cup team a “huge moment for NASCAR.”

Jordan and Denny Hamlin will co-own a Cup team next season. Bubba Wallace will be the driver. Jordan will become the first Black majority car owner of a full-time team since Wendell Scott owned and raced cars in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Daugherty, the only Black owner of a full-time Cup team currently, is excited about Jordan’s entrance into NASCAR.

“It’s a big momentum shift for this sport culturally, period,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and an analyst for NBC Sports. “Three years ago, this would have never happened. A year ago, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s the timing. If the timing is right and you have someone like Michael Jordan put his brand and what he’s all about into whatever you are doing, it adds a lot of credibility. I look forward to whatever he can bring to the table to help continue to build NASCAR.”

Daugherty told NBC Sports that Jordan can help the sport reach more people.

“The eyeballs are going to be incredible,” Daugherty said of Jordan’s potential impact. “The opportunity for entrance into the sport will be made more available as far as people being aware of the availability to get involved in NASCAR as a fan or as a business. There’s just so many different areas that will light up just because of who he is and what he represents. His entire legacy creates opportunity for everyone.

“Now, we start talking diversity with what he’s able to do from a corporate standpoint and also just from a legacy standpoint with his brand. It’s going to be exciting. I’m excited because I think more people now, more than ever, will take a look at NASCAR with a keen eye and keen interest and be excited about maybe participating as a fan or as a business partner or as someone wanting to learn how to drive a race car or own a race team. The more notoriety the better.”

NASCAR stated Monday: “Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan told The Charlotte Observer on Monday that the deal came together in about 10 days because of the chance to hire Wallace.

“When (Hamlin) told me there was a possibility of getting Bubba Wallace, I’m saying, ‘OK, this is perfect!’” Jordan told The Observer. “If I’m getting involved in NASCAR, then get a Black driver (with) a Black owner.”

For all that Jordan can bring to NASCAR, Daugherty knows that the competition can prove challenging.

“I’m sure he’s committed to next season and we’ll see how that goes and if it goes well, you go beyond that,” said Daugherty, a teammate to Jordan on the University of North Carolina basketball team. “He had a (Superbike) team for a long time and loved that. He understands it’s a different business model. He’s at the point in his life, he’s like Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and those guys to where it’s really not a detriment to him financially if he’s not making money. We’ll have to see how much he can stomach because it’s an interesting business model for sure.”

Jordan told The Observer he’s in it to win.

“If I’m investing, if I’m a participant, then I want to win! I don’t want to be out there to be just another car,” Jordan said.

Daugherty looks forward to seeing Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace at the track.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” Daugherty said. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Daugherty also looks forward to something else next year.

“Look forward to racing against those guys,” he said, “and trying to kick their butts.”