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Ryan: NASCAR will use restrictor plates at Indianapolis . . . are Michigan and Pocono next?

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NASCAR’s latest track makeover was on display last weekend at Phoenix Raceway, which was under construction during a $178-million renovation that will completed by November 2018.

But the series-wide overhauls aren’t stopping there, and they aren’t limited to facility facelifts, either.

NBC Sports has confirmed that NASCAR will use restrictor plates for the Xfinity race July 22 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The decision, which initially was reported by freelance journalist Michael Knight on Twitter last weekend, will take effect after NASCAR was pleased by the results of a successful Xfinity test with plates last year at the 2.5-mile track.

A NASCAR official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss publicly, said if the Xfinity race goes well, then restrictor plates would be used for the 2018 Brickyard 400 in the Cup Series.

NASCAR also is considering using the same plate-style rules package for Indianapolis, Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway.

Far less likely in the short term is the use of the IMS road course, which the Sports Business Journal reported last week was under consideration for usage in Cup. An IMS spokesman declined comment on the report.

Though discussions have been confirmed by NASCAR, it’s unlikely that it would be used unless as a last resort (and it definitely wouldn’t happen this season). The Indianapolis Star reported last week there is no NASCAR test scheduled for the road course, which plays host to IndyCar and was the site of Formula One races from 2000-2007.

From this corner, there are several reasons why attempting to move the premier series to Indy’s twisting circuit would be a massive mistake:

–The optics of running a road course at the world’s most fabled racetrack are brutal. It would seem extremely bush league to move NASCAR from the storied four-turn layout and strengthen the perception that stock cars are just another support series for the Indianapolis 500.

–While NASCAR needs more road courses (moving to Charlotte Motor Speedway’s “roval” next year is smart), it’s uncertain if IMS would be a good fit (F1 drivers didn’t like it).

–If NASCAR and IMS decide that the flat rectangle isn’t suitable for stock cars, then the difficult call should be made to separate after the 5-year sanctioning agreement ends in 2020.

Take the date to a place that will pack its grandstands for Cup – Iowa Speedway and Eldora Speedway are two prime candidates. Stock cars always were ill-suited for Indianapolis, but it didn’t make a difference in the first 14 years that NASCAR raced the Brickyard because of its prestige.

Indy now is mired in a 10-year trend of declining crowds that can be traced directly to the tire debacle in the 2008 Brickyard. A similar controversy in 2005 led to F1’s permanent departure from the facility. NASCAR and IMS might face the same if plates can’t save the day.

A few other leftovers from the past week:

–The loss of a track like Indy would be a PR blemish for NASCAR, but there were signs this past week that stock-car racing can move the needle with mainstream media and in popular culture.

Along with replays of the Kyle BuschJoey Logano confrontation on countless national TV shows, there was a nice hit with the “edgy” Barstool Sports’ affiliation with Chris Buescher at Las Vegas.

And the visit to Hendrick Motorsports and the Charlotte Motor Speedway by Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg was simply a PR coup that couldn’t be reproduced with any sport ad buy.

Zuckerberg, whose net worth has been estimated by Forbes at more than $50 billion, has explored NASCAR sponsorships with Cup teams before, and his obvious zeal about taking a thrill ride with Dale Earnhardt Jr. was validating.

As Jeff Burton said on NASCAR America last Thursday, Zuckerberg “got to drive with a real race car driver at 180, 190 mph. Whenever I’ve had the chance to do that, and I’ve driven some of the best professional athletes in the world, they have left with a completely different appreciation for what this sport is all about.

“You can play basketball, football and baseball in P.E. You don’t drive a race car in P.E. You don’t have an appreciation for it. (For Zuckerberg) to experience that is great for the sport.”

The point is well-taken. LeBron James visited Bristol Motor Speedway in August 2005 as part of a Powerade sponsorship with Bobby Labonte, but he shot hoops on the frontstretch and toured the garage without taking a ride (though filmmaker Quentin Tarantino got an opportunity the same day). Next time, NASCAR shouldn’t miss such a chance.

–Speaking of LeBron, it’s easy to juxtapose the NBA’s current controversy over championship-caliber teams choosing to rest their stars with NASCAR’s move toward exactly the opposite.

Stage racing added a new layer at Phoenix Raceway, particularly at the close of the first segment when Joey Logano had to fend off Kyle Larson.

The point of stages are to avoid situations similar to the NBA where stars routinely take nights off to rest for the playoffs. It can’t happen in NASCAR anymore if a driver and team want to avoid the risk of leaving points on the table to reach the championship round.

You can make an argument that the NASCAR regular season remains too long — just like the NBA. But at least NASCAR has ensured the first 26 races are more meaningful than ever.

–Phoenix was another strong showing for Larson, who has three straight runner-up finishes and four in the past five races. But as noted here two weeks ago, it also was another reminder that the Chip Ganassi Racing driver needs to learn to close out victories in NASCAR.

Larson should have outdueled Ryan Newman for the victory at Phoenix, but he allowed his No. 42 Chevrolet (which had two fresh tires) to be bumped by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (no tires) on the restart.

Larson consequently lost momentum and couldn’t mount a charge on Newman, who didn’t hesitate to clobber Larson on the final lap of the November 2014 races at the 1-mile oval to advance to the title round.

“Hindsight is always 20/20,” he said. “But I should have went a lane up in (turns) 1 and 2. I should have known to just stay close to Newman.  That’s what I wish I would have done.

“But, yeah, it’s weird running all these seconds.  It took me, like, three years to finish second in sprint cars.  Now I finish second like every week.  A little weird, but maybe we’ll turn them into wins soon.”

The bottom line is Larson needs more of a killer instinct to improve on his career victory total (one). He figured it out in the short feature races of sprint cars, but a three-hour race takes a different skillset.

In the past five months, Miami, Atlanta and Phoenix have proved he hasn’t perfected his yet.

John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.