Bump & Run: What to do about the All-Star Race?

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NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan, Dustin Long, Jerry Bonkowski and Daniel McFadin tackle this week’s topics as NASCAR heads toward the All-Star Race:

Is the All-Star Race still necessary on the Cup schedule since the same drivers are competing against each other every race?

Nate Ryan: It’s a fair question given that Cup races have adopted an All Star-type aesthetic with stage racing this season. I think there still is a purpose for an All-Star event in NASCAR, but there need to be hard questions asked about defining its objective and making aggressive moves in accordance with that.

Dustin Long: It is necessary if the purpose is to use it as a way to test ideas that could be transferred to points races, much like double-file restarts with lead-lap cars in both rows, the idea of stage racing or the use of a softer tire. If NASCAR goes away from that notion, then it would be better to replace the All-Star race with another points race or make it an open weekend.

Jerry Bonkowski: After more than 35 years, the All-Star Race remains a very viable and vibrant tradition that fans still love to attend or watch on TV. But it may need some revitalization going forward. How to revitalize it and draw even more interest is a fine line to balance. Most importantly — if changes do occur, keep them in place for several years to come. Fans oftentimes get confused when the race format changes from year to year.

Daniel McFadin: The Cup season is really long, so having one weekend devoted to a race just for fun, money and sometimes testing new aero packages is a welcome respite in the march from February to November. The second half of the season could use one as well.

What change would you make to the All-Star Race?

Nate Ryan: Rotate the venue, have fun with the personalities and take major chances with the competition. My feelings haven’t changed much since writing this three years ago: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nascar/2014/05/15/nascar-sprint-all-star-race-failings-improvement-suggestions/9142915/

Dustin Long: Move it. If it’s going to stay in Charlotte, take it off the weekend and run it the Thursday night before the Coca-Cola 600 instead of Cup qualifying. The challenge in changing sites is that it is an event at an Speedway Motorsports Inc. track, so moving it would create an issue for SMI in terms of loss revenue. Until that matter gets resolved, the event will stay in Charlotte. However, I do like Jeff Burton’s idea of moving it to a short track like South Boston or someplace NASCAR used to run years ago.

Jerry Bonkowski: Would it be wise to move the race around from track to track each year, giving other facilities the opportunity to see what kind of show they can put on? Would perhaps two 20-car heat races to determine a final race of 20 for the $1 million prize be better than the Open or the fan vote? Heck, let’s shake it up even more and maybe run part of the race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course, similar to this past weekend’s IndyCar Grand Prix.

Daniel McFadin: Take it on the road. The 1.5-mile tracks – and increasingly the night races at them – are the least popular venues in the sport. Hold the All-Star Race under the lights at Martinsville, Bristol or maybe even a track the Cup Series has never been to. If NASCAR wants to get back to its roots, taking its high profile exhibition race to a famous short track could do wonders. It’s worked for the Truck Series at Eldora. If you really want to have fun, throw the rulebook out on All-Star Weekend. No inspections at all (aside from lug nuts). Let the engineers go crazy and see who wins.

What’s been a surprise to you about this season so far?

Nate Ryan: That Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t have a victory this late for the first time since 2007. It isn’t a surprise so much that a team’s performance is cyclical as much as it is that it’s been that long since JGR went winless this deep into the season. JGR seemed less competitive throughout much of the 2014 season than this year, so there shouldn’t be any reason to panic. Its depth and the success of Furniture Row Racing ensure that the team will get things sorted.

Dustin Long: Overlooked by the discussion of Joe Gibbs Racing still winless is that Kevin Harvick remains winless. He’s had at least one win by the season’s fourth race since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Also, other than Kurt Busch’s Daytona 500 victory, Stewart-Haas Racing is winless. Yes, Stewart-Haas Racing faced challenges with the switch to Ford in the offseason but did many think that the only victory that organization would have would be due to a last-lap pass because the leader ran out of fuel?

Jerry Bonkowski: Several surprises, actually. First, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s decision to retire at season’s end. Second, Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers have yet to reach victory lane. Third, how quickly and readily drivers have adapted to the new stages format. Lastly, Kyle Busch continues to be fast enough to win, but he’s still winless since last July’s Brickyard 400. What has JGR done with the real Kyle Busch, and who is the imposter in the No. 18?

Daniel McFadin: When I woke up the morning of April 25 to an email saying Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to retire. Also, Earnhardt only being able to finish in the top 10 once through 11 races. 

NASCAR releases Cup rules packages for 2021

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NASCAR announced Thursday its rules package slate for the 2021 Cup Series season, a day after next year’s schedule was unveiled.

For returning tracks to the 36-race schedule, the rules are largely unchanged save for Darlington Raceway.

Cup teams will use the 750 horsepower, low downforce race package at the 1.366-mile track. It’s the package that’s been used this season on road courses and short tracks. Nashville Superspeedway, the 1.333-mile track being added in 2021, will use the same package.

The packages for the other new race tracks – Road America, Circuit of the Americas and the Indy road course – have not been decided on.

“We constantly review the race packages to try to put on the best possible racing for our fans,” John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice Presiden of Innovation and Racing Development said in a media release. “When he brought in the short track / road course package this season, Darlington was not part of it due to its unique size. We’ve been evaluating data from both race packages, as well as feedback from drivers, teams and OEMs and feel that the 750 hp / low downforce package best fits the track.”

Other rule changes include:

  • Teams are restricted to 150 restricted computational fluid dynamics runs per calendar month.
  • Teams must compete in a minimum of 16 points events with a short block sealed engine (up from 13).

Click here for the rule packages for each Cup race in 2021.

Team Penske looks to extend Talladega dominance amid 2020 woes

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If there’s one thing Talladega Superspeedway is known for, it’s chaos.

But for as much chaos as the 2.66-mile track can provide, Talladega has another quality it produces: consistency in Victory Lane.

In the 2010s and up through the June Cup race, the consistency has been produced by Team Penske.

Since May 2012, Penske drivers have won nine of 17 races. Brad Keselowski has four of his five Talladega wins, Joey Logano has three and Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races by .007 seconds.

The other eight races were won by Roush Fenway Racing (two wins), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Front Row Motorsports (one), Chip Ganassi Racing (one), Stewart-Haas Racing (one) and Joe Gibbs Racing (one).

When it comes to races like this weekend’s playoff event (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), one would expect even more chaos and less consistency among winners.

You’d be wrong on the latter.

Penske’s three drivers have combined to win five of the last six Talladega playoff races. The winner of the sixth race was Aric Almirola in the 2018 playoff race.

Last week Keselowski observed how races at superspeedways have “ebbs and flows” with them currently resembling “a MAVTV demo derby just a little faster.”

On Thursday, the 2012 Cup champion credited Team Penske having a “great” driver lineup with its ability to win in a form of racing that’s constantly evolving.

“I think we have the strongest driver lineup in Cup right now,” Keselowski said. “I know that’s probably arguable and it’s completely subjective. That’s played to our favorite tracks like the plate tracks and we’re going to continue to try and leverage it.”

While Blaney has enjoyed recent success at Talladega with his two victories, Keselowski looks to re-establish his winning ways at the track he has five victories, the most among active drivers.

After winning the 2017 playoff race, he has five consecutive finishes of 13th or worse, including two DNFs for wrecks.

“It’s been up and down for me,” Keselowski said. “The last few races have probably been down. Last fall I thought we were going to win the race with two or three (laps) to go. We were making the pass for the lead and the next thing I know we’re all wrecked. It’s a love-hate affair with that track for sure and hopefully we’ll love it. I feel like we’re due for a good finish there.”

Keselowski enters Sunday’s race after miserable outings in the last two playoff races. He finished 34th at Bristol (power steering problems) and 13th at Las Vegas.

Talladega could be the relief Keselowski’s teammates are looking for as well.

Blaney, who was eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16, hasn’t had a top-five finish in the last nine races. Logano, while he has two top fives in the playoffs (third at Darlington and Richmond), hasn’t won since the March race at Phoenix. That was the last race before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Keselowski said “it is a bit strange” that Team Penske can view Talladega as a track where it can turn its season around.

“We haven’t been where we want to be on the mile-and-a-halfs, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “The mile-and-a-halfs and road courses have been a weak spot for us. The superspeedways and short tracks have been a strong spot for us. Thankfully we have the superspeedway this weekend and couple of short tracks coming up in the next round (Martinsville).

“We need to kind of maximize out strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This weekend is certainly looking like a strength for us. We have high expectations.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”