Ryan: Why the outcry over the All-Star Race location now? Many reasons for a tipping point

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The debate over moving the All-Star Race reached critical mass this past weekend.

At least a dozen drivers, media pundits and broadcast analysts (including NASCAR on NBC’s Jeff Burton in this compelling column) called on NASCAR to consider leaving Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The points are well-taken: The 1.5-mile track’s smooth surface (high grip plus high speeds = slot cars) magnifies aero-sensitivity at the expense of slam-bang action.

But why did the tidal wave of dissent finally crest this year?

It’s been no secret for many seasons that Charlotte hardly was conducive to holding this event.

Though Kyle Busch took the lead with a nifty pass to begin the final segment, he still led the last 10 laps – the fourth time in five years the winner has managed that feat. Aside from last year’s pass of Kyle Larson by Joey Logano with two laps remaining, the last All-Star Race whose outcome was in doubt after the green flag of the final segment was when Tony Stewart beat Matt Kenseth in 2009.

In 12 All-Star Races since Charlotte was repaved, there have been two lead changes in the final five laps.

Perhaps the cumulative dearth of action from the past decade was why this year became a tipping point. But there also might have been these factors that had many speaking out:

Stage racing: In case you missed it, NASCAR began splitting all of its races into segments in 2017. The enhancements have been a tremendous addition this season (stay tuned for a NASCAR on NBC podcast with Burton this week discussing their impact and origins), but they inadvertently have created another layer of redundancy for the All-Star Race.

It’s analogous to the addition of double-file restarts to points races nearly seven years ago. When two of the main features of the All-Star Race become part and parcel to the everyday routine, it’s worth asking if the approach and format of the event still makes sense.

–Swiftness of change: To its credit, NASCAR has become much more nimble over the past couple of years about 1) trying new ideas; and 2) quickly implementing them. This initially was illustrated in a fast and total reversal of its rules direction (resulting in lower downforce) midway through the 2015 season, and it’s been evident in many ways since then.

And those that don’t work also aren’t kept (good riddance to heat races in Xfinity and the caution clock in trucks), so there seems less tolerance for anything perceived as the slightest drain on NASCAR momentum (undoubtedly, much of this is driven by social media, but that’s a topic for another day). When something doesn’t meet the standards of quality, and the All-Star Race at Charlotte certainly qualifies in recent years, the drumbeat for revamping begins almost immediately.

Tire problem: There’s no getting around the fact that the option tires didn’t deliver as many had hoped. With the race predicated on a primary selling point that didn’t deliver, it naturally stoked a loud reaction.

This also held true with last year’s wacky and hastily assembled format, which actually delivered a decent race. But the much-ballyhooed rules were so impenetrable, they naturally became the focus.

–All-Star existentialism: NASCAR can find solace in having good company in seeking relevance for its all-star extravaganza. The NFL, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball have wrestled with the same philosophical conundrums of events whose purposes have become diluted over the years.

Here is the question that needs to be answered well in advance of next year: What’s the main objective of a NASCAR All-Star Race?

Should it be nonstop action? Showcasing the drivers’ personalities? Highlighting their skills? Saluting the heritage of stock-car racing?

You can say all of the above, but this is a zero-sum game. There needs to be a singular focus.

Answering this question would go a long way toward solving one of NASCAR’s greatest identity crises. In the meantime, here is one certainty about the All-Star Race.

When the 2018 schedule is released Tuesday, expect Charlotte Motor Speedway to remain listed as the host.

For now.

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One consensus positive opinion about this year’s event: Ending it well before everyone’s bedtime on a Saturday night was a good move. Though event sponsor Monster brought many of its athletes, there was a decided reduction of the pomp and circumstance that prolonged past events (e.g., a concert happened after the race instead of before or during the event).

It’s unclear if that was by design, but for the pace of the show (particularly given Saturday’s mediocrity), this was certainly an improvement.

The goal should be ending every All-Star Race by 10 p.m.

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Though a change in venue would be a wise move for the All-Star event, how about switching up the surface, too?

Kyle Larson’s slide job on Jimmie Johnson for second place on the final lap conjured images of Cup cars … on dirt.

If only there were a dirt track that already had been playing host to a NASCAR national series for the past, oh, four seasons.

A dirt track that already is built around segmented races.

A dirt track where aerodynamics matter so little, hitting the wall actually can be an advantage instead of an impediment.

Hmmm.

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Whether it’s Jordan Anderson’s truck at Atlanta or Erik Jones’ Toyota in the All-Star Open, the splitter has become the new scourge of drivers and mechanics everywhere because of its incompatibility with grass on the straightaways and car setups in general.

What is amusing: When the much-maligned Car of Tomorrow was being introduced, the splitter was hailed as the key to its aerodynamic success.

Many of the rules for the COT were written around the splitter. At an October 2005 test of the new model at Atlanta Motor Speedway, much of the work was devoted to finding the “sweet spot” of the splitter and trying to mimic the success NASCAR felt it had in the truck series with splitter designs.

This isn’t a defense of the splitter (an aesthetic blemish that deservedly seems headed for the boneyard) but a reminder the “fix” assuredly won’t be as simple as just removing it. That probably is a good start for Cup cars, though.

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The return of the souvenir haulers at Charlotte Motor Speedway seemed a big hit with longtime fans, per the anecdotal evidence available. But it also highlights another example of the tug of war between keeping the old-guard fan base happy while appealing to Millennials and younger.

There’s a distinct dichotomy in the push to make the races shorter (for the youth with shorter attention spans) while making the race days longer (for those who have grown up spending several hours on the midway before the green flag).

The downsizing of the souvenir truck fleet was sold in part as a way that NASCAR would reduce its carbon footprint, which matters to a younger set that has rallied around environmentally conscious topics. Many of today’s youth also have come of age in the on-demand era of same-day shipping and drone delivery.

While the souvenir haulers might hold some sentimental value and offer a natural gathering place, how many of the fans of tomorrow would prefer to buy at-track retail instead of shopping via online or mobile, where they spend most of their waking hours anyway?

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Speaking of mobile, a good guide for the success of an event these days is how easy it is to follow via social media.

If you kept abreast of the All-Star Race with only a Twitter feed, Saturday night was borderline incomprehensible in 140-character dispatches. That needs to be fixed.

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The ouster of Ford CEO Mark Fields shouldn’t have any impact on NASCAR in the short term. Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing are in long-term deals with the manufacturer.

But the reason for Fields’ exit – Ford’s sluggishness in developing autonomous cars – should be watched by those in NASCAR and the racing industry.

In an environment where electric car maker Tesla recently became worth more than General Motors (becoming the most valuable automaker despite selling about 9.9 million fewer cars), the discussion about the evolution of the street car — and its potential impact on stock-car racing – will remain an important one.

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With an aggregate win total of 173 in Cup, Xfinity and truck, there’s been much talk about Kyle Busch reaching 200 wins across the three national series. Largely unnoticed is that Busch has 48 wins in the Camping World Truck Series, three short on the circuit’s all-time list behind Ron Hornaday Jr. The all-time winner in the Xfinity Series (87 victories) hinted after Friday night’s win at Charlotte that the truck series might be an eventual victory lap.

“I look forward to hopefully being able to pass Ron and be able to set that (mark) a little bit higher,” said Busch, who has titles in Cup (2015) and Xfinity (’09). ”Hopefully, one day when I’m all said and done with the Cup stuff, maybe I’ll run my retirement tour in the truck series and win the championship and get the trifecta.”

Busch takes his share of grief for “stealing” wins from the regulars of the junior circuits. But his commitment to the series (and reinvesting millions through Kyle Busch Motorsports) is around racing and building roots, and the purity of essence should be lauded.

Dustin Long contributed to this report

Clint Bowyer, William Byron look to extend streak of first-time winners in playoffs

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In the 15-year-history of the NASCAR playoff era, only 16 times has a Cup Series playoff driver earned their first win of the season in the playoffs itself.

Two of those occurrences have happened in the last two weeks.

Kyle Larson got the streak going with his dominating win in the Round of 12 opener at Dover International Speedway. That snapped a 75-race winless streak for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

It continued Monday when Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney barely beat Ryan Newman to win at Talladega Superspeedway. It snapped a 37-race winless streak for Blaney.

Can the first-time winner steak continue?

If it does, it will take place Sunday at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). But of the 16 instances a playoff driver earned their first win in the playoffs, it’s only happened once on the 1.5-mile track.

Jack Roush and Mark Martin celebrate winning the Banquet 400 on Oct. 9, 2005 at the Kansas Speedway. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

Mark Martin was the winner on Oct. 9, 2005, a day that saw Roush Fenway Racing put four of its five cars in the top five.

It was Martin’s first win in 52 races. It was just the second time a playoff driver’s first win in a season came in the playoffs. The first was three races earlier at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Ryan Newman).

Ahead of Sunday’s race there are only two Cup Series playoff drivers left who could potentially extend the streak: William Byron and Clint Bowyer.

Aside from securing them spots in the Round of 8, wins by either would be notable in their own right.

A victory by Bowyer would be his first on his home track in 23 attempts in the Cup Series. Like Martin, a victory would end a 52-race winless streak.

Bowyer’s best finish at Kansas was a runner-up finish in his second start in 2007. Since then he has just two top fives at Kansas, including a fifth-place finish in this year’s spring race.

Bowyer enters this race 11th in the standings, 24 points back from the cutoff line.

“We know what we have to do this weekend,” Bowyer said in press release. said. “We need to get stage points, a great finish and maybe even a win. We finished fifth here in May, we just have to do a few spots better this weekend.”

A win by Byron would be significant because he’s yet to win a Cup Series race in 67 starts.

In his previous three Kansas starts Byron’s only managed to finish once. The Hendrick Motorsports driver placed 20th in the spring after starting third. He won in his lone Truck Series start there in 2016 and had a top five in his only Xfinity Series start at the track in 2017.

After he was eliminated in a wreck at Talladega, Byron enters Sunday last on the playoff grid, 27 points behind the cutoff and essentially in a must-win scenario.

“I think it will be interesting to see how things play out with how our mile-and-half packages have evolved just throughout the year,” Byron said in a press release. “Whether it continues that trend this weekend or whether it reverts back to how it was in the spring at Kansas. I’m just interested to see how that is since the cars have come a long way since that race. I’m also interested to see with it being an elimination race, I think it will open things up for different strategies. It’s a bit of an unknown at this point.”

NASCAR completes merger with International Speedway Corp.

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NASCAR announced Friday morning it had closed on its merger with International Speedway Corp.

Jim France will serve as the company’s chairman and chief executive officer. Lesa France Kennedy will be the executive vice chair. Steve Phelps has been appointed president and will oversee all operations of the company.

“The merger of NASCAR and ISC represents a historic moment for our sport,” France said in a statement. “There is much work ahead of us, but we’re pleased with the progress made to position our sport for success. Delivering for our race fans and partners is job number one and we look forward to doing that better than ever for years to come.”

As part of the new organization, the Board of Directors will consist of France, France Kennedy, Mike Helton and Gary Crotty, chief legal officerPhelps’ direct reports will include Ed Bennett, executive vice president & chief administrative officer; Jill Gregory, executive vice president & chief marketing and content officer; Craig Neeb, executive vice president & chief innovation officer; Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president & chief racing development officer; and Daryl Wolfe, executive vice president & chief operations and sales officer.

Helton and John Saunders will serve as senior advisors under the new leadership structure.

“With great racing across all of our series, an exciting 2020 schedule on tap, and the Next Gen race car in development, we are better positioned than ever before to lead the sport into a new era of growth,” said Phelps in a statement. “We have a strong, experienced leadership team in place with incredibly dedicated employees at every level throughout our organization. Our best days are ahead of us and our new organization is going to allow us to better deliver great racing to our fans everywhere.”

NASCAR’s Friday schedule at Kansas Speedway

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The NASCAR playoff race weekend at Kansas Speedway begins today.

Cup and Xfinity Series teams will each hold two practice sessions.

The wunderground.com forecast predicts a high of 74 degrees, partly sunny skies and a 10% chance of rain.

Here’s the day’s schedule.

(All times are Eastern)

Noon – 11 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

1 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. – Cup garage open

3:05 – 3:55 p.m.  – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

4:05 – 4:55 – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

5:05 – 5:55 – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

7:05-7:55 p.m. – Final Cup practice (NBCSN, MRN)

 

Friday 5: Is this Kyle Busch’s time?

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Will this become the fall of Kyle Busch?

Not fall as in stumble but fall as in season — when he takes control of the Cup playoffs.

Busch, the regular-season champion, has been many things this postseason — moody, controversial and mistake-prone — but he’s not been a dominant figure on the track.

His average finish in the first half of these playoffs is 16.6 — marking the fourth time since 2015 he’s had an average finish of 14th or worse halfway through the postseason.

Busch, though, made it to the championship race each of those four years, winning the title in 2015.

But with Busch, there’s always something more.

Instead of a streak of Championship 4 appearances, it is his winless streak that draws more attention. Busch has failed to win in the past 17 races, his longest drought since going 36 races between Cup victories in 2016-17.

Since Busch last won at Pocono in early June — before Justin Haley’s improbable win at Daytona, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. losing his ride at Roush Fenway Racing and then signing with JTG Daugherty Racing and Bubba Wallace and Busch beating and banging at Watkins Glen — he’s seen Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones all win.

Miscues have hindered Busch’s playoffs. He hit the wall on Lap 3 of the opener at Las Vegas. Busch rallied from two laps down to be back on the lead lap before running into the rear of Garrett Smithley’s car. After the race, Busch called out Smithley and Joey Gase, questioning their credentials to be in the Cup Series.

Busch’s Dover run was hurt by a speeding penalty. He had a flat tire after contact with Kyle Larson on a restart at the Charlotte Roval and had to pit. A suspension issued later led to his day ending. Several laps down and with nothing to gain, Busch drove the car back to the garage during a red flag. His Talladega race was impacted by an accident, just like about every other driver. The only playoff driver not involved in an incident in the race was winner Ryan Blaney.

But things could be changing for Busch.

For all his struggles, he’s finished second three times during his winless drought and had six top-five results. Only Hamlin (10 top fives), Truex (eight) and Kevin Harvick (seven) have had more top fives than Busch in this stretch.

Provided Busch advances — he is 41 points Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a transfer spot — he’ll likely be the points leader heading into the Round of 8 after Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

The Round of 8 begins at Martinsville Speedway. Busch finished third there in the spring. He’s not placed worse than eighth in any of the five short track races this season. He led 66 laps before finishing 10th at Texas and won at ISM Raceway near Phoenix, leading 177 of 312 laps.

Get Busch to Miami (again) and he could leave as a two-time champion.

2. Tough challenge for hopefuls 

The most likely way Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer or William Byron — the four drivers outside a playoff race — will advance to the next round will be to win Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Bowman trails Joey Logano, who holds the final transfer spot by 18 points. Elliott trails Logano by 22 points. Bowyer trails Logano by 24 points, and Byron trails Logano by 27 points.

The only time Byron and Bowyer outscored Logano in a race by as many points as they trail was at Dover in the playoffs when Logano spent the first 24 laps in the garage.

Bowman has outscored Logano by 18 points in three races this year: Dover playoff race, Talladega in April (Bowman was second) and Kansas in May (Bowman was second)

Elliott has had better results. He has outscored Logano by 22 or more points in a race five times this year: Martinsville in March (Elliott outscored Logano by 28 points), Talladega in April (22 points), Kansas in May (29 points), Watkins Glen (46 points) in August and the Bristol night race (25 points) in August. Elliott won at Talladega and Watkins Glen. He was second at Martinsville, fourth at Kansas and fifth at Bristol.

That’s the challenge those four drivers face this weekend trying to knock Logano out of the final playoff spot.

3. Looking to help 

Brad Keselowski expressed his concern about team members who will be or could be losing their jobs in the near future as the sport goes through change.

He recently sent this tweet:

So what can Keselowski do?

“I haven’t gotten an answer to it yet, but I’m looking at it, trying to think about what ideas there might be” Keselowski said. “I haven’t come up with a solution yet. I just wanted those people to know that are affected by it that I cared about it. I can’t employ the couple of hundred people that are probably going to get laid off in the next few weeks, but I’m sure I can do something for someone.”

4. Youth movement?

The last three races have been won by three of the five youngest drivers in the playoffs: Chase Elliott (Charlotte Roval), Kyle Larson (Dover) and Ryan Blaney (Talladega).

Elliott is 23, Larson is 27 and Blaney is 25. The playoffs also include William Byron (21 years old) and Alex Bowman (26). Erik Jones (23) was eliminated in the first round.

5. Drought busters

Five drivers have ended winless streaks of 30 or more races this season: Kyle Larson (75 races) Denny Hamlin (45), Erik Jones (42), Ryan Blaney (37) and Kurt Busch (30).

Among drivers with long winless droughts: Paul Menard (299 races), David Ragan (237), Chris Buescher (118), Ryan Newman (99), Jimmie Johnson (90), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (86), Austin Dillon (66), Clint Bowyer (52), Aric Almirola (36),

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