Long: 2018 schedule provides big test for one track; other musings on changes

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For all the talk about Indianapolis’ move to the last race before the playoffs or Charlotte’s road course event, the track that will face the most scrutiny from Tuesday’s 2018 schedule announcement is Richmond International Raceway.

Although the racing has been better when the track hosted day races, Richmond will go back to two night races next year and its September event moves into the playoffs after serving as the cutoff race since 2004. 

The change comes at a critical time for Richmond, a favorite among drivers but a track that has seen waning fan interest — thus the flip-flopping from night to day back to night events to please a fanbase that wants good racing but doesn’t want a sunburn. The spring crowd, no doubt affected by unseasonably warm temperatures in the 80s, was disappointing.

What makes the schedule change more critical for the track is what could be next. International Speedway Corp., which owns the facility, has slated Richmond as next for upgrades after Phoenix Raceway’s $178 million makeover is completed late next year.

While crowds have thinned at all tracks in the last decade, Richmond has seen its seating capacity cut from 110,000 in 2009 to its current capacity of 59,000, according to ISC annual reports. The 46.4 percent decline is the largest percentage capacity reduction among ISC’s 12 tracks that host Cup events.

The question becomes if the crowd continues to thin — even though Richmond is a day’s drive for nearly half of the U.S. population — will it be worthwhile for ISC to make the investments to the track? Or would it be better for ISC to invest in another of its facilities?

Something that could help Richmond is what will take place this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track’s upper groove is being treated by the same PJ1 TrackBite compound used at Bristol to improve the racing.

What’s unique is that the compound is applied to an asphalt track instead of a concrete track such as Bristol. If it entices drivers to use the high lane for part of the race, that will be significant. The challenge is that as the race moves into the evening and cooler temperatures, the bottom groove will be the fastest way around.

Richmond seemed to have a good solution when it sealed the track from 1988-2002 but hasn’t done since. The time seems right to do something to the track with two Cup night races. 

Drivers say that the best racing is during the day when conditions are the hottest. That’s not the most enjoyable conditions for fans. So fans who wanted night racing back at Richmond will get it for both events.

Fans should be careful what they wish for because cool, evening temperatures are not conducive to the best type of racing.

DAYTONA CHANGES

Another alteration to the schedule is that Daytona 500 qualifying and the Clash will be held on the same day, Feb. 11, a week before the 500.

It’s a nice move to tighten the schedule, but why can’t more be done?

Does Daytona need to be held over two weekends?

“I would say certainly we talked about a lot of things,’’ said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR vice president of racing operations when asked about shortening Daytona Speedweeks. “But when you kick off the season with your biggest event of the year, and you have a number of races to support that kickoff of the season, Daytona has a portfolio of races that commands a number of weeks. I think our fans look forward to spending a lot of time in Daytona in the month of February.

“Certainly there’s consideration around the race teams, the amount of time they spend. But when you talk about the biggest event of your season, it certainly warrants a couple of weeks based on what we have from a content standpoint.”

I’m not convinced. I think you could compress it into one week and make the week more entertaining.

Here’s one possible way how:

Tuesday: Cup haulers park in garage.

Wednesday: Cup teams practice and qualify. Truck teams park in garage.

Thursday: Cup teams compete in the Duels. Xfinity teams park in garage. Truck teams practice.

Friday: Cup teams practice. Xfinity teams practice. Truck teams qualify and race. Cup teams in the Clash practice.

Saturday: Cup final practice for the Daytona 500. Xfinity teams race. The Clash is held an hour after the Xfinity race ends.

Sunday: Daytona 500.

A doubleheader with the Xfinity Series and the Clash the day before the Daytona 500 creates more reasons for fans to be there for the weekend.

Maybe there’s a better way, but the point is cut a weekend out of Speedweeks and that can give teams a break at some other point in the season (or just start the season a few days later).

As the sport looks to be more efficient with its race weekends — Pocono, Watkins Glen and Martinsville each will have qualifying a few hours before the race in the second half of the season — cutting a weekend out of Daytona only makes sense.

Also, watch for more two-day Cup weekends if the experiment works this year.

INDY THE RIGHT RACE BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS?

Indianapolis taking the spot as the final race before the playoffs raises some questions.

When Richmond was there, at least many more teams had a chance to win. At Indianapolis, those that can win are fewer. Typically, the best teams excel at Indy because they have the best aero and engine packages. That’s not something a smaller team can overcome as much as it can on a short track.

The notion of an upstart winning their way into the playoffs is less likely at Indianapolis. Those who need stage points in a last-gasp effort to make the playoffs will have to gamble. Truthfully, that could make Indy more dramatic in some ways. Paul Menard won the 2011 race on a fuel gamble, but such payoffs are not likely to happen often and then what you are left with?

Something to consider is that the Xfinity cars will race there in July with restrictor plates and other modifications. If those changes enhance the racing, then it would make sense for the Cup cars to go with something similar. If NASCAR can get its cars to make passes like the IndyCars (there were 54 lead changes in last year’s Indianapolis 500), then you’d have something worth talking about.

If that doesn’t work, maybe you’re left with the tradeoff that Richmond gives the playoffs two short tracks.

A NOVEL IDEA BUT WILL IT WORK?

Charlotte’s roval for the playoffs will smack of desperation to some, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Still, one has to applaud the sport and the track looking for a different way to entertain fans. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come after the greatest risks.

While drivers will race on the infield road course, they still nearly will race all the way around the 1.5-mile track. If the action on the road course section mimics what fans see at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, then this will be a good move. If not, what then?

Charlotte’s format will present challenges for crew chiefs in setting up the car, but the key is going to be action. Few people go to races to watch the crew chiefs. It’s about the drivers. And it will be about contact on the road course.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Even with all the changes to the front half of the playoff schedule, three of the final five races are on 1.5-mile speedways.

Cassidy said NASCAR isn’t as concerned about that.

“I wouldn’t get too hung up on the number of intermediate tracks because I think what you’ve seen, if you want to focus on the back end of the playoffs, focus on the racing that we’ve seen at intermediate tracks, each of the intermediate tracks as kind of taking shape from having its own distinct personality from a racing standpoint,’’ he said.

“I think you saw that at Texas this year with the changes they made, again, a vision to change things up on that side, and to create a different racing dynamic at a mile‑and‑a‑half track.

“What you saw at Kansas a couple weeks ago kind of speaks for itself.

  “And then I don’t think you could argue that Homestead has provided some of the most compelling racing you could ever imagine to bring home a championship.’’

Miami is the best 1.5-mile track and has produced some good racing in the season finale. Nothing wrong with it where it is. Kansas has had its ups and downs but did have 21 lead changes earlier this month in what was viewed as an entertaining race. With its new track surface, we’ll see where Texas goes from its race in April.

If all three can provide entertaining racing and allow drivers to move through the field instead of being stuck in a line, then they should stay in their spots. But if they can’t do so, then NASCAR should not be afraid of making further changes to the playoff schedule.

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Chase Elliott leads drivers with career-best days at Sonoma

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Chase Elliott said his third Cup start at Sonoma Raceway, which ended with a career-best fourth-place finish at the road course, was a “lot more fun” than his first two trips.

Elliott, who also started a career-best third, earned his second top 10 and first top-five finish at the track.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver was one of four who placed in the top 10 for career-best finishes in Sunday’s race at the road course. The others were Erik Jones, Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman.

“I made a lot of gains, personally, I think, for me at this track,” Elliott told Fox Sports 1. “It’s been one of my worst.”

Elliott started and finished eighth in the race last year. He placed 21st his rookie season.

On Sunday, he positioned his No. 9 Chevrolet to finish Stage 1 in fourth and Stage 2 in second.

He was running second late in the final stage until Kevin Harvick and his fresher set of tires passed him with nine laps to go. Elliott was later passed by Clint Bowyer.

“To come here and have pace on Friday and qualify good on Saturday, and to have pace today, it was just a lot more fun,” Elliott said. “We had a fast Chevrolet all three days. And that’s nice to show up and get rhythm. We kind of had to pick our battles today. We elected to get some stage points and that set us back a little for that last stage, but I don’t think we had the pace that the leaders had.”

Elliott’s result was his fourth top five this season and his first in six races.

In his second Sonoma start, Jones started 20th and finished seventh, a significant improvement over his 25th-place finish from his rookie year.

The result came after his No. 20 Toyota suffered minor damage from contact with Michael McDowell at the beginning of Stage 1.

“It was a great day for us, really,” Jones told FS1. “I felt like it’s a little like a win for us. We were aiming for a top 15 today and to get a top 10 is just a bonus.

The result is Jones’ second top 10 in the last nine races.

Behind Jones was Almirola, who earned his first top-10 finish in seven Sonoma starts. His previous best result was 14th in 2015.

“We are just plugging away,” Almirola said. “As solid as they come. We are a top-10 car and this just goes to show me and all of our guys that we are a top-10 car everywhere. I have just run top 10 at my two career worst race tracks, Pocono (seventh) and Sonoma. If we can do that, that is incredible.”

Almirola, who helped put all four Stewart-Haas Racing cars in the top 10 for the second time this year, has earned career-best results at five tracks this season: Sonoma, Pocono, Phoenix (seventh), Las Vegas (10th) and Michigan (11th).

“It speaks true volumes about how great this race team is and how great our race cars are because they carry me at those two places where I know I struggle,” Almirola said. “I have tried really hard to become a better road course racer and I put a lot of effort into this weekend running the K&N (West) car to help me for today and it certainly did.”

Almirola placed second in Saturday’s K&N West race.

Another driver who pulled double duty this weekend was Bowman.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver placed ninth for his first Sonoma top 10 in three starts. He previous results were 29th and 31st.

“(Crew chief) Greg (Ives) made a good call on the box to I guess one (pit) stop that (in the final stage),” Bowman said. “It looked like some people two stopped it, but I don’t know, I still don’t feel like I do a very good job at these places, but I feel like I learned some today.  Definitely made some mistakes and there is plenty I can improve on to keep getting better and learning. That is all we can really ask for.” 

Daniel Suarez misses Sonoma top 10 after contact with Jimmie Johnson on last lap

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Daniel Suarez was on the verge of his first top-10 finish at Sonoma Raceway until he was spun by Jimmie Johnson on the last lap of Sunday’s race.

Suarez was running in 10th when slight contact from Johnson as they navigated Turn 4 sent his No. 19 Toyota around.

After recovering, Suarez managed to place 15th, one spot better than his 2017 result. Johnson went on to finish 11th.

“We started wheel hopping after 10 laps into a run,” Suarez told Fox Sports 1. “We just missed something with the brakes. … After finally we figured it out, I felt like maybe we had a top-10 car. We just got dumped on the last lap.”

Suarez said that Johnson apologized to him about the contact.

“I was loose, so it didn’t take a lot for someone to spin me out,” Suarez said. “He didn’t hit me hard, he just put his bumper there a little bit. It was enough to spin me out because I guess I was loose already. We came from a little rough few weeks and a top 10 was going to be nice for us.”

Suarez has not finished better than 15th in the five races since he placed third at Dover.

What Drivers Said after Sonoma race

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Martin Truex Jr. — Winner: “Last year, I felt like we had the best car, and we didn’t win and then this year I wasn’t sure we could beat (Kevin Harvick). We were real equal. He was better early in the race. I felt like we caught up to him a little, but he was going to be hard to beat either way. To get off strategy was the perfect call and then you just hope it works out for you, so sometimes you’re the bug, sometimes you’re the windshield.”

KEVIN HARVICK — Finished 2nd: “I don’t really know what is going on up on the pit box and who is doing what. I just do what I am told. Those guys do a great job. You make some right ones, you make some bad ones and sometimes you guess right and sometimes you guess wrong. Who knows what is right or wrong. I thought that was a good call at the end to put tires on in case the caution came out. We got right back up to where we were running and put ourselves in position to have a chance in case the caution came out.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 3rd: “I am happy to be in this equipment and have this opportunity, but I am also frustrated because we were one of the three that were the class of the field and had a legitimate shot at racing for a win. They just took a little different strategy than we did and that is what it took. You had to separate yourself some way. It was a lot of fun out there. I had my struggles just like they did. It seemed like (Kevin Harvick) had a little better turn than I did, and (Martin Truex Jr.) was better. On long runs, I was coming to him, especially that real long run we had. Then we started pitting, and I didn’t know what to expect. All in all, it was a solid day, and I am proud of the guys for going out there and getting the job done. We just came up a little short.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 4th: “It was a lot more fun, this trip out here, than it was the last two times. I made a lot of gains, personally, I think, for me at this track. It’s been one of my worst. To come here and have pace on Friday and qualify good on Saturday, and to have pace today, it was just a lot more fun. We had a fast Chevrolet all three days. And that’s nice to show up and get rhythm. We kind of had to pick our battles today. We elected to get some stage points, and that set us back a little for that last stage, but I don’t think we had the pace that the leaders had. So, it was a good finish for me, and we’re looking forward to the next road race.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 5th: “I thought we had enough to beat (Chase Elliott), maybe. That’s where our strategy put us there. Overall a good day for us. We struggled being able to find speed here, and I don’t know, it’s just a little bit each lap. There’s a few areas on the track where I kind of lack at, but it’s hard to make up that ground and then beat somebody that is so good here like (Martin Truex Jr.) and (Clint Bowyer). I feel like those guys all have that and we’re just the best of everybody else.”

Kurt Busch — Finished 6th: “I went 12 rounds, and there should be no-decision today. I feel like we gave it everything we could. We didn’t have superior lap times in the beginning and then we figured we would just do a two-stopper at the end. That is what won it last year but I was on a three-stopper last year and a two-stopper this year. I feel like we did everything we could to just find the right rhythm and you never know when yellows will come out, but we were in position. We were a top-five car and couldn’t quite hold off my little brother at the end. We battled.”

Erik Jones — Finished 7th: “It was a great day for us, really. I felt like it’s a little like a win for us. We were aiming for a top-15 today and to get a top-10 is just a bonus. We struggled a bit on the first run. Once we got an adjustment under it, and I started to get settled in and comfortable with racing through traffic, we just kind of started plugging along and picking up spots. Our strategy worked out for us.”

Aric Almirola Finished 8th: “We are just plugging away. As solid as they come. We are a top-10 car, and this just goes to show me and all of our guys that we are a top-10 car everywhere. I have just run top 10 at my two career-worst racetracks, Pocono and Sonoma. If we can do that, that is incredible. It speaks true volumes about how great this race team is and how great our race cars are because they carry me at those two places where I know I struggle.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 9th: “Yeah, Greg (Ives, crew chief) made a good call on the box to I guess one-stop that. It looked like some people two -topped it, but I don’t know, I still don’t feel like I do a very good job at these places, but I feel like I learned some today.  Definitely made some mistakes and there is plenty I can improve on to keep getting better and learning. That is all we can really ask for.”

Chris Buescher — Finished 12th: “Yeah, it was a good finish there at the end. I’m proud of this team for the work put in this weekend. I didn’t get as much out of qualifying as I needed to, and it put us a little bit behind there at the start, but through some excellent strategy and a good car, we gained a lot of points today.  It was a good day.  I enjoy road racing, something to break it up a little bit, and I’m ready for the next one.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 18th: Even though we didn’t run up front all race, this race comes to down to attrition and pit strategy. Brian (Pattie, crew hief) made an excellent call resulting in my best finish here.”

William Byron — Finished 25th: “I felt like the biggest thing was just trying to learn the racetrack. The first run was really tough and after that I felt like our pace got a little bit better and improved. If I could have started the weekend where I finished the race, I feel like I have a much better idea what I needed. Now we will go back and write some notes to see how we can improve for the next road course race.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 33rd: “Today wasn’t the ending that we wanted, but I’m not going to let a mechanical issue bring this team’s morale down. There were bright spots this weekend that are worth focusing on. This is only my second time ever racing here, and I continued to learn more about how to get through this course.

Jamie McMurray — Finished 37th: “Something with the oil pump pulley mechanism broke. I really don’t know. They were going to try to fix it, but when that breaks, the engine shuts off on its own like in an oil protection mode, and we started the engine a couple of times, we kind of tricked the engine to not think it was in that mode. And so, I think they were a little worried now that maybe it ran too long and  … we are not going back out.  They are going to work on it for a while, so our day is done.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 38th: “I haven’t missed a shift on a road course in 10 years. It was just me. I was trying to be so patient and so smooth. It was unexpected. It’s on me. I let everybody down here. The car was good. I don’t know if it was a race-winning car. We needed a little work on the long run, but it’s just all on me. I don’t know what else to say. I just let everybody down.”

With fewest Cup winners through 16 races since 1978, who’s in playoffs on points?

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With 10 races remaining in the regular season and 10 spots still up for grabs, the points battle remains fierce in NASCAR’s premier series — and most of non-winners held serve Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.

There was only minor shuffling among those without a victory who still are vying for a playoff spot. Ryan Blaney (11th) fell two spots in the rankings, while Kyle Larson (ninth) and Aric Almirola (10th) each gained a spot.

But all still hold provisional playoff spots along with Brad Keselowski (fourth), Kurt Busch (seventh), Denny Hamlin (eighth), Jimmie Johnson (12th), Chase Elliott (13th), Erik Jones (14th) and Alex Bowman (15th). Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16th) is 17 points behind Bowman for the final provisional playoff spot.

Sonoma marked Martin Truex Jr.‘s third victory this season. Other winners who have clinched playoff berths in the 16-driver field for the 10-race playoff that begins Sept. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Austin Dillon.

The last time there were so few winners through 16 races was 40 years ago. In the first 16 races of the 1978 season, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip had accounted for all of the wins.

Kyle Busch, who finished fifth at Sonoma, remains the leader in the 2018 points standings by 72 points over Kevin Harvick (second Sunday to Truex). Winning the regular-season championship results in 15 playoff points, vs. 10 for the runner-up.

Click here for the Cup Series points standings after Sonoma.