Ryan: Following the money in NASCAR merchandise is a difficult path for drivers

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There is no greater evidence of Kyle Larson’s emergence as a star than how he is driving the narrative in every way on a daily basis.

Whether it’s winning every time he hops in a sprint car, leading the points in the Cup Series or fostering impassioned debates over grass-roots crossovers and stock-car traditions, the soft-spoken Larson has become one of the strongest voices in auto racing.

This week, he put drivers’ merchandising revenue front and center with a single tweet that had massive traction Monday, drawing response from drivers, fans and industry members.

So Larson is taking in more money off a night of dirt racing in Spring Run, Pennsylvania, than he has from nearly a half-season of racing around the country in Cup?

Well, yes, of course he is (and it would come as no surprise to the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who has raced dirt for more than a decade).

Larson could have sold 25 times as much in NASCAR gear over the first 17 Cup races and possibly still lag behind his take-home pay as a dirt-track megastar.

While their grosses can be much higher, many NASCAR drivers’ merchandise income isn’t commensurate with the biggest stars in dirt-track racing. When NASCAR’s merchandising boom was at its peak more than a decade ago, a top star’s revenue share hovered at $3-4 million annually.

Now virtually all are below $1 million, and many aren’t cracking six figures.

Meanwhile, a World of Outlaws champion might pull in up to $1 million, and top dirt late model racers can make hundreds of thousands in T-shirt sales.

At the elite dirt events that run multiple days and have a festival atmospheres (such as the Knoxville Nationals), the best drivers typically can sell up to $100,000 in merchandise. In a lawsuit filed last year, dirt late model legend Scott Bloomquist and four other lesser-known drivers estimated aggregate losses of $100,000 if Eldora Speedway prevented them from selling merchandise at its prestigious World 100.

This isn’t easy money — there are costs for hauling and staffing the trailers, as well as vendor licenses, taxes and liability insurance — but dirt teams can keep much of the proceeds from merchandise sold as track fees are limited or often nonexistent.

Those are among the simple structural reasons for the disparity of merchandise income between Cup and dirt drivers, which is comparable to the touring revenues of rock bands playing arenas vs. those playing clubs. The latter earns a larger percentage of merchandise by designing, selling and transporting their own goods. While the crowds are much smaller, fans pay a fraction for admission and have cash left to buy T-shirts supporting the bands – which keep a large chunk of what they sell because of much less overhead.

It’s vastly different for a band that has a following large enough to tour stadiums with high-priced tickets. Much of its revenue is derived from gate sales and performance guarantees while merchandise revenue might be divided among a promoter, venue, record label and various parties. The gross is much higher, but the cut for the artist also can be much smaller.

This is somewhat analogous to NASCAR’s 10-year contract for its trackside merchandise business with Fanatics that started in 2015. Under that deal, 75 percent of the revenue goes to Fanatics, which provides the infrastructure, marketing, staffing, transportation and security.

The rest of the revenue is split thusly: 15 percent to the track, nine percent to teams (which generally is divvied into thirds between the team, driver and sponsor) and one percent to NASCAR.

That naturally spurs some questions.

Is it equitable that drivers are receiving roughly three percent of the gross? Or that tracks (which do provide the valuable real estate and incur some liability) receive five times as much?

Larson isn’t the first to call attention to this. When Danica Patrick announced the launch of her Warrior athleisure line of clothing, the impetus was the lack of income from her NASCAR gear.

“I was so frustrated with merchandise sales in NASCAR because they’re horrible, as in for the drivers, we just make no money off them,” Patrick told the Charlotte Observer in January. “I mean, I don’t know who does, but it’s not us.”

They are fair points to make, but it also is worth noting in the collaborative decision-making era of NASCAR, the Fanatics arrangement wasn’t conceived in a vacuum. Teams and drivers were consulted on reshaping a model intended to offer more options at a wider range of price points while making it easier for smaller teams to hawk their stuff through a centralized vendor (instead of having to secure their own haulers).

And while dirt racers might be netting more in merchandise, Cup drivers still are raking in far greater salaries and purse money thanks to multibillion-dollar TV contracts and weekly audiences that still stretch well into the millions.

That doesn’t preclude Cup stars from demanding a greater share. The same rumblings are being heard in the NBA as it enters an unprecedented period of player prosperity.

Given the life-and-death stakes faced by NASCAR drivers, it’s arguable they are the most underpaid of professional athletes.

But as long as they remain loosely organized in a council instead of the union representation found in most professional sports, drivers probably won’t get far in squeezing greater wealth from the industry. Collective bargaining on complicated financial matters is best left in the hands of lawyers and MBAs.

There are ways to circumvent the model and earn more directly. Some drivers use websites to sell their own products (sometimes tied to their own brands, such as Tony Stewart’s “Smoke” moniker) and keep a lion’s share of profits – though it isn’t always a cost-effective choice. Clicking on the link for Monster Energy Cup gear on Kyle Larson’s website takes one to the NASCAR.com Superstore – which is run by Fanatics and where online revenues are split the same way as for at-track merchandise.

The root problem for a NASCAR driver’s take, though, isn’t how the pie gets divvied (which hardly changed with the move to Fanatics).

It’s how large the pie is.

Merchandise sales fell off a cliff with the Great Recession and continue to sag for multiple reasons, including that simply fewer people are attending races. In International Speedway Corp.’s annual reports, revenues in the food, beverage and merchandise category fell from a peak of $87.2 million in 2005 to $41.9 million last year. The Sports Business Journal reported in 2014 that merchandise sales plummeted from more than $2 billion in 2008 to $1 billion in 2010; diecast sales particularly were hit hard, according to the New York Times.

Top stars still might be grossing in the mid-seven figures annually, but they feel a larger pinch because their cut remains roughly the same as when their total revenues were much greater.

And there are other economic forces at work.

Dirt racing fans might buy more of their drivers’ gear in part because they have more disposable income after admission. Prices for the prestigious Kings Royal World of Outlaws event at Eldora Speedway range from $34-38 (compared with $36-40 for the Camping World Truck race at the track), and ticket prices for most dirt races are often less than half of that.

The average ticket price for a Cup race is roughly $70 (according to Monday’s ISC investor analyst call). For a largely middle class fan base more gun shy about spending over saving since the downturn, there seems less inclination to splurge on a $20 hat or $200 diecast.

Meanwhile, consumer traffic patterns that would encourage impulse buys at tracks also are changing. The midways for Cup races, once synonymous with a carnival-style atmosphere, are more deserted. As sponsors change their activation strategies and redistribute their marketing dollars in the age of social media, there has been a de-emphasis on a large trackside presence.

The Fanatics deal was a big factor in altering the midway landscape, mostly eliminating the once ubiquitous individual driver merchandise trailers in favor of a large climate-controlled tent for all merchandise.

That model has begun shifting back toward trailers this season, but the long-term solution likely will be a hybrid. Sales were up at Daytona International Speedway stores adjacent to the grandstands during the 2017 Daytona 500, perhaps because it was the first with predetermined stage breaks that fans took advantage of the same way they might at halftime or between periods of a hockey game. Meanwhile, the return of merchandise trailers at Charlotte Motor Speedway didn’t produce massive gains (some big-name drivers significantly were down).

As the NASCAR industry seeks ways to regain its footing on moving merchandise, this is where Larson’s voice also can matter.

No one knows better than the 24-year-old that fans also spend proportionately larger sums on gear associated with dirt track drivers because they find their heroes infinitely relatable. There is a special kinship formed at many dirt tracks that allow fans to upgrade their tickets with access to the pits, where some teams also sell merchandise directly from their race haulers.

Aside from dwindling attendance and tighter wallets, NASCAR merchandise revenues also might be waning because drivers are more insulated from their supporters.

There is great opportunity for the next crop of 20-something stars to make an impact on fans’ purchasing consideration. Larson’s Cup merchandise sales are up by triple-digit percentages this year, and Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones also are enjoying signficant spikes.

As their popularity grows, they would be wise to capitalize on it by being as aggressive with fan outreach as dirt-track drivers, who regularly sign autographs before and after races to maintain personal connections with the crowds that return the favor by buying their stuff.

What if emerging personalities such as Larson advocated earning more money while also proving they help generate it by sticking around for a few hours after every race? By spending less time in the walled-off confines of the motor home lot?

Larson is proving this year he can drive the narrative in NASCAR. He also might be able to help drive revenue again by instilling some of the principles he’s seen in dirt racing.

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Denny Hamlin obviously wasn’t pleased about an inadvertent trip through the frontstretch grass that ripped the front of his No. 11 Toyota to shreds near the end of the Coke Zero 400. But that spin could have a major silver lining for Hamlin or another winless veteran two months from now when the 16-driver playoff field is set.

On the Lap 158 restart, Ricky Stenhouse was fourth on the outside behind Ty Dillon, and his No. 17 Ford didn’t launch well and quickly got disconnected from the leader. It then seemed the race could be decided among three other winless drivers: Dillon, David Ragan and AJ Allmendinger – until the caution for the wreck involving Hamlin and Erik Jones set up the overtime finish.

This time, Stenhouse restarted in third from the bottom lane and rocketed past Ragan for his second victory of the season.

“My car seemed fast on the bottom,” Stenhouse said. “It all worked out. When David restarted the restart before on the bottom, I was on top (in fourth) and pushing Dillon as hard as I could get, but the shorter radius around the corner helped David get out front.” 

If Dillon or Ragan had won Daytona, it greatly would have increased the likelihood of squeezing a major name from the playoffs. There currently are 10 drivers qualified with wins and six have provisional slots through points: Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth.

Joey Logano, whose Richmond win isn’t eligible because of a postrace violation, is three points behind Kenseth for the last spot.

It is possible that all of those drivers could win over the next nine races and eliminate a lower-ranked one-win driver (such as Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman or Kurt Busch). But every regular season since the advent of the 10-race championship run has featured fewer than 16 winners – and Sunday’s result at Daytona helps ensure that the trend is likely to continue, allowing some teams to qualify on points.

With the exception of Allmendinger winning next month at Watkins Glen International, or another felicitous occurrence of a well-timed fog rolling in at Pocono Raceway, the clock virtually has struck midnight on another Cinderella making the playoffs as Chris Buescher did last year with Front Row Motorsports.

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Whether it was the impact of divergent strategies, a softer tire that drew decidedly mixed reviews or even the lunar cycle, several theories were floated about the furious racing that produced a record 14 caution flags Saturday night.

“It’s been a wild night,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said about his final start in the July race. “I didn’t anticipate this much action and this much torn up sheet metal.”

Said Danica Patrick: “All I can say is that you all are getting your money’s worth tonight. From lap one, it has been crazy. It should be a full moon because that is how crazy it is out there.”

What if it was as simple as just that Cup drivers had more to race for than ever before?

Between championship contenders trying to gain stage points and wins – the last few laps of the opening segment of Saturday’s race featured the most frenetic action for a Stage I win since Kyle Larson and Joey Logano’s duel at Phoenix — and underdogs desperately trying to make the playoffs with an upset victory, the aggression on the 2.5-mile was as charged as it’s been since the second half of the 2014 Daytona 500 (which concluded in optimum handling conditions at night after a six-hour rain delay).

“Everybody has got a good shot at winning here, and you want to gain as many stage points as you can and try to win a stage,” Stenhouse said. “So I think everybody was just trying to get out front and lead the race.”

It also was indicative of some sublime performances by drivers (Dillon, Ragan, Michael McDowell) who aggressively were maximizing their ability and equipment while trying to capitalize on a rare opportunity at contending.

“Guys like David Ragan that just drove a superb race,” Jimmie Johnson said. “Put his car in the right places all day long. I could tell at times he didn’t have the fastest car, but he did a phenomenal job working the draft.”

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Despite recent threats to limit race tire allotments for inspection failures, teams will be bracing for NASCAR’s laser beams to be set on stun this weekend.

Kentucky is the first visit in nearly two months to a 1.5-mile track, where aerodynamics are at a premium. In four races this season at the 1.5-mile ovals of Atlanta Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, 27 cars missed qualifying because of inspection problems. Much of it has been related to rear-end suspensions designed to enhance steering by testing the boundaries of the rules.

Road courses and restrictor-plate superspeedways aren’t as aero-dependent as the 1.5-mile tracks, as borne out by the past two races where every car cleared inspection in time for qualifying. At Daytona, 31 cars passed the Laser Inspection Station on the first attempt. At Sonoma, 31 cars passed every inspection station on the first attempt.

If Friday’s qualifying session goes as smoothly, expect an evening of Kentucky bourbon toasts – but it’s more likely to be an evening of shots for a frazzled brigade of officials and crew members recovering from another contentious dance through the inspection line.

Also worth watching: NASCAR will be scrutinizing the thickness of splitters this weekend by enforcing existing rules on teams pushing the boundaries. If splitters display excessive wear beyond the specified thickness of 0.46 inches, teams might be ordered to replace the part.

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In another sign of the strength of the youth movement afoot in NASCAR, 10 of the top 15 finishers Saturday were born after 1980, and five were born after 1990.

Those numbers would have been higher if Larson, 24, and Blaney, 23, hadn’t been involved in a wreck with six laps remaining. Blaney led nine laps and briefly was at the front just ahead of good friend Darrell Wallace Jr., who finished a career-best 15th in his third Cup start and delivered the Peak Millennial postrace quote of the year.

“It was great to battle Ryan there for a while,” Wallace, 23, said. “I was wondering what the fans were tweeting.”

Chalk up another addition to the “Things That Cale, Bobby, Donnie, David, Richard, Rusty, Bill and Dale Never Would Have Said” file.

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Speaking of the younger set, even “The King” wonders about kids these days.

Asked about how he assuages the old-guard fan base that clings to traditions, Richard Petty deferred to the short-attention span society.

“You’ve got to figure there is so much going on for young people, old people,” Petty said last weekend. “Nobody’s got time to set for four to five hours and watch a race anymore. If it lasts more than 15 to 20 minutes, we’re going to get our Google machine out and start punching buttons and doing something else.

“So we’ve got to get the next generation. How do we do that? Everybody’s looking at trying to figure that out. This is a whole different generation of people, and they’re looking at things so much different than what we did 10 to 15 years ago. So how do we tap into those people to keep our sport alive? It’ll take everybody to do it. Takes (the media) to do it, takes us to do it, takes NASCAR, takes TV, takes everybody in order to get to those people. There are 330 million people out there, we ought to be able to get to 50-100,000 every weekend. That’s what it’s going to take.”

Sage words from a seven-time champion the next time the endless debate reignites about whether there are too many 500-mile races on the schedule.

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There are three tracks remaining in the regular season where Ricky Stenhouse Jr. believes he can earn his third win (and first on an unrestricted track) and one reason why: With two victories locking him into a playoff spot, Stenhouse and crew chief Brian Pattie can afford to gamble.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway are opportunities to “do something crazy strategy-wise and add another five playoff points” for a victory, Stenhouse told NBC Sports. “I feel that’s our best opportunity to win.”

Even with Roush Fenway Racing still struggling at 1.5-mile tracks, Stenhouse views Kentucky as the first of many chances for stage wins. “We’ll use strategies throughout (at) places like Pocono, Michigan and Kentucky,” he said. “You can play different strategies, give up Stage 2 to win Stage 1 and set yourself up for the win.”

Pattie has targeted Bristol, where Stenhouse has two runner-up finishes (March 2014, August 2016) and five top 10s in nine starts.

“I’m hoping Indy, I’ve got some demons there I need to get rid of, but we have a good shot at Bristol,” Pattie said. “Bristol and Richmond are probably our two best.”

Pattie was the crew chief at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2009-10 with Juan Pablo Montoya, who led the most laps in the Brickyard 400 each of those seasons but lost a shot at victory because of a pit speeding penalty and a crash after getting mired in traffic by a decision to pit for four tires.

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NASCAR executive senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell appeared on Wednesday’s NASCAR on NBC podcast. Besides discussing a possible change in the overtime line, O’Donnell also discussed:

–Attempting to fill the shoes of Mike Helton as the supervisor of day-to-day competition issues;

–A childhood in which he spent several years growing up overseas;

–Dealing with negative feedback as a weekly voice for NASCAR;

–The importance of swagger from drivers;

–An emphasis on technology with the upcoming Gen 7 car;

–The plan for new helmet cams on every driver at races in the future;

–What might change with lug nut monitoring, pit speeds and debris cautions in the future.

The podcast is available on AudioBoom, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and other podcasting apps.

Aric Almirola leaves New Hampshire frustrated after third-place finish

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LOUDON, N.H. — Aric Almirola’s first top-five finish of the season was greeted a forced smile.

After leading 42 laps and feeling he “had the best car hands down,” a slow pit stop and a poor restart prevented Almirola from ending his 138-race winless streak Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, he had to settle for a third-place finish

“You would think I’d be really excited to run top five and I’m not,” Almirola said. “We had the best car hands-down. There’s no doubt in my mind. We gave it away on pit road and then I gave it away again on the restart. I spun the tires on the restart and didn’t even give myself a fighting chance, so I’m just really frustrated.”

It continues Almirola’s season of near misses.

He was about a mile from winning the Daytona 500 when a bump from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall.

Last month at Chicagoland Speedway, Almirola was fast, leading 70 laps but two loose wheels doomed him to a 25th-place finish.

Sunday, Almirola was leading with less than 45 laps to go. A caution on Lap 258 brought the field to pit road and Almirola lost the lead. He exited pit road third.

“It’s just frustrating,” Almirola said. “They say you’ve got to lose some before you win some and I feel like we’ve lost some now and it’s time to stop it and go to Victory Lane.”

On the restart, Almirola spun his tires and was seventh before he got back around the track, losing four spots.

“Kyle (Busch) just went a lot sooner in the restart zone than I anticipated,” Almirola said. “I was trying to roll up to the restart zone. When he took off, I kind of pushed the throttle down and spun the tires and didn’t get a good start.”

What drivers said after New Hampshire

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Kevin Harvick — Winner: “I just didn’t know if I was gonna get there at the end and I felt like that was my best opportunity to do what I had to do to win. I didn’t want to wreck him, but I didn’t want to waste a bunch of time behind him. I just got to thank everybody on this No. 4.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 2nd: “You know, it’s racing. We had a really, really poor performance today. Our Interstate Batteries Camry just wasn’t there – it wasn’t there all weekend. We kept fighting the same things all weekend long and we never make any gains on it all through practice and we kind of struggled with it through the race and Adam (Stevens, crew chief) made some really, really good calls – some really good adjustments to just try to keep improving on it. My pit crew was flawless. They gained us all those spots on pit road to get us out front to get us in that position – to have a shot to go after the win – and, you know, we controlled the restart and drove away by a little bit, but we weren’t the best car on the long run. All them SHR (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars were really, really good today. They were all fast, so it was going to be hard to hold them off and I was just kind of backing up and, you know, three, four, five corners in a row and with a faster car, I’m not sure he (Kevin Harvick) had to do it, but he did. It’s fine. How you race is how you get raced, so it’s fine.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 3rd: “You’d think I’d be more excited to run top five – and I’m not. We had the best car, hands down. There’s no doubt in my mind. And we gave it away on pit road and then I gave it away again on the restart – spun the tires. Didn’t even give myself a fighting chance.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 4th: “We were fast early. Just VHT wore off and I was no good anymore. A couple guys – specifically the SHR (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars – man, they got rolling there about midway through the race and we just pretty much crapped, so couldn’t ever fix it and we had one set of tires that was funny and on that one run there it was wheel hoping real bad, I just – I couldn’t hang onto it, so we lost some spots there, but pit crew kept us in the game. We had a good stop there at the end that gave us a shot. We just didn’t have the speed there after a few laps. We tried hard, but we just can’t quite figure out the second half of this thing, but when we do we’re going to be in good shape.

Chase Elliott — Finished 5th: “I was shocked, to be honest with you, that we ran even that good. Our whole NAPA group did a great job overnight. I really have no idea where that came from. I hope it wasn’t dumb luck. Hopefully we can keep it rolling because it’s really nice to be able to go up there and lead some laps. I know it wasn’t the right part of the race, but still, leading laps for us is big compared to what we’ve been doing. I’m proud of the effort. I appreciate everybody’s effort back at Hendrick and the chassis shop and engine shop and Chevrolet and all the folks that are working hard to try to get better. We took a step in the right direction.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 6th: “Yeah, it was a good rebound from yesterday. The entire weekend they definitely stepped it up. It was a good run for our Chevy Accessories Chevy Camaro. The guys did a good job in the pits today, that was nice to see, we have been struggling a little bit there. Just proud of everybody. Not the end result that we want, but a huge improvement and that is something we want. We will keep digging.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 7th: “It was a challenging day for our Menards/Sylvania Ford Fusion team. We had good speed early, but needed to make sure adjustments to have a chance at the win. We had two things not go our way on pit road, but we fought back for a solid finish.”

Joey Logano — Finished 9th: “We struggled today. We had okay fire-off speed but overall, our Shell-Pennzoil Ford just fell off too early in the run. I fought loose most of the day with a car tucked in behind me on corner entry and at times it was too tight in the center. We got a couple of stage points and a top-10 finish, but we need to get faster now that we’re closing in on the playoffs.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 10th: “I think top 10 is where we need to be. Top five right now on sheer speed is something we are achieving and trying to get to. We scored some great points in the stages. … All-in-all we had a good day, always could be better, but a nice solid step forward.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 11th: “We really struggled. We were 10 out of 10 plowing tight, had the track bar maxed out all the way up, all the rear brake I could stand and doing everything I could to try to get the thing to turn, it just wasn’t going to turn. Hate it. I hate that we unloaded with so much speed and just kind of I guess didn’t go the right way or the track changed on us, but really proud of Greg (Ives, crew chief) and everybody for getting the car better there at the end. Had a good restart there and almost got a top 10. It could have been a lot worse.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 13th: “No doubt. Yeah, I mean, there’s several different approaches, several different things I tried to do inside the car to get the front to turn. Just would not turn. Does it for a couple laps in open track, but once I get in traffic it just plows through the front – touch the gas and it plows through. I can’t keep it one lane, so it’s a struggle with balance. I think our cars have speed, we just have to get our – do the best to get our setup on there that we can be aggressive with.”

William Byron — Finished 14th: “Yeah, I mean it was okay. I thought at the beginning of the race we kind of just got really loose in (to turns) which made it really hard for us to hold position. And then I felt like once we got that back out of it we just had that one weak run and once we got that back out of it we were pretty good again. Just kind of missed it that one run and hard to make up track position after that.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 21st: “The Dow Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was loose on entry to start the race, but a pit stop for four tires, fuel and adjustments definitely improved the car’s handling. We kept up with changing track conditions through adjustments in the pits throughout the race, and ended up with a pretty good handling Camaro ZL1. We were posting top-10 lap times during most of the race and running in eighth when we ended up with a loose wheel and had to make an unscheduled pit stop under green flag conditions. It cost us the lead lap. It’s a shame because we had a rocket ship but couldn’t do anything with it. I’m proud of the guys for building a really fast car. We are on the right track.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 23rd: “This GEICO Camaro ZL1 was incredibly fast today. It was one of the best pieces that we have brought to the racetrack all year. I hate that my restart violation at the start of Stage 2 put us behind. My crew chief made every strategy call that he could to keep us in the game and get laps back, but we never could get back ahead. I have no doubt that this was a top 10 car, and I’m disappointed that we couldn’t show everyone that. But, we’re still only halfway through the season with a lot of racing left. We can’t and won’t let ourselves get down. We will put one of these races together from start to finish here soon.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 32nd: “We had a disappointing day for sure. I don’t know if I used too much brake trying to keep up or what. We’ll go on to Pocono and try to get a win there next week.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 35th: “It just sucks. First and foremost, I hate that for my teammate. It was his first win and he was dominating the race. I was trying to nurse it around. Something in the left-rear was broke and no more than Brett (Griffin, spotter) told me, ‘we’re having trouble, let’s just get off the track,’ and I was kind of thinking the same thing. Literally, as he was saying that and I’m thinking it, something broke on the right side and away it went. That sucks. I hate it for him.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 36th: “I think Ryan Newman got into the side of me pretty early at the start of the race. I was kind of nervous about it there was no smoke in the car though, so I thought we were okay. And then we went back green and, on the restart, it just felt like the car was moving around a lot and down the front straightaway I felt it go. I tried everything I could do to slow the car down to get it stopped, but there was nothing I could do. Usually when you hit here you hit big and just disappointed. We have had a rough few weeks. Obviously, Daytona was okay, but other than that is has been a rough few weeks.”

Chase Elliott ‘shocked’ with New Hampshire top five

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After the end of a long, wet day, Chase Elliott was “shocked” with how he fared in Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver placed fifth, earning his first top five and top 10 on the 1.058-mile track in five starts.

That was after Elliott claimed his first stage win of the season, winning Stage 2 over Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

Elliott, who started 10th and finished Stage 1 in second, led a season-high 23 laps after passing Truex for the lead on Lap 132.

In the previous 19 races Elliott had led only 19 laps.

“I was shocked, to be honest with you, that we ran even that good,” Elliott said. “Our whole NAPA group did a great job overnight. I really have no idea where that came from. I hope it wasn’t dumb luck. Hopefully we can keep it rolling because it’s really nice to be able to go up there and lead some laps. I know it wasn’t the right part of the race, but still, leading laps for us is big compared to what we’ve been doing.”

The top five is the first for Hendrick Motorsports since Elliott placed fourth at Sonoma Raceway four races ago. Before that, Jimmie Johnson had the most recent top five in the Coke 600 in May.

“I’m proud of the effort,” Elliott said. “It was a huge points day for us. Obviously, we’d love that win to not have to worry about it. But, we got 19 points between the two stages, that’s 19 positions on-track, and that’s a lot. Anything can happen in these next few weeks and to have all you can get is really important.”

Through 20 races Elliott has five top fives and nine top 10s.

Elliott leaves New Hampshire 13th in standings, two points behind Johnson.

Johnson ran in the top five late in the first stage after he, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth did not pit during the competition caution that waved on Lap 35 (since they had stopped earlier).

Johnson placed third in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2 before finishing in 10th. It’s his first top 10 in six races and the first time Hendrick has had two drivers in the top 10 since Sonoma.

“I think top 10 is where we need to be,” Johnson said. “Top five right now on sheer speed is something we are achieving and trying to get to. We scored some great points in the stages. … All-in-all we had a good day, always could be better, but a nice solid step forward.”

Kyle Busch on contact from Kevin Harvick: ‘How you race is how you get raced’

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LOUDON, N.H. — Kevin Harvick didn’t want to wait. Kyle Busch won’t forget.

Harvick’s bump-and-run of Busch with seven laps left Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway spiced what has the potential to be quite a duel between the two the rest of the season.

“How you race is how you get raced,” Busch said after his runner-up finish to Harvick.

Busch said he felt Harvick didn’t need to be as physical when he was.

“He did that because of Chicago,” Busch said, alluding to the beating and banging Busch and Kyle Larson had on the last lap of that race. “Everybody has fair game on Kyle Busch that’s for sure when it comes to the fanbase. That’s fine. That’s how they want to race, that’s how I’ll race back.

“It’s just a bump. He didn’t wreck me or anything like that. He did it early enough, but he did it way harder and pushed me out of the groove three lanes and it just takes you so long to recover here that there was no possible way I could get back to him and I was slower anyways so I was in the way. So no harm no foul.”

But Busch won’t forget.

“When you’re slower, you kind of expect that but you also think that you a guy is going to race you fair and clean first,” Busch said. “I don’t think he ever tried to pass me clean once he got there. He just kept hitting me in the rear bumper each and every time it was getting increasingly harder.”

Harvick never intended to wait so long.

“I figured that’s exactly what he was thinking,” he said of Busch. “I knew I needed to take the opportunity as early as I could get it because I knew that he was thinking late and needed to do it when he wasn’t expecting it.

“The more opportunities to get into his wheelhouse, in his thought process, the less chance that you have. He’s that good. If you wait until two or three to go, the entries are going to get shallower, he’s going to start grinding on the brakes a little bit harder. He’s going to put himself in a position to not get hit and he’s going to go on defense and really start to be aggressive. I wanted to do it earlier just to try to catch him off guard.”

Is he worried about how Busch could race him the rest of the regular season and the playoffs?

“You do and you worry about that stuff later,” Harvick said. “It’s not like I wrecked him. It’s the same thing as Chicago.”

Harvick said one has to do all they can to win races, especially against another playoff foe. The victory allowed Harvick to gain five playoff points and kept Busch from collecting those.

“These races are hard to win,” Harvick said. “When you’re in position, it’s one of those things that you have to do what you have to do for your team. You want to do everything you can to not spin him out and not wreck him and just make it as clean as possible and try to accomplish the bump and run. Today we were able to accomplish it well and win the race.”

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