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Ryan: Five things you might have missed on the NASCAR Media Tour

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CHARLOTTE — Generational driver schism EXPOSED!

Top-secret EFI data REVEALED!

NASCAR chairman’s absence CALLED OUT!

If screaming headlines are your thing, NASCAR’s 2018 Media Tour delivered the goods with all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the forehead.

The annual preseason event provided its share of conversation starters (even if some topics seemed played out, or at least very familiar). The rift between the emerging class of budding stars and the establishment was notable, and a more widespread dissemination of acceleration, braking and turning information could have an impact on competition this season.

If you prefer nuance, however, you might have been left wanting for deeper analysis after this annual paean to pack journalism (in which the subject matter is limited to what is disclosed by a limited group of subjects – in this case, exclusively drivers with often limited agendas). And beyond the sexiest of storylines, there were other clues as to what might bear watching this season.

Here are five things you might have missed from last week’s Media Tour, particularly if you were following the updates in 280-character dispatches:

1. For Ford teams, it’s in Hawkeye we trust: It’s rare to find consensus among such a bull-headed constituency as race car drivers. But when asked how they will keep up with the newer Camry and Camaro, virtually every man behind the wheel of a Fusion cited NASCAR’s new inspection process as the saving grace. The system being implemented in 2018 will rely on cameras and computer scanning technology for more scrutiny.

Publicly, this was hailed as a win by Ford drivers who spoke mostly in generalities about the why. Privately, many were saying the new system will neutralize body advantages gained by the more recent models of Chevrolet and Toyota. Theoretically, it will eliminate precious wiggle room under the previous laser inspection and template processes.

As NASCAR has adjusted its rules to strip downforce in recent seasons, Ford’s older model seemed to lack the adjustability needed to regain rear downforce. This partly accounts for why Brad Keselowski has been lobbying for help since last season, warning ominously after the 2017 season finale that Ford could be headed for “a drubbing.”

The Hawkeye system seems to have ameliorated some of those concerns. It probably will be at least two months until its impact can be fully evaluated. But based on their confidence at the Media Tour, the Blue Oval brigade clearly has bought into the idea that the inspection changes will offer a fighting chance – at least until Ford rolls out a redesigned body (likely the Mustang) next season.

2. Teams have made big offseason changes … : After essentially operating as two two-car teams (competing out of adjacent buildings) for more than a decade, Hendrick Motorsports’ reorganization into a more universal approach is indicative of the teams’ struggles last season but also of the engineering-driven assembly line mentality that has taken root in Cup.

Traditionally, crew chiefs have stood as the king of the mountain at Hendrick, but its latest organization chart suggests that decision-making will become more diffuse. That could be an adjustment (and perhaps a welcome one) for Chad Knaus, who has enjoyed unprecedented success while leading Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet for the past 16 seasons. After arguably the most underperforming season of Johnson’s career, it seems an acknowledgment that the teams’ cars and setups would benefit from more input and “a think-tanking of ideas,” as Johnson alluded (while also hinting that shrinking sponsorship also makes standardization an easier choice over customization).

On a lesser scale, internal moves by smaller teams such as JTG Daugherty Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports seem aimed at enhancing the efficiency and leverage afforded by forming alliances with large teams. The blueprint is last year’s championship campaign of Furniture Row Racing, which outran Toyota ally and chassis supplier Joe Gibbs Racing with a much smaller budget and staff.

3. … and so have some drivers: After living much of the past two seasons in Aspen, Colorado, Johnson indicated he will be spending more time in Charlotte this year, aiding his team’s transition to a new structure with younger drivers. Roush Fenway Racing’s Trevor Bayne is headed in the other direction, relocating to his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee (though he will make frequent trips to the shop).

Kasey Kahne outlined his plans for running a couple dozen sprint car races with his teams now that his contractual shackles have been loosened. While the moonlighting surely will keep him loose, it was telling that Kahne recalled his 2011 with Red Bull Racing was “awesome” and more enjoyable than any of his six seasons at Hendrick.

Though he did score a win at Phoenix (in Red Bull’s penultimate race in NASCAR) and a respectable 14th in points (better than his final four years at Hendrick), it wasn’t the results that made him happy at Red Bull – it was the less constrained atmosphere of a smaller team. Kahne probably won’t have the same caliber of cars at Leavine Family Racing, but he will have less pressure, and that might make a difference.

4. Kyle Busch’s drive: The runner-up in last year’s championship race hasn’t rewatched the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale, and he probably won’t have another screening until November when Kyle Busch hopes to be advance to the championship round for the fourth consecutive season.

While he concedes that Martin Truex Jr. was deserving of the title because of his season-long excellence, Busch and his team believed they were as good or better than the No. 78 at Miami. That compounded the sting from Busch feeling as if he should have repeated as champion in 2016. “It’s tough when you feel like you should have won it three years in a row,” Busch said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “You’re obviously feeling like a failure and a letdown and not just for yourself but your team and organization and everyone around you.”

Busch had five wins last year but easily could have had twice as many, and those misses linger with him as much as the triumphs. His cutthroat determination makes him a star as much as his singular ability, and his edge already is evident this year. With the growing pains that slowed the Camry at the start of 2017 long gone, Busch seems primed to open 2018 the way he did a decade ago (when he won eight of the first 22 races in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing) and don’t forget that the Daytona 500 remains a glaring omission on his resume.

5. Kyle Larson (literally): The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was missing from the Media Tour because of an illness. But Larson was present at a sponsor announcement the previous week and provided some interesting reflections on last year’s finale and this season’s outlook.

He also reaffirmed his desire to have more Cup drivers run in grassroots series such as the Chili Bowl, laughing at Keselowski’s suggestion of being too tall to succeed (“He would barely be above average height in a Midget”). But he also empathized with those who worry about the reputation risks of parachuting into the Chili Bowl.

“I’ve thought about running a big dirt late model race, but I can’t even get the courage to go do it because I don’t want to embarrass myself not having practiced or raced it before,” Larson said. “So it would be really tough for a NASCAR guy to have high expectations or anything like that. I’m sure a lot of fans would have expectations of some sort for them, so it would be tough, but I’d love to see everyone give it a try because it’s a huge event and they’re amazing cars to drive. I think they would all be amazed at the power they have compared to what they’re used to, so it would be cool for sure to see them run.”

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character

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Following months of speaking out in support of racial justice and inclusion in NASCAR, Bubba Wallace‘s work has been recognized by The Musial Awards.

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been selected as the recipient of its Award for Extraordinary Character.

The award honors “an individual who demonstrates remarkable poise, perseverance and overall sportsmanship.”

The Musial Awards – presented by Maryville University in St. Louis – is named after Stan Musial, a former St. Louis Cardinal baseball player. St. Louis is also the home to one of Wallace’s sponsors, World Wide Technology.

More: Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

In the wake of the death of George Floyd in May, the 26-year-old Wallace has been active in helping lead NASCAR through social changes, including the banning of the Confederate flag at series events and tracks.

He also drove a Black Lives Matter car at Martinsville Speedway in June.

“Bubba Wallace exemplifies what the Stan Musial Award for Extraordinary Character is all about,” Frank Viverito, president of the St. Louis Sports Commission, which produces the Musial Awards, said in a press release. “He has overcome much to be where he is, and he has courageously stepped forward to take an important stand for change. He is most deserving of an award that stands for sportsmanship and character, and is named for Stan Musial, whose own actions promoted racial acceptance and unity.”

Wallace joins baseball legend Hank Aaron as a 2020 Musial Awards honoree. Aaron is receiving the Stan Musial Lifetime Achievement Award for Sportsmanship.

The Musial Awards will air nationally on CBS on Saturday, Dec. 26.

After three full-time seasons in Cup racing for RPM, it was announced earlier this week that Wallace would compete in 2021 for a Cup team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and basketball legend Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

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The most anticipated NASCAR team in years started with a joke.

Denny Hamlin said he was only kidding about owning a Cup team with Michael Jordan after reports linked the two in such an endeavor.

“Looks like we’re owners together, ha, ha,” Hamlin told Jordan. “Congratulations. He said, ‘Fake news, but if you want to make it real news, let me know.’ ”

Suddenly a team that will have Jordan and Hamlin as partners, Bubba Wallace as driver and potentially a far-reaching impact on the sport and Black community was born. Jordan said it all happened within 10 days.

Jordan and Hamlin discussed exclusively with NBC Sports and Fox on Wednesday their vision for their new team. Jordan, a six-time NBA champion and Hamlin a three-time Daytona 500 winner both look to win and plan to stay around for a long time.

Details have yet to be announced about a car number, sponsors, and manufacturer, although the team is expected to run Toyotas and align with Joe Gibbs Racing. Jordan, who becomes the first Black majority car owner since Wendell Scott, said Wednesday that when the sport opens up the infield to more than drivers and teams, he’ll be at the track often.

Hamlin admits Jordan’s reaction to his joke stunned him. It was only last November when Jordan told Dale Earnhardt Jr. in an interview on NBC before the championship race that he didn’t plan to be an owner.

“I’ve got a lot on my plate,” Jordan told Earnhardt then. “I love being a fan. I still understand the sport, but in terms of ownership, nah, I think I’m just going to sit back and watch it and support from afar.”

Jordan told NBC Sports on Wednesday that the timing was right when Hamlin joked with him.

“It was one of those things, again, it’s always been on my mind,” Jordan said of NASCAR team ownership. “I go with my gut feeling. When the time is right you know it. When this was presented to me, I felt good about it. When Bubba was involved in the whole conversation I felt good about it.

“My biggest conversation to Denny was, ‘Look, I don’t want to get in there just to go around the races and just go around and around and around and finish up 18th, 19th, 20th, 30th. I want to win. I want to be put in a position for the best chance for us to win. That’s my competitive nature. That’s always been who I am.

“When we got into this dialogue and I saw that OK, I might have a chance if we can put together the right situation to possibly win. That became more intriguing. That was my mindset going into this.

“I remember the conversation with Dale Earnhardt (last November). In essence, I love the sport. I was looking for an entry opportunity. This was the opportunity that was just presented to me in just the last 10 days.”

Hamlin said the competitive nature he and Jordan both have will ensure that “we will not do this team halfway. It will be a top-tier team sooner than later.” Hamlin said he will continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing while owning the team with Jordan.

“I have very good faith that Bubba is going to have everything that he needs to be capable of winning, and I think he’s got the talent to do it,” Hamlin said. “But still there would be growing pains here and there just like any team would have.”

Brad Daugherty, the only Black co-owner of a Cup team before Jordan’s entry, is looking forward to what Jordan’s team will do.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and teammate to Jordan on the University of North Carolina basketball team. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Part of the timing being right was the social change NASCAR has gone through this year. Drivers put together a video in a show of support for the Black community in June. NASCAR banned the Confederate flag at its tracks and races soon after. Drivers rallied around Wallace in June at Talladega it was thought he was a victim of a hate crime.

Jordan said one of his main goals is to create more opportunities for Black people in racing.

“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s absolutely huge. To me, you’re basically diving into a situation where very few Black people have been present into the NASCAR arena. In essence, you’re going in with the opportunity to expand that and to give a different lens to NASCAR as a whole. For so long, it’s been viewed from a negative aspect with the Confederate flag and all these other things that occurred.

“Now you go in with NASCAR making an effort to change the perspective and try to attract and connect to the next generation without losing something for today’s authenticity of the sport presented an opportunity for me to get involved in this whole process and know that I am spearheading a thought process of Blacks getting involved in NASCAR when in essence very few have since 1960s (when Wendell Scott competed and owned his own cars).”

Although Jordan unquestionably is the biggest celebrity to enter NASCAR, the sport’s history is littered with former athletes and celebrities who have come and gone as co-owners in teams.

Jordan said he plans to be in the sport for a long time.

“I’m not doing this to try to look at the financials,” Jordan said. “The financials are part of the process, but my passion drives me more than the financials. If I invest or not invest, I was still going to call Denny each and every Sunday and ask him what the hell is he doing, is he going to win today, what is he going to do, what happened?

“I’ve been a fan for so long, so I’m always going to be that. With making money or losing money, I’m going to be a fan to NASCAR. This is authenticity in the making for me in that I’m involved in something that I truly, truly love and I wake up each and every weekend looking forward to each and every race.”

Jordan’s interest goes to his childhood when his father used to take his family to the race.

“He was a big car person,” Jordan said of his father. “He used to work on engines for years. He became a big stock-car fan and he bredded us to do the same. Went to Darlington, Rockingham, Charlotte, Talladega. (Long-time NASCAR car owner) Hoss Ellington used to be from Wilmington and he used to work on cars with Hoss Ellington way back in the day. I’ve been involved in car racing for a long period of time as a fan.”

Jordan’s entrance has created an excitement in the sport for what he can potentially deliver in terms of a wider audience and potential connections with different companies. But there’s only so much one person can do to help elevate the sport. It is a more complicated puzzle.

“I’m a fan of the sport first,” Jordan said. “I love sports. I love, love NASCAR. I don’t go into with the idea and concept that I’m trying to change and shape NASCAR. I go in with my passion. I hope that whoever knows Michael Jordan or whoever supports Michael Jordan, whoever supports NASCAR see this as an opportunity to enjoy the sport.

“If we can introduce it to the next generation, to at least gauge an interest, that’s a beginning there. How that translates economically, I have no understanding of that. Those are things that I’m not in control of. All I can do is show the passion for the sport and hopefully people can understand that passion and adapt to that.

“The business aspect is the business aspect. … I go in because I love sports and then I get all these different other conversations, all these other people calling, saying, ‘hey, look, that’s pretty interesting, I would love to be involved.’ To me, that’s change. That’s how this is going to work. It may not work from a perspective of what people may expect.

“I don’t know what the agendas may be or what the barometer may be, but at the end of the day, I love that I got involved in NASCAR and if people appreciate that and want to be a part of that, great. If not, it’s not going to change my involvement. I just want to continually win.”

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Las Vegas Truck lineup

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Brett Moffitt will lead the Las Vegas Truck lineup to the green flag in Friday night’s payoff race.

Moffitt is coming off his runner-up finish to Sam Mayer in last week’s Truck playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Tyler Ankrum will start second in Friday night’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He’ll be followed by Grant Enfinger, Sheldon Creed and Chandler Smith. Austin Hill starts 11th, last among the playoff drivers.

Click here for Truck starting lineup

The Las Vegas Truck lineup is set by using a formula based on four statistical categories: owner points position, owner final race position, the finish and fastest lap from the most recently completed race.

Performance Metrics Qualifying is a total number based on the previous race. The formula is 15% of a fastest lap time position, 25% of the driver’s final race finish position, 25% of the owner’s final race position and 35% of the owner points position. Any ties will be broken by the rule book.

 

NASCAR Truck Series at Las Vegas 

Race time: 9 p.m. ET, Friday

Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway; Las Vegas, Nevada (1.5-mile speedway)

Length: 134 laps (201 miles)

Stages: Stage 1 ends Lap 30. Stage 2 ends Lap 60.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Motor Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); mrn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Lineup: Click here for Truck starting lineup

Next Xfinity race: Saturday at Las Vegas (200 laps, 300 miles), 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Next Cup race: Sunday at Las Vegas (267 laps, 400.5 miles), 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Las Vegas Xfinity lineup

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Chase Briscoe will lead the Las Vegas Xfinity lineup to the green flag as the series begins its playoffs Saturday night.

Briscoe enters the playoffs after his seventh win of the season last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. He has seven victories so far, two more than Austin Cindric who will start second Saturday night.

Justin Allgaier, who has won three of the last seven races, starts third. He’s followed by Ross Chastain and Harrison Burton. Michael Annett starts 13th, last among the playoff drivers.

Click here for Xfinity starting lineup

The opening round of the Xfinity playoffs goes to Talladega after Las Vegas and ends with the Charlotte Roval. The playoff field will be cut to eight drivers at Charlotte.

The Las Vegas Xfinity lineup is set by using a formula based on four statistical categories: owner points position, owner final race position, the finish and fastest lap from the most recently completed race.

Performance Metrics Qualifying is a total number based on the previous race. The formula is 15% of a fastest lap time position, 25% of the driver’s final race finish position, 25% of the owner’s final race position and 35% of the owner points position. Any ties will be broken by the rule book.

NASCAR Xfinity Series at Las Vegas 

Race time: 7:30 p.m. ET, Saturday

Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway; Las Vegas, Nevada (1.5-mile speedway)

Length: 200 laps (300 miles)

Stages: Stage 1 ends Lap 45. Stage 2 ends Lap 90.

TV coverage: NBCSN

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: NBC Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Lineup: Click here for Xfinity starting lineup

Next Truck race: Friday at Las Vegas (134 laps, 201 miles), 9 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Cup race: Sunday at Las Vegas (267 laps, 400.5 miles), 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN