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Kligerman: More money, more problems for F1, but merit mostly still matters more in NASCAR

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As the Daytona 500, the most watched and anticipated race of the NASCAR season, drew to a close, the results sheet showed what many of us expected: The new, large group of brash, seething, success-starved young drivers didn’t disappoint and took center stage in NASCAR’s biggest show.

Meanwhile, that same week on the other side of the racing world …

The principal of Williams F1 Team, Claire Williams, was dealing with the brash media and defending the merits of her own set of very inexperienced and young drivers for the 2018 Formula One World Championship.

And both events represented the polar spectrums of the most feared word in racing (and a four-letter word in my book): Funding.

How?

Last season, Williams, one of the most historic teams in Formula One, announced the signing of an unheralded 18-year-old named Lance Stroll. Many casual fans asked “Who?” and the PR machines drummed up all sorts of lovely attributes about the young Canadian. But as with most things in racing that make you utter “Huh?” you need only follow the money.

Williams Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams (left) stands with drivers Lance Stroll (middle) and Sergey Sirotkin at the team’s 2018 unveil on Feb. 15. (Photo by Williams F1 Team/Getty Images)

Lance Stroll’s dad is a billionaire and by many reports agreed to provide to the team (and I am not exaggerating) a staggering $40 million U.S. paperbacks to make his son the new rookie driver at Williams. (Some had reported $80 million, but this is thought to be an exaggeration).

Throughout the world, the uproar wasn’t deafening but more nuclear explosion. “Silver spoon” didn’t suffice in this case. It was more being “born-with-sole-ownership-rights-to-Facebook”-spoon.

And yet one year later, Williams F1 Team said, “au revoir” to popular veteran Felipe Massa, who left for his second attempt at retirement. That left the team with only Lance Stroll, who had a respectable but by no means blistering debut season.

Williams had a decision: Who do they put beside the most garish display of a pay driver in the history of the sport?

The team had tested veteran Polish driver Robert Kubica, who is thought to be one of the most talented in the sport. He had driven for the likes of the factory BMW team and won. He was Renault’s star driver until February 2011 when he was doing a rally race in the offseason and had a horrific crash that partially severed his right forearm.

But through the years he had worked tirelessly to prove he had rehabilitated enough to come back to F1. And in this off-season, it looked like this would be the case. One of the most remarkable comeback stories in the sport’s history was about to come to fruition. He had tested with Williams and maybe lacked a bit of speed, but by all accounts, he had the veteran savvy to help this once-great team try to assemble the building blocks to its former glory.

But come Feb. 15th when Williams launched its new car for the 2018 season, Claire Williams wasn’t answering how excited she was to have Robert Kubica. She was maligning the term “pay driver.”

Williams had chosen another rookie who had a lot of experience in lower formula’s and was respectable but also was known to have another massive amount of personal funding: Sergey Sirotkin

As Claire remarked “It’s nothing new in F1 that drivers come with money, and thank goodness that they do. It would be incredibly naive for anyone to make that statement, saying ‘He’s just a pay driver.’ It’s great if a driver has financial interests from partners. It’s great for the team. It’s great for the driver.

“This is an expensive sport, not just F1 but at the grassroots level as well. We’d miss out on so much talent coming into F1 if drivers didn’t have financial backing supporting them through the junior formulae, and bringing them into F1.”

She would continue defending Williams’ decision: “I think the terminology or the vocab used around pay drivers is wrong. It’s inappropriate, and it’s unnecessary, and it puts negativity around a driver that we just should not be doing in this sport anymore.

“There are commercial issues of course, but we make our driver decisions based on talent, based on what Paddy [Lowe]’s engineering team needs in order to take this team forward, not about any potential financial backing that they have.”

And the fact is, I have to agree with her.

As sponsorship is becoming increasingly harder to obtain, F1 budget numbers have won the space race to Mars (waving as they pass Elon Musk). Any sane person would have made the same decision. When the difference may be losing a couple tenths or being in financial hardship, she made the right decision.

But I am not convinced no matter how much PR drivel is shoveled my way that the two best drivers available in the world are driving for Williams F1 Team.

The pay driver argument will continue all season for Williams, as it has for decades in racing. And it may continue to get worse unless something is done to restrict the cost.

But in NASCAR, where sponsorship has become a very tough game, the top level somehow is being graced with a serious amount of young very talented racers being selected based on merit. And they showed this during the incredible race that was this year’s Daytona 500.

Now, I am not saying it didn’t take funding to get them to the door of those top Cup rides. But in the cases of Alex Bowman, Darrell Wallace Jr, William Byron, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher and Kyle Larson, what got them there mostly was a combination of success, talent, and luck.

They are in rides as the best choices for that particular car.

Some of you may say “But Matt Kenseth!” In his case, he was too expensive.

The fact is the drivers in Cup are the best the teams could afford. Unlike in the case of Williams F1, where it has the best drivers that could afford the team.

As for me? Well, I am too expensive.

Obviously.

David Ragan to make first Truck start since 2006 at Atlanta

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David Ragan is coming back and going home at the same time.

The Unadilla, Georgia native, who stepped down from full-time racing after last season, will drive in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Ragan’s home track, Atlanta Motor Speedway, on Saturday, June 6.

The 34-year-old Ragan will drive the No. 17 Ford for DGR-Crosley in his 30th career Truck Series start and his first since 2006.

David Ragan will make his first Truck Series start since 2006 in the June 6 race at his home track of Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“I’m really looking forward to racing one of DGR-Crosley’s F-150’s at Atlanta,” Ragan said in a media release. “We were originally going to run the truck at Richmond Raceway in April, but since that race was postponed (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), I wanted to return to my home state of Georgia with Select Blinds for this race.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve raced in the Truck Series. Atlanta has always been one of my favorite tracks since it’s my home track.”

Blake Bainbridge will serve as Ragan’s crew chief. The Atlanta race was originally scheduled for March, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since stepping away from full-time racing, Ragan has made just one start in 2020, finishing fourth in the Daytona 500 for Rick Ware Racing.

Ragan currently works in a development role with Ford Performance, where, according to the media release, “he assists teams with simulator work and has a hand in developing the NextGen car that will come into play in 2022.”

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NASCAR schedule for Cup, Xfinity races at Bristol

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NASCAR has put Charlotte in its rearview mirror and moves next to Bristol Motor Speedway.

One significant change to the schedule has already occurred. The Xfinity Series race originally slated for Saturday has been moved to Monday due to travel and setup challenges.

Here is the schedule for Saturday through Monday at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile:

(All times are Eastern)

Saturday, May 30

5 p.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7 – 9 p.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening and equipment unloaded)

Sunday, May 31

7:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. – Cup garage access screening in progress

1:30 – 2:30 p.m. – Engine prime and final adjustments

3:20 p.m. – Cup drivers report to vehicles on starting grid

3:30 p.m. – Cup Series race, 500 laps/266.5 miles (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5 p.m. – Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit track

Monday, June 1

8:30 – 11:30 a.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening in progress)

11:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. – Xfinity garage access (screening in progress)

5 – 6:30 p.m. – Xfinity engine prime and final adjustments (pit road)

6:50 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to vehicles on starting grid

7 p.m. – Xfinity race, 200 laps/300 miles (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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Winners and losers after Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte

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WINNERS

Chase ElliottAfter losing the Coca-Cola 600 when he pitted from the lead before the overtime restart, Elliott scored the victory Thursday night at Charlotte. “I think we were hungry and wanted to get back and try again,” Elliott said after his seventh career Cup victory.

Denny Hamlin Crew chief serving the first race of a four-race suspension and Hamlin was starting 29th in a 310-mile race. No problem. He worked his way through the field, helped by his pit crew, and finished second.

Ryan Blaney He left Charlotte with a pair of third-place finishes in the two races. Many would take that.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Fourth-place finish is his second top-five result of the season in his first season at JTG Daugherty Racing.

LOSERS

Alex BowmanWon the second stage and had a fast car. Saw his night come undone when he hit the wall while running second. He had to pit for repairs and finished 31st.

Kyle BuschCut tire while racing in traffic sent him to the pits under green and he lost two laps. He never recovered, finishing 29th.

Friday 5: When fans can return, how many will be allowed at tracks?

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As NASCAR moves ahead with racing, among the key questions are when will fans be allowed back at the track and how many fans will be able to attend?

NASCAR has stated that there will be no fans at any of its races through June 21, covering events at Bristol, Atlanta, Martinsville, Miami and Talladega. NASCAR has not announced what its schedule will be after June 21 and when fans could be back in the stands.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, said “I think that NASCAR will be the first major sport with fans back in attendance, and I think it will be in a place where one, the state regulations allow it, and two, where the large outdoor facility gives an opportunity to provide plenty of space, plenty of distance and plenty of areas for people to still have fun but be in a  safe environment.”

Should Pocono Raceway maintain its June 27-28 Cup doubleheader weekend dates, it appears likely it would be without fans.

Pocono Raceway is in Monroe County in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf has set three phases for easing of restrictions — red (most restrictions), yellow and green (fewest restrictions).

Asked if NASCAR could race at Pocono, Gov. Wolf said in a May 18 press conference: “If Monroe County goes to yellow before that race happens and NASCAR, in fact, has the competition without spectators in the stands and they follow other guidelines to keep the competitors safe, yeah.”

Monroe County enters the yellow phrase today.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be the first track that hosts fans when it has the NTT IndyCar Series and Xfinity Series race on the road course July 4 and the Cup Series race on the oval July 5.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has a five-step plan in easing restrictions for the state where the final stage is projected to be enacted July 4 and states that “raceway events may return to full capacity.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials have not announced what plans they’ll have for the July 4-5 races. A track spokesperson told NBC Sports that they’re “hopeful” to have fans but “will be prepared to run with or without spectators.”

Whenever and wherever fans return, it won’t be at full capacity with the need for social distancing.

That will force tracks to determine who can attend races when they have more ticket buyers than seats they’re allowed to make available because of social distancing protocols.

“It’s going to be challenging,” Smith said. “I think if we have 40 percent or 50 percent capacity, it’s something that we’ll have to figure out. I don’t think we have those details yet, but it’s certainly something we’re sensitive to and working on right now.”

While Smith mentioned 40-50 percent capacity, he’s not sure what it will be at various tracks.

“Who knows if it’s 40 or 50 percent or 25 percent?” he said. “It’s something that when you take into account different regulations in different states, I think that percentage is going to change depending on what the regulations are.”

2. Feeling better

Crew chief Alan Gustafson admits it “wasn’t a great feeling” Sunday after his decision to pit Chase Elliott before overtime cost Elliott a chance to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But Gustafson didn’t let the decision wreck him the rest of the week.

“I don’t base my self‑worth on other people’s opinions, or if I’m doing a good job based on what other people say, but certainly I’m a human being, too, and when you get that many rocks thrown at you, it doesn’t feel great,” Gustafson said after Elliott won Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte. “It was a long couple days, but at the end of the day, you’ve just got to look past it and move on.”

Gustafson said of the decision to pit late in the 600: “There’s a lot of factors that went into it, and our struggles earlier in the race probably influenced me more than I should have let it, and it didn’t work out. We’re also assuming that we stay out and we win the race, so it’s tough. It’s just a tough situation.”

While it’s easy to look at how Elliott could have three wins in a row — he was running second late at Darlington when Kyle Busch’s contact wrecked him, then the 600 pit call and Thursday’s win — Elliott prefers to look at things differently.

“I think the biggest thing is if we can continue to put ourselves in position and give ourselves chances and we do a good job at controlling the things that are in our control, that’s all we can ask for,” Elliott said after Thursday’s win. “We can’t control when a caution comes out two laps to go and you’re kind of in a lose‑lose situation there. We’ve got to keep doing things that are in our hands and keep doing those well.”

3. Hold on tight at Bristol

Much was made about drivers not having practice and qualifying before they raced at Darlington Raceway since it is considered among the sport’s most difficult tracks.

While not as much has been mentioned about the obstacles drivers will face at Bristol Motor Speedway before Sunday’s Cup race and Monday night’s Xfinity race, they shouldn’t be overlooked.

Tyler Reddick, who won the Bristol Xfinity race last August and finished second in the April 2019 race there, notes some of the challenges drivers will face this weekend.

“I think the first challenge is going to be just completing that first lap,” he said. “That’s one of the toughest race tracks to go around when it doesn’t have rubber and heat on it. I’ve run Truck races there through my career and when we’re one of the first ones on the race track, that first hour of practice you can’t really learn much. The traction compound is slick – you go down in there to try to use it and you almost spin out. You run the middle and that’s about it. Man, the first hour or so of practice you can’t get up in that either because it’s slick and you almost wreck.

“I remember the first time they put traction compound down at Bristol. I went out for practice and I was in the middle, we were OK. But I wanted to try the bottom, so I went down there, got loose and couldn’t go anywhere. So, I was like ‘that’s not going to work’. I went up to try to use the top and I drove it straight into the fence.

“I’m worried that the start of the race is going to be very chaotic. I don’t know how that’s going to go. There’s only one groove and we’re going to be starting double-file, so that’s going to be very interesting.”

4. Midweek racing

Thursday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway marked the second midweek Cup race since NASCAR’s season resumed.

The series will race at Martinsville on June 10, a Wednesday night. There could be other midweek races as NASCAR seeks to run 32 Cup races in 25 weeks.

But what about next year? How realistic is it that there could be a Cup race in the middle of a week?

“Lot of people have talked about it,” Marcus Smith said this week. “Running midweek races with no attendees is not a concern in terms of how you pull it off. … You don’t have to take into consideration selling tickets and hosting live things.

“Very different model than hosting these big parties, these big events that we do. The biggest events happen on the weekends. That’s why NASCAR races typically are on a weekend. When you have these events as we do, and we have to think quickly and figure out how to catch up on this nine or 10-week delay of the NASCAR season, running races midweek was a natural way to get caught up.

“But going forward, I still don’t think that the biggest events in sports will be hosted midweek.”

Brad Keselowski would like to see midweek races continue.

“NASCAR, in my opinion, has hit gold with this format,” he said after Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “The limited practice, show up and race, and the time window that benefits both the East and West Coast. No qualifying. Inversion from the week before is really good because it mixes the field up and creates some good storylines there. I think it’s fair. 

“It’s compelling and it’s at a time where, quite frankly, the sports world, even if it wasn’t for COVID, midweek races in the summer, when you’re generally not having a lot of competition, is in a time period where everybody is hungry for content. I think they’ve got gold here. COVID or not, I hope we keep this for years to come. I think this is a great little format that’s good for the sport and good for the fans and good for everybody all around, so kudos to them.”

5. All-Star Race status

Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted four NASCAR races, including two Cup races, this week but none of those Cup races was the All-Star Race.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, was asked this week in a media conference about that event’s future and if it will remain at Charlotte.

“I think the plan is that it would be at Charlotte, but I think it’s important to note that we haven’t announced it because it’s just not ready to be announced yet,” Smith said. “With all the moving parts in this time, we have to be aware of how things change. Very soon, and I think in the next two weeks or less, we’ll have the next round of events that will be announced (by NASCAR) and it will help solve those schedules.”