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Friday 5: Looking to the past to enhance NASCAR’s future

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As some of its most popular drivers retire, NASCAR has the chance to tap into their knowledge to help push the sport forward.

Question is if NASCAR will do so.

The sport is in the midst of a generational change in its driver lineup. Gone are Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth (at least for now). Likely to be gone in the near future are Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Elliott Sadler — all drivers 40 or older.

Think about the wealth of knowledge they carry about the sport. Think about how NASCAR could benefit from their consultation. Both Burton and Gordon were a part of the group NASCAR assembled that created stage racing, so it’s clear their opinions matter.

Admittedly, some drivers will have other plans for their post-racing career and won’t have the time or interest to do so, but for those willing to help the sport, NASCAR needs to find a role for them. 

There’s plenty former drivers can do. They can help bridge gaps, provide a different perspective, be a listening board and an agent for change. 

Harvick has become more vocal in the last year about ways to improve ties to grassroots racing. He’s suggested that the Camping World Truck Series run more races at local short tracks and questioned why the K&N Pro Series West no longer competes at Phoenix and other big tracks.

“Sometimes we look at our sport from the top down instead of the bottom up,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” this week. “At this grassroots level, that’s where all your hardcore fans live.’’

One doesn’t have to listen to Harvick long to hear his passion for short track racing. As a former Cup champion and host of a national radio show, his words carry weight. He also is one of action. Thursday night, he competed in the K&N West opener at Kern County Raceway in Harvick’s hometown of Bakersfield, California.

Even for all the behind-the-scenes work he’s done, Harvick still has to focus on his racing career and there will be times throughout the season he won’t be able to focus as much on such issues.

That’s where a retired driver can help. It’s becoming more difficult for former drivers to find a role in the sport. Ownership isn’t a viable option for many because it has become so expensive. There are only so many TV jobs available. Same with executive roles for teams.

If there isn’t a place in those areas, that’s where NASCAR should enter and provide a spot.

Could former Cup drivers play a role in strengthening the bonds between NASCAR and local tracks? It’s certainly worth a look. (Photo: Getty Images)

For all the work Harvick has done on grassroots, he could use help tightening the bonds between NASCAR and local racing. Burton, whose son, Harrison, has come up through such ranks, has seen the sport from many levels and could provide a way to work on such solutions. Earnhardt often has expressed an interest in short track racing and noted how he might just show up a track to race at some point. Short-track racing is a passion for Stewart. There are likely others who could also play a role in needed.

It’s not just grassroots racing these experienced racers could help.

A retired driver could serve as an adviser to the Drivers Council. Just as with any work-related group, a lot of good ideas can arise, but it can be difficult for those involved to take a deeper look into matters because of how busy they are. Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt have served on the council before, although such experience shouldn’t preclude someone else, maybe someone such as Dale Jarrett or Burton or Labonte, from a role to make that group even more effective.

Whenever Sadler decides to no longer race, he is someone who could be looked at in some advisory role to help raise the Xfinity Series’ level should he want to do something like that. Sadler’s passion for the sport is evident, and his experience, even now, is invaluable for a series that gets younger each year.

One of the things NASCAR recently touted with Ben Kennedy moving into an executive role for the Camping World Truck Series is that he was coming from the driver’s seat and would lend a fresh perspective.

While NASCAR doesn’t have to hire every former driver, why not have some serve as consultants?

There are many of them out there. And there are enough issues in the sport where they could help.

2. Time’s a ticking A subtle change this season is that Friday Cup practice has been shortened at some tracks by as much as 35 minutes compared to last year.

The result is that teams spend less time in race trim — if any at all — in Friday practice because that is the only session before qualifying. That can make an impact.

“You don’t get that little bit of baseline,’’ Erik Jones told NBC Sports of not running in race setup on Friday. “We were able to take that baseline from Friday (last year) and then adjust from it from there for Saturday and maybe have a little bit better fire off. It makes the (simulator) more valuable and makes the team guys more valuable to unload well.’’

Erik Jones says less Friday practice time can prove challenging for young drivers, especially rookies. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones benefitted from the longer Friday practice sessions last year as a rookie. He often started in race setup to run multiple laps and get his braking and turning points set before his team switched to qualifying trim. But that was when teams often had 85 minutes for practice on Friday.

At Las Vegas, Friday’s practice was 30 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran seven laps in practice this year compared to 16 a year ago.

At Phoenix, Friday’s practice was 35 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran 10 practice laps this year compared to 16 a year ago.

Practice today at Auto Club Speedway is 35 minutes shorter than Friday’s session last year. The only concession is that the first practice Saturday will be five minutes longer than that session a year ago. Still, teams have 30 minutes less practice time for the weekend.

Jones can’t imagine the challenge Cup rookies William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. face with the shorter Friday sessions.

“You go to these tracks, and the Cup cars just drive so different,’’ Jones said. “You don’t really have a good idea of what you’re looking at. It’s just more valuable as a rookie to fire off in race trim and only take, hopefully, that one (qualifying) trim run you’re going to get from the time it’s going to take to switch over. There are times even now I struggle firing off in (qualifying) trim. It’s not an easy thing to do.’’

3. Which three-peat is better?

Kevin Harvick enters this weekend having won the past three races in a row.

Kyle Larson enters this weekend having won the past three races on 2-mile tracks.

Harvick’s streak was done in consecutive weekends at three different tracks – Atlanta, Las Vegas and ISM Raceway.

Larson’s streak was done at two different tracks — Michigan and Auto Club Speedway — but over a period of nearly five months.

Which streak is more impressive?

4. Fast start

Kurt Busch said before the year that a focus for the No. 41 team was stage points. With that in mind, it wasn’t surprising that crew chief Billy Scott kept Busch out during the caution just before the end of stage 2 at Phoenix last weekend. Busch won the stage but then started deep in the field.

After four races, only Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick has scored more stage points than Busch. Harvick has 53 stage points and Busch has 42. Busch had eight stage points at this time last year.

5. March Madness

With so much talk about the college basketball tournament, there’s a form of March Madness in NASCAR for many competitors.

In a way, Kevin Harvick’s hot start isn’t surprising. Seven of his 26 Cup victories since 2011 have come in March. No other month compares for him.

Harvick also can finish strong with five wins in November and four in October since 2011.

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Today’s Cup race at Kansas: Start time, lineup and more

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The playoff field will be whittled to eight drivers today at Kansas Speedway, where the second-round cutoff race of the 2019 Cup playoffs will occur over 400 miles.

Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney are locked into the third round, and Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick seem strong bets to advance. Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano (plus 18 points in the final transfer spot) also have a cushion on the cutoff.

That puts Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer and William Byron in virtual must-win situations to advance to the third round.

Here is the information for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Actor Jensen Ackles will give the command to start engines at 2:37 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:48 p.m.

PRERACE: The Cup garage will open at 10:30 a.m. The driver/crew chief meeting will be at 12:30 p.m. Driver introductions are at 1:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 2:30 p.m. by Lt. Col Randy Croft, Whiteman Air Force Base. The National Anthem will be performed at 2:31 p.m. by Eric Roosevelt.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400 miles) around the 1.5-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race. Coverage will begin with NASCAR America at 1 p.m. on NBC. Countdown to Green follows at 1:30 p.m. on NBC, leading into race coverage. The postrace show will be on NBCSN at 6 p.m., followed by Victory Lap at 6:30 p.m.

Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast will begin at 1 p.m. and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

STREAMING ONLINE: Click here for NBC’s live stream of the race.

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy conditions with a temperature of 63 degrees and a 15% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: A year ago, Chase Elliott led the final 44 laps for his third and final victory of the season. Brad Keselowski won the May 11 race here, outdueling Alex Bowman in the closing laps. 

STARTING LINEUP: Click here

Garrett Smithley calls wreck with leaders a career low point

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Garrett Smithley said he felt “probably the lowest of my career” Saturday after causing the leaders to wreck late in the Xfinity Series playoff race at Kansas Speedway while he was five laps down.

Smithley said he wasn’t aware the leaders were behind him when he exited Turn 4 and moved up toward the wall. Chase Briscoe, who was leading, and Christopher Bell, who was second, made contact as Briscoe tried to avoid Smithley.

Briscoe finished third. Bell 12th.

“I just didn’t get the memo that he was coming,” Smithley said of the leaders. “(Spotter) Freddie (Kraft) usually does a good job, he always does a good job. I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. Something didn’t get transmitted or what. I glanced up. David Starr was back there. I was just riding. We were on like 70-lap tires just riding not even pushing hard. I hated it.”

Asked about the line he ran, going from the bottom in the corners to high on exit, Smithley said:

“I was running my line. If I had known he was back there, I wouldn’t have even done that. I was just riding. I was on 70-lap tires, not even pushing it. Just stupid mistake. I hate that it happened. I hate it for everybody that got involved. I do not want to be that guy by any means. I’ve never been that guy. I hate that that happened.”

It’s the second time in about a month that Smithley has been hit by a faster car while running laps down in a race.

In the Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch ran into the back of Smithley’s car and criticized Smithley’s credentials.

Asked if he feared people would start associating him with those incidents, Smithley said:

“No. What happened at Vegas happened. People spoke and most people were on my side. It was a mistake. People forget how hard this stuff is. Things happen in a split-second decision. Like I said, I didn’t know he was up there. I glanced up and didn’t see him and ran my line and that was it.”

Briscoe demurred on being overly critical of Smithley, saying “I still haven’t seen a replay” when he talked to reporters.

“It is frustrating even without that lap car, just in general,” Briscoe said. “I totally understand lap cars are obviously off the pace and that makes it tough for them. At this place, the fast guys are running the top and there were a lot of guys that would run the top in front of you.

“We are literally racing for our lives trying to lock into a championship. I haven’t seen the replay so it is hard to say. I know I got tagged in the left rear by Bell but at the same time it felt like (Smithley) was going to put me in the fence regardless.”

Told that Smithley said he wasn’t aware Briscoe was behind, Briscoe said: “I feel like he should have general awareness of what is going on. I totally get where he is coming from. It is tough in those situations. I don’t know. I don’t want to comment on it because I have not been in his position, so I am sure it is tough but it is frustrating to say the least on my end. We go from 15 to go thinking we are going to win the race and lock into Homestead and then you are two points back. It is frustrating. I am sure he will reach out and I appreciate that, but it doesn’t much help the fact.”

Said Bell: “I haven’t seen (a replay) so it’s hard for me to say. Obviously I didn’t mean to wreck the 98. It sucks that we tore up two race cars.”

While Bell and Briscoe were judicious in their words, some Cup drivers expressed their feelings on Twitter:

Smithley took responsibility on Twitter:

 

 

Xfinity results, points after Round of 8 begins at Kansas

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Brandon Jones may have been eliminated from advancement in the Xfinity Series playoffs after the cutoff race at Dover two weeks ago, but on Saturday he lived up to his promise that he’d still win a race in the remainder of the playoffs as the Round of 8 kicked off.

It was Jones’ first win in 134 career Xfinity Series starts. It also was his 14th top-10 finish of 2019.

MORE: Brandon Jones rallies late to earn first career Xfinity win at Kansas

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Chase Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

POINTS:

Even though he finished 12th after being involved in a late race wreck with Briscoe and Garrett Smithley, Christopher Bell still maintains his lead at the top of the heap of the Xfinity Series point standings.

Bell holds an 11-point lead over Cole Custer and is 12 points ahead of Tyler Reddick and 47 points ahead of Justin Allgaier.

Fifth through eighth are Chase Briscoe (-49 points), Michael Annett (-59 points), Noah Gragson (-64 points) and Austin Cindric (-77 points).

Click here for the updated point standings.

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Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick have physical confrontation after Kansas race

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Xfinity Series championship contenders Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick got involved in a heated confrontation that quickly turned physical after Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

Custer, who was angry about Reddick making contact with him, approached his rival after they parked in the pits. Custer put a hand on the shoulder of Reddick, who responded by grabbing Custer with both hands (watch the video above).

The drivers both fell to the ground as they were swarmed by members of both teams. Neither driver seemed to be hurt, though Reddick had a red mark above his right eye.

“I was just frustrated that he can’t keep his car on the bottom and then runs us up into the wall,” Custer told NBC Sports. “If he wants to wreck cars and put them in the wall, that’s fine, but when it affects me, I’m not going to be very happy with him.

“I don’t know. I just went over to talk to him and say that and put my hand on him, and he just went berserk. I thought we had a good car and a shot to win.”

As he approached Reddick, Custer addressed him with “You can be a dumb (expletive).”

“I understand Cole’s frustration 100 percent,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “We’re trying to lock ourselves into Homestead, and he came up to talk after the race. He put a hand on me, I put a hand on him back, and that’s just how it’s going to be if we’re going to have a conversation that way.

“I’m out of breath. Had a fight there with some people, and it was a little bit of fun. I think a lot of Cole and his driving ability.”

Reddick finished runner-up Saturday to Brandon Jones, who won but already had been eliminated from the playoffs and wasn’t eligible to advance to the championship round. Custer finished 10th.

With two races remaining in the Xfinity playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, Reddick and Custer both are comfortably in position to reach the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Custer is 38 points ahead of the cut line, and Reddick is plus-37. Christopher Bell, who crashed with leader Chase Briscoe when he ran into the rear of the lapped car of Garrett Smithley, remained the championship leader at 49 points ahead of Briscoe, who is two points behind fourth-ranked Justin Allgaier

“It was just heat of the moment,” Reddick said of the scuffle. “We’re pissed off. I’m sure we’ll talk about it here soon, maybe today, tomorrow.

“I hate that it happened to him, but we’ll try and move forward. Both of us have a lot left to lose in this deal, and if we take each other out, neither one of us get to Homestead, and I feel we both deserve to be there.”

A Stewart-Haas Racing spokesman said Reddick and Custer talk led later in the garage as their cars went through postrace inspection.

There also were postrace tweets from Custer and from Reddick.

Custer also was involved in a notable altercation after a truck race three years ago at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, where he tackled John Hunter Nemechek in anger after they collided on the last lap while racing for the lead.

Nemechek made light of that situation while Custer did postrace interviews Saturday (see the :50 mark of Dustin Long’s Twitter video below).