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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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Race results, Truck Series point standings after Eldora

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In a deal that came together at the last minute, Chase Briscoe battled ThorSport teammate Grant Enfinger during a two-lap shootout at Eldora Speedway and won the Edlora Dirt Derby for his second career win.

Along with Kyle Busch (Las Vegas Motor Speedway) and John Hunter Nemechek (Martinsville Speedway), he becomes the third driver this season to win who is not competing for Truck points.

Enfinger finished second as the two banged together crossing under the checkers.

Last year’s second-place finisher in this race, Stewart Friesen finished third while last year’s winner Matt Crafton came home fourth.

Brett Moffitt rounded out the top five.

Click here for complete results.

Despite finishing 16th, Johnny Sauter maintained the points lead by 32 over Noah Gragson.

Gragson finished sixth at Eldora.

Moffitt, Enfinger and Friesen round out the top five.

Click here for the complete points report.

Chase Briscoe wins Truck Series race at Eldora

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Chase Briscoe and ThorSport teammate Grant Enfinger banged doors as they crossed the finish line of the Eldora Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway with Briscoe winning by a bumper. It was Briscoe’s second career Truck win. His first victory came in the season finale last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He has not raced in the Camping World Truck Series since, so this gives him consecutive victories.

Briscoe lobbied Ford for the ride, but the deal came together at the last minute, Briscoe said from victory lane.

The race had an extended green flag segment during the final stage, during which USAC National Midget racer Logan Seavey pulled away from the field. Two multi-car accidents in the closing laps involving Todd Gilliland, Myatt Snider, Dalton Sargeant and several others allowed Briscoe to climb through the field and set up the green-white-checkered finish.

Stewart Friesen finished third with Matt Crafton and Brett Moffitt rounding out the top five.

Briscoe is the sixth different winner in six editions of this race. Last year’s winner Crafton was the only previous winner in the field.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Ben Rhodes

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

HEAT RACE 1 WINNER: Ben Rhodes  (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 2 WINNER: Todd Gilliland (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 3 WINNER: Chase Briscoe (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 4 WINNER: Matt Crafton (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 5 WINNER: Stewart Friesen (Complete Results)

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIER WINNER: John Hunter Nemechek (Complete Results)

HOW CHASE BRISCOE WON: Briscoe took the lead from Seavey on the next-to-last restart before holding off Enfinger in a two-lap shootout.

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Simply making the A Main was an accomplishment for Norm Benning, who finished fourth in his heat race. He was involved in a late-race accident and finished last (32nd) … Stewart Friesen won his heat race and finished third after coming home one position short to Crafton last year. … Noah Gragson was forced to race his way into the Eldora Dirt Derby through the Last Chace Qualifier and climbed to sixth. … In his fourth career Truck race, Nick Hoffman scored his first top 10 with a 10th.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Attempting to make his first Truck race, RJ Otto walled his truck in the Last Chance Qualifier and spun with two laps remaining. …  Rhodes slapped the wall early in stage two and was forced to pit, losing two laps in the process. Rhodes spun again with 53 laps remaining. … Points leader Johnny Sauter qualified 34th, failed to race his way directly into the A Main via his heat race and spun early. He finished 16th. … Ryan Newman was collected in an accident involving Matt Crafton and Tyler Dippel. He lost four laps making repairs and finished 30th.

NOTABLE: Seavey dominated the final stage of the Eldora Dirt Derby, but a poor lane selection on the next-to-last restart cost him the lead. Restarting fourth on the final run, he was shuffled further back through the field to finish eighth, but came within four laps of winning in his Truck debut. Seavey was coming off a win at Sweet Springs (Missouri) Motor Complex, which gave him the overall victory in the USAC Mid-Atlantic Midget Week points standings.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “I wasn’t going to wear him out; I wasn’t just gonna wreck him for the win. We rubbed. I definitely let it float all the way to the wall and I’m sorry about that; it’s not how I race. But this means so much to win at Eldora. … This is our Daytona for dirt guys.” Chase Briscoe on FoxSports1.

WHAT’S NEXT: Gander Outdoors 150 at Pocono Raceway at 1 p.m. ET on July 28 on FS1.

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch would like to see more Xfinity, Truck short track races

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With the Camping World Truck Series racing their high-profile dirt race at Eldora Speedway, it opened up the question about whether the Cup or Xfinity series should also make a return to dirt.

That was a question for this week’s Bump & Run feature, and Kyle Busch also had an opportunity to weigh in Wednesday night on NASCAR America.

“I’m cool with it. I think it would be fun to see, one,” Busch said. “Two, I think it’s great that the trucks have that; let’s leave it special for the trucks.

“(The trucks) haul around dirt all the time. My Toyota Camry … ain’t gonna go around out there and haul around dirt.”

So, if Eldora doesn’t make Busch’s cut for a new venue on the Cup schedule, what would?

“I don’t know how you bring back the other venues and make it successful,” Busch said, mostly because of the limited infrastructure and seating capacity.

And while Busch is not supportive of tracks that previously held Cup races getting another date, he does believe there are options for NASCAR to explore.

“I think Trucks and Xfinity should be doing more of that than the mile-and-a-half stuff,” Busch continued. “Trucks and Xfinity should go to the Pensacolas, go to the Nashvilles, go to South Boston, go to Hickory … and make those races that anybody can sign up to run.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter.

Alex Bowman primed for playoff battle

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Any victory would be special for Alex Bowman. Not only would it be his first in Cup but also secure a playoff spot this season. But should that win come in two weeks at Watkins Glen, there would be extra reason to make that victory meaningful.

Wednesday on NASCAR America, Bowman unveiled the Nationwide Children’s Hospital car that he’ll drive next month at Watkins Glen. The car features 28 butterflies. A butterfly in flight represents optimism at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which has a staff of more than 13,000 providing state-of-the-art pediatric care during more than 1.4 million patient visits annually.

“Going to the Children’s Hospital, it’s amazing to see what they do for the kids and how little things that they do just keep the kids that much happier,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “It’s just amazing to see what they do and see how much the sports programs have raised for the Children’s Hospital through Nationwide. It’s really special just to be a small part of that, to have any role in putting smiles on kids faces.

“I would say if we were able to win with the Children’s Hospital car, it would be really special. It’s more having a patient champion’s name on the door, what it could mean to them.”

Before Bowman races at Watkins Glen, he has this weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and then Pocono the following week.

After his last-place finish at Kentucky last weekend, he leads Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by nine points and Paul Menard by 23 for that final playoff spot.

“I’m doing all that I can, and I feel like I’m doing my part,” Bowman said. “Obviously we’ve been off this year and we need to get better. Pressure for me really comes from me. I want to run better.

“There’s not a lot of added pressure from the team, the crew or media, really. I just want to run well and give the fans something to cheer for. Pressure comes from myself. I want to make the playoffs really bad, but I don’t want to make the playoffs and get eliminated in the first round.

“I want to make the playoffs and make a statement there. I think we could do that. We’re on a path to getting better. Kentucky obviously was rough for us, as the 88 team and as a company.”

Bowman also is confident in how his team stacks up against Stenhouse’s team and Menard’s team.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of pressures on those guys to try to erase that gap,” Bowman said. “Hopefully we can make them make mistakes by keeping the pressure on them, too.”

“I feel like we’ve got better race cars than the 17 (Stenhouse) most weeks, and we’ve got to better execution than the 21 (Menard) for the most part, if we can continue that.”

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