Long: Path to better NASCAR shouldn’t be us vs. them

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A tug-of-war is emerging in NASCAR that is unsettling and unnecessary.

This is not us vs. them.

This should be us and them — collaboration not conflict.

Instead, a fissure has developed between competitors and fans over the aero package and restrictor plates used in last month’s All-Star race. As talks continue among teams, drivers, engine builders and NASCAR on where to run this package again this season, questions have been raised about the type of racing it creates.

Former champion Brad Keselowski says that using the package too often could have long-term negative effects for the sport. But many fans were encouraged by the closer racing the package produced in the All-Star event. Their excitement helped spur NASCAR to examine running that package later this season — likely Michigan in August and Indianapolis in September — after the sanctioning body initially downplayed the chances of doing so.

It’s not uncommon for competitors and fans to be on opposite sides, but this issue cuts to a basic premise. What makes better racing? What lengths should NASCAR pursue to achieve that?

While fans see the potential for added excitement on the track, Keselowski sees a driver’s ability lessened.

“I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers,’’ he said this past weekend at Michigan International Speedway. “I think if you put a package like this out there, like we had at the All-Star race on a consistent basis, that the best drivers in the world will no longer go to NASCAR.

“They want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance and there is no doubt that the driver makes less of a difference with that rules package.”

That didn’t seem to matter to many fans after the All-Star race. Social media reaction and effusive fan comments on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio followed for days after the non-points race — a reaction rarely seen about that race in recent years.

Although the aero package and restrictor plate combination has been tried at Indianapolis, Pocono and Michigan in the Xfinity Series and at Charlotte in Cup, NASCAR has not stated how many races or where they hope to run this type of package in 2019 and beyond.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, stressed that Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, saying: “This (package) is not something we’re looking at for every race. I see some of our current drivers make assumptions when they don’t have all the facts. It’s something we’re looking at for a few tracks. If we could pull it off and improve on something, we will but also very happy with the racing we have today.”

With restrictor plates choking horsepower and aero changes intended to help cars run closer, Keselowski’s concern is that races on some 1.5- or 2-mile tracks will look similar to the racing at Daytona and Talladega. That means drivers are less in control of their fate.

“I would say most plate tracks, first through fourth has control of their own destiny and have acquired that finish based on talent, skill, etc.,’’ said Keselowski, whose five Talladega wins and one Daytona triumph are the most victories at restrictor-plate tracks than any other active driver. “From there on back it is a random bingo ball.”

Hall of Famer Mark Martin tweeted that he agreed with Keselowski and said that while he enjoys many of the changes the sport has made — including the playoffs and stage racing — he does not want to see a package that makes it easier for more drivers to win Cup races.

“Racing in NASCAR is supposed to be the hardest, most difficult thing that you could ever try to do as a race car driver,’’ Martin said this past weekend at Michigan. “It really, really hurts me to think about that we want to change to satisfy Johnny-come-lately fans.

“There are some issues that could be addressed about our racing, but artificially making the racing exciting for a portion of the fans to me is not what, I’d rather see that in (the Xfinity) race, not (the Cup) race.”

Sports need to be challenging. Sports also need to entertain and wow fans with feats that no average person can do. It’s why people watch LeBron James on a basketball court, Tom Brady on a football field and Sidney Crosby at a hockey rink. Rules have changed over the years in their sports, some dramatic, some subtle, but their athletic prowess remains constant.

Even if a driver’s ability may be limited in a handful of races that doesn’t mean that some fan can do what Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson do in a car. 

The restrictor plates and aero package used in the All-Star race and at Xfinity races, create a different set of challenges for drivers but still allows them to display their ability.

“I think it’s a different type of talent,’’ Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon said this past weekend. “To be inches off of one another, pushing, shoving, wide open around there, making the correct moves, jumping out of line at the right times.

“It’s a real chess match out there and putting yourself in a good position is very key. I think it’s a different type of talent, obviously, than what we do every week. I think it’s good to have these type of races. If the fans love to see it and it looks good and creates drama, I like it. I don’t know its an every week package but for these types of tracks it’s good.”

It’s not just NASCAR facing such issues. This is a topic in IndyCar, particularly with the Indianapolis 500.

Last month’s 500 featured 31 lead changes. That was more lead changes in any Indianapolis 500 from 1911-2011.

Problem was that the 31 lead changes this year were the fewest since 2011. The race averaged 44.7 lead changes from 2012-17 when it appeared more like a video game with its back-and-forth passing.

This year’s total marked a 30.7 percent decline in lead changes. It’s why some have wondered if rule changes need to be made for that series to make passing easier at the front — and in theory make the race more exciting.

There needs to be a balance there and for each motorsports series. Not every race will be spectacular. Not every game is in other sports. For every moment of greatness, there are others that are merely satisfying. The key is to find a way that appeals to fans and also works with competitors. 

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Regan Smith to return to JR Motorsports for two Xfinity races

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JR Motorsports announced Wednesday that Regan Smith will drive the team’s No. 8 car in two Xfinity Series races this season.

Smith, who also serves as a Fox Sports analyst, will pilot the car Aug. 10 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Aug. 24 at Road America. Long-time sponsor Fire Alarm Services will join Smith.

This will mark the 35-year-old Smith’s first Xfinity start in two years and his first for JR Motorsports since 2016. Smith won in his JR Motorsports debut in 2012 in Miami and drove full-time for the team from 2013-15. He won five times during that stint, including at Mid-Ohio.

“Regan is a great friend, and he means so much to our company,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a statement from the team. “He won a lot of races here, but for me his significance was no more evident than in his very first race for JRM at the end of 2012. That win at Homestead was enormous. It ended a winless streak for JR Motorsports that had dragged us down for more than two years. It was a tone-setter. It gave us momentum that, to be honest, I’m not sure we’ve ever lost. That’s what Regan means to this company, and that’s why I’m thrilled to have him back for these two races at Mid-Ohio and Road America.”

Said Smith: “I can’t tell you how pumped I am for this. Dale, Kelley (Earnhardt Miller) and everyone at JRM have been like family to me, so in a way, it feels like I’m coming home. I have great memories of the years I spent there and the success we had during that time. And to have Fire Alarm on board for these races makes it all the more meaningful. They’ve been both friends and supporters of mine for a long time.”

Comcast NBCUniversal to salute military at next two Xfinity races

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Comcast NBCUniversal will use the next two Xfinity Series races – June 29 at Chicagoland and July 5 at Daytona – to honor the military during the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola campaign.

It will sponsor Jeffrey Earnhardt in Xtreme Concepts Racing’s No. 81 “Salute to Service” Toyota for the race at Chicagoland Speedway, which is the first NASCAR race broadcast by NBCSN this year.

“I’m really excited to be partnering with Comcast and the military on the Comcast Salute to Service Toyota for Chicagoland Speedway,” Earnhardt said in a press release. “Our race team at Xtreme Concepts Racing feels as though we can’t ever do enough for the men and women that protect us and it’s awesome to be partnered with a company like Comcast that feels the same. We will give the fans at Chicagoland Speedway and watching on NBCSN something awesome to cheer for. Hopefully, they watch us park it in victory lane.”

Also, for the fourth consecutive season, all Xfinity Series drivers will bear the names of active military units and installations on their race car windshields in place of the traditional Xfinity branding during the NASCAR Xfinity Series event at Daytona International Speedway. NASCAR and teams collaborated with Comcast to select these military units and installations to showcase the industry’s strong ties back to the military community.

Comcast NBCUniversal has a long-standing reputation as a military-friendly and military-ready company. That includes its commitment to hiring military community members – veterans, National Guard and Reserve members and military spouses. Comcast hired more than 10,000 military community members from 2015 to 2017 and are committed to hire 11,000 more by the end of 2021. Also, as a “thank you” for their service, veterans and actively-serving military customers can get a $100 prepaid card and $25 Xfinity coupon by visiting https://www.xfinity.com/military.

“At Comcast NBCUniversal, our sustained commitment to our nation’s military community has never been stronger,” said Brigadier General (Ret.) Carol Eggert, senior vice president of military and veteran affairs at Comcast NBCUniversal in a press release. “We truly value the tremendous contributions of those who serve our country and wanted to recognize them and their families in a special way as we celebrate our country’s independence.”

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET

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This week’s episode of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Rutledge Wood is joined by Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan.

They’ll take fan phone calls and discuss the big storylines of the week.

If you can’t catch either of today’s shows on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

After ARCA win and strong Truck debut, Chandler Smith ready for more at Gateway

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Chandler Smith can drive well over 100 mph on a race track. But after an ARCA or NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race, he can’t drive out of the race track and proceed on a city street or rural road or freeway.

That kind of thing happens when you’re 16 years old – he turns 17 on June 26 – and have yet to get your driver’s license from your home state (in Smith’s case, Georgia).

But even without a license, the soon-to-be high school junior from tiny Talking Rock, Georgia, – population 69 – is proving he sure knows how to wheel a race car or race truck.

Last weekend is more than enough proof to any driver’s examiner of Smith’s ability behind the wheel. On Saturday night, he earned his fourth career ARCA win – in just 14 total starts in the series – in Madison, Wisconsin, for Venturini Motorsports.

Just over 12 hours later, Smith made his Gander Outdoors Truck Series debut by starting on the pole (due to being fastest in first practice when second practice and qualifying were both rained out) in the M&Ms 200 race for Kyle Busch Motorsports, led 55 laps and ultimately finished eighth (he may have finished higher if not for a pit road penalty that sent him to the tail end of the field).

So what does Smith do for an encore? Double duty again in both ARCA and Trucks events this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (formerly Gateway Motorsports Park), that’s what.

Smith is looking forward to both races, particularly the next step in his evolution with KBM, for whom he’s driving a limited schedule in both Trucks and super late models.

It’s very humbling to have all of these opportunities on the table and I can pick and choose what pathway I am going to take,” Smith said in a media release. “I am grateful for all of the people around me.

I have finally gotten to the age and the maturity when I realize this is a big deal. There is no one I know that is my age that has the opportunities I have. I have some bigger opportunities than some Cup drivers right now. I am really trying to stay humble about it.”

Busch has high expectations for the young drivers that pilot his trucks, and Smith is not excluded from that category even with just one start to date.

I don’t think it adds pressure at all,” Smith said. “When you have drivers that aren’t winning in the very best stuff, he has a valid point. If I don’t do good, I would go up and ask him what I did wrong. I will deserve it. I want to make sure I am aware of what I am doing wrong so I can fix it.”

Saturday will be one of the longest race days – an estimated 14 hours, all told (barring any weather issues) the teenager has experienced to date. He has two ARCA practices, qualifying and the 120 laps/150 miles Day to Day Coffee 150 race at 7:30 p.m. ET. He also has two Truck practices, qualifying and a 160 laps/200 miles CarShield 200 race at 10 p.m. ET.

I think it’s going to be all mental,” said Smith, who has never been in the St. Louis area and may not know about it’s notorious heat and humidity at times. “You are going to have to want to have the drive to do it. If you are like ‘oh my gosh, I have to do that?’ because if you have that attitude you are going to suck at it.

I’ve never been to the track before. I know you need to be patient and hit your marks there. There is definitely going to be a big learning curve. I have never raced on a track like that before. I have practiced there a little on the simulator. I have a good bit of laps under me and I have a general idea so when we get there so I will know what to do.”

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