Friday 5: Here’s how to address NASCAR’s ‘issue with star power’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — International Speedway Corp. President John Saunders created a hubbub Thursday when he cited an “issue with star power” as among the reasons for a 10 percent decline in attendance at the company’s six NASCAR events from March to May.

So if the sport is looking for someone to build around, how about …

Kyle Busch.

No other active driver elicits as a visceral reaction as Busch. Many heartily booed him after he won last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, while his fans cheered, creating a confluence of noise.

Detractors seethed after Busch spun Kyle Larson to win, conveniently forgetting that only seconds earlier Larson’s contact sent Busch into the wall and out of the lead.

After retrieving the checkered flag, Busch walked to the camera and rubbed his eye to mock those crying about his victory.

The boos continued and Busch taunted those fans, telling them: “If you don’t like that kind of racing, don’t even watch.”

Busch, who is tied with Kevin Harvick with a series-high five wins this year, has long accepted there will be a vociferous segment of the fan base that detests him. He never had a chance. He notes that early in his Cup career he was booed as much for being Kurt Busch’s little brother as anything. Kyle Busch’s intensity and antics infuriated some fans and made his backers more determined in their support.

Busch knows he likely will never win most popular driver but isn’t the main goal to win championships?

“There you go,” he said.

As for wearing the symbolic black hat, Busch doesn’t worry about it.

“I’ve had the black hat for a long, long time, so it doesn’t bother me as long as it doesn’t bother my sponsors and they can accept that, as well, too, and … know who I am as a person outside the race car rather than the one minute tidbits of TV that you get from a guy on television,” he said.

This topic of star power is not new. International Speedway Corp. has cited declines in ticket sales in the past to the absence of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Thursday, Saunders cited weather as impacting attendance at some tracks, added: “We still have an issue with star power and hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands.”

Ryan Blaney scoffed at the notion that the weight should be just on the young drivers.

“How many winners this year? Six. Come on now,” the 24-year-old Blaney said. “You can’t just put that on the young guys for not winning. That’s a lot of other people that aren’t winning too.”

Ultimately, the best selling point for the sport is going to be the racing. Have more races and finishes like last weekend will help the sport but it will take more than that.

2. A tale of two trips

Daytona in February is about hope. Daytona in July is about reality.

When NASCAR arrived here in February to begin the season, Hendrick Motorsports was hopeful of getting past its “rough” 2017, Matt Kenseth was not at the track and numerous driver changes provided their teams with hope.

With Cup teams back on the beach, Hendrick Motorsports continues to search for its first win, Kenseth again is not around — but will be back at Kentucky for Roush Fenway Racing — and four of the drivers with new rides this season are in a playoff spot with nine races left in the regular season.

The gear celebrating Hendrick Motorsports’ next win — which will be its 250th in Cup — has been in storage since Kasey Kahne won at Indianapolis. That was 33 races ago.

Hendrick Motorsports entered the season with two new drivers. Alex Bowman took over the No. 88 after Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired, and William Byron climbed into the No. 24, taking Kahne’s spot with the organization. Hendrick also entered with questions about sponsor Lowe’s (it was announced a month after the Daytona 500 that Lowe’s would not return to Jimmie Johnson’s team for 2019).

With Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch dominating, there have been few chances for Hendrick Motorsports or other teams to excel. Also, Hendrick and many other Chevrolet teams have struggled with the new Camaro this season.

While Hendrick has seen progress — Alex Bowman has scored back-to-back top-10 finishes the past two weeks for the first time this season and Chase Elliott has three top 10s in the past four races — there have been challenges. Elliott has led only eight laps this season. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has led two laps this year. Hendrick’s four drivers have combine to lead 106 laps — 65 by Bowman.

At Roush Fenway Racing, the struggles continue. Matt Kenseth’s run in the No. 6 car for Trevor Bayne did not lead to significant improvement.

“We’ve had some tough conversations these last few weeks,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is battling for a playoff spot. “I think I’ve been pretty vocal in the shop and sometimes whether it be in an interview or on the radio probably when I shouldn’t, and I definitely need to respect all of our guys at the shop that are working hard and trying to provide new stuff for us. We just haven’t got that new stuff as quick as what we wanted.”

Drivers in new places who are in a playoff spot heading into Saturday night’s race are Blaney (Wood Brothers to Team Penske), Aric Almirola (Richard Petty Motorsports to Stewart-Haas Racing), Erik Jones (Furniture Row Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing) and Bowman (no full-time ride to Hendrick).

3. Slide job!

Christopher Bell is enjoying how prevalent the slide job is becoming in NASCAR. It’s a skill Bell and Kyle Larson learned while racing sprint cars on dirt. Other drivers have picked it up, especially at tracks where a high groove is the preferred line.

At those tracks, a driver charges into the corner, cuts to the bottom and lets the car drift up the banking to pass a car and stop that car’s momentum.

Larson attempted the move on Kyle Busch but it didn’t work and Busch went on to win. Noah Gragson tried it on Brett Moffitt on the last lap of the Camping World Truck race at Iowa Speedway but Moffitt got back by.

“It’s cool to me to see that coming to fruition,” Bell said of he move. “Like Iowa, man, the truck race, the Xfinity race, everyone was sliding each other, and I think it’s passing, right, so you get more passes. A guy passes someone going in, and then another guy passes someone coming out. I think it’s exciting to see more guys using it and it becoming more common in NASCAR.”

But that also means drivers are learning how to defend the move better. So what will Bell do?

Hopefully do it some more, right?” he said. “It’s going to be tough here at Daytona, and Kentucky (the groove) is on the bottom, so I won’t get to do it anymore there. But it’s just another trick in the bag, right? So if you get the opportunity to pull it, I’m going to do it.”

4.  Less practice

Rain canceled Thursday’s final Cup practice before any car could run a lap at speed. That left teams with only the 50-minute opening session to prepare for Friday’s qualifying and Saturday night’s race.

Should that be the norm for next season? In the Xfinity Series, only 10 cars went out in the final practice session. Are two sessions needed?

“I think if you had, say, one practice but it was an hour and 20 (minutes) long, I think you’d be fine with that,” Kyle Busch said. “I think that would be enough and that would be beneficial to being able to go straight into a qualifying and into the race. Fifty (minutes) may be a tick short for what some guys want to do.”

5. Will the streak continue?

There has been a different driver win each of the last eight July Daytona races. The streak started with Kevin Harvick in 2010 and he was followed by David Ragan, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Aric Almirola, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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Five can’t-miss NASCAR Cup races in 2019 beyond Daytona 500

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We’re 32 days out from the biggest NASCAR event of the season in the Daytona 500, a race of such importance that needs no explanation.

But what else is there to look forward to?

There are 35 other Cup points races this season and they’re not all created equal.

Here are five races to pay closer attention to this season.

– Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on Feb. 24 on Fox)

The second Cup race of the season will probably have its biggest spotlight in recent memory when the 1.5-mile track is the first to host the 2019 rules package.

Derived from the 2018 All-Star Race package, it includes a tapered spacer and is intended to provide closer racing. Cars will run 550 horsepower at all tracks 1.33 miles and larger, which includes Atlanta. At tracks less than 1.33 miles, cars will have 750 horsepower.

Combine the hopeful intent behind the package and a rough track surface that’s being kept in place by the “most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C.,” and you have no excuse to not tune in and see what happens.

Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on June 30 on NBCSN)

The race that marks the start of NBC’s portion of the NASCAR schedule set an incredible precedent in 2018. The 1.5-mile track debuted in its new spot on the schedule with Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch’s dramatic last-lap battle and Busch’s win.

Was it a result of the drivers involved? The hot Chicagoland surface? Lapped traffic?

Yes.

Can it be topped?

We can only hope.

Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on Aug. 4 on NBCSN)

From the green flag last year, the Cup race on the New York road course was a barn burner, ending with a duel between Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. that resulted in Elliott’s first Cup win as Truex ran out of gas.

Races on the road course have had increasingly memorable finishes over the last seven years (beginning in 2012 with Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose). WGI shows no sign of providing a snoozer in the near future, especially as long as pit strategy is involved.

Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 29 on NBC)

The final lap of last season’s inaugural Cup race on the Charlotte Roval  had enough drama for three races on the new road course.

From Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson‘s contact in the final turn giving Ryan Blaney the win; Kyle Larson hitting the wall twice and passing a stalled car at the checkered flag to advance in the playoffs; and Aric Almirola passing enough cars to advance himself.

Do teams have the oval-road course hybrid figured out after one year? It’ll be fun to watch that question answered.

First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Oct. 27 on NBCSN)

We’re starting to run out of fingers to use to list memorable events in Martinsville’s recent history of hosting a playoff race.

You could argue it started with Dale Earnhardt Jr. banging doors with Tony Stewart to win his only Martinsville clock in 2014.

Since then?

We’ve seen Matt Kenseth’s retaliation against Joey Logano in 2015, which resulted in Jeff Gordon’s final Cup win.

Two years later, Denny Hamlin wrecked Elliott from the lead near the end of regulation. Kyle Busch then won in overtime as Martinsville’s version of “The Big One” unfolded. Afterward, an angry Elliott confronted Hamlin on the track as fans filled the air with cheers and boos.

Last year Truex and Logano provided a thrilling battle over the last six laps. Logano performed the bump-and-run on Truex in the final turn to win the battle in the “damn war” (which Logano also won in Miami).

 

New NASCAR Cup team owners invest in minor league hockey team

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You might say that the newest NASCAR Cup team owner is now in a Rush.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which recently purchased the Cup charter of former NASCAR championship team Furniture Row Racing, has branched out, taking a minority ownership share in the Rapid City (South Dakota) Rush of the 27-team East Coast Hockey League.

Spire co-founders Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr will become active minority partners in the Rush, hoping to bring the team back to past prominence.

“We aren’t going to be saviors here,” Spire co-founder Jeff Dickerson said in a press conference at the team’s Rushmore Plaza Civic Center home. “There’s no magic bullet. It’s going to take all of us to create the culture that builds excitement and value. The city loves the Rush and we hope to get it back to where it was.”

Rush majority owner, Rapid City businessman Scott Mueller, sees better days ahead for his club.

“The biggest thing is (Spire’s) sports industry knowledge,” Mueller said, according to the Rapid City Journal. “It’s about putting people in seats, selling advertising and they have a lot of knowledge on that. (Dickerson) sees so many venues, and I think he’s going to be involved in changes that are needed.

“We’ve taken some steps in the last few months. These are great days for us, and we’re really excited about our future.”

The Rush is mired in sixth place in the ECHL’s seven-team Mountain Division.

In addition to purchasing Furniture Row Racing’s charter, Spire represents several race car drivers including NASCAR’s Kyle Larson, Landon Cassill, Ross Chastain, Justin Haley, Todd Gilliland, Garrett Smithley and Vinnie Miller and IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe.

Spire isn’t the only NASCAR Cup team owner involved in other sports. Roush Fenway Racing’s co-owner John Henry owns Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool Football Club of soccer’s Premier League, while Chip Ganassi previously was a minority owner in MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates. Felix Sabates, who also holds a minority ownership stake in Chip Ganassi Racing, is also a minority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

“We have been looking for several years to find something in minor league sports and see if what we do in motorsports translates to this space,” Puchyr said, according to The Journal. “Our due diligence indicates that it does.”

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Richard Petty Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports announce crew chief changes

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Bubba Wallace will have a new crew chief in 2019 with Drew Blickensderfer leaving to take the same position with Front Row Motorsports.

Richard Petty Motorsports said in a statement it will announce a new crew chief “at the appropriate time.” Meanwhile competition director Philippe Lopez will lead the No. 43 team’s efforts to prepare for the season.

Wallace finished the 2018 season 28th in points. He earned three top 10s, including second place in the Daytona 500.

Blickensderfer, who was with RPM since 2012, heads to Front Row Motorsports, which announced its crew chief lineup Wednesday.

Blickensderfer will be paired with Michael McDowell on the No. 34 Ford. Blickensderfer replaces Derrick Finley, who will serve as FRM’s technical director.

Mike Kelley joins FRM to crew chief rookie Matt Tifft and the No. 36 Ford. Kelley was previously with Roush Fenway Racing where he was crew chief on the No. 60 Xfinity car. Kelley is a two-time Xfinity champion, winning with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2011 and 2012.

Seth Barbour will return for his second full season as crew chief on David Ragan‘s No. 38 Ford. He joined the team in the middle of the 2017 season as a crew chief for Landon Cassill.

The crew chief moves come as the team recently announced it had moved shop locations.

 

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Kyle Larson wins preliminary event at Chili Bowl

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Kyle Larson won the A feature Tuesday night to advance to Saturday night’s A main at the Chili Bowl Nationals. It was his fifth preliminary event win at the Chili Bowl. Zach Daum finished second.

Larson took the lead on Lap 6 of the 25-lap feature and went on to the win.

MORE: Tuesday night race results from Chili Bowl

MORE: Monday night race results from Chili Bowl

“We’ll move on to Saturday and try to be better,” Larson said in the press conference afterward.

NBCSN broadcaster Dillon Welch finished seventh in the 24-car field. Alex Bowman placed ninth. Tanner Berryhill, who will be a Cup rookie this season, was 10th.

The Chili Bowl continues the rest of the week, culminating with Saturday night’s main event.

JJ Yeley, Landon Cassill and Rico Abreu are among the drivers scheduled to race Wednesday night at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, event.

Thursday’s racing will include two-time defending winner Christopher Bell, Justin Allgaier and Karsyn Elledge, daughter of Kelley Earnhardt Miller. Kasey Kahne and Tanner Thorson are among those scheduled to race Friday.

Thorson won Tuesday night’s Race of Champions. Larson was second, Bell placed third and Yeley was fifth in that event.