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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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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