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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Friday’s schedule for Kansas Speedway

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NASCAR’s race weekend at Kansas Speedway begins today with Cup qualifying and practice sessions for Cup and Xfinity.

Here’s the day’s full schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

11 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

Noon – 8 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

2:05 – 2:55 p.m. – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

5 – 5:50 – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

7:10 p.m. – Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Friday 5: Kansas could be start of dominant run for Big 3

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — The opening half of the playoffs, with its Roval and other schedule changes, saw five different winners but such parity may be replaced beginning this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Three of the season’s final five races will be at 1.5-mile tracks — Kansas, Texas and Homestead. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have dominated this season on the 1.5-mile tracks.

Consider what they’ve done this year on such tracks:

Atlanta — Harvick won, leading 181 of 325 laps; Truex was fifth.

Las Vegas — Harvick won, leading 214 of 267 laps; Busch was second and Truex was fourth.

Texas — Busch won, leading 116 of 334 laps; Harvick was second.

Kansas — Harvick won, leading 79 of 267 laps; Truex was second 

Coca-Cola 600 — Busch won, leading 377 of 400 laps; Truex was second.

Chicago — Busch won, leading 59 of 267 laps; Harvick was third and Truex was fourth.

Kentucky — Truex won, leading 174 of 267 laps; Busch was fourth and Harvick was fifth.

Las Vegas — Brad Keselowski won; Truex was third, leading 96 of 272 laps.

Also consider that Harvick, Busch and Truex combined to win 12 of the 17 stages at those tracks and one can see how difficult it could be for other drivers if this trend continues.

Keselowski (-18 points), Ryan Blaney (-22), Kyle Larson (-26 with his team appealing his Talladega penalty) and Alex Bowman (-68) enter this weekend’s race below the cutoff line. Bowman must win or he’ll be eliminated. Larson, Blaney and Keselowski will need to win or hope others have problems to advance. Scoring a victory won’t be easy against Harvick, Busch and Truex, who have combined to win the last five Kansas races.

Don’t be surprised if the Big 3 dominate the second half of the playoffs.

2. The value of playoff points

Martin Truex Jr. enters Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC) in the last transfer spot.

He holds that position because of the 38 playoff points he’s accumulated this season. His advantage would be much less without having scored so many playoff points.

Brad Keselowski trails Truex by 18 points for that transfer spot. Keselowski has scored 13 fewer playoff points than Truex.

Ryan Blaney trails Truex by 22 points. Blaney has scored 25 fewer playoff points than Truex.

All the points matter throughout the season.

3. Kind words about Kyle Busch from a competitor

At a media event Thursday to promote the upcoming Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick was asked about competing against Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

“I love racing against Kyle Busch,” Harvick said. “I think Kyle is one of the best drivers that is ever going to come through this sport. The things that he does in the car are great, but he knows a lot about the car, too.

“And Martin (Truex Jr.) and those guys have run well over the last few years, so racing with those two teams, we’ve been around each other in the garage a lot. There’s a lot of respect amongst the three teams, but we all want to beat each other.”

4. What’s at stake …

Jimmie Johnson has five races left to score a victory this season and continue his streak of seasons with at least one win.

He’s gone 16 seasons with at least one victory, tying him with Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace for third on the all-time list.

Richard Petty holds the record at 18 consecutive seasons with at least one victory. David Pearson had at least a victory in 17 consecutive seasons.

5. How much does testing matter?

Kansas was one of three tracks NASCAR held organizational tests this season, allowing one car per organization to test.

In the previous two organizational tests this season (Las Vegas and Richmond), the winner did not test.

Kyle Larson was the fastest both days of the Las Vegas test on Jan. 31-Feb. 1. He finished third, highest among those who tested.

Kevin Harvick took part in the organizational test at Richmond on Aug. 27-28. He went on to finish second, highest among those who tested.

The organizational test at Kansas Speedway was Sept. 24-25. Here’s who tested:

Playoff drivers: Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.

Drivers eliminated or didn’t make playoffs: Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher, Cole Custer, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard.

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Dale Jr. Download: Talladega’s wild weekends

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A mostly uneventful race at Talladega last week turned wild in Turn 1 of the white-flag lap. A multi-car crash might have ended the race if not for the fact that NASCAR judged all the drivers in the accident were safe. Some drivers – notably Kurt Busch, who ran out of gas in Turn 4 of that same lap – were not happy.

But NASCAR was in a no-win situation.

“If NASCAR throws the yellow, they’re going to get criticized for not letting it play out; if NASCAR doesn’t throw they yellow, they’re going to get criticized for not throwing the yellow,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on this week’s edition of the Dale Jr. Download.

Earnhardt then recalled some other controversial calls when NASCAR threw the caution to this disapproval of the fans.

In April 2004, Jeff Gordon beat Earnhardt when the field was frozen due to a yellow flag. Afterward, irate fans hurled cans of beer at Gordon’s car.

“Jeff had just gotten up toward the front,” Earnhardt said. “And we’d been doing well all day long – and this would have been five in a row. So down the back straightaway going into [Turn] 3, Jeff side-drafted me and got ahead and I was side drafting him back and was starting to go back by him. And that motion as I’m starting to go back by him … another couple of hundred yards and I’d be back out front. And the 25 car [Brian Vickers] spun in the middle of the corner. NASCAR’s precedent at the time was the field was froze as soon as the car started to spin.”

Earnhardt was frustrated that Gordon, who had led significantly fewer laps in the race, was going to win.

We’re riding around and those beer cans are flying across the racetrack,” Earnhardt continued. “I got up against the wall behind the fence so I’m not getting many beer cans. Jeff goes further and further down toward the apron. … They were like throwing full beer cans. Now you know you’ve got some pissed off Alabama fans when they’re willing to throw a full can of beer.”

For more, watch the video above.

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NASCAR America: Aric Almirola replaces grim Kansas memories with fond ones

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The 2017 crash in the spring Kansas Speedway that seriously injured Aric Almirola and kept him from competing in seven races that season continues to define his career.

“Breaking my back was obviously not in the plan,” Almirola said in an interview on NASCAR America. “I didn’t anticipate ever being injured in a racecar. Everybody always thinks, ‘that’s not going to happen to me.’ ”

But it did and each time Almirola returns to Kansas – like he will Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC) – he is met with memories of the accident that will not go away. That’s because his crash continues to be part of the highlight reel for this track as one of its most dramatic moments.

As it turns out, his thoughts about the track have become fond ones.

Later in 2017, Almirola finished ninth in the fall Kansas race after finishing fifth the week before at Talladega. He finished ninth again this spring.

“Something that really stuck out to me there is how his perception has changed,” Parker Kligerman said on Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America. “Sometimes you have drivers who ascend to the top very quickly and they don’t have, maybe, a respect for what they’re doing and what they’re getting to do week in and week out. And when they’re … forced to watch the sport from another angle and … just observe, a lot of time they come away being faster, better, more appreciative.”

This week, Almirola goes to the track with an even better feeling after winning last week’s race at Talladega.

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter