Friday 5: David Ragan says gap between ‘haves and have-nots’ has grown

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It started with a tweet.

Isn’t that often the case?

It was a few days after Travis Pastrana successfully recreated three of Evel Knievel’s iconic Las Vegas jumps earlier this month. Pastrana, who ran full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2013, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he enjoyed his racing experience except for losing his own money.

“The best way to end up a millionaire,” Pastrana told the newspaper “is to start with two and go racing.”

David Ragan, who has made 417 career Cup starts, responded to the comment with a tweet:

In a conversation with NBC Sports a few hours before last weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway, Ragan praised the racing, the safety of the cars and NASCAR’s marketing of drivers, but reiterated his concerns about the financial gap between Cup teams.

“The gap has gotten larger from the haves and have-nots,” Ragan said. “A team like Jasper Motorsports in the early 2000s, they could have a good weekend and a good setup and a good pit crew and they could go and run in the top five. Can Front Row Motorsports run in the top five at Kentucky on a normal weekend? No. There’s no way.

“A team like Roush Racing, they’re off right now, they can’t do it. So the distance between the haves and the have-nots are as great as they’ve ever been.”

How to solve the problem, Ragan admits he isn’t sure. He says the sport needs to be cheaper so teams don’t require as much sponsorship money to be competitive.

Richard Petty Motorsports stated before last weekend’s race at Kentucky that it continues to look for sponsorship this season for rookie Bubba Wallace. The businesses of car owners Richard Petty (Petty’s Garage) and Andrew Murstein (Medallion Bank) were the sponsors on Wallace’s car last week and will be on his car this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“Now a team owner, when they hire a driver, the first question is ‘How much money do you have?’ or ‘Can you sell a sponsor for me?’ ” Ragan said.

Ragan admits that there are some such cases that have worked out well for team and driver.

“You look at Matt Tifft and … Brandon Jones, they bring money to the team and it’s a rent-a-ride and those kids are deserving of a ride,” Ragan said. “They do a good job, but it’s not always like that because you do have some kids – and I don’t need to name names – but there are some kids just having a good time spending their daddy’s money and that doesn’t help our sport.

“They don’t have the passion. There’s probably late model drivers, (Camping World Truck Series driver) Jordan Anderson who is passionate about our sport, who drives his truck and trailer all around the country. He deserves a top-tier ride. It all boils down to expense.”

Ragan says it is important for new people to enter the sport and the Cup level.

“What creates interest in our sport, someone from an owner or a driver that says, ‘Hey I can come in and pay my dues and be successful in a reasonable amount of time,’ ” Ragan said. “(I) think that was possible 25 years ago. I think that Bill Davis or the owner of Jasper Motorsports … someone like a Robert Yates, who is not a billionaire but who is hard worker, who is a good team leader and who has good people surrounding them, they could come and be successful. I think like Morgan-McClure, but we’ve run those teams out because this is a rich man’s hobby. If you don’t have a half a billion net worth or more, you don’t have a chance of making it in NASCAR.”

The Race Team Alliance, which Ragan’s Front Row Motorsports team is not part of by choice, has sought to help teams reduce costs through shared expenses. NASCAR repeatedly has stated that one of its prime objectives is costs and that it works with teams on cutting expenses.

One recent example is NASCAR deciding not to run the All-Star package at any other track this season after concerns from teams about the expense of a mid-season change.

Rob Kauffman, chairman of the Race Team Alliance, said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast earlier this month that the purpose of the RTA “is to promote and grow the sport of stock-car racing and pursue the long-term (common) interests of the teams.”

Kauffman said the RTA worked on cutting costs for teams. That included travel costs, working with carriers to ferry teams to tracks instead of teams needing to have their own jets (although some still do).

Still, the sport faces challenges. That’s among the reasons the charter system was created. Kauffman said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast that the RTA was involved in the negotiations on the charter system and “how the rule process works: When, how, when do changes get implemented. The teams are not against changes. I think in general they’re in favor of evolution and trying to promote and grow the sport, just change needs to be done in a reasonable and planned out and sensible fashion.”

The charter system helps Cup teams budget for a season based on an estimated earning per race. Teams still need to secure sponsorship to fund all that they want or need. A hope among owners is that as the charters mature, they will grow in value so if an owner ever decides to sell, they won’t be losing money just like Pastrana said he did.

2. Playoff battle among teammates

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman hold the final three playoff spots heading into Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Johnson leads Elliott by 15 points and Elliott has a 42-point point advantage on Bowman, who is coming off a last-place finish at Kentucky after a brake rotor failed that caused his crash last weekend.

Bowman admits “it’s definitely crossed my mind” on how to race his teammates if they’re also battling for the final playoff spots.

“I would imagine at that point you just become competitors,” he told NBC Sports. “You’re still going to help each other. The teams are going to share information, but when it comes down to Sunday afternoon, you’re just going to become competitors and can’t race each other easy like teammates at that point.

“Hopefully it doesn’t come down to that and all three of us get in, but it will be an interesting experience and a learning process for me because, you’re right, I haven’t had an experience like that, I don’t know what to expect with that.”

3. Roval concerns

After Cup drivers tested the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway over the past two weeks, the consensus is that playoff race there Sept. 30 should feature a lot of bumping and banging — crashing.

Over the past couple of weeks, minor adjustments were made to the track. The first test day, additional curbing  and a tire barrier were put near the backstretch chicane to keep drivers from cutting through the exit and shortening the distance to Turn 3 on the oval.

During the test this past week, rumble strips were removed from Turn 8, a left-hand turn that leads cars from the infield portion back on to the oval.

Joey Logano has another change he’d like to see but knows he likely won’t.

“I think the goal should be to try to get rid of the bus stop on the back,” Logano told NBC Sports. “Just get rid of it. Just go. Hell with it. We don’t need it any other time we’re here. There’s no passing zone there. It’s kind of hodge-podge in a way.

“It’s going to cause accidents, and there’s no room for error. Someone is going to hit the tire pylon on exit and knock the radiators out of the car. We’re going to have a big caution and a  big cleanup. It would just be better if we didn’t have it.”

That chicane is intended to prevent cars from carrying too much speed into Turns 3 and 4 on the oval. The challenge with a road course that also has high-speed banked turns is for teams to have the proper setup and Goodyear to provide the proper tire that can handle those speeds and the demands of a road course.

That’s not the only concern.

Aric Almirola noted that for the start and restarts, drivers will come down the frontstretch instead of going through the chicane. He worries about the speed drivers will carry into Turn 1, a sharp left-hand turn into the infield road course.

“Turn 1 is very sketchy, and on the restarts I think that’s going to be a really, really sketchy spot,” Almirola told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be going faster because we’re going to be restarting from the oval instead of from the chicane. That’s going to be an interesting thing to watch and see how it develops throughout the weekend. I just don’t know.

“It’s fun to do something different. I enjoy that. I wish it wasn’t a playoff race. I would love for this to be an exhibition race or to run here in May when it means a little less, but to come here for a playoff race to do something this extreme, I’m not totally in favor of it.”

Alex Bowman said that his team considered simulating a restart during their test last week but ran out of time after having parts failures that limited their track time.

4. Something new?

Martin Truex Jr. has 16 wins since the beginning of the 2016 season but he’s not won back-to-back races. Will that change this weekend?

5. Will the domination continue?

Toyota drivers have led 97.2 percent of the laps run in the last four Cup races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Toyota drivers won three of those four races. Will anyone else challenge those cars this weekend?

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Why Tyler Reddick chose to reveal his many sides through Twitter

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How to stop worrying about and start loving The Twitter?

Tyler Reddick said he found the secret a few years ago after much hand-wringing over how his thoughts and views would be perceived when they took shape in social media.

“Half the time I wouldn’t say them, and I just said, ‘I’m going to let it go and let it chill and filter it some,’” Reddick told NBC Sports during a recent media availability at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Because you don’t want to get out there and just blast someone and be swearing at them. There’s a fine line.

“I’m sure at some point in the future, my interaction will cross that line on accident, and there’ll be some serious backlash for it.”

Tyler Reddick honors Dolly in his unique way at Bristol (Donald Page/Getty Images).

In the meantime, the NASCAR world is getting the best version of the Richard Childress Racing driver – the raw, candid and often hilarious (check out the wig he wore at Bristol to commemorate his Dolly Parton-sponsored car) but sometimes controversial sides – as the 2018 Xfinity Series champion shares more of his stream of consciousness with the world.

Whether it’s been a Daytona feud with Bubba Wallace, mercilessly trolling the Xfinity Series for a lack of championship recognition, or offering some serious thoughts on group qualifying in Cup, Reddick has a sharp pair of thumbs working over his smartphone.

Though he seems more prolific since winning the title last November, Reddick said he had grown comfortable with being himself on Twitter long before that.

Among the first times was when he called out truck series driver Ben Rhodes for describing the Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway as a “demolition derby” during a TV interview. “It’s truly an incredible event, and it’s cool we’re even at Eldora,” Reddick said. “For him to bash it, it hit a soft spot obviously because I’m a dirt racer.”

“Half the time I’d type something out, and me being reserved when I was younger, I just wouldn’t say it,” Reddick said. “And I figured I might as well be myself and say what I want to say when I’m feeling it, or type it, I guess I should say.

“I think it was there before the championship. I think it’s just kind of coincidence (since then). Obviously, there have been people who have poked about the championship, so I think maybe in that sense because of that, it’s gotten more attention since then. I think as I’ve gotten more comfortable with me being who I am and not afraid to show it, I’ve just opened up to it more.”

It already has gotten delicate, though, in the case of Wallace, whose Richard Petty Motorsports team has an alliance and engine deal with RCR.

Without using his name in a tweet, Wallace blamed a crash on Reddick, who was making his Daytona 500 debut.

“It was a touchy deal, but I was very frustrated naturally in that situation,” said Reddick, who leads the Xfinity points with seven top 10s through eight starts of his first season with RCR’s No. 2 Chevrolet. “He was, too. But he just went on Twitter and said something I didn’t agree, and he kind of did it in a light that he was trying to throw it under the radar a little bit.

“He knew who he was talking about, and he didn’t want to say anything to me about it, he wanted to put it on Twitter, so I had no problem calling him out for it. It’s just the way it was. I’ve done it in the past.”

And will continue to do so in the future – at least until he crosses that line. Until then, Reddick recognizes that the byproduct of his honesty is some honest laughter from his followers.

“There are people getting chuckles that I know (are) getting a kick out of it,” Reddick said. “I don’t really do that to get those responses. I just do it because that’s how I feel about it.”

Shotgun! Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer share a beer over Twitter

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Before Clint Bowyer dropped by to raise a little hell on this week’s episode of “The Dale Jr. Download,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a modest proposal for the podcast episode.

Alas, while there was plenty of talk about beer, beer signs and partying, no beers were consumed, let alone shotgunned.

But Bowyer didn’t forget!

He called out Earnhardt on Twitter Thursday afternoon, shotgunning a Miller Lite in the process.

A Budweiser in hand, Earnhardt answered the call within 40 minutes.

On a quiet week with NASCAR off for Easter, plenty of NASCAR drivers chimed in to judge Earnhardt’s shotgun technique and the beer used.

Friday 5: Key questions to ponder during NASCAR’s break

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While Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have dominated the headlines by combining to win each of the first nine races, many questions remain as NASCAR takes its Easter break.

Here is a look at five key questions with a quarter of the Cup season complete:

1. What’s up with Stewart-Haas Racing?

An organization that saw all four of its drivers win last season has yet to visit victory lane in Cup this season.

The last Cup victory for the organization was at Texas in November by Kevin Harvick with a car that later failed inspection. Stewart-Haas Racing has won two of the last 21 Cup races. Team Penske has nine wins during that time and Joe Gibbs Racing has eight victories.

Stewart-Haas Racing has been the best of the rest. Five times in the season’s first nine races, a Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been the top finisher outside the Gibbs and Penske camp.

Harvick finished fourth at Las Vegas (Joey Logano won). Aric Almirola was fourth at ISM Raceway (Kyle Busch won). Harvick placed fourth at Auto Club Speedway (Busch won). Clint Bowyer finished second at Texas (Denny Hamlin won). Bowyer was third at Richmond (Martin Truex Jr. won).

“We’ve just got to keep working,” Greg Zipadelli, SHR competition director, told NBC Sports after the last weekend’s Richmond race. “Everybody around you is. I feel like we’re getting better. I don’t feel like we’ve been terrible. We haven’t executed. We haven’t unloaded as good as we need to. We make our cars better over the weekend. That’s a plus.

“By no means are we where we want to be. We’re at a race track that is good for a bunch of our drivers the last couple of weeks and weren’t able to capitalize on it. I’m taking the approach that I’m looking at my glass as half full rather than half empty.”

Even though SHR won four times at this point last year (Harvick won three races and Bowyer had one victory), the organization has shown signs of greater depth.

Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Daniel Suarez have combined to score nine top-five finishes and 22 top 10s this season. Each driver has had at least one top-five finish. Each driver also has at least four top 10s.

Last year, Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Kurt Busch had eight top-five finishes and 19 top 10s. Busch and Almirola had yet to score a top-five finish. Only Bowyer and Harvick had at least four top 10s at this point a year ago.

“All four of our cars have been running good,” Zipadelli said of SHR’s performance this season. “All four of our cars have been running better. Everybody has been working good together. We’ll just keep plugging away.”

Then Zipadelli added: “Small victories. That’s how you eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

2. The next few weeks will be most critical to what team?

Obviously, the top organizations that have been shut out seek to win as soon as possible, but let’s look a little deeper.

This could be a key time for Roush Fenway Racing. The organization has Ryan Newman in a playoff spot but he’s 15th in the standings and only four points ahead of 17th (the first spot outside a playoff position). Teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 18th in the standings, eight points behind Newman.

One has to figure that even for Kyle Larson’s poor start — he’s 19th in the standings, 12 points behind Newman — that Larson will find his way into a playoff spot either via a win or points. With the way Joe Gibbs Racing has been so strong, Erik Jones, who is 17th, would be a good candidate to move into a playoff spot.

Ryan Newman is 15th in the points standings after a quarter of the Cup season. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

If those situations happen, then it will be more challenging for Roush Fenway Racing to put either of its two cars in the playoffs. The organization has failed to have a car in the playoffs three of the past four years.

This is a key time for Roush Fenway to collect points, including stage points to position itself better for a playoff spot. Stenhouse has 20 stage points and Newman 18.

Fifteen drivers have more stage points than Stenhouse and 16 have more stage points than Newman.

“We’ve got to keep working on some raw speed,” Newman said after placing ninth last week at Richmond. “We’re off just a little bit still.

“We’re doing better but we’ve got to keep working on it. Ninth isn’t good enough. Tenth isn’t good enough.”

3. What driver needs a win the most?

Long list here.

Kurt Busch, who has a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing, could use victories to enhance his chances of driving next year provided he wants to continue.

Jimmie Johnson has a 68-race winless streak. His last victory was at Dover in June 2017 — close to a two-year drought. He’s led laps in only three of the last 21 races.

Kyle Larson is winless in his last 55 races and has only five top-10 finishes in his last 16 starts (nearly half a season). Larson has led laps in three of those 16 races. His frustration was evident after he finished last at Richmond and said “it’s been a pretty crappy start to the year.”

Along with Johnson and Larson, one could put any Chevrolet driver on this list. Chevrolet has won four of the last 55 races, dating back to the start of the 2017 playoffs. Elliott has three of those victories and Austin Dillon the other.

4. What will the 2021 driver lineup look like?

There are some intriguing situations that will be worth watching as the season progresses.

Kurt Busch has a one-year contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. Will the 40-year-old (he turns 41 in August) be back after this season with the team or will Ganassi have a spot to fill in its lineup for 2021?

Unless NASCAR allows car owners to have more than four teams, Joe Gibbs would seem to have a wealth of riches and not a place for all of them. Kyle Busch signed a contract extension in February, Martin Truex Jr. is in his first season with the team, Denny Hamlin says his contract goes beyond this season and Erik Jones says he’s in talks with JGR on a contract extension.

So where does that leave Christopher Bell? With the investment Toyota has put into his career, there’s no chance he’ll drive for any other manufacturer next season. With 10 wins in 48 career Xfinity starts (a 20.8% winning percentage), there’s no way he should be in Xfinity after this year. Does that mean he goes to Leavine Family Racing, which is aligned with JGR, or does Toyota pull something else out to ensure Bell will be with the manufacturer in Cup next year?

Another interesting proposition is where will Cole Custer race next year? He’s won twice in the first eight races this season (he had two wins in his previous 70 Xfinity starts entering this year).

When Stewart-Haas Racing was looking to fill the No. 41 last season, car owner Gene Haas was asked if Custer could take that position. He said that Custer needed to win more. If Custer does that this season, can SHR find a way for him or will he need to go to another Ford team?

5. What will the qualifying format be?

Still to be determined. Or at least NASCAR hasn’t announced anything.

The series heads to Talladega Superspeedway next weekend and that will be single-car qualifying, same as it has been done in recent years there.

Then it’s off to Dover. Maybe the format used at Richmond (five minutes for each round) could work there. After that, NASCAR heads to Kansas Speedway and drafting will again be key. NASCAR will need to have its plans set before Kansas.

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Watch NASCAR America’s MotorSports Hour 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America presents the MotorSports Hour runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET, where we break down news not just in NASCAR but also IndyCar, Supercross and other racing series.

Our analysts will be Marty Snider, Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it 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.