Friday 5: ‘Everything is in play’ as NASCAR looks ahead to new ideas

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This weekend’s racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval could be a start of new ideas, new races and new ways of thinking in NASCAR.

Steve Phelps, who begins his role as NASCAR’s president Monday, acknowledged the possibility of doubleheader races, ending the season sooner and closer ties with grassroots racing, among many topics in an hourlong session with reporters this week.

“Everything is in play,” Phelps said.

For a sport that divided its races into stages in 2017, changed the tracks in its playoffs this year and is expected to soon announce rule changes intended to tighten the racing in 2019, Phelps’ attitude shows the efforts series officials will make to retain fans and reach new ones.

His comments come as NASCAR soon will enter a key period with its scheduling. The five-year commitments with tracks expire after the 2020 season and gives NASCAR more flexibility to change its schedule as soon as 2021.

NASCAR typically announces the Cup schedule at least nine months before the season opener. That timetable would give series officials about 20 months until the 2021 schedule is revealed.

With the call for more short tracks, can NASCAR accommodate fan interest? Speedway Motorsports Inc. has expressed an interest in bringing NASCAR’s national series back to the 0.596-mile Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee.

With the success of the Truck race at Eldora Speedway, would it make sense to run Cup there or on some other dirt track? Could Iowa Speedway land a Cup date? What about midweek races?

Another key question is what about tracks that have lost significant attendance? NASCAR’s charter system allows the sanctioning body to take a charter from a team that has ranked among the three lowest chartered teams in three consecutive years. Is it time to consider taking races away from tracks that have had a precipitous decline in attendance?

“We need to make sure that the race product that we put on the track is as good as it can be, which is what we’re going to do,” Phelps said. “I do know that the race day experience or the race day weekend is really important and we’re working with our tracks to have them understand that.

“We need to reinvent what I would call the event promotion. What that looks like. That gets back to a collaboration effort, which we are going to see between our race tracks, NASCAR, our broadcast partners and our teams and drivers in order to promote this sport in a way that we haven’t in the past. That is really coming together and creating unique opportunities that reach fans and ask them to come out and see what is going on in NASCAR.

“It’s part of our 2019 business plans. We’re working with the race tracks to have them understand that we need to make a change.”

International Speedway Corp., which is controlled by the France family, saw a 10.7 percent decline in admission revenue from 2012-17, according to its annual reports. Also, ISC tracks removed 172,000 seats at its tracks during that time. In July, ISC President John Saunders cited “an issue with star power” as a contributing factor in the company’s attendance decline recently saying, “hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands.”

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which is controlled by Bruton Smith and his family, saw a 25.1 percent decline in admission revenue from 2012-17, according to its annual reports. Also, SMI tracks removed 183,000 seats at its tracks during that time. 

The declines for both track companies have come in a period that has seen Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 15-time most popular driver, quit driving full-time.

Some in the sport also have raised concerns about the season’s length, suggesting NASCAR should not end in November and compete against the first 11 weeks of the NFL season.

“There’s a lot of discussion about that among the industry,” Phelps said. “There are a lot of things in play. We would rule out nothing at this particular point. We need to make sure that we have all the input, all the information necessary to make an informed decision that will allow us to get to what that 2020 schedule will look like.”

2. Reset button

At the Kansas test this week, Kurt Busch was asked if NASCAR’s leadership issues — Chairman Brian France’s arrest, Jim France taking over as acting Chairman and Brent Dewar’s term as NASCAR president ending — since August have taken away from the playoffs. 

Busch said those events hadn’t but noted a change has taken place in the sport.

“What it has done, though, is behind the scenes, hit the reset button and it’s created a refreshment of communication lines between the drivers, the owners and the way that the sport works,” Busch said. “I’ve never seen so much involvement from Jim France, Mike Helton, Steve Phelps, Steve O’Donnell, the whole group. It seems like a weight was lifted off their shoulders through all of this and now everybody is communicating more easily.”

Jim France has been visible in the garage more often than Brian France had been before his indefinite leave.

“If you’ve been at a race track, you’ve seen Jim France there,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s incoming president. “From the moment he was announced as the Chairman, CEO of NASCAR, replacing Brian, he has been at the race track.”

3. Charlotte surprise?

Erik Jones enters Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC) in danger of being eliminated from the playoffs.

He is 21 points out of the final cutoff spot. As he looks to this weekend, he knows anything can happen and expects it will.

“I’ll bet you will see a surprise winner this weekend, somebody you wouldn’t expect just because it is going to be a little bit of an attrition race,” he said. “For us, we have to survive, we have to make it to the end of the race.

“We can’t wreck out and not put ourselves in a spot to take advantage of somebody else’s mistakes. We’ve got to hope for some trouble from some of the other playoff guys and hope we can be in position to capitalize on it. Obviously, winning would be the easiest way for us to guarantee it but that’s going to be tough to do.”

Others below the cutoff and in danger of being eliminated after Sunday’s race are Clint Bowyer (four points from the cutoff), Jimmie Johnson (six points from the cutoff) and Denny Hamlin (29 points from the cutoff). Ryan Blaney holds what would be the final transfer spot.

4. Special drivers meeting message?

Justin Allgaier, who has won the last two Xfinity races on road courses, is concerned about the start and restarts on the Roval.

NASCAR will not have drivers go through the frontstretch chicane when coming to take the green flag. If drivers had to go through that chicane, those at the front would be accelerating while some in the back would be braking to get through the chicane.

Instead, drivers will do restarts on the frontstretch and skip the chicane. That means they’ll be entering Turn 1 — a sharp left-hand turn — anywhere from 15-30 mph faster. So, as lead cars brake to make the turn, others behind them will be accelerating.

“It’s such a slow, lazy turn in and the speed that we’re going to be carrying, somebody that ducks to the left could potentially wreck a lot of cars,” Allgaier said. “I think we’re all going to have to really be mindful. It’s either going to go one way or the other. We’re either all going to wreck there or nobody is going to wreck there because we’re all very aware of it.

“I’m hopeful that Wayne (Auton, Xfinity Series managing director) will talk about that in the drivers meeting (and say) ‘Hey, let’s at least make it through Turn 1 at the start of the race.’

“We have generated a lot of hype and a lot of buzz around this race, there’s a lot of attention with coming here … the last thing we want to do is go out there and make a bunch of idiots of ourselves.”

5. Still searching 

Eight drivers who won races last year remain winless this season. They are: Kyle Larson (four wins 2017), Jimmie Johnson (three), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Matt Kenseth (one), Kasey Kahne (one), Ryan Newman (one) and Ryan Blaney (one).

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Joey and Caitlin Gase welcome twin sons

Joey Gase
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Xfinity Series driver Joey Gase and his wife Caitlin are now parents to twin boys

The babies were born on Wednesday. Their names are Jace and Carson.

More: Brad and Paige Keselowski welcome second daughter

Silly Season Scorecard: Front Row Motorsports adds John Hunter Nemechek

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Front Row Motorsports filled one of the last major vacancies in the NASCAR Cup Series when it announced Thursday John Hunter Nemechek will compete for the team full-time in the No. 38 Ford.

With the announcement also came the news the team is retracting to two cars after fielding three in 2019.

As a rookie, Nemechek will have Michael McDowell as a teammate.

Here’s how the rest of NASCAR’s Silly Season has played out so far.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 00: Quin Houff will race for Star Com Racing full-time. Announced Nov. 27.

No. 1: Chip Ganassi Racing announced on Nov. 1 a multi-year extension with Kurt Busch.

No. 6: Roush Fenway Racing announced Oct. 30 that Ryan Newman would return to the car as part of the news that Oscar Mayer would sponsor the No. 6 through 2021.

No. 8: Richard Childress Racing made it official Oct. 2 that Tyler Reddick will move to Cup in 2020 and drive the No. 8 car.

No. 10: Aric Almirola confirmed Oct. 11 he signed an extension to race for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video Sept. 6 on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer was announced Oct. 17 as returning to Stewart-Haas Racing for a fourth season.

No. 15: Brennan Poole will make his Cup debut and will drive for Premium Motorsports full-time. Announced Dec 11.

No. 17: Chris Buescher will take over the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 ride in 2020 after the team announced Sept. 25 that it would part ways with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after this season.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

No. 32: Corey LaJoie will return for a second straight full season with Go Fas Racing and the No. 32 Ford. The team announced on Nov. 1 it would enter a technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing next year.

No. 37: Ryan Preece moves over from the No. 47 to the No. 37. He will have a new crew chief, Trent Owens, who has been crew chief on the No. 37 for the past three seasons.

No. 38: John Hunter Nemechek replaces the now retired David Ragan for Front Row Motorsports. Announced Dec. 12.

No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing announced Nov. 15 Cole Custer will replace Daniel Suarez.

No. 47: JTG Daugherty Racing announced Oct. 16 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will join Ryan Preece at the two-car team, essentially swapping seats with Chris Buescher. On Dec. 2, the team announced Stenhouse will drive the No. 47, with Brian Pattie serving as his crew chief.

No. 95: Christopher Bell moves to Cup in 2020 and will drive for Leavine Family Racing (announcement made Sept. 24).

Rick Ware Racing: JJ Yeley will drive one of the team’s three full-time rides.

 

YET TO ANNOUNCE DEALS FOR 2020

Daniel Suarez — The driver revealed Nov. 14  he would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2020 after one season driving the No. 41.

 

ANNOUNCED PLANS IN OTHER NASCAR SERIES

Xfinity Series 

Ross Chastain – Kaulig Racing announced Oct. 15 he would compete full-time for the team in 2020 driving the No. 10 Chevrolet, joining Justin Haley.

Joe Gibbs Racing — Announced Oct. 17 Harrison Burton will drive its No. 20 Toyota full-time in 2020. Announced Oct. 31 Brandon Jones would return for a third year in the No. 19. Revealed Nov. 5 it would field a third full-time entry with Riley Herbst in the No. 18.

JR MotorsportsJustin Allgaier will return to the team for a fifth year in the No. 7 Chevrolet. The No. 8 car will be driven by Daniel Hemric for 21 races, Jeb Burton 11 races and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for one race. Noah Gragson will also return for a second season in the No. 9 car, while Michael Annett returns for a fourth year with the team in the No. 1 car.

Richard Childress Racing — Will field a part-time car in the No. 21, which will be shared by Myatt Snider and Anthony Alfredo.

Stewart-Haas Racing – The team has not announced plans for the No. 00 Ford with Cole Custer moving to Cup or whether Chase Briscoe will return to the No. 98.

JD MotorsportsJesse Little will compete full-time for the team.

 

Truck Series

GMS RacingDriver lineup will include Brett Moffitt, Sam Mayer, Sheldon Creed and Tyler Ankrum

Kyle Busch MotorsportsRaphael Lessard will drive the No. 4 full-time while Christian Eckes will drive the No. 18 full-time.

Halmar Friesen Racing — Stewart Friesen will return for a third full-time season in the No. 52 Truck. The team will also switch from Chevrolet to Toyota Trucks in 2020.

Hattori Racing EnterprisesAustin Hill will return to the No. 16 Toyota for a second year.

Niece Motorsports: Ty Majeski will drive the No. 45 truck full-time, taking the place of Ross Chastain. Announced Dec. 10.

DGR-Crosley: Has not made any driver announcements, but will switch from Toyota to Ford. Announced Dec. 11.

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Felix Sabates to end tenure as NASCAR owner

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Felix Sabates, who has been a NASCAR owner in some form since his team SABCO Racing began competing in the Cup Series in 1989, will retire from ownership in 2020, Chip Ganassi Racing announced Thursday.

The Associated Press first reported the news.

Sabates, 74, is leaving his role as a co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, which he sold controlling interest of SABCO Racing to in 2001.

Together they have earned 43 total wins in NASCAR’s top two series, including the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

In addition to NASCAR, Sabates and Ganassi fielded entries in IMSA, where they won seven championships, 64 races, including a record eight Rolex 24 At Daytona races, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring.

The Cuba-native has experienced health problems in recent years. In 2016, he suffered from an illness that put him in intensive care for 73 days and in a coma for 29 days.

“I look back to the 1980s when I first started in this sport, and I can tell you that the landscape has really changed,” Sabates said in a press release. “It’s been challenging at times, and tremendously rewarding watching the sport grow. When I started the NASCAR team, it was just a different time —a smaller regional sport. Then NASCAR grew and grew into a big business and continued to grow after my partnership with Chip. I’m proud of what I’ve done over the last 30 years. I have friendships that will last a lifetime.

“I hope that what I have tried to give back to the sport — whether it be bringing NASCAR to Mexico or being instrumental in starting the sports car program with Chip — will be equal to what the sport has taught and given me. I’ve always said that I never wanted to be an old man walking around at the track; this is my way of honoring that commitment I made to myself years ago. I wish Chip and his teams all the success in the world and will be keeping a close eye on the sport from afar and maybe even make an appearance from time to time.”

Said Ganassi: “Where do you even begin to describe Felix Sabates? He’s done so much for the sport of racing. I teamed up with him almost 20 years ago, and he’s been a great business partner and an even better friend. In that time, the only thing we’ve had an argument over was who was picking up the tab at dinner. Felix helped me develop as an owner as well as an individual. His track record in this sport certainly sets the bar high for anyone that follows. I’m proud to call him a friend and wish him all the best.”

 

 

Natalie Decker recovering from gallbladder surgery

Natalie Decker
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Natalie Decker, a Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series driver, is recovering after undergoing surgery to have her gallbladder removed.

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Decker, who raced for DGR-Crosley in 2019, posted on Instagram Wednesday about what led to the surgery, including problems with her gallbladder the kept her from taking arthritis medication.

“Hi everyone now that I have had the surgery to remove my gallbladder I will share the whole story!” Decker said. “I have been not being able to eat much food and have been in so much pain every time I eat we went through lots of testing like upper endoscopy and gallbladder function test! They finally figured it out and my gallbladder wasn’t functioning right! I had to get my gallbladder removed before I could go back on my Arthritis medication. I’m so thankful everything went very well!”

Decker, 22, made 19 starts in 2019. Her best finish was 13th in the spring Las Vegas race.