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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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

Kansas Cup race could make elimination era history

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NASCAR is five years into the elimination era of the playoffs and a bit of history could be made with Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

The Cup Series enters the second-round elimination race with five different winners in the first five races.

There has not been six different winners to begin the playoffs since the elimination era began in 2014.

The five winners so far have been Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas), Kyle Busch (Richmond), Ryan Blaney (Charlotte Roval), Chase Elliott (Dover) and Aric Almirola (Talladega).

The last three races have each seen a driver earn their second career Cup win.

This five-race stretch only saw one win by a member of the regular season’s “Big 3” with Busch’s victory.

Martin Truex Jr. has gone 12 races since he last won at Kentucky Speedway. Kevin Harvick is winless in the eight races since his Michigan victory.

But with the arrival of Kansas for the elimination race chances are good to the two drivers could make playoff history.

Harvick claimed the win in the May Kansas race, leading 79 laps from the pole. Three of his seven wins this year have come on 1.5-mile tracks.

If he wins Sunday, Harvick will also continue his six-year streak of winning in the playoffs, which is the longest active streak.

Truex will try to defend his win in this race last year, which completed a sweep of the Kansas races. He also finished second to Harvick in May’s race.

Of Truex’s four wins this season, he has only one on a 1.5-mile track. But of his 12 wins since 2017, eight have come at mile-and-a-half tracks.

“As far as why we’ve been good there (at Kansas) over the years, I’m not sure,” Truex said in a press release. “It’s a place where I really feel comfortable. Have had chances to win multiple races there over the years with different teams even. It was one of the places I was successful at before Furniture Row so for whatever reason it just points towards my driving style and my comfort level, what I like in my race car and it just seems to work out well there.”

MORE: Truex looks to rebound at reliable Kansas

Here are the winners of the first six races in the first four years of the elimination era.

2014

Chicagoland – Brad Keselowski

Loudon – Joey Logano

Dover – Jeff Gordon

Kansas – Joey Logano

Charlotte – Kevin Harvick

Talladega – Brad Keselowski

2015

Chicagoland – Denny Hamlin

New Hampshire – Matt Kenseth

Dover – Kevin Harvick

Charlotte – Joey Logano

Kansas – Joey Logano

Talladega – Joey Logano

2016

Chicagoland – Martin Truex Jr.

New Hampshire – Kevin Harvick

Dover – Martin Truex Jr.

Charlotte – Jimmie Johnson

Kansas – Kevin Harvick

Talladega – Joey Logano

2017

Chicagoland – Martin Truex Jr.

New Hampshire – Kyle Busch

Dover – Kyle Busch

Charlotte  -Martin Truex Jr.

Talladega – Brad Keselowski

Kansas – Martin Truex Jr.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Kansas preview, Pete Pistone

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and gives you a final preview of this weekend’s races at Kansas Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman from Stamford, Connecticut. They will be joined by SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Pete Pistone.

Tune in to get the latest on Chip Ganassi Racing deciding to appeal the penalty against Kyle Larson‘s team from Talladega.

Also on today’s show:

Aric Almirola had one of the feel good moments of 2018 with his victory last weekend at Talladega. In his own words, Almirola tells the story of how his Kansas crash 17 months ago put him on the road to where he is today.

— As NASCAR America prepares for its 1,000th episode tomorrow, we’ll show you some of the best moments from our first 999 shows. Today, we’ll feature the best of the NBCSN iRacing Simulator. Parker then hops in the sim to show us what challenges await the Playoff drivers at Kansas.

— Carolyn and Parker also reveal their Kansas fantasy picks for this weekend.

Tune in after the show for the latest episode of the “Dale Jr. Download” at 5:30 p.m. ET.

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.

Chip Ganassi Racing appealing Talladega penalties against Kyle Larson’s team

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Chip Ganassi Racing announced Thursday it will appeal the penalties brought against Kyle Larson‘s No. 42 Chevrolet after Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

NASCAR confirmed the appeal will be heard Friday at 8:30 a.m. CT at Kansas Speedway. Here is a primer on how the appeals process works.

During a postrace inspection, NASCAR found that team violated Section 10.9.9.d in the rulebook, which notes: “Damaged vehicle repair, regardless of how the damage occurred, is permitted to have original body parts removed or reattached in their original location with fasteners and/or tape only.”

The L1 penalty, which was announced Wednesday, resulted in Larson losing 10 driver and owner points. His car chief, David Bryant, also was suspended for a race. Crew chief Chad Johnston was fined $25,000.

Chip Ganassi Racing was granted a deferral of Bryant’s suspension. He will be allowed in the Cup garage Friday until a decision has been reached by the appeals commission.

The team issued a statement Thursday afternoon:

“After reviewing the penalty, the rule and the procedure that we used during the race in Talladega, we feel strongly that we did nothing wrong.  Subsequently, we have decided to appeal the penalty.  Despite going through the appeal process, we will do everything in our power to keep our team focused on the race this weekend in Kansas and the balance of the season.”

With the loss of 10 driver points, Larson will enter Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) 11th in the standings and 36 points back from the cutoff spot to advance to the Round of 8.

With or without the penalty, the race still is essentially must-win for Larson.