Friday 5: Turnaround in 2018 has Aric Almirola looking ahead to 2019

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Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.

Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014. 

Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?

“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”

Almirola nearly won in his first race with SHR this season. He led the Daytona 500 on the last lap before contact from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall and Dillon to the victory.

Almirola was in position to win at Dover when a caution for teammate Clint Bowyer came out in the final laps. Almirola pitted and then wrecked on the restart. Almirola won at Talladega when he passed teammate Kurt Busch after Busch ran out of fuel on the final lap.

“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”

2. Not going anywhere

For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”

Recall that Keselowski was outspoken in June about the package that was used in the All-Star Race and warned then that “if we overdose on that particular form of racing, it will have … a long-term negative effect.”

Keselowski suggested in June that fewer talented drivers would come to NASCAR over time if the All-Star package became the primary one. NASCAR adopted a package for 2019 similar to what was used in the All-Star Race but added more horsepower than was used in that race.

One change for Keselowski is that he’ll have a new spotter. Joey Meier announced Nov. 19 that he would not be spotting for Keselowski in 2019, saying he had “been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag.” Keselowski said that a new hire hasn’t been made yet.

3. Offseason plans

What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.

He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.

Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.

Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.

Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”

He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.

Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.

Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”

Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.

4. ‘Exciting’ move

Kyle Larson calls the pairing of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the World of Outlaws in a doubleheader at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in February “exciting” but he says a key will be track preparation.

When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.

“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.

“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”

5. Together again

Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.

Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.

“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.

Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. named pace truck driver for 2019 Daytona 500

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No matter who wins the pole for the 2019 Daytona 500, they will start behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has been named as the pace truck driver for the season opening race.

The two-time Daytona 500 winner will lead the field to green for the 61st edition of the “Great American Race” in a Chevrolet Silverado pace truck. It will be the first time a truck has been used as a pace vehicle for the Daytona 500.

Chevrolet has previously paced the Daytona 500 on 12 occasions: seven with Camaro and five with Corvette.

“I’ve had a lot of fun and a lot of success at Daytona over the years, and now I can’t wait to get out on that track in a Silverado,” Earnhardt said in a press release. “Away from the track I’ve driven Chevy trucks all my life, and I’m excited to have this unique experience of pacing the Daytona 500 with the Silverado.”

This year Earnhardt was the Grand Marshal for the Feb. 18 running of the 500, giving the command to start engines.

Earnhardt won the 2004 and 2014 editions of the 500. He has two July victories on the track as well.

“Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the perfect choice to pace the race because of his enthusiasm for the sport, his long history with Chevrolet and his love of trucks,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports in a press release. “It’ll be exciting to have Dale lead the field to green in the strongest, most advanced Silverado ever.”

 

NASCAR partners with Sportradar for gambling fraud detection service

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NASCAR has entered a multi-year agreement with Sportradar to make use of its sports betting fraud monitoring services, the two companies announced Tuesday.

As part of the agreement, Sportradar’s Fraud Detection System (FDS) will monitor domestic and global betting activity for signs of fraudulent activity for all three of NASCAR’s national series: the Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

NASCAR will also have use of Sportradar’s Education and Prevention Services, which includes on-site workshops for NASCAR drivers, teams, officials and associated stakeholders delivered by Sportradar’s integrity and educational experts. Sportradar’s Integrity Services will also help NASCAR develop a full-fledged betting integrity program, including betting-related rules and policies.

NASCAR and Sportrader have an established history. In 2015, SportsData, a subsidiary of Sportrader, partnered with NASCAR to distribute its live timing and scoring data to third-party digital outlets.

The announcement of the partnership is the last step in NASCAR embracing sports gambling following a ruling by the Supreme Court in May that allowed states to decide if they allow sports betting.

In October, Dover International Speedway in Delaware became the first track that hosts NASCAR to introduce at-track betting.

That weekend NASCAR President Steve Phelps said the sanctioning body will add rules clarifying its policy for competitors in 2019.

“I think for ’19 we’ll have some rules that we’ll put in place,” Phelps said. “For right now, there’ll be betting here. We’ll study and see how that goes, but I think we’ll have some rules in place for sponsorship, for what betting looks like and continue to see what happens in the landscape overall.”

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NASCAR Cup Series race start times announced for 2019

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NASCAR has announced its race start times for the 2019 Cup Series season, with a notable change in start time for the playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After a start time of 3 p.m. ET this year, next season’s race will begin at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on NBCSN.

“Moving the start time for the September race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is fitting because it will deliver a better experience for our fans attending the race, and kick off the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in primetime,” said Steve Herbst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Broadcasting and Production in a press release. “Each race weekend, including Las Vegas, is unique, and we work collaboratively with broadcast partners, teams and tracks to ensure the ideal timing is selected for our events.”

Other notable start times:

  • The Daytona 500 is scheduled for Feb. 17 at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX.
  • The March 31 race at Texas Motor Speedway will start one hour later, moving from a 2 p.m. ET start to 3 p.m. ET. The race also moves to FOX.
  • The start time for New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s July 22 starts one hour later, moving from 2 p.m. ET to 3 p.m. ET.
  • Martinsville Speedway’s Oct. 28 playoff shifts a half-hour later to a 3 p.m. ET start.

Here’s the full schedule with start times and TV and radio networks:

DATE

RACE

NETWORK

RACE START (ET)

RADIO

Sun, Feb 10, 2019

Daytona 500 Qualifying

FOX

12:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Feb 10, 2019

The Clash

FS1

3:00 PM

MRN

Thu, Feb 14, 2019

Duel at Daytona

FS1

7:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Feb 17, 2019

Daytona 500

FOX

2:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Feb 24, 2019

Atlanta

FOX

2:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Mar 03, 2019

Las Vegas

FOX

3:30 PM

PRN

Sun, Mar 10, 2019

ISM Raceway

FOX

3:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Mar 17, 2019

Auto Club Speedway

FOX

3:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Mar 24, 2019

Martinsville

FS1

2:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Mar 31, 2019

Texas

FOX

3:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Apr 07, 2019

Bristol

FS1

2:00 PM

PRN

Sat, Apr 13, 2019

Richmond

FOX

7:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Apr 28, 2019

Talladega

FOX

2:00 PM

MRN

Sun, May 05, 2019

Dover

FS1

2:00 PM

MRN

Sat, May 11, 2019

Kansas

FS1

7:30 PM

MRN

Sat, May 18, 2019

All-Star Open

FS1

6:00 PM

MRN

Sat, May 18, 2019

All-Star Race

FS1

8:00 PM

MRN

Sun, May 26, 2019

Charlotte

FOX

6:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Jun 02, 2019

Pocono

FS1

2:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Jun 09, 2019

Michigan

FS1

2:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Jun 23, 2019

Sonoma

FS1

3:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Jun 30, 2019

Chicagoland

NBCSN

3:00 PM

MRN

Sat, Jul 06, 2019

Daytona

NBC

7:30 PM

MRN

Sat, Jul 13, 2019

Kentucky

NBCSN

7:30 PM

PRN

Sun, Jul 21, 2019

New Hampshire

NBCSN

3:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Jul 28, 2019

Pocono

NBCSN

3:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Aug 04, 2019

Watkins Glen

NBCSN

3:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Aug 11, 2019

Michigan

NBCSN

3:00 PM

MRN

Sat, Aug 17, 2019

Bristol

NBCSN

7:30 PM

PRN

Sun, Sep 01, 2019

Darlington

NBCSN

6:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Sep 08, 2019

Indianapolis

NBC

2:00 PM

IMS

Sun, Sep 15, 2019

Las Vegas

NBCSN

7:00 PM

PRN

Sat, Sep 21, 2019

Richmond

NBCSN

7:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Sep 29, 2019

Charlotte

NBC

2:30 PM

PRN

Sun, Oct 06, 2019

Dover

NBCSN

2:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Oct 13, 2019

Talladega

NBC

2:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Oct 20, 2019

Kansas

NBC

2:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Oct 27, 2019

Martinsville

NBCSN

3:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Nov 03, 2019

Texas

NBCSN

3:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Nov 10, 2019

ISM Raceway

NBC

2:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Nov 17, 2019

Homestead-Miami

NBC

3:00 PM

MRN

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John Andretti still battling colon cancer after chemotherapy

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John Andretti announced Monday he continues to fight colon cancer after the conclusion of his latest round of chemotherapy treatments.

“I just ran out of ride tickets on the #chemocoaster,” Andretti announced in a tweet. “We still have to deal with the cancer. Will know more following scans in a couple of weeks.”

The former NASCAR and IndyCar driver announced in May that after six months of remission the colon cancer had returned and spread.

Andretti, 55, first revealed he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in April 2017. Since then he has been an advocate of men over 50 getting colonoscopies.

 

Andretti’s initial surgery after his diagnosis removed 12-14 inches of his colon and scans showed the cancer had spread to his liver and possibly his spleen. In June 2017 he announced that his spleen and gallbladder were cancer free.

Andretti, the nephew of Mario Andretti, competed in the Cup Series from 1993-2010 and won twice, including the 1997 Pepsi 400 at Daytona. 

He made five starts in the Indianapolis 500 and was the first driver to attempt the “Double” of competing in the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

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