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Long: Rivalry NASCAR needs but fans might have to wait to see

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The rivalry NASCAR needs most won’t take place until 2020. At the earliest.

Until then, fans will have to enjoy the limited times Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell race each other in midget cars. That might be it because their NASCAR schedules may not intersect much this year.

Bell, who won a rookie record seven Xfinity Series races last year, returns for a second season even though he said in August he was ready for CupLarson enters his sixth season in Cup. The only way they will race each other in NASCAR this year will be if Toyota runs Bell in some Cup races or Larson finds a ride for select Xfinity races. Nothing has been announced for either at this point.

If they don’t compete in the same NASCAR race this year, fans will lose. This is among the best rivalries in motorsports and is one fueled not by hate but by competition.

Saturday night’s Chili Bowl Nationals added to a growing list of Larson-Bell duels that have become must-see viewing in recent months.

“These guys race each other, but they know how to race each other,’’ said Keith Kunz, whose midget car team has won the past five Chili Bowl Nationals, including the last three with Bell. “You watch all the races for the last three or four years, they expect the slide job, they see it coming, they know how to cross over and counter maneuver. They do things that I don’t think any of us have seen anybody do in a long time between the two of them.”

That makes for edge-of-the-seat viewing when Bell and Larson race together. Just like this past weekend.

Bell passed Larson on the final lap after contact between them to win his third consecutive Chili Bowl title. Afterward, Larson lamented how he let Bell chase him down but said he was “more upset” with the contact he made with Bell in Turn 3 when trying to reclaim the lead.

“I try to pride myself and not race like that and that’s twice now that I’ve done that on the last lap,” Larson said. “Just a little desperation out of myself. Got to not do that in the future.”

Larson made contact with Bell on the last lap of the Turkey Night Grand Prix midget race in November at Ventura (California) Raceway. Bell took the lead with 12 laps to go. Larson challenged Bell but couldn’t get by on the final lap. 

And in August at Bristol, Larson and Bell dueled in the Xfinity race. With less than 50 laps to go, Bell hounded Larson for the lead while they ran through lapped traffic. During a caution that interrupted the battle, Bell radioed crew chief Jason Ratcliff and said: “This is pretty fun right here.” Ratcliff responded: “Looks like it.”

Larson won that race and Bell finished second. Larson won four of his six Xfinity starts last year. Bell finished second twice in those races and third another time. 

Both Larson and Bell were excited after Bristol about racing each other for the lead in a NASCAR event.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for that – me and Kyle to race,” Bell said that day. “It seems like whenever we’re dirt racing, we’re racing each other a lot, but we haven’t really got to race each other on pavement yet. It was really fun to be able to race really hard with him.”

Larson said after the Bristol win that he looked forward to competing against Bell for more NASCAR wins.

“It’s been the Kyle (Busch) and Kyle show at a lot of places,” Larson said, “but with Chris’ driving style and mine, I think it’s going to be the Kyle, Kyle and Chris show at a lot of these places, especially Bristol for a long time. I’m excited for him to get his Cup opportunity whenever that may arise.”

When Bell gets a full-time Cup ride will be among the key stories this season. Joe Gibbs Racing enters this year with Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones. Provided that lineup remains the same for 2020, then Bell could go to Leavine Family Racing, which switched to Toyota after last year, and is aligned with JGR.

The key for Toyota is to not lose Bell as it lost Larson. With no place to put Larson, Toyota saw the talented open-wheel racer sign with a Chevrolet Xfinity team for the 2013 season, leading Larson to a Cup ride at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014.

When Bell reaches Cup, he and Larson could provide NASCAR fans with thrills for years.

“Me and Kyle were talking about this the other day,” Bell said on a recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “It’s kind of weird. It seems like if Kyle and I are in the same race together we seem to elevate each other. Kyle has been my No. 1 supporter and it all started at Little Rock, Arkansas, at the Short Track Nationals back in, I think, 2012. … That was my first time I got on the national scene and Kyle was on Twitter saying this kid’s the next big thing. Basically since day one, Kyle has been trying to promote me and telling people I’m good and stuff like that.”

While there are others in Cup and Xfinity who raise each other’s level when they race one another, there hasn’t been that rivalry — friendly or not — that has been consistent. Even last year when Kevin Harvick, Busch and Truex Jr. dominated, there were few times they battled each other for wins late in a race. 

Bell and Larson often seem to find each other at the front when they race together.

It’s just a matter of getting them in the same NASCAR races this season because 2020 is too long to wait to watch these two duel for the win.

The No. 1 pick in the (fictional) NASCAR draft is….

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The eyes of the sports world will be on Nashville, Tennessee, this weekend with the annual NFL Draft, with the first round getting underway Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET.

You can follow all of NBC Sports’ and Rotoworld’s draft coverage here.

With the draft in mind, the NASCAR on NBC writing staff has taken it upon ourselves to hold our own draft of NASCAR talent.

Each writer received five picks to put together a team. The parameters: Pick four active Cup drivers and one non-Cup driver for development.

Now, after months weeks a few days (hours?) of intense research and scouting combined with the knowledge of covering the sport for a living, here are the draft results. Let the second-guessing begin:

Round 1

Dustin LongKyle Busch: He’s won 16 of the last 61 Cup races and doesn’t turn 34 until May. Who else are you going to select when you have the No 1 pick?

Daniel McFadinJoey Logano: Basically Kyle Busch lite. The defending Cup champion, he’s in the midst of or on the verge of his prime at the age of 28. He’s good pretty much everywhere and a threat every week barring something unfortunate.

Nate RyanBrad Keselowski: As talented as the Team Penske driver is on the track, he is nearly as valuable in the shop as a leader who constantly pushes his teams conceptually.

Jerry BonkowskiKevin Harvick: While he’s struggled to reach victory lane this season, when it comes to clutch performances in his career, Harvick didn’t earn the nickname “The Closer” for nothing. Once he finally hits victory lane this season, look for many more visits to come.

 

Round 2

Jerry BonkowskiJimmie Johnson: How can any draft not include a guy who is tied for the most career Cup championships with NASCAR legends Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt? While he hasn’t won in his last 68 starts, many more wins are still to come.

Nate RyanChase Elliott. Along with his championship-caliber ability, there is big sponsor upside for a star who virtually is guaranteed to be NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver as long as he is behind the wheel in Cup.

Daniel McFadinKurt Busch. Every four-car team needs a grizzled veteran. He’d be instrumental in getting the team’s equipment fine-tuned.

Dustin LongRyan Blaney: His time is coming. The 25-year-old should be a force in this sport for many years.

 

Round 3 

Dustin LongChristopher Bell: Strong Xfinity career has expectations high for when he gets to Cup.

Daniel McFadinRoss Chastain: A driver’s driver. He’s proven he can get in top equipment and be good right off the bat.

Nate RyanDenny Hamlin. He is nearing the prime age for a NASCAR driver and is beyond motivated to win his first Cup championship to cement an already Hall of Fame career.

Jerry BonkowskiMartin Truex Jr.: Finally broke through with his first career short track win at Richmond. While there have been some growing pains since joining Joe Gibbs Racing this season, he’s on track to still be one of the favorites for this year’s championship.

 

Round 4

Jerry BonkowskiTyler Reddick: Much like Christopher Bell, how much longer can Reddick be held back like a student in grade school? He needs to be in the Cup series in 2020. The problem is NASCAR’s numbers game. Who picks him? Who has room? RCR? RPM? CGR? RFR?

Nate RyanKyle Larson. His stock has dropped slightly in a tough start to the 2019 season (perhaps related to adapting to the new rules), but his potential remains limitless.

Daniel McFadinErik Jones: Often seems like the forgotten member of the “Youth Movement,” but has lots of talent that’s waiting to get on a consistent winning run.

Dustin LongClint Bowyer: Can still wheel it and will make this a fun team!

 

Round 5

Dustin LongChris Buescher: Keeping with the unintended theme of every driver’s last name starting with B, I present Mr. Buescher, a former Xfinity champ who is showing what he can do.

Daniel McFadinBrett Moffitt: He’s young, he’s a veteran and he took a Truck Series team without top equipment and won a NASCAR title. But really, it’s the mustache.

Nate RyanJustin Haley. Proven winner in ARCA and Trucks. Showed at Daytona last July that he can win in Xfinity as well while mixing it up with Cup veterans.

Jerry BonkowskiRyan Newman: The “Rocket Man” is off to a good start with his new home, Roush Fenway Racing, particularly in his last two starts, both ninth-place finishes. I’m looking for even bigger and better things going forward, including at least one win this season (which would be his first win since 2017 and only his second win since 2013).

SMI receives offer from Sonic Financial Corp. to acquire all outstanding shares of common stock

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Speedway Motorsports Inc. announced Wednesday that it has received a non-binding proposal from Sonic Financial Corp. to acquire all outstanding shares of common stock other than those already held by Sonic.

Bruton Smith and his family own and control Sonic Financial Corp. Smith is the founder and majority stakeholder in Speedway Motorsports Inc. SMI operates eight tracks that host Cup races, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

This action follows NASCAR’s non-binding offer Nov. 9 to acquire all of the outstanding shares of Class A and B common stock of International Speedway Corp. not already owned by the controlling shareholders of NASCAR.  That offer has not been completed. There is a class-action suit in a Florida court on behalf of the Firemen’s Retirement System of St. Louis regarding the purchase price for the outstanding stock.

The separate offers to ISC and SMI would make both companies private. That could allow both companies to be more receptive to future schedule changes without the pressure of trying to appease outside investors.

When asked about future agreements with tracks, NASCAR President Steve Phelps said earlier this month on the Dale Jr. Download: “We have to do some things differently. Fans want us to do things differently, and I think we need to do it as quickly as we can within reason, understanding that there are three legs to that stool and one of those legs are the tracks.”

The Sonic Financial Corp. offer for the outstanding SMI stock is for $18 per share. The stock closed at $13.94 on Tuesday. The stock was up to $18.46 by 11 a.m. Wednesday. The 52-week high for the stock was $18.36. SMI’s board has formed a special committee to consider the offer. Mark M. Gambill, James P. Holden and Tom E. Smith, each of whom is an independent director of the Company, to act on behalf of the Company to consider the proposal by Sonic Financial. Tom E. Smith is not related to Bruton Smith or his family.

Here is the letter from Sonic Financial Corp. to the Board of Directors for SMI:

Sonic Financial Corporation (“SFC”) is pleased to submit this non-binding proposal to acquire all of the outstanding shares of stock of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (the “Company” or “TRK”) that are not owned by SFC, O. Bruton Smith, his family and entities controlled by Mr. Smith and his family (collectively with SFC, the “Smith  Group”),  for  cash  consideration  of  $18.00  per  share  (our  “Proposal”).  As  you  know,  the  Smith  Group  beneficially  owns,  directly  or  indirectly, approximately 29 million shares of TRK, and controls over 70% of the voting power of TRK.

We believe that our Proposal reflects an extremely attractive value to the Company’s public stockholders. Specifically, $18.00 per share represents a significant premium of 31% to yesterday’s closing price and 26% to the 30-day volume-weighted average price per share of $14.27 as of April 22, 2019.

As you know, NASCAR racing has faced several challenges in recent years, and the Company has been impacted by these challenges. NASCAR has indicated the sport would benefit from structural change. We believe TRK would be more able to compete in this challenging and changing environment as a private company.

SFC and members of the Smith Group are best-positioned to continue to manage and oversee the Company as a private company. Mr. Bruton Smith, Executive Chairman and founder of the Company, has been a pioneer in the motorsports business since the sport’s beginning. His ingenuity and vision for the sport have been highly instrumental in the motorsports business for decades, and the sport has recognized his contributions by inducting him into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Additionally, Mr. Marcus Smith, the current Chief Executive Officer of the Company, has played a key role in the motorsports industry and has also been an important figure in the evolution of the sport and the Company over the past several years. Given the Smith Group’s role in the sport and involvement in the Company, we believe we are the best party to lead the Company through the challenges ahead.

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NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings heading to Talladega

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After all three major series enjoyed Easter off, NASCAR is back this weekend with the Cup and Xfinity series both competing at the largest track on the circuit, the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway.

In this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, Kyle Busch remains a unanimous No. 1. He has now been No. 1 – either solely or tied for the lead – in the last eight weeks (not counting last week’s Power Rankings, which focused on the top organizations).

Making the biggest jump in this week’s rankings is Richmond winner Martin Truex Jr. He went from outside the rankings before Richmond to fourth. The two biggest drops in the rankings are Ryan Blaney and Kurt Busch. Blaney went from fifth to out of the rankings. Busch dropped from third to eighth.

Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings look:

1. Kyle Busch (40 points): We’d be talking about wins in four races if not for a speeding penalty at Richmond. Has finished top 10 in every race this season, only driver who can say that. Also has the most playoff points. Still the top dog. Last week: 1st.

2. Denny Hamlin (35 points): Overcame penalty in inspection at Richmond that forced him to start in the rear. On a night that it was tough to pass, he finished fifth for his sixth top five of the season, tying Kyle Busch for the most this year. Last week: 2nd.

3. Joey Logano (33 points): If he would have had a couple more laps, he may have been able to overtake Truex at Richmond. Has five top fives. He arguably had the car to win at both Bristol and Richmond and will likely have one of the cars to beat in Talladega. Last week: 4th.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (25 points): Put on the drive of his career in Richmond and got win No. 1 at Joe Gibbs Racing and his first on a short track (after 80 tries). Just in time with a superspeedway (not Truex’s strong suit) looming. Last week: not ranked

5. Clint Bowyer (23 points): Driver that has maybe shown the most improvement over nine races. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh in the last four races and has been in contention to win for the last three. He’s no slouch at Talladega. Last week: 7th.

6. Kevin Harvick (20 points): Steady progress but still looking for a win. All of Harvick’s four top fives this year have been in fourth place. The 30 laps he led in Richmond were his first since Las Vegas. Last week: 8th.

7. Brad Keselowski (17 points): Has had some struggles of late, with only one top 10 (seventh, Richmond) in the three races since his Martinsville win. Typically does well at ‘Dega. Can he survive the usual carnage and be the best to adapt to tapered spacers instead of restrictor plates? Last week: 6th.

8. Kurt Busch (15 points): Remains the most consistent Chevy driver through nine races, with just one finish outside 12th this year. Returns to Talladega looking for revenge: He was one lap away from winning there last year until he ran out of gas. Last week: 3rd.

9. Ryan Newman (8 points): Quietly outrunning teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Roush Fenway Racing. Coming off season-best, back-to-back ninth-place finishes and heads to Talladega, where he’s always competitive (unless caught up in a wreck). Last week: Outside the top 10 (tied for 11th).

10. Jimmie Johnson (4 points): Team seems to have stabilized after Martinsville debacle. He’s been the top Hendrick driver in each of the past three races. But he’s still staring at a 68-race winless streak, the longest of his illustrious career. Can he finally snap it at ‘Dega, where he has two wins and seven top 10s? Last week: 10th.

Others receiving votes: None

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Goodyear tire info for Talladega Superspeedway

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NASCAR makes its first visit of the season to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, and with it will come a new left side tire in both Cup and Xfinity. Right side tires remain the same from those used in both Cup races and the sole Xfinity race last season at Talladega.

The new tire set-up was recommended for Talladega after a tire test at Daytona on Feb. 18-19 with Alex Bowman, Kyle Larson and Daniel Hemric. As on all NASCAR ovals greater than 1 mile in length, teams are required to run inner liners in all four tires at Talladega. Air pressure in those inner liners should be between 12 and 25 psi greater than that of the outer tire.

Since its repave in 2010, Talladega has used a different tire than at Daytona.

According to a Goodyear media release, “Talladega exhibits some wear characteristics, though teams are still able to employ some tire strategy – two-tire and fuel-only stops – that leads to chances to trade fresh rubber for track position. Because it is possible to pit at Talladega and not lose a lap to the race leaders, that opens up strategy plays for teams outside the top 10 to short pit and gain track position when the rest of the field pits at the end of a stage.”

Added Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, While we actually see some tire wear at Talladega, it still leaves room for some team and pit strategy. When to pit, with whom and how many tires to take all come into the equation for teams to consider this weekend. And adding in a rules package that Cup teams will be running for the first time, should make for some interesting racing.”

Here’s the tire info for this weekend’s races:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Superspeedway Radials.

Set limits: Cup: 2 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying and 7 sets for the race (6 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice). Xfinity: 4 sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Cup: Left-side — D-4886; Right-side – D-4752. Xfinity: Left-side — D-4596; Right-side – D-4752.

Tire Circumference: Cup: Left-side — 2,236 mm (88.03 in.); Right-side — 2,249 mm (88.54 in.) Xfinity: Left-side — 2,233 mm (87.91 in.); Right-side — 2,249 mm (88.54 in.).

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Cup: Left Front — 29 psi; Left Rear – 29 psi; Right Front — 50 psi; Right Rear — 48 psi. Xfinity: Left Front — 29 psi; Left Rear – 29 psi; Right Front — 50 psi; Right Rear — 48 psi.

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