Ryan: What we learned about the 2020 schedule, Drivers Council and dirt racing on Daytona 500 Media Day

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The moods were pleasant. The quotes were incisive. The topics were lively.

On the hypothetical Richter scale that monitors “How is NASCAR doing entering a pivotal 2019 season?”, Daytona 500 Media Day registers barely a tremor for its tenor and ultimate significance.

It’s intriguing to absorb the musings of every driver in the Cup Series on myriad subjects, but the reverberations are inherently limited.

The overarching storylines of Speedweeks 2019 will be determined by the quality of racing over the next four days – and after a lackluster Clash, there is a desperately gaping void in the action at Daytona International Speedway and many questions about whether the swan song for the restrictor-plate package can fill it.

Yet during seven hours of nonstop interviews in the Daytona 500 Club, NASCAR Nation still seemed in a good place Wednesday.

Before the green flag falls on tonight’s qualifying races, here are five takeaways from Daytona 500 Media Day.

–Schedule speculation: Aside from Clint Bowyer’s controversial hot take on the family dynamics of Disney World, one of Wednesday’s biggest social media firestorms emerged from Denny Hamlin’s pointed comments on whether NASCAR should consider shorter races.

Hamlin is one of many drivers willing to discuss it, which says that NASCAR likely is moving down that road as it hashes out the 2020 schedule that is expected to look much different than 2019.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps shed more light on it during a SiriusXM interview Wednesday morning, suggesting the ’21 schedule will have more impact as far as new tracks, but next year will bring some significant changes (namely, that the Daytona 500 might not open the season, which is probably why the proposed elimination of the Clash is being floated more publicly).

“We’re not going to make everyone happy, but we’re looking at what (fans) want,” Phelps said. “We’ve heard from the fans, ‘Hey it would be great to have more short tracks, more road courses.’ Those types of racetracks, they believe they’re seeing the best racing. When we look at ’21 and beyond, those are things we’re taking into consideration. I try to tease this a little bit, but I think we’ll have meaningful changes even in ’20 and then more meaningful changes in ’21.”

NASCAR is limited on switching up venues in ’20 because it marks the end of the five-year sanction agreements with all tracks on the Cup circuit. “So we are going to be running the same places,” Phelps said. “The question is, are we going to have them in the same order? When we start, when we finish the season. Those are all things we’re looking at.”

–A new car: The chatter is growing about the Gen 7 car in recent weeks with manufacturers and NASCAR confident of putting the new model on track by the 2021 season.

That timeline seems ambitious to Kyle Busch, who revealed why with another nugget: The Gen 7 might have an independent rear suspension, which is common to many motorsports series but would mark a radical departure for NASCAR. “That would be a complete overhaul of anything we’ve ever done in our sport,” Busch said. “I’m not sure where all that lands.”

Neither does Brad Keselowski, who has elected to refrain from getting involved even though it seems right up his alley. “It is going to require a lot of creative thinking,” the Team Penske driver said. “When it comes to those things, I can pie-in-the-sky dream about it all I want, but at the end of the day I don’t have the knobs. There is one group holding the controls and it is all up to them at the end of the day which way they want to twist and turn them. I made a concerted effort going forward that I am not going to put that much thought into that stuff and let them figure it out.”

–Is the Drivers Council dead? So if the outspoken Keselowski is pulling back on being opinionated, does that mean stars are willing to acquiesce to the whims of the new Jim France-Phelps regime?

Speedweeks usually marked the annual formation of the Drivers Council since its inception in 2015, but there was no confirmation Wednesday. Instead, there was uncertainty about the panel’s future that had begun last month.

Will the Drivers Council remain, or is it still even necessary?

Opinions were mostly ambivalent, but there seems a sentiment that it has outlived its usefulness. “We had the Drivers Council and we all wanted one thing and they did another,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I think that’s probably where some of the frustration comes from. For me, it was the things we wanted to do never happened, and it was more out of frustration than anything.”

Much of this undoubtedly stems from a greater comfort with the leadership of Jim France, who has been a garage fixture since becoming CEO last August. After France met with series champions last fall, Kurt Busch said he was inspired to start a ticket giveaway to veterans this year.

“Jim has done a tremendous job of at least being around,” Kyle Busch said. “He’s always carrying a pen. He’s always carrying a notebook. He’s always taking notes. He’s always listening to people, talking to people. He’s down in the trenches.

“He’s figuring it all out and trying to make some moves for the betterment of the sport, and that’s what we all want. We want somebody involved. That’s into this as much as we’re all into this and care about all of this.”

–Things are cool with Kyle: He finished second in the 2017 Daytona 500, but Kyle Larson’s most memorable connection to The Great American Race might be when he said he’d rather win the Chili Bowl.

That viewpoint naturally didn’t sit well with some NASCAR officials (as well as some veteran drivers), who relayed their concerns through Chip Ganassi Racing PR rep Davis Shaefer (“They make Davis the bad guy,” Larson said with a chuckle.”).

But the message being sent now is that Larson’s moonlighting on dirt tracks a couple dozen times annually is approved – and actually encouraged. Phelps made the point again during the SiriusXM interview when asked about how young drivers help promote racing, noting that “there’s not a vehicle (Larson) doesn’t want to climb in and compete, and people love that about him.”

“I’m just glad (NASCAR officials) feel the same way, finally,” Larson said. “I don’t really feel like I felt that from them for a long time, so it’s nice that they support all the extra racing that I do now.

“Do I do it to help grow the sport or all that? I don’t really think about when I’m off at a dirt track or any of that, I’m not thinking about just trying to help motorsports, grow motorsports. I love motorsports. So that’s why I do it. But it is neat that I feel like I do make an impact just a little bit. And it’s not just me. There’s a lot of other guys – Christopher Bell, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, (Ricky) Stenhouse – they have their own teams. I feel like we all do a good job of cross promoting between sprint cars or dirt track racing in NASCAR.”

Just as with the news of their dissatisfaction, NASCAR officials didn’t directly convey the change in their stance. “I’ve never talked to them really about it,” he said. “I’ve just seen articles and heard stuff of what they’ve said. It’s neat that they support it now. Because I didn’t feel like I got the support before. I feel like I was always in trouble for anytime I talked about sprint car racing.”

It was hard to miss the message sent when Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell led a delegation of high-ranking competition officials to the 2019 Chili Bowl last month (there was no formal meeting with Larson there, either).

“That was really cool,” Larson said. “Because the Chili Bowl has gotten a lot of exposure the last handful of years, so for them to go there and just experience the event and maybe see why it’s growing and maybe there are some things that they can take from an event like that into NASCAR is cool. They’re just looking at all areas to try to make our sport back to what it used to be — NASCAR, anyway. I’m happy they are getting into it again.”

–Lingering Daytona bitterness: It’s no secret there are several big-name drivers who have yet to win the Daytona 500 (and always have been), starting with best-in-class plate driver Brad Keselowski.

And unsurprisingly, those champions remain irked by their near-misses.

For Keselowski, Daytona “is frustrating as hell … especially when you get wrecked out, and there is nothing you can do about it.” Twice last season at Daytona, the 2012 series champion was caught in wrecks near the front of the pack because of what he felt were “bad, juvenile moves” by others.

“It seems like there are a number of people that get into the top two or three that really just have no clue what they are doing,” he said. “That has been unfortunate, but it is what has been happening lately. … Just people that throw blocks that don’t understand the runs or what is around them. They don’t have full situational or spacial awareness, but they think they do, which is even more dangerous. You can block if you know what you are doing but not every move can be blocked. You have a handful of people that have cars good enough to run up front and think that they can block every move and you can’t.”

For Truex, it’s the 2016 Daytona 500 that he lost to Denny Hamlin by 0.10 seconds in the race’s closest finish ever. “To know we were that close — as close as anyone has ever been without winning it — it’s crazy,” Truex said with a laugh. “That makes me angry.”

Could he have done anything differently to win? Truex says yes. “I would have just ran into Denny and pushed him up the track. Do what everybody does to me!”

For Kyle Busch, there is disappointment but less agony because there are “only been two opportunities that I feel like slipped away: ’08. And ’16. I was fast in ’07. We should have finished third behind Harvick and Martin, but I crashed and destroyed the field coming to the checkered.

“Yeah, I could have won two of them. Not all that many when you look at it. We just keep trying, keep fighting. It definitely sets the motivation to try to get one.”

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.