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.”

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott wins Cup Most Popular Driver award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott was selected as the NMPA Most Popular Driver in a fan vote announced during Thursday’s NASCAR Awards show.

It is the second consecutive victory for Elliott in the category.

“Honored to have two,” Elliott said on stage. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

Completing the top five in balloting: Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney.

It is the 29th consecutive year that either an Elliott or Earnhardt has won the award. Bill Elliott won the award 16 times.

“To have 18 awards going back to Dawsonville is, I think, pretty cool,” Elliott said of the Most Popular Driver awards he and his father have won. “Obviously, I think a lot of that is due to him and his career and what he and his family built. It’s certainly isn’t all me and what I’ve done. I haven’t done anything … compared to what they did.”

The last driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt to win this award was Darrell Waltrip in 1990.

Other award winners included:

The Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not given every year, was presented to car owner Joe Gibbs for his signifiant contribution to the sport.

The NMPA Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contribution to the sport was presented to Darrell Waltrip.

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award is Joe Vaughn, who has volunteered for nearly two decades, raising both awareness and funds on behalf of the Project HOPE Foundation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifespan of services to the autism community to help families, open minds, promote inclusion and expand potential.