Friday 5: Kyle Larson seeks to beat Kyle Busch at Bristol

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It was one of the first things Kyle Larson said after he won the Xfinity race last August at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I wish Kyle Busch wouldn’t have had his troubles so I could have raced him,” Larson said.

Busch hit the wall that night and failed to finish. It is Busch who has kept Larson from many more wins at Bristol and why Larson would have liked to have beaten Busch head-to-head last year. Maybe Larson will get his chance Sunday when the series returns to Bristol.

Larson has finished second at Bristol five times in either Cup or Xfinity — including both Cup races last year. Busch has won four of those races (and Kurt Busch won the other).

“I don’t feel like I’m owed anything anywhere but that’s the one track that time after time I’ve been close to winning a race there … and I just don’t get it done,” Larson said.

The last time Kyle Busch beat Larson, Busch used a bump and run to get by Larson with six laps to go in last April’s Cup race.

It would be nice to beat him anywhere,” Larson said of Busch with a laugh. “Maybe my first Xfinity win in Fontana would be like the only one where I felt like I beat him. Bristol, especially, I feel I’m as good or better than him there.

“Their team and him do a really good job in the second half of the races to beat me and get track position. I feel like I’m definitely at least equal with him there but he wins all the time. It would be nice to finally beat him there.”

An example of what Busch is able to do was last April’s Cup race at Bristol. Larson had an average running position of 3.1 in that race compared to Busch’s average position of 4.2 but Busch won.

Larson could use a strong showing. He has two top-10 finishes this season and is coming off a 39th-place showing at Texas when his race ended early because of an accident.

2. “Right on target”

Seventeen-year-old Hailie Deegan leads the points after two races in the K&N West Pro Series. The Toyota Racing Development driver is impressing TRD President David Wilson.

“I think Hailie is right on target,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “This is an important year for her because this will be the second full season that she will have had in that series. For her, it’s that pavement, the reps that she needs. I think she’s got a really good attitude about it.

“We always say that’s so important is that you can win where you’re racing today. It’s too easy to look to the horizon, ‘I want to be in Trucks or ARCA or what have you.’ She says all the time I need to win here. Having said that, we’re really happy with her progress.”

With the K&N Pro Series West off until May 11 for the twin 100 races at Tucson Speedway, Deegan will compete in Saturday’s K&N Pro Series East race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Deegan also will run six ARCA races this season. The first race in that series will be May 19 at Toledo Speedway. She’ll also compete at Pocono (May 31), Madison International Speedway (June 14), Elko Speedway (July 13), Lucas Oil Raceway (Oct. 5) and Kansas Speedway (Oct. 18).

3. Challenge to drivers

With the additional downforce on cars, Cup drivers expect speeds to be up this weekend at Bristol. That means higher corner speeds.

That race I think has a lot of people on pins and needles, not just physically, which it should be physically, but with the cars themselves,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think the cars are really going to see a lot of load and a lot of stress.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., though, isn’t worried.

“Driving-wise I saw people thinking it’s gonna be tough,” he said. “If they think it’s going to be tough, I feel like they should hit the gym more. I think we’ll be fine. I won’t fall out of the seat. I feel like I’ll be good. 

“I feel like our cars are gonna be fast. I feel like we’re prepared to go there and hopefully win. That’s the mindset that we have going into Bristol. As far as tires and things like that go, it’s not up to me if they handle or not. Hopefully, everything car-wise holds up. I’ll be good.”

4. Will Chevy’s drought continue?

Chevrolet, winless this season, has won four of the last 43 Cup races.

The only Chevrolet drivers to have won since last year are Chase Elliott (three victories and Austin Dillon (Daytona 500).

Bristol has not been hospitable to Chevy teams. Chevrolet has won two of the past 11 Bristol Cup races (Jimmie Johnson in 2017 and Kevin Harvick in 2016)

5. Extra emphasis

Each round of next year’s playoffs before the championship race for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks will end at a short track or Roval.

It’s part of a philosophy to give fans what they want and create more drama.

It also skewed the balance of short tracks (those that are less than 1 mile) in the Cup playoffs compared to the regular season.

In Cup, three of 26 races in the regular season (11.5 percent) next season will be at short tracks, but thee of the 10 playoff races (30 percent) will be short tracks. 

In the Xfinity Series, four of the 26 races in the regular season (15.4 percent) will be at short tracks, but two of the seven playoff races (28.6 percent) will be at short tracks.

In the Truck Series, three of the 16 races in the regular season (18.8 percent) will be at short tracks, but two of the seven playoffs races (28.6) percent will be at short tracks.

It will be interesting to see how much of an added emphasis teams will put on short tracks next year because of their importance in the playoffs.

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Natalie Decker recovering from gallbladder surgery

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Natalie Decker, a Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series driver, is recovering after undergoing surgery to have her gallbladder removed.

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Decker, who raced for DGR-Crosley in 2019, posted on Instagram Wednesday about what led to the surgery, including problems with her gallbladder the kept her from taking arthritis medication.

“Hi everyone now that I have had the surgery to remove my gallbladder I will share the whole story!” Decker said. “I have been not being able to eat much food and have been in so much pain every time I eat we went through lots of testing like upper endoscopy and gallbladder function test! They finally figured it out and my gallbladder wasn’t functioning right! I had to get my gallbladder removed before I could go back on my Arthritis medication. I’m so thankful everything went very well!”

Decker, 22, made 19 starts in 2019. Her best finish was 13th in the spring Las Vegas race.

John Hunter Nemechek joins Front Row Motorsports’ 2020 driver lineup

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John Hunter Nemechek will join Michael McDowell as a full-time driver at Front Row Motorsports for the 2020 Cup season, the team announced Thursday, confirming it will retract to two cars.

Nemechek will drive the No. 38 Ford, taking over the seat held by David Ragan before his retirement. He will work with crew chief Seth Barbour.

McDowell will continue to drive the No. 34 Ford.

Nemechek competed in the final three Cup races of 2019, substituting for Matt Tifft in the No. 36 Ford following his seizure at Martinsville Speedway in October. Tifft parted ways with the team in order to focus on his health.

Nemechek, the son of Joe Nemechek, joins a rookie class that includes Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Brennan Poole.

“I’m thrilled for the opportunity to drive for Bob Jenkins and Front Row Motorsports,” Nemechek said in a press release. “Having driven the last three races with this team in 2019, I feel like we already have a foundation to start the 2020 season. I’m looking forward to continuing to build FRM.”

Nemechek, 22, competed full-time in the Xfinity Series in 2019 driving for GMS Racing. He finished seventh in the standings after earning six top fives and 19 top-10 finishes. He has six Truck Series wins in 99 starts since 2013.

McDowell returns for his third full-time season with Front Row.

“As an organization, we have made a lot of strides with the help of all our partners of our program,” McDowell said in the press release. “I’m ready to build on that momentum with (crew chief) Drew (Blickensderfer). and the rest of our team. We’ve always had steady growth and I think we’re going to continue to see that next season.”

Said team owner Bob Jenkins: “We are looking to the future with a young talent like John Hunter Nemechek. John Hunter impressed us at the end of last season, he comes from a racing family, and he’s a winning driver. We believe that we can grow with him in the years to come.”

 

Nashville Fairgrounds in negotiations with new race promoter

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While the city of Nashville reviews a new proposal from Speedway Motorsports, Inc, the Nashville Fairgrounds have entered negotiations with a potential track promoter for Fairground Speedway’s 2020 season, The Tennessean reported Wednesday.

The newspaper reported that the Fairgrounds is negotiating with Track Enterprises to promote at least three races at short track.

The development comes a month after the Fair Board voted to terminate its contract with Formosa Productions over outstanding debt.

Fairgrounds spokesperson Holly McCall told The Tennessean that it was approached by Track Enterprises’ Bob Sargent about being involved in races on the short track next year.

Sargent has a history with the track, having promoted ARCA races there for roughly five years, according to The Tennessean.

Speedway Motorsports, which had previously struck a deal with Formosa Productions looking to bring NASCAR racing back to the track, had announced a $60 million renovation proposal in May.

A spokesperson for Nashville Mayor John Cooper, who was elected in September, told The Tennessean it was reviewing a new proposal from SMI.

McCall told The Tennessean the Fairgrounds had not yet received a new plan from SMI.

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.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor Cooper during NASCAR’s Champion’s Week in Nashville. “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.”

 

Martin Truex Jr. on Cole Pearn’s departure, what he seeks in next crew chief

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. got a phone call from Cole Pearn on Sunday and Truex quickly had a very bad feeling about it.

“When he started talking it was in the back of my mind that, ‘This is not good. I feel like something big is about to come,'” Truex recalled. “Sure enough, it was surprising.”

Pearn had called to tell Truex what everyone else would learn the next day: after five years together, he was resigning as his crew chief and leaving NASCAR.

Truex discussed the end of Pearn’s tenure and what he wants from his next crew chief during a break from giving out Christmas toys to patients at Levine Children’s Hospital.

“Thought I could get a couple more years out of him, to be honest,” Truex said before admitting he completely understood Pearn’s reasons for getting out of NASCAR while seemingly at the top of his game: a long season that keeps him from seeing his family.

“I understand the grind, I understand just how hard he has to work to produce a level of competition that he does,” Truex said. “I’ve seen it first hand, his hours and what’s he’s willing to do. I don’t know that there’s anyone in the garage willing to put as much work into racing as he did.”

He continued: “It’s time for him to move into doing something else. His kids are growing up too fast and he doesn’t get to see them that much. It was big decision for him and I know … he feels somewhat like he let all us down. I told him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do what’s best for your family, we all understand and all our guys will understand, we’ll go on and try to the best with someone else filling his role.'”

When it comes to figuring who will take over as crew chief on the No. 19 Toyota, Truex said, “We’ve got a few guys in mind. I feel like we’re narrowing it down. We should know something in the next couple of days for sure.”

Whoever takes over will follow in the wake of a crew chief who worked with Truex to produce 24 wins in five seasons, four appearances in the Championship 4 and the 2017 Cup title.

How did half a decade of success with Pearn change what Truex wants from a crew chief?

“Honestly, that’s a good question,” Truex said. “Obviously, I need to find somebody that has his demeanor, a guy that approaches racing the way he does, because it’s kind of what works for me. I feel like we approach racing the same way, Cole and I did. Our attitudes and just the way we thought about things was so similar. We could almost finish each other’s sentences.

“It’s so weird, we’re so different people outside of racing. In racing, that’s just the way we grew up. Our dads racing and racing go-karts and moving up through the ranks ourselves. We just did things a lot the same and we had similar beliefs in the way we did things. Just kind of the same thought process.”

Truex believes he and Pearn “approached a lot of things together more so than me being a rookie and him being a veteran like it was when I first started.

“No question, he was really good at getting the most out of me and I’ll need somebody to do that,” Truex said. “I’m not the most outspoken guy and so I need sometimes somebody to pull that information out of me, especially when it comes to the cars and building the cars. When they’re not good enough, how do you make them better? He was really good at that. I feel good about the guys we’re talking to and we’ve got a few options there and hopefully it’ll work out.”