Friday 5: Key questions to ponder during NASCAR’s break

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While Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have dominated the headlines by combining to win each of the first nine races, many questions remain as NASCAR takes its Easter break.

Here is a look at five key questions with a quarter of the Cup season complete:

1. What’s up with Stewart-Haas Racing?

An organization that saw all four of its drivers win last season has yet to visit victory lane in Cup this season.

The last Cup victory for the organization was at Texas in November by Kevin Harvick with a car that later failed inspection. Stewart-Haas Racing has won two of the last 21 Cup races. Team Penske has nine wins during that time and Joe Gibbs Racing has eight victories.

Stewart-Haas Racing has been the best of the rest. Five times in the season’s first nine races, a Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been the top finisher outside the Gibbs and Penske camp.

Harvick finished fourth at Las Vegas (Joey Logano won). Aric Almirola was fourth at ISM Raceway (Kyle Busch won). Harvick placed fourth at Auto Club Speedway (Busch won). Clint Bowyer finished second at Texas (Denny Hamlin won). Bowyer was third at Richmond (Martin Truex Jr. won).

“We’ve just got to keep working,” Greg Zipadelli, SHR competition director, told NBC Sports after the last weekend’s Richmond race. “Everybody around you is. I feel like we’re getting better. I don’t feel like we’ve been terrible. We haven’t executed. We haven’t unloaded as good as we need to. We make our cars better over the weekend. That’s a plus.

“By no means are we where we want to be. We’re at a race track that is good for a bunch of our drivers the last couple of weeks and weren’t able to capitalize on it. I’m taking the approach that I’m looking at my glass as half full rather than half empty.”

Even though SHR won four times at this point last year (Harvick won three races and Bowyer had one victory), the organization has shown signs of greater depth.

Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Daniel Suarez have combined to score nine top-five finishes and 22 top 10s this season. Each driver has had at least one top-five finish. Each driver also has at least four top 10s.

Last year, Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Kurt Busch had eight top-five finishes and 19 top 10s. Busch and Almirola had yet to score a top-five finish. Only Bowyer and Harvick had at least four top 10s at this point a year ago.

“All four of our cars have been running good,” Zipadelli said of SHR’s performance this season. “All four of our cars have been running better. Everybody has been working good together. We’ll just keep plugging away.”

Then Zipadelli added: “Small victories. That’s how you eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

2. The next few weeks will be most critical to what team?

Obviously, the top organizations that have been shut out seek to win as soon as possible, but let’s look a little deeper.

This could be a key time for Roush Fenway Racing. The organization has Ryan Newman in a playoff spot but he’s 15th in the standings and only four points ahead of 17th (the first spot outside a playoff position). Teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 18th in the standings, eight points behind Newman.

One has to figure that even for Kyle Larson’s poor start — he’s 19th in the standings, 12 points behind Newman — that Larson will find his way into a playoff spot either via a win or points. With the way Joe Gibbs Racing has been so strong, Erik Jones, who is 17th, would be a good candidate to move into a playoff spot.

Ryan Newman is 15th in the points standings after a quarter of the Cup season. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

If those situations happen, then it will be more challenging for Roush Fenway Racing to put either of its two cars in the playoffs. The organization has failed to have a car in the playoffs three of the past four years.

This is a key time for Roush Fenway to collect points, including stage points to position itself better for a playoff spot. Stenhouse has 20 stage points and Newman 18.

Fifteen drivers have more stage points than Stenhouse and 16 have more stage points than Newman.

“We’ve got to keep working on some raw speed,” Newman said after placing ninth last week at Richmond. “We’re off just a little bit still.

“We’re doing better but we’ve got to keep working on it. Ninth isn’t good enough. Tenth isn’t good enough.”

3. What driver needs a win the most?

Long list here.

Kurt Busch, who has a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing, could use victories to enhance his chances of driving next year provided he wants to continue.

Jimmie Johnson has a 68-race winless streak. His last victory was at Dover in June 2017 — close to a two-year drought. He’s led laps in only three of the last 21 races.

Kyle Larson is winless in his last 55 races and has only five top-10 finishes in his last 16 starts (nearly half a season). Larson has led laps in three of those 16 races. His frustration was evident after he finished last at Richmond and said “it’s been a pretty crappy start to the year.”

Along with Johnson and Larson, one could put any Chevrolet driver on this list. Chevrolet has won four of the last 55 races, dating back to the start of the 2017 playoffs. Elliott has three of those victories and Austin Dillon the other.

4. What will the 2021 driver lineup look like?

There are some intriguing situations that will be worth watching as the season progresses.

Kurt Busch has a one-year contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. Will the 40-year-old (he turns 41 in August) be back after this season with the team or will Ganassi have a spot to fill in its lineup for 2021?

Unless NASCAR allows car owners to have more than four teams, Joe Gibbs would seem to have a wealth of riches and not a place for all of them. Kyle Busch signed a contract extension in February, Martin Truex Jr. is in his first season with the team, Denny Hamlin says his contract goes beyond this season and Erik Jones says he’s in talks with JGR on a contract extension.

So where does that leave Christopher Bell? With the investment Toyota has put into his career, there’s no chance he’ll drive for any other manufacturer next season. With 10 wins in 48 career Xfinity starts (a 20.8% winning percentage), there’s no way he should be in Xfinity after this year. Does that mean he goes to Leavine Family Racing, which is aligned with JGR, or does Toyota pull something else out to ensure Bell will be with the manufacturer in Cup next year?

Another interesting proposition is where will Cole Custer race next year? He’s won twice in the first eight races this season (he had two wins in his previous 70 Xfinity starts entering this year).

When Stewart-Haas Racing was looking to fill the No. 41 last season, car owner Gene Haas was asked if Custer could take that position. He said that Custer needed to win more. If Custer does that this season, can SHR find a way for him or will he need to go to another Ford team?

5. What will the qualifying format be?

Still to be determined. Or at least NASCAR hasn’t announced anything.

The series heads to Talladega Superspeedway next weekend and that will be single-car qualifying, same as it has been done in recent years there.

Then it’s off to Dover. Maybe the format used at Richmond (five minutes for each round) could work there. After that, NASCAR heads to Kansas Speedway and drafting will again be key. NASCAR will need to have its plans set before Kansas.

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NASCAR announces merger agreement with International Speedway Corp.

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International Speedway Corp. announced Wednesday morning that it has entered into an agreement and plan of merger with NASCAR. The deal is valued at approximately $2 billion.

Shareholders will receive $45 for each share.

This deal is expected to close this calendar year.

International Speedway Corp. owns 12 tracks that host NASCAR races, including Daytona International Speedway, Darlington Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

NASCAR issued a statement Wednesday: “We are pleased with the progress that the negotiation and execution of the merger agreement between NASCAR and ISC represents.  While important regulatory and shareholder approval processes remain, we look forward to the successful final resolution of this matter and continuing our work to grow this sport and deliver great racing experiences for our fans everywhere. With a strong vision for the future, the France family’s commitment to NASCAR and the larger motorsports industry has never been greater.”

NASCAR Chairman Jim France told competitors in the drivers meeting before the Daytona 500 that “this sport was built by families and we’re just a part of it. It’s so important that we remember that this is still a family business. Our family is committed to it.”

The agreement announced Wednesday allows NASCAR to control those tracks, along with Iowa Speedway, which it already owns. That could make it easier for NASCAR to move dates to take a date from one track to another. NASCAR President Steve Phelps has stated that the schedule is among the areas the sanctioning body is looking at making changes. NASCAR’s five-year sanctioning agreement with tracks ends after next season.

With NASCAR private, it won’t have to publicly report attendance revenue and other financials as ISC had to do as a publicly traded company.

ISC also announced that a class-action lawsuit that had been filed against it after NASCAR and ISC announced last November plans to merge will be dropped.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns eight tracks that host NASCAR races, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, announced April 24 that it had 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.

The only tracks not owned by ISC or SMI that host Cup races are Pocono Raceway, Dover International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

NBC Sports Power Rankings heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After finishing third in the All-Star Race, Kyle Busch is back atop this week’s NBC Sports Power Rankings – although it was not a unanimous decision.

The real story this week is Kyle Larson. Although it was a non-points event, Larson’s win in the All-Star Race propelled him from not even in last week’s rankings to No. 3 this week. Larson is one of three drivers who went from unranked last week to into this week’s top 10. Also making a big jump from last week was Kevin Harvick (from 7th to 2nd).

Several drivers took big drops from last week, including Chase Elliott (1st to 5th), Alex Bowman (2nd to 6th), Clint Bowyer (4th to tied for 10th) and Brad Keselowski (5th to out of the top 10).

Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings look heading into the Coca-Cola 600:

1. Kyle Busch (38 points): Finished third in All-Star Race but climbs the rankings for his rant on the radio late in the race. If you can’t win .… But he did win the Truck race and finished the year winning all five of his starts. Last week: 3rd.

2. Kevin Harvick (32 points): Once again, falls short of victory lane. Pit crew mistakes again. Will they finally get things fixed in time for the race that typically has the most pit stops of the season in it? Last week: 7th.

3. Kyle Larson (30 points): Will the $1 million man build upon his riches to earn some wins that will actually count towards the playoffs? Last week: unranked.

4. Joey Logano (24 points): Strong run at the end to secure top-five finish in All-Star Race. Could be a big factor in the 600. Last week: 8th.

5. Chase Elliott (22 points): Things didn’t go his way. Hey, he has 600 miles this weekend to make things happen. Last week: 1st.

6. Alex Bowman (17 points): With three straight runner-ups and eighth in the All-Star Race, a win could be right around the corner – perhaps as early as Sunday. Last week: 2nd.

7. Bubba Wallace (14 points): Storybook night – stage win in Open and fifth-place finish in All-Star Race – gave him an emotional boost that may lead to better things to come. Last week: unranked.

8. William Byron (10 points): Strong move to win the first stage in Monster Open and then finishes the night with a ninth-place finish in the All-Star Race. Last week: unranked.

9. Martin Truex Jr. (9 points): Fast car but then later had issues and finished 10th. Last week: 9th.

(tie) 10. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Punched his ticket to a 12th-place finish, then went out and punched Ryan Newman on pit road. Will their feud flare up again on Sunday? Last week: 4th.

(tie) 10. Kurt Busch (7 points): Late crash left him with a disappointing 17th-place finish (out of 19 drivers). Look for a big comeback in the 600. Given his consistency this season, he’s overdue for a win. Last week: 6th.

Others receiving votes: Brad Keselowski (4 points), Aric Almirola (3 points), Austin Dillon (2 points), Ross Chastain (1 point).

NASCAR America: Dale Jr. Download with Mike Helton, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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On today’s Dale Jr. Download, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, Dale Earnhardt Jr. welcomes NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton.

Earnhardt has known Helton his whole life, and while the two consider each other good friends, Junior told one story where that friendship was tested a bit. 

Here’s a brief segment of what Junior had to say about Helton:

You can be an incredible friend, but the funny thing is when you need to chew somebody’s ass, you can get that done, too. There was one time you had to get after me pretty hard at Bristol Motor Speedway. … We had a car explode a brake rotor on the race track and threw brake parts all over the place.

There was about 15 laps to go and we were running under caution. Typically, NASCAR red flags the race and I was wanting them to do that, but they didn’t. I don’t see the brake stuff, everything’s great, I’m raising hell. This was in the Bud days. Tony (Eury) Sr. was on the radio and I think he was encouraging me a little bit. Our spotter came over and said they want you and Tony Sr. to come to the truck after the race. I stopped talking immediately.

That’s when I learned that Mike Helton and the guys in the booth listen to the drivers and I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, they heard me.’ … We go up in the hauler and me and Tony Sr. still feel like we’re in the right and that we’re going to tell ‘em this and tell ‘em that, and that we’re going in there thinking we’re going to tell Helton and he’s going to say ‘you’re right, we should have red-flagged the race.’

As soon as Helton’s head comes into the door jamb, Tony Sr. and I both started pleading our case. And Mike Helton said, ‘Both of y’all hush. Y’all aren’t going to talk, I’m going to talk.’ You were so mad, so angry, and when I realized how mad you were, I was so disappointed in myself for disappointing and angering him. … I realized now what I had done.’”

Tune in to hear the rest of the story on the Dale Jr. Download (the above portion starts around 51:00).

And then stick around for the following show, IndyCar Live, from Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 6-6:30 pm ET with Kevin Lee.

If you can’t catch either of today’s shows on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Missouri’s Lucas Oil Speedway heavily damaged by possible tornado

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Severe storms barreled through south central Missouri on Monday night, causing a number of injuries and heavy damage to the area, including significant damage to Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, about two hours southeast of Kansas City.

According to a media release from track officials, “The storm moved into the area shortly before midnight and damaged several buildings, destroyed the grandstands at the off-road track and also damaged some of the grandstands at the dirt track. There also was damage in the campground and debris was scattered throughout the facility. Several vehicles on-site were toppled, including some campers that had arrived for the weekend.”

There were several injuries reported at the RV park located nearby. Investigators were trying to determine if the storm actually spawned a tornado that caused the damage.

The storms left the track without power and forced officials to cancel this weekend’s Lucas Oil Show-Me 100, one of the its biggest races of the year.

Lucas Oil Speedway general manager Danny Lorton said in the media release that this weekend’s racing – which is considered part of the “Crown Jewel of dirt Late Models” – would be rescheduled at a future date. Lorton said the earliest some announcement may be made is Tuesday.

Also in the media release, track racing operations director Dan Robinson noted, “Our first thoughts are for the people of the Wheatland community and the area and we are thankful that there were no fatalities. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who were affected.”

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