Friday 5: The tale of two comments and one fine

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What’s the difference between these comments?

Denny Hamlin after the March 3, 2013, Phoenix race: “I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning. The teams hadn’t figured out how to get the aero balance right. Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th-place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up. It’s just one of those things where track position is everything.”

Kyle Busch after Monday’s race at Dover on the package for the cars: “It’s terrible. All I can do is bitch about it and fall on deaf ears and we’ll come back with the same thing in the fall.”

NASCAR fined Hamlin $25,000 for his comments.

NASCAR explained the reason for the fine by stating: “Denny Hamlin made some disparaging remarks about the on-track racing that had taken place that afternoon. While NASCAR gives its competitors ample leeway in voicing their opinions when it comes to a wide range of aspects about the sport, the sanctioning body will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product.”

Six years later, NASCAR said this week that it would not fine Busch for his comments after the Dover race. Busch said this week that he was not surprised NASCAR decided against fining him for his comments because “I’m not sure I said anything wrong.”

But don’t try to dissect the comments. That’s not the place to look in examining why one driver was fined and another was not.

NASCAR’s reaction to Busch’s comments shows a calmer approach. That’s a difference between Jim France, who is now the sport’s CEO, and Brian France, who was the CEO when Hamlin was fined.

Brian France often used a simple example to explain his reasoning for fining drivers for comments, saying in November 2011: “If I own a restaurant and I say you know what, the food in my restaurant is not very good, we’re not going to accept it. It’s as simple as that.”

With that as a key component, NASCAR issued secret fines to Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski for comments and actions.

When public pressure grew for NASCAR to do away with secret fines, Brian France said in January 2012 that the sanctioning body would still react to driver comments.

“If you challenge the integrity of the sport, we’re going to deal with that,” Brian France said then. “You know, we have to deal with that. And I think what’s really interesting is I can’t tell you how many owners or drivers come up to me and say thanks for doing that because some of these comments were irresponsible and unhelpful to growing the sport.”

If drivers can’t pass, they’re going to be frustrated. Some drivers noted how winner Martin Truex Jr. had the best car at Dover but it took him 240 laps to get to the front.

Truex took the lead for good with 53 laps to go. The same car that struggled in traffic — “It was definitely really hard to pass,” he said — then drove away from the field, winning by 9.5 seconds.

While the package has improved the racing at some tracks, it’s not perfect every place. The key is making changes for tracks where the package isn’t as effective.

With car owners facing additional costs with the Gen 7 car’s projected debut in 2021, they likely will be hesitant to be in favor of any expensive midseason changes. It’s 21 months until February 2021. With many details to be worked out with the new car, the question is what can NASCAR do to allow drivers to show more of their skill? If NASCAR can’t find a solution, how much longer will they allow drivers to speak up about the package?

2. Is time running out for NASCAR to go to Nashville in 2021?

In December, Formosa Productions, which promotes races at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee, and Bristol Motor Speedway reached an agreement to “explore bringing major NASCAR racing events” back to the .596-mile track.

Nearly six months later, work remains.

An issue is getting an agreement done with the city by next spring when NASCAR is expected to announce the 2021 schedules. NASCAR announced the 2020 Xfinity and Gander Truck Series schedules April 4, 2019. If NASCAR aims for a similar target date, that would leave 11 months to get a deal complete.

If more time was needed, NASCAR might be able to delay the 2021 Xfinity and Truck schedules. The 2019 schedules for both series were not released until June 13, 2018. Either way, time is ticking.

“Days, weeks and months go by quickly when you’re not really paying attention to it,” Marcus Smith, president and chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, said. “However, it’s very possible things can get put on the right track and move along very swiftly and that’s certainly our interest.”

He says conversations are ongoing.

I think the most important part is we’ve got a strong interest and it seems like in general there is a big interest in the people we’re talking with,” Smith said.

A few issues facing an effort to get on the 2021 schedule:

Nashville elections, including for mayor, are Aug. 12. There are multiple candidates for mayor and should a runoff election be needed, it would be held Sept. 12.

Smith notes that Fairgrounds Speedway “needs some TLC.” So far a financing plan has not been finalized.

Also, the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners raised issues in its April meeting about SMI’s involvement.

While the Tennessean had reported that SMI/Bristol Motor Speedway officials have met with Mayor David Briley and his administration, the Fair Board — which oversees the track — has not had any contact.

“I think there has sort of been a transparency problem here,” said fair board member Jason Bergeron at the April meeting. “It’s been eight months and we haven’t heard any details. … It’s a little frustrating. We have no concrete proposal and there’s been no real engagement with the community.”

He later said: “I think SMI needs to bring a real proposal to the table.”

The agenda for the May 14 Fair Commission Board meeting includes a “presentation by Speedway Motorsports Inc.”

3. A new test

Cup teams return to a 1.5-mile speedway this weekend for the first time in more than a month.

Denny Hamlin won at Texas on March 31 in the most recent race at a 1.5-mile speedway. That race also saw Hendrick Motorsports lead 110 of 334 laps between Jimmie Johnson (60 laps led), Chase Elliott (35) and William Byron (15). Johnson finished fifth, Byron sixth and Elliott 13th.

Stewart-Haas Racing, which is winless this year after winning a series-high 12 races last year, placed all four of its cars in the top 10 at Texas: Clint Bowyer was second, Daniel Suarez placed third, Aric Almirola was seventh and Kevin Harvick finished eighth.

Almirola is excited to see where his team stands this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

“We’ve built new race cars going to Kansas,” Almirola said. “We built new race cars going to Texas, which I thought were in the game. We were competitive, we led some laps and challenged to lead the race at the end.

“We were in the right direction with our race cars and then we’ve taken another step in going to Kansas. Just continuing to evolve our mile-and-a-half program. Having a month off has really allowed us to kind of take as step back, go through lot of data, look at a lot of different things and build these race cars.”

4. Record streak

No, we’re not talking about Kyle Busch tying Morgan Shepherd for the most consecutive top-10 finishes in a row at 11, but what Ross Chastain has done this year.

Ross Chastain has competed in every Cup, Xfinity and Truck race this season. Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chastain has started every Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series race. That’s 27 consecutive races and it will grow this weekend with Chastain entered in both the Truck and Cup races at Kansas Speedway.

Chastain is one of three drivers to have started more than 16 consecutive races in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks to start the season. Chastain ranks No. 1 on the list.

Kyle Busch is next. Busch started the first 22 races in the 2008 season and started the first 20 races in the 2009 season. Rick Mast started the first 16 races in the 1989 season.

5. Looks familiar

In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. had two wins, three top-five finishes, seven top-10 finishes, led 536 laps and had an average finish of 10.5 after 11 races.

This year, Truex has scored two wins, four top-five finishes, seven top-10 finishes, led 343 laps and has an average finish of 10.3 after 11 races.

Truex went on to win the title in 2017. While it’s too early to forecast anything like that this year, his start in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing should not go unnoticed, especially heading to Kansas. He has four consecutive top-five finishes there. He won both races there in 2017, finished runner-up in the May 2018 race and placed fifth in last year’s playoff race.

Oh ‘G’: Daniel Suarez looks to go from very good to great starting with Coca-Cola 600

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Daniel Suarez has a ‘G’ at the end of his Twitter handle – @Daniel_SuarezG – which stands for his other surname of Garza.

But ‘G’ also stands for what Suarez aspires for the remainder of this season – to go from very good to great – as he hopes to take things to the next level beginning with Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600.

This season has been very good so far but I’m looking to turn it into a great season,” Suarez said in a media release. “We are moving in the right direction and I’m looking forward to doing even better.

We’ve had strong cars over the last month and a half and hopefully I can do my part as the driver and make it a great race this weekend. The one thing I’ve been dreaming about from this race is the amazing vintage Coca-Cola vending machine you get if you win. I really want to bring that thing to my house.”

In addition to his pursuit of the vintage Coca-Cola vending machine, Suarez will carry a special Coca-Cola paint scheme on his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang this weekend, as he makes his third appearance in the 600.

He finished 11th in his first run in NASCAR’s longest race of the season in 2017, and was 15th in last year’s race. He also was sixth in the fall 2017 playoff race.

From an overall success standpoint so far in 2019, Suarez has one top-five and four top-10s in the first 12 races, with a best showing of third at Texas. He also has seven top-15 finishes in his last eight starts, and comes into this weekend ranked 13th in the Cup standings.

Suarez is still looking to earn his first Cup win. Sunday will mark his 85th career Cup start. He knows what is at stake in the 600, an event that is scheduled for 400 laps around the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway.

As a human being you try and perform at 100% the entire time, but when you’re running a marathon you’re not going to be as strong in the last 30 minutes, that’s normal,” Suarez said. “Fatigue is setting in, your muscles are tired, you’re running out of fluid, and you’re hungry.

Racing is the same way, especially in the Coca-Cola 600. We start running out of energy and you’re mind gets tired after four hours of racing. But I look to this race as a marathon and you have to be on top of your game for the last part of this race. So I always try to keep that in my mind when I’m in the car. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.

It’s a combination of things. Your neck is tired, your lower back is tired, legs are tired and you’re just fatigued. You definitely feel it the next morning after a 600-mile race. You feel like you worked out a lot the day before, and you did inside the car.

One way Suarez will get through Sunday’s four-wheel marathon is to maintain a rather unique mindset.

Two-and-a-half of these 600-mile races and I could be home in Monterrey, Mexico,” he said. “It’s crazy to think of it that way.”

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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.