Long: All-Star Race shows value of shorter distances for Cup events

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The All-Star Race is billed as an event that also serves as a test session.

While cars had some new parts that may be used on the Gen 7 vehicle — expected to debut in 2021 — there’s something else that can be taken from Saturday night and applied to more races.

Shorter distances.

A night that saw two stages in the Monster Open end in spectacular finishes, the All-Star Race crown a new winner and punches thrown on pit road afterward, featured 150 laps compared to the 400 laps that will be run on the same track this weekend.

While there remains room on the Cup schedule for a Daytona 500, a Coca-Cola 600 and a Southern 500, the All-Star Race showed that sometimes shorter distances can be better.

There certainly didn’t seem to be any complaints from fans Saturday night about seeing fewer laps of racing than most weekends.

Instead, the talk was about Clint Bowyer running to Ryan Newman’s car and flailing at Newman in retaliation for being wrecked on the cool-down lap.

Or the talk was about Bubba Wallace’s dramatic win in the second stage of the Monster Energy Open that saw Daniel Suarez slide off track and then Wallace finishing fifth in the All-Star Race.

Or the talk was about Kyle Larson winning is first All-Star Race and collecting $1 million after holding off Kevin Harvick at the end.

All this over an exhibition race.

Imagine what might happen if this was a points race and the winner secured a spot in the playoffs — something Larson initially wondered if he had done before being told no.

Shortening some races shouldn’t be done as a way to find younger fans that some would suggest don’t have the attention span for longer races. The sport doesn’t need to go chasing fans that way. It did that years ago and alienated its older fans.

But if some shorter distances heighten tensions in races and lead to more water cooler moments, then it’s something the sport should consider.

The notion that most races need to be marathons is outdated and outrageous. Few cars suffer mechanical failures. The downforce is so great that few cars spin, let alone crash. Racing is no longer a test of a car’s survival over long distances.

While longer races allow drivers and teams to overcome handling issues or mistakes early and contend for wins, that shouldn’t be the main reason to keep some races 400 or 500 miles.

Turn some of these races into sprints, add points and watch the pressure build. There will be no time for pleasantries. It will be about charging to the front.

Saturday night’s race provided such action. Although not every short race will capture the essence of the All-Star Race, there’s a greater chance of it happening.

Just think about what often makes a longer race special. It’s a restart at the end that forces drivers to make bold moves. In essence a late restart turns a long race into quick sprint.

Why not add a few more of those in the future?

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The All-Star Race will be in Charlotte next year but what is the event’s future?

Provided the Gen 7 car debuts in 2021 as NASCAR states, there will be no need to use the All-Star Race that season as a test session — as has been done the past two times — because teams still will be trying to figure out the car.

That would make it a good time to consider moving the All-Star Race to a different location. Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway would be a logical choice but there are challenges.

Provided NASCAR releases the 2021 schedule next April — the 2020 Cup, Xfinity and Truck schedules were all released by April 3 this year — it gives the folks at Bristol Motor Speedway (and Speedway Motorsports Inc.) less than 11 months to complete a deal with the city and the fair board, which oversees the track, get funding approved and make the changes that are needed to update the track.

While all of that is happening, the city will have elections in August for mayor and other city positions. With multiple candidates running for mayor, a run-off might be needed and that would be held in September.

Those in the sport who have had to work with government entities know how deals can be all but done and then suddenly change at the last minute, throwing everything in doubt. The more layers of government, the longer something takes.

Anything can happen. A deal could be completed in time and could provide the opportunity to move the All-Star Race to Nashville in 2021. If not, maybe there is another place to hold it besides Charlotte, which already has two points races.

If not Nashville, maybe Iowa Speedway or some other track that would need a limited number of upgrades to host NASCAR’s top series. It could be time to think about moving the All-Star Race to places that don’t already have a Cup event.

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Synthetic turf at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Daniel Hemric, Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman showed during Saturday night’s races at Charlotte Motor Speedway how valuable it is for a track to have a synthetic turf instead of grass.

The track installed 88,000 square feet of synthetic turf last summer, along with a new drainage system, to replace the grass along the frontstretch. It was in place for the inaugural race on the Roval.

Hemric slid through the turf during the second stage of the Monster Energy Open after contact with Ryan Preece. Suarez spun through the turf at the end of the second stage in the Open. His car was not damaged, allowing him to continue.

Newman slid through the turf during the second stage of the All-Star Race and also suffered no damage and was able to continue.

“That was big,” Newman said. “I was able to finish my race. If there was grass down there, I wouldn’t have. That was a big deal.”

As long as vehicles have splitters, NASCAR should look to require speedways to use synthetic turf instead of grass in areas near the track to limit the damage when cars and trucks go through those areas. If not turf, then pave those areas. 

While not every accident is the same, just look at what happened to Natalie Decker in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series race earlier this month when she slid into the frontstretch grass at Kansas Speedway. Decker was eliminated because of the damage and finished 25th.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said Monday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that series officials will “continue to look at” synthetic turf in place of grass at tracks.

“While it does present some challenges at some other tracks, I think that is a system we’ll continue to look at,” he said. “Certainly performed great. It looks good from a fan perspective and certainly helps the cars when they get in the turf during a race.”

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With Kevin Harvick chasing him in the final laps, Kyle Larson did not make a mistake and give away the All-Star Race.

It was much different from the 2016 All-Star Race when he hit the wall while leading with two laps to go as Joey Logano challenged him. Logano went on to win. Larson finished 16th in the 20-car field.

Saturday night, there were no mistakes.

“This year has been different for me,” Larson said. “I’ve never worked out before, and I’ve been in the gym a little bit more this year with (trainer and former driver) Josh Wise and just working out with him, and being around him puts a lot more confidence and ease into me. I feel like I’m just more calm.

“I wasn’t nervous at all that last restart, and I think part of that is just from feeling like I am prepared. And also losing close races.  I just — I feel like I’ve done a good job of not getting stressed out, even with me losing the Chili Bowl (on the last lap to Christopher Bell in January). I felt like I was really calm until the last two laps and I gave the race away. (Saturday) I wasn’t going to let that happen.

“With those losses that I’ve had, you grow from each and every one of them. Hopefully we can continue this, and I feel like  — everybody becomes a better driver the older they get, but I feel like I’ve put more work and effort into it this year.”

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NASCAR completes merger with International Speedway Corp.

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NASCAR announced Friday morning it had closed on its merger with International Speedway Corp.

Jim France will serve as the company’s chairman and chief executive officer. Lesa France Kennedy will be the executive vice chair. Steve Phelps has been appointed president and will oversee all operations of the company.

“The merger of NASCAR and ISC represents a historic moment for our sport,” France said in a statement. “There is much work ahead of us, but we’re pleased with the progress made to position our sport for success. Delivering for our race fans and partners is job number one and we look forward to doing that better than ever for years to come.”

As part of the new organization, the Board of Directors will consist of France, France Kennedy, Mike Helton and Gary Crotty, chief legal officerPhelps’ direct reports will include Ed Bennett, executive vice president & chief administrative officer; Jill Gregory, executive vice president & chief marketing and content officer; Craig Neeb, executive vice president & chief innovation officer; Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president & chief racing development officer; and Daryl Wolfe, executive vice president & chief operations and sales officer.

Helton and John Saunders will serve as senior advisors under the new leadership structure.

“With great racing across all of our series, an exciting 2020 schedule on tap, and the Next Gen race car in development, we are better positioned than ever before to lead the sport into a new era of growth,” said Phelps in a statement. “We have a strong, experienced leadership team in place with incredibly dedicated employees at every level throughout our organization. Our best days are ahead of us and our new organization is going to allow us to better deliver great racing to our fans everywhere.”

NASCAR’s Friday schedule at Kansas Speedway

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The NASCAR playoff race weekend at Kansas Speedway begins today.

Cup and Xfinity Series teams will each hold two practice sessions.

The wunderground.com forecast predicts a high of 74 degrees, partly sunny skies and a 10% chance of rain.

Here’s the day’s schedule.

(All times are Eastern)

Noon – 11 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

1 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. – Cup garage open

3:05 – 3:55 p.m.  – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

4:05 – 4:55 – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

5:05 – 5:55 – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

7:05-7:55 p.m. – Final Cup practice (NBCSN, MRN)

 

Friday 5: Is this Kyle Busch’s time?

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Will this become the fall of Kyle Busch?

Not fall as in stumble but fall as in season — when he takes control of the Cup playoffs.

Busch, the regular-season champion, has been many things this postseason — moody, controversial and mistake-prone — but he’s not been a dominant figure on the track.

His average finish in the first half of these playoffs is 16.6 — marking the fourth time since 2015 he’s had an average finish of 14th or worse halfway through the postseason.

Busch, though, made it to the championship race each of those four years, winning the title in 2015.

But with Busch, there’s always something more.

Instead of a streak of Championship 4 appearances, it is his winless streak that draws more attention. Busch has failed to win in the past 17 races, his longest drought since going 36 races between Cup victories in 2016-17.

Since Busch last won at Pocono in early June — before Justin Haley’s improbable win at Daytona, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. losing his ride at Roush Fenway Racing and then signing with JTG Daugherty Racing and Bubba Wallace and Busch beating and banging at Watkins Glen — he’s seen Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones all win.

Miscues have hindered Busch’s playoffs. He hit the wall on Lap 3 of the opener at Las Vegas. Busch rallied from two laps down to be back on the lead lap before running into the rear of Garrett Smithley’s car. After the race, Busch called out Smithley and Joey Gase, questioning their credentials to be in the Cup Series.

Busch’s Dover run was hurt by a speeding penalty. He had a flat tire after contact with Kyle Larson on a restart at the Charlotte Roval and had to pit. A suspension issued later led to his day ending. Several laps down and with nothing to gain, Busch drove the car back to the garage during a red flag. His Talladega race was impacted by an accident, just like about every other driver. The only playoff driver not involved in an incident in the race was winner Ryan Blaney.

But things could be changing for Busch.

For all his struggles, he’s finished second three times during his winless drought and had six top-five results. Only Hamlin (10 top fives), Truex (eight) and Kevin Harvick (seven) have had more top fives than Busch in this stretch.

Provided Busch advances — he is 41 points Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a transfer spot — he’ll likely be the points leader heading into the Round of 8 after Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

The Round of 8 begins at Martinsville Speedway. Busch finished third there in the spring. He’s not placed worse than eighth in any of the five short track races this season. He led 66 laps before finishing 10th at Texas and won at ISM Raceway near Phoenix, leading 177 of 312 laps.

Get Busch to Miami (again) and he could leave as a two-time champion.

2. Tough challenge for hopefuls 

The most likely way Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer or William Byron — the four drivers outside a playoff race — will advance to the next round will be to win Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Bowman trails Joey Logano, who holds the final transfer spot by 18 points. Elliott trails Logano by 22 points. Bowyer trails Logano by 24 points, and Byron trails Logano by 27 points.

The only time Byron and Bowyer outscored Logano in a race by as many points as they trail was at Dover in the playoffs when Logano spent the first 24 laps in the garage.

Bowman has outscored Logano by 18 points in three races this year: Dover playoff race, Talladega in April (Bowman was second) and Kansas in May (Bowman was second)

Elliott has had better results. He has outscored Logano by 22 or more points in a race five times this year: Martinsville in March (Elliott outscored Logano by 28 points), Talladega in April (22 points), Kansas in May (29 points), Watkins Glen (46 points) in August and the Bristol night race (25 points) in August. Elliott won at Talladega and Watkins Glen. He was second at Martinsville, fourth at Kansas and fifth at Bristol.

That’s the challenge those four drivers face this weekend trying to knock Logano out of the final playoff spot.

3. Looking to help 

Brad Keselowski expressed his concern about team members who will be or could be losing their jobs in the near future as the sport goes through change.

He recently sent this tweet:

So what can Keselowski do?

“I haven’t gotten an answer to it yet, but I’m looking at it, trying to think about what ideas there might be” Keselowski said. “I haven’t come up with a solution yet. I just wanted those people to know that are affected by it that I cared about it. I can’t employ the couple of hundred people that are probably going to get laid off in the next few weeks, but I’m sure I can do something for someone.”

4. Youth movement?

The last three races have been won by three of the five youngest drivers in the playoffs: Chase Elliott (Charlotte Roval), Kyle Larson (Dover) and Ryan Blaney (Talladega).

Elliott is 23, Larson is 27 and Blaney is 25. The playoffs also include William Byron (21 years old) and Alex Bowman (26). Erik Jones (23) was eliminated in the first round.

5. Drought busters

Five drivers have ended winless streaks of 30 or more races this season: Kyle Larson (75 races) Denny Hamlin (45), Erik Jones (42), Ryan Blaney (37) and Kurt Busch (30).

Among drivers with long winless droughts: Paul Menard (299 races), David Ragan (237), Chris Buescher (118), Ryan Newman (99), Jimmie Johnson (90), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (86), Austin Dillon (66), Clint Bowyer (52), Aric Almirola (36),

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2019 Comcast Community Champion of the Year Award finalists announced

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Comcast has announced the three finalists for this year’s Community Champion of the Year Award, which recognizes the philanthropic efforts of individuals within the NASCAR industry.

Through the award Comcast has donated $600,000 to 15 different NASCAR-affiliated organizations to honor their efforts and help further the impact of their causes.

The three finalists are:

  • Artie Kempner, NASCAR on FOX Coordinating Director and Co-Founder of Autism Delaware
  • David Ragan, Cup Series driver and Ambassador for Shriners Hospitals for Children
  • Mike Tatoian, President and CEO of Dover International Speedway and USO Delaware Chairman

The award winner will be selected by a panel composed of Comcast and NASCAR executives, as well as defending Cup Series champion Joey Logano, who won the award in 2018. Comcast will award $60,000 to the winner’s affiliated charity, and $30,000 to each of the two remaining finalists’ selected charities.

The winner will be announced Nov. 14 at W. South Beach Hotel in Miami in conjunction with the NASCAR Championship Weekend.

Artie Kempner (Wilmington, Delaware) – In 1998, a small group of parents got together in the living room of Marcy and Artie Kempner’s house in Wilmington, Delaware. The Kempner’s had three boys and their middle son, Ethan, had been diagnosed with autism a year earlier. All of the parents at the table had children on the autism spectrum. That gathering was the beginning of Autism Delaware and Artie became the group’s first president. The organization started as a simple support group, but 20+ years later it’s a statewide service agency, fielding more than 1,500 calls from families annually, offering lifespan services, as well as social and recreational program for families in a safe and welcoming environment.

Kempner’s work on the Drive for Autism Celebrity-Am Golf Outing, helped the group raise the necessary money to launch its critically acclaimed adult vocational and employment program known as POW&R, Productive Opportunities for Work & Recreation. Now in its 11th year, POW&R assesses an individual’s strengths and vocational goals, and matches them with community-based employment, volunteer and recreational opportunities. Today, the program serves over 150 adults with autism in paid employment.

David Ragan (Unadilla, Georgia) – Since 2012, Front Row Motorsports driver David Ragan has been dedicated to supporting Shriners Hospital for Children as a part of their ambassador program. Ragan spends much of his off-time visiting hospitals, fundraising, as well as inviting patients to the race track for once-in-a-lifetime experiences at NASCAR events. Ragan’s passion for the hospital goes beyond just the bare-minimum appearance, he makes an effort to remember each patient’s name + story and will continue to stay in touch long after he meets them. Ragan knows the children and families he meets are likely struggling and wants to do what he can to put a smile on their face. His association with the Shriners, as well as being a Shriner himself, has not only brought attention to the hospitals and the great work they are doing, but has increased donations from race fans and team partners. Many people aren’t aware of the great work that the Shriners do, but Ragan has been a strong voice for them for the past 10 years and has changed countless lives because of his great work.

Mike Tatoian (Dover, Delaware) – Mike Tatoian has been a staple of the Delaware and mid-Atlantic charitable communities, particularly with local military organizations at Dover (Del.) Air Force Base, since he began his tenure at the “Monster Mile” in 2007. One of his longest commitments has been with United Service Organizations. Established during World War II, the USO supports U.S. service members wherever they are, including on-base, deployed abroad, passing through an airport or in local communities at more than 200 locations around the world. One-particular duty that distinguishes USO Delaware is it’s the only USO in the world that shares the responsibility of bringing home fallen service members, working alongside other units such as the Air Force Mortuary Affairs, Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, the Joint Personal Effects Depot and the Families of the Fallen. For 13 years, Tatoian has assisted USO Delaware with countless programs and currently serves as the Chairman of the Advisory Council for the organization.