Indianapolis 500 could chart course for more IndyCar-NASCAR crossover

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INDIANAPOLIS – The first Indianapolis 500 for Dale Earnhardt Jr. will create indelible and vivid memories for a racing lifer who will enjoy an unusually fresh perspective in a long career.

Earnhardt will lead the field to the green flag in a Corvette pace car, hop onto the NBC broadcast for some high-profile commentary and probably duck into the Snake Pit to watch 30,000 grooving to an EDM song or two.

But what will he remember most about the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500?

The emotion and energy that will be coursing through Indianapolis Motor Speedway moments before all of that begins.

“The big takeaway from events like the Kentucky Derby or the Indy 500 is just the energy and it’s not a tangible thing,” Earnhardt recently told NBCSports.com. ” It’s a feeling that you get when the event is about to happen. When you’re walking with the horses to the gate or pushing the cars out onto pit road. And there’s a lot of emotion in that and a feeling that’s amazing and incredible that you can’t describe. That’s probably going to be the coolest part.

“I’m absolutely sure that the feeling I have standing on that grid before the race begins will be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced at a NASCAR race, much less at a Super Bowl, or the Winter Olympics. All these things I’ve experienced over at NBC over the last several months, I think this will be the highlight.”

The 103rd Indianapolis 500, Sunday 11 a.m. on NBC: How to watch

Look for no greater validation of the Indianapolis 500’s standing as auto racing’s marquee event than the endorsement of a retired driver whose surname is synonymous with NASCAR.

But it’s also confirmation that a new era of once unimaginable détente is under way between America’s two biggest racing series – offering the promise of newfound collaboration between two longtime rivals.

The olive branches are sprouting everywhere.

A seven-time NASCAR Cup champion jets to IMS just for a gander at cars whizzing around at speeds roughly 40 mph faster than he’d ever seen at the 2.5-mile oval … the defending Indianapolis 500 champion makes a cameo on Earnhardt’s popular podcast … series executives check out and talk up the competition amid louder rumblings of sharing a race weekend stage at the same track.

IndyCar and NASCAR seem to be together at last as unlikely, but increasingly necessary allies in a motorsports landscape facing constant scrutiny from corporate sponsors seeking greater returns and discriminating fans eager for more entertainment.

“For a motorsports perspective, this is good for all of us,” said IndyCar president Jay Frye, whose background in NASCAR as a team executive makes him a “great friend” to many of his stock-car counterparts such as Mike Helton, Steve Phelps and Steve O’Donnell. “This is an industry. This is something that I think that the more we can do collectively to enhance the industry from a holistic perspective is great.

“So we’re talking about doing more down the road with our biggest events. I think the more we can do together, the better.”

That includes growing support for an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader, which was recently floated on (where else?) the Dale Jr. Download Podcast by NASCAR president Phelps, who traveled Friday to Indy and attended Carb Day with O’Donnell.

It’s been a welcome thaw in what once was one of racing’s biggest cold wars.

“I think we have to get away from, and I think more people are coming to that realization today in motorsports, that I don’t think we can be one against the other,” said Chip Ganassi, who has teams in IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA. “We shouldn’t be in a circular firing squad. I don’t know what purpose that serves.”

The reaction to Earnhardt being named the pace car driver was a series of effusively welcoming social media posts, namely by reigning Brickyard champion Will Power (another recent Dale Jr. Download guest) and five-time series champion Scott Dixon, who was flummoxed as to why he was consulted on before final approval was given to bring in a 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver to drive an IndyCar pace car (Earnhardt was a last-minute fill-in choice).

“I think some people were a little worried about it, maybe just like it’s this NASCAR guy and all that,” Dixon told NBCSports.com with a chuckle. “And I was like, ‘This is awesome, man!’ And to come to his first Indy 500 and be part of the broadcast and also drive the pace car. It’s going to be his views of this spectacle for the first time in the broadcast. It’s massive.

“I think all around it’s a knockout great idea.”

Said Power, who invited Earnhardt to wedge into the cockpit of his Dallara-Chevrolet during a Thursday stroll through Gasoline Alley: “I think everyone in the paddock is happy Dale’s here, not only commentating but driving the pace car. I was happy to hear that. He’s a great ambassador for motorsports.”

Noting the “genuine” enthusiasm among his peers about having “a legendary name and great personality” with Earnhardt, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden said, “it seems like this whole competition of who’s top of the heap – ‘We’re better! You guys aren’t great! Our series is more competitive.’ — just seems to be going away.

“It was like that for the last 20 to 30 years, and it’s not necessary,” said Newgarden, the 2017 series champion. “We’re two different types of motorsport, but at the end of the day, we’re all motorsport. They’re equally as difficult and just totally different in a lot of respects. We’re racers. We all like each other. And just to see the respect now that we’re both interested in what each other does, I think we should work together.

“We should all respect each other because they’re both top-level motorsports. They’re all very talented drivers and teams that fill both fields. We should have drivers who want to go run in a stock car from IndyCar and have stock car guys who want to run on the IndyCar side.

“To see this ego and competition between the two get set aside, I think that just benefits everybody.”

Earnhardt, whose Indy welcome Thursday also included a two-seater ride with Mario Andretti, still felt more secure in having his choice as pace car driver be approved by IndyCar’s biggest names.

“I’m glad those guys are so excited to have me there,” he said. “We certainly wanted to make sure that was OK with the drivers before we accepted and make sure they’re OK with that. And they all seem to be on board. The IndyCar guys have a real unique perspective on whatever helps their sport, they seem to all be on the same page. They’re uniquely united in doing anything that helps get more eyeballs.”


United isn’t how the relationship between IndyCar and NASCAR would have been described over the past quarter-century since stock cars began racing at the Brickyard 400.

Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race in 1994 after living in nearby Pittsboro while racing open-wheel cars on his way to stardom, but there was still some Indiana-bred animus about having NASCAR at the tradition-steeped track that had been devoted to open-wheel cars for the bulk of its existence since opening in 1909.

Tony Stewart, the three-time Cup champion who was elected Wednesday to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, has admitted he was one of those Hoosier natives who initially blanched at the idea of stock cars at Indy.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Jarrett recalled a chillier reception in part because NASCAR was rising as IndyCar – which split into rival series from 1996-2008 that damaged its popularity – was suffering.

“We at NASCAR were on such a huge upswing through the early ‘90s and 2000s that I think that even drag racing and IndyCar were being pushed aside and weren’t used to that,” Jarrett said. “And you don’t like to be the afterthought in anything that you’re doing, and I think maybe they felt that a little bit.”

As NASCAR has wrestled with the challenges of audience retrenchment over the past decades, it’s made for more common ground between two series that have had to deal with trying to enhance their relevance in attracting fans.

“Now that things have leveled out somewhat, and NASCAR been humbled a bit over the last decade, that’s changed sort of everybody’s perception,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But as a driver, I’ve always been interested and curious about not only IndyCar but other forms of motorsport. You want to go see and look and walk around and check out. You want to be welcomed into that world.

“Even at the height of the rivalry or whatever that was, if Mario Andretti or anyone else would have walked down the middle of the garage area, we would have all been like, ‘Hey, holy cow. Welcome! Incredible to have you here!’ You just know that’s a race car driver. He’s curious about racing. He’s wanting to see what stock cars are and what they’re about. I think the rivalry has probably been more fan driven than anything else.”

Indeed, more IndyCar and NASCAR drivers have built stronger relationships, some driven by sponsors and manufacturer ties, but others have been formed by authentic camaraderie.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has become a buddy of five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, and it’s easy to spot the similarities between two low-key superstars whose accomplishments often go unappreciated

“I talk to Jimmie quite often, and there is a lot more crossover talk” of NASCAR and IndyCar, Dixon said. “It’s hard work right now, and everybody knows that. No one has the captive audience. It’s shifting. Everyone is trying to keep up to speed with the changes.

“If we can do it as a group as opposed to, ‘Oh no, we have a bigger following and we don’t want you to take any of ours’ and all that kind of jazz. It’s nice to see the egos have kind of left, and everyone is trying to get on the same page to help each other. At the heart of it, man, we’re all motorsports fans.”

Last Thursday, Johnson hopped an early morning flight to Indianapolis just so he could spend a few hours watching Indy 500 practice.

“I wanted to see that place packed full of people and feel the energy that I’ve heard about so many times,” said Johnson, who also texts regularly with other IndyCar drivers such as Newgarden.

“He’s just a racer who keeps tabs on everything that’s going on,” Newgarden said of Johnson. “To get perspective from him on someone who has been in the sport and done so much and been so smart and savvy about it, it’s cool to have that line of communication. Jimmie cares about what’s going on outside the NASCAR bubble. He’s got so many friends in the IndyCar paddock. He knows everybody. He’s poking us and wants insider information on the event to learn more about it, which is fantastic.”

While there was an era roughly five decades ago when A.J. Foyt and Andretti, both winners of the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, regularly would switch between disciplines, racing has become more siloed as today’s drivers became much more limited by team commitments.

There are some rare exceptions, such as Kurt Busch running the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day in 2014, but crossovers generally haven’t been feasible.

Aside from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway, the top IndyCar and NASCAR series race at separate venues, which also has contributed to limiting drivers’ interaction.

“I think we’ve just been removed from each other too much,” Newgarden said. “There were two bubbles created, and the bubbles didn’t cross over. We had that for too long, and now that we’re seeing that bridge be created again, everyone is very capable of getting along and enjoying what each other does. I think the IndyCar guys are very open minded to that.

“Maybe we’re more open minded because we got pushed more to the bottom. Stock car had a bigger rise than IndyCar. Maybe we’re more open minded to it because of where we were 10 years ago or so, but that’s not a knock on anyone. We’re all getting closer. Those bubbles are starting to disappear and we’re putting everyone in the same ecosystem, which is great.”

Jarrett, a three-time Brickyard 400 winner, spent last weekend at IMS, witnessing practice and qualifying for the Indy 500 for the first time. Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter Simon Pagenaud was among those who stopped the 1999 NASCAR champion, who considered it “a little bit of a shock” that he was recognized.

“Everybody was very nice,” Jarrett said. “There’s only a few of the IndyCar drivers that I really know, but a couple that I had never met or talked to or anything actually stopped me walking through the pit lane. So it was pretty cool to see and be a part of it in their world. A lot of people stopped and talked about NASCAR and the success that I had there. Race fans are truly race fans.”


Many drivers point at potential IndyCar-NASCAR weekend doubleheaders as being the best way to expose the racing to fans of both series.

Power and Graham Rahal are among IndyCar stars who believe they can race Saturday night on the Charlotte Roval, followed by a Cup race Sunday.

“We have to all help each other grow,” Rahal said on the most recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Doing these joint events that only certain tracks can do are huge. We have to do it. We have to build our sports together. To do it independently, yeah, we might make ground here or there, but ultimately we’ll never make enough.”

Because NBC Sports Group broadcasts the full IndyCar season and the final 20 races of the NASCAR Cup season, the tracks on its networks seem the ideal places for the most seamless crossover opportunities. (It worked for The Avengers!)

During a motorsports summit in December, NBC Sports executives brought together industry leaders from its various properties (NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA and Supercross) to discuss how to be more collaborative.

Frye, the IndyCar president, would be a “huge supporter” of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekend.

“It could be a cool American motorsports extravaganza-kind of weekend,” he said. “We’ve talked about we’d run a Saturday night, and that Cup stays in its normal spot on Sunday. There are a lot of crossovers with manufacturers and amongst teams. We’ve talked about the friendships we have with them.

“I think it would be a game-changer in a good way. It’s not something you do every week. If you did it once or twice a year. You have to do it one time first. See how it goes. There would be certain tracks we would go to that would fit. At end of day, why not try it? It’s good for NBC, good for IndyCar and good for NASCAR.”

It still could be tricky, though, to avoid the “headliner” status and other ways that could result in one series being viewed as inferior.

“What’s been the reservation from both sides working together is the comparison between the two,” Newgarden said. “And that’s what we’ve got to make sure doesn’t happen. It’s not a competition of which car is quicker. Or which car is more difficult.

“They are different forms of racing. (A stock car) weighs twice as much. The horsepower levels are different. It’s a different art. We’re not there to compare what car is fastest. That’s not what it’s all about, so I think that’s where some of the reservation comes in doing the doubleheader, but I’d love to see it. If anyone is going to win in that situation, it’s going to be the fans.”

Given that possible outcome, perhaps it’s apropos that the latest example of NASCAR-IndyCar harmony will be symbolically led by Earnhardt, who holds sway over more fans than the 33 drivers combined who will be trailing him around the Brickyard at 12:45 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC.

It’ll be quite a sight even for a racer who has seen nearly everything.

“When you look in that rear-view mirror and you don’t see stock cars,” Earnhardt said. “But you see these wild, exotic open wheel Indy cars.

“It’s going to blow my mind.”

Bump & Run: Should NASCAR further penalize Johnny Sauter?

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If you were NASCAR, would you give Johnny Sauter and Austin Hill any additional penalties for their incidents at Iowa Speedway? 

Nate Ryan: A points penalty for Sauter that would be on par with what Jeff Gordon received for wrecking Clint Bowyer at Phoenix in November 2012 (because that seems the most analogous situation to this, other than the crash happening under yellow rather than green).

Dustin Long: My initial reaction was to suspend Sauter, but then I went the opposite way and thought no further penalties should be issued because Sauter already had been penalized by being parked and finishing 27th in the 32-truck field. I finally decided upon points and a fine, which is outlined in the rulebook. While NASCAR lists intentionally wrecking someone as an infraction that could result in the loss of 25-50 points and a fine of $12,5000 to $25,000, I’d dock Sauter 40 points and fine him $20,000 because his retaliation happened under caution. Some might suggest NASCAR suspend Sauter but still allow him to compete in the playoffs (even though a prerequisite is attempting to start each regular-season event). That sounds like a waiver and that is not the intent of the waiver. While NASCAR can do whatever it wants, suspending a driver and then altering its rules so the suspension doesn’t prohibit a driver from competing in the playoffs would not be a good look. The requirement on playoff eligibility should be updated. 

Daniel McFadin: Sauter should be suspended for a race; he used his truck as a weapon on a defenseless truck under caution. But the suspension shouldn’t count against his playoff eligibility. He’s already made the playoffs. I support a provision that prevents taking that spot away. That should only be done if a winning vehicle fails inspection in the same race you clinched the playoff spot. If Hill receives any penalties it should just be a fine at the most. NASCAR will use their run-in for marketing for years to come, so no need to overdo it.

Jerry Bonkowski: There is precedent here: Sauter’s ramming Hill is a virtual carbon copy of Kyle Busch slamming into Ron Hornaday Jr. at Texas back in 2011. The penalty Busch received should be what Sauter receives: a $50,000 fine, probation until the end of the year, and if Sauter is involved in any other incidents this season, he should be suspended and become ineligible for the playoffs.

It’s Tuesday and there is still some question as to who won Sunday’s Truck race with Ross Chastain’s team appealing the NASCAR decision to take the win away after Chastain’s truck failed inspection. The issue is expected to be resolved by this week. Is this still the best way for NASCAR to address such issues with inspection after a race? 

Nate Ryan: Yes. There is no confusion: Brett Moffitt’s team was awarded the win, and Ross Chastain’s team has an opportunity to challenge it. Similar to the courts system, a ruling already has been made. Prior to NASCAR’s change in philosophy this year, the ruling on a win’s validity (even if it wasn’t stripped) was withheld for a few days. This is a better system.

Dustin Long: This is still way better than the old system where you might not know there was a different winner because of an infraction until Tuesday. At least this way everyone knew on Sunday. Got to let the appeal process take its course but at least everything will be resolved this week instead weeks later as could happen previously.

Daniel McFadin: Yes, it is the best way. No one wants a winner disqualification to first be announced mid-week. This accelerates the appeals process to where a final judgement can be settled upon before the race weekend begins. The fact that this is the first winner disqualification or disqualification in general through five months means the new system is having some sort of impact. This might not be something that happens often.

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR may have painted itself into a corner with taking the win away from Chastain. The reason is simple: how did his Truck pass pre-race inspection, yet failed post-race inspection? Did something break on his truck, which caused its ride height in the front end to fall below standards? Did it happen because of contact in the race? Is that Chastain’s fault? And what happens if Chastain wins his appeal? Then what? Unless NASCAR has iron-clad evidence that Chastain’s team cheated, if officials jumped the gun, Chastain’s win should be reinstated and policies and procedures should be reviewed and changed.

They ran both the Truck and Xfinity race on the same day at Iowa Speedway after the Truck race was postponed to Sunday because of rain Saturday night. Atlanta already hosts a Truck/Xfinity doubleheader. Should there be more of these doubleheaders with these two series or keep them limited so they remain unique?

Nate Ryan: It’s an idea worthy of merit; the quantity won’t affect their appeal. It mostly should depend on whether it makes sense for NASCAR, the tracks and the TV networks.

Dustin Long: Originally Iowa was to be a one-day show for the Trucks and they got held over because of rain and spent two days at Iowa. I think there are some cases for one-day shows for Trucks to save costs. Doubleheaders are fine but should be done when it makes sense not only for fans but for teams.

Daniel McFadin: Bring on more doubleheaders. It shortens the weekend and gives more bang for a fan’s buck with one full day of racing. Also, the Truck Series primarily competes on Friday nights, when most people are not staying in to watch TV. Putting them on a Saturday before or after an Xfinity race or on a Sunday before a Cup race (like at Martinsville in 2018 after a rain and snow delay) provides a better opportunity for fans at the track and at home to see the Truck Series. We’ll get to see a version of this next year with the Cup Series doubleheader weekend at Pocono. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, yes, yes. This is the perfect example of why NASCAR should add more doubleheaders to its schedule. Not only do fans get more bang for their buck, the Truck and Xfinity Series will get more appreciation from race fans of one series who typically may not pay attention to the other series. The excitement we saw in both races is definitely a precursor of even more to come if NASCAR elects to add more twinbills.

Preliminary entry lists for Cup at Sonoma, Trucks at Gateway

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After a week off, the NASCAR Cup Series is back in action this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, just north of San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the Gander Outdoors Truck Series will compete at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis.

The Xfinity Series enjoys this weekend off before it returns at Chicagoland Speedway on June 29.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for this weekend’s Cup and Truck races:

Cup – Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1)

There are 38 cars entered for the race around the twisting road course in Napa Valley’s wine country.

JJ Yeley will make his second Cup start of the season, driving the No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Ford.

Cody Ware will be back in the No. 52 Ford for Rick Ware Racing.

Justin Haley will make his second career Cup start, piloting the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman will make his seventh start of the Cup season in the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

 

Trucks – Gateway 200 (10 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

A total of 31 trucks are entered in this race.

There is no driver listed yet for the No. 0 Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing Chevrolet.

Camden Murphy makes his second start of the season, driving the No. 8 Nemco Motorsports Chevrolet.

Daniel Sasnett makes his second start of the season, piloting the No. 32 Reaume Brothers Racing Chevrolet.

Bryant Barnhill makes his first start of the season and second of his Truck career in the No. 34 Reaume Brothers Racing Chevrolet.

Kyle Benjamin makes his third start of the season, driving the No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet.

Following his Truck Series debut at Iowa, Chandler Smith will drive the No. 46 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.

Christian Eckes makes his second Truck start of the season, piloting the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Five Cup or Xfinity drivers to compete in Saturday’s K&N West race at Sonoma

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Drivers in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West will have some extra company in Saturday’s Procore 200 race (4:30 p.m. ET) at Sonoma Raceway.

Five drivers from either the Cup or Xfinity series will take part in the event:

* Driving for road course powerhouse Jefferson Pitts Racing, Austin Dillon will make his 20th career K&N Pro Series start, his third at Sonoma (first since 2015). In prior races at the road course, he’s finished 22nd and sixth.

* Also driving for JPR will be current Cup rookie Ryan Preece, who will be making his first career K&N West start and first race start at Sonoma.

* Daniel Hemric will make his first K&N West start and fourth overall series start (first since 2015 at Watkins Glen). He has also never raced at Sonoma.

* Xfinity Series driver Cole Custer will be making third series start at Sonoma (previous finishes were ninth and 12th).

* Lastly, Noah Gragson will be teammates with Dillon and Preece at JPR and will be making his third appearance at Sonoma, finishing second in 2016 and seventh in 2015.

The K&N Series has long had a history of having Cup or Xfinity drivers take part at Sonoma. Over the last five seasons, that has included Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, William Byron, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman.

Appeal hearing for Niece Motorsports set for Wednesday morning

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NASCAR announced that the appeal for Niece Motorsports will be heard at 9 a.m. ET Wednesday.

The Gander Outdoors Truck Series team took the checkered flag first with driver Ross Chastain on Sunday at Iowa Speedway only to have the victory taken away when the truck failed inspection after the race.

Brad Moran, managing director of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series said after the race: “We have a procedures and rules in place, trucks are restricted on their ride heights at the front and rear of the vehicles. Unfortunately, the 44 (Chastain’s truck) was low on the front, extremely low.

“We have a process of what happens at that point. They do get an opportunity to roll around. They put fuel in the vehicle, they air the tires. Give them at least five to 10 minutes. Check them a second time. Unfortunately, the 44 did not rise on the front at all.”

The team stated it would appeal and blamed “minor damage during the event” for the truck being too low.

When NASCAR announced before this season that winning vehicles that didn’t pass inspection would have the win taken away, series officials also announced an expedited appeals process.

That will allow the appeal to be completed this week before the Truck Series races this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. Unlike other appeals, where a team or individual can appeal a penalty and then appeal again if they lose the first appeal, there is just one appeal hearing in an expedited matter.