Ryan: NASCAR listening to Cup drivers more without council?

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LONG POND, Pa. – With the de-facto dissolution of its Drivers Council this year, NASCAR might have taken a step forward by adhering to an axiom well known in Corporate America.

Scheduling fewer meetings often can result in more effective and productive communication.

Last week underscored several examples of NASCAR implementing concepts, competitive elements and rule modifications after its stars petitioned for changes in a looser and less structured environment than the past four years.

–For the second consecutive race, drivers were heavily consulted on the application and placement of PJ1 traction compound (which made its debut at Pocono Raceway and at least offered an option of outside passes).

–Vice president of competition Scott Miller said it was a “prominent” driver who originally championed the idea of inverting the field to start the second half of a Pocono twin bill in 2020.

–The tweaking of what constitutes an uncontrolled tire (which seemed to have an impact on at least one Kyle Busch pit stop Sunday) after lobbying from Denny Hamlin and others.

–On Saturday morning at Pocono Raceway, defending series champion Joey Logano met with series officials to discuss restart gamesmanship – which NASCAR then addressed in drivers meetings the next two days (and penalized Daniel Suarez for laying back Sunday).

Logano believes the cause-effect relationship suggests the demise of the Drivers Council was timely.

“The council is maybe not as existent, but the old-school way of going into the trailer and talking to leadership of the sport seems to be effective,” Logano said. “It used to not be. That’s why we needed a council.

“Now we don’t need a council because a lot of us feel more comfortable with the relationships, and we see things change after things are brought up. We should be proud to have a sanctioning body with open ears that are willing to listen to the drivers. Now they might not always do what the drivers want, because sometimes what the drivers want is wrong for the sport. But there’s certain times it really is the right thing that only a driver would know that’s inside the car.”

In that vein, NASCAR still is holding formal meetings with drivers a few times this year, but the invite list won’t be limited to the 10 or so drivers who were selected annually via a regimented election process that ensured equal representation for experience and manufacturers.

Spearheaded by Hamlin, the council was formed in 2015 to great fanfare, but it often seemed to be bogged down in minutiae and paralyzed from a lack of consensus. By a year ago, it had become so superfluous that Kevin Harvick openly admitted he was skipping meetings in part because of frustration with the panel’s efficacy.

Over the offseason, the council quietly lapsed as other channels of communication have grown. Since replacing Brian France (who attended roughly a dozen races annually), NASCAR CEO Jim France has become an omnipresent presence at the track along with his executive team (president Steve Phelps and vice chairman Mike Helton were at his side last weekend at Pocono).

A few dozen Cup drivers are on a text chain with NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell, who provides updates and explanations on hot-button issues (such as why NASCAR elected to call the Daytona race early).

“I would say I have more communication and more talks with NASCAR now” than in the Driver Council era, Hamlin said. “I’m constantly in contact with the testing team on applying the PJ1 at all these racetracks.”

Said Harvick: “Denny has kind of spearheaded a lot of the PJ1 evolution from the driver’s side. It becomes easier when there are one or two guys, and he’s really the guy that is communicating to get things moving forward. You can just throw out your two cents in the group chat, and he can compile all the information because everybody looks at it differently.”

The discourse also has improved likely just because there is no topic that touches a third rail in NASCAR as much as when the 2019 rules still were in flux last year.

Now it’s settled law. Though some still harbor reservations about the lower horsepower, high-downforce combination, it’s pointless to have contentious debates about an overhauled package that Phelps recently called “the path forward” in Cup.

The resistance to more full-throttle racing from some big names might have brought more compromise in other areas from NASCAR, which has been welcoming feedback the past decade after largely iron-fisted rule through its first 60 years.

“They deserve a lot of credit in the last 10 years for listening more than they ever have in the history of the sport,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I think we’ve overreacted on both sides where we had to have committees and so many people on committees.”

Johnson said a problem was that the structure invariably included some drivers who would “drop a grenade and walk away” during meetings vs. those who were “very diligent to help drive the sport forward.

“I think we’ve narrowed it down now to a core group of guys who really do care and are willing to see it through,” he said.

Ryan Blaney, another former council member, likes that the information is free-flowing even for those who are less engaged. Various text chains also allow “always having open discussions on ideas.

“Whether they apply that or not, they’re always asking for our feedback,” he said. “From NASCAR, the tracks, the drivers, teams, I think we work pretty well together. Sometimes you’d like to see things a little bit differently. But at the end of the day it’s their call.”


Pocono’s Cup races on consecutive days next season was well vetted among drivers, who gave it mostly rave reviews as a showcase during a 2020 schedule already hailed for its revamping.

“I like mixing things up,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think it’ll be one of the events as a driver and fan that you’ll circle and say, ‘I can’t wait to see how this works out and what it looks like.’ I think it’s a bit of the spice of life having a few changes in the NASCAR season for us.”

Said Clint Bowyer: “It’s time to shake a lot of things up in this sport. You can’t continue to do the same thing over and over and over; you have to reinvent yourself every single time for a fan. That goes for any event. Whether it’s a country music festival, a football game or a race. We’re all up against having to reinvent ourselves over and over and over to stay appealing and relevant to a fan that’s looking for something new. They expect to see something different or something they didn’t see the last time.

“How do you entice them in and bring them year after year? I’m a big advocate of you better fill their day up with content. These are race fans, they want cars on the track and people putting on a show, and certainly they’re going to have that with that schedule.”

There are a few lingering questions, namely how the inversion of the starting lineup for the second race might encourage sandbagging in the final 50 miles of Race 1.

Why not aim for the end of the lead lap for a better starting spot — and a stage points grab — in Race II? (Blaney suggests having the winner of the first race draw a pill in victory lane to determine how many cars are inverted.)

There also are many details to be nailed down, namely the length of Saturday’s Cup race, which is tentatively 350 miles. The issue is a rigid six-hour TV window, which needs to incorporate the Cup race preceded by a 200-mile truck race (which would be the series’ longest yet at Pocono; the track would prefer to keep that distance but could consider shortening).

And let’s not even consider what might happen if it rains (which tends to happen now and then in the Pennsylvania mountains). If there’s a spate of inclement weather Saturday and Sunday, rescheduling four races across three series on a Monday seems nigh impossible.

But if the Pocono experiment is deemed successful, it almost certainly would be considered elsewhere.

“Certainly, there are some tracks that would be great candidates for it,” Hamlin said. ‘Off the top of my head, Dover and tracks that are one-off and really, really different. If it’s a possibility, I’d vote for it. Our season is very very long and very very saturated. If you can condense but still give the same amount of races, I think it’s a good thing.”

One idea absolutely to consider, whether by Pocono or a NASCAR sponsor: Paying a bounty for a sweep of the races, as suggested by Kyle Busch (particularly if he’s willing to accommodate a bargain rate for his services).


There wasn’t total consensus on Pocono’s revamped 2020 format.

“Eh,” Bubba Wallace said when asked about the makeover at the track where he made his Cup debut in 2017 and escaped serious injury in a vicious crash last year. “I’d like to see no races here honestly. What do we do around here? Nothing. We sit here and do absolutely nothing all weekend. … I don’t know if it puts on the best show.”

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver believes Indianapolis Motor Speedway is less deserving of a date on the schedule than Pocono but also believes the latter’s rural locale is a detriment.

“We’re 45 minutes from any city,” he said. “There ain’t nothing to do.

“I’m looking at it for the fans, and if fans aren’t in the seats … I haven’t paid attention to the crowd here, but it’s way too big of a track for us. I feel like the racing isn’t that great.”

Wallace concedes his dream schedule “would piss off everybody. Probably a ton of short tracks and no road courses.”

And no Pocono (a point reinforced by his Tuesday tweet evaluating Sunday’s race).


Despite higher downforce, a thick swath of “sticky stuff” for extra adhesion and cars that are “easier” to drive, there were seven backup cars in the past two races because of practice crashes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.

“I don’t think it’s coincidence,” Brad Keselowski said.

There are a few theories, but it essentially boils down to the cars being “edgier” as drivers and teams try to find the limits of their setups.

“You’d think they make a lot of downforce and a lot of grip, and they’d be easier to drive, but with that downforce and grip and load on the car, the tire had to get harder, so the tires become a little difficult to chase in certain situations,” said Alex Bowman, who wrecked at New Hampshire. “And the (traction compound) is like a layer of slime once you get out of the groove. It’s just like a lot of circumstances are playing into it.

“Everybody talks about how this package isn’t hard to drive. Well, it’s really hard to drive right now. For whatever reason. You make a 6-inch mistake, and you’re backward in the fence before you can even catch it.”

GoFas Racing’s Corey LaJoie said even with lower downforce, last year’s cars were more forgiving.

“You were more out of control generally, but when you had a moment, it was like a long lazy moment, and you’d (recover),” LaJoie said. “Now as soon as you slip a tire, you lose all of it. The cars are evil when they get out of shape now. You’re still going to see guys get out of shape because they’re going to figure out how to make the car less stuck to the racetrack. The less stuck, the faster it goes.”


NASCAR has critical meetings with its Cup manufacturers over the next month about the course of its Gen 7 rollout amid concerns the car might not hit an aggressive 2021 target date.

There remains much to hammer out on the parameters of the car, and a prototype probably needs to ready by early fall for a legitimate shot at a 2021 debut (that at least one team owner has said is mandatory). Testing began earlier for the Car of Tomorrow (which was on track more than 18 months ahead of its staggered rollout in 2007) and the Gen 6 (which underwent three years of planning and R&D before its 2013 debut).

Multiple sources (who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly) told NBCSports.com that switching over fleets to the Gen 7 would incur a one-time cost that averaged about $4-5 million, according to independent studies commissioned by Cup teams.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps told reporters earlier this month that “the majority of the garage is on board with the 2021 start. Are there some that ’22 might work better for? There might be. We have to figure out how we get full alignment on what that’s going to be, and that’s what we’re working on.

“Everyone has their own ideas, and it gets to self-interest pretty quickly, about the timing of different things and how they’d like these things happening. We’ll continue to work with our teams and OEMs to make sure everyone is aligned on what is the correct date to do that. The positive thing is we’re not just going to plow forward with a decision without getting everyone on board.”


Matt DiBenedetto has yet to be guaranteed a 2020 return to Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota. Here’s the full context of what he said Saturday when asked if he needed to begin looking around to protect himself for having a ride next year.

“I’ve had to fight and claw so hard, now that I’m in a good, quality ride with a great team that I love, I’m just 100% focused on performing,” DiBenedetto said. “That’s what we’ve been doing. That’s the awesome part. These top fives, top 10s. I know that anyone, not to sound arrogant, but they’d have to have their heads examined if they get rid of me. Because nobody will do a better job in my car than myself.”

Closing with a lighthearted chuckle, he also spoke firmly and with no animosity, which is why DiBenedetto shouldn’t have felt the need to backpedal Monday. Yes, the words might come across strongly when read in the absence of inflection, but they aren’t out of context. He bluntly expressed faith in his ability to drive in Cup and detailed the mental toughness that earned him the ride.

No apology necessary from DiBenedetto, who also said he had “not a single conversation at all” about whether LFR would pick up his option for 2020.

Team owner Bob Leavine also confirmed DiBenedetto’s uncertain status Monday. With LFR as the only current Toyota option for potentially resolving Joe Gibbs Racing’s dilemma of fielding Cup rides for Erik Jones and Christopher Bell next year, DiBenedetto’s fate likely will depend on the actions of others and not necessarily on where he finishes – though results probably should be the determining factor.

There was nothing wrong with sharply pointing that out.

Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski remain 1-2

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Brad Keselowski is getting closer to reaching the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, but he remains behind Kevin Harvick, who holds the top spot for a fifth consecutive week.

Keselowski is coming off a victory last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and a contract extension, which was announced the day after the race.

Since the season resumed in May, Harvick and Keselowski have had similar stats. Harvick has four wins since May; Keselowski has three. Harvick has six finishes of third or better; Keselowski has five such finishes. Harvick has 13 top 10s in 16 races; Keselowski has the same total.

Cup heads to Michigan International Speedway this weekend for a doubleheader. Saturday’s race is at 4 p.m. ET. Sunday’s race is at 4:30 p.m. ET. Both races will be on NBCSN.

Here is this week’s power rankings:

  1. Kevin Harvick (Last week: No. 1): Has seven consecutive top-five finishes and might have challenged for his fifth win of the season had a pit call not taken him out of sequence and forced him to pit under green. Good chance his streak continues this weekend at Michigan. Since the track was repaved in 2012, Harvick has 10 top-five finishes in 16 starts.
  2. Brad Keselowski (Last week: No. 2): Scores at least three wins for the fifth consecutive year. The Michigan driver has never won a Cup race at Michigan. He has three top 10s there in his last four starts. 
  3. Denny Hamlin ( Last week: No. 3): Was in contention for his sixth win of the season before losing a duel with Brad Keselowski at New Hampshire. Thirteen of the 22 lead changes were between Hamlin and Keselowski. They combined to lead 186 of the last 198 laps. He has four wins, seven finishes of third or better and 10 top 10s since the season resumed in May.
  4. Aric Almirola (Last week: No. 4): Has a career-high nine consecutive top-10 finishes. Can he make it a perfect 10 Saturday at Michigan? He has only one top 10 at the track in his last five starts. 
  5. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week: No. 7): Has three finishes of third or better in the last four races. Scored third at New Hampshire despite penalty for an uncontrolled tire. His eight top-five finishes at Michigan are second only to the nine he has had at Kansas for most among active tracks.
  6. Cole Custer (Last week: No. 5): Has four top 10s in the last five races, including his Kentucky win. 
  7. Tyler Reddick (Last week: No. 9): Has four top 10s in the last five races. He won the Michigan Xfinity race in June 2019.
  8. Joey Logano (Last week: Unranked): Has two top-five finishes in the last three races. He won at Michigan in June 2019.
  9. Chase Elliott (Last week: Unranked): Has four finishes between ninth and 12th in the last five races. 
  10. Matt DiBenedetto (Last week: Unranked): Has two finishes of sixth of better in the the last four races. 

Fell out of rankings: Kyle Busch (No. 5 last week), Austin Cindric (No. 7) and Austin Hill (No. 10)

NASCAR penalizes Xfinity owner, driver for testing violation; team will appeal

NASCAR penalizes
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Image
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NASCAR fined Xfinity car owner Mario Gosselin $50,000 and docked him 75 points for violating the private test policy last weekend at Daytona International Speedway with driver Alex Labbe.

NASCAR docked Labbe 75 points for the L2 violation. Labbe was 73 points out of the 12th and final playoff spot before the penalty.

DGM Racing stated that it will appeal the penalties. The team stated: “DGM Racing is aware of the allegations against us. We feel we followed all the proper protocol and will be appealing the penalty. We are unable to comment further. Thank you for the support we have received so far.”

The issue stems from an SCCA event last weekend on the Daytona road course that Labbe participated.

NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck teams will race for the first time on the Daytona road course this month. There will be no practice before each race. Drivers are not permitted to compete in more than one series event as a way to get extra track time.

Labbe was listed in Regional Race Group 7 in a 2019 Chevrolet Camaro. The 2019 Chevrolet Camaro is the approved model for Chevy teams in the Xfinity Series.

NASCAR viewed that as an illegal test because of the car used. Section 5.1.a of the Xfinity rule book states: “Private vehicle testing by any race team, employee,  contractor, affiliate, associate, subsidiary, or surrogate is strictly prohibited.”

Section 5.1.d of the Xfinity rule book states: NASCAR, in its sole discretion, will determine in advance what constitutes an authorized test. In general, only tests conducted under the NASCAR National Series Unified Testing policy are considered to be authorized tests.”

NASCAR also stated penalties that stem from last weekend’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and had already been announced.

Those penalties included suspensions for the New Hampshire race for crew chiefs Jerry Baxter and Ryan Sparks after ballast was found to be improperly mounted before the race. The teams also were docked 10 points and drivers Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie each were penalized 10 points.

NASCAR also stated that Clint Bowyer‘s crew chief, Johnny Klausmeier, will be suspended for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) after two lug nuts were found to be not safe and secure after the race. Stewart-Haas Racing has stated that Greg Zipadelli, the team’s director of competition, will fill in for Klausmeier for Saturday’s race.

NASCAR fined crew chiefs Jeremy Bullins, James Small and Randall Burnett $10,000 each for having a lug nut not safe and secure on their car after the race.

 

‘Snowball effect’ led Bob Leavine to sell Cup team

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Seeing the “snowball effect” of a lack of sponsorship, cost for additional cars next year and the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the economy, car owner Bob Leavine said Tuesday that it was clear that he needed to sell Leavine Family Racing.

The team announced Tuesday that it has been sold. The buyer has not been revealed.

Leavine said Tuesday that the team had 11 races available for sponsorship on rookie Christopher Bell‘s car before the coronavirus pandemic suspended the sport in March for 10 weeks. The team’s biggest sponsor, Leavine noted, was his construction company, which also has been impacted by the economic downturn brought on by the virus.

“We haven’t really sold anything and probably won’t sell anything going forward this year,” Leavine said Tuesday of sponsorship.

Leavine also cited a business model that he has been critical of, including the charter system.

Leavine Family Racing was not granted a charter but merged with Circle Sport Racing, which had a charter, for the 2016 season. The partnership ended after that season. Leavine Family Racing bought Tommy Baldwin Racing’s charter in Nov. 2016.

We definitely did not get out of our charter what we put into our charter,” said Leavine, who has not publicly revealed what was paid for the charter. “So, from our standpoint, it is very difficult to say that it was a great investment. It just allowed us to run full time for the five years after we bought it. That’s the best thing I can say for the charter system.”

Leavine Family Racing made its NASCAR debut in 2011. Christopher Bell joined the team prior to this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Another challenge was NASCAR’s move to push back the debut of the Next Gen car from 2021 to 2022. Leavine Family Racing has an affiliation with Joe Gibbs Racing this season for chassis and support but Leavine said the plan was not to continue that next year.

“We had a whole lot of things banking on the Next Gen coming in,” Leavine said. “Our deal with JGR, our affiliation required us to do certain things. We were looking forward to being a standalone team with one or two cars. So, the pandemic, and sponsorship and how it affected (his construction business), our major sponsor, and then having to come back and buy all the cars again for next year, because we had planned on not needing cars next year.

“It was a snowball effect on multiple things. We saw no way out. We could not afford the affiliation, and what we did this year, next year. That’s what we banked on. Okay, we will do this one year, run good, get our charter value up, and we had a plan. That plan came tumbling down with the pandemic. Then you take a bad business model; it doesn’t work for us.”

Leavine said he lobbied NASCAR and owners in the spring for particular changes, which he did not reveal. When those ideas were rejected, Leavine said he was “very disappointed in what came out of that meeting. I knew that was probably going to be the straw that broke our back. I had to start looking for how best do we protect our team. How best do we keep people employed. A lot of things went into that decision.”

Leavine Family Racing has competed in NASCAR since 2011, making its debut with David Starr at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9. The organization didn’t run a full schedule until 2016 with Michael McDowell and Ty Dillon splitting the ride. Others who have driven for the team include Kasey Kahne, Regan SmithMatt DiBenedetto and Bell.

I really gave it all I had for the 10 years and the last five primarily when we went full-time, and I committed, and I thought we could make a difference and be a good team,” Leavine said. “A responsible and respected team in NASCAR. To walk away and not have completed that, I’ve never had to do that before and give up on anything. But I could not let it destroy our business – a 41-year old business – in Texas during these times, so you have to protect something and that’s a profitable organization.”

NASCAR entry lists for Michigan, Road America

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The NASCAR entry lists are out for this weekend’s racing at Michigan International Speedway and Road America.

Cup and Truck teams will compete this weekend at Michigan. Cup teams will race Saturday and Sunday.

Xfinity teams will race Saturday at Road America.

Here are the preliminary NASCAR entry lists 

Cup – Firekeepers Casino 400 (4 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-nine cars are entered.

Joey Gase will be in the No. 7 for Tommy Baldwin Racing.

JJ Yeley will drive the No. 27 for Rick Ware Racing.

James Davison will be in the No. 51 for Petty Ware Racing.

Click here for Saturday Cup race entry list

 

Cup – Consumers  Energy 400 (4:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

Thirty-nine cars are entered.

Josh Bilicki will be in the No. 7 for Tommy Baldwin Racing. That is the only change from the Saturday entry list.

Click here for Sunday Cup entry list

 

Xfinity – Henry 180 (Noon ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-seven cars are entered.

Among the drivers entered:

Mike Wallace, who made his first series start since 2015 last month in the road course race at Indianapolis, is back in the No. 0 car for JD Motorsports this weekend.

Andy Lally, a road racing expert and the 2011 Cup rookie of the year, will be in the No. 02 Our Motorsports car.

RC Enerson will make his NASCAR debut in the No. 07 SS Green Light Racing ride.

Jesse Iwuji will make his series debut in the No. 13 Motorsports Business Management car.

AJ Allmendinger will be in the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

 

Truck – Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series 200 (6 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

Forty trucks are entered.

Cup rookie John Hunter Nemechek is entered in the No. 8 truck for NEMCO Motorsports.

David Gravel, the 2019 Knoxville Nationals winner, makes his Truck Series debut in the No. 24 ride for GMS Racing.

Brennan Poole is entered in the No. 30 On Point Motorsports truck.

Jeb Burton is entered in the No. 44 Niece Motorsports ride.

Parker Kligerman is entered in the No. 75 Henderson Motorsports truck.