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NASCAR President Steve Phelps addresses short tracks, 2021 schedule

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — NASCAR President Steve Phelps vowed Sunday morning that the racing at short tracks will be better in 2020.

That was among the key points Phelps discussed in his state of the sport news conference before Sunday’s season-ending Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Phelps also explained what will be the key points to setting the 2021 schedule, more information on the NextGen car that will debut in 2021 and the interest of other manufacturers.

One of the key points Phelps stressed was the racing at short tracks.

While drivers have complained about how difficult it is to pass, at many tracks, those concerns have been greater at some of the short tracks. Martinsville Speedway had only three lead changes each in its races this year as Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps in winning in the spring and Martin Truex Jr. led 464 laps to win the playoff race last month.

Also of concern is the racing at ISM Raceway, which will host the championship races next year for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Xfinity Series and Cup Series. While that suburban Phoenix track has renovated its facilities, the racing has raised questions.

Here’s what Phelps said on a variety of subjects:

On the status of ISM Raceway hosting the championship race beyond next year:

Phelps: We need to make sure we are working with our industry, our teams, our (manufacturers) and Goodyear, to make sure that the racing we have in Phoenix both in the spring as well as our championship next year is as good as it can be.

We’re going to announce that 2021 schedule, as you said, in the spring, probably around April 1st, which is a self‑imposed deadline that we have for ourselves. Could that change forwards or backwards a little bit? It could.

Our promise to our fans, and we’ll do it right here, is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks. I think we’ve overdelivered on the intermediate tracks, and we will make sure that when we get to Phoenix in the spring, and some of the other racetracks that are short tracks, that they’re going to have better racing.

On how NASCAR will make the racing better at short tracks in 2020:

Phelps: We’re going to work with our teams in order to figure out how we do that, work with our OEMs to figure out how we do that. Everyone knows I’m not an engineer, I’m not going to play one now.

I am confident, having spoken to people who are far smarter than I am in this space, that there are things we can do. And I think our teams are excited about trying to partner with us to figure out what that looks like.

On if they could just cut the spoiler to enhance the racing at short tracks and when a decision might be made:

Phelps: There are people far smarter than I am that could figure that out. Yes, could we go to something that is a lower downforce package and do we think that will probably be one of the answers that we could look at to be successful on the short tracks? Yes.  Whether it’s cutting off the spoiler, other opportunities for us to take some of the downforce off there, those are things that we’ll explore. No specific timing.

On when NASCAR will announce what sponsors it has in its new model that will see the Cup series known as the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020:

Phelps: This is about our championship, and we wanted to keep it about that. We also wanted to make sure we were making sure we were true to Monster (Energy) and their three years. Monster has been a phenomenal partner for us. They’ve had significant success with their sponsorship and entitlement.

We have moved to a different model. I’m not going to get into what the announcement is, but we’ll have some announcements in Nashville around that new sponsorship model that we’re super excited about.

On cap costs for NASCAR teams as Formula 1 recently announced it would do for 2021:

Phelps: I think reasons to go to this new car, one is to take what is great racing, will be great racing in 2020, to create better racing.  I think this new car will do that, this Next Gen car.

Another component certainly is around relevance. Our (manufacturer) partners were here looking at the showroom car or the street car versus what our racecar will look like. It’s going to be extraordinary. We are going to put the ‘stock’ back in stockcar.

The last component of that is to try to make sure that the costs associated with the car are not such that they just continue to escalate on that car.  Whether we are going to have a cost cap moving forward, I don’t know.  It is not an easy thing to do.  We want to make sure that we have competitive racing.  When the race starts, we want as many folks and drivers to win that race as they can.

Lots of work to do on what we would do, whether we would have a cost cap or not. But it is something that we continue to work with our race teams on to make sure that we are having competitive race teams and race teams that are profitable.

On why there might be a question to do a cost cap:

Phelps: We’re going to see, right? We’re going to see how it works with F1.  A little bit of a wait‑and‑see approach on that.

It is not an easy thing to do, right? How are you going to make sure the costs are being captured fairly and smartly across the race teams? It is a slippery slope. It doesn’t mean that it’s not a good step or it doesn’t mean we’re not going to get there. It means that we’re going to study it very closely. We’re going to study what they’re doing, continue to work with our teams and (manufacturers) to make sure whatever we do moving forward makes the most sense for our sport.

On the 2021 schedule:

Phelps: We’re having a lot of discussions right now on the 2021 schedule. We’re looking at three things when we’re looking at that race schedule. We’re looking at where we’re going to have the most competitive racing that we can have, where we’re going to have full grandstands, and what does that market look like, is it a new market that we can service.

There are a lot of discussions that are going on both internally and then with other owners of racetracks. We need to obviously work with Speedway Motorsports, work with the three independent tracks that we have, then the tracks that we own as NASCAR now.

Again, we’ll look through that same lens. I think it’s important to do that. This is the first time I’ll go back to the fans. It really is about the fans. We need to make sure we are putting on compelling racing and having full grandstands when we do that.

On status of the NextGen car, which is scheduled to debut in 2021:

Phelps: So, yes, the car is on schedule, as I said.  With that said, we’re going now through an RFP (request for proposal) process, RFPing different parts of the car. There are parts that fans don’t frankly care we’re competing, and other parts fans care we’re competing. Also our OEM partners, certain things they want to compete at, certain things they don’t care about.

We’re in the RFP process. We’re on the track already at Richmond. We have another test coming up in a couple of weeks.

When the teams will take delivery of that car, probably in the July timeframe of when the cars will start to be delivered. I have to give a shout out to, again, really the entire industry because they’re working collaboratively, working together. NASCAR runs the process, but there are teams that are involved, OEMs that are involved, and that’s how we’re going to be successful moving forward.

With respect to those that are in the RFPs to build the car, I don’t want to get into specifics about where that is. There would obviously need to be a separation between that race team and whatever either part or the vehicle itself that’s being put together.

If there is a team that is interested in competing for what that’s going to be, it would have to be kind of removed from what that organization is, if that makes sense.

On a new engine:

Phelps: I do think for a new engine, that engine will have some type of electrification, some hybrid that will be part of it.  It’s kind of a follow to the question, in fact, I know for a fact we will not have a new OEM unless we change our engine.

This engine is going to sound significantly the same as whatever the current engine is.  We’re not going to have a bunch of electric cars going around. That’s not what this is about. It’s about having a relevant engine to our OE partners, both the existing Ford, Chevy and Toyota, as well as whoever the new OEs that we’re looking at.

Some form of hybrid, some form of electrification is going to be required, whether it’s stored engine or whatever that might be is down the line. But ideally creating a single engine package as opposed to taking an engine and kind of choking the horsepower down, is something that I believe we will ultimately get to.

What that looks like frankly will be a discussion between ourselves and our existing OEs because we need to make sure we are taking care of them first and foremost before we get a new OEM into the garage. They have been incredibly supportive of that.

We’ve had a couple of different partners come to the racetrack.  We had some last week. We had a group that came when we were at Talladega. Each of the OEs showed them what they do, this is what Ford does, this is what we do at GM, this is what we do at Toyota. That’s incredibly helpful.  They, too, want to be able to compete on the racetrack with other OEs.

Richard Childress Racing names crew chief for No. 21 Xfinity car

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Richard Childress Racing announced Tuesday that Andy Street has been promoted to crew chief for the No. 21 Xfinity car that will feature drivers Myatt Snider, Anthony Alfredo and Kaz Grala this season.

Street has been with RCR for 16 years. He joined the team as a design and test engineer. He served as an engineer in Cup, scoring 10 wins with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. Most recently, Street’s role was as an engineer in the Xfinity Series. His duties included R&D work as a design engineer specializing on chassis and suspension systems.

“Andy is a brilliant design engineer, who has spent a lot of time and effort at RCR over the past 16 years,” said Andy Petree, vice president of competition, in a statement from the team. “When Andy stepped into the Xfinity Series crew chief role in Richmond Raceway last fall, I was very impressed with how he went about the weekend running and leading the race team. He proved he is worthy of this role. He’ll be the perfect complement to both Justin Alexander and Randall Burnett because of his engineering background and having worked with both of these guys on the R&D side of the company.”

John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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