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Friday 5: Youth movement expanding in NASCAR

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While the focus during the offseason is on which drivers will fill what seats in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks, there’s also a lot taking place for younger drivers seeking to reach NASCAR’s top levels someday.

Toyota Racing Development spends the end of the year evaluating talent and seeing what roles those drivers can have in the coming season.

“When I look at kind of that 16- to 21-year old group … there’s some pretty fantastic talent in that group,” Jack Irving, whose duties at Toyota Racing Development include overseeing the organization’s driver development program, told NBC Sports earlier this month. “(Also) we’ve literally tested 14- and 15-year olds that I’m extremely excited about in the same way.”

The question is where might that talent go if it remains in Toyota’s pipeline.

Toyota has five Cup seats with three filled by drivers who competed in the championship race this season — 2019 champion Kyle Busch, runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, who placed fourth in the points. Toyota’s other two Cup seats are filled by budding stars Erik Jones (23 years old) and 2020 Cup rookie Christopher Bell (24).

Joe Gibbs Racing’s 2020 Xfinity lineup includes Brandon Jones, who turns 23 in February. This will be his third consecutive season with JGR. Joining him is Riley Herbst, who turns 21 in February, for his first full season with the team, and 19-year-old Harrison Burton for his rookie campaign.

Kyle Busch Motorsports will have 18-year-old Raphael Lessard compete full time in 2020 after running five races for the team this past season. The team also will have 19-year-old Christian Eckes, who won the ARCA title this past season, drive full time. He made eight starts in 2019 and four starts for the organization in 2018. A third truck will feature several drivers. Chandler Smith, who doesn’t turn 18 until June and is limited in what tracks he can run before then, likely will run some races for the team.

Then there’s Derek Kraus, the 18-year-old who won the title in what is now known as the ARCA West Series. There’s also 18-year-old Hailie Deegan, who finished third in points in the ARCA West Series and shows signs of climbing NASCAR’s ranks. And Ty Gibbs, the 17-year-old grandson of car owner Joe Gibbs, who won twice in ARCA and once each in what is now ARCA East and ARCA West Series in 2019. Many others are in the pipeline, which stretches to the formidable Keith Kunz Motorsports midget teams.

As each season nears an end, the work increases for Toyota Racing Development to evaluate drivers and where they will race for next year. The competition can be intense.

“I think there is a point here somewhere quickly where you get pushed pretty hard to start winning and competing,” Irving said, “to compete for top five in all the races and not have wrecked cars and do all these things and then also be a good teammate and a good person and all those kinds of things that you don’t necessarily always talk about that are pretty important for what we do from a structure perspective.”

Another key factor can be how a young driver ends a season, even if it doesn’t end in a championship.

“You typically want to see them under pressure, so the end of the season really does matter in the whole scheme of things,” Irving said. “If they’ve had a tough season, how are they finishing? If they’re having a good season, then how are they finishing?

And there’s more that is examined.

“We typically go through an analytics run through with the group,” Irving said. “A few of us will get together and kind of go through … some of the things from the coaches, some of the things from the engineers who work with them and what they’ve done with the team, so we’ll start talking to the individuals in the team, if it’s the team owner, if it’s crew chief, car chief.”

It’s all about seeking to find the next talent for the Cup Series.

2. New Generation

Based on what driver lineups that are set for next year, the 2020 Daytona 500 could see half the field age 29 and younger.

Drivers who will be age 29 and under as of next year’s Daytona 500 (Feb. 16) and have rides announced are:

Age 22: William Byron, Cole Custer, Quin Houff

Age 23: Erik Jones

Age 24: Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick

Age 25: Christopher Bell

Age 26: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace

Age 27: Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson

Age 28: Matt DiBenedetto

Age 29: Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Ryan Preece

One also can add Corey LaJoie (age 28), Ross Chastain (27), Parker Kligerman (29) with the expectation they will each be in a Cup car for next year’s season-opening race. That would put the list at 20 drivers age 29 and under in next year’s Daytona 500. And there could be even more, including Daniel Suarez, who turns 28 in January, and John Hunter Nemechek, 22.

Compare that to 2015 when there were 13 drivers age 29 and under in that year’s season opener.

3. 99 Club

Five drivers completed at least 99% of the 10,255 laps run this season in Cup, the first time any driver has reached that mark since 2015.

Joey Logano led the way, completing 99.67% of the laps (10.221). That’s the highest percentage of laps completed by a driver since 2010 when Matt Kenseth ran 99.93% of the laps. Kenseth ran all but eight of the 10,778 laps run that year.

Also completing more than 99% of the laps this Cup season were Paul Menard (99.63%), Ty Dillon (99.18%), champion Kyle Busch (99.14%) and series runner-up Martin Truex Jr. (99.00%).

4. Ticket deals

With all the sales for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, many tracks also have announced special deals for tickets to NASCAR races this coming season.

NBC Sports’ Daniel McFadin has compiled what deals many tracks have starting today. You can find the information here.

5. Banquet week

The NASCAR Awards Show, which will celebrate Kyle Busch’s championship, takes place next week in Nashville, Tennessee. Festivities will be Dec. 3-5 with the Awards show taking place Dec. 5.

NBCSN will air Burnouts on Broadway at 11:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 4. and replay it at 7 p.m. ET Dec. 5. NBCSN will air the Cup Awards show from 8-10:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 5 with a replay immediately afterward.

The Xfinity Awards show will air from 9-11 p.m. ET on Sunday (Dec. 1) on NBCSN.

NASCAR will have choose rule for All-Star Race at Bristol

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Following support from drivers, NASCAR will allow competitors to choose which lane they want to restart in during the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The choose rule designates a spot on the track where a driver must select if they wish to restart on the inside lane or outside lane. The choose rule also will be in place for the NASCAR Open.

NASCAR also announced the format for the NASCAR Open and All-Star Race.

In the NASCAR Open, which is for drivers who have not qualified for the All-Star Race:

  • Stage 1 will be 35 laps
  • Stage 2 will be 35 laps
  • The final stage will be 15 laps

The winner of each stage advances to the All-Star Race. After the NASCAR Open, the Fan Vote winner will be announced. That will go to the driver not yet qualified for the All-Star Race after competing in the NASCAR Open.

In the All-Star Race, the format will be:

  • Stage 1 will be 55 laps
  • Stage 2 will be 35 laps
  • Stage 3 will be 35 laps
  • The final stage will be 15 laps

Both green flag and yellow flag laps will count in the first three stages. Only green flag laps will count in the final stage. There will be an unlimited number of attempts at a green, white, checkered finish under green flag conditions.

NASCAR also stated that the car number will move from the door toward the rear wheel to give more exposure to the teams’ sponsors

The biggest change is the choose rule. At Bristol, the outside line is dominant on restarts. The leader chooses to restart on the outside line and the driver starting in the second row — in fourth place — often is second shortly after the restart because of the lane’s advantage. With the rule change, others would have the chance to start on the outside lane if they wanted.

“I see nothing bad that it can bring,” Joey Logano said of the chose rule concept in May. “It brings another strategy to the table, it’s definitely something to talk about. You don’t have luck becoming involved. …

“I tell you, if I see a bunch of 12-year-olds do it in the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway, I’m pretty sure all of us could figure it out.”

Said Austin Dillon: “As a sport we’re always changing. We’ve done a really good job with the mile-and-a-half program and brought it back to life. I think the next thing is trying to make it better for the fans and create more drama than it already has.”

Some drivers have called for this type of rule to prevent the brake checking that takes place at the exit of pit road so a driver can be in an even-number position in the running order and restart on the outside lane.

“It takes out pit crew’s fast stops,” Dillon said. “Your pit crew could’ve gained a couple of spots there, but instead you’re giving up two spots because you’d rather start on the outside. That’s gotta stop. I think it’s gonna knock someone’s nose in at the end of pit road before too long, so that will end a guy’s race. I don’t feel like it is a hard thing to do.”

The All-Star Race was moved from Charlotte Motor Speedway to Bristol Motor Speedway because of the COVID-19 pandemic and North Carolina restrictions on mass gatherings. Bristol will be allowed to have up to 30,000 fans.

Drivers who have already clinched an All-Star Race spot: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Justin Haley, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.

 

Can anybody catch Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

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Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

Or is it Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

They’ve won four of the last six Cup races, including the past two, and came within a late caution flag of being the last two Brickyard 400 winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s race (4 p.m. ET on NBC).

MORE: Indianapolis weekend schedule

MORE: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick 1-2 in Power Rankings

“For the most part, when we have had chances to win races, we have won them,” Harvick said. “I think Sunday (at Pocono) was probably the only one that I could point to and say that we had the car to win the race and didn’t win the race. I think for the majority of the races that we have had chances to win we have capitalized on those situations.”

That Pocono race Sunday? Harvick finished second to Hamlin, who has won two of the last four races.

“I would say specifically the last 10 to 11 (races) we’ve been exceptional, really since coming back from the break that we had,” Hamlin said. “I thought we’ve been really good.

“My team is really strong. They’re doing a lot of really good work at the race shop preparing our cars to be set up, optimized right from the first run of the day.

“Where we’re really struggling is not getting stage points. I think we’d be winning the regular season if we could get some. The way the races have played out, we’ve kind of made our bed to try to win the race because we’ve had race‑winning cars. I’ll definitely take race wins over stage wins, especially knowing that a race win counts for five (playoff points).”

Harvick enters Sunday’s race at Indy as the defending winner. He led 118 of 160 laps in last year’s race, winning by more than six seconds.

In 2018, Hamlin led at Indy when a caution with six laps to go took away his advantage. Brad Keselowski passed Hamlin coming to the white flag and won.

If not Harvick or Hamlin this weekend, Keselowski could be one to watch.

“My confidence level right now is very, very high that we can be a contender for the entire season and continue to build and get stronger,” said Keselowski, who has two wins and eight top-10 finishes since the season resumed in May. “Very, very pleased to see how the team has come together. … Now we’re starting to show a lot of speed. I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential.”

Even with Keselowski’s success, Harvick and Hamlin have been stout. This is how dominant Harvick and Hamlin have been all season and since May:

Most wins this year (15 races)

Most wins since season resumed (11 races)

  • Denny Hamlin (3 wins)
  •  Kevin Harvick (3 wins)
  • Brad Keselowski (2 wins)

Most top-five finishes this year (15 races)

Most top-five finishes since season resumed (11 races)

  • Denny Hamlin (8 top 5s)
  • Kevin Harvick (7 top 5s)
  • Chase Elliott (6 top 5s)
  • Ryan Blaney (6 top 5s)

Most top 10 finishes this season (15 races)

  • Kevin Harvick (12 top 10s)
  • Denny Hamlin (10 top 10s)
  • Brad Keselowski (10 top 10s)

Most top 10 finishes since season resumed (11 races)

  • Kevin Harvick (8 top 10s)
  • Denny Hamlin (8 top 10s)
  • Brad Keselowski (8 top 10s)
  • Martin Truex Jr. (8 top 10s)

Patriots of America PAC to be primary sponsor for Go Fas Racing in nine races

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Patriots of America, a political action committee supporting President Donald Trump’s re-election bid, will be the primary sponsor of Corey LaJoie’s car this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Go Fas Racing announced Wednesday.

Patriots of America PAC will be the primary sponsor on the car for eight additional races.  

“Our mission is to get voters registered and to the polls in November,” said Jeff Whaley on behalf of Patriots of America PAC. “We are excited about our sponsorship with Go Fas Racing No. 32 and Corey LaJoie. We feel this partnership is the best way to help us communicate this message to the NASCAR community and encourage all Americans to do their part by heading to the polls.”

Team owner Archie St. Hilaire said in a statement: “I am honored to be part of the President’s re-election campaign through the Patriots of America PAC. As a Trump 2020 supporter, this team will do everything possible to secure victory on and off the track electing President Donald Trump to a second term. Let us bring this country back and Keep America Great!”

According to public documents, Patriots of America has paid Go Fas Racing $350,000 to this point for the sponsorship.

Sunday’s Cup race airs at 4 p.m. ET on NBC.

NASCAR, Coca-Cola to honor military, frontline healthcare workers

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NASCAR will honor members of the U.S. Armed Forces and frontline healthcare workers throughout the month of July as part of this year’s expanded “NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola” initiative.

Per a media release, NASCAR said the program will be “an industry-wide opportunity to recognize and thank those who have gone above and beyond to keep society safe and healthy.”

The kickoff event for the program begins with Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard (4 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), shifting to a mid-summer window due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We take pride in honoring all who work tirelessly to keep our nation safe, whether a frontline worker in the fight against COVID-19 or part of our U.S. Armed Forces protecting us around the world,” said Jill Gregory, executive vice president and chief marketing and content officer, NASCAR. “The NASCAR industry has always been passionate about saluting our nation’s heroes both past and present, and we once again look forward to recognizing those who serve.”

Per a statement in the media release, NASCAR and Coca-Cola will create content to honor the “heroic work from our military and first responder community during the COVID-19 pandemic. … Through NASCAR digital and social channels, the industry will spotlight even more stories with a new ‘NASCAR Salutes Refreshing Moments’ feature that will also be hosted on NASCAR.com/Salutes.”

“While this crisis has impacted everyone’s daily lives, we are able to race because of the selfless acts by our military community and frontline workers,” said John Mount, vice president, sports marketing and region assets, Coca-Cola North America. “NASCAR Salutes offers an impactful opportunity to showcase our pride and appreciation for these heroes and their families.”

In addition to premier partner Coca-Cola, several other NASCAR Official Partners will also take part in the program:

  • Mack Trucks will wrap its NASCAR Mack Anthem haulers with NASCAR Salutes-themed graphics voted on by fans at com/NASCARSalutes. The paint schemes honor both military and frontline heroes and the winning designs will be unveiled July 4 and debut during the NASCAR Salutes window.
  • AMR, the “Official Emergency Medical Services Partner of NASCAR,” will feature the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola branding on its NASCAR safety trucks and safety team helmets throughout the program.
  • Goodyear continued its tradition of replacing the iconic “Eagle” sidewall for 600 Miles of Remembrance at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This year’s recognition was the Honor and Remember organization, which works closely with the industry to honor gold star families who have lost family members while serving.
  • Mack Trucks and Blue-Emu also collaborated on a day-long effort to thank truckers and critical workers for their hard work during COVID-19. After a kickoff at Mack Trucks’ headquarters, NASCAR’s Mack Anthem haulers visited Virginia-based Sovah Health to thank the frontline workers at the hospital en route to the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.

Fans can learn more about the heroes honored throughout the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Colaprogram by visiting NASCAR.com/Salutes.