Friday 5: Free agency could dramatically alter 2021 driver lineup

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Sunday’s Daytona 500 begins a Cup season unlike any other in NASCAR’s history.

Among the year’s biggest storylines is the robust free agent market that could see a number of winning rides change drivers. Among those with contracts expiring after this season are five who won Cup races last year: Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Erik Jones.

They represent rides at some of the sport’s top teams: Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.

“When you look at this, there are always rides available, but there are usually limited amounts of very good rides and this year there are several of them but it is all driven off sponsorships and things like that,” said Clint Bowyer, whose contract with Stewart-Haas Racing expires after this season.

“It isn’t a knock to any driver you see out there, and hell I am putting myself in that group. I think we all – we all know that you are only as good as your last race. You can’t go on a swing of bad races or have a bad year or whatever else. You have to be the total package and that is probably more so today’s day in age than ever. You have to be the total package in that race car and out of it as well.”

Larson, whose future has been speculated on the past few years, admits: “I’m excited to see how it all plays out.”

Larson says that continuing to race on dirt is important in his next deal. He also noted that “just being with a competitive organization is the number one thing. I want to be able to win races consistently, run up front consistently and battle for championships year after year. I feel like at Chip Ganassi Racing, we are very close to being able to contend for championships year in and year out. I feel like we’ve got a great group of people. It will be an interesting year as it plays out.”

With this Jimmie Johnson’s final full-time Cup campaign, the No. 48 Chevrolet is open for next year. Who fills that ride could create a ripple effect in the garage — unless another team makes a move first. 

“There’s high profile rides up for grabs and only two or three drivers that can be really successful with them,” said Keselowski, who is in his 11th season at Team Penske. “There’s going to be a lot dominoes to fall.”

He’s confident that veterans will receive those top rides that are available.

“I think Kevin Harvick said it best: It’s been a great youth movement but those aren’t the guys winning,” Keselowski said. “The guys winning are the ones that are going to get the top rides. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to run the last four seasons straight with three (or more) wins and that puts me in a great position for those talks and those things that are going to go down. We’ll see how all the cards unfold.”

A key issue could be how much owners are willing to spend on a driver. Teams will face additional costs switching to the Next Gen car for next season, although some of those costs could be offset by a reduction of workforce with the cars being produced by an single entity instead of by each teams.

Corey LaJoie, whose contract with Go Fas Racing expires after this season, thinks the additional costs to teams with the move to the Next Gen car could favor drivers who won’t cost owners as much.

“I think teams are going to be forced to look at that because the expense to switch over from this new car is not going to be taken lightly,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It’s going to be $3 million cash up front. That’s big for those teams and they’re going to look at guys. They’re going to have to save on that payroll. Driver number on that spreadsheet is probably one of the bigger ones.”

Jones, who has won a race each of the past two years at Joe Gibbs Racing, admits this will be an interesting time for many drivers.

I have no intention of leaving my role there,” Jones said. “I’d love to continue that. But it is definitely a crazy year. There’s a lot of things happening. There’s a lot of things in motion, I guess, already probably for people, not really for me. I’m excited to see.”

Blaney, who has won a Cup race each of the past three years, said he anticipates talks to pick up in the coming months.

“It’s always performance, whether it’s the last two years or the first two months of this year,” Blaney said. “It’s always performance. We’ve had good enough performance the last couple of years and start off the season strong and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

2. Making the right move

William Byron admitted he thought the winning move came too early. But what are you to do?

In the second Duel Thursday night, Kevin Harvick led fellow Ford driver Matt DiBenedetto. Erik Jones, in a Toyota, was third and was followed by the Chevrolets of William Byron, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

The move was going to come from either Byron or Busch with the Chevys lined up.

It came with three laps to go.

“It’s just based on when that run comes,” Byron explained after the win. “In an ideal world, everyone would wait until one to go and fan out just because where we were was a good points position to finish the stage or the race. It would have been good to have six points or whatever it was.

“I had kind of not been paying attention, not been pushing as aggressively. A run just kind of luckily formed right there.  I figured if I didn’t take it, Kurt was going to.”

Races can be won with such split-second decisions. Just as they can be lost.

DiBenedetto attempted to move up to block the charge by Byron and the Chevys but was too late, allowing Byron to get by. DiBendetto finished seventh.

“I’m a little bummed that I didn’t stall out that top lane, I was a little too late to it and didn’t want to cause a crash and wipe us all out,” DiBenedetto said.

But had it been with three laps to go in the Daytona 500, DiBenedetto would have reacted differently.

“It would have been a more erratic move,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s tough. It’s always hindsight … and you learn.”

Every time on the track is a learning experience and it was for both Byron and DiBendettto on Thursday.

3. What about the 2021 Clash?

With news earlier this week that the 2021 Daytona 500 will be held Feb. 14, the question is what will happen to the Clash.

The Clash typically is held the week before the Daytona 500 but the Super Bowl will be played Feb. 7 in Tampa, about two hours from Daytona Beach.

Although some sports hold events the day of the Super Bowl, should NASCAR still hold the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying that day?

“I don’t think anybody should do that,” said Clint Bowyer, who attended this year’s Super Bowl to watch his hometown team, the Kansas City Chiefs. “It would be like them going up against the Daytona 500. We are all in this business together. It is an entertainment business and there is a footprint for all of them.

“That is a historic event which is America’s event. The Daytona 500 is a historic event that is also an American showcase. But I don’t think about TV all the time. I don’t think about ratings. I think about asses in the stands. I want to be able to go to the Super Bowl, and if I am not in the car, I want my ass in the stands of the Daytona 500 someday. I feel like we do owe enough respect to everybody and there is enough room for any venue to not be stepping on the toes of another and to respect that.”

Said Chase Elliott of NASCAR trying to run the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying the day of the Super Bowl: “I think you could expect not many people to be tuned in.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said Friday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that officials will look at various options for those events.

“It is on a radar and probably have to make an adjustment,” he said. “What that looks like, we’ll talk about in the coming weeks.”

4. New role for David Ragan

David Ragan isn’t racing full-time in Cup this season but he will still be busy.

Ragan, who is in Sunday’s Daytona 500, will look to race in a variety of racing series and work with Ford Racing.

As part of the Ford Racing program, Ragan also will work with Ford’s development drivers, including Hailie Deegan, from time to time throughout the season

MORE: A new hope: Hailie Deegan’s success could transform NASCAR

“I can help her with some of the things that I’ve seen, that I’ve learned that were good for me and bad for me and that I can hopefully help her get up to speed a little bit quicker,” Ragan said of Deegan, who moved to Ford’s development program in the offseason.

“If I can give her some pointers and some things to think about, spend a little time with her on the simulator and let her know some of those tools that are at her disposal, it’s going to help her avoid a lot of heartaches on the racetrack learning the hard way.”

5. Nashville and Martinsville Track news

Speedway Motorsports Inc. remains encouraged with its talks with Nashville and Tennessee officials about a proposal to bring NASCAR back to Fairgrounds Speedway.

SMI has proposed $60 million in renovation to the track but a deal has not been completed.

The city and Nashville’s new Major League Soccer team reached a new agreement Thursday for the team’s stadium at the fairgrounds near the track.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, has been leading SMI’s efforts. He issued a statement Thursday after the new agreement between the city and the soccer team:

“We congratulate Mayor John Cooper and John Ingram on reaching an agreement to move forward with the MLS stadium development. We are encouraged by our conversations with the city and share Mayor Cooper’s vision for a truly comprehensive redevelopment of the Fairgrounds that includes a plan to restore the speedway and sustain its future. We will continue to work with the city and stakeholders to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.”

Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell told NBC Sports on Thursday that of all the tickets sold for the track’s May 9 night race, 55 percent are either new orders or orders from fans who had stopped purchasing tickets from the track but returned for this race.

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Stage points crucial at Las Vegas in Round of 12

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Former champion Brad Keselowski views Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) as the “second most important” to win during the season after the championship race, “because these next two weeks are very difficult to prepare for.”

What’s so difficult about the two races after Las Vegas?

Two-thirds of the Round of 12 are made up of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval: a superspeedway known for its wild multi-car wrecks and a road course that can prove unpredictable.

“The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is the playoff bonus points and winning in Vegas,” Keselowski said. “The best thing we can do to control our own destiny is to go win Vegas and then Talladega just becomes what it is. It’s the same thing with the Roval, so we’re hopeful to just kind of not have to worry about it that way by scoring a win. If we’re not able to do that, I’d like to get a few more playoff bonus points with stages for those races and that would help a bunch, but, certainly, this round presents a lot of challenges for us.”

If anyone knows the importance of winning early in a round, it’s Keselowski. His victory two weeks ago at Richmond benefitted him in the cutoff race a Bristol when power steering issues resulted in a 34th-place finish.

Chase Elliott, who has won at both Talladega and the Roval in previous seasons, has a similar view to Keselowski.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver said “we would be messing up to already be looking ahead to Talladega,” later adding, “the way I kind of look at it is I’m probably going to crash – I think that’s just the odds.”

Were everything to go right for a driver, they can earn up to 20 stage points in the first two stages of a race.

“So, I think everybody knows how important stages are and what they can mean, especially stage wins,” Elliott said. “Getting that extra bonus point is a huge thing, too. I think everybody knows that and that’s certainly a game that’s been played. I don’t know that it was as much played that very first year that we had (playoff and stage points), but really ever since that first year, I think it has been known and everybody really gets that. And it’s just gotten more and more aggressive.”

Focusing on Vegas is key for Elliott because it’s been a “super hit or miss” track for him. In seven career starts, he has two top fives and four finishes of 26th or worse.

“We’ve crashed a bunch out there (three DNFs) and had some really bad finishes,” Elliott said. “That would be a fantastic opportunity, I think, to have a solid day.”

Kurt Busch noted that you could arguably view Las Vegas as “standard” when it comes to pit strategy and racing. But Busch provided a reminder of what happened earlier this year at Texas Motor Speedway.

“A place like Vegas fits into a track like Texas, as well; where you can change just left side tires like we saw Austin Dillon do to win the Texas race earlier this year,” Busch said. “So, there are all the different strategies and different things playing out.”

The four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16 – William Byron, Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto – scored a combined six stage points. All of them were earned by Byron.

Busch observed that just because four teams have been eliminated from the playoffs doesn’t mean there’s four less cars in the field vying for points.

“There are two Hendrick cars now not in the playoffs, but they’re fast,” Busch said of Byron and Jimmie Johnson. “Same thing with (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). You’ve got the No. 20 car, Erik Jones, not in the playoffs but he’s fast. Those are points that those guys could take away from the contenders that are still left in the situations they’re in. So, you’ve just got to race hard and race smart. There are three ways to get points each and every weekend: Stage 1, Stage 2, and the finish of the race. And, that happens at all the race tracks.”

Of the 12 remaining drivers left in the playoffs, here’s how many stage points they earned in the first round.

Most Stage Points Earned in 2020 Playoffs:

Chase Elliott  – 35
Kevin Harvick – 33
Martin Truex Jr.  – 32
Kyle Busch  – 31
Alex Bowman – 29
Joey Logano  – 28
Denny Hamlin  – 26
Kurt Busch – 22
Austin Dillon – 22
Brad Keselowski – 21
Aric Almirola – 7
Clint Bowyer – 4

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NASCAR fines
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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NASCAR has fined Hendrick Motorsports $100,000 for exceeding the amount of wind tunnel testing allowed this season.

NASCAR also announced that it had deducted 10 hours of wind tunnel testing from the organization for the 2020-21 amount allowed.

Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalty. The team reported the violation to NASCAR.

The Cup Rule Book states in section 5.3.e that organizations are allocated 150 hours to be used on cars through Dec. 31, 2021 with a maximum usage of 70 hours in 2020 and a maximum usage of 90 hours in 2021. NASCAR states that testing hours are defined as billable hours reported by the wind tunnel to NASCAR. The minimum test period is four hours. Wind tunnel testing of Next Gen cars by individual organizations will not be permitted.

The L2 penalty comes with a fine of at least $100,000 and no more than $200,000.

NASCAR also announced two fines for lug nut violations last weekend at Bristol.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chief Bruce Schlicker was fined $5,000 for the No. 10 car of Ross Chastain having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

In the Truck Series, crew chief Kevin Bellicourt was fined $2,500 for the No. 19 truck of Derek Kraus having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

 

Carson Hocevar to run full Truck schedule in 2021

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Niece Motorsports has signed Carson Hocevar to run the full NASCAR Truck schedule in 2021, the team announced Thursday.

Hocevar, who turns 18 in January, has run five races for the team this season. His best finish this year is 12th at Dover. He’s scheduled to run at Martinsville on Oct. 30.

“I’m so excited to get the opportunity to race fulltime next year with the Niece Motorsports group,” said Hocevar in a statement. “We’ve had some really strong runs in the few starts that we’ve had this season and I am grateful for the chance to continue that next year. I’ve learned so much already this year and know that we will keep improving next year too.”

“Carson has really impressed us this season,” said team owner Al Niece in a statement. “He’s proven his talent – getting into the truck with no track time and really holding his own. We’re thrilled to have him with us fulltime next season and look forward to contending for wins together.”

TikTok to sponsor Ryan Vargas in six Xfinity races

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JD Motorsports
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TikTok is coming to NASCAR.

The popular video sharing app will break into the sport next month as a sponsor of Ryan Vargas in the Xfinity Series.

TikTok has partnered with JD Motorsports to sponsor the 20-year-old Vargas in the final six races of the season, beginning with the Oct. 3 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

“TikTok has provided me with an incredible outlet to reach new fans and demographics through fun and creative content, and I’ve seen the highest growth in followers on TikTok over my other social channels,” Vargas said in a press release. “The opportunity to run the No. 6 TikTok Chevrolet Camaro in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for the rest of the season is an absolute dream come true. Johnny Davis and the whole JD Motorsports with Gary Keller team took a chance on me last year and I’m excited to bring this amazing TikTok partnership their way. I wouldn’t want to make this partnership a reality anywhere else.”

Vargas has made three Xfinity Series starts this year. His best finish was 13th at Pocono.

The sponsor deal is part of TikTok’s Latinx Heritage Month programming.

A native of La Mirada, California, Vargas joined TikTok last year. He is a former member of NASCAR’s Drive 4 Diversity programming and a winner of the Wendell Scott Trailblazer award, which is given to a minority or female driver who displays exceptional on-track performance, sportsmanship, and community service.

The partnership and paint scheme were inspired by a concept scheme by graphic designer Ryan Pistana, a friend of Vargas’.

“Creators of all sizes and backgrounds show up to TikTok with their genuine, authentic selves,” Nick Tran, TikTok’s Head of Global Marketing, said in a press release. “Partnering with an iconic brand like NASCAR to sponsor Ryan Vargas on his racing journey is a way for us to continue to support, celebrate and elevate the diverse creators that make our TikTok community what it is today. Ryan is an incredible athlete, and we’re looking forward to cheering him on alongside the rest of the TikTok community!”

According to CNBC in August, TikTok has roughly 100 million monthly users, up nearly 800% from January 2018.

TikTok, a Chinese-owned company, has been in national headlines recently after President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app in the United States for national security reasons if it was not sold to an American company. On Sept. 19 he approved a deal for its U.S operations to be operated by Oracle and Walmart.