NASCAR President Steve Phelps delivers State of the Sport address


NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed team ownership, the prospect of a new manufacturer joining the sport, and questions around next year’s Daytona 500, among many topics, in a nearly hour-long media session with reporters Saturday at Phoenix Raceway.

NASCAR will complete its season on schedule with Sunday’s Cup finale (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC). Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano will race for the Cup title in a season that was delayed 71 days by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The year has been in short I would say extraordinary, although I could probably use 15 or 20 other words to try to get to something,” Phelps said in opening comments. “It’s just unprecedented in the history of our country, in the history of sports, and certainly in the history of our sport. I would suggest this is the single most difficult year that we’ve faced as a sport.

“But through it all this industry, I’ve said this before, I believe this industry does adversity better than any sport. If you think about it, we’re at a competitive disadvantage. We don’t own ourselves. We’re not franchised, right? We have independent contractors who come to race as one.

“What we have done during this global pandemic is I think nothing short of remarkable. … I think a couple highlights that I want to touch on that I’m particularly proud of. When we shut down heading into Atlanta, we had no idea when we were going to get back to racing. It was our goal, and a stated goal, that we were going to run all races. Tomorrow when we crown a champion in our Cup Series, we will have run all our races. We did it through ways that frankly probably we didn’t think we could do, right?

“A bunch of midweek races. Three doubleheaders. No practice and qualifying. Things that were kind of significant in bedrock that we do, right? You come to the racetrack, you’re here for three days, you practice, you qualify, you’re on your way, right? For us to be the first sport back without fans initially on May 17th in Darlington, to the first sport back with fans, I think it’s an extraordinary achievement.

“When we were here the last time (at Phoenix) and we raced here on March 8th, we were focused on, ‘How is that short track package going to work?’  It was up in the air, weren’t sure. We thought it was going to be great. By the way, it was. Then three, four days later, the world goes crazy, right? We’re just in a situation that was unthinkable.

“What I would say is that on March 8th we were a sport that was coming back, right? Our ratings had stabilized last year. Our attendance was going in the correct direction. If you think about where we are as a sport today, I believe we’re stronger as a sport today than we were pre-COVID.  I believe that. I think that the momentum that we’ve been able to gain has been nothing short of incredible.

“I think the other word I want to use that I stole from one of the senior people at Comcast is that your sport is relevant. It’s not that it wasn’t relevant before, but where you are today, you’re in a significantly different place. I believe that to be true.”

Here are select comments Steve Phelps made Saturday

Q.  We’re going to have a new president in January. Donald Trump was at this year’s Daytona 500. Does NASCAR have any plans to invite Joe Biden to any of the races?

STEVE PHELPS:  If a sitting president, as President Trump did this year, wants to come to a race, then we would welcome that sitting president. We didn’t reach out to President Trump to come to the Daytona 500.  His people reached out to us.  Again, I don’t see us reaching out to a sitting president.  Again, if a sitting president wants to come to a racetrack, we would certainly welcome the sitting president.


Q.  There’s obviously a lot of interest in Cup team ownership. I’m curious if NASCAR is considering expanding the number of charters available?

STEVE PHELPS:  We are not considering expanding the number of charters.  The way the charter system works, we have the ability to expand if there’s a new OEM.  Without that, we do not.  That’s a contract that we have with our teams.  So there will be no expansion of our charters.


Q.  Last week the 20 car didn’t pass the 11 for whatever reason.  NASCAR found nothing wrong with that.  Fans are upset about the 100% rule, questioning if it was in play.  Does the rule need to be addressed or rewritten in any way to avoid scenarios that leave interpretation open such as last week?

STEVE PHELPS:  Yeah, I know that Scott Miller addressed that earlier in the week.  Whether the rule needs to be looked at, I think we have shown repeatedly if there’s a better way to do something, we’ll do it, whether that’s a rule change or some other competition change to a rules package, whatever that might be. I personally don’t think the rule needs to be changed, but we will certainly, again as we do with everything, if there’s a better way to do it, we’ll find it and do it.


Q.  I think the last time you spoke to us in September you said at that point you didn’t see any way that garage access would expand until there was a vaccine available.  Going into 2021, where does NASCAR stand on that?  Do you still see that as the only way forward to expand garage access?  Are you looking at COVID‑19 testing across the board in the future regardless?

STEVE PHELPS:  Kind of two parts of the question. I think the first part as it relates to the competitors and the current footprint or bubble, whatever we call this pristine area, it’s something we’ll look at.  I would suggest that our sport did as well or better than other sports did with respect to how our protocols worked with our competitors.  A significant number of competitors we have, not just our drivers but our crews, our officials, the safety workers.  Been proud of how that worked. John (Bobo, NASCAR vice president, racing operations) and his team are always looking to see whether there are ways to create a better, safer environment.  That was the goal all along, as you know, which is to make sure that our competitors felt safe in this environment.

That gets to the second part of your question.  When we talked in September, I did say until a vaccine was developed, widely distributed that was effective, we wouldn’t have people in there. I will clarify that.  If there is an opportunity, I’m not sure there is, to have rapid tests that are effective, that doesn’t have a bunch of false negatives or false positives, it’s something that we would entertain.  But it’s too early at this particular point to determine what that is going to look like.


Q.  Earlier this season you said that words without action are meaningless in terms of addressing racism and the sport being more inclusive.  Going forward, is NASCAR doing something concrete to continue its anti‑racism and inclusivity efforts inside or outside of the industry?  Can we expect to see things like Black Lives Matter written on the infield, continued sport for the LBGTQIA community that shows solidarity or welcomes others in?

 STEVE PHELPS:  What I would say is, will you continue to see results and action from NASCAR?  The answer is yes.  So we have broken this kind of in this area into three specific buckets. One is what we’re going to do internally.  The middle bucket is what we’re going to do from an industry‑wide standpoint.  The third is what are the partnerships that we’re going to do externally.

I would say on the internal side we’ve done things that it’s really just about us, obviously.  We have an ally council, a diversity council, employee resource groups we’ve put together to try to make sure we’re doing what we need to do.  We also have a drive to make sure that we are hiring diverse people, right?  That’s a stated goal for us, as well.  Then we’re doing, as part of our procurement, making sure we have minority vendors as part of that, too.  That’s internal.

 External is what are we going to do as an industry.  One of the things we are going to do, we talked early on at Talladega, as an industry we are going to mandate that everyone take sensitivity training, unconscious bias training.  We are going to do that.  Before we get to the 500, all the race teams, anyone affiliated with this is going to do that.  It’s part of our internal community.

The third thing is what are you going to do from an external standpoint.  Partnerships with Comcast, Coca‑Cola, GEICO, Anheuser‑Busch, others.  Other groups like ISSJ, Rise, others we’re using to try to help in this education process.

We believe we are a sport about action.  We are going to continue to be.  It’s an important journey for us to be on.  I’m excited about what the future holds there.


Q.  Obviously there’s no question the challenges you have faced this year to get to this point.  Obviously as any business, it can’t be just about the immediacy, it’s also about looking ahead.  I know there’s uncertainties and challenges, you referenced earlier the notion of relevancy in this sport.  How do you envision or hope to continue that relevancy for the sport so that it grows and becomes stronger, and the potential of adding another manufacturer since everything is being put back a year or so with the plans?

STEVE PHELPS:  I think it’s hard to say, Hey, we are going to continue to relevance.  I think it’s kind of an arrogant statement.  I think there are some building blocks here that indicate that’s going to continue.

We have new ownership coming into this sport.  That new ownership comes with different levels, right?  Then we have different drivers affixed to those new owners.  Take the Michael Jordan situation with Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace, the situation with Justin Marks and Daniel Suarez, the Tiffts and B.J. McLeod.  These are kind of all across the spectrum.

Do I believe we are positioned well to continue that relevance?  I do.  I think we’ve seen this year the significant number of new fans who are participating in this sport.  Because kind of the positions that we have taken, the great racing that we’ve had, the fact that we came back first, all those different pieces that created this relevance.

Do I think we’re positioned to continue that?  I do think we’re positioned to continue that.  I’m bullish on what the future looks like.  I know it’s kind of as the head cheerleader of this sport I’m supposed to say that.

If you look at where we are from a ratings standpoint, if you look at kind of where the sport is overall in the general kind of thought process of where things are in this country, I think we’re in a much better position than we were, as I said, pre COVID.


Q.  You’ve been very outspoken about human basic rights, the issue with the Confederate flag.  You talk about new fans.  Can this sport afford to be as vocal moving forward?  There are those that feel it’s a more conservative fan base.  How have you felt the fans responded in that time since in gaining new, losing some, what you can do moving forward, be potentially more aggressive?

STEVE PHELPS:  Kind of on balance you look at those new fans versus fans we have ‘lost’.  I think for us, it’s really about this notion of welcoming everyone to our sport.  I think people are feeling welcomed to our sport.

I think by and large people have said, Hey, NASCAR means more to me than displaying my Confederate flag, displaying a Confederate flag at our facilities.  I think by and large that has been a true statement.

What we do from a social justice standpoint moving forward really to me is about, to your point, human decency.  We want to make sure that people want to come to our facilities.  We want to make sure they want to participate in this sport on television, radio, digitally and socially.  We want them to feel part of this community.  It’s a fantastic community, it really is.

I know when I go to a racetrack and I see people who are camping next to each other who are total strangers, that invite each other for a beer, do you want a hot dog, brat, whatever it is, that’s what our community is about.  We want to make sure that everyone feels welcome when they come to those facilities.

Q.  I know you can’t predict the future.  The introduction of the NextGen car is pushed back to 2022.  Do you see there’s any way that doesn’t get introduced in 2022?

STEVE PHELPS:  It’s hard to say.  We are on schedule.  John Probst and his team have done a great job working with our OEMs, with our teams, to get us to a place where we feel confident where things are.

I just think the hard part is we were confident that we were going to introduce it in 2021.  Then it became very clear that we couldn’t.  It really has to do with are we going to have the parts and pieces in order to make this car, to build it at scale in order to have enough cars to race.  As of right now the answer is absolutely yes.

Our guys are excited about it.  I think we all are excited about it.  We’ve seen some renderings.  It’s a cool‑looking car that I think will have some great characteristics that will make the racing even better than we’ve seen this year.

Again, it’s hard to predict the future.  Given the things we know today, we’re in good shape.


Q.  If COVID would require the NFL to slide back its schedule, would you commit now to saying that NASCAR would not run the Daytona 500 against the Super Bowl even if it means moving the Daytona 500 date?

STEVE PHELPS:  No, I will not say that.  Right now we’re running on February 14th.  That’s as much information as we have.  Will we potentially scenario plan for a change?  Perhaps.  But I don’t foresee that.  It’s just hard to say.

The NFL, they’re trying to get their season in.  Thus far they’ve done a good job of having the majority of their football games take place.  But I think at this particular point, I don’t want to speculate what would happen with the 500 if the NFL were to put the Super Bowl on February 14th.  We’ll react to that at that particular time.  Obviously we’ll make sure our friends at FOX are aligned with the decision that we make.


Q.  If someone did come in, would there be a potential to expand the charter system?  It would be really tough to figure out where a new manufacturer starts out on an equal playing field ensuring they’re in the field every week.

STEVE PHELPS:  I don’t know the answer to that.  We have the opportunity to do that.  Again, someone coming in wouldn’t come in, I would suggest, until probably 2023 at the earliest.  I think the world is just going to look a lot different at NASCAR once you get to kind of the NextGen car.  Just the dynamics are going to change so significantly.

If we deem it would be in the best interest of the sport to add an additional charter or two to try to help jump start a new OEM, it’s something we’d consider.


Q.  New owners are considering coming into the Cup Series.  Conceivably they’re going to have to buy charters, which costs are rising.  Are you concerned with the charter system, how it’s working now, how it was devised?

STEVE PHELPS:  I think it’s a good question.  One of the thoughts about the charter system, and this really gets to the business of NASCAR, fans don’t care about charters.  But one of the thoughts on the business side for charters is that if someone decided to leave a sport, they would have enterprise value that they’d be able to sell their race car or race team and make some money.

I think that’s something that is happening in this system.  It’s not the only reason why the charter system exists.  I think there are things about the charter system that work quite well.  There are others that I think we could probably improve on moving forward.

It’s something that we’re not faced with at this particular time.  The charters go through 2024.  Again, I think it’s working well in some cases.  Again, as I said, in other cases I think there are some things that we would look to change moving forward.


NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation


NASCAR has docked Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club 60 points and five playoff points each, suspended crew chief Dave Elenz two races and fined him $75,000 for the L1 violation discovered this week at the R&D Center. The team was found to have modified the greenhouse.

The penalty drops Jones from 26th to 30th in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

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“We have been diligently working with NASCAR regarding the penalty and are working internally to determine the course of action in response,” said Joey Cohen, vice president, race operations for Legacy MC, in a statement. “We will announce that decision within the timeframe determined by the NASCAR Rule Book.”

Cohen will serve as interim crew chief during Elenz’s suspension.

Jones’ car was among those brought to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, after last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway.

NASCAR cited the team for violating:

Section 14.1.C: Vehicles must comply with Section 14 Vehicle and Driver Safety Specifications of the NASCAR Rule Book at all times during an Event. Failure to comply will be subject to Penalty pursuant to Section 10 Violations and Disciplinary Action.

Section 14.1.D: Except in cases explicitly permitted in the NASCAR Rules, installation of additional components, repairs, deletions, and/or modifications to Next Gen Single Source Vendor-supplied parts and/or assemblies will not be permitted.

Section 14.1.2.B: All parts and assemblies must comply with the NASCAR Engineering Change Log.

NASCAR also announced penalties Wednesday in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Crew chief Andrew Abbott has been fined $5,000, Young’s Motorsports has been penalized 25 points and Chris Hacker has been docked 25 points for a violation with the team’s window net.

Crew chief Charles Denike has been fined $2,500 for a lug nut not properly installed on Christian Eckes‘ truck for TRICON Garage.

Kamui Kobayashi to make NASCAR debut with 23XI Racing at Indy

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LE MANS, France (AP) — Left out of the NASCAR celebration at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota used Wednesday at the track to showcase its own stock car program and the upcoming Cup Series debut for one of the top racers in the world.

Kamui Kobayashi will make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Toyota in August driving for 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.

The announcement made Wednesday had several top NASCAR executives in attendance – including chairman Jim France – as Toyota found Le Mans to be the perfect backdrop to spotlight the one-race deal.

Toyota Gazoo, after all, has won Le Mans the last five consecutive years and Kobayashi, part of the 2021 winning effort, is team principal of the two-car organization that will try to make it six straight wins in the most prestigious endurance event in the world.

Toyota had initially felt jilted when NASCAR blindsided the industry last year by announcing it would bring its new Next Gen car to centenary Le Mans in a specialized category that showcases innovation, but the project was with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Toyota was the first rival NASCAR manufacturer to complain, and NASCAR has since tried to include all its partners in this weekend’s celebration and France signed off on holding the Kobayashi announcement at Le Mans.

It allowed Toyota to display the Camry it races in NASCAR; Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 in the Aug. 13 race. This will be the second race for the No. 67 car for 23XI Racing. Travis Pastrana finished 11th in the car at this year’s Daytona 500.

“We’ve been working on this assignment actually for a couple of years and Kamui has become a friend and we understood it was his dream one day to race in NASCAR,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, U.S.A. “With this great new Next Gen Toyota Camry TRD, the stars and planets started to align themselves and the next question became: Where should we announce this?

“It dawned on me with Kamui’s record of success, and being the team principal, to do it on this global stage at the biggest sports car race in the world.”

Kobayashi will be only the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR’s top Cup Series and only the fifth to race in one of NASCAR’s top three national series. Kobayashi will be the first driver from Japan to race in the Cup Series in a Toyota, which entered NASCAR’s top series in 2007.

“It’s my dream, actually,” Kobayashi told The Associated Press. “It’s such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category.

“But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers. Toyota has been in NASCAR a long time, but there has never been any Japanese drivers for Toyota. That’s also why I say I appreciate this opportunity for myself.”

Kobayashi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota in 2021 and hasn’t finished lower than third since 2018. He has six podium finishes in eight appearances in the iconic endurance race.

Toyota trails only Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche for most wins at Le Mans. Porsche holds the record with 19 victories.

Kobayashi in 2021, after winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title driving for Toyota Gazoo, was named team principal.

Kobayashi started his racing career karting in Japan but was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe. He was named one of Toyota’s reserve Formula One drivers and made his debut during the 2009 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He raced in F1 through 2014 with one podium finish in 75 career starts.

Following his F1 career, Kobayashi returned to Japan and switched to the Super Formula Series, a class he still actively competes in. He’s since won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and was the anchor on an IMSA endurance sports car team in the United States for two seasons that was formed by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Kobayashi loves racing in the United States, but IMSA’s adoption of new regulations to make its top class eligible to compete at Le Mans created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi’s Toyota responsibilities and continuing to race in IMSA, where Toyota is not represented in the top class. Toyota does field a Lexus in a lower IMSA division and Kobayashi raced for Vasser Sullivan Racing last June in Canada to get a feel for the GT car.

Many consider NASCAR’s Next Gen car to be very similar to the GT Lexus sports car that Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, and that’s his closest experience to driving a stock car. He’ll be permitted to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis, and expects some time on the simulator.

Either way, he isn’t worried about seat time.

“I think I’m a guy who doesn’t need much practice, to be honest,” the 36-year-old Kobayashi told the AP. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I’m not really concerned about form.”

Drivers to watch at Sonoma Raceway


This weekend begins a key period for Cup drivers. Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway begins a stretch of four road course events in the next 10 races. The race to make the playoffs and to score playoff points is intensifying.


Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 10th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Circuit of the Americas)
  • Past at Sonoma: Does not have a top 15 in two previous starts

Reddick has won three of the last five Cup races on road courses, but Sonoma has been his kryptonite. He has yet to lead a lap there. Reddick’s three road course wins have been at Road America, Indianapolis and COTA.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Fontana)
  • Past at Sonoma: Four top 10s, including a runner-up, in six starts

Elliott returns to the series after sitting out last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway due to suspension. He’s in a must-win situation to make the playoffs. Known for his prowess on road courses, Elliott’s last win at such a track came in 2021 at Road America. In the nine races at road courses since that win, Elliott has two runner-up finishes and six top 10s.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 7th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Fontana, Talladega I, WWT Raceway)
  • Past at Sonoma: Had six straight finishes of seventh or better before placing 30th last year

Busch is tied with William Byron for the most wins this season with three. Busch has placed in the top three in the last two road course races. He has led in five of the last seven Sonoma Cup races. He is a two-time Sonoma winner, taking the checkered flag in 2008 and ’15.


Denny Hamlin 

  • Points position: 8th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Kansas I)
  • Past at Sonoma: Five consecutive top 10s until finishing 31st last year

Hamlin has not had a top-10 finish at a road course in the Next Gen car. He has an 18.4 average finish at road courses since last season. His best finish at a road course in that time is 13th at the Charlotte Roval.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Dover)
  • Past at Sonoma: Two straight top-10 finishes

Chastain lost the points lead last weekend after his third consecutive finish outside the top 20. His fourth-place finish at Circuit of the Americas this season broke a streak of three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 at road courses.

Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best finish this season: 3rd (Talladega I)
  • Past at Sonoma: His runner-up finish last year was his first top 10 there in six starts

Until last year, Sonoma had not been kind to Buescher. He enters this weekend have scored six consecutive top 10s at road courses.

NASCAR Power Rankings: William Byron, Kyle Busch rank 1-2


Kyle Busch moved closer to the top spot after his win Sunday at WWT Raceway, but William Byron keeps hold of No. 1 after another top-10 run.

The series heads to Sonoma Raceway this weekend, the second race of the season on a road course.


(Previous ranking in parenthesis)

1. William Byron (1) — He goes into Sonoma with six consecutive top-10 finishes after his eighth-place result at WWT Raceway. Byron has led a series-high 717 laps this season.

2. Kyle Busch (4) — Recorded his third win of the season Sunday. He is tied with Byron for most wins this year. Busch scored 59 of a maximum 60 points and won his first stage of the year Sunday. He has 16 playoff points. Only Byron has more with 17 this season.

3. Kyle Larson (3) — His fourth-place finish continued his up-and-down season. In the last nine races, Larson has two wins, four top fives, a 20th-place result and four finishes of 30th or worse. He has led 588 laps this season, which ranks second this year to Byron.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (2) — His fifth-place finish is his sixth top 10 in the last eight races. He ranks third in laps led this year with 383.

5. Denny Hamlin (7) — Runner-up result at WWT Raceway is his fourth top 10 in the last seven races.

6. Ryan Blaney (10) — Followed Coca-Cola 600 win with a sixth-place run at WWT Raceway. He had an average running position of 2.6 on Sunday, second only to winner Kyle Busch’s average running position of 1.9.

7. Joey Logano (9) — Third-place finish is his second top 10 in the last four races.

8. Kevin Harvick (NR) — His 10th-place finish is his fourth consecutive finish of 11th or better.

9. Ross Chastain (6) — Lost the points lead after placing 22nd, his third consecutive finish outside the top 20.

10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (NR) — Headed for his eighth top 15 in a row until he was collected in a crash after the contact between Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon late in Sunday’s race.

Dropped out: Chase Elliott (5th), Tyler Reddick (8th)