Friday 5: Chase Elliott looks to put on a show for fans at Road America

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NASCAR is set to enjoy another large crowd this weekend, and reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott says it is important that the sport ensures that fans have a good experience.

Road America hosts the Xfinity Series on Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) and the Cup Series on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). The track’s campsites sold out quickly for this weekend, and the track is encouraging fans to carpool and arrive early.

Nashville Superspeedway sold out its grandstands, hosting nearly 40,000 people for its inaugural Cup race two weeks ago, but the start of the race was delayed because of traffic issues for some fans.

Last weekend, Pocono Raceway announced a sellout of its infield camping for its doubleheader Cup weekend and had what some observers considered the track’s largest crowd in years.

Now comes the first Cup race at Road America since 1956 and the anticipation for that event.

“When you have a great crowd, I feel like you have a responsibility to treat the crowd properly,” Elliott said. “I know there were some problems at Nashville, traffic and things like that, and that’s not good.

“If I was a fan and I had to wait in a long line of traffic to come to a race for the first time, that would make me think twice about going again. … We need to make sure we are treating our fans (well), especially with the facilities and traffic in and out, just making sure we’re taking good care of them. If they are there to support us, we need to make sure their time is enjoyable and they had a good trip.”

The day after the Nashville race, track president Erik Moses sent a letter to fans thanking them for their attendance and stating that traffic issues would be addressed.

For the drivers, racing in front of large crowds, the goal, Elliott says, is to “just try to put on a good show.”

Few have been better than Elliott at road courses lately. He’s won five of the past seven Cup road course races. That includes his victory in the inaugural Cup race at Circuit of the Americas last month.

His six career road course victories tie him for third on the all-time list with Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd.

Elliott’s success on the track and his lineage have made him the sport’s most popular driver, but he says that doesn’t mean he should be considered the face of the sport.

“Who is to say there needs to be one face?” Elliott said. “We’re a sport of a lot of drivers and a lot of personalities and a lot of teams. … There’s no one person that, I don’t think, can carry the load of attracting everyone to watch.

“Fans have certain people they like watching. My fans like watching me, and there’s a lot of people who probably don’t and that, to me, is what makes it special because it’s not about one person. My response is that I think it takes all shapes and sizes to make this deal work, and I feel I’m a piece of the puzzle.”

Hendrick Motorsports has figured out the puzzle on the track. The organization has won six of the last seven points races. Elliott won at COTA, Alex Bowman won at Pocono and Dover, and Kyle Larson won the Coca-Cola 600, Nashville and Sonoma.

Hendrick Motorsports has won 14 of the last 33 Cup race races. The success, though, has led to the question of if the organization is peaking too soon.

“I definitely think that can happen,” Elliott said. “I’ve watched it happen, so I know it’s real, but I do know continued hard work and continuing to push in the areas that we’re pushing in and continuing to work together as a team and push each other to be better, I think we continue to perform at a high level throughout the entire season. That’s ultimately what we need to do.”

2. Jeff Gordon looks ahead

While Jeff Gordon has played a leadership role at Hendrick Motorsports since exiting the car, the team recently announced he would become vice chairman, the No. 2 spot in the organization behind only team owner Rick Hendrick.

Gordon talked to the media last weekend at Pocono and discussed his role:

Q: Did you always feel that you were going to be on this ownership path?

Gordon: You have to understand that I’ve been a part of this since 1999. I’ve been behind the scenes, understanding and learning the business side of it. Gradually, over time, obviously my focus was on driving throughout all those years. But as I started getting closer to stepping away in 2015 from the driving role, my interest level in the business side, the culture that Rick has created and how he’s done that and how it impacts things far beyond just what I was doing as a driver, was interesting to me.

So, each year, that ramped up more and more as I had pretty much half the season to dedicate my time to it. And the more I did that, whether it was coming to the track or being back at the shop on race day or just talking to the marketing department about sponsorship or talking to NASCAR about Next Gen or any business decisions that were going on there with other owners, I realized that this is where my true passion lies.

I love the sport. I love racing. But the competition and being a partner with one of the best owners there will ever be in NASCAR, that’s really what I was getting excited about looking ahead.

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway
Jeff Gordon chats with Kyle Larson earlier this season at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Q: What do you have to learn with the new job now?

Gordon: Well, luckily right now, we’re in a great position, and it’s about maintaining what we currently have. But that all got started so many years ago before I even got to Hendrick Motorsports with Rick, and the culture that he creates and how he treats people and how he finds talent and nurtures that.

Of course right now, we’ve learned a lot about how our teams are working together more than they ever have before. And we’re seeing the success because of that. Right now, it’s about maintaining it.

But as we move forward, it’s just continuing to look at the business model and try to understand how we take care of our current partners and nurture those relationships and make sure that they’re excited about NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports. They certainly are right now, and we want to continue to see that grow. But also, what new partners can we potentially look at and bring in.

Q: Did working in TV give you any perspective toward the business side you didn’t expect?

Gordon: Oh yeah. That’s one of my goals is to really connect with our TV partners and make sure that our drivers and crew chiefs recognize that their personality, their performance, the show on the race track, that it means way more than you think.

As a competitor, you get very narrowly focused on the competition. And this sport wouldn’t have the fans and wouldn’t be as big as it is if millions of people weren’t watching it on TV. And they want to see rivalries, right? They want to see personalities and frustrations and excitement.

I think that my perspective, coming from the last six years doing TV, it is definitely going to be present at Hendrick Motorsports and how we move forward. And I think our guys do a great job with that, but there’s no doubt we can do more.

3. Staying the course

One of the challenges for teams is when reports state that a driver will be headed to a different organization the following season or such announcements have been made. The key is not to let those situations impact the current season.

Reports state that Brad Keselowski will move to Roush Fenway Racing next season as a driver and part-owner in the team. No official announcement has been made. The Cup Series just entered the second half of the season last weekend, so plenty of racing remains, including the playoffs.

Keselowski is only the second driver crew chief Jeremy Bullins has worked with in Cup. Bullins previously worked with Ryan Blaney before Team Penske moved its crew chiefs within the organization before the 2020 season, so he hasn’t had to manage a team with a driver expected to leave it after the season until now.

“I think the biggest thing for me is honesty and transparency about the situation,” Bullins said. “Letting the guys know what I know. Having Brad let them know what he knows. Let everybody try to be kept on the same page and understand what the situation is.

“We are all professionals and our team is handling this very professionally. We know that no matter what happens beyond 2021 that we have a great opportunity with Brad to win races and put ourselves back in the (Championship) four at Phoenix.

“We will deal with 2022 then or in the off-season. For us, the main thing is that the timing was unfortunate because we had a few weeks with issues and things going wrong and penalties at a time when all these rumors were going around. … I hope last weekend proved a point that we are here to contend for wins and a championship. We had a great weekend at Pocono and feel like we got our legs back under us a little bit and are ready to go through the summer.”

Keselowski had six consecutive finishes outside the top 10 until last weekend at Pocono. He placed 10th in Saturday’s race and third in Sunday’s race. That finish was his best result since placing third at Kansas in early May.

4. The challenge of Road America

AJ Allmendinger will compete in both the Xfinity and Cup races this weekend at Road America for Kaulig Racing. He’s won there in both the former Champ Car World Series (2006) and Xfinity Series (2013).

Allmendinger said the road course has a uniqueness that many might not notice.

“It’s probably one of the harder road courses to learn,” Allmendinger said of the 4.048-mile, 14-turn course. “There are so many corners and they all kind of connect to each other.

“At some road courses, yeah, there is this corner and then the next corner. Sometimes they just don’t actually connect to each other. They’re just like separate corners. Road America, for the most part, every corner kind of connects to each other.

“So if you mess up that corner, it’s going to hurt you for the next corner, or it’s going to hurt you down the straightaways. It is a difficult racetrack to learn because some of the corners are either blind uphill or they’re flat, so trying to find your marks of getting into the corners (is not easy).”

5. Top performers in the last 10 Cup races

It’s no surprise that Kyle Larson has scored the most points in the last 10 races — he’s finished in the top two in seven of the last eight races — but once you get past the top five, the next driver might be a surprise.

Tyler Reddick has scored 314 points in the last 10 races to rank sixth. He has six top-10 finishes in that span. It’s helped Reddick climb from 22nd in the points entering the Talladega race in late April to 13th in the standings — and in a playoff spot — going into Sunday’s race at Road America.

David Smith examined Reddick’s season this week, showcasing what the driver has done well and where improvement is needed.

Here is a look at the drivers who have scored the most points in the last 10 Cup races:

460 — Kyle Larson

405 — Kyle Busch

380 — William Byron

348 — Chase Elliott

327 — Denny Hamlin

314 — Tyler Reddick

312 — Kevin Harvick

307 — Alex Bowman

300 — Brad Keselowski

299 — Joey Logano

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NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash

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NASCAR is implementing changes to Cup cars that strengthen the right side door area and soften the frontal area after reviewing the crash between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

The changes are to be in place for the July 9 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Larson and Preece were uninjured in the vicious crash late in the race at Talladega. Larson’s car was turned and slid down the track to the apron before coming back up in traffic. Preece’s car slammed into the right side door area of Larson’s car.

Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR vice president of safety engineering, said the difference in velocity of the two cars at the time of impact was 59 mph.

“It’s pretty hard to find that on the racetrack normally,” Patalak told reporters Thursday during a briefing.

The severe impact moved a right side door bar on Larson’s car. NASCAR announced last month that it was allowing teams to add six right side door bar gussets to prevent the door bars from buckling in such an impact.

Thursday, NASCAR announced additional changes to the cars. The changes come after computer simulations and crash testing.

NASCAR is mandating:

  • Steel plate welded to the right side door bars
  • Front clips will be softened
  • Front bumper strut softening
  • Front ballast softening
  • Modified cross brace

Patalak said that NASCAR had been working on changes to the car since last year and did crash testing in January at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NASCAR did more work after that crash test.

As for the changes to the front of the car, Patalak said: “From an engineering standpoint we’re reducing the buckling strength of those individual parts and pieces. The simplified version is we are increasing the amount of crush that the front clip will be capable of. That’s all an effort to reduce the accelerations that the center section and driver will be exposed to during these frontal crashes.”

Adding the steel plate to the door bars is meant to strengthen that area to prevent any type of intrusion or buckling of the door bars in a similar type of crash.

Patalak also said that NASCAR inspected the car of Blaine Perkins that barrel rolled during the Xfinity race at Talladega in April. Patalak said that NASCAR consulted with Dr. James Raddin, Jr., who was one of the four authors of the Earnhardt investigation report in 2001 for the sanctioning body, in that incident.

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival

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Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.

Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.

“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.

A historic team with historic ups and downs

Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.

Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.

Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.

A vertical bar chart showing the challenges Brad Keselowski has in driving RFK's revival

The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.

Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?

“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s record

The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.

Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.

In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.

Comparing Brad Keselowski's finishes for his last two years with Penske and his first two years (so far) with RFK RacingKeselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.

On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.

Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.

I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.

A table comparing Brad Keselowski's attempt to drive RKF's revival with his last two years of loop data at Penske

In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.

Two keys for continued improvement

Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.

Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.

Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.

The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.

What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.

In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.

Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.

Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.

Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.

NASCAR weekend schedule at Sonoma Raceway

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The NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series head to Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This marks the first time the Xfinity Series has competed at the 1.99-mile road course.

The Cup and Xfinity Series will take the following weekend off before the season resumes at Nashville Superspeedway. NBC and USA will broadcast each series the rest of the year, beginning at Nashville.

Sonoma Raceway

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 73 degrees. Forecast is for a high of 70 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race.

Sunday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 67 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 9

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
  • 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
  • 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
  • 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)

Saturday, June 10

Garage open

  • 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 3 – 4 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Cup practice  (FS2)
  • 6 – 7 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS2)
  • 8 p.m. — Xfinity race (79 laps, 156.95 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 11

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (110 laps, 218.9 miles; Fox, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation

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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.

MORE: NASCAR’s $1 million question is can the culture change?

“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.