Friday 5: Schedule change part of NASCAR’s broader makeover

0 Comments

NASCAR’s transformation of the Cup schedule shows a sport in motion, willing to change, seeking new audiences and continuing to reimagine itself as it looks to 2022 and beyond.

New markets are a priority. Short tracks are in demand. Risks are encouraged.

When next year arrives, nearly a quarter of the Cup schedule will have changed since 2019. That includes a race on dirt, one in a football stadium and another at a track previously abandoned by NASCAR.

Times change. Doing the same thing becomes stale. The sport needed a jolt. First, it was the playoff system. Then, it was the car. Now, it’s the schedule.

“I think our sport is much more open-minded to change,” former champion Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports. “It’s not ‘We’ve gone here, we’ve got to keep going here.’ It’s more ‘We’re going to go here because it’s better for the sport. It’s interesting. It’s exciting. Whatever that scenario is, it’s different.’

“In today’s world, people just like new and different, and you have to keep it mixed up and keep it fresh.”

Change in the sport has become nearly constant to the new generation of Cup drivers.

“It’s no big deal for me,” William Byron said of next year’s schedule alterations.

The 23-year-old, who entered Cup in 2018, has seen new events on the schedule each year except one.

More new races are likely on the way.

Speedway Motorsports continues its bid to operate Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee, and return Cup racing to the 0.596-mile track as early as 2023.

Auto Club Speedway has plans to go from a 2-mile track to a half-mile facility.

There remains interest in a street course race in Chicago, but many factors, including politics, will determine if that event happens or takes place only on iRacing. NASCAR also has interest in the New York City region.

Ben Kennedy, NASCAR vice president of strategic initiatives, told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan this week that the next step for the series is “continuing to keep the schedule fresh and entering some of these new markets.”

NASCAR schedule questions stadium
The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home to two Olympics (and a third in 2028) and the University of Southern California football team, will host the NASCAR Clash on Feb. 6, 2022. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The NASCAR Clash next February puts a Cup race near downtown Los Angeles a week before the city hosts the Super Bowl.

Next year’s Cup debut at World Wide Technology Raceway, located a few miles from St. Louis, puts the series in the nation’s 23rd largest TV market, according to the Nielsen Designated Market Area list. Indianapolis, Nashville and Kansas City are among cities that rank behind St. Louis.

NASCAR’s debut at Circuit of the Americas this year moved a Cup race to Austin, Texas, one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

Fans have responded to NASCAR’s recent changes to the schedule.

Circuit of the Americas had a large crowd despite rain during the Cup race. Nashville Superspeedway sold out about 38,000 seats for the Cup race. Road America saw some of its largest crowds in years with the Xfinity-Cup doubleheader during the July 4 weekend.

There was a time NASCAR was not as daring with the schedule, though. From 2002-17, only one track was added to the Cup schedule – Kentucky Speedway in 2011. Its last Cup race was 2019.

NASCAR’s focus then was on how it determined a champion instead of adding to the schedule. The Chase debuted in 2004 with 10 title contenders. The field expanded to 12 in 2007. The format was tweaked in 2011.

The playoff format was unveiled in 2014 with 16 drivers, eliminations and one race determining the champion. Stage racing and playoff points were introduced in 2017.

It wasn’t until the format came together that NASCAR focused on the schedule. In 2018, Chicagoland and New Hampshire were moved out of the playoffs for Las Vegas and Richmond. The Charlotte Roval debuted that season.

The Cup championship weekend moved from Homestead to Phoenix in 2020. Next year will mark the third consecutive year Phoenix has hosted the title weekend.

“My opinion is that the championship race should never be at the same racetrack two years in a row,” Harvick said. “There should be a rotation.

“The (10 playoff) races should never look the same. Should always be mixed up as you go from year to year because it keeps it fresh, it keeps it interesting, it keeps everybody guessing.”

That’s just among the many changes in recent years to the schedule.

Races on the 2019 schedule that are not on the 2022 schedule:

  • The Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona
  • The Bristol spring race (on concrete)
  • The Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte
  • Chicagoland Speedway
  • Kentucky Speedway
  • A Pocono race
  • A Michigan race
  • A Dover race
  • The oval at Indianapolis
  • A second points race at Texas

In place of those races on the 2022 schedule are:

  • The NASCAR Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum
  • The Bristol Dirt race
  • The NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas
  • World Wide Technology Raceway
  • Circuit of the Americas
  • Nashville Superspeedway
  • Road America
  • A second race at Atlanta
  • The road course at Indianapolis
  • A second race at Darlington
NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400
The crowd at the start of the inaugural Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway in June. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Among the changes next year will be the Bristol Dirt race moving to Easter night. NASCAR last raced on Easter in 1989 due to weather.

Once NASCAR was comfortable scheduling a Cup race on Mother’s Day, it made it easier to look at racing on Easter.

“You think about the amount of other sports that play on Thanksgiving or a number of different holidays,” Kennedy said. “At the end of the day, we’re kind of no exception. Race on Mother’s Day, race on Presidents Day weekend and on Easter Sunday, too, so I think it’ll be exciting and interesting to see how it performs.

The sport also is looking at other options for races, including some sites outside the U.S.

“I think the (NASCAR Clash at the) L.A. Coliseum and a concept like this brings about the ability to go to different markets,” Kennedy said. “And in particular as we think about international markets as well. There’s a ton of soccer stadiums across the world, and being able to duplicate this in other markets, I think really turns this into a proof of concept as well.”

Another change with the schedule is the move away from Saturday night races, traditionally a weak TV viewing night.

The 2022 schedule has three Saturday night races – Martinsville on April 9, the regular-season finale Aug. 27 at Daytona and the Bristol Night Race on Sept. 17.

There were seven Saturday night races on the 2019 schedule. Among those that have moved to Sunday include the All-Star Race and the Darlington Cup race that went from the night before Mother’s Day to running on that day.

One change Harvick would like to see in the coming years is with the All-Star Race.

“I still believe the All-Star Race is underutilized in what we could use it for racing in general,” he said. “When you look at SRX (the summer short track series started by Tony Stewart and Ray Evernham) and you look at the racetracks that they went to and you see the reaction to that particular series and the things that they did on short tracks, I think the All-Star Race would be a great way to re-energize the short track community.”

Going to a local short track not only could provide energy but also aid the grassroots community, Harvick said. The event could help that particular track generate enough income to add enhancements for fans and competitors. That way, the event would leave something behind when it heads to another track.

“You go to markets,” Harvick said, “you’re going to fill the place up and be able to help rebuild that short track program that we really haven’t had an opportunity to do in a number of years since (former series sponsor) Winston left, because of the fact there’s not just been an influx of money and attention that goes with it like Winston put on the short track system.”

2. Turnaround

Kurt Busch enters Saturday night’s race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) holding the last transfer spot via a tiebreaker over Alex Bowman.

Last year, Busch entered the Bristol cutoff race four points above the cutline. He advanced.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race
Kurt Busch celebrating his Bristol win in August 2018.  (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Busch has six career Cup wins at Bristol, making this an optimal track to be a cutoff event for him. But Bristol wasn’t always a good place for him. He finished 42nd in his first Cup race there in March 2001.

“My first race there, I wrecked like four or five different times, ran out of radiators and they didn’t even have a tunnel to walk out of back then,” Busch told NBC Sports. “My sponsor at the time, Sharpie, sponsored the night race and I’m like ‘Oh boy, I better figure this place out pretty quick.’

“It just clicked. When (crew chief) Jimmy Fennig and I started working together, he had these cool Mark Martin setups. I just loved hanging it out and ripping it around there, and it’s turned out to be one of my favorite tracks throughout my career.”

Busch won in his third career Cup start at Bristol in March 2002. That started a streak of four wins in the next five races there. His most recent win at Bristol was August 2018.

“I love Bristol,” he said. “I love the lap times there, cranking out 15-second lap times in a little bullring like that and then the atmosphere there is great.”

3. Early surge

Denny Hamlin’s win at Darlington moved him into the next round but overlooked is how many playoff points he’s scored in the first two playoff races.

NASCAR Power Rankings
Denny Hamlin‘s fast start in the playoffs has helped him collect key playoff points. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Hamlin has won three of four stages. Added to his win (worth five playoff points), he’s scored eight playoff points in the last two races.

That’s important because playoff points likely will matter in who advances in the following rounds, particularly the championship round.

Hamlin has 23 playoff points entering the Bristol race. Every driver who reached the championship race via points had at least 26 playoff points.

Here’s a look at how many playoff points each driver has entering Bristol:

53 – Kyle Larson

29 – Martin Truex Jr.

24 – Ryan Blaney

23 – Denny Hamlin

22 – Kyle Busch

21 – Chase Elliott

15 – Alex Bowman

14 – William Byron

13 – Joey Logano

8 – Brad Keselowski

8 – Kurt Busch

5 – Christopher Bell

5 – Aric Almirola

5 – Michael McDowell

3 – Tyler Reddick

2 – Kevin Harvick

4. Xfinity showdown 

Tonight’s Xfinity race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) marks the end of the regular season. Three playoff spots remain.

Jeremy Clements (+74), Brandon Jones (+67) and Riley Herbst (+66) hold the final three spots. 

Also on the line is the regular season crown. Austin Cindric leads AJ Allmendinger by five points.

Cindric had an 82-point lead on Allmendinger after winning on the Indianapolis road course last month. Since then, Allmendinger won at Michigan, finished second at Daytona, placed 20th at Darlington and was 18th at Richmond.

Allmendinger has been helped by Cindric’s troubles. Cindric was 37th at Michigan after an incident, finished 39th at Daytona because of a crash, was third at Darlington and placed 16th at Richmond.

“It’s a pretty fluid weekend for us,” Cindric said. “It’s the difference of five playoff points. It’s been a tough month in August, almost losing 100 points in two races. That really derailed our hopes, or at least our comfort, for that. 

“I would say in the Xfinity Series, five points, it’s not that it’s harder to make up than in the Cup Series, but the amount of cars that gain stage points – realistically, anybody you’re gonna be racing against in the Xfinity Series gains stage points, so your gains are cut in half. 

“We really have to have a standout day under normal circumstances for us to be able to clinch this or at least get it to where it’s tied.”

Said AJ Allmendinger this week on MotorMouths: “The last couple of weeks, we’ve had really fast race cars. We haven’t quite executed the way we needed to. We could have had a bigger points lead.”

5. Young talent

Among the athletes who are represented by Kevin Harvick Inc. are a pair of teenagers.

One is a racer. The other is a bull rider.

Nicholas Jackson won the 2020 Jr. bull riding championship in his age group. While KHI represents drivers, UFC fighters and golfers, a 13-year-old bull rider was new.

“He has huge potential,” Harvick told NBC Sports about Jackson. “We’ve helped take pressure off the family from a financial standpoint to focus on making him the best human being and focus on also being able to be great at what he does.”

The racer is Brent Crews, a 13-year-old, who ranks second in the POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget standings.

“He’s one of those that is just a diamond in the rough that is going to have great potential to race whatever he wants to race,” Harvick said of Crews. “He’s already raced and won all over the world. You see him win in the POWRi midgets this year.

“The hardest part with Brent is just trying to keep up with his potential and evolution and progression through his career because he learns so fast and accomplishes things so fast that you have to figure out what’s next pretty quick.”

KHI added Jackson, Crews and Keelan Harvick (Kevin Harvick’s son) as part of the company’s Youth Sports Division in February.

“We always pride ourselves on being small,” Kevin Harvick said. “I think that’s one thing that allows us to kind of tailor the program to each athlete, learn each sanctioning body in different sports because they all are different, but they all teach us something about that we can do better.

“From the sponsor side of things, I think it’s important to have assets that are all over the board just because of the fact everybody has customers that may not like racing, they may not like UFC, they may not like golf, bull riding. Surely we have something that they may like across the board that allows them to entertain people outside of just racing.”

That’s been a factor for Harvick who has built relationships with many companies throughout his career.

Now, he’s partnering with Xfinity, promoting the Xfinity Rewards program for Xfinity customers. Among the rewards are a sweepstakes for the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway and another for the NASCAR championship weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

Also, Xfinity customers can receive access to NASCAR Scanner, allowing them to listen to in-car audio during races.

“I think that’s what a lot of people, especially people who are new to our sport don’t understand, all the information you can get access to in order to make that race more inserting to you and you can kind of tailor the race to how you want to watch it,” Harvick said of the NASCAR Scanner.

 and on Facebook

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

3 Comments

NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

1 Comment

Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

2 Comments

A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

0 Comments

FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”