Kansas takeaways: Holding tracks to a ‘higher standard’ on promotion

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The contrast was jarring Sunday.

More than 140,000 people attended the Formula One race at Circuit of the Americas, while the crowd for Kansas Speedway’s Cup playoff race appeared to be no more than a third that size.

Look beyond those numbers to a deeper divide. COTA hosted an event. Kansas Speedway held a race.

“I feel like why are people at COTA for Formula One?” Kyle Busch said before Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas. “Is it because they only come here once a year, and we’ve got 38 shows, and so we’re a little redundant, maybe?”

Sunday’s Formula One race was the first time that series has competed in the U.S. since 2019. It had a full weekend of practice and qualifying that drew more than 400,000 people, making it among the largest three-day weekend crowds in F1 history, if not the largest.

Celebrities were abundant. Among those in attendance were Serena Williams, Megan Thee Stallion, Logan Paul, and Shaquille O’Neal. Billy Joel performed a concert Saturday night, joining Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake and Sir Elton John as among those who have played at COTA on race weekend.

Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas featured no practice or qualifying leading to the event, a standard for many races during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cup race was the 72nd in the U.S. since Formula One last competed in the country.

Denny Hamlin has talked about NASCAR adapting “more of an F1-style approach to a race weekend and how we host hospitalities, parties, just all of those things.”

He said before the Kansas race that more should be done by the tracks.

“Certainly I think the tracks have not been held enough to a high enough standard when it comes to promotion,” Hamlin said. “I think they’ve just really dropped the ball on that. Certainly, a lot of it was because it was such a small part of the revenue it’s just not a needle mover for them.”

Since the pandemic, PR and track marketing staffs have been cut and consolidated.

A view of the fans celebrating the win of Red Bull Racing Honda driver Max Verstappen during the United States Grand Prix Race at Circuit of the Americas. (Photo: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Hamlin said he spoke with NASCAR President Steve Phelps last week about a variety of issues, including track attendance.

“I had some great conversations with Phelps on Wednesday. … I certainly think he saw Texas (Motor Speedway) last week and was like that’s absolutely unacceptable,” Hamlin said. “Whether we’ve got to work with them or audit them, whatever it might be, we’ve got to fix the promotion side of things.

“Certainly, I think that everyone could be held to a higher standard, especially the tracks given the revenue they have.”

Tracks also could be incentivized by minimum attendance clauses that have been added to NASCAR sanctioning agreements in recent years. It’s just a matter of how NASCAR is willing to enforce that during a pandemic.

According to a Dover Motorsports filing, promoters are required at Cup races “to use best efforts to ensure minimum spectator attendance … of at least (70) percent of capacity of the facility.”

Kyle Busch also raised questions about what tracks are doing to attract fans.

“I had a friend of mine who I’d been friends with for 10 or so years reach out to me last weekend and said, “‘Oh, I had no idea you guys were in town for the Texas race. I live 6 minutes from the speedway,” Busch said. “You tell me how we’re going to fix it.”

Making more NASCAR races into events should lead to more promotion, so more people know when a track’s race weekend is.

NASCAR schedule questions stadium
The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will hold the NASCAR Clash exhibition race Feb. 6 to begin the 2022 NASCAR Cup season. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Events make a splash. It’s why NASCAR will start next season inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum instead of at Daytona International Speedway – as the sport has traditionally done.

“I think that’s something we can look at in the future is what other venues like this would you realistically be able to do something like that,” Ben Kennedy, NASCAR vice president of strategic initiatives, told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan in September about the race at the Coliseum.

“But that said, really our core focus right now is really putting on a special event at the Coliseum for our fans and something new and fresh.”

One hope for NASCAR is the event at the Coliseum also will have a celebrity component that is being worked out.

NASCAR has made adjustments to the schedule. COTA hosted its first Cup weekend in May to a good crowd despite rain on race day. Nashville Superspeedway had a sellout crowd of about 38,000 for its first Cup race in June. Road America had a large crowd for its Cup weekend.

Inaugural races often do well. The key is maintaining that excitement and enthusiasm. If not, a track can go away like Kentucky Speedway did. It debuted in 2011 to a record crowd besieged by nightmarish traffic issues and was off the schedule by 2021 as attendance eroded.

NASCAR is making its Championship 4 weekend into an event. The Cup season finale Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway already is sold out. Multiplatinum entertainer Dierks Bentley will perform a concert before the race. Emmy and Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth will perform the national anthem. 

But there’s also been talk of if the championship race should be held at one track annually or moved around. Phoenix will host the season finale for a third consecutive year in 2022.

Former Cup champion Brad Keselowski notes the difference in broadcast and admission revenue when looking at F1 and NASCAR and their approach.

“(Formula One) seems to, at least for the United States, be more interested in the event than broadcast, where (NASCAR) seems to be the opposite and more interested in broadcast than any event,” Keselowski said.

“That’s flipped over years. Twenty years ago I would have said (NASCAR was) probably the opposite. We were where they are. Generally speaking, when you can’t get the broadcast money, you go after the event money. You try for the broadcast money first because it’s much bigger, so much larger pot. In that sense I would say we are ahead, undoubtedly compared to them here in the United States.

“There’s no reason why we can’t have both. I think that’s something that we should certainly aspire to and there’s a lot of reasons we can do that. Ultimately I think there’s enough smart people in the sport we could pull it off pretty easily if they were properly motivated to do so, but, at this point in time, have never been motivated to do it.

“If that changes, we could get there. At this moment it hasn’t. I guess we’ll see how that plays out. It’s really more a question for those that have the power and control to do it than it is probably for the drivers.”

While NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports do not disclose track financials, Dover Motorsports, a publicly traded company, does.

In 2019, the last season before the COVID-19 pandemic, track records show that Dover recorded $4.9 million in admission revenue, while collecting $34.2 million broadcast revenue. Contracts with tracks stipulate that tracks keep 65% percent of its broadcast revenue and put 25% of that revenue into the race purse for teams. NASCAR keeps 10% of the broadcast money.

“I think when I first started coming to the races before the broadcast was so important, it was more about the events,” Keselowski said. “The thing that stood out the most to me was you could go to the midway and it felt like you were at a fair. It doesn’t feel that way now. That’s changed so much. Not that that’s good or bad. I think there’s a lot of ways we can spice it up.

“My No. 1 contention is simple things like driver interaction. I would love to interact more with the fans. Any time  I go to do it, I get charged. Why would I pay to interact with fans? That seems absurd.”

Asked what he meant, Keselowski explained:

“If I want to go do an event somewhere, or if I want to just even park a souvenir trailer outside and sign autographs for fans, it’s “That will cost you 20 grand.’

‘No, I’m doing this for the fans.’

‘Nope, we want our 20 grand. In fact it’s 40 grand.’

‘I’m not going to pay 40 grand (to) you to sign autographs for you to collect the ticket money. That makes no sense.’

“Until those things change, there’s at least, from my side, a complete demotivation to do those things. Whether they will or whether they won’t, I don’t know. I don’t have the ability to control those things. Certainly understand the affects of them.”

With NASCAR owning a majority of the tracks, Keselowski was asked about possible change.

“I’d like to see it change,” he said. “It’s very possible. Do we want to get there or do we not.”

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Reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott goes to Martinsville Speedway 34 points above the cutline in his quest to race for the championship Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.

Elliott also hopes to see the Atlanta Braves play in the World Series. The Braves play Houston for Major League Baseball’s championship. The series starts Tuesday in Houston. Games 3 and 4 are Friday and Saturday in Atlanta.

“I really want to go,” Elliott said. “I’m a huge Braves fan. If it works out and I’m able to figure out a way to go, I definitely will.

“I wasn’t alive the last time they won it (Elliott was born a month after Atlanta won the 1995 title). I was like 3 or 4 when they went back. Really kind of the first time to watch your favorite team go to the World Series, which is a really big deal in America. Hope I can. I’ll try to go. Love to go. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, you never know.”

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Last year, Kevin Harvick entered the Martinsville race 42 points above the cutline and failed to advance to the championship race.

No driver this year is more than 34 points above the cutline. That is Chase Elliott.

A year ago, Elliott entered this race 25 points below the cutline, but he won to earn a spot in the title race. That left two positions for points. Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski took those spots, leaving Harvick, who won nine races, failing to advance.

It’s why Elliott won’t let himself be comfortable even with his lead.

“As you saw today, I am not sure that any amount of points is safe,” he said after the Kansas race. “I think anyone in this round can win next week. So, we are really going to have to be on it, but looking forward to the opportunity and excited for the challenge.”

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

 

 

 

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. 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.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

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

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”