Brad Keselowski

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Friday 5: Rule change is chance for drivers to go back in time

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Jeff Gordon marveled as he watched Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch run nose-to-tail or side-by-side lap after lap for the lead late in the 2017 spring Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

“These are the two of the most equal race cars and one of the best races for the lead I’ve seen here at Martinsville in a very long time,” said Gordon, a nine-time Martinsville winner, on the FS1 broadcast.

Keselowski and Busch rarely seemed apart for a spell within the final 100 laps, whether it was Keselowski pressuring Busch or Busch doing the same thing by closing on Keselowski’s rear bumper.

It is the type of racing NASCAR hopes will return with the announcement this week of a short track package, which includes a smaller spoiler, that shares similarities to what was run in 2017-18.

What makes that 2017 spring Martinsville race stand out is how close Keselowski and Busch ran to each other before Keselowski won.

It contrasts the 2019 spring race, which featured a larger spoiler as part of the high downforce package used at all tracks. Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps that day. Runner-up Chase Elliott could not run close to Keselowski for long. 

Brad Keselowski celebrates his 2017 Martinsville win after a duel with Kyle Busch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Keselowski explained to NBC Sports the differences in those packages and why the cars could run closer together in the 2017 race than the 2019 race.

“You’re able to brake differently, the cars were harder to stop, they had a smaller spoiler, so you had to really use a lot of finesse to work them down into the corner,” Keselowski said of the package used in 2017-18. “You didn’t lose the nose as quickly because you weren’t using aero as such an assist in the middle of the corner.

“If you had asked me earlier in my career if I thought aero would come into play at Martinsville, I would have said you were crazy. Same thing I would have said if you had told me that the cars would make almost 4,000 pounds of downforce. Those two conversations go hand in hand.

“The 2019 car, the easiest way I know how to explain this … at full speed at the tracks that we ran at, if the race track would have been inverted, the car would have stayed on the racetrack. That’s downforce. … It’s to a point where it could be a Hot Wheels track and we could run upside down. That tells you how much assistance the cars were getting from the air.”

The short track package will be used at all ovals 1 mile or less and the three road course events for a total of 14 races this year. Eight of the season’s final 15 races, including five in the playoffs, will be run with this package. The championship race at Phoenix will use this short track setup.

“Making this change is certainly a step in the direction of putting the racing back in the drivers’ hands and out of aerodynamics’ control,” Keselowski said. “More times than not, but not always, the result is better for the fans. I think it’s a win as a whole.”

2. Tire change with short track package

One of the complaints drivers and teams had last year was the lack of tire wear during events. Without such wear and tire falloff, drivers found it more challenging to pass, particularly at short tracks. 

With the lower downforce package at short tracks this year, Goodyear will construct a tire intended to wear more, said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

“We are going to make some changes,” Stucker told NBC Sports about the tire that will be used with the short track setup.

“From a traction, from a grip-level perspective, I go back to what we learned at the Martinsville test that we had there in July, what we learned at our Richmond test back in October. Granted that was in the Next Gen car, but we were able to evaluate some things and learn some things about Richmond and the same thing with Phoenix because we evaluated several different compounds. We got different reference points at those two tests along with stuff we’ve done in the past at those two race tracks testing-wise. We were able to formulate a plan to go a little softer than what we have been.

“Even understanding that the downforce is coming off, on top of that, we’re going to go ahead and take a step in trying to increase the grip level mechanically, which will also result in higher tread wear that, hopefully, will fall off.”

With a new short track package and a tire intended to wear more, will NASCAR need to use the traction compound (darker portion of the track) at Phoenix again this year? (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Goodyear will not do any testing before the first race with the short track package — Phoenix on March 8 — because there isn’t enough time.

NASCAR met with drivers, teams, Goodyear and others in Nashville before the December awards banquet to devise a course of action for the short tracks. That followed NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying before the season finale in Miami that “our promise to our fans … is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”

One issue that has not been determined is if the traction compound applied in the corners at Phoenix Raceway last year will be reapplied for the March race. With a new short track package and a new tire, the traction compound might not be needed.

“Our opinion, and I think everybody’s is … (the traction compound) is to enhance the multiple racing lines, it is enable multiple grooves to come in at a particular track,” Stucker said. “We’re not in favor of just applying traction compound on a racetrack just to go faster. That’s not the goal.”

3. Decisions, decisions

Among the challenges for some teams with the short track package is determining how much wind tunnel time to devote to that setup and to the higher downforce package used at the bigger tracks.

NASCAR announced in October that organizations would be limited to 150 hours of wind tunnel time in 2020.

While the short track package shares similarities to what was run in 2017 and ’18, it’s not the same. Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations for Joe Gibbs Racing, said that wind tunnel time will be important for the short track setup.

Makar told NBC Sports that it will be a “challenge” to properly divide the wind tunnel time between the low downforce and high downforce packages.

Even with simulation programs playing a greater role for teams, Makar says wind tunnel testing is still vital.

Kyle Busch scored his second Cup title in five years in 2019 for Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“You can learn a lot of basic things in (simulation) and kind of get your preliminary ideas and thoughts together and then apply them in the wind tunnel to get your final decision on how that change worked,” Makar said. “The wind tunnel, I think, probably is still your closest thing to the racetrack.”

Other key decisions for teams will come as the year progresses.

Teams will have to decide how to allocate resources in preparing high downforce cars, low downforce cars and also the Next Gen car that debuts in 2021.

“It does create a bit of a different challenge because it is that much different,” Makar said of the Next Gen car. “It’s completely, uniquely new to us. Just looking at the car and how things bolt together, it’s a big learning curve for all the teams. It’s not like over the years when you had a body change or an aero package change, it’s still the same car.”

Makar said one thing that will help is that with NASCAR putting a freeze on teams developing new parts, those crew members can focus on the Next Gen car.

Another key issue will be for any organization that has multiple teams in the playoffs — and even multiple teams in the final eight or the championship race. Go all in on a championship or work on the Next Gen car to begin next year strong?

“In my view, the obvious thing is (this year’s) championship is the first and foremost goal,” Makar said. “That’s what we have to focus on. That’s the next thing in line.”

4. His turn

The recent shuffling of drivers and crew chiefs at Team Penske could have some fans of Brad Keselowski feeling down.

Car owner Roger Penske split Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, sending Wolfe to work with Joey Logano. Penske also moved Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, over to be with Ryan Blaney. That left Jeremy Bullins, who had been Blaney’s crew chief, to join Keselowski.

So what would Keselowski tell his fans about now being paired with Bullins?

Jeremy Bullins moves over from Ryan Blaney’s team to be Brad Keselowski’s crew chief in 2020. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“First thing I’d tell my fans is that Jeremy is the only Cup crew chief at Penske of the three that hasn’t won the championship,” Keselowski said. “The way I see it, he’s the next one to win one.”

Keselowski is focused on this season but he did tell NBC Sports that “I’m super proud of everything we were able to do as a team with Paul as crew chief and everyone else that was on the team at that time. I haven’t really spent much time looking out the rear window because I can’t change anything. So I’m looking out the front windshield.”

With a new crew chief will come new demands.

“I’m sure that Jeremy and the team are going to challenge me to be better,” Keselowski said. “I think that’s healthy. I’m going to do the same with them. I guess I view it as a complete blank slate. Our goal is to be the best and win the championship in 2020.

“What’s great is that we all have enough experience for that to be a realistic opportunity. If you combine that with our willingness to try new things, I think it could be a lethal combination.”

5. A name to remember

Cannon McIntosh’s assignment last fall was to write an essay about himself as if the high school junior was preparing a college application.

He felt good about what he wrote.

Until he got his grade.

A zero.

McIntosh’s instructor thought what McIntosh wrote was not true, that it had been plagiarized. No way, the teacher assumed, this student was a race car driver.

Cannon McIntosh (right) with Jay Drake, team manager of Keith Kunz Motorsports.
(Photo by Swikar Patel/TRD)

The situation was quickly rectified. Soon more than McIntosh’s teachers will know who he is.

The 17-year-old has been making a name in midget racing the past year and earned a ride with Keith Kunz Motorsports for this week’s Chili Bowl as a Toyota Racing Development driver. Keith Kunz Motorsports has won the past five Chili Bowl titles, including the past three with Christopher Bell.

McIntosh, who grew up in the Tulsa, Oklahoma suburbs and has to only make a short drive to the site of the Chili Bowl, won his preliminary feature Monday night to earn his first berth in the Chili Bowl Nationals A main.

He can’t wait until Saturday night’s feature race.

“I’ve raced pretty much all the guys that are going to be in that feature,” McIntosh told NBC Sports. “I know what to expect, and I know what I’m going to have to bring to the table, racing against those guys.

“(Kyle) Larson and Bell are definitely going to be the ones to beat coming Saturday. I’ve raced them before and I know what to expect. I’m going to have to be on my game. No matter what happens, we did well, we made the feature. I’m just hoping we can put on a good show, let them know we were there to fight.”

Xfinity Series to race on Indy’s road course

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The Xfinity Series will race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course this year, track officials announced Wednesday.

The July 4 race, sponsored by Pennzoil, will take place at 1:30 p.m. ET and air on NBC. The Cup race on July 5 also will be on NBC at 3:30 p.m. ET.

“As all the Xfinity drivers are looking into this weekend, I think we’re all going to be excited to be (in) the first NASCAR road race at Indy,” Justin Allgaier said during Wednesday’s press conference. “We’re all going to want to win that first race. I remember the first time coming here and racing in the Xfinity Series how exciting that was.”

Matt DiBenedetto will test different configurations for the road course on Jan. 22, Ben Kennedy, NASCAR managing director, racing operations and international development, said Wednesday. Kennedy said DiBenedetto will not be eligible to compete in the Xfinity race in July.

Moving the Xfinity race from the oval to the road course is the first major move made at the track since Roger Penske’s company purchased the speedway. One of Penske’s priorities has been putting more emphasis on the track’s NASCAR weekend, which has suffered significant attendance declines for more than a decade.

“We look at the (Indianapolis) 500 and the success we have and this race, we had many, many fans here as we started and then we had the issue with tires (in the 2008 race that led to NASCAR issuing an apology) and other things,” Penske said about why the focus on the NASCAR weekend. “We really have not had the ability to fill the stands the way we want. I think it’s a challenge for us. It’s something we want to work on. So it became a priority for us.”

Penske Corporation’s purchase of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions became official Jan. 6. The sale to Roger Penske’s company was announced Nov. 4.

Penske discussed his plans for the track Jan. 9 on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, saying: “I guess my first grade card is how we do in the first year in making a difference at the track in 2020. We’re completely focused on that. We’re going to make several millions of dollars of investments before the month of May. It’s not to create more revenue or profit bottom-line, it’s entirely what can we do to make the guest and fan experience better.”

This will be the fifth road course event on the 33-race schedule for the Xfinity Series this season.

The other road course races will be May 30 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Aug. 8 at Road America, Aug. 15 at Watkins Glen and Oct. 10 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The Xfinity Series has raced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2012. Kyle Busch has won four of those races. Other winners have been Allgaier (2018), William Byron (2017), Ty Dillon (2014) and Brad Keselowski (2012).

The plan is that track officials will need about 90 minutes to convert the track back to the oval configuration after the Xfinity race on July 4 before Cup teams will be able to practice. The first practice is tentatively scheduled for 5:05 – 5:55 p.m. ET and final practice is scheduled for 6:35 – 7:25 p.m. ET. Cup teams will qualify the morning of the July 5 race at the tentative time of 11:05 a.m. ET.

Other announcements about the Indy weekend are that Florida Georgia Line will hold a concert on July 4, a fireworks show and new infield camping.

While there could be a tire test at some point, there are no plans at this time for any additional testing other than the test with DiBenedetto next week. Penske said the focus of the test with DiBenedetto will be primarily to look at run-off areas.

“We will not be running at any speeds here next week, just with the weather,” Penske said. “If someone thinks we picked him to run this. This was a car that could be available.”

NASCAR cuts spoiler as part of changes to short track package

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NASCAR revealed changes Tuesday for Cup teams at short tracks in 2020, including the championship event at Phoenix Raceway, in an effort to improve the racing at those tracks.

The racing quality at short tracks last year drew much criticism, leading NASCAR President Steve Phelps to say in November at Miami that “our promise to our fans … is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”

Among the changes for those specific tracks:

  • A significantly smaller rear spoiler, which shrinks from an 8-inch height to 2.75 inches.
  • The front splitter’s overhang will now measure a quarter-inch (down from 2 inches), with approximately 2-inch wings (reduced from 10.5 inches).
  • Alterations to the radiator pan, removing its vertical fencing in an effort to reduce front-end downforce. The dimensions of the pan remain the same.

The changes are similar to what was used in 2017-18. The package will be used for 14 races — 11 on short tracks and the three road course events.

Tracks with changes will be Bristol, Dover, Martinsville, New Hampshire, Phoenix, Richmond, the Charlotte Roval, Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

Phoenix Raceway will host the championship race Nov. 8. It is the first time the track has hosted the Cup title race.

Five of the 10 playoff races will feature this new package. Those races will be Richmond (Sept. 12), Bristol (Sept. 19), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 11), Martinsville (Nov. 1) and Phoenix (Nov. 8).

Bristol, the Roval and Martinsville are all cutoff races in the playoffs.

The short package will make its debut March 8 at Phoenix Raceway.

“Our goal has always been to provide the best possible racing for our fans, regardless of venue,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, in a statement. “The 2019 Cup Series race package delivered some of the most exciting races on intermediate and larger tracks that our sport has seen, however we felt we could make improvements to short tracks and road courses. We believe we have found the right balance for 2020 that will allow teams to build off their previous knowledge of this package and showcase exciting side-by-side racing at tracks of all sizes.”

O’Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that the changes made for 2020 will carry over to the Next Gen car.

“The good news for the future car is it has those built in already, which will be a bonus based on what we learned,” O’Donnell said.

Frustration built last season for competitors and fans with the racing at short tracks.

Martinsville prominently illustrated the issues at short tracks last year. Brad Keselowski won the spring race after leading 446 of 500 laps. Martin Truex Jr. won the fall playoff race, leading 464 of 500 laps.

The Richmond playoff race had six lead changes among three drivers. Truex, the race winner, and Kyle Busch, who finished second, combined to lead 311 of 400 laps.

Paul Wolfe thinking about little things after move to Joey Logano’s car

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In the week since he started working with Joey Logano, crew chief Paul Wolfe has had to revisit aspects of his job he hadn’t had to worry about for almost a decade.

That’s the scenario he finds himself in after Team Penske announced Jan. 6 that he was moving from Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 car to Logano’s No. 22 as part of crew chief swap involving all three of Penske’s Cup teams.

“Doesn’t seem like a very big change because we’re all in the same company,” Wolfe said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.” “There’s so many little details and things that go along with the change. It’s (made what would) typically (be) a calm January for us without any testing, it’s left us with plenty to do and plenty to think about.”

Before the shakeup, Wolfe and Keselowski were the longest active driver-crew chief pairing in the Cup Series, dating back to 2011. Before that they had one season together in the Xfinity Series.

Now Wolfe holds the role Todd Gordon had on the No. 22 team starting in 2012 before Logano took over the ride in 2013. Jeremy Bullins moves into Wolfe’s spot, while Gordon is paired with Ryan Blaney on the No. 12.

“(I’m) just trying to keep track of which hauler I’m supposed to walk into now,” Wolfe said. “When you walk into the 2 (hauler) for 10 years and the Miller colors. Now being on the 22, there’s been plenty of confusion when guys are talking about cars and car numbers. We’ll have to get all that sorted out.”

Added Wolfe: “The short time Joey and I have been together here, it’s only been just a week, it really gets you thinking about things that just kind of became natural for you when you’ve been with someone, with a team for 10 years, just the way you go about business everyday and how you look at things and your approach into a race weekend.”

Wolfe said he and Keselowski were “fortunate enough” to have a decade run that saw them win the 2012 Cup title (Team Penske’s first) and 29 Cup races, including the 2018 Brickyard 400 (Team Penske’s first win in the race) and the Southern 500 (the team’s first Cup win at Darlington since 1975).

“It’s tough when you have to leave something like that,” Wolfe told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “You’re always looking forward and trying to figure out how to be better. I think as I look at our company as a whole, I think the boss man (Roger Penske) thought this could shake things up. You know, maybe spark some new ideas and things mixing the guys up.

Wolfe cited Penske when he referred to how differently he, Gordon and Bullins approach their job.

“Roger always says we all have the same cars … and everyone’s got the same equipment,” Wolfe said. “I don’t play golf, but he makes a reference to everyone holds their seven iron a little bit different. I think that’s kind of the same way with the drivers and the crew chiefs. We all have the same tools and things to work with, but there’s different thoughts and ideas and theories on how to make it all work and how to use all those things.

“Trying to understand where Joey’s at on some of those things. Brad and Joey are both winning, championship drivers. But with that being said, they have different styles and techniques and ways they see the race play out. Trying to really understand and get the communication part down.”

Wolfe and Logano won’t be in a garage together until Feb. 8 for the Cup Series’ first practice sessions at Daytona International Speedway. In the meantime, the new duo is figuring each other out with the help of simulators.

“(You) try to understand Joey’s level when he’s telling us a car is a one or a two or a three loose,” Wolfe said. “You try to understand, ‘OK, how much of an adjustment is that for Joey or what do we need to do to fix that complaint?’ Now we have simulators and that’s the next closest thing we’re going to do to getting on the race track.

“The simulators have come a long ways and they still could be better and we’re working with them to try and make them better. But there’s definitely one thing that it is good for and it’s just that communication piece and making changes and trying things and just talking on the radio to understand a little bit of the lingo.”

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Roger Penske likes direction NASCAR, his organization are going

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The Captain likes what he sees in the waters ahead of him.

Roger Penske made a special guest appearance Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Trading Paint” and is bullish on what’s ahead for NASCAR as the series begins to implement a number of changes over the next few years.

Those include the change from one series entitlement sponsor as in past seasons in favor of four premier partners this season, as well as a revised schedule (with the potential of more schedule alterations in 2021 and beyond).

There’s also the highly anticipated Next Gen car slated for 2021, a push to attract additional car manufacturers and an industry-wide focus on cost cutting.

“One of the main things NASCAR is trying to do is take costs out,” Penske told co-hosts John Roberts and Chocolate Myers. “People say speed costs money, how fast do you want to go? But I think we’re at a limit where we have to go the other way.

“To me, the cost is key. The schedule is going to be different, I understand, but its also going to give other teams the ability to raise sponsorships and if the costs are cut by 30 or 40 percent, it’s going to allow new people to join the sport, which I feel is very, very important as we go forward.

“We need new owners, more new drivers that want to come in with maybe a new team, some of the new things they’ve announced on pit stops, and there’s a lot of discussions going on with NASCAR.”

Another area that Penske, who turns 83 next month, is also very bullish is even closer to home: the shakeup of shifting all three NASCAR Cup crew chiefs in his organization earlier this week:

“You have to look at the talent you have both on and off the track and people have been together a number of years,” Penske told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It’s like any person in any job, people like a change and it motivates them.

“We felt we had three great guys and great drivers and we said, ‘Let’s change it up this year and let’s see what happens.’ This isn’t because anybody asked for it or not. … We sat down and said what can we do differently than to have a bigger spoiler or engine that can motivate our guys going forward. It was pretty much made before Christmas … and the guys are off and running.

“I think it’s good. You see people moving crew chiefs and drivers moving around, but this is part of our business plan and part of the way we run our business.”

To further illustrate Team Penske’s one-for-all and all-for-one mantra, the organization’s patriarch said there were no objections among the three crew chiefs that were shifted, nor their drivers.

“I don’t know who spun out or didn’t because they wouldn’t tell me, but everybody reported to work so that’s the only true test I can have,” Penske said with a laugh, before drawing serious again. “Everybody was on it and wanted to go forward.

“So let’s see what the result is. It’s going to be interesting. When you start working with someone new, there’s new ideas and it’s not the same old, same old. This business is moving so fast, we have to be better as a whole team, not just crew chiefs and drivers.

“We had a good season, it wasn’t a bad season, but it wasn’t a championship season and we’re in the business of winning championships. … Sometimes it makes sense to give someone another opportunity in another job and that’s what we did.”

Penske also addressed the acquisition of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series; the sale from Hulman & Co. officially closed this past Monday.

“I looked at it as an opportunity,” Penske said. “And to me, if the legacy can go down that we can take this track, none of us can say whether we did a better job than they did after 74 years.

“I guess my first grade card is how we do in the first year in making a difference at the track in 2020. We’re completely focused on that. We’re going to make several millions of dollars of investments before the month of May. It’s not to create more revenue or profit bottom-line, it’s entirely what can we do to make the guest and fan experience better.

“That’s what we want to do. We have a number of things on our mind and we’re going to announce a lot of those things on 100 days out. We’ll have some announcements that will be exciting and hopefully the experience will be what we expect to provide to the guests that come to the track.”

The voice of the normally stoic Penske cracked slightly when asked what he thought when the sale was complete and the pride of 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis was his after 74 years of ownership by the Hulman-George family.

“I did one thing,” he said, as his voice slightly quivered. “I looked up in the sky and said to my dad, ‘thanks’ because he took me there (for the first time) when I was 14 years old.”

Penske then continued about the significance of the track where his teams have captured a record 18 Indianapolis 500s.

“I’ve been there every year since that day in ’51,” Penske said. “It’s amazing what it brings to us. It’s an amazing place and certainly from our family, my son Greg who was very important in building California Speedway.

“I was fortunate here on the (January) 7th after we completed the transaction to be invited by the governor to go downtown and go to the (Indiana state) Senate along with Tony (George), Mark Miles, my son Greg and I and have the Senate read and approve a declaration of the day and many of the senators got up and spoke about the history of the Speedway and their families, and then we did the same thing at the (Indiana state) House. It was just amazing.

“Understand that this is the Holy Grail of the state of Indiana. They told stories about being in the state of Alaska in 1981 when Bobby Unser won the race and then they took it away because they looked at TV and said he passed when he blended — and they were arguing about it in Alaska.

“You just think about the reach of this place. Our responsibility is it’s a treasure, it’s iconic and something from my perspective, it’s just exactly what built our brand. … Certainly winning there 18 years, finally winning the Brickyard, winning on the road course, you can’t just say it happens. It takes so many great people that have given us the opportunities to be winners, so I just have to thank them. And I thank my dad … and here we are.”

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