While the Cup garage opens in two weeks at Daytona International Speedway to begin the 2020 season, a bigger deadline is looming.
It is less than 10 weeks from NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of announcing the 2021 schedule around April 1.
Phelps made it clear in November what will be key elements to the upcoming schedule.
“We’re looking at where we’re going to have the most competitive racing that we can have, where we’re going to have full grandstands, and what does that market look like, is it a new market that we can service,” Phelps said the morning of last season’s finale in Miami.
Tracks that host Cup races — now mostly owned by NASCAR — were put on notice by Phelps’ comments.
“The two things that teams need: We need butts in seats and eyeballs on the TV,” said Steve Newmark, Roush Fenway Racing president, this week.
He stated how important attendance is for teams by noting the growth at Watkins Glen International, which had its fifth consecutive sellout of grandstand seating last year.
“When I started in 2010, we didn’t take a lot of partners to Watkins Glen,” Newmark said of sponsors. “Now you take a partner to Watkins Glen in a heartbeat. It is sold out, the energy there. I understand the capacity at Watkins Glen is not the same but it has this feeling, and I think really what we’re trying from a team perspective, from a Roush Fenway perspective, that’s the most important thing.
“I want to go to areas that embrace having the race, that people show up in the stands, that there is a lot of energy. That’s where I want to take my partners. I want them to see their brand in that type of setting.
“Some venues can do that with two races. Other venues it’s been more of a struggle. I would love to see us try these new venues. There will be an energy around that.”
Among Newmark’s suggestions of where NASCAR should consider racing at some point: “Mexico, Canada, street courses, different road courses, different short tracks, look at it all.”
Ryan Newman, who enters his second year at Roush Fenway Racing, said that NASCAR should consider running a Cup race on dirt.
“I’m not trying to bash anybody, we just can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing,” he said this week. “We just can’t. We’ve got to mix it up as a sport. We’re working on doing that and I know that.
“But we’ve got to mix it up and make the fans want to see something different, want to see something new. A different driver. A different venue. A different type of anything. Not just a Next Gen car, that’s a part of it. … Going dirt racing can be done with the Next Gen car. If Junior Johnson was here, he’d tell you, ‘Let’s go race dirt.’ I’m telling you.”
Only the Truck series races on dirt, competing at Eldora Speedway. Cup last raced on a dirt track Sept. 30, 1970 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, North Carolina. Richard Petty won that race.
As the sport continues to evolve — adding a night race at Martinsville, a doubleheader weekend at Pocono, and the debut of the Next Gen car next season — the makeup of the schedule in the coming years will be among the biggest tasks for NASCAR officials.
2. A big deal
After winning the Chili Bowl for the first time in 13 attempts, Kyle Larson said moments after the triumph on the MavTV broadcast: “Its a pretty different range of emotions 365 days later. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I’m sorry NASCAR, I’m sorry Daytona, but this is the biggest (expletive) race I’ve ever won. I hope to win Daytona in a few weeks but this is bad ass.”
Larson, who lost the Chili Bowl the previous year on the last lap, later explained his comment in his press conference.
“It will be fun to watch the dirt fans and the NASCAR fans go at it and maybe get a text from (NASCAR’s Steve) O’Donnell and probably (Chip Ganassi Racing chief operating officer) Doug Duchardt,” Larson said.
“I think they understand the energy that this race brings to me and how much I want to win and have wanted to win it. Obviously, I’ve said in the past that the Chili Bowl, to me, is bigger than the Daytona 500. Obviously, it’s not just because of the size of the crowd and the purse of the Daytona 500, nothing compares with that I’ve raced in.
“On a personal level, just how close I’ve been to winning this race, I think that’s where I think this race has meant more to me. But now maybe after winning the Chili Bowl, the Daytona 500 will be that next race that’s going to mean the most to me that I want to win. It’s just been a great little run and hopefully we can turn this into some good momentum into the NASCAR season.”
Ryan Newman, who competed at the Chili Bowl Nationals for the first time, defended Larson’s excitement with winning that event.
“There’s 360 drivers, 360 teams going for one trophy. That’s spectacular,” Newman said. “I raced midgets races before where I won and there were 16 cars that entered and I felt really good about it. Going back to the Kyle Larson (comment), when there’s 360 (drivers) and you have been working … your whole life to get that trophy, it makes it special. It makes it more special than anybody who is out of his shoes to understand.”
Brad Keselowski won the first Xfinity race at Indy (it was known as the Nationwide Series at the time) in 2012. That remains a special accomplishment.
“It sticks with you,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m proud of it. … It makes me … a little sad because I don’t get to compete in that series anymore with all the rules, it’s not feasible. So there is a little bit of sorrow I have with that question (of winning there) but it certainly was a defining moment for my career.”
Keselowski also won the final Xfinity race at Lucas Oil Raceway — where the series competed from 1982-2011 before moving to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
4. 15 and counting …
Call it a good sign for some, an omen for others or one crazy coincidence but each of the past 15 Cup champions have had an even-number car number.
The last driver to win the championship with an odd number on the car was Kurt Busch. He won the 2004 title (the inaugural Chase) driving the No. 97 car.
So, if one believes in signs, the even-number streak could be a bad sign this season for drivers with odd numbers, such as Busch (No. 1), Chase Elliott (No. 9), Denny Hamlin (No. 11) and Martin Truex Jr. (No. 19) among others.
The four-hour endurance race begins at 1:10 pm. ET (and will be streamed on the NBC Gold: Track Pass) and includes Xfinity drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Also competing will be Hailie Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s in the offseason. She’ll spend most of her time this season running in the ARCA Series. Deegan and Briscoe will co-drive the No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4.
Friday 5: Rule change is chance for drivers to go back in time
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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?
“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.
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.
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.”
Decade in Review: Most memorable NASCAR moments of the 2010s
The NASCAR of 2010 and the NASCAR of 2019 offer completely different landscapes, from different postseason formats, rules packages, series sponsors and a rapidly changing driver pool driven by the “youth movement.”
A lot happened over the last 10 years, but what are the moments that defined the sport in the 2010s?
Here are 10 moments and stories as voted on by NBC Sports’ writers.
The victory on the New York road course came in Elliott’s 99th Cup start and deep into his third full-time season of competition.
Roughly two hours later and more than 300 miles away in Sag Harbor Village, New York, NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France was arrested on charges of aggravated driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance.
2. Johnson ties Petty and Earnhardt, Nov. 20, 2016
Jimmie Johnson’s record-tying seventh Cup Series title did not come easily.
After starting the season finale from the rear of the field due to a pre-race inspection failure, the Hendrick Motorsports’ driver did not lead in the season finale until an overtime restart to finish the race.
He led the final three laps and solidified his name as one of the greatest to drive a stock car, alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. Johnson’s seven titles are spread out over 11 years and multiple playoff formats.
3. Playoff elimination format introduced, 2014
NASCAR unveiled a new post-season format in 2014 that ensured the championship would be decided among four drivers in the final race of the season.
A field of 16 drivers are now whittled down over three rounds with the Championship 4 settled on after the Round of 8. In the finale, the highest placing driver is the champion.
Kevin Harvick claimed the first title under this format, earning his first championship in the process. So far all six championships under the elimination format have been claimed by the winner of the season finale.
Kyle Busch’s 2019 title made him the first repeat champion of the playoff era.
4. “Spingate,” Sept. 7, 2013
Richmond Raceway was the site of the 2013 Cup regular season finale and a race manipulation scandal that had far reaching consequences.
Michael Waltrip Racing was at the center of “Spingate,” which got its name from the alleged intentional spin conducted by Clint Bowyer in the closing laps of the race, one part of a plan intended to get Bowyer’s teammate, Martin Truex Jr., into the playoffs.
The plan, while initially successful, eventually backfired.
NASCAR fined MWR $300,000, the largest fine in the sport’s history, and docked Bowyer and Truex’s teams 50 points each. Truex was knocked from playoff eligibility and replaced by Ryan Newman.
Further controversy over alleged coordination between Team Penkse and Front Row Motorsports resulted in Jeff Gordon being added as a 13th driver to the playoff field the following weekend.
As a result of the controversy, NAPA Auto Parts withdrew from sponsoring Truex’s team after the season and began sponsoring Chase Elliott at JR Motorsports (and eventually at Hendrick Motorsports).
Truex wound up at Furniture Row Racing in 2014 and three years later won the Cup championship with the single-car team.
Michael Waltrip Racing closed its doors after the 2015 season.
5. Tony Stewart’s final championship run, 2011
When the 2011 Chase for the Cup began, two-time champion Tony Stewart entered the postseason with no wins and believing his team was a waste of space in the playoff field.
Then Stewart reeled off five wins in 10 races, including the season finale in Miami, where he beat Carl Edwards and clinched the title in a tiebreaker over Edwards.
Stewart remains the only Cup driver to earn their first win of the season in the playoffs and go on to win the championship.
6. NASCAR returns to dirt, July 24, 2013
Arguably one of the most anticipated NASCAR events since the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series returned NASCAR to its roots in 2013 with its first race at Eldora Speedway, the dirt track owned by Tony Stewart.
7. Juan Pablo Montoya, a Jet Dryer and a Tweet, Feb. 27, 2012
Twitter as a social media platform has existed since 2006. But NASCAR Twitter™ came into its own late on a Monday night during the rain delayed Daytona 500.
With 40 laps left the and the race under caution, something broke on the No. 42 Chevrolet of Juan Pablo Montoya as his car entered Turn 3. His car then slammed into a jet dryer, causing a fiery explosion, spilling gas across the track and destroying Montoya’s car.
Danica Patrick’s NASCAR career ended after 252 national series starts, the last coming in the 2018 Daytona 500.
Patrick never won in her time in a stock car, and the long-term impact of her time in NASCAR and her popularity likely won’t be evident for a while.
But there’s one thing that can never be taken away from her time in the sport: her pole for the 2013 Daytona 500.
That’s how Patrick started her first full-time season in Cup, by becoming the first woman to win the pole for a Cup Series race.
9(tie).Trevor Bayne’s only Cup Series win – Feb. 20, 2011
Trevor Bayne only won once in his Cup Series career and boy did he make it count.
The day after his 20th birthday, driving the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford in his second career start, Bayne survived the second green-white-checkered finish attempt of the Daytona 500 and won the “Great American Race.”
Bayne would make 187 Cup Starts, with the last coming in 2018 with Roush Fenway Racing.
9 (tie). Enter the Roval – Sept. 30, 2018
Marcus Smith, Speedway Motorsports Inc. and NASCAR couldn’t have asked for a better debut for the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.
It all came down to the last lap and the final turn on the new road course, which combined Charlotte’s traditional oval and the revamped infield circuit, the first of its kind in NASCAR.
Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson made contact and spun while racing for the lead, Ryan Blaney stole the win and Kyle Larson drove his battered No. 42 Chevy by the prone car of Jeffrey Earnhardt to pick up the one spot necessary to force a tiebreaker with Johnson and Aric Almirola and advance to the second round of the playoff.
Come back tomorrow for the best race finishes of the 2010s.
Now it’s your turn to vote. What was NASCAR’s most memorable moment of the 2010s?
What was the greatest day of Stephen Nasse’s late model racing career turned into the biggest nightmare just over two hours later.
After roaring through the field from a next-to-last starting position (36th in the 37-driver field) to win the 52nd Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, Nasse and his car were disqualified due to an illegal equipment violation found in post-race inspection.
As a result, original race runner-up Travis Braden was ruled the winner, while 14-year-old Jake Garcia, making his first career Snowball Derby start, moved up from third-place to runner-up.
This marks the third time since 2013 that the Snowball Derby winner has been disqualified for violations: Chase Elliott was DQ’d in 2013, giving the win to Erik Jones; and then in 2015, Christopher Bell was DQ’d, giving the win to Elliott.
Nasse was DQ’d for a titanium violation in the brake system of his car, apparently the first time such equipment has been found in Derby cars. Here’s an interview with chief technical inspector Ricky Brooks, courtesy of AutoWeek.com’s Matt Weaver, explaining Nasse’s disqualification:
Braden, a West Virginia native, told Speed51.com about his victory, “It feels very special. But I know it’s going to feel more special with a little bit of time. It stinks we couldn’t have won the race outright, but I know these guys won the Snowball Derby. We brought a car here capable of winning this race outright.”
Nasse’s car was the only one to fail post-race inspection.
Had Garcia won, he would have been the youngest winner in Derby history (Chase Elliott holds that record at 16 years, 6 days old, in 2011).
Rounding out the top five were Canadian native Cole Butcher in third, Jesse Dutilly in fourth and Preston Peltier in fifth. The race was originally scheduled to be run Sunday, but persistent rain pushed the event to Monday afternoon/evening.
Braden adds his name to a long list of Derby winners including Kyle Busch (2009, 2017), Erik Jones (2012, 2013), John Hunter Nemecheck (2014), Chase Elliott (2011, 2015), Christian Eckes (2016) and Noah Gragson (2018).
Several other notables and their finishing positions included veteran Cup driver David Gilliland (27th), JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry (29th), and NASCAR Cup driver Corey LaJoie, who suffered early problems and finished 31st. Former Roush Fenway Racing Xfinity Series driver Ty Majeski finished 13th, and ARCA Menards Pro Series West (formerly K&N Pro Series West) driver Derek Kraus finished 18th.
Majeski appeared headed to the win with less than two laps to go when he was involved in a multi-car wreck on Lap 317, bringing out a red flag race stoppage.
That opened the door for Nasse, Braden and Garcia — before Nasse was disqualified.
As a result, instead of earning what would have been the 100th late model win of his career, the 25-year-old Majeski, a native of Seymour, Wisconsin, was left with a wrecked race car and finished 13th.
“I’m just extremely frustrated,” Majeski told Speed51.com. “We had a real good car, a car plenty capable of winning. This is a tough one. Man, it sucks.”