Friday 5: Toyota looking for more with Fords dominating first third of season

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Although Toyota is ahead of pace for wins compared to last year when the manufacturer scored 16 Cup victories, the president of Toyota Racing Development isn’t satisfied.

Toyota has four wins this year — three by Kyle Busch and one by Martin Truex Jr. — but Ford has scored a series-high seven victories.

“I always use laps led as an indicator of performance because if you’re not leading laps than something is not right,” Toyota’s David Wilson told NBC Sports. “I think Dover, for the first time since Atlanta of 2017, a Toyota did not lead a lap. That was an alarm bell. That’s not acceptable. We recognize that we need to be better and we’re on it.”

Only one Toyota driver (Busch) ranks in the top five in laps led this season. Kevin Harvick has led 21 percent of all laps run this year. Busch is next at 12.7 percent.

Toyota won 14 of the final 19 races last year and scored the championship with Martin Truex Jr. So, why isn’t Toyota as dominant this year?

“We make no bones about it, Fords, the Ford camp … the No. 4 camp in particular is out front right now and kudos to those guys,’’ Wilson said, noting Harvick’s success. “I think what happened in the offseason with the flat splitter and the (Optical Scanning Station) clearly brought the field closer together, but our MO isn’t one to whine about it or complain about it.’’

Wilson admits Toyota had found advantages with the splitter and now that is gone with the rule change for this season.

“We were doing some really clever things with the front of our cars and year over year, we just lost some front downforce,’’ he said. “That’s why you hear a lot of our guys complaining about having tight race cars.’’

Wilson also spoke to NBC Sports about a couple of other topics.

On the need for a fourth manufacturer in Cup, Wilson said:

“When we came into this sport, we had four manufacturers with Dodge being the fourth. As soon as Dodge left, one of our first agenda points with NASCAR (was) to start beating the drum to get another manufacturer on board.

“With the size of the field, given the investment that each of us make, the sport will be healthy with another manufacturer, so again I know and trust that NASCAR is out there looking.’’

On the aero package run with restrictor plates run at the All-Star Race and what adjustments need to be made, Wilson said:

“I don’t think we want the drivers to be flat-footed all the time. We have the best drivers in the world and we’re putting them in a situation where some of them equated it to a video game. Most of them had fun. It was fun, but it was also the All-Star race and it wasn’t a points race. Again, these are the best drivers in the world. These cars should be hard to drive.”

2. Falling behind

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season.

Kevin Harvick already has 24 playoff points — and that’s after he was penalized at Las Vegas and lost all seven playoff points for his victory ands stage wins. Kyle Busch is next with 17 playoff points.

No one else has more than seven playoff points.

Those points could mean the difference in advancing in the playoffs or going all the way to the championship round in Miami.

Denny Hamlin, who has one playoff point, understands the deficit he could be facing. Should Harvick and Busch continue to collect playoff points, they could give themselves a big enough advantage to make it to Miami provided they don’t have major issues in any of the rounds.

Martin Truex Jr. had such a large playoff point advantage last year that he qualified for Miami with one race left in the third round, leaving only one spot left in the championship field when the series headed to Phoenix for the final race of that round.

“That’s a continued concern for us,” Hamlin said. “That’s really what made us press so much in the second-to-last playoff stage last year. We knew there was essentially one spot available after those three had locked themselves in.

“We’re trying everything we can. We really have struggled with stage points. We’re finishing well. I’ve made a few mistakes on pit road this year and that has set us back on stage points. I think we’ve got to focus on stage points first then we worry about playoff points.”

3. Betting on NASCAR

Kevin Harvick is an interested observer in what will happen after a Supreme Court decision earlier this month struck down a 1992 federal law that banned commercial sports betting.

Delaware is on pace to be among the first states to have sports betting outside of Nevada. Dover International Speedway has a casino next to the track. NASCAR fans attending the Oct. 7 Dover playoff race could have their first chance to legally bet on a NASCAR event while attending that event.

Harvick has had segments on sports betting each of the past two weeks on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. So what has he learned?

I have more questions than answers just because of the fact that we have a couple of race tracks that have casinos on the property already,” Harvick said, alluding to Dover and Kansas Speedway.

“It seems like there’s a very good opportunity to get creative with a place like Dover that has that casino sitting there to have some creative betting during the race to really intrigue the fans – things that you could do from your phone or in the casino or just random stuff,” Harvick said. “Could you turn that track and race into an atmosphere like a horse race? I think there’s just a lot of questions and a lot of answers that need to be individually solved. That’s the interesting part is it’s going to come state by state, so who is going to lead that charge? Is it race tracks or is it NASCAR?”

Harvick stressed finding a way that some of the money bet filters back to the sports. The NBA seeks what it calls an “integrity fee” for all bets related to its events. Whether that is possible, remains to be seen.

Harvick also noted that a change that needs to be made is how TV money is distributed in NASCAR. Tracks keep 65 percent of the money from broadcasters, teams get 25 percent and NASCAR collects 10 percent. According to International Speedway Corp.’s 2017 annual report, broadcast and ancillary media rights accounted for 50.2 percent of total revenues for that year. 

4. Special Day

Wednesday’s Hall of Fame selection proved poignant with Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, who were killed within months of each other 25 years ago, joining the Class of 2019.

There are many special connections between those. One was a special observer. Tom Roberts is a long-time family friend of the Allisons. He served as Bobby Allison’s p.r. person for several years. He also worked with Kulwicki as his p.r. person. Roberts also has helped spearhead the Kulwicki Driver Development Program to help young drivers climb the ranks of racing.

Roberts had never attended the Hall of Fame announcement but came up from his Alabama home to witness Wednesday’s proceedings.

“It just felt right,” he said of seeing both make the Hall. “It will take a while to soak in (that both made it together).”

5. New winner?

An interesting stat for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 is that the top 11 qualifiers have never won this race.

Austin Dillon scored his first Coca-Cola 600 — and first Cup win — last year.

Kyle Busch starts on the pole and will be joined on the front row by Joey Logano.

The other drivers in the top 11 who have never won the 600 are: Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson.

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Starting lineup for the Coca-Cola 600

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Kyle Busch and Joey Logano will start on the front row of Sunday’s Coca-Coal 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Busch will start from his third pole of the season.

The top five is completed by Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Brad Keselowski.

The top 11 starters have never won the Coke 600.

Click here for the starting lineup.

Kyle Busch wins pole for Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kyle Busch will start from his second career pole in the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday.

Busch claimed his third pole of the season Thursday with a top speed of 191.836 mph around Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Busch’s last Coke 600 pole was in 2008. His only other Charlotte pole was in 2014.

He has never won a points race at Charlotte.

“The M&M’s Camry was fast, it felt pretty good,” Busch told Fox Sports 1. “The guys did an amazing job in practice, we weren’t very good in practice. … Fortunately I had extra track time, so I got my Xfinity ride to thank a little bit of that today. It’s all good, it was pure talent all the way around, this whole team.”

Busch’s “pure talent” remark was a reference to his criticism of his team following last week’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Busch will be joined on the front row by Joey Logano, who posted a speed of 191.218 mph. It ties Logano’s career-best qualifying result at Charlotte and his best for the year.

Completing the top five is Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Brad Keselowski.

Ryan Newman qualified sixth. It’s his best Coke 600 starting spot since winning the pole in 2010.

Of the top 11 qualifiers, none have won the Coke 600.

None of Hendrick Motorsports’ four cars will start in the top 20.

William Byron qualified 21st and he was followed by Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson. Alex Bowman qualified 27th.

“I got told that the fast guys had run the top and I tried it and it didn’t work,” Bowman said. “I mean that’s my fault, I should have stuck with what I know, but our Nationwide 88 car is not bad, we shouldn’t be the far back, but we will be okay on Sunday.”

Kevin Harvick, the defending pole-sitter for the race, will start from the rear after his No. 4 Ford failed inspection three times. His car chief, Robert Smith, has been ejected for the rest of the race weekend. Harvick will serve a 30 minute practice hold on Saturday.

Harvick is trying to win three consecutive races for the second time this season.

JJ Yeley also didn’t make a qualifying run and will start from the rear.

Ross Chastain, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Michael McDowell and AJ Allmendinger did not advance out of the first round.

Click here for the results.

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Charlotte in last three years

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The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is the longest Cup race on the schedule and can be one of the most challenging. The extra 100 miles over the length of most of NASCAR’s endurance races puts an added strain on drivers as well as the parts and pieces of their car.

The added distance can also change a team’s strategy. The 2011, 2015 and 2017 races were decided by fuel mileage. Two tire stops, green-white-checkered finishes and other special circumstances have also changed the late running order, which can make this one of the least predictable events on the calendar.

This is a good week to take some risks on dark horses when setting the NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster and fantasy players want to choose from drivers with a proven record of success.

1. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 9.67)
Truex has been overshadowed by Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch this year because he does not have the same number of wins. Even so, he has seven top fives in 12 races this year, which has made him extremely fantasy relevant. He’s been almost perfect at Charlotte in the past three years with two victories and five top fives in six starts.

2. Daniel Suarez (three-year average: 8.50 in 2 starts)
Suarez has only two starts at Charlotte, but he came close to sweeping the top 10. By finishing 11th in last year’s Coke 600 and sixth in the Bank of America 500, he has shown an affinity for this track that was confirmed by a second-place finish in the All-Star race. NASCAR America Analysts Jeff Burton and Landon Cassill thinks that gives him added confidence that could result in another strong run.

3. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 9.17)
Only three drivers swept the top 10 at Charlotte last year: Truex, Harvick and Hamlin. Finishing fifth in the spring and fourth in the fall, Hamlin’s streak is significant because it backs up a near-perfect record since the end of 2010. Beginning with a fourth-place finish in the Bank of America 500 that year, Hamlin has scored 13 top 10s in his last 15 races on this track.

4. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 9.50)
Busch entered last fall’s Bank of America 500 with a five-race streak of top-10 finishes. He left his fantasy owners disappointed with a 22nd in that event, but he has a better-than-average chance of starting a new streak this week. In 12 races this year, he has six top 10s, another pair of 11ths and a 14th. If he misses the single digits, it is not going to be by much.

5. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 10.33)
If not for a blown engine on lap 155 of the scheduled 334-lap distance in the 2016 Bank of America 500, Harvick would most likely enter the weekend with a 10-race, top-10 streak. If one mentally discounts that finish, Harvick boasts an average finish of 3.8 since the start of the 2013 season. Couple that with his current momentum and there is no reason that a player should not build their lineup around the No. 4.

6. Matt Kenseth (three-year average: 11.67)
Last week’s KC Masterpiece 400 at Kansas Speedway was brutal for Kenseth. He didn’t expect much in his return, but one has to suspect he thought the car would perform better than it did. The good news is that he has a feel for Charlotte — a track on which he scored his first Cup victory — and he has an extra 100 miles to figure things out what’s wrong with the No. 6 this week.

7. Erik Jones (three-year average: 12.00 in two starts)
There are a couple of reasons to recommend Jones this week. His seventh-place finish in last year’s Coke 600 was an impressive debut on a tough track. More important, he has been great on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks since finishing 10th in last fall’s AAA Texas 500. In his last five attempts on this track type, he has a worst finish of 11th and an average of eighth.

8. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 12.83)
Nearly every time he makes the top 10 list, McMurray’s consistency is noted. He rarely posts such remarkable numbers that everyone expects him to land with the leaders, but once the checkers wave, no one is ever surprised to see him in the front half of the pack. McMurray has not finished outside the top 20 at Charlotte in 11 races although he came close on a few occasions with four 19th-place results.

9. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 13.67)
Keselowski may be one bad finish away from falling out of the lead pack. He swept the top 10 in both 2015 and 2016, but crashed on lap 19 of last year’s 600 and could manage to record only a 15th in the fall. With only one top five in his last eight Charlotte races, Keselowski is a questionable fantasy value.

10. Austin Dillon (three-year average: 14.00)
Dillon won last year’s Coke 600 after gambling on fuel. In the fall 2016 Bank of America 500, he finished 32nd. Fantasy owners can toss out the high and the low and are left with an average finish of 12.75. And once the player gets rid of the peak and valley, they are left with a consistent pattern of results of seventh to 16th. Chances are good that is where he is going to finish again this week.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Picking the pole winner has become a difficult proposition. The standard speedsters this year have been Harvick, Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson. Keep those drivers on your radar screen, and make the final decision based on Thursday practice.

Segment Winners: This is a good week to vote the straight Harvick ticket. When he finds the right groove, he is hard to pass and even though the All-Star Race was contested under a different rules package. The strength he showed in it is going to transfer to Sunday’s Cup race.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Momentum building from some drivers to run All-Star package again

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Some Cup drivers are for trying the package used in the All-Star Race again, with one driver saying he’d be for running it again this year.

All-Star winner Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin both spoke highly this week of the racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“The show was better,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show on Tuesday night. “Bottom line, the show was better to watch. Like I say, I don’t know that everyone can wrap around their arms around restrictor-plate racing every single mile-and-a-half race. I think the cars need to be faster. I think we need to figure out which race tracks that we want to race them on because the All-Star Race was a good test, but it wasn’t a 100 percent test of this is where we need to be and everybody just wants to jump right there.’’

As to running the package again this year, Harvick said on his show “Happy Hours” that the decision will have to come from others:

“That’s going to come down to NASCAR and the teams and whether they can financially make that happen and efficiently make that happen with the engine shops and all the people involved. The hardest thing about all of this is how do you do that. If I had to make a choice, and it was my decision, I’d love to see it on the race track in a true environment. In my opinion, we kind of dabbled something out there that everybody tried and looked really great on TV, but what’s going to happen when everybody is prepared, everybody is at the race track, there are 40 cars on the race track. What it’s going to look like then? I don’t think anybody knows.”

Hamlin is open to running the package again this season.

“As a driver, I had fun, I really did,’’ he said Wednesday after unveiling a FedEx Cares paint scheme for his car at Daytona in July.

“Didn’t have the fastest car, but at least there were moments where you had to be very strategic in what you had to do. It was a mix between a normal open race and a superspeedway. … I’d like to see it at a few other tracks. if it came this year, It would definitely be OK by me.’’

So where to run it?

“I think Michigan is the perfect race track for it honestly,’’ Hamlin said. “There’s no better track that I can think of than Michigan to have a package like this. Pocono would be another great candidate for it. Anywhere you got long straightaways where drafting could be a big factor would be a good place for this package to go.’’

The Xfinity Series is scheduled to run a similar package at Pocono (June 2) and Michigan (June 9).

If NASCAR chose to run the package in Cup at Michigan on June 10, what kind of challenge would it be for teams to make the switch?

“I think JGR and Toyota could actually do it and probably be at the forefront as anybody, but I think the engine package is probably a bigger concern,’’ said Mike Wheeler, crew chief for Hamlin, noting that engines are done further ahead of time. “I think as far as setups and tire data and areo data, we can get there pretty quickly. I’m not sure about other teams. Ultimately we didn’t have the parts to play with to do the testing beforehand. We would do that before we went there with points on the line.’’

Harvick suggested this package actually could be used elsewhere.

“I think that this would be a great Daytona and Talladega package,’’ he said. “It would be great to see the Daytona and Talladega package to be able to be the same type of package that you run at Indy, Pocono and Michigan, so that you could have the engines be able to be used. If you had to adjust the spoiler size and maybe the splitter size here and there to be able to get the speeds where you want them to be, instead of adjusting the engine, I think that would be more efficient for the teams.

“It’s still going to come down to a dollar and cents type of thing. In the end, the teams are the ones that flipped the bill to put on the show. … How do we make it efficient for the teams?’’

Richard Buck, managing director for the Monster Energy Cup Series, said “we’ve heard a lot of great response from the fans.’’

But he cautioned Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio of doing too much too soon with the package.

“There’s a lot to digest there and that’s what we’ll do, we’re only a couple of days removed from the event,” he said. “There’s still a lot of data to look at. It definitely passed the eye-ball test.

“We’ll circle back with the industry. We’ve got some of the brightest minds and engineers and engines builders and manufacturers and we’ll all collectively take a look at it and start working on the details of what was good and what could be better and we’ll take that into the future for sure.’’

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