Gary Klutt

Kyle Busch leads all 20 laps to capture Stage 1 at Watkins Glen

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Pole-sitter Kyle Busch captured Stage 1 of Sunday’s I Love New York 355 NASCAR Cup race at Watkins Glen International.

Busch dominated, leading all 20 laps in Stage 1. It’s his fifth win in the last six stages and ninth stage win of the season. Busch is going for his second consecutive season win today, having won his first race of 2017 last week at Pocono.

Martin Truex Jr. was second, followed by Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has taken his car to the garage for a valve train issue.

Prior to the green flag, seven drivers were sent to the back of the starting lineup due to unapproved adjustments on their race cars: Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Gary Klutt, Boris Said, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman and Matt DiBenedetto.

UPDATED: Kyle Busch had to take his car back to pit road for a second time following Stage 1 due to a loose left wheel. He dropped back to 27th when Stage 2 began.

Also of note, veteran road course racer Boris Said is making the final start of his career in today’s race.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Starting lineup for today’s Cup race at Watkins Glen

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Kyle Busch will start on the pole for today’s Cup race at Watkins Glen International after posting the fastest lap in Sunday’s session.

It’s his third consecutive pole.

Kyle Larson starts second.

Denny Hamlin will go to the rear for unapproved adjustments after having brake issues in qualifying.

Hamlin was to have started 11th.

Hamlin is one of seven cars going to the rear for unapproved adjustments. Also to the rear will be Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto, Boris Said, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman and Gary Klutt.

Green flag is scheduled for 3:18 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Click here for Cup starting lineup

 

 

Ryan: Remembering the eight races that Kyle Busch could have won before Pocono

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NASCAR, as with any professional sport, is so often predicated on hyperbole, it sometimes distorts the ability to recognize real greatness.

So let’s appreciate the unrealized virtuosity that is Kyle Busch’s 2017 season.

Martin Truex Jr. has accumulated playoff points at an impressively prodigious rate. Kyle Larson has made innumerable charges through the field.

But Busch truly is about a half-dozen breaks from being 21 races into the greatest season of his career – and among the best of the modern era.

“I don’t think there’s a question in my mind that there literally are eight victories that have slipped our grasp,” Busch told NBC Sports after Sunday’s victory at Pocono Raceway.

This is the rare instance of a driver speaking the truth about lost opportunities rather than blithely exaggerating (“we were the fastest on track until that caution”) about how a race unfolded.

Busch has led one of every five laps he has completed in the No. 18 Toyota this season (second only to Truex’s top-ranked No. 78). Here are eight races that Busch could have won prior to Pocono (ranked in order of how close he was):

        Phoenix, March 19 – Busch led 113 laps until the final caution when he pitted and handed first to Ryan Newman. Busch restarted fifth but could gain only two spots in the final two laps. “It seems like every finish that’s destined for us it seems to end in a worse finish that day,” said Busch, who was mostly upbeat after his first top five of the season.

        Talladega, May 7 — Busch led 39 consecutive laps until the last circuit around the 2.66-mile oval, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got a push on the inside to capture the win. “I just never had enough help from behind and just never got together,” Busch said after finishing third. “We did all we could here today, and it’s all circumstantial on how you win these things. Unfortunately our circumstances didn’t quite go our way.”

        Michigan, June 18 – Busch led 35 straight laps until a debris caution with a scheduled 20 laps remaining set up a restart in which winner Kyle Larson took first. Busch faded to seventh over the final two restarts and didn’t talk to reporters after the race.

        Pocono, June 11 – A case of the best car but the wrong strategy, Busch started from the pole and led 100 laps but lost the lead to winner Ryan Blaney (who was on fresher tires) with nine laps remaining.

       Indianapolis, July 23 – Won the pole position and led a race-high 87 of the first 102 laps. Seemed headed toward a duel with Martin Truex Jr. before they crashed while racing for the lead on a Lap 111 restart. “That’s the way it goes, just chalk it up to another one that we figure out how to lose these things by,” Busch said. “It’s very frustrating and I hate it for my guys.”

        Charlotte, May 28 – Seemingly on the right fuel strategy this time, Busch runs down everyone but Austin Dillon to finish second in the Coca-Cola 600. His resulting frustration after passing victory lane on the way to the media center prompts one of the most memorable news conferences of the season.

        Martinsville, April 2 – Led a race-high 274 laps but finished second in a duel with race winner Brad Keselowski (who led the final 43). The most memorable moment for Busch came at the end of the second stage that he lost because of a battle with Stenhouse. Busch blamed a mediocre set of tires for his late-race fade and also said the Stenhouse move was “disrespectful,” hinting at payback while lamenting the loss of a playoff point. “It’s just like the rest of this year, too,” he said. “We’ve just thrown away points week in and week out.  We’ve just got to somehow get our luck better.  I don’t know what it is that just keeps knocking us back that we don’t have things kind of go our way.”

      New Hampshire, July 16 – Speeding penalties on the final two pit stops (on Lap 238 and 263 of 301) relegated a car that led 95 laps to a 12th-place finish. After winning the race, teammate Denny Hamlin said Busch had the better car, and car owner Joe Gibbs said, “Kyle is going to come roaring back from that. I think he feels like each and every weekend he’s got a chance.”

The above list doesn’t even include Richmond, where Busch was running second before a pit commitment violation with 40 laps remaining, and Dover, where he won the pole and led the first 18 laps before a pit stop mishap damaged his car.

So it isn’t far-fetched to suggest Busch could have 11 victories with 15 races remaining in the season.

Nor is it difficult to process that for Busch … if he can make amends over the rest of 2017.

“If we win the championship and have eight wins, that would kind of suffice for the eight wins that we missed out on earlier in the year,” he said. “But man, if you could only think what if and having 16 wins in this era, I mean, that would be just unprecedented. But obviously we just have to continue to work hard. We can’t count on what’s already been lost.”

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The news of Kurt Busch’s contract option being declined by Stewart-Haas Racing came as a surprise to many, but it’s a case of simple economics and the current landscape of team sponsorship in NASCAR’s premier series. Simply put, it’s a tough time being a winning Cup driver over 30 without a major sponsor attached. This has been evidenced in 2017 with Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne.

Busch’s best option still might be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 on a restructured deal, but everything seems to hinge on what sponsor Monster Energy decides on its future in NASCAR. If Monster, which has a longstanding relationship with Busch, decides to align with the driver, it’s conceivable he could go elsewhere.

It’s worth noting, though (as NBCSN analyst Jeff Burton said Tuesday on NASCAR America), that this news became public. While it doesn’t necessarily mean there is major friction between driver and team, it does change the dynamics of the negotiations.

From his June 29 comments at Daytona International Speedway, Busch clearly felt he was deserving of at least another season from the team regardless of whether the sponsor situation was settled. Now he will be permitted to test that belief on an open market that has become well aware of his availability.

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The Saturday-Sunday weekend schedule the past two weeks at Indianapolis and Pocono drew mostly rave reviews from teams and drivers pleased by an extra day off the road.

“That’s really what it’s about, it’s about quality of life for the team guys, giving them an extra day,” Kevin Harvick said. “If we can add that up (over) 10, 15, 20 weekends, that’s two or three weeks that you can keep those guys at home and let them spend some time with their families and kids and wives. Everybody is just gone so much, it is becoming harder and harder to hire people because it is such a grind.”

A mostly overlooked new facet of qualifying and racing on the same day (as occurred at Pocono and will again Sunday at Watkins Glen International) is that NASCAR prevented teams from having an engine in their backup cars (a spare engine still was allowed to be brought and kept in the hauler in a typical procedure).

NASCAR is considering this as a cost-savings measure at all tracks next year, helping engine builders reduce their long-term inventories (as their contracts typically call for supplying teams with three engines per weekend). The potential drawback would be the amount of time required to put an engine in a backup car if it becomes needed during the three-hour window between the start of qualifying and the green flag.

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Crew chief Cole Pearn’s decision to pit Martin Truex Jr. from the lead with three laps left in the second stage at Pocono – essentially giving up a playoff point and any second stage points – was the most calculated of gambles.

With 29 playoff points already secured (and another 15 likely coming at the end of the regular season as the points leader), Truex virtually is assured of advancing through at least the first round of the playoffs and probably the second. With that kind of cushion, why play it safe for a stage win if your car is fast enough for an overall victory?

“Five (playoff) points is a lot better than one bonus point,’’ Pearn told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long after the race.

Said Truex: “If we didn’t pit there, we probably weren’t going to have a shot at winning the race. That was the gamble. That was our mindset before the race. We figured if we felt like we were good enough to possibly win the race, we’d have to pit before the end of that second stage.”

This is the equivalent of aiming for the pin instead of laying up with a lead of several strokes in a golf tournament. Or going for it on fourth and 3 instead of settling for a 58-yard field goal or a punt.

It was an aggressive call, but if Truex somehow fails to advance in the playoffs by a margin of less than five points, it will be perfectly sensible in retrospect.

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Could a recent management shake-up at Pocono Raceway hint at larger changes ahead for the track and possibly NASCAR’s premier series schedule?

In a revealing interview with the Associated Press’ Dan Gelston last weekend, new CEO Nick Igdalsky seemed to volunteer that playing host to two annual Cup races wasn’t a long-term certainty (while making the case for potentially moving a date to the road course).

“We’d love to continue having two” Cup races, he said. “But if one day, if that’s not the way the cards fall, so be it. We’d still be honored to be part of the show.”

Such an admission would have been anathema for Igaldsky’s grandfather, Joe Mattioli, who built the 2.5-mile track in 1971. Pocono held its first Cup race three years later and has had two annual races on the premier circuit since 1982, in part because of its founder’s oft bellicose defense of twin 500-mile races.

Mattioli died in January 2012, a few months after turning over day-to-day operations to his grandchildren. Brandon Igdalsky, Nick’s older brother, had been the track’s president and CEO for several years, overseeing multimillion-dollar renovations and the reduction of Pocono’s races to 400 miles apiece.

Brandon Igdalsky took a new job last month in NASCAR’s event marketing and promotion department (working primarily with tracks), handing the reins to his sibling and new track president Ben May.

Nick Igdalsky clarified his comments Monday to Gelston, saying he’d be willing to have a second race on a road course (a la Charlotte Motor Speedway) if that’s what it took to run two races.

But that this topic even was broached naturally raises some eyebrows about what’s next, particularly given the family owned track’s new relationship to NASCAR management.

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Add “driver participation guidelines” (as described in a NASCAR release Tuesday) to “encumbered” as the latest in the scourge of NASCAR euphemisms that undermine honest discussion and explanation.

These aren’t “guidelines”, which (by definition) aren’t mandatory.

They are rules.

If they were actual guidelines, Kyle Busch might enter every truck and Xfinity race next season just for spite.

“New rules for entering national series” works better.

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One of the goals of NASCAR’s new rules for entering national series is to help increase exposure and opportunity for younger drivers, which also is a goal of the NASCAR Next program.

Though more drivers fail than succeed in reaching the top level (15 of 46 NASCAR Next drivers have made a Cup start), there have been many recent successes for the initiative, which is designed to put marketing and promotion behind future stars.

Recently named No. 88 driver Alex Bowman is a NASCAR Next alum, as are the top two finishers (Ryan Preece and Kyle Benjamin) in last Saturday’s Xfinity race at Iowa Speedway, and Gary Klutt will make his Monster Energy Cup Series debut this weekend at Watkins Glen.

Other graduates of NASCAR Next: Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Darrell Wallace Jr., William Byron, John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie, Ben Rhodes and Matt DiBenedetto.

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Target’s decision to leave Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2017 season exemplifies the retrenchment of retail sponsorship in auto racing that stems from a confluence of reasons (many of which were well documented in this analysis by Yahoo! Sports’ Nick Bromberg).

The Great Recession triggered a new era of companies becoming much more discriminating about how marketing dollars are spent, and the rise of social media in the intervening years has altered philosophies on what are the most cost-effective strategies for reaching consumers.

“The traditional model (of just) being a consumer brand sponsor that just wants to see a car out there with their name out it will go extinct in the next couple years,” Brad Keselowski said last weekend at Pocono. “That’s not always a bad thing. There’s other models that work and have proven to be successful.

“And the teams, although the owners may not agree with it, are still relatively healthy. So, time will tell what the true model is 10 years from now. I don’t think anybody really knows. I don’t we have it as bad as we say we do.”

The most effective sponsorship model guarantees a return for the millions being invested via business-to-business relationships, e.g. ShellPennzoil agrees to sponsor Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford in return for Roger Penske’s automotive dealerships using its motor oil.

The problem is that most teams can’t offer the ancillary businesses (and global breadth) of Penske.

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Busch’s win at Pocono marked the 10th consecutive race with a different winner in the Cup Series. This comes on the heels of eight races in a row being won by different teams (the longest stretch since a 10-race run in 2001-02).

While Truex’s massive lead in playoff points makes him the championship favorite, this season still feels as wide open as any in recent memory.

It’s driven by the fact that every manufacturer has at least one bona fide title contender on more than one team — Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing (Kevin Harvick) and Team Penske (Brad Keselowski); Toyota, Furniture Row Racing (Truex) and Joe Gibbs Racing (Busch); Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports (Jimmie Johnson) and Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle Larson).

NASCAR’s entry lists for Watkins Glen International

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It’s time for NASCAR’s top series to turn right again.

Both the Cup and Xfinity Series travel to Watkins Glen, New York, to take on Watkins Glen International.

It’s the second and last road course race for Cup teams, but this weekend is the first of three in four weeks where Xfinity teams will turn right and left.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for Watkins Glen International.

Cup – I LOVE NY 355 at The Glen

There are just 36 cars entered into the 32nd annual Cup race at WGI. If the car count doesn’t change, it would be the fewest cars in a Cup race this season.

Gary Klutt is slated to drive the No. 15 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports. It will be the first Cup start for the 24-year-old Canadian driver.

Last year Denny Hamlin led the final 10 laps in order to earn his first win on a road course. He beat Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Zippo 200 at The Glen

There are 41 cars entered, including eight Cup drivers. The Cup drivers are Ty Dillon, Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Logano, Erik Jones, Paul Menard, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson.

There are no drivers attached to the No. 25 Chevrolet and the No. 78 Chevrolet, which is owned by BJ McLeod.

Last year Logano won the race after leading 67 of 82 laps. Menard was second. Larson was third.

Click here for the entry list.

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Matt Tifft, Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland highlight newest NASCAR Next class

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It’s time for a new NASCAR Next class to be introduced. Which means out with the young and in with the even younger.

On Tuesday, NASCAR announced the latest 11-member class that highlights exceptional rising talent in the world of stock car racing.

This year’s class includes the sons of Jeff Burton and David Gilliland, a driver from Israel and a former contestant on “Survivor.”

Here’s a rundown of the 2016-17 class of NASCAR Next.

Harrison Burton (@HBurtonRacing) – The 15-year-old from Huntersville, North Carolina, is the son of former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver and NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton. He has climbed to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, competing full-time in the West series, after setting the record last year as the youngest Division I race winner in NASCAR Whelen All-American Series history.

Collin Cabre (@CollinCabre12) – In his second season driving for Rev Racing and the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, the 22-year-old from Tampa, Florida, captured his first career win last October at Dover International Speedway after making the successful move from racing sprint cars.

Spencer Davis (@SpencerDavis_29) – The 17-year-old Dawsonville, Georgia, driver won the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award last season in the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour. Davis has transitioned to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East where he has established himself as a championship contender with top-six finishes in his first seven starts dating back to last season.

Alon Day (@Alon_Day) – One of two international drivers on the list, Day is the first NASCAR Whelen Euro Series driver to earn NASCAR Next recognition. Day, 24, from Ashdod, Israel, completed his first full season in the Whelen Euro Series as championship runner-up. Including the final two rounds of 2015, Day has won four of the last eight Elite 1 races.

Tyler Dippel (@Tyler_Dippel) – An accomplished dirt racer, the 16-year-old from Wallkill, New York,  scored his first NASCAR K&N Pro Series East victory in March at Mobile International Speedway. Dippel previously competed in the DIRTcar Racing Series in the Northeast, earning the Rookie of the Year title and becoming the youngest race winner in that series.

Todd Gilliland (@ToddGilliland_) – The son of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series veteran David Gilliland, the 16-year-old from Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, made NASCAR history by winning his first four career NASCAR K&N Pro Series starts. He became the youngest winner in series history with his victory last fall at Phoenix International Raceway and followed it up with wins in both the K&N Pro Series East and West season openers this year. He also won his first start in the ARCA series at Toledo Speedway.

Noah Gragson (@NoahGragson) – The 17-year-old from Las Vegas, Nevada, finished second in the championship standings last year in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, collecting the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award in the process. Gragson got his start racing in the Legends and Bandolero Divisions at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He earned a pair of K&N Pro Series West wins in 2015 and is again a championship contender, sitting sixth in the point standings. He is seventh in the East standings.

Gary Klutt (@Garyklutt) – The second Canadian to be named to the program and the first full-time driver from the NASCAR Pinty’s Series. The 23-year-old from Halton Hills, Ontario, earned his first career pole and win last year at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park en route to being named Rookie of the Year. He finished fifth in series points.

Julia Landauer (@julialandauer) – Landauer, 24, from New York City, got her start racing a variety of cars – from Formula BMW to Ford Focus Midgets to stock cars. Landauer was a contestant on the reality show ‘Survivor’ before graduating from Stanford in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Science, Technology, and Society. She became the first female to win a Limited Late Model division championship at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Virginia, last year before graduating to the K&N Pro Series West this season. Like Nicole Behar last year, Landauer is the only female driver in the class.

Ty Majeski (@TyMajeski) – The 21-year-old from Seymour, Wisconsin, showcased his ability at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway in February, collecting three wins and earning the 2016 Super Late Model championship in the 50th Annual World Series of Stock Car Racing. Majeski added a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Model track record and victory in the FrostBuster at Wisconsin’s LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway in April. Roush Fenway Racing announced Monday it had signed Majeski to a driver development deal.

Matt Tifft (@Matt_Tifft) – A development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, the 19-year-old from Hinckley, Ohio, is driving part-time in the NASCAR XFINITY Series for JGL Racing as well as JGR, and racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for Red Horse Racing. He earned his first career pole in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this month.