Kyle Busch

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Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. be on the next NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot?

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CHARLOTTE – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a well-established devotee of racing lore.

But on the eve of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 11th class being inducted Friday, he is trying to avoid pondering something historic.

That he could be a part of its 12th class next year.

“It’s hard not to think about it, but that’s as far as I let myself go,” Earnhardt said. “I try not to get too wrapped up in it.

“I follow a lot of guys on social media that are passionate about the history of the sport even more so than I am, and there’s a lot of guys that belong in the Hall of Fame that probably should go in there before me. And my feelings about that are if I ever get in, I’ll be very honored. I hope that may happen one day.”

It’ll happen Friday for Tony Stewart, Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte, Waddell Wilson and the late Buddy Baker as the 2020 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame formally is enshrined at the Charlotte Convention Center. The ceremony will be broadcast live on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET.

The vote for the 2021 class likely will happen in May, and Earnhardt, who retired from full-time racing after the 2017 season to become an NBC Sports analyst, is eligible to be chosen among the 20 names on the ballot. According to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, drivers who have competed for at least 10 years and have been retired for two years are eligible for nomination.

The 2020 candidates, which are selected by a nominating committee next month, should be announced by mid-March. Among recently retired big-name drivers, Jeff Gordon and Stewart both were candidates in their first year of eligibility. Carl Edwards, who left NASCAR after the 2016 season, didn’t make the nominee list last year.

A 15-time Most Popular Driver and two-time Xfinity champion with 26 Cup victories, Earnhardt has credentials that can match those of others who have been elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

But he lacks the on-track resumes of Gordon (four championships, 93 wins in Cup) and Stewart (three titles, 49 wins in Cup), both of whom were first-ballot selections.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame annually inducts the top five in voting from 20 candidates. Last year’s top three vote-getters outside the top five were Mike Stefanik, Ray Fox and Hershel McGriff.

The trio is likely to return for consideration this year along with the 12 others on the 2020 ballot who weren’t selected: Sam Ard, Neil Bonnett, Red Farmer, Harry Gant, John Holman, Harry Hyde, Ralph Moody, Marvin Panch, Jim Paschal, Larry Phillips, Ricky Rudd and Red Vogt.

Votes are cast by a panel of more than 50 that includes NASCAR executives, track owners, media members, manufacturer representatives and the reigning Cup Series champion (Kyle Busch), as well as an online fan vote.

“I’m certainly young enough to wait it out if I need to, and there’s a lot of guys in our sport that belong in there, and there’s only so many that get inducted each year,” said the 45-year-old Earnhardt, whose late seven-time champion father was among the inaugural class in 2010. “There’s just so much history in our sport that should be acknowledged and appreciated and will be, so it’s got to be tough as someone who’s having to vote for who goes in.

“That’s got to be some of the toughest decisions to make that decision on who’s going to get there.”

He addressed his Hall of Fame prospects while attending a Jan. 15 news conference at the Uptown Charlotte shrine, which recently unveiled a new Glory Road exhibit that features 18 championship cars chosen by Earnhardt.

NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelley said Earnhardt was selected because of his appreciation of stock-car history. Earnhardt recently helped spearhead a project to map defunct North Wilkesboro Speedway for iRacing gamers, and he has an upcoming program about vanished racetracks slated for the Peacock streaming service.

One of his first forays into TV production was a documentary show called “Back in the Day” that celebrated classic NASCAR races and footage.

“I do love to be acknowledged for the passion that I have for the history,” said Earnhardt, whose favorite era is the 1970s. “If you’re a bit of a historian of the sport, any involvement in anything the Hall of Fame is going to be doing is awesome and going to be a great experience.”

Kyle Busch feeling like ‘the new guy’ during his Rolex 24 debut at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kyle Busch was looking forward to his first stint at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

The two-time Cup champion was less enthused about his second turn behind the wheel in the IMSA season opener. Busch will climb back into the No. 14 Lexus RCF GT3 at 2 a.m. Sunday, just past the midpoint of the endurance race classic at Daytona International Speedway.

“That’s going to suck, yeah,” Busch deadpanned. “That’s exactly when I told them I did not want to run, and I got it.  Thank you very much.

“(I’m) the new guy.  I pulled the short straw.”

Click here to read more about how Busch felt about his AIM Vasser Sullivan car.

Friday 5: As season nears, a bigger deadline looms for NASCAR

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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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.

Fans at Watkins Glen in 2019. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“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.

NASCAR Trucks at Eldora Speedway in 2019. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“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.”

3. Memorable win

NASCAR’s test this week on the Indy road course for the Xfinity Series will give those drivers a chance to accomplish a first — be the first Xfinity driver to win on that circuit.

Brad Keselowski after winning the 2012 Nationwide race at Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR)

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.

5. NASCAR at Rolex

Kyle Busch is the only active Cup driver competing in this weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway (coverage will be on NBC, NBCSN and NBC Gold: Track Pass), today’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge will have some additional NASCAR flavor.

MORE: A “crucial” year for Hailie Deegan’s career begins today at Daytona

MORE: Full Rolex 24 Hours coverage at MotorSportsTalk

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.

Matt DiBenedetto to test Xfinity car on Indy road course

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Matt DiBenedetto will take part in a one-car Xfinity test today on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course.

The test by the Wood Brothers Racing driver comes after the track and NASCAR announced last week that the July 4 Xfinity Series race (1:30 p.m. ET on NBC) will be held on the road course rather than the historic 2.5-mile oval.

Due to DiBenedetto taking part in the test, he will not be eligible to compete in the race.

While there could be a tire test at some point, there are no plans at this time for any additional testing other than DiBenedetto’s. New track owner Roger 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 during the announcement. “If someone thinks we picked (DiBenedetto) to run this. This was a car that could be available.”

The high for Wednesday in Speedway, Indiana, is not expected to top 40 degrees.

The July 4 race will be the fifth road course event on the 33-race schedule for the Xfinity Series this season.

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

 

‘I’m not the top dog’: Kyle Busch embraces challenges of Rolex 24

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As exacting as any champion in NASCAR history, Kyle Busch will be accepting an unusual level of deference in his Rolex 24 debut at Daytona International Speedway.

He will be sharing the wheel of the No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3 with three AIM Vasser Sullivan teammates, which will require compromise on the positioning of seats and pedals (much less the setup).

He will be yielding to the much faster DPI and LMP2 cars on virtually every green-flag lap he makes around the 3.56-mile layout.

He will be adjusting to a braking system that will require a radical new rethinking of his sublime driving style.

VIEWER’S GUIDE: Five things to watch in the 2020 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona

TEAM OWNER Q&A: Wayne Taylor sounds off on IMSA’s BoP regulations

A two-time Cup champion accustomed to knowing exactly what he wants in a race car will be learning on the fly for the first time in years as a 24-hour sports car rookie.

How will Busch adapt to being in his IMSA team’s supporting cast after often being the driving force behind Joe Gibbs Racing?

By embracing his situation with a humility that often isn’t associated with such a brash and mercurial superstar.

“It’s not hard for me, and I say that because I’m not the top dog,” Busch told NBC Sports. “There’s a top dog that’s way better, way smarter, way more experienced at these cars than I am, so I let Jack kind of take the reins.”

Kyle Busch talks with No. 14 co-owner Jimmy Vasser during the Roar (courtesy of IMSA).

“Jack” is Jack Hawksworth, the IndyCar and sports car veteran who has become Busch’s de-facto driving coach for Daytona. Beginning with an intensive five-hour session in a driving simulator last month at Toyota Racing Development in Salisbury, N.C., Busch constantly has cited Hawksworth’s pointers with being invaluable for getting up to speed.

But the learning curve was evident during the Roar before the Rolex test session when Busch initially was 3 seconds per lap off Hawksworth’s pace.

“I thought he did a good job,” Hawksworth said. “It’s a completely different car from anything he’s driven.”

That didn’t stop Busch’s demanding side from playfully peeking out at one point.

“I’ll prod (Hawkwsorth) a little bit when we he’s like, ‘You need to open up your hands, mate, in order to like get the drive off the corner,’ ” Busch said, affecting a British accent with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Well if the car was better I wouldn’t have to open up my hands so how about me tell them to try to fix it a few things for us and make it a little bit better.’ ”

Striving for greatness is the central thrust of Busch’s desire to race the Rolex 24 (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC on Saturday and includes NBCSN and NBC Gold: Track Pass during the event before concluding from noon – 2 p.m. ET on Sunday on NBC).

He has watched the race draw champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon) and Formula One (Fernando Alonso) as well as Indianapolis 500 winners (Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay).

“It’s pretty cool to watch the different guys that come from be it IndyCar or NASCAR or even V-8 Super Cars or guys from overseas that come over here and give this race a go,” Busch said. “It means a big deal and means a lot to a lot of guys.”

Here are a few of the more difficult aspects of his transition:


Traffic: While being lapped incessantly, Busch will be relying heavily for help in navigating a track that will be jammed with more than three dozen cars for a full day. AIM Vasser Sullivan races in the GTD division, which is both the largest (18 of the 38 cars in the field) and slowest of the four classes. The DPI and LMP2 cars will be turning laps that are roughly 9 to 12 seconds faster than Busch’s Lexus, which also will be slightly off the pace of the similar GTLM cars.

Tony Hirschman, his longtime spotter in NASCAR, will be relaying information on the type of cars that are coming and the drivers behind the wheel. A system of lights also can help identify the division.

“It’s a bit of an adjustment, for sure, of being able to know what’s coming, who’s coming, what type of car and trying to figure out all of the little tricks of the trade,” Busch said. “The spotter’s communication is a big deal of where they’re at, how fast they’re gaining, knowing the closing rate and trying to figure that out so you can kind of figure out a spot on the track of where you know you’re going to be clear. I imagine in the race when there’s a heck of a lot of them coming at you in a hurry that it’s going to be a bit trickier.”

Corvette Racing’s Jordan Taylor, who raced in the top division of the Rolex the past seven years, said he always was glad to be driving the faster car while tiptoeing through the GT battles in the middle of the night.

“It’s mayhem,” Taylor said. “They’re glued together half the race. Which he (Busch) used to, but it’s going to be different. He’s got to share the car, it’s 24 hours. It’s so easy to get in the middle without getting caught up in a battle with one guy. Those sorts of things still happen to me after like 10 years of this race. I’ll get caught up in something and realize, “Why am I doing this?”

“He’ll have those same moments of battling someone and say, ‘This doesn’t matter. I need to relax.’ Or else he’ll get caught up in it.”

The No. 14 Lexus RC-F GT3 during testing (courtesy of IMSA).

Two sports car veterans with NASCAR experience believe Busch will be fine as long as he has patience and strategy.

Colin Braun, who became a friend of Busch’s while racing often in the Truck and Xfinity series from 2008-11, said stock-car drivers have the skillset to adjust.

“Racing those guys and seeing how good they are on road courses, and the feel they have for the car on the limit is impressive,’ Braun said. “Those guys are superstars, and a guy like Jimmie Johnson showed that many times coming into Grand Am DP cars back in the day. I have no doubt a guy like Kyle is going to be really, really fast. When I first went into NASCAR, being fast wasn’t the issue. It was just the experience.

“A guy like Kyle I don’t think has been passed by eight prototype cars lined up nose to tail while working through the GTLM field, so I think the experience is toughest the thing to gain.”

Andy Lally, a five-time Rolex 24 winner who spent the 2011 season in the NASCAR Cup Series, said “the biggest thing coming from a racing series that races one class of car is that when you’re at Daytona and it’s 24 hours long and you’re interacting with four different races going on at the same time.

“There is definitely a way to strategize getting by and getting people by you to make it efficient so that your lap time is staying consistent. It’s impossible to rail off qualifying laps while Prototypes are coming by while you’re fighting with cars in class. But there’s definitely an efficient way to get it by for both speed and safety.”


Technology: Busch will have some new toys to employ: An antilock braking system (ABS) and traction control, neither of which is available in NASCAR.

It theoretically should allow for much better handling, but it also will require Busch retraining himself to trust a car that is lighter, sleeker and more responsive than his No. 18 Toyota in Cup.

There’s a lot of driver assist with (sports) cars,” Busch said. “Being able to abuse the heck out of the car and just drive the living snot out of it into the corners, braking as late as you can, as hard as you can, getting right to the ABS limit then trailing your brake and getting ready for the apex and all that sort of stuff.

“It’s very, very different than what we’re accustomed to in NASCAR with our cars not having any of that stuff. You’ve got to make sure you’re mindful of all that. Here, it’s a completely different pace.”

How different? In NASCAR, drivers are rewarded for managing their brakes at a short track such as Martinsville Speedway, keeping them cool enough to last 500 laps.

In sports cars, it’s virtually the opposite. As Taylor explained, ABS allows drivers to “stand on (the brakes) as hard as you want, and it just does everything for you. It’s like a video game, but it’s hard to wrap your head around being able to brake and not worry about it. (Busch) has driven his whole career locking up brakes and adjusting brake pressures, and now he doesn’t have to, so it’s going to be weird.

“Some guys late in their careers can’t adjust to that because their muscle memory is so in tune.”

Taylor was teamed with Jeff Gordon on the 2017 overall winner at the Rolex 24, and he said the four-time series champion actually drove under the limits of his traction control because he hadn’t used it during a two-decade career.

“ABS is the weirdest thing to drive with; I don’t like it,” Taylor said. “There will be some weird little things that Busch is going to learn that sports car racing has.”


Driver changes: There will be multiple stints for Busch in the car he is sharing with Hawksworth, Parker Chase and Michael de Quesada, which will mean some frenzied swaps behind the wheel.

Though teams often practice how to make a driver change before the race, it’s difficult to simulate the race conditions that necessitate scrambling into a cramped cockpit under duress and then go full bore back on track.

Busch is familiar with accomplishing the switch in a race, having run a four-hour race at Daytona nearly 12 years ago.

“It’s a very choreographed effort,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure you know what you’re ready for and doing. As I’ve already made my practice runs, I’ve been working on where I got to get the belts and everything when I come down, to get ready to get out.”

Kyle Busch debriefs during testing (courtesy of IMSA).