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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What might have been: Jeff Gordon driving for Jack Roush?

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Had things gone differently, Jeff Gordon might have driven for Jack Roush instead of Rick Hendrick.

Gordon told the story after he was selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2019 Wednesday with Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Roger Penske and Roush.

Recall that Gordon’s first full-time ride in what was called the Busch Grand National Series, he drove a Ford for car owner Bill Davis.  

Here’s how Gordon tells the story:

“I had a contract that was like a year‑to‑year contract with Ford where they gave me a car, a little bit of money, drove for Bill Davis.

“The Roush thing, I think, came when they got wind that I was starting to get some offers. The first one came from Cale Yarborough in ’91. (I told him) I’m not even halfway through my rookie season. I can’t do that.

“But Bill was gracious enough to let me go test that car. Many people don’t realize I tested for Cale out here at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I spun out, I just didn’t hit anything.

“Went through ’91. Then in ’92, that’s when things got real. We started winning. We won the race in Atlanta. Everybody knows about the story about Rick Hendrick seeing me there. I don’t know what happened, but the buzz started getting around.

“Of course, Bill wanted to go Cup racing. Didn’t look like a reality to me at the time. It seemed like we were a long way from being a Cup team. It was a great Busch Grand National team.

“So Ford came to me and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to talk to you about a potential opportunity with Jack Roush.’ I never spoke to Jack until after all that. But that’s what Ford had mentioned to me. I think it was kind of out of desperation of, we don’t want to lose you in our camp. I think by that point I was already set with what I was going to do with Rick.

“By the way, if I had the opportunity prior to Rick calling me, I’d have jumped on top of that. To drive for Jack Roush, how amazing would that have been? So I’m happy the way things worked out, but you can believe had I not already been signed with Rick. …  It all worked out for the right reasons, but I would have done that.’’

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Jeff Gordon leads 2019 Hall of Fame Class

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Jeff Gordon, the four-time Cup champion who ushered in a new era of NASCAR on and off the track and opened a pathway for younger drivers to the premier series, was selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 on Wednesday.

The 46-year-old Gordon is the youngest inductee among the 10 Hall of Fame classes.

Joining Gordon in the Class of 2019 are: Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.

Gordon was selected on 96 percent of the ballots — surpassing the record of being on 94 percent of the ballot shared by David Pearson (Class of 2011) and Robert Yates (Class of 2018).

Roush was selected on 70 percent of the ballots, Penske was on 68 percent, Allison was on 63 percent and Kulwicki was on 46 percent.

They will be inducted Feb 1, 2019.

The next three top vote-getters were Buddy Baker, Hershel McGriff and Waddell Wilson.

A total of 57 ballots were cast — 56 by Hall of Fame voting members and one online fan ballot. The fan ballot had Allison, Gordon, Kulwicki, Baker and Harry Gant.

Jim Hunter was selected as the Landmark Award winner for his contributions to NASCAR as a media member, p.r. person, track operator and NASCAR official.

Gordon’s selection marks the third consecutive class that features a member of Hendrick Motorsports. Car owner Rick Hendrick was selected to the Class of 2017. Ray Evernham, Gordon’s crew chief for three of his titles, was voted to the Class of 2018. 

“I think it tells you a lot about that combination, what Rick created in his organization and the people,” Gordon said. “When Ray and I came to work, Ray told me all the resources are there, this could be something really special. It obviously ended up being way more than we ever anticipated. Those two are like family to me. To be able to follow them is very, very, very special. … Besides my parents, I owe those two everything to how they contributed to my life in more than just racing.”

Gordon’s success made car owners more open to hiring young drivers. Gordon also opened a pipeline from Midwest sprint car racing that helped future Hall of Famer Tony Stewart, among others, move to NASCAR.

Gordon’s influence goes beyond the track. He introduced NASCAR to mainstream America in the 1990s when he dominated, winning Cup titles in 1995, ’97 and ’98. Gordon appeared in national ads that weren’t just during NASCAR races and was the first — and only — NASCAR driver to host Saturday Night Live.

Gordon won 47 of his 93 career Cp wins between 1995-99. The driver dubbed “Wonder Boy” early in his career by Dale Earnhardt won his fourth title in 2001 — the year Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Gordon won three Daytona 500s, five Southern 500s and five Brickyard 400s.

Off the track, Gordon displayed class and poise throughout his career. He also displayed emotions. Gordon cried when he won his first points race, the 1994 Coca-Cola 600. He celebrated what was his final Cup win in November 2015 at Martinsville by bouncing, hooting and shouting “We’re going to Homestead!”

With Gordon’s selection the top five all-time winners in Cup will be in the Hall of Fame — Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and Gordon.

Kulwicki, the 1992 Cup champion, joins the Hall of Fame after coming close the past two years. He was among the top three vote getters not selected to the Class of 2016. He was tied with Ron Hornaday Jr. for the last spot in the Class of 2017. Both were selected on 38 percent of the ballots and Hornaday was selected in a second vote.

Kulwicki is revered for his underdog run to the ’92 title where he beat Bill Elliott by 10 points as a driver/owner. Kulwicki won five career Cup races before he was killed in a plane crash in 1993 on the way to Bristol Motor Speedway from a sponsor appearance.

Allison won 19 races, including the 1992 Daytona 500. He also was the 1987 Rookie of the Year and finished second to his father in the 1988 Daytona 500.

Allison was a fan favorite for his personality and persistence. Three months after Kulwicki died in a plane crash, Allison died from injures suffered in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.

Roush, whose name has been synonymous with success for most of his Cup career, joined the premier series in 1988 with Hall of Famer Mark Martin.

Roush, who has scored a record 325 victories across NASCAR’s national series, won his first Cup title in 2003 with Matt Kenseth and won the 2004 crown with Kurt Busch. Roush has five Xfinity championships and one Camping World Truck Series title.

Penske is better known for his success in IndyCar, including his 16 Indianapolis 500 victories as a car owner, but he’s also made an impact in NASCAR.

Penske won the 2012 Cup title with Brad Keselowski and has two Daytona 500 victories. He also built Auto Club Speedway and once owned Michigan International Speedway and North Carolina Motor Speedway. In Team Penske’s 52-year history, it has 489 major race wins across all series and 553 poles. Included are wins in IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula 1 and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

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Alan Kulwicki: From ‘Underbird’ to NASCAR Hall of Famer

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Sometime in 1984 or 1985, Mike Joy, then with Motor Racing Network, was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to cover an ASA race at the Milwaukee Mile.

Among those competing was Alan Kulwicki, who was driving for himself, as he did for much of his racing career.

Joy introduced himself to the young man who grew up just over 10 miles southwest of the track in Greenfield.

Kulwicki told him no introduction was needed.

“I know who you are,” Joy recalls Kulwicki saying. “I listen to you every weekend. I’m going to be down there someday and I’m going to race NASCAR.”

On Wednesday, Kulwicki, who drove the famed “Underbird” to the 1992 Cup title, was the last person announced to the 2019 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The crew chief

Paul Andrews had never attended a Hall of Fame class announcement even though Kulwicki had been nominated the past three years

Andrews, who was Kulwicki’s crew chief for all five of his Cup wins and his 1992 title, was nervous when the first four inductees were revealed and Kulwicki’s name hadn’t been called.

Jeff Gordon, Jack Roush, Roger Penske and Davey Allison all preceded Andrews’ driver and boss.

“Definitely nervous,” Andrews told NBC Sports. “Especially when they put Davey in, because their histories are very similar.”

Both Kulwicki’s and Allison’s careers and lives were tragically cut short 103 days apart 25 years ago.

Kulwicki perished April 1 when his plane crashed in a field in Northeast Tennessee, six miles west of Bristol Motor Speedway, where the Cup Series competed that weekend. He was 38.

Allison followed July 13, dying from injuries he sustained in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway. Allison, who was flying the helicopter, was 32.

Andrews has a lot of happy memories from their career together, including their championship triumph at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992 over Bill Elliott, and Kulwicki’s first Cup win at ISM Raceway in 1988.

But a tearful Andrews said his lasting memory of his time with Kulwicki will be losing him after just five races in 1993.

“It’s something I can’t get out of my heart,” Andrews said.

Andrews, who went on to win Cup races with Jeremy Mayfield, Steve Park and Geoffrey Bodine, hopes people will learn what was in Kulwicki’s heart with his Hall of Fame induction.

“Determination,” Andrews said. “(And) believing in his people and believing in his own talent.”

The competitor

When it came to the ASA racing circuit in the Midwest, Alan Kulwicki and Mark Martin were two “fairly good-sized fish in a small pond,” says Martin.

“There wasn’t room for two big fish,” continued the 2017 Hall of Fame inductee. “We had to race pretty hard.”

Martin hesitates to say he and Kulwicki “were best friends. We were fierce competitors that got along OK.”

Martin raced his way into the Cup Series in 1981 before competing full-time in 1982.

During that season, Martin got a call from Kulwicki, who was still racing back home in Wisconsin.

Kulwicki planned to attend the World 600 race weekend in hopes of meeting people who could further his career.

Being fierce competitors didn’t bar Martin from being hospitable. He invited the aspiring NASCAR driver to stay at his place.

“We were close enough that he did that,” Martin said.

No matter his feelings toward Kulwicki, Martin said it would have been “painful” to see him and Allison not elected to the Hall of Fame this year.

“I’m glad I wasn’t on the voting panel,” Martin said. “This is probably in my eyes, this was one of the toughest years ever. I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with it.”

Unlike Allison, Kulwicki had a Cup title on his record. One that Martin said was “more outstanding” than anything Kulwicki accomplished in their little ASA pond.

Not long after his encounter with Joy, Kulwicki moved to North Carolina in 1985 and made his Cup debut on Sept. 8 at Richmond Raceway driving for someone else.

That arrangement didn’t take.

Six years later, Kulwicki was crowned the 1992 Cup Series champion, becoming the last driver-owner to accomplish the feat as NASCAR became a world of highly funded multi-car teams. He did it driving the No. 7 Hooters Ford Thunderbird, which was nicknamed the “Underbird.”

“What he achieved in NASCAR will never be done again,” said Martin, who finished sixth to Kulwicki in 1992. “It was never done before and will never be done again. It was absolutely astonishing. Period.”

 

Bump & Run: Where to race next with All-Star rules package?

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When and where would you suggest running the All-Star package next?

Steve Letarte: I think there was definitely some entertainment. I enjoyed the package. I think the when is somewhere in the regular season. I don’t really think it belongs in the playoffs unless we run it a few more times in the regular season. It seems to me that Michigan, Indy and Pocono are the three tracks that I think easily the package could be adapted to.

Kyle Petty: Let me say first when they announced this package for the All-Star Race I was not impressed. I’ve always lived by “I hate Plates!” But … as everyone who knows or listens to me run my mouth knows, I can eat crow! I thought the race was entertaining and enjoyed it! I would like to see it at Michigan. I think the draft there and speeds would translate well to the package. And as we know from the Xfinity race last year at Indy, it made for some interesting moments there.

Nate Ryan: Pocono with an eye toward Indianapolis. Potentially Michigan (though a form of it is being used in the Xfinity race). Kentucky Speedway also seems a natural because the track and its owners already are on board and supportive of the concept.

Dustin Long: Run it at Michigan in June — when the Xfinity Series also is running it — then do it at Indianapolis in September. See how teams make their cars better and how that impacts the racing. That will give NASCAR ideas of changes it can make for 2019.

Dan Beaver: Michigan. The wide corners would allow drivers to get four-wide without the consequence seen near the end of the All-Star Race. Based on the success of the first race, they could choose to use it again when they return for race number two. Pocono is another track that needs a boost in terms of competition, but with the speed carried into turn one and the narrowness of the groove in two, that could be a recipe for disaster. By the time the playoffs roll around, shelf the science project until 2019 and Auto Club.

Daniel McFadin: It shouldn’t be tested in the playoffs, so if I had to pick a track before then I’d go with the August race at Michigan. That would mean both Cup and Xfinity teams tried out the package there this season.

What is a concern you have about the All-Star package?

Steve Letarte: The biggest concern, I think, is that one of the reasons it was successful was because teams didn’t have time to develop it. As teams develop it, it will change. I think the ratio of downforce to power is pretty successful. They need to try to keep that as teams make gains, whether horsepower with the plates or downforce with the car.

Kyle Petty: My main concerns are drivers/teams and fans. Drivers/teams went into Charlotte with some ideas of what this package would do and feel like but not 100% sure of everything. We saw a race where ALL drivers/teams were as close as they’ll EVER be with this package. The next time it’s run, someone will have figured out a way to be better than the rest and the never-ending cycle of rule changes vs. drivers/teams will continue. That’s what NASCAR has ALWAYS been and Thank God there’s still a little of that left! … The fans are a concern because they like it now but will they like it tomorrow? We’ve seen this same movie before. Everyone says they love tandem racing! Two or three races later they hate it! NASCAR listens to the fans and changes the rules as to not allow tandem racing. Once again fans Love the new racing … for two or three races and then some will want tandem racing again! NASCAR can’t chase the fan opinion, the fans matter, but the product on the track matters MORE. It’s why NASCAR is in business, the racing business, it’s why drivers/teams race and in the end it’s why fans come. We need long-term solutions not knee-jerk reactions.

Nate Ryan: It still seems to remain as difficult to pass the leader, if not more difficult.

Dustin Long: Just how much will some teams get better with this package and how will it impact the racing. Will there be more separation among cars? How will that impact passing at the front? That seems to be an issue already. Will it be worse?

Dan Beaver: From the outside, the cars appeared to be too stable because of the reduction of speed. Portions of the race were too similar to restrictor-plate superspeedway races where the mental aspect of passing was more important than the handling.

Daniel McFadin: The amount of difficulty for the car behind the leader to get close enough to challenge for the lead. It’s possible the straightaways just aren’t long enough at Charlotte build enough momentum.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame will select its next class Wednesday. Name one person — other than Jeff Gordon — who should be in the next class and why.

Steve Letarte: Roger Penske. I think because Roger Penske has had a Hall of Fame career as a car owner but his reach in NASCAR is much more than that. He was involved in Michigan International Speedway, he built Auto Club Speedway. Penske, that last name is just iconic in the U.S. when it comes to industry. I think his involvement in NASCAR matches that and he should go into the Hall of Fame.

Kyle Petty: ALL are deserving in so many different ways. I know or knew every one of the nominees. I’m sorry I can’t pick just one. So  I’ll just say … Congratulations Jeff Gordon! 

Nate Ryan: Alan Kulwicki because he accomplished so much with less than his rivals while also being ahead of the curve on the engineering trends.

Dustin Long: Kirk Shelmerdine. Won four championships as Dale Earnhardt’s crew chiefs in the 1980 and won 10 percent of all his starts while working with Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd, Richard Childress and James Hylton.

Dan Beaver: My vote goes to Red Farmer. He epitomizes NASCAR’s golden years with a path that weaves in and out of the top series while also running paved short tracks and on dirt. Still racing and winning well into his 80s, a driver like Farmer defines the sport for many grassroots fans. The Hall needs to remember its roots, just as NASCAR does.

Daniel McFadin: Kirk Shelmerdine. He won four Cup titles with Dale Earnhardt Sr. That’s one more than Ray Evernham won with Jeff Gordon. Shelmerdine partnered with Earnhardt for 44 of his 46 Cup wins.