Auto Club Speedway

Friday 5: NASCAR’s bold moves earning praise from drivers

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A season unlike any other has had NASCAR officials instituting changes few could have expected.

After being sidelined 10 weeks by the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR returned in May ahead of the NBA, Major League Baseball, NHL and many other sports. To defray costs to teams, NASCAR eliminated practice and qualifying at nearly all events. Race weekends turned into one-day shows. Race dates were realigned.

Then came this week’s news that NASCAR plans to convert Auto Club  Speedway into a short track.

Many of NASCAR’s actions are earning praise from drivers.

“I think the bigger picture that we should all be really excited about is the leadership at NASCAR is doing something different nowadays and it’s becoming a trend,” Chase Elliott said Thursday when asked about Auto Club Speedway plans.

“It’s really been a trend all year. I think instead of finding the negatives in some of the things that they’re doing, I think we should all be super excited that they’re actually changing and doing some things different – have some different ideas and they’re putting them to work. That’s something that I don’t think has happened probably ever until right now. So, just excited to see them trying different things.”

Change also has included the midseason adoption of the choose rule in races, a Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2021 and the delay of the Next Gen car’s debut to 2022.

Turning the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway into a short track that has elements of Martinsville’s long straightaways, Bristol’s high-banked turns and Richmond’s dogleg frontstretch stunned drivers.

“It is very provocative and I mean that in a good way,” Brad Keselowski said Thursday of the Auto Club news. “I think we are really starting to see (NASCAR Chairman) Jim France and his leadership style, I don’t want to say get comfortable, but kind of find their path and direction. It has been a little bit of a breath of fresh air in some ways. I would say that the move at Auto Club Speedway has a good feel to it in the sense that it feels like this is something coming right from the top. It feels like there has been a fair amount of thought put into it, at least from my perspective.

“I think we have seen a couple different examples of that with things that just kind of feel like they are Jim. He has got his own style, and I don’t think it is bad and I am not sure I would say that where we were before was bad. I thought there was room for improvement, but I feel like I am in the middle of a book and I am just reading chapters and it is almost like there is a different writer now with these chapters and Jim is writing them and they are pretty interesting and compelling.

“It is hard to view them as a whole because naturally none of us know everything that is going on behind the scenes, but in the moment there is more that I agree with than I disagree with and that is probably a good thing.”

NASCAR Chairman Jim France, shown with Wood Brothers co-owners Len (left) and Eddie Wood (right) in the garage at Daytona in July 2019. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Jim France took over as NASCAR Chairman on Aug. 6, 2018 after former Chairman Brian France was arrested by the Sag Harbor Village (New York) police for aggravated driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Jim France immediately appeared in the garage on race weekends, earning praise from competitors. Many in the garage complained that Brian France had not been at the track as often during his tenure, which began in Sept. 2003.

Jim France also presided over NASCAR’s merger with International Speedway Corp. The merger was announced in May 2019.

Less than two months after Jim France took over, Steve Phelps was promoted to NASCAR President on Sept. 20, 2018, replacing Brent Dewar.

Not everything has been perfect. Bob Leavine, owner of Leavine Family Racing, has been critical about NASCAR’s business model. Leavine sold his team to Spire Motorsports this summer. Germain Racing owner Bob Germain said he is considering a potential sale of the team with sponsor GEICO not returning after this season. Questions about Richard Petty Motorsports have been raised with the news that Bubba Wallace will race elsewhere next year and take some of his sponsors with him.

“We are working with our teams and frankly have been working with our teams over the last four or five years to try to improve the business model,” Phelps recently told reporters. “We want healthy teams.

“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher. Certainly when I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for the direction of what team ownership looks like.”

2. Exclusive club

Kevin Harvick’s eight victories has him on pace to become the first driver to win at least 10 Cup races in a season in more than a decade and only the third driver to reach that mark in the past quarter century.

Jimmie Johnson is the last driver to accomplish the feat. He won 10 races in 2007. The only other driver to reach that mark in the last 25 years is Jeff Gordon. He won 13 races in 1998 and 10 races each in 1996 and ’97.

The last driver not from Hendrick Motorsports to reach at least 10 wins in a season was Rusty Wallace. He won 10 times in 1993 for car owner Roger Penske.

Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have collected eight Cup victories this season. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, admits a 10-win season is a “big deal.

“In 2018, we were able to win eight races and the All‑Star Race, and that was a huge deal for us. That’s one of those dream seasons, and of course this one has been also.”

Denny Hamlin, who has six victories, said a team goal for this year is to win 10 races.

“Now you know how important Bristol and Indy were to us,” said Chris Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief. “Those were two we had and got away from us.”

Hamlin lost the lead with 12 laps to go at Bristol when his car got too high in the corner. He then ran into Joey Logano when Logano did the same thing in the next corner.

Hamlin had a tire go down and wrecked while leading with eight laps to go at Indianapolis. Harvick won that race.

Why is 10 wins a goal for Hamlin’s team?

“You look at the names of the guys on that list, not only was it done a long time ago, it was done in kind of a different era where the rule book is concerned,” Gabehart said. “It’s an elite list of guys.”

3. No talkback

Kyle Busch enters Saturday night’s Richmond race seven points above the cutline for the final transfer spot and without crew chief Adam Stevens. But Busch doesn’t foresee any issues with Stevens back at the shop.

NASCAR suspended Stevens one race because Busch’s car had two lug nuts not safe and secure after the Southern 500 (Clint Bowyer crew chief Johnny Klausemeir suffered the same penalty and also won’t be at Richmond).

Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch have been together since 2015. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Engineer Jacob Canter will serve as Busch’s crew chief Saturday. Canter has been Busch’s crew chief in his five Xfinity races this season, including Friday night’s event.

Even though Canter has much less experience with Busch than Stevens — Busch and Stevens have been together since 2015 — Busch said he won’t change what he says on the radio. That’s because Stevens will be listening.

Me talking on the radio is basically me talking directly to Adam,” Busch said. “It’s just I can’t hear back from Adam.”

A NASCAR suspension prohibits a person from the garage, pits and other restricted areas. A suspension does not prevent a crew chief from listening to the team’s radio and communicating with the crew at the track.

“I’m not sure with technology today and the war room and all that stuff at Joe Gibbs Racing with the communications and all that stuff that we have going on right now that much is going to be different at all really,” Busch said of not having Stevens at Richmond.

4. In a hole

Ryan Blaney faces a steep challenge to reach the second round of the playoffs. Should he do so, he likely will be one of the favorites to advance to the third round.

Such is life in the NASCAR playoffs.

The first round is viewed as Blaney’s weakest. He’s never had a top 10 at Darlington. His 24th-place finish there last weekend leaves him last among the playoff drivers. Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto are each 17 points from the final transfer spot.

Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney won at Talladega in June for his second consecutive win there. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For as much as Blaney has struggled at Darlington, Richmond is worse for him. He’s never finished better than 17th there in eight starts. His average finish at Richmond is 25.5.

Another poor result Saturday could force Blaney into a must-win situation at Bristol.

If he can just get past this round, he’ll be one to watch. The second round features Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. Some drivers call this the wildcard round, noting how important it will be to win at Las Vegas so a driver doesn’t have to worry about what can happen at Talladega and the Roval.

Joey Logano won at Las Vegas in February but Blaney led when a caution set up an overtime restart. Blaney pitted from the lead, a move crew chief Todd Gordon lamented. Alex Bowman, running second, also pitted. Logano, who was third at the caution, inherited the lead and won.

Even if Blaney doesn’t win Las Vegas, Talladega is next. Blaney has won the past two races there. He won there in June and in last year’s playoff race.

If not Talladega, there’s the Roval. Blaney won the inaugural race there in 2018 and finished eighth last year.

So if Blaney can advance from the first round, he could be in a good position to go deep into the playoffs.

5. Perfect count

Last week’s 10-point penalty to Ryan Blaney and his team for improperly mounted ballast is changing how Team Penske prepares its cars.

The team stated that a 5-pound lead bag was accidentally left in the car. The bag was added to simulate fluid weights before the race engine was installed.

Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske, said the team is changing its process to ensure such bags are retrieved.

A pretty unfortunate situation, but you go back and you look at it and you say, ‘Okay, what do we have to do different here?” Geisler said. “How do we prevent this going forward? What do we do?’ We’re moving towards a ballast bag count. 

“Normally, guys would just add ballast bags until the car was at weight. Now there needs to be a count. It’s just the same as when doctors go into surgery they know what they have, they know what tools they have so they don’t leave any in or behind.  That’s the same thing we need to be doing. That’s a piece of our process that has to get tightened up.”

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NASCAR seeks to reshape Auto Club Speedway into a short track

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NASCAR seeks to reshape 2-mile Auto Club Speedway into a short track, giving fans another short track on the schedule. NASCAR revealed those plans Tuesday after it was first reported by The Athletic.

“We are still very early in the process, but we are excited about what this ambitious project could mean for our loyal fans in  Southern California,” said Craig Neeb, NASCAR executive vice president, chief innovation officer, in a statement. “This is our first step towards creating a state-of-the-art facility that would deliver the intense short-track racing our fans love, an intimate viewing experience, and upgraded suites and hospitality areas that would position Auto Club Speedway among the top entertainment venues in the market.”

The Athletic reported that NASCAR submitted site plans to San Bernardino County on Tuesday. The Athletic notes the plans call for the track to be half a mile. The track would have long straightaways similar to Martinsville Speedway. The corners would be banked similar to Bristol Motor Speedway.

The only short tracks that host Cup races are Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond Raceway, site of this week’s Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series races.

A rendering of NASCAR’s Next Gen in California that looks to reshape the 2-mile speedway into a short track. (Photo: NASCAR)

Auto Club Speedway, located in Fontana, California, has been on the Cup schedule since 1997. Jeff Gordon won the first Cup race there. Jimmie Johnson has a track-record six wins. Alex Bowman won there in March.

Next Gen car test to take place at Dover

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NASCAR confirmed that it will have a Next Gen car test Aug. 24-25 after the weekend races at Dover International Speedway.

It will be the first Next Gen car test since March at Auto Club Speedway. NASCAR moved the Next Gen’s car debut back a year to 2022, citing the challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic. Cole Custer will drive the car in the upcoming test for Stewart-Haas Racing.

This is the only test scheduled for the car at this time, NASCAR confirmed to NBC Sports.

The car was previously tested:

Oct. 8-9, 2019 at Richmond with Austin Dillon

Dec. 9-10, 2019 at Phoenix with Joey Logano

Jan. 15-16, 2020 at Miami with Erik Jones

March 2-3, 2020 at Auto Club Speedway with William Byron

Also, NASCAR confirmed that the IMSA Action Express team had built a Next Gen car and was testing it Monday on the Daytona International Speedway road course. NASCAR stated that this was not a NASCAR test. NASCAR.com reported that Felipe Nasr and Austin Cindric, who won Saturday’s Xfinity race on the road course, were testing the car.

“The Action Express test allows a sports car team to learn about the architecture of the Next Gen car and explore any opportunities to adopt new technologies,” John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of innovation and racing development, told NASCAR.com. “The test also benefits NASCAR — it helps us check the durability of parts, helps with tire development and gives us data from a road course test.”

 

 

 

 

 

May 1 in NASCAR: Greg Biffle beats oil, heat and gas problems for Xfinity win

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Greg Biffle didn’t anticipate having to pit with 10 laps to go in the May 1, 2004 Busch (Xfinity) Series race at Auto Club Speedway, but he did so while running second to his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth.

“I saw the fuel pressure jump around a bit,” Biffle said according to The Associated Press. “The last two Busch Series races here, I could have won, but I ran out of gas or had to pit for gas and nobody else did. It was a flashback.”

The potential fuel pressure issue piled on to problems his No. 60 team had during the 150-lap race.

The team had to add 3 1/2 quarts of oil to the car throughout the event due to a mystery oil pressure problem.

Then with 50 laps to go, Biffle’s cooling system malfunctioned. The race was being held in 90-degree heat.

“It was like somebody flipped a switch and I had a hair dryer in my face,” Biffle said.

Biffle executed a fast pit stop on Lap 140 for his splash of gas, but returned to the track in eighth place, nearly a lap behind Kenesth.

But over the next few laps every driver in front of him had to pit for fuel.

Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick each stalled as they tried exiting their pit boxes after their stops.

“That explains it, I didn’t know how I got so far ahead of those guys,” Biffle said.

Biffle took the lead with three laps to go and cruised to the checkered flag for his second win of the year.

Also on this date:

1955: Buck Baker won a 133-lap race at the Charlotte Speedway dirt track. During the race, Herb Thomas was in a violent wreck on Lap 41 that saw him thrown from his car, according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Beginning.” Thomas was taken to the hospital with a fractured leg, bruises, a concussion, a lacerated arm and shoulder injuries.

1964: LeeRoy Yarbrough capitalized on Jimmy Pardue’s mechanical failures to claim his first of 14 career Grand National wins in a race at Savannah (Georgia) Speedway.

1983: Richard Petty edged Benny Parsons by a couple of car lengths to win at Talladega for his 197th Cup Series win. Phil Parsons, making his second career start, was involved in a horrific 11-car crash on Lap 71 where he flipped multiple times in Turns 1-2, including landing on the back of Ricky Rudd’s car. After being pulled from his car by photographers located near the crash, Parsons was taken to the hospital with a broken shoulder blade.

1988: Five years after his violent wreck, Phil Parsons led 52 of 188 laps to score his only career Cup Series win out of 203 starts.

1993: Ward Burton led twice for 259 of 300 laps to win a Xfinity Series race at Orange County (N.C.) Speedway.

April 29 in NASCAR: Rusty Wallace honors Dale Sr. after win on 50th birthday

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On April 29, 2001, the Cup Series held its annual race at the 2-mile track formally known as California Speedway.

Just over two months had passed since the death of Dale Earnhardt in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 and feelings surrounding the tragedy were still fresh on what would have been his 50th birthday.

Rusty Wallace, one of his long-time rivals and friends, made sure Earnhardt got his due after holding off Jeff Gordon to get the win.

There were no celebratory burnouts by Wallace. Instead, a crew member met him on the track and delivered an Earnhardt flag. Wallace drove around the track as it waved outside his window.

It was sadly a familiar sight.

Just over eight years earlier in 1993, Wallace had won the Cup Series race at Bristol following the death of Alan Kulwicki in a plane crash earlier in the week. Afterward, Wallace performed Kulwicki’s trademark “Polish Victory Lap.”

In November, Wallace and Earnhardt would honor not just Kulwicki, but Davey Allison, who died in July from injuries sustained in a helicopter crash. After Wallace won the season finale at Atlanta and Earnhardt clinched his sixth title, the two performed the “Polish Victory Lap” as Wallace held an Allison flag and Earnhardt held a Kulwicki flag.

“It was kind of an emotional feeling,” Wallace told Fox after his 2001 win. “(Earnhardt) was such a great friend of mine and such a great family. … I really would have liked to have had Richard Childress riding with me that lap.”

Also on this date:

1951: Fonty Flock led every lap to win a Grand National race at North Wilkesboro. Lou Figaro, driving in relief of Dale Williams, finished ninth in a car that had its hood stuck in the upright position, according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Beginning.”

1962: Bobby Johns led 430 of 500 laps to win at Bristol by six laps over Fireball Roberts. According to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Superspeedway Boom,” Roberts finished second after he lost 12 laps in the pits making repairs, only to make up six of them under green flag conditions.

1984: Geoffrey Bodine beat Ron Bouchard by six seconds at Martinsville to score his first Cup Series win and also the first win for Hendrick Motorsports. It came in the team’s eighth Cup race.

1990: A week after his brother Brett earned his first career Cup win at North Wilkesboro, Geoffrey Bodine won at Martinsville to earn his first win for owner Junior Johnson. It was the first time brothers won consecutive races since Donnie and Bobby Allison did it in 1978.