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Dale Jr. Download: Steve Phelps on NASCAR’s mistakes, future, and more

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On Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced on Twitter that NASCAR President Steve Phelps would be his next guest on The Dale Jr. Download and asked fans for questions.

They responded in kind, and Phelps said he had roughly 800 Twitter notifications as a result.

What did fans what to ask Phelps about?

There’s a lot going on in NASCAR, from new schedules, to qualifying frustrations, to the influence of CEO and Chairman Jim France and the possibility of new manufacturers and on and on.

April 1 marked the start of Phelps’ seventh month in the job and he addressed those topics and more, including past mistakes NASCAR is working to fix.

Here’s a condensed version of his interview:

THOUGHTS ON CONTROVERSIAL QUALIFYING SESSION AT TEXAS

“Do I think we’ll make some changes moving forward to that? We’re going to have to. That was unacceptable if I’m a race fan and unacceptable if I was at the race track. Do I have some influence there? Yeah, I have some influence there. But I want to make sure the guys that are responsible for that particular area are doing that. Not too dissimilar to what I would do for Jill Gregory on the marketing side or Daryl Wolfe on kind of the sponsor side and business development side. You want your people to do their jobs and they’re talented people and they can do that. To the degree I can help them, I want to do that.”

MOST IMPORTANT VOICE TO LISTEN TO IN THE SPORT/THOUGHTS ON 2020 SCHEDULE

“The most important one is the fan. What does the fan want to see? What’s the product they want to see? What kind of racing do they want to see? So some of the questions last night (On Twitter) is … I think (Autoweek reporter Matt) Weaver said, ‘Hey, remind Steve that a short track is .75 miles and below.’ I am aware of that. … Fans have said that they want to see more short tracks and more road courses. I get that. And fewer intermediate tracks. We totally understand that. We tried to mix up the schedule as much as we could with the limitations that we had. Cause we had five-year agreements, 2020 is the fifth year of the agreement.

“So we had to go to all the same race tracks, but the way we kind of configured them kind of puts some emphasis on short tracks or an emphasis on road courses, or the Roval in that case. I think the Indy-Daytona switch is to provide more drama. I know we’ve been accused of manufacturing drama. I’m OK as long as there’s drama. If I’m a race team or I’m a driver, the likelihood of me winning Indy if I’m already outside of the playoffs is pretty slim. The likelihood of me winning at Daytona at the final regular-season even, at least I got something there.”

(Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

IS BEN KENNEDY BEING GROOMED TO BECOME THE FACE OF THE FRANCE FAMILY AT NASCAR?

“I’ve never had this conversation with Ben, so I’ll put myself out there. Ben has done a tremendous job in the short time he’s been here (first as Truck Series general manager and now managing director of racing operations and international development).

“He is working on kind of the competition side of where things are. He worked with Steve O’Donnell extensively on the schedule. So they were really the force of the schedule … They did a great job I think getting tracks aligned on the changes that we made.

“If that’s what Ben wants to do, run his family’s business. I think that’s fantastic. He’s smart. He’s passionate about the sport. He did drive and was a winner in Trucks and (raced in) Xfinity. … I think it would be a great natural step to have him in there. How soon he comes in and runs the place, that’s really between (CEO and Chairman) Jim (France) and Lesa (France Kennedy), his mom, and Ben.

“I wouldn’t bet against him.”

WILL NASCAR LOOK AT TRACK AGREEMENTS DIFFERENTLY SO IT’S NOT BOXED IN?

“That’s the plan. We think that having race tracks kind of be in it together with us in making changes and having a certain standard for what it looks like to run a race track, run a race at the highest level of NASCAR, I think that’s important. Could we see different tracks? Yeah, we absolutely could. What they are, where they are, there’s a ton of speculation of what would be a good race track for us to go to. We’ve heard, ‘Hey, don’t run two races on mile-and-a halfs.’ I saw that on Twitter last night. I’m not suggesting we’re not going to do that.

“I just think, listen, we have to do some things differently. Fans want us to do things differently and I think we need to do it as quickly as we can within reason, understanding that there are three legs to that stool and one of those legs are the tracks.

WHAT IS NASCAR GOING TO DO DIFFERENTLY OR WHAT IS IT GOING BACK TO?

“I think that there was, this was in an interview I did around Daytona, (where I said) ‘Hey, we made some mistakes.’ Listen, we’re not the only business that’s made a mistake. I think we chased a new fan at the expense of an existing fan. We’ll never do that again. It doesn’t mean we can’t have new fans in the sport, of course we can. But we want our new fans and our existing fans, avid, longtime, loyal fans, we want them to kind of nurture and grow these young fans or these new fans, young or old, I don’t care what they are. As long as there’s more people that are coming into the sport. We have a great sport. We want to share it.

“Other things that we can change, again I think it goes back, first and foremost, it goes back to the racing. Where are we racing? What does the racing look like? Is the car going to look more, quote ‘Stock’? I think our auto manufacturers, OEMs, would like to see body styles that are more reflective of what happens in a showroom. I think they would want to see some different types of engine packages that we could put together that would be more relevant to what would be good for them and as part of that I think we could hopefully take the three existing OEMs we have and add a couple of more. I think the winner frankly is the race fan. I believe that because it’s just more and more excitement, more and more rivalries. It would be great, for example, to have Dodge back in the sport. We’ve had discussions with Dodge, and we’d love to see them come back. So come on back.”

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

ARE MORE ROVALS IN THE FUTURE?

“You take a look at the Roval, right? Ratings were up, attendance was up. So the first, immediate reaction is, ‘Oh, we’ve got other Roval opportunities at other mile-and-half-tracks.’ I don’t think that is the answer. It doesn’t mean we won’t do that in the future at a small number. Could we support another, quote ‘Roval.’ We could. But it’s kind of like Eldora. There’s something special about Eldora. It doesn’t mean you’re going to run eight dirt races for Trucks, four for Xfinity and two for Cup. There’s a specialness that exists, and I think we have to try to get at opportunities to go to places that are different and unique from each other.

“You can go to a mile-and-half-track that looks the exact same layout as another mile-and-a-half track, but the surface is different, the weather is different and you’re going to get different results. With that said, this kind of lumping in of intermediate tracks, ‘We just have too many.’ OK. So is there an opportunity to potentially go elsewhere and shorten a number of intermediate tracks? Yeah, that’s something we can look at and we’re going to.”

DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO RACE IN NASHVILLE WITH THE AWARDS BANQUET NOW THERE AND WHAT’S NASCAR’S INVOLVEMENT IN DISCUSSIONS ABOUT FAIRGROUNDS NASHVILLE SPEEDWAY?

“Listen, Nashville is a great town for us, right? So we have two different tracks, the fairgrounds and the one outside of town. Would we like to run at Nashville again? We would. I think it’s a great town for us. I think having our banquet there is a great place to go. There was a time, a kind of thinking of NASCAR at the time, don’t embrace country music because that’s kind of the core, that’s our roots. Well, that’s a mistake. We want to embrace country music. Not only is country music incredibly popular, but it’s part of a natural tie for our sport.

“So going to Nashville I think is a great idea. What’s going to happen moving forward into 2021? Are we going to be racing in Nashville or not? I don’t know. I know that at least I’ve been told, (Speedway Motorsports, Inc. CEO) Marcus (Smith) has had discussions with the folks in Nashville at the fairgrounds. How likely is that going to happen? Right now he has no sanctioning agreement for 2021, so he can’t bring anything there. If he wants to bring something there, obviously NASCAR has to have an involvement. They are our dates. We will absolutely (get involved) when it’s time.”

IS THE GEN 7 CAR ON SCHEDULE?

“As of right now, our Gen 7 car is on schedule. I think we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of work to do with our OEM partners, and we have a lot of work to do ourselves and a lot of work to do with the race teams. I think that a 2021 Gen 7 car, body style, chassis, as well as a 2022 potential revamped engine is a distinct possibility. That’s what we’re working hard to get. We’ve got folks working on that every day as hard as we can, cause I think it would just be better, frankly. It seems a bit, you’re going to take an engine and put a tapered spacer to essentially create, quote, ‘better racing,’ right? I think that would it make sense to just build the engine to whatever the specifications are going to be? I would say the answer to that is yes.”

(Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

WHAT IS (CEO AND CHAIRMAN) JIM FRANCE DOING? HOW MUCH OF A TURN HAS HE MADE TO BE HELPING NASCAR AS A WHOLE?

“How involved? He’s involved every day. He’s maybe not out in front, in your face on the microphone granting 50 interviews. Not kind of his style. But he knows exactly what’s going on. It has his kind of guiding hand on it. Talked about Gen 7. Jim France knows all about Gen 7 and how to get there. It’s important to him.

“Jim France also knows about, ‘Hey, we need to grow our database and know who our fans are.’ Jim France is involved with something we call ‘Project Horsepower’ to try and increase ratings and attendance. That has been at the heart of our marketing efforts that Jill and her team are doing. Jim France asking all the time, ‘Hey, what’s Jill doing? How are they doing? How did we do in the ratings?’ We’re up for the year. We were up 36% yesterday (at Texas). We were on big Fox instead of FS1, but even so, our numbers and our share numbers continue to increase.

“Those are exciting things. Every single Monday, I send a note to Jim and Lesa, ‘Here’s where we are.’ That portion has certainly been a success story. He wants to know how’s the racing going. He’s been at every single event but one and that was some circumstances that he and I needed to be in Daytona so we couldn’t be at Auto Club. It’s been fantastic.”

ON REVAMPED DRIVERS COUNCIL

So the driver council right now is in a little bit of a state of flux. In a good way. … You’re talking to 10 guys, right? Most of that time the way it was made up, you had veteran drivers and then you had younger drivers because we want to have some representation across the different OEMs, future Hall of Famers plus these young kids who are coming into the sport.

“The problem is then you had 30 drivers that were not represented. The difficulty is it’s not that the information we got was flawed information you got from the 10, the other 30 didn’t know what we were talking about so they felt out of the loop. Then they’re out trying to figure out what’s going on, the lobbying. So what we’re doing now, we started this last fall, is we’re going to meet with all the drivers and you’re going to do it with smaller groups. So we’ll do in groups of three or four around Richmond.

“Three or four groups around Richmond where you’re going to lump your champions and kind of veteran drivers together so they can talk and listen to where we’re going and we can listen to where they want to be. Then we’ll separate into two or three other groups of various teams. Teams will stay together for the most part. We think that’s a better way of doing it. That’s why I say the driver council is kind of in a state of flux. It’s just changing. So I would call it a new driver council, just not with a formality of what we had previously.”

Listen below for the full interview with Steve Phelps.

Jim France reaffirms that France family is ‘committed’ to NASCAR

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR Chairman Jim France spoke briefly to competitors at the start of the driver’s meeting Sunday, reaffirming the France family’s commitment to NASCAR and asking drivers to join Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott on the bottom lane during the Daytona 500 to “put on a good show today” after days of single-file racing at Speedweeks.

France, who took over for Brian France in August after his nephew’s arrest for aggravated driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree, represented NASCAR’s leadership in speaking to the drivers before the first race of the season.

It was one of his few public appearances. He has yet to grant an interview since becoming NASCAR’s Chairman.

France spoke to competitors with niece Lesa France Kennedy, NASCAR vice chairperson, standing beside him:

“On behalf of Lesa, Ben (Kennedy) and myself, welcome all of you to the 61st running of the Great America Race, the Daytona 500. Also, I’d like to recognize some of the family members. There’s not time to recognize all of them, but this sport was built by families. You have the Petty family, the Earnhardt family, the Jarretts, I could go on and on all morning, but I know that you’ve got other things to do.

“This sport was built by families and we’re just a part of it. It’s so important that we remember that this is still a family business. Our family is committed to it. It’s a tough, tough sport, tough business. It’s hard, but we’ve got a soft family side and that’s what makes NASCAR special. So on behalf of us and all of us in this room, we appreciate the great drivers, the great teams and the great sponsors that are here today making this happen.

“And I’ve got just one other little thing, two things, to add. One of my big hopes was one day I would be passing out a trophy in victory lane to Ben. He and I have still have that plan but don’t tell Lesa.

“The other thing is that I hope a few of you drivers out there will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and put on a good show today.”

France reaffirming the family’s commitment to NASCAR comes as NASCAR seeks to take over International Speedway Corp. ISC is run by the France family and operates tracks, including Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, among others.

NASCAR announced in November that it had made an offer to purchase all outstanding shares of Class A and Class B common stock in International Speedway Corp. That came after reports that NASCAR was looking to purchase a stake in the company.

Friday 5: Looking to the past to enhance NASCAR’s future

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As some of its most popular drivers retire, NASCAR has the chance to tap into their knowledge to help push the sport forward.

Question is if NASCAR will do so.

The sport is in the midst of a generational change in its driver lineup. Gone are Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth (at least for now). Likely to be gone in the near future are Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Elliott Sadler — all drivers 40 or older.

Think about the wealth of knowledge they carry about the sport. Think about how NASCAR could benefit from their consultation. Both Burton and Gordon were a part of the group NASCAR assembled that created stage racing, so it’s clear their opinions matter.

Admittedly, some drivers will have other plans for their post-racing career and won’t have the time or interest to do so, but for those willing to help the sport, NASCAR needs to find a role for them. 

There’s plenty former drivers can do. They can help bridge gaps, provide a different perspective, be a listening board and an agent for change. 

Harvick has become more vocal in the last year about ways to improve ties to grassroots racing. He’s suggested that the Camping World Truck Series run more races at local short tracks and questioned why the K&N Pro Series West no longer competes at Phoenix and other big tracks.

“Sometimes we look at our sport from the top down instead of the bottom up,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” this week. “At this grassroots level, that’s where all your hardcore fans live.’’

One doesn’t have to listen to Harvick long to hear his passion for short track racing. As a former Cup champion and host of a national radio show, his words carry weight. He also is one of action. Thursday night, he competed in the K&N West opener at Kern County Raceway in Harvick’s hometown of Bakersfield, California.

Even for all the behind-the-scenes work he’s done, Harvick still has to focus on his racing career and there will be times throughout the season he won’t be able to focus as much on such issues.

That’s where a retired driver can help. It’s becoming more difficult for former drivers to find a role in the sport. Ownership isn’t a viable option for many because it has become so expensive. There are only so many TV jobs available. Same with executive roles for teams.

If there isn’t a place in those areas, that’s where NASCAR should enter and provide a spot.

Could former Cup drivers play a role in strengthening the bonds between NASCAR and local tracks? It’s certainly worth a look. (Photo: Getty Images)

For all the work Harvick has done on grassroots, he could use help tightening the bonds between NASCAR and local racing. Burton, whose son, Harrison, has come up through such ranks, has seen the sport from many levels and could provide a way to work on such solutions. Earnhardt often has expressed an interest in short track racing and noted how he might just show up a track to race at some point. Short-track racing is a passion for Stewart. There are likely others who could also play a role in needed.

It’s not just grassroots racing these experienced racers could help.

A retired driver could serve as an adviser to the Drivers Council. Just as with any work-related group, a lot of good ideas can arise, but it can be difficult for those involved to take a deeper look into matters because of how busy they are. Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt have served on the council before, although such experience shouldn’t preclude someone else, maybe someone such as Dale Jarrett or Burton or Labonte, from a role to make that group even more effective.

Whenever Sadler decides to no longer race, he is someone who could be looked at in some advisory role to help raise the Xfinity Series’ level should he want to do something like that. Sadler’s passion for the sport is evident, and his experience, even now, is invaluable for a series that gets younger each year.

One of the things NASCAR recently touted with Ben Kennedy moving into an executive role for the Camping World Truck Series is that he was coming from the driver’s seat and would lend a fresh perspective.

While NASCAR doesn’t have to hire every former driver, why not have some serve as consultants?

There are many of them out there. And there are enough issues in the sport where they could help.

2. Time’s a ticking A subtle change this season is that Friday Cup practice has been shortened at some tracks by as much as 35 minutes compared to last year.

The result is that teams spend less time in race trim — if any at all — in Friday practice because that is the only session before qualifying. That can make an impact.

“You don’t get that little bit of baseline,’’ Erik Jones told NBC Sports of not running in race setup on Friday. “We were able to take that baseline from Friday (last year) and then adjust from it from there for Saturday and maybe have a little bit better fire off. It makes the (simulator) more valuable and makes the team guys more valuable to unload well.’’

Erik Jones says less Friday practice time can prove challenging for young drivers, especially rookies. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones benefitted from the longer Friday practice sessions last year as a rookie. He often started in race setup to run multiple laps and get his braking and turning points set before his team switched to qualifying trim. But that was when teams often had 85 minutes for practice on Friday.

At Las Vegas, Friday’s practice was 30 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran seven laps in practice this year compared to 16 a year ago.

At Phoenix, Friday’s practice was 35 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran 10 practice laps this year compared to 16 a year ago.

Practice today at Auto Club Speedway is 35 minutes shorter than Friday’s session last year. The only concession is that the first practice Saturday will be five minutes longer than that session a year ago. Still, teams have 30 minutes less practice time for the weekend.

Jones can’t imagine the challenge Cup rookies William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. face with the shorter Friday sessions.

“You go to these tracks, and the Cup cars just drive so different,’’ Jones said. “You don’t really have a good idea of what you’re looking at. It’s just more valuable as a rookie to fire off in race trim and only take, hopefully, that one (qualifying) trim run you’re going to get from the time it’s going to take to switch over. There are times even now I struggle firing off in (qualifying) trim. It’s not an easy thing to do.’’

3. Which three-peat is better?

Kevin Harvick enters this weekend having won the past three races in a row.

Kyle Larson enters this weekend having won the past three races on 2-mile tracks.

Harvick’s streak was done in consecutive weekends at three different tracks – Atlanta, Las Vegas and ISM Raceway.

Larson’s streak was done at two different tracks — Michigan and Auto Club Speedway — but over a period of nearly five months.

Which streak is more impressive?

4. Fast start

Kurt Busch said before the year that a focus for the No. 41 team was stage points. With that in mind, it wasn’t surprising that crew chief Billy Scott kept Busch out during the caution just before the end of stage 2 at Phoenix last weekend. Busch won the stage but then started deep in the field.

After four races, only Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick has scored more stage points than Busch. Harvick has 53 stage points and Busch has 42. Busch had eight stage points at this time last year.

5. March Madness

With so much talk about the college basketball tournament, there’s a form of March Madness in NASCAR for many competitors.

In a way, Kevin Harvick’s hot start isn’t surprising. Seven of his 26 Cup victories since 2011 have come in March. No other month compares for him.

Harvick also can finish strong with five wins in November and four in October since 2011.

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Ben Kennedy named general manager of Truck Series in NASCAR executive moves

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NASCAR announced multiple leadership moves Tuesday, including the naming of Ben Kennedy as general manager of the Camping World Truck Series.

Kennedy, a former Truck Series driver, is the nephew of NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France and son of International Speedway Corporation’s CEO, Lesa France Kennedy.

Kennedy, 26, will work closely with Brad Moran, the managing director of the Truck Series and Jeff Wohlschlaeger, managing director of series marketing. He will report to Elton Sawyer, vice president of competition.

“Ben will draw upon his years of experience across NASCAR’s grassroots and national series to bring valuable commercial and competition insights to our NASCAR Camping World Truck Series,” said NASCAR President Brent Dewar in a press release. With promising young drivers and experienced veterans battling it out in close, side-by-side racing, Ben truly understands from experience that every lap matters and we are excited about his future leadership in this important national series.”

Kennedy has made 73 starts in the Truck Series and 17 in the Xfinity Series. In 2016, he earned his lone Truck Series win at Bristol Motor Speedway, becoming the first member of the France family to win a national NASCAR race.

MORE: Spotlight Q&A with Ben Kennedy

NASCAR also announced it has appointed Jim Cassidy to the new role of chief international officer. Cassidy was previously the vice president of racing operations.

In his new role, Cassidy will oversee all international competition and commercial operations, which includes the Pinty’s Series in Canada, the PEAK Mexico Series and the Whelen Euro Series.

“NASCAR racing is broadcast in over 185 countries and territories, with race fans engaging stock car racing in person at events in Canada, Mexico and across Europe,” Cassidy said in a press release. “The demand for NASCAR racing internationally has never been stronger and we look forward to bringing our sport closer to race fans everywhere.”

Cassidy will report to Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president and chief racing development officer.

“Jim brings nearly two decades of racing operations and industry leadership experience,” O’Donnell said in the press release. “He has worked tirelessly to grow our existing motorsports properties outside of the U.S and will lead our efforts to identify important growth opportunities internationally for our sport and its growing fanbase.”

Joining Cassidy in his efforts will be:

  • Chad Seigler as vice president of international business development
  • Celeste Griffin-Churchill as senior director, international
  • Joe Balash as director, international competition
  • Bob Duvall as senior director, international & weekly/touring business development

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Tyler Reddick fastest in first Xfinity practice at Miami; William Byron tops championship drivers

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Tyler Reddick was fastest in the first Xfinity Series practice for Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300.

Reddick and his No. 42 Chevrolet posted a speed of 165.598 mph around Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver led Ben Kennedy (165.294), Cole Custer (164.770), Christopher Bell (164.099) and championship driver William Byron (163.860).

The other three championship drivers:

15th – Elliott Sadler (162.016)

17th – Justin Allgaier (161.740)

21st – Daniel Hemric (161.503)

Of the championship drivers, Byron recorded the most laps with 34.

Bell had the best 10-lap average at 160.339 mph. Byron was the only championship driver to make a 10-lap run. He was ninth fastest at 155.083 mph.

The second Xfinity practice is set for 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Click here for the practice report.