Clay Campbell.

Friday 5: Free agency could dramatically alter 2021 driver lineup

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Sunday’s Daytona 500 begins a Cup season unlike any other in NASCAR’s history.

Among the year’s biggest storylines is the robust free agent market that could see a number of winning rides change drivers. Among those with contracts expiring after this season are five who won Cup races last year: Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Erik Jones.

They represent rides at some of the sport’s top teams: Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.

“When you look at this, there are always rides available, but there are usually limited amounts of very good rides and this year there are several of them but it is all driven off sponsorships and things like that,” said Clint Bowyer, whose contract with Stewart-Haas Racing expires after this season.

“It isn’t a knock to any driver you see out there, and hell I am putting myself in that group. I think we all – we all know that you are only as good as your last race. You can’t go on a swing of bad races or have a bad year or whatever else. You have to be the total package and that is probably more so today’s day in age than ever. You have to be the total package in that race car and out of it as well.”

Larson, whose future has been speculated on the past few years, admits: “I’m excited to see how it all plays out.”

Larson says that continuing to race on dirt is important in his next deal. He also noted that “just being with a competitive organization is the number one thing. I want to be able to win races consistently, run up front consistently and battle for championships year after year. I feel like at Chip Ganassi Racing, we are very close to being able to contend for championships year in and year out. I feel like we’ve got a great group of people. It will be an interesting year as it plays out.”

With this Jimmie Johnson’s final full-time Cup campaign, the No. 48 Chevrolet is open for next year. Who fills that ride could create a ripple effect in the garage — unless another team makes a move first. 

“There’s high profile rides up for grabs and only two or three drivers that can be really successful with them,” said Keselowski, who is in his 11th season at Team Penske. “There’s going to be a lot dominoes to fall.”

He’s confident that veterans will receive those top rides that are available.

“I think Kevin Harvick said it best: It’s been a great youth movement but those aren’t the guys winning,” Keselowski said. “The guys winning are the ones that are going to get the top rides. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to run the last four seasons straight with three (or more) wins and that puts me in a great position for those talks and those things that are going to go down. We’ll see how all the cards unfold.”

A key issue could be how much owners are willing to spend on a driver. Teams will face additional costs switching to the Next Gen car for next season, although some of those costs could be offset by a reduction of workforce with the cars being produced by an single entity instead of by each teams.

Corey LaJoie, whose contract with Go Fas Racing expires after this season, thinks the additional costs to teams with the move to the Next Gen car could favor drivers who won’t cost owners as much.

“I think teams are going to be forced to look at that because the expense to switch over from this new car is not going to be taken lightly,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It’s going to be $3 million cash up front. That’s big for those teams and they’re going to look at guys. They’re going to have to save on that payroll. Driver number on that spreadsheet is probably one of the bigger ones.”

Jones, who has won a race each of the past two years at Joe Gibbs Racing, admits this will be an interesting time for many drivers.

I have no intention of leaving my role there,” Jones said. “I’d love to continue that. But it is definitely a crazy year. There’s a lot of things happening. There’s a lot of things in motion, I guess, already probably for people, not really for me. I’m excited to see.”

Blaney, who has won a Cup race each of the past three years, said he anticipates talks to pick up in the coming months.

“It’s always performance, whether it’s the last two years or the first two months of this year,” Blaney said. “It’s always performance. We’ve had good enough performance the last couple of years and start off the season strong and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

2. Making the right move

William Byron admitted he thought the winning move came too early. But what are you to do?

In the second Duel Thursday night, Kevin Harvick led fellow Ford driver Matt DiBenedetto. Erik Jones, in a Toyota, was third and was followed by the Chevrolets of William Byron, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

The move was going to come from either Byron or Busch with the Chevys lined up.

It came with three laps to go.

“It’s just based on when that run comes,” Byron explained after the win. “In an ideal world, everyone would wait until one to go and fan out just because where we were was a good points position to finish the stage or the race. It would have been good to have six points or whatever it was.

“I had kind of not been paying attention, not been pushing as aggressively. A run just kind of luckily formed right there.  I figured if I didn’t take it, Kurt was going to.”

Races can be won with such split-second decisions. Just as they can be lost.

DiBenedetto attempted to move up to block the charge by Byron and the Chevys but was too late, allowing Byron to get by. DiBendetto finished seventh.

“I’m a little bummed that I didn’t stall out that top lane, I was a little too late to it and didn’t want to cause a crash and wipe us all out,” DiBenedetto said.

But had it been with three laps to go in the Daytona 500, DiBenedetto would have reacted differently.

“It would have been a more erratic move,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s tough. It’s always hindsight … and you learn.”

Every time on the track is a learning experience and it was for both Byron and DiBendettto on Thursday.

3. What about the 2021 Clash?

With news earlier this week that the 2021 Daytona 500 will be held Feb. 14, the question is what will happen to the Clash.

The Clash typically is held the week before the Daytona 500 but the Super Bowl will be played Feb. 7 in Tampa, about two hours from Daytona Beach.

Although some sports hold events the day of the Super Bowl, should NASCAR still hold the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying that day?

“I don’t think anybody should do that,” said Clint Bowyer, who attended this year’s Super Bowl to watch his hometown team, the Kansas City Chiefs. “It would be like them going up against the Daytona 500. We are all in this business together. It is an entertainment business and there is a footprint for all of them.

“That is a historic event which is America’s event. The Daytona 500 is a historic event that is also an American showcase. But I don’t think about TV all the time. I don’t think about ratings. I think about asses in the stands. I want to be able to go to the Super Bowl, and if I am not in the car, I want my ass in the stands of the Daytona 500 someday. I feel like we do owe enough respect to everybody and there is enough room for any venue to not be stepping on the toes of another and to respect that.”

Said Chase Elliott of NASCAR trying to run the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying the day of the Super Bowl: “I think you could expect not many people to be tuned in.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said Friday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that officials will look at various options for those events.

“It is on a radar and probably have to make an adjustment,” he said. “What that looks like, we’ll talk about in the coming weeks.”

4. New role for David Ragan

David Ragan isn’t racing full-time in Cup this season but he will still be busy.

Ragan, who is in Sunday’s Daytona 500, will look to race in a variety of racing series and work with Ford Racing.

As part of the Ford Racing program, Ragan also will work with Ford’s development drivers, including Hailie Deegan, from time to time throughout the season

MORE: A new hope: Hailie Deegan’s success could transform NASCAR

“I can help her with some of the things that I’ve seen, that I’ve learned that were good for me and bad for me and that I can hopefully help her get up to speed a little bit quicker,” Ragan said of Deegan, who moved to Ford’s development program in the offseason.

“If I can give her some pointers and some things to think about, spend a little time with her on the simulator and let her know some of those tools that are at her disposal, it’s going to help her avoid a lot of heartaches on the racetrack learning the hard way.”

5. Nashville and Martinsville Track news

Speedway Motorsports Inc. remains encouraged with its talks with Nashville and Tennessee officials about a proposal to bring NASCAR back to Fairgrounds Speedway.

SMI has proposed $60 million in renovation to the track but a deal has not been completed.

The city and Nashville’s new Major League Soccer team reached a new agreement Thursday for the team’s stadium at the fairgrounds near the track.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, has been leading SMI’s efforts. He issued a statement Thursday after the new agreement between the city and the soccer team:

“We congratulate Mayor John Cooper and John Ingram on reaching an agreement to move forward with the MLS stadium development. We are encouraged by our conversations with the city and share Mayor Cooper’s vision for a truly comprehensive redevelopment of the Fairgrounds that includes a plan to restore the speedway and sustain its future. We will continue to work with the city and stakeholders to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.”

Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell told NBC Sports on Thursday that of all the tickets sold for the track’s May 9 night race, 55 percent are either new orders or orders from fans who had stopped purchasing tickets from the track but returned for this race.

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Ron Hornaday Jr., Bobby Labonte to take part in Martinsville Truck race activities

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Martinsville Speedway will honor one NASCAR Hall of Famer and one inductee before Saturday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 Truck Series race.

Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. will serve as grand marshal for the race, while Bobby Labonte, who will be inducted into the Hall in January, will serve as the honorary starter.

Bobby Labonte. Photo: Getty Images.

We are honored to have 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday Jr. as Grand Marshal and 2020 inductee Bobby Labonte as Honorary Starter at the first NASCAR Hall of Fame 200,” NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelly said in a statement. “Ron is the series’ only four-time champion. As the 2000 premier series champion and 1992 Xfinity champion, Bobby is one of only 31 drivers who has won races in all three NASCAR national series with his lone truck series win coming at Martinsville.”

Said Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway: “We appreciate the NASCAR Hall of Fame making it possible to have two great NASCAR champions available to meet our fans Saturday morning before the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200. Having Ron and Bobby be a part of our race weekend is special for everyone at Martinsville Speedway.”

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NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour to return to Martinsville in May 2020

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Martinsville Speedway announced Tuesday that the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour will return to the track in 2020.

It will mark the series’ first race at Martinsville since 2010.

The modified tour, once a fixture at Martinsville, will run a 200-lap race at night on May 8, 2020. That will be held the evening before the Cup night race there. The modified race will be known as the MaxPro Window Films 200.

“We get asked a lot about the modifieds a lot – from fans, from drivers, from media,” Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell said. “Now, we can say, ‘Yes, we will have them back next year.’ These cars are such an important part of Martinsville Speedway history and the time is right to bring them back.”

The modified division first raced at Martinsville from 1960-2002. Greg Sacks went 101.014 mph in qualifying in a modified car in 1986 – a record that remains for any series at Martinsville.

“The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and Martinsville Speedway are a perfect match,” said Brandon Thompson, NASCAR Managing Director, Touring Series. “When you talk history and legacy – names like (Richie) Evans, (Jerry) Cook and (Geoff) Bodine are synonymous with Martinsville. The modified division and Martinsville Speedway are the cornerstones on which the sport was built. We’re excited about adding names like (Doug) Coby, (Justin) Bonsignore, and maybe even (Ryan) Preece – a new generation of Modified racing stars to the half-mile and look forward to being part of an incredible race weekend.”

 

Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s latest win gives him extra reason to boast

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What might be as remarkable as Martin Truex Jr. ending an 80-race winless streak on short tracks Saturday at Richmond Raceway is that he now has victories with four different organizations.

No other active Cup driver can boast that.

Not every driver has the chance to stay with one organization their whole career as Jeff Gordon did and Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin are doing, so what Truex has done is quite an accomplishment.

Then consider that three previous teams he won with — Dale Earnhardt Inc., Michael Waltrip Racing and Furniture Row Racing — are no longer in the sport.

Truex’s first career Cup victory came in 2007 with Dale Earnhardt Inc. His next victory wasn’t until 2013 at Michael Waltrip Racing. He lost his ride after that season when NAPA left the organization as a sponsor after the penalties NASCAR assessed MWR for its actions in the fall Richmond race. Truex then went to Furniture Row Racing and won 17 races before it closed its doors after last season.

Truex’s win at Richmond came with Joe Gibbs Racing.

While some members of Truex’s team at Furniture Row Racing followed him and crew chief Cole Pearn to JGR, not all did.

“It’s a new group of guys and a new group of people,” Truex said. “New pit crew. Just the way everybody fits together, works together – it’s a little bit different and that’s always something that can take a while to get rolling.”

Although he was a part of competition meetings in the past — Furniture Row Racing was aligned with JGR — Truex admits those meetings feel a bit different now.

“You feel like part of the team now and not a competitor,” he said.

Even with joining Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex’s team does have some independence.

“I think for the most part, for what I see, we get to do our own thing and we have leeway to make some options here and there and make decisions,” he said. “Some guys want to go down one path, and if we want to go down a different one, then certainly I feel like we have the ability to do that.”

Truex’s victory separated him from a group of active drivers who have won with three different organizations.

Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman each has wins with three different organizations.

Bowyer has won with Richard Childress Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. Busch has won with Roush Fenway Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. Newman has won with Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing.

Busch, who is with Chip Ganassi Racing, and Newman, who is with Roush Fenway Racing, could join Truex with having at least one victory with four different organizations if they win with their new teams this season.


How challenging was Saturday night’s race for drivers at Richmond?

Here’s what some said:

“Hard to pass,” Kyle Busch said repeatedly after the race.

“I could only gain two or three positions at a time per run,” said Denny Hamlin, who finished fifth after he started at the rear because his car failed inspection before the race. “It literally took us 400 laps to get to the top five. … I just got caught behind guys I was faster than, I just couldn’t get around them.”

Asked how aero dependent the cars are even on a short track, runner-up Joey Logano said: “Very, very, very, very, very aero dependent. Clean air is worth a lot. … It gets really tough when you get behind cars. The tire Goodyear brought didn’t rubber the race track at all, so we were all kind of stuck on the bottom, couldn’t find much area to get clean air.”

Said winner Martin Truex Jr.: “Man, it’s just tough. You already have no grip at all, your tires are completely wore out, feel like you’re running on bologna skins, and you catch a car and you feel like you lose all the air in your car. It feels like you’re driving on a road … you’re going around a turn, everything is fine, you feel normal, and you hit black ice. What happens? That’s the difference between being in front of a car and behind a car. You just lose all that grip.”

Here’s what Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio about the rules package:

“I continue to say and believe that directionally this is the right call. I’d say that we’ve moved on to this is the 2019 rules package and we’re happy with it. We continue to learn, obviously, each track we go to. Each track presents a different challenge.

“Any time you can run a long, long green-flag run with 145 laps and have four drivers in contention there at the end, I view as a success. You can always learn and always make some tweaks, which we will continue to do, but all in all really happy with the direction we’ve gone and continue to learn.”

Saturday’s Richmond race had 359 green-flag laps, featuring 1,238 green-flag passes. Chase Elliott had a race-high 73 green-flag passes. Hamlin and Aric Almirola were next with 71 each.

Last year’s spring race at Richmond had 356 green-flag laps, featuring 2,495 green-flag passes. Danica Patrick had a race-high 119 green-flag passes. Eighteen drivers had more than 73 green-flag passes.


For all the angst Kyle Larson has gone through lately, perhaps the biggest blow to his season was a speeding penalty at Atlanta.

While Larson has finished 37th or worse in two of the last three races and placed outside the top 15 in the last four races, the penalty at Atlanta cost him a chance to win.

He led 142 of the first 223 laps that day before the speeding penalty and couldn’t recover, finishing 12th. Although a win wouldn’t have changed the recent results he’s had, it could have cushioned some of the disappointment with the team set for the playoffs.

Instead, Larson’s struggles have dropped him to 19th in the points and outside a playoff spot.

After he fell out of Saturday night’s race at Richmond, Larson said: “It’s been a pretty crappy start to the year.”

Car owner Chip Ganassi understands Larson’s frustration.

“He’s in what I would call one of those rough career slumps for one reason or another,” Ganassi said before Sunday’s IndyCar race at Long Beach. “Yeah. I’d like to tell you that it was his fault or mine. I think we have had our moments when it’s been our team’s fault or his.

“What happens is it starts a snowball thing. Once that little thing happens, it often times is out of everybody’s control, and it snowballs. It’s just unfortunate.

“He has my full support. He has the team’s full support. He knows that there’s nothing that we or the team or anybody else wants more than to put a weekend together. It’ll be coming soon, I’m confident.”


What to do about qualifying?

NASCAR made each round of Cup qualifying five minutes at Richmond, reducing the first and second round from 10 minutes.

The point was to keep cars from sitting on pit road for part of the session, which happened the week before at Bristol. Drivers sat at Bristol because no one wanted to be first out on track because the traction compound didn’t activate until it had some heat in it. When it didn’t have that heat (such as when it sat there with no cars on track), it was slick. So drivers waited.

There was no traction compound used at Richmond so that wouldn’t have been a reason for the field to sit on pit road. 

“The optics of drivers sitting on pit road I don’t think works for the sport,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday. “I think the teams would agree with that as well. We looked at cutting down the time.

“All in all, I think it worked out well. We’re still continuing to look at what we want to do beyond Talladega (single-car qualifying) and have some additional discussions.”

Opinion was mixed on the change to the qualifying format at Richmond.

When you come to Richmond you’re looking for clean air,” Joey Logano said. “The tracks you’re looking for clean air, we don’t have to have to have that rule (five minutes per round). But when we go to the (tracks where drafting plays a role), that’s where you need it.”

One issue is that with only five minutes per round, it makes it difficult for a team to make more than one attempt per round. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made two runs in the second round but wasn’t fast enough on his last attempt to advance to the final round.

“It wasn’t adequate to go out twice,” Stenhouse said. “With five-minute rounds, the whole group qualifying format of coming in and going back out, that was the reasoning behind doing the group, you’ve kind of eliminated it.

“We were in the first wave of cars on the track, came right back in and started cooling it down and tried to get tire pressures where we needed. You just don’t have enough time. So as far as coming in and going back out and knocking people out, it’s not going to happen.”


Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway, told NBC Sports that the track has taken deposits from people in 32 states and Canada for the May 2020 race. The track’s spring date next year moves to May 9, the day before Mother’s Day.

Campbell said that the track plans to send out renewal notices in early summer for that May 2020 race, but fans wanting tickets to that event can put down a deposit of $20 per ticket with the track now.

Nate Ryan contributed to this report

2020 Cup schedule features new finale, doubleheader weekend and more

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The 2020 Cup season will end at a different site for the first time in nearly two decades, one of many changes that includes a doubleheader weekend, date swapping among iconic tracks and the season concluding earlier.

The championship race moves to ISM Raceway near Phoenix. It replaces Homestead-Miami Speedway, which has been the season finale since 2002.

Next year’s finale at ISM Raceway will be Nov. 8, marking the earliest finish to the Cup schedule since 1998, which also ended Nov. 8.

Here are among the changes to the schedule:

# Homestead-Miami Speedway moves from its season-ending spot to March 22 and will be the sixth race of the season.

# Daytona’s second race will move from its traditional July date to Aug. 29 (a Saturday) and be the regular-season finale.

# Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s date moves from September to July 5 and takes Daytona’s spot.

# Bristol’s August date moves to Sept. 19 (a Saturday) and will be in the playoffs. It will be the cutoff race for the first round.

# Martinsville’s fall race becomes the cutoff race for the third round of the playoffs on Nov. 1.

# Martinsville’s spring race moves from March to May 9 (Mother’s Day weekend) and will be held on Saturday. Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway, said in a statement: “This is a very exciting day for Martinsville Speedway. It’s a question we’ve gotten from fans literally every day since we installed the lights and we are now able to say, ‘May 9, 2020.’ So, this is a very exciting day for everyone involved.”

# Pocono will host a doubleheader weekend with Cup races on June 27 and June 28. Race lengths have yet to be announced for those events. Nick Igdalsky, president and CEO of Pocono Raceway, said in a statement: “Pocono Raceway will be a marquee, bucket-list event next year. We will be the first track to host two, points-paying Cup races in consecutive dates in NASCAR’s modern era (1972-present).”

# The West Coast swing — Las Vegas, ISM Raceway and Auto Club Speedway — will follow the Daytona 500.

# Atlanta Motor Speedway moves off its February date as the second race of the season to March 15 and will be the fifth race of the year.

# The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway will begin the playoffs on Sept. 6.

Here is the 2020 Cup schedule:

DATE

RACE/TRACK

Sunday, Feb. 9

The Clash

Thursday, Feb. 13

Duel at Daytona

Sunday, Feb. 16

Daytona 500

Sunday, Feb. 23

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Sunday, March 1

Auto Club Speedway

Sunday, March 8

ISM Raceway

Sunday, March 15

Atlanta Motor Speedway

Sunday, March 22

Homestead-Miami Speedway

Sunday, March 29

Texas Motor Speedway

Sunday, April 5

Bristol Motor Speedway

Sunday, April 19

Richmond Raceway

Sunday, April 26

Talladega Superspeedway

Sunday, May 3

Dover International Speedway

Saturday, May 9

Martinsville Speedway

Saturday, May 16

All-Star Race, Charlotte

Sunday, May 24

Charlotte Motor Speedway

Sunday, May 31

Kansas Speedway

Sunday, June 7

Michigan International Speedway

Sunday, June 14

Sonoma Raceway

Sunday, June 21

Chicagoland Speedway

Saturday, June 27

Pocono Raceway

Sunday June 28

Pocono Raceway

Sunday July 5

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Saturday July 11

Kentucky Speedway

Sunday, July 19

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Sunday, Aug. 9

Michigan International Speedway

Sunday, Aug. 16

Watkins Glen International

Sunday, Aug. 23

Dover International Speedway

Saturday, Aug. 29

Daytona International Speedway

PLAYOFFS BEGIN

Sunday, Sept. 6

Darlington Raceway

Saturday, Sept. 12

Richmond Raceway

Saturday, Sept. 19

Bristol Motor Speedway

Sunday, Sept. 27

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Sunday, Oct. 4

Talladega Superspeedway

Sunday, Oct. 11

Charlotte Motor Speedway

Sunday, Oct. 18

Kansas Speedway

Sunday, Oct. 25

Texas Motor Speedway

Sunday, Nov. 1

Martinsville Speedway

Sunday, Nov. 8

ISM Raceway