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Long: Aretha sang about it, Kurt Busch says he has it with Chip Ganassi Racing

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SPARTA, Ky. — As Kurt Busch decided last year where he would drive this season, it didn’t take long.

A short meeting with car owner Chip Ganassi laid the foundation for a deal that was completed in about three hours, announced in December and bore fruit last weekend with Busch’s first victory of the season.

In the 30-minute conversation Busch had last year with Ganassi about driving for the car owner, Busch found what he sought.

“(Ganassi’s) level of commitment as a racer is something that I saw,” said Busch, who had run the previous five seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing. “Yes, Tony Stewart is a racer, but I was more on the Gene Haas side. When Chip said, ‘I want you to win for me, I want you to make these guys winners, and if you can bring that (Monster Energy) sponsorship with you, I’m going to pay you this,’ it was just like the most respect that I had felt in a long time when it came to a contract negotiation.”

Respect was a word the former Cup champion used in multiple interviews Saturday in discussing his move to Ganassi.

Busch said on NBCSN’s post-race show that when a contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t work, he called Ganassi and quickly had a deal.

“That’s just the respect factor that I was looking for,” Busch told Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett.

Busch went on to say in the media center after the race about how quickly a deal was agreed upon: “It meant that I was wanted. And when you have that, that’s that extra desire to push and to make this group a winner.”

When the deal was announced in December, Ganassi said: “It’s not oftentimes that a NASCAR champion, a Daytona 500 winner becomes available. When you’ve got a guy that is a racer like Kurt … you’ve got to take a serious look at it. It didn’t take me long when he became available.”

As Busch, who turns 41 on Aug. 4, looks ahead to the playoffs, he also has to focus on what he’ll do next season. The deal with Ganassi is only for this year. So what’s next for Busch?

“For me, it’s a matter of just having the dominos line up and everybody fall together and to make it happen,” he said. “I guess the easiest way to move things forward is request for proposals are going out Monday with sponsors, with manufacturers, with team owner. 

“Yes, a win, that might have happened last week at Daytona, is one of those moments. Tonight is one of those stamps on — this 1 team is a powerful team, and it would be stupid not to keep this group together, and that’s part of my leverage, but at the end of it, we just want to make it work for all parties.”

After a night like Saturday, Busch said: “It gives you that energy of, yeah, it’s fun, and let’s get our sponsors lined up and let’s do this (again).”

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Ryan Newman has a simple rule on blocking, a tactic that has become more prevalent with the race package this year.

“I don’t do that personally, that’s not the way I race, I race hard,” Newman said. “Because it’s not the way I want to be raced. It’s not right.

“You don’t change the way that you enter a corner to choke somebody off knowing that it’s going to slow you down. You as a racer are supposed to go out there and race as hard as you can to try to catch the guy in front of you, not let the guy behind you stay behind you.”

Newman also noted a conversation he had with Ryan Blaney earlier this season after he was blocked by Blaney multiple times.

“Ryan Blaney and I have had it out after the race, not in a mean way,” Newman said. “(I) just told him, I said, ‘Listen, the next time you do that, it’s not going to be good for you. That’s not the way I race. You want to block me, it’s not going to be good.’ I don’t mean it as a threat. I’m just telling him that’s the fact of it.

“I don’t race that way. If I block you, you’ve got the right to turn me around, but if you choke me down going into the corner just to try keep me behind you, expect to get loose.”

Blaney admitted he threw “a couple of big blocks” on Newman in the Charlotte races in May.

“You make those decisions in a split-second,” Blaney said. “You’re not trying to screw that guy over, you’re just like ‘I have to help myself.’ Between me and Ryan (Newman), I’ve always liked that you could talk to someone afterwards and have an understanding about it.

“Newman said that was a big block, that was a kind of a late one. I said, ‘Yeah, I knew it was close, sorry.’ You could tell how close it was by how hard he hit you on the bumper. It’s good to talk about it and not kind of let it brood over. Me and Ryan have always been good friends. He’s someone I’ve looked up to for a long time. He’s been a friend of my family’s for a long time. It was good to talk to him and understand it.”

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To NASCAR,  it was a simple call in penalizing William Byron for jumping the restart at Kentucky Speedway.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, explained the penalty on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday.

“(Byron) fired first in the restart zone, and he wasn’t controlling the restart,” Miller said. “It’s kind of as simple as that.”

In the rules video that was played in the drivers meeting at Kentucky, it stated: “It will be the control vehicle’s discretion to restart in the zone between the double marks and the single mark on the outer wall and on the racing surface.”

Clint Bowyer was the leader at the time.

The penalty took place on Lap 184 of the 267-lap race. Byron went from second place to a lap down after serving the penalty and never recovered. He finished 18th.

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Paul Menard confirmed this past weekend his contract status for next season, saying:

“I have a good job, for sure. I love the Wood Brothers. I love my race team. They are good people. I have a contract for next year. I guess it is getting to be that time of year when people start talking about things. I have a contract and I love my team. We just have to perform better, that is all.”

Menard finished 11th Saturday. He is 20th in the season standings, 54 points out of the final playoff spot.

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Sponsorship issues nearly cost eventual Truck champion Brett Moffitt his playoff eligibility last year and threaten the playoff eligibility for Tyler Ankrum this season.

Ankrum won last weekend’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Kentucky but lack of sponsorship could be an issue for him.

Ankrum was set to run a full season for DGR-Crosley once he turned 18 in March. He announced in June that he would not be running a full season with the team because of lack of sponsorship.

He started races at Iowa and Gateway for NEMCO Motorsports and retired after less than 20 laps in both races, finishing 31st at Iowa and 30th at Gateway. By starting those races, he kept his playoff eligibility. Ankrum received a waiver from NASCAR for missing the season’s first three races because he was not 18 years old at the time and could not run at Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas. He’s run the remaining races.

DGR-Crosley is a Toyota team and it leads to the question of what responsibility Toyota has to ensure that one of its playoff teams remains eligible for a championship run.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said the company will help in ways its best suited to do so.

“Our focus is on providing technical support to our team partners, and David Gilliland and his family, they’re not maybe at the (Kyle Busch Motorsports) level but make no mistake, we do have a strong technical partnership with them,” Wilson told NBC Sports after Ankrum’s win.

Wilson said that Toyota had been with the team when they took what was the winning truck to a wind tunnel earlier.

“We obviously are engaged and hopeful that they can put enough (sponsorship) together to keep Tyler moving forward, and we’d love to have him in the playoffs,” Wilson said.

Wilson admits a focus for Toyota is on Kyle Busch Motorsports. Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland are both outside a playoff spot with three races left in the regular season.

Toyota has two teams in the playoffs as of now with Ankrum and Austin Hill, who won at Daytona for the reigning Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship team, Hattori Racing Enterprises.

Whatever Toyota teams are in the playoffs will get Wilson’s attention.

“Obviously we’re going to focus our resources on whomever is fighting to win the championship,” Wilson said. “There’s not a question about it. If it happens to be non-KBM trucks, so be it.”

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Friday 5: Rivalries among Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske drivers brewing

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The domination by Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske this season could give NASCAR fans two of the best driver rivalries the sport has seen in years.

JGR’s Kyle Busch and Penske’s Brad Keselowski have had a long, tension-filled rivalry that can spark at any time.

But the sport’s hottest rivalry involves JGR’s Martin Truex Jr. and Penske’s Joey Logano. It has been that way since last year’s Martinsville playoff race when Logano moved Truex on the last lap to win and earn a spot in the title race.

Twice this season — and three times since last year’s finale in Miami — Truex and Logano have finished 1-2 in a race. Logano beat Truex to win the championship. Truex held off Logano to win at Richmond and the Coca-Cola 600 this year.

After the Richmond win, Truex was asked if he worried having Logano behind him in the final laps after what happened at Martinsville.

“I think he drove me as hard as he could without hitting me, which that’s what I always expect, and that’s kind of how I’ve always raced him,” Truex said. “Hopefully we can race clean for the rest of the year.”

With plenty of playoff points remaining and a playoff that features two short tracks and the Roval, it seems likely there will be contact if they continue to race together at the front.

Racing in close proximity has led to contact and conflict for Busch and Keselowski through the years.

In last season’s playoff race at Richmond, they battled for the lead. After Busch passed Keselowski, Busch stuck his hand out the window at Keselowski.

Asked what he thought Busch meant by the gesture, Keselowski said then: “I don’t try to read his mind. That’s the last place I need to be.”

Busch said of his message to his rival: “When you spend 15, 20 laps trying to pass the guy and you pass him and you get run into right as soon as you pass him, it’s kind of like, ‘Come on, man, really?’ But oh, well.”

They’ve also had their issues at off the track, most memorably two years ago when Keselowski talked and tweeted about what he believed was Toyota’s advantage and Busch responded with a tweet to shut up (although not in as nice of terms).

If the trend from the first half of the regular-season continues, then each of those drivers will be racing around each other all season. All four rank in the top seven in the number of laps run in the top 15 (Busch is first at 90.7%) and all four rank in the top five in laps led (Keselowski is first at 765, followed by Busch at 684).

While other teams will try to break the stranglehold Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have had in winning 12 of the first 13 points races of the season, it’s likely fans will see Logano and Truex together and Busch and Keselowski running door to door.

It could make for quite a summer.

2. Hendrick Motorsports rebounds

Hendrick Motorsports placed all four drivers in the top 10 in last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 for the first time since the April 2016 Texas race.

Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson have helped lead a turnaround for car owner (center) Rick Hendrick’s team. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The series is at Pocono Raceway this weekend. Last July, Hendrick Motorsports placed three of its cars in the top 10 — Alex Bowman was third, William Byron sixth and Chase Elliott seventh. Two Hendrick drivers (Jimmie Johnson in eighth and Elliott in 10th) placed in the top 10 in last June’s race there.

The organization comes into Pocono with a good bit of momentum. Hendrick Motorsports placed three cars in the top 10 in the two previous points races.

Bowman was second at Dover, Elliott was fifth and Byron was eighth. The following week at Kansas, Bowman was second, Elliott placed fourth and Jimmie Johnson finished sixth.

It was because of those performances that Brad Keselowski said before last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 that “I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars. I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff.”

Keep an eye on the Hendrick cars this weekend and see if their recent run continues.

3. Getting back in gear

Half of Martin Truex Jr.’s 22 career Cup victories have come on 1.5-mile speedways, but until last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 win, he had not had as much luck on those tracks lately.

After winning the 2017 championship, five of Truex’s next six victories came at tracks other than 1.5-mile speedways. Then he scored his Coke 600 win.

Three days before that victory, Truex said trying to get the right setup for 1.5-mile tracks was “our biggest challenge this year, no question. … Just still searching for that confidence as a team of what we need to show up at these tracks with.”

After the victory he said: “Now that we’ve got some momentum here and a little confidence on the mile-and-a-half, that’s a really good sign for us moving forward.”

4. Support growing for IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader

Executives from Toyota Racing Development and Chevrolet expressed their interest in IndyCar and NASCAR competing at the same track on the same weekend.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, and Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, made their comments in separate interviews Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It would be incredible to see IndyCar, edge-of-the-seat, massive speeds, wheel-to-wheel competition on one day and come right back the next day and see an incredible Cup race back-to-back,” Campbell said. “Absolutely incredible. All for it. I think the possibilities are there. A lot of work to be done to get to that point. I think it would be great for the race fans, most importantly. Great for TV and we’d love it as a manufacturer.”

Said Wilson: “Politically, the leadership across both of those organizations have expressed their openness to looking at a more collaborative approach. We applaud that even if we are not racing in both platforms like our colleagues at Chevrolet are. We are hopeful and would love to see nothing more than a doubleheader down the road.”

5. Enjoying the show

Earlier this week, I wrote about Kasey Kahne and how he’s remained optimistic despite health issues that ended his NASCAR season and career last year and an injury in a sprint car in late March that still has him sidelined.

I asked him if he missed racing in Cup. He had an interesting response.

“There hasn’t been a race yet where I was like, “Man, I wish I was out there,’ but I’ve enjoyed watching them all,” Kahne told me.

He then told me: “I’d like to see a little bit of the rivalries that they’re building now. It’s fun to see the younger guys coming up and still see the veteran guys do well. I like watching all of that and how they progress.”

Maybe Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. will be as entertaining as Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch can be in terms of rivalries. Or maybe it will be some other drivers.

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Hybridization of NASCAR cars not expected by 2021, Toyota executive says

Photo: Dustin Long
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NASCAR and manufacturers have discussed the hybridization of future cars but one manufacturer executive said it won’t happen soon.

Relative to hybridization and electrification, quite simply, it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of how and when,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development said Thursday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “A hybrid type of strategy is absolutely something that we’re looking at.

“Candidly, it won’t be something that we see as early as ’21. That’s, realistically, a little further down the road.”

NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton said May 20 on the Dale Jr. Download that a key to the Gen 7 car — expected to debut in 2021 — would be to “make room for what might happen next. Not in the short-term, but if the automobile industry and the racing industry go down the road with some type of electrification, the chassis should have room for that. In the motor component, whatever evolution we go to in the next generation of power plants for the cars … we have the opportunity with a clean sheet of paper to build a chassis that can accommodate that easily without having to tear a car apart.”

Brad Keselowski wrote an essay last May titled: It’s time: The NASCAR hybrid. Keselowski wrote: “Not only am I sure that hybrids are the future of NASCAR — I believe it’s essential to the success of the sport that we embrace hybrid technology as soon as possible.”

Hybrids have become more important for manufacturers, Wilson said on “The Morning Drive” on Thursday.

“You look across the motorsports landscape, you’re seeing hybridization and electrification everywhere you look,” he said. “That again is simply a reflection of the automotive culture on a global basis. Today, Toyota has eight different hybrid vehicles in their lineup.”

Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, also was on “The Morning Drive” on Thursday and expressed the value of the Gen 7 car being able to incorporate hybrid elements in the future.

“I think Gen 7 gives an opportunity to bring more relevant elements of the car and the technology to what we’re selling in the showroom or what we’ll be selling more of in the future,” Campbell said. “Along with that is the ability of if we do that have an opportunity to attract more (manufacturers). So it all does really fit together. There’s still much work going on with the Gen 7.

“In terms of hybrid, I will tell you that every series we’re involved in, every single series Chevy is involved in … is looking at what is the opportunity to package protect or what are the options to include some element of hybridization. That’s really where it is right now. It’s in a discussion phrase. It hasn’t been locked down.”

In regards to hybridization coming to NASCAR, Wilson said on SiriusXM: “It is an inevitability from our perspective.”

Before the season, Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, said of hybrids: “As we change road cars, we’re not going directly from an internal combustion engine to electric. We’ll have hybrids along the way. I don’t know NASCAR needs to go full electric.

“Even if you continue racing the internal combustion engine, we get a ton of benefit from that and connection with the fans. The ability to put the hybrid in when the time is ready, that’ll continue to connect as fans’ cars and trucks go hybrid.”

Friday 5: Kyle Larson seeks to beat Kyle Busch at Bristol

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It was one of the first things Kyle Larson said after he won the Xfinity race last August at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I wish Kyle Busch wouldn’t have had his troubles so I could have raced him,” Larson said.

Busch hit the wall that night and failed to finish. It is Busch who has kept Larson from many more wins at Bristol and why Larson would have liked to have beaten Busch head-to-head last year. Maybe Larson will get his chance Sunday when the series returns to Bristol.

Larson has finished second at Bristol five times in either Cup or Xfinity — including both Cup races last year. Busch has won four of those races (and Kurt Busch won the other).

“I don’t feel like I’m owed anything anywhere but that’s the one track that time after time I’ve been close to winning a race there … and I just don’t get it done,” Larson said.

The last time Kyle Busch beat Larson, Busch used a bump and run to get by Larson with six laps to go in last April’s Cup race.

It would be nice to beat him anywhere,” Larson said of Busch with a laugh. “Maybe my first Xfinity win in Fontana would be like the only one where I felt like I beat him. Bristol, especially, I feel I’m as good or better than him there.

“Their team and him do a really good job in the second half of the races to beat me and get track position. I feel like I’m definitely at least equal with him there but he wins all the time. It would be nice to finally beat him there.”

An example of what Busch is able to do was last April’s Cup race at Bristol. Larson had an average running position of 3.1 in that race compared to Busch’s average position of 4.2 but Busch won.

Larson could use a strong showing. He has two top-10 finishes this season and is coming off a 39th-place showing at Texas when his race ended early because of an accident.

2. “Right on target”

Seventeen-year-old Hailie Deegan leads the points after two races in the K&N West Pro Series. The Toyota Racing Development driver is impressing TRD President David Wilson.

“I think Hailie is right on target,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “This is an important year for her because this will be the second full season that she will have had in that series. For her, it’s that pavement, the reps that she needs. I think she’s got a really good attitude about it.

“We always say that’s so important is that you can win where you’re racing today. It’s too easy to look to the horizon, ‘I want to be in Trucks or ARCA or what have you.’ She says all the time I need to win here. Having said that, we’re really happy with her progress.”

With the K&N Pro Series West off until May 11 for the twin 100 races at Tucson Speedway, Deegan will compete in Saturday’s K&N Pro Series East race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Deegan also will run six ARCA races this season. The first race in that series will be May 19 at Toledo Speedway. She’ll also compete at Pocono (May 31), Madison International Speedway (June 14), Elko Speedway (July 13), Lucas Oil Raceway (Oct. 5) and Kansas Speedway (Oct. 18).

3. Challenge to drivers

With the additional downforce on cars, Cup drivers expect speeds to be up this weekend at Bristol. That means higher corner speeds.

That race I think has a lot of people on pins and needles, not just physically, which it should be physically, but with the cars themselves,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think the cars are really going to see a lot of load and a lot of stress.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., though, isn’t worried.

“Driving-wise I saw people thinking it’s gonna be tough,” he said. “If they think it’s going to be tough, I feel like they should hit the gym more. I think we’ll be fine. I won’t fall out of the seat. I feel like I’ll be good. 

“I feel like our cars are gonna be fast. I feel like we’re prepared to go there and hopefully win. That’s the mindset that we have going into Bristol. As far as tires and things like that go, it’s not up to me if they handle or not. Hopefully, everything car-wise holds up. I’ll be good.”

4. Will Chevy’s drought continue?

Chevrolet, winless this season, has won four of the last 43 Cup races.

The only Chevrolet drivers to have won since last year are Chase Elliott (three victories and Austin Dillon (Daytona 500).

Bristol has not been hospitable to Chevy teams. Chevrolet has won two of the past 11 Bristol Cup races (Jimmie Johnson in 2017 and Kevin Harvick in 2016)

5. Extra emphasis

Each round of next year’s playoffs before the championship race for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks will end at a short track or Roval.

It’s part of a philosophy to give fans what they want and create more drama.

It also skewed the balance of short tracks (those that are less than 1 mile) in the Cup playoffs compared to the regular season.

In Cup, three of 26 races in the regular season (11.5 percent) next season will be at short tracks, but thee of the 10 playoff races (30 percent) will be short tracks. 

In the Xfinity Series, four of the 26 races in the regular season (15.4 percent) will be at short tracks, but two of the seven playoff races (28.6 percent) will be at short tracks.

In the Truck Series, three of the 16 races in the regular season (18.8 percent) will be at short tracks, but two of the seven playoffs races (28.6) percent will be at short tracks.

It will be interesting to see how much of an added emphasis teams will put on short tracks next year because of their importance in the playoffs.

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Erik Jones ‘working through an extension’ with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Erik Jones told NBC Sports on Thursday that he and Joe Gibbs Racing are “working through an extension” for him to remain with the team and that he has “no plans to leave JGR.”

“I don’t think there’s any plans to change anything,” Jones said. “It’s just a matter of both sides agreeing to an agreement, which takes time. I imagine here soon we’ll have something ironed out.

“I think both sides are pretty set on staying on the path we got.”

The 22-year-old is in his third year in the Cup Series and his second at JGR after moving over from Furniture Row in 2017.

JGR did not respond to a request for comment on if 2019 was the last year on Jones’ contract.

Jones earned his first Cup win last July at Daytona, but hasn’t found victory lane this season. He’s coming off a fourth-place finish at Texas where he led 33 laps, his most since leading 64 laps in the same race last year.

“We’ve been pretty happy with the growth over the last couple of years, from my side and from the team’s side and what we’ve done and where we’re heading,” Jones said prior to the unveiling of his Craftsman ”Racing for a Miracle” car for this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I think we’re so close to breaking that little wall down of winning many races. We’re just right there, it seems, of making that big step to be consistent race winners. I feel like we’re right there. We’re close. Hopefully, here pretty soon it will be set in stone.”

The potential of a Jones’ extension raises questions about Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell‘s future in the Cup Series after his second Xfinity season with JGR.

The organization recently announced Kyle Busch had agreed to a multi-year contract extension with the team and sponsor Mars Inc.

Martin Truex Jr. is only in his first year with JGR after coming over from the defunct Furniture Row Racing.

Denny Hamlin, who has two wins through seven races including his second Daytona 500, announced a contract extension in early 2017. He said last year on the Dale Jr. Download that 2018 was the first year on “a good long-term contract” and “that goes for a while.”

Bell, who won a Xfinity Series rookie-record seven races in 2018, said last year he felt he was ready for Cup. 

In Cup, Toyota gives full support to just JGR and the one-car team of Leavine Family Racing, which replaced Furniture Row Racing when it closed.

But Leavine Family Racing felt it was prudent to go with veteran Matt DiBenedetto in the No. 95 in its first year with Toyota.

Team owner Bob Leavine said last year he planned to ask Toyota for an engine to be able to run Bell occasionally.

“That’s for them to decide,” Leavine said. “We’re just going to be available if they want to do it to put it all together and make it all work.”

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, that “for the moment there is no plan, there’s no consideration to put Christopher in one of those (Cup) cars (this year).”

Wilson cited the extra work needed to put a car together for Bell this season but also added that “you never say never.”