ISC president cites ‘issue with star power’ for attendance drop

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — International Speedway Corp. President John Saunders cites “an issue with star power” as a contributing factor to the company’s attendance decline.

“All in all, the attendance was a little softer than expected,” Saunders said Thursday morning during ISC’s conference call with investor analysts to discuss results from the second quarter. “We still have an issue with star power. Hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands.”

Ryan Blaney, 24, says he’s tiring of the discussion.

“This whole young guys need to win now thing is getting old,’’ Blaney said Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. “We’re trying. We’re trying our hardest. It’s not like I go out there and I’m happy for fifth every single week. Every other guy under the age of 25 I’ll just say is the same way.

“It’s not a competition here between young guys and old guys. It’s a competition between 39 other cars and yourself. No matter what your age is, experience level, everyone is trying to accomplish the same goal.

“I think it would be healthy for the sport if we see just more variation in general of winners. How many winners this year? Six. Come on now. You can’t just put that on the young guys for not winning. That’s a lot of other people that aren’t winning too.”

Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon said he’s not bothered by Saunders’ comment but raises a question himself.

“I just want to know what we do about it,” Dillon said Thursday. “How do you move forward with that because the guys that are in this sport are talented enough to win. We haven’t made any changes this year to the packages that we’re running. Each and every week you probably can guess … who the top three guys are probably going to be. I bet if everybody had to bet their house on it, they’d take between three guys right now, maybe four. I bet he would too.”

Bubba Wallace, 24, wasn’t thrilled with Saunders’ comment.

“There’s a lot of boring stuff that we still have that has been the same thing at ISC tracks that we could update to get more fans out,” Wallace said. “It kind of goes hand in hand from us behind the wheel to people that are here hosting us. It’s a group effort.”

ISC stated that attendance for its six Cup weekends in the second quarter was down about 10 percent. Those six events were races at Phoenix, Auto Club Speedway, Martinsville, Richmond, Talladega and Kansas. Other tracks operated by ISC include Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

ISC stated that it had an increase in attendance with the Richmond event.

ISC cited weather, construction at ISM Raceway (Phoenix) and “a general trend of lower sales at live sporting events” for impacting revenue.

Saunders said on the call that “these headwinds are further impacted by recent retirements of star drivers.”

Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle are among drivers who have exited the car in recent years.

Only two of the first 17 Cup races this season has been won by a driver under the age of 30. Dillon (Daytona 500) and Joey Logano (Talladega) were both 27 when they won. They’ve since had birthdays.

Former champions Kevin Harvick (five wins), Kyle Busch (five) and Martin Truex Jr. (three) have combined to win 76.5 percent of the races this season. They’ve also combined to lead 47.2 percent of the laps this year and won 48.6 percent of the stages.

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NASCAR fan prepares to attend 1,000th Cup race Sunday at Michigan

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Imagine doing one activity.

Then picture doing that activity religiously, 1,000 times from February 1963 to June 2018.

Joe Baumann is preparing fulfill that this weekend at Michigan International Speedway when he attends his 1,000th NASCAR Cup race.

Baumann, 79, is a native of Erie, Pennsylvania, and owner of a carpeting and flooring company, something his family has done since 1885.

But Baumann has made NASCAR his weekend business.

After getting out of the Navy in 1960, Baumann had his own brief racing career until life got in the way.

“I raced a couple of years in late models at our home track here in Erie,” Baumann told NBC Sports. “Went into drag racing a couple years after that. Started having a big family and that was the end of everything. I become a spectator because I figured there’s no way I can afford a family and the cost to race race cars.”

Baumann’s first time in the grandstands of a NASCAR Cup event came at the 1963 Daytona 500, when Tiny Lund won for the Wood Brothers.

“I loved what I saw when I got to Daytona,” Baumann said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Baumann has seen everything in the 998 races that have followed.

It’s documented in the couple hundred race programs that line his office and in the diary he decided to start keeping about a decade ago.

Joe Baumann sits in his office filled with NASCAR race programs. (Courtesy of Cale Baumann).

Baumann was there in 1969 when Talladega Superspeedway opened its doors for the first time.

He was also present in 1996 when North Wilkesboro Speedway said goodbye to NASCAR racing. He has “everything from the last race there,” including commemorative hats, unused tickets and the program.

Just a year before he experienced his “all-time No. 1” race.

You may have seen the highlights, but Baumann was sitting in Turn 3 of Bristol Motor Speedway the night of the 1995 Food City 500.

“Dale Earnhardt. Terry Labonte. Unfriggin’ believable,” declared Baumann, who was an Earnhardt fan. “I’ll never forget it. (Earnhardt) got black flagged at least twice, maybe three times for rough driving. They sent him to the back of the pack and oh my God, he was hell-bent to get back up front again. He did and it comes down to the last lap and they come off Turn 4 just slam banging each other, side by side and Earnhardt smashed him sideways.

“… I think the people went completely crazy. It was just phenomenal.

“That was tops.”

Baumann racked up races in the 70s, 80s and 90s while owning permanent seats at 10 tracks that hosted two races a year, including Bristol, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Atlanta and Talladega in addition to his visits to other tracks.

In 2004, he put a big dent in his total by attending all 36 Cup races, from Daytona to Homestead, with roughly 100 friends joining him over the course of the year.

At his peak, many race weekends saw Baumann and a group of six to 12 friends make the pilgrimage.

“Most of us worked six days a week, we’d leave Saturday night,” Baumann said. “We would leave Erie and drive straight to the track.”

One track, the one in South Carolina that’s Too Tough to Tame, really spoke to him.

Since 1964, when Buck Baker won in Baumann’s first visit to Darlington Raceway, he hasn’t missed a Southern 500.

The custom shirt Baumann and his friends and family will wear this weekend (Courtesy of Cale Baumann).

“The people and the good-hearted racing, it was just amazing they could run 500 miles at that speed and then it had the full metal roof over the top of the whole front straightaway and that made it even worse on your ears probably,” Baumann said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to miss one of these things.’ Back then tickets were like $10 or less and fuel was reasonable. We took a half a dozen guys, normally starting with a pickups truck, campers and things like that to go down. Motels in that day and age were few and far between. … Then my wife (Jackie, who passed away in 2015) got interested, so then her and I started going together. Next thing you know we got into motor homes and things like that. … It’s a great weekend now and everywhere we go it’s the same way. NASCAR people are just unbelievable.”

Baumann’s dedication to Darlington was rewarded last year when he was one of three people inducted into the track’s Fan Hall of Fame.

“That was pretty neat. They took care of me,” Baumann said. “The ring is like a Super Bowl ring.”

Baumann, who named his youngest daughter Allison after his favorite driver, Bobby Allison, and his youngest son Cale after Cale Yarborough, wanted his 1,000th race to come at Darlington.

But knee-replacement surgery last year shortened his schedule.

Instead, he’ll reach the 1,000 race mark Sunday with the FireKeepers Casino 400. The drive to Brooklyn, Michigan, is a much easier trip for the roughly 50 people who will camp with him for the weekend.

What festivities will there be to mark the occasion?

“My friends are full of surprises, believe me,” Baumann said. “Something’s going to happen.”

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Kyle Busch’s wins wish list isn’t complete yet

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According to Kyle Busch, “Everybody wants to make my life more difficult.”

Busch, who won last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 and starts today’s race in fifth, is the first driver in Cup history to win on every active track he’s raced.

That accomplishment will be in the record books for about four months. Then the Cup Series will compete on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval for the first time on Sept. 30, presenting yet another box for Busch to check off his wish list.

“I’m sure that I won’t be credited for all the racetracks once the Roval gets here, so that would certainly be the next one that comes up,” Busch said Friday at Pocono Raceway. “Richard Petty has won 13 races at Richmond, right, but nobody characterizes the dirt track versus the pavement track being different. So whatever. It’s my life, so we’ll just keep going, keep trying to win in it, and the Roval is next.”

MORE: Kyle Busch doesn’t need to win on Roval to win at every track

No matter how long it takes him to win on the Roval, Busch says his current accomplishment is still special.

“It’s hard to find things that have never been done in this sport,” Busch said. “It’s been around for a long, long time. So it’s very meaningful and special and something that I’ve kind of strived for. Whenever you’re able to achieve your goals, reach your goals, then it makes you feel better about what’s going on, and it’s a special thing for my team. There’s a lot that (crew chief) Adam Stevens puts into helping me continue to reach my goals, and he takes a lot of pride in that, as well as the rest of our team guys, as well. We’ve just got to keep doing our deal and executing and we’ll see where the wins come next.”

After the Roval, there’s one big race Busch has yet to claim victory in.

Despite 47 Cup wins, he’s never won the Daytona 500. His best result in the “Great American Race” is third in 2016.

He’s expected to make his 14th start in the race next season.

“It took another guy that’s very, very popular 20 years to get it done,” Busch said, referring to Dale Earnhardt’s win in 1998. “So I’d like to think it won’t take me that long, although I’m creeping up on that number, so we’ll see how soon we can get that one accomplished.”

Cup drivers uncertain what to expect at untamed Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — For as wild as Talladega Superspeedway can be, Brad Keselowski has less of an idea what to expect Sunday “even for Talladega standards.’’

An offseason rule change has altered restrictor-plate racing and left drivers guessing.

This will be the track’s first race with no rule regulating ride height. The result is that cars are lower to the ground and run faster — but have less downforce, making them less stable.

“Right now with the ride height balance and the handling on the cars, I have never really seen this much uncertainty going into a plate race before,’’ said Kurt Busch, who starts second and is making his 70th start in a Cup plate race.

MORE: Starting lineup

Shortly after running a lap of 203.9 mph, Jamie McMurray’s left rear tire lost air and his car spun, was hit and went airborne in practice Friday. NASCAR reacted by reducing the size of the holes in the restrictor plate to shave some speed. Even so, Kevin Harvick’s pole-winning lap of 194.448 mph Saturday was nearly 4 mph faster than Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s pole speed at Talladega in October.

Sunday’s race is a riddle for drivers after how fussy cars were at Daytona in February. A particular problem was when the air was taken off the left rear quarter panel.

“I think that’s still going to be a key area, I don’t think there’s anything you can really do as a team to help that,’’ said Kyle Busch, vying to become the first driver since 2007 to win four consecutive races. “It is what it is and it’s just based off the air that’s on the nose of these cars and the buffer zone where the air is.

“Then it gets packed up on that big rear quarter panel of the car in front of you and also that shark fin that’s right there on the deck lid, and it just sort of pushes that car out a little bit and takes some side force away from the right side. It’s an aero thing and it’s certainly a situation you have to be ready for when you’re in competition when guys are … doing that to you.”

Even with all that, Talladega remains the best chance for some teams to win and make the playoffs. They see how there are only five different winners this year because of how Busch and Harvick have dominated. They know that unless there is a string of different winners, there could be several playoff spots determined by wins. For some teams, that path is less likely, so why not gamble in a restrictor-plate race?

Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 to earn a playoff spot. Rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. finished second in that race for his best career result. He’s had one top-10 finish since.

Wallace is ready to see if he can finish one spot better.

I’m excited to get back in the race car and go back at it again,’’ he said. “Just from the experience we had at Daytona does bring a little bit of confidence.’’

But before the end, there are two stages and points to grab. An accident just before the end of the first stage of the Daytona 500 eliminated four cars, including Jimmie Johnson.

“If you don’t have a win, the stage points are pretty valuable,’’ said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., won this race a year ago and starts Sunday’s race seventh.

“I am going to be aggressive and try to keep our Fifth Third Ford up front and get as many points as possible. I can’t speak for everybody else, but I like driving hard and giving fans something good to watch. The fans really enjoyed when we were all racing hard at Daytona, and I think they get pretty frustrated when we get in single-file. If you are the leader, you don’t mind it, but for the most part, I would like for everybody to race all day long.”

After a Daytona 500 that saw 14 cars eliminated by accidents, aggression might not always be the best strategy. The question is who can make that ploy work and make it to the end.

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Are youngsters set to celebrate at Talladega?

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After Kevin Harvick won at Atlanta in February, he was asked about how the top eight finishers that day each had at least eight full-time seasons experience and if that was coincidence.

Recall, this was after some veterans expressed discontent with how NASCAR promoted younger drivers and that youngsters finished first and second in the Daytona 500 with 27-year-old Austin Dillon winning and 24-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr. placing second.

Harvick’s response to the question about experience that day in Atlanta?

“Talladega is April,’’ he said. 

As NASCAR heads to Talladega SuperSpeedeway this weekend, Harvick’s forecast proved correct. No driver under the age of 30 has won since Dillon’s victory in the Daytona 500.

So, will the youngsters prevail? For that to happen, they’ll have to  outwit the veterans.

But one who has done so is 27-year-old Joey Logano, who has won two of the last five Talladega races and three restrictor-plate races since 2015, including that year’s Daytona 500.

If not Logano, who?

Talladega has been known as a place for drivers to score their first career — and sometimes only — victory. Defending event winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who turned 30 in October, became the 11th driver to record his first Cup win at Talladega last May.

Dillon’s best finish in nine starts at Talladega is third in May 2016. Chase Elliott’s best finish in four starts there is fifth in that same race. Elliott continues to look for his first series win after finishing second last weekend at Richmond — the eighth time in 86 career starts he’s been second.

Erik Jones failed to finish either Talladega race last year. His best result was 33rd in May 2017. Kyle Larson’s best finish in eight Talladega races is sixth in Oct. 2016. Ryan Blaney‘s best finish in seven Talladega races is fourth in May 2015.

This will be the first Cup start at Talladega for Wallace and William Byron.

Of course, any of them will have to beat Kyle Busch, who has won the past three Cup races, or Harvick, who had his own three-race winning streak earlier in the season.

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