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Friday 5: Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on same page about Roush cars

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The sample size is small, but Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said Matt Kenseth’s impact already has been felt at Roush Fenway Racing.

In his first race weekend with the team, Kenseth noted similar issues with the car that Stenhouse has had this season.

“Talking with him so far, it’s definitely different than what he had been driving, and he’s got a lot of the exact same complaints and feedback,’’ Stenhouse told NBC Sports about Kenseth’s comments last weekend at Kansas Speedway. “That’s good. Just trying to figure out how to fix those complaints and feedback. That’s the biggest issue.’’

Stenhouse admitted it was reassuring to hear Kenseth’s feedback.

“I think it’s something that I’ve been struggling with in the cars for a while and to hear him reiterate that after one weekend is nice,’’ Stenhouse said. “The biggest thing for me at least confidence-wise is I’m giving the same feedback that he is.’’

Stenhouse said last weekend’s schedule made it difficult to work closely with Kenseth. Two Cup practices were condensed into one session after morning rain impacted the schedule. That didn’t allow for a debrief between the drivers and teams between sessions.

Stenhouse said that today’s schedule — weather permitting — should provide a better chance for both drivers to talk between practices. Both are in the All-Star Race. Kenseth, who won the event in 2004, will be making his 18th start in the non-points race, and Stenhouse will be making his third start.

This is the second of five consecutive weekends Kenseth will drive the No. 6. before Trevor Bayne returns to the car at Sonoma in June.

2. What to expect?

There are ideas, but nobody knows quite for sure with this aero package. Provided weather doesn’t cancel practices, drivers should get an idea what their cars will be like in practice today.

The package is similar to what Xfinity teams ran at Indianapolis last year.

The package this weekend will include:

# A 7/8 inch restrictor plate, marking the first time restrictor plates have been used at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

# Aero ducts. These will be used to push air from the front of the car through the front wheel well to create a bigger wake behind the car. That is intended to help a trailing car close at an easier rate.

# The rear spoiler will be 6 inches high and have 2 12-inch ears on either side to also help create a larger wake for trailing cars.

# A 2014-style splitter. This was done to balance the car aerodynamically with the changes to the rear of the car.

So how will the cars run?

Here’s what Elliott Sadler told Kevin Harvick on Harvick’s SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show this week:

“Kind of what I learned about it at Indy last year reminded me a lot about driving a Truck where the car is very draggy, and you’re not going to be able to get away from each other a bunch,’’ Sadler said. “It’s not going to be pack racing. But I think the guy leading the race now is not going to be able to pull away because you’re going to be able to draft up to him some. The cars are definitely going to drive easier because of the drag that is in the car and the lack of the speed with the restrictor plates. It’s definitely going to create a different feeling when side by side … the third guy in line is going to get a good draft up to the guys if you’re running side by side.

“What I learned at Indy is it’s not going to make a 20th-place car all of a sudden come win the All-Star Race. The good teams and the good drivers are still going to be the guys to beat. What I learned at Indy was that last restart we had, I restarted 12th and drove all the way to the lead before I got tight, and we fell back to fourth. I would have never done that without that package because it keeps everybody more bunched up. I think that’s what we’re going to see in the All-Star Race.’’

3. Stepping up

With the season a third of the way through (12 of 36 points races), here’s a look at who has made the biggest jump in points from this time last year to this season:

Aric Almirola has improved 15 spots, going from 25th at this time last year with Richard Petty Motorsports to 10th this season for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Kurt Busch has improved nine spots, going from 14th at this time a year ago to fifth this season for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Joey Logano has improved eight spots, going from 10th at this time last year to second this year for Team Penske.

4. Staying through the end

With the damaged vehicle policy allowing teams six minutes to make repairs or they’re out of the race, it has made it more difficult for drivers to build a lengthy streak of running at the finish.

Joey Logano is the exception. He’s been running at the finish in 31 consecutive races. Next on the list is Alex Bowman and Darrell Wallace Jr. at 12 races each.

5. No traction compound

A Charlotte Motor Speedway spokesperson said track officials have no plans to add traction compound in the corners this weekend.

There was no traction compound added to the track for last year’s All-Star Race, but track officials decided to add it leading up to the Coca-Cola 600 to enhance passing.

It makes sense not to have the traction compound this weekend with the different rule package Cup teams are using. Add too many variables, and it would be hard to distinguish how much impact the aero package has on the racing.

Friday 5: Matt Kenseth’s return is only the beginning for Roush Fenway Racing

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Matt Kenseth’s return to Cup today at Kansas Speedway is a feel-good story his fans hope will continue throughout the season.

But let’s get one thing clear.

He won’t be any type of savior for Roush Fenway Racing. Kenseth can help make the team stronger but it will be up to every person in the organization to make that happen. This is not a one-person job.

“Probably as much as anything I’m as excited about Matt interacting with us about is what’s most important on the car because there’s 100 things that go on behind the steering wheel — from conditions of how the car is handling to how they react in traffic to all the stuff that goes on on pit road,’’ Tommy Wheeler, operations director at Roush Fenway Racing, said April 25 after the announcement of Kenseth’s return.

“We have enough resources to fix any number of things, but what is very difficult to discern with a young driver lineup like we have is what is most important. What is going to be the most impactful today to make the car faster?’’

Kenseth will be in the car for the next five weeks, including three events in a row at a 1.5-mile track (Kansas, All-Star Race at Charlotte and Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte). The team has stated it needs to be better at such tracks. Kenseth’s input will be valuable.

Wheeler knows what Kenseth can provide. Wheeler joined Roush in 2010 as an engineering manager and saw the impact Kenseth had then.

“His feedback of telling us what direction to go with the race cars of ‘Hey if you fix this, I will run faster,’ that direct link and having the credentials and the ability to back that up can’t be overstated,’’ Wheeler said.

Anything that Kenseth can state and the team can adjust could help Ricky Stenhouse Jr. make the playoffs for a second year in a row.

Stenhouse enters this weekend two points behind Chase Elliott for what would be the final playoff spot at this time. With 15 races left until the playoffs begin, there is time to move into a playoff spot but the competition won’t be easy.

Stenhouse trails a Hendrick Motorsports driver for that last playoff spot and is just ahead of a Joe Gibbs Racing driver (Daniel Suarez) and another Hendrick driver (William Byron) in the points. 

2. NASCAR is watching you …

Since teams were informed before Bristol that NASCAR would call uncontrolled tire penalties more closely, such penalties have increased significantly.

NASCAR has called 18 uncontrolled tire penalties in the last four Cup races — more than double the number of those penalties called in the first seven races.

The change happened after NASCAR admitted it should have penalized Kevin Harvick’s team for an uncontrolled tire on a late pit stop at Texas. Instead, Harvick went on to finish second in that race.

Kyle Larson’s pit crew has been penalized for an uncontrolled tire twice in the last four races. So has Matt DiBenedetto’s team and AJ Allmendinger’s team.

NASCAR called six uncontrolled tire penalties at both Bristol and Richmond. There were five last weekend at Dover. 

3. Youth tryout

NASCAR announced this week the formation of a youth esports racing series catered to “attract and identify young talent.’’

This column brought up the topic in February but focused more on what a manufacturer or team could do to gauge the ability of youngsters. Such a program would give those who begin racing at an early age a way to display their talent who wouldn’t be able to otherwise for whatever reason. William Byron didn’t race a car until he was 15 years old. Five years later, he’s with one of the sport’s top teams in Hendrick Motorsports.

Said Jack Irving, director of team and support services for Toyota Racing Development, on finding talented youngsters through sim racing: “That is something that is of interest and something we’ve spent some time on.’’

For more of the story, go here.

4. Working hard

On Thursday’s NASCAR America, Parker Kligerman noted that while testing Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Gaunt Brothers Racing — the team he will drive for in the Coca-Cola 600 — he shared the track with manufacturers doing a wheel-force test.

Wheel-force testing can be mundane and time-consuming. But Kligerman noted that the Chevrolet wheel-force car was driven by Jimmie Johnson. Kligerman said that Johnson told him that no one was going to outwork him as he seeks to return to winning races for Hendrick Motorsports. 

5. To the front 

Stewart-Haas Racing has had at least one of its cars finish in the top three in seven of the first 11 races this season. SHR took the top two spots last weekend with Kevin Harvick winning at Dover and Clint Bowyer placing second.

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Friday 5: Is it time for tracks to adopt rain ticket policy like Texas, Pocono?

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Few things can be worse to fans than a postponed race.

While many fans return the next day despite the inconvenience, others are not as fortunate. Some are unable to go back because they must work, travel home or cannot afford to stay an extra day.

Admittedly, it’s a risk associated with attending an outdoor sporting event. But should tracks do more for fans, who can spend hundreds of dollars on tickets and then never see the race?

Most NASCAR tracks do not offer refunds or exchanges.

While a few track officials told NBC Sports that if fans called the ticket office, the track would seek to work with them on a solution, no such formal policy is listed on track websites as of today. Some track officials said they’ve allowed fans to attend both an Xfinity or Camping World Truck race and the Cup race when they’ve been scheduled for the same day instead of emptying the stands before the Cup event.

Two weeks after Martinsville Speedway’s Cup race was postponed a day by snow, the series returns to action at Texas Motor Speedway.

Those tracks offer contrasts in what they offer fans who can’t return for a rescheduled race.

Martinsville Speedway, like tracks owned by International Speedway Corp., offers no refunds and no exchanges.

All ISC-owned tracks have a partnership with TicketGuardian that, for a cost, insures a fan’s tickets, along with any other enhancements they purchase — scanner rental, prerace pit passes, premium parking, etc. A TicketGuardian spokesperson told NBC Sports that the company is extending coverage until the newly scheduled date should the event be postponed.

Texas Motor Speedway has a policy that does not cost the fan extra. If a ticket holder is unable to attend a rained-out race on its rescheduled date, they will have the ability to redeem that ticket for a future event at equal or lesser value for up to one calendar year. That policy has been in place since 2013.

The wunderground.com forecast for Sunday shows a 0 percent chance of rain in Texas, so there’s no worry of that race being rescheduled.

But the Texas policy was used in 2014 when the April Cup race was postponed a day by rain.

That is one of 11 Cup races to have been rescheduled since 2013 (a span of 186 races). That equates to a rescheduled race 5.9 percent of the time.

Eight of the 23 tracks that host a Cup race have had at least one rescheduled race since 2013. Charlotte, Bristol and Pocono have each had two Cup races rescheduled since then.

Pocono Raceway saw both its Cup races and its IndyCar race in 2016 postponed a day by rain. The track responded with what it calls the Worry-Free Weather Guarantee. It debuted in 2017 and is in place again this year.

The guarantee provides a money-back option for fans if they cannot make the rescheduled race provided they purchased an advance ticket directly from Pocono Raceway.

The only other Cup track with something comparable is Atlanta Motor Speedway with its Perfect Race Weather Guarantee.

That policy states that if the maximum high temperature for either its Saturday races or Sunday Cup race fails to reach at least 50 degrees, or if the event is postponed and a fan cannot attend on the makeup date (and has not had their ticket scanned), they can request credit for their tickets.

It is easy to suggest that every track should have a policy to provide credit or a ticket exchange for those who can’t attend a rescheduled race. The reality is each track is a business — and many are owned by publicly traded companies that must answer to shareholders.

The impact of 10,000 fans or more wanting a refund or to exchange tickets to a future race could create some financial challenges for tracks.

Yet, for a sport that espouses the benefits of going to a race — the sights, sounds and smells — having fans unable to attend a rescheduled race or recoup what they paid could cost a track a future customer.

Is there a better way to do business?

2. Future Cup schedule

The announcement of the 2019 Cup schedule this week drew little notice except for those complaining about not seeing any changes with it.

NASCAR entered five-year agreements with tracks before the 2016 season. That goes through the 2020 season. It is the 2021 season that could see a significant shake-up in tracks and be the time for NASCAR to possibly make significant changes.

3. Playoff Preview

This weekend starts a stretch where five of the next six Cup races will be held on tracks hosting playoff races. Those tracks are Texas, Richmond, Talladega, Dover and Kansas

After Kansas, which is May 12, the only other track the series will visit that hosts a playoff race is Charlotte Motor Speedway. But Charlotte’s playoff race will be on the roval, the combination road course/oval track. That will be the first time the NASCAR has run on that course.

4. NASCAR on NBC Podcast

If you’re not a subscriber to the NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan, take the time to do so and check out many of the episodes. This week featured an informative two-part podcast with Brad Keselowski.

Previous guests have included Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Cole Pearn, Rodney Childers and others.

5. FantasyLand

There’s still time to sign up in the NASCAR America Fantasy League and compete against NBC’s broadcasters and writers, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty, Rick Allen and others.

You can join the league by going here.

Friday 5: Driver data could be the key to success in Phoenix

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NASCAR’s decision to provide teams with more driver data could make a bigger impact this weekend at ISM Raceway than any other race so far this season, Ryan Blaney says.

NASCAR decided before the season to make steering, braking, throttle and RPM information available to all teams. Such information had been on NASCAR’s RaceView and some teams had created programs to mine that information to study competitors.

The decision to share all that information upset some drivers, most notably Kyle Busch.

“I’ve spent 13 years in this sport to figure out how to drive a racecar, make it go fast, do the things I do to win races and championships,’’ Busch said last month. “Now you’re going to hand all that on a piece of paper to a young driver, they’re going to figure it out, as long as they know how to read it.

“They still have to do it, but at least they know what I’m doing.’’

ISM Raceway, formerly Phoenix Raceway, challenges drivers with how much they brake. That’s where driving traces from competitors can prove helpful.

“I think it might be a little bit more of a factor this weekend where you’re off the throttle a lot and you’re braking pretty heavy,’’ Blaney said of the driver data. “You can see what other people are doing braking technique wise.’’

Blaney said such information is more valuable at a high-braking track than where the series has raced so far this year.

“Vegas and Atlanta, you’re completely off the gas and you’re light braking, you’re not really having a bunch of pressure on that,’’ he said.

Blaney said he’s mainly focused on the data from teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, along with Paul Menard of the Wood Brothers, which has an alliance with Team Penske.

“I can learn a bunch from Brad, Joey and Paul,’’ Blaney said. “There is some stuff that Ford shares, too. I looked at Harvick’s stuff a little from Vegas, but, no, I have not looked at any of the Toyota or Chevy stuff, just haven’t done that. I think there will be a little bit more to gain if you do look at that stuff, other team’s stuff.’’

Of course, seeing how someone drives doesn’t mean another competitor can duplicate it. But every little bit of information can help a driver close the gap with a foe.

2. Learning the way

As 20-year-old rookie William Byron races champions twice his age and others with much more experience, his biggest challenge might not be his competition but himself.

“The biggest difference and the biggest thing you have to learn as a rookie is to trust yourself and not do anything different than what has gotten you here,” he said. 

“You’ve got to make sure you drive the race car the same, the same intensity and not shy away from communicating just because you have a bigger race team behind you or a lot more people listening. I think you just have to approach it like you are racing anything.”

It’s not been an easy start for a driver anointed by some to be one of the sport’s standard bearers for the next two decades. He was collected in a crash at the end of the opening stage in the Daytona 500 and finished 23rd. He quickly fell a lap down and was running outside the top 30 at Atlanta before rallying to finish 18th. He struggled at Las Vegas, finishing four laps behind the leaders in 27th.

He says he’s learning as he goes.

“My team gives me more information than I’ve ever had before in terms of actual data to look at or actual timing down pit road, pit road speeds, all of that stuff that we get access to, we use that right away,’’ Byron said. “I would say I use all those tools as much as I can to make sure that I’m closing that gap quicker. 

“We had one thing at Daytona that I was really low on the bar with and didn’t really do it, didn’t know how to do that and by the second week I was like one of the most consistent ones with it within my teammates.  I’m learning those things that you never get access to previous.”

What did he struggle with at Daytona?

“It was more just like doing things under caution like keeping the motor cool and just things like that to make sure that you are maximizing your performance,’’ he said. “It was just trying to make sure that I’m doing those things and make sure I’m utilizing caution periods as much as I can and things like that. That stuff is much more important in this series.”

3. Hall of Fame wait

The 20 nominees were announced this week for the 2019 Hall of Fame class. Jeff Gordon is among the five nominees added to the 15 holdovers.

While Gordon almost assuredly will be selected, there are others who have been waiting years for their chance at induction.

Among the current nominees, Ray Fox, an engine builder, car owner and official, was nominated a seventh consecutive year. Short track specialist Larry Phillips was nominated a sixth consecutive year. Buddy Baker was nominated a fifth consecutive year.

Red Byron holds the record for most nominations before being selected at nine. Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Raymond Parks and Benny Parsons each were inducted after their eighth consecutive nomination.

The average number of years the 45 inductees were nominated before being selected for the Hall is 3.4.

Nine people were inducted in the first year they were nominated. That includes the inaugural class of Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr.

The other four who were selected after their first nomination: Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Maurice Petty and Bill Elliott.

4. Leader of the pack

Stewart-Haas Racing’s drivers combined to lead 895 laps last season. Already this season, the organization has led 464 laps in the first three races of the season, led by Kevin Harvick’s total of 395.

5. West Coast ringer

Kyle Larson’s third-place finish last weekend at Las Vegas marked his fourth consecutive top-three finish in the West Coast swing, dating back to last year. Larson finished second at Las Vegas and Phoenix on the West Coast swing before winning at Auto Club Speedway last year.

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Friday 5: While not a perfect 100, Kyle Busch comes closest

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He amazes and angers, riles and riffs, and leaves no one on the fence. One is either a Kyle Busch fan or not. Just as Busch rarely takes the middle ground, it is the same for those watching.

In a career in its 14th full-time Cup season — and likely another decade for the 32-year-old — Busch is headed for the NASCAR Hall of Fame having already amassed 43 Cup victories, 91 Xfinity wins and 50 Truck triumphs (the latest coming Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway).

There’s another way to judge what Busch has done. Look at his body of work since he returned from injuries in the 2015 Xfinity season opener at Daytona.

Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway marks Busch’s 100th Cup points event since coming back from the crash that broke his right leg and fractured his left foot. Busch has 14 wins in the previous 99 starts.

  • No driver has won more Cup races than Busch in that time.
  • Only one driver has more top-five and top-10 finishes in that span.
  • Busch is the only driver to make it to the championship race in Miami each of the last three years, winning the 2015 title.

He missed the first 11 Cup races of the 2015 season after that Daytona crash, got a waiver from NASCAR to be eligible for the playoffs and won in his fifth race back.

Even in his remarkable championship season — he won four of his first nine races back from the injury — the haters said he shouldn’t have been competing for the title because he missed nearly a third of the season.

No matter what Busch does, there will be detractors. Just as there are his defenders. While not as loud, they enjoy his triumphs on the track and treats off it from him signing for unsuspecting fans at campsites or in traffic after a race and saying what he feels — even to a competitor (as he did on Twitter to Brad Keselowski last year after Keselowski’s comments about Toyotas).

For those who boo Busch, you will likely have plenty of more chances. Just as those who cheer him will have many chances to do so.

Here is who has won the most times in the last 99 Cup races (dating back to the 2015 Coca-Cola 600):

14 — Kyle Busch

13 — Martin Truex Jr.

10 — Jimmie Johnson

9 — Joey Logano

8 — Kevin Harvick

Those five drivers have combined to win 54 of the last 99 Cup races.

Among Busch’s 14 wins are back-to-back victories at Indianapolis (2015-16), the Sonoma shocker in 2015 for his first win since returning from his injuries, the 2015 Homestead finale to claim the title and two of the last four races at Martinsville.

Top 5s in last 99 Cup points races:

47 – Kevin Harvick

43 – Kyle Busch

43 – Joey Logano

40 – Denny Hamlin

38 – Brad Keselowski

Top 10s in last 99 Cup points races:

69 – Kevin Harvick

64 – Kyle Busch

64 – Joey Logano

62 – Denny Hamlin

62 – Brad Keselowski

2. IS A STORM COMING?

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is in the worst drought of his career. Consider:

He is on a 25-race winless streak, longest of his career.

He has eight consecutive finishes outside the top 10, longest of his career.

He has five consecutive finishes outside the top 20, longest of his career.

He comes to Las Vegas with four top-10 finishes in his last six starts at the 1.5-mile track. Can it undo the struggles he’s faced since last fall?

The drought began last fall at Talladega when he was involved in a 16-car crash late in the event. His race ended when the spotter told team members during a red flag that NASCAR was rescinding it, and they could work on the car. That wasn’t the case, and NASCAR parked the team for the infraction.

From there, it was on to Kansas.

Johnson spun twice at Kansas in the final 80 laps before rallying to finish 11th. He spun in morning qualifying before the Martinsville race and started at the rear for unapproved adjustments. He fought an ill-handing car to place 12th at a track he once dominated.

He then was 27th at Texas, finishing three laps behind the winner in a race Johnson had won four of the previous five years. A right-front tire went down and sent Johnson into the wall at Phoenix the following weekend, ending his title hopes with a 39th-place finish. At Miami, Johnson closed the season with an invisible 27th-place finish on the day the championship was determined.

3. Pit crew pirouettes

Take the time to check out the analysis by NBC’s Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton on how Cup teams are using different methods on pit stops

Atlanta was a good testing ground for teams with so many four-tire stops required. Watch how teams do it this week at Las Vegas. In the race to shave time off stops, if a team sees someone else completing their stops significantly quicker, they’ll start doing the same thing.

Eventually, teams will settle on their best plan for the season, but there’s still experimenting and refinement taking place.

4. Kyle Larson one to watch

Kyle Larson finished no worse than second during the West Coast swing last year, winning at Auto Club Speedway. While it’s easy to discount the results of the test Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at Las Vegas because not every team participated, Larson posted the fastest lap each day.

Could Larson be the one to give Chevrolet its first win on a non-restrictor-plate track with the new Camaro this weekend?

5. The Final Word: Kevin Harvick

From the Stewart-Haas Racing’s weekly release for the No. 4 team with Kevin Harvick talking about having all four SHR cars run well at Atlanta:

”The thing I took away from it was the No. 10 car and Aric Almirola were more competitive for us and that is important for us to have that extra set of notes that we really hadn’t used the last several years because that car hasn’t performed well enough. It hasn’t been competitive enough to really bring anything to the table. To see that No. 10 car running well is great for myself, Kurt (Busch) and Clint (Bowyer) and, really, everybody at SHR.”

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