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What’s next for All-Star rules package? That’s what NASCAR faces

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CONCORD, N.C. — The fans stood even as Kevin Harvick held the lead for the final 10 laps.

They stood because this was unlike anything they had seen at Charlotte Motor Speedway — cars bunched on a track that typically stretches them like taffy over 1.5 miles; cars two-wide often, three wide at times and four wide once.

This was so different even though there wasn’t a lead change in the final stage — duplicating the finish of last year’s race.

“I think you knew on Lap 7 that Kyle Busch had won the All-Star Race, I think we all knew that last year,’’ said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer.

Not Saturday night. A new aero package combined with restrictor plates created a form of racing that Harvick suggested could be a seminal moment years from now.

But for fans wanting more of what they saw Saturday, when will it return to Cup?

Not until next year.

While O’Donnell said “never say never’’ to the rules package being run this year, the reality is it won’t. NASCAR’s charter agreement precludes rule changes that would create significant costs for teams unless it is safety related. That’s not the only reason this package will not return this year.

Many questions need to be examined and that goes deeper than what took place on the track, O’Donnell said.

“For us, we’ve got to take the time, be smart about this, really look at it, see where we can go from here,’’ O’Donnell said. “But I think it’s fair to say that this is something we absolutely want to look at.’’

The question will be where else to run it.

“I wouldn’t want to take it to every 1.5-mile track,’’ said Kyle Larson, who finished seventh. “I’d hate to see this at Homestead or Chicago or something like that. I’d think Kentucky would be a nice one to try at it. It seemed like you could run with people on your right side a little bit a lot better than normal, so I’m thinking Kentucky when somebody’s on your door into (Turn) 3, maybe you won’t get as loose getting in, but yeah, I don’t think every track, but there’s some it could work for.’’

Denny Hamlin, who finished fourth, was open to the possibilities.

“I thought the race looked decent from my perspective,’’ he said. “Maybe it could use some refinement but overall if the fans or the stakeholders believe they saw a good race, then we can work on it from here. I’m not really opposed to anything, really.’’

What to do next is just another obstacle to hurdle. One that Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, has been doing for the past few months.

Smith spearheaded the push to run this package in the All-Star Race before the season when NASCAR discussed a plan with the sport’s key stakeholders to try this package in 2019.

Not everyone liked Smith’s idea. So he and other SMI officials worked for a few months to convince team owners it was worth the additional cost. The point being teams could do this in a test and pay for the costs or they could do it in a race that paid the winner $1 million.

But there’s much to consider before such changes can be instituted. Team executives told NBC Sports that restrictor plate motors are typically more expensive than a regular motor, so more races with this setup could prove more costly. Also, with cars running closer together, there’s the great chance of more multicar crashes and the added costs of repairing or replacing cars.

“It’s going to be different than our other packages,’’ said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing. “It’s a motor package, potentially a body change from what we race on downforce racetracks. We’re just creating more work for ourselves which just takes more resources. It puts good racing on, the races are spread out, we’ll all figure it out as teams.  Dumping it on us right now wouldn’t be the right thing to do.’’

Of course, cost shouldn’t be the determining factor for why something isn’t done. The ultimate goal, as Smith sees it, is simple.

“To me the measure is highlights, and we had a lot of highlights tonight,’’ he told NBC Sports. “Highlight-worthy racing is something I like to talk about, that’s my goal with every single race. Tonight I spent most of the day from 10:30 this morning to just now out with the fans … I was able to observe a lot and hear a lot and I saw a lot of fans standing on their feet, they weren’t using their seats much.’’

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Kevin Harvick says new pit guns ‘pathetic’ and ’embarrassing for the sport’ after loose wheels in Texas

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FORT WORTH, Texas – After a spate of loose wheels this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick trashed the new NASCAR-mandated pit guns after finishing second in the O’Reilly 500.

“The pathetic part about the whole thing is the pit guns,” said Harvick, who also had problems in Saturday’s Xfinity race. “The pit guns have been absolutely horrible all year, and our guys do a great job on pit road, and the pathetic part about it is the fact you get handed something that doesn’t work correctly, and those guys are just doing everything that they can to try to make it right.

“It’s embarrassing for the sport.”

Asked by NBC Sports if he planned to address it with NASCAR, Harvick said, “They know they have problems. They just don’t want to talk about them.”

It was a rough day in the pits for Harvick, who had at least two loose wheels and was forced to make an unscheduled stop for one of them on Lap 136 that dropped him two laps down. His team had another mediocre pit stop because of a lug nut getting stuck in a jack and also was penalized for having a crew member over the wall too early.

Despite all that, Harvick rebounded to finish second by 0.300 seconds behind Kyle Busch after winning the first stage and leading 87 laps.

Asked if his No. 4 Ford would have won if it had been leading on the final restart with 30 laps remaining, Harvick responded, “What do you think? Probably would have been a straightaway ahead.”

Joe Gibbs, team owner for Busch’s winning No. 18 Toyota, also expressed discontent with the guns.

“I don’t like things not in our hands,” Gibbs said. “To be quite truthful, I’ve taken a stand on that. That’s something I hope we continue to really evaluate that.”

In a statement, NASCAR vice president of competition Scott Miller said, “We’ll continue gathering information on the pit gun’s performance like we do after every race. It is too early to make assumptions without all the facts. It’s also important to remember that this is a collaborative initiative with the race teams.”

Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, told FS1 during the race that the pit guns needed to be addressed, and he was “tired of biting my lip about it.”

But Stewart-Haas Racing vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli wasn’t as quick to cite the pit guns as the primary reason for the No. 4’s struggles.

“We were just off on pit road today,” Zipadelli said. “We had been the last couple of weeks. Seems like we started the year off pretty strong. Other teams obviously caught up. We’re pushing the pressure to do a better job. When you go fast, it just seems we’re making some mistakes.

“I honestly don’t know I’d even blame the pit gun. I know exactly what the situation is. Yes, we had a loose wheel today, but we let the jack down early. So that’s not necessarily the guns’ fault. These guns seem to be just a little temperamental in (colder) temperature and things, but everyone’s got the same stuff, you know what I mean? I think it’s too early to draw conclusions there’s an issue. I do know it’s a lot different than what we’re using last year.”

NASCAR began using the Paoli-manufactured pit guns this season after consultation with the NASCAR Team Owners Council. In recent seasons, teams made seven-figure investments in building and developing their own pit guns, so the move was considered partly a cost-savings measure but also was hailed for its competitive benefits.

But there have been problems after multiple races this season, with defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn particularly irate after problems at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

However, NASCAR’s decision to move to a common pit gun wasn’t supported unanimously by teams, as Chip Ganassi Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing apparently were among those that resisted the decision.

“That’s the frustrating part when you felt you had a really good product last year,” Zipadelli said. “We were probably ahead of the curve and probably second or so on pit road as far as that part of it goes, but it is what it is. They changed the way they inspected them this year and we all got to figure it out and adjust to it. That’s just how our sport has always been. That part is nothing new. We started good and just making mistakes now.

But Zipadelli did confirm SHR’s teams have had problem with the pit guns (as did Adam Stevens, crew chief for Busch).

“We’ve changed a lot of regulators,” Zipadelli said. “We’ve changed the guns. We’ve had them leaking. But so have other people on pit road. When you run well and are up front, everything’s magnified.

“Do I wish we could go back to what we had? Yes. But I’m not bashing them or blaming them on the situation we’re in. Some people and teams felt this was the direction we needed to go. We weren’t in favor of it. But you win some, you lose some.

“We’ve got to figure it out as a group and not make mistakes as a group. Then if the gun is a limiting factor, then it’s the gun. But we as a group have made mistakes in the past couple of weeks also. There’s fault on many sides.”

Harvick said “everybody on pit road has talked to” NASCAR about problems with the pit guns.

“This is four out of seven weeks that we’ve had trouble with the pit guns,” he said. “Yesterday the rear pit gun wouldn’t even … we had two lug nuts that were tight in the last two pit stops.  You had two lug nuts that had 30 pounds of torque on them.  Today you have another one. The wheel doesn’t even get tight. It’s just a mess.”

 

Stewart-Haas Racing to make 1,000th Cup start in Texas race

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Stewart-Haas Racing continues to hit historic milestones in its 10th season of Cup competition.

Through just six races it boasts four wins with two of its drivers, including three consecutive for Kevin Harvick (a first in his career).

At Phoenix, the team put all four of its cars in the top 10 for the first time since becoming a four-car operation in 2014.

Entering this weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, SHR has four wins, six top-five finishes and 11 top 10s.

When the engines are fired on the Fords of Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, they will give SHR 1,000 Cup starts. That number does not include the 284 starts from 2002-08 when the team was known as Haas-CNC.

“That makes me feel really, really old,” SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli said in a press release. “Seriously, a thousand starts is a sign of longevity and that’s an accomplishment. It helps in keeping good people and recruiting good people.”

After Tony Stewart became co-owner of the team founded by Gene Haas, the first start for SHR was the 2009 Daytona 500.

Stewart and Ryan Newman rolled off the grid for the team. Stewart started fifth and finished eighth, while Newman started and finished 36th.

Stewart earned the first of the team’s 43 wins that June at Pocono Raceway. Bowyer claimed the most recent win last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. It was Bowyer’s first win in 190 starts and his first with SHR after joining the team in 2017.

“Make no mistake, all four Stewart-Haas cars have been good all year-long,” Bowyer said in a press release. “Kevin led that charge when he won three races in a row, but we’ve been ‘Steady Eddie’ with our 14 car and the things that I’ve always been accustomed to. Consistency and things like that I’m starting to see, knowing our strengths, knowing our weaknesses from last year, focusing on those weaknesses and then, all of a sudden, it starts to click in and putting things together, and you have those conversations. You feel confidence.”

Since 2009, SHR has also fielded cars for Danica Patrick, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Brian Vickers, Regan Smith, Ty Dillon, Austin Dillon and Max Papis.

In 996 starts, SHR has 199 top fives, 378 top 10s, 35 poles and two championships in 2011 (Stewart) and 2014 (Harvick).

SHR has won on every active Cup track except for Kentucky Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

Most starts among active Cup wins

Hendrick Motorsports – 3,867

Roush Fenway Racing – 3,533

Richard Childress Racing – 2,857

Joe Gibbs Racing – 2,188

Team Penske – 1,957

Wood Brothers Racing – 1,516

Chip Ganassi Racing – 1,075 (does not include the five years and 367 starts when the team was known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing)

Stewart-Haas Racing – 996

 

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Stewart-Haas Racing showing strength in numbers

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While Clint Bowyer is likely still celebrating Monday’s victory at Martinsville Speedway, consider this: Stewart-Haas Racing is a bump and a mile from having won five of the first six races this season with three different drivers.

Not since Kevin Harvick joined the organization in 2014 has Stewart-Haas Racing showed such strength and balance among all four of its teams. Previously, Harvick was the standout and the other three teams were far behind.

While Harvick remains the leader — he’s won three races this year — Bowyer has a victory and newcomer Aric Almirola nearly won the Daytona 500 before a last-lap bump while leading sent him into the wall. Harvick, Bowyer, Almirola and Kurt Busch each finished in the top 10 at Phoenix, making the first time SHR had placed all four cars in the top 10 in a race.

“I’ve been proud of the wins and the success we’ve had, but I’ve been more proud of the performance of all four cars so far this year,’’ said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing. “We’ve got to figure out how to continue to get our guys to work together and continue to make our stuff better.’’

That was last year when the transition from Chevrolet to Ford was more daunting that SHR imagined.

“Everybody has worked really hard in the off‑season, like every other team, but last year we were trying to figure out how to put motors in cars to make it to the racetrack, and that’s not a lie,’’ Zipadelli said. “I mean, it was that bad when we switched over to Ford. It was a lot of things that were a lot harder than we thought they were.

“This year as a group they’ve been able to work together, and they’ve been able to work on a lot of little details, and I think it’s shown in the performance to start the year.’’

The result is that SHR has four wins, six top-five finishes and 11 top-10 results before April. Last year, SHR won only three races.

SHR also has two drivers — Harvick and Bowyer — set for the playoffs with their victories and Almirola and Busch in the top 12 in points.

Tony Stewart said earlier this month that he saw a difference in the organization when the season began.

“I think we saw that even at Daytona this year, the way all four teams ran at Daytona,’’ Stewart said. “It just shows the strength of having four really good teammates that are giving four valid sets of information that they can all feed off of and work off of. It just seems like this group of these guys really work well together.’’

MOST WINS (after first six races of the year)

4 – Stewart-Haas Racing

1 – Furniture Row Racing

1 – Richard Childress Racing

MOST TOP-FIVE FINISHES

7 – Joe Gibbs Racing

6 – Stewart-Haas Racing

6 – Team Penske

5 – Furniture Row Racing

2 – Chip Ganassi Racing

MOST TOP-10 FINISHES

13 – Joe Gibbs Racing

13 – Team Penske

11 – Stewart-Haas Racing

5 – Furniture Row Racing

5 – Hendrick Motorsports

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Long: A HIGH-OCTANE WIN FOR A HIGH-OCTANE DRIVER

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MARTINSVILLE, Virginia — He walked in and because Clint Bowyer does not do anything subtly, he announced his presence with gusto.

“HOW ‘BOUT THAT?!!!!,’’ Bowyer exclaimed Monday evening after ending a 190-race winless streak that stretched back to 2012.

Then sounding like a mix of a train whistle and a hyped concert goer, Bowyer shouted in Martinsville Speedway’s media center: “WOOOOOOOOOO!!!

Asked to grab the microphone in the media center, Bowyer proclaimed: “I DON’T EVEN NEED A DAMN MIC’’ as he held 3-year-old son Cash in his lap. “I’LL BE DAMNED!!’’

When Bowyer is excited HIS WORDS COME OUT THIS WAY. Sometimes THEY COME OUT THIS WAY even when he’s not excited. Monday, the words from the fun-loving Kansas native WERE EVEN LOUDER than when he cheered his beloved Jayhawks basketball team Sunday as they advanced to the Final Four in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The only time Bowyer spoke quietly Monday was when a reporter noted how long it had been since he won. Bowyer mouthed the words no (dung).

He knows. He’s endured. He’s questioned himself.

“HELL YES,’’ he said. “YES, IT WAS PRETTY DARK FOR A FEW TIMES.’’

It’s been dark for a few years.

He finished second in the points in 2012 but saw his championship hopes all but end when he was wrecked by Jeff Gordon at Phoenix — payback for a series of events that started with Bowyer’s aggressive move at Martinsville that spring that cost Gordon and Jimmie Johnson a chance for the win.

As Bowyer sat in his wrecked car on pit road at Phoenix, he saw his team scuffle with Gordon’s team in the garage on a video screen. Bowyer sprinted to the garage, running to the back of Gordon’s hauler before he was stopped.

Since that season, Bowyer has had modest success.

He was embroiled in the Michael Waltrip Racing controversy in 2013 at Richmond after his late spin that set in motion of series of events that led to NASCAR penalizing the organization. His ride evaporated after the 2015 season when MWR closed. That left him little option but to drive for HScott Motorsports in 2016 and bide time until replacing Tony Stewart in the No. 14 the following season at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Bowyer’s first year at SHR was marked by inconsistency. He finished runner-up three times but placed 30th or worse six times. Some of the struggles came in the team’s switch of manufacturers.

“Last year we were trying to figure out how to put motors in cars to make it to the race track, and that’s not a lie,’’ said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition for Stewart-Haas Racing and the antithesis of Bowyer in how softly he can speak at times. “I mean, it was that bad when we switched over to Ford. It was a lot of things that were a lot harder than we thought they were.

“This year as a group they’ve been able to work together, and they’ve been able to work on a lot of little details, and I think it’s shown in the performance to start the year.’’

Stewart-Haas Racing was less than a mile from winning the Daytona 500 with Aric Almirola, which would have given the team five wins in the first six races. Kevin Harvick won three in a row and then came Bowyer’s victory.

For all the talking Bowyer did Monday, most of it came after the snow-delayed race. His radio conversations were muted. The driver known to interrupt himself mid-sentence and forget what he’s just said, was focused on staying in front during the final 114 laps he led and said little during that time.

“I WAS BUSY DAMMIT,’’ Bowyer said. “THAT’S Kyle Busch IN YOUR MIRROR. … THAT’S A HARD ONE TO KEEP IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR.’’

He did just that.

Bowyer also benefitted from the race having only one caution during the final 114 laps. Often at Martinsville, there’s a caution in the last 60-70 laps that alters race strategy, sending some drivers to pit road. The mix of drivers on fresh tires racing through the field while those on older tires attempt to fend off the challenges leads to action, accidents and anger. There was only one incident late in Monday’s race and Bowyer maintained his lead after the restart.

When the checkered flag waved, when Bowyer finally was the first to cross the finish line, he screamed on the radio. Instead of a doing a regular burnout, because this is Bowyer after all, he did perhaps the fastest burnout in the sport’s history. He charged down the backstretch while applying the brakes before throwing the car into a high-speed slide in Turns 3 and 4 and then doing doughnuts.

He then drove to the frontstretch and did more doughnuts. As smoke slowly rose, he exited the car, walked to the fence and the fans, motioned for someone to give him a beer. As he headed back to the car without a drink, he saw Cash running ahead of Bowyer’s wife and young daughter. Cash, his daddy’s son, was in full motion running toward his father. Clint ran toward him. They met and Clint whisked his son up and carried him to the car.

Never had his children seen him win. Until today.

AND IT WAS QUITE A MEMORY FOR ALL.

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