Friday 5: Here’s how to address NASCAR’s ‘issue with star power’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — International Speedway Corp. President John Saunders created a hubbub Thursday when he cited an “issue with star power” as among the reasons for a 10 percent decline in attendance at the company’s six NASCAR events from March to May.

So if the sport is looking for someone to build around, how about …

Kyle Busch.

No other active driver elicits as a visceral reaction as Busch. Many heartily booed him after he won last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, while his fans cheered, creating a confluence of noise.

Detractors seethed after Busch spun Kyle Larson to win, conveniently forgetting that only seconds earlier Larson’s contact sent Busch into the wall and out of the lead.

After retrieving the checkered flag, Busch walked to the camera and rubbed his eye to mock those crying about his victory.

The boos continued and Busch taunted those fans, telling them: “If you don’t like that kind of racing, don’t even watch.”

Busch, who is tied with Kevin Harvick with a series-high five wins this year, has long accepted there will be a vociferous segment of the fan base that detests him. He never had a chance. He notes that early in his Cup career he was booed as much for being Kurt Busch’s little brother as anything. Kyle Busch’s intensity and antics infuriated some fans and made his backers more determined in their support.

Busch knows he likely will never win most popular driver but isn’t the main goal to win championships?

“There you go,” he said.

As for wearing the symbolic black hat, Busch doesn’t worry about it.

“I’ve had the black hat for a long, long time, so it doesn’t bother me as long as it doesn’t bother my sponsors and they can accept that, as well, too, and … know who I am as a person outside the race car rather than the one minute tidbits of TV that you get from a guy on television,” he said.

This topic of star power is not new. International Speedway Corp. has cited declines in ticket sales in the past to the absence of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Thursday, Saunders cited weather as impacting attendance at some tracks, added: “We still have an issue with star power and hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands.”

Ryan Blaney scoffed at the notion that the weight should be just on the young drivers.

“How many winners this year? Six. Come on now,” the 24-year-old Blaney said. “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.”

Ultimately, the best selling point for the sport is going to be the racing. Have more races and finishes like last weekend will help the sport but it will take more than that.

2. A tale of two trips

Daytona in February is about hope. Daytona in July is about reality.

When NASCAR arrived here in February to begin the season, Hendrick Motorsports was hopeful of getting past its “rough” 2017, Matt Kenseth was not at the track and numerous driver changes provided their teams with hope.

With Cup teams back on the beach, Hendrick Motorsports continues to search for its first win, Kenseth again is not around — but will be back at Kentucky for Roush Fenway Racing — and four of the drivers with new rides this season are in a playoff spot with nine races left in the regular season.

The gear celebrating Hendrick Motorsports’ next win — which will be its 250th in Cup — has been in storage since Kasey Kahne won at Indianapolis. That was 33 races ago.

Hendrick Motorsports entered the season with two new drivers. Alex Bowman took over the No. 88 after Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired, and William Byron climbed into the No. 24, taking Kahne’s spot with the organization. Hendrick also entered with questions about sponsor Lowe’s (it was announced a month after the Daytona 500 that Lowe’s would not return to Jimmie Johnson’s team for 2019).

With Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch dominating, there have been few chances for Hendrick Motorsports or other teams to excel. Also, Hendrick and many other Chevrolet teams have struggled with the new Camaro this season.

While Hendrick has seen progress — Alex Bowman has scored back-to-back top-10 finishes the past two weeks for the first time this season and Chase Elliott has three top 10s in the past four races — there have been challenges. Elliott has led only eight laps this season. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has led two laps this year. Hendrick’s four drivers have combine to lead 106 laps — 65 by Bowman.

At Roush Fenway Racing, the struggles continue. Matt Kenseth’s run in the No. 6 car for Trevor Bayne did not lead to significant improvement.

“We’ve had some tough conversations these last few weeks,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is battling for a playoff spot. “I think I’ve been pretty vocal in the shop and sometimes whether it be in an interview or on the radio probably when I shouldn’t, and I definitely need to respect all of our guys at the shop that are working hard and trying to provide new stuff for us. We just haven’t got that new stuff as quick as what we wanted.”

Drivers in new places who are in a playoff spot heading into Saturday night’s race are Blaney (Wood Brothers to Team Penske), Aric Almirola (Richard Petty Motorsports to Stewart-Haas Racing), Erik Jones (Furniture Row Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing) and Bowman (no full-time ride to Hendrick).

3. Slide job!

Christopher Bell is enjoying how prevalent the slide job is becoming in NASCAR. It’s a skill Bell and Kyle Larson learned while racing sprint cars on dirt. Other drivers have picked it up, especially at tracks where a high groove is the preferred line.

At those tracks, a driver charges into the corner, cuts to the bottom and lets the car drift up the banking to pass a car and stop that car’s momentum.

Larson attempted the move on Kyle Busch but it didn’t work and Busch went on to win. Noah Gragson tried it on Brett Moffitt on the last lap of the Camping World Truck race at Iowa Speedway but Moffitt got back by.

“It’s cool to me to see that coming to fruition,” Bell said of he move. “Like Iowa, man, the truck race, the Xfinity race, everyone was sliding each other, and I think it’s passing, right, so you get more passes. A guy passes someone going in, and then another guy passes someone coming out. I think it’s exciting to see more guys using it and it becoming more common in NASCAR.”

But that also means drivers are learning how to defend the move better. So what will Bell do?

Hopefully do it some more, right?” he said. “It’s going to be tough here at Daytona, and Kentucky (the groove) is on the bottom, so I won’t get to do it anymore there. But it’s just another trick in the bag, right? So if you get the opportunity to pull it, I’m going to do it.”

4.  Less practice

Rain canceled Thursday’s final Cup practice before any car could run a lap at speed. That left teams with only the 50-minute opening session to prepare for Friday’s qualifying and Saturday night’s race.

Should that be the norm for next season? In the Xfinity Series, only 10 cars went out in the final practice session. Are two sessions needed?

“I think if you had, say, one practice but it was an hour and 20 (minutes) long, I think you’d be fine with that,” Kyle Busch said. “I think that would be enough and that would be beneficial to being able to go straight into a qualifying and into the race. Fifty (minutes) may be a tick short for what some guys want to do.”

5. Will the streak continue?

There has been a different driver win each of the last eight July Daytona races. The streak started with Kevin Harvick in 2010 and he was followed by David Ragan, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Aric Almirola, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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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 America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Daytona in last three seasons

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Handicapping a restrictor-plate NASCAR race is one of the most difficult things to do. The ever-present threat of the “’Big One” crash is only one of the problems faced. The capriciousness of the draft can play havoc with a fantasy roster just as readily because a driver who makes a move at the wrong time can drop from the top five to outside the top 20.

Still, there are a few drivers who manage to find the front with greater regularity than others, so setting this week’s NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster does not have to be an exercise in frustration.

The biggest thing to note before the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC) is the absence of the Big 3 among the top 10.

Kyle Busch has not scored a top 15 on this track in his last three starts. Martin Truex Jr. has not finished that well in four starts. Kevin Harvick hasn’t cracked the top 20 in four races. The odds are good that at least one of them will be able to reverse that trend, but fantasy owners who like to play the odds, will find some great dark horses in this week’s top-10 list

1. Bubba Wallace (three-season average: 8.50 in two races)
Before fantasy players discount Wallace’s second place in this year’s Daytona 500, they should note that he finished 15th in this race last year driving in relief for Aric Almirola. Occasionally a driver develops an immediate affinity for a course.

2. Aric Almirola (three-season average: 10.50 in four races)
Streaks are hard to maintain on a restrictor-plate track because of the finicky nature of the draft and the prevalence of “Big One” crashes, so when someone has four consecutive top-15 finishes, fantasy players need to pay close attention.

3. Michael McDowell (three-season average: 10.50 in four races)
Ultimately, it is the finish that matters. The majority of points are paid out when the checkered flag waves, so a driver like McDowell – who may spend a large portion of the race in the back half of the lead pack – is often more valuable to the roster than one who spends most of the race in the middle of a volatile pack.

4. Joey Logano (three-season average: 11.00 in four races)
There are not a lot of marquee drivers in the top 10 this week. None of the Big 3 make the list, so Logano stands out. Anyone can get swept into an accident at Daytona – which is what happened to Logano in this race last year – but otherwise, he’s finished sixth or better since the start of 2016.

4. AJ Allmendinger (three-season average: 11.00 in four races)
Allmendinger tends to be crash-prone at Talladega Superspeedway, but he has been able to stay out of trouble at Daytona. One doesn’t need to know the reason behind this, but if the trend continues, he will be one of the greatest difference-makers in the field.

6. Denny Hamlin (three-season average: 12.40 in four races)
Hamlin makes the list this week based on two stellar finishes in the last three seasons. He won the 2016 Daytona 500 and finished third in this year’s 500. He deserves a spot on one’s roster, however, because of top-10 sweeps in 2014 and 2015.

7. Ryan Newman (three-season average: 12.60 in four races)
Newman has three top 15s in the past five Daytona races. Two of these came in back-to-back races last summer and this spring. The best news regarding the No. 31 is that Newman has been able to stay out of trouble recently and that allows him to be in a position to make late-race moves to maximize his finish.

8. Paul Menard (three-season average: 13.60 in four races)
Menard gained some momentum last week with his Chicagoland pole. That might actually carry over to Daytona this week if it adds to his confidence. Of course, a sweep of the top five last year on this track and a sixth in the 2018 Daytona 500 won’t hurt either.

8. Ryan Blaney (three-season average: 13.60 in four races)
Blaney is capable of scoring strong results when he is able to stay out of trouble. Unfortunately, that has not been all that easy for him because he has been involved in at least 11 accidents in his last eight races. He managed to keep his car running on several occasions and score decent results, but starting him is a lot like playing Russian Roulette.

10. Austin Dillon (three-season average: 14.40 in four races)
Dillon’s victory in this year’s Daytona 500 was only his second top five there, but he has been one of the most consistent drivers during his career. Seven of his 10 starts on this track have ended in top 15s and that is about as good as anyone gets on a plate track.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Hendrick Motorsports has always been solid in qualification at Daytona. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were perennial threats. Chase Elliott has carried on the tradition.

Segment Winners: Kurt Busch and Blaney won the stages in this year’s Daytona 500, Brad Keselowski and Logano won them in last year’s Coke Zero 400, while Kyle Busch and Harvick won them in last year’s 500. A pattern has failed to emerge about who might repeat, but it seems likely that the stage winner will be a driver with a big name and marquee team.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Bump & Run: Our dream scenario for four-man race to Daytona checkers

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If you could bend time … regardless of eras, what four drivers would you like to see race for the win at Daytona?

Nate Ryan: Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr. David Pearson and Richard Petty. When I think of winners in magical moments at Daytona, those are the four names that initially come to mind. The next question would be: Does the race happen with or without restrictor plates?

Dustin Long: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Mario Andretti. All Daytona 500 winners and among the greats in racing.

Daniel McFadin: Dale Earnhardt Jr. from 2004, Dale Earnhardt Sr. from 1991, Bill Elliott from 1988 and Brad Keselowski from today. Give them some IROC cars from 1999 and let them loose for 25 laps.

Dan Beaver: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. I’m not sure who would win, but it would certainly be spectacular.

What driver currently outside a playoff spot is one you think has the best chance to win Saturday’s race at Daytona (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC)?

Nate Ryan: Jamie McMurray. The two-time winner at Daytona always is a solid driver in plate races if he can avoid the wrecks and getting antsy in the draft.

Dustin Long: Ryan Newman. He’s won at Daytona before and his teammate, Austin Dillon, won the Daytona 500 in February. Richard Childress Racing could make it two in a row there.

Daniel McFadin: I think Paul Menard could be a sleeper. He’s finished in the top six in his last three Daytona starts. He and AJ Allmendinger are the only drivers who have finished in the top 10 in the last three Daytona races.

Dan Beaver: The defending winner of this race, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has a knack for plate racing and could get into the playoffs this week.

What’s the wildest finish you’ve witnessed?

Nate Ryan: The Oct. 7, 2012 race at Talladega Superspeedway. Tony Stewart attempted to throw a block off Turn 4 on the last lap, and 25 cars wrecked a few hundred yards from the finish line in a massive storm of dirt, sheet metal and smoke

Dustin Long: The finish to the 2007 Daytona 500. It has Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin side-by-side to the checkered flag, cars crashing behind them, Clint Bowyer crossing the finish line on his roof and fire coming from the engine.

Daniel McFadin: In person: Last fall’s Martinsville race. Sure, the Chase Elliott/Denny Hamlin incident was all anyone remembers. But don’t forget the massive pile-up on the frontstretch coming to the checkered flag. Even though it’s a short track, that was out of character for Martinsville. From home: I already used the 2012 Watkins Glen race for an answer a few weeks ago, so I’m going with the Xfinity Series here. The bizarre finish at Iowa in 2011 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. lost his engine hundreds of feet from the checkered flag and was rammed from behind by teammate Carl Edwards, which pushed him across the finish line for the win.

Dan Beaver: I have to go with one of the greatest finishes from earlier in the week. Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch crashing as they crossed the finish line – and providing a photo finish in the process – has to be one of the best finishes ever.

NASCAR America: NASCAR’s best finishes

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Where does the Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway fit among NASCAR’s best finishes?

Somewhere close to the top of the list, according to NASCAR America’s analysts. But it is not the only exciting finish seen in the past couple of decades.

Richard Petty and David Pearson’s accident coming to the finish line in the 1976 Daytona 500 ranks at the top.

“They both blamed each other for this wreck. Imagine that, things never change,” Jeff Burton said of the incident.

Pearson won over Petty.

The 2001 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 featured a win by Kevin Harvick “in a photo finish over Jeff Gordon in a very emotional victory for everyone in NASCAR,” according to Parker Kligerman.

Burton described a race in which he watched the finish from the cockpit: the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway in which Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch wrecked as they took the checkers.

“These guys, off turn 4 at Darlington. Just unbelievable contact, side-by-side,” Burton said. “And they kept wrecking. The race is over and they’re still wrecking. What I love about this race is the same thing we saw this past week. Both of these guys recognized they were part of an unbelievable experience.”

Kyle Busch factored into the last lap of the 2012 Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen, but he would not be part of the race to the checkers. With oil on the track from a blown engine by Bobby Labonte, Brad Keselowski ran into the back of Busch and sent him spinning. Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose battled to the checkers with Ambrose scoring his second Cup win.

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter.