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Sorry, LeBron: Kyle Busch says ‘you can’t self-proclaim’ as greatest ever

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If we were choosing a fantasy team of four drivers across any era in NASCAR, Kyle Busch would list himself with David Pearson, Tim Flock and Dale Earnhardt.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the 2015 champion considers himself one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history yet.

“I’m not going to answer that question,” Busch told NBC Sports when asked during an interview this week. “Because it’s not for me to answer.”

The 2015 series champion was one of a few dozen drivers who sat down with a crew from NASCAR America to answer a series of questions, one of which was: What four drivers are on your NASCAR fantasy team?

Busch was the only NASCAR driver in his answer to cite LeBron James, who recently proclaimed himself to be the greatest NBA player of all time. Leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2016 championship after falling behind 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors made him The Greatest, James said, though others took umbrage at the assessment.

“Everybody was like how they’re the greatest team of all-time, they were the greatest team ever assembled,” James said. “And for us to come back, the way we came back in that fashion, I was like ‘You did something special.’ ”

Busch said he wouldn’t allow himself that declaration as NASCAR star.

“I’m kinda weirded out by what LeBron James had to say a few weeks ago about he feels as though he’s the greatest of all time,” Busch said. “You can’t self-proclaim that. I’ll never self-proclaim myself as the greatest of all time.”

The decided lack of hubris might seem discordant with the self-proclaimed “KB Show” who takes a bow to the grandstands after each of his victories and regularly challenges his detractors on social media. Busch seems to relish being the center of attention as one of the more polarizing drivers in the Cup Series.

But Busch, who has 194 victories across the top three series (including 51 in Cup), takes a more modest view in ranking his own accomplishments.

“Will I put myself in the discussion and say am I one of (the greatest ever)? Yes,” he said. “Do I feel as though I could be one of the greatest of all time, like if it’s top five that you’re talking about? I would say yes.

“But never the No. 1.”

NASCAR America will return to NBCSN at 5 p.m. on Feb. 11. Stay tuned for how drivers answered that question along with many others.

And watch this Friday at 8 p.m. on NBCSN as the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 2019 class (Jeff Gordon, Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison) is inducted in Charlotte.

Regardless of how he ranks himself, Busch undoubtedly will be enshrined there someday.

Long: Pay attention to what Chase Elliott is doing in playoffs

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Don’t call Chase Elliott the Fourth to NASCAR’s Big 3.

Don’t say the Hendrick Motorsports driver has become a member of the Big 3.

Don’t label him a championship threat after his second win in the past three races and third in the last 11 — although no other remaining title contender can match those victory totals in the same stretch.

He’s just Chase, the kid, once adored in those old Victory Lane photos with his dad, who has grown up.

So stop with the labels and watch what he’s doing.

Elliott’s performance is beginning to mirror what Jimmie Johnson did in his run to a record-tying seven Cup championships. Johnson raised his performance as LeBron James does in the NBA playoffs and Tom Brady does during the NFL playoffs.

But it wasn’t just Johnson who excelled. It was the entire team. The pattern was always the same. The Hendrick Motorsports crew had better cars when it came time to race for a crown and Johnson took advantage.

Elliott is taking advantage of the faster cars crew chief Alan Gustafson and his team have provided.

The signs were there last year. Elliott had an average finish of 13.5 in the regular season and it dropped to 7.9 during the playoffs. He scored runner-up finishes in three of the first four playoff races and was in position to win at Martinsville before Denny Hamlin’s bump crashed him. Elliott finished second at Phoenix when he needed a win to advance to the championship race in Miami.

“Those pressure-packed situations, the only time you can learn from them is to be in them more often,” Elliott said. “I think it’s as simple as that. The more you’re comfortable with that, the better off you’re going to be for it.”

Elliott has turned those seconds into firsts this year. What started at Watkins Glen in August continued into the playoffs with his victories at Dover and Kansas. No one has more wins than Elliott in the first six playoffs races. 

Those victories guarantee nothing in the third round, which begins Sunday at Martinsville (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch — members of the Big 3 — each has at least three times as many playoff points as Elliott. That makes Harvick and Busch favorites to return to Miami. The other member of the Big 3, Martin Truex Jr., has 38 playoff points to Elliott’s 18 but Truex’s struggles at Kansas are concerning.

Still, that could leave one spot for Miami among Elliott, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola.

Elliott has less title experience then all of them but Almirola, but Elliott has shown he’s a quick learner, steeled by the team’s struggles early in the season.

“In my opinion what he was driving earlier in the year, in his Cup career, for sure, it’s the worst cars he’s driven,” Gustafson said. “When he had to make do with that, I felt bad for him at times, doing everything I could do, but wasn’t giving him a good enough car. He had to go and deal with that. It’s a struggle. It’s a battle, right?

“I think that he learned as he went through that. That’s helped improve him. You may pick up certain traits, certain attributes about tracks or different circumstances. Those are the things that he had to do earlier in the year that he may not have had to do earlier in his career because we were able to give him a much better racecar.

“As that’s happened, he’s improved. The pit crews have been great all year. Now we’ve gotten the cars much improved. All those things add up.”

For as good as Elliott and his team have been, they aren’t perfect. Weren’t even close Sunday.

“We made mistakes throughout the day,” Elliott said. “The only reason you weren’t talking about it was because we weren’t leading. That’s the big thing. When you’re out front, everybody is watching you. 

“When you’re not leading the race, mistakes happen all day long, but just trying not to make them towards the end I think is the big one. These next three weeks, there is no room for mistakes. I look forward to the challenge.”

Mistakes by others helped Elliott. Kevin Harvick’s speeding penalty on Lap 214 took him out of contention and helped put Elliott in position to lead the final 44 laps Sunday.

Harvick also dominated Dover until a valve stem was knocked off in a late pit stop. Elliott benefitted there as well. So we’ve yet to see a true Elliott vs. Harvick battle in these playoffs.

“I wish we could have raced Kevin for it straight up there at the end, have him not have his misfortune,” Elliott said after Sunday’s win. “I think he’s been the class of the mile‑and‑a‑half’s throughout the year.

“But just to run with him, be able to pace him lap time‑wise, be being 10 car lengths of him trying to get by him, I thought was very encouraging.”

There’s still time to see if Elliott and Harvick engage in a playoff duel. Or Elliott and someone else. So pay attention to that instead of trying to label where Elliott is as this third round begins.

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Long: Path to better NASCAR shouldn’t be us vs. them

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A tug-of-war is emerging in NASCAR that is unsettling and unnecessary.

This is not us vs. them.

This should be us and them — collaboration not conflict.

Instead, a fissure has developed between competitors and fans over the aero package and restrictor plates used in last month’s All-Star race. As talks continue among teams, drivers, engine builders and NASCAR on where to run this package again this season, questions have been raised about the type of racing it creates.

Former champion Brad Keselowski says that using the package too often could have long-term negative effects for the sport. But many fans were encouraged by the closer racing the package produced in the All-Star event. Their excitement helped spur NASCAR to examine running that package later this season — likely Michigan in August and Indianapolis in September — after the sanctioning body initially downplayed the chances of doing so.

It’s not uncommon for competitors and fans to be on opposite sides, but this issue cuts to a basic premise. What makes better racing? What lengths should NASCAR pursue to achieve that?

While fans see the potential for added excitement on the track, Keselowski sees a driver’s ability lessened.

“I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers,’’ he said this past weekend at Michigan International Speedway. “I think if you put a package like this out there, like we had at the All-Star race on a consistent basis, that the best drivers in the world will no longer go to NASCAR.

“They want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance and there is no doubt that the driver makes less of a difference with that rules package.”

That didn’t seem to matter to many fans after the All-Star race. Social media reaction and effusive fan comments on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio followed for days after the non-points race — a reaction rarely seen about that race in recent years.

Although the aero package and restrictor plate combination has been tried at Indianapolis, Pocono and Michigan in the Xfinity Series and at Charlotte in Cup, NASCAR has not stated how many races or where they hope to run this type of package in 2019 and beyond.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, stressed that Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, saying: “This (package) is not something we’re looking at for every race. I see some of our current drivers make assumptions when they don’t have all the facts. It’s something we’re looking at for a few tracks. If we could pull it off and improve on something, we will but also very happy with the racing we have today.”

With restrictor plates choking horsepower and aero changes intended to help cars run closer, Keselowski’s concern is that races on some 1.5- or 2-mile tracks will look similar to the racing at Daytona and Talladega. That means drivers are less in control of their fate.

“I would say most plate tracks, first through fourth has control of their own destiny and have acquired that finish based on talent, skill, etc.,’’ said Keselowski, whose five Talladega wins and one Daytona triumph are the most victories at restrictor-plate tracks than any other active driver. “From there on back it is a random bingo ball.”

Hall of Famer Mark Martin tweeted that he agreed with Keselowski and said that while he enjoys many of the changes the sport has made — including the playoffs and stage racing — he does not want to see a package that makes it easier for more drivers to win Cup races.

“Racing in NASCAR is supposed to be the hardest, most difficult thing that you could ever try to do as a race car driver,’’ Martin said this past weekend at Michigan. “It really, really hurts me to think about that we want to change to satisfy Johnny-come-lately fans.

“There are some issues that could be addressed about our racing, but artificially making the racing exciting for a portion of the fans to me is not what, I’d rather see that in (the Xfinity) race, not (the Cup) race.”

Sports need to be challenging. Sports also need to entertain and wow fans with feats that no average person can do. It’s why people watch LeBron James on a basketball court, Tom Brady on a football field and Sidney Crosby at a hockey rink. Rules have changed over the years in their sports, some dramatic, some subtle, but their athletic prowess remains constant.

Even if a driver’s ability may be limited in a handful of races that doesn’t mean that some fan can do what Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson do in a car. 

The restrictor plates and aero package used in the All-Star race and at Xfinity races, create a different set of challenges for drivers but still allows them to display their ability.

“I think it’s a different type of talent,’’ Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon said this past weekend. “To be inches off of one another, pushing, shoving, wide open around there, making the correct moves, jumping out of line at the right times.

“It’s a real chess match out there and putting yourself in a good position is very key. I think it’s a different type of talent, obviously, than what we do every week. I think it’s good to have these type of races. If the fans love to see it and it looks good and creates drama, I like it. I don’t know its an every week package but for these types of tracks it’s good.”

It’s not just NASCAR facing such issues. This is a topic in IndyCar, particularly with the Indianapolis 500.

Last month’s 500 featured 31 lead changes. That was more lead changes in any Indianapolis 500 from 1911-2011.

Problem was that the 31 lead changes this year were the fewest since 2011. The race averaged 44.7 lead changes from 2012-17 when it appeared more like a video game with its back-and-forth passing.

This year’s total marked a 30.7 percent decline in lead changes. It’s why some have wondered if rule changes need to be made for that series to make passing easier at the front — and in theory make the race more exciting.

There needs to be a balance there and for each motorsports series. Not every race will be spectacular. Not every game is in other sports. For every moment of greatness, there are others that are merely satisfying. The key is to find a way that appeals to fans and also works with competitors. 

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Cup drivers want NASCAR to make All-Star package harder to drive

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Some Cup drivers say that they anticipate the package run in the All-Star Race to be used again but say changes need to be made to make the cars more difficult to drive.

“If you had the need for the speed and had decent car control, anybody could have drove it,” Bubba Wallace said Friday at Pocono Raceway. “It shouldn’t be like that. You shouldn’t get up to the big leagues and (think) I can play with LeBron (James) and match him.

“It just felt like you were at like a carnival ride and everybody was along for the ride. Aside from that it was cool how we were at Charlotte driving like a speedway, controlling both lanes. … That aspect was cool. We’ve got to figure how to give us more motor and get the aero platform to where we can still race like that and not have to worry so much about the dirty air.”

MORE: NASCAR official says discussion ongoing to use All-Star package again in 2018

MORE: Hall of Fame car owners want NASCAR to run All-Star package again in 2018

Ryan Blaney also noted that changes needed to be made to the package.

“It is something that I applaud NASCAR for always trying to do something different,” he said Friday at Pocono. “They put a lot of hard work into that and trying to get these 1.5-mile packages where we are a little closer and able to race a little bit more.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing something like that. I think you can still tweak it and make it better and put it back into kind of making it a little harder to drive. To be honest, they were a little easy to drive, and I like it to be more difficult. You kind of take away a little bit of car handling when they are that locked down on the race track. Whether it is a little more horsepower or a little bit of that downforce off of them. I am sure we will see it a couple more times this year at a couple race tracks just to see how it does.”

Alex Bowman admits he has “pretty mixed views” on the All-Star package.

“There is my view as a race car driver, and then there is my view as a member of the sport,” Bowman said Friday at Pocono. “I think for the fans, the racing was great. There is no denying that. It was a great race and the fans are why we are here and why we are allowed to get paid to be a race car driver. From that side of things, I loved it. I think it worked very well. I think the fact that NASCAR is always trying to make the racing better is very good. You could always tweak it and see how it works and see how it works at different race tracks. 

“As a race car driver, it’s pretty easy to drive and we are the premier stock car series in the world, so obviously you would like it to be a little more difficult to drive. You don’t want to just go everywhere and be wide open, but I still managed to crash it all by myself, so I can’t really say it was too easy. But you know I think really you have to look at what is best for the sport and making the race fans happy is what is best for not only me, but everybody in this room. I think it was a great race and something that definitely has to be looked at for the future.”

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Friday 5: A new way of thinking about NASCAR’s future?

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When examining NASCAR’s future are most people looking in the wrong direction?

There are those who say the schedule — 36 points races, two non-points races and the Daytona qualifying races in a 41-week stretch — is too long.

Maybe it’s not enough.

So said Brad Keselowski earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

While some says less is more for the sport, Keselowski suggests that the Cup schedule should have 50-60 races a year and no weekend off in the summer.

His plan is this:

Cup should race on Sundays and the middle of the week from February to early October (instead of ending the season in November). Keselowski also says that no track should host more than one weekend race. So, a track with two dates would get a weekend date and a midweek date.

One thing he notes is that any midweek race should take no more than three hours, meaning a number of races likely would need to be shortened

Keselowski’s idea is a novel concept and presents a new way of thinking when looking ahead in NASCAR. It’s always good to be forced to look at issues in different ways. But there are many challenges to his plan.

One question is what about the costs to teams. It would be easy to see teams saying such a schedule would cost them too much with the additional travel, expenses of preparing cars and repairing cars for example.

“The race teams will adjust, they’ll figure it out,’’ Keselowski said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Here’s what most people don’t understand. When a car owner complains about money, almost every race team out there has 20 or 30 engineers that don’t build the cars that make good wages and are smart people. What that tells me is they’ve got money and they’re just deciding to allocate it.’’

That might be a harder sell to teams. Rob Kauffman, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing and chairman of the Race Team Alliance spoke during All-Star weekend about cost to teams.

“It’s a joint concern, so it will be a joint solution to come up with how it works,’’ Kauffman said of working with NASCAR. “To get something like that in place will require quite a bit of collaboration.’’

Another concern would be tracks. A reason why there hasn’t been a midweek race yet is because a track executive has not volunteered to be the first.

The challenge with a midweek race is that the track likely won’t draw as many fans. Track officials note that they still have a significant percentage attend their races traveling from a few hours or more away. Not as many of those fans would probably make such a trip in the middle of the week. That could be lost income for the tracks.

Those are just among some of the key issues. It is a tangled web of trying to appease, teams, tracks, media partners, sponsors and fans as NASCAR forges ahead.

While there are many challenges to Keselowski’s plan — making it seem unlikely — that doesn’t mean such thinking should be immediately dismissed. Keselowski could be right in that bold thinking is what the sport needs as it looks ahead.

2. Kyle Busch could have company

While Kyle Busch became the first driver to win at every Cup track he’s competed with his Coca-Cola 600 victory, a couple of other drivers are not far behind.

Kevin Harvick has won at all but two tracks on the circuit (not including the Roval). He has yet to win at Kentucky (0 for 7) and Pocono (0 for 34).

Jimmie Johnson has won at all but three tracks on the circuit (not including the Roval). He has yet to win at Chicagoland (0 for 16), Kentucky (0 for 7) and Watkins Glen (0 for 16).

3. Back in the Day

LeBron James made his eighth consecutive NBA Finals appearance Thursday night. The last time he wasn’t in the NBA Finals was 2010.

That season in NASCAR:

Jimmie Johnson was on his way to a fifth consecutive Cup title.

Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Charlotte fall race.

Denny Hamlin won a series-high eight races.

Kevin Conway was Cup Rookie of the Year.

Joey Logano had just turned 20 years old.

Brad Keselowski won the Xfinity Series title.

Kyle Busch won 13 of the 29 Xfinity races he started.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was Xfinity Rookie of the Year.

Kyle Larson finished 10th in the Chili Bowl Nationals (Cole Whitt was second to winner Kevin Swindell).

William Byron wouldn’t turn 13 until November of that year.

4. France Family Group adds to portfolio

In a recent SEC filing, International Speedway Corp. stated that the France Family Group owns 74.11 percent of the combined voting power of common stock.

The France Family Group owned 73 percent, according to ISC’s 2016 annual report.

The France Family Group owned 72 percent, according to the ISC’s 2015 annual report.

As a comparison, Bruton Smith and son Marcus own 71 percent of Speedway Motorsports Inc.’s common stock. They owned 70 percent, according to SMI’s 2016 annual report.

5. A year later …

There will be much talk this weekend about how Jimmie Johnson has gone a year — it will be a year on June 4 actually — since his last Cup victory, the longest drought of his career.

But something else to ponder: In the last 36 races (a full season’s worth), Toyota has 19 wins, Ford has 12 and Chevrolet has five.

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