marcus smith

Kyle Busch
Getty Images

Kyle Busch on Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson chasing bounty: ‘Bring it on’

1 Comment

Twenty-four hours made quite a difference for Kyle Busch‘s tune regarding the $100,000 bounty placed against him in the Truck Series.

Thursday had the Joe Gibbs Racing driver outright dismissing the idea any full-time Cup driver would pursue the bounty, citing the $140,000 cost to rent a truck.

Then Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson dropped the hammer Thursday night, courtesy of a deal with GMS Racing. Elliott will have two shots at it, on March 14 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and May 30 at Kansas Speedway. Larson steps to the plate March 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Busch’s response?

“Bring it on.”

Busch addressed Elliott and Larson entering the bounty ring Friday during his media session at Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s all good,” Busch said. “I think it’s going to be interesting, exciting, whatever you want to term it.  I guess Cup drivers in the truck series do sell tickets. You know, take that for what it’s worth. I think it’s a unique opportunity for more attention on the series, which is good. Maybe if more drivers had more teams than had rides, there would be something else there besides just myself.”

The bounty is a joint effort by Kevin Harvick and Gander RV & Outdoors CEO Marcus Lemonis in the wake of Busch winning the last seven truck series races he’s entered, dating back to 2018.

If no Cup driver beats Busch in his remaining four Truck Series starts, the $100,000 will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

Atlanta Motor Speedway

“It’s brought a whole new chatter to (the truck series,” Busch said. “Whether that’s excitement or just chatter, I’m not sure which. I think we’ll see when we get to Atlanta what the grandstands look like and how the race goes.”

Even before the announcement by the drivers Thursday night, Busch had already given thought to the Cup competitors he could potentially square off against for the bounty and who his biggest threat was.

“I don’t remember who I told, but once Harvick kind of put the idea out there, I was like, ‘The guy who is really, really, really, gonna have a shot is Larson at Homestead,” Busch said.

The 1.5-mile track in Florida is widely viewed as Larson’s best track. He’s made three starts there in the truck series. He has two top fives, including placing fourth there in 2016 with GMS Racing.

“I’d like to beat him and think that I could have $100,000 in my pocket, but yeah; it’s really not about the money to me,” Larson said. “I think it’s a cool fun kind of challenge, and I look forward to trying to beat him, and if the money is still out there when I do get that chance, it’ll be a lot of fun. But, Kyle Busch is the best. It doesn’t matter what type of car he’s in. It’s not going to be easy. It never is, no matter what car or truck you’re in. But, it’ll be fun and I feel like Homestead is my best track and my best opportunity to do it.”

But the first stop in the bounty challenge is Chase Elliott and his home track of Atlanta.

Harrison Burton, who raced for Busch last year in the truck series, shared his experience competing against Busch at Atlanta last year, a race Busch won.

“It’s going to be hard to beat Kyle, I know that much,” Burton said Friday. “I ran trucks last year and ran second to him for a lot of laps at Atlanta especially. I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’m about a tenth better than the field and he’s about three-tenths better than me so this is pretty impressive.’ Ran second most of that day. Didn’t finish second, but Chase is going to have his work cut out for him there and (Kyle) Larson is going to have his work cut out for him at Miami. Kyle hasn’t raced Miami in a truck in a long time because of the playoff schedule so that might be — Chase has a steeper hill to climb than Larson.”

But a second bounty was issued Friday. Chris Larsen, principal owner of Halmar Friesen Racing, said his construction company would offer $50,000 to a regular Truck series driver if they beat Busch and win the Atlanta race, provided Busch is running at the end of the race. Larsen said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Dialed In” that if Busch won at Atlanta, the bounty would remain at Homestead, Busch’s next Truck race.

“I hope it’s great for everybody,” Larsen said Friday night on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I hope it’s great for the fans, great for the truck drivers. We all owe Kyle a big thank you for making us all better chasing him.

Atlanta and its owner, Speedway Motorsports, also are getting involved in the show.

SMI and the track announced Friday a way for fans to contribute $5 to the charities of Elliott, Busch or Harvick through ticket purchases.

Fans who purchase a ticket to the March 14 NASCAR doubleheader – which includes the truck series race (1:30 p.m. on FS1) and a Xfinity Series race (4:00 p.m. on FS1) – can choose the driver and driver foundations that will benefit.

If additional challengers emerge, the drivers and their respective charities will also become eligible.

Fans can ensure their ticket purchase helps the driver charity of their choice by purchasing through the AMS ticket office (877-9-AMS-TIX) and stating the driver and foundation of choice or by going to https://www.atlantamotorspeedway.com/bounty/ and choosing their preferred driver. Tickets for the Saturday NASCAR Doubleheader – which includes the Georgia 200 bounty challenge race – are free for children 12 and under.

“The anticipation for this race and the buzz around this bounty is growing every day,” said SMI CEO Marcus Smith in a press release. “Where the drivers saw a chance to inject more fun and excitement into this race, we see a chance to step it up even more and help some people in need through some very worthy driver charities.”

SMI pushes back on Nashville Fair commissioner’s comments

Getty Images
2 Comments

Speedway Motorsports’ Marcus Smith and Jerry Caldwell each pushed back Tuesday on critical comments made by a Nashville Fair Board Commissioner alleging SMI has “failed to engage” with it regarding plans to bring NASCAR to the historic Fairgrounds Speedway.

The comments by Commissioner Jason Bergeron, reported by The Tennessean, were made at Nashville’s monthly Fair Board meeting and revolved around the dispute over a $335 million Major League Soccer stadium that has been approved by the city and, pending approval by the mayor, would be built next to the speedway.

“We need to decouple any notion of racing from this right now,” Bergeron said. “That process hasn’t even started because (Speedway Motorsports) has failed to engage.”

Smith, the CEO and president of SMI, responded on Twitter by calling Bergeron’s accusation “just not true.”

Bristol Motor Speedway, which has spearheaded the attempt to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville, released the following statement from Caldwell, the track’s vice president and general manager:

We’ve presented the city – Mayor Cooper and the Fair Board – with a plan to restore the historic speedway and give it an economically viable future. In meetings with Mayor Cooper, his team and other city officials during the past several weeks, we’ve been asked to evaluate different operating scenarios and have provided information to the city as requested. We’ve done everything we have been asked to do and have met with everyone we have been asked to meet with. We will continue to provide any assistance necessary as the city considers what’s best for the future of the Fairgrounds.

Because the Fair Board has a Metro Charter-obligation to maintain the speedway, we have been and continue to be optimistic that the commissioners and the mayor will be supportive of a partnership with BMS to modernize and financially sustain the speedway.

Our team has long believed in the future of the historic speedway and the Fairgrounds. We became even more excited about that future when Nashville was awarded an MLS franchise and committed to build a new soccer stadium. It is within the city’s reach to have a thriving multi-use sports and entertainment complex to create a true landmark for the city

SMI seeks an agreement with Nashville to bring top-tier stock-car racing back to the city but has not been able to work through financing and other issues. SMI proposed a $60 million renovation plan in May for the historic .596-mile track that would increase seating capacity from 15,000 to 30,000, among other projects.

A previous plan for $54 million in bond payments was rejected by then-Mayor David Briley. John Cooper defeated Bailey to become the city’s mayor in September.

The Tennessean reported in December that the mayor’s spokesperson confirmed that the administration received a new proposal from SMI and it was being reviewed.

Cooper published an opinion column on Sunday expressing his desire to reach an agreement that works for both the soccer and racing communities.

“One historical use is auto racing, which is mandated by our Metro Charter,” Cooper wrote. “I’m working to find a path for racing’s success, and in these negotiations, I’ve secured additional space to allow for necessary speedway improvements. Higher-level auto racing will attract more visitors and ensure the long-term sustainability of the fairgrounds.”

Last month, Smith told NBC Sports that he was still “very optimistic” about NASCAR racing returning to Nashville, which is the new host of the Cup Series’ awards banquet.

“Everything we’re working on seems to be moving forward in a reasonable pace,” Smith said. “I don’t think I can really put a timeframe on it right now because it would just be speculation.”

There is a push for Nashville to potentially be part of the NASCAR schedule in 2021. The schedule is expected to be announced in early April.
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said last month: “I would say Nashville as a market is a high priority for us in 2021.”

Friday 5: New slogan spotlights Jimmie Johnson’s focus in 2020

Leave a comment

CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson is not chasing history. He seeks to enjoy it.

Johnson’s revelation this week that he has ditched #chasing8 for #One FinalTime as the slogan for his final Cup season is not a sign of surrender, he insists.

Instead, he wants to be more focused on the moment and hope that leads to greater goals.

“I’m not chasing anything,” the seven-time Cup champion said Thursday at the Hendrick Motorsports complex.

Johnson used #6pack on his quest for a sixth title and #se7en in his bid for a seventh title. He had used #chasing8 while seeking an unprecedented eighth Cup title for a driver.

Jimmie Johnson on his final season: “I’ll lay it on the line and go.” (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Even without the slogan, Johnson says he remains focused on this coming season.

“I’m going to get in that car, I’m going to give it 100% as I always do … I’ll lay it on the line and go,” he said.

But Johnson’s go has been slow in recent years. He is winless in 95 races, dating back to June 2017 at Dover International Speedway.

Since that victory, Johnson has six top-five finishes, 29 top 10s and led 216 laps. He has not finished better than third in a points race in that span.

Such struggles make it easy to discount a driver for championship contention — even one of only three seven-time champions in series history.

It’s not been just one thing, though, that has held the 44-year-old back. His struggles coincided with a decline in performance for Hendrick Motorsports in 2017 and ’18. Chevrolet’s Camaro had its issues. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus split after the 2018 season. Johnson went on to change crew chiefs again in 2019 when performance soured.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Johnson said of missing the playoffs last year for the first time in his career. “I was angry, embarrassed.”

He cites last year as a learning experience in racing without Knaus on his pit box. Without Knaus’ leadership, there was a vacuum and Johnson had to understand how to help fill it. As his performance waned, the team struggled. A late-summer crew chief change failed to get Johnson into the playoffs.

Johnson, considered among NASCAR’s greatest drivers, said that “winning races, making the playoffs would be a good season (this year). A great season is going (multiple) rounds (in the playoffs). The ultimate season is being in that championship four.”

First Johnson must be able to run at the front. And win again.

Jimmie Johnson celebrates his 2016 title with wife Chandra and daughters Lydia (held by Johnson) and Genevieve.(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

While his 83 career Cup victories are tied for sixth with Cale Yarborough on the all-time list, Johnson’s focus is to win again to show his daughters what he can do. Genevieve is 9 years old and Lydia is 6.

“I think deep down inside it would be very satisfying,” Johnson said of winning again. “In my heart of hearts I still now I’m doing my best work out there.

“I can also say from a family perspective, to have another moment or two this year with my family in that environment and winning at the top level would be very special for us.

“I guess, ultimately, my kids don’t remember going to victory lane. They don’t have any vivid memories of it. They have no filters. To come home and especially Lydia is like, ‘so Dad, we didn’t win, what happened?’ Evie is so polite about it: ‘Dad you tried hard, good job.’

“To have that moment with them and a moment they will hopefully remember … would be really special.”

2. Hope for Nashville for 2021?

NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. are not ready to publicly shut the door on a race at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville for 2021, even though no deal has been announced between Nashville and SMI. NASCAR is expected to release the 2021 Cup schedule in April.

“We’re having great discussions with leadership in Nashville,” Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., told NBC Sports this week. “We think it’s a great opportunity for the city and for NASCAR and for Speedway Motorsports. … Everything we’re working on seems to be moving forward in a reasonable pace.

Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville in July 2019. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I don’t think I can really put a timeframe on it right now because it would just be speculation. I’m very optimistic about NASCAR in Nashville.

“The timing is one of those things that once we get the agreement done, then we’ll have some planning and … the actual construction will take place. It’s a big project and one that when it’s done, the city of Nashville will be really proud of.”

Speedway Motorsports Inc. seeks an agreement with the city to bring top-tier stock-car racing back to Nashville but has not been able to work through financing and other issues. SMI proposed a $60 million renovation plan in May for the historic .596-mile track that would increase seating capacity from 15,000 to 30,000, among other projects.

A previous plan for $54 million in bond payments was rejected by then-Mayor David Briley. John Cooper defeated Bailey to become the city’s mayor in September.

The Tennessean reported in December that the mayor’s spokesperson confirmed that the administration received a new proposal from SMI and it was being reviewed.

Cooper told the Nashville Rotary Club on Monday, according to The Tennessean, that “racing needs to be a success, not just soccer (at the Fairgrounds property). It has to be a workable overall site plan.”

However, The Tennessean notes that that Cooper has not said if he supports a deal to bring NASCAR’s top-tier series to the Fairgrounds.

The Tennessean reported Thursday that Cooper had met with auto racing advocates this week.

Asked if Nashville was still a consideration for the 2021 schedule, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said: “I would say Nashville as a market is a high priority for us in 2021.”

3. Changes for 2020

Along with the changes to stage lengths this season — and how a race will be official once it hits the halfway mark (unless the end of the second stage occurs first) — NASCAR also revealed a few other changes for the coming season.

Last year, NASCAR typically took no more than one car to the R&D Center after a race. That was primarily to study trends in the sport and if NASCAR needed to adjust any rules. The point was to get away from issuing penalties days after the race.

This year, series officials said they would look at taking multiple cars back to the R&D Center after Cup races.

“We tried to do the best we could in response to the teams and try to curb development,” said Jay Fabian, NASCAR Cup director. “Part of that there is that there’s been a new set of rules as far as a parts freeze. Teams have to submit a significant amount of parts and they have to run those parts throughout the year. They have options of each part, they can mix and match as long as they are on that list.

“We will bring more cars back this year because that’s, quite honestly, a lot of work postrace. So we’re going to bring that back and make sure everybody is on the up and up.”

Fabian said if NASCAR found “a major, significant issue, we’d react to it” by issuing a penalty that week.

Erik Jones drives the Next Gen car in a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Jan. 2020. (Photo: NASCAR)

In regards to the Next Gen car, NASCAR’s next test will be March 2-3 at Auto Club Speedway. That’s expected to have only one car but NASCAR anticipates having two cars test by April. That would give officials more information on how a Next Gen car reacts behind another car. Teams are expected to take delivery of their first Next Gen car by July. Tests will be set up for August and beyond.

Five tests are expected to be held for teams before next season. How those tests will be done — whether only one car per organization is allowed or one car per team — will be determined later.

Also, NASCAR officials were scheduled to meet Wednesday with manufacturers in the sport and those that could join the sport about a new engine for 2023, among other issues.

4. Stress of rule change on teams

There have been many reasons discussed for Team Penske’s decision to change its entire driver/crew chief lineup for this season after winning six Cup races and placing all three drivers in the top 10 in points.

As Brad Keselowski acknowledged this week, that type of season was good but not good enough.

“We want to be great,” he said. “We want to win championships. You’ve got to recognize that winning races is still a significant accomplishment in this sport. It’s great competition week in and week out, so winning is good but also emphasize that greatness is the championship. We didn’t win it. It means we’ve got work to do.”

Brad Keselowski with crew chief Paul Wolfe last season. As part of Team Penske’s moves, Wolfe will be Joey Logano‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Keselowski, who will be teamed with crew chief Jermey Bullins this season, also expressed his belief on why the change was made at Team Penske.

“I’ll be honest with you, I think the rules package is as much a factor as anything else,” Keselowski said. “The rules changed when we went to the high downforce and the really small horsepower. That’s really hard to accept. It’s hard to accept for the drivers. It’s really hard to accept for the teams with respect some of the things that we consider telltales of the past that are not necessarily the telltales of today.

“Used to get into this car and you were a good racecar driver if you could run every lap within half a tenth to a tenth (of a second). With these rules, the lap time variance is very significant. You might run one lap, let’s say around (Charlotte Motor Speedway), a 30 (second) flat and the next lap you catch the draft wrong in all the wrong places and you run a 31 flat and the team sees that and they say ‘What the hell? What is this guy out here doing? Is he drunk? Is he not focused? What’s going on?’

“I think it’s part of the package. When you’re not winning, when you’re having the bad days you’re going to have in this sport … it really has put a lot of stress on the team relationships, driver relationships, that dynamic. I think that dynamic has caused a fair amount of rift and ripples across the whole sport and the easiest way for Team Penske to fix it was this change because it forces everyone to think a little bit more thoroughly and different about it.

“That’s one of many examples, it’s not the only reason. I do think the rules change has had a drastic impact on the drivers’ and teams’ abilities to communicate with each other and value the right things.”

5. An unforgettable ride

One of John Andretti’s greatest gifts was what he could give others. Sometimes it was his wit that left one laughing. Sometimes it was his smile and positive nature even through a battle with colon cancer that ended Thursday with his death at age 56.

Other times it was his drive.

Andretti, the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, won an IndyCar race, two Cup events, a Rolex 24 and even a USAC national midget race. He also competed in NHRA, reaching the semifinals once. 

Of all that, there was one drive that illustrates Andretti’s essence.

It came in his 1999 Cup win at Martinsville Speedway for Petty Enterprises. Andretti won the day after Petty Enterprises claimed the Martinsville Truck race, completing a weekend sweep for the famed organization that no longer exists.

But Andretti’s path was not easy that day. He fell a lap down less than 50 laps into the event after he was hit from behind by Ward Burton and spun. No Martinsville Cup winner in the previous decade had come back from a lap down to win.

MORE: Motorsports world mourns passing of John Andretti 

Andretti needed less than 100 laps to pass leader Jeff Gordon and get back on the lead lap. A two-tire pit stop with about 120 laps left played a key role and Andretti did the rest. He was third with 50 laps to go.

Andretti passed Gordon for second with about 12 laps to go as his car suffered a vibration.

“With 12 to go, I figure the heck with it,” Andretti said later that day. “Nobody is going to remember if you run third.”

Andretti challenged close friend Jeff Burton for the lead and drove past the Virginia driver with four laps to go as the crowd cheered.

After taking the checkered flag, Andretti took an extra victory lap. On his way to victory lane, he stopped to give car owner Richard Petty a ride.

The sight of Petty sitting on the driver’s window opening as Andretti drove the No. 43 to victory lane is a memory that won’t be forgotten.

Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark to retire in 2020

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark will retire following next year’s Cup Series race at the track, Speedway Motorsports Inc. announced Monday.

Clark, 64, is the second-longest tenured employee at SMI, trailing only Bruton Smith, the company founder. Clark joined Speedway Motorsports in 1981 as a member of the public relations department at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He rose through the ranks before being named president of Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1995.

“Growing up on a tobacco farm in Virginia, I never dreamed as a boy that I’d have the opportunity to work in this sport for 44 seasons,” Clark said in a press release.  “I have been privileged to work with and for many amazing people and I will be forever grateful for how they allowed me to follow and live my dream. It’s been a true blessing and a wonderful journey.”

“We are beyond grateful for Ed’s service to our company and to the entire NASCAR community,” said SMI CEO and President Marcus Smith in a press release. “We’re also blessed that Ed will continue to lead Atlanta Motor Speedway through the March 15 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, so that the fans, drivers and sponsors can join us to say ‘thank you’ to a man whose countless contributions and dedication to our sport will be remembered for years to come.”

Mario Andretti named honorary pace car driver for Roval Cup race

Leave a comment

Racing legend Mario Andretti has been announced as the honorary pace car driver for the Cup Series race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval on Sept. 29.

The Indy 500 and Daytona 500 champion will pilot a Toyota Camry XSE pace car around the 17-turn, 2.28-mile road course and lead the field to the green flag for the second Cup race on the circuit.

Andretti was part of the development of the track before its debut last year.

He visited Charlotte Motor Speedway in March 2017 for a test drive around the Roval.

“When (Speedway Motorsports, Inc. CEO) Marcus Smith was creating the Roval, he invited me to check out the improvements to the infield road course,” Andretti said in a press release. “It was such a fun course to drive and the more I drove it the more I got into a rhythm, but I knew it would be challenging to the NASCAR competitors with the elevation change and transition from road course to oval.

“After last year’s successful playoff debut for the course, I’m honored that Marcus would ask me to return to lead the field to green for this year’s Bank of America Roval 400.”

After the test, Andretti suggested adding chicanes on the frontstretch and backstretch to slow the cars down and create additional passing zones.

“I liked the higher speeds so I was hesitant, but after hearing it from someone of his caliber and expertise, it made even more sense to create chicanes on our straightaways,” Smith said in a press release. “Mario’s forward thinking and his unparalleled vision for creating a spectacle contributed to the incredible finish we had last year with Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.”

Andretti made one start at Charlotte in his racing career, competing in the fall 1967 race on the 1.5-mile oval. He finished 27th.