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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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Friday 5: One more change that should be made to All-Star Race

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The buzzword after the Monster Energy All-Star Race format was announced this week was that NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway wanted to make it a race again.

Do away with many of the gimmicks. Forego the math requirements to figure out average finishes. No more mandatory pit stops.

Just race.

“We wanted to make it as much like a race as possible,’’ said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer.

But if this event — 80 laps over four stages this year — is going to be viewed as a race, then something else needs to be added.

Playoff implications.

No doubt that $1 million winner’s check is meaningful to the team, which gets a large chunk of that, but it’s time to add another carrot. Playoff points and even a spot in the playoffs.

Offer five playoff points to the winner and one playoff point for each of the stages before the end of the race.

Also, if the winner does not record a victory in the regular season, then the All-Star Race victory puts them in the playoffs.

Had this been in place in 2014 when Jamie McMurray won the All-Star Race but went on to miss the playoffs, it would have given him a chance to run for the championship that season.

Some will argue that there should not be any playoff implications for this race because there’s not a full field competing.

Drivers had since last year’s event to win a race to be eligible if they weren’t already. That’s 36 chances. With five races left to qualify for the All-Star Race, the event is guaranteed to have at least 21 drivers — nearly 60 percent of the charter teams. There are already 17 drivers qualified, three who will earn a spot via the Open, and one who will be selected based on a fan vote.

Others might argue that because there aren’t any points given in the Clash in February at Daytona, why should this race award any points?

Simple. The All-Star Race is for race winners. The Clash is primarily for pole winners. Until NASCAR pays points for qualifying, I’m fine with that race not having any points.

But it’s time for the All-Star Race to matter more.

2. Moving the All-Star Race

Maybe the package with restrictor plates, aero ducts, a taller spoiler and different splitter will work. Maybe it can make the All-Star Race a memorable event again. Or maybe it will lead the sport in a direction to make racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway and other 1.5-mile tracks more exciting.

If it does, maybe the debate of where the All-Star Race should be held goes away. But until then, voices will be raised to move the event to places such as Bristol Motor Speedway or Martinsville Speedway or even some place like South Boston Speedway as a way to return to NASCAR’s roots and give fans something different — just as the Trucks do with their race at Eldora Speedway.

It’s a great idea in concept. There’s an issue.

Charlotte Motor Speedway is owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., a publicly traded company that owns eight tracks that host Cup events.

Take away a race and there’s the potential Wall Street isn’t going to like that, and that could further impact SMI.

Admittedly, it shouldn’t matter what Wall Street thinks, it should be what’s best for the sport. And maybe there will be a day when NASCAR moves it. Maybe that day will come as soon as 2021 when the schedule could look vastly different with the five-year sanctioning agreements ending after the 2020 season.

But to say move the race elsewhere is not that simple.

“If it is good for our sport and would be good for our company, too, I’m always thinking what we can do individually and collectively to move our sport forward,’’ Marcus Smith, president of SMI, told NBC Sports about an address change for the All-Star Race. “That’s kind of the paradigm of how I operate. Of course more specifically everything is always more complicated than it seems.’’

3. Safety issue?

Kevin Harvick continued his frustration with pit guns this week, saying on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” that the matter was creating “a safety issue.’’

Harvick blamed a spate of loose wheels last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway on inconsistent air guns.

NASCAR’s O’Donnell doesn’t quite see it the same way.

“I think you’ve got to take a step back and look at safety as part of the narrative in NASCAR,’’ he told NBC Sports in response to Harvick’s comments. “I would say if you put us up against any motorsport, we feel pretty good there. When you start looking at pit stops in general, are pit guns part of that? Absolutely, but it’s the entire pit stop. To put something all on a gun, I think, is a bit premature without the facts.

“So our job is to look at each stop and look at each race, what happens with those races and put all those facts together and then make changes if necessary. I’m confident in the partner that we have and the work that we’re doing in the industry that directionally we’re in the right spot. Certainly some improvements we can make … but we feel like we’re in a good spot in continuing to work through this to get to the best place.’’

4. Changes in Race Control?

A week after NASCAR admitted it erred in not penalizing Kevin Harvick’s team for an uncontrolled tire at Texas Motor Speedway, no significant changes are coming in how NASCAR handles such issues.

O’Donnell said the main change will be with communication.

“I think ultimately it’s always going to be a judgment call,’’ O’Donnell said of the call on an uncontrolled tire. “I would say from our standpoint just some improved communication in terms of everything moves so fast in race control and we want to make a call quickly. Maybe taking a little bit more time to have some more folks review that who could do that.

“I think taking the time on each and every call to make sure we’ve got all the resources behind that.’’

5. Postrace inspection

Last week at Texas, NASCAR completed inspection after the Xfinity race at the track so no cars were sent to the R&D Center.

That was done with the four cars that qualified for this weekend’s Dash 4 Cash race at Bristol. By completing inspection at the track, it immediately ensured the eligibility of those four cars instead of the potential of having one replaced later in the week because of a rules infraction found at the R&D Center.

While there has been movement to complete inspection at track instead of waiting a couple of days for penalties — such as occurred Wednesday with the L1 penalty to Chase Elliott’s team — O’Donnell said series officials aren’t there yet to do that on a regular basis.

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Kyle Busch seeks alterations to Charlotte Roval after test

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Kyle Busch says he’s raised concerns about a couple of turns on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course to track officials after taking part in a Goodyear test there this week.

Busch, Trevor Bayne, Kyle Larson and Paul Menard tested Tuesday. Wednesday’s session was rained out and rescheduled for May 1. Busch is the winningest active Cup driver on road courses. He has four career road course victories (two at Sonoma and two at Watkins Glen).

Busch, said he talked with Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., and Don Hawk, SMI’s senior vice president of business affairs, about his concerns.

“They have an idea for changes to one of them, but not the other one,’’ Busch said Saturday at Martinsville Speedway.

One area of concern is the chicane on the frontstretch.

“When you’re coming down onto the front straightaway and you have that zone in the infield grass and then you turn (right), you have a direct, head-on impact into the wall on the front straightaway there so that’s kind of a concern,’’ Busch said.

“The chicane on the frontstretch, when you turn to the right (Turn 16 in the above diagram) heading head-on into a wall and then you have to turn back left going along the front straightaway (was an issue raised). When we were testing, it wasn’t bad because you could hop this curve and hop that curve, but then they wanted to straighten that out more from turn seven like at Sonoma, which is more of a 90-degree turn, and would make that angle worse.

“I expressed my displeasure with that idea and then we also had the same thing coming from Turn 7 to Turn 8 where you’re braking in a zone and heading head-on into the front straightaway wall to get back (from the infield course to Turn 1 of the oval). Softening up that corner as well and making that tighter and a softer corner where you can … get back on the main track a little safer.

“Those are some instances that I felt were kind of the worst instances. Other than that, I thought the track was kind of OK. It’s a bit narrow and tight in places, but I think you have that at some other road courses that I have not been at that NASCAR has. Montreal is really narrow, too and it puts on a decent show. I think it will be fine, it will just be different. I think it’s going to be about survival more than anything.”

The Cup series races on the Charlotte’s roval on Sept. 30 on NBC. It is the final race of the first round of the playoffs and will cut the number of title contenders from 16 to 12.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has ‘some interest’ in being part of group that buys Carolina Panthers

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not one of two race car drivers who are part of Felix Sabates’ group seeking to buy the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, according to the Associated Press.

NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver told the AP he hadn’t been asked by Sabates to join the group. But Earnhardt said he reached out to Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., about the possibility of being part of an effort to pursue the team.

SMI own Charlotte Motor Speedway and seven other NASCAR tracks.

“I said, ‘Hey, Marcus, if you guys are in the middle of it and you think it’s a good business deal, I definitely have some interest,'” Earnhardt told the AP. “But I am not one of the guys that Felix is talking about.”

Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, told the Charlotte Observer last week he was part of a local group in the Charlotte area seeking to buy the Panthers. Sabates said he is not in position to be the majority owner by a “long shot.”

Sabates’ group includes five businessmen, two of the team’s existing minority owners and two race car drivers, who Sabates declined to name.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is selling the team after it was revealed in December by Sports Illustrated that four former Panther employees received “significant settlements” for workplace misconduct that included “sexual harassment against female employees and for directing a racial slur at an African-American employee.”

NASCAR recently denied a report that CEO and Chairman Brian France was part of a group interested in buying the team.

Earnhardt, a noted fan of the Washington Redskins, recently retired from Cup racing after 18 full-time seasons on the circuit.

“I wouldn’t have the kind of money where I would move the needle too much, but it would be something to have a lot of pride in, and a good Charlotte NFL team is good for the city of Charlotte,” Earnhardt said. “I wish them success because of what it does for our community, not only from a pride standpoint, but an economical standpoint. I wouldn’t be a big player, and it wouldn’t be an investment that would really create a big change in my life.

“But I certainly would love to be supportive to the team and the success of the team to the community. That means a lot to me.”

Earnhardt will make his debut as a member of the NBC Sports broadcasting family next month during coverage of the Super Bowl and winter Olympics.

Legislation could help Texas Motor Speedway to lure All-Star Race, season finale

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Texas Motor Speedway could become a player for the NASCAR All-Star Race or Cup season finale with legislation making the track eligible for money to help bring those events there.

H.B. 3294 was filed Monday without Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature. It becomes effective Sept. 1.

The measure updates the law. It makes the track eligible for funding should it ever get the All-Star race or season-ending championship race. The money comes from the state’s Major Events Reimbursement Fund, which provided millions to help lure the 2017 Super Bowl.

An event has to be listed to be eligible for funding. Texas Motor Speedway previously had not been listed in the law.

“It’s just going to give us a tool, should we choose to use it, to give us an opportunity to pursue some events in a way that have probably never been pursued in NASCAR before,’’ Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “Don’t know that we’re ever going to use it, but at least it’s something we’ve got in our tool kit that I don’t know anybody else in motorsports has.’’

NASCAR awards its races to tracks. There isn’t a bidding process as there is for a Super Bowl or NCAA Final Four. The 2018 Cup schedule has been set with Charlotte Motor Speedway scheduled to host the All-Star Race for the 33rd time in 34 years. The 2018 schedule has Homestead-Miami Speedway hosting the season finale for what would be the 17th consecutive year.

NASCAR has five-year sanctioning agreements with tracks that go through 2020.

Gossage said that it was his understanding that its two Cup race weekends were not eligible for such funding from the state, so the track sought to have the All-Star Race and championship finale added as part of the legislation.

Events the measure lists as eligible for funding include all-star games for the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer, a national championship college football game, a World Cup soccer game or tournament and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association National Finals Rodeo, among others.

The Major Events Reimbursement Fund is controlled by the governor’s office. There is a formula that determines what each event is eligible to receive. The fund is supported by state and local sales taxes, auto rental tax, hotel and alcohol state taxes.

The Associated Press reported that the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston was eligible for $25 million and the 2016 U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race in Austin, Texas, was eligible for $26 million.

Gossage said the track has not had any discussions with NASCAR seeking the All-Star Race or season finale.

Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway are both owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., so moving the All-Star Race would have to be approved by Marcus Smith, president, chief executive officer of SMI.

“Ultimately, it’s Marcus’ decision as to whether to try to use it, and I honestly can’t tell you what he would say,’’ Gossage said. “He’s president of the company and that’s all eight speedways. He’s got to make decisions that are in the best interest for the company. That’s going to be tough particularly when the company is based in Charlotte and we’re talking that one of these events is a Charlotte event.’’

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