NASCAR America: Keep testing All-Star rules package, but keep cars hard to race

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More than three weeks after NASCAR tested a new rules package for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in the All-Star race, the debate continues as to whether it should be used in a points race.

Last week, Brad Keselowski expressed concern that fewer top drivers would come to NASCAR if this was the primary rules package because the cars would be too easy to drive.

Mark Martin added his support, saying: “NASCAR racing, from the way it was at the very beginning, that was a different skillset from taking cars and choking them off.”

He added: “It really, really hurts me to think about if we’re going to change that to satisfy Johnny-come-lately fans.”

That spurred a response from Jeff Burton on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America.

“I think what they are trying to say is there is an integrity to racing,” Burton said. “And how do you keep that integrity? … I don’t care how much horsepower (the cars) make. When someone wins an Xfinity race, they don’t get out and say ‘anybody could run it because they have less horsepower than a Cup car.’”

Burton believes the competition was improved in the All-Star race. Last year’s Xfinity race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway race was much improved – a fact that is undebatable, according to Burton. But the results have been far from conclusive. The rules package did not make much of a difference at Pocono Raceway. It did at Michigan International Speedway, but the cars were notably slower.

“Now NASCAR and all the stakeholders get to take that information and learn from it and try to come with a package that does everything everybody wants it to do,” Burton said. “They still need to be hard to drive. NASCAR has never said that they want pack racing at Michigan. They’ve never said that. They want it to remain so it’s difficult to drive.”

So how do they do it? The answer is not going to be a simple one, but Burton believes there is an answer to be had.

“There is nothing wrong with looking at it and trying to figure it out,” Burton said. “I think what everybody’s worried about is that this package is the only answer. And it’s not. This package is something that’s being tried to learn what’s good and what’s bad – and ultimately a decision is going to be made to make the racing better at these particular racetracks – not everywhere. And I don’t know how that is bad for the sport.

“Unless, anybody can get in the car and do it.”

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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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NASCAR America: Legendary owners Jack Roush, Roger Penske inducted into NASCAR Hall

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On Wednesday, legendary owners Roger Penske and Jack Roush were selected as members of the 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame.

At the start of their careers, both of the owners were on the outside looking in with Penske coming from the ranks of the open wheel cars and Roush from sports cars.

When Penske was watching races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a young man, he was dreaming of making his mark in the sport of auto racing. In a variety of disciplines encompassing stock cars, open-wheel cars and sports cars, Team Penske has now earned 489 major race wins (and counting), 556 poles, and 32 championships.

In NASCAR, Penske has been responsible for 108 wins. His first of these came with Mark Donohue behind the wheel at Riverside International Raceway in 1973; his most recent was earned just three races ago by Joey Logano at Talladega Superspeedway.

Penske is “one of those guys that just commands respect,” said Rusty Wallace in press release issued moments after Penske’s induction. “Not just because of all of his success, but because he really cares about people. Everyone wants to please Roger because he does so much to help everyone else and he just has that desire to win. Winning is contagious around Roger.”

“On the backs of giants, I’ve been carried to success and recognition that otherwise I could not have been – that would have been beyond my grasp individually,” Roush said soon after the announcement that he would join former driver Mark Martin in the Hall of Fame.

Roush came along a little later than Penske after a successful career in sport cars racing. He fielded an entry for the relatively unknown Martin in 1988. The pair would earn their first victory one year later when Martin took the checkers at Rockingham Speedway. Since then, Roush has added 136 more Cup wins – including a pair for his current driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. last year.

“It means everything in the world to me,” Martin said. “I am so happy with this class and so happy for Jack. If you look at his numbers – his numbers are great – but if you look at what he’s really done as far as contributing to NASCAR, he brought up all his drivers. He gave me a second chance when no one else would. Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, you name it – Carl Edwards. All these guys were on the outside looking in when Jack Roush gave them the opportunity.“

Roush’s legacy includes developing talent and being one of the first owners truly successful with a multi-car organization. Martin made 57 Cup starts before he joined forces with Roush, but it was not until they were paired that he excelled. In 2005, the organization placed five drivers in the playoffs, which was one of the catalysts for NASCAR’s current rule limiting organizations to four teams.

Jeff Gordon leads 2019 Hall of Fame Class

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Jeff Gordon, the four-time Cup champion who ushered in a new era of NASCAR on and off the track and opened a pathway for younger drivers to the premier series, was selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 on Wednesday.

The 46-year-old Gordon is the youngest inductee among the 10 Hall of Fame classes.

Joining Gordon in the Class of 2019 are: Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.

Gordon was selected on 96 percent of the ballots — surpassing the record of being on 94 percent of the ballot shared by David Pearson (Class of 2011) and Robert Yates (Class of 2018).

Roush was selected on 70 percent of the ballots, Penske was on 68 percent, Allison was on 63 percent and Kulwicki was on 46 percent.

They will be inducted Feb 1, 2019.

The next three top vote-getters were Buddy Baker, Hershel McGriff and Waddell Wilson.

A total of 57 ballots were cast — 56 by Hall of Fame voting members and one online fan ballot. The fan ballot had Allison, Gordon, Kulwicki, Baker and Harry Gant.

Jim Hunter was selected as the Landmark Award winner for his contributions to NASCAR as a media member, p.r. person, track operator and NASCAR official.

Gordon’s selection marks the third consecutive class that features a member of Hendrick Motorsports. Car owner Rick Hendrick was selected to the Class of 2017. Ray Evernham, Gordon’s crew chief for three of his titles, was voted to the Class of 2018. 

“I think it tells you a lot about that combination, what Rick created in his organization and the people,” Gordon said. “When Ray and I came to work, Ray told me all the resources are there, this could be something really special. It obviously ended up being way more than we ever anticipated. Those two are like family to me. To be able to follow them is very, very, very special. … Besides my parents, I owe those two everything to how they contributed to my life in more than just racing.”

Gordon’s success made car owners more open to hiring young drivers. Gordon also opened a pipeline from Midwest sprint car racing that helped future Hall of Famer Tony Stewart, among others, move to NASCAR.

Gordon’s influence goes beyond the track. He introduced NASCAR to mainstream America in the 1990s when he dominated, winning Cup titles in 1995, ’97 and ’98. Gordon appeared in national ads that weren’t just during NASCAR races and was the first — and only — NASCAR driver to host Saturday Night Live.

Gordon won 47 of his 93 career Cp wins between 1995-99. The driver dubbed “Wonder Boy” early in his career by Dale Earnhardt won his fourth title in 2001 — the year Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Gordon won three Daytona 500s, five Southern 500s and five Brickyard 400s.

Off the track, Gordon displayed class and poise throughout his career. He also displayed emotions. Gordon cried when he won his first points race, the 1994 Coca-Cola 600. He celebrated what was his final Cup win in November 2015 at Martinsville by bouncing, hooting and shouting “We’re going to Homestead!”

With Gordon’s selection the top five all-time winners in Cup will be in the Hall of Fame — Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and Gordon.

Kulwicki, the 1992 Cup champion, joins the Hall of Fame after coming close the past two years. He was among the top three vote getters not selected to the Class of 2016. He was tied with Ron Hornaday Jr. for the last spot in the Class of 2017. Both were selected on 38 percent of the ballots and Hornaday was selected in a second vote.

Kulwicki is revered for his underdog run to the ’92 title where he beat Bill Elliott by 10 points as a driver/owner. Kulwicki won five career Cup races before he was killed in a plane crash in 1993 on the way to Bristol Motor Speedway from a sponsor appearance.

Allison won 19 races, including the 1992 Daytona 500. He also was the 1987 Rookie of the Year and finished second to his father in the 1988 Daytona 500.

Allison was a fan favorite for his personality and persistence. Three months after Kulwicki died in a plane crash, Allison died from injures suffered in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.

Roush, whose name has been synonymous with success for most of his Cup career, joined the premier series in 1988 with Hall of Famer Mark Martin.

Roush, who has scored a record 325 victories across NASCAR’s national series, won his first Cup title in 2003 with Matt Kenseth and won the 2004 crown with Kurt Busch. Roush has five Xfinity championships and one Camping World Truck Series title.

Penske is better known for his success in IndyCar, including his 16 Indianapolis 500 victories as a car owner, but he’s also made an impact in NASCAR.

Penske won the 2012 Cup title with Brad Keselowski and has two Daytona 500 victories. He also built Auto Club Speedway and once owned Michigan International Speedway and North Carolina Motor Speedway. In Team Penske’s 52-year history, it has 489 major race wins across all series and 553 poles. Included are wins in IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula 1 and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

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Alan Kulwicki: From ‘Underbird’ to NASCAR Hall of Famer

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Sometime in 1984 or 1985, Mike Joy, then with Motor Racing Network, was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to cover an ASA race at the Milwaukee Mile.

Among those competing was Alan Kulwicki, who was driving for himself, as he did for much of his racing career.

Joy introduced himself to the young man who grew up just over 10 miles southwest of the track in Greenfield.

Kulwicki told him no introduction was needed.

“I know who you are,” Joy recalls Kulwicki saying. “I listen to you every weekend. I’m going to be down there someday and I’m going to race NASCAR.”

On Wednesday, Kulwicki, who drove the famed “Underbird” to the 1992 Cup title, was the last person announced to the 2019 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The crew chief

Paul Andrews had never attended a Hall of Fame class announcement even though Kulwicki had been nominated the past three years

Andrews, who was Kulwicki’s crew chief for all five of his Cup wins and his 1992 title, was nervous when the first four inductees were revealed and Kulwicki’s name hadn’t been called.

Jeff Gordon, Jack Roush, Roger Penske and Davey Allison all preceded Andrews’ driver and boss.

“Definitely nervous,” Andrews told NBC Sports. “Especially when they put Davey in, because their histories are very similar.”

Both Kulwicki’s and Allison’s careers and lives were tragically cut short 103 days apart 25 years ago.

Kulwicki perished April 1 when his plane crashed in a field in Northeast Tennessee, six miles west of Bristol Motor Speedway, where the Cup Series competed that weekend. He was 38.

Allison followed July 13, dying from injuries he sustained in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway. Allison, who was flying the helicopter, was 32.

Andrews has a lot of happy memories from their career together, including their championship triumph at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992 over Bill Elliott, and Kulwicki’s first Cup win at ISM Raceway in 1988.

But a tearful Andrews said his lasting memory of his time with Kulwicki will be losing him after just five races in 1993.

“It’s something I can’t get out of my heart,” Andrews said.

Andrews, who went on to win Cup races with Jeremy Mayfield, Steve Park and Geoffrey Bodine, hopes people will learn what was in Kulwicki’s heart with his Hall of Fame induction.

“Determination,” Andrews said. “(And) believing in his people and believing in his own talent.”

The competitor

When it came to the ASA racing circuit in the Midwest, Alan Kulwicki and Mark Martin were two “fairly good-sized fish in a small pond,” says Martin.

“There wasn’t room for two big fish,” continued the 2017 Hall of Fame inductee. “We had to race pretty hard.”

Martin hesitates to say he and Kulwicki “were best friends. We were fierce competitors that got along OK.”

Martin raced his way into the Cup Series in 1981 before competing full-time in 1982.

During that season, Martin got a call from Kulwicki, who was still racing back home in Wisconsin.

Kulwicki planned to attend the World 600 race weekend in hopes of meeting people who could further his career.

Being fierce competitors didn’t bar Martin from being hospitable. He invited the aspiring NASCAR driver to stay at his place.

“We were close enough that he did that,” Martin said.

No matter his feelings toward Kulwicki, Martin said it would have been “painful” to see him and Allison not elected to the Hall of Fame this year.

“I’m glad I wasn’t on the voting panel,” Martin said. “This is probably in my eyes, this was one of the toughest years ever. I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with it.”

Unlike Allison, Kulwicki had a Cup title on his record. One that Martin said was “more outstanding” than anything Kulwicki accomplished in their little ASA pond.

Not long after his encounter with Joy, Kulwicki moved to North Carolina in 1985 and made his Cup debut on Sept. 8 at Richmond Raceway driving for someone else.

That arrangement didn’t take.

Six years later, Kulwicki was crowned the 1992 Cup Series champion, becoming the last driver-owner to accomplish the feat as NASCAR became a world of highly funded multi-car teams. He did it driving the No. 7 Hooters Ford Thunderbird, which was nicknamed the “Underbird.”

“What he achieved in NASCAR will never be done again,” said Martin, who finished sixth to Kulwicki in 1992. “It was never done before and will never be done again. It was absolutely astonishing. Period.”