Ricky Rudd

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Sonoma could be great opportunity for Cup drivers without wins

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Who is ready for another first-time winner this season in the Cup Series?

A poll taken of the Cup garage would probably bring back everyone but the six drivers who have hogged Victory Lane through the first 15 races of the season.

Divided among just three teams – Joe Gibbs Racing (nine wins), Team Penske (five) and Hendrick Motorsports (one) – variety among teams has not been in the cards so far.

Enter Sonoma Raceway.

NASCAR makes its first trip to a road course this season with the California circuit, which has been reconfigured for its 50th anniversary with the re-introduction of “The Carousel.”

Sonoma may be a prime opportunity for a winless driver to break through to Victory Lane, according to history.

In 12 of the last 16 seasons, dating back to 2002, the driver who visited victory lane in Sonoma was doing so for the first time that year.

Before 2002, it was done only four times in the track’s first 13 years of holding Cup races, with all four occurring before 1998, when the Cup Series stopped running on the “Carousel.”

Drivers in the field this year who will try to repeat history are Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer.

Harvick holds the distinction of being the most recent driver to get his first win of the season at Sonoma. He pulled it off in 2017.

Should he repeat the feat, it would be his first win since November’s Texas playoff race (17 races) and be Stewart-Haas Racing’s first of the year. He’d also join Ricky Rudd (1989, 2002) as the only drivers to achieve that twice.

Drivers who earned first win of the year at Sonoma

Event Date    Race Winner
6/25/2017    Kevin Harvick
6/26/2016    Tony Stewart (only win that year)
6/28/2015    Kyle Busch
6/23/2013    Martin Truex Jr. (only win)
6/24/2012    Clint Bowyer
6/26/2011    Kurt Busch
6/21/2009    Kasey Kahne
6/24/2007    Juan Pablo Montoya (only win)
6/25/2006    Jeff Gordon
6/26/2005    Tony Stewart
6/22/2003    Robby Gordon
6/23/2002    Ricky Rudd (only win)
5/4/1997    Mark Martin
5/16/1993    Geoff Bodine (only win)
6/7/1992    Ernie Irvan
6/11/1989    Ricky Rudd (only win)

How soon before Kentucky Derby-type finish happens (again) in NASCAR?

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While it has occurred before in NASCAR, the winner being disqualified — as happened in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby — will happen again in stock car racing.

NASCAR all but assured that before this season. Series officials announced that they would disqualify the winner if its car failed inspection after the race.

“We’re changing the culture,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, on Feb. 4. “We’ve tried to do it one way, and it hasn’t worked.”

So far, no winner in Cup, Xfinity or the Gander Outdoors Truck Series has failed inspection after the race. 

It’s coming. It’s just a matter of who, when and where.

When it does, the grandstands will be empty … unlike Saturday at Churchill Downs. More than 150,000 fans were in attendance and waited 22 minutes after the Kentucky Derby before stewards disqualified Maximum Security and made runner-up Country House, a 65-1 longshot, the winner. Country House will go for the next leg in the Triple Crown at the Preakness on NBC on Saturday, May 18.

NASCAR officials said before the season that they hoped to have inspection done about 90 minutes after each race. Fans will be on their way home by that time. There won’t be the gasps and groans from the crowd at Churchill Downs when the Kentucky Derby was declared official with a new winner.

History shows that there will be a day (or night) when NASCAR fans will see one car cross the finish line first and another later declared the winner.

It’s in the sport’s DNA.

NASCAR’s first race in 1949 saw the winner disqualified. Records list Jim Roper as the winner but he finished second to Glenn Dunaway at Charlotte. Dunaway was disqualified because his car did not pass inspection afterward.

Eventually, NASCAR decided it was best for fans that if the driver who crossed the finish line first was the winner even if the car failed inspection afterward.

Richard Petty kept his 198th career victory in 1983 at Charlotte despite having an oversized engine and left side tires on the right side of the car. Instead, he was fined a then-record $35,000 (the winner’s purse was $40,400) and stripped 104 points.

In 1991, NASCAR penalized Ricky Rudd for spinning Davey Allison out of the lead just before the final lap at Sonoma Raceway. Rudd crossed the finish line first but was given the black flag. Allison, who came across the line behind Rudd, was given the checkered flag and ruled the winner.

Those are rare instances where NASCAR reacted.

Last year, Kevin Harvick had cars fail inspection after he won at Las Vegas in March and Texas in November. NASCAR disallowed Harvick a berth in the championship race for his Texas violation but allowed him to keep the win (as it allowed him to keep the Las Vegas win).

But the next time a winning vehicle fails inspection in NASCAR, the record books will no longer list that person as the winner. Just as the list of Kentucky Derby winners will have Country House as the 2019 champion instead of Maximum Security.

NASCAR Hall of Fame fan vote underway

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Fan voting for the 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame class has begun.

Fans can vote online and the five nominees receiving the highest percentage of votes will comprise the Fan Vote ballot.

The fan vote ends on May 20 at 11:59 a.m. ET. The class will be formally voted on and announced at the Hall of Fame on May 22.

Here are the 20 nominees for the 2020 class:

Sam Ard, NASCAR Xfinity Series pioneer and two-time champion

Buddy Baker, won 19 times in the NASCAR Cup Series, including the Daytona 500 and Southern 500

Neil Bonnett, won 18 times in the NASCAR Cup Series, including consecutive Coca-Cola 600 victories

Red Farmer, three-time Late Model Sportsman champion; 1956 Modified champion

Ray Fox, legendary engine builder, crew chief and car owner

Harry Gant, winner of 18 NASCAR Cup Series races, including two Southern 500 victories

Joe Gibbs, combined for nine car owner championships in Cup and XFINITY series

John Holman, won two NASCAR Cup Series championships as co-owner of Holman-Moody Racing

Harry Hyde, 1970 NASCAR Cup Series championship crew chief

Bobby Labonte, won a championship in both the Cup Series and XFINITY Series

Hershel McGriff, 1986 NASCAR west series champion

Ralph Moody, won two NASCAR Cup Series championships as co-owner of Holman-Moody Racing

Marvin Panch, won 17 times in the NASCAR Cup Series, including the 1961 Daytona 500

Jim Paschal, 23 of his 25 NASCAR Cup Series wins came on short tracks

Larry Phillips, first five-time NASCAR weekly series national champion

Ricky Rudd, won 23 times in NASCAR Cup Series, including the 1997 Brickyard 400

Mike Stefanik, winner of record-tying nine NASCAR championships

Tony Stewart, three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, two-time Brickyard 400 winner

Red Vogt, the first master mechanic of NASCAR, and a founding member

Waddell Wilson, won three NASCAR Cup Series championships as an engine builder

Click here to vote on the Hall of Fame class.

Friday 5: Kansas could be start of dominant run for Big 3

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — The opening half of the playoffs, with its Roval and other schedule changes, saw five different winners but such parity may be replaced beginning this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Three of the season’s final five races will be at 1.5-mile tracks — Kansas, Texas and Homestead. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have dominated this season on the 1.5-mile tracks.

Consider what they’ve done this year on such tracks:

Atlanta — Harvick won, leading 181 of 325 laps; Truex was fifth.

Las Vegas — Harvick won, leading 214 of 267 laps; Busch was second and Truex was fourth.

Texas — Busch won, leading 116 of 334 laps; Harvick was second.

Kansas — Harvick won, leading 79 of 267 laps; Truex was second 

Coca-Cola 600 — Busch won, leading 377 of 400 laps; Truex was second.

Chicago — Busch won, leading 59 of 267 laps; Harvick was third and Truex was fourth.

Kentucky — Truex won, leading 174 of 267 laps; Busch was fourth and Harvick was fifth.

Las Vegas — Brad Keselowski won; Truex was third, leading 96 of 272 laps.

Also consider that Harvick, Busch and Truex combined to win 12 of the 17 stages at those tracks and one can see how difficult it could be for other drivers if this trend continues.

Keselowski (-18 points), Ryan Blaney (-22), Kyle Larson (-36) and Alex Bowman (-68) enter this weekend’s race below the cutoff line. Bowman must win or he’ll be eliminated. Larson, Blaney and Keselowski will need to win or hope others have problems to advance. Scoring a victory won’t be easy against Harvick, Busch and Truex, who have combined to win the last five Kansas races.

Don’t be surprised if the Big 3 dominate the second half of the playoffs.

2. The value of playoff points

Martin Truex Jr. enters Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC) in the last transfer spot.

He holds that position because of the 38 playoff points he’s accumulated this season. His advantage would be much less without having scored so many playoff points.

Brad Keselowski trails Truex by 18 points for that transfer spot. Keselowski has scored 13 fewer playoff points than Truex.

Ryan Blaney trails Truex by 22 points. Blaney has scored 25 fewer playoff points than Truex.

All the points matter throughout the season.

3. Kind words about Kyle Busch from a competitor

At a media event Thursday to promote the upcoming Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick was asked about competing against Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

“I love racing against Kyle Busch,” Harvick said. “I think Kyle is one of the best drivers that is ever going to come through this sport. The things that he does in the car are great, but he knows a lot about the car, too.

“And Martin (Truex Jr.) and those guys have run well over the last few years, so racing with those two teams, we’ve been around each other in the garage a lot. There’s a lot of respect amongst the three teams, but we all want to beat each other.”

4. What’s at stake …

Jimmie Johnson has five races left to score a victory this season and continue his streak of seasons with at least one win.

He’s gone 16 seasons with at least one victory, tying him with Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace for third on the all-time list.

Richard Petty holds the record at 18 consecutive seasons with at least one victory. David Pearson had at least a victory in 17 consecutive seasons.

5. How much does testing matter?

Kansas was one of three tracks NASCAR held organizational tests this season, allowing one car per organization to test.

In the previous two organizational tests this season (Las Vegas and Richmond), the winner did not test.

Kyle Larson was the fastest both days of the Las Vegas test on Jan. 31-Feb. 1. He finished third, highest among those who tested.

Kevin Harvick took part in the organizational test at Richmond on Aug. 27-28. He went on to finish second, highest among those who tested.

The organizational test at Kansas Speedway was Sept. 24-25. Here’s who tested:

Playoff drivers: Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.

Drivers eliminated or didn’t make playoffs: Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher, Cole Custer, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard.

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Friday 5: Furniture Row Racing’s demise is a fate others know too well

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. — The names have changed but the stories haven’t when it comes to the tale of Furniture Row Racing and all the teams before it that faded away.

The concern about costs, the dependence on sponsorship and the volatility of it all is not something that is new to NASCAR (or even motorsports). That those issues contributed to Furniture Row Racing announcing this week that it would cease operations after this season only added that team to a long list. That Furniture Row Racing won the Cup championship last year only makes the story more powerful.

But not unique.

Go back in time and look at what other car owners were saying and how their concerns were repeated.

In 1999, Ricky Rudd closed his race shop and sold his cars and equipment at auction because he was unable to find a sponsor to continue a team that had won six races in six seasons, including the 1997 Brickyard 400.

Rudd told motorsport.com the day of the auction: “I’ll probably get a little sad when I see those race cars loaded up on trucks and rolled away. That’ll bother me a little. The hardest day was the day before I signed with (Robert) Yates. I walked into the shop and told the guys that the sponsorship deal wasn’t working out, and that I was sorry but I was gonna do something else next year.”

In 2007, Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. merged during the season because Ginn needed help after it was unable to find funding for two of its three cars. Car owner Bobby Ginn explained to The Associated Press that had he not merged: “We would have had to continue to cut costs, and that is disgraceful to me. I am proud of the merger. I would not have been proud of putting a car out there that couldn’t compete.”

Ginn went on to say: “Even if the sponsors had come in, we probably would be talking about something like this anyway. This is just going to be the way teams operate going forward, and we needed to be invited to the party before it was too late.”

In 2009, Bill Davis Racing — a team that won the 2002 Daytona 500 with Ward Burton — was sold after what The Associated Press described as a “fruitless search for sponsorship.”

In 2013, car owner James Finch sold Phoenix Racing to HScott Racing. Finch told NASCAR.com at the time: “I’ll come to races and all. I just wasn’t going to go broke doing it. Sponsorships are really tough to come by and stuff like that.” HScott Racing announced in December 2016 that it would not field a team, citing lack of sponsorship as a reason.

In 2015, Michael Waltrip Racing announced it would cease operations after the season. Clint Bowyer was a playoff team for that organization that year.

The organization was a three-car team in 2013 but then lost sponsor NAPA after the season in response to the Richmond scandal that year when NASCAR penalized MWR for team orders in the final regular-season race of the year and removed Truex from the playoffs.

Last month, a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of BK Racing to Front Row Motorsports. Court documents showed that BK Racing, which struggled to find sponsorship, lost $29.5 million from 2014-16. The team also owed a bank more than $9 million in unpaid loans and the IRS more than $2.5 million.

“It’s a tough business,” Devine said in February at Daytona when asked why he never aligned with another team to help defray costs. “I think it’s an expensive learning curve. I also think … you’ve got to decide where you are taking the company and I took it down a very independent route, which probably wasn’t the smartest (thing).”

Just in recent years, the sport has seen Richard Childress Racing contract from three to two teams and Roush Fenway Racing, which had five full-time teams in 2009 downsize to four teams in 2010, three teams in 2012 and two teams in 2017.

Furniture Row Racing cut from two teams to one this season and then suffered a fatal blow when 5-hour Energy announced in July it would not remain in the sport after this year. It is to serve as a co-primary sponsor for 30 races this year. Forget that the 2019 Daytona 500 is 164 days away, the need to have sponsorship secured for next year had already passed for Furniture Row Racing.

Although their lifespan may be recalled more often by fans, its demise falls in line with what has happened to many teams through the years.

2. Similar refrain

This is becoming too familiar for Martin Truex Jr.

For the second time in his career, an organization shut down with him as a driver. Two other times, an organization Truex drove for merged to remain in the sport.

In 2007, Truex was with Dale Earnhardt Inc. when it merged with Ginn Racing, creating a four-car operation. Then that organization later merged with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Truex then left for Michael Waltrip Racing only to see his ride disappear after the 2013 season when NAPA left the team. The fallout was from the Richmond team orders scandal NASCAR penalized MWR. Now, Truex will be heading elsewhere after Furniture Row Racing closes shop after this season.

3. What’s next?

One of the things to watch for with Furniture Row Racing is who buys its charter.

The value of a charter, just like anything, is based on what someone is willing to pay. If there’s only one interested party, the price won’t be as high. If there are more, that can raise the price.

Don’t take what the BK Racing charter (and team) sold for in bankruptcy court last month as an indicator. The team, including the charter, sold for $2 million last month. After a minimum price was set for the charter and team, there was only one bid, leading to a sale that many in the court called disappointing.

One thing that should make Furniture Row’s charter is its recent performance. There’s a historical element to charters that have weighted payments based on the performance of the team that held that charter. With Furniture Row Racing’s championship last year, this charter will have a larger payment to the next owner.

4. Unique attraction

The NASCAR weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway began with a USAC National Midget race on Thursday night.

A quarter-mile dirt track was built inside Turn 3 and more than 100 USAC midgets entered the event.

Holding races leading up to a NASCAR weekend is not a new thing but showing this dirt track series is. With a push toward grassroots racing, such options could be good tie-ins with race weekends — as long as fans show up. If fans don’t attend, they won’t happen.

The grandstand was full for the midget race, which was won by Brady Bacon and saw Christopher Bell finish fifth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. place 11th.

Many fans were already looking forward to this event returning next year.

5. Special promotion

You might have missed it but Pocono Raceway announced this week that children 12 and under will receive free gate admission while accompanied by an adult to its two Cup races and its IndyCar race in 2019.

Children 12 and under already could attend NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity races for free but this is a step up for the sport.

It provides another avenue to reach out to a younger generation with the hope that those in that group become life-long NASCAR fans.

Admittedly, it’s not something that can be done everywhere. Watkins Glen sold out its grandstands again this year. Darlington Raceway did not announce a sellout for last weekend’s Southern 500 but the stands were close to capacity.

At other tracks where there are open seats, it might be something to consider in the future even if only on a year-to-year basis.

Could be the start of something for Cup races.

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