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Cup drivers on the rise

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While much of the talk this week has been about how Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have dominated this season, winning 11 of the first 14 races, they aren’t the only drivers on the rise.

Here’s a look at some drivers who have made gains since earlier in the season:

Kyle Larson

He enters this weekend at Michigan having won the past three Cup races there. He’s been talked about as the driver who could have the best chance of breaking into the club of Harvick, Busch and Truex.

Larson comes into Sunday’s race with four consecutive top-10 finishes, including his runner-up result last weekend at Pocono.

Harvick was complimentary of Larson on Tuesday night on his “Happy Hours” show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“The best young driver in Cup right now is Kyle Larson by a landslide,’’ Harvick said. “He’s carrying a slower car and getting great results with it and he does it by just sheer talent. … He’s the best raw talented driver, and I’ve said this on this show before, that I think has come along since Jeff Gordon.’’

Jimmie Johnson

After scoring one top-10 finish in the season’s first seven races, Johnson has five top-10 finishes in the last seven races. Johnson comes to Michigan after back-to-back top 10s at Charlotte and Pocono. He has not had a top 10 in three consecutive races since his 2016 championship season.

Chase Elliott

He had an average finish of 18.1 through the first eight races of the season. In the last six races, his average finish is 8.3. Elliott has finished no worse than 12th in the last six races.

Matt Kenseth

He’ll make his fifth consecutive start in the No. 6 car for Roush Fenway Racing (including his All-Star appearance). Trevor Bayne returns to the car at Sonoma. Bayne and Kenseth will continue to share the car the rest of the season.

Kenseth has made progress since finishing 36th at Kansas. He was 17th in the Coca-Cola 600 and placed 13th at Pocono.

Kenseth told Dale Earnhardt Jr. last month on the Dale Jr. Download that there’s a good bit of work ahead to help the organization be more competitive.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Kenseth said. “I think, the potential is there, but certainly it’s going to take some work and probably a little more patience and a little more time than maybe I originally thought.’’

Chris Buescher

It has been a difficult year for Buescher and JTG Daugherty Racing teammate AJ Allmendinger. They’ve combined for one top-10 finish since the Daytona 500 when both placed in the top 10.

But Buescher enters Michigan having scored three top-20 finishes in the last five races , including a 17th last week at Pocono, for his best stretch of the season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

He had an average finish of 21.0 though the first nine races of the season.

He’s scored five consecutive top-15 finishes and has an average finish of 11.0 during that stretch.

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Are more limits coming for Cup drivers in Xfinity, Truck Series?

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NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell hinted Monday that a decision could be coming soon on if to further limit Cup drivers next year in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.

O’Donnell, chief racing development officer for NASCAR, made the comments on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Asked about any discussion on Cup drivers in those series beyond this season, O’Donnell said:

I think it’s trying to find that right balance. Some of the tracks we race on don’t have a Monster Energy race and is that a track that maybe one of those drivers could show up and race at? Perhaps.

“More and more the fans are speaking very loudly that they like the rising talent that we have in this series, we do as well, and the established veterans that are there. That is continuing on and we’ll have to make a decision really, really quickly in terms of what we do for 2019. We took a pretty bold step this year and that’s something we’ve got to evaluate and see if we want to go further.’’

NASCAR announced last August that Cup drivers with more than five years full-time experience would be limited to a maximum seven Xfinity races this season (down from 10 in 2017) and a maximum five Camping World Truck Series races (down from seven in 2017).

Also, any driver who elects to score Cup points, regardless of Cup experience, are prohibited from competing in the regular-season finale, the seven playoff races and the four Dash 4 Cash races. That means such drivers are ineligible to compete in 12 of the 33 Xfinity races this season.

Drivers who score Cup points are barred from competing in the last eight Truck races of the season — regular-season finale and the seven playoff races. That means Cup drivers cannot compete in seven of the 23 Truck races.

O’Donnell said in April on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that series officials were monitoring the reaction of fans and others in the sport about limits on Cup drivers in other national series.

“It’s one thing to say we like this, but fans need to turn out, ratings need to be there and those sorts of things,’’ O’Donnell said at the time. “That’s something that we’ll continue to monitor, but our gut tells us that’s the direction we want to continue to go, even more so in 2019 and beyond.’’

Xfinity races run so far by Cup drivers (limit 7) in 2018:

4 – Kyle Busch

4 – Ty Dillon

3 – Austin Dillon 

3 – Chase Elliott

3 – Joey Logano

3 – Jamie McMurray

2 – Ryan Blaney

2 – Kevin Harvick 

2 – Brad Keselowski

2 – Kyle Larson

1 – Aric Almirola

1 – Gray Gaulding

1 – Paul Menard 

1 – Daniel Suarez

NOTE: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon, Paul Menard and Alex Bowman are on preliminary entry list for Michigan Xfinity race.

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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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Momentum building from some drivers to run All-Star package again

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Some Cup drivers are for trying the package used in the All-Star Race again, with one driver saying he’d be for running it again this year.

All-Star winner Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin both spoke highly this week of the racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“The show was better,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show on Tuesday night. “Bottom line, the show was better to watch. Like I say, I don’t know that everyone can wrap around their arms around restrictor-plate racing every single mile-and-a-half race. I think the cars need to be faster. I think we need to figure out which race tracks that we want to race them on because the All-Star Race was a good test, but it wasn’t a 100 percent test of this is where we need to be and everybody just wants to jump right there.’’

As to running the package again this year, Harvick said on his show “Happy Hours” that the decision will have to come from others:

“That’s going to come down to NASCAR and the teams and whether they can financially make that happen and efficiently make that happen with the engine shops and all the people involved. The hardest thing about all of this is how do you do that. If I had to make a choice, and it was my decision, I’d love to see it on the race track in a true environment. In my opinion, we kind of dabbled something out there that everybody tried and looked really great on TV, but what’s going to happen when everybody is prepared, everybody is at the race track, there are 40 cars on the race track. What it’s going to look like then? I don’t think anybody knows.”

Hamlin is open to running the package again this season.

“As a driver, I had fun, I really did,’’ he said Wednesday after unveiling a FedEx Cares paint scheme for his car at Daytona in July.

“Didn’t have the fastest car, but at least there were moments where you had to be very strategic in what you had to do. It was a mix between a normal open race and a superspeedway. … I’d like to see it at a few other tracks. if it came this year, It would definitely be OK by me.’’

So where to run it?

“I think Michigan is the perfect race track for it honestly,’’ Hamlin said. “There’s no better track that I can think of than Michigan to have a package like this. Pocono would be another great candidate for it. Anywhere you got long straightaways where drafting could be a big factor would be a good place for this package to go.’’

The Xfinity Series is scheduled to run a similar package at Pocono (June 2) and Michigan (June 9).

If NASCAR chose to run the package in Cup at Michigan on June 10, what kind of challenge would it be for teams to make the switch?

“I think JGR and Toyota could actually do it and probably be at the forefront as anybody, but I think the engine package is probably a bigger concern,’’ said Mike Wheeler, crew chief for Hamlin, noting that engines are done further ahead of time. “I think as far as setups and tire data and areo data, we can get there pretty quickly. I’m not sure about other teams. Ultimately we didn’t have the parts to play with to do the testing beforehand. We would do that before we went there with points on the line.’’

Harvick suggested this package actually could be used elsewhere.

“I think that this would be a great Daytona and Talladega package,’’ he said. “It would be great to see the Daytona and Talladega package to be able to be the same type of package that you run at Indy, Pocono and Michigan, so that you could have the engines be able to be used. If you had to adjust the spoiler size and maybe the splitter size here and there to be able to get the speeds where you want them to be, instead of adjusting the engine, I think that would be more efficient for the teams.

“It’s still going to come down to a dollar and cents type of thing. In the end, the teams are the ones that flipped the bill to put on the show. … How do we make it efficient for the teams?’’

Richard Buck, managing director for the Monster Energy Cup Series, said “we’ve heard a lot of great response from the fans.’’

But he cautioned Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio of doing too much too soon with the package.

“There’s a lot to digest there and that’s what we’ll do, we’re only a couple of days removed from the event,” he said. “There’s still a lot of data to look at. It definitely passed the eye-ball test.

“We’ll circle back with the industry. We’ve got some of the brightest minds and engineers and engines builders and manufacturers and we’ll all collectively take a look at it and start working on the details of what was good and what could be better and we’ll take that into the future for sure.’’

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Kevin Harvick says NASCAR should share any gambling revenue with teams

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Former Cup champion Kevin Harvick wants NASCAR to share any gambling revenue with teams and not keep the money itself.

The Supreme Court’s decision Monday to strike down a 1992 federal law that banned commercial sports betting has states seeking to allow such gaming as soon as possible and leagues looking to collect money off it.

“I want my team to be taken care of,” Harvick said Tuesday night on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. “That’s really the main thing that kind of falls into line here is something of a share in revenue comes down the pipe and even if it is a 1 percent share of revenue, I don’t want it all to go to the league. I think it should be shared with the teams.’’

Harvick said on his show “Happy Hours” that any revenue would be good for teams and help make them — and their charters — more valuable.

“I want to see a business model that works for the current owners and takes these charters from being what they are today to being what something of an NBA franchise or an NFL franchise (is),’’ said Harvick, who closed his racing team after the 2011 season. “I’m not saying from a dollar standpoint but just from (the point that) somebody that can afford to come in and own a race team to say ‘I want to do that because it’s really not going to cost me that much money and down the road it might be worth ‘X’ as we go further down the line.’

“That’s the point we have to get to if you want to make it a real league and make it so that the charters are worth what they need to be. This would be another example of getting that revenue stream a little bit better than what it is today.’’

The NBA has stated it seeks an “integrity fee” of 1 percent of the amount wagered on any of its events. Other leagues also are expected to seek such payment.

Harvick, who has won a series-high five races this year, said NASCAR shouldn’t be left out.

“If we could do something like that, that would be great for everybody,’’ he said.

Harvick also wants to see other changes to the revenue stream for teams. He noted the TV money that comes into the sport. Currently, tracks collect 65 percent, teams receive 25 percent and NASCAR takes 10 percent of the TV money.

International Speedway Corp., citing leading industry sources, stated in its 2017 annual report that the sport’s TV package is valued $8.2 billion over 10 years. The deal goes through the 2024 season.

ISC stated in its 2017 annual report that it received approximately $337.4 million in fiscal year 2017 from TV broadcast and ancillary rights fees.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. stated in its 2017 annual report that it expects its broadcasting revenue to be about $217 million for 2018.

“I think that there should be a bigger piece of the pie that comes out of the TV money that goes to the teams because that’s really the root of Cup racing,” Harvick said. “If you don’t have the teams, and you don’t have those owners that are in there in the garage wanting to be there, then we all don’t have anything to race.’’

Michael Waltrip Racing folded after the 2015 season. Roush Fenway Racing downsized from four to three teams in 2013 and then cut back to two teams in 2017. Richard Childress Racing went from three to two teams for this season. Furniture Row Racing went from two teams to one for this year. BK Racing filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February and recently listed total liabilities as $37.7 million.

Team Penske grew from two to three Cup teams this year. StarCom Racing debuted with two races last year and is running the full season this year, leasing a charter from Richard Childress Racing.

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