Friday 5: ‘Chaotic’ qualifying is entertaining and shouldn’t change

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Last week’s Cup qualifying at Las Vegas Motor Speedway raised the question of is qualifying more about entertainment or sport?

It was fascinating to watch cars parked on pit road and drivers waiting for someone to go because nobody wanted to be the lead car. They all wanted to be in the draft.

While that took place, spotters counted down the time remaining in the session.

It became a game of who would blink first and take off.

When it was time to go, there was chaos. Cars darted around each other. In the final round, Joey Logano went four-wide on pit road. Ricky Stenhouse passed Logano on the inside and left pit road ahead of him.

“Is chaos a bad thing?” Logano asked NBC Sports’ Jerry Bonkowski this week. “I think that’s the question we have to ask ourselves. Is it chaos? Yes. Is it entertaining? Oh yeah, it’s entertaining, there’s a lot going on. So I don’t know if it’s wrong and we should be changing much.

“I think there’s a couple safety aspects we can add to pit road while we’re jockeying around for position and stuff like that. But as far as the entertainment value, will you get the lap in before the clock runs out, will you get a big enough draft, will they all go out for a second time and you get a big pack again, are they going to knock somebody out of the round? That’s good.

“I don’t know why we would change much of that, I think it’s OK. Yeah, it’s a little chaotic, it’s crazy and none of us has it figured out or scienced out the way we want to have it yet, but that’s competition, that’s just what it is.”

Logano is right. While there was a randomness to who won the pole at Las Vegas, qualifying was as entertaining as any session in recent years.

What happened last week was reminiscent of qualifying at Talladega in October 2014. NASCAR divided teams into two groups for the opening round and each had five minutes. The top 24 overall times advanced.

Most cars stayed on pit road until they hit their cutoff mark to complete two laps. Not everyone made it. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier were among the cars that didn’t make it to the start/finish line before the session ended. Their fastest laps didn’t count. They both failed to qualify. It’s the only race Stenhouse has failed to make since his 2013 rookie Cup season.

These days, 36 chartered cars are guaranteed a starting spot. That prevents a situation Stenhouse experienced five years ago with a well-funded team.

But that doesn’t ease all the angst. Some competitors were frustrated at Las Vegas because the draft negates who has the fastest car. It’s all about being in the right place to draft and turn the quickest lap. Being in that position can be as much luck as skill.

What happens in qualifying can impact the race. Teams pick pit stalls based on their starting spot. A poor qualifying effort can lead to issues in the race.

Logano is aware of that. He qualified 27th at Atlanta and his team had limited options on where to pick their pit stall. Crew chief Todd Gordon chose a stall behind Alex Bowman’s pit and in front of Martin Truex Jr.’s pit.

Rarely do strong teams pit next to each other because they don’t want to have to go around a car to enter their stall or be blocked in by the car in front. Logano faced that situation at Atlanta. He lost more than 10 spots on each of his first two pit stops because he couldn’t get around Bowman’s car to exit his stall.

That leads back to the question of should qualifying be about entertainment or sport?

The decision today will be easy. The fastest car will be rewarded because teams are not expected to draft.

This issue that will come up again in the coming weeks, though, when the series heads to Auto Club Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

“Texas, I don’t know,” Logano said. “I think there’s going to be parts of the track that you want to draft and parts of the track when you’re going to want clean air. When you get to Turns 1 and 2, you’re going to want some air on the car to be able to get through the corner with as much wide open time as possible. That one’s a real question for me.

“I think Kansas is a no-brainer, you’re definitely going to be drafting. As for Fontana, it’ll be interesting. I think there’s going to be some drafting going on there, but I think it’ll be split up a little bit, kind of like the way Atlanta was, kinda 50-50.”

There’s no splitting this issue. It’s about entertainment. Let chaos reign in qualifying.

2. Second to Kyle Busch

For all the wins Kyle Busch has amassed in his NASCAR career, there is a recurring theme.

The runner-up to Busch in more than a third of the 197 races he’s won across Cup, Xfinity and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series has been one of five drivers.

Kyle Busch celebrating a NASCAR win has been a familiar sight through the years. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The driver who has finished runner-up to Busch the most in those races is Kevin Harvick. He’s done so 18 times — five times in Cup, 10 times in Xfinity and three times in Trucks. The total equates to 9.1 percent of the time Busch has won a NASCAR race, Harvick has been second.

Carl Edwards is next on the list with 15 runner-up finishes to Busch. He’s followed by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano with 13-runner-up finishes. Next is Kyle Larson, who has placed second to Busch eight times.

Combined, Harvick, Edwards, Keselowski, Logano and Larson have finished second to Busch in 67 of his 197 wins (34 percent).

They are among the 60 drivers who have placed second to Busch in a race he won. The list includes three NASCAR Hall of Fame members (Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ron Hornaday Jr.), two Indianapolis 500 winners (Sam Hornish Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya) and drivers who have combined to win 48 NASCAR titles in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks.

The list could grow this weekend. Busch is entered in both the Cup and Xfinity races at Phoenix.

Here is who has finished second to Busch in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks races and how often:

18 — Kevin Harvick

15 — Carl Edwards

13 — Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

8 — Kyle Larson

7 — Todd Bodine, Matt Crafton

6 — Erik Jones, Johnny Sauter

5 — Greg Biffle, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Ron Hornaday Jr., Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart

4 — Jeff Burton, Austin Dillon

3 — Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Daniel Suarez, Martin Truex Jr.

2 — Mike Bliss, Terry Cook, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, John Hunter Nemechek, Timothy Peters, David Reutimann, Elliott Sadler

1 — Justin Allgaier, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Trevor Bayne, James Buescher, Kurt Busch, Colin Braun, Jeb Burton, Brendan Gaughan, David Gilliland, Jeff Gordon, Daniel Hemric, Sam Hornish Jr., Parker Kligerman, Jason Leffler, Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Brett Moffitt, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, Nelson Piquet Jr., Ryan Preece, Brian Scott, Reed Sorenson, Brian Vickers, Bubba Wallace, Cole Whitt

3. Multiple surgeries

Tanner Thorson, who competed in 11 Gander Outdoors Truck Series races last season, is recovering after he was involved in a highway crash early Monday morning in Modesto, California.

The 2016 U.S. Auto Club national champion had surgery Monday night for a broken left arm, according to the USAC Racing. Thorson had surgery Wednesday on his broken right foot. He also suffered a cracked sternum, broken ribs and a punctured lung, according to USAC Racing. The organization said that Thorson’s family hopes the 22-year-old can return home soon.

According to a preliminary investigation by the California Highway Patrol, Thorson was driving a 2019 Ford pickup that was towing his sprint car when he approached slower moving traffic shortly before 4 a.m. PT. Thorson’s truck struck the rear of a vehicle. KCRA, an NBC affiliate in Sacramento, reported that vehicle was a milk truck.

The impact sent the milk truck into the next lane where it was hit by another vehicle and then came back across the road and was struck another car. The driver was uninjured. A passenger in the truck was transported from the scene with minor injuries, according to the California Highway Patrol. Thorson’s vehicle came to rest on the shoulder and caught fire.

4. First time in new garages at Phoenix

ISM Raceway at Phoenix debuted its new garages and layout when NASCAR raced there in November.

One person missing that weekend was Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick. NASCAR suspended Childers the final two races of last year as part of penalties imposed to the No. 4 team for failing inspection after its win at Texas. So Childers missed the new look at Phoenix – until this weekend.

Childers shared his excitement of being in Phoenix on Thursday night.

5. Remarkable record

Kevin Harvick has finished in the top five in half of the 32 Cup races he’s run at Phoenix. He has nine wins there. Jimmie Johnson has 15 top-five finishes in 31 Cup races there. He has four wins there.

Despite the dominance of the two, they have combined for one win (by Harvick) in the last five races at Phoenix. The other winners in the last five races at Phoenix are Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.

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Daytona Winners & Losers

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Each week, we’ll look at those who had success and those who didn’t. Here’s this week’s look back at the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying:

Winners

Jimmie Johnson — While his Clash victory doesn’t count as an official Cup win, he was back in Victory Lane for the first time since 2017.

Souvenir collectors — There was a lot of sheet metal damaged in the 17-car crash just before the rain ended the Clash.

Tyler Reddick & Casey Mears — Both guaranteed starting spots for their unchartered cars in Daytona 500 qualifying. They won’t have to worry about where they finish in their qualifying race Thursday.

Hendrick Motorsports — Its cars swept the front row for the Daytona 500 with William Byron on the pole and Alex Bowman second and then Jimmie Johnson wins the Clash.

Losers

Jimmie Johnson — Did Johnson’s contact with Paul Menard open the door for Menard to pay him back? If so, the pay back could be worse. This happened in a non-points race, should Menard repay Johnson, it would likely happen in a points race.

Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman & Kevin Harvick — Involved in two wrecks in two days. Tough way to start Speedweeks.

Fabricators — 21 Cup cars were involved in accidents in the first two days of Speedweeks. A lot of good work was destroyed. 

Bootie Barker to serve as crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing ARCA team

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Joe Gibbs Racing has hired former Cup crew chief Bootie Barker to lead its ARCA program and work with driver Riley Herbst, who finished fifth in the standings last year as a rookie.

“This is an incredible opportunity for me and I am incredibly grateful to join the team here at Joe Gibbs Racing,” Barker said in a statement from the team. “I am just getting to know Riley and from what I can tell, he is a great kid with an unlimited amount of potential. We obviously want to win the championship this year, but we have a goal of improving each and every day.”

Barker had been with Germain Racing from the second half of the 2009 season to last year. Among the drivers he worked with were Casey Mears and Ty Dillon. Barker first was a Cup crew chief in 2003 with Dave Blaney.

“I am super excited to have “Bootie” Barker come on board with the No. 18 team this year,” Herbst said in a statement from the team. “He is going to bring a tremendous amount of experience that this team can use to assist our program. It is amazing to see what he has accomplished over his career and I am thrilled to work alongside of him. Heading into my second year, I believe that we will be competing for the ARCA Series title in 2018.”

Joe Gibbs Racing stated that Shannon Rursch, who had been Herbst’s crew chief last year, will transition to a new role as its ARCA/Development Program Advisor. He will work alongside Herbst and Barker on the ARCA program and also work with JGR development driver Ty Gibbs.

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Casey Mears likely to split 2018 between NASCAR, Global Rallycross and Stadium Super Trucks

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Casey Mears still plans to compete part-time in NASCAR in 2018, but he’s also looking to expand his racing horizons.

The veteran NASCAR driver told The Checkered Flag recently that he also expects to race in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series, as well as Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series.

“Right now I’m talking to a few NASCAR programs to do maybe limited stuff,” Mears told The Checkered Flag. “I don’t have anything that would be a full-time ride in a NASCAR series.

“I’ve been speaking with Robby Gordon in the Stadium Super Truck program. I think that’s a really cool up-and-coming-series and I’d definitely like to be involved with the GRC. It looks like a lot of fun.

“I think there’s enough difference between all those that it could leave room for doing a bit of both so we’ll see how it works out.”

Mears did not race in the Cup Series in 2017, having lost his ride at the end of 2016 to Ty Dillon in the No. 13 Geico Chevy. He has amassed 488 starts and one win (2007 Coca-Cola 600) in his Cup career, along with 13 top fives and 51 top 10s.

However, he did compete on a part-time basis in 2017 in the Xfinity Series, making 14 starts, with season-best finishes of ninth place at both Richmond and Road America. He also has 107 Xfinity starts with one win, 16 top fives and 34 top 10s.

NASCAR team owner says sport should enact a spending cap

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Andrew Murstein, co-owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, says NASCAR team owners need to agree to a spending cap to create a “level playing field’’ in the Cup Series.

“Every single league has a cap now these days, it creates a level playing field,’’ Murstein told NBC Sports. “It’s salaries … its wind-tunnel time, it’s the whole kit and caboodle. It’s better for the fans, I think, if there is a level playing field. No one can outspend the other guy. It’s better for the owners. It creates more competition, more excitement.’’

Murstein’s comments might seem hollow in a season that has seen 10 consecutive different winners heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Watkins Glen International. Nine different teams have won Cup races this year with no organization winning more than four races.

That balance appears to be an anomaly. In nine of the previous 10 seasons, one organization won more than 25 percent of the races each year. Joe Gibbs Racing won 38.9 percent of the races in 2015 — the highest percentage since Hendrick Motorsports won 50 percent of the races in 2007 with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears.

Murstein, founder and president of Medallion Financial Corp., said he raised his points about a spending cap to NASCAR Chairman Brian France at a dinner last month in New York that included John Tisch, owner of the NFL’s New York Giants.

“(Tisch) was shedding a lot of light on why that league was so successful,” Murstein said, “both from fan interests and from the economics of the sport.’’

Murstein said France appeared open to his ideas “if we came up with some more details.’’

NASCAR has stated that its three most important components are safety, competition and costs. The sanctioning body has created a number of rules, including limits on engines used during a race weekend and tires that teams can purchase for an event to help owners cut costs. For the third consecutive weekend, Cup teams are on track two days instead of three, helping cut a day of travel expenses. Last weekend, owners had to submit votes on potential rule changes intended to help defray costs and balance competition.

Murstein, whose company was involved in the purchase of Richard Petty Motorsports in late 2010, said he would like to see more done toward an overall cap on spending. Such a move would be revolutionary for a sport where owners do not share their financial information and athlete contracts are kept secret.

“I think this sport needs to start coming up with revolutionary concepts, so they have to leave the past in the past and they have start looking to the future,’’ Murstein said.

Because teams are not the same size, there would have different cap amounts. It would be unreasonable to have Richard Petty Motorsports, which is fielding one team this year, have the exact same cap as Joe Gibbs Racing, which fields four cars. Still, proportional caps could be created for each team to help keep costs in line. Murstein suggested independent auditors could monitor the spending.

Should teams spend beyond their limits, Murstein has a plan. A luxury tax.

“Kind of punish the ones that don’t care about spending and that extra money goes into a pool that would help the other owners, and hopefully they would use their money to make their cars more competitive, too,’’ Murstein said.

While Murstein is looking to cut costs, he understands that drivers are underpaid relative to other athletes. As teams struggle to find sponsorship, driver contracts take a hit.

With the new generation of racers, it’s easier for an owner to go with a younger driver, who can cost less, than a veteran. Former champion Matt Kenseth does not have a ride for next year. Stewart-Haas Racing did not pick up the option on former champion Kurt Busch’s contract for next year but tweeted it still expected him to drive for the team next year.

“I do think that even the older drivers, when they come off their contracts, they’re seeing the reality of the sport today and they’re willing to take pay cuts,’’ said Murstein, whose team seeks to renew deals with sponsor Smithfield and driver Aric Almirola. “It’s one sport where there are so few seats. NBA athletes, there’s what 30 teams, about 360 professional athlete. Here you’re talking about 40. It’s probably the hardest sport to be a superstar in.

“I see hockey guys who play a third of the game make $17 million a year. Now you’re talking about (drivers) who are 10th best in the world at what they do getting only salaries of $5 million, so I actually think their salaries are low compared to other sports but the business needs that right now with the sponsorship decline.

“I love the fact of how no other sport has a partner with the athletes where here the athletes get 40 percent of the race winnings. So each race they go into as your partner vs. other sports where they win or lose, it makes no difference at all.

“There are a lot of bright sports in NASCAR, too. I’m just trying, as the new kid on the block, to throw new ideas out there. Some of them will get knocked down right away, which they should because I don’t have the experience that a lot of these other team owners do, but they have to start thinking, in my view, of new and better ways to get the fans interested.’’

Murstein said he understands a cap likely won’t be instituted soon. He admits it could start with more standardized parts for teams.

“I think you probably settle that you’re going to start at parts and pieces but that’s the wrong way to do it, which is probably what will happen,’’ Murstein told NBC Sports. “I think it will happen because it will be the easy one to do. It won’t remove the 800-pound gorilla, which is all the other costs involved and dealing with that. Maybe you tippy-toe into it by starting that way and then eventually you look at the overall spending.

“The sport could even evolve years from now where there’s one manufacturer making all the Toyota cars. That’s the way I actually think it should be. That’s 100 percent the way it should be.’’

For teams that provide chassis to other teams, it seems unlikely they would want to give up a way to make money.

“At some point there’s a tipping point, you have so start looking past … I think you’ve got to point the sport back in the right direction,’’ Murstein said. “It’s a fantastic sport. I go to every other sporting event in the world and none parallel NASCAR, but the direction of it right now needs to be, I think, spun a little bit differently.

“It could happen if the owners get together and I’m sure the ownership of NASCAR would be behind it, so I think it’s more an ownership issue than a NASCAR issue.’’

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