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NASCAR drivers sound off on the search for star power

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On Thursday night, NASCAR officially crowned its newest Cup champion and its first new most popular driver in 15 years.

Joey Logano was recognized as champion after 10 years in the series, and Chase Elliott won the majority of fan votes after three years (and the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won it 15 years in a row).

The Cup champion and the series’ most popular driver have not synched up in 30 years. It last occurred in 1988 when Hall of Famer Bill Elliott won his only title and the fifth of his record 16 most popular driver awards.

NASCAR has seen a mass exodus of its biggest stars in the last five years with the retirements of four-time champion Jeff Gordon, three-time champion Tony Stewart, Earnhardt, Danica Patrick and Carl Edwards prior to 2018.

Out of that group only Earnhardt won most popular driver.

After Thursday’s banquet, three of the four Championship drivers, including Logano, were asked what they need to do to find and establish themselves as the next big stars in the same vein as those who have recently hung up their helmets.

Here’s what they had to say.

Kevin Harvick

“That’s never going to happen. I think as you look at our sport and you look at the Elliott name and the Earnhardt name, those are names that a guy like myself (a native of California) and Clint Bowyer (Kansas native) and Kyle Larson (California) are never going to overcome. You will never have the Southern, the Southeast fan base that an Earnhardt or an Elliott has. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Kyle Busch

“Changes of the guard always happen. I’m now in my 14th season, something like that, so I’ve been here for a long time. I guess it’s not necessarily my time at the forefront. But I feel as if I’ve learned a tremendous amount and it’s sort of coming down to the point now where you have that opportunity to be able to go out there with all that you’ve learned and now have success.

What do you and the other leaders need to do to establish yourselves as the next Jeff Gordon, Dale Jr., Tony Stewart, etc.?

“Good question, I just think for some reason we’re just not quite getting the same amount of attention that we’ve had years ago. Why that is, I’m not sure. I think the racing is so competitive and some of the most compelling racing in all of motorsports. It’s exciting to me behind the wheel each time. You look at Chicagoland, we don’t have those finishes every week. But people strive for those finishes every week and tell me how many times those finishes have happened in the course of our lifetime. There’s been thousands and thousands of races and there’s probably hundreds of times people talk about great finishes in out sport. It’s just so competitive, everybody wants the picture perfect finish and the excitement of (that) every week.”

Joey Logano

“I think Chase is deserving, a deserving member of that. He does a great job as our most popular driver. … Yeah, we all knew that (he would win). You can tell just by the T-shirts walking around. But like I said in my speech, love me or hate me, the fact that you love NASCAR means the most to me. Honestly, that’s what keeps every one of us that are standing around here employed. That’s a big deal for the growth of our sport. For me, I’m a fan before I was a driver and I’m still a fan before I’m a driver. When you think of what it means just to watch racing and to be a race fan and watching it and enjoying every second of it, that’s me. That’s who I am. I’m passionate about the people that I like and the ones I don’t root for in other sports You have to have that. You have to have ones you really like and the ones you don’t. That’s just part of it. I think being a hard racer, sometimes that’s what brings out the boos. Like I said, that doesn’t bother me because I know they’re passionate people and I like people that are passionate.

On driver personalities

“We have big personalities still, which is great. Everyone has their own. I don’t think we’re as vanilla as you think. There’s plenty of interesting personalities. You got Kyle Busch, he’s got so much personality. It’s great. Everyone is just who they are. I like that part. I like that everyone is who you are and not fake. You obviously want to do the right thing for your sponsors, but still being who you is still most important piece.’

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Jimmie Johnson intrigued with racing IndyCar, sports cars in the future

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After his “mind-blowing” experience driving a Formula One car, Jimmie Johnson said he would be interested in competing in IndyCar and sports car races when he’s done driving NASCAR.

Johnson’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports expires after the 2020 season and he could try other forms of racing then.

“I’ve been approached many times for the Indy 500,” Johnson said Monday after driving a Formula One car as part of a ride swap with Fernando Alonso. “I’m not overly excited about those fast ovals, but I think with my status and relationships, I could put together some road course races in IndyCar.

“I’d look at anything. I’ve done sports car racing in the past. I’ve finished second in the Rolex 24. Would love to get back to doing that. Anything is open. I’m far from done. I want to keep driving and hopefully I can find some good opportunities.”

The 43-year-old Johnson knows age will slow him at some point but he says not yet. 

“Certainly age is a number and at some point it will start to fade on you, but I think most drivers deeper in their career, the workload that goes with it is what they don’t enjoy,” Johnson said. “For whatever reason, I like to work. From training and suffering, the longer the ride, the longer the run, the better I perform. I just really enjoy working. I don’t subscribe to that you get to a certain age and you can’t do it. I think you get to a certain age and it’s hard to stay motivated to put in the time and I don’t feel like I’m there yet.”

Three of the top four drivers in points in IndyCar last year were age 37 or older, led by 38-year-old series champion Scott Dixon. Tony Kanaan, who turns 44 on Dec. 31, will return to A.J. Foyt Racing for his 21st season of open-wheel racing in the U.S.

Johnson’s focus Monday was on driving a 2013 Formula One car around Bahrain International Circuit. Alonso drove one of Johnson’s Cup cars.

“The sensation of speed, clearly the speed is so high,” the seven-time Cup champion said. “The simulator was a really nice experience, great visual aid but to have the wind moving by and your sensation of speed and G-forces, it takes a little while to kind of absorb that and have the newness of that go away and focus on what you’re doing. I felt like every time I went out, my surroundings went slower and it was easier to piece together my braking points.

“Literally my first outing, my helmet was trying to leave my head, and I was staring at the microphone because my helmet was so high. I got my helmet under control and it was really my eyes trying to find their way far enough ahead and far enough around the turns. At the end, I really quit focusing on the braking markers themselves and was able to look at the apex (of the turns) and had an idea of when to hit the brakes and was able to put together some good laps. It was fun.”

Johnson said the experience could help him when NASCAR races on its road course events.

“Just the philosophy of how the use the car under brakes will be really good for me in the road course racing we will do,” he said. “I will start trying to get more out of the car on the straight line and then get off the brakes … and roll the car through the apex.”

Johnson admits “at the end of the day I got a way better swap experience than (Alonso) did. If we could come for a day or two, get our gearing dialed in, do some suspension changes, the proper tire, the (stock car) could have been quite a bit faster. I rode in a car with him at Abu Dhabi on hot laps and then again today and he should be a dirt racer. He loves to be sideways and smoking the tires.”

Johnson said he encouraged Alonso to drive a stock car on a NASCAR track to get the true experience of the car.

“When you can put them on a banked track, they really have the chance to shine,” Johnson said. “Dover, Bristol, even some of the banked mile-and-a-halves, really impressive. We’ll put a little pressure on him to do it. The way he likes to drive things I don’t see why he would say no.”

Johnson was asked if Alonso would do well on NASCAR’s road courses.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson said. “When you look at Juan (Pablo Montoya), when Juan was able to jump in a Cup car, he was fantastic on those tracks. In talking to Dario (Franchitti), in talking to Juan and Danica (Patrick), they don’t drive a car often with oversteer, so I assume that would be something (Alonso) wouldn’t like, but every time I looked he was dead sideways. Maybe he’s the perfect open-wheel driver to go to a stock car.”

Alonso said his focus for the first part of 2019 will be on the select races he will do, including the Indianapolis 500.

Asked if he could imagine what it would be like to drive a stock car at Daytona International Speedway with 39 other cars, Alonso said: “I told Jimmie before, it’s hard to imagine for me now after the feelings I had today with the very low grip and a lot of problems with traction how this car would feel on oval racing because they are no more traction demanding. That I think is a very different way to drive the car.”

Will Alonso jump in a stock car again?

“For now, it’s OK,” he said. “I have now a couple of weeks off but then immediately at the beginning of the year I will be very busy. I don’t want to put any extra tests or thoughts because I really need to charge the battery.”

Don’t worry, ‘Big 3’ don’t plan on retiring anytime soon

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Over the last two days, the Bristol Motor Speedway media center hosted two news conferences for NASCAR drivers who just announced they were retiring from full-time competition after this season.

Elliott Sadler was first on Thursday. The 43-year-old Xfinity driver announced his time was up after 22 full-time seasons in Cup and Xfinity since 1997.

Kasey Kahne followed on Friday, as the 38-year-old Cup driver will end his full-time career after he made his Xfinity debut in 2002. His first Cup season was in 2004.

Kahne and Sadler both cited spending time with family as a deciding factor in making their choices.

Their decisions to step away from racing full time in NASCAR are the latest in a slew of drivers who have announced their retirements since 2015, including Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Danica Patrick and Greg Biffle.

Is it just a matter of timing, with drivers who entered NASCAR around the same time taking their leave together?

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Sadler said. “I don’t know if it’s one thing. NASCAR is a grueling schedule. It’s a long schedule. I just think quality of life nowadays is something we’re thinking more about, and I’m sure there are more top-name guys to retire in the next two to three years.”

Don’t expect the “Big 3” of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. to hang it up in the near future.

Busch, 33, is in his 14th full-time Cup season and has a few reasons to keep racing, including dollar signs.

“I’ve asked my accountant that question and he says I’m screwed,” Busch replied when asked if he could retire before reaching his 40s. “I’ve got to keep going. I’ve got way too much debt, so unfortunately, I don’t think I can retire as soon as the rest of those guys are currently at the moment, but we’ll see how things go in the future with what I’ve got going on.

“We’ve gone through a lot of change over the years with packages and cars and things like that in the Cup Series, and I’ve been around for a few of them, maybe not as many as some other guys like Jimmie (Johnson), most notably, and Kurt (Busch). It still feels like there’s some opportunity to excel, and you hope that you can excel. Obviously, the better drivers, the more talented drivers should always shine and come to the top and maybe we can still have that opportunity with whatever new package is coming – if it is coming. We’ll see what happens in that regard.”

Harvick, 42 and in his 18th Cup season, also made clear it clear he’ll be around for the foreseeable future.

Harvick gave his answer in the middle of response to a question about whether he was surprised about Kahne’s retirement announcement.

“It’s a constant evaluation of the things that you do,” Harvick said. “We’re going through the same type of evaluation and how you spend your time and the way that you manage your time. I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Are you retiring?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m not retiring,’ but you’re going to a lot of decisions come out that make you think that I am, but it’s really all about making sure that you have your time managed and do things that make sure that family is first and racing.  We’ll worry about the retirement thing in a few years when we have to start thinking about that stuff.”

Truex, 38 and in his 13th season, also said “I don’t plan on retiring anytime soon,” even with questions surrounding his future at Furniture Row Racing.

“Obviously, it’s getting tougher and a lot more challenging each season to bring in the sponsorship and bring in the dollars it takes to be competitive so that requires more work from us,” Truex said. “I think if you’re not running good, it’s just hard to deal with it all. For me, having fun and doing what we’re doing and hopefully we can keep it up like I said earlier and keep things rolling. Definitely busy schedules and look, some of these guys have been racing since they were 6, 7, 8 years old and they have families and they want to do some other things. Wish all those guys the best.”

Tony Stewart wants to return to the Indianapolis 500 — and win

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DEARBORN, Mich. – Tony Stewart has an itch to race more often, and the three-time NASCAR champion naturally wants to scratch it at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2019.

Stewart, an Indiana native who grew up dreaming of winning at the Brickyard, hasn’t raced the Indianapolis 500 since 2001 but said Tuesday “it’s not out of the question” that he will return to Indy as soon as next May, which will be broadcast by NBC.

Stewart, who had downplayed the idea of racing the Indy 500 in recent years, said he would want to run at least one IndyCar race before returning.

“If I go, I’m not going just to run it,” said Stewart, who hasn’t had any serious discussion with teams yet. “I don’t want to be a sideshow like Danica (Patrick) was at Indy this year. If I go, I want to go feeling like I’ve got the same opportunity to win that everyone else in the field does.

“It’s an insult to the guys who do it every week to show up and think you’re going to be as good as those guys are. They’re on their game. They know their cars. They know how they need their cars to feel in practice to be good in the race. It’s foolish to think you can just show up and be competitive and have a shot to win.”

Patrick qualified seventh and finished 30th in the 2018 Indy 500, the final start of her career.

Stewart has five starts in the Indianapolis 500, starting on pole as a rookie in 1996 and leading 64 laps in a career-best fifth in 1997.

He believes he could be in winning form with the right team and a little time to knock off the rust.

“One race might not be enough to feel like you’re where you need to be,” he said. “But at least little things like pit stops and having that much duration of time in the seat to make sure no points or parts of the seat are pinching — things when you’re only in it for 10 minutes you don’t notice, but two hours you notice it. Those are things to sort out once you get there.”

Asked if it was important to run well because his return would make him the focus, Stewart said, “I don’t give two (craps) about the focus.

“I care about running well in the car. I don’t want to be the circus sideshow. If I do it, that’s not why I’m doing it. If I do it, I’m doing it because I want to win the race.”

The co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, who retired from the Cup Series in 2016 after 17 seasons, caused a stir in the preseason when he said he wanted to run a road course in the Xfinity Series.

Stewart said he looked at it, but he would have had to trade off four sprint car races.

“(It) was a lot to give up,” he said. “I still plan on doing it somewhere down the road if the opportunity is right. If that opportunity does come around and I don’t have four sprint car races on the schedule, I’d definitely like to do it again.”

After a disappointing 2017 in which he struggled in returning to run 45 sprint car races, Stewart has run 62 races so far this year.

“I feel every night I’m in a car, we’re better,” said Stewart, who turned 47 in May. “Our performance is better. We’ve already ran 62 races this year. We’re much better than we were last year.

“The more I race, the better I get. Even on days we’re off, I’m learning things that will help down the road. It’s just getting back in that rhythm again and finally starting to get confidence back as a driver, and feel like I’m ready to start doing some stuff.”

After a deal fell apart to put him in a Ford seat for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Stewart said the world’s most famous endurance race also remains on his radar.

“Everything’s a possibility,” he said. “There’s nothing I’ve written off and said, ‘You know what, I’m never doing it.’ Everything is an opportunity still. I’m getting anxious to do stuff again.”

With possibly one exception – Formula One.

Even though NASCAR partner Gene Haas has a team, Stewart said it literally wouldn’t be a good fit.

“That’s going to be a tough one,” he said. “(F1 drivers are) skinny. I don’t mind working hard to be a race car driver, but I don’t want to have to work that hard just to be skinny. I like to eat still.”

What’s next for Danica Patrick after the Indy 500? Dreams, downtime and waffles

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Danica Patrick was a 14-year-old growing up in Roscoe, Illinois, she had a firm idea of what she’d be doing 20 years later.

A reporter from her hometown newspaper recently reminded her of that in a recent interview when he brought a prescient artifact from those teenage years – an essay that she crafted as an up and coming go-kart driver about her racing accomplishments.

“I’m breezing through it, and then at the end, it said, ‘I wanted to race Indy cars,” Patrick, 36, said Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I was 14. I told him, ‘See? If this isn’t an example of “Write that shit down,” nothing is.’

“This is manifesting. You have write it down and you have to imagine what you want. So I do that as much as I can.”

Heading into the final start of her career in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, Patrick already seems to have a solid idea of the next 20 years — in part, because of having some glimpses into her post-racing life.

There has been plenty of downtime since her final NASCAR start in the Daytona 500 three months ago. She has taken vacations (including an India trip to meet the Dalai Lama with boyfriend Aaron Rodgers) and created several new routines on her suddenly free from racing weekends.

“I make waffles on Sundays now,” she said. “That’s pretty fun.  In the summer, there’s like farmers market.  I can’t wait for that.  I mean, there’s going to be probably some new stuff that I don’t know yet.

“The one thing that I am definitely looking forward to less of is less stress.  Last weekend was awesome at the end of it all because it went well with qualifying, but I was nervous for 95% of that weekend. That’s uncomfortable.”

But testing her comfort zone is appealing to Patrick, who has spent most of her adult life testing the boundaries of gender norms in her profession. Though the pressure of race weekends might disappear, her incessant quest for challenges probably will remain.

Now that racing is over, Patrick still has a winery, a clothing line, a cookbook and a fitness manual to promote – and more is on the way.

“I just have a habit for pushing myself to uncomfortable spaces, making them comfortable for me,” she said. “At least just making them comfortable enough to be able to manage.

“As an example, I went bungee jumping a long while back, like 10 years.  I’m super scared of heights.  I’m still scared of heights.  But I just like to know that if I want to do something, I am brave enough and confident enough to do it.  That doesn’t mean I’m not still scared.  That doesn’t mean it’s not still something that’s easy to me afterward. I just like to know I can get past the fear if I have to.

“I’m OK with transitioning into other things, finding a little bit of happiness and joy each day, less colorization of emotions. I’m ready for that.”

So what specifically is on tap? Talk shows? Another book?

Patrick demurs when pressed.

“I think I have definitely big dreams and aspirations for myself, for all my companies, for the kind of emotion I want to have on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a good, easy, happy, calm, joyful, exciting, adventurous life.  If I say I want it, there’s a very good chance that’s what I’ll get.”

In the short-term, there’s hosting an ESPN awards show that will keep her busy through July.

And after that, her schedule will free up just as Green Bay Packers training camp begins for Rodgers, the two-time MVP quarterback.

“I’m thinking I’m going to have plenty of time to write a cookbook in Green Bay,” she said.