Friday 5: Will 2021 Cup schedule add more short tracks, road courses?

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With the 2020 Cup schedule receiving positive reviews from many fans, the expectations for the 2021 schedule grow bigger.

While there will be talk of ending the season sooner, whether any tracks lose dates and if doubleheaders will be used more often, just as big of a question will be where the short track and road course events come from that fans want to see more of in the future?

Iowa Speedway could be an option. And there’s plenty of talk about Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee. But are there others that are feasible and could make the upgrades necessary to host NASCAR’s top series?

What about road courses? Would Indianapolis Motor Speedway be better off holding its Cup race on the road course? Or would it make sense to put a Cup race at Mid-Ohio or Road America or Canadian Tire Motorsports Park?

There’s excitement with the 2020 schedule because NASCAR mixed up the races among the same tracks. That’s all NASCAR could do because the five-year sanctioning agreements with tracks go through the 2020 season. After that year, NASCAR has the ability to make more radical changes to the schedule.

Denny Hamlin says that as NASCAR looks at revamping the schedule, one thing must remain constant.

“I love the idea of more short track racing for sure,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “I just want to make sure that the tracks are investing the proper money to make sure their facilities are good.”

In other words, make sure there are premier facilities for the premier series in NASCAR.

“It’s hard to sell this is big time if it doesn’t appear that way,” he said.

2. Will Texas be a true indication of the top teams?

Now that teams have had a little time to take what they learned from the West Coast swing and work on their cars, will the gap between Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing to the rest of the field shrink?

NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton suggests on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan that some teams could close the margin.

“I heard Clint Bowyer make a comment on the West Coast swing and he’s like, ‘Look we know we’ve got to get better, but it’s going to be hard to do it now. There’s things that we can’t evolve in our cars, there’s not enough time,’ ” Burton said. “So I think potentially that Texas is a place where you can see not just Stewart-Haas Racing but other teams improve as well. … They learned at Vegas. They learned at Atlanta. They learned at (Auto Club), and I think you’ll see teams pop up.”

Among the teams to watch this weekend:

Will this be the weekend Stewart-Haas Racing scores its first victory of the season. The organization has had at least one car finish in the top five in each race since the Daytona 500.

Hendrick Motorsports has not had a car finish better than ninth at Atlanta (1.5-mile track), Las Vegas (1.5) and Auto Club Speedway (2-mile track) this season. Can that organization get a car into the top five at Texas?

Richard Childress Racing has shown speed — Austin Dillon won the pole at Auto Club Speedway and started fourth at Las Vegas — but can that translate into stronger runs? Dillon finished 20th Las Vegas and overcame illness to finish 10th at Auto Club.

JTG Daugherty Racing’s Chris Buescher placed ninth at Atlanta, 18th at Las Vegas and 16th at Auto Club Speedway. That’s been a good start for that organization but how much better can it be?

“We spent a lot more time, a lot of resources and at JTG getting everything ready to hit the ground running to make sure we were prepared for this season,” he said. “It worked out really good to start. We’ve got to stay ahead of it. I promise, nobody is sitting idle at this point. We’re still trying to figure out how to make our cars better each and every week.”

3. Same old, same old?

NASCAR announced modifications to group qualifying this week. The biggest change was an incentive to make a lap in each round after all 12 cars in the final round at Auto Club Speedway failed to complete a lap before time expired.

Cars sit on pit road during the final round of Cup qualifying at Auto Club Speedway. Photo: Fox Sports

Now, if a car fails to record a lap in a round of qualifying because the team waited too long, the car will start at the back of the field.

With the draft still a factor, will the rule make much of a difference this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway?

“I don’t think it will be much different from what we’ve seen in the past,” Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports about what he expects qualifying to look like today. “I don’t know that it will be such a detriment to be the first car out because I think Turn 1 and 2, they are so quirky in the sense that it’s really one lane. I don’t know if you will want to be back in the pack or so. 

“I think (Turns) 3 and 4 will be … more wide open and you’ve got all the grip you need so you want to be behind someone. I’m not sure you want to be behind someone in (Turns) 1 and 2. It’s such a flat corner. It really depends on whether that (traction compound) works the way we think.

“My general feeling is that teams will overreact and make sure we leave extra early, and then there will be an opportunity for us, the guys that really push the limit will get the pole, the ones that decide to lay back.”

4. Back behind the wheel

Greg Biffle, who last competed in Cup in 2016, ran 14 laps Thursday at Texas Motor Speedway in Kyle Busch’s truck. Biffle did this as preparation for the June 7 Gander Outdoors Truck Series race he’ll compete in for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He and Busch had talked for a while about doing this. 

As of now, it’s a one-race opportunity.

Greg Biffle talks to the media after running 14 laps in the first of two Truck practice sessions Thursday for Kyle Busch Motorsports. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I could be talked into some more,” said Biffle, a former Truck and Xfinity series champion. 

While he might consider running more Truck races, he’ll need to fit it into his schedule of racing.

He will compete in the SVRA vintage and historic event this weekend at Road Atlanta and a couple of others this season. He also will take part in four off-road competitions with his UTV sand drag.

He’ll also drive in the 24 Hours of Lemons race April 27-28 at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, South Carolina. Those are races with cars that have been bought and track-prepared for $500 or less (not including safety equipment, brakes and wheels/tires).

“The last 24-hour race I did was the Rolex 24 in Daytona (in 2005 where his team finished 15th overall), so this will be a lot of fun,” Biffle said. “I don’t know why I wanted to do it, but it just sounded like a lot of fun.”

5. Racing for a bonus 

The top four finishers in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway will qualify for the first Dash 4 Cash event the following weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The highest finishing eligible driver in a Dash 4 Cash race wins a $100,000 bonus. The four Dash 4 Cash races will be Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Dover. Also, any driver that collects points in the Cup series is not eligible to compete in Dash 4 Cash races.

Nate Ryan contributed to this report 

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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Ford looks to party in Indianapolis like it’s 1999

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway was once a happy place for Ford’s NASCAR efforts.

In the early years of the Brickyard 400, the blue oval was a regular presence in Victory Lane at 2.5-mile track, winning three of four races thanks to Dale Jarrett (1996, 1999) and Ricky Rudd (1997).

Then the turn of the century happened.

Ford has gone winless in one of NASCAR’s biggest races in the 18 years since Jarrett last kissed the bricks (a tradition Jarrett started in 1996).

Since then, the full-time Cup careers of Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick have come and gone and Tony Stewart won all 49 of his Cup races.

In that time, four other manufacturers have triumphed in Indy, with Chevrolet running away with 14 victories over Toyota (two) and the departed Dodge and Pontiac, who claimed one win each.

But entering the 25th annual Brickyard 400 this weekend (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN), Ford is in a fairly happy place.

The manufacturer is coming off a win in the Southern 500 with Brad Keselowski and Team Penske, the team’s first Darlington Raceway victory since 1975.

Ford now has 12 wins through the season’s first 25 races. At this point in 2017 it had eight of an eventual 10 wins. In 2016, it had six of eight victories. In 2015, they had four of seven wins.

Entering the regular-season finale, the first time Indianapolis has hosted it, Ford’s dominance has been centered on one team: Stewart-Haas Racing.

The four-car team has 10 of the 12 wins, with Penske claiming the other two through Keselowski and Joey Logano (Talladega). Kevin Harvick has a series-leading seven wins.

But every current Ford team is looking for their first Brickyard win for the manufacturer.

Though Penske is the king of Indy in open-wheel racing, it has proved to be one of its worst tracks in NASCAR.

In 51 combined starts, Penske has 10 top fives, its fourth fewest on Cup’s active tracks. Its 20 top 10s are its third fewest. Its 316 laps led are only ahead of its totals at Watkins Glen (230) and Sonoma (273).

But like Ford’s improved overall success in the last three seasons, Penske has gained ground at Indy.

Logano has three top fives in his last four starts at Indy. Keselowski earned his first in eight starts last year with a runner-up finish in a race marred by late wrecks.

Stewart-Haas Racing has an Indy win, but that came in 2013 with Ryan Newman driving a Chevrolet. The team transitioned to Ford in 2017.

In 27 combined starts, SHR has five top fives (second fewest), 11 top 10s (third fewest) and 144 laps led, ahead of only its Watkins Glen total (78 laps).

Since joining SHR the year after Newman’s Brickyard win, Kevin Harvick has been the team’s leader at the track. He has four top 10s and one top five in his four starts.

Ford’s other major team is Roush Fenway Racing.

In 93 combined starts, the team has earned 16 top fives (fourth fewest), 30 top 10s (fourth fewest) and led 173 laps, which is only better than its total at Kentucky (38 laps).

Roush hasn’t placed in the top five at Indy since 2012 with Greg Biffle (third).

Matt Kenseth, who is competing part-time this year for Roush, will make his 19th Brickyard 400 start.

He has three runner-up results at IMS (2003, 2006, 2016) and has placed seventh or better in his last five starts there. Those starts came with Joe Gibbs Racing.

“There’s no other track we go to that compares to Indy,” Kenseth said in a press release. “It’s two-and-a-half miles, but it’s one of the flattest tracks on the circuit, and it has such long straightaways that you’re carrying a lot of speed going into those flat turns. It’s also pretty narrow and you need to find ways to get track position, because there’s just not a lot of room to pass.”

Kenseth’s first Indy start came in 2000, the year after Jarrett delivered Ford its last Brickyard win.

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Martin Truex Jr: ‘I still pinch myself’ three years into dominance with Furniture Row

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As Martin Truex Jr. stood in the back of a truck riding around Kentucky Speedway before last Saturday’s Cup race, a fan called out to the 2017 champion.

“Let somebody else win!” he yelled.

After a beat, Truex responded with a chuckle, “No!”

Truex stayed true to his word. A few hours later, the Furniture Row Racing driver took the checkered flag to claim his fourth win of the season.

His triumph over Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski took his career win total to 19 – tying him on the all-time wins list with Joey Logano, 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Davey Allison, Greg Biffle, Hall of Famer Buddy Baker and Fonty Flock.

The victory is the 17th for the No. 78 team since 2015. Truex leads all drivers in wins since 2016 with 16.

For a driver who only won twice in his first nine full-time seasons, Truex said “I still pinch myself” over his dominance of the sport.

He doesn’t lead the series in wins after 19 races. That goes to Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who are tied at five wins each.

This marks the first time since 1974 that three drivers have won four or more races at this point in a season.

“I think all three of us have great teams,” Truex said after his win. “Those two guys are great drivers. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for them. It’s pretty amazing to be a part of this group, honestly. I think when I was a kid and you (saw) Dale (Earnhardt) and Rusty (Wallace) and guys like that, Terry Labonte and you had guys that just dominated and won everything, and watching them, it was like, ‘Man, that’s so cool, they’re heroes and they’re such a big deal,’ and to think that I’m one of those guys this year and I guess last year, too, is just ‑‑ it’s amazing to me.”

Even after he won his first Cup title last November, it didn’t occur to him until almost a month later that he will one day be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame alongside Earnhardt, Wallace and Labonte.

Truex joined Furniture Row Racing in 2014 after losing his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing, a casualty of the race manipulation scandal involving MWR in the 2013 regular season finale at Richmond Raceway.

That year, Truex went winless, led one lap and finished 24th in the standings.

The following season Truex was paired with rookie crew chief Cole Pearn. The duo won one race, earned eight top fives and made the Championship 4.

In their 126 races together, the duo has put together a record comparable to other great driver-crew chief parings in Cup history.

“Really the last three years have been just having the time of my life and just lucky to have great people around us, a great car owner (Barney Visser),” Truex said. “Just feel really lucky.  I’ve been on the other side of it before where teams were struggling and struggled to get in position to win races, and having a lot of things kind of going against you and kind of fighting that uphill battle.

“So it’s amazing to be on this side of it. I can’t tell you how proud I am of all the guys on our team and what they’ve done, and I honestly just enjoy every single one of these wins like it’s my first because you never know when they’re going to come to an end.  You never know when you’re going to have your last one. You never know what’s going to happen next. Just trying to ride the wave of momentum and enjoy it all, and my team is just so badass, I can’t even explain it.”

Truex, 38, “always felt” he “could get the job done” during the early years of his Cup career, spent with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and then MWR.

“I had enough glimpses of really good days or glimpses of greatness that I think it just kept me alive, kept me hungry enough to keep fighting for it,” said Truex, who won two Xfinity championships before moving to Cup. “I think through the years there was just ‑‑ for me personally, and I don’t know what everybody else thought, I know I had some people that probably didn’t think I was that good.

“That’s part of this deal.  You’re only as good as your last race. And if you’re not getting results now, people question your ability.  … For me personally, I always (felt) like I could be a good driver, be a great driver.  I never knew I’d get to where I was last year, and I never really knew I could go on a championship run and win (16) races in three years … That’s been amazing.”

 

Driver lineup set for Charlotte road course tests in July

Photo: Dustin Long
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Charlotte Motor Speedway announced the driver lineup for the two days of testing that will take place in July on the track’s road course.

NASCAR created two separate test days. Tests will be July 10 and July 17. Both sessions will go from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET with a lunch break from noon to 1 p.m. ET.

The tests are open to the public.

The Cup series races on Charlotte’s road course Sept. 30 in the playoffs.

Scheduled to test on July 10

Martin Truex Jr.

Jimmie Johnson

Chase Elliott

Kevin Harvick

Clint Bowyer

Denny Hamlin

Daniel Suarez

Brad Keselowski

Paul Menard

Trevor Bayne

Jamie McMurray

Austin Dillon

Chris Buescher

Kasey Kahne

Michael McDowell

Gray Gaulding

Landon Cassill

B.J. McLeod

Scheduled to test on July 17

Kyle Busch

Erik Jones

Ryan Blaney

Joey Logano

Kyle Larson

Aric Almirola

Kurt Busch

Alex Bowman

William Byron

Bubba Wallace

Ryan Newman

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

AJ Allmendinger

Ty Dillon

Matt DiBenedetto

Corey LaJoie

David Ragan

Reed Sorenson

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