Friday 5: How soon before trading pit crew members occurs in NASCAR?


Trading pit crew members? A formalized free agency period for tire changers, tire carriers, jackmen and fuelers? Sponsor agreements for pit crew members similar to what college athletes receive with NIL deals?

They are ideas — some radical for NASCAR — that Brian Haaland, a pit crew coach for Joe Gibbs Racing, advocates.

“I think there are so many things we can do to change the game,” Haaland told NBC Sports. “Everybody’s got contracts, and you have option years on them. I think there should be a free agency. Really. How cool would that be?

“I think there should be trades. Why not? … Why not allow me to negotiate with whatever organization if they have somebody that I want, and I’m willing to give them one of our guys — or at least talk about a trade. How fun would that be? It would another fun game within the sport.”

While other professional team sports have trades, NASCAR does not. But what if it did? Haaland said he’s proposed a trade to another team but nothing happened.

“Absolutely, I’ve tried to do it, but that’s between pit coach to pit coach,” he said. “We could work it out. It just has to be, obviously, people that are above me and above other pit coaches to sign off on it, but it could absolutely happen.

“It could happen tomorrow. If we agreed to release somebody and (another team) agreed to release somebody, and we just took their guy. It could happen.”

Imagine a trade deadline during the Cup season similar to what happens in the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and NHL.

Put NASCAR’s trade deadline in June, possibly around a weekend off. By that time, teams would have had more than half the regular season to assess their crew members. A trade at that point of the season also would give crew members who are moved a chance to acclimate to their new surroundings before the playoffs.

With track position critical, what happens on pit road can make the difference between a good or bad race for each team.

Lose positions on pit road and a driver will restart deeper in the field. That makes it more difficult to reach the front and increases the likelihood of being collected in an incident.

That’s why pit road has become so important. Yet, there are limited ways of gaining time. Pit guns are standardized. Joe Gibbs Racing abandoned its pit stop choreography, which was faster than the traditional way but slower when there were missteps. That leaves only pit crews as a way to have faster stops.

So teams seek college athletes to join their pit crews. They want people with athletic skills to service a car and the mindset to handle the pressure.

With the focus on pit crews, maybe a trade could prove beneficial to all involved. Haaland said he thinks trading pit crew members could be possible because “everybody kind of knows and understands each other’s needs.

“Especially in an injury case. We will reach out to (other pit crew coaches) and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this guy that could help you … and we could loan them to you.’ (Or) it might be a guy that just isn’t working out for us, and we could release them, things like that have happened.

“There’s been other times where I’m like, ‘Really could use one of their top guys,’ and offer up three guys, half-joking, but just to kind of throw it out there to see if anybody will bite on it.”

They haven’t. Yet.

As for free agency, it does take place after the end of the season in November when contracts end and pit crew members are free to change teams. Should NASCAR’s season end earlier — perhaps October — that would mean more time without cars on track. A free agency period for pit crew members could provide something for fans.

Just as key could be any other financial benefits for pit crew members. The NIL deals some college athletes receive are changing how they view their athletic options.

Haaland saw it when he talked to members of the Ohio State hockey team about a career as a NASCAR pit crew member.

“I started talking about, ‘Hey, there could be an opportunity after you’re done playing here’ and … I threw out some numbers about what they could make and they all just kind of looked at me,” he said. “Then I realized that (with) the NIL (deals), they’re probably making more than that now.”

Deals with pit crews are likely a few years away. The focus for teams is a new economic model so teams are not as reliant on sponsorship to survive. Also key will be the new media rights deal, which will begin in 2025 and is expected to provide teams with more money.

As for the notion of trading pit crew members, it is an intriguing idea to some teams but many questions remain before it happens. Maybe one day Haaland will be able to make a trade or see the concept of a formalized free agency period take place in the sport.

2. Can Fords turn it around?

The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway marks the third race on a 1.5-mile track this season without the speedway package used at Atlanta — site of Ford’s only win this year with Joey Logano.

In the previous two races on 1.5-mile tracks (Las Vegas and Kansas), no Ford finished no better than sixth. Austin Cindric was sixth at Las Vegas. Logano was sixth at Kansas.

Fords led 14 of 271 laps (5.1%) at Las Vegas and led nine of 267 laps (3.4%) at Kansas.

Add Fontana, California, (2-mile speedway) and Darlington Raceway (1.366-mile speedway) and Ford’s struggles remain evident.

Ford’s top car at Fontana was Kevin Harvick, who finished fifth. Fords lead 48 of 200 laps (24%) there.

Harvick led Ford with a runner-up finish at Darlington, but that came after incidents eliminated some of the leaders in the final laps. Ford placed three cars in the top six at Darlington: Harvick in second, Brad Keselowski in fourth and Harrison Burton in sixth. Fords, though, led nine of 295 laps (3.1%) in that race.

Harvick enters Sunday’s race at Charlotte third in the standings, 29 points behind series leader Ross Chastain. Harvick has four consecutive top 10s in the Coca-Cola 600, including a third-place finish in last year’s race.

Asked last weekend at North Wilkesboro about his chances of winning the regular season, Harvick said:

“I think for us our cars, I speak of the 4 team, our cars have run competitively and we’ve been in position and just haven’t knocked that door down yet,” he said. “But it’s like I keep telling them, ‘You keep knocking on that door and eventually somebody is gonna answer it.’

“We just have to keep dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s because that’s just where we are from an aerodynamic standpoint and everything that goes with our car currently.

“We just have to be able to do everything right. The cars have to be closer to perfect than the other two models currently, so we just have to keep doing the things that we’re doing.”

3. Goodyear makes changes to tires

Goodyear plans to use a new tire that is intended to wear more at New Hampshire in July. The tire was tested in late April with Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Christopher Bell.

Goodyear is moving in this direction after gaining experience with the Next Gen car, which runs its 50th Cup points race Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Our goal has been to provide as much grip as we think possible for individual racetracks and then let the teams and let the drivers manage that,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Sometimes we’re more conservative, sometimes we’re not.

“Now that we have a year and a half under our belt with this vehicle, with the Next Gen car, I think we have figured out that we can probably go further than maybe what we were able to do with the previous generation parts.”

That falls in line with what Denny Hamlin said after running the wet weather tires in a heat race last weekend at North Wilkesboro Speedway and noting how they wore.

“I’m just more encouraged that Goodyear can build a tire that is really fast to start and falls off,” he said. “We got the blueprint. We really should spend some time working on this for other short tracks.”

Said Stucker about Hamlin’s comments: “I think Denny is spot on.”

Stucker said the goal of the New Hampshire tire test was to get the tires to wear more.

“We’re going significantly softer on both sides,” Stucker said of the tires that will be used at New Hampshire. “All the drivers at the test felt like it was a big gain, felt like it was definitely in the right direction. So, that’s what we’re going to race. Is it enough? We’ll see. I think it’s a good step, and then we’ll continue to build on that.”

The New Hampshire tire also typically is run at Richmond and Phoenix, the site of the championship race, but Stucker said that might not be the case this year.

“We just felt like (New Hampshire) can require something softer,” he said.

4. Gaining ground

Chase Elliott ranks fourth in Cup in points earned in the last five races — since his return from a leg injury suffered snowboarding.

Here’s a look at the top point scorers in Cup in the last five points races:

William Byron — 194 points

Denny Hamlin — 190

Ryan Blaney — 170

Chase Elliott — 163

Ross Chastain — 161

Martin Truex Jr. — 153

When Elliott made his return, he was 33rd in the season standings, 134 points out of what would be the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He’s climbed to 28th in the standings and is 63 points behind the final transfer spot to the playoffs with 13 races left in the regular season.

5. One year away

Kyle Larson will be preparing to run the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 at this time next year.

“It’s still so far away that it truly doesn’t seem real, I think, until I get in the car, on the ground and fire an engine up and then I think I’ll be scared,” he said with a smile. “Right now it doesn’t seem super real, but I’ve been trying to pay attention as much as possible.”

Larson spent a day earlier this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the Arrow McLaren team that he’ll drive for next year. He has yet to test an IndyCar but has been fitted for a seat this month.

Next year will mark 10 years since the last driver ran in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. Kurt Busch finished sixth at Indy to earn rookie of the year honors. A blown engine at Charlotte that night left him with a 40th-place result.

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings: Kyle Larson surges to No. 1


The NBC Sports Power Rankings typically don’t get too excited about the All-Star Race as it might relate to a driver’s positioning in the top 10, but it’s impossible to ignore Kyle Larson’s spectacular drive to victory Sunday night at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

In a move almost as meaningful as his acceptance of a $1 million check Sunday, Larson jumps a spot in the rankings to No. 1, replacing William Byron, who finished two laps behind Larson at North Wilkesboro.

MORE: Long: Don’t judge North Wilkesboro’s future off All-Star Race

Riding into this weekend’s 600-mile marathon at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Tyler Reddick rejoins the rankings after a third-place run in the All-Star Race.

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Kyle Larson (second last week) — Few All-Star Race winners have produced the dominant run Larson had in winning Sunday. He led 145 of the race’s 200 laps and was 4.5 seconds in front at the checkered flag.

2. William Byron (first last week) — Byron drops out of the top spot after a dismal night in North Wilkesboro. He finished two laps behind Larson.

3. Chase Elliott (third last week) — Although no one threatened Kyle Larson over the closing laps Sunday night, Elliott was at least in position to see Larson. Elliott finished fifth.

4. Ross Chastain (fifth last week) — Only half of the field — 12 drivers — finished on the lead lap in the All-Star Race. Chastain came home 11th and, for a change, avoided controversy.

5. Martin Truex Jr. (fourth last week) — Truex finished a lap down at North Wilkesboro, one of many drivers who couldn’t keep up with the Larson Express.

6. Denny Hamlin (sixth last week) — Hamlin was 13th in the All-Star Race. He was the leading driver among those who were a lap down, though, so there’s that.

7. Christopher Bell (eighth last week) — Bell finished 12th at North Wilkesboro on a night when two other Toyota drivers (Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick) were in the top three.

8. Kyle Busch (seventh last week) — Busch failed to make any noise on All-Star night, finishing 22nd, two laps down.

9. Joey Logano (ninth last week) — Logano rallied late to manage a top-10 run at North Wilkesboro.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick returns to the rankings after a third-place run in the All-Star Race.

Dropped out: Kevin Harvick (10th last week).


Long: Don’t judge North Wilkesboro’s future off All-Star Race

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NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Fans along North Wilkesboro Speedway’s frontstretch grandstands stood as Kyle Larson completed his dominating run Sunday night.

Not since 1996 had the NASCAR Cup Series run at this historic track. The sport’s return was a week-long celebration that was part county fair, family reunion and tent revival. Only louder.

“I’ve never been to a NASCAR week where everybody was in such a good mood,” said Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, which owns the track.

If only the racing Sunday night could have been better and the finish more exciting. Larson won by 4.5 seconds after leading more than 70% of the 200-lap All-Star Race.

But don’t take what happened as a reason that the sport doesn’t need to come back to this track.

“A dominant performance should be celebrated as much as a close finish, in my eyes,” Chase Elliott said after his fifth-place finish. “They’re not always going to be barn burners and that’s OK.”

Joey Logano didn’t have the best night, finishing 10th, but he recognized what this event meant.

“Before a car hit the racetrack, it was a success for the sport,” he said.

While he struggled at times Sunday night, he also appreciated the challenge.

“You had to be a smart driver tonight, and I enjoyed that part of it,” Logano said. “There are so many races these days that the tire doesn’t wear out anymore and you can be a hammerhead and never pay the price. The smart racers don’t win as much. I like that this brought you back to your roots a lot.”

Erik Jones finished eighth and said fans got the true North Wilkesboro experience with a dominant winner.

“This is how it used to be,” he said. “If you go back and watch old races here, Geoff Bodine lapped the field (in 1994). That’s how it was. It’s a tricky place. It’s slick. One guy hits it right and they’re going to crush everybody.”

Jones said he enjoyed the challenge.

“As a racer, this is what you like and enjoy,” he said. “As a fan, if I was sitting in the stands, I would probably be a little underwhelmed.”

So what is next for this track? Have it return as an All-Star Race again next year? Make it a points race? Make it the Easter night race in 2024?

There’s some sentiment that the All-Star Race should move around, so keeping it here might not garner as much support. Making it a points race is enticing. Running North Wilkesboro next Easter — a night NASCAR seeks to own, similar to how motorsports dominates Memorial Day weekend and other sports have taken ownership of other holidays — could be an option.

Smith was non-committal Sunday night on what next year holds for North Wilkesboro Speedway.

“I think that — not speaking to next year specifically, I do think that there’s definitely a place in the NASCAR world for North Wilkesboro Speedway,” he said. “Whether it’s a special event like All-Star, maybe one day it’s a points event, I don’t know.

“I think it’s a very important place for short track racing, the late model races, the modifieds, you name it. It’s a special place. It’s like walking into a museum that’s active and living and very special for the competitors and the fans alike.”

Just as important of a question is when to repave this track, which was last repaved in 1981.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it weathers, and when it needs to be repaved, we’ll repave it,” Smith said. “I think I would lean towards not repaving until we absolutely have to.”

That decision can wait. Sunday night was about NASCAR’s return to North Wilkesboro. Enjoy it, relish it and remember it before looking too far ahead.

NASCAR All-Star results: Kyle Larson wins at North Wilkesboro


Kyle Larson ran away with the victory in Sunday’s NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, leading the final 96 laps and winning by 4.5 seconds.

Larson, who won the sport’s all-star event for the third time, led 145 of the 200 laps in pocketing the $1 million winner’s purse.

Larson became the first driver in all-star race history to win the event at three tracks — Charlotte Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and North Wilkesboro, which was hosting NASCAR for the first time since 1996.

Following Larson in the top five were Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe and Chase Elliott.

North Wilkesboro All-Star results

All-Star Race starting lineup: Daniel Suarez, Chris Buescher on front row


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Daniel Suarez will start on the pole and have Chris Buescher next to him on the front row for Sunday’s All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Reigning Cup champion Joey Logano starts third. Austin Dillon will start fourth. Chase Briscoe will start fifth. The field will have 24 cars after the top two finishers from the All-Star Open and the fan vote winner are added to the rear of the All-Star Race lineup.

MORE: All-Star Race starting lineup

MORE: All-Star Heat 1 results

MORE: All-Star Heat 2 results

The starting lineup was determined by the results of two 60-lap heat races Saturday night at North Wilkesboro Speedway. The cars in the first heat will start on the inside rows of the All-Star Race. The cars in the second heat will start on the outside rows of the All-Star Race.

Suarez led the final 34 laps to win the opening heat.

“Overall, just very, very proud of my team,” Suarez said. “The No. 99 Trackhouse Motorplex Chevy team has had a lot of speed lately, but we haven’t had executions and the results. We’ve been very tough on ourselves. To be able to come here and perform the way that we’ve been doing – not just myself, but the entire No. 99 team, my pit crew and engineers. It’s a lot of fun and hopefully tomorrow we can have another performance like today.”

Buescher led all 60 laps to win the second heat.

“This Fastenal Mustang has been really fast from the time we unloaded off the truck,” Buescher said. “The pit crew did a fantastic job and put us in a great spot here today. We’re in a good place for the race tomorrow evening. I’m excited. I’m ready for this thing. Let’s go. Let’s go get a million dollars.”

Cars in the first heat ran entirely on wet weather tires due to rain before the race. Cars in the second heat ran the first half of the race on slick tires on a dry track and switched to wet weather tires when rain returned.