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Friday 5: Rule change is chance for drivers to go back in time

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Jeff Gordon marveled as he watched Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch run nose-to-tail or side-by-side lap after lap for the lead late in the 2017 spring Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

“These are the two of the most equal race cars and one of the best races for the lead I’ve seen here at Martinsville in a very long time,” said Gordon, a nine-time Martinsville winner, on the FS1 broadcast.

Keselowski and Busch rarely seemed apart for a spell within the final 100 laps, whether it was Keselowski pressuring Busch or Busch doing the same thing by closing on Keselowski’s rear bumper.

It is the type of racing NASCAR hopes will return with the announcement this week of a short track package, which includes a smaller spoiler, that shares similarities to what was run in 2017-18.

What makes that 2017 spring Martinsville race stand out is how close Keselowski and Busch ran to each other before Keselowski won.

It contrasts the 2019 spring race, which featured a larger spoiler as part of the high downforce package used at all tracks. Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps that day. Runner-up Chase Elliott could not run close to Keselowski for long. 

Brad Keselowski celebrates his 2017 Martinsville win after a duel with Kyle Busch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Keselowski explained to NBC Sports the differences in those packages and why the cars could run closer together in the 2017 race than the 2019 race.

“You’re able to brake differently, the cars were harder to stop, they had a smaller spoiler, so you had to really use a lot of finesse to work them down into the corner,” Keselowski said of the package used in 2017-18. “You didn’t lose the nose as quickly because you weren’t using aero as such an assist in the middle of the corner.

“If you had asked me earlier in my career if I thought aero would come into play at Martinsville, I would have said you were crazy. Same thing I would have said if you had told me that the cars would make almost 4,000 pounds of downforce. Those two conversations go hand in hand.

“The 2019 car, the easiest way I know how to explain this … at full speed at the tracks that we ran at, if the race track would have been inverted, the car would have stayed on the racetrack. That’s downforce. … It’s to a point where it could be a Hot Wheels track and we could run upside down. That tells you how much assistance the cars were getting from the air.”

The short track package will be used at all ovals 1 mile or less and the three road course events for a total of 14 races this year. Eight of the season’s final 15 races, including five in the playoffs, will be run with this package. The championship race at Phoenix will use this short track setup.

“Making this change is certainly a step in the direction of putting the racing back in the drivers’ hands and out of aerodynamics’ control,” Keselowski said. “More times than not, but not always, the result is better for the fans. I think it’s a win as a whole.”

2. Tire change with short track package

One of the complaints drivers and teams had last year was the lack of tire wear during events. Without such wear and tire falloff, drivers found it more challenging to pass, particularly at short tracks. 

With the lower downforce package at short tracks this year, Goodyear will construct a tire intended to wear more, said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

“We are going to make some changes,” Stucker told NBC Sports about the tire that will be used with the short track setup.

“From a traction, from a grip-level perspective, I go back to what we learned at the Martinsville test that we had there in July, what we learned at our Richmond test back in October. Granted that was in the Next Gen car, but we were able to evaluate some things and learn some things about Richmond and the same thing with Phoenix because we evaluated several different compounds. We got different reference points at those two tests along with stuff we’ve done in the past at those two race tracks testing-wise. We were able to formulate a plan to go a little softer than what we have been.

“Even understanding that the downforce is coming off, on top of that, we’re going to go ahead and take a step in trying to increase the grip level mechanically, which will also result in higher tread wear that, hopefully, will fall off.”

With a new short track package and a tire intended to wear more, will NASCAR need to use the traction compound (darker portion of the track) at Phoenix again this year? (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Goodyear will not do any testing before the first race with the short track package — Phoenix on March 8 — because there isn’t enough time.

NASCAR met with drivers, teams, Goodyear and others in Nashville before the December awards banquet to devise a course of action for the short tracks. That followed NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying before the season finale in Miami that “our promise to our fans … is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”

One issue that has not been determined is if the traction compound applied in the corners at Phoenix Raceway last year will be reapplied for the March race. With a new short track package and a new tire, the traction compound might not be needed.

“Our opinion, and I think everybody’s is … (the traction compound) is to enhance the multiple racing lines, it is enable multiple grooves to come in at a particular track,” Stucker said. “We’re not in favor of just applying traction compound on a racetrack just to go faster. That’s not the goal.”

3. Decisions, decisions

Among the challenges for some teams with the short track package is determining how much wind tunnel time to devote to that setup and to the higher downforce package used at the bigger tracks.

NASCAR announced in October that organizations would be limited to 150 hours of wind tunnel time in 2020.

While the short track package shares similarities to what was run in 2017 and ’18, it’s not the same. Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations for Joe Gibbs Racing, said that wind tunnel time will be important for the short track setup.

Makar told NBC Sports that it will be a “challenge” to properly divide the wind tunnel time between the low downforce and high downforce packages.

Even with simulation programs playing a greater role for teams, Makar says wind tunnel testing is still vital.

Kyle Busch scored his second Cup title in five years in 2019 for Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“You can learn a lot of basic things in (simulation) and kind of get your preliminary ideas and thoughts together and then apply them in the wind tunnel to get your final decision on how that change worked,” Makar said. “The wind tunnel, I think, probably is still your closest thing to the racetrack.”

Other key decisions for teams will come as the year progresses.

Teams will have to decide how to allocate resources in preparing high downforce cars, low downforce cars and also the Next Gen car that debuts in 2021.

“It does create a bit of a different challenge because it is that much different,” Makar said of the Next Gen car. “It’s completely, uniquely new to us. Just looking at the car and how things bolt together, it’s a big learning curve for all the teams. It’s not like over the years when you had a body change or an aero package change, it’s still the same car.”

Makar said one thing that will help is that with NASCAR putting a freeze on teams developing new parts, those crew members can focus on the Next Gen car.

Another key issue will be for any organization that has multiple teams in the playoffs — and even multiple teams in the final eight or the championship race. Go all in on a championship or work on the Next Gen car to begin next year strong?

“In my view, the obvious thing is (this year’s) championship is the first and foremost goal,” Makar said. “That’s what we have to focus on. That’s the next thing in line.”

4. His turn

The recent shuffling of drivers and crew chiefs at Team Penske could have some fans of Brad Keselowski feeling down.

Car owner Roger Penske split Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, sending Wolfe to work with Joey Logano. Penske also moved Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, over to be with Ryan Blaney. That left Jeremy Bullins, who had been Blaney’s crew chief, to join Keselowski.

So what would Keselowski tell his fans about now being paired with Bullins?

Jeremy Bullins moves over from Ryan Blaney’s team to be Brad Keselowski’s crew chief in 2020. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“First thing I’d tell my fans is that Jeremy is the only Cup crew chief at Penske of the three that hasn’t won the championship,” Keselowski said. “The way I see it, he’s the next one to win one.”

Keselowski is focused on this season but he did tell NBC Sports that “I’m super proud of everything we were able to do as a team with Paul as crew chief and everyone else that was on the team at that time. I haven’t really spent much time looking out the rear window because I can’t change anything. So I’m looking out the front windshield.”

With a new crew chief will come new demands.

“I’m sure that Jeremy and the team are going to challenge me to be better,” Keselowski said. “I think that’s healthy. I’m going to do the same with them. I guess I view it as a complete blank slate. Our goal is to be the best and win the championship in 2020.

“What’s great is that we all have enough experience for that to be a realistic opportunity. If you combine that with our willingness to try new things, I think it could be a lethal combination.”

5. A name to remember

Cannon McIntosh’s assignment last fall was to write an essay about himself as if the high school junior was preparing a college application.

He felt good about what he wrote.

Until he got his grade.

A zero.

McIntosh’s instructor thought what McIntosh wrote was not true, that it had been plagiarized. No way, the teacher assumed, this student was a race car driver.

Cannon McIntosh (right) with Jay Drake, team manager of Keith Kunz Motorsports.
(Photo by Swikar Patel/TRD)

The situation was quickly rectified. Soon more than McIntosh’s teachers will know who he is.

The 17-year-old has been making a name in midget racing the past year and earned a ride with Keith Kunz Motorsports for this week’s Chili Bowl as a Toyota Racing Development driver. Keith Kunz Motorsports has won the past five Chili Bowl titles, including the past three with Christopher Bell.

McIntosh, who grew up in the Tulsa, Oklahoma suburbs and has to only make a short drive to the site of the Chili Bowl, won his preliminary feature Monday night to earn his first berth in the Chili Bowl Nationals A main.

He can’t wait until Saturday night’s feature race.

“I’ve raced pretty much all the guys that are going to be in that feature,” McIntosh told NBC Sports. “I know what to expect, and I know what I’m going to have to bring to the table, racing against those guys.

“(Kyle) Larson and Bell are definitely going to be the ones to beat coming Saturday. I’ve raced them before and I know what to expect. I’m going to have to be on my game. No matter what happens, we did well, we made the feature. I’m just hoping we can put on a good show, let them know we were there to fight.”

Kyle Busch to compete in Feb. 20 Super Late Model race in Las Vegas

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When the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Las Vegas in February, hometown native Kyle Busch will pull double duty as he returns to compete at the The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the first time in 13 years.

The defending Cup Series champion is set to compete in the Feb. 20 Star Nursery 100, a 100-lap Super Late Model race on the 3/8-mile track. He will then race in the Feb. 23 Pennzoil 400 NASCAR Cup race at LVMS.

Busch developed his racing skills at the Bullring, totaling 50 wins between 1999 and 2003. He last competed there in 2007.

“It’s going to be great to get back to where it all began,” Busch said in a press release. “My family and I spent many Friday and Saturday nights racing at the Bullring, and it will always hold a special place for me. I’m really looking forward to racing against a few guys I raced against back in the day as well as some of the new drivers who are cutting their teeth coming up through the ranks.”

The Super Late Models race begins at 10 p.m. ET followed by the Star Nursery 150 ARCA Menards Series West race at 11 p.m. ET.

Xfinity Series to race on Indy’s road course

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The Xfinity Series will race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course this year, track officials announced Wednesday.

The July 4 race, sponsored by Pennzoil, will take place at 1:30 p.m. ET and air on NBC. The Cup race on July 5 also will be on NBC at 3:30 p.m. ET.

“As all the Xfinity drivers are looking into this weekend, I think we’re all going to be excited to be (in) the first NASCAR road race at Indy,” Justin Allgaier said during Wednesday’s press conference. “We’re all going to want to win that first race. I remember the first time coming here and racing in the Xfinity Series how exciting that was.”

Matt DiBenedetto will test different configurations for the road course on Jan. 22, Ben Kennedy, NASCAR managing director, racing operations and international development, said Wednesday. Kennedy said DiBenedetto will not be eligible to compete in the Xfinity race in July.

Moving the Xfinity race from the oval to the road course is the first major move made at the track since Roger Penske’s company purchased the speedway. One of Penske’s priorities has been putting more emphasis on the track’s NASCAR weekend, which has suffered significant attendance declines for more than a decade.

“We look at the (Indianapolis) 500 and the success we have and this race, we had many, many fans here as we started and then we had the issue with tires (in the 2008 race that led to NASCAR issuing an apology) and other things,” Penske said about why the focus on the NASCAR weekend. “We really have not had the ability to fill the stands the way we want. I think it’s a challenge for us. It’s something we want to work on. So it became a priority for us.”

Penske Corporation’s purchase of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions became official Jan. 6. The sale to Roger Penske’s company was announced Nov. 4.

Penske discussed his plans for the track Jan. 9 on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, saying: “I guess my first grade card is how we do in the first year in making a difference at the track in 2020. We’re completely focused on that. We’re going to make several millions of dollars of investments before the month of May. It’s not to create more revenue or profit bottom-line, it’s entirely what can we do to make the guest and fan experience better.”

This will be the fifth road course event on the 33-race schedule for the Xfinity Series this season.

The other road course races will be May 30 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Aug. 8 at Road America, Aug. 15 at Watkins Glen and Oct. 10 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The Xfinity Series has raced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2012. Kyle Busch has won four of those races. Other winners have been Allgaier (2018), William Byron (2017), Ty Dillon (2014) and Brad Keselowski (2012).

The plan is that track officials will need about 90 minutes to convert the track back to the oval configuration after the Xfinity race on July 4 before Cup teams will be able to practice. The first practice is tentatively scheduled for 5:05 – 5:55 p.m. ET and final practice is scheduled for 6:35 – 7:25 p.m. ET. Cup teams will qualify the morning of the July 5 race at the tentative time of 11:05 a.m. ET.

Other announcements about the Indy weekend are that Florida Georgia Line will hold a concert on July 4, a fireworks show and new infield camping.

While there could be a tire test at some point, there are no plans at this time for any additional testing other than the test with DiBenedetto next week. Penske said the focus of the test with DiBenedetto will be primarily to look at run-off areas.

“We will not be running at any speeds here next week, just with the weather,” Penske said. “If someone thinks we picked him to run this. This was a car that could be available.”

NASCAR cuts spoiler as part of changes to short track package

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NASCAR revealed changes Tuesday for Cup teams at short tracks in 2020, including the championship event at Phoenix Raceway, in an effort to improve the racing at those tracks.

The racing quality at short tracks last year drew much criticism, leading NASCAR President Steve Phelps to say in November at Miami that “our promise to our fans … is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”

Among the changes for those specific tracks:

  • A significantly smaller rear spoiler, which shrinks from an 8-inch height to 2.75 inches.
  • The front splitter’s overhang will now measure a quarter-inch (down from 2 inches), with approximately 2-inch wings (reduced from 10.5 inches).
  • Alterations to the radiator pan, removing its vertical fencing in an effort to reduce front-end downforce. The dimensions of the pan remain the same.

The changes are similar to what was used in 2017-18. The package will be used for 14 races — 11 on short tracks and the three road course events.

Tracks with changes will be Bristol, Dover, Martinsville, New Hampshire, Phoenix, Richmond, the Charlotte Roval, Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

Phoenix Raceway will host the championship race Nov. 8. It is the first time the track has hosted the Cup title race.

Five of the 10 playoff races will feature this new package. Those races will be Richmond (Sept. 12), Bristol (Sept. 19), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 11), Martinsville (Nov. 1) and Phoenix (Nov. 8).

Bristol, the Roval and Martinsville are all cutoff races in the playoffs.

The short package will make its debut March 8 at Phoenix Raceway.

“Our goal has always been to provide the best possible racing for our fans, regardless of venue,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, in a statement. “The 2019 Cup Series race package delivered some of the most exciting races on intermediate and larger tracks that our sport has seen, however we felt we could make improvements to short tracks and road courses. We believe we have found the right balance for 2020 that will allow teams to build off their previous knowledge of this package and showcase exciting side-by-side racing at tracks of all sizes.”

O’Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that the changes made for 2020 will carry over to the Next Gen car.

“The good news for the future car is it has those built in already, which will be a bonus based on what we learned,” O’Donnell said.

Frustration built last season for competitors and fans with the racing at short tracks.

Martinsville prominently illustrated the issues at short tracks last year. Brad Keselowski won the spring race after leading 446 of 500 laps. Martin Truex Jr. won the fall playoff race, leading 464 of 500 laps.

The Richmond playoff race had six lead changes among three drivers. Truex, the race winner, and Kyle Busch, who finished second, combined to lead 311 of 400 laps.

After Corey LaJoie comments, NASCAR says ‘efforts continue’ on short track package

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Cup driver Corey LaJoie stated on a podcast Thursday what he believes will be the series’ short track rules package in 2020, but NASCAR told NBC Sports that “those efforts continue” and that officials will provide “more information when appropriate.”

The racing quality at short tracks last year was a hot button issue, leading NASCAR President Steve Phelps to say in November at Miami that “our promise to our fans … is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”

LaJoie, who is entering his second full-time Cup season with Go Fas Racing, detailed what he said the changes would be at short tracks on the “Sunday Money” podcast he co-hosts. The podcast is produced by Motor Racing Network, which is owned by NASCAR.

Here’s what LaJoie said.

“So we are going to have a low downforce package. The 750 (horsepower package) is going to have a comparable sized spoiler to what it had in (2018). It’s going to be a little bit bigger than what it was in 2018, not much. Less than three inches. The spoiler’s only going to be as tall as my cellphone.

“It will take the amount of downforce we had last year at the short tracks and cut it in half. So we had about 3,400 pounds of downforce is what they said last year and it should be about 1,700. So that’s a lot. It’s up to Goodyear, the ball’s going to be in Goodyear’s court to make a little bit softer tire that degrades a little bit so we can move around and lay some rubber down at places like Richmond and Martinsville. I don’t know what they’re going to do at Dover. I assume they’re going to be low downforce there as well, Phoenix. So hopefully it provides a little bit better racing.”

Asked in November if NASCAR would cut the rear spoilers on cars for short tracks, Phelps said: “Yes, could we go to something that is a lower downforce package and do we think that will probably be one of the answers that we could look at to be successful on the short tracks? Yes. Whether it’s cutting off the spoiler, other opportunities for us to take some of the downforce off there, those are things that we’ll explore.”

Martinsville prominently illustrated the issues at short tracks last year. Brad Keselowski won the spring race after leading 446 of 500 laps. Martin Truex Jr. won the fall playoff race, leading 464 of 500 laps.

The Richmond playoff race had six lead changes among three drivers. Truex, the race winner, and Kyle Busch, who finished second, combined to lead 311 of 400 laps.

The championship finale moves to Phoenix this season for the first time.

Here is NASCAR’s full statement to NBC Sports on Thursday:

NASCAR is working closely with our industry partners and race teams to improve the racing on short tracks and road courses. Those efforts continue, and we look forward to providing more information when appropriate.