Friday 5: Toyota looking for more with Fords dominating first third of season

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Although Toyota is ahead of pace for wins compared to last year when the manufacturer scored 16 Cup victories, the president of Toyota Racing Development isn’t satisfied.

Toyota has four wins this year — three by Kyle Busch and one by Martin Truex Jr. — but Ford has scored a series-high seven victories.

“I always use laps led as an indicator of performance because if you’re not leading laps than something is not right,” Toyota’s David Wilson told NBC Sports. “I think Dover, for the first time since Atlanta of 2017, a Toyota did not lead a lap. That was an alarm bell. That’s not acceptable. We recognize that we need to be better and we’re on it.”

Only one Toyota driver (Busch) ranks in the top five in laps led this season. Kevin Harvick has led 21 percent of all laps run this year. Busch is next at 12.7 percent.

Toyota won 14 of the final 19 races last year and scored the championship with Martin Truex Jr. So, why isn’t Toyota as dominant this year?

“We make no bones about it, Fords, the Ford camp … the No. 4 camp in particular is out front right now and kudos to those guys,’’ Wilson said, noting Harvick’s success. “I think what happened in the offseason with the flat splitter and the (Optical Scanning Station) clearly brought the field closer together, but our MO isn’t one to whine about it or complain about it.’’

Wilson admits Toyota had found advantages with the splitter and now that is gone with the rule change for this season.

“We were doing some really clever things with the front of our cars and year over year, we just lost some front downforce,’’ he said. “That’s why you hear a lot of our guys complaining about having tight race cars.’’

Wilson also spoke to NBC Sports about a couple of other topics.

On the need for a fourth manufacturer in Cup, Wilson said:

“When we came into this sport, we had four manufacturers with Dodge being the fourth. As soon as Dodge left, one of our first agenda points with NASCAR (was) to start beating the drum to get another manufacturer on board.

“With the size of the field, given the investment that each of us make, the sport will be healthy with another manufacturer, so again I know and trust that NASCAR is out there looking.’’

On the aero package run with restrictor plates run at the All-Star Race and what adjustments need to be made, Wilson said:

“I don’t think we want the drivers to be flat-footed all the time. We have the best drivers in the world and we’re putting them in a situation where some of them equated it to a video game. Most of them had fun. It was fun, but it was also the All-Star race and it wasn’t a points race. Again, these are the best drivers in the world. These cars should be hard to drive.”

2. Falling behind

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season.

Kevin Harvick already has 24 playoff points — and that’s after he was penalized at Las Vegas and lost all seven playoff points for his victory ands stage wins. Kyle Busch is next with 17 playoff points.

No one else has more than seven playoff points.

Those points could mean the difference in advancing in the playoffs or going all the way to the championship round in Miami.

Denny Hamlin, who has one playoff point, understands the deficit he could be facing. Should Harvick and Busch continue to collect playoff points, they could give themselves a big enough advantage to make it to Miami provided they don’t have major issues in any of the rounds.

Martin Truex Jr. had such a large playoff point advantage last year that he qualified for Miami with one race left in the third round, leaving only one spot left in the championship field when the series headed to Phoenix for the final race of that round.

“That’s a continued concern for us,” Hamlin said. “That’s really what made us press so much in the second-to-last playoff stage last year. We knew there was essentially one spot available after those three had locked themselves in.

“We’re trying everything we can. We really have struggled with stage points. We’re finishing well. I’ve made a few mistakes on pit road this year and that has set us back on stage points. I think we’ve got to focus on stage points first then we worry about playoff points.”

3. Betting on NASCAR

Kevin Harvick is an interested observer in what will happen after a Supreme Court decision earlier this month struck down a 1992 federal law that banned commercial sports betting.

Delaware is on pace to be among the first states to have sports betting outside of Nevada. Dover International Speedway has a casino next to the track. NASCAR fans attending the Oct. 7 Dover playoff race could have their first chance to legally bet on a NASCAR event while attending that event.

Harvick has had segments on sports betting each of the past two weeks on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. So what has he learned?

I have more questions than answers just because of the fact that we have a couple of race tracks that have casinos on the property already,” Harvick said, alluding to Dover and Kansas Speedway.

“It seems like there’s a very good opportunity to get creative with a place like Dover that has that casino sitting there to have some creative betting during the race to really intrigue the fans – things that you could do from your phone or in the casino or just random stuff,” Harvick said. “Could you turn that track and race into an atmosphere like a horse race? I think there’s just a lot of questions and a lot of answers that need to be individually solved. That’s the interesting part is it’s going to come state by state, so who is going to lead that charge? Is it race tracks or is it NASCAR?”

Harvick stressed finding a way that some of the money bet filters back to the sports. The NBA seeks what it calls an “integrity fee” for all bets related to its events. Whether that is possible, remains to be seen.

Harvick also noted that a change that needs to be made is how TV money is distributed in NASCAR. Tracks keep 65 percent of the money from broadcasters, teams get 25 percent and NASCAR collects 10 percent. According to International Speedway Corp.’s 2017 annual report, broadcast and ancillary media rights accounted for 50.2 percent of total revenues for that year. 

4. Special Day

Wednesday’s Hall of Fame selection proved poignant with Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, who were killed within months of each other 25 years ago, joining the Class of 2019.

There are many special connections between those. One was a special observer. Tom Roberts is a long-time family friend of the Allisons. He served as Bobby Allison’s p.r. person for several years. He also worked with Kulwicki as his p.r. person. Roberts also has helped spearhead the Kulwicki Driver Development Program to help young drivers climb the ranks of racing.

Roberts had never attended the Hall of Fame announcement but came up from his Alabama home to witness Wednesday’s proceedings.

“It just felt right,” he said of seeing both make the Hall. “It will take a while to soak in (that both made it together).”

5. New winner?

An interesting stat for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 is that the top 11 qualifiers have never won this race.

Austin Dillon scored his first Coca-Cola 600 — and first Cup win — last year.

Kyle Busch starts on the pole and will be joined on the front row by Joey Logano.

The other drivers in the top 11 who have never won the 600 are: Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson.

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NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Charlotte in last three years

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The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is the longest Cup race on the schedule and can be one of the most challenging. The extra 100 miles over the length of most of NASCAR’s endurance races puts an added strain on drivers as well as the parts and pieces of their car.

The added distance can also change a team’s strategy. The 2011, 2015 and 2017 races were decided by fuel mileage. Two tire stops, green-white-checkered finishes and other special circumstances have also changed the late running order, which can make this one of the least predictable events on the calendar.

This is a good week to take some risks on dark horses when setting the NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster and fantasy players want to choose from drivers with a proven record of success.

1. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 9.67)
Truex has been overshadowed by Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch this year because he does not have the same number of wins. Even so, he has seven top fives in 12 races this year, which has made him extremely fantasy relevant. He’s been almost perfect at Charlotte in the past three years with two victories and five top fives in six starts.

2. Daniel Suarez (three-year average: 8.50 in 2 starts)
Suarez has only two starts at Charlotte, but he came close to sweeping the top 10. By finishing 11th in last year’s Coke 600 and sixth in the Bank of America 500, he has shown an affinity for this track that was confirmed by a second-place finish in the All-Star race. NASCAR America Analysts Jeff Burton and Landon Cassill thinks that gives him added confidence that could result in another strong run.

3. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 9.17)
Only three drivers swept the top 10 at Charlotte last year: Truex, Harvick and Hamlin. Finishing fifth in the spring and fourth in the fall, Hamlin’s streak is significant because it backs up a near-perfect record since the end of 2010. Beginning with a fourth-place finish in the Bank of America 500 that year, Hamlin has scored 13 top 10s in his last 15 races on this track.

4. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 9.50)
Busch entered last fall’s Bank of America 500 with a five-race streak of top-10 finishes. He left his fantasy owners disappointed with a 22nd in that event, but he has a better-than-average chance of starting a new streak this week. In 12 races this year, he has six top 10s, another pair of 11ths and a 14th. If he misses the single digits, it is not going to be by much.

5. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 10.33)
If not for a blown engine on lap 155 of the scheduled 334-lap distance in the 2016 Bank of America 500, Harvick would most likely enter the weekend with a 10-race, top-10 streak. If one mentally discounts that finish, Harvick boasts an average finish of 3.8 since the start of the 2013 season. Couple that with his current momentum and there is no reason that a player should not build their lineup around the No. 4.

6. Matt Kenseth (three-year average: 11.67)
Last week’s KC Masterpiece 400 at Kansas Speedway was brutal for Kenseth. He didn’t expect much in his return, but one has to suspect he thought the car would perform better than it did. The good news is that he has a feel for Charlotte — a track on which he scored his first Cup victory — and he has an extra 100 miles to figure things out what’s wrong with the No. 6 this week.

7. Erik Jones (three-year average: 12.00 in two starts)
There are a couple of reasons to recommend Jones this week. His seventh-place finish in last year’s Coke 600 was an impressive debut on a tough track. More important, he has been great on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks since finishing 10th in last fall’s AAA Texas 500. In his last five attempts on this track type, he has a worst finish of 11th and an average of eighth.

8. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 12.83)
Nearly every time he makes the top 10 list, McMurray’s consistency is noted. He rarely posts such remarkable numbers that everyone expects him to land with the leaders, but once the checkers wave, no one is ever surprised to see him in the front half of the pack. McMurray has not finished outside the top 20 at Charlotte in 11 races although he came close on a few occasions with four 19th-place results.

9. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 13.67)
Keselowski may be one bad finish away from falling out of the lead pack. He swept the top 10 in both 2015 and 2016, but crashed on lap 19 of last year’s 600 and could manage to record only a 15th in the fall. With only one top five in his last eight Charlotte races, Keselowski is a questionable fantasy value.

10. Austin Dillon (three-year average: 14.00)
Dillon won last year’s Coke 600 after gambling on fuel. In the fall 2016 Bank of America 500, he finished 32nd. Fantasy owners can toss out the high and the low and are left with an average finish of 12.75. And once the player gets rid of the peak and valley, they are left with a consistent pattern of results of seventh to 16th. Chances are good that is where he is going to finish again this week.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Picking the pole winner has become a difficult proposition. The standard speedsters this year have been Harvick, Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson. Keep those drivers on your radar screen, and make the final decision based on Thursday practice.

Segment Winners: This is a good week to vote the straight Harvick ticket. When he finds the right groove, he is hard to pass and even though the All-Star Race was contested under a different rules package. The strength he showed in it is going to transfer to Sunday’s Cup race.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

NASCAR America: 2018 All-Star Race is a fundamental change for NASCAR

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The 2018 All-Star Race represented a fundamental change in NASCAR’s approach to racing and it is going to take some time to decide its implications.

Opinions were mixed when NASCAR first announced a rules package for this year’s All-Star Race similar to the one used last year in the Xfinity Series at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After seeing it in action with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars, refinement is needed, but the direction is good, according the NASCAR America analyst Jeff Burton.

“This is a fundamental change in what racing has always been about and how you drive a race car,” Burton said Monday. “It is a major change. We heard some of the drivers talk about it: ‘Good’, ‘Bad’. I think the majority of the fan interaction was really good. But I don’t think it’s as easy as saying this is what we need to do all the time.”

The package tightened the field and provided action throughout the field.

Burton described some of the race action: “We see Martin Truex Jr. with the lead. Kyle Busch with people behind him turns left and is going to be able to clear him right here. And that’s what I want to see. I want to see that kind of racing. And, by the way, the racing behind the lead is fascinating. What are you doing to put yourself in a position to have a chance to get to the lead?”

For more, watch the above video.

President Trump honors Martin Truex Jr., No. 78 team at White House

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President Donald Trump praised the performance of Martin Truex Jr. and his team, thanked NASCAR Chairman Brian France for his support and lauded the sport’s patriotism in a ceremony Monday at the White House honoring Truex’s 2017 Cup title.

President Trump was accompanied to the ceremony by Truex and Sherry Pollex, Truex’s longtime girlfriend.

President Tump noted that “the entire NASCAR field spent 2017 chasing (No.) 78. I’ll tell you, I’d be watching and they would be chasing you.’’

He later said: “Never giving up is a story of the 78 team and is a story that will forever be told in NASCAR.’’

President Trump acknowledged crew chief Cole Pearn.

“Chief, pretty tough job, right?’’ President Trump said.

President Trump also praised Pollex.

“I also want to take a moment to recognize the amazing Sherry Pollex,’ he said. “She is the love of Martin’s life. As many of you know Sherry has bravely battled ovarian cancer. She is an incredible woman. Sherry, you’re determination in the face of adversity has been an inspiration to millions of Americans who know what you’re going through. … You are SheryStrong and we are praying for you, and we’re deeply honored to have you here today.’’

President Trump spoke about France, who attended the ceremony.

“My good friend Brian France is here,’’ said President Trump, who was endorsed by France at a Feb. 2016 rally in Georgia. “He is doing a fantastic job. I’ve had him for my friend for a long time, Martin, you wouldn’t believe that right? Different sides, different states slightly, but we liked each other right from the beginning.

“Brian, thank you very much for being here. Congratulations on everything that has happened. … Brian has been with us since the beginning like so many others that love NASCAR. He’s been really a supporter right from the beginning. He said, we support Trump and so I want to thank you very much Brian. That was incredible. That meant a lot, thank you.’’

President Trump noted the sport’s patriotism.

“This lively sport reflects our national spirit and our can-do attitude,’’ he said. “At every NASCAR race, you will see thousands of patriotic Americans from the grandstands to the pit stalls proudly waving our flag and roaring with joy at the words ‘Start your engines’

“I will tell you one thing that I know about NASCAR. They do indeed, Brian, stand for the playing of the national anthem. Right? They do indeed. Somebody said ‘Maybe you shouldn’t say that, that will be controversial.’ I said, ‘That’s OK NASCAR is not going to mind it at all,’ right fellas? They don’t mind it at all.’’

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Ryan: The All-Star Race was good but hold your horsepower on using those restrictor plates again

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CONCORD, N.C. – It took 2 minutes for Kyle Busch to climb from his battered No. 18 Toyota and walk roughly a hundred feet to the side door of his team hauler.

The entirety of the trip (with some prompting) was spent pondering what he just witnessed in Saturday night’s All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I’ll have to see it, I guess, to look at it to see if it’s a good show, but (I’m) not a fan,” Busch told NBCSports.com.

Why not?

“When the fastest guy gets out front, he’s supposed to be able to have an opportunity to be fast,” Busch said. “Now when you get the fastest guy out front, he backs up to the rest of the field. So everybody’s always on top of one another, and when you get back in the pack, you can’t pass anybody.

“It’s a restrictor-plate race.”

But with one important caveat: Unlike a plate race, passing the leader (aside from on restarts) seemed extremely difficult Saturday night.

“I was out front, and yeah, those guys couldn’t get by me,” said Busch, who was one of three drivers to lead at least 15 consecutive laps during the 93-lap event. “And I couldn’t pass whoever was in front of me when I finished third in the first stage. So I don’t know that it’s greater.”

Was it greater?

That has been the crux of the fever-pitched debates occurring within the NASCAR industry since the checkered flag fell on one of the more memorable All-Star Races in recent history and (not coincidentally) the Charlotte debut of restrictor plates and aero ducts.

At a 1.5-mile superspeedway whose ultra grippy pavement (despite 12 years of age) produces high speeds without much tire wear, the brand of racing was eye-popping and distinctive. Breakaways by the leader were nonexistent. Dicing for positions within the pack was incessant.

But were things much different at the front?

Harvick took the lead from Kyle Larson on the second-to-last restart and led the final 11 laps. Aside from the last restart, Harvick’s No. 4 Ford hardly was challenged despite virtually the entire top 10 running within just over a second of first.

It was the 10th time in the past 15 All-Star Races that there hasn’t been a lead change in the final 10 laps.

And this was applicable beyond Harvick’s untouchable car, which has been in victory lane for three consecutive race weekends and is the odds-on favorite again Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600. Busch led for 19 consecutive laps (nearly the entire second stage), and Martin Truex Jr. paced 15 straight circuits in the middle of the third stage.

Virtually all of the passing occurred within a few laps of a restart. When the leader got out front, he wasn’t going to be caught unless there was a mistake – which doesn’t happen often with drivers the caliber of Harvick, Larson and Truex.

That’s why the 0.7-second lead Harvick built toward the end of the first 30-lap segment felt as if it were 7 seconds. The artifice of this rules package is that it can keep the cars more clumped together, but passing the leader remains as challenging as before (perhaps even more so).

Though Larson admitted (reluctantly) to liking the rules package, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver also tempered his praise.

“I don’t love it,” Kyle Larson told NBCSports.com. “I don’t love it. I thought the racing was definitely more exciting than it typically is here at Charlotte. I’d hate for them to get carried away with it and make us run it at every intermediate (track). I still don’t think the runs were quite as big as what we were all hoping for, the pocket of air or the slingshot or whatever you want to call it. We all could stay fairly close together and run off the back bumpers a little bit easier. I feel that made the racing a little bit better.

“Still, once a fast car gets out to the lead, it’s pretty hard to pass if they do a good job maintaining lanes. So, yeah, I don’t know if we can take this package and give it more horsepower, but I think they could tweak on it and make it even better for (Charlotte).”

There were some track executives who were ready to sign up for running the aero package everywhere starting this weekend. That’s understandable given that there’s been a decade-long push within NASCAR to enhance side-by-side action, which definitely was delivered by this combination in its first race.

But some perspective would be wise.

When a low-downforce rules package made its July 11, 2015 debut at Kentucky Speedway, it was a smashing success – and in conditions similar to Saturday night. In both cases, teams had no real-world testing and little chance to prepare beyond simulations and wind tunnels. The efficacy of the lower downforce package in producing nonstop lead changes and passes faded as teams grew acclimated.

Was Saturday something to build on? Of course.

Something to implement immediately at every 1.5-mile oval? Of course not.

The All-Star Race provided the kernel of a concept that could work at other superspeedways in the future, provided there is some tweaking (specifically, at the front of the pack) and probably some major buy-in from teams.

But it isn’t some magic elixir that can be applied like a fresh coat of traction compound to any track seeking a jolt.


There is danger in listening too much to what drivers want, but this package has an element of socialized racing that could have stars rethinking their careers if it becomes widespread.

Though there is some skill in plate racing, and Saturday night didn’t remove all ability from the equation, mastering the modulation of 800 horsepower with limited downforce is what separates the wheat from the chaff in NASCAR’s premier series.

As Kyle Busch said in April and reiterated this past weekend at Charlotte, racing with underpowered cars in deliberately orchestrated clusters isn’t what attracted him to the Cup Series.

“It’s not necessarily what I signed up for to be a race car driver to bring the whole field closer together and have it dictated by some type of a plate race,” Busch said Friday a day before the All-Star Race. “But if that’s what we’re going to have going forward, then I guess I either need to think about how to get really good at it or getting out of it so we’ll see what happens.”

That isn’t some idle threat. Busch’s lack of affection for plate racing is widely known (and also doesn’t make him unique among his peers). NASCAR offers him the best way to make a living racing on a national stage, but “passion” is a primary motivator for being willing to make a daring pass in a corner at 200-plus mph.

If that passion is diminished by what he perceives as a de-emphasis on his all-world skillset, it would be natural for him to look elsewhere.


Now that teams’ armies of engineers have on-track data to crunch, how would the new package look the next time on track?

Maybe a lot like seven years ago at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway if Team Penske’s hunch is correct. Before realizing it wouldn’t be possible because of handling and speed, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano planned to tandem-draft Saturday night. Keselowski hinted it still could be possible in the future.

If it were to happen, that would present another dilemma for NASCAR, which legislated tandem drafting out of existence because fans were so vehemently opposed to the strategy.


What tracks should be considered next for the package?

The July 14 race at Kentucky Speedway seems the most obvious choice. It’s owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., whose president and CEO, Marcus Smith, spearheaded the All-Star Race package. Smith told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long that Kentucky has worked as an R&D-style race weekend in the past (e.g., the low-downforce package in ’15, the Tire Dragon machine in ’16, various traction compound usages).

Other tracks that might be good candidates: Kansas Speedway, Pocono Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Texas Motor Speedway might be trickier since its reconfiguration and repave last year. Kyle Larson said Saturday that the package should be avoided at Chicagoland Speedway. The best way to judge probably would be a detailed debrief between NASCAR, drivers and teams about what was learned Saturday night.

But one absolute non-starter?

Homestead-Miami Speedway. Based on the past four championship finales, there hopefully is a consensus there is nothing “wrong” with that 1.5-mile track.


As of late Monday morning, there apparently weren’t any major overtures by NASCAR or Smith to key members of the Team Owners Council or Race Team Alliance about using the package again.

The charter agreement stipulates that team owners have some say in competition overhauls during the season because they bear the costs that can stretch well into the seven-figure range for the development and retrofitting of their race cars.

The wave of fan enthusiasm from Saturday night likely will make it extremely difficult for owners to parry the momentum of using the rules package again this season, even if it’s a budget-buster for some.

If there is room for compromising, here’s one potential bargain to strike: Tracks that want the rules package this season should agree to direct some of their event revenue to the teams to help defray the costs of the package.


Who is on Alex Bowman’s bad side? Apparently, those who haven’t shown him much respect in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports.

The No. 88 Chevrolet driver made that clear after crashing Saturday night because he refused to lift off the accelerator when challenged by another driver (whom he didn’t name).

“I probably should have lifted because it hurt me more than the guy that ran us like that,” he said. “I’m just frustrated. I feel like these guys have taken advantage of me quite a bit this year, and I’m over lifting for guys. I’m not going to go out of my way to slow myself down to help somebody else out. They would race me the same way I’m just kind of over it.”

Striking the balance between showing deference and being assertive always is difficult for a young driver in a top-tier ride. It might be harder for Bowman because he also is trying to shed the impressions (many likely unfair) that might have been formed by veterans when the 24-year-old drove for a backmarker team in Cup from 2014-15.


Though his pole position was the weekend’s feel-good story, Matt Kenseth didn’t lead a lap Saturday and was a nonfactor after his No. 6 Ford dropped from the top 10 on the eighth lap.

Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (11th) didn’t fare much better after starting second. “The car drove about the same with this package as it did with the other package and everybody else was just a lot faster,” Stenhouse said. “It was a bummer we couldn’t take that front row start and do something with it. We were kind of a moving roadblock out there.”

While Roush likely didn’t spend as much money and time developing its cars for Saturday’s package as Joe Gibbs Racing or Stewart-Haas Racing probably did, the results are indicative of how much work the team still has to become competitive.