They may be statistics, which at least one notable writer named Twain has likened to lies, but when it comes to the Brickyard 400, the numbers -- attendance and TV ratings -- indicate something needs to change.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway's NASCAR weekend attendance was abysmal, especially when compared to May's 100th running of the Indy 500, where 325,000 paying customers showed up after infield ticket sales were cut off four days before the race at 75,000. The attendance at Sunday's NASCAR event was estimated at 50,000, which left approximately 200,000 seats empty, let alone a barren infield.
On the other hand, this year's Brickyard 400 produced the highest rating ever for the relatively young NBC Sports Network. The rating of 3.1 share, which translated into 5.2 million viewers according to Nielsen, was a jump from last year's figures of 3.0 and 4.7 million. (According to track officials, last year's attendance was 75,000.)
The TV figures can be attributed to the fact that Jeff Gordon came out of retirement to run at his "second home" track and that any race run at Indy is a marquee event. When a teenager, Gordon and his family moved from California to Pittsboro, Ind. to help spark his racing career. Given that there was short notice about Gordon substituting for the ailing Dale Earnhardt, Jr., interested fans found it easier to watch on TV than to buy a ticket, make travel plans and attend the race.
One suspects that the folks at Indy spent much more effort on promoting the 100th running of the Indy 500 this year than on the 23rd running of the Brickyard 400. So the windfall of publicity about Gordon in the media, as well as soon-to-be-retired Tony Stewart's last ride at the Speedway, helped boost the TV ratings -- but evidently was too late to add to the gate.
It is a big effort and expense to attend a race at Indy due to the track's size, traffic in little ol' Speedway, Ind., and parking challenges. What's bothersome to this writer is the fact the Indy 500 and later the Brickyard 400 became huge events because they are classic one-day races. Indianapolis sits at a major crossroads of Interstates in the Midwest and historically fans have driven in the day of the race and then have driven home afterwards. This year, few took the trouble to make the effort in July.
The bottom line is that fans wanted to see the drivers, always accessible on TV, and not necessarily the racing presented by the Sprint Cup at Indy. In an era when the Indy cars have some fine young American talent, are generating record numbers of lead changes and put on an incredibly fast race, the Brickyard pales by comparison -- even if the NASCAR drivers are far more popular in America than their counterparts in the Indy Racing League.
It's time for another makeover at 16th St. and Georgetown Rd. to improve the stock car racing and to perhaps add a little more luster to the Indy 500, which won't be celebrating a centennial next year. As things stand, stock car drivers can race down the narrow straights of the 2.5-mile track, but have to line up to get through the four individual corners unless they want to lose several positions should a pass attempt fail. Hence, not enough overtaking and too much waiting for somebody else to make a failed attempt. On a day when a driver like Kyle Busch has it figured out, there's virtually no overtaking of the leader.
The last great makeover of the Speedway occurred in 1993, the year before the first Brickyard 400. In addition to preparations for the "taxi cabs" by installing thicker walls, higher wheel fences and new grandstands that closed a gap in Turns 3 and 4, the track itself was re-configured. There were two goals: to eliminate the "Crawford line," so named for the great Scottish driver Jim Crawford who unexpectedly challenged the established racers in 1988 aboard his Riley-Buick V-6 when he started driving on the pit road apron; and to change drivers' trajectory in the corners to help prevent the terrible head-on crashes that were creating so many horrible injuries to feet and ankles.
The track needs to once again allow the "Crawford line" by re-paving all the way to the edge of the current pit road in Turn 1 -- and to allow a similar line to be taken in Turn 3. The repaving should be done to carry the nine degrees of banking down the track. This would help generate more overtaking in the corners by both NASCAR drivers and Indy car drivers. Given that there are essentially short chutes, or straights, at either end of the track, similarly widened corners at Turns 2 and Turns 4 make sense.
This is the only solution to a lack of overtaking in the Brickyard 400. NASCAR rules can only go so far with the cars. The new era of less downforce is an unlikely answer, according to this year's race. Given the mandate to keep car rules the same on non-restrictor plate tracks, slowing the cars with restrictor plates in hopes of better racing would only further alienate fans used to Indy cars racing at average speeds of 225 mph.
A wider track would require the construction of a new inside wall covered with SAFER barriers to separate the pit lane from the racing surface, which is now separated only by grass. But this new wall would still allow plenty of additional racing room.
What about the Indy cars? More passing never hurts a race. But will drivers get hurt by changing trajectory of the cars in the corners? Quite a lot has changed since the horrible year of 1992, when testing and the race were marred by so many bad accidents. First, there are SAFER barriers. Next, the cars have long since been changed to protect drivers' lower extremities in frontal crashes; and the HANS Device now provides protection against critical and fatal head injuries in all manner of collisions with the wall by Indy cars.
If concerns about the Indy cars persist, a line can be painted to define where they can race. That line can be changed for the stock cars.
When the Brickyard 400 first arrived in 1994, one year after the last great makeover, it proved a boon for the Speedway with annual sellouts. Times have changed since then, including the addition of NASCAR races in nearby Chicago and Kentucky; an end to the CART vs. IRL war that allowed NASCAR to get a jump on Indy car racing; and the Great Recession, which hit the segment of the American populace most interested in motor racing the hardest, and, according to current political campaigns, continues to hurt.
Given the changing circumstances, it's time for a new configuration at the Speedway.
As Kyle Busch climbed from his car and celebrated an incredibly dominant victory while standing in a cloud of burnout smoke, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon took ceremonial last rides aboard Sprint Cup cars on the back straight side by side.
Next year, 31-year-old Busch will return to one of America's most hallowed racing plants to attempt to become the first driver to win three straight Brickyard 400s. If the script holds true, Stewart and Gordon, with seven victories combined at Indy, have finished making their marks at the Speedway and won't be taking in next year's race through a windshield.
Given that Gordon was not expected to be racing this year, much less at Indy, the two great champions rolling door to door was as poignant as stock car racing will ever get. Each of them came of racing age in Indiana near the beckoning shadows of the Speedway, Gordon in Pittsboro, and Stewart in Columbus. About the only thing missing was Jim Nabors singing "Back Home Again in Indiana," the track's theme song.
"I can say that just ranks in the top three coolest moments of my 18 years in this series," Stewart said after climbing out of his car with an 11th-place finish. "To share that moment with Jeff here at Indianapolis -- I don't know, I don't even have the words for it. That is a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life."
Gordon, who finished 13th and regretted not racing better as a substitute for the ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr., was happy to have the chance to ride with one of his peeps. Interestingly, the last time these two rode together was on ATVs in Arizona, where Stewart suffered the freak back injury that kept him sidelined for the first eight races of the season.
"What a class act he is," Gordon said of his friend. "It meant a lot to me that he invited me to come and make that last lap with him. It was a special moment."
A scepter is a symbol of authority and Busch clearly stamped his on the 23rd running of the 400-mile NASCAR race at a place that gave birth to Indy cars in 1911. In a race that went 10 laps into overtime, Busch led 149 laps from the pole. Only two other drivers, the Penske Ford duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, managed to lead any of the other laps. But only because they didn't have the speed and were on a fuel-mileage gambit.
Given his championship last year and this year's four victories for a career total of 38, Busch has become the dominant driver in NASCAR much the same way as Gordon and Stewart before him. The latter two now evoke the usual fond farewells reserved for drivers fans have loved and hated over the years, because they were so often a threat to win.
Busch has now taken up this same mantle of being loved or loathed due to his ability to take home so many trophies and leave the story lines of other drivers in his wake.
There are still plenty of forty-somethings around to keep Busch in check, such as runner-up Matt Kenseth, who is even with Busch in Sprint Cup championships, and third-place Jimmie Johnson, who has six titles to his credit. But Busch has not only momentum but youth on his side.
By the time Busch reaches his mid-forties -- if he keeps his current pace -- he'll have amassed 80 Sprint Cup victories or so, which would put him in some exclusive company. And who knows how many Xfinity Series events Busch will have won by then should he keep choosing to pad his portfolio in preliminary events, a process known as the Kyle Busch School of Charm.
Given the elimination format of the Chase, how many titles will have come Busch's way by the time he's as ancient as Stewart and Gordon is more unpredictable at this point. But leaving Indianapolis, there's little doubt Busch is favored to defend his first title on both speed and consistency.
That consistency includes Busch's outlook, which used to turn from sunny to cloudy faster than the weather changes on the Midwestern plains. Every day was fair to partly pouty. Now with wife Samantha at his side, their son Braxton toddling about, and mentor Joe Gibbs fielding the Sprint Cup's strongest team, life is good for Busch.
Although the tire marks from burnouts are now far more common for Busch, those black streaks of foul mood will likely show up again. It's what happens when supercharged egos try to beat everything in sight, including City Hall in the form of the sanctioning body. At least that's a sign of authenticity in a sport that has become sugar-coated compared to its rough-hewn origins that included as much bootlegging and fighting as racing.
With so many heroes retiring and most popular driver Earnhardt Jr. on the sidelines with concussion-like symptoms, NASCAR is in need of a swashbuckling star and Busch has stepped up with impeccable timing. Keselowski may be smart and brash, friendly cousin Carl Edwards can show more teeth than a horse-eating briars and smooth Denny Hamlin may yet turn into a champion.
But among his winningest thirty-something contemporaries, Busch continues to elevate himself with performances like on Sunday. He was the most dominant driver at Indy since Juan Pablo Montoya led 167 of 200 laps to win the Indy 500 in 2000.
Busch hates losing much like Dale Earnhardt Sr., but probably enjoys winning even more than the seven-time champion. More volatile than Johnson -- which may have cost him a shot at a championship or two so far -- Busch is not the boy-next-door like Gordon. With a smoldering desire to be great and impatient with anything that stands in his way such as, say, NASCAR or the media, Busch is most similar to Stewart, another graduate of the Joe Gibbs school of champions.
Three-time Super Bowl-winning coach Gibbs once said of Stewart, "Some guys just want to make the team and some want to be great. Tony wants to be great." Stewart focused on Indy cars early on and had to await the formation of the Indy Racing League to get his shot at winning the Indy 500, which never came to pass. He then moved to stock cars with Gibbs, who cajoled and pounded him into championship shape.
For his part, Busch started young and spent the callowness of his youth fighting with team owner Rick Hendrick, NASCAR and, above all, himself. Perhaps because he was young on arrival, it's taken a while for the Joe Gibbs School of Coaching Charm to take effect. The turning point was last year's comeback from grievous injuries to his leg and foot.
On a JGR team loaded with talent and fast Toyotas, once again Busch is standing tall. He says any of the drivers in this stable can win the championship, which is a sign of his maturity in handling the media and his teammates.
"I think any of us have a shot to win on any given week. Carl (Edwards) was really strong today and Matt (Kenseth) was strong today, Martin Truex showed his strength today as well. Denny (Hamlin) was there as well. We all have a great communication and camaraderie and are able to work together well and that's what makes this team so strong."
This year's title run has yet to begin and there's reason to believe that all three of Busch's teammates at JGR, including Truex Jr., plus the Keselowski and Logano duo at Team Penske will bring an A-game. Hustling back from a speeding penalty brought on by NASCAR's additional timing lines on the pit road, Johnson's dash to third at the finish was a reminder that he, too, has a lot of determination and talent. Never mind that Hendrick Motorsports is once again suffering summer doldrums. Stewart-Haas Racing's top three drivers are showing signs of staying power, too, led recently by the example of the driver whose name is on the sign out front.
The race on Sunday was a bit boring due to Busch's dominance and the single groove at Indy for stock cars, which makes one wonder if the track owners should consider extra paving low in the corners especially for the "taxi cabs." The Chase, by format alone, will be more interesting, even if Busch continues to make the sport a showcase for his talent.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Sunday, July 24, 2016
1. (1) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 170.
2. (18) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 170.
3. (13) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 170.
4. (4) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 170.
5. (10) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 170.
6. (7) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 170.
7. (14) Joey Logano, Ford, 170.
8. (8) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 170.
9. (12) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 170.
10. (23) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 170.
11. (3) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 170.
12. (16) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 170.
13. (21) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 170.
14. (22) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 170.
15. (15) Chase Elliott #, Chevrolet, 170.
16. (11) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 170.
17. (5) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 170.
18. (26) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 170.
19. (9) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 170.
20. (33) Landon Cassill, Ford, 169.
21. (31) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 169.
22. (24) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 169.
23. (27) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 168.
24. (34) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 168.
25. (29) Aric Almirola, Ford, 168.
26. (37) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 168.
27. (32) Brian Scott #, Ford, 168.
28. (38) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 167.
29. (35) * Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 167.
30. (20) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 167.
31. (6) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, Accident, 166.
32. (36) * Ryan Ellis(i), Toyota, 166.
33. (39) * Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 165.
34. (40) Patrick Carpentier, Ford, 164.
35. (2) Carl Edwards, Toyota, Accident, 154.
36. (17) * Ryan Blaney #, Ford, Accident, 152.
37. (28) David Ragan, Toyota, Accident, 117.
38. (25) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, Overheating, 71.
39. (19) Greg Biffle, Ford, Accident, 53.
40. (30) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, Engine, 4.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 128.94 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 17 Mins, 46 Secs. Margin of Victory: 2.126 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 8 for 34 laps.
Lead Changes: 4 among 3 drivers.
Lap Leaders: Kyle Busch 1-26; B. Keselowski 27-41; Kyle Busch 42-55; J. Logano 56-61; Kyle Busch 62-170.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Kyle Busch 3 times for 149 laps; B. Keselowski 1 time for 15 laps; J. Logano 1 time for 6 laps.
Top 16 in Points: K. Harvick -- 671; B. Keselowski -- 647; Kurt Busch -- 627; J. Logano -- 606; Kyle Busch -- 601; C. Edwards -- 593; M. Truex Jr. -- 573; J. Johnson -- 552; M. Kenseth -- 545; D. Hamlin -- 542; C. Elliott # -- 525; A. Dillon -- 520; R. Newman -- 507; J. Mcmurray -- 496; K. Larson -- 472; K. Kahne -- 462.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- A sweep at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nothing new to Kyle Busch.
But this year, he started early.
With a lap at 184.634 mph (48.745 seconds) in the final round of Saturday's knockout qualifying, Busch claimed the pole position for Sunday's Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
Earlier in the day, the driver who swept both the NASCAR Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series races at Indy last year earned the top starting spot for Saturday afternoon's Lilly Diabetes 250 XFINITY race.
But the Sprint Cup pole that completed the Saturday sweep was special, because it was the first for Busch at the vaunted Brickyard.
"I haven't been great at qualifying here, but the guys gave me a great piece this time around, and I'm real pumped about that," said Busch, who claimed his second Coors Light Pole Award of the season and the 19th of his career. "We're starting first in both of these (races), and hopefully we can end that way.
"It means a lot (to win the pole). It's definitely pretty special to be running the way that we're running and to have the success that we've had here the last couple of years at Indy, and I'd love nothing more than to try to win here again."
Busch's No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was .023 seconds faster than the No. 19 of teammate Carl Edwards (184.547 mph).
"I was happy with my lap," Edwards said. "I was surprised Kyle got me. That was a good lap for him -- I mean, that was a good lap that he ran because I felt like my lap was pretty good -- but, yeah, it's frustrating right now to be second because it's so close, and the pole position is obviously huge here.
"But by tomorrow, the race gets started and I think I'll be pretty happy with that starting spot, so just good job by all my guys."
Making his last appearance at Indy as a Sprint Cup Series driver, Tony Stewart earned the third starting spot with a lap at 184.328 mph and knew exactly where he had lost critical speed.
"I just wish I could do lap three (final round) one more time and not clip the apron in (Turn) 4," Stewart said. "I think we could have been on the pole."
Denny Hamlin qualified fourth, giving JGR three of the top four spots. Brad Keselowski in fifth has the top Ford. Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson will start from positions six through 10, respectively.
The time trials were a disappointment for the Hendrick Motorsports drivers, who failed to place a car in the top 12.
Jimmie Johnson ran the fastest lap of the day in the first of three rounds, touring the 2.5-mile speedway in 48.435 seconds (185.816 mph). But the six-time series champion failed to advance beyond the second round, losing the 12th and final position to Kurt Busch by .008 seconds.
Johnson will start 13th, Chase Elliott 14th and Jeff Gordon, subbing for ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr., claimed the 21st spot on the grid.
"I felt really comfortable right there," said Gordon, who was 15th fastest in the first round. "I feel like today I'm much calmer than I was yesterday (in practice). Usually, my heart is beating more for qualifying than it is for practice, but that wasn't the case.
"So, today I feel more relaxed and comfortable in the car. I hope to feel the same way tomorrow. Tomorrow's challenge is going to be being around traffic, and also trying to get the balance of the car right and do that when you're by yourself as well as when you're around other cars."
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying - Crown Royal presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at the Brickyard
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Saturday, July 23, 2016
1. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 184.634 mph.
2. (19) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 184.547 mph.
3. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 184.328 mph.
4. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 184.079 mph.
5. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 183.591 mph.
6. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 183.202 mph.
7. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 182.852 mph.
8. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 182.500 mph.
9. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 182.463 mph.
10. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 182.386 mph.
11. (41) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 182.349 mph.
12. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 182.286 mph.
13. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 183.554 mph.
14. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 183.273 mph.
15. (24) Chase Elliott #, Chevrolet, 183.068 mph.
16. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 183.020 mph.
17. (21) Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 182.823 mph.
18. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 182.223 mph.
19. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 182.057 mph.
20. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 181.980 mph.
21. (88) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 181.851 mph.
22. (34) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 181.265 mph.
23. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 181.196 mph.
24. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 180.058 mph.
25. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 183.169 mph.
26. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 183.109 mph.
27. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 182.819 mph.
28. (23) David Ragan, Toyota, 182.400 mph.
29. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 182.219 mph.
30. (83) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 182.083 mph.
31. (15) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 181.932 mph.
32. (44) Brian Scott #, Ford, 181.690 mph.
33. (38) Landon Cassill, Ford, 181.342 mph.
34. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 180.792 mph.
35. (98) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 179.651 mph.
36. (93) Ryan Ellis(i), Toyota, 179.019 mph.
37. (7) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 178.356 mph.
38. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 177.978 mph.
39. (55) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 176.180 mph.
40. (32) Patrick Carpentier, Ford, 174.027 mph.
One driver failed to qualify:
41. (30) Josh Wise, Chevrolet, 170.658 mph.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- For substitute driver Jeff Gordon, practice didn't make perfect on Friday afternoon.
Instead, it reminded Gordon just how difficult driving a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car can be.
In all fairness, Gordon has scant experience with the 2016 competition package, a version of which was used on a test basis only at Kentucky and Darlington last year in what was supposed to be Gordon's final season in Sprint Cup.
But concussion-like symptoms have forced Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the No. 88 Chevrolet and simultaneously pressed Gordon into unexpected service. To say the least, Gordon's first lap at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Sunday's Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), was an eye-opener.
Gordon hadn't driven a Cup car since the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and he had less than three days to prepare after returning from vacation in France on Tuesday.
"Being out of the car that long and not really having a lot of experience with this package, it was a tall task, I'll be honest," Gordon said. "It was one of the most challenging days I've had in a race car to try to get comfortable, be consistent, have the speed and give good feedback.
"I mean, I still love this track and I'm glad that we are doing this this weekend, because I think that helps me have the confidence to be able to learn faster, but it's tough. It was tough. That first run I was like, 'Wow, I forgot how hard of work this is.'"
HENDRICK HOPING HIS TEAMS CAN TURN A CORNER AT INDY
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s exit from the No. 88 Chevrolet because of concussion-like symptoms couldn't have come at a more inopportune time for Hendrick Motorsports.
The organization that dominated the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for much of the first decade of the 21st century has fallen on hard times lately, as Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have gained ascendancy in the sport.
Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson won for the second time this season in the fifth race of the year, at his home track in Fontana, Calif., but Gibbs and Penske have combined to win 12 of the 14 races since then.
It's true that Kurt Busch triumphed at Pocono and Tony Stewart at Sonoma in equipment supplied by Hendrick, but the flagship organization can count only Johnson's two victories this season. Even before Earnhardt stepped out of his car for last week's New Hampshire race, Chase Elliott in eighth place was the leading Hendrick driver in the Sprint Cup standings.
Johnson, a six-time champion and a perennial top-10 machine, has but one finish better than 12th in his last 10 races, and as a whole, the team have been plagued by an uncharacteristic spate of accidents.
"It seems like when it rains, it pours," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "I think at Daytona (in July) we wrecked three or four cars. And then we went to Kentucky and wrecked again. We were in good shape in New Hampshire, but wrecked again.
"Our place looks like a salvage yard where all of the cars have been tore up. But that just makes us dig harder."
Losing Earnhardt for an indefinite period of time hasn't helped.
"You never like having a curveball," Hendrick said. "This is kind of one of the toughest things you have to go through, (when) one of your star drivers can't drive. And so, the encouraging news is that everybody just stepped-up and is working harder.
"We're determined to work in every area from the engine to the chassis and aero and everything. And the teams are excited. It's kind of our 'refuse to lose' belief. But we didn't need this, for sure. We didn't need the wrecks we've gone through."
Earnhardt visited the Hendrick shop this past week, and Hendrick hopes that represents a turning point for the organization. Having four-time champion Jeff Gordon in the No. 88 car as a substitute for Earnhardt also is the best possible solution to an unwelcome problem.
"I think Junior, coming to the shop, was a big lift," Hendrick acknowledged. "Jeff being here is a big lift. Hopefully, we'll turn the corner here pretty quick."
BIFFLE STILL FAST DESPITE HEAVY HEART
Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle comes to Indianapolis Motor Speedway riding a wave of three straight top-10 finishes but grieving for the loss of his father, Garland Jack Biffle, who passed away on Tuesday at age 75.
Being on track at the Brickyard, however, has helped Biffle keep his mind off his father's passing.
"I think it's a welcome distraction," said Biffle, who believes he has another top-10 car based on his practice runs. "He was sick last week when I was in Loudon, so I was thinking a lot about his last weekend at the track. It's a tough deal to go through. Everybody has either gone through it or are going to go through it. It's not an easy process.
"I think the only thing I can say at the end of the day, and everybody always says the same thing, is that you just wish you had spent one more day with him, instead of going off and doing your own thing. I can go to the desert anytime I want, but I can't go hang out with my dad anymore and go fish off the dock or something like that. That's what I am going to miss the most. It's hard."
SECOND DIVERSITY SCHOLARSHIP CONTEST
NASCAR and Chevrolet announced Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway the launch of the second annual NASCAR Chevrolet Diversity Scholarship Contest, continuing a long-standing commitment to Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) education and promoting opportunities for college students pursuing technology-related careers.
The contest challenges students to identify a technology or innovation within NASCAR and explain how STEM professionals came to its design in 90-second videos submitted via www.chevy.nascardiversity.com. Four winners will receive a total of $20,000 in scholarships and a VIP experience at Texas Motor Speedway during the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race on Nov. 6.
In what has quickly become an important component of NASCAR's diversity and inclusion platform, the scholarship program helps both organizations attract young, diverse talent to the world of motorsports.
"STEM professionals are invaluable to our sport," said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. "We're proud to partner again with Chevrolet in supporting talented students who we hope one day will play an important role in our industry."
Video submissions will be judged on technical accuracy, creativity and production quality. Examples of science and technology in NASCAR include, but are not limited to: track banking and construction, race car design, SAFER barrier walls, drafting, gas mileage, tire wear, ethanol fuel, pit road officiating and solar energy.
"At General Motors, diversity is our strength and we seek unique perspectives to infuse new ideas into all we do -- keeping us on the cutting edge of technological innovation," said Ken Barrett, Chief Diversity for General Motors.
"Attracting and employing the best and brightest STEM talent from around the world places GM and Chevy in the position to win in the marketplace and the race track."
To be eligible for the contest, students must be currently enrolled, at least part-time, in an accredited college or university within the United States, be between the ages of 18 and 25 at the time of entry and submit a YouTube link through the scholarship website. The deadline to enter is Oct. 15, 2016.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Defending Crown Royal 400 race winner Kyle Busch narrowly avoided a major catastrophe during opening practice on Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for Sunday's race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
Closing fast on the Ford driven by Patrick Carpentier, Busch caught the car at the end of the short chute between Turns 1 and 2. Carpentier steered down the track, pinching Busch's Toyota on the apron.
Busch spun, as the right side of his Camry collided with Carpentier's Ford, but Busch was able to steer his car away from the inside wall and avoided further damage.
Carpentier acknowledged he had failed to yield the racing line to a faster car.
"Kyle was a little bit further back down the (front) straightaway and I was like, 'Do I lift to let him by?'" said Carpentier, whose car escaped unscathed. "He was still quite far away, but he closed in pretty quickly.
"I didn't think he was going to go in there, but it was my bad. I should have let him go in between both corners, but that's why I went and apologized to him."
Carpentier hasn't competed in a NASCAR race on an oval track since 2011 and Busch didn't appear particularly receptive when the Canadian driver paid a visit to the No. 18 garage stall to offer his mea culpa.
"He was not very talkative, but that's to be expected," Carpentier said. "I guess that's racing, but it's just sad that it happened in practice. I wish I would have let him by, but I just wanted to get some laps and some runs.
"A couple of laps before I let Ryan Newman by in between (Turns) 1 and 2, and that went pretty well, and I should have done that with Kyle. Like I told him, 'The next time, I'll do it.'"
Stewart: Don't expect me to cry
Three-time champion Tony Stewart is doing everything he can to keep his last NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway from becoming a sentimental journey.
Despite missing the first eight races of the season because of a back injury suffered during the offseason, Stewart now is comfortably in the top 30 in the series standings, and his unexpected victory at Sonoma in June almost certainly will earn him a berth in the Chase.
So forgive Stewart if he doesn’t get teary-eyed about his final run at the Brickyard. Smoke has more pressing issues on his mind. Stewart is going for his second victory of the season, his third at Indy and the 50th of his career.
"You guys are going to make a lot more out of this than what I'm going to make out of it this weekend," Stewart told reporters on Friday. "I am literally just coming here in my mind like it's just another race, and it's another weekend here at Indy. I'm not doing all the sentimental crying stuff that you guys think I'm going to be doing.
"I'm going to race this weekend. I'm more focused. ... I'm probably more prepared for a Brickyard than I have been any other year. I feel like we had a really good tire test here. Felt like our car drove really well. I think they brought the same car back. If not, it's another one that’s the same generation-type car."
So don't dwell on the retirement-tour angle this weekend. Stewart, who will leave the seat of the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet at year's end, isn't buying it.
"You guys can ask me all about how I'm feeling, thinking, whatever, but you're wasting my time and your time, because all I care about is driving that race car right now," he said.
"It's probably the most focused I've been getting ready for a race. It's not amped up, or anything like that. I'm just really relaxed and focused and feel good going into it. That's the way I need to do it."
Jimmie Johnson led opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice with a lap at 184.185 mph. None the worse for wear after his spin in the first session, defending race winner Kyle Busch paced Happy Hour with a lap at 184.619 mph. ... Jeff Gordon, subbing for ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr., was ninth quickest in opening practice at 179.376 mph. But with most drivers converting to qualifying trim in final practice, Gordon was 25th on the speed chart at 180.375 mph. ... Danica Patrick, the only female driver to post a top-five finish in the Indianapolis 500, cracked the top 10 in Happy Hour. She was ninth fastest at 182.912 mph.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- When Jeff Gordon saw the two-word text from Rick Hendrick, he knew he'd better sit down to call his former boss.
"Call me," Hendrick texted to the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, who was vacationing in the south of France.
"If I can scroll through my phone and look at the texts that I've gotten from Rick that said 'Call me,' I can tell you that you sit down when you call him on those instances," Gordon said Friday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
When Gordon heard the purpose of the call, that Hendrick wanted him to substitute for ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Sunday's Crown Royal 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), his initial reaction was that Hendrick was joking.
"Rick said to me, 'Are you coming to Indianapolis?'" Gordon recalled. "I said, 'Yes, I am. I'm coming on Saturday.' He said, 'You'd better bring your uniform.'
"Honestly, I didn't even have to think twice about it. When Rick calls and has that confidence in me and asks me to step up and do something for the organization, whether it's as a driver or other responsibilities ... after everything he's done for me, the way the organization's been there for me over the years -- I certainly didn't anticipate this."
Even if concussion-like symptoms hadn't sidelined Earnhardt from the No. 88 Chevrolet, Gordon would have been in a car at Indianapolis -- as a celebrity pace car driver.
But the five-time Brickyard winner will put those plans on hold until next year, as he competes for the first time against the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet he drove for 23 years -- a car now piloted by Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader Chase Elliott.
The nuts and bolts of putting Gordon into Earnhardt's car didn't constitute a turnkey operation. Fortunately, HMS had archived the seat and steering wheel Gordon had used in what was supposed to be his final Sprint Cup race, last year's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But Gordon had never used a digital dashboard, which is the standard on Sprint Cup cars this year, so immediately after his return to the United States on Tuesday, he visited the Hendrick shop and began tweaking the array of gauges and lights on the digital dash.
Nor has Gordon driven the current competition package at Indianapolis. When the Sprint Cup series raced at the Brickyard last year, it was with an experimental high-drag package with a large spoiler, a configuration that was not incorporated into the 2016 rules.
So Gordon studied film and throttle traces from the 2014 event, which produced his fifth victory at Indy.
"I kind of like '14 -- it was a good year," Gordon said.
Gordon conferred extensively with crew chief Greg Ives and team engineers. He studied GoPro video from a test at Indy that featured Elliott and Jimmie Johnson.
"Then I took that information and went to the simulator the next morning in Huntersville (N.C.) with GM (General Motors/Chevrolet), and they put those set-ups and this aero package in the car in the simulator, and I was able to drive it.
"They've advanced a lot. I thought that and I'll be able to verify that (in Friday's practice) that it was very close. Much closer than in the past of the braking points, turn-in points, car handling, all those types of things. I'm hoping that really pays off for me."
From NASCAR's perspective, Gordon had to satisfy three requirements before he could return to a Sprint Cup car. He had to pass a physical, pass a drug test and have a current baseline impact test. Gordon satisfied all three requirements.
How long he will remain in the car remains an open question. Gordon is scheduled to drive Sunday at the Brickyard and a week later at Pocono. Beyond that, he preferred not to speculate.
On Friday morning, Earnhardt posted encouraging news on his Twitter account, saying:
"Today is the 1st day in many that I sensed improvement. Seen small gains during my physical therapy as well. Light at the end of the tunnel."
"Right now it's through Pocono," Gordon said. "We were very encouraged by Dale Jr.'s tweet today and comments and the way he is feeling and hope that continues to progress and that he is back as soon as possible.
"We just want him to be there when he is ready and when the doctors say he is ready. I will do whatever I need to do, but I'm also thinking 'What is going to get the team the most points and give them the best opportunity to advance into the Chase?' You've got the two sides, the owner and the driver side of (the Chase)."
Gordon also revealed Friday that he had been approached about replacing injured Tony Stewart in this year's Daytona 500 but had to decline because of his commitments as a booth analyst for FOX Sports.
But with the FOX portion of the season behind him, Gordon will make his 798th Sprint Cup start on Sunday, in a race he never dreamed he would drive.
There's an upside and a downside to nearly every consideration in play at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
If he's physically fit, Gordon can win the race in the Hendrick Motorsports Chevy after a near perfect swan song season last year, when he bid farewell to his Sprint Cup career as a candidate to win the championship.
But there's a downside, too.
After 23 consecutive seasons without missing a race, four titles and tons of records, Gordon returns as a utility man. Absent a victory on Sunday, there went the perfect ending. At least he'll get another chance at the Pocono Raceway next week.
It is too early to speculate on how Earnhardt Jr. will handle the problem of reoccurring concussion symptoms, but undoubtedly the biggest downside is the loss of the Sprint Cup's most popular driver for two more races. The short term upside is Earnhardt, Jr. can take his time about deciding to get back into his Chevy if his symptoms of nausea and balance are resolved. What better substitute could he have than a four-time champion and former teammate?
At a time when NASCAR is losing some of its biggest heroes to retirement, suddenly two Indiana legends will be racing at the Brickyard for, theoretically at least, the last time. Tony Stewart, due to step out of a full-time role in the Sprint Cup next year, and Gordon each came out of the Hoosier state's racing hotbed.
On the other hand, what if the presence of these two doesn't set the turnstiles spinning?
Compared to this year's sold out Indy 500, another desultory crowd in the summer stock car race will only add to the conundrum of NASCAR's inability to rebound to the glory days prior to the Great Recession.
Questions about Gordon's physical condition and his readiness to continue in the No. 88 Chevy if needed will initially be answered on Friday morning at the Speedway, when the driver and team owner Rick Hendrick will meet with the media. Hendrick has already acknowledged that it will be an emotional weekend seeing Gordon in the car in Earnhardt, Jr.'s absence. The day's two practice sessions will also shed some light on questions about Gordon's readiness to win.
I wouldn't put long odds against Gordon.
He's won the Brickyard race five times, most recently in 2014 when he broke a tie with Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson for most wins at the track. Although Earnhardt, Jr. has not won a race this year in the No. 88, he has recorded four runner-up finishes. Gordon may not have much experience with Crew Chief Greg Ives, but he's returning to the same team where he spent his entire career.
Then there's the motivational aspect.
The number of times Gordon gets to drive the No. 88 is indeterminate. But it's not open-ended. Like Kyle Busch coming back from injuries last year, Gordon will be highly motivated in a return to a sport he loves. He will also be motivated by the short-term nature of the opportunity, not that a four-time champion and winner of 93 Sprint Cup races needs to be primed.
It's unusual for a top-line driver to be named as a substitute in a front-line car. Usually, the best drivers are already employed when a seat opens up unexpectantly and the call goes to an otherwise deserving driver like Alex Bowman last week in the New Hampshire race.
Ironically, the most memorable time a star driver substituted involved Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and the Southern 500 in 1979. When Earnhardt suffered severe injuries, including a broken collar bone, a bruised heart and a concussion at Pocono in his rookie year, David Pearson was called on by team owner Rod Osterlund. The "Silver Fox" had been fired by the Wood Brothers after a pit road miscue in the Rebel 400 at the Darlington Raceway in the spring of that season.
A master at Darlington, where he still holds the record for most victories and poles, Pearson, aged 44, won the Southern 500 substituting for Earnhardt. Gordon, who holds the record for poles as well as wins in the Brickyard 400, enters Sunday's race at age 44. Gordon also holds the record for the most Top 5s and Top 10s at Indy.
There are some oddball considerations, beyond the fact his serendipitous appearance enables Gordon to continue to hold the record as the only driver who has competed in every Brickyard 400. Or that it will be his first entry in a Sprint Cup car other than No. 24.
While working as a commentator for Fox Sports this year, Gordon has been criticized for being partial to the Hendrick team. One of the major reasons for Gordon's return to drive the Hendrick entry on Sunday is loyalty to team owner Rick Hendrick. So his short-term "rescue" of Hendrick underscores an ongoing bias toward the team, where Gordon is part owner of the No. 48 entry of Jimmie Johnson.
How would a Gordon win influence the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, if at all? There is the precedent of a driver needing to finish in the Top 30 in points to be eligible.
But that precedent was established by changing the previous rule requiring a driver to start all 26 races prior to the Chase. Would there be another new precedent on behalf of Gordon -- should he be slated to continue for the remainder of the season in the No. 88?
Hendrick Motorsports made it official Wednesday that the 44-year-old Gordon will take the wheel and return to Sprint Cup racing for the next two weekends. Earnhardt has not been medically cleared to drive in Sunday's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt, who sat out last Sunday's New Hampshire 301, also will miss the following race at Pocono on July 31.
Gordon retired as a full-time Sprint Cup driver for the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 car at the end of last season and now works as a NASCAR analyst for FOX Sports. He will replace Earnhardt in the No. 88 Chevrolet for the next two races.
"I think Jeff will do well," team owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday when talking about the possibility of Gordon's return. "He's won that race a lot of times. He's been out of the car this year. I expect if he gets in the car, he might be a little bit rusty, but we've got a lot of practice time and I don't think it'll take Gordon long to get back in the groove."
Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup Series champion, retired following a 23-year career with 93 wins in 797 starts. Gordon, an equity owner in Hendrick Motorsports, has run in every Brickyard race since the inaugural event in 1994, winning a record five times --1994, 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2014.
Gordon was on vacation in France last week when he received the call from Hendrick asking him to fill in for Earnhardt if he wasn't able to race.
Alex Bowman took the reins of the No. 88 from Earnhardt at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last Sunday, finishing 26th.
Hendrick said it has yet to be determined whether Gordon continues to drive for Earnhardt if needed.
"Jeff's a team player," Hendrick said in a news release Wednesday. "I know he'll be ready, and I know Dale has incredible trust in him. It's going to be an emotional weekend (at Indianapolis) with Dale not being there and seeing Jeff back behind the wheel.
"Our focus is giving Dale all the time he needs to recover. There's nothing we want more than to see him back in the race car, but we'll continue to listen to the doctors and follow their lead. What's best for Dale is what's best for Hendrick Motorsports and everyone involved with the team. We're all proud of him and looking forward to having him racing soon."
Earnhardt missed two races in 2012 for concussion-related issues after a wreck at Talladega Superspeedway.
"I've struggled with my balance over the last four or five days, and I definitely wouldn't have been able to drive a race car (at New Hampshire)," Earnhardt said earlier during his "The Dale Jr. Download" podcast. "So making the right decision (not to race) was out of the question. I made the decision I had to make. ... It's just going to take a lot of patience. I put my health and quality of life as a top priority, and I'll always do that. I'm going to take this slow and strictly follow the advice of my doctors."
Earnhardt visited the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program Tuesday for further evaluation.
"I miss everybody. I really appreciate all the support that I've gotten," Earnhardt said on the podcast. "It's really unnecessary, but it really does make me feel good.
"I have to be honest. To hear everybody wishing me well really, really does my heart good. This kind of thing can beat you down and get you sad, but I've got a lot of good people around me, a lot of people supporting me. I hope we can get back at the track soon."
NASCAR requires drivers to submit a baseline neurocognitive assessment such as an imPACT test, which is only one tool as a prerequisite for being licensed to compete. The mandate followed a comprehensive industry-wide education process launched by the sanctioning body in 2013.
NASCAR has a medical advisory group consisting of a team of consulting physicians who work directly with the league on policy development while regularly meeting with drivers to continue the education process. A driver with concussion-like symptoms can only return to NASCAR competition after the sanctioning body receives a notice from an independent board-certified neurologist or neurosurgeon.
Gordon can earn owner points for the No. 88 Chevrolet but can't accumulate driver points for Earnhardt. At the moment, Earnhardt sits in the final spot on the Chase Grid, 14 points ahead of the cutoff line for NASCAR's 10-race, four-round elimination playoffs. If he returns before the Chase, he will likely be out of the top 16 in points and could need a win to make it.
Three-time champion Tony Stewart, who will retire after this season, is looking forward to racing Gordon again.
"That's going to be really cool ... if we get to race Jeff one more time," Stewart said Sunday.
After the Sprint Cup teams raced without him at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, it was clear that the presence of NASCAR's most popular driver was missed and unclear what the future will hold for the driver individually and the sport in general.
This week, Earnhardt, Jr.'s doctors will decide if he's able to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, one of the fastest tracks in the series. If Earnhardt, Jr. then chooses to enter, a medical specialist working with NASCAR will use the sanctioning body's concussion protocol to confirm he's able to race.
Absent Earnhardt, Jr., Hendrick Motorsports has Jeff Gordon standing by.
But this is only a microcosm of current events, set in motion due to Earnhardt, Jr.'s courage about coming forward after consulting with his doctors and voluntarily sitting out the New Hampshire race. He had the same symptoms the week before without realizing they were concussion related and competed at the Kentucky Speedway. So there was a choice and the star driver, once he knew the facts, made the gutsy call to step aside for at least one race, maybe more.
Ironically, it was only this spring that Earnhardt, Jr. volunteered to donate his brain to science after his death, a choice that was carefully considered and made in the interest of improving the science about concussions as well as the sport he loves. That decision related to the two concussions suffered by Earnhardt, Jr. in 2012.
The attention he will continue to receive in the media and from fans is fundamental to recognizing Earnhardt, Jr.'s courage in doing the right thing. His recent episode now makes him the central figure in ongoing discussions about concussions in motor racing, which has been secondary story to the problems that have plagued the National Football League.
At age 41, Earnhardt, Jr. has more than a few years of competition left according to the usual standards, which no longer necessarily apply. In the wake of the retirement of Gordon from regular Sprint Cup competition this year and Tony Stewart next year, Earnhardt Jr. has said he wasn't close to considering it.
Now Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt Nation, NASCAR itself and the sport's followers will begin to live with the week-to-week consideration of whether retirement is the answer for Earnhardt, Jr.
Every time there's a crash involving him -- there were two at Talladega earlier this year -- it will raise the specter of being the crash that hastens retirement. As long as he continues to drive, the question of possibly quitting to better enjoy his upcoming marriage and a post-driving life as one of NASCAR's most engaging personalities will be present for Earnhardt, Jr.
One of the known aspects about concussions is that repeated occurrences can be very destructive. One driver who eventually left the sport after suffering a severe head injury is Ricky Craven, now a commentator for ESPN. Craven returned from a long absence following a concussion suffered at the Texas Motor Speedway in 1997, which followed two other concussions. He was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, which led to problems with virtigo. He eventually won one race for Hendrick Motorsports and a memorable race at the Darlington Raceway for team owner Cal Wells in 2003 and then soon retired.
A larger question also looms for the sanctioning body.
Unlike the NFL, there has not been a plague of injured former drivers surfacing. But Freddy Lorenzen's family says the star Ford factory driver of the 1960s is suffering dementia due to head injuries received while racing and recently announced Lorenzen's brain would also be donated to science after his death. Another star of the 1960s, Lee Roy Yarbrough suffered a bad concussion while driving for Dan Gurney at Indy, was never the same driver afterward and eventually died in a mental hospital.
One of the early Busch Series champions, Sam Ard, suffered a concussion the year he won the title and spent the rest of his life battling mental health issues.
But since NASCAR has only recognized drivers as independent contractors for legal purposes, the liability for past events is not regarded in the same light as the settlement established for NFL players suffering from the syndrome of repeated concussion injuries known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
When Earnhardt, Jr. suffered a concussion during a test at the Kansas Speedway in 2012, which led to his first episode of concussion-like symptoms later in that year following a crash at Talladega, he was in cars with the state-of-the-art cockpit safety equipment. The HANS Device has been central to reducing critical or fatal head injuries in all forms of racing, including NASCAR. But it is designed to reduce shear force and tension in the neck leading to basilar skull fractures.
The mechanism behind a concussion is much more difficult to prevent as the NFL and those working on special football helmets are beginning to discover. In NASCAR, as much science that has gone into carbon fiber seats, head surrounds with scientifically designed padding and the HANS Device, the issue of a driver's brain hitting the inside of the skull as a result of an accident still exists.
Why the problem befell Earnhardt, Jr. is unclear. Whether other drivers have chosen to hide concussions or concussion-like symptoms is also slightly muddled due to the injury being difficult to detect in some circumstances.
NASCAR may have to change protocols and ask all drivers involved in accidents to submit to a post-race examination for concussion, not just those who visit the infield medical center as a result of their cars being disabled. Drivers involved in testing crashes perhaps should also undergo a mandatory medical exam. The sanctioning body may need to look at imposing a longer waiting period for any driver assessed with concussion-like symptoms or a concussion.
Looking back on the arc of Earnhardt, Jr.'s troubles with concussions, these protocols may or may not have made a difference in terms of preventing an ongoing, longterm problem.
One of those familiar with head injuries is Joe Gibbs. His son J.D., formerly the president of Joe Gibbs Racing, is suffering from a brain-related disorder that the family believes resulted from head injuries that occurred while competing in youth sports, including motocross.
"I don't remember concussions for us even though we're in a race car and we're going that fast and everything," said Gibbs of his 25-season career as a Sprint Cup team owner, which included a victory by Matt Kenseth at New Hampshire on Sunday. "But I think it's a serious issue in sports today. I think we're so much better medically, that the protocols and everything we have in place is great. It's a serious issue, because you want to really pay attention to it. But I think we've done a great job with the cars and the safety features, and obviously it's impacted me and my family, I think. It could definitely be a part of J.D.'s situation. I think it's one of the most important things we can deal with in sports."
Similarly, driver/team owner Tony Stewart says the changing times have made NASCAR more alert to head injuries and drivers like Earnhardt, Jr., too. When in the minor leagues trying to make a living, said Stewart, drivers often "played hurt" to stay in the racing game and to pay the rent, including him. It's different currently, he said, when it comes to head injuries.
"I think since the NFL and since the concussion thing has become such a big topic, and it's just awareness more than anything," said Stewart. "And I think that's the great thing about Dale is that he's really brought a lot of awareness. It just doesn't happen in the NFL, it happens in our sport, as well."
Despite all the support he has found in the garage for making his condition known, for now Earnhardt, Jr. is more like a lone wolf in this safety discussion. NASCAR protocols are in place for drivers, who also now have enough information to take themselves to neurologists if necessary. Every time there is crash that disables a car the safety equipment is reviewed by NASCAR officials and an investigation team at Research and Development. They are aided by crash data recorders on each car.
Unfortunately, it hasn't been enough to prevent concussions or the reoccurrence of Earnhardt, Jr.'s concussion symptoms. Ultimately, it will be up to him to choose how to deal with it in the future and up to his fans and the rest of the sport to accept his decision.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LOUDON, N.H. -- Even though his dreams of a career-first top-10 finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ended in a wreck against the frontstretch wall, Alex Bowman couldn't conceal his elation.
Bowman, 23, was subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was sidelined for Sunday's New Hampshire 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after experiencing concussion-like symptoms earlier in the week.
And though Bowman had 71 Cup starts to his credit before Sunday's race, none of them came in equipment remotely comparable with the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet he drove in Earnhardt's stead.
After starting 20th and getting the feel of the car, Bowman began advancing. He was 10th for a restart on Lap 228 and got by teammate and six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson for the ninth spot.
But calamity struck on a Lap 265 pit stop when contact between Bowman's Chevy and Carl Edwards' Toyota cut the left-rear tire on Bowman's car. The coup de grace came on Lap 273 when Bowman slid up the track into Kurt Busch's Chevrolet.
With the left-rear flattened, Bowman crashed into the outside wall on the frontstretch.
Bowman stayed on the lead lap and finished 26th, but the way the race ended didn't mute the driver's enthusiasm.
"It was amazing," Bowman gushed. "I can't thank Hendrick Motorsports and all these guys enough. They took me to my worst racetrack by far and made me look good. I just have to thank Mr. H (team owner Rick Hendrick). I had such an amazing time. Everybody, (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and all the guys were so welcoming. I hate the circumstances and really hope Dale is feeling well, but I had so much fun today.
"Obviously, I hate that we didn't get the finish we deserve, but I've raced with a lot of these guys for a long time. ... I raced around them, but I've never got to actually race with guys like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, all those guys. I had a lot of fun passing really good cars. Just really thankful for Nationwide and all of Hendrick Motorsports for letting me be here."
Gordon ready to step into Earnhardt's No. 88
Despite turning in a praiseworthy performance at New Hampshire, Alex Bowman won't be in the No. 88 car if Earnhardt isn't cleared to drive next weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
That duty will fall to Jeff Gordon, who is ready to interrupt his retirement, if need be. The four-time champion was on vacation in the south of France when team owner Rick Hendrick called.
"I asked him what he was doing next week, and he said he'd be in Indy for one of the appearances he has to make," Hendrick said. "I said, 'Well, bring your driver's uniform just in case.' He said, 'Are you kidding?' And I said, 'No, I'm serious.' So if Dale can't go, then Jeff is ready to step in."
In fact, Gordon is the probable sub if Earnhardt is sidelined for additional races.
"I would think so," Hendrick said. "I haven't talked to him about it. We're just taking it a week at a time. Hopefully Dale's going to be back next week, and it's not even something that we really think is going to happen.
"But if it does, Jeff is a team player and he wants to support the organization, and I'm sure he'll do whatever he has to do."
Hendrick said Earnhardt wants to get back in the car as soon as possible and asserted that his driver is planning to continue in the sport long term.
"He and I talked about years beyond next year," Hendrick said. "And just around, I guess it was Daytona, if there was something major wrong, I think they would have seen it already. So I'm very hopeful and he's very hopeful.
"And I think the doctors want to err on the side of being sure, because we want him for a long time. He loves the fans. He loves the sport. He loves to race. And we love him in the organization."
Harvick bemoans miscues that cost him wins
Kevin Harvick left Loudon with a chip on his shoulder -- and justifiably so.
In Sunday's race at the Magic Mile, Harvick would gain positions on the track, only to lose them on pit road.
On the opening run, he drove from eighth to fourth, only to have a glitch with a tire changer's air gun drop him back to 11th for a restart on Lap 41.
On the long green-flag run that followed, Harvick advanced to fourth again but trouble with the left rear during a stop under caution on Lap 101 sent him back to 11th again for a restart on lap 109. During the balance of the race, Harvick ran as high as second but never led a lap.
At the finish, the 2014 series champion was fourth -- and he was fuming.
"I'm disgusted, to tell you the truth," Harvick said. "It's the same thing every week. We just make mistake after mistake, and until we clean that up we don't have a chance to win races, putting ourselves in a hole every time we make a mistake.
"It sucks, because the cars are plenty fast, but we are just not executing."
The team owner made his stance known on Sunday after Earnhardt elected to sit out the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway because of concussion symptoms. The 41-year-old Earnhardt told reporters that he believed the symptoms were incurred in crashes at Michigan on June 12 and at Daytona on July 2.
"He and I talked about years beyond next year just around Daytona," Hendrick said of Earnhardt. "If there was something major wrong, I think they would have seen it already.
"I'm very hopeful and he's very hopeful. I think the doctors want to err on the side of being sure. We want him for a long time."
Alex Bowman replaced Earnhardt at New Hampshire on Sunday, with the latter's status uncertain for future races this season.
Should Earnhardt have to miss next week's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Brickyard 400 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports already has a super sub lined up to replace him: Jeff Gordon.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LOUDON, N.H. -- Don't put anything past Jeff Gordon.
That advice comes from someone who ought to know, Gordon's former teammate and six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Gordon will be pressed into service next weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway if Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s concussion-like symptoms persist past this Sunday's New Hampshire 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), where Alex Bowman is driving the No. 88 Chevrolet in Earnhardt's absence.
Even though Gordon raced for the last time in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson doesn't think a victory at Indy is out of the question for the four-time series champion and record five-time winner at the Brickyard.
"I've learned to never underestimate that man, without a doubt," Johnson told the NASCAR Wire Service. "And it's Indy, a place that he loves dearly. He's the most winning driver there.
"I'm sure it will take a few laps to knock the rust off and get going, but there's enough on-track time and the race is long enough that he'll have a shot."
After broadcasting the final race on FOX Sports' portion of the Sprint Cup schedule, Gordon went out of the country on vacation, prompting a quip from Johnson, whose No. 48 Chevrolet is co-owned by Gordon.
"I think he's in the south of France drinking Rose -- we need to sober him up and get him back," Johnson joked. "The posts I've seen from him and his wife, they're having a big time over there.
"We need to send some Gatorade over there and get him hydrated and get him back for Indy."
LOOKING AHEAD TO CHASE RACE AT NEW HAMPSHIRE
The July race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is one of the most significant on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, and with good reason.
Because the first race at the Magic Mile is so close to the Chase race at NHMS -- barely more than two months apart -- it's fair to say that solving the 1.058-mile flat track in Sunday's New Hampshire 301 will give teams a leg up on the second race in the Chase, come September.
"The guys that are fast this time around will probably be fast next time around when we come back here," Brad Keselowski said after Friday's qualifying session. "That makes this weekend a pretty important weekend for us. You look at it in terms of car development, and Phoenix is probably on the opposite end.
"You start in late February and come back in November and it seems like you have two completely different cars with the development your team has put into it. It isn't always a good indicator of who is going to be fast."
The tight time frame at New Hampshire, on the other hand, makes notes collected in July all the more important.
"You look at this track, and I don't know if there is another track in the Chase that races back-to-back so quickly, in such a short time span," Keselowski said. "That means that, generally, what works here in the first race carries over to the second race, because the car specs and development cycle is relatively close.
"I think it's a good indicator for sure and important for us to run well, being that it's in the Chase when we come back. I think we put a lot of emphasis on this race, as do all the Chase-eligible teams so far."
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers topped the speed chart in Saturday morning's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. In unusually hot conditions, Carl Edwards paced the session at 131.456 mph, followed by teammates Denny Hamlin (131.284 mph) and Matt Kenseth (131.193 mph). ... Pole winner Jimmie Johnson, on the other hand, was 14th fastest in the morning session and 25th fastest in the 10-lap average speed, lagging behind Edwards, whose 10-lap average was 130.452 mph. ... Sunoco Rookie of the Year frontrunner Chase Elliott posted the fastest lap in Happy Hour at 131.347 mph to edge Hamlin and Kenseth for session honors. Johnson improved to seventh fastest in final practice. ... Alex Bowman, subbing for sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr., was 24th on the speed chart in morning practice and 22nd in Happy Hour. Bowman will start 20th in Sunday's New Hampshire 301.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LOUDON, N.H. -- After one of the roughest stretches in his career, Jimmie Johnson got a welcome boost on Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Saving his fastest lap for the third and final round of knockout qualifying, Johnson won the pole for Sunday's New Hampshire 301 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race (1:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), covering 1.058 miles at 133.971 mph.
Johnson edged Kyle Busch (133.830 mph) for the top starting spot, claiming his first pole at the Magic Mile, his first of the 2016 season and the 35th of his career.
Busch, however, owned the fastest lap of the day, running 134.080 mph to pace the second round, but Johnson was quickest when it counted most.
With only one top 10 in his last nine races, Johnson needed a catalyst, but his car was so off-kilter during a mock qualifying run during opening practice that he thought something had broken on the No. 48 Chevrolet.
While his team reset the car to the specifications in place when it unloaded, Johnson went on a 32-mile bike ride with fellow driver Matt Kenseth to clear his head.
When he returned for time trials, the car was better.
"We had a really weird set of tires or something odd go on on our mock run at the end of practice," Johnson said. "It felt like something was broken on the car. So to come back and have good speed in the car and advance, I knew after round two we would have a shot at the pole, because we were able to keep our lap count down and advance to the next round on our first lap in each session.
"And then put together a smooth lap. I felt like it could have been faster, but certainly a good smooth one, and it was enough."
And having speed in the car was a shot of adrenaline to a team that has been struggling.
"We've had a lot of tough races," Johnson acknowledged. "Qualifying has been so-so. I'm not the best at qualifying. I think the majority of that emotion was the fact that we actually got a pole.
"We don't have many. It's not our strong suit. Just a good day all-in-all, and certainly something this Lowe's team needed after the tough couple of months. ... Today's a big day for us."
Martin Truex Jr. will start third after bumping his way into the final 12 by .001 of a second over fellow Toyota driver Carl Edwards in the closing seconds of the 10-minute second round. Truex covered the distance at 132.827 mph to knock Edwards out of the final round.
Truex then secured the third position on the grid with a lap of 133.371 mph.
"It's been a hectic day," Truex said. "It seems like we've been thrashing all day long. Everything is last minute, last second and just throwing stuff at it, but when it counts we keep hitting it.
"We were first in practice and third here. We barely made it through the second round and then went on to finish third. All in all, it was a good day. Just a lot of quick decisions by everyone."
Kurt Busch will start fourth, followed by Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, who led the first round of time trials at 133.166 mph.
Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and AJ Allmendinger claimed the seventh through 10th starting spots, respectively.
Substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is sidelined with concussion-like symptoms, Alex Bowman took the 20th starting position. Though Earnhardt wasn't at New Hampshire, he nevertheless contributed to Johnson's pole-winning run.
"He did come here and test for us," said Johnson, who is driving a new chassis this week. "And he gave us the foundation for the way our cars unloaded today. So big thanks to the 88 team, Dale and (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and those guys for having a great test session and giving us an opportunity for the pole today."
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying -- New Hampshire 301
New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Loudon, New Hampshire
Friday, July 15, 2016
1. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 133.971 mph.
2. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 133.830 mph.
3. (78) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 133.371 mph.
4. (41) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 133.059 mph.
5. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 133.059 mph.
6. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 132.915 mph.
7. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 132.720 mph.
8. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 132.697 mph.
9. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 132.692 mph.
10. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 132.618 mph.
11. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 132.126 mph.
12. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 131.989 mph.
13. (19) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 132.822 mph.
14. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 132.799 mph.
15. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 132.780 mph.
16. (83) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 132.683 mph.
17. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 132.471 mph.
18. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 132.278 mph.
19. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 132.241 mph.
20. (88) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 132.057 mph.
21. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 131.724 mph.
22. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 131.678 mph.
23. (23) David Ragan, Toyota, 131.665 mph.
24. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 131.180 mph.
25. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 131.501 mph.
26. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 131.401 mph.
27. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 130.954 mph.
28. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 130.711 mph.
29. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 130.568 mph.
30. (38) Landon Cassill, Ford, 130.568 mph.
31. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 130.559 mph.
32. (15) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 130.367 mph.
33. (44) Brian Scott, Ford, 130.224 mph.
34. (7) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 129.812 mph.
35. (34) Chris Buescher, Ford, 128.680 mph.
36. (55) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 128.070 mph.
37. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 126.774 mph.
38. (32) Eddie MacDonald, Ford, 126.690 mph.
39. (30) Josh Wise, Chevrolet, 126.534 mph.
40. (98) Ryan Ellis, Chevrolet, 124.871 mph.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LOUDON, N.H. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s misfortune may turn into a coming-out party for Jeff Gordon -- coming out of retirement, that is.
Earnhardt is sidelined with concussion-like symptoms and won't compete in Sunday's New Hampshire 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). His status for future races this season remains uncertain.
Should Earnhardt have to miss next week's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports already has a super sub lined up to replace him.
"If Dale is not able to go to Indianapolis, we will put Jeff Gordon in the car," said Hendrick Motorsports General Manager Doug Duchardt.
The choice is logical. Fox Sports has completed its portion of the Sprint Cup season, and Gordon's services as a booth analyst aren't required for the rest of the year. Consider also that Gordon has five victories at the Brickyard, a record for the vaunted track.
Whether Gordon returns to race at Indy, however, depends on the prognosis for Earnhardt, who was advised by doctors this week not to race at Loudon. Alex Bowman, initially contacted as a possible relief for Earnhardt before the extent of his condition was known, is driving the No. 88 Chevrolet this weekend.
"Alex came in Tuesday night to get fitted for the car," Duchardt said. "And at that time, it was in the contingency that he would have to backfill for Dale after Dale started the race.
"Dale then went and saw a team of neurologists and in the past two days has been going through some tests. (Thursday) around noon is when I found out that Dale could not be in the car for this weekend, based on their suggestion."
Earnhardt's health issues also bring an important opportunity to Bowman, who drives a limited NASCAR XFINITY Series schedule for JR Motorsports.
"Yeah, it's been a crazy 12 hours, for sure," Bowman said on Friday morning at NHMS. "I think the first time (crew chief) Greg (Ives) called me, I was at work, so I didn't even answer. But it's definitely not the circumstances that I want to get an opportunity like this. Obviously I'm hoping Dale feels better, but at the same time, it's the best opportunity I've ever had in my life.
"I'm ready to just plug into their program and do my job. I'll give them the best feedback I can and go from there. I'm really confident in the whole team. Obviously, they bring great race cars to the track every weekend, so if I just do my job, I feel like we would be good to plug into it."
Duchardt declined to speculate whether Gordon would substitute for Earnhardt in additional races, if necessary.
NO SOPHOMORE SLUMP FOR EDWARDS
Early in his debut season with Joe Gibbs Racing last year, Carl Edwards had a rough time.
But that was before he learned to go with the flow - or the "wave," as he called it.
Edwards won his first race with JGR in the 12th event of 2015, the Coca-Cola 600, and didn't visit Victory Lane again until Labor Day weekend at Darlington.
Within the first 18 races of 2015, Edwards won back-to-back at Bristol and Richmond and has posted 12 top 10s, including a second-place finish last week at Kentucky Speedway. Collectively, JGR drivers have won seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races this year, with affiliated Furniture Row Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. adding another.
"The beginning of last year, I didn't expect the changeover to JGR... it was a bigger deal than I expected," Edwards said on Fridayafternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "I tried a little too hard to begin with and made some moves and mistakes that I hadn't made in a long time. I settled in and feel like I'm doing a better job now.
"I'm riding the wave that is JGR. These guys, they've been working a long time to get to this point, and I'm the lucky recipient of that hard work. Right now you can just look at the scoreboard every week, or the speed charts - our Toyotas are really fast. I can't point to one thing. I think overall it's TRD (Toyota Racing Development), JGR - all the folks that do this and us teammates working together that gives us those results."
--Martin Truex Jr. was fastest in opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, turning a lap at 133.562 mph. Fellow Toyota drivers Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch were second and third, respectively...
--Bobby Santos won Friday afternoon's NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour event at NHMS, beating Eric Goodale to the finish line by .127 seconds. Veteran Ron Silk was third, .698 seconds back. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman held his own against the modified stars, finishing 10th.
Hendrick Motorsports announced Friday morning that the 44-year-old Gordon would take the place behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 24 if Earnhardt's symptoms continue to linger and cause him to sit out a second consecutive race.
Earnhardt is being replaced by Alex Bowman for Sunday's New Hampshire 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Earnhardt experienced concussion-like symptoms following crashes at Michigan on June 12 and Daytona on July 2. He raced last Saturday night in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway but the symptoms persisted after the race.
Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt said a decision likely would be made by Wednesday to determine whether Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, replaces Earnhardt.
"He's a four-time champion with 93 wins -- he's not a bad person to think about to get in the car," Duchardt said of Gordon. "This week, he's in France. ... If Dale is not able to go at Indianapolis, we'll put Jeff Gordon in the car. When Dale is ready, it's his car to get back into."
Gordon retired after last season following a 23-year career with 93 wins in 797 starts. Gordon, an equity owner in Hendrick Motorsports, worked the first half of the season for FOX Sports as a race analyst.
Gordon has run in every Brickyard race since the inaugural event in 1994, winning a record five times --1994, 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2014.
Earnhardt missed two races in 2012 for concussion-related issues after a wreck at Talladega Superspeedway. A timetable for his return is unknown.
"I wasn't feeling great the week going into Kentucky (Speedway) and thought it was possibly severe allergies," Earnhardt said in a statement Thursday. "I saw a family doctor and was given medication for allergies and a sinus infection. When that didn't help, I decided to dig a little deeper. Because of my symptoms and my history with concussions, and after my recent wrecks at Michigan and Daytona, I reached out and met with a neurological specialist. After further evaluation, they felt it was best for me to sit out. I'm disappointed about missing New Hampshire this weekend. I'm looking forward to treatment with the goal of getting back in the race car when the doctors say I'm ready."
Earnhardt currently sits 13th in the points standings with eight races left in NASCAR's regular season. He has yet to win a race this season.
Earnhardt later took to Twitter to thank everyone for their support: "I appreciate everyone's support and prayers and will miss my team terribly this weekend. I'm working with some great doctors to get well."
Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, said he was glad Earnhardt admitted he was experiencing problems and sought medical attention.
"I'm proud of Dale for standing up," Hendrick said. "The No. 1 priority is his health, so we're going to give him all the time he needs. We completely support the decision by the doctors and will be ready to go win races when he's 100 percent. In the meantime, we have full confidence in (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and the team, and we know they'll do a great job."
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not compete in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after experiencing concussion-like symptoms, his Hendrick Motorsports team announced Thursday.
In the release, the team said Earnhardt was evaluated this week in Charlotte (N.C.) and on Thursday was not cleared by physicians to race. Alex Bowman will be the team's substitute driver this weekend at New Hampshire (1:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
"I wasn't feeling great the week going into Kentucky (Speedway) and thought it was possibly severe allergies," Earnhardt said. "I saw a family doctor and was given medication for allergies and a sinus infection. When that didn't help, I decided to dig a little deeper. Because of my symptoms and my history with concussions, and after my recent wrecks at Michigan and Daytona, I reached out and met with a neurological specialist. After further evaluation, they felt it was best for me to sit out.
"I'm disappointed about missing New Hampshire this weekend. I'm looking forward to treatment with the goal of getting back in the race car when the doctors say I'm ready."
A timetable for Earnhardt's return is still unknown.
Bowman raced fulltime in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2014 and 2015, with a best finish of 13th at Daytona in July of 2014. He has competed in four NASCAR XFINITY Series races this season, all with Earnhardt's JR Motorsports race team.
This is the second time Earnhardt has pulled himself from competition for concussion-related issues. In 2012, he missed two races during the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup after a wreck at Talladega Superspeedway.
"I'm proud of Dale for standing up," said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. "The No. 1 priority is his health, so we're going to give him all the time he needs. We completely support the decision by the doctors and will be ready to go win races when he's 100 percent. In the meantime, we have full confidence in (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and the team, and we know they'll do a great job."
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has reached its midpoint, and there's one inescapable conclusion: the 2016 rules package has produced some of the closest and most exciting racing in years, regardless of the venue.
What's more, fans are taking note of the positive attributes of the low-downforce configuration.
Two of the first four races ended with margins of victory of .010 seconds, tied for seventh closest in history. Denny Hamlin got to the finish line .010 seconds ahead of Martin Truex Jr. to win the Daytona 500, which featured a superspeedway competition package.
Three weeks later, Kevin Harvick won a drag race to the finish line against Carl Edwards using the new 2016 rules package for open-motor tracks.
By then, the Sprint Cup race at Atlanta already had set a track record for green-flag passes for the lead (44) in the first event using the 2016 aerodynamic configuration for open-motor tracks. Those passes were measured at scoring loops situated around the track, not just at the start/finish line.
Subsequently, two-mile Auto Club Speedway and .533-mile Bristol also set track records for green-flag passes for the lead, with 51 and 40, respectively.
That there has been so much tight intra-lap racing at a wide variety of venues is a testament to the efficacy of the 2016 rules, which feature a 3.5-inch spoiler, a .25-inch leading splitter edge and a 33-inch radiator pan.
That combination of ingredients served to lower downforce from approximately 2,700 pounds to 1,800 when compared with the package used in 2015. The practical on-track effect for drivers has been more off-throttle time, with a resulting decrease in speed through the centers of the corners and a consequent increase in the number of passing zones.
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson's early take on the 2016 competition package proved to be spot-on.
"From inside the car, I feel like I can get closer to cars around me and not have my car kind of bug-out in traffic," Johnson said before the mid-March race at Phoenix. "And I feel like this is going to create more passing opportunities.
"I think some tracks might show that a little bit easier than others, but I feel like, riding in traffic, the car is a lot more in control deep in the pack, and I can get closer to cars in front of me. From the rules package standpoint, that's what we're trying to create. And I think we're on the right track."
The performance of the 2016 rules package - and its even lower downforce variations used at Michigan and at Kentucky - isn't the only success story in the first half of 2016.
Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are engaged in a pitched battle for Sunoco Rookie of the Year Honors. Though Elliott isn't likely to make fans forget about Jeff Gordon, his predecessor in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the son of former Cup champion Bill Elliott has made a spectacular, almost seamless transition into the car, confounding predictions of a lengthy learning curve.
Larson has shown marked improvement after a sophomore slump, and Joey Logano, a nine-year veteran at age 26, continues to run as the vanguard of the youth movement, winning the All-Star Race and the June event at Michigan this year.
The combination of compelling racing and equally compelling storylines has focused the spotlight on the Sprint Cup Series this year. Though the season began with disappointing television ratings at Daytona and Atlanta (down 18 percent from 2015), through the first 18 events, including races 17 and 18 televised by NBC Sports, year-over-year ratings have stabilized at minus 3 percent and, during the FOX portion of the season, Sprint Cup ratings on FS1 improved +6 percent, year over year.
This, all while NASCAR's enjoying an increase in the digital and social media realm. Through the second Daytona race, NASCAR.com tallied 33 million unique visitors. And NASCAR's social platforms have gained 1.1 million followers since the start of 2016, leading to 2.2 billion impressions on NASCAR's Facebook and Twitter accounts.
The bottom line is that, halfway through the 2016 season, a broad consensus of competitors, stakeholders and fans is in agreement that the racing is the best they've seen in years and that NASCAR is on the right track with the direction of its competition package.
It was just such a ruling that cost Martin Truex, Jr. a shot at victory at the Kentucky Speedway last Saturday night.
The rule does not exist in writing, although two NASCAR officials stated that the there is no passing on the left after the race on Saturday night and again on Monday. Hence, the likelihood exists that drivers will be instructed not to pass on the left at New Hampshire.
Both Truex, Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn insisted in private conversations with officials that Furniture Row Racing did not violate any rule when the driver sped up to enter his pit stall and momentarily passed leader Kevin Harvick's car, which was continuing down the pit road at the speed limit.
"I did what I've been doing every week," said Truex, Jr., describing the method of accelerating to the pit stall once past the closest timing line.
In effect, NASCAR made a seat-of-the-pants decision to enforce an unwritten rule. Initially, Pearn was told that the instruction is in the video used at driver meetings. But a team official said no such statement is made in the video, which covers the written rules on the pit road.
There's some confusion over whether drivers have been warned not to pass on the left as the teams queue up to enter the pit road in single file and whether this implies no passing once in the pits.
Bowing to the current effort by teams not to publicly speak out against NASCAR, Furniture Row has not spoken about the incident other than in discussions with officials and Truex Jr.'s post-race comments. The rule about overtly criticizing NASCAR is definitely not written, but has been enforced by a $35,000 fine against team owner/driver Tony Stewart earlier this year when he complained to the media about the lug nut rule being unsafe.
The fact Furniture Row team officials are not speaking out about the penalty confirms that the fine of Stewart is having the intended effect of dampening teams' criticism of NASCAR to the media.
What the pit procedure rules do say is that cars must enter the pits in single file. Also, if a driver ahead pulls into his pit stall, the trailing driver may then pass on the right. Finally, drivers cannot go through more than three adjacent pit stalls entering or exiting their own pit stall.
In addition, there is a pit road speed limit in effect at each track, where timing lines are used to record all drivers' times in each segment. But nothing about passing on the left.
In order to gain time, drivers have been speeding up once they peel off from the single file line to accelerate into their pits. Since the car will stop, if the pit stall is in the middle of the timing segment, there will not be any penalty for the acceleration beyond the pit road speed limit. The benefit is getting to one's pit stall faster and possibly gaining an advantage.
Under the scenario of "no passing on the left," the leader is the only driver able to accelerate into his pit stall -- again assuming it's located two or three stalls away from a timing line. Up until now, cars trailing the leader have been trying to do the same thing, but without necessarily passing the car ahead.
Steve O'Donnell, a NASCAR executive vice president, likened the situation to the three-second rule in the NBA. Only when a player camps out in the lane, goes this analogy, is the rule enforced. The problem with this analogy, of course, is that the NBA states the three-second rule and NASCAR's rulebook says nothing about passing on the left.
In effect, NASCAR officials are saying that if a rule does not prohibit a choice by teams and drivers, then the sanctioning body gets to decide whether a choice is a violation. In other words, the rule says a driver may pass on the right, which implies that there's no passing on the left. Up until Saturday night, NASCAR did not enforce this unwritten rule and teams up and down the pit road have chosen to accelerate entering their pits once past a timing line.
It now comes to light that NASCAR was OK with a driver pulling alongside the driver ahead -- as in not overextending one's stay in the NBA pit lane but being able to stay a little longer than three seconds.
"If you kind of pull up alongside a car, sure, that's happened," O'Donnell said. Truex, Jr. actually passed leader Kevin Harvick, whose team then insisted that NASCAR review his pit stop. In the videotape, it's clear that Truex, Jr. timed his acceleration perfectly and that the choice of pit stall location helped him gain some time and edge past Harvick.
So if there is no explicit rule, then how did Harvick and his team know to ask NASCAR to get a review? Therein lies the real dilemma.
Teams have known that NASCAR has been letting the practice of accelerating into one's pit stall ride. And they have used the protective cover of mid-field positions to disguise what they were doing. Choice of pit stalls is done in the order of qualifying, so crew chiefs have been trying to choose pits according to timing lines and the opportunity to accelerate into the stall -- especially when near the front of the field.
Perhaps Harvick, who is a master of gamesmanship, simply took advantage of NASCAR having to make an on-the-spot call and hoped for the best with his complaint -- after his car exited the pits in second behind Truex, Jr. in the final round of pit stops. (The most controversial officiating incident prior to the Kentucky race also involved Harvick. Many thought he gamed the final restart at the Talladega Superspeedway last fall to his advantage. NASCAR apparently agreed with that view and subsequently revised its green-white-checkered procedures.)
Perhaps Pearn and Truex, Jr. just weren't clever enough about breaking the unwritten rule and would have been fine if the Furniture Row Chevy had merely pulled alongside Harvick's Chevy.
There is a safety element to maintaining order on the pit road. And accelerating into one's pit stall raises the possibility of a crewman getting injured. But so far NASCAR in 18 races has not previously called out any driver for a penalty for passing on the left on the pit road.
One would hope all of this is clarified at New Hampshire. Given that NASCAR uses video to police the pit road, one suspects that "pulling alongside" will be OK and passing will not. Ultimately, that evens the playing field for all cars behind the leader, who can always accelerate into his stall according to the location of the timing lines.
Imagine the same scenario of a mid-race drive-through penalty happening in the middle of the Chase, where getting a victory could make the difference between advancing to the next round or not. As it stands, Furniture Row missed an opportunity to score three more bonus points that come with a victory, which can make the difference in advancing out of the first round of the Chase.
TV: Sunday, July 17, 1:30 p.m. ET -- NBCSN (Radio: Performance Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: This will be the 43rd Sprint Cup race held at the so-called "Magic Mile." Kyle Busch is the defending winner of this race, while Matt Kenseth won there last fall in the Chase race. ... Brad Keselowski won last Saturday night's race, the Quaker State 400, at Kentucky Speedway. It was Keselowski's second straight win, having captured the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona the week before. ... There have been 11 different drivers to win a race thus far in the first 18 races this season. There are only eight races remaining for drivers to qualify for the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship field. ... A total of 12 teams took part in a tire test Tuesday and Wednesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for next week's Brickyard 400. ... Keselowski's (595 points) win at Kentucky helped close the gap on points leader Kevin Harvick (599 points) to just a four-point margin. Kurt Busch remains in third place (583), followed by Carl Edwards (566), Joey Logano (533), Kyle Busch (521), Martin Truex Jr. (514), Chase Elliott (492), Jimmie Johnson (484) and Matt Kenseth (477).
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES: LAKES REGION 200 (200 laps, 211.6 miles), New Hampshire Motor Speedway; Loudon, N.H.
TV: Saturday, July 16, 4 p.m. ET -- NBCSN (Radio: Performance Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: Saturday will mark the 30th time the Xfinity Series has raced at New Hampshire. Denny Hamlin is the defending winner of last year's Xfinity race there. ... The last 12 winners of this race have been Sprint Cup regulars, including four wins from Kyle Busch and two wins by Brad Keselowski. The last true Xfinity Series driver to win at New Hampshire was David Green, back in 2003. ... Kyle Busch won last Friday's Alsco 300 at Kentucky Speedway, marking Busch's fifth win this season in the Xfinity Series. ... Winners of the first 16 Xfinity Series races this season have been Chase Elliott (Daytona), Kyle Busch (Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Texas and Kentucky), Austin Dillon (Fontana), Erik Jones (Bristol and Dover), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Richmond), Elliott Sadler (Talladega), Denny Hamlin (Charlotte), Kyle Larson (Pocono), Daniel Suarez (Michigan), Sam Hornish Jr. (Iowa) and Aric Almirola (Daytona). ... Daniel Suarez (537 points) remains in the lead in the Xfinity Series point standings. Elliott Sadler (528) is second, followed by Ty Dillon (518), Erik Jones (480), Brendan Gaughan (477), Justin Allgaier (472), Brandon Jones (459), Brennan Poole (454), Darrell Wallace Jr. (430) and Ryan Reed (378).
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: The series is off this weekend but resumes next Wednesday, July 20, in the fourth annual race to be held on the fast dirt track at Eldora Speedway in Ohio.
THEN AND NOW: William Byron continues to amaze, as the 18-year-old from Charlotte won his fourth race of the season last Thursday at Kentucky Speedway. ... There have been six winners thus far this season: Johnny Sauter (Daytona), John Hunter Nemechek (Atlanta), Kyle Busch (Martinsville), William Byron (Kansas, Michigan, Iowa and Kentucky), Matt Crafton (Dover, Charlotte) and Christopher Bell (Gateway). ... Byron's Kentucky win was the 51st for Kyle Busch Motorsports, which sets a new record for wins by one team in the series. Byron has also now tied Kyle Busch's older brother, Kurt, for most wins by a rookie (four) in the Truck Series -- and there are still 13 races remaining for Byron to potentially break the older Busch brother's record. ... Byron remains in the Truck Series points lead (263 points), followed by former champion Matt Crafton (250), Daniel Hemric (246), Timothy Peters (246) and Johnny Sauter (233).
VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES: HONDA INDY TORONTO, temporary street course in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
TV: Sunday, July 17, 3:30 p.m. ET -- CNBC (Radio: IndyCar Radio Network).
THEN AND NOW: After Josef Newgarden's commanding performance at last Sunday's Iowa Corn 300 in Newton, Iowa, the series moves north of the border for its annual street course challenge in Toronto. This will be the 11th race of the 16-race season, with five more events after that (Mid-Ohio, Pocono, Texas, Watkins Glen and Sonoma). ... This is the 10th Verizon IndyCar Series race to be held on the streets of Toronto near the Exhibition Place. There were an additional 22 races held in Toronto under the former CART/Champ Car banner from 1986-2007. ... Iowa winner Josef Newgarden is also the defending winner of last year's race at Toronto. Scott Dixon is the only multi-race winner there with two wins. ... Newgarden ended Will Power's two-race winning streak with his win at Iowa last Sunday. ... This season's race winners thus far are: Juan Pablo Montoya (St. Petersburg), Scott Dixon (Phoenix), Simon Pagenaud (Long Beach, Birmingham and Grand Prix of Indianapolis), Alexander Rossi (Indianapolis 500), Sebastien Bourdais (Belle Isle 1), Will Power (Belle Isle 2 and Road America) and Newgarden (Iowa). ... Simon Pagenaud (409 points) continues to maintain a commanding lead in the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings. Newgarden (336 points) jumped from fifth to second after his win at Iowa, Will Power (334) remains in third place, Scott Dixon (321) is fourth and Helio Castroneves dropped from second to fifth (318).
NATIONAL HOT ROD ASSOCIATION MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES: The series is off this weekend.
THEN AND NOW: The NHRA enjoys another weekend off before the start of the so-called "Western Swing," which consists of events in Denver, Sonoma (California) and Seattle. ... There are five races remaining before the Countdown to the Championship begins. The other two races, which follow the Western Swing, are Brainerd (Minnesota) and the legendary Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend. ... Winners at last weekend's K&N Filters Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Joliet, Ill., were Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle). ... Several drivers have gone more than a year since their last win, including eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher and 16-time champ and winningest driver in NHRA history, Funny Car's John Force. ... In the NHRA point standings, Antron Brown took over the No. 1 spot (1,056 points), but former leader Doug Kalitta is just two points behind (1,054), followed by Steve Torrence (912), Brittany Force (896) and Tony Schumacher (803). ... In Funny Car, Ron Capps leads (1,068 points), Jack Beckman moved into second place after Joliet (942 points), followed by Courtney Force (892), Matt Hagan (828) and Tommy Johnson Jr. (803). ... In Pro Stock, teammates Jason Line (No. 1, 1,472 points) and Greg Anderson (No. 2, 1,392 points) continue to dominate the standings. Line and Anderson are the only drivers/riders in the four NHRA professional classes to have already clinched positions in the upcoming Countdown to the Championship. As for the rest of the top five, Bo Butner is third (898), followed by Allen Johnson (773) and Drew Skillman (717). ... Defending two-time series champ Erica Enders (522 points) continues to struggle, ranking in 11th place (now 950 points behind Line). If the Countdown were to start today, Enders would not qualify for it. She is eight points behind 10th-ranked Alex Laughlin. ... In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Eddie Krawiec leads the standings with 639 points, followed by teammate and 2015 series champ Andrew Hines (505), Angelle Sampey (471), Jerry Savoie (428), and Hector Arana is fifth (344).
The list included stalwarts such as six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and much heralded rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
On a night short on excitement -- except for a major fire in a pick-up truck in the parking lot next to the track -- ended with a fuel mileage contest. Winner Brad Keselowski's Ford stumbled twice in the last two laps, but held on to beat the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of fast-closing Carl Edwards by a car length.
Much of the night was a procession of cautions as the rules experiment began to look like a science project gone awry. "I don't think there's a driver here that didn't have a handful at some point in Turn 3 tonight," said third-placed Ryan Newman afterward. In addition to a shorter front splitters and rear spoilers and the absence of "skew" in rear suspensions, NASCAR's finest coped with a repaved Kentucky Speedway track and two bouts of rain that helped keep the new asphalt green. Like any new coating of asphalt, only one groove developed, which meant precision was the key.
So less downforce, a narrow groove, a conservative tire from Goodyear due to unknown variables of the pavement and boom! A record-tying 11 cautions broke out before Keselowski won his second straight race for Team Penske.
Oh, yes. There was another culprit. Turn 3 at Kentucky has been more like the eye of a needle compared to other 1.5-mile tracks.
With the increase of banking in Turns 1 and 2 that sped up cars, plus less downforce (and more speed) on the back straight, Turn 3 got a lot more challenging. A cookie cutter track Kentucky is not.
Given that Logano, who won this year's previous two experimental races, fell through the field before clouting the wall after completing only 52 laps, it doesn't seem as if any team or driver has a superior grip on the new low-grip package. While establishing some parity is always a good result for NASCAR, the focus is on making the cars harder to drive.
If some of your best drivers are crashing, it can't be easy goes this line of thinking. There was a time when NASCAR strived to sell tickets and make a name for itself by protecting its biggest stars and teams. Not anymore. One only hopes that NASCAR is not selling crashing these days by simply hacking off aero devices.
"Certainly I think that the downforce package that we got, no matter where we're racing, is going to provide (difficulty for drivers)," said Scott Miller, the senior vice president for competition at NASCAR.
Time will tell if the low, low downforce is in fact too low.
Now committed to testing rules in regular season competition, NASCAR is caught between trying to get new rules for the following season before the Chase starts each year. But not so early in the season as to have an undue influence on teams trying to make the Chase. If the focus is on 1.5-mile tracks, where passing too often seems out of style, there's not too many venues in the summer to choose from for experimenting. Teams and manufacturers want an early start on the following year's rules, too, hence not too many complaints despite all the torn up sheet metal. (Regan Smith, however, as much as put a curse on the Kentucky track after clouting the wall.)
Unless there's a follow-up experiment at another track such as the Darlington Raceway before the Chase begins, Miller all but said what teams ran at Kentucky will be the rules package for non-restrictor plate tracks at the outset of the 2017 season.
"All of this (experimentation) has been geared toward deciding what we're going to do for 2017," he said, "and getting it decided as early as we possibly can, which gives the teams the most runway into next season. Which is something that they've needed and been asking for, so that's what we're striving toward."
Keselowski, Logano and Team Penske have now won all three of this year's experimental low, low downforce or less sideforce races. Logano won the Sprint All-Star Race (which was run without rear skew to cut down on sideforce) and at the Michigan International Speedway (no skew and shorter splitters and spoilers).
In this one, Keselowski, who has two previous Sprint Cup victories at Kentucky, did not have the fastest car compared to the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy of Kevin Harvick, who led five times for 128 laps before a late-race stop for fuel. Before he was penalized for passing on the pit road, Martin Truex, Jr.'s Furniture Row Racing Toyota may have been the fastest. As it was, he catapulted from the back of the field to third place before making a late pit stop for fuel. He led twice for 46 laps and provided the night's most excitement with his spirited charge.
Afterward, Truex, Jr. said he's been speeding up prior to getting to his pit box all year long. (The stop itself prevents a speeding penalty.) But when you pass the leader on the left in the process of taking your last stop and then emerge first from the pit road after coming in second, a common practice gets noticed a lot more easily. And it's a clear cut rule that passing on the left on the pit road is prohibited, one that apparently gets fudged on farther back in the pack.
Once the Chase begins, there will not be any experimentation and the 2016 rules will be used until the end of the season, which will surely be a relief to Chase contenders like Johnson, Logano and likely participant Elliott. The Chase is not likely to include Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. -- at least not on the basis of points -- after his Roush Fenway Racing Ford became one of those to find the wall early. But the slow clawing back of the RFR team continued in Kentucky as Greg Biffle came home sixth -- right behind Tony Stewart, another fuel mileage finisher who needed a good result to secure his place in the Top 30 in points.
In the end, it's difficult to predict which driver and team is going to have a good race on any given afternoon or night. The conditions are the same for everyone, as the saying goes. But one hopes the conditions prevalent at Kentucky are few and far between. And that they don't become commonplace due to super-short front splitters and rear spoilers.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SPARTA, Ky. -- Two important statistics are in play for Stewart-Haas Racing in Saturday night's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
First and foremost, Tony Stewart is making his 600th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start in what will be his final year of competition at stock car racing's highest level.
And as a corollary, there are significant milestones on the line for the three-time series champion. Stewart will take his last shot at securing a victory at Kentucky, where his best finish in five starts is 11th in 2014.
Kentucky is one of two tracks on the schedule where Stewart has never won a Sprint Cup race, the other being Darlington, which the series will visit over Labor Day weekend.
"Winning a race at Kentucky and winning the Southern 500 in Darlington ... that would absolutely cap off everything that -- if we win at Darlington and Kentucky -- would cover every track we currently have on the schedule," Stewart said.
"No matter what happens in the championship, I could say that was perfect."
Stewart, of course, knows he'll compete for a fourth Sprint Cup title later this season, having punched his ticket into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a victory at Sonoma in late June.
The track sweep isn't the only career milestone Stewart is contemplating. His first 599 starts produced 49 victories, leaving him one short of a club currently occupied by 12 drivers.
A 50th win would tie Smoke for 11th on the all-time list with NASCAR Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett. At least Stewart doesn't have to win at Kentucky to keep that particular dream alive.
BUSCH SPRINT CUP LAP LEADER
Stewart's teammate, Kurt Busch, has an impressive streak of his own in jeopardy at Kentucky.
Through 17 races this season, Busch has completed 4,935 laps in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition. That makes him the only driver to have finished on the lead lap in every race this year.
It hasn't been easy. Barreling off Turn 4 last Saturday at Daytona, Busch was running second when contact from Joey Logano's Ford sent his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet spinning through the infield grass.
Busch slid across the finish line spoiler-first and was credited with 23rd place as the last car on the lead lap.
Adversity has continued to dog the 2004 series champion at Kentucky, where Busch got into the marbles and slid sideways into the Turn 4 wall late in Friday evening's final practice session. Damage to the right rear of the car forced crew chief Tony Gibson to opt for a backup car.
That decision forced Busch to take the green flag for Saturday night's race from the rear of the field -- in a car he has never practiced.
WALLACE JR. UNSATISFIED WITH FIFTH-PLACE RUN
The last four NASCAR XFINITY Series races for Roush Fenway Racing driver Darrell Wallace Jr. have produced three top 10s and a solid grip on ninth place in the standings, but that doesn't mean Wallace is satisfied with the results.
Friday night's fifth place run in the Alsco 300 at Kentucky Speedway, however, provided ample evidence the RFR program is headed in the right direction.
"It's a good night for us, but we've got to be better," said Wallace, an alumnus of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. "We finished fifth, so that was a good rebound from when we showed up here at Kentucky. We were way off in left field, so we worked hard all night long.
"There were no mistakes on pit road. I kept sliding through, so I need to work on that. The mistakes are on me, but my guys are awesome. They did a great job, but we've got to be better. Fifth is good, but we're getting close to Chase time, so we need to start winning."
Coincidentally, the inaugural NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase begins Sept. 24 at Kentucky Speedway. Though 12 drivers will qualify, a victory between now and then will guarantee a spot for a series regular. Three full-time XFINITY Series drivers -- Erik Jones, Elliott Sadler and Daniel Suarez -- have accounted for four victories in 16 races so far this year.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SPARTA, Ky. -- So far, this has been a summer Jimmie Johnson would love to forget.
His last eight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races have produced an average finish of 20.75, with the lone highlight a third-place run in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
That, by the way, was the only top 10 in the last eight races for the six-time series champion. Most recently, his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was gobbled up in a 22-car accident last Saturday at Daytona, where Johnson was credited with his second 35th-place finish in the last four races.
Sure, Johnson collected two victories in the first five races of the season and locked himself into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the 13th straight season, but as of Daytona, Johnson had fallen to ninth in the series standings.
On Friday at Kentucky Speedway, his hopes for a reversal of the recent trend in Saturday's Quaker State 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) suffered a setback. Early in a morning practice shortened by rain, Johnson slid into the outside wall in Turn 4, evidence that the repaved, reconfigured 1.5-mile track is as tricky as advertised.
"I just got wide and evidently the track is dirty wide," Johnson said. "I didn't have anything go wrong. I just got wide, and the car just started going straight, and it wouldn't turn.
"I was in the marbles. I couldn't see the line where the track was clean and dirty and it just kept going straight and straight and straight and hit the wall."
Johnson later posted the following on his Twitter timeline:
"Unfortunately I killed the primary car. I was a bit wide in turn 4 and found the marbles… #SheWouldn'tTurn"
Johnson's team rolled out a backup car, which ran eighth fastest in Friday afternoon's practice session. Even though qualifying for the Quaker State 400 was canceled because of the wet weather, Johnson will start ninth in the Sprint Cup race, with the field ordered according to owner points.
Earnhardt Jr. looking for Kentucky turnaround
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s recent numbers look remarkably like those of teammate Jimmie Johnson.
In the last nine races, Earnhardt has an average finish of 20.78, with his only top 10 at Pocono, where he ran second to Kurt Busch. At Talladega in May, Earnhardt crashed out after 63 laps and finished dead last (40th). At Michigan in mid-June, he was 39th.
The only race winner from 2015 who has not yet been to Victory Lane this season, Earnhardt has fallen to 13th in the series standings, with little margin for error if he hopes to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup on points.
The recent struggles prompted fans and pundits alike to question the chemistry and communication between Earnhardt and crew chief Greg Ives. Outwardly, though, Earnhardt has reasserted the solidarity of his team.
"It's been a bit frustrating every now and then," Earnhardt said. "But I'm still enjoying it. I'm still having fun. And I still believe in the group we've got and love being part of the crew I'm with, and I know that we can do it because we've done it before.
"So I'm anxious to get back to running how we should, and I know, I think, we'll do that before the end of this season."
Blaney: High marks for lower-downforce package
Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Blaney doesn't have a lot of experience in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars.
That doesn't mean Blaney doesn’t know what he likes -- and he likes the lower-downforce aerodynamic package in use this weekend at Kentucky Speedway, which has changed dramatically with a recent repaving and reconfiguration of the corners.
"I would say that I've been on track with the Sprint Cup cars and with the new aero package and all those things, and it's been a bit of a joy to drive," Blaney said during a rain delay on Friday afternoon. "The cars are challenging to drive like we thought they would be and like we hoped they would be.
"The mid-corner speed is way down. The straightaway speed is way up, so that's a bit of a handful, but the good kind of handful that I think really challenges drivers to push it to the limits."
With time trials canceled because of a rain-tightened schedule on Friday, Blaney will start 15th on owner points in Saturday night's Quaker State 400. He was 17th fastest in Friday afternoon's practice session.
"It's had decent speed so far, but maybe not exactly where we want to be," Blaney said. “We've got a little more time to work on it, so we're going to go and do just that. I'm happy, of course, to be starting up front.
"You always want to earn it on the track during that weekend, but there is some sense of having earned it over the course of the season with points and so forth, and the success you've had on track, so either way it feels good to be starting up front. Hopefully, we can keep it up there all weekend long."
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SPARTA, Ky. -- Sometimes it pays extra dividends to be the points leader.
That was certainly the case on Friday afternoon, when rains earlier in the day constricted the on-track schedule at Kentucky Speedway.
Because practice time was more important to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams than time trials, the sanctioning body opted to cancel qualifying for Saturday night's Quaker State 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) in favor of an evening practice session at the recently repaved and reconfigured 1.5-mile track.
This weekend also marks the transition from practice speeds to owner points rankings in determining the starting order for a race when time trials are cancelled because of adverse weather. Accordingly, series leader Kevin Harvick will start the race from the pole and will have first choice of pit stalls.
Brad Keselowski, last week's winner at Daytona, will start beside Harvick on the front row, with Kurt Busch and Joey Logano occupying the third and fourth spots on the grid. Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson will start ninth in a backup car after nailing the Turn 4 wall early in Friday's abbreviated morning practice.
With the weather still uncertain, NASCAR scheduled a practice at 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday, leaving a small window for the Sprint Cup teams to adapt to a handful of variables. Goodyear called an audible after the June 13-14 organization test at the speedway and brought a more durable tire than the one used in the test sessions.
"Well, I think this weekend is a little bit of an unknown," Harvick said. "We spent two days here testing, and obviously we had to make some adjustments ... Goodyear had to make some adjustments to the tires coming back to make them live. I think, as we've gone through practice, we haven't had any tire issues so far.
"But it changed a lot with the feel of the car and the things that you want in the car. We've scrambled a little bit. I felt like we were better the second time out on the race track (in Friday's practice). I think, hopefully, being able to get some more practice will be beneficial, because we still don't really have a good idea of exactly where we need to be as far as balance and what is going to happen the longer you run the car."
At least the 2014 series champion will be able to do his learning on Saturday night from the front row.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SPARTA, Ky. -- Even with the significant unknowns facing NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers at Kentucky Speedway, Team Penske figures to have an edge.
Yes, there's new pavement on the 1.5-mile track. Yes, the racing surface has been reconfigured to create two vastly different sets of corners, in the image of Darlington Raceway.
Yes, Goodyear is providing a different tire from the one used during a recent organization test at the speedway. The change derived from concerns about wear on the outer portion of the dual-zone tire Goodyear originally had planned to use.
Accordingly, Goodyear tabled the dual-zone tire in favor of a more durable single-compound version that is new to the Sprint Cup series.
While teams had to adjust to all those variables during practice on Thursday, the competition package on the cars themselves was familiar, having been used in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte, the June race at Michigan and during the organization test.
And in the two races that featured the lower-downforce configuration that also will also be used in Saturday's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Team Penske drivers have excelled.
Joey Logano won both races. Brad Keselowski finished second in the All-Star Race and fourth at Michigan.
So is it a reasonable conclusion that the Penske shop has found an edge with the shorter spoiler and smaller splitter? If that's the case, Keselowski isn't saying so.
"I don't know," Keselowski demurred before Thursday's opening practice. "I feel like we've been running well, whether it's low-downforce or not.
"We don't have as many wins with the other regular low-downforce -- we need a better name than low-downforce and lower-downforce -- but I feel like the results have been more positive for us. But I don't feel a real difference in the cars, so I don't know."
Of greater concern to the driver of the No. 2 Ford was the way his car might behave in treacherous Turns 3 and 4 after the repave.
"In general, the cars at Michigan were really, really loose behind someone," Keselowski said. "I would expect that to be the same, and I would expect Turns 3 and 4 to really, really be a challenge, because it's such a finesse corner already.
"Then you add the lower-downforce package to it, and it's really going to be a hold-onto-your-butt corner..."
Keselowski's words proved prophetic. Early in Thursday's opening practice, his car slipped in Turns 3 and 4 and nicked the outside wall. Fortunately, the damage to the No. 2 car was merely cosmetic.
Dillon believes double duty is a big benefit
Although the NASCAR XFINITY Series cars are markedly different from Sprint Cup cars in terms of their respective rules packages, Austin Dillon feels seat time in Friday night's Alsco 300 XFINITY race will prove invaluable in Saturday night's Quaker State 400.
"I definitely do," said Dillon, who has two victories in four XFINITY starts at the 1.5-mile track. "When you get in a car and can get used to running fast right off the bat... because Turn 1 is really fast right now.
"With all that grip (on the repaved surface), you're carrying a ton of speed and running through the center of the corner with a lot of momentum.
Dillon didn't participate in the June 13-14 organization test at Kentucky (Paul Menard represented Richard Childress Racing), but he found another way to get a head start on his competition by practicing and running the XFINITY car.
"That will help me once I run that Xfinity car to know what I can do in my Cup car," Dillon said. "It might take the guys that haven't seen (the track) or haven't tested 30 extra minutes or 45 minutes to get comfortable with that corner (Turns 3 and 4), where I will be able to go to work and maybe have that 25-to-30 minute advantage on them and hopefully be able to carry that throughout the weekend.
"Definitely hope it's the advantage I think it is. Not only that -- it's just good for me to be prepared when I get in that Cup car to be ready to go."
Toyotas on top in opening practice
Led by Carl Edwards, four Toyota drivers topped the speed chart in Thursday's opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at Kentucky Speedway.
Edwards posted a lap at 186.451 mph (28.962 seconds) and was the only driver to break the 29-second barrier on his fastest lap. Kyle Busch, Edwards' Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and the defending race winner was second fastest at 186.181 mph (29.004 seconds).
Martin Truex Jr. (185.217 mph) had the third-quickest lap, followed by Denny Hamlin (185.084 mph).
For Edwards, the opening practice was a learning experience on a repaved, reconfigured race track.
"For us, we scuffed a bunch of tires," Edwards said. "While we're doing that, I'm looking at the little nuances of the track, where are the bumps, the grip level, exactly where is the speed. This track is difficult.
"We were talking about the differences between Turns 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. It's a bigger difference than any of the mile-and-a-halfs we go to. It's huge. Determining how you're going to balance the car to be aggressive and how loose you need to be here or there, it's kind of hard to figure it out -- but that's what I was working on."