Monday, November 18, 2019

NASCAR's Phelps Charts A Course For 2021

NASCAR President Steve Phelps met with the media yesterday, just hours before Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, delivering an annual “State of the Sport” address that hailed the 2019 campaign as a positive one for the sport.
“Our competition right now on the intermediate tracks and superspeedways… is the best we’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ll start with myself as a fan. I love watching and am super excited when we get to the intermediate tracks and superspeedways, (for) the type of racing we are going to see.
“The results from the competition side are working from a consumption standpoint,” he said. “Our (television) ratings are up 4% this year. All of sports is down 9%, we’re plus 4%. There are fewer people watching television in all sports, obviously, (and) fewer people watching television overall. So when they were watching… they were watching more NASCAR. We’re taking share from someone else, which is important.”
While declining to name names, the NASCAR president said there is strong interest from other manufacturers in joining Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota in the sport, once the new NextGen race car comes online in 2021. Published reports had executives from Honda in attendance two weeks ago at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, and Toyota Racing Development President and General Manager David Wilson said he had a lengthy conversation with that unnamed manufacturers last week, answering questions about the requirements and hurdles associated with fielding a new NASCAR brand
“We had some folks in Phoenix that were interested in coming into the sport,” Phelps said. “It’s important for us. We are working hard to try to determine kind of the timing of that, what that looks like, and what that partnership would look like moving forward bringing someone in.
“The world is a lot different than it was. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to have an OEM come in, plug in, and start to compete on the racetrack.”
Phelps confirmed that hybrid technology will be a part of NASCAR’s engine plans, calling it critical to the sport’s effort to attract new OEMs. He assured, however, that full electrification in not a part of the sanctioning body’s plan.
“This engine is going to sound significantly the same as the current engine,” Phelps said. “We’re not going to have a bunch of electric cars going around. That’s not what this is about. It’s about having a relevant engine to our OEM partners; Ford, Chevy and Toyota, as well as the new OEMs that we’re looking at.”
While hailing the impact of the sanctioning body’s new rule package on intermediate tracks, Phelps admitted that more work is needed to resurrect the sport’s short tracks and road courses. NASCAR originally proposed that the new package be used only on tracks longer than one mile this season. Team owners resisted the idea, saying that two packages would create a financial hardship. NASCAR elected to implement the package across the board, a decision that negatively impacted competition on short tracks and road courses  
Phelps revealed that despite his promise to make no additional rule changes in advance of the NextGen car’s projected rollout in 2021, changes will indeed be made next season.
“Do I think we need to work with our industry, Goodyear, our race teams and OEM partners to improve what we’re seeing on the short tracks? I do. We’re going to do that in the off season, for sure.”

Monday, November 11, 2019

COMMENTARY: For Hamlin, This One Feels Different

Denny Hamlin remembers.

He remembers the seasons when he entered the NASCAR playoffs as a top bet for the title, only to have bad luck, twists of fate and frequent lacks of focus send the championship trophy home in the hands of others.

He remembers the 2010 debacle at ISM Raceway in Phoenix where botched pit strategy cost him an almost-certain trip to Victory Lane and most of a 60-point championship edge over Jimmie Johnson.
He remembers a stunning early crash in the 2010 season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway that ended his championship hopes and handed a historic fifth-consecutive title to Johnson.
Those failures loomed like thunderclouds on the horizon Sunday; less than a week after a stunning, solo spin at Texas Motor Speedway dropped the Joe Gibbs Racing driver from a relatively secure 20 points above the playoff cutline to 24 points below, setting the stage for another potential playoff collapse. The signs were all there; another “here we go again” opportunity for Hamlin to let victory slip through his fingers when it matters most.
This time, though, it was different.
This time, the Virginia native exorcised the demons of seasons past with a championship-qualifying win in the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

Despite a late-race caution caused by John Hunter Nemechek’s bout with the Turn Four wall that set up a three-lap dash for all the marbles.

Despite a decision by crew chief Chris Gabehart to take just two tires on a decisive final pit stop, leaving Hamlin in the crosshairs of teammates Kyle Busch and Truex, both of whom had bolted on four fresh Goodyear Eagles.

Despite a desperation attempt by Ryan Blaney to snatch the lead away and steal Hamlin’s ticket to Ford Championship Weekend.

This time around, there was no disappointment. No excuses, no “what ifs,” no “what might have been.”

Just an opportunity to finally remove his name from the list of Greatest NASCAR Drivers Never to Win a Championship.

“I can't believe it,” said a stunned Hamlin in the aftermath of his sixth win of the 2019 campaign and the 37th of his career. “This race team worked so hard this whole year. They deserve to be there.  I put them in a bad hole last week. I told them today in the meeting, ‘I'm going to give everything I've got to make up for the mistake I made last week.’ That's all I got.”

The Fed Ex Toyota driver led a race-high 143 laps Sunday, surrendering the lead only once in the final 146 circuits; then only during a run of green-flag pit stops. He built a lead of more than 12 seconds at one juncture, wheeling what he called “one of the best cars of my career” through a minefield of lapped traffic without so much as a momentary glitch.

On the final restart, with former champions Truex and Busch set to relegate him to the “close, but no cigar” column yet again, Hamlin was perfect, stiff-arming the competition and pulling away by .377 seconds down the stretch, leaving Busch to wonder aloud how two tires could perform so much better than four.

With the win, Hamlin joins JGR teammates Truex and Busch in Sunday’s title tiff, along with Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick. There is no clear favorite for this year’s title, but Hamlin and Gabehart seem to have everything its takes – including the proper mental outlook – to finally grab NASCAR’s brass ring.

"I've been through so many playoffs,” said Hamlin in Victory Lane. “So many things that went wrong. This year, I'm waiting for the right next thing to happen. I can't thank this team enough. I don't have words yet. I'm going to have to do a little bit more donuts… then go to Homestead."

Everyone talks confidently at this time of year. Everyone likes their team and their chances. Hamlin has said all the right things before, only to come up empty when the chips were down.

This time around, though, things feel different.

The Chesterfield, Virginia native seems more confident, more focused and more confident in a crew chief who has helped him exorcise his demons; a man whose confidence level is so high that he chastised his driver via e-mail last week for saying that their season would still be a success, even without a championship.

With 37 MENCS victories in his column, it’s time for Hamlin to take the final step in his career; the step from “winner” to “champion.”

And this time around, he seems ready to do exactly that.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Penske Acquires Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar

For the first time in 74 years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a new owner.
Penske Entertainment Corp. – owned by billionaire businessman and legendary race team owner Roger Penske -- has acquired IMS, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions from the Hulman family, which has owned the Brickyard since 1945.
The sale was announced to IndyCar teams in a written announcement earlier today.
“We have found the ideal steward of the company and its iconic assets,” said the announcement. “Penske Corporation -- with its 64,000-plus employees and more than $32 billion in consolidated revenue -- will bring tremendous energy, leadership and resources to IMS, IndyCar and IMSP.”
The sale is expected to close in early January.
Penske – whose teams have won a record 18 Indianapolis 500-mile races and 15 IndyCar championships – will become only the fourth owner of the iconic, 110-year-old speedway. Hulman & Company patriarch Tony Hulman purchased the track in 1945, returning the facility to its pre-WWII glory. His family, including daughter Mari Hulman George and grandson Tony George, have steered the facility since Hulman’s death in 1977. They began actively divesting their holdings about a year ago, and today’s announcement comes a year and a day after the passing of Mari Hulman George on Nov. 3, 2018.
"For a number of years, the Hulman & Company management and board have engaged outside advisers and experts to consider the full range of strategic options available,” said the announcement sent to IndyCar teams. “Ultimately, it was decided to focus on the possible sale of the company and finding a buyer.”
The 82-year old Penske’s involvement in motorsports is lengthy and widespread. He is a former owner of Michigan International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway in California. He currently promotes the Detroit Grand Prix IndyCar event, in addition to fielding IndyCar Series entries for Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. He is also a major player in NASCAR, fielding Monster Energy Cup Series Fords for Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney. He also fields a full-time Xfinity Series Mustang for Austin Cindric, along with a part-time entry driven by a rotating roster of drivers that includes, Keselowski, Logano, Blaney and Paul Menard. His teams have won 187 races in NASCAR top two divisions.
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by president Donald J. Trump last month, in recognition of his accomplishments in business and motorsports.