Martin on NASCAR’s issues: Product is not the problem, the changing world is

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Hall of Famer Mark Martin talks about the state of NASCAR in the media center prior to the start of the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway

BROOKLYN, Mich. — Former driver and NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin said Sunday that while he’s embraced the changes to the sport in recent years, he is not in favor of the restrictor plate package that the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series tried at the All Star Race at Charlotte last month.

“There is some integrity that I feel needs to be maintained in the sport,” Martin said during a media appearance before the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway Sunday. “There are some issues that could be addressed. Artificially making the racing exciting for a portion of the fans, to me, is not what — I’d rather see that in yesterday’s race, not today’s race.”

Martin was referring to the NASCAR Xfinity Series LTi Printing 250 the day before, which featured a similar package including restrictor plates and front air ducts designed to keep the cars closer together. The same package was run last weekend in Pocono, where it was met with criticism, and last year at Indianapolis where it was praised.

“I bought into many of the changes,” Martin said. “I bought into the Chase. I’m good with the playoffs. I’m good with the double-file restarts. I’m good with the segment racing. I like it.”

But he said he didn’t like the All Star package.

‘I think there’s a lot of people who agree with me,” he said. “Fans. I’m not a driver anymore.”

Martin echoed statements made by Brad Keselowski earlier in the weekend, that by making the changes to the cars, NASCAR was taking a lot of the skill out of the hands of the drivers.

“I would say at most plate tracks, first through fourth has control of their own destiny and have acquired that finish based on talent, skill, etc.,” Keselowski said Friday. “From there on back it is a random bingo ball. That is my approach to that kind of racing. I think the top four or five generally dictates their finish and the rest do not. I think with this current package, you are looking at more depth to the field in terms of being able to determine your own finish based on your team’s skill and talent from the driver on back.”

Martin said looking back on the history of the sport, NASCAR wasn’t built on choking cars off and slowing them down.

“It’s not the same kind of racing,” he said. “It’s hard to win at Daytona and Talladega. And they’re interesting races. I like watching them. But I don’t want to see that every week, and I’m a fan. And I have some other fans that feel the same way. I’m not speaking as a driver, I’m speaking as a fan.”

“Fans that are bashing the racing, in my opinion, are not real fans,” Martin said. “They’re looking for something different than auto racing.”

He said in the past, people who loved racing loved racing, whether everyone was on the same lap or there were only three cars on the lead lap, and NASCAR should continue to be true to what brought it to where it is.

“I think we should continue to be true to what we are, where we came from, and I think the racing is really good now,” Martin said.

After reaching its popularity in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, NASCAR has seen a decline recently in attendance and ratings. Most tracks on the circuit have gone from building more stands every year to tearing them down. Michigan International Speedway just removed several sets of bleachers in turn one prior to this year’s races, adding premium camping spots along the fence to replace them. Martin said while NASCAR is losing some popularity right now, it’s something all forms of entertainment are facing.

“I also recognize that NASCAR is not the only sport that is struggling with their fanbase,” he said. “All sports are. There’s a reason for that. Because young people have different interests. The competition for their interest is a thousand times over than when we grew up. Every kid from who knows what age has a phone and an iPad and they can do any infinite kinds of things.”

He said the number of choices people have for entertainment is more of a factor than the racing on-track.

“I think we ought to recognize that that is part of it,” Martin said. “The product is not the problem. The problem is the world’s changing and our generations are changing and what they do and what they’re interested in changes. You can do your best to fight that, but it’s definitely a tough battle to try to bring new people’s eyes to our sport and keep them there.”

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Austin Dillon wins rain-shortened Xfinity race at Michigan

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Austin Dillon speaks with the media following his win in the LTi Printing 250 at Michigan International Speedway Saturday. Eric Young/The SuperSpeedway

BROOKLYN, Mich. — Austin Dillon was in the right place at the right time when NASCAR threw the caution for rain to end the LTi Printing 250 at Michigan International Speedway, getting his ninth win in the Xfinity Series in 138 starts.

“This feels good,” Dillon said after the race. “Me and Nick (Harrison, crew chief) had gotten in a run of a couple wins a couple years back and we felt like put us back together and we could go do it again and that’s on our second race this year? Third?”

“You put us together, we’re a pretty good duo it looks like,” Dillon said. “We’ve got a pretty good win percentage together. It’s nice to be back with him and that group.”

The win was Dillon’s first at MIS. The race ended with 91 laps of 125 complete due to rain, which delayed the start of the race for several hours and threatened from about lap 60 on.

Dillon and Harrison both said the rain played into how they ran the race.

“It was our strategy, I believe,” Dillon said. “We had a pretty fast car. We figured out track position was pretty important. Our car was handling well into a ru. That kind of factored into it.”

Dillon said Harrison made a call that eventually put them in position for the win.

“With the cautions and Austin saving, we could go clear past (lap) 100,” Harrison said. “But weather was definitely a — we made our strategy and we stuck to it and I got the OK from Big Dog down here on the end (team Owner Richard Childress) so it made me feel a little better about my call.”

It was a one-two finish for Richard Childress Racing, as Daniel Hemric scored a career-high second-place finish, earning his first top-10 at MIS in two races. It was his ninth top-10 of the season.

Hemric said after the last restart, as he was playing the rain game, he made his move to try and get the win.

“They kept telling me the rain was 10 minutes away for 30 minutes,” Hemric said. “I thought, well surely it’s going to rain. So I tried to pull a slider there on the 61 (Kaz Grala), which he did a great job of putting himself in the position there as well. I tried to clear him. I thought I was about a foot and a half too short and I’m sure when I watch it back it may not have been as close as I thought it was. But I tried to make the move because I knew the rain was there.”

“I’d get a couple sprinkles here and there but I made the move probably a lap too early and got myself hemmed up on the bottom,” Hemric continued. “Luckily I was able to rebound for second because I really thought I was going to be about 15th by the time we left the next corner, but fortunately that’s not the way it worked out.”

Cole Custer finished out the top three.

There were 14 lead changes among nine different drivers in the race. Kyle Busch led the most laps, leading almost all of the first stage before losing the lead at lap 31. He would not get back to the lead after that, finishing in sixth. There were 10 caution flags for 37 laps.

Scannable Document on Jun 9, 2018 at 7_13_50 PM

Rain washes out Xfinity series qualifying

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BROOKLYN, MICH. — Rain forced the cancellation of NASCAR Xfinity Series qualifying Saturday morning for the LTi Printing 250 at Michigan International Speedway.

As a result, NASCAR said the race would be set by the rulebook. Kyle Busch and Paul Menard will lead the field to green hopefully still Saturday afternoon, though weather could still be an issue. Sunset at MIS is 9:11 p.m., which means the race would have to start by 7 p.m. to get it in today. Updates will be provided throughout the day.

If All Star package becomes permanent, drivers will race somewhere other than NASCAR, Keselowski says

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Brad Keselowski speaks to the media Friday morning at Michigan International Speedway. Keselowski said if NASCAR runs the All Star package permanently, the top drivers will leave the sport. Eric Young/The SuperSpeedway

BROOKLYN, MICH. — Many are calling it the All Star package. Kevin Harvick called it “the snorkel package” on his SiriusXM radio show Tuesday, Happy Hours.

Whatever it’s called, if it becomes permanent, former NASCAR champ Brad Keselowski said the great drivers will choose somewhere else to race.

“I think that package needs to remain solely at the All Star race,” Keselowski said during a press conference at MIS Friday. “I think a lot of the drivers in this sport are in a position where they chose Cup racing because of the demands that the cars take to drive. I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers.”

“I think if you put a package like this out there, like we had at the All Star race, on a consistent basis that the best drivers in the world will no longer go to NASCAR. They will pick a different sport.”

He said the shift would not happen immediately or overnight, but it would happen eventually.

“It would happen over time and be a tragedy to the sport,” he said. “They want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance and there is no doubt that the driver makes less of a difference with that rules package.”

Keselowski used IndyCar as an example, which experimented with high-drag packages that created pack racing on some of its oval tracks. It was during one of those races in October 2011 that Dan Wheldon suffered fatal injuries during a multi-car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Since that time, IndyCar has introduced different cars, culminating in a lower-downforce package this season designed to put the racing back into the hands of the drivers.

“I think a decade ago if you wanted to see the best racing in the world, it was in IndyCar,” Keselowski said. “They ran three- and four-wide and put on great shows, but long-term it didn’t translate to the fans or better racing than NASCAR. There are a lot of reasons for that and I would speculate that it goes back to the fact that the best race car drivers in the world were here, in NASCAR. And we saw that when IndyCar drivers came over here and didn’t find success. And they were some of the best IndyCar drivers. We have to tread very lightly with the next steps of this sport.”

In the end though, Keselowski said the decision was NASCAR’s.

“I don’t know what decision NASCAR will make,” he said. “It is their decision. All I can do is give my input and at this time, those are my strongest thoughts.”

Does it matter what the drivers think?

“Long term yes, short term no,” Keselowski said. “Long term yes because if you go to a package where drivers have less ability to determine their fate, they will go to an avenue where they can.”

“There’s a reason why Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and some of the best drivers of our time moved from open-wheel to NASCAR,” Keselowski said. “Kyle Larson is another great example. They know they have a better opportunity to affect their finish based on talent and they know they are racing the highest caliber race car drivers. They know that they can attain the highest level of notoriety with the highest wages in motorsports in the United States. I don’t think that is a coincidence.”

Kurt Busch on the pole for Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400

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Kurt Busch speaks to the media after winning the pole for Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Eric Young/The SuperSpeedway

BROOKLYN, MICH — Kurt Busch ran a lap of 203.361 miles per hour to win the pole for the 2018 FireKeepers Casino 400 during qualifying Friday.

It was Busch’s 24th career pole position and his second of 2018.

Brad Keselowski qualified second with a speed of 203.166 mph. Kyle Busch barely made it into the second round of qualifying but was good enough for a third-place starting position in the final round with a speed of 203.120 mph. Kevin Harvick qualified fourth and Joey Logano fifth.

“I left a little bit out there,” Keselowski said after his run. “I’m kind of kicking myself in the butt. I don’t know if I could have gotten to Kurt.”

Busch said his run was fun because he knew he needed to go after it hard, but he had confidence in his car.

“Watching all the Forts in practice I knew we had a good shot at it,” Busch said. “The guys tweaked on the tires the right amount. It is a new compound, left and right side, and we didn’t want to get caught up too much in chasing the tires. We went with the status quo. I think it is because of the speed that I like here and Texas and the balance we had in our car in qualifying.”

He said now it is time to put it together for the race.

“Now we need to translate that to race speed,” Busch said. “I enjoy qualifying here. It’s a pleasure to have one of these Fords and have Yates power under the hood. To go 217 miles per hour, to haul the mail going into the corner, I love that feeling.”

Scannable Document on Jun 8, 2018 at 7_04_12 PM

Blaney leads first Cup practice at MIS

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Ryan Blaney turned the fastest lap in the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at Michigan International Speedway Friday. Eric Young/The SuperSpeedway

BROOKLYN, MICH. — Ryan Blaney topped the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at Michigan International Speedway Friday.

Blaney turned a lap of 202.617 mph. Kyle Busch was second fastest with a 201.925 mph. Brad Keselowski was third at his home track with a 201.867. Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott rounded out the top five. Last year’s winner Kyle Larson was 16th fastest with a speed of 199.242.

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Larson: No disadvantage for Chevy this season

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Kyle Larson speaks to the media at Michigan International Speedway Friday. Eric Young/The SuperSpeedway

BROOKLYN, MICH. — While the talk of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season so far has been the disadvantage the new Chevrolet Camaro has versus the Fords and the Toyotas, but defending Firekeepers Casino 400 winner Kyle Larson said Friday during media availability that he’s not buying it.

“I’ve never felt like Chevys have been at a disadvantage this year,” Larson said. “Our team has been pretty solid every race. I think some of the teams maybe just use it as an excuse where we don’t do that.”

After 14 races this season, Larson has five top-five finishes and nine top-10s. He has yet to get a win. Last year Larson was coming into the June MIS race with a victory at Auto Club Speedway.

“Obviously I don’t think we’re as fast as we were at this point last year, but I don’t think we’re that far off either,” Larson said. “Honestly, I feel like maybe we’re kind of where we were at last year, just other teams are a little bit better.”

If Larson wins Sunday, he will become only the second driver in the 50-year history of the track to win four Cup Series races in a row. But he said that isn’t on his mind at this point.

“I don’t really think about it,” Larson said. “It’s honestly just another race to me. I think it’d hit me, I think the importance of it and I would really feel how special it is when we’re standing in victory lane after the race. I think everything before that though, I try not to focus on it or worry about it. Just go out there and do what we do as a team and try to get a win.”

That being said, Larson said it would be special to tie a record set by Bill Elliott with four in a row.

“For sure it’d be special if we did get that fourth win, and then I think you’d start thinking about breaking that record of getting five in a row,” he said. “But there’s no guarantees that we’re going to win this weekend. I would say this one would be tougher than any of them just looking at how fast those three guys (Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.) are right now.”

Larson said he is optimistic how the season has been so far and added the team continues to improve.

“We’re making our cars better every week,” he said. “The guys in the shop are really excited about every car that we’ve been bringing to the track because there’s little things that have made them better each week. That’s exciting. I feel like the engine department with Hendrick engines, I don’t think we’re lacking there at all. They’re doing a really good job. We just have to get probably some more downforce and just overall performance and at least the 42 team will be right there competing for wins.”

The Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway is Sunday. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will qualify at 4:10 p.m. Friday.