Tracks ‘fighting for their lives’ amid Cup series innovation

Racetracks are having to prove themselves when the Cup Series spotlight shines on them, and at least one driver is taking notice.

“I would say every racetrack right now on the circuit is fighting for their lives to keep their spot on the schedule,” Brad Keselowski said on Tuesday morning, speaking to reporters via Zoom ahead of the Cup race this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. “And you know, as much as I love Michigan, it’s in the same spot.”

Keselowski’s insight reflects NASCAR’s recent emphasis on innovation — and, specifically, of adjusting the Cup Series schedule. The sport has made headlines for its attempts to break into larger markets to foster growth.

Among those attempts: the Busch Light Clash at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which moved its popular preseason Cup race in February from Daytona to Southern California, and the unique Chicago street race, which will debut in 2023 and replace Road America in Wisconsin on the schedule. .

“I don’t think NASCAR will ever abandon the (Michigan) market,” Keselowski continued. But he also added that other Michigan events, like Roger Penske’s IndyCar race in downtown Detroit has been “very successful” — and that if “there’s one thing we’ve been seeing with our IndyCar double-headers,” it’s that “they can be very successful.”

“So I think that everything is on the table, as it should be,” Keselowski said, “and the ability of racetracks to perform is being measured and being held accountable.”

The 38-year-old driver, who commands the No. 6 car and is co-owner of the company he races under, Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, said that just because “everything is on the table” doesn’t mean that NASCAR should abandon markets without cause. But, he added, “we should definitely challenge those who don’t step up to the plate.”

“Thankfully, I think in Michigan’s case, they’ve done a pretty good job in recent events in having great crowds and great atmospheres and the kind of racing atmosphere on the track and off the track that we’d expect to be a part of. NASCAR’s cup schedule,” he said.

“The fans ultimately vote with their tickets, and whether they buy them or don’t buy them, and that’s their way of voting for racetracks.”

Keselowski’s comments on Tuesday largely align with the sentiment NASCAR President Steve Phelps shared with The Observer last month, at the announcement of NASCAR bringing a first-of-its-kind street race to the streets of Chicago.

“If the LA Coliseum didn’t work, if St. Louis didn’t work, and a lot of changes to the schedule, if they didn’t work, then we reserve the judgment to change something back or try something different,” Phelps said at the time. “And I think that’s really what the promise to the fans is. By and large, the fans have been thrilled with the schedule changes that we’ve made.”

MIS will host the FireKeepers Casino 400 in Brooklyn, Michigan, at 3 pm on Sunday. The 200-lap, 400-mile race is the fourth-to-last race of NASCAR’s Cup Series regular season. The remaining races on the schedule: Richmond, Watkins Glen (New York) and Daytona.

NASCAR drivers Ryan Blaney (12), Kurt Busch (45), Brad Keselowski (6), William Byron (24), Harrison Burton (21) and Denny Hamlin (11) wreck going into Turn 2 during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 29, 2022.

NASCAR ‘needs more penalties’

Keselowski said Tuesday he “supports NASCAR” in its recent cracking down on inspection practices. At March’s Atlanta Motor Speedway race, the No. 6 car was levied an L2 penalty for a modified part found in his Ford Mustang — which resulted in a four-race suspension of crew chief Matt McCall and the loss of 100 driver and owner points.

More recently, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing were assigned a penalty after finishing first and second in the race at Pocono in July. That penalty resulted in the first disqualification of a race winner since 1960.

“I personally think the sport needs more penalties, and that the sport needs to be handing them out like candy right now to get control of the garage,” Keselowski said. “We’ve been playing games for a lot of years, and the games have to stop.”

He added: “I remember after our issue at Atlanta, we went through our entire company and said, ‘No more games.’ Nothing (nefarious) should go on in these cars, period.’ It’s a rapid culture shift, and there were some people within our company who didn’t like it. But the reality is that NASCAR is setting precedents that need to be set, that we support being set, that are important to the future of our industry. … So I support NASCAR.”

Taylor James Hamlin, left, carries the checkered flag with his father, Denny Hamlin after he won the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Pocono Raceway, Sunday, July 24, 2022, in Long Pond, Pa.  (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Taylor James Hamlin, left, carries the checkered flag with his father, Denny Hamlin after he won the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Pocono Raceway, Sunday, July 24, 2022, in Long Pond, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

‘On … an upswing’

Keselowski also spoke on his steady improvement throughout the season: “We’re on a little bit of an upswing,” he said. “I’m really encouraged by some of the things we’ve seen over the last few weeks. … Last week at Indy, which bears nothing to Michigan but still is a positive sign, is the first time I can say in a race this year outside maybe the Daytona 500 that I can say we had a really fast car.”

Keselowski has notched three top-10 finishes in the 2022 regular season — at the Daytona 500, in New Hampshire and at the All-Star Race in May.

Next Gen car a positive

He also said that the Next Gen car, which debuted this year in the NASCAR Cup Series, has “changed the dynamics of racing.” “The bodies are more durable for sure,” he said, adding, “Before, with the steel body, when it bent it was really bad. It would clamp down on the tires and blow tires out. You’d lose a lot of downforce. Now, what we’re seeing with this car is the body panels don’t move — they break but don’t move — or if they do move, they rebound back.”

What has this resulted in? For one, it means more physical racing. That style was on full display this past Sunday in Indianapolis, particularly on Turn 1, which saw many cars get spun out on restarts, including Keselowski.

“The drivers are kind of figuring that out in real-time, and it’s changing the dynamics of the racing, some ways for the better and some ways arguably for the worse, but certainly different nonetheless.”

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