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XFINITY

Nationwide Schedule Offers Little Surprises in 2014

By Summer Bedgood – The 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule was released a little over a week ago, with little in the way of surprises. The schedule will showcase 33 races for the third consecutive season, and no new tracks were added to the schedule, nor were any taken off. A few shifts did take place, however. Darlington Raceway is a month earlier on the schedule. The spring Texas race will be run one week earlier. The Darlington and Texas races were moved so that they could coincide with the Sprint Cup Series race. One of the Iowa Speedway race dates will move from June to mid-May. Finally, the Chicago race will move back to a Saturday night event.

Despite the fact that there are only a few standalone events and that most of the schedule consists of companion events with the Sprint Cup Series, the Nationwide Series schedule presents a variety that it’s alternatives in the Sprint Cup Series are sorely lacking. The Nationwide Series schedule has five different tracks and a total of ten dates at tracks that are either a mile or under with Phoenix, Bristol, Iowa, Richmond, and Dover each holding two spots on the schedule. Though that is not necessarily much different than the Cup Series—the Cup Series has at least one date at all of those tracks except for Iowa—the Nationwide Series has a shorter schedule, yet they still have more tracks that would be considered a “short track” or at least close to it.

Where the Nationwide Series schedule really shines, though, is the amount of road courses on the schedule. While the Sprint Cup Series schedule showcases a total of two road course races per year, the Nationwide Series schedule makes room for three with Road America, Watkins Glen, and Mid-Ohio on the schedule. These races arguably provide some of the best races on the schedule, the way that short track races used to be. It is not uncommon that “beating and banging”, “bump and ran”, and “temper tantrums”—concepts that are generally used in short track racing—are used in conjunction with a road course race. The Nationwide Series has utilized these great races to their full potential, though a few more on the schedule would likely not be objected by anyone who watches the races every weekend.

While the other 20 racetracks on the schedule are over a mile, NASCAR has attempted to create somewhat of a diverse schedule in the Nationwide Series just as they have in the Truck Series. The addition of a dirt track race this season as well as the first road course race in 13 years were some of the best decisions NASCAR could have made for the series.

However, the Nationwide Series schedule is in place to more closely represent the Sprint Cup Series and exists as a developmental series for that purpose. So don’t expect an Eldora to make an appearance on that schedule anytime soon. Still, though, when drivers are expected to showcase their talents, it makes sense that they are expected to do so on a variety of tracks.

On the flip side, there is still much more work to be done. Ten short track races on the schedule is good in concept, but a few of those tracks barely qualify as short tracks because of their layout. For instance, Dover is seen more as a small cookie-cutter than as a large short track. As aerodynamics continue to make clean air and track position more important than car handling and speed, tracks like Dover don’t present the kind of great racing that they used to. NASCAR still has work to do in both the balance of the schedule and the aerodynamics of the car.

With that said, the 2014 Nationwide Series is a good start to expanding NASCAR’s horizons back to the basics. The schedule is unique, while also remaining diverse, though admittedly it is still a little heavy on the intermediate tracks. That appears to be a trend that will continue for a long time to come, unfortunately. However, if NASCAR can work to spread out the ratio of shorter tracks to intermediate as the trend seems to be in the Nationwide Series and continue to do so, maybe all three series will truly reflect a balance on the schedule.

EMAIL SUMMER AT summer.bedgood@popularspeed.com

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XFINITY

Nationwide Championship Down to Two Drivers

By Katie Copple – As the end of the NASCAR Nationwide Series season draws near, it all comes down to two drivers – Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. With three races left and only eight points separating the two, it’s still anybody’s guess as to who will be the champion in Homestead-Miami.

With one championship under his belt in the Camping World Truck Series, Austin Dillon is sitting comfortable at the top of the standings. He has been racing stock cars his entire life and holding that Nationwide Series trophy in his hands would be the perfect end before moving up to Sprint Cup Series.

Coming from a family of racers, Dillon has some of the best equipment out on the track but his talent speaks for itself. Although winless this season, he has consistently run up front.  Eleven top-5 finishes and seven pole wins, including four in a row, has left Dillon with an average finish of ninth this season.

Sam Hornish Jr. finished fourth in the standings last season, 81 points behind Austin Dillon in third. With a win this season at Las Vegas, he has shown improvement and consistency this season. Hornish has one win at Phoenix back in 2011, but seems to run mid-pack at Texas and Homestead. He will have to fight hard to regain the point lead from Dillon.

As a three-time IndyCar Series champion, Hornish is currently unsure of his plans for 2014. His average finish this season is 9.4, up slightly from last season, and he has been the series point leader for most of the 2013 season. His best chance of getting back to the top is going to be consistency, which is something he has shown this season.

Can Hornish make it back to the top? Will Dillon add another championship title to his name before moving up to the Sprint Cup Series?

The Nationwide Series championship battle will no doubt be decided in the closing laps at Homestead-Miami. With two very talented and competitive drivers battling it out for the trophy, the next three races will be ones you won’t want to miss.

Katie Copple is a Popular Speed Development Journalist. 

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XFINITY

Danny Efland: NASCAR’s Underdog

By Summer Bedgood – Don’t you just love a good underdog story? I know I do. There is a reason that some of the most beloved, successful movies involve an underdog beating the big guns and becoming the hero. Sports are especially good at providing underdogs to cheer for and underdog movies involving sports are especially enjoyable. Think Rudy, Rocky, and The Karate Kid. You’ve probably seen all three and love them for that very reason.

If you’re reading this, you are one of two things: A NASCAR fan or a lover of underdog stories. Most likely, you are probably both. You were excited for Jamie McMurray to win at Talladega because he hasn’t been in Victory Lane for a while. When David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2 at Talladega in the spring, you smiled at their fortune.

However, underdogs don’t always have a happy ending. They don’t always get their moment to shine in victory lane. Some just show up at the racetrack, barely noticeable and hardly worthy of some sappy music underneath the credits.

Meet Danny Efland. If you’re a diehard NASCAR viewer, you’ve probably heard of him. You probably know he’s been around a while. Efland has made at least two starts in one of NASCAR’s three national series every year since 2007. So why don’t you know very much about him?

Despite 73 NASCAR national series starts, Efland has never had a top 10 finish. In fact, he has never finished higher than 13th in any race and has an average finish of 30.2 across both the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.

That’s because the team he drives for—MAKE Motorsports—is largely underfunded. Though he only considers himself to be a part-time employee of the organization, he still spends enough time at the shop that he could be considered full-time.

“I find myself at the shop trying to meet deadlines enough to where I’ll go ahead and consider myself the second full-time employee,” he said.

That’s right. Two full-time employees at a NASCAR level race shop. Compare that to the likes of Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing where their employees stack into the hundreds.

This season, he has also raced for Johnny Davis Motorsports and Mike Harmon Racing in the Nationwide Series. He has run in additional races for MAKE Motorsports in the Truck Series this year, along with Eddie Sharp Racing and Chris Fontaine’s team.

Not exactly high profile race teams. In fact, they are underdogs of the highest definition.

2013 has not been an easy year, either. One DNQ in Trucks and four in the Nationwide Series shows the lack of speed that teams like this have in the series, despite the fact that Efland has success in other racing series.

Efland, for example, has six South Carolina State Championships, five National World Karting Association championships, and has won many other races, championships, and recognitions that match that of probably any other driver you can name. He’s no slouch in racing and he attributes much of his racing success to some wise decisions made by his father in the early stages of his career.

“My dad brought a lot of experience with him into the early years of my racing,” said Efland. “He made better decisions even when I was five or six years old, he made good decisions of which karts we needed to buy or race, which engines, who to buy tires from and that sort of thing. He led me in the right direction and it didn’t cost us a lot of money. In other words, being a middle class family, we made it affordable to race and to win.”

So why the struggle in NASCAR?

“Unfortunately, everything boils down to money these days,” said Efland. “Racing is no different. It’s a business. You’ve got to watch your cash flow and sponsorship has a lot to do with that.”

Efland made his debut in NASCAR with underfunded teams, and has struggled to get out of that rut with his team.

Sponsorship and funding have been a problem for Efland, MAKE Motorsports, and the other race teams for a while now, as the gap between larger and small teams seems insurmountable. Though the teams have had companies like Flex Seal, Defiant Whiskey, and A-1 Bail Bonds on their cars this season, they aren’t the full-fledged sponsorship deals that you will see on the cars of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, or Brad Keselowski. Those sponsorships range into the millions of dollars, with merchandise, appearances, and various other tie-ins to maximize the exposure for the company.

For Efland’s teams, it is much, much different.

“Right now, we’re trying to sell primary sponsorship on our car at a cheaper rate, hoping that we can evolve that into one day having a quality team that has the value of $100,000 a race,” said Efland. “I guess what I’m comparing it to, if you look at Joe Gibbs Racing, we’re asking about 25 percent the value that they’re asking their sponsors for per race. That’s kind of cheap right now. We’re selling ourselves cheap.”

As Efland explains, there are certain steps you have to take to get that kind of sponsorship that also lends itself to a “can’t win” situation. A catch-22 if you will. In order to bring a sponsor to the table, you want to have good results. But those good results aren’t going to come unless you have the right amount of money to buy speed.

“It really is a catch 22 and that’s been my biggest struggle in the seven years that I’ve been in the Nationwide Series,” Efland said. “I’ve been with a few different teams this year and been fortunate enough to work with MAKE Motorsports, and they’re no different than me. They face the same challenges that I have over the last seven years.”

Still, Efland shows up at the shop every day, working on the cars and trucks with any of the volunteers and team owners who show up on a given day. And, oftentimes, he’s right alongside his team when it comes to the “other” business in racing: selling.

“You’ll find me turning wrenches as much, if not more, than anybody else on the team, so that’s the kind of guy I am,” said Efland. “But sometimes you’ve gotta throw on the tie and the suit and go out and be a salesman and convince these guys that by bringing them on board, we’re going to improve the quality of our race team.”

Selling a team is not any piece of cake, though.

“Bringing in a sponsor involves a couple of different things,” he explained. “One, you’ve gotta make a contact. You can’t just write an e-mail and then send it to the marketing division of any old company. You have to have a contact established within the company. You have to make sure they know who you are, what you’re doing. Then, the most difficult thing is to tell them is, hey, the reason we’re out here struggling to run 20th to 25th each and every week is strictly because of the finances. By bringing you on board, we’re going to make sure we prove the quality of our race team to get you maximum exposure for the value that you’re putting into this sponsorship. It’s difficult. It takes a salesman. Mark Beaver (team owner) does a really good job with the sales side of things. At times, I feel like I do pretty good at it, and at times I don’t.”

Still, the team’s end goal is to go racing. It goes without saying they want to be as successful as possible, which is difficult with the way things are in NASCAR. After all, how are they going to compete with teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing when they don’t have the speed or funding to do so?

Sometimes the question is raised as to whether or not NASCAR can do anything to help these teams. If they are the sanctioning body and want a competitive, even playing field, people like Efland must want them to step in and help out.

Then again, perhaps they already have.

“If anything, I would say, looking at the history of the sport, NASCAR has constantly improved the playing field,” said Efland. “In other words, look at your finishing results, just pick any year, say Darlington, this year’s Darlington race and then look at it 35 years ago, and tell me how many laps the leader won the race. He probably had at least two or three laps on second place. This year, you could probably count it in seconds. Less than ten. So, the playing field has leveled out. It’s given smaller teams more opportunity to run up front. And it’s put more driver into it. I think it takes more talent of the driver nowadays than it used to. And some people would argue that, but of course I’m a driver and I see it one way and some other people might see it another way.”

With that said, Efland doesn’t expect NASCAR to do the work for him nor does he expect a sponsor to just fork out the money. He expects to have to earn it and hopes that one day all of this hard work will pay off.

“I don’t see things happening overnight, but I’ve always wondered, ‘Hey, what if I got a chance to go and drive Kevin Harvick’s Nationwide car or Kyle Busch’s Nationwide car?’” he wondered. “Would I be able to run as fast as they do? No, not right off the bat. But I think that if you gave me a few races, I don’t know how many it will take, but I know you’ve got to have experience. You’ve got to learn how to drive one of those cars because they’re going to drive different than what I’m used to. But I think I could adapt and eventually run just as well. Of course I think I could beat them. I wouldn’t be a racecar driver if I didn’t. But I also am realistic about it and I know it would take time.”

For now, his underdog status remains in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series. They’re scraping by for lead lap finishes and will take whatever the sport throws at them. Meetings continue behind closed doors, those wrenches keep turning at the shop and, for the foreseeable future, those engines will continue firing.

And, maybe one day, the ultimate underdog story will finally come to fruition with Danny Efland in the winner’s circle.

EMAIL SUMMER AT summer.bedgood@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @SummerBedgood

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XFINITY

Kligerman Had Bigger Expectations for 2013 NNS Season

By Kelly Crandall (CONCORD, N.C.) – Parker Kligerman’s 2013 rookie Nationwide Series season will go down as bittersweet.

While rookies are supposed, and expected to make mistakes, for him there have been one too many. Charlotte Motor Speedway played host to the 30th stop of the NNS season and Friday, one of the deeper thinking drivers in the garage put it all out on the line about how things could have and perhaps should have been different.

“We’ve had just too many mistakes this year to put ourselves where we’d like to be, which is about fifth in points,” he said. “We’re on a smaller budget than a lot of teams are on, there’s still maybe three or four teams that are on a higher budget than us, but to really overachieve you can’t have the mistakes that we’ve made this year.”

The No. 77 Toyota team out of Kyle Busch Motorsports graduated to the next level from the Camping World Truck Series. Together they’re living and learning, entering the year with goals that some might have looked upon as a bit ambitious. A championship was a far out thought Kligerman admitted, but top five in points and winning sounded about right.

“They [KBM] already had things in place from last year with the 54 [Kyle Busch] being here that kind of accelerated the idea that you didn’t need to go out there and build 20 new cars, or have the large budget you need compete with the other guys,” Kligerman said about his team.

“So, if you minimize you’re mistakes, you’re consistent and in this series it takes really about a 9.4 average to win the championship, that’s basically saying try to be in the top 10 every week, you could contend on a lesser budget. We missed that mark, I think our average finish is like a 13.4, so it’s definitely disheartening but we still have about one spot in the points that we can get higher.”

That’s not going to happen though, with those ever appearing mistakes Kligerman seemed to encounter. The ones that always appeared at the most inopportune times.

“Just one weekend ago. Kansas. We had probably one of the fastest cars there. Easily second or third fastest, the 7 [Regan Smith] was maybe the only car that could contend with us,” Kligerman said about a race he ran, led and finished up front.

“We passed the whole field twice and came in the last stop in third [place], come out first because we had two tires and dropped a lug nut. Fell all the way back to 28th again and ended up seventh.”

Story of his season because before Kansas there were the road courses and restrictor plate races, all of which Kligerman felt he was in the right position to capitalize. Then something would go haywire. He had top 10s in four of those six races and he led a combine 25 laps but has nothing to show for it.

Meaning entering Friday night’s Dollar General 300, Kligerman was still searching for that first career win. Another solid top 10 keeps him sitting 10th in points, not out of reach to overtake those in front of him, like ninth place Kyle Larson. Giving Kligerman even more to shoot for with four races remaining, plenty of time to continue overachieving.

“We’re still overachieving considering our budget level, there’s about three or four behind us and then if we beat the 32 [Kyle Larson] that’d be about five. We’d still be overachieving for what we have, but definitely, you always want more, you want to get where the goals you set beginning of the year,” he said. “I felt like a fifth place in points was a possibility and we just let it slip from us.”

And that’s about all Kligerman knows. As he finishes out his first NNS season what comes next isn’t set in stone. According to the driver, whether he remains at KBM, moves on or up, it’s all still being discussed.

“The intention for doing Nationwide and Trucks is to get to Cup. That’s the top, that’s where we all want to be and obviously if there’s opportunities up there you’ve got entertain them,” he said. “We’ll see the coming weeks, the coming months if that’s a possibility.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

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XFINITY

Larson’s Cup Career Starts Now

By Summer Bedgood – Kyle Larson is a machine. He’s a phenom, a protégé, whatever you want to call him. But he can drive a racecar.

Larson is one of many drivers who has come into the sport over recent years with a ton of star power attached to his name before he even made his first start. With the likes of Tony Stewart name-dropping Larson’s name while he was still racing at local tracks across the country, we already knew who he was long before he would ever race in the Sprint Cup Series.

That first start will come at Charlotte on Saturday night, and expectations are already sky high as it is. But if he was looking to lower expectations heading into the race, he did himself no favors with the race on Saturday night. In what had to have been one of the most impressive races for Larson in the Nationwide Series this season, Larson put on a heck of a fight for the top spot against Kyle Busch of all people.

Larson might have pulled it off if not for a couple of hiccups towards the end of the race. First off, the final pitstop of the night under yellow saw Larson come into the pits first and exit fifth. An issue with the tires during the stop was what caused the loss in track position, but Larson quickly worked his way up to third once the green flag dropped again. It looked like the rookie driver might be able to work his way back up to the lead again, though, until he hit the wall on the frontstretch with only a handful of laps remaining. He quickly fell outside of the top 10 and would wind up finishing 13th.

However, the overall performance of this driver tonight was astounding. He led a total of 17 laps and was in the top five for a good chunk of the race, especially towards the end as pit strategy began to play a role. Though this is not the first good performance for Larson this year—as he has eight top fives and 15 top 10s in 30 races now this year—he has already exceeded expectations that would be put on any rookie. In fact, just about the only notch he needs to add to his belt this season is a victory.

Now, it is possible that we’ve heard this story before. Success from the Nationwide Series doesn’t always translate well to the Sprint Cup Series, though how quickly Larson is able to react to the talent gap remains to be seen. In fact, the most impressive part of Friday night’s race was Larson’s ability to adapt to a changing racetrack and difficult car. It was Larson who found speed at the top of the racetrack and was able to close the gap between himself and the leader while running in second at one point during the race. It was Larson who led the rest of the field to  try the high side as they began following his line around the track. It wasn’t Busch. It wasn’t Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth, or Kevin Harvick. It wasn’t even Nationwide Series championship contenders Sam Hornish, Jr. or Austin Dillon. Larson led the charge for the high line in Charlotte.

Equipment and experience aside, Larson has proven that he can race with the best of them in any situation. As much as a win would have solidified that claim on Friday night, he still has three more races this season to do just that.

Larson isn’t contending for the championship in the Nationwide Series nor has he won a race, but he certainly has talent and it was on full display in a race chock full of Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series drivers towards the front of the field. If he can continue to learn and grow in a series that is challenging enough as it is, he will in time live up to the hype that has surrounded his name for a long time now.

 

EMAIL SUMMER AT summer.bedgood@popularspeed.com

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XFINITY

Kyle Busch Wins from the Pole at Charlotte

By Reid Spencer – Kyle Busch won from the Coors Light pole—as he almost always does—and the race for the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship remained excruciating tight.

Busch held off charging series leader Austin Dillon in Friday night’s Dollar General 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Earlier in the day, Busch had won his ninth NNS pole of the season, and for the eighth time in nine tries this year, Busch won from the top starting spot.

The victory was the series-best 11th of the season for Busch, who won for the eighth time in the series at Charlotte and for the 62nd time in his career, extending his own series record. In Victory Lane, Busch announced that he and wife Samantha were donating all the race winnings to the Pretty in Pink Foundation to combat breast cancer.

“I didn’t think we were going to win the thing, but somehow I got to the top (of the track) and started making time and was able to get back up there (to the lead),” Busch said. “I certainly want to do this tomorrow night also (in the Sprint Cup race).”

Sam Hornish Jr. ran third and remained eight points behind Dillon in the battle for the Nationwide Series title. Hornish scored an extra point for leading most laps (76) and matched Dillon’s 43 points scored in the race.

“We had three guys fighting it out there till the end with everything we had,” Dillon said. “It was a heck of a race. I told Sam it was the best race I felt like I was a part of all year, slicing and dicing out there.

“Man, it was so easy to miss your line out there. The track’s obviously getting some character, and it’s creating some better racing, I feel like. It was a good run for us. This isn’t one of our better tracks, and to come here and do that, I’m very happy.”

Kevin Harvick came home fourth, followed by Matt Kenseth and Justin Allgaier.

Busch, the pole winner, was first off pit road under caution for a restart on Lap 163 and held the top spot until Hornish ran him down on Lap 180. Over the course of the run, however, Hornish’s Ford began to fade, and Busch regained the top spot with a pass to the outside of Turn 2 on lap 193.

Hornish said the handling of his car loosened up as the run progressed.

“Tonight we had it turning plenty good, and as the run went on, it got freer,” Hornish said. “I’m just happy we came in here tonight, and we ran well. It’s very frustrating to be leading with 10 laps to go and pulling away from the 54 car (Busch), and to not be able to win.

“We could never get far enough ahead of the track to get our car right where we needed to be. I had to work hard just to keep the car underneath me there the last 10 laps.”

Kyle Larson restarted 10th on Lap 117 but, running the outside lane next to the wall, he diced his way through traffic and inherited the lead when Regan Smith came to pit road on Lap 141. At that point, Larson held a lead of more than four seconds, but Busch, running second, trimmed nearly three seconds off the advantage before Jeffrey Earnhardt’s blown engine caused the fifth caution on Lap 156.

Trouble with the right front tire cost Larson four spots during pit stops under yellow on Lap 157. Ultimately, the talented rookie scraped the wall in Turns 3 and 4 on lap 183 while chasing Austin Dillon during an intense battle for third.

Despite finishing 13th, Larson nevertheless made a huge impression on the eve of his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500.

Elliott Sadler, fourth in the standings before the race, started from the rear of the field after backup car after wrecking his primary No. 11 Toyota during qualifying. Sadler charged through the field and ran as high as 14th before a bizarre wreck in Turn 1 spoiled his night.

The incident started in the tri-oval, where Reed Sorenson clipped the edge of the infield grass with his left-side tires and shot up the track into the No. 14 Camry of Eric McClure. Brian Vickers, darting to the inside to avoid the wreck, clobbered Sadler, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, just as Sadler was exiting pit road.

Sadler returned to the track but crashed in Turn 3 on Lap 66, ending his race in 35th place and effectively ending his run at the series championship.

Finishing Order:

1. (1) Kyle Busch(i)

2. (4) Austin Dillon

3. (3) Sam Hornish Jr.

4. (10) Kevin Harvick(i)

5. (15) Matt Kenseth(i)

6. (12) Justin Allgaier

7. (2) Joey Logano(i)

8. (7) Trevor Bayne

9. (13) Parker Kligerman

10. (14) Michael Annett

11. (30) James Buescher(i)

12. (11) Brian Scott

13. (8) Kyle Larson

14. (16) Ryan Reed

15. (24) Mike Bliss

16. (17) Kevin Swindell

17. (27) Johanna Long

18. (6) Alex Bowman

19. (5) Regan Smith, Chevrolet

20. (26) Jeremy Clements

21. (19) Chad Hackenbracht(i)

22. (25) Mike Wallace

23. (29) Joe Nemechek

24. (31) Travis Pastrana

25. (28) Nelson Piquet Jr.

26. (38) Brad Sweet

27. (36) Robert Richardson Jr.

28. (35) TJ Bell

29. (18) Tanner Berryhill

30. (34) Jeffrey Earnhardt

31. (9) Brian Vickers

32. (20) Landon Cassill

33. (23) Eric McClure

34. (40) Kevin Lepage

35. (32) Jamie Dick

36. (37) Elliott Sadler

37. (21) Reed Sorenson

38. (33) Blake Koch

39. (39) Ken Butler

40. (22) Jeff Green

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XFINITY

Opinion: Johanna Long Deserves Full-Time Opportunity

By Matt Weaver (CONCORD, N.C.) – With the youth movement in full swing in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup garages, one of the most overlooked drivers may be 21-year-old Johanna Long.

Long signed a two-year deal with ML Motorsports that runs through the end of this season but says she doesn’t have anything planned beyond that. Her continued journey in NASCAR is dependent on securing funding and her support group hasn’t had much luck in finding an opportunity that could see her stay in the sport beyond 2013.

“I have no idea what I’m doing next year,” Long told Popular Speed on Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “My main focus right now is the next couple of races that I have with ML Motorsports because I owe this all to them, this wonderful opportunity to race in the Nationwide Series in the No. 70 car.”

And what a job she has done.

It won’t show on the box score but Long has maximized the value of her equipment and had several strong runs over the past two seasons. The team, based out of Warsaw, Ind. has grown with its driver and they’ve been rewarded in many ways with their association with Long.

The natural comparison with Danica Patrick is somewhat grating just based on gender — and it’s one that she’s been slow to accept — but she is a fresh alternative for fans wanting to embrace a gritty blue-collar female driver.

She’s come a long way from her Late Model days where she frequently made enemies on the track.

Her 2010 Snowball Derby victory is still tainted somewhat with all the contact she initiated, including on the last restart with Landon Cassill but that’s a part of her appeal. She’s gritty, tough and personable — all traits attractive to a variety of prospective sponsors.

“I haven’t had talks yet for next season,” Long said. “But hopefully it’s getting close to where we can enter some talks. But right now, I’m focused on just giving 110 percent when I get on the race track. And hopefully people are noticing and seeing that I do belong here.”

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XFINITY

Nationwide Series on Cusp of Crowning Winless Champion

By Kelly Crandall (CONCORD, N.C.) – Austin Dillon may be leading the points but he would categorize his No. 3 AdvoCare team as third best in the Nationwide Series.

With Sprint Cup Series drivers dominating the year – they’ve won 22 of 29 races, notably the 54 of Kyle Busch and 22 split between Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski – it’s been Dillon who’s the best of the rest. With four races remaining in the season he’s back atop the point standings but still winless after visiting Victory Lane twice during his 2012 Rookie of the Year campaign.

Should Dillon go on to win the championship without having won a race, he’d be the first driver in NNS history to accomplish the feat.

“I think it’s pretty awesome that we were that consistent over that amount of time with a lot of competitive racecars out there. You’re racing against the best in the Cup Series each and every weekend,” Dillon said Friday about how he’d look at the championship.

The goose egg in the win’s column hasn’t been for a lack of trying, Dillon easily named three to five races he could have, should have won. Instead he’ll take consistency and a championship should it come to that. And if it does, his competition wouldn’t see a problem with it.

Parker Kligerman on Friday said he too should have won a race this year. Kligerman also felt he should be sitting closer to Dillon in points had it not been for mistakes his team made. As he’s watched the No. 3 team come up short, Kligerman’s been struck by the fact that it hasn’t been of their own doing as the odds – the Cup drivers – have been stacked against him.

But said Kligerman, if Dillon wins the championship that’ll speak for itself. Because there’s no telling how others around the sport will perceive a winless champion.

“That’s a tough one. I feel like for their [RCR] organization, it’s not a fault of a lack of funding. It’s not a fault of a lack of resources. I think anytime you’re a champion, that’s a championship, you can’t take that away from them,” Kligerman said about Dillon’s team. “What’s the difference between Matt Kenseth winning the championship in Cup in 2003 with one win to winning [a title] with no wins? Does it really make a difference? He was the most consistent, the best guy over the course of the season, why does it matter?”

For Dillon, it certainly doesn’t. The fact that it’s been tough competition keeping him out of Victory Lane doesn’t make him surprised at his current situation. Or for any other NNS regular driver who hasn’t won. Both Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier sit in the top five in points without wins.

“We all judge our season by wins but I think it shows how tough this Nationwide Series has been this year first of all, but second of all, it kind of opens up the question again of the Chase and if we need a Chase in the Nationwide Series,” said Allgaier.

“Obviously Cup guys have won majority of the races, so I don’t know if that still would fix that issue. I don’t think it would be a big deal if a driver doesn’t win a race and wins the championship.”

As for Kenseth, who many point as the reason for the Chase now in the NSCS, he’s won seven times this year and currently leads the point standings with five races to go. While Kligerman pointed Kenseth’s consistent 2003 season out, he for one, isn’t in favor of changing how the NNS should decide a champion if they go on to crown one who didn’t win.

Instead, he wants to know how things can be different when the likes of Kenseth, Busch and Logano come to play in his sandbox, which has changed the complexion of the series as a whole.

“The level of those organizations that have now combine for 24 wins are just in a totally different level than what the Nationwide Series is really intended to be,” he said. “I feel like they’ve put more resources and more effort and more quality people and funding and those sort of things that they do, than the Nationwide Series was probably ever even intended to have. That’s the problem I see.”

So for Kligerman, what would be the story at the end of the season?

“The series is getting to the point where those cars – the level of resources is at the height of a Cup car and that’s just I believe wrong for the series,” he said. “I think it’s wrong overall for the sport and I don’t know how you limit that and how you affect that but that will be the biggest issue to me. Not that Austin Dillon didn’t win a race, it’s that those organizations have taken it to such a high level that no one can compete with that.”

A lot can happen over the next four races and for Dillon, he plans on not having to answer the question about the year he won a NNS title without winning a race.

“It’s been tough, we feel like we should’ve had a few wins this year,” Dillon said. “Still four [races] left and we’ve got some good tracks coming up so hopefully we knock down a few.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

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XFINITY

Roush Fenway Bringing Ryan Reed, Diabetes Awareness to Nationwide Series

By Kelly Crandall (CONCORD, N.C.) – Just two years ago Ryan Reed was told he’d never sit in a racecar again.

Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in February of 2011, doctors didn’t believe Reed would be able to drive because of it. But Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway both Reed and Roush Fenway Racing announced he would indeed drive, full-time in 2014 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

“Just two years ago I was told I’d never be a in a racecar again and now I’m sitting here announcing a 2014 partnership with Drive to Stop Diabetes presented to you by Lilly Diabetes with American Diabetes Association, driving for Roush Fenway in the No. 16, how does it get any better than that?” said Reed during the announcement and car unveiling.

“It’s amazing to come from being told I would never drive a racecar again to being in this position and it’s just a humbling experience and I’m excited beyond words to be here.”

The team and crew chief is yet to be put together or announced, Reed believing that will come during the pending offseason. But for owner Jack Roush he had seen enough of Reed to know he wanted to move him to the next level.

“He’s mature beyond his age and experience, he’s competed with us three times this year and both times he ran well into the top 10, and he made great judgments and impressions of what the car needed with his crew, he did a great job with that,” said Roush. “He’s an exciting young driver with a feel for the car. He’s a highly motivated competitor. When most people got the news he got two years ago, they would have just said, ‘well, I’ve got to limited my goals and not proceed here,’ and he didn’t give up on that.”

Roush also called him a great role model for others with diabetes as well as other young individuals who face hurdles. For Reed, having Roush understand the tough learning curve ahead of him, is a comfort. And as a typical rookie, Reed knows he won’t be learning anything in the garage.

“Run all the laps, keep the fenders on it and hopefully put ourselves in the position to run for top 10, top five at the end of the race,” he said. “Honestly, I think next year we can shoot for wins … top fives and going for wins when it’s our night. I think the biggest thing to manage, is understanding when I’m struggling at a track and understanding when I’m excelling at a track.”

NASCAR’s officially licensed artist, Sam Bass, designed the paint scheme. Bass has designed paint schemes for many drivers throughout the years, including young drivers as they entered the sport, including Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“It’s especially meaningful to me because I’m a diabetic, just like Ryan and I’ve known Ryan for the past few years and I know how committed he is to this cause,” Bass said. “And I know how much this cause means to me personally so it was very exciting knowing all that, to get a chance to designed this car. Whenever I designed the car for Jeff Gordon way back in 1992, and having seen all the great things he’s accomplished, this reminds me a lot of Ryan. So, hopefully we can map this venture together and it will be as successful.”

Reed reveled that he realized he had diabetes from Google. Suffering symptoms of weight loss and finding himself drinking a lot of water, he at first didn’t want to believe the diagnoses. It took him about 12-24 hours to get over the initial frustration of being told not only he had diabetes but that it was going to keep him out of the car.

Instead, Reed found a way to overcome. He wears a sensor patch on his stomach, which during races will monitor his glucose and send the numbers to a device that will be mounted on his dashboard. That way he can race as well as making sure he’s fine since he can’t manually check it.

“It’s a great efficient way to make sure my blood sugar is in the range it should be and if it’s not, we can adjust,” said Reed. “It’s a seven day sensor and every seven days I replace the sensor.”

Now, as he competes for the 2014 Rookie of the Year and NNS championship, Reed does it with more than just another sponsor slapped on the side of his car.

“It’s not just a sponsorship, it’s a partnership and all of us doing our part to helping them stopping diabetes,” said Reed.

“That’s the biggest thing, we are all so passionate about it. To have a group like Lilly Diabetes and American Diabetes Association, two of the biggest players to bring me into their circle is an amazing feeling. Just to be apart of that whole process is great and diabetes have come so far over the years. And honestly, if it weren’t for Lilly Diabetes and American Diabetes Association, I wouldn’t be able to climb into a racecar and do what I do. It’s just a great feeling.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

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XFINITY

No Love Lost Between Busch and Keselowski

By Summer Bedgood – When it comes to sports, it doesn’t get much more exciting than a heated rivalry between two uber-competitive teams or people. Whether it’s the legendary Yankees vs. Red Sox, the historic Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali, or Ohio State vs. Michigan, rivalries exist across any form of competition across the world.

NASCAR has its own share of historic rivalries. Yarborough vs. Allison. David Pearson and Richard Petty.

Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski.

This latest installment has many heated moments between the two, and it culminated in a maybe-intentional-but-no-one-is-admitting it crash that ended with Brad Keselowski randomly jogging through the infield.

Busch and Keselowski were racing in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday and racing for the second place position with the laps wounding down. With Matt Kenseth holding a strong and unwavering lead, second was just about the best either of them were going to do.

The two of them fought for position for several laps with less than 20 laps to go, and almost touched at one point and one would have Busch not checked up to avoid any contact. It appeared that the move might have cost Busch a potential second-place finish, but he was able to reign Keselowski in with around 10 laps to go and again attempted to make a move underneath Keselowski for that extra spot. With both the No. 22 and the No. 54 both in a tight grip for the owner’s championship, this spot was an important one.

Unfortunately for the 22 team, Keselowski was about to have a very unfortunate meeting with the frontstretch wall. Busch made a move underneath Keselowski on the exit of turn four heading into the tri-oval. Busch moved ever so slightly up and barely tapped Keselowski’s left rear quarter panel, sending Keselowski sliding down the frontstretch and into the outside wall.

Keselowski, as you can imagine, was none too happy and quickly exited his car to assess the damage, even checking under the hood to see if they could possibly make it out on track. After apparently making the determination that the car could not be fixed, he began …. running.

Keselowski ran all the way from the top of the banking in the tri-oval to pit road, where he expressed his displeasure with Busch by gesturing to Busch’s pit crew. Keselowski then proceeded to run behind the pit wall and to his own pit box to talk to his team. Finally, realizing that he had to make the mandatory stop at the infield care center, he made the long jog all the way there where he was later evaluated and released.

He was unable to get back out on the track. Meanwhile, Kenseth went on to win the race and Busch would finish virtually unscathed in the fourth position.

Obviously Keselowski was none too happy after the race and said as much post-race:  “I got wrecked by a dirty driver. There is no other way of putting it. He is cool with that. I have raced him really cool over the last year to be respectful to him and try to repair our relationship. I’ve watched him wreck my trucks and cost him from winning race. He put me in the fence in Chicago in the truck race and the Nationwide races he has been pulling this crap. It is not gonna last I can tell you that. I feel bad for the guys next to me that are going to have to fix his stuff. That is going to be part of racing and they are going to have to deal with it.”

Meanwhile, Busch was quick to defend himself against Keselowski’s accusations.

“It was hard racing,” he said. “There was a lot of moments where maybe I felt a little crowded, but the contact there that ultimately ended it — I just got real tight off of (turn) four.  I’ve been battling tight underneath him and behind him and everything else and finally I thought I had a run and I tried to stay in the gas so I could get a run on him and get to his quarter and side-drafted him down the front straightaway.  I got too tight, got inside his wake and it just got too close to him and spun him out.  All in all though — a good day for us.  This Monster Energy Camry was fast — fastest car there that final run.  Just got a little too close there one time and didn’t give myself enough run and then of course that last restart sucked.”

In a separate interview, Keselowski was quick to point out that Busch is currently racing for a championship in the Sprint Cup race and has a lot more to lose than himself. Keselowski failed to make the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup despite the fact that he won the championship last year.

Though Busch didn’t sound all that concerned, and even pointed out that he never did anything to cost Keselowski a championship last year despite the fact that he also had an issue with the way Keselowski had raced him in the past, the issue remains whether or not Keselowski will issue some payback here in the very near future.

Whether or not Keselowski will actually pay Busch back at Kansas or another track later this year, the issue ethics in racing presents itself in this case. Busch and Keselowski’s issues have transpired in the Nationwide Series at this point, and should leave it there. Even though Busch has made a habit of reckless driving in the past and Keselowski is no angel either, it doesn’t seem right that Busch might lose a championship because Keselowski has a grudge.

Though the contact certainly looked intentional, there is no definitive proof that Busch’s assertion that he got tight is a lie. The in-car camera has no clear evidence either way and the two were racing hard for position anyway. Could Busch have possibly given Keselowski more room given the fact that he knew his car was handling poorly? Well, yeah, but as far as those two were concerned, they were racing for a championship. If Busch had a run on Keselowski for that spot, he was going to take it. More than likely, Keselowski would have done the same thing.

Regardless of the feelings that were hurt in this case, though, it doesn’t warrant the loss of a Sprint Cup Series championship. If Keselowski and Penske Racing feels like this will cost them the owner’s title in the Nationwide Series, then they need to take care of the problem there. At the very least, Busch’s Cup Series crew members don’t deserve to be the victims of something they had no involvement in.

While there is no love lost between the two, hard racing between two very talented and equally competitive teams can occasionally lead to a few run-ins. Keselowski doesn’t need to pay Busch back. But if he decides to do so, he needs to do it with the team where it happened in the first place.

EMAIL SUMMER AT summer.bedgood@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @SummerBedgood