News Analysis: Kevin Harvick penalized, loses locked-in spot at Homestead

What happened: Kevin Harvick’s ticket to Homestead was revoked after NASCAR found his team used an illegal spoiler during the No. 4 car’s dominating win at Texas. Harvick will technically keep the win, but he lost the benefit that advanced him to the championship race at Homestead. He also lost 40 points (of the 60 he earned in the race), which now puts him just three points ahead of the cutoff line heading to Phoenix. Crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Cheddar Smith were suspended for the rest of the season, and Stewart-Haas Racing said it will not appeal. Former Kurt Busch crew chief Tony Gibson will lead Harvick’s team for the final two races. The second-place car of Ryan Blaney and the fourth-place car of Erik Jones were also found to have serious violations; the third-place car of Joey Logano was not brought back to NASCAR’s R&D Center for the same type of thorough inspection.

What it means: Given the severity of the penalty, the timing of the championship implications and the lack of an appeal by the team, the logical conclusion is this must have been a blatant attempt to skirt the rules rather than some sort of mistake or misunderstanding. It’s tough for fans to hear a race winner was cheating like this, but it’s a reminder all of the top NASCAR teams are likely pulling some sort of trickery and working in gray areas to find speed. That’s how teams separate themselves in NASCAR and why crew chiefs get paid the big bucks. Was it worth the risk? It’s hard to say, because we don’t know how long Harvick’s team had been doing this or how much of an impact it had on the team’s speed. Harvick also had another encumbered win earlier this season (in Las Vegas), but still ended up with the most successful season of his career anyway. Plus, Harvick still goes to his best track with a chance to advance to Homestead and win the championship in spite of the penalty. If NASCAR had taken all 60 of the points Harvick earned in the race instead of 40 — thereby completely erasing his Texas performance short of taking the trophy — it might be a different story.

News value (scale of 1 to 10): Nine. When the best team all year dominates a race and is found to have broken the rules, then gets removed from the championship, that’s about as big as it gets. I would put this as a 10, but I have to leave some room in case the Homestead winner cheats and gets stripped of the championship — which seems like a real possibility now.

Three questions: What exactly did Harvick’s team do to the spoiler that made it illegal? Will Harvick experience any dropoff in performance after the team was caught, or will this not have any impact on the car’s speed? If NASCAR had taken the win away in this case, who would get the trophy given the second-place car was also illegal and the third-place car wasn’t inspected as thoroughly?

News Analysis: 5-hour Energy leaving NASCAR, Furniture Row

What happened: 5-hour Energy, one of the main sponsors for Martin Truex Jr. at Furniture Row Racing, announced it would be leaving the team — and the sport — at the end of this season in what it termed a “business decision.”  5-hour joined Truex’s No. 78 this year after being the full-season sponsor on Erik Jones’ No. 77 last year. Prior to that, 5-hour was linked with Clint Bowyer during his time at Michael Waltrip Racing and HScott Motorsports (2012-16).

What it means: Even winning at a frequent rate doesn’t ensure continued sponsorship anymore. Truex is coming off a championship season and has been one of the “Big Three” drivers with four wins already this year. And yet, for whatever reason, 5-hour decided it was time to spend its marketing dollars somewhere other than NASCAR. That’s a discouraging sign, especially since Monster won’t be the Cup Series title sponsor for much longer and thus would have freed up 5-hour to go wherever it wanted.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven, for a combination of reasons. Truex is a big-name driver losing a big-name sponsor, for one. But it’s also newsworthy that yet another major sponsor is departing from NASCAR after spending a couple hundred million dollars in the sport over seven seasons at the Cup level. It’s yet another punch in the gut for those hoping NASCAR’s slide will end soon.

Three questions: Can Furniture Row find a replacement, or will team owner Barney Visser have to put his company on the hood again? Does this end the speculation Furniture Row could re-expand to a second car next season? What does it mean for NASCAR when a company stops spending its money altogether instead of just staying involved at a reduced commitment level?

News Analysis: NASCAR ditches All-Star aero package for 2018

What happened: In a story released on its website, NASCAR revealed it will not use the All-Star aero package for the remainder of the 2018 Cup Series schedule, halting momentum that seemed to be building among series officials and racetracks who hoped to see more pack racing. NASCAR.com’s story cited a lack of time to prepare for the package in more races this season, saying it “would have been a Herculean undertaking and one that could have resulted in a rushed output.”

What it means: A major development in the ongoing battle for NASCAR’s soul, which had sparked a debate over what was more important — pure competition or the quality of the show (you can find a timeline of this story here). While the All-Star package undoubtedly was entertaining, it raised questions about NASCAR becoming a drafting series if those rules were used in points races going forward. Drivers like Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch had begun to speak out against the idea of using the package in more races, but NASCAR and the tracks — particularly the Speedway Motorsports Inc. venues headed by Marcus Smith — seemed intent on giving it a shot. Earlier this month, NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said the package could be used in three more Cup races this season before the playoffs began, and races like Kentucky, Pocono and Michigan seemed like potential candidates. But something must have happened behind the scenes with the various councils NASCAR consults with, because the All-Star package was suddenly snuffed just when its prospects started to burn brighter.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven, due to the surprise value. No one outside of NASCAR cares about rule packages or even knows what that means, but this had become a pretty important story inside the garage. The fact NASCAR won’t even try the package again in Cup until at least 2019 is a significant and puzzling development (albeit a good one for those who rejected the idea of seeing a restrictor-plate type race every week).

Three questions: What changed? Whose voice or voices in this conversation were able to overrule the other side? Will fans applaud this move to hold off on a major change and keep the racing relatively pure or complain that NASCAR isn’t doing enough to entertain them?

News analysis: France family reportedly exploring NASCAR sale

What happened: According to a report by the Reuters wire service, the France family is exploring a sale of NASCAR. Reuters said investment bank Goldman Sachs is working with NASCAR to find a potential buyer. NASCAR declined comment when I asked about this story and I have not been able to confirm it independently — but Reuters is a highly respected outlet and there’s no reason to believe this is a false report.

What it means: This is the first development in what could ultimately become one of the most important stories in NASCAR history. That the founding France family is even considering selling the sport and cashing out is a massive development that could have significant repercussions. And if the sale actually happens? NASCAR as we know it is likely to change forever, perhaps undergoing a transformation that could be similar to Formula One’s makeover. F1 was sold two years ago for $4.4 billion to Liberty Media.

News value (scale of 1-10): Like an earthquake too large to be accurately measured by a seismograph, this one is off the charts. Depending on what happens and who buys it and what their intentions are, this could turn out to be the biggest NASCAR story ever.

Three questions: With the potential of a sale now becoming public, what kind of immediate impact could this have on the sport? What entity has both the interest and billion dollars (at least) it would take to purchase and run the most popular form of racing in America? Would a new owner be able to save NASCAR from its decade-long slump, or would such a change only accelerate the decline?

News Analysis: NASCAR buys ARCA

What happened: The Automobile Racing Club of America — better known as ARCA — was purchased by NASCAR in a deal announced Friday morning at Talladega Superspeedway. ARCA will continue to operate under its current structure through this season and all of next year until things get reorganized in 2020.

What it means: It’s hard to grasp all the motivations at play here, and I don’t think they’re obvious yet. NASCAR already has the K&N East and West Series, which are somewhat on the same level as ARCA. So what gives? Well, Kevin Harvick said something interesting recently, and it might be telling: “Everybody wants to go run ARCA” to advance their careers after Late Models instead of running K&N. “ARCA runs on more ISC race tracks than the K&N East or West does, so the kids that are coming up through the series want to be on those racetracks,” he said. “That conversation shouldn’t ever be had. It should never be a thought.” Perhaps NASCAR is looking at this purchase as an opportunity to combine ARCA with its K&N Series and address exactly what Harvick was talking about, thus cementing its place as the organization for stock cars on every level (from NASCAR Home Tracks to Cup).

News value (scale of 1-10): There are two different values for this one. If you’re just a NASCAR Cup Series fan, this isn’t huge news for you — maybe a 4. The impact most fans would likely notice is around the support races during a Cup weekend. But if you’re a grassroots stock-car racing fan who follows the sport at all levels, this is a big day and might be as high as an 8.

Three questions: How will the NASCAR ladder system change in light of this acquisition? Will ARCA still be able to have its own identity, or will it get NASCAR-ized and called something like “K&N Midwest?” Is there any chance some of the short tracks ARCA runs could be a venue for a NASCAR national series race, such as the Trucks?

News Analysis: Matt Kenseth returning to NASCAR

What happened: Matt Kenseth will return to the NASCAR Cup Series on a part-time basis, Roush Fenway Racing officially announced Wednesday. As Jordan Bianchi of SBNation.com first reported, Kenseth will split the No. 6 car with Trevor Bayne at Roush, where Kenseth started his career. Kenseth’s first race back will be the Kansas Speedway race in May.

What it means: Roush found a new sponsor, and it’s likely any sponsor wants a big-name driver if possible. It certainly makes a deal more attractive. That coincided with an opportunity to improve performance; Bayne’s best finish this season is 12th and he sits 26th in the point standings, while teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 19th in the standings. At the very least, Kenseth can come in, drive some races and give feedback on whether the problem is the cars or the drivers. He just won his second-to-last start in November and the cars haven’t changed much since then.

News value (scale of 1-10): Uh, 9? Pretty high! As far as driver comebacks, the only thing bigger would be if Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart decided to race again for some reason. This is also be significant in the ongoing narrative about young drivers, since it could represent a shift back toward putting value on veteran performance.

Three questions: How will Kenseth perform in what currently appears to be second-tier equipment? How many races will he ultimately drive this season? Is there still time for Bayne to save his job, or is this the beginning of the end?

News Analysis: Monster Energy extends NASCAR Cup sponsorship for one more year

What happenedAfter months of speculation, NASCAR and Monster Energy announced a one-year extension of the Cup Series title sponsorship. Monster’s deal was up at the end of this season, but it will now run through 2019.

What it means: Monster seemed to have all the leverage after reportedly requesting two extensions on its decision deadline. It already had the Cup Series sponsorship at a steal of a price in the original deal (at least compared to Sprint) and since has spent parts of two seasons as a relatively quiet sponsor. When NASCAR and Monster first announced the deal in December 2016 at a hastily arranged news conference in Las Vegas, there was talk of a culture change and injection of Monster’s youthful, “fun” approach into all things NASCAR. But that hasn’t happened. Today’s NASCAR is the same as it was when Sprint was around, and aside from a Monster display area and Monster girls in victory lane, the sponsor has had little impact on NASCAR itself. Nevertheless, it was crucial for NASCAR to try and extend the deal, because the optics would have been terrible had there been yet another title sponsor change after just two years. At this point, the value of the naming rights themselves seem diminished compared to a decade ago, which could be why NASCAR told reporters it is looking at a different model starting in 2020. It might just be better to try something else than to engage in an annual dance of will-they-or-won’t-they when it comes to signing a new deal, and that seems to be the direction NASCAR may go.

News value: Six. It’s above average because it’s the series title sponsorship, but there’s a lot of fatigue around this story since it dragged on for so long. It would have been much bigger news at this point had Monster decided not to come back, because NASCAR would have been in a real bind.

Three questions: What was the holdup in signing the deal that prevented Monster from meeting the original deadline last December? What other options would NASCAR have had if this deal hadn’t been worked out? Will Monster do anything to increase its role, or will its investment stay relatively the same over the remaining two seasons of its sponsorship?