News Analysis: Charlotte Motor Speedway road course will be used for 2018 playoffs

What happened: NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan reported Tuesday the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield road course will likely be used for the 2018 playoffs instead of the 1.5-mile oval.

What it means: Fans will finally get to see the road course race in the playoffs they’ve been asking for, and a third road course will be on the Cup schedule. In addition, this would likely leave New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the top candidate to lose a race in favor of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which is expected to get a second Cup race next season.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven, because this news has multiple impacts. It not only adds a road course to the playoffs, but it prevents the number of 1.5-mile tracks in the final 10 races from increasing (it would stay at five).

Questions: Is this really it for New Hampshire’s playoff race, or is there some unexpected wrinkle? How will fans react attendance-wise to the Charlotte road course? And will this give a driver like AJ Allmendinger a chance to make a deep playoff run?

News Analysis: Kyle Busch’s winning Xfinity car fails post-race inspection

What happened: Kyle Busch won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but NASCAR later announced his No. 18 car failed post-race inspection. It was too low in both the left front and the right front.

What it means: This is the first real test of NASCAR’s new penalty structure. The P1, P2, P3, etc. penalties are gone; now there’s just an L1 and L2. The rulebook says failing the heights after a race qualifies as an L1 penalty. In addition, the rulebook says an L1 penalty in the Xfinity Series counts as an encumbered finish — which means the No. 18 won’t be able to use the win to make the owner’s playoffs. In addition, according to the rulebook, the “minimum” penalty options for an L1 penalty in the Xfinity Series are the loss of 10-40 points, a one-to-three race crew chief suspension and a fine of $10,000-$40,000.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four, but could go up or down next week. It will be interesting to see what NASCAR announces on Tuesday or Wednesday when the penalties are made official.

Questions: Will NASCAR follow the standards laid out in its rulebook? If so, who will crew chief for the No. 18 car next week at Las Vegas? And will Busch go 10-for-10 in Xfinity races this year?

News Analysis: Las Vegas Motor Speedway in talks for second Cup race

What happened: The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has scheduled a special session to discuss a $2.5 million sponsorship opportunity that could bring a second NASCAR Cup Series race to Las Vegas Motor Speedway as soon as Fall 2018. In response to the R-J’s report, the track said it would comment further prior to the March 8 meeting, while NASCAR said the schedule has yet to be finalized for 2018.

What it means: This is a credible report, made clearer by the quick non-comments from the track and NASCAR. If this ends up happening, another Speedway Motorsports Inc. track would likely lose a race. All tracks are in the midst of five-year sanction agreements, so SMI would either have to buy another track and move one of its races or transfer one of its existing races (by far the more likely scenario). The current SMI tracks with playoff races are New Hampshire, Charlotte and Texas — and the repave at Texas means it’s an unlikely candidate.

News value (scale of 1-10): Nine. There hasn’t been a venue change in NASCAR since 2011, so this doesn’t happen often. People have been talking about Las Vegas getting a second Cup race for years, but the talk tapered off after Vegas stopped getting the mega crowds it once did. Perhaps this means it could finally happen.

Questions: Which SMI track would lose a race? Is it possible the season would end in Las Vegas, or will the postseason banquet move away? How would Las Vegas attendance be affected by having two dates instead of one?

News Analysis: Joey Logano signs long-term deal with Team Penske, Shell

What happened: Joey Logano received a mega contract extension from Team Penske and Shell — a whopping seven-year deal the team is billing as “2022 and beyond.” In addition, crew chief Todd Gordon’s contract was also extended at the same time. “This was one of those decisions that was a no-brainer,” Logano said. “When you find yourself in an amazing opportunity with a lot of winners around you, that’s great.”

What it means: You don’t see many deals like this in NASCAR anymore, as most contracts with drivers and teams are for three years. This might be the longest contract since Jeff Gordon’s lifetime deal with Hendrick Motorsports. Logano is 26, so in seven years he’ll only be 33 — which is the same age Brad Keselowski is now — and still have perhaps another 10 years ahead of him. Team owner Roger Penske joked the expectations for the new deal are 50 wins — which is nearly unattainable at more than seven per season, but also not out of the question for Logano.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. Logano wasn’t expected to go anywhere, but the length of the deal is highly notable. It’s also good news during a week when NASCAR has caught heat nationally for being in decline (through coverage in the Wall Street Journal and on CBS News), which could send a message to prospective sponsors.

Questions: How many races and championships will Logano win over the next seven years? Does this set Logano/Todd Gordon/Penske/Shell to be the next generation’s Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus/Hendrick/Lowe’s? How soon will Penske be able to lock up Brad Keselowski in a long-term deal as well?

News Analysis: Denny Hamlin signs contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing

What happened: FedEx signed a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing, which ensures Denny Hamlin will remain as the driver of the No. 11 car for presumably the next few years (though the length was not disclosed). Hamlin said never considered another team. “I’ve been a horse with blinders,” he said. “Everything’s been so good at home, why venture out?”

What it means: Hamlin could have been an intriguing free agent, but now one potential Silly Season name is officially off the market. The move reaffirms Hamlin’s position as a key leader at JGR and will leave the 36-year-old in position to win races and championships in the prime of his career as older drivers continue to retire.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. Hamlin wasn’t expected to leave JGR, nor was FedEx. Still, it’s a big-name driver signing a contract extension, so that’s notable.

Questions: With Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Busch all seemingly staying put for awhile, where does this leave Matt Kenseth (who turns 45 next month)? At some point — maybe next year — won’t JGR want Erik Jones to come back from his temporary stay at Furniture Row Racing? Also, how much longer will Hamlin race?

Analysis: Wall Street Journal report raises questions about NASCAR leadership

A well-reported story in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal raises interesting questions about NASCAR’s leadership.

Mainly, should Brian France still be in charge?

Using four sources, the WSJ reported France, NASCAR’s chairman and CEO, sold his stake in NASCAR to other family members “more than a decade ago.”

“As a result, these people say, Mr. France essentially works for his sister (Lesa France Kennedy) and uncle (Jim France) even though he is NASCAR’s chief executive,” the WSJ reported. “That means he runs the sport on a day-to-day basis but is supposed to seek approval from Ms. Kennedy and their uncle for major changes.”

The WSJ said Brian France did not inform his sister — who is in charge of International Speedway Corp. — before enacting a policy against Confederate flags in the infield. The story also said Kennedy learned of her brother’s public endorsement of Donald Trump by watching the news.

By his own admission in the story, France said he only attended roughly half of the Cup races last season.

In addition, the WSJ reported France did not attend a crucial December meeting between “racing-team executives, drivers, track operators and TV executives” in Las Vegas.

So based on this reporting, we know NASCAR’s CEO makes rogue decisions, does not show up to the majority of the races and is not very engaged in key planning for the future — all while presiding over the biggest decline in the sport’s history (the WSJ said TV viewership is down 45%).

After the WSJ report, it also appears confirmed France does not own a stake in NASCAR.

Kind of crazy, huh?

News analysis: Danica Patrick gets Aspen Dental sponsorship

What happened: Aspen Dental will increase its primary sponsorship of Danica Patrick this season, Stewart-Haas Racing announced via Facebook Live on Tuesday. The company will be Patrick’s “lead sponsor” for at least 10 races, an increase from four last season.

What it means: The sudden departure of Nature’s Bakery had left a 25-race gap for SHR to fill, so this softens the blow a bit. It also shows at least one of Patrick’s remaining sponsors wanted to double down on supporting her, which could help SHR in selling the other races. In addition, it might ease the minds of some who worried whether Gene Haas would have to pay for Patrick’s races out of his own pocket.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four. It’s basically a sponsor adding six races, but which isn’t huge, but it’s still important that one of Patrick’s backers increased its commitment and began to fill the giant void left by Nature’s Bakery.

Questions: How many races will Aspen Dental actually end up doing, since only a vague “double digit” number was cited? Can SHR continue to sell other races for Patrick once the season starts, or is this it? If Patrick has a below average season again this year, will that hurt her in terms of sponsorship for 2018?