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RTA takes center stage as NASCAR hits New Hampshire


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, the newly-announced Race Team Alliance takes center stage, while testing issues, Brian Vickers’ race-win and the possibility of night racing in New Hampshire’s future highlight the storylines leading up to the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. 

Make no mistake: Race Team Alliance has ushered in new era of NASCAR  

NASCAR president Mike Helton gathered reporters at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Friday morning to deliver one specific message: Animosity between NASCAR and the newly-formed Race Team Alliance is non-existent and NASCAR will continue to operate as planned.

It was the most direct feedback yet from the sanctioning body after Monday’s surprising announcement of the new collective consisting of nine race teams operating 25 cars in the 2014 Sprint Cup field. Publicly, the RTA is maintaining the stance that the group is about reducing costs among its group and finding better ways to do business in their volatile market.

Privately, of course, the intentions may be much grander. The RTA now wields a significant amount of strength in the sport’s power balance. That doesn’t mean the group has a goal of supplanting the France family as NASCAR’s leaders, but it does open some avenues for change of the sport’s entire business structure – a shift well beyond the norm of operation for the powers that be in Daytona Beach. Such is life when the word “billions” becomes part of the sport’s vocabulary.

This is a scenario for both groups where treading lightly is the best course of action. Wrong moves could quickly become disastrous. But it’s also a curious one because intelligent, cohesive decision-making between the two could be a boon for the sport.

Chase testing may play role in Sunday’s race

With a race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and handling similarity to Phoenix International Raceway (another Chase track), NHMS can be an appealing place for Cup teams to use part of their testing allotment. That’s why Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing and Richard Childress Racing have all made mid-week trips to the northeast already this season.

Ganassi and Hendrick tested the one-mile track in early June, bringing all six combined cars and drivers to the two-day session. RCR and MWR were in Loudon just last week.

“We went to New Hampshire trying to find that little bit extra as a whole group,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr. “You only get four tests from which to choose and the whole company has to agree on where we’re going. It’s a company-wide initiative to try and improve, so I think it says a lot that we chose New Hampshire as one of those tests.”

Morgan Shepherd continues oldest competitor streak

Hopefully this time won’t be a start-and-park. But don’t hold too much hope.

Morgan Shepherd, 72, will start the Sprint Cup race Sunday at New Hampshire to continue his own record of being the oldest driver in NASCAR’s top division. Only 43 cars are on-hand for this weekend’s race, meaning no teams will be packing up after qualifying.

Shepherd raced once earlier this season at Phoenix and made his first Cup start since 2006 one year ago at NHMS. In both races, Shepherd failed to even get to one-third distance when he start-and-parked. Last year, Shepherd stopped for a “vibration” and at Phoenix the given cause was brake issues.

The car he’s racing – Circle Sport’s No. 33 – attempted to race the full distance last week at Daytona with Bobby Labonte behind the wheel until it was caught in a crash on Lap 98.

Brian Vickers, one year later  

The career arc of Brian Vickers completely changed a year ago at New Hampshire. Then a part-time driver for Michael Waltrip Racing, Vickers put the No. 55 in victory lane despite the best intentions of a late debris cautions to foil his drive.

Vickers would eventually sign a multi-year full-time deal with MWR and boost Aaron’s to return as the primary sponsor on his Toyota.

The moment was one of those unexpected moments of redemption in sports. Vickers, saddled with the baggage of underperformance in his time at Hendrick Motorsports, the closure of Red Bull Racing and blood clot issue that sidelined him from racing, was able to claw back up to the ranks of full-time.

Now 18 races into the 2014 season, Vickers is on pace for the best season of his career. He has three top-5 finishes and ranks 16th in the point standings.

Final daytime summer race at NHMS?

Last week at Daytona, NASCAR CEO Brian France hinted that some significant changes to the Sprint Cup schedule may be in the works for 2015. The moves – should they happen – are made possible by the new television rights deal in place effective next season and would reflect NASCAR’s desire to stymie drooping television ratings and at-track attendance.

NHMS may play a pivotal role in those shifts. The one-mile oval is the only track on the calendar with two races past the season’s halfway point (Sprint Cup returns on Sept. 21) and previous overtures by track general manager Jerry Gappens indicate night racing may be in the cards. Such a switch may require either a date change or another night race on the Sprint Cup calendar to become a daytime event based on the desires of Fox or NBC.

The Associated Press reported last fall that Gappens had asked NASCAR for a night race this year. That didn’t happen, obviously, but Gappens held out hope for 2015. NHMS, opened in 1990, does not currently have lights. It was purchased by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., in 2008 and remains the only operating oval in the SMI portfolio without lights.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.