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NASCAR stars voice support for new drivers’ council

LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — Jeff Gordon’s lone regret about the NASCAR drivers’ council is that it wasn’t formed well before he races into retirement.

Gordon, the four-time series champion, was one of about 20 top drivers who met last weekend with NASCAR officials at Dover International Speedway. Competition, the 2016 rules package, attendance and safety were among the topics discussed.

“I think this is one of the coolest things I’ve seen happen in this sport since I’ve been in it,” Gordon said Friday.

It’s not clear exactly how many drivers are on the council, as not all those who participated have gone public.

Confirmed to have been present at last weekend’s meeting are Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson and Tony Stewart for Chevrolet; Denny Hamlin for Toyota; and Joey Logano for Ford. Larson was selected as the reigning rookie of the year and a representative of the younger drivers.

Brad Keselowski and six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson were among the biggest names left out of the council. Drivers were apparently grouped in three different classes for the vote, and all three manufacturers had to be represented.

Keselowski once stood at the podium of an offseason banquet as the 2012 NASCAR champion and vowed to embrace his role as a hopeful new face of the sport.

“As a champion, I want to be your leader,” he said then.

He can still try and use his voice — just not from the council.

“I didn’t earn the spot,” Keselowski said this week. “To earn the spot you had to be the highest driver in each respective manufacturer and I wasn’t the highest Ford and the numbers games being what they are with the Chevrolet drivers kind of having control of the senate, so to speak, I wasn’t going to get voted in and I understand that.”

But the drivers who were there feel the meeting was long overdue, and finally comes at a time when everyone seems to be grasping at how to improve the racing.

“You’ve got all the NASCAR guys there that you want to talk to, that you want 5 minutes with,” Earnhardt said. “Everybody’s in the room to work together. Everybody wants the same thing. We all want a healthy sport. We all want the racing as good as it can be, as safe as it can be.”

Gordon called the openness “amazing” and said drivers and series officials all appear on the same page as far as what’s best for NASCAR. He hopes to remain on the council next year even he stops racing a fulltime schedule.

“When I look at maybe top 10 things that I see happening in this sport, this is one of them,” Gordon said. “I will do whatever they want me to do. There are certain criteria that you have to meet to stay on the panel that you could get voted off if you don’t make the meetings. I want to do everything I can to continue to share my passion for the sport and thoughts and ideas.”

NASCAR has downplayed the significance of the meeting, with executive vice president Steve O’Donnell likening it Monday to many of the preseason driver meetings the sanctioning body has moderated.

Earnhardt agreed the idea of the drivers banding together was a bit overblown.

“NASCAR and the drivers didn’t think it was much of a topic,” he said. “We’ve met before in various situations, it’s just been a little more informal.”

Johnson made light of the fact at Dover he was not invited to join to council.

“Haven’t won enough races or championships,” he said.

Johnson said he was glad the drivers now have a singular voice with NASCAR.

“I truly believe in the council,” he said Friday at Pocono Raceway. “I’m very happy with the election process.”

Keselowski said he would have addressed the car’s reliance on aerodynamics.

“Aerodynamics are really cool from an engineering standpoint and showcase all the technology in the sport that perhaps gets written off as not having a lot of technology,” he said. “To that end game, it also creates a lot of issues with our product to our fans. As the cars get faster by themselves with aerodynamics they get slower in a pack because they drag each other down. That really prohibits the side-by-side passing and a lot of things we like to see as race fans and competitors that make the wheels of our sport go around, which is the fans and their happiness.”

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