Bad luck, not bad strategy, dooms Martin Truex Jr.’s chance at Kansas win

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sitting atop the pit box for Furniture Row Racing, crew chief Cole Pearn allowed himself a pleasant thought.

“Man, maybe we’re going to ease into this one,” Pearn contemplated.

The No. 78 driven by Martin Truex Jr. had taken the pole and the No. 1 pit stall that came with it and was running away with the Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Truex was in the process of racking up the most laps led in the race for the second straight year. Twelve months after leading 95 laps in the spring race at Kansas, Truex would total 172, a team record for Furniture Row Racing.

Then came Lap 212.

That’s when Truex pitted from the lead for what should have been his final stop of the night.

Should have.

The second Truex left the pit box at the end of pit road, his Toyota began shaking.

“‘You got to be kidding me’ was my reaction,” Truex said following the race, once again leaning against his car in defeat rather than standing on it in celebration.

With 55 laps left, Truex tried thinking of a reason his car was misbehaving at the worst possible time.

“Maybe it’s shaking because it’s got tape on it or something stupid,” Truex thought.

It wasn’t tape or a lack of lug nuts. All four tires were on tight.

“A bolt that holds that right-front brake hat, one of the heads broke off for whatever reason,” Pearn said. “(It) holds the brake rotor on basically. The small head of the bolt broke off and got hung in the wheel when it went on.”

That’s what forced Truex back to pit road on Lap 215. When the No. 78 returned to the action, Truex was a lap down.

“You always know there’s the possibility of those things happening, you just hope they’re earlier in the race so you can overcome them,” said Truex. “We certainly had a car fast enough we could have overcome it if it was earlier.”

Two late cautions would allow Truex to return to the lead lap, but he ran out of time, finishing 14th. When Truex emerged from his car on pit road, he was approached by an apologetic Joe Gibbs. Furniture Row Racing is aligned with Gibbs’ organization.

“The pit crew guys train at his place, so he felt responsible,” Truex said. ” (He) just wanted to let me know what it was.”

For once, it was bad luck.

It’s the second race of the year Truex has led the most laps and failed to win. During the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Truex led 141 laps. Then under a late caution, Pearn called the No. 78 to pit road and had to watch as the rest of the leaders stayed out.

Busch won, Truex finished sixth.

Last year under the Kansas lights, Pearn had Truex pit for fuel during a late caution. In his rear-view mirror, Truex had to watch as the rest of the field stayed on the track.

Jimmie Johnson won, Truex finished ninth.

Truex would lead the most laps – 131 each – in the next two races at Charlotte and Dover, but fail to win. He finally broke through at Pocono Raceway the week after Dover.

The No. 78 hasn’t been back to victory lane since.

“It’s frustrating when you’ve had it happen so many times in your career,” said Truex, who leaves Kansas 10th in points. “I swear, you watch guys win races that don’t have the best car, on fuel mileage and all this stuff and it’s like, damn. Someday I’m going to get on the (right) side of one of them. It’s usually dominate and don’t win.”

But even while on the wrong side of circumstance once again, Truex recognizes he’s in the best place he’s been during his 11 seasons racing full-time in the Sprint Cup Series.

“Without a doubt, that’s why I don’t get down and lose my mind when things like this happen,” Truex said. “We’re going to win races. Whether we win four or one before the Chase, it really doesn’t matter, we won one last year and we made it to the final four.”

And then there’s Pearn, who allowed himself to contemplate the possibility of a well-earned win.

The second-year crew chief has one win with Truex, but sticking the landing a second time is proving difficult. How does he keep his spirits up?

“You’ve got no choice, I think maybe last year, I was mad after this one last year, but now I’ve experienced going through it,” Pearn said. “We’re obviously doing something right, but we’re not doing something else right.”

Long: 2018 schedule provides big test for one track; other musings on changes

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For all the talk about Indianapolis’ move to the last race before the playoffs or Charlotte’s road course event, the track that will face the most scrutiny from Tuesday’s 2018 schedule announcement is Richmond International Raceway.

Although the racing has been better when the track hosted day races, Richmond will go back to two night races next year and its September event moves into the playoffs after serving as the cutoff race since 2004. 

The change comes at a critical time for Richmond, a favorite among drivers but a track that has seen waning fan interest — thus the flip-flopping from night to day back to night events to please a fanbase that wants good racing but doesn’t want a sunburn. The spring crowd, no doubt affected by unseasonably warm temperatures in the 80s, was disappointing.

What makes the schedule change more critical for the track is what could be next. International Speedway Corp., which owns the facility, has slated Richmond as next for upgrades after Phoenix Raceway’s $178 million makeover is completed late next year.

While crowds have thinned at all tracks in the last decade, Richmond has seen its seating capacity cut from 110,000 in 2009 to its current capacity of 59,000, according to ISC annual reports. The 46.4 percent decline is the largest percentage capacity reduction among ISC’s 12 tracks that host Cup events.

The question becomes if the crowd continues to thin — even though Richmond is a day’s drive for nearly half of the U.S. population — will it be worthwhile for ISC to make the investments to the track? Or would it be better for ISC to invest in another of its facilities?

Something that could help Richmond is what will take place this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track’s upper groove is being treated by the same PJ1 TrackBite compound used at Bristol to improve the racing.

What’s unique is that the compound is applied to an asphalt track instead of a concrete track such as Bristol. If it entices drivers to use the high lane for part of the race, that will be significant. The challenge is that as the race moves into the evening and cooler temperatures, the bottom groove will be the fastest way around.

Richmond seemed to have a good solution when it sealed the track from 1988-2002 but hasn’t done since. The time seems right to do something to the track with two Cup night races. 

Drivers say that the best racing is during the day when conditions are the hottest. That’s not the most enjoyable conditions for fans. So fans who wanted night racing back at Richmond will get it for both events.

Fans should be careful what they wish for because cool, evening temperatures are not conducive to the best type of racing.

DAYTONA CHANGES

Another alteration to the schedule is that Daytona 500 qualifying and the Clash will be held on the same day, Feb. 11, a week before the 500.

It’s a nice move to tighten the schedule, but why can’t more be done?

Does Daytona need to be held over two weekends?

“I would say certainly we talked about a lot of things,’’ said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR vice president of racing operations when asked about shortening Daytona Speedweeks. “But when you kick off the season with your biggest event of the year, and you have a number of races to support that kickoff of the season, Daytona has a portfolio of races that commands a number of weeks. I think our fans look forward to spending a lot of time in Daytona in the month of February.

“Certainly there’s consideration around the race teams, the amount of time they spend. But when you talk about the biggest event of your season, it certainly warrants a couple of weeks based on what we have from a content standpoint.”

I’m not convinced. I think you could compress it into one week and make the week more entertaining.

Here’s one possible way how:

Tuesday: Cup haulers park in garage.

Wednesday: Cup teams practice and qualify. Truck teams park in garage.

Thursday: Cup teams compete in the Duels. Xfinity teams park in garage. Truck teams practice.

Friday: Cup teams practice. Xfinity teams practice. Truck teams qualify and race. Cup teams in the Clash practice.

Saturday: Cup final practice for the Daytona 500. Xfinity teams race. The Clash is held an hour after the Xfinity race ends.

Sunday: Daytona 500.

A doubleheader with the Xfinity Series and the Clash the day before the Daytona 500 creates more reasons for fans to be there for the weekend.

Maybe there’s a better way, but the point is cut a weekend out of Speedweeks and that can give teams a break at some other point in the season (or just start the season a few days later).

As the sport looks to be more efficient with its race weekends — Pocono, Watkins Glen and Martinsville each will have qualifying a few hours before the race in the second half of the season — cutting a weekend out of Daytona only makes sense.

Also, watch for more two-day Cup weekends if the experiment works this year.

INDY THE RIGHT RACE BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS?

Indianapolis taking the spot as the final race before the playoffs raises some questions.

When Richmond was there, at least many more teams had a chance to win. At Indianapolis, those that can win are fewer. Typically, the best teams excel at Indy because they have the best aero and engine packages. That’s not something a smaller team can overcome as much as it can on a short track.

The notion of an upstart winning their way into the playoffs is less likely at Indianapolis. Those who need stage points in a last-gasp effort to make the playoffs will have to gamble. Truthfully, that could make Indy more dramatic in some ways. Paul Menard won the 2011 race on a fuel gamble, but such payoffs are not likely to happen often and then what you are left with?

Something to consider is that the Xfinity cars will race there in July with restrictor plates and other modifications. If those changes enhance the racing, then it would make sense for the Cup cars to go with something similar. If NASCAR can get its cars to make passes like the IndyCars (there were 54 lead changes in last year’s Indianapolis 500), then you’d have something worth talking about.

If that doesn’t work, maybe you’re left with the tradeoff that Richmond gives the playoffs two short tracks.

A NOVEL IDEA BUT WILL IT WORK?

Charlotte’s roval for the playoffs will smack of desperation to some, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Still, one has to applaud the sport and the track looking for a different way to entertain fans. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come after the greatest risks.

While drivers will race on the infield road course, they still nearly will race all the way around the 1.5-mile track. If the action on the road course section mimics what fans see at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, then this will be a good move. If not, what then?

Charlotte’s format will present challenges for crew chiefs in setting up the car, but the key is going to be action. Few people go to races to watch the crew chiefs. It’s about the drivers. And it will be about contact on the road course.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Even with all the changes to the front half of the playoff schedule, three of the final five races are on 1.5-mile speedways.

Cassidy said NASCAR isn’t as concerned about that.

“I wouldn’t get too hung up on the number of intermediate tracks because I think what you’ve seen, if you want to focus on the back end of the playoffs, focus on the racing that we’ve seen at intermediate tracks, each of the intermediate tracks as kind of taking shape from having its own distinct personality from a racing standpoint,’’ he said.

“I think you saw that at Texas this year with the changes they made, again, a vision to change things up on that side, and to create a different racing dynamic at a mile‑and‑a‑half track.

“What you saw at Kansas a couple weeks ago kind of speaks for itself.

  “And then I don’t think you could argue that Homestead has provided some of the most compelling racing you could ever imagine to bring home a championship.’’

Miami is the best 1.5-mile track and has produced some good racing in the season finale. Nothing wrong with it where it is. Kansas has had its ups and downs but did have 21 lead changes earlier this month in what was viewed as an entertaining race. With its new track surface, we’ll see where Texas goes from its race in April.

If all three can provide entertaining racing and allow drivers to move through the field instead of being stuck in a line, then they should stay in their spots. But if they can’t do so, then NASCAR should not be afraid of making further changes to the playoff schedule.

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NASCAR America: Slugger Labbe says why he left Richard Childress Racing (video)

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Slugger Labbe announced Monday that after six seasons, he would be leaving the No. 3 team of Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing.

While he does not rule out a potential return to RCR at some point in the future, for now he’s just taking a break and fielding potential opportunities from other organizations.

Justin Alexander will take over as Dillon’s crew chief immediately, just in time for arguably the most difficult race on the schedule, Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

My Home Tracks: New Mexico’s the Land of Enchantment and home of Cardinal Speedway

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The state of New Mexico is known more for IndyCar racing, with the Unser family being the state’s favorite sons.

Al Unser won four Indianapolis 500s, brother Bobby three and Al’s son Al Jr. a two-time winner (this weekend’s 500 marks the 25th anniversary of Little Al’s second 500 triumph).

But there’s a strong grassroots racing scene in the Land of Enchantment, particularly in the far southeast corner of the state at Cardinal Speedway, a half-mile dirt track in the little town of Eunice.

NASCAR America continues its My Home Track series of 50 states in 50 shows.

Wednesday, we visit New York state.

2018 NASCAR schedule changes: EVP Steve O’Donnell breaks it down (video)

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On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell joined us to discuss the NASCAR Cup schedule changes in 2018, including running a road race at Charlotte and having Indianapolis be the final race before the playoffs.

“I’m real excited about these changes,” said O’Donnell, who cited unprecedented cooperation between NASCAR, its teams, drivers and sponsors to reach agreement on the schedule changes.

Among the key changes: Las Vegas will kick off the 10-race playoffs in 2018 (Chicagoland Speedway, which will have hosted the last seven playoff openers, will return to its more traditional race date in early July/late June and serve as a run-up to the Coke Zero 400 in Daytona.

Several other changes include:

  • The fall playoff race at Charlotte will move up a couple weeks in the schedule and also incorporate competition on both the infield road course and part of the speedway itself.
  • After 14 years as the deciding race to qualify for the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Richmond International Raceway will now become the second race of the playoffs.
  • Indianapolis Motor Speedway will see it’s Brickyard 400 go from late July to become the final qualifying race for the playoffs in early September.

Catch up on all the changes in the above video.