Brad Keselowski raises questions about concussion diagnosis

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Brad Keselowski continued to raise questions about concussion diagnosis after Matt DiBenedetto was ruled out of Sunday’s Sprint Cup race and put into concussion protocol.

DiBenedetto was not cleared by doctors after he crashed in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. DiBenedetto tweeted Saturday night that “I’m feeling totally fine … just having to follow the concussion protocol.’’

In an exchange of tweets, Keselowski and DiBenedetto expressed frustration about the process.

Keselowski spoke briefly with Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, and Mike Helton, NASCAR’s vice chairman, before the drivers meeting.

After the meeting, Keselowski said of the situation: “It cements my opinion with an actual example.”

During Sunday’s rain delay, Keselowsk talked more about the issue with NBC Sports’ Mike Massaro.

Keselowski said: “It’s an evolving science. That’s what concussions are. I don’t know if there is anyone who can sit here and honestly tell you they have a complete answer and a complete understanding of what is going on. What’s unfortunate is that as the science has evolved, our sport, really all sports are trying to deal with it.

“What’s happened to Dale Jr. this year is a big wake-up call for everyone. Of course, there is a natural tendency to want to err on the side of caution. Also, there’s real people’s lives that are being affected and I’m very fortunate to make a living as a driver in this sport, so are a lot of others, and that can be very easily taken away from you by someone who wants to make a conservative decision. I think it’s really such a gray area. I really appreciate the tough position that NASCAR is put in, but we have to move forward and we have to look after guys like Matt, who feels like he doesn’t have a concussion and is being sat out.

“As a sport we’ll work on that together. I’m excited about the commitment that NASCAR has put into working through it together with all the different things we’ve done, but I don’t think we have it perfect  and I think everyone can agree to that.”

Keselowski’s question stirred debate on social media, and he answered some questions about his stance and worries. He also was asked about Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is out the rest of the season because of symptoms he suffered after a concussion. He has not raced since July 9. Earnhardt said he’s feeling better and expects to be cleared to race next season, beginning at Daytona.

For several years, Keselowski has questioned whether a doctor should be allowed to keep an athlete out of competition based on suspicion of a concussion diagnosis.

After NASCAR announced in October 2013 that it would require mandatory baseline testing for drivers beginning with the 2014 season, Keselowski stated his concerns.

“Doctors don’t understand our sport,” Keselowski told reporters a few days after NASCAR’s announcement. “They never have and they never will. Doctors aren’t risk-takers. We are. That’s what makes our sport what it is, and when you get doctors involved, it waters down our sport.

“I’m trying to be open-minded to the possibility they can help us, but past experience says no.”

Keselowski’s concerns with doctors making drivers miss races dates to 2010. He nearly missed an Xfinity race after being involved in a crash in the Sprint Cup event earlier in the day. Doctors in the infield care center had concerns about his carbon monoxide level and would not clear him to drive immediately. They did shortly before the Xfinity race, and he won the event.

He also raised concerns about doctors diagnosing concussions in 2012 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out two races after suffering concussion symptoms from two crashes within two months.

“It’s a very difficult situation to explain, and for all of the middle ground, which is where you feel sick but you can’t prove anything medically, that’s where it becomes tough,’’ Keselowski said in 2012. “And yes, I’ve had situations where I’ve been in that middle ground, and you’re left going off of your gut. 

“I feel like the drivers in this sport are smart enough to know the line, and usually if you have an injury like that, that prevents you from being focused and racing at a hundred percent, it should also prevent you from going fast enough to be in the way. The sport almost naturally clears itself of people like that.”

Keselowski also raised concerns earlier in March when Team Penske teammate Will Power was not allowed to compete in the IndyCar season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida, after he was diagnosed with a concussion.

IndyCar issued a statement three days after the race that results of an extensive evaluation revealed “no definitive evidence” of a recent concussion. Power finished second to teammate Simon Pagenaud for the championship even with missing the one race.

Crew chief explains order to Kyle Busch to do ‘doughnuts to the right’

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Crew chief Adam Stevens explained what he meant when he told Kyle Busch on the radio to do “doughnuts to the right” after Busch’s victory in Saturday night’s All-Star Race.

Stevens provided an explanation Monday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.’’

“That had nothing to do with any damage being received,’’ Stevens said. “That was just an effort to make sure that we could meet the (Laser Inspection Station) tolerances after the races. Doughnuts and burnouts are very hard on the car. It puts a lot of stress into all the suspension components. If we go out there and do the doughnuts to the left the same way that we’ve been turning all day, it’s going to eat into more of that tolerance.

“The only car out there doing doughnuts is the winner. We’re going to use up all of our tolerance doing doughnuts potentially. If we have that opportunity to do doughnuts, it just makes sense to do them the other direction so we’re not stressing the components in that manner.’’

Busch’s car passed inspection after the race.

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Slugger Labbe exits Richard Childress Racing as Austin Dillon gets crew chief Justin Alexander

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Richard Childress Racing made multiple crew chief changes Monday that included the departure of longtime employee Richard “Slugger” Labbe.

Justin Alexander was named crew chief for Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet in replacing Labbe, who is leaving RCR to pursue “other opportunities,” according to the team.

Alexander, who previously worked as the crew chief for Paul Menard, was promoted from RCR’s No. 2 in the Xfinity Series. Randall Burnett, who recently left AJ Allmendinger’s team, will take over Alexander’s job in the Xfinity Series.

Labbe had been a Cup crew chief with RCR since 2010. He initially worked with Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 with Labbe as crew chief. He had been with Dillon since midway through the 2015 season.

In 500 starts as a Cup crew chief, Labbe has five victories, also winning three times with Michael Waltrip and once with Jeremy Mayfield.

Here’s the release from the team:

Richard Childress Racing Announces Competition Changes to its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series Programs

Justin Alexander to take over No. 3 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Crew Chief Role;

Randall Burnett to take over No. 2 XFINITY Series Crew Chief Position

WELCOME, N.C. (May 22, 2017) – Richard Childress Racing has made a change in crew chiefs for its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series programs, effective immediately.

Justin Alexander, who has served as the crew chief of the No. 2 Rheem/Menards Chevrolet for RCR and earned two wins last season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, will assume crew chief responsibilities for the No. 3 Dow/American Ethanol/AAA Chevrolet SS team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with driver Austin Dillon. Alexander holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University. Prior to RCR, Alexander served in various engineering roles with Hendrick Motorsports. Alexander’s first race in his new role will be for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, replacing Richard “Slugger” Labbe. Labbe is leaving the company to pursue other opportunities.

Randall Burnett, who previously served as a crew chief for RCR’s technical partner JTG Daugherty Racing, will assume a new role as crew chief of the No. 2 Rheem/Menards Chevrolet in the NASCAR XFINITY Series beginning at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 27. Burnett holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from UNC Charlotte. Prior to JTG Daugherty Racing, he spent 10 years as an engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Red Horse Racing suspends operations

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Red Horse Racing, which has competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series since 2005, has suspended operations.

The organization, which reached the championship race last year with Timothy Peters, had 16 career victories. The team laid off 30 employees along with Peters and driver Brett Moffitt, a team official told NBC Sports. The team has kept a core group of employees as it seeks funding to resume operations.

Peters finished fifth in Friday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Moffitt placed 18th. Peters is sixth in the points and Moffitt is 10th. Neither truck has had a primary sponsor listed in all five races this season. 

Peters won at least one race for the organization from 2009-15. In 2012, the organization finished second in the owner points with four drivers scoring wins: Peters (two wins), Todd Bodine (one), John King (one) and Parker Kligerman (one).

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NASCAR executive defends rules package after lackluster All-Star Race

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After an All-Star race that featured three lead changes in 70 laps, a senior NASCAR executive defended the rules package but conceded that the option tire “didn’t make a huge impact.’’

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, told “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that one race isn’t going to lead to significant rule changes.

“I think we’ve got to keep it in context,’’ O’Donnell said Monday. “I find it ironic that you can go from one week of everyone saying this is the greatest rules package and then you walk into one race with a bit of a different format (and opinions not as high). We feel still really bullish on the rules package we have, the work we’ve done with the industry to get where we’re at. Certainly you want every race to be the best it possibly can be.

“We’ve got to look at the facts and the facts are a lot of different organizations winning this year, the (manufacturers) having an ability to win, Kyle (Busch) his first win ever (in Cup) at Charlotte, which is surprising to me, and a lot of young drivers really putting their names out there competing out front. Really like where we’re at right now.

“Our job is to look at the whole year. If I reacted to every comment you had on Twitter, it would be very different. It’s one of those things we’ve got to look at the overall picture, we’ve got to take the input from everybody in the industry and we do that. I think from a rules package standpoint we continue to see the sport moving in the right direction in terms of what we’re seeing in competitiveness from different organizations. That’s really how we judge it from an overall standpoint and not just one race.’’

Heading into this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, there have been eight different winners in the first 11 races. There have been at least eight different winners in the first 11 races in three of the last four years.

Among organizations, seven different teams have scored victories this season: Chip Ganassi Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Four organizations had won a race in the first 11 events last year and in 2015.

In the five races run on 1.5-mile tracks this season — Atlanta, Las Vegas, Texas, Kansas and the All-Star Race — lead changes are down compared to the same events last year. There have been 63 lead changes in those five events this year compared to 94 in those same events a year ago and 99 two years ago.

The three lead changes in the All-Star race were the fewest since 2007, although Saturday’s race had the fewest laps (70) since that 2007 race, which was 80 laps.

Still, the hope was that there could be plenty of cars moving forward and backward with the use of a second tire compound, a softer compound. The goal was for the tire to be a few tenths quicker at the onset but wear more quickly than the regular tire.

“Goodyear delivered on exactly what we had asked,’’ O’Donnell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We wanted three to four-tenths on a tire and by the practice times and the early part of the race we saw that. Kudos to Goodyear. I think what you saw Saturday night was really the difference probably in the car versus the tire and maybe a need to go even further if you were going to pursue that avenue in terms of difference in speed. That’s something we could look at for the future. Obviously you guys saw what I saw, it didn’t make a huge impact.’’

Asked if the option tire is something still on the table for future events, O’Donnell said: “I think so. I think you look at what may be the impact versus the car. I think the bigger thing is, when you look at tires in general, continuing to focus on rain tire, what should be our priority. There’s talk, I don’t want to tip the hand, but way down the future could you ever run Martinsville if the track was damp because Goodyear is able to, in terms of the speed, put something together.

“It’s a balance for us of where do we put their focus. Obviously they’re capable of doing all things. I think something we’d look at All-Star for sure, not sure in terms of a points race.’’

Another question was about the splitter after Erik Jones’ bid for the lead in the final laps of the Monster Energy Open was foiled when he ran below the apron and through grass on the frontstretch. He damaged his splitter in the incident.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was critical of the splitter on Twitter.

O’Donnell defended the splitter’s purpose on the car.

“Why we have it, I think everybody, including the drivers and the industry wanted to look at going toward the lower downforce package,’’ O’Donnell said. “That’s part of the package. It’s part of what we worked on with the (manufacturers). We’re actually very happy with the product we’ve had.

“If you look back to Kansas, one of the better mile-and-a-half races we’ve had. It’s always interesting with one incident and everybody jumps on, ‘Hey, why do we have this on the car?’ Certainly something down the road you can always look at, but it’s part of the overall aerodynamics of the car. It all fits in.

“For now, we continue to like the direction of lower downforce and going to continue down that and see if there are certain tweaks we can make. We absolutely would do that but that’s where we’re at today.’’

O’Donnell also said that the 2018 schedule is expected to be released this week.

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