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NASCAR official defends penalties to Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr.

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A NASCAR executive was adamant that drivers were warned about passing the pace car as they entered pit road and that series officials penalized Martin Truex Jr. after a move that was “just blatant” Sunday at Phoenix and penalized Jimmie Johnson to be consistent.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, made the comments Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Before Sunday’s race at Phoenix, NASCAR had penalized drivers for pulling up to pit in only one other race. NASCAR cited Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears for the violation at Dover in May.

Sunday, NASCAR penalized Martin Truex Jr. for the issue and Jimmie Johnson later in the race. Johnson was baffled by the call and planned to talk to NASCAR about the one-lap penalty.

“We’ve reminded the drivers quite often that it was getting very close that you can’t pass the pace car as you pull off on to pit road,’’ O’Donnell said. “We’ve had that in every drivers meeting. Not a surprise to anyone. Jimmie has been racing with us for a long time and is aware of that rule.

“Have there been some borderline situations in the past? Sure. We’re always going to try to err if we can on the competitor’s side. We’ve been very clear on that.

“We told the competitors it was something we continue to watch. Once the call (on Truex) was made, which in our mind was just blatant, very clear in terms of how far in front of the pace car (Truex was), we made a point over the radio again. We obviously penalized (Truex) and said again that is something we’re going to enforce. Right after that (Johnson) was ahead of the pace car as well, and again that was clear on video and so we made the call and wanted to be consistent in the race.’’

Johnson didn’t see it that way after the race.

“In 15 years that has never been a concern, and I was always told that the last thing NASCAR wanted to do would be to penalize the leader, and as you pull off onto the apron, you accelerate to the commitment line,’’ Johnson said.

“If you are held by the pace car, you’re at a disadvantage as the leader and it allows everybody to catch you and catch up, so even in drivers meetings they’ve said, we know you’re going to pass the pace car; it’s okay. The majority of the tracks we go to, you naturally just gradually pull ahead of the pace car coming to pit lane. I mean, this happens all the time.’’

In the video that is played during the drivers meeting each week, competitors are told “do not pull up to pit, hold your respective track position under the yellow flag.’’

On NASCAR’s pit road penalty handout that is given to each crew chief, it reads for pulling up to pit: “When following the caution vehicle during a caution period, drivers must maintain their position in relation to other vehicles in the field or as otherwise directed by NASCAR, and will not be permitted to pass other vehicles or the caution vehicle when preparing to enter pit road.’’

During the drivers meeting last month at Martinsville, series director Richard Buck told drivers: “Also a reminder, under caution, the leader may not pass the caution car when entering pit road.’’

Also, O’Donnell addressed the order for the final restart after Matt Kenseth’s crash. Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch, said on the team’s radio repeatedly that Busch was ahead of Joey Logano when the caution lights illuminated and should have been the leader. Instead, NASCAR ruled that Logano was the leader.

O’Donnell explained why that was so.

“We have scoring loops in place that during a race if a caution comes out, the scoring loops are what scores the competitors and how we line them up,’’ O’Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We go back to the last scoring loop that was passed. In the event that a caution comes out and ends the race, then we use any available technology because the race is over and we’ve got some time to review all of the video feeds and can take our time doing that.

“In that caution, it was not the end of the race. It was scored as the last lap passed. Every competitor is scored there. If you’re involved in the caution, you are scored where you blend back in the line. (Alex Bowman) was scored where he blended back. (Busch) was scored at the last loop they passed.’’

NASCAR America: How to navigate Martinsville to win grandfather clock

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The grandfather clock awarded to winners at Martinsville has become one of the most sought after prizes in NASCAR.

So what does a driver need to do to ensure a trip to victory lane?

Our NASCAR America experts discussed that in Wednesday’s show.

  

 

Burton: ‘Fans were cheated’ when Jimmie Johnson chose not to qualify at Fontana

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No rules were broken. No penalties handed out.

That’s what happened when Jimmie Johnson didn’t attempt a qualifying lap last Friday at Auto Club Speedway for the Auto Club 400 two days later.

Johnson wrecked his car in the first Cup practice earlier Friday while making a mock qualifying run. Crew chief Chad Knaus brought the backup No. 48 out of the team’s trailer, choosing to forego Friday qualifying to work out the kinks for Saturday’s two final NASCAR Cup practices.

“I just felt it was wiser to get the car prepared correctly rather than qualify poorly,” Knaus said Friday. “I wasn’t comfortable putting Jimmie in a position where he would have to hustle a car that hasn’t turned a lap in yet.”

It’s worth noting that because it was a West Coast race, if Johnson had wrecked another car, he likely would have been forced to use a teammate’s backup car (for some East Coast races, Hendrick likely would have shipped another No. 48 from its shop).

By electing to bypass qualifying, Johnson started 37th in the 39-car field Sunday and finished 21st.

On Wednesday’s NASCAR America, NASCAR On NBC analyst and former driver Jeff Burton disagreed with Knaus’ call and said that, in effect, Johnson fans were shortchanged.

“First and foremost, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus did nothing wrong,” Burton said. “They didn’t break any rules. They followed all the rules. NASCAR considered that they were attempting to qualify because they tried to practice, (and) they wrecked their car. No rules were broken.

“I just think in the greater interest of the sport, if I’m a race fan, particularly a Jimmie Johnson fan, and I turn the TV on, I want my guy out there trying to qualify.

“I think in the better good of the sport, it’s best that people deliver, put their car on the grid and put their driver out to qualify. I understand what Chad Knaus is saying. We’ve seen it a lot of times where a backup car comes out, and they go win the race.

“The backup cars today are different than they were 30 years ago. These backup cars today are put in that trailer that can go win the race.

“I just think that for the well-being of the sport, the fans deserve to see their guy that they tuned in on TV, at person at the track or turn the radio on, to listen to their guy, watch their guy go qualify the best he can. The fans were cheated, in my opinion, in not having that car on the racetrack.”

Two other analysts chimed in on Burton’s contention.

Said NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett: “If the drivers, the teams, the crew chiefs knew that if they did not make a qualifying attempt, did not get out and make a lap, that they were sitting on pit road when the green flag fell, then I think that would make things a lot different in that inspection process and in the process of the thinking the way Chad and Jimmie went about it.”

Added former driver Greg Biffle, “Listen, they already crashed making a qualifying run (in practice). So, Chad has his last car in the trailer, and to put it together and put Jimmie on the racetrack with no laps and take a chance at having something go wrong with that car. These cars are real good now, that probably wouldn’t happen.”

Said Jarrett: “The chance is always there, so that makes it difficult.”

Burton reiterated that Johnson and Knaus did nothing wrong but added a caveat:

“I just think in the big picture and best interest of the sport, it’s something that has to be looked at,” he said. “As we’ve all seen, when one person does something, it tends to start a trend – and this is not a trend we want to see continue on into the future.

“I agree with D.J., making some rules. Because if you penalize teams and drivers for not getting through inspection in time and those kinds of things in a greater way, all of a sudden teams and drivers get through inspection on time to present their cars to qualify.”

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Team Penske to appeal Phoenix penalty against Keselowski, crew chief Paul Wolfe

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Team Penske announced Wednesday evening that it will appeal the penalty to the No. 2 team of Brad Keselowski from the NASCAR Cup race at Phoenix on March 19.

NASCAR docked the team 35 driver and team owner points, while crew chief Paul Wolfe was suspended for three races and was fined $65,000 for failing post-race inspection. Keselowski had finished fifth in the race.

NASCAR cited Keselowski’s car for failing weights and measurements on the laser platform. NASCAR stated in last Wednesday’s penalty report that the team failed the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station.

Wolfe sat out this past Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. The team’s appeal request will reinstate Wolfe until the appeal plays out, meaning he’ll be back on Keselowski’s pit box for this Sunday’s race at Martinsville.

Here is the statement from the team:

“After having the opportunity to review the facts, Team Penske has decided to appeal the penalties following the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in Phoenix. We have requested an appeal hearing and we plan to follow the process as outlined in the NASCAR rulebook. The appeals administration has granted our request to defer the two races remaining on Paul Wolfe’s suspension until the results of our appeal are known.”

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Blaney, Wood Brothers head to Martinsville for homecoming, hope to leave with win

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It’ll be a big homecoming this weekend at Martinsville Speedway for Wood Brothers Racing.

The Wood Brothers began their legendary NASCAR racing career in Stuart, Virginia, about 30 miles from the Speedway.

Driver Ryan Blaney grew up in High Point, North Carolina, which is about 45 miles from Martinsville. And crew chief Jeremy Bullins grew up in Walnut Cove, N.C., about 40 miles from Martinsville.

That’s why Blaney, Bullins and the Wood Brothers are primed for what they hope will be a strong showing for the No. 21 Ford team in Sunday’s STP 500.

“This is kind of a home track for me,” Blaney said of the .528-mile paperclip-shaped oval. “I have a lot of friends and family that come back and watch this race.

“I’ve been coming here ever since I can remember. This is probably the race I came to most as a kid just because it was so close to our house where I grew up and my dad was racing, so I do consider it a home race as well just because I grew up down the road, so that’s pretty neat.”

Since it was formed in the early 1950s, Wood Brothers Racing has competed in 111 Cup races at Martinsville, earning two wins, 28 top-fives and 42 top-10s.

Not coincidentally, Martinsville Speedway will celebrate its 70th anniversary this weekend, having opened in 1947 and has been the oldest operating track in NASCAR.

And the Wood Brothers have been there for virtually every race since, either racing on-track or watching as spectators.

Glen and I were standing on the backstretch over here at the very first race ever run here 70 years ago, so I think it would be really cool for us — 70 years later — for us to be sitting right here Sunday evening after the race and put that Ford Fusion and Motorcraft Ford in front,” team co-owner Leonard Wood said.

That’s why this weekend has such great significance and importance to the No. 21 team. Blaney sits seventh in the Cup point standings, will make his 60th career start in NASCAR’s premier series and would love to earn his first career Cup win at a track that means so much both to him and the Wood Brothers.

“It would be really big,” Blaney said. “Historically, this hasn’t been my best race track, but it means a lot. For the Wood Brothers, it’s a home race for them and it’s my crew chief’s favorite race track, so that’s given a lot of extra incentive.

“I thought we’ve gotten a lot better here over the last couple of years. I know what we need and we’ll try to run up further toward the front, so it’s just all about putting 500 laps together, saving the car and just trying to stay out of trouble the whole race. It would mean a lot (to win), for sure, and it would be a really good feeling to try to make that happen.”

Blaney has two career Cup starts at Martinsville. Both came last season and both ended in 19th place finishes.

Meanwhile, the Wood Brothers – Eddie and Leonard – would love to earn their first win at Martinsville since NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson visited victory lane there 44 years ago in spring 1973.

“It’s a big race for us,” Eddie Wood said. “We live 25 miles from here. We’ve known Clay Campbell’s (Martinsville president) family all my life.

“We used to hang out with his grandfather (track founder H. Clay Earles). He was always out promoting the race and he would come to our shop in Stuart and we’d have lunch and play cards and do all kinds of things. It’s just great to be racing back here.

“Probably the most special thing for us is to be back racing here. This is home. It’s a hard race to do well in. Like Ryan said, you have to put together 500 laps and stay out of all the calamity that happens and not try to create any of your own, so I’m looking forward to it.

“Like he said, our crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, loves this place and so do we. Ryan’s got two races under his belt, plus Truck races, so I think he’s underestimating his track time here. I think he’ll be just fine.”

The 23-year-old Blaney has matured and improved as a driver since making his first Cup start in 2014. He’d love to add a win at Martinsville to his best Cup finish to date: runner-up in this year’s Daytona 500.

But to do that, Blaney knows he’ll have to maintain his composure at a place where it’s very difficult when you constantly bang fenders with nearly 40 other drivers for 500 laps.

“That’s one of the biggest things you fight here is staying calm and patient,” Blaney said. “All drivers at some point in the race will get frustrated and whether they act upon it or not is up to them.

“We try to stay as emotionless as possible. I think that’s the best thing to do and try and keep a cool head. Granted, that really hasn’t been the case before. I haven’t really gotten emotional here before. It takes you a while to calm back down, but you can never really calm back down when you get like that, hot in the head.”

As Eddie Wood says, what better way to come to Martinsville for a homecoming, and to leave with a victory celebration.

“It’s been a great experience coming over here, close to home and we always want to win here more than anywhere because it was your hometown,” Wood said. “We’re looking forward to coming over here and watching Ryan win this next race. I just think 70 years later would be a really good time to win.”

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