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The origins of the NASCAR Drivers Council explained by Denny Hamlin … and what’s ahead

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin isn’t always the most verbose of NASCAR stars.

But when he has a point to make, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver always has made it firmly and simply while standing his ground.

It explains why Hamlin has emerged as a leader on the Drivers Council after spearheading its formation.

The scrutiny and heat that accompany being the face of the group is worth the trouble for the Chesterfield, Va., native.

“It’s because I’m passionate about it,” he said during the latest episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “And Gibbs says the same thing every time we come around to contract negotiations, you’re very passionate about something and stick to your guns.

“I just feel like when I’m passionate about something, first I want to make sure it’s right. I don’t want to just say, ‘This is my idea and it’s right because it’s my idea.’ I want to get feedback from other drivers on that to make sure it’s the right idea. I’m passionate about it and I feel I have a way to communicate that to NASCAR without pissing them off at times.”

The Drivers Council, which is in its third year, grew out of a meeting that Hamlin had with NASCAR executive Mike Helton in September 2014.

Hamlin was displeased that NASCAR was adding downforce and raising the spoiler and expressed it to Helton, who recommended organization.

“I credit Mike Helton for this,” Hamlin said. “He said, ‘If you guys overall feel there’s something as a group that we need to change, you get some drivers together and come meet us at the R&D Center and we’ll have a talk.”

Hamlin called up several Cup stars and had them in the parking lot at the R&D Center before the meeting. He distributed notecards with talking points because presenting a united front was important.

“I handed out notes (and said), ‘OK, guys if we don’t stay on track, that’s the No. 1 thing at times that NASCAR pinned against us,’” Hamlin recalled. “Hey this driver thinks this is the way. Hey this one thinks we should go this way. Instead they just go their own way.

“So I said we have to be united and have to have the same voice if we want to get anywhere. From that point on, it started clicking.”

The council has made an impact with NASCAR, contributing valuable input to the 2017 format enhancements and lobbying for the recently announced traveling safety team. Hamlin said improving pit access and monitoring to help keep fans from touching cars on race day mornings also is on the agenda.

“There are really small things we’re working on day by day,” Hamlin said. “Format changes. Talking about All-Star Races and making them more compelling. The stage and formats came from ideas with people within NASCAR, TV and drivers.

“We’re seeing the fruits of what was done behind closed doors.”

This year, the council has added Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott (click here for the full member list). Putting three drivers under 30 on the panel was by design.

“Those guys are going to be here for a very long time,” Hamlin said. “Kyle Larson was on it last year and honestly didn’t say a whole lot, but I can appreciate that. I can guarantee if I was in his position I probably wouldn’t either. But he took everything in and by end of year, he was starting to engage more and give his opinion a little bit more, which was good.

“I’m in the middle of my career. There’s a few others on the tail end. It’s good to have a young group see the veterans in the room and how they handle things. Because when they’re gone, it’s up to them to get that same message across. Even though they’re there to support and listen now. They’re going to be the future leaders.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

Looking at top 10 race start totals among active, full-time NASCAR Cup drivers

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Last Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his 600th career start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, finishing 16th in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

That achievement made Earnhardt just the second active driver to the reach the mark, following Matt Kenseth, who has 619 starts after the Auto Club 400.

How do those numbers compare to the rest of their competitors? Who is the next driver that will reach a big start mark?

Here’s a look at the top 10 active full-time Cup drivers when it comes to starts in NASCAR’s premier series:

Matt Kenseth – 619 starts

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 600 starts

Kurt Busch – 581 starts (would make 600th start on Aug. 19 in the Bass Pro Shops / NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway)

Kevin Harvick – 579 starts (would make 600th start on Sept. 9 in Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway)

Ryan Newman – 553 starts

Jimmie Johnson – 548 starts

Jamie McMurray – 515 starts

Kasey Kahne – 473 starts

Kyle Busch – 431 starts

Martin Truex Jr. – 410 starts

Kevin Harvick: Kyle Larson is the best driver to enter NASCAR since Jeff Gordon in 1993

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Kevin Harvick made his debut as a SiriusXM Satellite Radio host Tuesday night and made some news by announcing Stewart-Haas Racing was withdrawing its Phoenix appeal.

But those weren’t the most interesting comments made by the 2014 champion, who had a strong opinion on the most recent winner in NASCAR’s premier series.

Kyle Larson is the best driver to come into this sport since Jeff Gordon in my opinion,” Harvick said. “I think Kyle Larson is that good.”

How good is that?

Well, let’s peruse a partial list of drivers (and their credentials) who have entered NASCAR’s premier series since Gordon’s arrival in 1993 and Larson’s in 2014:

Jimmie Johnson: Seven championships, tied for the most in NASCAR history. Also led the points and scored three wins as a rookie. He is the only driver who has qualified for the playoffs in all 13 seasons.

–Tony Stewart: The three-time series champion became the first Cup rookie to win in 12 years (and notched three victories in his first season). The 1997 IndyCar champion is regarded by many as his generation’s greatest.

Matt Kenseth: The 2000 rookie of the year won the 2003 championship and has failed to qualify for the playoffs only once in his career.

Denny Hamlin: The 2006 rookie of the year has made the championship round twice and has won in 11 consecutive seasons in Cup.

Kyle Busch: The 2015 Cup champion has won in 12 straight seasons in Cup and has 171 victories across NASCAR’s top three national series.

Kurt Busch: The 2004 series champion has 29 wins on the premier circuit, finished sixth in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and also qualified for a Pro Stock event in the NHRA.

Brad Keselowski: The 2012 series champion has 21 victories with Team Penske since 2011 and has emerged as NASCAR’s top restrictor-plate racer.

Joey Logano: Two-time championship round contender and is tied with Johnson for most victories (14) since the 2014 season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: A two-time Daytona 500 winner missed the last half of the 2016 season but was a title contender in 2014 and ’15.

–Harvick: His performance since aligning with crew chief Rodney Childers at SHR three years ago has been astounding: the 2014 championship, 12 victories and more than 5,700 laps led on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

So given all of those names … what would be the purpose of Harvick’s effusively praising the Chip Ganassi Racing driver?

“He’s just a kid that not enough people know about, but he’s won and wins in everything that he’s ever driven,” Harvick said. “He’s just a racer. … I think he’s laser focused on what he does as a race car driver, and I think he’s the best talent to come through this sport in a long, long time and is going to win a ton of races because he’s that good.”

Hey, wait a minute. When is the 24-year-old’s contract up?

Chip Ganassi notoriously is secretive about the lengths of his drivers’ deals (in IndyCar and NASCAR, particularly because it wants to avoid having its stars poached by other teams). It’s believed that Larson re-signed toward the end of 2015, but it’s unclear how long his deal runs.

That’s why the last part of Harvick’s riff on Larson could have been telling.

“I hope Ganassi has a good contract with him because every team in the garage wants a Kyle Larson. He’s a guy that you can put in your race cars and win races even on a day when they’re not the best race cars. He’s going to make them look good.”

By the way, it also is worth noting that Ganassi was miffed four years ago when Stewart and Gordon had high praise for Larson. The team owner hinted he thought both drivers had motives of courting Larson to join their teams (Gordon openly has spoken about meeting Larson in his Hendrick Motorsports office years ago and pitching him on the organization).

Should Atlanta Motor Speedway have listened to drivers in delaying its repave?

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The delayed repaving of Atlanta Motor Speedway proves that the Cup Drivers Council successfully can lobby for what it wants.

Is that always a good thing, though?

NASCAR on NBC analysts Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte discussed that topic on Tuesday’s episode of NASCAR America (watch video of the discussion above).

“I think they’re the No. 1 factor in this decision,” Letarte said of the drivers. “While I side with the drivers that the old pavement is great for racing, and I’m a big fan of it, I’m not a track owner or promoter. I can’t imagine Atlanta Motor Speedway wanted to spend all that money to repave just because they thought they should. There had to be good reasons behind it.

“I think the global question is, ‘How did we get here?’ It seems to me this is the most public display of the drivers being vocal about a situation, and it ended up going their way. They didn’t want it to be repaved, Atlanta heard them and changed their decision. The question is, is it good for NASCAR to have your drivers that vocal. I’m not sure. Obviously, they are one of the biggest stakeholders and have to put the race on, but should it be a track decision or a driver decision?”

Burton said ultimately the decision should belong to the 1.54-mile speedway.

“The drivers trying to influence the decision, I think that’s a good thing just making the track owner understand, ‘Hey we love this surface,’” Burton said. “But I don’t think Atlanta Motor Speedway said, ‘Hey, let’s spend a couple of million dollars for the heck of it.’”

The risk is if the track falls apart because of its age or if massive delays are incurred by rain (such as Texas Motor Speedway last November).

“If something happens – if a piece of asphalt goes through a radiator (because of a crumbling surface), no word (should come) from the drivers,” Burton said. “The drivers are going to have to be perfectly quiet on that one.”

Said Letarte: “I don’t disagree with drivers being vocal, but be careful what you wish for, because now they got it. They got the old pavement for another weekend. If we get weather, or have an issue and can’t get cars on the racetrack, I hope those same drivers step up and back (track president) Ed Clark, who has now backed them and given them the old pavement for another year.”

Clark told NBC Sports.com’s Dustin Long that the track will make a few sealer patches for the 2018 race, which he expects could be the last on the surface that has been in place since 1997. Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns Atlanta, repaved Kentucky last year and received positive reviews.

“Are you just delaying the inevitable if you’re going to have to pave it in 2018?” Burton asked. “I don’t know what you’re really buying other than one more race. My biggest concern is they wanted to pave it for a reason. They understand that paving racetracks is problematic. This group put a ton of effort into Kentucky so when they repaved Kentucky it wasn’t like the other repaves. They understand the problems with paving new racetracks. My concern is they wanted to do it, now they’re not doing it, is there a problem that’s created that we’re not aware of?

“Give the drivers credit. They brought an issue up. … If the track really had to be paved, I don’t think that Ed Clark or anyone  would say, ‘Just listen to the drivers and to heck with whatever happens.’ I believe the racetrack and owners have confidence that with changes and small improvements, it’s OK not to pave it. So ultimately the responsibility falls on (the drivers). If it doesn’t go well, the drivers have to stand up and back them and say, ‘Thank you for working with us, sorry it didn’t work out, thank you for making it work.’”

Kligerman: May the downforce be with you! Or is the ultimate downforce actually . . . none?

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If you’re reading this, I will assume you are a racing fan. If you’re a racing fan, then you will know the most-watched form of racing worldwide started its season this past weekend  —  Formula One.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the next most-watched form of racing conducted one of its 36 points-paying events in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series.

Both series involve four-wheeled machinery, human drivers and Monster Energy sponsorship.

But that’s where the similarities end. Because the two largest racing series in the world have decided to go in two completely opposite directions in how they want to entertain their fans.

And I am not talking about technology, formats, or grid girls. These two massive series have chosen the opposing ends of the spectrum on something that only 30 years ago was elusive.

Downforce.

In Formula One, the teams and the sanctioning body agreed two years ago to make the 2017 cars “5–7 seconds faster” than their 2015 counterparts. How would they do this? By opening up the aerodynamic rules and therefore adding downforce — tons of it.

In NASCAR, we have done the opposite over the last few years. The level of achievable downforce constantly has been reduced by cutting spoilers and splitters and getting stricter on the aerodynamic rules.

Which brings me to a question I was asked.

This weekend, a friend texted (I know, groundbreaking stuff in the year 2017) to ask, “How do you feel about the cars being stuck to the ground vs. skating around? I think you are on to something where road racing stuck to the ground is interesting and oval skating around is interesting.”

(This also was groundbreaking because someone was asking my opinion. Which comes with a disclaimer: It’s free for a reason.)

But in all seriousness, the question was incredible. The reason was that it was only a mere 30 years ago when the conversation in racing was more about “How fast could cars possibly go?” or “Will humans be able to keep up with the speed of racing cars?”

Now with the advent of technology, we no longer question how fast a car could go, because we know. When the F1 world simply can tweak rules with the knowledge it’s going to be exactly “X” amount faster, there is no more mystery.

As a sport, racing has reached the point where it’s no longer, “May the force be with you.” It’s “How much force would you like?”

This monumental change in philosophy is why, as I write this, there are amateur “aerodynamicists” on Twitter, commentators on YouTube and alleged experts on the Internet telling you whether NASCAR or F1 is right.

On one hand they will tell you the high downforce makes it faster, which is better! On the other, they will tell you downforce is the devil incarnate and should be eliminated from the sport.

The thing is, neither series’ race was particularly memorable.

In Australia, you had a pass for the lead occur when neither driver could see each other (via pit strategy). While the biggest storyline out of the California race was that the driver who seemed forever the bridesmaid finally won.

Nothing of what occurred will be replayed on YouTube illegally for years to come. And I don’t think either showed us a clear-cut path to the elusive “Great Racing!” everyone wants.

No, it’s become apparent that even with all the knowledge in the world about cars and aerodynamics, there still is mystery in what makes a good race occur.

How did I answer my friend’s question?

Fast road racing cars look insane. Meanwhile, sideways and dynamic oval racing looks insane. Speed is tough to see on an oval. It’s far easier to see and appreciate on a street or road course.

That’s why we have what we have.

Road racing needs downforce to achieve incredible speeds and produce what I described watching qualifying from Australia as “Sparking, twitchy, on-the-ragged-edge stuff.” It was obvious the drivers were at the limits of possible control.

While with low downforce in NASCAR, we see far more dynamic slides. The drivers are working harder. And the speeds may be way down as they get into a race run, but it doesn’t hurt the show whatsoever. Seeing cars that visibly move around and make the driver fight is far more interesting than watching a car go in circles on rails.

We never might know which philosophy — low or high downforce – is correct. But the most memorable and best race of any premier series this weekend happened directly between Formula One and NASCAR.

In Qatar, the Moto GP series held its season opener and put on one of the best races I have ever seen in my life.

How much downforce do those bikes make?

Essentially none.