Ryan: What Brian France was trying to say before Daytona 500 … and other stray thoughts

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Imagine this beginning to the drivers meeting at Atlanta Motor Speedway this coming Sunday.

NASCAR chairman Brian France, sporting a cowboy hat, snakeskin boots and a faded pair of Wranglers, strides with purpose to a mic at the front of the room and says something akin to the following:

“OK, boys, I don’t usually talk competition, but this is the last race on this old pavement. You’ve got to be careful and conserve those tires! And don’t come looking to NASCAR if you wear them tires out too much! That’s on you, boys — not Goodyear. Let’s go racin’!”

Wouldn’t that seem slightly odd from France, whose greatest strength as NASCAR czar has been his boardroom comfort with cutting multimillion-dollar (sometimes multibillion-dollar) deals that have provided long-term financial security?

Well, it wasn’t that far from what happened before Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500.

In an address and approach that even France twice admitted was unusual for him, he commandeered the start of the prerace meeting and spent about 90 seconds sternly admonishing Cup drivers for something they hadn’t done yet.

NASCAR chief racing developmental officer Steve O’Donnell tried to explain what France meant after the race.

“His point today was just the way we have seen the racing play out,” O’Donnell told a small group of reporters. “Drivers are really learning and getting used to the pack, and so his point was we know drivers are going to be aggressive. Don’t come to NASCAR if something were to happen if you attempted to block.”

But had any drivers recently complained to NASCAR about blocking? “No.”

Had he planned to make that statement? “Not sure. You’d have to ask Brian.”

OK, so how to unpack this?

First, it is peculiar to take a stand on scolding drivers who feel aggrieved after blocking, because it virtually never happens.

It’s the drivers who are blocked who get angry and vow retribution. They don’t look for help from NASCAR, though. The justice gets meted out at their own hands, i.e. with a flick of the wheel into someone’s rear fender.

And for the drivers who block and then get dealt vicious payback? They usually provide a sheepish shrug and “I was just trying to do everything I could to win.”

How would it make sense to lobby NASCAR to punish a driver for action that another driver forced them into taking? Well, it doesn’t.

So what were the point of France’s words, which sometimes can be opaque enough to require translation?

It’s hard to ignore the fact that last week was rough as far as the leadership of NASCAR being questioned, and this certainly seemed a visible move by France to dispel the notion he isn’t engaged (as others have intimated in the past).

In the context of Speedweeks’ conclusion, his point also seems to become clearer. Factoring in two red flags, the Xfinity race went well past three hours Saturday because of a vast array of moronic driving, which also was evident during Friday’s truck race.

NASCAR couldn’t afford to have its signature event marred by rampant amateurism, and that almost seemed as if it were the underlying thrust of France’s comments, which might have been taken thusly by some: “This is the biggest race of the year. Don’t screw this up like the young punks the past two days with dumb blocking moves and then whine about it.”

–The debut of stages made pacing a theme for scrutiny, but they had no connection to the biggest problem with elapsed time at Daytona International Speedway: the speed of the track cleanup.

The Xfinity race was marred by two red flags that took more than 45 minutes, and the Daytona 500 was stopped for 17 minutes to tidy the messes left by a relatively benign six-car crash that usually doesn’t cause such a long break.

During his weekly spot on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, O’Donnell said improving the efficiency of track cleanup was the single-most important issue to fix from Speedweeks.

A broken splitter stuck underneath a SAFER barrier was a culprit Saturday and another splitter got stuck Sunday. O’Donnell said it took too long to remove the splitter the second time and also to get the oil off the track. “Anything we can do to speed that process up, we’ll do it.”

From a vantage point in the press box, some of the cleanup problems could be attributed to poor execution with trucks failing to put SpeedyDry down in the right places to absorb the oil (some of which was against the wall, which makes the process difficult on a high-banked track). That required multiple passes to address the mess.

This might necessitate NASCAR rethinking its approach to track cleanup as it did with track drying a few years ago.

The problem with the splitter likely will be reviewed at the NASCAR R&D Center this week. Again, it’s more challenging to remove debris from a barrier at a high-banked track, but it’s worth analyzing if there’s a reason why those pieces detached from cars during wrecks on consecutive days.

There’s been some debate over the merits of Kurt Busch’s win in the Daytona 500 squelching a triumph featuring some of the youthful storylines that seemed promising in the closing laps. NASCAR certainly has been pushing the narratives of Chase Elliott (who was leading until running out of fuel until two laps remaining), Kyle Larson (leading on the last lap when his tank ran dry) and runner-up Ryan Blaney.

That said, the career arc of crew chief Tony Gibson, a local hero born and raised in Daytona Beach, undoubtedly makes Busch’s win a heartwarming one. Affectionately known as “Old Man,” Gibson is one of the truly good-hearted dudes in the NASCAR garage, and his loyalty to his team deservedly was rewarded Sunday.

NASCAR heavily has promoted the next wave of young stars, so it’s hard to see how it would have been displeased with Elliott, Larson or Blaney winning. But officials privately took umbrage at the suggestion that Busch’s win somehow didn’t “save” Sunday’s race … because they believe the race (and its late drama around fuel mileage) stood on its own merits regardless of who won or how many caution flags occurred in the process.

–Was this the weirdest Daytona 500 since the 2011 victory by Trevor Bayne in the rise of tandem racing?

It certainly seemed so. Hard to recall any Cup race in recent memory when so many favorites were eliminated before crunch time.

–Speaking of Bayne, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he heard from some angry competitors in the wake of Daytona. Ditto for 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, who seemed to race as if his job were on the line in the season opener.

–Now that Kurt Busch finally has a restrictor-plate win in his 64th attempt, who are the most talented active drivers without a Daytona 500 win?

The list starts with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. But there’s a significant dropoff to the next group. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson both proved in the past two seasons they are worthy of winning here, but neither has endured the kind of agony and near-misses that made Dale Earnhardt’s quest for a Daytona 500

Keselowski and Kyle Busch seemingly are starting to be tortured by the same demons that plagued Earnhardt for so long … and seemed to follow Tony Stewart for most of his Daytona 500 career.

At least Smoke finally had something to celebrate Sunday after 17 winless shots.

–There were some facets of Monster’s debut as title sponsor (such as a lack of signage and activation at Daytona) that seemed curious. But bringing Rob Gronkowski to the Daytona 500 was a huge coup for the energy drink brand.

Even if you aren’t a fan of the New England Patriots or bro party culture, it still is easy to be amused by the zeal and zest for life incessantly embodied by the man playfully known as “Gronk.”

Gronk attend. NASCAR win.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends Kyle Busch’s surly mood after the Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. – A second-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 left Kyle Busch in an irate mood, which is perfectly fine, according to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A seemingly agitated Busch, cupping his face in his hands after sitting down, entered the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway Center shortly after 12:30 a.m. Sunday. It was roughly 10 minutes after Austin Dillon scored the first victory of his career in NASCAR’s premier series by stretching his final tank of fuel for 70 laps.

Was Busch surprised that Dillon made the checkered flag? What did it mean for a driver to get his first win?

“I’m not surprised about anything,” Busch snapped. “Congratulations.”

He dropped the mic on the dais. There were no further questions.

Shortly afterward on Twitter, Earnhardt took up for his peer (whom he replaced at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008).

Busch, who hasn’t won since last July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (a span of 28 races) gave more elaborate answers shortly after exiting his No. 18 Toyota, which finished 0.835 seconds behind Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet.

He apparently didn’t realize until late in the race that his pass of Martin Truex Jr. (who led a race-high 233 laps) with a lap remaining was for second instead of the victory.

“This M&M’s Camry was awesome tonight,” Busch said. “It was just super fast. I mean we had one of the fastest cars all night long and then (Truex) was probably the fastest. There at the end, somehow we ran him down. You know he got a straightaway out on us, but there that last 100 laps we were able to get back to him and pass him so you know that was promising for us there at the end in order to get a second-place finish, but man just so, so disappointed.

“I don’t know. We ran our own race. We did what we needed to do and it wasn’t – it wasn’t the right game. We come up short and finish second.

“It’s a frustrating night, man. There’s nothing we could’ve done different.”

Another Cup driver took a different view of Busch’s tirade.

Martin Truex Jr. takes Cup points lead after Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

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CONCORD, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. took over the Cup points lead with a third-place finish in Saturday’s Coca-Cola 600.

The Furniture Row Racing driver, who led a race-high 233 laps, also extended his lead in the playoff standings by winning the second stage and bringing his total to 16 points.

Kyle Larson, who had led the standings for eight consecutive races since Phoenix International Raceway, fell to second in the rankings after crashing and finishing a season-worst 33rd. Larson trails Truex by five points in the race for the regular-season championship (and 15 playoff points).

Click here for the points standings after Charlotte.

Results, stats for the 58th annual Coca-Cola 600

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With a fuel gamble, Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 for his first NASCAR Cup win.

It comes in his 133rd start and is the second win for Richard Childress Racing this year.

Following him was Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.

Click here for the full results.

Austin Dillon returns No. 3 to victory lane for first time since Dale Earnhardt’s last win

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CONCORD, N.C. – Austin Dillon scored his first Cup victory in his first start with a new crew chief, bringing an iconic number back to victory lane in NASCAR’s premier series.

Stretching his last tank of fuel 70 laps, the Richard Childress Racing driver won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I can’t believe it,” Dillon told Fox Sports. “I was just really focused on those last laps.”

It was the first victory on the circuit for the No. 3 Chevrolet since the late Dale Earnhardt’s win at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2000. Richard Childress Racing mothballed the number after Earnhardt’s death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 but brought it back with Dillon in 2014.

Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, was making his debut with crew chief Justin Alexander, who replaced Slugger Labbe last week.

Kyle Busch finished second, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.

Jimmie Johnson was leading before running out of fuel with three laps remaining, handing the lead to Dillon.

“I was just trying to be patient with (Johnson),” Dillon said. “I could see him saving (fuel). I thought I’d saved enough early where I could attack at the end, but I tried to wait as long as possible. And when he ran out, I figured I’d go back in and save where I was lifting, and it worked out.

“I ran out at the line and it gurgled all around just to do one little spin and push it back to victory lane.”

With the victory, Dillon qualified for the playoffs, joining RCR teammate Ryan Newman (who clinched a berth by winning at Phoenix International Raceway).

Dillon becomes the 10th driver to score his first Cup win at Charlotte, joining David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Charlie Glotzbach, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears and David Reutimann.

Who had a good race: Kyle Busch charged to second in the closing laps, following up a win last week at the All-Star Race. … Truex dominated Charlotte for the third straight year, leading a race-high 233 laps. … Joe Gibbs Racing placed three drivers in the top five, and rookie Daniel Suarez was 11th. … Rookie Erik Jones finished seventh, giving Furniture Row Racing two top 10s in a race for the first time.

Who had a bad race: It was over for Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski on Lap 20 when they were collected in a bizarre wreck as a result of a chain reaction from Jeffrey Earnhardt’s engine failure. …  Points leader Kyle Larson finished a season-worst 32nd after a crash. … Danica Patrick hit the wall twice (at least once because of a tire problem) and placed 25th.

Quote of the race: “My fiancée wrote in the car, ‘When you keep God in the first place, he will take you places you never imagined.’ And, I never imagined to be here.” – Dillon after scoring his first Cup victory.

What’s next: 1 p.m., June 4 at Dover International Speedway on FS1.