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Ryan: Why Goodyear hasn’t signed an extension . . . and more musings from Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. – As the exclusive tire supplier of NASCAR for more than two decades, Goodyear always is in the news (or crosshairs) for its ubiquitous presence.

When tires mysteriously deflate (or don’t), Goodyear gets blamed.

When a track repaves its asphalt, Goodyear faces heat to maintain quality racing.

When NASCAR adjusts its rules, Goodyear feels the pressure to accommodate durability and handling.

What would happen, though, if there were no Goodyear to kick around anymore?

Actually, that remains a possible scenario for next season.

A month into the final season of their current contract, Goodyear and NASCAR finally have started negotiations on an extension – much later than the typical timeframe.

Consider its five-year deal that expires this season was signed in October 2011 – more than 15 months ahead of the end of its previous contract.

In an interview with ESPN.com and NBC Sports, Goodyear worldwide director of racing Stu Grant said the company had its first major negotiations meeting with NASCAR in mid-February.

With the past year being devoted to finding a Cup Series title sponsor, Goodyear understandably was less of a priority.

“The NASCAR guys had a lot on their plate,” Grant said. “We had early discussions with NASCAR and agreed to put our extension on the back burner, but now we’re having discussions in earnest. We’re committed to NASCAR. NASCAR is committed to us. Our negotiations are going well.

“I think we’re in good shape.”

Still, it is clear that Goodyear now has some leverage. If the negotiations were to hit a sticking point, NASCAR would seem to lack options. Finding a replacement would be difficult. Even if it had a suitor, it would be a very tall order with less than a year of prep time to construct and deliver tens of thousands of tires for the 2018 season.

So Goodyear, which spends much of its time deflecting criticism about its product, would seem to be in the catbird seat to call more of the shots for this contract. That could be significant given that many improvements made to the cars over the past decade adversely have affected the tires.

But there don’t seem to be any stumbling blocks so far. Grant expects a new deal to be finalized by the season’s midpoint.

“NASCAR was in for our first face to face half-day meeting,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of earlier discussions, but that was the first big dialogue we’ve had that was all good. So we’ve kind of really kicked off that process, and having been through a few of these in the past, once you agree on the deal points, then you get the fine points and so on.”

Other observations from Atlanta:

–Runner-up Kyle Larson has been passed for the lead with fewer than 10 laps remaining in the past three Cup races.

Miami (losing first because of an all-time move on the final restart by perhaps NASCAR’s all-time driver) was forgivable. So was Daytona (running out of fuel on the final lap).

But Atlanta might be harder to reconcile for car owner Chip “I Like Winners” Ganassi.

The explanation provided by Larson for why he chose the slower high lane to fend off winner Brad Keselowski ostensibly makes sense. Keselowski previously had shown speed in the high lane, and Larson is among the best in running against the wall.

But you can make a case that the No. 42 Chevrolet driver overthought the move. The lower lane seemed faster on the 1.54-mile oval throughout the weekend. Why not force Keselowski to beat you on the outside and hope for the best?

And when Keselowski swings high, why not throw a block as Denny Hamlin did to Keselowski on the last lap of The Clash? OK, maybe the outcome is the same, and neither car wins. So what? It’s for the win.

Larson is an immensely talented driver whose ethics have been highly praised by his peers (see: last year’s Dover finish when he also chose discretion over playing rough). That praise can be damning, though.

He should have more than one victory on NASCAR’s premier circuit. It might take an unpopular — and unnatural — change in his approach to get the next win.

–The sample size is only two races, but it should be at least noted that Ford is undefeated since adding powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing (and that the Blue Oval led all but 12 of 325 laps Sunday between Keselowski and Kevin Harvick).

The uptick in performance for the Fusion brigade isn’t unexpected, but there’s one element that is. Team Penske, which typically is notorious for walling off other teams even when under the same manufacturer umbrella, seems to be embracing a greater spirit of camaraderie with SHR.

Team owner Roger Penske (who made “the unfair advantage” a thing in auto racing) even alluded to helping Stewart-Haas with its chassis over the offseason.

“Obviously (we) worked with Roush last year, they weren’t quite as competitive as maybe we were, but we knew coming in with Stewart‑Haas that they were going to be guys that could set a bar for us,” Penske said. “In fact, we built some chassis for them before Daytona, some center sections, and we had our cars in the wind tunnel and compared them.  So we know what they have and they know what we have.

“I felt that the camaraderie at Daytona was something we haven’t had for a number of years because we pretty much played by ourselves, and I think that that’s made us much stronger. But from a comparison standpoint, I think that we need that because if they’re better than we are, we’ve got to figure out why and vice versa, and we’ll shoot it out on the track there in the last lap or the last 10 laps.”

Toyota Racing Development made a shrewd move last year in aligning Furniture Row to the powerful Joe Gibbs Racing stable and effectively creating a six-car team. It can’t be that way with Stewart-Haas and Penske, but Ford definitely will get more championship contenders out of this arrangement. If Penske plays nice in a way it didn’t with many others in the past, it increases the title odds for Ford’s expanded field.

–Roughly nine hours before he would be celebrating his first win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Keselowski was carrying his daughter, Scarlett, around the garage, giving the nearly 2-year-old a tour of his No. 2 team. After the win, he took a page from the Steph Curry playbook and briefly brought her on stage for the postrace news conference.

Keselowski delivered a typically thoughtful answer when asked about it:

I’m really lucky to be a race car driver, but it’s challenging to balance your work life and your professional life.  I’m no different than most everyone else.  I want to have a family and I want to do all the cool things and see all the cool things you get to see when you have kids and a wife and all that, but I also want to win. That means I have to be the best professional possible, and I have to put in hours that aren’t always going to be fun, right.  So part of that and trying to maximize my work‑life balance means trying to find the appropriate times and places to blend the two, and that was my opportunity, and I’m going to always look for those opportunities with my wife and daughter and family in general.

“It’s part of the challenge of doing what we do, but I’m still really lucky to live this life and to have an opportunity to race for a great team and travel around the country and see all kinds of cool things and meet all kinds of cool people and have fans and all that, but I feel lucky that I have a team that’s kind of letting me have some slack with all those things and try to find that right balance because I’ll never forget Roger’s son Greg told me, this is one of the first questions he asked me.  He said to me one day, he said, ‘How do you balance your work life and your home life?’

“For a lot of years, I had a terrible work‑to‑life balance with respect to just being all work. … I would say that my time with my family is my time to sharpen the axe, and believe me, when Scarlett wakes up at 7 a.m. and I’m still really tired, I really want to go to work.  I get some good reminders there how fun work is. But in general, I just enjoy the time, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, and I feel like I’ve got the best balance I’ve ever had, and I feel very fortunate.

–It’s been a less than auspicious debut for the ballyhooed 2018 Camry that is running as a 2017 race car. Though Matt Kenseth (third) salvaged a decent day for JGR, Kyle Busch’s struggles were perplexing.

Las Vegas isn’t make or break yet, but TRD and Gibbs will want to make a statement about their new model on a 1.5-mile track.

–Regardless of where you come down on the DeLana vs. Dillon debate, there is no question that it has elements of the type of rivalries that have built NASCAR. There’s so much backstory over the past five years here, it’s hard to pick a spot to begin explaining Sunday night’s flare-up.

While feuding isn’t fun for drivers (or their significant others/wives), it’s compelling to follow.

–Good nugget from NBCSN analyst/NBC Sports.com columnist/occasional ace driver Parker Kligerman on NBCSN’s Monday Morning Donuts podcast about why two Richard Childress Racing cars had battery problems.

Kligerman noted that teams are employing batteries so powerful, there might not be a need for an alternator, which can add a few horsepower. Kligerman said many drivers toggle their alternator off for qualifying laps or on restarts for extra oomph. There could be some kinks to work out if teams are trying to employ that strategy for a 500-mile race.

–Let’s not forget how Dale Earnhardt Jr. feels about splitters, both on his podcast and on Twitter. At this rate, #TeamValence could be trending nationally during a Cup race this season and continue to build the momentum for eliminating the front-end part. Until then …

NASCAR America: Is there cause for concern with Jimmie Johnson’s performance thus far?

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It’s no secret that Jimmie Johnson is off to a slow start in 2017.

The defending and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion has a starting average of 21.8 and a finishing average of 18.8 in the first five races of this season.

He has just one top-10 finish (ninth at Phoenix), along with 34th at Daytona, 19th at Atlanta, 11th at Las Vegas and 21st Sunday at Fontana.

And let’s not forget he’s 17th in the NASCAR Cup standings heading to one of his strongest tracks, Martinsville Speedway, this Sunday.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we discussed this: After such a slow start to the season, is there a cause for concern over Johnson’s performance?

NASCAR America: Mark Martin is definitely a Kyle Larson fan

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin shared his experience of racing in his home state of Arkansas, as well as the excitement he feels watching  Kyle Larson compete in the Cup series.

NASCAR America: Kyle Larson involved in minor fender bender while leaving Fontana

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Kyle Larson‘s spectacular weekend at Auto Club Speedway — winning both Saturday’s Xfinity Series race and Sunday’s Auto Club 400 NASCAR Cup event — left him feeling good.

But shortly upon exiting the facility, Larson and several others were involved in a fender-bender right outside the Speedway. Larson was a passenger, not the driver.

No one was injured, Larson tweeted.

But somehow, isn’t that strange fate?

NASCAR America: Kyle Larson’s Fontana win shows continued maturing as a driver

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Kyle Larson finally broke his streak of three straight runner-up finishes with his win in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, the crew discussed his win as well as his maturation as a driver.