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Ryan: Shortening races would go well with ending caution laps between stages

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The news that NASCAR might eliminate counting caution laps between stages for 2018 is the latest encouraging development of the best tweak made to the Cup Series in years.

With NASCAR entering its Easter weekend break, now is a good time to appreciate how stage racing has transformed the circuit … and how it can continue to shape the future.

At Phoenix Raceway, stages ensured some of the most compelling action witnessed in a race during which one driver led 85 of the first 87 laps. At Martinsville Speedway, stages provided several days’ worth of talk-radio fodder about the ethics and etiquette of a lapped car moving the leader.

Jimmie Johnson completes the winning pass Sunday (Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

At Texas Motor Speedway, segmentation helped encourage the brilliant gambit by Joey Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon, leaving the outcome in doubt until the final 20 laps. And (much to the chagrin of Ryan Blaney) it magnified how a team can let a great result slip away on a bad pit stop and a critical strategy call.

Stage racing has added a fresh (but substantive) sheen to Cup, and it can advance the cause next year if NASCAR changes the manner in which stages are divided.

In a SiriusXM interview, executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell was candid that the primary reason for stage breaks are to avoid commercial breaks under green.

If NASCAR keeps those timed breaks but doesn’t count the laps (a sound move, given that generally six to seven laps are burned between each stage on a speedway; naturally more on a short track), it will extend a race’s duration by at least several minutes, depending on the track.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule – this year’s spring race at Texas actually was 13 minutes shorter than last year despite the stages – but the elimination of yellow-flag laps in stage breaks presents a logical opportunity for getting aggressive with cutting race distances and subsequently adjusting stage lengths for a better blend in Year 2.

Some tracks, such as Fontana and Pocono Raceway, already have moved – with much success – in the direction of shorter being better

Though Texas didn’t feel nearly as interminable Sunday as in other 500-mile races of the past, there still remains a need for shorter events.

Such a movement will be met by resistance from fans who insist that shorter races devalue a ticket. Texas president Eddie Gossage has intimated the push for shorter races stems from those who want to work less.

Actually, it’s because many of us want to keep working as NASCAR strives for relevance at every turn.

One way to ensure that is by tightening the product (and these wouldn’t need to be drastic reductions). Yes, a shorter race will mean fewer green-flag laps … and it means the remaining laps will have heightened importance.

It also will place a greater emphasis on performing well throughout the course of a race.

Hey, that sounds familiar.

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Someday, Kyle Larson needs to run the Indianapolis 500.

It’ll be a boon to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing to showcase a generational talent just as it did with Tony Stewart (who has predicted the greatness of Larson for years). And it’ll help NASCAR because it benefits from a jolt of exposure and also gets to keep its emerging superstar.

But 2017 isn’t the right time for Larson as team owner Chip Ganassi told reporters in Long Beach last week.

Some of the reasons are obvious: Chip Ganassi Racing is enjoying one of the greatest starts during its 17 seasons in NASCAR’s premier series. And Larson, 24, has learned how to extrapolate his prodigious ability well beyond the limits of a 30-lap feature race.

Why disrupt any of that with a doubleheader?

There is another less obvious reason, though: The sponsorship cloudiness around Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet beyond 2017. Target is in a contract year after leaving Ganassi’s IndyCar team.

Presumably, Ganassi could be seeking an Indy 500 sponsor that also would be interested in funding Larson in Cup. If Larson were to excel at Indy, it would be a tough sell to ask a new sponsor to back him in NASCAR when IndyCar offers a comparably discounted annual sponsorship rate.

“Why should we run him in these more expensive stock cars if he just dazzled us in the world’s most famous race?” a prospective CMO might ask Ganassi. “Why can’t you just keep him in one of your Indy cars?”

There are various counterpoints to be made, of course, but the scenario would seem fraught (at best) with tricky hurdles that could undermine the organization. Until the sponsorship situation is solid long term, it makes sense to wait on bringing Larson to the Brickyard in May.

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After a race in which its highest finisher (Kyle Busch) was 15th, why is Joe Gibbs Racing lacking speed?

It was difficult to find illumination Sunday when none of the team’s four drivers appeared on the postrace release from Toyota. Each manufacturer distributes postrace quotes from its drivers, and it’s unusual for a multicar team to have no representation. JGR, the flagship team for Toyota Racing Development, has three top fives in 28 starts (including none for Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez).

It would be convenient to place some blame on the new 2018 Camry’s performance on 1.5-mile tracks. But that hasn’t been a problem for Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., who swept the stages in winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and led 49 laps in an eighth at Texas for his No. 78 (which paced the Toyotas).

Teammate Erik Jones (22nd) also struggled so perhaps there are handling woes across the board to address with a car developed in tandem by Furniture Row and Gibbs Racing.

It certainly seems fair to wonder, though, if JGR is suffering through understandable fallout from the unexpected departures of No. 19 driver Carl Edwards and crew chief Dave Rogers (who is on indefinite leave from the road).

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There are myriad reasons why nine cars didn’t make qualifying laps at Texas. There’s only one thing that truly matters, and veteran scribe (and the author of another new racing-themed novel) Monte Dutton nailed it.

Sure, some blame can be laid at the feet of teams for attempting to push the boundaries of clearly defined specifications. But that also is the objective of any team with aspirations of winning.

This is one of those situations when even when NASCAR is “right,” the result still is wrong.

Yes, there is merit to enforcing the rules. But no one paid admission Friday at Texas to watch cars frantically rolled through the garage and across the Laser Inspection Station platform, either.

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It was obvious from Jimmie Johnson’s playful yet terse answer last month that Seven-Time would take great glee in finally reaching victory lane for the first time this season. When the opportunity arrived, he didn’t disappoint in his first words on national TV.

It makes perfect sense when pro athletes use perceived slights as motivation for excelling. Tony Stewart virtually has made a career out of it.

That said, all of the questions about Johnson’s slow start this season absolutely were warranted.

This is a No. 48 Chevrolet that has run well only in spurts (notably, the final 10 races last year) over the past two seasons. The prognosis was grim enough last summer that team owner Rick Hendrick actually considered splitting Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Asking whether the surefire Hall of Famer has lost a step isn’t ridiculous, as some have suggested. What is ridiculous would be to avoid asking about it – particularly in a contract year for Johnson, who turns 42 in September and has been hinting strongly that he won’t drive beyond 45.

Asking if Johnson is showing the inevitable signs of age isn’t a sign of disrespect. It’s quite the opposite.

The threshold of what constitutes a slump is much lower for Johnson than any other driver in the history of NASCAR – as it should be.

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Why was Johnson seemingly mostly behind the pace of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott through the first six races? Knaus offered a very telling answer Sunday, noting that it was difficult to make improvements to his cars during the West Coast Swing of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana.

It’s a reminder that minute adjustments to the underbody of a Cup car can make a difference between just being competitive vs. contending for wins. And it also bears remembering if the West Coast Swing remains intact in future seasons.

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Team Penske’s appeal Wednesday morning at the R&D Center probably will have minimal impact on the No. 2 Ford’s fortunes: Brad Keselowski is qualified for the playoffs, and he probably can weather the absence of Paul Wolfe at Bristol and Richmond (tracks where he has won) if the crew chief’s suspension is upheld.

But the case will be watched closely by the NASCAR industry. After Keselowski’s win at Martinsville, team owner Roger Penske plainly made it clear that he was challenging the penalty as much on principle as a reduction of the punishment.

Because Keselowski’s Fusion was allowed only one attempt at being legal after Phoenix, Penske will argue on the grounds of consistency and fairness that NASCAR erred. If the appeal succeeds, it could embolden other teams on the circuit.

Yes, there is NASCAR racing Sunday: Xfinity entry list for Road America

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Who says there’s no NASCAR racing this weekend?

Sure, the NASCAR Cup and Camping World Truck Series will enjoy the weekend off, but not the Xfinity Series.

Drivers in that series will be competing Sunday at what has become one of the most challenging and popular road courses on the Xfinity schedule: the twisting 4.048-mile road course at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

A total of 42 cars are listed on the preliminary entry list released Monday.

Only 40 cars will qualify to race in Sunday’s Johnsonville 180 (3 p.m. ET on NBC). This will be the third road course the series has raced on in the last four races.

One driver position and one crew chief position remain to be filled.

  • Team JD Motorsports has not named a driver for the No. 15 Chevrolet.
  • And the No. 172 Chevrolet, driven by John Jackson and owned by James Carter, has yet to name a crew chief for the race.

This will be the eighth Xfinity race at Road America since the series first visited there in 2010.

The winners since then have been Carl Edwards (2010), Reed Sorenson (2011), Nelson Piquet Jr. (2012), A.J. Allmendinger (2013), Brendan Gaughan (2014), Paul Menard (2015) and Michael McDowell last year.

Click here for the preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Xfinity race at Road America.

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NASCAR America: Erik Jones ‘has to be put on the radar for Darlington, Richmond’ (video)

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Like a stealthy cat sneaking up on a mouse, Erik Jones has been riding under the radar the last four races.

Few may realize that he’s had a pair of top-10s (8th at Pocono; 10th at Watkins Glen) and back-to-back career bests in his last two starts (tied his previous career best with a 3rd-place finish at Michigan, and then was runner-up Saturday at Bristol).

“It’s just been a consistent upward trend from the start of the year,” Steve Letarte said on Monday’s NASCAR America.

Not only did Jones finish second to winner Kyle Busch at Bristol, he also started from the pole and led 260 of the 500 scheduled laps (while Busch led 156).

“I thought he did such a good job,” Jeff Burton also said on Monday’s episode of NA. “He didn’t lose the race because of a mistake, they just got out-run by someone who’s real, real good at Bristol.”

With Darlington and Richmond still ahead to make — or miss — the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Letarte said Jones can readily win either of those races.

“We’re forced to put him on our radar for Darlington,” Letarte said. “Maybe, maybe not, it’s a tough race track. We’ll see, first time there in a Cup car.

“But Richmond, this is a short track racer going to a short track. I don’t know if Erik Jones can be ruled out at any of the upcoming two tracks.”

If the young Michigan native, who is also the leading candidate for NASCAR Cup rookie of the year, does win at either Darlington or Richmond, he could ultimately have a profound impact on the playoffs.

A win at either track would serve to potentially eliminate the likes of Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and maybe even Chase Elliott, who are all above the cutoff line to make the playoffs.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Long: Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch is what NASCAR needs

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For as much as Kyle Busch’s sweep of the Truck, Xfinity and Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway turned some fans off, it was what NASCAR needed.

Even better, Busch understood.

After he won Saturday night’s Cup race, Busch goaded booing fans by putting his fingers to his ears, prompting more catcalls.

He walked to the back of his car and raised three fingers — for his three wins last week — as the boos (and cheers) grew louder.

And he smiled, a winner’s grin but also one of somebody who proved the doubters wrong. Again.

Part superstar, part showman.

The good guy to his fans, Busch also can be cast as the villain to the rest of the fanbase. He’s accepted that role, embraced it and learned how to egg on the haters in the stands and the trolls on social media. 

Sports is about us against them. While fans have their favorite drivers and teams, there remains the need to root against someone or some team. Without that distinction, sports would be as anticlimactic as a youth game — pick the sport: baseball, football, basketball, etc. — where no score is kept. That’s called recess.

Without Kyle Busch, who would make sane people insane and cause alcohol-fueled fans to do things they tell their children never to do? The new drivers haven’t been around long enough to anger the fan base. Maybe Kurt Busch could fill the role because anyone with the name Busch is more inclined to be booed. There are other drivers who have their detractors but not as much as Kyle Busch based on the visceral reaction he gets at many tracks.

“The best of the best that have won here have been booed … for a long, long time,’’ Busch said after his second Cup win of the season. “So I’m fine with that.’’

Busch follows a history of drivers that fans loathed (and some loved). Before Busch, it was Tony Stewart. He inherited the mantle after Dale Earnhardt, who took it from Darrell Waltrip and so on.

Earnhardt made the image of a villain into a cottage industry. For every boo and middle finger he received, he just smirked and kept on winning, infuriating his haters and thrilling his fans.

When Earnhardt was introduced before races, many fans didn’t sit. They stood to cheer or show how much they despised the seven-time champion.

Rarely was the anger as intense as the 1999 Bristol night race when Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte out of the lead on the final lap. Earnhardt said he “meant to rattle his cage.’’ Didn’t matter. Boos cascaded down the packed stands. Several minutes later, the track replayed the radio broadcast of the final laps on the P.A. system and when it came to the moment Earnhardt turned Labonte, a heavy chorus of boos reverberated throughout the stands from fans not yet ready to leave.

At 32 years old, Busch can grow more into such a role for years to come. And win more than his one championship.

Having not yet reached his prime, Busch is likely to keep winning — Saturday was his 40th Cup victory to tie Mark Martin for 17th on the all-time wins list. At his current rate, Busch will climb into the top 10 wins list before he retires. Busch can further irritate fans by also winning Truck and Xfinity races.

Us against them.

Yes, Busch will make fans cheer and boo for years to come.

“I’m sure they’re still booing, whining and crying all the way home tonight,’’ Busch said well after his win Saturday night. “They’re driving home mad, so people be careful.

“But, you know, my people get to go home safe and secure and slow and steady and patient because they get to celebrate.’’

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NASCAR America live 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Kyle Busch sweep recap, Erik Jones

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Today’s edition of NASCAR America airs from 6 to 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Kelli Stavast joins Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte from NBC Charlotte.

On today’s show:

  • For just the second time in NASCAR history, a driver was able to win in all three national series in a single race weekend. In both occurrences, the feat was performed by the same driver, Kyle Busch, and at the same venue, Bristol Motor Speedway. Busch collected his first sweep in 2010, and came back to do it again this past weekend at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile. We’ll hear from Kyle after his victory on Saturday and examine how this affects the current playoff picture.
  • Erik Jones did everything in Saturday’s Bristol Night Race but win. It was a great weekend for the rookie NASCAR Cup driver from Furniture Row Racing. The leading contender for Cup rookie of the year earned his first pole, led a race-high 260 laps, but finished second to Kyle Busch. How soon will it be before Jones gets to victory lane? Our panel discusses that.
  • Eclipse fever has spread to NASCAR. We’ll take a look at how drivers and tracks appreciated this natural phenomenon today.
  • We interview Kyle Larson at today’s announcement of a new sponsor at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com.

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.