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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.

NASCAR America’s Jarrett, Letarte, Petty recap 2017, make 2018 predictions

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The 2017 NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series seasons have only been over for a few days.

And while it’s understandable that on Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, analysts Steve Letarte, NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty reflected back on the recently completed race seasons, they also took a very bold move:

The new season is still three months away, but our analyst team is ALREADY making predictions for 2018.

We don’t want to spoil the surprise or show their hands. If you want to hear how they’re already viewing 2018, click on the video above.

Justin Hartley from NBC’s ‘This Is Us’ on Dale Jr.’s special bond with fans

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Even though Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now officially retired as a NASCAR Cup driver, the special bond between the former driver of the 88 will likely never go away.

Sure, Alex Bowman is replacing Junior in the 88, which will likely pick up some of Junior Nation to cheer for him. Others will gravitate to cheer for other drivers, perhaps youngsters William Byron, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and others.

But one thing is for certain: once a Dale Jr. fan and a member of Junior Nation, ALWAYS a Dale Jr. fan and a member of Junior Nation.

Justin Hartley, who plays Kevin on NBC’s top-rated “This Is Us,” is proud to call himself a card carrying member of Junior Nation. In the video above, Hartley shows what it’s like to be a Dale Jr. fan, what the third-generation driver meant to so many people for so many years, and how his legacy will continue on for decades to come.

Check out the video above to see what Junior Nation is all about, as well as thoughts from our NBC analysts, Kyle Petty, Steve Letarte and Dale Jarrett.

NASCAR America: Nate Ryan on how 78 rode roller coaster to Cup crown

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If the 2017 NASCAR Cup season was an amusement park ride, it definitely would be a roller coaster for Martin Truex Jr., crew chief Cole Pearn and the rest of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team.

Up and down the season went, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.

There was adversity on the track and tragedy off the track, with Pearn losing his best friend to a freakish infection, and team member Jim Watson passing away in Kansas one day before the Cup race that Truex would go on to win and dedicate to his fallen teammate.

And through it all, Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex dealt with the recurrence of ovarian cancer with strength, inspiration and fortitude.

The 78 team’s dedication, sticking to the plan and rallying together as a family was the difference.

NBC Sports’ and NASCAR Talk’s Nate Ryan presented a touching pre-race tribute to Truex and his team before Sunday’s race. On Tuesday’s NASCAR America, Ryan gave an updated version of that tribute, capping it off with the best way possible: recalling how Truex and the 78 team won it all.

Check out the video above to see Nate’s touching piece.

 

Scan All: Miami — the best from the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400

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This week’s Scan All: Miami combined not only regular scanner traffic from team radios during Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, but also studio cut-ins of Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn talking about their road to the Cup championship.

Here’s some of the best exchanges:

Martin Truex Jr. on coming into the race: “I felt good all weekend, I really did. I was relaxed and knew that no matter what happened, we had a great season and a lot to be proud of and a lot to build upon for the future.”

Truex on his team radio just before the green flag: “We’ve been working a long time to get here. I can’t say enough about how proud I am of you guys and what you’ve done. Thank you for an unbelieveable season. Let’s cap it off tonight.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. just before the green flag: “I just want to thank everybody that’s had an impact on my career. I’ve made friendships and relationships that’ll last a lifetime, and I’m just so thankful for that.”

Aric Almirola on his last start for Richard Petty Motorsports: “King, if you’re on the air, thanks for that phone call six years ago. It’s been a lot of fun driving this 43 car.”

Crew chief Darian Grubb to Kasey Kahne on his final start with Hendrick Motorsports: “I know it’s an emotional day for everybody. I’m proud to be able to call you teammate and even more proud to be able to continue to call you friend after this, bud.”

Kahne’s reply (while holding back tears): “Thank you guys for everything, man.”

Kahne’s spotter, Kevin Hamlin, to Grubb: “Man, you’ve got to make him cry before we go green?”

Cole Pearn on Kyle Larson getting a run: “The 42 is running the wall. He’s hauling ass.”

Clayton Hughes, spotter for Truex: “How about this, Martin Truex Jr., you are the champion, baby!”

Truex in studio cut-in on winning championship: “It was our time. There’s no doubt in my mind that it was our time. Sometimes, things are meant to be.”

Check out the whole Scan All segment in the video above.