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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.

Starting lineup for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

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Sunday’s main event of the weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Cup race, will have a definite Chip Ganassi Racing flavor when the green flag drops.

Pole sitter Kyle Larson will lead the 38-car field to the starting line, while CGR teammate Jamie McMurray will be his wing man, alongside on the front row.

Larson is hoping to do the same thing Sunday that he did last Sunday at Michigan: he started from the pole and finished with the win. He and McMurray are in Chevrolets, while Toyotas make up Row 2 with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.

Row 3 has the Chevrolet of A.J. Allmendinger and the Ford of Danica Patrick, who will be the highest-starting driver for both Ford and Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s Patrick’s third-best career start in a Cup race, and her highest start since Charlotte in May 2014.

The defending race winner, Tony Stewart, retired at the end of last season from NASCAR Cup competition.

Click here for the full row-by-row starting lineup.

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Elliott Sadler remains No. 1 in Xfinity standings after Iowa race

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Elliott Sadler remains atop the Xfinity Series point standings following Saturday night’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa Speedway.

Sadler finished eighth in what was his 800th career NASCAR start across all three major series: Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

JR Motorsports drivers own the top three spots in the standings: Sadler holds a 25-point lead over teammate Justin Allgaier and a 57-point edge on another teammate and Saturday’s race winner, William Byron, who is third in the Xfinity standings.

Daniel Hemric is fourth, 146 points behind Sadler, while Ryan Reed is 155 points behind in fifth place.

Click here for Xfinity points report.

MORE: Race results from Saturday night’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa

MORE: William Byron takes first Xfinity win at Iowa, avenges close loss at Michigan

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Race results from Saturday night’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa

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William Byron bounced back from last weekend’s razor-thin loss at the finish line to Denny Hamlin at Michigan to earn his first career Xfinity Series victory Saturday night under the lights at Iowa Speedway.

Byron, who won seven Truck races last season, roared to the front late in the race after a final restart and held on to become the youngest race winner (19 years old) at the .875-mile track in Newton, Iowa.

MORE: William Byron takes first Xfinity win at Iowa, avenges close loss at Michigan

MORE: Elliott Sadler remains No. 1 in Xfinity standings after Iowa race

In a unique backstory to the race outcome, each of the top four finishers recorded Xfinity Series career-best showings, while Dakoda Armstrong tied his career-best Xfinity finish.

Click here for the full results from Saturday’s race.

 

William Byron takes first Xfinity win at Iowa, avenges close loss at Michigan

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One week after missing out on a win by .012 of a second, William Byron broke through for his first career Xfinity victory, capturing Saturday night’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa Speedway.

The 19-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina native’s previous best Xfinity finish was second, when he lost out to Denny Hamlin at the start-finish line in last weekend’s race at Michigan, but Byron would not be denied Saturday night under the lights, becoming the youngest Xfinity winner on the .875-mile track in Newton, Iowa.

In earning his first win in his 14th career Xfinity start, Byron took the lead late in the race and kept a number of drivers at bay in the closing laps. He also qualified for the Xfinity Series playoffs. He also became the first first-time winner in the Xfinity Series this season.

“It feels awesome,” Byron told Fox Sports 1. “I think we had a first- or second-place car, got a little bit loose on one run and then we got back on cycle there at the end and were able to take off. It’s really cool.”

MORE: Race results from Saturday night’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa

MORE: Elliott Sadler remains No. 1 in Xfinity standings after Iowa race

Ryan Sieg finished second, followed Tyler Reddick, Ross Chastain and Dakoda Armstrong.

Sixth through 10th were Michael Annett, Jeremy Clements, JR Motorsports teammates Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier, and 10th-place finisher Garrett Smithley.

This was how close Byron lost to Denny Hamlin last weekend at Michigan.

HOW BYRON WON: In much the same way he won several of his seven Truck Series races last season, Byron quietly stalked the leaders through much of the race. Then, following a wreck that involved Christopher Bell, Ryan Reed and Brennan Poole with 32 laps to go, Byron worked his way to the front as the final laps ticked off and won.

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Interestingly, all of the top-four finishers earned their career-best Xfinity showings: Byron (1st), Sieg (2nd), Reddick (3rd) and Chastain (4th), while Armstrong tied his career-best finish (5th).

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Sam Hornish Jr. came in as the defending winner and kicked off a multi-race deal with Team Penske with this race. He was running in the top-5 when Christopher Bell got into Hornish on Lap 80, sending him into the wall and ending his night. … Seymour, Wisconsin’s Ty Majeski had a good night going in his Xfinity Series debut until he was involved in a solo wreck on Lap 145 that also ended his night.

NOTABLE: Polesitter Christopher Bell won Stage 1, while Brendan Gaughan won Stage 2, his first stage win of the season. … Elliott Sadler made his 800th career NASCAR start across all three major series (Cup, Xfinity and Trucks).

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “We had four fresh tires and I just feel like we should have had a victory. I thought the odds were in our favor. … I feel like we gave one away here. It’s going to be a tough one to swallow.” – Third-place finisher Tyler Reddick.

WHAT’S NEXT: Firecracker 250, June 30, 7:30 p.m. ET, Daytona International Speedway.

Follow @JerryBonkowski