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Ryan: A requiem for the bump and run? Delving into the short-track debate gripping NASCAR

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RICHMOND, Va. – When it comes to the ongoing debate about what makes a NASCAR short-track race great, let’s concede the obvious.

The loudest voices on the subject also are those whose should matter least.

“A driver is going to like whatever he’s best at,” Brad Keselowski told a small group of reporters Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “That’s why you can’t ask an active driver, because an active driver is going to tell you if he’s good at running the top, that’s where the race needs to be. If he’s good at running the bottom and with the bump and run, that’s where the race needs to be.

“We always will give the selfish answer. I think it’s probably one of those questions that maybe current drivers shouldn’t answer out of respect to their answers being selfish. In reality, we need the answer that drives the sport and creates the most compelling action. That should be the guiding light before a driver’s preference.”

A two-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway (but none since the 0.533-mile oval was altered in 2012 in an attempt at re-establishing the bottom lane that actually created a preferred high line), Keselowski naturally prefers the low lane and the bump-and-run maneuvers that helped drive the track’s growth to a 160,000-seat colossus.

But many of his peers had opposing views on what defines a great short track. Points leader Kyle Larson doggedly worked in the high line during practice (attempting to negate the VHT applied to force drivers to the bottom) and incessantly lobbied before and after the race that the better Bristol was high and low.

Did he feel vindicated by a race that drew a high favorable rating in one popular online poll?

“I would say more people probably agreed with me by the end of the race,” Larson said. “You still had your older race fans that enjoyed the single-file racing around the bottom, but I know all the drivers enjoy when we can move around and find different lines on the racetrack because at least from our seat — maybe it doesn’t translate to TV as well — the racing is way better that way.

“And I thought Bristol last week was awesome. … There’s no other track on our circuit that has that exciting and intensive racing. I watched the race again last night and I thought it was amazing. Hopefully they don’t try and do anything more to make us go around the bottom because Bristol is awesome.”

OK, but what about the bump and run?

Larson, a longtime dirt racer who admittedly has a different perspective on the “rubbing is racing” philosophy, makes a few good points why it can’t work the same way anymore.

“The pace of our races nowadays have to be way faster than what they were running in the early 2000’s or whenever the best racing at Bristol was,” Larson said. “And, too, our bumpers line up. So, it’s not easy to do the bump and run. People do hit somebody in front of them, and the guy in front of him barely moves. Before the bumpers lined-up, you could get into somebody, pick them up, and move them.

“So, the bump and run is kind of gone away a little bit just the way I think our style of our bodies are, as well as I think we have more grip now days than they probably had back then. … I don’t think you’re going to get all the way back to how they all like it.”

If that truly is the case, then here’s a brief requiem for the bump and run to remember exactly why it’s so beloved … through five moments at Bristol.

2008: Carl Edwards vs. Kyle Busch

2002: Jeff Gordon vs. Rusty Wallace

1999: Dale Earnhardt vs. Terry Labonte

1997: Gordon vs. Wallace

1995: Earnhardt vs. Labonte

That’s the racing that is synonymous with Bristol – a point that NBCSN analyst Jeff Burton eloquently made here. You won’t find many stirring side-by-side battles for a win hailed among the greatest races at Bristol.

And that is what should give anyone pause about proclaiming that Sunday’s race should be the only path forward.

Quick, name the most indelible moment you remember from Martinsville Speedway this season?

The “purists” will point to the battle for the lead between Keselowski and Busch.

But the realists will point to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bumping aside Busch at the end of the race’s second stage as the highlight with the most traction in national media.

It also drew some of the loudest cheers during that race at Martinsville a few weeks ago.

Don’t forget about those voices. As Keselowski notes, they still matter most.

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With the perceived success of Bristol being treated with a VHT-style compound for the second consecutive race, it’s natural to ask whether it should be tried at other tracks – such as Richmond.

When owned by the Sawyer family, RIR actually was treated from 1988-2002 with a sealer that drivers loved, but the surface has remained untouched since a 2004 repave.

With Richmond producing divergent results in recent races – some are wildly competitive, others aren’t – there are mixed feelings on whether the 0.75-mile oval needs some help.

“If you ask the drivers, this is the perfect racetrack,” said Denny Hamlin, a hometown favorite who has attended races here since childhood. “To the fans, sometimes it’s not, because (the cars) do get strung out.

“I think the reason the drivers and teams like it best is because they hit their setup, they can just dominate a race here. It’s not always the best thing for TV, but it’s a good thing for the competitors. So it’s a balance of what’s good for the competitors and what’s good for putting on a fantastic race.

“I don’t know what you can do here. We’ve had races where we were running the wall or running the line and some guy led almost every lap. I don’t know whether spreading out the cars or making them run one line here is the best thing to do.”

Said Larson: “All of us complained a few years ago when it was single file around the bottom the whole time (at Richmond) and then Goodyear brought a great tire back, and now we’re running all over the racetrack, and the drivers and fans seem to like it. I think the racing is good, really good right now, and a lot of fun, too.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s busted oil cooler at Bristol was one of a few mechanical problems that seemed caused by debris on the track – which might indicate a possible downfall with VHT. Does the substance increase the “chunking” by tires and subsequently the likelihood of cars being damaged?

Regardless, it’s left Earnhardt in a precarious points position in his final Cup season. It would seem his best route to the playoffs would be via his first win in 18 months – putting extra emphasis on how next week’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. Earnhardt has six wins (most recently two years ago) on the 2.66-mile oval, which ranks him first among active drivers.

“Daytona seems to be more about the car, Talladega more about the driver and the moves, and (Earnhardt) makes some of the best moves,” Keselowski said. “So I would expect him to be one of the primary guys to beat for sure.”

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Is it May yet?

Because it’s about time for the hagiography around Fernando Alonso’s foray into IndyCar to end and for the journalism to begin.

Getting a two-time world champion committed to the world’s biggest race (as Alonso described it in his own words during an NBCSN interview last Sunday that surely had to deliver a sting for some in Formula One and his team) is undoubtedly a coup. The series justifiably maximized that exposure value during the Spaniard’s visit to Barber Motorsports Park last weekend.

Alonso is signing autographs! Alonso is climbing into Marco Andretti’s car! Alonso is talking to every microphone within shouting range!

All of this was great promotion for IndyCar, which could use the injection of attention as it tries to avert the letdown from following the centennial marking of its signature event.

But can we cool it a tad until he, like, turns an actual lap?

Because the narrative needs to shift gears well before then and explore some significant storylines. For example …

–When was the last time a driver with NO (as in zero!) oval experience before the month of May attempted to run one of the world’s toughest racetracks in an entirely new race car?

Last year’s surprise winner, Alexander Rossi, had several hundred laps around Phoenix International Raceway before the former F1 driver took the Indy plunge. Rubens Barrichello didn’t have that IndyCar oval race experience before his 2014 debut at Indy, but he at least had four races on street and road courses to get acclimated to the vehicle.

Ask Tony Stewart, who repeatedly has said among their biggest apprehensions about attempting the Indy 500 would be the lack of time in an Indy car beforehand. Alonso is in a class of his own, but it certainly is worth pondering if he can overcome others’ concerns about adaptability.

–How does the current pack racing that has become prevalent the last few years at the Brickyard make it more or less difficult for Alonso?

–How will Andretti Autosport manage the balancing act of fielding a competitive car for Alonso with five other entries? (At least one reporter has attempted to pose this question and unfairly been pilloried as a result).

Regardless of the answers to these and other questions, Alonso’s Indy 500 debut will rank among the most highly anticipated in recent racing memory.

It’s fine to celebrate the significance of that … but with a healthy dose of objectivity and perspective, too.

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The impending retirement of Earnhardt in the wake of Jeff Gordon and Stewart has kicked the discussions into hyperdrive about the next wave of superstars (and yes, as the employee of a NASCAR broadcast partner, I will plead guilty to being complicit in driving that conversation – a legitimate one).

While there has been justifiable focus on Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney because of their performance this season, and Daniel Suarez has gotten much attention because he is filling Carl Edwards’ ride, rookie Erik Jones mostly has been lost in the shuffle.

And it seems he might have noticed.

Based on the speed of his No. 77 Toyota the past two days, it isn’t inconceivable that Jones outruns the trio – if not outright win – at Richmond.

Keep in mind that, as we noted on the Michigan Home Track segment NASCAR America this week, Jones, 20, was winning prestigious Late Model races as a 14-year-old.

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There are some obvious candidates for the No. 88 ride, and that’s why William Byron’s noncommittal response was delivered correctly and perfectly Friday. The 19-year-old assuredly will race Cup for Hendrick in the future, but it doesn’t help to do anything but keep it boring when asked to speculate for now.

But there were some other answers from veterans that seemed a little … curious. For example, would Larson like to put to bed the rumors that he could go to Hendrick (which once courted him)?

“Oh, I’d have to talk to (team owner) Chip (Ganassi), I guess, before I came out in public about anything that serious,” he said. “So, I won’t talk about anything like that because I don’t even know if I’m allowed to, or not. I know (teammate) Jamie (McMurray) is very secret about all his stuff. But I don’t know.”

Any interest from Keselowski, who is in a contract year with Team Penske?

“Do I have to have a yes or no? It’s a Hendrick car, which by nature means it’s going to be one of the best cars available for a long period of time,” he said. “But I also would say the car that I’m in is one of the best available. The team I’m with, I have a lot of equity in, so I’m pretty darn happy where I’m at, but I’ve learned in this world to never say no.”

So is he negotiating an extension?

“There’s some stuff going on, but I’m not (going) to mention it in detail,” he said.

Hmmm.

Our take on this? Neither driver is leaving where they are. Larson’s current deal likely keeps him in the No. 42 for at least another three seasons, but Ganassi notoriously is tight-lipped about his contracts, hence his reticence.

Keselowski seems happy at Penske, but he has driven before for Rick Hendrick, who intimated he would like to bring him back in the fold someday as he was exiting to join The Captain.

Even if he is 100 percent committed to staying at Penske, having the leverage to secure the best-paying deal possible (from one of the most business-savvy owners in racing) is a good thing.

Ford chooses Sebastien Bourdais replacement for Le Mans (and it isn’t Tony Stewart … yet)

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CONCORD, N.C. —  Ford has chosen a replacement for injured Sebastien Bourdais at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is expected to announce the driver soon – but don’t hold your breath NASCAR fans.

It isn’t Tony Stewart, who has indicated his desire to run the renowned event.

While taping an upcoming episode Thursday of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ford Performance director Dave Pericak said the three time champion who returned from NASCAR’s premier series last year still is lobbying “every time he sees us” to race a Ford GT car.

“We love Tony, and he wants to get behind the wheel of that GT but not at LeMans” in 2017, Pericak told NBC Sports at the Ford Performance Technical Center.

However, the new co-driver will be relatively inexperienced on the famous Circuit de la Sarthe road course in France. Pericak said Ford’s high-tech simulator (which mainly is used for NASCAR but also is used for sports cars and street models) at its North Carolina facility would help prepare the replacement.

“We will be using the simulator heavily between now and then for that driver to become fully up to speed not only in the GT but at Le Mans,” Pericak said. “There’s a great example of where we’re going to get tons of hours behind the wheel before that driver gets on an airplanes and heads over the France.

“The realism is unbelieveable. It’s a fantastic tool to have with this situation. Otherwise, you pick a driver, send him to Le Mans and take your chances. We’re going to be much more prepared. We already have the simulator ready to run that track because we ran it all last year.”

Returning to France last year, Ford won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Chip Ganassi Racing GT driven by Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller.

Bourdais, who suffered pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in an Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash last Saturday, was released from an Indianapolis hospital Thursday.

“Thank God, he’s going to be OK,” Pericak said. “We’ve talked to him, he’s in good spirits, but we’re really pleased he’s going to make a full recovery.”

Pericak said an announcement of Bourdais’ replacement was likely Thursday or Friday.

NASCAR suspends Camping World Truck crew chief one race

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NASCAR has suspended Camping World Truck Series crew chief Kevin Bellicourt one Truck event and fined him $5,000 because Justin Haley‘s truck failed minimum height requirements after last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The L1 penalty also docked Haley 10 points and the team 10 owner points. He finished 17th in an encumbered finish.

NASCAR also announced Thursday that Joseph P. Light has been reinstated after successfully completing NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program. He was indefinitely suspended March 16.

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Stewart-Haas Racing, Nature’s Bakery reach tentative settlement

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Counsel for Stewart-Haas Racing reported to North Carolina Superior Court on Wednesday that it has executed settlement documents with Nature’s Bakery.

A status report was pushed back 21 days to June 23 in the event the that the parties have not filed a stipulation of dismissal by that date.

No details of the settlement documents were detailed to the court.

Stewart-Haas Racing filed a $31 million breach of contract lawsuit against Nature’s Bakery on Feb. 3. Nature’s Bakery had two years remaining on a three-year contract to sponsor Danica Patrick’s team when the company sent the team a notice of termination on Jan. 19 . Nature’s Bakery was to have paid $15,212,000 each season to sponsor the team.

Nature’s Bakery filed a counterclaim Feb. 25 stating it did not see the return it was led to believe in sponsoring Patrick’s team.

Click here to read court document

Thursday’s schedule for NASCAR Cup, Xfinity at Charlotte

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Charlotte Motor Speedway kicks off its weekend leading up to Sunday’s main event, the Coca-Cola 600, with today’s action.

The Xfinity Series will hold two practices, while the NASCAR Cup Series has one practice and qualifies in the evening.

Here is today’s schedule:

(All Times Eastern)

11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

1:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

2 p.m. – 3:25 p.m. – First Cup practice (Fox Sports 1)

4 p.m. – 4:55 p.m. – First Xfinity practice (FS1)

6 p.m. – 6:55 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (FS1)

7:15 p.m. – Cup qualifying (multi-vehicle, three rounds) (FS1, Performance Racing Network)