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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.

Ryan Preece leaving NASCAR future ‘up to fate’ and his own talent

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This is it.

Just 250 laps.

A track in Iowa.

The second half of a two-race gamble on himself that Ryan Preece has spent 20 years investing in since his days at a quarter-midget track in Meriden, Connecticut.

The 26-year-old driver is three days away from a race that could determine if he has any future at NASCAR’s highest levels.

The biggest race of Preece’s career comes in Saturday night’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway (3:30 p.m., NBC), a race where there will be no Cup drivers to keep him out of the spotlight.

He’s been on this stage before, though. He competed in this race against many of the same drivers last year, but in nowhere near the equipment provided by Joe Gibbs Racing’s No 20 Toyota. That’s why his presence in the Xfinity race two weeks ago at New Hampshire and his second-place finish may have taken some off guard.

“At a national level with Xfinity, there’s still probably some people who still don’t know I ran last year,” says Preece, who ran in all 33 Xfinity races in 2016 with JD Motorsports.

A second-generation driver, Preece rose through the ranks of modifieds and late models in the Northeast, winning numerous series and track championships and becoming the youngest champion of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 2013. He has 17 wins in the series since 2007.

He eventually got a taste of the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series with underfunded teams the last three years.

But after his year with JD Motorsports, mostly spent in the back half of the field, Preece didn’t want another stagnant season. He didn’t want a 10th-place finish at Darlington to be his ceiling.

Ryan Preece during practice for the Xfinity Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Getty Images).

He’s relied on Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on what he should do.

“(Newman) said ‘If you’re not having fun, why do it?’” Preece recalls. “ ‘If you’re not doing what you want to be doing, why do that?’ I said ‘You’re right.’ I want to win, and I feel I wasn’t going to be able to at that point in time.”

Preece chose to return to his home in modified racing.

There, he knew he was good. There, he knew he could be at peace and win at the same time.

“I learned that I’m just not somebody who is just going to settle, to just be there” Preece says. “I’m not about being just part of the show. I want to show everybody, more prove to myself that I can do this. Not that I don’t think I can, but I want to show everybody else too. I feel like I need that opportunity and I finally got it (with Joe Gibbs Racing).”

While Newman’s words helped him come to a conclusion, Earnhardt encouraged him along a specific path.

“I said, ‘If you can get into a Gibbs car, get in a Gibbs car,” Earnhardt said. ” ‘That would be your best opportunity to win a race. That’s really the only way you’re going to be able to get people to take notice. I’m not saying it was my idea, but I think he made a great decision with what little money he had.”

“When opportunity doesn’t knock, you’ve got to knock the door down,” Preece says.

If Preece didn’t heed the words of Earnhardt, he listened to Kevin Manion.

During his one season with JD Motorsports, Preece lived in the race shop of the Kyle Busch Motorsports crew chief.

It was Manion who gave Preece the phone number of Steve deSouza, the executive vice president of Xfinity and development at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Kevin Manion gave me his number and said, ‘Hey, at least you can call. If he doesn’t call back, it’s no big deal, at least you can say you called’,” Preece says. “That’s really, to be honest with you, what got everything going because (deSouza) called me back that night. Obviously, it took sponsors to get me into the car and finish off the deal. Those phone calls are what really got me to this point.”

Preece said this three days removed from the best finish of his Xfinity career in 37 starts.

Driving the No. 20 Toyota usually piloted by Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin or Christopher Bell, Preece finished second at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Ryan Preece sits in the No. 20 MoHawk Northeast Inc. Toyota during practice for the Xfinity  Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

It was a race that saw Preece lead two laps and finish runner-up to Kyle Busch.

But neither of those were the most fun part of the experience for Preece. That came with 10 laps left in Stage 1 as the race resumed after a caution and Preece restarting 16th on fresh tires.

Ten laps later, Preece finished the stage in second behind Kyle Larson.

“That’s what I like to do,” Preece said. “I’m used to on Friday and Saturday nights where we have what they call a handicap. You win your heat race and then you start 15th or whatever. I’m used to starting mid-pack and driving through the field and navigating through holes and keeping the car safe doing it. That was the most fun to me.”

Preece will get one more chance to show off his kind of fun in the Xfinity Series to anyone that’s paying attention.

With the backing of five sponsors who have supported his modified and late-model careers, Preece secured the race at New Hampshire. Three of those sponsors will be on his car this weekend in Iowa.

Preece says he hasn’t felt any more pressure to perform in these two races than he would in any at the modified level. Even if they could be his last real shot at NASCAR success.

“I knew what the value of those races could be, the risk that was being taken,” Preece says. “It’s funny, some people have even said after this point they thought what I was doing was pretty risky. They wouldn’t do it, it’s not the conventional way. I believe in myself, and I knew that if could get the right opportunity and be a part of something like that it could go exactly the way I felt it could go. I could have gone and blown up on Lap 5 and you still wouldn’t know who Ryan Preece is.”

But for at least one more race, Preece can force the spotlight on himself.

He seeks to make his name when it seems any noteworthy driver rising through NASCAR’s top three series hovers around the legal drinking age. But the 26-year-old believes his age is a benefit.

“One thing I know from personal experience is that I’ve gotten better and wiser with age and that’s something about our sport,” Preece says. “As long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can keep going to the next level. You’re only going to get better as you get older.”

Even as the days tick down to his second start, Preece’s mind last week was focused on his full-time job. He drives a modified owned by Eddie and Connie Partridge that he takes care of himself.

Last Tuesday, he was in the middle of attaching panels to the car he drove to an eighth-place finish Friday night at Stafford Motor Speedway, located roughly 40 miles northeast of his hometown of Berlin, Connecticut.

Preece has taken it upon himself to prepare his modifieds since 2011 when he parted ways with a team after only three races.

It’s a work ethic Preece aspired to after witnessing one of his heroes, the late sprint car driver Dave Steele, from a distance. As a kid still driving in midgets, Preece watched Steele work on his car following a race at the Speedrome in Indianapolis.

“He won that night of course,” Preece recalls. “He had his lap top plugged into the whole system and from that day on he made me want to be like him. …  I watched him work on his race car and really, he didn’t have many guys with him. From what I remember it was only two or three of them. It was a memory for me and kind of what set the tone for who I want to be and how I want to be.”

Now Preece is waiting to see if the combination of his work ethic and a gamble on himself will pay off following his Iowa venture.

But Preece is leaving his NASCAR fortunes “up to fate.”

“That will tell us if I was meant to do this or not at a bigger level,” Preece says. “My goal is to go out there and show the world what I feel I can do and that’s hopefully winning races at this level.”

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Xfinity crew chief Chris Gabehart penalized $5,000 for loose lug nut at Indy

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NASCAR has issued one penalty resulting from last weekend’s races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for the No. 20 Xfinity Series car of Joe Gibbs Racing, was fined $5,000 on Wednesday.

Gabehart was penalized for violating Sections 10.4 and 10.9 of the NASCAR Rule Book covering Tires and Wheels: Lug nut(s) not properly installed at the conclusion of the Lilly Diabetes 250.

There were no other penalties related to last weekend’s Xfinity or NASCAR Cup races in Indianapolis or the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway.

Richard Childress Racing to announce plans for a third Cup team ‘at a later date’

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With Paul Menard and his family’s home improvement chain sponsorship on the move to Wood Brothers Racing for 2018, Richard Childress Racing has a major funding gap to address.

Menards has adorned the No. 27 Chevrolet for RCR for seven consecutive Cup seasons and is among the last full-season sponsors in NASCAR’s premier series. It assuredly is the most lucrative of RCR’s sponsorships.

Though the team is committed to fielding Chevys for Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon next season, the impending departure of Menard leaves questions about whether RCR will remain a three-car team in 2018.

In a statement Wednesday morning, team chairman and CEO Richard Childress said the team “will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.”

Here’s the full statement from Childress:

Paul Menard and Menards, Inc. have had a partnership with RCR for seven years. Together, we have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, including Paul’s emotional win at Indianapolis in 2011. He is a very talented driver and a good friend. Everyone at RCR wishes both Paul and Menards nothing but the best in the future.

Our entire RCR organization is 100 percent focused on getting all three of our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series programs in the playoffs this year, and bringing another Cup championship to RCR in 2017.

We will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.

 

Paul Menard will move to the Wood Brothers for 2018 season

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Paul Menard will join Wood Brothers Racing next season, the team announced Wednesday. He will replace Ryan Blaney, who will move after this season to run a third Cup car for Team Penske.

Menards will sponsor the car in 22 races. Additional sponsorship, including plans for longtime partner Motorcraft/Quick Lane, will be announced later. The technical alliance between Team Penske and the Wood Brothers will continue. Greg Erwin will serve as Menard’s crew chief, car owner Eddie Wood confirmed Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s fantastic to have the ability to continue to race in the highest level of motorsports full time and something we look forward to doing with Paul for years to come,” Wood said in a statement. “I know this will allow us to continue to perform as an organization and will give Paul a great opportunity to go out there and compete for wins. Paul is not only a great driver with a lot of experience in the Cup Series, but he’s great with partners, which is a big part of what we do these days. We are looking forward to finishing out this season with Ryan (Blaney), going for more wins and maybe even a championship, and continuing that with Paul in 2018.”

Said Menard: “I’ve really enjoyed my time in NASCAR and as a Cup Series driver, but to get the chance to drive the iconic No. 21 for the Wood Brothers is the coolest thing I’ve ever got a chance to do. I’m looking forward to working with the team, working with Roush Yates, Ford Performance and Team Penske to see what we can do. Ryan (Blaney) has done a fantastic job and is a constant threat to run up front. Hopefully, we can do the same thing and keep the momentum going into 2018 and beyond.”

Also, Menard will run a handful of Xfinity races for Team Penske next year.

Menard had been with Richard Childress Racing since 2011, scoring his lone Cup victory — the 2011 Brickyard 400 — with the organization.

Menard’s best finish in the points with the organization was 14th in 2015. He is 23rd in the points with no wins, two top fives and three top-10 finishes this season.

The move marks the fourth organization the 36-year-old Menard has raced full-time for in his Cup career. He drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. from 2007-08, Yates Racing from 2009-10 and Childress since.

Car owner Richard Childress issued a statement:

“Paul Menard and Menards, Inc. have had a partnership with RCR for seven years. Together, we have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, including Paul’s emotional win at Indianapolis in 2011. He is a very talented driver and a good friend. Everyone at RCR wishes both Paul and Menards nothing but the best in the future.
“Our entire RCR organization is 100 percent focused on getting all three of our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series programs in the playoffs this year, and bringing another Cup championship to RCR in 2017.
“We will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.”

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