Ryan: Who’s right and who’s wrong in the Kyle Busch pit commitment conundrum? Everybody

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RICHMOND, Va. – Kyle Busch was absolutely correct.

The Joe Gibbs Racing justifiably was upset after a shot at victory was ripped away by a few guys staring at a high-definition monitor a few hundred feet above.

NASCAR was absolutely correct.

Busch broke the law by putting the right tires of his No. 18 Toyota on the pit lane commitment box.

Is it possible both NASCAR and Busch can be right despite seeming on opposite sides of a controversy Sunday?

Yes. Let’s explain by starting with this fact:

A cheap foul greatly affected the outcome Sunday at Richmond International Raceway.

Busch violated a rule that also caught five more drivers in the Toyota Owners 400, but none was more damaging.

In a twisted way, this is the rigid consistency and officiating sought by Busch, who complained last year about the capriciousness of NASCAR debris cautions. It’s a penalty in the same way as a pit crew member spotted going over the wall a millisecond too early. There is definitive video evidence.

But refereeing a sporting event isn’t quite the same as presiding over a court of law.

Officiating is an art of resisting the temptation to meddle in the natural course and rhythm. There are calls that basketball referees abstain from making as a game gets tougher while the clock grows shorter

Busch’s infraction wasn’t the equivalent of a touch foul – as NBCSN analyst Steve Letarte points out, putting a tire even an inch over the commitment box is akin to a player stepping on a boundary line. It can’t be overlooked in the way that officials can swallow their whistles in the closing minutes of a game when there is incidental contact.

That truly is a judgment call, or “Balls and strikes,” as Busch curtly referred to them Monday on national TV in a dismissively short interview that was quintessentially him.

However, by reducing the size of its voluminous rulebook, NASCAR could provide more dispensation and acknowledge it isn’t wise to disrupt the outcome with a game-changing call for something so ticky-tack as this.

The spirit of the commitment rule, spawned more than a decade ago in fuzzy origins traceable only to the rise of insanely competitive pit stops, is to dissuade drivers from aggressively diving into the pits. Such moves have put pit crews at risk and increased the likelihood of trailing cars in fender-benders.

Not the case with Busch, who fully was committed to making a pit stop when he barely grazed the orange box. Even race winner Joey Logano conceded the second-place car is in a difficult position when the leader cuts hard left.

“I was able to get down” under the box, Logano said. “But when you’re the trailing car, you’re looking at a rear spoiler, so you’re not 100 percent sure where that box is. It’s a tough situation.”

NASCAR’s enforcement of the rule is strictly by the letter with a passive-aggressive vengeance that would have made Bill Lumbergh proud.

“Hey, Kyle. What’s happening? Did you get the preseason memo on pit road entry? Yeah, we’re going to need you to enter with all FOUR tires below the box, umm kay? Thanks. And if you could avoid throwing a punch at Joey in victory lane, that would be great.”

Busch broke the rule.

Whether there should be such a rule is another discussion.

There has been leniency in this application before – drivers have been allowed to put their tires on the box, and a cone also had been used at some tracks prior to this season.

After some grumbling from several drivers (though this wasn’t a lobbying effort by the Cup Drivers Council), NASCAR made a well-intentioned attempt to streamline pit commitment and implemented uniform rules to avoid confusion from track to track.

It was a nice thought … but did the result – four tires below the orange box, ALWAYS — really need to be so rigid?

The overarching problem – from cars specs to pit procedures — is there are too many rules. More importantly, too many need as much simplifying and updating as the U.S. tax code.

NASCAR should continue taking a cue from golf, which is overhauling its Byzantine rules of play for 2019 into something that any duffer can comprehend. This was in the wake of some questionable applications of the law.

Sports isn’t always served so well by strict constructionism. Better to play the role of an Oliver Wendell Holmes than William Rehnquist.

There are repercussions for layering a rulebook with too many confounding codicils.

But regardless of that, there also are consequences for breaking the rules, too, as they currently are written.

Maybe that’s why Busch said only three words while marching past the scene of the crime Sunday on his way to the garage.

A few other observations the past weekend at Richmond International Raceway:

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NASCAR chairman Brian France’s impromptu appearance in the Richmond media center Sunday was notable if only because he didn’t address the retirements of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in the same manner as with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France with his son Luke.(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

There are many reasons for that – Earnhardt was the last of the lot to announce, and it comes amidst a timely youth movement in Cup – but this also was another side of France, who brought 6-year-old son Luke to the dais.

The stock-car czar was more disarming and graciously thanked the news media for its coverage (in a stark departure from his state of the sport address last November when he was combative and fiery).

Outwardly, this means little for France, who is at 54 and in his 14th year of running the show. The third-generation leader won’t be changing his approach or style, but it might be indicative of a positive shift in how NASCAR tells its story in the future.

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When asked by NBCSports.com Sunday about the team sponsorship environment, France was sanguine about the prospects.

“It’s only April,” he said. “Those kind of decisions from Corporate America are typically made in August or September.

“Pick a year, we always see somebody — Richard Petty at one point — we always see at one point, why are they not doing well in that area for one reason or another. We’ve always had that. That’s not anything abnormal. It always gets worked out over time because the property works in a way for many companies that they can’t do in any other sport. They can’t own a team in any other sport as they can here.’”

Those are encouraging words, but they might bear weeks of repeating while awaiting significant movement on the outlook for the 2018 finances of many teams.

Stewart-Haas Racing still needs a long-term major backer for the No. 10 Ford of Danica Patrick, and the team has struggled to bring Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 to the level of sponsorship enjoyed by predecessor Tony Stewart.

At Hendrick Motorsports, Lowe’s is in a contract year with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson (who has hinted he would like to drive a few more seasons), and Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 will need to replace Farmers Insurance and fill out some other holes for 2018.

Meanwhile, Chip Ganassi Racing is trying to keep Target with points leader Kyle Larson.

The calendar has flipped to May since France’s news conference – hopefully the Fortune 500 cash spigot soon flips on again, too.

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Denny Hamlin recently put the odds at 50-50 that Carl Edwards would return next season, but the odds seem less likely that his Cup comeback occurs at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018.

Though his contract status remains uncertain, there have been some concrete signs that Matt Kenseth, 45, wants to drive beyond this season. It still might be dependent on sewing up sponsorship (the recent signing of Circle K is encouraging), but Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing seem committed to working things out.

That still wouldn’t leave Edwards, 37, lacking for Cup opportunities if he tires of the farming life in Columbia, Missouri. If Hendrick decides on a big name and big salary (perhaps in hopes of snagging a big sponsor) to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr., the affable and corporate friendly Edwards would make the most sense.

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A high-quality race for the second consecutive year in daytime at Richmond still drew a disappointing crowd. The Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted track president Dennis Bickmeier declaring a move back to a Saturday night slot is “on the table.”

It would be better if it weren’t.

Just for sheer diversity, it’s good to have annual day and night options at the 0.75-mile oval (a la Bristol Motor Speedway). But beyond that, how do RIR and parent company International Speedway Corp. walk away from the Sunday sunshine that produced four-wide racing on a short track?

From 1992-2008, Richmond sold every one of its seats for 33 consecutive races. The racing in the past two late April races has been as strong or stronger than it was then – and there are far fewer seats to sell now.

In a mother lode of race fans such as the Old Dominion, there’s a path forward to attracting the crowds that once flocked to Richmond in the spring. But it isn’t by reverting to Saturday night.

Toyota executive calls Truck Series ‘critical step’ in developing drivers

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A Toyota Racing Development executive says that the manufacturer would accept a spec engine in the Camping World Truck Series, noting how valuable that series is for the development of drivers.

David Wilson, president of TRD, made the comments Friday on “Tradin’ Paint” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

NASCAR tested a spec engine for the Truck series multiple times last year and it is expected to be optional this season.

Wilson admits the spec engine idea has raised concerns among manufacturers.

“It is a little bit of a sensitive issue with all the manufactures,’’ Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Arguably the biggest single piece of (intellectual property) in any car or truck is the engine, so certainly that’s important to us.

“By the same token we understand the bigger picture. We have been working with NASCAR, all the (manufacturers) have been working with NASCAR to make sure that we keep this series going because here’s the bottom line — while our motivation to run in Trucks has changed over the years, it remains an absolute critical step in how we as an industry develop drivers.

“The leap from ARCA or K&N or Super Late Models straight to Xfinity, that’s too big of a leap. You need a step and that Truck Series is a very important step. You look the drivers that have come through just in our camp — Erik Jones, Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez — that experience in the Truck garage has been absolutely critical in preparing them to be successful in Xfinity and ultimately in Cup. We’re going to continue to take a big picture approach with the Truck Series and work with our friends at NASCAR. If there are some spec engines that have to be under a Tundra hood, so be it, we’ll be OK.’’

Last year’s Xfinity champion and rookie of the year, William Byron, ran a full season in Trucks in 2016. Erik Jones, the 2016 Xfinity rookie of the year, ran 17 Truck races before his Xfinity debut. Daniel Suarez, the 2017 Xfinity rookie of the year, had run only one Truck race before his Xfinity rookie season but he also ran 13 Truck races while competing in Xfinity that first year.

Those young drivers also illustrate Toyota’s emphasis on new talent. But with only five seats — four with Joe Gibbs Racing and one with Furniture Row Racing —  with Cup teams partnered with TRD, Toyota is having a hard time finding spots for all its drivers.

Wilson said the manufacturer remains committed to developing drivers.

“It’s a commitment that Toyota has made to NASCAR and to motorsports,’’ he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We enjoy a tremendous amount of value. NASCAR is simply a phenomenal place for us to race. This is part of our payback.

“We feel like we have the social responsibility to give back to the series. We know we’ll lose as many of these young guys and gals as we’ll be able to keep because we simply won’t have enough seats for them. That’s just simple math. It’s already been proven out by William Byron (who raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in Trucks before moving to Chevrolet in Xfinity and now Cup). We’ll be racing against William, who used to be in a Toyota.

“Bottom line this sport still benefits. As I’ve said before, getting to know these young kids and getting to know their parents at a young age and as they’re coming up in the sport, I believe that will pay dividends. These kids can have a career that spans decades. Who’s to say that we won’t cross paths again? By us building that relationship early on, showing them who we are … the responsibly we have to their well-being, I think it’s a sound investment.’’

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WATCH: Sneak preview of the Hall of Fame induction at 8 p.m. on NBCSN

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The NASCAR Hall of Fame’s ninth class of inductees won’t be remembered so much for the imprint left on the record books as on the revolutions in stock-car racing.

In a video essay that will be shown during tonight’s induction ceremony (which will begin at 8 p.m. on NBCSN), Robert Yates, Ray Evernham, Red Byron, Ken Squier and Ron Hornaday Jr. are saluted as much for what they achieved as how they accomplished it – and their lasting effects on the machines and people that they touched.

–Yates’ ingenuity with engines ranked him among the greatest engine builders. But along with the wins and championships, he also imparted life lessons and knowledge to the apt pupils who are carrying on his successful legacy.

— A crew chief with three Cup championships and 47 wins, Evernham transformed how races and teams were managed, from innovative car designs to clever tire strategies to finely tuned pit crews.

–As the premier series’ first champion, Byron raced with a special brace connecting his leg (which was injured in World War II) to the clutch pedal, embodying the self-determination and grit of NASAR.

–“The Great American Race” was coined by Squier, whose pitch-perfect wordsmithing helped make him a broadcasting legend whose dulcet tones described some watershed moments in evocative and remarkable detail.

–Four championships made Hornaday synonymous with the truck series, but he indirectly played a role in eight Cup titles, turning his couch into “Camp Hornaday” for fellow California natives and budding stars Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.

You can watch the video essay above or by clicking here.

Tune in at 8 p.m. for TV coverage of a ceremony that should feature special moments and some surprises.

The Hall of Fame ceremony also can be viewed 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 8 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

The moral choice that Kyle Larson made in the closing laps at Miami

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CHARLOTTE – Every NASCAR driver has a code of ethics, and the closing laps of last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway presented a quandary for Kyle Larson.

If you can’t pass two title contenders with a championship on the line, does discretion become the better part of valor in choosing to pass neither?

It did for Larson, who reflected on his most recent Cup race this week.

With eventual champion Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch dueling ahead of him in the final 20 laps, Larson elected to stay in third place and let them settle the title instead of passing Busch and then taking a shot at Truex with his No. 42 Chevrolet, which led a race-high 145 laps.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who has led the most laps at Miami the past two years, said his only option in vying for a victory would have been having the consistent speed to assure he could overtake Truex and Busch.

“I think there were some laps I was faster than them,” he told NBC Sports during a Tuesday announcement to announce DC Solar as an expanded primary sponsor in Cup for 2018. “I obviously didn’t want to affect the outcome of the race. The only negative part of the (playoff) format is when you’re not in the final four, you can’t race your hardest.

“I don’t know if I would have won. I think I could have got to second and potentially the lead. I wanted to pass both of them quickly. I didn’t want to pass Kyle and then stall out for three laps and have him be upset or whatever.”

Indeed, Busch was upset with another driver, expressing frustration that he believed Joey Logano blocked him while trying to take fourth after the final restart.

Though Larson made a conscious choice to avoid separating Truex and Busch, he also dispelled the notion that he still wasn’t trying to muster the speed to win.

“I was driving my ass off,” Larson said. “Obviously, I ran into the wall a few times trying to pass them or get the run to pass both of them quickly, but I could never get it going. So no, I didn’t let (Truex) win or whatever. I was still racing hard.”

Larson, who scored a career-best four wins last year, seemed a good bet to be racing for a title until an engine failure at Kansas Speedway. After a busy offseason of racing sprint cars around the world, a refreshed Larson returned to his team’s NASCAR shop this week and ready to reset his focus.

“I don’t even think about NASCAR until now,” he said. “I feel like today is Day 2 of my offseason. I’m just now getting back into the swing of things.

Larson is enthused about a Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test of Chevrolet’s new Camaro at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (“You can kind of get an idea of how the start of your season will be there.”) before heading to Daytona International Speedway for Speedweeks.

“Last year, I didn’t know we were going to be that good, and then we started the year off really good, and we maintained that consistency and competitiveness,” said Larson, who led the points standings after the fourth through 11th races of the 2017 schedule. “I hope that we can do that again. I feel like when you get close like we did last year, it pushes everybody to be as good or better than what we were.

“I expect that we’ll be contenders again, but it’s hard saying with the new body and stuff like that. I’m sure there’ll be growing pains throughout it, but I definitely feel we have an extremely smart group of people who can do what it takes to get our cars better every week to have a shot.”

Daytona International Speedway releases Speedweeks schedule

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Daytona International Speedway has released the schedule for Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck teams for Speedweeks.

Cup teams will have one practice of 1 hour and 20 minutes for the Clash (down from 1 hour, 50 minutes for Clash teams last year).

Cup teams will have five practices for a total of 4 hours, 10 minutes in preparation for the Feb. 18 Daytona 500. Last year, Cup teams had seven practices for a total of 6 hours, 25 minutes before the Daytona 500. The two Cup practices the day of the Duel qualifying races have been eliminated this year.

Xfinity will have the same amount of practice as last year. Camping World Truck Series will have one more practice this year for an extra 1 hour, 20 minutes of track time this year.

Here is the track schedule for Speedweeks.

SPEEDWEEKS SCHEDULE

*subject to change

SATURDAY, Feb. 10

10:35 – 11:55 a.m. — Practice only for teams in Advance Auto Parts Clash

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Cup practice (for all teams)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Cup practice (for all teams)

4:45 p.m. — ARCA race

SUNDAY, Feb. 11

12:15 p.m. — Daytona 500 qualifying

3 p.m. — Advance Auto Parts Clash

MONDAY, Feb. 12

No track activity

TUESDAY, Feb. 13

No track activity

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 14

No track activity

THURSDAY, Feb. 15

11:35 a.m. – 12:55 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series practice

2:25 – 3:25 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series practice

4:35 – 5:25 p.m. — Final Camping World Truck Series practice

7 p.m. — Can-Am Duel 1

9 p.m. — Can-Am Duel 2

FRIDAY, Feb. 16

12:05 – 12:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Cup practice

2:05 – 2:55 p.m. — Final Xfinity practice

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Cup practice

4:30 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series qualifying

7:30 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series race NextEra Energy Resources 250

SATURDAY, Feb. 17

9:35 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying

12:05 – 12:55 p.m. — Final Cup practice

2:30 p.m. — Xfinity race PowerShares QQQ 300

SUNDAY, Feb. 18

2:30 p.m. — Daytona 500

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