Ryan: Richmond never delivered the cutoff drama that it did the first time

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The final regular-season cutoff race at Richmond Raceway ended just the way most of the previous 13 had gone: A relatively muted finish with less than scintillating action and more than a regrettable mite of self-induced controversy.

The incongruous sight of an ambulance blocking pit entry – and nearly adversely affecting the championship chances of Matt Kenseth — will be the indelible image from Richmond’s finale as the finale for setting the championship field every season since NASCAR reordered its title structure in 2004.

It’s striking in the context of a Cup Series race … but much less so when viewed through the prism of the track whose once cleverly marketed rhyme (“One last race to make the Chase!”) was much more memorable than the racing in its showcase event.

With all due respect to the quaint River City and its many charms, it’ll be easy to say good riddance to Richmond as the gateway to the most important stretch of the season in NASCAR’s premier circuit.

Though the 0.75-mile oval – often described as the short track that races like a superspeedway and has been beloved by drivers since its 1988 reconfiguration by original owner Paul Sawyer – always seemed the perfect location for a regular-season crescendo, it rarely delivered on the promise of punctuating the season’s first 26 races with big moments.

In 14 cutoff races at Richmond, only five drivers raced their way into the playoff field, and only once – the first time when Jeremy Mayfield emphatically snatched the final playoff spot with a stunning victory – was it truly memorable.

The most notable instance in which drivers made the playoffs because of events at Richmond was in 2013 when Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon were added because of penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing for race manipulation and the extraordinary measure of expanding the field in light of tainted radio chatter.

That it had nothing to do with on-track racing and also was one of the most materially damaging chapters in NASCAR history puts it squarely on the through line of forgettable incidents at Richmond.

Whether an ambulance parked in the most obvious of “no unloading” zones, the itch that apparently got scratched with the most suspicious spin in the annals of NASCAR or the fan who thought the top of the Turn 4 catchfence offered a better vantage point than his seat, there is a pattern of infamous episodes that largely overshadowed mostly nondescript racing.

In 2018, the cutoff race will shift to a Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There has been much debate over whether the 2.5-mile track – whose heavy demands on handling and horsepower ensure that typically only powerhouse teams contend up front — will enhance the “drama” that determines the playoff field because it seemingly lessens the chance of a driver carrying his car to victory lane.

But in the absence of virtually any such examples at Richmond since Mayfield, the Brickyard might be the better table-setter for the championship run through the appeal of Indianapolis with prestige substituting for pressure.

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Though NASCAR has employed a traveling medical crew for the first time this season, it’s worth noting Saturday night’s ambulance in question was staffed by local track crew (which apparently disregarded repeated commands) – just as the safety truck was that inexplicably impeded the progress of drivers pitting at Richmond in the April 30 race (and causing a commitment line violation by Martin Truex Jr.).

Between those incidents and the 2014 fence-climber (who caused a caution in addition to drawing criminal charges), that’s a curious run of Richmond staff being involved in some awkward instances that had unfortunate impacts on races.

NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell (admirably) alluded to holding the scoring tower accountable for Saturday night’s blunders. But the track obviously bears some of the brunt for the ambulance incident, too, and absolutely should be called to task being in tune with NASCAR officials in the future.

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While it was commendable for O’Donnell to stand up and accept the blame Monday on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, it might have helped to have the message with the same level of candor and contrition Saturday night from NASCAR. Scott Miller deserves credit for taking questions then, but the senior vice president of competition doesn’t hold the necessary clout to speak as authoritatively as O’Donnell or a board-level executive.

It was reminiscent of the debacle at the 2008 Brickyard 400 when competition VP Robin Pemberton was marched in to face a hostile media center immediately after enduring three hours of nonstop triage in the pits, where tires were exploding with unnerving reliability. It predictably didn’t go well, and it wasn’t until two days later when late spokesman Jim Hunter took an extremely contrite stance on SiriusXM that the damage control finally began.

Richmond won’t have the same repercussions as Indianapolis, and O’Donnell struck a stronger message of remorse and transparency even earlier this time, but the lesson is the same. When there are embarrassing images from a significant event on national TV, the sooner the better that someone of great import at NASCAR addresses the matter with clarity, compunction and resolve.

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As it moves back to hosting two annual races under the lights next year and begins a $30 million infield renovation, Richmond still has some big questions to answer about its future. Though Saturday night’s race again proved that racing in sunshine seems to be the preferable alternative for on-track quality, the grandstands noticeably were more crowded than Sunday in April. It’s difficult to quibble with that move.

However, it isn’t unfair to ask questions about the track and its surface, which hasn’t seemed the same since a 2004 repave that came two years after the abandonment of a sealer that previous owner Paul Sawyer used to treat the asphalt since its 1988 opening.

Is it worth returning to a coal tar emulsion or maybe using the newly popular traction compound employed at many tracks this year?

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There were many reasons for Martin Truex Jr. to be angry Saturday night, but some seeds of rage already had been planted nearly a month earlier.

Lest we forget, the Furniture Row Racing driver also wasn’t happy with NASCAR for throwing a caution that cost him the win in the Aug. 13 race at Michigan International Speedway.

With NASCAR debris cautions at a 17-year low through 26 races, it’s understandable why Truex would be even more agitated about feeling disproportionately affected by judgment calls.

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The decision to wait on crowning Truex until Richmond as the regular-season champion – after he already had clinched at Darlington Raceway – seems suspect in retrospect.

Of course, if the yellow hadn’t flown, the timing would have been ideal – punctuating a Richmond win with a celebration of one of the greatest regular seasons in recent memory.

Instead, it was a seething Truex staring blankly (it surely isn’t easy projecting radiance when you just emerged from the care center) while accepting the award from NASCAR president Brent Dewar. After trumpeting the importance of rewarding drivers for the season (which inextricably is linked with the advent of stage racing), this wasn’t the way NASCAR wanted to mark the quasi-historic occasion.

Yes, if the award had been given to Truex a week earlier, the ceremony still would have happened with him reeling after a late crash and a win snatched away. But he also made a media center appearance after the Southern 500 and took every question with grace, so the trophy presentation still would have gone more smoothly (as Truex alluded in the interview with Marty Snider).

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The significance of Saturday night’s 10-point swing isn’t that Truex lost five points (barring a total collapse, the No. 78 Toyota is a lock to reach the third round and nearly a given for the finale). It’s that Larson gained five points by winning the race and moving into second in the playoff standings.

Truex remains the favorite to be among the four championship finalists, but the equation changes if Larson is title eligible at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the 1.5-mile oval that is his favorite on the circuit partly because its high line suits his style so well.

Truex’s chances of racing for a championship weren’t diminished Saturday, but his odds of winning the playoffs were lessened because the chances increased that he will be facing Larson at Miami.

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Redux from last week’s column asking about the line between bending the rules and breaking them to the point of “cheating”: A Twitter follower noted one of the best examples of celebrating the way teams push the boundaries aired earlier this year with the “Refuse to Lose” documentary that marked the 20-year anniversary of Jeff Gordon’s first Daytona 500 win.

In a well-received episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast in March, crew chief Ray Evernham recounted many of those memories and the games that he played with NASCAR inspectors.

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The news that Richard Petty Motorsports could be facing sponsorship woes for the 2018 season, raises questions about how NASCAR might handle its charter system with the current team economic climate (RPM still has two charters, including one that was leased this season).

Brent Dewar, who was named the fourth president in NASCAR history two months ago, was among the architects of the charter system, and he discussed what the future might hold as the guest on the 99th episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

Kyle Larson wins Stage 1 at Miami, Brad Keselowski leads Championship 4 drivers

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Kyle Larson won Stage 1 of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dominating by leading 67 of the stage’s 80 laps, holding a nine-second edge when he took the checkered flag.

Meanwhile, here’s how the four Championship 4 drivers finished after the first 80 laps of the scheduled 267-lap event: Brad Keselowski is second, Kyle Busch is third, Kevin Harvick is fourth and Martin Truex Jr. in fifth.

Truex, with six of his seven wins this season coming on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead-Miami, wasted little time to take the lead away from pole-sitter Denny Hamlin.

The first caution of the race came out on Lap 6 when Joey Gase appeared to blow a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall hard.

During the subsequent pit stop, the only Championship 4 driver to hit pit road for four new tires was Keselowski, putting him off-sequence of the other contenders.

The move worked, though, as Keselowski quickly climbed from ninth on the restart on Lap 9 to third by Lap 12 and second by Lap 14.

Larson, who also pitted with Keselowski, took the lead away from Truex on Lap 13 and held on for the remaining 67 laps of the stage.

On Lap 38, Jimmie Johnson blew a right rear tire and came to pit road for four new tires. Even though there was no caution, all four championship contenders pitted over the following two laps.

On Lap 58, Harvick passed Truex and into third place for the first time in the race, zeroing on Keselowski in second.

Johnson got into the wall again on Lap 60, even though there was no caution, and sustained moderate damage, pitting for four tires and fuel.

Kyle Busch passed Harvick to take over third on Lap 77.

Sixth through 10th were Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer.

Watch: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans on what the driver means to them

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The fan base of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is large and devoted.

Those fans, affectionately called “Junior Nation,” has voted Earnhardt as NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 years in a row.

Justin Hartley of NBC’s “This is Us” is a member of Earnhardt’s fan base. The actor narrates the above essay on the close relationship between the driver and his fans.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to Bob Costas about his career, legacy before final Cup start

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Sunday marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s last start as a full-time Cup driver in NASCAR.

NBC Sports’ Bob Costas sat down with the 14-time most popular driver before the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to get Earnhardt’s thoughts before he climbed in the No. 88 Chevrolet for the last time.

Earnhardt addressed what he hopes his legacy will be after 20 years in the sport as a driver, including his impact on attitudes towards concussions in sports in general.

Earnhardt, who will join NBC Sports in 2018, also talked about what life has in store for him in the near future.

Earnhardt also made sure to credit his devoted fan base for making his career possible.

“I understand the driving force behind my success and opportunity in this sport, whether it be inside the car or outside the car, is all because of Jr. Nation,” Earnhardt said. “This year we’ve tried our best to show appreciation to them.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.

 

Furniture Row Racing going for Cup title after year of success, tragedy

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It’s been a historic year for Furniture Row Racing, the Cup team that has its base of operations in an old water bed factory in Denver, Colorado.

With Martin Truex Jr. piloting the No. 78 Toyota, they won a team record seven races and a series record six races on 1.5-mile tracks. Combined with a dominating performance under the new stage racing format, Truex has put the team in its second Championship 4 in three years.

But it’s also been a season of perseverance and tragedy.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan narrates the above video essay on the story of Furniture Row Racing’s 2017 season.