Letarte: Why 2017 playoffs have chance to be best ever after Richmond missteps

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NASCAR admittedly messed up last Saturday at Richmond Raceway, and now the pressure is on as it never has been during the most critical stretch of the season.

Let me tell you why I think that is a good thing – both for the sanctioning body and the industry as a whole, and it might make the 2017 playoffs the most flawlessly executed and enduringly memorable (for the right reasons).

I’m a sports fan because I love the big stage. I love to watch Super Bowls, the World Series, Ryder Cup golf, the closing holes of the Masters. But I don’t even have to be a huge fan. I don’t know anything about Olympic handball, but I was captivated by the gold-medal match because it was the biggest stage.

Between life-threatening storms, political disagreements and cultural strife, we all as Americans want the diversions of being entertained, and nothing entertains like sports. In its quest to grow through its entertainment value, NASCAR has a platform in these final 10 races to deliver highly captivating moments.

We have the storylines to do it, from superstar veterans to rising stars. We have the great mix of teams, from perennial contenders Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske to emerging power Furniture Row Racing to beloved historical fixture Wood Brothers Racing.

Every part and piece is there to make a beautiful recipe.

But everyone who has a NASCAR hard card needs to understand they have a hand in the mix. Everyone needs to be held accountable. The most pressure to perform always is on the drivers, teams and pit crews, but now the pressure on the supporting staff also becomes real.

The restructuring of the playoffs – first in 2014 with the addition of points resets and eliminations and now this year with the addition of playoff points – has put a hyper-focus on performance these last 10 races.

That is performance that extends WAY beyond just the drivers behind the wheels, which generally is only what fans are thinking about.

You can’t focus the microscope on a nine-race playoff and a championship race and then have the officiating become a major story. But you also can’t have stories that result from questionable team ethics or missteps made by track personnel (as happened at Richmond) or even major errors by the broadcast network.

I can’t be part of the story. My job is to cover the superstars who are creating the stories. For Jeff Burton and I, we can’t forget a rule or stumble through an important setup or misspeak when a pass is coming. Rick Allen’s play-by-play call Sunday has to be at the premium level at which the winner at Chicagoland Speedway deserves.

But over the next two months of NASCAR, we are at a Super Bowl level of scrutiny. Every flag being thrown, every play being made (or not made), every commentator’s opinion – the attention and potential impact of every action by every actor at every level of every race is multiplied by a more intense spotlight that can tarnish an event with a major mistake (like Richmond) just as much as it can elevate it to greatness.

That’s where we’re at – and that’s where I want us to be. Everyone needs to feel that pressure. It’s a collective effort.

NASCAR has created a playoff system built on the essence of what makes sports great – high-pressure situations.

And no one is beyond that pressure and scrutiny, whether it’s the driver, crew chief, pit crew, engine builder, sanctioning body, track promoter, operations staff or the broadcast partners. I will have more nerves about feeling obligated to perform on air with exhaustive preparation in the final 10 races because the fan base and viewers deserve it – and they will notice it even more if we aren’t on point.

After throwing a questionable caution flag that created the opportunity for a different outcome (pit crews and a restart still were the reasons Martin Truex Jr. lost to Kyle Larson), I want to hear what NASCAR will do differently to make sure it doesn’t happen again at Chicagoland Speedway. We don’t need a detailed explanation, but NASCAR owes us a reassurance that the methods for throwing a caution have received heavy investigation and a reworking if necessary.

The pressure is on to deliver high-quality races – but it also is on everybody. I hope that everyone realizes – between teams, drivers, crew chiefs, broadcast partners and the tracks – that the final mulligan this season for the sport’s reputation was used at Richmond. Even if the ambulances are in proper position at Chicagoland, there can’t be a malfunctioning ticket scanner or something else instead. Expectations now are higher to be perfect.

Before an industry that lives in an enormous glass house starts tossing stones at the NASCAR scoring tower, everyone has to have their own stuff buttoned up. Everyone needs to be on another level of preparedness for the level of big-event opportunity that is here.

In a season with so many first-time winners and the emergence of a fresh class of stars complementing some familiar names, we have the ability to see a spectacular playoff, and everyone needs to understand the responsibility in creating that.

NASCAR is at its quintessential best with man and machine vs. man and machine, and may the best team win. It’s that simple.

The way to do that is through the NASCAR industry’s across-the-board execution, which is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

That time is now.

It’s the playoffs, and everyone must deliver on the sport’s biggest stage.

Truck practice report at Atlanta

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Justin Haley was the fastest in the first of two practices Friday for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He had a top lap of 178.029 mph.

Daytona winner Johnny Sauter was second with a lap of 177.040 mph. He was followed by Myatt Snider (177.040 mph), Stewart Friesen (176.995) and Noah Gragson (176.589).

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Truck practice will be from 4:05 – 4:50 p.m. ET.

Click here for Truck 1 practice

Police investigating vandalism, theft at North Wilkesboro Speedway

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The Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a report of vandalism and theft at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the track, which last hosted a NASCAR Cup race in 1996, suffered damage of about $10,000 when several trespassers were on the grounds last weekend. No arrests have been made.

The report states that several windows were broken and other damage was done to the structures. Also, large amounts of electrical wire and circuit breakers were reported missing.

The investigation continues.

North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted NASCAR Cup races from 1949-96. Winners included Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, who won the final race there.

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Others’ predictions motivating Austin Dillon after Daytona 500 win: ‘I guess they don’t believe it yet’

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Fresh off the greatest victory of his NASCAR career, Austin Dillon already has motivation to win the next.

The Richard Childress Racing driver heard others predict this week that the Daytona 500 would be his only victory this season.

“I think on Race Hub, Brad (Keselowski) and Chad (Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson) saying that we weren’t going to win again,” Dillon said Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “So, that was good to hear. That was something to get me fired up a little bit more and our team, get those competitive juices flowing again. So, we will just keep rocking it however we can. We still have a lot to work on.”

Prior to Daytona, Dillon’s lone win in four seasons as a full-time Cup driver came in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. His No. 3 Chevrolet qualified for the playoffs the past two seasons, but his top 10s (13 to four) and average finish (15.9 to 18.6) slipped demonstrably from 2016 to ’17.

“So yesterday in my group text with my buddies they watched Chad Knaus and Brad Keselowski, and it was like, ‘All right, it’s time to keep knocking them down, I guess they don’t believe it yet,’” Dillon said. “We’ve got to step up though at RCR. We’ve still got a lot to prove. It’s a speedway race, even though it’s the biggest race in our deal, it’s a speedway race.  We’ve got a lot more to prove.

“(Competition executive) Andy Petree and all the guys are RCR are working hard. I think coming down to a two-car team move is big for us. We’ve got to take advantage of that. I’m not going to lie, I’m tired right now, but we are going to kick butt this weekend and get back regrouped and get in the groove and try and gain as many bonus points as we can.”

But qualifying for the playoffs by winning the season opener should be a morale booster that avoids any letdown.

“The one thing they don’t have right now that we have is a win,” Dillon said. “So, we are on top right now, and no matter what they can’t take that away, and we are going to keep working.  I don’t expect us to lay down at all. I feel like now more than ever we need to go head on and go after it.”

Xfinity practice report from Atlanta

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Christopher Bell posted the fastest lap in the first of two Xfinity practice sessions Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Bell posted a lap of 178.447 mph. He was followed by Joey Logano (177.323 mph), Cole Custer (175.933), Ryan Reed (175.688) and Kevin Harvick (175.487). Daytona winner Tyler Reddick (175.388) was sixth on the speed chart.

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Xfinity practice will be from 3:05 – 3:55 p.m. ET

Click here for practice 1 report