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Ryan: NASCAR needs to spread the word on rules when it’s about safety

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NASCAR’s sterling safety record – nearly 17 years with no fatalities in its national series – doesn’t receive much credit because safety generally is the focus only when it’s deficient.

Whether it’s the constant addition of SAFER barriers, the improvement of paved runoff areas or the overlooked upgrades to cars and cockpits, the advancements have made drivers less susceptible to injuries than at any point in NASCAR history.

It isn’t necessarily important that the world knows the hows and whys about a stretch of four deaths in nine months from May 2000 through February 2001 being followed by NASCAR’s longest period of unprecedented safety, but it is important that the teams and the industry fully understand the measures that were taken (as well as give input in implementing them).

Which brings us to the news that NASCAR recently made a subtle safety upgrade without fully informing teams how to take advantage of it.

After making a pit stop Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson stopped again outside his box so his front-tire changer could ensure the lug nuts were tight. The No. 48 Chevrolet received no penalty despite receiving service beyond its pit stall, triggering befuddlement from teams that fully expected Johnson’s team to receive a one-lap penalty – the standard penalty for pitting outside the box.

NASCAR officials explained they had been allowing dispensation for teams to fasten lug nuts outside the box if it was discovered they were unsecured upon leaving the box.

Apparently, this change was made after NASCAR returned to enforcing lug nut rules last season (after more than a year of allowing the requirement of five secure lug nuts to lapse). That move ostensibly was made because of safety after a spate of loose wheels raised concerns about putting drivers and fans at risk.

Thus, NASCAR started allowing teams to secure lug nuts outside the box without penalty – in the interest of safety, teams would be encouraged to prevent loose wheels by knowing there would be no punishment from NASCAR for ensuring it.

Curiously, though, hardly anyone seemed to know about this addendum before the incident involving Johnson’s team brought it to light Sunday.

If the goal of modifying a policy is to keep teams safer, it’s incumbent on NASCAR to inform all competitors to know how to take advantage of that. There are many instances in which teams seeking a competitive advantage will get pre-approved by NASCAR for a new part or process to validate its legality. In these cases, it makes sense to treat such information as proprietary and avoid dissemination unless asked.

But it doesn’t apply when the information is germane to reducing hazards.

NASCAR likes to cite safety as a cornerstone of its decision-making and as an explanation for some of its rules and trends, such as the rise in debris cautions.

It also has trumpeted being in a new era of transparency that is driven by greater collaborations with drivers and teams.

Both are noble objectives, and this is one instance in which they clearly intersect.

Safety is sound as the impetus for tweaking a policy, but it’s essential to spread the word far and wide when it happens.

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Johnson said crew chief Chad Knaus was aware the team wouldn’t be penalized because NASCAR officials informed him after a similar incident at New Hampshire Motor Speedway a few weeks ago.

It also happened to Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 team in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway. Hamlin stalled his Toyota while leaving the pits, and the rear-tire changer ensured the lugs were tight with the car’s nose over the edge of the box.

Asked about that incident this week, Hamlin couldn’t recall it – which reinforces the need for NASCAR to communicate with teams about the changes.

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While Martin Truex Jr.’s win at Charlotte guaranteed the No. 78 Toyota’s advancement to the Round of 8, it also meant at least another month of itching for crew chief Cole Pearn.

The Canadian, who grew up a fan of hockey and racing, got his team to buy into the playoff beard, a tradition popular among NHL teams in the postseason.

Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn are wearing their playoff beards. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“We all made a deal that we’d grow them this year,” Pearn told NBC Sports after the Charlotte victory. “If you shave, you’ve got to shave your eyebrows at the same time. It’s good incentive to keep it on even though I can’t stand it.

“When it comes down to playoff time, it’s all about growing it as patchy and ugly as it can possibly be and not touching it and letting it ride.”

Truex, who is accustomed to having facial hair, said it’s been a good morale builder for the team because “it’s fun for all the guys to get in something together. ‘Hey, we’re all going to do playoff beards.’ Right on. It shows your commitment.

“It’s been fun, but I’m just surprised by how much gray is in Cole’s beard.”

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A NASCAR delegation (including Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell) was in China this week, naturally prompting speculation as to why. The Sports Business Journal reported the group was at the opening of a road course near the port city of Ningbo.

The circuit is part of an initiative to build five tracks in the country by a subsidiary of Chinese automaker Geely Automotive, which owns Volvo. A Geely company also bought the track formerly known as Miller Motorsports Park in Utah two years ago.

Though NASCAR frequently has turned down offers to sanction one-off events for its national series around the world (including as many as 20 groups from China, according to O’Donnell in a 2013 interview), it is interested in establishing series (similar to Europe, Mexico and Canada) that build a pipeline to funnel drivers to the United States. Daniel Suarez is the best example of a success story.

While Brazil and Japan had been higher on NASCAR’s radar in establishing a grass-roots stock-car presence, Geely’s racetrack expansion in China might provide an avenue for a new series there.

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It’s naturally overlooked because he isn’t in the playoffs, but the second half of Daniel Suarez’s rookie Cup season has been impressive: eight top 10s in 12 races.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who finished sixth at Charlotte, has shown a proclivity for a fast learning curve. In his 2015 rookie campaign in the Xfinity Series, 12 of his 18 top 10s also came in the second half of the season. He followed that with a championship last year.

Given the strength of JGR and Toyota, it isn’t unreasonable to expect Suarez to be a playoff contender in 2018.

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NASCAR’s rules enforcement has been one of the overarching themes of the 2017 season. Analyst Jeff Burton was the guest on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast to explain why teams ask for more oversight but often struggle to comply with it.

“Perhaps NASCAR’s most important job is keeping the sport honest,” Burton said. “Because whether you like it or not, when competition is involved, the competitors’ integrity isn’t there. It just isn’t. It’s ‘we’re going to win at all costs.’

“Remember the football debacle with Tom Brady and the air pressure? They have a ball. We have thousands of parts. … You have to police the car, the people and the race. It’s completely different, and it’s way more complicated. When you don’t police it in really tight way, things get way out of control.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the 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.

 

First short track win slips away from Martin Truex Jr. on pit road

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Another short track race, another broken heart for Martin Truex Jr.

For the third time in four starts at Richmond Raceway, Truex led the most laps, and it didn’t result in victory.

The Furniture Row Racing driver, making his 450th Cup start and his 75th on a short track, saw his shot at winning the Toyota Owners 400 vanish on pit road.

After leading 121 laps from the pole, Truex lost the lead to Kyle Busch on a pit stop with 30 to go in the scheduled distance.

Truex was in second when the caution waved with nine to go in the scheduled distance. But when the dust settled, Truex found himself in 11th.

A problem with the jack as his team changed left-side tires was the culprit. After having to pit again under another caution, Truex ended the night in 14th.

“Pretty disappointed that we didn’t get at least a chance,” Truex told Fox. “It’s unfortunate, but I don’t know what we have to do to win one of these short-track (races) and get everything to go the way we need it to. Tonight, we beat ourselves, so that’s unfortunate. The guys did a really good job with the race car. We were awful at the start of the race, and I thought we were really in trouble. Just fought all night long and tried to stick with it and make good adjustments and put ourselves in position to try to win another one and just came up short.”

In Sept. 9 playoff race at the 0.75-mile track, Truex led 198 laps before crashing in overtime. In the September 2016 event, he led 193 laps before finishing third to Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

In his 75 short-track starts, Truex has earned eight top fives. The last two have come in his last two trips to Martinsville Speedway.

What drivers said after Richmond Cup race

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Kyle Busch — Winner: “I think the difference for us tonight was just the adjustments. Trying to stay with the racetrack all night long. Adam Stevens (crew chief) and my guys did a phenomenal job. I think one of the other keys to the night was just my guys – my pit crew – they got us out front when it mattered the most those last two pit stops. They were awesome tonight on pit road.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 2nd: “Just very fortunate circumstances there at the end for us with the way the restarts went. Having a short run there at the end was definitely in our favor. So it was nice to be on the good end of things for the first time in a while. Looking forward, we have to be realistic about how we ran tonight. I think the result shouldn’t weigh into how hard we worked this week because we have some work to do. I think that we have to keep that in mind.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 3rd: “We just got better as the race went on. We were 13th, 15th, something like that in the first half of the race. Just weren’t very strong. We just made some really good adjustments that got us rolling towards the front, especially on long runs. We got to the top five, then we had some pit stops there. We gained a few spots there. But, you know, restarting on that outside line, it was a huge deficit. I just couldn’t get the grip that I needed to try to run with (Kyle Busch) side‑by‑side into Turn 1. That’s all I wanted, to be within one car length getting into turn one, and I just couldn’t get it.’’

Joey Logano — Finished 4th: “We had a really good Shell Pennzoil Ford early in the race and got a couple stage wins early, which was great. We maxed out those points, which is awesome. We just lost the handle on the car and fell back to sixth or so. We had a bad pit stop and lost a bunch of spots and then had a really good pit stop and got them all right back and were able to come home with a top five. I wish I could rerun that. I feel like we can do better if we tried again. I am sure the whole field would say that. I am proud of the speed we showed at Richmond. Just want to be a little better.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 5th: “No more restarts. We were terrible on the restarts there compared to three or four of those guys. I was spinning the tires getting going there on the restarts. All of the night taken into consideration we were way better than we have been in the past and that is an important race for us to figure out where we need to be with all of the things that didn’t go right tonight and be ready for when we come back here for the playoff race.”  

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 6th: “We had to start the race on the tires we qualified with, and as soon as we got those tires off the car, we were a very competitive car and were able to stay on the lead lap. And with the long green-flag runs, we were able to still stay on the lead lap and work our way up through the field. I don’t know what we’re missing on scuff tires, but that’s something we’ve got to figure out.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 7th: “We weren’t very good all race long. And then I ended up getting the Lucky Dog there and then lost a lap … so that was kind of a hiccup on our part. I was able to get the Lucky Dog again and then charge from wherever we were to seventh the last laps. So, we salvaged a really good finish, which was good.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 9th: “We had a really good car. It’s just frustrating there at the end. All hell breaks loose. We lost a couple of spots on pit road, and that gets you back, and then you get on the outside and get stuck behind somebody that spun their tires, and you knock the front fender in on the 24 because he spun his tires. The next thing you know, you’re 10th thinking, ‘Boy, how did this night go to ruin so fast?’ Then it’s just beating and banging and everybody dive-bombing on the bottom. Those cars that are a lap down you’re lapping, and all of a sudden sticking it in three-wide with nothing to lose at the end. It’s a shame that a good, positive night ends up being like that, but that’s racing at this place.”

William Byron — Finished 12th: “I sped on pit road, and I guess I was just pushing the last segment there in the corner, and we were a little bit too fast coming onto the straightaway. Overall, a really good night. We got stage points, I think we finished fifth in both stages, and I think we finished 12th, but overall learned a lot and can just really build on this.  I love racing at short tracks. It’s a blast and definitely learned a lot from this.” 

Erik Jones — Finished 13th: “Just a really tough day. We really just didn’t have the right car from the start. I wasn’t too sure about it during practice, but once we fired off we realized it was going to be a pretty big struggle all day. We hung with it and fought hard and came home with an OK finish, but just need to get a lot better for the next one.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 14th: “Pretty disappointed that we didn’t get at least a chance. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t know what we have to do to win one of these short-tracks and get everything to go the way we need it to. Tonight we beat ourselves, so that’s unfortunate. The guys did a really good job with the race car. We were awful at the start of the race, and I thought we were really in trouble. Just fought all night long and tried to stick with it and make good adjustments, and put ourselves in position to try to win another one and just came up short. Frustrated, but proud of everyone for the effort and hopefully we get them next week.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 15th: “Richmond Raceway has always been what I consider the hardest track on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit, so I was really proud of our efforts in Stage 1. Our AAA Camaro ZL1 was really good. We were the fastest car on the track for most of the run and were able to race our way from 23rd to eighth and earn a few stage points. Once the race transitioned to night, we lost some of the magic. We just weren’t as strong. I put us in a bit of a hole by earning a commitment line violation coming to pit road, but we worked hard and had a good shot at the end. It was just hard to find a line that made moves.” 

Matt DiBenedetto — Finished 16th: “A 16th for us at Go Fas Racing is a heck of a run. We outran some really, really good cars all day. Our car had crazy-good long run speed and of all days for us to have really good long-run speed, today was definitely the day. But even at the end when we had the green-white-checker, we were able to pass a couple of good cars and pick up a spot or two. The team did a really good job. You know how great of a run that is for us.”

Daniel Hemric – Finished 32nd: “Obviously the results and the finish isn’t at all what we came here to do, but we started the race too far off and we lost so many laps there the first run and that put us behind for the rest of the night. With it going green like it did, I didn’t get to show how much better we got our Camaro ZL1 there throughout the race. I thought we could take off in top-15 speed after we got to work on it for the first time. It just took us getting to pit road to give us that opportunity.”

Ryan Newman – Finished 37th: “Richmond Raceway is one of my favorite tracks and to run just outside the top five, get assessed a pit-road penalty and then battle back onto the lead lap says a lot about this No. 31 Childress Vineyards Camaro ZL1 team. It’s unfortunate on the restart with 30 to go that we got into the back of a car. Everyone started checking up, and I just hit him square in the back. I did all I could, but the damage cost us our race. I’m just so disappointed right now. We had a good car and a finish that doesn’t reflect it.” 

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Late cautions help Chase Elliott to yet another runner-up finish

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Chase Elliott‘s Cup career will always be measured against Bill Elliott’s, his Hall of Fame father.

Saturday night at Richmond Raceway, the third-year driver matched his father in a stat both impressive and underwhelming.

Elliott, who remains winless, finished second for the eighth time in 86 Cup starts.

Bill Elliott was a runner-up eight times before visiting Victory Lane.

But Chase Elliott, whose result was aided by a series of late-race cautions, was the first to admit it wasn’t a product of the team having turned the corner completely in a mostly disappointing season.

“A very fortunate (set of) circumstances there at the end for us with the way the restarts went and having a short run there at the end, definitely in our favor,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said. “It’s nice to be on the good end of things for the first time in a while. We have to be realistic about how we ran tonight. The result shouldn’t weigh in to how hard we worked this week because we have some work to do.”

Though he started a season-best second in the Toyota Owners 400, Elliott wasn’t a factor in the race’s outcome until he restarted in the top five for two restarts during final 11 laps. He finished seventh in Stage 1.

The second place was his second top five of the season (third at Phoenix) and just the fourth for HMS overall.

The No. 9 Chevrolet pulled off the feat despite not having crew chief Alan Gustafson, who was completing a two-race suspension for an L1 penalty after the Texas race.

In the first race without him, Elliott was involved in a Lap 3 crash at Bristol and finished 29th, 27 laps off the lead.

“I think we’ve been getting better, for sure, over the course of the past handful of weeks,” Elliott said. “I thought last week was really probably our best effort as a company. Obviously we crashed at the beginning. I felt like our car was solid throughout the whole weekend. Obviously, our teammates ran well.”

But Elliott said the team needs to be “realistic” about how the first night race of the season went.

“I think anybody amongst our team would say the same thing,” he said.  “I’m not knocking anyone, anybody on my team or whoever, but we all know we need to do better.”

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Points after Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway

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With his third consecutive win this season, Kyle Busch padded his points lead over Joey Logano with a victory in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. He now has a 56-point lead and 17 playoff points.

Logano won both stages of the 400-lap affair, his first stage wins of the season.

Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick finished third and fourth, respectively.

Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-five.

Earning 39 points for his second-place finish, Chase Elliott is 25 points behind 16th and a playoff berth in the standings.

Click here for full results.