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Ryan: Are Cup teams still working through the stages of calling a race?

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Nearly a full season into baking stage points into their strategies, have teams in NASCAR’s premier series fully grasped the concept of races with segments?

That was a worthy question at the end of Sunday’s second stage at Talladega Superspeedway.

The segment ended with none of the playoff contenders choosing to stop and avoid pitting during the caution before the final stage.

Brendan Gaughan’s team took the lead under that yellow before the restart for the last stage because his team did pit with three laps remaining in the second stage (the last lap before the pits were closed).

Why didn’t other teams join Gaughan’s, particularly those outside the top 10 that wouldn’t earn stage points and seemingly had no incentive for staying in position on track?

It seems a bit of a mystery.

Per their radio chatter (that was played during the NBC broadcast), Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team considered pitting but decided against it because of concerns about lacking a drafting partner – which seemed curious given there would have been only a lap and a half under green on a 2.66-mile oval whose size makes it virtually impossible to be lapped in that time.

Perhaps there were concerns about how the race’s second half would unfold without more cars on precisely the same strategy – but Gaughan still pitted with a pack of cars under green on his final stop (and still finished 19th after being caught in the 17-car crash on Lap 172).

In a 500-mile race that featured seven crashes, each involving at least four cars (and many in the middle of the pack), it would seem natural to want to stay ahead of the mayhem – yet about two dozen cars passed on that opportunity at Talladega.

Were they in a stage of denial? Or was it merely tactical inexperience?

Scenarios such as Sunday’s, coupled with Martin Truex Jr.’s runaway lead in stage victories and playoff points, make it intriguing to monitor next season if there will be a revamping in the approach to calling a race – or a restructuring in how those decisions are determined atop the pit box.

Maybe stages necessitate dedicated strategists similar to the roles that are found in IndyCar.

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Aesthetically, Talladega didn’t have much to offer with only 14 cars running at the finish and three red flags that consumed more than 30 minutes and ensured well more than four hours elapsed between the green and checkered flag.

But there was something the race didn’t have: airborne cars.

Thus a race that did feature a last-lap lead change (by the best restrictor-plate driver in Cup) largely escaped an avalanche of the criticism that followed the May 1, 2016 event that included three cars flying off the Talladega asphalt. In fact, it was viewed in at least one fan corner as one of the best 2017 had to offer.

What determines a good race is always arbitrary, but at Talladega, the predictability of the races (large wrecks, tight packs, myriad lead changes) seems to lessen the degree of subjectivity – particularly when one of the track’s largest crowds in years gleefully has a feel-good story to cheer.

Favorite son Dale Earnhardt Jr. led his final start there and avoided the wrecks that wiped out most of the field but didn’t lift anyone’s wheels off the ground.

At Talladega, that’s enough to look good … even with a garage full of cars that looked ugly.

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While the three red flags (all in the final 15 laps) drew much of the attention, it was the caution flags at Talladega that were a real cause for concern.

A 10-lap caution for a five-car crash on Lap 26 was the longest yellow flag in 15 years at Talladega. The last time a caution took so long was for a 24-car pileup that required an 11-lap cleanup in the April 21, 2002 race.

The length of Sunday’s first caution was necessitated by a tracklong oil slick left by the No. 77 Toyota of Erik Jones (who was chastised by NASCAR for staying in the groove instead of pulling down on the apron while returning to the pits). There also was a six-lap caution to clear backstretch debris – twice as long as the yellow to clear a six-car wreck on Lap 156.

It reinforced a seasonlong theme of dawdling yellows that dates to Speedweeks. NASCAR chief racing development officer and senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said the efficiency of track cleanup was a major priority after a spate of lengthy yellow and red flags to remove debris and oil at Daytona International Speedway.

The banking at Daytona and Talladega make it more difficult to apply the SpeedyDry that absorbs the oil, but it would seem the process also could be improved to shorten the time for yellows. Just as it did with track drying (and the introduction of the Air Titan system), NASCAR needs to rethink its methods of track cleanup and update some antiquated techniques.

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Tony Gibson is the guest on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast, discussing his future as a crew chief and his past with the championship teams of Alan Kulwicki and Jeff Gordon.

The crew chief for Kurt Busch had a memorable story from the Rainbow Warriors days before a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when the team pushed the No. 24 Chevrolet on the grid – to immense negativity from the crowd.

“They were booing, calling us cheaters and everything in the book,” said Gibson, who was the car chief on the team. “We’re standing around the car, and Jeff’s like, ‘Look up in those grandstands.’ And people had these big white T-shirts with a 24 and a circle and line through them. He said, ‘You see all those T-shirts up there? Those people don’t realize it, but I own the company that made those shirts.’

“We just thought that was the funniest thing.”

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.

90-year-old Hershel McGriff to compete in K&N Pro Series West race in Tucson

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Hershel McGriff has won 37 times in the K&N Pro Series West, and he’s getting a shot at one more win at the age of 90.

McGriff will drive for Bill McAnally Racing in the May 5 race at Tucson Speedway.

His first start in the series came in 1954 when he was 26. That year he also won his only four Cup races in 87 career starts.

McGriff will drive the No. 04 South Point Hotel & Casino Toyota Camry.

“Who would turn down a free ride in a K&N car built by Bill McAnally Racing?” McGriff said in a press release.

“Bill said to pick out a track anywhere on the West Coast that has a K&N race and that’s where we’ll race. Tucson’s my home. So, we decided on Tucson, although I haven’t run here that much. It’s going to be fun. I hope I do well, for his sake. I think I can.”

McGriff, born in 1927 when Calvin Coolidge was President of the United States, was chosen as one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers in 1998. He holds the mark as the oldest winner in the K&N West series. His last victory came in 1989 at 61.

A NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee, McGriff’s first NASCAR start came in the first Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 1950. He drove his car cross-country from his home in Portland, Oregon, finished ninth, and drove back to Portland.

McGriff last competed full-time in the K&N West series in 2001 when he drove for McAnally.

“I was extremely privileged to be associated with one of the 50 greatest drivers in NASCAR when Hershel drove for us in 2001,” McAnally said in a press release. “It’s great to have him back, as he returns to the series for this event.

May 5 will be a busy night at the track for the McGriff family. His granddaughter, Mariah McGriff, will compete in a Super Late Model division race and Hershel McGriff Jr. will compete in an Outlaw Late Model race.

Gaunt Brothers Racing raises $12,000 in auction for Humboldt Broncos hood

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Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Wednesday it raised $12,000 in an auction for the hood off DJ Kennington’s No. 96 Toyota in last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway

Kennington’s hood featured the logo for the Humboldt Broncos.

The hood honors the 16 people who lost their lives and the 13 who were injured on April 6 when a bus carrying members of the junior-A Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team was struck by a semi-trailer as the team was on its way to a playoff game in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, Canada.

The money will be donated to the Humboldt Broncos charity. The winning bid was placed by Kennington’s sponsor, Castrol.

Kennington, who finished 27th in Food City 500, is a native of St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada.

The hood was signed by every member of the No. 96 team.

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Richmond in last three years

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As NASCAR nears the end of its spring short track season, it heads to a course that is often transitional with elements of unrestricted, intermediate speedways tossed in for good measure. Two of the last three races have been run on tracks less than a mile in length, and while they are all very dissimilar in handling characteristics for the drivers, they share at least one important commonality.

Cars are constantly in traffic and a mistake by a driver not in contention for the win can take out the leader – just as it did Ryan Blaney last week at Bristol Motor Speedway. The unpredictable nature of short track racing is part of what makes it a fan favorite, but it can be a challenge to those responsible for handicapping the events.

Last year, only four drivers swept the top 10 in Richmond’s two races. By comparison, the Bristol Motor Speedway bullring had three drivers who swept a track that typically requires rhythm to navigate well. When erratic results creep into the statistics, it pays to take a longer look and three-year averages are one of the most meaningful ways to eliminate peaks and valleys.

Players who have not already joined the NASCAR America Fantasy league can still do so at nascar.com/nbcsportsfantasy, and then share your team using #NASCARAmericaFantasy.

1. Joey Logano (4.83)
Last year’s Toyota Owners 400 was pivotal for Logano. His victory was deemed encumbered by NASCAR and Logano was not allowed to use it to qualify for the playoffs. He finished second in the fall Richmond event , however, and this could be the week he returns to Victory Lane.

2. Denny Hamlin (7.17)
Hamlin finished 22nd in the spring 2015 Richmond race, but he has been an incredibly good value ever since. He finished sixth in the next two races, won the fall 2016 Federated Auto Parts 400 and swept the top five last year.

3. Jimmie Johnson (7.50)
Last week was the first real sign that Johnson’s season is turning around. He came from the back of the grid after making an unapproved tire change, but once he got to the leaders, he looked like the Johnson that once dominated races. It might be time to trust him again.

4. Kyle Busch (7.60 in five starts)
Busch has not scored a top-five at Richmond in three races, but his back-to-back runner-up finishes in fall 2015 and spring 2016 give him a great average. The fact that he enters the Toyota Owners 400 with back-to-back wins and a six-race streak of top-three finishes this year certainly improves his odds.

5. Kurt Busch (7.67)
Busch ticks off both boxes that fantasy players are most concerned with. He has been consistent and strong at Richmond with six top 10s in his last seven races and a win in spring 2015. Last fall, he added another top five to his Richmond record.

5. Kevin Harvick (7.67)
Harvick has been an all or nothing driver at Richmond in recent years with five top fives compared to two results outside the top 10. His most recent of three wins came in spring 2013.

7. Brad Keselowski (8.83)
Expanding the parameters a little for Keselowski reveals he has a Richmond victory in 2014 along with three other top fives in his last eight starts. He has finished worse than 11th only once in that span and makes a great utility fantasy pick this week.

8. Kyle Larson (9.33)
In four years at Richmond, Larson has been consistently better in the fall with a second-place finish in 2016 and his victory last year. He has not yet cracked the top 10 in the spring race, but could fare better now that it is going to be run under the lights.

9. Daniel Suarez (9.50 in two starts)
Now that he has survived 500 laps at Bristol, Suarez knows that his thumb will not be a problem and is prepared to earn a third top 15 in three starts there.

10. Jamie McMurray (10.00)
The one word that always comes to mind with McMurray is consistency. At Richmond, he has not finished worse than 16th in his last nine attempts there. His bad luck from 2018 has to dissipate soon and there is really no telling when or where that will happen.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Matt Kenseth swept the pole last year at Richmond and the new driver of the No. 20 is no stranger to speed. Erik Jones’ first career pole came on the short track of Bristol last August, so he knows how to get around short tracks.

Segment Winners: Play the odds this week. Harvick has the most segment wins in 2018 (four), while Keselowski has earned the most segment points (100). Kyle Busch is no slouch either with 98 segment points and two wins. Whichever of these three qualify best should be the segment one pick; toss a coin for segment two.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Timothy Peters set for Cup debut at Talladega with Ricky Benton Racing

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It’s never too late to be a rookie.

Timothy Peters, 37, will make his Cup debut next weekend in the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Peters will race with rookie stripes in the No. 92 Ford owned by Ricky Benton Racing. It will be the second Cup race for the team after the Daytona 500 in February. David Gilliland finished 14th in the race.

Peters will be sponsored by Advance Auto Parts.
“This is just a dream come true for me,” said Peters in a press release. “I am humbled and so appreciative for the opportunity that Ricky, Advance Auto Parts , the entire Black’s Tire family, BB&T and Highland Construction have given me to make my first Cup start.”
Peters has eight starts and two wins at Talladega in the Camping World Truck Series.

Before this year, both Peters’ and Benton’s NASCAR fortunes were mostly confined to the Truck Series.

Peters has 239 starts and 10 wins in the series since 2005. He also has eight starts in the Xfinity Series. Peters has been without a full-time ride since Red Horse Racing shut down after five races in 2017.

Benton has fielded the No. 92 in 80 Truck races since 2010.

The two teamed up for the March Truck race at Martinsville Speedway. Peters, who won at the track in 2009, started 16th and finished seventh. It was the 12th top 10 for the team.

“Timothy is an incredibly talented driver and proved to be a great fit with our guys at Martinsville,” Benton said in a press release. “He and (crew chief) Mike (Hester) worked great together, communicated well and made some great adjustments as that race progressed.
“I have no doubt that it will carry over to Talladega in the Cup car.”