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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 dedicate 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.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Scan All, Xfinity, Truck championship recaps

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to recap the end of the NASCAR season.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman in Stamford, Connecticut. Dale Jarrett, Steve Letarte and Kyle Petty join them from NBC Charlotte.

What to expect from today’s show:

  • Martin Truex Jr. capped off a dream season, earning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship with a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. We’ll take a listen back on all the action between the drivers, crew chiefs and spotters with “Scan All: Miami.”
  • This past weekend two other NASCAR titles were decided. Christopher Bell won the Camping World Truck Series title, while William Byron captured the 2017 Xfinity Series title. We’ll discuss the rapid surge of Byron as he prepares for his transition to the Cup Series next year.
  • Furniture Row Racing had a season filled with triumphs and heartache but it ended in celebration, as they won the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Martin Truex Jr. dominated all season long while he and his team overcame obstacles on and off the track. Nate Ryan tells their story.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it 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 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Bump & Run: 2017 NASCAR accolades

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Who is your driver of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. While Martin Truex Jr. had the best season, I’m just amazed at what Byron has done with such little experience. Yes, he’s been in top equipment but he’s still had to wheel the car. What Byron already has done makes me wonder just what is to come.

Jerry Bonkowski: Martin Truex Jr. No other driver came close. One of best feel-good stories in NASCAR since Alan Kulwicki won the Cup championship in 1992.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.. Eight wins, his first Cup title and too many career-best stats to list in the most memorable driver campaign over a full season in recent years.

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr. His 2017 ranks with Jimmie Johnson‘s 2007 as the best season of the 21st century in the Cup Series. From start to finish, it’s the best since Jeff Gordon‘s 1998 masterpiece.

 

Who is your rookie of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. See previous answer.

Jerry Bonkowski: William Byron. Has made it look easy thus far in his career. Now comes the real test with his promotion next season to Cup racing and Hendrick Motorsports.

Daniel McFadin: William Byron. Won the Xfinity title with four wins, the most among series regulars and once again proved how quickly he can adept to a new level of racing.

Nate Ryan: William Byron. Shows signs of being the most adaptive and talented driver of his generation. When Kyle Busch is praising your “race craft” at the tender age of 19, you are special.

 

Who is your crew chief of the year?

Dustin Long: Cole Pearn. Was strong throughout the season and finished it with a split-second pit call that put Martin Truex Jr. in position to win the championship and close out a fantastic season.

Jerry Bonkowski: Cole Pearn. Overcame adversity several times, kept his cool most of the time, planned strategy methodically and if he or team made a mistake, admitted it and moved on. I truly believe he and Martin Truex Jr. have another one or two more championships in them. 

Daniel McFadin: Cole Pearn. In the first year of the stage format, he figured it out quicker than anyone and schooled the field all season long with Martin Truex Jr.

Nate Ryan: Cole Pearn. For his mastery of stages alone, he earned this crown. But for many other reasons — from his low-key and unthreatening affability that allows him to work seamlessly with Joe Gibbs Racing with a disarming ease … to his disdain for hierarchy that grants his co-workers empowering autonomy that other crew chiefs refuse to cede … to his simple choice of T-shirt over firesuit (“I don’t plan on getting on fire.”) as anti-establishment crew chief attire — he is changing the paradigm of being a team leader in NASCAR.

 

After seeing this playoff format for the first time, is there anything with it or related to it you’d consider changing for next year? Why?

Dustin Long: I’m fine with how it went. Let’s be careful of changing things for change’s sake.

Jerry Bonkowski: While I like the stages format, I feel that each race should be broken down into three stages of equal length. In other words, if it’s a 267-lap race, it should be divided equally to where each stage is 89 laps. Also, I’d like to see lap counting stop after each of the first two stages and resume on the ensuing restart, unlike what we see now where the second and final stages oftentimes log six or seven laps under caution before a restart for the next stage. 

Daniel McFadin: I like this format immensely after just one season. The only change I would like to see is making sure caution laps after stage conclusions don’t count. Starting a stage with four to five laps already ticked off takes away from the fan experience and gives less race for drivers and teams to work with.

Nate Ryan: A minor quibble: The “format” for selecting a champion didn’t change, just the manner in which points were accrued to determine one. That said, the addition of playoff points and stages worked well, producing the most worthy field of championship contenders yet and a deserving champion whose bona fides were tested as much or more than any other since NASCAR switched to a playoff-style structure in 2004.

Virginia’s Motor Mile Speedway to end short track racing, drops NASCAR sanction

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Motor Mile Speedway has decided to not renew its NASCAR sanction for 2018, ending its reign as a circle track.

The .416-mile paved oval track in Fairlawn, Virginia, will undergo a significant transformation starting next year which does not include short track racing. A NASCAR Home Track, it has hosted the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for a number of years and hosted a number of then-Busch Series races nearly 30 years ago.

While it may return to host some select racing events in the future, track officials in a news release announced it will soon host “a variety of entertainment and sporting events.”

“We have tried to make the speedway successful, but with a downturn in interest, it’s increasingly difficult to make it work,” Speedway co-owner David Hagan said in a media release. “We are looking at a variety of events to bring new life and excitement to the property.

“The schedule could include everything from concerts, mud runs, festivals, camping, and even new racing events at some point.  You name it and it’s probably come up at our table.”

Located about an hour southwest of Roanoke, Virginia, the speedway sits on a 170-acre parcel of land. While the speedway will cease holding races, it’s adjacent drag strip will continue to operate for sportsman racing.

Click here for the full media release from the speedway.

NASCAR issues three lug nut penalties in final penalty report of season

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NASCAR has issued three penalties to crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts following the championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on the No. 20 Toyota driven by Matt Kenseth, has been fined $20,000 and suspended one Cup points race for two unsecured lug nuts.

Ratcliff will be moving to the Xfinity Series to serve as Christopher Bell’s crew chief next season. The suspension is series specific. So he will be available to crew chief Bell in the season-opening race at Daytona.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief on Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Camping World Truck Series, Phil Gould, crew chief on Ryan Truex‘s No. 16 Toyota, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.