Ryan: Why it’s good that NASCAR can’t stop talking about Martinsville

1 Comment

The contact lasted for a few seconds, and the conversation lasted for days.

There is no greater validation of Sunday’s game-changing wreck at Martinsville Speedway than the nonstop voices still chattering about the etiquette and implications of Denny Hamlin forcefully moving Chase Elliott from the lead with two laps remaining from the scheduled finish.

On Thursday morning, the lines of SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s NASCAR channel remained jammed with fans wanting to voice their opinions about the season’s most memorable crash.

In a season constantly sidetracked by inane arguments over encumbered penalties and sometimes inexplicable officiating, this is what made Martinsville the best race of the 2017 season.

Yes, the racing was excellent, but its resonance was even better.

It rekindled the low-frequency rumblings of schedule changes built on more short tracks in a shorter season (or at least a more compact one with midweek races). That’s a testament to the highly watchable ovals that are conducive to full-contact action in tight quarters (as Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted in his postrace Periscope).

But it also seemed an acknowledgment that short-track feuds are just a preferable narrative, too. If the discussion always revolves around what’s happening on track, it sucks oxygen from the arcane weekly talking points that keep the focus on the most banal of topics.

Are the LIS platforms working properly? What is the rule for being below the white line on a restart? Is it better to have two- or three-day race weekends?

The minutiae of those exhausting debates seemed to have a residual and subliminal effect on how some fans processed the last 30 laps at Martinsville.

Presented with the most scintillating stretch of racing this season, social media and SiriusXM was filled with some who insisted it could have been improved if only there were more officiating and less racing for the win.

Or something.

If that would have happened at a short track, Hamlin would have been sent to the rear!

Yes, perhaps that’s how it would be handled on a Saturday night feature race. But this is the big leagues, a ticket was at stake to race for the country’s biggest championship, and officiating isn’t why 10,000 people regularly fill Bowman-Gray Stadium to watch its legendary Modifieds.

It’s because of indelible moments such as those Sunday at Martinsville, where the grandstand pandemonium afterward reminded Earnhardt of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“We had a lot more short tracks on the schedule back then, and it seemed like we were going to places like that all the time and seeing action like that on the regular,” he said Friday. “It had been so long since I have gotten out of a race car and heard the crowd go through so many different emotions for 20 to 30 minutes after a race. It was just incredible to be a witness to that and to feel that energy of the crowd so plugged into what was happening around the race track.

“It was really a magical moment, I thought, for anybody that likes racing.  It was really cool.”

It’s why people still were talking about it four days later.

A few other stray observations:

Regrets, he had a few: Hamlin issued an apology to Elliott in the immediate aftermath and since has said he was “too aggressive” in how he attempted to take the lead.

So what might he have done differently?

Well, if technique had to be evaluated, he might have waited until the middle or the exit of turn 4 to apply the pressure. The chances were much higher of spinning Elliott by bumping him on corner entry (particularly given the No. 24 Chevrolet barely had gotten back on line after an out-of-shape lap from slamming past the No. 2 Ford of Brad Keselowski into the lead).

But it also wasn’t that simple: Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota was much better on longer runs, so waiting probably wasn’t a luxury he had. If he hadn’t made the move then, there were only nine scheduled corners left in the race.

Facing those circumstances, most drivers are tossing away their scalpels in favor of a hammer and tongs to secure a victory.

Also worth considering is that Elliott entered the Round of 8 as the lowest ranked in points. If he wins, it’s the worst-case scenario for any other title eligible drivers besides Martin Truex Jr. because it makes the pathway forward on points much more difficult than if Truex won (or in this case, Kyle Busch, who might have been the next-best scenario even though Hamlin seemed miffed at getting bumped from the lead by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate).

–Role reversal: It isn’t just the myriad near-misses at a breakthrough victory for Elliott that have caused frustration, it’s the way they’ve transpired. Frequently, it has seemed (especially in restarts at Michigan or the closing laps at Dover) that Elliott has lacked the assertiveness.

That might have been why Martinsville seemed to galvanize his burgeoning fan base so much. Many times during the race, Elliott didn’t back down from protecting his turf on restarts, and the power move he put on Keselowski also was commendable for its gumption.

The classy way in which he handled his dispute with Hamlin — standing his ground without swinging fists – also had to reinforce the perception that Elliott isn’t as deferential as his self-flagellating demeanor can make him seem.

XXX

With a 12th at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson never seemed as ordinary at a track where he has nine wins, most among active drivers and tied with Jeff Gordon for third all-time behind Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11).

What drove it home even more was the performance of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Elliott, who consistently has outraced Johnson throughout the playoffs. Before Martinsville (where he led a race-high 123 laps before the crash left him 27th), Elliott finished ahead of Johnson in the first six races with an average finish of 9.1 and 341 laps led vs. Johnson’s 11.3 average finish and 29 laps led.

Could the seven-time series champion’s No. 48 team glean anything from the No. 24?

“With (crew chiefs) Alan (Gustafson) and Chad (Knaus), they do have different philosophies in how they build a car,” Johnson said Friday. “We can look at different things and say directionally this is what they are trying to achieve and implement that into our cars, but they are not the same. It is really difficult to build cars the same and especially in the different shops like what we have, but it does give us great optimism knowing that our equipment can go that fast.

“We just haven’t figured out our mousetrap like we need to. They have been the mark, I think, for us to look at and say ‘All right, our Hendrick Motorsports equipment can at least do that,’ and we need to get there.”

XXX

It was largely overlooked by his surprise elimination at Kansas, but Kyle Larson’s performance at Martinsville again showed why the track remains a stumbling block to the Chip Ganassi Racing driver becoming a versatile all-around champion.

The 37th was his second-worst finish at the 0.526-mile oval but wasn’t an anomaly. In eight starts, he has only one top 10 and only four top 20s at Martinsville.

His chances will be strong whenever he reaches the championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but Larson will need to shore up his results at Martinsville if he wants to avoid being in must-win situations at Texas or Phoenix in the future.

XXX

When was the last time a crowd reacted as raucously to late-race contact that determined the outcome of a Cup race?

The default answer after Sunday was the Aug. 28, 1999 Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway when a chorus of boos greeted Dale Earnhardt’s celebration in victory lane after he turned Terry Labonte for a victory.

But the postrace scene at Martinsville had echoes of the Aug. 23, 2008 race at Bristol, which Carl Edwards won by bumping aside Kyle Busch with 31 laps remaining.

Just as Sunday at Martinsville, the track’s video boards focused on the postrace interviews in the aftermath, and the reaction was similar as a crowd of about 150,000 vacillated between cheers (Edwards) and jeers (Busch) as the cameras toggled between the winner and runner-up.

Considering how much it enhanced the emotions and intensity each time (and let’s hope it happens more frequently than every nine years), tracks should be encouraged to treat postrace fireworks with as much entertainment value as the event preceding it.

XXX

Outside of the weight discrepancy for third-place finisher Clint Bowyer at Martinsville and the aerodynamic modification for Elliott at Chicagoland, there haven’t been any major postrace inspection penalties during the playoffs – notably none relating to rear-end suspension violations that were a theme of the season.

When Hamlin’s winning Southern 500 car was found out of tolerance after the last speedway race of the season, there was split conventional wisdom about whether it was the first of many penalties to come or the last test of the limits by a championship contender before the playoffs.

While there still are two 1.5-mile races to get through starting with Sunday at Texas, the indications are it seems to have been the latter.

XXX

Hendrick Motorsports director of vehicle engineering Diane Holl, whose career has stretched from Formula One to IndyCar to NASCAR, was the guest on the most recent NASCAR on NBC podcast.

Holl, who worked for Ferrari, Benetton and McLaren in F1 and Tasman Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar, has worked in NASCAR for nearly a decade, starting at Michael Waltrip Racing before joining Hendrick nearly two years ago.

“I think there’s a very fine line between cost, development and theater,” the Guildford, England, native said. “When we used to go to Japan for the IndyCar race, I had ‘entertainer’ on my visa. That’s where engineers get engrossed in, ‘I want the best part,’ but in reality, it’s the entertainment on a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon that is going to make this championship, this series continue and the fans who support it. NASCAR has to protect that.”

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 or visiting the www.ApplePodcasts.com/nascaronnbc landing page.

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.

Truck results, points following Atlanta race

Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Brett Moffitt earned his second career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win when he took the lead on a restart in overtime Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Click here for race results

Daytona winner Johnny Sauter finished third and leads the points heading into next week’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Sauter has a 31-point lead on Matt Crafton. Grant Enfinger is next, 33 points behind Sauter.

Click here for points report

Brett Moffitt takes advantage of Kyle Busch’s woes to win Atlanta Truck race

Getty Images
1 Comment

Brett Moffitt went from third to first on the restart in overtime and powered his way to his second career Camping World Truck Series win Saturday.

Moffitt’s victory marked the first for Hattori Racing Enterprises, which made its debut in 2013. Noah Gragson placed second and Daytona winner Johnny Sauter was third at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

MORE: Race results, points report

A late caution for an incident involving Josh Reaume and Dalton Sargeant set in stage a series of events that cost Kyle Busch a chance to become the second driver in series history with 50 wins.

Busch led a parade down pit road for fresh tires. Busch’s team planned to take four tires but problems on the right front led to the team telling Busch to pull out of his pit stall after the right front was secured. Only problem was that the lug nuts on the left rear were removed. Busch didn’t get too far beyond pit exit before his left rear tire rolled off. Busch finished 21st.

Stage 1 winner: Noah Gragson

Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch

How Brett Moffitt won: He restarted third in overtime behind Myatt Snider, who had taken only two tires. Moffitt had four. Snider had no chance. Moffitt got around Snider cleanly and surged to the lead.

Who else had a good day: Daytona winner Johnny Sauter finished third to give him back-to-back top-five finishes to open the season. Sauter has finished no worse than third in each of the last six Truck races, dating back to last year. … Noah Gragson bounced back from a 23rd-place finish at Daytona to place second at Atlanta.

Who had a bad day: Justin Haley had a flat right rear tire nine laps before the end of the first stage. He lost two laps on the green-flag stop. Haley never made it back on the lead lap and finished 22nd. … The audible by Kyle Busch’s team on a slow pit stop before overtime proved disastrous. Busch took off as told after both ride-side tires were changed but the lug nuts on the left rear were removed. The left rear came off shortly after Busch exited pit road.

Notable: Jesse Little finished a career-high eighth. His previous best in 13 previous series starts was ninth.

Quote of the day: “This is unbelievable to be in a race car at this point, let alone in Victory Lane,’’ said winner Brett Moffitt, whose deal with the team came shortly before the season started.

Next: Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Xfinity race results, point standings following Atlanta

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kevin Harvick won the Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway to snap a 22-race winless streak in the Xfinity Series.

Harvick led 141 laps and swept both stages.

He beat Joey Logano, Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek and Elliott Sadler.

Click here for race results.

Elliott Sadler leads the points standings after two races. He’s the only driver to start the year with two top-five finishes.

Sadler has a four-point lead over JR Motorsports teammate Tyler Reddick.

Completing the top five are Ryan Reed (-14), Ryan Truex (-21) and Spencer Gallagher (-22).

Click here for the point standings

Kevin Harvick wins Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Getty Images
1 Comment

Kevin Harvick dominated to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, earning his fifth series win at the track.

Driving the No. 98 Ford for Biagi DenBeste Racing, Harvick led 141 laps and won both stages of the 163-lap race after starting fifth.

Harvick led Joey Logano, Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek and Elliott Sadler.

The win is Harvick’s 47th in the Xfinity Series and his 98th overall in NASCAR’s three national series. It snaps a 22-race winless streak for Harvick in the Xfinity Series.

“It’s just been a really good place for me, obviously getting my first Cup win here (in 2001) and being able to run good cars throughout the years,” Harvick told FS1. “The race track has stayed very similar to what’s it been for a number of years. I think if you look at the techniques and things that I do in the car and they give me what I want in the car as far as the field, it applies here.”

Nemechek’s top five comes in his first career Xfinity Series start driving the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Chase Briscoe, also making his first Xfinity start, finished 15th in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 60 Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kevin Harvick won after zooming from 10th to first in a one-lap shootout after pitting for four tires.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kevin Harvick

MORE: Race results and point standings

WHO HAG A GOOD DAY: Joey Logano earned his third straight runner-up finish at Atlanta in Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford … Elliott Sadler is the only driver to have top-five finishes in the first two races of the year … Ryan Truex (ninth) and Ryan Reed (10th) earned their second straight top-10 finishes to begin the year.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Cole Custer wrecked out on Lap 11 when contact with a swerving John Hunter Nemechek sent his No. 00 Ford into the outside wall before the start-finish line. He finished 39th. … Kaz Grala finished 23rd after he lost power because of a battery problem during the Stage 2 break … Ty Dillon finished 13th, one lap down after receiving a pit penalty for his crew going over the wall too soon with 35 laps to go … Daytona winner Tyler Reddick finished 19th, two laps down after losing his right-rear tire with 25 laps to go.

NOTABLE: Harvick, 42, is the second-oldest driver to win at Atlanta in the Xfinity Series (Harry Gant, 54). … Harvick is the 14th different winner in the last 15 Xfinity races.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Kevin’s just really good at it. Doesn’t matter what car he’s driving or what. He’s really good at Atlanta, and apparently we’re second best to that.”- Joey Logano to FS1 after finishing second.

WHAT’S NEXT: Boyd Gaming 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 4 p.m. ET on March 3 on FS1.