Jeff Gordon

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Sonoma

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway.

Nate Ryan

Kyle Busch. With Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart gone, Busch can lay claim to solidifying his claim as the greatest active road-course driver in NASCAR’s premier series. A win Sunday would be his fifth in Cup.

Dustin Long

Jamie McMurray. Chip Ganassi Racing collects another win after Kyle Larson‘s victory last weekend at Michigan.

Daniel McFadin

Jamie McMurray upstages his teammate, Kyle Larson, for his first Cup win since 2013. Dark horse: Danica Patrick.

Jerry Bonkowski

Kyle Larson. The points leader is at his home track in front of family and friends, going for a second straight win and third of the season. He’s the hottest driver going — and continues on Sunday. 

Ryan: How did debris yellows get a green flag? Tracking trash over the past 16 years

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Debris or not debris?

The question plaguing NASCAR after Tony Stewart’s accusation of heavy-handed officiating teetering on race orchestration is a tangled mess to navigate, breaching the lines of credibility, entertainment and safety.

There is a clear line of demarcation indicating when the debris caution trend began, however.

Research by NBCSports.com of every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race report since 1990 (the first season in which caution reasons were listed for every race on Racing-Reference.info) shows the 2001 season is when yellow flags for unsafe track conditions became standard practice in race officiating.

Since the 2001 Daytona 500, which marked the first race in a new era of national TV contracts and the most recent race in which a driver was killed in NASCAR’s premier series, NASCAR has averaged nearly 63 debris yellows per season, reaching a high of 85 in 2005.

Compare that to the 11-season stretch from 1990-2000, which produced an average of 15 debris cautions per season with a high of 20 in 1994 and a low of 11 in 1999.

That means there have been more than four times the number of debris cautions annually in 21st century NASCAR over the previous century’s final decade.

There haven’t been fewer than 40 debris yellows in a season since 2001 when there were 27 in the 35 races after Dale Earnhardt became the fourth prominent NASCAR driver to die of a skull fracture in 10 months. That helped spur a raft of safety advancements that included SAFER barriers, mandatory HANS device usage and enhanced driver cocoons with carbon-fiber seats and energy-absorbing foam.

But mostly overlooked is that NASCAR also took the liberty of being more aggressive in pausing races to clear the track of perceived hazards.

Where once only debris as blatant as a brake rotor lying in the groove might have necessitated a caution, the standards have expanded to include water bottles, balloons and garbage bags – with officials adamantly defending their decisions by noting they always would err on the side of safety.

It hasn’t quelled accusations from drivers – both publicly and privately – about the capriciousness of debris yellows and whether there’s an ulterior motive to keep the racing tight by re-racking the field for a double-file restart. The final yellow was thrown for debris in five of 13 season finales at Homestead-Miami Speedway (and two of the past three) since the advent of the playoffs.

Stewart’s Twitter outburst Sunday isn’t the first time the three-time champion has assailed NASCAR for debris yellows – in a noted April 2007 rant, he compared the officiating with pro wrestling and said officials were “playing God” – but the timing is notably different.

A decade ago, Stewart was angry after a Phoenix race with four debris cautions, which came on the heels of the only consecutive seasons with 80-plus yellows for debris.

Yet in 2017, NASCAR is on pace for possibly its lowest debris caution total since before Earnhardt’s death.

Through 15 races there have been 12 debris yellows – the lowest number to start a season in 14 years.

Subtract Texas Motor Speedway (which holds the all-time track trash record of seven debris cautions in the November 2014 race and is the annual leader with an average of 2.5 over the past 29 races), and there have been eight debris yellows in 2017, which is on par with the average of 7.8 over the first 15 races in the 1990-2000 seasons. The 2016 season also marked a six-year low for debris yellows with 51.

So is Stewart’s ire still justified in light of these declines?

Yes, because debris cautions should be on the wane regardless.

The debut of stage racing in ’17 has guaranteed at least two caution periods per race (and perhaps more next season) that ostensibly are to award points to the top 10 but also could be used to clear the track. Those yellows essentially produce the same outcome as a debris caution – a pause in the action (not because a car was damaged) followed by a restart.

It’s reasonable for drivers and teams to expect NASCAR to be more inclined to let a race naturally unfold with two predetermined breaks that allow for track maintenance. With the addition of a 5-minute clock on repairing damage, it also is logical there should be fewer wounded cars littering the track with jagged sheet metal or busted parts.

As noted by Steve Letarte and Parker Kligerman in a NASCAR America discussion Monday, it also is valid to ask whether NASCAR is using the most optimized technology to locate and classify debris on track. If transparency would help defuse the implication (by Stewart and others) that officials are tampering with a race’s rhythm to produce more scintillating action, NASCAR should consider releasing detailed explanations of the debris, possibly with visual evidence.

But the easiest way to end the controversy over debris yellows simply is by reducing them – and living with consequences that might be negligible anyway. Managing risk makes sense, but it also is a tricky line to walk with auto racing’s inherent danger.

How many times have drivers or fans been injured over the past 16 years by a piece of debris being hit – or in the 52 prior years when cautions to clean the track were much more infrequent?

Applying consistent criteria is difficult because debris cautions always will remain a judgment call – but there is opportunity to use greater discretion in keeping the yellow flag holstered unless incontrovertible evidence exists of a lurking danger, particularly late in the race.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: How do you strike the most judicious balance between upholding the sanctity of races while ensuring the safety of drivers?

That is the question.

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After being critical of Kyle Larson’s inability to close out races on restarts earlier this season here, kudos to the Chip Ganassi Racing driver for pulling it off from the nonpreferrred line at Michigan International Speedway.

The ineffectiveness of the bottom lane on the 2-mile oval Sunday did illustrate an unintended consequence of track treatment in the current era of VHT and tire-dragging machines to improve traction. It seems all of the work on the Michigan surface might have made the outside line too good Sunday.

That bears remembering as tracks continue to be proactive with trying to facilitate passing.

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Nothing says peaceful like a relaxing weekend of wine tasting in the picturesque solace of Napa Valley – but in NASCAR, this is usually the time of the year when the chatter over contracts gets cranked up.

Silly Season has hit a fever pitch before in Sonoma, where a more limited schedule of track activity, along with increased access and time for a bottle of Cab, seems conducive to setting tongues to wagging.

In 2008, word began to leak that Mark Martin was headed to Hendrick Motorsports to replace Casey Mears. Five years ago, news began to spread on race day about Matt Kenseth’s impending departure from Roush Fenway Racing (which broke a few days later).

There are no imminent signs of wildfire breaking this week, but there are enough possibilities (and beat reporters Jenna Fryer and Bob Pockrass floated a few more this week) to watch the kindling while the vino flows around the bonfires this weekend.

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Jeff Gordon (a record nine road-course victories) and Tony Stewart (seven) have retired. Marcos Ambrose (two-time winner at the Glen) and Carl Edwards (Sonoma 2014 winner) are gone.

Who are the Cup road course experts now?

AJ Allmendinger would rank high on the list, but it’s hard to look past Joey Logano, who has four straight top fives on road courses (including a 2015 win at Watkins Glen International), Kyle Busch (four road-course wins) and Denny Hamlin, who was a final-turn mistake away from sweeping the road courses in 2016.

The right-turn narrative centered (with good reason) on Gordon and Stewart for so long, it seems odd to put that trio in the conversation for road-course greatness, but their results prove they deserve it.

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If you’re keeping track – and we can’t blame you for having lost count given the preponderance of binkies, diapers and strollers in the motorhome lot over the past decade – the birth of Trevor Bayne’s second child and the impending arrival of Logano’s first will push the number of kids born to active Cup drivers since 2007 to more than 30 by the end of the season.

During the baby boom, 19 drivers have become fathers while racing in Cup. The first in that timeframe was Jeff Gordon, whose daughter, Ella, turned 10 this week.

Nothing to mull(et): Erik Jones seeks to balance fun and work

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As NASCAR transitions to its next generation, today’s younger drivers not only are asked to perform on the track but show personality off it.

TV, Snapchat, podcasts and other forms of social media are viewed by some as intently as lap times. Social media elements have gained importance as fans look for someone to cheer with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart having retired, Dale Earnhardt Jr. doing so at the end of this season and several other popular drivers likely not racing within the next five years.

To help his fans, Earnhardt recently listed 10 drivers they should consider following once he retires.

The youngsters on the list included Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Suarez.

Each has showcased their personality.

Blaney has a podcast and has shared various adventures with Darrell Wallace Jr. on social media

— Dillon is the sports fan who wears the cowboy hat.

— Elliott, while more reserved, is well-known to fans who have followed the sport for years and watched him grow.

— Larson has said he’s the last true racer and lamented the frayed connection between NASCAR and grassroots racing.

— Stenhouse, although known more to some as Danica Patrick’s boyfriend, also has shown his love of sprint car racing and his fun side on social media.

— Suarez’s effusive manner makes it easy to see his personality.

One young driver on Earnhardt’s list who could be a mystery to some is Erik Jones.

Yes, fans have seen him since 2013 — when he won a Truck race at Phoenix at age 17 and became the youngest winner in series history at the time. He won the 2015 Truck title and become the youngest series champion at age 19. He was the rookie of the year last season in the Xfinity Series and vies for that title this year in Cup.

Yes, he’s been around, but who is Erik Jones? That’s a question Earnhardt would like to see Jones reveal.

“Super fast, raw speed — he’s got it,’’ Earnhardt said on his podcast, the Dale Jr. Download. “Great talent … He’s wearing this mullet so he kind of knows how to pick on himself and doesn’t take himself too seriously. I think he has a great personality. I would encourage him to show that more.

“When I’m around him at the race track, you do see a very, very focused, game-face kind of guy. But there is a side of him that’s the complete opposite that I think he could probably show the fans more to give them an opportunity to get to know him. But I think there’s going to be great things for Erik Jones in his future.”

Coming off a career-best third-place finish last weekend at Pocono, Jones is starting to show more of his personality. He recently tweeted a picture of his growing mullet.

“Why did I choose to grow it? I don’t know,’’ Jones said. “That’s a good question. It’s not something that was thought out. It was more spontaneous. I just didn’t feel like getting a hair cut for a long time. I guess I feel like it’s kind of a waste of time. It takes a lot of time for some reason to get your hair cut.’’

A cousin, who cuts hair, was at his recent birthday party. He asked her to cut it into a mullet and she did.

So, he’s trying.

But while Earnhardt would like to see more personality from Jones, the driver admits it’s difficult.

“When I’m with my friends and families, I’m hanging out and having a good time and laughing and joking, but when you get to the race track, I’ve always been pretty focused,’’ he said. “It’s been a little bit hard for me to relax when I’m here because I don’t feel it is a time to relax, but a time to get to work. I think there’s a time and place for it. I’m trying to find that balance.’’

While he does, he’s also looking for better results. In a season that has seen Blaney, Dillon and Stenhouse each score their first career Cup win, Jones searches for his.

The Michigan native has scored two top-10 finishes in the last three Cup races heading into Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway.

Such performances could put him closer to his first career Cup victory.

“We took a big leap in that direction of getting closer to being able to do it (at Pocono),’’ Jones said. “I think once you kind of get up there and run in that position, hopefully, it comes a little bit easier as time goes on.’’

And then maybe he’ll feel comfortable displaying more of that personality Earnhardt praises.

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Cup starting lineup for FireKeepers Casino 400: Larson on pole, Blaney goes for 2 in row

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If you like pure unadulterated speed, Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 is likely where you’ll find it.

Since its full repave in 2012, Michigan International Speedway has become the fastest track on the NASCAR Cup circuit. The retired Jeff Gordon holds the track’s speed record of 206.381 mph.

Kyle Larson, who won his first career Cup race last August at Michigan, looks to be the strongest driver and potentially the one to beat. Not only was Larson the fastest in Friday’s lone practice session, he also won the pole for Sunday’s race with a speed of 202.156 mph.

Larson feels especially at home at MIS because it suits his driving style the best — he likes speed, and lots of it, and rides the high line through the turns with aplomb. It’s not surprising, as MIS is a twin to another of Larson’s favorite tracks, Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Martin Truex Jr. will start on the outside of the front row for the third consecutive race.

Row 2 will feature Clint Bowyer starting from the third spot — tying his best start of the season — and Kyle Busch, who is still seeking his first win since last year’s Brickyard 400. In fact, all four of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Cup drivers have yet to reach victory lane in 2017.

Ryan Blaney, who won Sunday at Pocono, looks for a second straight win this Sunday at Michigan.

Row 3 features another JGR driver, Denny Hamlin, and last Sunday’s winner at Pocono, Ryan Blaney. If Blaney can make it two wins in a row, he’ll give the legendary Wood Brothers their 100th NASCAR Cup victory.

In Row 4, defending race winner Joey Logano starts from the seventh spot and looks to break a slide that has seen him fail to finish higher than 23rd in the last five races, and also caused him to drop from fifth to 11th in the NASCAR Cup driver standings. Jamie McMurray starts outside in the eighth position.

Lastly in Row 5, Matt Kenseth starts from the ninth position, while Chase Elliott is alongside, still looking for his first career Cup win.

There are only 37 drivers entered for this race.

Click here for the row-by-row starting lineup for Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400.

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With deal through 2020, how realistic is it that Jimmie Johnson wins 100 races?

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Unless Jimmie Johnson suddenly walks away, as Carl Edwards did before this season, the seven-time champion will race through the 2020 Cup season.

But was Friday’s three-year contract announcement Johnson’s final deal?

He’s not sure.

I’ve said it before and continue to say that when the fire does go out, I will step down,’’ Johnson said Friday at Michigan International Speedway. “I don’t have any framework now on a timeline. I just know that I’ve got three more years of trying to go out there and win championships and win races.’’

With seven titles and 83 victories, how much more can he win? Anticipating the Cup schedule remains 36 races a season and Johnson stays healthy, he has 130 races left before his new deal ends.

Johnson’s career winning percentage is 14.9 percent. That has dropped nearly a full percent since the end of the 2012 season.

While many factors can play a role in a driver’s chances of winning — including team, equipment and ability — should Johnson still win at even a 13 percent clip through the 2020 season, that would give him 17 wins and put him at 100. He would become only the third driver in NASCAR history to win 100 or more Cup races, joining Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).

Even if Johnson wins only 9 percent of the races through 2020, that would give him 11 victories and he would have 94 — one more than Jeff Gordon. That would put Johnson third on the all-time list.

“I’ve never honestly been driven by stats,’’ Johnson said. “I’ve said it so many times, but it’s hard to ignore where I sit on the wins list and not let my competitive spirit kick in and want more. Certainly, I would love to climb further up the ladder there. Eight championships, I would love to stand alone at that.’’

At the end of the 2020 season, Johnson will be 45 years old and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him retire.

Mark Martin won five races in 2009 after he turned 50 years old, so it is possible that Johnson, who beat Martin for the title that year, could still win races as he gets older.

Just don’t expect Johnson to be running as long as Martin did.

“We watched Mark race deep into his career and be super competitive, race for championships into his 50s,’’ Johnson said. “I don’t think I’ve got that in me from a time commitment standpoint to go into my 50s in racing.’’

Another factor to consider in Johnson’s quest for more wins and titles is that he has been with crew chief Chad Knaus since 2002. Knaus’ contract expires after next season.

“I’ve said it before, I want to finish it with him,’’ Johnson said. “So, I’ll keep leaning on him. Those crew chief years, I like to call them dog years, I don’t have a clear picture on where that will take him, but I will do my best to keep him around as long as I can.”

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