Parker Kligerman

Ryan: What was overlooked about Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick after Sonoma win

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There was as much focus on what was said after Kevin Harvick’s victory Sunday at Sonoma Raceway as on how he won for the first time this season.

Crew chief Rodney Childers’ spicy shot at Martin Truex Jr. naturally drew the headlines (and as seen on Monday’s NASCAR America in the video below, it was grounded in some degree of reality, though Truex’s target is debatable), but it detracted from another takeaway.

It’s not only what Childers and Harvick were saying after Sunday’s victory at Sonoma Raceway. It’s how they were saying it.

Just like the three-time series champion they drive for, you typically don’t have to guess where this championship pair stands on something.

Whether it was Childers playfully throwing shade at a rival, or an unusually light-hearted Harvick tossing off jokes between every other answer of his postrace news conference, there was a decided sense of relief about a win that helped ameliorate months of anxiety stemming from the move to Ford this season.

“I can say this now, but I had mixed emotions about how the year was going to go just because of the fact that we had a lot on our plate to switch over,” Harvick said. “And I think as we started the year, we had good performance, and we went through a little bit of a spell where it wasn’t as good as the first three or four weeks, and then the last month and a half has been really good.

“So it’s just a big undertaking, and one day I think when we get done with this year, I think everybody will actually learn all the details of all the things that it took to get to this particular point, but it’s a huge undertaking.”

There actually were many hints since nearly a year ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Childers said Harvick’s postrace anger was because of lackluster preparation stemming from an in-season overhaul as Stewart-Haas Racing began building its chassis. The Ford move “panics all of us out a little bit,” Childers said with the characteristic honesty that he shares with his driver.

When Childers is distressed with a rival, NASCAR or even his own team, he lets the world know in his blunt but understated style. When Harvick is angry, the message is more demonstrative but no less candid.

But they also like to deflect the attention away from their team through their outspokenness, lest the scrutiny finds them the way it did during the 2015 season when the defending series champion’s No. 4 had a weekly reserved parking space in the NASCAR R&D Center’s inspection bay.

During an episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, Childers said he intentionally backed off on Harvick’s speed during practices last season and diverted from the team’s ambitiously simple goal.

For a duo whose partnership is built on a relentless quest for perfection, it was a mistake, and they vowed to return to the basics this season. Despite the transition to a new manufacturer, the renewed dedication to winning every lap on the track seemed to be working at the outset of 2017. Harvick led the most laps in each of the season’s first two races and would have won at Atlanta Motor Speedway without an ill-timed speeding penalty.

It was followed by a four-race slump that resoundingly ended with a pole position at Texas Motor Speedway. Harvick since has posted top fives in six of 10 races as he and Childers methodically recaptured their mojo with a meticulous dedication toward improving.

It’s another facet of their working relationship that gets overlooked when controversy (which Harvick admittedly relishes) sometimes gets in the way as it did at Sonoma, but Harvick’s win was a testament to their preparation. Eschewing stage points after agonizing over strategy for days, Childers gave his driver a chance to win by pitting out of sequence, and Harvick took care of the rest once primary threat Martin Truex Jr. was eliminated by an engine failure.

“We were able to manage the car really after (Truex) fell out,” Harvick said. “I felt like he was the guy that we were going to have to race all the way to the end.  He had a great car, and once he fell out, I felt like we were 100 percent in control of the race.”

And now, it feels as if he and Childers have re-asserted control of their fortunes after a bumpy year

“There’s still a lot of room for growth,” Harvick said. “There’s still a lot of things we don’t know about our cars that we learn on a weekly basis, and that’s the fun part is to know the upside potential to this whole deal.

“Once we get it all ironed out and how great everybody has been from not only Stewart‑Haas Racing but Ford in putting all this together, I feel like we have way more room to grow than most any team in the garage because there’s so many new things for us and new people and still trying to work all the details out.”

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Five months before his 20th birthday, William Byron has eight wins and 15 top-five finishes in 38 starts in NASCAR’s top three national series.

Are those numbers worthy of promotion to a Cup ride with Hendrick Motorsports, which has the JR Motorsports driver under contract and at least one vacancy currently available for 2018?

Until a 2018 replacement is named for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet, Byron’s future is sure to generate debate. The conservative option would be keeping the Charlotte, N.C., native in the Xfinity Series for another season. An online racing prodigy who has competed in real-world conditions for roughly five years, Byron has far less experience with full-bodied cars than the competition.

Which is all the more reason to move him to Cup now.

Byron’s prodigious talent is allowing him to acclimate as quickly as other drivers who have been fast-tracked to Cup with roughly the same training (he should have just under 60 starts in Xfinity and Truck combined by the end of the season).

Kyle Larson, who had limited time in stock cars before coming to NASCAR, had three victories and 10 top fives in 43 starts across Cup, Xfinity and truck before moving full time to the premier series in 2014. Jimmie Johnson had one win and four top fives in 75 starts before his 2002 rookie season. Chase Elliott had five wins and 32 top fives in 80 starts before entering Cup last year.

The comparison trotted out most often as a cautionary tale is Joey Logano, who had one win and five top fives in 23 starts in NASCAR national series before entering Cup full time in 2009 with Joe Gibbs Racing. As exhibited in five seasons at Team Penske, Logano has all-world talent, but there were mitigating factors that spoiled his initial jump to Cup with Gibbs.

Asking an 18-year-old to supplant Tony Stewart, a Hall of Famer who wears his blue-collar roots on his sleeve, as the spokesman for a national home improvement chain was fraught with downsides from the outset. It didn’t help that Stewart remained in NASCAR as the driver-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, adding an unfair measuring stick.

The expectations wouldn’t be as crushing on Byron, who will have the full support from the retiring Earnhardt and automatically will be a better fit with whatever big-ticket sponsor is chosen.

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Also overshadowed in Harvick’s victory was that the addition of a third road-course race next season (at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the playoffs) already is having an impact.

Childers and Harvick decided to add the K&N race at Sonoma to the driver’s schedule just to shore up his skill set for turning left and right. Harvick’s twin victories last weekend might prompt an influx of Cup entrants in the K&N race next year.

“It all started when they talked about putting a road race in the (playoffs),” Harvick said. “You’ve got to have it right.”

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Adding stages (that were shorter than a fuel run) to a road-course race added another twist – namely, that it allowed some slower teams to gamble on amassing more stage points (or a stage win in the case of 13th-place finisher Jimmie Johnson) while stronger cars such as Harvick’s sacrificed stage results to be well positioned for an overall victory.

Of the 110 available stage points, 63 were awarded to drivers who finished the race outside the top 10. Harvick and fourth-place finisher Kyle Busch compiled no stage points.

“I think some stage points here and there are great, but we felt like today we had a car that was capable of winning the race and we needed to put ourselves in position to try to win,” Harvick said.

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What was happening on Martin Truex Jr.’s pit stops that caused such trouble in removing the front wheel? It didn’t seem to be the result of a damaged fender, prompting speculation that it might have been the result of the way the shocks and springs were set up on a road course.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman also posited some interesting theories about indexing on this week’s Monday Morning Donuts podcast (around the 21:30 mark), as well as something interesting he recently noticed with how Team Penske is aligning wheels on pit stops.

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It wasn’t the first time AJ Allmendinger has been hampered by a mechanical problem on a road course, but Sunday’s 35th at Sonoma Raceway marked the No. 47 Chevrolet’s 10th consecutive finish outside the top 15 – continuing a plunge in its first season with a second car.

Allmendinger is ranked nine spots behind his ranking (18th) in the 2016 points standings through 16 races, and teammate Chris Buescher’s best finish is 11th. While the drivers are getting along well, the team hasn’t realized the short-term benefits of expansion yet. The struggles might be coincidental (as Allmendinger has said), but it’s been a reminder that going faster isn’t correlated with merely adding staff.

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After another star-crossed race marred by multiple crashes (which, again, weren’t entirely her fault), Danica Patrick appeared in AdWeek, penning a column about how her personal passions will drive her post-racing career.

The timing was incidental – magazine pieces such as these are planned months in advance – but given the many hits Patrick has taken this year and the uncertainty of her NASCAR future, it was a firm reminder of what could lie ahead as early as next year.

NASCAR America live at 5:30 p.m. ET: Can Dale Jr. win at Sonoma, My Home Track finale

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs for 90 minutes beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to preview the weekend’s action at Sonoma Raceway.

Krista Voda hosts from our Stamford, Connecticut studio. Steve Letarte, NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett and Max Papis join us from NBC Charlotte.

On today’s show:

  • With only 11 regular-season races remaining, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to wine country in Northern California for some road-course action. Will we see the 11th race winner this season and will that driver be Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
  • Veteran racer and road-course specialist Max Papis joins the show to help us navigate the twists and turns of Sonoma Raceway. Our panel also will weigh in with their Sonoma experiences.
  • Plus, Parker Kligerman will hop into the simulator to take us on a lap of Sonoma.
  • The My Home Track: 50 States in 50 Shows comes to conclusion today with stops in Wisconsin and Wyoming. We also will have a recap of our journey across the short tracks of America.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you also can 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 5:30 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

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.

NASCAR America: Which winless Cup drivers can win at Sonoma?

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Sonoma Raceway represents one of the few wild card tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

With it being one of two road courses the Cup Series visits, it opens the door for someone who needs a win to get it.

NASCAR America’s Analysts shared who they’ll be watching this weekend at the California road course and they debated who they think will win first this year: Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Slugger Labbe: “For me it’s the 88 team of Dale Earnhardt Jr. The next two weeks are very, very important. He runs very well at Sonoma. The last three races there he has a 7.1 average (finish). He leads all the current drivers there. Daytona’s good for him as well. The team, I’m really worried about their transmission issues they had at Pocono two weeks ago. Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew up two engines, fell out of the race. He’s going to be doing a lot of shifting this weekend at Sonoma and that’s going to be key to that race team.”

Dale Jarrett: “Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer … I think both of these are drivers we maybe expected to have a victory by this time or maybe be further up in the points. A lot of different things are happening between the two of them. As I look at Clint Bowyer, this is someone that’s run extremely well at Sonoma over the years. He has a real chance and an opportunity to do some good things this weekend. … They need to get heading back in the right direction.”

Parker Kligerman: “I don’t have as much confidence in this 11 car of Denny Hamlin. I feel like all the cars at Joe Gibbs Racing that have been affected throughout the season from the lack of speed, the 11 has been the hardest hit. He has consistently struggled in traffic this season. I know he got a good finish this weekend, but I’m telling you it didn’t come easy and it wasn’t because of speed. It was a little of that driver in Denny Hamlin making things happen on restarts, making moves that just happened to work out.”

 

NASCAR America at 5:30 p.m. ET: Scan All and 50 States: Virginia

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs for 90 minutes beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman in Stamford, Connecticut. Dale Jarrett, Slugger Labbe, Nate Ryan and Ato Boldon join them from NBC Charlotte.

Here’s what to expect from today’s show.

  • Up next for the Cup Series is a stop in Northern California wine country at Sonoma Raceway. Will the road course produce the season’s 11th different winner?
  • We’ll examine the current Cup Series playoff picture with 11 races remaining in the regular season. We’ll also take a look at some of the big names yet to visit victory lane in 2017.
  • Time to close the book on this past weekend with a weekly favorite. Switch on those scanners and turn the volume up for Scan All: Michigan.
  • The next stop on My Home Track: 50 States in 50 Shows is Virginia. Today’s featured track is Langley Speedway. This former staple on the Cup Series schedule has been graced by several NASCAR Hall of Famers.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you also can 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 5:30 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

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