Regan Smith

Aric Almirola cleared to race this weekend at New Hampshire

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Richard Petty Motorsports announced Wednesday that doctors have cleared Aric Almirola to race this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Almirola has been out since suffering a T5 compression fracture in a May 13 crash at Kansas Speedway. He was expected to be out eight to 12 weeks.

Almirola received approval after a test Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“It felt great to be back in the racecar yesterday,” Almirola said in a statement. “After racing in the Monster Energy Series for five and a half years, it got to be routine, and I took it for granted. When something gets taken away from you at a moment’s notice like that, it has certainly made me appreciate my passion for racing and my desire to compete at this level. The thrill of running 200 miles per hour in a stock car was something that I had honestly lost a little bit. After being out of the car for eight weeks, the passion is back, now more than ever.
“Physically, I felt great in the car and had no pain associated with the injury during (Tuesday’s) test. I’d like to sincerely thank all of the medical personnel that have helped me through this process, my family, my friends, my team and all the fans that supported me. I’m very grateful to Bubba (Wallace), Regan (Smith) and Billy (Johnson) for all of their efforts subbing for me both on and off the track. I’m excited to get back to racing against all my friends and peers in the Monster Energy Series.”

Regan Smith filled in for Almirola in the Monster Energy Open during All-Star weekend, the Coca-Cola 600 (finished 22nd) and Dover (34th). Darrell Wallace Jr. drove the car at Pocono (26th), Michigan (19th), Daytona (15th) and Kentucky (11th). Billy Johnson finished 22nd in the car at Sonoma.

Aric Almirola looks to be back in No. 43 car in July

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Aric Almirola says he hopes to be back in a car next month, returning about two months after he suffered a T5 compression fracture in a May 13 crash at Kansas Speedway.

Almirola told NBC Sports on Tuesday that doctors were encouraged by what they saw in a scan of his vertebrae last week. He is scheduled to have another scan June 28. That will give doctors a better idea of when Almirola can return to driving the No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports.

He’s hoping it will be New Hampshire (July 16) or Indianapolis (July 23), if not sooner. Darrell Wallace Jr. is driving the car until Almirola returns. Wallace finished 26th Sunday at Pocono in his first race in the car. Regan Smith drove the No. 43 for three races, including the Monster Energy Open, before Wallace took over the ride.

Almirola was injured May 13 when his Ford slammed into Joey Logano’s Ford with such force that it lifted the car’s rear about 6 feet in the air before it slammed to the ground. Almirola was kept overnight in a Kansas City hospital before returning home.

He is undergoing laser therapy, massage therapy and swimming as part of his rehabilitation. His range of motion has returned, as he exhibited Tuesday by swinging his arms high above his head and squatting — things he couldn’t do after the accident.

Almirola said the bone split all the way around. The laser therapy helps regenerate that area. Swimming also works his back and helps with his range of motion.

The key, Almirola admits, is not doing too much during his recovery.

“You want to start doing everything you used to do,’’ he told NBC Sports. “I feel great standing here. I want to go up in the gym and I want to grab the 60-pound dumbbells and go sit down and start bench-pressing, but I can’t do that. I feel like I could right now because there’s no pain. I physically can’t do that. The torque on my back, the load on my spine, I can’t take that right now.

“I have to be aware of what my limitations are because I don’t want to set myself back. I’m doing so well in the recovery process. It’s about getting my range of motion back, getting my mobility back, getting my cardio back. I’m going to have to slowly work on my strength until the bone is all the way healed because I don’t want to re-injure or do something to slow down my recovery and put myself four to six weeks further behind.’’

Almirola also has been getting help from his children, Alex, 4, and Abby, 3. They’ve made sure he’s not exerting himself too much.

“We’ve been going on a month of telling them, ‘No, daddy can’t do that, I’m sorry my back is hurt,’ ‘’ he said. “Now, they’re just accustomed to it. I think it’s going to be weird for them now when my back is actually healed.

“Now, they’re so used to not getting a piggyback ride upstairs because my back is hurt. Now, they automatically respond, ‘Oh daddy, don’t pick that up, your back is hurt.’ ‘’

Almirola can’t wait until he can pick his children up.

“It will be awesome,’’ he said. “I miss that.’’

Watch the above video for Marty Snider’s interview with Almirola.

Ryan Blaney gives Cup Series fifth first-time winner in two seasons

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The NASCAR record books have changed a lot in the last two months.

When Ryan Blaney took the checkered flag to win Sunday’s Pocono 400, it continued an avalanche of first-time winners in the Cup Series.

Blaney is the third first-time winner in the last five races and the fifth in the last two years.

The current stretch began May 7 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won at Talladega, claiming his first victory in five full-time seasons on the circuit.

Two races later in the Coca-Cola 600 on May 28, Austin Dillon ended his long wait by successfully saving enough fuel to win the longest race in NASCAR. In the process, he also took the No. 3 to victory lane for the first time in the Cup Series since 2000.

Two weeks later, Blaney took Wood Brothers Racing to victory lane for just the third time since the turn of the century.

But the current trend of first-time winners began in Pocono last year on August 1. Chris Buescher, then driving for Front Row Motorsports, was in the lead under caution when rain and fog forced the race to be called on Lap 138. Unlike the other recent first timers, Buescher’s win came in just his 27th Cup start.

Three races later, Kyle Larson began to establish himself in the Cup Series by winning at Michigan International Speedway. The victory came in Larson’s third full-time season in the Cup Series.

Before their wins, the Cup circuit experienced a relatively long drought of first-time visitors to victory lane.

Before Buescher, the last first-timer was AJ Allmendinger at Watkins Glen International in August 2014, a stretch of 70 races between first-time winners.

A month before that, Aric Almirola was the winner of the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

And before Almirola, the Cup series went two full seasons without a first-time winner. That drought was after five drivers broke through in 2011.

Trevor Bayne started off that year in the biggest way possible, winning the Daytona 500 in just his second Cup start. He would be joined that year by Regan Smith (Southern 500), David Ragan (Coke Zero 400), Paul Menard (Brickyard 400) and Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen).

With Blaney’s win, it puts a little more pressure on his fellow “young guns” to win. NASCAR is still waiting for the breakthrough of 2016 Rookie of the Year Chase Elliott and rookies Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon and new arrival Darrell Wallace Jr.

“Ryan took that (first win) crown from us,” Jones said Sunday after finishing third. “It is great for the sport, honestly. I’m usually not very happy to see other people win, but I was happy to see Ryan win. It was really cool for him, and just really cool to see him get the win. I know how excited he probably is right now, and it really makes the other young guys, me, Chase, Daniel (Suarez), all feel like we do have a shot to go up and do it.”

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Today’s Cup race at Pocono: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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Joe Gibbs Racing continues to look for its first points win of the season but has Kyle Busch on the pole for the second consecutive race. Busch also posted the fastest lap in the Saturday’s final practice session.

Here are the particulars for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command for drivers to start engines will be given at 3:07 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 3:18 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 160 laps (400 miles) around the 2.5-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 50. Stage 2 ends on Lap 100. 

PRERACE SCHEDULE: The Cup garage opens at 9:30 a.m. The drivers meeting is at 1 p.m. Driver introductions are at 2:30 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Lauren Hart will perform the Anthem at 3:02 p.m.

TV/RADIO: Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the race at 3 p.m. Its coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at mrn.com. MRN’s coverage begins at 2 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts 84 degrees at race time with a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Kurt Busch led the final 32 laps to win this event a year ago. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second. Brad Keselowski placed third. Chris Buescher won the rain-shortened race in August. Keselowski was second. Regan Smith placed third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for starting lineup

Ryan: Has green-white-checkered run its course? A brief history of NASCAR overtime

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is right: NASCAR should eliminate the overtime line. In fact, it could go a step further than the 14-time most popular driver suggested and remove it at every track, including Daytona and Talladega.

Actually — if the goal is sanity and simplicity (admittedly, at the expense of some suspense) —  don’t stop there, either.

Why not just dump the green-white-checkered policy, too, and end every race at its scheduled distance?

It’s a concept that worked fairly well from, oh, 1948-2004.

That seems overlooked in the annals of NASCAR history, largely forgotten alongside the myriad plot twists that formed an overtime policy whose potentially infinite loop reflects its contorted route to creation.

In order to weigh the merits of extending races, let’s absorb an extensive history lesson on how the green-white-checkered finish (and, eventually, the overtime line) came into existence.

The genesis was roughly June 6, 1998 at Richmond International Raceway, where NASCAR stopped a race with seven laps to go for nearly 15 minutes to clean up a messy oil leak. Without the red flag, the race would have ended under caution with Dale Jarrett winning. Instead, Terry Labonte bumped Jarrett from the lead after the restart, and an officiating trend was born.

For the next six years, NASCAR arbitrarily began stopping races after late cautions to help an attempt at ending a race under green. Eventually, a lap number was announced in prerace driver meetings as the cutoff for using a red flag to help finish a race.

This seemed to placate crowds until a few endings under yellow still drew major fan derision – in particular, two at restrictor-plate tracks.

The July 6, 2002 race at Daytona International Speedway concluded with cars weaving through a shower of several hundred seat cushions heaved from the backstretch grandstands in anger.

The April 25, 2004 race at Talladega Superspeedway was frozen under yellow with four laps remaining – just before Earnhardt seized the lead from Jeff Gordon, whose No. 24 Chevrolet was pelted by beer cans during its victory burnouts.

Nearly three months later, NASCAR instituted the green-white-checkered rule, and it first came into play at the 2004 Brickyard 400, where Mark Martin and Earnhardt blew tires on the extra 2.5-mile circuit around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The new policy seemed here to stay, though, until …

In 2010, NASCAR tweaked its green-white-checkered rule during Speedweeks, adding three attempts at ensuring the final lap started at full speed. This stemmed from confusion over the rule during the TV broadcast of the season-opening Bud Shootout exhibition race.

A few days later, NASCAR told drivers during a preseason safety meeting that it would begin making three attempts at a green-flag finish. After grumbling from teams, it had an immediate impact – Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500 on the second attempt at a green-flag finish (instead of Kevin Harvick, who was leading when the caution waved the first time).

This seemed to work OK until a spate of fan injuries in green-white-checkered finishes in the Truck, Xfinity and Cup series at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway from 2012-15.

The solution was to limit green-white-checkered finishes to one attempt in October 2015 at Talladega, the final plate race of the season. It resulted in a bizarre “non-attempt” that was waved off and followed by one of the most controversial finishes in NASCAR history.

So before the 2016 season, “NASCAR Overtime” was decreed with the addition of a line on the backstretch of every track. Once the leader crossed it after an overtime restart, the race wouldn’t be restarted for a yellow – but there would be unlimited attempts to breach the overtime line under green.

That seemed fine again until Sunday … when the overtime line became the primary determinant of a Cup winner for the first time, and NASCAR Twitter melted down in a storm of poorly applied Speedi Dri.

After nearly 20 years of tinkering, it seemed a tipping point.

You can’t please everyone all the time, but you can confuse many by overlaying countless rulebook Band-Aids to ensure conditions for a thrilling ending.

There is no shame in concluding races when advertised. It actually once was an accepted maxim among Cup drivers. Prior to July 2004, the party line was about clinging to the sanctity of race lengths that matched the same lap totals listed on the entry blanks.

It was a worthy crusade borne of competitive integrity.

Fans don’t have an inalienable right to enjoy a fantastic finish. Displaying the yellow and white flags together works fine for other series and prestigious races.

The 2013 Indianapolis 500, which featured a record 68 lead changes, ended with three laps of yellow and a standing ovation for winner Tony Kanaan from a crowd that seemed happy to catch its breath after three hours of breathtaking action.

There was no sense of anyone feeling cheated by a muted finish. There was just an understanding that sometimes events unfold that way.

That’s racin’.

Returning to its method of concluding races for 56 years undoubtedly would draw pushback for NASCAR. This isn’t a drastic change, though, so much as a digestible reversion, a la returning the Southern 500 to Labor Day weekend. It ultimately could be as well-received as Darlington Raceway’s triumphant reclaiming of its history, a throwback in the same vein.

As Earnhardt said in lobbying to eradicate the overtime line, “It’s the way they did it for 50 years, so I think that people would be OK with it.”

The green-white-checkered finish started with good intentions, among the first in a wave of fan-driven initiatives that also spawned double-file restarts and the Gen 6 car. NASCAR should be commended for listening, but the catering also can become counterproductive.

Instead of further tweaking to an artificial construct, perhaps it’s time to remove the green-white-checkered rule in the same way races should end.

Definitively.

XXX

A year after facing questions about why he wouldn’t close out races (by roughing people up), the Kyle Larson narrative now has shifted to why he can’t close out races.

Dover marked the third time in 14 races that Larson has lost the lead on a restart in the final 10 laps – twice to Jimmie Johnson in overtime.

It raises questions – which Larson understandably is growing tired of answering — about how an ace in the short-burst format of sprint cars can wrestle so much with quickly getting a stock car off the line.

Larson lost Dover in second gear, partly because he didn’t get a good jump, but also because Johnson got the perfect jump.

As NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Jarrett said on NASCAR America, restarts aren’t something a driver can work on like free throws in basketball. It’s a skill that can’t be honed except in the moment.

Drivers can gain a modicum of experience with every restart, but Jarrett also noted that being in the second, third or fourth row is completely unlike restarting on the front row.

As Larson continues to set the pace – he led a career-high 241 laps at Dover – he will learn how to control a restart as well as Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. And there was another very encouraging sign of maturation at Dover for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

His willingness to mix it up during the race with Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. showed he has learned lessons from the deference he occasionally has given too much to veterans.

XXX

Chase Elliott seemed to spend much of his rookie season in self-flagellation when things went wrong. The Hendrick Motorsports driver had seemed less frustrated with a stretch of four consecutive finishes outside the top 20 before placing fifth at Dover.

But Elliott, demonstrating acute self-analysis for a 21-year-old, said he hadn’t changed, and that it was easy to understand why.

Unlike the 2016 season, which was marred by driver and team errors that cost wins for the No. 24 Chevrolet, this season mostly has been themed by uncontrollable misfortune.

“There is no secret, if I make a mistake I’m going to be mad at myself, and that is just a fact, and that is the way I am,” he said. “You can like it, you can hate it, but that is just how I am. That is how I grew up, and that is how I’m going to be.”

During a week of hyperbolic and sanctimonious dissections of driver personalities, it was refreshing to hear a rising star make no apologies for just being him.

XXX

Regardless of whether the loose wheels at Dover for Kyle Busch and Chase Briscoe draw penalties, they already have generated too much discussion.

Legislating lug nuts mostly is an unnecessary distraction and embodiment of the busybody minutiae that sucks the oxygen from NASCAR’s more deserving storylines.

Near the beginning of the season, NASCAR said the goal was to move away from announcing midweek penalties so it could shift the focus toward storylines that actually move tickets.

It’s an admirable objective, but much work remains to keep garage and pit officiating in the background, where they belong.

XXX

Crew chief Chad Knaus gave a brief and coy answer (“Yeah, there is definitely some strategy. For sure.”) when asked whether it was a calculated risk to keep Johnson on track (and in the lead) with 70 laps remaining at Dover as other contenders pitted under green. The strategy effectively put Johnson in position to win when a caution flag flew.

Given the way Fords were having tire problems Sunday, it might have been less of a gamble and more of another triumph in three-dimensional chess by Knaus.

The critical caution came when Regan Smith’s blown tire ended 62 laps without a yellow – the longest green-flag stint of a race that also featured cautions for tire problems involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Landon Cassill, David Ragan, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano.

The crew chief of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet probably knew the odds were stacked well in his team’s favor of catching a yellow late in the run.

Knaus, of course, would be the last to admit it.