Nate Ryan

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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.

Race distance for Charlotte Motor Speedway road course still TBD

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CONCORD, N.C. — It still might be known as the Bank of America 500, but 500 kilometers might not be the distance of the first road-course race in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Charlotte Motor Speedway announced Wednesday in the media center during a break in tire testing that next year’s Round of 16 cutoff race would be 500 kilometers or about 130 laps on the 2.42-mile layout. Track officials said it would be the longest road course race on the circuit (roughly 90 miles longer than the events at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International).

That prompted a raft of buzz on social media about a 500-kilometer race that likely would be pushing at least four hours with two stage breaks and a few cautions (lap times were in the 90-second range during the test).

But in a statement early Wednesday evening, NASCAR wouldn’t confirm 500 kilometers as the distance of the Sept. 30 race.

Here’s the statement:

This week’s test provided valuable data that will be part of the equation in determining the distance for next fall’s race. We will continue working closely with our partners to develop the best event for fans and competitors alike.

Asked about NASCAR’s statement, Charlotte Motor Speedway spokesman Scott Cooper said the track still was planning for a 500-kilometer race.

“We’re learning a tremendous amount about the Roval from this week’s test,” Cooper said in an email to NBCSports.com. “Ultimately, we want the most challenging road course race for the drivers and the very best show for the fans, and we’ll continue to work hard to get there.”

A release from the track near the conclusion of the two-day tire test late Wednesday afternoon referred to next season’s race as the Bank of America 500 but didn’t specify the race’s distance.

Charlotte road course could be Talladega, Part II as Round of 16 cutoff race

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CONCORD, N.C. – There are many unknowns about the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course – passing zones, tire compound, even race distance – but Martin Truex Jr. said Wednesday there is one certainty.

When the new layout makes its debut as the Round of 16 cutoff race next season, playoff drivers will want to be assured of advancing ahead of time.

“I’m going to be hoping I’m going to win one of the first two in that round,” Truex said. “I’m going to put this right in there with Talladega.”

The Furniture Row Racing driver tested tires Tuesday and Wednesday on the 18-turn, 2.42-mile track (which incorporates most of Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval) with Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and Daniel Hemric.

Busch said the layout was similar to the Daytona International Speedway road course but with a much smaller footprint that ratcheted up the intensity.

“There’s no room for taking a break or having a quick, deep breath down the straightaway,” Busch said. “As soon as you’re in high gear off turn 2, you’re in a chicane. Back through the gears, you’re downshifting on the brakes to go to the frontstretch chicane. It’s a very busy track.”

There is a 35-foot change in elevation on the course, which features two chicanes that track officials say are designed to encourage passing and provide an option for rain tires.

The transitions between the high-banked surface and the flatter road course make it tricky to navigate.

“There’s all kinds of craziness going on,” Truex said. “Turns 1 and 2 are pretty wild, narrow with concrete walls on both sides. Intimidating.

“It’s a unique track. I don’t know if I’ve run a road course anything like it because of the elevation changes, the bumps and the humps. Charlotte isn’t smooth to begin with and add in infield that has been around a long time, there’s a lot of swells in it. It definitely is interesting. It’s a unique challenge. I don’t know I’ve raced anything like it.”

The track announced the race distance as 500 kilometers, which would make it the longest road course race on the circuit, but NASCAR didn’t confirm the length of the first playoff race with right turns (saying “it provided valuable data that will be part of the equation in determining the distance for next fall’s race”).

Also in flux is the layout. Truex talked to Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Marcus Smith about adding some safety features such as curbing, runoff areas, tire barriers and walls.

Busch also has recommended eliminating Turn 8 to connect the seventh and ninth turn, reducing the number of slow corners on the track. “There are a lot of slow sections with turns 5, 6 and 7,” Busch said. “Those are good rhythmic corners. … (But) a 3,500-pound car going 35 mph too many times isn’t too exciting. We need to speed up the track a bit.”

Truex, who shaved 10 seconds off his lap time on the first day, estimated the top-end speed is about 175 mph and said the ninth turn (before entering the oval in Turn 1) is the slowest.

Where are the best passing zones?

“That’s a great question,” he said. “I can’t tell you that. Single-car runs so far, it’s hard to say. There’s a lot of places you can crash. I’m not sure about the passing yet.”

After starting on the Watkins Glen tire, it’s expected Goodyear could bring a softer tire next year for faster speeds and better grip. Lap times were in the 90-second range, which Busch said was slower than anticipated but illustrated the difficulty of balancing a tire between a high-speed oval and a road course that drove more like the technical Sonoma than the high-speed Watkins Glen.

“The corners are sharp, low grip and we have 800 horsepower, so we’re trying to put the power down and sliding the tires quite a bit,” Busch said. “The process is to work with Goodyear and Charlotte Motor Speedway to find things we can change safety-wise and recommend the shapes of chicane around the back straightaway and even the front straightaway section.”

Busch, who drove the No. 14 Ford in place of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, said he volunteered for the race because of its playoff implications in 2018.

“It’s a cutoff race,” he said. “Teams better get their arms wrapped around it and their heads focused on it because it’s one of the most important races of the year. When it’s a new situation like this, there’s a lot of oddities and variables. Fans will see it.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. announces he and wife Amy are expecting a girl

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. will retire from NASCAR into fatherhood.

The 14-time most popular driver announced via an Instagram post that he and his wife, Amy, are expecting a girl.

Earnhardt has five races remaining in his final full-time season in the Cup Series before joining the NBC Sports broadcast team in 2018.

Earnhardt said one of his peers actually had predicted the news six weeks ago, just after the couple had learned of the pregnancy.

Earnhardt’s family (personal and professional) also has embraced the news.

 

The points standings and who’s in trouble entering the cutoff race at Kansas Speedway

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Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jamie McMurray left Talladega Superspeedway with their championship hopes hanging in the balance Sunday.

Busch, who finished 27th Sunday, is ranked ninth in the standings, seven points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final transfer spot from the Round of 12, which concludes with the Oct. 22 cutoff race at Kansas Speedway.

Kenseth (14th Sunday) is eight points out in 10th. Stenhouse (26th) is 22 points behind, and McMurray, who finished 37th after causing the first caution on the 26th lap, is 29 points out and virtually needs a victory to advance.

Charlotte winner Martin Truex Jr. and Talladega winner Brad Keselowski are the only drivers ensured of advancing to the Round of 8. The other six drivers who currently are above the cut line: Kyle Larson (plus 29), Kevin Harvick (plus 22), Denny Hamlin (plus 21), Chase Elliott (plus 20), Ryan Blaney (plus 9) and Johnson (plus 8).

Click here for the points standings after Talladega.