Nate Ryan

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 26:  Cars race during the 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 26, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Ryan: What Brian France was trying to say before Daytona 500 … and other stray thoughts

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Imagine this beginning to the drivers meeting at Atlanta Motor Speedway this coming Sunday.

NASCAR chairman Brian France, sporting a cowboy hat, snakeskin boots and a faded pair of Wranglers, strides with purpose to a mic at the front of the room and says something akin to the following:

“OK, boys, I don’t usually talk competition, but this is the last race on this old pavement. You’ve got to be careful and conserve those tires! And don’t come looking to NASCAR if you wear them tires out too much! That’s on you, boys — not Goodyear. Let’s go racin’!”

Wouldn’t that seem slightly odd from France, whose greatest strength as NASCAR czar has been his boardroom comfort with cutting multimillion-dollar (sometimes multibillion-dollar) deals that have provided long-term financial security?

Well, it wasn’t that far from what happened before Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500.

In an address and approach that even France twice admitted was unusual for him, he commandeered the start of the prerace meeting and spent about 90 seconds sternly admonishing Cup drivers for something they hadn’t done yet.

NASCAR chief racing developmental officer Steve O’Donnell tried to explain what France meant after the race.

“His point today was just the way we have seen the racing play out,” O’Donnell told a small group of reporters. “Drivers are really learning and getting used to the pack, and so his point was we know drivers are going to be aggressive. Don’t come to NASCAR if something were to happen if you attempted to block.”

But had any drivers recently complained to NASCAR about blocking? “No.”

Had he planned to make that statement? “Not sure. You’d have to ask Brian.”

OK, so how to unpack this?

First, it is peculiar to take a stand on scolding drivers who feel aggrieved after blocking, because it virtually never happens.

It’s the drivers who are blocked who get angry and vow retribution. They don’t look for help from NASCAR, though. The justice gets meted out at their own hands, i.e. with a flick of the wheel into someone’s rear fender.

And for the drivers who block and then get dealt vicious payback? They usually provide a sheepish shrug and “I was just trying to do everything I could to win.”

How would it make sense to lobby NASCAR to punish a driver for action that another driver forced them into taking? Well, it doesn’t.

So what were the point of France’s words, which sometimes can be opaque enough to require translation?

Well, it’s hard to ignore the fact that last week was rough as far as the leadership of NASCAR being questioned, and this certainly seemed a visible move by France to dispel the notion he isn’t engaged (as others have intimated in the past).

In the context of the conclusion of Speedweeks, his point also seems clearer. Factoring in two red flags, the Xfinity race went well past three hours Saturday because of a vast array of moronic driving, which also was evident during Friday’s truck race.

NASCAR couldn’t afford to have its signature event marred by rampant amateurism, and that almost seemed as if it were the underlying thrust of France’s comments, which might have been taken thusly by some: “This is the biggest race of the year. Don’t screw this up like the young punks the past two days with dumb blocking moves and then whine about it.”

–The debut of stages made pacing a theme for scrutiny, but they had nothing to do with the biggest problem of elapsed time at Daytona International Speedway: the speed of the track cleanup.

The Xfinity race was marred by two red flags that took more than 45 minutes, and the Daytona 500 race was stopped for 17 minutes to tidy the messes left by a relatively benign six-car crash that usually doesn’t cause such a long break.

During his weekly spot on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, O’Donnell said improving the efficiency of track cleanup was the single-most important issue to fix from Speedweeks.

A broken splitter stuck underneath a SAFER barrier was a culprit Saturday and another splitter got stuck Sunday. O’Donnell said it took too long to remove the splitter the second time and also to get the oil off the track. “Anything we can do to speed that process up, we’ll do it.”

From a vantage point in the press box, some of the cleanup problems could be attributed to poor execution with trucks failing to put SpeedyDry down in the right places to absorb the oil (some of which was against the wall, which makes the process difficult on a high-banked track). That required multiple passes to address the mess.

This might necessitate NASCAR rethinking its approach to track cleanup as it did with track drying a few years ago.

The problem with the splitter likely will be reviewed at the NASCAR R&D Center this week. Again, it’s more challenging to remove debris from a barrier at a high-banked track, but it’s worth analyzing if there’s a reason why those pieces detached from cars during wrecks on consecutive days.

There’s been some debate over the merits of Kurt Busch’s win in the Daytona 500 squelching a triumph featuring some of the youthful storylines that seemed promising in the closing laps. NASCAR certainly has been pushing the narratives of Chase Elliott (who was leading until running out of fuel until two laps remaining), Kyle Larson (leading on the last lap when his tank ran dry) and runner-up Ryan Blaney.

That said, the career arc of crew chief Tony Gibson, a local hero born and raised in Daytona Beach, undoubtedly makes Busch’s win a heartwarming one. Affectionately known as “Old Man,” Gibson is one of the truly good-hearted dudes in the NASCAR garage, and his loyalty to his team deservedly was rewarded Sunday.

NASCAR heavily has promoted the next wave of young stars, so it’s hard to see how it would have been displeased with Elliott, Larson or Blaney winning. But officials privately took umbrage at the suggestion that Busch’s win somehow didn’t “save” Sunday’s race … because they believe the race (and its late drama around fuel mileage) stood on its own merits regardless of who won or how many caution flags occurred in the process.

Was this the weirdest Daytona 500 since the 2011 victory by Trevor Bayne in the rise of tandem racing?

It certainly seemed so. Hard to recall any Cup race in recent memory when so many favorites were eliminated before crunch time.

–Speaking of Bayne, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he heard from some angry competitors in the wake of Daytona. Ditto for 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, who seemed to race as if his job were on the line in the season opener.

–Now that Kurt Busch finally has a restrictor-plate win in his 64th attempt, who are the most talented active drivers without a Daytona 500 win?

The list starts with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. But there’s a significant dropoff to the next group. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson both proved in the past two seasons they are worthy of winning here, but neither has endured the kind of agony and near-misses that made Dale Earnhardt’s quest for a Daytona 500

Keselowski and Kyle Busch seemingly are starting to be tortured by the same demons that plagued Earnhardt for so long … and seemed to follow Tony Stewart for most of his Daytona 500 career.

At least Smoke finally had something to celebrate Sunday after 17 winless shots.

–There were some facets of Monster’s debut as title sponsor (such as a lack of signage and activation at Daytona) that seemed curious. But bringing Rob Gronkowski to the Daytona 500 was a huge coup for the energy drink brand.

Even if you aren’t a fan of the New England Patriots or bro party culture, it still is easy to be amused by the zeal and zest for life incessantly embodied by the man playfully known as “Gronk.”

Gronk attend. NASCAR win.

Monster victory: Kurt Busch wins first Daytona 500 on last-lap pass

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 59th running of the Daytona 500 was a story of victory lane debuts Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

A driver, a team (with a new manufacturer) and a series title sponsor all celebrated for the first time on stock-car racing’s biggest stage.

Kurt Busch swept around the outside of Kyle Larson on a last-lap pass to win the Daytona 500, his first restrictor-plate victory in NASCAR’s premier series.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver finished 0.228 seconds ahead of Ryan Blaney in leading only the final circuit at the 2.5-mile oval. AJ Allmendinger was third, followed by Aric Almirola and Paul Menard. Larson, who ran out of fuel, finished 12th.

Busch’s team switched to Ford for the 2017 season and won in its debut Sunday with the manufacturer.

“It just got crazy and wild,” said Busch, who rebounded from being involved in a backstretch wreck on Lap 128 of 200. “It was one of the smartest chess games I have seen out there. All the hard work that Ford and SHR put into this.

“Here we are in victory lane. I can’t believe it.”

His No. 41 Fusion is sponsored by Monster Energy, which also is entering its first season as NASCAR’s new title sponsor.

“I tried not to put any extra pressure on my shoulders,” said Busch, the eight different driver to win the Daytona 500 in the past eight races. “I tried to rely on my team’s strengths and not focus on what I have been through with Monster Energy the last six years. They are a strong, big company, and they have chosen to be the entitlement sponsor, and I can’t be happier to do the job I am supposed to do as a Monster athlete, which is to win podiums and races.”

Busch had been winless in his previous 63 starts at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway (which require restrictor plates to reduce speeds).

“There is nothing predictable about this race anymore and the more years that have gone by that I didn’t win, I kept trying to go back to patterns that I had seen in the past,” he said. “My mirror fell off with 30 laps to go, and I couldn’t even see out the back. And I thought that was an omen. Throw caution to the wind.”

It also was the first Daytona 500 win as a car owner for Tony Stewart, who retired after the 2016 season with a winless record in 17 starts in the race.

“The look on (co-owner) Gene Haas’ face right now, that smile, make it all worth it,” Stewart said. “It has been a really long hard winter, and I am so proud of everyone at SHR and Ford Performance. They really worked their tails off to get ready. Doug Yates and everybody at Roush Yates Engines brought unbelievable power all week.

“It was a crazy race, even crazier to sit and watch it from a pit box finally. If I had known all I had to do was retire, I would have retired 17 years ago if I knew it was what it took to win the race.”

Busch’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, hails from Daytona Beach.

“This is unbelievable,” Gibson said on Fox. “My mom, my dad, we sacrificed everything to put us in racing. I can’t thank them enough. Thanks Dad, Mom, I love you. I have a great family that put us in racing, and it’s just so emotional to come to my track and win. Unbelievable.”

Joey Logano was sixth, followed by Kasey Kahne, Michael Waltrip, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Trevor Bayne.

Chase Elliott, seeking his first NASCAR victory on the sport’s grandest stage, ran out of fuel while leading with three laps remaining. He finished 14th.

Who had a good race: Almirola gave a boost to Richard Petty Motorsports, which contracted to one car in the offseason. The No. 43 Ford led and ran in the top 10 for much of the second half.

Blaney rebounded in a backup car, taking the lead with some aggressive moves to score his career-best finish.

Almirola and Menard scored career-best Daytona 500 finishes, and Allmendinger tied his best at Daytona.

Who had a bad race: How much time do you have?

Kyle Busch’s recent trouble at Daytona continued when he lost control in Turn 4, and his No. 18 Toyota collected Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones in the wreck.

Corey LaJoie’s Daytona 500 debut will be remembered for one of the more egregious rookie mistakes in the race’s history – a near head-on collision with the frontstretch wall after losing control while missing the entrance to the pits.

Former Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray was at the focal point of multiple multi-car pileups that took out Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Danica Patrick, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Daniel Suarez.

Notable: Kahne led for the first time since Oct. 25, 2015 at Talladega Superspeedway. … Kyle Busch won the first stage of the 2017 season (and in the history of points races in NASCAR’s premier series). … Kevin Harvick won the second stage. … Both Busch and Harvick crashed after picking up 10 points. … There were only five of 40 cars that weren’t listed as in a crash.

Quote of the race: “I really enjoyed the whole week. We had a lot of fun. Everybody was looking forward to getting back to the race track. It meant a lot to me. And I’m just sorry we weren’t able to deliver a better result today for all our fans and everybody that was looking forward to today. We had a great car. At least we went out leading the race.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 37th in his return after missing the second half of the 2016 season (concussion).

What’s next: The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, 2:46 p.m., March 5 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Fox.

Brian France warns about blocking during the Daytona 500 in an unusual address

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20:  CEO and Chairman of NASCAR Brian France addresses the media prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In an unusual move because of its location and tone, NASCAR CEO and chairman Brian France admonished Cup drivers about blocking during Sunday’s Daytona 500.

France, who admittedly doesn’t make public proclamations about competition and has tended to deal with drivers in private, made the remarks during the prerace drivers meeting at Daytona International Speedway. Here is the full text of his remarks.

“It’s my one chance, too — my first chance, rather — to tell you …what, uh, starting our season, obviously this is a big event. This is our biggest event. And partly it kicks off, if everything goes accordingly, and this event rolls and goes, and we’re excited about that.

“But what I don’t normally do, and I’m going to do this today, is bring up a competition issue. This is for the drivers. And what I want you to think about. We realize blocking is part of racing. We understand that. We accept that.

“Do not look for NASCAR … when you block somebody out there, and it’s going to happen today. It causes almost all the big incidents. Do not look for NASCAR … you better hope there’s a Good Samaritan behind you who is going to accept that block, because they have that lane and the right to it. And I don’t often make those statements. But I think it’s important today as we go into our most important event to make that really clear with our competitors.”

France then transitioned into a welcome address for new title sponsor Monster Energy (“That said, we’re in the fun business,” he said.)

Defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports that drivers hadn’t been warned about blocking recently and said he didn’t expect France’s warning to have an impact on today’s season-opening race.

Several crew chiefs and drivers smiled when asked about the purpose of France’s statement.

The past two days have seen several multicar pileups in the truck and Xfinity series, but only one appeared to have been caused by blocking.

Hamlin blocked Brad Keselowski while battling for the lead on the last lap of The Clash last week, but neither drivers were upset after crashing.

The origins of the NASCAR Drivers Council explained by Denny Hamlin … and what’s ahead

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 10:  2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers pose for a photo after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 10, 2016 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin isn’t always the most verbose of NASCAR stars.

But when he has a point to make, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver always has made it firmly and simply while standing his ground.

It explains why Hamlin has emerged as a leader on the Drivers Council after spearheading its formation.

The scrutiny and heat that accompany being the face of the group is worth the trouble for the Chesterfield, Va., native.

“It’s because I’m passionate about it,” he said during the latest episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “And Gibbs says the same thing every time we come around to contract negotiations, you’re very passionate about something and stick to your guns.

“I just feel like when I’m passionate about something, first I want to make sure it’s right. I don’t want to just say, ‘This is my idea and it’s right because it’s my idea.’ I want to get feedback from other drivers on that to make sure it’s the right idea. I’m passionate about it and I feel I have a way to communicate that to NASCAR without pissing them off at times.”

The Drivers Council, which is in its third year, grew out of a meeting that Hamlin had with NASCAR executive Mike Helton in September 2014.

Hamlin was displeased that NASCAR was adding downforce and raising the spoiler and expressed it to Helton, who recommended organization.

“I credit Mike Helton for this,” Hamlin said. “He said, ‘If you guys overall feel there’s something as a group that we need to change, you get some drivers together and come meet us at the R&D Center and we’ll have a talk.”

Hamlin called up several Cup stars and had them in the parking lot at the R&D Center before the meeting. He distributed notecards with talking points because presenting a united front was important.

“I handed out notes (and said), ‘OK, guys if we don’t stay on track, that’s the No. 1 thing at times that NASCAR pinned against us,’” Hamlin recalled. “Hey this driver thinks this is the way. Hey this one thinks we should go this way. Instead they just go their own way.

“So I said we have to be united and have to have the same voice if we want to get anywhere. From that point on, it started clicking.”

The council has made an impact with NASCAR, contributing valuable input to the 2017 format enhancements and lobbying for the recently announced traveling safety team. Hamlin said improving pit access and monitoring to help keep fans from touching cars on race day mornings also is on the agenda.

“There are really small things we’re working on day by day,” Hamlin said. “Format changes. Talking about All-Star Races and making them more compelling. The stage and formats came from ideas with people within NASCAR, TV and drivers.

“We’re seeing the fruits of what was done behind closed doors.”

This year, the council has added Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott (click here for the full member list). Putting three drivers under 30 on the panel was by design.

“Those guys are going to be here for a very long time,” Hamlin said. “Kyle Larson was on it last year and honestly didn’t say a whole lot, but I can appreciate that. I can guarantee if I was in his position I probably wouldn’t either. But he took everything in and by end of year, he was starting to engage more and give his opinion a little bit more, which was good.

“I’m in the middle of my career. There’s a few others on the tail end. It’s good to have a young group see the veterans in the room and how they handle things. Because when they’re gone, it’s up to them to get that same message across. Even though they’re there to support and listen now. They’re going to be the future leaders.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ep. 65: Denny Hamlin

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 21:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates with the Harley J. Earl Trophy and shows off his champion's ring in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin didn’t have a race scheduled, but he did have a check.

So when he signed a development contract with Joe Gibbs Racing in February 2004, the driver who has a reputation for being a free spender didn’t wait.

“I bought a plasma TV and rims for my Ford Ranger,” Hamlin said with a laugh on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast. “I blew it within a week.”

And he made sure everyone at his family’s trailer hitch company knew about it.

“I got a Joe Gibbs Racing sweatshirt and wore that thing nearly every day to work,” he said. “Because it was like, ‘I’m with the Joe Gibbs Racing team as a development driver.’ Which meant nothing; just that i couldn’t sign with someone else.”

Eventually, Hamlin was slated for a few truck races and then finished eighth in his Xfinity debut at Darlington Raceway in November 2004. JGR named him its full-time driver for 2005, and he was promoted to NASCAR’s premier series the following year.

“It’s a chain of events that I think about all the time that if that didn’t happen or this didn’t happen, I never would have been here,” the defending Daytona 500 winner said. “It makes me wonder how many others are in my shoes from 13 years ago today that didn’t have that one thing that went right so they’ll never be seen. We’ll never know who they are.

“It’s incredible to see this whole process. It was a very tough road. I never remember anyone who went from Late Models on short tracks to racing Cup in one year.”

Hamlin’s break came at a JGR test for its diversity program at Hickory Motor Speedway. The team hired Hamlin to shake down the cars and help the drivers, but J.D. Gibbs was so impressed, he called his father and advised that JGR should get Hamlin under contract.

“I still don’t think today that I get that break unless J.D. Gibbs is at that test,” he said. “I just don’t think it ever happens. I was a 1 in 10 million.”

During the podcast, Hamlin also addressed:

–Reminiscing about his 2016 Daytona 500 victory;

–The reception in his hometown of Chesterfield;

–His role as the leader of the Drivers Council;

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.