Alan Gustafson

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Bump & Run: Does NASCAR need to change rule that eliminated Matt Kenseth?

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Does NASCAR need to change the policy on damaged vehicles next year so instead of a disqualification for too many crew members servicing the car it’s something else? If so, what is a better alternative?

Steve Letarte: I think this is a bigger global question. I don’t love the five-minute clock. I love the damaged vehicle policy. I love the fact that we don’t have wrecked cars riding around. I’m a big fan of not adding components to the race cars. I wish it wasn’t a clock. I wish it was a lap count. The clock is a little cumbersome and a little hard to explain and to understand when everything else on the race track is measured by laps.

I would just like to see a car after a certain amount of laps down, he’s done. I think that then you could make the extra crew member, perhaps, be a one-lap penalty. I would make speeding a one-lap penalty and anything else that is currently a timed or another penalty would all be an additional lap. Then it’s clear to people that you’re allowed x amount of laps, whether it’s five or 10 laps, it’s up to NASCAR to decide. I just think the damaged vehicle policy is a great addition to the sport, but much like a lot of policies, I think it would be tweaked over the offseason to be a little more straight forward.

Parker Kligerman: Well, this is a tricky one for me. As a driver it’s just not something I would pay attention to. That is the crew chief’s job. I don’t think there is a crew chief out there that would want their driver to even understand the intricacies of these types of rules. Their focus should be on driving the car and avoiding getting into these situations. With that said, as an analyst, I think it’s time to look at the litany of new rules that have been imposed on the sport in the last five years and ask what are we accomplishing? Is it safety? Is it fairer? Are the fans benefiting? 

So with those questions asked, in this instance, when you have an infraction that is so small and not much of a gain competitively, yet it precludes you from being able to race, the fans are not benefiting. 

I understand a rule is a rule and the 20 team broke the rule. But when we get into rules that stop a car from continuing in a race in front of fans who paid large sums to be at the track, and fans who have invested a lot of time in the year rooting that driver on from their homes. I think this rule needs a re-think.

Nate Ryan: Parking a car for having an extra man go over the wall to help repair a damaged car seems fairly draconian. It’s little confusing why the penalty has to have so much teeth with so many other conditions attached to the Damaged Vehicle Policy (the 5-minute clock, the necessity of making fixes in the pits). It’s been a fine addition that has met its primary objectives this season but just needs a few tweaks, which NASCAR assuredly will make.

Dustin Long: It makes sense that the policy be changed from a disqualification to a one-lap penalty. While the rule was applied correctly in the case of Matt Kenseth’s team, it does seem overly harsh and could be tweaked before next season.

NASCAR has announced rule changes or enforcement changes in driver meetings from time to time. Is that acceptable or should NASCAR do more to ensure all its competitors know about any changes or updates that are announced in the meeting?

Steve Letarte: I’m going to put my crew chief hat on and ask is it a rules change or an enforcement change? A rule change means there has to be language in the rule book that gets highlighted in red and gets sent out to all the competitors. This is where I struggle.

Cup drivers meeting at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The enforcement of the restarts at Kansas was without a doubt different than we had ever seen. There was no doubt in my mind that NASCAR discussed it in the drivers meeting. Do I think that’s enough? Personally I do. I think that’s what the drivers meeting is for. I’ll follow that up by saying that the drivers meetings could be a little smaller and more concise. Right now there is a bit of a production to it between sponsors and fans that make it difficult, I think, for drivers to consider it a real forum for new information. NASCAR has used that before.

So the argument is it a rule change or not? A rule change absolutely needs to be emailed and bulletined to the teams, but I’m not sure this was a rules change. It sounds like it was more of how they were going to enforce the current rules.

Parker Kligerman: Yes, that is what the drivers meeting is for. I know it seems more of a show, but as a sanctioning body, they have every right to enact a new rule race day morning. As long as it is announced in the drivers meeting. 

Nate Ryan: If a rule is changed during the course of a weekend such as the restart policy at Kansas, officials must be more diligent about making sure drivers fully understand it. It should be announced both before and after the ground rules video in the drivers meeting, and there should be some system of disseminating the information electronically as a backup (as NASCAR began doing with emailed bulletins and putting its rules online a few years ago).

Dustin Long: In this era of instant communications, I see no harm in sending out a note via email, text chain or some other form to teams, crew chiefs and/or drivers on rule changes or emphasis on particular rules that weekend. That being said, these competitors are adults, it’s their responsibility to pay attention in drivers meetings.

Which playoff contender will you watch closely in this round?

Steve Letarte: I really have Chase Elliott circled. He’s the one that I feel has gone outside of my expectations. I word it like that because there are some that I think have performed to the level we thought, whether that was over-performing like the 78 to a high level, or someone like the 17 who made a nice run but eliminated probably in the round that we all thought, maybe a round deeper than we all thought. But the 24 is one that for him moving forward, he just continues to show up at the front of these races. Can he continue his improved performance? Is that because Alan Gustafson has such a great plan, he has better equipment? Is it just Chase? Is it a combination? I can’t honestly tell you the why but he’s the driver I’m going to follow over these next three races.

Parker Kligerman: I will be watching the 24 of Chase Elliott. This team has been a major highlight to me in the playoffs. With four top fives in the playoffs, second only to Martin Truex Jr., they have shown incredible speed and excellent race craft at the 1.5-mile tracks. I think if this team can be even average at Martinsville and Phoenix, they have to be one of the favorites to win at Texas and be a major contender at Miami. 

Nate Ryan: Jimmie Johnson. Though he is the most recent winner at Texas Motor Speedway and the defending race winner at Martinsville Speedway, Chad Knaus’ postrace comments to Dustin Long conveyed the sense of urgency around the team’s quest for an eighth championship. Johnson’s best chance to advance likely will be Sunday at Martinsville, but Texas will prove whether the No. 48 Chevrolet is in the ballpark for repeating at Miami.

Dustin Long: Jimmie Johnson. The playoffs are about survive and advance and he’s done that, but he has not shown enough in the playoffs to suggest he’ll move on to the final round. His record at Martinsville is impressive and he won at Texas in the spring. Is Johnson about to put himself into the final four or will he fade away, not able to overcome his car’s lack of speed?

Who is Martinsville a must-win for among playoff contenders and why?

Steve Letarte: Brad Keselowski. I think he did a wonderful job winning Talladega. When I look at Texas and Phoenix, it concerns me. Not Phoenix, maybe he can run well there. When you look at the playoff drivers, they all seem to be running in the top 10 and here is Brad Keselowski running 10th to 12th most of the day. I don’t want to make it like 10th to 12th is a bad running position. It’s not, unfortunately, it’s just not good enough when you have other drivers inside the top 10. So I think Brad Keselowski needs to look at Martinsville as a must-win.

Parker Kligerman: This may be odd considering how good he has been at all three tracks coming up. But to me, Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team could really use a win at Martinsville. He has won there nine times and won this race last year. It just seems the 48 team has not been able to spark the magic that we are used to out of them. A win at Martinsville could allow them to focus squarely on Miami and see if they can’t once again do the unthinkable and win a record eighth championship. 

Nate Ryan: The case could be made that it’s a must-win for Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski – all former Martinsville winners who want to seize an opportunity to become the first in the championship round. Among the other half of the Round of 8, Phoenix remains Kevin Harvick’s firewall, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney seem more suited for Texas, and Martin Truex Jr. seemingly doesn’t need a win anywhere until the finale.

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. He was not fast at Texas in the spring compared to how the remaining title contenders fared and was never a factor, finishing 25th. A finish like that would doom him in this round, forcing him to win to advance and his only win at Phoenix came in 2012. Martinsville is a big race for Hamlin.

NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN with Steve Letarte, Parker Kligerman and Nate Ryan joining Carolyn Manno. 

Ryan: Did self-policing in NASCAR reach a new level of social media shaming after Chicagoland?

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When NASCAR announced a private testing ban three years ago, it also disclosed an intriguing twist in how it would monitor roughly 4 million square miles.

Posting 24-hour sentries at every short track in America wasn’t an option, of course. But the 24-hour omniscience of social media?

A reality of 21st century community policing in any neighborhood, especially NASCAR’s.

“The teams are not too shy about telling on one another,” chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said at the time. “So we know it won’t be just NASCAR (enforcing the policy). We have a lot of people out there with social media.”

That was driven home by the 2017 Cup Series playoffs’ first major penalty, which was the subject of a social media firestorm long before Chase Elliott lost 15 points and crew chief Alan Gustafson this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

NASCAR officials certainly were cognizant of the potential wrongdoing to Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet well before the photos and video went viral in various corners of the Internet that purported to show aerodynamic modifications Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway that were deemed the reason for the punishment.

The sanctioning body has access to cameras around the track as well as the PRO system of about 50 high-definition cameras that provide nonstop observation of every pit stall. It certainly is plausible that officials were aware Elliott’s team might have been on the wrong side of the rulebook before the race even was over.

But the same knowledge also likely was available to teams, which work with manufacturers that employ photographers who take thousands of photos of cars on track during every race weekend. There are some moral stipulations that are followed for garage photos (as noted in this excellent USA TODAY Sports feature from 2015 by Mike Hembree), but the amount of on-track images taken are staggering. To ensure swift transmissions of massive data files to their home bases (and teams), manufacturers in NASCAR have benefited in recent years from tracks upgrading high-speed connectivity in every garage.

Was access to those vast troves of evidence put to use in attempting to try Elliott’s team in the court of public opinion before any penalty were announced, or even decided?

That’s what made this controversy feel different – and also harken back to how NASCAR implemented the testing ban. Just as it predicted teams would help with enforcement, NASCAR received photos of Elliott’s car from rival Cup teams. So did many in the news media.

It is natural to ponder whether the ensuing widespread distribution might have hastened NASCAR’s reaction – usually, penalties are announced after the offending teams are consulted and a fair amount of deliberation takes place.

In this instance, anyone with a Twitter account and following the right people – or any regular visitor to NASCAR Reddit – knew there was extra scrutiny on the No. 24, which was one of three cars taken to the R&D Center after the Chicagoland Speedway race.

If it was a coordinated and deliberate campaign by rival teams to disseminate the visual evidence of an infraction, it certainly seemed successful — regardless of whether the worldwide whisper campaign led to NASCAR uncovering the No. 24’s penalty.

“Self policing” in NASCAR – at least in a public setting — traditionally has fallen into the “Boys, Have at It” realm of frontier justice administered via bumper and fender by drivers who feel aggrieved.

This felt as if it were delivered via point and click by an angry army of engineers eager to drop a dime on a competitor – and perhaps deliver a warning about a new era in the fishbowl existence of these modern times.

Don’t bend that spoiler. Somebody always is watching — and sharing on social media.

XXX

Much of the discussion around Elliott’s car centered on whether tape was applied to the spoiler. It might have seemed a relatively minor modification, but NASCAR has been warning teams for more than a year that it would punish teams for even miniscule adjustments.

In the June 7, 2016 race at Pocono Raceway, Brad Keselowski’s team was penalized for improper body modifications, and Cup series director Richard Buck warned teams later that season at the Kentucky Speedway prerace drivers meeting and again before the Kansas Speedway race in last year’s playoffs.

Buck specifically referred to “deliberately adding tape trips,” which create more downforce by altering airflow with strategically placed tiny pieces of tape. Teams also are known to slice cars’ wraps (particularly around the wheel well area) to create more downforce.

The penalty for illegal body modifications is a pit stop for repairs under yellow (which applied in Keselowski’s case) and restarting from the rear and a drive-through penalty under green.

By virtue of a second-place finish at Chicagoland, Elliott’s car received further scrutiny in a postrace teardown at the R&D Center (after which NASCAR announced the penalty). It’s worth considering, though, if a similar situation occurred in the next nine playoff races, would NASCAR consider bringing the car to the pits based off visual evidence (and possibly punishing a team with a loss of positions even if no infraction were found)?

Or might NASCAR consider randomly inspecting cars in the impound area where officials check for five secure lug nuts before team members are allowed near the vehicles?

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It isn’t unusual for NASCAR to seize tires for inspection during a race, but Sunday was unusual because of the appearance of a blue tent that housed the dunk tank used to check them.

The tent has been in use this season to establish some consistency in its at-track processes. Because its accommodations vary from each facility (some tracks have dedicated buildings for tire suppliers; others don’t), Goodyear began erecting the tent at the back of the garage near its hauler and tire staging area so that it could check for punctures and leaks more efficiently.

Of course, it also is used by NASCAR during races for random checks – O’Donnell noted on Twitter that it has happened five times in Cup this season.

That it happened to come to light during the 2017 playoff opener and involving the race’s two fastest cars (whose speed had drawn a heavy degree of scrutiny already during the weekend, whether fair or not) made it a major storyline during the race.

NASCAR’s stock answer to questions about Sunday’s tire inspection was “well, we always have done it this way.” Again, that is true, but it falls short of meeting the self-proclaimed higher standards of transparency that officials are striving to reach, and it also implies there was a lack of newsworthiness, which is false.

This was the first time a random tire inspection was witnessed in a conspicuous-looking tent on national TV, and the intimation is that the teams involved might have done something wrong.

A better answer from NASCAR would have been: “With the intense pressure of the playoffs beginning, we reserve the right to hold every team to the highest standard of the rules to ensure fairness. We will be doing random inspections over these 10 races because a level playing field is at a premium, and we want to guarantee that to the competitors. The tires from the 18 and 78 checked out OK.”

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There has been much debate about whether NASCAR needs to be in the business of getting embroiled in midweek penalty discussions, but somehow the debate over the illegal modifications made by Elliott’s team didn’t feel in the same vein as the taint that hung over Denny Hamlin’s Southern 500 victory.

Maybe it was because it didn’t involve a winning car, but Elliott’s penalty also seemed to say more about the heightened urgency of the playoffs. Hendrick Motorsports has lacked speed during the second half of the regular season. In the cat-and-mouse game of testing the limits allowed by officials, why shouldn’t it be worth the risk to a team desperately in search of a breakthrough?

Similarly, the discussion about NASCAR briefly confiscating the tires of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch also didn’t detract from the race; it blended into the main storyline of the weekend, i.e. the recent dominance of Toyotas (and the grumbling it caused by Brad Keselowski).

NASCAR naturally wants to keep the focus on tight battles for position, but in a race decided by a 7.1-second margin of victory, the hunt for compelling angles can lead elsewhere. In both the instances of tires and tape that mysteriously might have been applied to the spoiler, it made for healthy discussions.

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After the Chicagoland win, Truex seems even more of a lock to reach the championship finale, but Kyle Larson slipped in another reminder that the tables might turn at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Obviously, (Truex) is really good,” Larson told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast after finishing fifth Sunday. “He could probably win nine out of 10, but if we get to Homestead, we’ll have a shot.”

Larson, who said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast last week that he thinks Truex “definitely” will be in the championship round, considers Miami his favorite track and with good reason. The 1.5-mile progressively banked oval favors drivers such as Larson who prefer the high lane. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver led a race-high 132 of 268 laps in a runner-up finish to champion Jimmie Johnson last season.

“I’m not surprised that Larson said that,” Truex said with a chuckle when told of Larson’s comment by NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long after his win. “He’s pretty good at Homestead, but we made some big gains there last year. That used to be one of my best racetracks. I have a feeling if we can get there, it’s going to be a hell of a battle.”

Crew chief Cole Pearn also laughed when told of what Larson said.

“I agree; I think (Larson) is the one to beat when it comes to Homestead,” Pearn told NBC Sports. “I think looking at the last couple of years, they’ve been so, so good there. So it’s definitely our weak point that we have to figure out. We’re fortunate to have a two-day test coming up in October that we can hopefully sort out some of the things that ail us there. I think if we play our cards right, we’ll have a shot at it, and that’s really our only option.

“With this one-race championship deal, you’ve got to be good at Homestead. So it’s a weak spot for us that we got to be good at when it comes time.”

Furniture Row Racing skipped the test at Miami last year, raising some eyebrows around the garage, but Truex is enthused about next month’s session. “It definitely will be big,” he said. “We’ll be there. We know what to focus on. I think we have a good game plan going on, but Homestead is a hard place to test. It’s one of those tracks that on race weekend, it’s always a lot different. You have to stay open-minded. You can’t just learn a bunch at the test, go to the track and say this is what we’re going to do no matter what because it could bite you.”

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On the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, analyst Steve Letarte said the preponderance of visual evidence was what surprised him the most about the Elliott penalty.

“That’s why I’m really so shocked by this,” Letarte said. “What a brazen move. There was no secret there were going to be photos of this car on the racetrack. That shocked me about it.”

The former crew chief also said it was a “moral struggle” watching it unfold on social media.

“I’m not sure I like the strategy or goal of whoever it was to put those pictures out there unless they’re going to cover all 40 cars the same way with some sort of moral requirement of, ‘Hey, we’re going to be Big Brother to everyone in the field,’ ” he said. “That’s the bigger problem I have with this than anything. I struggle with this starting on a social site. I don’t want there to be a million NASCAR officials out there.”

During the podcast, Letarte also discussed Kasey Kahne‘s crew chief change and the state of Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Busch’s pit crew swap, the strength of Toyota Racing Development and whether there was deeper motive behind Keselowski’s words last week.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom 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.

NASCAR penalizes Chase Elliott’s team for Chicago infraction

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NASCAR docked Chase Elliott and his team 15 points, dropping the Hendrick Motorsports driver in the playoff standings with two races left in the opening round.

NASCAR also suspended Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson one race and fined him $25,000 for the L1 infraction. NASCAR also suspended car chief Joshua Kirk one race. The team was penalized for violating section 20.20 in the Cup rulebook for modifying components to affect aerodynamic properties of the car.

Elliott finished second in last weekend’s race at Chicagoland Speedway. Elliott’s race is encumbered, meaning he does not collect the one playoff point he earned for winning the second stage.

Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalties.

Kenny Francis, who serves as Hendrick Motorsports’ vehicle technical director, has been named interim crew chief for Elliott for this weekend at New Hampshire. Kevin Hulstein will serve as the team’s car chief.

Elliott drops to 2,044 points, dropping him from sixth to eighth in the standings. The top 12 will advance to the second round. Elliott is 18 points ahead of the cutoff.

Here is what the standings look like now:

2,102 — Martin Truex Jr.

2,075 — Kyle Larson

2,067 — Kevin Harvick

2,061 — Brad Keselowski

2,061 — Kyle Busch

2,058 — Denny Hamlin

2,046 — Jimmie Johnson

2,044 — Chase Elliott

2,039 — Matt Kenseth

2,034 — Ryan Blaney

2,031 — Jamie McMurray

2,026 — Austin Dillon

Cutoff for Round 2

2,026 — Kurt Busch

2,022 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

2,021 — Kasey Kahne

2,019 — Ryan Newman

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‘Best run in a long time’ helps Chase Elliott finish second

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JOLIET, Illinois — While Martin Truex Jr. celebrated his win in Sunday’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway, Chase Elliott could feel good about his runner-up finish and stage victory.

It has been a long summer for Hendrick Motorsports, which has not had the speed to contend for wins at many tracks. While Truex was clearly the class of the field Sunday, Elliott showed that he had a strong car, scoring his second consecutive top-10 finish. He last accomplished that feat in June.

“This is the best run we’ve had in a long time,’’ said Elliott, who continues to look for his first career Cup victory after 68 series starts. “We had the thing driving right, and we could adjust on it and make minor tweaks instead of swinging for the fence. It’s not easy by any means, but we’re getting there. Today was a step in the right direction.’’

Elliott’s performance, which included winning Stage 2, allowed him to score a race-high 53 points — the most points he’s scored in a race this year. His total was aided by 18 stage points, the most he’s earned in a race this year.

“Every race you’re scratching and clawing for every point you can get,’’ crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “The stage points we gained today were really significant. We wanted to get as many stage points as we could to help us close the gap on those guys (ahead). I think we did our job today. The one (playoff) point isn’t going to hurt.’’

The result is that Elliott climbed from 10th to sixth in the standings heading into next weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He’s 33 points ahead of the cutoff with two races left in the opening round.

Elliott’s performance Sunday mirrored what happened last year in this race. Hendrick cars hadn’t been as strong entering the playoffs but Elliott excelled and finished third. Gustafson said the uptick in performance wasn’t a coincidence.

“The track is probably a decent track for us, but I think it’s more of an indication of the effort of the team and (Hendrick Motorsports) to perform better,’’ he said.

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Chase Elliott in ‘tight spot’ with three races left before playoffs

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Chase Elliott doesn’t know his exact spot or the exact number, but he knows his No. 24 team is “certainly in a tight spot” on the Cup Series playoff grid with three races left before the playoffs.

“You are never comfortable,” Elliott said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “We are there towards the back. I don’t exactly know 100 percent where we are, but I know we are one of the last few spots of non-winners that are still in.”

The spot Elliott finds himself in ahead of tonight’s Bristol night race on NBC is 14th on the playoff grid. He’s 68 points above the cutoff spot for the 16-driver field that will make the playoffs.

Elliott sits above Jamie McMurray (+52) and Matt Kenseth (+31) as the only three winless drivers in the top 16.

“That is not a comfortable position to be in because there is always an opportunity for a guy on the outside to win a race and bump you back another position,” Elliott said. “It’s tight for sure where we are at. We feel like we need a victory to feel good about it. I mean, heck, we are not many from having a full playoff list of winners. So, yeah, no, we aren’t real comfortable with it just because in that position you are not really guaranteed anything.”

If Elliott wins tonight, in two weeks at Darlington or Sept. 9 at Richmond, it would be the first Cup win for the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet is 64 races into his Cup career and has only visited victory lane in a Daytona 500 qualifying race earlier this year.

In the last two seasons, Kyle Larson, Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Blaney have won their first Cup races.

This year, Elliott has six top fives through 23 races but none in the last six races.

“I don’t think it’s eating at us per se,” Elliott said. “I feel like we’re all in a good place mentally. I am. I think (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) is. I think if we can get things rolling a little better and find some pace and find some consistency in running well each week, I think it’s easy to have everybody hyped-up and attitudes would be great when you’re running good. It’s the years and the weekends that you’re struggling to keep everybody’s morale high. I think Alan does a really good job of that.”

When it comes to gambling his way to a win or a good finish to solidify his points standing, Elliott says “a gamble is not so much a gamble anymore” when everyone is doing it.

“Now we see that every single weekend,” Elliott said. “Everybody knows all the tricks to track position and the pit strategy to move forward in a race or take a chance. Really the only time we see somebody have something weird work out for them is when a caution falls at the right time for them and none of us really know when that’s going to happen. So, I think we’re all gambling per se. We’re all just kind of doing it together instead of one person being on their own island.”

Right now, Elliott is one of three people on the island called “the bubble.”

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