Bump & Run

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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. 

Bump & Run: Who makes the cut at Kansas, who doesn’t?

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Which four drivers will fail to advance in the playoffs after Kansas?

Kyle Petty: Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr (points deficit too great to make up in one race), Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson (for these two I think it comes down to stage points).

Dale Jarrett: Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. Even though Kenseth has the capabilities of qualifying well and getting the stage points, they haven’t been able to finish off races. I think Ryan Blaney is fast enough to get stage points and can manage a top-10 finish and keep him ahead of Jimmie Johnson.

Nate Ryan: Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jamie McMurray. I think Blaney and Kenseth have shown the speed to be worthy of advancing, but the consistency has been absent.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jamie McMurray. While Blaney has finished no worse than 11th in the last three 1.5-mile tracks, he’s scored two stage points in those races combined. Doesn’t give much confidence he’ll score enough to stay ahead of those behind him Sunday.

Why do you think or don’t think Kyle Busch will advance?

Kyle Petty: Kyle Busch makes it! Two reasons: 1. He has speed, others that are ahead of him have struggled on 1.5-mile tracks. 2. He can score stage points and ultimately win! He’s proved that all year.

Dale Jarrett: Kyle Busch runs up front all day and might even get somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 stage points and then is going to finish in the top three, if not win the race. I think that is enough to get him in there.

Nate Ryan: I think he could win Kansas, and at the very least, I think he will amass enough stage points to propel him back over the cutoff line.

Dustin Long: Wouldn’t surprise me if he won or scored another top five at Kansas to advance. I think the odds are much greater he advances even with his deficit.

What is the best place for Talladega in regards to the playoffs? Regular-season finale? Beginning of a round? Middle of a round? Last race in a round?

Kyle Petty: I like where it is in the middle of a round as a fan. It can help your driver or at least give you hope your driver can come back from a bad Talladega. As a driver I would want it as the first race in a round. So no matter what happened I had two races to recover. As a fan or driver, I hate it as a cut race because, as we saw Sunday, so much that happened is because of plain old luck, good or bad.

Dale Jarrett: I wish we would pose this to the drivers and see where they might want it. I honestly think it’s in the perfect spot right now. I don’t like the idea of it being the first race in a round. I think there is more attention to it and more pressure put on it by being right there in the middle. I think it gives a driver and a team opportunities to look at that first race, which this year was Charlotte, and try to see about getting something done as Martin Truex Jr. did and not have to worry about the consequences of Talladega. Then it also gives you an opportunity on the back end to see where you are and what you need to do. My crazy self as a fan and a media person would love to see it at some point in time be either one of two things — the final regular-season race or the final race of the season to determine the champion.

Nate Ryan: I think Denny Hamlin and the Drivers Council are correct in moving it to the regular-season finale. That seems the best of all worlds – offering protection for drivers already with victories while providing an opportunity for a long shot hoping to snatch a spot. And for winless drivers trying to earn a berth on points, no one likely would be safe – which also feels right.

Dustin Long: I like where it is, but if people want to move it, make it the opening race of the playoffs when then are 16 playoff contenders. That could enhance the next two races as those with bad finishes at Talladega scramble to make it to the next round.

Bump & Run: Did NASCAR handle Jimmie Johnson’s pit stop correctly?

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Should NASCAR have told all teams that it would allow lug nuts to be secured even if done outside a team’s pit stall without penalty, as happened with Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte, or is that a team’s responsibility to seek such information?

Steve Letarte: I spent a lot of time going through the rule book. According to 10.9.7 Vehicle Positioning Within the Pit Box, subsection D, I feel that the 48 didn’t deserve a penalty. I think they were well within their right. But the followup is that if Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, two people that I hold in very high regard, didn’t understand that rule and there had to be conversations with NASCAR, then I do think it’s NASCAR’s responsibility in today’s world of communication and how easy it is … that perhaps a simple e-mail blast explaining the rule or letting them know that were questions of the rule and to come to the NASCAR tailer if you have questions would have been a good solution.

Nate Ryan: Normally, it would be a team’s responsibility to seek rulebook clarifications – in fact, it’s a regular occurrence for teams to get new parts approved by NASCAR before presenting them for racetrack inspection. But this isn’t about gaining a competitive advantage and wanting to protect proprietary information or trade secrets. This is ostensibly about safety, as NASCAR explicitly has stated numerous times since Sunday’s race.

Dustin Long: NASCAR has stated safety as a reason for not penalizing Jimmie Johnson’s team on that pit stop. If that’s the case, isn’t it the responsible thing for the sanctioning body to inform all teams they can tighten a lug nut outside their pit box? 

How far will Chase Elliott, who has three runner-up finishes in the first four playoff races, advance in the postseason?

Steve Letarte: I think Chase will make the Round of 8, but I don’t think he’ll get out of the Round of 8. I think making it that far is very impressive. He’s really stepped his game up.

Nate Ryan: Based off the past four races, at least the Round of 8, but the confidence seems to be there for a run to the championship. To get there, though, he probably will need to score his first victory.

Dustin Long: I’ve been impressed with the speed he’s shown in the playoffs after Hendrick Motorsports’ struggles earlier this year. I think he will make the Round of 8, but he and his team will have to show me more before I would pick them to make it to Miami for the finale.

What is one thing you will be watching closely in the final two races of the Round of 12?

Steve Letarte: I think it starts this Sunday. I want to see how aggressive the 12 playoff drivers decide to go for stage points at the end of Stage 1 at Talladega. I think that will be the defining moment of this entire playoff. I think it will be the defining moment of this new points system, and I expect to see chaos and chaos early at Talladega and that’s what I’m going to be watching.

Nate Ryan: How Kyle Busch’s team manages its approach and strategy. After his wipeout at Charlotte, Busch will be the first test case of whether a driver with a significant playoff points bulge still can overcome one bad race. In the past three seasons, the next two races would be virtual must-win situations. Now it’s worth asking if Busch essentially lays up and conservatively races for points (though Talladega makes that scenario very tricky).

Dustin Long: I want to see who starts to step up. Hendrick Motorsports has so far. Will that continue and can that team step up enough to challenge the Toyotas of Martin Truex Jr. and Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Larson?

Bump & Run: Playoff sleepers and those trending down

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Give a driver not among your favorites who will be one to watch during the playoffs.

Dale Jarrett: I have to put Kurt Busch in that. He wasn’t someone until the last month that I was paying attention to, but they have seemed to have found something. Even though I still don’t put him really among the favorites to win the championship, they’ve run well enough to get high on my radar and to think with his experience, how he runs well at pretty much any type of track, that maybe they found something that other Fords haven’t been able to right now.

Steve Letarte: I think Ryan Blaney in the 21 is the sleeper pick for the playoffs. I know this is cold when I say this, but the fact is that Joey Logano missing the playoffs has increased the opportunities for Blaney and Brad Keselowski to go farther. I think it allows Penske to not distribute the effort and the manpower and divide it by three but now they get to divide it by two. I think that helps Ryan Blaney. While I don’t know if he has the firepower to go out and win in some of these rounds, but I do expect him to go past round one with just being consistent and crew chief Jeremy Bullins making good calls on top of the pit box.

Nate Ryan: Kurt Busch. He suddenly seems to have found another gear the past few weeks, and he has much to stay motivated about during the playoffs. Whether it’s his 2018 contract status, the future of crew chief Tony Gibson (who might be on his last hurrah) or the pride of proving the Daytona 500 victory wasn’t an anomaly, it’ll be easy to tap into a driving force over the final 10 races.

Dustin Long: Matt Kenseth. He’s in a Toyota, which is faster than the other manufacturers. He’s scored top-10 finishes in six of the last eight races. Don’t get hung up in that he hasn’t won yet this season. His time could be coming.

Which playoff driver is trending down for you entering the playoffs?

Dale Jarrett: I’m staying way from saying Jimmie Johnson because every time I do that he comes back and wins the next race and moves on to another round. As much as I talked about one Ford on the upswing with Kurt Busch, I think another is Ryan Blaney that is headed downward. I think the Fords, with what Brad Keselowski says, I don’t know that they’re at a disadvantage, but they’re just behind. It’s going to make it difficult for someone other than a Kevin Harvick or Kurt Busch type, and maybe Brad can work his way through there, but I think they’re going to have a difficult time of what I’ve seen recently of keeping up and accumulating enough points to move anywhere past two rounds.

Steve Letarte: Brad Keselowski has been trending a little down in playoff performance. I think he’s still a lock to make it past round one, but I’m waiting to see how much effort was being put into Joey Logano’s team to make the playoffs. I think that it definitely hurt the No. 2 in the last two or three weeks. I’m waiting to see if there is an instant uptick. I believe there will be, so I don’t have concern, but so far what I’ve seen on the race track I’d have to say Brad Keselowski is trending down.

Nate Ryan: Jamie McMurray. He still is enjoying one of the best and most consistent seasons of his career, but he seems slightly off the pace of teammate Kyle Larson and less of a weekly top-five threat as he was early in the season. The results were worthy of a playoff berth but might not be enough to reach the second round.

Dustin Long: Jimmie Johnson. The stretch just before the playoffs typically isn’t his best part of the season. He’s following form again this year. Even so, I just don’t see him as one of the four racing for the championship in Miami even though there are many good tracks for him. I expect him to be better in the playoffs than what he’s run lately, but I don’t know if he goes beyond the second round.

NASCAR has seen a decline in debris cautions this summer. After NASCAR called cautions too quickly in some cases at Richmond, how likely is it that officials will be more deliberate in calling cautions in the playoffs and how could that impact races and strategy?

Dale Jarrett: As much as competitors want it to be in their hands and we want it to be that, NASCAR can’t put them in a bad situation if there is a possibility of debris. The other night, that last caution there, there was nothing up there, nobody was going to get up in that and create a situation. That was just an overreaction. I would not go off of that as being the norm as to what’s going to happen here.

Steve Letarte: I think NASCAR will be more deliberate, and I think NASCAR must be more deliberate. The playoffs are high pressure for everyone involved. Drivers, crew chiefs, pit crews, sanctioning body, officials, broadcast partners and myself in the booth should and must feel the pressure of the playoffs to deliver the fan the experience they deserve. NASCAR has created a format where the champion will be crowned over a 10-week stretch. I love the format, but you must deliver top-notch performance within that format no matter what part of the NASCAR family you are a part of.

Nate Ryan: With debris yellows still at a 17-year low through 26 races, NASCAR will be more committed to letting races naturally unfold. Crew chiefs will be calling strategy accordingly. 

Dustin Long: There still will be cautions, so how strong a car is on a restart will still be priority. Short pitting, though, could come into play at some tracks during long green-flag runs and that could alter who wins and advances in the playoffs. 

Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte join Krista Voda on NASCAR America from 5-6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN.

Bump & Run: Will Hendrick struggles continue into playoffs?

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What’s your take on the performance of Hendrick Motorsports with the playoffs two weeks away?

Nate Ryan: Darlington was disappointing for the team, but it still is too early to tell. Hendrick didn’t lead any laps in the 2016 Southern 500, either, but when the playoffs opened at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks later, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson led 193 of 270 laps. It’s conceivable the team will flip the switch again.

Dustin Long: I’m with Nate. The performance has been disappointing, but then you look at what Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott did last year at Chicagoland Speedway and Johnson’s overall record and it’s hard to count this organization out. Still, it is troubling to see all of its cars struggling to find speed.

Daniel McFadin: HMS has 13 top fives this year —but none since Kasey Kahne pulled out a win at the Brickyard six races ago. They haven’t had the speed to be a consistent presence in the top 10 for months. At this point I’ll be surprised if Jimmie Johnson, who hasn’t finished higher than 10th since he won at Dover in June, is able to make a lot of noise in the first round outside of Dover.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though there will likely be at least three HMS drivers to start the playoffs, it doesn’t mean that any of them will reach the final round. Sure, Jimmie Johnson has three wins, but no other top fives — and just four other top 10s. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see two, if not all three, HMS drivers fail to advance past the first round. 

Martin Truex Jr. has accumulated 52 playoff points with one race left before the postseason – a total far better than any other driver. Does this make him a sure bet to advance all the way to Miami and race for the championship?

Nate Ryan: It would be virtually impossible for him to avoid advancing to the second round, making the third round should be a top-25 cinch, and advancing to Miami shouldn’t be a tall order for this team. A poor finish in the third round probably still knocks out Truex, but he could average a top 10 and easily be racing for a championship for the second time in three years.

Dustin Long: Not a sure bet, but it will give him enough of an advantage to get to at least to the third round. I would be shocked not to see the No. 78 team racing for the championship in Miami.

Daniel McFadin: Truex should be able to waltz through at least the first two rounds, especially with his strong tracks Dover, Charlotte and Chicago waiting for him. But as the final four laps at Darlington showed, it doesn’t matter how good you’ve been in the first 3/4 of race. Anything could trip you up between Chicago and Miami.

Jerry Bonkowski: Truex has had an outstanding regular season and is definitely one of the favorites going into the playoffs. But, if he stumbles in the first round, he could make an early exit like Jimmie Johnson did in 2015. No one is a sure bet in this format, even Truex.

Sunday’s Southern 500 finished with more than 100 laps of green-flag racing. What’s your take on NASCAR being more selective on when it calls debris cautions?

Nate Ryan: It’s commendable. NASCAR should holster the yellow flag for debris whenever possible. Sunday’s finish was a good example of how a track with high tire wear naturally produces drama over the course of a long run without the necessity of re-racking the field with restarts.

Dustin Long: I like that NASCAR has been more selective. It changes the dynamics and strategy. You can still have chaotic finishes (Indy), but by letting the race go green, you can also get a finish like Sunday at Darlington with Denny Hamlin chasing down Martin Truex Jr. for the win.

Daniel McFadin: The lack of mysterious debris cautions is commendable, even if it may or may not have taken criticism from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a post-race Periscope session (and other complaints) after the June Michigan race for NASCAR to take stock of what it throws cautions for.

Jerry Bonkowski: On the one hand, I like that NASCAR is being more selective with debris cautions. But on the other hand, more than 100 laps of green-flag racing can be a detriment, as fans’ attention spans are short. Plus, it’s hard to beat a late-race restart for excitement and how the race ultimately plays out.