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Friday 5: Restrictor-plate kings and Daytona tactics

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s pied-piper on restrictor-plate tracks, creates the question of who are the best plate drivers in Cup.

Many say Brad Keselowski, noting his five Talladega victories and one Daytona victory in his career, but it is not unanimous.

In the last three years Keselowski is tied with Penske teammate Joey Logano for most points wins at a restrictor-plate track with three each. The only other drivers with more than one plate win in the last three years are Earnhardt (2) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2). The only other drivers to win a restrictor-plate race in the last three years is Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch with one each.

Keselowski’s success has come from the strong Fords Team Penske has had, a veteran spotter in Joey Meier and the ability to control the pack while leading, darting back and forth between lanes to block.

 “It would be kind of weird to put my own name out there, but I think Joey is really good and Denny Hamlin is really good,’’ Keselowski said. “I think my teammate, Ryan Blaney, is becoming really good. If I had to pick one more, probably Kevin Harvick.”

Harvick, though, sides with those who have done well lately.

“I think the guys that have the most success right now have been Brad and Joey, and I think the Fords have the fastest cars in the race usually when you look at the past restrictor-plate races,’’ Kevin Harvick said.

Kyle Busch views the top of the class this way:

“The last couple years, I look at Brad and Denny as being the top two guys,’’ Busch said. “I think the speed of Stenhouse’s car was pretty important last year. He did a good job with it, won some races. But I got to look at Brad and Denny, the things they do, as the guys you kind of watch, see if you can mimic, emulate some of the stuff they have going on in order to get yourself through the pack and up towards the front.”

What is it that Keselowski and Hamlin do so well?

“It’s like they’re outside the car and they can see the things that are happening behind them better than I can,’’ Busch said. “Like, I can only see what’s happening behind me, the guy that’s directly behind me. I can’t necessarily tell the run that he’s getting and where the energy is coming from behind him. It’s like those guys are standing outside their car, they’re feeling or seeing what all is happening, where to get that energy from, all that sort of stuff.’’

Hamlin sees a similarity with Keselowski in how they race on plate tracks.

“I think me and Brad have similar driving styles on the superspeedways in how they do things,’’ Hamlin said. “I think there’s other things that make bold moves, and it looks good for a highlight reel, but it’s not always great for winning a race. And so I think there is a difference, and it just ‑‑ for whatever reason, our styles have morphed into kind of the same driver on these types of racetracks, and it’s really just ‑‑ for whatever reason, it’s made us successful.’’

2. AT WHAT PRICE WAS Alex Bowman’S POLE?

Kevin Harvick questioned the tactic by Alex Bowman in Thursday night’s first qualifying race.

Bowman, who won the pole for the Daytona 500, immediately went to the outside and fell to the back of the pack after the green flag waved. He spent most of race in the back and finished 14th.

“Alex Bowman didn’t learn anything today in my opinion,’’ Harvick said. “They’ll go out and practice. Starting on the pole is great but not knowing what your car is going to do is a complete waste of time in my opinion.’’

Crew chief Greg Ives defended the action.

“I saw those guys wreck and that’s something we weren’t going to have to do,’’ he told reporters after the race. “I’m already locked into the pole position, so there’s no sense being out there and having people get around you and get in a situation to get wrecked. You always want to get experience in the draft but … I didn’t think it was a benefit. We came down here with a plan and we’re going to stick with the plan. Right now it’s working out.’’

Bowman said this week that his car was “trimmed out’’ in qualifying, meaning that downforce had been taken out so the car would be faster. That’s great for single-car qualifying but teams were not allowed to change their cars before the qualifying races, so that meant that Bowman’s car likely would be unstable in traffic. To avoid the potential problems, Bowman went straight to the back.

In a race that saw a fourth of the 20 cars eliminated by accidents, including teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron, Bowman survived and has his No. 1 starting spot intact. There’s still the chance to draft in practice if the team elects — remember how Chad Knaus and Johnson used to famously avoid the draft in practice previously — and fine-tune the car once they can make adjustments for it to handle better in traffic.

If nothing else, Bowman’s pole provide additional exposure for his sponsors, marked the fourth straight year Hendrick Motorsports won the Daytona 500 pole and gave the organization something to rally around after a disappointing season that featured only four wins — the fewest for Hendrick since 2000.

3. RICKY STENHOUSE JR. GAINED NOTICE IN HIS RACE

It was as if Ricky Stenhouse Jr. raced with a billboard-sized, neon-colored “Look at Me!” sign during his qualifying race Thursday night.

But he wasn’t trying to gain the attention of fans but fellow competitors.

In the first qualifying race, Stenhouse repeatedly dived to the bottom lane and tried to make moves.

“I was just kind of tired of riding around on the outside,’’ Stenhouse said.

But his actions also did more, showing the field, particularly those that weren’t in his race, how well his car handled and the speed it had. It was a chance to remind drivers that his car would be a good one to work with in the Daytona 500.

Ford has won the past seven restrictor-plate races and has won two of the three events in Speedweeks with Brad Keselowski winning the Clash and Ryan Blaney winning his qualifying race Thursday.

4. STILL GOING

Richard Petty is 80 years old and still continues to be a part of the sport when he easily could enjoy a more casual life of retirement.

So why does he keep going?

“I’ve been going to the races since I was 11 years old,’’ Petty said. “It’s in your blood. I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t do the racing part.’’

5. THE FINAL WORD

Clint Bowyer offered this at Media Day earlier this week when told by a reporter that he looked leaner and asked how he had gotten that way.

“I just quit eating,’’ Bowyer said. “That is what you have to do when you get fat. Quit eating and quit drinking. Be miserable, and hire a trainer that is mean as hell.”

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Friday 5: NASCAR ends practice of drivers sitting in cars to serve penalties

Photo: Dustin Long
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The public shaming drivers, most notably Joey Logano, suffered last year because their cars did not pass inspection will not be repeated this season, NASCAR confirmed.

Logano was forced to sit in his car at the end of pit road for an entire 50-minute practice session in September at New Hampshire Motor Speedway because his car failed to clear qualifying inspection.

At one point, Logano’s wife delivered water as he sat strapped in the car in full uniform. The intent for such penalties was that since drivers are part of a team they should also suffer consequences when their cars failed to pass inspection in a timely fashion.

But the Logano spectacle turned the penalty into “a joke” as Logano called it that day after exiting his car in the garage.

NASCAR will change how it will enforce such penalties this year.

Teams still will be docked practice time but they will serve it in the garage instead of on pit road. Also, the driver no longer has to be in the car. Teams cannot work on the car while it is serving a timed penalty.

Also, teams will serve their penalties at the end of a practice session instead of the beginning. So, if a team has a 15-minute penalty, the driver must take the car back to the garage at that point, exit the car and the team is done for the session.

The move keeps cars from being parked on pit road, drivers sitting in them for 15, 30 minutes or more and people talking more about a car not on track instead of those that are practicing.

2. More details revealed on NASCAR’s new pit crew rules

When NASCAR announced in November that it was eliminating one person from going over the wall to pit the car, it led to many questions. At the time, NASCAR couldn’t answer all those questions as they were sorting through the details of allowing only five people to service the car.

NASCAR provided a few more answers this week.

What happens if a pit crew member is injured during an event?

That person can be replaced by a backup — even if they are assigned to another team. Say, a member of Stewart-Haas Racing’s pit crew is injured and cannot continue. SHR, which has provided pit crews to Front Row Motorsports, could take one member from that pit crew to replace the injured person. Front Row then would have to fill the open spot with someone who is listed as a pit crew member on a team roster.

OK, what about a situation like what happened at Texas in 2010 when Chad Knaus replaced all of his pit crew with teammate Jeff Gordon’s pit crew during a race?

Teams can make changes based on performance within their organization as long as they are on a roster. Recall, teams must submit a roster listing their pit crew, road crew and organizational members each weekend.

Previously it was stated that the fuel man can only fuel the car during a stop. Has that changed?

NASCAR remains steadfast in that the fuel man can only fuel the car — he is not allowed to make adjustments on the car or help with tires. The exception that NASCAR will allow is that the fuel man can kick a tire down in the name of safety — to avoid being hit by a tire.

Wait, there is a time when a fuel man can work on the car?

Yes. Say a team has damage and comes to pit road for repairs. A fuel man can go over the wall to help repair damage but cannot fuel the car during that stop. If a team changes only tires and doesn’t add fuel during a routine stop, the fuel man cannot go over the wall. No fuel, no fuel man over the wall — unless it is related to repairing damage.

3. “Jimmie Johnson rule” goes away

A controversial call NASCAR made last year in the playoff race at Charlotte won’t be repeated this season.

Jimmie Johnson started to pull out of his pit box before his team stopped him because of an unsecured lug nut. Johnson backed his car but it was not entirely in his pit stall when a crew member secured a lug nut on the left front wheel.

As it happened, many figured Johnson would be penalized for having work done on the car outside the pit box.

NASCAR did not penalize, stating that it had routinely allowed teams to secure a lug nut outside the pit box, calling it a safety issue.

All such work this season must be done in the pit box, NASCAR confirmed. If not, it’s a penalty.

Another change involves the fuel man. Previously, NASCAR allowed the fuel man to have the fuel can connected to the car and follow the car as it exited its pit stall. That no longer will be allowed. The fuel man must unplug the fuel can before the front of the car crosses over the edge of its pit stall or the team will be penalized for servicing the car outside the stall.

4. Maybe next year

One of the changes Denny Hamlin said the Drivers Council discussed last year was the choose rule. That’s what is used at short tracks.

The premise is that as drivers cross the start/finish line a lap before a restart, drivers have the option to choose if they want to start on the inside or outside lane. On a track where one groove is significantly better .

I know we talked a little bit about cone choose rule on restarts for some tracks,’’ Hamlin said of the Drivers Council. “That didn’t come forth this year. I know several of us were hoping so, being that there was such a disadvantage at some racetracks such as (you) happen to come off pit lane in the wrong lane, you’re not going to win the race, and that’s not necessarily fair.

“I think giving the drivers a choose rule would be something good to look forward in the future, but overall it’s status quo on the way the stages went. The cars are relatively the same, so there’s good momentum that we need to build on from last year.”

5. One last weekend …

This is the final weekend before NASCAR resumes at Daytona International Speedway. This also marks one of only two weekends without any of NASCAR’s three national series racing between now and the end of the season on Nov. 18.

The other weekend? March 31-April 1 because April 1 is Easter.

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