NASCAR on NBC podcast

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.

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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 on NBC podcast, Ep. 94: Danica Patrick on why ‘I don’t feel the weight of anything anymore’

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As she faces the most uncertain time of her NASCAR career, Danica Patrick sounds more secure in herself than ever.

During a recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver explained how she is growing more “Zen” in approaching middle age.

“I just don’t feel the weight of anything anymore,” Patrick, 35, said. “I just don’t feel angry about anything. It’s just gone. There are plenty of things I look back and think, ‘That sucked, but you know what? I’m going to go on’.

“And the things that make you the happiest are free. Do I love going on a private jet? Sure. Do I love going to really fancy vacations with boutique hotels where you have your own 3,000 square feet? Do I love being able to treat people well by giving them gifts and buying them things? Yeah, of course. That’s all wonderful stuff, but nothing feels better than the joy of family, love and friends. The stupidest thing, when I watch my two dogs play, I’m so happy. I literally laugh out loud by myself.”

Patrick said he has taken to watching Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday” for inspiration in interviews with spiritual people.

“Have I been screwed out of millions of dollars over the years in different ways and different places? Yep,” she said. “Have I had heartache? Yep. Have I been disappointed in myself or other people? Yep. There’s been all kinds of that, but that’s life.”

There is much happening in Patrick’s life outside of the car. Her first book (“Pretty Intense”) will be released in January, and she already has made plans for a sequel. She has opened a Napa Valley vineyard (Somnium) that recently released its first Cabernet Sauvignon. She launched a “Warrior” athleisure line that will be sponsoring her No. 10 Ford at Richmond Raceway this weekend.

But Patrick has cautioned against the perception that the forays are evidence of an exit from NASCAR.

“They are not an escape plan, they are not a backup plan, they are purely extensions of things I already do,” she said. “They really are. What I love about racing is the art of it. I love the challenge, the journey. I love the work involved between a group of people to find success. Whether it be through my communication about how the car feels, then you make changes, and it gets better.

“There’s a journey in that. I also love the execution, the mental discipline, the setting someone up. The things it takes to put a whole race together. There’s nothing better than outsmarting someone out there. Those are the things I really enjoy about racing. I’ve never made it a mystery that I’m not into cars.”

Patrick said there is no timetable for solidifying a 2018 ride.

“Just go with the flow and see what comes up and feels right,” she said. “In the spiritual laws of success, the two laws that are most important are the law of detachment and of least resistance. They’re similar.”

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 on NBC podcast, Ep. 91: Tony Stewart on racing in Global Rallycross and other series

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With his NASCAR career over, Tony Stewart has the freedom to drive whatever he chooses, but he still might not have the time to do it all.

During a recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, Stewart said Steve Arpin had called him many times about being a teammate in the Global Rallycross series.

“I’m very interested in doing that,” Stewart said on the podcast. “We’ve been playing phone tag back and forth trying to get organized to have a conversation about it. We just have so much stuff going on, it’s a good problem to have. It’s nice to be so busy that it’s hard to find time to do all the things we want to do.”

The three-time Cup Series champion, who also has indicated a desire to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans, made his debut this year in the Little 500, a 500-lap sprint car race on a high-banked quarter-mile track in Anderson, Indiana. Stewart finished third in a race that features the rarity of pit stops for race cars without clutches.

“It was a really big toss-up between racing the Little 500, a bucket list item for me, or going to Monaco for the Formula One race,” he said.

Next year, Stewart plans to be in Monte Carlo with co-owner Gene Haas to watch the Haas F1 team.

“It’s cool to be checking boxes off,” he said.

During the podcast, Stewart also discussed:

–The meticulous preparation necessary to get his Eldora Speedway ready for a dirt-track event;

–What appeals to a driver about racing on dirt;

–The state of safety in dirt racing;

–Adapting to sprint cars this year after a long layoff.

A new role driving his team’s souvenir trailer.

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. 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 or wherever you get your podcasts.

NASCAR America: Matt DiBenedetto is more than a driver with a long last name (video)

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Matt DiBenedetto was a guest on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan. During their chat, which covered how his family moved to North Carolina to further his career when he was younger, his positive outlook on matters and his life, he was played a tape SiriusXM NASCAR Radio uses of people, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., mispronouncing his last name.

To think of DiBenedetto as someone who a long last name is to overlook what he’s done this year.

Although DiBenedetto drives for a single-car team, Go Fas Racing, he is one of four drivers to have placed in the top 10 in both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 this year. He was ninth at Daytona and eighth at Indianapolis. The others who posted top 10s in each race are Kasey Kahne (seventh at Daytona, won Indy), AJ Allmendinger (third at Daytona, 10th at Indy) and Joey Logano (sixth at Daytona, fourth at Indy).

NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Jarrett discussed what stands out to him about DiBenedetto on Friday’s NASCAR America.

“I’m most impressed with his attitude and just the desire and determination he brings,” Jarrett said.

“I really like the determination and the passion he has to be a race driver, but yet understand his position right now at this point, he wants to move forward but he’s OK where he is right now.”

For more on DiBenedeetto, watch the video above.

You can listen to the NASCAR on NBC podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts 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.

 

Podcast: Tony Stewart on a new role driving his team’s T-shirt trailer

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Tony Stewart is enjoying his new life of driving – and not just behind the wheel of a sprint car again.

In his first year without racing NASCAR in 18 seasons, the three-time Cup champion is logging as many hours on the interstate as on the track, driving the Ford pickup truck that pulls his team’s T-shirt trailer between races.

“It’s nice to get on the road, driving down the interstate,” Stewart said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “You can think of a lot of things, you can also just have time to not think of anything and just relax. Driving down the road is a good opportunity just to do that.”

During one recent stretch, Stewart drove the truck to a track near Madison, Wisconsin. After arriving midafternoon and racing, he left at 1 a.m. and drove until 5:30 a.m. After a six-hour break, he and the team completed the drive to Knoxville Raceway in Iowa for a Saturday night race that ended around 11 p.m.

Stewart then drove the trailer back to his team’s shop in Brownsburg, Indiana, arriving around 8 a.m. He reached his house near Columbus an hour later and slept until late afternoon.

The souvenir business is strong enough in dirt-track racing to make the road trips worth the effort. Kyle Larson’s success in sprint cars this year has put the spotlight on the disparity between merchandise profits for drivers in Cup vs. grassroots.

“I know it’s been a controversy, but everywhere we’ve gone and taken our souvenir trailer, we’ve done great with it,” Stewart said on the podcast. “I know for the drivers whose full-time job is driving race cars, that T-shirt business is huge. Thank God it’s not under the NASCAR side of it, or these guys wouldn’t be making anything on souvenirs. The guys on the NASCAR side aren’t making squat on souvenirs, and it’s something that ticks me off daily. The drivers who worked their entire life to build their brands aren’t making the most money on it.”

Four days after recording the podcast, Stewart won his second sprint car race of the season, which he described as “a challenge.

“It’s not been near as easy as I’d like it to be,” said Stewart, who has struggled to adapt his cars and style to a different tire. “But that’s why l like going sprint car racing, too, because it’s not easy. It’s really difficult.”

What has been easier for him is the pace of life without the demands of being a full-time NASCAR driver. As an owner of various racetracks, companies, series and teams, Stewart faced as much pressure from outside the car while trying to race Cup.

“We’ve got a lot of things on our plate,” he said. “This has taken a ton of stress out. The workload is higher now, but I’m having fun doing the work that I’m doing. It’s definitely been the right move for me.”

It also has allowed for some unique freelancing for Stewart, who raced in the prestigious Little 500 for the first time this year and plans to become a regular at an annual three-quarter midget race at the Columbus, Indiana, fair (along with attending the Monaco Grand Prix next year). A one-off ride in the Global Rallycross series also is a possibility.

“It’s nice to be so busy that it’s hard to find time to do all the things we want to do,” he said.

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. 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.