Nate Ryan

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Bump & Run: Taking stock of the NASCAR season

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What has surprised you the most about this season?

Jeff Burton: My biggest surprise is that there really hasn’t been a flaw in the new stage racing format. I believed that something would happen that revealed a flaw that no one had anticipated but we have yet to see it.

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr.’s emergence as the championship favorite. It was expected he would run well and be a playoff contender and winner, but Furniture Row Racing regularly outrunning Joe Gibbs Racing as the best-in-class Toyota team has been a surprise – as has Truex’s runaway lead in the playoff points standings. He and crew chief Cole Pearn have become the crew chief-driver combination that is setting the pace in every way possible, whether it’s lap speeds, setup decisions or strategy calls.

Dustin Long: That there have been 14 different Cup winners (13 eligible for the playoffs) at this point in the season, which is already the most number of winners in an entire Cup season since 2013.

What driver has impressed you the most this season?

Jeff Burton: Martin Truex Jr. Speed and consistency is hard to achieve. He has been the guy that seems to be in the battle every single week. 

Nate Ryan: William Byron. His promotion to the Cup Series is well deserved, because he has proven the past two years to be an absolute prodigy with his acclimation to Xfinity and trucks. It makes one wonder if he already would have been a Cup winner if he had started his racing career in earnest before becoming a teenager.

Dustin Long: I’m amazed what William Byron has done for his relative lack of experience compared to drivers who started before they hit first grade. His ability to handle pressure situations has been noteworthy. While the challenges will increase next year, I’m already interested to see how he will do in Cup.

What storyline most intrigues you for the coming weeks?

Jeff Burton: I’m intrigued about the playoffs. There will be a big time driver and team that doesn’t advance into the playoffs. Watching who can take control and who can’t step up will be very interesting to witness.

Nate Ryan: The impact of playoff points on the championship race and how it affects who advances in each round. The suspicion here is that there will be much second-guessing and re-examination of decisions made during the regular season that had unanticipated repercussions months later.

Dustin Long: I’m intrigued to see if Kyle Busch and his team can finally eliminate the mistakes that have plagued them throughout the season and prevented Busch from possibly an epic season. With two wins in the last four races, he’s on the verge of a breakout that will lead to a dominating title run. Will it happen?

Staff picks for tonight’s Cup race at Bristol

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win tonight’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Matt Kenseth. If it is the last time, he goes out in style.

Dustin Long

Kyle Busch. Get the brooms out.

Daniel McFadin

Kyle Larson picks up win No. 4 on the season with his first Cup victory at track shorter than two miles.

Jerry Bonkowski

Joey Logano survives the typical Bristol mayhem to win and roll into the playoffs (provided this win isn’t encumbered like Richmond was).

Ryan: Chip Ganassi perfectly suited for shepherding Kyle Larson’s career, and the Michigan win showed why

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Owning a NASCAR team is a stressful business, which was best exemplified by Chip Ganassi’s celebration of Kyle Larson’s victory Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

As he pounded on the shoulders, faces and backs of crew chief, driver, engineer and anyone who happened to be clad in a red-and-white uniform within arm’s length of his hammering fists, Ganassi engaged in the most demonstrative paroxysm of nationally televised stress relief in NASCAR history.

The moment was pure Ganassi, whose gruff and hard-boiled exterior belies the fact that he delicately and deftly is juggling the oversight of enough racing teams to qualify for lifetime FIA membership.

So what might be on the mind lately of the owner of entries in Cup, Xfinity, IMSA, IndyCar and the World Endurance Championship?

Oh, not much.

–After already contractually guaranteeing Larson the right to run 25 races annually on dirt — but never the night before a Cup race — Ganassi lifted a restriction and allowed his franchise driver another shot to race a vehicle whose accepted occupational hazards include a propensity for violently flipping end over end.

–Ganassi acquiesced to that request (after constant fan goading on social media) while still hunting for a primary sponsor to replace the eight-figure void being left by Target next year on Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet.

–Meanwhile, Ganassi’s IndyCar team has managed to win only one of the first 13 races of the season, and reliable championship contender Scott Dixon just fell out of the points lead (for the first time in two months) with four races remaining.

That would seem a lot of stress, but it goes with the territory for Ganassi, whose public persona sometimes is a rough-around-the-edges and sometimes combative forcefulness that has carried his teams through sponsor departures and disappointing seasons.

On the morning of last month’s Brickyard 400, he berated a reporter who wrote Larson’s team had been “tainted” by multiple run-ins with NASCAR officials earlier this summer. It isn’t the first time Ganassi, who voraciously consumes the auto racing media’s coverage (which doesn’t go unappreciated by those of us who talk or write about the sport), has taken umbrage at how a reporter has characterized one of his teams.

This is another thing to know about Ganassi’s working relationships: As fiercely as he celebrates with them, he also stands up for his guys.

Most importantly, he stands up for Larson, who is a critical key to the future of American auto racing.

Other NASCAR team owners covet him, but there is no better caretaker than Ganassi – and not just because he dipped into his own cash reserves (which don’t run as deep as those belonging to Roger Penske or Rick Hendrick and their billion-dollar automotive empires) to get Larson’s signature on an iron-clad (but lucrative) contract for several years.

The bond between driver and owner started six years ago when Ganassi saw enough of the generational talent in Larson to invest in a path to Cup without the benefit of sponsor money when no one else would. It was a shrewd move (just as it was to accelerate Larson into Cup after a season in Xfinity) that might fall short of ever receiving proper credit because its ramifications could be so far-reaching.

Larson, 25, is a linchpin to the NASCAR youth movement, which will be punctuated when he wins his first championship (and he might be the 2017 title favorite if he reaches the final round given his sterling record and affinity for Homestead-Miami Speedway).

But he is nearly as important to the growth and progress of racing in this country. He currently is the most rock-solid bridge between big-league auto racing and grass-roots short tracks. When Larson runs the Indianapolis 500 (and Ganassi’s capitulation on the Knoxville Nationals last week shows it’s only a matter of time), he will cement his reputation as his generation’s answer to Foyt or Andretti, the legends who can win in any vehicle they choose to wheel.

The last two restarts at Michigan reaffirmed that Larson’s talent is undeniable, but it also has needed proper nurturing for an emerging star who didn’t come from a racing family steeped in the connections and knowledge to secure the necessary breaks to break through in modern-day NASCAR. Larson probably could have been successful with any team, but it’s hard to envision his development in stock cars going more seamlessly than with Ganassi.

It’s taken the unwavering belief and support of a team owner (with the mentality of a former driver) who must be mindful of balancing Larson’s personal happiness with his vested interests in the good of Chip Ganassi Racing, along with the greater good of spreading the racing gospel.

That’s a lot of pressure to shoulder for Ganassi, who spent the past couple seasons tailoring his Cup organization to maximize the prodigious ability of Larson.

Chip deserves a slap on the back.

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While the primary motivation for permitting moonlighting in sprint cars is Larson’s contentment, there might be ancillary advantages for Ganassi’s Cup teams – namely, Larson’s performance on restarts.

When Tony Stewart won the 2011 championship, his memorable late-season surge of five victories in 10 races was made on the strength of some impressive restarts (notably his race-winning move on Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville Speedway). The three-time champion (and some of his crew chiefs) credited his side trips to dirt tracks (which are filled with shorter feature races and many opportunities for timing a flag) with helping sharpen his anticipation for pounding the accelerator. The opportunity to race on dirt at his leisure was a major reason he became a driver-owner at Stewart-Haas Racing (he was restricted at Joe Gibbs Racing).

It’s worth asking if the extracurricular dirt racing has made a similar impact on Larson, whose Michigan win excised the memory of some disappointing restarts that cost him wins in races bookending the 2016 and ’17 seasons. Though the start of Sunday’s race might have been among the most disappointing of his career, he was on his game when it mattered.

Beyond the track, Ganassi’s decision to allow Larson to run Knoxville was a social media hit, both in the unveiling via dual videos by Ganassi and Larson to the traction from the #LetKyleRace hashtag. That can’t hurt a team searching for a sponsor.

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Seemingly all of the focus for how Larson won Michigan was on the final restart, but as Steve Letarte explained on NASCAR America this week, it was the previous restart and crew chief Chad Johnston’s strategy that positioned him for the win.

But while waiting to pit for four tires was critical, the team also caught a break with the final caution – after Larson went from eighth to fourth in five laps on four tires, culminating in the critical pass of Chase Elliott that put him in fourth and in the preferred outside lane for last green flag

As Motorsports Analytics’ David Smith noted (and Larson took some issue with), Sunday also was another example of the No. 42 having good fortune on restarts – though Larson certainly has seized the opportunities.

Michigan definitely was in the top five for greatest restarts in 2017 … but the final two restarts at Indianapolis (where Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski both made passes for the lead) also deserve consideration for the season’s best.

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On the flip side, the most jaw-dropping turn of events at Michigan happened before the final restart. Brad Keselowski led a race-high 105 of 202 laps and seemed destined for the first victory at his home track until a cascading set of calls left his No. 2 Ford in 17th.

After Keselowski dominated the first half, crew chief Paul Wolfe devoted his strategy in the second half to chasing Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn. It started when Truex won the second stage by (unintentionally?) short-pitting and leap-frogging from fifth to first (ostensibly, the stop was for a tire problem but was just a few laps ahead of the rest of the contenders).

Keselowski never regained his mojo after that point despite a few gambits by Wolfe. The first was pitting under caution on Lap 140 and re-emerging in 10th as the first car on four tires – but it hardly worked in gaining the necessary ground. When Truex pitted from the lead on Lap 160, Keselowski hadn’t built enough of a cushion to put him a lap down.

So Keselowski pitted again on Lap 162 but for only two tires – and yet still lost the lead to Truex, who had taken four. That left Keselowski obligated to pit for two tires again when the yellow flew on Lap 188 — thus making three pit stops to Truex’s one in the final 60 laps despite having a faster car for most of the race.

At least it seemed much faster until Truex won the second stage and somehow managed to dictate the rhythm of the race despite taking his first lead on Lap 114. Keselowski explained “he didn’t really have enough” to run with Truex so, “we tried a little strategy to kind of get something out of it, but the way it all played out I ended up getting the bottom lane on the restarts and getting absolutely swallowed. We tried. We put in as much effort as we could.”

It was reminiscent of what has been Wolfe and Keselowski’s modus operandi whenever they’ve been at peak operating levels – get the competition off their games. Five years ago at Michigan, they outwitted Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus with pit strategy, a precursor to Keselowski’s maverick charge to the 2012 championship.

It was the first sign that the bewitching spell Johnson and Knaus held over NASCAR for several years seemed to be waning … just as it eventually did for their Hendrick Motorsports forebears Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon after their “Refuse to Lose” heyday.

Truex and Pearn now seem to be the sublime combination of crew chief and driver whose strategy plays and flawless execution have rivals spun out. Though the speed of their No. 78 Toyota has been undisputed, it’s not the only reason the Furniture Row Racing duo has become the weekly focus of the Cup garage.

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If Danica Patrick seems happier lately (despite an uncertain future in racing), it’s because she is.

In the latest episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver discussed how she transformed her outlook on life.

“I just don’t feel the weight of anything anymore,” Patrick said. “I don’t feel angry about anything. It’s just gone. There’s plenty of things I look back and I’m like, ‘That sucked, but whatever. I’m going to go on.’ And the things that make you happiest are free.”

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.

Bump & Run: Should NASCAR be doctoring tracks to add grip?

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NASCAR is expected to use traction compound or drag tires at a number of tracks there the rest of the season. Are you OK with this action or should NASCAR not do such things to tracks?

Nate Ryan: As long as the drivers are on board, let’s start ordering the sticky stuff by the truckload. 

Dustin Long: Why shouldn’t NASCAR try to find ways to create the best possible racing for fans?

Daniel McFadin: The spring Bristol race was the most enticing Bristol race in my adult memory, so I’m going to say try it wherever you think you need it. Because if you’re a track that’s even considering using it, you probably need to try.

Jerry Bonkowski: I understand why NASCAR is using the PJ1 compound or dragging tires to improve the racing. And while both are used to enhance grip and widen or bring in additional grooves on certain tracks, the purist or traditionalist in me does not like artificial means to be used. I feel that perhaps the use of softer tires may bring better grip, but at the same time, softer tires typically wear out quicker. It’s kind of a Catch-22 situation for NASCAR and its drivers. They want better grip for better racing, but having to resort to an artificial method to do so just kind of rubs me the wrong way. 

Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Trevor Bayne are the first five drivers outside a playoff spot with three races left before the playoffs are set. Will any of these drivers make the playoffs?

Nate Ryan: It seems as if the rookies Suarez and Jones have the most momentum lately. Bowyer still seems most likely to get a win and also could claw his way into a points spot. But a realist wouldn’t bet that any of these drivers qualifies. The playoff window virtually has closed already.

Dustin Long: No. Have to wait until next year.

Daniel McFadin: Erik Jones. He’s the only one of the group consistently running up front, at least in the last three races, and getting to the front of the pack without pit strategy.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even with the problems he’s had over the last several races, I think Logano will still make the playoffs. Bowyer will need at least top-10 finishes in the three remaining races to make a serious run at Matt Kenneth — and may still come up short. While Jones and Suarez are having a strong battle for Rookie of the Year, I don’t think either will make the playoffs, unless they win one of the next three races.

Did Kyle Larson’s win at Michigan show you that the team is back in form after recent struggles?

Nate Ryan: It’s back in form on strategy and execution, which were flawless in positioning Larson to win at Michigan. But the No. 42 Chevrolet still lacked the blinding speed from earlier in the season. 

Dustin Long: I need to see more. It’s a good start and changes the momentum for the team, which is important. Still, I want to see this team lead more laps and be higher on the speed chart. One race doesn’t turn a team’s season around but one race can be the start of something big. Let’s see what this team does next.

Daniel McFadin: As dramatic and fun as the final restart was Sunday, Larson’s win wasn’t a result of a superb performance. After the “worst start of my career” (starting ninth and falling to 15th) Larson spent all of Stage 1 outside the top 10 and then had an average running spot of 8.8 in the race. He was in a position to win solely because of two late cautions and a willingness to use his bumper.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’d like to think so, but Larson has been very cyclical this season. He won at Michigan in June and had finishes of 26th and 29th in the next two races at Sonoma and Daytona. He had back-to-back runner-up finishes at Kentucky and New Hampshire, only to have three straight finishes of 23rd or worse in the next three races (which occurred before Sunday’s race at Michigan). If anything, he can somewhat be less aggressive in the next three races, knowing he’s locked into the playoffs — and he can ratchet up the aggressiveness when the playoffs begin.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Michigan

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Martin Truex Jr. He had the best car in June before circumstances intervened. They won’t this time.

Dustin Long

Kyle Larson. He makes it three in a row at Michigan.

Daniel McFadin

Michigan has served as a safe harbor for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during career low points before. The 2-mile track does so again today.

Jerry Bonkowski

Joey Logano. He gets his old Michigan mojo (2 wins, 5 top-5 and 12 top-10 in 17 starts) back — and makes the playoffs as a bonus.