Ryan: A tale of two short tracks (and maybe two driver temperaments)

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Two short tracks with highly anticipated stops on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

Two agonizingly frustrating battles of unseasonable inclement spring weather ranging from untimely snow to bone-chilling cold (if you polled the NASCAR garage, what would be this week’s opinion on climate change?).

Two races in the tightest quarters of the 2018 season.

Two wildly differing outcomes.

Bristol Motor Speedway’s two-day spectacular was much better than Martinsville Speedway’s extraordinarily tame outing on a snow-delayed Monday two weeks earlier.

Why?

You could start with the surface. During the recent era of track treatment, rarely has a traction compound’s application drawn such universally positive reviews as Bristol this past weekend. Track officials took advice from drivers to heart and laid down PJ1 in a way that ensured the bottom groove was the fastest – which, as Jeff Burton noted on Monday’s NASCAR America, is the best version of the 0.533-mile oval.

They also weren’t shy about reapplying the sticky stuff Monday after 204 laps were run Sunday before the washout (and it is fair to ask whether midrace treatment of a track unjustly shapes the competition).

But Bristol’s success seemed less about the surface as the men trying to navigate its treacherous environs. From the jump Sunday, there was an aggressive bent behind the wheel that was missing at Martinsville.

What other factors might have been involved?

Martinsville led into one of two off-weeks this season, and the postponement already might have been cutting into preparations for precious vacation time. It doesn’t necessarily mean conscious choices were made to avoid forcing the issue on every lap, but there might have been a general complacency fostered by the cabin fever-bred anxiety of an extra day at the track (or a night in a motorhome) with spring break looming.

Bristol, meanwhile, was a cauldron of pent-up ambition that often spilled over the edge during the course of 27 hours. It felt like the first real short-track race of the season with the constant battles that have been the hallmark of Martinsville the last few seasons. There were more leaders, more lead changes and more than twice as many caution flags (subtracting the three for rain).

There’s no way to definitively explain the disparity, but Bristol and Martinsville did reinforce a commonly held axiom.

In races threatened or postponed by weather, the action usually goes one of two ways: Drivers go hell-bent for leather, or they log laps with a de-emphasis on drama.

It seemed as if we saw both sides in the season’s first two short tracks.


In his weekly appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NASCAR senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell gave the most lucid and succinct explanation yet in what lies at the root of the pit gun debate.

Is it about the speed of the guns … or the swiftness of the pit crews?

As O’Donnell put it, the truth lies somewhere in between – and so does the pathway forward to getting everyone on the same page – which should be the primary goal instead of pointing fingers. As noted in last week’s column, there is more than enough culpability to go around.

The first step would be agreeing on what constitutes the better compromise: Paoli bringing its guns up to the level of the most elite pit crews, or teams retraining their athletes to slow down their lightning-quick hand speeds to adapt to the new guns.

Richard Childress Racing executive Andy Petree said in a revealing interview last week on FS1 that RCR had been counseling its crews to go slower and avoid “outrunning the equipment.” In postrace comments Monday to Dustin Long, it would seem Denny Hamlin would disagree with that approach.

This essentially is the crux of the issue to be discussed at the Team Owners Council meeting this week: Is it better to ask pit crews to change their ways, or manufacturer Paoli to change its guns?


Kyle Busch’s 49 points at Bristol were the third-lowest total for a race winner this season, and it essentially was because of an intriguing decision by Busch and several other teams near the end of Stage 1.

When the caution flew with five laps remaining in the stage, Busch was in second place behind Brad Keselowski, who elected to stay on track with five others: Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and AJ Allmendinger.

Busch lined up seventh for a one-lap restart to end the stage … and promptly dropped to 11th at the green and white flag – falling from a potential nine stage points to zero.

The decision worked out slightly better for Kyle Larson, but he still had a net loss of two points (taking fifth in the stage after falling third to eighth on the stop). It obviously went well for Keselowski, who earned 10 points and a playoff point with the stage win, and Bowyer (three), Almirola (eight) and Newman (two) all gained multiple points.

The scenario was an interesting window into how much teams value stage points. With a win and in the playoffs, Busch’s team traded points for potential track position with the threat of a shortened race (though the No. 18 Toyota still finished behind Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford at the end of the second stage that made it official).

Keselowski, who still needs a win to lock up a berth, stayed out for maximum stage points and seemed pleased by the decision. “I hate to lose the track position, but that’s too many points to just throw away,” he radioed his team.

Points that could be remembered as critical when the series reaches the Brickyard in September.


As Burton and Steve Letarte alluded to on NASCAR America, there won’t necessarily be a happy ending in Cup for Ryan Preece’s Cinderella story. There is hardly room at Joe Gibbs Racing with Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez all locked in for the foreseeable future, and it’s difficult to forecast which other premier series rides could open.

But there simply must be a full-time ride at the very least in the Xfinity Series for Preece, who has two wins (including last Saturday at Bristol) over the past two seasons for JGR.

Besides being talented, the 27-year-old is articulate and relatable, and as he eloquently explained last weekend, Preece has become a hero to short-track fans and racers around the country. As Parker Kligerman (whose struggle for a full-time ride is similar to Preece’s) wrote in a column for NBCSports.com earlier this year, NASCAR still remains a breed apart from much of the ride-buying morass found in Formula One and IndyCar.

But the necessity of “pay” drivers seemingly gets worse in stock cars with each passing year, and when even championship contenders are asked to bring sponsorship, it’s problematic.

The challenge clearly lies in finding sponsorship, but at what point do teams get held accountable for a lack of hustling to find money for an attractive candidate such as Preece, choosing instead just to take another driver’s check?

If Preece starts 2019 without a fully funded ride, that’s a debate worth having.


Speaking of the Xfinity circuit, kudos to series director Wayne Auton for owning a mistakeafter Saturday’s Dash 4 Cash mixup and reinstalling Daniel Hemric’s eligibility. Though such errors must be kept to an extreme minimum, it’s understandable how this one might have occurred.

The incident occurred during an expedited postrace inspection at track to ensure the four cars eligible for the Xfinity promotion were confirmed for the following race at Richmond. Normally, such inspections take place at the R&D Center, but the goal is getting more of the postrace inspection process done at the track and avoiding the midweek announcements that often derail more compelling storylines (in all series).

If a car being incorrectly deemed illegal is a byproduct of ultimately getting to a better place with inspections, it’s worth the long-term trade-off.


It might have been overlooked because the announcement came during Monday’s resumed race at Bristol, but Eldora Speedway is doing something that might be a worthy weather contingency concept for all tracks that don’t have domes.

Giving fans six days’ notice, the track’s 65th season opener Saturday has been “flex-scheduled” to 4 p.m. – roughly three and a half hours earlier than its scheduled start – because of an ominous forecast for the Ohio dirt track.

Flex-scheduling has been used with success in the NFL to provide better competitive matchups. Eldora is trying it to optimize its schedules for fans and teams with the threat of poor weather conditions. While it might be more difficult for a series with a national TV partner, it seems at least worthy of consideration.

Ryan: It’s time for NASCAR and teams to tighten it up on pit guns

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It is because of faulty air regulators, equipment that falls short of handling heavy torque and a simple lack of real-world testing for a massive undertaking.

It is because of the new pit crew restrictions, pressure-packed money stops and teams looking for something to blame for subpar performances.

There are two distinct sides (“Blame the guns!” “Blame the crews!”) and several schools of thought (along with many shrill voices championing them) on why the perceived reliability of the new pit guns has become one of the overarching stories of the 2018 season as pit stops have resulted in a spate of loose wheels.

There is one simple conclusion: It must be fixed.

As Dale Jarrett said Monday on NASCAR America, the prudent move in retrospect probably would have been to test these guns for a full season in the Xfinity Series before bringing them to Cup. But it’s now too late for such a retroactive Band-Aid.

Either the product must be upgraded by Paoli (or replaced entirely by a new manufacturer). Or Cup teams currently complaining need to get religion that the randomly issued guns can be trusted and no longer will be public scapegoats for pit miscues.

The discussion that dominated the postrace conversations about Kyle Busch’s victory Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway is fine for early season talking points, but if it persists into the summer, the potential damage to NASCAR’s credibility and competitive legitimacy exponentially will become highly dangerous.

It assuredly needs to stop before the playoffs begin. NASCAR can’t afford to have a playoff contender’s advancement – or God help them, the championship – called into question by a situation similar to what plagued Kevin Harvick at Texas.

The past two months have brought enough finger-pointing and social media snark to fill an hourlong episode of a NASCAR reality TV show, and it’s occasionally cathartic and compelling to see such raw emotion laid in the open.

But no more. The absolute top priority (even ahead of the uncontrolled tire controversy) during the weekend debriefs today at the R&D Center should be addressing the pit guns and setting a goal of putting the topic to bed by the Coca-Cola 600.

With everything aired out about pit guns, it’s time to tighten it up, literally and figuratively.


There were some suggestions made that Harvick experienced a dose of schadenfreude at Texas because he previously had dismissed the pit gun problems as a nonissue.

This doesn’t seem to ring true, at least not publicly. When Martin Truex Jr. had major pit problems at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Harvick was asked about the guns.

His answer:  “I honestly don’t know 100 percent what happened, so that’s way out of my category of things that I need to be commenting on,” he said.

There were similar answers that day when Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer also were asked about the guns – reinforcing the notion that an informal gag order had been in place from NASCAR about disparaging the new equipment.

That’s why it was significant and stunning to hear the postrace objections to the guns by team owners Joe Gibbs (who usually shies far away from public controversy) and Rob Kauffman.

Though some members of the Team Owners Council raised the concept to NASCAR of implementing common pit guns, and all teams voted on the topic, there obviously wasn’t consensus on the decision.


One of NASCAR’s selling points is its family values, and that extends to the working relationships between teams and officials. When you spend 36 weekends and thousands of hours on the road together, it’s unavoidable that bonds will be built.

But in today’s age of social media and GIFs that play on infinite loops, there must be clearer boundaries drawn on in-race displays of collegiality, particularly when team members and driver business managers are involved.

How would the world react if Ed Hochuli slapped a high-five with Cam Newton or Drew Rosenhaus? How would a fist-bump for Joey Crawford from LeBron James or Maverick Carter be perceived?

It’s great that NASCAR exists as one big happy family much of the time (it probably couldn’t survive without those dynamics), but that image must be shelved when the competition begins and the national TV cameras are rolling.


Out of the mouths of babes sometimes come pearls of wisdom, so let’s note what the highest-finishing member of the New Kids on the Track said about Sunday’s 500-mile race at Texas. With eight cautions, the event ran slightly over three and a half hours (not including an 11-minute red flag).

Toward the end, fourth-place finisher Erik Jones radioed his team that the race seemed longer than normal, particularly as the second 500-miler since the season opener.

“They all seemed quick to me,” Jones said of the previous five races this season after the Daytona 500. “Man, (Texas) seemed like a Truck race.

“We came here, it was like this race is dragging.  It wasn’t, like, I was wore out or anything.  It just seemed like it was never going to end for a minute. With the red flag and everything, it kind of exaggerated that thought that was running through my mind. They’re long races.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to racing 500 miles. That’s a long time.  I think overall this year I just have a better idea of how to race ’em.”

So should the races be shorter?

“I feel like you’re trying to get me in trouble now,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver laughed. “I mean, in my opinion only, yeah. I think 400 miles is enough.  I think there’s marquee races that need to stay: Daytona 500, Southern 500, Coke 600.  But I do think 400 miles is probably enough.”

Jones should face no repercussions for offering the honest opinion of a 21-year-old who is in tune with the generation of fans that NASCAR desperately needs to attract.

And though his view might be anathema to Texas president Eddie Gossage and old-guard fans, it needs to be seriously considered when assembling future schedules.


NASCAR took six cars from Texas to the Aerodyn wind tunnel in Mooresville, North Carolina, for testing today, presumably to measure downforce levels between manufacturers.

Maybe the sanctioning body also might explore the effects of aerodynamics after a particularly edgy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Several drivers lost the handle between Turns 3 and 4 when on the bottom with a car on the outside. Brad Keselowski, who was collected in a multicar crash that started when Denny Hamlin lost control with Aric Almirola on the outside, said the blame mostly could be attributed to aerodynamics.

Race winner Kyle Busch agreed. “It does lend itself to aerodynamics,” he said. “The guy on the outside just doesn’t want to get any wider than he has to because of how wide the racetrack is. You want to stay in that rubber.  The closer you can stay or the lower you can stay, the better the grip is.  So you’re going to pinch that guy that’s on the inside of you as much as you can in order to hold your position, if you’re the guy on the outside, sacrifice yourself.

“You’re playing with fire.  It’s a double‑edged sword.  You can pin him, keep that spot, or you can pin him and crash, and he can take you with him.  You have to be mindful of that.”

Though there were some examples of drivers making great saves (namely Busch and Bubba Wallace), there is a fine line between making the cars hard to drive and going beyond the bounds of top-level talent.

Texas showed that the current car might straddle that boundary too much on a supersonic 1.5-mile layout.


NASCAR confirmed Tuesday that it was Ryan Blaney’s right-front tire that was deemed uncontrolled and triggered a penalty on Lap 43 (and not the right rear that briefly was unattended while stationary on the outside of the pit box).

Normally, this would be mostly nonessential information but with the (admittedly wrong) noncall on Harvick’s team late in the race, Blaney’s penalty provides important context to how the rule is interpreted and assessed.

Ryan: The many reasons why Clint Bowyer’s ninth win felt like the first

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Monday’s command performance at Martinsville Speedway was Clint Bowyer’s ninth career victory in NASCAR’s premier series. The postrace scene made it seem as if it were the first.

The parade of drivers to victory lane to offer hearty congratulations (not just teammates Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola but also Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski).

The exuberant rookie mistake of standing on the roof in exultation (sorry about those R&D Center tape measures, NASCAR!).

The excitable answers that spilled from Bowyer’s mouth in complete paragraphs instead of full sentences.

The setting on the Martinsville frontstretch as dusk approached was normally what is seen with an inaugural winner, never mind a 13-year veteran whose first victory came in the 2007 playoffs opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

This doesn’t discount the emotional significance of Bowyer’s victory. This is the best feel-good story since the Daytona 500.

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images

The poignant images of his dash to scoop up 3-year-old Cash and share the joy of his first victory in more than five years will be what lingers and resonates from the sixth race of a season that could use more such special moments.

But the collective merriment felt as much about relief as celebration (though undoubtedly there were those who offered congratulations contingent on the hopes of securing an invite to Bowyer’s all-night rager).

Bowyer said as much in admitting he spent some time worrying while leading 215 of the final 216 laps on the 0.526-mile oval.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” Bowyer said when asked about averting a pit stop under green that could have left him at a disadvantage because of fuel mileage. “I was wondering how we was going to lose this race, and that’s going to be how we’re going to lose it.

“But man, I don’t know why it just felt right. Today was going to be our day.”

This officially is Year 2 of the Clint Bowyer Reclamation Project, but it feels much longer than that because rarely have things gone swimmingly since the infamous night in Richmond when a curious flick of the steering wheel sent NASCAR into a scandal-tinged tailspin that seemed to ensnare Bowyer, too.

His last two seasons at Michael Waltrip Racing were mostly miserable as the team sank slowly into oblivion.

There was a rescue line tossed by Stewart-Haas Racing late in 2015, but it meant 2016 was a bridge year spent in 25th-place obscurity of a backmarker team that since has folded.

And when he finally arrived in the No. 14 Ford last year, it didn’t immediately mesh while attempting to fill the enormous void left by three-time champion and car owner Tony Stewart.

Bowyer admitted that he and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz “fought a lot” in their first season together (there was the notable video of the driver stomping away after arguing with Bugarewicz at Talladega last October).

“All you guys was hard on us last year,” Bowyer said to the postrace news media. “We learned a lot. I learned a lot about myself.”

So much that the guy who never lost a party went so far as to embrace the power of positive thinking, hanging victory lane photos and championship plaques from days gone by on the wall of his office.

Whatever it took to spark the turnaround.

Bowyer, 38, might be in a good place, but the Cup Series hasn’t taken kindly lately to middle-aged veterans on 190-race breaks between wins. Even those who still win regularly (hello, Matt Kenseth) are getting squeezed out by a numbers game that favors the cheaper and less experienced option.

It’s fair to wonder how much longer the leash would be for Bowyer if he hadn’t won Monday, particularly if the team stumbled and gave away another win.

Now all that weight has vanished and been replaced by the security of being locked into the playoffs six months early.

Nearly two hours after the race, the festivities were just getting started.

“Hell no,” he cracked when asked if he had gotten the carousing out of his system. “It ain’t even dark yet.

Seems fairly bright, actually. Like the dawn of a new beginning.


The luxury of showcasing Bowyer’s effervescent personality was the saving grace of a 500-lap race that simply was uneventful for Martinsville. History shows that, but so did the Camping World Truck Series race that immediately preceded the main event. It wasn’t as if the track was less than primed for being conducive to action.

There were many theories supplied – tire combinations, data sharing, reduced aggression – about why the beating and banging of fenders were largely absent.

With far more at stake when the Cup Series returns Oct. 28 in the thick of the playoffs, let’s hope that Martinsville’s magic does, too.


Brad Keselowski caught grief last year when he chose the outside lane for a restart on which he lost the lead and the shot at a 2017 sweep of Martinsville.

But the cerebral Team Penske driver seems to have been ahead of the curve on a growing trend that would have seemed unthinkable prior to the advent of double-file restarts: The outside seems to be the preferred lane at Martinsville.

Aside from the start (when pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. held first from the inside) and Lap 143 (when Ryan Blaney started on the inside and lost the lead to Denny Hamlin), the leader took the outside and retained first on every restart Monday.

As noted by Motorsports Analytics founder David Smith, the outside line has become the place to be at Martinsville since 2014 by roughly a 20 percent advantage.


The decision to postpone Sunday’s race at 7 a.m. wasn’t received well – understandable because it meant thousands of fans likely wouldn’t be able to return Monday (and also wouldn’t be getting ticket refunds from the track). The reasoning for the postponement – that the conditions around track property precluded a safe ingress and egress – also was sound.

The head-scratching part of the virtual no-win decision was found on social media.

As the snow began to lighten late Saturday night, NASCAR Twitter lit up with images of the track being cleared and some upbeat photos and video by NASCAR officials and drivers that fed optimism (without qualification) of a Sunday race.

When the race was delayed the next morning, it came so out of the blue that some drivers were about to begin the drive north minutes before the news broke.

If you were a fan deciding on travel to the track and gauging off Saturday late night’s dispatches, there wasn’t much evidence to the contrary that it seemed right to leave early Sunday morning.

Seeing Martinsville blanketed in snow was delightfully fun to witness. But the next time there’s such a threat of inclement weather, it might be wise to temper that enthusiasm with at least some warning the green flag might be in doubt (instead of inadvertently suggesting the opposite).


The only flicker of a potential feud was snuffed quickly when Denny Hamlin quickly put the ruination of his winning bid behind him.

Scuffles have been ignited by far less than the game of brake-check chicken that Hamlin and Kevin Harvick played, resulting in major damage to the No. 11 Toyota that led 111 laps.

There probably was a point during the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s career when there might have been a reprise of his September 2010 showdown at Dover International Speedway with Harvick, who was a willing instigator in both instances.

But that time has passed, and Hamlin’s level-headed reaction, coupled with a longtime friendship with Harvick, decreases the likelihood of any lasting effects from the dustup Monday.

Ryan: Hey, if Kyle Busch wants to stick around, how about everybody?

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Kyle Busch is right: The top three finishers after every Cup race should make mandatory visits to the media center.

But don’t stop there. Bring every finisher to an Olympics-style “mixed zone” accessible to media after the race, and let’s curtail the pointless exercise of madly scrambling out of the track and to the airport to beget the social media transmissions that often serve as a crude deconstruction of what exactly happened over the past three hours.

It would be much more productive for everyone (and enlightening for fans starved to gobble up every salient morsel of analysis and explanation) if the checkered flag finally fell on the “race after the race,” which essentially precludes much of the news gathering opportunities inherent to other pro sports.

The media corps has been culpable in glorifying this dash, which is exclusive to NASCAR in a way that seems odd when framed in context.

In the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, locker rooms for both teams open after a cooling-off period that ranges anywhere from a few to 15 minutes. The key is that when the games end, the coaches talk, and then every player ostensibly is fair game for interviews (though it can take patience to wait out the superstars).

That’s difficult in the chaos after a Cup race, where there is less of a guarantee of information being disseminated efficiently. There is no cooling-off period — a selling point because interviews often are emotional with drivers exiting cockpits after three hours of intense pressure and sometimes insane temperatures.

But it’s tricky to pin down interviews with three dozen cars parked in close proximity and a few hundred people zipping between them packing up tools or making beelines for the infield tunnel.

Everyone is in a hurry to go somewhere because … why?

There is the pride of winning the “race” out of the track that hardly anyone cares about beyond the participants (depending on traffic flow at nearby airports, the reward can be sitting on a tarmac and idling away jet fuel worth thousands while awaiting departure).

And yes, there is the joy of getting home in time to catch loved ones before bed.

But neither scenario necessarily is threatened by waiting an extra 20 to 30 minutes. And the work at the shop still starts at the same time Monday.

This trend began in the early 1990s when many drivers began buying or leasing their own planes (and some had pilot’s licenses). But it really took flight in the mid-‘90s when teams assembled private air forces to ferry hundreds of crew members around the country in what has become a well-oiled marvel of travel logistics.

In the span of a few years, road trips went from four wheels to two wings, and it radically changed postrace dynamics that weren’t all that dissimilar from a locker room in some instances. A few decades ago after the Southern 500, the Darlington Raceway showers were where many reporters found drivers. Richard Petty would be accessible for hours while signing autographs.

What if drivers now were asked to hang around a little while for interviews? And in some designated media bullpen (once upon time, it was known as the Unocal gas pumps)?

There is a successful setup employed in Formula 1, whose drivers must traverse a mandatory TV media area with affiliates from around the world (the top three also attend a news conference, and some hold open availability at team hospitality).

There is sure to be pushback in NASCAR against this idea, likely from those who will trot out the tired argument that it’s another example of news media “laziness.”

This is in the same vein of those who decry lobbying for shortening races and blame-shift it to “a NASCAR industry that wants to work less.”  (Psst, the length of a race, whether it’s two hours or three and a half hours, has little impact on the hours worked afterward … feasibly, reporters will be working much longer after a short race that’s eventful than a three hour-plus snoozer).

At least with longer races, a case is made for incremental value by those who demand more laps.

What is gained by getting to the airport 20 minutes earlier? A head start on angry tweeting on the ride home?

Take a cue from Kyle, fellas, and stay a while. Your stories need to be told!


After relatively smooth inspections at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, what changed to prevent 13 cars from making a qualifying lap at Auto Club Speedway?

It doesn’t seem to have been track-specific because if teams were trying to navigate the backstretch bumps on the 2-mile oval, there likely would have been work done around the fenders. But the offending areas seemed mainly concentrated in area around the rear window and deck lids.

Perhaps teams (particularly those whose advantages with customized splitters were eradicated by rules changes this season) were conservative with the new Optical Scanning Station through the first few races? Once comfort was achieved, the teams tried to take more, and many found the limit at Fontana.

It also might have been illuminating for teams without OSS machines in their shops. Though NASCAR offers the option of using the scanner at its R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, ensuring a car meets the rigors of the new inspection apparently is a process requiring multiple scans during the course of car-building – putting a premium on having an OSS handy.


NASCAR’s move to conduct inspections only after qualifying at Martinsville Speedway (essentially treating it as an impound-style race) has prompted an interesting question within the industry: Will the teams be held to looser or tighter tolerances?

Generally, it makes sense to allow more leeway in inspection post-qualifying than prerace, but in this case, those inspections are one in the same.

NASCAR will be using post-qualifying tolerances at Martinsville — which presumably would mean less potential for inspection problems.


After weathering last Wednesday’s impending departure of primary sponsor Lowe’s, Jimmie Johnson’s week has gotten off to a much better start with a season-best ninth Sunday and a ranking among the top five dominant athletes of the past 20 years.

There are still some major questions to answer about the future of the No. 48 Chevrolet and crew chief Chad Knaus (whose contract runs through this season), and a long way to secure the competitiveness and consistency to win an eighth championship. But Johnson has made a career of proving anything is possible, and it would be foolish to bet against him.


On the flip side at Hendrick Motorsports: It might be just a blip, but Chase Elliott’s 16th at Fontana in the wake of a penalty last week will bear watching.

After committing the same infraction in a victory at Richmond, Joey Logano’s 2017 season came off the rails. The Team Penske driver had eight top 10s in the first nine races. After the Richmond penalty (which disqualified his win for playoff eligibility), Logano had nine top 10s in 27 races and missed the playoffs.

Elliott could pick up where he nearly left off last October at Martinsville Speedway and win Sunday, but if the No. 9 Chevrolet driver continues to struggle, it’s sure to raise the specter of Logano’s results last year.


There were wildly varying assessments of the crowd at Fontana, ranging from near capacity to perhaps far less. Depending on the camera angles of the grandstands (overhead shots vs. from the pits), it’s easy to understand the confusion.

NASCAR discontinued releasing attendance estimates more than five years ago. Being fans of transparency in this corner, it would be encouraging if tracks could eliminate arguments such as the above by releasing official figures (the party line has been that it’s against the policies of the publicly traded companies that own nearly all the tracks that host Cup races).


There also were social media discussions Sunday night about whether there was an unfair media-driven focus on NASCAR crowds vs. the NCAA tournament and other pro sports, which unquestionably have suffered attendance declines, too.

But this isn’t about being relative to other sports leagues, it’s about teams’ revenue streams. By NASCAR’s admission, race attendance is among the most critical factors used by sponsors to evaluate the return on their investment in stock-car racing.

With teams dependent on corporate sponsorship to make their budgets, there always will be greater scrutiny on audience metrics in auto racing – regardless of the media coverage.

Ryan: Squelching social media isn’t solution for improving inspection

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The content was so compelling, the engagement was so widespread, and the stakes were so high.

There was so much resonance rumbling through the myriad feeds of NASCAR Twitter, it had to get someone’s attention.

And it did.

Of course we’re talking about NASCAR being named a finalist for best use of Twitter (the #NASCARPlayoffs hashtag) in the Cynopsis Sports Media Awards.

Wait, did something else happen last week in the realm of NASCAR social media?

Oh, right.

At the same time the hottest driver in NASCAR was fingering social media as the source of his penalty after winning at Las Vegas and subtly upbraiding NASCAR executives for whiling away too many hours on Twitter, other NASCAR staffers were cheerily hailing the sanctioning body’s appearance five times on the Cynopsis list.

Besides the Twitter accolade, NASCAR Digital Media also picked up a nomination for best podcast series (The Glass Case of Emotion, co-hosted by Ryan Blaney), and even Harvick was represented in best radio program (for his Happy Hours show on SiriusXM with Matt Yocum, which is up against heavyweights Dan Patrick, Jim Rome and Dan Le Batard).

The point of this is to note that while Harvick’s points about the impact of social media on NASCAR officiating are fair (particularly as it relates to high-ranking decision-makers who spend chunks of their days interacting with fans), there also is no putting the genie back in the bottle and pretending that Twitter and its pervasive tentacles can simply be ignored.

NASCAR is craving that input. Many of its strategies for future audience growth and retention are predicated on leveraging social media to the hilt. Its Fan and Media Engagement Center in Uptown Charlotte is monitoring what fans are saying on the Internet in real time with an Oceanic breadth and precision.

The Reddit detectives are here to stay, and God love them, because it actually is good to have that level of interest from a sophisticated segment of the fan base. NASCAR actively is promoting its STEM initiatives in attracting younger fans; what better example of how engineering principles are being applied in the viewing experience.

No, the answer to how NASCAR can improve its officiating won’t be found in constraining social media, whose rise can’t be untethered from the technology that also made Harvick’s Las Vegas penalties possible. In the era of high-definition TV and digital images transmitted instantaneously, rival teams and NASCAR were seeing potentially incriminating evidence of the No. 4 Ford ahead of anyone on Twitter.

In the 21st century digital age, the best solution is to stop evaluating and announcing postrace infractions on a late 20th-century timetable. NASCAR needs to find a way to do postrace inspection expeditiously and exclusively at the track.

Harvick alluded to this in praising Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip, who said in a SiriusXM interview last week that postrace inspections at the R&D Center (which opened in 2003) should be informational only. During a January appearance on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, Harvick suggested a similar approach with the advent of the Optical Scanning Station, which he hoped would transform postrace inspection. “You’ll see cars taken back (to the R&D Center) not really to be relevant of whether you won or lost or are getting a fine, but if something’s happening and moving and to say, ‘This can’t happen,’” Harvick said.

After Denny Hamlin’s Southern 500 victory last year was tainted by a Wednesday penalty, there seemed serious momentum for limiting the shelf life of a Cup penalty to Sunday night. Somehow, that got sidetracked before the 2018 season, leaving NASCAR vulnerable to the negative optics of last week’s controversy. It’s never good when the main storyline four days after the race is whether a winner was legal.

The best option is simple: NASCAR needs to get out of the business of R&D Center teardowns two to three days after a race. Not because of social media but because it’s inevitable that teams always will be ahead of NASCAR inspectors and increase the odds that a midweek teardown will uncover something pushing the boundaries, as Jeff Burton explained on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast last fall.

“They have to get to a place to where you roll through tech postrace (at the track), you’re good,” Burton said. “You can’t not have postrace (inspection), but some of it, they’re just going to have to give up on.”

That isn’t as large of a concession as it might seem. Surely, if there’s an instance during a race in which a winner appears to be benefiting from a questionable part, it can be given closer scrutiny afterward.

Social media is hard-wired into NASCAR’s existence and can’t be eradicated. It’s best to figure out how to incorporate it (with efficiency) instead of excluding it from inspection.


Asked why his team wouldn’t appeal Harvick’s penalty, Tony Stewart answered with a question. “How many appeals have you seen overturned?”

Maybe more than “Smoke” thinks.

According to NASCAR research from the past 20 seasons (when appeals records have been kept consistently), there have been 202 appeals heard. Including both levels of appeals (which initially are heard by a three-person panel and then can be sent to the Final Appeals Officer), 67 percent have been upheld. There were 33 percent that have been adjusted, including 49 that were reduced and 14 were overturned completely (7 percent of the full total).

The most recent appeal “win” involved a shock infraction against a K&N team at Phoenix International Raceway in November 2015 that resulted in the elimination of a six-month probation.

So maybe the odds weren’t stacked against Stewart’s team as much as it seemed – though NASCAR also has rewritten its rulebook in recent years for clarity that enhances the chances of penalties being upheld. It also looks at issuing penalties the same way federal prosecutors do – they won’t bring a case unless they believe they have ironclad evidence to win at trial.


Danica Patrick’s name hardly has been mentioned, but it’s easy to spot the subtext of the best start in Stewart-Haas Racing history: Patrick’s departure after five seasons is being viewed as a positive by the team.

Harvick intimated as much during a postrace interview Sunday (video above) with NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast (“It’s elevated the 10 car (Patrick’s former ride) to make it relevant in our organization; it was irrelevant for several years because it didn’t perform”), and he already took a subtle dig at Daytona International Speedway last month about the productivity of Patrick’s feedback (“You have to have the input to help build your team going forward, so some of those things fall short possibly from maybe not getting the input that the team needed to push the cars in a good direction.”).

Stewart, who also hasn’t been shy about pointing a finger partly at Patrick for the struggles of her team (noting its personnel was overhauled at her behest), said Sunday that “it just shows the strength of having four really good teammates that are giving four valid sets of information that they can all feed off of and work off of.  It just seems like this group of these guys really work well together.”

The implication is clear: Patrick was the weak link replaced by Aric Almirola.

What impact might it have on Patrick’s brand or legacy in NASCAR?

Probably very little, as she wraps up her racing career with the Indianapolis 500 and focuses her attention on clothing lines, fitness books and cooking show concepts. But if SHR continues to excel, it will undoubtedly be hailed as validation by her detractors in NASCAR.


After his third consecutive victory, Harvick joked that Gil Martin, his crew chief from 2009-2012 at Richard Childress Racing, intentionally tried to fire him up to produce better results.

Sunday’s gleeful celebration showed why it often works for a driver who admittedly thrives on controversy and stirring up trouble. So why not make Harvick angry all the time?

Because it doesn’t always work.

For every instance in which he has delivered a playoff moment after getting ticked off (e.g., Dover 2015 when he remained upset with Jimmie Johnson for a collision in the playoff opener), there have been others in which he has come up short (e.g., Dover 2010 when he finished 15th after a garage confrontation a day earlier with Denny Hamlin, who had questioned the legality of RCR’s cars).

Any rival knows there is nothing to be gained with “Happy” by poking the bear, but the anger doesn’t automatically translate into transcendent performances. With a fast car and a foul attitude, there is no one better, but the former also can matter as much as the latter.


Harvick will stay squarely in the spotlight even before the garage in Fontana, California, opens this weekend. The Bakersfield native will be racing Thursday night just a few hours up the road at his hometown track of Kern County Raceway in a K&N race (that will be broadcast at 11 p.m. ET March 20 on NBCSN).

The 2014 series champion spoke eloquently about why the grassroots outreach was important and how it had gone missing in recent years.

Here’s a good example of what he meant: Before NASCAR’s 1997 inaugural race at Fontana, there was anticipation that short tracks such as nearby Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino would benefit from Southern California’s first Cup race in nine years. During Riverside International Raceway’s heyday, stars such as Bill Elliott often would show up to run a Late Model at Orange Show the night before the main event

But when the Cup Series returned, the stars didn’t come to the short tracks. If Harvick, who singled out Elliott’s son, Chase, as a prime candidate for following his footsteps, can start a trend at Kern County, it’ll be a good one.


If winning felt like a playoff moment for Harvick, finishing second might have felt the same way for Kyle Busch – but not for the right reasons.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver now has finished second in three of the past five Cup races dating to last season’s championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And just as when he lost the 2017 title to Martin Truex Jr., Busch’s No. 18 Toyota seemed faster than Harvick’s Sunday (leading a race-high 128 laps).

At Miami, it was an inopportune caution flag that wrecked Busch’s chances to beat Truex. It was strategy again Sunday, but this time it was more self-inflicted (as noted by Steve Letarte and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Monday’s NASCAR America) with a curious decision to wait on pitting under green and then a botched stop.

“Had a couple guys pit a little bit before us,” Busch said. “I don’t think that hurt us too bad, but the jack dropping certainly did. We lost the race on pit road today. There’s been races where I’ve won it on pit road, too. We’ll just have to go into next week and see what we can do there. “

Crew chief Adam Stevens prepares championship-caliber cars, and Busch brings all-world talent. But the persistent struggle at closing out wins (evidenced by how long it took for a breakthrough to happen last season) has to be eating at the team at some level.