notes column

Ryan: Why it’s good that NASCAR can’t stop talking about Martinsville

1 Comment

The contact lasted for a few seconds, and the conversation lasted for days.

There is no greater validation of Sunday’s game-changing wreck at Martinsville Speedway than the nonstop voices still chattering about the etiquette and implications of Denny Hamlin forcefully moving Chase Elliott from the lead with two laps remaining from the scheduled finish.

On Thursday morning, the lines of SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s NASCAR channel remained jammed with fans wanting to voice their opinions about the season’s most memorable crash.

In a season constantly sidetracked by inane arguments over encumbered penalties and sometimes inexplicable officiating, this is what made Martinsville the best race of the 2017 season.

Yes, the racing was excellent, but its resonance was even better.

It rekindled the low-frequency rumblings of schedule changes built on more short tracks in a shorter season (or at least a more compact one with midweek races). That’s a testament to the highly watchable ovals that are conducive to full-contact action in tight quarters (as Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted in his postrace Periscope).

But it also seemed an acknowledgment that short-track feuds are just a preferable narrative, too. If the discussion always revolves around what’s happening on track, it sucks oxygen from the arcane weekly talking points that keep the focus on the most banal of topics.

Are the LIS platforms working properly? What is the rule for being below the white line on a restart? Is it better to have two- or three-day race weekends?

The minutiae of those exhausting debates seemed to have a residual and subliminal effect on how some fans processed the last 30 laps at Martinsville.

Presented with the most scintillating stretch of racing this season, social media and SiriusXM was filled with some who insisted it could have been improved if only there were more officiating and less racing for the win.

Or something.

If that would have happened at a short track, Hamlin would have been sent to the rear!

Yes, perhaps that’s how it would be handled on a Saturday night feature race. But this is the big leagues, a ticket was at stake to race for the country’s biggest championship, and officiating isn’t why 10,000 people regularly fill Bowman-Gray Stadium to watch its legendary Modifieds.

It’s because of indelible moments such as those Sunday at Martinsville, where the grandstand pandemonium afterward reminded Earnhardt of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“We had a lot more short tracks on the schedule back then, and it seemed like we were going to places like that all the time and seeing action like that on the regular,” he said Friday. “It had been so long since I have gotten out of a race car and heard the crowd go through so many different emotions for 20 to 30 minutes after a race. It was just incredible to be a witness to that and to feel that energy of the crowd so plugged into what was happening around the race track.

“It was really a magical moment, I thought, for anybody that likes racing.  It was really cool.”

It’s why people still were talking about it four days later.

A few other stray observations:

Regrets, he had a few: Hamlin issued an apology to Elliott in the immediate aftermath and since has said he was “too aggressive” in how he attempted to take the lead.

So what might he have done differently?

Well, if technique had to be evaluated, he might have waited until the middle or the exit of turn 4 to apply the pressure. The chances were much higher of spinning Elliott by bumping him on corner entry (particularly given the No. 24 Chevrolet barely had gotten back on line after an out-of-shape lap from slamming past the No. 2 Ford of Brad Keselowski into the lead).

But it also wasn’t that simple: Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota was much better on longer runs, so waiting probably wasn’t a luxury he had. If he hadn’t made the move then, there were only nine scheduled corners left in the race.

Facing those circumstances, most drivers are tossing away their scalpels in favor of a hammer and tongs to secure a victory.

Also worth considering is that Elliott entered the Round of 8 as the lowest ranked in points. If he wins, it’s the worst-case scenario for any other title eligible drivers besides Martin Truex Jr. because it makes the pathway forward on points much more difficult than if Truex won (or in this case, Kyle Busch, who might have been the next-best scenario even though Hamlin seemed miffed at getting bumped from the lead by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate).

–Role reversal: It isn’t just the myriad near-misses at a breakthrough victory for Elliott that have caused frustration, it’s the way they’ve transpired. Frequently, it has seemed (especially in restarts at Michigan or the closing laps at Dover) that Elliott has lacked the assertiveness.

That might have been why Martinsville seemed to galvanize his burgeoning fan base so much. Many times during the race, Elliott didn’t back down from protecting his turf on restarts, and the power move he put on Keselowski also was commendable for its gumption.

The classy way in which he handled his dispute with Hamlin — standing his ground without swinging fists – also had to reinforce the perception that Elliott isn’t as deferential as his self-flagellating demeanor can make him seem.

XXX

With a 12th at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson never seemed as ordinary at a track where he has nine wins, most among active drivers and tied with Jeff Gordon for third all-time behind Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11).

What drove it home even more was the performance of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Elliott, who consistently has outraced Johnson throughout the playoffs. Before Martinsville (where he led a race-high 123 laps before the crash left him 27th), Elliott finished ahead of Johnson in the first six races with an average finish of 9.1 and 341 laps led vs. Johnson’s 11.3 average finish and 29 laps led.

Could the seven-time series champion’s No. 48 team glean anything from the No. 24?

“With (crew chiefs) Alan (Gustafson) and Chad (Knaus), they do have different philosophies in how they build a car,” Johnson said Friday. “We can look at different things and say directionally this is what they are trying to achieve and implement that into our cars, but they are not the same. It is really difficult to build cars the same and especially in the different shops like what we have, but it does give us great optimism knowing that our equipment can go that fast.

“We just haven’t figured out our mousetrap like we need to. They have been the mark, I think, for us to look at and say ‘All right, our Hendrick Motorsports equipment can at least do that,’ and we need to get there.”

XXX

It was largely overlooked by his surprise elimination at Kansas, but Kyle Larson’s performance at Martinsville again showed why the track remains a stumbling block to the Chip Ganassi Racing driver becoming a versatile all-around champion.

The 37th was his second-worst finish at the 0.526-mile oval but wasn’t an anomaly. In eight starts, he has only one top 10 and only four top 20s at Martinsville.

His chances will be strong whenever he reaches the championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but Larson will need to shore up his results at Martinsville if he wants to avoid being in must-win situations at Texas or Phoenix in the future.

XXX

When was the last time a crowd reacted as raucously to late-race contact that determined the outcome of a Cup race?

The default answer after Sunday was the Aug. 28, 1999 Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway when a chorus of boos greeted Dale Earnhardt’s celebration in victory lane after he turned Terry Labonte for a victory.

But the postrace scene at Martinsville had echoes of the Aug. 23, 2008 race at Bristol, which Carl Edwards won by bumping aside Kyle Busch with 31 laps remaining.

Just as Sunday at Martinsville, the track’s video boards focused on the postrace interviews in the aftermath, and the reaction was similar as a crowd of about 150,000 vacillated between cheers (Edwards) and jeers (Busch) as the cameras toggled between the winner and runner-up.

Considering how much it enhanced the emotions and intensity each time (and let’s hope it happens more frequently than every nine years), tracks should be encouraged to treat postrace fireworks with as much entertainment value as the event preceding it.

XXX

Outside of the weight discrepancy for third-place finisher Clint Bowyer at Martinsville and the aerodynamic modification for Elliott at Chicagoland, there haven’t been any major postrace inspection penalties during the playoffs – notably none relating to rear-end suspension violations that were a theme of the season.

When Hamlin’s winning Southern 500 car was found out of tolerance after the last speedway race of the season, there was split conventional wisdom about whether it was the first of many penalties to come or the last test of the limits by a championship contender before the playoffs.

While there still are two 1.5-mile races to get through starting with Sunday at Texas, the indications are it seems to have been the latter.

XXX

Hendrick Motorsports director of vehicle engineering Diane Holl, whose career has stretched from Formula One to IndyCar to NASCAR, was the guest on the most recent NASCAR on NBC podcast.

Holl, who worked for Ferrari, Benetton and McLaren in F1 and Tasman Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar, has worked in NASCAR for nearly a decade, starting at Michael Waltrip Racing before joining Hendrick nearly two years ago.

“I think there’s a very fine line between cost, development and theater,” the Guildford, England, native said. “When we used to go to Japan for the IndyCar race, I had ‘entertainer’ on my visa. That’s where engineers get engrossed in, ‘I want the best part,’ but in reality, it’s the entertainment on a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon that is going to make this championship, this series continue and the fans who support it. NASCAR has to protect that.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here or visiting the www.ApplePodcasts.com/nascaronnbc landing page.

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.

Ryan: Matt Kenseth deserves to call the shots on how his career ends

2 Comments

In the end, and this truly could have an extra measure of finality, it wasn’t up to Matt Kenseth whether he would compete for a Cup championship.

When his pit crew inexplicably broke its own carefully mapped out protocols and dispatched an extra man over the wall at Kansas Speedway to fix his No. 20 Toyota (which seemed repairable), NASCAR responded in kind by literally taking the wheel from the Joe Gibbs Racing driver – eliminating Kenseth from playoff title contention in what might be his last season on the premier circuit.

The feeling of powerlessness had to be familiar.

If there is a recurring theme in Kenseth’s career, it’s that too often his Hall of Fame brilliance has been blunted by forces entirely beyond his control.

The most obvious example is unfolding in real time: The cold realization that the Cambridge, Wisconsin, native is winding down what most likely will be the four remaining races of his 18th and final year in Cup.

That also isn’t Kenseth’s decision.

He remains highly competitive and in peak physical condition at 45, but the whims of corporate sponsorship and economics of team ownership are denying him an exit from NASCAR on his own terms.

Though there are whispers he could remain in a competitive ride if willing to compromise on the at-track conveniences and salary commanded by someone of his accomplishment and experience, the fact remains that Kenseth is in a unique situation when compared to retiring peers Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – none of whom were forced into facing such hard choices beyond choosing the year of their last go-round.

Kenseth, who always has faced the incessant and tough questions (even if his answers weren’t necessarily as pithy and quotable as many wanted to hear), simply deserves better in being appreciated for what he has delivered during one of the more unheralded careers in NASCAR.

It isn’t just the 38 career wins (third among active drivers) or the 13 playoff appearances in 14 attempts (second only to Jimmie Johnson). It’s the overlooked stand-up style of a star whose laconic nature belies his lead-by-example methods that can be quietly forceful when things aren’t going right. Joe Gibbs Racing likely won’t miss a beat in performance when Erik Jones replaces Kenseth in 2018, but a veteran presence certainly will be lacking in its Tuesday debriefs.

Yet there are some who might complain Kenseth hasn’t been outspoken enough, which misses an important point about the last truly blue-collar driver in Cup.

Hailing from a state known for its dichotomy of fiercely independent politics built on firebrand flourishes of expression and hard-working labor constructed on head-down agriculture and manufacturing, Kenseth rarely diverts from the task at hand (in this instance, racing).

But yet when he has something to say, he always does – and often with the deadpan wit that can make a sharp point while simultaneously defusing the most emotionally charged controversy (NASCAR officials should have thanked him for his post-Richmond ambulance tweet).

That wonderfully droll sense of humor also has a veiled crossover appeal. He hardly gets mentioned when compared to his transcendent counterparts, but the funniest bit involving a NASCAR driver on National Public Radio was Matt Kenseth as the straight man who turned Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me into a laugh riot.

It was hilarious in part because it was such an unlikely stage for Kenseth, who never bothers concealing disdain for self-aggrandizement. He can’t help it if he isn’t the sort who toots his own horn – just as he can’t help having any say over many events in the past two decades that precluded him getting his due.

When he found the spotlight, first in the Xfinity Series in 1998 and then again in Cup in 2000, Kenseth couldn’t have controlled being caught in the shadow of a 14-time most popular (but less successful) driver for the entirety of his career.

When he won the 2003 championship with the most workmanlike of efforts, it wasn’t Kenseth’s call to change the title format (he memorably wasn’t even consulted before NASCAR chairman Brian France announced the change) – though it forever (and unfairly) became linked to his greatest achievement.

When he took Johnson to the wire for the 2013 title, it wasn’t Kenseth who committed the comedy of errors at Phoenix International Raceway that doomed what probably will be remembered as his last great bid at the championship. Just like last Sunday at Kansas, it was his team that cost him the shot.

Kenseth merits at least one more opportunity.

He doesn’t have the power to make that happen. But someone does – and should.

XXX

Put aside the debate over whether NASCAR needs to eradicate the echoes of “Office Space” that have seeped into its officiating (“We noticed you’re having trouble with restarts … did you not get that memo about the apron, inside lane and white line and why it’s OK to do something illegal if someone else does it first?”), there’s no question that communication needs to be improved about the rules.

It is a problem when drivers meetings – which are decked out with enormous red carpets, omnipresent countdown clocks and ear-splittingly high-volume warmup music that would make Nickelback shudder – are held up as some sort of sacrosanct forum for discussing the rules and their game-changing applications that could determine the course of a championship.

They are the NASCAR equivalent of holding school board meetings at Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Yes, it is the responsibility of teams to understand the rules when they are presented to them.

It also is the responsibility of NASCAR for delivering the information in a manner that ensures its absorbtion.

The current dog and pony shows that drivers meetings have evolved into over the years don’t meet that standard.

Either the meetings need to be conducted within an environment and with a purpose conducive to a real discussion about the rules (see the example below from Formula One this past weekend in Austin), or the important ground rules (particularly those changed on the fly during a weekend that are track specific) need to be disseminated in a way that is fair and foolproof.

XXX

Martin Truex Jr. wasn’t tipping his hand much, but the championship favorite had to be good with the trade he essentially got from the competition during his victory at Kansas.

While it seemed that Kyle Busch and then Jimmie Johnson would be the strongest driver eliminated, that it became Kyle Larson was an outcome that could be abided by Truex (or anyone seeking the title).

Busch has been his strongest rival of late in pure speed, and Johnson is the crafty seven-time (and most recent) champion, but Larson is the unquestioned best of the field at Homestead-Miami Speedway (where he led a race-high 132 laps last season).

The path might not necessarily be easier, but it certainly has gotten clearer – for the first time in the four-year history of this playoff structure, it might be less than even money that the series champion also wins the season finale.

XXX

Social media and the myriad digital channels available for drivers to communicate with the world have been hailed as a godsend for showcasing NASCAR’s emerging personalities.

But this week’s episode of the Glass Case of Emotion podcast put forth an intriguing debate (inadvertently, perhaps).

Is there a threshold on how much fans need to know about their heroes? Or is there a generational divide in which the younger set puts no boundaries on the benefits of sharing?

As the Millennial wave begins its takeover of the Cup Series in earnest, that question probably will get answered (perhaps in overly abundant detail).

XXX

Speaking of podcasts, Toyota Racing Development technical director Andy Graves was the guest on the latest NASCAR on NBC episode. Beyond some engrossing tales of life as Jeff Gordon’s roommate for several years (just as both were starting out in NASCAR), Graves also shared some good insight on how he and TRD have gotten Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing to work together so seamlessly.

“To get everyone working together is extremely difficult,” Graves said on the podcast. “It’s fortunate we have so many great people at TRD on the vehicle side and on the engine side, and the teams have great people, but to get them to all click together … everything today is a compromise. In 1991 and ’92, you could find a new part and bolt it on the car and it was worth two 10ths of a second, and it never hurt any other area of the car. Today every decision you make is a gain in one area, and it will hurt two to three other areas. Every decision is, ‘What is the best compromise at this point?’

“We’re making decisions together, and it’s OK if we’re willing to put this part on the car and it’s going to hurt power but help mechanical grip. If it’s faster on the stopwatch, let’s do it and we’ll take it on the chin. Those are very unique situations that don’t happen very often. We have a lot of contributors that just want to win races and are willing to sacrifice individual goals for the good of the team.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the 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.

Ryan: Are Cup teams still working through the stages of calling a race?

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nearly a full season into baking stage points into their strategies, have teams in NASCAR’s premier series fully grasped the concept of races with segments?

That was a worthy question at the end of Sunday’s second stage at Talladega Superspeedway.

The segment ended with none of the playoff contenders choosing to stop and avoid pitting during the caution before the final stage.

Brendan Gaughan’s team took the lead under that yellow before the restart for the last stage because his team did pit with three laps remaining in the second stage (the last lap before the pits were closed).

Why didn’t other teams join Gaughan’s, particularly those outside the top 10 that wouldn’t earn stage points and seemingly had no incentive for staying in position on track?

It seems a bit of a mystery.

Per their radio chatter (that was played during the NBC broadcast), Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team considered pitting but decided against it because of concerns about lacking a drafting partner – which seemed curious given there would have been only a lap and a half under green on a 2.66-mile oval whose size makes it virtually impossible to be lapped in that time.

Perhaps there were concerns about how the race’s second half would unfold without more cars on precisely the same strategy – but Gaughan still pitted with a pack of cars under green on his final stop (and still finished 19th after being caught in the 17-car crash on Lap 172).

In a 500-mile race that featured seven crashes, each involving at least four cars (and many in the middle of the pack), it would seem natural to want to stay ahead of the mayhem – yet about two dozen cars passed on that opportunity at Talladega.

Were they in a stage of denial? Or was it merely tactical inexperience?

Scenarios such as Sunday’s, coupled with Martin Truex Jr.’s runaway lead in stage victories and playoff points, make it intriguing to monitor next season if there will be a revamping in the approach to calling a race – or a restructuring in how those decisions are determined atop the pit box.

Maybe stages necessitate dedicate strategists similar to the roles that are found in IndyCar.

XXX

Aesthetically, Talladega didn’t have much to offer with only 14 cars running at the finish and three red flags that consumed more than 30 minutes and ensured well more than four hours elapsed between the green and checkered flag.

But there was something the race didn’t have: airborne cars.

Thus a race that did feature a last-lap lead change (by the best restrictor-plate driver in Cup) largely escaped an avalanche of the criticism that followed the May 1, 2016 event that included three cars flying off the Talladega asphalt. In fact, it was viewed in at least one fan corner as one of the best 2017 had to offer.

What determines a good race is always arbitrary, but at Talladega, the predictability of the races (large wrecks, tight packs, myriad lead changes) seems to lessen the degree of subjectivity – particularly when one of the track’s largest crowds in years gleefully has a feel-good story to cheer.

Favorite son Dale Earnhardt Jr. led his final start there and avoided the wrecks that wiped out most of the field but didn’t lift anyone’s wheels off the ground.

At Talladega, that’s enough to look good … even with a garage full of cars that looked ugly.

XXX

While the three red flags (all in the final 15 laps) drew much of the attention, it was the caution flags at Talladega that were a real cause for concern.

A 10-lap caution for a five-car crash on Lap 26 was the longest yellow flag in 15 years at Talladega. The last time a caution took so long was for a 24-car pileup that required an 11-lap cleanup in the April 21, 2002 race.

The length of Sunday’s first caution was necessitated by a tracklong oil slick left by the No. 77 Toyota of Erik Jones (who was chastised by NASCAR for staying in the groove instead of pulling down on the apron while returning to the pits). There also was a six-lap caution to clear backstretch debris – twice as long as the yellow to clear a six-car wreck on Lap 156.

It reinforced a seasonlong theme of dawdling yellows that dates to Speedweeks. NASCAR chief racing development officer and senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said the efficiency of track cleanup was a major priority after a spate of lengthy yellow and red flags to remove debris and oil at Daytona International Speedway.

The banking at Daytona and Talladega make it more difficult to apply the SpeedyDry that absorbs the oil, but it would seem the process also could be improved to shorten the time for yellows. Just as it did with track drying (and the introduction of the Air Titan system), NASCAR needs to rethink its methods of track cleanup and update some antiquated techniques.

XXX

Tony Gibson is the guest on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast, discussing his future as a crew chief and his past with the championship teams of Alan Kulwicki and Jeff Gordon.

The crew chief for Kurt Busch had a memorable story from the Rainbow Warriors days before a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when the team pushed the No. 24 Chevrolet on the grid – to immense negativity from the crowd.

“They were booing, calling us cheaters and everything in the book,” said Gibson, who was the car chief on the team. “We’re standing around the car, and Jeff’s like, ‘Look up in those grandstands.’ And people had these big white T-shirts with a 24 and a circle and line through them. He said, ‘You see all those T-shirts up there? Those people don’t realize it, but I own the company that made those shirts.’

“We just thought that was the funniest thing.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the 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.

Ryan: NASCAR needs to spread the word on rules when it’s about safety

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NASCAR’s sterling safety record – nearly 17 years with no fatalities in its national series – doesn’t receive much credit because safety generally is the focus only when it’s deficient.

Whether it’s the constant addition of SAFER barriers, the improvement of paved runoff areas or the overlooked upgrades to cars and cockpits, the advancements have made drivers less susceptible to injuries than at any point in NASCAR history.

It isn’t necessarily important that the world knows the hows and whys about a stretch of four deaths in nine months from May 2000 through February 2001 being followed by NASCAR’s longest period of unprecedented safety, but it is important that the teams and the industry fully understand the measures that were taken (as well as give input in implementing them).

Which brings us to the news that NASCAR recently made a subtle safety upgrade without fully informing teams how to take advantage of it.

After making a pit stop Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson stopped again outside his box so his front-tire changer could ensure the lug nuts were tight. The No. 48 Chevrolet received no penalty despite receiving service beyond its pit stall, triggering befuddlement from teams that fully expected Johnson’s team to receive a one-lap penalty – the standard penalty for pitting outside the box.

NASCAR officials explained they had been allowing dispensation for teams to fasten lug nuts outside the box if it was discovered they were unsecured upon leaving the box.

Apparently, this change was made after NASCAR returned to enforcing lug nut rules last season (after more than a year of allowing the requirement of five secure lug nuts to lapse). That move ostensibly was made because of safety after a spate of loose wheels raised concerns about putting drivers and fans at risk.

Thus, NASCAR started allowing teams to secure lug nuts outside the box without penalty – in the interest of safety, teams would be encouraged to prevent loose wheels by knowing there would be no punishment from NASCAR for ensuring it.

Curiously, though, hardly anyone seemed to know about this addendum before the incident involving Johnson’s team brought it to light Sunday.

If the goal of modifying a policy is to keep teams safer, it’s incumbent on NASCAR to inform all competitors to know how to take advantage of that. There are many instances in which teams seeking a competitive advantage will get pre-approved by NASCAR for a new part or process to validate its legality. In these cases, it makes sense to treat such information as proprietary and avoid dissemination unless asked.

But it doesn’t apply when the information is germane to reducing hazards.

NASCAR likes to cite safety as a cornerstone of its decision-making and as an explanation for some of its rules and trends, such as the rise in debris cautions.

It also has trumpeted being in a new era of transparency that is driven by greater collaborations with drivers and teams.

Both are noble objectives, and this is one instance in which they clearly intersect.

Safety is sound as the impetus for tweaking a policy, but it’s essential to spread the word far and wide when it happens.

XXX

Johnson said crew chief Chad Knaus was aware the team wouldn’t be penalized because NASCAR officials informed him after a similar incident at New Hampshire Motor Speedway a few weeks ago.

It also happened to Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 team in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway. Hamlin stalled his Toyota while leaving the pits, and the rear-tire changer ensured the lugs were tight with the car’s nose over the edge of the box.

Asked about that incident this week, Hamlin couldn’t recall it – which reinforces the need for NASCAR to communicate with teams about the changes.

XXX

While Martin Truex Jr.’s win at Charlotte guaranteed the No. 78 Toyota’s advancement to the Round of 8, it also meant at least another month of itching for crew chief Cole Pearn.

The Canadian, who grew up a fan of hockey and racing, got his team to buy into the playoff beard, a tradition popular among NHL teams in the postseason.

Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn are wearing their playoff beards. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“We all made a deal that we’d grow them this year,” Pearn told NBC Sports after the Charlotte victory. “If you shave, you’ve got to shave your eyebrows at the same time. It’s good incentive to keep it on even though I can’t stand it.

“When it comes down to playoff time, it’s all about growing it as patchy and ugly as it can possibly be and not touching it and letting it ride.”

Truex, who is accustomed to having facial hair, said it’s been a good morale builder for the team because “it’s fun for all the guys to get in something together. ‘Hey, we’re all going to do playoff beards.’ Right on. It shows your commitment.

“It’s been fun, but I’m just surprised by how much gray is in Cole’s beard.”

XXX

A NASCAR delegation (including Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell) was in China this week, naturally prompting speculation as to why. The Sports Business Journal reported the group was at the opening of a road course near the port city of Ningbo.

The circuit is part of an initiative to build five tracks in the country by a subsidiary of Chinese automaker Geely Automotive, which owns Volvo. A Geely company also bought the track formerly known as Miller Motorsports Park in Utah two years ago.

Though NASCAR frequently has turned down offers to sanction one-off events for its national series around the world (including as many as 20 groups from China, according to O’Donnell in a 2013 interview), it is interested in establishing series (similar to Europe, Mexico and Canada) that build a pipeline to funnel drivers to the United States. Daniel Suarez is the best example of a success story.

While Brazil and Japan had been higher on NASCAR’s radar in establishing a grass-roots stock-car presence, Geely’s racetrack expansion in China might provide an avenue for a new series there.

XXX

It’s naturally overlooked because he isn’t in the playoffs, but the second half of Daniel Suarez’s rookie Cup season has been impressive: eight top 10s in 12 races.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who finished sixth at Charlotte, has shown a proclivity for a fast learning curve. In his 2015 rookie campaign in the Xfinity Series, 12 of his 18 top 10s also came in the second half of the season. He followed that with a championship last year.

Given the strength of JGR and Toyota, it isn’t unreasonable to expect Suarez to be a playoff contender in 2018.

XXX

NASCAR’s rules enforcement has been one of the overarching themes of the 2017 season. Analyst Jeff Burton was the guest on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast to explain why teams ask for more oversight but often struggle to comply with it.

“Perhaps NASCAR’s most important job is keeping the sport honest,” Burton said. “Because whether you like it or not, when competition is involved, the competitors’ integrity isn’t there. It just isn’t. It’s ‘we’re going to win at all costs.’

“Remember the football debacle with Tom Brady and the air pressure? They have a ball. We have thousands of parts. … You have to police the car, the people and the race. It’s completely different, and it’s way more complicated. When you don’t police it in really tight way, things get way out of control.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the 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.

 

Ryan: Denny Hamlin has earned the right to talk about money in NASCAR

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
2 Comments

When you’re the star who owns a 31,000-square-foot mansion with a full-length basketball court, helicopter landing pad and 24 60-inch flat screens, income equality is inherently difficult to broach.

Even trickier is making a staunch argument that your brethren are underpaid, and the NASCAR industry needs revenue redistribution.

Denny Hamlin might not be the ideal guy to make the case, but he is the right guy to put forth a complex and divisive topic that at least is worthy of attention and conversation.

A little more than three years ago, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver gathered his peers in the parking lot of the NASCAR R&D center, handed out notecards with talking points to ensure consistent messaging and went inside to meet with Mike Helton and other NASCAR executives.

That was the genesis of the Drivers Council, which is in its third year of tackling major issues in Cup through regular audiences with the sanctioning body.

“It’s because I’m passionate about it,” Hamlin explained during a February episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “Gibbs says the same thing every time we come around to contract negotiations: You’re very passionate about something and stick to your guns.

“I just feel like when I’m passionate about something, first I want to make sure it’s right. I don’t want to just say, ‘This is my idea, and it’s right because it’s my idea.’ I want to get feedback from other drivers on that to make sure it’s the right idea. I’m passionate about it, and I feel I have a way to communicate that to NASCAR without pissing them off at times.”

Not always, of course.

Hamlin’s comments Wednesday morning weren’t received well in some powerful corners of the Cup Series (on Thursday, NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said Hamlin “might need to speak to some of the other stakeholders and maybe get a little bit better education”) and assuredly led to some form of him being read the riot act by someone with a board-level title. And it isn’t the first time he has been willing to enter the crosshairs for what he believes in, either.

This is the same driver who once steadfastly refused to pay a fine in March 2013 for a rather innocuous review of the Gen 6 car that was deemed “detrimental to stock-car racing.” A deal eventually was brokered in which he paid, but NASCAR took the major PR hit because Hamlin stood his ground.

A few years before that, it was an unannounced $50,000 fine for an offhand remark about debris cautions on Twitter. NASCAR discontinued its secret fine system a year later.

The son of a trailer-hitch business owner from the Richmond, Va., area, has his detractors for living lavishly (he hasn’t been shy about showcasing his Lake Norman abode), but there can be no questioning Hamlin’s willingness to go to the mat for that which he believes.

And the even-keeled manner Wednesday in which he addressed the economics for drivers and teams was indicative of the fact that he clearly has deliberated on this for a long time before landing on a position that was controversial for many — notably fans who are tired of hearing about athletes commanding nine- to 10-figure annual salaries and demanding more.

The question of whether pro sports stars are worthy of such disproportionate compensation is a separate argument for another day, but it’s indisputable that NBA and NFL players have among the best labor deals in pro sports – receiving roughly 50% of their leagues’ primary revenue streams.

It also is beyond debate that if there is a driver qualified to weigh in on that, it’s Hamlin – regardless of his opulent lifestyle (whether it’s fair to judge how he or anyone chooses to spend their money is yet another question).

In the absence of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and now the impending retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., there are fewer drivers than any point in recent memory willing to embrace the scrutiny that accompanies speaking out on a major issue, particularly in a league that is beholden in many ways to image-conscious corporate sponsors.

Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are those who most consistently voice objections when they feel strongly about a topic, and in Wednesday’s case, it’s an issue that should concern everyone – the long-term viability of race teams that make the weekly show possible.

After being asked about whether the 2018 rules would help reduce costs for teams, Hamlin confirmed it would to a degree (via “stacking pennies,” as it’s known in NASCAR vernacular). But he also leaped to a larger solution: Finding a way teams no longer would be so reliant on corporate sponsorship, which is becoming scarcer each season (for some reasons beyond NASCAR’s control).

“The pie has to be shifted,” he said, implying that race teams, which currently receive a quarter of the largest guaranteed revenue stream, should be given more.

This is where things get complicated in an unavoidable mess of optics.

If you’re having an honest discussion about making team financials work, it’s natural to ask whether it should start with jettisoning driver salaries that can be a massive seven- or eight-figure line item. Hamlin was asked just that Wednesday, and he candidly responded that drivers are underpaid, particularly those on the back half of the grid.

This understandably is a hard sell to a fan base that is middle class and traditionally blue collar. No one wants to hear that drivers who make millions aren’t getting their due. From a philosophical standpoint, no professional athlete is underpaid.

But in the real world, it’s fact that NASCAR drivers don’t stack up with their counterparts – even though they are face greater occupational hazards (yes, the riskiest jobs often don’t draw the largest salaries – this is comparative analysis, not an exacting thesis on the shortcomings of capitalism).

NFL and NBA players earn a greater percentage of league income through their labor contracts (again, it’s a separate discussion why stock-car racing doesn’t have them, and drivers are in a weaker position partly of their own making). NASCAR driver salaries are closely guarded secrets, but it’s reasonable to presume it’s nowhere near 50% of guaranteed revenue.

When Hamlin lobbies for driver earnings to be commensurate with other leagues, he isn’t suggesting he deserves the $40 million annual deals that many NBA stars are getting (though he and other NASCAR stars probably should get a similarly proportionate shake, the NBA’s current popularity makes it more flush with cash).

Hamlin isn’t so tone-deaf to demand his lakeside estate could use a few technological add-ons and a new parquet court.

But he is arguing the disparity from the top to bottom of the grid needs to be fixed. There are benchwarmers in the NBA who are earning more annually than all but a handful of NASCAR stars. The last quarter of a NASCAR field isn’t anywhere close to that stratosphere.

How does that get addressed?

Well, making the teams more self-sufficient – the starting point Wednesday for Hamlin – would help. Should that help come from racetracks owned by publicly traded companies that are receiving a lion’s share of revenue (again, another way in which NASCAR understandably is different from other pro sports leagues)?

These aren’t easy topics for the NASCAR industry to ponder, but they get addressed only after starting a dialogue.

And as usual, Hamlin was the one willing to go there.

While you’re screaming about his lofty standards of living, it’s worth remembering he partly enjoys them because of his willingness to fight.

XXX

As the oldest driver at Hendrick Motorsports by more than 17 years, the comforting interaction of Jimmie Johnson, 42, with Chase Elliott, 21, after Sunday’s race at Dover could be a preview of an expanding role for the seven-time series champion as mentor in 2018. Alex Bowman, 24, and William Byron, 19, will race Cup for Hendrick next year.

“I’m here for those guys,” Johnson said Thursday night during Hendrick’s splashy car and driver unveiling for next season. “I honestly walked over to Chase, and I didn’t know what to say. He didn’t really know what to say, either. But it was ‘Hey buddy, I’m here, if you want to scream, yell, punch something, kick something, anything you need, I’m here.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t even know what to say.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, just know when or if or whatever it might be, I’m here.’ I’ve had guys here for me, I just want to be that person for my teammates as well.”

When Johnson joined Hendrick in 2002, he spent his early years just watching Jeff Gordon and said he can sense Byron (who grew up in the same neighborhood where Johnson lives) doing the same.

“It can be as simple as just being around and seeing how people carry themselves to actually sitting down and working through a given topic,” he said. “I am aware that (Byron) is paying attention and Alex is, and I need to lead by example on a lot of fronts. But at same time, we might have to sit down and talk through some things, too.”

It’s a little new for Johnson, who only last year shifted into more of a leadership role in becoming Hendrick’s driving dean with the retirement of Gordon.

“The majority of my career has been the up and coming, the young gun, all these titles in front of my name,” Johnson said. “Then veteran appeared, and now it’s like senior citizen. It definitely is different, but I’m young at heart, so I’ll fit in well, and I know all three of these guys so well, and excited to have that youth in our program.”

XXX

Alex Bowman also is the guest on the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, discussing his road to the No.88 Chevrolet, the advice he’s gotten from Dale Earnhardt Jr. (and the social media tips he has offered him) and the harrowing Midget crash that once left him in intensive care for several days.

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.

XXX
There have been industry meetings galore in Charlotte this week with Sunday’s quasi-home game at Charlotte Motor Speedway bringing virtually all of the industry power brokers to NASCAR’s hub.

With the 2018 rules distributed to teams Tuesday, NASCAR met Thursday afternoon with Goodyear about next season to lock down the competitive landscape for 2018. After that’s done, O’Donnell said meetings will begin in earnest on mapping out the Gen 7 car that is expected to be phased in within the next few years.

XXX

A documentary about Danica Patrick directed by longtime ESPN anchor Hannah Storm is expected to make its debut next month, and a trailer that briefly appeared online last week hinted that it will be quite revelatory.

In a preview that ran a couple of minutes, the Epix production alluded to Patrick’s fiery outbursts, her desire to start a family and her diminishing tolerance for questions about her career and motives. There also were snippets of an interview with Bobby Rahal, her former car owner in IndyCar, who predicted Patrick would have won the Indianapolis 500 by now if she hadn’t transitioned to NASCAR but added that she increased her earnings power by racing stock cars.

Patrick has tweeted the movie’s release is scheduled for Nov. 8.

XXX

Ryan Blaney did two things after his Xfinity win at Dover International Speedway that were trend-worthy, but only one drew much attention. While admirably giving the checkered flag to a young fan deserved the raft of attention it received, the Team Penske driver’s decision to skip a postrace victory burnout also should be hailed as an example for others to consider.

“It’s not really my thing,” said Blaney, who also skipped burnouts after an Xfinity win at Charlotte in May and his first Cup win at Pocono Raceway in June. “I used to do them and just not a fan of them anymore, especially when people destroy their race cars. That raises a lot of questions.

“I just don’t think that it’s really that nice to do. That’s just something personal that I don’t think a big smoky burnout (does). You can just go down there and give a big wave to the fans, and they get pretty pumped up about that as a big, smoky burnout and all that. Just personal preference.”

It’s a preference we wouldn’t mind seeing the rest of his generation adopt, particularly with the recent questions about a celebration that really does nothing more than amplify exuberance with mind-numbing destruction. There are classier ways to carry the checkered flag, as Blaney showed.