notes column

Ryan: Richmond never delivered the cutoff drama that it did the first time

Leave a comment

The final regular-season cutoff race at Richmond Raceway ended just the way most of the previous 13 had gone: A relatively muted finish with less than scintillating action and more than a regrettable mite of self-induced controversy.

The incongruous sight of an ambulance blocking pit entry – and nearly adversely affecting the championship chances of Matt Kenseth — will be the indelible image from Richmond’s finale as the finale for setting the championship field every season since NASCAR reordered its title structure in 2004.

It’s striking in the context of a Cup Series race … but much less so when viewed through the prism of the track whose once cleverly marketed rhyme (“One last race to make the Chase!”) was much more memorable than the racing in its showcase event.

With all due respect to the quaint River City and its many charms, it’ll be easy to say good riddance to Richmond as the gateway to the most important stretch of the season in NASCAR’s premier circuit.

Though the 0.75-mile oval – often described as the short track that races like a superspeedway and has been beloved by drivers since its 1988 reconfiguration by original owner Paul Sawyer – always seemed the perfect location for a regular-season crescendo, it rarely delivered on the promise of punctuating the season’s first 26 races with big moments.

In 14 cutoff races at Richmond, only five drivers raced their way into the playoff field, and only once – the first time when Jeremy Mayfield emphatically snatched the final playoff spot with a stunning victory – was it truly memorable.

The most notable instance in which drivers made the playoffs because of events at Richmond was in 2013 when Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon were added because of penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing for race manipulation and the extraordinary measure of expanding the field in light of tainted radio chatter.

That it had nothing to do with on-track racing and also was one of the most materially damaging chapters in NASCAR history puts it squarely on the through line of forgettable incidents at Richmond.

Whether an ambulance parked in the most obvious of “no unloading” zones, the itch that apparently got scratched with the most suspicious spin in the annals of NASCAR or the fan who thought the top of the Turn 4 catchfence offered a better vantage point than his seat, there is a pattern of infamous episodes that largely overshadowed mostly nondescript racing.

In 2018, the cutoff race will shift to a Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There has been much debate over whether the 2.5-mile track – whose heavy demands on handling and horsepower ensure that typically only powerhouse teams contend up front — will enhance the “drama” that determines the playoff field because it seemingly lessens the chance of a driver carrying his car to victory lane.

But in the absence of virtually any such examples at Richmond since Mayfield, the Brickyard might be the better table-setter for the championship run through the appeal of Indianapolis with prestige substituting for pressure.

XXX

Though NASCAR has employed a traveling medical crew for the first time this season, it’s worth noting Saturday night’s ambulance in question was staffed by local track crew (which apparently disregarded repeated commands) – just as the safety truck was that inexplicably impeded the progress of drivers pitting at Richmond in the April 30 race (and causing a commitment line violation by Martin Truex Jr.).

Between those incidents and the 2014 fence-climber (who caused a caution in addition to drawing criminal charges), that’s a curious run of Richmond staff being involved in some awkward instances that had unfortunate impacts on races.

NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell (admirably) alluded to holding the scoring tower accountable for Saturday night’s blunders. But the track obviously bears some of the brunt for the ambulance incident, too, and absolutely should be called to task being in tune with NASCAR officials in the future.

XXX

While it was commendable for O’Donnell to stand up and accept the blame Monday on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, it might have helped to have the message with the same level of candor and contrition Saturday night from NASCAR. Scott Miller deserves credit for taking questions then, but the senior vice president of competition doesn’t hold the necessary clout to speak as authoritatively as O’Donnell or a board-level executive.

It was reminiscent of the debacle at the 2008 Brickyard 400 when competition VP Robin Pemberton was marched in to face a hostile media center immediately after enduring three hours of nonstop triage in the pits, where tires were exploding with unnerving reliability. It predictably didn’t go well, and it wasn’t until two days later when late spokesman Jim Hunter took an extremely contrite stance on SiriusXM that the damage control finally began.

Richmond won’t have the same repercussions as Indianapolis, and O’Donnell struck a stronger message of remorse and transparency even earlier this time, but the lesson is the same. When there are embarrassing images from a significant event on national TV, the sooner the better that someone of great import at NASCAR addresses the matter with clarity, compunction and resolve.

XXX

As it moves back to hosting two annual races under the lights next year and begins a $30 million infield renovation, Richmond still has some big questions to answer about its future. Though Saturday night’s race again proved that racing in sunshine seems to be the preferable alternative for on-track quality, the grandstands noticeably were more crowded than Sunday in April. It’s difficult to quibble with that move.

However, it isn’t unfair to ask questions about the track and its surface, which hasn’t seemed the same since a 2004 repave that came two years after the abandonment of a sealer that previous owner Paul Sawyer used to treat the asphalt since its 1988 opening.

Is it worth returning to a coal tar emulsion or maybe using the newly popular traction compound employed at many tracks this year?

XXX

There were many reasons for Martin Truex Jr. to be angry Saturday night, but some seeds of rage already had been planted nearly a month earlier.

Lest we forget, the Furniture Row Racing driver also wasn’t happy with NASCAR for throwing a caution that cost him the win in the Aug. 13 race at Michigan International Speedway.

With NASCAR debris cautions at a 17-year low through 26 races, it’s understandable why Truex would be even more agitated about feeling disproportionately affected by judgment calls.

XXX

The decision to wait on crowning Truex until Richmond as the regular-season champion – after he already had clinched at Darlington Raceway – seems suspect in retrospect.

Of course, if the yellow hadn’t flown, the timing would have been ideal – punctuating a Richmond win with a celebration of one of the greatest regular seasons in recent memory.

Instead, it was a seething Truex staring blankly (it surely isn’t easy projecting radiance when you just emerged from the care center) while accepting the award from NASCAR president Brent Dewar. After trumpeting the importance of rewarding drivers for the season (which inextricably is linked with the advent of stage racing), this wasn’t the way NASCAR wanted to mark the quasi-historic occasion.

Yes, if the award had been given to Truex a week earlier, the ceremony still would have happened with him reeling after a late crash and a win snatched away. But he also made a media center appearance after the Southern 500 and took every question with grace, so the trophy presentation still would have gone more smoothly (as Truex alluded in the interview with Marty Snider).

XXX

The significance of Saturday night’s 10-point swing isn’t that Truex lost five points (barring a total collapse, the No. 78 Toyota is a lock to reach the third round and nearly a given for the finale). It’s that Larson gained five points by winning the race and moving into second in the playoff standings.

Truex remains the favorite to be among the four championship finalists, but the equation changes if Larson is title eligible at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the 1.5-mile oval that is his favorite on the circuit partly because its high line suits his style so well.

Truex’s chances of racing for a championship weren’t diminished Saturday, but his odds of winning the playoffs were lessened because the chances increased that he will be facing Larson at Miami.

XXX

Redux from last week’s column asking about the line between bending the rules and breaking them to the point of “cheating”: A Twitter follower noted one of the best examples of celebrating the way teams push the boundaries aired earlier this year with the “Refuse to Lose” documentary that marked the 20-year anniversary of Jeff Gordon’s first Daytona 500 win.

In a well-received episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast in March, crew chief Ray Evernham recounted many of those memories and the games that he played with NASCAR inspectors.

XXX

The news that Richard Petty Motorsports could be facing sponsorship woes for the 2018 season, raises questions about how NASCAR might handle its charter system with the current team economic climate (RPM still has two charters, including one that was leased this season).

Brent Dewar, who was named the fourth president in NASCAR history two months ago, was among the architects of the charter system, and he discussed what the future might hold as the guest on the 99th episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast.

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.

Ryan: Have the Darlington penalties redefined what ‘cheating’ entails in NASCAR?

Leave a comment

Disqualifying tainted winners, revamping laborious postrace inspections, shortening the news cycle for announcing penalties.

There is a sprawling list of hot-button issues spawned by the postrace Southern 500 penalties that shook NASCAR this week. But there is a fundamental question at the heart of the controversy.

Where does NASCAR want to be positioned philosophically on its time-honored traditions of chasing the limits of the rules?

Can a sanctioning body whose Hall of Fame opened seven years ago with a prominently displayed moonshine still (a wink and a nod to charter member Junior Johnson’s bootlegging days of outrunning the law through the North Carolina hills) eradicate “cheating” from a sport where skirting the law has been endemic since its inception?

And does “cheating,” an emotionally charged, pejorative term whose use in racing seems best restricted to such high-level tampering as jet fuel additives, soaked tires and oversized engines, now apply to something so rudimentary as seeking performance advantages?

For decades, NASCAR has celebrated the ingenuity of crew chiefs who incessantly burn the midnight oil hunting for extra speed. When Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet constantly was in the crosshairs of officials midway through the summer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick were among those who came to the defense of Larson’s team for working on the edge of legality.

Conventional wisdom in NASCAR held that’s permissible provided there is no overt intent to deceive by building blatantly illegal devices or parts (a stance taken this week by Joe Gibbs Racing in explaining how Denny Hamlin’s penalties could be out of its control). There are no designators for misdemeanors and felonies in NASCAR’s court of law, but the distinctions always have seemed obvious.

And if the exhaustive examinations currently conducted weekly at the NASCAR R&D Center retroactively were applied to the sanctioning body’s first five decades, how many victories would need to be reclassified and how much history would need to be rewritten?

Unquestionably, though, there has been a tipping point reached on satellite radio and social media recently in which a vocal majority now wants teams that push the boundaries to be treated in the same heavy-handed ways as those that flaunt them.

In the context of a playoff structure that has made victories more instrumental to contending for a championship, a winner’s car being deemed illegal understandably will raise the support for increasing the accompanying punishments to include taking away wins.

But this groundswell also seems more than that – the rejection of a foundational part of NASCAR, in which the goal always has been to build the fastest cars possible with an understanding that pursuit inevitably will land teams on the wrong side of legitimacy.

Is it throwing out the baby with the bathwater to insist upon teams always following the letter of the law when NASCAR’s appeal has been rooted in testing the spirit of the law?

Can stock-car racing really go straight, in other words, and retain its soul?

Here are the other questions facing NASCAR’s oversight of the Cup Series entering the 2017 playoffs:

When does stripping wins become an option? Changing the longstanding policy of leaving wins intact despite postrace penalties isn’t going to happen during the 2017 season, but NASCAR will need to reconsider it for 2018.

–Short of that, can anything else be done to encourage deterrence this season? Yes, which is why NASCAR told teams Friday that it will increase the penalties for rear suspension violations and now include three-race suspensions for car chiefs.

–Could postrace inspections be finished at track through the end of the season? This might happen naturally next season as NASCAR moves toward a new inspection process (more below) that hopefully will de-emphasize – and perhaps eliminate – the need for R&D Center inspections. But again, it would be unlikely to happen in 2017, and it wouldn’t result in a new winner, just a more expeditious result (which might be preferable).

What about points penalties in the cutoff race of the playoffs for an advancing driver? Currently, it’s a penalty with no impact because the points immediately are reset for the next round. With the addition of playoff points that carry through the first nine races, NASCAR might need to consider having penalties for title-eligible teams with an impact on playoff points.

–Was Darlington the start of a trend or just a final test of NASCAR’s willingness to drop the hammer? For everyone’s sake, let’s hope it was the latter.

XXX

Lost amid the penalty aftermath of the Southern 500 was the longest green-flag run (102 laps) to end a 500-mile race at Darlington in more than 11 years, underscoring NASCAR’s increasing willingness to holster its yellow flags for debris.

Through 25 races, there have been 16 debris cautions – the lowest total at this point in the season since there were nine in the first 25 races of 2000. NASCAR has thrown only four yellows for debris in 10 races since a late debris caution in the June 18 race at Michigan International Speedway raised the hackles of many competitors.

Darlington’s high-wear surface delivered a classic example of the drama that can be produced by letting a race naturally unfold, which can be a more satisfying conclusion than bunching up the field for a series of late restarts. Though winner Denny Hamlin’s postrace penalty dampened the finish, NASCAR still deserves credit for steering away from a quick trigger on the yellow flag.

It bears watching through the playoffs, too, because crew chiefs are taking notice and accordingly adapting their strategies – as Mike Wheeler did Sunday in choosing to call Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota to the win by presuming there would be no caution. “I think a lot of the races go green now with the stages falling out the way they do and NASCAR letting things race out,” Wheeler said. “It’s great to see because it makes its own storylines.”

XXX

NASCAR demonstrated a new inspection process to news media at its R&D Center this week that is intended to increase efficiency and potentially provide teams with more areas to work on the car.

The new system, which will be tested on non-playoff cars starting at Chicagoland Speedway through the final 10 races of the season, will use eight projectors and 17 cameras to scan cars, measuring anywhere from 200,000 to 700,000 points on a car with 3-D mapping to ensure a car conforms to specifications.

It’s intended to reduce the number of prerace inspection stations from five to three and reduce in half the amount of time required to pass through them (roughly more than 6 minutes when including a 90-second scan).

The system ideally could eliminate the need for prerace template grids and laser inspection stations, rendering the postrace measuring of bodies obsolete (though suspension elements similar to those that drew penalties this week still would be scrutinized).

XXX

Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., was the guest on the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, explaining why Furniture Row Racing’s unorthodox approach has worked so well in producing the 2017 regular-season championship.

From being one of the only crew chiefs who wears a T-shirt instead of a firesuit or uniform (“It’s just me; I hate wearing a firesuit.”) to the team’s Denver, Colorado, headquarters, Pearn said the team’s nontraditional ways are keys to its success.

“We all have that rough around the edges feel, and as we’ve added people we’ve liked, it’s more people like that,” Pearn said. “We’re all a similar age and going through similar things in our lives together, and it just breeds a lot of closeness on the road-crew side. On the shop side, it’s a very laid-back atmosphere. … It definitely is a little bit different vibe than some of the bigger teams. It’s a group effort. There’s not a lot of hierarchy or chain of command. We ask all the time, ‘Who exactly is the boss here?’ ”

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.

Ryan: Now and Zen, NASCAR stars need to stay focused on the positives (video)

Leave a comment

Hey, you don’t have a confirmed Cup ride for next season?

I know. Isn’t it great?

Uhh, but what about the precipitous decline of a steady seven-figure annual income?

Couldn’t be happier!

OK, but this is the end of your professional life as you’ve known it for at least a decade, right?

Well, I’m thinking of taking up croquet.

Zen, baby.

If you’re a veteran facing an uncertain future in stock-car racing, it’s become the mantra of an unsettling 2017 season.

Danica Patrick used the word to describe her state of mind in a recent story about her contract being up, and she has been preaching it well through social media postings (and on a recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast).

We heard echoes again after Matt Kenseth’s fourth-place finish Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver missed a chance to capture a playoff berth while also failing to outduel the upstart (Erik Jones) who will take his job next season.

Yet Kenseth, the stoic champion whose deadpan wit sorely will be missed if his 18th season on NASCAR’s premier circuit also is his last, was in a lighthearted mood afterward, joking with reporters and poking fun at Jones in a side-by-side news conference that was amusing instead of awkward.

Kenseth seemed to be in a state of … Zen.

“I don’t really have anything to be unhappy about,” he said. “Knock on wood, because things can turn on dime. But my life couldn’t be much better. I’ve never really been in a better place. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. There’s more to life than racing.

“I think everything happens or doesn’t happen for a reason. It will all become clear.”

It dovetailed with the feelings Kenseth had expressed when asked about the future a day earlier (“I’m not worried about it even really 1 percent, to be honest”) and mirrored the sanguine sentiments of peers who are facing similarly indeterminate outlooks.

Whether it’s Patrick, Kenseth, Kasey Kahne or Kurt Busch, several familiar names with disparate backgrounds and personalities have at least two things in common: 1) the lack of a contract for 2018; and 2) a sunny disposition about what is next despite the absence of certitude.

It’s made some media center interviews this year seem as if they are missing only a comfortable couch and the soothing voice of a therapist helping drivers manage the cognitive dissonance of being unwanted by a major Cup team but encouraged by the liberation of free agency.

Aside from underscoring the importance of good mental health, the calm acceptance in the face of the great unknown represent the best (and perhaps only) option for reckoning with the possible career finality.

It’s easy to poke fun at the positive attitudes, but it also is the best outward stance for the hope of remaining gainfully employed in Cup. Kenseth, Patrick, Kahne and Busch have weathered enough as public figures to know the importance of public relations.

Also, things aren’t so bad anyway for those on the cusp of potentially needing work.

Patrick has launched a successful athletic leisure clothing line and released the first Cabernet Sauvignon from her new vineyard and has her first book scheduled for a January release.

Busch is tweeting photos from a happy marriage. Kahne constantly is doting on his 22-month-old son, Tanner. Kenseth is cycling a few hundred miles monthly to peak physical condition (and has three young daughters at home who seem the apple of his eye).

So, life is good regardless of the racing?

Yes. Either way, it’s just about going in circles while trying to keep a smile.

XXX

Though Logan Lucky missed box office expectations for its opening weekend, the Steven Soderbergh vehicle still put NASCAR in the middle of national movie reviews (most of which were overwhelmingly positive) – and without the stigma of being spoofed or worse in past presentations on celluloid.

“NASCAR was really critical to the movie,” Soderbergh, the director of Ocean’s 11, told the audience at the Charlotte premiere a few weeks ago. “We were wanting to do for the Coca-Cola 600 and NASCAR what we did in the first Ocean’s movie for the Bellagio. We wanted to make this seem like this was an event that you would attend and was fun, and I hope we accomplished that.”

Though there were a few fanciful elements (the proximity of West Virginia to Charlotte Motor Speedway, the wacky car owner subplot), Logan Lucky presented a narrow but attractive view of stock-car racing. Talladega Nights is a frequent target for its incessant lampooning, but NASCAR also wasn’t done many favors by the cartoon campiness of Days of Thunder or (the long-forgotten) Steel Chariots.

“I think we’ve learned from maybe our mistakes with other movies and how a nonfan perception of our sport could change from a movie to what we really are,” said Joey Logano, who has a cameo in Logan Lucky. “Talladega Nights is maybe the worst presentation or representative of what we are. I think we’ve learned a lot from that.

“I think Cars is one of the best things that has ever happened to our sport. It’s for kids to watch and really a lot of it makes sense. I just watched Cars 3 the other night and it’s like whoa, this really lines up with a lot of things that go on in our sport. That’s important when we select the movies we’re in; we don’t want to just be in any of them, you have to be aware of the brand of the sport when making these decisions.”

XXX

Last Saturday’s race was the best blend of the old and new at Bristol Motor Speedway, which has taken its lumps since a 2007 reconfiguration of the banking erased the bump and run and a 2012 makeover eliminated the bottom lane.

With the application of traction compound to the bottom lane that essentially lasted for 500 laps (after many predicted it would be gone within 100), the 0.533-mile oval featured the right amount of variation for frequent battles for the lead. While it didn’t have as many of the memorable clashes and contact that have defined vintage races at Bristol, it satisfied Kyle Larson, who was a vocal detractor in March when the track initially attempted to work in a lower line.

“I thought it was awesome,” Larson said Monday at a news conference to announce a new sponsorship. “I really liked how the lane changed a lot, not only throughout the race but throughout the run. It seemed like you could run the middle a couple of laps, get to the bottom, then 25 laps in the run, you could go where you wanted. It seemed like the top would be better a little bit, then you’d get back to the bottom. Then it changed. Each run was a little different. I think the racing is always good, but especially this time, it seemed really fun.”

XXX

Though his winning car at Michigan passed scrutiny at the NASCAR R&D Center, Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet needed four trips through inspection before qualifying at Bristol. After a two-race stretch of multiple run-ins with officials last month, Larson’s team recently had been out of the crosshairs, and car owner Chip Ganassi said Bristol was “a little bit of an anomaly” in its quest to push the limits of the rules without breaking them.

“It’s obviously been a challenge,” Ganassi said Monday. “I think we’ve shown NASCAR that it’s important we communicate with them and they communicate with us on a clear basis about what they want done, and we’re happy to do that.

“We’re working hard. Nobody wants anybody to break rules. We’re not known for that, OK? But any championship team or contender, they know you have to run right up to the edge of the rules. Anybody in racing knows that’s important to be competitive is to run up to the edge of the rules. Don’t go over the line but go up to the edge of the line. I’d hope they respect us for that, and I’m sure they do. And we have to respect what they do as well.”

XXX

It was hard to find flaws in Kyle Busch’s tripleheader sweep, but there were a few, and all were in the pits.

In the Xfinity and Truck series, it was about Busch going too fast, but more troubling was his crew being too slow on Saturday. At least twice, slower pit stops cost Busch the lead, and crew chief Adam Stevens said it wasn’t because of the No. 18 Toyota.

“We just missed a little something,” Stevens said. “One time we had an issue on the front, one time on the back.  I feel like we’re about half a step off there and we’re going to have to clean that up heading into the (playoffs) for sure.”

XXX

With NASCAR considering a way to police the manner in which the order of double-file restarts is determined, it’s raised discussion of the “cone rule” that is in place at many short tracks.

Under the procedure, drivers are allowed to choose the inside or outside lane on restarts, incentivizing the need to gain spots during yellow-flag pit stops (instead of decelerating to gain an even or odd position). A variation, known as “the choose rule,” actually was implemented more than a decade ago in the Summer Shootout series at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It seems a simple fix, but something also rings hollow about applying a minor-league codicil to a major-league entity.

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

Leave a comment

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.

XXX

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.

XXX

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.

XXX

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.

XXX

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.

Ryan: The case for why Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s popularity hasn’t ‘stunted’ NASCAR’s growth

6 Comments

So in the endless dissection of NASCAR’s meteoric rise and erosion of audience (has any other sport’s trajectory been so carefully parsed?), this is where we’ve landed.

Did the 14-time most popular driver in the Cup Series actually hamper stock-car racing’s growth over the past decade?

Kevin Harvick floated the thesis Tuesday during his SiriusXM Satellite Radio show, “Happy Hours”.

“Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these allegiances of fans, this huge outreach of being able to reach these places none of us have the possibility to reach,” he said. “But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that.”

Just on its face, this seems a specious assertion.

Namely because Earnhardt’s reach already extends far beyond what any other NASCAR driver enjoys, even a past champion such as Harvick.

With the cadence and diction of a textile mill worker and the surname to accentuate his throwback bona fides, Earnhardt represents the last real connection to NASCAR’s Southern-fried roots for an old-guard fan base that routinely has voiced its feelings of disaffection amid modernization laying waste to some tradition.

And as a Twitter savant whose mastery of GIFs and quips, as well as the weekly host of a popular podcast, he is the most digitally savvy star in Cup whose effortless grasp of the trendy has continued apace since he became the first NASCAR driver to score a Rolling Stone profile.

In bridging the gap between the diehards that NASCAR desperately wants to avoid alienating and the youth that it desperately seeks to attract, who has been a better hope for expansion in the 21st century than Earnhardt?

There have been such declarations made before (such as NASCAR chairman Brian France’s 2010 comparison to a cornerstone franchise) that if Earnhardt had excelled, it would have been a larger driver of audience. But empirical evidence (such as Earnhardt’s 2014 Daytona 500 win and three wins later that season) also has run contrary to those assertions.

There is merit to Harvick’s postulation of success being tied to popularity in other professional sports. Undoubtedly, the most popular athletes usually tend to be the most accomplished.

But it never is as simple as some transitive property in which mass appeal spikes because of a title.

Michael Jordan was destined to dwarf his NBA peers in popularity years ahead of his first championship. The mammoth sales of his iconic Air Jordan high top sneakers started several years before he won a title.

An even better example might be Steph Curry, who signed a megashoe deal with Under Amour that began during the Golden State Warriors’ run of three consecutive NBA Finals. Sales have lagged so much for the two-time MVP’s shoes (part of a 60 percent overall decline since last year), it has become part of the narrative in a 10-figure drag on Under Armour’s market cap this year.

Peyton Manning, whom Harvick also cited as an example, became an A-list endorser long before a Super Bowl victory (and was known most of his career as much for the big games that he didn’t win).

LeBron James didn’t ascend to another level by winning his first two championships with the Miami Heat (conversely, you could say his brand actually was diminished by those who perceived he took the easy route to the title).

If you are independently popular without the benefit of a significant accomplishment, a championship is unlikely to make you even more transcendent – just like it isn’t accompanied by an automatic anointing of breakthrough renown.

Look no further than NASCAR to realize the limitations that unprecedented success can bring.

As Harvick noted, reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson isn’t the top seller in merchandise despite a record-tying seven titles and becoming the first to win five straight.

“It’s really confusing to me,” Harvick said. “In my opinion, Jimmie Johnson should be our most popular guy.”

He shouldn’t be so puzzled. These are the fallacies of applying pretzel logic to something that can’t be quantified – an “it factor” blend of charisma, magnetism and swagger.

It wasn’t seven championships that turned Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s father into the John Wayne of NASCAR. It was the mythology surrounding his blue-collar persona as the everyman laborer turned stock-car superman.

Earnhardt’s sway was built as much during the years in which he didn’t win championships. The fans who loved Earnhardt – just like those who found a special allure in Jordan and Manning – weren’t enamored with him solely for the results.

XXX

While Harvick might be “totally shocked by the vibe” of Earnhardt Jr.’s final season because it didn’t bring record-breaking attendance and merchandise sales, that isn’t exactly an outlier.

The “retirement tours” of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart also had minimal gate impact for much of the past two seasons. You can posit that the drivers downplayed their farewells and dissuaded tracks from celebrations, but that doesn’t change the basic principle that fans didn’t flock en masse to witness their final laps.

XXX

One category in which Earnhardt Jr. has made an indisputable impact? Candor.

His brilliantly concise explanation for the changing economics of driver salaries was notable for its honesty and insight but even more so because he was uninhibited in making the pronouncement. Because of his standing within NASCAR, Earnhardt is acutely self-aware that he can weather blowback with fewer repercussions than any other star, and he has chosen his spots carefully but shrewdly when making his points.

He will leave a void of honesty in the driver brigade, and it’ll be curious to observe whether anyone will have the gumption to fill it.

XXX

Watkins Glen International president Michael Printup caused a stir in declaring the 3:18 p.m. start time for Sunday’s Cup race at his track was “absolutely ridiculous” and likely would end its grandstand sellout streak at three if kept in place for 2018.

Printup said roughly a quarter of the 4,000 fans he met with Saturday morning expressed dissatisfaction with the later start time and said they wouldn’t return because of it. In particular, he noted that fans making a 130-mile drive from Buffalo didn’t want to be on the road home late Sunday night (though those worries apparently didn’t hurt year-over-year turnout from the 2016 race, which started only 30 minutes earlier than this year).

It isn’t the first time start times have been a hot-button issue this season, which will feature nearly three times as many races (13) beginning after 3 p.m. as last year (five). NASCAR president Brent Dewar explained last month that a 1 p.m. ET start is too early for California and its population of close to 40 million. It also is probably too early for Texas, which has nearly 30 million residents.

It’s understandable that East Coast tracks would lobby for earlier starts to keep their tens of thousands of fans happy … but it also has to be weighed against the millions that are watching on TV, which is a major part of the revenue streams for NASCAR, teams and tracks, along with critical exposure value for sponsors.

XXX

With four victories and a regular-season points championship in sight, Martin Truex Jr. essentially has earned a first-round bye in the 2017 playoffs.

In reality, he probably is safe all the way through to being a title contender in the season finale at Miami.

Last year, it took 78 points to advance from the second round – a per-race average of 26. Projecting the 15 playoff points he would earn for a regular-season title, Truex already is sitting on 16 points per race – a total that could grow over the next four races. That would mean averaging a top-25 finish would advance him from the second round.

In the third round last year, 113 points advanced Kyle Busch to Miami, an average of 37.6. With his projected playoff points, Truex can hit that total by roughly averaging a top-20 finish.

Anything can happen, as Truex said after his Watkins Glen win, but it also wasn’t bluster for him to declare, “We should essentially be a lock for” the championship round.

XXX

No one knows the benefits of being based outside the Charlotte, N.C., hub of NASCAR better than Truex and his Denver-based team. Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser openly wondered in a Wednesday interview on SiriusXM’s “The Morning Drive” whether more teams should try it – or at least be open to the concept.

Though Furniture Row’s success has framed the conversation in a new way, this isn’t a novel idea. About a decade ago, there were brief rumblings about a team (Everhnam Motorsports frequently was mentioned as a possiblity) mulling a move to Indianapolis, which offers a centralized location and racing infrastructure. Many NHRA teams are based in Brownsburg, a small suburb just west of Indy.

Given the success of Furniture Row, which inherently can keep its trade secrets tightly held with greater ease in a far-flung locale, it seems a prospect that is worth reconsidering if only for a competitive advantage. As Visser noted, there also is the potential for audience growth and hometown allegiances (which would benefit NASCAR in bringing more localized media coverage).

But Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing have spent tens of millions on building and improving their enormous shops of plate glass and steel in the Charlotte area. To walk away from those investments would be staggering — and probably require a sweetheart package of tax breaks and financial incentives.

XXX

Jamie McMurray has become one of the many Cup veterans more attuned to health and fitness this season, recently completing a 104-mile bike ride and entering training for a marathon.

“Everyone’s got their own story of why they’re doing this,” McMurray said as the guest on the most recent NASCAR on NBC podcast. “I found cycling at the beginning of the year as something that’s really important – fitness — for my profession, but it also gives me two to three hours a day where I can just clear my mind from everything,”

During the podcast, McMurray explained why he tweeted some of his biometrics after Kasey Kahne’s Brickyard 400 victory. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver also discussed why he observes social media without engaging in it and why the Cup Series Drivers Council didn’t work as he expected.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.