Steve Letarte

Bump & Run: Did NASCAR handle Jimmie Johnson’s pit stop correctly?

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Should NASCAR have told all teams that it would allow lug nuts to be secured even if done outside a team’s pit stall without penalty, as happened with Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte, or is that a team’s responsibility to seek such information?

Steve Letarte: I spent a lot of time going through the rule book. According to 10.9.7 Vehicle Positioning Within the Pit Box, subsection D, I feel that the 48 didn’t deserve a penalty. I think they were well within their right. But the followup is that if Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, two people that I hold in very high regard, didn’t understand that rule and there had to be conversations with NASCAR, then I do think it’s NASCAR’s responsibility in today’s world of communication and how easy it is … that perhaps a simple e-mail blast explaining the rule or letting them know that were questions of the rule and to come to the NASCAR tailer if you have questions would have been a good solution.

Nate Ryan: Normally, it would be a team’s responsibility to seek rulebook clarifications – in fact, it’s a regular occurrence for teams to get new parts approved by NASCAR before presenting them for racetrack inspection. But this isn’t about gaining a competitive advantage and wanting to protect proprietary information or trade secrets. This is ostensibly about safety, as NASCAR explicitly has stated numerous times since Sunday’s race.

Dustin Long: NASCAR has stated safety as a reason for not penalizing Jimmie Johnson’s team on that pit stop. If that’s the case, isn’t it the responsible thing for the sanctioning body to inform all teams they can tighten a lug nut outside their pit box? 

How far will Chase Elliott, who has three runner-up finishes in the first four playoff races, advance in the postseason?

Steve Letarte: I think Chase will make the Round of 8, but I don’t think he’ll get out of the Round of 8. I think making it that far is very impressive. He’s really stepped his game up.

Nate Ryan: Based off the past four races, at least the Round of 8, but the confidence seems to be there for a run to the championship. To get there, though, he probably will need to score his first victory.

Dustin Long: I’ve been impressed with the speed he’s shown in the playoffs after Hendrick Motorsports’ struggles earlier this year. I think he will make the Round of 8, but he and his team will have to show me more before I would pick them to make it to Miami for the finale.

What is one thing you will be watching closely in the final two races of the Round of 12?

Steve Letarte: I think it starts this Sunday. I want to see how aggressive the 12 playoff drivers decide to go for stage points at the end of Stage 1 at Talladega. I think that will be the defining moment of this entire playoff. I think it will be the defining moment of this new points system, and I expect to see chaos and chaos early at Talladega and that’s what I’m going to be watching.

Nate Ryan: How Kyle Busch’s team manages its approach and strategy. After his wipeout at Charlotte, Busch will be the first test case of whether a driver with a significant playoff points bulge still can overcome one bad race. In the past three seasons, the next two races would be virtual must-win situations. Now it’s worth asking if Busch essentially lays up and conservatively races for points (though Talladega makes that scenario very tricky).

Dustin Long: I want to see who starts to step up. Hendrick Motorsports has so far. Will that continue and can that team step up enough to challenge the Toyotas of Martin Truex Jr. and Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Larson?

Ryan: Did self-policing in NASCAR reach a new level of social media shaming after Chicagoland?

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When NASCAR announced a private testing ban three years ago, it also disclosed an intriguing twist in how it would monitor roughly 4 million square miles.

Posting 24-hour sentries at every short track in America wasn’t an option, of course. But the 24-hour omniscience of social media?

A reality of 21st century community policing in any neighborhood, especially NASCAR’s.

“The teams are not too shy about telling on one another,” chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said at the time. “So we know it won’t be just NASCAR (enforcing the policy). We have a lot of people out there with social media.”

That was driven home by the 2017 Cup Series playoffs’ first major penalty, which was the subject of a social media firestorm long before Chase Elliott lost 15 points and crew chief Alan Gustafson this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

NASCAR officials certainly were cognizant of the potential wrongdoing to Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet well before the photos and video went viral in various corners of the Internet that purported to show aerodynamic modifications Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway that were deemed the reason for the punishment.

The sanctioning body has access to cameras around the track as well as the PRO system of about 50 high-definition cameras that provide nonstop observation of every pit stall. It certainly is plausible that officials were aware Elliott’s team might have been on the wrong side of the rulebook before the race even was over.

But the same knowledge also likely was available to teams, which work with manufacturers that employ photographers who take thousands of photos of cars on track during every race weekend. There are some moral stipulations that are followed for garage photos (as noted in this excellent USA TODAY Sports feature from 2015 by Mike Hembree), but the amount of on-track images taken are staggering. To ensure swift transmissions of massive data files to their home bases (and teams), manufacturers in NASCAR have benefited in recent years from tracks upgrading high-speed connectivity in every garage.

Was access to those vast troves of evidence put to use in attempting to try Elliott’s team in the court of public opinion before any penalty were announced, or even decided?

That’s what made this controversy feel different – and also harken back to how NASCAR implemented the testing ban. Just as it predicted teams would help with enforcement, NASCAR received photos of Elliott’s car from rival Cup teams. So did many in the news media.

It is natural to ponder whether the ensuing widespread distribution might have hastened NASCAR’s reaction – usually, penalties are announced after the offending teams are consulted and a fair amount of deliberation takes place.

In this instance, anyone with a Twitter account and following the right people – or any regular visitor to NASCAR Reddit – knew there was extra scrutiny on the No. 24, which was one of three cars taken to the R&D Center after the Chicagoland Speedway race.

If it was a coordinated and deliberate campaign by rival teams to disseminate the visual evidence of an infraction, it certainly seemed successful — regardless of whether the worldwide whisper campaign led to NASCAR uncovering the No. 24’s penalty.

“Self policing” in NASCAR – at least in a public setting — traditionally has fallen into the “Boys, Have at It” realm of frontier justice administered via bumper and fender by drivers who feel aggrieved.

This felt as if it were delivered via point and click by an angry army of engineers eager to drop a dime on a competitor – and perhaps deliver a warning about a new era in the fishbowl existence of these modern times.

Don’t bend that spoiler. Somebody always is watching — and sharing on social media.

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Much of the discussion around Elliott’s car centered on whether tape was applied to the spoiler. It might have seemed a relatively minor modification, but NASCAR has been warning teams for more than a year that it would punish teams for even miniscule adjustments.

In the June 7, 2016 race at Pocono Raceway, Brad Keselowski’s team was penalized for improper body modifications, and Cup series director Richard Buck warned teams later that season at the Kentucky Speedway prerace drivers meeting and again before the Kansas Speedway race in last year’s playoffs.

Buck specifically referred to “deliberately adding tape trips,” which create more downforce by altering airflow with strategically placed tiny pieces of tape. Teams also are known to slice cars’ wraps (particularly around the wheel well area) to create more downforce.

The penalty for illegal body modifications is a pit stop for repairs under yellow (which applied in Keselowski’s case) and restarting from the rear and a drive-through penalty under green.

By virtue of a second-place finish at Chicagoland, Elliott’s car received further scrutiny in a postrace teardown at the R&D Center (after which NASCAR announced the penalty). It’s worth considering, though, if a similar situation occurred in the next nine playoff races, would NASCAR consider bringing the car to the pits based off visual evidence (and possibly punishing a team with a loss of positions even if no infraction were found)?

Or might NASCAR consider randomly inspecting cars in the impound area where officials check for five secure lug nuts before team members are allowed near the vehicles?

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It isn’t unusual for NASCAR to seize tires for inspection during a race, but Sunday was unusual because of the appearance of a blue tent that housed the dunk tank used to check them.

The tent has been in use this season to establish some consistency in its at-track processes. Because its accommodations vary from each facility (some tracks have dedicated buildings for tire suppliers; others don’t), Goodyear began erecting the tent at the back of the garage near its hauler and tire staging area so that it could check for punctures and leaks more efficiently.

Of course, it also is used by NASCAR during races for random checks – O’Donnell noted on Twitter that it has happened five times in Cup this season.

That it happened to come to light during the 2017 playoff opener and involving the race’s two fastest cars (whose speed had drawn a heavy degree of scrutiny already during the weekend, whether fair or not) made it a major storyline during the race.

NASCAR’s stock answer to questions about Sunday’s tire inspection was “well, we always have done it this way.” Again, that is true, but it falls short of meeting the self-proclaimed higher standards of transparency that officials are striving to reach, and it also implies there was a lack of newsworthiness, which is false.

This was the first time a random tire inspection was witnessed in a conspicuous-looking tent on national TV, and the intimation is that the teams involved might have done something wrong.

A better answer from NASCAR would have been: “With the intense pressure of the playoffs beginning, we reserve the right to hold every team to the highest standard of the rules to ensure fairness. We will be doing random inspections over these 10 races because a level playing field is at a premium, and we want to guarantee that to the competitors. The tires from the 18 and 78 checked out OK.”

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There has been much debate about whether NASCAR needs to be in the business of getting embroiled in midweek penalty discussions, but somehow the debate over the illegal modifications made by Elliott’s team didn’t feel in the same vein as the taint that hung over Denny Hamlin’s Southern 500 victory.

Maybe it was because it didn’t involve a winning car, but Elliott’s penalty also seemed to say more about the heightened urgency of the playoffs. Hendrick Motorsports has lacked speed during the second half of the regular season. In the cat-and-mouse game of testing the limits allowed by officials, why shouldn’t it be worth the risk to a team desperately in search of a breakthrough?

Similarly, the discussion about NASCAR briefly confiscating the tires of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch also didn’t detract from the race; it blended into the main storyline of the weekend, i.e. the recent dominance of Toyotas (and the grumbling it caused by Brad Keselowski).

NASCAR naturally wants to keep the focus on tight battles for position, but in a race decided by a 7.1-second margin of victory, the hunt for compelling angles can lead elsewhere. In both the instances of tires and tape that mysteriously might have been applied to the spoiler, it made for healthy discussions.

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After the Chicagoland win, Truex seems even more of a lock to reach the championship finale, but Kyle Larson slipped in another reminder that the tables might turn at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Obviously, (Truex) is really good,” Larson told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast after finishing fifth Sunday. “He could probably win nine out of 10, but if we get to Homestead, we’ll have a shot.”

Larson, who said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast last week that he thinks Truex “definitely” will be in the championship round, considers Miami his favorite track and with good reason. The 1.5-mile progressively banked oval favors drivers such as Larson who prefer the high lane. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver led a race-high 132 of 268 laps in a runner-up finish to champion Jimmie Johnson last season.

“I’m not surprised that Larson said that,” Truex said with a chuckle when told of Larson’s comment by NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long after his win. “He’s pretty good at Homestead, but we made some big gains there last year. That used to be one of my best racetracks. I have a feeling if we can get there, it’s going to be a hell of a battle.”

Crew chief Cole Pearn also laughed when told of what Larson said.

“I agree; I think (Larson) is the one to beat when it comes to Homestead,” Pearn told NBC Sports. “I think looking at the last couple of years, they’ve been so, so good there. So it’s definitely our weak point that we have to figure out. We’re fortunate to have a two-day test coming up in October that we can hopefully sort out some of the things that ail us there. I think if we play our cards right, we’ll have a shot at it, and that’s really our only option.

“With this one-race championship deal, you’ve got to be good at Homestead. So it’s a weak spot for us that we got to be good at when it comes time.”

Furniture Row Racing skipped the test at Miami last year, raising some eyebrows around the garage, but Truex is enthused about next month’s session. “It definitely will be big,” he said. “We’ll be there. We know what to focus on. I think we have a good game plan going on, but Homestead is a hard place to test. It’s one of those tracks that on race weekend, it’s always a lot different. You have to stay open-minded. You can’t just learn a bunch at the test, go to the track and say this is what we’re going to do no matter what because it could bite you.”

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On the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, analyst Steve Letarte said the preponderance of visual evidence was what surprised him the most about the Elliott penalty.

“That’s why I’m really so shocked by this,” Letarte said. “What a brazen move. There was no secret there were going to be photos of this car on the racetrack. That shocked me about it.”

The former crew chief also said it was a “moral struggle” watching it unfold on social media.

“I’m not sure I like the strategy or goal of whoever it was to put those pictures out there unless they’re going to cover all 40 cars the same way with some sort of moral requirement of, ‘Hey, we’re going to be Big Brother to everyone in the field,’ ” he said. “That’s the bigger problem I have with this than anything. I struggle with this starting on a social site. I don’t want there to be a million NASCAR officials out there.”

During the podcast, Letarte also discussed Kasey Kahne‘s crew chief change and the state of Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Busch’s pit crew swap, the strength of Toyota Racing Development and whether there was deeper motive behind Keselowski’s words last week.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

Letarte: Why 2017 playoffs have chance to be best ever after Richmond missteps

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NASCAR admittedly messed up last Saturday at Richmond Raceway, and now the pressure is on as it never has been during the most critical stretch of the season.

Let me tell you why I think that is a good thing – both for the sanctioning body and the industry as a whole, and it might make the 2017 playoffs the most flawlessly executed and enduringly memorable (for the right reasons).

I’m a sports fan because I love the big stage. I love to watch Super Bowls, the World Series, Ryder Cup golf, the closing holes of the Masters. But I don’t even have to be a huge fan. I don’t know anything about Olympic handball, but I was captivated by the gold-medal match because it was the biggest stage.

Between life-threatening storms, political disagreements and cultural strife, we all as Americans want the diversions of being entertained, and nothing entertains like sports. In its quest to grow through its entertainment value, NASCAR has a platform in these final 10 races to deliver highly captivating moments.

We have the storylines to do it, from superstar veterans to rising stars. We have the great mix of teams, from perennial contenders Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske to emerging power Furniture Row Racing to beloved historical fixture Wood Brothers Racing.

Every part and piece is there to make a beautiful recipe.

But everyone who has a NASCAR hard card needs to understand they have a hand in the mix. Everyone needs to be held accountable. The most pressure to perform always is on the drivers, teams and pit crews, but now the pressure on the supporting staff also becomes real.

The restructuring of the playoffs – first in 2014 with the addition of points resets and eliminations and now this year with the addition of playoff points – has put a hyper-focus on performance these last 10 races.

That is performance that extends WAY beyond just the drivers behind the wheels, which generally is only what fans are thinking about.

You can’t focus the microscope on a nine-race playoff and a championship race and then have the officiating become a major story. But you also can’t have stories that result from questionable team ethics or missteps made by track personnel (as happened at Richmond) or even major errors by the broadcast network.

I can’t be part of the story. My job is to cover the superstars who are creating the stories. For Jeff Burton and I, we can’t forget a rule or stumble through an important setup or misspeak when a pass is coming. Rick Allen’s play-by-play call Sunday has to be at the premium level at which the winner at Chicagoland Speedway deserves.

But over the next two months of NASCAR, we are at a Super Bowl level of scrutiny. Every flag being thrown, every play being made (or not made), every commentator’s opinion – the attention and potential impact of every action by every actor at every level of every race is multiplied by a more intense spotlight that can tarnish an event with a major mistake (like Richmond) just as much as it can elevate it to greatness.

That’s where we’re at – and that’s where I want us to be. Everyone needs to feel that pressure. It’s a collective effort.

NASCAR has created a playoff system built on the essence of what makes sports great – high-pressure situations.

And no one is beyond that pressure and scrutiny, whether it’s the driver, crew chief, pit crew, engine builder, sanctioning body, track promoter, operations staff or the broadcast partners. I will have more nerves about feeling obligated to perform on air with exhaustive preparation in the final 10 races because the fan base and viewers deserve it – and they will notice it even more if we aren’t on point.

After throwing a questionable caution flag that created the opportunity for a different outcome (pit crews and a restart still were the reasons Martin Truex Jr. lost to Kyle Larson), I want to hear what NASCAR will do differently to make sure it doesn’t happen again at Chicagoland Speedway. We don’t need a detailed explanation, but NASCAR owes us a reassurance that the methods for throwing a caution have received heavy investigation and a reworking if necessary.

The pressure is on to deliver high-quality races – but it also is on everybody. I hope that everyone realizes – between teams, drivers, crew chiefs, broadcast partners and the tracks – that the final mulligan this season for the sport’s reputation was used at Richmond. Even if the ambulances are in proper position at Chicagoland, there can’t be a malfunctioning ticket scanner or something else instead. Expectations now are higher to be perfect.

Before an industry that lives in an enormous glass house starts tossing stones at the NASCAR scoring tower, everyone has to have their own stuff buttoned up. Everyone needs to be on another level of preparedness for the level of big-event opportunity that is here.

In a season with so many first-time winners and the emergence of a fresh class of stars complementing some familiar names, we have the ability to see a spectacular playoff, and everyone needs to understand the responsibility in creating that.

NASCAR is at its quintessential best with man and machine vs. man and machine, and may the best team win. It’s that simple.

The way to do that is through the NASCAR industry’s across-the-board execution, which is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

That time is now.

It’s the playoffs, and everyone must deliver on the sport’s biggest stage.

NASCAR America: Dale Jarrett, Steve Letarte make their playoff ‘sleeper picks’ (video)

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Sure, lots of people are picking guys like Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch as favorites heading into the 10-race NASCAR Cup playoffs.

But on Tuesday’s NASCAR America, NASCAR On NBC analysts Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte came up with a couple of surprises when it came to choosing “sleeper picks” that could go several rounds, if not all the way to the Championship 4 round.

First, here’s DJ on why he’s picking Kurt Busch: “He won the Daytona 500. He’s seeded 12th. He’s been running extremely well, much better over these last five or six races. I think he’s the driver you pay attention to because they’ve found something that’s going to put them there.”

And here’s Steve on why he’s picking Ryan Blaney as his sleeper: “Ryan Blaney is the driver I feel is going to continue much farther into the playoffs than people expect. I think he’ll easily get out of the Round of 16 and … get into the Round of 8.”

NASCAR America hosts break down tonight’s race at Richmond (video)

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On today’s pre-race edition of NASCAR America on NBCSN, Krista Voda, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte broke down what to expect and any potential surprises in tonight’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway.

Check out what they had to say in the video above.