Friday 5: Passion on and off the track

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There’s been much to talk about this season but some of the conversation has centered more on what has happened off the track.

Maybe Kyle Busch can help return the talk to the track this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

Admittedly, three of the first five races having a margin of victory of 2.6 seconds or more (last week Martin Truex Jr. won by 11.6 seconds) takes away some of the excitement for some even as Kevin Harvick won three races in a row.

Other than Harvick’s dominance, some of the buzzy topics this season has been Harvick talking about the need to build up grassroots racing, why Busch wasn’t interviewed on TV after last weekend’s race at Auto Club (and then his responses to Twitter trolls) and how Austin Dillon and members of his team got tattoos on their rear end after winning the Daytona 500.

All worthy topics to generate conversation, but the discussion on the racing hasn’t been as paramount to this point.

Martinsville comes just in time to change that. The series is back at the track for the first time since Denny Hamlin’s contact knocked Chase Elliott out of the lead late in the fall race and fans saw a level of emotion they hadn’t seen from Elliott. If you don’t recall, Busch went on to win that race.

Last spring had its excitement with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bumping Busch out of the way to stay on the lead lap, opening the door for Elliott to win a stage. Later in that race, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch engaged in a spellbinding duel before Keselowski pulled away and went on to win. Busch finished second.

Right now, Busch is one of the main drivers who stirs the drink in a sport that has seen fan favorites Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, among others, retire.

Even Earnhardt said as much on his podcast this week.

“The one thing that I’ve learned over the last several years … was the sport needs people like Kyle,’’ Earnhardt said on the Dale Jr. Download. “Even if you don’t like the guy, the sport needs all kinds of personalities, and we can’t have 40 heroes out there racing.

“We can’t have 40 Captain Americas out there competing against each other. You gotta have a Batman, you gotta have a Robin, you gotta have a Superman, you gotta have a Joker. You gotta have all of that to create storylines and create rivalries.”

The sport’s best rivalry is Keselowski and Busch. It’s one that simmers and then explodes, whether it is in their duel at Martinsville last year, their contact at Watkins Glen, Busch’s Twitter response to Keselowski after Keselowski’s comments about Toyota’s dominance entering the playoffs or Busch simply saying at the news conference before last year’s Miami championship race of Busch: “Sometimes you just don’t like a guy.’’

This weekend could be a chance for such feelings to bubble or maybe from somebody else. With an off weekend afterward, it would give fans something to talk about.

2. An impassioned defense

BK Racing car owner Ron Devine was combative at times, calling the procedure “nonsense” while on the stand for about 2 1/2 hours Thursday in federal bankruptcy court.

Devine, who turned to address the judge at times when answering questions from attorneys, was on the stand defending his right to run BK Racing despite millions of dollars in losses in recent years and unpaid bills.

Union Bank & Trust, which claims it is owed more than $8 million in loans from Devine, seeks to have a trustee put in charge of the team. Union Bank & Trust stated in documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy court that BK Racing had lost about $30 million from 2014-16.

MORE: Court filing lists expenses, revenue for each race 

MORE: Rare peek into race purses, payouts

Devine said on the stand that the team had signed a sponsor agreement Wednesday with EarthWater for $3.6 million for the rest of the season. The amount is to be paid in cash, shares of stock and product. Devine said that if the judge ruled to have a bank-appointed trustee run the team, the sponsor would not remain, noting a line that in the agreement that the deal was null and void if Devine was not running the team.

Devine, who said his organization had “low teens” in terms of full-time employees, stated that those employees would quit if a trustee took over. Devine said the only reason the bank wanted a trustee was to sell the team’s charter. He accused the bank of soliciting bids for the charter.

Turning to the judge, Devine said of having a trustee run the team instead of him: “There’s no way he can operate the team. He has no knowledge and ability to operate my team.’’

Devine estimated he had spent half a million dollars of his own money since December to offset deficits at BK Racing. During the testimony, Devine confirmed that he sold one of the team’s charters before the 2017 season to Front Row Motorsports for $2 million.

“I can run this race team,’’ Devine said in court.

The matter has been continued until Wednesday.

3. West Coast review

While Kevin Harvick dominated the West Coast swing, winning two of the three races, Kyle Busch had the best average finish for the events at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana.

Of course, Harvick’s 35th-place finish Sunday after contact with Kyle Larson ruined his average finish.

Here’s who had the best average finish for the three races:

2.3 — Kyle Busch

3.3 — Martin Truex Jr.

7.7 — Kyle Larson

8.0 — Erik Jones

8.3 — Brad Keselowski

Here’s who scored the most points in the three races:

147 — Martin Truex Jr.

146 — Kyle Busch

125 — Brad Keselowski

120 — Kyle Larson

115 — Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 75.2 percent of the laps run on the West Coast swing. Harvick led 252 laps, Busch led 200 laps and Truex led 134 laps.

4. In case you missed it …

Only three drivers scored a top-10 finish in each of the three West Coast swing races: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones.

5. Back in time

Jimmie Johnson has nine career Martinsville victories (in 32 starts for a winning percentage of 28.1 percent) but has two top-10 finishes — including a win in October 2016 — in the last seven starts there. He’s led only in two of those seven races. He once had a streak of 17 consecutive top-10 finishes there, including six wins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bump & Run: Biggest upsets in NASCAR

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In light of UMBC’s upset of Virginia in the NCAA basketball tournament, what’s an upset in NASCAR that stands out to you?

Nate Ryan: David Gilliland in the Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway in 2006. That’s the closest approximation in modern-day NASCAR of what the Retrievers pulled off last Friday.

Dustin Long: David Gilliland’s Xfinity win at Kentucky in 2006 with a part-time and independent team. Remarkable upset that eventually led to a Cup ride.

Daniel McFadin: Front Row Motorsports’ two Cup wins, at Talladega in 2013 and Pocono in 2016. The first because David Ragan‘s surge to the lead on the final lap is the definition of “Where did he come from?” The second, because Chris Buescher earned his first Cup win via pit strategy and … fog.

Jerry Bonkowski: Actually, a two-part answer. First, when Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere and was pushed to the win in the 2011 Daytona 500 by Carl Edwards. And then there was the 1990 Daytona 500, when underdog Derrike Cope won.

What was something that stood out to you from the West Coast swing?

Nate Ryan: That the storylines from the end of last season (Toyotas, particularly Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, are fast; Kevin Harvick is a championship contender; Hendrick Motorsports still is searching) generally have remained intact.

Dustin Long: Overlooked was that Erik Jones was one of only three drivers (Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were the others) to score a top-10 finish in all three races.

Daniel McFadin: Joey Logano going from 16th to first in four laps in the Xfinity race on Saturday thanks to fresh tires. It’s the closest thing to a video game I’ve ever seen in real life.

Jerry Bonkowski: I thought for sure that we’d see more success from some of the young drivers. But when it came down to it, veterans won all three races. Sooner or later, the young drivers have to start making more of a name for themselves, guys like Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, William Byron and others. And by making a name for themselves, I mean winning.

What’s a special Martinsville memory you have?

Nate Ryan: John Andretti rallying from a lap down to win the first race I covered (and attended) there in April 1999. I was crossing the track in Turn 1 when Andretti drove the No. 43 right by into victory lane … with “The King” sitting on the driver’s window opening (to an enormous cheer from the crowd).

Dustin Long: John Andretti’s April 1999 win, which completed a weekend sweep for Petty Enterprises. Jimmy Hensley won the Truck race for the organization the day before Andretti’s victory. “It looked like the good old times,’’ Petty said in victory lane after riding in on the driver’s window opening of the No. 43 car.

Daniel McFadin: When I covered my first race there in the fall of 2014 as an intern for Sporting News. It turned out to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s first and only win at the track and the only time I attended a race he won. He’s retired now so I can say he’s my favorite driver. I still have confetti from the celebration in a plastic bag. 

Jerry Bonkowski: This is more of a sad rather than special memory. I was at the fall race in 2004 when the Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed into nearby Bull Mountain, killing all onboard. We got word about halfway through the race that there had been an incident, and as we got closer to the end of the race, things became confirmed. I recall it as if it was yesterday, and it’s a day I’ll never forget.

Hendrick Motorsports withdraws appeal of Phoenix penalties against No. 9 team

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Hendrick Motorsports has withdrawn its appeal of penalties against Chase Elliott‘s N0. 9 team from last weekend’s race in Phoenix, NBC Sports confirmed.

NASCAR found a L1 infraction on Elliott’s car in the rear-suspension after the race at ISM Raceway.

NASCAR stated that the team’s truck trailing arm spacer/pinion angle shim mounting surfaces must be planar and in complete contact with corresponding mating surfaces at all points and at all times.

NASCAR fined crew chief Alan Gustafson $50,000, suspended car chief Josh Kirk two races and docked Elliott 25 points and the team 25 owner points. Elliott’s third-place finish in the race will not count toward any tiebreakers.

Following Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, where Elliott finished 16th, he is 21st in the point standings.

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Entry lists for Martinsville (updated)

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NASCAR visits a short track for the first time this season when it heads to Martinsville Speedway, the oldest track on the circuit.

The Cup Series is joined by the Camping World Truck Series, which has been off the last two weeks.

Here are the entry lists for both races.

Cup – STP 500

There are 38 cars entered.

Jeffrey Earnhardt is listed as driving StarCom Racing’s No. 00 Chevrolet, but the team announced Sunday it has parted ways with Earnhardt.

Landon Cassill will take his place this weekend and at Texas Motor Speedway.

D.J. Kennington is entered in his third race this season, driving Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota.

Ross Chastain is entered in Premium Motorsports’ No. 15 Chevrolet for the fifth time this season.

Harrison Rhodes is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet. Rhodes has one start in the No. 51 at Atlanta.

JJ Yeley will drive Premium Motorsports’ N0. 55 Chevrolet. Reed Sorenson was originally listed as the driver.

Last year, Brad Keselowski won this race after leading 116 of 500 laps. He beat Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. In the fall playoff race, Busch won over Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer.

Click here for the entry list.

Trucks – Alpha Energy Solutions 250

There are 36 trucks entered.

Todd Gilliland will make his first start of the season in Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 4 Toyota.

Kyle Benjamin is entered in DGR-Crosley’s No. 54 Toyota. It will be his first Truck start.

Timothy Peters will make his first start of the year driving Ricky Benton Racing’s No. 92 Ford. A former driver for the defunct Red Horse Racing, Peters’ last start was in the 2017 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Last year, Chase Elliott won this race over Johnny Sauter and Christopher Bell. The fall playoff race was won by Noah Gragson over Matt Crafton and Sauter.

Click here for the entry list.