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NASCAR penalizes Chase Elliott’s team for Phoenix violation


NASCAR penalized Chase Elliott‘s Hendrick Motorsports team for an L1 violation found after Sunday’s race at Phoenix.

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 will not count toward any tiebreakers. By losing 25 points, Elliott drops from 16th to 23rd in the points.

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.

The team is appealing the penalty, and NASCAR confirmed Thursday that Kirk’s suspension will be deferred until the case is heard, allowing him to be in the garage at Auto Club Speedway this weekend. The appeal hearing date hasn’t been set yet.

NASCAR also announced that the cars of Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were all cited for having one lug nut unsecured at the end of the Phoenix race. That resulted in a $10,000 fine each to crew chiefs Todd Gordon (Logano), Cole Pearn (Truex), Mike Wheeler (Hamlin), Jeremy Bullins (Blaney) and Brian Pattie (Stenhouse).

In the Xfinity Series, the teams of Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch were each found to have one lug nut unsecured. That resulted in a $5,000 fine for crew chief Brian Wilson (Keselowski) and Eric Phillips (Busch).

NASCAR also announced that Brandon Lee and Wayne Kanter had been indefinitely suspended for violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy.

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Ryan: Kevin Harvick has put his own spin on the Dale Earnhardt legacy


HAMPTON, Georgia – Imitator of “The Intimidator?”

No, and that was always the blessing, curse and confounding part of following in the footsteps of a true icon. Kevin Harvick was unfairly thrust by some into the role of unwitting savior after winning in only his third start in NASCAR’s premier series.

When he held three fingers out the window for the second time on an Atlanta Motor Speedway victory lap Sunday, Harvick was saluting the memory of Dale Earnhardt — but he also was celebrating the peace of being a middle-aged champion who took a long, arduous path to a surprising state of grace and zen nearly 17 years after the overwhelming circumstances of his first Cup victory.

No one could ever be “The Man” in NASCAR that Earnhardt was, but Atlanta reminded us in many ways how Harvick has become a man in full.

“I’ve been waiting a long time, because 2001 was very confusing,” Harvick, 42, said of winning in the ride he inherited three races after the seven-time champion died on the last lap of the Daytona 500. “It was my first win and don’t feel like I remember really anything about it because it was just such a really confusing time in my life. Just on the racetrack and with Dale gone and getting in his car.

“It was fun to actually pay tribute and smile about what was going on and not know if you should actually stick your hand out the window — if somebody was going to be offended or mad and whether it was the right thing to do or wrong thing to do and it was your first win.  So there was just a lot of confusing things. So it felt good to pay tribute to that and park it in victory lane with a smile on my face and watch everybody smile with me.”

A communal theme was revisited often by the Stewart-Haas Racing driver during his nonstop reflection after the win, and it wasn’t by accident.

The guy who always proclaims to love challenges (because wisps of boredom have tended to be self-destructive to his career) now seems to be undertaking his biggest yet. Bigger than starting his own truck and Xfinity teams, or running for two national titles concurrently while racing 70-plus times in a season.

This challenge is a variation of what he faced when he scored a hugely sentimental and therapeutic win in the aftermath of NASCAR reeling from one of its biggest voids in history.

Just as when Earnhardt’s sudden exit left many pondering who could wear his unfillable shoes, so has the disappearing axis of Jeff GordonTony StewartDale Earnhardt Jr. left open questions about the lack of gravitational guidance for the next generation of stars.

The March 2001 version of Harvick, a 25-year-old only a few years removed from racing Late Models, wasn’t cut out for any such leadership roles, and the reasons went beyond age or a dearth of worldliness.

The Bakersfield, California, native always possessed a devious love of controversy that precluded much poise. “Harvick-ing” might have blossomed with his shove of Brad Keselowski into the fray with Jeff Gordon at Texas in November 2014, but its roots run much, much deeper. Harvick routinely butted heads with all comers and with an indifference that underscored he worried about himself and little else.

The perspective started to change when he became a team owner in the mid-2000s, a father in 2012 and then a series champion (with its inherent ambassadorial responsibilities) in 2014.

Last year, Harvick took on a SiriusXM Satellite Radio show (“Happy Hours”) with co-host Matt Yocum because he admittedly needed help connecting with fans. It succeeded in bridging that chasm but more importantly, it also seems to have given Harvick a better appreciation that a place in NASCAR existed as an elder statesman if he wanted it.

“I think I totally underestimated the power of the radio show,” he said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast last year. “Having an opinion about things happening in the sport is something fans really enjoy. I think people who listen to the radio show realize how much I think about things and how much we push to make things change.”

While some of his viewpoints remain controversial, Harvick has made the radio show a weekly must-listen because he has something interesting to say and usually with a nod to the big picture. It hints at the TV career awaiting in the next phase of his life, and it’s brought a new polish to the star high school wrestler who once seemed to prefer making points through physical will instead of eloquent words.

The Harvick of only a few years ago wouldn’t have joked as he did Sunday about learning the correct messaging of “playoffs” and “optical scanning station” to keep in line with his SiriusXM producers.

But it’s obviously about more than just the media formalities.

“For me right now, the sport is what enthuses me and kind of is very intriguing to me because there’s a lot of things that need some help and guidance with so many of the young guys coming up through the ranks, and there’s so much to learn,” he said. “But we have to teach them about it. Jimmie Johnson and myself have talked about it. Somebody has to explain to them how things work and show them the ropes. And that to me is fun. You want to go beat them on the racetrack still. It’s not anything about that.

“But we need to get back to where everybody can go drink a beer together and have a good time, and I walk in the garage and we try to do as many things as we can for the officials and people and NASCAR just because … it just feels like everybody has kind of forgotten exactly how much fun this is and how lucky we are to walk into this garage on a weekly basis or to sit in that car on a weekly basis and drive race cars around in circles.”

Many of the people who taught Harvick that are gone or on their way out. Sunday, he fondly recalled sitting in smoke-filled rooms and absorbing the admonitions and wisdom of longtime NASCAR executive Jim Hunter, who died in 2010. Former president Mike Helton, who delivered Harvick some sternly and succinctly worded lectures, has deservedly scaled back office hours in the garage now that he is in his mid-60s.

Can Harvick, who never had a chance (nor did anyone) laying claim to Earnhardt’s immense sway, be the “devil may care” rebel-turned-soothsayer who takes their place as a mentor? He seems to think so.

“I’ve just got a much better appreciation of how cool it is to sit in that race car and really enjoy the things that I do,” he said. “I want to spread that to the rest of them because it’s not all sponsors and politics and business and all the things that you think it all is right now. It’s fun.

“Everything we did to get to this point is fun, and I want to make sure that everybody hears me talk about how fun this is and realize, and maybe you spark some interest in somebody in the garage or working on the car or driving a car that we’re lucky to do what we do, so you’d better enjoy it, because it might not be here tomorrow.”

That’s a lesson NASCAR learned the hard way with Earnhardt.

It’s impressive to hear his unlikely successor articulate it so well.

The inevitable repaving of Atlanta assuredly will make drivers angry whenever it happens, so why not go a step further and get creative if the new surface is guaranteed to be poorly received?

Instead of repaving, what about reconfiguring (as Dale Earnhardt Jr. hinted at on Twitter, returning the original layout could be an option)?

And if that’s open for discussion, how about getting really radical and consider transforming the track into a new layout that isn’t the 1.54-mile length?

Granted, it’s easy to spend Bruton Smith’s money and dream about adding a fourth short track to the schedule. This isn’t necessarily realistic. But it at least is worthy of discussion.

While its abrasive asphalt makes for intriguing strategies and puts a premium on driver talent with tire management, it hasn’t delivered much for side-by-side entertainment.

The last three truly memorable finishes at this track were Carl Edwards slamming by Jimmie Johnson in 2005, Harvick nipping Jeff Gordon in 2001 and Earnhardt beating Bobby Labonte in 2000. As longtime scribe Monte Dutton noted, Sunday’s 500 miles were interesting but weren’t particularly exciting.

Yes, drivers are going to howl whenever Atlanta is redone, and it’s partly because it could take years before its current dynamics can be replicated (if at all).

With that in mind, how about taking an opportunity to truly start from scratch?

Excepting the criticisms of Cole Pearn and Martin Truex Jr. (whose brutal and honest candor should be praised and also was understandable given the circumstances), there weren’t many complaints about the new pit guns despite multiple problems Sunday.

There also was a notable absence of vociferous disapproval during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, where there also were reports of some kinks with the Paoli-manufactured equipment whose use is mandated by NASCAR this season.

Because the Team Owner Council apparently worked closely with NASCAR in helping formulate the new policies, it would make sense if the word has been put out to quell disparaging comments in the early going.

But mouths won’t stay shut for long if the problems persist, especially (which Truex explained so pointedly) as the stakes rise during the season.

If Hendrick Motorsports continues to struggle at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, don’t expect the team to hit the panic button. The schedule puts limitations on what could be applied from its woes last weekend at Atlanta. With the next three stops at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, California, it will be difficult to implement major changes on the fly.

Before the race, Chase Elliott said it probably would be until late March before Hendrick can adequately assess the impact of an offseason restructuring of its competition department.

“The thing about the West Coast swing is a lot of those cars are already prepared to go west,” Elliott said. “So, things that we may learn this weekend might not have the ability to be applied to the race car that we’re racing next weekend because that car is pretty much done. So I think once you get back from (the West Coast) and kind of evaluate where you are, hopefully you can put some of the things you’ve learned toward those weeks, but if it’s bigger changes and things that you need days in the shop to do, you’re not going to be able to make those changes until you get back.”

The new kids on the block never had a chance at Atlanta, which hugely favors experience over tire management. This was perhaps best exemplified by rookie William Byron, who fell a lap down before the first caution on Lap 30 (Harvick gave him the lap back just before the yellow). After getting acclimated, Byron still finished 18th.

This weekend at Las Vegas, where Byron was among the fastest in testing a few weeks ago, will be a much better indicator of how the youth in Cup will stack up this season. As third-place finisher Clint Bowyer said, it’s a track where “it’s qualifying laps every single lap, and those kids will show back up.”

At tracks where the balance shifts to rewarding the trust of blind bravery over track knowledge, it could be a repeat of 2002 when Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman regularly outran veterans who said it was because the rookies didn’t know any better.

Fords dominated and swept the top three spots Sunday, but Atlanta isn’t grouped as much as it should be in the category of early season fool’s gold the way Daytona is. Yes, it marked the start of the unrestricted “real” season, but its unique surface makes the track an unreliable indicator of what’s to come.

Fords also led 313 of 325 laps in the 2017 race at Atlanta. And it took 32 races before a Fusion was in victory lane again on a 1.5-mile track (Harvick at Texas last November).

If the new policy had the game-changing impact that some predicted in the preseason, Atlanta would have marked the first instance in which drivers truly could benefit from NASCAR freely releasing more EFI data to teams.

But though some big-name drivers remain steadfastly opposed to the concept, there were signs that maybe it won’t make the difference that had been feared.

“I don’t think it’s really a good idea to be letting all of the other teams see driver’s data from different teams,” Truex said. “I certainly don’t want other teams looking at what I am doing. I’ve worked for 13 years to work on my style and feel like the way I drive the car and the data that is produced by that is mine. It’s not for everyone to see. … We’ll just have to see what comes out of this and what it looks like.

“At this point in time, it’s pretty much useless to look at from a standpoint that it’s just not that accurate. So I am hoping it stays that way and we’ve talked to NASCAR and do as we much as we can to help them understand. And that’s because I don’t think we want everybody in the garage driving exactly the same way.”

Said Keselowski before Friday’s practice:  “I don’t know the quality that we’re going to receive from that. There’s a really, really technical, complicated discussion that goes with it. In theory, I’m against it. In practice perhaps different, and I haven’t seen it in practice, so I kind of want to see it in practice.

“My intuition says that in theory it will work, in practice it won’t, so I really would like to get through a couple weekends of seeing it because at this point in time, the little bit of access that I’ve had to it, which has been minimal at best, says that it’s probably not going to work in practice and we won’t have to worry about it. It’s kind of a non-story, but I could be completely wrong, so I want to see it in a working environment rather than an engineering lab.”

Martin Truex Jr., Cole Pearn upset with new mandated pit guns


HAMPTON, Georgia – NASCAR’s new mandatory pit guns made an impact on at least four teams Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, earning a less than ringing endorsement from the defending series champions.

“They’re pieces of shit,” said Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr.

Pearn said Truex’s No. 78 Toyota team went through three pit guns during the 500-mile race before landing on an adequate piece of equipment. Pearn said one of the pit guns initially was unresponsive when switching from removing to fastening and needed multiple attempts to engage the lug nuts. NASCAR then issued the crew what Pearn said “are like the old spec guns or something, so it was a hunk of garbage. And we used it the next stop, and it was basically unusable. Then they got us a newer gun after that that was fine.”

In addition to Truex’s Furniture Row Racing crew, the teams of race winner Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch also had problems with the guns, which were introduced by NASCAR this season in part to curb development costs on equipment that had become highly specialized. NASCAR distributes the guns via lottery before the race and also mandates their air pressures.

MORE: Explainer on the new pit guns

Teams are issued three guns – front, rear and spare – and NASCAR intended to test them regularly for consistency.

Truex, who rebounded to finish fifth, said he had been concerned about the reliability of the guns entering the race.

I think everybody is,” he said. “You think about these teams and all the preparation, and the parts and the pieces and they do all the work on them.

“Essentially it’s on you if something fails, and now we’re getting it from an outside source, and we have no control over it, so if it costs you a race win or it costs you a spot in the playoffs or a spot in the championship four or something like that, somebody’s going to be really, really, really upset, and there’s nothing you can do about it because you can’t go home and say, ‘Well, it’s your fault.’ We need to tighten it up here and figure it out and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“There is none of that. It’s ‘oh well, we’ll get it fixed.’ It’s a little bit frustrating from that standpoint, but at the same time, it is new to everyone, and we’ve got to give them a chance to figure it out and make sure they can make these things bulletproof.”

Busch’s team also was issued a new gun after apparently experiencing problems with air pressure.

Rodney Childers, crew chief for Harvick, said he hadn’t explored the problem with his team’s stop, which reportedly was because the hose was disconnected from the gun. Harvick’s No. 4 Ford fell from first to 19th at the end of the first stage after pitting again to secure lug nuts

“We’ve got good pit crew coaches to investigate that stuff,” Childers said. “The people that have took that on, they have done an outstanding job. I can’t complain about anything they’ve done. I can’t imagine taking that on over a two- to three-month span. We’re going to go through ups and downs, and we need to go through them together and learn together and that’s part of it.”

NASCAR didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday night on the guns’ performance in the season’s second race. During his Monday appearance on SiriusXM’s “The Morning Drive,” senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said NASCAR knew the likelihood was “fairly high” of having kinks during the firs year. O’Donnell said the Atlanta problems were, “something we’re going to review. We never want to see failures with any part or piece. We’ll have conversations and get it right. We want it to be in hands of drivers and teams. We’ll head to Vegas and hopefully get that cleaned up.”

Asked if the problem was fixable, Pearn smiled and said, “Ask the RTA.”

The Race Team Alliance, a consortium of team owners (that excludes Furniture Row Racing’s Barney Visser), worked with NASCAR to implement the pit guns without the consultation of the Drivers Council.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’m allowed to have an opinion,” runner-up Brad Keselowski said when asked if he had concerns entering the race. “Nobody asked me when they changed them, and it was a decision made by the RTA and NASCAR.  I don’t think I’m allowed to have an opinion.”

“Mine worked, so we’re happy,” fourth-place finisher Denny Hamlin said of his team’s guns. “If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t be happy.”

NASCAR also has reduced the number of pit crew members this season, increasing the difficulty and choreography of stops.

I think everybody had trouble on pit road at one point or another,” third-place finisher Clint Bowyer said. “As these teams keep learning and perfecting their program and getting in that rhythm just like we do on the track. I know our guys had good stops and stubbed their toe once and lost a few. It’s just there’s a lot going on right there with not very many people. I think that’s a work in progress, and I think you’ll continue to see some jumbling up of the program as we come on to pit road and off of it.”

Particularly as crews work with pit guns that they aren’t building for the first time in years.

“I think the reason teams built them on their own is because they were more reliable that way,” Hamlin said. “They could control everything. Amongst the competition side of things, they don’t want a failure because it’s a bad luck thing. They want it to fail because (the crew) did a bad job. It’s your own fault then.”

Martin Truex Jr.’s car chief ejected after Atlanta inspection failures

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HAMPTON, Georgia – Defending series champion Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota was the first team to struggle with NASCAR’s new optical scan inspection, and the punishment was a key crew member.

Truex’s Camry failed to clear prequalifying inspection three times Friday, resulting in the ejection of car chief Blake Harris from Atlanta Motor Speedway. Truex will start 35th in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

NASCAR vice president of competition Scott Miller said the car had multiple problems with body scans “for rear-wheel openings and rear-toe failures.”

Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone said the team couldn’t get a handle on the new Optical Scanning Station. Many teams, including Furniture Row Racing, have replicas in their shops of the system, which relies on high-definition cameras and projectors.

“It’s a new process,” Garone said. “We’re working hard, collectively, the whole garage is to figure the boundaries out and how to get through, and NASCAR is working with their equipment the same way.

“It’s just tough. It’s tough. One time you go through, the next time you don’t. You go through again and some things pass that didn’t pass the time before. It’s just frustrating, but we’ll get it all worked out. It’s just a matter of time.

Crew chief Cole Pearn had a viscerally negative reaction at the station when told by NASCAR officials the car hadn’t passed on its third scan, seven minutes before qualifying was scheduled to begin.

Garone said the vibe within the team was “pretty volatile at the moment, because you’re trying to figure out what you actually did, especially when you feel like maybe the equipment itself is off a little bit. It’s also on our side as well. It’s just a weird set of circumstances. The tolerances are very tight. It’s difficult to get through and push where you need to and be conservative where you need to and figure it all out. It does change every time you go through.”

Miller took umbrage at the suggestion the new station wasn’t reliable (which was a frequent criticism of the previous Laser Inspection Station that the optical scan replaced).

“Of course they’re going to say that, but we had 20 people make it through on the first attempt and multiple people saying how consistent the rear-wheel alignment was vs. our equipment last year,” Miller said. “The only comments I had today on the rear-wheel alignment part was positive comments, not negative comments. We ended up with one (car failing to clear inspection). All I can say is I feel like we did our job.”

Miller said after the third failure, it’s NASCAR’s discretion to suspend a team member and the car chief was chosen because “we’ve tapped the car chief as an important individual.” Miller said if Truex had failed a fourth time, the team would have faced a 10-point deduction under a new penalty structure this season that is focused on race weekend punishments.

Miller implied the team had chosen to skip trying to clear inspection a fourth time to avoid risking further penalty, but Garone said the decision was made because “well, we’re out of time.

“That wasn’t a decision other than a timing decision,” he said. “You know what happens when you rush? The driver goes out, and he’s all amped up, and it’s just not worth doing.”

Truex, who will start 35th Sunday, also will serve a 30-minute practice hold Saturday.

Pole-sitter Kyle Busch, whose Joe Gibbs Racing team supplies Toyota chassis and has an alliance with Truex’s team, was surprised the No. 78 was the only inspection casualty Friday.

“I certainly would have guessed there would have been more; that they wouldn’t have been the only ones,’ Busch said. “I honestly have no clue on what happened to them. I don’t have that information from any of our guys. So I’ll have to figure out what they missed out on being able to get through the OSS.”

Martin Truex Jr. on why his merry ‘bunch of misfits’ were title worthy

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CHARLOTTE – There has been much speculation about how a Denver-based team quickly morphed from underdog to champion in NASCAR’s premier series.

Martin Truex Jr. has a simple explanation for what caused Furniture Row Racing to jell so quickly since joining a team that finished 24th in the 2014 points standings.

“A bunch of misfits got together,” the 2017 series champion said with a laugh during the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast. “Nobody else wanted us all, so we just ended up together. I don’t know that you can formulate the plan or hand-pick all the people you wanted to have the chemistry we have.

“We’re all so different. Our personalities are very different. Our hobbies are very different. Our political views are very different. But yet we go to the racetrack, and we all think as one. It’s just the most incredible thing I’ve ever been part of, and I don’t know that you can just see that coming. That’s just one of those things that you throw in a pot and stir it up and (say), ‘There it is. Let’s see what it tastes like.’ ”

The yin and yang of the team is perhaps best exemplified by the relationship of crew chief Cole Pearn and engineer Jeff Curtis.

“They are complete opposites,” Truex said. “When it comes to the race cars, they’re on top of things. They’re thinking ahead of each other. It’s crazy the way they work together.”

During an appearance on the podcast last year, Pearn explained that a running joke at Furniture Row Racing is asking “Who’s in charge of that?” because the team eschews the hierarchy employed by many large teams. Truex said the emphasis on more autonomy breeds goodwill among team members.

“It’s fun for me because it just has that small-team feel, kind of old-school feel,” Truex said. “We have a lot of fun. It’s not so serious all the time. It’s hard to believe because we’ve had so much success but also because of that, our guys have more fun, they don’t feel as much pressure.

“We’ve all been in situations that we hated before that we didn’t like and weren’t successful in, and we understand parts of the reason we weren’t successful is we weren’t happy. At the same time, our guys have no problem being held accountable if they screw up. You can yell at them all day long, and we go out to dinner and everyone is best friends again. I think it’s all part of like being the runt of the litter. Whether we got fired or lost our job or ride or whatever it may be.”

Truex said that includes Pearn, who is in his second go-around with the team.

“Cole got fired at Furniture Row the first time he was there” in 2011, Truex said. “So it’s almost like this is all everyone’s homecoming. A last hurrah, ‘we’re going to show them’ kind of deal.”

On the podcast, Truex also discusses:

–His Philadelphia Eagles fandom and first trip to the Super Bowl this weekend (he’ll be making some appearances with NBC Sports);

–The career crossroads at which he signed a contract extension with Furniture Row for below market value because “Do I want to be successful or do I want to make good money?”;

–The 2018 outlook for Furniture Row, which is returning to a single car.

Click on the embed above to hear the podcast or listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you download podcasts.