Kyle Petty: Brad Keselowski almost beyond ‘point of diminishing returns’ on Toyota criticism

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Brad Keselowski again was vocal this week with criticisms of Toyota and its performance level of late in the Cup Series, saying on Twitter that he hasn’t seen NASCAR “let a manufacturer get this far ahead since the ’70s.”

The tweet was followed by rebukes from Toyota drivers Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and crew chief Cole Pearn.

Keselowski’s latest comments followed those he made in July and August about the manufacturer.

NASCAR America analysts Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett responded to Keselowski’s continued criticisms of Toyota before Sunday’s Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway.

“Yes Brad, we know that you’re disgruntled,” Petty said. “We know what you think. We understand that. It’s time to kind of quiet down a little bit, do your job. Because you’re almost past that point of diminishing returns on what you’re saying, where it becomes whining and it’s not very constructive.

“We’re in the playoffs, this is a special time for the sport. Let’s focus on what’s going on on the race track.”

Said Jarrett: “I think Toyota has an advantage. Was it something they were given? No. Is it unfair? No. They worked extremely hard to make all of this happen.”

Watch the above video for the full discussion.

Kyle Busch-Brad Keselowski rivalry heats up on Twitter

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JOLIET, Illinois — Brad Keselowski continued his complaints about Toyota’s dominance, and Kyle Busch offered a forceful response on Twitter Friday before Cup teams qualified at Chicagoland Speedway.

Keselowski said earlier this week that “at this moment, there’s really no reason for Toyota not to have all four spots going to Homestead,” noting how strong those cars have been.

Keselowski continued his commentary Friday after Toyota cars took the top four spots in practice, led by Busch.

Keselowski took his issue to Twitter:

Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr.‘s Toyota team, was first to respond to Keselowski.

Busch then jumped into the fray with a strong message for his longtime foil.

Busch explained the reason for the strong response, telling NBCSN before Cup qualifying: “We watched those guys be in fast in the beginning of the year,” he said. “We’ve watched them be fast in years past. Even when the Penske guys were with a different manufacturer they won a championship. We didn’t do our complaining on TV. We just did our complaining in the shop on Tuesdays and we went to work. That’s what we’ve done.

“I’ve just got to say of how proud I am of all our Toyota, TRD teammates and guys and teams, Furniture Row, Joe Gibbs Racing, TRD … the whole package is there. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication from a lot of great people, and I feel like right now all he’s doing is slapping these people across the face.”

Keselowski responded to Busch’s tweets.

Keselowski and Busch have been rivals for years. Keselowski wrote about their strained relationship in March 2015. Busch responded a few weeks later and said he was not thrilled with Keselowski’s comments in the blog.

Not to be forgotten, Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, entered the fray on Twitter.

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

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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.

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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.”

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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).

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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.

Martin Truex Jr. loses Southern 500; clinches regular-season title

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — Steam rose from his car and sweat poured from Martin Truex Jr.’s face, while Denny Hamlin celebrated a Southern 500 victory Sunday night with a burnout.

It likely would have been Truex smoking his tires and saluting the crowd had his right front tire not blown while leading with two laps to go.

Instead, an exhausted and thirsty Truex — his drink container ran out with 100 laps to go and there was no chance during a green-flag pit stop for his crew to give him another bottle — had to settle for an eighth-place finish.

“It’s interesting, (crew chief Cole Pearn) said he wanted to wait two more laps to pit, and with two to go we blew a tire,’’ Truex said. “It’s crazy how those things work out sometimes. Sometimes it’s just not your night, you know. Tonight wasn’t our night.’’ 

Truex limped around the track for the final two circuits to record his sixth top-10 finish in the last eight races.

“I was so focused on trying to stay off the fence,” Truex said, leaning against his car. “The last 100 laps the groove in (Turns) 3 and 4 was so high, literally just scraping the right rear. I think I scraped it five or six times before I blew a right front and actually hit it. I did the best I could. Just come up short.’’

He took the lead on Lap 326 of the 367-lap race and seemed poised to score his second consecutive win in this event.  

It helped that his biggest challenger, Hamlin, missed pit road while leading on Lap 314. The one advantage Hamlin had despite the miscue was that he had fresher tires than Truex, who stopped on Lap 304. Still, Hamlin needed the race to go to the finish without a caution. The race went caution-free the final 100 laps.

The consolation for Truex was that he clinched the regular-season title, earning 15 playoff points. That goes with the two playoff points he earned for winning both stages.

With one race left until the playoffs start, Truex has earned 52 playoff points and could enter the postseason with at least a 20-point lead on his closest competitor. The advantage should help him advance to the second round and likely the third round.

“Bittersweet night,’’ Truex said. “Lot to be proud of. Clinching the regular season is really, really tough to do. To run at the level we have all season long and as consistent as we have, on pit road, on the race track, engines, just the whole nine yards, putting good setups under the race car for each and every race, just really proud for this team.’’

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Bump & Run: Taking stock of the NASCAR season

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What has surprised you the most about this season?

Jeff Burton: My biggest surprise is that there really hasn’t been a flaw in the new stage racing format. I believed that something would happen that revealed a flaw that no one had anticipated but we have yet to see it.

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr.’s emergence as the championship favorite. It was expected he would run well and be a playoff contender and winner, but Furniture Row Racing regularly outrunning Joe Gibbs Racing as the best-in-class Toyota team has been a surprise – as has Truex’s runaway lead in the playoff points standings. He and crew chief Cole Pearn have become the crew chief-driver combination that is setting the pace in every way possible, whether it’s lap speeds, setup decisions or strategy calls.

Dustin Long: That there have been 14 different Cup winners (13 eligible for the playoffs) at this point in the season, which is already the most number of winners in an entire Cup season since 2013.

What driver has impressed you the most this season?

Jeff Burton: Martin Truex Jr. Speed and consistency is hard to achieve. He has been the guy that seems to be in the battle every single week. 

Nate Ryan: William Byron. His promotion to the Cup Series is well deserved, because he has proven the past two years to be an absolute prodigy with his acclimation to Xfinity and trucks. It makes one wonder if he already would have been a Cup winner if he had started his racing career in earnest before becoming a teenager.

Dustin Long: I’m amazed what William Byron has done for his relative lack of experience compared to drivers who started before they hit first grade. His ability to handle pressure situations has been noteworthy. While the challenges will increase next year, I’m already interested to see how he will do in Cup.

What storyline most intrigues you for the coming weeks?

Jeff Burton: I’m intrigued about the playoffs. There will be a big time driver and team that doesn’t advance into the playoffs. Watching who can take control and who can’t step up will be very interesting to witness.

Nate Ryan: The impact of playoff points on the championship race and how it affects who advances in each round. The suspicion here is that there will be much second-guessing and re-examination of decisions made during the regular season that had unanticipated repercussions months later.

Dustin Long: I’m intrigued to see if Kyle Busch and his team can finally eliminate the mistakes that have plagued them throughout the season and prevented Busch from possibly an epic season. With two wins in the last four races, he’s on the verge of a breakout that will lead to a dominating title run. Will it happen?