Ryan: Richard Buck’s regime being tested by Sprint Cup garage controversies of 2015

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When Sprint Cup practice ends Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, inspection bays will open (10 minutes early, no less), and NASCAR’s most important ongoing referendum will be renewed.

This isn’t about the laser-guided machines that will be under extra scrutiny after a qualifying debacle at Atlanta Motor Speedway that resulted in 13 drivers – including past champions Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson – failing to complete a lap.

It’s about the man who ostensibly oversees the controversial contraptions that have made some teams livid via the rigid pass-fail standards with zero tolerance used to enforce NASCAR’s 2015 rulebook.

While the inspection process has garnered most of the attention, what actually is being tested is Richard Buck’s reputation and whether he successfully can make the transition into the ultimate authority overseeing the technical specifications that govern performance in NASCAR.

The Sprint Cup director is in his second season as the de-facto garage boss, but this is his first in the public eye. After supplanting John Darby, ending a four-year search to replace a man who’d ruled NASCAR’s technical inspections for 12 seasons, Buck spent much of 2014 hidden behind the curtain.

He has become a much more prominent figure since Speedweeks this season, leading drivers meetings for the first time at Daytona and then Atlanta.

And though it isn’t listed in the job description for his position, Buck crossed another important milestone last weekend at Atlanta.

Crisis management is an essential part of being a Sprint Cup director, and last Friday night, Buck was front and center for the first time in the Atlanta media center trying to explain how qualifying had transpired without the participation of four superstars.

It was a solid debut for Buck, who deftly tried to straddle the line between defending his regime’s practices without overtly calling out competitors.

“Our job is to treat everybody fairly and give them an opportunity to come through that inspection room,” Buck said. “But their responsibility is to come through there right to the limit. So I think that’s what you saw today was everybody pushing the limits.”

But in subtly deflecting blame and shifting it to some of the teams at Atlanta, it also roiled the seas of the sport’s movers and shakers. Many weren’t pleased by some of his answers, and it isn’t the first time there’s been some dissent in the garage this season.

At Daytona, the execution of group qualifying was a mess, generating mass headlines with unhappy stars. But some of the friction was more subtle.

During the first practice of the season, Tony Stewart was yanked off the track (and subsequently angered) because he hadn’t weighed in yet. It seemed almost as if Buck and company quietly were flaunting their power in a passive-aggressive style that will be necessary until they can wield the influence that Darby built over more than a decade.

If Hollywood were doing the screenplay, imagine Gary Cole in a NASCAR inspector uniform while channeling his Bill Lumbergh character in the cult classic, “Office Space.”

“Hey crew chiefs, what’s happening? We need to talk about your TPS reports.”

This isn’t an entirely a laughing matter, though. At the heart of it is one of the most important issues in NASCAR: Improving the racing on the 1.5-mile tracks (such as Las Vegas) that comprise the bulk of the schedule.

It’s been hailed as a collaborative effort between there sanctioning body and teams to enhance competition, but a weekly field of 43 cars fosters a boiling cauldron of countless opinions.

NASCAR has a 67-year track record showing an iron-fisted approach generally can work as sound governance.

It’s Buck who currently is gripping that hammer. Will he have the clout to enforce his will?

That’s what will bear watching every time the garage opens for business.

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.