Ryan: Why are so many NASCAR drivers missing races? Because they can … and they should

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Is it a coincidence more Sprint Cup drivers are missing races under new NASCAR rules more accommodating than ever for skipping events without negative repercussions for a championship?

Ostensibly, the answer seems, “Yes, it must be a coincidence.”

Since NASCAR revamped its Chase for the Sprint Cup in January 2014 with a caveat permitting exemptions, Brian Vickers (blood clots), Tony Stewart (broken leg), Kyle Busch (broken leg) and Kurt Busch (suspension), have been absent because of conditions in which they almost certainly wouldn’t (or couldn’t) have tried to race under any points system.

But there seems a new paradigm in the cases of Denny Hamlin, who missed a start at Auto Club Speedway last year with an eye injury initially misdiagnosed as a sinus infection, and Kyle Larson, who is out of the No. 42 Chevrolet today at Martinsville Speedway while being evaluated for a fainting spell.

This isn’t to make the case that either driver should have been in a car. In both cases, they faced unknown ailments without sound diagnoses that could determine the risks of being behind the wheel.

But it’s reasonable to conclude that Hamlin, who lobbied hard to start the race, and Larson, who voluntarily visited two hospitals after being seen at Martinsville’s infield care center, would have stayed in their cars during a previous era of NASCAR.

It’s a sea change in a sport whose lore is filled with tales of wounded warriors who taped their eyelids open with duct tape, limped to their cockpits with fractured limbs and postponed surgeries for aching backs, necks and knees.

For years, NASCAR met a standard for suffering by its professional athletes that rivaled any of the most physical sports.

“I think when a driver gets hurt, NASCAR forces us not to go to the hospital,” Jimmy Spencer said late in a 2002 season during which Dale Earnhardt Jr. revealed he’d driven for several months despite a concussion. “NASCAR forces us in a lot of ways to drive hurt because you lose your points.”

That philosophy dramatically has shifted over the past decade, though — and not just because of the championship format that now links race wins to title eligibility and deemphasizes points.

NASCAR has added medical liaisons, baseline concussion testing and more rigid standards for being cleared to race during a period in which high-profile safety upgrades are constant (and necessary, given Kyle Busch’s violent impact with an unprotected wall at Daytona International Speedway last month).

Culturally, the ongoing controversies regarding head injuries in the NFL has raised the dialogue about concussions, and that’s relaxed a traditionally testosterone-fueled environment in NASCAR where sitting out sometimes has been regarded as being soft. When Earnhardt suffered another concussion in 2012, he took himself out of the No. 88 Chevy rather than mask the injury.

The prospect of being granted a waiver to compete for a championship despite missing a race – which NASCAR has done three times since last season – makes it an easy decision if any concern exists about personal health.

“Some of it could be attributed to just the idea that once you understand things better, you have more options,” Carl Edwards said before Sunday’s STP 500. “Especially right now with the way that the points structure and the championship Chase is determined, if you understand that, ‘Hey, it might be best to sit a race out,’ then that has to be a more viable option than it has been in the past.

“Each case is different. Let me put it a simpler way: Right now if you had a good reason where missing a race might be better for your overall chances at winning the championship, whether it’s health or something like that, then now you can actually look at that as a real option. I think in the end, that’s probably good. If somebody doesn’t feel like racing for any reason then having the ability to not do that, that’s nice.”

There are some downsides to the scenario, though. Namely, that it could open the door to being exploited and turning the title race into a mockery.

NASCAR was adamant in unveiling its new playoff parameters that drivers wouldn’t be approved to skip races for the births of their children. To maintain title eligibility, drivers are required to attempt to qualify for every race because NASCAR doesn’t want drivers skipping races after being locked into the Chase with a victory.

The Sprint Cup Series has been marketed for years as a weekly all-star event in which perfect attendance is mandatory. That positively differentiates stock-car racing from professional golf or tennis, in which stars can pick and choose which events to play, or the NBA, which currently is weathering the taint of bottom-feeder teams tanking to improve their draft position by resting healthy stars that fans pay to see.

But it also has left NASCAR in some untenable situations in which it forced drivers to trade their health for a chance at the title. When Dale Jarrett broke his ribs in a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 2001, he continued to race rather than take the three weeks needed for healing. The injuries lingered for two months.

“I couldn’t afford to sit out,” Jarrett said in 2002. “There’s not sufficient time to rest up from a serious injury. You have to be in the car.”

There wasn’t a choice then for drivers.

Now there is – and it seems an extraordinarily obvious improvement. If Larson had raced at Martinsville and somehow exacerbated a potential injury in a crash, there would be no debate about whether the emerging star should have been allowed to sit.

 “Everybody in this garage, they are very, very smart competitors and everyone’s goal is the win the championship,” Edwards said. “For instance, if I get in a wreck this afternoon and shatter my arm or my hands or something like that, if I believe that taking two or three weeks off is going to help me heal better so that I have a better shot at winning the championship, then you can bet that I will do everything I can to take those two or three weeks off.

“Everybody wants to race every race, but I believe we’re also all competitors and disciplined enough to know that if taking a week off is possible and it will help you, then that’s absolutely what we’ll do. Kyle Larson, if he takes whatever time he needs and then comes back and puts himself in the Chase and wins the championship, there’s not one person that will say that what he’s doing is wrong, whether it’s in the garage or outside of it.

“It’s just an option now.”

As it should be.

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NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.