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


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 weekend schedule for Circuit of the Americas


NASCAR’s three major series return to the road this weekend with races scheduled Saturday and Sunday at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series races are Saturday, and the Cup Series is scheduled to race Sunday afternoon.

MORE: Drivers expect North Wilkesboro surface to be challenging

Joey Logano, winner of last Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, has led laps in both COTA races and will be among the favorites Sunday.

As the first road course of the year, COTA will begin a new approach by NASCAR to stage racing on road circuits. There will no longer be a caution to end stages, but points will be awarded for the finish order. In another change, the “choose” rule will be in effect on road courses.

A look at the weekend schedule:

Circuit of the Americas (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Thunderstorms in the morning, sun later in the day. High of 86. 80% chance of rain.

Saturday: Sunny. High of 83.

Sunday: Partly cloudy. Temperature of 81 degrees with a 15% chance of rain at the start of the race.

Friday, March 24

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 11:30 a.m. .- 6:30 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 1:30 – 8:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2:05 – 2:55 p.m. — Cup practice (No live broadcast; tape-delayed version airing at 8 p.m. on FS1)
  • 4:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck practice (No live broadcast)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Truck qualifying (No live broadcast; tape-delayed version airing at 9 p.m. on FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 7 – 8 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)

Saturday, March 25

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 2 – 10:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (42 laps, 143 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 5 p.m. — Xfinity race (46 laps, 156 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 26

Garage open

  • 12:30 – 10 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (68 laps, 231.88 miles; Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)




North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will prove challenging to drivers


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.

Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday. That test was to continue Wednesday.

The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.

“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”

Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”

Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”

Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.

“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”

“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”

Chris Buescher runs laps during a Goodyear tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway, while Austin Dillon is on pit road. (Photo: Dustin Long)

One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.

While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.

In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup race at COTA


Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has attracted an entry list that includes talent beyond that of the tour regulars.

Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.

MORE: NBC Driver Rankings: Christopher Bell is No. 1

Jenson Button won the Formula One championship in 2009 and has five F1 starts at COTA. He is scheduled to be a driver for the NASCAR entry in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kimi Raikkonen, entered by Trackhouse Racing as part of its Project 91 program, won the 2007 F1 championship and has eight F1 starts at the Austin track.

They will draw attention at COTA this weekend, along with these other drivers to watch:


Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best seasonal finish: 2nd (Atlanta I)
  • Past at COTA: 19th and 14th in two career starts

Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 5th and 33rd in two starts

The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win

Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.


Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 13th and 21st in two starts

Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s

Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.

William Byron

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I)
  • Past at COTA: 11th and 12th in two starts

Involvement in an accident at Atlanta ended Byron’s two-race winning streak. He’ll be looking to lead a lap at COTA for the first time.



Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended by NASCAR


Three members of the Reaume Brothers Racing No. 33 Craftsman Truck Series team have been suspended for three races by NASCAR after a piece of tungsten ballast came off their truck during last Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The suspensions were announced Tuesday.

Crew chief Gregory Rayl and crew members Matthew Crossman and Travis Armstrong were suspended because of the safety violation. Mason Massey is the team’s driver.

MORE: Xfinity driver Josh Williams suspended for one race

In a tweet following the announcement of the penalty, the team said it will not file an appeal. “The ballast became dislodged only after the left side ballast container had significant contact with the racing surface,” according to the statement. “We would like to be clear that there was no negligence on the part of RBR personnel.”

NASCAR also announced Tuesday that Truck Series owner/driver Cory Roper, who had been suspended indefinitely for violating the substance abuse policy, has been reinstated.

The Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series are scheduled to race this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.