Ryan: All was right about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Talladega – except the racing


TALLADEGA, Ala. –At the epicenter of Earnhardt Nation, all seemed right again late Sunday afternoon.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated in victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway for the first time in more than a decade. His adoring legions raucously cheered in nearly sold-out grandstands. A ‘WINNER’ sticker signifying a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth was affixed to the No. 88 Chevrolet.

All seemed right about the feel-good finish that left a 12-time most popular driver on the verge of tears of joy in postrace interviews – except everything that transpired before it.

For the second time in its past four Sprint Cup races, Talladega’s reputation as the most thrilling of NASCAR tracks took a serious hit in the Geico 500.

Earnhardt took the lead off the final restart and didn’t face a serious challenge over the final 26 laps.

At a 2.66-mile oval renowned for its furiously entertaining scrambles and infamous for its sickening high-speed pileups, the finish featured a mostly single-file line that had more in common with the preponderance of processionals at 1.5-mile speedways that have NASCAR focused on tweaking its rules.

It would have seemed extremely odd if it weren’t so oddly familiar. In the October 2013 race at Talladega, Jamie McMurray took the checkered flag as a 500-mile race ended with a 15-lap parade.

This is a disturbing trend for a track that has built its reputation around photo finishes and furious charges to the front.

Of the 10 closest finishes in Sprint Cup during the two-decade era of electronic scoring, three have occurred at Talladega – more than any other track. In the final victory of his storied career 15 years ago, the late Dale Earnhardt zoomed from 18th to first in the final five laps – a virtually implausible scenario at any other track on the circuit.

But this increasingly isn’t the Talladega of yore. Over the past decade, a confluence of factors – a repaving of the track, new models of Sprint Cup cars, the rise and subsequent eradication of two-car tandems – have contributed to a decline in the late-race strategy plays that made Talladega so enthralling.

Something seems rotten in the state of restrictor-plate racing at NASCAR’s palace of speed. Is there any way to recapture it?

“If we could, we would,” Earnhardt said. “If we knew what makes the best package, we would put it on the cars. I know we would.

“But the cars evolve.  They always have.  We went from big old tanks in the late ’70s to the downsized ’81 cars, into Monte‑Carlos, big old Thunderbirds.  The cars just continue to get smaller, bigger, taller, shorter. The sides get flatter. The quarter panels get longer.  The cars are just always changing.  That alters how they draft.”

The draft is the key to everything at Talladega, and there is a serious problem with how it currently functions in the waning laps when the leader settles into the top lane, and the field tucks in behind.

Earnhardt said surveying 43 Sprint Cup drivers would yield 43 answers on how to fix it. But there is a consensus on what’s broken: There is no incentive to risk pulling out of line to form the massive packs now needed to challenge the leader

Jeff Gordon led 47 laps, but he knew his chances were shot after speeding in the pits on his final stop and restarting in 31st with 26 laps remaining. That would have been an eternity to make a recovery at Talladega with a strong car years ago.

But on Sunday, Gordon knew he was toast. He settled for small gains and slowly crept into the top 20 before a last-lap spin.

“It wasn’t that no one was trying,” he said. “It’s that you’ve got to get organized. It takes a group to get it done. There was a lot of effort being made. I was one of them for a while. Then I realized it wasn’t going anywhere.”

Tony Stewart and a few others attempted to mount a counterattack in the bottom lane – and they paid the price by plummeting through the field without the immense drafting help needed to catch the leader.

“It’s not about trusting one (driver), you’ve got to trust 10,” Gordon said. “You can’t just go down there by yourself. When they’re lined up on the top, you need nine, 10, 12 cars to run in that lower lane to make it work. Even then it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to work. You have to have the right cars.

“Guys would go down there, make a little of ground and then get shuffled back. It was like one step forward and three steps back. It’s frustrating.”

As Earnhardt put it Saturday, it’s about waiting until “hopefully some dummy pulls out, and he gets shuffled back. Hopefully, that happens a lot, and you end up toward the front.”

It’s a far cry from his April 2003 win at Talladega. Earnhardt’s Chevy sustained damage in a multicar wreck on the fourth lap, but he was in the lead again just past the halfway point, and he outmaneuvered several strong cars with plate-racing savvy and skill.

Drivers can’t make as much of a difference anymore because their cars won’t allow it.

“They’re slower, they’re lazy,” Earnhardt said. “The runs we used to get years ago, man, you’d fly by guys, just dominate. The runs that the cars get, even with the great cars we have, are real lazy. You really aren’t sure it’s a run you need to take advantage of or not.

“I made about three real power moves (Sunday).  Maybe 10 years ago you would get 20 of those in a race. The cars just were way more active, reactive to each other. Another thing about this particular car is they get stuck side‑by‑side.  The side draft is so powerful that basically you get on the guy’s quarter panel, you start side drafting him to slingshot by him, he can counter you by side drafting you. You go nowhere.”

Earnhardt conceded Sunday if he were in the same position as Gordon, he would have been just as helpless.

“Man, if you get back there, you don’t have a chance,” he said. “If you’re sitting third, fourth, whatever, you’re sitting there thinking, ‘This ain’t a bad spot.’ “

As Carl Edwards put it, “it’s like a big sociology experiment. You’re waiting for one guy to go and everybody to follow.”

It’s known as a herd mentality.

Of course, the hordes of fans at Talladega didn’t care Sunday as they waved their No. 88 flag and saluted their hero.

All was right in Earnhardt Nation.

But it’s worth asking whether all will remain right at Talladega with more finishes like Sunday’s.

NTSB releases final report on Dale Jr. plane crash

Photo: Dustin Long
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Pilot error played a key role in the August 2019 crash of a plane carrying Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family, a final report by the National Transportation Safety Board stated Wednesday.

Earnhardt, wife Amy and daughter Isla were on board the plane, which crashed after a hard landing at Elizabethton (Tennessee) Municipal Airport on Aug. 15, 2019. The report stated all three suffered minor injuries. 

The NTSB listed the probable causes of the accident as: “The pilot’s continuation of an unstabilized approach despite recognizing associated cues and the flight crew’s decision not to initiate a go-around before touchdown, which resulted in a bounced landing, a loss of airplane control, a landing gear collapse, and a runway excursion. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to deploy the speedbrakes during the initial touchdown, which may have prevented the runway excursion, and the pilot’s attempt to go around after deployment of the thrust reversers.”

A “go-around” occurs when a pilot pulls out of a landing and gains altitude to make another landing attempt.

The report stated that “the flight crew made several comments about the airplane flying too fast and allowed the airspeed to increase well above the reference speed for the approach.”

The report stated that “the pilot did not extend the speedbrakes upon touchdown, which landing checklist required, but instead attempted to deploy the thrust reversers immediately after touchdown, which was a later item on the landing checklist.”

Earnhardt’s Cessna 680A Citation Latitude bounced twice upon landing as it traversed the 5,001-foot runaway.

After the fourth touchdown, the right main landing gear collapsed. The plane went off the road and through a 400-foot long area of grass. It went down an embankment, through a creek and a chain-link fence. It continued up an embankment. The plane came to rest about 600 feet beyond the runway at the edge of a four-lane highway.

The passengers and two pilots escaped as the plane burned.

The full report can be read here.

Champion or not, Chase Briscoe won’t let Xfinity title define season

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Like the 11 drivers he’ll compete against in the Xfinity Series playoffs, a championship is the endgame for Chase Briscoe.

However, with the Stewart-Haas Racing driver one win from matching his preseason goal of at least eight victories, Briscoe wouldn’t be too disappointed if he failed to claim the title at the end of the seven-race playoff.

“I feel like to this point if we don’t get to eight (wins) … I feel like I accomplished or proved what I was trying to say at the beginning of the year,” Briscoe told NBC Sports on Tuesday. “There’s still no reason why we can’t get to 10 wins. I feel 100% confident in my team that we’re going to have the cars capable of doing it, I just need to do my job. If we do that, hopefully we can get to Phoenix and then (whoever’s) the best team once we get there wins.”

As he prepares to open the playoffs Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Briscoe is wary of not letting “the championship define you and define your season. … Winning races is a big deal. That’s what you get paid to do is go win races and obviously win championships as well, but today’s format anything can happen in that final race.”

Briscoe can attest to importance of winning races. He enters the playoff with a series-leading seven wins, which has helped him start the postseason with 2,050 points and ties him with Austin Cindric.

Briscoe’s impressive numbers come a year after he had just one win in a season where Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer combined to win 21 of 33 races.

Briscoe believes the perception of his abilities as a driver are “way different” from last year as he struggled to chase those three drivers now competing in Cup.

“Personally, I felt like I could win races, and I think a lot of it was learning,” Briscoe said. “Last year, there were still a lot of tracks I had never been to before and didn’t even have 100 pavement starts in my entire career, and now I have that experience. I have the confidence to go with it and all of those things are totally different, and when I said what I said at the beginning of the year (about winning eight races) I felt like I was capable of doing that.

“If I could back it up, it would look even better. … I think I’ve proven my worth in this sport. I feel like if I do get the opportunity to move up, I feel like I’m ready, but I also feel like I could get a lot of benefit out of coming back to the Xfinity Series and running again.”

Briscoe, a Ford development driver, says he still doesn’t know what’s in store for him in 2021.

He said the uncertainty of his future is a “little bit easier” to handle compared to last year because of the wins he’s racked up.

Regardless of not knowing his NASCAR fate, if Briscoe can “somehow get to 10 wins this year and win the championship, then that would just make it, I feel like, a lot easier for the decision-makers.”

Mike Wallace’s appeal of indefinite suspension denied

NASCAR suspends Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace
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Mike Wallace‘s indefinite suspension by NASCAR was upheld by the National Motorsports Appeals Panel on Wednesday.

Wallace, who has made three Xfinity Series starts this season, was suspended Sept. 10 for violating Sections 12.1; 12.8; 12.8.1.e of the rule book.

According to the rulebook, a violation of section 12.8.1.e is any “Public statement and/or communication that criticizes, ridicules, or otherwise disparages another person based upon that person’s race, color, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, age, or handicapping condition.”

As part of the suspension, Wallace is required by NASCAR to attend sensitivity training.

The three-member appeals panel was made up of Dixon Johnston, Bill Lester and Kevin Whitaker.

Wallace has the right to appeal the decision to the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer.

Wallace wrote the following on Facebook shortly after his suspension was originally announced:

“You know as I fly across the United States today I’m ready various people’s political views and I have to say a famous four star Military General that I spent time with in the MidEast told me Mike let me give you some advice don’t ever get in a conversation about politics or religion unless you are really smart. I said why do you say that comment His response it’s like being balanced on a single edge razor blade if you slip you will get cut!

Think about that before we all make foolish uneducated post! Moral of this story is most of use just repeat what we have heard we really don’t know.
Have a great positive day!”

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character


Following months of speaking out in support of racial justice and inclusion in NASCAR, Bubba Wallace‘s work has been recognized by The Musial Awards.

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been selected as the recipient of its Award for Extraordinary Character.

The award honors “an individual who demonstrates remarkable poise, perseverance and overall sportsmanship.”

The Musial Awards – presented by Maryville University in St. Louis – is named after Stan Musial, a former St. Louis Cardinal baseball player. St. Louis is also the home to one of Wallace’s sponsors, World Wide Technology.

More: Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

In the wake of the death of George Floyd in May, the 26-year-old Wallace has been active in helping lead NASCAR through social changes, including the banning of the Confederate flag at series events and tracks.

He also drove a Black Lives Matter car at Martinsville Speedway in June.

“Bubba Wallace exemplifies what the Stan Musial Award for Extraordinary Character is all about,” Frank Viverito, president of the St. Louis Sports Commission, which produces the Musial Awards, said in a press release. “He has overcome much to be where he is, and he has courageously stepped forward to take an important stand for change. He is most deserving of an award that stands for sportsmanship and character, and is named for Stan Musial, whose own actions promoted racial acceptance and unity.”

Wallace joins baseball legend Hank Aaron as a 2020 Musial Awards honoree. Aaron is receiving the Stan Musial Lifetime Achievement Award for Sportsmanship.

The Musial Awards will air nationally on CBS on Saturday, Dec. 26.

After three full-time seasons in Cup racing for RPM, it was announced earlier this week that Wallace would compete in 2021 for a Cup team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and basketball legend Michael Jordan.