NASCAR had input in makeup of drivers’ council; was pleased by the first meeting in Dover

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NASCAR had input into the formation of the new Sprint Cup driver’s council which met with high-ranking officials last weekend at Dover International Speedway.

During his weekly appearance on SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s The Morning Drive, executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said NASCAR had worked with drivers in setting up Saturday’s initial session.

“It’s something we’ve always done in terms of meeting with the drivers,” O’Donnell said. “We certainly meet with them individually, and we have met during the preseason more formally. I think you’ve seen us form the (manufacturer) council, and we meet with the tracks, and it’s gone really well in terms of opening the dialogue with everyone in the industry. It’s something the drivers had talked about, and we had looked at, as well as a potential formation of a driver’s council.

“It was a little more formal in terms of the drivers bringing in the drivers they did. We put some criteria around it. But really (it was) the first formal if, you want to call it, drivers’ council meeting. We’ll continue to do those.”

Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick confirmed Sunday that they were part of the council, which comprised about eight or nine drivers. Past champions Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth said they weren’t in the discussions. NASCAR.com’s Holly Cain reported that Tony Stewart also said he attended.

Sources have told NASCAR Talk that the drivers were asked to select a panel that represented all the manufacturers and a wide swath of teams ranked throughout the points standings, as well as a mix of youth and experience.

Echoing what Earnhardt and Hamlin told reporters before Sunday’s FedEx 400, O’Donnell said the meeting was productive.

“The dialogue was great,” he said. “We’ve got a unique sport in that we’ve got athletes who care about the future of the sport, so we certainly talked about where we’re at today, but more importantly, these are drivers who want to see the sport grow and continue well beyond their career, so it was refreshing to sit down and hear some of their ideas and talk about where we should go together in the future.

“It’s a unique sport in that aspect and something the fans should really appreciate that they’ve got drivers who care not only about today but the future.”

O’Donnell compared the driver council with NASCAR’s quarterly meetings with manufacturers Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota to plot the future direction.

“Everyone has a voice,” he said. “The drivers are the first line when talking about the sport. They need to feel good about where we’re going as a sport (and) what they’re driving. We’re not always going to agree. That’s not the purpose of this meeting.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to make a call that we believe is right for the sport. Sometimes, not everyone agrees, but as long as there is respect for how decisions were made, that’s the ultimate goal. That’s what we’re working toward. But I thought it was a great start for the meeting, really great dialogue and the ideas coming out of it.”

NASCAR is soliciting feedback from the industry while building its rules package for next season. Though it initially planned to make another cut in downforce after reducing horsepower and downforce this season, there also is the possibility of keeping the 2015 rules intact.

O’Donnell said the trick is managing the triangle of aerodynamics, horsepower and tire construction, adding there were “a lot of good ideas on the table for ’16 (and) a lot of work being done in the next 30 days that I think folks will see. It’s not a lack of looking at ideas but finding the right combination to go forward.”

Other topics addressed Monday morning:

–NASCAR is looking at monitoring the cooling of fuel after Kurt Busch’s team was asked to remove heat shields from its fuel during Sunday’s race. “That’s something we continue to look at, and with the heat in Dover, it was unbelievably hot, but that’s something we have to continue to monitor anytime we’re dealing with fuel,” O’Donnell said. “You know we’ve had some incidents on pit road where we’ve taken some reactive measures from a safety standpoint. We’ll sit down (Tuesday) and walk through that and look at the upcoming schedule and see what may or may not be happening on pit road as we go forward.”

–After being chastised for leaving their vehicles while under caution in the Camping World Truck and Sprint Cup races at Dover, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Trevor Bayne could face further penalties Tuesday. NASCAR instituted a rule last August prohibiting drivers from leaving their cars until a safety team arrived after a crash. The move came in the wake of Kevin Ward Jr. being struck and killed by a sprint car driven by Tony Stewart when Ward angrily approached Stewart’s car under caution during a race in upstate New York.

“It’s something we haven’t seen in a while and hope to never see,” O’Donnell said of Bayne and Cobb leaving their vehicles. “But it goes back to a rule we put out last year in terms of being as safe as possible when there’s an incident on the racetrack, reminding the drivers at no time should they get out of the car or truck unless it’s on fire, which you saw potentially in Trevor Bayne’s situation. But from there we ask everyone in an incident where a vehicle may or may not be on fire, if they do get out (to) stay by your vehicle for the safety crew and under no circumstances are you to walk across the track or apron. Unfortunately, we saw that in both instances this weekend. We had a conversation with both drivers. They understand the potential harm that could come from that, and we’ll continue to have that dialogue, and you’ll see us probably react (Tuesday) as well.”

–After concrete came loose in Stewart’s pit stall during Sunday’s race, O’Donnell said “we obviously are looking at that. It’s a concrete surface, (and) it’s been there several years. We think it had to do with the heat this weekend. It expanded and caused the initial break, and you saw that crack through the pit box. We’ll look back at that area and up and down pit road to make sure we can avoid that in the future.”

All-Star winners & losers

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WINNERS

Kyle LarsonHe joked that by running in the Monster Open he was in the B Main, but he won the final stage to advance to the All-Star Race and then went on to win the main event. He became only the fourth driver in All-Star history to win the event after transferring in from the preliminary race.

Bubba Wallace It was the night he needed. He’s referenced recently how tough things have been on him in his life. After losing the opening stage of the Monster Open, a “pissed off” Wallace won the next stage in a tight finish to advance to the All-Star Race and get a big hug from Ryan Blaney. Wallace went on to finish fifth in the All-Star Race and beamed afterward. “I honestly haven’t had this much fun in a long time,” Wallace said.

Fans — They saw spectacular finishes in the first two stages of the Monster Open, saw three-wide racing at times during the night, saw a different winner this season in Kyle Larson, and saw Clint Bowyer run to Ryan Newman’s car and start swinging at Newman, who remained in the car, in retaliation for contact that sent Bowyer into the wall on the cool-down lap. What more do you want?

LOSERS

Erik JonesThe best thing that can be said about his rough night was that it was a non-points race so his last-place finish didn’t hurt him in his bid to make the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick’s pit crew — Harvick was not happy with how his pit crew performed after his second-place finish. After winning the second stage, Harvick lost six spots on pit road and then had a loose wheel a few laps into the run. Said Harvick of his crew: “They just need to be ready to race. They’ve done it all year. You can’t just show up and have it be a disaster. They’ve been great all year. Tonight wasn’t great.”

Fabricators — The All-Star Race promotes beating and banging and there was a good bit of it Saturday. There were five incidents in the 150 laps of racing on the night for incidents, involving nine different cars. Many others also were beat up. Of course, imagine if they held an All-Star Race on a short track.

Being in Open was key for 4 drivers who transferred into All-Star Race

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Saturday night showed the significance of how competing in the Monster Energy Open can pay big dividends in the NASCAR All-Star Race.

All four drivers who transferred from the Open – stage winners William Byron, Bubba Wallace and race winner Kyle Larson, along with fan vote winner Alex Bowman – showed their mettle by finishing in the top 10 of the All-Star Race, led by Larson, who took the checkered flag.

“I always think if there’s one positive to being in the B Main (the Open), it’s that you get that extra track time,” Larson said. “I feel like in the first few laps, those guys that are in the B main can be really aggressive because they know the limits of the race car and stuff.

“So you can see the four of us or whatever kind of be really aggressive and get to the mid-pack pretty quickly. And then everybody kind of figures it out after that. But there’s a slight advantage for the first 10, 15 laps, I think, of being in that race.”

It was the second time that Larson has won the Open – he also took the checkered flag in 2016 – and transferred into the All-Star Race.

Added Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston: I felt like when you run the Open, you kind of have an advantage — especially with the first 30-lap run of being on track, knowing what to expect, being able to adjust on your car. Where the guys that are in the All-Star Race don’t have that. So it’s a good time to take advantage of that information and being able to gain some of the track position back pretty quickly.”

Perhaps the most emotional moment of the Open came afterward when Stage 2 winner Wallace cried in joy of putting himself and the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet into the main event.

“It’s been hard, been really hard,” Wallace said of his season to date. “I was trying to hold them (tears) back and telling yourself you can’t do it anymore is tough. To give up and whatnot.

“I gave up the first Stage win and I didn’t say anything on the radio. But my parents and everyone that has always helped me always said, when I am pissed off I drive better. So, I did everything I could. I told myself to quit, and don’t even try again for the second Stage.

“My mental game is really shot right now, but damn it feels good to win something. I have failed at a lot of things in life recently, but I am working to make those things better.”

Wallace would go on to finish fifth in his first career appearance in the All-Star Race.

“I had tons of fun tonight,” Wallace said. “I honestly haven’t had this much fun in a long time. It’s been a struggle, but it was a big night for us. When you don’t have anything on the line, I guess it means something different.

“The first thing my mom said to me after the Open was ‘You know who that was? That was God. He’s not giving up on you yet’. I’ve realized that. As many dark moments that I’ve had and telling myself to give up, it’s been really tough. It’s been tough to keep coming in and keep going. Tonight just shows that I’ll be back next week.”

As for Hendrick Motorsports teammates Byron, who won the first stage of the Open, and fan vote winner Bowman, the preliminary race helped in finishing eighth and ninth, respectively, in the All-Star Race.

“It was just amazing, it feels awesome to be in the All-Star Race,” Byron said of his first appearance in the event. “I’ve been coming to this race since I was about five or six years old. It’s really exciting to be a part of it. It was huge, we needed this. We’ve had some really good qualifying efforts this year; we just needed to finish it off with something positive and this was definitely positive for us. I’m excited for it.”

Said Bowman: “You want to race your way in, and we did that last year and had a car very capable of doing that this year. Restarts didn’t go our way, and it is what it is.”

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All-Star Race leaves Bubba Wallace with a big smile

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CONCORD, N.C. — It was a smile that wasn’t forced, a smile that didn’t deflect, and a smile that was not laced with hidden meanings.

This was genuine, perhaps a little forgotten, but oh so nice.

“I honestly haven’t had this much fun in a long time,” Wallace said after a night that saw him win a stage in the Monster Open to advance to the All-Star race and then finish fifth in that event.

It has been a long time since Wallace could feel so good. He noted last week that he had been depressed about things in his life. Results on the track also had not been inspiring.

Asked earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway what his team was lacking, Wallace said: “Money. It’s where we’re lacking. We need money to make more speed.”

He has not finished better than 17th in a points race this season. He has one top-10 results in his last 41 points races. That runner-up finish for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver in the 2018 Daytona 500 – and the tearful hug with his mother – seems so long ago. 

All of that can make it hard to smile.

That’s why Saturday meant so much to Wallace. He won (the second stage in the Monster Open), earning a hug from Ryan Blaney in the garage. Wallace then finished close enough to the front in the All-Star Race that he could see the leaders.

Yet, this night started with the same cruelty that has struck him so often on the track. Wallace was in the lead on the final lap of the opening stage of the Monster Open but William Byron nipped Wallace by inches at the line.

Wallace yelled an adult word repeatedly on the radio to express his frustration.

“Ever since I was a kid, they said I drive better when I’m pissed off,” Wallace said. “I was pissed off. I was really off after that. I let that one go. I thought that was it. Then the caution came out (in the second stage) and the same scenario.”

Another overtime finish.

“I’m not giving it up this time,” Wallace said. “So you’ve got to do what you’ve got do.”

This time Wallace raced Daniel Suarez on the last lap of the stage for the win. They made contact. Suarez spun and Wallace won to earn a spot in his first All-Star Race.

Wallace ran toward the back of the 19-car field in the first two stages. He moved into the top 10 in the third stage, finishing sixth.

He started outside the top 10 in the final 15-lap stage but was ninth in a couple of laps. Wallace moved up as others pitted with 12 laps to go and climbed up to fourth after a restart. Joey Logano passed Wallace with four laps to go, dropping Wallace to fifth. He held off Aric Almirola to finish there.

How much did that all that mean for him?

“I’m showing teeth in my smile,” Wallace said. “So that says a lot.”

Yes, it did.

Kevin Harvick on pit crew: ‘They just weren’t prepared tonight’

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kevin Harvick described his runner-up finish in Saturday night’s All-Star Race as “terrible” because of the struggles on pit road.

Harvick won the second stage but lost six spots on pit road and then suffered a loose wheel a few laps later. He was helped when a caution came out for an incident that involved Kyle Busch, Erik Jones and Austin Dillon. That kept him from needing to pit under green and lose a lap. But even that didn’t cool his frustration after finishing second to Kyle Larson for the $1 million prize. 

“We shot both of our feet off with the absolute dominant car,” said Harvick, who won last year’s All-Star Race. “The guys did a great job preparing the race car and weren’t ready to make a pit stop on pit road tonight.”

Asked if changes need to be made to the pit crew, Harvick said:

“They just need to be ready to race. They’ve done it all year. You can’t just show up and have it be a disaster. They’ve been great all year. Tonight wasn’t great. That’s for sure. Spotted the whole field, started the tail back with 15 laps to go.

“All you’ve got to do is the same pit stop you do every week. It is not any different. You’ve just got to be prepared. They just weren’t prepared tonight.”

Harvick said he expects the pit crew to be better for next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.

“They’re experienced enough,” said Harvick, who led 33 of 88 laps. “They know that it didn’t go the way they wanted it to go. They’ll go back and they’ll be ready. That’s the great part about having an experienced pit crew. They can go back and fix it. They better fix it.”