Ryan: For a contact sport, NASCAR’s newsmakers need more conflict


It was intended as a playfully snarky jab about the TMZ-esque transcendence of the most potentially transformative personality that NASCAR has.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Amy Reimann announced their engagement as dawn broke Wednesday – ensuring a full day of nonstop chatter about a sport desperately fighting for a larger slice of water-cooler relevance in the crowded American cultural and sports landscape – Yahoo Sports! writer Nick Bromberg cracked wise about the occasion tantamount to a royal wedding in NASCAR Nation (witness fans asking about pay-per-view availability).

Bromberg was kidding, of course, but there was a kernel of truth wrapped deep inside his sugar-coated snark.

Think about where the betrothal of Earnhardt ranks on the list of this year’s biggest talkers:

— Sprint Cup drivers vote to create a small collective designed to meet regularly with NASCAR brass about pressing concerns and initiatives.

— Several big names miss races for myriad reasons, from domestic violence allegations to injuries to mysterious ailments.

— NASCAR executives curiously vacillate (“Next year’s rules at this year’s All-Star Race! No, wait.”) on a blueprint for incremental rules changes hailed as critical to create captivating racing.

Notice what’s missing?

With the very notable exception of Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing’s sudden and impressive emergence as a championship powerhouse, not enough is happening on the track to drive the compelling storylines that make the Sprint Cup Series spin with an emotionally charged epochal flair for 10 months a year.

Aside from a spike in SAFER barrier construction (triggered by the season’s most negative racing-themed development this season in Kyle Busch’s broken limbs from smacking an unprotected concrete wall in Daytona), there hasn’t been much action to follow between the green and checkered flags every week. A dearth of the door-slamming feuds that add a pleasingly cantankerous sheen when stock cars hum along in perfectly dysfunctional harmony.

Disjointed, though, was the lasting memory of Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, where the erratic weather patterns created the choppiest race in recent memory and a search for any significant takeaways. Among the biggest developments was Tony Stewart’s inexplicably pedestrian 28th-place finish, which also underscores the overarching theme of 2015.

Instead of what is happening on track, it’s what isn’t happening that is guiding the narrative.

“Smoke” isn’t winning (while teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch run circles around him) – and neither is Jeff Gordon, whose farewell season has been pockmarked by self-induced missteps of misfortune and tumult rather than the expected parade of weekly triumphs signifying his greatness.

The Busch brothers aren’t racing – or at least neither was for the first month, leaving an odd void of polarizing personalities.

Meanwhile, stars aren’t feuding.

Outside of Earnhardt’s engagement Wednesday and NASCAR’s announcement Tuesday to reduce downforce for next month’s race at Kentucky Speedway, the juiciest morsels to emerge this week were the latest raft of written warnings issued to teams for multiple attempts of failing inspection – a familiar morass of procedural red tape that represents the closest resemblance to a consistent stream of controversy.

It’s normal for an off week to be quiet, but Michigan signified another race lacking the necessary reverberations to stoke fans’ passions. Ryan Newman’s recent vow of retribution against A.J. Allmendinger for a crash at Pocono barely would have registered on the payback scale in most seasons (a la the end of 2014 when it was the People v. Brad Keselowski). But such sparks of contentiousness have been nonexistent this year.

There could be a plethora of reasons for the absence of animosity.

The driver council, while formed by good intentions, raises the disconcerting possibility of too much collegiality. The ongoing baby boom in the driver motor home lot (where more than two dozen newborns have arrived in the past eight years) has fostered a sociological Petri dish of otherworldly suburbia in which more drivers are raising families together in close proximity than at any time in NASCAR history. There’s an unprecedented amount of intertwinement with significant others and kids, and that makes it so tricky to carry the grudges that have been a cornerstone of partly building NASCAR through its memorable conflicts.

But the most obvious rationale is this: Even when drivers want to put their relationships at risk by pushing the envelope, they say they can’t because their cars won’t allow it – and their claims are backed by the statistics.

While passing has been on par throughout the field, there’s been much less where it matters most: the front. Lead changes have declined in 12 of 15 races and plummeted 23% overall.

It’s dovetailed with a decline in game-changing caution flags and wrecks – a natural if sometimes unfortunate byproduct of drivers battling hard for positions – that engender the ill will and indelible moments that shape a season.

Which brings us to the July 11 race at Sparta, Ky., the epicenter of Sprint Cup snoozers. In four races with NASCAR’s premier series, there have been no passes for first in the final 10 laps. There have been fewer lead changes than any other 1.5-mile track on the circuit.

Announcing a major reduction in downforce for Kentucky was a shrewd move. This race is guaranteed to receive as much positive buzz since its 2011 grand opening – goodwill that quickly faded when a six-hour traffic jam preceded a high-speed parade.

The place where nothing largely has happened on track now is being given a unique chance to help shift the conversation. It’ll be a focal point of fan anticipation until the green flag – keeping the focus on the track with a rules package designed to promote more passing for the lead.

But will fans still be talking about what happened on the track afterward?

For NASCAR, that’s the true barometer for success.

It’s past time for its biggest storylines to revolve around popping a rival with a bumper rather than popping the question.

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.


Josh Williams suspended for one race after Atlanta infraction


NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Williams has been suspended for one race because of his actions during last Saturday’s Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Williams will be ineligible to participate in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. He would be able to return for the April 1 race at Richmond, Virginia.

Williams was penalized for a “behavioral” infraction, specifically disobeying a NASCAR request.

In a tweet after the suspension was announced, Williams said: “I stand behind what I did and I don’t regret any decisions I made. I stand behind NASCAR for these decisions and will continue and always support them.” He said Alex Labbe will drive the team’s No. 92 car at Circuit of the Americas this weekend.

MORE: Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended

NASCAR officials ordered Williams off the track during Saturday’s race after his car was involved in an accident. Debris falling from his car prompted a caution flag, leading NASCAR to order him to park.

Instead of going to the garage area, Williams parked his car at the start-finish line and walked to pit road.

Williams was escorted to the NASCAR hauler office at the track. He waited there until the conclusion of the race and then met with officials for about 20 minutes.

MORE: NBC Power Rankings: Christopher Bell rises to the top

Section 8.8.9.I of the Xfinity Series Rule Book states that with the Damaged Vehicle Policy, NASCAR can order a car off the track: “At the discretion of the Series Managing Director, if a damaged vehicle elects not to enter pit road on the first opportunity or if a damaged vehicle exits pit road before sufficient repairs had been made and thereafter causes or extends a caution (e.g. leaking fluid, debris, etc.), then said vehicle may incur a lap(s) or time penalty or may not be permitted to return to the Race.”

Williams later admitted he had violated a rule but said he was frustrated by the NASCAR decision.

“We all work really hard and to only run ‘X’ amount of laps and then to have something like a piece of Bear Bond and put us out of the race, it’s really frustrating,” Williams said after his meeting with series officials. “Small team. We work really hard. We’ve got to make our sponsors happy, right? It doesn’t do any good sitting in the garage. It is what it is. We’ll learn from it and move on.

“I told them I was a little bit frustrated,” Williams said of NASCAR’s call, “but it was in the rule book.”