Ryan: The racing was good at Kentucky … but the reasons why are more important


SPARTA, Ky. – Maybe NASCAR should consider changing its rules every week?

Spin a gargantuan wheel to determine spoiler heights during prerace ceremonies. Sequester team engineers in soundproof chambers during races. Randomly change radio frequencies during the course of green-flag sequences.

This, of course, is folly inspired by the giddiness of witnessing the best Sprint Cup race of a 2015 season lacking for the sort of indelible moments that ran on a continuous loop Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

But after the smashing debut of a lower-downforce package, why stop there?

Fourth-place finisher Carl Edwards doesn’t think NASCAR should.

And the biggest takeaway from the Quaker State 400 is it proved the sanctioning body probably isn’t done, either.

“I cannot say enough positive things about this direction NASCAR is going with less downforce,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “If you give Goodyear a little bit of time to work on a tire, take away another 700 (to) 1,000 pounds of downforce, we’re going to be racing. I felt like a race car driver.

“I could actually drive the car, I was steering and sliding. I about wrecked a few times. I felt like I was doing something.”

It felt as if we were watching something, too.

At the most maligned racetrack on the Sprint Cup circuit, NASCAR delivered, hands down, the most beguiling show on a 1.5-mile oval since last season’s gripping season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The numbers bore it out – 2,665 green-flag passes, a 132 percent increase over last year’s 1,147. There were a Kentucky-record 22 green-flag passes for the lead in a race with only 10 green-flag lead changes at the finish line – a telling indicator of how often the lead was being swapped during the course of a lap amid side-by-side battles galore for first.

Race winner Kyle Busch vs. Brad Keselowski.

Carl Edwards vs. teammates Busch and Denny Hamlin (and on a breaktaking swing to the bottom).

Busch vs. Joey Logano.

Though the race effectively was over when Busch took the lead for good with 20 laps remaining (leaving Kentucky still hunting for its first lead change in the final 10 laps of five Cup races), there was enough compelling evidence for a strong case the package should get another shot beyond the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

That would mean continuing to experiment with the rules during the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship playoff – an option that NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell left on the table last week.

There might be less resistance to that concept now than before Kentucky.

“Sold,” Edwards said with a smile when told of the passing statistics Saturday. “Keep doing it. Ship it.”

If the goal of reducing downforce as much as 30 percent was to de-emphasize aerodynamics and make it easier for drivers with stronger cars to slice through traffic, Keselowski made the best case for why it seemed to work.

Three times, his No. 2 Ford was mired deep in traffic as a result of being off-sequence on strategy or a subpar pit stop, but he roared forward after every restart on a track whose abrasive surface isn’t conducive to handling.

Hamlin fell two laps down after an unscheduled green-flag stop for a flat tire and a resultant speeding penalty. He finished third.

“I passed a ton of cars,” he said. “I blew a right front from abusing it, but that’s what this package is supposed to do.  You overdrive the car, you pay the price.

“So, this is what race car driving’s all about. I feel like now it’s back in the driver and crew chief’s hands to get their car handling like it’s supposed to.  Not just an arms race of who build the fastest cars in the shop.”

It’s too early to proclaim NASCAR smacked a home run in the quest for enhancing the quality of racing. Kentucky isn’t the best barometer for how races might unfold at the other seven 1.5-mile tracks, and Saturday marked only the first in a series of midseason experiments aimed at changing the game.

In upcoming races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, a high-drag package – essentially the opposite of Saturday night – will be rolled out.

At the dawn of a “race-specific” era in which changes will be tailor -made to tracks instead of manufacturers or seasons, there is justifiably cautious optimism.

“It’s just one race,” Hamlin said. “I think we can make it better. I think this is just a first little bits and pieces.”

The encouraging sign is NASCAR has shown the willingness to be aggressive in trying to improve.

There were many righteous openings for backing off the new package at Kentucky. Goodyear didn’t have time to bring a softer tire to match the loss of grip and provide drivers more security to maneuver. The frustrating confluence of persistent rain and weepers kept cars off the track for several hours of scheduled practice.

NASCAR and its stars still stayed on plan while trying to manage expectations, warning the tenuous preparations might deliver less-than-optimum results.

But instead, it might have helped juice the show. Without much track time to validate their sophisticated simulation programs, teams scrambled on the fly to adapt.

That’s a recognizable concept to the NASCAR R&D Center, where the buzzword these days is “nimble.” After years of trying to set rules for the course of a full season, the philosophy changed virtually overnight to trying to marry rules packages to tracks.

NASCAR, which sometimes is beset too easily by decades of institutional paralysis, must remain vigilant about being faithful to that direction.

As Keselowski noted postrace on Twitter, Sprint Cup engineers are too smart for teams to struggle for long. Solutions will emerge that help handling, and then the package could need more tweaking – perhaps by chopping the spoiler even further as Edwards as recommended.

He has been among the most vocal lobbying hard for changes like Saturday, even as NASCAR was committed to other directions. During a frenetic test last August at Michigan, eight combinations were tried. The last was a lower-downforce package (but higher horsepower) similar to Kentucky – implemented solely because drivers begged for it.

There were 10 of them raving about the results that day … but it still took NASCAR nearly a year to try it again in earnest.

Within the new setting of monthly meetings with driver councils, that response time must be more rapid. Often motivated by an understandably self-centered desire for personal results than the sport’s greater good, drivers aren’t always the best sounding boards.

Yet Kentucky illustrated their feedback is important.

“I had more fun racing tonight than I had on a mile-and-a-half (track) in a long, long time,” Edwards said. “NASCAR wants this to be the best product on the planet. And after some of the conversations that we have had, I’m really impressed that NASCAR tried this package.

“It says a lot about their willingness to try different things. Because I don’t really believe this is the package they wanted to try.”

All that mattered Saturday night is that it was the package that worked.

If that remains the guiding principle, NASCAR will be in a better spot.


NASCAR weekend schedule at Sonoma Raceway


The NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series head to Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This marks the first time the Xfinity Series has competed at the 1.99-mile road course.

The Cup and Xfinity Series will take the following weekend off before the season resumes at Nashville Superspeedway. NBC and USA will broadcast each series the rest of the year, beginning at Nashville.

Sonoma Raceway

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 73 degrees. Forecast is for a high of 70 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race.

Sunday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 67 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 9

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
  • 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
  • 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
  • 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)

Saturday, June 10

Garage open

  • 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 3 – 4 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Cup practice  (FS2)
  • 6 – 7 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS2)
  • 8 p.m. — Xfinity race (79 laps, 156.95 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 11

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (110 laps, 218.9 miles; Fox, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)


NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation


NASCAR has docked Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club 60 points and five playoff points each, suspended crew chief Dave Elenz two races and fined him $75,000 for the L1 violation discovered this week at the R&D Center. The team was found to have modified the greenhouse.

The penalty drops Jones from 26th to 30th in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

MORE: NASCAR’s $1 million question is can the culture change?

“We have been diligently working with NASCAR regarding the penalty and are working internally to determine the course of action in response,” said Joey Cohen, vice president, race operations for Legacy MC, in a statement. “We will announce that decision within the timeframe determined by the NASCAR Rule Book.”

Cohen will serve as interim crew chief during Elenz’s suspension.

Jones’ car was among those brought to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, after last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway.

NASCAR cited the team for violating:

Section 14.1.C: Vehicles must comply with Section 14 Vehicle and Driver Safety Specifications of the NASCAR Rule Book at all times during an Event. Failure to comply will be subject to Penalty pursuant to Section 10 Violations and Disciplinary Action.

Section 14.1.D: Except in cases explicitly permitted in the NASCAR Rules, installation of additional components, repairs, deletions, and/or modifications to Next Gen Single Source Vendor-supplied parts and/or assemblies will not be permitted.

Section 14.1.2.B: All parts and assemblies must comply with the NASCAR Engineering Change Log.

NASCAR also announced penalties Wednesday in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Crew chief Andrew Abbott has been fined $5,000, Young’s Motorsports has been penalized 25 points and Chris Hacker has been docked 25 points for a violation with the team’s window net.

Crew chief Charles Denike has been fined $2,500 for a lug nut not properly installed on Christian Eckes‘ truck for TRICON Garage.

Kamui Kobayashi to make NASCAR debut with 23XI Racing at Indy

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LE MANS, France (AP) — Left out of the NASCAR celebration at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota used Wednesday at the track to showcase its own stock car program and the upcoming Cup Series debut for one of the top racers in the world.

Kamui Kobayashi will make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Toyota in August driving for 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.

The announcement made Wednesday had several top NASCAR executives in attendance – including chairman Jim France – as Toyota found Le Mans to be the perfect backdrop to spotlight the one-race deal.

Toyota Gazoo, after all, has won Le Mans the last five consecutive years and Kobayashi, part of the 2021 winning effort, is team principal of the two-car organization that will try to make it six straight wins in the most prestigious endurance event in the world.

Toyota had initially felt jilted when NASCAR blindsided the industry last year by announcing it would bring its new Next Gen car to centenary Le Mans in a specialized category that showcases innovation, but the project was with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Toyota was the first rival NASCAR manufacturer to complain, and NASCAR has since tried to include all its partners in this weekend’s celebration and France signed off on holding the Kobayashi announcement at Le Mans.

It allowed Toyota to display the Camry it races in NASCAR; Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 in the Aug. 13 race. This will be the second race for the No. 67 car for 23XI Racing. Travis Pastrana finished 11th in the car at this year’s Daytona 500.

“We’ve been working on this assignment actually for a couple of years and Kamui has become a friend and we understood it was his dream one day to race in NASCAR,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, U.S.A. “With this great new Next Gen Toyota Camry TRD, the stars and planets started to align themselves and the next question became: Where should we announce this?

“It dawned on me with Kamui’s record of success, and being the team principal, to do it on this global stage at the biggest sports car race in the world.”

Kobayashi will be only the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR’s top Cup Series and only the fifth to race in one of NASCAR’s top three national series. Kobayashi will be the first driver from Japan to race in the Cup Series in a Toyota, which entered NASCAR’s top series in 2007.

“It’s my dream, actually,” Kobayashi told The Associated Press. “It’s such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category.

“But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers. Toyota has been in NASCAR a long time, but there has never been any Japanese drivers for Toyota. That’s also why I say I appreciate this opportunity for myself.”

Kobayashi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota in 2021 and hasn’t finished lower than third since 2018. He has six podium finishes in eight appearances in the iconic endurance race.

Toyota trails only Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche for most wins at Le Mans. Porsche holds the record with 19 victories.

Kobayashi in 2021, after winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title driving for Toyota Gazoo, was named team principal.

Kobayashi started his racing career karting in Japan but was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe. He was named one of Toyota’s reserve Formula One drivers and made his debut during the 2009 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He raced in F1 through 2014 with one podium finish in 75 career starts.

Following his F1 career, Kobayashi returned to Japan and switched to the Super Formula Series, a class he still actively competes in. He’s since won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and was the anchor on an IMSA endurance sports car team in the United States for two seasons that was formed by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Kobayashi loves racing in the United States, but IMSA’s adoption of new regulations to make its top class eligible to compete at Le Mans created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi’s Toyota responsibilities and continuing to race in IMSA, where Toyota is not represented in the top class. Toyota does field a Lexus in a lower IMSA division and Kobayashi raced for Vasser Sullivan Racing last June in Canada to get a feel for the GT car.

Many consider NASCAR’s Next Gen car to be very similar to the GT Lexus sports car that Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, and that’s his closest experience to driving a stock car. He’ll be permitted to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis, and expects some time on the simulator.

Either way, he isn’t worried about seat time.

“I think I’m a guy who doesn’t need much practice, to be honest,” the 36-year-old Kobayashi told the AP. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I’m not really concerned about form.”

Drivers to watch at Sonoma Raceway


This weekend begins a key period for Cup drivers. Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway begins a stretch of four road course events in the next 10 races. The race to make the playoffs and to score playoff points is intensifying.


Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 10th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Circuit of the Americas)
  • Past at Sonoma: Does not have a top 15 in two previous starts

Reddick has won three of the last five Cup races on road courses, but Sonoma has been his kryptonite. He has yet to lead a lap there. Reddick’s three road course wins have been at Road America, Indianapolis and COTA.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Fontana)
  • Past at Sonoma: Four top 10s, including a runner-up, in six starts

Elliott returns to the series after sitting out last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway due to suspension. He’s in a must-win situation to make the playoffs. Known for his prowess on road courses, Elliott’s last win at such a track came in 2021 at Road America. In the nine races at road courses since that win, Elliott has two runner-up finishes and six top 10s.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 7th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Fontana, Talladega I, WWT Raceway)
  • Past at Sonoma: Had six straight finishes of seventh or better before placing 30th last year

Busch is tied with William Byron for the most wins this season with three. Busch has placed in the top three in the last two road course races. He has led in five of the last seven Sonoma Cup races. He is a two-time Sonoma winner, taking the checkered flag in 2008 and ’15.


Denny Hamlin 

  • Points position: 8th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Kansas I)
  • Past at Sonoma: Five consecutive top 10s until finishing 31st last year

Hamlin has not had a top-10 finish at a road course in the Next Gen car. He has an 18.4 average finish at road courses since last season. His best finish at a road course in that time is 13th at the Charlotte Roval.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Dover)
  • Past at Sonoma: Two straight top-10 finishes

Chastain lost the points lead last weekend after his third consecutive finish outside the top 20. His fourth-place finish at Circuit of the Americas this season broke a streak of three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 at road courses.

Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best finish this season: 3rd (Talladega I)
  • Past at Sonoma: His runner-up finish last year was his first top 10 there in six starts

Until last year, Sonoma had not been kind to Buescher. He enters this weekend have scored six consecutive top 10s at road courses.