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

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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 America at 5 p.m. ET: Kansas preview, Kevin Meendering interview

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to preview this weekend’s races at Kansas Speedway.

Marty Snider hosts with Steve Letarte and Landon Cassill from Charlotte.

On today’s show:

  • We’ll react to the penalty handed down to Kyle Larson that makes advancing to the Round of 8 even more challenging.
  • As cut-down day approaches in the Round of 12 for the Cup Series, we’ll look back at drivers who kept their title hopes alive with victories in elimination races.
  • Dillon Welch talks to crew chief Kevin Meendering, who is set to become Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief in 2019.
  • Joey Logano may be racing for a championship, but one of his other main goals is a far more important one: helping the lives of others, especially children. We’ll look at the story behind the Joey Logano Foundation.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Bubba Wallace named to Ebony Power 100

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Bubba Wallace has been named to Ebony Magazine’s Ebony Power 100 for his accomplishments as a NASCAR Cup series driver.

Listed as an “MVP,” Wallace joins other athletes such as Antonio Brown, Stephen Curry and Venus Williams as well as former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama. 

The list was created to recognize leaders of color who have positively impacted their community.

“This is quite an honor to be recognized with others in the African-American community,” Wallace said in a press release. “It’s humbling to join a list of the other star athletes, artists and community and national leaders. I’m just trying to be the best driver that I can be and focus on winning races for Richard Petty Motorsports and our partners. To be recognized for some of our accomplishments this season is an honor and I’d like to thank Ebony for the recognition.”

Wallace gained the honor based on his on track performance early in the year, including a second-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a top-10 finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

His off-track accomplishments also played a role in the selection. Wallace has been a notable influencer on social media. Earlier this year, Facebook posted a “Behind the Wall: Bubba Wallace” docu-series that earned more than five million views.

“We are proud of what Bubba is doing both on and off the track for our race team and our partners,” said Brian Moffitt, CEO of Richard Petty Motorsports, in a press release. “We know that we have something very special with him and he continues to break barriers outside our sport to be a first-class athlete, spokesperson and inspiration to many.”

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K&N East champion to make Truck Series debut at Martinsville

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Tyler Ankrum, who won the NASCAR K&N East Pro Series title on Oct. 6, will make his Camping World Truck Series debut next weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

Ankrum, 17, will drive for DGR-Crosley’s No. 54 truck. Ankrum drove for the team co-owned by David Gilliland in the K&N East series.

Driving the No. 17, Ankrum earned four wins and nine top fives and led the standings for the final 12 races of the season.

The native of San Bernadino, California, had an average finish of 4.8.

Next Saturday’s race will be Ankrum’s second at Martinsville. He competed in a Late Model Stock Car race there in 2014.

“Making my Truck Series debut at Martinsville is huge. So many big names in the sport have made their national series debut at Martinsville,” Ankrum said in a press release. “I’ve been dreaming of this day for so long now, I can’t believe it’s actually happening. It’s going to be really cool having (crew chief) Seth (Smith) and my K&N guys there with me.”

Kyle Larson loses 10 points, car chief suspended for Talladega penalty

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Kyle Larson‘s Cup team has been penalized 10 driver and owner points and loses car chief David Bryant to a one-race suspension for a L1 penalty at Talladega Superspeedway.

Crew chief Chad Johnston was also fined $25,000.

The No. 42 team violated Section 10.9.9.d in the rulebook, which notes “Damaged vehicle repair, regardless of how the damage occurred, is permitted to have original body parts removed or reattached in their original location with fasteners and/or tape only.”

Larson spun with seven laps left in Stage 2 due to a flat tire.

Larson, who finished 11th in Sunday’s race and called it “embarrassing at times”, is now 36 points behind the cutoff spot on the playoff grid, making this weekend’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway a must win for Larson.

This is Bryant’s second suspension this season. He missed two races in May for a rear-window violation at Kansas.

NBC Sports has asked Chip Ganassi Racing if it will appeal;there was no immediate response from the team.

John Klausmeier, crew chief on Aric Almirola‘s No. 10 Ford, was fined $10,000 for an unsecured lug nut on the race-winning car.

NASCAR also issued three fines to crew chiefs in the Camping World Truck Series for the same L1 penalty.

Chad Kendrick (Austin Hill‘s No. 02 Chevrolet), Graham Bruce (Stewart Friesen‘s No. 52 Chevrolet) and Joel Shear Jr. (Johnny Sauter‘s No. 21 Chevrolet) were fined $5,000 for violating Section 20.4, which notes “Air is not allowed to pass from one area of the interior of the vehicle to another or to the outside of the vehicle.”

NASCAR also issued an indefinite suspension to Christopher Justin Chase for violating Sections 12.1.a and 2.11.a in the rulebook, a behavioral level violation.