Ryan: Logano vs. Kenseth reaffirms fine line of circus vs. sport

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – The cars had fallen silent, but a crowd of at least 50,000 just kept roaring.

As the video board in the middle of the Martinsville Speedway infield replayed Matt Kenseth’s takeout of leader Joey Logano causing a red flag with 45 laps left in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, the raucous cheers, gasps and exclamations of wonder continued in an unabated din. Heads turned upward in every pit box as an array of smiles and frowns formed while reliving the most controversial wreck of the 2015 Sprint Cup Series season.

The scene was more chaotic in the garage, where Logano’s crew members scurried between fans holding aloft smartphones trying to capture photos and videos of the heavily damaged No. 22 Ford. Henry County sheriff’s deputies tried to restore order (“If you’re not media, you’ve got to back up!” quickly morphed into “I need everybody out of here but live TV!”) as Logano exited the nearby care center and walked briskly to his team’s stall – now to a chorus of boos cascading down the from the double-decker grandstands in Turn 2.

A Joe Gibbs Racing crew member turned to a teammate and smiled.

“I just came over to fight,” he joked.

There was anger. There was awe. There was amusement.

There was a captivating spectacle of the sort that largely had gone missing over the first 33 races of the season on a circuit that likes billing passion as a primary selling point.

Was this “quintessential NASCAR” as chairman Brian France famously had declared about Logano bumping Kenseth from the lead to win at Kansas Speedway?

Some of the self-proclaimed standard bearers of the sport, and its most uptight sponsors, certainly wouldn’t agree. And after nearly six seasons of living in the “Boys, have at it” era, exacerbated by a revamped playoff system that incrementally keeps raising the already sky-high stakes over the final 10 races, some of its stars seemed less certain, too.

“I don’t even know anymore, the structure in which we have around us is not very strong as far as an authority figure saying, ‘No, you cannot do that anymore,’ ” said Denny Hamlin, whose voice carries significant weight as an organizer of the driver’s council that began meeting with NASCAR this year. “It’s just tough for us because this is what’s been created. I love Brian France, but when he says that drivers are doing what they have to do, it seems like he’s promoting this type of racing, so that’s tough to crown a true champion when things go like this.

“It’s a no-holds-barred Wild, Wild West. Sure, when people crown the statement that a driver’s doing what he’s got to do and they became OK with that statement, you’re just opening up Pandora’s box. Everyone is just doing what they have to do I guess. It’s a bad statement. It’s an ugly statement.”

The ugly truth, though, is that men behaving badly have been a cornerstone of stock-car racing for 66 years. It had veterans emerging wide-eyed from their cars after Kenseth’s ignominious payback at Martinsville.

“Wow, man! That was wild stuff,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “They’re going to talk about that for a while. I mean, look at this Chase. It’s wild for these fans, and they’ve got to be thrilled with how this Chase is so intense compared to our past formats. Unbelievable stuff happening out there.”

Depending on the optics used to determine quality, what some perceive as NASCAR’s best also might be viewed as its worst.

At the risk of evoking metal folding chairs and bawdy entrance music, its most alluring elements can feel tantamount to pro wrestling. That’s a comparison that once earned Tony Stewart a harsh condemnation because it dangerously skirts the boundaries of the scripted and staged. NASCAR understandably wants to avoid those unfair and untrue associations, but it can’t escape another root conclusion whether it’s actors dressed in tights or athletes wearing firesuits.

They both are the central figures of soap operas.

Yes, fans want the hard racing that largely has been disappearing with short tracks such as Martinsville. But as measured by the thunderous rumblings of approval Sunday at the 0.526-mile oval, they also want the outbursts of unbridled emotion and episodes of vicious retribution that could be construed as embarrassing.

It’s a byproduct of billing yourself as a “contact sport” and tacitly endorsing frontier justice, and France surely understands the Faustian bargain in play with proclamations that could be interpreted as feeding bloodlust.

In its most indelible moments – from the fistfight on the final lap of the 1979 Daytona 500 to the paybacks dished out Sunday – NASCAR always teeters on the precariously thin line between being branded as an out-of-control circus or an enthralling sport.

Still, the punishment for Kenseth must be severe. While France has encouraged his stars to mix it up, the message has been that crashing for a win or in a fierce battle for position is OK.

When was the last time a lapped car (in this case, 10 laps down) just decided, “Sorry, you don’t get to win,” and wrecked a leader so close to the finish? Those are the types of shenanigans immortalized by the Modified series at Bowman-Gray Stadium, which is synonymous with bush league. There might be a place for it in racing but not on the national stage.

At the very least, Kenseth must be given a penalty matching what Jeff Gordon received for intentionally crashing Clint Bowyer at Phoenix International Raceway in 2012 (a 25-point penalty, $100,000 fine).

And given the dynamics of the Chase for the Sprint Cup then vs. now – Gordon cost Bowyer an outside chance at a title, while Kenseth might have eliminated the championship favorite from a guaranteed shot in the finale —  it probably should be much harsher. Sitting Kenseth at Texas Motor Speedway – and possibly for the final three races of the season – should be on the table.

Regardless, the decision is sure to inspire another roar from NASCAR Nation, where the level of noise always outweighs the importance of anything else.

Stage points crucial at Las Vegas in Round of 12

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Former champion Brad Keselowski views Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) as the “second most important” to win during the season after the championship race, “because these next two weeks are very difficult to prepare for.”

What’s so difficult about the two races after Las Vegas?

Two-thirds of the Round of 12 are made up of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval: a superspeedway known for its wild multi-car wrecks and a road course that can prove unpredictable.

“The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is the playoff bonus points and winning in Vegas,” Keselowski said. “The best thing we can do to control our own destiny is to go win Vegas and then Talladega just becomes what it is. It’s the same thing with the Roval, so we’re hopeful to just kind of not have to worry about it that way by scoring a win. If we’re not able to do that, I’d like to get a few more playoff bonus points with stages for those races and that would help a bunch, but, certainly, this round presents a lot of challenges for us.”

If anyone knows the importance of winning early in a round, it’s Keselowski. His victory two weeks ago at Richmond benefitted him in the cutoff race a Bristol when power steering issues resulted in a 34th-place finish.

Chase Elliott, who has won at both Talladega and the Roval in previous seasons, has a similar view to Keselowski.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver said “we would be messing up to already be looking ahead to Talladega,” later adding, “the way I kind of look at it is I’m probably going to crash – I think that’s just the odds.”

Were everything to go right for a driver, they can earn up to 20 stage points in the first two stages of a race.

“So, I think everybody knows how important stages are and what they can mean, especially stage wins,” Elliott said. “Getting that extra bonus point is a huge thing, too. I think everybody knows that and that’s certainly a game that’s been played. I don’t know that it was as much played that very first year that we had (playoff and stage points), but really ever since that first year, I think it has been known and everybody really gets that. And it’s just gotten more and more aggressive.”

Focusing on Vegas is key for Elliott because it’s been a “super hit or miss” track for him. In seven career starts, he has two top fives and four finishes of 26th or worse.

“We’ve crashed a bunch out there (three DNFs) and had some really bad finishes,” Elliott said. “That would be a fantastic opportunity, I think, to have a solid day.”

Kurt Busch noted that you could arguably view Las Vegas as “standard” when it comes to pit strategy and racing. But Busch provided a reminder of what happened earlier this year at Texas Motor Speedway.

“A place like Vegas fits into a track like Texas, as well; where you can change just left side tires like we saw Austin Dillon do to win the Texas race earlier this year,” Busch said. “So, there are all the different strategies and different things playing out.”

The four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16 – William Byron, Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto – scored a combined six stage points. All of them were earned by Byron.

Busch observed that just because four teams have been eliminated from the playoffs doesn’t mean there’s four less cars in the field vying for points.

“There are two Hendrick cars now not in the playoffs, but they’re fast,” Busch said of Byron and Jimmie Johnson. “Same thing with (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). You’ve got the No. 20 car, Erik Jones, not in the playoffs but he’s fast. Those are points that those guys could take away from the contenders that are still left in the situations they’re in. So, you’ve just got to race hard and race smart. There are three ways to get points each and every weekend: Stage 1, Stage 2, and the finish of the race. And, that happens at all the race tracks.”

Of the 12 remaining drivers left in the playoffs, here’s how many stage points they earned in the first round.

Most Stage Points Earned in 2020 Playoffs:

Chase Elliott  – 35
Kevin Harvick – 33
Martin Truex Jr.  – 32
Kyle Busch  – 31
Alex Bowman – 29
Joey Logano  – 28
Denny Hamlin  – 26
Kurt Busch – 22
Austin Dillon – 22
Brad Keselowski – 21
Aric Almirola – 7
Clint Bowyer – 4

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NASCAR fines
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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NASCAR has fined Hendrick Motorsports $100,000 for exceeding the amount of wind tunnel testing allowed this season.

NASCAR also announced that it had deducted 10 hours of wind tunnel testing from the organization for the 2020-21 amount allowed.

Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalty. The team reported the violation to NASCAR.

The Cup Rule Book states in section 5.3.e that organizations are allocated 150 hours to be used on cars through Dec. 31, 2021 with a maximum usage of 70 hours in 2020 and a maximum usage of 90 hours in 2021. NASCAR states that testing hours are defined as billable hours reported by the wind tunnel to NASCAR. The minimum test period is four hours. Wind tunnel testing of Next Gen cars by individual organizations will not be permitted.

The L2 penalty comes with a fine of at least $100,000 and no more than $200,000.

NASCAR also announced two fines for lug nut violations last weekend at Bristol.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chief Bruce Schlicker was fined $5,000 for the No. 10 car of Ross Chastain having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

In the Truck Series, crew chief Kevin Bellicourt was fined $2,500 for the No. 19 truck of Derek Kraus having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

 

Carson Hocevar to run full Truck schedule in 2021

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Niece Motorsports has signed Carson Hocevar to run the full NASCAR Truck schedule in 2021, the team announced Thursday.

Hocevar, who turns 18 in January, has run five races for the team this season. His best finish this year is 12th at Dover. He’s scheduled to run at Martinsville on Oct. 30.

“I’m so excited to get the opportunity to race fulltime next year with the Niece Motorsports group,” said Hocevar in a statement. “We’ve had some really strong runs in the few starts that we’ve had this season and I am grateful for the chance to continue that next year. I’ve learned so much already this year and know that we will keep improving next year too.”

“Carson has really impressed us this season,” said team owner Al Niece in a statement. “He’s proven his talent – getting into the truck with no track time and really holding his own. We’re thrilled to have him with us fulltime next season and look forward to contending for wins together.”

TikTok to sponsor Ryan Vargas in six Xfinity races

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JD Motorsports
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TikTok is coming to NASCAR.

The popular video sharing app will break into the sport next month as a sponsor of Ryan Vargas in the Xfinity Series.

TikTok has partnered with JD Motorsports to sponsor the 20-year-old Vargas in the final six races of the season, beginning with the Oct. 3 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

“TikTok has provided me with an incredible outlet to reach new fans and demographics through fun and creative content, and I’ve seen the highest growth in followers on TikTok over my other social channels,” Vargas said in a press release. “The opportunity to run the No. 6 TikTok Chevrolet Camaro in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for the rest of the season is an absolute dream come true. Johnny Davis and the whole JD Motorsports with Gary Keller team took a chance on me last year and I’m excited to bring this amazing TikTok partnership their way. I wouldn’t want to make this partnership a reality anywhere else.”

Vargas has made three Xfinity Series starts this year. His best finish was 13th at Pocono.

The sponsor deal is part of TikTok’s Latinx Heritage Month programming.

A native of La Mirada, California, Vargas joined TikTok last year. He is a former member of NASCAR’s Drive 4 Diversity programming and a winner of the Wendell Scott Trailblazer award, which is given to a minority or female driver who displays exceptional on-track performance, sportsmanship, and community service.

The partnership and paint scheme were inspired by a concept scheme by graphic designer Ryan Pistana, a friend of Vargas’.

“Creators of all sizes and backgrounds show up to TikTok with their genuine, authentic selves,” Nick Tran, TikTok’s Head of Global Marketing, said in a press release. “Partnering with an iconic brand like NASCAR to sponsor Ryan Vargas on his racing journey is a way for us to continue to support, celebrate and elevate the diverse creators that make our TikTok community what it is today. Ryan is an incredible athlete, and we’re looking forward to cheering him on alongside the rest of the TikTok community!”

According to CNBC in August, TikTok has roughly 100 million monthly users, up nearly 800% from January 2018.

TikTok, a Chinese-owned company, has been in national headlines recently after President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app in the United States for national security reasons if it was not sold to an American company. On Sept. 19 he approved a deal for its U.S operations to be operated by Oracle and Walmart.