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Ryan: In the NASCAR lug nut debate, honor can be realized by making things tight

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – In a sport known for pits of cheating vipers and dens of conniving thieves, here is a quaint way of solving the latest controversy engulfing NASCAR.

Use the honor system.

Ask teams merely to do their best to try to fasten five lug nuts.

The language of the new rule leaves little wiggle room: A car with fewer than five lug nuts on any wheel in postrace will equal a $20,000 fine and a one-race crew chief suspension. All cars will be checked after Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. There seems little chance for dispensation of any sort.

NASCAR would be served best by mostly enforcing the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

If you cheat and deliberately hit four lug nuts or fewer, we’ll catch you. And if we don’t, karma will.

But if you attempted to tighten five lug nuts and didn’t succeed — if somehow your car still finished a race with fewer than the required 20 — we’ll cut you a break if you can make a legitimate case that you tried.

So just try.

From drivers to fans to multinational insurance companies whose actuaries’ palms get much sweatier at the specter of wheels pinwheeling into the grandstands, that effort is truly what matters.

Fastening fewer than five lug nuts on a wheel can have disastrous consequences.

Why is Dale Earnhardt Jr. understandably spooked about the possibility of a loose wheel resulting from fewer lug nuts?

Watch the video of his vicious crash in October 2007 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Why did the discussion ratchet up in intensity as soon as fan injuries were implied?

Because when tires have bounced into the grandstands (granted, in other series), people have died – three at a time, in two cases.

These scenarios have been forgotten as the conversations around lug nuts consistently have devolved into a series of predictable arguments that are as substantive as arguing with a 5-year-old.

Moreover, they miss the most important point:

Without a rule governing lug nuts, it had become a competitive disadvantage to choose the safest and sanest path to ensuring the well-being of a driver – and possibly fans.

For much of its 68 years of existence, NASCAR said having fewer than five lug nuts on a wheel was a situation so untenable, you had to return to the pits immediately to fix it if it was spotted.

When officials were downsized in the pits last year in favor of a high-tech monitoring system relying on HD cameras, there was a tacit acknowledgment that teams might push the envelope. But the degree to which it brazenly was tested this year couldn’t have been anticipated.

As the trend spiraled into a procession of countless green-flag pit stops for loose wheels at Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, it had become untenable – the latest of many major decisions that were paved with good intentions but littered with unintended consequences.

Tony Stewart, whose voice of reason lobbying for change earned him an inexplicably misguided $35,000 fine, was absolutely right. If someone got hurt because of the rash of loose wheels caused by intentionally skipping lug nuts, NASCAR would struggle to explain how it allowed a competitor – or much worse, a fan – to be injured in a situation that was eminently predictable and utterly avoidable.

The detractors have said none of this is on NASCAR. “It’s up to the teams. No one is forcing them to do four lug nuts or three. If they want to be safer, do five.”

It’s as if this were comparable to employing a setup that might gain a few tenths of a second over the course of a green-flag run at the risk of minimally increasing the chances of a spin.

But it’s not that simple. This isn’t the same as making a qualifying lap and hoping the wheels stick at breakneck speeds entering Turn 1, knowing the odds are good they will.

Yes, NASCAR is an inherently dangerous endeavor requiring incessant choices of variable risks that are necessary to perform well. Every flick of the wheel could be construed as fraught with peril.

Lug nuts don’t fall in that category, though. You can’t put the onus on teams to decide whether it’s wise to do something that knowingly puts drivers — and possibly fans – at greater risk while improving their competitive fortunes.

Teams always will make the wrong choice in that case. They are hard-wired to scour rulebooks and sponsor contracts in pursuit of any and every possible advantage, operating in the ethically gray areas demanded by a sport borne from bootleggers outrunning the law. Whether bending the rules or poaching sponsors, caginess and cunning often are celebrated and encouraged.

That’s intrinsic to the nature of competition.

Skipping lug nuts, however, isn’t.

It’s intentionally doing a less than perfect job on safety and praying that fate will handle the rest.

Stewart is a prime example in this regard. When NASCAR mandated head and neck restraint systems in 2001, who was among the last to comply with the edict?

Stewart. Why? Because he didn’t like how it restricted his line of sight and impeded his ability to drive. He couldn’t be left to make that decision on his own. NASCAR had to make it for him.

The same holds true with lug nuts. Teams can’t be trusted with knowing whether three or four lug nuts are worth having a wheel come off at 200 mph and putting drivers — and possibly fans — in jeopardy.

That’s a NASCAR call. And that was Smoke’s point when he correctly said “this is not a game you play with safety, and that’s exactly the way I feel like NASCAR is treating this.”

In fastening fewer than five lug nuts, teams were allowed to determine – and increase – the likelihood of a wheel falling off a car at speed.

Teams don’t get to set the limits on safety standards. The sanctioning body always should.

Instead, this was the message being sent in leaving a hole in the rulebook on lug nuts:

We want you to knowingly put drivers in a hazardous situation. Not because it’ll make for a thrilling pass, or because you’ll outwit the competition with an intriguing fuel-mileage gambit. We want you to do it because you’ll gain a half-second in the pits, which will be indiscernible to the naked eye and thus offer zero entertainment value.

In fact, it’ll come with a double-heaping of dread for the driver and team as you sweat through the waning laps not knowing if a broken collarbone or worse lurks around the next turn.

That message has changed this weekend at Talladega, and thankfully, there already have been signs it’s taking root.

There were five lug nuts on every car checked after Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega

Were the pit crews just trying harder to be more attuned to safety?

There’s honor in that.

Cup playoff clinching scenarios to make Round of 12

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The first elimination race of the Cup playoffs has arrived in the form of Bristol Motor Speedway.

Tonight’s 500-lap race on the short track will determine which drivers make up the Round of 12.

Three drivers have locked themselves into the second round. Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski earned their spots via race wins at Darlington and Richmond. Denny Hamlin clinched a spot via points.

More: Brad Keselowski on pole for Bristol

That leaves nine spots for 13 drivers to compete for.

If there is a new winner, the following drivers could clinch by being ahead of the 10th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano – would clinch with 7 points: 51 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Logano has finished third in the last two playoff races (at Darlington and Richmond). Has made 23 starts at Bristol posting one pole, two wins, six top fives and 10 top 10s. Logano’s average finish is 15.3.

Martin Truex Jr. – would clinch with 20 points: 38 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Earned 22nd-place finish at Darlington and second-place finish at Richmond. Has made 29 series starts at Bristol posting two top fives and three top 10s. His average finish is 20.6.

Austin Dillon – would clinch with 21 points: 36 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Dillion has a runner-up finish at Darlington and a fourth-place result last weekend at Richmond. Has 13 starts at Bristol posting one top five and three top 10s. His average finish is 17.3.

Chase Elliott – Would clinch with 30 points: 28 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Elliott finished 20th at Darlington and fifth at Richmond. Has made nine starts at Bristol and has one pole, three top fives and four top 10s. Average finish is 12.6.

Alex Bowman – would clinch with 31 points: 27 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Bowman placed sixth at Darlington and ninth at Richmond. Has made nine series starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 22.6.

Kyle Busch – would clinch with 40 points: Just 18 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Has seventh-place finish at Darlington and a sixth-place finish at Richmond. Has made 30 Cup starts at Bristol posting two poles and a series-leading eight wins among active drivers.

Aric Almirola – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Finished ninth at Darlington and eighth at Richmond. Has made 22 starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 25.0.

Kurt Busch – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the cutoff sport. Almirola holds the tiebreaker of best finish in the current playoff round. Busch has finished eighth at Darlington and 13th at Richmond. Has 39 Cup starts at Bristol with one pole, six wins, 12 top fives and 21 top 10s. Average finish is 14th.

Clint Bowyer – would clinch with 55 points: Three points over cutoff. Finished 10th at Darlington and Richmond. Bowyer has made 29 Cup starts at Bristol with eight top fives and 16 top 10s. Average finish is 13.6.

William Byron (-3 points from cutoff; would need help to clinch): Finished fifth at Darlington and 21st at Richmond. Five Cup starts at Bristol with one top 10. Average finish of 17.2.

Cole Custer (-8 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 12th at Darlington and 14th at Richmond. Finished 25th in lone Bristol Cup start.

Matt DiBenedetto (-25 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 21st at Darlington and 17th at Richmond. Eleven Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and one top 10. Average finish of 19.1.

Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney is last on the 16 driver playoff grid heading into Bristol. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney (-27 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 24th at Darlington and 19th at Richmond. Ten Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and three other top 10s. Average finish of 20.7.

More: Blaney and DiBenedetto seek history to advance to second round

Should there be a repeat winner Saturday – Harvick or Keselowski – the following drivers would advance to the next round by being ahead of the 11th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano: Would clinch with 4 points

Martin Truex Jr.: Would clinch with 17 points

Austin Dillon: Would clinch with 18 points

Chase Elliott: Would clinch with 27 points

Alex Bowman: Would clinch with 28 points

Kyle Busch: Would clinch with 37 points

Aric Almirola: Would clinch with 48 points

Kurt Busch: Would clinch with 48 points

Clint Bowyer: Would clinch with 52 points

William Byron: Would clinch with 55 points

Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney: Could only clinch with help

Xfinity race results, point standings after Bristol

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Chase Briscoe led the final six laps and won Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol for his seventh win of the season.

Briscoe beat Ross Chastain for the win. The top five was completed by Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

Playoff standings

The 12-driver field for the playoffs has been set with Briscoe’s win in the regular-season finale.

Brandon Brown placed 12th and clinched the 12th and final spot.

Here are the re-seeded point standings entering the playoffs.

Chase Briscoe – 2,050 points

Austin Cindric – 2,050

Justin Allgaier – 2,033

Noah Gragson – 2,025

Brandon Jones – 2,020

Justin Haley – 2,018

Harrison Burton – 2,014

Ross Chastain – 2,010

Ryan Sieg – 2,002

Michael Annett – 2,002

Riley Herbst – 2,001

Brandon Brown – 2,000

Click here for the re-seeded standings.

Click here for the normal point standings.

Chase Briscoe wins Xfinity race at Bristol Motor Speedway

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Chase Briscoe took the lead with six laps to go and won Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which marked the end of the regular season.

Briscoe passed Austin Cindric to assume the lead and went unchallenged to the checkered flag. The victory is his series-leading seventh of the season.

“I was so mad after last week (at Richmond),” Briscoe told NBCSN. “I told all the guys there ain’t no way we’re getting beat today. I was so mad after how we ran last week and I get on the internet all the time and see guys count us out after one bad race and I know what this team is capable. … I finished second here the last two races and I wanted to win here so bad and it’s awesome that I can actually celebrate it with all these race fans.”

The top five was completed by Ross Chastain, Cindric, Harrison Burton and Justin Allgaier.

More: Race results, playoff standings

Allgaier dominated the early portion of the race, leading 126 laps and winning the first two stages. But he lost the lead for good in the pits during the Stage 2 break.

Brandon Brown finished 12th and clinched the 12th and final playoff spot.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

STAGE 2 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ross Chastain led three times for 117 laps, but had to settle for his fifth runner-up finish of the season without a win … Austin Cindric earned his 13th top-10 finish in the last 14 races … Harrison Burton earned his 13th top five of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Brett Moffitt finished 27th after he had to pit three times in the opening laps and was penalized for taking fuel before the competition caution … BJ McLeod finished 34th after he was eliminated in a multi-car wreck that began when he made contact with teammate Jeffrey EarnhardtMichael Annett finished 31st and Joe Graf Jr. placed 27th after they were involved in an incident on Lap 120.

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “I hit pit road and I wanted to cry.” – Ross Chastain after he finished second for the fifth time this year. He is winless entering the playoffs.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Xfinity playoffs open at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 26 on NBCSN.

 

Fans not allowed at Las Vegas races

Fans not allowed
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Spectators will be not be allowed for any of the NASCAR playoff races next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the track announced Friday night.

A press release said only essential personnel will be allowed to attend the Cup, Xfinity and Truck playoff races there.

“To say we’re disappointed that we will conduct the South Point 400 playoff weekend without fans would be a gross understatement,” said Las Vegas Motor Speedway President Chris Powell. “Our staff has been working – many of them remotely – since the February Pennzoil 400 to prepare the speedway for our playoff tripleheader.

“But we must adhere to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s directive that limits gatherings due to COVID-19.  While we disagree with this policy, we have no choice but to oblige.  We certainly regret this situation for the thousands of race fans who won’t be able to attend our NASCAR-weekend events.”

Nevada’s re-opening plan does not permit fans at sporting events, concerts. Groups are limited to 50 or fewer people.

The Las Vegas Raiders announced last month that they would not have fans at any of the team’s home games in its inaugural season there.

The Truck playoff race will be at 9 p.m. ET Sept. 25 on FS1. The Xfinity playoff opener will be at  7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 26 on NBCSN. The Cup playoff race will be 7 p.m. ET Sept. 27 on NBCSN.

Fans holding tickets for those events will be contacted by the speedway ticket services department to discuss credits for future races or refunds.