Long: Confusing All-Star race overshadows dramatic finish

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CONCORD, N.C. — Cars four-wide racing for $1 million. A pass for the lead with two laps left. It was all things the Sprint All-Star Race has lacked in recent years.

Too bad not everyone saw it.

Confusion reigned in the middle of the 113-lap race, leaving competitors, fans and anybody else to wonder what the heck was taking place.

That’s a shame. Few other Sprint Cup races can provide as welcoming an invitation to a casual sports fan than this event, the shortest of the season.

Admittedly, it didn’t help that rain delayed the start by about 45 minutes, pushing it past 10 p.m. ET. Then things got crazy and made it easy for those casual fans to find something else.

“I just know it’s confusing as hell to the causal fan,’’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after finishing third. “The simpler we can make this stuff, the better.’’

Denny Hamlin admits he was worried “when it took about 10 minutes to explain the rules in the drivers meeting that it was going to be a complicated night.’’

There were rules on when drivers had to pit and rules on how many tires they had to change and rules about who could not pit. And there were lug nut checks, a necessary but time-consuming element that added to the delays between segments, making it easier for some to shrug and turn away from this event.

The confusion reached a crescendo when NASCAR penalized leader Matt Kenseth for not pitting before pit road was closed toward the end of the opening 50-lap segment. Even with the penalty, some cars that had pitted for four tires earlier were trapped a lap down to those that stopped later for only two tires as Kenseth had.

“We have, obviously, a format we have never done before,’’ said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. “We worked diligently trying to come up with every scenario and an answer for every scenario that might crop up. We ran into a situation where our race procedure didn’t give us the opportunity for a wave-around and it created a lot of confusion.’’

What resulted was that only 11 of the race’s 20 cars were on the lead lap with 63 laps left.

Not everyone was convinced that they should have been a lap down. Tony Stewart was furious about the situation, saying on his radio at one point: “I feel like this is the biggest … deal they’ve ever pulled.’’

Ryan Newman said on his radio: “EIRI, right? We’re the only people I know that drop their pants around their own ankles and then try to run.”

EIRI = Except in Rare Instances.

That seemed to define this night.

A blind draw was set before the start of the final segment to determine how many cars would have to pit. It could have been nine, 10 or 11 cars. Eleven was chosen. Problem was that there were 13 cars on the lead lap at the time. That left two — Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch — to start on the front row on older tires with 11 cars behind them on new tires. Busch and Johnson had no chance.

The hope with the format was that there would be more cars on the lead lap so there would be more cars that didn’t pit, creating more action.

Still, what happened was exciting as those with new tires searched for anyplace to make a pass.

“For the most part I think Brad (Keselowski)’s idea on the last 13 laps ended up being pretty exciting,’’ Earnhardt said. “That’s what they were looking for. If the fans liked it and enjoyed it, that’s what we’ll do.’’

It’s just that the drivers and NASCAR need to create a simpler format to make it easier for fans to follow and want to watch the entire event. If not, what’s the point?

NASCAR releases Cup rules packages for 2021

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NASCAR announced Thursday its rules package slate for the 2021 Cup Series season, a day after next year’s schedule was unveiled.

For returning tracks to the 36-race schedule, the rules are largely unchanged save for Darlington Raceway.

Cup teams will use the 750 horsepower, low downforce race package at the 1.366-mile track. It’s the package that’s been used this season on road courses and short tracks. Nashville Superspeedway, the 1.333-mile track being added in 2021, will use the same package.

The packages for the other new race tracks – Road America, Circuit of the Americas and the Indy road course – have not been decided on.

“We constantly review the race packages to try to put on the best possible racing for our fans,” John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice Presiden of Innovation and Racing Development said in a media release. “When he brought in the short track / road course package this season, Darlington was not part of it due to its unique size. We’ve been evaluating data from both race packages, as well as feedback from drivers, teams and OEMs and feel that the 750 hp / low downforce package best fits the track.”

Other rule changes include:

  • Teams are restricted to 150 restricted computational fluid dynamics runs per calendar month.
  • Teams must compete in a minimum of 16 points events with a short block sealed engine (up from 13).

Click here for the rule packages for each Cup race in 2021.

Team Penske looks to extend Talladega dominance amid 2020 woes

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If there’s one thing Talladega Superspeedway is known for, it’s chaos.

But for as much chaos as the 2.66-mile track can provide, Talladega has another quality it produces: consistency in Victory Lane.

In the 2010s and up through the June Cup race, the consistency has been produced by Team Penske.

Since May 2012, Penske drivers have won nine of 17 races. Brad Keselowski has four of his five Talladega wins, Joey Logano has three and Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races by .007 seconds.

The other eight races were won by Roush Fenway Racing (two wins), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Front Row Motorsports (one), Chip Ganassi Racing (one), Stewart-Haas Racing (one) and Joe Gibbs Racing (one).

When it comes to races like this weekend’s playoff event (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), one would expect even more chaos and less consistency among winners.

You’d be wrong on the latter.

Penske’s three drivers have combined to win five of the last six Talladega playoff races. The winner of the sixth race was Aric Almirola in the 2018 playoff race.

Last week Keselowski observed how races at superspeedways have “ebbs and flows” with them currently resembling “a MAVTV demo derby just a little faster.”

On Thursday, the 2012 Cup champion credited Team Penske having a “great” driver lineup with its ability to win in a form of racing that’s constantly evolving.

“I think we have the strongest driver lineup in Cup right now,” Keselowski said. “I know that’s probably arguable and it’s completely subjective. That’s played to our favorite tracks like the plate tracks and we’re going to continue to try and leverage it.”

While Blaney has enjoyed recent success at Talladega with his two victories, Keselowski looks to re-establish his winning ways at the track he has five victories, the most among active drivers.

After winning the 2017 playoff race, he has five consecutive finishes of 13th or worse, including two DNFs for wrecks.

“It’s been up and down for me,” Keselowski said. “The last few races have probably been down. Last fall I thought we were going to win the race with two or three (laps) to go. We were making the pass for the lead and the next thing I know we’re all wrecked. It’s a love-hate affair with that track for sure and hopefully we’ll love it. I feel like we’re due for a good finish there.”

Keselowski enters Sunday’s race after miserable outings in the last two playoff races. He finished 34th at Bristol (power steering problems) and 13th at Las Vegas.

Talladega could be the relief Keselowski’s teammates are looking for as well.

Blaney, who was eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16, hasn’t had a top-five finish in the last nine races. Logano, while he has two top fives in the playoffs (third at Darlington and Richmond), hasn’t won since the March race at Phoenix. That was the last race before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Keselowski said “it is a bit strange” that Team Penske can view Talladega as a track where it can turn its season around.

“We haven’t been where we want to be on the mile-and-a-halfs, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “The mile-and-a-halfs and road courses have been a weak spot for us. The superspeedways and short tracks have been a strong spot for us. Thankfully we have the superspeedway this weekend and couple of short tracks coming up in the next round (Martinsville).

“We need to kind of maximize out strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This weekend is certainly looking like a strength for us. We have high expectations.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”