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Ryan: What Brian France was trying to say before Daytona 500 … and other stray thoughts

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Imagine this beginning to the drivers meeting at Atlanta Motor Speedway this coming Sunday.

NASCAR chairman Brian France, sporting a cowboy hat, snakeskin boots and a faded pair of Wranglers, strides with purpose to a mic at the front of the room and says something akin to the following:

“OK, boys, I don’t usually talk competition, but this is the last race on this old pavement. You’ve got to be careful and conserve those tires! And don’t come looking to NASCAR if you wear them tires out too much! That’s on you, boys — not Goodyear. Let’s go racin’!”

Wouldn’t that seem slightly odd from France, whose greatest strength as NASCAR czar has been his boardroom comfort with cutting multimillion-dollar (sometimes multibillion-dollar) deals that have provided long-term financial security?

Well, it wasn’t that far from what happened before Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500.

In an address and approach that even France twice admitted was unusual for him, he commandeered the start of the prerace meeting and spent about 90 seconds sternly admonishing Cup drivers for something they hadn’t done yet.

NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell tried to explain what France meant after the race.

“His point today was just the way we have seen the racing play out,” O’Donnell told a small group of reporters. “Drivers are really learning and getting used to the pack, and so his point was we know drivers are going to be aggressive. Don’t come to NASCAR if something were to happen if you attempted to block.”

But had any drivers recently complained to NASCAR about blocking? “No.”

Had he planned to make that statement? “Not sure. You’d have to ask Brian.”

OK, so how to unpack this?

First, it is peculiar to take a stand on scolding drivers who feel aggrieved after blocking, because it virtually never happens.

It’s the drivers who are blocked who get angry and vow retribution. They don’t look for help from NASCAR, though. The justice gets meted out at their own hands, i.e. with a flick of the wheel into someone’s rear fender.

And for the drivers who block and then get dealt vicious payback? They usually provide a sheepish shrug and “I was just trying to do everything I could to win.”

How would it make sense to lobby NASCAR to punish a driver for action that another driver forced them into taking? Well, it doesn’t.

So what were the point of France’s words, which sometimes can be opaque enough to require translation?

It’s hard to ignore the fact that last week was rough as far as the leadership of NASCAR being questioned, and this certainly seemed a visible move by France to dispel the notion he isn’t engaged (as others have intimated in the past).

In the context of Speedweeks’ conclusion, his point also seems to become clearer. Factoring in two red flags, the Xfinity race went well past three hours Saturday because of a vast array of moronic driving, which also was evident during Friday’s truck race.

NASCAR couldn’t afford to have its signature event marred by rampant amateurism, and that almost seemed as if it were the underlying thrust of France’s comments, which might have been taken thusly by some: “This is the biggest race of the year. Don’t screw this up like the young punks the past two days with dumb blocking moves and then whine about it.”

–The debut of stages made pacing a theme for scrutiny, but they had no connection to the biggest problem with elapsed time at Daytona International Speedway: the speed of the track cleanup.

The Xfinity race was marred by two red flags that took more than 45 minutes, and the Daytona 500 was stopped for 17 minutes to tidy the messes left by a relatively benign six-car crash that usually doesn’t cause such a long break.

During his weekly spot on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, O’Donnell said improving the efficiency of track cleanup was the single-most important issue to fix from Speedweeks.

A broken splitter stuck underneath a SAFER barrier was a culprit Saturday and another splitter got stuck Sunday. O’Donnell said it took too long to remove the splitter the second time and also to get the oil off the track. “Anything we can do to speed that process up, we’ll do it.”

From a vantage point in the press box, some of the cleanup problems could be attributed to poor execution with trucks failing to put SpeedyDry down in the right places to absorb the oil (some of which was against the wall, which makes the process difficult on a high-banked track). That required multiple passes to address the mess.

This might necessitate NASCAR rethinking its approach to track cleanup as it did with track drying a few years ago.

The problem with the splitter likely will be reviewed at the NASCAR R&D Center this week. Again, it’s more challenging to remove debris from a barrier at a high-banked track, but it’s worth analyzing if there’s a reason why those pieces detached from cars during wrecks on consecutive days.

There’s been some debate over the merits of Kurt Busch’s win in the Daytona 500 squelching a triumph featuring some of the youthful storylines that seemed promising in the closing laps. NASCAR certainly has been pushing the narratives of Chase Elliott (who was leading until running out of fuel until two laps remaining), Kyle Larson (leading on the last lap when his tank ran dry) and runner-up Ryan Blaney.

That said, the career arc of crew chief Tony Gibson, a local hero born and raised in Daytona Beach, undoubtedly makes Busch’s win a heartwarming one. Affectionately known as “Old Man,” Gibson is one of the truly good-hearted dudes in the NASCAR garage, and his loyalty to his team deservedly was rewarded Sunday.

NASCAR heavily has promoted the next wave of young stars, so it’s hard to see how it would have been displeased with Elliott, Larson or Blaney winning. But officials privately took umbrage at the suggestion that Busch’s win somehow didn’t “save” Sunday’s race … because they believe the race (and its late drama around fuel mileage) stood on its own merits regardless of who won or how many caution flags occurred in the process.

–Was this the weirdest Daytona 500 since the 2011 victory by Trevor Bayne in the rise of tandem racing?

It certainly seemed so. Hard to recall any Cup race in recent memory when so many favorites were eliminated before crunch time.

–Speaking of Bayne, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he heard from some angry competitors in the wake of Daytona. Ditto for 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, who seemed to race as if his job were on the line in the season opener.

–Now that Kurt Busch finally has a restrictor-plate win in his 64th attempt, who are the most talented active drivers without a Daytona 500 win?

The list starts with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. But there’s a significant dropoff to the next group. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson both proved in the past two seasons they are worthy of winning here, but neither has endured the kind of agony and near-misses that made Dale Earnhardt’s quest for a Daytona 500

Keselowski and Kyle Busch seemingly are starting to be tortured by the same demons that plagued Earnhardt for so long … and seemed to follow Tony Stewart for most of his Daytona 500 career.

At least Smoke finally had something to celebrate Sunday after 17 winless shots.

–There were some facets of Monster’s debut as title sponsor (such as a lack of signage and activation at Daytona) that seemed curious. But bringing Rob Gronkowski to the Daytona 500 was a huge coup for the energy drink brand.

Even if you aren’t a fan of the New England Patriots or bro party culture, it still is easy to be amused by the zeal and zest for life incessantly embodied by the man playfully known as “Gronk.”

Gronk attend. NASCAR win.

Race for final Cup playoff spot tightens at Kentucky

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Paul Menard’s 11th-place finish might be easy to overlook but it was one of the noteworthy performances Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Menard’s finish — along with Alex Bowman placing last — allowed Menard to gain 32 points on Bowman in the race for the final playoff spot.

“We are right in the thick of the points stuff, so we can’t afford this,” Bowman said after his crash that left him with a 39th-place finish. “This will hurt us quite a bit.”

The result hurt him but maybe not as much as he feared.

Bowman has 427 points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is next at 418 and Menard has 404.

With seven winners this season and seven races left, at least two of the 16 playoff spots will be determined by points.

If the current domination by Kentucky winner Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch continues, there could be a record number of drivers who make the playoffs by points. The most who made the playoffs via points was five in 2015. That seems likely to fall.

While Menard made up many points on Bowman, it still didn’t make up for all the ground Menard lost to Bowman the previous three races. Bowman finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, Chicagoland and Daytona and gained 51 more points than Menard in those races.

Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky. Stenhouse had contact with Jamie McMurary’s car that led to a tire rub and forced Stenhouse to pit on Lap 23 and then again on Lap 27 under green. Stenhouse fell three laps down. He gained two laps back and finished 26th on what could have been a bigger night for him with Bowman’s misfortune.

“I’m not really sure what happened, but the No. 1 got into us, which cut our left rear tire,” Stenhouse said. “We were able to cut our deficit in the point standings. We will focus on the next seven weekends and getting the No. 17 team in the playoffs.”

While Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky, it didn’t overcome what he had lost the three previous races to the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Bowman had scored 15 more points during that stretch.

With Bowman having problems, it created an opening for drivers further back but Richard Childress Racing teammates managed to make only modest gains.

Newman gained 15 points on Bowman and is 79 points back. Dillon gained 14 points on Bowman and is 65 points back. Both Dillon and Newman had vibrations early in the race and that forced them to pit in the first 31 laps under green. Newman was later penalized for removing equipment from the pit stall.

“We definitely improved our qualifying effort, but ultimately it comes down to where we finished and we still have some work to do,” Newman said. “Our car wasn’t that bad, but getting track position after that first run and a pit road penalty were too tough to overcome.”

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Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant win doesn’t discourage competition

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SPARTA, Kentucky — On a night when Martin Truex Jr. exerted his dominance, led nearly two-thirds of the laps, won both stages and then the race, his competitors left Kentucky Speedway with …

Hope.

Even crew chief Cole Pearn’s eyes bulged at the notion.

Truex’s third victory in the past six events should be a sign that his Furniture Row Racing team is primed to repeat last year’s surge when it won six of the final 19 races on the way to winning the championship.

Truex, who started from the pole Saturday, called the weekend his team’s most complete of the season. About the only thing that didn’t go as plan was when Truex needed to jump from his car as it rolled down the frontstretch banking, shortening his victory celebration in front of the fans.

That Truex had such a dominant performance throughout the weekend should be scary to every team that does not employ Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick.

Yet runner-up Ryan Blaney, while disappointed he didn’t win, could be upbeat about his team’s run. So was teammate Brad Keselowski. And Kyle Larson, who has been one of the toughest foes to the triumvirate of Truex, Busch and Harvick, also could walk away with some good feelings despite a ninth-place finish.

It would be easy to suggest that they’re merely fooling themselves. Truex, Harvick and Busch finished 1-2-3 in the first stage. Truex won the second stage with Busch second and Harvick fourth. Truex’s victory marked the 13th consecutive race either he, Busch or Harvick have won at a 1.5-mile track.

In a sport where the rules are meant to keep the field close, Truex, Harvick and Busch have separated themselves from everyone else.

But Blaney sees the gap closing.

I wouldn’t say we’re frustrated or defeated,” he said. “I mean, I might be a little down just because I wanted to win the race, but you go back and you realize that you’ve made gains and you’ve just got to keep making those.”

Keselowski, who finished third, interjected: “We can see the end of the tunnel, and we’re just 20 yards away. It’s just a matter of getting there, not taking a step back and taking a step forward.”

Of course, those final steps are the most difficult.

Keselowski is heartened based on how far his team has come.

“We’ve been right in that fifth‑ to six‑place range, but I feel like when they drop the green, the leaders just drive away from us, and this week, at least at the start of the race, we were able to run with Martin,” Keselowski said. “ As the race progressed we couldn’t stay with him, but all in all, that’s still as fast as we’ve been on a mile‑and‑a‑half this year, and that’s something commendable for my team.”

The closer one believes they are to the leaders, the more hope grows.

Larson was encouraged that he passed Truex for second with about 90 laps to go before his trackbar failed and his handling went away.

“I felt like I was better than (Harvick),” Larson said of the fifth-place finisher. “I passed (Busch, who placed fourth) a couple of times, passed (Truex) there before that second to last run. I passed him and kind of drove away from him for a few laps until right when our trackbar broke. Like I said, it’s hard to say if I would have had a shot to win. You never know how these races will play out, but I would have loved to have had a shot.”

Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, was buoyed by his driver’s run until the mechanical issue.

“Those guys are fast, so we’ve just got to keep working hard and try to figure out how to get faster and get faster twice as fast as they do because they’re not stopping,” Johnston told NBC Sports. “But I feel like we’ve closed that gap throughout the year.”

The progress these teams have made has gained the attention of Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers.

Harvick won five of the first 12 races but has seen his advantage slip. He finished fourth at Pocono last month but placed behind Truex, Larson and Busch. Harvick was second to Truex at Sonoma and third to Busch and Larson at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago.

Childers told NBC Sports that he’s been “trying to be as safe as we can” with the car since the team was docked 20 points and all seven playoff points for its stage wins and race victory at Las Vegas in March. NASCAR penalized the team because the rear window did not remain rigid throughout that race.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said.

While he said he felt Harvick was faster than Truex most of Saturday night at Kentucky — the key difference was track position — Childers acknowledged that he might have to adjust his thinking on the car’s setup in the coming weeks.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, (Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been.

“The thing I see with (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

If not, others might pass his car. There’s a group that believes they’re coming.

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Even after Kevin Harvick’s first Kentucky top five, team might ‘ramp it back up’

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Kevin Harvick, who entered Saturday’s Quaker Stage 400 with three wins on 1.5-mile tracks this season, placed fifth at a track he admitted is “definitely not my favorite place.”

Harvick, who started third, earned his 14th top five through 19 races and his first at Kentucky in eight starts.

But Harvick failed to lead a lap for the second time this season in seven races at 1.5-mile tracks. Both instances have been since his last points win in May at Kansas Speedway.

“We just never got all the way to the front and on the last run we got too loose and that was our worst run of the night and I hit the wall and that pretty much ended it,” Harvick told NBCSN. “We’ve never dominated here, so I don’t pay much attention to this place.”

Harvick said “it’s hard to make anything happen” at the track passing wise.

Though Harvick has only placed outside the top five once this year at mile-and-a-half tracks (Charlotte, wreck) crew chief Rodney Childers said his team “might have to ramp it back up” with increased performances recently from race-winner Martin Truex Jr, Team Penske and Kyle Larson.

Childers told NBC Sports the No. 4 team has been as “safe as we can with everything right now” in terms of car preparation.

The Stewart-Haas Racing team has been cautious after a 20-point penalty for a failed window brace following its Las Vegas win. The penalty also cost Harvick seven playoff points.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said. “We’re trying to be smart with our racing, but still trying to be competitive and run up front.”

Harvick remains tied with Kyle Busch for wins at five. He’s finished outside of the top 10 just four times.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, the 42 (Kyle Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been. It’s all part of that thing and people figuring it out. The thing I see with the (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build the best stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

Kyle Larson left to ponder what might have been after mechanical failure

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Kyle Larson climbed from his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which was parked on pit road far away from the top five finishers and from victory lane.

A ninth-place result left the top-finishing Chevy driver to wonder what if Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

A trackbar failure dramatically changed the car’s handling late in the race and a car that had run toward the front struggled to finish in the top 10.

“It’s hard to say if I would have had anything to win,” Larson said. “I drove by (winner Martin Truex Jr.) and then right after that we had our trackbar issue there and went plowing tight. Then we had to crutch it with wedge there the last run … (and it was) really tight at the last 25 laps or so. So, yeah, it’s hard to say if I would have won or not, but I would have at least liked to have had the shot.”

Crew chief Chad Johnston said his options were limited when the trackbar failed.

“We know that the trackbar fell to the lowest position it could,” he said. “Why that happened, we’re still trying to figure out. Obviously when it fell, it tightens the car up and then we had to asses the situation if we could have fixed it. I don’t think we could have without losing a lap. So then we just adjusted the car around the trackbar being that low. At that point, we lost too much track position and way too late to overcome it.”

It was part of a challenging race for Larson, who relinquished his 18th starting spot and had to take the opening green flag from the rear of the field. He was penalized for missing driver introductions. Larson was running to the stage when he was called.

“A little miscommunication and was late to intros,” Larson said.

Even with that mishap, he was 18th by the 20th lap and was in the top 10 before the first stage ended. He finsihed eighth in the first stage and fifth in the second stage.

Larson was able to cut through the field at times by using an outside line most didn’t.

“I was surprised how quickly (Turns) 3 and 4 moved up,” Larson said. “I knew it would move up a little bit, and I didn’t know it would move up that far. So, I was happy about that. You could kind of roll a little more speed on exit. Was surprised that the track widened out.  (Turns) 1 and 2 I thought had potential to, but it kind of just stalled out and got too tight.  A lane off the bottom was just a little too tight. But yeah, it was a decent track.”