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Ryan: A requiem for the bump and run? Delving into the short-track debate gripping NASCAR

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RICHMOND, Va. – When it comes to the ongoing debate about what makes a NASCAR short-track race great, let’s concede the obvious.

The loudest voices on the subject also are those whose should matter least.

“A driver is going to like whatever he’s best at,” Brad Keselowski told a small group of reporters Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “That’s why you can’t ask an active driver, because an active driver is going to tell you if he’s good at running the top, that’s where the race needs to be. If he’s good at running the bottom and with the bump and run, that’s where the race needs to be.

“We always will give the selfish answer. I think it’s probably one of those questions that maybe current drivers shouldn’t answer out of respect to their answers being selfish. In reality, we need the answer that drives the sport and creates the most compelling action. That should be the guiding light before a driver’s preference.”

A two-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway (but none since the 0.533-mile oval was altered in 2012 in an attempt at re-establishing the bottom lane that actually created a preferred high line), Keselowski naturally prefers the low lane and the bump-and-run maneuvers that helped drive the track’s growth to a 160,000-seat colossus.

But many of his peers had opposing views on what defines a great short track. Points leader Kyle Larson doggedly worked in the high line during practice (attempting to negate the VHT applied to force drivers to the bottom) and incessantly lobbied before and after the race that the better Bristol was high and low.

Did he feel vindicated by a race that drew a high favorable rating in one popular online poll?

“I would say more people probably agreed with me by the end of the race,” Larson said. “You still had your older race fans that enjoyed the single-file racing around the bottom, but I know all the drivers enjoy when we can move around and find different lines on the racetrack because at least from our seat — maybe it doesn’t translate to TV as well — the racing is way better that way.

“And I thought Bristol last week was awesome. … There’s no other track on our circuit that has that exciting and intensive racing. I watched the race again last night and I thought it was amazing. Hopefully they don’t try and do anything more to make us go around the bottom because Bristol is awesome.”

OK, but what about the bump and run?

Larson, a longtime dirt racer who admittedly has a different perspective on the “rubbing is racing” philosophy, makes a few good points why it can’t work the same way anymore.

“The pace of our races nowadays have to be way faster than what they were running in the early 2000’s or whenever the best racing at Bristol was,” Larson said. “And, too, our bumpers line up. So, it’s not easy to do the bump and run. People do hit somebody in front of them, and the guy in front of him barely moves. Before the bumpers lined-up, you could get into somebody, pick them up, and move them.

“So, the bump and run is kind of gone away a little bit just the way I think our style of our bodies are, as well as I think we have more grip now days than they probably had back then. … I don’t think you’re going to get all the way back to how they all like it.”

If that truly is the case, then here’s a brief requiem for the bump and run to remember exactly why it’s so beloved … through five moments at Bristol.

2008: Carl Edwards vs. Kyle Busch

2002: Jeff Gordon vs. Rusty Wallace

1999: Dale Earnhardt vs. Terry Labonte

1997: Gordon vs. Wallace

1995: Earnhardt vs. Labonte

That’s the racing that is synonymous with Bristol – a point that NBCSN analyst Jeff Burton eloquently made here. You won’t find many stirring side-by-side battles for a win hailed among the greatest races at Bristol.

And that is what should give anyone pause about proclaiming that Sunday’s race should be the only path forward.

Quick, name the most indelible moment you remember from Martinsville Speedway this season?

The “purists” will point to the battle for the lead between Keselowski and Busch.

But the realists will point to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bumping aside Busch at the end of the race’s second stage as the highlight with the most traction in national media.

It also drew some of the loudest cheers during that race at Martinsville a few weeks ago.

Don’t forget about those voices. As Keselowski notes, they still matter most.

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With the perceived success of Bristol being treated with a VHT-style compound for the second consecutive race, it’s natural to ask whether it should be tried at other tracks – such as Richmond.

When owned by the Sawyer family, RIR actually was treated from 1988-2002 with a sealer that drivers loved, but the surface has remained untouched since a 2004 repave.

With Richmond producing divergent results in recent races – some are wildly competitive, others aren’t – there are mixed feelings on whether the 0.75-mile oval needs some help.

“If you ask the drivers, this is the perfect racetrack,” said Denny Hamlin, a hometown favorite who has attended races here since childhood. “To the fans, sometimes it’s not, because (the cars) do get strung out.

“I think the reason the drivers and teams like it best is because they hit their setup, they can just dominate a race here. It’s not always the best thing for TV, but it’s a good thing for the competitors. So it’s a balance of what’s good for the competitors and what’s good for putting on a fantastic race.

“I don’t know what you can do here. We’ve had races where we were running the wall or running the line and some guy led almost every lap. I don’t know whether spreading out the cars or making them run one line here is the best thing to do.”

Said Larson: “All of us complained a few years ago when it was single file around the bottom the whole time (at Richmond) and then Goodyear brought a great tire back, and now we’re running all over the racetrack, and the drivers and fans seem to like it. I think the racing is good, really good right now, and a lot of fun, too.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s busted oil cooler at Bristol was one of a few mechanical problems that seemed caused by debris on the track – which might indicate a possible downfall with VHT. Does the substance increase the “chunking” by tires and subsequently the likelihood of cars being damaged?

Regardless, it’s left Earnhardt in a precarious points position in his final Cup season. It would seem his best route to the playoffs would be via his first win in 18 months – putting extra emphasis on how next week’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. Earnhardt has six wins (most recently two years ago) on the 2.66-mile oval, which ranks him first among active drivers.

“Daytona seems to be more about the car, Talladega more about the driver and the moves, and (Earnhardt) makes some of the best moves,” Keselowski said. “So I would expect him to be one of the primary guys to beat for sure.”

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Is it May yet?

Because it’s about time for the hagiography around Fernando Alonso’s foray into IndyCar to end and for the journalism to begin.

Getting a two-time world champion committed to the world’s biggest race (as Alonso described it in his own words during an NBCSN interview last Sunday that surely had to deliver a sting for some in Formula One and his team) is undoubtedly a coup. The series justifiably maximized that exposure value during the Spaniard’s visit to Barber Motorsports Park last weekend.

Alonso is signing autographs! Alonso is climbing into Marco Andretti’s car! Alonso is talking to every microphone within shouting range!

All of this was great promotion for IndyCar, which could use the injection of attention as it tries to avert the letdown from following the centennial marking of its signature event.

But can we cool it a tad until he, like, turns an actual lap?

Because the narrative needs to shift gears well before then and explore some significant storylines. For example …

–When was the last time a driver with NO (as in zero!) oval experience before the month of May attempted to run one of the world’s toughest racetracks in an entirely new race car?

Last year’s surprise winner, Alexander Rossi, had several hundred laps around Phoenix International Raceway before the former F1 driver took the Indy plunge. Rubens Barrichello didn’t have that IndyCar oval race experience before his 2014 debut at Indy, but he at least had four races on street and road courses to get acclimated to the vehicle.

Ask Tony Stewart, who repeatedly has said among their biggest apprehensions about attempting the Indy 500 would be the lack of time in an Indy car beforehand. Alonso is in a class of his own, but it certainly is worth pondering if he can overcome others’ concerns about adaptability.

–How does the current pack racing that has become prevalent the last few years at the Brickyard make it more or less difficult for Alonso?

–How will Andretti Autosport manage the balancing act of fielding a competitive car for Alonso with five other entries? (At least one reporter has attempted to pose this question and unfairly been pilloried as a result).

Regardless of the answers to these and other questions, Alonso’s Indy 500 debut will rank among the most highly anticipated in recent racing memory.

It’s fine to celebrate the significance of that … but with a healthy dose of objectivity and perspective, too.

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The impending retirement of Earnhardt in the wake of Jeff Gordon and Stewart has kicked the discussions into hyperdrive about the next wave of superstars (and yes, as the employee of a NASCAR broadcast partner, I will plead guilty to being complicit in driving that conversation – a legitimate one).

While there has been justifiable focus on Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney because of their performance this season, and Daniel Suarez has gotten much attention because he is filling Carl Edwards’ ride, rookie Erik Jones mostly has been lost in the shuffle.

And it seems he might have noticed.

Based on the speed of his No. 77 Toyota the past two days, it isn’t inconceivable that Jones outruns the trio – if not outright win – at Richmond.

Keep in mind that, as we noted on the Michigan Home Track segment NASCAR America this week, Jones, 20, was winning prestigious Late Model races as a 14-year-old.

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There are some obvious candidates for the No. 88 ride, and that’s why William Byron’s noncommittal response was delivered correctly and perfectly Friday. The 19-year-old assuredly will race Cup for Hendrick in the future, but it doesn’t help to do anything but keep it boring when asked to speculate for now.

But there were some other answers from veterans that seemed a little … curious. For example, would Larson like to put to bed the rumors that he could go to Hendrick (which once courted him)?

“Oh, I’d have to talk to (team owner) Chip (Ganassi), I guess, before I came out in public about anything that serious,” he said. “So, I won’t talk about anything like that because I don’t even know if I’m allowed to, or not. I know (teammate) Jamie (McMurray) is very secret about all his stuff. But I don’t know.”

Any interest from Keselowski, who is in a contract year with Team Penske?

“Do I have to have a yes or no? It’s a Hendrick car, which by nature means it’s going to be one of the best cars available for a long period of time,” he said. “But I also would say the car that I’m in is one of the best available. The team I’m with, I have a lot of equity in, so I’m pretty darn happy where I’m at, but I’ve learned in this world to never say no.”

So is he negotiating an extension?

“There’s some stuff going on, but I’m not (going) to mention it in detail,” he said.

Hmmm.

Our take on this? Neither driver is leaving where they are. Larson’s current deal likely keeps him in the No. 42 for at least another three seasons, but Ganassi notoriously is tight-lipped about his contracts, hence his reticence.

Keselowski seems happy at Penske, but he has driven before for Rick Hendrick, who intimated he would like to bring him back in the fold someday as he was exiting to join The Captain.

Even if he is 100 percent committed to staying at Penske, having the leverage to secure the best-paying deal possible (from one of the most business-savvy owners in racing) is a good thing.

Top 10 in Charlotte Xfinity race ‘dream come true’ for Kaz Grala

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CONCORD, N.C. — Darius Grala did what any proud father would do after seeing his son do something “amazing” and “absolutely ridiculous.”

With a large grin plastered across his face, he stood on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s pit road and captured the image of Kaz Grala helping push his No. 61 Ford toward the garage.

In his first Xfinity race for Fury Race Cars, the race car building company his father formed in 2016 and that was making its first NASCAR start, Kaz Grala placed 10th.

“That 10th feels like a win to us. No joke,” Darius Grala told NBC Sports. “It’s not like we didn’t dream of having a top 10 when we loaded up to head to the race track. But I got to tell you, that was a tall order and to deliver on it is nothing short of a dream.”

The dream started with a text message from Darius Grala to crew chief Shane Wilson on May 9, formally beginning the process of putting the No. 61 team together after Kaz Grala learned he would be without his ride at JGL Racing after 10 starts.

MORE: JGL Racing owner diagnosed with liver failure.

Seventeen days later, the 19-year-old rookie earned his best result since placing fourth in the season opener at Daytona. It’s his second top 10 through 11 races.

The team, which includes most of the crew who worked on Kaz Grala’s No. 24 car at JGL Racing through the first 10 races, showed up at Charlotte on Thursday without a backup car.

Without any owner points to guarantee a starting spot, Kaz Grala was cautious in practice and Saturday’s qualifying session, which was threatened by rain. But the track was dry when the time came to qualify and the the No. 61 wound up 16th on the board.

Caution was forgotten with the green flag.

“I was aggressive as much as I could be,” Kaz Grala told media at his car afterward. “Really going for it cause I knew these guys deserved a good run. I didn’t want to be the reason they didn’t get it. I was driving my guts out out there. I think I asked for six different water bottles during that race. I was literally leaving nothing on the table. That’s the way you gotta race in the Xfinity Series. Everybody’s too freaking good to not go all out every single lap. I’m really proud of everybody. I can’t thank everyone enough. This is a dream come true.”

He was 11th when a one hour rain delay occurred with 28 laps to go.

On the restart, he lost a few spots before positioning himself for a top 10 in overtime.

“Each additional lap was an additional opportunity to pick up another position,” Darius Grala said. “On that last (run) though, we gained a couple and lost a couple and pretty much ended up where we were. But that’s OK. Top 10 is literally the best we could have possibly hoped for.”

Now the Xfinity team that didn’t exist nearly three weeks ago gets another chance to overachieve. The series heads to Pocono Raceway for a race that will see the restrictor plate package that was used last year at Indianapolis.

“I don’t know how to feel,” Kaz Grala told NBC Sports. “Pocono was one of my favorite race tracks last year. I love it. But we’ve got this weird aero package next week, which I’ve never driven with. My crew chief and most of my crew only has experience with it once, Indy last year. I don’t think they know much of what to expect and I know I definitely don’t. No expectations for us, we’re going to be learning every lap in practice. Hopefully we can have a run to follow this one up. This one’s going to be tough to follow. That’s a good problem to have.”

 

Results, points after Xfinity race at Charlotte

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Brad Keselowski won the Alsco 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, becoming the first repeat Xfinity winner of the season.

Keselowski won from the pole, beating Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler.

Click here for results.

Points

Elliott Sadler leaves Charlotte with a 38-point lead over Christopher Bell.

Sadler is the only driver to finish in the top 10 all 11 races this season.

The top five is completed by Tyler Reddick (-55), Daniel Hemric (-57) and Cole Custer (-62).

Click here for the standings.

Brad Keselowski wins Xfinity race at Charlotte in overtime finish

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CONCORD, N.C. — Brad Keselowski won the Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in an overtime finish, claiming his second win in as many starts this season.

Keselowski, who started on the pole, led 77 laps and won over Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler.

Keselowski also won at Phoenix. He is the first repeat Xfinity winner this season.

He rebounded from pit penalty on Lap 128 for crew going over the wall too soon.

The overtime finish was setup by a debris caution with two laps left in the original 200-lap distance.

The final 28 laps were ran following a one hour rain delay.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

MORE: Race results and point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Cole Custer started and finished second after also leading 29 laps. It’s his second top five of the season … Ty Dillon placed fourth for his first top five in nine Charlotte starts. It’s also his first top five and top 10 of the season .. Elliott Sadler is the only driver with top 10s in all 11 races this season. Heplaced fifth after battling mechanical issues – including a faulty cooling unit – and a speeding penalty.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: After winning the first two stages, Kyle Busch finished eighth after he spun on a restart with 39 laps to go. He had restarted 10th after pitting and got loose trying to pass Dylan Lupton into Turn 1 … Lupton was then eliminated in a wreck with Ty Majeski on the following restart … Chase Elliott placed 37th after experiencing transmission issues on the Stage 3 restart … Tyler Reddck finished 23rd after begin involved in two wrecks, including one during the overtime restart … Justin Allgaier and Jamie McMurray were eliminated in a wreck with 20 to go.

NOTABLE: Alex Labbe had to be replaced in his No. 36 Chevrolet midway through the race by Josh Williams. He was then taken to a local hospital for an undisclosed reason and was later released and cleared to race. … Kaz Grala placed 10th in his first start for Fury Race Cars, a team co-owned by his father. It’s his best result since placing fourth at Daytona for JGL Racing … Kyle Busch is winless in his last four Xfinity starts, his longest stretch since 2014 (eight races).

POST-RACE INSPECTION: Christopher Bell’s No. 20 Toyota failed post-race height inspection. Tommy Joe Martins had one loose lug nut. Any penalties will be announced next week.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I was just heartbroken whenever I saw that piece of debris fly off those lapped cars.”- Christopher Bell on the debris caution which kept Bell from making a run at Brad Keselowski.

WHAT’S NEXT: Pocono Green 250 at Pocono Raceway at 1 p.m. ET on June 2 on Fox Sports 1.

What’s next for Danica Patrick after the Indy 500? Dreams, downtime and waffles

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Danica Patrick was a 14-year-old growing up in Roscoe, Illinois, she had a firm idea of what she’d be doing 20 years later.

A reporter from her hometown newspaper recently reminded her of that in a recent interview when he brought a prescient artifact from those teenage years – an essay that she crafted as an up and coming go-kart driver about her racing accomplishments.

“I’m breezing through it, and then at the end, it said, ‘I wanted to race Indy cars,” Patrick, 36, said Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I was 14. I told him, ‘See? If this isn’t an example of “Write that shit down,” nothing is.’

“This is manifesting. You have write it down and you have to imagine what you want. So I do that as much as I can.”

Heading into the final start of her career in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, Patrick already seems to have a solid idea of the next 20 years — in part, because of having some glimpses into her post-racing life.

There has been plenty of downtime since her final NASCAR start in the Daytona 500 three months ago. She has taken vacations (including an India trip to meet the Dalai Lama with boyfriend Aaron Rodgers) and created several new routines on her suddenly free from racing weekends.

“I make waffles on Sundays now,” she said. “That’s pretty fun.  In the summer, there’s like farmers market.  I can’t wait for that.  I mean, there’s going to be probably some new stuff that I don’t know yet.

“The one thing that I am definitely looking forward to less of is less stress.  Last weekend was awesome at the end of it all because it went well with qualifying, but I was nervous for 95% of that weekend. That’s uncomfortable.”

But testing her comfort zone is appealing to Patrick, who has spent most of her adult life testing the boundaries of gender norms in her profession. Though the pressure of race weekends might disappear, her incessant quest for challenges probably will remain.

Now that racing is over, Patrick still has a winery, a clothing line, a cookbook and a fitness manual to promote – and more is on the way.

“I just have a habit for pushing myself to uncomfortable spaces, making them comfortable for me,” she said. “At least just making them comfortable enough to be able to manage.

“As an example, I went bungee jumping a long while back, like 10 years.  I’m super scared of heights.  I’m still scared of heights.  But I just like to know that if I want to do something, I am brave enough and confident enough to do it.  That doesn’t mean I’m not still scared.  That doesn’t mean it’s not still something that’s easy to me afterward. I just like to know I can get past the fear if I have to.

“I’m OK with transitioning into other things, finding a little bit of happiness and joy each day, less colorization of emotions. I’m ready for that.”

So what specifically is on tap? Talk shows? Another book?

Patrick demurs when pressed.

“I think I have definitely big dreams and aspirations for myself, for all my companies, for the kind of emotion I want to have on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a good, easy, happy, calm, joyful, exciting, adventurous life.  If I say I want it, there’s a very good chance that’s what I’ll get.”

In the short-term, there’s hosting an ESPN awards show that will keep her busy through July.

And after that, her schedule will free up just as Green Bay Packers training camp begins for Rodgers, the two-time MVP quarterback.

“I’m thinking I’m going to have plenty of time to write a cookbook in Green Bay,” she said.