Ryan: Why the outcry over the All-Star Race location now? Many reasons for a tipping point

1 Comment

The debate over moving the All-Star Race reached critical mass this past weekend.

At least a dozen drivers, media pundits and broadcast analysts (including NASCAR on NBC’s Jeff Burton in this compelling column) called on NASCAR to consider leaving Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The points are well-taken: The 1.5-mile track’s smooth surface (high grip plus high speeds = slot cars) magnifies aero-sensitivity at the expense of slam-bang action.

But why did the tidal wave of dissent finally crest this year?

It’s been no secret for many seasons that Charlotte hardly was conducive to holding this event.

Though Kyle Busch took the lead with a nifty pass to begin the final segment, he still led the last 10 laps – the fourth time in five years the winner has managed that feat. Aside from last year’s pass of Kyle Larson by Joey Logano with two laps remaining, the last All-Star Race whose outcome was in doubt after the green flag of the final segment was when Tony Stewart beat Matt Kenseth in 2009.

In 12 All-Star Races since Charlotte was repaved, there have been two lead changes in the final five laps.

Perhaps the cumulative dearth of action from the past decade was why this year became a tipping point. But there also might have been these factors that had many speaking out:

Stage racing: In case you missed it, NASCAR began splitting all of its races into segments in 2017. The enhancements have been a tremendous addition this season (stay tuned for a NASCAR on NBC podcast with Burton this week discussing their impact and origins), but they inadvertently have created another layer of redundancy for the All-Star Race.

It’s analogous to the addition of double-file restarts to points races nearly seven years ago. When two of the main features of the All-Star Race become part and parcel to the everyday routine, it’s worth asking if the approach and format of the event still makes sense.

–Swiftness of change: To its credit, NASCAR has become much more nimble over the past couple of years about 1) trying new ideas; and 2) quickly implementing them. This initially was illustrated in a fast and total reversal of its rules direction (resulting in lower downforce) midway through the 2015 season, and it’s been evident in many ways since then.

And those that don’t work also aren’t kept (good riddance to heat races in Xfinity and the caution clock in trucks), so there seems less tolerance for anything perceived as the slightest drain on NASCAR momentum (undoubtedly, much of this is driven by social media, but that’s a topic for another day). When something doesn’t meet the standards of quality, and the All-Star Race at Charlotte certainly qualifies in recent years, the drumbeat for revamping begins almost immediately.

Tire problem: There’s no getting around the fact that the option tires didn’t deliver as many had hoped. With the race predicated on a primary selling point that didn’t deliver, it naturally stoked a loud reaction.

This also held true with last year’s wacky and hastily assembled format, which actually delivered a decent race. But the much-ballyhooed rules were so impenetrable, they naturally became the focus.

–All-Star existentialism: NASCAR can find solace in having good company in seeking relevance for its all-star extravaganza. The NFL, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball have wrestled with the same philosophical conundrums of events whose purposes have become diluted over the years.

Here is the question that needs to be answered well in advance of next year: What’s the main objective of a NASCAR All-Star Race?

Should it be nonstop action? Showcasing the drivers’ personalities? Highlighting their skills? Saluting the heritage of stock-car racing?

You can say all of the above, but this is a zero-sum game. There needs to be a singular focus.

Answering this question would go a long way toward solving one of NASCAR’s greatest identity crises. In the meantime, here is one certainty about the All-Star Race.

When the 2018 schedule is released Tuesday, expect Charlotte Motor Speedway to remain listed as the host.

For now.

XXX

One consensus positive opinion about this year’s event: Ending it well before everyone’s bedtime on a Saturday night was a good move. Though event sponsor Monster brought many of its athletes, there was a decided reduction of the pomp and circumstance that prolonged past events (e.g., a concert happened after the race instead of before or during the event).

It’s unclear if that was by design, but for the pace of the show (particularly given Saturday’s mediocrity), this was certainly an improvement.

The goal should be ending every All-Star Race by 10 p.m.

XXX

Though a change in venue would be a wise move for the All-Star event, how about switching up the surface, too?

Kyle Larson’s slide job on Jimmie Johnson for second place on the final lap conjured images of Cup cars … on dirt.

If only there were a dirt track that already had been playing host to a NASCAR national series for the past, oh, four seasons.

A dirt track that already is built around segmented races.

A dirt track where aerodynamics matter so little, hitting the wall actually can be an advantage instead of an impediment.

Hmmm.

XXX

Whether it’s Jordan Anderson’s truck at Atlanta or Erik Jones’ Toyota in the All-Star Open, the splitter has become the new scourge of drivers and mechanics everywhere because of its incompatibility with grass on the straightaways and car setups in general.

What is amusing: When the much-maligned Car of Tomorrow was being introduced, the splitter was hailed as the key to its aerodynamic success.

Many of the rules for the COT were written around the splitter. At an October 2005 test of the new model at Atlanta Motor Speedway, much of the work was devoted to finding the “sweet spot” of the splitter and trying to mimic the success NASCAR felt it had in the truck series with splitter designs.

This isn’t a defense of the splitter (an aesthetic blemish that deservedly seems headed for the boneyard) but a reminder the “fix” assuredly won’t be as simple as just removing it. That probably is a good start for Cup cars, though.

XXX

The return of the souvenir haulers at Charlotte Motor Speedway seemed a big hit with longtime fans, per the anecdotal evidence available. But it also highlights another example of the tug of war between keeping the old-guard fan base happy while appealing to Millennials and younger.

There’s a distinct dichotomy in the push to make the races shorter (for the youth with shorter attention spans) while making the race days longer (for those who have grown up spending several hours on the midway before the green flag).

The downsizing of the souvenir truck fleet was sold in part as a way that NASCAR would reduce its carbon footprint, which matters to a younger set that has rallied around environmentally conscious topics. Many of today’s youth also have come of age in the on-demand era of same-day shipping and drone delivery.

While the souvenir haulers might hold some sentimental value and offer a natural gathering place, how many of the fans of tomorrow would prefer to buy at-track retail instead of shopping via online or mobile, where they spend most of their waking hours anyway?

XXX

Speaking of mobile, a good guide for the success of an event these days is how easy it is to follow via social media.

If you kept abreast of the All-Star Race with only a Twitter feed, Saturday night was borderline incomprehensible in 140-character dispatches. That needs to be fixed.

XXX

The ouster of Ford CEO Mark Fields shouldn’t have any impact on NASCAR in the short term. Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing are in long-term deals with the manufacturer.

But the reason for Fields’ exit – Ford’s sluggishness in developing autonomous cars – should be watched by those in NASCAR and the racing industry.

In an environment where electric car maker Tesla recently became worth more than General Motors (becoming the most valuable automaker despite selling about 9.9 million fewer cars), the discussion about the evolution of the street car — and its potential impact on stock-car racing – will remain an important one.

XXX

With an aggregate win total of 173 in Cup, Xfinity and truck, there’s been much talk about Kyle Busch reaching 200 wins across the three national series. Largely unnoticed is that Busch has 48 wins in the Camping World Truck Series, three short on the circuit’s all-time list behind Ron Hornaday Jr. The all-time winner in the Xfinity Series (87 victories) hinted after Friday night’s win at Charlotte that the truck series might be an eventual victory lap.

“I look forward to hopefully being able to pass Ron and be able to set that (mark) a little bit higher,” said Busch, who has titles in Cup (2015) and Xfinity (’09). ”Hopefully, one day when I’m all said and done with the Cup stuff, maybe I’ll run my retirement tour in the truck series and win the championship and get the trifecta.”

Busch takes his share of grief for “stealing” wins from the regulars of the junior circuits. But his commitment to the series (and reinvesting millions through Kyle Busch Motorsports) is around racing and building roots, and the purity of essence should be lauded.

Dustin Long contributed to this report

Kevin Harvick’s rear tire changer sidelined by cancer treatment

Photo: Dustin Long
Leave a comment

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Daniel Smith, rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team, left a hospital Saturday afternoon after surgery this week as part of his cancer treatment.

Smith, who had the planned surgery Thursday, told NBC Sports through a team spokesperson that he should be back in four to six weeks. The Cup playoffs begin in four weeks at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

It was shortly before the Bristol night race last year that doctors discovered Smith had testicular cancer. He spent the day before that race undergoing scans, blood work and other tests to determine if the cancer had spread. Doctors found that the cancer had infected two lymph nodes in his lower abdomen and also saw a spot on his lung that was concerning.

Daniel Smith, rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team, was released from a hospital Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Dustin Long)

Two days after last year’s Bristol night race, Smith had surgery to remove the tumor in his testicle. After a few weeks to heal, he began chemotherapy treatments. Each round consisted of one week in a hospital and two weeks of recovery. He had four rounds (12 weeks) of treatments. Smith returned to the track to watch Harvick compete in the championship race in Miami last year and then was back to changing tires at Daytona in February.

Thursday’s surgery is expected to be the final one Smith needs. Tonight’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is the first he’s missed this season. He stated through a team spokesperson that he walked a mile in the hospital Friday and again on Saturday before his release.

Harvick, who won last weekend at Michigan, starts eighth in tonight’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Matt DiBenedetto focused on winning as he looks for 2020 ride

Leave a comment

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Looking for a ride for next season, Matt DiBenedetto enters tonight’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway focused on one goal.

“I want to win in Cup,” says the driver whose family moved from California to North Carolina when he was a teen to help his racing career, who ran start-and-parks at one time in the Xfinity Series to keep in the sport and who has 13 races left in what is the best ride of his five-year Cup career.

DiBenedetto found out this week that he would not return to Leavine Family Racing after this season. DiBenedetto said that “I don’t want to say I was blindsided” but said he held out hope that “my performance behind the wheel (would) do the talking and hope that that would prevail over everything.”

Instead, business matters prevailed. With Erik Jones near an extension to remain at Joe Gibbs Racing — keeping all four driver spots there filled — Toyota and JGR needed a place to move Christopher Bell from the Xfinity Series to Cup. Leavine Family Racing’s alliance with JGR makes it the natural spot for Bell. While Bell said this week nothing is set, all signs point to him driving the No. 95 car next year.

Despite his disappointment, DiBenedetto remains grateful to Leavine Family Racing for the chance to run the No. 95 this year.

“I want everyone to know, fans especially and social media and stuff, is to be easy on our team and Toyota and (Joe) Gibbs and everything because they’re all still great people and they gave me this opportunity,” he said. 

Still, about a year after DiBenedetto left his ride with Go Fas Racing and unsure of where he’d land, he’s again looking for a ride for the upcoming season.

“I don’t want to retire yet because I’m only 28 years old,” said DiBenedetto, who starts seventh in tonight’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). “Just getting started, but I want to win in the Cup Series. That’s what I’ve said and that’s my goal. I’m here to keep on climbing the ladder, not go backwards.”

As for what he might do next year, he’s not sure.

“I have no irons in the fire per se, yet, but this all just happened just this week,” he said.

One question is if it might be possible for him to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity program — DiBenedetto made his Xfinity debut with JGR in 2009 as a development driver and he will drive the team’s No. 18 Xfinity car in the upcoming race at Road America.

“I don’t think there is that opportunity or as of now, there’s not,” he said. “Not that I’m aware of. I’ve talked to the Toyota folks and stuff and I don’t foresee any opportunities within the camp, I don’t think. Just going to have to really pursue everything, but the main goal is to keep proving myself behind the wheel, which I’ve shown I’m here to win and run up front.”

Maybe something good will happen to him tonight. Bristol is where he scored his first Cup top 10 in 2016, placing sixth for an underfunded BK Racing team. He and his family celebrated that finish on pit road after the race.

Alex Bowman, who also drove for underfunded teams before working his way up to a ride at Hendrick Motorsports, is rooting for DiBenedetto to remain in Cup next season.

“I think he does a really good job in the race car,” Bowman said. “Obviously, he has shown that he continues to deserve (a Cup ride). He’ll land on his feet. Everything happens for a reason. I was pretty bummed when I lost my gig. It all ended up working out for the better.”

Tonight’s Cup race at Bristol: Start time, lineup and more

Getty Images
Leave a comment

With the playoffs looming in a few weeks, the Cup Series returns its short-track roots tonight for a rumble under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The duo of Kurt and Kyle Busch have won the last four races in “Thunder Valley.” Who can claim the Bristol throne from the brothers?

Here’s all the info you need for tonight’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 7:41 p.m. by Johnny Morris, founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops; Richard Childress; Bill Dance, legendary fisherman; Becky Humphries, National Wild Turkey Foundation CEO; Nick Wiley, Director of Conservation Ducks Unlimited; R. Joseph Hamilton, QDMA Founder and Senior Advisor; John Eastman, QDMA Senior Director of Operations. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 7:46 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage opens at 1:30 p.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Driver introductions are at 7 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7:30 p.m. by Ronda Paulson, Founder and Executive Director of Isaiah 177 House. MRO Kids will perform the National Anthem at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the .533-mile short track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with NASCAR America. Countdown to Green begins at 7 p.m. The Performance Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 6:30 p.m and also can be heard on goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts clear skies, a temperature of 86 degrees with no chance of precipitation at the race start time.

LAST TIME: Kurt Busch won this race last year over Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. Kyle Busch won in the spring over Kurt Busch.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup

Results, points after Xfinity race at Bristol

Leave a comment

Tyler Reddick capitalized on Justin Allgaier‘s misfortunes and led the final 11 laps to win Friday’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

It is his fourth win of the season.

The top five was completed by Chase Briscoe, John Hunter Nemechek, Jeremy Clements and Austin Cindric.

Click here for the results.

Points

Reddick keeps his lead in the standings with a 55-point advantage over Christopher Bell.

The top five is completed by Cole Custer (-139 points), Allgaier (-159) and Cindric (-193).

Click here for the point standings.