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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).