Ryan: The Brickyard’s memorable day left NASCAR with a pleasant dilemma for next season

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Competition executive Steve O’Donnell leaned against a counter in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center last Saturday and plainly answered questions about the closest NASCAR finish in track history.

Why wasn’t he more enthused after the Xfinity Series experiment of using aero ducts and restrictor plates to prevent runaway leaders was received as a smashing success?

“I know there’s a race tomorrow,” O’Donnell said with a smile as if he were amused by reading the thought bubbles above the heads of several reporters surrounding him for fresh quotes.

Each of us was thinking, “There is no possible way the main event will match today’s warmup act.”

Indeed, the Brickyard 400 did leave NASCAR in a bit of quandary about race quality – but it wasn’t the dilemma that anyone would have predicted.

Sunday’s Cup show – with legitimate three-wide racing for the lead, scintillating strategy developments and heart-pounding restarts (that led to some wall-pounding impacts) – was the best race of the weekend.

Quite possibly, it was a candidate for best race of the year, a pronouncement that would have seemed laughable in Indy’s typically follow-the-leader confines for stock cars.

The most indelible moment of the 2017 season was eventual winner Kasey Kahne sandwiched between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski entering the third turn on what should have been the penultimate lap of the race.

If Johnson had managed to hang on to win his record-tying fifth Brickyard with smoke billowing from the expiring engine in his No. 48 Chevrolet, it probably would have been remembered as the defining moment of an illustrious career. Certainly, it would have been the signature highlight of a race whose luster has been maligned by grandstands increasingly vacant since the 2008 tire debacle.

All of this has left NASCAR with a tougher decision than it might have anticipated about the future of the Brickyard.

The overwhelmingly positive reviews Saturday made it seem a foregone conclusion that the same rules would be applied to Cup in 2018.

That still seems the likely course of action (after a confirmation test with the higher-powered Cup cars), but there now is much more to weigh. While cars often were clumped in clusters that were conducive to passing, the Xfinity race didn’t feature the insanity of Sunday’s late restarts (it was more like the slow build of Daytona and Talladega).

Would harnessing the horsepower of the Cup cars diminish the likelihood for such fantastic finishes again?

It’s a critical question because so much hangs in the balance of a race that admittedly faces an uncertain future because of poor attendance and previously lackluster action.

It took 24 editions of the Brickyard 400 to get a finish as memorable as Sunday’s.

And maybe it would take just as long to get another. There were many extenuating circumstances that fostered Sunday’s outcome, namely the two best Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. being eliminated.

While leading 95 of the first 110 laps, Busch and Truex routinely built large gaps on the field. Their simultaneous disappearances turned the final 55 laps into a free-for-all that could have been won by at least a half-dozen drivers.

And then the timing of several caution flags made some strategies suddenly become sublime, putting Trevor Bayne in position to win for the first time in six years (before another yellow) and setting up Kahne to end a 102-race winless streak after two more memorable restart duels with Keselowski (in which the leader lost both times after choosing the outside lane).

The race admittedly could be run another 24 times and fail to produce action as scintillating because of a differing chain of events.

There are some other stats to consider (courtesy of colleague Dustin Long). In the Xfinity race at Indy, six of the 16 lead changes occurred on track under green, and only one was on a restart. In Cup, five of 10 lead changes were on track under green, and three were on restarts.

According to NASCAR loop data, the Xfinity race had a track-record 1,554 green-flag passes, a 66% increase over 2016. There were 29 green-flag passes for the lead (measured between scoring loops and not just the finish line), a massive spike over just two last year.

The optics of switching up the rules in the aftermath of the most memorable Brickyard in more than a decade still will ring a little hollow.

No matter which rules path NASCAR chooses, there’s one overwhelming positive development from the weekend.

The concept of running the road course has been tabled for at least another year (and hopefully for good).

When the circumstances and conditions are right, Sunday reaffirmed the world’s most famous layout should feature only left turns for NASCAR.

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The yellow flag flew roughly 3 to 4 seconds after the last crash in the Brickyard 400 by which time Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski had crossed the overtime line.

Some viewed this as an abomination in which NASCAR deliberately waited for an imaginary plane to be broken before declaring a caution.

This partly would be surmising that a delay of 3 to 4 seconds would constitute an interminable delay for a caution flag in the history of NASCAR officiating. This also would be patently untrue.

Anyone remember the 2007 Daytona 500? The final lap of the Nov. 2012 race at Phoenix International Raceway? The last lap at Watkins Glen International earlier that season?

Here’s a helpful refresher video if you had forgotten:

The delay on Sunday’s final caution wouldn’t rank in the top 20 of slowest triggers in NASCAR yellow-flag history. But an arbitrary line distorted that perception and turned a moot point (the threat of darkness ensured that would be the final restart, regardless of whether the overtime line was crossed) into a misguided crusade for officiating “consistency.”

The only real takeaway from Sunday’s ending is that it’s yet another reason why NASCAR’s overtime policy should be eradicated in full next season.

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As far as long waits Sunday, Erik Jones endured one that received far less immediate attention but hopefully received much more scrutiny in retrospect.

After wrecking with 11 laps remaining in the scheduled distance, Jones had enough time to climb out of this battered Toyota, remove his helmet and sit on the SAFER barrier for a few minutes until safety personnel arrived.

Yes, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch took wicked hits in the same crash and deserved immediate attention, but Jones’ wreck showed response times remain an area of improvement in the first year of NASCAR’s traveling medical team.

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Team Penske’s expansion with Ryan Blaney next year will be the first time the organization fields a third car in eight years, and it follows much deliberation about how to approach the move.

Penske never won a race with a third full-time car in 2004-05 and ’08-10, posting 14 top 10s in 142 starts while finishing no higher than 28th in the points standings with Brendan Gaughan, Travis Kvapil and Sam Hornish Jr.

There was much debate internally since about how and when the team should approach another addition. At least one school of thought advocated for any expansion including at least two cars, a la the Hendrick Motorsports model, because the third car always had seemed isolated and adrift from the team’s twin anchors.

Much has changed organizationally and structurally since 2010, though, and the success of Ryan Blaney at Wood Brothers Racing in the No. 21 the past two seasons as a de-facto third car for Team Penske quelled any concerns about whether it work in house.

“If you look at the history prior to 2010, as an organization in the Cup Series, we were hit-and-miss,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. “I don’t feel like we were a contender every weekend to win races. I think that hurt us when we were trying to bring a driver forward in Sam, where he didn’t really have a lot of stock-car experience.

“I feel like right now it’s an organization where we have things in place, and I think we understand why we win, and I think we understand when we’re not winning why we’re not winning. Before I don’t think we had that in place. We’ve had quite a bit of continuity since then in a lot of places. We’ve grown our crew chiefs all the way through the Xfinity Series into the Cup Series. We’ve grown a lot of our own people, our own processes.

“Nothing is a given, but I think we’re much more well positioned for somebody like Ryan to come in and be successful. I think you see that with the technical partnership we have with the Wood Brothers because we could have never done that and been successful and won a race with a technical partnership back then either.”

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Paul Menard’s move, along with his family’s home improvement chain sponsorship, to Wood Brothers Racing raises some major questions for Richard Childress Racing.

Since 2011, Menards has been a cornerstone of RCR’s budget. As one of the only remaining full-season sponsors in NASCAR’s premier series, its departure leaves an eight-figure hole at RCR that could have major implications for the team’s future. RCR will need to refocus on replacing a major revenue source while shoring up its alliance deals (such as with JTG Daugherty Racing) that also help pay the bills.

Childress’ Wednesday release hinting at plans for a third car is encouraging, but the team’s situation will bear close watching until its 2018 lineup is unveiled.

Rotating the championship race to new tracks? Contenders have ideas

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Sunday’s Ford 400 will end an 18-year run for Homestead-Miami Speedway as the championship finale, which will move to ISM Raceway in 2020.

Should it stay there?

That became an open discussion among the championship round contenders Thursday at Championship Media Day.

Kevin Harvick, who has advocated rotating the finale for the past few years, suggested it again (without prompting) after the title-eligible drivers were asked for their feelings on leaving Miami.

In all honesty, it shouldn’t be in Phoenix (in 2021),” Harvick said. “I think having that championship race is important to new markets, new fans, exposing people to our sport.  It’s important. I think when you look at going to Phoenix, the things that it will bring to that facility, the new fans it will bring to that facility, they’re thriving on that exposure now even before the championship race is there. They will thrive on that notoriety, the things that happen for that championship race next year.”

After a Round of 8 finale at ISM Raceway that was criticized for a lack of passing (as many tracks 1 mile and shorter have been with the 2019 rules package), there were questions raised about the long-term viability of the Phoenix area oval playing host to the championship-deciding race.

But Harvick said the quality of racing shouldn’t be considered among the criteria.

“To me what happens in the race is irrelevant,” the 2014 champion said. “It’s great that we’re going to crown a champion. We all love Homestead. The event and the market and the notoriety, the new things that come to a new market that help carry that racetrack for a number of years to come are important.

“We have to use our championship event to rebuild enthusiasm in markets. I think that will be the first step to doing that.”

The Phoenix market has proved worthy with two consecutive grandstand sellouts, and it also has undergone a $178 million renovation that has been viewed as a major positive.

“Certainly, Phoenix has earned that opportunity with what they’ve done there and the fan support out there has been incredible,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I think the plus about here at Homestead, we only come here once a year. Completely different racetrack than anywhere we go. No other track like it. No other mile‑and‑a‑half true oval. Long straightaways.  A lot of things are different about Homestead. We don’t race here in the spring. I like that fact.

“I don’t know that we should race for a championship somewhere where we raced already in the season, you know? You’re going to have an idea who is going to be good. This weekend is a total crapshoot because we haven’t been here in a year, it’s a new car, new tire, everything is different. You have no idea what to expect. That’s a good thing for the championship.”

Though there have been discussions about shortening the calendar length of the schedule, NASCAR would be limited on its venue options if the finale is kept in the mid-November timeframe it’s occupied for a couple of decades.

Besides Phoenix and Miami, the only other viable choices would seem to be Fontana (near Los Angeles), Las Vegas, Sonoma and Daytona (and the last two would seem unlikely anyway because of their road course and superspeedway designations).

Denny Hamlin vowed that the championship round eventually will return to Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I think the facilities could use updating, which I think they will,” Hamlin said. “This is not the last time the finale will be in Homestead. You can mark that down.”

“Phoenix now gets their time. They spent money on the facility. It’s obviously a huge sports town. They got nearly every professional sport there in that city. It’s just a good market for us. Why not continue to feed that momentum?”

Harvick said he had no overt preference on a location for the 2021 championship other than “it would not go back to Phoenix.That’s just really not the point of moving the championship race around to have it in the same spot consecutive years.

“So you’ve got (Fontana) in that mix. Vegas. Both of those racetracks would be great places to end the schedule.”

Joe Nemechek to break Richard Petty’s starts record tonight

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Veteran NASCAR driver Joe Nemechek is set to break Richard Petty’s all-time starts record in tonight’s Ford EcoBoost 200 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Petty and Nemechek both have 1,185 combined starts in NASCAR’s national series. The man with the colorful nickname of “Front Row Joe,” will pass “The King” as soon as he takes the green flag.

“That just shows, man, I’ve started a lot of races,” Nemechek said with a laugh in a recent interview with NBC Sports. “You don’t think about that as a racer, man. When you get done with one, you’re focused on the next one.”

As recently as two weeks ago, Nemechek wasn’t even aware he was close to breaking Petty’s mark.

“I had no idea about that,” he told NBC Sports.

He tied Petty’s mark by starting last weekend’s Cup race at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

“Getting up there and tying Richard Petty’s all-time start record is pretty cool,” Nemechek said. “To me, Richard Petty is a legend. I was just starting when he was kinda getting done, the first couple years of my career.”

For the record, Petty’s starts all came in NASCAR’s premier series, ending when it was known as the Winston Cup Series. He has 15 additional starts in the old Convertible Series in 1958 and 1959, but those starts are not included in the combined starts mark.

Nemechek, meanwhile, amassed his 1,185 starts with 673 starts in Cup, 444 starts in the Xfinity Series and 68 in the Truck Series.

Once he passes The King, don’t expect the 56-year-old Nemechek to be slowing down any time soon. He plans on putting some distance between himself and Petty.

“I’ve had a great career, I’ve won races, I still enjoy it and there’s a lot of stuff going on in my schedule for next year where people want me to come drive, so we’ll surpass whatever it is,” said Nemechek, who has made a combined 27 starts this season with two more left to go (tonight’s Truck race and Sunday’s Cup season finale).

There is one current driver who is only 35 starts away from reaching 1,185 starts: Cup Championship 4 driver Kevin Harvick has 1,150 starts heading into Sunday’s season finale. Kyle Busch is sixth on the NASCAR all-time combined starts list with 1,035 starts.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

UPDATE: Truck qualifying, Cup and Xfinity practices rained out at Miami

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UPDATE:

Rain continues to be a stubborn thorn in the side of NASCAR at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The final scheduled NASCAR Cup practice session has been cancelled due to rain. That makes four sessions cancelled thus far today: the two Cup practices, the final Xfinity practice and qualifying for tonight’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 championship race.

Cup teams will get nearly one hour of practice Saturday from 2:05 – 2:55 p.m. ET to make up for losing both practices Friday. As a result, there will be no qualifying session for Cup drivers. The starting lineup for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 Cup championship will be set by the NASCAR Rule Book with the four Championship 4 drivers to start at the front of the field.

The Truck Race is still on track to run, with driver introductions scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. ET, and the race itself is slated to begin shortly after 8 p.m. ET.

Track drying efforts continue at the 1.5-mile oval.

We’ll update you as more information becomes available.

ORIGINAL STORY?

Rain punctuated with thunder and lightning has forced NASCAR to cancel three of today’s segments at Homestead-Miami Speedway:

* The NASCAR Cup opening practice, which was scheduled to go from 3:35 – 4:25 p.m. ET.

* The NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series qualifying, which was slated to start at 4:35 p.m. ET.

* The NASCAR Xfinity Series final practice, which was scheduled for 5:35 – 6:25 p.m. ET.

As of 5:15 p.m. ET, the final NASCAR Cup practice session was still slated to run from 6:30 – 7:20 p.m., while the Ford EcoBoost 200 Truck Series championship race is slated to take the green flag shortly after 8 p.m. ET.

Because qualifying was rained out, the Truck Series starting lineup will be determined by owner points. The four Championship 4 drivers will start this way: Stewart Friesen on the pole, Ross Chastain third, defending series champion Brett Moffitt fourth and Matt Crafton will start ninth, according to NASCAR.

According to wunderground.com, the forecast for tonight calls for a temperature of 72 degrees and a 41% chance of rain to continue at the time the Truck race is set to start.

We’ll keep you updated on the conditions as more information becomes available. Please check back.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

‘Disappointed’ Daniel Suarez says he secured ‘millions’ to keep SHR ride

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Daniel Suarez was “disappointed” and “extremely surprised” about losing his ride at Stewart-Haas Racing after his business team apparently delivered “several millions” in sponsorship that the team wanted.

“A lot of people have worked very hard on this team to try to put everything together and unfortunately it wasn’t enough,” Suarez said Friday before Cup practice at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “We needed a few months. We had to find a big amount of money to keep the ride for next year.

“My group of people, friends and a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing went to work and we actually did a pretty good job. We pretty much got the goal but unfortunately part of the money wasn’t on the table at this point. It was going to come a few months later, and it wasn’t enough. It was a little unfortunate. It was a surprise. I was as shocked as you guys are probably right now.”

Suarez said he learned Monday night about SHR’s decision to replace him with Xfinity driver Cole Custer after meeting with the team earlier that day.

In interviews over the past two months, he generally had provided positive updates on his chances of retaining his seat in the No. 41 Ford.

“I am pretty sure that most of you saw me very confident because I knew where we were,” he said. “I was 95 percent sure that we were in. I was extremely surprised. A lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing worked very hard to put everything together. It was disappointing to see that. Tony Stewart was pushing for me so hard. Brett Frood, a lot of people in Stewart-Haas Racing. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out with Haas.”

Team owner Gene Haas created the No. 41 in 2014 for Kurt Busch (mostly without the knowledge of co-owner Tony Stewart, who was hospitalized with a broken leg during much of the decision-making).

“Gene actually controls the 41 car, but we’re all comfortable with the decision,” Stewart said. “I spoke to Gene a lot about it.  We feel like Cole has done a great job this year, and Cole has earned his right to be in the Cup Series next year, with seven wins and running for a championship.  He deserves it. You know, it ultimately is Gene’s decision, but like I said, this is something that as a company we all agreed with and feel like that Cole has earned his right to be in the series and have an opportunity like this.

“We still want to try to figure out how to help Daniel.  I think he deserves to be in the Cup Series. It’s just a matter of how do we fit it all in, and when you’ve got a feeder series and you’ve got your own program to work young drivers up through there, sometimes you get in scenarios like this where you’ve got more drivers than you have cars. ….We wish we could have five cars, but we can’t, so it puts us in this odd position to have to make a change like that. It’s bittersweet.”

Suarez, who is wrapping up his third season in Cup, joined SHR this season after getting dumped last year by Joe Gibbs Racing for Martin Truex Jr. The Monterrey, Mexico, native said he talked with Stewart earlier Friday, but “I don’t know what I am going to do yet.

“This is the position we are in now, but I think good things happen to good people and I am sure good things are going to line up for me,” Suarez said. “Tony is a great guy. In the last six months I have learned that he is a very good friend. In the last week I have been talking to him a lot. He was talking to a lot of people, and he was pushing very hard for me.

“Unfortunately the 41 team, and especially the 41, he doesn’t have a lot that he can do with that car because the 41 is not his car. He pushed. I am sure that he pushed as hard as he could, like a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing did. It just didn’t work out.”

Suarez said his business team had gone from being far short of SHR’s sponsorship requirement six weeks ago to near the number a few weeks ago.

“We were in good shape. It is very hard to just write a check and put it on somebody’s desk,” he said. “It doesn’t work like that. It is impossible. They put the bar very high for me and my group to find money but we did it. But just the timing wasn’t right.””

He also said he wasn’t angry but just felt blindsided by SHR’s decision. The 2016 Xfinity Series champion also met Friday with Ford Performance executive Mark Rushbrook. With the sponsorship, he also could be a candidate at Richard Childress Racing, which had been mentioned as a possibility last year before he landed at SHR.

“Richard is a great guy,” Suarez said. “He is a very honest and straightforward person. I haven’t talked to him in weeks but in years past we have had several conversations but not lately. Right now I really haven’t done a lot. I just wanted to get back on my feet and go racing and try to kick their butt.”

Suarez seemed unsure of whether he would remain in NASCAR, noting he had achieved his goal of winning races and title in the Xfinity Series.. He is ranked a career-best 17th in the points standings with a career-high four top fives heading into the finale and just missed qualifying for the 16-driver playoff field this season.

“Maybe a lot of people don’t believe this, but this wasn’t a problem of results,” Suarez said. “This wasn’t because we didn’t perform. (Teammate) Kevin Harvick is an amazing driver with an amazing team and has been doing an amazing job and that is why he is here today, fighting for a championship.

“But if you think about it, we have been racing along the other two cars very even the whole year even though we were a new team. We have had issues with the pit crew and changed the pit crew around several times this year to improve. That is the sad part for myself, that I have spent a lot of time working with my team to make my team better and changed the pit crew many times and moved people around and the spotter and a couple other things. I felt like we finally got everything clicking better the last month, month-and-a-half to be stronger. Now everything is coming apart.”