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

1 Comment

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 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.

XXX

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.

XXX

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.

XXX

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.”

XXX

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.

Ryan: NASCAR’s stunning decision on drafting package sends some conflicting messages

Leave a comment

It’s coming to save the Brickyard 400 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway!

It’s coming to solve the strung-out, single-file conundrum at 1.5-mile speedways!

It’s coming to strengthen the underdog teams and give them a better chance at winning!

Actually, it’s not coming at all (at least not this season).

Huh?

That was the feeling for many Thursday morning when NASCAR punted the All-Star Race aero and horsepower rules (or “drafting package”) – after a month of incessant hints and indications that it would be used at least twice more during the regular season (at Michigan International Speedway and Indy).

Track owners supported it. NASCAR officials supported it. Even some team owners supported it.

Drivers were less supportive.

The pushback from some high-profile stars isn’t what killed the drafting package, though.

This was a startling and abrupt about-face because NASCAR couldn’t secure the necessary buy-in from team owners, who essentially have veto power on major competition decisions such as this one because of the charter system implemented in 2016.

NASCAR chief racing development officer and senior vice president of competition Steve O’Donnell said the critically acclaimed All-Star Race proved the drafting package was “something that could work … but in the end, we all felt like the best thing to do was to put some additional effort into some potential tweaks and focus on 2019 vs. a race or two this season.”

A NASCAR.com story described the hopes of using the drafting package again as a “Herculean undertaking” and “one that could have resulted in a rushed output.”

Actually, rushing has produced some decent results before.

NASCAR announced a lower-downforce rules package barely a month ahead of a July 11, 2015 race at Kentucky Speedway, and the race was wildly successful.

This was less about a time crunch and more about cash flow.

Teams always can adapt to the rules in front of them. But the best also will adapt by busting their budgets to optimize their cars, and that prompts a difficult question.

Are the changes worth it?

Even if the quality of racing (which is mostly subjective) improves, the majority of teams didn’t view the drafting package as a valid investment, particularly if attendance remains flat (and if more tickets are sold, the tracks still reap the rewards).

Millions were spent developing and optimizing competitive cars for a new inspection system this season.

Is it fair to say “too bad about all that R&D work” and change on the fly?

There also is an eye-of-the-beholder argument. Though Kevin Harvick won the All-Star Race and Kyle Busch led 19 laps and contended, would Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing approve a change to the rules that have allowed their champion drivers to dominate the 2018 season?

And as shown by the low-downforce package, whose luster faded after that smashing debut at Kentucky, the teams with the deepest pockets will burn money in wind tunnels to figure out the package and undermine its efficacy without compunction.

Privately, many team owners are tired of “fixing” the racing and want a greater emphasis on marketing and promoting NASCAR rather than trying to retrofit the competition (which has seemed a mostly pyrrhic exercise for the past decade).

So, is there any common ground?

Well …

“Everyone is aligned on doing what’s best for the fans,” O’Donnell said.

That might be true, but there’s an obvious lack of alignment on how to achieve what’s best for the fans.

For all the platitudes tossed around about the spirit of collaboration and cooperation with councils and committees of drivers, manufacturers and team owners, it’s clear the NASCAR industry isn’t on the same page with some critical topics – namely, on the usage of the drafting package.

Mixed messages aren’t new in NASCAR, a sanctioning body that once leaned on its stars to speak their minds while also fining them for having opinions.

But mixed messages color every part of the decision on the drafting package, which had become a daily topic of uplifting SiriusXM satellite radio discussion for gleeful fans.

–NASCAR spent the better part of the past month mulling the new rules — presumably because it wanted to upgrade its racing … but now it also will claim (according to O’Donnell in the NASCAR.com story) that “we’re really happy with the racing on track.”

–After the juxtaposition at 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway of the drafting package at the All-Star Race (38 green-flag lead changes, up from zero last season) with the current rules a week later at the Coca-Cola 600 (which had single-digit lead changes for the second time in three years ), the latter package now will be used at two 1.5-mile tracks in the next three weeks.

–The Cup Series racing at Indianapolis, the track whose action is most frequently identified as needing major improvements, will remain the same for a Sept. 16 regular-season finale that might feature a record number of playoff spots up for grabs on points. A day earlier, the Xfinity Series race at the Brickyard will feature the same drafting package that was a hit last year on the 2.5-mile oval infamous for monotonous stock-car races with a lack of passing.

Does that seem hard to reconcile? That’s the problem with mixed messages.

The most consistent message delivered Thursday?

Say hello to the status quo for the rest of the 2018 season.

Maybe the news wasn’t so surprising after all.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Cup not using All-Star package again in 2018

NBC Sports
Leave a comment

Today’s NASCAR America airs from 5-5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and leads into the debut episode of the Dale Jr Download at 5:30 p.m. ET.

Carolyn Manno hosts today’s NASCAR America from Stamford, Connecticut, and is joined by Steve Letarte from Burton’s Garage.

On today’s show:

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Sonoma in last three years

Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The last nine races at Sonoma have been won by a different driver each time. Only one driver enters the weekend with back-to-back top-fives on this track and three others have consecutive top 10s. Given the importance of strategy and track position, repeating at this track is incredibly difficult.

Those stats should predict a fresh face in Victory Lane, right?

Unfortunately a brief glance at the drivers with the best average finishes over the past three years reveals that the two dominators of 2018 – Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – head up the list. If a fantasy player thought this was going to be a good week to vary their NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster, it’s time to rethink that position.

There are a couple of surprises among recent top performers, but the cream tends to rise to the top of NASCAR events. Anchor this week’s team with solid marquee drivers and use dark horses as a way to differentiate those selections from the competition.

1. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 3.67)
Harvick won last year’s edition of this race, but it is not the first time he has run well at Sonoma. He finished fourth in 2015 and was sixth the following year. Making those runs even more impressive is the fact that he has started outside the top 10 in each event and had to drive his way through the field.

2. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 4.33)
Along with Harvick, Busch is the only other driver with a current three-race streak of top 10s at Sonoma. He won there in 2015, followed by a seventh and fifth in his last two outings. He may be a better value than Harvick this week, however, because he has an equally impressive record at Watkins Glen International with a second in 2015, a sixth in 2016 and a seventh last year.

3. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 6.33)
It has been three years since Busch scored a top five at Sonoma, but what he lacks in raw power is made up for in consistency. In his last seven attempts on this track, he has finished outside the top 10 only once and that was a 12th in 2014. He won on this track in 2011 and finished second in 2015.

4. Joey Logano (three-year average: 6.67)
It appeared Logano had found the handle on this track. He scored his first top five in 2015 when he crossed under the checkers fifth. That was followed by a third in 2016. Last year was difficult for the driver of the No. 22; he qualified poorly in 18th and managed to climb only to 12th at the checkers.

5. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 8.00)
Sometimes a switch seems to flip for a driver on a given track. That is what happened to Hamlin in 2016 when he was on his way to Victory Lane before contact from Tony Stewart in the final corner. He hung on to finish second – snapping a six-race streak of results outside the top 15 – and backed that up with a fourth last year.

6. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 10.67)
Newman’s consistency has aided in his making the top 10 list a few times this year and the same is true at Sonoma. Without a top five to his credit in the past five years, he has swept the top 15. That makes him a good utilitarian pick. He will probably not score maximum points, but is also unlikely to lose a lot at Sonoma.

6. Jimmie Johnson (three-year average: 10.67)
There are so many different things that can go wrong on a road course and Johnson has had too many disappointments in 2018 to make him a fantasy favorite. Sonoma and Watkins Glen reward skill behind the wheel over raw horsepower and handling, however, so there is still a chance that he could earn a top five if the team is mistake-free.

8. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 12.33)
Keselowski makes the top-10 list despite having a 19th-place finish in his three-year average. That indicates just how difficult it is to sustain momentum on road courses given the various strategies that play out in a given race. The good news for Keselowski fans is that he finally earned his first career top five in eight starts last year with a third.

9. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 12.67)
McMurray has been consistent recently at Sonoma, but that is a fairly new trait. In his first 12 starts on this track, he had two top fives and no other top 10s. His average finish before 2015 was 16.7 despite finishing fourth in the 2014 race. He was 11th in 2015, 17th in 2016, and 10th last year – so he could be a good value if he practices and qualifies well this weekend.

10. Paul Menard (three-year average: 13.33)
Some of Menard’s earliest racing experience came in the Trans-Am series and that seems to have stuck with him. While he barely makes the top-10 list this week, he is perhaps the most consistent driver in recent years with four results of 11th through 16th in the last five races. Now that Team Penske is supporting his effort with the Wood Brothers, he should easily contend for a top 10.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: This is a good week to go out on a limb where the pole sitter is concerned. McMurray has won two of the last five poles on this track, while his teammate Kyle Larson took the top spot last year. Two JTG-Daugherty Racing drivers also have recent poles with Marcos Ambrose securing one in 2012 and AJ Allmendinger leading the field to green in 2015.

Segment Winners: There is absolutely no way to determine who is going to take the segment wins this week because it will all come down to strategy at the close of each stage. Since Harvick and Kyle Busch have scored the most segment wins, however, you may as well keep riding that momentum.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Dale Jr. Download debuts today at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Dale Jr Download podcast with Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes to TV beginning today. The show debuts at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, following NASCAR America.

“Dale Jr. Download” will air every Thursday the rest of the season after NASCAR America.

The 30-minute show will provide a condensed version of the Dirty Mo Radio podcast that is found online and features Earnhardt, NBC Sports’ newest NASCAR analyst, with Mike Davis and Matthew Dillner.

“Our approach with the TV show will be no different than our approach with the podcast – buddies hanging out, talking racing, sharing life stories, and telling jokes that may or may not be funny only to us,” Earnhardt said. “I’m having a lot of fun with the podcast, and we are excited to be bringing it to TV. If we have a guest join us, it’s only because they’re relevant to whatever has my attention that week. It could be a NASCAR driver, or it could be my plumber – depends on who’s more important to me that week. The Download is as transparent as I can be when it comes to my life and thoughts.”