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.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Forget practice, qualifying, ‘I just like to race’

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In the new normal of NASCAR, there are a lot of things drivers are getting used to.

From health screens when they get to the track to carrying their own helmets and other chores that previously were done by assistants, drivers are adapting.

One thing that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. likes is how, with the exception of one qualifying session for the Coca-Cola 600, that the first four Cup races back since the COVID-19 hiatus have not had practice or qualifying.

Stenhouse, to paraphrase late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, wants to “just race, baby, just race.”

Even though NASCAR’s race-only policy is predicated upon keeping things simple and staying safe in the pandemic, Stenhouse definitely has embraced the mindset of climbing in the car, firing the motor up and slamming on the gas pedal. No warm-ups, no testing different setups, no nothing. He just wants to chase the checkered flag.

“I just like to race, I like to be in the race car,” Stenhouse said in a media teleconference Friday. “Practice and qualifying doesn’t do it for me as much as getting out and competing in the race, as (opposed to being) in the car on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“Really there’s nothing like going out and racing. I enjoy racing as much as possible.”

Stenhouse, who finished fourth in Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, has also enjoyed NASCAR holding two of its first four Cup races back since the coronavirus hiatus in mid-week and prime time.

While that type of schedule makes it difficult and even grueling for crew chiefs and the rest of the team, count Stenhouse as hoping NASCAR moves forward with more mid-week races next season and beyond once coronavirus and the limitations it has placed upon the sport are gone.

“I like the Sunday-Wednesday schedules; I wish we could kind of keep doing that,” he said. “I’ve never been a fan of shortening the season because I just like to race.

“I’m going to try and sprinkle some more dirt races in when I can, if NASCAR lets me (he laughs). For me, I enjoy the racing aspect of it. I love being in the race car as much as possible. Like probably the other crew chiefs said, the guys at the shop definitely have a lot more work as far as getting cars ready week in and week out.

“So, that’s always been probably the biggest question mark of running these mid-week races to catch up our schedule is the toll that it’s taking on the crew guys. But it’s all been well received, they enjoy it and they love us back racing.”

In his first season with JTG-Daugherty Racing, Stenhouse has admittedly struggled. In the first eight races, the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has just two top-five finishes: Thursday night and third at Las Vegas.

Every other finish has been 20th or lower.

But Stenhouse sees light at the end of the tunnel. Ever since NASCAR returned from the pandemic hiatus, Stenhouse has seen improvement within his team that may not necessarily be reflected in the final result, but he definitely likes what he’s seeing from his team and the performance of his race car.

“Looking at the equipment that they have here, the people, the parts and pieces, the Hendrick power, the new Chevy Camaro body – I feel like those are all really good things to put together,” Stenhouse said. “Bringing my crew chief Brian Pattie over, bringing Mike Kelley over, with a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience to work in, they jumped right in. I felt like they’ve been working with these guys for a long time and it’s only been a short amount of time.

“So, I feel like we are definitely capable of running in the top 10. I feel like last night was definitely a night that we hit it right. We had a really good car and I hope we can continue to run top five and contend for wins.

“But I definitely feel like we can run top 10 with everything that we have right here. We have to do that – we have to limit my mistakes, limit the issues that we’ve had and just have good, smooth, solid nights, and I think we can run top-ten.

“I told the boys that we needed a good run going into Bristol, my favorite race track, knowing that I really like the way these cars drive. And if it drives as good at Bristol as it has at these other race tracks, I feel like we’re going to have a shot at a win. I wanted a good solid top-15 run, no issues, no mistakes and it turned out to be way better than that. So, we’re looking forward to hopefully carrying that momentum into Sunday.”

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Starting lineup for Sunday afternoon’s Cup race at Bristol

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Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola will lead the field to the green flag in Sunday’s Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Keselowski will start first and Almirola will start second.

The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., putting all three of Team Penske’s cars in the top five.

The field was determined through a random draw of the following groups:

  • Positions 1-12: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 13-24: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 25-36: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 37-40: Open teams in order of owners points

Click here for the starting lineup.

NASCAR Cup Series at Bristol

Race Time: 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (half-mile oval)

Length: 500 laps, 266.5 miles

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

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: June 1 at Bristol (300 laps, 159.9 miles), 7 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck Series race: June 6 at Atlanta (130 laps, 200.02 miles), 1 p.m. ET on FS1

Chase Elliott ‘Sent it, for Judd’ in Charlotte Cup Series win

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A rollercoaster week for Chase Elliott ended Thursday night with him in Victory Lane for the second time in three days and for the first time this year in the Cup Series.

But Elliott’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the seventh Cup victory of his career, had additional weight for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Not long after the race, Elliott posted a picture on Instagram of him celebrating on the frontstretch. At the bottom of the picture was a drawing of a character saying “send it.”

A sticker of that figure, which is a walrus, is located on the front bumper of Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet.

“Sent it, for Judd,” Elliott wrote in the Instagram post. “This ones for you brother, miss you my friend. That sticker will forever stay on the front of that 9 car, I promise y’all that.”

On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked Elliott on NASCAR America at Home the meaning behind the sticker.

“Judd (Plott) was my best friend since I was a kid, he and I grew up together,” Elliott said. “His mom sang at my parent’s wedding and just my best friend since I can remember. Lost him last fall. That sticker is kind of remembrance of him. He had a tattoo on his leg of that little walrus and that was kind of his little logo.

“So I had a friend make up some stickers last fall after (Judd passed), and I just thought it’d be really cool to carry that moving forward. He was my best friend as long as I can remember and just always supportive and just felt like it’d be special to carry that for the rest of my career and always remember him and he was one of a kind and he was a genuinely good dude.”

The walrus decal and its placement on Elliott’s bumper is similar to one that can be found on the bumper of Jimmie Johnson’s car. It’s dedicated to his friend Blaise Alexander, an ARCA driver who was killed in a crash at Charlotte in 2001, and the 10 people who were killed in a Hendrick Motorsports plane crash in 2004.

The walrus decal isn’t the first time Elliott’s honored his late friend. Last November, he had a tribute to Judd on his nameplate above the driver-side window.

Following Thursday’s race, the Cup Series next competes Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Like the previous four races, it will be a one-day show. Elliott shared his thoughts on how a limited at-track schedule and condensed crew rosters are bringing the No. 9 team together.

“It’s brought an excitement back to it that I haven’t had in a little while, from the standpoint of I feel like I’m short-track racing again,” Elliott said. “I feel like it’s brought our team closer together because different guys on our team are having to do more jobs. Like (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson is) having to come off the box and catch tires during the pitstop. And that’s brought him closer to our pit crew. I’m having a couple more items to do and keep up with than what I had before and I think all that is bringing us closer together. And for me, it’s just been a lot of fun kind of condensing the group and doing more racing and less sitting around.”

The one-day show at Bristol has an added element to it. Without any prior track activity before Sunday’s green flag, the traction compound added to the lower lanes in the turns will be more difficult for drivers to navigate.

Elliott thinks it’s been “overlooked a little bit.”

“(The traction compound) does not like to be run on until it gets run in and those are two things that don’t go good together, right?” Elliott said. “Because it doesn’t have grip and nobody wants to run on it. But we all want it at the same time because we want another option. What I’ve noticed is it seems like it takes the leaders catching lap cars and forcing cars into a position that they don’t want to be in to start to run that stuff in. Until it gets run in, it’s really hard. It’s really slick. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing is just, you know, marrying up all those things, right? Do we have the splitter height, right? How slick is that stuff going to be? How long is it going to take it to come in. And when it does come in how long until it wears out and the top becomes the advantage because it typically does by the end of a race.

“But we typically have a full weekend to practice and qualifying and a Xfinity race. And a lot of times we don’t see that top line come dominant until late in the Cup race on Sunday. So I’m really curious to see how all those things play out.”

Pocono race weekend to be held without fans

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Pocono Raceway officials on Friday announced that all races scheduled for its tentative upcoming race weekend on June 27-28 will be held without fans in the stands.

The track made the decision not to admit fans based upon guidelines issued by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Following the guidance on sporting events in Pennsylvania issued by Governor Tom Wolf, it is with sadness to announce the 2020 NASCAR events at Pocono Raceway will be held without fans in attendance,” the track said in a media release. “This decision, made in coordination with NASCAR and our state officials, was not made lightly.”

All race dates are tentative, per the track statement.

“The exact dates of our 2020 races is being finalized and will be announced by NASCAR at a later date,” the track said in a media release.

NASCAR has not announced confirmed dates on the schedule past the June 21 Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway. However, NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell tweeted this afternoon that NASCAR is “hoping to put out next portion next week – not a full schedule yet though.”

For now, the tentative weekend schedule at Pocono includes the first-ever NASCAR Cup doubleheader with a 130-lap/325-mile race on June 27 and a 140-lap/350-mile race on June 28.

Click here to read the full statement from Pocono Raceway.

Also slated are a 60-lap/150-mile Truck race on June 27, which would precede the first Cup race that weekend, and a 90-lap/225-mile Xfinity Series race on June 28, which would precede the second Cup race.

“Our Raceway family shares in your disappointment and will certainly miss your passion, laughs, cheers, and smiles as the green flag drops in the Pocono Mountains,” the track said.

Ticket holders have the option to either receive a refund or account credit for the value of their tickets, track officials said.