Ryan: Now and Zen, NASCAR stars need to stay focused on the positives (video)

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Hey, you don’t have a confirmed Cup ride for next season?

I know. Isn’t it great?

Uhh, but what about the precipitous decline of a steady seven-figure annual income?

Couldn’t be happier!

OK, but this is the end of your professional life as you’ve known it for at least a decade, right?

Well, I’m thinking of taking up croquet.

Zen, baby.

If you’re a veteran facing an uncertain future in stock-car racing, it’s become the mantra of an unsettling 2017 season.

Danica Patrick used the word to describe her state of mind in a recent story about her contract being up, and she has been preaching it well through social media postings (and on a recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast).

We heard echoes again after Matt Kenseth’s fourth-place finish Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver missed a chance to capture a playoff berth while also failing to outduel the upstart (Erik Jones) who will take his job next season.

Yet Kenseth, the stoic champion whose deadpan wit sorely will be missed if his 18th season on NASCAR’s premier circuit also is his last, was in a lighthearted mood afterward, joking with reporters and poking fun at Jones in a side-by-side news conference that was amusing instead of awkward.

Kenseth seemed to be in a state of … Zen.

“I don’t really have anything to be unhappy about,” he said. “Knock on wood, because things can turn on dime. But my life couldn’t be much better. I’ve never really been in a better place. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. There’s more to life than racing.

“I think everything happens or doesn’t happen for a reason. It will all become clear.”

It dovetailed with the feelings Kenseth had expressed when asked about the future a day earlier (“I’m not worried about it even really 1 percent, to be honest”) and mirrored the sanguine sentiments of peers who are facing similarly indeterminate outlooks.

Whether it’s Patrick, Kenseth, Kasey Kahne or Kurt Busch, several familiar names with disparate backgrounds and personalities have at least two things in common: 1) the lack of a contract for 2018; and 2) a sunny disposition about what is next despite the absence of certitude.

It’s made some media center interviews this year seem as if they are missing only a comfortable couch and the soothing voice of a therapist helping drivers manage the cognitive dissonance of being unwanted by a major Cup team but encouraged by the liberation of free agency.

Aside from underscoring the importance of good mental health, the calm acceptance in the face of the great unknown represent the best (and perhaps only) option for reckoning with the possible career finality.

It’s easy to poke fun at the positive attitudes, but it also is the best outward stance for the hope of remaining gainfully employed in Cup. Kenseth, Patrick, Kahne and Busch have weathered enough as public figures to know the importance of public relations.

Also, things aren’t so bad anyway for those on the cusp of potentially needing work.

Patrick has launched a successful athletic leisure clothing line and released the first Cabernet Sauvignon from her new vineyard and has her first book scheduled for a January release.

Busch is tweeting photos from a happy marriage. Kahne constantly is doting on his 22-month-old son, Tanner. Kenseth is cycling a few hundred miles monthly to peak physical condition (and has three young daughters at home who seem the apple of his eye).

So, life is good regardless of the racing?

Yes. Either way, it’s just about going in circles while trying to keep a smile.

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Though Logan Lucky missed box office expectations for its opening weekend, the Steven Soderbergh vehicle still put NASCAR in the middle of national movie reviews (most of which were overwhelmingly positive) – and without the stigma of being spoofed or worse in past presentations on celluloid.

“NASCAR was really critical to the movie,” Soderbergh, the director of Ocean’s 11, told the audience at the Charlotte premiere a few weeks ago. “We were wanting to do for the Coca-Cola 600 and NASCAR what we did in the first Ocean’s movie for the Bellagio. We wanted to make this seem like this was an event that you would attend and was fun, and I hope we accomplished that.”

Though there were a few fanciful elements (the proximity of West Virginia to Charlotte Motor Speedway, the wacky car owner subplot), Logan Lucky presented a narrow but attractive view of stock-car racing. Talladega Nights is a frequent target for its incessant lampooning, but NASCAR also wasn’t done many favors by the cartoon campiness of Days of Thunder or (the long-forgotten) Steel Chariots.

“I think we’ve learned from maybe our mistakes with other movies and how a nonfan perception of our sport could change from a movie to what we really are,” said Joey Logano, who has a cameo in Logan Lucky. “Talladega Nights is maybe the worst presentation or representative of what we are. I think we’ve learned a lot from that.

“I think Cars is one of the best things that has ever happened to our sport. It’s for kids to watch and really a lot of it makes sense. I just watched Cars 3 the other night and it’s like whoa, this really lines up with a lot of things that go on in our sport. That’s important when we select the movies we’re in; we don’t want to just be in any of them, you have to be aware of the brand of the sport when making these decisions.”

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Last Saturday’s race was the best blend of the old and new at Bristol Motor Speedway, which has taken its lumps since a 2007 reconfiguration of the banking erased the bump and run and a 2012 makeover eliminated the bottom lane.

With the application of traction compound to the bottom lane that essentially lasted for 500 laps (after many predicted it would be gone within 100), the 0.533-mile oval featured the right amount of variation for frequent battles for the lead. While it didn’t have as many of the memorable clashes and contact that have defined vintage races at Bristol, it satisfied Kyle Larson, who was a vocal detractor in March when the track initially attempted to work in a lower line.

“I thought it was awesome,” Larson said Monday at a news conference to announce a new sponsorship. “I really liked how the lane changed a lot, not only throughout the race but throughout the run. It seemed like you could run the middle a couple of laps, get to the bottom, then 25 laps in the run, you could go where you wanted. It seemed like the top would be better a little bit, then you’d get back to the bottom. Then it changed. Each run was a little different. I think the racing is always good, but especially this time, it seemed really fun.”

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Though his winning car at Michigan passed scrutiny at the NASCAR R&D Center, Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet needed four trips through inspection before qualifying at Bristol. After a two-race stretch of multiple run-ins with officials last month, Larson’s team recently had been out of the crosshairs, and car owner Chip Ganassi said Bristol was “a little bit of an anomaly” in its quest to push the limits of the rules without breaking them.

“It’s obviously been a challenge,” Ganassi said Monday. “I think we’ve shown NASCAR that it’s important we communicate with them and they communicate with us on a clear basis about what they want done, and we’re happy to do that.

“We’re working hard. Nobody wants anybody to break rules. We’re not known for that, OK? But any championship team or contender, they know you have to run right up to the edge of the rules. Anybody in racing knows that’s important to be competitive is to run up to the edge of the rules. Don’t go over the line but go up to the edge of the line. I’d hope they respect us for that, and I’m sure they do. And we have to respect what they do as well.”

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It was hard to find flaws in Kyle Busch’s tripleheader sweep, but there were a few, and all were in the pits.

In the Xfinity and Truck series, it was about Busch going too fast, but more troubling was his crew being too slow on Saturday. At least twice, slower pit stops cost Busch the lead, and crew chief Adam Stevens said it wasn’t because of the No. 18 Toyota.

“We just missed a little something,” Stevens said. “One time we had an issue on the front, one time on the back.  I feel like we’re about half a step off there and we’re going to have to clean that up heading into the (playoffs) for sure.”

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With NASCAR considering a way to police the manner in which the order of double-file restarts is determined, it’s raised discussion of the “cone rule” that is in place at many short tracks.

Under the procedure, drivers are allowed to choose the inside or outside lane on restarts, incentivizing the need to gain spots during yellow-flag pit stops (instead of decelerating to gain an even or odd position). A variation, known as “the choose rule,” actually was implemented more than a decade ago in the Summer Shootout series at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It seems a simple fix, but something also rings hollow about applying a minor-league codicil to a major-league entity.

Race for final Cup playoff spot tightens at Kentucky

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Paul Menard’s 11th-place finish might be easy to overlook but it was one of the noteworthy performances Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Menard’s finish — along with Alex Bowman placing last — allowed Menard to gain 32 points on Bowman in the race for the final playoff spot.

“We are right in the thick of the points stuff, so we can’t afford this,” Bowman said after his crash that left him with a 39th-place finish. “This will hurt us quite a bit.”

The result hurt him but maybe not as much as he feared.

Bowman has 427 points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is next at 418 and Menard has 404.

With seven winners this season and seven races left, at least two of the 16 playoff spots will be determined by points.

If the current domination by Kentucky winner Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch continues, there could be a record number of drivers who make the playoffs by points. The most who made the playoffs via points was five in 2015. That seems likely to fall.

While Menard made up many points on Bowman, it still didn’t make up for all the ground Menard lost to Bowman the previous three races. Bowman finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, Chicagoland and Daytona and gained 51 more points than Menard in those races.

Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky. Stenhouse had contact with Jamie McMurary’s car that led to a tire rub and forced Stenhouse to pit on Lap 23 and then again on Lap 27 under green. Stenhouse fell three laps down. He gained two laps back and finished 26th on what could have been a bigger night for him with Bowman’s misfortune.

“I’m not really sure what happened, but the No. 1 got into us, which cut our left rear tire,” Stenhouse said. “We were able to cut our deficit in the point standings. We will focus on the next seven weekends and getting the No. 17 team in the playoffs.”

While Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky, it didn’t overcome what he had lost the three previous races to the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Bowman had scored 15 more points during that stretch.

With Bowman having problems, it created an opening for drivers further back but Richard Childress Racing teammates managed to make only modest gains.

Newman gained 15 points on Bowman and is 79 points back. Dillon gained 14 points on Bowman and is 65 points back. Both Dillon and Newman had vibrations early in the race and that forced them to pit in the first 31 laps under green. Newman was later penalized for removing equipment from the pit stall.

“We definitely improved our qualifying effort, but ultimately it comes down to where we finished and we still have some work to do,” Newman said. “Our car wasn’t that bad, but getting track position after that first run and a pit road penalty were too tough to overcome.”

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Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant win doesn’t discourage competition

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SPARTA, Kentucky — On a night when Martin Truex Jr. exerted his dominance, led nearly two-thirds of the laps, won both stages and then the race, his competitors left Kentucky Speedway with …

Hope.

Even crew chief Cole Pearn’s eyes bulged at the notion.

Truex’s third victory in the past six events should be a sign that his Furniture Row Racing team is primed to repeat last year’s surge when it won six of the final 19 races on the way to winning the championship.

Truex, who started from the pole Saturday, called the weekend his team’s most complete of the season. About the only thing that didn’t go as plan was when Truex needed to jump from his car as it rolled down the frontstretch banking, shortening his victory celebration in front of the fans.

That Truex had such a dominant performance throughout the weekend should be scary to every team that does not employ Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick.

Yet runner-up Ryan Blaney, while disappointed he didn’t win, could be upbeat about his team’s run. So was teammate Brad Keselowski. And Kyle Larson, who has been one of the toughest foes to the triumvirate of Truex, Busch and Harvick, also could walk away with some good feelings despite a ninth-place finish.

It would be easy to suggest that they’re merely fooling themselves. Truex, Harvick and Busch finished 1-2-3 in the first stage. Truex won the second stage with Busch second and Harvick fourth. Truex’s victory marked the 13th consecutive race either he, Busch or Harvick have won at a 1.5-mile track.

In a sport where the rules are meant to keep the field close, Truex, Harvick and Busch have separated themselves from everyone else.

But Blaney sees the gap closing.

I wouldn’t say we’re frustrated or defeated,” he said. “I mean, I might be a little down just because I wanted to win the race, but you go back and you realize that you’ve made gains and you’ve just got to keep making those.”

Keselowski, who finished third, interjected: “We can see the end of the tunnel, and we’re just 20 yards away. It’s just a matter of getting there, not taking a step back and taking a step forward.”

Of course, those final steps are the most difficult.

Keselowski is heartened based on how far his team has come.

“We’ve been right in that fifth‑ to six‑place range, but I feel like when they drop the green, the leaders just drive away from us, and this week, at least at the start of the race, we were able to run with Martin,” Keselowski said. “ As the race progressed we couldn’t stay with him, but all in all, that’s still as fast as we’ve been on a mile‑and‑a‑half this year, and that’s something commendable for my team.”

The closer one believes they are to the leaders, the more hope grows.

Larson was encouraged that he passed Truex for second with about 90 laps to go before his trackbar failed and his handling went away.

“I felt like I was better than (Harvick),” Larson said of the fifth-place finisher. “I passed (Busch, who placed fourth) a couple of times, passed (Truex) there before that second to last run. I passed him and kind of drove away from him for a few laps until right when our trackbar broke. Like I said, it’s hard to say if I would have had a shot to win. You never know how these races will play out, but I would have loved to have had a shot.”

Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, was buoyed by his driver’s run until the mechanical issue.

“Those guys are fast, so we’ve just got to keep working hard and try to figure out how to get faster and get faster twice as fast as they do because they’re not stopping,” Johnston told NBC Sports. “But I feel like we’ve closed that gap throughout the year.”

The progress these teams have made has gained the attention of Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers.

Harvick won five of the first 12 races but has seen his advantage slip. He finished fourth at Pocono last month but placed behind Truex, Larson and Busch. Harvick was second to Truex at Sonoma and third to Busch and Larson at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago.

Childers told NBC Sports that he’s been “trying to be as safe as we can” with the car since the team was docked 20 points and all seven playoff points for its stage wins and race victory at Las Vegas in March. NASCAR penalized the team because the rear window did not remain rigid throughout that race.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said.

While he said he felt Harvick was faster than Truex most of Saturday night at Kentucky — the key difference was track position — Childers acknowledged that he might have to adjust his thinking on the car’s setup in the coming weeks.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, (Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been.

“The thing I see with (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

If not, others might pass his car. There’s a group that believes they’re coming.

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Even after Kevin Harvick’s first Kentucky top five, team might ‘ramp it back up’

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Kevin Harvick, who entered Saturday’s Quaker Stage 400 with three wins on 1.5-mile tracks this season, placed fifth at a track he admitted is “definitely not my favorite place.”

Harvick, who started third, earned his 14th top five through 19 races and his first at Kentucky in eight starts.

But Harvick failed to lead a lap for the second time this season in seven races at 1.5-mile tracks. Both instances have been since his last points win in May at Kansas Speedway.

“We just never got all the way to the front and on the last run we got too loose and that was our worst run of the night and I hit the wall and that pretty much ended it,” Harvick told NBCSN. “We’ve never dominated here, so I don’t pay much attention to this place.”

Harvick said “it’s hard to make anything happen” at the track passing wise.

Though Harvick has only placed outside the top five once this year at mile-and-a-half tracks (Charlotte, wreck) crew chief Rodney Childers said his team “might have to ramp it back up” with increased performances recently from race-winner Martin Truex Jr, Team Penske and Kyle Larson.

Childers told NBC Sports the No. 4 team has been as “safe as we can with everything right now” in terms of car preparation.

The Stewart-Haas Racing team has been cautious after a 20-point penalty for a failed window brace following its Las Vegas win. The penalty also cost Harvick seven playoff points.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said. “We’re trying to be smart with our racing, but still trying to be competitive and run up front.”

Harvick remains tied with Kyle Busch for wins at five. He’s finished outside of the top 10 just four times.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, the 42 (Kyle Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been. It’s all part of that thing and people figuring it out. The thing I see with the (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build the best stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

Kyle Larson left to ponder what might have been after mechanical failure

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Kyle Larson climbed from his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which was parked on pit road far away from the top five finishers and from victory lane.

A ninth-place result left the top-finishing Chevy driver to wonder what if Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

A trackbar failure dramatically changed the car’s handling late in the race and a car that had run toward the front struggled to finish in the top 10.

“It’s hard to say if I would have had anything to win,” Larson said. “I drove by (winner Martin Truex Jr.) and then right after that we had our trackbar issue there and went plowing tight. Then we had to crutch it with wedge there the last run … (and it was) really tight at the last 25 laps or so. So, yeah, it’s hard to say if I would have won or not, but I would have at least liked to have had the shot.”

Crew chief Chad Johnston said his options were limited when the trackbar failed.

“We know that the trackbar fell to the lowest position it could,” he said. “Why that happened, we’re still trying to figure out. Obviously when it fell, it tightens the car up and then we had to asses the situation if we could have fixed it. I don’t think we could have without losing a lap. So then we just adjusted the car around the trackbar being that low. At that point, we lost too much track position and way too late to overcome it.”

It was part of a challenging race for Larson, who relinquished his 18th starting spot and had to take the opening green flag from the rear of the field. He was penalized for missing driver introductions. Larson was running to the stage when he was called.

“A little miscommunication and was late to intros,” Larson said.

Even with that mishap, he was 18th by the 20th lap and was in the top 10 before the first stage ended. He finsihed eighth in the first stage and fifth in the second stage.

Larson was able to cut through the field at times by using an outside line most didn’t.

“I was surprised how quickly (Turns) 3 and 4 moved up,” Larson said. “I knew it would move up a little bit, and I didn’t know it would move up that far. So, I was happy about that. You could kind of roll a little more speed on exit. Was surprised that the track widened out.  (Turns) 1 and 2 I thought had potential to, but it kind of just stalled out and got too tight.  A lane off the bottom was just a little too tight. But yeah, it was a decent track.”