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.

XXX

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.”

XXX

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.”

XXX

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.”

XXX

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.”

XXX

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.

Alex Bowman to miss Talladega due to concussion-like symptoms

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Alex Bowman will miss Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway after experiencing concussion-like symptoms following his accident last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports stated Thursday afternoon.

Bowman is the second Cup driver to miss a race because of concussion-like symptoms after a crash. Kurt Busch has not returned to racing since he crashed July 23 at Pocono. Busch said this week that he remains “hopeful” he can return this season. Six races remain in the season, including Sunday’s race at Talladega.

Noah Gragson will fill in for Bowman.

Hendrick Motorsports stated that Bowman, who is last in the playoff standings, was evaluated by physicians Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Provided Bowman returns, he likely will need to win the Oct. 9 race at the Charlotte Roval to avoid playoff elimination.

Bowman brought out the caution on Lap 98 of the 334-lap race at Texas when a tire blew and backed into the wall in Turn 4. The car then hit the SAFER barrier with the right side. Bowman continued, finishing the race 29th, five laps behind winner Tyler Reddick.

Drivers have stated that rear impacts have felt worse than they looked with the new car.

From the get-go, everybody could see that this car was way too stiff,” Kevin Harvick said earlier this summer. “When I crashed it (at Auto Club Speedway in practice), I thought the car was destroyed and it barely backed the bumper off. It just felt like somebody hit you with a hammer.”

Christopher Bell said in June that he had a headache after he backed into the wall in the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway in May.

Denny Hamlin said earlier this month he feels better about what NASCAR is looking to do with the car after conversations with series officials.

“I certainly feel that they’re working to help us with the hits on the chassis,” Hamlin aid. “All that stuff does take time. They can’t just knee-jerk reaction and start cutting bars out of the chassis, that’s very irresponsible.

“I think they’re doing things methodically to make sure that the next revision of car that comes out is one that is improved in the areas that we need improving on, but that does take time through design and testing.”

Gragson was to have driven the No. 62 car for Beard Motorsports in Sunday’s Cup race. Justin Allgaier will drive the car with Gragson moving to the No. 48 car.

 

Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.