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Ryan: NASCAR needs to spread the word on rules when it’s about safety

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NASCAR’s sterling safety record – nearly 17 years with no fatalities in its national series – doesn’t receive much credit because safety generally is the focus only when it’s deficient.

Whether it’s the constant addition of SAFER barriers, the improvement of paved runoff areas or the overlooked upgrades to cars and cockpits, the advancements have made drivers less susceptible to injuries than at any point in NASCAR history.

It isn’t necessarily important that the world knows the hows and whys about a stretch of four deaths in nine months from May 2000 through February 2001 being followed by NASCAR’s longest period of unprecedented safety, but it is important that the teams and the industry fully understand the measures that were taken (as well as give input in implementing them).

Which brings us to the news that NASCAR recently made a subtle safety upgrade without fully informing teams how to take advantage of it.

After making a pit stop Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson stopped again outside his box so his front-tire changer could ensure the lug nuts were tight. The No. 48 Chevrolet received no penalty despite receiving service beyond its pit stall, triggering befuddlement from teams that fully expected Johnson’s team to receive a one-lap penalty – the standard penalty for pitting outside the box.

NASCAR officials explained they had been allowing dispensation for teams to fasten lug nuts outside the box if it was discovered they were unsecured upon leaving the box.

Apparently, this change was made after NASCAR returned to enforcing lug nut rules last season (after more than a year of allowing the requirement of five secure lug nuts to lapse). That move ostensibly was made because of safety after a spate of loose wheels raised concerns about putting drivers and fans at risk.

Thus, NASCAR started allowing teams to secure lug nuts outside the box without penalty – in the interest of safety, teams would be encouraged to prevent loose wheels by knowing there would be no punishment from NASCAR for ensuring it.

Curiously, though, hardly anyone seemed to know about this addendum before the incident involving Johnson’s team brought it to light Sunday.

If the goal of modifying a policy is to keep teams safer, it’s incumbent on NASCAR to inform all competitors to know how to take advantage of that. There are many instances in which teams seeking a competitive advantage will get pre-approved by NASCAR for a new part or process to validate its legality. In these cases, it makes sense to treat such information as proprietary and avoid dissemination unless asked.

But it doesn’t apply when the information is germane to reducing hazards.

NASCAR likes to cite safety as a cornerstone of its decision-making and as an explanation for some of its rules and trends, such as the rise in debris cautions.

It also has trumpeted being in a new era of transparency that is driven by greater collaborations with drivers and teams.

Both are noble objectives, and this is one instance in which they clearly intersect.

Safety is sound as the impetus for tweaking a policy, but it’s essential to spread the word far and wide when it happens.

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Johnson said crew chief Chad Knaus was aware the team wouldn’t be penalized because NASCAR officials informed him after a similar incident at New Hampshire Motor Speedway a few weeks ago.

It also happened to Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 team in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway. Hamlin stalled his Toyota while leaving the pits, and the rear-tire changer ensured the lugs were tight with the car’s nose over the edge of the box.

Asked about that incident this week, Hamlin couldn’t recall it – which reinforces the need for NASCAR to communicate with teams about the changes.

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While Martin Truex Jr.’s win at Charlotte guaranteed the No. 78 Toyota’s advancement to the Round of 8, it also meant at least another month of itching for crew chief Cole Pearn.

The Canadian, who grew up a fan of hockey and racing, got his team to buy into the playoff beard, a tradition popular among NHL teams in the postseason.

Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn are wearing their playoff beards. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“We all made a deal that we’d grow them this year,” Pearn told NBC Sports after the Charlotte victory. “If you shave, you’ve got to shave your eyebrows at the same time. It’s good incentive to keep it on even though I can’t stand it.

“When it comes down to playoff time, it’s all about growing it as patchy and ugly as it can possibly be and not touching it and letting it ride.”

Truex, who is accustomed to having facial hair, said it’s been a good morale builder for the team because “it’s fun for all the guys to get in something together. ‘Hey, we’re all going to do playoff beards.’ Right on. It shows your commitment.

“It’s been fun, but I’m just surprised by how much gray is in Cole’s beard.”

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A NASCAR delegation (including Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell) was in China this week, naturally prompting speculation as to why. The Sports Business Journal reported the group was at the opening of a road course near the port city of Ningbo.

The circuit is part of an initiative to build five tracks in the country by a subsidiary of Chinese automaker Geely Automotive, which owns Volvo. A Geely company also bought the track formerly known as Miller Motorsports Park in Utah two years ago.

Though NASCAR frequently has turned down offers to sanction one-off events for its national series around the world (including as many as 20 groups from China, according to O’Donnell in a 2013 interview), it is interested in establishing series (similar to Europe, Mexico and Canada) that build a pipeline to funnel drivers to the United States. Daniel Suarez is the best example of a success story.

While Brazil and Japan had been higher on NASCAR’s radar in establishing a grass-roots stock-car presence, Geely’s racetrack expansion in China might provide an avenue for a new series there.

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It’s naturally overlooked because he isn’t in the playoffs, but the second half of Daniel Suarez’s rookie Cup season has been impressive: eight top 10s in 12 races.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who finished sixth at Charlotte, has shown a proclivity for a fast learning curve. In his 2015 rookie campaign in the Xfinity Series, 12 of his 18 top 10s also came in the second half of the season. He followed that with a championship last year.

Given the strength of JGR and Toyota, it isn’t unreasonable to expect Suarez to be a playoff contender in 2018.

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NASCAR’s rules enforcement has been one of the overarching themes of the 2017 season. Analyst Jeff Burton was the guest on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast to explain why teams ask for more oversight but often struggle to comply with it.

“Perhaps NASCAR’s most important job is keeping the sport honest,” Burton said. “Because whether you like it or not, when competition is involved, the competitors’ integrity isn’t there. It just isn’t. It’s ‘we’re going to win at all costs.’

“Remember the football debacle with Tom Brady and the air pressure? They have a ball. We have thousands of parts. … You have to police the car, the people and the race. It’s completely different, and it’s way more complicated. When you don’t police it in really tight way, things get way out of control.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here.

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New Hampshire to add traction compound to racing surface

Photo: Dustin Long
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New Hampshire Motor Speedway officials will add the PJ1 traction compound to the racing surface before this weekend’s racing, a track spokesperson confirmed to NBC Sports.

Track officials are scheduled to put the traction compound on the track today and are expected to do so again Saturday and Sunday, pending NASCAR approval. The track reapplied the traction compound the morning of last July’s race.

The traction compound is to be applied to the first groove (lowest groove) and third grove (just outside the main groove) in all four corners. A track spokesperson said the traction compound would be applied on the 12 feet at the bottom of the track from the yellow line on up. Then there will be a 12-foot section that will not be applied (the main groove) and the traction compound is to be applied on another 12 feet above the main grove

The track used the PJ1 compound for both Cup weekends last year to help enhance the passing.

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Weekend schedule for Cup, Xfinity at New Hampshire

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The NASCAR Cup and Xfinity teams will make their lone visit of the year to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend. Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch combined to win 14 of the first 19 races. Will their dominance continue? In Xfinity, there have been six different winners in the last seven races. Will that streak continue.

Here’s a look at the track schedule for the weekend:

(ALL TIMES ARE EASTERN)

FRIDAY, JULY 20

8:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. — Cup garage open

10 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Xfinity garage open

Noon – 12:50 p.m. — Cup practice (NBCSN)

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

4:45 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (NBCSN, Performance Racing Network)

SATURDAY, JULY 21

7 a.m. — Xfinity garage opens

8:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. — Cup garage open

10:05 – 10:55 a.m. — Cup practice (CNBC)

11:05 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (CNBC)

12:35 – 1:25 p.m. — Final Cup practice (NBCSN)

1:30 p.m. — Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting

3:30 p.m. — Xfinity driver introductions

4 p.m. — Lakes Region 200 Xfinity race; 200 laps/211.6 miles (NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

SUNDAY, JULY 22

8:30 a.m. — Cup garage opens

Noon — Cup driver/crew chief meeting

1:20 p.m. — Cup driver introductions

2 p.m. — Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 Cup race; 301 laps/318.46 miles (NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch believes Martin Truex Jr. is his biggest competition

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Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have been so strong in 2018 that many believe the championship will come down to them – and only them.

Busch has five wins, Harvick matches him with five and Truex earned his fourth win last week on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway.

Who is Busch’s greatest competition? Busch does not think the other five-time winner will be the driver to beat. Instead, he picked Truex as the top contender at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Wednesday’s NASCAR America.

“If you had to choose just one, I’d have to say Martin,” Busch said. “Just with the successes that they’ve had on mile-and-a-halves. Even though Harvick’s been just as good at mile-and-halves.”

Last year, Truex dominated the 1.5-milers – including a win in the final race that crowned him champion.

“Overall, the 78’s just so strong and they certainly know how to turn up the wick when it matters most,“ Busch said.

Busch is not ready to concede the title to Truex, however.

“I think you’ve seen the 78’s dominance of last year toned back,” he said. “They’re third, they’re fourth, they’re fifth – they’re still competitive, They’re still right there, but they’re not nine seconds out front. So I think the field has been closed up. … But they still have that little bit of edge when they need it.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter.

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch would have accepted Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s call on Friday

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If Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had called Kyle Busch as late as Friday morning before the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, none of last week’s verbal conflict between the two would have happened.

At least that is Busch’s opinion of the situation.

“If he would have made the call: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – even Friday morning still counts,” Busch said. “He could have talked about how I hurt his feeling for the things I said over the radio when I blasted him because I was mad over knocking a wall down.

“He could have said, ‘Hey man I’m sorry I got into you – you know I pushed up,’ or whatever happened … and ‘Hey, by the way, those things that you said after the crash were pretty rough.’ And I would have been, like ‘Ricky, you’re totally right. That was over the top.’

Then, when the question was posed about whether they the two had talked, the answer would have been “yeah, we’re all fine.”

And that would have been the end of the story.

“I learned, after making that mistake a few times that it’s just easier to make the call,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “Sometimes you don’t even think you’re in the wrong. … But it’s just easier to go ahead and make the call, because that guy’s annoyed. It goes into the next week – and then, like (happened with) you guys, y’all had it play out in front of everybody at Kentucky.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter.