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Ryan: Are Cup teams still working through the stages of calling a race?

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Nearly a full season into baking stage points into their strategies, have teams in NASCAR’s premier series fully grasped the concept of races with segments?

That was a worthy question at the end of Sunday’s second stage at Talladega Superspeedway.

The segment ended with none of the playoff contenders choosing to stop and avoid pitting during the caution before the final stage.

Brendan Gaughan’s team took the lead under that yellow before the restart for the last stage because his team did pit with three laps remaining in the second stage (the last lap before the pits were closed).

Why didn’t other teams join Gaughan’s, particularly those outside the top 10 that wouldn’t earn stage points and seemingly had no incentive for staying in position on track?

It seems a bit of a mystery.

Per their radio chatter (that was played during the NBC broadcast), Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team considered pitting but decided against it because of concerns about lacking a drafting partner – which seemed curious given there would have been only a lap and a half under green on a 2.66-mile oval whose size makes it virtually impossible to be lapped in that time.

Perhaps there were concerns about how the race’s second half would unfold without more cars on precisely the same strategy – but Gaughan still pitted with a pack of cars under green on his final stop (and still finished 19th after being caught in the 17-car crash on Lap 172).

In a 500-mile race that featured seven crashes, each involving at least four cars (and many in the middle of the pack), it would seem natural to want to stay ahead of the mayhem – yet about two dozen cars passed on that opportunity at Talladega.

Were they in a stage of denial? Or was it merely tactical inexperience?

Scenarios such as Sunday’s, coupled with Martin Truex Jr.’s runaway lead in stage victories and playoff points, make it intriguing to monitor next season if there will be a revamping in the approach to calling a race – or a restructuring in how those decisions are determined atop the pit box.

Maybe stages necessitate dedicated strategists similar to the roles that are found in IndyCar.

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Aesthetically, Talladega didn’t have much to offer with only 14 cars running at the finish and three red flags that consumed more than 30 minutes and ensured well more than four hours elapsed between the green and checkered flag.

But there was something the race didn’t have: airborne cars.

Thus a race that did feature a last-lap lead change (by the best restrictor-plate driver in Cup) largely escaped an avalanche of the criticism that followed the May 1, 2016 event that included three cars flying off the Talladega asphalt. In fact, it was viewed in at least one fan corner as one of the best 2017 had to offer.

What determines a good race is always arbitrary, but at Talladega, the predictability of the races (large wrecks, tight packs, myriad lead changes) seems to lessen the degree of subjectivity – particularly when one of the track’s largest crowds in years gleefully has a feel-good story to cheer.

Favorite son Dale Earnhardt Jr. led his final start there and avoided the wrecks that wiped out most of the field but didn’t lift anyone’s wheels off the ground.

At Talladega, that’s enough to look good … even with a garage full of cars that looked ugly.

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While the three red flags (all in the final 15 laps) drew much of the attention, it was the caution flags at Talladega that were a real cause for concern.

A 10-lap caution for a five-car crash on Lap 26 was the longest yellow flag in 15 years at Talladega. The last time a caution took so long was for a 24-car pileup that required an 11-lap cleanup in the April 21, 2002 race.

The length of Sunday’s first caution was necessitated by a tracklong oil slick left by the No. 77 Toyota of Erik Jones (who was chastised by NASCAR for staying in the groove instead of pulling down on the apron while returning to the pits). There also was a six-lap caution to clear backstretch debris – twice as long as the yellow to clear a six-car wreck on Lap 156.

It reinforced a seasonlong theme of dawdling yellows that dates to Speedweeks. NASCAR chief racing development officer and senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said the efficiency of track cleanup was a major priority after a spate of lengthy yellow and red flags to remove debris and oil at Daytona International Speedway.

The banking at Daytona and Talladega make it more difficult to apply the SpeedyDry that absorbs the oil, but it would seem the process also could be improved to shorten the time for yellows. Just as it did with track drying (and the introduction of the Air Titan system), NASCAR needs to rethink its methods of track cleanup and update some antiquated techniques.

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Tony Gibson is the guest on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast, discussing his future as a crew chief and his past with the championship teams of Alan Kulwicki and Jeff Gordon.

The crew chief for Kurt Busch had a memorable story from the Rainbow Warriors days before a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when the team pushed the No. 24 Chevrolet on the grid – to immense negativity from the crowd.

“They were booing, calling us cheaters and everything in the book,” said Gibson, who was the car chief on the team. “We’re standing around the car, and Jeff’s like, ‘Look up in those grandstands.’ And people had these big white T-shirts with a 24 and a circle and line through them. He said, ‘You see all those T-shirts up there? Those people don’t realize it, but I own the company that made those shirts.’

“We just thought that was the funniest thing.”

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.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

Race results, Truck Series point standings after Gateway

Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images
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Justin Haley survived two late-race restarts to win his first career Camping World Truck Series race in the Eaton 200 at Gateway Motorsports Park.

His victory was aided by a push into turn one by rookie Todd Gilliland, who finished second.

Johnny Sauter finished third to score his 10th top-five finish in 10 races.

Myatt Snider and Zane Smith rounded out the top five. Smith was making his first career Truck start.

Click here for complete results.

Johnny Sauter maintained his points lead with a third-place finish, extending the advantage to 73 points over Noah Gragson, who finished 10th.

Brett Moffitt is third in the standings and has two wins to his credit.

Grant Enfinger and Stewart Friesen round out the top five

Hayley climbed from eighth to sixth in the standings with his win, but more importantly that victory gets him a berth into the playoffs.

Click here for the complete points standings.

 

Justin Haley wins first Truck race at Gateway

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Justin Haley won his first career Camping World Truck Series in a three-lap shootout at the end of the Eaton 200 at Gateway Motorsports Park.

With seven laps remaining, then-leader Noah Gragson took the bottom line on a restart. That lined Todd Gilliland up behind Haley and proved to be the difference for both drivers on the front row. Gilliland pushed Haley hard into turn one, but contact between Gragson and Gilliland allowed Haley to gain the advantage.

A quick caution for debris forced Haley to survive one more restart – this time with Johnny Sauter lined up beside him. In a three-lap shootout to the end, Haley held onto the top spot.

Gilliland got around Sauter for second. Sauter finished third.

Myatt Snider finished fourth with Zane Smith rounding out the top five in his first career Truck start.

The race was red flagged on lap 119 to clean up fluid from John Hunter Nemechek. He ran over a piece of debris that punctured an oil line. Justin Fontaine spun in the oil with Tate Fogleman sliding in as well.

The incident had lasting ramifications. On lap 132, Brett Moffitt and Ben Rhodes were battling for fifth. Neither driver wanted to go high into turn one because of the speedy dry. Rhodes crowded Moffitt and both made contact with the wall. Rhodes stayed on track. Moffitt pitted, but was able to climb back into contention for a top 10.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Grant Enfinger

STAGE 2 WINNER: Christian Eckes

HOW JUSTIN HALEY WON: Haley lined up in the outside groove with seven laps to go and got a bump from Todd Gilliland that pushed him to the lead. From there, it was simply a matter of surviving one more restart with the veteran Johnny Sauter lined up to his inside as Haley led the final laps.

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: In his Truck debut, Riley Herbst scored a top-10 finish in eighth. … Jesse Little finished seventh, which was his fourth top-10 finish in the last five races. … In just his third Truck start and first since 2015, Chad Finley managed to stay out of trouble and finished a career-best sixth.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Dalton Sargeant cut a left front tire and pounded the wall with two laps remaining in stage one after contact from Todd Gilliland. … Matt Crafton developed an alternator issue at the end of stage two; they changed a battery and resumed racing, four laps off the pace. … On lap 76, Stewart Friesen got loose underneath Christian Eckes and spun him into the wall. … Battling for sixth on lap 98, Friesen and Johnny Sauter made contact on exiting turn two and Friesen spun into the inside wall. … Grant Enfinger started on the pole, led every lap of the first stage, but cut a tire in the closing laps and finished seven laps off the pace in 21st.

NOTABLE: It was a difficult night for Young Guns. In his second career Truck start, 17-year-old Eckes was wrecked during segment two after contact with Friesen. Making his first start in the Tuck series, 18-year-old Fogleman was collected in an accident triggered by Nemechek’s blown engine.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “We had to change the battery. The alternator’s done. I don’t know; they’re still trying to science it out I guess. You know, it’s a big cost for something we spend a lot of money on – and there’s just no excuse for it. Our day is pretty much over. We’ll use it as a test, go to Chicago and try to kick their ass there.” – Matt Crafton’s crew chief Junior Joiner after an electrical problem plagued them at the end of stage two.

WHAT’S NEXT: Overton’s 225 at Chicagoland Speedway at 9 p.m. ET on June 29 on FS1.

NASCAR broadcaster struck by car while jogging, suffers skull fracture

Photo: Performance Racing Network
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Performance Racing Network broadcaster Wendy Venturini is recovering in a hospital after she was struck by a car while jogging Saturday morning in Novato, California.

Venturini suffered a skull fracture and a concussion, Doug Rice, president and general manager of PRN, told NBC Sports on Saturday night.

Rice told NBC Sports that Venturini’s prognosis “is very good. I was there (at Marin General Hospital) and heard the doctor tell her that.”

Rice also said: “She’s completely coherent and conversational, and I have talked to her on two occasions today. They told her she would have a really good headache for a couple of days.”

Rice said that Venturini is expected to be hospitalized for a day or two.

Venturini became the first female to serve as a co-anchor for a NASCAR Cup race in September 2014 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. She was in California to be a pit reporter for PRN’s radio broadcast of Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway. She also has served as a booth analyst for PRN broadcasts this season.

Venturini became the first female broadcaster to call an entire race on a national level during the July 2007 Cup race at Sonoma Raceway for DirecTV. She also has reported on NASCAR for Speed Channel and Fox Sports 1.

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Grant Enfinger wins Truck pole at Gateway

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With a speed of 138.867 mph, Grant Enfinger scored his second career Camping World Truck Series pole and will lead the field to green tonight for the Eaton 200. His first pole came on the restrictor plate Daytona International Speedway in February 2016.

Noah Gragson set a track record in round two of qualification with a speed of 139.035 mph. He slipped to third in the running order during round three.

Enfinger beat Christian Eckes (138.594 mph) by .064 seconds. Eckes is making only his second start in the Truck series. Last week he started ninth and finished eighth at Iowa Speedway.

Gragson (138.402), Justin Haley (138.325) and Ben Rhodes (138.211) rounded out the top five.

Johnny Sauter (137.358) failed to advance to the final round of qualification and will start 13th.

Camden Murphy and BJ McLeod failed to qualify.

Click here for the complete lineup.