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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.

Brad Keselowski wins Xfinity race at Charlotte in overtime finish

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CONCORD, N.C. — Brad Keselowski won the Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in an overtime finish, claiming his second win in as many starts this season.

Keselowski, who started on the pole, led 77 laps and won over Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler.

Keselowski also won at Phoenix.

He rebounded from pit penalty on Lap 128 for crew going over the wall too soon.

The overtime finish was setup by a debris caution with two laps left in the original 200-lap distance.

The final 28 laps were ran following a one hour rain delay.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Cole Custer started and finished second after also leading 29 laps. It’s his second top five of the season … Ty Dillon placed fourth for his first top five in nine Charlotte starts. It’s also his first top five and top 10 of the season .. Elliott Sadler is the only driver with top 10s in all 11 races this season. Heplaced fifth after battling mechanical issues – including a faulty cooling unit – and a speeding penalty.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: After winning the first two stages, Kyle Busch finished eighth after he spun on a restart with 39 laps to go. He had restarted 10th after pitting and got loose trying to pass Dylan Lupton into Turn 1 … Lupton was then eliminated in a wreck with Ty Majeski on the following restart … Chase Elliott placed 37th after experiencing transmission issues on the Stage 3 restart … Tyler Reddck finished 23rd after begin involved in two wrecks, including one during the overtime restart … Justin Allgaier and Jamie McMurray were eliminated in a wreck with 20 to go.

NOTABLE: Kaz Grala placed 10th in his first start for Fury Race Cars, a team co-owned by his father. It’s his best result since placing fourth at Daytona for JGL Racing … Kyle Busch is winless in his last four Xfinity starts, his longest stretch since 2014 (eight races).

WHAT’S NEXT: Pocono Green 250 at Pocono Raceway at 1 p.m. ET on June 2 on Fox Sports 1.

What’s next for Danica Patrick after the Indy 500? Dreams, downtime and waffles

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Danica Patrick was a 14-year-old growing up in Roscoe, Illinois, she had a firm idea of what she’d be doing 20 years later.

A reporter from her hometown newspaper recently reminded her of that in a recent interview when he brought a prescient artifact from those teenage years – an essay that she crafted as an up and coming go-kart driver about her racing accomplishments.

“I’m breezing through it, and then at the end, it said, ‘I wanted to race Indy cars,” Patrick, 36, said Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I was 14. I told him, ‘See? If this isn’t an example of “Write that shit down,” nothing is.’

“This is manifesting. You have write it down and you have to imagine what you want. So I do that as much as I can.”

Heading into the final start of her career in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, Patrick already seems to have a solid idea of the next 20 years — in part, because of having some glimpses into her post-racing life.

There has been plenty of downtime since her final NASCAR start in the Daytona 500 three months ago. She has taken vacations (including an India trip to meet the Dalai Lama with boyfriend Aaron Rodgers) and created several new routines on her suddenly free from racing weekends.

“I make waffles on Sundays now,” she said. “That’s pretty fun.  In the summer, there’s like farmers market.  I can’t wait for that.  I mean, there’s going to be probably some new stuff that I don’t know yet.

“The one thing that I am definitely looking forward to less of is less stress.  Last weekend was awesome at the end of it all because it went well with qualifying, but I was nervous for 95% of that weekend. That’s uncomfortable.”

But testing her comfort zone is appealing to Patrick, who has spent most of her adult life testing the boundaries of gender norms in her profession. Though the pressure of race weekends might disappear, her incessant quest for challenges probably will remain.

Now that racing is over, Patrick still has a winery, a clothing line, a cookbook and a fitness manual to promote – and more is on the way.

“I just have a habit for pushing myself to uncomfortable spaces, making them comfortable for me,” she said. “At least just making them comfortable enough to be able to manage.

“As an example, I went bungee jumping a long while back, like 10 years.  I’m super scared of heights.  I’m still scared of heights.  But I just like to know that if I want to do something, I am brave enough and confident enough to do it.  That doesn’t mean I’m not still scared.  That doesn’t mean it’s not still something that’s easy to me afterward. I just like to know I can get past the fear if I have to.

“I’m OK with transitioning into other things, finding a little bit of happiness and joy each day, less colorization of emotions. I’m ready for that.”

So what specifically is on tap? Talk shows? Another book?

Patrick demurs when pressed.

“I think I have definitely big dreams and aspirations for myself, for all my companies, for the kind of emotion I want to have on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a good, easy, happy, calm, joyful, exciting, adventurous life.  If I say I want it, there’s a very good chance that’s what I’ll get.”

In the short-term, there’s hosting an ESPN awards show that will keep her busy through July.

And after that, her schedule will free up just as Green Bay Packers training camp begins for Rodgers, the two-time MVP quarterback.

“I’m thinking I’m going to have plenty of time to write a cookbook in Green Bay,” she said.

Xfinity race at Charlotte resumes after rain delay

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CONCORD, N.C. — The Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway has resumed after a one hour rain delay. 28 laps remain in the 200-lap event.

Brad Keselowski is the leader.

The top five is completed by Daniel Hemric, Ryan Truex, Brandon Jones and Ryan Sieg.

Erik Jones fastest in final Coke 600 practice

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Erik Jones topped the final one-hour practice session for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver posted a top speed of 187.045 mph.

Jones was followed by Kyle Larson (186.664 mph), Ryan Blaney (186.104), Joey Logano (186.047) and Denny Hamlin (185.938).

Logano recorded the most laps in the session with 55.

Jones had the best 10-lap average at 184.579 mph.

The final practice session came after rain forced the cancellation of a morning session.

Click here for the practice report.