Ryan: Why it’s good that NASCAR can’t stop talking about Martinsville

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The contact lasted for a few seconds, and the conversation lasted for days.

There is no greater validation of Sunday’s game-changing wreck at Martinsville Speedway than the nonstop voices still chattering about the etiquette and implications of Denny Hamlin forcefully moving Chase Elliott from the lead with two laps remaining from the scheduled finish.

On Thursday morning, the lines of SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s NASCAR channel remained jammed with fans wanting to voice their opinions about the season’s most memorable crash.

In a season constantly sidetracked by inane arguments over encumbered penalties and sometimes inexplicable officiating, this is what made Martinsville the best race of the 2017 season.

Yes, the racing was excellent, but its resonance was even better.

It rekindled the low-frequency rumblings of schedule changes built on more short tracks in a shorter season (or at least a more compact one with midweek races). That’s a testament to the highly watchable ovals that are conducive to full-contact action in tight quarters (as Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted in his postrace Periscope).

But it also seemed an acknowledgment that short-track feuds are just a preferable narrative, too. If the discussion always revolves around what’s happening on track, it sucks oxygen from the arcane weekly talking points that keep the focus on the most banal of topics.

Are the LIS platforms working properly? What is the rule for being below the white line on a restart? Is it better to have two- or three-day race weekends?

The minutiae of those exhausting debates seemed to have a residual and subliminal effect on how some fans processed the last 30 laps at Martinsville.

Presented with the most scintillating stretch of racing this season, social media and SiriusXM was filled with some who insisted it could have been improved if only there were more officiating and less racing for the win.

Or something.

If that would have happened at a short track, Hamlin would have been sent to the rear!

Yes, perhaps that’s how it would be handled on a Saturday night feature race. But this is the big leagues, a ticket was at stake to race for the country’s biggest championship, and officiating isn’t why 10,000 people regularly fill Bowman-Gray Stadium to watch its legendary Modifieds.

It’s because of indelible moments such as those Sunday at Martinsville, where the grandstand pandemonium afterward reminded Earnhardt of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“We had a lot more short tracks on the schedule back then, and it seemed like we were going to places like that all the time and seeing action like that on the regular,” he said Friday. “It had been so long since I have gotten out of a race car and heard the crowd go through so many different emotions for 20 to 30 minutes after a race. It was just incredible to be a witness to that and to feel that energy of the crowd so plugged into what was happening around the race track.

“It was really a magical moment, I thought, for anybody that likes racing.  It was really cool.”

It’s why people still were talking about it four days later.

A few other stray observations:

Regrets, he had a few: Hamlin issued an apology to Elliott in the immediate aftermath and since has said he was “too aggressive” in how he attempted to take the lead.

So what might he have done differently?

Well, if technique had to be evaluated, he might have waited until the middle or the exit of turn 4 to apply the pressure. The chances were much higher of spinning Elliott by bumping him on corner entry (particularly given the No. 24 Chevrolet barely had gotten back on line after an out-of-shape lap from slamming past the No. 2 Ford of Brad Keselowski into the lead).

But it also wasn’t that simple: Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota was much better on longer runs, so waiting probably wasn’t a luxury he had. If he hadn’t made the move then, there were only nine scheduled corners left in the race.

Facing those circumstances, most drivers are tossing away their scalpels in favor of a hammer and tongs to secure a victory.

Also worth considering is that Elliott entered the Round of 8 as the lowest ranked in points. If he wins, it’s the worst-case scenario for any other title eligible drivers besides Martin Truex Jr. because it makes the pathway forward on points much more difficult than if Truex won (or in this case, Kyle Busch, who might have been the next-best scenario even though Hamlin seemed miffed at getting bumped from the lead by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate).

–Role reversal: It isn’t just the myriad near-misses at a breakthrough victory for Elliott that have caused frustration, it’s the way they’ve transpired. Frequently, it has seemed (especially in restarts at Michigan or the closing laps at Dover) that Elliott has lacked the assertiveness.

That might have been why Martinsville seemed to galvanize his burgeoning fan base so much. Many times during the race, Elliott didn’t back down from protecting his turf on restarts, and the power move he put on Keselowski also was commendable for its gumption.

The classy way in which he handled his dispute with Hamlin — standing his ground without swinging fists – also had to reinforce the perception that Elliott isn’t as deferential as his self-flagellating demeanor can make him seem.

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With a 12th at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson never seemed as ordinary at a track where he has nine wins, most among active drivers and tied with Jeff Gordon for third all-time behind Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11).

What drove it home even more was the performance of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Elliott, who consistently has outraced Johnson throughout the playoffs. Before Martinsville (where he led a race-high 123 laps before the crash left him 27th), Elliott finished ahead of Johnson in the first six races with an average finish of 9.1 and 341 laps led vs. Johnson’s 11.3 average finish and 29 laps led.

Could the seven-time series champion’s No. 48 team glean anything from the No. 24?

“With (crew chiefs) Alan (Gustafson) and Chad (Knaus), they do have different philosophies in how they build a car,” Johnson said Friday. “We can look at different things and say directionally this is what they are trying to achieve and implement that into our cars, but they are not the same. It is really difficult to build cars the same and especially in the different shops like what we have, but it does give us great optimism knowing that our equipment can go that fast.

“We just haven’t figured out our mousetrap like we need to. They have been the mark, I think, for us to look at and say ‘All right, our Hendrick Motorsports equipment can at least do that,’ and we need to get there.”

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It was largely overlooked by his surprise elimination at Kansas, but Kyle Larson’s performance at Martinsville again showed why the track remains a stumbling block to the Chip Ganassi Racing driver becoming a versatile all-around champion.

The 37th was his second-worst finish at the 0.526-mile oval but wasn’t an anomaly. In eight starts, he has only one top 10 and only four top 20s at Martinsville.

His chances will be strong whenever he reaches the championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but Larson will need to shore up his results at Martinsville if he wants to avoid being in must-win situations at Texas or Phoenix in the future.

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When was the last time a crowd reacted as raucously to late-race contact that determined the outcome of a Cup race?

The default answer after Sunday was the Aug. 28, 1999 Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway when a chorus of boos greeted Dale Earnhardt’s celebration in victory lane after he turned Terry Labonte for a victory.

But the postrace scene at Martinsville had echoes of the Aug. 23, 2008 race at Bristol, which Carl Edwards won by bumping aside Kyle Busch with 31 laps remaining.

Just as Sunday at Martinsville, the track’s video boards focused on the postrace interviews in the aftermath, and the reaction was similar as a crowd of about 150,000 vacillated between cheers (Edwards) and jeers (Busch) as the cameras toggled between the winner and runner-up.

Considering how much it enhanced the emotions and intensity each time (and let’s hope it happens more frequently than every nine years), tracks should be encouraged to treat postrace fireworks with as much entertainment value as the event preceding it.

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Outside of the weight discrepancy for third-place finisher Clint Bowyer at Martinsville and the aerodynamic modification for Elliott at Chicagoland, there haven’t been any major postrace inspection penalties during the playoffs – notably none relating to rear-end suspension violations that were a theme of the season.

When Hamlin’s winning Southern 500 car was found out of tolerance after the last speedway race of the season, there was split conventional wisdom about whether it was the first of many penalties to come or the last test of the limits by a championship contender before the playoffs.

While there still are two 1.5-mile races to get through starting with Sunday at Texas, the indications are it seems to have been the latter.

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Hendrick Motorsports director of vehicle engineering Diane Holl, whose career has stretched from Formula One to IndyCar to NASCAR, was the guest on the most recent NASCAR on NBC podcast.

Holl, who worked for Ferrari, Benetton and McLaren in F1 and Tasman Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar, has worked in NASCAR for nearly a decade, starting at Michael Waltrip Racing before joining Hendrick nearly two years ago.

“I think there’s a very fine line between cost, development and theater,” the Guildford, England, native said. “When we used to go to Japan for the IndyCar race, I had ‘entertainer’ on my visa. That’s where engineers get engrossed in, ‘I want the best part,’ but in reality, it’s the entertainment on a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon that is going to make this championship, this series continue and the fans who support it. NASCAR has to protect that.”

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 or visiting the www.ApplePodcasts.com/nascaronnbc landing page.

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.

NASCAR will have choose rule for All-Star Race at Bristol

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Following support from drivers, NASCAR will allow competitors to choose which lane they want to restart in during the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The choose rule designates a spot on the track where a driver must select if they wish to restart on the inside lane or outside lane. The choose rule also will be in place for the NASCAR Open.

NASCAR also announced the format for the NASCAR Open and All-Star Race.

In the NASCAR Open, which is for drivers who have not qualified for the All-Star Race:

  • Stage 1 will be 35 laps
  • Stage 2 will be 35 laps
  • The final stage will be 15 laps

The winner of each stage advances to the All-Star Race. After the NASCAR Open, the Fan Vote winner will be announced. That will go to the driver not yet qualified for the All-Star Race after competing in the NASCAR Open.

In the All-Star Race, the format will be:

  • Stage 1 will be 55 laps
  • Stage 2 will be 35 laps
  • Stage 3 will be 35 laps
  • The final stage will be 15 laps

Both green flag and yellow flag laps will count in the first three stages. Only green flag laps will count in the final stage. There will be an unlimited number of attempts at a green, white, checkered finish under green flag conditions.

NASCAR also stated that the car number will move from the door toward the rear wheel to give more exposure to the teams’ sponsors

The biggest change is the choose rule. At Bristol, the outside line is dominant on restarts. The leader chooses to restart on the outside line and the driver starting in the second row — in fourth place — often is second shortly after the restart because of the lane’s advantage. With the rule change, others would have the chance to start on the outside lane if they wanted.

“I see nothing bad that it can bring,” Joey Logano said of the chose rule concept in May. “It brings another strategy to the table, it’s definitely something to talk about. You don’t have luck becoming involved. …

“I tell you, if I see a bunch of 12-year-olds do it in the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway, I’m pretty sure all of us could figure it out.”

Said Austin Dillon: “As a sport we’re always changing. We’ve done a really good job with the mile-and-a-half program and brought it back to life. I think the next thing is trying to make it better for the fans and create more drama than it already has.”

Some drivers have called for this type of rule to prevent the brake checking that takes place at the exit of pit road so a driver can be in an even-number position in the running order and restart on the outside lane.

“It takes out pit crew’s fast stops,” Dillon said. “Your pit crew could’ve gained a couple of spots there, but instead you’re giving up two spots because you’d rather start on the outside. That’s gotta stop. I think it’s gonna knock someone’s nose in at the end of pit road before too long, so that will end a guy’s race. I don’t feel like it is a hard thing to do.”

The All-Star Race was moved from Charlotte Motor Speedway to Bristol Motor Speedway because of the COVID-19 pandemic and North Carolina restrictions on mass gatherings. Bristol will be allowed to have up to 30,000 fans.

Drivers who have already clinched an All-Star Race spot: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Justin Haley, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.

 

Can anybody catch Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

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Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

Or is it Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

They’ve won four of the last six Cup races, including the past two, and came within a late caution flag of being the last two Brickyard 400 winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s race (4 p.m. ET on NBC).

MORE: Indianapolis weekend schedule

MORE: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick 1-2 in Power Rankings

“For the most part, when we have had chances to win races, we have won them,” Harvick said. “I think Sunday (at Pocono) was probably the only one that I could point to and say that we had the car to win the race and didn’t win the race. I think for the majority of the races that we have had chances to win we have capitalized on those situations.”

That Pocono race Sunday? Harvick finished second to Hamlin, who has won two of the last four races.

“I would say specifically the last 10 to 11 (races) we’ve been exceptional, really since coming back from the break that we had,” Hamlin said. “I thought we’ve been really good.

“My team is really strong. They’re doing a lot of really good work at the race shop preparing our cars to be set up, optimized right from the first run of the day.

“Where we’re really struggling is not getting stage points. I think we’d be winning the regular season if we could get some. The way the races have played out, we’ve kind of made our bed to try to win the race because we’ve had race‑winning cars. I’ll definitely take race wins over stage wins, especially knowing that a race win counts for five (playoff points).”

Harvick enters Sunday’s race at Indy as the defending winner. He led 118 of 160 laps in last year’s race, winning by more than six seconds.

In 2018, Hamlin led at Indy when a caution with six laps to go took away his advantage. Brad Keselowski passed Hamlin coming to the white flag and won.

If not Harvick or Hamlin this weekend, Keselowski could be one to watch.

“My confidence level right now is very, very high that we can be a contender for the entire season and continue to build and get stronger,” said Keselowski, who has two wins and eight top-10 finishes since the season resumed in May. “Very, very pleased to see how the team has come together. … Now we’re starting to show a lot of speed. I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential.”

Even with Keselowski’s success, Harvick and Hamlin have been stout. This is how dominant Harvick and Hamlin have been all season and since May:

Most wins this year (15 races)

Most wins since season resumed (11 races)

  • Denny Hamlin (3 wins)
  •  Kevin Harvick (3 wins)
  • Brad Keselowski (2 wins)

Most top-five finishes this year (15 races)

Most top-five finishes since season resumed (11 races)

  • Denny Hamlin (8 top 5s)
  • Kevin Harvick (7 top 5s)
  • Chase Elliott (6 top 5s)
  • Ryan Blaney (6 top 5s)

Most top 10 finishes this season (15 races)

  • Kevin Harvick (12 top 10s)
  • Denny Hamlin (10 top 10s)
  • Brad Keselowski (10 top 10s)

Most top 10 finishes since season resumed (11 races)

  • Kevin Harvick (8 top 10s)
  • Denny Hamlin (8 top 10s)
  • Brad Keselowski (8 top 10s)
  • Martin Truex Jr. (8 top 10s)

Patriots of America PAC to be primary sponsor for Go Fas Racing in nine races

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Patriots of America, a political action committee supporting President Donald Trump’s re-election bid, will be the primary sponsor of Corey LaJoie’s car this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Go Fas Racing announced Wednesday.

Patriots of America PAC will be the primary sponsor on the car for eight additional races.  

“Our mission is to get voters registered and to the polls in November,” said Jeff Whaley on behalf of Patriots of America PAC. “We are excited about our sponsorship with Go Fas Racing No. 32 and Corey LaJoie. We feel this partnership is the best way to help us communicate this message to the NASCAR community and encourage all Americans to do their part by heading to the polls.”

Team owner Archie St. Hilaire said in a statement: “I am honored to be part of the President’s re-election campaign through the Patriots of America PAC. As a Trump 2020 supporter, this team will do everything possible to secure victory on and off the track electing President Donald Trump to a second term. Let us bring this country back and Keep America Great!”

According to public documents, Patriots of America has paid Go Fas Racing $350,000 to this point for the sponsorship.

Sunday’s Cup race airs at 4 p.m. ET on NBC.

NASCAR, Coca-Cola to honor military, frontline healthcare workers

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NASCAR will honor members of the U.S. Armed Forces and frontline healthcare workers throughout the month of July as part of this year’s expanded “NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola” initiative.

Per a media release, NASCAR said the program will be “an industry-wide opportunity to recognize and thank those who have gone above and beyond to keep society safe and healthy.”

The kickoff event for the program begins with Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard (4 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), shifting to a mid-summer window due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We take pride in honoring all who work tirelessly to keep our nation safe, whether a frontline worker in the fight against COVID-19 or part of our U.S. Armed Forces protecting us around the world,” said Jill Gregory, executive vice president and chief marketing and content officer, NASCAR. “The NASCAR industry has always been passionate about saluting our nation’s heroes both past and present, and we once again look forward to recognizing those who serve.”

Per a statement in the media release, NASCAR and Coca-Cola will create content to honor the “heroic work from our military and first responder community during the COVID-19 pandemic. … Through NASCAR digital and social channels, the industry will spotlight even more stories with a new ‘NASCAR Salutes Refreshing Moments’ feature that will also be hosted on NASCAR.com/Salutes.”

“While this crisis has impacted everyone’s daily lives, we are able to race because of the selfless acts by our military community and frontline workers,” said John Mount, vice president, sports marketing and region assets, Coca-Cola North America. “NASCAR Salutes offers an impactful opportunity to showcase our pride and appreciation for these heroes and their families.”

In addition to premier partner Coca-Cola, several other NASCAR Official Partners will also take part in the program:

  • Mack Trucks will wrap its NASCAR Mack Anthem haulers with NASCAR Salutes-themed graphics voted on by fans at com/NASCARSalutes. The paint schemes honor both military and frontline heroes and the winning designs will be unveiled July 4 and debut during the NASCAR Salutes window.
  • AMR, the “Official Emergency Medical Services Partner of NASCAR,” will feature the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola branding on its NASCAR safety trucks and safety team helmets throughout the program.
  • Goodyear continued its tradition of replacing the iconic “Eagle” sidewall for 600 Miles of Remembrance at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This year’s recognition was the Honor and Remember organization, which works closely with the industry to honor gold star families who have lost family members while serving.
  • Mack Trucks and Blue-Emu also collaborated on a day-long effort to thank truckers and critical workers for their hard work during COVID-19. After a kickoff at Mack Trucks’ headquarters, NASCAR’s Mack Anthem haulers visited Virginia-based Sovah Health to thank the frontline workers at the hospital en route to the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.

Fans can learn more about the heroes honored throughout the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Colaprogram by visiting NASCAR.com/Salutes.