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.

Myatt Snider: It’s ‘game on’ if conflict with Noah Gragson continues

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The spat between Xfinity Series drivers Myatt Snider and Noah Gragson may not necessarily be over.

The pair tangled in Sunday night’s Xfinity Series race in Las Vegas. Gragson made contact with Snider’s car, sending it into a spin.

Snider discussed the incident Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” and where things stand between the two drivers.

“It, to me, just seemed like some impatience on Noah’s part,” Snider said of the incident. “I had gotten into a rut and was trying to figure out how to make the car faster but at that point in time, I didn’t. So he was running me down and he actually had a run on me going to the frontstretch.

“So I was, ‘Okay, he’s going to go by me.’ Then I felt a little yoink in the left rear quarter and around I was going. It’s kind of unfortunate it had to go down that way, that’s not racing to me. But I’m a big believer in karma and what goes around, comes around. We’ll be performing at our best over these next couple of weeks and I’m not worried about it.”

Snider also told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he hasn’t texted or talked to Gragson since Sunday, but Snider said he’s ready if the spat continues.

“I’m the kind of guy that believes in racing people how you’re raced,” Snider said. “I’m not going to take any kind of stuff like that. If (Gragson) wants to send that kind of message early, then game on.”

On Tuesday, here’s how Gragson explained what happened on “Sirius Speedway” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It was just some hard racing between the two of us and we got into each other, so I think we both can look forward to the next couple of races and stay out of each other’s ways,” Gragson said. “I think we’re both at fault. It was a long race, none of us were going to give and we’re going to go on to California and run as good as possible and do as good as we can.”

Much has been made about the TV replays of Gragson and Snider meeting after the race to talk about the incident. Gragson tried to give Snider a fist bump only to have Snider walk away without fist bumping him.

“I told (Myatt) let’s play rock, paper, scissors,” Gragson quipped in part on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I went with rock and he still hasn’t gotten back to me if he wants scissors, paper or rock.”

Gragson won the season opener at Daytona and finished fourth at Las Vegas for JR Motorsports. Snider, who won the pole at Daytona, finished 33rd at Daytona and 16th at Las Vegas for Richard Childress Racing. Snider will race this weekend at Auto Club Speedway for RSS Racing.

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Ryan Newman gets standing ovation in visit to Roush Fenway Racing

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Exactly 10 months to the day when the country will celebrate Thanksgiving, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization gave thanks and a warm welcome to driver Ryan Newman, who visited the team’s shop Wednesday.

Newman, who was involved in a horrific crash coming to the finish line of the Daytona 500 just nine days earlier, received a standing ovation from his colleagues and posed for a number of photos.

While there is still no timetable for Newman’s return behind the wheel of his No. 6 RFR Ford Mustang — Ross Chastain is scheduled to drive the car until Newman comes back — Wednesday’s appearance was yet another positive move in that direction.

“Just a good day,” RFR president Steve Newmark tweeted about Newman’s visit.

Newman said in a prior statement he suffered an undisclosed head injury in the crash but did not suffer any broken bones or internal injuries.

Tuesday he took part in one of his favorite pastimes:

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Hendrick focused on Jimmie Johnson’s success, not successor

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Kyle Larson. Brad Keselowski. Ryan Blaney. Erik Jones.

No, we’re not talking about this week’s fantasy racing picks, but those four drivers have been among drivers mentioned most often when it comes time for Hendrick Motorsports to name a replacement for Jimmie Johnson, who will retire after this season.

Yet even though filling Johnson’s spot is important, it’s not as much a priority right now as it is for the entire organization to learn more about the nuances of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, according to HMS vice president of competition Jeff Andrews.

“We don’t have a timetable for that, to be honest with you,” Andrews said of naming a replacement for Johnson on Wednesday “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Our focus has been getting better race cars under Jimmie Johnson and getting better race cars for (crew chief) Cliff Daniels and his race team to work with on the weekend.

“The focus right now immediately for the 48 is to get a win, get that car in the playoffs, get multiple wins through the season and then get Jimmie Johnson to Phoenix at the end of the year to battle for that championship.”

Andrews admits the vibe around Hendrick Motorsports’ campus is markedly different this year, knowing it’s Johnson’s final season in the No. 48.

“I think the sense is pride here within Hendrick Motorsports, to just have been associated with someone like Jimmie,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “For those of us who have been here really throughout his career, we’re just incredibly proud that he chose to drive for Hendrick Motorsports throughout his whole career.

“But we’re also proud of all his accomplishments and what he’s done for this company. I think we would have an awful hard time of ever paying him back for all that. Our goal this year is giving him everything he needs for a multiple win season and to get to Phoenix. We owe him that at the least.”

The Hendrick organization has struggled in adapting to the new Chevrolet Camaro body style this year. In the season-opening Daytona 500, Chase Elliott (finished seventh) was the only HMS driver in the top 15.

Things were a bit better this past Sunday at Las Vegas. Johnson was the highest-finishing HMS driver (fifth), while Alex Bowman was 13th. But there was considerable sense of accomplishment overall for Chevrolet as a whole, with six of its Camaros in the top 10 (as opposed to only two Chevys in the top 10 at Daytona).

That leaves Andrews, the competition department at HMS and Chevrolet officials as a whole feeling optimistic as the series heads for the third race of the season this weekend at the two-mile track in Fontana, California.

“From a barometer perspective, we’re feeling good about where we’ve been,” Andrews said. “We haven’t had that finish, that win that we’re looking for, but certainly we’ve started off the year with some good speed in our cars.

“The one thing that all of our drivers were commenting on is we had more speed in our cars and just had a better platform in our cars and a better ability to run multiple lines on the racetrack, which is something we haven’t in recent years.”

Admittedly, it’s been a tough road for Hendrick drivers over the last three seasons. Since Johnson’s seventh Cup championship in 2016, no HMS driver has reached the Championship 4 round since.

Also during that time frame, only two drivers have finished in the top-10 overall in the last three seasons (Chase Elliott, fifth in 2017, sixth in 2018 and 10th in 2019; and Johnson, 10th in 2017).

These next five races, particularly the last two of that stretch at Homestead-Miami and Texas, will help give Andrews and his staff a better handle on where their adjustment to the Camaro goes from there.

“We know it’s a long season and have a long ways to go with this,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “We need to get through three or four more races.

“I think we’ve targeted as a company a better understanding of where we’re at after the Homestead/Texas timeframe to get some types of tracks and learn with this new car.

“Steep learning curve with the new car and we’ve got to act quick. We have just a year to work with this before we get to another generation of race cars. … We’re looking forward to going back to the track this weekend in Fontana and see where we go with it.”

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NBC Sports Power Rankings: Joey Logano takes top spot from Denny Hamlin

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Move over Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano is coming through.

By virtue of his win Sunday in Las Vegas, Logano replaces Hamlin atop this week’s NBC Sports Power Rankings.

Eightteen drivers received votes from NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.

Here’s this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Joey Logano (37 points out of 40): Bounced back from a DNF at Daytona to earn a gifted win at Las Vegas when the top two cars pitted late, allowing Logano to move to the lead and keep it. Last week’s ranking: unranked.

2. Kevin Harvick (34 points): Pitted before final restart, which likely cost him a chance at a top-five finish (he wound up eighth). Still, with top-10 finishes in the first two races (one of only two drivers to do so), Harvick is off to a strong start. Last week: 6th (tied).

3. Ryan Blaney (29 points): Late pit call cost him the win and a top 10 (finished 11th), but maybe there’s some solace in being atop the Cup standings heading to Fontana. Last week: 3rd.

4. Chase Elliott (24 points): Even though he finished 26th at Las Vegas, Elliott led 70 laps and won each of the first two stages. Including Daytona, he’s led nearly 100 laps in first two races. Now all he has to do is finish off a race with a win. Last week: 9th.

5. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (17 points): One of the biggest surprises this season. The move to JTG Daugherty Racing is agreeing with him. Led 24 laps at Daytona before late-race wreck and 30 laps at Vegas, finishing third. Definitely someone to keep an eye on. Last week: unranked.

(tie) 6. Denny Hamlin (15 points): After his win at Daytona, struggled through a rough day at Las Vegas, finishing 17th. Last week: 1st

(tie) 6. Kyle Larson (15 points): One of two drivers to finish in the top 10 in each of first two races. Looks to add to one win and two runner-ups in six Cup starts at Fontana on Sunday. Last week: 4th.

8. Matt DiBenedetto (14 points): Earned second-place finish in his second start for Wood Brothers Racing. Could he bring the organization it’s 100th Cup win at Fontana? Last week: unranked.

9. Jimmie Johnson (13 points): Finished fifth at Las Vegas (as well as being fastest in final Cup practice there). Has six career wins at his home track in Fontana. Can he make it seven on Sunday (which would break a 97-race winless streak)? Last week: unranked.

10. Alex Bowman (7 points): Showed some impressive speed late before being shuffled back to 13th place after last caution. Last week: unranked.

Others receiving votes: William Byron (3 points), Bubba Wallace (3 points), Austin Dillon (2 points), Brad Keselowski (2 points), Chris Buescher (2 points), Clint Bowyer (1 point), Chase Briscoe (1 point), Johnny Sauter (1 point).