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Ryan: Five things you might have missed on the NASCAR Media Tour

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CHARLOTTE — Generational driver schism EXPOSED!

Top-secret EFI data REVEALED!

NASCAR chairman’s absence CALLED OUT!

If screaming headlines are your thing, NASCAR’s 2018 Media Tour delivered the goods with all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the forehead.

The annual preseason event provided its share of conversation starters (even if some topics seemed played out, or at least very familiar). The rift between the emerging class of budding stars and the establishment was notable, and a more widespread dissemination of acceleration, braking and turning information could have an impact on competition this season.

If you prefer nuance, however, you might have been left wanting for deeper analysis after this annual paean to pack journalism (in which the subject matter is limited to what is disclosed by a limited group of subjects – in this case, exclusively drivers with often limited agendas). And beyond the sexiest of storylines, there were other clues as to what might bear watching this season.

Here are five things you might have missed from last week’s Media Tour, particularly if you were following the updates in 280-character dispatches:

1. For Ford teams, it’s in Hawkeye we trust: It’s rare to find consensus among such a bull-headed constituency as race car drivers. But when asked how they will keep up with the newer Camry and Camaro, virtually every man behind the wheel of a Fusion cited NASCAR’s new inspection process as the saving grace. The system being implemented in 2018 will rely on cameras and computer scanning technology for more scrutiny.

Publicly, this was hailed as a win by Ford drivers who spoke mostly in generalities about the why. Privately, many were saying the new system will neutralize body advantages gained by the more recent models of Chevrolet and Toyota. Theoretically, it will eliminate precious wiggle room under the previous laser inspection and template processes.

As NASCAR has adjusted its rules to strip downforce in recent seasons, Ford’s older model seemed to lack the adjustability needed to regain rear downforce. This partly accounts for why Brad Keselowski has been lobbying for help since last season, warning ominously after the 2017 season finale that Ford could be headed for “a drubbing.”

The Hawkeye system seems to have ameliorated some of those concerns. It probably will be at least two months until its impact can be fully evaluated. But based on their confidence at the Media Tour, the Blue Oval brigade clearly has bought into the idea that the inspection changes will offer a fighting chance – at least until Ford rolls out a redesigned body (likely the Mustang) next season.

2. Teams have made big offseason changes … : After essentially operating as two two-car teams (competing out of adjacent buildings) for more than a decade, Hendrick Motorsports’ reorganization into a more universal approach is indicative of the teams’ struggles last season but also of the engineering-driven assembly line mentality that has taken root in Cup.

Traditionally, crew chiefs have stood as the king of the mountain at Hendrick, but its latest organization chart suggests that decision-making will become more diffuse. That could be an adjustment (and perhaps a welcome one) for Chad Knaus, who has enjoyed unprecedented success while leading Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet for the past 16 seasons. After arguably the most underperforming season of Johnson’s career, it seems an acknowledgment that the teams’ cars and setups would benefit from more input and “a think-tanking of ideas,” as Johnson alluded (while also hinting that shrinking sponsorship also makes standardization an easier choice over customization).

On a lesser scale, internal moves by smaller teams such as JTG Daugherty Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports seem aimed at enhancing the efficiency and leverage afforded by forming alliances with large teams. The blueprint is last year’s championship campaign of Furniture Row Racing, which outran Toyota ally and chassis supplier Joe Gibbs Racing with a much smaller budget and staff.

3. … and so have some drivers: After living much of the past two seasons in Aspen, Colorado, Johnson indicated he will be spending more time in Charlotte this year, aiding his team’s transition to a new structure with younger drivers. Roush Fenway Racing’s Trevor Bayne is headed in the other direction, relocating to his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee (though he will make frequent trips to the shop).

Kasey Kahne outlined his plans for running a couple dozen sprint car races with his teams now that his contractual shackles have been loosened. While the moonlighting surely will keep him loose, it was telling that Kahne recalled his 2011 with Red Bull Racing was “awesome” and more enjoyable than any of his six seasons at Hendrick.

Though he did score a win at Phoenix (in Red Bull’s penultimate race in NASCAR) and a respectable 14th in points (better than his final four years at Hendrick), it wasn’t the results that made him happy at Red Bull – it was the less constrained atmosphere of a smaller team. Kahne probably won’t have the same caliber of cars at Leavine Family Racing, but he will have less pressure, and that might make a difference.

4. Kyle Busch’s drive: The runner-up in last year’s championship race hasn’t rewatched the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale, and he probably won’t have another screening until November when Kyle Busch hopes to be advance to the championship round for the fourth consecutive season.

While he concedes that Martin Truex Jr. was deserving of the title because of his season-long excellence, Busch and his team believed they were as good or better than the No. 78 at Miami. That compounded the sting from Busch feeling as if he should have repeated as champion in 2016. “It’s tough when you feel like you should have won it three years in a row,” Busch said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “You’re obviously feeling like a failure and a letdown and not just for yourself but your team and organization and everyone around you.”

Busch had five wins last year but easily could have had twice as many, and those misses linger with him as much as the triumphs. His cutthroat determination makes him a star as much as his singular ability, and his edge already is evident this year. With the growing pains that slowed the Camry at the start of 2017 long gone, Busch seems primed to open 2018 the way he did a decade ago (when he won eight of the first 22 races in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing) and don’t forget that the Daytona 500 remains a glaring omission on his resume.

5. Kyle Larson (literally): The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was missing from the Media Tour because of an illness. But Larson was present at a sponsor announcement the previous week and provided some interesting reflections on last year’s finale and this season’s outlook.

He also reaffirmed his desire to have more Cup drivers run in grassroots series such as the Chili Bowl, laughing at Keselowski’s suggestion of being too tall to succeed (“He would barely be above average height in a Midget”). But he also empathized with those who worry about the reputation risks of parachuting into the Chili Bowl.

“I’ve thought about running a big dirt late model race, but I can’t even get the courage to go do it because I don’t want to embarrass myself not having practiced or raced it before,” Larson said. “So it would be really tough for a NASCAR guy to have high expectations or anything like that. I’m sure a lot of fans would have expectations of some sort for them, so it would be tough, but I’d love to see everyone give it a try because it’s a huge event and they’re amazing cars to drive. I think they would all be amazed at the power they have compared to what they’re used to, so it would be cool for sure to see them run.”

Ryan Sieg, Shane Wilson ready for opportunity races in Xfinity playoffs

Ryan Sieg Racing
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When Shane Wilson answered his phone Tuesday he was in the process of leaving a UPS store, a weekly destination that’s part of his many crew chief duties at Ryan Sieg Racing.

This week the team had to: prepare three cars for Friday’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond – including a car for Hermie Sadler, who is making his first Xfinity start since 2016 and the first ever for RSR, as well as repair a wrecked No. 93 car from Las Vegas and get Ryan Sieg’s No. 39 Chevrolet ready for a playoff run.

“Shoooo, we’re busy,” Wilson tells NBC Sports. “But, you know, good busy.”

That’s all been done with seven crew members at the team’s shop located just outside of Atlanta.

“We can go with seven-and-a-half to make sure I don’t leave anybody out,” jokes Wilson.

At the UPS store he had mailed a shock destined for Vermont. Its recipient would be Steve Hibberd, the team’s shock guy.

Hibberd is a former employee of Orleans Racing, the Truck Series effort for Brendan Gaughan in the early 2000s that Wilson led. He’s one of Wilson’s two “secret weapons.”

The other is another Orleans team member and former Dodge employee, Ryan Isabel, who provides engineering support for the team in identifying trends via a database of car setups.

This small, spread out operation helped Sieg produce the best season in his six years of full-time Xfinity competition and his second playoff berth, following his 2016 campaign.

He enters Richmond with two top fives and nine top 10s (matching his top 10s from the rest of his Xfinity career). His previous best total for top 10s was three in 2016, the first time he went to the playoffs.

But Wilson, a former long-time employee at Richard Childress Racing who crew chiefed for Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, doesn’t seem too stressed about the playoffs before him or his limited resources. In fact, he’s having his most fun in NASCAR in “a long time.”

For a former electrician apprentice from Vermont, he could be doing worse.

“Whenever I have a bad day in racing I think about running pipe in December in Vermont along the Connecticut River,” Wilson says with a chuckle.

Ryan Sieg has made the Xfinity playoffs for the second time in his career. (Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sieg and Wilson don’t want to hype up a potential Cinderella story for the Xfinity Series playoffs, even if it does have a few ingredients for that.

Sieg and his small team will start their playoff run at the track he had his best non-superspeedway performance earlier this year.

The April 12th race at Richmond saw Sieg start 13th, finished Stage 2 in fifth and then finish the race in fifth for his second top five of the year.

That leads into the Sept. 28 race on the Charlotte Roval. The opening round then closes out at Dover International Speedway.

Wilson sees the first round as three “opportunity races.”

“They’re not cookie cutter mile-and-a-halves, like Vegas,” Wilson says. “I really feel like we can go there and do well.

“I like road racing, Ryan doesn’t necessarily like road racing. I’m trying to get him in the state of mind and that’s a good opportunity race.”

But….

There are a few of those.

They make Wilson a “realist” about their situation, especially when it comes to facing the juggernauts of Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and the other Cup-affiliated teams.

First, there’s the cars.

Those Cup-affiliated teams will likely be bringing new or updated cars to the track as the playoffs open.

Meanwhile, Sieg’s team will be using the same three cars they’ve been rotating through all year. Luckily for Wilson, they’re relatively new chassis the team purchased from Richard Childress Racing before this season, so he’s familiar with them.

“Here we will be running the same cars as we have been because that’s what we have,” Wilson says. “But I don’t think I’d ever switch that anyway, you gotta kind of ride the horse that got you there and try not to out trick yourself or race something that’s a little bit better cause you really need to bring something you know and that you’ve raced all year then see where you land.”

Then there’s the playoff points.

Sieg enters Richmond 11th in the standings with 2,001 points after the standings were reset. That one playoff point is a result of Sieg winning Stage 2 at Texas Motor Speedway in March.

“Looking at it, those top three cars (Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick) have such a big advantage, you almost have to pencil them into Homestead,” Sieg says. “To make it through the first (round), that’s what we want to do and need to do. But if we don’t, be consistent over the seven races and get top 10 in points, I think we got eliminated in the first round in 2016, but we still finished ninth in the standings. So it’s always nice to be top 10 in points. … Anything can happen.”

However, with all that, there’s one additional tool in the No. 39 team’s utility belt they didn’t have in April.

They return to Richmond with a Cup pit crew, which they began using in May at Charlotte.

Why is that notable?

Shane Wilson, right, has been a NASCAR crew chief since the early 2000s in Truck Series. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

“We lost I think 30 spots on pit road that first race and still finished top five,” Sieg says.

Well, maybe it felt like 30.

“It wasn’t quite 30, but it was like 17 though,” Wilson says with a hearty laugh. “Which is still a lot.”

Even with a more experienced pit crew, Sieg’s philosophy on what happens on pit road has been drilled into him.

“We don’t want to gain spots on pit road, we don’t want to lose any either,” Sieg says. “We just want to maintain. I bet you in my career if you counted the number of times I’ve come off pit road I’ve probably lost more positions than I want to count. That’s part of being a small team. If we come in eighth and Brandon Jones is ninth, he’s got a Joe Gibbs pit crew. If they beat us by two seconds, you’re going to lose that spot. I’ve kind of dealt with that a lot in my career. I’m not complaining, cause it’s part of what it is. So I just want to come in 10th and go out 10th. Yeah, it would be great to come out fourth, but that’s less realistic.”

And what if that Cup pit crew had been in place at Richmond six months ago?

“We might of won,” Wilson says. “Or we would have finished second. Because we passed two guys who finished in front of us about three different times. The only one we never passed was (winner Cole Custer).”

While advancing to the next round would be huge for Sieg’s team, Wilson’s goal for the next three races is straightforward: “finish ahead of four of those guys every week” and “accumulate enough points to make them have to race us at Dover.”

Liberty University extends William Byron sponsorship through 2021

Hendrick Motorsports
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Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday that Liberty University has reached a two-year agreement to extend its sponsorship of William Byron and his No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 team.

After sponsoring Byron for 12 Cup races in both 2018 and 2019, Liberty University will continue to support the 2018 Cup rookie of the year for an additional 12 Cup races in each of the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

In his second season of driving in the Cup series for HMS, Byron is currently taking part in his first NASCAR Cup playoffs. He’s ninth in the standings after this past Sunday’s playoff opening race at Las Vegas.

We have been by William Byron’s side as he’s risen through the ranks at a young age, and it is an honor to continue to support one of our very own in his career,” Liberty University president Jerry Falwell said in a statement. “William and Hendrick Motorsports have always been a perfect fit for Liberty University. We share the same values and are committed to the same mission that makes champions on the racetrack and champions in life.”

The 21-year-old Byron is a junior in Liberty University’s online program, working on an undergraduate business communications degree. The school has been a sponsor of Byron’s since he drove late model stock cars in 2014.

Liberty University has been a big part of my racing career and progression through NASCAR from basically the beginning,” Byron said. “Their support on and off the track, including with my studies, has been monumental.

They’ve been with me through numerous accomplishments, including race wins and championships, and I’m glad we were able to add to that list this season by making it into my first Cup Series playoffs. I’m excited about Liberty being back on board with the No. 24 team, and I look forward to what the future holds for us.”

Weekend schedule for Cup, Xfinity at Richmond

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Friday night marks the opening race of the Xfinity Series playoffs, while Saturday night will be the second race in the opening round of the Cup playoffs.

Wunderground.com predicts a temperature of 74 degrees Friday with 0% chance of precipitation when the green flag drops. Christopher Bell won last year’s Xfinity race. Cole Custer won at Richmond in April.

Wunderground.com predicts a temperature of 79 degrees Saturday with 0% chance of precipitation when the green flag drops for the Cup race. Kyle Busch won last year’s race. Martin Truex Jr. won this spring at Richmond.

Here is this weekend’s schedule:

(All times Eastern)

Friday, September 20

8 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

8:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. – Cup garage open

9:35-10:55 a.m. – Xfinity final practice (NBCSN)

11:35 a.m. – 12:25 p.m. – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

1:35 – 2:25 p.m. – Cup final practice (NBCSN, MRN)

4:35 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying impound (single vehicle/two laps all positions) (NBCSN)

5:45 p.m. – Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting

6:05 p.m. – Cup qualifying impound (single vehicle/two laps all positions) (NBCSN, MRN)

7 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

7:30 p.m. – Xfinity race (Stages 75/150/250 laps = 187.5 miles) (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Saturday, September 21

1:30 p.m. – Cup garage open

5:30 p.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting

6:50 p.m. – Cup driver introductions

7:30 p.m. – Cup race (Stages 100/200/400 laps = 300 miles) (NBCSN/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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Tune into NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

NBC Sports
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Today’s episode of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Rutledge Wood will be joined by Kyle Petty and AJ Allmendinger.

In addition to discussing this weekend’s second race of the playoffs at Richmond Raceway, the guys will be taking your calls at 844-NASCAR-NBC or reach out on Twitter via #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.