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Ryan: Dumping the Duels can return drama to Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Here is the long and short of how to address the conundrum hanging over this Speedweeks with the pall of a parade for past glory never to be recaptured.

Expand the racing. And shrink the field.

Entering the 60th edition of the Daytona 500, NASCAR has reached a crossroads with the qualifying races for the Great American Race that were once billed as “the largest weekday sporting event in America.”

In the halcyon days of what were known as the Twin 125s, there were few days during the NASCAR season that were packed with as much drama as setting the Daytona 500 field. Traffic was so congested for the 1 p.m. start, you had to arrive six hours early to beat it, and nearby schools made the second Thursday in February a holiday because buses couldn’t run on schedule.

Across the country, fans snuck transistor radios into their office cubicles to listen surreptitiously to races that lost none of their luster despite being shown on tape delay.

Naturally, there was a voracious appetite for an event that consistently delivered inspiring stories of triumph, a healthy dose of sobering heartache and a doubleheader sneak preview of the Daytona 500.

Unfortunately, the underdog storylines that once made Daytona qualifiers special are gone, disappearing into the cash-strapped ether that has crippled once larger fields in many forms of auto racing.

Only 40 cars showed up for the 40 spots in Sunday’s race, and even that seemed in doubt until BK Racing’s perpetual legal problems were put on a temporary hold a few hours ahead of Thursday night’s first green flag.

When a Chapter 11 filing is greeted as good news for The Great American Race avoiding a black eye, it’s time to reconsider the wisdom of making the Daytona 500 work in the charter era.

Since purses were restructured two years ago, the four “open” spots hardly are incentivized to make just qualifying for Daytona worthwhile anymore. As Kevin Harvick said this week, why not just limit fields to the 36 chartered cars?

But it’s also time to revamp the Duels, which can’t be retrofitted to produce the drama inherent from the days when 50-plus cars regularly showed up to fill 43 spots.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been through this with its crown jewel. Bump Day, once a nail-biting test of nerves with nonstop plot twists, essentially died an ignominious death many years ago when sponsorship dried up enough at the Brickyard.

But the speedway found a way to restore some glory in 2010 with the introduction of the Fast Nine and enhanced it in 2014 by moving it to the last hour Sunday, supplanting the spectacle of completing the field of 33 with a pressure-packed run for the pole position.

Daytona qualifying is no equal for the breathtakingly Herculean task of four laps at Indy, so there is no direct parallel but a similar solution.

Shift the focus.

Dump pole qualifying at Daytona, which always has been more of a PR exercise with little bearing on the race. Make starting positions (which, admittedly, still won’t matter much) dependent on the results of heat races spread over several days of continuous racing leading into Daytona.

Put up points, post a megabonus for winning multiple races … surely, there are ways to improve on the current attraction.

Thursday’s Duels – the first time cars were on track since Sunday — underscored there increasingly has been too much dead time added to the Daytona schedule.

Make Speedweeks into a Speedweek: Start Sunday with The Clash and run nonstop daily through the 500. Sprinkle in more daytime starts to mimic the racing conditions for the 500 and reignite some missing buzz (there are signs that already has worked with The Clash’s move under the sun).

This will benefit the racing as well (while obviously taxing crews, cars and engines, too — again, more drama).

Thursday night’s two races were only the second test of a new rules package, leaving many drivers spooked about rear suspension instability at 200 mph. With hardly any practice time, it was understandable that some (notably pole-sitter Alex Bowman, whose No. 88 Chevrolet was set up for qualifying speed instead of racing handling) decided discretion was the better part of valor.

Keeping cars racing daily in the draft will 1) give drivers the time to get acclimated to handling conditions; 2) give NASCAR a larger sample size to evaluate aero and engine specs and make aerodynamic improvements if necessary.

Yes, these are fairly radical changes for the most storied event in NASCAR, and history and tradition are taken seriously at the World Center of Racing.

So is drama, though. And in their current format, the Duels no longer can deliver it.

Saturday schedule for Cup at Sonoma, Trucks at Gateway

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Cup cars are only on the track for qualifying today at Sonoma Raceway, and Camping Work Truck teams will qualify and race at Gateway Motorsports Park.

Johnny Sauter has won three of the last five Truck races. Brett Moffitt won last weekend’s Truck race at Iowa.

Here’s today’s schedule at both tracks:

(ALL TIMES ARE EASTERN)

At SONOMA RACEWAY

10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. — Cup garage open

2:45 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-vehicle/two rounds (FS1, Performance Racing Network)

4:30 p.m. — K&N Pro Series West race; 64 laps, 127.36 miles (airs at 6 p.m. ET June 28 on NBCSN)

At GATEWAY MOTORSPORTS PARK

11 a.m. — Truck garage opens

Noon – 1 p.m. — Final Truck practice (No TV)

5:45 p.m. — Truck qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (airs from 7-8 p.m. on FS1)

7 p.m. — Driver/crew chief meeting

8 p.m. — Driver introductions

8:30 p.m. — Villa Lighting delivers the Eaton 200; 160 laps/200 miles (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Kurt Busch fastest in final Cup practice at Sonoma

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Kurt Busch posted the fastest single lap in the final practice for the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway with a speed of 94.061 mph.

He beat second-place Denny Hamlin (94.012 mph) by .040 seconds.

Martin Truex Jr. (93.718) had the third fastest lap, but the team will have some work to do before Saturday’s qualification. With nine minutes remaining on the clock, he ran into the back of Bubba Wallace in the esses and did significant damage to his nose. Wallace landed 34th on the chart with a speed of 91.641 mph.

Jamie McMurray (93.549) and Kevin Harvick (93.441) rounded out the top five.

Harvick (91.468) had the quickest 10-lap average – leading a sweep of the top three by Stewart Haas Racing. Busch was second quickest at 91.452 mph with Clint Bowyer third quick at 91.443 mph.

William Byron broke an axle seal in final practice, but the team was able to get him back on track with 24 minutes remaining in the session. His speed of 92.279 mph was 25th fastest.

Click here for the full report from final practice.

Friday Truck Series practice report from Gateway

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Second practice

Last week’s winner, Brett Moffitt topped the speed chart in Friday evening’s practice session for the Eaton 200 with a speed of 137.191 mph.

He beat second-place Myatt Snider (136.658 mph) by .128 seconds.

Johnny Sauter (136.608), Riley Herbst (136.355), and Ben Rhodes (136.219) round out the top five.

Herbst is making his Truck Series debut this week.

Also making his Truck debut is Zane Smith, who posted a lap of 136.120 mph to land sixth on the chart.

Christian Eckes (135.906) failed to back up his series-leading speed from the first practice session and was only ninth fastest, but he had the quickest 10-lap average of 135.039 mph.

Click here for complete results from practice 2.

First practice

Rain canceled the practice session at Gateway that was scheduled to run from 3:35 – 4:25 p.m. Eastern time.

When they finally got on track, Eckes posted the fastest single lap in the first practice session with a speed of 134.360 mph. He is making his Truck series debut this week.

Eckes’ speed was .009 seconds faster than Noah Gragon (134.324), who landed second on the speed chart.

Rhodes (134.120), Moffitt (133.817) and Matt Crafton (133.706) rounded out the top five.

Rhodes had the quickest 10-lap average of 133.466 mph.

With the first practice canceled at Gateway, NASCAR added a final practice session scheduled for Noon – 1 p.m.

Click here for complete results from practice one.

Denny Hamlin offers advice on how to deal with critics on social media

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Denny Hamlin, who has been fined by NASCAR for comments on Twitter, and was vocal toward critics after this year’s Daytona 500, says he’s found peace on how to deal with those on social media who don’t agree with him.

“I’ve been very good this year about not replying to mean people, and you all should do the same,’’ Hamlin said Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

“I’m making a (request) right now to every driver, every team owner, every NASCAR executive and every media member, stop replying to people who make nonsense comments. They have 16 followers. Don’t give them your 100,000. Do not give them your 100,000 as their stage. No one will ever see their comment, just brush it by, talk about the positives and I’m not a positive person.”

Asked how does one ignore such divisive comments, Hamlin said: “You just scroll by it. Forget it. That person doesn’t exit. They’re an admirer that has lost their way.’’

Hamlin has been better at doing so since the Daytona 500. He faced negative reaction on social media to the contact he and Bubba Wallace had at the end of the Daytona 500.

They engaged in a brief shouting match in the garage area after Hamlin learned that Wallace had taken a dig at him on national TV about a recent comment about drivers using Adderall.

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