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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.

NTSB releases final report on Dale Jr. plane crash

NTSB
Photo: Dustin Long
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Pilot error played a key role in the August 2019 crash of a plane carrying Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family, a final report by the National Transportation Safety Board stated Wednesday.

Earnhardt, wife Amy and daughter Isla were on board the plane, which crashed after a hard landing at Elizabethton (Tennessee) Municipal Airport on Aug. 15, 2019. The report stated all three suffered minor injuries. 

The NTSB listed the probable causes of the accident as: “The pilot’s continuation of an unstabilized approach despite recognizing associated cues and the flight crew’s decision not to initiate a go-around before touchdown, which resulted in a bounced landing, a loss of airplane control, a landing gear collapse, and a runway excursion. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to deploy the speedbrakes during the initial touchdown, which may have prevented the runway excursion, and the pilot’s attempt to go around after deployment of the thrust reversers.”

A “go-around” occurs when a pilot pulls out of a landing and gains altitude to make another landing attempt.

The report stated that “the flight crew made several comments about the airplane flying too fast and allowed the airspeed to increase well above the reference speed for the approach.”

The report stated that “the pilot did not extend the speedbrakes upon touchdown, which landing checklist required, but instead attempted to deploy the thrust reversers immediately after touchdown, which was a later item on the landing checklist.”

Earnhardt’s Cessna 680A Citation Latitude bounced twice upon landing as it traversed the 5,001-foot runaway.

After the fourth touchdown, the right main landing gear collapsed. The plane went off the road and through a 400-foot long area of grass. It went down an embankment, through a creek and a chain-link fence. It continued up an embankment. The plane came to rest about 600 feet beyond the runway at the edge of a four-lane highway.

The passengers and two pilots escaped as the plane burned.

The full report can be read here.

Champion or not, Chase Briscoe won’t let Xfinity title define season

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Like the 11 drivers he’ll compete against in the Xfinity Series playoffs, a championship is the endgame for Chase Briscoe.

However, with the Stewart-Haas Racing driver one win from matching his preseason goal of at least eight victories, Briscoe wouldn’t be too disappointed if he failed to claim the title at the end of the seven-race playoff.

“I feel like to this point if we don’t get to eight (wins) … I feel like I accomplished or proved what I was trying to say at the beginning of the year,” Briscoe told NBC Sports on Tuesday. “There’s still no reason why we can’t get to 10 wins. I feel 100% confident in my team that we’re going to have the cars capable of doing it, I just need to do my job. If we do that, hopefully we can get to Phoenix and then (whoever’s) the best team once we get there wins.”

As he prepares to open the playoffs Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Briscoe is wary of not letting “the championship define you and define your season. … Winning races is a big deal. That’s what you get paid to do is go win races and obviously win championships as well, but today’s format anything can happen in that final race.”

Briscoe can attest to importance of winning races. He enters the playoff with a series-leading seven wins, which has helped him start the postseason with 2,050 points and ties him with Austin Cindric.

Briscoe’s impressive numbers come a year after he had just one win in a season where Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer combined to win 21 of 33 races.

Briscoe believes the perception of his abilities as a driver are “way different” from last year as he struggled to chase those three drivers now competing in Cup.

“Personally, I felt like I could win races, and I think a lot of it was learning,” Briscoe said. “Last year, there were still a lot of tracks I had never been to before and didn’t even have 100 pavement starts in my entire career, and now I have that experience. I have the confidence to go with it and all of those things are totally different, and when I said what I said at the beginning of the year (about winning eight races) I felt like I was capable of doing that.

“If I could back it up, it would look even better. … I think I’ve proven my worth in this sport. I feel like if I do get the opportunity to move up, I feel like I’m ready, but I also feel like I could get a lot of benefit out of coming back to the Xfinity Series and running again.”

Briscoe, a Ford development driver, says he still doesn’t know what’s in store for him in 2021.

He said the uncertainty of his future is a “little bit easier” to handle compared to last year because of the wins he’s racked up.

Regardless of not knowing his NASCAR fate, if Briscoe can “somehow get to 10 wins this year and win the championship, then that would just make it, I feel like, a lot easier for the decision-makers.”

Mike Wallace’s appeal of indefinite suspension denied

NASCAR suspends Mike Wallace
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Mike Wallace‘s indefinite suspension by NASCAR was upheld by the National Motorsports Appeals Panel on Wednesday.

Wallace, who has made three Xfinity Series starts this season, was suspended Sept. 10 for violating Sections 12.1; 12.8; 12.8.1.e of the rule book.

According to the rulebook, a violation of section 12.8.1.e is any “Public statement and/or communication that criticizes, ridicules, or otherwise disparages another person based upon that person’s race, color, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, age, or handicapping condition.”

As part of the suspension, Wallace is required by NASCAR to attend sensitivity training.

The three-member appeals panel was made up of Dixon Johnston, Bill Lester and Kevin Whitaker.

Wallace has the right to appeal the decision to the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer.

Wallace wrote the following on Facebook shortly after his suspension was originally announced:

“You know as I fly across the United States today I’m ready various people’s political views and I have to say a famous four star Military General that I spent time with in the MidEast told me Mike let me give you some advice don’t ever get in a conversation about politics or religion unless you are really smart. I said why do you say that comment His response it’s like being balanced on a single edge razor blade if you slip you will get cut!

Think about that before we all make foolish uneducated post! Moral of this story is most of use just repeat what we have heard we really don’t know.
Have a great positive day!”

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character

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Following months of speaking out in support of racial justice and inclusion in NASCAR, Bubba Wallace‘s work has been recognized by The Musial Awards.

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been selected as the recipient of its Award for Extraordinary Character.

The award honors “an individual who demonstrates remarkable poise, perseverance and overall sportsmanship.”

The Musial Awards – presented by Maryville University in St. Louis – is named after Stan Musial, a former St. Louis Cardinal baseball player. St. Louis is also the home to one of Wallace’s sponsors, World Wide Technology.

More: Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

In the wake of the death of George Floyd in May, the 26-year-old Wallace has been active in helping lead NASCAR through social changes, including the banning of the Confederate flag at series events and tracks.

He also drove a Black Lives Matter car at Martinsville Speedway in June.

“Bubba Wallace exemplifies what the Stan Musial Award for Extraordinary Character is all about,” Frank Viverito, president of the St. Louis Sports Commission, which produces the Musial Awards, said in a press release. “He has overcome much to be where he is, and he has courageously stepped forward to take an important stand for change. He is most deserving of an award that stands for sportsmanship and character, and is named for Stan Musial, whose own actions promoted racial acceptance and unity.”

Wallace joins baseball legend Hank Aaron as a 2020 Musial Awards honoree. Aaron is receiving the Stan Musial Lifetime Achievement Award for Sportsmanship.

The Musial Awards will air nationally on CBS on Saturday, Dec. 26.

After three full-time seasons in Cup racing for RPM, it was announced earlier this week that Wallace would compete in 2021 for a Cup team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and basketball legend Michael Jordan.