Ryan: Four drivers had a Daytona 500 win in reach. Here’s how it got away

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – There’s only one winner of the Great American Race, and technically up to 39 losers annually.

But the number of drivers who lose with legitimate shots at a Daytona 500 victory — but watch them get squandered, snatched away or simply vanish in the capricious draft — varies every season.

Sunday’s race seemed one of the longest list of “woulda coulda shouldas” in recent memory.

No fewer than four drivers in the final 10 laps made decisions while leading that they desperately would have wanted back.

A few flicks of the wheel in other directions, and the course of history instantaneously could have resulted in someone other than Austin Dillon hoisting the Harley J. Earl trophy.

This has been a theme lately in the Daytona 500. Sunday marked three straight last-lap passes for wins, and the 2016 finish might have been the cruelest of all for Matt Kenseth.

Nearly a year after his bid at third Daytona 500 victory vanished in the final corner with a split-second call to block an outside charge (if he stayed put, he probably wins),  Kenseth still wasn’t over the agony entering last season. “All I can remember is losing one,” he told NBC Sports a year ago.

How many times will this year’s class of the heartbroken say the same after rewinding the video and replaying the memories of the moves they didn’t make?

Here’s what could haunt them until at least their next shot at Daytona – and possibly long afterward.

Aric Almirola: In his first start at Stewart-Haas Racing, he seemed to be lamenting the finish the most among the contenders – and it wasn’t only because he had the lead until being moved by Dillon entering the third turn on the last lap. Almirola was “devastated” by the knowledge of what was left on the table – “a career changing race.”

It’s difficult to second-guess many of the maneuvers by the No. 10 Ford in crunch time: Almirola did well just to position himself for the win. But he probably would rerun the last lap, when he had Denny Hamlin behind him on the inside while Dillon was on the outside with a heavy push from Bubba Wallace.

The situation was similar to Kenseth’s – instinctually, it’s difficult for a driver to stay calm and in the inside lane when a competitor is coming with a full head of steam on the high lane.

But the trend Sunday was the outside was faster on the straightaways while the inside was quickest in the turns. If Almirola stays put, does Dillon’s momentum stall in the last two corners? The outcome probably is the same because he had little help, but that might have been what kept Almirola up Sunday night.

Denny Hamlin: With Hamlin in the lead on an overtime restart and only seven winning-caliber cars on the lead lap behind him, this certainly seemed the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s race to lose.

The 2016 Daytona 500 winner is regarded as one of the two or three best restrictor-plate drivers by his peers, and he certainly was the most adept and experienced contender left in the field.

But the lack of a Toyota drafting partner (JGR’s other three cars were long out of the running) ultimately took the decision out of Hamlin’s hands. He had to choose to restart ahead of Buescher or Dillon, both in Chevrolets, and after a debate on his team radio, he went with Buescher – but not because of the JTG Daugherty Racing driver.

Hamlin had his eye on Paul Menard’s Ford in fifth, which he felt was better than Bubba Wallace’s Chevy in sixth. “Obviously, I’ve been doing this long enough that I know that it’s made or break by the fifth‑ and sixth‑place drivers,” he said. “It’s not really who’s directly behind you, and I felt like (Menard) was probably going to be one of the best pushers. I saw how strong his car was.  So we tried to get on the radio and get (Buescher) behind us, (Menard) to try to buy in on whatever line gets organized the most is going to win the race. Those are the cars that’s going to battle it out for the victory.”

Buescher committed, but Menard didn’t, blunting the momentum of the inside and leaving Hamlin in the wake of Almirola, Wallace and Dillon. “So just a 50/50-coin flip and chose the wrong lane,” he said. “Honestly feel like there was nothing else I could have done (other than) just made a different decision there on lane choice.”

One other call Hamlin might be reconsidering? The decision to make the last green-flag pit a lap later than the lead pack (for a clean entry and exit, perhaps after Hamlin nearly lost two laps on a penalty for sliding through his box on the first stop). Hamlin dropped from third to eighth after a stop that he said was “almost too good” because he rejoined the track too far ahead and got gobbled up by the draft of the cars that pitted together. “They took us out of control of the race,” he said.

Ryan Blaney: He led a race-high 118 laps in another example of plate-racing excellence in his short Cup career, but Sunday showed the Team Penske driver still lacks experience. His No. 12 Ford seemed in control with the lead and Kurt Busch’s Ford behind him on a restart with seven laps left, but Hamlin just snookered him from fifth on the inside lane.

Blaney made an impressive recovery to lead the next lap briefly over Busch but lost the lead again. When Busch made a mistake going low two laps later, Blaney took the lead again but dropped from first the next lap when Hamlin went by with Busch in tow. A third shot at redemption for Blaney was eliminated by a multicar crash triggered by a block from Busch.

The main takeaway for Blaney, who had the strongest car in the second half, is learning how to be more strategic and less emphatic with his blocking.

Kurt Busch: He had a couple of shots at becoming the first winner of consecutive Daytona 500s in more than 20 years. But he landed in what he described as a “Bermuda Triangle” on the move in which he apparently delivered an inadvertent push that propelled Hamlin’s Toyota past Blaney’s Ford (Busch has been emphasizing his ties to the Blue Oval, which might present a landing spot in sports cars when his NASCAR career ends).

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver seemed to be second-guessing whether he should have used Dillon’s winning strategy – drill Hamlin and hope he could drive past him without crashing.

“It seemed like when Hamlin blocked us, I hit him pretty hard, and that killed a lot of my momentum,” he said. “Maybe I should have just flung the 11, but you have to treat guys with respect and you’ve also got to throw your elbows out, and you have to hold the hits when you get hit. We were close to going back-to-back in the Daytona 500, but I don’t have anything to show for it.”

Dillon’s victory came on the 17th anniversary of the last-lap Daytona 500 wreck that killed Dale Earnhardt, the most recent NASCAR fatality at Daytona International Speedway.

It’s easy to forget that Dillon also cheated death at the 2.5-mile oval after an airborne crash in the July 5, 2015 race that ripped a 60-foot swath of the catchfence and left Dillon sitting helpless in a stationary, mangled shell of his No. 3 when it was hit at speed

Sunday he admitted that, despite his Lane Frost impression after exiting the car with no injuries, the wreck stayed with him 30 months later and admittedly still makes him nervous.

“When it happened, I didn’t know how big it was, and then you see videos of it, and you’re like, ‘How did I like walk out of that like with nothing?’” he asked. “I get nervous coming here.  I think everybody does.  Especially like the first race in the Clash, I remember before the race, I was like, ‘Man, there’s something about this place that just makes you nervous.’

“But once you get in the race car and you settle in, the belts are tight, you’re like, all right, it’s time to go racing.  It’s fun again.  This place is just cool because of that.  If it didn’t make you nervous, something would be wrong, I think.”

Close your eyes and ignore the Piedmont accent, and it would be easy to pretend you were hearing that being said in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott’s wicked head-on collision was cringeworthy to witness on such a fateful day in NASCAR history, but it was another reminder that Earnhardt’s greatest legacy remains that it sparked a safety revolution that is the longest period without a fatality in NASCAR national series history.

Yet it still is jarring to hear Joe Nemechek say after last Friday’s truck series race that “it’s pretty tough to get hurt in these cars anymore with all the safety innovations that have come through, soft walls, the carbon seats.”

Nemechek is a veteran who speaks from painful experience – his brother, John, died in a 1997 truck crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And he was giving a candid answer to what it’s like to watch his son, John Hunter (named for Joe’s late brother), involved in a caution.

But it feels like whistling past the graveyard to imply that Earnhardt’s death might be NASCAR’s last. History shows it won’t be, and with blocking becoming part and parcel to plate racing, the brutal wrecks Sunday at Daytona probably will become more of the norm.

It’s possible for NASCAR to legislate blocking through wholesale rule changes, but it was striking that seemingly no one was lobbying for limits during and after 500 miles of incessant aggression.

Contrast that with Speedweeks in 2006 when Tony Stewart sternly warned someone would die if measures to restrict slam-drafting weren’t taken, or the 2002 Talladega race that prompted a virtual revolt among veterans.

Not anymore. A mix of acceptance and resignation about blocking as an accepted part of doing business colored the words of many drivers Sunday. It was particularly true in interviews with Almirola, who didn’t seem the slightest bit miffed about being punted by Dillon (conceding he would have done the same). Almirola’s boss, the guy nicknamed “Smoke” who once bragged of meting out retribution for any young turks daring to impede his progress, might have had a different opinion.

To hear more of his discussion, this was a topic on Monday’s post-Daytona episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, which is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play and elsewhere.

Wallace and Hamlin exchanged some barbs in postrace interviews, but they also had a heated exchange of words in the garage after Hamlin left the media center and Wallace was headed there.

It apparently was caught on camera by the crew that is following Wallace’s rookie season for a Facebook Watch documentary. That might be worth watching for over the final two episodes airing this week.

Though it was another tantalizing example of youth vs. establishment, it’s hard to see things lingering between Wallace, 24, and Hamlin, 37, who often play golf and basketball together.

Counting Dillon, the top three finishers at Daytona are members of Hamlin’s “Hoop Group”, where the trash talking might get a little fiercer.

While NASCAR still is waiting to hear if Monster Energy will pick up a two-year option of its title sponsorship beyond 2018, there was another sign the beverage company has made some headway on getting its requests met. The branding on the flag stand made Daytona International Speedway the latest track to more prominently display Monster logos (which were more visible at several tracks last fall).

Because its deal with NASCAR was signed so late before beginning last season, Monster still has been ironing out details with tracks on guarantees of exposure. It’s hard to predict which way its extension could go, but branding similar to Daytona only can help improve NASCAR’s chances.

The first true test will come this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but it’s rare that a NASCAR initiative such as the optical scanning system is as well received as the new inspection process was at Daytona.

If a full complement of cars is on the grid as early for qualifying and the race at Atlanta, NASCAR really might be on to something.

Also, credit to NASCAR for announcing penalties on team members during the course of last weekend rather than waiting until midweek. NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell explained in his weekly SiriusXM spot Monday that this is part of a laudable effort to get out of the game of announcing midweek penalties.

That hopefully goes for postrace inspection, too, eventually, though it’s unclear where NASCAR will land on that (and there were no inspection problems after the Cup and Xfinity races at Daytona).

The author of this column headline will concede it might have been taken the wrong way (though the text below it was intended as elucidation).

While the Duels are becoming antiquated creatures in the charter system, the concept of hosting warmup races for the biggest race of the season is more important than ever. This is an opportunity to reimagine Speedweeks in a throwback way.

Teams will complain about putting too many cars at risk. Even some fans will protest having “too much” racing.

Ultimately, the complaints should be weighed against reality, which is that racing cars is the most surefire way to ensure a buildup of compelling storylines for the biggest race of the season. Even if they are just 20-lap dashes a la The Clash of yesteryear.

If NASCAR removes the “open” classification holding four slots for non-charter cars every week, that would free up some extra cash to post, too, for bonus events.

It’s understandable that the Duels, which have been run in some form since the track’s 1959 opening, would be viewed as sacred cows. There also has been much discussion about giving NASCAR fans too much “change” to digest. This has been true when the “change” isn’t necessarily warranted but is intended more as a leap of faith toward something better.

That is not the case in this instance. Under the current economic, purse and team structure, the Duels (nee Twins) aren’t going to look the way they did in the halcyon days. It’s something that will need to be addressed by necessity.

Bump & Run: Should NASCAR further penalize Johnny Sauter?

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If you were NASCAR, would you give Johnny Sauter and Austin Hill any additional penalties for their incidents at Iowa Speedway? 

Nate Ryan: A points penalty for Sauter that would be on par with what Jeff Gordon received for wrecking Clint Bowyer at Phoenix in November 2012 (because that seems the most analogous situation to this, other than the crash happening under yellow rather than green).

Dustin Long: My initial reaction was to suspend Sauter, but then I went the opposite way and thought no further penalties should be issued because Sauter already had been penalized by being parked and finishing 27th in the 32-truck field. I finally decided upon points and a fine, which is outlined in the rulebook. While NASCAR lists intentionally wrecking someone as an infraction that could result in the loss of 25-50 points and a fine of $12,5000 to $25,000, I’d dock Sauter 40 points and fine him $20,000 because his retaliation happened under caution. Some might suggest NASCAR suspend Sauter but still allow him to compete in the playoffs (even though a prerequisite is attempting to start each regular-season event). That sounds like a waiver and that is not the intent of the waiver. While NASCAR can do whatever it wants, suspending a driver and then altering its rules so the suspension doesn’t prohibit a driver from competing in the playoffs would not be a good look. The requirement on playoff eligibility should be updated. 

Daniel McFadin: Sauter should be suspended for a race; he used his truck as a weapon on a defenseless truck under caution. But the suspension shouldn’t count against his playoff eligibility. He’s already made the playoffs. I support a provision that prevents taking that spot away. That should only be done if a winning vehicle fails inspection in the same race you clinched the playoff spot. If Hill receives any penalties it should just be a fine at the most. NASCAR will use their run-in for marketing for years to come, so no need to overdo it.

Jerry Bonkowski: There is precedent here: Sauter’s ramming Hill is a virtual carbon copy of Kyle Busch slamming into Ron Hornaday Jr. at Texas back in 2011. The penalty Busch received should be what Sauter receives: a $50,000 fine, probation until the end of the year, and if Sauter is involved in any other incidents this season, he should be suspended and become ineligible for the playoffs.

It’s Tuesday and there is still some question as to who won Sunday’s Truck race with Ross Chastain’s team appealing the NASCAR decision to take the win away after Chastain’s truck failed inspection. The issue is expected to be resolved by this week. Is this still the best way for NASCAR to address such issues with inspection after a race? 

Nate Ryan: Yes. There is no confusion: Brett Moffitt’s team was awarded the win, and Ross Chastain’s team has an opportunity to challenge it. Similar to the courts system, a ruling already has been made. Prior to NASCAR’s change in philosophy this year, the ruling on a win’s validity (even if it wasn’t stripped) was withheld for a few days. This is a better system.

Dustin Long: This is still way better than the old system where you might not know there was a different winner because of an infraction until Tuesday. At least this way everyone knew on Sunday. Got to let the appeal process take its course but at least everything will be resolved this week instead weeks later as could happen previously.

Daniel McFadin: Yes, it is the best way. No one wants a winner disqualification to first be announced mid-week. This accelerates the appeals process to where a final judgement can be settled upon before the race weekend begins. The fact that this is the first winner disqualification or disqualification in general through five months means the new system is having some sort of impact. This might not be something that happens often.

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR may have painted itself into a corner with taking the win away from Chastain. The reason is simple: how did his Truck pass pre-race inspection, yet failed post-race inspection? Did something break on his truck, which caused its ride height in the front end to fall below standards? Did it happen because of contact in the race? Is that Chastain’s fault? And what happens if Chastain wins his appeal? Then what? Unless NASCAR has iron-clad evidence that Chastain’s team cheated, if officials jumped the gun, Chastain’s win should be reinstated and policies and procedures should be reviewed and changed.

They ran both the Truck and Xfinity race on the same day at Iowa Speedway after the Truck race was postponed to Sunday because of rain Saturday night. Atlanta already hosts a Truck/Xfinity doubleheader. Should there be more of these doubleheaders with these two series or keep them limited so they remain unique?

Nate Ryan: It’s an idea worthy of merit; the quantity won’t affect their appeal. It mostly should depend on whether it makes sense for NASCAR, the tracks and the TV networks.

Dustin Long: Originally Iowa was to be a one-day show for the Trucks and they got held over because of rain and spent two days at Iowa. I think there are some cases for one-day shows for Trucks to save costs. Doubleheaders are fine but should be done when it makes sense not only for fans but for teams.

Daniel McFadin: Bring on more doubleheaders. It shortens the weekend and gives more bang for a fan’s buck with one full day of racing. Also, the Truck Series primarily competes on Friday nights, when most people are not staying in to watch TV. Putting them on a Saturday before or after an Xfinity race or on a Sunday before a Cup race (like at Martinsville in 2018 after a rain and snow delay) provides a better opportunity for fans at the track and at home to see the Truck Series. We’ll get to see a version of this next year with the Cup Series doubleheader weekend at Pocono. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, yes, yes. This is the perfect example of why NASCAR should add more doubleheaders to its schedule. Not only do fans get more bang for their buck, the Truck and Xfinity Series will get more appreciation from race fans of one series who typically may not pay attention to the other series. The excitement we saw in both races is definitely a precursor of even more to come if NASCAR elects to add more twinbills.

Preliminary entry lists for Cup at Sonoma, Trucks at Gateway

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After a week off, the NASCAR Cup Series is back in action this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, just north of San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the Gander Outdoors Truck Series will compete at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis.

The Xfinity Series enjoys this weekend off before it returns at Chicagoland Speedway on June 29.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for this weekend’s Cup and Truck races:

Cup – Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1)

There are 38 cars entered for the race around the twisting road course in Napa Valley’s wine country.

JJ Yeley will make his second Cup start of the season, driving the No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Ford.

Cody Ware will be back in the No. 52 Ford for Rick Ware Racing.

Justin Haley will make his second career Cup start, piloting the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman will make his seventh start of the Cup season in the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

 

Trucks – Gateway 200 (10 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

A total of 31 trucks are entered in this race.

There is no driver listed yet for the No. 0 Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing Chevrolet.

Camden Murphy makes his second start of the season, driving the No. 8 Nemco Motorsports Chevrolet.

Daniel Sasnett makes his second start of the season, piloting the No. 32 Reaume Brothers Racing Chevrolet.

Bryant Barnhill makes his first start of the season and second of his Truck career in the No. 34 Reaume Brothers Racing Chevrolet.

Kyle Benjamin makes his third start of the season, driving the No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet.

Following his Truck Series debut at Iowa, Chandler Smith will drive the No. 46 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.

Christian Eckes makes his second Truck start of the season, piloting the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Five Cup or Xfinity drivers to compete in Saturday’s K&N West race at Sonoma

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Drivers in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West will have some extra company in Saturday’s Procore 200 race (4:30 p.m. ET) at Sonoma Raceway.

Five drivers from either the Cup or Xfinity series will take part in the event:

* Driving for road course powerhouse Jefferson Pitts Racing, Austin Dillon will make his 20th career K&N Pro Series start, his third at Sonoma (first since 2015). In prior races at the road course, he’s finished 22nd and sixth.

* Also driving for JPR will be current Cup rookie Ryan Preece, who will be making his first career K&N West start and first race start at Sonoma.

* Daniel Hemric will make his first K&N West start and fourth overall series start (first since 2015 at Watkins Glen). He has also never raced at Sonoma.

* Xfinity Series driver Cole Custer will be making third series start at Sonoma (previous finishes were ninth and 12th).

* Lastly, Noah Gragson will be teammates with Dillon and Preece at JPR and will be making his third appearance at Sonoma, finishing second in 2016 and seventh in 2015.

The K&N Series has long had a history of having Cup or Xfinity drivers take part at Sonoma. Over the last five seasons, that has included Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, William Byron, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman.

Appeal hearing for Niece Motorsports set for Wednesday morning

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NASCAR announced that the appeal for Niece Motorsports will be heard at 9 a.m. ET Wednesday.

The Gander Outdoors Truck Series team took the checkered flag first with driver Ross Chastain on Sunday at Iowa Speedway only to have the victory taken away when the truck failed inspection after the race.

Brad Moran, managing director of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series said after the race: “We have a procedures and rules in place, trucks are restricted on their ride heights at the front and rear of the vehicles. Unfortunately, the 44 (Chastain’s truck) was low on the front, extremely low.

“We have a process of what happens at that point. They do get an opportunity to roll around. They put fuel in the vehicle, they air the tires. Give them at least five to 10 minutes. Check them a second time. Unfortunately, the 44 did not rise on the front at all.”

The team stated it would appeal and blamed “minor damage during the event” for the truck being too low.

When NASCAR announced before this season that winning vehicles that didn’t pass inspection would have the win taken away, series officials also announced an expedited appeals process.

That will allow the appeal to be completed this week before the Truck Series races this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. Unlike other appeals, where a team or individual can appeal a penalty and then appeal again if they lose the first appeal, there is just one appeal hearing in an expedited matter.