Ryan: Kevin Harvick has put his own spin on the Dale Earnhardt legacy

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HAMPTON, Georgia – Imitator of “The Intimidator?”

No, and that was always the blessing, curse and confounding part of following in the footsteps of a true icon. Kevin Harvick was unfairly thrust by some into the role of unwitting savior after winning in only his third start in NASCAR’s premier series.

When he held three fingers out the window for the second time on an Atlanta Motor Speedway victory lap Sunday, Harvick was saluting the memory of Dale Earnhardt — but he also was celebrating the peace of being a middle-aged champion who took a long, arduous path to a surprising state of grace and zen nearly 17 years after the overwhelming circumstances of his first Cup victory.

No one could ever be “The Man” in NASCAR that Earnhardt was, but Atlanta reminded us in many ways how Harvick has become a man in full.

“I’ve been waiting a long time, because 2001 was very confusing,” Harvick, 42, said of winning in the ride he inherited three races after the seven-time champion died on the last lap of the Daytona 500. “It was my first win and don’t feel like I remember really anything about it because it was just such a really confusing time in my life. Just on the racetrack and with Dale gone and getting in his car.

“It was fun to actually pay tribute and smile about what was going on and not know if you should actually stick your hand out the window — if somebody was going to be offended or mad and whether it was the right thing to do or wrong thing to do and it was your first win.  So there was just a lot of confusing things. So it felt good to pay tribute to that and park it in victory lane with a smile on my face and watch everybody smile with me.”

A communal theme was revisited often by the Stewart-Haas Racing driver during his nonstop reflection after the win, and it wasn’t by accident.

The guy who always proclaims to love challenges (because wisps of boredom have tended to be self-destructive to his career) now seems to be undertaking his biggest yet. Bigger than starting his own truck and Xfinity teams, or running for two national titles concurrently while racing 70-plus times in a season.

This challenge is a variation of what he faced when he scored a hugely sentimental and therapeutic win in the aftermath of NASCAR reeling from one of its biggest voids in history.

Just as when Earnhardt’s sudden exit left many pondering who could wear his unfillable shoes, so has the disappearing axis of Jeff GordonTony StewartDale Earnhardt Jr. left open questions about the lack of gravitational guidance for the next generation of stars.

The March 2001 version of Harvick, a 25-year-old only a few years removed from racing Late Models, wasn’t cut out for any such leadership roles, and the reasons went beyond age or a dearth of worldliness.

The Bakersfield, California, native always possessed a devious love of controversy that precluded much poise. “Harvick-ing” might have blossomed with his shove of Brad Keselowski into the fray with Jeff Gordon at Texas in November 2014, but its roots run much, much deeper. Harvick routinely butted heads with all comers and with an indifference that underscored he worried about himself and little else.

The perspective started to change when he became a team owner in the mid-2000s, a father in 2012 and then a series champion (with its inherent ambassadorial responsibilities) in 2014.

Last year, Harvick took on a SiriusXM Satellite Radio show (“Happy Hours”) with co-host Matt Yocum because he admittedly needed help connecting with fans. It succeeded in bridging that chasm but more importantly, it also seems to have given Harvick a better appreciation that a place in NASCAR existed as an elder statesman if he wanted it.

“I think I totally underestimated the power of the radio show,” he said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast last year. “Having an opinion about things happening in the sport is something fans really enjoy. I think people who listen to the radio show realize how much I think about things and how much we push to make things change.”

While some of his viewpoints remain controversial, Harvick has made the radio show a weekly must-listen because he has something interesting to say and usually with a nod to the big picture. It hints at the TV career awaiting in the next phase of his life, and it’s brought a new polish to the star high school wrestler who once seemed to prefer making points through physical will instead of eloquent words.

The Harvick of only a few years ago wouldn’t have joked as he did Sunday about learning the correct messaging of “playoffs” and “optical scanning station” to keep in line with his SiriusXM producers.

But it’s obviously about more than just the media formalities.

“For me right now, the sport is what enthuses me and kind of is very intriguing to me because there’s a lot of things that need some help and guidance with so many of the young guys coming up through the ranks, and there’s so much to learn,” he said. “But we have to teach them about it. Jimmie Johnson and myself have talked about it. Somebody has to explain to them how things work and show them the ropes. And that to me is fun. You want to go beat them on the racetrack still. It’s not anything about that.

“But we need to get back to where everybody can go drink a beer together and have a good time, and I walk in the garage and we try to do as many things as we can for the officials and people and NASCAR just because … it just feels like everybody has kind of forgotten exactly how much fun this is and how lucky we are to walk into this garage on a weekly basis or to sit in that car on a weekly basis and drive race cars around in circles.”

Many of the people who taught Harvick that are gone or on their way out. Sunday, he fondly recalled sitting in smoke-filled rooms and absorbing the admonitions and wisdom of longtime NASCAR executive Jim Hunter, who died in 2010. Former president Mike Helton, who delivered Harvick some sternly and succinctly worded lectures, has deservedly scaled back office hours in the garage now that he is in his mid-60s.

Can Harvick, who never had a chance (nor did anyone) laying claim to Earnhardt’s immense sway, be the “devil may care” rebel-turned-soothsayer who takes their place as a mentor? He seems to think so.

“I’ve just got a much better appreciation of how cool it is to sit in that race car and really enjoy the things that I do,” he said. “I want to spread that to the rest of them because it’s not all sponsors and politics and business and all the things that you think it all is right now. It’s fun.

“Everything we did to get to this point is fun, and I want to make sure that everybody hears me talk about how fun this is and realize, and maybe you spark some interest in somebody in the garage or working on the car or driving a car that we’re lucky to do what we do, so you’d better enjoy it, because it might not be here tomorrow.”

That’s a lesson NASCAR learned the hard way with Earnhardt.

It’s impressive to hear his unlikely successor articulate it so well.


The inevitable repaving of Atlanta assuredly will make drivers angry whenever it happens, so why not go a step further and get creative if the new surface is guaranteed to be poorly received?

Instead of repaving, what about reconfiguring (as Dale Earnhardt Jr. hinted at on Twitter, returning the original layout could be an option)?

And if that’s open for discussion, how about getting really radical and consider transforming the track into a new layout that isn’t the 1.54-mile length?

Granted, it’s easy to spend Bruton Smith’s money and dream about adding a fourth short track to the schedule. This isn’t necessarily realistic. But it at least is worthy of discussion.

While its abrasive asphalt makes for intriguing strategies and puts a premium on driver talent with tire management, it hasn’t delivered much for side-by-side entertainment.

The last three truly memorable finishes at this track were Carl Edwards slamming by Jimmie Johnson in 2005, Harvick nipping Jeff Gordon in 2001 and Earnhardt beating Bobby Labonte in 2000. As longtime scribe Monte Dutton noted, Sunday’s 500 miles were interesting but weren’t particularly exciting.

Yes, drivers are going to howl whenever Atlanta is redone, and it’s partly because it could take years before its current dynamics can be replicated (if at all).

With that in mind, how about taking an opportunity to truly start from scratch?


Excepting the criticisms of Cole Pearn and Martin Truex Jr. (whose brutal and honest candor should be praised and also was understandable given the circumstances), there weren’t many complaints about the new pit guns despite multiple problems Sunday.

There also was a notable absence of vociferous disapproval during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, where there also were reports of some kinks with the Paoli-manufactured equipment whose use is mandated by NASCAR this season.

Because the Team Owner Council apparently worked closely with NASCAR in helping formulate the new policies, it would make sense if the word has been put out to quell disparaging comments in the early going.

But mouths won’t stay shut for long if the problems persist, especially (which Truex explained so pointedly) as the stakes rise during the season.


If Hendrick Motorsports continues to struggle at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, don’t expect the team to hit the panic button. The schedule puts limitations on what could be applied from its woes last weekend at Atlanta. With the next three stops at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, California, it will be difficult to implement major changes on the fly.

Before the race, Chase Elliott said it probably would be until late March before Hendrick can adequately assess the impact of an offseason restructuring of its competition department.

“The thing about the West Coast swing is a lot of those cars are already prepared to go west,” Elliott said. “So, things that we may learn this weekend might not have the ability to be applied to the race car that we’re racing next weekend because that car is pretty much done. So I think once you get back from (the West Coast) and kind of evaluate where you are, hopefully you can put some of the things you’ve learned toward those weeks, but if it’s bigger changes and things that you need days in the shop to do, you’re not going to be able to make those changes until you get back.”


The new kids on the block never had a chance at Atlanta, which hugely favors experience over tire management. This was perhaps best exemplified by rookie William Byron, who fell a lap down before the first caution on Lap 30 (Harvick gave him the lap back just before the yellow). After getting acclimated, Byron still finished 18th.

This weekend at Las Vegas, where Byron was among the fastest in testing a few weeks ago, will be a much better indicator of how the youth in Cup will stack up this season. As third-place finisher Clint Bowyer said, it’s a track where “it’s qualifying laps every single lap, and those kids will show back up.”

At tracks where the balance shifts to rewarding the trust of blind bravery over track knowledge, it could be a repeat of 2002 when Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman regularly outran veterans who said it was because the rookies didn’t know any better.


Fords dominated and swept the top three spots Sunday, but Atlanta isn’t grouped as much as it should be in the category of early season fool’s gold the way Daytona is. Yes, it marked the start of the unrestricted “real” season, but its unique surface makes the track an unreliable indicator of what’s to come.

Fords also led 313 of 325 laps in the 2017 race at Atlanta. And it took 32 races before a Fusion was in victory lane again on a 1.5-mile track (Harvick at Texas last November).


If the new policy had the game-changing impact that some predicted in the preseason, Atlanta would have marked the first instance in which drivers truly could benefit from NASCAR freely releasing more EFI data to teams.

But though some big-name drivers remain steadfastly opposed to the concept, there were signs that maybe it won’t make the difference that had been feared.

“I don’t think it’s really a good idea to be letting all of the other teams see driver’s data from different teams,” Truex said. “I certainly don’t want other teams looking at what I am doing. I’ve worked for 13 years to work on my style and feel like the way I drive the car and the data that is produced by that is mine. It’s not for everyone to see. … We’ll just have to see what comes out of this and what it looks like.

“At this point in time, it’s pretty much useless to look at from a standpoint that it’s just not that accurate. So I am hoping it stays that way and we’ve talked to NASCAR and do as we much as we can to help them understand. And that’s because I don’t think we want everybody in the garage driving exactly the same way.”

Said Keselowski before Friday’s practice:  “I don’t know the quality that we’re going to receive from that. There’s a really, really technical, complicated discussion that goes with it. In theory, I’m against it. In practice perhaps different, and I haven’t seen it in practice, so I kind of want to see it in practice.

“My intuition says that in theory it will work, in practice it won’t, so I really would like to get through a couple weekends of seeing it because at this point in time, the little bit of access that I’ve had to it, which has been minimal at best, says that it’s probably not going to work in practice and we won’t have to worry about it. It’s kind of a non-story, but I could be completely wrong, so I want to see it in a working environment rather than an engineering lab.”

NASCAR America: Steve Letarte ‘disappointed’ in NASCAR decision

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NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said he is “disappointed” by NASCAR’s announcement that it will not run the drafting package used in the All-Star Race again this season in Cup.

The move came after some car owners had expressed support for running the package again.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told NASCAR.com that the focus would be on “some potential tweaks and focus on 2019 vs. a race or two this season. Everyone is aligned on doing what is best for the fans.”

Letarte expressed his disappointment with the decision on Thursday’s NASCAR America:

“I’m just disappointed. I’m disappointed in NASCAR’s decision not to run this aero package. I can’t remember a time in the sport recently where there has been so much excitement, so much banter about a change made like the one that was made at the All-Star Race. … I think the opportunity was completely missed to not run it again in 2018.

“Rarely does anyone have the chance where they know they have won over the court of public opinion, and I think that’s what happened at the All-Star Race. It’s not a package that is meant for every race track. You mentioned Indianapolis, the end of the regular season. This was just done a year ago with the Xfinity Series and that race was outstanding. I was in the booth for that race. It was one of the most memorable Indy races I remember watching, and I purely attribute that to the rules that NASCAR brought.

“Basically, I’m disappointed. I think they should have run the new package at Indianapolis. There’s always a great list of valid arguments of why you shouldn’t do anything, as I’m sure there was a great list of valid arguments why they didn’t do it, but it’s like that for any amount of change. I think at some point you have to go against the grain, against the arguments and you have to do what you think is best and, in my mind, that would have been running that new package this year.”

For more on the topic, check out the video above.

Ryan: NASCAR’s stunning decision on drafting package sends some conflicting messages

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It’s coming to save the Brickyard 400 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway!

It’s coming to solve the strung-out, single-file conundrum at 1.5-mile speedways!

It’s coming to strengthen the underdog teams and give them a better chance at winning!

Actually, it’s not coming at all (at least not this season).

Huh?

That was the feeling for many Thursday morning when NASCAR punted the All-Star Race aero and horsepower rules (or “drafting package”) – after a month of incessant hints and indications that it would be used at least twice more during the regular season (at Michigan International Speedway and Indy).

Track owners supported it. NASCAR officials supported it. Even some team owners supported it.

Drivers were less supportive.

The pushback from some high-profile stars isn’t what killed the drafting package, though.

This was a startling and abrupt about-face because NASCAR couldn’t secure the necessary buy-in from team owners, who essentially have veto power on major competition decisions such as this one because of the charter system implemented in 2016.

NASCAR chief racing development officer and senior vice president of competition Steve O’Donnell said the critically acclaimed All-Star Race proved the drafting package was “something that could work … but in the end, we all felt like the best thing to do was to put some additional effort into some potential tweaks and focus on 2019 vs. a race or two this season.”

A NASCAR.com story described the hopes of using the drafting package again as a “Herculean undertaking” and “one that could have resulted in a rushed output.”

Actually, rushing has produced some decent results before.

NASCAR announced a lower-downforce rules package barely a month ahead of a July 11, 2015 race at Kentucky Speedway, and the race was wildly successful.

This was less about a time crunch and more about cash flow.

Teams always can adapt to the rules put in front of them. But the best also will adapt by busting their budgets to optimize their cars, and that prompts a difficult question.

Are the changes worth it?

Even if the quality of racing (which is mostly subjective) improves, the majority of teams didn’t view the drafting package as a valid and wise investment, particularly if attendance remains flat (and if more tickets are sold, the tracks still reap the rewards without additional financial incentives for teams).

Millions were spent developing and optimizing competitive cars for a new inspection system this season.

Is it fair to say “too bad about all that R&D work” and change on the fly with the goal of “improving” the racing to build audience?

There also is an eye-of-the-beholder argument. Though Kevin Harvick won the All-Star Race and Kyle Busch led 19 laps and contended, would Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing approve a change to the rules that have allowed their champion drivers to dominate the 2018 season?

And as shown by the low-downforce package, whose luster faded after that smashing debut at Kentucky, the teams with the deepest pockets will burn money in wind tunnels to figure out the package and undermine its efficacy without compunction.

Privately, many team owners are tired of “fixing” the racing and want a greater emphasis on marketing and promoting NASCAR rather than trying to retrofit the competition (which has seemed a mostly pyrrhic exercise for the past decade).

So, is there any common ground?

Well …

“Everyone is aligned on doing what’s best for the fans,” O’Donnell said.

That might be true, but there’s an obvious lack of alignment on how to achieve what’s best for the fans.

For all the platitudes tossed around about the spirit of collaboration and cooperation with councils and committees of drivers, manufacturers and team owners, it’s clear the NASCAR industry isn’t on the same page with some critical topics – namely, on the usage of the drafting package.

Mixed messages aren’t new in NASCAR, a sanctioning body that once leaned on its stars to speak their minds while also fining them for having opinions.

But mixed messages color every part of the decision on the drafting package, which had become a daily topic of uplifting SiriusXM satellite radio discussion for gleeful fans.

–NASCAR spent the better part of the past month mulling the new rules — presumably because it wanted to upgrade its racing … but now it also will claim (according to O’Donnell in the NASCAR.com story) that “we’re really happy with the racing on track.”

–After the juxtaposition at 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway of the drafting package at the All-Star Race (38 green-flag lead changes, up from zero last season) with the current rules a week later at the Coca-Cola 600 (which had single-digit lead changes for the second time in three years ), the latter package now will be used at two 1.5-mile tracks in the next three weeks.

–The Cup Series racing at Indianapolis, the track whose action is most frequently identified as needing major improvements, will remain the same for a Sept. 16 regular-season finale that might feature a record number of playoff spots up for grabs on points. A day earlier, the Xfinity Series race at the Brickyard will feature the same drafting package that was a hit last year on the 2.5-mile oval infamous for monotonous stock-car races with a lack of passing.

Does that seem hard to reconcile? That’s the problem with mixed messages.

The most consistent message delivered Thursday?

Say hello to the status quo for the rest of the 2018 season.

Maybe the news wasn’t so surprising after all.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Cup not using All-Star package again in 2018

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Today’s NASCAR America airs from 5-5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and leads into the debut episode of the Dale Jr Download at 5:30 p.m. ET.

Carolyn Manno hosts today’s NASCAR America from Stamford, Connecticut, and is joined by Steve Letarte from Burton’s Garage.

On today’s show:

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it 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.

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Sonoma in last three years

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The last nine races at Sonoma have been won by a different driver each time. Only one driver enters the weekend with back-to-back top-fives on this track and three others have consecutive top 10s. Given the importance of strategy and track position, repeating at this track is incredibly difficult.

Those stats should predict a fresh face in Victory Lane, right?

Unfortunately a brief glance at the drivers with the best average finishes over the past three years reveals that the two dominators of 2018 – Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – head up the list. If a fantasy player thought this was going to be a good week to vary their NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster, it’s time to rethink that position.

There are a couple of surprises among recent top performers, but the cream tends to rise to the top of NASCAR events. Anchor this week’s team with solid marquee drivers and use dark horses as a way to differentiate those selections from the competition.

1. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 3.67)
Harvick won last year’s edition of this race, but it is not the first time he has run well at Sonoma. He finished fourth in 2015 and was sixth the following year. Making those runs even more impressive is the fact that he has started outside the top 10 in each event and had to drive his way through the field.

2. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 4.33)
Along with Harvick, Busch is the only other driver with a current three-race streak of top 10s at Sonoma. He won there in 2015, followed by a seventh and fifth in his last two outings. He may be a better value than Harvick this week, however, because he has an equally impressive record at Watkins Glen International with a second in 2015, a sixth in 2016 and a seventh last year.

3. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 6.33)
It has been three years since Busch scored a top five at Sonoma, but what he lacks in raw power is made up for in consistency. In his last seven attempts on this track, he has finished outside the top 10 only once and that was a 12th in 2014. He won on this track in 2011 and finished second in 2015.

4. Joey Logano (three-year average: 6.67)
It appeared Logano had found the handle on this track. He scored his first top five in 2015 when he crossed under the checkers fifth. That was followed by a third in 2016. Last year was difficult for the driver of the No. 22; he qualified poorly in 18th and managed to climb only to 12th at the checkers.

5. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 8.00)
Sometimes a switch seems to flip for a driver on a given track. That is what happened to Hamlin in 2016 when he was on his way to Victory Lane before contact from Tony Stewart in the final corner. He hung on to finish second – snapping a six-race streak of results outside the top 15 – and backed that up with a fourth last year.

6. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 10.67)
Newman’s consistency has aided in his making the top 10 list a few times this year and the same is true at Sonoma. Without a top five to his credit in the past five years, he has swept the top 15. That makes him a good utilitarian pick. He will probably not score maximum points, but is also unlikely to lose a lot at Sonoma.

6. Jimmie Johnson (three-year average: 10.67)
There are so many different things that can go wrong on a road course and Johnson has had too many disappointments in 2018 to make him a fantasy favorite. Sonoma and Watkins Glen reward skill behind the wheel over raw horsepower and handling, however, so there is still a chance that he could earn a top five if the team is mistake-free.

8. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 12.33)
Keselowski makes the top-10 list despite having a 19th-place finish in his three-year average. That indicates just how difficult it is to sustain momentum on road courses given the various strategies that play out in a given race. The good news for Keselowski fans is that he finally earned his first career top five in eight starts last year with a third.

9. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 12.67)
McMurray has been consistent recently at Sonoma, but that is a fairly new trait. In his first 12 starts on this track, he had two top fives and no other top 10s. His average finish before 2015 was 16.7 despite finishing fourth in the 2014 race. He was 11th in 2015, 17th in 2016, and 10th last year – so he could be a good value if he practices and qualifies well this weekend.

10. Paul Menard (three-year average: 13.33)
Some of Menard’s earliest racing experience came in the Trans-Am series and that seems to have stuck with him. While he barely makes the top-10 list this week, he is perhaps the most consistent driver in recent years with four results of 11th through 16th in the last five races. Now that Team Penske is supporting his effort with the Wood Brothers, he should easily contend for a top 10.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: This is a good week to go out on a limb where the pole sitter is concerned. McMurray has won two of the last five poles on this track, while his teammate Kyle Larson took the top spot last year. Two JTG-Daugherty Racing drivers also have recent poles with Marcos Ambrose securing one in 2012 and AJ Allmendinger leading the field to green in 2015.

Segment Winners: There is absolutely no way to determine who is going to take the segment wins this week because it will all come down to strategy at the close of each stage. Since Harvick and Kyle Busch have scored the most segment wins, however, you may as well keep riding that momentum.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.