Ryan: A tale of two short tracks (and maybe two driver temperaments)

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Two short tracks with highly anticipated stops on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

Two agonizingly frustrating battles of unseasonable inclement spring weather ranging from untimely snow to bone-chilling cold (if you polled the NASCAR garage, what would be this week’s opinion on climate change?).

Two races in the tightest quarters of the 2018 season.

Two wildly differing outcomes.

Bristol Motor Speedway’s two-day spectacular was much better than Martinsville Speedway’s extraordinarily tame outing on a snow-delayed Monday two weeks earlier.

Why?

You could start with the surface. During the recent era of track treatment, rarely has a traction compound’s application drawn such universally positive reviews as Bristol this past weekend. Track officials took advice from drivers to heart and laid down PJ1 in a way that ensured the bottom groove was the fastest – which, as Jeff Burton noted on Monday’s NASCAR America, is the best version of the 0.533-mile oval.

They also weren’t shy about reapplying the sticky stuff Monday after 204 laps were run Sunday before the washout (and it is fair to ask whether midrace treatment of a track unjustly shapes the competition).

But Bristol’s success seemed less about the surface as the men trying to navigate its treacherous environs. From the jump Sunday, there was an aggressive bent behind the wheel that was missing at Martinsville.

What other factors might have been involved?

Martinsville led into one of two off-weeks this season, and the postponement already might have been cutting into preparations for precious vacation time. It doesn’t necessarily mean conscious choices were made to avoid forcing the issue on every lap, but there might have been a general complacency fostered by the cabin fever-bred anxiety of an extra day at the track (or a night in a motorhome) with spring break looming.

Bristol, meanwhile, was a cauldron of pent-up ambition that often spilled over the edge during the course of 27 hours. It felt like the first real short-track race of the season with the constant battles that have been the hallmark of Martinsville the last few seasons. There were more leaders, more lead changes and more than twice as many caution flags (subtracting the three for rain).

There’s no way to definitively explain the disparity, but Bristol and Martinsville did reinforce a commonly held axiom.

In races threatened or postponed by weather, the action usually goes one of two ways: Drivers go hell-bent for leather, or they log laps with a de-emphasis on drama.

It seemed as if we saw both sides in the season’s first two short tracks.


In his weekly appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NASCAR senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell gave the most lucid and succinct explanation yet in what lies at the root of the pit gun debate.

Is it about the speed of the guns … or the swiftness of the pit crews?

As O’Donnell put it, the truth lies somewhere in between – and so does the pathway forward to getting everyone on the same page – which should be the primary goal instead of pointing fingers. As noted in last week’s column, there is more than enough culpability to go around.

The first step would be agreeing on what constitutes the better compromise: Paoli bringing its guns up to the level of the most elite pit crews, or teams retraining their athletes to slow down their lightning-quick hand speeds to adapt to the new guns.

Richard Childress Racing executive Andy Petree said in a revealing interview last week on FS1 that RCR had been counseling its crews to go slower and avoid “outrunning the equipment.” In postrace comments Monday to Dustin Long, it would seem Denny Hamlin would disagree with that approach.

This essentially is the crux of the issue to be discussed at the Team Owners Council meeting this week: Is it better to ask pit crews to change their ways, or manufacturer Paoli to change its guns?


Kyle Busch’s 49 points at Bristol were the third-lowest total for a race winner this season, and it essentially was because of an intriguing decision by Busch and several other teams near the end of Stage 1.

When the caution flew with five laps remaining in the stage, Busch was in second place behind Brad Keselowski, who elected to stay on track with five others: Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and AJ Allmendinger.

Busch lined up seventh for a one-lap restart to end the stage … and promptly dropped to 11th at the green and white flag – falling from a potential nine stage points to zero.

The decision worked out slightly better for Kyle Larson, but he still had a net loss of two points (taking fifth in the stage after falling third to eighth on the stop). It obviously went well for Keselowski, who earned 10 points and a playoff point with the stage win, and Bowyer (three), Almirola (eight) and Newman (two) all gained multiple points.

The scenario was an interesting window into how much teams value stage points. With a win and in the playoffs, Busch’s team traded points for potential track position with the threat of a shortened race (though the No. 18 Toyota still finished behind Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford at the end of the second stage that made it official).

Keselowski, who still needs a win to lock up a berth, stayed out for maximum stage points and seemed pleased by the decision. “I hate to lose the track position, but that’s too many points to just throw away,” he radioed his team.

Points that could be remembered as critical when the series reaches the Brickyard in September.


As Burton and Steve Letarte alluded to on NASCAR America, there won’t necessarily be a happy ending in Cup for Ryan Preece’s Cinderella story. There is hardly room at Joe Gibbs Racing with Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez all locked in for the foreseeable future, and it’s difficult to forecast which other premier series rides could open.

But there simply must be a full-time ride at the very least in the Xfinity Series for Preece, who has two wins (including last Saturday at Bristol) over the past two seasons for JGR.

Besides being talented, the 27-year-old is articulate and relatable, and as he eloquently explained last weekend, Preece has become a hero to short-track fans and racers around the country. As Parker Kligerman (whose struggle for a full-time ride is similar to Preece’s) wrote in a column for NBCSports.com earlier this year, NASCAR still remains a breed apart from much of the ride-buying morass found in Formula One and IndyCar.

But the necessity of “pay” drivers seemingly gets worse in stock cars with each passing year, and when even championship contenders are asked to bring sponsorship, it’s problematic.

The challenge clearly lies in finding sponsorship, but at what point do teams get held accountable for a lack of hustling to find money for an attractive candidate such as Preece, choosing instead just to take another driver’s check?

If Preece starts 2019 without a fully funded ride, that’s a debate worth having.


Speaking of the Xfinity circuit, kudos to series director Wayne Auton for owning a mistakeafter Saturday’s Dash 4 Cash mixup and reinstalling Daniel Hemric’s eligibility. Though such errors must be kept to an extreme minimum, it’s understandable how this one might have occurred.

The incident occurred during an expedited postrace inspection at track to ensure the four cars eligible for the Xfinity promotion were confirmed for the following race at Richmond. Normally, such inspections take place at the R&D Center, but the goal is getting more of the postrace inspection process done at the track and avoiding the midweek announcements that often derail more compelling storylines (in all series).

If a car being incorrectly deemed illegal is a byproduct of ultimately getting to a better place with inspections, it’s worth the long-term trade-off.


It might have been overlooked because the announcement came during Monday’s resumed race at Bristol, but Eldora Speedway is doing something that might be a worthy weather contingency concept for all tracks that don’t have domes.

Giving fans six days’ notice, the track’s 65th season opener Saturday has been “flex-scheduled” to 4 p.m. – roughly three and a half hours earlier than its scheduled start – because of an ominous forecast for the Ohio dirt track.

Flex-scheduling has been used with success in the NFL to provide better competitive matchups. Eldora is trying it to optimize its schedules for fans and teams with the threat of poor weather conditions. While it might be more difficult for a series with a national TV partner, it seems at least worthy of consideration.

Power rankings after Bristol: Brad Keselowski is new No. 1

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Kevin Harvick is out and Bristol winner Brad Keselowski is the new No. 1 in this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Keselowski was the unanimous pick of NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers. Harvick had been the unanimous No. 1 the last two weeks. He falls to second in this week’s rankings.

Kurt Busch made the biggest climb, going from 10th last week to No. 4 in this week’s rankings. Three drivers dropped out of the top 10 from last week: Alex Bowman, Martin Truex Jr. and Tyler Reddick.

Here’s how this week’s rankings look:

1. Brad Keselowski (30 points): Right place, right time at Bristol, taking advantage of contact between Chase Elliott and Joey Logano to sail on to victory lane for second time in last three races. Last week: second.

2. Kevin Harvick (26 points): Saw his streak of 13 consecutive top 10s end at Bristol with an 11th-place finish. Last week: first.

3. Chase Elliott (25 points): Won once in the past week and was in contention for a second win until he hit Joey Logano late at Bristol. Last week: tied for third.

4. Kurt Busch (20 points): The elder Busch brother has gone from third to 10th and back up to fourth in the last three power rankings. Last week: 10th.

5. Jimmie Johnson (14 points): The seven-time champ has been knocking on victory’s door for each of the last four weeks, including finishing a season-best third at Bristol. Is that 104-race winless streak ready to end? Last week: unranked.

(tie) 6. Kyle Busch (13 points): Rebounded from a cut tire and 29th-place finish at the second Charlotte race to take fourth at Bristol. Last week: tied for third.

(tie) 6. Austin Dillon (13 points): Eighth at second Charlotte race and followed up with a strong sixth at Bristol. Last week: unranked.

8. Denny Hamlin (11 points): Much like the rest of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, his streak of up-and-down results continues. Runner-up at second Charlotte race and 17th at Bristol after a late incident. Last week: seventh.

9. Ryan Blaney (4 points): Continues his search for consistency. Finished third at second Charlotte and was strong at Bristol until spinning while running second and then was hit, ending his race. Last week: unranked.

10. Christopher Bell (3 points): After rough first five races of rookie season, has bounced back with three finishes of 11th or better in his last four races. Last week: ninth.

Others receiving votes: Austin Cindric (2 points), William Byron (1 point).

Nashville Superspeedway to host Cup race in 2021

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The NASCAR Cup Series will race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2021, NASCAR announced Wednesday.

No official race date was given in the announcement, but The Tennessean reported Tuesday that a “very tentative” date of June 20, 2021 has been set for the Cup Series race at Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon, Tennessee.

The 1.333-mile oval is owned by Dover Motorsports Inc., which also owns Dover International Speedway. One of Dover’s two race dates will be moved to Nashville.

“Thanks to the collaboration of Dover Motorsports and our broadcast partners, we are excited to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville, a place where the passion for our sport runs deep,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in a release. “The Nashville market is a vital one for our sport, and bringing NASCAR Cup Series racing to Nashville Superspeedway will be an integral building block in helping us further deliver on our promise in creating a dynamic schedule for 2021.”

Such a move likely means that Speedway Motorsports’ efforts to bring NASCAR back to Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville will not take place in 2021.

“The news that NASCAR will bring a Cup race to Wilson County and the greater Nashville region in 2021 is a positive move for the sport of NASCAR and for NASCAR fans,”   Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith said in statement. “In recent years, we’ve made it very clear that we think Nashville is a place where NASCAR should be for the future and not just the past. Our efforts to work with state and local government officials to revive the historic Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway will continue. We believe that the beloved short track in downtown Nashville provides tremendous opportunity to be a catalyst for year-round tourism and entertainment development.”

Nashville Superspeedway hosted Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Series races from 2001-11.

“Our company is excited about the terrific opportunity to not only host a NASCAR Cup Series race weekend but opening our Nashville facility will enable us to host other exciting forms of racing and entertainment options,” Mike Tatoian, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Dover Motorsports, Inc, said in a release. “We are also proud that our long history with NASCAR will continue at the Monster Mile in 2021, and we also look forward to hosting the 9th Firefly Music Festival next summer.”

Nashville will be the first new facility for the Cup Series since it began racing at Kentucky Speedway in 2011.

The Associated Press stated that the idea of Nashville Superspeedway hosting NASCAR races again came after the city hosted the Cup Awards in December for the first time.

“Especially after the awards banquet, it was, how do we get to Nashville as soon as we possibly can?” Tatoian told The Associated Press. “It made it a fairly easy discussion that it was through Dover Motorsports.”

Tatoian told the AP that updating the track would cost $8-10 million. He also stated that capacity would be between 25,000-50,000.

Dover has hosted two Cup races a year since 1971. It has had a race weekend postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dover is expected to host a Cup doubleheader Aug. 22-23.

“It looks more and more like we’ll be hosting a doubleheader,” Tatoian told the AP. “That’s a strong scenario and that’s what we’re focused on.”

Penalty report from Bristol Motor Speedway

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NASCAR has issued its penalty report for the Bristol Motor Speedway race weekend.

The only penalty was a $10,000 fine for Chris Gayle, crew chief on Erik Jones‘ No. 20 Toyota, for having one unsecured lug nut after Sunday’s Cup Series race.

 

Stats, Quotes and Moments: The NASCAR Cup Season So Far

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The first nine races of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season have been a long, strange trip.

Beginning with the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 16 – a race that concluded the following Monday due to rain – and ending with Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, it took 106 days to conduct nine races at seven race tracks. That was after NASCAR endured a 71-day COVID-19 imposed break from action.

Here’s a look back at the first quarter of the season and where the series stands ahead of race No. 10 Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

Key stats

– Through nine races there have been six different winners and three repeat winners. Not among them are three of the last four Cup champions: Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.  Since Truex’s rookie year in 2006, this is the first time all three have been winless through the ninth race of the year.

– Due to COVID-19, the Cup Series held a Wednesday race for the first time since 1984.

– The three races on 1.5-mile tracks have seen three different winners: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott. They are part of a stretch of nine different winners in the last nine races on 1.5-mile tracks. The last time there was nine in a row was in 2008-09. The last time there was more than nine was 2001-02 when there was 10.

– Elliott, who has just one win, has the best average running position: 7.748.

– The driver with the best average average finish who hasn’t won yet is Kurt Busch: 11.6

– Only four out of 19 times has a stage winner finished in the top 10 (Hamlin won after winning Stage 2 at Daytona, Alex Bowman won after winning Stage 1 at Auto Club Speedway and Harvick finished second at Phoenix after winning Stage 1 and Logano finished sixth after winning Stage 1 at Charlotte 2).

Chase Elliott after winning Thursday’s Cup Series race at Charlotte. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

– The Stage 2 winner has finished 11th or worse in each of the last eight races.

– Hendrick Motorsports has led the most laps this year (780) and won the most stages (10), but has just two race wins.

– 21st: Matt Kenseth‘s average finish in his five races driving Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 car after replacing Kyle Larson. Larson was fired by CGR in the aftermath of his use of a racial slur in an iRacing event in April.

Key Moments

– Daytona 500: After a push from Ryan Blaney gave Ryan Newman the lead on the last lap, a violent wreck coming to the checkered flag resulted in Denny Hamlin earning his third Daytona 500 win and Newman being taken to the hospital with a bruised brain. He walked out of the hospital two days later with his daughters. Newman missed the next three races and returned at Darlington on May 17.

– Las Vegas: Ryan Blaney was leading late when a caution came out for a Ross Chastain spin. It set up a two-lap shootout for the win. When pit road opened, Blaney and Alex Bowman, who was running second, both went to pit road. Joey Logano, running third, stayed out. Logano went on to win and Blaney finished 11th.

– Darlington 1: Denny Hamlin stayed out under a late caution due to having run out of fresh tires. Hamlin held onto the lead for one lap until a caution came out for an incident between Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. During the caution, it began raining and the race was made official, giving Hamlin the win.

– Coca-Cola 600: Chase Elliott was three laps away from winning when the caution came out for his teammate, William Byron, spinning after cutting a tire. Elliott’s team chose to pit for tires as a majority of the leaders stayed out. After restarting 11th, Elliott could only race back to third place (before Jimmie Johnson’s disqualification) in overtime as Brad Keselowski won.

Key quotes

“We were in a position to finish it off, and we got destroyed for no reason. You would think these guys would be smarter than that. We all cause wrecks. I get in wrecks all the time and I cause them. The same one over and over again. It’s the same thing. Somebody throws a stupid block that’s never going to work and wrecks half the field and then goes ‘eh’. Maybe we need to take the helmets out of these cars and take the seat belts out. Somebody will get hurt and then we’ll stop driving like assholes. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out I guess.” – Brad Keselowski after he was eliminated in a large wreck in the Busch Clash, which began when his teammate Joey Logano threw “a stupid block.”

“I thought it was warranted, and he was deserving.” – Chase Elliott on the middle finger he displayed at Kyle Busch following the contact between the two drivers that wrecked Elliott late in the May 20 race at Darlington.

“Imitation is the strongest form of flattery or something, I don’t know what it is. Huh, that’s cute.” – Kyle Busch upon being informed Chase Elliott performed his trademark bow after beating him in the May 26 Truck Series race at Charlotte, which earned Elliott (and a COVID-19 relief effort of his choice) a $100,000 bounty for beating Busch.

“He wrecked me. He got loose underneath me. The part that’s frustrating is that afterwards a simple apology, like be a man and come up to someone and say, ‘Hey, my bad.’  But I had to force an apology, which, to me, is childish. …  I passed him clean. It’s hard racing at the end, I get that. It’s hard racing, but, golly, man, be a man and take the hit when you’re done with it.” – Joey Logano after Sunday’s race at Bristol, when contact from Chase Elliott while racing for the lead took them out of contention