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.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.