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.

Long: A sigh of relief punctuates the end of Daytona Speedweeks

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When it was over, when a Daytona Speedweeks that featured outrage and exhilaration saw its final checkered flag, there was little euphoria, many anxious moments and eventually a sigh of relief.

Confusion and concern reigned on pit road after Ryan Newman’s horrific crash at the end of Monday night’s Daytona 500. Racing for the win, Newman’s car slammed into the wall before the start/finish line, was struck while upside down by Corey LaJoie’s car and slid down the track, a shower of sparks trailing, before coming to rest beyond the exit of pit road.

A conversation on one team’s radio said Newman was out of the car, but others on pit road said he was not. With drivers and teams parked closer to pit entrance after the race, no one could tell what was happening at the other end of pit road.

Safety crews needed more than 10 minutes to roll Newman’s car over, attend to him and cut the crumpled roof off to extricate the 42-year-old father of two.

Moments earlier, Ryan Blaney pushed Newman past Denny Hamlin into the lead on the backstretch of the final lap. Blaney attempted to pass on the frontstretch, but Newman blocked. Blaney realized he was going to finish second and wanted to ensure a Ford won, so he pushed Newman. But one bump unsettled Newman’s car, triggering the incident.

Afterward, Blaney stood with his crew by his car on pit road for several minutes but little was said. They waited to hear about Newman’s condition. As many did.

When he talked to the media, Blaney’s face was ashen and his eyes blank as he recounted a last lap he’d like to forget but likely never will.

“I hope he’s alright,” Blaney said. “That looked really bad. Definitely unintentional. … Just waiting to see if he’s OK.”

As he spoke, an ambulance sped past, taking Newman to Halifax Health Medical Center.

Until the end of the Daytona 500, Speedweeks had provided its fill of drama, intrigue and bliss.

It started with the Busch Clash the week before where all 18 cars were involved in an at least one accident and winner Erik Jones was collected in three incidents. The main story that day, though, was Brad Keselowski’s  anger toward teammate Joey Logano for an accident that collected both and Kyle Busch.

A few days later the focus returned to racing. Logano won his qualifying race and William Byron won his qualifying race, his first Cup victory at Daytona. But Daniel Suarez suffered heartbreak when he was involved in a crash and failed to qualify for the 500.

The following night saw Jordan Anderson finish second by one-hundredth of a second, but he celebrated as if he won. The 28-year-old has raced in the Truck series most of the past five years but it hasn’t been easy. He has often pulled his truck in a dually and struggled to find funding. He sold equipment to help keep his team going in the offseason and purchase the truck he ran at Daytona.

After finishing second, Anderson couldn’t stop smiling.

“This finish tonight … is for every underdog in America, every kid that stays up late and works on his dirt late model or legends car and dreams of coming to Daytona,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, this finish tonight encourages them to never give up on their dreams.”

Less than 24 hours later, Noah Gragson was burning up the track. Literally.

Gragson celebrated his first Xfinity win with an extended burnout that had some rubber burning on the track.

“I caught the track on fire,” the 21-year-old driver for JR Motorsports said. “I thought that always would be really, really cool to catch the track on fire from doing a burnout, and I was able to do that.”

A Sunday filled with sunshine started with Air Force One delivering President Donald J. Trump. He spoke briefly to fans. They serenaded him with chants of “U-S-A!” He gave the command to start engines and his motorcade led the field on a pace lap, something never before done in a race. But rain delayed the start and the electricity that had built faded when the field only got 20 laps in before a second rain delay postponed the race to Monday.

Sunday’s energy grew through a late Monday afternoon under sunny and warm conditions. Crashes reduced the field but still left enough cars to create a dramatic win for Hamlin.

But that was overshadowed by Newman’s wreck.

And all the waiting.

Fans left the track without knowing Newman’s condition. Those at the track stood around. Nobody knew.

Informed of the severity of Newman’s crash, Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing muted their victory lane activities. A somber atmosphere hung over the track.

It was a stark reminder of how dangerous racing can be, something many have overlooked as they’ve applauded countless drivers who emerged with no serious injuries from high-flying cars that tumbled and rolled. It also showed how far safety has come in NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in 2001.

Two hours after Newman’s ambulance ride, the news came.

He was alive.

And a sigh of relief filled a silent racetrack.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends celebration by Denny Hamlin, No. 11 team

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NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. defended Denny Hamlin and his team’s celebration after winning Monday’s Daytona 500 as safety crews attended to Ryan Newman after Newman’s last-lap accident.

Hamlin and said he didn’t know the severity of Newman’s accident immediately. Car owner Joe Gibbs said the team muted their festivities in victory lane after they found out more about Newman’s situation.  

“I say to everybody out there, some people may have saw us and said, well, these guys are celebrating when there’s a serious issue going on,” Gibbs said. “I apologize to everybody, but we really didn’t know.”

Earnhardt, speaking on Tuesday’s NASCAR America, said he understood what Hamlin and his team were going through. He spoke on the 19th anniversary of his father’s fatal crash in the last lap of the Daytona 500.

“That was just so unfortunate the fallout from that,” Earnhardt said of criticism directed toward the No. 11 team for its celebrating. “I think back to 2001 when dad had his accident and Michael Waltrip had made it all the way to victory lane himself and celebrating what he feels like was the most incredible moment of his life and waiting on dad to walk right into that victory lane at any moment to celebrate with him.

“I think I can tell you … how that process can happen, how what happened with Denny and his team can easily happen. There’s a lot of other similar situations that are much like that to compare that to that make it understandable to what played out with Denny and his team.”

Roush Fenway Racing announced Monday night that Newman was in serious condition with injuries not considered life threatening. The team announced Tuesday that Newman was awake and speaking with family members and doctors. He remains at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“I just can’t stop thinking about Ryan and waiting on more news and more information and when we can see him, when can we physically talk to Ryan and put our own eyes on him and get a chance to see how he’s doing,” Earnhardt said on NASCAR America.

Earnhardt won two Daytona 500s among the 10 points races he won at Daytona and Talladega. He was asked on the show about how aggressive a driver has to be to win the Daytona 500.

“I always had the most success by always trying to lead the race and it’s not physically possible to lead every single lap … I felt like that was the best defense to being involved in an accident, to being caught up in something in the middle of the pack,” Earnhardt said.

“I tried every different way to run those plate races. For me, that was always the most effective approach. It starts when you show up to the racetrack. You’ve got to be that way in practice. You’ve got to go out there, and you might tick some people off in practice that you’re so aggressive, but you’ve got to show them this is how I’m going to race. On top of that, this is what my car can do, so when the green flag drops you see my car pull out, you have confidence to follow it because you’ve seen what it can do all weekend.

“When I approached the entire race that way and the weekend that way, I really, really had a lot of success with it. Sometimes it doesn’t always work and then you start thinking maybe I’ll take a different route, maybe I’m going to sit in the back and try to take care of myself and maybe work my way up through there late in the race. You start trying different things and maybe you think you need to rethink your entire strategy, but I was always coming back around to being aggressive and having a lot of success with that.

“The only problem with that is it’s hard to do. It’s hard to push yourself to work that hard every foot of the racetrack, every straightaway, every turn, every opportunity, every run the car gets, every opportunity presented to do something with that car, it’s hard to stay on the wheel the entire race because everybody at some point has to take a break, some sort of mental break. I think the ones that can sustain that sort of tenacity and fierce competitiveness has success there.

“You see the same guys up toward the front of those races year after year. I even said it before the end of the race, Denny Hamlin, if he’s not the winner, he’s in the picture when they cross the finish line at a lot of these races at Daytona and Talladega. He proved it again that he’s one of the best. I didn’t know whether he had lost the race or not down the backstraightaway. Somehow or another he never gave up.

“If he wasn’t going to win, he was pushing somebody to the win and he put himself back in the situation of where he ends up getting the checkered flag. That attitude of never quitting, never giving up, working to try to get to the front every single inch of the racetrack is, I think, similar to Denny and what makes him so good.”

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Las Vegas

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No driver is listed for Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford on NASCAR’s preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The car is normally driven by Ryan Newman, who is in serious condition with non-life threatening injuries after his last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 Monday night. Roush Fenway Racing announced Tuesday afternoon that Newman was awake and speaking with family and doctors.

If Newman does not participate in the race, it would be the first Cup event he’s missed since the start of his full-time career in 2002 (649 starts).

There are 38 entries for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

Garrett Smithley is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Ford for his first race of the year.

Reed Sorenson is entered in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet.

Joey Logano won this race last year over Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Martin Truex Jr. won the playoff race over Kevin Harvick and Keselowski.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity Series – Boyd Gaming 300 (4 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Thirty-six cars are entered.

Truck Series driver Brett Moffitt is entered in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet.

Daniel Hemric will make his first start of the year in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Timmy Hill is entered in Hattori Racing Enterprises’ No. 61 Toyota.

Kyle Busch won this race last year over John Hunter Nemechek and Noah Gragson. Tyler Reddick won the playoff race over Christopher Bell and Brandon Jones.

Click here for the entry list.

Truck Series – Strat 200 (9 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

There are 35 trucks entered.

With a full field limited to 32 trucks, three will not make the race.

Kyle Busch is entered in the No. 51 Toyota for his first of five scheduled Truck Series races this year.

Ross Chastain is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 40 Toyota.

Busch won this race last year over Moffitt and Matt Crafton. Busch went on to sweep all five of his series starts last season. Austin Hill won the playoff race over Chastain and Christian Eckes.

Click here for the entry list.

 

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Latest on Ryan Newman, Daytona 500

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NASCAR America will have the latest on Ryan Newman after his crash at the end of Monday’s Daytona 500.

Krista Voda hosts and will be joined by Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Nate Ryan. The show will include reports from Marty Snider in Daytona Beach and Dave Burns from Roush Fenway Racing.

Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also will call in.

Today’s show airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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