Ryan: Putting the ‘fun’ back in the rulebook? Spoiler alert: Here’s how

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Remember when talking about NASCAR rules was fun?

No, really fun. Hours of endless debates and discussions about driver rivalries, team animosity and manufacturer intrigue.

Fun. You can’t beat that.

In the 1990s, Camp NASCAR might not have been a fun place to live (or officiate), but it was a beguiling place to observe.

Much of that was the megawatt personalities of the drivers, but some of it was attributable to the constant wars over how many inches of spoiler help Ford or Chevrolet was lobbying for and often getting.

This was an era in which the bodies were more distinct, and the rulebook was much smaller. It was undoubtedly a weekly headache to administer with the long line of agitated drivers and owners raising holy hell at the NASCAR hauler after every race.

Two decades later, that delightful complaining has been replaced by impenetrable complication.

Talking about rules isn’t fun in today’s heavily legislated and officiated world of big-league stock-car racing.

It’s no longer a debate about the famous and iconic brands (Chevy, Ford, Toyota) that pour a few hundred million dollars annually into NASCAR.

It’s become the domain of pinion shims and window support braces. The in-the-weeds stuff. There is room for that in NASCAR to showcase its technical appeal and technological ingenuity.

There’s no room for that in SiriusXM NASCAR Radio banter, though. Or in the other national media platforms that primarily drive the narratives that make NASCAR a mainstream sporting entity. Those should revolve around the stars and cars of the Cup Series and their most relatable backstories – not the intricate parts and pieces that propel them to victory lane.

For example, a 46-year-old former champion returns after an unwanted 11-race layoff to start the 2018 season. And he re-enters NASCAR’s premier series precisely as his longtime contemporaries are crowing about regularly drubbing the band of ballyhooed Millennials that threaten to oust them from their rides in the same way.

That sounds like a good story, no?

Unfortunately, Matt Kenseth’s intriguing comeback at Kansas Speedway this weekend has been muted because of Wednesday’s latest avalanche of midweek postrace penalties from Dover that sucked all the oxygen from competing topics with the subtlety and pleasure of a 2X4 to the forehead.

Eradicating midweek penalties has been suggested ad nauseam the past few years, and it’s well documented why they still are happening (the level of necessary inspection scrutiny is available only at the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord).

Kevin Harvick made an impassioned case for why this wasn’t such a hot idea (among many issues he raised about the penalty after his Las Vegas victory). Even NASCAR officials have shown a desire to get out of the business of issuing points deductions and crewmember suspensions three days after a race.

It doesn’t matter how this gets addressed. It’s a situation that needs to be fixed, stat.

So how about going back to the future: Find a way to shrink the rulebook and open up the manufacturer competition again.

Refocus any competition discussions on spoiler heights and driver styles (“who is best suited for this type of handling package?”) instead of obtuse conversation stoppers like planar mating surfaces and flat splitters.

Like everything in racing, this is easier said than done. It certainly will be harder for NASCAR, whose officials would return to the ear-splitting days of listening to nonstop lobbying (i.e., whining) for more parity among makes.

But it might be worth the effort, money and time spent if it results in keeping the attention most prominently on the stars and the cars they drive.

That sounds fun.


NASCAR found itself in an unwinnable situation at Dover International Speedway near the end of the first stage Sunday.

With a dozen cars close to running out of fuel and only about four wreckers to help push them back to the pits (how would you like to make that decision on which drivers benefit from NASCAR’s largesse?), vice president of competition Scott Miller explained Monday why the pits were opened almost immediately after the stage instead of waiting for a commercial break per normal.

It was the right call given the alternative – if several cars had run out of gas, the furor would have been much greater and the implications are more unfair. But this is something that must be done extremely sparingly.

It burned Denny Hamlin’s team, which pitted the No. 11 Toyota instead of limping to the pits (as it could have) because it rightfully expected the pits would open much later.

“I didn’t know they were going to open the pits early,” Hamlin said on an episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that will be released next week. “I would have ran another lap. That’s a little frustrating. The crew chief was telling me I could make it to the checkered but not the pit open.”

But it turned out if Hamlin had waited a lap, he would have had enough fuel (and an extra five stage points from keeping his spot).

“I had some talks with Miller and (Steve) O’Donnell about it,” Hamlin said. “If I would have known you’d open the pits, I wouldn’t have pitted early, and I think a lot of people based their strategy off that.

“But I also see their point of what happens if there are six cars out of fuel on the apron? Who gets the tow truck and push first while you have someone sitting on the apron for three laps, and then they’re pissed off? I kind of see where (NASCAR) is going there. But at some point, teams will make decisions on where to pit, and it’s kind of on them.”

There always are circumstances similar to these during a race – for example, NASCAR often must choose between a red flag or running out many laps under yellow in the event of a wreck that requires a long cleanup – so it’s unavoidable. The key is managing it in a way that doesn’t disrupt the natural flow of a race.


As Dustin Long detailed exhaustively in last week’s Friday 5 feature, the time to question the lagging results of the new Camaro has arrived. Chevrolet’s new model hasn’t shown much potential for pure speed, aside from the performance of Kyle Larson.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is sort of this year’s version of 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr., who was far ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas last year in the rollout of the 2018 Camry. But that’s where the apples to apples comparison ends.

Nearly a third of the way into last season, it was obvious the new Camry had speed. Though Toyota won only twice in the first 11 races, its drivers led the most laps six times. The lack of victories was because of JGR’s circumstances instead of a lack of performance.

This is less true with the Camaro, which has a last-lap win in the Daytona 500 and has led the most laps only once (Larson at Bristol Motor Speedway). At Dover, the highest finisher was Jimmie Johnson in ninth, and Alex Bowman drove the only Camaro to lead laps (26 of 400).

It might be a case where the struggles are less about the new model and more about the teams running it. Aside from Chase Elliott, lead Chevy team Hendrick Motorsports struggled in 2017, and the four-car team still seems to be finding its footing this year with a less experienced lineup.

The departure of Stewart-Haas Racing, which is side by side with Team Penske for top Ford team, also might be hurting Chevrolet more than a year later.


A sidelight to the Chevrolet struggles is that it also has hampered the development of the 2018 youth brigade with Elliott, Larson, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace and Austin Dillon (who made his feelings known Sunday night) trying to excel in the Camaro.

On Wednesday’s NASCAR America, analyst Dale Jarrett made that point (along with evaluating whether Ryan Blaney has reached “success” yet) and also noted that the hype around the marketing of the young drivers (editor’s note: plead guilty) would have been better balanced with a focus on the older set.

That’s good advice for the future and also good context for Kevin Harvick’s incessantly delightful jabs at the next generation.


One positive of this week’s midweek penalties?

Well, it did steer the discussion away from a topic that no one in Charlotte or Daytona Beach wanted to highlight.

That said, Harvick’s comments Tuesday night about a potential NASCAR sale were notable, and it will be interesting to see what else is said this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Mechanical issue drops Martin Truex Jr. to final transfer spot entering Kansas

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Martin Truex Jr. knows Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway could have been worse because of a mechanical issue that made his car “evil to drive.”

The result is that Truex, one of the members of the Big 3 that has dominated the series this season, holds the final transfer spot entering next weekend’s cutoff race at Kansas Speedway.

MORE: Aric Almirola wins at Talladega 

MORE: Kurt Busch criticizes NASCAR 

With an issue in the rear gear, Truex said he fought the car most of the race.

“Couldn’t even go straight,” he said after finishing 23rd. “There was no chance of me getting up there and racing as much as I wanted to.

“I rode around all day broke, hanging on, miserable. I couldn’t even race, my car was so screwed up. It felt like the rear end housing was falling out of it.”

The struggles had him in a spot late in the race where he would have been outside the cutoff spot heading to Kansas.

Truex’s fortune changed when some playoff drivers, including Brad Keselowski, had to pit for fuel in overtime and gave up several spots.

Instead of being outside the cutoff,  Truex enters Kansas in the final transfer spot and has an 18-point lead on Keselowski and a 22-point lead on Ryan Blaney.

Truex won at Kansas last fall and finished second there in May.

“I think that’s a good place for us even if we had to win,” Truex said. “I am not saying we’re going to go there and win. But anytime we can go to any of those tracks, I feel like we have a shot. It’s racing. A lot can happen as we saw today. We’ll give it everything we got and bring a great car to Kansas. We’ll try to get the checkered flag.”

What drivers said after the Cup race at Talladega

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Aric Almirola — Winner: “I felt like I kept giving it away and I was so disappointed for all these guys behind me because they’re awesome. They’re the best. I’m with the best team in the garage and I felt like I kept letting them down not winning a race. Today, the Good Lord was shining on us and we went to Victory Lane. We did it, finally.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 2nd: “Man, that was about as easy of a Talladega race as I have ever experienced. What a day to be in a Ford! Every time I looked in my mirror it was a wave of blue ovals. What a day for SHR, too. That was all about cooperation. There’s no way you could overstate how good our cars were today. We finished second in both stages and the race, so that’s a pretty good day for us. We’ll go to Kansas and get a good run and make sure we are in the Round of 8 after next weekend.” 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 3rd: “We definitely had to fight hard today. We weren’t near as good as we normally are at the speedways, so that was a real bummer, but we fought hard and made a lot of adjustments to try and make our car faster. It seemed to work a little bit there and obviously fell on the lucky side of having to pit and having enough fuel, so everything worked out good for us today to get that good finish and back-to-back top 10s is a start.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 4th: “I thought we were the next best in line today. The Ford cars seemed to have a little more speed than us. We stayed disciplined and in line there. We chose the right line when the lines came. Got a great top-five finish today. We were almost the best in class there.”

Joey Logano — Finished 5th: “Those Stewart-Haas cars drove great and they were really, really fast. They showed it in qualifying and they were so committed to each other and they did a great job. They probably would have finished 1-2-3-4 if they didn’t run out of gas, so they were definitely quick. We had a pretty good Shell/Pennzoil Ford, not the winning car, but definitely a top-five car, the best of the rest you could call it. We scored some stage points and then a solid top five, so I’m proud of that. I don’t know where that puts us in points, but I think it puts us in a decent spot to where we can go to Kansas and race hard, so not that we didn’t race hard today, but it was just gonna take a lot to beat the teamwork and the cars that they had today.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 6th: “I thought prior to the final restart I got myself in a good position on the outside there. It just seemed like every time the line went to move somebody made a move and it checked the lineup. I was just getting pinned out there. I thought my car handled good compared to the guys I was around. I thought that was our strength. And then the No. 88 (Alex Bowman) got turned, I saw him get turned and figured at some point he was going to come snapping back up the race track and I was like to say that was skill missing that, but it was pretty much luck that he didn’t hit me. The final restart was just trying to pick a lane. A couple of guys ran out of fuel coming to the green, so we got to move up a couple of rows and then it was just trying to pick the right lane coming to the checkered. For once we didn’t wreck at Talladega, so that is a good day.” 

Kyle Larson — Finished 11th: “We just had a terrible race car and were really slow all weekend. We were able to salvage a decent finish, but the Fords are so fast here and can rack up a lot of stage points. Even when they have a bad day, they still gain points on us. It is what it is. We’ll just go to Kansas and try and win.”

Kurt Busch — Finished 14th: There was two missed calls by NASCAR at the end. Why did we have an extra yellow flag lap is beyond me. The track was ready to go. And at the end. Once we crossed the white flag, if there’s a wreck and an ambulance needs to be dispatched. I’ve been on the other side of that where I was racing coming back to win the race and they said ‘Well, we had to dispatch an ambulance.’ There was two cars dead in the water.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 15th: “This was a solid day for our GEICO Camaro ZL1 team. We didn’t make any mistakes on track. My spotter did a great job and kept me clean all day. Talladega has always been a strong track for me because I’m comfortable with this style of racing. This was the kind of day our team needed after a couple of tough weeks. We ran up front, earned a bonus point at the end of Stage 1 and showed once again that Germain Racing builds fast superspeedway cars. I wish we could’ve gotten a top 10, but those are the brakes sometimes at these tracks with how quickly drafts change and cars move around. I’m proud of my team’s effort today, and I’m looking forward to Kansas next weekend.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 15th: “To he honest, I was worried at the start of the race because the American Ethanol Camaro ZL1 was not handling very well. My crew chief, Justin Alexander, and the team worked hard to fine-tune our Chevy throughout the race and we were able to earn some Stage points at the end of Stage 2. We opted to hang back in Stage 3 in anticipation of ‘The Big One.’ We knew that if we could avoid that, we would have a solid shot at the end. It didn’t work out quite the way we hoped with a relatively calm race and not enough laps to get to the front at the end. You win some, you lose some.”

William Byron — Finished 20th: “It was good. I thought my goal was really to survive. We were fortunate to lead some laps when we got the track position, which was good. Just couldn’t get enough guys to work with me. Hopefully, next year will be different with the rookie stripes off, it should make a difference, but other than that I thought our day was good. Got the car better handling-wise, handling was pretty important and then from there we just were kind of trying to fight for track position. I was able to bring it home, which was good.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 23rd: “It didn’t really matter what we did to the car. It didn’t go away. We tried a lot of stuff. It was tough to drive. It couldn’t even go straight. I could run hard for two or three laps. As soon as the tires got some air pressure, I was just hanging on. The longer the runs were, the worse it got. There was no chance of me just getting up there and racing. I wanted to. Luckily, we were able to get some tires there in the end. I could go for about three laps. I felt good going to the green-white checkered. They wrecked in front of us and we barely made it through. As soon as we got through there, I was able to salvage something.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 25th: “Before the final stage, we did a fuel-only pit stop to give us options later in the race. We were in lucky dog position for the final 20 laps and eventually caught a break to put us on the lead lap with two laps remaining. However, in overtime I was caught in a wreck and the car was heavily damaged. I know we were better than where we finished, P25. Sometimes the dominoes just don’t fall your way. We’ll be ready for Kansas next week and hopefully string together some solid runs to close out the year.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 26th: “We tried everything today and struggled to get up front.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 27th: “We ran out of gas from what I could tell, so we’ll go through and look at it and see.” 

Kevin Harvick — Finished 28th: “I’m just really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing. Mine sputtered there on the fuel pressure and it dropped down in the red and they did the right thing of coming in and pitting and not taking a chance. You just need to put yourself in a position to where you’re good for next week and just glad that one of our cars won and happy for Aric.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 31st: “Yeah, I mean it is what it is. We were far enough back in the pack where if it does happen you are probably going to be in it. Yeah, it happens.”

Late fuel stop adds to ‘frustrating three weeks’ for Brad Keselowski’s team

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — All that positive momentum Brad Keselowski’s team had entering the playoffs is long gone after another frustrating finish that has his title hopes in jeopardy.

Keselowski pitted for fuel in overtime and finished 27th Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. He is 18 points out of the final transfer spot entering next weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway.

“Ever since Richmond, we haven’t done much, made bad decisions and we didn’t have speed this weekend, and last weekend was bad,” crew chief Paul Wolfe told NBC Sports. “We wrecked two cars at the Roval. It’s been a frustrating three weeks and now we’re sitting I don’t know how many points out … We’ll go to Kansas and do what we try to do every week and that’s win and see what happens.”

It’s a marked change for the team, which won the Southern 500 and at Indianapolis to end the regular season and won the playoff opener at Las Vegas.

At Richmond, Keselowski finished ninth, hindered by a slow pit stop in the first half of the race. At the Charlotte Roval, he was fastest in practice but crashed in the final session and had to go to a backup. He crashed while leading late in the race and placed 31st. Last week at Dover, Keselowski finished 14th after he was hit by Aric Almirola in the final laps and his car was damaged.

“We made a bad call not to pit last week there at the end and then we got run over,” Wolfe said. “So that’s not good.”

Sunday, Keselowski had a loose wheel that forced him to stop under green and fall a lap down. He recovered to lead 21 laps but Stewart-Haas Racing’s cars were clearly better.

Why?

Sounds like they’ve got some really good engineering,” Keselowski said.

The team made some changes this weekend to the car but couldn’t counter the Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

“We went for handling today, thought that’s what we needed and I don’t know, I didn’t really see it pay off for us,” Wolfe said. “There were cars out there driving a lot worse than we were but we weren’t able to capitalize on it. Disappointed in that.”

Keselowski was running ninth when the race went to overtime and then pitted for fuel while most of the field stayed out.

“We just got a little bit of air in there and I think he panicked and came to pit road and likely should have just rolled on and we would have probably run out down the back (straightaway) or something but had enough speed to carry it around and maybe finish a few spots higher,” Wolfe told NBC Sports.

“When you get down to the end like that and you got a lap-and-a-half of fuel, we’re talking about half a gallon of fuel, you’ve got to be really aggressive keeping that pick up full and sometimes you‘ll get a little sputter there and got to let it recover and go on. It’s just been a frustrating three weeks.”

Results, stats for the Cup race at Talladega

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Aric Almirola passed a fuel-starved Kurt Busch in Turn 4 on the final lap of  the 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway to win his first race of the season and advance to the third round of the playoffs.

Teammate Clint Bowyer followed him across the line.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano rounded out the top five.

Stewart-Haas Racing started first through fourth and ran that way for most of the race. With less than 10 laps remaining, they separated from the field – building an advantage of more than 20-car-lengths with five to go.

That advantage was erased with three laps remaining when Alex Bowman spun and brought out the caution.

Kurt Busch fell to 14th on the final lap. Teammate Kevin Harvick pitted as the field was about to take the green flag. He finished 28th.

Click here for complete results