Long: Path to better NASCAR shouldn’t be us vs. them

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A tug-of-war is emerging in NASCAR that is unsettling and unnecessary.

This is not us vs. them.

This should be us and them — collaboration not conflict.

Instead, a fissure has developed between competitors and fans over the aero package and restrictor plates used in last month’s All-Star race. As talks continue among teams, drivers, engine builders and NASCAR on where to run this package again this season, questions have been raised about the type of racing it creates.

Former champion Brad Keselowski says that using the package too often could have long-term negative effects for the sport. But many fans were encouraged by the closer racing the package produced in the All-Star event. Their excitement helped spur NASCAR to examine running that package later this season — likely Michigan in August and Indianapolis in September — after the sanctioning body initially downplayed the chances of doing so.

It’s not uncommon for competitors and fans to be on opposite sides, but this issue cuts to a basic premise. What makes better racing? What lengths should NASCAR pursue to achieve that?

While fans see the potential for added excitement on the track, Keselowski sees a driver’s ability lessened.

“I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers,’’ he said this past weekend at Michigan International Speedway. “I think if you put a package like this out there, like we had at the All-Star race on a consistent basis, that the best drivers in the world will no longer go to NASCAR.

“They want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance and there is no doubt that the driver makes less of a difference with that rules package.”

That didn’t seem to matter to many fans after the All-Star race. Social media reaction and effusive fan comments on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio followed for days after the non-points race — a reaction rarely seen about that race in recent years.

Although the aero package and restrictor plate combination has been tried at Indianapolis, Pocono and Michigan in the Xfinity Series and at Charlotte in Cup, NASCAR has not stated how many races or where they hope to run this type of package in 2019 and beyond.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, stressed that Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, saying: “This (package) is not something we’re looking at for every race. I see some of our current drivers make assumptions when they don’t have all the facts. It’s something we’re looking at for a few tracks. If we could pull it off and improve on something, we will but also very happy with the racing we have today.”

With restrictor plates choking horsepower and aero changes intended to help cars run closer, Keselowski’s concern is that races on some 1.5- or 2-mile tracks will look similar to the racing at Daytona and Talladega. That means drivers are less in control of their fate.

“I would say most plate tracks, first through fourth has control of their own destiny and have acquired that finish based on talent, skill, etc.,’’ said Keselowski, whose five Talladega wins and one Daytona triumph are the most victories at restrictor-plate tracks than any other active driver. “From there on back it is a random bingo ball.”

Hall of Famer Mark Martin tweeted that he agreed with Keselowski and said that while he enjoys many of the changes the sport has made — including the playoffs and stage racing — he does not want to see a package that makes it easier for more drivers to win Cup races.

“Racing in NASCAR is supposed to be the hardest, most difficult thing that you could ever try to do as a race car driver,’’ Martin said this past weekend at Michigan. “It really, really hurts me to think about that we want to change to satisfy Johnny-come-lately fans.

“There are some issues that could be addressed about our racing, but artificially making the racing exciting for a portion of the fans to me is not what, I’d rather see that in (the Xfinity) race, not (the Cup) race.”

Sports need to be challenging. Sports also need to entertain and wow fans with feats that no average person can do. It’s why people watch LeBron James on a basketball court, Tom Brady on a football field and Sidney Crosby at a hockey rink. Rules have changed over the years in their sports, some dramatic, some subtle, but their athletic prowess remains constant.

Even if a driver’s ability may be limited in a handful of races that doesn’t mean that some fan can do what Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson do in a car. 

The restrictor plates and aero package used in the All-Star race and at Xfinity races, create a different set of challenges for drivers but still allows them to display their ability.

“I think it’s a different type of talent,’’ Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon said this past weekend. “To be inches off of one another, pushing, shoving, wide open around there, making the correct moves, jumping out of line at the right times.

“It’s a real chess match out there and putting yourself in a good position is very key. I think it’s a different type of talent, obviously, than what we do every week. I think it’s good to have these type of races. If the fans love to see it and it looks good and creates drama, I like it. I don’t know its an every week package but for these types of tracks it’s good.”

It’s not just NASCAR facing such issues. This is a topic in IndyCar, particularly with the Indianapolis 500.

Last month’s 500 featured 31 lead changes. That was more lead changes in any Indianapolis 500 from 1911-2011.

Problem was that the 31 lead changes this year were the fewest since 2011. The race averaged 44.7 lead changes from 2012-17 when it appeared more like a video game with its back-and-forth passing.

This year’s total marked a 30.7 percent decline in lead changes. It’s why some have wondered if rule changes need to be made for that series to make passing easier at the front — and in theory make the race more exciting.

There needs to be a balance there and for each motorsports series. Not every race will be spectacular. Not every game is in other sports. For every moment of greatness, there are others that are merely satisfying. The key is to find a way that appeals to fans and also works with competitors. 

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Harrison Burton, Paul Menard exchange words after trading hits

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LOUDON, N.H. – There’s a 20-year gap between Paul Menard and Harrison Burton and seemingly just as wide a gulf in how they viewed their incident Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Burton, 18, finished 29th in the Xfinity Series race after being wrecked by Menard, 38, with 45 laps remaining.

Parking his No. 18 Toyota after completing 169 of 200 laps, Burton waited for more than 20 minutes until the race ended and then strode purposefully from the entrance of the Xfinity garage to the pits and confronted Menard for a terse but civil conversation.

“I wanted to get across to him that I got wrecked for no reason,” said Burton, who competes full time in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series was making the third start of his Xfinity career and the first on a track at least a mile in length. “I barely touched him. There’s barely a mark on his door. I don’t know if he’s heard of NASCAR before, but this isn’t F1 where if you touch someone, there’s a 5-second penalty.

“I barely touched him, and I got wrecked. He says that I got into him on the restart. I’m on the apron, and he comes down across my nose and then gets mad about it. When he watches the film, I think he’ll see that. I think that we just worked our butts off and didn’t get the result we deserve. We’ll just come back and race harder and beat him next time.”

Menard said he was justified to tap Burton in the left rear and spin the Joe Gibbs Racing driver into the Turn 1 wall.

“He ran into me a couple of times,” said the driver of the No. 12 Ford for Team Penske. “So I voiced my displeasure. He’s a young kid. He’s got a long time in this sport. He’s got to figure that stuff out pretty early. As he races more in Xfinity, and especially if he gets to the Cup level, they don’t put up with that stuff. I felt it was my place to tell him that’s not cool.

“A lot of these kids are good clean racers. He kind of stood out from the crowd. He had a fast enough car he could have been clean. I hate tearing up race cars. I didn’t really want to tear up his race car, that’s for sure. But sometimes enough is enough.”

Menard singled out Chase Briscoe and Noah Gragson, both in their early to mid-20s, for having raced him cleaner than Burton.

“Some of these kids are really fun to race with, and some of them just don’t get it,” said Menard, a veteran of 14 seasons in the Cup series who was teamed with Burton’s father (and NASCAR on NBC analyst), Jeff, for three seasons at Richard Childress Racing. “So I think you have to cut that shit out at an early age.”

“Some of these kids have a lot of talent and don’t have to run into you to try to pass you. Harrison, I’ve never met the kid before. I know his dad really well. I’ve got a lot of respect for Jeff. Really good man. But the kid ran into me a couple of times, and that was enough of that.”

Though he had the chance to air his grievances, Burton was skeptical it would make any difference with how Menard would race him in the future.

“He doesn’t care,” Burton said. “He doesn’t care about anyone else but himself. But I’m going to just go out and beat him on the racetrack like I was going to today. I was driving away from him. I was gone.

“We were going to beat him on the racetrack, and that’s all you can do is just beat people on the racetrack and show them you’re going to outwork them. I’m fired up and ready to go for the next one.”

Results, points after Xfinity race at New Hampshire

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Christopher Bell led 186 of 200 laps on his way to winning Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Bell beat Cole Custer to claim his fifth of the year.

The top five was completed by Justin Allgaier, Tyler Reddick and Paul Menard.

Click here for the race results.

Points

Tyler Reddick continues to lead the standings despite having two few wins than Bell and Custer.

He has a 56-point lead over Bell and 76-point advantage over Custer in third.

The top five is completed by Justin Allgaier (-146 points) and Austin Cindric (-163 points).

Click here for the full standings.

Christopher Bell wins Xfinity race at New Hampshire

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Christopher Bell won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in dominating fashion, leading 186 of 200 laps and beating Cole Custer.

With the win, Bell’s second in a row on the 1.058-mile track, he is again tied with Custer for the most wins on the season with five.

Bell and Custer have finished 1-2 four times this year.

“I just had a really good race car,” Bell told NBCSN. “This track’s been really good to us and our team.”

The top five was completed by Justin Allgaier, Tyler Reddick and Paul Menard.

Bell’s win is the 13th of his Xfinity career in just his 59th start, tying him for the most by that point with Darrell Waltrip.

Custer, who started from the pole, never led a lap.

“There at the end I felt like we had a car that could compete with him, but I just wasn’t driving the car right at the start of the race and I got us behind on adjustments,” Custer said. “From there, we were kind of playing catchup.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brandon Jones won in a three-wide finish over Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Christopher Bell won with a 6.5 second lead over Justin Allgaier

MORE: Race results and points

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Justin Allgaier earned his first top-five finish at New Hampshire in his ninth start … Ryan Sieg placed eighth for his first finish better than 15th at New Hampshire in six starts.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: John Hunter Nemechek finished 36th after he wrecked in Turn 1 on Lap 32 … Harrison Burton finished 29th after he was spun from contact with Paul Menard with 46 laps to go. That was after Burton had fought his way back into the top five following a slow early pit stop when a pit gun malfunctioned. The drivers had a tense post-race discussion on pit road.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I don’t care what series he races in or who he is. He raced me in a terrible way and I just decided I needed to hear from him what his story was. I didn’t like his story so I’ll race him accordingly.” – Harrison Burton to NBCSN after his discussion with Paul Menard.

WHAT’S NEXT: U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa Speedway at 5 p.m. ET July 27 on NBCSN

Check back for more

Ryan Blaney fastest in final Cup practice at New Hampshire

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Ryan Blaney was fastest in the Cup Series’ final practice session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Blaney posted a top speed of 133.572 mph.

He was followed by Denny Hamlin (133.226 mph), Kyle Busch (132.739), Kevin Harvick (132.688) and Martin Truex Jr. (132.646).

Brad Keselowski (sixth) and Kurt Busch (14th) each recorded the most laps in the session with 61.

Blaney also had the best 10-lap average.

Click here for the speed chart.

Alex Bowman wrecked in Turns 1 and 2 in the middle of the session.

Bowman, who was already in a backup car after he had a driveshaft failure in qualifying Friday, will now go to a second backup car. The No. 88 team will use Jimmie Johnson‘s backup car.

Matt DiBenedetto‘s left-rear tire shredded twice during the session.

“Not a lot of warning, I’ll tell you that,” DiBenedetto told NBCSN after the first tire problem. “I went down into (Turn) 1 and I was passing (Landon Cassill), as soon as we got down into the corner I don’t know if we ran over something or what but the left rear went down in a hurry.”

DiBenedetto, who qualified seventh for Sunday’s race, was able return to the track to make a lap right before the session ended.