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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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

Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
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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