Ryan: Plate race insanity needs more common sense driving

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Before delving into an analysis of something inherently irrational, let’s revisit some timeless wisdom from an Australian sage named Marcos Ambrose.

“This is crazy racing. We can legitimize it all we want, but it’s insanity on four wheels.”

It might be the finest encapsulation to date of restrictor-plate racing — and the sheer madness has only gotten worse since Ambrose’s brutal honesty after the April 26, 2009 race at Talladega Superspeedway that ended with a car in the catchfence and seven injured fans.

Now compounded by stage racing, playoff berth implications and the Peltzman Effect (the Cup Series has never seemed safer, and thus drivers naturally are inclined to be riskier than ever), this might be the most aggressive era in the 30-year history of plate racing.

The exorbitant costs of overtime hours in fabrication shop tell that story, as do the box score incident reports (“2,3,4,9,10,11,12,13,14,17,19,21,22,41,42,43,48,88,95,72,78,1,7,15,32,34 accident turn 3”) that read like a drunken night of bingo

There were six major wrecks involving an aggregate 70 cars in two races at Daytona International Speedway this season, and all happened within roughly 10 yards of the lead.

That’s unacceptable, even by the often untenable circumstances mandated by plate racing.

Spare us the righteous indignation about the “proper” methods of blocking. It stirs echoes of what Ambrose told us about the logic of applying behavioral norms to lunacy.

Just drive better, guys.

Or maybe smarter.

This isn’t aimed solely at Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who took the brunt of the criticism for another less than stellar display of driving Saturday night. The wrecks were a replay of several ill-conceived moves made at the Daytona 500, and not all of them involved Stenhouse.

He was the first to note that he couldn’t take umbrage at William Byron for a block that started the chain reaction in Saturday night’s first crash because the Roush Fenway Racing driver had done the same thing in February.

In both Daytona races this year, there often seemed a rush to go … nowhere. Though some of the moves were driven by midrace points being at stake, there still were a disproportionate number of contenders eliminated by crashes within the first two stages.

Wrecks are part and parcel to plate racing, which is built around large packs running inches apart, but the pileups historically have started because of bobbles deep within the long trains of cars.

Now they often begin at the front because of an overarching belief that plate races can won only by dictating the action from the point.

“To win these races, you really need to be the leader,” Stenhouse said after leading a race-high 51 laps. “To win the stages and really kind of control the field. I felt like when I was in the front, I could really kind of control the field and make them do what I wanted to do. That’s why everybody was so aggressive trying to get to the front.”

The absurd conventions of plate racing often make drivers take bizarre actions, such as slamming into each other in the corners at 200 mph. NBCSN analyst Kyle Petty once referred to that bump drafting era of the mid-2000 as Cup drivers’ “meth habit”, and the single-minded, hell-bent desire to stay up front constantly in 2018 seems just as addicting.

There’s a fine line between “managing” lanes of traffic and blocking them, yes.

There also is a fine line between reasoning and rationalization.

It seems in the rush to lead every lap if possible, what’s been lost is that drivers have options, even if they are less than perfect.

Instead of throwing a late block on a car closing at more than 200 mph, you can choose to stay in your lane and swallow the loss of positions.

Instead of staying in the accelerator when a car darts in front, you can choose to lift off and pull out of line.

Of course, there are the consequences of losing several spots, but it doesn’t guarantee that you will lose the race. Yes, it’s harder to claw back to the front with the current horsepower/spoiler package (a handling combination endorsed by drivers, by the way), but it isn’t impossible.

Race winner Erik Jones rallied from a lap down from crash damage (and also fell backward after missing his stall on the first pit stop). Runner-up Martin Truex Jr. lost the draft midway through Daytona and yet was in the lead for the final restart.

They earned the rewards available after many of their peers took unnecessary and early risks that did little but damage their series’ reputation for showcasing elite talent.

“NASCAR is built on beating and banging, but I think what you’d like to see is aggressive moves that don’t result in the incidents we saw,” NASCAR chief racing development officer and senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “Certainly we like the aggressiveness of drivers going for wins, that’s what the sport is founded on, but you hope you can avoid some of the contact we saw Saturday.

There are conflicted feelings about the results of the Coke Zero Sugar 400, which produced the best postrace interview of the season in first-time winner Jones and also a litany of underdog finishers. The final two laps were just as scintillating even with 80% of the field essentially eliminated from contention.

But it isn’t a good look for NASCAR’s alleged 40 greatest drivers to turn their vehicles into battering rams with all of the precision and skill of a group of fourth-graders in bumper cars.

And then make those same mistakes time and again at the world’s most famous racetrack in hopes of a better outcome.

It sounds like another way to define insanity, actually.


Another contributing factor to the craziness of plate races? The rule outlawing advancing position by running beneath the yellow line, which restricts the amount of real estate with an imaginary boundary that drivers treat like a wall to help pin the competition.

The rule was created to stem the preponderance of multicar crashes that resulted from drivers racing on the apron and often off Turn 2 onto the backstretch.

But it receives much more attention when it determines race winners as it did Friday after Justin Haley dipped below the line to take a checkered flag that was awarded to Kyle Larson.

O’Donnell said drivers were informally polled about the yellow line rule last year, and the feedback was unanimous in wanting to keep it.

“Chaos would ensue” without it, O’Donnell said. “You never want to have to make that call (that decides a win), but that’s the rule.”

There almost certainly will be further discussion of the yellow line between NASCAR and drivers in the wake of the Daytona call (Ryan Newman, who has long challenged the validity of a racetrack with an out-of-bounds line, raised questions about in Saturday’s drivers meeting about the legality of Haley’s pass), but expect things to remain status quo.

The rule can’t be enforced arbitrarily, allowing last-lap passes that heretofore weren’t legal would undermine the integrity of a race.


It appears the rules for the cars also will remain static when NASCAR returns to Talladega Superspeedway in three months after a lackluster visit to the 2.66-mile oval in the spring.

NASCAR increased the width of the spoiler by a few inches on both sides at Daytona and also returned horsepower to where it had been in Speedweeks.

O’Donnell said driver feedback was positive about the impact on being able to maneuver, which should bode well after drivability had been a major problem at Talladega.


Saturday night was a major reminder that plate driving is the biggest weakness in Truex’s game, but the defending series champion almost seemed relieved despite letting the win slip away on the final restart.

“All in all, I think for us it was a good night, and did all the things we needed to do,” he said. “I’ve just got to work on my mirror driving skills. I’m not real good at it. And just happy to get through here alive and finish.  I joked all week that I hadn’t finished this race in eight or ten years, and that’s not ‑‑ I mean, it’s kind of funny but it’s not really.  It’s true and sad.”

Actually, it had been only four years since Truex had finished on the lead lap of a July race at Daytona, but the results probably run together in his 0-for-54 streak in plate races.

He has joked before that he needs to be “more of a jerk” to win at Daytona and Talladega. But if the Kryptonite in your stock-car skillset is being unable to guess how to drive like the annoying masses who refuse to merge and hog the left lane of every highway in America … well, we can think of worse deficiencies.


An overlooked nugget from Saturday night: Was that the last time we’ll see an Earnhardt race at Daytona?

After seven Cup starts this season, Jeffrey Earnhardt has no races scheduled after his 11th Saturday. He hung around for an extended selfie session he held in the pits with friends and sponsors. “We might have abused our pass limit, but thankfully we got NASCAR to allow us to bring all these guys out here,” he joked.

It could be remembered as apropos goodbye as a salute to a family legacy that became synonymous with the 2.5-mile oval in triumph and tragedy.

Goodyear tire info for Pocono, Iowa

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All three NASCAR premier national series are in action this weekend, with the Cup Series and Gander Outdoors Truck Series at Pocono Raceway and the Xfinity Series will be at Iowa Speedway.

Although Pocono is 2 ½ times larger than last weekend’s race at New Hampshire’s “Magic Mile,” both tracks share similarities, including relatively little banking, and teams often use left-side air pressures as a tuning tool to gain grip as the cars transition from the corners to back on the throttle onto Pocono’s long straightaways.

And because Cup teams just raced at Pocono eight weeks ago on the same tire set-up and downforce package, there will not be any changes in the tires and teams should have plenty of data from the previous June 2 race at the Tricky Triangle.

Pocono is always a challenge on both the teams and the tires,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Being pretty flat with long, fast straightaways and three distinct corners, teams will try to gain grip however they can, including going below our recommended air pressures, most specifically on the left-side of the car.

We integrated construction updates on both the left- and right-side tires for the June race, so since the Cup cars have already run at Pocono with this higher downforce package, they have a head start on what to expect with their set-ups this weekend.”

Cup cars will run the same combination of left- and right-side tires that they ran at Pocono in June. For the Trucks, these are two new Goodyear tire codes, featuring construction updates on both sides of the truck compared to what was run at Pocono in 2018. As on all NASCAR ovals greater than one mile in length, teams are required to run inner liners on all four tire positions at Pocono. Air pressure in those inner liners should be 12-25 psi greater than that of the outer tire.

Here’s the Cup and Truck tire info for the weekend.

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Speedway Radials

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying and 7 sets for the race (6 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice); Truck: 4 sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4870; Right-side – D-4876

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,227 mm (87.68 in.); Right-side — 2,241 mm (88.23 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 18 psi; Left Rear — 18 psi; Right Front — 41 psi; Right Rear — 37 psi

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As for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Iowa, this is the same tire set-up that the Xfinity cars previously ran at Iowa in June. The left-side tire code is the same that Xfinity teams ran at Phoenix in March.

To prepare for the 2019 season, Goodyear held a tire test with Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick at Iowa on April 16-17. Also, as on most NASCAR ovals one mile or less in length, teams will not run inner liners in their tires at Iowa.

Here’s the Xfinity tire info for the weekend.

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Speedway Radials

Set limits: 6 sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4864; Right-side – D-4884

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 16 psi; Left Rear — 16 psi;

Right Front — 36 psi; Right Rear — 34 psi

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Ryan: Why pit strategy still isn’t so simple in the year of track position

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LOUDON, N.H. – It was a track position race held at a notorious track position-dependent oval during a season that has been dominated by incessant discussions about track position.

Yet when the outcome of Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway essentially was decided when the yellow flag flew for the last time, only three of 18 lead-lap cars made the ultimate track position move – skipping a pit stop to gain positions or at least avoid losing them.

It put Kevin Harvick in the lead for good. It put Erik Jones in second.

And it stunned their crew chiefs, who both were borderline incredulous about their brilliant calls.

“Is no one watching these races and seeing how this is going?” Chris Gayle, crew chief for Jones, asked rhetorically after the No. 20 Toyota driver hung on for a third place that solidified his playoff bid. “That’s what I’m thinking (while watching the last pit stops). Everybody’s scared to make that mistake it seems like.

“And I’m sure being aggressive, we can make a mistake, so I don’t want to be too cocky about it because it can bite you at any time. Because a lot of the strategy works or doesn’t work depending on how many guys do it with you.”

Rodney Childers, crew chief for Harvick, figured his call would fall in line with several lead-lap cars. He was astonished when the No. 4 Ford inherited the lead when Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski all pitted.

“When we went green with 80 to go, we had already decided if there’s another caution we’re not going to pit unless we get shuffled back to eighth or ninth,” Childers said. “When I told him to stay out, I honestly thought we would restart somewhere in the first two rows, and then everybody pulled in and we’re sitting there the leader when he comes into sight, and I’m like, ‘What in the world?’

“But anyway, you just don’t ever know when that’s going to work out.”

In this case, though, there was 265 laps of evidence to support the call by Childers and Gayle.

To the chagrin of drivers who fell back with strong cars such as Kyle Busch (watch this video) and Hamlin (“Track position, holy cow. It’s just amazing how much we’re talking about track position on short tracks”), passing was as much at a premium as ever on New Hampshire’s flat 1.058-mile oval, whose slick surface already had put five drivers in backup cars before the race.

While staying on track might have been less of a gamble with a car as fast as Harvick’s, strategy calls for track position had been working throughout the race – starting with Gayle’s decision to vault Jones into the lead with two tires on his first pit stop under yellow on Lap 48.

Only one other driver (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) opted for two tires. That again surprised Gayle, who had studied how well two right-side tires had worked in the race last season (when passing arguably had been easier).

“I expected to see 10 guys come take right sides with me,” Gayle said. “At the end, I was on the fence with the last call. I had in my mind, less than 20 (laps) to go, I’m definitely staying out. I was in that middle zone where tires might matter, but in the end, I kind of left it up to Jones. We were talking for a little bit on the radio. I’m 50-50, but if we get in the front row, I’ll stay.”

The third driver to stay on track was Martin Truex Jr., who vaulted from 10th to third and hung on for sixth.

Why weren’t there more takers when conventional wisdom suggests doing the opposite of the leader on pit strategy during a yellow flag with a late short run on a shorter track such as NHMS?

It seems as if there is a trend toward conservatism among the current group of crew chiefs, perhaps driven by the fact that more than half of them have engineering degrees and largely empirical worldviews. New Hampshire was reminiscent of the April 16, 2018 race at Richmond Raceway, where all 16 lead-lap cars pitted during a yellow with 10 laps remaining.

Tire wear factored heavily into those decisions, which is what made Sunday in Loudon even more perplexing. Hamlin alluded to wishing “tires actually meant something. They don’t right now.”

But that apparently doesn’t make the strategy much easier because it causes greater divergence on pit sequences.

“These races are the hardest to call of any of my career,” said Childers, a 15-year veteran of Cup. “The tires don’t seem to wear as much. They don’t seem to fall off as much.  It gives everybody a lot of opportunity to do different things.

“So even when you think that you’ve got it right and you put four tires on, you think you’re in the right spot and then a caution comes out and somebody else can put two on or somebody can stay out, it just keeps shuffling.”


Two days before Harvick delivered the first victory of 2018 to Stewart-Haas Racing, teammate Clint Bowyer offered an intriguing analogy for why the organization had struggled with adapting to the lower-horsepower, high-downforce rules after enjoying its best season yet with the 2018 debut of the Mustang (all four SHR drivers won last year).

“The game’s changed – literally,” Bowyer said. “It would be like taking a baseball game and making the fence shorter and use a different bat and different ball size. The game has changed.

“You have to adjust to that game. When those rules change drastically the way they do, look at the timeframe of when it happened. You spend the better part of two years developing a Mustang for a certain game, and all of a sudden that game changes, and it’s, ‘Oh, we built that bat for that ball!’”

After Harvick’s win, SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli said, “I don’t think anybody should think that we’re where we need to be.

“I think it’s been a humbling year for all of us, and I think it’s been a frustrating year, obviously after the Cinderella year that we had last year. Our stuff fired off really good the beginning of the year, and we honestly didn’t anticipate anything less than that this year. But you know, in sports that’s not always the case.”


Generational strife was a major theme of the weekend at New Hampshire, punctuated by the terse conversation between Paul Menard and Harrison Burton after Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

But it also tied into Harvick’s notable quote that “if you drove like this 10 years ago, you’d have a fist in your mouth.” He meant the blocking and side-drafting necessitated by this season’s mostly full-throttle racing (which keeps cars more tightly bunched together).

A case could be made, though, that the shifting styles also have been borne of the new attitudes and philosophies from Millennial-age drivers and younger.

As Denny Hamlin told The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck, he sees the current era of aggressive driving beginning with Brad Keselowski, who drew the ire of many Cup veterans by refusing to yield during his first partial season in Cup 10 years ago and stayed true to being anti-establishment as the north star of his NASCAR career. When he won the championship in 2012, Keselowski was accused by Tony Stewart of “having a death wish” for racing Jimmie Johnson too hard at Texas Motor Speedway (which Keselowski recalled during this 2014 interview).

Between Keselowski and Joey Logano (see the 2015 playoffs and his 2018 win at Martinsville over Martin Truex Jr.), Team Penske’s longtime duo have done as much to reshape the mores of hard driving over the past decade – and it’s mostly been for the good.


Speaking of young drivers, kudos to the trio of early 20something Xfinity championship contenders who persistently field questions about their futures with a cheery attitude.

Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick still have no clarity on their rides for the 2020 season, and they will continue being asked about it (as they were last Friday at New Hampshire) until their plans are finalized.

It seems increasingly likely that all three of them will advance to Cup next season (“it would be a hell of a rookie battle,” Bell said). Based on the manner in which they have deftly handled speculation that can be annoying (at best) and distracting, Bell, Custer and Reddick seem ready for the leap.


Though he still might lack a Cup championship, Hamlin has his NASCAR peers beaten in another department: Candor.

It’s hard to imagine another modern-era driver second-guessing himself as much as Hamlin did while speaking to reporters for 10 minutes after New Hampshire in a richly detailed and insightful explanation of how he gave away the win to Harvick.

It was a fascinating window into the thought process of an elite driver, and it wasn’t the first time that Hamlin has been willing to be so forthright about a topic that another star might find too emotionally charged or personally humiliating to address (his breathtaking honesty about the No. 11 team giving the best pit stall to a teammate last year also comes to mind).

As much as the last-lap battle with Harvick was compelling, it also was Hamlin’s unflinching dissection that gave it major legs for Monday morning analysis – even if it came at his own expense.

NASCAR penalty report after New Hampshire

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Two Xfinity Series crew chiefs were fined for rules violations in this week’s NASCAR penalty report.

Mike Shiplett, crew chief for the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driven by Cole Custer, was fined $5,000 for improperly installed lug nuts.

Also Jason Burdett, crew chief for the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet driven by Justin Allgaier, was also fined $5,000 for improperly installed lug nuts.

There were no other penalties assessed in either the Xfinity or NASCAR Cup series.

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Know NASCAR? Try the NBC Sports Predictor app

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Chase some money on the NBC Sports Predictor app as you enjoy NASCAR racing on the NBC Sports networks this season.

Just last week a fan made all the right predictions for the New Hampshire Cup race and won $30,000.

Download the app, sign up and then play each week the rest of the season. Need a little help? Watch the video above where Nate Ryan, Steve Letarte and Kyle Petty ID their picks for which drivers will finish in the top 10 at Pocono.

Here’s how to play NASCAR Pick ‘Em:

  • For each race stage, pick the driver that will have the best finish from a group of four drivers.
  • Then, out of the entire field, pick which drivers will finish the race in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place – in exact order.

Fans who earn a perfect score will win (or split if multiple users) the jackpot. If there are no perfect scores one week, the $10,000 jackpot rolls over to the next race, making that jackpot $20,000, then $30,000, and so on. Once a jackpot is won, the jackpot will reset to $10,000 for the following contest. In addition, each week there will be $1,000 in guaranteed prizes split among users with the top scores.

This is the third game to be released on the NBC Sports Predictor app. In February, NBC Sports debuted “Golf Pick ‘Em,” after launching the app with “Premier League Pick ‘Em in December.

Each player must be at least 18 years or older. Other restrictions may apply.