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.

Kurt Busch on contract status beyond 2018: ‘we’ll see how it all comes together’

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LOUDON, N.H. — Former champion Kurt Busch said Friday that he’s focused on his performance on the track even though his contract ends after this season.

“For me, I’ve just been racing, driving and performing, doing all the things I can do to exceed in all categories, whether it’s teammate things, things on the track … communication with (crew chief) Billy Scott,” Busch said after winning the pole at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“I don’t know many drivers that have a primary sponsor with them. Monster Energy has been very loyal to me. It’s just a matter of when the time is to start talking about a contract. Last year, it went long just because I felt I deserved more. The landscape is changing in NASCAR on primary sponsorship values, teams with the purse and the guarantee that they get off the historical performance. There are a lot of things that move, so we’ll see how it all comes together.”

MORE: Stewart-Haas Racing makes pit crew changes

MORE: Martin Truex Jr. laments sponsor leaving after this year

Last year, Stewart-Haas Racing declined the option on Busch’s contact when there were questions about if Monster Energy would return as a primary sponsor. After that was settled, Busch signed a one-year contract with the team. The deal was announced Dec. 12.

This is Busch’s fifth season with Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s won five races, including the 2017 Daytona 500 with the team. He has made the playoffs each year with SHR.

Busch’s pole Friday was his third of the year. He has yet to win a race this season but has 10 top-10 finishes.

“When you go to a track that you have good vibes about and with the team doing well, it gives you that feeling like you’re a step ahead and you just have to execute with confidence and not get too far off expecting good things to happen,” Busch said. “Just go out there and do your job and that’s what we’re doing right now and it’s great to have the pole with the 41 car.”

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Starting lineup for New Hampshire Cup race

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Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. will start from the front row in Sunday’s Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Busch starts from the pole position for the third time this season and the first time at New Hampshire.

The top five is completed by Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney.

Alex Bowman in eighth and Daniel Suarez in ninth earned their best starting position at New Hampshire.

Kevin Harvick missed the final round of qualification and starts 14th.

Click here for the complete starting lineup.

Kurt Busch wins pole at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

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Kurt Busch posted a lap of 133.591 mph in the final round of qualification for the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and will lead the field to green on Sunday. Busch was the only Stewart-Haas Racing driver to advance to the final round.

This is Busch’s first pole at New Hampshire, but he has started on the front row twice before – most recently in July, 2013. He finished 31st in that race and was 21st after starting second in July, 2007.

He beat Martin Truex Jr. (133.502 mph) by .019 seconds.

Kyle Busch (133.431), Denny Hamlin (133.361) and Ryan Blaney (132.720) round out the top five.

Alex Bowman (132.618) had the fastest Chevrolet in eighth. This is his best New Hampshire start in his seventh race.

Kevin Harvick (132.554) failed to advance to the final round and posted the 14th fastest time.

Kyle Larson (132.039) failed to back up his practice speed. He had the third fastest car in that session, but failed to make the final round and qualified 20th.

Last year, Kyle Busch won from the pole for the first time since Ryan Newman did so in the July 2011.This is Busch’s first pole at New Hampshire, but he has started on the front row twice before – most recently in 2013. He finished 31st in that race and was 21st after starting second in 2007.

Daniel Suarez  (132.581) in ninth earned his best New Hampshire start in three tries.

NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Today’s action from New Hampshire

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and gets a jump on this weekend’s racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman in Stamford, Connecticut.

On today’s show:

  • The New Hampshire race weekend is off and running. Carolyn and Parker have complete coverage following today’s practices and Monster Energy Series qualifying from Loudon.
  • They will get reaction from several drivers, including the one who will start from the pole in Sunday’s race.
  • Plus, New England native Parker Kligerman jumps in the NBC Sports iRacing simulator to show us the challenges of racing the Magic Mile.
  • Nate Ryan of NBCSports.com examines the dominance of NASCAR’s Big 3 of Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.
If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it 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 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.