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.

Five can’t-miss NASCAR Cup races in 2019 beyond Daytona 500

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We’re 32 days out from the biggest NASCAR event of the season in the Daytona 500, a race of such importance that needs no explanation.

But what else is there to look forward to?

There are 35 other Cup points races this season and they’re not all created equal.

Here are five races to pay closer attention to this season.

– Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on Feb. 24 on Fox)

The second Cup race of the season will probably have its biggest spotlight in recent memory when the 1.5-mile track is the first to host the 2019 rules package.

Derived from the 2018 All-Star Race package, it includes a tapered spacer and is intended to provide closer racing. Cars will run 550 horsepower at all tracks 1.33 miles and larger, which includes Atlanta. At tracks less than 1.33 miles, cars will have 750 horsepower.

Combine the hopeful intent behind the package and a rough track surface that’s being kept in place by the “most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C.,” and you have no excuse to not tune in and see what happens.

Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on June 30 on NBCSN)

The race that marks the start of NBC’s portion of the NASCAR schedule set an incredible precedent in 2018. The 1.5-mile track debuted in its new spot on the schedule with Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch’s dramatic last-lap battle and Busch’s win.

Was it a result of the drivers involved? The hot Chicagoland surface? Lapped traffic?

Yes.

Can it be topped?

We can only hope.

Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on Aug. 4 on NBCSN)

From the green flag last year, the Cup race on the New York road course was a barn burner, ending with a duel between Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. that resulted in Elliott’s first Cup win as Truex ran out of gas.

Races on the road course have had increasingly memorable finishes over the last seven years (beginning in 2012 with Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose). WGI shows no sign of providing a snoozer in the near future, especially as long as pit strategy is involved.

Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 29 on NBC)

The final lap of last season’s inaugural Cup race on the Charlotte Roval  had enough drama for three races on the new road course.

From Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson‘s contact in the final turn giving Ryan Blaney the win; Kyle Larson hitting the wall twice and passing a stalled car at the checkered flag to advance in the playoffs; and Aric Almirola passing enough cars to advance himself.

Do teams have the oval-road course hybrid figured out after one year? It’ll be fun to watch that question answered.

First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Oct. 27 on NBCSN)

We’re starting to run out of fingers to use to list memorable events in Martinsville’s recent history of hosting a playoff race.

You could argue it started with Dale Earnhardt Jr. banging doors with Tony Stewart to win his only Martinsville clock in 2014.

Since then?

We’ve seen Matt Kenseth’s retaliation against Joey Logano in 2015, which resulted in Jeff Gordon’s final Cup win.

Two years later, Denny Hamlin wrecked Elliott from the lead near the end of regulation. Kyle Busch then won in overtime as Martinsville’s version of “The Big One” unfolded. Afterward, an angry Elliott confronted Hamlin on the track as fans filled the air with cheers and boos.

Last year Truex and Logano provided a thrilling battle over the last six laps. Logano performed the bump-and-run on Truex in the final turn to win the battle in the “damn war” (which Logano also won in Miami).

 

New NASCAR Cup team owners invest in minor league hockey team

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You might say that the newest NASCAR Cup team owner is now in a Rush.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which recently purchased the Cup charter of former NASCAR championship team Furniture Row Racing, has branched out, taking a minority ownership share in the Rapid City (South Dakota) Rush of the 27-team East Coast Hockey League.

Spire co-founders Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr will become active minority partners in the Rush, hoping to bring the team back to past prominence.

“We aren’t going to be saviors here,” Spire co-founder Jeff Dickerson said in a press conference at the team’s Rushmore Plaza Civic Center home. “There’s no magic bullet. It’s going to take all of us to create the culture that builds excitement and value. The city loves the Rush and we hope to get it back to where it was.”

Rush majority owner, Rapid City businessman Scott Mueller, sees better days ahead for his club.

“The biggest thing is (Spire’s) sports industry knowledge,” Mueller said, according to the Rapid City Journal. “It’s about putting people in seats, selling advertising and they have a lot of knowledge on that. (Dickerson) sees so many venues, and I think he’s going to be involved in changes that are needed.

“We’ve taken some steps in the last few months. These are great days for us, and we’re really excited about our future.”

The Rush is mired in sixth place in the ECHL’s seven-team Mountain Division.

In addition to purchasing Furniture Row Racing’s charter, Spire represents several race car drivers including NASCAR’s Kyle Larson, Landon Cassill, Ross Chastain, Justin Haley, Todd Gilliland, Garrett Smithley and Vinnie Miller and IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe.

Spire isn’t the only NASCAR Cup team owner involved in other sports. Roush Fenway Racing’s co-owner John Henry owns Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool Football Club of soccer’s Premier League, while Chip Ganassi previously was a minority owner in MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates. Felix Sabates, who also holds a minority ownership stake in Chip Ganassi Racing, is also a minority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

“We have been looking for several years to find something in minor league sports and see if what we do in motorsports translates to this space,” Puchyr said, according to The Journal. “Our due diligence indicates that it does.”

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Richard Petty Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports announce crew chief changes

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Bubba Wallace will have a new crew chief in 2019 with Drew Blickensderfer leaving to take the same position with Front Row Motorsports.

Richard Petty Motorsports said in a statement it will announce a new crew chief “at the appropriate time.” Meanwhile competition director Philippe Lopez will lead the No. 43 team’s efforts to prepare for the season.

Wallace finished the 2018 season 28th in points. He earned three top 10s, including second place in the Daytona 500.

Blickensderfer, who was with RPM since 2012, heads to Front Row Motorsports, which announced its crew chief lineup Wednesday.

Blickensderfer will be paired with Michael McDowell on the No. 34 Ford. Blickensderfer replaces Derrick Finley, who will serve as FRM’s technical director.

Mike Kelley joins FRM to crew chief rookie Matt Tifft and the No. 36 Ford. Kelley was previously with Roush Fenway Racing where he was crew chief on the No. 60 Xfinity car. Kelley is a two-time Xfinity champion, winning with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2011 and 2012.

Seth Barbour will return for his second full season as crew chief on David Ragan‘s No. 38 Ford. He joined the team in the middle of the 2017 season as a crew chief for Landon Cassill.

The crew chief moves come as the team recently announced it had moved shop locations.

 

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Kyle Larson wins preliminary event at Chili Bowl

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Kyle Larson won the A feature Tuesday night to advance to Saturday night’s A main at the Chili Bowl Nationals. It was his fifth preliminary event win at the Chili Bowl. Zach Daum finished second.

Larson took the lead on Lap 6 of the 25-lap feature and went on to the win.

MORE: Tuesday night race results from Chili Bowl

MORE: Monday night race results from Chili Bowl

“We’ll move on to Saturday and try to be better,” Larson said in the press conference afterward.

NBCSN broadcaster Dillon Welch finished seventh in the 24-car field. Alex Bowman placed ninth. Tanner Berryhill, who will be a Cup rookie this season, was 10th.

The Chili Bowl continues the rest of the week, culminating with Saturday night’s main event.

JJ Yeley, Landon Cassill and Rico Abreu are among the drivers scheduled to race Wednesday night at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, event.

Thursday’s racing will include two-time defending winner Christopher Bell, Justin Allgaier and Karsyn Elledge, daughter of Kelley Earnhardt Miller. Kasey Kahne and Tanner Thorson are among those scheduled to race Friday.

Thorson won Tuesday night’s Race of Champions. Larson was second, Bell placed third and Yeley was fifth in that event.