Ryan: How New Hampshire highlighted good side of 2018

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Do you like the 2018 season in NASCAR’s premier series?

The answer is subjective, but its parameters are essentially objective.

Every response will involve some combination of the dominance of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., the failures of other contenders trying to match The Big Three and the struggles of everyone else in making hardly any gains.

There have been more than a few suggestions on satellite radio and social media that this has made for a predictable or maybe even tedious refrain.

So let’s try rephrasing the question with entirely new wording.

Did you like Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway?

All of the recurring themes that have formed the overarching narratives of 2018 were encapsulated in just under three hours on the 1.058-mile oval, and it crystallized into a highly entertaining show at a track that has fallen short on drama a few times in recent Cup races.

New Hampshire wasn’t the best race of the season – we’ll let the slobberknocker finishes of the Daytona 500 and Chicagoland Speedway duke it out for that title — but it certainly is in the conversation for the top five (at least, according to one popular unscientific sampling of several thousand loyal Twitter followers).

Regardless of where you stand on the merits of a season built upon a trio of drivers winning 75 percent of the first 20 races, Sunday proved there is promise when the limited cast of leading roles and their supporting players work in concert to paint a 301-lap mosaic punctuated by plot twists and caution flags that were perfectly timed.

The perfectly executed bump and run by Harvick on Busch was merely the exclamation point on a race with familiar storylines but yet still an unpredictable bent.

We’ve seen Aric Almirola’s team squander race-winning cars before, but not in two major mistakes (first by the pit crew, then by the driver) – the culmination of a daisy-chain series of events touched off by teammate Clint Bowyer’s mechanical problems.

The struggles of Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevrolets have been well documented, but New Hampshire brought the team’s first stage win and the solidification of three Camaros in provisional playoff spots on points.

Yes, it helps when Harvick, Busch and Truex are battling to stay at the front instead of steamrolling the field. But even when they are excelling, the races still can be compelling.

Consider how many times The Big Three (who, by the way, still haven’t finished 1-2-3 in a race) have finished in the top five together this season. Of those eight races, two are among the year’s best (Chicagoland and New Hampshire) and two were at least in the top half (Martinsville and Phoenix). A case can be made that Sonoma, which featured some a memorable strategy duel between Harvick and Truex, was underrated. Pocono could be labeled as average.

There is no defending Las Vegas and Kentucky. Throw in Busch’s rout at Charlotte and possibly Truex’s thumping at Fontana as being less than engrossing.

That’s four races in which The Big Three’s victory dominance might have had an adverse effect on delivering a captivating race… but at least four more (and possibly five) in which their excellence might have been a major enhancement.

That was especially true at New Hampshire, where Harvick, Busch and Truex always seemed to be forcing the action without always being at the center of it.

So do you like the 2018 season in NASCAR’s premier series?

Objectively, it seems fair to at least let the rest of the season unfold before subjectively judging its worth.


Some of the pushback on bringing an Xfinity or Cup race to Eldora Speedway seems to be rooted in the optics of a return to dirt racing being equated with regression. That seems to be the case for Richard Petty, who watched NASCAR’s premier series evolve into exclusively pavement mostly in the name of progress roughly four decades ago.

It’s understandable that dirt would be synonymous with substandard for Petty, who raced far too many dusty ovals with rundown facilities than he probably cares to remember.

But it’s a deeply flawed perception to simply dismiss Eldora as bush league because of its surface. Though built in 1954, it’s a retrofitted 21st-century jewel that sprouts from the farmlands of Darke County in western Ohio.

Since buying the half-mile oval nearly 14 years ago, owner Tony Stewart has plowed millions into renovations on par with many speedways on the Cup circuit. In the last few years, it’s added a new infield care center with state-of-the-art equipment that would match track hospitals at Daytona or Indianapolis (and with a dedicated helipad for medical transport), a new HD video screen, a first-class media center and a three-story building with 16 suites.

Its races are available via live streaming, and its PA, lighting, drainage and well systems have been significantly upgraded. There are more improvements planned, and Stewart surely would ramp those up if granted another national series race by NASCAR.

Beyond just meeting the standards of a regulation-issue sanction agreement, dirt tracks such as Eldora also should be given credence because there also is a healthy appetite for well-produced throwback racing. Petty’s comments Tuesday came at a NASCAR Hall of Fame unveiling of his team’s retro 1972 paint scheme on the No. 43 that Bubba Wallace will drive in the Southern 500.

Darlington Raceway’s nostalgia-driven renaissance on Labor Day should be all the proof needed that there’s no shame in going back to the future for NASCAR.


The caution that effectively determined Sunday’s race at New Hampshire came 30 laps after the yellow flag remained holstered for a similar incident but with an important difference.

When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the Turn 4 wall on Lap 225, it was in the midst of a green-flag pit cycle that was completed when Clint Bowyer scraped the wall between turns 3 and 4 on Lap 256 to set up the final shootout.

While NASCAR said it was the debris field caused by Bowyer’s incident that triggered the yellow, teams surely took notice of how the race was called during what could have been the race’s last round of pit stops.

Given that a yellow flag caused by a brush with the wall at Richmond last September cost Martin Truex Jr. a victory, teams undoubtedly are recording each NASCAR officiating decision as a data point for determining how to handle strategy for the playoffs.


Parker Kligerman said on NASCAR America last week that Roush Fenway Racing had shifted into using the No. 6 Ford as its test bed as the team tries to qualify Stenhouse for the playoffs.

That makes Kenseth’s drive to 15th after qualifying 31st at New Hampshire intriguing. While he still ran behind Stenhouse for much of the race until his teammate hit the wall, the result and the car’s reliability had to be encouraging for Roush.

If he is to succeed in making the playoffs on points over the final six races of the regular season, Stenhouse needs more speed and no failures. If the experimental parts that went the distance on Kenseth’s car Sunday are a durable new option, anything might help for Stenhouse at this point.


It falls in the category of “good problems to have,” but Christopher Bell’s ongoing success in the Xfinity Series eventually could lead to some difficult decisions for Joe Gibbs Racing and Bell’s hearty supporters at Toyota Racing Development.

Bell almost certainly will spend the 2019 season in the Xfinity Series, but if he has another year like 2018 (particularly if he captures the championship), it’ll virtually demand a promotion to the Cup Series in 2020.

It’s hard to envision how JGR opens a spot in its driver lineup by then, but if Bell truly appears to be the next Kyle Larson, these things do have a way of getting sorted.

At the beginning of 2016, it also would have been hard to envision Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones in Cup rides at JGR two years later.

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott wins Cup Most Popular Driver award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott was selected as the NMPA Most Popular Driver in a fan vote announced during Thursday’s NASCAR Awards show.

It is the second consecutive victory for Elliott in the category.

“Honored to have two,” Elliott said on stage. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

Completing the top five in balloting: Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney.

It is the 29th consecutive year that either an Elliott or Earnhardt has won the award. Bill Elliott won the award 16 times.

“To have 18 awards going back to Dawsonville is, I think, pretty cool,” Elliott said of the Most Popular Driver awards he and his father have won. “Obviously, I think a lot of that is due to him and his career and what he and his family built. It’s certainly isn’t all me and what I’ve done. I haven’t done anything … compared to what they did.”

The last driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt to win this award was Darrell Waltrip in 1990.

Other award winners included:

The Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not given every year, was presented to car owner Joe Gibbs for his signifiant contribution to the sport.

The NMPA Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contribution to the sport was presented to Darrell Waltrip.

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award is Joe Vaughn, who has volunteered for nearly two decades, raising both awareness and funds on behalf of the Project HOPE Foundation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifespan of services to the autism community to help families, open minds, promote inclusion and expand potential.