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.

Cup playoff race at Talladega to resume at 2 p.m. ET Monday on NBCSN

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Let’s try this again.

Stage 1 was finished when rain came Sunday and prevented the Cup playoff race from continuing at Talladega Superspeedway. NBCSN’s coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET today. The engines will be fired at 2:02 p.m.

Fifty-seven of 188 laps have been completed. The race will resume with stage 2. That stage will end at Lap 110.

The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 72 degrees and 0% chance of rain when the race resumes. There is no chance of rain in the afternoon.

William Byron, who won stage 1, was the leader when the race was stopped Sunday. He is followed by Joey Logano, Alex Bowman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski.

Matt Crafton has replaced Paul Menard in the No. 21 car and will take over driving duties when the race resumes.

After the race was stopped, Chevrolet summoned its drivers, crew chiefs and competition directors to a meeting that lasted about 25 minutes. Chevrolet has been adamant about its teams working together at Talladega and Daytona since the April race at Talladega. Chevrolet has won the past two races at those tracks with Elliott winning at Talladega in April and Justin Haley winning at Daytona in July.

Asked about Chevy’s tactics, Jimmie Johnson told NBC Sports: “Every year the sport changes. It doesn’t matter if it’s how we race each other on track or how strategies play out. The sport is ever-evolving and you’ve got to be on your toes and ready to adjust or the sport is going to pass you up.”

 

Rain postpones Cup race at Talladega until Monday at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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The Cup Series playoff race at Talladega has been postponed due to rain. The race will resume Monday at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

The race was put under a rain delay after the completion of Stage 1.

57 of 188 laps have been completed. The race is not official until the end of Stage 2 (Lap 110).

William Byron won the first stage.

The top 10 is Byron, Joey Logano, Alex Bowman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Daniel Suarez, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney.

Blocking a key issue at Talladega for drivers

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — The question isn’t who to race with at Talladega, manufacturers have dictated that, but it is where to race.

Run at the front and hope the wreck is behind? Run at the back and hope to avoid the carnage?

The package used at Talladega and Daytona this season punches such a big hole that drivers say the closing rate between cars is quicker than before. That gives cars trying to block less time to make their move. Be late and it can lead to a wreck.

As it has at Talladega and Daytona this year.

“There’s been many evolutions in racing and blocking is one for me that I’ve had to evolve with, but blocking is a part of our sport now on a weekly basis,” Kevin Harvick said. “It’s not just here. I mean, you see it at the mile-and-a-half race tracks. 

“You’re just going to have wrecks blocking. Sometimes you’re going to make a bad move. It’s just something that’s a little bit newer in the pace of the car that’s approaching you and the style of block and how you throw it, but we’re going to wreck from a block because it’s just become part of what we do.”

Three wrecks this year at Talladega and Daytona can be traced to blocking at the front of the field.

“When you have the smaller spoiler, you’re able to get in front of them, that lead car would get the push before that (trailing) car would actually get to the back bumper of the lead car,” Joey Logano said. “Now, it seems like the trailing car can get to the back bumper and then some (with the larger spoiler), so the blocks have to be quicker and have to be precise. Even once you block them it doesn’t mean it’s over because now they’re still on your bumper and they’re pushing you around. It’s more challenging from that standpoint.”

The late April race at Talladega debuted this package and saw a crash at the front of the field early in the event. Bubba Wallace was third when he and Ryan Blaney, running second, got out of shape and triggered a crash that damaged six cars. Wallace said the accident was a result of “the amount of runs and the force of it. All I was trying to do was just some wreck avoidance.”

The Daytona race in July saw two crashes that started at the front of the field because of blocking.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was leading when he was late on a block on Kurt Busch and they made contact, spinning Stenhouse.

Late in the race, Austin Dillon, in the lead, blocked as Clint Bowyer went low to try pass. They made contact, triggering an 18-car crash.

Dillon notes that blocking is a part of speedway racing.

“You’re going to do it,” he said. “Somebody has got a run at you at the end of the race. There’s not much else you can do. You can give up certain times of the race, but if it’s a last-lap situation you’re going to be held accountable for the actions you make and you’re going to feel bad if you go home not making the block that could win you the race … or you’re going to feel bad if you’re wrecked. I’ve been on both sides of it. It’s speedway racing. That’s all I have to say about it.”

Blocking, to Ryan Newman, is nothing new.

“What was it ’08 when (Tony) Stewart won blocking Regan Smith?” Newman said of the fall 2008 Talladega race where Smith crossed the finish line first but Stewart was given the win because Smith went below the yellow line. “Stewart got the win and blocked Regan and everything was fine. Here we are 11 years later still talking about the same thing. Does it do any good to talk about it?”

Harvick was encouraged how NASCAR reacted at the end of Saturday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race. NASCAR penalized leader Johnny Sauter for forcing Riley Herbst below the yellow line on the final lap. Spencer Boyd was declared the winner.

“I can’t stand blocking,” Harvick said. “We didn’t use to penalize the blockers  very much. It was always the guy that was trying to make the move. So, you know, the guy had a lane … Johnny was trying to win the race. You can’t blame for him for trying to block. I like when the blockers get called. I don’t like it for Johnny Sauter. You’ve got to have a lane to race.”

 

Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega: Start time, lineup and more

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One of the first things Kyle Larson said after winning last weekend at Dover was that “everybody in this playoff field is going to be stressing at Talladega … except me.”

Talladega is here and it’s time for many drivers to stress. Except Larson, of course.

The playoff standings could be jumbled by the time the 500-mile journey at Talladega Superspeedway ends. Who will be collected in a crash? Who will get through the carnage and contend for the win?

Here is all the info for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Edward Graham, assistant VP of Operation Christmas Child for Samaritan’s Purse, will give the command to start engines at 1:48 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:03 p.m.

PRERACE: The Cup garage opens at 10 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at noon. Driver introductions are at 1:15 p.m. The invocation will be given at 1:41 p.m. by Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas. The National Anthem will be performed at 1:42 p.m. by the 313th United States Army Band out of Birmingham, Alabama.

DISTANCE: The race is 188 laps (500.08 miles) around the 2.66-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 55. Stage 2 ends on Lap 110.

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race at 2 p.m. Coverage begins with NASCAR America at 1 p.m. on NBC. Countdown to Green follows at 1:30 p.m. on NBC, leading into race coverage. Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 1 p.m. and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

STREAMING ONLINE: Click here for NBC’s live stream of the race.

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts mostly cloudy conditions with a temperature of 68 degrees and a 0% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Chase Elliott led a 1-2-3 Chevrolet sweep in late April, finishing ahead of Alex Bowman and Ryan Preece. Aric Almirola won this playoff race a year ago, giving Ford a 1-2-3 sweep with Clint Bowyer second and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. third. 

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.