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Ryan: Some random thoughts while waiting to race after the rain

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Wet weather in Indianapolis has precluded any Cup or Xfinity cars getting on track at the Brickyard this weekend. So in lieu of any Indianapolis Motor Speedway activity, let’s revisit a few postrace musings from the Southern 500:

If there’s something we’ve learned about Brad Keselowski in a dynamic decade as one of NASCAR’s most outspoken, plucky and cerebral stars, it’s that he rarely ducks a question.

Any question.

His feelings about the most divisive of national controversies?

Keselowski will weigh in firmly but gracefully (and admittedly against the advice of his PR counsel).

Opinions on head injuries that run counter to the advice of board-certified neurologists?

Keselowski will strike a recalcitrant tone and remain consistent year after year.

Big-picture solutions on what’s ailing NASCAR and how to fix it?

Keselowski devoted his 2012 championship address to tackling them and then was reprimanded for sharing his plan of attack.

But there was one question in 2018 that had the Team Penske driver intentionally and uncharacteristically shying away from microphones this season. And in the context of the emotionally and politically charged topics that Keselowski has embraced in the past, it seemed rather benign.

When are you going to win again?

“I’ve been dodging you so I don’t have to answer it,” he told ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass after Sunday’s victory in the Southern 500, his first since October 2017. Keselowski admitted it had “weighed heavy” on his mind that he might have to face that question over the final 12 weeks of the season.

It was striking to hear from a star whose confidence and sense of place within NASCAR are typically immutable. But it was yet another reminder of how fleeting success is and how fickle an impact it has even on someone as self-assured as NASCAR’s first Millennial champion, who now is in his ninth full season in the Cup Series.

Idealism and worldliness haven’t left the 34-year-old, but Keselowski now also speaks with the wizened perspective of a realist veteran in the vein of Mark Martin’s mindfulness that every win could be the last.

“Today we had a car capable of winning, we executed, we made the most of it, and I’m so thrilled for that because I know those moments are not a guarantee,” Keselowski said. “What’s so difficult about those moments is early in my career, 2010, we didn’t have cars anywhere close to being able to win, and then 2011 came, at least the second half of the year, and we did have cars capable of winning.

“And I started to kind of make a name for myself, and there’s almost a point in time where you take that for granted, and then you start to see that slip away, and you think to yourself, ‘Oh, my God, this could be it, right?’  I might not ever get those opportunities again.”

“Moments like today are just so refreshing.  They recharge your batteries so much because the season is such a death march, especially when things aren’t going well.”

That was one of many illustrative postrace analogies from Keselowski, reminding us of the unique candor that’s been missing since removing himself from the NASCAR industry conversation for much of the past year during his victory lane absence.

He compared the agonizing confirmation of learning he’d averted a speeding penalty on his fateful pit stop with waiting “on a death sentence.” The moves he perfected in Saturday’s Xfinity race that went unused Sunday were like being ready for a dance floor anthem that never was played.

NASCAR is a better place when regularly graced by his distinctive viewpoints, but those shared at Darlington also had a new bent.

The typically genuine introspection was tinged with a greater world-weariness from Keselowski, who has had a child, gotten married and settled fully into family life since the 2011-14 era when he regularly clashed with the NASCAR establishment.

He was less brash and more humble late Sunday night after a Darlington sweep. But just as sharply insightful when describing the downsides of a 29-race winless streak.

“When you’re not fast, life sucks as a race car driver,” he said. “You’re just literally going around beating your head up against a wall, hoping that, like I said, each weekend that it’ll show up, that the engineering will show up and the team will show up and that everything will happen just perfect, because you have to.

“And that you won’t screw it up as a driver when they do show up.”

The few times that his No. 2 Ford has been in position to win this year, Keselowski hasn’t capitalized, and it has seemed a result of pressing and being less focused.

Arguably the best racer in the draft at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, Keselowski crashed out of the season’s first three restrictor-plate races for the first time in his career.

“I feel like those were failures on my part, and so that’s really frustrating,” he said. “And you just never know when you’re going to get a winning race car again.”

He does know the questions about it will subside.

At least for now.


Kyle Larson’s classy postrace interviews at Darlington – in which he avoided laying any blame with his team for the final pit stop that cost his dominant car the win – were more signs of the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s growth as a leader.

Though bluntness is among his most appealing traits, Larson clearly has embraced his role as the focal point for the No. 42 Chevrolet. He isn’t much of a car guy, so there are inherent limits to how much Larson authentically can be immersed in the team’s inner workings. But he is doing and saying all the right things to instill faith without compromising his honesty.

Aside from how he graciously handled Darlington, other recent indicators of the maturation have been:

  • His emphasis on the less visible gains made by his team even while addressing why Ganassi has lagged behind other Chevrolets over the past two months (the trademark candor emerged after his third at Darlington, noting “I feel like we’ve kind of been stale up until this weekend”).
  • An apology to crew chief Chad Johnston for being “in a bad mood” on the team radio during the first half of his runner-up finish at Bristol Motor Speedway (where he started from the pole but lacked speed and had “an off race”).
  • His sensitivity to how his dirt-racing schedule is viewed, which ostensibly is through the eyes of NASCAR fans but just as importantly could be how his team accepts his moonlighting.

Larson, 26, is always a joy to watch behind the wheel, but his emergence as the rock of the team (though still mild-mannered and reserved in nature) also has been beguiling.


The past two Cup races have shown the critical importance of lane sensitivity for leaders on restarts.

On every restart of the Southern 500, the first-place car took the inside and retained the position. The story was the same at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the outside line was heavily preferred.

Of the last six restarts on the 0.533-mile oval, winner Kurt Busch was the only driver who started on the inside in second and took the lead. No one else even held the position. Between Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Clint Bowyer, the other five drivers who restarted in second lost an average of 2.6 spots when the green flag dropped.

The restart disparity is magnified most at Bristol and Martinsville Speedway. But Larson’s plight at Darlington (essentially losing the race despite a dominant car because he lost the race out of the pits by roughly 6 inches to Keselowski) underscores how arbitrary the positioning on restarts also can be in deciding outcomes. If you are in the wrong lane, it often doesn’t matter how strong your car is.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick back at No. 1

NASCAR Power Rankings
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Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Kevin Harvick is the No. 1 driver in this week’s NASCAR rankings.

Martin Truex Jr. held the top spot for just a week before Harvick reclaimed the crown with his series-leading ninth Cup win of the year Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This week’s rankings includes three ties as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Round of 16

Harvick takes his power rankings lead to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the start of the Round of 12.

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has three wins in the last five races: Dover, the Southern 500 and Bristol night race.

2. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 7): Finished seventh at Bristol for his third top 10 in five races. His 11 top fives so far matches his total from each of the last two seasons. He scored a career-high 12 top fives in 2017.

3. (tie) Kyle Busch (Last week No.  9): Finished second in Bristol after he started from the rear due to inspection failures. Has three consecutive top 10s for the first time this season.

3. (tie) Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Followed consecutive third-place finishes with an 11th at Bristol.

5. (tie) Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 1): Finished 24th in Bristol following contact with Denny Hamlin after an unscheduled pit stop.

5. (tie) Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): After winning at Richmond, Keselowski had a rough night in Bristol. He finished 34th due to power steering problems.

7. (tie) Aric Almirola (Last week unranked): Finished fifth in Bristol for his third consecutive top 10 and his fourth in five races.

7. (tie) Clint Bowyer (Last week unranked): Placed sixth in Bristol for his third consecutive top-10 finish and to keep his playoff chances alive.

9. Austin Dillon (Last week No. 3): Placed a respectable 12th to finish the first round after consecutive top fives.

10. Erik Jones (Last week unranked): Placed third in Bristol for his seventh top-five finish of the season and his second in the last three races.

Also receiving votes: Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin

NASCAR Silly season features Bubba Wallace, Michael Jordan

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NASCAR Silly Season took a twist Monday. A day that started with the announcement that Ross Chastain would drive for Chip Ganassi Racing next year ended with the news that Denny Hamlin would co-own a team with Michael Jordan and have Bubba Wallace as the driver in 2021.

As JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty said: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full Cup season. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

A team name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors will be announced at a later time.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 10: Aric Almirola extends deal with Stewart-Haas Racing for 2021 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through 2022.

No. 42: Ross Chastain takes over Chip Ganassi Racing’s ride for the 2021 season.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

No. TBA: Bubba Wallace joins the new team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA great Michael Jordan. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter. Germain Racing will not continue after this season.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto said Sept. 17 that Wood Brothers Racing has an option to pick up his contract for next year and the deadline is the end of September.

No. 32: Ride is open with Corey LaJoie announcing he will not return to Go Fas Racing in 2021.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021, the team confirmed on Sept. 10.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Spire Motorsports purchased the charter and assets of Leavine Family Racing and will be a two-car operation in 2021.

No. 96: Daniel Suarez and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Sept. 15 that they would part ways after this season.

 

Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is ‘huge moment’

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Brad Daugherty calls Michael Jordan’s ownership of a Cup team a “huge moment for NASCAR.”

Jordan and Denny Hamlin will co-own a Cup team next season. Bubba Wallace will be the driver. Jordan will become the first Black majority car owner of a full-time team since Wendell Scott owned and raced cars in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Daugherty, the only Black owner of a full-time Cup team currently, is excited about Jordan’s entrance into NASCAR.

“It’s a big momentum shift for this sport culturally, period,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and an analyst for NBC Sports. “Three years ago, this would have never happened. A year ago, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s the timing. If the timing is right and you have someone like Michael Jordan put his brand and what he’s all about into whatever you are doing, it adds a lot of credibility. I look forward to whatever he can bring to the table to help continue to build NASCAR.”

Daugherty told NBC Sports that Jordan can help the sport reach more people.

“The eyeballs are going to be incredible,” Daugherty said of Jordan’s potential impact. “The opportunity for entrance into the sport will be made more available as far as people being aware of the availability to get involved in NASCAR as a fan or as a business. There’s just so many different areas that will light up just because of who he is and what he represents. His entire legacy creates opportunity for everyone.

“Now, we start talking diversity with what he’s able to do from a corporate standpoint and also just from a legacy standpoint with his brand. It’s going to be exciting. I’m excited because I think more people now, more than ever, will take a look at NASCAR with a keen eye and keen interest and be excited about maybe participating as a fan or as a business partner or as someone wanting to learn how to drive a race car or own a race team. The more notoriety the better.”

NASCAR stated Monday: “Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan told The Charlotte Observer on Monday that the deal came together in about 10 days because of the chance to hire Wallace.

“When (Hamlin) told me there was a possibility of getting Bubba Wallace, I’m saying, ‘OK, this is perfect!’” Jordan told The Observer. “If I’m getting involved in NASCAR, then get a Black driver (with) a Black owner.”

For all that Jordan can bring to NASCAR, Daugherty knows that the competition can prove challenging.

“I’m sure he’s committed to next season and we’ll see how that goes and if it goes well, you go beyond that,” Daugherty said. “He had a (Superbike) team for a long time and loved that. He understands it’s a different business model. He’s at the point in his life, he’s like Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and those guys to where it’s really not a detriment to him financially if he’s not making money. We’ll have to see how much he can stomach because it’s an interesting business model for sure.”

Jordan told The Observer he’s in it to win.

“If I’m investing, if I’m a participant, then I want to win! I don’t want to be out there to be just another car,” Jordan said.

Daugherty looks forward to seeing Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace at the track.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” Daugherty said. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Daugherty also looks forward to something else next year.

“Look forward to racing against those guys,” he said, “and trying to kick their butts.”

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

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Germain Racing car owner Bob Germain announced Monday that he has sold the team’s charter and will end the team after this season.

The charter was purchased by a new team that will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as owners and Bubba Wallace as the driver.

Germain said in a statement that the No. 13 team will continue the rest of the season with Ty Dillon as driver.

“Being an owner in NASCAR for the last 16 years has been a thrilling and rewarding adventure,” Germain said in a statement. “From winning two NASCAR Truck Series championships in 2006 and 2010 to competing at the highest level of motorsports in the Cup Series for the last 12 seasons, I have experienced the highs and lows of our sport. I’m extremely proud of what Germain Racing has accomplished at every level and I will be transitioning out of ownership with many memories and friendships. I appreciate the interest and offers made over the last couple of weeks and I am excited to see how the sport continues to grow in the future.

“Thank you to GEICO for their loyalty to Germain Racing for over a decade. It has been a great source of pride for our team to represent their brand on the track. Doug Barnette with Player Management International has facilitated our GEICO relationship since the beginning and I truly appreciate his efforts. Finally, to my employees: building a team camaraderie and creating a family atmosphere has been a highlight of this journey. I will miss each of you.”

Germain pondered a sale when GEICO decided not to renew its contract after this season with the team.  GEICO is one of NASCAR’s Premier Partners, joining Busch Beer, Coca-Cola and Xfinity.

Dillon spoke in late August about the challenges facing single-car teams in Cup.

“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” he said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible amount of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”

Hamlin acknowledged the challenge a one-car team can have.

“I do believe that the (ownership) model will hopefully get better,” Hamlin said before last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Do I think it’s fixed? No, I think there is still some work to be done to make the model a viable business. You want a business that everyone wants to be a part of, not the ones that are fleeting. Certainly, I think NASCAR is trying it’s best to make the teams a little more healthy. I think that outlook toward the future is what’s interesting to me.”

Germain Racing is the second team to sell its charter since August. Leavine Family Racing announced it had sold its charter on Aug. 4. Spire Motorsports purchased it and will be a two-car team in 2021.