Ryan: Challenging NASCAR is last-lap lesson from Roval

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CONCORD, N.C. – Dissect and relish every tantalizing aspect in that beguiling finish Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, because – hopefully — it’s likely the last time we’ll see the race unfold that way.

Oh, we again will see the last-lap wildness that is guaranteed by myriad zones of mayhem in a hybridized layout perfectly cast as a playoff cutoff race, which was as much an ingenious masterstroke as turning the 1.5-mile oval into a quasi-street course.

With any luck, we will see another delightfully punch-drunk circuit as memorable as the final one completed by the comically wounded car of Kyle Larson, who passed muster for playoff advancement but would have failed any driver’s ed road test for a license.

And surely Sunday will be the first of many times that we see world-class talents such as Larson, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch cook their tires beyond the limits of even their sublime ability in trying to navigate the intractably narrow path through Turn 1. (Runoff area? Please. It’s perfect! Don’t change a thing!)

No, the reason the Roval’s debut will be unique is it should be the last time that we see drivers being so observant of NASCAR’s Byzantine rules with a last-lap victory at stake.

It might have been hard to recognize in the clouds of tire smoke enveloping the frontstretch in chaos, but Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. – two champions revered for their morally upstanding character and generally clean styles – both tried to be extraordinarily good citizens during and after their memorable battle for the lead.

Johnson penalized himself for spinning on entry to the final chicane. And by dutifully adhering to NASCAR’s chicane policy, Truex essentially left himself in the vulnerable position of being clipped by Johnson’s spin, which took him out of the win.

This is easy to say absent the heat of the moment and the necessary split-second decisions made while decelerating at more than 100 mph, but Johnson and Truex might have chosen differently if given another chance.

Both could have demonstrated chicane disobedience that would have benefited themselves and forced NASCAR into facing difficult judgment calls.

As soon as Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet lost traction entering the penultimate turn, Truex could have skipped the final left-hand turn and run his No. 78 Toyota directly through the grass – avoiding the contact with Johnson, capturing the checkered flag and challenging the stewards to disqualify him.

He would have had an outstanding case to keep the win.

In the prerace drivers meeting, Cup director Richard Buck said if a driver was judged to have missed the chicane because of an accident, “NASCAR may, in its discretion, forgo the penalties and adjust the lineup based on the running position prior to the avoidance maneuver.”

If NASCAR still had stripped Truex of a precious victory – worth five extra points through the next two rounds – for trying to miss a wreck, the defending series champion would have been well within his rights to raise holy hell about it.

Johnson’s option is a little more nuanced but still worth taking the risk for the rewards.

By self-policing and stopping in the penalty box a hundred feet before the finish line, Johnson gave up the exact number of spots that would have secured his playoff advancement. If he would have floored it instead, he would have retained the necessary points – but NASCAR claims Johnson still would have been hit with a 30-second penalty for a last-lap violation and eliminated from the playoffs.

Oh, really.

It would have been that simple, huh?

After a seven-time champion made one of the most indelible and swashbuckling moves in his illustrious career, NASCAR would have shamed him a la Gargamel stomping down the mountain to smash the newest beautiful creation in Smurf Village to pieces?

In win-at-all-costs modern-day NASCAR, which has spent the better part of a decade (justifiably) restructuring its championship to emphasize victories while mostly declining to punish drivers who intentionally wreck leaders to get them (see: the 2018 Daytona 500), what message would that have sent?

Mostly, that the scoring tower sometimes feels haunted by the ghosts of busybody Bill Lumberghs who are more obsessed with making sure an obnoxiously thick rulebook is being followed without regard for the ways in which it potentially can disincentivize and hamper the delivery of maximum entertainment.

Though Johnson was kicking himself postrace Sunday for being “so focused on a race win,” NASCAR should at the least be sending him a fruit basket for self-imposing the penalty after throwing caution to the wind despite the circumstances, which lest we need reminding, can be hazy at best.

Why did Busch get away with intentionally straight-lining the Turn 1 corner on an earlier restart? Because he didn’t gain any positions. Why were all the chicane penalties in races Saturday and Sunday administered to drivers who didn’t gain any positions after losing control of their cars without any apparent intent?

Uhhh …

There are good reasons for officiating chicanes, which are designed to slow down cars and need to be respected within reason. But Sunday also exposed there is plenty of wiggle room in interpreting how to apply the policies and what precisely constitutes a violation.

A perfect example is Truex’s race. Though he also spun through the chicane with Johnson, NASCAR officials said Truex wasn’t made to stop because his four tires didn’t fully cross the red-and-white curbs. But curiously, Truex was required to stop in Stage 2 when he missed Turn 17 … because he was knocked off course by Keselowski’s spinning Ford.

In neither instance did he gain an advantage by purposefully trying to short-cut the chicane, which should be the only justification for issuing a penalty. There is a clear distinction between spinning through a chicane and straight-lining or avoiding it entirely.

Surely in such a future instance of a win or playoff spot at stake, drivers should try to put the onus on NASCAR in making those determinations.

The repercussions could make the next Roval finish even more entertaining — or controversial — than Sunday’s.

Cole Custer, Mike Shiplett ‘fine-tuned’ their way to early Xfinity success

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In early December, crew chief Mike Shiplett had a good idea what was in store for him in 2019.

In charge of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Xfinity car, Shiplett would be paired with 26-year-old Ross Chastain full-time. It would be Shiplett’s first full year with a single driver since the 2010 Cup season with AJ Allmendinger.

Later that month, Shiplett and his wife Brooke flew to South Asia to scuba dive in the Maldives. They’d also spend time living on a boat in the middle of the sea.

“That’s part of the lure of it,” Shiplett told NBC Sports. “You’re out there, you’re away from the rest of the world and nothing else matters.”

Back home, Ganassi’s primary Xfinity sponsor, DC Solar, got in hot water with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Shiplett was in-between stops on his vacation when he briefly had cell phone service and saw the news.

He quickly shut his phone off.

“I still got another week here and I’m not going to ruin it,” Shiplett told himself. “I’ll deal with it when I get back to the United States.”

He returned home Dec. 31. Two days later he arrived back at CGR headquarters. He was told “keep doing what you’re doing, we’re going racing.”

Forty-eight hours later the Xfinity operation was shut down due to a lack of sponsorship.

Within three months, Shiplett would stand in Victory Lane at Richmond Raceway celebrating his second Xfinity Series win of the year.

Instead of Chastain, Shiplett posed for pictures with 21-year-old Cole Custer, who had won his first short-track race in Xfinity, claimed a $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus and matched his win total from the previous two years.

The victory also established themselves as the No. 1 threat to Christopher Bell, the prohibitive favorite to win the series championship.

Unexpected Pairing

Shiplett was announced as joining Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 00 team on Feb. 1, just 15 days before season-opener at Daytona.

But that was only because the team needed to officially submit Shiplett’s name as crew chief for the race.

Shiplett’s first day at SHR was Jan. 7, three days after Ganassi closed its Xfinity operation.

Mike Shiplett celebrates after Kyle Larson won the Xfinity Series race at Miami in 2015. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Shiplett has been in NASCAR since 1995 and is no stranger to teams shutting down mid-season after advance warning.

“This one was a little bit unexpected,” he said. “I’ve never been part of that, how rapidly it happened. But you’ve been in racing long enough, you see a lot of things. Unfortunately, this sport is driven by sponsors a lot. You kind of go with the flow of what happens.”

The quick turnaround in employment was a result of a call Shiplett made to SHR President Joe Custer, Cole’s father.

The elder Custer had inquired with Shiplett last year whether he was set for a job in 2019. He had been and Custer went on his way.

Shiplett took the place of Jeff Meendering, Cole Custer’s crew chief during his first two years who had moved to Joe Gibbs Racing to work with Brandon Jones.

Custer was “pretty nervous” about his new crew chief pairing so late in the offseason.

“That’s what kind of made it a little bit more stressful,” Custer said. “You never know how (Shiplett’s) going to compare to your chassis and your program and everything. You just don’t really know what to expect. It’s just a thing where I’m in my third year and I didn’t want to get worse than what I was. I knew we could probably have the speed and compete for wins, it was just a matter of how fast it would take to get there.”

Custer’s takeaway from their first meeting was that Shiplett was “pretty straight-forward” in his approach.

“He was quiet,” Custer said. “I think he’s all business, honestly. He’s a guy that doesn’t talk a ton, but he tells you what he thinks and what’s productive and I think that’s pretty much his deal.”

While the No. 00 had a full operation, Shiplett brought with him his lead engineer from CGR, Davin Restivo.

There were no major overhauls implemented by Shiplett with his arrival to a team that had been competing in Xfinity for just two years.

“It was a lot of fine-tuning,” Shiplett said. “Taking Cole’s strengths and putting them aside and then taking Cole’s weaknesses and then really working on them and saying, ‘OK, where are you the weakest? Where are you not happy with? Where did you struggle? Let’s focus on all that stuff.’ We didn’t have to worry about building cars. Their cars were already there. Everything was already established. It was more just working with Cole and understanding what he wanted in the car and just making him a better driver.”

Cole Custer is in his third Xfinity season and off to his best start. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Custer owned up to his weaknesses – short tracks and a lack of long-run speed. Those played some part in his wins only coming in the final three races of each season.

“I think the biggest thing was the long-run speed, figuring out how set your car up and then saving tires enough to have speed on the long runs,” Custer said.

Without the ability to test ahead of the season, the new duo had to rely on the notebook the No. 00 team had already put together.

Shiplett said the notebook chronicled how “Cole felt in practices, the changes they did, everything like that. It’s just a matter of going through all that and understanding what kind feel (Custer wants). Rewatching races, seeing what Cole puts in the car, what he wanted to do with the car.”

One area Shiplett is “fine-tuning” for SHR as a whole is how their cars and parts are put together between races.

“All the pieces and parts have to be inspected and (put) through a process where I feel Stewart-Haas Racing is young enough on the Xfinity side that was an area we could greatly improve that process and make it better,” Shiplett said. “When a car is raced, all the pieces come off the car, they get cleaned, they get serviced, they get inspected. How we go about that, getting it ready for the next event is a process I’ve learned from experience that we can make better in fine-tuning and making it more efficient to get the pieces and parts ready for the next event.”

Ahead of the Curve

It’s working.

Whether a result of Custer being in his third season on the Xfinity circuit or being paired with Shiplett, the No. 00 Ford is well ahead of its established pace of 2017-18.

After eight races, Custer has two wins and five top fives. Last year, his second top five didn’t come until race No. 11 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Custer’s wins were anything but forgettable.

Three weeks after a runner-up finish at Atlanta, Custer capitalized on a pit road penalty by Kyle Busch and led the final 19 laps before taking the checkered flag at Auto Club Speedway. It delayed Busch’s 200th NASCAR win by one day.

Three races later, Custer followed a third-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway with a dominant evening in Richmond. After Christopher Bell claimed the previous two races on the short track, Custer led 122 of 250 laps to earn the victory.

Custer’s two wins tie him with Bell, who is also well ahead of his record 2018 pace.

“Like I told Cole, ‘If you want to be the best driver, you’ve got to beat the best,'” Shiplett said. “If Kyle Busch is in the race or Kyle Larson or Kevin Harvick. Any of those guys like that, you’ve got to beat them.

“So it doesn’t matter whose in the race. Just getting in that mentality of if there’s five Cup drivers, that’s just five more people we’ve you’ve got to beat. Just cause they’re a Cup driver doesn’t mean they’re any more talented or better than you are.”

When it comes to the cause of their success, Custer puts it at “50/50” between his own experience and Shiplett’s leadership.

“If I was restarting this whole thing and I had my Mike as my crew chief my rookie year I think we would have done pretty good,” Custer said. “I don’t know if we’d have won the races we have so far and everything, but I think we would have added speed and competed. But I think having the two years of experience under my belt I know what it takes to win races and what feel I want when we go to the track.

“I guess I’m more fine-tuned at this point.”

Daniel Hemric trying to get on right foot, break rookie slump

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In a sense, Daniel Hemric is learning to walk again.

After two strong seasons in the Xfinity Series (fourth in points in 2017 and third in 2018), Hemric is learning to race in a whole different way in his rookie Cup season.

The No. 8 team is focused on putting one foot in front of the other,” Hemric said last weekend at Richmond Raceway.

Hemric’s first nine Cup races of 2019 for Richard Childress Racing have been a struggle. His best finish has been 18th (at Phoenix), and he’s coming off a 19th-place finish at Richmond, which buoyed his hopes after four prior finishes between 27th and 33rd.

“Coming out of Richmond with a top-20 finish? We’ll take it,” the Kannapolis, North Carolina native said.

Even with the rough start, Hemric hasn’t lost any motivation, or more importantly, support.

It’s great to have a group of guys that haven’t given up on me,” he said. “We didn’t finish exactly where we wanted (at Richmond), but we definitely out-kicked our coverage from the positions we’ve put ourselves in over the last few weeks. We’ll take it and hopefully it’s a building moment for everyone on this No. 8 team.”

Hemric knows it’s just a matter of time before things click and results go in his favor. Until then, he’s not panicking, not doing anything crazy.

It’s just been a matter to fall back on the things that got me through times like this in my life,” he said. “This is definitely one of the harder moments because you kind of got to regroup and redo it all over again, so it’s such a quick timeframe.

Some of the other series I’ve ran, you have more time to dwell or rebuild on whatever situation and so it’s kind of a good thing, bad thing. You have to turn it around really quick and flip it around.”

In addition to his team, Hemric is also getting a lot of support from his wife, family and friends.

They know the trials and things we’re going through and it’s not anything that any haven’t experienced before,” he said. “It’s just been a little longer drawn out than we would want it to be.

In the grand scheme of things, I’ve said that when the sun comes up, you get another shot at it and that’s the way I’m approaching it.”

Even fans are pitching in to do what they can to help Hemric shake the bad luck problems that continue to plague him and his team. One fan even went so far as to send Hemric and his team eight rabbit foots to hopefully bring some good vibes.

Hemric went into the Easter break 28th in the Cup standings. Teammate Austin Dillon is 14th in the standings, coming off his best finish of the season, sixth, at Richmond.

I don’t look at Austin as just a teammate, he’s family to me,” Hemric said. “I watched him grow up and have been a part of some of his success and seen him have the success he’s had. He’s also had his own struggles at times and stuff that I’ve seen and witnessed with my own eyes.”

That’s why Hemric huddled with both Dillon and team owner Richard Childress after Texas (33rd, second-worst finish of the season).

I asked them both, ‘Man, this is probably the bottom for me. I got to know which way to go here,” Hemric said.

And that’s where the learning to walk again analogy came back into play.

They said just keep putting your best foot forward and leaning on guys like that who have experienced the same struggles at times and came out on the other side with success, that’s all the motivation you need,” Hemric said. “It’s no different with our boss (Childress) and what he’s done with the company, Richard Childress Racing.

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Why Tyler Reddick chose to reveal his many sides through Twitter

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How to stop worrying about and start loving The Twitter?

Tyler Reddick said he found the secret a few years ago after much hand-wringing over how his thoughts and views would be perceived when they took shape in social media.

“Half the time I wouldn’t say them, and I just said, ‘I’m going to let it go and let it chill and filter it some,’” Reddick told NBC Sports during a recent media availability at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Because you don’t want to get out there and just blast someone and be swearing at them. There’s a fine line.

“I’m sure at some point in the future, my interaction will cross that line on accident, and there’ll be some serious backlash for it.”

Tyler Reddick honors Dolly in his unique way at Bristol (Donald Page/Getty Images).

In the meantime, the NASCAR world is getting the best version of the Richard Childress Racing driver – the raw, candid and often hilarious (check out the wig he wore at Bristol to commemorate his Dolly Parton-sponsored car) but sometimes controversial sides – as the 2018 Xfinity Series champion shares more of his stream of consciousness with the world.

Whether it’s been a Daytona feud with Bubba Wallace, mercilessly trolling the Xfinity Series for a lack of championship recognition, or offering some serious thoughts on group qualifying in Cup, Reddick has a sharp pair of thumbs working over his smartphone.

Though he seems more prolific since winning the title last November, Reddick said he had grown comfortable with being himself on Twitter long before that.

Among the first times was when he called out truck series driver Ben Rhodes for describing the Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway as a “demolition derby” during a TV interview. “It’s truly an incredible event, and it’s cool we’re even at Eldora,” Reddick said. “For him to bash it, it hit a soft spot obviously because I’m a dirt racer.”

“Half the time I’d type something out, and me being reserved when I was younger, I just wouldn’t say it,” Reddick said. “And I figured I might as well be myself and say what I want to say when I’m feeling it, or type it, I guess I should say.

“I think it was there before the championship. I think it’s just kind of coincidence (since then). Obviously, there have been people who have poked about the championship, so I think maybe in that sense because of that, it’s gotten more attention since then. I think as I’ve gotten more comfortable with me being who I am and not afraid to show it, I’ve just opened up to it more.”

It already has gotten delicate, though, in the case of Wallace, whose Richard Petty Motorsports team has an alliance and engine deal with RCR.

Without using his name in a tweet, Wallace blamed a crash on Reddick, who was making his Daytona 500 debut.

“It was a touchy deal, but I was very frustrated naturally in that situation,” said Reddick, who leads the Xfinity points with seven top 10s through eight starts of his first season with RCR’s No. 2 Chevrolet. “He was, too. But he just went on Twitter and said something I didn’t agree, and he kind of did it in a light that he was trying to throw it under the radar a little bit.

“He knew who he was talking about, and he didn’t want to say anything to me about it, he wanted to put it on Twitter, so I had no problem calling him out for it. It’s just the way it was. I’ve done it in the past.”

And will continue to do so in the future – at least until he crosses that line. Until then, Reddick recognizes that the byproduct of his honesty is some honest laughter from his followers.

“There are people getting chuckles that I know (are) getting a kick out of it,” Reddick said. “I don’t really do that to get those responses. I just do it because that’s how I feel about it.”

Shotgun! Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer share beer over Twitter

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Before Clint Bowyer dropped by to raise a little hell on this week’s episode of “The Dale Jr. Download,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a modest proposal for the podcast episode.

Alas, while there was plenty of talk about beer, beer signs and partying, no beers were consumed, let alone shotgunned.

But Bowyer didn’t forget!

He called out Earnhardt on Twitter Thursday afternoon, shotgunning a Miller Lite in the process.

A Budweiser in hand, Earnhardt answered the call within 40 minutes.

On a quiet week with NASCAR off for Easter, plenty of NASCAR drivers chimed in to judge Earnhardt’s shotgun technique and the beer used.