Ryan: NASCAR can’t keep taking the bad with the good

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Welcome to NASCAR’s Year of Nothing Good.

It’s an unfortunate recurring narrative this season, and it’s the bad spot that NASCAR suddenly finds itself in – yet again – four days before setting the field for its championship finale.

The title storyline just got a lot more intriguing, but the drama comes with the concomitant rotting stench of rulebreaking that will leave the 2018 stretch run tainted for long after the champion is crowned Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Kevin Harvick, the odds-on favorite to win the title, suddenly is facing potential elimination after a penalty announced Wednesday, nearly three days after his dominant victory at Texas Motor Speedway.

That throws the race for the three spots wide open, which is good.

But it’s also bad because it takes the focus off the competition, personalities and conflict (hey, remember that new feud we briefly were talking about?) and shifts it to a host of annoyingly persistent questions that lack any easy answers.

How many teams are cheating? (Given that officials went 3 for 3 in dinging the cars of Harvick, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones for three separate problems, the guess here is that the number of penalties that could have been issued would have been proportional to the number of NASCAR haulers shipping cars to the R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina.)

Why can’t NASCAR discover these infractions at the track?

Why can’t the inspection process be confined only to the garage (as many other major-league racing series somehow have managed … though in this case, the infraction apparently could be caught only at the R&D Center)? As Harvick’s car owner, Tony Stewart, raised during postrace Sunday, why can’t inspection be accomplished more efficiently and swiftly?

Why are major penalties still being announced midweek despite NASCAR’s promise to get out of the business of Wednesday news alerts? (There have been 10 penalties with points deductions and suspensions this season, so it’s trending in the wrong direction.)

Why is the rulebook so voluminous that it seems every waking minute is devoted to legislating some arcane bit of business related to its thousands of codicils, whether it’s an uncontrolled tire or an uneven planar mating surface? Or pinion shims, window braces and flat splitters?

See the problem with the “Hey, this penalty will reinvigorate the championship run!” angle?

Aside from the tightening of the points standings, there is nothing good about it.

And even if Harvick completes a remarkable comeback by winning at Phoenix and Miami (without ace crew chief Rodney Childers), his second championship will be scarred even with a feel-good ending.

And that has been a depressingly familiar refrain about NASCAR this season, which actually has featured several decent and memorable races (the finishes to the Daytona 500, Chicagoland Speedway among the most notable).

Even when Something Good seems to happen, it always is quickly usurped by Nothing Good.

–Your presumptive most popular driver breaks through for his first victory in Cup?

All the oxygen from that feel-good story of Chase Elliott’s inaugural triumph was sucked away by a traffic stop a few hours after the checkered flag that became the lead story in TMZ Sports the next morning and was the biggest of several black eyes for NASCAR this year.

–The Round of 16 field is set with a barnburner of a finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (whose regular-season finale debut was worth the wait after a frustrating weekend of nonstop rain)?

Let’s interrupt that playoff momentum with a Tuesday announcement that the series’ reigning championship race team will be closing its doors when the playoffs end.

–A fresh face breaks through in the Xfinity Series and brightens victory lane with a rarely seen effervescence?

So about that drug test that the winner recently took

Even NASCAR’s attempts to manufacture Something Good have fallen flat.

The announcement of the 2019 rules package was well intentioned, but it came on a Tuesday afternoon (and had been scheduled weeks earlier) that dampened the afterglow of the thrilling finish to the Roval, which has been among the highlights of a playoffs that has lacked for memorable moments.

Another was Martinsville Speedway, where Joey Logano’s last-lap bump of Martin Truex Jr. from the lead at least generated a week of productive discussion about what was happening on the track and the reasons that fans love watching and talking about it.

It was a pleasant departure from the pervasively impenetrable chatter about appeals hearings, a bizarrely lackluster race at Talladega Superspeedway and several controversial calls on cautions and penalties (recall when Jimmie Johnson inexplicably was sent to the rear by mistake Sunday).

The sparse grandstands Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway and Wednesday’s exhaustive social media outrage about the penalties are ominous reminders that these aren’t the conversations that foster interest in NASCAR.

Eventually, there’s a tipping point in which they overwhelm the focus on the competition

What happens then?

Nothing good.

Ryan Truex to drive for Tommy Baldwin Racing at Daytona

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Ryan Truex will attempt to make the Daytona 500 driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing, the team announced Wednesday.

The team does not have a charter for the No. 71 Chevrolet.

“I am very thankful to TBR and Tommy Baldwin for this opportunity and can’t wait to get to Daytona and back in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car,” Ryan Truex said in a statement from the team. “The pressure is on to make it into the race, but Tommy is a true racer, and I know he will put everything into the car to give us a great shot.”

“I’m excited to have Ryan back in a Tommy Baldwin Racing car,” team owner Tommy Baldwin said in a statement. “We had success at Daytona in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, in the past. I’ve known the Truex family a very long time, and it’s special that we’ll be able to compete in the Daytona 500 together, and hopefully more races as the year goes on. We are still in search of a primary sponsor that we’re hoping to put together in time to give TBR a great run this year!”

Truex, the younger brother of Martin Truex Jr., last ran in Cup in 2014 when he competed in 23 races for BK Racing. Truex ran for Kaulig Racing last year in the Xfinity Series, finishing 12th in the points. Truex drove for Hattori Racing in 2017 in the Truck Series, placing ninth in points.

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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