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.

Michael Annett earns first Xfinity win in season opener at Daytona

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Michael Annett won Saturday’s Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway to earn his first career Xfinity victory in his 230th start.

The JR Motorsports driver led 45 of 120 laps and beat teammate Justin Allgaier, Brandon Jones, Ryan Sieg and Austin Cindric.

Annett, 32, had never led more than 16 laps in a season before Saturday.

“This is amazing,” Annett told Fox Sports 1. “I couldn’t do it without these guys. They’ve stuck with me through the hard times when everybody count us out, wonders why I get to drive this car. I think we showed it today. They worked their tails off … We got the 1 in Victory Lane. Our slogan this year is ‘One Team, One Dream, One Goal.’ This is one of them, so we’re starting off good.”

He previously won at Daytona in the ARCA Menards Series in 2008. In that race, Allgaier also finished second.

“I couldn’t beat him then and I couldn’t do it today,” Allgaier told FS1. “We tried really hard there at the end. … To see Michael get his first win, he’s tried so hard and to see the effort and time that he’s put into it, especially this offseason, it’s really, really cool.”

The win is the fourth for JR Motorsports in the last six season openers at Daytona (Regan Smith, 2014; Chase Elliott, 2016; Tyler Reddick, 2018 and Annett today).

Annett and Allgaier also delivered JRM its fourth 1-2 finish in the race.

The victory by the No. 1 team is also the first for Annett’s crew chief, Travis Mack.

A year after it had nine non-stage cautions, the 120-lap race was slowed only twice outside of stage breaks for a debris caution and a one-car spin.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Justin Haley

STAGE 2 WINNER: Ross Chastain

WHAT’S NEXT: Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway at 2 p.m. ET on Feb. 23 on Fox Sports 1.

Check back for more.

Sam Bass, famed paint scheme and race program designer, dies

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Sam Bass, the artist known for designing many iconic NASCAR paint schemes and race programs, died Saturday.

His wife Denise confirmed Bass’ passing on Twitter. He was 57.

Bass, who designed Jeff Gordon’s striking “Rainbow Warriors” paint scheme, had spent the last few years looking for a new kidney. That was a result of a sepsis infection that originated in a blister on his left foot in 2005 and led to a below-the-knee amputation in 2008. Bass also had Type 1 diabetes, which he was diagnosed with at the age of 29.

Bass was inspired to become a NASCAR artist when he was 7 after attending his first race at Southside Speedway in suburban Richmond, Virginia.

“I was so amazed that night not only by the excitement and watching those cars run around and beat and bang on each other, but also the color – how all the cars were painted so many different colors,” Bass told NBC Sports in 2017. “I was like, ‘How cool is this?’ I couldn’t wait to get home to pull out my markers.”

The first car Bass designed was Bobby Allison’s Miller High Life car in 1988. That car went on to win the Daytona 500.

He went on to design the first Cup schemes for Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Bass first designed a race program for the 1985 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He designed programs for it and other Speedway Motorsports, Inc. tracks through 2018.

Marcus Smith, the CEO and President of SMI, issued the following statement.

“Our deepest sympathies are with Denise and her family today. Sam Bass has been a significant part of NASCAR’s history. He poured his heart, soul and talent into producing souvenir program covers at many speedways including Charlotte for more than 30 years. His work provided our fans a keepsake to treasure, and that was so appropriate, because Sam was always such a fan of our sport and he was such a treasure to the entire NASCAR family. His body of work will be a legacy that lives forever. We will miss Sam’s smile and positivity.”

NASCAR issued the following statement.

“Though he may have never turned a lap or a wrench, few captured the essence of our sport through his work more than Sam Bass. He was a consistent presence in the NASCAR garage, and his ever-present smile and endearing personality welcomed all. Though we have lost a member of the NASCAR family, his legend will continue in his art – all of which illustrated the greatness of our sport and the talent of a true friend.”

Michael McDowell leads final Daytona 500 practice

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Front Row Motorsport’s Michael McDowell was fastest in the final practice session for Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

McDowell and his No. 34 Ford recorded nine laps and a top speed of 191.440 mph.

The top five was completed by Ty Dillon (191.432 mph), pole-sitter William Byron (191.339), Alex Bowman (191.278) and Daniel Hemric (190.921).

Only 20 cars made at least one lap in the session.

Kurt Busch recorded the most laps in the session with 16 and was 11th on the speed chart at 189.741 mph.

Of four drivers to make a 10-lap run, Bowman had the best average at 190.334 mph.

There were no incidents in the session.

Click here for the practice report.

Jeffrey Earnhardt honors grandfather Dale Earnhardt with helmet design

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Xfinity Series driver Jeffrey Earnhardt is honoring the “GOAT” in his family with a helmet he’s debuting this weekend at Daytona International Speedway.

The “GOAT” – or “Greatest of All-Time” – is his grandfather, NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt.

The helmet, which you can see below, bears an image of the seven-time Cup champion riding a horse while shirtless and wearing a cowboy hat.

Next to the image is the text, “Just a goat on his horse!”

Earnhardt will have the helmet today as he starts on the front row of the Xfinity Series season opener (2:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1). Earnhardt finished 15th.

It is the first of nine Xfinity races he’ll start for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

MORE: Jeffrey Earnhardt ready for challenge of winning in Xfinity