Ryan: Wild cards, computer games and other championship leftovers

Leave a comment

It was Year 5 for the Championship 4, a fitting milepost for analysis and evaluation of NASCAR’s playoffs.

The timing also is right judging by the reaction to this year’s champion, who undoubtedly has spurred the most debate of the elimination era despite having impeccable credentials.

Joey Logano might be the worthiest of any champion yet under this system – scoring the most points, accumulating the most top 10s and notching the best average finish of this year’s playoffs. So why has his title received blowback (we’ll get to our theory below)?

And there’s another reason that a big-picture playoff reflection seems ripe.

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, this has been the longest period of stasis in NASCAR’s quasi-postseason for crowning a champion. Though the addition of stages and playoff points slightly altered the means for advancement, the method for qualifying and the size of the field has been constant since 2014.

That follows a period of significant structural changes at least every three to four years in the first decade of what once was known as “the Chase.”

In 2007, the field was expanded to 12 (and bonus points were added). In 2011, two slots were reserved for wild cards based on the winningest drivers outside the top 10. And in 2014, the system was overhauled with three-race elimination rounds and a 16-driver field.

Some would argue more changes (fewer races? fewer contenders?) still are needed – and perhaps the highly anticipated 2020 schedule makeover will reflect a new sheen.

But in the meantime, here are some lingering thoughts from the 2018 championship finale a week later:

Something wild: Congratulations, NASCAR: You crowned your first wild-card champion.

That’s what feels different about Logano’s title. (The notion that there is pushback simply because Logano’s aggression is polarizing seems reductive … was Kyle Busch’s 2015 title greeted the same way?)

The Team Penske driver was justified in resisting the underdog label that was thrust upon his team in the run-up to his matchup with “The Big Three,” and Logano even had jokes about racing against the dominant regular-season trio of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. (which he conceded was far ahead of his team three months earlier).

The No. 22 Ford should have been given more credence as a contender entering Homestead-Miami Speedway because it essentially played the role of a 10-6 team getting hot during a Super Bowl run (six wild-card teams have won the NFL championship).

In five years of eliminations, Logano is the champion with the most nondescript regular season. As the slowest of the four contenders in the 2016 finale, Jimmie Johnson might have been a bigger underdog who won the finale and title, but he at least had four other victories on the way to his seventh championship.

Logano’s title felt more like an eighth seed knocking out a 13-3 team (or three). That’s much harder to reconcile in NASCAR, though, because the teams having epic seasons aren’t truly eliminated.

When an upset of the 15-1 Green Bay Packers occurs in the divisional round, they’re forgotten in the next two rounds. There is no omnipresent reminder that “Oh, the guy winning the championship wasn’t nearly as good as those other guys during the first 26 races.”

Logano emerged the rightful winner of an epic battle royale among the four best drivers of 2018, but it also was hard to ignore that two Hall of Fame drivers (Busch and Harvick) enjoyed career seasons.

That’s problematic, and it might be impossible for NASCAR to address beyond just educating fans on adjusting to it. By adding stages and playoff points, NASCAR ensured there virtually will never be an undeserving winless champion (which Ryan Newman flirted with becoming in 2014).

But some fundamentals likely can’t be “fixed” through tweaks – aside from “true” eliminations (i.e., removing cars ineligible for the title from the field of play) that would seem a non-starter.

–Four-way focus: Maybe that’s something to consider, though, considering how compelling the annual finale has become with only four cars that really matter.

The conventional wisdom goes it’s unfair to focus only on the championship contenders while ignoring the field. But there increasingly is no reason to focus on the rest, who have admitted to essentially racing the Championship 4 with mittens.

It’s clear the contenders and their teams prefer it that way – multicar teams quite obviously (and rationally) put a higher priority on whichever of their cars reach the finals.

Maybe it’s to the detriment for the other 30-something cars, but recent finales have shown it’s hugely compelling to follow only four cars’ strategies (stall selection! Short pitting! Short run vs. long run!). There’s virtually no compunction about voluntarily dismissing anyone else’s chances of winning.

The microtargeting is partly what makes this championship structure so good, allowing such dissection and analysis of what each of the four contenders is doing in execution and strategy.

Dual disappointments: In that vein, it was stupefying to contemplate how co-favorites Busch and Harvick caught every break and made all the necessary moves but still couldn’t capitalize.

Busch benefited from controversially having the No. 1 pit stall. It helped ensure he kept the lead when he got the yellow he needed late in the race (after crew chief Adam Stevens played the only card he could to keep his driver in the game). But his No. 18 Toyota simply wasn’t fast enough on the restart, plummeting from first to fourth.

It was indicative of the final 10 races for Busch, who won at Richmond and Phoenix but struggled mightily for race-winning speed at the four 1.5-mile ovals.

That was shocking because Joe Gibbs Racing (like any championship contender) brought “next-generation” chassis for the playoffs that somehow weren’t on par with the Fords of Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. At least in the finale, Gibbs’ Toyotas also weren’t the equal of Truex’s (Furniture Row Racing and JGR assuredly weren’t working as closely in the final races of their alliance).

Harvick had the third-fastest car at Miami, but he still had a chance to win on a brilliant strategy call by substitute crew chief Tony Gibson, who short-pitted a lap earlier than the other three. Though crew chief Rodney Childers certainly was missed, strategy is the weakest part of his game, so Harvick might have benefited tactically from having a better shot to win with Gibson on the box. But ultimately, the final caution ensured it didn’t matter – even if the yellow hadn’t flown, Truex still would have beat Harvick under green.

The bottom line is that barring any major mistakes or problems by Logano and Truex, there was no way Busch and Harvick – the co-dominant drivers of 2018 — could win the championship, even if the race went exactly their way in the closing stages.

It was a stunning development given how the regular season unfolded. But maybe less stunning given how the playoffs did.

Computer age: Harvick’s performance was another emphatic confirmation of the so-called “arms race” that has engulfed the Cup Series, for better or worse. His No. 4 Ford seemed well off Friday and Saturday, but a marathon simulation session by Childers and engineer Dax Gerringer impressively restored Harvick to fighting shape for Sunday (and fastest before night fell).

That’s good in a way because it underscores that the investment of effort, money and time pays off.

But do you want races won essentially as much on high-fidelity software as on the racetrack?

That’s one of the dilemmas for modern-day NASCAR.

Money talks: One of the more awkward moments during the race championship weekend came during the news conference involving the contending owners (and their top lieutenants). When asked about the sponsor trends in NASCAR, Penske Corp. vice chairman Walt Czarnecki cited a well-attended sponsor conference the team was holding while racing for the championship.

“So there’s an appetite out there as long as you’re delivering the value,” Czarnecki said.

It was jarring because Czarnecki was sitting beside Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone, who disclosed a few minutes later that a third of his team’s 62 employees still hadn’t found work beyond the team’s impending shutdown. Because of a lack of sponsorship (despite its 2017 championship), the Denver-based team and Truex finished second (to Penske and Logano) in their final race a day later.

The dichotomy between the top two teams in the 2018 standings reveals some inconvenient truths in Cup. Success undoubtedly helps drive sponsor interest, but it’s no guarantee of the necessary cash flow to fund the exorbitant annual budgets that stretch well into the tens of millions.

The ShellPennzoil sponsorship of Team Penske’s championship team is predicated on a strong business-to-business relationship because of Roger Penske’s automotive empire (which guarantees revenue to its backer). It would appear that Hendrick Motorsports’ new deal with Ally to sponsor Jimmie Johnson has similar characteristics.

It’s a business structure that is disconcertingly sui generis to some degree – every car owner in NASCAR generally has amassed some type of fortune, but only a select few happen to have the independent businesses that can attract sponsorship motivated more by revenue than results.

For the owner of a mattress and furniture store chain, facing off against rivals with broader and more lucrative portfolios might be a taller order than beating their race cars.

Let’s have some fun: A postscript on the most memorable thing Jimmie Johnson did this season (aside from the last lap of the Roval). His trip to the Formula One season finale invigorated the seven-time champion, whose giddiness over an impending car swap with Fernando Alonso was palpable via social media.

Yes, some of Johnson’s unbridled happiness naturally stems from being free of the stressors that suck the joy from competing at NASCAR’s highest level. (He also is free from his toughest season in Cup.)

But it also seemed to stem from being around a different environment. Witness the postrace interviews Sunday in Abu Dhabi with F1 drivers who didn’t seem ready for the season to end. Again, their championship system isn’t as inherently pressurized as NASCAR’s (and thus produces a different range of emotions), but they also are traveling thousands of miles annually and don’t seem as worse for the wear.

It recalled a salient question during NASCAR president Steve Phelps’ state of NASCAR news conference from veteran racing journalist Jeff Gluck, who has spent some of the past two years taking his eponymous website’s coverage to other series.

Gluck discovered that drivers and riders outside stock cars seemed to be having more fun and showing more passion, prompting a trenchant observation: Is NASCAR doing enough to ensure its stars are displaying as much of that infectious happiness and passion?

Phelps replied that Gluck’s question was a generalization (which is a fair response), but as a 2020 schedule overhaul is contemplated, let’s hope that Johnson’s exuberance is remembered.

Long: A sigh of relief punctuates the end of Daytona Speedweeks

Leave a comment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When it was over, when a Daytona Speedweeks that featured outrage and exhilaration saw its final checkered flag, there was little euphoria, many anxious moments and eventually a sigh of relief.

Confusion and concern reigned on pit road after Ryan Newman’s horrific crash at the end of Monday night’s Daytona 500. Racing for the win, Newman’s car slammed into the wall before the start/finish line, was struck while upside down by Corey LaJoie’s car and slid down the track, a shower of sparks trailing, before coming to rest beyond the exit of pit road.

A conversation on one team’s radio said Newman was out of the car, but others on pit road said he was not. With drivers and teams parked closer to pit entrance after the race, no one could tell what was happening at the other end of pit road.

Safety crews needed more than 10 minutes to roll Newman’s car over, attend to him and cut the crumpled roof off to extricate the 42-year-old father of two.

Moments earlier, Ryan Blaney pushed Newman past Denny Hamlin into the lead on the backstretch of the final lap. Blaney attempted to pass on the frontstretch, but Newman blocked. Blaney realized he was going to finish second and wanted to ensure a Ford won, so he pushed Newman. But one bump unsettled Newman’s car, triggering the incident.

Afterward, Blaney stood with his crew by his car on pit road for several minutes but little was said. They waited to hear about Newman’s condition. As many did.

When he talked to the media, Blaney’s face was ashen and his eyes blank as he recounted a last lap he’d like to forget but likely never will.

“I hope he’s alright,” Blaney said. “That looked really bad. Definitely unintentional. … Just waiting to see if he’s OK.”

As he spoke, an ambulance sped past, taking Newman to Halifax Health Medical Center.

Until the end of the Daytona 500, Speedweeks had provided its fill of drama, intrigue and bliss.

It started with the Busch Clash the week before where all 18 cars were involved in an at least one accident and winner Erik Jones was collected in three incidents. The main story that day, though, was Brad Keselowski’s  anger toward teammate Joey Logano for an accident that collected both and Kyle Busch.

A few days later the focus returned to racing. Logano won his qualifying race and William Byron won his qualifying race, his first Cup victory at Daytona. But Daniel Suarez suffered heartbreak when he was involved in a crash and failed to qualify for the 500.

The following night saw Jordan Anderson finish second by one-hundredth of a second, but he celebrated as if he won. The 28-year-old has raced in the Truck series most of the past five years but it hasn’t been easy. He has often pulled his truck in a dually and struggled to find funding. He sold equipment to help keep his team going in the offseason and purchase the truck he ran at Daytona.

After finishing second, Anderson couldn’t stop smiling.

“This finish tonight … is for every underdog in America, every kid that stays up late and works on his dirt late model or legends car and dreams of coming to Daytona,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, this finish tonight encourages them to never give up on their dreams.”

Less than 24 hours later, Noah Gragson was burning up the track. Literally.

Gragson celebrated his first Xfinity win with an extended burnout that had some rubber burning on the track.

“I caught the track on fire,” the 21-year-old driver for JR Motorsports said. “I thought that always would be really, really cool to catch the track on fire from doing a burnout, and I was able to do that.”

A Sunday filled with sunshine started with Air Force One delivering President Donald J. Trump. He spoke briefly to fans. They serenaded him with chants of “U-S-A!” He gave the command to start engines and his motorcade led the field on a pace lap, something never before done in a race. But rain delayed the start and the electricity that had built faded when the field only got 20 laps in before a second rain delay postponed the race to Monday.

Sunday’s energy grew through a late Monday afternoon under sunny and warm conditions. Crashes reduced the field but still left enough cars to create a dramatic win for Hamlin.

But that was overshadowed by Newman’s wreck.

And all the waiting.

Fans left the track without knowing Newman’s condition. Those at the track stood around. Nobody knew.

Informed of the severity of Newman’s crash, Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing muted their victory lane activities. A somber atmosphere hung over the track.

It was a stark reminder of how dangerous racing can be, something many have overlooked as they’ve applauded countless drivers who emerged with no serious injuries from high-flying cars that tumbled and rolled. It also showed how far safety has come in NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in 2001.

Two hours after Newman’s ambulance ride, the news came.

He was alive.

And a sigh of relief filled a silent racetrack.

 and on Facebook

Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends celebration by Denny Hamlin, No. 11 team

1 Comment

NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. defended Denny Hamlin and his team’s celebration after winning Monday’s Daytona 500 as safety crews attended to Ryan Newman after Newman’s last-lap accident.

Hamlin and said he didn’t know the severity of Newman’s accident immediately. Car owner Joe Gibbs said the team muted their festivities in victory lane after they found out more about Newman’s situation.  

“I say to everybody out there, some people may have saw us and said, well, these guys are celebrating when there’s a serious issue going on,” Gibbs said. “I apologize to everybody, but we really didn’t know.”

Earnhardt, speaking on Tuesday’s NASCAR America, said he understood what Hamlin and his team were going through. He spoke on the 19th anniversary of his father’s fatal crash in the last lap of the Daytona 500.

“That was just so unfortunate the fallout from that,” Earnhardt said of criticism directed toward the No. 11 team for its celebrating. “I think back to 2001 when dad had his accident and Michael Waltrip had made it all the way to victory lane himself and celebrating what he feels like was the most incredible moment of his life and waiting on dad to walk right into that victory lane at any moment to celebrate with him.

“I think I can tell you … how that process can happen, how what happened with Denny and his team can easily happen. There’s a lot of other similar situations that are much like that to compare that to that make it understandable to what played out with Denny and his team.”

Roush Fenway Racing announced Monday night that Newman was in serious condition with injuries not considered life threatening. The team announced Tuesday that Newman was awake and speaking with family members and doctors. He remains at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“I just can’t stop thinking about Ryan and waiting on more news and more information and when we can see him, when can we physically talk to Ryan and put our own eyes on him and get a chance to see how he’s doing,” Earnhardt said on NASCAR America.

Earnhardt won two Daytona 500s among the 10 points races he won at Daytona and Talladega. He was asked on the show about how aggressive a driver has to be to win the Daytona 500.

“I always had the most success by always trying to lead the race and it’s not physically possible to lead every single lap … I felt like that was the best defense to being involved in an accident, to being caught up in something in the middle of the pack,” Earnhardt said.

“I tried every different way to run those plate races. For me, that was always the most effective approach. It starts when you show up to the racetrack. You’ve got to be that way in practice. You’ve got to go out there, and you might tick some people off in practice that you’re so aggressive, but you’ve got to show them this is how I’m going to race. On top of that, this is what my car can do, so when the green flag drops you see my car pull out, you have confidence to follow it because you’ve seen what it can do all weekend.

“When I approached the entire race that way and the weekend that way, I really, really had a lot of success with it. Sometimes it doesn’t always work and then you start thinking maybe I’ll take a different route, maybe I’m going to sit in the back and try to take care of myself and maybe work my way up through there late in the race. You start trying different things and maybe you think you need to rethink your entire strategy, but I was always coming back around to being aggressive and having a lot of success with that.

“The only problem with that is it’s hard to do. It’s hard to push yourself to work that hard every foot of the racetrack, every straightaway, every turn, every opportunity, every run the car gets, every opportunity presented to do something with that car, it’s hard to stay on the wheel the entire race because everybody at some point has to take a break, some sort of mental break. I think the ones that can sustain that sort of tenacity and fierce competitiveness has success there.

“You see the same guys up toward the front of those races year after year. I even said it before the end of the race, Denny Hamlin, if he’s not the winner, he’s in the picture when they cross the finish line at a lot of these races at Daytona and Talladega. He proved it again that he’s one of the best. I didn’t know whether he had lost the race or not down the backstraightaway. Somehow or another he never gave up.

“If he wasn’t going to win, he was pushing somebody to the win and he put himself back in the situation of where he ends up getting the checkered flag. That attitude of never quitting, never giving up, working to try to get to the front every single inch of the racetrack is, I think, similar to Denny and what makes him so good.”

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Las Vegas

Leave a comment

No driver is listed for Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford on NASCAR’s preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The car is normally driven by Ryan Newman, who is in serious condition with non-life threatening injuries after his last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 Monday night. Roush Fenway Racing announced Tuesday afternoon that Newman was awake and speaking with family and doctors.

If Newman does not participate in the race, it would be the first Cup event he’s missed since the start of his full-time career in 2002 (649 starts).

There are 38 entries for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

Garrett Smithley is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Ford for his first race of the year.

Reed Sorenson is entered in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet.

Joey Logano won this race last year over Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Martin Truex Jr. won the playoff race over Kevin Harvick and Keselowski.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity Series – Boyd Gaming 300 (4 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Thirty-six cars are entered.

Truck Series driver Brett Moffitt is entered in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet.

Daniel Hemric will make his first start of the year in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Timmy Hill is entered in Hattori Racing Enterprises’ No. 61 Toyota.

Kyle Busch won this race last year over John Hunter Nemechek and Noah Gragson. Tyler Reddick won the playoff race over Christopher Bell and Brandon Jones.

Click here for the entry list.

Truck Series – Strat 200 (9 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

There are 35 trucks entered.

With a full field limited to 32 trucks, three will not make the race.

Kyle Busch is entered in the No. 51 Toyota for his first of five scheduled Truck Series races this year.

Ross Chastain is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 40 Toyota.

Busch won this race last year over Moffitt and Matt Crafton. Busch went on to sweep all five of his series starts last season. Austin Hill won the playoff race over Chastain and Christian Eckes.

Click here for the entry list.

 

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Latest on Ryan Newman, Daytona 500

NBCSN
Leave a comment

NASCAR America will have the latest on Ryan Newman after his crash at the end of Monday’s Daytona 500.

Krista Voda hosts and will be joined by Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Nate Ryan. The show will include reports from Marty Snider in Daytona Beach and Dave Burns from Roush Fenway Racing.

Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also will call in.

Today’s show airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.