Ryan: Wild cards, computer games and other championship leftovers

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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.

NASCAR partners with Sportradar for gambling fraud detection service

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NASCAR has entered a multi-year agreement with Sportradar to make use of its sports betting fraud monitoring services, the two companies announced Tuesday.

As part of the agreement, Sportradar’s Fraud Detection System (FDS) will monitor domestic and global betting activity for signs of fraudulent activity for all three of NASCAR’s national series: the Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

NASCAR will also have use of Sportradar’s Education and Prevention Services, which includes on-site workshops for NASCAR drivers, teams, officials and associated stakeholders delivered by Sportradar’s integrity and educational experts. Sportradar’s Integrity Services will also help NASCAR develop a full-fledged betting integrity program, including betting-related rules and policies.

NASCAR and Sportrader have an established history. In 2015, SportsData, a subsidiary of Sportrader, partnered with NASCAR to distribute its live timing and scoring data to third-party digital outlets.

The announcement of the partnership is the last step in NASCAR embracing sports gambling following a ruling by the Supreme Court in May that allowed states to decide if they allow sports betting.

In October, Dover International Speedway in Delaware became the first track that hosts NASCAR to introduce at-track betting.

That weekend NASCAR President Steve Phelps said the sanctioning body will add rules clarifying its policy for competitors in 2019.

“I think for ’19 we’ll have some rules that we’ll put in place,” Phelps said. “For right now, there’ll be betting here. We’ll study and see how that goes, but I think we’ll have some rules in place for sponsorship, for what betting looks like and continue to see what happens in the landscape overall.”

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2019 NASCAR Cup Series race start times announced

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NASCAR has announced its race start times for the 2019 Cup Series season, with a notable change in start time for the playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After a start time of 3 p.m. ET this year, next season’s race will begin at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on NBCSN.

“Moving the start time for the September race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is fitting because it will deliver a better experience for our fans attending the race, and kick off the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in primetime,” said Steve Herbst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Broadcasting and Production in a press release. “Each race weekend, including Las Vegas, is unique, and we work collaboratively with broadcast partners, teams and tracks to ensure the ideal timing is selected for our events.”

Other notable start times:

  • The Daytona 500 is scheduled for Feb. 17 at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX.
  • The March 31 race at Texas Motor Speedway will start one hour later, moving from a 2 p.m. ET start to 3 p.m. ET. The race also moves to FOX.
  • The start time for New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s July 22 starts one hour later, moving from 2 p.m. ET to 3 p.m. ET.
  • Martinsville Speedway’s Oct. 28 playoff shifts a half-hour later to a 3 p.m. ET start.

Here’s the full schedule with start times and TV and radio networks:

DATE

RACE

NETWORK

RACE START (ET)

RADIO

Sun, Feb 10, 2019

Daytona 500 Qualifying

FOX

12:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Feb 10, 2019

The Clash

FS1

3:00 PM

MRN

Thu, Feb 14, 2019

Duel at Daytona

FS1

7:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Feb 17, 2019

Daytona 500

FOX

2:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Feb 24, 2019

Atlanta

FOX

2:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Mar 03, 2019

Las Vegas

FOX

3:30 PM

PRN

Sun, Mar 10, 2019

ISM Raceway

FOX

3:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Mar 17, 2019

Auto Club Speedway

FOX

3:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Mar 24, 2019

Martinsville

FS1

2:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Mar 31, 2019

Texas

FOX

3:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Apr 07, 2019

Bristol

FS1

2:00 PM

PRN

Sat, Apr 13, 2019

Richmond

FOX

7:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Apr 28, 2019

Talladega

FOX

2:00 PM

MRN

Sun, May 05, 2019

Dover

FS1

2:00 PM

MRN

Sat, May 11, 2019

Kansas

FS1

7:30 PM

MRN

Sat, May 18, 2019

All-Star Open

FS1

6:00 PM

MRN

Sat, May 18, 2019

All-Star Race

FS1

8:00 PM

MRN

Sun, May 26, 2019

Charlotte

FOX

6:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Jun 02, 2019

Pocono

FS1

2:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Jun 09, 2019

Michigan

FS1

2:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Jun 23, 2019

Sonoma

FS1

3:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Jun 30, 2019

Chicagoland

NBCSN

3:00 PM

MRN

Sat, Jul 06, 2019

Daytona

NBC

7:30 PM

MRN

Sat, Jul 13, 2019

Kentucky

NBCSN

7:30 PM

PRN

Sun, Jul 21, 2019

New Hampshire

NBCSN

3:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Jul 28, 2019

Pocono

NBCSN

3:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Aug 04, 2019

Watkins Glen

NBCSN

3:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Aug 11, 2019

Michigan

NBCSN

3:00 PM

MRN

Sat, Aug 17, 2019

Bristol

NBCSN

7:30 PM

PRN

Sun, Sep 01, 2019

Darlington

NBCSN

6:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Sep 08, 2019

Indianapolis

NBC

2:00 PM

IMS

Sun, Sep 15, 2019

Las Vegas

NBCSN

7:00 PM

PRN

Sat, Sep 21, 2019

Richmond

NBCSN

7:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Sep 29, 2019

Charlotte

NBC

2:30 PM

PRN

Sun, Oct 06, 2019

Dover

NBCSN

2:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Oct 13, 2019

Talladega

NBC

2:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Oct 20, 2019

Kansas

NBC

2:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Oct 27, 2019

Martinsville

NBCSN

3:00 PM

MRN

Sun, Nov 03, 2019

Texas

NBCSN

3:00 PM

PRN

Sun, Nov 10, 2019

ISM Raceway

NBC

2:30 PM

MRN

Sun, Nov 17, 2019

Homestead-Miami

NBC

3:00 PM

MRN

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John Andretti still battling colon cancer after chemotherapy

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John Andretti announced Monday he continues to fight colon cancer after the conclusion of his latest round of chemotherapy treatments.

“I just ran out of ride tickets on the #chemocoaster,” Andretti announced in a tweet. “We still have to deal with the cancer. Will know more following scans in a couple of weeks.”

The former NASCAR and IndyCar driver announced in May that after six months of remission the colon cancer had returned and spread.

Andretti, 55, first revealed he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in April 2017. Since then he has been an advocate of men over 50 getting colonoscopies.

 

Andretti’s initial surgery after his diagnosis removed 12-14 inches of his colon and scans showed the cancer had spread to his liver and possibly his spleen. In June 2017 he announced that his spleen and gallbladder were cancer free.

Andretti, the nephew of Mario Andretti, competed in the Cup Series from 1993-2010 and won twice, including the 1997 Pepsi 400 at Daytona. 

He made five starts in the Indianapolis 500 and was the first driver to attempt the “Double” of competing in the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

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Christopher Bell ‘thankful’ he gets another year with Xfinity crew chief

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In the build up to Joe Gibbs Racing’s announcement of a restructuring of its crew chief assignments for 2019, Christopher Bell “prayed” for one outcome.

He wanted to keep Jason Ratcliff as his crew chief.

Bell, who will turn 23 on Sunday, got an early birthday present when his prayer was answered.

Ratcliff will remain as the crew chief on Bell’s No. 20 Toyota in the Xfinity Series for a second year.

Together, Bell and Ratcliff earned seven Xfinity wins, a rookie record. That propelled them to the championship race in Homestead-Miami Speedway where a loose race car and a late pit stop for a cut tire relegated them to a fourth place finish in the standings.

“I was very concerned (about losing Ratcliff),” Bell said Saturday at the Xfinity Awards banquet in Charlotte. “Whenever I got paired up with Jason it was a dream come true, right? Because I’m getting arguably one of the best crew chiefs in the Cup level to come down and do my Xfinity car.”

Ratcliff, who has been a NASCAR crew chief since 2000, was paired with Bell after five seasons and 14 wins Matt Kenseth in the Cup series.

“I knew that whenever things are getting shuffled around you never really know who’s safe and who’s not safe,” Bell said of JGR’s crew chief changes. “Obviously, Jason’s going to get opportunities. People are going to want him to crew chief their Cup cars, to go to different Xfinity teams. I just prayed that Jason was going to stay with me and stick with me. Very thankful that he did.”

Though Tyler Reddick managed to claim the series title, Bell is the obvious favorite for the championship next season.

Bell admitted “it’s going to be very hard to top ’18 in ’19.

“If I can go into ’19 and continue to win races and be in the (championship) four, I’m going to be happy with that.”

When it comes to getting ready for 2019, Bell is staying active behind the wheel.

“The only offseason prep I’m doing is just racing,” Bell said. “I’ve been pretty busy. Right after Homestead I went to Turkey Night out in California (where he beat Kyle Larson) and ran a midget. From there I went to St. Louis and ran a Midget. The only thing I know how to do is just race. I don’t think me losing the championship was a matter of not being prepared, I think it was just a matter of us missing it as a group.”

Bell’s offseason prep will continue Saturday with the Junior Knepper 55 in DuQuoin, Illinois. Bell is the defending winner of the USAC midget race, when he won with Keith Kunz/Curb Agajanian Motorsports. This year, Bell will race for Chad Boat and Tucker-Boat Motorsports.

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