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Ryan: It’s good NASCAR has the hammer, but now the hard part begins

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NASCAR has picked up the hammer this season. Now comes the hard part.

Swinging it … and with a judicious understanding of everything that will entail.

Monday’s watershed news — that postrace Cup inspections will be confined to a 90-minute period immediately after the checkered flag and result in disqualifications for any infraction above a few missing lugnuts – was met with universal acclaim from all corners of NASCAR Nation.

And rightfully so.

This should help regain control of the narrative that NASCAR lost so often the past few years in the recurrent quagmire of announcing midweek penalties that effectively invalidated race results long after the fact.

And by finally deciding to strip wins, there will be much less confusion about how a driver and team can be guilty enough to incur points deductions, heavy fines and suspensions but still not have the punishment adequately reflected in the record book.

But as haulers roll into Daytona International Speedway to signal the symbolic opening of Speedweeks and the 2019 season, some extremely heavy lifting still remains ahead for NASCAR officials.

Before the year’s first green flag, they have guaranteed themselves of facing a major controversy – and probably several – with this admirable attempt at reasserting its authority over rulebook enforcement.

There were two instances last year (Kevin Harvick at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway) and two in 2017 (Denny Hamlin at Darlington, Joey Logano at Richmond) of a winner being busted, and there were nine cars that finished fourth or better that received penalties. The top two finishers (Harvick and Ryan Blaney) at Texas last November would have been disqualified under this new policy, which would have handed an unprecedented win to a third-place finisher.

That could happen this year.

Again, that is mostly a good thing because the tradeoff is a storyline with a much more finite existence. NASCAR should be permanently out of the business of overshadowing races by tripping all over itself with news three or four days later.

But its new disqualification and inspection policies will be accompanied by immense responsibility, compromise and probably a lot of pain in landing on the best way for accomplishing that.

This is what Harvick means in suggesting that how prerace inspections are handled will be more important than postrace. There will be much buy-in required in getting crew chiefs on the same page as officials, and it also will necessitate some give on the part of NASCAR in understanding that policing rules is best served by the absence of zealotry.

Despite all the recent attention on disqualifications, an overarching theme of 2019 needs to be less focus on rules and much more focus on racing – particularly if it’s as good as NASCAR is advertising (or hoping).

That won’t happen if disqualifications become the dominant storyline of the new season, and with a bevy of new guidelines to digest that will lower horsepower while theoretically tightening the competition, the climate seems ripe for that being possible.

Teams inherently are tasked with bending the rules and exploiting loopholes to their advantage – and that should be celebrated to a certain degree.

Though no one wants the taint of criminality, there also is an appeal to the outlaw culture that spawned NASCAR from bootleggers outrunning the law in the hills of North Carolina.

It’s been told so many times the story is probably apocryphal, but after once being cleared in a vigorous postrace inspection, Smokey Yunick reputedly drove away in a race car lacking a fuel tank. The NASCAR Hall of Fame opened nine years ago with a working still, courtesy of former moonshiner and inaugural HOF inductee Junior Johnson, who plainly informed everyone that it would work if you “put fire to the mash” correctly. Some of the richest stories of NASCAR’s glory days told by Richard Petty are about “one of those cheating deals”

There always has been a fine line between innovation and illegality in stock-car racing.

The problem in recent years is there was too much lingering haze surrounding what constituted the latter.

NASCAR is doing the right thing in correcting that, but it needs to be careful in how it categorizes what ultimately is wrong and how it doles out those punishments.

Having the hammer is useful.

So long as it doesn’t shatter something good into a million tiny pieces.

Here are four more things to watch as NASCAR enters the brave new world of the postrace death penalty:

Social media: There undoubtedly will be a small army of NASCAR inspectors on call for the weekly postrace teardowns of the winning car.

But should there also be an inspector solely watching social media?

Given developments in the Reddit era – whether the tape on Chase Elliott’s Chevrolet after the 2017 playoff opener, or the indent in the rear window of Kevin Harvick’s Ford last year – undoubtedly yes.

The PGA might have outlawed the practice of allowing fans to call in penalties, but these aren’t ticky-tack infractions when it involves the most aerodynamic parts of the car. If something goes viral during or immediately after the race, NASCAR should be aware in its inspections.

Stick around for fun: In case the winner fails, many have wondered how many members of the second- and third-place teams will linger at the track (would there be a makeshift second victory lane ceremony?).

But maybe there will be incentive

NASCAR confirmed Friday to NBC Sports that after some deliberation, the postrace garage inspections will be open. That means anyone from any team can observe them.

How many would be inclined to stay to “help” NASCAR with that process, or at least be able to watch their opponents’ cars be dissected in greater detail?

Public shaming: Under the previous policy, winning teams always had enough wiggle room to conjure at least some plausible deniability about failing inspection. That came in part from the victory remaining intact – how serious could it be if that were the case?

That now is gone with disqualifications. It will be much harder to wash out the stain, and that might be harder to square with sponsors. And that leads to …

… pushing it:  While it won’t be tantamount to floggings in the public square, will the backlash from being disqualified help disincentivize going beyond the limits?

There always has been debate about whether teams with at least one legal win (and a berth in the playoffs) would be more or less inclined to push the limits in the regular season. Will that change under the new policy? The potential reputational hit could outweigh any competitive benefits.

David Ragan to make first Truck start since 2006 at Atlanta

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David Ragan is coming back and going home at the same time.

The Unadilla, Georgia native, who stepped down from full-time racing after last season, will drive in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Ragan’s home track, Atlanta Motor Speedway, on Saturday, June 6.

The 34-year-old Ragan will drive the No. 17 Ford for DGR-Crosley in his 30th career Truck Series start and his first since 2006.

David Ragan will make his first Truck Series start since 2006 in the June 6 race at his home track of Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“I’m really looking forward to racing one of DGR-Crosley’s F-150’s at Atlanta,” Ragan said in a media release. “We were originally going to run the truck at Richmond Raceway in April, but since that race was postponed (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), I wanted to return to my home state of Georgia with Select Blinds for this race.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve raced in the Truck Series. Atlanta has always been one of my favorite tracks since it’s my home track.”

Blake Bainbridge will serve as Ragan’s crew chief. The Atlanta race was originally scheduled for March, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since stepping away from full-time racing, Ragan has made just one start in 2020, finishing fourth in the Daytona 500 for Rick Ware Racing.

Ragan currently works in a development role with Ford Performance, where, according to the media release, “he assists teams with simulator work and has a hand in developing the NextGen car that will come into play in 2022.”

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NASCAR schedule for Cup, Xfinity races at Bristol

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NASCAR has put Charlotte in its rearview mirror and moves next to Bristol Motor Speedway.

One significant change to the schedule has already occurred. The Xfinity Series race originally slated for Saturday has been moved to Monday due to travel and setup challenges.

Here is the schedule for Saturday through Monday at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile:

(All times are Eastern)

Saturday, May 30

5 p.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7 – 9 p.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening and equipment unloaded)

Sunday, May 31

7:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. – Cup garage access screening in progress

1:30 – 2:30 p.m. – Engine prime and final adjustments

3:20 p.m. – Cup drivers report to vehicles on starting grid

3:30 p.m. – Cup Series race, 500 laps/266.5 miles (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5 p.m. – Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit track

Monday, June 1

8:30 – 11:30 a.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening in progress)

11:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. – Xfinity garage access (screening in progress)

5 – 6:30 p.m. – Xfinity engine prime and final adjustments (pit road)

6:50 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to vehicles on starting grid

7 p.m. – Xfinity race, 200 laps/300 miles (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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Winners and losers after Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte

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WINNERS

Chase ElliottAfter losing the Coca-Cola 600 when he pitted from the lead before the overtime restart, Elliott scored the victory Thursday night at Charlotte. “I think we were hungry and wanted to get back and try again,” Elliott said after his seventh career Cup victory.

Denny Hamlin Crew chief serving the first race of a four-race suspension and Hamlin was starting 29th in a 310-mile race. No problem. He worked his way through the field, helped by his pit crew, and finished second.

Ryan Blaney He left Charlotte with a pair of third-place finishes in the two races. Many would take that.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Fourth-place finish is his second top-five result of the season in his first season at JTG Daugherty Racing.

LOSERS

Alex BowmanWon the second stage and had a fast car. Saw his night come undone when he hit the wall while running second. He had to pit for repairs and finished 31st.

Kyle BuschCut tire while racing in traffic sent him to the pits under green and he lost two laps. He never recovered, finishing 29th.

Friday 5: When fans can return, how many will be allowed at tracks?

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As NASCAR moves ahead with racing, among the key questions are when will fans be allowed back at the track and how many fans will be able to attend?

NASCAR has stated that there will be no fans at any of its races through June 21, covering events at Bristol, Atlanta, Martinsville, Miami and Talladega. NASCAR has not announced what its schedule will be after June 21 and when fans could be back in the stands.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, said “I think that NASCAR will be the first major sport with fans back in attendance, and I think it will be in a place where one, the state regulations allow it, and two, where the large outdoor facility gives an opportunity to provide plenty of space, plenty of distance and plenty of areas for people to still have fun but be in a  safe environment.”

Should Pocono Raceway maintain its June 27-28 Cup doubleheader weekend dates, it appears likely it would be without fans.

Pocono Raceway is in Monroe County in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf has set three phases for easing of restrictions — red (most restrictions), yellow and green (fewest restrictions).

Asked if NASCAR could race at Pocono, Gov. Wolf said in a May 18 press conference: “If Monroe County goes to yellow before that race happens and NASCAR, in fact, has the competition without spectators in the stands and they follow other guidelines to keep the competitors safe, yeah.”

Monroe County enters the yellow phrase today.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be the first track that hosts fans when it has the NTT IndyCar Series and Xfinity Series race on the road course July 4 and the Cup Series race on the oval July 5.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has a five-step plan in easing restrictions for the state where the final stage is projected to be enacted July 4 and states that “raceway events may return to full capacity.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials have not announced what plans they’ll have for the July 4-5 races. A track spokesperson told NBC Sports that they’re “hopeful” to have fans but “will be prepared to run with or without spectators.”

Whenever and wherever fans return, it won’t be at full capacity with the need for social distancing.

That will force tracks to determine who can attend races when they have more ticket buyers than seats they’re allowed to make available because of social distancing protocols.

“It’s going to be challenging,” Smith said. “I think if we have 40 percent or 50 percent capacity, it’s something that we’ll have to figure out. I don’t think we have those details yet, but it’s certainly something we’re sensitive to and working on right now.”

While Smith mentioned 40-50 percent capacity, he’s not sure what it will be at various tracks.

“Who knows if it’s 40 or 50 percent or 25 percent?” he said. “It’s something that when you take into account different regulations in different states, I think that percentage is going to change depending on what the regulations are.”

2. Feeling better

Crew chief Alan Gustafson admits it “wasn’t a great feeling” Sunday after his decision to pit Chase Elliott before overtime cost Elliott a chance to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But Gustafson didn’t let the decision wreck him the rest of the week.

“I don’t base my self‑worth on other people’s opinions, or if I’m doing a good job based on what other people say, but certainly I’m a human being, too, and when you get that many rocks thrown at you, it doesn’t feel great,” Gustafson said after Elliott won Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte. “It was a long couple days, but at the end of the day, you’ve just got to look past it and move on.”

Gustafson said of the decision to pit late in the 600: “There’s a lot of factors that went into it, and our struggles earlier in the race probably influenced me more than I should have let it, and it didn’t work out. We’re also assuming that we stay out and we win the race, so it’s tough. It’s just a tough situation.”

While it’s easy to look at how Elliott could have three wins in a row — he was running second late at Darlington when Kyle Busch’s contact wrecked him, then the 600 pit call and Thursday’s win — Elliott prefers to look at things differently.

“I think the biggest thing is if we can continue to put ourselves in position and give ourselves chances and we do a good job at controlling the things that are in our control, that’s all we can ask for,” Elliott said after Thursday’s win. “We can’t control when a caution comes out two laps to go and you’re kind of in a lose‑lose situation there. We’ve got to keep doing things that are in our hands and keep doing those well.”

3. Hold on tight at Bristol

Much was made about drivers not having practice and qualifying before they raced at Darlington Raceway since it is considered among the sport’s most difficult tracks.

While not as much has been mentioned about the obstacles drivers will face at Bristol Motor Speedway before Sunday’s Cup race and Monday night’s Xfinity race, they shouldn’t be overlooked.

Tyler Reddick, who won the Bristol Xfinity race last August and finished second in the April 2019 race there, notes some of the challenges drivers will face this weekend.

“I think the first challenge is going to be just completing that first lap,” he said. “That’s one of the toughest race tracks to go around when it doesn’t have rubber and heat on it. I’ve run Truck races there through my career and when we’re one of the first ones on the race track, that first hour of practice you can’t really learn much. The traction compound is slick – you go down in there to try to use it and you almost spin out. You run the middle and that’s about it. Man, the first hour or so of practice you can’t get up in that either because it’s slick and you almost wreck.

“I remember the first time they put traction compound down at Bristol. I went out for practice and I was in the middle, we were OK. But I wanted to try the bottom, so I went down there, got loose and couldn’t go anywhere. So, I was like ‘that’s not going to work’. I went up to try to use the top and I drove it straight into the fence.

“I’m worried that the start of the race is going to be very chaotic. I don’t know how that’s going to go. There’s only one groove and we’re going to be starting double-file, so that’s going to be very interesting.”

4. Midweek racing

Thursday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway marked the second midweek Cup race since NASCAR’s season resumed.

The series will race at Martinsville on June 10, a Wednesday night. There could be other midweek races as NASCAR seeks to run 32 Cup races in 25 weeks.

But what about next year? How realistic is it that there could be a Cup race in the middle of a week?

“Lot of people have talked about it,” Marcus Smith said this week. “Running midweek races with no attendees is not a concern in terms of how you pull it off. … You don’t have to take into consideration selling tickets and hosting live things.

“Very different model than hosting these big parties, these big events that we do. The biggest events happen on the weekends. That’s why NASCAR races typically are on a weekend. When you have these events as we do, and we have to think quickly and figure out how to catch up on this nine or 10-week delay of the NASCAR season, running races midweek was a natural way to get caught up.

“But going forward, I still don’t think that the biggest events in sports will be hosted midweek.”

Brad Keselowski would like to see midweek races continue.

“NASCAR, in my opinion, has hit gold with this format,” he said after Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “The limited practice, show up and race, and the time window that benefits both the East and West Coast. No qualifying. Inversion from the week before is really good because it mixes the field up and creates some good storylines there. I think it’s fair. 

“It’s compelling and it’s at a time where, quite frankly, the sports world, even if it wasn’t for COVID, midweek races in the summer, when you’re generally not having a lot of competition, is in a time period where everybody is hungry for content. I think they’ve got gold here. COVID or not, I hope we keep this for years to come. I think this is a great little format that’s good for the sport and good for the fans and good for everybody all around, so kudos to them.”

5. All-Star Race status

Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted four NASCAR races, including two Cup races, this week but none of those Cup races was the All-Star Race.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, was asked this week in a media conference about that event’s future and if it will remain at Charlotte.

“I think the plan is that it would be at Charlotte, but I think it’s important to note that we haven’t announced it because it’s just not ready to be announced yet,” Smith said. “With all the moving parts in this time, we have to be aware of how things change. Very soon, and I think in the next two weeks or less, we’ll have the next round of events that will be announced (by NASCAR) and it will help solve those schedules.”