Ryan: Things we learned at Las Vegas regardless of racing

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By any objective or subjective measure, Sunday’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway fell short of being a game-changer.

Yes, there were a record number of green-flag lead changes and passes (as well as a record-tying fewest number of cautions, and there is some obvious causality there).

But if you were expecting a show of dazzling side-drafting brilliance and the looming threat of nonstop door-slamming, that’s not what you got.

What you got was a race.

A race that had some entertaining battles for the lead between Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, a smaller gap from first to second on average and a compelling final lap that briefly felt as if the outcome could be in doubt.

But still a race nonetheless.

That means for more than two and a half hours, roughly three dozen cars turned left for 400 miles in a process identical to a few thousand other races that preceded this one and hopefully thousands more to come.

In many of those prior races, drivers occasionally lose control of their cars while racing for position. That results in wrecks and their many byproducts — emotions spiking, feuds erupting, and fans cheering.

That’s racin’.

What a concept.

So, let’s concede that Sunday in Sin City was no game changer for 1.5-mile tracks – which NASCAR has admitted were the primary target of its lower-horsepower package and aero ducts – nor could or should it be.

But there were some elements with game-changing potential that emerged from the debut of the full 2019 rules package. Here were a few:

New ways to call a race: The biggest takeaways might have come not behind the wheel but from atop the pit boxes, particularly the No. 1 of Kurt Busch and No. 24 of William Byron.

Busch’s crew chief, Matt McCall, essentially sacrificed any stage points by pitting Busch late in the second stage for four tires and then staying on track to assume the lead for the final restart. Busch still had to pit earlier than the rest of the lead-lap cars, but the strategy allowed him to overcome a starting spot of 28th to earn his second consecutive top five.

The tactical call by Chad Knaus on the No. 24 was even more intriguing– a clever splash-and-go call near the end of the second stage that kept Byron on the lead lap and nearly still earned a point (Byron finished 11th in the stage).

There were risks involved with both strategies – an overtime finish could have hurt Busch’s cause and Knaus was betting that his young driver could be patient and his pit crew could execute a swift stop – but they also adapted well to the caution-free flow, the clogged traffic and slower lap speeds.

Those factors (married with stages carrying two predetermined cautions) will create opportunities for strategic innovation.

There are more 1.5-mile tracks ahead that also will feature low tire wear (on recently repaved surfaces). If yellows remain down as they were in Atlanta and Las Vegas, the risks taken by McCall and Knaus will be worthy of more consideration by other teams.

–Just passing through: When third-place finisher Kyle Busch was caught for speeding with just under 130 laps to go, it figured to be an arduous slog to get back on the lead lap, much less the top five. But it took 20 laps to achieve the former and 70 laps for the latter, leaving Busch still in a solid position to win over the final 50 laps.

Though track position still is vital with this package, Busch showed how a strong car and slower speeds make it possible to rebound quickly from an unscheduled trip to the pits under green. His No. 18 Toyota was leading when it sped on entry, and he fell off the lead lap after serving a pass-through penalty – but only because Busch and Byron had yet to stop.

When they did, the lead cycled on lap 150 to race winner Joey Logano, whom Busch had managed to stay in front of after pass-through. When the caution flew for the stage break 10 laps later, Busch was able to pit with the lead-lap cars in a fortuitous turn of events that stemmed from this year’s reduced horsepower.

With lap times down sharply (the pole speed fell more than 10 mph from a year earlier) but pit speeds remaining constant, Busch’s extra trip to the pits cost him a little more than 30 seconds, a duration in the neighborhood of the weekend’s fastest laps.

In 2018, when cars were turning laps 2 seconds quicker, he probably would have emerged on the lap behind Logano and would have had a tougher fight to regain the lead lap (via a wavearound or the free pass). Instead, he gained two spots on his Lap 163 stop and restarted in 16th with perhaps the fastest car and nearly 100 laps to overcome the deficit.

The mistake still cost him the win, but Busch had much more time to try to atone for it.

–But … don’t get penalized: OK, but all that said, getting penalized under green still can destroy a day more easily, as Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon learned the hard way.

Both drivers’ teams were penalized for too many men over the wall during pit stops midway through the first 80-lap stage. They ended the stage a lap down, and neither could fully recover, which put a damper on the promise of final-round qualifying appearances.

“I think we had a top 10 car, just never got the track position we needed,” said Dillon, who started in the top 10 but finished outside the top 15 for the second consecutive week. “We lost it from the beginning, and when you lose it, you can’t ever get it back.”


The surprising lack of yellow flags certainly had a major impact on all the above, too.

The two cautions were the fewest number for a full-distance race at Vegas since the yellow flew only twice in the March 1, 1998 inaugural.

This comes on the heels of an incident-free Atlanta Motor Speedway race that featured five cautions (two for stages, the other three were for competition/tire wear, debris and fluid).

So that means 900 miles have been run in NASCAR’s premier series without a driver so much as spinning on track once under highly competitive conditions.

Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, though. These are world-elite drivers, and they’ve been handed an enormous amount of downforce.

Despite all the predictions of mass chaos on “crazy” restarts (side note: Restarts have been inherently “crazy” since they were changed to double file nearly 10 years ago), drivers seemed to get by just fine while going four wide a few laps at a time the past two races.

That seems nettlesome.


No one is rooting for wrecks, but caution flags can help enliven the show (within reason). Look no further than the 12 yellow flags in the previous race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which begs an interesting question.

Which was the better show at the 1.5-mile oval: Last year’s playoff opener or Sunday?

The smart money here is on the Sept. 16, 2018 race that was hailed by many as the best kickoff event in 15 years of NASCAR’s 10-race championship structure. With many championship contenders desperately pushing beyond the limits of their cars and tires, there were five restarts in the last 40 laps, and Kyle Larson delivered one of the greatest passes for the lead in 2018.

That race was run less than three weeks before NASCAR unveiled its 2019 rules package.


The two-race sample size is small, but Team Penske’s ability to adapt still should be hailed. The consecutive victories by Keselowski and Logano underscore that when things change in Cup, Penske is as nimble as any organization in addressing the challenge. Look no further than the 2014 move to group qualifying, and how quickly Keselowski and Logano became final-round fixtures.

Auto racing is a sport where rolling with the punches is paramount, and team owner Roger Penske has the longest track record of doing it better than anyone.


The wild qualifying session at Las Vegas reminded Jimmie Johnson of the short-lived experiment with group qualifying on restrictor-plate tracks four years ago.

“I think it was great entertainment, but we were all afraid of how many cars we were going to tear up,” Johnson said. “So far, no cars are torn up (at Las Vegas), but I think that opportunity really exists.”

NASCAR made swift changes back to a single-car format at Daytona and Talladega after Clint Bowyer crashed in the 2015 Daytona 500 qualifying session.

After several near-misses at Vegas, it’ll bear watching when the inevitable crash in speedway qualifying this season eliminates a decent car (or several).


Regardless of what the temperature is among fan councils, social media surveys and satellite radio discussions, there is one given about the 2019 rules: They are here to stay.

There are no quick tweaks to this package. When you dramatically reduce horsepower, it requires some heavy lifting. That’s the reason the package wasn’t implemented for a few races last season after the 2018 All-Star Race; it would have been too much strain on engine builders.

This won’t unfold like the 2015 season when NASCAR quickly detoured into high-drag and low-downforce options because it was dissatisfied with 1.5-mile action

Backing up to the 2018 rules package would require months of work (never mind huge sums of cash) for engine builders who are boxed in by the hardware and logistics driven by meticulously scheduled inventories of V8 engines. It isn’t as simple as pulling out the aero ducts and tuning up the engines.

NASCAR is locked into 550 horsepower for the foreseeable future.

No matter what you thought of Sunday’s race, the reality is that package is here to stay.

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.