Ryan: Dover criticism at interesting juncture for leadership, rules

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How much would Kyle Busch’s excoriation of the racing Monday at Dover International Speedway draw the ire of NASCAR?

Discussions took place Tuesday (as part of the sanctioning body’s weekly postrace analysis) on whether to punish the 2015 series champion. Late Tuesday afternoon, a NASCAR spokesman said Busch wouldn’t be fined.

It was an interesting window into the new dynamics of NASCAR leadership and the sanctity of a rules package that has been a central storyline of the 2019 season.

By previous standards, Busch’s harsh assessment of the racing at Dover might have crossed NASCAR’s boundaries for language detrimental to stock-car racing.

Series officials previously have said drivers are welcome to criticize them for their calls but draw the line on assailing the entertainment value of the on-track product. In announcing the abolition of its “secret fine” policy, Brian France said sanctions publicly would be levied on those perceived as denigrating NASCAR, and it’s been applied (sometimes capriciously) to Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart for their views on restrictor plates, the Gen 6 car and loose wheels.

However, Busch’s comments weren’t completely out of line given NASCAR’s expectations for a radically different rules package in 2019.

During a critical preseason test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, vice president of development and innovation John Probst told JeffGluck.com and other reporters that NASCAR “wanted cars close together. We don’t want people falling off and going laps down. We don’t want people checking out.”

Martin Truex Jr. won Monday’s rain-delayed race at Dover by 9.5 seconds, a margin of victory greater than the previous 10 races combined this season, and even Truex said passing was difficult for his No. 19 Toyota.

It’s also worth noting that Probst said during the Las Vegas test that most drivers were opposed to the new rules – and many seem to have been biting their tongues when asked to evaluate the rules. The introduction of 550 horsepower at larger speedways was intended to keep cars closer together, but the reviews have been mixed.

Though Kevin Harvick offered a stronger opinion Monday after Dover, his restraint after a March 23 qualifying session at Martinsville Speedway reflected the reticence many drivers have had about the package this season.

“Look, I bailed on having an opinion on rules and downforce the middle of last year,” Harvick said, apparently referring to when NASCAR moved in the direction of the 2019 rules after a version was used in the All-Star Race.

Martinsville was among the 2019 races in which drivers were more vociferous about the impact of the rules on passing.

Those complaints have undoubtedly been heard by Jim France, who took over as NASCAR CEO for his nephew, Brian, nine months ago and has been a much more visible presence and sounding board at the racetrack.

Though his leadership style has been universally praised for its connectivity, Jim France also has an old-school approach that is in line with his late older brother who ran NASCAR for more than 40 years.

Traditional hard-line leadership at NASCAR has been less receptive to rebukes from drivers, and a punishment for speaking out against the 2019 rules – which likely will remain for the foreseeable future – might have sent the message that some sacred cows remain in Cup.


Perhaps more at risk for NASCAR sanction was Leavine Family Racing owner Bob Leavine, who began tweeting his support of Busch and his dissatisfaction with the rules since shortly after Monday’s race ended in a tweetstorm that lasted more than a day.

“It’s unfortunate, especially when a team owner does social media,” NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell told SiriusXM’s NASCAR channel Tuesday morning. “I don’t think that’s the right way to do it at all. It’s a choice that was made. We’re available every race and talk to every constituent we have. Jim France is at every race, which is phenomenal. The ability to say that you don’t have a chance to talk to us about your feedback is a bit questionable.”

NASCAR ultimately declined to punish Leavine, too.

The team owner has some leverage. As he noted, he is a Race Team Alliance board member. He also has a midpack team that joined the Toyota Racing Development fold this season.

With open speculation about Toyota’s desire and need to add another car to its lineup, an expansion of LFR would be the easiest option. If Leavine were to leave NASCAR (and this tweet didn’t exactly inspire confidence about his long-term belief in the product), it would leave a gaping hole that would take a lot of effort and money to fill.


Prior to Martin Truex Jr.’s wins at Dover (1-mile track) and Richmond Raceway (the 0.75-mile layout where he scored his first short-track win in Cup), his previous 12 wins had come at ovals either 1.5 miles and longer or road courses.

Because his 2017 championship was built on the 1.5-mile tracks (a record seven wins, including the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway), it’s easy to overlook Truex’s versatility. His 0-for-80 winless stretch on short tracks was an anomaly, and his team’s only weakness is on superspeedways, which are largely immaterial to winning a title once a driver has qualified for the playoffs.

With two wins in three races, Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn seem fully assimilated into Joe Gibbs Racing and poised to continue a five-season run as a first-tier championship-caliber duo.


Truex’s win also helped make a strong case for cementing JGR as the reigning top team in NASCAR’s premier series. Between Busch, Truex and Denny Hamlin, Toyota is the only manufacturer with a trio of multiple winners, and Erik Jones has shown signs of righting the ship in the past two races.

Team Penske might remain a clear second in the pecking order, but there weren’t many highlights at Dover with Joey Logano (who fought for a sixth after getting mired deep in traffic from playing two-tire strategy to win a stage), Brad Keselowski (who faded greatly to 12th after leading 58 of the first 181 laps) and Ryan Blaney (15th).

Those struggles, coupled with Hendrick Motorsports’ four top 15s, underscored that the battle behind Gibbs has been tightening.


The tactics of Logano and William Byron revealed how strategy can be tricky with races that run largely incident-free. Both drivers sacrificed track position for Stage 1 points and then spent much of the remaining 280 miles trying to regain ground.

Dover marked the sixth of 11 races in 2019 that didn’t feature a multicar wreck, and the resultant lack of yellows can make it difficult to catch a tactical break. Logano and Byron both abandoned long-run strategies to short pit and get on sequence with the other lead-lap cars for their final stops with around 80 laps to go.

Gambles on being able to stay out longer under the final green-flag run (which lasted 131 laps) went unrewarded for Daniel Suarez, Jimmie Johnson and Aric Almirola, who would have benefited if there’d been a late caution.


The return of single-car qualifying at Dover was kindest to the less experienced. Four of the top five qualifiers (Chase Elliott, Byron, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman) weren’t running Cup full time in 2013, the last season before the debut of group qualifying.

With only one driver starting in the top 10, qualifying at Dover was surprisingly unkind to JGR. During the 2013 season, JGR had three of the top four qualifiers (Matt Kenseth, Busch and Hamlin), and Truex also ranked in the top 10.


The demise of Furniture Row Racing sadly cut short one of NASCAR’s great underdog stories, but it’s good to see at least one thread remains to the Denver-based team.

Though only a handful of several dozen team members at Barney Visser’s defunct organization migrated with Truex to the No. 19 Toyota, Pearn keeping his postrace victory selfies tradition alive is a welcome reminder of the iconoclastic camaraderie that powered Furniture Row (even if the beards are gone).

Clint Bowyer, William Byron look to extend streak of first-time winners in playoffs

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In the 15-year-history of the NASCAR playoff era, only 16 times has a Cup Series playoff driver earned their first win of the season in the playoffs itself.

Two of those occurrences have happened in the last two weeks.

Kyle Larson got the streak going with his dominating win in the Round of 12 opener at Dover International Speedway. That snapped a 75-race winless streak for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

It continued Monday when Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney barely beat Ryan Newman to win at Talladega Superspeedway. It snapped a 37-race winless streak for Blaney.

Can the first-time winner steak continue?

If it does, it will take place Sunday at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). But of the 16 instances a playoff driver earned their first win in the playoffs, it’s only happened once on the 1.5-mile track.

Jack Roush and Mark Martin celebrate winning the Banquet 400 on Oct. 9, 2005 at the Kansas Speedway. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

Mark Martin was the winner on Oct. 9, 2005, a day that saw Roush Fenway Racing put four of its five cars in the top five.

It was Martin’s first win in 52 races. It was just the second time a playoff driver’s first win in a season came in the playoffs. The first was three races earlier at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Ryan Newman).

Ahead of Sunday’s race there are only two Cup Series playoff drivers left who could potentially extend the streak: William Byron and Clint Bowyer.

Aside from securing them spots in the Round of 8, wins by either would be notable in their own right.

A victory by Bowyer would be his first on his home track in 23 attempts in the Cup Series. Like Martin, a victory would end a 52-race winless streak.

Bowyer’s best finish at Kansas was a runner-up finish in his second start in 2007. Since then he has just two top fives at Kansas, including a fifth-place finish in this year’s spring race.

Bowyer enters this race 11th in the standings, 24 points back from the cutoff line.

“We know what we have to do this weekend,” Bowyer said in press release. said. “We need to get stage points, a great finish and maybe even a win. We finished fifth here in May, we just have to do a few spots better this weekend.”

A win by Byron would be significant because he’s yet to win a Cup Series race in 67 starts.

In his previous three Kansas starts Byron’s only managed to finish once. The Hendrick Motorsports driver placed 20th in the spring after starting third. He won in his lone Truck Series start there in 2016 and had a top five in his only Xfinity Series start at the track in 2017.

After he was eliminated in a wreck at Talladega, Byron enters Sunday last on the playoff grid, 27 points behind the cutoff and essentially in a must-win scenario.

“I think it will be interesting to see how things play out with how our mile-and-half packages have evolved just throughout the year,” Byron said in a press release. “Whether it continues that trend this weekend or whether it reverts back to how it was in the spring at Kansas. I’m just interested to see how that is since the cars have come a long way since that race. I’m also interested to see with it being an elimination race, I think it will open things up for different strategies. It’s a bit of an unknown at this point.”

NASCAR completes merger with International Speedway Corp.

Photo by David Becker/Getty Images
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NASCAR announced Friday morning it had closed on its merger with International Speedway Corp.

Jim France will serve as the company’s chairman and chief executive officer. Lesa France Kennedy will be the executive vice chair. Steve Phelps has been appointed president and will oversee all operations of the company.

“The merger of NASCAR and ISC represents a historic moment for our sport,” France said in a statement. “There is much work ahead of us, but we’re pleased with the progress made to position our sport for success. Delivering for our race fans and partners is job number one and we look forward to doing that better than ever for years to come.”

As part of the new organization, the Board of Directors will consist of France, France Kennedy, Mike Helton and Gary Crotty, chief legal officerPhelps’ direct reports will include Ed Bennett, executive vice president & chief administrative officer; Jill Gregory, executive vice president & chief marketing and content officer; Craig Neeb, executive vice president & chief innovation officer; Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president & chief racing development officer; and Daryl Wolfe, executive vice president & chief operations and sales officer.

Helton and John Saunders will serve as senior advisors under the new leadership structure.

“With great racing across all of our series, an exciting 2020 schedule on tap, and the Next Gen race car in development, we are better positioned than ever before to lead the sport into a new era of growth,” said Phelps in a statement. “We have a strong, experienced leadership team in place with incredibly dedicated employees at every level throughout our organization. Our best days are ahead of us and our new organization is going to allow us to better deliver great racing to our fans everywhere.”

NASCAR’s Friday schedule at Kansas Speedway

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The NASCAR playoff race weekend at Kansas Speedway begins today.

Cup and Xfinity Series teams will each hold two practice sessions.

The wunderground.com forecast predicts a high of 74 degrees, partly sunny skies and a 10% chance of rain.

Here’s the day’s schedule.

(All times are Eastern)

Noon – 11 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

1 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. – Cup garage open

3:05 – 3:55 p.m.  – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

4:05 – 4:55 – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

5:05 – 5:55 – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

7:05-7:55 p.m. – Final Cup practice (NBCSN, MRN)

Friday 5: Is this Kyle Busch’s time?

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Will this become the fall of Kyle Busch?

Not fall as in stumble but fall as in season — when he takes control of the Cup playoffs.

Busch, the regular-season champion, has been many things this postseason — moody, controversial and mistake-prone — but he’s not been a dominant figure on the track.

His average finish in the first half of these playoffs is 16.6 — marking the fourth time since 2015 he’s had an average finish of 14th or worse halfway through the postseason.

Busch, though, made it to the championship race each of those four years, winning the title in 2015.

But with Busch, there’s always something more.

Instead of a streak of Championship 4 appearances, it is his winless streak that draws more attention. Busch has failed to win in the past 17 races, his longest drought since going 36 races between Cup victories in 2016-17.

Since Busch last won at Pocono in early June — before Justin Haley’s improbable win at Daytona, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. losing his ride at Roush Fenway Racing and then signing with JTG Daugherty Racing and Bubba Wallace and Busch beating and banging at Watkins Glen — he’s seen Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones all win.

Miscues have hindered Busch’s playoffs. He hit the wall on Lap 3 of the opener at Las Vegas. Busch rallied from two laps down to be back on the lead lap before running into the rear of Garrett Smithley’s car. After the race, Busch called out Smithley and Joey Gase, questioning their credentials to be in the Cup Series.

Busch’s Dover run was hurt by a speeding penalty. He had a flat tire after contact with Kyle Larson on a restart at the Charlotte Roval and had to pit. A suspension issue later led to his day ending. Several laps down and with nothing to gain, Busch drove the car back to the garage during a red flag. His Talladega race was impacted by an accident, just like about every other driver. The only playoff driver not involved in an incident in the race was winner Ryan Blaney.

But things could be changing for Busch.

For all his struggles, he’s finished second three times during his winless drought and had six top-five results. Only Hamlin (10 top fives), Truex (eight) and Kevin Harvick (seven) have had more top fives than Busch in this stretch.

Provided Busch advances — he is 41 points ahead of Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a transfer spot — he’ll likely be the points leader heading into the Round of 8 after Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

The Round of 8 begins at Martinsville Speedway. Busch finished third there in the spring. He’s not placed worse than eighth in any of the five short-track races this season. He led 66 laps before finishing 10th at Texas and won at ISM Raceway near Phoenix, leading 177 of 312 laps.

Get Busch to Miami (again), and he could leave as a two-time champion.

2. Tough challenge for hopefuls 

The most likely way Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer or William Byron — the four drivers outside a playoff race — will advance to the next round will be to win Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Bowman trails Joey Logano, who holds the final transfer spot by 18 points. Elliott trails Logano by 22 points. Bowyer trails Logano by 24 points, and Byron trails Logano by 27 points.

The only time Byron and Bowyer outscored Logano in a race by as many points as they trail was at Dover in the playoffs when Logano spent the first 24 laps in the garage.

Bowman has outscored Logano by 18 points in three races this year: Dover playoff race, Talladega in April (Bowman was second) and Kansas in May (Bowman was second)

Elliott has had better results. He has outscored Logano by 22 or more points in a race five times this year: Martinsville in March (Elliott outscored Logano by 28 points), Talladega in April (22 points), Kansas in May (29 points), Watkins Glen (46 points) in August and the Bristol night race (25 points) in August. Elliott won at Talladega and Watkins Glen. He was second at Martinsville, fourth at Kansas and fifth at Bristol.

That’s the challenge those four drivers face this weekend trying to knock Logano out of the final playoff spot.

3. Looking to help 

Brad Keselowski expressed his concern about team members who will be or could be losing their jobs in the near future as the sport goes through change.

He recently sent this tweet:

So what can Keselowski do?

“I haven’t gotten an answer to it yet, but I’m looking at it, trying to think about what ideas there might be” Keselowski said. “I haven’t come up with a solution yet. I just wanted those people to know that are affected by it that I cared about it. I can’t employ the couple of hundred people that are probably going to get laid off in the next few weeks, but I’m sure I can do something for someone.”

4. Youth movement?

The last three races have been won by three of the five youngest drivers in the playoffs: Chase Elliott (Charlotte Roval), Kyle Larson (Dover) and Ryan Blaney (Talladega).

Elliott is 23, Larson is 27 and Blaney is 25. The playoffs also include William Byron (21 years old) and Alex Bowman (26). Erik Jones (23) was eliminated in the first round.

5. Drought busters

Five drivers have ended winless streaks of 30 or more races this season: Kyle Larson (75 races) Denny Hamlin (45), Erik Jones (42), Ryan Blaney (37) and Kurt Busch (30).

Among drivers with long winless droughts: Paul Menard (299 races), David Ragan (237), Chris Buescher (118), Ryan Newman (99), Jimmie Johnson (90), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (86), Austin Dillon (66), Clint Bowyer (52), Aric Almirola (36),

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