Ryan: ‘Is no one one watching these races?’ Why N.H. strategy stunned

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LOUDON, N.H. – It was a track position race held at a notorious track position-dependent oval during a season that has been dominated by incessant discussions about track position.

Yet when the outcome of Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway essentially was decided when the yellow flag flew for the last time, only three of 18 lead-lap cars made the ultimate track position move – skipping a pit stop to gain positions or at least avoid losing them.

It put Kevin Harvick in the lead for good. It put Erik Jones in second.

And it stunned their crew chiefs, who both were borderline incredulous about their brilliant calls.

“Is no one watching these races and seeing how this is going?” Chris Gayle, crew chief for Jones, asked rhetorically after the No. 20 Toyota driver hung on for a third place that solidified his playoff bid. “That’s what I’m thinking (while watching the last pit stops). Everybody’s scared to make that mistake it seems like.

“And I’m sure being aggressive, we can make a mistake, so I don’t want to be too cocky about it because it can bite you at any time. Because a lot of the strategy works or doesn’t work depending on how many guys do it with you.”

Rodney Childers, crew chief for Harvick, figured his call would fall in line with several lead-lap cars. He was astonished when the No. 4 Ford inherited the lead when Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski all pitted with 35 laps remaining (and with roughly a maximum of 30 that could have been run under green).

“When we went green with 80 to go, we had already decided if there’s another caution we’re not going to pit unless we get shuffled back to eighth or ninth,” Childers said. “When I told him to stay out, I honestly thought we would restart somewhere in the first two rows, and then everybody pulled in and we’re sitting there the leader when he comes into sight, and I’m like, ‘What in the world?’

“But anyway, you just don’t ever know when that’s going to work out.”

In this case, though, there were 265 laps of evidence to support the call by Childers and Gayle.

To the chagrin of drivers who fell back with strong cars such as Kyle Busch (watch this video) and Hamlin (“Track position, holy cow. It’s just amazing how much we’re talking about track position on short tracks”), passing was as much at a premium as ever on New Hampshire’s flat 1.058-mile oval, whose slick surface already had put five drivers in backup cars before the race.

While staying on track might have been less of a gamble with a car as fast as Harvick’s, strategy calls for track position had been working throughout the race – starting with Gayle’s decision to vault Jones into the lead with two tires on his first pit stop under yellow on Lap 48.

Only one other driver (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) opted for two tires. That again surprised Gayle, who had studied how well two right-side tires had worked in the race last season (when passing arguably had been easier).

“I expected to see 10 guys come take right sides with me,” Gayle said. “At the end, I was on the fence with the last call. I had in my mind, less than 20 (laps) to go, I’m definitely staying out. I was in that middle zone where tires might matter, but in the end, I kind of left it up to Jones. We were talking for a little bit on the radio. I’m 50-50, but if we get in the front row, I’ll stay.”

The third driver to stay on track was Martin Truex Jr., who vaulted from 10th to third and hung on for sixth.

Why weren’t there more takers when conventional wisdom suggests doing the opposite of the leader on pit strategy during a yellow flag with a late short run on a shorter track such as NHMS?

It seems as if there is a trend toward conservatism among the current group of crew chiefs, perhaps driven by the fact that more than half of them have engineering degrees and largely empirical worldviews. New Hampshire was reminiscent of the April 16, 2018 race at Richmond Raceway, where all 16 lead-lap cars pitted during a yellow with 10 laps remaining.

Tire wear factored heavily into those decisions, which is what made Sunday in Loudon even more perplexing. Hamlin alluded to wishing “tires actually meant something. They don’t right now.”

But that apparently doesn’t make the strategy much easier because it causes greater divergence on pit sequences.

“These races are the hardest to call of any of my career,” said Childers, a 15-year veteran of Cup. “The tires don’t seem to wear as much. They don’t seem to fall off as much.  It gives everybody a lot of opportunity to do different things.

“So even when you think that you’ve got it right and you put four tires on, you think you’re in the right spot and then a caution comes out and somebody else can put two on or somebody can stay out, it just keeps shuffling.”


Two days before Harvick delivered the first victory of 2018 to Stewart-Haas Racing, teammate Clint Bowyer offered an intriguing analogy for why the organization had struggled with adapting to the lower-horsepower, high-downforce rules after enjoying its best season yet with the 2018 debut of the Mustang (all four SHR drivers won last year).

“The game’s changed – literally,” Bowyer said. “It would be like taking a baseball game and making the fence shorter and use a different bat and different ball size. The game has changed.

“You have to adjust to that game. When those rules change drastically the way they do, look at the timeframe of when it happened. You spend the better part of two years developing a Mustang for a certain game, and all of a sudden that game changes, and it’s, ‘Oh, we built that bat for that ball!’”

After Harvick’s win, SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli said, “I don’t think anybody should think that we’re where we need to be.

“I think it’s been a humbling year for all of us, and I think it’s been a frustrating year, obviously after the Cinderella year that we had last year. Our stuff fired off really good the beginning of the year, and we honestly didn’t anticipate anything less than that this year. But you know, in sports that’s not always the case.”


Generational strife was a major theme of the weekend at New Hampshire, punctuated by the terse conversation between Paul Menard and Harrison Burton after Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

But it also tied into Harvick’s notable quote that “if you drove like this 10 years ago, you’d have a fist in your mouth.” He meant the blocking and side-drafting necessitated by this season’s mostly full-throttle racing (which keeps cars more tightly bunched together).

A case could be made, though, that the shifting styles also have been borne of the new attitudes and philosophies from Millennial-age drivers and younger.

As Denny Hamlin told The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck, he sees the current era of aggressive driving beginning with Brad Keselowski, who drew the ire of many Cup veterans by refusing to yield during his first partial season in Cup 10 years ago and stayed true to being anti-establishment as the north star of his NASCAR career. When he won the championship in 2012, Keselowski was accused by Tony Stewart of “having a death wish” for racing Jimmie Johnson too hard at Texas Motor Speedway (which Keselowski recalled during this 2014 interview).

Between Keselowski and Joey Logano (see the 2015 playoffs and his 2018 win at Martinsville over Martin Truex Jr.), Team Penske’s longtime duo have done as much to reshape the mores of hard driving over the past decade – and it’s mostly been for the good.


Speaking of young drivers, kudos to the trio of early 20something Xfinity championship contenders who persistently field questions about their futures with a cheery attitude.

Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick still have no clarity on their rides for the 2020 season, and they will continue being asked about it (as they were last Friday at New Hampshire) until their plans are finalized.

It seems increasingly likely that all three of them will advance to Cup next season (“it would be a hell of a rookie battle,” Bell said). Based on the manner in which they have deftly handled speculation that can be annoying (at best) and distracting, Bell, Custer and Reddick seem ready for the leap.


Though he still might lack a Cup championship, Hamlin has his NASCAR peers beaten in another department: Candor.

It’s hard to imagine another modern-era driver second-guessing himself as much as Hamlin did while speaking to reporters for 10 minutes after New Hampshire in a richly detailed and insightful explanation of how he gave away the win to Harvick.

It was a fascinating window into the thought process of an elite driver, and it wasn’t the first time that Hamlin has been willing to be so forthright about a topic that another star might find too emotionally charged or personally humiliating to address (his breathtaking honesty about the No. 11 team giving the best pit stall to a teammate last year also comes to mind).

As much as the last-lap battle with Harvick was compelling, it also was Hamlin’s unflinching dissection that gave it major legs for Monday morning analysis – even if it came at his own expense.

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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