Friday 5: NASCAR’s bold moves earning praise from drivers

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A season unlike any other has had NASCAR officials instituting changes few could have expected.

After being sidelined 10 weeks by the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR returned in May ahead of the NBA, Major League Baseball, NHL and many other sports. To defray costs to teams, NASCAR eliminated practice and qualifying at nearly all events. Race weekends turned into one-day shows. Race dates were realigned.

Then came this week’s news that NASCAR plans to convert Auto Club  Speedway into a short track.

Many of NASCAR’s actions are earning praise from drivers.

“I think the bigger picture that we should all be really excited about is the leadership at NASCAR is doing something different nowadays and it’s becoming a trend,” Chase Elliott said Thursday when asked about Auto Club Speedway plans.

“It’s really been a trend all year. I think instead of finding the negatives in some of the things that they’re doing, I think we should all be super excited that they’re actually changing and doing some things different – have some different ideas and they’re putting them to work. That’s something that I don’t think has happened probably ever until right now. So, just excited to see them trying different things.”

Change also has included the midseason adoption of the choose rule in races, a Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2021 and the delay of the Next Gen car’s debut to 2022.

Turning the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway into a short track that has elements of Martinsville’s long straightaways, Bristol’s high-banked turns and Richmond’s dogleg frontstretch stunned drivers.

“It is very provocative and I mean that in a good way,” Brad Keselowski said Thursday of the Auto Club news. “I think we are really starting to see (NASCAR Chairman) Jim France and his leadership style, I don’t want to say get comfortable, but kind of find their path and direction. It has been a little bit of a breath of fresh air in some ways. I would say that the move at Auto Club Speedway has a good feel to it in the sense that it feels like this is something coming right from the top. It feels like there has been a fair amount of thought put into it, at least from my perspective.

“I think we have seen a couple different examples of that with things that just kind of feel like they are Jim. He has got his own style, and I don’t think it is bad and I am not sure I would say that where we were before was bad. I thought there was room for improvement, but I feel like I am in the middle of a book and I am just reading chapters and it is almost like there is a different writer now with these chapters and Jim is writing them and they are pretty interesting and compelling.

“It is hard to view them as a whole because naturally none of us know everything that is going on behind the scenes, but in the moment there is more that I agree with than I disagree with and that is probably a good thing.”

NASCAR Chairman Jim France, shown with Wood Brothers co-owners Len (left) and Eddie Wood (right) in the garage at Daytona in July 2019. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Jim France took over as NASCAR Chairman on Aug. 6, 2018 after former Chairman Brian France was arrested by the Sag Harbor Village (New York) police for aggravated driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Jim France immediately appeared in the garage on race weekends, earning praise from competitors. Many in the garage complained that Brian France had not been at the track as often during his tenure, which began in Sept. 2003.

Jim France also presided over NASCAR’s merger with International Speedway Corp. The merger was announced in May 2019.

Less than two months after Jim France took over, Steve Phelps was promoted to NASCAR President on Sept. 20, 2018, replacing Brent Dewar.

Not everything has been perfect. Bob Leavine, owner of Leavine Family Racing, has been critical about NASCAR’s business model. Leavine sold his team to Spire Motorsports this summer. Germain Racing owner Bob Germain said he is considering a potential sale of the team with sponsor GEICO not returning after this season. Questions about Richard Petty Motorsports have been raised with the news that Bubba Wallace will race elsewhere next year and take some of his sponsors with him.

“We are working with our teams and frankly have been working with our teams over the last four or five years to try to improve the business model,” Phelps recently told reporters. “We want healthy teams.

“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher. Certainly when I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for the direction of what team ownership looks like.”

2. Exclusive club

Kevin Harvick’s eight victories has him on pace to become the first driver to win at least 10 Cup races in a season in more than a decade and only the third driver to reach that mark in the past quarter century.

Jimmie Johnson is the last driver to accomplish the feat. He won 10 races in 2007. The only other driver to reach that mark in the last 25 years is Jeff Gordon. He won 13 races in 1998 and 10 races each in 1996 and ’97.

The last driver not from Hendrick Motorsports to reach at least 10 wins in a season was Rusty Wallace. He won 10 times in 1993 for car owner Roger Penske.

Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have collected eight Cup victories this season. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, admits a 10-win season is a “big deal.

“In 2018, we were able to win eight races and the All‑Star Race, and that was a huge deal for us. That’s one of those dream seasons, and of course this one has been also.”

Denny Hamlin, who has six victories, said a team goal for this year is to win 10 races.

“Now you know how important Bristol and Indy were to us,” said Chris Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief. “Those were two we had and got away from us.”

Hamlin lost the lead with 12 laps to go at Bristol when his car got too high in the corner. He then ran into Joey Logano when Logano did the same thing in the next corner.

Hamlin had a tire go down and wrecked while leading with eight laps to go at Indianapolis. Harvick won that race.

Why is 10 wins a goal for Hamlin’s team?

“You look at the names of the guys on that list, not only was it done a long time ago, it was done in kind of a different era where the rule book is concerned,” Gabehart said. “It’s an elite list of guys.”

3. No talkback

Kyle Busch enters Saturday night’s Richmond race seven points above the cutline for the final transfer spot and without crew chief Adam Stevens. But Busch doesn’t foresee any issues with Stevens back at the shop.

NASCAR suspended Stevens one race because Busch’s car had two lug nuts not safe and secure after the Southern 500 (Clint Bowyer crew chief Johnny Klausemeir suffered the same penalty and also won’t be at Richmond).

Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch have been together since 2015. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Engineer Jacob Canter will serve as Busch’s crew chief Saturday. Canter has been Busch’s crew chief in his five Xfinity races this season, including Friday night’s event.

Even though Canter has much less experience with Busch than Stevens — Busch and Stevens have been together since 2015 — Busch said he won’t change what he says on the radio. That’s because Stevens will be listening.

Me talking on the radio is basically me talking directly to Adam,” Busch said. “It’s just I can’t hear back from Adam.”

A NASCAR suspension prohibits a person from the garage, pits and other restricted areas. A suspension does not prevent a crew chief from listening to the team’s radio and communicating with the crew at the track.

“I’m not sure with technology today and the war room and all that stuff at Joe Gibbs Racing with the communications and all that stuff that we have going on right now that much is going to be different at all really,” Busch said of not having Stevens at Richmond.

4. In a hole

Ryan Blaney faces a steep challenge to reach the second round of the playoffs. Should he do so, he likely will be one of the favorites to advance to the third round.

Such is life in the NASCAR playoffs.

The first round is viewed as Blaney’s weakest. He’s never had a top 10 at Darlington. His 24th-place finish there last weekend leaves him last among the playoff drivers. Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto are each 17 points from the final transfer spot.

Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney won at Talladega in June for his second consecutive win there. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For as much as Blaney has struggled at Darlington, Richmond is worse for him. He’s never finished better than 17th there in eight starts. His average finish at Richmond is 25.5.

Another poor result Saturday could force Blaney into a must-win situation at Bristol.

If he can just get past this round, he’ll be one to watch. The second round features Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. Some drivers call this the wildcard round, noting how important it will be to win at Las Vegas so a driver doesn’t have to worry about what can happen at Talladega and the Roval.

Joey Logano won at Las Vegas in February but Blaney led when a caution set up an overtime restart. Blaney pitted from the lead, a move crew chief Todd Gordon lamented. Alex Bowman, running second, also pitted. Logano, who was third at the caution, inherited the lead and won.

Even if Blaney doesn’t win Las Vegas, Talladega is next. Blaney has won the past two races there. He won there in June and in last year’s playoff race.

If not Talladega, there’s the Roval. Blaney won the inaugural race there in 2018 and finished eighth last year.

So if Blaney can advance from the first round, he could be in a good position to go deep into the playoffs.

5. Perfect count

Last week’s 10-point penalty to Ryan Blaney and his team for improperly mounted ballast is changing how Team Penske prepares its cars.

The team stated that a 5-pound lead bag was accidentally left in the car. The bag was added to simulate fluid weights before the race engine was installed.

Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske, said the team is changing its process to ensure such bags are retrieved.

A pretty unfortunate situation, but you go back and you look at it and you say, ‘Okay, what do we have to do different here?” Geisler said. “How do we prevent this going forward? What do we do?’ We’re moving towards a ballast bag count. 

“Normally, guys would just add ballast bags until the car was at weight. Now there needs to be a count. It’s just the same as when doctors go into surgery they know what they have, they know what tools they have so they don’t leave any in or behind.  That’s the same thing we need to be doing. That’s a piece of our process that has to get tightened up.”

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NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).