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.”
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.”