Atlanta takeaways: Cup drivers deserved at least a heads up about ’22 reconfiguration

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HAMPTON, Georgia – With “collaboration” being a NASCAR industry buzzword for years, how did the communications breakdown occur that left Cup stars befuddled, “blindsided” and enraged about the Atlanta Motor Speedway reconfiguration?

“Just a broken-down process,” Denny Hamlin, the de-facto leader of his peer group, said before Sunday’s race, the last before a makeover formulated with hardly any driver input (or awareness, for that matter). “That’s what is so frustrating is the process is just broken.

“The disconnect right now between all the parties, NASCAR, the tracks and the drivers. It’s tough right now. It’s not in a good place.”

Just more than two years removed from the collapse of the Drivers Council (a well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual and maligned concept that never quite met the original vision of a union planned by Hamlin and Jeff Gordon), the demand never has been greater for constantly open channels of information — yet there seems a dearth of conversation as NASCAR enters one of the most transformative eras in its 73-year history.

There is a NextGen car that still is undergoing safety evaluations, schedules (both for race weekends and the full season) that seem forever in flux and a volatile market for charter franchises leaving drivers and team owners on edge.

It’s understandable how a major topic could slip through the cracks – but that doesn’t begin to explain why stars weren’t at least briefed about the transformation of Atlanta that will be “180 degrees different” (according to Ryan Blaney) from an abrasive surface that is beloved by drivers who gleefully slide through its corners while manhandling their cars for hundreds of miles at a time.

Speedway Motorsports kept its plans heavily under wraps throughout a process that took months because it wanted to make a splash with last Tuesday’s stunning announcement – but the sneak attack immediately backfired.

Within an hour, the plot already had been lost about emphasizing a new fan-friendly Atlanta (“the racing will be closer than ever!”), and the narrative only deteriorated from there – reaching an apex when Kyle Busch blasted the plan Saturday after winning the Xfinity race.

It was another reminder that while NASCAR and its track owners might hold the purse strings, the stars always hold the conch as the loudest and most influential voices in the room.

Whether they’re on board with a project or not, they are the primary ambassadors of the NASCAR brand. Just as they can choose how difficult they want to make each others’ lives on track by racing harder, they also can determine whether an idea succeeds or fails.

Atlanta Motor Speedway workers repair a pothole during Sunday’s race (Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports).

If you want to bring Daytona- or Talladega-style racing — the most dangerous type of racing in NASCAR — to Atlanta, that absolutely has to be vetted with drivers. Even if they won’t endorse it after currying their favor, they might be less inclined to torpedo it – and they might offer a few helpful suggestions in the process.

“Tell us the agenda,” Hamlin said. “Do you want speedway racing here? OK. We don’t like it, but here’s what you need to do to get there. We’ll help you accomplish that. Just tell us the goal. Don’t mix the message by saying, “You’re going to see something you’ve never seen!” and show a clip of iRacing cars racing in a pack, but yet you want your surface to match the old. That’s counterintuitive. You can’t make (a track) narrower and have a superspeedway race. Those two things don’t match up.

“I think we could help. We’re the biggest asset that NASCAR, these tracks could have if they just tell us their goals. We may not agree with the goal, but we can help them get to where they want to go.”

There are too many examples to recount, and the Car of Tomorrow might be the most obvious.

Already doomed to be a public relations failure, its demise was hastened when the new model increasingly was ripped to shreds by drivers over two years of testing before its official debut. The inexplicable fining of Hamlin for innocuous criticism of the Gen 6 successor was another instance, and that at least began to spur more “collaboration” as drivers at least have been looped into the explosion of team owner, manufacturer and stakeholder meetings in recent years.

But there is some recurring friction in the relationship between Speedway Motorsports and NASCAR stars. It dates back to the 2017 race at Kentucky Speedway when drivers were displeased they weren’t consulted by vice president of operations Steve Swift about track preparation.

Swift also was in the middle of the Atlanta controversy last week after he implied driver opinions were the least important in the process because they often screw up the show for fans. That statement didn’t go over well with NASCAR officials – even though it contained a kernel of truth.

There is an inversely proportional driver-fan dynamic that was best illustrated by Speedway Motorsports’ 2007 overhaul of Bristol Motor Speedway. Drivers praised the multiple lanes of racing that virtually eliminated the demolition derby while fans decried the disappearance of Bristol’s hallmark bump and run that was a byproduct of a one-groove surface.

Even most drivers would admit they are less than ideal arbiters of toeing the line of competition and entertainment.

But to leave them twisting in the wind to learn the news of Atlanta’s iRacing-driven reconfiguration over social media — and then expect their tacit support with no blowback — is foolhardy.

“This isn’t the first time that we’ve had the repave talk and the uproar over the pavement,” Kevin Harvick said. “I think it’s the first time that everybody has had the plan pitched on them three days before the race and said, ‘Oh, iRacing designed this.’ .. It’s not anything personal against iRacing, but you wouldn’t design an airplane and go fly it with passengers in it before you tested it. The input that comes with the drivers and the way that the cars are and the things that happen are important. So you can’t have a bunch of suits designing a racetrack.

Said Blaney: “We don’t own the tracks, we just race on them. The people who own them will make the call on what’s best, but it would have been nice to have it brought up to us. It’s like finding out your wife’s pregnant when you start seeing a belly on her. It’s that kind of a bombshell.

“It’s just being in the know. You don’t want to be in the dark with anything.”

The good news is it isn’t too late for a slight course correction with a repave that has become mandatory (evidenced by Sunday’s pothole interruption). As Jeff Burton noted on this week’s NASCAR on NBC Podcast, Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith will adjust the blueprint if concerns are raised about the new layout.

Getting drivers on the phone and involved in the process would seem a wise move.

But perhaps Swift or Smith should make the first call.


Mind your P&Qs

On the flip side of the driver disconnect at Atlanta, Joey Logano was among those involved as NASCAR held meetings last week on the return of weekly practice and qualifying sessions in the Cup Series next season.

With the NextGen car making its 2022 debut, it seems certain that every race weekend will feature prerace time on track. The discussions are over how much time is needed, whether separate sessions are needed and what format would work best for determining the starting lineup.

Among the proposals being floated:

–A hybrid practice/qualifying session.

–Using an average of multiple laps for qualifying (even on ovals).

–Relying on a pool of several backup cars (possibly supplied by each manufacturer) to avoid teams reverting to building and transporting their own (which eats up tremendous costs and time for cars that rarely hit the track).

While he declined to reveal any specifics, Logano said he has lobbied for standalone qualifying with a knockout element (“Other forms of motorsports, maybe the most entertaining part of the whole weekend is sometimes qualifying”). The Team Penske driver also believes the current 50-minute practice sessions implemented for the handful of tracks with qualifying this year will be insufficient with the NextGen.

“It’s all not going to happen as quickly as with 50 minutes now, we can get through it pretty quick,” he said. “We start somewhat close because we have history. There’s no history with this car. We don’t know which direction to fix it or change it. I think it’s got to be almost more or less a test day. Maybe not a practice at every track. But a test day where you can really take time to learn stuff and not go through a panic mode of 15 minutes of trying to make as many laps as possible and learn 10 things that you really didn’t learn anything. It’s all about longer test days that teams can do and take the data off the car.”


Generational development

Now that Kyle Busch’s Xfinity Series career effectively has ended, what will the series’ winningest driver miss the most?

“The camaraderie with my teams,” he said. “All the people that I’ve worked with over the years. The list is countless. Just so many guys and girls we’ve worked with over the years at Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Braun Racing. Trying to develop talent, not only develop myself, but also the talent of crew chiefs, engineers and crew guys. Those guys all go through the feeder system and work their way up.”

Though the focus is often on the younger Xfinity drivers who benefit from racing against experienced champions, crew chief Adam Stevens (who won 19 Xfinity races with Busch before two Cup titles) is one of many team members who also have advanced after working Cup stars who dropped down a level.

Busch said with a hearty laugh that “I may or may not have gotten a few of them fired, sorry, but I also have gotten a hell of a lot more of them moved up and I work with them on Sundays. That’s been the cool part of the series and what it’s all about.”

Busch also revealed that he wanted to run the Superstar Racing Experience, “but I got shot out of that one” (Joe Gibbs Racing tends to frown on extracurricular racing by its drivers). Chase Elliott will make his debut with the short-track series started by Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart this Saturday at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, racing against his Hall of Fame father, Bill.


Special pavement

As if Kyle Busch needed more insult added to injury after how Sunday’s victory slipped from his grasp, his older brother, Kurt, was awarded with a chunk of asphalt for winning the last race on Atlanta’s 24-year-old surface. Kyle Busch had requested a block of asphalt after winning Saturday’s race but no such presentation occurred (and would have been quite awkward after he spent the better part of 15 minutes blasting track management in his winner’s news conference).

But don’t fret, “Rowdy.”

A Speedway Motorsports official said Kyle Busch also will receive his own weathered piece of AMS pavement as a keepsake.

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

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.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

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

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”