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

0 Comments

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.

Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

0 Comments

The 2023 NASCAR season will begin with Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the second race on a purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Although a non-points race, last year’s Clash generated intense interest as NASCAR moved the event from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to Los Angeles. The race was rated a success and opened doors for the possibility of future races in stadium environments.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

MORE: Toyota looking to expand NASCAR presence

Year Two will find drivers competing on a familiar landscape but still with a track freshly paved. Last year’s racing surface was removed after the Clash.

Drivers to watch Sunday at Los Angeles:

FRONTRUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Finished 2022 as Cup champion
  • Last three races: Won at Phoenix, 6th at Martinsville, 18th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Won in 2022

Logano put bookends on 2022 by winning the first Clash at the Coliseum and the season’s final race at Phoenix to win the Cup championship. He’ll be among the favorites Sunday.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 2nd in 2022
  • Last three races: 3rd at Phoenix, 4th at Martinsville, 2nd at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Did not qualify last year

Chastain was the breakout star of 2022, winning a pair of races and generally putting himself front and center across much of the year. Can he start 2023 on a big note? If so, he will have to do so without replicating his Hail Melon move at Martinsville after NASCAR outlawed the move Tuesday.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 15th in 2022
  • Last three races: 5th at Phoenix, 16th at Martinsville, 8th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 10th in 2022

Sunday will begin the final roundup for Harvick, who has said this season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver. He is likely to come out of the gate with fire in his eyes.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 13th in 2022
  • Last three races: 7th at Phoenix, 29th at Martinsville, 9th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 2nd in 2022

Welcome to Kyle Busch’s Brave New World. After 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he begins a new segment of his career with Richard Childress Racing. He led 64 laps at last year’s Clash but couldn’t catch Joey Logano at the end.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 14th in 2022
  • Last three races: 23rd at Phoenix, 35th at Martinsville, 35th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 21st in 2022

Reddick ran surprisingly strong in last year’s Clash, leading 51 laps before parking with drivetrain issues. He starts the new year with a new ride — at 23XI Racing.

Ty Gibbs

  • Points position: Won Xfinity Series championship in 2022
  • Last three (Cup) races: 19th at Martinsville, 22nd at Homestead, 22nd at Las Vegas
  • Past at Clash: Did not compete in 2022

After a successful — and controversial — Xfinity season, Gibbs moves up to Cup full-time with his grandfather’s team. Will he be the brash young kid of 2022 or a steadier driver in Season One in Cup?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing

0 Comments

Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Bell will carry Interstate sponsorship in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the All-Star Race May 21, the Coca-Cola 600 May 28, at Texas Motor Speedway Sept. 24 and at Martinsville Oct. 29.

Gibbs, in his first full season in Cup racing, will be sponsored by Interstate at Daytona Feb. 19, Bristol April 9, Nashville June 25, Chicago July 2, Texas Sept. 24 and Charlotte Oct. 8.

Hamlin will ride with Interstate sponsorship March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, and Truex will be sponsored by Interstate July 23 at Pocono.

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

0 Comments

CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

1 Comment

CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.