Friday 5: What to do about lack of respect on the track?


It’s no surprise that a lack of respect among drivers was brought up, as Kyle Busch did last week, with the changes NASCAR has enacted in recent years.

With a win earning a driver a playoff spot, the equality of the cars, the importance of track position and stage points awarded, there’s a greater emphasis on running toward the front.

For some, lose enough positions and they can lose their rides. For others, give up a few points and that might be what keeps them from advancing in the playoffs.

All that makes each lap more meaningful. That elevates the tension in the garage and the lack of patience on the track.

But how much longer should NASCAR allow the lack of respect continue before series officials intercede? How should they do so? When should they let drivers handle matters?

“It’s as simple as what does NASCAR want,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said in the video above. “If they want cleaner racing, if they want more respect, then I feel they now have an opportunity to now jump into the ring of refereeing these races. Whether they want to do that or not, we will see.”

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said that series officials viewed Denny Hamlin’s incident with Ross Chastain on the last lap at Phoenix as a “racing incident” until Hamlin stated on his podcast the next day he meant to do so.

NASCAR fined Hamlin 25 points and $50,000 for his actions. Hamlin is appealing.

NASCAR did nothing when Hamlin forced Chastain up the track and into the wall racing for the lead at Pocono last summer. Chastain’s car came down the track and was hit by Kevin Harvick’s car as Harvick ran fourth.

Asked about how much it bothered him that the feud between Hamlin and Chastain could impact him, Busch said: “It almost did last year when Denny did it at Pocono. It about caught us in it, but we were able to sneak through.

When it comes to the time it starts affecting other people’s races and such, again, I think it leaves the door open for you to go punch somebody in the face.”

Harvick didn’t punch anyone but he responded after that incident at Pocono.

“I voiced my opinion to the driver I was unhappy with,” Harvick said of that situation. “I did that privately and that’s the way I chose to handle it.”

Daniel Suarez, who is in his seventh season in Cup, has seen a difference in how drivers treat each other over his time in the series.

“I remember my first year in Cup,” Suarez said. “I remember drivers, we used to give the finger — not the middle finger — but the finger of, ‘Hey, you go ahead, you’re better than me right now.’

“You don’t see that anymore. Track position is so important. It’s so difficult to pass. I feel like it’s a combination of all those things, and I think that has made people not to respect each other.

“If you are a couple of tenths (of a second) faster than me and you’re catching me, I’m going to block you instead of letting you go. Those are things that we look like a**holes out there, but that’s what we have to do to keep track position and try to get some stage points.”

The emotions are building throughout the field.

“I see the frustration from some guys who probably race similar to me and feel like they get run over, there’s a handful of guys in the field that feel like that,” Erik Jones said. “It’s tough. It’s a tough balance.

“At some point, you’ve got to stand your ground and say you’re not going to take it anymore.”

That’s why NASCAR may need to play a bigger role in such situations.

“The drivers aren’t going to change,” Letarte said. “You can throw that out. If you think this is going to be changed from behind the steering wheel, you haven’t met enough race car drivers. … Some outside source, in my opinion, is going to have to change this mantra or opinion of what is acceptable on the racetrack.”

Harvick said he would be good with more from NASCAR on the matter. And he knows from first-hand experience.

“I like the iron fish,” Harvick said. “I think it’s important to have those guys (feuding) sit in the same room when you have instances like we’ve had several times.

“I think the important part of that process is to make them sit face-to-face, that was always the most effective for me, and have questions asked by whoever the leader is, in my case, it was Mike Helton, and voice their expectations of how they should handle it between themselves and how they would hope it would not get out of hand and not affect other people. … I’m of the opinion (NASCAR) should at least lead conversations in an in-person setting.”

2. Making an impact?

One of the intriguing storylines this weekend at Circuit of the Americas will be how Tyler Reddick and Toyota perform.

Reddick won a series-high two road course races last year (Road America and Indianapolis) in a Chevrolet with Richard Childress Racing, while Toyota struggled.

Toyota’s six drivers combined for an average finish of 20th or worse in four of the six Cup road course events last year. They led only 4.4% of the 529 laps run at those venues a year ago.

Reddick joined 23XI Racing and Toyota ahead of this season. A key question is how much of an impact can he make with Toyota’s road course program.

“I think a driver can come in and make an impact as far as not just on the racetrack, but also the culture,” said Austin Cindric, who drives a Ford for Team Penske. “As far as giving the team confidence, ‘Hey this is a somebody who’s clearly been able to make this work. We have to believe in how far off we are or aren’t.’”

Kaulig Racing ran AJ Allmendinger five of the six road course events in 2021 to develop its Cup program. Allmendinger won at Indianapolis for the Chevrolet team and scored top 10s at COTA and the Daytona road course.

In 2022, the first year of the Next Gen car, Allmendinger ran 18 Cup races, including all six road course events. He finished second at Watkins Glen and had top 10s at the Charlotte Roval, Indianapolis and Road America. He was battling for the win at COTA until contact from Ross Chastain knocked him out of the lead on the final lap.

Allmendinger says Reddick’s experience last year can carry over even with the the change in manufacturer and team.

“The biggest thing is Tyler, he’s got all the talent in the world,” Allmendinger said. “We’ve seen that, and we continually see that. … Winning those races, he can have the feel of the race car.

“He knows going into the racetrack and after a couple of laps like, ‘Hey, this is the feel that I felt last year and what I want.’ If it’s not, he can kind of lead off of what he felt last year and try to at least work toward that.”

Reddick already has run many laps at COTA this year. He was the Toyota driver at a Goodyear tire test there in January.

“Our tire test in January went pretty well,” Reddick said. “We were definitely wanting to make gains, but the knowledge that we gathered from that test gave us some things to work on and work through in the time that we’ve had since that test to when we race this weekend.

“We’re really anxious to see what that all means. We’re glad that we’ve got a 50-minute practice (Friday at COTA) to kind of shake things out. The whole Toyota camp is curious to see how their stuff stacks up and where we can make it better.”

3. No stage breaks

This weekend marks the first Cup race without stage breaks since they were instituted before the 2017 season.

NASCAR will award points for the end of each stage in the Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck races this weekend at COTA, but the race will continue. There will be no caution specifically for the end of the stage.

That could alter strategies. Typically, top teams would pit before the end of the first stage, giving up stage points to get track position after the rest of the field pitted during the stage break. In last year’s six Cup road course races, 48.3% of the top-10 finishers did not score points in either of the first two stages.

“It will definitely change it to where the fast cars are going to score points,” Joey Logano said of the elimination of stage breaks at road courses. “You used to be able to leave a road course and even if you didn’t have a fast car, you could manipulate the stages to where you could have a decent day out of it.

“Now, the fast cars, they’ll score the most points, as it should be.”

At COTA last year, Ryan Blaney scored a race-high 47 points — four more than winner Ross Chastain and runner-up Alex Bowman — despite finishing sixth. The difference was that Blaney scored points in both stages, while Chastain and Bowman scored points in only one stage each.

At Indianapolis, Kyle Busch finished 11th and scored 38 points — two points less than winner Tyler Reddick and fifth-place finisher Bubba Wallace. Busch scored points in both stages, while Wallace scored points in one stage and Reddick did not score points in either stage.

“The road courses have been a big challenge since stage breaks became a thing,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “You kind of either had to pick, ‘Do we want stage points or do you want to go for the win?’

“It was really, really hard, and I think we’ve only seen maybe one instance of somebody getting both. (The rule change) puts strategy back into it. You can play your gameplan. You always always have those cautions that could mix up the strategy, but they’re not planned, so nobody knows when they’re coming, which I think is more exciting.”

4. Star-studded field

Two former world champions, a former IMSA champion and a seven-time Cup champion are among those entered this weekend at COTA.

Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One champion, and 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button are entered. Raikkonen returns to the Project 91 car at Trackhouse Racing that he drove at Watkins Glen last year before he was collected in a crash. He won the 2018 Formula One race at COTA driving for Ferrari. It was his final F1 victory.

Button will drive the No. 15 for Rick Ware Racing in partnership with Stewart-Haas Racing. Button also will drive the Garage 56 NASCAR entry at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

Ryan Blaney is looking forward to racing those drivers.

“I think it’s great that they want to try to their hand in our sport, two really incredible drivers of their series wanting to try something else,” Blaney told NBC Sports.

“That’s what racers do, right? They go and they want to try other race cars and other tracks and things like that. Those guys are the same way. I think it’s fantastic. I look forward to racing with Kimi again and getting to, hopefully, meet Jenson because I was a big fan of his as a kid.”

Also competing will Jordan Taylor, a multi-time IMSA champion, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and IndyCar driver Conor Daly.

Taylor will drive the No. 9 for Chase Elliott, who continues to recover from a broken leg suffered last month snowboarding. Taylor won the 2013 Grand Am DP title, 2017 IMSA Prototype championship and was the 2020-21 IMSA GTLM champion.

Johnson makes his first start in the No. 84 for Legacy Motor Club, the team he co-owns, since competing in the Daytona 500. Johnson will be a teammate to Button in the Garage 56 NASCAR effort at Le Mans.

“I think he’s going to go through a huge learning curve,” teammate Erik Jones said of Johnson running his first road course race in the Next Gen car. “This car, on the road course, is so different. … He has done a lot of work for this weekend from some schools and some sim stuff.”

Daly also is back with The Money Team Racing since making the Daytona 500.

5. All-Star Race format

The NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway is less than two months away. While no format has been announced for the May 21 event, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick offered their ideas after testing tires there this week.

“Don’t make it a short run,” Dillon said of the race’s final segment. “I think that if you want to see something fun, you’ve got to keep it at least 50 laps or more for that last run. I don’t think we should have short runs.

“If this is a throwback kind of All-Star Race classic, whatever you want to call it, you should have a long run to finish and just let the best car, best driver win it and don’t make it into a 10-lap shootout, wreckfest. You might get one of those, but the real racing here is who can take their stuff and be the one at the end. You might have some guys that struggle at the beginning of the run that finish the run really strong, which is exciting in my mind.”

Said Reddick: “I think after 10 laps, tires are important, probably even sooner than that, honestly. It’s pretty easy to abuse the tires here. I don’t know about format, honestly, but if there’s an opportunity to pit, I think people are going to take it and put tires on.

“I certainly think somewhere in that 50-75 lap range, it will be in the hands of drivers. Who is going to push at the beginning of the run, who is going to take care of their stuff and try to run them back down.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson is building a team and pointing to Le Mans

Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”