Ryan: Does NASCAR really want Martin Truex Jr. to be the bad guy?

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Martin Truex Jr. is a good guy.

He does good things for other people. He finds the good in some very bad situations. He is good in the way he carries himself in the face of great adversity, whether a potentially career-ending sponsor loss or a life-and-death matter.

And yet none of that good seems to benefit him on the racetrack.

Ever.

“I’ve told Martin forever he’s too nice,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on Sunday’s postrace show, essentially noting the former teammate and longtime confidante he loves as a buddy also is the same guy behind the wheel.

Martin Truex Jr. is a good guy … and that probably cost him another victory Sunday.

Here is the quandary for Truex – and really for the collective NASCAR universe:

In order to win more frequently, and possibly in order to defend his 2017 championship, Truex knows that, on the track, he has to stop being a nice guy.

But what if — because of his God-given skillset, his easygoing demeanor and his code of ethics — he can’t stop being a nice guy?

And even if he could, do we really want him to stop being a nice guy – even if it means he finally breaks through for victories at short tracks and restrictor-plate tracks?

It is no coincidence that Truex, one of the Cup circuit’s most selfless drivers who rarely gets caught gouging anyone, remains winless at the two types of tracks that offer the greatest reward for selfishness and dirty pool.

The No. 78 Toyota driver said it himself last year: In order to win at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway, he knows he “has to be more of a jerk” at the tracks dependent on pack drafting (and all of its hostile blocking and broken promises) because he “gives too much room.”

Truex is never a jerk, though. Just witness his 2018 season – four victories but who knows how many more if he would have laid the bumper more aggressively and forcefully the way others often have done to him?

At Bristol Motor Speedway, Truex was charging to the front with 70 laps remaining when he was wrecked by Kyle Busch during a pass for second.

At the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, he was cruising toward a victory when he was clipped by Jimmie Johnson and knocked out of first entering the final turn.

At Martinsville Speedway, Truex seemed headed to the first checkered flag on a Cup short track when Joey Logano booted him from the lead off the final corner.

The simplest way to win on a short track is to drive through the guy in front of you. It’s a move that Truex rarely makes, and Sunday was no exception.

For several laps around the 0.526-mile oval, he stalked Logano and waited to make a clean pass for the lead until Lap 499 of 500 despite several opportunities to drill the No. 22 Ford earlier.

You can argue the moral relativism all day about whether Logano (who also is a good guy, by the way) was justified in reacting to losing the lead by making that move (and with a championship berth at stake, the Team Penske star has a virtually airtight case), but what’s indisputable is that Truex didn’t play nearly as rough as Logano did on the last lap.

Detractors probably will say that maybe it’s not so much that Truex doesn’t want to race that way as much as that he can’t necessarily race that way.

He is among the steadiest, smoothest and tidiest drivers in NASCAR. His career renaissance of 17 wins in the past four seasons has been marked by his mastery of 1.5-mile tracks (where it’s about setup and pure speed) and road courses (where strategy and perfect laps often determine winners). You won’t find any wins by Truex in which he led only the final lap.

He drives to the limits of his car and rarely beyond them – and almost never at other’s expense. He has much more in common with Mark Martin or even Rusty Wallace, who always seemed in a similar way to be on the short end of the stick with Dale Earnhardt Sr. in their many famous tussles.

Being a good guy can be a tough business. There still might be some good that comes from Sunday’s third-place finish for Truex and Furniture Row Racing.

Based on the bellicose stances in the seething postrace interviews of Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn, it seemed as if the team with a natural rebellious streak had its recalcitrant swagger back for the first time since the announcement of its impending shutdown.

Furniture Row Racing, once described as “a band of misfits” by Truex, has predicated most of its championship-caliber success by embracing the “Us Against the World!” mentality. The Unconventional Team That Could still will be closing its doors in Denver after three more weeks, but it now has a defiant rallying cry to spur its finishing kick at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

And if any more motivation were needed, Sunday spawned reams of bulletin-board material on social media and some corners of establishment media.

Truex’s angry reaction was shamed on Twitter for being “too whiny” and his moves were dissected to the nth degree. “Why did you race so fairly and cleanly,” the angry mob seemed to be demanding, “when you could have punted the other guy and scooted to a win?”

Why?

Because Martin Truex Jr. is a good guy. A nice guy.

Should he really have to change that?

The answer says a lot more about us than him.

‘The best feeling in the world’: Alon Day on beating Bobby Labonte

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As a 9-year-old in Israel, Alon Day‘s introduction to auto racing came via video games.

“I used to play a lot of racing video games, simulators,” Day told NBC Sports a few days after he secured his second NASCAR Whelen Euro Series championship.

In the NASCAR games he played, one car stood out to Day.

It wasn’t Jeff Gordon‘s DuPont car, Mark Martin‘s Valvoline car or Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Budweiser car.

“Actually my favorite car was the 18 car, the Interstate Batteries (car) of Bobby Labonte,” Day says.

Seventeen years later, Day got a friendly tap from the past on his rear bumper.

It wasn’t an Interstate Batteries car, but the green-and-black No. 18 Day saw in his rear-view mirror in July at Tours Speedway in France was driven by Labonte.

The 2000 Cup champion is the first former champion to compete full-time in the Euro Series. 

“That’s a very nice thing to see when you have a such a big driver come to your championship,” Day says. “You’re expecting (him) to be very unreachable, I would say that. We all were super surprised by the fact that Bobby was such a nice guy, talking to everybody. Giving advice to young drivers, helping them. Not only me, which was great, but some other drivers did a couple of races also in the states and he helped them also. That’s a nice thing to see and to experience. … People want to see Bobby Labonte. People comes to the races to see that. That makes it even bigger.”

In a series made up mostly of road courses, Labonte shined on the .403-mile oval in Tours.

“I think everybody was impressed,” says Day. “On road courses he was in the top 10, but he’s not really fighting for wins. But when we came to ovals suddenly the guy was so quick.”

After Labonte started seventh in the second Tours race, he found himself behind race leader Day on a restart with four laps to go.

Labonte let Day know he was there.

“He really bumped me. He was pushing me hard,” Day recalls.

But Day survived and claimed his first win on an oval. Labonte finished second for his only top five of the season.

“First of all I won in front of Bobby Labonte,” Days says. “That was personally the best feeling in the world.”

The surreal experience wasn’t over. Labonte made sure to talk with Day afterward.

“After that we had a good conversation about the way he drives an oval,” Days says. “He explained to me in super detail how he drove the car and what he actually did to be so fast, that was a good thing for me.”

Three months later, the moment was topped when Day completed his second championship campaign. He did it with a sweep of last weekend’s races at Circuit Zolder in Belgium.

Day “had to bounce back from the grave” to win the title after he was disqualified from a win in May for failing post-race inspection and lost driver points.

Even though he entered the final race with six wins, Day had to finish at least fourth to claim the title. Even a start from the pole didn’t calm his nerves.

“Until the very, very last lap when I crossed the line I wasn’t sure I was going to win the championship,” says Day. “Even during the middle of the season, I (never) thought I was going to win the championship. … Still, I surprised myself.”

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Kurt Busch wins pole at Talladega, Stewart-Haas sweeps first two rows

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Stewart-Haas Racing swept the top four positions in qualification with Kurt Busch winning the pole for the 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway with a speed of 195.804 mph. This is Busch’s first restrictor plate pole.

He beat teammate Clint Bowyer (195.301 mph) by .126 seconds with Kevin Harvick (195.186) and Aric Almirola (194.571) rounding out the top four.

Starting spots are unofficial until after post-qualification inspection.

Hendrick Motorsports took the next four positions. Chase Elliott (194.394), Jimmie Johnson (194.172), Alex Bowman (193.768) and William Byron (193.768) qualified fifth through eighth.

HMS was the last team to sweep the top four positions before today’s qualification session. In April 2011 at Talladega, Jeff Gordon won the pole with Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. lined up behind him.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch (193.693) in ninth and Denny Hamlin (193.380) in 10th round out the top 10.

Playoff contender Martin Truex Jr. (192.928) qualified 11th.

Team Penske has six Talladega wins in the last eight races but failed to advance any car into the final round of qualification. Brad Keselowski (191.900), Ryan Blaney (191.731) and Joey Logano (191.386) will line up 18th through 20th.

Kyle Larson (188.731) was the slowest among the playoff contenders in 34th.

David Starr failed to qualify.

Click here for qualifying results

Long: Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus end mirrors their beginning in subtleness

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CONCORD, N.C. — Their beginning can be found on page 2C of the Dec. 11, 2001 edition of The Charlotte Observer.

Below a note that Ryan Newman would use the No. 12 for his rookie Winston Cup season and an item about Mark Martin’s new car chief at Roush Racing, was a small headline:

Knaus goes back to Hendrick.

The three-paragraph item stated that Chad Knaus would return to Hendrick Motorsports to be rookie Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief for the 2002 season.

Nearly 17 years — and seven championships — later, the announcement of the duo’s pending departure shocked NASCAR in the same understated way.

Even though such news would merit a formal press conference streamed online, this was a casual session. Reporters sat on a couch or comfy chairs. Johnson and Knaus walked in carrying drinks in paper coffee cups.

They sat beside each other inside a building on the Hendrick Motorsports campus that didn’t exist when they began working together and discussed why a partnership that produced a record-tying number of titles and 81 wins (Johnson won twice while Knaus was suspended by NASCAR in 2006) would not continue after this year.

The end did not come because of one thing or another in particular but over time. Yes, a 53-race winless streak contributed to it, a sign that a partnership that had been feared in the garage was beatable. While they had pondered separating in the past, now it made sense.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Johnson said. “It took time to make it and you go through the thoughts of seeing it end. Could we have finished together? Of course, we have batted around all the questions that you are asking, but at some point, you have to go with your gut and it just feels right.”

Knaus preferred to look back at what they’ve accomplished.

“Let’s be frank, whoever thought that this would have gone 17 years? My point is this, instead of reflecting on what is the unknown, reflect a little bit on what we accomplished,” he said. “And that is what I have really focused on. 

“We have done amazing things over the course of our career. It should not have stemmed the span that it did. That is very, very comforting to me, personally. You can try to twist it all you want and do that stuff, but that is not what it is about. There are great opportunities for both of us.”

Their responses reveal who they are. Johnson, the California native with the heavy right foot and thoughtful, free-thinking ways and Knaus the no-nonsense Midwesterner.

When they started, they were the new kids who had been given access to car owner Rick Hendrick’s castle. Their debut season together came after Jeff Gordon had won his fourth title in 2001.

With a champion to lean on and more toys — resources — than the North Pole, Knaus played mad scientist and Johnson was Speed Racer. They won a pole in their first start. They won a race in their 10th start together. Then they won three races later.

While they fought — as brothers, as they liked to say — success kept them together. The longer they lasted, the more it seemed as if they would stay together until Johnson quit driving.

But the struggles on the track accelerated the thinking. While this team has shown more speed recently and Knaus remains confident that they can win this season, it became time for change.

“We have had a hell of a run,” Johnson said. “And a new spark probably wouldn’t hurt us. There is something to that and something new that we can both participate in. And then still at the same time be there for one another on a level that I don’t think has ever existed when a driver/crew chief do split. These splits usually are pretty tough. And in our situation, it’s not that. So, I have an ally and he has an ally. 

“Once you make the decision, and you start putting one foot in front of the other, I often find a lot of excitement in those moments and I have in this.”

Now that we know they will be apart, the question becomes how much longer will they be in their current roles?

Johnson’s contract is through 2020. The 43-year-old would like to drive another decade or more but admits those all won’t be in Cup.

Knaus’ contract also goes through 2020. How much longer will the 47-year-old father of a newborn want to be on the road every weekend?

“As of right now, the goal is going to be for me personally is go build the No. 24 team to be the best team that I am possibly capable of,” Knaus said. “And we go and we win.”

Then Knaus added: “I doubt very highly that William and I will be together for 17 years.”

He laughed.

Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, said that Knaus understands the challenges ahead.

“I know that Chad wouldn’t commit to do it if he had short-term plans about it,” Andrews said. “He knows that it’s going to take some level of commitment. That commitment is going to be possibly years to get the success out of it that he expects and we expect out of it.”

Until then, there are six races left for Knaus and Johnson to work together, six more chances to win another race, six more Sundays of us vs. them and then this chapter ends.

And a new era begins.

Johnson will be paired with Kevin Meendering, who rose through the ranks at Hendrick and has served as Elliott Sadler’s crew chief the past three seasons at JR Motorsports. Knaus will be teamed with 20-year-old wunderkid William Byron, who is a part of the organization’s future, just as Johnson was when he began.

Off the track, a new era also begins for Johnson and Knaus.

“I talked to Gordon about it and he swears that he and Ray (Evernham) are better friends now than what they were when they were winning championships and winning races,” Knaus said, “and I feel like we will be the same way.”

With that, Johnson and Knaus got up and walked along a quiet hallway to their next assignment. Work remained.

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What’s at stake: Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. —  Here’s a look at some of the key issues heading into tonight’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The Roval is coming

This is the last race before the series heads to Charlotte to compete on the Roval for the first time. The uncertainty of what that cutoff race will be like — especially after several drivers spun or wrecked in testing there — could lead to some panic among drivers tonight. Or make them more cautious.

“I know everybody talks about how wild it’s been, and I’ve been right there amongst them,” Chase Elliott said of the Roval. “But until we get there, I don’t know. That race might be the smoothest race of the year. It’s just tough to say. It’s going to be so slow, I’m sure there will be a lot of rooting and gouging next week and real easy to pick-up some damage on your car.

“As fragile as these cars are, we saw last week guys were just barely touching the wall and three or four laps later they’re crashed. That’s the big one for me is just how fragile these cars are now. And you can’t really even lean on anybody and continue forward. So, It’s important to run good here, absolutely. I would love to go and have another (win) sticker Saturday night and not have to worry about next week.”

Elliott enters tonight’s race nine points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman for the final cutoff spot to advance to the second round.

Clint Bowyer, though, isn’t worried about tonight’s race.

“Richmond’s going to be fine,” he said. “Richmond is going to be good stages for us and a win. That way when we go to the Roval we don’t have to worry about you asking me about the pressure of the Roval.”

Will a winless streak end?

Kyle Larson has finished runner-up six times this year but is still looking for his first victory of the season.

He’s on a 37-race winless streak. His last victory came at Richmond last September.

Other playoff drivers seeking to snap a long winless streak include Aric Almirola (146-race winless streak), Jimmie Johnson (50), Ryan Blaney (49), Denny Hamlin (38) and Alex Bowman (winless in 108 Cup starts).

Joining history?

Brad Keselowski seeks to become the ninth driver in NASCAR’s modern era (since 1972) to win four consecutive races. Others who have won four in a row in Cup in that time: Cale Yarborough (1976), Darrell Waltrip (1981), Dale Earnhardt (1987), Harry Gant (1991), Bill Elliott (1992), Mark Martin (1993), Gordon (1998) and Johnson (2007).

Pit road woes?

In the spring Richmond race, five teams that made the playoffs were penalized for pit road infractions. Those penalized in that race were: Kevin Harvick (tossing equipment), Kyle Larson (not in control of tire), Alex Bowman (speeding), Austin Dillon (commitment line violation) and Ryan Blaney (not in control of tire)

Will a pit road penalty impact a playoff team tonight?