RICHMOND, Va. — The way to prevent the contact that happened last week between Kyle Busch and Garrett Smithley at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is simple.
Once the playoffs start, only playoff cars can race.
Of course, that will never happen — and should never happen.
But as long as more than half the field features non-playoff competitors, there will be times when those drivers play a role, despite their best intentions, of impacting a playoff driver’s race. It could happen again in Saturday night’s playoff race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
“People don’t understand the technology gap and the money gap that there is in the Cup series,” Smithley told Mojo Nixon on “Manifold Destiny.”
Smithley understands. His NASCAR career of 11 Cup races and 125 Xfinity starts all have been with underfunded teams.
Such teams have fewer resources and struggle to be competitive, all but forcing their drivers to seemingly spend as much time looking out the rearview mirror to stay out of the way as looking ahead through the windshield.
While NASCAR has a minimum speed for races, only one time this season, according to Cup race reports, has a car been ordered off the track because it was going too slow. That was the Spire Motorsports entry at Dover in May. Two months later, that team — one of 36 chartered teams — won the rain-shortened race at Daytona with a different driver.
Corey LaJoie noted on Twitter after the Las Vegas race how a team’s financial situation can impact its driver choice:
As long as there are “unchartered” teams, the model makes them strapped for cash and they cannot afford to pay an experienced guy what they’re worth. They have to take anyone that can pass NASCAR’s “approval” process and has enough to pay the tire bill for that week.
Justin Allgaier, preparing to compete in Friday’s Xfinity Series playoff opener, understands the plight of drivers with subpar equipment. Allgaier suffered through such circumstances when he raced in Cup.
“Kyle obviously had some pretty harsh words,” Allgaier said Thursday during the Xfinity Series playoff media day at Richmond Raceway. “I do understand sometimes there are times where lapped traffic does make a big difference in how the outcome goes. But on the flip side, I’ve been in that situation. You’re battling, really your livelihood, just to even keep a ride, and you’re doing everything you can and the last thing you want to do is mess somebody up.
“I thought that the situation we were in last week, personally I didn’t think anything could have been done differently as far as what Garrett did or what lane he ran. I thought he did everything right. He went in and picked a lane and stuck with it.”
Busch didn’t see it that way and ran into the back of Smithley. Busch then ignited a debate on social media when he told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”
Busch’s question has no answer that will appease him because nothing will be done. It’s understandable if he’s sensitive to the issue. Last year at Phoenix, a caution with 18 laps to go by a driver making his first start in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks in four years, bunched the field and took away Busch’s advantage. Busch pulled away on the restart to win.
Nobody does. The incident between Busch and Smithley likely will be soon forgotten. But there will come a day when a non-playoff driver is involved in a situation in the championship race that could determine who wins the title and who doesn’t. As long as NASCAR’s playoff races include non-playoff cars, the risk always will be there. It is up to NASCAR to ensure that those competing in those races are qualified to do so.
2. A new experience
Jimmie Johnson got his first taste as a non-playoff driver in a playoff race last weekend at Las Vegas and it was interesting.
One of the debates before and during the playoffs is how much those not racing for a title should race the playoff contenders. As the level of desperation increases in each round among playoff drivers, their patience with non-playoff drivers decreases.
So what was the seven-time champion’s experience like with the playoff drivers Sunday?
“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs took some desperate moves out there,” he said earlier this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway after joining breast cancer survivors in painting pit wall pink. “I saw it happen to other drivers, I had a few make that move on me as well.
“It’s a tricky situation to be in, and I know they’re going after every point they need to but so am I. We certainly plan to not allow myself to be used up as I was in Vegas a couple of times.”
3. Game planning
A fascinating aspect of this year’s rules package is how crew chiefs set their cars, particularly at the big tracks. Stewart-Haas Racing focused on speed for its cars last weekend at Las Vegas and took the top four spots in qualifying. When it came to the race, Kevin Harvick’s car was the only SHR car to excel and finished second.
Joe Gibbs Racing, on the other hand, focused on downforce to make its cars better in the race. The result was that Martin Truex Jr. won after starting 24th.
That’s a trend for Truex. He has started eighth or worse in four of the five races he’s won this year. Truex qualified 13th at Dover but then started at the rear because of inspection failures, he qualified 14th in the Coca-Cola 600, started eighth at Sonoma and 24th at Las Vegas in his wins. The exception was when he started fifth at Richmond in his April victory.
Harvick’s team has taken a different approach. He qualified third at Las Vegas and finished second. He won from the pole at Indianapolis. He won at Michigan in August after starting second.
“That’s their MO, right?” crew chief Cole Pearn said after Truex’s win last weekend at Las Vegas of Harvick’s team. “They’re dragging the pipes, slamming the backs, just going for all that speed. It’s working for them. All the power to them.
“I think for us, we’ve had a couple races where we’ve gone more that way and they haven’t been very good for us. I think everyone has their own take. I think you generally look at JGR as a whole, how well we’ve qualified this year, I think we got one pole, 14 wins. That’s the variance in the strategy.”
4. Reading time
Denny Hamlin and Noah Gragson have spent time on a new endeavor recently. They’re both reading books to help make them better.
Hamlin and others have cited personal growth as contributing to his turnaround this season after going winless last year, the first time he had failed to win while competing full-time in Cup.
“It’s definitely fact that I am calmer and more confident because I have learned to let go of the things that I can’t control,” Hamlin said. “A lot of that has come through self-improvement. I have done a lot of reading, which I wouldn’t consider myself a reader. I didn’t read a book, I guarantee you, from whenever I had to in high school till I turned 38 this year.
“I just started reading over the last three or four months. I started learning and trying to be a better person in general. I have learned to really let go of things I can’t control. It has really allowed me to think about the process more. I think it really has helped with my on-track performances. Thinking through the processes more and not focusing on and worrying about the things that I specifically can’t control.”
Gragson said that he’s reading a book “25 Ways to Win With People” to be a better team leader.
“That’s what I need to be for this race team,” Gragson said. “It’s really easy to be happy and smiling when things are going good, but I feel like your character comes out when maybe things aren’t going as well as you would want. I’m trying to lean on people who I call my mentors … reading that book and just trying to be better and more positive.”
Gragson said he got the book from former driver Josh Wise, who trains drivers with Chip Ganassi Racing, JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.
“I’ve been leaning on him,” Gragson said of Wise. “He helps me with overall thinking. He was the first person I went to when I felt like we were going through maybe a valley that our communication was off as a team, I was kind of struggling with my confidence and where we were. Leaning on him really helped me. The takeaways (from the book) have been very valuable and it helps me with everyday life, too. I’m willing to try it and it’s been helping so far.”
5. Who is next
Richmond marks the fifth short track race of the season. Consider what the first four races have seen:
Four different winners (Brad Keselowski at Martinsville, Kyle Busch at Bristol, Martin Truex Jr. at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).
Four different pole winners (Joey Logano at Martinsville, Chase Elliott at Bristol, Kevin Harvick at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).
Four different drivers finished second (Chase Elliott at Martinsville, Kurt Busch at Bristol, Joey Logano at Richmond and Matt DiBenedetto at the Bristol night race).
Rutledge Wood will be joined by Kyle Petty and special guest Matt DiBenedetto, named Tuesday to replace the retiring Paul Menard for the 2020 season with Wood Brothers Racing.
In addition to discussing this weekend’s NASCAR Cup playoff-opening race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Matt and the guys will be taking fan calls at 844-NASCAR-NBC or reach out on Twitter via #LetMeSayThis.
If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com.If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.
Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.
“There’s many car owners that finance cars that are on the racetrack, good teams,” Hamlin said after beating DiBenedetto to win the Bristol night race. “They got to step up and grow some balls and take a chance on somebody they really believe in. That or they can continue to run 15th.”
Menard essentially ended his full-time career and hand-picked his successor with hardly anyone being that much the wiser ahead of time.
Not that Menard (who had said a few months ago that he planned to return in 2020) even noticed he had kept the biggest secret in NASCAR since Carl Edwards’ sudden retirement (and even that leaked a half-day ahead).
“It wasn’t my goal to keep it a huge secret,” Menard said. “It’s just something that I spoke to the people that needed to know. (Wood Brothers Racing co-owners) Eddie, Len (Wood). The folks at Penske. It is what it is.”
We would expect nothing less from the famously reserved Menard, who was never one to trumpet his personal or professional life during 13 seasons in Cup of mostly remaining private about anything beyond racing.
In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, he demurred when facing questions about several topics — notably the timeline of his decision and the ages of the young daughter and son whom he cited as the primary reason for his retirement from the rigors of full-time Cup racing.
“Watching them grow and missing out on a couple things they’ve been doing, it’s hard as a father, as a parent,” said Menard, who turned 39 last month and began racing at 8. “This sport takes so much dedication to run at the top level. I want what’s best for the 21 team. I want what’s best for my family.”
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “I guess that’s in the future.”
And though he indicated he will continue to race (“it’s not going just to 38 weeks a year, I can tell you that.”), Menard also provided few hints of whether it’ll be in NASCAR.
“Ice racing,” the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native deadpanned. “I haven’t done that in a few years. We might build a bad-ass ice racing car.”
The answer is revelatory because it’s what often is missed about the quiet scion to a multibillion-dollar home improvement warehouse fortune. Racing never has been about fame or money but his passion for motorsports.
“Racers know racers,” Wood said. “I value Paul’s opinion. The only answer that came out of his mouth was Matt. It did come together really, really quickly. Matt was pretty much ready to go. Just the way it all unfolded, it was like it was meant to be.”
He has three top five finishes in the past 11 races and is delivering better results under immense pressure than any previous driver at LFR … but it wasn’t enough.
LFR’s No. 95 Camry reportedly will be filled next year by Christopher Bell, whose contract with Joe Gibbs Racing ensures that LFR will be more closely aligned with the Toyota powerhouse than ever before.
Yet DiBenedetto’s move to Wood Brothers Racing, which is just as tightly affiliated with Team Penske, ensures that he will inherit an opportunity that is just as good.
Since forming the alliance with Penske three years ago, Wood Brothers Racing has risen to the fringe of the Cup elite. Ryan Blaney won at Pocono Raceway and took the storied franchise to the third round of the playoffs in 2017. Though Menard missed the playoffs the past two seasons, he has been trending in the direction of speed and performance lately (another reason Tuesday’s news was such a bombshell).
At best, it seemed a lateral or regressive move awaited DiBenedetto if he wanted to stay in Cup.
Instead, he gets the best break of his NASCAR career.
“This is the most incredible opportunity in my whole life,” DiBenedetto said of his one-year deal for 2020. “Not only from a performance standpoint, but from just being able to drive for such a legendary team, a family I’ve had so much respect for (and) has always treated me like gold.”
It’s a neat and unexpected twist that delighted NASCAR Twitter and should please a NASCAR Nation of fans who increasingly have decried drivers who get rides because they bring money instead of merit.
In this case, it’s the guy who broke into NASCAR largely through his sponsor connections choosing the guy who has desperately searched for jobs because of his lack of sponsor connections.
With the support of his family’s successful company, Menard’s racing future rarely has been in doubt, and some detractors have charged that nepotism kept him in Cup for longer than it would have for many drivers.
The criticism isn’t entirely fair to Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 and consistently has finished between 17th and 23rd in points for eight of the past nine seasons (between Wood Brothers Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports, which followed earlier stints at Yates Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.).
Yes, his surname undoubtedly has buoyed his career, but his results also have been serviceable and comparable to many journeyman drivers who lasted nearly as long at NASCAR’s premier level.
But while Menard proved worthy of posting workingman’s results in Cup, he also has enjoyed job security and little fear or pressure of losing his ride.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” DiBenedetto said. “But one thing I’ve always said is a priority of mine has been always gaining respect of other drivers and veterans like Paul because they can be your best allies and huge influence on your entire career. This is a perfect example.
“Paul is not only making a big decision for his life and career, but he’s impacting my entire life, family, everything I’ve worked for my whole life. A ‘thank you’ for stuff like that can never be enough.”
And it’s even more impactful when it comes just as out of the blue for the rest of the world.
It’s kind of nice this was the Silly Season rumor that no one knew about ahead of time.
As Paul Menard will tell you, silence can be golden.