Travis Kvapil

Ryan: The Brickyard’s memorable day left NASCAR with a pleasant dilemma for next season

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Competition executive Steve O’Donnell leaned against a counter in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center last Saturday and plainly answered questions about the closest NASCAR finish in track history.

Why wasn’t he more enthused after the Xfinity Series experiment of using aero ducts and restrictor plates to prevent runaway leaders was received as a smashing success?

“I know there’s a race tomorrow,” O’Donnell said with a smile as if he were amused by reading the thought bubbles above the heads of several reporters surrounding him for fresh quotes.

Each of us was thinking, “There is no possible way the main event will match today’s warmup act.”

Indeed, the Brickyard 400 did leave NASCAR in a bit of quandary about race quality – but it wasn’t the dilemma that anyone would have predicted.

Sunday’s Cup show – with legitimate three-wide racing for the lead, scintillating strategy developments and heart-pounding restarts (that led to some wall-pounding impacts) – was the best race of the weekend.

Quite possibly, it was a candidate for best race of the year, a pronouncement that would have seemed laughable in Indy’s typically follow-the-leader confines for stock cars.

The most indelible moment of the 2017 season was eventual winner Kasey Kahne sandwiched between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski entering the third turn on what should have been the penultimate lap of the race.

If Johnson had managed to hang on to win his record-tying fifth Brickyard with smoke billowing from the expiring engine in his No. 48 Chevrolet, it probably would have been remembered as the defining moment of an illustrious career. Certainly, it would have been the signature highlight of a race whose luster has been maligned by grandstands increasingly vacant since the 2008 tire debacle.

All of this has left NASCAR with a tougher decision than it might have anticipated about the future of the Brickyard.

The overwhelmingly positive reviews Saturday made it seem a foregone conclusion that the same rules would be applied to Cup in 2018.

That still seems the likely course of action (after a confirmation test with the higher-powered Cup cars), but there now is much more to weigh. While cars often were clumped in clusters that were conducive to passing, the Xfinity race didn’t feature the insanity of Sunday’s late restarts (it was more like the slow build of Daytona and Talladega).

Would harnessing the horsepower of the Cup cars diminish the likelihood for such fantastic finishes again?

It’s a critical question because so much hangs in the balance of a race that admittedly faces an uncertain future because of poor attendance and previously lackluster action.

It took 24 editions of the Brickyard 400 to get a finish as memorable as Sunday’s.

And maybe it would take just as long to get another. There were many extenuating circumstances that fostered Sunday’s outcome, namely the two best Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. being eliminated.

While leading 95 of the first 110 laps, Busch and Truex routinely built large gaps on the field. Their simultaneous disappearances turned the final 55 laps into a free-for-all that could have been won by at least a half-dozen drivers.

And then the timing of several caution flags made some strategies suddenly become sublime, putting Trevor Bayne in position to win for the first time in six years (before another yellow) and setting up Kahne to end a 102-race winless streak after two more memorable restart duels with Keselowski (in which the leader lost both times after choosing the outside lane).

The race admittedly could be run another 24 times and fail to produce action as scintillating because of a differing chain of events.

There are some other stats to consider (courtesy of colleague Dustin Long). In the Xfinity race at Indy, six of the 16 lead changes occurred on track under green, and only one was on a restart. In Cup, five of 10 lead changes were on track under green, and three were on restarts.

According to NASCAR loop data, the Xfinity race had a track-record 1,554 green-flag passes, a 66% increase over 2016. There were 29 green-flag passes for the lead (measured between scoring loops and not just the finish line), a massive spike over just two last year.

The optics of switching up the rules in the aftermath of the most memorable Brickyard in more than a decade still will ring a little hollow.

No matter which rules path NASCAR chooses, there’s one overwhelming positive development from the weekend.

The concept of running the road course has been tabled for at least another year (and hopefully for good).

When the circumstances and conditions are right, Sunday reaffirmed the world’s most famous layout should feature only left turns for NASCAR.

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The yellow flag flew roughly 3 to 4 seconds after the last crash in the Brickyard 400 by which time Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski had crossed the overtime line.

Some viewed this as an abomination in which NASCAR deliberately waited for an imaginary plane to be broken before declaring a caution.

This partly would be surmising that a delay of 3 to 4 seconds would constitute an interminable delay for a caution flag in the history of NASCAR officiating. This also would be patently untrue.

Anyone remember the 2007 Daytona 500? The final lap of the Nov. 2012 race at Phoenix International Raceway? The last lap at Watkins Glen International earlier that season?

Here’s a helpful refresher video if you had forgotten:

The delay on Sunday’s final caution wouldn’t rank in the top 20 of slowest triggers in NASCAR yellow-flag history. But an arbitrary line distorted that perception and turned a moot point (the threat of darkness ensured that would be the final restart, regardless of whether the overtime line was crossed) into a misguided crusade for officiating “consistency.”

The only real takeaway from Sunday’s ending is that it’s yet another reason why NASCAR’s overtime policy should be eradicated in full next season.

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As far as long waits Sunday, Erik Jones endured one that received far less immediate attention but hopefully received much more scrutiny in retrospect.

After wrecking with 11 laps remaining in the scheduled distance, Jones had enough time to climb out of this battered Toyota, remove his helmet and sit on the SAFER barrier for a few minutes until safety personnel arrived.

Yes, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch took wicked hits in the same crash and deserved immediate attention, but Jones’ wreck showed response times remain an area of improvement in the first year of NASCAR’s traveling medical team.

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Team Penske’s expansion with Ryan Blaney next year will be the first time the organization fields a third car in eight years, and it follows much deliberation about how to approach the move.

Penske never won a race with a third full-time car in 2004-05 and ’08-10, posting 14 top 10s in 142 starts while finishing no higher than 28th in the points standings with Brendan Gaughan, Travis Kvapil and Sam Hornish Jr.

There was much debate internally since about how and when the team should approach another addition. At least one school of thought advocated for any expansion including at least two cars, a la the Hendrick Motorsports model, because the third car always had seemed isolated and adrift from the team’s twin anchors.

Much has changed organizationally and structurally since 2010, though, and the success of Ryan Blaney at Wood Brothers Racing in the No. 21 the past two seasons as a de-facto third car for Team Penske quelled any concerns about whether it work in house.

“If you look at the history prior to 2010, as an organization in the Cup Series, we were hit-and-miss,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. “I don’t feel like we were a contender every weekend to win races. I think that hurt us when we were trying to bring a driver forward in Sam, where he didn’t really have a lot of stock-car experience.

“I feel like right now it’s an organization where we have things in place, and I think we understand why we win, and I think we understand when we’re not winning why we’re not winning. Before I don’t think we had that in place. We’ve had quite a bit of continuity since then in a lot of places. We’ve grown our crew chiefs all the way through the Xfinity Series into the Cup Series. We’ve grown a lot of our own people, our own processes.

“Nothing is a given, but I think we’re much more well positioned for somebody like Ryan to come in and be successful. I think you see that with the technical partnership we have with the Wood Brothers because we could have never done that and been successful and won a race with a technical partnership back then either.”

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Paul Menard’s move, along with his family’s home improvement chain sponsorship, to Wood Brothers Racing raises some major questions for Richard Childress Racing.

Since 2011, Menards has been a cornerstone of RCR’s budget. As one of the only remaining full-season sponsors in NASCAR’s premier series, its departure leaves an eight-figure hole at RCR that could have major implications for the team’s future. RCR will need to refocus on replacing a major revenue source while shoring up its alliance deals (such as with JTG Daugherty Racing) that also help pay the bills.

Childress’ Wednesday release hinting at plans for a third car is encouraging, but the team’s situation will bear close watching until its 2018 lineup is unveiled.

Huge last-lap crash gives Kaz Grala historic win in NASCAR Truck Series opener

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Goof Off/Menards Toyota, flips during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway on February 24, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Matt Crafton flips through the air on the final lap of the Camping World Truck Series opener at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kaz Grala escaped a huge crash on the last lap of the NextEra Energy Resources 250 to become the youngest winner in NASCAR national series history at Daytona International Speedway.

Grala, 18, was running near the front when a 12-truck crash broke out that saw Matt Crafton go airborne, flip and land on the back of Johnny Sauter‘s No. 21 truck.

Grala, who sat on the pole, managed to evade the mayhem in his No. 33 GMS Racing Truck and take the checkered flag. The native of Boston was the youngest Daytona pole-sitter in NASCAR history.

The win comes in Grala’s 10th Truck start and is his first top five.

“I wish you could tell me (how I won the race),” Grala told Fox Sports 1. “I didn’t know what I was doing out there. I don’t know how to go a donut. I don’t know how to do a victory lap like that. I just know that I’m Polish, so I figured I should drive backwards.”

Grala followed his teammate, Sauter, for most of the night until a two-lap shootout after a late caution. Grala said his radio chord came undone on Lap 79 and he wasn’t able to get it functioning again until right before the final restart of the 100-lap race.

“Honestly I got lucky coming out of (Turn) 2 there, I just didn’t lift and everything went crazy around me,” Grala said. “I can’t believe we won Daytona. This completely changes the season in a way we can play it.”

Grala was followed by Austin Wayne Self, Chase Briscoe, John Hunter Nemechek and Joe Nemechek.

Grala was the first official winner of a NASCAR national race since the introduction of the new stage race format.

Stage 1 winner: Johnny Sauter

Stage 2 winner: Johnny Sauter

MORE: Truck Series points standings

MORE: Race results and stats

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Most of the drivers who were not involved in the two massive wrecks that marked the beginning and end of the race … Chase Briscoe was the driver the triggered a 14 car accident on Lap 2, but he finished third. Myatt Snider and JJ Yeley finished in the top 10 … Regan Smith was involved in the last-lap crash, but finished sixth … John Hunter Nemechek rebounded from a Lap 95 spin to finished fourth. He was followed by his father, Joe Nemechek.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Most of the 14 drivers involved in a crash at the beginning of the second lap. Noah Gragson, Austin Cindric, John Hunter Nemechek, Clay Greenfield, Stewart Friesen, Ross Chastain, Stewart Friesen, Tommy Joe Martins, Tyler Young, Chase Briscoe, J.J. Yeley, Terry Jones, Cody Coughlin, Snider and Bobby Gerhart.  The wreck began when Cindric turned Gragson into the outside wall as the field approached Turn 1. Gragson then came back down the track as cars began collecting in the wreck …

The end of the first 20-lap stage saw a crash involving Brett Moffitt and Christopher Bell, with Bell going airborne. Bell continued, but Moffitt’s night ended with the expiration of the five-minute damage clock … Bell was involved in a second crash with Korbin Forrister with 29 to go. Bell finished eighth on the lead lap.

Twelve drivers were involved in the lap crash: Crafton (14th), Sauter (15th), Ben Rhodes (12th), Travis Kvapil (24th), Regan Smith (sixth), Bell (eighth), Self (second), Myatt Snider (10th), Cody Coughlin (11th), Timothy Peters (17th), Gallagher (13th) and Grant Enfinger (16th).

NOTABLE: GMS Racing has now won two straight season-opening races at Daytona. Sauter won last year’s race.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “It got wild. We all knew it was. The whole race was really wild. It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and fortunately I was able to find the right place and be there at the right time, and that’s why we came home second.” – Austin Wayne Self, who finished second for his first top five in 17 Truck Series starts.

WHAT’S NEXT: Active Pest Control 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway at 4:30 p.m. ET on March 4 on Fox Sports 1.

 

Johnny Sauter wins at Martinsville, advances to Truck championship race

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Johnny Sauter punched his ticket to the Camping World Truck Series championship round by winning Saturday’s Texas Roadhouse 200 at Martinsville Speedway.

It was Sauter’s second victory of the year – he also won the season-opening race at Daytona. The victory also was Sauter’s third on Martinsville’s .526-mile paper-clip track.

Sauter, who has 16 top-10 finishes this season, takes over the Truck Series points lead with the 12th win of his Truck Series career.

MORE: Results of Texas Roadhouse 250 at Martinsville

MORE: Sauter takes lead in Truck Series standings

Ironically, Sauter finished last in this year’s spring race at Martinsville. He came full circle Saturday, holding off runner-up Chase Elliott. John Hunter Nemechek was third, Christopher Bell fourth and Timothy Peters ffith. Bell and Peters are Chase drivers.

The other Round of 6 Chase drivers placed in the top 20: William Byron (eighth), Matt Crafton (17th) and Ben Kennedy (18th).

Elliott led the most laps (109) in the 200-lap event; Sauter led 50.

Two-time Truck Series champion Crafton battled brake issues all day, but pass some trucks late to earn what could potentially be valuable points to reach the championship round.

“We just have to have a little luck on our side,” Crafton told Fox Sports 1. “I just had to try and manage what I had. All of a sudden, I felt something pop and the pedal went to the floor. To do what we did at the end, to have three brake calipers and pass a few trucks to salvage a few extra points, I guess we had the best day we could.”

HOW SAUTER WON THE RACE: He paced himself while Chase Elliott dominated. Sauter took the lead for good on the Lap 176 restart. Elliott appeared as if he might catch Sauter in the closing laps, but Sauter held Elliott off.

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Chase Elliott finished second in his first start in the Truck Series since 2013. … Christopher Bell and Timothy Peters helped their respective Chase with top-five showings. … John Hunter Nemechek had a strong race, leading 18 laps en route to his third-place finish.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Brothers Kevin and Kyle Donahue both had a rough day. Kevin finished 30th, while Kyle was involved in a wreck with Josh White on Lap 50 and finished 31st. … Chase driver Ben Kennedy spun after behing hit from behind by Ben Rhodes on Lap 174. John Wes Townley couldn’t stop and slammed into Kennedy. Townley’s front end was heavily damaged, while Kennedy had to have repairs to his right rear fender area. After the race, Kennedy also had a post-race confrontation with Rhodes that was quickly broken up.

NOTABLE: Harrison Burton, son of former Sprint Cup driver and current NBC NASCAR analyst Jeff Burton, had a decent debut going in the Truck Series until he spun on Lap 161, finishing 22nd.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I feel like it’s one of the smartest races I’ve ever ran – and people don’t accuse me of being very smart a lot of times.” – Race winner Johnny Sauter.

WHAT’S NEXT: The middle race of the Round of 6, the Longhorn 350, is Friday, Nov. 4, at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Korbin Forrister fastest in final Truck Series practice at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – Korbin Forrister was fastest in final practice for the Camping World Truck Series at Talladega Superspeedway with a lap of 187.956 mph.

There were three Chase drivers in the top five.

Ben Kennedy led the way at second fastest with a lap of 187.368 mph. Tyler Reddick was third at 187.286 mph, Daniel Hemric was fourth at 187.156 mph, and John Hunter Nemechek was fifth at 187.119 mph.

Hemric and Nemechek enter the fred’s 250 outside of a transfer spot in the Chase.

The rest of the top 10 were Matt Tifft (1867.053 mph), Ben Rhodes (187.006 mph), Matt Crafton (186.878 mph), Travis Kvapil (185.675 mph), and Ryan Truex (183.800 mph).

Click here to see the speeds from final CWTS practice

Follow @KellyCrandall

NASCAR issues warnings to 6 Sprint Cup teams

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Six NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, including two Chase teams, were issued warnings for issues with inspection at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

A team loses its pit stall pick after every fourth warning.

Teams issued warnings were:

* Kevin Harvick‘s team, which is in the Chase and won at New Hampshire, received its third warning after failing the Laser Inspection Station twice before qualifying.

* Kasey Kahne‘s team received its third warning after failing the Laser Inspection Station twice before qualifying.

* Greg Biffle‘s team received its third warning after failing the Laser Inspection Station twice before qualifying.

* Denny Hamlin‘s team, which is in the Chase, received its second warning for failing template inspection twice before qualifying.

* Matt DiBenedetto‘s team received its first warning after failing the Laser Inspection Station twice before qualifying.

* Regan Smith‘s team received two warnings and now has three after failing the Laser Inspection Station twice before the race and failing it twice before qualifying.

Also, NASCAR issued warnings to two Xfintiy teams at Kentucky Speedway for failing the Laser Inspection Station before the race.

* The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team, which had Matt Tifft as its driver, received its first warning.

* The No. 51 Jeremy Clements Racing team, which has Clements as its driver, received its second warning.

NASCAR also announced that in the Camping World Truck Series that the No. 50 team with Travis Kvapil as driver received its first warning after failing template inspection four times before the race. The team also loses 15 minutes of practice time.