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Ryan: NASCAR must take steps to make Phoenix title-worthy in 2020

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Let’s start with the positives for ISM Raceway: Outside of its racing, everything last weekend showed the 1-mile oval on the west side of Phoenix is championship ready.

Its fan enthusiasm – two consecutive sellouts in the Round of 8 finale and an enormous village of campers deserving of its own zip code in the Valley of the Sun – is firmly established as nonpareil in NASCAR’s premier series.

The community and local media support is deserving of the big-event status that often has been lacking during an 18-year run in South Florida for the season finale of the Cup Series.

And $178 million in renovations have delivered striking vantage points from gleaming new grandstands while offering an efficiently inviting infield with the 21st-century ambiance and amenities that too much of racing lacks.

This racetrack is ready to play host to the title-deciding race … provided that its 1-mile ribbon of asphalt can deliver the goods.

That, though, was the biggest question leaving Phoenix last weekend and facing all tracks of a mile and shorter next season when the low-horsepower, high-downforce package enters its second season.

“They’ve got to figure out something for this race because it’s going to be a letdown if it’s like that and it’s the championship race,” third-place finisher Ryan Blaney said. “Hopefully, they can figure something out. I thought it was a start. They just need to keep doing their homework on it.”

Said Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson: “As a fan, we need our short tracks to be better. To be what they were. They were the best races, honestly. Obviously with this package, they’re not well suited.”

There is no doubt the 2019 rules have been conducive to better racing (and particularly restarts) on the 1.5-mile ovals that make up the bulk of the schedule (and once the bulk of the playoffs). They weren’t really needed for Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which already had a reputation for outstanding racing because of its progressive banking and high tire wear.

Any championship venue should strive to meet the gold standard that has been set over the past 18 years in Miami.

But how can NASCAR take steps toward achieving that in 2020? There would seem few options for modifying ISM Raceway, whose footprint seems more than set after several years of capital improvements culminated in last year’s overhaul. NASCAR already has declared its horsepower and downforce specs largely will remain in place for next season.

And perhaps given the sudden groundswell for rotating the championship round, this largely will become a moot point if the title race’s stay is short-lived at ISM Raceway.

But here are a few suggestions for potentially enhancing Phoenix – and the 750 horsepower package on all smaller tracks — are percolating in the industry for next year, though:

Soften the tires: This seems the lowest-hanging fruit for improving the racing because of its simplicity. To avoid failures, Goodyear has erred on the side of producing bulletproof tires that ensure durability but undermine the disparity in speeds that is needed for optimal passing numbers.

That isn’t possible with tires that can run 3,000 laps without replacement (which was the estimate at Martinsville). Brad Keselowski noted the tires at Phoenix probably could have lasted 1,000 laps, which is why much of the 312 laps seemed like slot car racing. When there is no reward for tire management, it adversely impacts cars being able to move forward and backward.

“That really changes the dynamics because you get some guys that put a lot of camber in the car and take off on the short run and fall off on a long run,” Keselowski said. “You get some guys that drive really hard on soft tires and wear them out, and that creates comers and goers, but when you have such a hard tire, one that doesn’t fall off, you’re not going to see that.”

If degradation is factored in, the racing should improve but with some accompany headaches.

“A tire really soft with a lot of fall off makes for great racing,” Alex Bowman said. “At the same time, it makes for tire failures, and it’s hard for a tire manufacturer to be like, ‘Hey we’re going to bring this tire and if you run it too long, it’s going to fail, so don’t do that.’ It’s much easier for them to bring a hard tire with a ton of durability and very little falloff that doesn’t fail so they don’t get any flak for a tire failing. If you were a tire manufacturer, what would you do? Everyone’s kind of in a box. They want to bring the best product they can to the racetrack. To them, that’s one that doesn’t have failures.”

At some point, though, the PR concerns of a tire supplier must be outweighed by the negative ramifications on the quality of racing. What good is it to have flawless tires in races that no one wants to watch?

One potential compromise solution: Soften the tires with an emphasis on the left sides, which at least create fewer problems for teams (i.e. crashes, heavy impacts and body damage) when they fail.

Chop the spoiler: NASCAR officials have opened the door to reconsidering tweaking the cars to help racing on shorter tracks next year, and the most obvious play would be reducing the 8-inch spoiler that keep cars glued to the track and creates a larger aerodynamic wake that makes the handling of trailing cars less stable.

But while it theoretically should ameliorate the current downforce woes, the cause-effect is more complex than with simply softening the tire. Changing the height of the spoiler will affect the balance of the cars and perhaps be unworthy of the tradeoff.

Teams also are likely to spend more money on R&D if the spoiler heights aren’t static. This is a less important rationale given that cars are already much different from the 550 horsepower package (tracks 1.33 miles and longer) vs. the 750 hp (1.33 miles and shorter) because of the downforce and drag.

Work on the traction compound: ISM Raceway marked the first time that one of the tracks formerly owned by International Speedway Corp. attempted to apply PJ1 without consultation with Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks (which had been using it the past three years). From the outset, the traction compound intended to add a lane seemed to have been applied too high on the track.

“I think it would have been a lot better race if they would have got it low enough,” Kevin Harvick said. “It was just way too high I thought. It was closer in one and two. I mean, it was still probably 3 or 4 feet. Probably needed to come down just a little bit in that end. The other end, it was 7 or 8 feet. It was way too high.”


Beyond simply improving the racing at shorter tracks in 2019, NASCAR already had its challenges at ISM Raceway. While the 1-mile track has become a darling of ISC because of its location and fan support, the competition in Cup (or lack thereof) has produced controversy before.

In the April 21, 2007 debut of the Car of Tomorrow at Phoenix, passing was so nonexistent, Denny Hamlin (who lost the lead on Lap 99 and never regained it) declared the new chassis was “mission failed” if the goal had been to improve the action. NASCAR’s decision to throw four debris cautions during that same race led Tony Stewart to accuse the sanctioning body of officiating tantamount to pro wrestling in one of the biggest controversies of the three-time series champion’s career.

In the March 3, 2013 race at Phoenix, Hamlin was fined $25,000 for merely suggesting the Gen 6 car was less conducive to passing.

So, this isn’t the first time the racing at Phoenix has been in the crosshairs.

“The racing specifically at Phoenix has looked like (Sunday) for 15 years,” Steve Letarte said on the most recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “I know people don’t want to hear that. There were moments of great racing at times. There was not good racing at times. Fuel mileage races. Long green-flag runs. That’s Phoenix. I feel we all just have to appreciate what we get. Can it be made better? Yeah. It always could.”

But the stakes never will have been higher for NASCAR to have gotten it right by this time next year. The 2020 finale will be coming on the heels of at least five and quite probably six instances in which the reigning champion also will have won the race in a dramatic showdown with his rivals.


The two Joe Gibbs Racing teams that were locked into the championship round with more than a race remaining in the playoffs took the opportunity to have critical team members skip the race last weekend.

Christopher Bell’s team left car chief Chris Sherwood in North Carolina, while Martin Truex Jr.’s team sent car chief Blake Harris back Saturday after helping prepare the No. 19 Toyota. Truex still finished sixth at Phoenix with what he described to NBC Sports as “half a team and an old car” as the team elected to focus on preparing its Camry for Miami.

“Blake went home to get some work done, getting the Homestead car prepped and ready,” Truex said. “Blake was here for practice (Friday), got all his stuff done here, and we could substitute someone. We couldn’t really substitute anybody (Friday) for him. He’s a big part of our team.

“Obviously that’s why he’s going back to work on that car. Just make sure it’s all good. Checks and double checks.”

Bell demurred when asked about Sherwood’s absence, joking “I’ve been told he’s not feeling well this weekend. I’m just telling you what I’m told.”

There should be no apologizing for or hiding the strategy, though. It’s a smart play, especially considering that two of the past three Cup champions (Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano) won the title after winning Martinsville and ostensibly having extra time to prepare.


With Front Row Motorsports now facing two vacant rides next season after the announcement that Matt Tifft’s career is on hold indefinitely, the interim driver in the No. 36 Ford would be an obvious candidate.

John Hunter Nemechek, who finished on the lead lap in 21st during his Cup debut at Texas Motor Speedway, said before Sunday’s race at Phoenix that he would be open to racing full time in Cup in 2020 but “there are a lot of unknowns right now.

“Anytime you’re in a race car, it’s an audition,” Nemecek said. “Everyone has their eyes on you. If you can do something, great. It’s only going to help you. If you do something bad, it’s only going to hurt you. I feel like (the debut) being a solid day, it may have turned some heads, it may have given Front Row some stuff. But overall, I don’t feel it’s an audition. I’m here to fill in for Matt and hope he gets a speedy recovery.”


John Hunter Nemechek’s progress underscores the importance of up and coming drivers selling themselves to teams with sponsors as a package deal. His main backer is Fire Alarm Services, which he eventually hopes to bring with him to Cup after having sponsorship in the Xfinity and truck series.

Corey LaJoie said recently that he has four to six sponsors in tow (much of it through business to business deals that guarantee product sales instead of traditional consumer sponsors that value exposure). LaJoie said packaging at least $1 million in sponsorship is the goal in shopping himself to more elite Cup teams.

In the Xfinity Series, Jesse Little’s move into a full-time ride at Johnny Davis Motorsports comes with a several sponsors that backed him in the truck series … and a few that he has yet to sign.

“It was a commitment on my part that I’m going to find this money that I told the team that I would bring,” he said. “I’ll get to work over the next month and a half, and once the season starts, it’ll be a constant journey of finding deals here and there. Instead of saying, ‘This is what I’ll commit to right now,’ I made the decision to go out on a limb and say ‘I think I can get that (funding).’”

Little, who will be driving and hunting money full time while also completing an information technology degree at UNC Charlotte, said he consulted with LaJoie and Ross Chastain before making a leap similar to what they have done.

“They said it was well worth it,” Little said. “As long as you’re willing to take the risk, sometimes it’s what it takes.”

Ryan: How NASCAR needs to wave the yellow on intentional cautions

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There have been two cautions in two races that already have altered the course of the 2019 playoffs. There almost certainly will be another that will definitively determine the 2019 title.

There is every year at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the yellow flag has fallen within the final run in all five editions of the championship round at the 1.5-mile track.

Sometimes, yellows have occurred much later and more frequently, and in every instance, their timing has played a critical role in crowning the champion.

That’s a portentous backdrop for the disconcerting trend of seemingly intentional spins that have caused game-changing caution flags the past two weeks.

The hope must be that there won’t be a black cloud hanging over Homestead after the season finale’s inevitably critical yellow arrives.

NASCAR has yet to address drivers about intentional spins (though officials have hinted they will in Sunday’s prerace meeting), but there is a much bigger discussion that needs to occur beyond just “stop looping your cars on purpose.”

Essentially, NASCAR needs to establish a better foundation of when cautions are being called and whether drivers will be allowed dispensation in legitimate cases (i.e., spinning with a flat tire) to help ensure that they are. The 2019 inconsistency in the tower on yellows that has been evident in races such as the Roval is factoring into this debate, too.

In the Oct. 27 race at Martinsville Speedway, there were three yellows for debris in the first 350 laps. But the trigger from the tower was much slower in the final 50 laps when the tires began coming apart on the Fords of Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano. In both instances, the yellow flew after each car spun.

“There were guys early in the race at Martinsville that scraped the wall, and ‘Boom!’ yellow’s out,” Kyle Petty said on this week’s NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “NASCAR was quick with the caution. Then Bowyer has trouble, and Joey has his issue. Where’s the caution? You threw one an hour ago for a lesser incident. If they’d thrown it, you wouldn’t have had a car spin. Joey and Clint felt like because NASCAR didn’t give them their caution whether it was deserved or perceived, they felt like, ‘We’ll get our own caution.’”

It was pivotal in the case of Logano, who stayed on the lead lap and finished eighth rather than make a green-flag stop that probably would have cost him at least 15 points (and barely above the cut line heading into Phoenix).

Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway was nearly as important. Bubba Wallace’s spin to cause a yellow fundamentally changed the complexion of Kyle Larson’s race (along with several others) and helped put the Chip Ganassi Racing playoff driver in a deeper points hole.

If the spins were purposeful, it’s hard to find serious fault with what any of the drivers did. In each case, the yellow was primarily for their own benefit. It fell well short of the sort of the race manipulation that has required NASCAR to issue draconian penalties.

Both Petty and Tony Stewart also were right this week to suggest that NASCAR doesn’t need to monitor every spin to judge whether it was potentially nefarious. With the number of impenetrable ground rules applied weekly, there needs to be as much deregulation in Cup as humanly possible.

But there also needs to be a more clear and general understanding of what constitutes a caution flag and what drivers might be permitted in causing one.

If an agreed-upon standard becomes, “we’ll let you spin your car after you’ve sustained a flat tire under normal circumstances,” that is better than the vague alternative of no standard at all.

Because if someone blatantly causes a yellow at Homestead, it’ll get a lot more complicated.

Through information supplied by NACSAR since last year via the electronic control unit in Cup cars’ fuel injection systems, teams have access to more data than ever – steering, brake, throttle traces and RPMs.

That is strong evidence to build a case if a team feels it was wronged on a late caution flag (if Chip Ganassi Racing had wanted to challenge the No. 43’s spin at Texas, the facts likely were there), and it severely undermines the NASCAR contention that it’s difficult to judge intent.

It’s a lot easier when you can determine precisely when someone hit the accelerator or brake and flicked the wheel.

When the grand prize is at stake, and that information is available, “we can’t determine intent” will become as suspicious an explanation as a spin in question.


With the dissolution of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, there is no greater successful crew chief-driver dichotomy than Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick.

Though there is much less creative tension in their working relationship than the Hendrick Motorsports duo that won seven championships, Childers and Harvick have a yin and yang that blends perfectly with their intensity to be ranked first anytime that cars are on track (be it for practice, qualifying or the race).

That was evidenced by wildly different ways that they got ready for Texas. Childers maniacally reviewed tape of the March 31 race, watching it for strategy clues Monday morning … and then rewatching it Tuesday afternoon (after a viewing of the March 10 race at ISM Raceway left him unsettled) and then again Sunday morning before the Texas race as he crammed “just like having to take a big exam.

“Places like here and Indy, you have to go back and pay attention to that stuff and what people do with two tires and no tires and track position and all that,” Childers said. “Obviously, you’ve just kind of got to have that in your head of what could happen, what can happen, and I probably drove (Harvick) crazy sending crazy messages about what other people did in (March).”

“He watches it so many times that I don’t have to watch it,” Harvick said with a smile.

Contrast that with how the driver prepped the day before the race – taking his wife and two kids to the Fort Worth Zoo. Harvick is always on call even with his family (he was checking his watch Saturday for instantaneous processing of hourly email and text updates from Childers), but he also has the ability (and approval from the No. 4 team) to compartmentalize his personal life.

That balance is why it works for the Stewart-Haas Racing duo.

“They expect me to come to the racetrack and be prepared,” Harvick said of his team after his 49th career victory. “And the thing about being prepared for me is to be as mentally focused as you can.  And my age and experience kind of comes into that. You’ve been to some of these racetracks so many times, and I feel like I know the characteristics of the car.

“But there’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t send me a text, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this’ or one of the engineers will send me a text and say, ‘What do you think about this gear ratio.’ One of them is texting me at least once a day, if not multiple times a day, as to what’s going on and what’s happening. Those are those relationships that are constant and steady, and everybody believes in each other because that’s just how it works.

“It’s never a bad time to text me or it’s never a bad time to call me.  It’s never a bad time to ask me to do something. When they need something, I put down what I’m doing, and I try to figure out how we’re going to do it.  The priority are (family) and that race team, and the things that they need.  But I am a thorough believer that that circle of life has to be balanced for you to show up to this racetrack every single week, to be as focused as you need to be to process all of that information.”

When Harvick and Childers won the 2014 Cup championship, “I Believe That We Will Win” was their rallying cry (borrowed from the U.S. Men’s National Team in soccer). Texas revealed why the underpinnings of that motto still are working five years later.

“There’s a deep belief in each other that we can go out and be better than anybody on any given day,” Harvick said. “Most of the time we can talk ourselves into it even when we probably don’t really have a chance, we can talk ourselves into it.”


Harvick’s victory at Texas marked a calendar year since the last time that a Cup race winner had been hit with a major postrace infraction.

The de-facto nullification of his Nov. 4, 2018 victory at Texas was a big part of the impetus behind NASCAR’s overhaul of postrace penalties this season that limited inspection to being conducted solely at the track.

Though there have been disqualifications of winners in the truck and Xfinity Series, all 34 race wins in Cup have been untainted (though a couple of other finishers have been dinged).

It’s hardly an outcome anyone would have predicted in February on the heels of a 2018 season in which Harvick’s team was nailed twice after wins and stood out among a processional of cars deemed illegal at NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord.

Last year’s incessant midweek raft of negative headlines – culminating with Harvick losing his berth in the championship round (he regained it on points after Phoenix) – prompted the shift in policy this season, and it seemed destined to produce it least one earth-shattering disqualification.

As it turned out, Harvick was prescient in what he told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long before the season about teams and NASCAR getting on the same page about how inspection would be handled under the new parameters.

Those discussions apparently have worked.


The finicky nature of the traction compound at Texas might make some playoff drivers gun-shy about hopping on the sticky stuff at ISM Raceway, which is applying the substance for the first time.

There is a scientific process used in its application that produces estimated grip levels, but Texas underscored how tricky that can be as several drivers struggled to find the adhesive and found the wall instead.

Phoenix will be using the traction compound for the first time, and perhaps more importantly, it’ll be the first time the PJ1 is applied at a NASCAR-owned track without much supervision from the staff of Speedway Motorsports tracks owned by Bruton Smith. Michigan was the first NASCAR track to use PJ1 a couple of months ago, but it came with guidance from Speedway Motorsports vice president of operations Steve Swift.

Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski all crashed after finding the limits of the traction compound’s grip at Texas, where the PJ1 didn’t seem to activate as well at other tracks. Though the intent is to provide another lane of racing at Phoenix, it’ll be unsurprising if drivers elect to tiptoe – at least in the first half of the race after Elliott, Keselowski and Hamlin were burned by testing it in the first 85 laps at Texas.

“Drivers will be asking, ‘Is it that big of a gain?’ and if not, you probably don’t need to go up there,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton said. “If not, you probably don’t need to need to go there. It’s there as an option, but you aren’t forced into it.”


John Hunter Nemechek will be making history together with his dad, Joe, in running all three series this weekend at ISM Raceway. That’s an impressive father-son accomplishment, but it’ll be hard to top what John Hunter did in first career Cup start.

The 22-year-old started 29th and finished 21st at Texas, outrunning Front Row Motorsports teammates Michael McDowell and David Ragan. He also finished ahead of many veterans such as Ryan Preece and Bubba Wallace (and just behind Paul Menard and Chris Buescher).

Though the prognosis of No. 36 Ford driver Matt Tifft remains uncertain after a seizure, Nemechek’s debut in NASCAR’s premier series should provide Front Row with a measure of comfort.

Despite spending the full season in Xfinity cars that don’t ride nearly as low to the pavement as Cup and drive much differently, Nemechek still finished eight spots ahead of his father, who probably deserves credit for not only raising but also motivating the second-generation racer. “We’re a competitive family, and we love to push each other to the next level,” John Hunter said.

If he can post solid finishes for Front Row in the final two races of 2019, Nemechek’s driver stock should rise. Though he was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, he has posted five top 10s in the past six Xfinity races, and his seasonlong consistency deserves another look.

Kyle Larson demands penalties for intentional spins after ‘B.S.’ caution

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FORT WORTH, Texas – After a questionable caution put a serious crimp in his championship chances, Kyle Larson called on NASCAR officials to step in after a spate of possibly intentional yellows.

“It’s B.S.,” Larson said after a 12th Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. “I’ve done it. We’ve all done it in those positions, but until NASCAR steps in, and whether it’s a fine or a penalty with points or something, people are still going to do it.

“It just sucks.”

After pitting from fourth under green for a four-tire pit stop on Lap 238, Larson was trapped a lap down when a spin five laps later by Bubba Wallace brought out a yellow.

Wallace’s No. 43 had a left-rear tire going down, but he appeared to have saved it after an initial slide. He then looped the car in a half-spin on the apron in a manner reminiscent of Joey Logano’s spin last week at Martinsville Speedway, which also raised eyebrows for potentially being intentional. According to ground rules provided to Cup crew chiefs, NASCAR officials can penalize at their discretion if they determine a driver intentionally caused a caution.

Unlike Logano’s spin, which NASCAR said wasn’t reviewed by the scoring tower, a NASCAR spokesman said Wallace’s spin was reviewed, and officials determined it didn’t warrant a penalty.

Larson believes that was the wrong call.

“That was very obvious (Wallace) was spinning on purpose,” Larson said. “He turned right and left to spin out. So when it’s blatant and that obvious, I think it’s pretty easy for them to notice it and make a call on it.

“I think Helen Keller could have seen that.”

Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, also said Wallace’s spin was intentional on the No. 42 team radio and said “at some point, maybe (NASCAR will) start doing something about guys bringing out the caution on purpose.”

Larson conceded he has been guilty of intentionally causing yellows, noting he did it by intentionally stopping on track during the 2016 truck race at Eldora Speedway (he was penalized a lap but still rebounded for the victory).

“We’re all guilty of doing it,” he said. “But until NASCAR does something else about it, or does anything or something, we’re going to continue to do it.”

The caution also hurt the cars of Erik Jones, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and William Byron – all of whom had pitted just ahead of the yellow and had to take a wavearound to get back on the lead lap.

Wallace was able to pit without losing as much time under green but still finished three laps down in 24th.

“I wasn’t the only one it affected,” Larson said. “It affected a few other guys that had a good shot to win. So yeah, it benefited (Wallace) and really killed our day.”

After restarting in 19th, Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet wasn’t the same mired in traffic over the final 86 laps of the 500-mile race when he felt he was headed for at least a top-three finish Sunday.

“The nose of the car felt like it was vibrating, and I lost a lot of speed, too, even with me running as much throttle as I was before we pitted,” he said. “I got really loose after we pitted. So something happened, I’m not really sure what. Hopefully, they can figure it out.

“I felt I was the best car to that point. Maybe we had issues with the car at the end, but I felt I was the best car to that point. I was able to pass people pretty easily. We were doing good, looking really good and had great stage points and were going to get a good finish, and it was going to be a totally different race until (the yellow for Wallace).”

With Kevin Harvick locking into the championship round with a victory, Larson heads to ISM Raceway near Phoenix in a virtual must-win situation.

He is 23 points behind fourth-ranked Joey Logano, who currently is in the final transfer spot to the Nov. 17 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Unless (third-ranked Kyle Busch) or Logano has major issues, we for sure have to go there and win,” Larson said. “Phoenix, we’ve run decent there. Had a shot to win once before. See if we can get it done next week.”

Ryan: Here’s why Martin Truex Jr.’s title hopes just got doubly dangerous

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Martin Truex Jr. said it well upon joining the NASCAR on NBC postrace show Sunday night after his first career win at Martinsville Speedway.

“I don’t give a damn,” the championship favorite said with a broad smile greeting Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Krista Voda (video above).

It was referencing his take on the postrace scuffle between the Nos. 11 and 22 teams, but it also could have been in general about the philosophy of the No. 19 Toyota team.

Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn never have cared about anyone’s opinions but those they share with each other and among their crew.

It’s how they were able to survive a difficult 2014 (their first season together) when Pearn never questioned Truex’s concerns about an ill-designed chassis (which Truex recently discussed during the Letarte on Location Podcast).

And it’s how they’ve built into a perennial championship contender that forcefully has emerged as the class of these 2019 playoffs — by far.

Truex’s average finish of 6.3 the past seven races is easily the best in Cup (and skewed by a 26th at Talladega), and his 317 total points in the playoffs dwarf the total of second-ranked Denny Hamlin (by 42).

“Yeah, it feels damned good to be the best right now,” Truex said.

Truex and Pearn are doubly dangerous now.

They will have extra time to prepare for the Camry for the championship finale, an advantage that has proved critical as two of the past three Martinsville winners have won the championship (Jimmie Johnson in 2016 and Joey Logano in ’18).

And they also can make life extremely difficult on their three title rivals by winning at Texas and Phoenix and making whoever will join them at Homestead-Miami Speedway sweat longer while counting every point.

It’s what Truex and Pearn faced in each of the previous three times they made the championship round. They still won in ’17 and might have had the best car on long runs last year (when a late caution bit and allowed Logano to pass Truex on a restart for the title).

Now they have a chance to spend a little more time optimizing their stuff for the Nov. 17 finale.

“We’ve never been in this position before,” Truex said. “It’s good territory to be in, but honestly we can’t change who we are. You race every week the same, just there’s more on the line as you go down the road here.

“I mean, obviously there’s going to be a lot of effort put into our car for Homestead, which is probably already started, but now there will be a little bit of extra time for Cole and the guys to work on their thoughts and their plan.  But we’re going to go try to win the next two.  Just like (Martinsville), we’ve never won the next two tracks, and we want to, so here we go.”

With the high downforce and low horsepower untested at Homestead-Miami Speedway, this is a good season to have an extra two weeks of prep, too.

“We’ve kind of been working on Homestead already, but now we’ll be able to kind of dive into it deeper,” Pearn said. “It’s going to be a challenging year.

“I think every Homestead, we’ve never gone through a big rules change like we’re going to experience this time.  Usually you’re able to work on last year’s notes and things like that, and this year that’s not the case.

“You’re going to a track for the first time with this rules package and you’ve got two 50‑minute practices to figure it out. We can work all we want on it, but to know exactly what we want to do is still a bit of a guess.”

Chances are, Pearn and Truex will be figuring it out first with a head-start.

And they won’t give a damn if and when anyone else does.


The fan sentiment and the heightened stakes for next year’s races make it clear that NASCAR must improve the racing at Martinsville next season.

Two races with three lead changes apiece isn’t going to cut it at a track that typically produces great racing at the front (witness the battle between Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch in the March 26, 2018 race that was the most consistently memorable recently).

And as Dale Jarrett noted on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, it starts with tire wear.

Despite a Goodyear test in July at the 0.526-mile oval, NASCAR returned with the same left-side tire last weekend as it has used for the past seven seasons at Martinsville. In March, team engineers estimated it could run 3,000 laps without being changed. On Sunday, it seemed like 10,000.

“I’m probably going to make the people at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company mad, and they do a fantastic job building good tires,” Jarrett said. “But I think with this package, they have been too far on the safe side with these tires.

“I think that a softer tire right and left side, but the left-side tires, the drivers and a couple of crew chiefs tell me they literally wouldn’t have to change left-side tires as far as wear goes. That’s how little tire wear they were getting. The tires are way too hard. You need tire wear to make good racing and changes throughout a run because handling comes into play even more. If your tire doesn’t change other than the air pressure building, whoever has the car out front is going to have the best situation.”

Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. certainly proved that in 2019, combining to lead an astounding 910 of 1,000 laps. Some of that undoubtedly could be attributed to the high-downforce package with the massive spoiler creating a turbulent wake for any trailing car. Though there were some exceptions for strong cars (such as Chase Elliott’s No. 9 starting from the rear and reaching the top five in the first 180 laps), the disconcerting specter of aerodynamics on a short flat track is a serious problem.

“I’m sure we’re kicking a dead horse, but passing was just so difficult,” said pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, who never led again after losing the lead in the pits. “You just couldn’t overcome it. I certainly couldn’t overcome it.

“Hate to say it: This is a new Martinsville. It’s not the Martinsville of old where if your car is really good you can make it through the field.”

NASCAR needs the old Martinsville back, and even if the rules already are set for 2020, it should look at all means necessary for accomplishing that.

It’s understandable that Goodyear wants to avoid the negative PR of failures that accompany building a less bulletproof tire that wears more quickly.

But the optics of two more clunkers next year at Martinsville – which will host a prestigious night race and the gateway to the championship race — would be much, much worse.


Is Kyle Busch really all that much unhappier this season? Or are we just getting a more frequent window into how much Busch hates losing because of NASCAR’s new mandatory media availability policy that requires all playoff drivers to do postrace interviews?

Even some members of Busch’s fervently supportive Rowdy Nation have begun asking why their hero seems to be smiling less this season.

But look no further than his most recent Wednesday appearance on NASCAR America’s Motor Mouths show – the third time that Busch has been engaging, funny and self-deprecating a few days after a finish in which he was seething – to realize what team owner Joe Gibbs has seen when he talks to his driver a day removed from the racetrack on Monday nights.

“He has a great sense of humor at night when I call him,” Gibbs said, pausing to chuckle. “‘When are you going to give me the good car?’ Stuff like that.”

Maybe much like Tony Stewart’s infamous truculence, there isn’t much more to say about Busch’s postrace curtness other than this:

He is an acknowledged sore loser who once simply ducked the media when he had little to say because he knew it won’t come off well.

“I’m not sure we can analyze that, OK?” Gibbs said Sunday when asked what was wrong with the No. 18 driver. “Think about his whole life.  He’s got (wife) Sam and (son) Brexton, but other than that, it’s racing.  And when something goes bad in racing for him, think about how important that is, and it upsets him.

“Normally the next day he’s a lot better at the race shop and everything, but I think this has been a tough stretch for him.”

Normally in previous seasons, Busch often would have declined comment while purposefully striding away after a disappointing result. This year’s new media policy precludes that without facing punishment.

So instead, Busch has faced the throngs of reporters in the bullpen and spat out mostly one-word answers while occasionally tossing in a few Marshawn Lynch-isms.

He seems to accept the consequences of how that (fairly) is perceived in a negative light.

Maybe we should accept it, too, without overanalyzing beyond that.


The spin that saved Joey Logano’s championship hopes at Martinsville was suspicious in its intent, but it’s hard to judge the Team Penske driver if he did loop his car intentionally.

With the dearth of “natural” caution flags the last few years (particularly for debris), there also have been some more notable single-car spins with flat tires – particularly on the apron at large tracks – that avoid contact with the wall or other cars.

NASCAR officials also are in a spot with the way they’ve called yellows this year (e.g., the sometimes quick trigger fingers at the Roval). When asked by NBCSports.com about the Logano incident, a spokesman said it wasn’t reviewed by the scoring tower.

As Dale Jarrett noted on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, it’s logical for drivers to put the onus on NASCAR to make a call for an intentional spin that probably wouldn’t be much worse of a penalty than falling two laps down on a green-flag stop.

By the way, there was nothing particularly incriminating on the 22 radio about the spin. Crew chief Todd Gordon told Logano he thought his tires, specifically the left front, were up. Logano responded, “I’m pretty sure they’re flat. Or one of them is flat. I spun out.”

A team spokesman said the left rear went flat, and all four tires were changed on the stop.


Mechanical failures on consecutive days crippled Chase Elliott’s championship hopes, but team owner Rick Hendrick maintained a positive outlook.

“I don’t know how many motors we build a year, and we have one that breaks a rod bearing, and rear ends, we build them for (Kyle Larson) and several other teams, and it’s just a fluke,” Hendrick said. “You have mechanical parts, they’re going to break. I don’t think it’s anything to clean up. It’s hard to believe it could happen to (Elliott) twice in a weekend. Two different things, though, so we’ll see what we can do. It’s just go out and try to win Texas.”

Coupled with an early failure at Dover International Speedway, the No. 9 Chevrolet has endured two engine failures and an axle breakdown in the past four races. Even if they aren’t flukes, it might not be a process that can be addressed before the championship finale (if Elliott reaches the title round).

“Rick Hendrick is a great mentor, friend, boss and businessman because he’s going to compliment in public and criticize and question in private,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said on NASCAR America Splash & Go this week. “He’s going to ask, ‘What in the heck is going on? How can this happen?’ I don’t disagree with what he said. These things do happen. Amazing it’s happening to the absolute wrong car at Hendrick at the absolute wrong time.

“But there’s nothing they can change in five days (to fix it). No process. No procedure. No radar vision to look at these parts. Failures are a product of whatever procedures you have ahead of time. If you want to avoid failures, you have to work on procedures upstream. I’m sure changes will be made at Hendrick but nothing that will have an effect on the next few weeks.”


There isn’t much more to analyze about the scuffle between the teams of Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, the feuding that precipitated it or the punishment that has followed.

So how about another Zapruder-esque examination of what was said between the drivers in the run-up to Logano’s shot to Hamlin’s right shoulder?

Let’s go to our crack staff in Stamford, Connecticut, that helpfully scrutinized the audio from what was caught on camera:

Logano: “You went all the way up, like …”

Hamlin: “Yeah.”

Logano: “Like all the way, like I wasn’t even there.”

Hamlin: “I knew you were there.”

Logano: “Put me into the wall.”

Crosstalk

Logano: “You wouldn’t have known (that I was there). You were driving like I wasn’t even there.”

Hamlin: “No. I knew you were there, but I was just trying to take all the space I could.”

Logano: “I’ll take all the space I want to now. Just think about that. In the future, I can take the space.”

Hamlin raises finger, Logano hits shoulder, fracas begins.

Fin–

Podcast: Dale Jarrett believes Joey Logano (wisely) spun intentionally

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NASCAR on NBC analyst and NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett believes Joey Logano intentionally spun his car late in the Martinsville race after contact with the car of Denny Hamlin.

The reason in Jarrett’s mind? Logano’s spin brought out a caution that helped keep the Team Penske driver on the lead lap instead of losing two laps if he had limped into the pits under green to change tires.

There’s no doubt in my mind he spun his car intentionally and finally in a place when he realized he had a problem, and he was going to need a caution because they were going to go a couple laps down if they had to pit under green and make this change,” Jarrett said on this week’s postrace playoff edition of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast with Nate Ryan.

After contact with Hamlin that squeezed him into the wall and left his left-rear tire flat, Logano nearly lost control of his No. 22 Ford in Turn 4.

After traveling down the frontstretch on Lap 458, the car looped in the outside lane of Turn 1 without hitting the wall or another car. That brought out a caution that allowed Logano to pit for four tires.

Logano essentially forced NASCAR to decide if his action was intentional, Jarrett said. As it turned out, NASCAR did not penalize Logano. Officials told NBC Sports that the incident wasn’t reviewed by the scoring tower.

According to ground rules provided to Cup crew chiefs, NASCAR officials can penalize at their discretion if they determine a driver intentionally caused a caution. There also have been postrace penalties in the past after NASCAR determined that drivers spun intentionally to cause a yellow.

“Why not put the ball in NASCAR’s court to try to decide?” Jarrett said. It’s a ball and strike call. I’ll take it even further than that: Did the pitcher intentionally hit a batter? There’s only one person that really knows for sure if that’s the case. And in this case, there’s only one person that knows 100 percent.

“I think I know as a driver and competitor in that situation that I’d rather take my chances on NASCAR having to make that call and said I created a caution intentionally. I think that’s a one-lap penalty if you do that. That’s less than what they were going to lose if they went in under green and change tires.

Why not put (NASCAR) in that position? They might not make that call. It might look like (Logano) was carrying too much speed and just spun.

“But there’s no doubt in my mind that he did the thing that most of us – most of as drivers – would have done in that situation. I don’t fault him at all. It’s no different than a crew chief pushing the limits of what he can get through inspection. A driver is doing the same thing. And in this case, I think he’s going to come out with a better end, whichever way the call went there.”

Logano salvaged an eighth-place finish at Martinsville that kept him in the final transfer spot for the playoffs, 14 points above the cutline. If he had pitted under green with 40 laps remaining, he likely would have finished outside the top 20.

“Now those guys that are below the cutline kind of wish that would have played out that way so that everybody’d be a lot closer to that cut line,” Jarrett said.

Noting how hard Logano raced at Dover while 24 laps down because every playoff point matters, Jarrett said Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon have skillfully maximized points while minimizing potentially negative outcomes for the No. 22 during the playoffs.

This is four races in a row for Joey Logano and his team to make something of literally a disaster for them,” Jarrett said. “They didn’t make that much at Dover once they had that problem, but the other two races in the Round of 12, they came back and made something after getting crashed at Talladega and here again (at Martinsville), having another problem that could have put them outside the top four here, but they came back and saved that.

He was able to keep his wits about him – which is hard to do for a driver – and drive up through the field and get something of it.”

You can listen to the NASCAR on NBC Podcast via the embed above or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Google Play. You also can watch the podcast via the Motorsports on NBC YouTube channel.

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