brian france

Ryan: NASCAR listening to Cup drivers more without council?

1 Comment

LONG POND, Pa. – With the de-facto dissolution of its Drivers Council this year, NASCAR might have taken a step forward by adhering to an axiom well known in Corporate America.

Scheduling fewer meetings often can result in more effective and productive communication.

Last week underscored several examples of NASCAR implementing concepts, competitive elements and rule modifications after its stars petitioned for changes in a looser and less structured environment than the past four years.

–For the second consecutive race, drivers were heavily consulted on the application and placement of PJ1 traction compound (which made its debut at Pocono Raceway and at least offered an option of outside passes).

–Vice president of competition Scott Miller said it was a “prominent” driver who originally championed the idea of inverting the field to start the second half of a Pocono twin bill in 2020.

–The tweaking of what constitutes an uncontrolled tire (which seemed to have an impact on at least one Kyle Busch pit stop Sunday) after lobbying from Denny Hamlin and others.

–On Saturday morning at Pocono Raceway, defending series champion Joey Logano met with series officials to discuss restart gamesmanship – which NASCAR then addressed in drivers meetings the next two days (and penalized Daniel Suarez for laying back Sunday).

Logano believes the cause-effect relationship suggests the demise of the Drivers Council was timely.

“The council is maybe not as existent, but the old-school way of going into the trailer and talking to leadership of the sport seems to be effective,” Logano said. “It used to not be. That’s why we needed a council.

“Now we don’t need a council because a lot of us feel more comfortable with the relationships, and we see things change after things are brought up. We should be proud to have a sanctioning body with open ears that are willing to listen to the drivers. Now they might not always do what the drivers want, because sometimes what the drivers want is wrong for the sport. But there’s certain times it really is the right thing that only a driver would know that’s inside the car.”

In that vein, NASCAR still is holding formal meetings with drivers a few times this year, but the invite list won’t be limited to the 10 or so drivers who were selected annually via a regimented election process that ensured equal representation for experience and manufacturers.

Spearheaded by Hamlin, the council was formed in 2015 to great fanfare, but it often seemed to be bogged down in minutiae and paralyzed from a lack of consensus. By a year ago, it had become so superfluous that Kevin Harvick openly admitted he was skipping meetings in part because of frustration with the panel’s efficacy.

Over the offseason, the council quietly lapsed as other channels of communication have grown. Since replacing Brian France (who attended roughly a dozen races annually), NASCAR CEO Jim France has become an omnipresent presence at the track along with his executive team (president Steve Phelps and vice chairman Mike Helton were at his side last weekend at Pocono).

A few dozen Cup drivers are on a text chain with NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell, who provides updates and explanations on hot-button issues (such as why NASCAR elected to call the Daytona race early).

“I would say I have more communication and more talks with NASCAR now” than in the Driver Council era, Hamlin said. “I’m constantly in contact with the testing team on applying the PJ1 at all these racetracks.”

Said Harvick: “Denny has kind of spearheaded a lot of the PJ1 evolution from the driver’s side. It becomes easier when there are one or two guys, and he’s really the guy that is communicating to get things moving forward. You can just throw out your two cents in the group chat, and he can compile all the information because everybody looks at it differently.”

The discourse also has improved likely just because there is no topic that touches a third rail in NASCAR as much as when the 2019 rules still were in flux last year.

Now it’s settled law. Though some still harbor reservations about the lower horsepower, high-downforce combination, it’s pointless to have contentious debates about an overhauled package that Phelps recently called “the path forward” in Cup.

The resistance to more full-throttle racing from some big names might have brought more compromise in other areas from NASCAR, which has been welcoming feedback the past decade after largely iron-fisted rule through its first 60 years.

“They deserve a lot of credit in the last 10 years for listening more than they ever have in the history of the sport,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I think we’ve overreacted on both sides where we had to have committees and so many people on committees.”

Johnson said a problem was that the structure invariably included some drivers who would “drop a grenade and walk away” during meetings vs. those who were “very diligent to help drive the sport forward.

“I think we’ve narrowed it down now to a core group of guys who really do care and are willing to see it through,” he said.

Ryan Blaney, another former council member, likes that the information is free-flowing even for those who are less engaged. Various text chains also allow “always having open discussions on ideas.

“Whether they apply that or not, they’re always asking for our feedback,” he said. “From NASCAR, the tracks, the drivers, teams, I think we work pretty well together. Sometimes you’d like to see things a little bit differently. But at the end of the day it’s their call.”


Pocono’s Cup races on consecutive days next season was well vetted among drivers, who gave it mostly rave reviews as a showcase during a 2020 schedule already hailed for its revamping.

“I like mixing things up,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think it’ll be one of the events as a driver and fan that you’ll circle and say, ‘I can’t wait to see how this works out and what it looks like.’ I think it’s a bit of the spice of life having a few changes in the NASCAR season for us.”

Said Clint Bowyer: “It’s time to shake a lot of things up in this sport. You can’t continue to do the same thing over and over and over; you have to reinvent yourself every single time for a fan. That goes for any event. Whether it’s a country music festival, a football game or a race. We’re all up against having to reinvent ourselves over and over and over to stay appealing and relevant to a fan that’s looking for something new. They expect to see something different or something they didn’t see the last time.

“How do you entice them in and bring them year after year? I’m a big advocate of you better fill their day up with content. These are race fans, they want cars on the track and people putting on a show, and certainly they’re going to have that with that schedule.”

There are a few lingering questions, namely how the inversion of the starting lineup for the second race might encourage sandbagging in the final 50 miles of Race 1.

Why not aim for the end of the lead lap for a better starting spot — and a stage points grab — in Race II? (Blaney suggests having the winner of the first race draw a pill in victory lane to determine how many cars are inverted.)

There also are many details to be nailed down, namely the length of Saturday’s Cup race, which is tentatively 350 miles. The issue is a rigid six-hour TV window, which needs to incorporate the Cup race preceded by a 200-mile truck race (which would be the series’ longest yet at Pocono; the track would prefer to keep that distance but could consider shortening).

And let’s not even consider what might happen if it rains (which tends to happen now and then in the Pennsylvania mountains). If there’s a spate of inclement weather Saturday and Sunday, rescheduling four races across three series on a Monday seems nigh impossible.

But if the Pocono experiment is deemed successful, it almost certainly would be considered elsewhere.

“Certainly, there are some tracks that would be great candidates for it,” Hamlin said. ‘Off the top of my head, Dover and tracks that are one-off and really, really different. If it’s a possibility, I’d vote for it. Our season is very very long and very very saturated. If you can condense but still give the same amount of races, I think it’s a good thing.”

One idea absolutely to consider, whether by Pocono or a NASCAR sponsor: Paying a bounty for a sweep of the races, as suggested by Kyle Busch (particularly if he’s willing to accommodate a bargain rate for his services).


There wasn’t total consensus on Pocono’s revamped 2020 format.

“Eh,” Bubba Wallace said when asked about the makeover at the track where he made his Cup debut in 2017 and escaped serious injury in a vicious crash last year. “I’d like to see no races here honestly. What do we do around here? Nothing. We sit here and do absolutely nothing all weekend. … I don’t know if it puts on the best show.”

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver believes Indianapolis Motor Speedway is less deserving of a date on the schedule than Pocono but also believes the latter’s rural locale is a detriment.

“We’re 45 minutes from any city,” he said. “There ain’t nothing to do.

“I’m looking at it for the fans, and if fans aren’t in the seats … I haven’t paid attention to the crowd here, but it’s way too big of a track for us. I feel like the racing isn’t that great.”

Wallace concedes his dream schedule “would piss off everybody. Probably a ton of short tracks and no road courses.”

And no Pocono (a point reinforced by his Tuesday tweet evaluating Sunday’s race).


Despite higher downforce, a thick swath of “sticky stuff” for extra adhesion and cars that are “easier” to drive, there were seven backup cars in the past two races because of practice crashes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.

“I don’t think it’s coincidence,” Brad Keselowski said.

There are a few theories, but it essentially boils down to the cars being “edgier” as drivers and teams try to find the limits of their setups.

“You’d think they make a lot of downforce and a lot of grip, and they’d be easier to drive, but with that downforce and grip and load on the car, the tire had to get harder, so the tires become a little difficult to chase in certain situations,” said Alex Bowman, who wrecked at New Hampshire. “And the (traction compound) is like a layer of slime once you get out of the groove. It’s just like a lot of circumstances are playing into it.

“Everybody talks about how this package isn’t hard to drive. Well, it’s really hard to drive right now. For whatever reason. You make a 6-inch mistake, and you’re backward in the fence before you can even catch it.”

GoFas Racing’s Corey LaJoie said even with lower downforce, last year’s cars were more forgiving.

“You were more out of control generally, but when you had a moment, it was like a long lazy moment, and you’d (recover),” LaJoie said. “Now as soon as you slip a tire, you lose all of it. The cars are evil when they get out of shape now. You’re still going to see guys get out of shape because they’re going to figure out how to make the car less stuck to the racetrack. The less stuck, the faster it goes.”


NASCAR has critical meetings with its Cup manufacturers over the next month about the course of its Gen 7 rollout amid concerns the car might not hit an aggressive 2021 target date.

There remains much to hammer out on the parameters of the car, and a prototype probably needs to ready by early fall for a legitimate shot at a 2021 debut (that at least one team owner has said is mandatory). Testing began earlier for the Car of Tomorrow (which was on track more than 18 months ahead of its staggered rollout in 2007) and the Gen 6 (which underwent three years of planning and R&D before its 2013 debut).

Multiple sources (who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly) told NBCSports.com that switching over fleets to the Gen 7 would incur a one-time cost that averaged about $4-5 million, according to independent studies commissioned by Cup teams.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps told reporters earlier this month that “the majority of the garage is on board with the 2021 start. Are there some that ’22 might work better for? There might be. We have to figure out how we get full alignment on what that’s going to be, and that’s what we’re working on.

“Everyone has their own ideas, and it gets to self-interest pretty quickly, about the timing of different things and how they’d like these things happening. We’ll continue to work with our teams and OEMs to make sure everyone is aligned on what is the correct date to do that. The positive thing is we’re not just going to plow forward with a decision without getting everyone on board.”


Matt DiBenedetto has yet to be guaranteed a 2020 return to Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota. Here’s the full context of what he said Saturday when asked if he needed to begin looking around to protect himself for having a ride next year.

“I’ve had to fight and claw so hard, now that I’m in a good, quality ride with a great team that I love, I’m just 100% focused on performing,” DiBenedetto said. “That’s what we’ve been doing. That’s the awesome part. These top fives, top 10s. I know that anyone, not to sound arrogant, but they’d have to have their heads examined if they get rid of me. Because nobody will do a better job in my car than myself.”

Closing with a lighthearted chuckle, he also spoke firmly and with no animosity, which is why DiBenedetto shouldn’t have felt the need to backpedal Monday. Yes, the words might come across strongly when read in the absence of inflection, but they aren’t out of context. He bluntly expressed faith in his ability to drive in Cup and detailed the mental toughness that earned him the ride.

No apology necessary from DiBenedetto, who also said he had “not a single conversation at all” about whether LFR would pick up his option for 2020.

Team owner Bob Leavine also confirmed DiBenedetto’s uncertain status Monday. With LFR as the only current Toyota option for potentially resolving Joe Gibbs Racing’s dilemma of fielding Cup rides for Erik Jones and Christopher Bell next year, DiBenedetto’s fate likely will depend on the actions of others and not necessarily on where he finishes – though results probably should be the determining factor.

There was nothing wrong with sharply pointing that out.

Former NASCAR CEO Brian France pleads guilty to DWI

Getty Images
1 Comment

Former NASCAR CEO Brian France pleaded guilty to Driving While Intoxicated in August 2018, Suffolk County (New York) District Attorney Timothy D. Sini announced Friday.

As part of the plea agreement, France is required to complete 100 hours of community service and undergo alcohol counseling before his sentencing date. If he successfully complies with the requirements, France will be able to withdraw his plea of guilty and the charge will be reduced to a traffic violation of Driving While Ability Impaired.

If he is unsuccessful, he will be sentenced on the misdemeanor conviction. France is scheduled to be sentenced in Sag Harbor Village Justice Court on June 5, 2020.

In a statement, France said: “I would like to thank the Sag Harbor Village Justice Court for their careful attention to this matter. I am grateful for the Court’s consideration of all the facts in this case and I will follow their direction and recommendations as we move forward.

“While I made a mistake, this event has also given me the opportunity to reflect on my poor judgment that day, my family and my greater responsibilities to our community. I have learned valuable lessons and will be a better person because of this process.”

At about 7:08 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2018, France was driving a white 2017 Lexus sedan northbound on Main Street in Sag Harbor when he was observed failing to stop at a stop sign by a Sag Harbor Village Police officer. The officer stopped France and observed that France had a strong odor of alcohol on his breath, slurred speech, watery, bloodshot and glassy eyes, and was unsteady on his feet. France was arrested and given a breath test, which revealed his blood alcohol level to be .18 percent.

“This case is a reminder for both residents and anyone visiting Suffolk County this summer that it is all of our responsibility to keep our roads safe,” District Attorney Sini said in a statement. “It is not acceptable for anyone to be driving while drunk or on drugs in our community.”

Friday 5: The tale of two comments and one fine

4 Comments

What’s the difference between these comments?

Denny Hamlin after the March 3, 2013, Phoenix race: “I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning. The teams hadn’t figured out how to get the aero balance right. Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th-place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up. It’s just one of those things where track position is everything.”

Kyle Busch after Monday’s race at Dover on the package for the cars: “It’s terrible. All I can do is bitch about it and fall on deaf ears and we’ll come back with the same thing in the fall.”

NASCAR fined Hamlin $25,000 for his comments.

NASCAR explained the reason for the fine by stating: “Denny Hamlin made some disparaging remarks about the on-track racing that had taken place that afternoon. While NASCAR gives its competitors ample leeway in voicing their opinions when it comes to a wide range of aspects about the sport, the sanctioning body will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product.”

Six years later, NASCAR said this week that it would not fine Busch for his comments after the Dover race. Busch said this week that he was not surprised NASCAR decided against fining him for his comments because “I’m not sure I said anything wrong.”

But don’t try to dissect the comments. That’s not the place to look in examining why one driver was fined and another was not.

NASCAR’s reaction to Busch’s comments shows a calmer approach. That’s a difference between Jim France, who is now the sport’s CEO, and Brian France, who was the CEO when Hamlin was fined.

Brian France often used a simple example to explain his reasoning for fining drivers for comments, saying in November 2011: “If I own a restaurant and I say you know what, the food in my restaurant is not very good, we’re not going to accept it. It’s as simple as that.”

With that as a key component, NASCAR issued secret fines to Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski for comments and actions.

When public pressure grew for NASCAR to do away with secret fines, Brian France said in January 2012 that the sanctioning body would still react to driver comments.

“If you challenge the integrity of the sport, we’re going to deal with that,” Brian France said then. “You know, we have to deal with that. And I think what’s really interesting is I can’t tell you how many owners or drivers come up to me and say thanks for doing that because some of these comments were irresponsible and unhelpful to growing the sport.”

If drivers can’t pass, they’re going to be frustrated. Some drivers noted how winner Martin Truex Jr. had the best car at Dover but it took him 240 laps to get to the front.

Truex took the lead for good with 53 laps to go. The same car that struggled in traffic — “It was definitely really hard to pass,” he said — then drove away from the field, winning by 9.5 seconds.

While the package has improved the racing at some tracks, it’s not perfect every place. The key is making changes for tracks where the package isn’t as effective.

With car owners facing additional costs with the Gen 7 car’s projected debut in 2021, they likely will be hesitant to be in favor of any expensive midseason changes. It’s 21 months until February 2021. With many details to be worked out with the new car, the question is what can NASCAR do to allow drivers to show more of their skill? If NASCAR can’t find a solution, how much longer will they allow drivers to speak up about the package?

2. Is time running out for NASCAR to go to Nashville in 2021?

In December, Formosa Productions, which promotes races at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee, and Bristol Motor Speedway reached an agreement to “explore bringing major NASCAR racing events” back to the .596-mile track.

Nearly six months later, work remains.

An issue is getting an agreement done with the city by next spring when NASCAR is expected to announce the 2021 schedules. NASCAR announced the 2020 Xfinity and Gander Truck Series schedules April 4, 2019. If NASCAR aims for a similar target date, that would leave 11 months to get a deal complete.

If more time was needed, NASCAR might be able to delay the 2021 Xfinity and Truck schedules. The 2019 schedules for both series were not released until June 13, 2018. Either way, time is ticking.

“Days, weeks and months go by quickly when you’re not really paying attention to it,” Marcus Smith, president and chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, said. “However, it’s very possible things can get put on the right track and move along very swiftly and that’s certainly our interest.”

He says conversations are ongoing.

I think the most important part is we’ve got a strong interest and it seems like in general there is a big interest in the people we’re talking with,” Smith said.

A few issues facing an effort to get on the 2021 schedule:

Nashville elections, including for mayor, are Aug. 12. There are multiple candidates for mayor and should a runoff election be needed, it would be held Sept. 12.

Smith notes that Fairgrounds Speedway “needs some TLC.” So far a financing plan has not been finalized.

Also, the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners raised issues in its April meeting about SMI’s involvement.

While the Tennessean had reported that SMI/Bristol Motor Speedway officials have met with Mayor David Briley and his administration, the Fair Board — which oversees the track — has not had any contact.

“I think there has sort of been a transparency problem here,” said fair board member Jason Bergeron at the April meeting. “It’s been eight months and we haven’t heard any details. … It’s a little frustrating. We have no concrete proposal and there’s been no real engagement with the community.”

He later said: “I think SMI needs to bring a real proposal to the table.”

The agenda for the May 14 Fair Commission Board meeting includes a “presentation by Speedway Motorsports Inc.”

3. A new test

Cup teams return to a 1.5-mile speedway this weekend for the first time in more than a month.

Denny Hamlin won at Texas on March 31 in the most recent race at a 1.5-mile speedway. That race also saw Hendrick Motorsports lead 110 of 334 laps between Jimmie Johnson (60 laps led), Chase Elliott (35) and William Byron (15). Johnson finished fifth, Byron sixth and Elliott 13th.

Stewart-Haas Racing, which is winless this year after winning a series-high 12 races last year, placed all four of its cars in the top 10 at Texas: Clint Bowyer was second, Daniel Suarez placed third, Aric Almirola was seventh and Kevin Harvick finished eighth.

Almirola is excited to see where his team stands this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

“We’ve built new race cars going to Kansas,” Almirola said. “We built new race cars going to Texas, which I thought were in the game. We were competitive, we led some laps and challenged to lead the race at the end.

“We were in the right direction with our race cars and then we’ve taken another step in going to Kansas. Just continuing to evolve our mile-and-a-half program. Having a month off has really allowed us to kind of take as step back, go through lot of data, look at a lot of different things and build these race cars.”

4. Record streak

No, we’re not talking about Kyle Busch tying Morgan Shepherd for the most consecutive top-10 finishes in a row at 11, but what Ross Chastain has done this year.

Ross Chastain has competed in every Cup, Xfinity and Truck race this season. Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chastain has started every Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series race. That’s 27 consecutive races and it will grow this weekend with Chastain entered in both the Truck and Cup races at Kansas Speedway.

Chastain is one of three drivers to have started more than 16 consecutive races in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks to start the season. Chastain ranks No. 1 on the list.

Kyle Busch is next. Busch started the first 22 races in the 2008 season and started the first 20 races in the 2009 season. Rick Mast started the first 16 races in the 1989 season.

5. Looks familiar

In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. had two wins, three top-five finishes, seven top-10 finishes, led 536 laps and had an average finish of 10.5 after 11 races.

This year, Truex has scored two wins, four top-five finishes, seven top-10 finishes, led 343 laps and has an average finish of 10.3 after 11 races.

Truex went on to win the title in 2017. While it’s too early to forecast anything like that this year, his start in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing should not go unnoticed, especially heading to Kansas. He has four consecutive top-five finishes there. He won both races there in 2017, finished runner-up in the May 2018 race and placed fifth in last year’s playoff race.

Ryan: The inside story of the secret deal that changed the Daytona 500

3 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The communication was inherently awkward because how often do these guys talk anyway? They race in the same series, but they certainly aren’t buddies.

Yes, they might share the goal of winning the Daytona 500, but the agendas for how to achieve that were quite different. It was understandable a powder keg of emotions might be triggered by the typically capricious chain of events set off by a restart at Daytona International Speedway.

How surprising instead that it turned out so well.

Who would have thought Chevrolet and Toyota would work harmoniously together Sunday?

Oh, wait: You thought we meant the postrace contretemps between quasi-teammates Michael McDowell and Joey Logano?

Yes, that was among the most delicious subplots to emerge from the 61st running of the Great American Race. The fact that the only two Ford Performance drivers left didn’t play nice in the closing laps of the season’s biggest race had tongues wagging. Ford’s cohesion had been the key to its success.

But while those allegiances fell apart, an unholy alliance between unlikely bedfellows thrived.

In a Saturday morning meeting, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing (with help from Toyota Racing Development) hatched a plan to battle Ford’s 12-car squadron that had dominated Speedweeks (sweeping the top three of most qualifiers Thursday) and much of restrictor-plate racing for the past year.

Though some of the key players declined to be identified, it isn’t difficult to glance at the rosters for Hendrick, JGR and Toyota and find some obvious ties. There are several names who have worked in at least two or all three camps (in some cases).

And it was those previous liaisons that helped lay the groundwork for Hendrick and Gibbs drivers drafting together in the Daytona 500 – even if it felt weird for many of the principals.

“I’m texting HMS crew chiefs the night before and we’re talking about strategy, and it’s like, ‘What in the world is going on here?’” Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long during his Monday morning champion’s breakfast at the track. “It’s just crazy that you’re sleeping with the enemy.”

It was by necessity.

Though Chevy actually had more drivers in the field than Ford, Hendrick and Richard Childress Racing never have been simpatico at plate races. Toyota has only five drivers – Gibbs’ foursome of Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones – and Matt DiBenedetto of Leavine Family Racing.

Denny Hamlin leads a pack of cars during the 61st Daytona 500. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

And it seemed to work: Unlike the Thursday qualifying races and The Clash (and many plate races last year) when Ford drivers seemed to control the draft at will with long lines of cars, their fleet of Mustangs couldn’t get organized as well Sunday.

In Stage 2, a six-car train of three Toyotas (DiBenedetto, Busch, Jones) and three Chevys (Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, William Byron) went long on pit stops to control the pace. The pack was two- to three-tenths of a second faster than the field and put some good cars a lap down.

Though several late crashes effectively defused the teamwork in the closing laps, the strategy was a huge disruptor. Hendrick and JGR/Toyota teams communicated through spotters and other channels to help make life more difficult for the Fords.

“We both understood that there were powers in numbers and the disadvantage that both of our organizations had had, us being the manufacturer and them being just the four of them,” Hamlin said. “It was tough for them to have enough Chevrolets that are competitive to go up and run with them that the best bet for us was, ‘Look, we’re not going to go out of our way to help each other, but we’re not going try to screw each other either. Work together with strategy.’

“They had a great strategy plan in play that was going to be working great until a few cautions fell here and there. Certainly, it was good to work with those guys and not only that, those were all drivers and crew chiefs I trusted, so when we put that plan together to work together, I was confident that it would play out well.”

The result was the JGR Toyotas notching the second 1-2-3 team finish (Hamlin, Busch, Jones) in Daytona 500 history and the first since … Hendrick Motorsports in 1997 (Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Ricky Craven).

It appears they had more in common than they realized.


The restrictor-plate era ended with a literal bang – too many bangs, actually.

In the final race with the plates that had been used for 30 years to choke down airflow to the engines and reduce speeds at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway (where cars are more inclined to sail into the grandstands), there were three multicar pileups and two red flags in the last 20 laps as world-class drivers made inexplicably poor decisions and maneuvers. The 40 minutes of stoppage time helped ensure a larger audience in prime time but also an excruciatingly choppy finish as the final 15 laps took nearly 90 minutes to complete.

“I was actually looking at the (clock) on the dash,” Hamlin said about sitting in his No. 11 during the first red. “It was 5:40 (p.m.), and I’m looking at the scoreboard, and I’m like, ‘Wow, at 6:15 we’re going to know the end of this race.’  And I look, and I’m like, ‘At 6:30 we’re going to know the end of this race.  We’re sitting under red flag, and I just see the ticker just going, like, ‘At 6:50 we’re really going to know who won this race.’

“It was crazy how long it took.  I’ve seen five laps take an hour before, but the track was just an absolute mess.”

This is partly something to address for NASCAR and the track because long cleanups have been a problem in past Speedweeks.

But the biggest takeaway from the final demolition derby plate race was underscoring the unavoidable mayhem – and colossally dumb mistakes — as the checkered flag approaches.

“Pretty much,” Kyle Busch said when asked whether a wreck-filled ending was inevitable after the relatively clean 475 miles before it. “Brains come unglued.  That’s all it is. The brain connection to the gas pedal foot doesn’t quite work the same anymore.  There’s a lot of give and take throughout the beginning portion of the races, and then it comes down to the end, and somehow some way there’s always that caution within 30 or 40 to go that sets everybody off pit road and then it’s chaos after that.”

Said Logano: “Yeah, you know it’s coming.  And especially this race, you know what’s on the line.  It’s the Daytona 500.  No one is really worried about points or getting themselves into the playoffs yet.  Everyone is thinking, I want to win the biggest race of the year, and like Kyle said, the brains come unglued.”

So, farewell – or maybe good riddance for some — to the plate era … but this is only a nominal change. With tapered spacers still being used to keep horsepower in check, it’s extremely likely the April 28 race at Talladega Superspeedway will look familiar. And if not, NASCAR will tweak the rules to ensure it does (as it did with tandem racing in 2011).

Stuck with those parameters, it might be too much to ask NASCAR stars to be mindful that memorable races are built on sublime driving, and provided that no one is hurt, it probably is better to have too many crashes than too few (based on the reaction to the single-file racing prevalent at Daytona the past 10 days).

But it would be nice if the end of the plate era also put a period on the absurd displays of driving witnessed during crunch time Sunday.


Both NASCAR and some of its manufacturers are optimistic the Gen 7 car can be rolled out by the 2021 season.

There is some industry skepticism about that timeline for the new model. Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson told NBC Sports there needs to be blueprints for the Gen 7 “within the next 30 to 45 days” and track testing needs to begin by the end of summer.

“I think we’re behind as an industry,” Wilson said Sunday. “NASCAR is in the process of collecting feedback across the industry. They’ve systematically been talking to every team in the garage this weekend. They’re assimilating that feedback. We’re putting together an action team with NASCAR. We had a meeting early (Saturday) morning (with the manufacturers) from a process perspective about how we work together. The good news is we have a bit of a template that we use for Gen 6.

“We’re still behind. We’ve got to make up the ground somewhere. If you look at everything you have to contemplate with this car – safety, testing, manufacturing. The scope of the change to the hardware is going to be massive.”

But the benefits will be worth it. Wilson, who said momentum began for the project in August at the beginning of CEO Jim France’s reign (“The biggest driver and clear leader behind this is Jim France. He has a quiet, understated passion for making this happen.”), believes the next car could bring a bevy of new automakers to NASCAR.

“In 10 years, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t have six or seven manufacturers,” Wilson said. “You look at sports car racing. Our Lexus program is we’re racing against seven to eight manufacturers. We compete in the showrooms every day. Why can’t it be the same thing on the racetrack?

“But it’s going to be a journey. I’m not absolutely certain we’ll get there by ’21.”

For a frame of reference, the Gen 6 car made its debut in 2013 season after NASCAR and manufacturers begin discussions in early ’10.


In a SiriusXM interview during Daytona 500 Media Day, NASCAR president Steve Phelps framed the 2020 schedule speculation in a new way. Phelps said the tracks won’t change, but the focus will be on whether races “will be in the same order” and when the season will begin and end.

Track presidents met with NASCAR executives for more than three hours last week at Daytona and were given some basic parameters for a robust schedule discussion: The Daytona 500 must be in mid-February, the Coca-Cola 600 will remain on Memorial Day weekend, and the Southern 500 stays tied to Labor Day weekend.

Virtually anything was considered fair game after that. There were throwback ideas being considered that could move a warm-weather race or two to late January or early February, ahead of the Daytona 500. The Great American Race has been the opener since 1982 but was the season’s second or third race for the first 23 years of its existence (1959-81).

Though Daytona will maintain its traditional calendar regardless of whether there it’s preceded by other race, there has been recent conjecture about a Speedweeks shake-up (which certainly could use fewer “dark” days at the track).

Here’s the view from this corner last year on that front with one addendum: It might be time to rethink the truck series at Daytona, and this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to last Friday’s race that set a record for yellow flags (11) and caution laps (55).

Of the 20 truck races held at Daytona since 2000, 15 have been run under caution for at least 25 percent of the race. Though 26 of 32 trucks were involved in crashes last Friday, it was the fourth time in eight years more than two dozen trucks sustained damage. In 2012, 29 of 36 trucks were in wrecks.

New Smyrna Speedway is just down the road … again, it’s just a thought.


While NASCAR’s top three national series kicked off this past weekend, the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series remains nearly two months from starting its eighth season with the April 13 opener at Valencia, Spain. Its 2019 schedule of seven events is drawing a bevy of attention, though, after 2000 champion Bobby Labonte competed last year in the series (which was won by two-time Cup champion Alon Day, who also has made two Cup starts.).

Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 F1 champion, will run full time this season in NASCAR Whelen Euro.

The series also has drawn serious interest from a recently retired former Cup champion and many drivers in lower series for the 2019 season.

“We don’t have anything finalized, so we can’t announce who we’re talking with yet,” series executive Joe Balash told NBC Sports. “But we’ve had conversations with multiple drivers from multiple garages who want to race in the series.”

The Whelen Euro series also had a driver exchange last year with the Pinty’s Series in Canada and is exploring a similar arrangement with the Peak Mexico Series. The European circuit, which also races in England, Germany, the Czech Republic and Belgium, is an attractive option because it’s relatively inexpensive.

As a spec stock-car series, it costs roughly $100,000 US to run the full slate, which features two divisions of two races per weekend. Teams also can field two drivers of different rated skill levels (similar to the GTD division of IMSA).


Chase Elliott’s Speedweeks was mostly forgettable as far as results (eighth in a Thursday qualifier was his best). But as far as living up to his persona, no one was more a man of the people than the reigning most popular driver.

Hendrick Motorsports’ emerging star gave the fullest effort to spice up action that often was single file on the 2.5-mile oval.

Whether futilely trying to gain positions in the Xfinity race (he gave a wave to the crowd and said “Sorry” after finishing 10th), furiously battling for positions in the qualifier, or aggressively trying to stay toward the front in the Daytona 500, Elliott was the lone driver who refused the groupthink that had cars hugging the wall for much of Speedweeks – and proudly proclaimed he did it for the legions wearing his gear (while subtly throwing some shade at those he was racing).

“Hey, if they are going to ride around the top all day long, I’ll be happy to try the bottom and at least make something happen for the great people that are watching up here in the stands,” Elliott said Thursday.

Last month, crew chief Alan Gustafson said even he didn’t realize how much a 98-race winless streak had worn on Elliott until he broke through last August with the first of three victories in 2018. Elliott, 23, seems more comfortable in his own skin than ever, and Daytona was a good example of how.

The pressure is off, and now the public is seeing more of an emerging star it can’t seemingly love enough. That’s a good sign for NASCAR – particularly if Elliott can develop a more defiant and outspoken public side that his father never embraced.


To get an understanding of why Jim France’s leadership style has been so widely praised, contrast his brief message to drivers before Sunday’s race with the last time a NASCAR CEO issued a similar directive at a Daytona 500 drivers meeting.

It probably wasn’t as long ago as you think.

Before the 2017 Daytona 500, Brian France admonished the field for 90 seconds about blocking in a curious rant that even his executive team struggled to explain. It also was unusual because Brian France (who stepped aside for his uncle last August after being arrested for a DWI) usually avoided addressing competition. When he did, it sometimes lacked for clarity (seemingly because his marketing background sometimes got in the way).

Jim France’s simple and succinct ask (“I hope a few of you drivers out there will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and put on a good show today.”) was indicative of his understated style that has drawn raves and resonated around NASCAR.

This might have been another example: Roughly two and a half hours later, the green flag dropped on an action-packed Stage 1. Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, said Tuesday morning on SiriusXM that the hard racing probably would have happened anyway, but the drivers “listened to (France) like he was God.”

Did France’s words have an impact on how drivers raced the Daytona 500, which opened with the best 60 laps of Speedweeks?

It’s impossible to know for sure.

The only thing that probably matters is that he said it.

Long: In a time of change, some things remain the same at Daytona

2 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — They’ve reconvened in Daytona International Speedway’s infield, some back for a fifth year, others a 10th and still others for more, to watch cars go around in circles.

Their flags pledge loyalties to Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, celebrating days gone by. Other flags wave for Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and reigning series champ Joey Logano.

New or old, fans have returned for Sunday’s Daytona 500, which will held among a swirl of changes.

The season starts with talk of rules that debut next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway and will change how the racing looks. There also have been discussions of a new look for 2020 and beyond. Schedule changes are expected next year, even more in 2021 – when the Gen 7 car is projected to premiere.

The dawn of a new season and what is coming has reinvigorated a garage beaten down the past couple of years. Jim France is now in charge and he’s in the garage, a marked change from Brian France’s approach.

Seeing Jim France each weekend gives those who work in the garage optimism. How long it lasts depends on what changes the sanctioning body make.

For fans, it’s all about what the racing looks like.

That’s a lot left to be desired at Daytona so far. Asked if he thought the racing had been good this week, Richard Petty said: “No, I don’t.”

His comment came before Saturday’s Xfinity race won by Michael Annett, who led the final 45 laps. It was great win for Annett personally but the single-file racing frustrated some fans and left them to wonder how Daytona could turn into a high-speed conga line.

“I don’t know what’s going on with the high line becoming just so clearly dominant,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after watching JR Motorsports win the season-opening Xfinity race for the fourth time in the last six years. “To listen to the drivers and to watch what happened (Saturday) in the race, it doesn’t seem like it’s entirely by choice that they all ride up there, it’s by necessity.”

Fans saw that same type of racing in the Clash and both qualifying races during Speedweeks. What often was missing in those events were things Clint Bowyer says are important to make a good race.

“Moments,” Bowyer said this week. “No different than when I go to a football game. The Super Bowl sucked and I am a football fan. Again, you go watch the (Kansas City) Chiefs games, I was lucky enough to be a Chiefs fan this year and it was a highlight reel one after another with (quarterback Patrick) Mahomes and (Tyreek) Hill.

“I don’t know, there wasn’t a highlight the whole Super Bowl in my opinion. It was a snoozer. Was it an extremely challenging game in other eyes, yes. I guarantee you there are football gods out there saying it was the best game in the history of football. To me, there weren’t enough moments.

“You have to have good passing, side-by-side (racing), changes for the lead, cautions – I don’t want a caution because that means somebody has wrecked or had a problem but there are so many things that go into adding up to those moments. Us drivers, you have to be in a situation that you can make the most of.

“Again, without a caution at the end of some of these restrictor-plate tracks, we may not have those moments. Sometimes all it takes is a caution to make that moment that someone takes to the office the next (day) to say, ‘My gosh, you should have been there and seen that.’ We have to have more of those, no question.”

There is a belief that the racing should be better in the Daytona 500 with a full 40-car field. The Clash had 20 cars and both qualifying races had 21-car fields. There weren’t enough cars to create a competitive second lane, so most ran the high line. That said, Chase Elliott made a number of passes on his own in his qualifying race. Daniel Suarez also tried such moves.

But for all the talk about the racing, some things remain the same. Cup veterans often dominate Speedweeks and have done so this week. Jimmie Johnson won the Clash after contact with Paul Menard. Kevin Harvick and Logano each won their qualifying races. A Hendrick Motorsports car is on the pole for a fifth consecutive year, this time with William Byron.

Maybe things will change Sunday. The Truck Series saw Austin Hill score his first career series win. Then Annett recorded his first career Xfinity win Saturday. 

That’s why fans travel near and far to be at Daytona on a Sunday in February. For all the questions about the racing, for the surprise winners, no one knows what to expect. Just like it has always been at this track.