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Ryan: What we learned about the 2020 schedule, Drivers Council and dirt racing on Daytona 500 Media Day

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The moods were pleasant. The quotes were incisive. The topics were lively.

On the hypothetical Richter scale that monitors “How is NASCAR doing entering a pivotal 2019 season?”, Daytona 500 Media Day registers barely a tremor for its tenor and ultimate significance.

It’s intriguing to absorb the musings of every driver in the Cup Series on myriad subjects, but the reverberations are inherently limited.

The overarching storylines of Speedweeks 2019 will be determined by the quality of racing over the next four days – and after a lackluster Clash, there is a desperately gaping void in the action at Daytona International Speedway and many questions about whether the swan song for the restrictor-plate package can fill it.

Yet during seven hours of nonstop interviews in the Daytona 500 Club, NASCAR Nation still seemed in a good place Wednesday.

Before the green flag falls on tonight’s qualifying races, here are five takeaways from Daytona 500 Media Day.

–Schedule speculation: Aside from Clint Bowyer’s controversial hot take on the family dynamics of Disney World, one of Wednesday’s biggest social media firestorms emerged from Denny Hamlin’s pointed comments on whether NASCAR should consider shorter races.

Hamlin is one of many drivers willing to discuss it, which says that NASCAR likely is moving down that road as it hashes out the 2020 schedule that is expected to look much different than 2019.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps shed more light on it during a SiriusXM interview Wednesday morning, suggesting the ’21 schedule will have more impact as far as new tracks, but next year will bring some significant changes (namely, that the Daytona 500 might not open the season, which is probably why the proposed elimination of the Clash is being floated more publicly).

“We’re not going to make everyone happy, but we’re looking at what (fans) want,” Phelps said. “We’ve heard from the fans, ‘Hey it would be great to have more short tracks, more road courses.’ Those types of racetracks, they believe they’re seeing the best racing. When we look at ’21 and beyond, those are things we’re taking into consideration. I try to tease this a little bit, but I think we’ll have meaningful changes even in ’20 and then more meaningful changes in ’21.”

NASCAR is limited on switching up venues in ’20 because it marks the end of the five-year sanction agreements with all tracks on the Cup circuit. “So we are going to be running the same places,” Phelps said. “The question is, are we going to have them in the same order? When we start, when we finish the season. Those are all things we’re looking at.”

–A new car: The chatter is growing about the Gen 7 car in recent weeks with manufacturers and NASCAR confident of putting the new model on track by the 2021 season.

That timeline seems ambitious to Kyle Busch, who revealed why with another nugget: The Gen 7 might have an independent rear suspension, which is common to many motorsports series but would mark a radical departure for NASCAR. “That would be a complete overhaul of anything we’ve ever done in our sport,” Busch said. “I’m not sure where all that lands.”

Neither does Brad Keselowski, who has elected to refrain from getting involved even though it seems right up his alley. “It is going to require a lot of creative thinking,” the Team Penske driver said. “When it comes to those things, I can pie-in-the-sky dream about it all I want, but at the end of the day I don’t have the knobs. There is one group holding the controls and it is all up to them at the end of the day which way they want to twist and turn them. I made a concerted effort going forward that I am not going to put that much thought into that stuff and let them figure it out.”

–Is the Drivers Council dead? So if the outspoken Keselowski is pulling back on being opinionated, does that mean stars are willing to acquiesce to the whims of the new Jim France-Phelps regime?

Speedweeks usually marked the annual formation of the Drivers Council since its inception in 2015, but there was no confirmation Wednesday. Instead, there was uncertainty about the panel’s future that had begun last month.

Will the Drivers Council remain, or is it still even necessary?

Opinions were mostly ambivalent, but there seems a sentiment that it has outlived its usefulness. “We had the Drivers Council and we all wanted one thing and they did another,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I think that’s probably where some of the frustration comes from. For me, it was the things we wanted to do never happened, and it was more out of frustration than anything.”

Much of this undoubtedly stems from a greater comfort with the leadership of Jim France, who has been a garage fixture since becoming CEO last August. After France met with series champions last fall, Kurt Busch said he was inspired to start a ticket giveaway to veterans this year.

“Jim has done a tremendous job of at least being around,” Kyle Busch said. “He’s always carrying a pen. He’s always carrying a notebook. He’s always taking notes. He’s always listening to people, talking to people. He’s down in the trenches.

“He’s figuring it all out and trying to make some moves for the betterment of the sport, and that’s what we all want. We want somebody involved. That’s into this as much as we’re all into this and care about all of this.”

–Things are cool with Kyle: He finished second in the 2017 Daytona 500, but Kyle Larson’s most memorable connection to The Great American Race might be when he said he’d rather win the Chili Bowl.

That viewpoint naturally didn’t sit well with some NASCAR officials (as well as some veteran drivers), who relayed their concerns through Chip Ganassi Racing PR rep Davis Shaefer (“They make Davis the bad guy,” Larson said with a chuckle.”).

But the message being sent now is that Larson’s moonlighting on dirt tracks a couple dozen times annually is approved – and actually encouraged. Phelps made the point again during the SiriusXM interview when asked about how young drivers help promote racing, noting that “there’s not a vehicle (Larson) doesn’t want to climb in and compete, and people love that about him.”

“I’m just glad (NASCAR officials) feel the same way, finally,” Larson said. “I don’t really feel like I felt that from them for a long time, so it’s nice that they support all the extra racing that I do now.

“Do I do it to help grow the sport or all that? I don’t really think about when I’m off at a dirt track or any of that, I’m not thinking about just trying to help motorsports, grow motorsports. I love motorsports. So that’s why I do it. But it is neat that I feel like I do make an impact just a little bit. And it’s not just me. There’s a lot of other guys – Christopher Bell, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, (Ricky) Stenhouse – they have their own teams. I feel like we all do a good job of cross promoting between sprint cars or dirt track racing in NASCAR.”

Just as with the news of their dissatisfaction, NASCAR officials didn’t directly convey the change in their stance. “I’ve never talked to them really about it,” he said. “I’ve just seen articles and heard stuff of what they’ve said. It’s neat that they support it now. Because I didn’t feel like I got the support before. I feel like I was always in trouble for anytime I talked about sprint car racing.”

It was hard to miss the message sent when Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell led a delegation of high-ranking competition officials to the 2019 Chili Bowl last month (there was no formal meeting with Larson there, either).

“That was really cool,” Larson said. “Because the Chili Bowl has gotten a lot of exposure the last handful of years, so for them to go there and just experience the event and maybe see why it’s growing and maybe there are some things that they can take from an event like that into NASCAR is cool. They’re just looking at all areas to try to make our sport back to what it used to be — NASCAR, anyway. I’m happy they are getting into it again.”

–Lingering Daytona bitterness: It’s no secret there are several big-name drivers who have yet to win the Daytona 500 (and always have been), starting with best-in-class plate driver Brad Keselowski.

And unsurprisingly, those champions remain irked by their near-misses.

For Keselowski, Daytona “is frustrating as hell … especially when you get wrecked out, and there is nothing you can do about it.” Twice last season at Daytona, the 2012 series champion was caught in wrecks near the front of the pack because of what he felt were “bad, juvenile moves” by others.

“It seems like there are a number of people that get into the top two or three that really just have no clue what they are doing,” he said. “That has been unfortunate, but it is what has been happening lately. … Just people that throw blocks that don’t understand the runs or what is around them. They don’t have full situational or spacial awareness, but they think they do, which is even more dangerous. You can block if you know what you are doing but not every move can be blocked. You have a handful of people that have cars good enough to run up front and think that they can block every move and you can’t.”

For Truex, it’s the 2016 Daytona 500 that he lost to Denny Hamlin by 0.10 seconds in the race’s closest finish ever. “To know we were that close — as close as anyone has ever been without winning it — it’s crazy,” Truex said with a laugh. “That makes me angry.”

Could he have done anything differently to win? Truex says yes. “I would have just ran into Denny and pushed him up the track. Do what everybody does to me!”

For Kyle Busch, there is disappointment but less agony because there are “only been two opportunities that I feel like slipped away: ’08. And ’16. I was fast in ’07. We should have finished third behind Harvick and Martin, but I crashed and destroyed the field coming to the checkered.

“Yeah, I could have won two of them. Not all that many when you look at it. We just keep trying, keep fighting. It definitely sets the motivation to try to get one.”

Ryan: It’s good NASCAR has the hammer, but now the hard part begins

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NASCAR has picked up the hammer this season. Now comes the hard part.

Swinging it … and with a judicious understanding of everything that will entail.

Monday’s watershed news — that postrace Cup inspections will be confined to a 90-minute period immediately after the checkered flag and result in disqualifications for any infraction above a few missing lugnuts – was met with universal acclaim from all corners of NASCAR Nation.

And rightfully so.

This should help regain control of the narrative that NASCAR lost so often the past few years in the recurrent quagmire of announcing midweek penalties that effectively invalidated race results long after the fact.

And by finally deciding to strip wins, there will be much less confusion about how a driver and team can be guilty enough to incur points deductions, heavy fines and suspensions but still not have the punishment adequately reflected in the record book.

But as haulers roll into Daytona International Speedway to signal the symbolic opening of Speedweeks and the 2019 season, some extremely heavy lifting still remains ahead for NASCAR officials.

Before the year’s first green flag, they have guaranteed themselves of facing a major controversy – and probably several – with this admirable attempt at reasserting its authority over rulebook enforcement.

There were two instances last year (Kevin Harvick at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway) and two in 2017 (Denny Hamlin at Darlington, Joey Logano at Richmond) of a winner being busted, and there were nine cars that finished fourth or better that received penalties. The top two finishers (Harvick and Ryan Blaney) at Texas last November would have been disqualified under this new policy, which would have handed an unprecedented win to a third-place finisher.

That could happen this year.

Again, that is mostly a good thing because the tradeoff is a storyline with a much more finite existence. NASCAR should be permanently out of the business of overshadowing races by tripping all over itself with news three or four days later.

But its new disqualification and inspection policies will be accompanied by immense responsibility, compromise and probably a lot of pain in landing on the best way for accomplishing that.

This is what Harvick means in suggesting that how prerace inspections are handled will be more important than postrace. There will be much buy-in required in getting crew chiefs on the same page as officials, and it also will necessitate some give on the part of NASCAR in understanding that policing rules is best served by the absence of zealotry.

Despite all the recent attention on disqualifications, an overarching theme of 2019 needs to be less focus on rules and much more focus on racing – particularly if it’s as good as NASCAR is advertising (or hoping).

That won’t happen if disqualifications become the dominant storyline of the new season, and with a bevy of new guidelines to digest that will lower horsepower while theoretically tightening the competition, the climate seems ripe for that being possible.

Teams inherently are tasked with bending the rules and exploiting loopholes to their advantage – and that should be celebrated to a certain degree.

Though no one wants the taint of criminality, there also is an appeal to the outlaw culture that spawned NASCAR from bootleggers outrunning the law in the hills of North Carolina.

It’s been told so many times the story is probably apocryphal, but after once being cleared in a vigorous postrace inspection, Smokey Yunick reputedly drove away in a race car lacking a fuel tank. The NASCAR Hall of Fame opened nine years ago with a working still, courtesy of former moonshiner and inaugural HOF inductee Junior Johnson, who plainly informed everyone that it would work if you “put fire to the mash” correctly. Some of the richest stories of NASCAR’s glory days told by Richard Petty are about “one of those cheating deals”

There always has been a fine line between innovation and illegality in stock-car racing.

The problem in recent years is there was too much lingering haze surrounding what constituted the latter.

NASCAR is doing the right thing in correcting that, but it needs to be careful in how it categorizes what ultimately is wrong and how it doles out those punishments.

Having the hammer is useful.

So long as it doesn’t shatter something good into a million tiny pieces.

Here are four more things to watch as NASCAR enters the brave new world of the postrace death penalty:

Social media: There undoubtedly will be a small army of NASCAR inspectors on call for the weekly postrace teardowns of the winning car.

But should there also be an inspector solely watching social media?

Given developments in the Reddit era – whether the tape on Chase Elliott’s Chevrolet after the 2017 playoff opener, or the indent in the rear window of Kevin Harvick’s Ford last year – undoubtedly yes.

The PGA might have outlawed the practice of allowing fans to call in penalties, but these aren’t ticky-tack infractions when it involves the most aerodynamic parts of the car. If something goes viral during or immediately after the race, NASCAR should be aware in its inspections.

Stick around for fun: In case the winner fails, many have wondered how many members of the second- and third-place teams will linger at the track (would there be a makeshift second victory lane ceremony?).

But maybe there will be incentive

NASCAR confirmed Friday to NBC Sports that after some deliberation, the postrace garage inspections will be open. That means anyone from any team can observe them.

How many would be inclined to stay to “help” NASCAR with that process, or at least be able to watch their opponents’ cars be dissected in greater detail?

Public shaming: Under the previous policy, winning teams always had enough wiggle room to conjure at least some plausible deniability about failing inspection. That came in part from the victory remaining intact – how serious could it be if that were the case?

That now is gone with disqualifications. It will be much harder to wash out the stain, and that might be harder to square with sponsors. And that leads to …

… pushing it:  While it won’t be tantamount to floggings in the public square, will the backlash from being disqualified help disincentivize going beyond the limits?

There always has been debate about whether teams with at least one legal win (and a berth in the playoffs) would be more or less inclined to push the limits in the regular season. Will that change under the new policy? The potential reputational hit could outweigh any competitive benefits.

Ryan: Wild cards, computer games and other championship leftovers

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It was Year 5 for the Championship 4, a fitting milepost for analysis and evaluation of NASCAR’s playoffs.

The timing also is right judging by the reaction to this year’s champion, who undoubtedly has spurred the most debate of the elimination era despite having impeccable credentials.

Joey Logano might be the worthiest of any champion yet under this system – scoring the most points, accumulating the most top 10s and notching the best average finish of this year’s playoffs. So why has his title received blowback (we’ll get to our theory below)?

And there’s another reason that a big-picture playoff reflection seems ripe.

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, this has been the longest period of stasis in NASCAR’s quasi-postseason for crowning a champion. Though the addition of stages and playoff points slightly altered the means for advancement, the method for qualifying and the size of the field has been constant since 2014.

That follows a period of significant structural changes at least every three to four years in the first decade of what once was known as “the Chase.”

In 2007, the field was expanded to 12 (and bonus points were added). In 2011, two slots were reserved for wild cards based on the winningest drivers outside the top 10. And in 2014, the system was overhauled with three-race elimination rounds and a 16-driver field.

Some would argue more changes (fewer races? fewer contenders?) still are needed – and perhaps the highly anticipated 2020 schedule makeover will reflect a new sheen.

But in the meantime, here are some lingering thoughts from the 2018 championship finale a week later:

Something wild: Congratulations, NASCAR: You crowned your first wild-card champion.

That’s what feels different about Logano’s title. (The notion that there is pushback simply because Logano’s aggression is polarizing seems reductive … was Kyle Busch’s 2015 title greeted the same way?)

The Team Penske driver was justified in resisting the underdog label that was thrust upon his team in the run-up to his matchup with “The Big Three,” and Logano even had jokes about racing against the dominant regular-season trio of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. (which he conceded was far ahead of his team three months earlier).

The No. 22 Ford should have been given more credence as a contender entering Homestead-Miami Speedway because it essentially played the role of a 10-6 team getting hot during a Super Bowl run (six wild-card teams have won the NFL championship).

In five years of eliminations, Logano is the champion with the most nondescript regular season. As the slowest of the four contenders in the 2016 finale, Jimmie Johnson might have been a bigger underdog who won the finale and title, but he at least had four other victories on the way to his seventh championship.

Logano’s title felt more like an eighth seed knocking out a 13-3 team (or three). That’s much harder to reconcile in NASCAR, though, because the teams having epic seasons aren’t truly eliminated.

When an upset of the 15-1 Green Bay Packers occurs in the divisional round, they’re forgotten in the next two rounds. There is no omnipresent reminder that “Oh, the guy winning the championship wasn’t nearly as good as those other guys during the first 26 races.”

Logano emerged the rightful winner of an epic battle royale among the four best drivers of 2018, but it also was hard to ignore that two Hall of Fame drivers (Busch and Harvick) enjoyed career seasons.

That’s problematic, and it might be impossible for NASCAR to address beyond just educating fans on adjusting to it. By adding stages and playoff points, NASCAR ensured there virtually will never be an undeserving winless champion (which Ryan Newman flirted with becoming in 2014).

But some fundamentals likely can’t be “fixed” through tweaks – aside from “true” eliminations (i.e., removing cars ineligible for the title from the field of play) that would seem a non-starter.

–Four-way focus: Maybe that’s something to consider, though, considering how compelling the annual finale has become with only four cars that really matter.

The conventional wisdom goes it’s unfair to focus only on the championship contenders while ignoring the field. But there increasingly is no reason to focus on the rest, who have admitted to essentially racing the Championship 4 with mittens.

It’s clear the contenders and their teams prefer it that way – multicar teams quite obviously (and rationally) put a higher priority on whichever of their cars reach the finals.

Maybe it’s to the detriment for the other 30-something cars, but recent finales have shown it’s hugely compelling to follow only four cars’ strategies (stall selection! Short pitting! Short run vs. long run!). There’s virtually no compunction about voluntarily dismissing anyone else’s chances of winning.

The microtargeting is partly what makes this championship structure so good, allowing such dissection and analysis of what each of the four contenders is doing in execution and strategy.

Dual disappointments: In that vein, it was stupefying to contemplate how co-favorites Busch and Harvick caught every break and made all the necessary moves but still couldn’t capitalize.

Busch benefited from controversially having the No. 1 pit stall. It helped ensure he kept the lead when he got the yellow he needed late in the race (after crew chief Adam Stevens played the only card he could to keep his driver in the game). But his No. 18 Toyota simply wasn’t fast enough on the restart, plummeting from first to fourth.

It was indicative of the final 10 races for Busch, who won at Richmond and Phoenix but struggled mightily for race-winning speed at the four 1.5-mile ovals.

That was shocking because Joe Gibbs Racing (like any championship contender) brought “next-generation” chassis for the playoffs that somehow weren’t on par with the Fords of Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. At least in the finale, Gibbs’ Toyotas also weren’t the equal of Truex’s (Furniture Row Racing and JGR assuredly weren’t working as closely in the final races of their alliance).

Harvick had the third-fastest car at Miami, but he still had a chance to win on a brilliant strategy call by substitute crew chief Tony Gibson, who short-pitted a lap earlier than the other three. Though crew chief Rodney Childers certainly was missed, strategy is the weakest part of his game, so Harvick might have benefited tactically from having a better shot to win with Gibson on the box. But ultimately, the final caution ensured it didn’t matter – even if the yellow hadn’t flown, Truex still would have beat Harvick under green.

The bottom line is that barring any major mistakes or problems by Logano and Truex, there was no way Busch and Harvick – the co-dominant drivers of 2018 — could win the championship, even if the race went exactly their way in the closing stages.

It was a stunning development given how the regular season unfolded. But maybe less stunning given how the playoffs did.

Computer age: Harvick’s performance was another emphatic confirmation of the so-called “arms race” that has engulfed the Cup Series, for better or worse. His No. 4 Ford seemed well off Friday and Saturday, but a marathon simulation session by Childers and engineer Dax Gerringer impressively restored Harvick to fighting shape for Sunday (and fastest before night fell).

That’s good in a way because it underscores that the investment of effort, money and time pays off.

But do you want races won essentially as much on high-fidelity software as on the racetrack?

That’s one of the dilemmas for modern-day NASCAR.

Money talks: One of the more awkward moments during the race championship weekend came during the news conference involving the contending owners (and their top lieutenants). When asked about the sponsor trends in NASCAR, Penske Corp. vice chairman Walt Czarnecki cited a well-attended sponsor conference the team was holding while racing for the championship.

“So there’s an appetite out there as long as you’re delivering the value,” Czarnecki said.

It was jarring because Czarnecki was sitting beside Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone, who disclosed a few minutes later that a third of his team’s 62 employees still hadn’t found work beyond the team’s impending shutdown. Because of a lack of sponsorship (despite its 2017 championship), the Denver-based team and Truex finished second (to Penske and Logano) in their final race a day later.

The dichotomy between the top two teams in the 2018 standings reveals some inconvenient truths in Cup. Success undoubtedly helps drive sponsor interest, but it’s no guarantee of the necessary cash flow to fund the exorbitant annual budgets that stretch well into the tens of millions.

The ShellPennzoil sponsorship of Team Penske’s championship team is predicated on a strong business-to-business relationship because of Roger Penske’s automotive empire (which guarantees revenue to its backer). It would appear that Hendrick Motorsports’ new deal with Ally to sponsor Jimmie Johnson has similar characteristics.

It’s a business structure that is disconcertingly sui generis to some degree – every car owner in NASCAR generally has amassed some type of fortune, but only a select few happen to have the independent businesses that can attract sponsorship motivated more by revenue than results.

For the owner of a mattress and furniture store chain, facing off against rivals with broader and more lucrative portfolios might be a taller order than beating their race cars.

Let’s have some fun: A postscript on the most memorable thing Jimmie Johnson did this season (aside from the last lap of the Roval). His trip to the Formula One season finale invigorated the seven-time champion, whose giddiness over an impending car swap with Fernando Alonso was palpable via social media.

Yes, some of Johnson’s unbridled happiness naturally stems from being free of the stressors that suck the joy from competing at NASCAR’s highest level. (He also is free from his toughest season in Cup.)

But it also seemed to stem from being around a different environment. Witness the postrace interviews Sunday in Abu Dhabi with F1 drivers who didn’t seem ready for the season to end. Again, their championship system isn’t as inherently pressurized as NASCAR’s (and thus produces a different range of emotions), but they also are traveling thousands of miles annually and don’t seem as worse for the wear.

It recalled a salient question during NASCAR president Steve Phelps’ state of NASCAR news conference from veteran racing journalist Jeff Gluck, who has spent some of the past two years taking his eponymous website’s coverage to other series.

Gluck discovered that drivers and riders outside stock cars seemed to be having more fun and showing more passion, prompting a trenchant observation: Is NASCAR doing enough to ensure its stars are displaying as much of that infectious happiness and passion?

Phelps replied that Gluck’s question was a generalization (which is a fair response), but as a 2020 schedule overhaul is contemplated, let’s hope that Johnson’s exuberance is remembered.

Ryan: NASCAR can’t keep taking the bad with the good

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Welcome to NASCAR’s Year of Nothing Good.

It’s an unfortunate recurring narrative this season, and it’s the bad spot that NASCAR suddenly finds itself in – yet again – four days before setting the field for its championship finale.

The title storyline just got a lot more intriguing, but the drama comes with the concomitant rotting stench of rulebreaking that will leave the 2018 stretch run tainted for long after the champion is crowned Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Kevin Harvick, the odds-on favorite to win the title, suddenly is facing potential elimination after a penalty announced Wednesday, nearly three days after his dominant victory at Texas Motor Speedway.

That throws the race for the three spots wide open, which is good.

But it’s also bad because it takes the focus off the competition, personalities and conflict (hey, remember that new feud we briefly were talking about?) and shifts it to a host of annoyingly persistent questions that lack any easy answers.

How many teams are cheating? (Given that officials went 3 for 3 in dinging the cars of Harvick, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones for three separate problems, the guess here is that the number of penalties that could have been issued would have been proportional to the number of NASCAR haulers shipping cars to the R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina.)

Why can’t NASCAR discover these infractions at the track?

Why can’t the inspection process be confined only to the garage (as many other major-league racing series somehow have managed … though in this case, the infraction apparently could be caught only at the R&D Center)? As Harvick’s car owner, Tony Stewart, raised during postrace Sunday, why can’t inspection be accomplished more efficiently and swiftly?

Why are major penalties still being announced midweek despite NASCAR’s promise to get out of the business of Wednesday news alerts? (There have been 10 penalties with points deductions and suspensions this season, so it’s trending in the wrong direction.)

Why is the rulebook so voluminous that it seems every waking minute is devoted to legislating some arcane bit of business related to its thousands of codicils, whether it’s an uncontrolled tire or an uneven planar mating surface? Or pinion shims, window braces and flat splitters?

See the problem with the “Hey, this penalty will reinvigorate the championship run!” angle?

Aside from the tightening of the points standings, there is nothing good about it.

And even if Harvick completes a remarkable comeback by winning at Phoenix and Miami (without ace crew chief Rodney Childers), his second championship will be scarred even with a feel-good ending.

And that has been a depressingly familiar refrain about NASCAR this season, which actually has featured several decent and memorable races (the finishes to the Daytona 500, Chicagoland Speedway among the most notable).

Even when Something Good seems to happen, it always is quickly usurped by Nothing Good.

–Your presumptive most popular driver breaks through for his first victory in Cup?

All the oxygen from that feel-good story of Chase Elliott’s inaugural triumph was sucked away by a traffic stop a few hours after the checkered flag that became the lead story in TMZ Sports the next morning and was the biggest of several black eyes for NASCAR this year.

–The Round of 16 field is set with a barnburner of a finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (whose regular-season finale debut was worth the wait after a frustrating weekend of nonstop rain)?

Let’s interrupt that playoff momentum with a Tuesday announcement that the series’ reigning championship race team will be closing its doors when the playoffs end.

–A fresh face breaks through in the Xfinity Series and brightens victory lane with a rarely seen effervescence?

So about that drug test that the winner recently took

Even NASCAR’s attempts to manufacture Something Good have fallen flat.

The announcement of the 2019 rules package was well intentioned, but it came on a Tuesday afternoon (and had been scheduled weeks earlier) that dampened the afterglow of the thrilling finish to the Roval, which has been among the highlights of a playoffs that has lacked for memorable moments.

Another was Martinsville Speedway, where Joey Logano’s last-lap bump of Martin Truex Jr. from the lead at least generated a week of productive discussion about what was happening on the track and the reasons that fans love watching and talking about it.

It was a pleasant departure from the pervasively impenetrable chatter about appeals hearings, a bizarrely lackluster race at Talladega Superspeedway and several controversial calls on cautions and penalties (recall when Jimmie Johnson inexplicably was sent to the rear by mistake Sunday).

The sparse grandstands Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway and Wednesday’s exhaustive social media outrage about the penalties are ominous reminders that these aren’t the conversations that foster interest in NASCAR.

Eventually, there’s a tipping point in which they overwhelm the focus on the competition

What happens then?

Nothing good.

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

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Martin Truex Jr. is a good guy.

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

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

Ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

Should he really have to change that?

The answer says a lot more about us than him.