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Long: What NASCAR does with qualifying isn’t the biggest question

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FONTANA, Calif. — So what next?

What is NASCAR to do to fix a “mockery” of qualifying – a series executive’s comment — after all 12 Cup drivers in the final round waited too long to get on track Friday and failed to complete a lap before time expired?

The suggestions flow. Go back to single-car qualifying. Heat races. Make cars that don’t complete a lap in the final round start at the rear. Have group qualifying for two rounds but make the final round single-car qualifying. Send cars out at timed intervals.

Before NASCAR can set a course, other questions must be asked.

The first question is what’s more important for NASCAR? Is this about entertainment or competition?

Entertainment is critical to a sport that seeks to rebuild its fan base. Close racing, drama and excitement can energize a fans attract new ones.

The past three weeks of Cup qualifying has been appointment viewing. There was the unknown of what would happen at Las Vegas with the rules package, the fight between Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell at ISM Raceway and then what would happen Friday at Auto Club Speedway. When is the last time there has been so much interest in qualifying for three consecutive races?

But is that interest based on too many gimmicks?

When NASCAR announced its rule changes in early February, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told the media: “Our core goal in everything we do is to deliver the best possible racing for our fans.”

O’Donnell also said that day that “the stars of NASCAR have always been the drivers and the cars. We want to make sure that is the emphasis in any rules package we put forth.”

But there appears to be a limit. In discussing the group qualifying model in that same meeting, Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, said: “One thing that we realize and everybody in this room realizes is that we’re in show business.”

After Friday’s episode in the last round of qualifying, Miller said that while changes will be made to the format, “we really don’t want to go back to single-car qualifying. There may not be another way. We want to exhaust every possibility before we do that because that’s not as fun, not as intriguing of a show as the group situation.”

Drivers and teams are frustrated. They feel they have less control in the group qualifying format. Some would suggest that there’s too much randomness to how the starting lineup is set. It’s more about getting the right draft at tracks 1.5 miles and larger than having a car with the most speed on its own.

“I told you all back in Vegas that I am still a big fan of single-car qualifying,” Ryan Newman, told NBC Sports after being among those who failed to complete a lap in the final round Friday. “That is all I need to say, really. That is the way qualifying should be.”

Said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch: “The last car has the biggest advantage and you’re a buffoon to go out and be the first car.”

Beyond the entertainment/competition question, other questions must be asked: What is the role of the sanctioning body? Should it be about penalizing infractions or creating opportunities for competitors to excel?

At Las Vegas, David Ragan started sixth for Front Row Motorsports. The organization had two top-10 starts last year (Bristol and Daytona) but none at a 1.5-mile track. The group qualifying format helped created an opportunity for that organization to attain a strong starting spot.

Without such chances might that team have qualified as high? Is it fair to do away with such opportunities for that and other teams?

“It’s hard to control every single thing in our sport,” Ragan told NBC Sports. “There needs to be a little bit of randomness. That makes things creative.”

But Ragan also noted that “we need to keep the integrity of the sport.”

So should NASCAR create a rule — another rule to anger those who say the rule book has too many entries — that penalizes teams for not completing a lap in the final round and make them start at the back? Or is there another way to deal with this situation before teams arrive in Texas in two weeks?

Those are among the questions NASCAR must answer before deciding what changes to make to qualifying.

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Long: How a decision on a Friday impacted pit road in Atlanta Cup race

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HAMPTON, Ga. — A strategic decision that didn’t work as planned and steadfastness to protocol created much angst on pit road for the teams of Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Alex Bowman on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Frustrations boiled during the race. Logano lost more than 10 spots in each of his first two pit stops when he was blocked by Bowman in the stall ahead. After being blocked a second time, Logano said on his radio “if I’m blocked in (again), I will push him off the jack.”

Truex, who was pitting behind Logano, also was angry with being blocked by Logano. Truex said on his radio at one point that he’d push Logano off the jack if it happened again.

Rarely do strong teams pit next to each other because of the likelihood they will be on the lead lap and pit together under caution throughout the race.

“I still don’t understand why he chose that pit stall because it screwed himself a lot, too,” Cole Pearn said about Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon.

It goes back to a decision Gordon made Friday.

“We didn’t focus on qualifying and paid the penalty for it,” Gordon said after Logano’s up-and-down day ended with a 23rd-place finish in a race won by teammate Brad Keselowski.

Cup teams had one practice Friday before qualifying. Gordon said the team made only one qualifying run, focusing on race setup instead. Logano ran 26 laps in the session, second only to Denny Hamlin, who ran 27 laps. Aric Almirola, who would win the pole, ran eight laps in the session.

“Honestly, we focused a lot on race trim because I wasn’t sure if, one, we would qualify, it looked like rain was coming during qualifying, and two, whether we would get to practice on Saturday,” because of weather, Gordon said. “I wanted to make sure we had a good race balance. We had really good pace Friday in race trim but didn’t make enough changes to go to qualifying, honestly.”

Pit stall picks are based on qualifying. Logano qualified 27th, meaning he had the 27th pick of the 40 pit stalls.

Gordon prefers a stall near pit exit at Atlanta. Since being teamed with Logano in 2013, Gordon has picked between the first and sixth pit stall at Atlanta every year.

When it came time for him to pick his pit stall for Sunday’s race, pit stall No. 5 — in front of Truex and behind Bowman — was the closest stall to pit exit.

“I do like to be down there,” Gordon said of being as close to pit exit as possible. “Honestly, this is a place you green-flag pit, you short pit … we do that separate. As we did today. You work around who is around you. It was definitely a challenge to be up there.”

The next closest pit stall available when Gordon made his pick was stall No. 10 in front of Ryan Newman and behind William Byron. Pit stall No. 14 also was available, but it was in front of Keselowski’s stall, and teammates do not pit next to each other.

“I hate being in the middle of pit road because there’s a lot of crap that happens there,” Gordon said. “Sometimes, you pick yourself into a hole to avoid catastrophe.”

On the first two stops, Truex was ahead of Logano on the track. So Truex entered his stall first and then Logano had to maneuver around him. Bowman was behind both. That meant Bowman had to maneuver around Logano’s car to enter his stall. That led to Logano being boxed in.

It’s just a tough situation when you got (Logano) coming in around (Truex),” said Greg Ives, crew chief for Bowman. “He’s not in an optimal position to come out and we’re not in an optimal position to get in.

“Todd Gordon came over and asked if we could give them a little more room. He understood the situation. When (Logano) is pointing toward the wall, and we’re pointing toward the wall, you’re never really going to get out of that. That comes down to Friday qualifying and pit selection. He knew his pit selection got him into that situation, and it wasn’t going to break until we got our cars better and stayed in front of them.”


No Hendrick Motorsports car finished better than 15th Sunday — the sixth consecutive race the organization has gone without a top-five finish. Hendrick’s last top-five result came with Chase Elliott’s win at Kansas in October.

Alex Bowman led the Hendrick group by placing 15th. William Byron was 17th. Elliott placed 19th, a lap down. Jimmie Johnson finished 24th, two laps down. Johnson has not had a top-10 finish in his last seven races on a 1.5-mile track.

“We’ve just got to get our cars better,” Bowman’s crew chief, Greg Ives, told NBC Sports. “We need to get just more overall speed. I don’t think anybody’s car (in the field) drives good. It’s just that one is faster than the other, and that’s who wins. So we’ve got to do a little bit better job with our cars. We go back home, and you’ve just got to get back to work.”


Front Row Motorsports has a unique setup for its pit crews this season.

It is using crews from three different organizations.

Michael McDowell’s pit crew is from Chip Ganassi Racing. Rookie Matt Tifft’s pit crew is from Stewart-Haas Racing. David Ragan’s pit crew is from Roush Fenway Racing.

The team used a pit crew from SHR and Roush last year but needed to find a third unit when it added the team for Tifft. Ganassi had a crew available because it no longer was pitting Leavine Family Racing’s car with that team moving to Toyota and getting its pit crew from Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Using pit crews developed by other teams allows Front Row Motorsports to use the savings for its cars and organization. If Front Row had its own pit crew program, it would need at least 20 people (three teams of five and then at least some backups), training facilities and more.

Because these larger teams have programs in place, it makes sense for Front Row to use those team members. The benefit for the bigger teams is it helps develop those who are not on their own teams.

“We’d rather have the best group out of those organizations,” Jerry Freeze, general manager for Front Row Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “We felt that would be a better pit crew for us than going out and recruiting our own and coaching our own.”


Are changes coming to the rules package for Daytona and Talladega?

Daniel Hemric, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman took part in a Goodyear tire test the two days after the Daytona 500.

“They had to slow us down,” Bowman said. “It will be interesting what gets brought back.”

Larson said one of the changes made to slow them down was a larger spoiler.

What that could mean, if anything, remains to be seen.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said of any adjustments: “It’s probably premature to talk about that. We’re just downloading that data.”


The Toyota Racing Development pipeline of talent is deep, and that puts the pressure on young drivers to perform and work their way up.

After winning Saturday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race, Kyle Busch was asked about 18-year-old Todd Gilliland, who is running the full season for Kyle Busch Motorsports after competing in 19 of 23 races last year. Gilliland was winless last year and finished with nine top 10s.

“I don’t know how many times last year we were in meetings and I was just yelling at him about ‘Let’s go,’ ” Busch said. “Our (stuff) is not that slow. You got to get up on top of the wheel and make it happen. Obviously, we kind of proved that here (at Atlanta).”

Gilliland finished ninth in Saturday’s Truck race. Harrison Burton placed eighth but was second on the final restart before falling back.

“I was happy to see Harrison (run) as good as he did, and Todd, we certainly have to work with him and continue to bring him up and get him filled in on what it takes to be fast at these places,” Busch said.

“We’ll hopefully be able to get (Gilliland) places because you know his career is on the line. You don’t get very many chances at this, and I’m sure that we’ll hopefully be able to get him going better. He should have won two races last year, no question about it, but obviously it just didn’t happen. He’s got to show up this year and make it happen.”

Busch was asked if it was just of matter of Gilliland slowing down, taking a step back to take a step forward.

Absolutely,” Busch said. “We’ve had that discussion as well, too. There were times last year where Todd wrecked every week, and we were like, ‘Dude, you got to just slow down, you’ve got to figure out how to finish.’ To finish first, first you must finish, right?

“Obviously there was that discussion that happened. He went on to almost win the road course and then almost win Texas, and he struggled at Phoenix for some reason and struggled at Homestead. So obviously we continue to work on not only Todd, Harrison, but anybody that is behind the wheel, Christian Eckes, Chandler Smith who is going to get the chance later this year, Raphael Lessard. All these guys. If they want to make it, if they want to be a star in this sport, they better perform in KBM stuff because if you don’t, sorry, man, there’s not much left for you.”

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Bump & Run: Should Michael McDowell have pushed fellow Ford at end of Daytona 500?

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Should Michael McDowell have been obligated to push fellow Ford driver Joey Logano on the last lap of the Daytona 500 instead of pushing Toyota driver Kyle Busch? Or are such beliefs pointless in the final laps?

Nate Ryan: He wasn’t obligated to push Logano, but it also seemed his best hope for getting to the front. It’s understandable why McDowell, who has soldiered through a decade of mostly getting knocked around while racing for midpack teams, was frustrated that the elite of the Cup Series seemed so dismissive of his No. 34 Ford in the draft. But if he was trying to send that message by declining to push Logano out of spite, it probably was a decision that doomed both their hopes of winning the Daytona 500. (Also worth noting: Front Row Motorsports might be a Ford team, but it isn’t supported by the manufacturer at nearly the same level as Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske, so the dynamics of the allegiances were different.)

Dustin Long: No. Manufacturers should not be second-guessing a driver for going with a different car make if the driver feels that is their best chance to win in the heat of the moment. And drivers should not assume that just because they are in the same camp they should expect help in such moments. 

Daniel McFadin: Absolutely not. At some point the emblem on your hood is meaningless when it comes to winning a race, especially the final laps of the Daytona 500. I’m fine with manufacturers collaborating through the early stages as a means of survival, but you have to be a tad naive to expect that on the last lap. McDowell’s in the right.

Jerry Bonkowski: No, McDowell was under no obligation to push Logano. Even with both being Ford drivers, McDowell chose to push the driver – in this case Kyle Busch – he thought might help McDowell earn a higher result. Now, once we start using tapered spacers at Daytona and Talladega, things could be much different. Time will tell.

Does Ross Chastain deserve a full-time ride with an elite team after his triple-header masterpiece of not tearing up his equipment at Daytona?

Nate Ryan: Yes, and it would benefit NASCAR nearly as much as Chastain if he gets one. Beyond being a special talent, the part-time watermelon farmer from Florida speaks his mind in an appealingly brash and candid manner. He is the type of personality that is needed, and it’s somewhat inexplicable he wasn’t scooped up by a bigger team when his Xfinity ride with Chip Ganassi Racing dissolved. Sponsors and teams should be cognizant of what he brings to the table.

Dustin Long: He may deserve a ride but the reality is money plays a key role on where some drivers go. Look, there are plenty of drivers racing at local tracks who might deserve a chance at one of NASCAR’s national series but they aren’t going to get it for one reason or another. The sport could be better by having Chastain in a top-flight ride as Nate notes but sometimes things don’t go as they should.

Daniel McFadin: Chastain deserved an elite ride after his performance with Chip Ganassi Racing in three Xfinity races last year. He got that ride until circumstances out of his control took it away. He’s still under contract with Ganassi, and I don’t think he’s going to be forgotten next year.

Jerry Bonkowski: I don’t know if I would use the word “deserve,” but Chastain has shown he has a great deal of talent that deserves to be recognized by higher-level teams. The problem is there is only a finite number of driver positions with teams in Cup, and as he has learned throughout his career, Cup is far too often a numbers game. Chastain will have to keep fighting the good fight, but sooner or later his time will come.

NASCAR Chairman Jim France asked drivers to work the bottom lane and put on a show before Sunday’s Daytona 500. Was the race evidence that they listened or just circumstantial coincidence?

Nate Ryan: As I wrote in the notes column, the only thing that ultimately matters is he said it. It’s impossible to say definitively if drivers did listen … but you could make a strong case it made an impact in the first stage.

Dustin Long: Coincidence. Competitors were talking after the Duels that they expected two lanes of racing in the 500 with a full 40-car field. Yes, it was a less-than subtle dig at the drivers but once in the heat of competition, a competitor isn’t going to focus on the requests of a series executive if they don’t feel it gives them a good chance to win.

Daniel McFadin: I originally was going to answer that I thought the stakes of the Daytona 500 meant the racing we saw was going to happen regardless. But then I remembered a good chunk of last year’s 500 was conducted in a single-file manner (with Ryan Blaney leading 118 laps). So it’s entirely possible France’s friendly prodding did the trick.

Jerry Bonkowski: I lean more towards circumstantial coincidence. Drivers will be the first to tell anyone that they race for themselves and their teams first and foremost, and then their sponsors. NASCAR officials are not – and should not – be in a position to tell drivers how to drive or where to drive on a track to put on any kind of a show. Fans are not stupid, they will quickly pick up if drivers are given NASCAR orders (as opposed to team orders, which they should listen to).

What do you expect to see this weekend at Atlanta with the new rules package?

Nate Ryan: A race that resembles most races at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The lower horsepower should keep cars closer, but surely the massive tire wear, coupled with a few long green-flag runs, will produce a familiar look.

Dustin Long: I don’t know. That will be the fun of it. Sure, the cars should be closer together for a few laps but tire wear likely will spread the field some. How much remains to be seen. I’m keeping an open mind on what will take place this weekend.

Daniel McFadin: I expect a somewhat uneventful first stage as the teams get their heads around the package before they drop the hammer in Stage 2 and beyond. I’m willing to say it will probably be the most interesting Atlanta race in a decade.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given what we saw at the Las Vegas test – and at a track very similar to Atlanta – I am very bullish that this could be one of the closest and best races we’ve seen at Atlanta in perhaps a decade or more. The only thing that could alter that is if there are weather issues. Then it could be a whole different ballgame, especially if drivers are in a race to not only beat their opponents, but also closing-in rainstorms.

Daytona 500 winners and losers

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WINNERS

Joe Gibbs Racing — Team goes 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 with Denny Hamlin winning a day after the organization placed two cars in the top six in the Xfinity race.

Small teams — Michael McDowell (Front Row Motorsports) finished fifth, Ty Dillon (Germain Racing) finished sixth and was Chevrolet’s top finisher, rookie Ryan Preece (JTG Daugherty Racing) placed eighth and Ross Chastain (Premium Motorsports) finished 10th.

Fans — They didn’t see the single-file racing that was so evident in the Clash, qualifying races and Xfinity race.

Parker Kligerman — He finished 15th, highest among non-chartered teams.

LOSERS

Decision-making by drivers — The last 25 laps saw a 21-car crash, a seven-car crash and a nine-car crash. Said Kyle Busch of what caused the damage: “Brains come unglued.”

Race length — With talk of shortening races, the Daytona 500 took 3 hours, 45 minutes. That doesn’t include nearly 40 minutes of red flag time. The time of the race was the longest for the Daytona 500 since the 2011 event, which lasted 3 hours, 59 minutes. This race will always be 500 miles but lasting more than four hours (when including the red flags) is not what the sport is seeking.

Hendrick Motorsports pole-sitters — William Byron gave Hendrick Motorsports its fifth consecutive Daytona 500 pole. None of those cars, though, have finished the race better than 14th. Byron placed 21st. The average finishing position for the last five Daytona pole winners is 24.4.

Bubba Wallace — A year after finishing second in the Daytona 500, Wallace placed 38th after he was collected in a crash.

Joey Logano ‘very surprised’ Michael McDowell didn’t push him at end of Daytona 500

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Joey Logano questioned fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell’s decision to help a Toyota driver Kyle Busch in the final lap of Sunday’s Daytona 500.

McDowell said the decision was easy. He felt Busch had a better chance and that the “Fords weren’t that friendly to me this weekend.”

Logano went to McDowell’s car on pit road shortly after the race to express his displeasure. The short conversation proved unsatisfying to Logano, the reigning series champion.

“Typically you kind of expect manufacturers to work together like the Toyotas do or the Chevys do, and just was expecting that, as well, in that moment coming to the checkered flag,” Logano said of McDowell’s move, which helped Busch finish second while Logano placed fourth. “I was very surprised by his decision.”

McDowell, who finished fifth for Front Row Motorsports, was unapologetic about his late-race move.

‘I just told him that my team doesn’t pay me to push Joey Logano to a win,” McDowell said after his second career top-five finish. “That’s not what I get paid to do. At 200 mph, I made a split-second decision on what was the fastest car and who had the best shot at winning the race and that’s where I went.”

“I would have loved to work with Joey, but he was moving left to right. (Busch) had a big run, a lot of momentum and Joey had a lot of damage, the back of his car was completely smashed, no rear bumper, parachute hanging out it. Joey wasn’t going to win the race. I wanted to put myself in the best shot to win the race. And the Fords weren’t that friendly to me this weekend.”

Said Logano: “At that point, (McDowell) wasn’t go to win. He’d have to pass Kyle.”

McDowell also was frustrated with Ford driver Clint Bowyer, who attempted to pass McDowell late and came up the track, triggering a nine-car crash that set up the final overtime finish.

“The Bowyer wreck was all his fault,” McDowell said. “He flat out tried to shift me out and cleared himself and he wasn’t clear. That’s what is so frustrating. You’ve got guys that say, ‘Hey, why don’t you go with me … well because every time I’m in the front you shook me out and so what makes you think I’m going to push you to a win when you leave me high and dry the whole entire day?”

Said Bowyer of his move on McDowell: “Hey, it is the Daytona 500, I had to go for it. I had a big run on (McDowell) and knew that I had to make quick work of him because in the mirror they were going three-wide and losing their minds so you knew that was going to come down on you. So I decided to lose my mind too.”

As for the finish, McDowell said: “I think for a small team it’s awesome. There’s no doubt about it, but I’d be lying to you all if I told you I was over the moon excited. I’ve been in the Cup Series over 10 years now. I have one goal and one goal only and that’s to get a win. I was close to getting there tonight or at least had a shot at it and wasn’t able to get it done at the end. I’m happy with the finish.  I’m proud of the team, but that wasn’t the goal.”