Getty Images

Bump & Run: What should NASCAR do about inspection violations before race?

2 Comments

Eight of 37 cars failed inspection before the Richmond Cup race and lost their starting spot. Is there a better way for NASCAR to handle such infractions to limit talk before a race being about penalties?

Nate Ryan: There has to be a solution, and whatever it is, NASCAR needs to implement it quickly. Switching from headlines about woes in postrace inspection to woes in prerace inspection is an improvement, but the preferred solution should be no headlines about inspection at all. 

Dustin Long: Until NASCAR figures out a way to do things differently, inspection failures will dominate talk before a race, especially if it involves more than 20% of the field as it did at Richmond.

Daniel McFadin: Unless you change the penalties for failing inspection (again), the cars will fail regardless of if you hold qualifying inspection right after qualifying or on race day. Only real solution I can think of is to have inspection before qualifying and for that to be the only inspection until after the race. That would just continue the endless cycle we seem to be in on the issue.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s just the nature of the beast, particularly when you have such a large number of cars that failed pre-race inspection. The larger the number of cars penalized, the greater the attention that is placed upon the situation by the media. Perhaps more attention should be focused on what NASCAR could do to improve and streamline the overall inspection process. And if it has to swing the pendulum even further, increase penalties to keep crew chiefs from playing games with their cars. Kick out the crew chief from the race, or perhaps hold the car for the first five laps of the race. That will change things in a hurry.

NASCAR tried another format for Cup qualifying at Richmond, limiting each round to five minutes. Should this be the format at most tracks the rest of the season?

Nate Ryan: Makes no difference here as long as the focus is on qualifying results and whoever won the pole position, not on the process for getting there. 

Dustin Long: Whatever it does, NASCAR needs to get out of this rabbit hole soon.

Daniel McFadin: I’m 50/50 on this. I’d prefer the first round being 10 minutes at anything larger than 1 mile, which allows teams to make more than one run – but that’s based on the premise drivers won’t wait until the final minute to make their first.

Jerry Bonkowski: Five minutes works fine on short tracks. Not so much on longer tracks of 1.5 miles and greater. That’s why I believe open qualifying should be replaced by having two to four cars (depending on the size of the racetrack) go out at a time for two or three qualifying laps. This creates attention and a kind of race-within-qualifying excitement among fans to see which driver can “beat” the other drivers, so to speak.

There’s been a lot of talk about what Joe Gibbs Racing will do with its Cup lineup for next year with Christopher Bell’s continued success in Xfinity, but Cole Custer has won twice for Stewart-Haas Racing in Xfinity. What kind of dilemma could SHR face with its driver lineup for 2020?

Nate Ryan: With no disrespect to Cole Custer, he has yet to show he is in Christopher Bell’s league, nor is there the external pressure of a huge investment in his development to avoid letting a coveted prospect escape (as is the case with the millions Toyota Racing Development has spent on grooming Bell). Because Custer is related to the SHR executive Joe Custer and effectively sponsored by team owner Gene Haas, the dynamics are incomparable. If Custer shows enough promise for promotion, the team probably could make room in Cup next season, but there is no sense of urgency as exists with Bell.

Dustin Long: Gene Haas said last year that Cole Custer needed to win more often. If Custer continues to do so, it will make him a more inviting driver for a team, whether that is SHR or another Ford operation.

Daniel McFadin: Cole Custer is already in his third full-time Xfinity season, which makes him middle-aged in Xfinity driver years. While we’re not privy to driver contract lengths, Kevin Harvick is locked in to at least 2021, Daniel Suarez is in his first and Aric Almirola continues to be strong in his second year. Clint Bowyer probably has the biggest question mark being in his third year with the team. Gene Haas will have to decide who’s a better long-term investment: A 39-year-old Bowyer or a 21-year-old Custer. Bowyer grabbing some wins this year could complicate that.

Jerry Bonkowski: One potential option could be embedding Bell with another Toyota team such as Leavine Family Racing in 2020, like when Erik Jones was with Furniture Row Racing in 2017. I think you’ll see a similar embed of Custer with another Ford team, perhaps Front Row Motorsports. Or, because Custer’s father, Joe, is a top executive at SHR, it would not surprise me to see Daniel Suarez shifted to another Ford team to make way for the younger Custer at SHR.

The IndyCar race at Long Beach ended with series officials penalizing Graham Rahal one spot for blocking Scott Dixon on the last lap. Should blocking be a penalty in NASCAR?

Nate Ryan: No. Different series, different cars, different tracks.

Dustin Long: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Don’t need any more judgment calls for NASCAR to make.

Daniel McFadin: Heck no. As much as Tony Stewart may have despised it, blocking is a racing maneuver. If a driver doesn’t like it, just show your displeasure with a love tap to the rear bumper.

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, particularly if it puts the driver being blocked and other trailing drivers at risk of crashing. I’ve long felt that egregious blocking should be penalized. But if that were to happen, it could open a Pandora’s Box of additional issues, such as bump-and-run moving an opponent out of the way. How would NASCAR draw the line between egregious blocking/bumping and legitimate blocking/bumping?

Jimmie Johnson ran in Monday’s Boston Marathon. What is another event you’d like to see a NASCAR driver attempt to take part in someday?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event and paired with Michael Jordan.

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson as a bobsled driver. Also, Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event.

Daniel McFadin: Since Ryan Newman is sponsored by Oscar Mayer, he should enter the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4.

Jerry Bonkowski: The Baja 1000 is the first one that comes to mind. That, to me, is the most grueling combination of man and machine. I’d also like to see more NASCAR drivers try their luck in the Indianapolis 500 and, conversely, do “the double” by racing later that same day in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Lastly, although it would be difficult due to the Cup schedule, I’d also like to see some of the best golfers among Cup drivers try their luck at The Masters.

Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s latest win gives him extra reason to boast

Leave a comment

What might be as remarkable as Martin Truex Jr. ending an 80-race winless streak on short tracks Saturday at Richmond Raceway is that he now has victories with four different organizations.

No other active Cup driver can boast that.

Not every driver has the chance to stay with one organization their whole career as Jeff Gordon did and Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin are doing, so what Truex has done is quite an accomplishment.

Then consider that three previous teams he won with — Dale Earnhardt Inc., Michael Waltrip Racing and Furniture Row Racing — are no longer in the sport.

Truex’s first career Cup victory came in 2007 with Dale Earnhardt Inc. His next victory wasn’t until 2013 at Michael Waltrip Racing. He lost his ride after that season when NAPA left the organization as a sponsor after the penalties NASCAR assessed MWR for its actions in the fall Richmond race. Truex then went to Furniture Row Racing and won 17 races before it closed its doors after last season.

Truex’s win at Richmond came with Joe Gibbs Racing.

While some members of Truex’s team at Furniture Row Racing followed him and crew chief Cole Pearn to JGR, not all did.

“It’s a new group of guys and a new group of people,” Truex said. “New pit crew. Just the way everybody fits together, works together – it’s a little bit different and that’s always something that can take a while to get rolling.”

Although he was a part of competition meetings in the past — Furniture Row Racing was aligned with JGR — Truex admits those meetings feel a bit different now.

“You feel like part of the team now and not a competitor,” he said.

Even with joining Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex’s team does have some independence.

“I think for the most part, for what I see, we get to do our own thing and we have leeway to make some options here and there and make decisions,” he said. “Some guys want to go down one path, and if we want to go down a different one, then certainly I feel like we have the ability to do that.”

Truex’s victory separated him from a group of active drivers who have won with three different organizations.

Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman each has wins with three different organizations.

Bowyer has won with Richard Childress Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. Busch has won with Roush Fenway Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. Newman has won with Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing.

Busch, who is with Chip Ganassi Racing, and Newman, who is with Roush Fenway Racing, could join Truex with having at least one victory with four different organizations if they win with their new teams this season.


How challenging was Saturday night’s race for drivers at Richmond?

Here’s what some said:

“Hard to pass,” Kyle Busch said repeatedly after the race.

“I could only gain two or three positions at a time per run,” said Denny Hamlin, who finished fifth after he started at the rear because his car failed inspection before the race. “It literally took us 400 laps to get to the top five. … I just got caught behind guys I was faster than, I just couldn’t get around them.”

Asked how aero dependent the cars are even on a short track, runner-up Joey Logano said: “Very, very, very, very, very aero dependent. Clean air is worth a lot. … It gets really tough when you get behind cars. The tire Goodyear brought didn’t rubber the race track at all, so we were all kind of stuck on the bottom, couldn’t find much area to get clean air.”

Said winner Martin Truex Jr.: “Man, it’s just tough. You already have no grip at all, your tires are completely wore out, feel like you’re running on bologna skins, and you catch a car and you feel like you lose all the air in your car. It feels like you’re driving on a road … you’re going around a turn, everything is fine, you feel normal, and you hit black ice. What happens? That’s the difference between being in front of a car and behind a car. You just lose all that grip.”

Here’s what Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio about the rules package:

“I continue to say and believe that directionally this is the right call. I’d say that we’ve moved on to this is the 2019 rules package and we’re happy with it. We continue to learn, obviously, each track we go to. Each track presents a different challenge.

“Any time you can run a long, long green-flag run with 145 laps and have four drivers in contention there at the end, I view as a success. You can always learn and always make some tweaks, which we will continue to do, but all in all really happy with the direction we’ve gone and continue to learn.”

Saturday’s Richmond race had 359 green-flag laps, featuring 1,238 green-flag passes. Chase Elliott had a race-high 73 green-flag passes. Hamlin and Aric Almirola were next with 71 each.

Last year’s spring race at Richmond had 356 green-flag laps, featuring 2,495 green-flag passes. Danica Patrick had a race-high 119 green-flag passes. Eighteen drivers had more than 73 green-flag passes.


For all the angst Kyle Larson has gone through lately, perhaps the biggest blow to his season was a speeding penalty at Atlanta.

While Larson has finished 37th or worse in two of the last three races and placed outside the top 15 in the last four races, the penalty at Atlanta cost him a chance to win.

He led 142 of the first 223 laps that day before the speeding penalty and couldn’t recover, finishing 12th. Although a win wouldn’t have changed the recent results he’s had, it could have cushioned some of the disappointment with the team set for the playoffs.

Instead, Larson’s struggles have dropped him to 19th in the points and outside a playoff spot.

After he fell out of Saturday night’s race at Richmond, Larson said: “It’s been a pretty crappy start to the year.”

Car owner Chip Ganassi understands Larson’s frustration.

“He’s in what I would call one of those rough career slumps for one reason or another,” Ganassi said before Sunday’s IndyCar race at Long Beach. “Yeah. I’d like to tell you that it was his fault or mine. I think we have had our moments when it’s been our team’s fault or his.

“What happens is it starts a snowball thing. Once that little thing happens, it often times is out of everybody’s control, and it snowballs. It’s just unfortunate.

“He has my full support. He has the team’s full support. He knows that there’s nothing that we or the team or anybody else wants more than to put a weekend together. It’ll be coming soon, I’m confident.”


What to do about qualifying?

NASCAR made each round of Cup qualifying five minutes at Richmond, reducing the first and second round from 10 minutes.

The point was to keep cars from sitting on pit road for part of the session, which happened the week before at Bristol. Drivers sat at Bristol because no one wanted to be first out on track because the traction compound didn’t activate until it had some heat in it. When it didn’t have that heat (such as when it sat there with no cars on track), it was slick. So drivers waited.

There was no traction compound used at Richmond so that wouldn’t have been a reason for the field to sit on pit road. 

“The optics of drivers sitting on pit road I don’t think works for the sport,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday. “I think the teams would agree with that as well. We looked at cutting down the time.

“All in all, I think it worked out well. We’re still continuing to look at what we want to do beyond Talladega (single-car qualifying) and have some additional discussions.”

Opinion was mixed on the change to the qualifying format at Richmond.

When you come to Richmond you’re looking for clean air,” Joey Logano said. “The tracks you’re looking for clean air, we don’t have to have to have that rule (five minutes per round). But when we go to the (tracks where drafting plays a role), that’s where you need it.”

One issue is that with only five minutes per round, it makes it difficult for a team to make more than one attempt per round. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made two runs in the second round but wasn’t fast enough on his last attempt to advance to the final round.

“It wasn’t adequate to go out twice,” Stenhouse said. “With five-minute rounds, the whole group qualifying format of coming in and going back out, that was the reasoning behind doing the group, you’ve kind of eliminated it.

“We were in the first wave of cars on the track, came right back in and started cooling it down and tried to get tire pressures where we needed. You just don’t have enough time. So as far as coming in and going back out and knocking people out, it’s not going to happen.”


Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway, told NBC Sports that the track has taken deposits from people in 32 states and Canada for the May 2020 race. The track’s spring date next year moves to May 9, the day before Mother’s Day.

Campbell said that the track plans to send out renewal notices in early summer for that May 2020 race, but fans wanting tickets to that event can put down a deposit of $20 per ticket with the track now.

Nate Ryan contributed to this report

Friday 5: Will Martinsville provide another memorable door-banging finish?

1 Comment

Last fall’s Martinsville race was memorable for a finish that saw Joey Logano move Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead on the final lap to win and earn a spot in the Championship 4 in Miami.

As the series returns to the half-mile Martinsville Speedway this weekend, what are the chances of such action repeating?

“I would say that it’s probably not going to be, there’s less of a chance that it will be like that,” Truex said. “Just because it’s not a race to get into the final four. I would think it would be tame and normal like we’ve seen there in the past.”

Logano disagrees.

“I see a trophy on the line,” said the reigning series champion. “A big clock (given to the winner). I don’t see that any different from the spring to the fall.”

The first race of the season at a track less than 1 mile will test drivers and could lead to aggressive actions. The question is how aggressive will drivers be.

“The (driver) code has definitely changed,” said nine-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson. “People reference the code a lot. But I think ultimately whatever code exists is between the two drivers. And that same code might not exist between driver C and driver D or driver A and driver D; it just changes all the time.

“When I look at it, sure it was a very aggressive move and Joey knew what he was doing to get that win and I’m sure we’ll expect the same to come back from Martin at some point. … In my eyes, sure it was aggressive but it could have been a lot worse.”

2. A familiar refrain

Coming off his dominant run on the West Coast swing, Kyle Busch heads to a type of track he’s ruled lately. Busch has won five of the last nine Cup races on tracks less than 1 mile in length.

Busch’s wins have been at both Richmond races in 2018, the spring Bristol race in 2018 and fall race there in 2017 and at Martinsville in fall 2017.

Teammate Denny Hamlin, whose last win at a track less than 1 mile in length was at Richmond in Sept. 2016, explains Busch’s success.

“He works tremendously hard at his craft,” Hamlin said. “I don’t think it’s just all natural talent. I think he works very hard as well.”

3. Perfect attendance

Ross Chastain is the only driver who has competed in every national series race this season. That’s five Cup, five Xfinity and three Truck races. He’s entered in this weekend’s Truck and Cup races at Martinsville.

Chastain has been running at the finish in every race. He’s completed 98.7 percent of the laps run in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks this season (2,498 of 2,532 laps run).

Such a schedule was expected entering this season. He had a deal to drive select races for Niece Motorsports in the Truck Series. He also was set with a Cup ride with Premium Motorsports.

Chastain was to have raced for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series but those plans went away after the FBI raided the headquarters of sponsor DC Solar and home of the DC Solar’s CEO. With DC Solar unable to fulfill its sponsor obligations, Chip Ganassi Racing shuttered its Xfinity team. That forced Chastain to look for other options.

He’ll drive three races for Kaulig Racing (he drove for the team at Daytona) and the rest of JD Motorsports this season.

So far this season, Chastain finished 10th in the Daytona 500 — giving Premium Motorsports its second top 10 in 231 Cup starts — placed seventh at Las Vegas for JD Motorsports and was third in the Daytona Truck race for Niece Motorsports.

4. “Like what I don’t like”

Xfinity rookie Justin Haley enters the off-weekend for the series 12th in points with a season-best finish of eighth at Atlanta.

Haley placed 10th last weekend at Auto Club Speedway and explained what he needs to do to have better finishes.

“I just need to get better on the feel from practice to the race, how the car transitions and goes through the process of loose and tight,” the Kaulig Racing driver told NBC Sports. 

Haley, who finished third in the points in the Truck series last year, said that experience can’t help him with what he’s seeking to improve upon this year.

“A lot of the times the Truck races are at night, so it’s gripped up,” Haley said. “These are day races, it transitions a lot. Really these Xfinity cars have less downforce. The Trucks, if you were good at the start of the run, you were going to be good at the end. There was no falloff really. Even at like Atlanta, the balance stayed the same. These things (Xfinity cars) take a huge swing throughout the run. So just getting a feel for that is the biggest thing.

“What I like most of the time isn’t what’s fastest, so I have to learn to like what I don’t like to make it fast.”

5. Ever return?

Martin Truex Jr. was asked last weekend at Auto Club Speedway if he thought Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser would return to NASCAR after shutting his team down after last year.

Said Truex: “We talk every week. He’s been watching. He’s been talking to us and telling us we’ve been doing a good job, and things like that. I think it’s probably a bit of a relief for him that he doesn’t have to worry about all of the things that come with being a team owner and he’s just able to enjoy it.

“I told him he needs to get to the track soon, we’d like to see him and get him around. As far as your question on whether he’ll be back, if you mean as a team owner? I have no idea. We haven’t talked about it. He hasn’t mentioned it. My best guess is no, but I guess you can never rule out anything.”

Auto Club Speedway winners and losers

Leave a comment

WINNERS

Kyle Busch Had it not been for a speeding penalty in the Cup race at Las Vegas and pit road penalty in the Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway this past weekend, he would have swept the West Coast swing, winning all seven national series races.

Kurt BuschHis sixth-place finish marked his fourth consecutive finish of seventh or better.

Cole Custer Last year, car owner Gene Haas said he needed to see Custer win consistently when there were questions about if Custer was ready to move to the No. 41 Cup car. Custer won Saturday’s Xfinity race with the help of new crew chief Mike Shiplett. 

Team Penske — Placed all three of its drivers in the top five in the Cup race. Joey Logano was second, Brad Keselowski third and Ryan Blaney fifth.

LOSERS

Qualifying — Having all 12 Cup cars in the final round fail to complete a lap before time expired was a “mockery” as NASCAR’s Scott Miller called it. Changes are coming.

Spire Motorsports — It’s been tough for this new team, which came about after purchasing Furniture Row Racing’s charter. The team, which has had multiple drivers, has not had a finish better than 30th in the last four races. Sunday, the team placed 36th.

Martin Truex Jr. reveals final twist in Furniture Row Racing saga

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Leave a comment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The story of Furniture Row Racing’s unfortunate demise was well told last season.

Lesser known is that it nearly happened three years earlier.

Martin Truex Jr. revealed Wednesday during Daytona 500 Media Day that the No. 78 was close to implosion after the 2015 season before securing the necessary funding that enabled the Denver-based team to last three more seasons.

“It wasn’t really reported on a lot that there was almost a chance we were going out of business before” the end of 2018, Truex said. “It wasn’t really talked about. It was kind of behind the scenes. And I had to go out and find sponsors. I had to do this and that to get paid.”

Truex’s primary sponsor for virtually the entirety of the 2014-15 seasons was Furniture Row, the company also owned by car owner Barney Visser.

In 2016, Bass Pro Shops (which followed Truex to Joe Gibbs Racing this year) and Auto Owners Insurance picked up nearly half the season, and a switch to Toyota also injected millions. In ’17, Furniture Row peaked in sponsorship (with the addition of Bass Pro and a second car for Erik Jones with 5-hour Energy).

Last year, Furniture Row was entirely off the No. 78 as a sponsor, and when the impending departure of 5-hour Energy left an eight-figure hole in the team’s budget, Visser shut down the team.

Truex since has replaced Daniel Suarez in the No. 19 Camry at JGR and said “there’s a lot less worry for me on the team side worrying about what their future is and how are things going.

“The stability of where I’m at now is clearly a lot different,” Truex said. “It’s there, which is important. It makes it easier to focus on racing and not have to worry about all the other stuff. I’m excited about it. It’s an awesome opportunity. Great organization and great people. At the same time, I have to get the job done. A lot of pressure on me to perform and hopefully I can deliver.”

Because JGR and Furniture Row had worked together as Toyota teams the past three seasons, Truex said the transition is relatively seamless compared with his past career shifts from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Michael Waltrip Racing and MWR to Furniture Row.

Crew chief Cole Pearn now can attend competition meetings at the JGR headquarters in Huntersville, North Carolina, that he once conferenced in remotely from Denver.

“I would say that it was a lot easier,” Truex said about the move. “A lot less unknowns. Less nervous about it just because I know things. I talk about simple things like I know what their brakes are like. I know what their throttle pedal feels like. I know what kind of steering they run. When I’ve switched teams before it’s like starting over a lot of times.

“When I went from DEI to MWR it was like completely starting over. All new people. All different parts and pieces. All new equipment. Everything felt different. The approach was different. That’s where you kind of have that anxiety of how’s this really going to be. I think it’s going to be good, but I don’t know. There’s so many questions when you switch teams like that. For this transition for me, it was a lot easier because we worked so closely together the past couple of years.

“We’ve essentially built our cars together. We used all the same stuff – parts and pieces, engines, you name it. I’m familiar with all that. I’m familiar with their process. The way they do things. The way they work together. The way their meetings are. You name it, it’s a comfortable change. For me, it’s been as easy as it’s ever been to switch teams like this year.”