Long: Path to better NASCAR shouldn’t be us vs. them

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A tug-of-war is emerging in NASCAR that is unsettling and unnecessary.

This is not us vs. them.

This should be us and them — collaboration not conflict.

Instead, a fissure has developed between competitors and fans over the aero package and restrictor plates used in last month’s All-Star race. As talks continue among teams, drivers, engine builders and NASCAR on where to run this package again this season, questions have been raised about the type of racing it creates.

Former champion Brad Keselowski says that using the package too often could have long-term negative effects for the sport. But many fans were encouraged by the closer racing the package produced in the All-Star event. Their excitement helped spur NASCAR to examine running that package later this season — likely Michigan in August and Indianapolis in September — after the sanctioning body initially downplayed the chances of doing so.

It’s not uncommon for competitors and fans to be on opposite sides, but this issue cuts to a basic premise. What makes better racing? What lengths should NASCAR pursue to achieve that?

While fans see the potential for added excitement on the track, Keselowski sees a driver’s ability lessened.

“I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers,’’ he said this past weekend at Michigan International Speedway. “I think if you put a package like this out there, like we had at the All-Star race on a consistent basis, that the best drivers in the world will no longer go to NASCAR.

“They want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance and there is no doubt that the driver makes less of a difference with that rules package.”

That didn’t seem to matter to many fans after the All-Star race. Social media reaction and effusive fan comments on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio followed for days after the non-points race — a reaction rarely seen about that race in recent years.

Although the aero package and restrictor plate combination has been tried at Indianapolis, Pocono and Michigan in the Xfinity Series and at Charlotte in Cup, NASCAR has not stated how many races or where they hope to run this type of package in 2019 and beyond.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, stressed that Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, saying: “This (package) is not something we’re looking at for every race. I see some of our current drivers make assumptions when they don’t have all the facts. It’s something we’re looking at for a few tracks. If we could pull it off and improve on something, we will but also very happy with the racing we have today.”

With restrictor plates choking horsepower and aero changes intended to help cars run closer, Keselowski’s concern is that races on some 1.5- or 2-mile tracks will look similar to the racing at Daytona and Talladega. That means drivers are less in control of their fate.

“I would say most plate tracks, first through fourth has control of their own destiny and have acquired that finish based on talent, skill, etc.,’’ said Keselowski, whose five Talladega wins and one Daytona triumph are the most victories at restrictor-plate tracks than any other active driver. “From there on back it is a random bingo ball.”

Hall of Famer Mark Martin tweeted that he agreed with Keselowski and said that while he enjoys many of the changes the sport has made — including the playoffs and stage racing — he does not want to see a package that makes it easier for more drivers to win Cup races.

“Racing in NASCAR is supposed to be the hardest, most difficult thing that you could ever try to do as a race car driver,’’ Martin said this past weekend at Michigan. “It really, really hurts me to think about that we want to change to satisfy Johnny-come-lately fans.

“There are some issues that could be addressed about our racing, but artificially making the racing exciting for a portion of the fans to me is not what, I’d rather see that in (the Xfinity) race, not (the Cup) race.”

Sports need to be challenging. Sports also need to entertain and wow fans with feats that no average person can do. It’s why people watch LeBron James on a basketball court, Tom Brady on a football field and Sidney Crosby at a hockey rink. Rules have changed over the years in their sports, some dramatic, some subtle, but their athletic prowess remains constant.

Even if a driver’s ability may be limited in a handful of races that doesn’t mean that some fan can do what Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson do in a car. 

The restrictor plates and aero package used in the All-Star race and at Xfinity races, create a different set of challenges for drivers but still allows them to display their ability.

“I think it’s a different type of talent,’’ Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon said this past weekend. “To be inches off of one another, pushing, shoving, wide open around there, making the correct moves, jumping out of line at the right times.

“It’s a real chess match out there and putting yourself in a good position is very key. I think it’s a different type of talent, obviously, than what we do every week. I think it’s good to have these type of races. If the fans love to see it and it looks good and creates drama, I like it. I don’t know its an every week package but for these types of tracks it’s good.”

It’s not just NASCAR facing such issues. This is a topic in IndyCar, particularly with the Indianapolis 500.

Last month’s 500 featured 31 lead changes. That was more lead changes in any Indianapolis 500 from 1911-2011.

Problem was that the 31 lead changes this year were the fewest since 2011. The race averaged 44.7 lead changes from 2012-17 when it appeared more like a video game with its back-and-forth passing.

This year’s total marked a 30.7 percent decline in lead changes. It’s why some have wondered if rule changes need to be made for that series to make passing easier at the front — and in theory make the race more exciting.

There needs to be a balance there and for each motorsports series. Not every race will be spectacular. Not every game is in other sports. For every moment of greatness, there are others that are merely satisfying. The key is to find a way that appeals to fans and also works with competitors. 

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What’s next for Danica Patrick after the Indy 500? Dreams, downtime and waffles

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Danica Patrick was a 14-year-old growing up in Roscoe, Illinois, she had a firm idea of what she’d be doing 20 years later.

A reporter from her hometown newspaper recently reminded her of that in a recent interview when he brought a prescient artifact from those teenage years – an essay that she crafted as an up and coming go-kart driver about her racing accomplishments.

“I’m breezing through it, and then at the end, it said, ‘I wanted to race Indy cars,” Patrick, 36, said Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I was 14. I told him, ‘See? If this isn’t an example of “Write that shit down,” nothing is.’

“This is manifesting. You have write it down and you have to imagine what you want. So I do that as much as I can.”

Heading into the final start of her career in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, Patrick already seems to have a solid idea of the next 20 years — in part, because of having some glimpses into her post-racing life.

There has been plenty of downtime since her final NASCAR start in the Daytona 500 three months ago. She has taken vacations (including an India trip to meet the Dalai Lama with boyfriend Aaron Rodgers) and created several new routines on her suddenly free from racing weekends.

“I make waffles on Sundays now,” she said. “That’s pretty fun.  In the summer, there’s like farmers market.  I can’t wait for that.  I mean, there’s going to be probably some new stuff that I don’t know yet.

“The one thing that I am definitely looking forward to less of is less stress.  Last weekend was awesome at the end of it all because it went well with qualifying, but I was nervous for 95% of that weekend. That’s uncomfortable.”

But testing her comfort zone is appealing to Patrick, who has spent most of her adult life testing the boundaries of gender norms in her profession. Though the pressure of race weekends might disappear, her incessant quest for challenges probably will remain.

Now that racing is over, Patrick still has a winery, a clothing line, a cookbook and a fitness manual to promote – and more is on the way.

“I just have a habit for pushing myself to uncomfortable spaces, making them comfortable for me,” she said. “At least just making them comfortable enough to be able to manage.

“As an example, I went bungee jumping a long while back, like 10 years.  I’m super scared of heights.  I’m still scared of heights.  But I just like to know that if I want to do something, I am brave enough and confident enough to do it.  That doesn’t mean I’m not still scared.  That doesn’t mean it’s not still something that’s easy to me afterward. I just like to know I can get past the fear if I have to.

“I’m OK with transitioning into other things, finding a little bit of happiness and joy each day, less colorization of emotions. I’m ready for that.”

So what specifically is on tap? Talk shows? Another book?

Patrick demurs when pressed.

“I think I have definitely big dreams and aspirations for myself, for all my companies, for the kind of emotion I want to have on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a good, easy, happy, calm, joyful, exciting, adventurous life.  If I say I want it, there’s a very good chance that’s what I’ll get.”

In the short-term, there’s hosting an ESPN awards show that will keep her busy through July.

And after that, her schedule will free up just as Green Bay Packers training camp begins for Rodgers, the two-time MVP quarterback.

“I’m thinking I’m going to have plenty of time to write a cookbook in Green Bay,” she said.

Reviewing Danica Patrick’s highs and lows at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the legacy left by her success

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So much of Danica Patrick’s fame can be traced to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s where she became a household name 13 years ago when she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and emerged as a transcendent athlete.

It’s where everything started. This Sunday, it’s where everything will end, too.

In her last warmup before starting the final race of her career, Patrick had a bumpy final practice Friday on Carb Day. She was eighth fastest, but her Dallara-Chevrolet was in the garage most of the session because of an electrical problem in the engine. After returning during the final 10 minutes of the session, Patrick’s No. 13 seemed to be OK.

“At the end of the day, these are things you’re actually glad for, because if this had happened Sunday, we would have been done,” she said. “I’m glad to get the issues out of the way early on. Overall, today felt good. We made some changes when I went out the second time, and I’m feeling good about starting seventh on Sunday.”
Though she has had her share of success – along with a fourth in her debut, there was a third in 2009 and six top 10s in seven starts — Patrick has learned well how to handle frustration at the 2.5-mile track, too.

Fuel mileage might have kept her from winning her debut, a pit collision ruined 2008, and an unstable setup made 2010 a wild ride.

For a review of her up-and-down history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and her legacy in racing, watch the video essay above that ran during Friday’s NASCAR America Motorsports Special on NBCSN.

 

NASCAR America Motorsports special airs from 3:30 – 5 p.m. ET

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A special NASCAR America airs today with Krista Voda hosting from Stamford with Kyle Petty. They’ll be joined by Steve Letarte and Landon Cassill at NBC Charlotte. Marty Snider joins from Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

  • Today, we get set for racing’s biggest weekend with the NASCAR America Motorsports Special! We’ll have full reports from Charlotte Motor Speedway, where NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600, goes down on Sunday night. Also: Will the ‘600’ produce another first-time winner after Austin Dillon’s breakthrough last May?

 

  • The IndyCar on NBC crew recaps Indianapolis 500 Carb Day from the Brickyard. Danica Patrick’s last ride, Ed Carpenter’s quest to win at his home track, and Sebastien Bourdais’ amazing comeback are just some of the stories they’re following ahead of Sunday afternoon’s ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’

 

  • Our ‘Mission 600’ series – showcasing NASCAR drivers and the members of our country’s Armed Forces – concludes today with Alex Bowman visiting the U.S. Coast Guard at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina to get a glimpse of the “Coastie” Life.

 

  • Plus: Kyle Petty jumps into the NBC Sports iRacing Simulator to explain all the things that can take away a driver’s focus in the Coca-Cola 600.

If you can’t catch the announcement on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 3:30 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream

Jeff Gordon leads 2019 Hall of Fame Class

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Jeff Gordon, the four-time Cup champion who ushered in a new era of NASCAR on and off the track and opened a pathway for younger drivers to the premier series, was selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 on Wednesday.

The 46-year-old Gordon is the youngest inductee among the 10 Hall of Fame classes.

Joining Gordon in the Class of 2019 are: Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.

Gordon was selected on 96 percent of the ballots — surpassing the record of being on 94 percent of the ballot shared by David Pearson (Class of 2011) and Robert Yates (Class of 2018).

Roush was selected on 70 percent of the ballots, Penske was on 68 percent, Allison was on 63 percent and Kulwicki was on 46 percent.

They will be inducted Feb 1, 2019.

The next three top vote-getters were Buddy Baker, Hershel McGriff and Waddell Wilson.

A total of 57 ballots were cast — 56 by Hall of Fame voting members and one online fan ballot. The fan ballot had Allison, Gordon, Kulwicki, Baker and Harry Gant.

Jim Hunter was selected as the Landmark Award winner for his contributions to NASCAR as a media member, p.r. person, track operator and NASCAR official.

Gordon’s selection marks the third consecutive class that features a member of Hendrick Motorsports. Car owner Rick Hendrick was selected to the Class of 2017. Ray Evernham, Gordon’s crew chief for three of his titles, was voted to the Class of 2018. 

“I think it tells you a lot about that combination, what Rick created in his organization and the people,” Gordon said. “When Ray and I came to work, Ray told me all the resources are there, this could be something really special. It obviously ended up being way more than we ever anticipated. Those two are like family to me. To be able to follow them is very, very, very special. … Besides my parents, I owe those two everything to how they contributed to my life in more than just racing.”

Gordon’s success made car owners more open to hiring young drivers. Gordon also opened a pipeline from Midwest sprint car racing that helped future Hall of Famer Tony Stewart, among others, move to NASCAR.

Gordon’s influence goes beyond the track. He introduced NASCAR to mainstream America in the 1990s when he dominated, winning Cup titles in 1995, ’97 and ’98. Gordon appeared in national ads that weren’t just during NASCAR races and was the first — and only — NASCAR driver to host Saturday Night Live.

Gordon won 47 of his 93 career Cp wins between 1995-99. The driver dubbed “Wonder Boy” early in his career by Dale Earnhardt won his fourth title in 2001 — the year Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Gordon won three Daytona 500s, five Southern 500s and five Brickyard 400s.

Off the track, Gordon displayed class and poise throughout his career. He also displayed emotions. Gordon cried when he won his first points race, the 1994 Coca-Cola 600. He celebrated what was his final Cup win in November 2015 at Martinsville by bouncing, hooting and shouting “We’re going to Homestead!”

With Gordon’s selection the top five all-time winners in Cup will be in the Hall of Fame — Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and Gordon.

Kulwicki, the 1992 Cup champion, joins the Hall of Fame after coming close the past two years. He was among the top three vote getters not selected to the Class of 2016. He was tied with Ron Hornaday Jr. for the last spot in the Class of 2017. Both were selected on 38 percent of the ballots and Hornaday was selected in a second vote.

Kulwicki is revered for his underdog run to the ’92 title where he beat Bill Elliott by 10 points as a driver/owner. Kulwicki won five career Cup races before he was killed in a plane crash in 1993 on the way to Bristol Motor Speedway from a sponsor appearance.

Allison won 19 races, including the 1992 Daytona 500. He also was the 1987 Rookie of the Year and finished second to his father in the 1988 Daytona 500.

Allison was a fan favorite for his personality and persistence. Three months after Kulwicki died in a plane crash, Allison died from injures suffered in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.

Roush, whose name has been synonymous with success for most of his Cup career, joined the premier series in 1988 with Hall of Famer Mark Martin.

Roush, who has scored a record 325 victories across NASCAR’s national series, won his first Cup title in 2003 with Matt Kenseth and won the 2004 crown with Kurt Busch. Roush has five Xfinity championships and one Camping World Truck Series title.

Penske is better known for his success in IndyCar, including his 16 Indianapolis 500 victories as a car owner, but he’s also made an impact in NASCAR.

Penske won the 2012 Cup title with Brad Keselowski and has two Daytona 500 victories. He also built Auto Club Speedway and once owned Michigan International Speedway and North Carolina Motor Speedway. In Team Penske’s 52-year history, it has 489 major race wins across all series and 553 poles. Included are wins in IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula 1 and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

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