Bump & Run: Does Paul Menard owe Jimmie Johnson a payback?

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How much of a hall pass does Paul Menard have to pay back Jimmie Johnson for the Clash wreck? Can he knock him aside on the next short track without compunction, or does it only extend to cutting Johnson no breaks in the near future?

Nate Ryan: It would seem heavy-handed if Menard retaliated by intentionally wrecking Johnson, but he has earned the right to rough up the seven-time champion if the roles are reversed in the future. They probably wouldn’t be working together anyway during a restrictor-plate race but don’t expect Menard to lay over for Johnson anytime soon, particularly with the Wood Brothers Racing driver alluding to a history between them at Daytona.

Dustin Long: As Menard said after the incident, contact from Johnson wrecked him at Daytona last year. So, yes, he’s keeping score. And yes he has a hall pass to use. 

Daniel McFadin: I don’t expect any form of retribution from Menard (it’s not really in his personality), outside possibly not cutting Johnson some slack at some point. It was a non-points race and Johnson didn’t wreck him on purpose. It was a side draft gone wrong.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given how NASCAR has cracked down on things this year, including taking wins away from drivers whose cars don’t pass post-race inspection, my guess is the sanctioning body will be equally diligent when it comes to payback between drivers. I highly doubt we’ll see a Joey LoganoMatt Kenseth tit-for-tat situation between Menard and Johnson, lest Menard gets nailed and suffers another fallback. The best situation is for Menard to move on and just beat Johnson with his car and talent.

Paul Menard said of Johnson’s ill-timed bump, “Jimmie does that a lot at these tracks.” Is that a fair criticism of how the seven-time champion has raced at plate tracks?

Nate Ryan: Johnson is a two-time Daytona 500 winner, but even he probably would admit that plate races aren’t his specialty. He has crashed out of more than a quarter of his Cup races at Daytona (nine in 34 starts), and he has been accused multiple times of instigating massive wrecks since near the beginning of his career (the 2005 season was particularly uncomfortable with Johnson in the middle of multicar pileups in both May and October at Talladega Superspeedway). Claiming Johnson starts wrecks in every plate race is hyperbole, but he has been in the middle of his share of crashes (and admirably took the blame for some of them).

Dustin Long: Yes, look it up, but also understand there are others that have been in the center of incidents on plate tracks. Over time it cycles to where those that are involved in incidents are victims of others. It’s not like Johnson has gone rogue or anything like that.

Daniel McFadin: Menard is right, just based on this short tweet thread of incidents involving Johnson and Menard. His involvement in Sunday’s wreck was his eighth straight Clash marked by involvement in an incident. Johnson may have eight points and non-points Daytona wins, but he’s no master of pack racing like Earnhardt.

Jerry Bonkowski: I think Menard spoke in the heat of the moment. Yes, Johnson has been involved in some incidents at plate tracks where the finger of blame has been pointed at him, but at the same time, how many times has he also been victimized by other drivers’ errors? Also, Menard cut down on Johnson in Sunday’s wreck and Johnson was trying to hold his position. So I do not give him full blame on the wreck; Menard is also culpable.

After the Clash, Kurt Busch said: “You want the cars more stable. You want us to run side-by-side. You want us to change lanes and not have side effects, and it just shows you how trimmed out everybody has got these cars to find that speed, and when you’re looking for speed, it usually brings instability in the cars.” Should NASCAR try to make changes to put in more comfort and handling for the Daytona 500?

Nate Ryan: Yes, if it were at all possible (and it might not be) to improve the stability in the draft and aid passing, NASCAR should look at it. The 2018 Daytona 500 was terrific, but plate racing has been mostly lackluster since then (notably the past two Talladega races). While this technically will be the last “plate” race (with tapered spacers essentially serving the same purpose in the future), and perhaps the new package will fix itself, it’s still important to ensure Sunday is as high quality as possible.

Dustin Long: No. No. No. No. No. If they’re going to make changes, then just give everyone participation ribbons while you’re at it. At some point, skill has to play a role.

Daniel McFadin: If NASCAR can introduce an element between now and Sunday that allows for easier creation of a second lane, go for it. But as a non-engineer I have no idea what that would entail.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’m not convinced that NASCAR has to do anything more. Rather, I think the onus is on the drivers to learn and adapt to the new rules. Just because drivers complain doesn’t necessarily mean the sanctioning body has to immediately change the rules to appease them. Drivers and teams are given rules and it’s up to them to abide by those rules.

Who are you picks to make it to the Championship 4 in Miami?

Nate Ryan: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Joey Logano.

Daniel McFadin: Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick

Jerry Bonkowski: Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch.

Who is one driver you are most intrigued about this season and why?

Nate Ryan: Jimmie Johnson, because he still feels he has much to prove despite a Hall of Fame career, and the start to 2019 underscores he might have a newfound swagger to go along with it.

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell. He said at one point last year he was ready for Cup but remains in Xfinity this season. How does he improve in a series a year after he won seven races as a rookie?

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson. After a disappointing winless season, how does he bounce back with a new teammate in champion Kurt Busch and how will the new rules package impact the driver with one of the most distinct driving styles?

Jerry Bonkowski: Jimmie Johnson. Will he be able to win an eighth NASCAR Cup championship with new crew chief Kevin Meendering? Will Chad Knaus have some behind-the-scenes input, even though he’s now crew chief for William Byron? There’s also some intrigue there, as well, wondering how Byron will do in his sophomore season in Cup and with one of the greatest crew chiefs in history calling the signals for him from the pit box.

Bump & Run: Who will follow Clint Bowyer in ending long drought? (video)

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Who is the next driver with a significant winless streak to snap it?

Nate Ryan: Aric Almirola (125-race winless streak) needs to follow through quickly on his early season speed to stamp this as a breakthrough season.

Dustin Long: Paul Menard (238-race winless streak). He will give the Wood Brothers’ their 100th Cup win.

Daniel McFadin: Among Cup drivers on the list who have wins, I’m going with Aric Almirola (125-race winless streak). He’s shown the most consistency and straight up speed, having not finished worse than 14th this year. If not for multiple speeding penalties at Martinsville, it’s possible he could have wound up in the top five for the first time. 

Jerry Bonkowski: This is a tough one. My inclination is to pick Chase Elliott (83-race winless streak), but instead I’m going with Jamie McMurray (154-race winless streak). He has at least one win in him this season, I believe, most likely at a place like Richmond or Charlotte or Sonoma. Jamie is l-o-n-g overdue for a win.

What has been the biggest surprise after the first six races of the season?

Nate Ryan: The strength of the Fords. It seemed as if Kevin Harvick was building something toward the end of 2017, but the across-the-board excellence of Team Penske and Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammates wasn’t foreseen.

Dustin Long: Performance of Ford this season, particularly the teams of Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske.

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson is the only Chevrolet driver with multiple top-five finishes (two). Four Chevy drivers have one top five, but three of those came in the Daytona 500.

Jerry Bonkowski: The slow start of Hendrick Motorsports. After six races, none of its four drivers are in the top 10. The closest is Alex Bowman (14th), but he’s been off to a slow start, as have been his three teammates: Jimmie Johnson (17th), Chase Elliott (18th) and William Byron (20th). It’s almost as if HMS has been a forgotten entity through the first one-sixth of the 36-race season.

Who is a driver you think that is under the radar but is worthy of more attention based on their performance this season?

Nate Ryan: No one jumps out. Everyone seems to be receiving the appropriate amount of exposure based on their rankings. It’s been well documented which drivers have been surprises.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney. Four top 10s in six starts and has only one finish outside the top 15 in his move from the Wood Brothers to Team Penske.

Daniel McFadin: Joey Logano. Only three drivers have finished in the top 10 in five of six races this year and he’s one of them. The others are Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. The No. 22 team seems to be on the right path after their disastrous 2017 season. He has two top fives this year, one less than he had at this point last season.

Jerry Bonkowski: Joey Logano has been flying under the radar, for sure. Ask most NASCAR fans, and I bet few would be able to correctly guess he’s in fourth place in the Cup standings after Martinsville, just 25 points out of first place. I did an unscientific poll with three of my friends, and two believed Logano to be between 11th and 15th, while the third picked him as eighth or ninth in the standings. Logano may be the Rodney Dangerfield of NASCAR right now, but I guarantee he’ll get a lot more respect going forward over the next 5-10 races.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Denny Hamlin. Driver and team eliminate the mistakes that have plagued them this season and maximize the speed of the No. 11 Toyota that has been present in every race.

Dustin Long

Kyle Busch scores his first win of the season and earns his second consecutive Martinsville victory.

Daniel McFadin

After three consecutive top-three finishes Kyle Busch gets win No. 1 in 2018.

Jerry Bonkowski

I may be playing a broken record by picking him again, but I’m going with the winningest active driver at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson. Remember him?

Dan Beaver

Just because it has never happened before doesn’t mean it can’t happen: Martin Truex Jr. sweeps the weekend and gets his first short-track win.

Bump & Run: Biggest upsets in NASCAR

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In light of UMBC’s upset of Virginia in the NCAA basketball tournament, what’s an upset in NASCAR that stands out to you?

Nate Ryan: David Gilliland in the Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway in 2006. That’s the closest approximation in modern-day NASCAR of what the Retrievers pulled off last Friday.

Dustin Long: David Gilliland’s Xfinity win at Kentucky in 2006 with a part-time and independent team. Remarkable upset that eventually led to a Cup ride.

Daniel McFadin: Front Row Motorsports’ two Cup wins, at Talladega in 2013 and Pocono in 2016. The first because David Ragan‘s surge to the lead on the final lap is the definition of “Where did he come from?” The second, because Chris Buescher earned his first Cup win via pit strategy and … fog.

Jerry Bonkowski: Actually, a two-part answer. First, when Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere and was pushed to the win in the 2011 Daytona 500 by Carl Edwards. And then there was the 1990 Daytona 500, when underdog Derrike Cope won.

What was something that stood out to you from the West Coast swing?

Nate Ryan: That the storylines from the end of last season (Toyotas, particularly Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, are fast; Kevin Harvick is a championship contender; Hendrick Motorsports still is searching) generally have remained intact.

Dustin Long: Overlooked was that Erik Jones was one of only three drivers (Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were the others) to score a top-10 finish in all three races.

Daniel McFadin: Joey Logano going from 16th to first in four laps in the Xfinity race on Saturday thanks to fresh tires. It’s the closest thing to a video game I’ve ever seen in real life.

Jerry Bonkowski: I thought for sure that we’d see more success from some of the young drivers. But when it came down to it, veterans won all three races. Sooner or later, the young drivers have to start making more of a name for themselves, guys like Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, William Byron and others. And by making a name for themselves, I mean winning.

What’s a special Martinsville memory you have?

Nate Ryan: John Andretti rallying from a lap down to win the first race I covered (and attended) there in April 1999. I was crossing the track in Turn 1 when Andretti drove the No. 43 right by into victory lane … with “The King” sitting on the driver’s window opening (to an enormous cheer from the crowd).

Dustin Long: John Andretti’s April 1999 win, which completed a weekend sweep for Petty Enterprises. Jimmy Hensley won the Truck race for the organization the day before Andretti’s victory. “It looked like the good old times,’’ Petty said in victory lane after riding in on the driver’s window opening of the No. 43 car.

Daniel McFadin: When I covered my first race there in the fall of 2014 as an intern for Sporting News. It turned out to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s first and only win at the track and the only time I attended a race he won. He’s retired now so I can say he’s my favorite driver. I still have confetti from the celebration in a plastic bag. 

Jerry Bonkowski: This is more of a sad rather than special memory. I was at the fall race in 2004 when the Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed into nearby Bull Mountain, killing all onboard. We got word about halfway through the race that there had been an incident, and as we got closer to the end of the race, things became confirmed. I recall it as if it was yesterday, and it’s a day I’ll never forget.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Kevin Harvick. Just like Atlanta, he proves no one is better at tire management in Cup.

Dustin Long

Martin Truex Jr. swoops in and ends Kevin Harvick’s streak.

Daniel McFadin

I’m going with the hot hand. No, not Kevin Harvick. Kyle Larson, the winner of four consecutive races at 2-mile tracks.

Jerry Bonkowski

While I wanted to stay with Jimmie Johnson until he finally won a race, I’m going in a different direction and picking Kyle Larson to win this one.