Ryan: A tale of two short tracks (and maybe two driver temperaments)

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Two short tracks with highly anticipated stops on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

Two agonizingly frustrating battles of unseasonable inclement spring weather ranging from untimely snow to bone-chilling cold (if you polled the NASCAR garage, what would be this week’s opinion on climate change?).

Two races in the tightest quarters of the 2018 season.

Two wildly differing outcomes.

Bristol Motor Speedway’s two-day spectacular was much better than Martinsville Speedway’s extraordinarily tame outing on a snow-delayed Monday two weeks earlier.

Why?

You could start with the surface. During the recent era of track treatment, rarely has a traction compound’s application drawn such universally positive reviews as Bristol this past weekend. Track officials took advice from drivers to heart and laid down PJ1 in a way that ensured the bottom groove was the fastest – which, as Jeff Burton noted on Monday’s NASCAR America, is the best version of the 0.533-mile oval.

They also weren’t shy about reapplying the sticky stuff Monday after 204 laps were run Sunday before the washout (and it is fair to ask whether midrace treatment of a track unjustly shapes the competition).

But Bristol’s success seemed less about the surface as the men trying to navigate its treacherous environs. From the jump Sunday, there was an aggressive bent behind the wheel that was missing at Martinsville.

What other factors might have been involved?

Martinsville led into one of two off-weeks this season, and the postponement already might have been cutting into preparations for precious vacation time. It doesn’t necessarily mean conscious choices were made to avoid forcing the issue on every lap, but there might have been a general complacency fostered by the cabin fever-bred anxiety of an extra day at the track (or a night in a motorhome) with spring break looming.

Bristol, meanwhile, was a cauldron of pent-up ambition that often spilled over the edge during the course of 27 hours. It felt like the first real short-track race of the season with the constant battles that have been the hallmark of Martinsville the last few seasons. There were more leaders, more lead changes and more than twice as many caution flags (subtracting the three for rain).

There’s no way to definitively explain the disparity, but Bristol and Martinsville did reinforce a commonly held axiom.

In races threatened or postponed by weather, the action usually goes one of two ways: Drivers go hell-bent for leather, or they log laps with a de-emphasis on drama.

It seemed as if we saw both sides in the season’s first two short tracks.


In his weekly appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NASCAR senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell gave the most lucid and succinct explanation yet in what lies at the root of the pit gun debate.

Is it about the speed of the guns … or the swiftness of the pit crews?

As O’Donnell put it, the truth lies somewhere in between – and so does the pathway forward to getting everyone on the same page – which should be the primary goal instead of pointing fingers. As noted in last week’s column, there is more than enough culpability to go around.

The first step would be agreeing on what constitutes the better compromise: Paoli bringing its guns up to the level of the most elite pit crews, or teams retraining their athletes to slow down their lightning-quick hand speeds to adapt to the new guns.

Richard Childress Racing executive Andy Petree said in a revealing interview last week on FS1 that RCR had been counseling its crews to go slower and avoid “outrunning the equipment.” In postrace comments Monday to Dustin Long, it would seem Denny Hamlin would disagree with that approach.

This essentially is the crux of the issue to be discussed at the Team Owners Council meeting this week: Is it better to ask pit crews to change their ways, or manufacturer Paoli to change its guns?


Kyle Busch’s 49 points at Bristol were the third-lowest total for a race winner this season, and it essentially was because of an intriguing decision by Busch and several other teams near the end of Stage 1.

When the caution flew with five laps remaining in the stage, Busch was in second place behind Brad Keselowski, who elected to stay on track with five others: Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and AJ Allmendinger.

Busch lined up seventh for a one-lap restart to end the stage … and promptly dropped to 11th at the green and white flag – falling from a potential nine stage points to zero.

The decision worked out slightly better for Kyle Larson, but he still had a net loss of two points (taking fifth in the stage after falling third to eighth on the stop). It obviously went well for Keselowski, who earned 10 points and a playoff point with the stage win, and Bowyer (three), Almirola (eight) and Newman (two) all gained multiple points.

The scenario was an interesting window into how much teams value stage points. With a win and in the playoffs, Busch’s team traded points for potential track position with the threat of a shortened race (though the No. 18 Toyota still finished behind Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford at the end of the second stage that made it official).

Keselowski, who still needs a win to lock up a berth, stayed out for maximum stage points and seemed pleased by the decision. “I hate to lose the track position, but that’s too many points to just throw away,” he radioed his team.

Points that could be remembered as critical when the series reaches the Brickyard in September.


As Burton and Steve Letarte alluded to on NASCAR America, there won’t necessarily be a happy ending in Cup for Ryan Preece’s Cinderella story. There is hardly room at Joe Gibbs Racing with Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez all locked in for the foreseeable future, and it’s difficult to forecast which other premier series rides could open.

But there simply must be a full-time ride at the very least in the Xfinity Series for Preece, who has two wins (including last Saturday at Bristol) over the past two seasons for JGR.

Besides being talented, the 27-year-old is articulate and relatable, and as he eloquently explained last weekend, Preece has become a hero to short-track fans and racers around the country. As Parker Kligerman (whose struggle for a full-time ride is similar to Preece’s) wrote in a column for NBCSports.com earlier this year, NASCAR still remains a breed apart from much of the ride-buying morass found in Formula One and IndyCar.

But the necessity of “pay” drivers seemingly gets worse in stock cars with each passing year, and when even championship contenders are asked to bring sponsorship, it’s problematic.

The challenge clearly lies in finding sponsorship, but at what point do teams get held accountable for a lack of hustling to find money for an attractive candidate such as Preece, choosing instead just to take another driver’s check?

If Preece starts 2019 without a fully funded ride, that’s a debate worth having.


Speaking of the Xfinity circuit, kudos to series director Wayne Auton for owning a mistakeafter Saturday’s Dash 4 Cash mixup and reinstalling Daniel Hemric’s eligibility. Though such errors must be kept to an extreme minimum, it’s understandable how this one might have occurred.

The incident occurred during an expedited postrace inspection at track to ensure the four cars eligible for the Xfinity promotion were confirmed for the following race at Richmond. Normally, such inspections take place at the R&D Center, but the goal is getting more of the postrace inspection process done at the track and avoiding the midweek announcements that often derail more compelling storylines (in all series).

If a car being incorrectly deemed illegal is a byproduct of ultimately getting to a better place with inspections, it’s worth the long-term trade-off.


It might have been overlooked because the announcement came during Monday’s resumed race at Bristol, but Eldora Speedway is doing something that might be a worthy weather contingency concept for all tracks that don’t have domes.

Giving fans six days’ notice, the track’s 65th season opener Saturday has been “flex-scheduled” to 4 p.m. – roughly three and a half hours earlier than its scheduled start – because of an ominous forecast for the Ohio dirt track.

Flex-scheduling has been used with success in the NFL to provide better competitive matchups. Eldora is trying it to optimize its schedules for fans and teams with the threat of poor weather conditions. While it might be more difficult for a series with a national TV partner, it seems at least worthy of consideration.

Friday 5: Is it time for tracks to adopt rain ticket policy like Texas, Pocono?

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Few things can be worse to fans than a postponed race.

While many fans return the next day despite the inconvenience, others are not as fortunate. Some are unable to go back because they must work, travel home or cannot afford to stay an extra day.

Admittedly, it’s a risk associated with attending an outdoor sporting event. But should tracks do more for fans, who can spend hundreds of dollars on tickets and then never see the race?

Most NASCAR tracks do not offer refunds or exchanges.

While a few track officials told NBC Sports that if fans called the ticket office, the track would seek to work with them on a solution, no such formal policy is listed on track websites as of today. Some track officials said they’ve allowed fans to attend both an Xfinity or Camping World Truck race and the Cup race when they’ve been scheduled for the same day instead of emptying the stands before the Cup event.

Two weeks after Martinsville Speedway’s Cup race was postponed a day by snow, the series returns to action at Texas Motor Speedway.

Those tracks offer contrasts in what they offer fans who can’t return for a rescheduled race.

Martinsville Speedway, like tracks owned by International Speedway Corp., offers no refunds and no exchanges.

All ISC-owned tracks have a partnership with TicketGuardian that, for a cost, insures a fan’s tickets, along with any other enhancements they purchase — scanner rental, prerace pit passes, premium parking, etc. A TicketGuardian spokesperson told NBC Sports that the company is extending coverage until the newly scheduled date should the event be postponed.

Texas Motor Speedway has a policy that does not cost the fan extra. If a ticket holder is unable to attend a rained-out race on its rescheduled date, they will have the ability to redeem that ticket for a future event at equal or lesser value for up to one calendar year. That policy has been in place since 2013.

The wunderground.com forecast for Sunday shows a 0 percent chance of rain in Texas, so there’s no worry of that race being rescheduled.

But the Texas policy was used in 2014 when the April Cup race was postponed a day by rain.

That is one of 11 Cup races to have been rescheduled since 2013 (a span of 186 races). That equates to a rescheduled race 5.9 percent of the time.

Eight of the 23 tracks that host a Cup race have had at least one rescheduled race since 2013. Charlotte, Bristol and Pocono have each had two Cup races rescheduled since then.

Pocono Raceway saw both its Cup races and its IndyCar race in 2016 postponed a day by rain. The track responded with what it calls the Worry-Free Weather Guarantee. It debuted in 2017 and is in place again this year.

The guarantee provides a money-back option for fans if they cannot make the rescheduled race provided they purchased an advance ticket directly from Pocono Raceway.

The only other Cup track with something comparable is Atlanta Motor Speedway with its Perfect Race Weather Guarantee.

That policy states that if the maximum high temperature for either its Saturday races or Sunday Cup race fails to reach at least 50 degrees, or if the event is postponed and a fan cannot attend on the makeup date (and has not had their ticket scanned), they can request credit for their tickets.

It is easy to suggest that every track should have a policy to provide credit or a ticket exchange for those who can’t attend a rescheduled race. The reality is each track is a business — and many are owned by publicly traded companies that must answer to shareholders.

The impact of 10,000 fans or more wanting a refund or to exchange tickets to a future race could create some financial challenges for tracks.

Yet, for a sport that espouses the benefits of going to a race — the sights, sounds and smells — having fans unable to attend a rescheduled race or recoup what they paid could cost a track a future customer.

Is there a better way to do business?

2. Future Cup schedule

The announcement of the 2019 Cup schedule this week drew little notice except for those complaining about not seeing any changes with it.

NASCAR entered five-year agreements with tracks before the 2016 season. That goes through the 2020 season. It is the 2021 season that could see a significant shake-up in tracks and be the time for NASCAR to possibly make significant changes.

3. Playoff Preview

This weekend starts a stretch where five of the next six Cup races will be held on tracks hosting playoff races. Those tracks are Texas, Richmond, Talladega, Dover and Kansas

After Kansas, which is May 12, the only other track the series will visit that hosts a playoff race is Charlotte Motor Speedway. But Charlotte’s playoff race will be on the roval, the combination road course/oval track. That will be the first time the NASCAR has run on that course.

4. NASCAR on NBC Podcast

If you’re not a subscriber to the NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan, take the time to do so and check out many of the episodes. This week featured an informative two-part podcast with Brad Keselowski.

Previous guests have included Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Cole Pearn, Rodney Childers and others.

5. FantasyLand

There’s still time to sign up in the NASCAR America Fantasy League and compete against NBC’s broadcasters and writers, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty, Rick Allen and others.

You can join the league by going here.

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr, Ryan Blaney pick most fun wins

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Clint Bowyer had an ecstatic, loud and beer-fueled celebration after winning Monday at Martinsville Speedway.

He celebrated how you expected him to after his first Cup win since 2012.

On NASCAR America, analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kyle Petty and guest Ryan Blaney each picked the most fun wins they’ve experienced or witnessed.

Petty chose Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s 1998 win in the Daytona 500.

Blaney selected his first Camping World Truck Series win at Iowa Speedway in 2012.

“My mother and father were there,” Blaney said. “That’s pretty cool, your first win in NASCAR and your folks are there. That was really special to me.”

Earnhardt decided on his lone Cup win at Martinsville Speedway in the fall 2014 race at the short track.

“I had been trying to get that win for so long, and the clock, everybody wants the clock,” Earnhardt said. “It’s one of the rare races where there’s such a unique trophy that makes it more exciting to win and more prestigious. It’s a hard race to win. It’s an easy track to have the best car and not win and get beat.”

Watch the above video for the full discussion, including Earnhardt recalling where he was when his father won the Daytona 500.

 

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr. recalls his first Cup race at Martinsville

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After the snow-delayed STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a moment to congratulate the “rookie” Alex Bowman on a successful debut at the treacherous short track. He was right about one thing: Bowman finished seventh in the race.

But he overlooked one little fact: this was not Bowman’s first Martinsville race.

As it turned out, confusing Bowman’s first attempt for his fifth was not Earnhardt’s only mistake at Martinsville. He made plenty of them in his inaugural trip to the bullring.

In his first Martinsville race, Earnhardt hit everything that moved and at least one thing that didn’t, he recalled on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America.

“I hit everything,” Earnhardt said. “I ran into a truck – a truck – behind pit wall in my first race. And then I proceeded to wreck again on the race track.”

Junior’s exploits did not go unnoticed. Dale Earnhardt Sr. kept a close eye on his son during the race and had a few choice words for him afterward.

“I remember I was starting a lap down on the inside back when the lapped cars would line up on the inside,” Earnhardt said. “A hundred laps into the race, I was a lap down already. The green flag comes out and I jump out to a straightaway lead over the leaders. That was the best thing that happened to me all day. Then I wrecked about three or four times.

“Finally, we get in the helicopter to go home and Dad and Michael Waltrip are in the helicopter,” Earnhardt continued. “And Dad is really PO’d because he finally come over the radio after the last wreck and said ‘Will you just tell him to park it?’ and they said ‘I think he’s done for the day because the steering wheel’s bent.’ So, Dad was chewing my butt for like 15 minutes. I said, ‘Did you see me straightaway the leaders?’ ‘Cause that was really cool, I thought. He didn’t care about that.”

For more about Earnhardt’s first race to Martinsville, watch the video above.

NASCAR America: Scan All from Martinsville Speedway

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Short tracks foster tempers and bent sheet metal.

They also fuel amusing and angry radio transmissions.

NASCAR America brings you this week’s Scan All, so you can relive Monday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway won by Clint Bowyer.

Here’s some highlight.

— “Just ran into the guy in front of me. Sorry. Was trying to get a drink.” – Brad Keselowski after running into Erik Jones under caution.

— “Mr. Ross Chastain.” – John Klausmeier, crew chief for Aric Almirola.

“Oh, the watermelon guy. Somebody needs to whoop his ass.” – Randy Bradshaw, Almirola’s spotter.

“We like watermelons too much to do that.” – Klausmeier.

— “I had to go.” – AJ Allmendinger after bumping Martin Truex Jr. out of his way to pass him.

— “Should have (expletive) wrecked him. But I let him go. I think when I got back to him he let me go.” – Joey Logano after a run-in with Jimmie Johnson.

Watch the above video for more.