Ryan: Plate race insanity needs more common sense driving

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Before delving into an analysis of something inherently irrational, let’s revisit some timeless wisdom from an Australian sage named Marcos Ambrose.

“This is crazy racing. We can legitimize it all we want, but it’s insanity on four wheels.”

It might be the finest encapsulation to date of restrictor-plate racing — and the sheer madness has only gotten worse since Ambrose’s brutal honesty after the April 26, 2009 race at Talladega Superspeedway that ended with a car in the catchfence and seven injured fans.

Now compounded by stage racing, playoff berth implications and the Peltzman Effect (the Cup Series has never seemed safer, and thus drivers naturally are inclined to be riskier than ever), this might be the most aggressive era in the 30-year history of plate racing.

The exorbitant costs of overtime hours in fabrication shop tell that story, as do the box score incident reports (“2,3,4,9,10,11,12,13,14,17,19,21,22,41,42,43,48,88,95,72,78,1,7,15,32,34 accident turn 3”) that read like a drunken night of bingo

There were six major wrecks involving an aggregate 70 cars in two races at Daytona International Speedway this season, and all happened within roughly 10 yards of the lead.

That’s unacceptable, even by the often untenable circumstances mandated by plate racing.

Spare us the righteous indignation about the “proper” methods of blocking. It stirs echoes of what Ambrose told us about the logic of applying behavioral norms to lunacy.

Just drive better, guys.

Or maybe smarter.

This isn’t aimed solely at Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who took the brunt of the criticism for another less than stellar display of driving Saturday night. The wrecks were a replay of several ill-conceived moves made at the Daytona 500, and not all of them involved Stenhouse.

He was the first to note that he couldn’t take umbrage at William Byron for a block that started the chain reaction in Saturday night’s first crash because the Roush Fenway Racing driver had done the same thing in February.

In both Daytona races this year, there often seemed a rush to go … nowhere. Though some of the moves were driven by midrace points being at stake, there still were a disproportionate number of contenders eliminated by crashes within the first two stages.

Wrecks are part and parcel to plate racing, which is built around large packs running inches apart, but the pileups historically have started because of bobbles deep within the long trains of cars.

Now they often begin at the front because of an overarching belief that plate races can won only by dictating the action from the point.

“To win these races, you really need to be the leader,” Stenhouse said after leading a race-high 51 laps. “To win the stages and really kind of control the field. I felt like when I was in the front, I could really kind of control the field and make them do what I wanted to do. That’s why everybody was so aggressive trying to get to the front.”

The absurd conventions of plate racing often make drivers take bizarre actions, such as slamming into each other in the corners at 200 mph. NBCSN analyst Kyle Petty once referred to that bump drafting era of the mid-2000 as Cup drivers’ “meth habit”, and the single-minded, hell-bent desire to stay up front constantly in 2018 seems just as addicting.

There’s a fine line between “managing” lanes of traffic and blocking them, yes.

There also is a fine line between reasoning and rationalization.

It seems in the rush to lead every lap if possible, what’s been lost is that drivers have options, even if they are less than perfect.

Instead of throwing a late block on a car closing at more than 200 mph, you can choose to stay in your lane and swallow the loss of positions.

Instead of staying in the accelerator when a car darts in front, you can choose to lift off and pull out of line.

Of course, there are the consequences of losing several spots, but it doesn’t guarantee that you will lose the race. Yes, it’s harder to claw back to the front with the current horsepower/spoiler package (a handling combination endorsed by drivers, by the way), but it isn’t impossible.

Race winner Erik Jones rallied from a lap down from crash damage (and also fell backward after missing his stall on the first pit stop). Runner-up Martin Truex Jr. lost the draft midway through Daytona and yet was in the lead for the final restart.

They earned the rewards available after many of their peers took unnecessary and early risks that did little but damage their series’ reputation for showcasing elite talent.

“NASCAR is built on beating and banging, but I think what you’d like to see is aggressive moves that don’t result in the incidents we saw,” NASCAR chief racing development officer and senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “Certainly we like the aggressiveness of drivers going for wins, that’s what the sport is founded on, but you hope you can avoid some of the contact we saw Saturday.

There are conflicted feelings about the results of the Coke Zero Sugar 400, which produced the best postrace interview of the season in first-time winner Jones and also a litany of underdog finishers. The final two laps were just as scintillating even with 80% of the field essentially eliminated from contention.

But it isn’t a good look for NASCAR’s alleged 40 greatest drivers to turn their vehicles into battering rams with all of the precision and skill of a group of fourth-graders in bumper cars.

And then make those same mistakes time and again at the world’s most famous racetrack in hopes of a better outcome.

It sounds like another way to define insanity, actually.


Another contributing factor to the craziness of plate races? The rule outlawing advancing position by running beneath the yellow line, which restricts the amount of real estate with an imaginary boundary that drivers treat like a wall to help pin the competition.

The rule was created to stem the preponderance of multicar crashes that resulted from drivers racing on the apron and often off Turn 2 onto the backstretch.

But it receives much more attention when it determines race winners as it did Friday after Justin Haley dipped below the line to take a checkered flag that was awarded to Kyle Larson.

O’Donnell said drivers were informally polled about the yellow line rule last year, and the feedback was unanimous in wanting to keep it.

“Chaos would ensue” without it, O’Donnell said. “You never want to have to make that call (that decides a win), but that’s the rule.”

There almost certainly will be further discussion of the yellow line between NASCAR and drivers in the wake of the Daytona call (Ryan Newman, who has long challenged the validity of a racetrack with an out-of-bounds line, raised questions about in Saturday’s drivers meeting about the legality of Haley’s pass), but expect things to remain status quo.

The rule can’t be enforced arbitrarily, allowing last-lap passes that heretofore weren’t legal would undermine the integrity of a race.


It appears the rules for the cars also will remain static when NASCAR returns to Talladega Superspeedway in three months after a lackluster visit to the 2.66-mile oval in the spring.

NASCAR increased the width of the spoiler by a few inches on both sides at Daytona and also returned horsepower to where it had been in Speedweeks.

O’Donnell said driver feedback was positive about the impact on being able to maneuver, which should bode well after drivability had been a major problem at Talladega.


Saturday night was a major reminder that plate driving is the biggest weakness in Truex’s game, but the defending series champion almost seemed relieved despite letting the win slip away on the final restart.

“All in all, I think for us it was a good night, and did all the things we needed to do,” he said. “I’ve just got to work on my mirror driving skills. I’m not real good at it. And just happy to get through here alive and finish.  I joked all week that I hadn’t finished this race in eight or ten years, and that’s not ‑‑ I mean, it’s kind of funny but it’s not really.  It’s true and sad.”

Actually, it had been only four years since Truex had finished on the lead lap of a July race at Daytona, but the results probably run together in his 0-for-54 streak in plate races.

He has joked before that he needs to be “more of a jerk” to win at Daytona and Talladega. But if the Kryptonite in your stock-car skillset is being unable to guess how to drive like the annoying masses who refuse to merge and hog the left lane of every highway in America … well, we can think of worse deficiencies.


An overlooked nugget from Saturday night: Was that the last time we’ll see an Earnhardt race at Daytona?

After seven Cup starts this season, Jeffrey Earnhardt has no races scheduled after his 11th Saturday. He hung around for an extended selfie session he held in the pits with friends and sponsors. “We might have abused our pass limit, but thankfully we got NASCAR to allow us to bring all these guys out here,” he joked.

It could be remembered as apropos goodbye as a salute to a family legacy that became synonymous with the 2.5-mile oval in triumph and tragedy.

Ryan: Chicagoland let us appreciate greatness beyond Kyle and Kyle

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JOLIET, Ill. – It truly was a sight to behold at Chicagoland Speedway.

An indomitable exhibition of grit and human spirit. A triumph over long odds and impossible circumstances. A sublime example of a superstar skillset.

Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer put on a superb display of the finest driving NASCAR has to offer.

Wait, you thought we were talking about Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson?

Yes, the two principals in one of the most thrilling last-lap battles in recent memory were quite the show Sunday, particularly at a 1.5-mile speedway – the maligned track length most common in Cup and also constantly derided for delivering an aero-dependent sameness in NASCAR’s premier series.

The past 12 wins on 1.5-mile tracks – every race since Austin Dillon’s fuel-mileage miracle in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 – belong to either Truex, Busch or Harvick. That’s been criticized in some corners as indicative of a dearth in the parity necessary to make NASCAR enticing.

The trio’s supremacy even has earned a ubiquitous nickname (the last time we heard so much of “The Big Three,” Chrysler was still selling K-Cars) that often is muttered with a resigned undercurrent of resentment.

But dominance still can be highly watchable, particularly when the performances are as brilliant and gutty as Sunday. The top five finishers at Chicagoland also have been the best five teams in 2018 – and each showed why in overcoming significant adversity.

All of the focus was on the two Kyles after the race, but you could make a case that Harvick, Truex and Bowyer actually drove better overall races (particularly given that the winner, Kyle Busch, earned no stage points and was a nonfactor for the first half).

  • In a No. 4 Ford that he said “was just off all weekend,” Harvick still managed to win a playoff point with the race’s most eye-popping pass that didn’t involve contact (though he nearly kissed the wall with his breathtaking move to the outside of teammate Kurt Busch to win Stage 2). Highly overlooked but nearly as impressive was how Harvick snatched the lead during a green-flag cycle on Lap 123 – picking up nearly 2 seconds on teammate Aric Almirola mostly through his smooth and swift entry and exit from the pits.
  • Truex finished fourth after starting 36th with an unfortunate pit stall that left him wedged between Larson and Ryan Blaney for 400 miles. The defending series champion still needed only 22 laps to crack the top 10, and his team kept him there despite a 14-hour Saturday in the garage (when the No. 78 Toyota was the last to clear technical inspection).
  • Though it was of his own making because of multiple pit penalties, Bowyer stayed focused to rally from briefly being two laps down to finish fifth.

“Add a fast car and a bit of a pissed-off attitude, and it is amazing what you can do,” Bowyer said.

Of course, it helps to have a good driver, too. The Cup Series has many of them.

Chicagoland provided many reasons for celebrating their greatness — a nice change of pace from the usual darts that regularly get thrown at NASCAR’s best teams simply for being … too good.


The slam-bang battle between Busch and Larson evoked memories of the best last-lap duels in which drivers still finished 1-2 despite turning their cars into smoking hulks of twisted sheet metal.

When solicited for comparisons, many Twitter users singled out the closest finish in NASCAR history – the fender-banging classic of Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven at Darlington Raceway on March 16, 2003 – as the best example of this genre.

But Busch vs. Larson felt more of a kindred spirit to the 1976 Daytona 500 when David Pearson and Richard Petty wrecked off the final turn (Pearson won because his battered Mercury was able to limp across the finish line).

The parallel was magnified by Busch’s postrace reaction to watching the final lap on NBCSN’s postrace show (1:50 of the video below). “What’s most impressive about this whole thing,” Busch said with a rising voice and widening smile. “is Larson saves it! Did he finish second? That’s awesome!”

Hey, even “The King” didn’t officially cross the finish line in ’76 (Petty finished second because there were no other cars on the lead lap).


Sunday was undoubtedly the best Cup race in Chicagoland Speedway’s 17-year history.

Was it the best race of the 2018 season?

There haven’t been many moments from the first 16 races that were as good as Chicagoland, but the Daytona 500 also had a last-lap crash for the lead and an outcome that seemed even more in doubt.

It partly resulted from several contenders crashing earlier, but there were five cars that had good chances to win in the final 10 laps at Daytona four months ago.

That should whet everyone’s appetite for Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.


The hours might have been insanely long, but kudos to NASCAR: The debut of sandwiching inspection between qualifying and the race (with no practices in between) was a success, at least in terms of avoiding the distraction of negative storylines.

Because they needed to pass only basic checks on engine, fuel cell, safety and splitters, every car made a lap in qualifying unlike many sessions at 1.5-mile tracks in recent seasons.

By the time inspection was completed at 9:51 p.m. CT (more than 14 hours after the garage opened), the disallowed times of Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Chris Buescher were barely a blip in newsworthiness (aside from the handful of reporters still waiting at the inspection bay) – and certainly less of a storyline than if they hadn’t made a lap.

Fans saw every car take a qualifying lap, even if it turned out that four didn’t count.

“The storyline was about the race, which is what it should be,” NASCAR Chief Racing Development Officer and senior vice president Steve O’Donnell told SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s NASCAR channel, indicating the policy could be tweaked but likely would be used more often in 2019. “We’re always looking at how you can continue to focus the story just on the race. Anything to take us out of the inspection story, that’s a win.”

The schedule (which had been intended to be used in March at Martinsville Speedway before weather intervened) will be used five more times this season: Pocono, Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, Talladega and Martinsville.

The only drawback seemingly would be the extraordinarily long day for teams and officials, but that might be something the garage has to live with because of mitigating factors. Teams need three hours to prepare for qualifying, and NASCAR needs roughly at least two hours to complete inspection after qualifying ends.

Throw in the hour for qualifying, and that’s a six-hour window that gets trickier because NASCAR can’t inspect Cup cars while also managing an Xfinity race (which took place before qualifying last Saturday).


That schedule also could be credited with helping improve the action because teams had only two hours to get acclimated to a race held in summer heat for the first time in eight years. As often is the case during race weekends affected by inclement weather, the lack of practice seemed to have little adverse effects (Chase Elliott said he’d be fine with no practice on a weekly basis).

Other reasons the race was so good?

Some speculation centered on whether moving from the playoffs helped, but that seemed mostly circumstantial (though the cars raced Sunday assuredly won’t be as developed as in the Sept. 16 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile layout).

A more likely factor was the mid-90s temperatures that were tough on drivers but afforded the slick conditions amenable to producing the difficult handling that rewards first-class talent.

And then there’s the magically abrasive asphalt at Chicagoland, which has plenty of tire wear but somehow still has avoided a repave despite the beating from nearly two decades of Midwestern winters.

Consider that Kansas Speedway, which opened the same year as Chicagoland in 2001, already underwent a repave six years ago.


Why does Kyle Larson’s No. 42 seem so much better than every other Chevrolet in Cup?

“I don’t know,” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said after his second at Chicagoland – his sixth top five this season — was eight spots better than the next bow-tie driver. “I don’t know if we did extra planning or what.  Last year we outran the other Chevys a lot, too, even with the old style body.  I think our team is just ahead of the other Chevy teams.

“I feel like typically at Chicago I’m an eighth-place car, and today I felt like I had winning speed.”

Unfortunately for Chevy, none of the other Camaros did, and Daytona now looms as a critical stop for drivers such as Chase Elliott (who plummeted from eighth to 19th during the 55-lap green-flag run that ended the race).

As good as Elliott’s No. 9 Chevy was in Speedweeks, Daytona might be his best shot at a playoff-clinching win over the final nine races of the regular season.


Noah Gragson is the NASCAR driver who tweets that he likes to tell it like it is.

So does his team owner Kyle Busch, who didn’t mince words when asked about the recent performance of his truck teams. Kyle Busch Motorsports hasn’t won in five races and placed fourth (Gragson), fifth (Brandon Jones) and 16th (Todd Gilliland) at Chicagoland.

“Truck stuff, man, it’s been frustrating lately,” Busch said after his win Sunday. “I don’t know why. It’s like they’re allergic to victory lane right now.  Every week they seem to figure out a way to throw it away.  Certainly got to get a lot better at being able to close out some of these races.

“Noah was good first stage, second stage. Third stage he wasn’t there. Todd passed him. Todd was horrible for the first and second stage, then had a flat there at the end.

“We got to get some wins.  That’s what it’s all about.  Those guys got to show what they’re made of.”

Busch’s blunt comments were a reminder that for all the hype surrounding the next generation of stars, there also is an accompanying demand to produce results.

Gragson, Brett Moffitt, John Hunter Nemechek and Justin Haley have given the Camping World Truck Series four winners under the age of 26 this season.

But are they on the same trajectory that sent recent heralded truck graduates Erik Jones and William Byron to Cup?

The most likely would seem to be Gragson, but there doesn’t seem to be buzz yet around a driver whose omission from a top-20 prospect list caused a minor stir earlier this year. There still are 12 races remaining this season for him to change that narrative, though.

Ryan: The secret to success for NASCAR’s smartest man? It’s simple

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The smartest man in NASCAR doesn’t care if you think he’s clever.

Actually, he’d probably prefer you think he’s a moron.

“Yeah, we’re not that smart,” Cole Pearn replied in that wonderfully dry wit when asked if he and Martin Truex Jr. communicated in code on the duplicitous pit stop that carried their victory Sunday at Sonoma Raceway. “We probably would screw it up.”

MORE: The story of how Cole Pearn got that large gash on his forehead

The self-deprecating answer playfully obfuscated the obvious: Pearn won by brilliantly fooling rival crew chief Rodney Childers into bringing Kevin Harvick from the lead into the pits earlier than planned.

The No. 78’s only path to victory lane was by virtue of getting off-sequence from the fastest car in the race, which means the defending series champion won by staying true to the core belief underpinning the team’s run of wild success the past three years.

Do what the other guy isn’t doing.

Furniture Row Racing adheres to that philosophy in spades.

It’s the only Cup team based in Denver, Colorado, a few thousand miles from a 100-mile radius in North Carolina that contains (and some might say sometimes constrains) the rest of the field.

–It’s a one-car powerhouse in a series where bigger always has been regarded as being better.

–It’s a strong-willed group that embraces the anti-establishment; outcasts who didn’t fit in at other outfits because they exist outside the norm.

Do what the other guy isn’t doing.

It’s a simple approach but yet also sophisticated – a dichotomy that makes perfect sense when viewed through the prism of meshing high-tech engineering principles that put cars in front and the gut-busting instincts that determine if they stay there.

The Cup garage is a breeding ground for groupthink. Haulers are parked inches apart on endless swaths of pavement, encouraging everyone to cheat off each other’s work. Even in a championship structure that rewards gambling for victories, the tendency of staying between the lines seems more prevalent than ever.

At Richmond, more than a dozen cars had an opportunity to gamble on a golden ticket to the playoffs, and yet none did.

At Michigan, only the winner even went slightly outside the norm despite literal storm clouds that hung over the notion of playing it safe (which had some crew chiefs tellingly blaming their weather apps).

There is logical grounding for this trend. More data is being crunched with algorithms and simulations to determine courses of action than ever. And if you step outside the lines and get risky with your strategy, you still can be punished.

All of which makes what Pearn did Sunday at Sonoma even more impressive: He didn’t just do something unconventional, he did it by forcing the competition off its game with a mind trick (“This is not the pit strategy you are looking for”) that would have left Obi-Wan blushing.

It’s how the No. 78 Toyota team turned the series on its ear and won a title last season: By constantly staying a step ahead of where its rivals wanted to go.

In 2018, the results haven’t been as bountiful, but the team’s spirit remains strong – underscored by something as amusing as a massive power saw. When your gadgetry is still being banned by NASCAR, it’s a sign of how effective you are in outmaneuvering the opposition – particularly at the tracks where being tactical is critical.

Truex now has led the most laps in three consecutive road-course races, the longest streak since Tony Stewart in 2004-05. His win was the first on three stops by a Sonoma winner since Carl Edwards in 2014.

Do what the other guy isn’t doing.

And use a dash of humility and understated bravado to help undersell it.

“It’s tough,” Pearn said. “Everybody is so good in this, it sometimes takes something different to mix it up to pull one out.”

Pearn’s right. It does take something different.

It takes boldness and brains.

He has both – and is using them to a degree currently unmatched by any crew chief in the Cup Series.


Kevin Harvick is a smart guy, too. But he sometimes disguises that intelligence, particularly when he intentionally tries to cover for his team.

This happened Sunday when he was asked about Pearn snookering his team with the final pit stop.

“It didn’t affect our day at all,” Harvick told reporters with a straight face in his postrace media center interview. “I don’t think it would have been any different of an outcome.”

As a star who has been taken his share of criticism for assailing many of his past teams’ pit stops and tactics throughout his career, give Harvick credit for abstaining from any further piling on of Childers and company.

But his assessment of Truex’s strategy was spurious at best. Childers told Harvick on the team radio that he was outwitted by Pearn. If the No. 4 Ford had pitted within a lap or two of Truex, Harvick easily had the long-run speed to win Sonoma for the second consecutive year.

Since 2014, no one has been better than Childers and Harvick at consistently fielding fast cars in Cup, but it’s been well documented that they also have left some wins on the table.

The sting of Sonoma will linger, but the No. 4 team has learned to shrug off the disappointments, in part because Harvick is willing to go to bat for his team and its leader in a way he didn’t as often before joining SHR.


The Big Three – Truex, Harvick and Kyle Busch – have been established for a while as the triple threat to win the championship in NASCAR’s premier series. At least two of those three have finished in the top five of the past six races.

But it’s time to add Clint Bowyer’s name and rebrand the title favorites as a foursome. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver’s third at Sonoma marked his first back-to-back top fives in a year, and it’s more than just Bowyer’s numbers that are turning heads.

He’s comfortable at SHR, has learned to trust crew chief Mike Bugarewicz and has rediscovered a tenacity that’s been lacking since his best season in 2012.

NBCSN analyst Jeff Burton recently picked Bowyer as the driver most likely to join Truex, Harvick and Busch in the championship finale. This was on a NASCAR America episode before Bowyer’s breakthrough at Michigan two weeks ago.

Burton also was way ahead of the curve in predicting Bowyer would emerge as a championship contender. Two days before Bowyer’s inaugural win Sept. 16, 2007 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Burton said his Richard Childress Racing teammate (then in his second year in Cup) was “the future of our sport.”

Nearly 11 years later, and after five winless seasons mostly wandering in the Cup wilderness, the future seems to have returned.


A curious moment occurred when the yellow flag flew with four laps remaining in the second stage Saturday night during the Camping World Truck Series race at Gateway Motorsports Park – and stayed there.

The caution that began on Lap 67 was for the slowing truck of Matt Crafton, whose Ford apparently had a mechanical problem. It stopped at the entrance of the pits but was rolling again with more than two laps left in the stage, which ended after Lap 70. A NASCAR spokesman said the stage wasn’t restarted because the pits couldn’t be opened.

Of course, opening the pits didn’t matter two weeks ago at Michigan International Speedway, where NASCAR kept the pits closed during a two-lap yellow and instead opted for a one-lap restart. Cup Series director Richard Buck told reporters that NASCAR’s policy was to make every attempt at ending stages under green.

Yet for some reason, there was no such alacrity at Gateway despite a caution that required no discernible cleanup. The second and final stages were bridged by a nine-lap caution that was the race’s second-longest (and longer than three cautions involving multicar crashes).

While it’s admirable to attempt to end stages under green, the policy should be consistent. If opening the pits wasn’t necessary at Michigan, it shouldn’t have been at Gateway.


Bid the drafting package goodbye until 2019 (and maybe forever – out of sight, out of mind is a racing truism, and there’ll be limited Cup lobbying of it for months), let’s lament again what its absence means for Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The 2017 edition of the Brickyard 400 was among the best in history, in large part because the two best cars were eliminated when Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. crashed on a restart while racing for the lead.

NASCAR has been racing at Indy for a quarter-century, and last year’s finish was easily the most memorable. But it felt more circumstantial than a trend, and the success of last year’s Xfinity race with the aero ducts and plates demanded trying it in Cup (as did the overwhelmingly positive reviews of the All-Star Race).

It’s understandable why the package won’t be used elsewhere, but IMS is the most important racetrack in the world, and NASCAR needs to put on a show that rivals the Indy 500.

The fact that the race will make its debut as the regular-season finale should have only heightened the case for using the drafting package at Indy. With so many playoff points positions potentially up for grabs, a repeat of the quasi-pack racing in the All-Star Race would have been a welcome sight in enhancing the dramatics.

There are only two years left in NASCAR’s sanctioning deal with Indy, and the decision to punt on the aero package reduces the chances of the Sept. 9 race delivering the needed narrative change that would help in securing a long-term future.


A few other stray musings from a Sonoma race whose 10.5-second margin of victory belied the fact that it still felt thrilling (a caution flag in the last 20 laps would have turned Pearn’s strategy upside down, after all):

–Finishing eight spots behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wasn’t ideal, but Trevor Bayne made a mostly respectable return to the No. 6 Ford after a five-race absence (he was the highest qualifier for Roush Fenway Racing last weekend). Bayne almost certainly isn’t returning to Roush next year, but he still has much to play for, especially if he can shop the AdvoCare sponsorship to his next employer (whether it’s the Cup or Xfinity series).

–So much has been made of the deficiencies of Chevrolet teams and the new Camaro, competitive developments involving the Ford lineup have gone overlooked. Sonoma’s finishing order reaffirmed a clear hierarchy for the Blue Oval: It’s Stewart-Haas Racing first in class, then Team Penske and Roush.

Good on him taking heat for missing a shift, but AJ Allmendinger didn’t deserve all the blame after his team inexplicably pitted off sequence from the fastest cars, playing for stage points instead of the playoffs (a win is the No. 47 Chevrolet’s only option, and Sonoma is one of two tracks Allmendinger is most likely to get it). If he made an uncharacteristic mistake while trying to scramble toward the front, it was understandable under the circumstances.

The number of winners through 16 races indicate there seemingly is less parity in NASCAR’s premier series than at any point in 40 years, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Familiar faces at the front don’t diminish plotlines so long as some measure of equality is retained among contenders. Sonoma proved that … and if an underdog sneaks into the picture, it just makes it that much more compelling of a story.

Ryan: Untangling a caution flag with many layers at Michigan

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It was completely normal … and yet in another way, it also was wholly unprecedented.

In untangling what happened between the first and second stages Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, it’s best to start here: NASCAR officials believe they applied the letter of the law.

After leader Ryan Blaney took the yellow flag that began on Lap 58, there were two full laps remaining in Stage 1. NASCAR’s policy is that the pits are closed with two laps left in a stage in order to prevent strategy plays in which only half the field might complete a normal pit cycle (this was determined after consultation with teams to build guidelines for stage racing).

So on its face, the yellow flag was administered customarily when Matt Kenseth spun in Turn 4 on Lap 57 with three laps left in the first stage at Michigan.

But there were many layers to what transpired during the laps that bridged the first two stages Sunday, and the cascading events affected several cars with some repercussions that could be felt months later while also underscoring how a race’s rhythm can change in the era of stage racing, which NASCAR introduced last season.

In a Q&A format, here’s what went down at Michigan:

How and why did Kenseth get penalized?

Because he stopped when the pits were closed to change the flat tires on his No. 6 Ford. Kenseth fell two laps down while limping around the 2-mile oval to enter the pits and then exiting again as the stage finished under green.

The penalty for entering a closed pit is to restart at the end of the longest line. But Kenseth also was held a lap for taking the wavearound (getting a lap back under the yellow to start Stage 2) before serving the penalty, which is against the rules.

This, however, wasn’t listed on NASCAR’s official penalty report because it was viewed as a scoring correction. “He ended up getting a lap up on the field artificially, and we had to get that back,” Cup Series director Richard Buck said after the race.

Did NASCAR err during the caution sequence?

Yes, though only briefly.

Teams initially were informed that there would be a “quickie yellow,” i.e. a term that means the pits will be open as the caution period commences (the pits normally are closed for at least a lap after a yellow). Buck said the mistake was realized almost immediately, and the pits were closed before any cars reached the entrance.

Were the pits actually closed earlier than normal?

Technically, no.

As noted, NASCAR usually closes the pits with two laps remaining in a stage. That announcement is usually made on NASCAR’s radio channel when the leader crosses the line to begin the penultimate lap of the stage.

But in this case, the announcement that the pits were closed was made much earlier. Buck explained that this was because of a “dynamic situation” with the imminent end of a stage.

Though the caution didn’t officially begin until Lap 58, the yellow flag had waved (which freezes the field and establishes pace car speed) before the halfway point of Lap 57. Because there were still more than three laps remaining then in the stage, the announcement to close the pits was made nearly a lap earlier than typically.

But it also should be noted there are some crew chiefs who probably would regard NASCAR’s interpretation of “two laps to go” in this case as too liberal.

A stricter interpretation of “two laps to go” would mean when Lap 58 is completed (according to the Rule 10.9.1.1.b: “When the lead vehicle completes this designated lap, two laps prior to completing a Stage, except for the Final Stage, at the start/finish line, pit road will be closed.”).

So NASCAR kept the pits closed for the entirety of the Lap 58-59 caution. Couldn’t the caution have been extended through the beginning of Stage 2?

Yes. Officials waved the green on the final lap of Stage 1 because they wanted to end the stage at speed because points were on the line for the top 10.

“We’ll try every opportunity that we can to allow the top 10 to cross under heated competition at the start-finish line,” Buck said. “ And that’s why a lot of times you won’t see us put the yellow out (ending a stage) until the leader is on the back (straightaway). In the stage racing, there’s a lot of dynamics that go into it, and we feel that our checks and balances came into play, and everything came off the way we had explained and done it before in that type of situation.”

NASCAR has ended stages under caution several times before, though, most recently in the April 8 race at Texas Motor Speedway. With four laps remaining in the first stage, there was a heavy crash involving Martin Truex Jr. The ensuing yellow flag lasted nine laps, bridging the first and second stages.

How unusual is a two-lap caution at Michigan?

Fairly unusual.

This was the first two-lap yellow for an on-track incident at Michigan since 2012. In the past 35 years and 70 races at Michigan, this was the 11th two-lap caution. Such short cautions often result from lazy one-car spins, but Kenseth’s car suffered four blown tires and left a trail of sparks – both evidence that the track could have been cluttered.

It certainly would have been understandable if the caution lasted longer than two laps to ensure a full cleanup. In the June 18, 2017 race at Michigan, there was a controversial debris caution at Michigan that lasted five laps.

How unusual is a one-lap restart to end a stage?

It had happened five times in the previous 50 races since the advent of stage racing last season – but Michigan is the first instance in which the pits weren’t opened during the preceding yellow.

The first one-lap restart was in the June 11, 2017 race at Pocono Raceway after a crash involving Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray with four laps remaining in Stage 2. The yellow lasted three laps.

There also was a one-lap restart Oct. 15, 2017 at Talladega after a caution for a one-car crash with four laps left in Stage 1 (the pits were opened). And a week later at Kansas Speedway after a one-car crash with four laps left in Stage 2 (the pits were opened).

This year, there have been one-lap restarts for the March 11 race at ISM Raceway (a one-car crash with four laps remaining in Stage 1; the pits were opened) and to end Stage 1 in the April race at Bristol Motor Speedway. That one-lap dash was preceded by a six-lap caution (including a red flag) in which the pits were opened.

Similar to Sunday at Michigan, inclement weather also had a major impact on the Bristol race (whose finish eventually was postponed to Monday).

How did the one-lap restart impact the Michigan race?

Significantly, because it’s a line-sensitive track, and the outside is the preferred groove on a restart. The disparity in restart grooves is common for most Cup races (as is well documented by the Motorsports Analytics site).

At Michigan, the outside line was preferred for restarts. When the green fell on Lap 60, Kurt Busch was on the inside in second (because Blaney chose the outside) and fell five spots on the restart lap, which is a loss of five points. Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch (who fell from seventh to 12th and consequently earned no stage points) also lost positions on the inside.

A few points here and there might not seem like much … until the end of the regular season when they will determine which drivers earn playoff berths and which playoff drivers receive larger playoff point bonuses.

Was Chase Elliott also penalized for pitting too soon at the end of Stage 1?

Yes, as was Bubba Wallace for stopping during the Lap 58-59 caution.

But Elliott’s penalty wasn’t as stiff as it could have been. Though he was sent to the rear (which should have meant starting outside the top 35) before the Lap 66 restart, Elliott restarted in 20th because several cars ahead elected to lay over for the green and give the right of way to the No. 9 Chevrolet (which likely had fresher tires than some of the cars that yielded).

Why is all this important?

Because it underscores the importance of consistent and fair officiating during an increasingly complex era in which governance and rules that are based partly on race strategy can create some highly unique circumstances that might ostensibly seem benign but actually can have a major effect on the results.

And it also raises a fair question: Could some of these parameters be streamlined in a manner that would make race procedures cleaner and easier for crew chiefs, drivers and officials?


Michigan was the second time this season (remember the lack of aggression at Richmond?) when nearly every crew chief played it safe rather than gamble for a checkered flag.

Feel free to blame the reliability of your weather apps as much as you’d like, but the inconvenient truth is that taking two tires – as inexplicably only race winner Clint Bowyer and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz chose to do – before what turned out to be the final restart wasn’t much of a gamble.

Paul Menard already had shown the way 40 laps earlier when he took the lead by staying on track under caution. With a No. 21 Ford that had average speed in the pack, Menard was able to turn much faster laps near the front and unburdened by turbulence.

Why wouldn’t more crew chiefs in the top 10 – particularly those whose drivers had wins (namely Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch) – take a gamble on two tires under threatening skies?

There’s a temptation to conclude that the rise of engineering principles on the pit box has been accompanied by an overreliance on data consumption that results in overthinking scenarios (though to be fair, Bugarewicz also has an engineering degree).

Perhaps too many crew chiefs are trying to apply physics to strategy instead of just relying on their guts.


There is a valid reason for being gun-shy, though: The playoff standings.

With the fewest number of winners (six) through 15 races since 1996, there figures to be as much sensitivity to points racing during the stretch run of the regular season. If Busch, Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. continue to amass victories, the top-15 teams will adjust accordingly with fewer golden-ticket wins available

But if you are a 25th-place team with no hope of cracking the playoff bubble in points by the end of the season, this logic doesn’t apply – particularly when the speed differential from first to 25th seems as large as it’s been in the recent past.

A miracle win is your only shot at a major playoff payday – and let’s remember it worked for Chris Buescher and Front Row Motorsports at Pocono two years ago.

So it’s puzzling again why Sunday’s ominous skies didn’t encourage more backmarker teams to attempt a Hail Mary.

Even by just clogging traffic and increasing the likelihood of a pileup, a quick caution on the restart still could have put an underdog in victory lane.


There were no postrace quotes provided from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Matt Kenseth, but there also wasn’t much to say about Roush Fenway Racing’s performance.

Though Stenhouse qualified seventh, he finished 29th after a late crash and ran outside the top 10 much of the race. In the fourth race since his return, Kenseth started 19th and finished 33rd and wasn’t a factor before or after the spin.

In a test at Darlington Raceway last week, Kenseth told reporters Roush was making “baby steps” but was lagging behind the team’s pace of improvement. With an off week to regroup, and with Kenseth out of the car for Trevor Bayne at Sonoma Raceway and Daytona International Speedway, this could be a critical spot for Roush’s turnaround.

The most vexing question might be why the team has struggled so mightily while the Ford teams of Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske have excelled this season, crediting a change in NASCAR’s inspection process with optimizing their Fusions.


The success of the aero/horsepower combination in the Xfinity Series last weekend at Michigan makes it likely the rules package (which was a smash hit in the All-Star Race) will find its way into the Cup Series when the circuit returns Aug. 12 to Michigan.

But the momentum for using the package (which has stirred much debate) in the July 14 race at Kentucky Speedway seems to have stalled out after a decision appeared to be looming last week.

The playoffs are off the table for the package. So barring a sharp change in direction, it might be used only at Michigan and the Sept. 9 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, both tracks where drivers could remain in the throttle for a full lap and increase the efficacy of the aero/horsepower package on enhancing passing opportunities.

Ryan: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick could be turning playoff race into mad scramble

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Halfway to the playoffs, and two stories are emerging in NASCAR’s premier series with one common theme: Points.

There are the playoff points that Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are accumulating at a rate quick enough that half of this year’s championship field might be sewed up by September.

And then there are the “regular” points that will become even more of a scramble over the next 13 races to snatch whatever berths remain in the 16-driver playoff field.

There have been six winners through the first 13 races, mostly because of Busch (four victories) and Harvick (five). If the two hottest drivers in NASCAR’s premier series can maintain their torrid pace, and if some combination of Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon also can repeat (which seems likely), there probably will be more spots available on points than ever in the five seasons the playoffs were reconfigured in 2014.

The playoff lineup is filled first by winners, and if there are fewer than 16, the remaining slots are awarded on points. The record for most points-eligible qualifiers was five in 2015 (Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Bowyer), and there seems a good chance for at least as many or more this year.

As NASCAR grinds through the grueling summer stretch with slick racetracks and oppressive heat, the tension could ratchet up against the backdrop of a points race – particularly with a fresh 2018 schedule that includes another 1.5-mile track (Chicagoland) and a new cutoff race.

In the regular-season finale Sept. 9 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR seems to be learning toward using the All-Star Race rules package that mixes restrictor plates and aero ducts to bunch the field.

The current championship standings should make it a no-brainer, given there is virtually no chance of having 16 playoff berths for 16 winners.

If there is a points battle of, say, more than a dozen drivers vying for the last six or seven playoff berths, it could turn the Brickyard into the free-for-all that the 2.5-mile track desperately needs to help reinvigorate dwindling crowds.

Though last year’s race was among the most memorable because of the three-wide battles for the lead at the front, it could be even more captivating to watch several drivers duel for positions within the pack in the waning laps if the racing resembles the action produced in the All-Star Race.

Thus, Busch and Harvick inadvertently could make the Brickyard a must-watch event this season – while simultaneously turning the playoffs into a frenzied scrum of 14 drivers for two spots in Miami.

While it isn’t a foregone conclusion that they will be in the championship finale, Busch (25 playoff points) and Harvick (24) are tracking ahead of where defending series champion Truex was last season (16 after 13 races). At this rate, both will claim mega-bonuses from their regular-season standings and would enter the playoffs as co-favorites.


Kyle Busch has won at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which means he has won at every track on the Cup circuit.

This STILL will be true Sept. 30 when the first race is run on Charlotte’s road course. Yes, the track will carry a “Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval” designation on the schedule, and its debut will mean that he won’t have won at every Cup layout.

But Busch still will have won at every track for several reasons.

Start with the fact that the “Roval” course will use all but 400 feet of the 1.5-mile oval that Busch finally conquered Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600.

And let’s remember that many famous ovals also have road courses that hold races, and there is little distinction made in designating them.

Jeff Gordon and Michael Schumacher are both five-time winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Will Power became a first-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 but is a four-time winner at IMS. Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Jamie McMurray have multiple signature victories at Daytona International Speedway – in the Daytona 500 and Rolex 24.

NASCAR apparently will be recognizing the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval as a “new” track, which opens a Pandora’s box of questions about retrofitting its record books.

Tracks rarely are given such reclassifications after repaves or reconfigurations that change the complexions of their races. The Roval layout might be on a different level, but so is Richmond Raceway’s 65-year evolution.

It started as a half-mile dirt track before being paved in 1968. Two decades later, it was torn down and rebuilt as the current 0.75-mile track.

None of this is abundantly obvious (unless you have an eagle eye for varying distances) on Racing-Reference.info, the deservedly respected bible of NASCAR historical information. Richard Petty has 13 wins at Richmond – not 10 on pavement and three on dirt (which should count as much as a “new” track as turning a 1.5-mile oval into a road course).

Busch apparently was told less than an hour after becoming the first driver of the modern era to win at every track that (because NASCAR is counting the Charlotte roval as a “new” track) the record would last for four months .

How about letting him enjoy it for much longer than that? As in, until the next time a new track actually is added to the schedule?


There’s always annual talk about which NASCAR driver might be the next to attempt the Indianapolis 500-Coca-Cola 600 doubleheader.

But how about IndyCar drivers coming the other direction?

Power’s Indy 500 win, coupled with his 2014 championship, should allow him to write his own ticket with team owner Roger Penske, who has IndyCar and NASCAR teams under the same roof in Mooresville, North Carolina. Power has expressed a desire to race a stock car, as have teammates Simon Pagenaud and Josesf Newgarden (who also have IndyCar titles).

“Hell, yes,” Newgarden said last week. “I love NASCAR. I think it’s awesome. Open wheel cars captured me as a kid. That doesn’t mean I don’t like stock cars. But I also like this resurgence of drivers who say they want to do everything. I think there’s a lot of guys who do want to do everything and always have.

Joked Pagenaud: “I’m very French but could do it. I can drink coffee while I drive, no problem. I can do it.”

Newgarden is frustrated by how segmented racing has become for drivers in the 21st century. “You have to have a side,” he said. “You have to choose one. I think it’s so stupid. I like it all. I watch everything. I watch NASCAR stuff. We all do. We all follow that stuff. We’d all love to try it.

“When you drive for Roger, you have to first focus on what you’re hired for, and you’re hired to win the Indianapolis 500 and the championship, and if you do a great job at that, maybe one day you’ll get an opportunity to try a stock car. I hope that happens.”

The growth of road courses in both the Xfinity (Road America is a longtime IndyCar venue) and Cup series also could offer more opportunities. James Hinchcliffe is among the IndyCar drivers who reportedly has been exploring one-off road-course rides in NASCAR.

And based how he handled single-file restarts Sunday in Indy, we wouldn’t mind seeing Alexander Rossi getting a shot, too.


For the second time this season, four Chevrolet drivers (Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman) finished in the top 10 at Charlotte. It also happened at Bristol Motor Speedway, but accomplishing the feat at a 1.5-mile track is an encouraging sign for a new Camaro that has seemed to lack the aerodynamic advantage of Ford and Toyota.

The impact of NASCAR’s new Optical Scanning Station certainly seems to have helped Ford drivers, who have been hinting since the preseason that the new inspection system would benefit their Fusions with more rear downforce.

But the OSS also might have had an opposite effect on the Camaro, whose design and development was initiated before teams saw the system in action for the first time last fall (in demonstration mode during the playoffs).

Hendrick Motorsports recently acquired an OSS for its shop, joining several powerhouse teams that purchased theirs before the season. NASCAR managing director of competition and innovation John Probst said as many as 10 teams have OSS systems.

That isn’t unusual given that teams would have their own sets of templates when NASCAR used the metal silhouettes for measurements, but Probst said the efficiency and accuracy of the OSS (which relies on two dozen high-definition cameras and projectors) makes it a more attractive option for teams.

Though NASCAR offers an OSS for teams’ use at its R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, many rely on OSS in their shops because they take measurements throughout the car-building process.

“I think we anticipated teams would buy this,” Probst said on last week’s episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Teams measuring (cars) multiple times as it goes throughout the shop, that’s a very reasonable thing to do.

“There are a lot of reasons to buy the technology. It’s relatively simple, the results are fairly quick and accurate. It’s relatively cheaper compared to many other solutions. It’s a more efficient system in general.”

Listen to Probst on the podcast via the embed below or on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or Google Play.


Erik Jones had a miserable night in the pits with a magnificent car Sunday at Charlotte, and it was the pit stop between Stages 3 and 4 that really had to hurt.

Jones’ No. 20 Toyota entered in second place but left in 19th because of a stop that went several seconds longer because his front tire changer switched to a backup pit gun.

The reason? Kasey Kahne ran over the primary gun’s hose while entering his stall just ahead, ripping it from changer Houston Stamper’s hands.

It would seem unfair to suffer because of the actions of a rival driver who faces no repercussions at all. But there are two important rules of thumb to consider.

–A driver entering his stall has every right to enter as sharply and swiftly as desired (without intentionally and blatantly violating the boundaries of another car’s pit box).

–Each pit crew is responsible for keeping its equipment out of harm’s way.

The only feasible way that NASCAR could have penalized Kahne would be if he’d gone out of his way to affect Jones’ stop.


In two of the past three seasons, the Coca-Cola 600 has been a runaway in which the winner has led at least 94 percent of the laps.

The record for highest percentage of laps led in the previous 55 years of NASCAR’s longest race was 83 percent (Jim Paschal in 1967).

How is this dominance possible in a race that historically has demanded constant adjustments to keep up with a temperature-sensitive surface that can vary wildly over the course of four hours in the transition from blazing hot sun to a cool evening?

The simplest explanation might be that the Charlotte reigns of Truex in 2016 and Busch this year underscore the importance of being in clean air on an aerodynamic superspeedway.

Crew chiefs Cole Pearn and Adam Stevens can tune the car better with their championship-caliber stars able to provide the best feedback in static conditions. And with teams running high-fidelity simulations nonstop, there is more information on making strong setup calls than ever.


Sunday’s race sadly marked the third time in four years that a fan has climbed a catchfence during a Cup race. While it thankfully didn’t necessitate a race stoppage at Charlotte (unlike an infamous incident at Richmond and similar to one at Dover last year) because it was defused so quickly, it still begs the question: Why is this still happening?

We’ve written this before, but having a fan fall onto a hot track on national TV would be a really bad thing, not just for the event but racing in general. Whatever tracks have to spend to rectify this so that fans stay off the chain link in the future, it’s worth it.