Discussions took place Tuesday (as part of the sanctioning body’s weekly postrace analysis) on whether to punish the 2015 series champion. Late Tuesday afternoon, a NASCAR spokesman said Busch wouldn’t be fined.
It was an interesting window into the new dynamics of NASCAR leadership and the sanctity of a rules package that has been a central storyline of the 2019 season.
By previous standards, Busch’s harsh assessment of how higher speeds impacted the racing at Dover might have crossed NASCAR’s boundaries for language detrimental to stock-car racing.
Martin Truex Jr. won Monday’s rain-delayed race at Dover by 9.5 seconds, a margin of victory greater than the previous 10 races combined this season, and even Truex said passing was difficult for his No. 19 Toyota.
It’s also worth noting that Probst said during the Las Vegas test that most drivers were opposed to the new rules – and many seem to have been biting their tongues when asked to evaluate the rules. The introduction of 550 horsepower at larger speedways was intended to keep cars closer together, but the reviews have been mixed.
“Look, I bailed on having an opinion on rules and downforce the middle of last year,” Harvick said, apparently referring to when NASCAR moved in the direction of the 2019 rules after a version was used in the All-Star Race.
Martinsville was among the 2019 races in which drivers were more vociferous about the impact of the rules on passing.
Those complaints have undoubtedly been heard by Jim France, who took over as NASCAR CEO for his nephew, Brian, nine months ago and has been a much more visible presence and sounding board at the racetrack.
Though his leadership style has been universally praised for its connectivity, Jim France also has an old-school approach that is in line with his late older brother who ran NASCAR for more than 40 years.
Traditional hard-line leadership at NASCAR has been less receptive to rebukes from drivers, and a punishment for speaking out against the 2019 rules – which likely will remain for the foreseeable future – might have sent the message that some sacred cows remain in Cup.
“It’s unfortunate, especially when a team owner does social media,” NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell told SiriusXM’s NASCAR channel Tuesday morning. “I don’t think that’s the right way to do it at all. It’s a choice that was made. We’re available every race and talk to every constituent we have. Jim France is at every race, which is phenomenal. The ability to say that you don’t have a chance to talk to us about your feedback is a bit questionable.”
NASCAR ultimately declined to punish Leavine, too.
The team owner has some leverage. As he noted, he is a Race Team Alliance board member. He also has a midpack team that joined the Toyota Racing Development fold this season.
With open speculation about Toyota’s desire and need to add another car to its lineup, an expansion of LFR would be the easiest option. If Leavine were to leave NASCAR (and this tweet didn’t exactly inspire confidence about his long-term belief in the product), it would leave a gaping hole that would take a lot of effort and money to fill.
Christopher NASCAR officials do not think it appropriate that a team owner speak out criticizing their package on social media so I’m not making any more comments about it. They may be right. https://t.co/QYK8sr49Zk
Because his 2017 championship was built on the 1.5-mile tracks (a record seven wins, including the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway), it’s easy to overlook Truex’s versatility. His 0-for-80 winless stretch on short tracks was an anomaly, and his team’s only weakness is on superspeedways, which are largely immaterial to winning a title once a driver has qualified for the playoffs.
With two wins in three races, Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn seem fully assimilated into Joe Gibbs Racing and poised to continue a five-season run as a first-tier championship-caliber duo.
Truex’s win also helped make a strong case for cementing JGR as the reigning top team in NASCAR’s premier series. Between Busch, Truex and Denny Hamlin, Toyota is the only manufacturer with a trio of multiple winners, and Erik Jones has shown signs of righting the ship in the past two races.
Team Penske might remain a clear second in the pecking order, but there weren’t many highlights at Dover with Joey Logano (who fought for a sixth after getting mired deep in traffic from playing two-tire strategy to win a stage), Brad Keselowski (who faded greatly to 12th after leading 58 of the first 181 laps) and Ryan Blaney (15th).
The tactics of Logano and William Byron revealed how strategy can be tricky with races that run largely incident-free. Both drivers sacrificed track position for Stage 1 points and then spent much of the remaining 280 miles trying to regain ground.
Dover marked the sixth of 11 races in 2019 that didn’t feature a multicar wreck, and the resultant lack of yellows can make it difficult to catch a tactical break. Logano and Byron both abandoned long-run strategies to short pit and get on sequence with the other lead-lap cars for their final stops with around 80 laps to go.
Gambles on being able to stay out longer under the final green-flag run (which lasted 131 laps) went unrewarded for Daniel Suarez, Jimmie Johnson and Aric Almirola, who would have benefited if there’d been a late caution.
Interesting note here from Ron. There have been 1.5 fewer cautions per race this season compared to the average of the last four years at this point in the season. https://t.co/v2uheLd3Dc
With only one driver starting in the top 10, qualifying at Dover was surprisingly unkind to JGR. During the 2013 season, JGR had three of the top four qualifiers (Matt Kenseth, Busch and Hamlin), and Truex also ranked in the top 10.
The demise of Furniture Row Racing sadly cut short one of NASCAR’s great underdog stories, but it’s good to see at least one thread remains to the Denver-based team.
BRISTOL, Tenn. – So maybe eight races into the season is a little early to start looking ahead to the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But don’t fault Kyle Busch for looking ahead – and simultaneously looking back – after his series-high third victory of the Cup season in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
With eight consecutive top-10 finishes (the first driver to do that since Terry Labonte in 1992), the 2015 champion is off to one of the greatest starts in the history of NASCAR’s premier series.
So is Busch the championship favorite after outdueling Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, whose Team Penske Fords have combined with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyota to account for every victory this year (Keselowski has two, Logano one and Busch’s teammate Denny Hamlin has the other two)?
“No, I don’t think we’re the championship favorite,” Busch told NBC Sports in victory lane Sunday. “I think any of the two Penske guys (Keselowski and Logano) are the championship favorites. They certainly have the speed, and they showed us what short-run speed looked like last year at Homestead, so that’s what I see right now. We’ve got some work to do.”
That was largely on the strength of playoff points, which Busch is accumulating at an even greater rate than the Big Three last year. With 19 through eight races (Keselowski is next closest with 12), Busch is well on the way to carrying a full race of points cushion into the playoffs, which would help blaze a clear path toward his fifth consecutive championship round appearance.
But yet … it doesn’t feel as if Busch is the clear-cut favorite. He led 71 laps at Bristol while Logano (146) and Keselowski (40) more than doubled his total (and Penske’s third driver, Ryan Blaney, led a race-high 156 laps).
“That was an honest interview from Kyle in victory lane talking about the Penske cars,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Monday on NASCAR America’s Bristol recap. “He knows when they go to Homestead, short-run speed is going to be important. He knows that’s something you have to work on all year long. He also knows that he was not the dominant car at Bristol. I feel I have to agree with them that Penske cars are the favorites right now.”
Though he turned the tables on Logano at Bristol with crew chief Adam Stevens’ clever strategy call, the short-run equation still feels the same five months later.
“I would hesitate to pick who’s best right now,” Stevens said when asked about whether Gibbs or Penske was the favorite. “I mean, they’ve had us covered today. We weren’t very good, like I’ve said a dozen times already. I don’t think being fast in the first seven or eight races of the year really means that you’re going to go to Homestead and wear everybody out. Certainly, their program is in a good spot. I think we’re in a good spot.
“I think if we do our jobs, hit it right, we can run with anybody. I don’t expect that will be different when we get down to the playoffs.”
That’s in the long run. In the meantime, keep an eye on the short-run speed.
Here are other items that caught our eye at Bristol:
Regardless, even though the inspections were undoubtedly a stressful distraction, they probably were worth it for a driver who has implored his team to reassert the dominant speed it had in 2014, ’15, ’16 and ‘18.
The penalty (a pass-through at the start that dropped Harvick a lap down) was stiff, but a Lap 3 caution kept Harvick from falling two laps down and might have given him a shot at contending for a win if not for a loose wheel on his first stop.
He still rebounded from being four laps down to finish 13th and on the lead lap.
Harvick didn’t offer any comments after this race, but he clearly was happy with the speed of his Stewart-Haas Racing team even though Sunday was only his second finish outside the top 10 in 2019.
Bristol has become one of the best tracks for Clint Bowyer (who has six top 10s in the past eight races there), but how much better could the 0.533-mile oval be if the No. 14 Ford driver improved on restarts?
The case can be made that Bowyer has left 11 playoff points on the table over the past two races at Bristol. In the Aug. 18, 2018 race, he lost the lead to winner Kurt Busch on a restart with 23 laps remaining, failing to launch well despite having the preferred outside lane.
Sunday, he paid for choosing the inside line as the leader on a restart with two laps to go in the first stage, losing the playoff point by inches to Ty Dillon at the line.
Bowyer also lost the lead Sunday to race leader Kyle Busch on a Lap 383 restart despite having the outside line, and he fell from second to fourth from inside on a Lap 423 restart, which resulted in the battle with Joey Logano nine laps later that put Bowyer’s car in the wall.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver rebounded for a seventh by staying on track through the final caution but called it “just horribly disappointing. You get that close. Long runs were my strong suit. I couldn’t take off all day long.”
If Bowyer’s team can figure out a way to keep more air pressure in his tires for the restarts and short runs, the win will come, but in the meantime, it likely will mean much more frustration at Bristol, which has become one of the most line-sensitive tracks in NASCAR for restarts.
How important is lane assignment on restarts at Bristol?
As David Smith of the excellent Motorsports Analytics site notes, having the outside vs. the inside groove is the largest disparity in NASCAR’s premier series. According to statistics provided by Smith on his Positive Regression podcast with Alan Cavanna, cars lining up on the outside retained positions 93% of the time while those on the inside kept their spots at a rate of only 9%.
Positive Regression Episode 11 – …But Was It a Good Race?
In which our heroes debate the necessity of entertaining qualifying sessions and dissect NASCAR's greatest races in search of commonalities. https://t.co/IjikdEbr0T
This is worth keeping in mind if another situation arises like the scoring confusion involving Keselowski’s car on the final restart – and why it’s incumbent upon NASCAR to get cars accurately lined up as quickly as possible. The stark difference between outside and inside could mean that there could be undue resistance from cars that don’t want to be ordered in the correct spot, making the process even more difficult.
For example, Ryan Newman thought he was restarting sixth (and on the outside) before Keselowski obeyed NASCAR’s orders. Though Newman “improved” to fifth on the restart as Keselowski awkwardly dropped into a three-wide formation in the fourth row on the way to serving black flag, the No. 6 Ford would finish ninth – which was likely worse than he might have if he’d restarted sixth.
Such is the era of double-file restarts on tracks with an overwhelmingly preferred restart groove.
Jimmie Johnson’s resurgence continued with his No. 48 Chevrolet starting and finishing 10th, building on a fifth at Texas Motor Speedway. But it might have started with what the team did wrong in his stunning 24th (two laps down) at Martinsville Speedway. The seven-time champion provided insight into what happened at one of his best tracks, noting the No. 48 team learned from the No. 9’s runner-up finish with a Chevrolet that featured fewer new widgets.
“At times you need to be aggressive and put new stuff on the car,” Johnson said after final practice at Bristol. “Then there are other times when you know there is a proven component or proven product that you just need to stay the course with. I don’t envy the crew chief position, or others, when you have drivers saying, ‘We need more, we need more…we need something new. What we have is not working’. So we put in all new sometimes. That is what we did at Martinsville. New wasn’t the thing to do. There are proven things that that we should have stayed the course. When to be aggressive and when not to…it sucks.”
And it’s compounded by two factors: 1) the Nevada-Arizona-California swing that precludes making major changes to the cars between races and ratchets up the pressure to improve when the opportunity arrives; and 2) the lack of real-world test to validate aerodynamics.
“Things that look good in sim, and we are ‘Oh, well, OK, We are putting that in!’ We still have to go prove it in race conditions,” Johnson said. “That is one thing simulation can not do. What the track is going to do when it rubbers up. And honestly in a lot of cases what it is like in traffic. That is all speculation. We don’t have any simulation that replicate what goes on in dirty air.”
After this column posted, a considerate and faithful reader noted that it neglected to touch on the spate of loose wheels Sunday at Bristol. Among the most notable and costly:
—Erik Jones made two green-flag pit stops (from second on Lap 65 and from 14th on Lap 320), costing him a good finish.
–Martin Truex Jr. was forced to pit from the top five under green before the end of the second stage and was stuck a lap down for the rest of the race.
–Brad Keselowski pitted for a loose wheel under yellow after the end of the second stage.
—Chris Buescher was headed toward a top five before slamming the Turn 2 wall because of a loose wheel with less than 50 laps remaining.
–Harvick also went four laps down after pitting under green on Lap 65 for a loose right front.
The root cause of all the problems?
Denny Hamlin theorized it’s the pit guns.
Somewhere around 10-12 loose wheels.. where’s @TonyStewart when you need him to talk about safety.. Guns just aren’t up to standards
Typically loose wheels tend to be a byproduct of mistakes from pit crews rushing to gain track position (which did prove critical at Bristol based on the final round of pit strategy) or malfunctioning equipment.
Bristol’s high banking does put a heavy load on lug nuts, so getting them secure is essential. Some teams expressed concern to NBCSports.com that the NASCAR-mandated pit guns (which were introduced last year) don’t apply enough torque to keep the lug nuts secure even when they are fastened perfectly.
The pitting outside the box penalty on Daniel Suarez’s team was a ticky-tack call that NASCAR hopefully will be revisiting for next season.
Daniel Suarez's one lap penalty was for removing tape as he left the pit stall. Rule says no work can be done "if any part of the vehicle is visibly on top of or over the front line of the pit box." pic.twitter.com/QktcfhFPLK
Shortly after the race, Suarez hadn’t seen the video of the stop in which a crew member removed tape from the nose while the No. 41 Ford was a few inches over the line. And once Suarez had seen it, it probably wouldn’t have changed his opinion. And that reveals something important about the Stewart-Haas Racing driver: In his third full season, Suarez doesn’t have time for excuses, whether it’s about being thrust into Cup too soon (he was) or challenging whether a whistle from the tower was questionable (it was).
“We know the rules,” he said after finishing eighth. “We cannot work on the car when the car is out of the box. I stopped moving, and then he went back to get. I thought he had it already. I shouldn’t move if he didn’t have it, and he shouldn’t touch the car if it’s out of the box, no matter what.
“So it’s something we have to work on. It’s good these things happen right now. We don’t want these things to happen later in the season. These mistakes have to happen right now so we can clean everything up for when the important part of the season is here.”
We are making the NASCAR experience more affordable for our 60th anniversary! We have adjusted our 2020 grandstand pricing to make going to our races more accessible for fans everywhere! 🏁 #RacetoAMS2020
But trying to cap hotel prices isn’t the answer (nor is it feasible or even necessarily advisable given that the small market’s tax base likely counts on that revenue).
There aren’t enough hotel rooms within a 60-mile radius of Bristol Motor Speedway for a complete lodging of the twice annual sellout crowds of 160,000 that regularly filled Bristol 10 to 15 years ago.
And even if there were enough hotel rooms within an hour’s drive, and if they were all affordable, the infrastructure of the Tri-Cities isn’t constructed to handle that many people driving into the race.
The reason that Bristol worked when it sold out twice annually was because most of its fans camped. The vast campgrounds surrounding the track suffered a mass exodus during the Great Recession, shortly after the track underwent a controversial reconfiguration in 2007 and subsequent reversion in 2012. The economy recovered, but the fans didn’t return en masse.
Had some curiosity after I came back from race today. Made some calls, this is what I got. Johnson City Courtyard =$319, but are now taking walk-ins at $105. Hampton Inn= $308. But will be back down to $133 on Monday. Reason he gave was “it’s race weekend.” Pisses me off!!!
Yes, hotel rates can be obscenely expensive in the area around Bristol, but that’s mostly because demand easily can outstrip supply.
Sky-high prices also are part and parcel to big-league sporting events (or maybe you missed what it cost to park in downtown Minneapolis last weekend), and market forces also work as those events lose their luster. Last weekend, rates at hotels within a 20-minute drive to the Bristol track plummeted to a third of what they likely would have been for the same race weekend 10 to 15 years ago.
If NASCAR officials are serious about ejecting hauler drivers from teams for inspection failures, it would create some interesting logistical challenges … and not just because of the need for a CDL-A license to move an 18-wheeler from the infield and up the high banks of Bristol.
With the long-haul requirement of all the ancillary companies that transport the support equipment for NASCAR’s traveling circus, there are enough prospective truck drivers hanging around the infield for a Cup team caught in a pinch.
The real costs to teams of tossing hauler drivers would be the institutional knowledge that all of them have about packing up their trucks and the support duties (many are master grillers).
NASCAR has tried many methods of deterrence over the years (points penalties, crew chief suspensions, practice time deductions) to force teams into bringing “cleaner” cars through inspection.
This type of punishment would be less about hurting teams competitively than about inconveniencing them. With teams required to submit full designated team rosters since last season, that makes it easier for NASCAR to be more selective in making them feel the hurt of a penalty. It could be a clever approach.
Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway yielded countless nuggets from several drivers whose stories often go overlooked or untold. Whether Bubba Wallace’s love of photography, Michael McDowell’s work habits or Tyler Reddick’s Twitter persona, all the interviews were worthwhile.
There is resistance to the new requirements from the establishment, and that’s understandable because 1) they are unaccustomed to the asks after years of handling media another way; and 2) the demands on their time – between increased sponsor rosters (and resultant appearances) and weekly data downloads from engineers – are greater than ever while their stature ensures they are requested heavily.
But for the next generation of drivers – such as Reddick, Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell, all of whom patiently took questions at Bristol (some tough, in Bell’s case) – this arrangement will become the norm, and as it does, NASCAR, its sponsors and (most importantly) its fans will be better for it.
Ryan: Was the story of Martinsville the tame, the typical, or the tires?
It was a “typical Martinsville race” that also seemed “tame,” according to one driver who knows the track as well as anyone.
Passing was only achievable for the third-place car during the first five laps after a restart … but was much easier after the first five laps for the fifth-place car.
There were the fewest lead changes (three) in more than 51 years at the 0.526-mile oval, yet the battles for first place between Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott still were compelling.
The STP 500 proved again that the difficulty of evaluating the 2019 rules package is as much about the eye of the beholder as the eye test.
Was Sunday’s race among the greatest held at Martinsville Speedway?
Was it better than last year’s snow-delayed race in which drivers headed for off-week vacations seemed more preoccupied with logging laps than banging fenders?
Yes, from this corner.
But there were, as usual, some firm takeaways, too. So here they are.
–Aerodynamics mattered more than ever at Martinsville: Crew chief Paul Wolfe was “caught off guard” the minute Keselowski’s winning Ford hit the track for practice Saturday morning at Martinsville, a place “you don’t feel like it’s much of an aero track.”
Until this past weekend.
“We weren’t as good as I thought we would be (to start practice),” Wolfe said. “We felt the effects of the aero changes even though this is one of the slower tracks we race at. So, we scrambled a little bit. … We had to work on our setup quite a bit from what had worked for us in the past. And we knew there would be a little difference, but it was probably more than I expected.”
It was a common refrain throughout two days from Martinsville from drivers who pointed at aerodynamic dependence on a flat track. Denny Hamlin pointed to the turbulent wake from the lead car as the reason “you can’t really run directly behind somebody. Other than that, typical Martinsville race. The spoiler is just so big, it takes so much air off the car behind. You have to run a different line. The bottom is the fastest, so it’s very difficult once you get behind to pass someone (on the outside).”
Kyle Busch said if he didn’t pass a car in the first five laps of a run, it took about 60 more for tire degradation to allow for significant advancement. “There’s so much downforce; we’re going through the corners so fast,” he said. “There’s no way to go around the outside of somebody.”
Keselowski led 445 laps, but even he didn’t believe his No. 2 Ford necessarily was better than Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet. After getting passed under green by Elliott on Lap 325, Keselowski figured he’d lost the race until his pit crew gave him back the lead for good with 126 laps remaining.
That underscored the advantage of having a clean track, and it also suggests that aerodynamics will be a larger factor at every oval this season. The next instance in which it’ll be more noticeable than ever likely will be the April 7 race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which is expected to produce lightning-fast laps.
“The higher the speeds, the more these aerodynamics take effect and the harder it will be to pass,” Hamlin said. “If any track is where the aero package really isn’t going to matter, it would be (Martinsville). So anywhere that gets a little faster in speed, it’ll be that much harder. The speeds definitely will be high (at Bristol), but you’ll have to make your car work where somebody else’s isn’t. You definitely won’t be able to run directly behind them.”
Said Wolfe: “For sure going to Bristol, I think we’re going to notice the effects of it, and all the short tracks as we move forward. It’s changed things for sure and keeps you on your toes.”
–While tire wear mattered much less, but …: Hardly any teams took advantage on jumping spots with two-tire stops.
That was one of many curious developments in a race that somehow featured all significant pit stops happening under caution. A 500-lap race at Martinsville typically has at least one green-flag pit cycle, yet Sunday’s race had none despite only seven cautions (excluding stage yellows, it would have marked only the third time in 30 years that a Martinsville race had five or fewer cautions).
The dearth of multicar wrecks (Sunday’s race had one) furthered a perplexing 2019 trend that again raises questions of whether the cars are too stuck to the track.
But in the short term, NASCAR hopefully will be leaning on Goodyear to construct a Martinsville tire that has more wear.
“We’ll look at everything, particularly tires and tire wear,” NASCAR senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said Monday on SiriusXM’s NASCAR channel. “There didn’t seem to be a lot of that in either (the truck or Cup) race, so we’ve got to go back and look at what’s happening, particularly at Martinsville. That’s a big component of that race and something we need to have going forward.”
Of course, the Oct. 27 race might unfold completely differently (like last year) solely because there will be so much on the line in the playoffs (and even more so in 2020 when it becomes a cutoff race).
“Yeah, it seems like it’s always the fall that everyone goes crazy,” Hamlin said. “It just seemed like a tame race (Sunday). Even when I got to the back, it wasn’t huge log-jam packups like you’ve seen in the past. Everyone just kind of kept it in control, and these cars are really stuck to the ground so much, you really don’t get out of control that much. You’ve got what you’ve got.”
–That’s it, what’s next? In the past five races, the 2019 rules package has been used on ovals with lengths of 1.5 miles, 2 miles, 1 mile and a half-mile. Aside from road courses, it’s now undergone real-world testing at virtually every type of track in NASCAR’s premier series.
It would be fair to begin evaluating its efficacy and considering possible changes – with some parameters.
Any significant alterations to the horsepower and tapered spacer are a virtual nonstarter. Engine builders set their inventories months ahead, and adjustments would take massive effort and money (engines already are being sealed in Cup to reduce on both of those things).
If NASCAR wanted to tweak aero by reducing the height of its enormous spoilers, it would have an impact on reducing corner speeds with the 750-horsepower engines used at smaller tracks such as Martinsville.
But the challenge is that any such moves would need approval from team owners per the charter agreements. There was heavy pressure from teams to contain costs by consolidating the race package into two iterations this season, and any suggestion of in-season changes this year – which immediately would trigger more R&D spending – probably would draw pushback.
The last time NASCAR made major rules changes in season was when it experimented four years ago with the low-downforce and high-drag packages – both of which were the reaction to a lackluster start to 2015 that many blamed on high-corner speeds.
Those changes caused an unexpected seven-figure spike in the budgets for powerhouse teams, who probably would be open to considering tweaks if necessary but understandably wary of what it means for their wallets.
Another compelling reason to hold off on overhauling this year’s model is because it’s short-lived.
With an aggressive target date of the 2021 Daytona 500, there is furious work occurring behind the scenes on the Gen 7 car – its visual stylings, its features and parts (some of which are expected to be common) and its impact on helping keep team budgets in check.
It’s expected that on-track testing for the 2021 model will happen before the end of this season (and many believe it probably should have begun last season), and the goal is a fleet of five to seven cars per team (as opposed to roughly three times as many under the current model) with a budget far south of the $25-30 million that currently is estimated to be spent on championship entries.
“In team owner council meetings, we talk about areas to race in, and Mr. Penske and Mr. Ganassi are quite outspoken about what they’ve done in IndyCar,” Freeze said. “There’s one place you go to get your chassis. I don’t know all the parts and components very well with IndyCar racing, but I really think that’s the direction that’s being talked about with the Gen 7 car. Dictate the areas that you’re going to race in and areas you aren’t going to race in and try to drive some costs down.
“Listening to (Penske and Ganassi) have firsthand experience with that, it seems to have worked with viable IndyCar teams that are still very competitive, and their racing has been fantastic from the races I’ve watched. They still have a loyal, passionate fan base. We’re all observing how they do it, and I think some of those methods will be replicated across our sport.”
Penske estimated that IndyCar budgets top out at $10 million annually (across a 17-race schedule) for championship-caliber teams, which are limited on the amount that can be spent on research and development.
There are signs that it can work in NASCAR, too. The move to a common pit gun last year helped keep in check teams spending seven figures annually on pit stop equipment. “We don’t want to go to an all-spec series,” Freeze said. “That’s been done before, and I don’t think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for that. That’s the balance now. What areas do we need to not be racing in, and what areas can we race in without breaking the bank? If everybody agrees you can standardize the chassis and don’t have a speedway car vs. road course car.
“We’re taking some steps to refine our package that caused cost increases for us in specializing cars. With the new package, that’s one thing that could be addressed if you just lock it in that this is the chassis or body you’ve got, you shouldn’t need a whole lot of inventory.”
You can hear Freeze’s discussion of the Gen 7 car at around the 30:00 mark of the embedded audio player below, or listen and subscribe to the NASCAR on NBC Podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get podcasts.
He took agency in ensuring it wouldn’t happen again with the development of the Mustang for its debut this season. The 2012 champion made several wind tunnel visits and peppered engineers with questions about the new model’s on-track viability.
Keselowski provided a window into his hands-on style Sunday when asked about whether he was worried his team was peaking too early in the year.
“I think about that every day,” he said. “Every day I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Am I better today than I was yesterday?’ And if I’m not, and if we’re not, we’re going to lose. That’s the simple matter of this. The sport is very dynamic. Technology is changing every day. Somewhere out there right now someone is working on the next advancement that’s going to be critical to winning the playoffs, and we don’t know about it. Might be another team, might be someone in our own group. If we stay stagnant, it’s guaranteed we will fall.
“So, I think about it every day. The only thing I know to do is just be super annoying. That’s really all I know. All I know is to go in and sit in on meetings and ask questions that make people squirm and watch them squirm and watch their face, and when they squirm, are they squirming because they should be squirming, or are they squirming because they just don’t want to work?
“And that’s all I know. I wish I was smarter than that. I wish I was better than that. But all I know how to do is read their body language and see if they’ve got more than I think they’ve got or if this is all we’ve got and push those people.”
Nearly as eye-opening as his sublime drive Sunday were Keselowski’s candid comments about getting more active in finding funding for Team Penske.
That certainly casts some doubt on the future of Miller Lite, which was the full-season primary sponsor of the No. 2 as recently as 2013. Amid branding and ownership changes at its parent company, the beer company has scaled back in recent seasons.
This was the second consecutive season Miller Lite wasn’t the primary hood sponsor for the Daytona 500, and it has yet to be the primary in any of Keselowski’s races this season.
Roughly 24 hours before his first finish outside the top 20 at Martinsville in five years and only his fourth in 35 starts at the 0.526-mile oval, Jimmie Johnson struck a positive tone while also already seeming to reckon with what might lie ahead.
“History helps the week coming into the race, but as soon as timing and scoring starts on Friday or Saturday, reality is reality,” the nine-time winner at Martinsville said Saturday after qualifying 11th – the highlight of a dismal weekend at a normally illustrious track for the seven-time champion. “We’ve had a good car, so I still think we’re missing a little bit. I think we’re in a decent spot. Hopefully a top five will be on the books for us.”
It wasn’t. Johnson finished two laps down in 24th solely because his No. 48 Camaro was just that slow. There were no pit penalties or accidents that hampered the superstar once dubbed “Mr. Martinsville” by Jeff Gordon.
Johnson’s struggle was a jarring juxtaposition with his Hendrick teammates.
It was a sobering reality for Johnson, who is 15th in points through six races with new crew chief Kevin Meendering. That relationship still is developing, and there have been small victories such as making the final round of qualifying in four of the past five races.
“We’re getting practice sessions sorted out,” Johnson said. “We’re qualifying better. We’re having some good first halves of races. We’ve had a couple of good full races. But that consistency from first practice session through the end of the race is what we’re trying to hit on now.”
They will need to hit on it soon or the possibility of Johnson missing the playoffs for the first time in his 18 seasons will become disturbingly real.
Before announcing a new penalty Monday for failure to make a timed lap during any round of qualifying, drivers’ opinions hardly were solicited, according to those surveyed at Martinsville. The door to the NASCAR hauler remains open – Jimmie Johnson said he made a visit after Fontana quals – and there were several conversations between officials and drivers about group qualifying dating to last October’s 2018 announcement.
“I wouldn’t read too far into there not being a Driver Council,” Johnson said. “We had quarterly meetings at best, and depending on the timing of when those meetings took place, we could have a say in whatever was going on. The door is always open at the transporter. That’s still the way communication takes place.”
Martin Truex Jr., who recommended removing Lexan from spoilers to eliminate rear visibility, said he wasn’t approached by NASCAR for his opinion about group qualifying. The 2017 series champion said the Drivers Council largely isn’t missed.
“In a situation like (group changes qualifying), it’s probably a void,” Truex said about the lack of a formal channel. “But in most situations, it’s probably not a void because it was just one of those things that honestly became a waste of time for us.”
Ryan: Which teams have mountains to climb after West Coast Swing?
As NASCAR leaves the land of Hollywood, hopefully it also will be shaking its “Being John Malkovich”-esque meta feedback loop that has been on repeat for two race weekends with a dizzying relentlessness.
Maybe there are other things happening in NASCAR that are worthy of further examination with the completion of the fourth annual Nevada-Arizona-California hopscotch?
Running through a few of them:
–This is the first time in 19 years that Hendrick Motorsports has yet to record a top five through the first five races (and that 2000 team had one fewer car).
After a mediocre start to 2018 in the Camaro’s debut, the team somehow seems in the same straits with the model this season while adapting to the 2019 configuration of lower horsepower and higher downforce.
Because of the hurdles in running three consecutive races more than 2,000 miles from the industry’s Charlotte hub, it was expected that course-correcting any car deficiencies would be more difficult than it already is.
Never mind the expense of changing on the fly, it’s logistically impossible to make significant updates to cars while trying to ship them to the other side of the country amid a carefully coordinated and highly regimented plan of hauler swaps and highway gymnastics.
The March 31 race at Texas Motor Speedway will be the first 1.5-mile race in which teams have been able to digest everything learned in real-world conditions and apply them to their cars.
If Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson leave Texas without a top five, it won’t be the end of the world for Rick Hendrick’s squad. Last year, it took until August for Elliott to earn the first of three victories for the team, and Hendrick has an Optical Scanning Station in house (it didn’t a year ago), along with a better grasp on its personnel restructuring that occurred before the 2018 season.
All four drivers have run well at times this season, too, and Phoenix was a major rebound in qualifying.
But a collective one top 10 across 12 starts at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana is troubling and indicative that much work remains to be done for a storied organization that takes great pride in its 12 Cup championships.
–Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t miss the boat as much with its new Mustangs, but its lead driver also was chalking some of his recent success up to being a veteran.
“I don’t think as a group we feel like our cars are where they need to be but that experience has led to decent finishes so we can change the things we want to when we get home,” Kevin Harvick said two days before his third top five and fourth consecutive top 10 this year. “Experience is always going to matter.”
So is money and sponsorship, which is why Stewart-Haas, Hendrick and other high-budget teams will be well positioned to retrofit their cars (or perhaps rebuild them entirely). Harvick estimated there could as many as a half-dozen combination of car styles that will need to be developed and require “an extreme amount of work” for the armies of engineers employed by teams.
“I think we are seeing some of the unintended consequences of this package,” he said. “It isn’t what everybody expected from the testing with the drafting and low drag and things you are prepared for. I feel like we have had top five, top three cars (at Atlanta, Vegas and ISM Raceway). They are just not quite winning cars.
“It is really just a survival game at this point trying to keep up with the schedule. We are learning at such a rapid pace right now that the changes to the car will be extreme by the time you get to Texas. … One of the things that caught a lot of people off guard are the differences you will have to have from race track to race track with the things you do to the car and how they work. The workload is going to be absolutely extreme on the race teams this year.”
–According to one crew chief whose team has figured out the 2019 package as well as anyone, body construction and rear ride heights are the keys to hitting the right combination of downforce and balance.
Paul Wolfe, whose No. 2 Ford posted a first, second and third with driver Brad Keselowski on the big ovals since Daytona, said his team still is finding the handle on this season’s setup, but those areas have been the most impact.
“There is a window there where you can change your rear ride height to change your drag, but that also changes the overall balance of your car,” Wolfe said after Saturday practice at Auto Club Speedway. “So then, your mechanical balance to go with the aero balance could be different. Some guys may have gone down the path of really trimming their cars out with their body build and then when you get (to Fontana), you just can’t put downforce back in it enough to be good at the tracks where you need to start to lift (off the throttle) because of tire fall off.
“There are a lot of options and lots of different things to do. It is about trying to understand not only being fast by yourself but how these cars seem to get extremely tight or they could get loose in the dirty air.”
“It didn’t work in trucks, it didn’t work in Xfinity, and I don’t know why anybody thought it was going to work in the Cup Series,” analyst Jeff Burton said Monday on NASCAR America.
If the strategy for having it work this time was “let’s hope that drivers and teams will do the right thing and choose the path that will benefit the greater good of fan entertainment instead of stubbornly sticking to their selfish performance interests,” well … that’s hopeless.
OK, we give in: here’s ONE note on Kyle Busch (for Rowdy Nation and all its lovers/haters).
For the second consecutive week, Busch joked about the possibility of driving for a Formula One team as the last undiscovered country of his racing career (well, aside from if he ever gets around to the Indianapolis 500).
It seems an unlikely prospect because “nobody from F1 is calling.
“They’re going to have to spend a lot of money to buy me out of Joe Gibbs Racing, that’s for sure,” said Busch, who recently signed a multi-year extension that probably takes him through at least 2022 in the No. 18 Toyota. “I don’t know if it’s worth their investment. … I’d love to be able to give it a shot and kind of see. I don’t foresee the opportunity really blossoming.”
“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t shoot down,” Busch said in 2009. “If I could win a championship (in NASCAR) in the next two or three years then I wouldn’t mind going doing (F1) for a few years and coming back. I think I’d still be young enough that if I could win a championship by 25, go run Formula 1 for a few years and be back (in NASCAR) by 28.”
That window has closed for Busch, who turns 34 in May.
But he doesn’t sound as if someone who has completely closed the door on considering the possibility again. So in the unlikely event an F1 team wanted to take a chance on a NASCAR champion in his late 30s …
Typically, such arrangements don’t happen with drivers crossing manufacturer lines. But the time and travel constraints of the Fontana race made Custer (a native of nearby Orange County who had lingered after his Ford won Saturday’s Xfinity race) the easiest choice.
In the “corporate teammates” era in which automaker hardball on brand loyalty often is a barrier to drivers moonlighting as often as yesteryear, it was refreshing to confirm it doesn’t preclude a common-sense decision such as this.
Fontana again stirred some passionate debate about the efficacy of the 2019 rules package, which virtually has guaranteed wild restarts but also has produced a surprising amount of green-flag racing (there’s been one crash that could be considered “multicar” – and even that was a stretch – over 1,300 miles at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana).
Two more points seem relevant:
–Kyle Busch’s 2.354-second margin of victory was a fraction of Martin Truex Jr.’s 11.685-second thumping at the same 2-mile oval last year.
–If you are advocating dumping the tapered spacers that limit horsepower to 550 at tracks such as Fontana, here’s your friendly reminder that restoring last year’s horsepower numbers would take a herculean effort by engine manufacturers who have already mapped out months of inventory at the current parameters. Reverting to 2018 probably would require months of hardware and logistical challenges.
That means for more than two and a half hours, roughly three dozen cars turned left for 400 miles in a process identical to a few thousand other races that preceded this one and hopefully thousands more to come.
In many of those prior races, drivers occasionally lose control of their cars while racing for position. That results in wrecks and their many byproducts — emotions spiking, feuds erupting, and fans cheering.
What a concept.
So, let’s concede that Sunday in Sin City was no game changer for 1.5-mile tracks – which NASCAR has admitted were the primary target of its lower-horsepower package and aero ducts – nor could or should it be.
But there were some elements with game-changing potential that emerged from the debut of the full 2019 rules package. Here were a few:
—New ways to call a race: The biggest takeaways might have come not behind the wheel but from atop the pit boxes, particularly the No. 1 of Kurt Busch and No. 24 of William Byron.
Busch’s crew chief, Matt McCall, essentially sacrificed any stage points by pitting Busch late in the second stage for four tires and then staying on track to assume the lead for the final restart. Busch still had to pit earlier than the rest of the lead-lap cars, but the strategy allowed him to overcome a starting spot of 28th to earn his second consecutive top five.
The tactical call by Chad Knaus on the No. 24 was even more intriguing– a clever splash-and-go call near the end of the second stage that kept Byron on the lead lap and nearly still earned a point (Byron finished 11th in the stage).
There were risks involved with both strategies – an overtime finish could have hurt Busch’s cause and Knaus was betting that his young driver could be patient and his pit crew could execute a swift stop – but they also adapted well to the caution-free flow, the clogged traffic and slower lap speeds.
Those factors (married with stages carrying two predetermined cautions) will create opportunities for strategic innovation.
There are more 1.5-mile tracks ahead that also will feature low tire wear (on recently repaved surfaces). If yellows remain down as they were in Atlanta and Las Vegas, the risks taken by McCall and Knaus will be worthy of more consideration by other teams.
–Just passing through: When third-place finisher Kyle Busch was caught for speeding with just under 130 laps to go, it figured to be an arduous slog to get back on the lead lap, much less the top five. But it took 20 laps to achieve the former and 70 laps for the latter, leaving Busch still in a solid position to win over the final 50 laps.
Though track position still is vital with this package, Busch showed how a strong car and slower speeds make it possible to rebound quickly from an unscheduled trip to the pits under green. His No. 18 Toyota was leading when it sped on entry, and he fell off the lead lap after serving a pass-through penalty – but only because Busch and Byron had yet to stop.
When they did, the lead cycled on lap 150 to race winner Joey Logano, whom Busch had managed to stay in front of after pass-through. When the caution flew for the stage break 10 laps later, Busch was able to pit with the lead-lap cars in a fortuitous turn of events that stemmed from this year’s reduced horsepower.
With lap times down sharply (the pole speed fell more than 10 mph from a year earlier) but pit speeds remaining constant, Busch’s extra trip to the pits cost him a little more than 30 seconds, a duration in the neighborhood of the weekend’s fastest laps.
In 2018, when cars were turning laps 2 seconds quicker, he probably would have emerged on the lap behind Logano and would have had a tougher fight to regain the lead lap (via a wavearound or the free pass). Instead, he gained two spots on his Lap 163 stop and restarted in 16th with perhaps the fastest car and nearly 100 laps to overcome the deficit.
The mistake still cost him the win, but Busch had much more time to try to atone for it.
–But … don’t get penalized: OK, but all that said, getting penalized under green still can destroy a day more easily, as Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon learned the hard way.
Both drivers’ teams were penalized for too many men over the wall during pit stops midway through the first 80-lap stage. They ended the stage a lap down, and neither could fully recover, which put a damper on the promise of final-round qualifying appearances.
“I think we had a top 10 car, just never got the track position we needed,” said Dillon, who started in the top 10 but finished outside the top 15 for the second consecutive week. “We lost it from the beginning, and when you lose it, you can’t ever get it back.”
The two cautions were the fewest number for a full-distance race at Vegas since the yellow flew only twice in the March 1, 1998 inaugural.
This comes on the heels of an incident-free Atlanta Motor Speedway race that featured five cautions (two for stages, the other three were for competition/tire wear, debris and fluid).
So that means 900 miles have been run in NASCAR’s premier series without a driver so much as spinning on track once under highly competitive conditions.
Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, though. These are world-elite drivers, and they’ve been handed an enormous amount of downforce.
Despite all the predictions of mass chaos on “crazy” restarts (side note: Restarts have been inherently “crazy” since they were changed to double file nearly 10 years ago), drivers seemed to get by just fine while going four wide a few laps at a time the past two races.
That seems nettlesome.
No one is rooting for wrecks, but caution flags can help enliven the show (within reason). Look no further than the 12 yellow flags in the previous race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which begs an interesting question.
Which was the better show at the 1.5-mile oval: Last year’s playoff opener or Sunday?
The smart money here is on the Sept. 16, 2018 race that was hailed by many as the best kickoff event in 15 years of NASCAR’s 10-race championship structure. With many championship contenders desperately pushing beyond the limits of their cars and tires, there were five restarts in the last 40 laps, and Kyle Larson delivered one of the greatest passes for the lead in 2018.
That race was run less than three weeks before NASCAR unveiled its 2019 rules package.
The two-race sample size is small, but Team Penske’s ability to adapt still should be hailed. The consecutive victories by Keselowski and Logano underscore that when things change in Cup, Penske is as nimble as any organization in addressing the challenge. Look no further than the 2014 move to group qualifying, and how quickly Keselowski and Logano became final-round fixtures.
The wild qualifying session at Las Vegas reminded Jimmie Johnson of the short-lived experiment with group qualifying on restrictor-plate tracks four years ago.
“I think it was great entertainment, but we were all afraid of how many cars we were going to tear up,” Johnson said. “So far, no cars are torn up (at Las Vegas), but I think that opportunity really exists.”
Regardless of what the temperature is among fan councils, social media surveys and satellite radio discussions, there is one given about the 2019 rules: They are here to stay.
There are no quick tweaks to this package. When you dramatically reduce horsepower, it requires some heavy lifting. That’s the reason the package wasn’t implemented for a few races last season after the 2018 All-Star Race; it would have been too much strain on engine builders.
This won’t unfold like the 2015 season when NASCAR quickly detoured into high-drag and low-downforce options because it was dissatisfied with 1.5-mile action
Backing up to the 2018 rules package would require months of work (never mind huge sums of cash) for engine builders who are boxed in by the hardware and logistics driven by meticulously scheduled inventories of V8 engines. It isn’t as simple as pulling out the aero ducts and tuning up the engines.
NASCAR is locked into 550 horsepower for the foreseeable future.
No matter what you thought of Sunday’s race, the reality is that package is here to stay.