notes column

Ryan: NASCAR must take steps to make Phoenix title-worthy in 2020

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Let’s start with the positives for ISM Raceway: Outside of its racing, everything last weekend showed the 1-mile oval on the west side of Phoenix is championship ready.

Its fan enthusiasm – two consecutive sellouts in the Round of 8 finale and an enormous village of campers deserving of its own zip code in the Valley of the Sun – is firmly established as nonpareil in NASCAR’s premier series.

The community and local media support is deserving of the big-event status that often has been lacking during an 18-year run in South Florida for the season finale of the Cup Series.

And $178 million in renovations have delivered striking vantage points from gleaming new grandstands while offering an efficiently inviting infield with the 21st-century ambiance and amenities that too much of racing lacks.

This racetrack is ready to play host to the title-deciding race … provided that its 1-mile ribbon of asphalt can deliver the goods.

That, though, was the biggest question leaving Phoenix last weekend and facing all tracks of a mile and shorter next season when the low-horsepower, high-downforce package enters its second season.

“They’ve got to figure out something for this race because it’s going to be a letdown if it’s like that and it’s the championship race,” third-place finisher Ryan Blaney said. “Hopefully, they can figure something out. I thought it was a start. They just need to keep doing their homework on it.”

Said Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson: “As a fan, we need our short tracks to be better. To be what they were. They were the best races, honestly. Obviously with this package, they’re not well suited.”

There is no doubt the 2019 rules have been conducive to better racing (and particularly restarts) on the 1.5-mile ovals that make up the bulk of the schedule (and once the bulk of the playoffs). They weren’t really needed for Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which already had a reputation for outstanding racing because of its progressive banking and high tire wear.

Any championship venue should strive to meet the gold standard that has been set over the past 18 years in Miami.

But how can NASCAR take steps toward achieving that in 2020? There would seem few options for modifying ISM Raceway, whose footprint seems more than set after several years of capital improvements culminated in last year’s overhaul. NASCAR already has declared its horsepower and downforce specs largely will remain in place for next season.

And perhaps given the sudden groundswell for rotating the championship round, this largely will become a moot point if the title race’s stay is short-lived at ISM Raceway.

But here are a few suggestions for potentially enhancing Phoenix – and the 750 horsepower package on all smaller tracks — are percolating in the industry for next year, though:

Soften the tires: This seems the lowest-hanging fruit for improving the racing because of its simplicity. To avoid failures, Goodyear has erred on the side of producing bulletproof tires that ensure durability but undermine the disparity in speeds that is needed for optimal passing numbers.

That isn’t possible with tires that can run 3,000 laps without replacement (which was the estimate at Martinsville). Brad Keselowski noted the tires at Phoenix probably could have lasted 1,000 laps, which is why much of the 312 laps seemed like slot car racing. When there is no reward for tire management, it adversely impacts cars being able to move forward and backward.

“That really changes the dynamics because you get some guys that put a lot of camber in the car and take off on the short run and fall off on a long run,” Keselowski said. “You get some guys that drive really hard on soft tires and wear them out, and that creates comers and goers, but when you have such a hard tire, one that doesn’t fall off, you’re not going to see that.”

If degradation is factored in, the racing should improve but with some accompany headaches.

“A tire really soft with a lot of fall off makes for great racing,” Alex Bowman said. “At the same time, it makes for tire failures, and it’s hard for a tire manufacturer to be like, ‘Hey we’re going to bring this tire and if you run it too long, it’s going to fail, so don’t do that.’ It’s much easier for them to bring a hard tire with a ton of durability and very little falloff that doesn’t fail so they don’t get any flak for a tire failing. If you were a tire manufacturer, what would you do? Everyone’s kind of in a box. They want to bring the best product they can to the racetrack. To them, that’s one that doesn’t have failures.”

At some point, though, the PR concerns of a tire supplier must be outweighed by the negative ramifications on the quality of racing. What good is it to have flawless tires in races that no one wants to watch?

One potential compromise solution: Soften the tires with an emphasis on the left sides, which at least create fewer problems for teams (i.e. crashes, heavy impacts and body damage) when they fail.

Chop the spoiler: NASCAR officials have opened the door to reconsidering tweaking the cars to help racing on shorter tracks next year, and the most obvious play would be reducing the 8-inch spoiler that keep cars glued to the track and creates a larger aerodynamic wake that makes the handling of trailing cars less stable.

But while it theoretically should ameliorate the current downforce woes, the cause-effect is more complex than with simply softening the tire. Changing the height of the spoiler will affect the balance of the cars and perhaps be unworthy of the tradeoff.

Teams also are likely to spend more money on R&D if the spoiler heights aren’t static. This is a less important rationale given that cars are already much different from the 550 horsepower package (tracks 1.33 miles and longer) vs. the 750 hp (1.33 miles and shorter) because of the downforce and drag.

Work on the traction compound: ISM Raceway marked the first time that one of the tracks formerly owned by International Speedway Corp. attempted to apply PJ1 without consultation with Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks (which had been using it the past three years). From the outset, the traction compound intended to add a lane seemed to have been applied too high on the track.

“I think it would have been a lot better race if they would have got it low enough,” Kevin Harvick said. “It was just way too high I thought. It was closer in one and two. I mean, it was still probably 3 or 4 feet. Probably needed to come down just a little bit in that end. The other end, it was 7 or 8 feet. It was way too high.”


Beyond simply improving the racing at shorter tracks in 2019, NASCAR already had its challenges at ISM Raceway. While the 1-mile track has become a darling of ISC because of its location and fan support, the competition in Cup (or lack thereof) has produced controversy before.

In the April 21, 2007 debut of the Car of Tomorrow at Phoenix, passing was so nonexistent, Denny Hamlin (who lost the lead on Lap 99 and never regained it) declared the new chassis was “mission failed” if the goal had been to improve the action. NASCAR’s decision to throw four debris cautions during that same race led Tony Stewart to accuse the sanctioning body of officiating tantamount to pro wrestling in one of the biggest controversies of the three-time series champion’s career.

In the March 3, 2013 race at Phoenix, Hamlin was fined $25,000 for merely suggesting the Gen 6 car was less conducive to passing.

So, this isn’t the first time the racing at Phoenix has been in the crosshairs.

“The racing specifically at Phoenix has looked like (Sunday) for 15 years,” Steve Letarte said on the most recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “I know people don’t want to hear that. There were moments of great racing at times. There was not good racing at times. Fuel mileage races. Long green-flag runs. That’s Phoenix. I feel we all just have to appreciate what we get. Can it be made better? Yeah. It always could.”

But the stakes never will have been higher for NASCAR to have gotten it right by this time next year. The 2020 finale will be coming on the heels of at least five and quite probably six instances in which the reigning champion also will have won the race in a dramatic showdown with his rivals.


The two Joe Gibbs Racing teams that were locked into the championship round with more than a race remaining in the playoffs took the opportunity to have critical team members skip the race last weekend.

Christopher Bell’s team left car chief Chris Sherwood in North Carolina, while Martin Truex Jr.’s team sent car chief Blake Harris back Saturday after helping prepare the No. 19 Toyota. Truex still finished sixth at Phoenix with what he described to NBC Sports as “half a team and an old car” as the team elected to focus on preparing its Camry for Miami.

“Blake went home to get some work done, getting the Homestead car prepped and ready,” Truex said. “Blake was here for practice (Friday), got all his stuff done here, and we could substitute someone. We couldn’t really substitute anybody (Friday) for him. He’s a big part of our team.

“Obviously that’s why he’s going back to work on that car. Just make sure it’s all good. Checks and double checks.”

Bell demurred when asked about Sherwood’s absence, joking “I’ve been told he’s not feeling well this weekend. I’m just telling you what I’m told.”

There should be no apologizing for or hiding the strategy, though. It’s a smart play, especially considering that two of the past three Cup champions (Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano) won the title after winning Martinsville and ostensibly having extra time to prepare.


With Front Row Motorsports now facing two vacant rides next season after the announcement that Matt Tifft’s career is on hold indefinitely, the interim driver in the No. 36 Ford would be an obvious candidate.

John Hunter Nemechek, who finished on the lead lap in 21st during his Cup debut at Texas Motor Speedway, said before Sunday’s race at Phoenix that he would be open to racing full time in Cup in 2020 but “there are a lot of unknowns right now.

“Anytime you’re in a race car, it’s an audition,” Nemecek said. “Everyone has their eyes on you. If you can do something, great. It’s only going to help you. If you do something bad, it’s only going to hurt you. I feel like (the debut) being a solid day, it may have turned some heads, it may have given Front Row some stuff. But overall, I don’t feel it’s an audition. I’m here to fill in for Matt and hope he gets a speedy recovery.”


John Hunter Nemechek’s progress underscores the importance of up and coming drivers selling themselves to teams with sponsors as a package deal. His main backer is Fire Alarm Services, which he eventually hopes to bring with him to Cup after having sponsorship in the Xfinity and truck series.

Corey LaJoie said recently that he has four to six sponsors in tow (much of it through business to business deals that guarantee product sales instead of traditional consumer sponsors that value exposure). LaJoie said packaging at least $1 million in sponsorship is the goal in shopping himself to more elite Cup teams.

In the Xfinity Series, Jesse Little’s move into a full-time ride at Johnny Davis Motorsports comes with a several sponsors that backed him in the truck series … and a few that he has yet to sign.

“It was a commitment on my part that I’m going to find this money that I told the team that I would bring,” he said. “I’ll get to work over the next month and a half, and once the season starts, it’ll be a constant journey of finding deals here and there. Instead of saying, ‘This is what I’ll commit to right now,’ I made the decision to go out on a limb and say ‘I think I can get that (funding).’”

Little, who will be driving and hunting money full time while also completing an information technology degree at UNC Charlotte, said he consulted with LaJoie and Ross Chastain before making a leap similar to what they have done.

“They said it was well worth it,” Little said. “As long as you’re willing to take the risk, sometimes it’s what it takes.”

Ryan: How NASCAR needs to wave the yellow on intentional cautions

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There have been two cautions in two races that already have altered the course of the 2019 playoffs. There almost certainly will be another that will definitively determine the 2019 title.

There is every year at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the yellow flag has fallen within the final run in all five editions of the championship round at the 1.5-mile track.

Sometimes, yellows have occurred much later and more frequently, and in every instance, their timing has played a critical role in crowning the champion.

That’s a portentous backdrop for the disconcerting trend of seemingly intentional spins that have caused game-changing caution flags the past two weeks.

The hope must be that there won’t be a black cloud hanging over Homestead after the season finale’s inevitably critical yellow arrives.

NASCAR has yet to address drivers about intentional spins (though officials have hinted they will in Sunday’s prerace meeting), but there is a much bigger discussion that needs to occur beyond just “stop looping your cars on purpose.”

Essentially, NASCAR needs to establish a better foundation of when cautions are being called and whether drivers will be allowed dispensation in legitimate cases (i.e., spinning with a flat tire) to help ensure that they are. The 2019 inconsistency in the tower on yellows that has been evident in races such as the Roval is factoring into this debate, too.

In the Oct. 27 race at Martinsville Speedway, there were three yellows for debris in the first 350 laps. But the trigger from the tower was much slower in the final 50 laps when the tires began coming apart on the Fords of Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano. In both instances, the yellow flew after each car spun.

“There were guys early in the race at Martinsville that scraped the wall, and ‘Boom!’ yellow’s out,” Kyle Petty said on this week’s NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “NASCAR was quick with the caution. Then Bowyer has trouble, and Joey has his issue. Where’s the caution? You threw one an hour ago for a lesser incident. If they’d thrown it, you wouldn’t have had a car spin. Joey and Clint felt like because NASCAR didn’t give them their caution whether it was deserved or perceived, they felt like, ‘We’ll get our own caution.’”

It was pivotal in the case of Logano, who stayed on the lead lap and finished eighth rather than make a green-flag stop that probably would have cost him at least 15 points (and barely above the cut line heading into Phoenix).

Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway was nearly as important. Bubba Wallace’s spin to cause a yellow fundamentally changed the complexion of Kyle Larson’s race (along with several others) and helped put the Chip Ganassi Racing playoff driver in a deeper points hole.

If the spins were purposeful, it’s hard to find serious fault with what any of the drivers did. In each case, the yellow was primarily for their own benefit. It fell well short of the sort of the race manipulation that has required NASCAR to issue draconian penalties.

Both Petty and Tony Stewart also were right this week to suggest that NASCAR doesn’t need to monitor every spin to judge whether it was potentially nefarious. With the number of impenetrable ground rules applied weekly, there needs to be as much deregulation in Cup as humanly possible.

But there also needs to be a more clear and general understanding of what constitutes a caution flag and what drivers might be permitted in causing one.

If an agreed-upon standard becomes, “we’ll let you spin your car after you’ve sustained a flat tire under normal circumstances,” that is better than the vague alternative of no standard at all.

Because if someone blatantly causes a yellow at Homestead, it’ll get a lot more complicated.

Through information supplied by NACSAR since last year via the electronic control unit in Cup cars’ fuel injection systems, teams have access to more data than ever – steering, brake, throttle traces and RPMs.

That is strong evidence to build a case if a team feels it was wronged on a late caution flag (if Chip Ganassi Racing had wanted to challenge the No. 43’s spin at Texas, the facts likely were there), and it severely undermines the NASCAR contention that it’s difficult to judge intent.

It’s a lot easier when you can determine precisely when someone hit the accelerator or brake and flicked the wheel.

When the grand prize is at stake, and that information is available, “we can’t determine intent” will become as suspicious an explanation as a spin in question.


With the dissolution of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, there is no greater successful crew chief-driver dichotomy than Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick.

Though there is much less creative tension in their working relationship than the Hendrick Motorsports duo that won seven championships, Childers and Harvick have a yin and yang that blends perfectly with their intensity to be ranked first anytime that cars are on track (be it for practice, qualifying or the race).

That was evidenced by wildly different ways that they got ready for Texas. Childers maniacally reviewed tape of the March 31 race, watching it for strategy clues Monday morning … and then rewatching it Tuesday afternoon (after a viewing of the March 10 race at ISM Raceway left him unsettled) and then again Sunday morning before the Texas race as he crammed “just like having to take a big exam.

“Places like here and Indy, you have to go back and pay attention to that stuff and what people do with two tires and no tires and track position and all that,” Childers said. “Obviously, you’ve just kind of got to have that in your head of what could happen, what can happen, and I probably drove (Harvick) crazy sending crazy messages about what other people did in (March).”

“He watches it so many times that I don’t have to watch it,” Harvick said with a smile.

Contrast that with how the driver prepped the day before the race – taking his wife and two kids to the Fort Worth Zoo. Harvick is always on call even with his family (he was checking his watch Saturday for instantaneous processing of hourly email and text updates from Childers), but he also has the ability (and approval from the No. 4 team) to compartmentalize his personal life.

That balance is why it works for the Stewart-Haas Racing duo.

“They expect me to come to the racetrack and be prepared,” Harvick said of his team after his 49th career victory. “And the thing about being prepared for me is to be as mentally focused as you can.  And my age and experience kind of comes into that. You’ve been to some of these racetracks so many times, and I feel like I know the characteristics of the car.

“But there’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t send me a text, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this’ or one of the engineers will send me a text and say, ‘What do you think about this gear ratio.’ One of them is texting me at least once a day, if not multiple times a day, as to what’s going on and what’s happening. Those are those relationships that are constant and steady, and everybody believes in each other because that’s just how it works.

“It’s never a bad time to text me or it’s never a bad time to call me.  It’s never a bad time to ask me to do something. When they need something, I put down what I’m doing, and I try to figure out how we’re going to do it.  The priority are (family) and that race team, and the things that they need.  But I am a thorough believer that that circle of life has to be balanced for you to show up to this racetrack every single week, to be as focused as you need to be to process all of that information.”

When Harvick and Childers won the 2014 Cup championship, “I Believe That We Will Win” was their rallying cry (borrowed from the U.S. Men’s National Team in soccer). Texas revealed why the underpinnings of that motto still are working five years later.

“There’s a deep belief in each other that we can go out and be better than anybody on any given day,” Harvick said. “Most of the time we can talk ourselves into it even when we probably don’t really have a chance, we can talk ourselves into it.”


Harvick’s victory at Texas marked a calendar year since the last time that a Cup race winner had been hit with a major postrace infraction.

The de-facto nullification of his Nov. 4, 2018 victory at Texas was a big part of the impetus behind NASCAR’s overhaul of postrace penalties this season that limited inspection to being conducted solely at the track.

Though there have been disqualifications of winners in the truck and Xfinity Series, all 34 race wins in Cup have been untainted (though a couple of other finishers have been dinged).

It’s hardly an outcome anyone would have predicted in February on the heels of a 2018 season in which Harvick’s team was nailed twice after wins and stood out among a processional of cars deemed illegal at NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord.

Last year’s incessant midweek raft of negative headlines – culminating with Harvick losing his berth in the championship round (he regained it on points after Phoenix) – prompted the shift in policy this season, and it seemed destined to produce it least one earth-shattering disqualification.

As it turned out, Harvick was prescient in what he told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long before the season about teams and NASCAR getting on the same page about how inspection would be handled under the new parameters.

Those discussions apparently have worked.


The finicky nature of the traction compound at Texas might make some playoff drivers gun-shy about hopping on the sticky stuff at ISM Raceway, which is applying the substance for the first time.

There is a scientific process used in its application that produces estimated grip levels, but Texas underscored how tricky that can be as several drivers struggled to find the adhesive and found the wall instead.

Phoenix will be using the traction compound for the first time, and perhaps more importantly, it’ll be the first time the PJ1 is applied at a NASCAR-owned track without much supervision from the staff of Speedway Motorsports tracks owned by Bruton Smith. Michigan was the first NASCAR track to use PJ1 a couple of months ago, but it came with guidance from Speedway Motorsports vice president of operations Steve Swift.

Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski all crashed after finding the limits of the traction compound’s grip at Texas, where the PJ1 didn’t seem to activate as well at other tracks. Though the intent is to provide another lane of racing at Phoenix, it’ll be unsurprising if drivers elect to tiptoe – at least in the first half of the race after Elliott, Keselowski and Hamlin were burned by testing it in the first 85 laps at Texas.

“Drivers will be asking, ‘Is it that big of a gain?’ and if not, you probably don’t need to go up there,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton said. “If not, you probably don’t need to need to go there. It’s there as an option, but you aren’t forced into it.”


John Hunter Nemechek will be making history together with his dad, Joe, in running all three series this weekend at ISM Raceway. That’s an impressive father-son accomplishment, but it’ll be hard to top what John Hunter did in first career Cup start.

The 22-year-old started 29th and finished 21st at Texas, outrunning Front Row Motorsports teammates Michael McDowell and David Ragan. He also finished ahead of many veterans such as Ryan Preece and Bubba Wallace (and just behind Paul Menard and Chris Buescher).

Though the prognosis of No. 36 Ford driver Matt Tifft remains uncertain after a seizure, Nemechek’s debut in NASCAR’s premier series should provide Front Row with a measure of comfort.

Despite spending the full season in Xfinity cars that don’t ride nearly as low to the pavement as Cup and drive much differently, Nemechek still finished eight spots ahead of his father, who probably deserves credit for not only raising but also motivating the second-generation racer. “We’re a competitive family, and we love to push each other to the next level,” John Hunter said.

If he can post solid finishes for Front Row in the final two races of 2019, Nemechek’s driver stock should rise. Though he was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, he has posted five top 10s in the past six Xfinity races, and his seasonlong consistency deserves another look.

Ryan: Here’s why Martin Truex Jr.’s title hopes just got doubly dangerous

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Martin Truex Jr. said it well upon joining the NASCAR on NBC postrace show Sunday night after his first career win at Martinsville Speedway.

“I don’t give a damn,” the championship favorite said with a broad smile greeting Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Krista Voda (video above).

It was referencing his take on the postrace scuffle between the Nos. 11 and 22 teams, but it also could have been in general about the philosophy of the No. 19 Toyota team.

Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn never have cared about anyone’s opinions but those they share with each other and among their crew.

It’s how they were able to survive a difficult 2014 (their first season together) when Pearn never questioned Truex’s concerns about an ill-designed chassis (which Truex recently discussed during the Letarte on Location Podcast).

And it’s how they’ve built into a perennial championship contender that forcefully has emerged as the class of these 2019 playoffs — by far.

Truex’s average finish of 6.3 the past seven races is easily the best in Cup (and skewed by a 26th at Talladega), and his 317 total points in the playoffs dwarf the total of second-ranked Denny Hamlin (by 42).

“Yeah, it feels damned good to be the best right now,” Truex said.

Truex and Pearn are doubly dangerous now.

They will have extra time to prepare for the Camry for the championship finale, an advantage that has proved critical as two of the past three Martinsville winners have won the championship (Jimmie Johnson in 2016 and Joey Logano in ’18).

And they also can make life extremely difficult on their three title rivals by winning at Texas and Phoenix and making whoever will join them at Homestead-Miami Speedway sweat longer while counting every point.

It’s what Truex and Pearn faced in each of the previous three times they made the championship round. They still won in ’17 and might have had the best car on long runs last year (when a late caution bit and allowed Logano to pass Truex on a restart for the title).

Now they have a chance to spend a little more time optimizing their stuff for the Nov. 17 finale.

“We’ve never been in this position before,” Truex said. “It’s good territory to be in, but honestly we can’t change who we are. You race every week the same, just there’s more on the line as you go down the road here.

“I mean, obviously there’s going to be a lot of effort put into our car for Homestead, which is probably already started, but now there will be a little bit of extra time for Cole and the guys to work on their thoughts and their plan.  But we’re going to go try to win the next two.  Just like (Martinsville), we’ve never won the next two tracks, and we want to, so here we go.”

With the high downforce and low horsepower untested at Homestead-Miami Speedway, this is a good season to have an extra two weeks of prep, too.

“We’ve kind of been working on Homestead already, but now we’ll be able to kind of dive into it deeper,” Pearn said. “It’s going to be a challenging year.

“I think every Homestead, we’ve never gone through a big rules change like we’re going to experience this time.  Usually you’re able to work on last year’s notes and things like that, and this year that’s not the case.

“You’re going to a track for the first time with this rules package and you’ve got two 50‑minute practices to figure it out. We can work all we want on it, but to know exactly what we want to do is still a bit of a guess.”

Chances are, Pearn and Truex will be figuring it out first with a head-start.

And they won’t give a damn if and when anyone else does.


The fan sentiment and the heightened stakes for next year’s races make it clear that NASCAR must improve the racing at Martinsville next season.

Two races with three lead changes apiece isn’t going to cut it at a track that typically produces great racing at the front (witness the battle between Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch in the March 26, 2018 race that was the most consistently memorable recently).

And as Dale Jarrett noted on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, it starts with tire wear.

Despite a Goodyear test in July at the 0.526-mile oval, NASCAR returned with the same left-side tire last weekend as it has used for the past seven seasons at Martinsville. In March, team engineers estimated it could run 3,000 laps without being changed. On Sunday, it seemed like 10,000.

“I’m probably going to make the people at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company mad, and they do a fantastic job building good tires,” Jarrett said. “But I think with this package, they have been too far on the safe side with these tires.

“I think that a softer tire right and left side, but the left-side tires, the drivers and a couple of crew chiefs tell me they literally wouldn’t have to change left-side tires as far as wear goes. That’s how little tire wear they were getting. The tires are way too hard. You need tire wear to make good racing and changes throughout a run because handling comes into play even more. If your tire doesn’t change other than the air pressure building, whoever has the car out front is going to have the best situation.”

Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. certainly proved that in 2019, combining to lead an astounding 910 of 1,000 laps. Some of that undoubtedly could be attributed to the high-downforce package with the massive spoiler creating a turbulent wake for any trailing car. Though there were some exceptions for strong cars (such as Chase Elliott’s No. 9 starting from the rear and reaching the top five in the first 180 laps), the disconcerting specter of aerodynamics on a short flat track is a serious problem.

“I’m sure we’re kicking a dead horse, but passing was just so difficult,” said pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, who never led again after losing the lead in the pits. “You just couldn’t overcome it. I certainly couldn’t overcome it.

“Hate to say it: This is a new Martinsville. It’s not the Martinsville of old where if your car is really good you can make it through the field.”

NASCAR needs the old Martinsville back, and even if the rules already are set for 2020, it should look at all means necessary for accomplishing that.

It’s understandable that Goodyear wants to avoid the negative PR of failures that accompany building a less bulletproof tire that wears more quickly.

But the optics of two more clunkers next year at Martinsville – which will host a prestigious night race and the gateway to the championship race — would be much, much worse.


Is Kyle Busch really all that much unhappier this season? Or are we just getting a more frequent window into how much Busch hates losing because of NASCAR’s new mandatory media availability policy that requires all playoff drivers to do postrace interviews?

Even some members of Busch’s fervently supportive Rowdy Nation have begun asking why their hero seems to be smiling less this season.

But look no further than his most recent Wednesday appearance on NASCAR America’s Motor Mouths show – the third time that Busch has been engaging, funny and self-deprecating a few days after a finish in which he was seething – to realize what team owner Joe Gibbs has seen when he talks to his driver a day removed from the racetrack on Monday nights.

“He has a great sense of humor at night when I call him,” Gibbs said, pausing to chuckle. “‘When are you going to give me the good car?’ Stuff like that.”

Maybe much like Tony Stewart’s infamous truculence, there isn’t much more to say about Busch’s postrace curtness other than this:

He is an acknowledged sore loser who once simply ducked the media when he had little to say because he knew it won’t come off well.

“I’m not sure we can analyze that, OK?” Gibbs said Sunday when asked what was wrong with the No. 18 driver. “Think about his whole life.  He’s got (wife) Sam and (son) Brexton, but other than that, it’s racing.  And when something goes bad in racing for him, think about how important that is, and it upsets him.

“Normally the next day he’s a lot better at the race shop and everything, but I think this has been a tough stretch for him.”

Normally in previous seasons, Busch often would have declined comment while purposefully striding away after a disappointing result. This year’s new media policy precludes that without facing punishment.

So instead, Busch has faced the throngs of reporters in the bullpen and spat out mostly one-word answers while occasionally tossing in a few Marshawn Lynch-isms.

He seems to accept the consequences of how that (fairly) is perceived in a negative light.

Maybe we should accept it, too, without overanalyzing beyond that.


The spin that saved Joey Logano’s championship hopes at Martinsville was suspicious in its intent, but it’s hard to judge the Team Penske driver if he did loop his car intentionally.

With the dearth of “natural” caution flags the last few years (particularly for debris), there also have been some more notable single-car spins with flat tires – particularly on the apron at large tracks – that avoid contact with the wall or other cars.

NASCAR officials also are in a spot with the way they’ve called yellows this year (e.g., the sometimes quick trigger fingers at the Roval). When asked by NBCSports.com about the Logano incident, a spokesman said it wasn’t reviewed by the scoring tower.

As Dale Jarrett noted on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, it’s logical for drivers to put the onus on NASCAR to make a call for an intentional spin that probably wouldn’t be much worse of a penalty than falling two laps down on a green-flag stop.

By the way, there was nothing particularly incriminating on the 22 radio about the spin. Crew chief Todd Gordon told Logano he thought his tires, specifically the left front, were up. Logano responded, “I’m pretty sure they’re flat. Or one of them is flat. I spun out.”

A team spokesman said the left rear went flat, and all four tires were changed on the stop.


Mechanical failures on consecutive days crippled Chase Elliott’s championship hopes, but team owner Rick Hendrick maintained a positive outlook.

“I don’t know how many motors we build a year, and we have one that breaks a rod bearing, and rear ends, we build them for (Kyle Larson) and several other teams, and it’s just a fluke,” Hendrick said. “You have mechanical parts, they’re going to break. I don’t think it’s anything to clean up. It’s hard to believe it could happen to (Elliott) twice in a weekend. Two different things, though, so we’ll see what we can do. It’s just go out and try to win Texas.”

Coupled with an early failure at Dover International Speedway, the No. 9 Chevrolet has endured two engine failures and an axle breakdown in the past four races. Even if they aren’t flukes, it might not be a process that can be addressed before the championship finale (if Elliott reaches the title round).

“Rick Hendrick is a great mentor, friend, boss and businessman because he’s going to compliment in public and criticize and question in private,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said on NASCAR America Splash & Go this week. “He’s going to ask, ‘What in the heck is going on? How can this happen?’ I don’t disagree with what he said. These things do happen. Amazing it’s happening to the absolute wrong car at Hendrick at the absolute wrong time.

“But there’s nothing they can change in five days (to fix it). No process. No procedure. No radar vision to look at these parts. Failures are a product of whatever procedures you have ahead of time. If you want to avoid failures, you have to work on procedures upstream. I’m sure changes will be made at Hendrick but nothing that will have an effect on the next few weeks.”


There isn’t much more to analyze about the scuffle between the teams of Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, the feuding that precipitated it or the punishment that has followed.

So how about another Zapruder-esque examination of what was said between the drivers in the run-up to Logano’s shot to Hamlin’s right shoulder?

Let’s go to our crack staff in Stamford, Connecticut, that helpfully scrutinized the audio from what was caught on camera:

Logano: “You went all the way up, like …”

Hamlin: “Yeah.”

Logano: “Like all the way, like I wasn’t even there.”

Hamlin: “I knew you were there.”

Logano: “Put me into the wall.”

Crosstalk

Logano: “You wouldn’t have known (that I was there). You were driving like I wasn’t even there.”

Hamlin: “No. I knew you were there, but I was just trying to take all the space I could.”

Logano: “I’ll take all the space I want to now. Just think about that. In the future, I can take the space.”

Hamlin raises finger, Logano hits shoulder, fracas begins.

Fin–

Ryan: Help thy enemy? Why it was the best strategy on Kansas restarts

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – With all the talk this year about the lack of autonomy afforded drivers because of rules that rob the accelerator of authority, restarts would seem the great equalizer.

If the low-horsepower, high-downforce combination makes you feel a little too stuck to the asphalt, let’s bunch them up and wave the green for 2019’s most consistently dependable spectacle on speeedways.

Five wide! Endless lane selections! Side-drafting in every corner!

It often seems as if drivers could treat restarts as they would reading a Choose Your Own Adventure story with limitless options.

In reality, restarts offer less opportunity for independence in certain situations.

The most critical restarts Sunday at Kansas Speedway were firm reminders of how nothing is as it seems when strange bedfellows emerge while getting back to full speed.

The first moment came on a restart with two laps remaining in Stage 1 (video above). Joey Logano restarted third by skipping a pit stop under yellow, and he charged around Clint Bowyer and Ryan Blaney to the high lane and the lead.

Behind him went Chase Elliott, who was on four fresh tires and also entered the race trailing Logano by 22 points for the last playoff transfer spot.

As traffic fanned out five wide, Elliott elected to tuck in directly behind Logano — pushing his chief rival to 10 stage points and a playoff point.

Wut?

“What else was he going to do?” Logano countered a reporter who asked him if he was surprised by the help. “He didn’t have another option. He was three wide and pinned in behind me. His only thing was to push me and to help himself. He didn’t do it to be a nice guy, I promise you that. He did it because it was going to help him. That’s what got him to second.”

Indeed, Elliott picked up nine points that helped make the difference in his advancement to the Round of 8 (over Brad Keselowski by three points).

But couldn’t he have picked another lane and made Logano’s life that much harder?

“The top is where you want to be on the restart,” Logano shrugged. “Obviously he got to second, so that was the only move for him. It was the smartest one. That’s why I went (to the high lane).”

Elliott gave Logano credit for forcing him into a decision that essentially left his No. 9 powerless to avoid aiding the No. 22.

“At that point, I was going to do what was best for me,” Elliott said. “Unfortunately, it helped him. At the point in time, it was the best thing I could do for myself and in those situations, you have to be as selfish as you can. Unfortunately, it was the best option and he happened to be the guy in front of me. It wasn’t by dumb luck. He put himself in a good position. He’s pretty sharp on that.”

Elliott was in the mix of two more crucial restarts that determined the race’s outcome and his playoff fate while underscoring how alliances can shift. The final two times the green flag waved Sunday, the top four consisted of Elliot and the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones.

If it seemed like a recipe for the Gibbs Toyotas ganging up for a 1-2-3 finish, but Elliot managed to get second place and had some unexpected help from Jones when starting on the outside of the front row on the penultimate restart

“I was a little surprised that (Jones) gave me as good a shove as he did on that restart so appreciate that,” Elliott said. “At the end of the day, those guys moving their lane forward is going to help them. It might not look right at first, but you never know what is going to happen on the backstretch or down into Turn 3 that could give that guy behind you a shot to win. You’re just trying to do whatever you can to put yourself in a better position.”

Jones, who finished fourth, said working with his JGR teammates “was never talked about” on his team radio, but he did try to reduce Elliott’s momentum by pulling out of line briefly into Turn 1

“You want a team car to win,” Jones said. “But I wanted to win if our team car is going to win, so I would push (Elliott) on the restart, tried to split him on the top. It didn’t work. I was trying to get myself in a position to get to second to duke it out for the win with whoever it may be, whether a teammate or Chase. So there wasn’t really anything crazy teammate-wise we were trying to do.”

There was no expectation of tactical teammate precision from Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart, who said there is communication between Gibbs crew chiefs without a delineated strategy to help each other. “Everybody is pretty smart about playing chess at that point,” he said. “It’s about he who executes best. My guy did it.”

Said Hamlin: “There’s no guarantees at all. You just hope, from my standpoint, that the person that’s behind you gives you a push.”

The most important shove for the race winner came from the No. 18 Toyota of Busch, who stayed committed to the slower bottom lane to ensure Hamlin kept the lead into Turn 1.

“There was one that was really crucial,” Hamlin said. “If he dips out and takes us three‑wide, one way or another, our lane is dead, and the whole outside line just freight trains right by us all.”

Busch, who slipped from second to third on the final restart, said the move “proved that point” about being a team player.

His sense of resignation also might have revealed another reason he has been among the biggest detractors of the rules package.

Even when it seems you have options … sometimes, you really don’t.

“If you’re not in control of the last restart, then you don’t have a chance to win,” Busch said. “So oh well.”


Lapped cars were a hot topic this past weekend with Garrett Smithley essentially causing Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell to wreck while racing for the lead late in Saturday’s Xfinity race.

That sparked an avalanche of outrage from NASCAR Twitter, which had thoughts on Smithley making contact with a faster car for the second time in six weeks (Kyle Busch took umbrage at Smithley’s lapped car in the opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway). One of the amusing and (naturally) blunt tweets came from Kyle Larson, who had an encounter Sunday with the lapped car of Joey Gase.

Larson spun Gase when he impeded his progress through the outside lane in Turn 4.

“There were a lot of us, and I was trying to get a big run up top,” Larson said. “I was hoping to get a lane and didn’t get one, and I was so slow. I was already to his back bumper, so …  yeah.”

Was a message being sent?

“It wasn’t really a message,” Larson said. “More it was just I was in a hurry, and he was doing his best to get out of the way of the guys below, and more so just impatience on my part. Yeah, I mean I just had to go.”

That’s the right assessment of the situation. As long as NASCAR races have a few dozen cars in the field and a few hundred miles to race to the checkered flag, there always will be lapped cars that potentially can affect the lead group.

There isn’t much that can – or should – be done aside from changing the parameters that govern how slower cars are allowed on track and then stay there.

“There’s just a few cars that are way off the pace, and it just is what it is,” Larson told NBC Sports. “Selfishly, I’d love to say make the minimum speed higher, but I know they have a formula for how that works.”

As Bill France Jr. once famously said: You always need slower cars for the faster cars to pass.


It seems only a matter of time before the best remaining open ride for 2020 is filled, and it seems likely Daniel Suarez will remain in the No. 41 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Suarez said meetings with sponsors have gone well the past two weeks as his management team helps shore up the funding for the car and with Arris. The telecommunications company, which has sponsored Suarez in NASCAR since 2015, recently underwent management changes with new ownership.

Encouraged that Stewart-Haas Racing now can focus on his deal after re-signing Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola, Suarez said “good progress” was made on having his car sponsored after meeting the new Arris executives.

“There are a lot of things moving internally with Arris as a company, and overall that slowed things down a little bit, but everything is looking pretty good,” he said. “You make a relationship with somebody, and all of a sudden, they’re not making the decisions anymore. It’s like starting over again. There’s a lot of things in the middle helping. You have to do more than put a sticker on the car. Working on different scenarios to try to make racing make sense for everyone.”

There also seems to be building sentiment at SHR of delaying the elevation of Cole Custer to Cup until 2021 when the debut of the Next Gen car is expected. Custer is an Xfinity championship contender for the second consecutive year along with Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick, both of whom are headed to Cup in 2020.

Suarez said he hasn’t felt pressure from Custer’s success, though.

“If you look at it, there are three drivers winning a lot in Xfinity,” said Suarez, the series’ 2016 champion. “Eventually, they’ll all be in Cup. Have to remember as well that in today’s world, it’s way easier to win races in the Xfinity Series because there is not Cup drivers there anymore, compared to two years ago.

“At same time, all three drivers are strong, eventually they’ll make it to Cup because they have everything it takes to be there. But honestly, I’m not worried. I know what I can do. I know what I bring to the table on the track and off the track. That’s very important. We just have to be patient and make sure the timing is right.”


In a revealing interview about his professional future, Jimmie Johnson told Jeff Burton last week that he expects to win this season.

New crew chief Cliff Daniels believes his driver can end a two-year winless skid over the next four races (“I think we can win any of them. With good execution, great restarts and pit stops, any day could be our day”), and a victory positively would influence the decision Johnson is facing about driving beyond the 2020 season.

“I think it would, and I think it would add years (to Johnson’s career),” Daniels told NBC Sports. “I think if he wins this year, he’s going to be fired up just to keep going. That’s just my take on it. To see his hunger and his drive right now, it’s still 100 percent committed, which is pretty cool to see.”

Daniels, who took over the team at Watkins Glen International in August, said he and Johnson have had some conversations on the future. Daniels is confident the team won’t get distracted while Johnson mulls a career timeline (the seven-time series champion expects to inform team owner Rick Hendrick within four to six months).

“I think whatever level he’s going to want support or encouragement or advice, he’s going to ask for that,” Daniels said. “But as far as the team goes, I think everyone is aware, and we would be blinding ourselves needlessly to not be aware, and that doesn’t bother anybody, and that’s fantastic because the team knows that he still is operating at a really high level and performing at a really high level as a driver. With the way he approaches the weekend, the way he still stays good with his fitness, we’re here to give him our 110 percent, no matter what’s going on, to give.

“If he decided to hang it up at the end of this year or in three years, it’s going to change nothing about our approach. We are fully committed to building us back to where we need to be and then continuing that. And then once we get there, we have to sustain it. So again, whether it’s six months or three years, our approach doesn’t change.”


After three races of uncharacteristic blunders – some inexplicably occurring prerace – there were undoubtedly some uncomfortable conversations this week in the conference rooms at Team Penske headquarters in Mooresville, N.C. There were two loose wheels on consecutive days at Kansas for Austin Cindric and Joey Logano, and the latter nearly precluded the defending series champion from having another shot to reach the title round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Mistakes during championship runs aren’t totally unfamiliar to Penske – there was a period in the late 2000s when a comedy of late-season errors negated an IndyCar championship seemingly annually – but the “blocking and tackling” mistakes (as NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte calls them) are more egregious than just pit-stop miscues. While each has been a separate issue (e.g., Logano’s axle and Ryan Blaney’s hub failures at Dover; Brad Keselowski’s fuel pickup at Talladega), the rash of problems make it harder to write off as freak incidents and more indicative of a lack in quality control.

“We have to smooth out our days,” Logano said. “That’s the first thing and most controllable thing to work on is getting through the races with nothing happening. We shouldn’t have loose wheels when the race starts. We have to clean that stuff up. I’ve got to be smoother on the track and make sure I get the most out of it from there. We have to clean up pit stops and be faster there.

“We just got to look at every department and be a little better. We’re definitely not exactly where we need to be. I think we can close the gap. Don’t take that as I’m saying we can’t win this thing. We just have some work to do, and I know we’ll do it.”

Ryan: Even without plates, Talladega still served up a spectacular show

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Better plate than never?

That was a major question entering this year’s Daytona 500 — and particularly after a pair of lackluster races at Talladega Superspeedway last season.

The 2019 season opener marked the last superspeedway race before horsepower-sapping restrictor plates permanently were removed and replaced by the (similarly shaped) tapered spacers used to choke down engines at the rest of the tracks on the circuit.

The plates defined some of the most indelible moments, both tragic and triumphant, in NASCAR over the past three decades

So what would the post-plate era look like in NASCAR?

The 26 Hours of Talladega provided a definitive answer: A lot like most of everything that transpired on the biggest, fastest tracks in NASCAR for the previous 31 years.

Incessant chaos, crushed sheet metal and costly errors.

In other words, insanity on four wheels (as Marcos Ambrose infamously dubbed it) for 500 miles at a time.

It’s the bedrock upon which superspeedway racing happily has rested for three decades in the interest of entertainment (and, ostensibly, safety in ensuring speeds are manageable enough to prevent cars from sailing over catchfences with disturbing regularity at Daytona and Talladega).

After an off-year in 2018, NASCAR found its sweet spot in Sweet Home Alabama this season.

The most arbitrary form of racing delivered by NASCAR’s premier series again felt as predictably unpredictable as it ever had since the restrictor-plate era began in 1988. There were colossal crashes, double-crossing duplicity and razor-tight finishes.

That was great for fans. It wasn’t necessarily good for Cup drivers.

Of course, it rarely is in the finicky and violent environs of Dega, which was unusually tame last year with only two wrecks of at least a half-dozen cars across 1,013 miles (this year, there were three times as many).

The knock on plate racing in 2018 was the lack of driveability. It’s hard to make passes when cars aren’t stable at 200 mph-plus in the draft.

That put the leader at a huge advantage of being able to tow lines at will and control the front of the pack in a decidedly un-Talladega-esque manner. It was most evident last October when Stewart-Haas Racing led 155 of 188 laps with cars that (stunningly) were built for handling instead of speed.

NASCAR addressed this by raising spoilers to 9 inches with the advent of the spacers. That didn’t do much for handling, but it did punch a bigger hole in the air that caused massive acceleration in the draft and eradicated the “aero bubble” barrier that drivers said made it difficult for trailing cars to pass last year.

So the ability to catch the leader improved … even though handling didn’t nearly as much (look no further than Joey Logano’s in-car camera, which was a furious blur of hands manhandling the steering wheel on every shot).

That was a recipe for the return of the huge wrecks that felt like Dega of yesteryear. Holes in the draft vanished much more quickly, and blocking became futile as drivers scrambled (and often failed) to adapt to the higher closing rates.

If there was a theme, it was that misjudgment on blocking and bumping made the racing much more treacherous – particularly in the rain-shortened July 7 wreckfest at Daytona and the extravaganza Sunday-Monday.

As analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted in the NBC broadcast, though the bumpers don’t line up as well with the Gen 6 as in the previous iteration (which spawned the nefarious tandem drafting), the bump-drafting has become even more aggressive in the era of stage points and playoff berths tied to wins.

With bigger runs coming from every direction, an increased susceptibility to being passed and cars just as unstable when in a pack, the lead no longer was the place to be at Talladega.

There were more lead changes Sunday-Monday (46, up from 38 in the April 28 race) than the combined total (40) for both 2018 races. There were 22,214 green-flag passes (59 per lap) at Talladega in 2019, up from 13,294 last year (35 per lap).

A NASCAR without restrictor plates?

Talladega still served up the action for fans — on a silver platter strewn with twisted sheet metal, of course.


The situations weren’t entirely analogous, but NASCAR’s non-call on the final lap Monday was reminiscent of its controversial non-call on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s winning pass of Matt Kenseth in the April 6, 2003 race at Talladega. In both instances, officials claimed the spirit of the yellow-line rule wasn’t violated even though the letter clearly was.

Here’s how the rule was presented in the drivers meeting at Talladega: “Drivers, this is your warning. Race above the double-yellow line. If in NASCAR’s judgment, you go below the double-yellow line to improve your position, you will be black-flagged. If in NASCAR’s judgment, you force someone below the double-yellow line in an effort to stop someone from passing you, you may be black-flagged.”

It’s indisputable that, just like Earnhardt did in passing Kenseth 16 years ago, Ryan Blaney went below the yellow line before taking the lead for good Monday from Ryan Newman. It’s possible that contact with Newman caused Blaney to dip below the boundary, and that seems to be NASCAR’s explanation in why no call was made.

But it also seems like the rule demands that (as it did in 2003) a penalty should have been called on either Blaney or Newman. NASCAR can rule that “in its judgment,” Blaney didn’t intentionally go below the yellow-line to improve his position … but if that’s the case, it means he had to have been forced there, right?

Regardless, NASCAR officials say they are happy with the language of the rule.

Given that it affords them tremendous leeway to turn every yellow-line pass into a ball and strike call, it’s easy to see why.


As many have noted, manufacturer alliances at Daytona and Talladega were invented long before the 21st century. In the 1990s, Chevrolet and Ford drivers regularly worked together – when possible — to try to ensure their makes won the race.

But there were some glaring differences about the tempest that sprung forth last weekend and sparked major disgruntlement among fans and media.

Chevrolet’s decision to call an in-race meeting at Garage Suite 3 in full public view was ill-advised, at best. The references afterward to shilling Corvettes and watching PowerPoints were too clever by a factor of maybe 100, and they also were indicative of why the optics were problematic.

Chevy’s extremely disciplined approach felt too corporate, and it seemed micromanaged to the point of making Michael Scott blush. Chastising drivers for racing three wide instead of single file while still in Stage 1 is hardly palatable to anyone in NASCAR, which has an appealing undercurrent of cutthroat intensity (especially at Daytona and Talladega).

It’s understandable why Jim Campbell demanded his Chevy drivers stay on script. The heat from GM headquarters in Detroit surely was unbearable after Hendrick Motorsports essentially helped Toyota win the Daytona 500. And Ford and Toyota drivers surely were given virtually the same marching orders at Talladega – just much more discreetly.

That might be the right line to choose next time.


The focus on manufacturer alliances wasn’t all bad, though.

It forced some good discussions on awkward topics into the open, and it raised important issues about how much influence manufacturers and teams should have in effectively determining race winners. If younger drivers for midpack teams essentially are told to subjugate themselves for the greater good (or risk being stripped of perks), is that a just sacrifice at a track that might offer their best opportunity at winning all year?

That conversation got shoved to the forefront by the weekend’s manufacturer debate. And it was nice that none of it actually mattered at the conclusion of a race that featured a passel of unheralded underdogs vying for the checkered flag.

It also could be indirectly good for NASCAR while continuing to court new manufacturers to enter with its next generation engine (which probably won’t happen until 2023). With the overall decline in the corporate sponsorship spend over the past decade, there are few entities investing as much in stock-car racing as the automakers.

At least they got good bang for their bucks at Talladega, particularly if you ascribe to the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity.


Ryan Blaney still isn’t a favorite to reach the Championship 4 this season, but Monday might be remembered as a turning point if the No. 12 driver eventually wins a Cup title.

Ryan Blaney receives congratulations from teammate Joey Logano (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

There is enormous pressure on the 25-year-old to perform at Team Penske, which has been enjoying a worldwide results bonanza well beyond NASCAR that is impressive even for this storied organization. Never mind championship teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, Blaney also is competing against winners of the Indianapolis 500, Bathurst 1000 and Rolex 24. If he makes the playoffs but still goes winless this year, it gets noticed more than it would at a less successful team.

It was important that his 2019 breakthrough happened at Talladega after a string of plate failures the past few years. Blaney’s Fords led four of the past six races at Talladega but didn’t finish higher than 11th in any of them. He finished seventh in the 2018 Daytona 500 despite having the best car and leading a race-high 118 laps.

The confidence-booster of making every right move over the final two laps (including the bold decision to choose the outside for the lead on the final restart) should go a long way toward making Blaney feel his place is secure at one of racing’s greatest teams.