notes column

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.

 

Ryan: Can Kyle Busch find his happy place with less horsepower?

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Kyle Busch clearly has a problem with slower cars.

We don’t mean those that got in his way Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver angrily challenged and questioned the racing acumen and credentials of Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase.

No, it’s the speed in his own No. 18 Toyota that seems to have left Busch miffed many times during a season of too much discontent for the mercurial superstar.

It’s been almost a year since the die was cast on perhaps the most controversial competition decision during Busch’s 15 seasons of racing on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

The move in 2019 to a lower horsepower, higher downforce package (i.e., slower and more stable cars with 550 hp on big speedways and 750 on shorter tracks) – a sudden reversal after years of heading mostly in the opposite direction – initially wasn’t met well within the ranks, and Busch was among many big-name drivers who voiced staunch opposition.

A case can be made that a reason behind the dissolution of the Drivers Council was its inefficacy in blunting the momentum for adopting a rules configuration that inherently affects the ability to harness a 3,400-pound stock with first-class hand-eye coordination and throttle control.

But the public grumbling gradually has subsided this season. Many stopped swimming against the strong tide, choosing to focus on their teams’ results or simply swallow their pride and accept the new rules.

The most notable resistance remained from Busch, the driver who arguably has had the most success with the 2019 rules package as anyone.

It’s somewhat remarkable that Busch, the regular-season champion who entered the playoffs with four wins and a 45-point cushion that likely will carry him to the title round at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the fifth consecutive year, would be the most high-profile remaining holdout on buying into the package, which mostly was aimed at producing closer racing at 1.5-mile tracks such as Vegas (and at least seems to achieve that on restarts, more on that below).

But it’s also perfectly understandable in the context of Busch wanting to maximize a skillset tailored to outdrive anyone when the challenge is taming stock cars that aren’t glued to the pavement as much as they are in 2019.

When Busch pouts (as he did after Vegas) that it’s impossible to pass at any track anymore (mostly because of aerodynamic turbulence for a trailing car), he is both wrong (in that winning teammate Martin Truex Jr. proved Sunday that you still can gain positions) and right (in that Busch can’t advance through the field using the same manhandling style he once did).

That makes it doubly frustrating for an already emotionally charged personality who can fly off the handle even faster than he drives.

“Kyle is just plain and simple unhappy,” analyst Jeff Burton said in the NASCAR on NBC Splash & Go weekly feature Tuesday (video above). “He wants to race a certain way, and that’s not the way we’re racing. He’s going to have to find a way to get above it. He’s going to have to find a way to focus on performance and championships and do the things that he is so good at.

“I think Kyle has convinced himself that the things he’s so good at he can no longer do, but I’ve watched from the best seat in the house every week, and people do pass and people do find a way to make things happen, but they do it differently than two years ago. I feel bad for him because he is a hell of a race car driver. He wants to drive the thing a certain way, but that’s just not how it’s going to be. He’s going to have to find a way to embrace it, but it’s obviously hard for him to do.”

This is immaterial, by the way, to how Busch carried himself with his infamous truculence as he faced a barrage of questions (mostly fair and well-stated, by the way) after Sunday’s race.

Like Tony Stewart and A.J. Foyt before him (and Smoke’s unhappiness in 2004, when he clashed often with officials and peers, is reminiscent of the current situation for Rowdy), churlishness is a byproduct of Busch’s greatness … and for some fans, it’s also part of his appeal. Even if he were completely happy with the racing, there always will be regrettable moments in the media bullpen after a race that breaks badly for Busch.

It’s his essence, and it’s unfair to ask him to be someone else, especially when the biggest casualties of his combativeness are reporters’ feelings.

On the scale of bad behavior across professional sports, Busch has been a relative choirboy.

Should he be more cognizant that postrace interviews are as much about serving fans as the media (which often is the conduit to Rowdy Nation)?

Perhaps, but if he wants to be that way and can live with potential consequences (whether the ire of series officials or sponsors), he shouldn’t be asked to change by NASCAR and a fan base that wants its drivers candid and colorful.

Busch meets those standards better than any current star (in the right mood, his interviews are articulate, insightful and steeped in history). His issues with the package aren’t about his personality or how it’s been impacted.

The much bigger concern is how the dissatisfaction with 550 horsepower affects his performance behind the wheel. From when he hit the wall in the opening laps while apparently pushing the envelope after starting 20th, Busch was the weak link in the No. 18 team at Las Vegas (as Steve Letarte said on the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast).

That rarely happens with Busch, an elite talent who probably could have become a champion in any series he chose to race anywhere in the world.

But it has been true too many times this season as the 2015 series champion has seemed a victim of distracted driving on a semi-regular basis.

He hit the wall with the fastest car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway two months ago and also seemed way off his game at Watkins Glen International with errors in the Xfinity and Cup races. On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Kyle Petty and Letarte said Busch’s problems with the lapped cars at Vegas were self-induced.

Drivers make mistakes, but these have been uncharacteristic for Busch, who is 13 races and more than three months removed from his most recent win.

There’s a NASCAR saying that drivers sometimes need to slow down in order to go faster.

But asking Kyle Busch to celebrate driving at medium instead of maximum power seems sacrilege.

It’s no wonder he’s struggling with it.


Chase Elliott’s move to slow down and help Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron under caution on Lap 181 was legal, but it came some risk and raises some interesting questions, as NASCAR on NBC analysts Letarte and Jeff Burton (above) explained.

After spinning in Turn 4, Byron was able to enter the pits immediately to change his flat left-side tires. But he stayed on the lead lap only because Elliott eased off the accelerator while leading and allowed the No. 24 Chevrolet to exit the pits ahead of the No. 9.

Though slowing to at least 200 feet behind the pace car, Elliott hadn’t been picked up yet as the leader under the yellow flag. Joey Logano, running second, actually accelerated past Elliot just past the finish line.

Though Burton advocated Logano speeding up even earlier to put greater pressure on NASCAR to make a call on whether Elliott was maintaining reasonable speed as the leader, NASCAR officials later relayed to Burton that Elliott would have remained in first even if Logano had made a more demonstrable challenge (because Elliott would have been ruled to be using a “cautious pace” to catch up to the pace car.

Still, NASCAR has penalized leaders for failure to maintain reasonable speed under yellow (notably Marcos Ambrose stalling on a hill at Sonoma Raceway in June 2010). And if Byron hadn’t been a teammate, or if it had been later in the playoffs, Elliott might have been on the pace car’s rear bumper to ensure trapping him a lap down.

“Chase Elliott has the ability to set that cautious pace,” Letarte said on the new playoff edition of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Did he set it to save William Byron a lap? Absolutely.

“I see a teammate playing nicer earlier in the playoff than perhaps we would have seen. If Hendrick Motorsports was dominant with 15 or 18 wins, I think Chase doesn’t care about (Byron) and tries to pin him because he sees him as (a threat). It shows perhaps Hendrick in their struggles, their relationship has been galvanized where they’re looking out for one another.”


Daniel, we hardly knew yet, but it’s fairly obvious what is coming next.

Ever since team owner Richard Childress essentially volunteered that Tyler Reddick was destined for a Cup ride during a July 30 interview, it was clear that Daniel Hemric was in trouble during a disappointing rookie season at Richard Childress Racing. Asked a few days later about Childress’ comments, Hemric seemed less than certain about his future at the team.

It also isn’t clear if the Kannapolis, North Carolina, native will remain in Cup, though there are a few lesser rides that could come open.

Hemric is unlikely to be considered for a potential top-flight opening next season, and the only vacancy likely would be at Stewart-Haas Racing, which has yet to confirm Clint Bowyer or Daniel Suarez as returning and probably would move in Cole Custer if either leaves. Things seem to be trending well for Bowyer, who won his first pole position in 12 years after making the playoffs and was ebullient in Vegas until his 25th place finish.

Suarez also ran well before finishing 20th after contact with Joey Logano, qualifying second and leading 29 laps. But he said he had no timeframe for learning if he would return to SHR for a second year. The past two seasons, the team has waited until the offseason to hire its No. 41 Ford driver.

“We’ll still working on a couple of things,” Suarez said of 2020. “We have some good opportunities sponsorship-wise. There are some good things coming, but you never know. This sport is extremely unpredictable. We’ll just have to take one day at a time.”

Though making the playoffs would have helped, Suarez believes he can make up for it with a  victory: “The past is the past. We can’t change that. What we can change is we have 10 more weeks to keep improving. We have nothing in our heads but to get wins. If we are able to make it to victory lane this year, I won’t even think about the playoffs. Who cares about the playoffs if we can make it to victory lane? If we win one of the next 10, believe me, nobody will remember that we didn’t make the playoffs.”


Also unsure of his status for next year is Ross Chastain, who is focused on trying to win a truck championship with team owner Al Niece.

“I got nothing” for next year, Chastain said last week. “No one is calling now to put me in a fast Cup car. I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon. I’m racing my butt off trying to be the best I can be. I’ve got so much opportunity now.  I’ve got more races on the Xfinity side to compete and run up front. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I’m making my living, paying my bills by driving race cars as fast as I can. And I’m driving for multiple people, and they all want me to drive.”

Chastain has maintained a working relationship at Chip Ganassi Racing despite losing an Xfinity ride with the team because of an offseason sponsor pullout. He said his job for now in Cup when he races for underfunded Premium Motorsports is “to not make the news or crash the car. Even if I don’t crash, getting in someone’s way or being in the leader’s way coming down to the end or hitting someone on pit road. All that stuff you think it’s easy, but it’s so hard to be a slow car. It’s hard. I learned a lot in doing it, and it helps when I get in something that’s fast.”


When the first NASCAR Playoff Media Day without Jimmie Johnson happened, the seven-time series champion took steps to ensure he avoided it.

Johnson shifted the days of a mountain bike trip to Bentonville, Arkansas, to try to forget being sidelined from championship contention with 10 races remaining for the first time in his 18 Cup seasons. Though hitting the trails helped, he couldn’t avoid seeing glimpses of the 16 playoff drivers making the rounds in Las Vegas when he opened social media last Thursday.

“Not being there, it stung,” Johnson said. “It’s probably good that it stung. It’s been a nice gut check for me. I should be part of that. I want to be part of that. All those things are there. In a weird way, I was glad to see the 16 drivers and all that went along with that.”

The goal the rest of the season for Johnson, who turned 44 Tuesday two days after an 11th at Vegas, is to end a two-year winless drought.

“We just have to put a stake in the ground that we’ve got to win,” he said. “We just need to see progress at a rapid pace in the right direction. We were making progress, but the sport evolves, the team evolves, and we need to take big chunks out of that gap. That’s ultimately what we need to do. If we continue to take chunks out of the gap as we have, we’ll ultimately be back in victory lane.

“It hurts not being in the playoffs. It really bothers me, but at the end of the day, it’s good to have that effect on me. I didn’t enjoy it. I’m mad I’m not in the playoffs. I’m going to use that as fuel to push us through and get us back to where we need to be.”


For this observer, Las Vegas offered the chance to watch the 550 horsepower package from a fresh vantage point. Here were a few modest observations from the 1.5-mile speedway’s frontstretch press box near the start-finish line:

–The term “Insane Restarts” (or crazy, or even psychotic, if you prefer) gets tossed around so much it probably should be trademarked, but the first few laps after every green flag are breathtaking – better than a classic restrictor-plate race at Daytona or Talladega, really.

–Five laps or so after the restart, though, the racing looked like it has for the bulk of 1.5-mile tracks for the last 25 years.

–If you’re looking, you can find passing throughout the field … just not necessarily at the point.

When Las Vegas Motor Speedway made its Cup debut on March 1, 1998 (a race also covered by this writer), it was met with mixed reviews before a sellout crowd of more than 120,000 that had been promised “insane” five-wide racing for three hours. Instead, the fans saw largely a snoozefest won by Mark Martin in which Fords took 13 of the top 15 spots and the yellow flew only twice (both for single-car spins).

Sunday’s race was much better and memorable than the debut 21 years ago, but when viewed through the prism of NASCAR’s incessant tinkering to enhance 1.5-mile racing, it loses luster. Witness the recent ranking in journalist Jeff Gluck’s poll.

Las Vegas was a crucial marker in the development of the 550 hp package because of a January test that produced spectacularly tight racing and raised hopes that this season’s races might replicate it for two to three hours at a time.

It hasn’t and probably for myriad reasons. Tests rarely simulate real-world conditions with the necessary accuracy, and teams have spent so much time developing car builds since then (and through the different routes of gaining downforce or lessening drag), that there’s likely much more disparity between drivers.

As discussed on the new NASCAR on NBC Podcast, though, the conclusion here is that three straight hours of “Insane Restarts” probably would be too much of a good thing anyway.

Short of adding more mandatory cautions to guarantee re-racking the field (that’s not a suggestion, by the way), there probably is little more that can be done to enhance racing at the ubiquitous multipurpose speedways that began littering the Cup schedule in the mid to late 1990s.

If NASCAR wants more slam-bang tight racing that is true to its roots, the solution is much simpler: Run more short tracks instead of trying to retrofit 1.5-mile ovals that always will produce a brand of racing regardless of what is done to the cars.


After qualifying Morgan Shepherd’s car in ninth with a lap for the “Qualifying Hall of Fame” (according to NASCAR on NBC broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr.), will Landon Cassill start more Xfinity races for Shepherd, who seems to be winding down his driving career?

“I’ll let him dictate that,” Cassill said of Shepherd, who turns 78 next month. “I talk to him a lot, and he’s very mindful of his future and what he wants to build. I think me driving and having some speed in his car has been a part of it. He could see himself as a car owner someday probably.”

Cassill, who made 20 laps at Vegas and finished 36th for Shepherd, also posted top-20 qualifying efforts in the No. 89 Chevrolet at Charlotte (13th) and Michigan (16th). The relationship with Shepherd began when Cassill qualified the car 24th in the 2018 season finale after it lacked speed to make the race in practice.

“He called me the hour before qualifying and asked me to hop in,” said Cassill, who was introduced to Shepherd by Xfinity team owner Johnny Davis. “Ever since then, built a relationship and a lot of trust in each other, and he’s asked me to drive it whenever I’m available.

“It definitely makes me feel good to run that well. The experience really helps me a lot and running both (Cup and Xfinity) helps a lot. The speed in his car for Morgan is encouraging. He’s trying to envision what he’s doing for the future. I think having that speed in his car can draw attention to sponsors and putting forth a full-time effort.”


Next season, Las Vegas Motor Speedway will move from opening the playoffs the past two years to opening the second round.

Though the Sept. 27 race will be nearly two weeks later and likely in cooler weather, it’s expected the track will keep the 7 p.m. ET starting time. Out of the oppressive early afternoon heat, the grandstands seemed less empty than then 2018 race, which started shortly at 3 p.m. ET.

Ryan: Where could Matt DiBenedetto be heading next season in Cup?

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – The audition essentially is over for Matt DiBenedetto, who again proved Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway that he is worthy of keeping a ride in NASCAR’s premier series.

Do withering auditions now begin for scads of other drivers whom DiBenedetto has outperformed for two months (his runner-up finish after leading a race-high 93 laps is his third top five and fifth top 10 in nine races)?

As NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said during the NBCSN broadcast (and has said before), “I can give you a list of drivers who should be scared to death of Matty D. because he deserves their seats.”

There could be team owners feeling some heat, too, by remaining complacent. Bristol winner Denny Hamlin said on the NBCSN postrace interview in victory lane, “all you car owners are idiots” if DiBenedetto didn’t land a Cup ride in 2020.

“There’s many car owners that finance cars that are on the racetrack, good teams,” Hamlin said later in his media center interview. “They got to step up and grow some balls and take a chance on somebody they really believe in. That or they can continue to run 15th.”

Hamiln said numerous times that there is “no doubt in my mind” that DiBenedetto will land “better even than he is right now.”

The question is where, and the chattering classes of NASCAR were in overdrive this past weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, trying to chart how the annual parade of driver movement will unfold (after it began in earnest last week later than normal).

A few important parameters:

–While contracts are important, they can vary as to how ironclad they are because of results clauses and options. DiBenedetto originally was announced as having a two-year deal last October with Leavine Family Racing, but the team actually had to approve his renewal. A driver can be “set” for next season and still be removed.

–The possibility always exists that a team with fewer than four drivers could add a car for DiBenedetto, but the reality is highly unlikely anyone would.

–Before being informed Aug 13 that he wouldn’t be returning to LFR, DiBenedetto said he hadn’t talked to any other teams about 2020.

Here’s everything we seem to know about the status of major rides next year, in a team-by-team analysis:

–Chip Ganassi Racing: Kyle Larson is under contract through next season. Kurt Busch, who has had Monster sponsorship the past five seasons, said Friday at Bristol that he still isn’t set for next year. That could open a slot in the No. 1, but Ross Chastain is believed to remain under contract with Ganassi and probably would be the first option if Busch were to leave.

Front Row Motorsports: The full-time retirement of David Ragan opens a ride here that Front Row intends to fill, but Ross Chastain would be high on this team’s list for the No. 38 Ford, and Corey LaJoie also has been mentioned as a possibility. Michael McDowell and Matt Tifft are believed to be returning to the team.

–GoFas Racing: LaJoie is putting up solid numbers while emerging as a breakout personality, and that could draw attention and opportunities from other teams. DiBenedetto remains friendly with many on this team from his 2017-18 stint.

–Hendrick Motorsports: Jimmie Johnson (contract through 2020), Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman (pending sponsorship finalization) all are solid for next year

–Joe Gibbs Racing: Clearly no room here with all four drivers seemingly set for next season.

JTG Daugherty Racing: Ryan Preece said Friday his deal with the team is beyond 2019. Chris Buescher was announced in August 2017 as having signed a multiyear deal. The team has ended its deals before the end of a term before, though, with A.J. Allmendinger leaving after last season despite two years remaining on an extension he signed in 2015.

Leavine Family Racing: This isn’t an option for next year with the expected arrival of Christopher Bell.

But thanks to the trigger-happy Twitter thumbs of team owner Bob Leavine, it’s known that a scenario has been discussed in which DiBenedetto could spend a season in Xfinity before returning to Cup in 2021 (when the Gen 7 car is expected to make its debut). DiBenedetto has been careful to avoid burning any bridges (he immediately thanked LFR and its team members in postrace interviews).

-Richard Childress Racing: Daniel Hemric’s contract with the team is through 2020, but he has sent signals he isn’t certain of being kept (Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick will need a Cup ride to stay at RCR). Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, is set.

Richard Petty Motorsports: Bubba Wallace was signed to a multiyear deal last year and has indicated he will return in 2020.

Roush Fenway Racing: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. recently reaffirmed that he has a contract through 2021, and the team would seem very happy with Ryan Newman taking the No. 6 to the playoffs in his first season.

Stewart-Haas Racing: Kevin Harvick is set beyond this season (and probably as long as he wants to drive the No. 4). Aric Almirola came with sponsor Smithfield to SHR last year and is good through 2020. Clint Bowyer is in a contract year and while indications have been positive about his return, sponsorship on his No. 14 has been difficult, and an extension likely would include a pay cut similar to many other veterans in his class. Daniel Suarez is in his first season at SHR and said last Friday that he and the team both have options for remaining together in 2020 “but everything is looking pretty good” for remaining in the No. 41.

Team Penske: Its trio of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney is firm.

–Wood Brothers Racing: Paul Menard recently said he expects to be back in the No. 21 Ford next year.


In taking on Bell as its No. 95 driver next year, LFR will function much more like a de-facto fifth Joe Gibbs Racing car in a stronger alliance resembling what Furniture Row Racing had with JGR.

LFR switched to Toyota this season but was running a 2018 chassis Saturday, according to crew chief Mike Wheeler, who also said as “JGR learns stuff, we get upgrades.” Based on how well DiBenedetto ran at Bristol, where he led final Cup practice, qualified seventh and finished second, there was some speculation that the team might have received a full-fledged JGR-prepared Camry at Bristol.

“There’s a misconception out there about it being a JGR primary car,” Wheeler said. “It is a generation behind, but it’s good. If you put a good setup and good driver in it, it can go fast, and you saw that tonight.”


As difficult as Saturday night’s finish was for Denny Hamlin and Matt DiBenedetto, it was just as gutting for Mike Wheeler, who had to watch as his current driver got beat by the driver whom he guided as the No. 11 crew chief from 2016-18 before being transferred to LFR by JGR.

Though it isn’t expected that Wheeler will remain as the No. 95 crew chief next year (Bell has spoken highly of his Xfinity crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, who previously won with Matt Kenseth in Cup), Gibbs said Wheeler was under long-term contract to the team. “We all love Wheels,” Gibbs said. “He’s been a very key part to our organization. Then when he moved over to the 95, he’s just done an outstanding job over there.”

Wheeler told reporters he “definitely needed a moment to compose myself” after Saturday’s finish (as captured in this photo by Dustin Long).

“If you told us we’d ran second before we got here, but to lead the whole last stint and come up short, that was disappointing,” he said. “It’s like gosh. I don’t know why things happen to me like that. But it makes you a better person I guess in the future.”


In making the switch to 18-inch tires with the Gen 7 car, NASCAR also is considering the use of a single lug nut to secure wheels. That would be another step toward bringing NASCAR in line with IndyCar, whose common chassis by Dallara has been pushed by team owners Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi (whose teams compete in both series) as a model for the Gen 7 on cost-savings components.

The move to a single lugnut (from the current five-lugnut wheel) could be viewed as a safety enhancement by greatly reducing the possibility of loose wheels, but it also would overhaul the dynamics of pit stops and likely de-emphasize the importance of tire changers.


Brad Keselowski long has been sensitive to how private aviation in NASCAR is perceived by a fan base that formed its bonds with stars through workingman’s roots. The Team Penske driver once banned news media that traveled with him from taking photos or video aboard his plane.

In the wake of the crash involving Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s plane last week, Keselowski made another impassioned and well-reasoned defense of flying in NASCAR – particularly in the case of Bristol, which is about a three-hour drive from the Charlotte area homes of many drivers.

“It’s work-life balance,” said Keselowski, who flew into the same airport Friday morning where Earnhardt’s plane crashed the previous afternoon. “That’s the reality of it. We’re trying to be dads and be husbands. And try to leverage the privileges we have to do just that. That’s probably the easiest way I can answer it.

“My staying home (Thursday) night, I got to have dinner with my daughter. Her grandparents got to come over. That’s a big deal. I don’t get many nights like that. Michigan week, I wasn’t home at all and didn’t spend any time with my family. I look through the pictures of my daughter when she’s growing up, and it’s, ‘Oh my God, how did my daughter turn 4 years old?’ It happened like that, and it happened while I was at races in Michigan and gone all week And when I have a week like this where we can make the most of it, we’re going to try like hell to make the most of it. We were able to do that because of private aviation.

“I understand that most people might not get that concept, but most people aren’t in the situation we’re in as race car drivers that travel every week. We don’t get to skip a week. We’re not like LeBron James where we get to sit on the bench or stay home for a week or whatever it is from other sports. This is 38 weeks, and they will run the race without you. And your ass will get fired if you don’t show up. So that’s really hard to explain to people. And it’s very hard to explain to your wife and daughter when you miss something that’s really special to them. Private aviation is a great way to try to fill those gaps. And we might get a black eye because of that, but it’s something that I’m really passionate about and very thankful for.”


Facing the likelihood that he will miss the Cup playoffs for the first time in 16 years, Jimmie Johnson said Friday that failing to qualify for championship eligibility would change his goal from grinding out points to advance through rounds to focusing exclusively on getting a win with new crew chief Cliff Daniels.

The seven-time champion also would need to begin considering whether the 2020 season would be his last. In the instances of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., that decision was made months (or in Stewart’s case, more than a year) ahead of the final race. Despite his current slump, Johnson seems inclined to keep racing because “our team is getting so good, so strong” but also recognizes foresight on exit strategy is necessary.

“I know for the team, sponsor and for (team owner) Rick (Hendrick), following some sort of timeline would be best for them,” said Johnson, who turns 44 next month. “Like Jeff did and some just decide to walk away, some want a year, others want half a year. I fortunately have not put any thought into that. My commitment is still the team. I’m sure I’ll be pressed for a decision at some point, but I’m not really ready to make that decision. I love what I’m doing being on the track. If I had to pick right now, I’d sign on for more years.”

Johnson added that new primary sponsor Ally seems more focused on branding and name recognition than on-track results.


Besides some unfortunate mainstream publicity, the controversy over the removal of Slayer as the sponsor of a Rick Ware Racing car again underscored the mixed messages that the entangling alliances of sponsorship often tend to breed in NASCAR. RWR released a statement that the band’s “brand image and beliefs” did not align with the team and its longtime partners – though it probably would be more than welcome in many other corners of stock-car racing.

Slayer is one of the progenitors of death metal, a genre that is popular among the ranks of up and coming youth in NASCAR. Longtime Megadeth fan Tyler Reddick had the band on his Xfinity car at New Hampshire last month. Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney have noodled around as a death metal duo in social media clips and have posted videos from concerts.

The mainstream headlines last week, though (driven in part by the team’s 11th-hour cancellation), were “NASCAR says no to death metal band,” which doesn’t really help a series desperately trying to be as inclusive and universally appealing as possible in order to build audience. Sponsorship choices are made individually by teams, tracks and the sanctioning body, but their negative ramifications often can be felt across the board.


There’s another Cup alliance being considered in the Ford camp. Stewart-Haas Racing has discussed the possibility of offloading many of its cars to GoFas Racing in anticipation of its four-car fleet having a lot of extra inventory next season as it moves to the Gen 7car. It’s uncertain if the arrangement also might include technical support.

Racing chassis that are a few years old, Corey LaJoie is 29th in points with the No. 32, a spot higher than it was ranked with Matt DiBenedetto through 24 races last year.


Saturday night’s crowd at Bristol undoubtedly was better than April, but there’s been some debate over how much of the grandstands filled in after there were significant pockets at the green flag (which seemed to mostly disappear in photos of a gorgeous dusk at the track).

There is a simple way to resolve this, of course: If more auto racing tracks would release attendance, like virtually any other professional sport. The longtime excuse is that Cup tracks owned by publicly held companies don’t provide crowd numbers because they don’t want to provide “earnings guidance.”

With ISC and SMI on the cusp of being taken private and no longer required to report earnings, it would be a welcome end to the policy so that officially provided attendance figures could be used to comparatively demonstrate when a NASCAR crowd is truly a success story.

Dustin Long contributed to this report

Ryan: Importance of being Bubba takes on new meaning for NASCAR

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – By moving Kyle Busch, Bubba Wallace proved again he can move the needle for NASCAR unlike any driver other than the superstar he intentionally wrecked at Watkins Glen International.

The most-read NASCAR story on NBCSports.com this past weekend (and by a wide margin) was Wallace’s colorfully vulgar way of calling out the 2015 Cup champion. Though tossing in a few choice expletives attracts Internet traffic, the roar that erupted from the Glen crowd as Busch looped down the frontstretch already had affirmed that Wallace has a knack for striking a chord as the center of attention.

He spun Busch without compunction and then brazenly (and succinctly) explained why.

In a Monster Energy Cup Series too often bleached of controversy, moxie and verve, Wallace stood out Sunday – and for a different reason than what usually has put him in the spotlight for much of his career.

Being the most successful black driver since Hall of Famer Wendell Scott remains culturally and historically significant. It’s still a potentially vital step in the NASCAR blueprint for building a desperately needed diversity in its audience and a larger footprint in mainstream media.

But the uniqueness of his race is becoming nearly incidental to what makes Wallace’s story appealing and compelling (which is how he understandably would prefer it anyway).

Whether it’s openly admitting to flipping off his rivals, criticizing Pocono Raceway or candidly discussing his battle with depression (particularly in this interview with Marty Snider), anything Wallace does these days seems to be a headline-grabber. He owned NASCAR Twitter for 24 hours simply by mulling a tattoo of Richard Petty’s autograph.

This often has seemed the Summer of Bubba, who has remained relevant despite lacking the results (a season best of 15th at Daytona last month) just by being himself.

Each weekly trip through the media bullpen at qualifying brings another memorable quote or quip. “We’re stirring up some stuff, huh?” Wallace said with an impish smile at Pocono a few weeks ago as he detailed his dream NASCAR schedule “that would piss off everybody.”

It’s been a buzz reminiscent of the chatter that surrounds Busch, who consistently is the No. 1 newsmaker in the Cup Series.

Chase Elliott might be the Most Popular Driver by vox populi, but his win at Watkins Glen largely was overshadowed by various confrontations. That seemed fine with the naturally reserved Elliott, who is inclined to let his driving do the talking the same way his Hall of Fame father once quietly did.

It’s fine for NASCAR, too – to a point. As Dale Earnhardt famously said, a true measure of transcendence isn’t whether fans are booing or cheering. It’s whether they simultaneously are doing both at full volume.

There is an unremitting need for charismatic pit disturbers, and since the retirement of Tony Stewart, Busch often has seemed the only lightning rod left in NASCAR.

Wallace, 25, is poised to become another, provided he can overcome two major hurdles.

The first obstacle is (and always has been) sponsorship. As he said during a March appearance on NASCAR America, Wallace has made it this far in racing without having a consistently dedicated backer, which is somewhat inexplicable given his intriguing backstory and infectious youth should be an easy sell for any company. Funding would go a long way toward a solution to the second problem: Landing a first-class ride.

Though his No. 43 Chevrolet at Richard Petty Motorsports comes with boundless historical prestige, no one would attempt to argue that it could be competitive with even the world’s most talented driver. As a single-car team, there’s little hope of that changing.

Of course, Wallace also would need to perform in a high-caliber car. But he has excelled in limited instances with top-notch opportunities.

Driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2013-14, Wallace scored five victories and 26 top 10s in 44 starts. He was less impressive during a two-season Xfinity stint with Roush Fenway Racing from 2015-16, but in fairness, he wasn’t far off his teammates’ results, either. It’s been harder to judge his progress at RPM (which struggled for money this year before an injection of cash two months ago), but there have been flashes.

The world has yet to know how Wallace would fare with a Cup powerhouse. It might never know.

But if he could battle stars such as Busch for positions on a regular basis with the same brashness that Wallace flaunts so effortlessly?

That truly would move the needle.


An unusually stern postrace chastising of Ryan Blaney appropriately punctuated what was perhaps the most emotional week of Jimmie Johnson’s Cup career.

Though the seven-time series champion deflected and demurred on questions about whether he ultimately made the call to install Cliff Daniels as his new crew chief (“it’s a collective decision, though I certainly had to approve and had a big role in it”), Johnson left no doubt he was extremely uncomfortable about the removal of Kevin Meendering, who had no prior knowledge of his exit from the No. 48 after 21 races as a Cup crew chief.

“He was surprised and caught off guard and, who I am as an individual, I hate those moments,” said Johnson, who hadn’t switched crew chiefs during a season in his previous 17 years in Cup. “I honestly and truly do feel for him. I know Hendrick has big plans for him. I still don’t want him to rule out ever being a crew chief. I know we’re looking at opportunities of how we can use him internally in our company. He’s such a sharp dude. I hope he stays with us. And I know that Rick is going to do everything he can to make sure Kevin’s taking care of very well.

“Emotionally it’s tough, no doubt about it. If you look at my personal life and just everything, I’ve had long-term relationships, so this isn’t something I’m comfortable with. In my heart, I just felt like we will get back to our competitive ways faster and sooner with Cliff in that position.”

The next major decision could be even tougher for Johnson, who is tied with Ryan Newman in points on the playoff cutoff line with four races left.

Though his debut with Daniels went fairly well until the wreck, making the playoffs is still a serious question mark, as his future at Hendrick Motorsports beyond 2020.

“That’s when my contract will run out, and I’ve got to make a decision at that point if I want to continue on,” said Johnson, who turns 44 in September. “If my fire goes out or I feel like I’m not competitive, I think any driver would say that it’s time to walk away. I certainly have less years ahead of me than I ever had in my career. That will play a role if I feel like I’m doing my job right behind the wheel.”

A mediocre season, a guilt-ridden personnel change and the lingering uncertainty about how both could influence the conclusion of his Hall of Fame run … it’s no wonder we got a rare public glimpse of Johnson’s fiery side Sunday.


Tyler Reddick will race primarily on Sundays in NASCAR next season. Team owner Richard Childress made that abundantly clear last week, along with his desire to retain Reddick.

The question is how Richard Childress Racing would put Reddick in a Cup car for 2020. Childress said keeping Reddick “boils down to dollars,” indicating there are options in Cup outside RCR for the defending Xfinity Series champion (who has been politely vague when asked about next year).

The two scenarios for RCR retaining Reddick seemingly would be replacing a current driver or adding a third car.

There seems no doubt about the long-term job security of 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson who is in his sixth season driving the No. 3 Chevrolet. Teammate Daniel Hemric has a Cup contract at RCR through 2020 but told NBCSports.com that “I’m not sure if you ever feel OK” when asked about his status for next season.

“I feel like our supporters and partners see the progress we’re making, and I think they’ve been fairly intrigued and happy with the results as of late,” said Hemric, who is ranked 25th in the standings with two top 10s (including a seventh last week at Pocono Raceway). “So I hopefully can answer that a little more surely here in the next month or so.”

Asked what he made of Childress’ comments on Reddick, Hemric cited his busy schedule and said, “I haven’t really had a lot of time to even let it cross my mind, which I think is a good thing.”

Dillon, who called Reddick “a heck of a wheelman,” said he’d support RCR adding a third car if sponsorship allowed it. “I think we’ve got the room to do it obviously in the shop,” Dillon said. “It would be good to have another teammate. The more cars the better to bounce ideas off others.”


Corey LaJoie appropriately made many headlines this past weekend for donating a month’s salary to put a charitable cause on his No. 32 Ford, but the Go Fas Racing driver already should have been getting notice as one of NASCAR’s most outspoken drivers. LaJoie’s underrated (and oft-jarring) candor has been getting a weekly workout on the “Sunday Money” podcast that he began co-hosting this year.

LaJoie revealed in last week’s episode that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. told him his split with Danica Patrick partly was because of charging crystals and a full moon. Other recent LaJoie opinions from “Sunday Money”:

–On why the victory at Texas by Greg Biffle after a three-year absence (“he has been doing nothing but buying everybody’s bar tab at Fox and Hound”) made some truck series regulars look bad.

–A dissection of Paul Menard (and the ribbing he got from other drivers for “wrecking little kids” after his dustup with Harrison Burton): “That guy is a billionaire with a ‘B.’ He doesn’t care. If you run into him, he will just straight up wreck your shit. He’s funny.”

–On the low-key nature of Chase Elliott: “That’s been a topic of conversation within the drivers lately. He is nowhere to be found. He doesn’t do any autograph sessions. He literally goes from his car to his hauler to his motorhome. I don’t know if he’s getting too big time or what’s he doing. … We need to get him out a little bit. Because I can promise you if he doesn’t, he’s not going to be the most popular driver for a long period of time.”

Though the absence of a high-profile sponsor helps allow him to be so unfiltered, LaJoie also has a plain-spoken personality well suited for the podcast format – and probably as a spokesman for some edgy brand. If he continues to show promise at Go Fas, his name should be in the mix for stronger rides.


A major reason there is a lack of momentum for a dirt race in the Cup series? A lack of veterans championing the idea. There’s been lukewarm support even from those whose careers largely have been defined by dirt racing.

So for those who believe a Cup race at Eldora Speedway or elsewhere would deliver some scheduling diversity, it’s been refreshing to hear up and comers such as Christopher Bell (who made a case last year) and Chase Briscoe stumping for more dirt races in NASCAR’s premier series.

“I think Cup needs to go there,” Briscoe said last Friday at Watkins Glen International, which he scrambled to reach after racing a truck Thursday at Eldora Speedway. “Cup drivers are considered the best in the world, and I want to see them challenged at every discipline. We run a road course, a short track, a mile and a half, a superspeedway. So why not run a dirt track? That’s how I feel about it.

“I hear a lot of fans or people say it might take away from the trucks’ luster, but at the same time, there’s over 90 races of national series, and if five of those are dirt, they’re still going to be important. It’s no different than going to the road courses. People get excited we go to three or four road courses a year. It’s no different going dirt racing three to four times a year.”


While expanding its horizons to other surfaces, NASCAR also should consider adding “The Boot” – the currently unused stretch of Watkins Glen between Turns 5 and 6.

The nearly 1-mile section, which would increase the track distance to 3.4 miles while adding a few turns, has been used in IMSA and IndyCar races, and it’s been discussed as an option for NASCAR. The Glen’s popular campgrounds already extend into the area ringed by The Boot, so why not add race cars for those campers?

Xfinity winner Austin Cindric said The Boot would offer some low-speed corners and passing opportunities, easing concerns that it might string out the field.

“I’d really love to see NASCAR run The Boot here in a couple of years,” Cindric said. “If there is any petition there, I’ll be happy to sign it. I feel like we’re kind of just short-cutting the course, short-cutting some good corners. It adds more challenge.

“There is some really good, fun racetrack sitting back there waiting to be played with. I think it would give the people that go and camp back there more excitement, so I think it would be a nice addition.”


The news that NASCAR will apply traction compound at Michigan International Speedway this weekend and possibly at ISM Raceway near Phoenix in November brings some decidedly mixed reactions.

There were indications a few weeks ago that PJ1 wouldn’t be used at Michigan, so the shift in direction again signifies that NASCAR is soliciting driver input and reacting accordingly after many expressed misgivings about how the June 17 race unfolded with little action.

And the usage of PJ1 at Michigan and Phoenix also would represent a significant policy change at tracks owned by ISC, which had yet to use the compound employed with some degrees of success at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway.

But even if it enhances the racing, the usage of traction compound always will be problematic because it inherently prompts the question of “Why is it necessary to ‘fix’ the racetrack?” Which leads down the rabbit hole to “If a track needs that type of Band-Aid, should it play host to a marquee NASCAR event?”

If the 2020 national series championships are contested at Phoenix with the help of PJ1, that’s bound to be a discussion topic — namely because traction compound never will be needed on Homestead-Miami Speedway’s natural multi-lane layout.

Ryan: NASCAR listening to Cup drivers more without council?

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LONG POND, Pa. – With the de-facto dissolution of its Drivers Council this year, NASCAR might have taken a step forward by adhering to an axiom well known in Corporate America.

Scheduling fewer meetings often can result in more effective and productive communication.

Last week underscored several examples of NASCAR implementing concepts, competitive elements and rule modifications after its stars petitioned for changes in a looser and less structured environment than the past four years.

–For the second consecutive race, drivers were heavily consulted on the application and placement of PJ1 traction compound (which made its debut at Pocono Raceway and at least offered an option of outside passes).

–Vice president of competition Scott Miller said it was a “prominent” driver who originally championed the idea of inverting the field to start the second half of a Pocono twin bill in 2020.

–The tweaking of what constitutes an uncontrolled tire (which seemed to have an impact on at least one Kyle Busch pit stop Sunday) after lobbying from Denny Hamlin and others.

–On Saturday morning at Pocono Raceway, defending series champion Joey Logano met with series officials to discuss restart gamesmanship – which NASCAR then addressed in drivers meetings the next two days (and penalized Daniel Suarez for laying back Sunday).

Logano believes the cause-effect relationship suggests the demise of the Drivers Council was timely.

“The council is maybe not as existent, but the old-school way of going into the trailer and talking to leadership of the sport seems to be effective,” Logano said. “It used to not be. That’s why we needed a council.

“Now we don’t need a council because a lot of us feel more comfortable with the relationships, and we see things change after things are brought up. We should be proud to have a sanctioning body with open ears that are willing to listen to the drivers. Now they might not always do what the drivers want, because sometimes what the drivers want is wrong for the sport. But there’s certain times it really is the right thing that only a driver would know that’s inside the car.”

In that vein, NASCAR still is holding formal meetings with drivers a few times this year, but the invite list won’t be limited to the 10 or so drivers who were selected annually via a regimented election process that ensured equal representation for experience and manufacturers.

Spearheaded by Hamlin, the council was formed in 2015 to great fanfare, but it often seemed to be bogged down in minutiae and paralyzed from a lack of consensus. By a year ago, it had become so superfluous that Kevin Harvick openly admitted he was skipping meetings in part because of frustration with the panel’s efficacy.

Over the offseason, the council quietly lapsed as other channels of communication have grown. Since replacing Brian France (who attended roughly a dozen races annually), NASCAR CEO Jim France has become an omnipresent presence at the track along with his executive team (president Steve Phelps and vice chairman Mike Helton were at his side last weekend at Pocono).

A few dozen Cup drivers are on a text chain with NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell, who provides updates and explanations on hot-button issues (such as why NASCAR elected to call the Daytona race early).

“I would say I have more communication and more talks with NASCAR now” than in the Driver Council era, Hamlin said. “I’m constantly in contact with the testing team on applying the PJ1 at all these racetracks.”

Said Harvick: “Denny has kind of spearheaded a lot of the PJ1 evolution from the driver’s side. It becomes easier when there are one or two guys, and he’s really the guy that is communicating to get things moving forward. You can just throw out your two cents in the group chat, and he can compile all the information because everybody looks at it differently.”

The discourse also has improved likely just because there is no topic that touches a third rail in NASCAR as much as when the 2019 rules still were in flux last year.

Now it’s settled law. Though some still harbor reservations about the lower horsepower, high-downforce combination, it’s pointless to have contentious debates about an overhauled package that Phelps recently called “the path forward” in Cup.

The resistance to more full-throttle racing from some big names might have brought more compromise in other areas from NASCAR, which has been welcoming feedback the past decade after largely iron-fisted rule through its first 60 years.

“They deserve a lot of credit in the last 10 years for listening more than they ever have in the history of the sport,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I think we’ve overreacted on both sides where we had to have committees and so many people on committees.”

Johnson said a problem was that the structure invariably included some drivers who would “drop a grenade and walk away” during meetings vs. those who were “very diligent to help drive the sport forward.

“I think we’ve narrowed it down now to a core group of guys who really do care and are willing to see it through,” he said.

Ryan Blaney, another former council member, likes that the information is free-flowing even for those who are less engaged. Various text chains also allow “always having open discussions on ideas.

“Whether they apply that or not, they’re always asking for our feedback,” he said. “From NASCAR, the tracks, the drivers, teams, I think we work pretty well together. Sometimes you’d like to see things a little bit differently. But at the end of the day it’s their call.”


Pocono’s Cup races on consecutive days next season was well vetted among drivers, who gave it mostly rave reviews as a showcase during a 2020 schedule already hailed for its revamping.

“I like mixing things up,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think it’ll be one of the events as a driver and fan that you’ll circle and say, ‘I can’t wait to see how this works out and what it looks like.’ I think it’s a bit of the spice of life having a few changes in the NASCAR season for us.”

Said Clint Bowyer: “It’s time to shake a lot of things up in this sport. You can’t continue to do the same thing over and over and over; you have to reinvent yourself every single time for a fan. That goes for any event. Whether it’s a country music festival, a football game or a race. We’re all up against having to reinvent ourselves over and over and over to stay appealing and relevant to a fan that’s looking for something new. They expect to see something different or something they didn’t see the last time.

“How do you entice them in and bring them year after year? I’m a big advocate of you better fill their day up with content. These are race fans, they want cars on the track and people putting on a show, and certainly they’re going to have that with that schedule.”

There are a few lingering questions, namely how the inversion of the starting lineup for the second race might encourage sandbagging in the final 50 miles of Race 1.

Why not aim for the end of the lead lap for a better starting spot — and a stage points grab — in Race II? (Blaney suggests having the winner of the first race draw a pill in victory lane to determine how many cars are inverted.)

There also are many details to be nailed down, namely the length of Saturday’s Cup race, which is tentatively 350 miles. The issue is a rigid six-hour TV window, which needs to incorporate the Cup race preceded by a 200-mile truck race (which would be the series’ longest yet at Pocono; the track would prefer to keep that distance but could consider shortening).

And let’s not even consider what might happen if it rains (which tends to happen now and then in the Pennsylvania mountains). If there’s a spate of inclement weather Saturday and Sunday, rescheduling four races across three series on a Monday seems nigh impossible.

But if the Pocono experiment is deemed successful, it almost certainly would be considered elsewhere.

“Certainly, there are some tracks that would be great candidates for it,” Hamlin said. ‘Off the top of my head, Dover and tracks that are one-off and really, really different. If it’s a possibility, I’d vote for it. Our season is very very long and very very saturated. If you can condense but still give the same amount of races, I think it’s a good thing.”

One idea absolutely to consider, whether by Pocono or a NASCAR sponsor: Paying a bounty for a sweep of the races, as suggested by Kyle Busch (particularly if he’s willing to accommodate a bargain rate for his services).


There wasn’t total consensus on Pocono’s revamped 2020 format.

“Eh,” Bubba Wallace said when asked about the makeover at the track where he made his Cup debut in 2017 and escaped serious injury in a vicious crash last year. “I’d like to see no races here honestly. What do we do around here? Nothing. We sit here and do absolutely nothing all weekend. … I don’t know if it puts on the best show.”

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver believes Indianapolis Motor Speedway is less deserving of a date on the schedule than Pocono but also believes the latter’s rural locale is a detriment.

“We’re 45 minutes from any city,” he said. “There ain’t nothing to do.

“I’m looking at it for the fans, and if fans aren’t in the seats … I haven’t paid attention to the crowd here, but it’s way too big of a track for us. I feel like the racing isn’t that great.”

Wallace concedes his dream schedule “would piss off everybody. Probably a ton of short tracks and no road courses.”

And no Pocono (a point reinforced by his Tuesday tweet evaluating Sunday’s race).


Despite higher downforce, a thick swath of “sticky stuff” for extra adhesion and cars that are “easier” to drive, there were seven backup cars in the past two races because of practice crashes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.

“I don’t think it’s coincidence,” Brad Keselowski said.

There are a few theories, but it essentially boils down to the cars being “edgier” as drivers and teams try to find the limits of their setups.

“You’d think they make a lot of downforce and a lot of grip, and they’d be easier to drive, but with that downforce and grip and load on the car, the tire had to get harder, so the tires become a little difficult to chase in certain situations,” said Alex Bowman, who wrecked at New Hampshire. “And the (traction compound) is like a layer of slime once you get out of the groove. It’s just like a lot of circumstances are playing into it.

“Everybody talks about how this package isn’t hard to drive. Well, it’s really hard to drive right now. For whatever reason. You make a 6-inch mistake, and you’re backward in the fence before you can even catch it.”

GoFas Racing’s Corey LaJoie said even with lower downforce, last year’s cars were more forgiving.

“You were more out of control generally, but when you had a moment, it was like a long lazy moment, and you’d (recover),” LaJoie said. “Now as soon as you slip a tire, you lose all of it. The cars are evil when they get out of shape now. You’re still going to see guys get out of shape because they’re going to figure out how to make the car less stuck to the racetrack. The less stuck, the faster it goes.”


NASCAR has critical meetings with its Cup manufacturers over the next month about the course of its Gen 7 rollout amid concerns the car might not hit an aggressive 2021 target date.

There remains much to hammer out on the parameters of the car, and a prototype probably needs to ready by early fall for a legitimate shot at a 2021 debut (that at least one team owner has said is mandatory). Testing began earlier for the Car of Tomorrow (which was on track more than 18 months ahead of its staggered rollout in 2007) and the Gen 6 (which underwent three years of planning and R&D before its 2013 debut).

Multiple sources (who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly) told NBCSports.com that switching over fleets to the Gen 7 would incur a one-time cost that averaged about $4-5 million, according to independent studies commissioned by Cup teams.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps told reporters earlier this month that “the majority of the garage is on board with the 2021 start. Are there some that ’22 might work better for? There might be. We have to figure out how we get full alignment on what that’s going to be, and that’s what we’re working on.

“Everyone has their own ideas, and it gets to self-interest pretty quickly, about the timing of different things and how they’d like these things happening. We’ll continue to work with our teams and OEMs to make sure everyone is aligned on what is the correct date to do that. The positive thing is we’re not just going to plow forward with a decision without getting everyone on board.”


Matt DiBenedetto has yet to be guaranteed a 2020 return to Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota. Here’s the full context of what he said Saturday when asked if he needed to begin looking around to protect himself for having a ride next year.

“I’ve had to fight and claw so hard, now that I’m in a good, quality ride with a great team that I love, I’m just 100% focused on performing,” DiBenedetto said. “That’s what we’ve been doing. That’s the awesome part. These top fives, top 10s. I know that anyone, not to sound arrogant, but they’d have to have their heads examined if they get rid of me. Because nobody will do a better job in my car than myself.”

Closing with a lighthearted chuckle, he also spoke firmly and with no animosity, which is why DiBenedetto shouldn’t have felt the need to backpedal Monday. Yes, the words might come across strongly when read in the absence of inflection, but they aren’t out of context. He bluntly expressed faith in his ability to drive in Cup and detailed the mental toughness that earned him the ride.

No apology necessary from DiBenedetto, who also said he had “not a single conversation at all” about whether LFR would pick up his option for 2020.

Team owner Bob Leavine also confirmed DiBenedetto’s uncertain status Monday. With LFR as the only current Toyota option for potentially resolving Joe Gibbs Racing’s dilemma of fielding Cup rides for Erik Jones and Christopher Bell next year, DiBenedetto’s fate likely will depend on the actions of others and not necessarily on where he finishes – though results probably should be the determining factor.

There was nothing wrong with sharply pointing that out.