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

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

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

Two races in the tightest quarters of the 2018 season.

Two wildly differing outcomes.

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

Why?

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

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

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

What other factors might have been involved?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

NASCAR addresses Denny Hamlin’s complaints on pit guns

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In the wake of Denny Hamlin’s pointed comments about pit guns, NASCAR senior executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said any that “any issues, we’ll get it fixed.” But he also expressed skepticism about snap judgments on the guns’ performance being made postrace by some drivers such as Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.

During his weekly visit to “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, O’Donnell said Tuesday there would be a previously scheduled meeting with team owners this week in which the guns likely would be discussed. Car owner Joe Gibbs alluded to the meeting after Kyle Busch’s victory Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I think this is one of those topics we’ve always addressed, and to hit it head on on our part; it’s an initiative we continue to work on,” O’Donnell said. “We knew going in, the technology of the guns is not going to be what some of the teams were used to in the past. The hand speed (of pit crew members) is incredible. The talent is incredible.

“Somewhere in between lies the truth. … Any gun that malfunctions is not acceptable to us, but there are some occasions where someone may be moving a little too fast on a stop as well. That’ll be the dialogue that we discuss and really hearing from all the teams and what the feedback is. We’ve proven we’re going to get on that and work on that collectively and continue to improve on anything that might come up during a race.”

Both Hamlin and Harvick said the guns were faulty because they weren’t performing up to the air pressure and RPM standards that teams were accustomed to when they built their own guns prior to the 2018 season.

After consultation with the Team Owners Council, NASCAR mandated common pit guns that are issued randomly by manufacturer Paoli. The performance of the pit guns has been a significant storyline after at least three of seven races this season.

“Well, you look at the technology on the guns, the postrace reports, I’m frankly a little surprised that someone could come out after the race and talk about all the air pressures and everything when they have not diagnosed what may or may not have happened,” O’Donnell said. “So we do that. We work with our gun manufacturer to look through all those.

“When there is a gun failure, we absolutely will showcase it and admit it, but it’s also easy to say that the gun didn’t work. We understand that as well. Somewhere in there lies the truth. Any issues, we will get it fixed, but I’m also confident that we’re able to go out there and race and put on some great races as well. And not have that be the lead story going forward for sure.”

During an interview with NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long after Monday’s race, Hamlin said NASCAR should return to last year’s pit guns and suggested that Joe Gibbs Racing could supply pit guns to all teams.

Gibbs later downplayed that idea, though.

Kevin Harvick on inconsistent pit guns: ‘It’s becoming a safety issue’

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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Kevin Harvick heightened talk about pit guns Tuesday night by saying the inconsistent equipment was creating “a safety issue.”

Harvick made his comments on his “Happy Hours’’ show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, Harvick said the pit guns were “pathetic” and “embarrassing to the sport” after pit gun issues led to loose wheels.

He had more say on his radio show Tuesday night.

“I think in theory, I think the pit gun idea is a good idea,’’ Harvick said. “I just don’t think at this particular point it’s being executed to the point where it’s fair for the race teams and safe. It’s becoming a safety issue.

“We saw five loose wheels on the run that I had a loose wheel on on Sunday. Five cars had loose wheels on that particular run. That is way outside the norm of what we do on a weekly basis. As a driver, I’m very uncomfortable in the car because I don’t know whether, is it a loose wheel, then you see some tire issues creep up during the race. Is it a loose wheel, is it a tire coming apart? In your mind you’re running through these things (thinking) ‘What the hell do I do?’

“If it was the first week where something has happened, it would be like, ‘Oh maybe we just made some mistakes, maybe it could be this or maybe it could be that.’ But there’s so much doubt about what you have as a gun. On Saturday (in the Xfinity race at Texas) it was a rear tire issue. On Sunday, it flipped. The rear tire changer had no problems. His gun turned probably 2,000, 3,000 RPMs more because the front guy drew the short straw on Sunday. It’s kind of Russian Roulette at this particular point.’’

In the first 10 minutes of the discussion of the pit guns, Harvick used the word safety or a form of it eight times.

On Monday, Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, addressed the pit gun issue on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“Everybody is always quick to blame the gun, not saying that it may not have been a gun problem, but we have to look at everything before we can flat out say we had a gun problem,’’ Miller said. “That’s what we do.

“The program has had a few more hitches in it than, obviously, we wished it would, but we’re making progress with it. We’ll continue to do that and continue to evaluate and continue to try to get better every week and make sure that we dig into whatever problems happen up and down pit road and get them rectified.

“Everything in motorsports is a development process and this is no different. It’s unfortunate that it’s caused some people some problems but development is what it is. We’ll continue to keep it ramped up and get it right.’’

Harvick also cut through the banter Tuesday on what teams voted for and what teams did not vote to go with standard pit guns as a cost-cutting measure before the season.

“For me, I’m in the I don’t care who voted for it, I don’t care what team you’re on, I don’t care what the situation is at this particular point, I want to be safe inside the race car, and I want my wheels to be tight,’’ said Harvick, who has won three of the first seven Cup races of the season. “This is the same type of situation that we went through with the three lug nuts. Is it safe or is it not safe?

“Right now, if you have a good gun, you’re going to have tight wheels. If you don’t have a good gun, and as the race goes on it seems like the guns get progressively worse, they don’t work as well as they do at the beginning of the race. For me, I just want to be safe in the car.’’

Harvick alluded to April 2016 when his boss, Tony Stewart, complained about NASCAR not requiring teams to tighten all five lug nuts on each wheel.

Stewart said then about the lug nut issue: “For all the work and everything, all the bulletins and all the new stuff we have to do to superspeedway cars and all these other things they want us to do for safety, we can’t even make sure we put five lug nuts on the wheel.

“It’s not even mandatory anymore. I mean, you don’t have to have but one on there if you don’t want. It’s however many you think you can get away with. So we’re putting the drivers in jeopardy to get track position. It’s not bit anybody yet, but I guarantee you that envelope is going to keep getting pushed until somebody gets hurt.’’

NASCAR fined Stewart $35,000 a day later for his comments and mandated that teams must secure all five lug nuts less than a week later.

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Ryan: It’s time for NASCAR and teams to tighten it up on pit guns

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It is because of faulty air regulators, equipment that falls short of handling heavy torque and a simple lack of real-world testing for a massive undertaking.

It is because of the new pit crew restrictions, pressure-packed money stops and teams looking for something to blame for subpar performances.

There are two distinct sides (“Blame the guns!” “Blame the crews!”) and several schools of thought (along with many shrill voices championing them) on why the perceived reliability of the new pit guns has become one of the overarching stories of the 2018 season as pit stops have resulted in a spate of loose wheels.

There is one simple conclusion: It must be fixed.

As Dale Jarrett said Monday on NASCAR America, the prudent move in retrospect probably would have been to test these guns for a full season in the Xfinity Series before bringing them to Cup. But it’s now too late for such a retroactive Band-Aid.

Either the product must be upgraded by Paoli (or replaced entirely by a new manufacturer). Or Cup teams currently complaining need to get religion that the randomly issued guns can be trusted and no longer will be public scapegoats for pit miscues.

The discussion that dominated the postrace conversations about Kyle Busch’s victory Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway is fine for early season talking points, but if it persists into the summer, the potential damage to NASCAR’s credibility and competitive legitimacy exponentially will become highly dangerous.

It assuredly needs to stop before the playoffs begin. NASCAR can’t afford to have a playoff contender’s advancement – or God help them, the championship – called into question by a situation similar to what plagued Kevin Harvick at Texas.

The past two months have brought enough finger-pointing and social media snark to fill an hourlong episode of a NASCAR reality TV show, and it’s occasionally cathartic and compelling to see such raw emotion laid in the open.

But no more. The absolute top priority (even ahead of the uncontrolled tire controversy) during the weekend debriefs today at the R&D Center should be addressing the pit guns and setting a goal of putting the topic to bed by the Coca-Cola 600.

With everything aired out about pit guns, it’s time to tighten it up, literally and figuratively.


There were some suggestions made that Harvick experienced a dose of schadenfreude at Texas because he previously had dismissed the pit gun problems as a nonissue.

This doesn’t seem to ring true, at least not publicly. When Martin Truex Jr. had major pit problems at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Harvick was asked about the guns.

His answer:  “I honestly don’t know 100 percent what happened, so that’s way out of my category of things that I need to be commenting on,” he said.

There were similar answers that day when Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer also were asked about the guns – reinforcing the notion that an informal gag order had been in place from NASCAR about disparaging the new equipment.

That’s why it was significant and stunning to hear the postrace objections to the guns by team owners Joe Gibbs (who usually shies far away from public controversy) and Rob Kauffman.

Though some members of the Team Owners Council raised the concept to NASCAR of implementing common pit guns, and all teams voted on the topic, there obviously wasn’t consensus on the decision.


One of NASCAR’s selling points is its family values, and that extends to the working relationships between teams and officials. When you spend 36 weekends and thousands of hours on the road together, it’s unavoidable that bonds will be built.

But in today’s age of social media and GIFs that play on infinite loops, there must be clearer boundaries drawn on in-race displays of collegiality, particularly when team members and driver business managers are involved.

How would the world react if Ed Hochuli slapped a high-five with Cam Newton or Drew Rosenhaus? How would a fist-bump for Joey Crawford from LeBron James or Maverick Carter be perceived?

It’s great that NASCAR exists as one big happy family much of the time (it probably couldn’t survive without those dynamics), but that image must be shelved when the competition begins and the national TV cameras are rolling.


Out of the mouths of babes sometimes come pearls of wisdom, so let’s note what the highest-finishing member of the New Kids on the Track said about Sunday’s 500-mile race at Texas. With eight cautions, the event ran slightly over three and a half hours (not including an 11-minute red flag).

Toward the end, fourth-place finisher Erik Jones radioed his team that the race seemed longer than normal, particularly as the second 500-miler since the season opener.

“They all seemed quick to me,” Jones said of the previous five races this season after the Daytona 500. “Man, (Texas) seemed like a Truck race.

“We came here, it was like this race is dragging.  It wasn’t, like, I was wore out or anything.  It just seemed like it was never going to end for a minute. With the red flag and everything, it kind of exaggerated that thought that was running through my mind. They’re long races.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to racing 500 miles. That’s a long time.  I think overall this year I just have a better idea of how to race ’em.”

So should the races be shorter?

“I feel like you’re trying to get me in trouble now,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver laughed. “I mean, in my opinion only, yeah. I think 400 miles is enough.  I think there’s marquee races that need to stay: Daytona 500, Southern 500, Coke 600.  But I do think 400 miles is probably enough.”

Jones should face no repercussions for offering the honest opinion of a 21-year-old who is in tune with the generation of fans that NASCAR desperately needs to attract.

And though his view might be anathema to Texas president Eddie Gossage and old-guard fans, it needs to be seriously considered when assembling future schedules.


NASCAR took six cars from Texas to the Aerodyn wind tunnel in Mooresville, North Carolina, for testing today, presumably to measure downforce levels between manufacturers.

Maybe the sanctioning body also might explore the effects of aerodynamics after a particularly edgy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Several drivers lost the handle between Turns 3 and 4 when on the bottom with a car on the outside. Brad Keselowski, who was collected in a multicar crash that started when Denny Hamlin lost control with Aric Almirola on the outside, said the blame mostly could be attributed to aerodynamics.

Race winner Kyle Busch agreed. “It does lend itself to aerodynamics,” he said. “The guy on the outside just doesn’t want to get any wider than he has to because of how wide the racetrack is. You want to stay in that rubber.  The closer you can stay or the lower you can stay, the better the grip is.  So you’re going to pinch that guy that’s on the inside of you as much as you can in order to hold your position, if you’re the guy on the outside, sacrifice yourself.

“You’re playing with fire.  It’s a double‑edged sword.  You can pin him, keep that spot, or you can pin him and crash, and he can take you with him.  You have to be mindful of that.”

Though there were some examples of drivers making great saves (namely Busch and Bubba Wallace), there is a fine line between making the cars hard to drive and going beyond the bounds of top-level talent.

Texas showed that the current car might straddle that boundary too much on a supersonic 1.5-mile layout.


NASCAR confirmed Tuesday that it was Ryan Blaney’s right-front tire that was deemed uncontrolled and triggered a penalty on Lap 43 (and not the right rear that briefly was unattended while stationary on the outside of the pit box).

Normally, this would be mostly nonessential information but with the (admittedly wrong) noncall on Harvick’s team late in the race, Blaney’s penalty provides important context to how the rule is interpreted and assessed.

NASCAR America: Cup teams take different routes to faster pit stops

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Withing with one fewer team member because of a new limit reducing pit crews from six to five, teams are experimenting with various ways to change four tires.

While crews figure out how to execute pit stops as quickly as possible, they’re also having to deal with new pit guns, not all of which worked Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

On NASCAR America, analysts Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte took a look at the different pit crew strategies teams are trying and compared them with last year. There were three distinct strategies examined:

–The front-tire changer also carrying a tire (employed by the teams of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch).

–A tire carrier lugging both tires to the right side of the car (used by Brad Keselowski‘s crew).

–A dual jack man approach (Ryan Newman‘s team).

At Atlanta, Harvick’s race-winning team used two tire changers, a jack man, the fuel man and one tire carrier on the rear. The front-tire changer also carried a tire and got help from the jack man.

“I think probably the thought process in that is, ‘Let’s speed up the rear up so it’s as close to the front as possible,'” Burton said.

Letarte highlighted the unique strategy of Keselowski’s team having one carrier with both tires.

“This tire carrier has about 150 pounds of tires in his hands, 75 pounds each,” Letarte said. “You have to have a strong, agile crew member.”

No matter the strategy, pit stops already have improved in two races.

“These pit stops have picked up almost 2 seconds, just from Daytona to Atlanta,” Letarte said.

Watch the video above for more on the different pit stop styles.

Below, Burton and Letarte discuss the various cost saving initiatives NASCAR has introduced this season.