Rick Mast

Friday 5: The tale of two comments and one fine

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What’s the difference between these comments?

Denny Hamlin after the March 3, 2013, Phoenix race: “I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning. The teams hadn’t figured out how to get the aero balance right. Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th-place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up. It’s just one of those things where track position is everything.”

Kyle Busch after Monday’s race at Dover on the package for the cars: “It’s terrible. All I can do is bitch about it and fall on deaf ears and we’ll come back with the same thing in the fall.”

NASCAR fined Hamlin $25,000 for his comments.

NASCAR explained the reason for the fine by stating: “Denny Hamlin made some disparaging remarks about the on-track racing that had taken place that afternoon. While NASCAR gives its competitors ample leeway in voicing their opinions when it comes to a wide range of aspects about the sport, the sanctioning body will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product.”

Six years later, NASCAR said this week that it would not fine Busch for his comments after the Dover race. Busch said this week that he was not surprised NASCAR decided against fining him for his comments because “I’m not sure I said anything wrong.”

But don’t try to dissect the comments. That’s not the place to look in examining why one driver was fined and another was not.

NASCAR’s reaction to Busch’s comments shows a calmer approach. That’s a difference between Jim France, who is now the sport’s CEO, and Brian France, who was the CEO when Hamlin was fined.

Brian France often used a simple example to explain his reasoning for fining drivers for comments, saying in November 2011: “If I own a restaurant and I say you know what, the food in my restaurant is not very good, we’re not going to accept it. It’s as simple as that.”

With that as a key component, NASCAR issued secret fines to Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski for comments and actions.

When public pressure grew for NASCAR to do away with secret fines, Brian France said in January 2012 that the sanctioning body would still react to driver comments.

“If you challenge the integrity of the sport, we’re going to deal with that,” Brian France said then. “You know, we have to deal with that. And I think what’s really interesting is I can’t tell you how many owners or drivers come up to me and say thanks for doing that because some of these comments were irresponsible and unhelpful to growing the sport.”

If drivers can’t pass, they’re going to be frustrated. Some drivers noted how winner Martin Truex Jr. had the best car at Dover but it took him 240 laps to get to the front.

Truex took the lead for good with 53 laps to go. The same car that struggled in traffic — “It was definitely really hard to pass,” he said — then drove away from the field, winning by 9.5 seconds.

While the package has improved the racing at some tracks, it’s not perfect every place. The key is making changes for tracks where the package isn’t as effective.

With car owners facing additional costs with the Gen 7 car’s projected debut in 2021, they likely will be hesitant to be in favor of any expensive midseason changes. It’s 21 months until February 2021. With many details to be worked out with the new car, the question is what can NASCAR do to allow drivers to show more of their skill? If NASCAR can’t find a solution, how much longer will they allow drivers to speak up about the package?

2. Is time running out for NASCAR to go to Nashville in 2021?

In December, Formosa Productions, which promotes races at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee, and Bristol Motor Speedway reached an agreement to “explore bringing major NASCAR racing events” back to the .596-mile track.

Nearly six months later, work remains.

An issue is getting an agreement done with the city by next spring when NASCAR is expected to announce the 2021 schedules. NASCAR announced the 2020 Xfinity and Gander Truck Series schedules April 4, 2019. If NASCAR aims for a similar target date, that would leave 11 months to get a deal complete.

If more time was needed, NASCAR might be able to delay the 2021 Xfinity and Truck schedules. The 2019 schedules for both series were not released until June 13, 2018. Either way, time is ticking.

“Days, weeks and months go by quickly when you’re not really paying attention to it,” Marcus Smith, president and chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, said. “However, it’s very possible things can get put on the right track and move along very swiftly and that’s certainly our interest.”

He says conversations are ongoing.

I think the most important part is we’ve got a strong interest and it seems like in general there is a big interest in the people we’re talking with,” Smith said.

A few issues facing an effort to get on the 2021 schedule:

Nashville elections, including for mayor, are Aug. 12. There are multiple candidates for mayor and should a runoff election be needed, it would be held Sept. 12.

Smith notes that Fairgrounds Speedway “needs some TLC.” So far a financing plan has not been finalized.

Also, the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners raised issues in its April meeting about SMI’s involvement.

While the Tennessean had reported that SMI/Bristol Motor Speedway officials have met with Mayor David Briley and his administration, the Fair Board — which oversees the track — has not had any contact.

“I think there has sort of been a transparency problem here,” said fair board member Jason Bergeron at the April meeting. “It’s been eight months and we haven’t heard any details. … It’s a little frustrating. We have no concrete proposal and there’s been no real engagement with the community.”

He later said: “I think SMI needs to bring a real proposal to the table.”

The agenda for the May 14 Fair Commission Board meeting includes a “presentation by Speedway Motorsports Inc.”

3. A new test

Cup teams return to a 1.5-mile speedway this weekend for the first time in more than a month.

Denny Hamlin won at Texas on March 31 in the most recent race at a 1.5-mile speedway. That race also saw Hendrick Motorsports lead 110 of 334 laps between Jimmie Johnson (60 laps led), Chase Elliott (35) and William Byron (15). Johnson finished fifth, Byron sixth and Elliott 13th.

Stewart-Haas Racing, which is winless this year after winning a series-high 12 races last year, placed all four of its cars in the top 10 at Texas: Clint Bowyer was second, Daniel Suarez placed third, Aric Almirola was seventh and Kevin Harvick finished eighth.

Almirola is excited to see where his team stands this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

“We’ve built new race cars going to Kansas,” Almirola said. “We built new race cars going to Texas, which I thought were in the game. We were competitive, we led some laps and challenged to lead the race at the end.

“We were in the right direction with our race cars and then we’ve taken another step in going to Kansas. Just continuing to evolve our mile-and-a-half program. Having a month off has really allowed us to kind of take as step back, go through lot of data, look at a lot of different things and build these race cars.”

4. Record streak

No, we’re not talking about Kyle Busch tying Morgan Shepherd for the most consecutive top-10 finishes in a row at 11, but what Ross Chastain has done this year.

Ross Chastain has competed in every Cup, Xfinity and Truck race this season. Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chastain has started every Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series race. That’s 27 consecutive races and it will grow this weekend with Chastain entered in both the Truck and Cup races at Kansas Speedway.

Chastain is one of three drivers to have started more than 16 consecutive races in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks to start the season. Chastain ranks No. 1 on the list.

Kyle Busch is next. Busch started the first 22 races in the 2008 season and started the first 20 races in the 2009 season. Rick Mast started the first 16 races in the 1989 season.

5. Looks familiar

In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. had two wins, three top-five finishes, seven top-10 finishes, led 536 laps and had an average finish of 10.5 after 11 races.

This year, Truex has scored two wins, four top-five finishes, seven top-10 finishes, led 343 laps and has an average finish of 10.3 after 11 races.

Truex went on to win the title in 2017. While it’s too early to forecast anything like that this year, his start in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing should not go unnoticed, especially heading to Kansas. He has four consecutive top-five finishes there. He won both races there in 2017, finished runner-up in the May 2018 race and placed fifth in last year’s playoff race.

Rick Mast remembers thrill of earning first Brickyard 400 pole as if it was yesterday

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It’s trivia time:

Most of us know Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994.

But who won the pole for that race?

Dale Earnhardt? Rusty Wallace? Bill Elliott? Gordon?

Nope.

The answer: Rick Mast.

The Brickyard pole was one of only four poles the Rockbridge Baths, Virginia native claimed in his 15-year, 364-race NASCAR Cup career.

And even though he’s been retired from racing for the last 15 years, Mast forever will be known as the driver to take the field to green in NASCAR’s first foray at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Driving the No. 1 Skoal Ford Thunderbird for team owner Richard Jackson, Mast led the first two laps before falling back in the field, eventually finishing 22nd.

Rick Mast won the pole for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 in the No. 1 Ford.

Qualifying for the pole proved to be almost like a race itself, as 86 cars took part to potentially be a part of NASCAR history and the 43-car field for the Brickyard.

Mast, though, had a secret weapon that played a big part in earning the top spot – four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt.

“I got to know A.J. pretty well because we shared the same sponsor, so I went over and told him what my car was doing and he kind of told me what to expect,” Mast said in a media release. “We made some minor adjustments, and when I made the qualifying lap the car was on a rail. It just stuck.”

Mast qualified early in the first half of the session with a speed of 172.414 mph.

Then came the waiting game as the remainder of the 86 cars gave the pole their best efforts.

“Everybody prepared,” Mast said. “I never saw the total garage area prepare so long for one single lap.

“It used to be that Daytona was a big deal. You’d go down there testing all the time in the winter preparing for that qualifying lap, but it seemed Indy was like that times 10 for two years.”

Even after his qualifying run, Mast still replayed it over and over in his head, making mental check-off notes that he did everything he could to get as much speed out of his race car.

“There are so many unknowns to that place,” Mast said. “You knew the track would change so much and the time we went out wasn’t the best time of the day, but I had no clue if it was going to hold up.

“I remember thinking maybe halfway through the qualifying session when nobody was really coming close to our speed that we might have a shot at it, but we knew better than to let ourselves get up too much hope.”

And then came even more waiting.

“It seemed like it took three days to run all those cars,” Mast said. “Richard (Jackson) was torn all to pieces. He couldn’t sit down, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk. He knew what it was all about and what it meant for Skoal and Ford.”

What made Mast’s pole win all the more sweeter for himself, Jackson and the team is they were the new kids on the Ford block for that season and beat out longtime stalwarts that carried the blue oval like Junior Johnson, Robert Yates and Jack Roush. Mast’s team had switched from Oldsmobile to Ford before the 1994 season.

“We were stepping in as a new team in the Ford camp and it was incumbent on me to try to justify Ford’s involvement with us,” Mast said. “I was so wanting to prove ourselves to Ford in some capacity, and when I sat on the pole at Indy it gave me some big satisfaction. It was a very, very big deal in my eyes for Ford to do that and that’s not sugar-coating anything. That’s just the way it was at the time.”

Mast was forced to retire from racing in 2002 after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning that left him confined to a bed for 31 days.

“About three of four years after I retired it started easing up to where now I can breathe it,” Mast said. ”I can be around it and it doesn’t bother me.

“I don’t go into a garage or any confined space or an area that has fumes or stuff like that. I immediately try to get away from it, but at least I can be around it and that’s a lot better than they said it would ever be, so for that I’m very grateful.”

These days, Mast runs his own business, RKM Enviro Clean, which offers cleaning services ranging from hazardous material clean-up to flood recovery services.

But he hasn’t forgotten his racing roots. He still attends races at Richmond and Martinsville when he can.

Mast was reminded in a recent interview that his Brickyard pole wasn’t the only illustrious start of his Cup career.

When asked who sat on the pole for Richard Petty’s last Cup race and Jeff Gordon’s first Cup race, as well as the same race that saw Alan Kulwicki beat Bill Elliott for the championship – all in the 1992 season-ending event – Mast didn’t hesitate.

“You don’t have to guess. You know.”

Yes, it was Mast.

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