O’Donnell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio: “I would say I will be having a conversation with Bubba Wallace. I think that was really not classy whatsoever. I understand that drivers have issues with each other during a race, we totally get that, but when a driver is on the ground being attended to by medical personnel, you need to be smarter than that. We’ll have that conversation with Bubba and see how that goes and obviously prior to (this weekend’s race) at Dover.”
Friday 5: Kyle Busch’s comments address murky issue with no solution
RICHMOND, Va. — The way to prevent the contact that happened last week between Kyle Busch and Garrett Smithley at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is simple.
Once the playoffs start, only playoff cars can race.
Of course, that will never happen — and should never happen.
But as long as more than half the field features non-playoff competitors, there will be times when those drivers play a role, despite their best intentions, of impacting a playoff driver’s race. It could happen again in Saturday night’s playoff race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
“People don’t understand the technology gap and the money gap that there is in the Cup series,” Smithley told Mojo Nixon on “Manifold Destiny.”
Smithley understands. His NASCAR career of 11 Cup races and 125 Xfinity starts all have been with underfunded teams.
Such teams have fewer resources and struggle to be competitive, all but forcing their drivers to seemingly spend as much time looking out the rearview mirror to stay out of the way as looking ahead through the windshield.
While NASCAR has a minimum speed for races, only one time this season, according to Cup race reports, has a car been ordered off the track because it was going too slow. That was the Spire Motorsports entry at Dover in May. Two months later, that team — one of 36 chartered teams — won the rain-shortened race at Daytona with a different driver.
Corey LaJoie noted on Twitter after the Las Vegas race how a team’s financial situation can impact its driver choice:
As long as there are “unchartered” teams, the model makes them strapped for cash and they cannot afford to pay an experienced guy what they’re worth. They have to take anyone that can pass NASCAR’s “approval” process and has enough to pay the tire bill for that week.
Justin Allgaier, preparing to compete in Friday’s Xfinity Series playoff opener, understands the plight of drivers with subpar equipment. Allgaier suffered through such circumstances when he raced in Cup.
“Kyle obviously had some pretty harsh words,” Allgaier said Thursday during the Xfinity Series playoff media day at Richmond Raceway. “I do understand sometimes there are times where lapped traffic does make a big difference in how the outcome goes. But on the flip side, I’ve been in that situation. You’re battling, really your livelihood, just to even keep a ride, and you’re doing everything you can and the last thing you want to do is mess somebody up.
“I thought that the situation we were in last week, personally I didn’t think anything could have been done differently as far as what Garrett did or what lane he ran. I thought he did everything right. He went in and picked a lane and stuck with it.”
Busch didn’t see it that way and ran into the back of Smithley. Busch then ignited a debate on social media when he told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”
Busch’s question has no answer that will appease him because nothing will be done. It’s understandable if he’s sensitive to the issue. Last year at Phoenix, a caution with 18 laps to go by a driver making his first start in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks in four years, bunched the field and took away Busch’s advantage. Busch pulled away on the restart to win.
Nobody does. The incident between Busch and Smithley likely will be soon forgotten. But there will come a day when a non-playoff driver is involved in a situation in the championship race that could determine who wins the title and who doesn’t. As long as NASCAR’s playoff races include non-playoff cars, the risk always will be there. It is up to NASCAR to ensure that those competing in those races are qualified to do so.
2. A new experience
Jimmie Johnson got his first taste as a non-playoff driver in a playoff race last weekend at Las Vegas and it was interesting.
One of the debates before and during the playoffs is how much those not racing for a title should race the playoff contenders. As the level of desperation increases in each round among playoff drivers, their patience with non-playoff drivers decreases.
So what was the seven-time champion’s experience like with the playoff drivers Sunday?
“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs took some desperate moves out there,” he said earlier this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway after joining breast cancer survivors in painting pit wall pink. “I saw it happen to other drivers, I had a few make that move on me as well.
“It’s a tricky situation to be in, and I know they’re going after every point they need to but so am I. We certainly plan to not allow myself to be used up as I was in Vegas a couple of times.”
3. Game planning
A fascinating aspect of this year’s rules package is how crew chiefs set their cars, particularly at the big tracks. Stewart-Haas Racing focused on speed for its cars last weekend at Las Vegas and took the top four spots in qualifying. When it came to the race, Kevin Harvick’s car was the only SHR car to excel and finished second.
Joe Gibbs Racing, on the other hand, focused on downforce to make its cars better in the race. The result was that Martin Truex Jr. won after starting 24th.
That’s a trend for Truex. He has started eighth or worse in four of the five races he’s won this year. Truex qualified 13th at Dover but then started at the rear because of inspection failures, he qualified 14th in the Coca-Cola 600, started eighth at Sonoma and 24th at Las Vegas in his wins. The exception was when he started fifth at Richmond in his April victory.
Harvick’s team has taken a different approach. He qualified third at Las Vegas and finished second. He won from the pole at Indianapolis. He won at Michigan in August after starting second.
“That’s their MO, right?” crew chief Cole Pearn said after Truex’s win last weekend at Las Vegas of Harvick’s team. “They’re dragging the pipes, slamming the backs, just going for all that speed. It’s working for them. All the power to them.
“I think for us, we’ve had a couple races where we’ve gone more that way and they haven’t been very good for us. I think everyone has their own take. I think you generally look at JGR as a whole, how well we’ve qualified this year, I think we got one pole, 14 wins. That’s the variance in the strategy.”
4. Reading time
Denny Hamlin and Noah Gragson have spent time on a new endeavor recently. They’re both reading books to help make them better.
Hamlin and others have cited personal growth as contributing to his turnaround this season after going winless last year, the first time he had failed to win while competing full-time in Cup.
“It’s definitely fact that I am calmer and more confident because I have learned to let go of the things that I can’t control,” Hamlin said. “A lot of that has come through self-improvement. I have done a lot of reading, which I wouldn’t consider myself a reader. I didn’t read a book, I guarantee you, from whenever I had to in high school till I turned 38 this year.
“I just started reading over the last three or four months. I started learning and trying to be a better person in general. I have learned to really let go of things I can’t control. It has really allowed me to think about the process more. I think it really has helped with my on-track performances. Thinking through the processes more and not focusing on and worrying about the things that I specifically can’t control.”
Gragson said that he’s reading a book “25 Ways to Win With People” to be a better team leader.
“That’s what I need to be for this race team,” Gragson said. “It’s really easy to be happy and smiling when things are going good, but I feel like your character comes out when maybe things aren’t going as well as you would want. I’m trying to lean on people who I call my mentors … reading that book and just trying to be better and more positive.”
Gragson said he got the book from former driver Josh Wise, who trains drivers with Chip Ganassi Racing, JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.
“I’ve been leaning on him,” Gragson said of Wise. “He helps me with overall thinking. He was the first person I went to when I felt like we were going through maybe a valley that our communication was off as a team, I was kind of struggling with my confidence and where we were. Leaning on him really helped me. The takeaways (from the book) have been very valuable and it helps me with everyday life, too. I’m willing to try it and it’s been helping so far.”
5. Who is next
Richmond marks the fifth short track race of the season. Consider what the first four races have seen:
Four different winners (Brad Keselowski at Martinsville, Kyle Busch at Bristol, Martin Truex Jr. at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).
Four different pole winners (Joey Logano at Martinsville, Chase Elliott at Bristol, Kevin Harvick at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).
Four different drivers finished second (Chase Elliott at Martinsville, Kurt Busch at Bristol, Joey Logano at Richmond and Matt DiBenedetto at the Bristol night race).
“It’s cool when you get to get out and race hard,” Jones said of racing Larson. “That’s what we love to do is get to get out there and battle with the best of the best, and there’s no better feeling than when you’re battling with a guy for the lead who is considered one of the better guys in the series, and especially at a place like Darlington (where) I feel like is really one of Kyle’s better tracks.”
The key moment came when Larson led the field to a restart on Lap 283 of the 367-lap race. Jones powered underneath Larson in Turn 2 to take the lead.
Even though patience is preached at Darlington, Jones knew he needed to be aggressive.
“You’ve got to pick and choose your battles, and the one with Larson there was one I felt like was necessary to pick,” Jones said. “I felt like if I got behind him, I don’t think we win the race.
“This package is really tough to pass with here. I felt like tonight was a really big struggle as far as the package itself and making our way forward. We made some passes on the very long runs in the race that we had and some on pit road and were able to position ourselves up front, but I knew if we got behind him, he was just fast enough he would have been able to defend. He’s a good enough driver he’s going to defend the same way I did him and Kyle (Busch).”
Larson countered in Turn 3 and moved ahead. Jones reclaimed the lead on the next lap. He went under Larson’s car in Turn 1 and barely cleared Larson when he moved up in front of the No. 42 Chevrolet.
“He cut me a little bit of a break letting me clear him up in 1 and 2, and I knew at that point we had to get the lead,” Jones said. “I knew if we could get it, we could set our pace. But I enjoyed racing with him. We raced hard.”
Larson, who would not get back by Jones, lamented his restart.
“We just didn’t have the greatest restarts there to allow Erik to get by me,” he said.
Jones’ victory marked the seventh time in 25 Cup races (28%) this season that a Cup driver under the age of 30 had won. Go back to early in last year’s playoffs and drivers under 30 have won 12 of the last 33 Cup races (36%).
That number could rise with the number of 20-somethings making an impact in the sport. Twenty of the 39 Southern 500 drivers this past weekend were under the age of 30, including eight of the top 14 finishers.
Darlington marked the fourth time this year that drivers under the age of 30 finished first and second in a Cup race. It also happened at Talladega (Chase Elliott won, Alex Bowman second), Chicagoland (Bowman won, Larson second), Daytona in July (Justin Haley won, William Byron second) and the Southern 500.
Last year, only once did drivers under the age of 30 finish first and second in a race. That came in the Daytona 500 when Austin Dillon won and Bubba Wallace finished second.
Already, Jones’ two Cup wins have come at Daytona (July 2018) and Darlington. Quite a way to start a career.
“It’s pretty crazy, right?” Jones said.
“The Southern 500 is a race that is the top three in my list for sure, and to get a win here this early in my career, it really means a lot to me.”
The Southern 500 was to have started at 6:15 p.m. ET Sunday but rain delayed the event nearly four hours.
The green flag didn’t wave until 10:07 p.m. for a race that often takes around four hours to run. This past weekend’s race ended at 1:53 a.m. ET.
So why did NASCAR start the race so late?
Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, explained Tuesday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that Hurricane Dorian played a key role in the decision. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued an evacuation order for residents living along the South Carolina coast that began at noon ET Monday.
“It was just a situation where we really felt like that … the sooner we could get the race in the books, the better for the officials of the state to be able to kind of move on and do what they needed to do to protect the people of South Carolina and then certainly worried about the fans and everybody (at the track) being able to get out of there,” Miller told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
“A bit of an unpredictable situation with the weather, so the best thing for us was to do what we did and try to get everybody safe and sound.”
Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman head into this weekend’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway tied in points for the final playoff spot and not seeing eye-to-eye on an incident in the Southern 500.
Suarez holds the final playoff spot over Newman on a tiebreaker, which is based on best finish this season. Suarez’s best finish this year is third at Texas. Newman’s best finish this season is fifth at Daytona in July.
But the issue between them at Darlington took place early in the race. The caution came out on Lap 142 for Newman’s spin. It came after a duel with Suarez for 19th place.
“My car is clean,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “We all race very hard. Newman, he’s very well known for racing extremely hard. He’s one of the hardest guys to pass out there and I have a lot of respect for him. It was, I think, the second time or third time I was trying to pass him getting into (Turn) 1. He was just blocking me. At that time, I got him aero loose. I didn’t touch him. My car is 100% clean. That’s hard racing. He raced me hard and I raced him hard back.”
Newman told NBC Sports after the race: “He had me jacked up going into the corner and they said he hit me, pretty much uncalled for. He was struggling to catch me for a while and finally got to me and then just turned me around. Whether he hit me or not, he turned me around. So I guess what comes around, goes around.”
Erik Jones’ victory gives Joe Gibbs Racing wins in each of the sport’s crown jewel races run this year, heading into the final crown jewel race of the year.
Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500. Martin Truex Jr. won the Coca-Cola 600. Jones added his name to the list with his Southern 500 win. This weekend the series races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for what is considered one of the sport’s crown jewels.
No organization has swept all four races in the same season since Cup began racing at Indy in 1994.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday that his back is improving and he’s looking forward to competing in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Darlington Raceway (4 p.m. ET on NBC) in a car that pays tribute to his father.
Earnhardt made the comments Thursday on the SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Beyond Racing” that is co-hosted by his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Danielle Trotta.
“I had some bad bruising on my back, but I went and got some excellent advice and care and treatment for that and I’ve been doing some things at home to bring the swelling down,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
“All of that has actually gotten better very quickly, so I think I’m going to be OK. I think once you get in the car you won’t even think about it.”
Earnhardt is looking forward to racing at Darlington Raceway for the first time since the 2017 Southern 500. This will be his first Xfinity race at that track since 1999 and his first race of any type since competing in last summer’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond.
“I picked this weekend solely for the throwback experience,” Earnhardt said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “When we were there last year as broadcasters, I was like this is so much fun, this would be a great race to run on my schedule if I get a race and here we are.
“Then I went to run some laps at Darlington. (JR Motorsports driver) Noah Gragson was there testing our cars, and I went there just to run about 10 or 20 laps just to check some boxes for me personally. I didn’t want to take away from Noah’s opportunity to understand the track and learn. I just wanted a few laps. I ran about 20 laps. It was hot, miserable, hard. I was slow.
“Although I know I can go out there and do it, I’m not quite sure exactly how well I can do it. I picked a very, very challenging race to run.”
“It’s going to be a hard race to win, much less to run in the top 10,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know where to really put my expectations or my personal goals.”
But even having to compete against such a field, including Xfinity title contenders Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer, the weekend is a good opportunity for Earnhardt to celebrate his father.
The younger Earnhardt will drive a car that looks similar to the one his father drove for his Cup debut.
“(The 1975) car was owned by Ed Negre. Dad and Norman Negre, Ed’s son, were friends. Dad and Norman got the nerve up and go to Ed and say, ‘Ed, this car is sitting in the back of your shop and we’d love to take it to Charlotte and try to run that race.’ He at first was real reluctant and finally goes, ‘Whatever, you guys take it.’ They go and qualify and make the race.”
Earnhardt said on “Beyond Racing” that sponsor Hellmann’s has an option to sponsor him in a car for a race next year.
Earnhardt said he will focus on his car Friday and Saturday and will not be a part of the NBC Sports broadcast crew those days. He said he will return to the booth for Sunday’s Southern 500, which airs at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Earnhardt said he will be in the booth with Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett during the race’s second stage to call the action and share stories.
I would like to thank @DaleJr for taking time for some pictures with Tommy Russell and my self today with @TooToughToTame paint scheme that he will be driving this weekend. It is so awesome to see that paint job on a car, it’s been 44 years 😊 pic.twitter.com/5Zk7V9rQDQ
Call this NASCAR’s season of rage: Drivers sniping, fussing and even a few fighting.
The anger was evident last weekend at Watkins Glen International. A seven-time champion ridiculed a competitor in an interview on NBCSN. A young driver’s expletive-laced comments explained why he spun a former champion.
The confrontations and cross words are not surprising in a season that might best be described with an angry face emoji.
The Cup Series is going though a transition. A new rules package is meant to excite current fans, coax new fans and create tight racing that can lead to clashes on and off the track. While the new rules have enhanced racing at 1.5-mile tracks, drivers say that passing remains a challenge. Thus blocking, once a tactic found primarily at Daytona and Talladega, has become commonplace. So have the conflicts.
There’s also a battle between veteran drivers and the next generation. The last few years have seen many veterans leave, and several new drivers arrive. Seventeen of the 40 starters in the Daytona 500 three years ago are no longer full-time Cup drivers, a list that includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. One driver who missed that race with an injury was Tony Stewart. He returned nine races into the year for what was his final Cup season.
Mixblocking with a generational gap in how to race, and one gets a mercurial situation. Add the pressure to make the playoffs and simply stand back because somebody is about to lose their cool.
Farther up pit road, Bubba Wallace said he wasn’t backing down. He turned Kyle Busch — Wallace’s former boss when Wallace ran in the Truck series — in retaliation for contact that sent Wallace into a tire barrier.
“I’m going to get my respect on the track, and I don’t care who it is,” Wallace said. “That’s for when guys fail to think about the young guys, I guess, or with me.
“I won’t put up with no shit. So I flat out wrecked his ass back.”
These disagreements have been going on throughout the season. It’s just that they’ve become more common lately.
“You don’t change the way that you enter a corner to choke somebody off knowing that it’s going to slow you down,” Newman said. “You, as a racer, are supposed to go out there and race as hard as you can to try to catch the guy in front of you, not let the guy behind you stay behind you.”
As for his discussion with Blaney, Newman said he told the fourth-year Cup driver: “The next time you do that, it’s not going to be good for you. That’s not the way I race. You want to block me, it’s not going to be good.’ I don’t mean it as a threat. I’m just telling him that’s the fact of it.”
Blocking was an issue Clint Bowyer had at the end of the Kansas race with Erik Jones in May. Jones, who is in his third full season, moved multiple lanes to block Bowyer’s charge and then drifted up to keep Bowyer behind.
“It would have been, I feel like, more professional to come talk to me about what was wrong instead of tearing up a race car and make my guys have to bring out a backup and have to work all the way through last night and show up early this morning and have to work even more,” Byron said the day after the incident. “I don’t think that’s the way to handle it. That’s kind of the unnecessary part for me that I don’t appreciate.”
It hasn’t just been veterans and young drivers having issues. Bowyer and Newman had contact after the All-Star Race that spun Bowyer. After exiting his car, Bowyer, ran to Newman’s and started punching Newman as he sat in his car.
Even young guys have been upset with one another. Alex Bowman was not happy with Joey Logano‘s driving at Charlotte, saying Logano “about crashed us in practice and then he drove into Turn 1 and tried to turn us (in the 600). I like Joey a lot. It is what it is. We’re all racing hard. I’m not super mad about it, I just thought it was dumb, that’s all.”
Asked about how drivers are racing each other, Bowman said: “Everybody has to race everybody hard with this package. There’s not a lot of room for give and take. I thought the situation was, there was a good chunk of the race left, it was pretty unnecessary. Probably wouldn’t have been as mad as I was about it if (Logano) didn’t about crash us in practice, which I thought was really unnecessary.
“It’s all good, and he’ll get his for sure.”
Bowman, who has a victory this season, doesn’t face the pressure to make the playoffs that Johnson does. Johnson, who has never failed to qualify for NASCAR’s postseason since it debuted in 2004, holds the final playoff spot by only a tiebreaker on Newman with four races left in the regular season. Earlier this month, Johnson’s team changed crew chiefs in the middle of the season for the first time in his career.
The tension is only going to increase in the Cup garage.
2. Life on the playoff bubble
Alex Bowman understands the pressure of trying to make the playoffs. A year ago, he held the final playoff spot with four races to go. He made the playoffs, but he admits to the anxiety he felt, something he doesn’t have to worry about with his win at Chicagoland Speedway qualifying him for a chance at the title this year.
“It’s definitely tough,” Bowman said of the pressure last year. “It’s not a lot of fun. It’s a lot of stress and a lot of pressure. It really wasn’t that bad last year until we got to Indy (for the regular-season finale), and we crashed pretty early, and we were kind of riding around just trying to finish. And I could see that Jamie McMurray was pretty close to the front, and, I’m like trying to look past 30 cars on restarts and see where everybody’s at. So, that was really stressful.”
3. Quest for tires that wear
NASCAR and drivers have made it clear that they seek a tire that wears more and that’s something Goodyear is looking to deliver.
“When it comes to tires, no secret that we want more wear, especially on the short tracks, and that’s the goal,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We’re going to work closely with Goodyear to get that. We think that’s a huge component of what goes into a race. The more we can deliver on that, that’s where the drivers want to see us go, and we’re going to push hard to do that.”
Case in point was a recent tire test at Martinsville Speedway.
“I think the main deal for that tire test was finding a left rear (tire) that fell off,” said Ryan Blaney, who took part in the test. “We ran through a bunch of different sets and combinations and things like that. Some were better than others. I don’t know what we’re coming back there with.”
Paul Menard, who also participated in the test, likes the idea of a tire that wears more.
“I think that Goodyear kind of sees that and is making a push to maybe be more aggressive to give us a softer compound that wears out more,” he said.
4. Winning again
Chase Elliott‘s win last weekend at Watkins Glen International gave Chevrolet four wins in the last six races: Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona), Kurt Busch (Kentucky) and Elliott.
Chevrolet drivers had won only four of the previous 51 races before this recent streak.
Bobby Labonte will get his first taste of “The Madhouse” in his first career modified race.
“The modified races there are really competitive, and the teams and drivers are serious and talented,” Labonte said in a media release. ” I am sure they will make it tough on me, but I am looking forward to strapping on my helmet and giving them a run.”