Steve O’Donnell

Long: All-Star Race shows value of shorter distances for Cup events

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The All-Star Race is billed as an event that also serves as a test session.

While cars had some new parts that may be used on the Gen 7 vehicle — expected to debut in 2021 — there’s something else that can be taken from Saturday night and applied to more races.

Shorter distances.

A night that saw two stages in the Monster Open end in spectacular finishes, the All-Star Race crown a new winner and punches thrown on pit road afterward, featured 150 laps compared to the 400 laps that will be run on the same track this weekend.

While there remains room on the Cup schedule for a Daytona 500, a Coca-Cola 600 and a Southern 500, the All-Star Race showed that sometimes shorter distances can be better.

There certainly didn’t seem to be any complaints from fans Saturday night about seeing fewer laps of racing than most weekends.

Instead, the talk was about Clint Bowyer running to Ryan Newman’s car and flailing at Newman in retaliation for being wrecked on the cool-down lap.

Or the talk was about Bubba Wallace’s dramatic win in the second stage of the Monster Energy Open that saw Daniel Suarez slide off track and then Wallace finishing fifth in the All-Star Race.

Or the talk was about Kyle Larson winning is first All-Star Race and collecting $1 million after holding off Kevin Harvick at the end.

All this over an exhibition race.

Imagine what might happen if this was a points race and the winner secured a spot in the playoffs — something Larson initially wondered if he had done before being told no.

Shortening some races shouldn’t be done as a way to find younger fans that some would suggest don’t have the attention span for longer races. The sport doesn’t need to go chasing fans that way. It did that years ago and alienated its older fans.

But if some shorter distances heighten tensions in races and lead to more water cooler moments, then it’s something the sport should consider.

The notion that most races need to be marathons is outdated and outrageous. Few cars suffer mechanical failures. The downforce is so great that few cars spin, let alone crash. Racing is no longer a test of a car’s survival over long distances.

While longer races allow drivers and teams to overcome handling issues or mistakes early and contend for wins, that shouldn’t be the main reason to keep some races 400 or 500 miles.

Turn some of these races into sprints, add points and watch the pressure build. There will be no time for pleasantries. It will be about charging to the front.

Saturday night’s race provided such action. Although not every short race will capture the essence of the All-Star Race, there’s a greater chance of it happening.

Just think about what often makes a longer race special. It’s a restart at the end that forces drivers to make bold moves. In essence a late restart turns a long race into quick sprint.

Why not add a few more of those in the future?

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The All-Star Race will be in Charlotte next year but what is the event’s future?

Provided the Gen 7 car debuts in 2021 as NASCAR states, there will be no need to use the All-Star Race that season as a test session — as has been done the past two times — because teams still will be trying to figure out the car.

That would make it a good time to consider moving the All-Star Race to a different location. Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway would be a logical choice but there are challenges.

Provided NASCAR releases the 2021 schedule next April — the 2020 Cup, Xfinity and Truck schedules were all released by April 3 this year — it gives the folks at Bristol Motor Speedway (and Speedway Motorsports Inc.) less than 11 months to complete a deal with the city and the fair board, which oversees the track, get funding approved and make the changes that are needed to update the track.

While all of that is happening, the city will have elections in August for mayor and other city positions. With multiple candidates running for mayor, a run-off might be needed and that would be held in September.

Those in the sport who have had to work with government entities know how deals can be all but done and then suddenly change at the last minute, throwing everything in doubt. The more layers of government, the longer something takes.

Anything can happen. A deal could be completed in time and could provide the opportunity to move the All-Star Race to Nashville in 2021. If not, maybe there is another place to hold it besides Charlotte, which already has two points races.

If not Nashville, maybe Iowa Speedway or some other track that would need a limited number of upgrades to host NASCAR’s top series. It could be time to think about moving the All-Star Race to places that don’t already have a Cup event.

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Synthetic turf at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Daniel Hemric, Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman showed during Saturday night’s races at Charlotte Motor Speedway how valuable it is for a track to have a synthetic turf instead of grass.

The track installed 88,000 square feet of synthetic turf last summer, along with a new drainage system, to replace the grass along the frontstretch. It was in place for the inaugural race on the Roval.

Hemric slid through the turf during the second stage of the Monster Energy Open after contact with Ryan Preece. Suarez spun through the turf at the end of the second stage in the Open. His car was not damaged, allowing him to continue.

Newman slid through the turf during the second stage of the All-Star Race and also suffered no damage and was able to continue.

“That was big,” Newman said. “I was able to finish my race. If there was grass down there, I wouldn’t have. That was a big deal.”

As long as vehicles have splitters, NASCAR should look to require speedways to use synthetic turf instead of grass in areas near the track to limit the damage when cars and trucks go through those areas. If not turf, then pave those areas. 

While not every accident is the same, just look at what happened to Natalie Decker in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series race earlier this month when she slid into the frontstretch grass at Kansas Speedway. Decker was eliminated because of the damage and finished 25th.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said Monday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that series officials will “continue to look at” synthetic turf in place of grass at tracks.

“While it does present some challenges at some other tracks, I think that is a system we’ll continue to look at,” he said. “Certainly performed great. It looks good from a fan perspective and certainly helps the cars when they get in the turf during a race.”

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With Kevin Harvick chasing him in the final laps, Kyle Larson did not make a mistake and give away the All-Star Race.

It was much different from the 2016 All-Star Race when he hit the wall while leading with two laps to go as Joey Logano challenged him. Logano went on to win. Larson finished 16th in the 20-car field.

Saturday night, there were no mistakes.

“This year has been different for me,” Larson said. “I’ve never worked out before, and I’ve been in the gym a little bit more this year with (trainer and former driver) Josh Wise and just working out with him, and being around him puts a lot more confidence and ease into me. I feel like I’m just more calm.

“I wasn’t nervous at all that last restart, and I think part of that is just from feeling like I am prepared. And also losing close races.  I just — I feel like I’ve done a good job of not getting stressed out, even with me losing the Chili Bowl (on the last lap to Christopher Bell in January). I felt like I was really calm until the last two laps and I gave the race away. (Saturday) I wasn’t going to let that happen.

“With those losses that I’ve had, you grow from each and every one of them. Hopefully we can continue this, and I feel like  — everybody becomes a better driver the older they get, but I feel like I’ve put more work and effort into it this year.”

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Brad Keselowski: ‘Nighttime is the new daytime’ with new rules package

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What a difference a week makes.

Five days after multiple drivers were critical of the Cup Series rules package and its impact on competition at Dover International Speedway, the strongest negative comments after Saturday’s Kansas race were about blocking.

The Digital Ally 400 saw a frenzy of action in its final stage as four drivers swapped the lead over the last 43 laps, with Brad Keselowski leading the final 11 laps.

The race also experienced 41 green flag passes for the lead, a track record, and 3,448 overall passes, more than twice the number in last year’s race. Those passes included multiple instances of three-wide and even four-wide racing at times on restarts.

With the race held under the lights and in 50-degree weather, Keselowski said he expected racing to be side-by-side.

The Team Penske driver said this year’s rule package has flipped the script on what to expect from night races.

“I think I told somebody today that it used to be we wanted daytime races because it fit the rules,” Keselowski said after his win. “Now it’s the opposite. Nighttime is the new daytime for NASCAR as far as the racing being better … because it gives you the grip to be able to take advantage of what this car or rules setup is designed for.

“With it being cool temperatures and being a night race, I think that’s exactly what we saw, and that’s part of why the cars were double file a lot of times in a race where normally they wouldn’t be.”

Erik Jones, who finished third, said Saturday’s race “was the closest iteration that NASCAR is … shooting for. We were very close to wide open and there was definitely some pack racing moments after the restarts and stuff like that. Both of those things combined lent to that.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, believes the rules package’s “body of work” on the intermediate tracks like Kansas “kind of speaks for itself.”

O’Donnell made his comments Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.”

“When you look at apples to apples of Vegas and that race and Texas and Kansas, I think we’ve certainly proven that the data that we came into this rules package with at the intermediate tracks has proven out,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell said data from the race weekend matched up with what NASCAR had seen in CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) data and testing.

“When we started practice we were spot on, on- and off-throttle time matched up with what we thought as well,” O’Donnell said. “Then you look at past races and surprisingly the Kansas spring race last year played out almost exactly like this year. We had a competition caution on Lap 30 here. You got a caution on roughly Lap 30 in the spring last year. Same thing with green flag pit stops. The data when you compare it from this year to last year is kind of apples to apples, which is good for us. It showed some definite progress.”

NASCAR community mourns death of former Truck owner Mike Mittler

Photo: Jamie McMurray
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Former and current NASCAR drivers mourned the passing of former Truck Series owner Mike Mittler on Friday. Mittler was 67.

Mittler’s Truck teams competed in 301 series races from 1995-2018. Although his team never won a Truck race, it made an impact in NASCAR, providing rides for such drivers as Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Justin Allgaier and Brad Keselowski, among others. Copp Motorsports announced before the season it was dedicating the year to Mittler. The team changed its number from 83 to 63.

“If it wasn’t for people like Mike who have paved the way, we wouldn’t have the opportunities that we have now to participate in NASCAR,” Copp Motorsports owner DJ Copp said.

Mittler stated Oct. 3, 2017, on his Facebook page that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He stated in that posting that he had his first chemo treatment that day and was at the shop after the treatment.

Many in the sport paid tribute to Mittler on Friday.

Chris Blair, executive vice president and general manager of World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois, stated about Mittler: “Mike was special. He was a great man who inspired many. I value each moment shared with him through the years, especially those in the garage along with my son.”

Here is what others in the sport said about Mittler:

Kyle Busch on not being fined: ‘I’m not sure I said anything wrong’

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyle Busch said he was not surprised NASCAR decided against fining him for his comments after Monday’s Dover race because “I’m not sure I said anything wrong. I just spoke my opinion. Everybody has got an opinion.”

Busch spoke Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame Plaza at the unveiling of his car for the May 26 Coca-Cola 600.

MORE: Kevin Harvick: “The driver’s voice is not being heard much”

Busch has been outspoken about the race packages used this season and said last Friday at Dover that the speeds were “probably too fast.”

Busch expressed his frustration with the race package after finishing 10th at Dover, saying: “It’s terrible,” according to Frontstretch.com reporter Davey Segal. “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.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, responded Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio to Busch’s comments by saying: “I would probably start with, didn’t have the race he wanted and not surprised at what he said.”

Busch said Wednesday he has talked with O’Donnell.

“The discussion went well,” Busch said. “Everything was fine. We were able to kind of talk about what each of us were wanting to get out of last (Monday) and for further on into the year.”

Busch explained his comments from after the race.

“We’re all trying to make everything better for everyone as a collective industry,” he said. “There are certain vote getters that get their wish more than others, it’s frustrating at times. For us drivers, we tend to voice our opinions, whether it is with the owners or whether it is with NASCAR, both sides of the fence we don’t seem to get very far. That’s where it becomes most frustrating at times.”

NASCAR official responds to criticism about Dover race package

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A NASCAR executive countered criticism that it was hard to pass in Monday’s Cup race at Dover and rebuked a team owner’s complaints on social media.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, responded to Kyle Busch’s criticism of the package at Dover by saying Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “these are the best drivers in the world, and it’s going to be hard to pass.”

O’Donnell had his sharpest rebuke for Bob Leavine, owner of Leavine Family Racing. Leavine stated on Twitter that he seconded Busch’s comments that “this package sucks.” Leavine also responded to questions about the racing on Twitter after the race and Tuesday morning.

O’Donnell told “The Morning Drive” that Levine could have voiced his displeasure another way.

“We certainly talk to everybody,” O’Donnell said. “It’s unfortunate, especially when a team owner does social media, I don’t think that’s the right way to do it at all. It’s a choice that was made. We’re available every race. We go out there and talk to every constituent we have. Jim France is at every race, which is phenomenal. The ability to say that you don’t have a chance to talk to us about your feedback is a bit questionable.”

Questions were raised throughout the weekend with speeds up at Dover because of higher downforce. Kevin Harvick tweeted during the weekend that he went 17 mph faster in the center of the corner with this package than last year.

Busch raised safety concerns Friday about the speeds. Other drivers raised questions about what the racing might be like with the faster speeds. Despite coming from the back of the field at the start to win, Martin Truex Jr. said it was “definitely really hard to pass” Monday.

Busch was again outspoken after the race, calling the race package “terrible” according to Frontstretch.com reporter Davey Segal.

Asked about Busch’s comments, O’Donnell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio:

“I would probably start with, didn’t have the race he wanted and not surprised at what he said. What’s unfortunate, he actually tied a record (for most top-10 finishes to start a season) and the question I’m asked is about his comments postrace. His teammate was able to win and pass every car in the field, and he chose to make the comments he did.

“If you look at the package, no matter what we’ve put out there, drivers always say it’s hard to pass, and our comment back to that has always been that these are the best drivers in the world and it’s going to be hard to pass.

“I’ve brought it up before, this is one of our most challenging tracks. Typically we see some challenges in passing at Dover. Talked about the last stage, I think we would have liked to have seen a little bit closer racing certainly in the last stage but also don’t want to take anything away from Truex and what his team was able to do.

“It’s important to remind everyone that when we talk about his package, it wasn’t done in a vacuum. The entire industry said we wanted a consistent package for every racetrack. Dover we knew going in was going to be a challenging track. All in all, I think the first two stages presented some really good races. I would choose to go back and look … you always ask me how the overall season been, we’ve seen some really good racing, we’ve seen some stats that are up from passing, green-flag passes for the lead are up 46 percent. That’s an important stat for the industry, and that’s one we’re going to continue to focus on, and we’re going to go to Kansas and focus on putting on good races. That’s how I would address Kyle.”

Asked how NASCAR balances criticism of the racing package, O’Donnell said:

“Our job is to balance all that input and then make a decision on what we think will put on the best race, the most competitive race that will allow as many as cars to win as possible, but we still want the best cars and best drivers to win. Anytime you see it’s challenging to pass, that’s something we look at. We said we would do that. … When you look at the body of the work so far this year, it’s hard to say the racing has not been better than last year. I think it has been. What I go back to are the facts and the facts prove it out.”