Friday 5: ‘Chaotic’ qualifying is entertaining and shouldn’t change

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Last week’s Cup qualifying at Las Vegas Motor Speedway raised the question of is qualifying more about entertainment or sport?

It was fascinating to watch cars parked on pit road and drivers waiting for someone to go because nobody wanted to be the lead car. They all wanted to be in the draft.

While that took place, spotters counted down the time remaining in the session.

It became a game of who would blink first and take off.

When it was time to go, there was chaos. Cars darted around each other. In the final round, Joey Logano went four-wide on pit road. Ricky Stenhouse passed Logano on the inside and left pit road ahead of him.

“Is chaos a bad thing?” Logano asked NBC Sports’ Jerry Bonkowski this week. “I think that’s the question we have to ask ourselves. Is it chaos? Yes. Is it entertaining? Oh yeah, it’s entertaining, there’s a lot going on. So I don’t know if it’s wrong and we should be changing much.

“I think there’s a couple safety aspects we can add to pit road while we’re jockeying around for position and stuff like that. But as far as the entertainment value, will you get the lap in before the clock runs out, will you get a big enough draft, will they all go out for a second time and you get a big pack again, are they going to knock somebody out of the round? That’s good.

“I don’t know why we would change much of that, I think it’s OK. Yeah, it’s a little chaotic, it’s crazy and none of us has it figured out or scienced out the way we want to have it yet, but that’s competition, that’s just what it is.”

Logano is right. While there was a randomness to who won the pole at Las Vegas, qualifying was as entertaining as any session in recent years.

What happened last week was reminiscent of qualifying at Talladega in October 2014. NASCAR divided teams into two groups for the opening round and each had five minutes. The top 24 overall times advanced.

Most cars stayed on pit road until they hit their cutoff mark to complete two laps. Not everyone made it. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier were among the cars that didn’t make it to the start/finish line before the session ended. Their fastest laps didn’t count. They both failed to qualify. It’s the only race Stenhouse has failed to make since his 2013 rookie Cup season.

These days, 36 chartered cars are guaranteed a starting spot. That prevents a situation Stenhouse experienced five years ago with a well-funded team.

But that doesn’t ease all the angst. Some competitors were frustrated at Las Vegas because the draft negates who has the fastest car. It’s all about being in the right place to draft and turn the quickest lap. Being in that position can be as much luck as skill.

What happens in qualifying can impact the race. Teams pick pit stalls based on their starting spot. A poor qualifying effort can lead to issues in the race.

Logano is aware of that. He qualified 27th at Atlanta and his team had limited options on where to pick their pit stall. Crew chief Todd Gordon chose a stall behind Alex Bowman’s pit and in front of Martin Truex Jr.’s pit.

Rarely do strong teams pit next to each other because they don’t want to have to go around a car to enter their stall or be blocked in by the car in front. Logano faced that situation at Atlanta. He lost more than 10 spots on each of his first two pit stops because he couldn’t get around Bowman’s car to exit his stall.

That leads back to the question of should qualifying be about entertainment or sport?

The decision today will be easy. The fastest car will be rewarded because teams are not expected to draft.

This issue that will come up again in the coming weeks, though, when the series heads to Auto Club Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

“Texas, I don’t know,” Logano said. “I think there’s going to be parts of the track that you want to draft and parts of the track when you’re going to want clean air. When you get to Turns 1 and 2, you’re going to want some air on the car to be able to get through the corner with as much wide open time as possible. That one’s a real question for me.

“I think Kansas is a no-brainer, you’re definitely going to be drafting. As for Fontana, it’ll be interesting. I think there’s going to be some drafting going on there, but I think it’ll be split up a little bit, kind of like the way Atlanta was, kinda 50-50.”

There’s no splitting this issue. It’s about entertainment. Let chaos reign in qualifying.

2. Second to Kyle Busch

For all the wins Kyle Busch has amassed in his NASCAR career, there is a recurring theme.

The runner-up to Busch in more than a third of the 197 races he’s won across Cup, Xfinity and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series has been one of five drivers.

Kyle Busch celebrating a NASCAR win has been a familiar sight through the years. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The driver who has finished runner-up to Busch the most in those races is Kevin Harvick. He’s done so 18 times — five times in Cup, 10 times in Xfinity and three times in Trucks. The total equates to 9.1 percent of the time Busch has won a NASCAR race, Harvick has been second.

Carl Edwards is next on the list with 15 runner-up finishes to Busch. He’s followed by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano with 13-runner-up finishes. Next is Kyle Larson, who has placed second to Busch eight times.

Combined, Harvick, Edwards, Keselowski, Logano and Larson have finished second to Busch in 67 of his 197 wins (34 percent).

They are among the 60 drivers who have placed second to Busch in a race he won. The list includes three NASCAR Hall of Fame members (Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ron Hornaday Jr.), two Indianapolis 500 winners (Sam Hornish Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya) and drivers who have combined to win 48 NASCAR titles in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks.

The list could grow this weekend. Busch is entered in both the Cup and Xfinity races at Phoenix.

Here is who has finished second to Busch in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks races and how often:

18 — Kevin Harvick

15 — Carl Edwards

13 — Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

8 — Kyle Larson

7 — Todd Bodine, Matt Crafton

6 — Erik Jones, Johnny Sauter

5 — Greg Biffle, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Ron Hornaday Jr., Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart

4 — Jeff Burton, Austin Dillon

3 — Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Daniel Suarez, Martin Truex Jr.

2 — Mike Bliss, Terry Cook, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, John Hunter Nemechek, Timothy Peters, David Reutimann, Elliott Sadler

1 — Justin Allgaier, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Trevor Bayne, James Buescher, Kurt Busch, Colin Braun, Jeb Burton, Brendan Gaughan, David Gilliland, Jeff Gordon, Daniel Hemric, Sam Hornish Jr., Parker Kligerman, Jason Leffler, Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Brett Moffitt, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, Nelson Piquet Jr., Ryan Preece, Brian Scott, Reed Sorenson, Brian Vickers, Bubba Wallace, Cole Whitt

3. Multiple surgeries

Tanner Thorson, who competed in 11 Gander Outdoors Truck Series races last season, is recovering after he was involved in a highway crash early Monday morning in Modesto, California.

The 2016 U.S. Auto Club national champion had surgery Monday night for a broken left arm, according to the USAC Racing. Thorson had surgery Wednesday on his broken right foot. He also suffered a cracked sternum, broken ribs and a punctured lung, according to USAC Racing. The organization said that Thorson’s family hopes the 22-year-old can return home soon.

According to a preliminary investigation by the California Highway Patrol, Thorson was driving a 2019 Ford pickup that was towing his sprint car when he approached slower moving traffic shortly before 4 a.m. PT. Thorson’s truck struck the rear of a vehicle. KCRA, an NBC affiliate in Sacramento, reported that vehicle was a milk truck.

The impact sent the milk truck into the next lane where it was hit by another vehicle and then came back across the road and was struck another car. The driver was uninjured. A passenger in the truck was transported from the scene with minor injuries, according to the California Highway Patrol. Thorson’s vehicle came to rest on the shoulder and caught fire.

4. First time in new garages at Phoenix

ISM Raceway at Phoenix debuted its new garages and layout when NASCAR raced there in November.

One person missing that weekend was Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick. NASCAR suspended Childers the final two races of last year as part of penalties imposed to the No. 4 team for failing inspection after its win at Texas. So Childers missed the new look at Phoenix – until this weekend.

Childers shared his excitement of being in Phoenix on Thursday night.

5. Remarkable record

Kevin Harvick has finished in the top five in half of the 32 Cup races he’s run at Phoenix. He has nine wins there. Jimmie Johnson has 15 top-five finishes in 31 Cup races there. He has four wins there.

Despite the dominance of the two, they have combined for one win (by Harvick) in the last five races at Phoenix. The other winners in the last five races at Phoenix are Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.

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Cole Whitt steps aways from racing after Phoenix Cup race

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Sunday’s Cup race at ISM Raceway was the last NASCAR race for Cole Whitt, TriStar Motorsports announced on social media after the race.

The team said Whitt, 27, “has elected to hang up his helmet and step away from his life behind the wheel.”

A native of Alpine, California, Whitt has made 242 starts across NASCAR’s three national series since 2010. Sunday’s race was his 161st Cup start. He finished 25th.

Whitt said before the season he was “looking forward to taking the next step” in his life “and trying to spend most of my time with my family.”

Last month, Whitt told frontstretch.com “It’s been a slow, steady drive of me to get away from racing and move back to be around family and friends and to live a normal life. That’s been a drive for the past couple of years.”

Whitt competed full-time in Cup from 2014-15 and 2017.

Whitt split time this year in the No. 72 Chevrolet with Corey LaJoie, making 13 starts.

The best season of Whitt’s career came in 2012 in the Xfinity Series. Driving the No. 88 for JR Motorsports, Whitt earned four top fives, 14 top 10s and finished seventh in the standings.

 

Underdogs benefit from Roval chaos

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The smoke is starting to clear on the chaotic finish to Sunday’s Cup race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The inaugural Cup race on the road course saw many underdog teams come out with impressive finishes, as they capitalized on the 15-car crash with six laps to go and the mayhem of the final three laps.

Here’s who emerged with something good to take back to their race shop.

AJ Allmendinger – Finished 7th: After qualifying second, Allmendinger never led a lap. He finished eighth in Stage 1 and was one of the drivers to take advantage of Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.‘s last-turn incident. It was his first top 10 since the July Daytona race.

Matt DiBenedetto – Finished 13th: Earned his best finish of the year on a non-restrictor plate track.

Regan Smith – Finished 15th: Second top 15 in his fourth substitute race for Kasey Kahne. Finished 20th or better in three of the four races. Kahne has finished 20th or better in three of four races just once this year. He only has two top 15s in 25 starts (Daytona II, fourth), (Bristol II, 15th).

David Ragan – Finished 16th: Best finish since placing 15th in the July Daytona race.

Chris Buescher – Finished 17th: Third finish of 17th or better in the last five races.

Cole Whitt – Finished 20th: Second-best finish in 11 starts this year.

Ross Chastain – Finished 24th: Seventh finish inside the top 25 in 27 starts with Premium Motorsports.

 

Friday 5: A new way of thinking about NASCAR’s future?

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When examining NASCAR’s future are most people looking in the wrong direction?

There are those who say the schedule — 36 points races, two non-points races and the Daytona qualifying races in a 41-week stretch — is too long.

Maybe it’s not enough.

So said Brad Keselowski earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

While some says less is more for the sport, Keselowski suggests that the Cup schedule should have 50-60 races a year and no weekend off in the summer.

His plan is this:

Cup should race on Sundays and the middle of the week from February to early October (instead of ending the season in November). Keselowski also says that no track should host more than one weekend race. So, a track with two dates would get a weekend date and a midweek date.

One thing he notes is that any midweek race should take no more than three hours, meaning a number of races likely would need to be shortened

Keselowski’s idea is a novel concept and presents a new way of thinking when looking ahead in NASCAR. It’s always good to be forced to look at issues in different ways. But there are many challenges to his plan.

One question is what about the costs to teams. It would be easy to see teams saying such a schedule would cost them too much with the additional travel, expenses of preparing cars and repairing cars for example.

“The race teams will adjust, they’ll figure it out,’’ Keselowski said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Here’s what most people don’t understand. When a car owner complains about money, almost every race team out there has 20 or 30 engineers that don’t build the cars that make good wages and are smart people. What that tells me is they’ve got money and they’re just deciding to allocate it.’’

That might be a harder sell to teams. Rob Kauffman, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing and chairman of the Race Team Alliance spoke during All-Star weekend about cost to teams.

“It’s a joint concern, so it will be a joint solution to come up with how it works,’’ Kauffman said of working with NASCAR. “To get something like that in place will require quite a bit of collaboration.’’

Another concern would be tracks. A reason why there hasn’t been a midweek race yet is because a track executive has not volunteered to be the first.

The challenge with a midweek race is that the track likely won’t draw as many fans. Track officials note that they still have a significant percentage attend their races traveling from a few hours or more away. Not as many of those fans would probably make such a trip in the middle of the week. That could be lost income for the tracks.

Those are just among some of the key issues. It is a tangled web of trying to appease, teams, tracks, media partners, sponsors and fans as NASCAR forges ahead.

While there are many challenges to Keselowski’s plan — making it seem unlikely — that doesn’t mean such thinking should be immediately dismissed. Keselowski could be right in that bold thinking is what the sport needs as it looks ahead.

2. Kyle Busch could have company

While Kyle Busch became the first driver to win at every Cup track he’s competed with his Coca-Cola 600 victory, a couple of other drivers are not far behind.

Kevin Harvick has won at all but two tracks on the circuit (not including the Roval). He has yet to win at Kentucky (0 for 7) and Pocono (0 for 34).

Jimmie Johnson has won at all but three tracks on the circuit (not including the Roval). He has yet to win at Chicagoland (0 for 16), Kentucky (0 for 7) and Watkins Glen (0 for 16).

3. Back in the Day

LeBron James made his eighth consecutive NBA Finals appearance Thursday night. The last time he wasn’t in the NBA Finals was 2010.

That season in NASCAR:

Jimmie Johnson was on his way to a fifth consecutive Cup title.

Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Charlotte fall race.

Denny Hamlin won a series-high eight races.

Kevin Conway was Cup Rookie of the Year.

Joey Logano had just turned 20 years old.

Brad Keselowski won the Xfinity Series title.

Kyle Busch won 13 of the 29 Xfinity races he started.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was Xfinity Rookie of the Year.

Kyle Larson finished 10th in the Chili Bowl Nationals (Cole Whitt was second to winner Kevin Swindell).

William Byron wouldn’t turn 13 until November of that year.

4. France Family Group adds to portfolio

In a recent SEC filing, International Speedway Corp. stated that the France Family Group owns 74.11 percent of the combined voting power of common stock.

The France Family Group owned 73 percent, according to ISC’s 2016 annual report.

The France Family Group owned 72 percent, according to the ISC’s 2015 annual report.

As a comparison, Bruton Smith and son Marcus own 71 percent of Speedway Motorsports Inc.’s common stock. They owned 70 percent, according to SMI’s 2016 annual report.

5. A year later …

There will be much talk this weekend about how Jimmie Johnson has gone a year — it will be a year on June 4 actually — since his last Cup victory, the longest drought of his career.

But something else to ponder: In the last 36 races (a full season’s worth), Toyota has 19 wins, Ford has 12 and Chevrolet has five.

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Ty Dillon fastest in first Cup practice at Talladega

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With a speed of 202.959 mph, Ty Dillon posted the fastest single lap in the first practice session for the Geico 500 at Talladega SuperSpeedway.

Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Daniel Suarez and Kyle Busch tied for P2 on the chart to the 1/1,000th of a second with a speed of 202.680 mph.

Teammate Denny Hamlin (202.671 mph) posted the fourth fastest time with Erik Jones (202.564) seventh. Affiliated driver Martin Truex Jr. (202.628) was also part of the Gibbs drafting pack and he landed sixth on the chart.

Ryan Newman rounded out the top five with a speed of 202.637 mph.

Rookie of the Year Darrell Wallace, Jr. (199.754) and William Byron (199.729) landed 11th and 12th on the chart respectively.

Ross Chastain, Gray Gaulding, Timmy Hill and Cole Whitt did not participate in this practice.

Denny Hamlin posted the quickest 10-lap average with a speed of 198.109 mph.

Kyle Busch was second-quick at 197.977 mph.

Final practice for the Cup series will be at 1:35 p.m. ET; qualification will be Saturday at 12:05 p.m. and will air on Fox.

Click here for complete results from practice one.