WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – By moving Kyle Busch, Bubba Wallace proved again he can move the needle for NASCAR unlike any driver other than the superstar he intentionally wrecked at Watkins Glen International.
The most-read NASCAR story on NBCSports.com this past weekend (and by a wide margin) was Wallace’s colorfully vulgar way of calling out the 2015 Cup champion. Though tossing in a few choice expletives attracts Internet traffic, the roar that erupted from the Glen crowd as Busch looped down the frontstretch already had affirmed that Wallace has a knack for striking a chord as the center of attention.
He spun Busch without compunction and then brazenly (and succinctly) explained why.
In a Monster Energy Cup Series too often bleached of controversy, moxie and verve, Wallace stood out Sunday – and for a different reason than what usually has put him in the spotlight for much of his career.
Being the most successful black driver since Hall of Famer Wendell Scott remains culturally and historically significant. It’s still a potentially vital step in the NASCAR blueprint for building a desperately needed diversity in its audience and a larger footprint in mainstream media.
But the uniqueness of his race is becoming nearly incidental to what makes Wallace’s story appealing and compelling (which is how he understandably would prefer it anyway).
Whether it’s openly admitting to flipping off his rivals, criticizing Pocono Raceway or candidly discussing his battle with depression (particularly in this interview with Marty Snider), anything Wallace does these days seems to be a headline-grabber. He owned NASCAR Twitter for 24 hours simply by mulling a tattoo of Richard Petty’s autograph.
This often has seemed the Summer of Bubba, who has remained relevant despite lacking the results (a season best of 15th at Daytona last month) just by being himself.
Each weekly trip through the media bullpen at qualifying brings another memorable quote or quip. “We’re stirring up some stuff, huh?” Wallace said with an impish smile at Pocono a few weeks ago as he detailed his dream NASCAR schedule “that would piss off everybody.”
It’s been a buzz reminiscent of the chatter that surrounds Busch, who consistently is the No. 1 newsmaker in the Cup Series.
Chase Elliott might be the Most Popular Driver by vox populi, but his win at Watkins Glen largely was overshadowed by various confrontations. That seemed fine with the naturally reserved Elliott, who is inclined to let his driving do the talking the same way his Hall of Fame father once quietly did.
It’s fine for NASCAR, too – to a point. As Dale Earnhardt famously said, a true measure of transcendence isn’t whether fans are booing or cheering. It’s whether they simultaneously are doing both at full volume.
There is an unremitting need for charismatic pit disturbers, and since the retirement of Tony Stewart, Busch often has seemed the only lightning rod left in NASCAR.
Wallace, 25, is poised to become another, provided he can overcome two major hurdles.
The first obstacle is (and always has been) sponsorship. As he said during a March appearance on NASCAR America, Wallace has made it this far in racing without having a consistently dedicated backer, which is somewhat inexplicable given his intriguing backstory and infectious youth should be an easy sell for any company. Funding would go a long way toward a solution to the second problem: Landing a first-class ride.
Though his No. 43 Chevrolet at Richard Petty Motorsports comes with boundless historical prestige, no one would attempt to argue that it could be competitive with even the world’s most talented driver. As a single-car team, there’s little hope of that changing.
Of course, Wallace also would need to perform in a high-caliber car. But he has excelled in limited instances with top-notch opportunities.
Driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2013-14, Wallace scored five victories and 26 top 10s in 44 starts. He was less impressive during a two-season Xfinity stint with Roush Fenway Racing from 2015-16, but in fairness, he wasn’t far off his teammates’ results, either. It’s been harder to judge his progress at RPM (which struggled for money this year before an injection of cash two months ago), but there have been flashes.
The world has yet to know how Wallace would fare with a Cup powerhouse. It might never know.
But if he could battle stars such as Busch for positions on a regular basis with the same brashness that Wallace flaunts so effortlessly?
That truly would move the needle.
An unusually stern postrace chastising of Ryan Blaney appropriately punctuated what was perhaps the most emotional week of Jimmie Johnson’s Cup career.
Though the seven-time series champion deflected and demurred on questions about whether he ultimately made the call to install Cliff Daniels as his new crew chief (“it’s a collective decision, though I certainly had to approve and had a big role in it”), Johnson left no doubt he was extremely uncomfortable about the removal of Kevin Meendering, who had no prior knowledge of his exit from the No. 48 after 21 races as a Cup crew chief.
“He was surprised and caught off guard and, who I am as an individual, I hate those moments,” said Johnson, who hadn’t switched crew chiefs during a season in his previous 17 years in Cup. “I honestly and truly do feel for him. I know Hendrick has big plans for him. I still don’t want him to rule out ever being a crew chief. I know we’re looking at opportunities of how we can use him internally in our company. He’s such a sharp dude. I hope he stays with us. And I know that Rick is going to do everything he can to make sure Kevin’s taking care of very well.
“Emotionally it’s tough, no doubt about it. If you look at my personal life and just everything, I’ve had long-term relationships, so this isn’t something I’m comfortable with. In my heart, I just felt like we will get back to our competitive ways faster and sooner with Cliff in that position.”
The next major decision could be even tougher for Johnson, who is tied with Ryan Newman in points on the playoff cutoff line with four races left.
Though his debut with Daniels went fairly well until the wreck, making the playoffs is still a serious question mark, as his future at Hendrick Motorsports beyond 2020.
“That’s when my contract will run out, and I’ve got to make a decision at that point if I want to continue on,” said Johnson, who turns 44 in September. “If my fire goes out or I feel like I’m not competitive, I think any driver would say that it’s time to walk away. I certainly have less years ahead of me than I ever had in my career. That will play a role if I feel like I’m doing my job right behind the wheel.”
A mediocre season, a guilt-ridden personnel change and the lingering uncertainty about how both could influence the conclusion of his Hall of Fame run … it’s no wonder we got a rare public glimpse of Johnson’s fiery side Sunday.
Tyler Reddick will race primarily on Sundays in NASCAR next season. Team owner Richard Childress made that abundantly clear last week, along with his desire to retain Reddick.
The question is how Richard Childress Racing would put Reddick in a Cup car for 2020. Childress said keeping Reddick “boils down to dollars,” indicating there are options in Cup outside RCR for the defending Xfinity Series champion (who has been politely vague when asked about next year).
The two scenarios for RCR retaining Reddick seemingly would be replacing a current driver or adding a third car.
There seems no doubt about the long-term job security of 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson who is in his sixth season driving the No. 3 Chevrolet. Teammate Daniel Hemric has a Cup contract at RCR through 2020 but told NBCSports.com that “I’m not sure if you ever feel OK” when asked about his status for next season.
“I feel like our supporters and partners see the progress we’re making, and I think they’ve been fairly intrigued and happy with the results as of late,” said Hemric, who is ranked 25th in the standings with two top 10s (including a seventh last week at Pocono Raceway). “So I hopefully can answer that a little more surely here in the next month or so.”
Asked what he made of Childress’ comments on Reddick, Hemric cited his busy schedule and said, “I haven’t really had a lot of time to even let it cross my mind, which I think is a good thing.”
Dillon, who called Reddick “a heck of a wheelman,” said he’d support RCR adding a third car if sponsorship allowed it. “I think we’ve got the room to do it obviously in the shop,” Dillon said. “It would be good to have another teammate. The more cars the better to bounce ideas off others.”
Corey LaJoie appropriately made many headlines this past weekend for donating a month’s salary to put a charitable cause on his No. 32 Ford, but the Go Fas Racing driver already should have been getting notice as one of NASCAR’s most outspoken drivers. LaJoie’s underrated (and oft-jarring) candor has been getting a weekly workout on the “Sunday Money” podcast that he began co-hosting this year.
LaJoie revealed in last week’s episode that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. told him his split with Danica Patrick partly was because of charging crystals and a full moon. Other recent LaJoie opinions from “Sunday Money”:
–On why the victory at Texas by Greg Biffle after a three-year absence (“he has been doing nothing but buying everybody’s bar tab at Fox and Hound”) made some truck series regulars look bad.
–A dissection of Paul Menard (and the ribbing he got from other drivers for “wrecking little kids” after his dustup with Harrison Burton): “That guy is a billionaire with a ‘B.’ He doesn’t care. If you run into him, he will just straight up wreck your shit. He’s funny.”
–On the low-key nature of Chase Elliott: “That’s been a topic of conversation within the drivers lately. He is nowhere to be found. He doesn’t do any autograph sessions. He literally goes from his car to his hauler to his motorhome. I don’t know if he’s getting too big time or what’s he doing. … We need to get him out a little bit. Because I can promise you if he doesn’t, he’s not going to be the most popular driver for a long period of time.”
Though the absence of a high-profile sponsor helps allow him to be so unfiltered, LaJoie also has a plain-spoken personality well suited for the podcast format – and probably as a spokesman for some edgy brand. If he continues to show promise at Go Fas, his name should be in the mix for stronger rides.
A major reason there is a lack of momentum for a dirt race in the Cup series? A lack of veterans championing the idea. There’s been lukewarm support even from those whose careers largely have been defined by dirt racing.
So for those who believe a Cup race at Eldora Speedway or elsewhere would deliver some scheduling diversity, it’s been refreshing to hear up and comers such as Christopher Bell (who made a case last year) and Chase Briscoe stumping for more dirt races in NASCAR’s premier series.
“I think Cup needs to go there,” Briscoe said last Friday at Watkins Glen International, which he scrambled to reach after racing a truck Thursday at Eldora Speedway. “Cup drivers are considered the best in the world, and I want to see them challenged at every discipline. We run a road course, a short track, a mile and a half, a superspeedway. So why not run a dirt track? That’s how I feel about it.
“I hear a lot of fans or people say it might take away from the trucks’ luster, but at the same time, there’s over 90 races of national series, and if five of those are dirt, they’re still going to be important. It’s no different than going to the road courses. People get excited we go to three or four road courses a year. It’s no different going dirt racing three to four times a year.”
While expanding its horizons to other surfaces, NASCAR also should consider adding “The Boot” – the currently unused stretch of Watkins Glen between Turns 5 and 6.
The nearly 1-mile section, which would increase the track distance to 3.4 miles while adding a few turns, has been used in IMSA and IndyCar races, and it’s been discussed as an option for NASCAR. The Glen’s popular campgrounds already extend into the area ringed by The Boot, so why not add race cars for those campers?
Xfinity winner Austin Cindric said The Boot would offer some low-speed corners and passing opportunities, easing concerns that it might string out the field.
“I’d really love to see NASCAR run The Boot here in a couple of years,” Cindric said. “If there is any petition there, I’ll be happy to sign it. I feel like we’re kind of just short-cutting the course, short-cutting some good corners. It adds more challenge.
“There is some really good, fun racetrack sitting back there waiting to be played with. I think it would give the people that go and camp back there more excitement, so I think it would be a nice addition.”
The news that NASCAR will apply traction compound at Michigan International Speedway this weekend and possibly at ISM Raceway near Phoenix in November brings some decidedly mixed reactions.
There were indications a few weeks ago that PJ1 wouldn’t be used at Michigan, so the shift in direction again signifies that NASCAR is soliciting driver input and reacting accordingly after many expressed misgivings about how the June 17 race unfolded with little action.
And the usage of PJ1 at Michigan and Phoenix also would represent a significant policy change at tracks owned by ISC, which had yet to use the compound employed with some degrees of success at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway.
But even if it enhances the racing, the usage of traction compound always will be problematic because it inherently prompts the question of “Why is it necessary to ‘fix’ the racetrack?” Which leads down the rabbit hole to “If a track needs that type of Band-Aid, should it play host to a marquee NASCAR event?”
If the 2020 national series championships are contested at Phoenix with the help of PJ1, that’s bound to be a discussion topic — namely because traction compound never will be needed on Homestead-Miami Speedway’s natural multi-lane layout.