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Long: What NASCAR does with qualifying isn’t the biggest question

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FONTANA, Calif. — So what next?

What is NASCAR to do to fix a “mockery” of qualifying – a series executive’s comment — after all 12 Cup drivers in the final round waited too long to get on track Friday and failed to complete a lap before time expired?

The suggestions flow. Go back to single-car qualifying. Heat races. Make cars that don’t complete a lap in the final round start at the rear. Have group qualifying for two rounds but make the final round single-car qualifying. Send cars out at timed intervals.

Before NASCAR can set a course, other questions must be asked.

The first question is what’s more important for NASCAR? Is this about entertainment or competition?

Entertainment is critical to a sport that seeks to rebuild its fan base. Close racing, drama and excitement can energize a fans attract new ones.

The past three weeks of Cup qualifying has been appointment viewing. There was the unknown of what would happen at Las Vegas with the rules package, the fight between Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell at ISM Raceway and then what would happen Friday at Auto Club Speedway. When is the last time there has been so much interest in qualifying for three consecutive races?

But is that interest based on too many gimmicks?

When NASCAR announced its rule changes in early February, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told the media: “Our core goal in everything we do is to deliver the best possible racing for our fans.”

O’Donnell also said that day that “the stars of NASCAR have always been the drivers and the cars. We want to make sure that is the emphasis in any rules package we put forth.”

But there appears to be a limit. In discussing the group qualifying model in that same meeting, Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, said: “One thing that we realize and everybody in this room realizes is that we’re in show business.”

After Friday’s episode in the last round of qualifying, Miller said that while changes will be made to the format, “we really don’t want to go back to single-car qualifying. There may not be another way. We want to exhaust every possibility before we do that because that’s not as fun, not as intriguing of a show as the group situation.”

Drivers and teams are frustrated. They feel they have less control in the group qualifying format. Some would suggest that there’s too much randomness to how the starting lineup is set. It’s more about getting the right draft at tracks 1.5 miles and larger than having a car with the most speed on its own.

“I told you all back in Vegas that I am still a big fan of single-car qualifying,” Ryan Newman, told NBC Sports after being among those who failed to complete a lap in the final round Friday. “That is all I need to say, really. That is the way qualifying should be.”

Said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch: “The last car has the biggest advantage and you’re a buffoon to go out and be the first car.”

Beyond the entertainment/competition question, other questions must be asked: What is the role of the sanctioning body? Should it be about penalizing infractions or creating opportunities for competitors to excel?

At Las Vegas, David Ragan started sixth for Front Row Motorsports. The organization had two top-10 starts last year (Bristol and Daytona) but none at a 1.5-mile track. The group qualifying format helped created an opportunity for that organization to attain a strong starting spot.

Without such chances might that team have qualified as high? Is it fair to do away with such opportunities for that and other teams?

“It’s hard to control every single thing in our sport,” Ragan told NBC Sports. “There needs to be a little bit of randomness. That makes things creative.”

But Ragan also noted that “we need to keep the integrity of the sport.”

So should NASCAR create a rule — another rule to anger those who say the rule book has too many entries — that penalizes teams for not completing a lap in the final round and make them start at the back? Or is there another way to deal with this situation before teams arrive in Texas in two weeks?

Those are among the questions NASCAR must answer before deciding what changes to make to qualifying.

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Route finalized for 25th Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America

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The Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America has announced its official route and celebrity riders for this year’s motorcycle journey to raise funds for the Victory Junction Camp.

The charity ride will celebrate its 25th anniversary with its longest route yet, starting in Seattle, Washington, on May 3 and ending in Key Largo, Florida, on May 11.

Petty and 250 participants, including more than 30 new riders, will travel through 11 states and cover nearly 3,700 miles to raise funds and awareness for Victory Junction, a camp dedicated to providing life-changing camping experiences for children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses.

Here is the schedule and route:

  • Day 1, Friday, May 3 – Seattle, Washington to Ontario, Oregon
  • Day 2, Saturday, May 4 – Ontario, Oregon to Orem-Provo, Utah
  • Day 3, Sunday, May 5 – Orem-Provo, Utah to Glenwood Springs, Colorado
  • Day 4, Monday, May 6 – Glenwood Springs, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Day 5, Tuesday, May 7 – Santa Fe, New Mexico to Childress, Texas
  • Day 6, Wednesday, May 8 – Childress, Texas to Shreveport-Bossier City, Louisiana
  • Day 7, Thursday, May 9 – Shreveport-Bossier City, Louisiana to Pensacola Beach, Florida
  • Day 8, Friday, May 10 – Pensacola Beach, Florida to Tampa, Florida
  • Day 9, Saturday, May 11 – Tampa, Florida to Key Largo, Florida

Participants in this year’s ride include former NASCAR drivers Richard Petty, Harry Gant, Hershel McGriff and Donnie Allison; current NASCAR driver David Ragan; former Formula 1, IndyCar and NASCAR driver Max Papis; former NFL great and Heisman Trophy winner (1982) Herschel Walker; Heisman Trophy winner (1980) and Super Bowl champion (XXII) George Rogers; and NBC Sports NASCAR personalities Krista Voda, Rutledge Wood and Rick Allen.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since the Ride started,” Kyle Petty said in a release. “What started as just a few friends riding motorcycles to racetracks around the country has turned into something so much bigger than I could’ve ever imagined.

“Because of our sponsors, fans and the people who participate in this Ride, whether they’re veteran participants or first-timers, so many deserving kids get to have the time of their life at Victory Junction each year.”

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Friday 5: Tensions between Cup teams test manufacturers

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Less than a month into the Cup season, there have been signs that the tenuous alliances among teams have not held up well on or off the track.

It’s led to an unease not often visible at this point in the season.

As the sport enters a time of transition — new rules, new car in 2021, new engine as early as 2022— can a manufacturer keep its teams together for these major projects? Or will there be fissures, much like what happened between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing in 2016 and Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing last season?

At the same time, NASCAR seeks new manufacturers and any company that comes into the sport likely will take teams from current manufacturers. Are the seeds of discontent being sown now?

Already manufacturers have had to react to issues between their teams.

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, conceded this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that at Ford, “we’re a family and every family has issues.”

Just look at the issues Ford has had this season:

Joey Logano confronted fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell on pit road after the Daytona 500 for pushing a Toyota and not Logano’s Ford on the final lap. McDowell told the media he was not happy with how fellow Ford drivers treated him in that race.

Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was not happy with Logano, who chastised Stenhouse on the radio for a move during the Daytona 500 that cost Logano several spots and, according to Logano, could have caused an accident.

“For sure we had our issues at Daytona, can’t deny that,” Rushbook said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “But as a family, we talked through those issues, tried to understand what led to those issues and then how can we fix that and make it even better going forward.”

Ford isn’t the only manufacturer that has had issues between some of its teams. Chevrolet understands the delicate balance between competition and cooperation.

Hendrick Motorsports partnered with Joe Gibbs Racing, a Toyota team, and not fellow Chevrolet teams Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing in the Daytona 500. The move was made to counter the strength of the Fords, which dominated both qualifying races and entered as the favorite to win the 500.

Kyle Larson’s comments this week on NASCAR America’s Splash & Go about Hendrick Motorsports “cheating” ruffled feelings in the Chevy camp. That led to a late-night Twitter apology from Larson and subsequent comments about how he had poorly chosen his words. Ganassi gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Larson said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that he had apologized to team owner Rick Hendrick. Said Larson: “We’re both moving on.”

There always will be conflict among competitors in the same camp. It’s natural with what is at stake each race weekend. But the manufacturers have stressed working together more. It was evident in how Toyota teams teamed together to win the 2016 Daytona 500 — a model adopted by others. At Ford, that banding of brothers is referred to as One Ford.

But this season, the slogan might be anything but togetherness.

2. New challenge for spotters

The new rules that are intended to tighten the competition at tracks — and should be the case this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway based on the January test — will change what spotters will do.

Many expect to be calling the race much like they do at Daytona and Talladega where they’re on radio almost constantly.

“I did a lot of talking in 25 laps,” Billy O’Dea, spotter for Ty Dillon, said, referring to the 25-lap races NASCAR held at the January test at Las Vegas.

One thing that spotters who were at the test noticed is that runs by cars behind their car were different from what they see in pack racing at Daytona or Talladega.

“In Daytona or Talladega, you don’t necessarily watch the car behind you,” said Tyler Green, spotter for Kurt Busch. “You watch  two or three behind because that’s where the runs come from.

“At Vegas, it seemed like you didn’t really watch the car two behind you. You watched the car right behind you. It just happens quick. There’s no really understanding of where the runs really come from unlike Daytona or Talladega.”

Other spotters at the test noticed that as well. That creates other challenges for them.

“Are they going to take (the run and try to pass) or are they just going to get close?” O’Dea said of what to tell a driver when a car behind has a run.

“When you see them moving, do you block it? It’s a lot of unknowns. Early in the race, do you really want to be blocking a guy going into (Turn) 1? If it’s continually a lot of passing, which I hope it is, it’s going to be a lot of give and take. It’s going to be interesting to see.”

Rocky Ryan, spotter for David Ragan, also was at the test. Ragan did not participate in the 25-lap races because he was driving the Ford wheel-force car, which has extra equipment on it and is too valuable to be risked in a race (the wheel-force cars for Chevrolet and Toyota also did not participate in those races).

During those races at the test, Ryan said he stood atop the spotters stand and acted as if he was spotting for a car to grasp how quickly things can happen in those drafts.

“The 15 of us that were there (for the test) will have a leg up on everybody,” Ryan said.

3. Drafting in qualifying

The expectation is that teams will draft in qualifying today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, saw what the draft could do when the No. 2 team took part in the January test there.

“It seemed like at the Vegas test, the (aero) ducts made a difference,” Wolfe told NBC Sports. “Basing off of Vegas, it seems like there were two- or three-tenths of a second to be gained in the draft.

“I still don’t think it’s going to be a draft like you see at Daytona, but it’s more about timing it right to get a good suck up (on the car ahead). I don’t see us going out there running nose to tail. I still don’t see that. I could be wrong.”

Wolfe said they saw the draft make a difference when a car was a quarter of a straightaway behind another car.

“The more cars you have (in a draft), you get a faster suck up, for sure,” Wolfe said.

The key is to figure out who is going to be the trailing car to get that advantage, or if teams will run extra laps in qualifying and trade positions so each car will have that chance to take advantage of the draft.

4. On the way to Miami

If a trend holds true, one of the Championship Four contenders may be known after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

Since 2014, one of the drivers racing for the title at Miami has won within the first three races of the season.

Throw out the Daytona 500. No winner of that race since 2014 has made it to the championship race. So that means that either Brad Keselowski, who won last weekend at Atlanta, or Sunday’s winner could be headed for a chance at the championship — provided the trend continues.

Three times since 2014, the driver who went on to win the championship won within the first three races of the season: Harvick won the second race in 2014 (Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson won the second race in 2016 (Atlanta), and Martin Truex Jr. won the third race in 2017 (Las Vegas).

Last year, all four title contenders won for the first time that season within the first 10 races. Kevin Harvick won in the season’s second race (Atlanta). Truex won in the fifth race (Auto Club Speedway). Kyle Busch won in the seventh race (Texas). Joey Logano won in the 10th race (Talladega). Harvick and Busch had other wins within those first 10 races.

5. Familiar faces

Brad Keselowski’s victory last weekend at Atlanta kept a streak going.

Six drivers have combined to win the last 18 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks. Martin Truex Jr. has six wins in that time, followed by Kevin Harvick (five wins), Kyle Busch (three), Keselowski (two), Joey Logano (one) and Chase Elliott (one).

The last time one of those drivers did not win a race at a 1.5-mile track was the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. Austin Dillon won that race.

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Long: How a decision on a Friday impacted pit road in Atlanta Cup race

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HAMPTON, Ga. — A strategic decision that didn’t work as planned and steadfastness to protocol created much angst on pit road for the teams of Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Alex Bowman on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Frustrations boiled during the race. Logano lost more than 10 spots in each of his first two pit stops when he was blocked by Bowman in the stall ahead. After being blocked a second time, Logano said on his radio “if I’m blocked in (again), I will push him off the jack.”

Truex, who was pitting behind Logano, also was angry with being blocked by Logano. Truex said on his radio at one point that he’d push Logano off the jack if it happened again.

Rarely do strong teams pit next to each other because of the likelihood they will be on the lead lap and pit together under caution throughout the race.

“I still don’t understand why he chose that pit stall because it screwed himself a lot, too,” Cole Pearn said about Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon.

It goes back to a decision Gordon made Friday.

“We didn’t focus on qualifying and paid the penalty for it,” Gordon said after Logano’s up-and-down day ended with a 23rd-place finish in a race won by teammate Brad Keselowski.

Cup teams had one practice Friday before qualifying. Gordon said the team made only one qualifying run, focusing on race setup instead. Logano ran 26 laps in the session, second only to Denny Hamlin, who ran 27 laps. Aric Almirola, who would win the pole, ran eight laps in the session.

“Honestly, we focused a lot on race trim because I wasn’t sure if, one, we would qualify, it looked like rain was coming during qualifying, and two, whether we would get to practice on Saturday,” because of weather, Gordon said. “I wanted to make sure we had a good race balance. We had really good pace Friday in race trim but didn’t make enough changes to go to qualifying, honestly.”

Pit stall picks are based on qualifying. Logano qualified 27th, meaning he had the 27th pick of the 40 pit stalls.

Gordon prefers a stall near pit exit at Atlanta. Since being teamed with Logano in 2013, Gordon has picked between the first and sixth pit stall at Atlanta every year.

When it came time for him to pick his pit stall for Sunday’s race, pit stall No. 5 — in front of Truex and behind Bowman — was the closest stall to pit exit.

“I do like to be down there,” Gordon said of being as close to pit exit as possible. “Honestly, this is a place you green-flag pit, you short pit … we do that separate. As we did today. You work around who is around you. It was definitely a challenge to be up there.”

The next closest pit stall available when Gordon made his pick was stall No. 10 in front of Ryan Newman and behind William Byron. Pit stall No. 14 also was available, but it was in front of Keselowski’s stall, and teammates do not pit next to each other.

“I hate being in the middle of pit road because there’s a lot of crap that happens there,” Gordon said. “Sometimes, you pick yourself into a hole to avoid catastrophe.”

On the first two stops, Truex was ahead of Logano on the track. So Truex entered his stall first and then Logano had to maneuver around him. Bowman was behind both. That meant Bowman had to maneuver around Logano’s car to enter his stall. That led to Logano being boxed in.

It’s just a tough situation when you got (Logano) coming in around (Truex),” said Greg Ives, crew chief for Bowman. “He’s not in an optimal position to come out and we’re not in an optimal position to get in.

“Todd Gordon came over and asked if we could give them a little more room. He understood the situation. When (Logano) is pointing toward the wall, and we’re pointing toward the wall, you’re never really going to get out of that. That comes down to Friday qualifying and pit selection. He knew his pit selection got him into that situation, and it wasn’t going to break until we got our cars better and stayed in front of them.”


No Hendrick Motorsports car finished better than 15th Sunday — the sixth consecutive race the organization has gone without a top-five finish. Hendrick’s last top-five result came with Chase Elliott’s win at Kansas in October.

Alex Bowman led the Hendrick group by placing 15th. William Byron was 17th. Elliott placed 19th, a lap down. Jimmie Johnson finished 24th, two laps down. Johnson has not had a top-10 finish in his last seven races on a 1.5-mile track.

“We’ve just got to get our cars better,” Bowman’s crew chief, Greg Ives, told NBC Sports. “We need to get just more overall speed. I don’t think anybody’s car (in the field) drives good. It’s just that one is faster than the other, and that’s who wins. So we’ve got to do a little bit better job with our cars. We go back home, and you’ve just got to get back to work.”


Front Row Motorsports has a unique setup for its pit crews this season.

It is using crews from three different organizations.

Michael McDowell’s pit crew is from Chip Ganassi Racing. Rookie Matt Tifft’s pit crew is from Stewart-Haas Racing. David Ragan’s pit crew is from Roush Fenway Racing.

The team used a pit crew from SHR and Roush last year but needed to find a third unit when it added the team for Tifft. Ganassi had a crew available because it no longer was pitting Leavine Family Racing’s car with that team moving to Toyota and getting its pit crew from Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Using pit crews developed by other teams allows Front Row Motorsports to use the savings for its cars and organization. If Front Row had its own pit crew program, it would need at least 20 people (three teams of five and then at least some backups), training facilities and more.

Because these larger teams have programs in place, it makes sense for Front Row to use those team members. The benefit for the bigger teams is it helps develop those who are not on their own teams.

“We’d rather have the best group out of those organizations,” Jerry Freeze, general manager for Front Row Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “We felt that would be a better pit crew for us than going out and recruiting our own and coaching our own.”


Are changes coming to the rules package for Daytona and Talladega?

Daniel Hemric, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman took part in a Goodyear tire test the two days after the Daytona 500.

“They had to slow us down,” Bowman said. “It will be interesting what gets brought back.”

Larson said one of the changes made to slow them down was a larger spoiler.

What that could mean, if anything, remains to be seen.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said of any adjustments: “It’s probably premature to talk about that. We’re just downloading that data.”


The Toyota Racing Development pipeline of talent is deep, and that puts the pressure on young drivers to perform and work their way up.

After winning Saturday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race, Kyle Busch was asked about 18-year-old Todd Gilliland, who is running the full season for Kyle Busch Motorsports after competing in 19 of 23 races last year. Gilliland was winless last year and finished with nine top 10s.

“I don’t know how many times last year we were in meetings and I was just yelling at him about ‘Let’s go,’ ” Busch said. “Our (stuff) is not that slow. You got to get up on top of the wheel and make it happen. Obviously, we kind of proved that here (at Atlanta).”

Gilliland finished ninth in Saturday’s Truck race. Harrison Burton placed eighth but was second on the final restart before falling back.

“I was happy to see Harrison (run) as good as he did, and Todd, we certainly have to work with him and continue to bring him up and get him filled in on what it takes to be fast at these places,” Busch said.

“We’ll hopefully be able to get (Gilliland) places because you know his career is on the line. You don’t get very many chances at this, and I’m sure that we’ll hopefully be able to get him going better. He should have won two races last year, no question about it, but obviously it just didn’t happen. He’s got to show up this year and make it happen.”

Busch was asked if it was just of matter of Gilliland slowing down, taking a step back to take a step forward.

Absolutely,” Busch said. “We’ve had that discussion as well, too. There were times last year where Todd wrecked every week, and we were like, ‘Dude, you got to just slow down, you’ve got to figure out how to finish.’ To finish first, first you must finish, right?

“Obviously there was that discussion that happened. He went on to almost win the road course and then almost win Texas, and he struggled at Phoenix for some reason and struggled at Homestead. So obviously we continue to work on not only Todd, Harrison, but anybody that is behind the wheel, Christian Eckes, Chandler Smith who is going to get the chance later this year, Raphael Lessard. All these guys. If they want to make it, if they want to be a star in this sport, they better perform in KBM stuff because if you don’t, sorry, man, there’s not much left for you.”

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Clint Bowyer fastest in first Cup practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway

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Clint Bowyer was fastest in Friday’s only Cup Series practice session at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Bowyer and his No. 14 Ford posted a top speed of 180.152 mph around the 1.54-mile track during the 80-minute session.

The top five was completed by Aric Almirola (179.988 mph), Austin Dillon (179.772), Kurt Busch (179.406) and Denny Hamlin (178.931).

Hamlin recorded the most laps in the session with 27.

There were no incidents in the session.

The session was the first chance for many teams to experience the 2019 rules package.

The fastest lap in Cup practice at Atlanta last year was 29.745 seconds. Bowyer posted the fastest lap in today’s session at 30.774 seconds.

The 20th fastest lap was Michael McDowell at 31.181 seconds, meaning there was four-tenths of a second difference from 1st to 20th. Last year, the gap from 1st to 20th in the opening practice was half a second.

“I feel a high rate of speed and sensation through the corners like I normally would here but you get there a little slower and exit the corner a little slower,” said David Ragan, who was 22nd on the speed chart. “I think handling will still be important. The guys that can get over the bumps and manage their tires and have a good handling car are going to be able to get through the most important part of the race track which are the middle of the corners on both ends.

“They will get through easier, better and more efficient than the other guys. You can tell down the straightaway that you don’t quite have that extra horsepower pulling you down the straightaway but once you get into the corner you better hold onto the steering wheel because your car still bounces around and is still loose and still tight.”

Cup qualifying is scheduled for 5:10 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

Click here for the practice report.