Friday, August 18, 2017

Keselowski’s Truck Withdrawal Part Of A Larger Plan

Brad Keselowski announced yesterday that he will close the doors on his successful NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team at season’s end, leaving drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric without clear options for 2018 and beyond.

Speaking to the media today at Bristol Motor Speedway, the 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion – and 23-time event winner – said that while the decision was difficult, it is part of a larger business plan that could see him return to the sport in the future.

Keselowski has repeatedly said that his Truck Series team operated in the red, losing money each season despite being a perennial winner and championship contender. Asked if that lack of profitability played a major role in his decision to close the doors, he said, “There were a lot of decisions that went into it. There wasn’t really one reason, but at some point, every business needs to have some profitability. But I never went into it expecting to make money, so I can’t really blame that. Everybody is losing a little, but that was one of the factors. I wouldn’t say it was the only one.”
While admitting that he has plans for the current BKR facility, Keselowski cautioned that “we’re not ready to announce anything.” He hinted that his future plans could involve building a new business within the current BKR facility that eventually becomes a race team partner.

“It’s an idea, absolutely,” he said. “If you look at all the business owners at this level – and really all three of these levels – they have a sustainable, profitable business outside of motorsports. That’s going to remain the key for any owner to have success.

“The reality is, I can only be a race car driver for so long. When that time comes up, my business will have to shut down, because I don’t have a profit center. Having that profit center is what helps you get through the ebbs and flows that every race team has.

“I need to have one of those profit centers. That doesn’t mean that I’ll be a Cup owner one day, but it means when the time is right -- if we achieve the goals that I have -- I’ll have the opportunity to make that decision myself and not have it made for me.

“I know where I want to go and we’re in the middle of putting all that together,” he added. “Until it’s together, I don’t want to get too far down the road with it. But I know that I’m committed to the facility and the community to have an operational and functioning business in that area. I plan to do just that. Hopefully, that opens a spot to retain a good number of our people.”

He also said he plans to retain most of the team’s equipment and assets, adding, “The trucks and parts go out of style and are irrelevant so quickly that I’m going to liquidate that. But a good part of the equipment that we have I’m going to keep and utilize for future opportunities.”

Keselowski called the process of informing his drivers and employees “very difficult,” adding “I feel like we’ll be able to find a good home for probably 75 percent of the group. Whether that’s new business opportunities, Team Penske or different things… I still need people within the fold that I have.  I feel really bad for the 25 percent that I’m not going to be able to find a spot for, but I’m wishing them the best and thankful for their help over the years.

“Being a business owner, it’s more about the people than anything else,” he said. “You care about them. They give you their all and you want to give them your all.  In some ways, you feel like you’re letting them down when you’re not able to keep it going, so that’s never any fun.”

Despite his unexpected withdrawal and that of Red Horse Racing just a few weeks ago, Keselowski said he believes the NCWTS is still strong.

“The Truck Series has been around a long time,” he said. “It’s going to be around a lot longer than me, so I’m not so self-centered to think that series is based solely on my team and participation. It’ll be around. It’ll be all right. I don’t know where the future is going to take me in my life. I know that I’m trying to be positioned to have as many opportunities as possible to kind of control what (my future) might be, and this is a necessary step business-wise to have those opportunities.

“It’s not really the most pleasurable (decision) to undertake. In fact, it really kind of stinks. But it was the right move long-term and I’m hopeful that it works out for the best.”










Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Harvick: Earnhardt "Stunting The Growth Of NASCAR"

Former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick pulled no punches last night when talking about the imminent retirement of fellow driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., saying the sport’s perennial Most Popular Driver “had a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR” by not winning enough races.
Speaking on his weekly Sirius XM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours,” the 2014 series champion said he is puzzled by the popularity of Earnhardt, who has won just nine races in the last 10 seasons.
“He is the most popular driver, but did he have the credentials to back up being the highest paid driver in the sport? Probably not,” said Harvick. He was the most popular driver in the sport (and) he could demand a huge sum of money, because he brought things in from the souvenir side of things and a popularity side of things, that other drivers didn’t. He earned his money a different way. It wasn’t from a performance base.
“This is where some of the growth in this sport has not reached the levels that it should have,” he added. Because our most popular driver hasn’t been our most successful driver.
“When you look at other sports; basketball (and) football -- and you look at their most popular (athletes) -- they’re also right up there at the top of the list as their most successful. So, I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR, because he’s got these legions of fans. (He has) this huge outreach, being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won 9 races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports.
“Did we miss a lot of that wave because our most popular driver wasn’t winning?” 
Harvick admitted that “these aren’t the most popular comments,” but insisted “those are real-life facts that you can look up on the stat sheet.”
Harvick said Earnhardt’s massive fan base is “totally confusing to me,” adding that “Jimmie Johnson should be our most popular guy, because he’s won seven championships. But when you look at the souvenir sheets every week, he’s 3-4-5, coming off of a championship year.
“That part is a little bit confusing.”
Harvick said Earnhardt’s late father, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, Sr. “became Dale Earnhardt because of the fact that he won seven championships and was out there grinding every week. That hasn’t happened (with Junior). The thing that makes sports go around is success. The people… that are the most popular people in other sports, win.”
“Lebron James wins. Steph Curry wins. Peyton Manning won. That’s how you drive the sport and take it to a new level; when your most popular guys are winning, week after week after week. It’s so confusing to me, the whole scenario. I keep bringing up Jimmie Johnson because he’s won seven championships. (We should be) putting him on a pedestal with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but it’s like that doesn’t even register with everybody out there.”
Harvick also discounted Earnhardt’s recent comments about declining driver salaries, saying, “Dale’s never really been in a position -- since he’s been at Hendrick Motorsports -- to understand where normal driver salaries even are.
“He’s always been the highest-paid guy in NASCAR. He’s been the guy that makes the most money.
“Hendrick Motorsports is about to go through a total reset,” he said. “For years, they’ve had the highest-paid athletes in motorsports on their team. Now, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Kasey Kahne exiting within a two-year period, it’s a complete re-branding. Sure it’s going to lower the cost. Hendrick Motorsports has had the highest paid drivers for a number of years, with Jeff Gordon and the highest paid driver, Dale Jr.
“(In 2018), they’re going to have some of the lowest payroll with three of their drivers. They’re going to lean on Jimmie Johnson to be the veteran guy and lead the company; teaching those guys how to race. And they’re going to have to pay him more than the other three guys combined, in order to take that role and push Hendrick Motorsports forward.”

Monday, August 07, 2017

COMMENTARY: "Right-Sizing" Proving Painful For Veteran Drivers

Kahne is out at HMS
Three of NASCAR’s biggest names are currently “at leisure” for the 2018 season; a fact that many observers struggle to understand.

Hendrick Motorsports confirmed today that Kasey Kahne has been released from the final year of his contract, freeing him to explore other opportunities for 2018 and beyond. Last week, Stewart Haas Racing declined to exercise its contract option on Kurt Busch, while Matt Kenseth currently has no ride lined up for next season, after losing his spot with Joe Gibbs Racing.

How do three proven drivers with a combined 85 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins and two series championships find themselves on the outside, looking in? And while we’re at it, how does Greg Biffle – a former Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series champion with 19 career MENCS wins -- languish on the sidelines while drivers with a small fraction of his resume continue to compete every week?

The answer comes down to money, or the lack thereof.

“Kasey has worked extremely hard,” said team owner Rick Hendrick in announcing Kahne’s impending departure. “He’s a tremendous teammate and person, and he has been totally dedicated to our program since day one.”

Kurt Busch is a free agent...
All of that is unquestionably true. Unfortunately, Kahne is also a veteran driver who expects a certain level of compensation for his labor. And like Kenseth, Busch and Biffle, Kahne’s desired level of compensation makes him expendable in these changing economic times.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – who owns a top NASCAR Xfinity Series team in addition to his driving duties with Hendrick Motorsports – explained the realities of today’s NASCAR to NBCSports.com recently, saying, “You’ve got a guy who you think has got a lot of talent (and) a lot of potential, and a veteran who is established but wants three, four, five, six times the amount of money. You’re going to go with the younger guy, because it’s a better deal financially.”

...as is Kenseth.
Earnhardt said that in an era where sponsorship is increasingly difficult to come by, drivers can no longer write their own check when it comes to salary.

“The trickle-down effect is coming through in the drivers’ contracts and making a big difference in the decisions these owners are making,” said Earnhardt. “You can’t pay a driver $5 to $8 million a year, if you ain’t got but $10 million worth of sponsorship.”

And that, my friends, is the rub.

It’s not 1998 anymore. The days when a sponsor would happily stroke a check for $30 million per year are long gone, and they’re not coming back anytime soon. The number of sponsors willing (or able) to fund an entire, 38-race season can easily be counted on the fingers of one hand. And as sponsorship wanes, teams must respond by cutting payroll, slashing expenses and paring their operation closer to the bone than ever before.

End result?

Biffle: Still sidelined
A proven commodity like Kenseth finds himself jettisoned in favor of 21-year old newcomer Erik Jones, who will win races and contend for championships while cashing a much smaller paycheck than the man he replaced.

Busch has his contract option declined by Stewart Haas Racing, who will almost certainly attempt to ink a new pact with the former series champion, at a lower rate of compensation.

Biffle – who sources say was near the top of Richard Petty’s wish list when Aric Almirola was sidelined by injury earlier this season – gets passed over in favor of 23-year old Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, in large measure due to the gaping disparity in their pay demands.

And Kahne is let go by Hendrick Motorsports, likely in favor of young William Byron; a wildly talented 19-year old who will race competitively for less money than Kahne likely has scattered beneath his couch cushions.

NASCAR has recently come face-to-face with a difficult (though arguably long overdue) period of right-sizing. The days when mid-pack drivers owned their own private jets are long gone. The team owner’s helicopter went up for sale years ago, and the mountain chalet is now a luxury, rather than a necessity.

There is a leaner, meaner NASCAR on the horizon, and the transition will be uncomfortable for some. In the end, though, we will ultimately get back to what the sport was supposed to be about all along, racing instead of revenue

BREAKING: Kahne, Hendrick To Part At Season's End

Hendrick Motorsports has announced that Kasey Kahne has been released from the final year of his contract, allowing him to immediately pursue opportunities for 2018.
“Kasey has worked extremely hard,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “He’s a tremendous teammate and person, and he has been totally dedicated to our program since day one. I’ve always believed that he’s a special talent, and I know he will thrive in the right situation. We will do everything we can to finish the season as strong as we can.”
Kahne, 37, will complete the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series schedule for Hendrick Motorsports. He was signed by the organization in April 2010, nearly two years before his February 2012 debut in its No. 5 Chevrolet. Now in their sixth season together, Kahne has earned six of his 18 career points-paying Cup victories with the No. 5 team.
“I’d like to thank Rick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports for their hard work and dedication, along with providing me a great opportunity and success over the last six years,” said Kahne, who most recently won July 23 at Indianapolis. “We won six races together and I'm coming off of one of the biggest wins of my career at the Brickyard, which has given the (No.) 5 team a lot of momentum heading into the playoffs. We still have a lot of racing left in 2017 and finishing strong is our top priority. I look forward to what the next chapter in my career holds.”
Hendrick Motorsports will announce 2018 plans for its four-car operation at a later date.

Busch, Keselowski Offer Differing Views On Mid-Race Crash

Busch was fuming after the race.
Kyle Busch stalked away from his M&Ms Caramel Toyota following Sunday’s I Love New York 355 at The Glen; trailed by a pack of reporters anxious to witness a promised, post-race dustup between the Joe Gibbs Racing driver and rival Brad Keselowski, who had tangled on-track earlier in the day.

Despite an earlier warning that his crew “better keep me away from that @#$%& after the race,” Busch disappointed the media entourage, walking straight to his team’s transporter without so much as a sideways glance toward Keselowski.

Their lap-45 crash – as well as an earlier pit road miscue that dropped him to the tail of the field – ruined what appeared to be a dominating day for the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, dashing his hopes of sweep the WGI weekend and claiming his second consecutive MENCS checkered flag.

The two raced side-by-side into The Glen’s tricky “bus stop;” a right-left-left-right chicane that is difficult to negotiate, even in single-file formation. They banged doors and spun, with Busch unable to re-fire until he had fallen nearly a half-lap behind the leaders. Both drivers were forced to pit shortly afterward for tires and body repairs, effectively ending their hopes for Victory Lane.

Kyle led early...
Busch rebounded to seventh at the finish, with Keselowski 15th after driving through too many pit stalls on his final stop and serving a NASCAR penalty.

"I was going in the corner and I had (AJ Allmendinger) behind me,” explained Keselowski afterward. “I got to the corner and my spotter said `somebody there.’ I had already gotten to the corner and by then I was already committed.

"I think he was probably committed (as well). It looked like he tried to make a big move from a couple of car lengths back and it was more than what there was room for. It probably didn't help either one of us. It was a bummer.”

Asked for his post-race take on the incident, Busch said simply, "Imagine that. I couldn't tell you (what happened). I haven't seen (the replay)."

Brad led late...
Busch and Keselowski have had their moments before on the 2.454-mile road course. In 2012, Busch spun after last-lap contact from Keselowski on an oil-slicked race track, ending his hopes for victory.

Earlier this season, they tangled on the opening lap of a NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Michigan International Speedway in June, and following a similar dust-up at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016, Busch called Keselowski “a dirty racer.”

This time around, however, both drivers likely owned a share of the blame, whether they accept it or not.

"This is a track where you fight for inches,” countered Keselowski. And we both are probably not willing to give in. It didn't help my day at all either, I can tell you that. I wasn't looking to get into him and I don't think he was looking to get into me. He probably had the dominant car. He didn't need any trouble. Neither did I.

After viewing the post-race videotape, Busch later tweeted that he “was going to make the corner just fine until I got drilled in my right side door.”

Asked if he expects to talk through the incident before this weekend’s race at MIS, Keselowski said, “I don’t think (Busch) is really the listening type.

“So that is pretty doubtful.”

Monday, July 17, 2017

COMMENTARY: Modern Fans Know Nothing Of Dominance

Martin Truex, Jr. drove to Victory Lane in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway two weeks ago, winning both preliminary stages and leading the final round by more than 15 seconds before surviving a final green-white-checkered flag restart to claim his third victory of the 2017 campaign.
Truex’s win – coupled with another three-stage sweep at Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this season and an even more-dominant performance in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte – drew howls of derision from some corners of the NASCAR universe, as fans complained about a lack of competition at the front of the pack.
Oh, if they only knew…
In 1967, a decade or three before many current fans were even born, Richard Petty authored the most dominant season in NASCAR history. In 47 premier-series starts on 14 paved ovals, 34 dirt ovals and the Riverside (CA) road course, Petty won a whopping 27 times (57.4%). In all but nine of those wins, Petty lapped the entire field.
Petty cruised to 27 wins...
The maximum number of cars finishing on the lead lap in any event that season was three. In the Beltsville 200 at Maryland’s Beltsville Speedway on Friday night, May 19, only 16 cars took the green flag, with winner Jim Paschal, Petty and third-place finisher Bobby Allison finishing on the lead lap. Donnie Allison was two laps behind in fourth place, with Paul Lewis five laps back in fifth.
Imagine how today’s fans would react to a 16-car starting field, with just three lead-lap finishers. The din would be deafening.
Twice during that 1967 campaign, Petty went to Victory Lane after leading every lap from green flag to checkers, maintaining the top spot even during green-flag pit stops. His Petty Enterprises Plymouth was so dominant that for the season, the North Carolina native enjoyed an average victory margin of 1.5 laps.
...including a record 10 in a row.
From August 12 to October 1, Petty went undefeated, winning a record 10 consecutive races at Winston-Salem (NC), Columbia (SC), Savannah (GA), Darlington (SC), Hickory (NC), Beltsville (MD), Martinsville (VA) and North Wilkesboro (NC) Speedways.
Imagine the reaction if Truex, Kyle Larson or Jimmie Johnson copped even three checkered flags in a row this season.
In addition to being the biggest winner of 1967, Petty was also the only driver to run every event. He finished 6,028 points ahead of championship runner-up James Hylton, who competed in 45 of 47 races.  Third-place finisher Dick Hutcherson made only 32 starts, finishing nearly 9,000 points behind Petty.
“King Richard” also led a total of 4,496 laps that season; an average of 166 circuits per race.
Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to grouse about a modern-day driver “dominating the field” with a 10-second lead.

As Summer Temperatures Soar, Silly Season Heats Up

As NASCAR hits its annual summer stretch, the weather is not the only thing heating up. Even as the battle for 16 berths in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs hits its stretch drive, Silly Season 2018 is already well underway.

Veteran Matt Kenseth kicked the speculation into high gear two weeks ago, announcing that he will not return to the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota next season. Days later, JGR confirmed Kenseth’s departure, saying that 2017 Rookie of the Year contender Erik Jones will replace the 2003 MENCS champion next season.

Team owner Joe Gibbs said the move has been in the works for some time, but was accelerated by Carl Edwards’ unexpected offseason retirement; a decision that accelerated young Daniel Suarez to the MENCS ranks sooner than expected.

“We got put in this situation with a lot of things happening to our race team over a period of about a year and half,” said Gibbs. “We didn’t want to be here, but we wound up here and had to make a decision.

“This wound up being a team decision, and (with) me owning the team, it fell to me to make this decision. We didn’t want to do this, it wasn’t the right timing for us, (but) a lot of things played into it where we had to make a decision.”

“We love everything about Matt,” said Gibbs of the driver who has won 14 races since joining JGR in 2013. “Everything he’s done for us has been awesome. He was great off the track, he’s a great driver with a lot of talent, and we hate the fact that we’ll be racing against him.”

Kenseth for Junior at HMS?
Kenseth is unlikely to remain unemployed for long. He has been linked with the No. 10 Ford at Stewart Haas Racing, should Danica Patrick not return to that ride next season. And multiple sources say that both Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are lobbying hard for Kenseth to replace Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports, when Earnhardt steps away from full-time competition at season's end. The 45-year old Kenseth would provide an ideal bridge between Earnhardt and heir-apparent William Byron, should team officials decide that Byron will benefit from an additional season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Hendrick also has a stake in young Alex Bowman, who recorded three Top-10 finishes in 10 starts last season after Earnhardt was sidelined with a concussion. Bowman’s best finish -- a sixth from the pole at Phoenix in November – was as good as anything mustered by four-time series champion Jeff Gordon in a similar relief stint, and marked Bowman as a potential star of the future.

For the driver known as “The Showman,” it’s all about sponsorship. If a backer can be found to roll the dice on a young, largely unproven driver – the way Axalta is reportedly willing to do with Byron – Bowman could well have a seat at the Hendrick table in 2018.

Kasey Kahne: Embattled
If he does, it will likely be at the expense of embattled veteran Kasey Kahne, who is believed to be on the hot seat despite having one year remaining on his current, three-year contact. Currently ranked 22nd in points and a long shot (at best) to make the playoffs, Kahne has managed just two Top-5 finishes this season. Since a fifth-place outing at Talladega in early May, Kahne has an average finish of just 25.7, with three results of 35th or worse.

That kind of results will not keep a driver employed for long, and with sponsors Farmer's Insurance and Great Clips already planning to leave at season's end, Kahne may need a competitive resurrection in the coming weeks to save his job.

“If I haven’t performed by 2018, I need to leave,” said a potentially prophetic Kahne a year ago. “It’s pretty simple. That will have nothing to do with William Byron or anyone else. If I haven’t performed by then, it’s time to go do something different.”

Ryan Blaney is also expected to be on the move at season’s end, leaving Wood Brothers Racing for a new, third Team Penske Ford. While not yet confirming the move, team owner Roger Penske has made no secret of his desire to bring Blaney in-house in 2018, leaving the Wood Brothers in need of a new driver for the second time in the last three seasons.

Menard: Wood Brothers-bound?
Sources say current Richard Childress Racing driver Paul Menard may be that driver, jumping to the Ford camp after seven seasons at RCR. Childress laid off approximately a dozen employees last week, not long after handing veterans crew chiefs Gil Martin and Slugger Labbe pink slips of their own. RCR spokespersons say the moves were nothing more than a reaction to overstaffing, but sources inside the walls say the team is preparing for the possibility of life without Menard and his lucrative, home improvement sponsorship. 

If Menard leaves, the door could be open for Ty Dillon to join elder-brother Austin in the RCR Cup camp. That would leave Ty’s current ride – the Germain Racing No. 13 Chevrolet – vacant.
Aric Almirola is also getting some Silly Season love, with scuttlebutt circulating that he and sponsor Smithfield could abandon Richard Petty Motorsports next season, possibly to replace Patrick at Stewart Haas Racing.
Darrell "Bubba" Wallace could also be a candidate for any open seat in 2018, after an impressive four-race stint in relief of Almirola that saw him improve his finishing position with every start. An 11th in his final race at Kentucky marked Wallace's 2017 high water mark.
No matter how the 2017 playoffs pan out, it appears that in the next few months, there could be as much NASCAR news made off the track as on it.








Monday, July 10, 2017

COMMENTARY: Kentucky Win Establishes Truex As Championship Favorite

One year ago, a single bad outing at Talladega Superspeedway cost Martin Truex, Jr. and Furniture Row Racing a shot at the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. This time around, the team appears to be in no mood for a repeat.

Truex dominated Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, leading 152 of 274 laps and winning all three stages en route to his third victory of the 2017 campaign. And in doing so, he established himself as a clear favorite to claim the 2017 MENCS title.

In 18 races this season, no other driver has swept all three stages in a single event. Truex has now done it twice, after turning the trick at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March. Saturday’s performance was the most dominant in NASCAR since last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when Truex clubbed the field by leading all but eight of 400 laps. Saturday, Truex claimed the checkered flag despite a final green-white-checkered flag restart that left him on old tires, while his closest pursuers pitted for new rubber. It didn’t matter, as Truex easily drove away from Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott to claim the win.

“I was worried every lap, waiting for a caution,” said an incredulous Truex afterward. “Especially at the end. You’re counting them down… the last 30, the last 20, the last 10, and then you get inside of five and you’re like, `Oh my God, there’s no way there’s not going to be a caution.’ And sure enough, there was. Fortunately, we were able to hold them off.
"This is very, very big to be able to do what we did," he added. "This was probably the best car I've ever had in my entire career. I can never recall saving fuel and pulling away from everybody before, so it was pretty amazing.”
The win was Truex’s third of the season, tying him with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the series lead. More important, it cemented Furniture Row Racing’s status as a team that can dominate – and win – at any time, on any size track. And with the 2017 playoffs now just eight weeks away, the Mayetta, NJ native has everything he needs to erase the memory of last season’s bitter Talladega elimination.

Truex collected his 13th stage win of the season Saturday night – nine more than any other driver. His 28 playoff points are a dozen more than second-best Johnson, and will give him a healthy head-start on the field when the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway on September 17. For an organization as consistently fast as Furniture Row, that head start should be enough to push Truex all the way to the Championship Four at Homestead Miami Speedway.

"Martin was super-fast,” said runner-up Larson Saturday. “He has been really, really fast all year long. I think we've been second best to him, but he's in a whole other league right now."
Larson’s “whole other league” assessment is shared by many in the NASCAR garage who have spent the last six months chasing the black No. 78 Toyota, without success.
In order to be successful in NASCAR’s new playoff format, a team must be consistent enough to avoid disasters; logging Top-10 finishes each week in order to advance. Barring that, a team must have the ability to win on demand; erasing a poor finish by driving to Victory Lane and claiming an automatic advancement to the next round.

Truex has both; consistency and the ability to win. He has led 257 more laps than any other driver this season, and tops the sport in checkered flags, as well. That combination will be difficult to beat, especially since the competition will be racing from behind in every round of the playoffs.

"I think he's peaking right now," said team owner Barney Visser following Saturday’s dominant win. “For the last year, I've thought he was as good as anyone in the garage. Now I think he's better than anyone in the garage. You saw what he did on that last restart, putting it down in Turn 1. He's just that good."
Visser stood by his driver during a traumatic 2014 season when Truex's longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, offering him an opportunity to step away from the sport and focus on Pollex; secure that his ride would be waiting on the other side. Truex ran every race that season, forging a bond with his owner and team that made them one of the best in the sport.
Ironically, Truex revealed Saturday that Pollex has had a recurrence of cancer -- as 80-percent of ovarian cancer survivors do – and underwent surgery last weekend in Charlotte, NC.
“We found out a while ago about it," he explained. "She went in this weekend to have some surgery done. Everything went perfectly good. It went as planned. I'm going to bring her home tomorrow. I'm excited to get home and see her, and everything is going great."
Pollex posted a video of herself leaving the hospital Sunday, smiling and focusing – as always – on the positive. Truex is doing the same, openly speaking of a 2017 championship that would define his career.
"I would say that it would change me,” he said. “It wouldn't change who I am (and) it wouldn't really change my life. But it would be a hell of an accomplishment for my career.
“We're going to try our best, and I feel like we have a good shot at it. We've consistently been a front-runner for the last couple years, and hopefully that continues.”
Make no mistake about it. With nine races remaining until the playoffs begin, Martin Truex, Jr. is the man to beat for the 2017 championship.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

COMMENTARY: Random Thoughts After A Long Day At Daytona International Speedway

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is suddenly becoming a restrictor plate master. The Roush Fenway Racing driver won Saturday night’s 59th annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway, just weeks after winning his first career at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this season. “I kept my Talladega (winning) car and told them to build a new one,” said Stenhouse in Victory Lane. “They built a Fifth Third Ford that was really fast. I’ve been coming here since 2008… and it’s cool to put it in Victory Lane and get our second win this year. This validates what we did at Talladega.” Stenhouse was winless in his first 157 MENCS races, but now has two checkered flags in his last eight starts, cementing a spot in the 2017 playoffs.

There was no shortage of ruffled feathers Saturday night, as drivers traded paint and blocked aggressively, from start to finish. Runner-up Clint Bowyer said aggression and risk-taking are a requirement for anyone who expects to run up front at Daytona. "You've got to block hard, cut people off and push hard," he said. "You've got to stick your nose in there where it doesn't belong; all things that you know are capable of disaster. If you don't, the next guy is going to. And nine times out of 10, it works. That's just the nature of the beast."

Brendan Gaughan made his third MENCS start of the season Saturday night, claiming a stellar, seventh-place finish for an underfunded, undermanned Beard Motorsports organization that had not completed since Talledega in early May. Gaughan survived two bouts with the wall with 69 laps remaining, then drove his No. 75 Beard Oil Chevrolet back through the field to claim his second Top-12 result of the campaign.

Anxious times for Logano 
Joey Logano's encumbered win at Richmond is shaping up to be the biggest penalty in the history of NASCAR. With six playoff spots currently available to drivers based on points, Logano is on the outside, looking in. A crash-marred 35th-place finish Saturday night left the Team Penske driver three points out of a coveted playoff spot, trailing fellow non-winners Kyle Busch, Chase Elliot, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Boyer and Matt Kenseth. If he fails to win again in the next nine weeks -– and a driver below him in the standings goes to Victory Lane -- Logano could easily find himself watching the 2017 playoffs from the sidelines.

People who grouse that NASCAR should start July races in Daytona Beach at 11 AM to avoid those ever-present 3 PM thunderstorms ignore the fact that it rained at noon Saturday. You just can't predict what Mother Nature is going to do.

Wallace and Blaney: Good Times
Seeing the sport's most iconic entries -- Richard Petty's No. 43 and the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 -- run side-by-side for the lead at Daytona was worth the price of admission, all by itself. Best buddies Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney were likely beaming like Cheshire cats, at least until Blaney succumbed to the competitive nature that plagues all racers and hung Wallace out to dry with a testosterone-rich move that earned him the top spot just a few laps later. Perfect.

Joe Gibbs Racing's 2017 winless streak becomes more incomprehensible with every passing week.

At one point within sight of the checkered flag Saturday night, 16 of the top 18 drivers were chasing their first win of the 2017 campaign. Only Jimmie Johnson and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., had cracked Victory Lane already this season, and Stenhouse ultimately claimed the checkered flag.

Seeing David Ragan contend for the checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway no longer qualifies as a surprise. 

Dillon was strong at Daytona
Rookies Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez and Corey LaJoie all contended strongly for the win Saturday night, only to discover a harsh reality about restrictor plate racing. Nobody drafts with rookies when the chips are down.

Dillon correctly refused to second-guess the late-race move that dropped him from second to 16th in the finishing order. "I'm kicking myself because the finish doesn't show what we are capable of," he said, after pulling out of line in a bid to take the lead and drawing absolutely no drafting partners. "But I would be more disappointed just sitting there waiting and not making something happen. I'm a go-getter. My personality might have gotten us a bad finish, but it also got us up to the front." 

LaJoie's 11th-place finish was by far the best of his rookie MENCS season, after a trying freshman campaign aboard Ron Devine's No. 23 BK Racing Toyota. Prior to Saturday, the third-generation racer's best showings had been a pair of 24th-place finishes at Daytona and Bristol.

The lunatic conspiracy theorists who pointed to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s Daytona pole as proof of NASCAR's manipulation of events were predictably silent when the sport's perennial most popular driver failed to win Saturday. Earnhardt is now 25th in the championship standings, winless in 17 races this season and unlikely to qualify for the playoffs in his final run as a full-time driver. If the sanctioning body is really rigging races, they are colossally bad at it.

One unexpected byproduct of Stenhouse's victory? Seeing Danica Patrick smile; a sight that becomes more and more rare with every passing week.

Kahne (5) had another rough night
Kasey Kahne's luckless season continued at Daytona. After running at the front of the pack throughout the night and contending for the win in the late going, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was swept up in a late-race melee and finished 18th. Rumors continued to swirl surrounding his status at HMS, and Saturday night's result will do little to quiet the whispers.

 Michael McDowell will win a MENCS race one day. And when he does, the entire population of the NASCAR garage will smile. Except for Bowyer, who will almost certainly finish second.

Fans who bemoaned Saturday's record 14 caution flags somehow had no complaints with the thrilling, three and four-wide action that produced them. Crashes are a byproduct of intense, competitive racing. You can't have one without the other.


And finally, while we're on the topic, can anyone dispute that NASCAR's new stage racing format has interjected a whole new level of excitement to the first two-thirds of race events? When is the last time you saw drivers go four wide in an attempt to lead Lap 40 of a 160-lap race? I had my misgivings when the new system was announced, but those misgivings were long ago put to bed. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

COMMENTARY: Luckless Patrick Facing Career Crossroads

Danica Patrick just can’t win for losing.

The Stewart Haas Racing driver started her weekend at Sonoma Raceway is encouraging fashion; qualifying sixth for Sunday’s running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350. But as soon as the green flag waved, Patrick’s luck turned sour.

Just 14 laps into the event, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spun in Turn 11 and slid his Axalta-sponsored Chevrolet across the track, into the path of Patrick’s oncoming Ford.

"Wrong place, wrong time," explained Earnhardt afterward. "Danica was trying to protect her position, and I went even lower than we normally go. It's real slick down there, and I just locked up the rear tires. I'll take some of the responsibility, for sure."

Patrick sang a similar tune, saying Earnhardt, “kind of lost it.

“I went to the outside, and there were cars all slowing down ... and he spun across,” she said. “There was a lot of dive-bombing today… but there's a limit to the amount of grip and the amount of braking power that these cars have."

The impact damaged both machines, and crew chief Billy Scott called Patrick to pit road for repairs and fresh tires. The Code 3 Associates driver quickly worked her way forward from the back of the pack, however. climbing as high as 21st before a scheduled, green-flag pit stop on Lap 22 for tires and fuel.

Not long after the start of the race’s second stage, Patrick once again found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, Kyle Larson attempted a three-wide, banzai move that ended with a second round of contact with Earnhardt. Patrick went spinning into the path of boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who was left with nowhere to go.

"Tell Ricky I'm sorry," said a sheepish Patrick, after Stenhouse suffered sufficient damage to end his day.

“They were three-wide in front of us trying to go through Turn 4, which never works,” said an angry Stenhouse after a mandatory trip to the track’s Infield Care Center. “They were all dive-bombing each other and then (Danica) got spinning and I tried to go low. She just kept coming down the track. We just clipped it a little bit and tore the left front up too bad to continue.”

Patrick was able to continue, once again pitting for tires and repairs. She began the race’s final stage in 18th place, and ran as high as fourth as the field cycled through a series of green-flag pit stops. She dropped to 28th after a final pit stop on lap 80, before racing her battered Ford back through the pack to finish 17th at the drop of the checkered flag.

“It definitely wasn’t the day the Code 3 Associates team was expecting,” said Patrick of her pinball-esque afternoon. “But we were able to battle back to a decent finish. The car was just awful in the final laps of the last two runs, but we made the most of it at the end.

"It's just a lot of people dive-bombing” she added. “It's part of what makes road-course racing exciting in a stock car, because you don't climb wheels. You just bump fenders. It just wasn't the day we expected to have.

Someday, (our luck) it will go the other way.”

In the aftermath of Sunday’s outing, Patrick now stands 28th in the championship standings. Her only shot at a 2017 playoff berth is to win a race in the next few weeks; an unlikely prospect considering that she is winless in 233 career stock car starts, and has recorded just one Top-10 finish – a 10th at Dover earlier this month – in her last 78 races.

When Patrick first came to NASCAR in 2010, fans and media stood 30-deep around her car and radio and TV clamored to interview her before and after every race. Sponsorship flowed like water, and Patrick ranked as one of the sport’s most recognizable drivers.

Since then, however, the hype has cooled. A half-decade or more of mid-pack finishes has made Patrick less relevant to the media and less attractive to sponsors these days, and the rumor mill is rife with speculation that she will not return to Stewart Haas Racing next season.

Patrick has openly admitted “not having fun” on the race track this season, adding that if her performances don’t improve, she may look for something else to do on Sunday afternoons.

“Every year I come into it with hope,” said Patrick earlier this season. “Now, that hope has kind of been crushed. We’ve been through enough races (that) it’s not going to be like a light switch. It’s time for some honesty. It’s time for some figuring out what the hell we’re doing because this is not helping anybody.”
“It doesn’t really help anybody if I’m out there running 25th. I’m not sure that does a lot for me.”

Patrick certainly isn’t in it for the money. She has been well compensated throughout her IndyCar and NASCAR careers, and recently published a health and fitness book, “Pretty Intense.” She launched her “Warrior by Danica Patrick” line of fitness apparel earlier this year to rave reviews, and admitted that if her on-track fortunes do not improve, there could be a team change – or even a career change – in her near future.

“It could mean either, to be honest,” she said. “If I could do better with a different team, then I would do it. I love racing. But I don’t love being miserable every weekend like I am now.

“The people around me probably aren’t that happy, either. None of us want to go out there and not run well. It’s a matter of being realistic about what’s going to be possible, what makes sense and where I’m going to be the most successful.”

With just 10 races remaining in the 2017 regular season – 10 more chances to regain her on-track relevance – Danica Patrick stands at a career crossroads. If her performance continues to flounder, 2017 will almost certainly mark her final season with a top-tier NASCAR team.

A little luck would certainly help change that outlook.