Category Archives: RACING

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.”

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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.”

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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

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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 22ndin 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 35thor 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.

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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 13thstage 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.

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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.
Ryan Newman spent 95% of the night riding in the back of the pack Saturday, eschewing stage points in favor of saving his car for a late-race charge. Despite his fifth-place finish at the drop of the checkered flag, Newman earned only five playoff points at Daytona; 16 fewer than 34th-place finisher Martin Truex, Jr.
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. 

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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 28thin 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.

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Four Years Later, Remembering Jason Leffler

Today is the fourth anniversary of the day former NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series driver Jason Leffler lost his life in a savage Sprint Car crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Our eulogy for “LefTurn” remains one of the most-read articles in the history of GodfatherMotorsports.com, and we re-post it today in memory of our friend Jason. 

He is gone, but not forgotten.

Dave Moody
Writer/Editor
GodfatherMotorsports.com
 


Charlie Dean Leffler’s daddy died last night, torn from the world in a crash so stunning, so horrific that it once again causes us to question our devotion to a sport that all too often breaks our hearts.

NASCAR driver Jason Leffler was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, after a grinding crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Witnesses said his 410 Sprint Car impacted the Turn Four wall during a qualifying heat race and flipped wildly down the front stretch of the 0.625-mile dirt oval.  Safety teams extricated the unconscious driver from his vehicle, with plans to transport him to Cooper University Hospital in Camden. His condition deteriorated rapidly while awaiting arrival of a medivac helicopter, however, and responders elected to transport him by ground ambulance to nearby Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
As word of the crash began to circulate, I did what I always do in situations like this. I told myself that the reports were untrue or exaggerated; the sad result of internet hysteria and a public raised on reality TV. When it became clear that a serious crash had indeed occurred, I prayed that Leffler’s injuries were not severe, assuring myself that he would back in the cockpit in a few weeks, or months.
Just before 10 p.m., however, a phone call from a colleague brought the horrible reality home. Jason Leffler was dead, leaving us to mourn – and remember –once again.
I have so many memories of the man we called “LefTurn.” He was a weekly guest on our Sirius XM Speedway radio program for years, sharing his life – both on and off the track – with a degree of candor that was both refreshing and rare. There were plenty of good days; wins in both the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, championship-contending rides with elite owners like Joe Gibbs and Chip Ganassi, and a trio of runs in the legendary Indianapolis 500.
There were also a few bad days; crushing race-day defeats, championship shortcomings and the loss of his Nationwide and Truck Series rides. When he and Alison decided to end their marriage a few years ago, Leffler made his weekly appearance as scheduled, despite a heavy heart.
“Leff, we don’t have to do this today,” I told him. “If you want to take a pass, we can catch up next week.”
“Nah, dude,” he replied. “It’s OK. I got no secrets.”
In the months that followed, Leffler spoke constantly of his desire to be a loving and involved father to Charlie, despite the demands of his racing career. Our weekly, 4 p.m. conversations often coincided with the end of Charlie’s afternoon nap, and the unpredictability of a newly-awakened two-year old made our visits an absolute joy.
A year ago, I crossed paths with Jason and Charlie, sharing a “Boys Day Out” lunch at a local restaurant. While Jason and I talked racing, Charlie demolished a massive salad, shoveling huge forkfuls of lettuce into his mouth while simultaneously carrying on a silent flirtation with my wife.
“Charlie, you ate the whole thing,” laughed Leffler at the end of our chat. “What am I supposed to eat?”
“Sorry Daddy,” replied Charlie, “I was very hungry!”
How do you tell a five-year old boy that daddy is not coming home tonight? How do you explain that his father, his best friend and his hero – all rolled into one – has been cut down by a sport that exacts such a horrible toll from its brightest lights?
The loss is unfathomable, unacceptable and unbelievable.
Today, I mourn the loss of a phenomenal talent; a man who could run an entire, 10-lap heat race at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals on three wheels, his left-front tire twitching in mid-air in an awe-inspiring display of chassis-bending bravado.
I mourn the loss of a friend whose zest for life, winning smile and goofy, faux-hawk hairdo never failed to make me smile.
I mourn the loss of a father who adored his son and deserved to see him grow up.
A quote attributed to the author Ernest Hemingway said, “There are but three true sports — bullfighting, mountain climbing, and motor-racing. The rest are merely games.”
All sports include a varying degree of risk, but auto racing is especially adept at destroying its own. Racers have a special relationship with death. They brush shoulders with it daily, acknowledging its presence with a passing nod while clinging stubbornly to the belief that it’ll never happen to them.
“Last year, I did a part-time truck deal,” said Leffler to Motor Racing Network’s Winged Nation recently. “It was the least I had raced since I was 18 (and) mentally, it wasn’t good. I don’t like being home. I just like being in the race car at the race track.
“The (NASCAR) start-and-park deal is not for me,” he said. “I had a good run for over a decade, so it’s time to get back racing.”
Big-league NASCAR racing had not suffered a fatality since the great Dale Earnhardt crashed to his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In that time, SAFER barriers, HANS devices, improved helmet and seat technology and car construction have made the sport safer than at any point before. But make no mistake about it, auto racing is not safe, and it never will be.

As long as men and women strap themselves into objects capable of eclipsing 200 miles per hour, as long as they test the boundaries of human endurance at places like Daytona, Lemans, Winchester and Bridgeport, horrible things can – and will — happen. Until the laws of physics are repealed, the immovable force will always trump the unstoppable object. And when it does, racers will die.

Jason Leffler knew that. We all knew that. But it doesn’t make what happened Wednesday evening any easier to accept.

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COMMENTARY: The Numbers Don’t Lie; Teams Are To Blame For 2017 Inspection Issues

It’s been one heck of a year to be a NASCAR inspector.
With fewer boots on the ground than ever before due to budget cuts and layoffs, NASCAR’s foot soldiers are being called upon to do more than ever these days, in less time. An influx of new technology has required NASCAR’s officials’ corps to learn new ways of doing things, while guiding race teams through previously uncharted technical territory.
And when things go wrong – as they frequently have – it’s the officials who take the heat when an over-aggressive crew chief gets caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar.
Numerous times this season, teams have been unable to make qualifying attempts after failing multiple pre-qualifying inspections. And when that happens, team members point the finger of blame in the direction of the sanctioning body, claiming that major adjustments on their machines produce little (or no) impact on the readouts.
“They’re out of calibration,” they claim. “They’re thrown off by the sun. Or the heat. Or the cold.”
NASCAR has countered those allegations, utilizing a non-adjustable test car dubbed “The Lunar Rover” to perform multiple re-calibrations of their inspection machinery, each and every week. And yet, the accusations continue.
Now, with 13 races in the record book – one half of the regular season schedule – it is possible to look back on the 2017 campaign and draw some cold, hard conclusions.
And the numbers don’t lie
A check of 2017 qualifying records shows that teams had no trouble passing pre-qualifying inspection at the circuit’s two restrictor plate races. In the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway in February, all 42 drivers successfully completed inspection in time to attempt qualifying. That trend continued at the 2.5-mile Talladega Superspeedway on May 6, with all 41 drivers attempting to qualify, without incident.
The series’ short track venues have been similarly devoid of pre-qualifying drama. Every driver made a qualifying attempt at Bristol on April 21 and Richmond on April 28, while qualifying was rained out at Martinsville Speedway on March 31, with the field set via the NASCAR rule book.

The one-mile ovals have also been trouble free this season, with all drivers successfully navigating pre-qualifying inspection at both Phoenix (March 17) and Dover last weekend.
It’s NASCAR’s intermediate tracks – the 1.5 and 2-mile ovals where aerodynamics are of critical importance — where the issues seem to arise.

At Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 3, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Michael McDowell, Cole Whitt, Derrike Cope and Cody Ware all failed multiple inspections and were unable to complete even a single qualifying lap.

Three weeks later at Auto Club Speedway, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Matt DiBenedetto and Gray Gaulding did not make qualifying attempts, after failing multiple inspections.
Texas Motor Speedway saw nine drivers — Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Erik Jones, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Chris Buescher, Timmy Hill and Derrike Cope – start at the back of the pack after failing to clear pre-qualifying inspection.
Kansas Speedway provided the season’s low point, when a total of 12 drivers — Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kahne, Jones, Earnhardt, David Ragan, McDowell, Landon Cassill, Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie, Hill and Carl Long – were forced to start at the rear of the field after failing pre-qualifying inspections and being unable to turn a qualifying lap. 
On All Star weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, all 16 drivers passed inspection in time to attempt qualifying for the Monster Energy All Star Race. However, Sorenson and McDowell both failed inspections prior to qualifying for the companion Monster Energy Open.
One week later, Larson and LaJoie failed to pass pre-qualifying inspections at Charlotte and were forced to start the Coca-Cola 600 from the rear of the field.
Interestingly, the only 1.5-mile track to experience no pre-qualifying issues was Las Vegas Motor Speedway, arguably one of the hottest venues on the schedule.
If NASCAR was truly experiencing equipment issues – with LIS tables and other measuring devices succumbing to the vagarities of heat and humidity – why have the issues occurred only at tracks where rear camber and skew offer the largest advantage? Shouldn’t there have been just as many problems at Martinsville, Daytona and Bristol, where the same measuring devices were used under the same varying weather conditions?
Common sense says `yes.’
And yet, no such issues occurred.
In the absence of such across-the-board problems, regardless of the size of the venue, it is virtually impossible to blame the yardstick for this season’s inspection debacles. NASCAR’s LIS and template stations are inanimate objects, capable of neither human bias nor error. They don’t see names and car numbers; only concrete, indisputable measurements.
Every car is the same as the others. It either complies with the rules, or it doesn’t.
Chad Knaus had it right a few weeks ago when he said teams “have nobody to blame but themselves” for this season’s rash of high-profile inspection failures.
“We are paid to push the envelope,” admitted Knaus, the most successful crew chief of this (or arguably any) era. “NASCAR gives us a rule and a tolerance beyond the rule. As competitive as we are, we take all of that, and sometimes a little more.”
So enough with blaming the yardstick. Enough pointing the finger at Mother Nature. It’s time to place the blame where it has belonged all along; with the men and women who live their lives in the gray area of the NASCAR Rule Book.

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Notes And Observations From 10 Days in Charlotte

With the Memorial Day weekend now behind us, it’s finally safe to examine a few trends that have emerged from the first 12 races of the season, while simultaneously emptying the notebook from a busy 10-day stretch in the heart of NASCAR Country.

One Win May Not Be Enough NASCAR’s Youth Movement continued at Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday night, with Austin Dillon joining Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the list of first-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winners this season. Dillon becomes the ninth different victor in just 12 races this season, casting NASCAR’s traditional “Win And You’re In” playoff mantra into doubt for the first time ever.
Fourth-place points man Kevin Harvick and fifth-place Kyle Busch are comfortably nestled into playoff positions at present, despite being winless on the season. But with drivers like Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all high on the list of potential 2017 winners – and Joey Logano still gunning for an unencumbered win to replace his April 30 win at Richmond – with only 16 total playoff berths available, things could get uncomfortable toward the end of the regular season.  
“The Goop” HelpedHigh marks to Charlotte Motor Speedway officials for their decision to apply a resin-based traction enhancing compound to the middle and high grooves of the 1.5-mile speedway in advance of Sunday’s race. One week after a ho-hum All-Star Race that produced little or no on-track action, Truex called the move it a “good addition,” calling the VHT compound “a huge factor” in the competitiveness of the Coca-Cola 600. “I think last weekend the middle groove… was nonexistent,” said Truex after leading 233 of 400 laps and finishing third. “It was the slickest part of the racetrack. Tonight, it was the main groove. It definitely played a factor. It changed the race quite a bit.”
Dillon Saves The DayUnfortunately, all the “Goop” in the world cannot change the laws of aerodynamics, which once again saw the race leader enjoy a substantial advantage over his pursuers at Charlotte. Dillon’s larcenous, fuel-mileage aided victory added some excitement to what was shaping up to be a decidedly dull finish, but most of the passing Sunday – at least up front – occurred immediately following an on-track restart.
The addition of a fourth stage Sunday did not appear to ramp-up the intensity, and quite honestly, the action at CMS tends to mirror the height of the sun. Day racing at Charlotte is generally competitive and entertaining. But once the sun dips below the horizon, “single-file” becomes the phrase of the day. It could be worse, though.
It could be Indy.

Larson Drops Points Lead Kyle Larson slapped the wall twice Sunday en route to a season-worst 33rd-place finish, losing the championship points lead to Martin Truex, Jr. for the first time since Phoenix in mid-March. The young phenom is unlikely to be shedding any tears over his loss of the top spot, since he was once again one of the fastest cars on the track at CMS. Teammate Jamie McMurray was also a contender before settling for 12th at the drop of the checkered flag, continuing a season that has both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers in solid contention for the championship.
With A Little Help From His FriendsDale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Coke 600 start was good, but not great, as NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver overcame a miserable performance in the previous weekend’s Monster Energy All Star Race to finish tenth in the Coca-Cola 600. When it was over, Earnhardt gave a full measure of credit to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, saying, “We’ve got to thank Jimmie and the No. 48 guys. Jimmie was communicating with me all week, calling me, talking on the phone. He would come across the garage and get in my window, even during practice. Get out of his car and come talk to me. What a great teammate.
“We would have liked to have run a little bit better than that for sure,” he added. “We think we should be running in the Top-5 every week as a team, so that is still not really good enough, but compared to last week, it’s a huge improvement.”

Things Looking Up For JGRJoe Gibbs Racing once again showed signs at Charlotte of turning their lackluster 2017 around.The team is still collectively winless, but had arguably its best collective performance in the Coca-Cola 600. Kyle Busch led 63 laps Sunday and finished second, with teammates Matt Kenseth (fourth), Denny Hamlin (fifth) and Daniel Suarez (11th) close behind. JGR is still winless , after racking up seven wins at this point of the 2016 campaign, but seems to be finding the speed they have lacked in the early part of the season.  “Our speed is better, but we still have some work to do,” said Kenseth. “I still can’t run with the 78 and the 18 if they’re out in front of me. They’re still better than us. We still have some work to do, but we do have more speed and that’s encouraging.”

Busch Still A ChallengeDespite a solid, runner-up finish behind Dillon Sunday night, Kyle Busch once again reinforced his status as the most ingracious loser in all of professional sports. NASCAR’s resident Bad Boy answered just one question during his mandatory Infield Media Center appearance, saying, “I’m not surprised about anything. Congratulations,” before tossing down the microphone and refusing to participate further.
Busch continues to hear more catcalls during pre-race driver introductions than any driver this side of Joey Logano, and honestly, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver doesn’t seem to care. In fact, he actually seems to enjoy tossing off the occasional toddler-style temper tantrum.

One can only wonder how his team and sponsors feel about it.

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