Monday, January 20, 2020

COMMENTARY: There's Enough Larson To Go Around

Social media is in an uproar today, after Kyle Larson once again dared to mention NASCAR and the Chili Bowl in the same sentence.

The Elk Grove, California native carved out another chunk of history for himself Saturday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, overhauling rival Christopher Bell with a testosterone-rich, high line pass that carried him all the way to Victory Lane in the country’s premier indoor midget race, the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals.

The win earned Larson his first Golden Driller trophy and reversed a pattern of “close, but no cigar” Chili Bowl performances that have repeatedly denied him a shot at Victory Lane in recent years.

“It’s a pretty different range of emotions,” said Larson, who came out on the short end of a late-race, wheel-banging battle with Bell in last season’s Chili Bowl. “365 days later. I feel like I’m going to pass out.

“I’m sorry NASCAR. I’m sorry Daytona. But this is the biggest f’ing race I’ve ever won.”

Those comments triggered a veritable firestorm of reaction, with NASCAR fans leaping to defend their piece of the motorsports landscape against Larson’s perceived insult, while dirt track fans hooted in delight.

The debate continues at maximum volume today, with the two fan factions – dirt vs asphalt, big-time vs grassroots – lobbing digital insults at each other in a misguided attempt to prove that their form of motorsport is the best form of motorsport.

There are obviously plenty of differences between the Daytona 500 and the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals.

The “Great American Race” tops 100,000 in attendance each season and is watched by millions more worldwide on FOX. The Chili Bowl plays out before a somewhat cozier in-person crowd of roughly 15,000, with thousands more watching on MAV-TV.

Both events do tremendously well. And while undeniably different, the Daytona 500 and Chili Bowl Nationals share identical roots. Both showcase the very best that our sport has to offer, galvanizing legions of supportive fans to pack their respective grandstands, clad in a rainbow of apparel that pledges allegiance to their favorite driver.

That’s a good thing, my friends, regardless of where your motorsports allegiance lies. And before the rising tumult drowns out any remaining semblance of rational thought, here are a couple of points, for what they’re worth.

Kyle Larson has never won the Daytona 500. He did go to Victory Lane in an Xfinity race there – the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 in July of 2018 – but until he does, Saturday night’s Chili Bowl win should indeed rank as the “biggest f’ing race” he’s ever won.

Perhaps a Daytona 500 win – if it comes -- will change his perspective. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s fine.

The contention in some corners that Larson has short-changed his NASCAR career by giving so much time, attention and emotion to his Sprint Car and Midget program is difficult – if not impossible – to prove. Easier to determine is that with 20 NASCAR National Series wins in eight seasons, the 27-year old has experienced far more success than the vast majority of drivers his age.

“Yung Money” has been a Top-10 points finisher in four of his six NASCAR Cup Series seasons, and since going full-time with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014, he has finished above his respective teammates (Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch) every year but one.

It is difficult to measure the success of a driver against competitors who drive different equipment; either better or worse. Has Larson won enough to rank with Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano on the talent scale? That’s a matter of opinion.

But the facts show that he has been the lead horse in the draft at CGR, just about every step of the way.

Larson clearly loves driving race cars; either full-fendered or open wheeled. He demonstrated that affection by showing up for last week’s Chili Bowl preliminaries with the whites of his eyes tinted an eerie mixture of purple, red and black; the result of an end-over-end, eggbeater midget crash at a dirt track in New Zealand late last month.

He didn’t have to tape his eyes open, Ricky Rudd-style. But Larson’s dedication to the game was on full display in Tulsa last week.

The current debate over Larson’s “Sorry NASCAR” comment is like cats fighting over a favorite toy. There’s enough of Kyle to go around; enough for us all to share from Daytona to Tulsa, Watkins Glen to New South Wales.

Larson is a walking, talking throwback to a bygone era in our sport when drivers like AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney jumped from stock cars to sports cars to Sprint Cars to midgets – sometimes in the same weekend – and earned our undying respect by doing so.

It’s time to cut Larson some slack.

Let him race what he wants, and love it all.

COMMENTARY: MLB Controversy Provides A Valuable Lesson For NASCAR

Major League Baseball finds itself earlobe-deep in controversy this week, after it was revealed that the Houston Astros used technology to steal signs from opposing teams during their 2017 World Series championship season, as well as in 2018.

The controversy first came to light in November of last year, when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers told reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drelich of The Athletic that the team had utilized a center field video camera to steal opposing teams' signs and communicate pitches to batters. Following an MLB investigation, the Astros were fined $5 million and will forfeit their first and second-round draft picks in both 2020 and 2021.

General manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A. J. Hinch were suspended by MLB for the entire 2020 season, before subsequently being fired by the Astros. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora – who helped orchestrate the sign-stealing scam while serving as bench coach for the Astros in 2017 – was also dismissed, as was newly hired New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, who played for the Astros in 2017.

The sanctions were the most severe ever handed down to an MLB organization for in-game misconduct, and they provide a valuable lesson for other sports – like NASCAR – about the importance of safeguarding the integrity of the game.

Cheating is not unique to baseball. NASCAR has long grappled with the concept of “superior interpretation of the rules,” dating back to its moonshining roots. In the past, when faced with cheating scandals of its own, NASCAR and its fan base have often responded with little more than a wink and a shrug.

The consensus of opinion among many in this sport is that “If you’re not cheating, you’re not competing;” an attitude that has done little to aid NASCAR’s effort to be seen as a major league professional sport. In fact, NASCAR is often viewed in the stick-and-ball world as the sport where everybody cheats, and nobody cares.

The sanctioning body has taken steps recently to alter that perception. NASCAR announced a year ago that it would begin disqualifying teams found to have broken the rules, penalizing them to last place in the finishing order. Joe Gibbs Racing was the first team to feel the impact of that new attitude, when driver Erik Jones lost a fourth-place finish to a post-race Optical Scanning Station failure at Richmond Raceway in September of 2019.

The current Major League Baseball controversy provides a valuable opportunity for both NASCAR and its fans to honestly evaluate how casual observers have long viewed our game. As we look down upon MLB and the Houston Astros today – collectively shaking our heads and harrumphing in disdain – we understand at long last how the rest of the world has viewed NASCAR through its myriad rule breaking scandals.

With the benefit of a little distance, NASCAR and its fans now have a unique opportunity to see the forest, rather than just the trees. We have an opportunity to see – from a comfortable distance -- just how damaging the concept of widespread, systemic cheating can be to a sport, its teams and its players.

There is a lesson to be learned here, if we’re smart enough to learn it.

Unfortunately, the reaction of many in NASCAR Nation has been indifference.

“I don’t care about baseball,” they huff. “That has nothing to do with NASCAR.”

Well, it has everything to do with NASCAR.

Baseball’s current state of upheaval is no different than what NASCAR went through in the aftermath of the 2013 Michael Waltrip Racing “Itchy Arm” scandal, when drivers Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers and others intentionally manipulated the outcome of the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway, in order to allow teammate Martin Truex, Jr., to advance to the playoffs.

Like the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, what happened in NASCAR that day was a systemic, organization-wide plot to manipulate the outcome of a major sporting event. And like the current MLB controversy, the events of September 7, 2013 cast a shadow over our sport that may never completely dissipate.

For those among us who are not NASCAR myopic -- who recognize and understand that there are other sports out there that do not involve screaming engines and squealing tires – how has your opinion of Major League Baseball changed in the last few weeks?

Has this latest controversy – combined with the still-lingering taint of the Steroid Scandal – sullied the sport in your eyes? Does the realization that cheating in Major League Baseball is widespread and largely condoned make you less of a fan? And does the knowledge that the Houston Astros (quite literally) stole the 2017 World Series title make you think less of them as an organization?

Of course it does. As it should.

And that’s why NASCAR needs to watch, listen and learn from what Major League Baseball is going through right now.

Integrity matters.

Reputation counts.

And once it’s gone, it’s difficult to regain.

Monday, November 18, 2019

NASCAR's Phelps Charts A Course For 2021

NASCAR President Steve Phelps met with the media yesterday, just hours before Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, delivering an annual “State of the Sport” address that hailed the 2019 campaign as a positive one for the sport.
“Our competition right now on the intermediate tracks and superspeedways… is the best we’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ll start with myself as a fan. I love watching and am super excited when we get to the intermediate tracks and superspeedways, (for) the type of racing we are going to see.
“The results from the competition side are working from a consumption standpoint,” he said. “Our (television) ratings are up 4% this year. All of sports is down 9%, we’re plus 4%. There are fewer people watching television in all sports, obviously, (and) fewer people watching television overall. So when they were watching… they were watching more NASCAR. We’re taking share from someone else, which is important.”
While declining to name names, the NASCAR president said there is strong interest from other manufacturers in joining Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota in the sport, once the new NextGen race car comes online in 2021. Published reports had executives from Honda in attendance two weeks ago at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, and Toyota Racing Development President and General Manager David Wilson said he had a lengthy conversation with that unnamed manufacturers last week, answering questions about the requirements and hurdles associated with fielding a new NASCAR brand
“We had some folks in Phoenix that were interested in coming into the sport,” Phelps said. “It’s important for us. We are working hard to try to determine kind of the timing of that, what that looks like, and what that partnership would look like moving forward bringing someone in.
“The world is a lot different than it was. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to have an OEM come in, plug in, and start to compete on the racetrack.”
Phelps confirmed that hybrid technology will be a part of NASCAR’s engine plans, calling it critical to the sport’s effort to attract new OEMs. He assured, however, that full electrification in not a part of the sanctioning body’s plan.
“This engine is going to sound significantly the same as the current engine,” Phelps said. “We’re not going to have a bunch of electric cars going around. That’s not what this is about. It’s about having a relevant engine to our OEM partners; Ford, Chevy and Toyota, as well as the new OEMs that we’re looking at.”
While hailing the impact of the sanctioning body’s new rule package on intermediate tracks, Phelps admitted that more work is needed to resurrect the sport’s short tracks and road courses. NASCAR originally proposed that the new package be used only on tracks longer than one mile this season. Team owners resisted the idea, saying that two packages would create a financial hardship. NASCAR elected to implement the package across the board, a decision that negatively impacted competition on short tracks and road courses  
Phelps revealed that despite his promise to make no additional rule changes in advance of the NextGen car’s projected rollout in 2021, changes will indeed be made next season.
“Do I think we need to work with our industry, Goodyear, our race teams and OEM partners to improve what we’re seeing on the short tracks? I do. We’re going to do that in the off season, for sure.”

Monday, November 11, 2019

COMMENTARY: For Hamlin, This One Feels Different

Denny Hamlin remembers.

He remembers the seasons when he entered the NASCAR playoffs as a top bet for the title, only to have bad luck, twists of fate and frequent lacks of focus send the championship trophy home in the hands of others.

He remembers the 2010 debacle at ISM Raceway in Phoenix where botched pit strategy cost him an almost-certain trip to Victory Lane and most of a 60-point championship edge over Jimmie Johnson.
He remembers a stunning early crash in the 2010 season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway that ended his championship hopes and handed a historic fifth-consecutive title to Johnson.
Those failures loomed like thunderclouds on the horizon Sunday; less than a week after a stunning, solo spin at Texas Motor Speedway dropped the Joe Gibbs Racing driver from a relatively secure 20 points above the playoff cutline to 24 points below, setting the stage for another potential playoff collapse. The signs were all there; another “here we go again” opportunity for Hamlin to let victory slip through his fingers when it matters most.
This time, though, it was different.
This time, the Virginia native exorcised the demons of seasons past with a championship-qualifying win in the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

Despite a late-race caution caused by John Hunter Nemechek’s bout with the Turn Four wall that set up a three-lap dash for all the marbles.

Despite a decision by crew chief Chris Gabehart to take just two tires on a decisive final pit stop, leaving Hamlin in the crosshairs of teammates Kyle Busch and Truex, both of whom had bolted on four fresh Goodyear Eagles.

Despite a desperation attempt by Ryan Blaney to snatch the lead away and steal Hamlin’s ticket to Ford Championship Weekend.

This time around, there was no disappointment. No excuses, no “what ifs,” no “what might have been.”

Just an opportunity to finally remove his name from the list of Greatest NASCAR Drivers Never to Win a Championship.

“I can't believe it,” said a stunned Hamlin in the aftermath of his sixth win of the 2019 campaign and the 37th of his career. “This race team worked so hard this whole year. They deserve to be there.  I put them in a bad hole last week. I told them today in the meeting, ‘I'm going to give everything I've got to make up for the mistake I made last week.’ That's all I got.”

The Fed Ex Toyota driver led a race-high 143 laps Sunday, surrendering the lead only once in the final 146 circuits; then only during a run of green-flag pit stops. He built a lead of more than 12 seconds at one juncture, wheeling what he called “one of the best cars of my career” through a minefield of lapped traffic without so much as a momentary glitch.

On the final restart, with former champions Truex and Busch set to relegate him to the “close, but no cigar” column yet again, Hamlin was perfect, stiff-arming the competition and pulling away by .377 seconds down the stretch, leaving Busch to wonder aloud how two tires could perform so much better than four.

With the win, Hamlin joins JGR teammates Truex and Busch in Sunday’s title tiff, along with Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick. There is no clear favorite for this year’s title, but Hamlin and Gabehart seem to have everything its takes – including the proper mental outlook – to finally grab NASCAR’s brass ring.

"I've been through so many playoffs,” said Hamlin in Victory Lane. “So many things that went wrong. This year, I'm waiting for the right next thing to happen. I can't thank this team enough. I don't have words yet. I'm going to have to do a little bit more donuts… then go to Homestead."

Everyone talks confidently at this time of year. Everyone likes their team and their chances. Hamlin has said all the right things before, only to come up empty when the chips were down.

This time around, though, things feel different.

The Chesterfield, Virginia native seems more confident, more focused and more confident in a crew chief who has helped him exorcise his demons; a man whose confidence level is so high that he chastised his driver via e-mail last week for saying that their season would still be a success, even without a championship.

With 37 MENCS victories in his column, it’s time for Hamlin to take the final step in his career; the step from “winner” to “champion.”

And this time around, he seems ready to do exactly that.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Penske Acquires Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar

For the first time in 74 years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a new owner.
Penske Entertainment Corp. – owned by billionaire businessman and legendary race team owner Roger Penske -- has acquired IMS, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions from the Hulman family, which has owned the Brickyard since 1945.
The sale was announced to IndyCar teams in a written announcement earlier today.
“We have found the ideal steward of the company and its iconic assets,” said the announcement. “Penske Corporation -- with its 64,000-plus employees and more than $32 billion in consolidated revenue -- will bring tremendous energy, leadership and resources to IMS, IndyCar and IMSP.”
The sale is expected to close in early January.
Penske – whose teams have won a record 18 Indianapolis 500-mile races and 15 IndyCar championships – will become only the fourth owner of the iconic, 110-year-old speedway. Hulman & Company patriarch Tony Hulman purchased the track in 1945, returning the facility to its pre-WWII glory. His family, including daughter Mari Hulman George and grandson Tony George, have steered the facility since Hulman’s death in 1977. They began actively divesting their holdings about a year ago, and today’s announcement comes a year and a day after the passing of Mari Hulman George on Nov. 3, 2018.
"For a number of years, the Hulman & Company management and board have engaged outside advisers and experts to consider the full range of strategic options available,” said the announcement sent to IndyCar teams. “Ultimately, it was decided to focus on the possible sale of the company and finding a buyer.”
The 82-year old Penske’s involvement in motorsports is lengthy and widespread. He is a former owner of Michigan International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway in California. He currently promotes the Detroit Grand Prix IndyCar event, in addition to fielding IndyCar Series entries for Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. He is also a major player in NASCAR, fielding Monster Energy Cup Series Fords for Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney. He also fields a full-time Xfinity Series Mustang for Austin Cindric, along with a part-time entry driven by a rotating roster of drivers that includes, Keselowski, Logano, Blaney and Paul Menard. His teams have won 187 races in NASCAR top two divisions.
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by president Donald J. Trump last month, in recognition of his accomplishments in business and motorsports.

Monday, October 28, 2019


For the second time in as many weeks, NASCAR has seen its on-track action overshadowed by post-race fisticuffs.
As Martin Truex, Jr., completed his celebratory burnout on the front stretch at Martinsville Speedway, drivers Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano convened on pit road to discuss a Lap 458 incident that saw the two swap sheet metal in Turn Four, before Logano’s car hit the outside wall and spun. The Team Penske driver eventually recovered to finish seventh, but confronted Hamlin after the race, looking for an explanation.
The conversation began civilly, until Logano shoved Hamlin in the shoulder before turning to walk away. Hamlin attempted to pursue Logano, triggering a melee that involved crewmembers from both teams and ended with Hamlin being thrown bodily to the ground by Logano crewman David "Mule" Nichols.
Just one week ago, an Xfinity Series imbroglio between Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and their teams at Kansas Speedway saw Reddick put into a head lock/choke hold by a rival crewman who approached him from behind.

Those aren’t fights, those are sucker punches. And there is no place for them in our sport.

It started calmly...(Photo: Tyler Strong | NASCAR Digital Media)
With two post-race melees in as many weeks, NASCAR now has all the ammunition it needs to put a stop to these multi-combatant brawls, once and for all. It is time for the sanctioning body to institute an NHL-style “Third Man In” rule, severely punishing anyone who escalates a simple, man-on-man confrontation between drivers into a dangerous, post-race dog pile.

Sunday’s incident involved two men who – at least verbally – expressed a willingness to square off and settle their differences, face to face.

 “He said, ‘Do you want to go?’” recalled Hamlin afterward. “I said, ‘Yes, I’m here.’”
Unfortunately, the two were prevented from doing so by a group of overzealous crewmen who over the years have been allowed to confuse “I’ve got your back” with “I’ll punch you in the back of the head.”

It's virtually impossible to recall an instance where drivers were actually hurting each other, until crew members intervened to de-escalate the situation? It's always the other way around. Third parties escalate the situation, increasing the possibility of injury.

Mob scenes get people hurt. In stark contrast to the NHL’s now-outlawed 1970s line brawls – where the benches emptied to trigger dangerous, 40-man melees -- mano-a-mano hockey fistfights rarely produce anything more serious than a bloody nose or a busted lip. It’ll work the same way in our sport, once we take the crewmembers out of the mix.

...Until the third parties got involved.(Photo: Tyler Strong | NASCAR Digital Media)
Two weeks ago at Talladega, NASCAR missed a golden opportunity to send a message. Mugging a rival driver from behind is unacceptable, as is grabbing him from behind and hurling him to the asphalt the way Hamlin was thrown Sunday. Perhaps the sanctioning body felt bound by past precedent, after allowing decades of such conduct to go unpunished. But that does not prevent them from adding verbiage to the rulebook that outlaws “Third Men In,” effective immediately.

NASCAR should police these situations like the NHL does. If two men insist on squaring off (and most often, they won't), everyone else backs away. Only NASCAR officials are allowed to approach, and in the unlikely event that the fight results in someone actually hitting the deck, the referees step in, separate the combatants and call a halt to the proceedings. 

Neither Hamlin nor Logano are built for brawling. Neither tips the scales at more than 140 pounds, and while the bantamweight tandem might be equally matched in a man-to-man scuffle, the addition of a half-dozen heavyweight crew members ensures the kind of one-sided beat down we saw in Martinsville Sunday.

The last two weeks notwithstanding, fisticuffs are fairly uncommon in NASCAR. Like bench-clearing brawls in baseball, they are the exception, rather than the rule. Unfortunately, video footage of the latest NASCAR skirmish ran on all the network morning shows Monday; shows that had no problem omitting any mention of race winner Martin Truex, Jr.

Dust-ups like we saw in the last two weeks encourage casual fans to ignore the circus and focus on the side show, and that cannot be good for our sport. It may sell a few dozen tickets for Eddie Gossage at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, but the gain is not worth the loss in public perception.

It’s time for NASCAR to take crewmembers out of the mix, levying suspensions and hefty monetary fines on anyone who wades into a driver-on-driver confrontation. In most instances, the lack of backup may prompt angry drivers to talk it out, rather than slug it out. And if fisticuffs do ensue, at least it’ll be a fair fight, allowing the wheelmen to settle their own scores.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Hamlin Unhappy – But Not Distracted – By Logano’s Aggressiveness

In the aftermath of a chaotic Drydene 400 at Dover International Speedway, Denny Hamlin appears determined to remain focused on championships, rather than controversy.

Late in the middle stage of Sunday’s race, defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano found himself in danger of being lapped by leader Hamlin. He raced hard – perhaps too hard – impeding the progress of both Hamlin and second-place driver Martin Truex, Jr., despite the fact that his No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford was 24 laps down at the time.

Logano failed to take the green flag Sunday, after pulling to the garage with a broken rear axle during the pre-race pace laps. A lengthy repair ended any hopes of a Top-10 finish before they even began, leaving the Connecticut native to play a backmarker’s role for the remainder of the afternoon, salvaging whatever points he could, while hopefully staying out of the way of the lead-lap contenders.

He did a masterful job of collecting every available point, gaining a handful of spots in the second half of the event. He made no friends along the way, however, angering some of the same playoff contenders that he will have to deal with in the next few weeks as he attempts to defend his 2018 title.

“Here’s the situation,” explained Logano after Sunday’s 34th-place finish. “There are four or five cars that I could possibly catch. That’s five points. I’m in (the playoffs) by zero points right now, so we’d better get them all. When you think of that, I’ve got to try to get every car I possibly can. I ran as hard as I could this whole race. I don’t have anything to show for it, but I ran it as if we were on the lead lap and did everything we possibly did to be better.”

Hamlin was critical of Logano after the race, saying the Team Penske driver raced the leaders far too aggressively for a driver 23 laps down.

“I’ve got to race,” said Logano afterward. “There’s four or five cars that I could possibly catch. That’s five points. I’m in (the playoffs) by zero points right now, so we’ve better get ’em all. I ran as hard as I could this whole race. I don’t have anything to show for it, but I ran it as if we were on the lead lap and did everything we possibly did to be better.”

Perhaps predictably, Hamlin was hearing none of it.

He called that explanation, “The most idiotic statement I’ve ever heard. It’s not your day, you had bad luck. I don’t understand that at all. That was a bad choice to say that he’s fighting for something. He’s not fighting for anything, he’s just running around the race track. Stay in one lane… get the laps over with. Get the race over with and go home and get ready for Talladega. All he did was piss some people off and what did he really gain? He didn’t gain anything.”

“Make up position? He’s 24 laps down,” said Hamlin, who started on the pole and led a race-high 218 laps. “We’re battling for the end of the stage. It’s not your day, you had bad luck. I get it. But why? I don’t understand that at all. That’s just a stupid statement by an idiot.

“I probably shouldn’t call Joey an idiot,” said Hamlin, measuring his words carefully. “He’s not an idiot. But that was just a bad choice to say that he’s fighting for something. He’s not fighting for anything, he’s just running around the race track. Stay in one lane. Maybe the high lane, because nobody’s up there. Get the laps over with. Get the race over with and go home and get ready for Talladega to try to win that race.”

“I get it. Everyone races hard,” added Hamlin, who enjoyed a sometimes-rocky relationship with Logano as Joe Gibbs Racing teammates early in their careers. “If you’re one lap down, I get it. Even two. Just not 24.

“All he did was piss some people off. And what did he really gain? He didn’t gain anything. He just pissed off some guys that he’s racing with now (for the championship). So now, we’re just going to race him extra hard, and for what? Because he didn’t want to go 26 laps down.”

Logano has never been known as a shrinking violet on the race track. He has never hesitated to employ the “bump and run” in pursuit of Victory Lane, and if Sunday’s incident with Hamlin balloons into a legitimate, late-season controversy, it will not be his first.

Hamlin, however, seems reluctant to dwell on Sunday’s situation, displaying a degree of big-picture focus that has sometimes evaded him in the past.

“Nobody’s going out there maliciously trying to screw over Joey,” he said. “I’m just saying that through these playoffs, you can’t make enemies. You’ve got to give and take. It’s those deposits and withdrawals that I talked about with (Kevin) Harvick earlier this year. You gotta be able to say thank you. Thanks for that spot. … I don’t want to hear, `It’s just racing.’

“That’s not smart. Being smart is a part of racing, too. Not just skill.”

Logano races hard. Every week, every lap, in every situation. It remains to be seen whether that “damn the torpedoes” philosophy will negatively impact his bid for a second consecutive MENCS championship.

Monday, September 30, 2019

COMMENTARY: Wallace Faces The Wrath of a Kinder, Gentler NASCAR Nation

Bubba Wallace was not happy with Alex Bowman at the conclusion of Sunday’s Bank Of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The two clashed at least twice during Sunday’s race, including an opening-lap scuffle where Bowman appeared to push Wallace through the backstretch chicane, earning Wallace a penalty. Wallace responded with what Bowman alleged were a series of single-digit salutes, and on Lap 42, Bowman issued a response of his own, turning Wallace at the end of the backstretch chicane and sending his Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet into the outside retaining wall.
Wallace confronted an overheated and dehydrated Bowman as he sat next to his car after the race. The two exchanged angry words, before Wallace threw water in Bowman’s face.
The conflict drew an immediate and animated response on social media, where a number of horrified fans chastised an “unsportsmanlike” Wallace for attacking Bowman while he was receiving medical treatment. There were no IVs administered on pit road, no cold compresses applied, nothing more dramatic than a concerned EMT kneeling next to Bowman asking, “Hey man, how are you doing?”  

If “how are you doing” qualifies as receiving medical treatment, I have received medical treatment from virtually every fan who has called my Sirius XM NASCAR Radio show in the last 16 years.

“Hey Dave, how ya doin’? Long-time listener, First time caller...”

Bowman had enough energy to exchange verbal pleasantries with Wallace, and at one point even attempted to swipe the Gatorade bottle out of his hand. I’m not a doctor — and I didn’t stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night – but to my admittedly untrained eye, Bowman appeared to be suffering from a condition that thousands of racers over the years have traditionally cured… by dumping cold water on their heads.
Wallace is almost certainly too quick on the trigger finger. (Actually, the finger adjacent to the trigger finger.) It has earned him the ire of a fellow competitor or two in the past, and it probably will again. But if “flipping someone off” somehow justifies getting turned into the wall at 100+ mph, NASCAR has changed a lot in the last 30 years. And not for the better.

This used to be a sport where intentionally wrecking someone earned you a post-race knuckle sandwich, if not a jack handle to the ribs. Nowadays, though, our definition of fighting is waiting for 10 or 15 crewmembers to get between you and your adversary before yelling, “let me at him!”

Standing up for yourself used to be the right thing to do. Now, it is somehow seen as boorish, Neanderthal and terribly, terribly inappropriate. Apparently, NASCAR drivers are supposed to settle their differences like the illustrious leaders of our nation do, by lobbing empty insults at each other from opposite sides of the aisle, playing “Billy Badass” from beneath the convenient cover of Robert’s Rules Of Order, only to smile politely for the cameras as if nothing happened when standing shoulder to shoulder with their opponent, just a few moments later.

The phrase “talk is cheap” clearly doesn’t apply anymore. In the year 2019, it has become downright worthless.

Bobby Allison punched Cale Yarborough square in the nose following the conclusion of the 1979 Daytona 500. Nobody considered it “unsportsmanlike” of Bobby to involuntarily rearrange Cale’s proboscis, and nobody complained about the terrible impression he was making on America’s youth by doing so. Back then, that’s how grown men with a severe difference of opinion handled their business.

“Wreck my race car, and we’re gonna have a talk.”

In 1995, Rusty Wallace got dumped by the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. at Bristol Motor Speedway, After the race, he expressed his displeasure by drilling The Intimidator right between the eyes with a full bottle of water. Not just the water, but the bottle, as well. 

NASCAR fans loved it back then, but today, Bubba Wallace is somehow seen as a bad actor and a poor sport. In less than a quarter century, a simple splash of water has somehow become an act of violence; a concept that I honestly struggle to understand. Which has the potential to do more damage? Getting spritzed with water, or getting turned — driver’s door first — into the SAFER barrier?

To me, expressing unhappiness with six ounces of high-quality H2O seems infinitely more prudent than doing so with 3400 pounds of steaming steel. But apparently, a significant portion of NASCAR’s modern day fan base sees it exactly the other way.

They’re angry at Wallace for “setting a bad example” by delivering spontaneous liquid refreshment to Bowman in the aftermath of Sunday’s race. They decry his lack of sportsmanship and bemoan the terrible example he sets for the children of America.

My friends, if you’re counting on Wallace and Bowman to instill values in your children, you’re a lousy parent. Bubba and Alex absolutely had a job to do Sunday on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, but teaching your six-year-old right from wrong wasn’t it.

Instilling proper standards of personal conduct is your job as a parent, and no one else’s. If you were as serious about that responsibility as you seemed on social media Sunday night, you would have used the time you spent lambasting Wallace and NASCAR (in shockingly salty terms for a group so pious) to teach a valuable life lesson to your impressionable youngsters, instead. 
“I don’t know if he was mad about the first lap or what,” said Bowman afterward. “But obviously, that was just a mistake. Then I got flipped (the bird) for every single straightaway for three laps. I got flipped off by him for three or four laps in Richmond, too, so I was just over it. I’ve got to stand up for myself at some point, right? He probably wouldn’t have gotten wrecked if he had his finger back in the car.”
“I get it, I’d be mad, too,” he added. “But he put himself in that spot.”
“He doesn’t like to race,” countered Wallace to “He just runs over everybody. He gets to Lap One and runs over me and (Austin Dillon) in the back chicane. We’re back there in the trunk, man. Just take it easy for a lap. He had a fast car and he just ran over us. Every time he gets to me, he just runs over me.”
Wallace also accused Bowman of “playing the sick card so I couldn’t bust him in his mouth,” a comment that did little to soothe the already ruffled feathers of NASCAR Nation.

Bowman and Wallace did no damage to each other Sunday night that couldn’t be repaired with a paper towel. No lives were lost, no blood was shed and no innocent moppets were led astray to lives of debauchery.

If you have never extended your middle finger to some clodhopper who changed lanes in front of you on the highway, God bless you.

If you have never uttered an obscenity after smashing your thumb with a hammer, you’ll have a much easier path to heaven than I.

If you have never wished death (or at least a sudden bout of explosive diarrhea) on the lady who stole your parking spot at the Piggly Wiggly, feel free to continue casting sanctimonious judgment on Bobby Allison, Bubba Wallace and any other NASCAR driver who fails to uphold your wonderfully lofty standards of conduct.

With any luck, they’ll keep you busy for many more years to come.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go outside and yell at some kids to get off my lawn.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

CONFIRMED: Bell To Leavine Family Racing In 2020

It's official.

Christopher Bell will drive for Leavine Family Racing in the 2020 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, wheeling the No. 95 Toyota Camry with sponsorship from Rheem and Procore.

In addition, the technical alliance between LFR, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing Development will also be enhanced. TRD will continue to build the team’s engines and provide technology, data and technical assistance.

Bell’s NASCAR Xfinity Series crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, will join him in the transition to LFR. Ratcliff is no stranger to NASCAR’s premier series, after spending six full seasons serving as a crew chief at JGR with drivers Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth.

Mike Wheeler will remain with LFR and transition to the role of Competition Director, working alongside Ratcliff.  Wheeler currently serves as crew chief of the No. 95 and driver Matt  DiBenedetto. With Wheeler’s promotion, current Competition Director Michael Leavine will become Vice President of Racing Operations for the organization.  

“I’ve said from the start, I want this team to be competitive,” said Bob Leavine, founding owner of LFR. “Christopher is one of the most talented drivers we’ve seen come up through NASCAR’s ranks and together, with JGR and Toyota’s support, I’m confident our team will continue to grow, just as it has this past year. We’re certainly happy to continue to progress our relationship with both JGR and TRD as the technical partnership takes the next step forward.”

Bell is currently competing in his second full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series season for JGR, where he has amassed 15 career victories. Last year, he set a record for most wins (seven) by a rookie in the series. With seven victories already in 2019, Bell currently ranks first in the championship point standings.

“Since I was young, I wanted to make a career out of racing,” said Bell. “To take this next step and race in the NASCAR Cup Series with the support of LFR, JGR and Toyota is just a dream come true. It also means a lot to me to have Rheem make the move to Cup racing with me. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today without their support and I’m also excited to have the opportunity to represent Procore now.

“Having been under the JGR banner these past seasons in the Xfinity Series and with TRD for as long as I can remember, having their continued support as I transition to LFR is extremely comforting and will be a tremendous benefit to me. I can’t wait to close out this season in the Xfinity Series with a strong run, and I’m looking forward to the challenge that awaits in 2020.”

A native of Norman, Oklahoma, Bell began his career racing on local dirt tracks around the Midwest. He then moved on to compete in USAC Racing’s National Midget Series where he joined TRD’s driver development program and won the 2013 title.

Bell’s NASCAR career started in 2015 racing a Toyota Tundra in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series. Just two years later, he won the 2017 Truck Series championship, and that same year he captured the first of three-consecutive Chili Bowl titles (2017, 2018, 2019) driving a TRD-powered Midget for Keith Kunz Motorsports.

“TRD and Toyota have worked with Bell since his early dirt track career and we’ve been proud to see him work his way to NASCAR’s highest level,” said David Wilson, president of TRD. “Christopher is a special talent and we’re happy to have him winning races and championships in a Toyota. We look forward to seeing his continued growth and success at Leavine Family Racing in 2020. We’re also pleased with how the relationship between JGR and LFR has progressed during their first season working together. We’re confident this enhanced alliance for 2020 will continue to make them a threat for race wins, week in and week out.”