Thursday, August 15, 2019

COMMENTARY: Does Anyone Want The Final Spot In NASCAR's Playoffs?


With just three races remaining before the start of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, it appears that nobody wants the final spot in the 16-man championship field.

In the last 30 days, title contenders Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson have struggled mightily, youngster Daniel Suarez has made inconsistent bids for a Top-16 berth, while veteran Ryan Newman has done just enough to keep his head above water.

Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, both Johnson and Bowyer crashed their way to back-of the-pack finishes, allowing Suarez to erase a major deficit with a fifth-place finish that left him just six points below the playoff cutoff line.

Johnson’s day was over almost before it began. He slapped the wall exiting Turn Two on Lap 15, pancaking the right side of his Hendrick Motorsports Ally Chevrolet. A series of pit stops immediately left him four laps down, and the seven-time series champion continued to struggle for the remainder of the afternoon, finishing eight laps behind in 34th place.

“The right-side tires went into the PJ1 and as soon as I got my tires in it, I went straight into the wall,” said a sheepish Johnson afterward. “When you’re aggressive, it doesn’t work. Then sometimes you’re cautious and it doesn’t work. It was a great car. That hurt, for sure. We’re just going to have to rally on. We’ll keep digging.

“It’s super disappointing,” Johnson said. “But I’m (the man) behind the wheel, and I’m the one that got us in the fence.”

Johnson was in trouble early at MIS
Johnson’s demise left the door wide open for Bowyer, who came to the Irish Hills 16th in points after running as high as ninth earlier in the 2019 campaign. His Stewart Haas Racing team failed to capitalize, however, despite a fifth-place qualifying effort that raised hopes for a solid finish. Bowyer languished well outside the Top-10 for most of the day, before tangling with Paul Menard and walloping the Turn 3 wall on a Lap 137 restart. Severe damage to his One Cure Ford Mustang forced him to the garage with 61 laps remaining, en route to a disappointing 37th-place finish.

“Somebody got in the back of me,” said an incredulous Bowyer. “When I went around, I saw Bowman and thought it was him. I guess maybe (it was) the 21. As soon as it happened, I was just along for the ride.

Bowyer continues to tumble.
“We have to get something figured out with these race tracks,” he added. “We are really fast by ourselves, practicing and qualifying really well; in the Top-5 almost every single time. But then we start the race and don't make the grip we need to compete. We definitely need to figure some things out. You can talk about the bubble and worry about points, but I am way more worried about getting established and running up front at these types of race tracks.

“If you make the Playoffs and can’t compete, then what’s the use? We have some time. We have some good race tracks for us -- including Bristol -- coming up. We have plenty of racing, but we have to get some things figured out.”

After the points were tallied Sunday, Johnson had dropped two spots to 18th in the championship standings, 12 points behind both Bowyer and Ryan Newman. Suarez is now back in the hunt in 17th, trailing Newman and Bowyer by just four points, eight in front of Johnson.

“It was a decent day for us,” said Suarez, after a fifth-place showing that included overnight repairs from a practice crash. “We had ups and downs. There was something wrong, a bad set of tires or something in that second stage. We couldn’t control it.

“The team was able to overcome that with good adjustments and they put me back in the game with track position, and we were able to get a good result from there.”

Johnson, who has qualified for the playoffs every year since the format was introduced in 2004, said it best Sunday, noting that “the guys around that cutoff point all seem to be having bad luck.”

With just three races left before the playoff tickets are punched, it’s time for someone to step-up and prove that they belong.


Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Darlington To Celebrate MRN's 50th Anniversary


Darlington Raceway and the Motor Racing Network will celebrate MRN’s 50th anniversary by giving away some very special opportunities for fans that attend the track’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500.

All fans that purchase the track’s Stripe Zone Hospitality package for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Sept. 1, will automatically be entered to win some experiences of a lifetime courtesy of MRN.

The experiences include:

Hot Laps on race day with MRN Analyst and NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace – your opportunity to ride shotgun with a living legend and make laps hours before the green flag drops on the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Honorary MRN Pit Reporter – Shadow an award-winning pit reporter for Stage 1 of the Bojangles’ Southern 500 and get up close to the cars and stars of NASCAR like never before.

MRN Booth Visit – Get a behind the scenes look at the Motor Racing Network’s coverage of the Bojangles’ Southern 500 from high atop Darlington Raceway in the race control tower and watch Rusty Wallace, Jeff Striegle and Alex Hayden call the action.

Turn 3 with Mike Bagley – Soak up some non-stop racing from the best seat in the house! Join MRN’s Mike Bagley for a few laps as he calls the race above the action in turn 3 at the track Too Tough To Tame.

“I can’t think of a better place to celebrate MRN’s 50th anniversary than at the legendary Darlington Raceway,” said Chris Schwartz, President of MRN. “We are so excited to partner with Kerry and the team at Darlington to present these exclusive experiences to a few lucky Stripe Zone fans.”

On August 16, 2019, a random drawing will take place among Darlington’s Stripe Zone hospitality customers with the winners being contacted prior to the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Sept. 1.

Additionally, MRN’s broadcast team members will make an appearance on race day in the Stripe Zone hospitality tent, conducting a question and answer session for fans that day.

“We appreciate the wonderful relationship we have with MRN and appreciate their efforts in providing a few of our lucky hospitality customers these unique experiences,” track President Kerry Tharp said. “Congratulations to MRN and their 50 years of broadcasting NASCAR races to fans all over the United States and throughout the World.”

For complete contest rules and information visit www.DarlingtonRaceway.com/MRN50th


Monday, July 29, 2019

COMMENTARY: Jones, Bell Battling For Their JGR Lives

Jones was strong again at Pocono

Erik Jones finished third behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr. Sunday at Pocono Raceway, continuing the most successful streak of his brief, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career.

Preceded by third-place finishes at both Kentucky and New Hampshire -- and with Top-10 showings in eight of his last 11 starts -- the Byron, Michigan youngster has solidified his playoff hopes dramatically in the last six weeks, surging from 18th to 13th in the championship standings.

Ironically, he may need every bit of that success to keep his job at JGR.

Not long ago, Jones was seen as an unassailable part of Gibbs’ long-term plan. But with resurgent veteran Denny Hamlin banishing the memories of a winless 2018 campaign with his third victory of the season at Pocono Sunday and Toyota wunderkind Christopher Bell winning Xfinity Series races virtually at will, Jones now finds his future in question with an organization that will soon have more elite drivers than available seats.

After replacing former series champion Matt Kenseth in JGR’s No. 20 Toyota just two years ago, Jones is in the final year of his contract. While all parties have spoken about the possibility of an extension, no such contract has yet been signed.

Jones hears the rumors.
"It's so hard putting everything together," admitted Gibbs Sunday at Pocono. "I know people get frustrated because you haven't made a decision yet on some things. But I just say this: there are sponsors involved, so many relationships involved, you're trying to get through that and work it all out. That's part of Erik's world. It doesn't go easy sometimes. He knows. I keep him updated (and) he knows we're working as hard as we can. Hopefully, it will be one of those things we get put in place here pretty quick."

Gibbs’ lukewarm endorsement did little to silence the speculators, and with Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. going nowhere in 2020, it appears that either Jones or Bell may be headed to Leavine Family Racing next season; either as a replacement for Matt DiBenedetto or as driver of a new, second LFR Toyota.

Both Jones and Bell hear the scuttlebutt. They know the importance of running up front – every single week -- and showcasing their value to an organization that will soon have a critical decision to make.
“We’ve had some good meetings, positive meetings, so we’re moving in the right direction,” said Jones two weeks ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I’d love to get it done here soon. We’ve had good meetings between my guys and JGR. I’ve had good meetings with Coach talking about it and moving forward. I know I keep saying it, but I feel like we’re pretty close to getting it done.
“I want to get it done. We both want to get it done and move forward and stop worrying about it and stop focusing on it, but we’re close. Hopefully here soon.”
Christopher Bell just keeps winning.
For his part, Bell admitted feeling powerless to determine his future path, telling reporters, “I think you know as much as I do. Actually, you probably know a little bit more than I do. Ultimately, it’s not up to me. I can’t make the decisions. I’m just along for the ride.”
He also commented on rumors of a possible move to Leavine Family Racing, saying, “I learned early on in my career that a race car driver is only as good as the equipment. I definitely want to make sure that I’m in equipment that can win.”
Bell is clearly a blue-chip prospect, with Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson stating repeatedly that the Oklahoma speedster, “will never drive anything but a Toyota in NASCAR National Series competition.”
With a finite number of seats available in NASCAR’s premier series, however, something has got to give, and soon. Toyota has historically emphasized quality over quantity in its MENCS efforts, fielding a smaller number of cars, while devoting a higher level of resources to each. That approach has paid clear dividends, with both JGR and Furniture Row Racing contending annually for the championship and winning multiple titles.
Jones and Bell have not competed head-to-head since the end of the 2017 Xfinity Series season. But make no mistake about it, they are in direct competition today, battling for one of the premier seats in all of NASCAR.
May the best man win.  

Monday, July 22, 2019

Johnson Once Again Teetering On Playoff Brink

With just six races remaining in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season, there is as much attention being paid to the bottom of the championship ladder as the top.

Just 101 points separate 13th place from 21st in the regular-season standings, with no fewer than nine drivers fighting over the final four spots on the playoff grid. Kyle Larson is now ranked 13th, 31 points above the cutoff line. Hot off a third-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday, Erik Jones climbed to 14th in the standings, 28 points to the good. Ryan Newman helped his cause with a seventh-place finish at the Magic Mile, jumping to 15th in the standings, 21 points above the Danger Zone. Clint Bowyer (20th in New Hampshire) is now on the hot seat as the final playoff qualifier, 17 points ahead of multi-time series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson finished 30th Sunday -- 13 laps down -- continuing an up-and-down season that has seen him dancing on the edge of the playoff blade, virtually every week.

With just two laps remaining in the second stage of Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301, Johnson was poised to claim a handful of much-needed bonus points. He was sixth on a Lap 149 restart, but ran into the back of another car as the green flag waved, creating debris that damaged the pulleys on the front of his Ally Chevrolet’s engine. Those damaged pulleys quickly spit the power steering and water pump belts, plummeting him through the field and forcing him to pit road for lengthy repairs.

“It was certainly a letdown, to say the least,” said Johnson after the race. “We had some issues with the power steering and the water pump pulleys. I thought it might have been from some contact on the restart. I got into the back of the car in front of me.

“They told me that wasn’t the case, so I assume some debris got in the pulley system and took out my power steering and the water pump as well. It’s just unlucky on that front. (It was) certainly the wrong time of year to have bad luck.”

Less than a month ago, after posting back-to-back Top-5 finishes at Chicagoland and Daytona, the Hendrick Motorsports driver looked ready to return to his customary championship form. Consecutive 30th-place results at Kentucky and New Hampshire have dropped him from 15th to 17th in the championship chase, however, and his involvement in the 2019 postseason is once again in doubt, to say the least.

He is currently tied with Stewart Haas Racing youngster Daniel Suarez for 17th in the regular-season standings, trailed by Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Chris Buescher; all of whom are still mathematically eligible (though highly unlikely) to make the playoffs on points.

“We’ve been trying all year,” said Johnson, the only driver to qualify for the postseason every year since NASCAR invoked its playoff-style format in 2004. “It’s not like we can magically flip a switch and all of a sudden have more. We’ve been able to run in the Top-5 and we need to get back to doing that. That’s really what it boils down to.”

Johnson last visited MENCS Victory Lane at Dover International Speedway in May of 2017 -- 
78 races ago -- and badly needs a rebound performance this weekend at Pocono Raceway 
to right his playoff ship. He is a three-time winner at The Tricky Triangle, most recently in 
June of 2013.

“(This is) certainly the wrong time of the year to have some bad luck,” he added. “The guys I’m worried about in the points didn’t have the best day either, so maybe I got a pass on this one. I’m just disappointed to say the least.”

While Joey Logano and Kyle Busch continue their mano-a-mano battle for the 2019 regular season title, the next six weeks will almost certainly focus an increased amount of attention on the final few seats at the playoff dance.



Wednesday, July 10, 2019

COMMENTARY: Spire Motorsports Deserves Congratulation, Not Scorn


Justin Haley won the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway Sunday, cashing-in a longshot weather gamble when lightning in the vicinity of the track waved-off an impending restart after a number of contenders had just pitted for tires and fuel.

Haley’s win for the first-year Spire Motorsports team was the kind of upset that Daytona has become famous for over the years, and the type of Cinderella Story that fans and media have historically embraced. This time, however, both Haley and his team have found themselves the targets of criticism, second-guessing and name calling, even before the post-race champagne had dried.

Spire Motorsports was formed during the offseason when owners Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr – who own and operate Spire Sports + Entertainment, a talent management and motorsports consultant agency -- were hired by Furniture Row Racing’s Barney Visser to assist in selling his race team and its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series charter. Unable to find an interested buyer, Dickerson and Puchyr elected to take the plunge themselves, obtaining $6 million in loans to purchase Furniture Row’s charter, then contracting with Premium Motorsports to provide race cars and equipment for their freshman campaign.

Spire began the season with veteran Jamie McMurray behind the wheel in the season-opening Daytona 500, finishing 22nd after a late-race crash. Since then, they have fielded weekly entries for a driver list that includes Haley, Quin Houff, Garrett Smithley, DJ Kennington and Reed Sorenson. Prior to their upset at Daytona, Spire’s best finish had been an 18th by Sorenson at Talladega in late April.

In addition to their new racing endeavor, Spire Sports + Entertainment represents a number of NASCAR and IndyCar drivers, including Haley, Smithley, Kyle Larson, James HinchcliffeLandon CassillRoss Chastain, Todd Gilliland and Vinnie Miller. They also serve as consultants to teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing, GMS Racing, ThorSport Racing, Larson Marks Racing, 5-hour Energy and Eneos, as well as for the Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway.

Haley stunned at Daytona
That, apparently, represents a conflict of interest in the eyes of some, making Spire’s Daytona victory a “black eye for the sport” in the eyes of at least one media member.

“Conflict of interest” is nothing new in NASCAR.  Bill France, Sr, raced in many of the early events sanctioned by his National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. From 1995 through 1999, Jimmy Spencer drove cars sponsored by RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., which also served as entitlement sponsor of the series at that time. Today, Kurt Busch’s Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet is sponsored by Monster Energy, major sponsors of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

In neither case did anyone cry “conflict of interest,” or claim those sponsorships to be injurious to the sport.

When the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. drove for Richard Childress Racing in the final years of his career, one of the teams he had to beat en route to Victory Lane was his own organization, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Jeff Gordon raced against Jimmie Johnson every week for many years, while holding an ownership stake in Johnson’s car.

No one complained about those supposed “conflicts,” or fretted that they might destroy the sport. 

NASCAR is not the only sport with conflict in its ranks. There are currently nearly 1,700 rostered players in the National Football League, with only a dozen or so major agents representing them. Does an agent who represents multiple athletes on different, competing teams present a conflict of interest?

Probably.

"Black eye" for NASCAR? Far from it.
But does it have any negative impact on the athletes, the league or the game?

Absolutely not.

Before purchasing FRR’s charter during the offseason, Spire contacted all of its motorsports clients, asking for their approval to proceed. Every athlete and team gave their blessing.

If Spire’s “conflict” is okay in the eyes of their clients, it should be alright with you and me, as well.

In truth, the uproar over Haley’s Daytona victory is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot, manufactured by a small handful of utterly joyless souls who apparently cannot stand to see an underdog team (or the sport) succeed. Despite the ongoing efforts of those unhappy few to convince you otherwise, Sunday’s win has not brought the sky tumbling down around NASCAR’s ears.

Saying that something “could” damage the sport is far different than proving that it is actually causing harm. And at this point, not a single shred of quantifiable evidence has been presented that Spire’s so-called “conflict of interest” has damaged the sport in any way.

Some of the same people bemoaning Spire’s dual role in the sport have chastised the team for not being competitive enough in the first 17 races of their existence. One writer described them as “a team that’s shown no interest in being competitive whatsoever,” with another accusing the organization of being nothing more than “a cash grab.”

Dickerson, Puchyr and team president Ty Norris are not disinterested in running up front. They are simply aware of (and bound by) their current competitive limitations. Like a number of other teams in the MENCS garage, they must make the best of a limited budget and non-state-of-the-art equipment, racing in the bottom half of the field while attempting to build their program for the future.

There is absolutely no indication that Dickerson and Puchyr plan to cash-in their chips at season’s end, selling their charter for a healthy profit before snickering their way out the door. If such a “get rich quick” scheme was truly viable, they would have been able to sell FRR’s charter to some deep-pocketed venture capitalist with an eye for an easy buck. That didn’t happen, leaving Dickerson and Puchyr to step up, when no one else would.

If that qualifies as a “cash grab,” so be it.

Most of us regularly execute “cash grabs” when we punch a time clock at work in exchange for a weekly paycheck. So long as Spire Motorsports remains within the rules and regulations of NASCAR, they have every right to operate their team however they see fit, and grab all the cash they can along the way.

It took Furniture Row Racing seven seasons to make its first trip to Victory Lane. It may take Spire Motorsports another seven years to return to the Winner’s Circle, but if it does, it won’t be from a lack of trying.

The men and women who make up Spire Motorsports do not deserve your scorn. They deserve your congratulations and well-wishes after a weekend that every new NASCAR team dreams of, but very few ever achieve.

Monday, July 08, 2019

COMMENTARY: What To Expect From The 2021 NASCAR Schedule, And Why


NASCAR President Steve Phelps appeared on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio last week and cautioned fans not to expect “massive wholesale changes” in the 2021 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Despite stating that the sanctioning body “probably won’t go to exactly the same number of race tracks (for) the exact same number of events,” a segment of the sport’s fan base interpreted those comments them to mean that few, if any changes are likely to be made.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Some venue changes will almost certainly take place, but a dramatic, chassis-off makeover of the MENCS schedule will be difficult to accomplish, for a number of reasons.

The 600-pound gorilla of North American motorsports is the National Football League. The NFL season begins in August and hits full stride in September, October and November; just about the time that NASCAR is engrossed in its playoffs. Some believe that NASCAR would do well to end its season 30 days earlier, sidestepping the meat of the NFL schedule.

To the sport’s television partners, however, there is no better alternative programming during the NFL offseason, preseason and early season than NASCAR. NASCAR is either No. 1 or No. 2 in cable sports viewership every week, but if the racing season is shortened, the sport’s TV partners will fill those empty weekend time slots with something else. Whether it’s soccer, lacrosse, WWE, or MMA, someone is going to cash a TV check on those weekends.

It might as well be NASCAR.

Phelps: No "massive wholesale changes."
Shortening the race season will result in decreased TV revenue to teams, tracks and the sanctioning body. That income will not be easily replaced, and race teams must pay salaries and keep the lights turned on 12 months a year, whether they race 36 times annually, or only 30.

The possibility of midweek racing has also been discussed recently. A rain-delayed, 5 PM ET Monday start time at Michigan International Speedway recently produced solid television ratings and created that a limited schedule of such events might experience success similar to the NFL’s lucrative Monday Night Football franchise. While that possibility does exist – and is worth investigating -- in-person attendance on a Monday night would almost certainly prove challenging.

Mainstream networks like FOX and NBC air highly profitable primetime programs on weeknights. They are not going to bump The Voice, 9-1-1 or The Prodigal Son for a NASCAR race, even in the summer when those shows are in re-runs. Networks make a ton of money on Reality TV and sitcoms, and are unlikely to pre-empt them, even for a dose of Monday Night NASCAR.

Midweek racing will also result in increased expense for teams, unless NASCAR is willing to clear the previous and/or following weekend. It is unrealistic to expect teams to race on a Saturday night or Sunday, then again on Monday at a different track.

Let’s talk a bit about moving races.

For NASCAR, taking races from a venue in an adversarial fashion will be a challenging endeavor. Look up the name “Francis Ferko” and recall the ungodly amount of legal turmoil that ensued the last time NASCAR attempted to unilaterally move a race from one track to another. Any speedway that loses a multi-million dollar MENCS event against its wishes will almost certainly take the matter to court, alleging collusion and anti-trust. We have seen it before -- with years of negative headlines and millions of dollars in attorney’s fees -- and it would absolutely happen again.

Even without the legal roadblocks, abandoning longtime, historic facilities is a bad optic for the sport. People still talk about Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre shutting down North Wilkesboro Speedway and moving its races to other tracks; an event that occurred nearly a quarter century ago, in 1996.

Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and International Speedway Corporation are the two major track ownership groups in the sport. They can (and do) move races within their respective portfolios with relative ease. The remainder of the schedule belongs to the Mattioli Family (Pocono Raceway), Dover Motorsports, Inc. (Dover International Speedway) and Hulman and Co. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway).

For those groups to lose a race, one of two things will almost certainly have to happen.

First, SMI or ISC can purchase one of those venues and move its race(s) to other properties within their portfolio. There is historical precedent for that sort of approach. Rockingham and North Wilkesboro come immediately to mind, to name just two.

Indy, Dover or Pocono can also forge an agreement to “realign” one of itheir races to another venue, sharing the profits generated by that event.

Nostalgia is a big part of our sport. NASCAR is second only to baseball in revering and reliving “The Good Old Days,” a mentality that often results in modern-day fans longing for a return to the speedways of their youth.

Unfortunately, those failed speedways failed for a reason. Overserved markets, poor attendance, lack of infrastructure and aging facilities where attendance did not justify major capital improvements led to the demise of many former MENCS venues. If you’re hoping for your favorite old-time track to return to the NASCAR schedule, ask yourself “what has changed there since the track came off the calendar?”

In virtually every case, the answer is “nothing.” In fact, most of the tracks in question are in worse shape than they were when they fell off the schedule, making a return by NASCAR unlikely, at best. The only possible exception at present is the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, where SMI is currently undertaking a major campaign to upgrade the facility and facilitate the return of NASCAR National Series competition.

Race tracks and ownership groups like ISC and SMI are not charities. They are for-profit organizations and do not operate on emotion and nostalgia. Either a race track makes money, or it goes away. That is – quite literally – the bottom line.

For these reasons and more, it is unreasonable to expect a dozen or more tracks to be dropped from the 2021 NASCAR schedule, replaced by new (or resurrected old) facilities.

If you are expecting NASCAR to eliminate all the so-called “cookie cutter” 1.5-mile tracks from its 2021 calendar, you are destined for disappointment.

If you are hoping to see a dozen short tracks on the schedule, you are destined for disappointment.

If you are hoping to see Circuit of the Americas, VIR or your local, quarter-mile dirt track on the schedule, you are absolutely destined for disappointment.

When you were a child and your parents asked what you wanted for Christmas, you gave them a “Wish List” as long as your arm, understanding that not everything on that list would appear under the tree on Dec. 25. NASCAR’s recent promise to deliver some new goodies under the 2021 scheduling tree inspired some wonderfully optimistic wished from the sport’s fans; some of whom – unfortunately – won’t be happy unless Santa crams an entire sleigh full of gifts down the chimney.

Last week, NASCAR’s Phelps said, “We're going to listen to what the fans say.”

That seems like a pretty good place to start, but it is not as simple as “wishing will make it so.”

Monday, July 01, 2019

COMMENTARY: Bowman's Win A Testimony To Persistence

It is only fitting that Alex Bowman’s first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup victory came with a double dose of persistence.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver battled back after being passed for the lead by Kyle Larson with just eight laps remaining to win Sunday’s Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. Bowman regained the top spot from Larson with a daring, high-line pass, then held on to win by .546-seconds to claim the first victory of his MENCS career. Joey Logano overcame early struggles to finish third, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. 

Like Sunday’s win, Bowman’s career has been a study in patience and persistence. 

His first national attention came when he claimed Rookie of the Year honors on NASCAR's K&N Pro Series East in 2011, outracing highly touted, second-generation driver Chase Elliott for the honor. Two unremarkable seasons with the underfunded BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing Cup Series teams did little to raise his competitive stock, but he was set to race for Baldwin again in 2016 until being informed that his services would not be required, less than a month before the season-opening Daytona 500.

Bowman (88) and Larson (42)
battled hard for the win.
He spent the 2016 campaign as HMS’ simulator driver, rarely climbing behind the wheel of an actual race car until Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was sidelined with concussion symptoms at midseason. Bowman replaced NASCAR's Most Popular Driver in 10 events, splitting time with former series champion Jeff Gordon and performing as well as either Gordon or Earnhardt.

When Earnhardt was eventually forced to retire at the end of the 2017 campaign, Bowman was tabbed to replace him in Rick Hendrick's potent No. 88 Chevrolet. 

Success, however, was not immediate,

He finished 16th in last year's championship standings with just three Top-5 and 11 Top-10 finishes, slogging through a season that saw the entire Hendrick organization struggle to get a grip on Chevrolet's new Camaro ZL-1. This season began in a similar fashion, with no Top-10 finishes in Bowman's first nine starts, despite an outside-pole qualifying effort in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Bowman is a MENCS winner at last.
The tide began to turn in late April at Talladega, where Bowman and crew chief Greg Ives recorded the first of three consecutive runner-up finishes. Second-place runs at Dover and Kansas were quickly followed by a seventh at Charlotte and a 10th at Dover, serving notice that Bowman was finally ready to contend for Victory Lane.

Despite those solid showings, however, Bowman has been hounded by rumors of his potential replacement at HMS. Lately, the internet railbirds have chattered incessantly about a move by Larson from Chip Ganassi Racing to Hendrick, taking the wheel of the iconic No. 88 Chevrolet.

Team owner Rick Hendrick attempted to silence that speculation recently, saying, "Alex is having a breakout season and showing the world just how talented he is. He’s signed through next year, and will be a big part of our future.” That endorsement did little to cam the speculative storm, and last month's announcement that Nationwide Insurance will depart as sponsor at season's end pumped up the volume even further.

How ironic, then, that Bowman's win Sunday came at the expense of Larson, after the driver known as "Yung Money" wrestled the lead away from Bowman with just a handful of laps remaining.

“It’s all I’ve wanted my whole life,” said a beaming Bowman in Victory Lane. “I feel like this is validation for a lot of people that said we couldn’t do this. My guys have worked so hard and we struggled so bad last year and the beginning of this year. I had questions if Mr. Hendrick was going to let me keep doing this. All the rumor mills. But, to be here winning a race in the Cup Series means so much.

“I was tired of running second,” he admitted. “I felt like we had a car capable of winning. We got held up there for a little while. I got super frustrated with some lapped cars not helping us. They don't have to help us, but that's just kind of part of it. We lost a big lead and I got pretty frustrated, burned the right rear tire off trying to get around some lapped cars. And when Kyle got around me, I was going to tear the right side off it, try and run the fence, or get back around him.

"(I’m) glad we kept it out of the fence, and I was kind of surprised that he left the top open the way he did and left clean air up there. I guess I should have moved up there earlier. But I didn't want to run second again. I don't come from a racing family, I don't have a big resume. I went from running in the back every week to doing this, and still not really sure how that all happened, but it's been a heck of a ride. I’m just very thankful for the opportunity and thankful for getting to work with people like Greg Ives and this 88 team.”

Sunday’s race was red-flagged after just 11 laps by high winds and torrential rain that forced a 3½-hour delay that added yet another element of patience and persistence to Bowman's day. The rain even impacted his victory lap, as the 26-year old driver slid into the infield and was unable to escape.

Undaunted, he climbed atop his stranded car and thrust his arms skyward, celebrating a victory that was  well worth the wait.


NASCAR's Phelps Cautions Against Expectations of "Massive" Schedule Changes In 2021


NASCAR president Steve Phelps cautioned last week that fans expecting a complete overhaul of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule in 2021 may have the hopes set too high.

Appearing on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” Friday, Phelps said the 2021 is still a work in progress, as is the new, Gen-7 race car set to debut in 2021.

"We don't have the schedule dialed in for 2021 as it pertains (to) where we will race," Phelps said. "I think if you would look at the 2020 schedule, we moved things around. I think the fans…by and large were thrilled with the changes we made. I think there was an industry buzz.

"The drivers were excited, the teams were excited and, most importantly, the fans were excited. But we’re racing at the same racetracks (in 2020), the same number at each racetrack. We have new sanctions that we need to do for 2021 that will obviously dictate where we go.”

Phelps cautioned against expecting “massive wholesale changes,” adding, “Will we go to exactly the same number of racetracks, the exact same number of events? We probably won’t. I don’t think there are going to be massive wholesale changes. With that said, we're going to listen to what the fans say.

“This is their sport and we need to make sure that we are giving them what they want. So, (we are doing) a lot of listening, a lot of dialogue, working with our broadcast partners, working with our teams and our drivers, our OEM partners. That’s the first part of the 2021 piece.

“It's a work in progress."

Fans have expressed support for an increased number of short tracks and road course on the 2021 docket, at the expense of 1.5-mile ovals. There has also been considerable discussion about shortening the MENCS shorter overall schedule. 

The impending purchase of International Speedway Corporation by NASCAR could simplify the process of moving race dates, since privatized ownership of ISC would eliminate the need for approval by the Board of Directors. The announced $2 billion merger is expected to be completed by the end of the calendar year, giving NASCAR direct operational control if ISC’s 12 MENCS venues; Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Auto Club Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, Michigan International Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and Watkins Glen International. The sanctioning body already owns Iowa Speedway, which is not currently a part of the MENCS schedule.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. is also in the midst of taking its company private. SMI owns Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Kentucky Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Dover International Raceway, Pocono Raceway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are privately owned, and there are no current plans to change the ownership of those speedways.

Monday, May 20, 2019

All-Star Saturday Night Provides Much-Needed Smiles For Bubba Wallace, RPM

Smiles have been few and far between lately for NASCAR driver Darrell Wallace, Jr.

With a season-best finish of 17th and only one Top-10 showing in his last 41 starts, the Alabama native has recently had to contend with rumors that his Richard Petty Motorsports team might fold in the near future, after being unable to attract badly needed sponsorship.

Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the smile returned to Bubba’s face.

Wallace and his underdog RPM team contended strongly for the win the opening stage of Saturday’s Monster Energy Open, only to lose a fender-banging sprint to the finish by inches to William Byron.

After a few R-rated exclamations on his in-car radio, Wallace bounced back in Stage Two of the Open, nipping Daniel Suarez on the final lap in a virtually carbon-copy finish, banging wheels as Suarez spun, giving Wallace a starting spot in his first-ever All-Star Race and unleashing a torrent of cheers from the Charlotte grandstands that rivaled anything heard for the remainder of the evening.

“Ever since I was a kid, they said I drive better when I’m pissed off,” said Wallace, in the midst of an emotional, teary embrace with fellow driver and best friend Ryan Blaney. “I was pissed off. I thought that was it (for our chances). Then the caution came out (in the second stage) and gave us the same scenario.

Wallace made his All-Star debut memorable.
“I thought, ‘I’m not giving it up this time.’ You’ve got to do what you’ve got do.”

Simply qualifying for the All-Star Race would have been enough to boost the morale at RPM. But Wallace was far from finished.

He ran toward the back of the 19-car main event in the opening two stages, but surged forward in the penultimate third segment, finishing sixth. A pit stop dropped him outside the Top-10 for the start of the final 15-lap stage, but Wallace wasted little time moving forward once the green flag flew.

He cracked the Top-10 almost immediately, then gained a handful of positions by remaining on-track while others pitted with just 12 laps remaining. He climbed as high as fourth following the final restart, but was overtaken by Joey Logano with just four laps to go.

A spirited battle with former RPM driver Aric Almirola saw Wallace take the checkered flag in fifth place; an astounding performance for a driver and team who have been hanging on by their figurative fingernails in recent weeks.

“I honestly haven’t had this much fun in a long time,” said an emotional Wallace afterward.

He acknowledged that competitive and personal challenges have made life difficult recently. But on this night, at least, the smiles were easy to come by.

“I had tons of fun tonight,” he said. “I honestly haven’t had this much fun in a long time. I guess since back to the race at Bristol last spring. It’s been a struggle for us. I held it wide open on the last restart and those (top four) guys drove away from me. I just said ‘Bye, bye’ and held on for fifth.

“The first thing my mom said to me after the Open was ‘You know who that was? That was God. He’s not giving up on you yet.’

“As many dark moments that I’ve had and telling myself to give up, it’s been really tough. It’s been tough to keep coming in and keep going. Tonight just shows that I’ll be back next week.

“I’m showing teeth in my smile,” Wallace said. “So that says a lot.”