Monday, June 12, 2017

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, and we re-post it today in memory of our friend Jason. 

He is gone, but not forgotten.

Dave Moody

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.

Bubba Wallace Speaks On Racing... And Race

Sunday was not the greatest day of Darrell “Bubba” Wallace’s racing career. A trio of pit-road speeding penalties relegated him to 26th place in Sunday’s Pocono 400, his inaugural Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start in “King” Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43 Ford.

After his imperfect Pocono outing, Wallace became lightheaded and fainted on pit road, before being treated and released at the track’s Infield Care Center.

“Heck of a way to end it, passing out,” joked Wallace, who became the first African-American driver to compete in NASCAR premier series event since Bill Lester in 2006. "It has happened three times now where I’m just so mad that I pass out."

The 23-year old Alabama native drove in place of Aric Almirola Sunday, after Almirola suffered a broken vertebra in a crash at Kansas Speedway last month. And earlier in the weekend, he spoke at length about the opportunity, admitting that he is conscious of the role he plays as an African American driver in a predominantly white sport.

“This is a huge step for NASCAR, bringing diversity to its top‑tier level of NASCAR,” said Wallace. “I'm glad to be leading the forefront of that right now. It shows that we're trying to bring in a new demographic. We're trying to bring in new faces, get a younger generation, no matter what color (or) what age. We're trying to get everybody involved. It's been a fun journey.”

He said that the perception of NASCAR as a sport unwelcoming to people of color was “shut down a long time ago. It's just a matter of finding what race track is in your area, going out and purchasing a ticket… just coming out and enjoying the sport. I think (minority) fans are making that call, wanting to come out and enjoy the sport; knowing they can get in, have a great time and cheer on their favorite driver.  And I could be their new favorite driver.”

Wallace said he has never been deterred by the lack of minority drivers in NASCAR, adding, “I started out in the sport because it was something fun and new for me. I never even paid attention to see if there was anybody that looked like me growing up in the sport. 

He said he ignores the continued presence of Confederate flags in the track’s infield each week, adding, “The only flags I see are green, white and checkered.

I think that goes back to my parents, teaching me at a young age to never see it as black and white. Everybody's equal. Everybody deserves the same opportunity, the same challenge. Everybody should live their lives to the fullest with no hassles, no hold‑backs, no matter what age (or) what color you are. We should have no barriers on what we want to do in life; no matter your color, your age, gender, disabilities, no matter what. It's something that should be taken care of. 

“I've hit a couple barriers growing up. There's definitely been some flak in the way. I would get the gestures and everything thrown out, (then) we'd show up the next weekend and win. That's how I was taught. My mom and dad always told me to block out the bad and take the good, use it as motivation.

“That's how I was raised, to ignore the stupidity, continue on and do what I need to do.”

Wallace said he spoke recently with the family of NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, who broke NASCAR’s color barrier decades ago with 495 starts and a single win in NASCAR’s premier series.

“Wendell Scott, Jr. called me last night,” revealed Wallace. “He was so pumped up. He said he was helping me drive the car this weekend.  He was pumped up about… this opportunity. That's huge when you still have that connection with the family (who) continue to carry on a legacy that their father laid.”

Asked about his inability to attract full-time sponsorship in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, Wallace pointed to his won/loss record, rather than the color of his skin.

“Being honest, it's probably the win column,” he said. “There's not a day that goes by where I don't think about that. That's probably the biggest battle. You can look at (my wins in) Trucks, but that was three or four years ago. Now, it's a new year. Times have changed. We're winless (and) that may have something to do with it. I'm beating myself up over it,

“At the end of the day, it is one of the most demanding and grueling sports. Nobody loves finishing second. You want to get everything you can out of it, but sometimes it just doesn't work out. The sponsorship stuff, everybody's battling that. I just happen to be one of those guys.”

The Alabama native admitted he has no idea what his future holds, once Almirola is cleared to return to competition.

I can't really touch on that, because I don't know what's going to happen,” he said. “One thing I can touch on is I know I'll go out there and prove to everybody -- inside the racetrack, outside the racetrack, on TV -- that I belong in the Cup Series. I’ll do the best that I can, give an extra 200% each and every time I climb in the car for Ford, for Richard Petty, for everybody on the team (and) for Smithfield.

“There's no need for me to go out there and try to set the world on fire, trying to win races and putting myself in a tough spot,” he said. “If the opportunity presents itself, yeah, we'll jump on it. But there's no need for me to force a hole (and) end up tearing up a race car. I'm getting this opportunity because people believe in me and have seen my talents coming up. I have to go out there and back that up; show them I can manage and perform, and that I belong in the series.”

While admittedly feeling the pressure of his first MENCS opportunity. Wallace said he is also taking time to enjoy the moment.

“(Eventual Pocono winner) Ryan Blaney texted me this morning -- actually woke me up this morning-- and he wants a picture this weekend.  He was like, ‘We're driving the two most iconic cars in the sport this weekend. We definitely have to capitalize on that.

“(I am) the first African American since 2006. That's a lot of history. I've always said I like to let the results speak for themselves and… let the history fall in behind that. Not focus on the big spotlight, the African American side, the iconic number. Let all that funnel in after we have our good runs, get out there on the racetrack and show everybody we can do it.”

By the time Almirola returns, Wallace will rank second to Scott on a regrettably short, eight-man list of African American drivers to compete in NASCAR’s top series. But predictably, the Alabama native will remain focused on racing, rather than race.

“I think everybody wanted to see this opportunity happen,” he said. “NASCAR wanted to see it, I believe, for multiple reasons. And Ford has been a great supporter of mine for the last two years, going on three years now. This has been a pretty big couple of days for me. It's an exciting opportunity, not only for myself but my family, my fans… everybody that's helped me get to this level ever since I started racing when I was nine years old. 

“This is the perfect opportunity, so I'm very thankful for that. I've always said that God has had my plans in his hands. A new door has opened and we'll go out there and make the most of it.”

“I've been through 14 or 15 years of racing; a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “There's more downs than ups. That's what makes you stronger, keeps you hungry and coming back for more. It's been a lot of blood, sweat and tears; from not only myself, but everybody that's helped me out along the way. A lot of family sacrifices to get me here. Everybody has a different story of how they got to their ultimate level. 

“It's (going to be) cool in a couple years to look back on it and see how far we've come.”

Monday, June 05, 2017

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.

Drivers Divided Over Busch's Post-Race Conduct

"It's genetic. That's just who I am."
Kyle Busch says people should learn to accept his sometimes surly post-race demeanor.

Not everyone in the NASCAR Garage agrees.

Busch drew criticism from some corners two weeks ago, after a terse post-race press conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway where he gave a sullen, six-word answer about his runner-up finish to Austin Dillon in the Coca-Cola 600, before ending the session with an abrupt mic drop.

Busch attempted to explain his post-600 unhappiness last weekend at Dover International Speedway,, saying, “There were a lot of things on the line that meant a lot to me (and) would have been special to me. I guess I should care less about those things and not show that sort of emotion.”

Busch admitted that he is not the most gracious loser in the sport, but argued that after 13 years as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver, people should be willing to cut him some slack.

“Different people show their emotions in different ways,”: said Busch. “And unfortunately for me, mine has never been very gracious. I don’t know that it ever will be. I’m learning that, as the days go on. My son is two years old (and) I see where that came from. It’s genetic. I’m sorry, that’s just who I am. That’s what I was given. If there’s anyone to blame, it’s probably the guy upstairs.

“I can probably get better and go to training and classes… but I don’t know," added the 2015 MENCS champion. "It is the way it is. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been blessed (and) to be in the opportunity that I’m in. I’ve got great partners and sponsors that are with me, and they’ve stuck with me through a lot worse than what happened this week.

“The people that are close to me understand me, know me and know who I am outside the race track as a person, as a friend. That’s why I’m able to continue to have the relationships and the sponsorships that I do.”

Brad Keselowski, however, is having none of it.

The Penske Racing driver called out Busch following his Coke 600 dust-up, saying via Twitter, "Maybe I should keep my mouth shut (but) I was taught to hate losing by working harder next time, not by being disrespectful to others. Not sure how or when "hating losing" got defined in this manner, but I'm pretty sure it's the wrong way...

Keselowski’s comments triggered a brief war of words with Toyota Racing Group Vice President/Technical Director Andy Graves, who responded, “You’re right. You should keep your mouth shut.”

Keselowski was not deterred, however, and spoke out again last weekend at Dover, criticizing those who view Busch’s tempestuous personality as a reflection of his determination on the race track.

"When the media comes out and says that's a reflection of him having the most desire to win, it makes me want to throw up," he said. "Not only is that a terrible message to send to anyone who's aspiring to be a part of the sport, it's a terrible message to send to anybody in general.”
GoFas Racing driver Matt DiBenedetto, also criticized Busch’s conduct, saying, “I would not choose to act that way. It is totally okay to be upset with losing. I mean, we’re competitors. (But) my role models are people like Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards (and) Mark Martin. I just choose to go about things their way. Those are the people I look up to. I would never act like Kyle Busch. It’s great for our sport and we need it, but that’s not how I would be.”
Not everyone sees an issue with Busch’s post-race snit, however.
"That s#it was funny. I was entertained.”
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. supported Busch last week, tweeting, “Don’t change Kyle Busch. The sport needs personalities. All of them. We all can’t be politically correct robots. If you don’t like him that’s perfectly fine, but that s#it was funny. I was entertained.”
Keselowski also said he strives to set a more positive example by conducting himself well, in both victory and defeat.
"When I look at teams and people in this sport, they all want to be associated with those who have the strongest hunger and desire and passion to be successful,” he said. “That's natural. That includes myself. (But Busch’s) message to convey -- whether it's through the media or through different mouthpieces -- is a terrible message that has serious effects; not only on our sport, but on our society.
“I don't think that's acceptable. Your desire to win can be expressed in a lot of other ways that are productive."
"(If) you want to show me desire and passion to win, it's when nobody is watching," Keselowski said. "That's what desire and passion is to win."
“Anybody that aspires to be great in this sport or (in) life, that’s what they should be looking at,” he said. “That’s the message we should be sending to kids and other people.”

Monday, May 29, 2017

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 Day -- Unfortunately, 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 Friends -- Dale 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 Challenge Despite 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.

Monday, May 22, 2017

COMMENTARY: All-Star Race Missed The Mark

NASCAR made a number of changes in Saturday night’s Monster Energy All-Star Race, hoping to ratchet-up competition and build suspense. The sanctioning body utilized the multi-segment format that has energized Cup racing this season, adding a single set of softer “Option Tires” to each crew chief’s arsenal in an effort to increase passing.

None of it worked.

The annual Monster Energy Open provided cause for optimism, with plenty of passing and side-by-side competition. Once the sun set and the track cooled, however, Charlotte Motor Speedway became a one-lane race track, with the dreaded “aero push” providing the race leader with a substantial – and apparently insurmountable – advantage.

Time after time, second-place drivers ran down the leader from 12-15 car lengths back, only to encounter dirty air and stall out within sight of the lead.  

"You can't pass anywhere," said Wood Brothers Racing driver Ryan Blaney, who earned his All-Star spot with a spellbinding drive in the earlier Monster Energy Open. "It's not great track conditions, to be honest with you."

Kyle Larson led wire-to-wire in the opening two segments and clearly had the fastest car. But he was unable to overcome a balky final pit stop that left him fourth at the start of the final, 10-lap sprint, fighting mightily to wrest the runner-up position away from Jimmie Johnson on the final lap, a country mile behind winner Kyle Busch.   

Good night for Kyle, bad night for fans.
"I think we had the car to be the winner," said Larson afterward. "(But) you've got to be perfect to win a Cup race. I knew being the leader off pit road was going to be the big thing. When I could tell that the rear changer wasn't around nearly as fast as the front, I knew we were in trouble."

While failing to spark the kind of side-by-side racing many had hoped for, Goodyear’s new “Option Tire” at least offered hope for the future. None of the 10 surviving teams utilized the tires in the final, 10-lap stage, deciding that the 3-5/10ths of a second per lap speed advantage they offered was not enough to overcome a back-of-the-pack starting spot.

"There's no doubt that mile-and-a-half racing puts on a certain type of show," admitted Johnson after the race. "I think Charlotte Motor Speedway works as hard as they possibly can put on a great show. They're open minded to any and every idea… (but) we all run the same speed. The rule book is so thick and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed. You can't pass running the same speed. The damn rule book is too thick. There's too much going on.”

 “Mile-and-a-half racing is mile-and-a-half racing,” he said. “When all the cars are qualifying as tight as they do (and) we can't pass as easily, we have to logically look at it and say, 'Hey, we're all going the same speed, no wonder we can't pass.’”

"I have an opinion, but I don't have the answer."

Not a good enough option.
In the weeks leading up to the race, Goodyear predicted a 3-5/10ths of a second speed advantage for its new “Option Tire.” Saturday night, however, they were good for only about half that.
"There was a fair amount speed difference in practice,” confirmed Adam Stevens, crew chief for race winner Kyle Busch. "(But) as it cooled off, the discrepancy got smaller and smaller.”
"I don't think Goodyear hit the tire very well," said Brad Keselowski. "They missed pretty big. The tire was supposed to be much faster."
An even-softer “Option Tire” for next year’s race could help turn the tide, trimming lap times to the point where the leader’s aero advantage can finally be overcome. Expect Goodyear and NASCAR to conduct extensive testing before next year’s race, to ensure a better result.

While they’re at it, perhaps they should consider moving the All-Star event back to the heat of the day, eschewing a prime-time TV audience in favor of compelling racing on a hot, greasy race track.

Or perhaps it’s finally time to heed the cries of those who lobby for a traveling All-Star Race, taking the event “on the road” to venues that can provide a better, more exciting race than the competitively challenged CMS oval.

Sadly, none of those changes can be made in time for this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600; a race that was dominated a year ago by Martin Truex, Jr., who used a perfect race car and the aerodynamic edge all leaders enjoy to lead 392 of the race’s 400 laps.

With a month of wildly competitive point-counting events in the rearview window, the last thing NASCAR needs at this point is another “No Doze 600.”

Based on what we say Saturday night, however, that may be what we’re in for.

Monday, May 15, 2017

COMMENTARY: Almirola's Crash Reminds That Stock Car Racing Will Never Be Safe

In an era of HANS devices, containment seats, impact-absorbing form and computer-generated chassis technology, it is tempting to believe that people don’t get hurt in race cars anymore.

But Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, Aric Almirola reminded us once again that stock car racing remains a dangerous game.

Almirola, driver of the #43 Smithfield Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, was involved in a multi-car accident on Lap 199 of Saturday night's race, when a broken brake rotor on Joey Logano's car triggered a violent, fiery crash that demolished his car, along with those of Almirola and Danica Patrick. Almirola plowed into Logano's car as it skidded along the outside wall, hard enough to send the rear of Almirola's Ford high into the air.
The RPM driver slid to a stop against the SAFER barrier at the exit of Turn Two, and immediately dropped the window net. He failed to exit the vehicle, however, and safety workers were forced to remove his car’s roof to extricate him safely.

While conscious and alert, Almirola was placed in a cervical collar and removed on a backboard, grimacing in pain. He was transported by ambulance to the speedway’s Infield Care Center, before being airlifted to University of Kansas Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a fractured T5 vertebra.
He was held overnight for further observation, before returning to his home in North Carolina the following day.
“I’m saying a lot of prayers for Aric right now,” said a visibly shaken Logano afterward. “A lot of us took a hard hit. Something broke on my car. I don't know what it was. I tried to back it off, but you're going 215 (mph) and it's hard to check up. The car just took a big step sideways into the corner and I hooked Danica.
“You can see the right front (tire) popped,” he said. “I just hope everyone is OK. I hope Aric is all right. That's the last thing you want to see, a big hit like that for anyone. It's unfortunate for everyone.”

Patrick was animated and angry after bailing out of her flaming Ford on the track apron, and confronted Logano on their way to the ambulance.

"I told him, `I'm not sure if it was you, but I'm pretty sure it was you,'" she said. "He said it was a failure of some sort, which didn't make me feel better in that moment. I hope Aric is OK. He's definitely feeling the worst of everybody.''

Winner Martin Truex, Jr. also spoke of Almirola in Victory Lane, saying, "He and his wife (are) great people. Just such a nice family and such a nice guy. I was really scared when I saw that and worried for him, obviously. I hope he's doing good."

Runner-up Brad Keselowski spoke for many after the race, saying, "It's a dangerous sport. It always has been and it always will be.

“Sometimes, we take for granted that you see real hard hits and people walk away. Then you see one where someone doesn't, and it puts things back into perspective about just how dangerous it can be."

It has been a long time since NASCAR fans watched in stunned silence as the roof of a race car is peeled back to enable the extrication of its injured driver.

It’s been a long time since we averted our eyes from the action on the track to look skyward as a Life Flight helicopter lifts off from the infield, saying a silent prayer for the injured driver on board.

It’s been a long time since we were reminded that the laws of physics still apply in motorsports; that despite all the carbon fiber and impact absorbing foam, race car drivers remain fragile human beings, susceptible to bruises, burns, broken bones… and worse.

Aric Almirola will be sidelined for a time, giving his broken back sufficient to heal. Someone else will strap into his #43 Smithfield Ford this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, attempting to earn the team a spot in the sport’s annual All Star Race. NASCAR will examine the remains of his battered, beaten race car, hoping to learn how to prevent the type of injury he suffered Saturday from ever happening again.

And in a few days, we will once again begin the process of deceiving ourselves into believing that stock car racing is no longer a violent game.

Until next time.