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.”

Monday, May 13, 2019

COMMENTARY: Drivers, Owners Sending Mixed Messages To NASCAR

With a new 2019 rules package in play and discussion already underway to determine the guidelines for 2021’s revamped Gen-7 race car, there is considerable debate in the NASCAR garage over who should determine the direction of the sport, going forward.

Three-time Cup Series winner Kyle Busch has been a steady and outspoken critic of NASCAR’s 2019 rules package, and sounded off again after a disappointing, 10th-place finish two weeks ago at Dover International Speedway.

“The package sucks,” said Busch. “No f-ing question about it. It’s terrible. All I can do is bitch about it and fall on deaf ears and we’ll come back with the same thing in the fall.”

Former series champion Kevin Harvick agreed, saying on his weekly Sirius XM NASCAR Radio show that the sanctioning body needs to pay closer attention to the wants, needs and desires of its drivers.

The men behind the wheel are far from united in their opinions, however. Hot off a win two weeks ago at Dover, Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott agreed that NASCAR does not always pay close attention to its athletes, before questioning whether the drivers should be heeded at all.

Busch: "Falling on deaf ears."
“I think there is a right way to bring it up,” said Elliott last week. “I’ve tried to voice my opinion at different times in those meetings that we’re supposed to voice our opinions in. And at the end of the day, I’ve come to the realization -- and maybe this will change as time goes -- that I just don’t think my opinion matters to the people who make the rules.

“Really and truly, I’m not sure that it should. Why do the owners, drivers and teams even have a voice in some of that stuff? When it comes down to it, just make the rules and be done with it.

“We’re racing. Either you like it or you don’t.”

Obviously, everyone wants to feel like their voice is heard in the workplace. But until recently, NASCAR’s Driver’s Council represented only the elite, front-running few. The Race Team Alliance is also deeply divided along economic lines, making it difficult to determine what the garage really wants.

Elliott: "Just make the rules and
be done with it."
The prominent teams – those who run up front and win races – were strongly against NASCAR’s multi-car qualifying format, and expressed their displeasure repeatedly until the sanctioning body relented and returned to single-car time trials last week. A number of midfield and back-of-the-pack drivers actually preferred NASCAR’s Group Qualifying guidelines, however, feeling that an increased emphasis on drafting gave them an opportunity to outqualify cars that were faster than theirs.

That divergence of opinion is not confined to qualifying. From wind tunnel time to rules enforcement, aerodynamic regulations to standardized air guns, NASCAR’s garage frequently speaks with a forked tongue.

Two weeks ago, a number of drivers complained bitterly about an inability to pass on the Monster Mile at Dover. And yet, winner Martin Truex, Jr. and runner-up Alex Bowman both drove from the back of the pack after sustaining post-qualifying inspection penalties. Clearly, they found a way to pass.

Busch himself came from 22nd on the starting grid to finish 10th, despite a bout with the outside wall along the way. Under those circumstances, it’s tough to take the “impossible to pass” statement without at least a small grain of salt.

If some teams can figure it out, other teams can, too.

It’s also difficult to understand how cars can be “so easy to drive that the fans could do it” – as Busch alleged just a few weeks ago – then “impossible to pass” just a week or two later, with the exact same rules package in play. Yes, every track is different and weather and temperature changes play a definite role in handling on race day. But that has been the case since the earliest days of the sport, under virtually dozens of different rules packages.

Yes, racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is difficult. It’s supposed to be tough at the uppermost level of any professional sport.

It’s undoubtedly difficult for an NFL linebacker to shadow Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in single coverage. But we don’t hear a lot of them complaining to the media about it. There are difficulties in hitting a pressure-packed three-point jumper with no time left on the clock, as well. But Stephen Curry doesn’t do much grousing about it, at least not publicly.

When’s the last time you heard an NHL goalie complain about having to face a Sidney Crosby slap shot? And for that matter, when did tough guy Cale Yarborough ever climb out of his steaming race car, grousing about it being “too hard?”

During the offseason, NASCAR’s teams asked for a “one size fits all” rules package -- with only minor variations by track -- rather than separate (and more expensive) packages for short tracks, road courses, intermediate tracks and superspeedways. NASCAR honored that wish, but now, some drivers and team owners seem to expect that singular package to have the exact same impact at Dover that it does in Kansas.

That’s wildly unreasonable, as the racing these last two weeks has surely shown.

Listening is a wonderful thing. Hearing is even better. But until NASCAR’s drivers and owners manage to send a consistent, cohesive message, the sanctioning body will be hard-pressed to chart a course that satisfies everyone’s wants and desires.

“It’s not true that we don’t listen,” said a NASCAR spokesman last week, on the condition of anonymity. “We do listen. But sometimes, we simply don’t agree.”