News Analysis: NASCAR limits crew member sizes, shrinks pit crews for 2018

What happened: The number of pit crew members will shrink from six to five and race teams will only be allowed 12 road crew members (the people who work on the car) starting next season in an effort to standardize crew sizes. Previously, there was no limit on crew members. In addition, NASCAR will distribute crew rosters and put numbers on each crew uniform to raise the profile of team members and emphasize the team concept.

What it means: A few things, but the most notable change for fans is a different look for pit stops. The gas man will only be allowed to fuel the car and nothing else, so that leaves four crew members to service the car — the probable lineup will be a jack man, two tire changers and only one tire carrier. That will slow down pit stops and force teams to innovate on how best to do a pit stop — something NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said was “one of the beauties” of the new rule. In addition, NASCAR’s road crew cap should help with parity — the bigger teams can’t bring unlimited crew to the track anymore — and teams will have to get creative on how they use those slots. Also, expect to hear more about various team members like mechanics and shock specialists and engine tuners (although personally I think NASCAR should put 100 percent of its efforts into promoting the drivers as stars instead of trying to get people to talk about the team. NASCAR needs superstar drivers more than ever now).

News value (scale of 1-10): Five. The number of road crew members will have no noticeable impact for fans, except teams will now save money (although NASCAR emphasized “parity” instead of citing cost savings). But pit stops will be slower — it’s unclear how much — and you would think raise the chance for a mistake, so that’s certainly something newsworthy. Overall, though, it doesn’t feel like this is major news for anyone but the most hardcore fans.

Three questions: How much longer will pit stops take next year, and which team will be the first to come up with the best choreography for the fastest pit stop? Do fans really want to know more about the people working on the cars, or would they rather get more coverage of the drivers? How many people will ultimately lose their jobs as a result of this change?

Survivor Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers Power Rankings: Week 9

Each week during this season of Survivor, I’ll be ranking the castaways in terms of best chance to win the game. Last week, Desi was voted off after being ranked No. 8 of the 11 remaining players.

Week 9 Power Rankings: 

1. Ryan (Last week: 1): Guess who is playing the best game the last few weeks and now has an idol to go along with it? I’m feeling better about Ryan’s chances as Ben and Chrissy show cracks in their game.

2. Lauren (Last week: 5): It’s pretty clear there’s a Ryan-Chrissy alliance and a Lauren-Ben alliance now, and Lauren made a good move with her voting advantage last week. By the way, how in the world did the other players not notice there were only 10 votes cast instead of 11? Math genius Chrissy? Hello??

3. Chrissy (Last week: 3): Keeping her at No. 3 against my better judgment. She’s shown some serious cracks in her game recently. I wish she’d stop playing so cocky and doing things like whispering in front of other players. She is smart, but now everyone knows she’s smart. Fortunately, she has a strong alliance to keep her safe for now.

4. Ben (Last week: 2): He’s getting sidetracked by being drawn into yelling matches on the beach with Joe. I understand why he wanted to defend himself, but how often do you see Survivor winners engaged in such antics? It typically doesn’t work out well.

5. Devon (Last week: 4): He’s playing a solid game and I don’t see him being a target anytime in the next couple weeks. The key for Devon is to stay under the radar as long as possible.

6. Mike (Last week: 6): He flipped on Joe/Desi — along with Cole — and seems desperate to integrate himself into the majority alliance. Perhaps he has done that now, but he’s still probably on the bottom — though he does have that idol.

7. Ashley (Last week: 7): There’s no reason to get rid of Ashley at this time, so she’ll probably continue to stick around. That said, what’s her long-term future in the game?

8. Joe (Last week: 9): Joe is pretty much screwed. Even Dr. Mike and Cole flipped on him last week. However, Joe as a wild card could still make something happen, and he could find another idol. I’m not ruling out some more craziness before he gets the boot.

9. JP (Last week: 10): Here’s how clueless JP is about what’s happening in the game: He sees Ryan frantically digging in the sand and walks by like it’s no big deal. He will probably make the final three but get no votes.

10. Cole (Last week: 11): This bum finds a clue to the idol, leaves the plate for other people to find (under a napkin!) and then immediately takes a potty break after he gets back to camp. Then he pretends to have found it after the wrestling battle in the sand. Why?! This guy…ugh.


Eliminated: 

Week 1: Katrina (ranked No. 6 of 18 remaining players)

Week 2: Simone (ranked No. 17 of 17 remaining players)

Week 3: Patrick (ranked No. 16 of 16 remaining players)

Week 4: Alan (ranked No. 13 of 15 remaining players)

Week 5: Roark (ranked No. 10 of 14 remaining players)

Week 6: Ali (ranked No. 5 of 13 remaining players)

Week 7: Jessica (ranked No. 9 of 12 remaining players)

Week 8: Desi (ranked No. 8 of 11 remaining players)

The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR championship race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway…

1. Truex gets his due

Ladies and gentlemen, Martin Truex Jr. is a NASCAR Cup Series champion.

It’s too bad we can’t send messages from the future back to our past selves, because it would have been almost impossible to believe that a few years ago.

In 2014, Truex wrapped up his first season at Furniture Row Racing with a single lap led. He finished 24th in points. And he had two career wins to his name at the time.

Now he’s the dominant car of the past two seasons, with 12 wins and 4,062 laps led in that span. Plus he’s got a championship to go with it.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but due to his career history (two wins in his first nine seasons) it’s been easy to just say, “The cars are just that good” when talking about Truex’s success. Since he didn’t win much until Cole Pearn showed up as crew chief and Furniture Row improved, Truex probably hasn’t gotten enough credit as a driver.

That should change after Sunday night. Kyle Busch was chasing him down — with what appeared to be a better car — and stalking him in case there was even the slightest bobble in the 78 car.

“Then I could try to pounce,” Busch said. “But that never happened.”

Truex drove a flawless 20 laps and showed he’s worthy of being in the conversation about the sport’s best drivers.

Toyotas are elite, but as Brad Keselowski noted: “He’s still beating the other Toyotas, so he deserves credit for that.”

Good point, right? And that’s not lost on Truex.

Yes, he’s basically driving a Joe Gibbs Racing car — just tweaked by Furniture Row. But he’s beating all the JGR drivers with it.

“That’s the coolest part of it, is showing people that you’ve got it, that you can do it,” Truex said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to have the same thing as somebody else and beat ’em with it.”

And Truex was especially pumped about out-driving Busch, who he called “one of the best drivers ever.”

“To beat him,” Truex said, “was awesome.”

2. This Bud’s for Dale

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the media about his goals for the weekend — I just want to finish all the laps, he kept saying — it turns out he was only telling part of the story.

There was a reason behind the wish: He wanted to turn his No. 88 car into a mobile Whisky River, right there on pit road.

“That’s why I kept saying, ‘Man, I hope I finish all the laps,'” he said with a grin. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s really why I was saying that. Everyone says, ‘Who are you going to miss the most?’ and it’s my family. (The 88 team) is my family. We are so close.

“I told them, ‘The one thing I want to do is finish the race, and we’re going to drink a beer together.’ That’s the only thing that kept coming to my mind about what I do when I get out of the car: I want to have a beer with my guys. I want to have a moment with them that sort of closes it up for us.”

So there they were, Earnhardt and the members of the 88 team, using the car as a bar and chugging Budweisers in the middle of a mob scene on pit road. If it was possible to have an intimate moment while surrounded by a couple hundred people, they had it.

Earnhardt and the crew posed for selfies, tossed beers at each other until the coolers were empty and raised toast after toast.

Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyy, they yelled in unison, holding their cans to the sky.

“Standing around the car and the heat coming off the car and drinking them cold beers — they were so cold, they had them in those Yeti (coolers), man. Those things are so awesome,” Earnhardt said. “That’s what I wanted. I said, ‘Whatever I do after the race, I don’t care about anything else — I just want to have a beer with my team.'”

It was one of the most unusual postrace scenes in NASCAR history. But it was the first step toward normalcy — something Earnhardt is craving after a weekend he called “weird.”

All the various things swirling around Earnhardt — his retirement from the Cup Series, the upcoming birth of his first child, his best friend winning the championship, his team’s Xfinity Series success, his new job with NBC Sports — it all played into it.

“I’ve got this job next year that I got to get ready for that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I know nothing about it. I’m freaking out,” he said. “There’s just so many things happening for me. I mean, what the hell!? It’s ridiculous what’s going on in my life. So I can’t put my emotions about finishing my Cup career in a capsule. I can’t single it out.”

So what’s next? A hangover, Earnhardt predicted. But then he hoped for an uneventful week ahead.

“It’s been an amazing weekend,” he said. “I’m ready to go feel normal, though. I’m ready to go just do nothing for awhile.”

He looked at the group of reporters. His team had left — the celebration was over for now — and Earnhardt lingered on pit road, willing to fill reporters’ notepads with golden quotes like he’d done so often over the years.

“But I’ll miss all y’all,” he said. “And I’ll be back because of that.”

With that, Earnhardt smiled, gave a thumbs up and disappeared into the crowd of waiting fans one more time.

3. Like a punch in the face

The primary reason for Kyle Busch not being able to catch Truex in the final laps, Busch said, was a tough battle with Joey Logano.

Busch had been on his way toward the front and easily passed Kevin Harvick, but then he reached Logano. That pass proved to be a lot tougher.

Logano took the top lane and pinched Busch down; Busch had to back out of it, reset for a couple laps and try again.

“Just wasting too much time with him,” Busch said afterward. “He held me up. He was there blocking every chance he got, so got a real buddy there. But that’s racing. That’s what happens.”

Logano’s move was subtle, and perhaps it was nothing more than racing hard for his own victory — but it does raise questions.

For example: Did Busch’s ongoing rivalry with Logano teammate Brad Keselowski play a part in the hard racing? Or perhaps did lingering ill will between the two — Busch did punch Logano in the face earlier this year, after all — have anything to do with it?

There aren’t any quotes from Logano on the post-race transcripts about that, but I’d love to know whether that played a role.

If so, it’s just another example of the entire season building toward the pinnacle that is Homestead.

4. Keselowski the politician

Leave it to Brad Keselowski to get one more shot in before the offseason begins.

Keselowski stumped hard for NASCAR to help Ford after claiming Toyota got too much help with its new nose this season.

If you missed it, here are his comments:

“When that car (the new Camry) rolled out at Daytona and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there were two reactions. One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it, and, two, we were impressed by the design team over there.

“With that said, I don’t think anyone really ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt a little bit like Formula 1, where you have one car that kind of makes it through the gate heads and tails above everyone, and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.”

Keselowski concluded by saying he assumed Chevrolet “would be allowed to design a car the same way Toyota was” in terms of the new Camaro — and Ford doesn’t have any plans for a redesign.

“If that’s the case, we’re gonna take a drubbing next year,” Keselowski said.

Honestly, I don’t have any problem with what Keselowski said. He’s very calculating and certainly knows his words will get picked up and echo around the garage.

He also knows he’s going to get criticized for whining or being a loudmouth, but he’s willing to sacrifice that in order to get his point across.

If it helps, and the talk somehow generates rule changes in Ford’s favor, then it will all be worth it.

5. Thoughts on 2018

There’s going to be plenty of time to reflect on this season and what next year might bring, but here are a few thoughts on what lies ahead.

The biggest storylines heading into Daytona next year will be NASCAR’s new identity — Life After Dale, so to speak. The hype and marketing push for the young drivers will be even bigger than this year, and the pressure will increase on the likes of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to produce.

On the track, there will be much talk about whether the new Chevrolet nose with the incoming Camaro can somehow help the manufacturer gain on Toyota. If not — and with only minor changes to the 2018 rules package — there’s no reason to think Truex and the JGR drivers can’t dominate again next season.

Overall, the goal for 2018 should be to determine a floor for NASCAR’s long slide. Attendance and ratings will almost certainly be down every week — a natural side effect of the most popular driver leaving — so that’s just going to be a fact of life. But the sport should look at that and say, “OK, this is the low point; now we rebuild.” Use it as a launching point for a new era and get on track toward strengthening NASCAR’s health for the next generation.

DraftKings Fantasy NASCAR picks: Homestead-Miami

I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission.

Last race’s results: Did not play in Phoenix due to Arizona state law.

Season results: $102 wagered, $104.50 won in 26 contests.

This week’s contest: $8 Favorite Son Finale contest ($100,000 in prizes)

Homestead picks: 

— Kyle Busch ($10,500)I think he’s going to win the championship, which means he’s probably going to have to win the race. He’ll have to lead laps if he’s going to do that, so he’s my primary hammer pick.

— Kevin Harvick ($9,700): He starts seventh, but I could see him running top three for much of the night. So I’m going with Harvick here, although Chase Elliott ($9,400) was also tempting based on a place differential pick (Elliott starts 18th).

— Denny Hamlin ($8,900): He’s going to lead a lot of laps in the first stage with what might be the fastest car in Florida. That makes him a good hammer pick if he delivers, despite being on the pole.

— Erik Jones ($8,100)I’ve picked Jones so many times this year, and it’s been boom or bust. But he’s often been the cheapest Toyota option, and he starts 14th — which means he could gain you spots in a fast car. He had the ninth-fastest 10-lap average in final Cup practice.

— Ty Dillon ($6,900): This is a position differential play, because he starts 32nd. But he was 16th of 31 drivers who made runs of at least 10 laps in final practice, so that’s promising.

— Michael McDowell ($5,800): Obviously a bit of a risk — especially since he starts 23rd — but McDowell had the 21st-best 10-lap average in final practice (better than the likes of Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Daniel Suarez), so there might be some potential there.

Homestead Preview Podcast: Tire management for the championship?

With two fewer sets of tires available to teams this year, will Homestead turn into a tire strategy race? In this special edition of the podcast, the championship contenders sound off on the positives and negatives of the potential tire situation on Sunday.

What I’ll remember about covering Dale Earnhardt Jr.

At the end of a Richmond race in May 2011, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled into the garage, climbed out of his car and disappeared into his hauler. He had finished a disappointing 19th and was particularly upset about the result that night.

In those days, I covered Earnhardt like he was the home team — meaning he warranted a story regardless of the race outcome. So I waited 15 minutes or so, but he never emerged. Finally, someone from the team came out to say he had already left.

That was really surprising. Earnhardt always talked — always, always, always. He talked after good races, ho-hum races and even those terrible races in the Lance McGrew Era.

So when he didn’t comment at Richmond, I made it the subject of a column. The premise was basically this: Earnhardt declining to talk shows he may have reached a new low in his frustrating slump.

But here’s the thing: Even that night, it was never Earnhardt’s intention to leave without comment.

I know that because I got an email the next day with an unusual subject line: “yo, its Jr here.”

Huh? Was someone pranking me? Earnhardt had never reached out to me before that.

It began: I didn’t know of any other way to contact you. I guess I could have asked Mike (Davis), but I just read your column and got this addy from the bottom of the page.

The email address looked legit, so I read on. Earnhardt wrote he was certainly upset about the result and wanted to talk with Steve Letarte in the hauler afterward — but he did not mean to leave without speaking to the media. He had asked someone if there were any reporters waiting outside and was told no by mistake, so he went out the side door closest to the exit tunnel and left the track.

Earnhardt swore he would have commented had he known any reporters were waiting.

I promise I didn’t refuse a word with the media, he wrote. I just wanted to let you know that I wouldn’t disrespect you or any of your colleagues like that. If you don’t mind passing that along to whomever you think it would concern, I would appreciate it. See ya in Darlington.

Think about that for a moment. Most drivers wouldn’t give a second thought about declining comment to a reporter after a bad race — let alone feeling bad enough about the perception to reach out and clear the air.

But the most popular driver in NASCAR? That attitude is indicative of how he treated the media throughout his career. If any driver could have gotten away with being rude over the years, it was Earnhardt. Except he was the opposite.

For those in the NASCAR media, lucky us. The biggest superstar of this era has been respectful, courteous and understanding of the role reporters play. He has given some of those most deeply thoughtful and introspective answers many of us will ever hear. And he always treats media members like peers instead of peons, which is remarkable for someone of his celebrity.

Earnhardt could have turned out to be an ass to the NASCAR media and the coverage wouldn’t have changed. Just look at how Tiger Woods treated the golf media: Even though Woods was a jerk, his value to the sport demanded endless stories.

Fortunately for us, that’s just not in Earnhardt’s personality. It’s not part of his makeup to think he’s above anyone else, and it showed in his actions time and again over the years.

For example: On pit road after a race, he would often call out to reporters with a grin as the interview concluded.

“Everyone travel safely!” he’d say while walking away. “Y’all have a good week!”

When ESPN’s Bob Pockrass started to leave as a post-race interview wound down at Texas earlier this year, Earnhardt yelled, “Hey!”

Pockrass stopped and looked back.

“Happy Easter!” Earnhardt said with a grin and a wave. “I’m not gonna see y’all for two weeks!”

But more than just being cordial, Earnhardt scored points with reporters for his detailed answers. In an era where the media increasingly relies on page views, Earnhardt was a frequent clickbait topic. That would irritate and annoy many an athlete, because their social media posts and quotes get blown up and taken out of context in the name of clicks.

If Earnhardt was upset, though, he didn’t show it. He understood reporters’ jobs, why they wrote the things they did and didn’t make an issue of it.

But to really see a glimpse into Earnhardt’s character, just look at how he approached his answers to different reporters. Earnhardt never seemed to play favorites. An unknown blogger nervously asking a question at their first race was just as likely to get a stellar, memborable answer as the beat reporters who Earnhardt encountered every week.

I was fascinated by that, and once asked him privately whether he tried harder to give good answers based on who was asking the question. He looked at me, puzzled.

“Why would I do that?” he said.

It didn’t occur to Earnhardt, because he treats everyone with respect. Whether he knew a reporter or was seeing them for the first time, he consciously tried to give his best answer.

I’m telling you all this for two reasons. First, I’m not sure we’ll ever get that fortunate again. And second, I want to write it down in order to look back and remember what it was like to cover Earnhardt during his driving career.

Look, there are still personable drivers and accommodating drivers and interesting drivers remaining in NASCAR. But Earnhardt may very well be a once-in-a-lifetime package in terms of his star power, quotability, accessibility and authenticity.

To say he’ll be missed by the media doesn’t really do it justice, and it’s also premature. Only years from now will we realize how good we had it covering a uniquely genuine athlete who never acted like he was better than those who sought to make a living writing about his story.