News Analysis: Denny Hamlin’s Darlington sweep ruled encumbered

What happened: Both of Denny Hamlin’s wins last weekend at Darlington Raceway came while his team was breaking the rules. After further investigation at its R&D Center, NASCAR found Hamlin had two encumbered victories at Darlington — for similar violations in the rear suspension. On the Cup side, Hamlin lost 25 points (meaningless) and the five playoff points he got for the win while crew chief Mike Wheeler received a two-race suspension and a $50,000 fine. To make matters worse, the runner-up driver in the Xfinity race — Joey Logano — also had an encumbered finish.

What it means: NASCAR penalties are not tough enough. Encumbered finishes by race winners are becoming more frequent, which means teams must not fear the consequences like they should. Even though he loses the playoff points, Hamlin gets to keep both of his wins despite his team basically cheating. That looks terrible, but this will never change until NASCAR starts to take the win away — which should have been the policy for a long time now. It’s also ridiculous to think Cup drivers not only made the Xfinity race a bore-fest (until the last lap), but they were whooping the Xfinity regulars by driving cheated-up cars the whole time. What a joke!

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. It should be a lot higher, but this is sadly becoming more commonplace. For example: Hamlin has two Xfinity wins this year and both were encumbered finishes. After you get beyond the headlines, these penalties are relatively hollow.

Three questions: When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars? When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars? When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars?

News Analysis: Hendrick Motorsports changes numbers

What happened: Chase Elliott will switch from No. 24 to his family’s famed No. 9 next season — along with the current No. 24 team — and the current No. 5 team with William Byron will instead become the No. 24 team. The No. 5 will not be used by Hendrick next season, though team owner Rick Hendrick said in a news release he would not rule out its return at some point in the future.

What it means: Bill Elliott used the No. 9 for a large part of his career and son Chase followed suit as he rose through the ranks, so this is a dream come true for the Elliott family. Meanwhile, Byron now will enter the Cup ranks with higher expectations on his shoulders. Even though it’s just a number switch — and Byron will be with what is now the No. 5 team, which has underperformed — the prospect of Byron in Jeff Gordon’s car number is significant. Longtime Elliott fans may be on board with the move, but newer Elliott fans — many of whom had warmed to the driver because he was Gordon’s successor in the 24 — may be wondering what to do now.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. Even though it’s just a number change, it’s a pretty big deal to have a new driver in the famous No. 24 car, see the No. 9 return with an Elliott driving it and watch the cursed No. 5 car disappear — all in one announcement.

Three questions: Will Gordon fans who started backing Elliott because he was in the No. 24 follow the driver to the No. 9, or will they root for Byron and stay with the number? Will the No. 9 team be able to shake whatever bad luck comes with being the “fourth” number at Hendrick (No. 5, No. 25)? What is our obsession with car numbers in NASCAR and why does it seem bigger than jersey numbers in other sports?

News Analysis: Brad Keselowski Racing to shut down after 2017

What happened: Brad Keselowski Racing, which fields two full-time Trucks in the Camping World Truck Series, announced it will shut down following the conclusion of this season. In a statement, Keselowski said: “The Truck Series is truly special to me given my family’s ties to the history of the sport, and this decision comes with much contemplation. But, for a number of reasons, and as I plan for the long-term future, I’ve decided not to field a team in 2018.”

What it means: In 2014, Keselowski said he was losing $1 million per year on his Truck team and told NBC Sports in June that figure has been consistent in recent years. “It’s a money loser,” he said. “Big time.” With small purses in the Truck Series and with most teams finding it difficult to find sponsorship that will cover the cost of racing (Keselowski told NBC it was $4.5 million per Truck, per season), it seems nearly impossible to consistently make money as a team owner in that series. Although it’s nice for a Cup driver like Keselowski to give back to the sport by providing an opportunity for young drivers (the team helped Ryan Blaney’s career get started, for example), that can’t be expected to continue when too much money comes out of a driver’s own pocket.

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even though the Truck Series has well-known financial issues and top teams like Red Horse Racing have shut down recently, it’s still jarring and shocking to see Keselowski’s team announce it will stop running.

Three questions: What is the long-term future of a series where only 13 drivers have run all 14 races so far this season? Although NASCAR is working to reduce costs, how can teams continue in this economic environment if it’s such a money drain? Keselowski said he one day wants to be a Cup Series team owner and is “seeking to develop an advanced engineering and manufacturing company that would be housed out of our 78,000 square foot facility in Statesville” — so what does that entail?

What the hell are flange-fit composite bodies, and why do they matter?

Here’s a quick Q&A — with myself — to help explain Wednesday’s news that NASCAR will move toward flange-fit composite bodies in the Xfinity Series:

Uh, what is this?

OK, so you know how all stock car bodies in NASCAR’s national series are made of one steel piece? NASCAR is looking to change that in the Xfinity Series by introducing something called flange-fit composite bodies.

I had to Google this, but a flange is basically an attachment, like a hook. And then composite describes the laminate material the body will be made of.

I don’t really get it. How’s that going to work, exactly?

There are now going to be 13 composite panels that make up an Xfinity Series body, held together by these flanges. Remember those 3D jigsaw puzzles? It’s kinda like that, from what I gather.

That’s crazy!!! Why in the world would NASCAR do that?

Racing is expensive and this is going to save teams some sweet, sweet cash in several different ways. Also, it should promote parity if it works.

OK. How and how?

The cost savings part is legit. Let’s say a car wrecks in practice and the body is pretty much junk, but the chassis is still good. Well instead of pulling out a backup car, now the team can just take the damaged panel off and put a new one on. And if there’s a crash during the race, it will be way less of a time suck to just replace the panels as opposed to hanging a new steel body on the chassis once the team gets back to the shop.

As for parity? Well, everyone is going to be running the same panels and they are supposedly tamper-proof with security features that will prevent teams from manipulating them for aero advantages.

Can they change the panels during the race?

Nope, because the five-minute clock will still be in effect for crash damage and it would take too long to swap out the panels.

Huh. But the teams can’t possibly be on board with this, right?

NASCAR says they are. Officials say the teams have been asking for this and worked with NASCAR and the manufacturers on this project. And apparently NASCAR got some strong buy-in, because officials are expecting all but a few teams to run it at the first available opportunity — even though it’s optional.

When is that? You got this far down in the story and didn’t even say when this is all happening.

Sorry, my bad. It’s Richmond, Dover and Phoenix this fall, and then all races except for superspeedways next season.

Wait, back up a couple questions. Did you say this is optional? If so, why wouldn’t some teams keep running the steel bodies in the future?

As of right now, steel bodies likely offer a competitive advantage over composite bodies because teams can manipulate them right up to the edge of the rules.

But in the near future, that may not be the case. Brett Bodine, NASCAR Senior Director of R&D, hinted there would be competition restrictions on the steel bodies that would make them heavier and take the incentive away to use them next year.

Clearly, NASCAR wants composite bodies to be the wave of the future.

Oh. So they’re coming to Cup then, probably.

Eh, maybe. But NASCAR won’t say that and wouldn’t go there on Wednesday. Officials insist they’re “100 percent focused” on seeing how it works in Xfinity first.

And by the way, NASCAR says fans won’t be able to tell the difference between a steel car and a flange/composite car by just watching from the stands or on TV.

Interesting. Well, it doesn’t sound all bad. Did NASCAR do something right?

We’ll have to wait and see, but at least it seems that way on first glance.

News Analysis: Reports say William Byron to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car

What happened: William Byron, age 19, will be named as the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car starting in 2018, according to (in order of reporting) SportsBusiness Journal, SBNation.com and Motorsport.com. The team has not officially announced the move (and I haven’t personally confirmed it, but I don’t doubt those who have). Byron, who grew up playing NASCAR video games but did not start racing until five years ago, will replace Kasey Kahne, whose departure from Hendrick was announced Monday. The racing prodigy is currently a rookie in the Xfinity Series, where he is second in points with three wins for JR Motorsports — this following his seven wins last season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series.

What it means: The face of Hendrick Motorsports has been dramatically altered in the last few years. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (combined 137 Cup victories) have been replaced with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Byron (combined zero Cup victories), who have an average age of 21.3. Byron will now be a full-time Cup driver after just one year each in Trucks and Xfinity — and that seems like an awfully quick move, similar to the rapid ascents of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. Byron is unquestionably talented, but it would have been nice to see him run another full season of Xfinity before getting promoted to Cup — something even Jimmie Johnson indicated last month. “At his age, I just don’t want to be in too big of a hurry to move him up,” Johnson told a small group of reporters at New Hampshire. “If you look back at past history, like a Joey Logano scenario, it just takes time. I feel so lucky I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. … I think I was just in a better place than the position some of these young guys are put in. They’re super talented, it’s just a lot of pressure to put on those guys.”

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even if Byron was the likely replacement after the team said Kahne was out, it’s still quite noteworthy that Hendrick continues to use young and relatively inexperienced drivers to fill its seasons considering veteran drivers like Matt Kenseth are on the free agent market. It wasn’t long ago that Hendrick was the most sought-after destination for established drivers who had already won many races. Now the seats are being snatched up by drivers who are unproven at the Cup level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. shed some light on why this might be the case for Silly Season in general, and it makes sense again in this scenario.

Three questions: Can Byron continue to immediately adapt and win at the next level, as he has done in each series along the way up the ladder? Since it turned out OK for Logano and Larson in the long run, what are the real risks of moving him up too soon? Who will replace Byron at JRM now that he will be vacating a championship-caliber seat in the Xfinity Series?

Related: Here are my 12 Questions interviews with Byron from 2016 and from 2017.

 

News Analysis: Kasey Kahne out at Hendrick Motorsports

What happened: Kasey Kahne will not return to Hendrick Motorsports in 2018, the team announced Monday morning. Though Kahne had a contract with Hendrick through next year, the team chose to release the Brickyard 400 winner and go with a yet-to-be-determined driver for the No. 5 car next season. Kahne is now a free agent and can sign with another team for 2018.

What it means: This is the inevitable divorce of a marriage that had been on the rocks for some time. When Kahne arrived at Hendrick, both he and the team had sky-high hopes. The driver, who once won six races in a season, even spent a year at Red Bull waiting for Mark Martin to vacate the No. 5. But despite two wins in each of his first two seasons at Hendrick, Kahne never found his footing there. He had just three top-five finishes in each of the last three years and missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. And as it turned out, his recent Indianapolis win and subsequent playoff berth this season wasn’t enough to save his job at Hendrick. But you know what? That’s not a bad thing. Kahne has long needed a fresh start with a team that believes in him — and vice versa — to give him a chance to regularly win again in the Cup Series. It’s been hard to watch Kahne struggle so much in the last few years, but perhaps this means there are brighter days ahead. After all, he’s only 37 and drivers don’t seem to start declining until their early 40s. Kahne is still capable of racking up a few wins per season if he finds the right team.

News value (scale of 1-10): Five. Fitting, right? But seriously, this lands as about average news because it’s something most people anticipated but is still noteworthy when it actually went down. If Kahne’s replacement had been named in the same announcement, it would have been much higher on the scale.

Three questions: Does this mean William Byron will be in the No. 5 next year, or will Hendrick look to a veteran like Matt Kenseth to fill the seat? What are the chances Kahne could end up in another top ride, such as the vacancy at Stewart-Haas Racing or Furniture Row Racing? Will this decision being made public alleviate any pressure on Kahne and allow him to make a run in the playoffs?

News Analysis: Kurt Busch’s contract option will not be picked up

What happened: Kurt Busch’s contract option to race at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 won’t be picked up by the team, the Daytona 500 winner has been told. The news was first reported by Jerry Jordan of KickinTheTires.net on Sunday, but Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com posted Tuesday that “the expectation is that Busch will not drive the No. 41 Ford for SHR in 2018.” Moments later, NBC’s Nate Ryan also posted Busch’s contract will not be picked up. But shortly after those stories, SHR tweeted a denial: “We don’t comment on contract status, but we expect @KurtBusch back in our @MonsterEnergy / @Haas_Automation Ford in ’18. Just sayin’.” I asked for clarification from SHR on this, but was told to just refer to the tweet.

What it means: Busch is a free agent. Jordan and Spencer both have solid relationships with Busch, so the news his contract option wasn’t picked up is almost certainly accurate. However, that doesn’t mean SHR won’t bring Busch back with a renegotiated deal, which is perhaps why it issued a denial. The Monster Energy piece of this is the big question, because Monster likely was balking at sponsoring both the series and a race team (after all, it got a pretty good bargain on being the Cup title sponsor). We still need more information to understand what’s going on here, but the best guess is SHR told Busch it wasn’t bringing him back under the current deal, freeing him to look elsewhere while also hoping to negotiate a new deal with better terms.

News value (scale of 1-10): 8. The news of Busch’s option not being picked up is about a 5, but I’m rating this so highly because we aren’t actually sure what’s going on here. Media reports said one thing and the team said another thing, which is very unusual in NASCAR. Either way, it’s gotten everyone’s attention today.

Three questions: Um, what the hell? Is Busch really out, or is this confusion driven by Monster’s unorthodox way of conducting business? When will SHR let everyone know what’s going on with its other Silly Season situation — Danica Patrick?