A note about the hats

So there’s this hat thing going around (a hat movement!) where people seem to want JeffGluck.com-branded hats.

It started as a sarcastic Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweet, and others joined in on the fun. He later continued the prank — a well-executed troll job, to be sure! I thought it was pretty hilarious.

But now I’m getting a lot of tweets along the lines of: “Hey, that was funny, but we actually do want hats. When are the hats coming?” On top of that, no less than nine people (some very reputable!) have already reached out in the last 24 hours with offers to help me create and produce hats.

That’s all very nice, and I’m certain many of you are serious that you would actually buy JeffGluck.com hats. Super cool of you to be so supportive!

But here’s the thing: I don’t feel totally comfortable with selling hats. Or T-shirts. Or any merchandise, for that matter.

Look, I’m absolutely THRILLED people are so pumped about my new adventure, and it’s going amazingly well so far. At the same time, though, I’m still a journalist covering your favorite sport; I’m not in the sport.

As a media member, I’m supposed to be a go-between linking you with the drivers, so you can find out more information about them and get insight into their personalities. My job is to observe the show, not to be part of it.

I know at times that line has been blurred — especially after the Las Vegas fight video put me in a brief spotlight — but the mission with this site remains a journalistic one more than a business one. I want to have fun with you while watching everything unfold together.

So for now — and I say this despite much respect and appreciation for your wishes — there aren’t going to be any hats. I don’t want to rule out merchandise at some point in the future, but we’re only two months into this whole thing and I want to keep building the website/podcast in a respectable way — not cheapening it with JeffGluck.com coffee mugs and keychains.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race

Each week, I’ll give some race analysis through a post called the Top Five — notable storylines from the just-completed event. This week: Phoenix Raceway.

Newman!

Well, how about THAT? Luke Lambert’s strategy call — which seemed like a total Hail Mary to most of us — actually worked, and Ryan Newman ended up with his first victory since Indianapolis in 2013. That’s 127 races ago! Heck, Richard Childress Racing hadn’t won a race since Kevin Harvick left the team for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Did anyone see this coming? Certainly not me.

So was Lambert making an educated guess or just taking a total gamble? Well, Lambert had looked at the data — and Newman was the best car on long runs throughout the race. That gave him faith the tires would hold up enough to give Newman a shot.

“I figured our best opportunity to win the race was to put the car out front and see if Ryan could make it wide enough,” Lambert said. “I can’t say I felt confident we would win the race, but I felt confident we’d at least have a shot. And I felt we wouldn’t be able to do anything else to give ourselves that opportunity.”

Inside the car, Newman recalled the sketchy restart last fall here — and realized there was a chance he could get taken out if he wasn’t careful. So his first priority was to just get a good enough start to have some clearance going into Turn 1 — and deal with whoever was behind him after that.

But with Kyle Larson in his mirror on fresh tires, Newman thought he might be toast. The No. 31 car, though, was stronger than expected (after all, it had been running top 10 prior to the strategy call).

“We had a good car, and it was the first time all day we put some clean air on it,” Newman said. “It was just a matter of putting those things together and showing y’all what we had.”

Larson the amazing

Kyle Larson is the latest example of the 2.5-year rule for new Cup drivers. Basically, young drivers either figure out how to find speed within the first 2.5 years of their career — or perhaps never get any better.

Everything seemed to click for Larson midway through last year, and he’s been a much more reliable contender ever since. These days, he’s one of the best drivers in the series — and the points leader!

Larson has now finished second in four straight non-plate races. That’s Homestead, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

And despite getting close to wins, Larson said the runner-up results aren’t getting tiresome — yet.

“I’m sure if I ran second for the next eight weeks, yeah, it’s probably going to grow old,” Larson said. “But it’s so cool to be one of the fastest cars every week. … I just hope we can continue to work hard, be consistent, be mistake‑free on pit road and on the racetrack. If we can just keep doing that, the wins are going to come.”

Everything isn’t great

When Kyle Busch’s team informed him Joey Logano’s tire had blown with five laps to go, Busch said, “Trust me — I know.”

Afterward, Busch was asked by KickinTheTires.net why he said that.

“I knew there was a going to be a tire blown because we haven’t made it past 44 laps in any run today without one being blown, right?” Busch said, practically biting his lip to stop himself from saying more.

It had to be a bitter pill for Busch to swallow — his recent nemeses Joey Logano and Goodyear essentially combined to cost him a race (although it wasn’t either of their faults directly; Logano melted a bead with excessive brake heat).

But just when it looked like Busch would go from puncher to victor in a week, it was he who ended up getting socked in the gut once again.

That’s the brakes for Logano, Dale Jr.

Two of the recent Phoenix race winners — Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — were expected to be contenders on Sunday. But that never materialized.

Logano couldn’t recover from a speeding penalty after he developed brake problems, eventually blowing a tire that caused the final caution. And Earnhardt had similar issues with his brakes, meaning he had to tiptoe around the track.

“The car just got to where I couldn’t get into the corner the way I needed it to,” Earnhardt said. “The last half of the race, the brake pedal was just almost to the floor. A couple of times it was on the floor going into the corner — pretty scary.

“The whole last 50 to 60 laps, I was pumping the brakes on all the straightaways to keep the pedal up so I would have some brakes for the corner and lifting really early. We just couldn’t run it hard enough to get up there and do anything with it.”

Toyota young guns shine

Despite seeing Busch’s win chances vanish, it wasn’t all bad for Toyota. The manufacturer’s two rookies — Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones — both got their first career top-10 finishes after different strategy calls on the last pit stop.

Suarez finished seventh after taking two tires and Jones finished eighth after taking four. Regardless of how they got there,  the results were much-needed confidence for Suarez and validation for Jones’ consistently speed to start the year.

“We didn’t have the speed, and the communication wasn’t great,” Suarez said of the first couple weeks. “We’ve been working hard trying to build chemistry, communication, and we have for sure been getting better.”

That communication was key to improving the car while also gaining track position on Sunday.

And Jones had to power through feeling sick, as he received two bags of IV fluids Saturday night after the Xfinity race.

“We’re going to have ups and downs, good weeks and bad weeks from here on out, but this is definitely a good week and one we can soak up for a minute,” he said.

 

NASCAR should keep pushing on Xfinity driver limits

Shortly after Justin Allgaier won the Phoenix Xfinity race on Saturday, Motorsport.com’s Jim Utter turned to me in the media center and gave me crap for a tweet implying the race was good because an Xfinity driver won.

Utter observed the race was good either way — and it still would have been a good race even if a Cup driver like Ryan Blaney or Erik Jones had edged Allgaier for the win.

So would I have claimed it was a bad outcome, Utter asked, if a Cup guy won?

It’s a fair argument, but I’ll own my viewpoint: No matter what happens or how exciting the race is, if it’s a Cup guy in Xfinity victory lane, I won’t like it.

In that sense, Saturday was a good race. Allgaier hadn’t won since 2012, and he won on a day when veteran Cup drivers (five years or more of experience) were banned from participating.

And yeah, if a Cup guy won, I wouldn’t have said it was a “good” race.

A true racer would judge the racing off the action — not the participants — so I realize that exposes me a bit. But I’ve just never been able to get pumped about watching Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano moonlight in a series and suck all the oxygen out of the room. Nothing against them personally, but I just don’t find it interesting when they win a minor-league race.

After the race, I asked Allgaier if the absence of the veteran Cup guys changed the dynamic on Saturday. Yes and no, he said.

On one hand, he said, the typically strong cars driven by those Cup stars — like from Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing — were still in the race with excellent drivers. They weren’t easy to beat, and it was a “dogfight,” Allgaier said.

On the other hand…

“Kyle is really good here, so one would have to think he’d be up front battling it out,” Allgaier said.

And he was nowhere to be found. So was that a good thing?

“I think it certainly changes the way the race looks,” winning team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “When Kyle in particular is in these races, he’s got such a great chance to win. The race from second on back is still probably as exciting, but he usually doesn’t make much of a race out of it. When he’s in the field, he doesn’t hardly get challenged by a lot of the teams.”

Busch fans complain the media just doesn’t like it when Busch wins, as if people are OK with any other Cup driver. Personally, I don’t feel it’s an Anybody But Kyle situation when it comes to who I want to see in victory lane.

But Utter was right to poke holes in my argument that it’s all Cup guys who I have an issue with, because it’s certainly a different feeling when a Suarez or Jones or Blaney wins vs. a Busch or Keselowski or Logano. I admit that.

Still, my thoughts haven’t changed since I used this as the topic for my very first NASCAR column in 2004: Cup drivers should not be allowed to race in the Busch/Nationwide/Xfinity Series.

There’s zero value to anyone but those teams who sell sponsorship around it; everyone else loses.

Invest in Xfinity by allowing the lower series drivers to build their own storylines and rivalries — “Names Are Made Here,” after all — and let the series have a completely unique identity.

NASCAR has been taking baby steps over the years — Cup drivers can’t run for points (2011), Cup drivers can’t race at Homestead (2016), veteran Cup drivers limited to 10 races (2017), etc. — but it can’t stop now.

But my fear is after seeing a positive result like Saturday, officials will say, “OK, we’ve fixed it and we don’t need to go any further.”

It could have easily been a Cup driver in victory lane, though, so it’s still just putting Band-Aids on a wounded series that needs stitches.

Ban Cup drivers from Xfinity races — period — and the series will be much better off.

 

DraftKings NASCAR picks for Phoenix spring race

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. Disclosure No. 2: I might be America’s worst daily fantasy player.

Last week’s results: Played the $0 entry Daily Free Contest with $250 payout (because of Nevada gambling restrictions) and finished around 10,600th out of 20,300. Won $0.

Season results: $1 wagered, $0 won in three contests.

This week’s contest: For the second straight week, I’m in a state that only allows me to play a free DraftKings contest. Lame. So I’m in the $0 entry Daily Free Contest ($250 payout) again.

This week’s picks:

— Kevin Harvick ($11,100). I was really looking for ANY excuse to stay away from him since you know a gazillion people will have him on their team, but he starts 23rd. I want that position differential when he finishes in the top five (which he could do even on a non-dominant day).

— Kyle Busch ($10,100). Being fastest in 10-lap average over the course of a race like Phoenix — which often has long, green-flag runs — is an attractive proposition. He could be the dominator.

— Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($8,500). Surprisingly affordable for a potential race winner. I know he starts too high (third), but damn — this team owned the fall race with Alex Bowman, was fastest in the January test and now looks good again this weekend. I’ll take that chance.

— Erik Jones ($7,500). I’m going to stay on the Erik Jones train until his price goes up. He’s one of the best deals out there lately, even though he starts a little high (eighth) for my liking.

— Jamie McMurray ($7,400). I’d love to pick Kyle Larson as well, but he’s too expensive for my lineup. The Chip Ganassi Racing cars have had a great start to the season, and although McMurray starts fifth, he has the ninth-best driver rating in the spring race over the last three years. He was also 10th-fastest in 10-lap averages for final practice.

— Matt DiBenedetto ($5,300). Hoo boy. This is a big risk. But I had to go cheap to make this lineup work. I’m essentially hoping he can get a top-25 out of this, and then give me the points differential from moving up from 30th. We’ll see.

Remaining salary: $100.

The privilege of covering a Phoenix race

I’ve been coming to Phoenix Raceway for 12 years now, and there’s something about this place that feels special for me.

That’s not sarcasm, although I could see why people would think that — since I’m always ripping on the awful facilities like the media center (they’re fixing it!).

But in all seriousness, Phoenix always makes me stop and reflect. Why? Check out this list of personal firsts:

— It was my first racing assignment for the Inland Valley (Calif.) Daily Bulletin in Nov. 2005. My main job for the newspaper was high school sports, but sports editor Louis Brewster generously allowed me to cover the Phoenix race because he knew how badly I wanted to go.

During that first weekend, Brewster assigned me a story on our local driver David Gilliland, who was in his second career Busch Series race. It wasn’t much of a story at the time (he start-and-parked), but it was Gilliland’s first race with car owner Clay Andrews — a pairing which would pull off the famous Kentucky upset a year later.

— It was my first on-the-road assignment for NASCAR Scene magazine in April 2007. I’d left the Daily Bulletin for my dream job in early ’07, and Phoenix was my first race after a few weeks in the office. I was absolutely on top of the world. Getting paid to travel full-time to NASCAR races? Are you kidding?

Plus, Scene was rolling in cash at the time (it was still the glory days of print advertising) and they paid for FIVE Scene writers to fly out a day early so we could “adjust to the time zone.” Gotta be fresh for the weekend and all that, right?

So we had two days to lounge by the pool at a fancy hotel and eat good food on someone else’s dime. Plus, all of the other writers were guys I practically idolized as a subscriber of the magazine, so I didn’t think it could get much better than that. I wore my Scene polo shirt to the track with pride and beamed when I saw crew members reading it in the garage.

— It was the first race I ever live-tweeted in April 2009! Scene had each of us create Twitter accounts in March of that year, but they wouldn’t let us start tweeting until a sponsored deal with Sprint kicked in. The first race was Phoenix, and we had to tweet #SprintRacing after every tweet. Anyway, I sat up in the press box and tweeted, connecting with some of you for the first time. Much has changed in the time since (or not).

— This was the first place I traveled for JeffGluck.com. Thanks to your early surge of pledges, I had enough money to go cover testing in January. That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had, because I was only there because you wanted me to be there.

Anyway, perhaps in part of all these firsts, I always feel like it’s a privilege to come out to Phoenix. If you’re a NASCAR beat writer who makes it out this far west, you’re fortunate to either work for a large outlet with a travel budget or you have the resources to make it on your own.

There aren’t a lot of us left. The only traveling beat writers here this week are from ESPN.com, FOXSports.com, Motorsport.com, NASCAR.com, NASCAR Wire Service, KickinTheTires.net and Catchfence.com. And me.

So I’m pretty happy to be here. It’s another special weekend, and I don’t take it for granted.

And now for Kyle Busch’s side of the Las Vegas fight

Joey Logano twice presented his side of the Las Vegas fight story on Friday.

After getting back on track at Phoenix Raceway and qualifying ninth, it was Kyle Busch’s turn.

Busch spoke to a pair of reporters (including me) on pit road after his qualifying lap, telling us why he punched Logano last week and adding he still didn’t buy Logano’s explanation.

When Busch tried to make a move down the backstretch and avoid a slowing Brad Keselowski on the last lap, he made contact with Logano. He felt Logano then took revenge right away.

“It was instantaneous,” Busch said. “I made a move down the backstretch that cut Joey off — and I had to; I wasn’t just going to roll out of the gas and fall in behind Brad and probably lose spots to more guys behind me. So I made a bold move — I was two-thirds of my way past Logano, and I figured I can wedge my way through there a little bit.

“And I did, and it was instantaneous retaliation. That’s what I thought and that’s kind of what I still think.”

Logano presented Busch with data during their meeting with NASCAR that he felt proved the incident was unintentional, but Busch didn’t believe it.

“No,” Busch said after being asked whether the data changed his mind. “Nope.”

Busch said he’s raced Logano well over the years and “didn’t expect that move from Joey.” He thought the two would be able to showcase their talent in a good, side-by-side finish and then say something like, “Ah, he got me this time. Damn.”

But Logano “chose a different route,” Busch said.

“And if it was Brad, I would have expected that route to be chosen, you know what I mean?” he added. “So that’s how I interpret that.”

Busch also expressed frustration over “continuing to get wrecked by the Penske guys.” You’ll recall Logano has also been in recent high-profile wrecks with Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.

As for the lack of NASCAR penalty for punching Logano on pit road?

“There could have been different circumstances that played out that wouldn’t have allowed me to be here, and that’s why I said what I said earlier — that everything is great,” Busch said. “Life is good.”

Oh, and one more thing: Did Busch’s punch connect or not?

Busch’s public relations representative cut off the question, and the driver didn’t answer — but Busch grinned and shook his hand like it hurt.