Successful Xfinity Series race at Indy provides glimpse of the future

No matter what you think of NASCAR’s decision to go with an experimental rules package in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway or the merits of such a move, let’s start with the facts.

— There were a race record 16 lead changes, nearly doubling the previous race record of nine. That’s a remarkable number for the Brickyard, which has had 16 or fewer lead changes in 12 of the 23 Cup Series races run here!

— A race record eight different drivers led laps (two more than the previous mark). By comparison, last year’s Brickyard 400 — again, a race that was 100 miles longer — had just three different leaders.

— The margin of victory was just 0.108 second, which was obviously the closest.

So there are the facts. Did those stats — along with the eye test — make for a good race?

Well, as of the time of this post, 83 percent of people in a quick Twitter poll said “Yes.”

I agree. It wasn’t just a better race than in the past, but it was a good race — and I wasn’t very optimistic that would be the case, even with the rule changes in place.

After all, how many times has NASCAR tried something with high hopes (just look at the PJ1 at New Hampshire last week) only to see the race result in somewhat of a letdown?

This time, NASCAR’s extensive research and development work paid off with a concept that seemed to click. It would be shocking if officials didn’t try this idea in the Cup Series sometime in the next year — not just at Indy, but places like Pocono or Michigan.

Was it perfect? No, because it achieved only part of the goal. Slowing the cars kept the race close because the leader could not get away, but passing still seemed like a challenge.

Erik Jones, for example, told me he could easily stay with race leader Kyle Busch while running second — but there was nothing he could do to pass, even if he’d wanted to.

That said, Jones said the package was a positive move overall; it just needs some tweaks, he said.

“A lot of times, these cars are just going too fast,” Jones said. “You go to your local short track and the best race of the weekend is the street stocks or vintage cars, because they’re going so slow that they can go everywhere. They can go all over the racetrack.

“We were definitely a step towards that. You could even see people make passes on the outside, which at Indy is pretty unheard of.”

The whole thing is a bit of an odd concept at Indianapolis, which has rewarded pure speed ever since NASCAR has been racing here. But Saturday’s race had more of a Daytona or Talladega feel, where the leader was punished by getting too far ahead — allowing competitors to catch up in the draft.

Some fans were upset about the concept of artificially bunching the field. It also didn’t sit well with Kyle Busch, who was feeling salty after seeing his chance at a fifth straight Brickyard win disappear.

Busch told me the package was no good and said he would “definitely” be opposed to seeing it tried in the Cup Series.

“They wanted to slow down the fastest guy here so the rest of the field could keep up, and they did,” he said.

But what if there were some tweaks made that perhaps allowed for more passing? Would he be open to the idea then?

“There’s great ideas everywhere,” he responded while walking away.

Xfinity regular Brennan Poole, who finished seventh, disagreed with Busch’s comments. He said there were a couple small changes NASCAR could make to increase passing opportunities, yes; but overall, Poole had no problems with the fairness of the rules.

“I mean, that’s just part of racing,” he said. “It’s the same way at Daytona and Talladega. This package keeps everybody together, but you’ve just got to work a little harder for it.

“It puts on a better fan show for the fans. When there’s more passing and swapping for the lead and everyone fighting, it’s better to watch. I think it was good.”

And if you’re looking for a hint from NASCAR whether a similar package might be used in future races, Steve O’Donnell certainly gave all indications the sanctioning body viewed Saturday’s experiment with a smile.

“I think it passed the eye test,” he told reporters. “Some races, you’re going 200 (mph). Some, you’re down in the 100s on a road course. What at the end of the day matters is how many lead changes did we have and was it competitive throughout. And we thought it was today.”

 

News Analysis: Erik Jones to drive the No. 20 car

What happened: Joe Gibbs Racing made a long-speculated move official on Tuesday, announcing Erik Jones will return to the team after a one-year loan to affiliate Furniture Row Racing. Jones, a Cup rookie this season, has been a JGR development driver and will replace former Cup champion Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 car.

What it means: The NASCAR youth movement continues. As Kenseth has said, he does not intend to retire despite being 45 years old. It appears he essentially got pushed out of JGR by the desire to give one of NASCAR’s top young drivers a home with the team.

News value (scale of 1-10): Two. This is not a surprise at all, but it is noteworthy in that it’s a driver change at one of the top teams.

Questions: What happens to the No. 77 team at Furniture Row Racing? Will Kenseth be able to land at another top organization? How quickly can Jones become a regular winner at JGR?

News Analysis: Matt Kenseth says return to Joe Gibbs Racing is unlikely

What happened: Matt Kenseth, responding to a question about his 2018 plans from ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass during a media availability at Kentucky Speedway, said he likely will not be back at Joe Gibbs Racing after this season. “I don’t think I will have the option to return to race for JGR next year, unfortunately,” he said.

What it means: Kenseth’s contract was up at the end of this season, which was why his name was floated for the No. 88 car opening in the past couple months. The 2003 Cup champ has said several times he does not intend to retire. Meanwhile, it’s been known JGR would like to get driver Erik Jones back in house from a one-year deal at affiliate Furniture Row Racing. With Suarez, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin all locked in, that did not appear to leave room for the 45-year-old Kenseth; now we have some degree of confirmation.

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. Though this is not a surprise given Kenseth’s expiring contract and age, it is unusual to hear a straight answer like that during a news conference. Also, this will serve as an unofficial kickoff to Silly Season in the public eye because now one domino is obvious to everyone.

Questions: Where will Kenseth end up next season? If Jones leaves the No. 77 car, who fills that very attractive ride? Will we have to wait until August before the first actual move is announced?

Video: Toyota drivers participate in Olympic crossover event

During two days in Utah, I watched as Toyota NASCAR drivers Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez — along with crew chiefs Cole Pearn and Chris Gayle — mingled with Olympic athletes and participated in various Winter Games training.

It was pretty fun, and I could tell you all about it, but I’d rather show you. So here’s a video I made about it:

12 Questions with Erik Jones

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Erik Jones of Furniture Row Racing. I spoke with Jones on Wednesday while attending a Toyota event in Utah where NASCAR drivers and Olympic athletes interacted.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

Man, it sounds bad to say, but I’d say up until last year it was 100 percent natural ability. And then once I got to the Cup Series, I think we all have natural ability at this level — everybody’s really good, so that’s where working at it really comes into play. I would say this year has probably been 60 percent natural and 40 percent working at it.

It’s definitely a big change for me. Being in Trucks and Xfinity wasn’t easy, but it definitely wasn’t as hard as the Cup Series; I felt like I could really just get a good feel for it quickly and go out and be pretty quick everywhere. At the Cup level, it’s like, OK, everybody’s pretty quick at it, everybody gets it pretty easy and so you have to be really good at all the little things that make up for it for a lot of times.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I think for me, I’m just an average 21-year-old kid. I like to have fun, I like to party and have a good time. You know, go out, work hard and do my job on the weekends and have fun during the week.

Unfortunately, we don’t always get to show that in our sport. It’s hard to really broadcast that side in the world or that side of our lives out to the sport. But I like to just hang out and play a round of golf with my buddies or hang out at the pool and do whatever we wanna do. So it’s hard to really show that personal side. I wish there was a better way or an easier way to broadcast that out.

And I think that has been changing over the last few years and I think you’ll start to see more personality from a lot of guys. You’ve really only seen Dale Jr. come out and really show a lot of personality within the last few years, so hopefully I can figure that out better and hopefully it continues to go that way in NASCAR.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Just the travel for sure. I’m kind of a homebody at heart; I like to be home, I like to be around my family, my friends. In the Xfinity Series or the Truck Series, it’s not so bad. You leave on Thursday and you’re home on Friday or Saturday night and you have Sunday off. In the Cup Series, you really only have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at home and Thursday you’re traveling again. So that’s a tough part.

All in all, compared to an everyday person going to work 9 to 5, we have it pretty good and you feel kind of guilty at times complaining about some of the things you have to do. But it really does take a toll on you traveling that much. It’s pretty rare that we get days off and get to enjoy ourselves and do what we want to do, so that’s definitely the hardest part for me.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah, I don’t really have an issue with it. I guess the hardest part for me sometimes is if I’m trying to spend time with friends and family. I wouldn’t necessarily say a restaurant setting, but sometimes you really just want to chill out and relax. But I don’t really have a problem with that — as long as we’re not in the middle of a meal or anything, I don’t really have much of an issue.

It’s not like I’ve ever been bombarded at a restaurant by 10 people. Every once in a while I have somebody come up and say, “Hey, nice to meet you,” and I don’t really mind that all.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I really don’t think that people necessarily understand 100 percent of the work that goes into it from the shop side and the engineering side. I don’t think a lot of people really see how many smart people we’ve got working on these cars. The engineers we’ve got — we have at-track engineers, but we also have engineers who are just working in the shop 100 percent of the time and trying to develop new products and make our cars faster.

Obviously, we can’t share all our simulation tools and all the neat things we get to use to make our cars faster, but I wish people could see that because there’s some really, really cool stuff that I think people would be pretty intrigued by to just check out and learn more about.

Unfortunately, we can’t show every fan in the world 100 percent what’s going on in the shop. I wish I could take everybody on an in-depth tour and show them the process of how these cars are built and how they’re put together, how the bodies are put together, the wind tunnel testing we do and some of the more technical side of things would be really cool to show people.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Geez, I don’t know. Let me pull out my phone. It’s been awhile.

You’re scrolling through all these texts and no driver names are popping up.

Daniel Hemric. There we go. That was on the 12th (nine days ago). It’s been awhile. But yeah, Daniel Hemric. I hang out with him probably the most of any driver away from the racetrack. We have a pretty similar background, so we have lots to talk about usually.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah, 100 percent. I started racing Late Models when I was 13, and it was the first time I’ve ever been on a racing tour. We pulled into the track one day and my first-ever crew chief said, “We’re just kind of the traveling circus. We all roll in, it’s the same guys, we unload, set up and put on a show.”

It’s no different at all at this level. I think we’re there to put on a show, to entertain the fans. That’s what we’re there to do, and I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be considered entertainers.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I’d say it’s changed a lot over the years. Early on in my career I didn’t use it much and then I think I got a little too happy with it and then I had a lot of guys angry at me, so now it’s pretty rare (when) it comes out. The only times I really get frustrated now is racing with lapped cars. If there’s a lapped car you catch and he’s not giving you the lane, that’s pretty frustrating.

I had a guy early on, a race director in Late Models. Every drivers meeting, he’d say, “I don’t want to sound rude, but the lapped cars, you’re a second-class citizen today. It’s not your day. Give these guys the lane, they’re trying to race. That respect is going to come around when it’s the other way around some day.” So it’s really frustrating to me when you don’t get that respect, because it is going to come back around for him some day, and that’s probably the only time you’ll see it out of me.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, it goes both ways. I’ve never really went back out necessarily and just wrecked somebody, paying them back for being wrecked, but I make their lives as hard as I possibly can. Anytime I race around them, they’re not going to get a break from me and there’s not going to be a lot of patience from me either.

But it does go the other way for me, too. If there’s a guy that lets me go early in the race if I run him down, he’s going to get that respect back — at least until 50 to go. I think that’s the time where it goes out the window a little bit, everybody’s racing hard for the position, they don’t want to give anything up.

But it definitely does go each way. Most of the time, a lot of these guys will give you that favor early in the race, and definitely you feel like you kind of owe it to them.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Danica Patrick, I guess, probably. I haven’t really had dinner with like a celebrity of any sort, other than that. No A-listers, Hollywood or anything like that, so I’d have to say that’d be it.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

I think it really goes back to one of your first questions there about working at it, the natural ability and the work ethic of it all. It came so easy in the Truck and Xfinity level that I never really learned how to work at it and how to get better at it. I’ve had guys tell me, “You might need to work on this or that,” but I was like, “I’m winning races, why do I need to work on that?” Getting to the Cup level now, I think that’s the biggest thing that I’d like to improve, at least on the racing side, to try and get more proficient in it.

12. The last interview was with Michael McDowell. His question was: Eventually when you do retire someday, what do you think will lead into your decision to say, “I think I’ve had enough?”

That’s a deep question. I think it will go two ways, honestly: Either you’re not capable of performing anymore, you’re not competitive, you’re not running up front and contending for wins — or you just get burned out. You get burned out on the schedule.

I think a little bit of that was with Jeff Gordon. He was still competitive, he was still winning — he made it to Homestead his last year. So I think a lot of his decision was based on he has two young kids and he was done with the grind. I see either one of those two ways.

I think for me, it will probably be that I’m not competitive anymore, honestly.

The next interview is with Todd Gilliland. Do you have a question that I might be able to ask him?

I’m trying to remember back when I was 16 and racing. I would ask him how much pressure he feels to perform, or how much pressure does he put on himself to perform well to try and get that break at the next big level.

Does he feel like there’s a lot of pressure on him, or does he feel like he just puts that pressure on himself? Because I felt like when I was his age, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get those big wins that were going to put me on the map. So I would ask him if he’s feeling that same kind of thing.

Someone at FOX Sports has big balls

Television broadcasting is hard. REALLY hard.

The professionals make it look easy, but it takes true talent to be able to think of something, make that something come out of your mouth without tripping over your words and then actually provide insight — all while some producer is giving instructions in your earpiece.

So when FOX Sports turns over its entire Xfinity Series broadcast at Pocono to a bunch of amateurs, it’s going to be must-see TV.

Now, these aren’t just any amateurs — they’re experts in their field — but FOX’s concept is a fascinating experiment. From the booth to pit road to the Hollywood Hotel, all of the “talent” will be active Cup drivers.

These drivers all have experience in front of the camera, which definitely makes a difference. It’s not like they’re going to be blankly staring into your TV.

But still, they’re going to struggle with all the things required of a professional. Getting to a commercial without leaving too much dead air? Throwing from one reporter to another on pit road? Setting up a replay?

It could be a total mess. Or it could be one of the best and most enjoyable broadcasts in years.

Either way, you sort of have to tune in, right?

It’s fun to picture Kevin Harvick as a play-by-play guy, trying to wrangle Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano as analysts. Then there will be Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones trying to describe pit stops and interview wrecked drivers. And Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin will make small talk in the Hollywood Hotel while keeping the show moving.

That’s the plan, anyway. How exactly is this all going to work? I’m as curious as anyone — and I can’t wait to see what happens. My guess is a lot of viewers feel the same way.

So nice move, FOX. We’ll be watching.

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.