The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR All-Star Race

Five thoughts on Saturday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway…

1. Sigh

So I’m sitting here in the Charlotte Motor Speedway press box, staring out at the track after a blahtacular All-Star Race and, well, it’s sort of deflating.

Whatever NASCAR and the track come up with for this race, it just doesn’t seem to work. That’s because it’s always the same winner: Clean Air.

So after another All-Star event that failed to deliver on the hype, it’s surely back to the drawing board — again.

It’s probably a tribute to the NASCAR and Charlotte marketing machine that we buy into the possibility of a good All-Star Race every year, only to be reminded that’s not the case. There’s only so much that can be done on a 1.5-mile track like this one.

“We all run the same speed,” Jimmie Johnson said. “The rule book is so thick, and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed. You can’t pass running the same speed. It’s just the bottom line.”

That’s why the emphasis for the All-Star Race each year is to force some sort of passing in the final stage, typically by some strategy play or gimmick. And that’s fine, because it’s an exhibition race that exists solely for entertainment.

But when the entertainment doesn’t materialize? It seems to generate more outrage than your average NASCAR-related controversy.

Ultimately, the 2017 All-Star Race was familiar in a bad way: A clean-air affair that literally required a spreadsheet to keep track of who was doing well, combined with no real action (the only cautions were for the stage breaks).

Bummer.

2. Tire storyline goes flat

As it turned out, everyone was wayyyy too optimistic about the option tire’s impact on this race. But it doesn’t mean the idea wouldn’t work for future events.

Let’s start with Saturday night, though. Remember when the big tire twist was first announced? The original theory was lots of teams would take the option tire for the final round.

It’s going to be crazy! How will the strategy play out? You have to watch!

Except a funny thing happened (well, actually not funny at all): Not a single team chose to use the option tires in the final round.

The problem was the tire was a little faster, but not fast enough to make up the track position a team would lose by taking them in the final round. And it didn’t fall off as much as anticipated, so it worked better on the 20-lap runs earlier in the race.

So the tires weren’t able to deliver on their promise in the All-Star Race.

“We could probably go a little bit softer, utilize a little bit more grip in order to be faster, have more (speed) split between the two tires,” Kyle Busch said. “The tires equalized more than maybe some would have hoped for. But it was just a guess. They didn’t necessarily pull a tire test here. I thought they did a good job testing.”

But that doesn’t mean the option tire was a bad experiment for races when it really counts. It’s a strategy wrinkle that could add something to Cup races in the future. And it wouldn’t feel overly gimmicky, either.

“I think the garage area … has a favorable opinion of how this went tonight,” Johnson said. “Personally I don’t have a problem with trying it. … It’s better than having a button that gives you more horsepower. I think it’s a good way, a competitive way to create different-paced cars in the field.”

3. If Kyles ruled the world

Kyle Busch is one of the all-time great talents. He didn’t need an All-Star win to prove that — though it’s certainly nice for his resume — nor did he need to beat Jimmie Johnson in a head-to-head showdown.

He’s only going to accomplish more and more before he’s all done, probably racing until son Brexton is in a car (Kyle is only 32; Brexton is 2). So as your favorite drivers continue to retire, it’s not a guarantee the young guns will take over — because veterans like Busch might just continue to dominate.

However, there’s certainly hope for the young guns — and that’s really led by Kyle Larson. The dude continues to be a one-man show, and his attitude is just so different than anyone I’ve covered.

Take this quote about clean air, for example: “I enjoy it. It adds an element. It’s something you have to work through and become the better driver, find clean air, do a good job with it.”

What?! All we’ve heard for years are driver quotes like, “Well, he got out in clean air and there was nothing I could do.” There’s a lot of complaining about aero.

Larson doesn’t seem to complain, though. He tries to use it as a challenge. That seems refreshing (although he might eventually get frustrated like the rest of them, because the whole dirty air phenomenon really sucks).

4. Open and shut

The battle between Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez — and eventually Erik Jones — during Stage 3 of the Open wasn’t just the best moment of the night. It might have been the best racing moment of the season so far.

Elliott was doing everything he could to get around Suarez, and they put on quite a show for a lap before Jones caught both of them and tried Pass in the Grass II. Unfortunately, Pass in the Grass I was aided by the cars not being sealed to the ground with splitters in the front, and it can’t be replicated today. So instead, Jones dug his splitter into the grass and destroyed his car, bringing out a caution with three laps to go.

You may recall last year’s Open was also quite dramatic, when Elliott and Larson banged doors en route to the finish line and both sustained damage.

The takeaway? Well, the Open is a kick-ass race, for one thing. It’s so fun and refreshing to see drivers other than the usual suspects going hard and fighting for a win at the front of the field. I love that race, and it’s one of my favorites each year just because of different faces getting the spotlight.

But it’s also another reason why heats and last-chance races would be very entertaining on a weekly basis during the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Remember, a “Norm Benning Moment” can be almost as good as a “Game 7 Moment.”

5. Come early, folks!

The pre-race experience might be on the way back after taking a big hit over the last couple years.

NASCAR fans used to have the souvenir haulers, the huge Sprint Experience and the SPEED Stage to occupy themselves before the race.

But by the end of last year, the stupid Fanatics tent had replaced the haulers, the Sprint Experience was phased out and TV stage was apparently a victim of FOX cuts.

There seems to be some movement in the right direction now though.

This weekend marked the return of the souvenir haulers, which drew a nice crowd (from what I could see during a short walk-through Saturday afternoon). Then there were Bellator MMA fights at the Monster Energy display, where people sat on the hillside as sort of an amphitheater and watched dudes beat the crap out of each other on a hot day.

Even a form of the old SPEED stage has returned, but not for TV purposes. They’re calling it the “Trackside Live” stage — with the old familiar TV show name — but it’s primarily for fans at the track. Speedway Motorsports Inc. realized people missed that element, so SMI recreated the stage for fan entertainment purposes. It’s a good move, because now there’s an additional place for driver appearances or concerts or things like that. Hopefully, the International Speedway Corp. tracks will hop on board with the stage as well.

The bottom line is NASCAR fans expect more than just a race when it comes to attending in person. They want to make a day out of it and have things to do for hours before the green flag. So all these things were positives in that regard.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Kansas race

Five thoughts from Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway…

1. Please be OK

The Joey Logano/Danica Patrick/Aric Almirola crash was the scariest incident in a non-plate Cup Series race in a long, long time. It’s not worth ranking crashes against one another, but it was in a category of frightening wrecks that seem part of a bygone era — when those incidents came with a high risk of serious injury or worse.

Of course, this stretch since 2001 is an illusion. NASCAR is safer now, but it’s not safe. And perhaps everyone has been lulled into a false sense of security.

Can you blame people? When drivers emerge from vicious crashes time and time again — even situations like Michael McDowell at Texas, for example — we just come to expect it. So as bad as Almirola’s hit was — rear tires off the ground and all — it was actually surprising when he appeared to be injured and had to be removed on a backboard.

Seeing the roof cut off of a car to get the driver out was an unfamiliar sight for fans who started following NASCAR in the last decade or so. I don’t recall seeing this happen in the Cup Series since I’ve been covering it (starting in 2004).

Fortunately, Almirola was conscious and able to move enough to drop the window net. As of writing this, there’s no official update on his injuries yet. Update: The team did not disclose Almirola’s injuries, but said he is in stable condition and is being held for observation overnight at a local hospital. Hoping the best for Almirola and his family should be the biggest concern for now.

But we should also use this as a reminder that crashes won’t always have a favorable outcome.

“It’s a dangerous sport — always has been, always will be,” Brad Keselowski said. “Sometimes we forget that and maybe take for granted that you see real hard hits and people walk away, and then you see one where someone doesn’t, and it puts things back into perspective just how dangerous it can be.”

2. Truex capitalizes

Although Ryan Blaney had two late chances to beat Martin Truex Jr. on a restart and score his first victory, the race may actually have been decided on the third-to-last caution.

On that restart, Blaney was on the inside of the front row with Truex lined up behind him. Truex went down to the apron and Blaney tried to block — but Truex then faked him out, went up the track to the preferred higher lane and drove away. Truex never trailed after that.

It was the move of a driver who has lost more races than he’s won, especially over the last few years, and is practically desperate not to let any more victories slip away. And in some ways, drivers have to learn what loses races like these before they understand what actions result in a win.

“You don’t forget those days that ones got away or you screwed up and gave one away or anything like that,” Truex said. “You never forget those things. They always stick with you.”

Granted, many of the missed opportunities haven’t been his fault, but they seem to bring out an extra level of determination to seize the chances that continue to come his way.

Blaney will eventually figure out how to close races. The more he’s in the position to have a shot at the win — like at Kansas — the better he’ll become.

3. Loose ends

Perhaps more than any driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is conscious of when his wheel might be loose.

Can you blame him? If his team leaves the wheel loose enough to come off (like it nearly did at Talladega last week), Earnhardt could hit the wall at full speed and have his career come to a premature end with another concussion — perhaps even having lifelong implications.

So when there’s a chance he might have a wheel loose, he’s going to err on the side of caution. It’s just not worth it to risk it otherwise.

You would think, then, that the No. 88 team would be particularly diligent about getting the wheels secured. If nothing else, it’s a confidence thing for Earnhardt to know he can go out and drive aggressively.

But it was another verse of the same old song at Kansas, where Earnhardt had a loose wheel again. However, he also said he pitted in one instance when it wasn’t necessary — because he mistakenly believed  another one was loose.

“I came in for a vibration that wasn’t a loose wheel and we lost a lap and we got it back and ended up 20th,” he said. “I made a few mistakes tonight on the vibrations and what I thought they were and it cost us a lot of track position. It cost about 10 spots at least.

“I’m just a little confused as to why we can’t seem to shake this … I can’t say it’s really bad luck because tonight really was our own doing, but we can’t get in harmony and know whatever it is.”

This reminded me of the time in 2010 at Dover, when Earnhardt pitted by mistake because he thought his tire was flat — but it was actually just his car acting up. But there’s one big difference: He has speed now, whereas the cars back then pretty much sucked.

So although Earnhardt fans are certainly frustrated and are calling for Greg Ives’ job or pit crew changes, I don’t think the 88 team is that far off. The best chance for a victory is to stick together, put together a few mistake-free weeks and then get thoughts of loose wheels out of Earnhardt’s head.

4. False hope?

Just when it looked like Joe Gibbs Racing was going to have a shot to get its first win of the season, it got bested by affiliate Furniture Row Racing again.

All four of JGR’s cars were in the top 10 for much of the race, and Kyle Busch led 59 laps. But Busch ultimately ended up fifth — the highest-running JGR car — and it looked like the team still has much work to do in order to meet its standards from the last two years.

“We just don’t have that speed to be first,” Busch told FS1 after the race. “We don’t have that dominant speed to be up there all day.”

Especially, Busch added, to compete with the 78 car. Which is weird, since they’re basically both on the same team.

My favorite theory in explaining this is echoing something Jimmie Johnson noted last year about affiliate teams. The supplier (like JGR) builds chassis and pours all its knowledge and manpower into making them the best it can; but then affiliates like Furniture Row take the car and has its own very smart people put another twist on it.

It’s sort of like taking an A- English paper written by someone else, making a few tweaks and getting an A+ on it.

Still, that has to bug the crap out of JGR — although Furniture Row is doing exactly what it should be.

5. Points picture

The regular season is approaching its halfway point (Kansas was Race No. 11 of 26), so the standings are starting to be a legitimate concern for some drivers.

Stage points have created some big gaps between the drivers who regularly run up front and those who have struggled, and the latter include some big names.

Earnhardt is 25th in the standings, 77 points out of a playoff spot. Matt Kenseth is 18th. Daniel Suarez, who is driving for a team that made the final four last year, is 19th. And 2016 playoff driver Austin Dillon is 22nd.

So while there’s still a long way to go, there’s little margin for error remaining for drivers who are off to slow starts.

News Analysis: Circle K to sponsor Matt Kenseth for six races

What happened: Convenience store Circle K will be the primary sponsor of Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 car for six races this season, beginning with Richmond International Raceway next week.

What it means: Word of an unspecified announcement had prompted speculation that Kenseth, 45, was retiring. The team told reporters who asked that it was not a retirement announcement, but that didn’t prevent rumors from running wild on places like Twitter and Reddit. One blatantly fake news story making the rounds Tuesday even said Carl Edwards was coming back to replace Kenseth. The veteran driver sarcastically took a shot at people who ruined his off-weekend with the retirement talk, saying the fake news story was written by someone in their basement. Just as in politics, NASCAR fans will have to be careful and discerning about trusting news sources now that it’s easier than ever for people to create fake news.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. It’s just a six-race sponsorship, but it’s notable that Circle K had not been a primary sponsor on a car before.

Questions: Even though this wasn’t a retirement announcement, what does the future hold for a driver who is currently the oldest full-time competitor on the circuit? Can JGR get Circle K to expand its sponsorship in the future? Will this prompt Sheetz or Wawa to become primary sponsors of a car?

12 Questions with Daniel Suarez

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Daniel Suarez of Joe Gibbs Racing. I spoke with Suarez at Texas Motor Speedway.

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

I really feel like you need to have some natural ability, but at this point of the sport — in the Xfinity Series and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series — I feel like most of the drivers have the same ability and it all depends on how hard the team and the driver work for every single race.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

It’s hard to answer that question. I’m just trying to make my way into the sport and trying to be successful. Those are great names of the sport and they’re actually names I grew up looking at. For me, it would be very good if, someday, fans of these guys started to support me.

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

For myself, it’s just staying away from family for that long. My family is not in North Carolina or in the United States. And with the schedule we have, it’s difficult to travel every week to Mexico to see my family. That’s maybe one of the toughest parts.

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

Yes. Sure, no problem. Actually, I like that. Just 30 minutes ago, I saw a kid walking from the parking lot and he had a Suarez T-shirt. I stopped and signed his shirt. So I like that a lot.

What was his reaction?

He was scared at the beginning, but he was kind of surprised. I just like doing those kind of things.

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

I really feel like NASCAR has got everything covered pretty well. I don’t know, maybe seven championships for Jimmie Johnson? That’s a pretty big deal. I’m not sure if someone is going to get that done again or (win) five consecutive championships. I grew up watching a lot of that. I feel like it got a lot of coverage — that’s not the right answer to the question — but it’s a pretty big deal for me.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Kyle Busch.

There’s a thing there with you where you’re always asking him for help.

Yeah. There is always something. Everyone on my team has been very good, but Kyle has been very good to me. We’ve spent some good time together. The last couple weeks, we’ve been working out on Tuesdays. That’s been kind of fun, working out with him.

Does he always text you back?

He texts me back, and if for some reason he doesn’t, I call him. (Laughs)

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

I think most of the race car drivers have a good attitude and a good personality. We’re always having fun and enjoying this. We do this every weekend. If you don’t enjoy this and have fun with interviews and stuff, you’re going to get tired of it. So I feel like we are (entertainers), yes.

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

I think (of) respect. I read somewhere this week where drivers are like elephants — we never forget what happened. And that’s very, very true. I still remember every single person who hit me when we were racing go-karts, and I hit them back the next week. So I know who races me clean and I know who races me with respect and I know who races me aggressively all the time — and I race them back the same way.

So have you ever flipped the middle finger?

Uh, yes. I don’t remember who it was last year, but I did it a couple times.

9. You just touched on this a big, but 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?

Yes, that’s what I mean with respect. Sometimes you’re running fifth and you’re slower than the guy in sixth, but he can’t pass you. You have to just try to help him a little bit and maybe next weekend or maybe later in the race, you’re going to be better than that guy and he won’t give you a hard time to get that position. I feel like how you race people is how they’re going to race you.

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

Carlos Slim. He’s a great guy and a good friend. I think my first dinner with him was when I was maybe 17 or 18 years old — I was never so scared. But now we’re good friends.

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

Sometimes just to be more patient. I’m very hard on myself and I push myself very hard, and when the results are not coming together, I just get mad to myself — and that’s not a good thing. Sometimes you just have to move forward instead of getting stuck a little bit. Maybe that’s something I have to improve.

12. The last interview was with Kasey Kahne. He wanted to know how living in North Carolina compares to living in Mexico and how you’ve adjusted.

It’s really different. In the beginning, my first couple years living in the U.S., it was very tough. I didn’t have money, I didn’t have family, I didn’t have friends, I didn’t speak the language. It was tough, but I had a dream in my head, and I wanted to work so hard for it. Luckily, it worked out well.

I think living away from family and everyone you grew up hanging out with and living around, that’s difficult. But you just start again and start making friends. Now in racing, I don’t have a lot of time to be in North Carolina — just a few days a week.

It’s been a big challenge, but right now, honestly, if you asked me, “Daniel, would you move back to Mexico?” I will say no. I prefer to stay in North Carolina, I love North Carolina and hopefully I can bring my family more often.

Do you have a question for the next interview?

As race car drivers, we’re always competing against each other. If a driver that is competitive asks you for advice, would you tell that driver everything, 100 percent? How much are you going to help that driver out to be successful on the racetrack? Because eventually, maybe he can beat you out.

This 12 Questions interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race in June, please consider using my ticket link. Thanks!

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas Motor Speedway race

Five thoughts from Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway:

1. Stop questioning the 48 team for any reason

One of the dumbest NASCAR storylines — which I’ve probably been guilty of buying into several times over the years — is questioning Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Seriously, it’s really, REALLY dumb.

Incredibly, the Johnson/Knaus questions were doubled at Texas, which is extra ridiculous — especially after he got win No. 7 here.

— With only one top-10 heading into the race, had the defending champion lost a step? (OBVIOUSLY NOT, NO. HE NEVER DOES.)

— After spinning out in qualifying and being forced to start in the rear of the field, would Johnson be able to come from the back and win? (DUH, OF COURSE. HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED NASCAR?)

Johnson loves to rub it in his doubters’ faces when he wins, and he should.

“I guess I remembered how to drive, and I guess this team remembered how to do it,” he said in victory lane.

Remember, Johnson was asked at Fontana about his lack of performance so far this season and sounded annoyed.

“Sixteen years, 80 wins and seven championships and people want to question us?” he said then. “I mean, come on.”

Make that 81 wins.

Anyway, I’ve decided to never doubt Johnson and the No. 48 team until A) Johnson retires, B) Knaus retires or C) Johnson goes three years without winning.

Other than that, let’s just all make a pact not to bring up such a silly question again.

2. Short-term vs. long-term gain

Is it better go to for a stage win or get track position for the real win?

That was the dilemma facing the field at the end of Stage 2, when a debris caution presented the opportunity for a strategy play.

Ryan Blaney — who was dominating the race with 148 laps led — decided to stay out and go for the stage win (and a playoff point). He won the stage, but restarted 20th for the final stage as a result. After getting bottled up on the restart and later sliding through his pit, Blaney finished 12th. Obviously, that was a bummer.

On the other hand, Johnson and Kyle Larson used the same strategy as Blaney — and ended up finishing first and second. So it’s not like there was necessarily a right or wrong answer. It’s up to teams what is more important and what the priorities are.

“It’s easy to look back on it and say, ‘Oh, we should have done this, should have done that,’” Blaney said. “But you can’t really change any of that now.

“We thought we had enough time after (Stage) 2 to work our way back up through there. … I thought we made the right call to stay out there and try to win that segment. I’m for that.”

Knaus made a similar argument afterward, saying he was “very confident our car was going to be able to drive back through traffic” but added “you get a big pit in your stomach” after losing the track position.

“All you can do is make a decision and then adjust to the decision you make,” Knaus said.

I’m honestly not sure what the correct play is for future situations, especially since the results were a mixed bag. Either way, I enjoyed the added strategy element, which is just another plus for the stages.

3. Woe is Gibbs

Nearly 20 minutes after the race had ended, pit road had been emptied of the cars and most drivers were probably at the airport already.

But as a cloud of confetti drifted by, Denny Hamlin stood with his hands on his hips, talking to team owner Joe Gibbs, crew chief Mike Wheeler and a couple other team members.

It’s obvious why Hamlin wanted to linger on pit road: Joe Gibbs Racing is struggling so far this year.

“We were a 20th-place car at best most of the day,” Hamlin told me afterward. “I didn’t think any of us were very good.”

Texas was another bad race for JGR. The top finisher was 15th-place Kyle Busch, followed by Matt Kenseth (16th), Daniel Suarez (19th) and Hamlin (25th).

The performance can no longer be brushed off as an early-season fluke; JGR is not meeting its own high standards. And with Hendrick Motorsports finally getting a win, the “What’s wrong with JGR?” questions will only getting louder.

So what now?

“We just work harder,” Hamlin said. “We’re already working hard, but it takes time to get things figured out. We’ve got a new Camry and a lot of new things, and we’re just trying to adjust to it at this point. There’s a lot of different rules we’re trying to adjust to as well.”

4. Finally, a positive for Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t scored a top-10 finish since June 6 at Pocono. That was 10 straight races without a good result.

You could tell it had started to wear on him, even though he was trying to be as optimistic as possible — for both himself and his team.

So a fifth-place finish at Texas was a welcome development for both his points position (he moved from 25th to 20th) and his psyche (he moved from “upside down face” emoji to “grinning face with sweat drop” emoji).

“I was trying not to get frustrated, but you can only take so much,” Earnhardt said afterward.

Texas was both a physical and mental challenge for a driver who had only completed one 500-mile event since returning from his concussion.

His air conditioning blower didn’t work all day, so he had to run with his visor up for the entire race. Afterward, he was more gassed than I’ve seen him in a long time; he chugged portions of two water bottles and cradled the cold, wet towel around his neck like a kid with a blankie.

Earnhardt said it was on “the backside of the top 10” most uncomfortable races he’s had in the car, which is saying a lot considering he’s made 602 Cup starts.

And it was a challenge to stay in the game mentally as well.

“When you don’t do (500-mile races on a regular basis), your mind is not as mentally tough,” he said. “I felt it. This was a tough race for us — physically and mentally. It was good exercise. Hopefully it will help make us stronger.”

5. That’s four twos for the 42

Another day, another top-two finish for Kyle Larson. Larson has finished in the top two in five of the last six races; that’s a win and four second-place results.

“We thought we’d start the year off good,” Larson said. “I don’t think we thought we’d start the year off this good.”

It looks like Larson is going to be a fixture toward the top of the series point standings this season, because he certainly isn’t showing any signs of losing speed.

At this point, it’s clear Chip Ganassi Racing isn’t just having a cute little stretch of good races, where everyone gets excited and then it turns out to be a blip in a long season. No, Ganassi is definitely for real — and so is Larson.

That’s exciting for NASCAR, because there’s a new face contending every week; even more exciting that he’s only 24 years old.

Social Spotlight: ‘Boris’ from Joe Gibbs Racing

This week’s Social Spotlight interview is with Bryan Cook, director of digital and social media for Joe Gibbs Racing. Cook is affectionately known as “Boris” and is the face of all things JGR social media. I spoke with him Thursday at the JGR shop.

What are you doing with this under-construction space at Joe Gibbs Racing?

We’re building a social media studio that’s going to center a lot around video, because those are the two big things that our partners and our fans are really enjoying.

Social media is one of the top three things we hear from partners. Obviously for fans, it’s a continued way to get them connected to the drivers and our team.

My goal is to make them feel like they’re a part of the team. The more we can do that, the more we can have a space that makes it easy to go live on a Facebook or an Instagram or even a Twitter is important. I think it’ll be important, too, because it’ll give us a chance to shoot more cars, it’ll give us a chance to unveil things, to showcase crew members and to have them here. (It’s) kind of a more comfortable setting to either do an interview or get some insight or talk about their job or talk about a car. I think that’s going to be an exciting part about this.

What exactly is the backstory for people calling you “Boris” when your real name is Bryan?

It started my first week on the job. I got on the team plane to go to Talladega — first time going to the track with JGR. Joey Logano was our driver back then, and he was sitting in the row in front of me. When I started, I had a big curly fro and facial hair and I looked a lot like Boris Said.

Joey turned around — and he hadn’t met me before — and he said, “Hey, has anybody ever told you that you look like Boris Said?” I said, “Yeah, actually.” He said, “That’s your new nickname now.” So he like knighted me.

And it’s been actually pretty awesome, because it’s kind of turned into a pen name. I read this book about how to be successful with people and in business, and they always talked about having an artifact. Like (former Secretary of State) Madeline Albright always wore a lapel pin; just something people remembered. I found out that’s kind of what the nickname has turned into. People remember it, it’s funny, I guess it’s endearing. Boris (Said) is a nice guy; I’ve met him a couple times and we’ve done some funny videos together with some stare-offs. So I have to thank Joey for that one — it kind of helped out.

Boris Said, left, and Bryan “Boris” Cook pose together back in Cook’s fro days. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Cook)

I feel like everybody knows you at JGR. You could walk through anywhere and everybody knows exactly who you are and what you do. And you’re really part of the team. Does that help you with your job and make things easier when you approach people to do things?

Yeah, for sure. It’s vital. I always feel like I’m playing the long game. This is my eighth season with the team and I’ve been on the road every year with the team, going to almost every race. It’s been important for them to be comfortable, and of course, trust is the biggest thing. It’s knowing I’m for them, I’m biased for JGR — for making our driver, our team, our owner look good. It’s unashamed about that.

They want me to be excited when we win and disappointed when we lose. It’s important for them to know they can trust me and I have their best interests at heart. And also that I love the sport and love JGR, and I just want to tell a good story that is interesting to the fans, but also puts us in a good light.

It’s at the point now where I do feel like a driver can see me walking around and ask me to help them knock out a video or ask for an idea for how to do something on their own channels. They’re not technically employees — they’re obviously part of the team — but we want to elevate their channels. It’s been really exciting for me to see that development where you start with social media.

When I started, Twitter was really just becoming important. I wouldn’t even say it was vital to a business yet. It was more hobby level. But it was getting there, and Coach (Gibbs) and Dave Alpern, our president, had the foresight to realize we needed somebody in that position starting to catch the tidal wave that was coming. So it was important to kind of have fun with it then, but then over the long run proving myself and showing I was going to do a good job. Those guys now trust me to help them with their own things. So that’s exciting for me.

Let’s get into your general philosophy. I feel like you try to say to the fans, “You’re part of our team.” Does everything you do stem from that philosophy?

To start with my philosophy, I have to start with my background. I fell in love with racing when I was 12 years old. My uncle got me into it. I have kind of a funny story with it, in that I was kind of born with a natural artistic bend. So I started falling in love with racing because of the color and the speed and the excitement.

I know that world of how it feels to be a kid at a track and enamored by everything that’s going on. I always approach the social strategy from that standpoint, from viewing me as a kid: What would I want to see? What did that feel like?

I’m jealous of fans now, especially younger fans, with social media. I would have killed for the opportunity back then to be able to interact and send a drawing in or interact with a driver or crew member or give feedback and see it used in some way on a team’s social media. I would have loved that. So I always approach it like that. I want the person to feel like they’re part of the team as much as I can, and that involves direct interaction as much as I can.

I remember when I was a kid, I wanted to design street cars, and I wrote a letter to one of the car manufacturers and they wrote me back, and I still remember that. I remember how the embossment on the paper felt. So I just try to always keep that in mind when I approach it. That’s sort of a general thing, but it’s very important to have that approach. Because social media changes daily, it feels like — a new update to an app, a new piece of content, every week is a different story. And so I just always have to have that background in mind.

It’s pretty incredible hearing how you got started in the age before social media really took off. Particularly Snapchat — now if you were out there with the artistic skills you have, you would be a hot commodity just for Snapchat stuff alone. And it turned out you were already in a social media job, then Snapchat comes along and it becomes perfect for you in that way.

Maybe it sounds corny, but I really feel like I’m sort of in the zone, like I was meant to be here, you know? Who would have thought you could merge artistic stuff and NASCAR racing? In college, people laughed at me for that. I didn’t hide that I wanted to go that way in art school — that’s what my degree is in — so you can imagine how that comes across. But I think it’s important to find your niche, and I’m really thankful I have. I have to pinch myself; I kind of get chills talking about it now. Snapchat has been fun, to literally see an outlet for drawing in my world is exciting.

As long as we’re on Snapchat, let’s go there for a second. It seems like you try to tell a story chronologically from start to finish on a race day. Is that correct?

On race days, yeah, definitely. I still debate with myself about how to best do it. How much information is too much information versus fun posts versus documenting? But yeah, I definitely try to do a start to finish and look for storylines within the race. I’m not trying to pressure myself to cover everything. You can’t please everyone, but there’s a lot going on, especially with four (Cup) cars and three in Xfinity. It’s giving insight, it’s giving radio communication, and it’s really quality over quantity.

So on a non-race day, let’s say they come to you and say, “Hey Boris, we’re going to be having a car unveil and we want you to cover it.” So you have all sorts of options, and you only have so many hands. You could put something on Periscope, Facebook Live, Snapchat, even Instagram Live now. How do you decide what to cover it with?

I have a feel for which platform is going to spur the most engagement — which one fans expect certain kinds of content on. Twitter would be more news-related, maybe more breaking news. Facebook and especially Snapchat now are more of the fun, insider story behind things. It also depends on the partner as well; they sometimes have a preference for which outlet — either they have more followers on it or feel like it’s better for their business. So that comes into play, too.

I think right now, Facebook is the behemoth that has the engagement and it’s an easy way to store content as well as unveil it. So that typically is going to be the one we go to. I think (Snapchat and Instagram) stories are great, because they let us tell the stories in quick hits. For a car unveil, it’s typically a live hit, and Facebook right now, there’s no real other place to go for the numbers. The other ones are doing well, and they’re exciting, but if you have to choose one — and oftentimes we do, unless we want to use two phones — I’ll go with Facebook.

I tagged along with you to a paint scheme unveil last year at Fort Bragg, and I saw you use a two-pronged thing with a pair of phones on it — both being charged — and you were Periscoping and Facebook Live-ing at the same time. But you feel like overall, Facebook Live is the better platform for you?

I think so. And Facebook is really hands on. It’s an exciting time, because we have people from Facebook that are working with us — which is the first time in my seven or eight years that’s happened. I have to give kudos to Facebook for showing the initiative to do that. I think if other platforms did that, it might be a little bit of a different story.

It’s not all about numbers in social media — of course, people always want big numbers — but to me, it’s about authentic engagement. And that’s why I’m on Snapchat, too. If you think about Twitter and Facebook, the percentage of engagement from your followers is relatively low. On Snapchat, you could be looking at an 80% engagement. I don’t know our follower count, but say we had 10,000. We’re getting 8,000 highly engaged people to watch all the way through a story. That’s more valuable to me than if we got 20,000 on another platform that aren’t actually engaging.

Facebook Live is great because of the comments and the interaction and the ability to really include people in the space they’re not expecting to be.

I’m always sort of torn on what to shoot. Do I want to video? Do I want to snap? Sometimes I get myself in a situation where I’m like, “Dang it, I missed that. I should have done another platform.” When you’re covering something, do you ever get in a situation where you’re second-guessing yourself that you should have done it differently?

Definitely. I’ve kind of figured out a little bit of a process. I typically shoot first in Snapchat, because I know I can download it on the spot and I can (upload) it somewhere else. But then Snapchat, you can’t reverse that into (the app). So I make sure I have that, because it also gives me a chance to cut down on how much I’m shooting. It has a (10-second) window, and I want to make sure I’m getting the good stuff and the high-quality stuff, so it’s helpful for me in a disciplinary way to focus down on, “OK, what’s going to work here?” And then sometimes I’ll just shoot with a regular camera and I know I can put it up elsewhere.

But (Facebook) Lives a lot of times now have to be planned out — in my world at least — and have to be kind of thought through. You ultimately don’t want to embarrass anyone. Everyone on our team, we have great people here and the drivers are pros off the track in their media and their image. So along those lines of trust, you want to make sure they know you’re going live and they understand what the context is so there’s nothing unexpected — as much as you can control.

What’s the pressure like to be the voice of the company? You get all sorts of people tweeting at you and you’re having to answer them, and they might not be in a pleasant mood. Or you may have to deal with haters. How do you deal with people on a daily basis like that?

It’s funny, because I kind of walk on a line. You want to show personality, because this is a sport; it’s fun. I have fun every time I go to the track. And that’s what people want out of sports, I think. So you want to be fun and biased at a level that shows how much a part of this team I am and how much I care about it. And then you also have the wisdom side and the side about not embarrassing anyone. That’s a fun line to walk.

I’ve figured out ways to do that; experience has helped me do that. There’s always an opportunity to engage in fun back-and-forth banter. That’s just a human thing. It goes back to authenticity — understanding this is really about one-on-one interactions with people that are now seen on a broader level. Everything that comes along with that has to be considered.

There’s been some great times with other teams, specifically, where we can have some fun back-and-forth that’s not over the line. I remember with (Richard Childress Racing), for example, we’d have fun back-and-forth in a competitive way just about a pass on the track and things like that. And I love that, because I think fans want that. I remember growing up, my uncle had one driver and one team. He was a big Earnhardt fan, and there was nobody else he wanted to deal with, and he was going to talk trash about Jeff Gordon — who I liked. And that’s part of our sport, so you don’t want to lose that.

But as far as being a voice, the great part about this company is it’s a family-run deal, and it feels like a small team even though we have a lot of employees here. At this point, I have a pretty good feel for how Coach likes to be represented. That’s always my first thought: I want to represent Coach Gibbs and our drivers and our team as a whole in the right way and the way he would want to be represented — not about my personality, but about what his would be.

So I keep that in mind, and I double-check and re-read everything, and I think, “What would this person think?” and “What would that person think?” It can be exhausting, but the payoff is big, and if things go bad, it could be really bad. There’s a lot of pressure and you make mistakes, but we have a good team here, so I figured it out.

Is it always just you? Do you have helpers or assistants or anything like that? If somebody tweets, is it always you who tweets back?

Not anymore. Within the last year, because of all these platforms we’ve already talked about, it’s almost humanly impossible. So we have one person, Stacie (Fandel), who helps with Twitter and getting things up and getting posts scheduled. And then we have a girl named Amanda (Godwin) and Evan (Wahl) and we have an intern named Sarah (Traylor) that help out. We work on the creative and work together on brainstorms and make videos and all that. They always joke with me that it’s kind of like everybody thinks there’s just one person — Boris. I don’t know if you watch The Walking Dead, but there’s a character Negan, and his whole group all goes by the name Negan. I’m not quite that egotistical — I hope. But they always joke with me about that.

Within the first six or so years, it was a lot of a one-man band — and that was a lot (to handle). But I loved it, and I still do, but it just got to the point where we needed a team. And I have a good one.

How many races do you end up going to per year?

Right now, I’m scheduled to go to all of them.

So you never get off-weekends?

It’s tough to get an off-weekend. This weekend in Martinsville, I’ll get Saturday off. I’m just going Cup day, so that’s good. But they’re good about giving me my Thursday and Friday off, or the two days I need to find here and there, depending on what the race schedule is. The West Coast Swing is always a tough one, as it is for anybody in the industry. But there’s a lot of great stuff there — like we covered the car swapping, which is an insider look that a lot of people don’t see. So it’s worth it, but it’s definitely a whirlwind schedule.

I know you have help now and you do get some off-days, but it’s still such a demanding job and it has to be overwhelming at times. What’s your secret to making it through the season where you can enough time for yourself and be rested?

I don’t do much with my personal social media channels. It gets to the point where I’m creatively spent by the time I’m home and relaxed. So I’m not on my phone as much once I get home, and that’s pretty important for me. You have to be able to turn it off, and I think I can.

In our industry with news breaking all the time, it’s hard. I have the people who are important on my contact list on the special tone when I get an email from them, so I know I’m not going to miss that.

But for me, it’s just getting away from a screen is the most important part. It’s hard, because I really love the sport and so if I wasn’t working in it, I’d still be following it. Becoming a little less emotionally attached to it is the key, I think. And not too far (away), but just to where you’re not draining yourself is important.

The last thing I’d like to ask is about your amazing art and some of the creations you make. Let’s say you’re going to post something on Snapchat — some really cool snap with a drawing on there. How long does that take you to do, and how exactly do you do that?

It varies. I’ve learned to not bite off more than I can chew. I remember for the playoffs a couple years ago, NASCAR had me draw the four finalists in kind of a Snapchat portrait, and that’s the longest one I’ve done. The whole time, I’m just praying Snapchat wouldn’t crash while I’m in the middle of a portrait. That one took at least 40 minutes per drawing — I think one of them took almost an hour. And one of them was Kyle Busch, which I felt the extra pressure of not messing up, because I knew I’d have to see him later. But I haven’t done anything quite like that since.

It’s kind of a daunting task. Right now, I lean toward fun. I don’t try to be a perfectionist on Snapchat. I’ve seen a lot of artists where they’re like chiseled in their drawings. I don’t know how they do it. I’ve decided to start using a stylus. It’s a little easier on the fingers.

I like to enhance the photo I’m taking. If I’m on the shop floor, it’s fun to draw a character down there. Or I’ve been doing these things where I turn our race cars into Cars characters and put the eyeballs on them. So things like that that are simple and I know I can knock out pretty quickly.

In my world, there’s so much content and so many buckets to fill, it’s hard to not be discouraged, because you feel like you could always be putting something up — but it’s not realistic. So when I’m drawing, I just have a good feel for how long something is going to take, so I just try to temper that and keep it in that window.

Bryan “Boris” Cook is the director of digital and social media for Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Cook)

The Top Five: Breaking down the Fontana race

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Today: Fontana.

Larson no loser

Holy crap, how impressive is Kyle Larson lately?

Sunday really felt like the first of many wins for Larson this season. He’s already the breakout driver of 2017, with finishes of second, second, second and first in the four non-plate races.

You can credit faster cars at Chip Ganassi Racing — and of course, that’s a major part of it — but Larson also isn’t making the type of mistakes that took him out of races earlier in his career. Remember when it seemed like he’d hit the wall at some point every time he had a good car?

Not anymore.

He also seems more willing to try different lines instead of being so committed to the running the wall. Larson made some awesome moves by hooking the bottom of the track during Sunday’s race, and that paid off in a big way at times.

So, about that new package…

I’m officially concerned about the effectiveness of the low-low downforce package.

NASCAR got lucky with late drama at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix that covered up ho-hum races. But Fontana — which got a 90% approval rating in the “Was it a good race?” Twitter poll last year — had expectations to break that trend and provide a great show from start to finish.

Unfortunately, much of the race was rather tame again until Gray Gaulding crashed with 20 laps to go. Then, much like the other non-plate races, a chaotic finish erased all thoughts of the earlier lack of action.

But that trend can’t continue all season. NASCAR wants the action to be compelling throughout the day, lest races turn into the NBA cliche, where only the last five minutes matters.

The new aero package test isn’t passing the eye test as far as compelling races. Why? I don’t know the answer, but I’d like to hear some theories.

Clint Bowyer’s extra effort

In a Saturday roundtable interview with reporters, Bowyer said he had a long phone call with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz on Friday night — something he didn’t typically do in the past.

Then, after finishing third on Sunday, Bowyer revealed he drove to Bugarewicz’s hotel room on Saturday night to pore over data and try to find ideas to fix the car, which didn’t look great in practice.

“I’ve never went to a crew chief’s hotel room,” Bowyer said. “Never done that before.”

It’s clear this opportunity really matters to Bowyer — as it should. At 37, this might be his last, best chance to resurrect his career and get back to the championship-contending driver he’s capable of being.

He’s on the right path. Sunday was his best finish at an intermediate track since July 2013 in Kentucky.  Bowyer now can head to Martinsville — one of his favorite venues — with confidence and momentum.

Weird stats after five races

Two Chevrolet drivers have won races this season — and neither are from Hendrick Motorsports.

The one Toyota winner so far isn’t from Joe Gibbs Racing. And the winner from Stewart-Haas Racing isn’t Kevin Harvick.

So yeah, if you thought Richard Childress Racing would have more wins than Hendrick and Gibbs combined after five races? Well, you’re just lying.

It’s been an odd start to the year. There have been five different winners, but six of the eight active multi-race winners from last season have yet to reach victory lane. That’s a big zero for Jimmie Johnson, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.

Yes, it’s still early, but the regular season is also roughly one-fifth complete. So how much longer is this going to last?

Painful commercials

I was proud of myself for not getting too aggravated with the commercials during Sunday’s race — the first I’d watched from home this season.

They didn’t seem to be as bad as usual. But naturally, I couldn’t make it the whole time without getting irritated.

It remains absolutely maddening to see tweets about a great battle for the lead while we at home are staring at a commercial listing the side effects for a drug named Symbicort.

By the way, some of those side effects include headaches, changes in your voice, mood changes and shaking — which coincidentally also describe the effects on me when there are too many commercials during green-flag racing.

Honestly, NOTHING about the current state of NASCAR makes me angrier or more frustrated than the commercials. It’s no wonder TV ratings are in the toilet.

No other major sport disrespects its fans like this. Even soccer figures out a way to show games — including World Cup games! — without commercial interruption (except for halftime). Most sports fans wouldn’t tolerate a broadcaster cutting away from live game action, but for some reason, NASCAR fans are just expected to shut up and deal with it.

If the TV networks need money that badly, give us a pay-per-view option with an ad-free broadcast. Would you pay $10 for a race with no ads? Personally, I would.