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.

News Analysis: Joey Logano’s win at Richmond ruled encumbered

What happened: NASCAR discovered a major infraction on Joey Logano’s  winning car during post-Richmond inspection at its Research and Development Center, resulting in a huge penalty for the No. 22 team. Logano’s victory was ruled “encumbered,” which means he cannot use it to qualify for the NASCAR playoffs this fall, nor does he get the five playoff points for it. In addition, Logano was docked 25 regular season points and crew chief Todd Gordon was suspended for two races and fined $50,000.

What it means: This is the first time since the “encumbered” term entered the NASCAR lingo last fall that it’s really had playoff implications. This will be a key moment if Logano somehow misses the playoffs (unlikely) or turns out to need those five playoff points sometime this fall (more likely). Logano still gets the trophy and is the official winner of the race, just without the playoff benefits.

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. This is pretty big, but you know what would be bigger? If NASCAR did the right thing and actually stripped the win entirely. Why should an illegal car still be allowed to keep the win? I’ll never truly understand that.

Questions: How much longer can NASCAR refuse to take the win away, especially when the race winner’s car is illegal enough for this severe of penalty? Is there any chance Logano’s championship hopes will be affected by this, or will he just shrug it off? Did NASCAR officials find this by chance, or were they looking for it?

This is a screenshot from the NASCAR rulebook. NASCAR said Logano’s team violated No. 6 on the list above. (From NASCAR rulebook)

The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway…

1. Back it down, Joey

Joey Logano won on a day when he had to start in the back, and the performance was helped by some gentle reminders from crew chief Todd Gordon.

Gordon began the day by texting Logano at 9 a.m., telling him to run 80 percent. The crew chief then repeated it in their pre-race meeting: Go 80 percent, go 80 percent.

Why? Because with Logano starting in the back of the 38-car field due to a transmission change (the team discovered debris in the transmission on Saturday), Gordon knew his driver might try to go all-out in getting back to the front; and that probably wouldn’t be a good thing at a place where tires and equipment seem to get used up.

Logano turned to Penske executive Walt Czarnecki and said, “You pay me to run 100 percent.”

“Today will be a little different,” Czarnecki replied.

As it turned out, Logano listened to Gordon — albeit reluctantly.

“I did (listen),” Logano said afterward with a brief tone of disappointment. “I hate it, too. I am not wired that way. I’m a balls to the wall type of guy, all the time. That’s what’s proven to be successful at certain racetracks.”

But not Richmond. Running consistent, smooth times and saving his stuff allowed him to get in position for Todd Gordon’s strategy gamble, which put Logano off sequence from the rest of the field (along with Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, who ultimately finished second).

Logano said his mindset changed at the end of the race (“Take that 80 percent thing and throw it out the window”), but it helped put him in position to overcome a bad starting spot on a day when he didn’t have the fastest car.

The best drivers and teams end up winning on days when they aren’t supposed to, and that was Logano on Sunday.

2. Why not Logano?

It’s interesting Joey Logano won the first race after Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement, because it comes at a time when many in the NASCAR world are talking about the next face of the sport.

Names like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson keep popping up, but Logano would be a good candidate if fans gave him a chance. After all, he’s only 26 years old — two years older than Larson.

I know I just lost most of the people reading this story, so you probably won’t even see the rest of this item. In that case, I guess it’s OK to tell you I am secretly a CIA spy pretending to be a NASCAR journalist and my real job is to gather intelligence on everyone who tweets questions to Bob Pockrass.

But for those of you still with me, I’m serious: Logano would seem to check a lot of boxes for fans looking for a new driver. He wins a lot (18 career wins, including 15 in the last four seasons), is a very aggressive racer (one reason some fans dislike him) and is one of NASCAR’s nicest guys off the track.

The silver-spoon stigma has hurt him, though, along with the amount of times he’s clashed with popular drivers. So Logano might end up going through his career hearing loud boos instead of cheers, which seems like a huge missed opportunity for both fans and NASCAR.

I mean, even Brian France’s six-year-old son, Luke, picked Logano as his favorite driver. Although I guess that’s another reason for some people not to root for him, so forget I mentioned that part (along with the whole CIA spy thing, please).

3. Dale Jr.’s secret pet?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. often shows animals on his social media accounts, including his dogs and pet bison.

What he’s apparently not been showing is the black cat that surely walks in front of his path every day.

How else to explain the rotten luck he’s had in the first nine races?

“This luck this year is just awful,” he said after finishing 30th. “I don’t know what else we need to do. We’re just out there taking care of ourselves and running along, and something always seems to bite us.”

This time, it was his friend and teammate Jimmie Johnson — of all people! — who came out of nowhere to take him out with 42 laps to go.

Johnson obviously felt terrible and said he had no idea Earnhardt was outside him when he came off the corner and bashed the 88 car into the wall.

“I just have to try to figure out if I just didn’t hear it being told to me (from spotter Earl Barban) or if it wasn’t told to me,” Johnson said. “I’m surprised our cars even kept rolling after that because I just body-slammed him into the wall and I could have easily not heard the ‘clear’ or something else happened.”

Immediately after saying that, Johnson went down pit road to find Earnhardt and the two talked for a couple minutes before Johnson huddled with Barban to go over what happened.

Either way, though, it’s just another weird incident to add to Earnhardt’s list this year. As a result, he’s now 24th in the point standings — 60 points out of a playoff spot.

But Earnhardt said he’s not even looking at points for now.

“We’re sitting so far back, we’ve just got to get this thing to where we can finish,” he said. “I’m just going to concentrate on getting about five or six races put together in a row, top-15s, and see what the points look like after that.”

Clearly, though, the 88 team has work to do. As was the case last week at Bristol, Earnhardt wasn’t going to have an amazing finish even before the incident. Things have to turn around at some point, right?

“Racing’s more frustrating than it is joy,” he said. “But the joy is worth hanging around for.”

4. Commitment issues

The commitment box rule nailed six different drivers, including Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer. Each of them expressed disagreement with the call (“They have the wrong guy,” Busch said after being told of the penalty) and Danica Patrick accused NASCAR of not being clear enough about the rule in the drivers meeting after she was penalized.

Unfortunately for those drivers, it’s a black and white — or orange — issue. The drivers meeting video clearly said to have all four tires below the orange box (not on, but completely below) and then NASCAR’s Richard Buck echoed the rule after the video played.

It might be dumb to have a driver lose a race that way, but NASCAR has to set the line somewhere, right? If a football player is out of bounds by a toe, he’s still out of bounds.

Anyway, the rule especially stunk for Busch, who was behind Logano entering pit road and probably couldn’t see the box at all. Some people wondered if Logano purposefully tried to get close to the box in hopes Busch would follow, but nah.

“There was no strategy behind it, just a late call to pit,” Logano said. “It’s a very late call that Todd said, ‘Pit,’ and I said, ‘OK,’ and I took a hard left and was able to get down. But when you’re the trailing car, you’re looking at a rear spoiler so you’re not 100 percent sure where that box is. It’s a tough situation.”

Busch felt he was inside Logano’s line, but if he was, it wasn’t enough.

The whole situation might be unfortunate for the drivers who got caught, but there’s really no arguing it.

5. Kinder, gentler BZF?

The last time NASCAR reporters got a chance to speak with Brian France at a racetrack, the NASCAR chairman and CEO was combative, defensive and defiant in his answers. That was at Homestead last season.

He answered some sponsor-related questions at a December news conference in Las Vegas introducing Monster Energy, then opened the stage format news conference in January with a few remarks before quickly ducking out.

Other than that, France hadn’t spoken to reporters at any race this season — including Daytona.

So it was quite a surprise, then, when word suddenly trickled in following the drivers meeting that France wanted to come in and address the media at Richmond.

In the wake of Earnhardt’s retirement announcement, there wasn’t really anything newsworthy to come out of his remarks; France basically said all sports go in cycles when it comes to stars and NASCAR will be just fine with the next generation.

But it was notable France was there in the first place. Under the direction of new NASCAR communications chief Eric Nyquist, NASCAR officials seem to be taking a softer approach to the media this year. So far, putting media on blast — even for critical stories — has been much less prevalent (or at least from what I’ve seen), which is a nice change.

France looked comfortable in stating his opinions Sunday, with son Luke at his side. He even took a moment to thank reporters for being there — which is at least a gesture to potentially thaw a frosty relationship with the media.

“I want to thank you guys and gals,” he said. “This is a tough sport to cover. It’s multiple days away (from home), it’s not one game. It’s a lot of work to cover this sport. I know…our entire team thanks each and every one of you for helping tell the NASCAR story. Thank you.”

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.

 

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.

More from Joey Logano on the Las Vegas fight

In case you can’t get enough of this topic, Joey Logano came into the Phoenix Raceway media center Friday afternoon for a scheduled session. Naturally, most of the questions were about the fight.

Here are some of the highlights:

— On what he and Busch discussed during their Friday morning meeting with NASCAR: “I told him that we obviously made contact on the back straightaway. I had a not-very-good entry and had to slow down the car a lot to stay on the bottom and tried to make up some of that speed at the bottom of the racetrack and then I got loose. Once you get loose once, then I was on his door. You get loose again and at that point that was it. That is my mistake.

“The fact of the matter is I tried to stay on the bottom, I made a mistake and got up into him. I hate that it happened. I would take it back in a heartbeat. He asked for data when we talked on the phone (during the week) and I was able to bring that with me and present that and try to explain what was going on inside my race car.”

— On whether he got through to Busch: “Time will tell. I guess your actions on the racetrack are what speaks the loudest a lot of times. I believe so. I tried to be as open and honest and be an open book. There are no secrets. Hopefully that helped.”

— On whether it was intentional: “We were racing to the checkered flag and I have no reason to do anything on purpose for fourth place. That makes no sense. We were racing hard for position and the car got loose.”

— On whether he’s OK with Busch not being penalized “Of course. I don’t see where there should have been a fine for anything. I didn’t see anything wrong.”

— On his insistence he didn’t get punched in the face: “I have ninja moves man! I slipped. … I can say that I didn’t feel anything (if Busch did connect). It sure didn’t hurt.”

As for Busch’s side of all this? Well, so far all we’ve gotten is “Everything is great!”

Things we learned from NASCAR meeting with Kyle Busch, Joey Logano

Kyle Busch and Joey Logano met briefly in the NASCAR hauler prior to practice Friday at Phoenix International Raceway. Each driver emerged separately — followed by NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell.

Here’s one thing we learned from each participant:

O’DONNELL

Drivers can get physical on pit road, but they’d better not use their cars to settle any beefs.

“We’re very clear that we’re not going to allow a car to be used as a weapon,” O’Donnell said. “We didn’t see that in this case. We looked at this as good, hard racing. That’s when we will react — if there’s an intentional something that happens on the racetrack, we’ll have to react.”

LOGANO

The Team Penske driver brought data from the car with him — something he said Busch asked for — as evidence he didn’t do it on purpose (data could include steering inputs, for example).

“I was able to show him that and it was pretty clear, in my opinion, what happened,” Logano said. ” I hope he was able to see that and know I was sincere about it.

“The only thing I can do at this point was to plead my case and say, ‘Hey, it was an honest mistake, it was hard racing at the end.'”

Logano said it “always helps to talk face-to-face” — something he didn’t do in the past, notably with Matt Kenseth prior to the veteran taking revenge on him at Martinsville.

BUSCH

Everything is great.

“Everything is great,” Busch said. “Everything is great. … Everything is great. … Everything is great.”