The Top Five: Breaking down the Brickyard 400

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway…

1. Saving Kahne

A few hours before the race, Rick Hendrick sat in the media center for a news conference and deflected questions about Kasey Kahne’s future. It wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence for the driver of the No. 5 car.

A potential replacement for Kahne — William Byron — had kissed the bricks a day earlier. Kahne, meanwhile, hadn’t won in nearly three years and entered Sunday 22nd in the series standings. His future didn’t exactly seem bright.

But after catching a lucky break on pit road and inheriting the race lead, Kahne found himself racing for his career — and delivered.

By excelling on two key restarts — one in which he held it wide open in the middle of a three-wide battle with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski; another in which he out-dueled race leader Keselowski in overtime — Kahne reminded everyone of his talent.

After all, the guy has now won 18 career Cup races (ninth among active drivers), so that ability is there somewhere. It’s just been buried under a lack of confidence in himself and his team, a snowball effect that’s only gotten worse in the last couple years.

There’s no doubt he’s been mired in a terrible situation and could use a change of scenery despite having a contract through next season. But where could he land if he does part ways with Hendrick?

Well, winning the Brickyard and getting himself into the playoffs will do wonders for his prospects. He remains a popular driver despite his struggles, and now he won’t be an afterthought when it comes to top candidates to fill an open seat.

2. Follow the rules

NASCAR has an overtime rule, the point of which is to try and give fans a finish under green. But it appeared officials basically used the rule to make sure the race finished under yellow — and thus ended — on Sunday.

That’s the second time in a month this has happened, and it’s a disturbing trend in my view.

Darkness was quickly falling and there had been multiple big wrecks and long red flags. So when Denny Hamlin and others crashed on the backstretch, NASCAR waited to put out the caution until Kahne had crossed the overtime line (thus making it an official attempt).

Here’s a picture of what I’m talking about:

In this screenshot, you can see the wreck has started to take place (actually for a couple seconds at this point) and there’s still quite a ways before Kahne reaches the overtime line (the white line at the bottom).

NASCAR could have called a caution there, but they would have had to clean the track and might not have gotten the race restarted before it got dark (maybe, maybe not). So Kahne might have won anyway.

But here’s the thing: That’s not the rule! Whether it was dark or not shouldn’t have mattered at all. If it was dark, then let THAT end the race (like a rain-shortened event) instead of using the overtime line to do it.

NASCAR’s explanation for not calling the caution is it officiates the end of the race differently in hopes of getting a finish. That logic doesn’t hold, though, because it wasn’t the end of the race.

If it was the white flag lap, then sure. I get it and we’ve seen that plenty of times. But just like in the Daytona Xfinity race (where there was pressure to get it over with and move on with a doubleheader race day), the overtime line shouldn’t be used as an out.

At this point, I’ve come full circle and given up on any kind of overtime rule. Just forget the whole thing and go back to finishing races at the scheduled distance if the rule isn’t going to be used as intended.

3. Rowdy restart

Much ado was made of the restart when Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. collided while racing for the lead, moments after Busch had nixed a deal the drivers had kept all race.

Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn were miffed Busch wanted to race for it after Truex had played the good Toyota teammate in the first two segments. That may have played into how hard Truex raced Busch into the corner, but it was also likely because both drivers knew it might have been their final chance to get the lead (even though there was still more than one-quarter of the race remaining).

For that very reason, Busch didn’t even want to wait until the restart in question. On the prior caution (the break after Stage 2), he was in the midst of a conversation with crew chief Adam Stevens about what to do when NBC suddenly interrupted to talk to Stevens. The driver and crew chief never had a chance to address the issue again until the next restart — when Busch called off the agreement.

So even though scrapping the deal ultimately resulted in a crash, Busch shook his head when I asked if he had any regrets.

 

“Dude, hindsight is 20/20,” Busch said. “Do I regret it? No, because you race for the win. You’re supposed to race hard. If I would have done the (deal), he gets a three-second gap on me…he wins the race (and) I’m going to be thinking about it then, right? So you do what you’ve gotta do.”

4. Matt D. does it again

Did you notice? Matt DiBenedetto, who is sort of the ultimate underdog with his GoFAS Racing No. 32 car, scored an eighth-place finish after surviving all the insanity on Sunday.

Incredibly, DiBenedetto is one of four drivers — Kahne, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger are the others — to score top-10 finishes in both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 this year.

“My crew chief, Gene Nead, always tells me before every race: ‘Stand on the gas and hope for the best,'” DiBenedetto said. “That’s pretty much what I did today. Just hoped we were in the right position, hoped it was our day and it was our day. That was pretty intense.”

DiBenedetto said he didn’t simply survive the race and cruise to a finish. He got “clobbered” in Turn 3 at one point — he didn’t even know who — and “made the greatest save of my life.”

Not bad for a team with only 15 employees.

5. Late start

I’m going to be totally honest with you: I was on the verge of tears at one point during the rain delay on Sunday.

Spending my own money to get to races this year has really provided some additional perspective on what fans who travel from out of state go through each weekend.

Back when I was at USA Today, a rained-out race meant a lost day at home (which sucked). But at least I didn’t have to spend my own money to pay an airline change fee or extra day of rental car/hotel/etc. That was on the company’s dime.

Now, though, that money is coming out of my pocket. And though my amazing supporters through Patreon have put me in a great position to get to races this season, spending extra money just isn’t in the budget. So I’m pretty sure I would have had to go home instead of changing my flight to attend a postponed race.

Because of that, it was incredibly frustrating when there was no rain at 1 p.m. (when NASCAR races traditionally start) and the skies were dry until 3 p.m. NASCAR could have gotten a couple stages in during that time, which would have meant an official race.

And while a shortened race wouldn’t have been ideal, it would have been a lot better for fans who spent their hard-earned money to travel there without flexibility in their plans.

Luckily for everyone, the race eventually finished on Sunday. But there was about an hour there where another big storm cell had formed and was heading right for the track — and if it had hit, that would have meant a Monday race. I was seriously sweating that scenario.

At some point, NASCAR isn’t going to be so fortunate. A late start time in the name of better TV ratings will force a postponement when the race could have gotten in had it started earlier — and a lot of fans will have to either eat their tickets or spend money to change their plans.

And when that happens, they’ll have every right to be pissed.

Social Spotlight with Matt DiBenedetto

Each week, I’m asking someone from the racing industry about their social media use in a feature called the Social Spotlight. Up next: Matt DiBenedetto from GoFas Racing, who is in the midst of a campaign to get voted into Saturday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race.

Ever since you’ve opened up your Snapchat account to the public (username: mattdracing), I’ve seen a whole new side of you. What kind of reaction have you gotten so far since you opened that?

I didn’t expect it to blow up quite as much as it has. Every race so far, after I opened my Snapchat account to being public, I’ve gotten tons of people who are like, “Oh my gosh, your wife’s gonna kill you one day. That’s so hilarious.” So it’s been cool. It’s getting like thousands of views.

No kidding? That’s crazy. I’ve been on Snapchat for quite a long time and I don’t have anything close to those numbers. So why did you decide to open it after being private for a while?

I was already like famous amongst my friends for my Snapchats, you know, pranking people and torturing my wife (Taylor) and all that crazy nonsense that I get into. But all my friends were like, “Dude, the fans would love this stuff. It’s hilarious.” And so I was like, “You know what, I think I need to do it and post on my story. It’ll be fun to share with everybody.”

And man, it’s gone damn near viral amongst the fans. They think it’s hilarious. Even Dale Jr. tweeted about it because I’m friends with him on Snapchat and I’ll send him some stuff and he’s like, “You wanna see someone who pranks his wife and funny stuff, all of that?” So that’s been good.

You sing in the car on Snapchat, you definitely prank a lot of people. Last week, you were using an air horn to prank your wife and things like that. Do people not ever get mad at you? Are they just like, “That’s Matt,” and they just laugh? Surely people must sometimes be like, “You jerk!”

I’m just annoying and people are just kind of OK with it at this point. (Laughs) Yeah, my wife’s a good sport — I don’t know why she tolerates me. If I was in her shoes, there’s no way that I would.

Actually, her and my neighbors did try to get me back and scare me with a firecracker the other day, so she’s on it. Her prank game just isn’t quite on my level yet, but I think she’s gonna start learning — or is gonna have to learn pretty soon.

Do you have your messages open, where random people can send you stuff? Or are you not at that point yet?

I don’t think so. I don’t know how that works quite yet, so no, right now I think I just have it to where it’s public and everybody can go and view my stuff that I put on my story.

The more you get into the public eye, the more your life becomes public. How do you decide how much you want to share with the fans and people like that out there?

I think it’s just fun that we have the ability to share our lives with all those folks. That’s what it’s about. Racing and being able to do what we do for a living isn’t in any way possible without the fans — really, we’re nothing without them — so it’s a privilege for me be able to share all that stuff and share my life with them because they’re the ones that make it possible for all of us to be doing that. I’ll definitely never forget that, and I hope none of the other drivers or anybody else ever forgets that either because that’s what it’s about.

I would never be rude to a fan or anybody — I treat everybody with respect and I appreciate them because they’ve allowed me to be here and I’ve gotten a good following from all of them. Whether they know it or not, they’ve been a big part of why I’ve gotten to where I am now, because all the fans have given me a ton of support and that’s important. That’s attractive to race teams; they know I’m personable and fans like me, which is great. I’ve been fortunate enough to have that. So I have fun with it.

You’ve been active in the Reddit world where there’s a lot of fans and a lot of people who support you. What’s that experience been like when you log onto Reddit?

Dude, those people are passionate. It’s really cool. It’s fun being part of their community. It started a long time ago when I wore one of the old Dogecoin shirts with Reddit on it and stuff. It was a Reddit-backed effort, and I thought it was neat, so I kind of jumped on it and I was wearing the shirt and then it kind of went viral amongst the community.

I’ve gotten a lot more active just because, for one, it’s fun and it’s kind of addicting. Those people are so passionate and they really are intelligent — they know a lot about (NASCAR). Heck, they know more about racing and what’s going on than I do! (Laughs) I learn a lot of stuff on there.

So it’s been cool with just how knowledgable they are, how funny some of the stuff is in there. In the comments, the stuff they come up with is absolutely comical, so it’s been fun to see how supportive those guys are. Every race I go to, I meet tons of people (from Reddit), and that’s a good bit of my following, which is cool.

I feel like you’ve genuinely embraced it. Sometimes I’ll be looking at a thread and be like, “Well, Matt just weighed in on that.” It wasn’t necessarily something about you and you weren’t specifically called to it; you just were clearly looking through the comments and decided to chime in. So you’re trying to be part of the community and not just when it’s about you.

Yeah, I just have fun surfing through there. There’s always interesting threads and reads on there, so I just kind of scroll through it like I would any other form of social media. I enjoy looking at the stuff people say. Some of it is really funny, but some of it is interesting. So yeah, I just go through there, comment, chit-chat with people, and start some threads every once in a while.

(A couple weeks ago) I picked up my new Can-Am Maverick X3, so I shared the thread on there with everybody so they could all see it. It’s been fun.

As we record this in Talladega, the All Star Race voting is not open at this moment (Note: It’s obviously open now). But when it does open, it’s going to be a short amount of time. Maybe that will help, because your fans will be able to mobilize for you and get you into the race.

Yeah, we’re lucky to have all their support. And Reddit, specifically, they have some really cool ideas on there, you know, things we can do and they’ve talked about wrapping a race car in a Reddit paint scheme if we get voted in.

So I took that idea and said, “Hey, maybe so.” We talked to the team and they were OK with it, so we got the approval on that. So we’re gonna get back to them and hopefully wait on the voting to open up.

But hopefully, we can lean on all those folks from all sorts of different social media outlets and all the fans. I think they understand our situation, that we’re a small team, and they really back it and support us a lot. It’s pretty overwhelming.

Did you ever get any sense of how close the voting was last year?

Yeah, it almost ate at me because of how close I learned it was. I think if Chase Elliott raced his way in, we would have gotten that second fan vote. So we were right on the border. It was very close. So it was cool for all those people who voted to get us that close.

You know, those people (like Elliott) drive for powerhouse teams, so it’s a lot easier for them to get a huge following and to get voted in with all the backing and support that they have and driving for a big team, while I’m a little guy. For us to get that close was pretty neat, so I feel like we can do it this year with everyone’s support.

Let’s talk about Twitter. That’s another form of social media, and you’re on there as well. How often do you use your Twitter account?

Every day, and I’ve searched through there, same deal. So every day, I try to interact with the fans, share all the funny stuff. Actually Ryan Ellis, my PR guy, got a good picture of me on the airplane that he shared on social media this morning of me passed out saying I was revved up and excited for the weekend. (Laughs) But yeah, I use Twitter a lot, probably as much as anything.

Is it something where you’re using it to stay in touch with what’s going on in the sport? What’s your primary reason for being on there?

I think there’s different groups of fans in each social media outlet. You know, one may fit some fans over others. So I try to cover them all so I can engage with all the different groups of people and fans. I don’t know if I have a preference on any of them; they’re all so different and they all have different groups of folks within each community. So I like to reach out to all of them.

You use Facebook and Instagram as well?

Yep! Both of them. So I’m trying to figure out which one I’m on the most. I’ve been hopping on Reddit a lot lately just because it’s kind of addicting. I’m probably on Twitter the most because I have the most followers on there, but I like Facebook for how easy the engagement is — you know, doing a Facebook Live and such. Instagram I’ve been getting into more. So I feel like I cover them all fairly evenly. I try not to focus on one and forget about the others.

What happens when you come across a hater or somebody that’s trying to get a reaction out of you, somebody trolling you? Do you ever use the block button?

No. I make fun of myself probably more than anybody could make fun of me, so if I get something like that, I usually roll with it or just make fun of myself some more, you know?

I have a theory in life: when somebody makes fun of you or tries to pick at you and make you mad, if you in turn make fun of yourself back to them, what do they do? There’s no response. I’ve done that to people who have made comments or have tried to make me mad, and I say something to make fun of myself and they’ll just sit there dumbfounded. They’re like, “Oh…what do I say now? That kind of backfired.” That’s usually my tactic.

That’s a good point. It sounds like in general, you find a lot of the positive sides of social media. It can be very negative at times, but it sounds like you have good experiences for the most part there.

Yeah, all good, really. You just have to be really careful in today’s world about what you say, and I like to be a pretty open book and share my personal life. You know, I don’t want my stuff to be really boring, straightforward and everything about, “OK, we finished here today in my Can-Am No. 32 Ford Fusion.”

Obviously, I want to share my performance and how we’re doing from the team side, but I like to give everyone a more in-depth look of, “OK, I actually own a Can-Am vehicle. I grew up riding, and that’s how I got into racing.” Or from the team side, just showing how hard they work behind the scenes. (Or) what I do during the week at home, my personal life, like going to the gym. Stuff like that, that’s more interesting and that’s the stuff I like sharing with people, so I try to use it as an all positive thing.

With being so open, I have to be careful a little bit about what you say, but I feel like I live a pretty basic lifestyle; I don’t do anything that would get me in trouble, so I’m pretty normal.

Except for blowing airhorns at people.

(Laughs) Yeah, OK. I should be careful when I say “pretty normal.” My friends and my wife probably wouldn’t agree with me on that. She’s sitting right by us…

She’s shaking her head right now.

Yeah, she knows better.

This interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race next month, please consider using my ticket link.

The Top Five: Breakdown of the Daytona 500

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Next up: the Daytona 500.

Stars align for Kurt Busch, Monster and Stewart-Haas

Kurt Busch’s Daytona 500 victory was one of those things that just sort of makes sense in a head-shaking way.

Busch had never even won a restrictor-plate race and was 0-for-63 at Daytona and Talladega entering Sunday. Yet in Monster Energy’s first race as Cup Series sponsor, the car carrying the Monster logo ended up in victory lane.

Perfect!

It was also the first race without Tony Stewart as a full-time driver — and he went to the winner’s circle as a car owner after never winning the 500 himself.

Naturally!

Plus, the win came during a turbulent time for Stewart-Haas Racing — a move to Ford this season with uncertain results ahead, trouble finding sponsorship for two drivers and a lawsuit against a now-former sponsor.

Great timing!

It was only two years ago that Busch was suspended for an alleged domestic violence incident, forcing him to miss the 500. Since then, the woman who accused him was indicted for stealing from the charity she ran and Busch got married in the offseason to his new wife, Ashley Van Metre.

There always seems to be an answer for Busch, a comeback around the corner, a second chance, another shot.

Just look no further than this Speedweeks. It began with headlines about Busch getting sued by his former agent and ended with Busch earning NASCAR’s greatest prize.

Of course!

Drivers ‘scared’ to make move at the end

After a wild race that eliminated more than half the field, it seemed like the remaining drivers were hesitant to make a move and form two lines in the final laps.

Joey Logano kept trying, ducking down over and over to see if he could get anyone to go with him. It didn’t work, and the result ultimately allowed the leaders to stay in line and determine the win themselves.

What gives? I asked Logano why no one went with him. He opened his mouth but no words came out, and he just shrugged.

“Scared, I guess,” he finally said. “I don’t know. I don’t have any answer.”

Logano said he was shocked everyone decided to play it so conservatively.

Here’s a guess: Some of the drivers in the top 10 — like AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Paul Menard — obviously wanted to win, and would have made a move if it presented itself. But instead of forcing something, it was better to stay put for a sure-thing finish rather take a risk for the win and potentially drop back to 11th.

Each of them ended up with a top five to start the season, so you can’t fault them; but you can also understand Logano’s frustration.

Another upset for underdog Matt DiBenedetto

For the second straight year, Matt DiBenedetto scored an impressive finish in a car that had no business being that good in a Cup race.

DiBenedetto finished ninth in the Daytona 500, climbing out of his car to the cheers of his family and new GoFas Racing team on pit road (they literally clapped and yelled as he got out).

I asked him whether this finish was better than his sixth-place result at Bristol for BK Racing last spring.

“This one was a little more survival, that one was a little more racing,” he said with a smile. “I’d say they were different feelings. But the Daytona 500, just being in it in the first place is unbelievable. This one feels really good, because it’s been my dream since I was 5 to even be in it. So to get a top-10 in it, man, I’m just checking off all these dreams come true.”

Honestly, there were several great stories in the top 10. Look at Michael Waltrip! (You probably didn’t have a choice on the post-race show, but still…) The guy finished eighth in the Daytona 500 at age 53 and ended his career with a top-10. Not bad.

Also, Brendan Gaughan finished 11th — his best finish in a Cup race since Homestead…in 2004!

Kyle Busch throws down with Goodyear

No matter how much Kyle Busch changes over the years, one thing is consistent: If his equipment lets him down at an unacceptable level in his eyes, Busch is going to sound off about it.

He’s ripped Toyota engines, for example, as well as Goodyear several times. And on Sunday, it was the latter who drew his ire again after he spun and started a crash that took out several cars, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Erik Jones and Matt Kenseth.

“Goodyear tires just suck,” he told reporters in his garage, according to Yahoo.

He also told FOX that Goodyear’s tires “aren’t very good at holding air.”

Yeesh. That’s probably not going to go over very well, but I also doubt Busch regrets his comments.

I asked Goodyear director of race tire sales Greg Tucker for his company’s side of things. He said Goodyear found evidence of a rub or a cut on Busch’s left rear tire, but the No. 18 team felt it was the right rear that went down. Stucker said there was a break on the right rear, but was inconclusive as to whether it was there beforehand or was caused when Busch spun and crashed.

Stucker acknowledged it was “tough for anybody” to hear criticism like Busch’s but said the top priority was to “get the facts and get it back to the team.”

So will Goodyear speak with Busch? Stucker said Goodyear has a regular call with the whole JGR team.

“It’ll come up there and get discussed at that point,” he said.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. escapes wreck with no injury

Earnhardt hit Kyle Busch’s car hard during Stage 2, which ended his Daytona Day. But it was a very respectable return — he was at the front when the incident happened — and he also showed the ability to take a decent hit without sustaining a concussion.

That sounds like a low bar for safety, but it has to be somewhat of a relief.

Afterward, the driver credited work on the headrests for keeping him safe.

“We changed some things in the interior that I feel will help me going forward,” he said. “I just appreciate all the effort NASCAR has put in to safety. I know we say that a lot, but if they hadn’t put the money into the studies that they did, I probably would have gotten hurt again right there.”

What exactly were the headrest changes? Earnhardt said the team “closed it up to where we really have no gap on each side.”

Basically, a driver’s head usually leans one way before hitting the wall and then slams over to the headrest on the other side (“It’s like hitting a baseball bat when you get there,” Earnhardt said), even if it’s only a couple inches of a gap.

But by making the headrests so close together they basically cradled his helmet, Earnhardt was able to absorb less of a jarring impact.

“The car itself sees a whole lot less (G forces) than the body does, and if you close (the headrests) up, you can minimize the Gs and get closer to what the car is seeing in those impacts,” he said.

It wasn’t too long ago, Earnhardt said, that drivers didn’t even want left-side head rests. They wanted room to be able to move around; now, that’s been proven to be more dangerous.

“That was really, really smart for us to go and have those meetings with NASCAR and say, ‘Hey, what can we do better?’ and talk about it,” he said. “That’s something I’m happy I did.”

Ryan Ellis becomes Matt DiBenedetto’s PR rep for 2017

Ryan Ellis made 24 starts across NASCAR’s three national series last year, another young driver trying to stay alive in the sport by jumping into whatever ride he could.

But Ellis, tired of waiting for his big break and facing another exhausting season of trying to chase sponsorship, realized it might be best to take a year off from driving, then reset and try again in 2018.

His job for this season, though, is perhaps unprecedented for a driver who raced in the NASCAR Cup Series as recently as November.

Ellis is now the public relations representative for Matt DiBenedetto, who joins GoFas Racing’s No. 32 car this season.

“I’ve always said, ‘Hey, PR person Ryan,’ because he would always just do everything for me and he’s so good at working with people and just kind of winging everything,” said DiBenedetto, who is close friends with Ellis. “That joke actually turned into a reality for this year.”

It was actually such a running gag between the two that when DiBenedetto sat down and sincerely offered the position, he kept trying not to laugh. All joking aside, he said, there was a lot Ellis could do to help the team.

And Ellis, 27, didn’t have to think very hard about it before accepting. Despite having what he called “the best racing year of my life” in 2016, every potential opportunity closed up.

“It’s just so hard to claw and scratch and still be able to pay the bills halfway through a season,” Ellis said this week in between shuttling DiBenedetto to various stops on the NASCAR Media Tour. “I’ve been able to do it the last couple years, but it just takes such a burden on you.”

That’s no exaggeration; Ellis has taken side jobs like working at the Richard Petty Driving Experience and even mopping floors at a BMW dealership to make ends meet.

So the opportunity to try his hand at PR — which comes with a steady salary — was too good to pass up, especially while working with a good friend.

“(Finding a ride) is only getting harder,” Ellis said. “With the self-funded drivers or the drivers who know the right people, you’re just not going to get one of these opportunities without money. I need to pay the bills, so I’ve just got to accept it and do all I can.

“Outside of it being weird, it’s not going to be hard.”

But it is definitely going to be weird. Ellis joked he already wanted to quit while hearing DiBenedetto, a feel-good story last season for BK Racing, tell reporters over and over again how the key to surviving in NASCAR is sticking around long enough to get one great opportunity.

Ellis said the biggest challenge will come when he’s at the track every week but can’t get in a car despite still wanting to race.

“Being emotionally stable (will be the hard part),” he said with a smile. “It’s great to be working with a friend and hopefully bettering his career, but it’ll be hard not making those comparisons to the drivers you think you’re better than who are on the track every week. That will never go away.”

DiBenedetto said Ellis will be “one of the best in the industry” despite a lack of experience because “he’s pretty much done his own PR and self-promoted himself for so many years.”

Of course, if Ellis gets really desperate to get back into a car before 2018, there’s always one sinister option.

“The good news is I control Matt’s food for the most part, so I can poison him at certain tracks,” he said.

Matt DiBenedetto (left) and Ryan Ellis take a break from playing iPhone billiards during the NASCAR Media Tour on Wednesday. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

Hat-tip to Chris Knight for first tweeting about this development.