Formula One Diary: Sunday night

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the sixth in a series.

I’ve spent the past four days documenting some of the differences between Formula One and NASCAR while experiencing my first F1 event. At times, it seemed very foreign — not just the accents, but the racing itself.

But fear not: Sunday’s United States Grand Prix actually showed how similar F1 and NASCAR can be.

Don’t believe me? Check out these quotes below and see if you can tell which were from the NASCAR race in Kansas and which were from the F1 race in Austin:

1. “The rules have got to be consistent. You can’t apply them differently to different instances. That’s our frustration out of today.”

2. “The problem is, we all spend an awful lot of money going racing. You want it to be consistently refereed — professionally refereed. And when you get decisions like today, it’s difficult to understand where the consistency is.”

3. “Where do you draw the line? For fans and casual viewers, it needs to be clear.”

4. “Don’t say everyone else can run off the track anywhere you like and never give any penalties — then I do it, and you give me a penalty.”

5. “I don’t know what any of the rules are. Seems like we’ve got a lot of stuff that kind of gets changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it.”

Think you know the answers? Let’s see how you did.

— The first four quotes were all from the F1 race. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner made the first three comments, and No. 4 was a comment Max Verstappen made to NBCSN.

— Quote No. 5 is what Matt Kenseth said after a penalty for too many men over the wall ended his championship hopes at Kansas.

So there you have it. It took until the last lap of the F1 race, but it finally felt like someone was speaking my language.

Rules are a funny thing in racing. The complaints often turn out to be about the application of the rules rather than the worthiness of them.

For example: Martin Truex Jr. was penalized on a restart early in the Kansas race for going below the white line. That lit up NASCAR Twitter for two reasons — first of all, that penalty is not called very often (if ever); second, Kevin Harvick — the car behind Truex — did the same thing, but was not penalized.

According to reporters at the track, the rule was discussed in the drivers meeting and it only applied to the front row, so NASCAR probably called it correctly. But that sort of thing drives fans absolutely crazy, because getting it right this time means they’ve missed it in the past.

If there’s going to be a rule, all fans really want is for each driver to be treated the same — every time.

A similar scenario happened on the last lap in Austin. Verstappen, an electrifying 20-year-old racer, chased down Kimi Raikkonen and made a sick pass in the second-to-last corner of the race to earn a podium finish.

The fans were thrilled, and Verstappen was understandably giddy with glee on the radio. It was a fantastic moment!

But it didn’t last long, because F1 officials — or “stewards,” as they call them here — decided Verstappen had not stayed within the “track limits.” He used the inside of the turn and “left the track” to make his pass, which resulted in a five-second penalty.

Raikkonen got third place instead.

Now, was the penalty called correctly? By the letter of the law, yes. But it was a head-scratcher, since fans immediately started posting images on social media of several other drivers using the inside of Turn 19 (as well as Turn 9) without any penalty.

Horner, the Red Bull exec, worried that since F1 is trying to gain fans in the U.S., the inconsistency of the penalty would be a turnoff.

“Formula One is still immature in this country; and it’s a big race,” he said. “With the lack of consistency in the decisions, I should think all the viewers and fans watching today should not understand why (Raikkonen) was on the podium and not Max today.”

Don’t worry, Christian. American race fans are already used to inconsistency.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, lower right, tells reporters about his view of an inconsistent call that cost Max Verstappen a podium finish.

Just look at two weeks ago in Charlotte, when Jimmie Johnson’s crew was allowed to fasten a lug nut while the car wasn’t inside the pit box — something NASCAR later acknowledged was a rule it hadn’t even informed all the teams about.

It’s no wonder, then, that situations like Truex’s black flag or Kenseth’s penalty — where he had too many crew members working on his car in a crash damage situation — appeared questionable.

Both were actually the right call. In Kenseth’s case, that’s the rule and has been all year, and it was just enforced during last week’s race at Talladega.

But fans are so used to inconsistent enforcement of the rules, they assumed the calls were incorrect.

NASCAR — and F1 as well, it turns out — doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt that it’s making the right call. That’s something both forms of motorsport should strive to fix.

Related:

Sunday morning diary on how to follow F1 as a new fan

— Saturday diary on the fan reception for Haas in Austin

—  Friday afternoon diary on Haas F1 Team’s growing pains

— Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

A difficult day to be in NASCAR

I feel a deep sense of hurt, anger and sadness this morning after seeing NASCAR’s name get associated with intolerance.

NASCAR is the most American sport. There are patriotic shows of support for the military at the track, thank-yous to soldiers through a variety of VIP access and weekly honoring of families who have lost loved ones during battle.

But many NASCAR fans seem to overlook a very important part of being an American: The right to free speech and peaceful protest.

Some of the very same people who insist on their right to display the Confederate flag at NASCAR races are outraged over someone else’s right to kneel down during the national anthem as a form of protest.

Whether you agree with either one of these things or would participate in either, they are both free speech.

So when Richard Childress and Richard Petty told reporters Sunday they would fire anyone on their teams who took part in a very American form of protest, it opened the floodgates for an avalanche of shit to rumble down the mountain and cover everyone associated with the sport.

What’s left of our little sanctuary away from politics and social issues is now shattered, if it wasn’t mostly destroyed already. While it would be nice to stick to sports, that becomes impossible once the president starts tweeting about NASCAR as a political prop.

NASCAR has made a tremendous mistake by failing to make a statement on its stance. Instead, two old-guard owners expressed their opinion and spoke for the entire sport.

Though many drivers, crewmen, media members and fans who work in NASCAR were likely thrilled at the team owners’ comments, not everyone shares that opinion. All those associated with NASCAR today are being stereotyped, and it sucks.

Many patriotic people in NASCAR believe in the right to a peaceful protest. It’s part of being an American and should be celebrated, not punished.

Would I kneel during the national anthem? No, because I have always associated it with a soldier killed in action — Sgt. Bryan Brewster — who was the son of my former editor. His name flashes through my mind every time the anthem plays, so I want to respect his memory.

But when soldiers fight for the United States, they are protecting our way of life — which includes the right to express a viewpoint. Those who take a knee are not hurting anyone — they’re not obstructing traffic with a protest, clashing with police in riot gear or fighting counter-protesters — so they should be allowed to do what they want without fear of losing their jobs.

That’s the beauty of living in this country! We have that freedom and that right. That right should be celebrated, even if you don’t agree with their actions. I personally haven’t experienced the kind of social injustice many black people face on a daily basis, so I can’t judge anyone.

But unfortunately, being associated with NASCAR today means my perceived viewpoint has already been determined by others. People who hear that I work in NASCAR will presume I feel the same way as Richard Petty, and that bothers me tremendously. It’s embarrassing, and I wish NASCAR itself would loudly state it supports the right to peaceful protest in whatever way people choose.

During these most turbulent times for the country, we have to come together, show that we tolerate other viewpoints, find common ground and celebrate our differences at the same time.

The ranks of NASCAR fans have dwindled over the last decade, so let’s not shut more people out. Let’s try to make NASCAR a place where all are welcome. But that has to be done through a conscious effort to embrace people who don’t think the same as us.

If that doesn’t happen, NASCAR will just end up as its own island. Should that be the case, the sport’s future is grim.

The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts from Sunday’s playoff race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. The heavyweight contenders

Many of the races this season turned into a battle between Martin Truex Jr. — the dominant car of 2017 — and Kyle Busch, his Toyota teammate who has plenty of speed but perhaps not quite as much as the 78.

That was the case again on Sunday at New Hampshire. Truex and Busch combined to lead all but one lap (!!!) of a 300-lap event (Kyle Larson led the other one during pit stops in the break between Stages 1 and 2).

And although it looked like Truex might end up dominating had he not been caught up in the Lap 150 pileup, Busch happily said his team made gains on its chief rival for the championship.

“Today was a good catch‑up moment for us,” Busch said. “Obviously they’ve been so fast all year long. … But it was going to come down to that again and who was going to be in the lead, who was going to have the opportunity on restarts and whatnot to control the field.”

Many fans insist they are sick of Toyotas, which is bad news for them, because this domination doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. The four Toyota drivers in the playoffs are all in the top six in points, and only Kyle Larson has shown he can consistently challenge them.

So Busch vs. Truex is the battle to watch for now, and it’s actually pretty interesting. For example: Busch gained five playoff points on Truex during Sunday’s race, which puts Truex at 59 and Busch at 36.

That’s only a 23-point difference. So if the third round comes around and it has three different winners with one spot available on points to advance to Homestead, that could be determined by a Truex vs. Busch battle. And 23 points between them isn’t even a half-race.

Everyone seems to treat Truex in the finale as a given — and it’s highly likely — but it’s not going to be a cakewalk if he has to deal with Busch in a points race.

2. Finally, some points drama!

It’s been awhile since anyone had to worry about the points picture going into an elimination race — after all, points were not a factor at Richmond this year — which means Dover next week will be a welcome sight.

Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are tied for the last spot (the tiebreaker is best finish in the round) after Stenhouse and his team had a gutsy comeback after struggling all day.

Stenhouse, one of many drivers looking completely wiped after an unseasonably hot and humid day, said he “felt like we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week.”

“We just couldn’t find speed, couldn’t find the handle on the car,” he said.

But after making up a few spots late in the race — thanks to consecutive cautions that put him back on the lead lap — Stenhouse gained valuable points that could put him in a showdown with Dillon and Ryan Newman (who is one point behind both drivers).

“It makes you feel good,” Stenhouse said. “We needed to make up a little bit and made up a little bit at a track that I didn’t think we were great at all weekend.”

As for Dillon, he was also optimistic about Dover after surviving Sunday with a 19th-place finish.

“Just have a good run like we did last year,” he said. “Go run in the top five and we’ll probably make it.”

Dillon also avoided what could have been a playoff-ending incident for himself when he made contact with Kevin Harvick to trigger a multi-car wreck at lap 150.

“He kept coming left, and I was in the gas,” Dillon told me after the race. “He bobbled and I hit him, and it was over. When he got loose, I connected and it hit him. I barely tapped him. I lifted after, but nothing I can do at that point. Hate it for him and hate it for (Kurt Busch).”

Busch, collected in the wreck when he rammed Harvick, is 15th in points — but too far back (-17) to hope anything but a win will get him in. Same with Kasey Kahne (-21), who said he hadn’t seen the points but wasn’t surprised to hear he was in 16th after a broken track bar.

“It’d be pretty tough” to make it now, Kahne said.

3. Hands off!

Thanks a lot, 24 team.

That’s probably what the rest of the playoff crews were thinking after NASCAR made them stand away from the cars for at least five minutes after the race — a new policy in reaction to Chase Elliott’s crewmen being caught on video removing tape from the spoiler last week.

Inspectors appeared to take a much closer initial look at some of the playoff cars than typically happens immediately after the race. At most races the last couple years — since NASCAR began stopping all cars on pit road instead of having them go back to the garage — crewmen go over the wall and approach the cars as soon as they pull to a stop.

But NASCAR obviously felt that might be an opportunity to mess with something before post-race inspection — the 24 team proved that — so now that won’t be happening for the near future.

If it was annoying for the pit crews, though, it was also irritating for the media. The cars were parked against the pit wall and no one —reporters, crewmen or public relations representatives — could go past the halfway point of pit road. Many drivers simply got out of their cars, saw no one was waiting to talk to them, and walked away.

Hopefully, NASCAR can figure out a solution to wrangle the playoff drivers for at least a moment before they disappear into the crowd. Otherwise, the sport might miss out on some much-needed emotion after one of these upcoming races; if there was a confrontation between drivers on Sunday, we likely would have missed it.

4. Goodbye, Loudon

The final New Hampshire fall race was fairly typical of most other New Hampshire races in memory. And that’s not really a compliment.

This is a great area with wonderful people who are true, passionate race fans, and they have a fantastic track for some cars.

But those cars don’t include the Cup Series, which has long struggled to put on a decent show here.

“It always lends to exciting moments; we had one today,” Kyle Busch said. “Sometimes the racing, though, is a little strung out with this place being so hard to pass.”

Busch called it “frustrating to race here sometimes” and explained in detail why that’s the case, if you want to dive in:

“It’s just not lending itself to being able to be right on top of or right close to the guy in front of you, because you just get so tight when you’re behind that guy. And you build air pressure in the front tires and you slow down and that guy drives away from you, and then you kind of accordion back to the next guy, he’s catching you thinking he’s going to pass you and then he gets tight, and it kind of goes back to the next guy.”

Look, it’s not like the Las Vegas race — New Hampshire’s replacement — is going to be that much more compelling. But it gives NASCAR a chance to open the playoffs in a high-profile market and then keep a short track (Richmond) as the second race, all while keeping an event at Loudon in July. So with apologies to the locals who love this place, that’s not the worst development.

5. Common sense solutions

Let’s talk about the NASCAR dunce cap penalty for a second.

Until the race — and until Richard Petty and Richard Childress got a bunch of national attention for saying they’d fire employees who kneeled for the anthem (just the publicity NASCAR needs!) — the biggest story of the weekend was Joey Logano serving a penalty on pit road for the entire final practice session.

It’s silly that it got so much attention, but it’s what fans were most interested in (I can see the numbers). So the media reported it and Dale Earnhardt Jr. reacted to it and it became a thing.

Yes, other drivers have served longer penalties under this policy (up to 60 minutes, where Logano’s penalty was 50), but those were in practices where they eventually got on the track for some laps.

That’s why Logano’s punishment seemed so wacky: He sat in the car on pit road for the entire practice session and never got on track.

When odd things happen in this sport, it often seems to catch NASCAR by surprise. After all, they are tasked with enforcing the rules and put in a very difficult position by teams trying to push the limit in every little area — and so officials are viewing it as doing their jobs.

So I feel bad for NASCAR in that sense, because what should be justice ends up ricocheting back at them and turns into a pie in the face. But the penalties they come up with could use a little work in the public eye.

If NASCAR wants to have a team miss practice, just make the team park the car in the garage and put a cover on it so crew members can’t work on it. But don’t make the driver sit in there — that comes across like they’re shaming a troublemaking child.

Or maybe NASCAR can increase the punishment by doing things like making a team serve its penalty at the end of Stage 1 — which would impact the race itself.

NASCAR’s heart is in the right place, because it has to keep teams in line. But maybe there’s a better way to do that.

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.

Goodbye, overtime line rule

If the end of Saturday’s Xfinity Series race doesn’t turn out to be the death of NASCAR’s Overtime Line rule, I’ll be surprised.

This well-intentioned rule unfortunately just doesn’t work. Now it’s time to come up with a different solution before a playoff race gets tainted by an ugly finish.

On Saturday, at the end of a twice-delayed race and with the drivers meeting for the Cup race quickly approaching, there was a multi-car crash in overtime before leaders reached the overtime line.

It wasn’t that close, so NASCAR could have called for a caution and reset for another overtime attempt after what would have been the fourth red flag of the race.

But instead, officials appeared to hold the flag until the leaders crossed the overtime line and then called for the caution — thus ending the race. It was a totally unsatisfying and disappointing ending to a race fans had invested many hours in watching since Friday night.

Look, I get that it would have been a huge headache to extend the race further. The clock was definitely ticking.

But if you have a rule, then follow the rule. In this case, it looked like NASCAR stalled long enough to just end the race and get it over with. That’s not cool if so, and it strips any remaining purpose of having the rule in the first place.

I’ve been a supporter of this rule for awhile and argued NASCAR should keep it for plate tracks, even after everyone got pissed over the Dover finish last month.

But now I’m off that bandwagon altogether. It’s just not the right solution.

That’s a shame, because this seemed to have a lot of potential for a good compromise. Unlimited green-white-checkered attempts are insane for plate tracks, so that’s not a viable fix. But after the infamous Kevin Harvick/Trevor Bayne incident at Talladega, there needed to be more than just a “single attempt” at a green-flag finish.

So the overtime line was created, pushed in large part by the drivers council, and it put safety in mind while also retaining some entertainment value for those fans who despise the idea of seeing a race end under caution.

It was supposed to make everyone happy, but now seems to make no one happy. It’s just not working.

I’m not sure what the solution is. I hate to say this, but until someone figures it out, NASCAR might just have to end these plate races under caution and be done with it.

UPDATE: I asked for NASCAR’s explanation and received it after posting this column. NASCAR says there was no intentional delay to let the leaders cross the line. NASCAR says any delay — approximately two seconds — was a natural human delay from recognizing the crash, calling for the caution and getting the lights/flag activated.

An unpleasant anniversary

NASCAR officials privately met with the drivers Friday morning at Daytona International Speedway, a biannual meeting to discuss the state of the sport and ongoing initiatives.

Last July, this meeting did not go very well for me. I’d like to share that story with you now, since hopefully enough time has passed to discuss it publicly.

On the Friday of the summer Daytona weekend last year, a story of mine was published in USA Today with the headline “NASCAR Looks Beyond Declining Attendance, TV Ratings.” This story had been in the works for months, ever since editors watched the April race at Bristol and noticed the tens of thousands of empty grandstand seats.

The conclusion was to do a story explaining to readers what was happening in NASCAR, and I was given the assignment to write it. NASCAR knew the story was in the works — I interviewed chief operating officer Brent Dewar for it, along with 200 fans — but wasn’t happy it was coming out.

Obviously, people who follow NASCAR closely were already familiar with topics like ratings and attendance, but the general audience USA Today served may not have been as aware. And since Brian France is known to read USA Today, anything negative in the newspaper often comes under a microscope.

Knowing this, I walked into the track that day braced for some level of blowback. That’s the nature of writing for a national outlet like that.

But even though I knew some in NASCAR would be upset — just as they were over the Wall St. Journal story this February — I was totally unprepared for it landing on drivers’ radars as well.

However, NASCAR made sure it did. During the midseason update meeting, a high-ranking NASCAR executive held up a copy of the newspaper with my story and told all the drivers in attendance that this was the type of coverage that was killing the sport. You have to remember this was in the midst of a title sponsor search for NASCAR, so it was a particularly sensitive time for everyone.

Shortly thereafter, I was approached in the media center by David Higdon, who was leading the NASCAR communications department at the time. He gave me a heads up I’d probably be getting some hostility from the drivers in the coming weeks, because the story was discussed in the meeting and not received favorably by the drivers.

I was skeptical upon hearing this. NASCAR spending time in a meeting with all the drivers to discuss a newspaper article? Come on.

So I texted a driver I really trust to tell me the truth and asked him if my story was discussed in the meeting — and if other drivers were angry about it.

“Call me,” the reply said.

Uh oh.

The driver told me that indeed a copy of the paper was held up in the meeting and discussed as an example of the kind of negative coverage the sport didn’t need and couldn’t afford at the time. And that, yes, some other drivers were upset with me (apparently Carl Edwards was the most vocal about it, but we’ve since gotten back on better terms).

This was sort of devastating news for me. It’s so hard to build relationships in the garage (and I’m not great at that in the first place), and it felt like all that was suddenly in jeopardy. It was a terrible feeling, because I’d made a concerted effort to walk the tightrope of writing about the assigned topic without going too easy or too harsh on NASCAR. I tried to play it straight down the middle.

But the fact the story existed at all — as the main story on the front page of the Sports section during a holiday weekend — was enough to really anger some people in the garage.

I wondered how much damage control was necessary, so I started texting several drivers with whom I had good working relationships and asked them if they were upset. To my surprise, even some of them said they weren’t happy about it.

Ugh.

The best thing to do in situations like that is make sure people have a chance to yell at you and express their displeasure instead of stewing over it and talking behind your back about how much you suck. So I tried to be very visible for the rest of the weekend, walking up and down pit road to show my face before the race.

I don’t want to get into all the conversations since most of the drivers are still around, but I’ll share a couple.

Before the race, Brian Scott was leaning against the wall at the entrance to pit road and interrupted a conversation to call me over.

“Oh man, NASCAR is so pissed at you,” he said with a grin. “What kind of crap have you been getting from people?”

Then I walked further down pit road, and bumped into a driver on his way to the car. He stopped and put his hand on my shoulder.

“You fucked us!” he said.

“Come on, did I?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, that’s just what they told us in the meeting,” he said. “I didn’t read it.”

For the next couple weeks, drivers continued to bring up the meeting or the story. An example: After finishing a 12 Questions interview with a driver, I stood to leave and thanked him for his time.

“Wait, wait,” he said. “So what’s it been like for you after that story? NASCAR was pretty mad about that!”

Anyway, the whole experience served as an important reminder: Each tweet, story or interview helps shape a reporter’s reputation. And it’s a lot easier to ruin it than build it up.