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.

Video: Toyota drivers participate in Olympic crossover event

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

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

Midseason changes harm a sport’s credibility

The email subject from this morning seemed like a very late April Fools’ joke at first: “NASCAR Adds Fourth Stage to Coca-Cola 600.”

Oh no.

Look, I get what NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway are trying to do here. The 600 is a long race, and dividing it into four 100-lap stages will break it up and make it more entertaining. Last year’s 600 was brutal — with 131 straight green-flag laps at one point — and people hated the race.

And the stages have added a lot to the racing this year, so an extra stage is fine. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if all races had four stages next year.

But…ughhhhhh.

What NASCAR fails to understand (or at least value highly enough) is how bad it looks to change rules in the middle of a season. These are the type of temptations a sanctioning body should avoid, because they harm credibility — and that’s very difficult to earn back.

Personally, I’m still affected by the worst decision of all time — adding a 13th driver to a 12-driver playoff in 2013. NASCAR changed forever for me that day, and I can honestly say I’ve never looked at NASCAR as a sport quite the same after that.

The Coke 600 decision isn’t on that level, but the concept is similar: A short-term play could have a long-lasting impact on people who are desperately clinging to the notion NASCAR is more of a sport than sports entertainment.

Yes, the “pure sport” aspect has been gone for awhile now — I get that — but it’s painful to see NASCAR toss aside more of its credibility.

That’s what makes this the wrong move.

NASCAR announced stage lengths for every race on Feb. 16. It said each race would have the same amount of stage points and playoff points, except for the Daytona 500 (which had 10 more stage points — but not playoff points — thanks to the Duels).

Now — less than two weeks before the 600 — NASCAR has suddenly decided a certain race is worth more stage points than other races. And it’s worth more playoff points than any other race.

Think about that: Drivers can earn more playoff points in the Coke 600 than they can in the Daytona 500.

That’s very troubling for purposes of consistency. All races should pay the same amount of points. And if they don’t, NASCAR should announce that at the start of the season — not 13 days before the race.

It’s really disappointing NASCAR decided to do this. Want to add a fourth stage to one race for entertainment purposes? Then at least do it before the season. Announce it, let people digest it and come to terms with it.

But by doing it now, NASCAR misjudged what’s more valuable: One night at Charlotte or its credibility as a sanctioning body.