Successful Xfinity Series race at Indy provides glimpse of the future

No matter what you think of NASCAR’s decision to go with an experimental rules package in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway or the merits of such a move, let’s start with the facts.

— There were a race record 16 lead changes, nearly doubling the previous race record of nine. That’s a remarkable number for the Brickyard, which has had 16 or fewer lead changes in 12 of the 23 Cup Series races run here!

— A race record eight different drivers led laps (two more than the previous mark). By comparison, last year’s Brickyard 400 — again, a race that was 100 miles longer — had just three different leaders.

— The margin of victory was just 0.108 second, which was obviously the closest.

So there are the facts. Did those stats — along with the eye test — make for a good race?

Well, as of the time of this post, 83 percent of people in a quick Twitter poll said “Yes.”

I agree. It wasn’t just a better race than in the past, but it was a good race — and I wasn’t very optimistic that would be the case, even with the rule changes in place.

After all, how many times has NASCAR tried something with high hopes (just look at the PJ1 at New Hampshire last week) only to see the race result in somewhat of a letdown?

This time, NASCAR’s extensive research and development work paid off with a concept that seemed to click. It would be shocking if officials didn’t try this idea in the Cup Series sometime in the next year — not just at Indy, but places like Pocono or Michigan.

Was it perfect? No, because it achieved only part of the goal. Slowing the cars kept the race close because the leader could not get away, but passing still seemed like a challenge.

Erik Jones, for example, told me he could easily stay with race leader Kyle Busch while running second — but there was nothing he could do to pass, even if he’d wanted to.

That said, Jones said the package was a positive move overall; it just needs some tweaks, he said.

“A lot of times, these cars are just going too fast,” Jones said. “You go to your local short track and the best race of the weekend is the street stocks or vintage cars, because they’re going so slow that they can go everywhere. They can go all over the racetrack.

“We were definitely a step towards that. You could even see people make passes on the outside, which at Indy is pretty unheard of.”

The whole thing is a bit of an odd concept at Indianapolis, which has rewarded pure speed ever since NASCAR has been racing here. But Saturday’s race had more of a Daytona or Talladega feel, where the leader was punished by getting too far ahead — allowing competitors to catch up in the draft.

Some fans were upset about the concept of artificially bunching the field. It also didn’t sit well with Kyle Busch, who was feeling salty after seeing his chance at a fifth straight Brickyard win disappear.

Busch told me the package was no good and said he would “definitely” be opposed to seeing it tried in the Cup Series.

“They wanted to slow down the fastest guy here so the rest of the field could keep up, and they did,” he said.

But what if there were some tweaks made that perhaps allowed for more passing? Would he be open to the idea then?

“There’s great ideas everywhere,” he responded while walking away.

Xfinity regular Brennan Poole, who finished seventh, disagreed with Busch’s comments. He said there were a couple small changes NASCAR could make to increase passing opportunities, yes; but overall, Poole had no problems with the fairness of the rules.

“I mean, that’s just part of racing,” he said. “It’s the same way at Daytona and Talladega. This package keeps everybody together, but you’ve just got to work a little harder for it.

“It puts on a better fan show for the fans. When there’s more passing and swapping for the lead and everyone fighting, it’s better to watch. I think it was good.”

And if you’re looking for a hint from NASCAR whether a similar package might be used in future races, Steve O’Donnell certainly gave all indications the sanctioning body viewed Saturday’s experiment with a smile.

“I think it passed the eye test,” he told reporters. “Some races, you’re going 200 (mph). Some, you’re down in the 100s on a road course. What at the end of the day matters is how many lead changes did we have and was it competitive throughout. And we thought it was today.”

 

Monte Dutton column: The Limits Of Xfinity

Longtime NASCAR writer and author Monte Dutton is covering the Coca-Cola 600 for JeffGluck.com this weekend. Below is his second post.

By Monte Dutton

Man, I thought I had messed up.

It was all I could do to get on the road by 9 a.m., and it’s a good two hours from home to here. When I entered the outskirts of Charlotte, I thought 11 would be the only bad time to get to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Hisense 4K TV 300, the race whose name activates home wi-fi.

The race that read like a password ran at about 1:20. Eleven would be the time to arrive if you wanted to grab a bite to eat, drink a beverage with gusto and play a little cornhole before moseying across to the track for some good old NASCAR Xfinity Series racing.

I haven’t been here in a while, so I still vaguely remember something called traffic.

Driving through Charlotte, absent the sun, it could have been 2 a.m. Traffic thickened as I-85 collected cars from other major thoroughfares, but the traffic never slowed. At Smith Boulevard, more vehicles were lined up to go left to Concord Mills mall than right to Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, double Dillons and Ryan Blaney were in the race.

Blaney won. He hasn’t won a Monster Cup race yet. He wasn’t really slumming. He wasn’t in the race to see how the other half lives. Blaney has undoubtedly interviewed butlers for his undoubtedly palatial and stately estate (on the royal property of Dale Earnhardt Jr., no less), but none has been hired.

When in doubt, I root for the underdog, though in this position, it is best not to root for anyone. It’s acceptable to root for a good story, and, as the laps wound down, it became obvious that Ryan Blaney was the best story I was going to get. Of the six Cup drivers who started, five finished in the top six, the lone exception being fourth-place Christopher Bell, who earned a merit badge.

I’ve been away. I’ve watched from afar. I don’t know Ryan Blaney. I know his daddy and think a lot of him. It followed logically that I should ask Ryan about Dave, thus making it less likely that the question would be idiotic. Dave Blaney won an Xfinity (then Busch) Series race here. It was his only victory in the series.

“To me, personally, he’s the best race car driver ever,” said son of father. “That’s how I’ve always looked at him and that’s how I’ve always thought of him, not only as my father but the way he drives a car – and not only his driving ability, but his mindset toward things. I think he’s one of the smartest people I know, personally, in the race car, outside the race car, building parts, coming up with inventions and ideas. He always just supports me and it was cool to have him here today.

“In my mind, I’ll never be half the race-car driver he is, personally. I think he’s the greatest one ever and that’s how I’ll always think of him.”

Damn the calendar. It was Father’s Day for the Blaneys.

Remember, the reason Monster Cup Series drivers absolutely must compete in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series is that, without them, the crowds wouldn’t show up.

The crowd below me numbered 5,000 or so. Count the infield and suites, and I’d concede 10,000. I’ve seen high school football crowds numbering that many, but, in fairness, they were big games.

The presence of six Cup regulars drew five figures to Charlotte. Oh, but they’re crucial to the TV ratings.

What TV ratings?

Poor Kyle Busch. It’s not fair for me to bring up this topic. He didn’t even compete in the Xfinity race. He spit-polished the Trucks last week without so much as a coat of polish. He’s closing in on 200 total victories in NASCAR’s “three major touring series.”

As a general rule, NASCAR values the minor leagues. If baseball valued the minor leagues the way NASCAR does, Steve Balboni would be enshrined in Cooperstown. Ron Hornaday just got named to the NASCAR Hall, and that’s okay because auto racing has its own peculiar customs and institutions. People used to value NASCAR for not being like other sports before the best and brightest started turning that into a lie.

Now it’s one big Yogi Berra. This place where I’m sitting is so crowded nobody comes here anymore.

So …

What’s the point of using Monster Cup monsters as a drawing card? Is it possible that even less would be here?

Oh, the propagandists.

For what it’s worth, Kyle Busch’s quest to go where no professional race driver has even considered going before is damned impressive and, in its way, even admirable. The lad just loves to race.

Even in races where he is astride a thoroughbred and everyone else mounts mules, he still has to ride that nag, and he rides it like, oh, Braulio Baeza. (As a jockey, Baeza won 4,013 races, but some were claiming races at Dogfeed Downs.)

The younger of the Bee Bees (Brothers Busch) is doing what no man has done before. What makes it slightly less impressive is that no one has ever wanted to collect obscure NASCAR races like bubble-gum cards. Only Mark Martin has ever lusted so passionately for victories that don’t ultimately matter.

I can understand it a little. I’ve tried many kinds of beer in my life. I’ve watched every pitch of baseball games my favorite team led, 15-1. I can’t even get tired of writing books. Writing is my passion. I’ll cover a major automobile racing event of worldwide renown, and I’ll cover the annual Red-White Football Classic at Clinton High School. My business card should read, Have small paycheck? Will travel.

But let’s get real. Every time this discussion comes up, someone chimes in to the effect that, sure, Richard Petty won 200 races, but “there was no competition back in those days.” What a slur. What a celebration of ignorance.

For what it’s worth, in 1967, Petty certainly had some strolls that looked effortless in 100-milers at Beltsville, Md., or Marysville, Tenn.

You know, like Kyle Busch in a Truck race.

In 1967, the schedule had 48 races in it. Today’s has 36. There were about 36 where the competition was intense in 1967. Five hundred miles was a sterner test of equipment in those days. Sometimes the winner lapped the field, but it would happen today if the rules allowed it.

Kidding around with a racer, I once said, “You know, hotshot, a man’s got to drive like hell to lose a lap in this day and age,” and he replied, “Yeah, and once you finally lose the son of a [gun], they won’t let you keep it!”

In the World 600 of 1967, Petty also faced off against the likes of David Pearson, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Isaac, Buddy Baker, Dick Hutcherson, Darel Dieringer, Charlie Glotzbach, Tiny Lund and Jim Paschal, who won it.

Ever heard of Paschal? A shame. He should be in the Hall of Fame, too.

Never mind, though. You want to combine victories in touring series? Fine. In other sports, they don’t play major and minor league at the same time, but racing is different, and it’s righteous and unique.

Do it comprehensively, though. Don’t just count the series running now. Count the Convertible Division of the 1950s. Count the Grand Touring/Grand American (oft referred to as “baby grands”) series of the ’70s, and, while you’re at it, count the Grand National East Division of 1972. That series combined Cup (then Grand National) and Grand American cars (Mustangs, Camaros, Cougars, Javelins) at short tracks that lost their dates when NASCAR shaved off a third of the Cup schedule.

The best short-track race I ever saw was a GN East race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. Neil “Soapy” Castles edged Elmo Langley by inches. They ran the final 10 laps side-by-side on a flat half mile, and neither driver knew which had won. It was the same length (200 laps/100 miles) as the Grand National (now Cup) races that had been run at G-P the previous year. The race took an hour, 25 minutes to run, and the official margin of victory, as recorded on the NASCAR box score, was three inches.

You want to combine races in three series and declare it to be a thing? Okay. Make a list. This time check it twice. Don’t just throw a few numbers together and play like they make sense.

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.

12 Questions with William Byron

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with William Byron of JR Motorsports. Byron, a rookie, is currently third in the Xfinity Series point standings. I spoke to him at Talladega.

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

I’d say it’s probably 70 percent natural and 30 percent working at it. I started racing five years ago, so it’s kind of come fast and something that when I started, I just picked it up. I’ve been able to work at running the different racetracks and learning the different cars. So it’s probably 70/30.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

My pitch is probably just the fact that I race for Junior and I think running for JR Motorsports is a good way to support us and kind of branch out into something that he supports as well. Dale and I, we get the chance to go cycling and stuff like that, so we’ve had a chance to bond and hopefully bring over some of those fans in the future. We’ll just have to see what happens. But yeah, I think JR Motorsports is a good way to keep supporting.

That’s a pretty good argument. You’re like, “Hey, Junior fans, look at somebody who actually drives for him!”

Exactly, yeah.

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

The hardest part is probably the travel and stuff, just going to different places every week and being away from kind of a normal life. But that part’s all exciting; you get to go to a lot of different racetracks, meet a lot of different people and it’s a lot different than what my 19-year-old friends are doing in college. I get pictures of them going to football games and stuff. It’s different, but it’s what I love to do, so it’s fun.

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

Yeah, I think so. Absolutely. That would be a pretty cool experience to be noticed in a restaurant. You know, I had that (recognition) just outside the racetrack at the same weekend of the race, but if it was just a normal weekend, it’d be neat to have a fan come up and want an autograph. So yeah, for sure.

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

Probably just how much the teams work on the cars. It sounds repetitive, but there’s so much work that goes into this sport, and I think that’s sometimes lost in the fray of what we do. There’s so much practice and effort that goes into each weekend, so it’s just very competitive. That’s a credit to what the teams are doing, what the drivers are doing and all the engineering that’s going on to make that happen. 

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Probably Dale. We were going riding last week Wednesday, and the peer pressure set in of going to ride with him. I didn’t really want to at first, but yeah. Dale and all of our group chat have just been talking about fitness stuff, that’s been the hot topic lately. So (I’ve) just been doing that during the week.

What’s your cycling experience? Did you just get into it recently with all these other people at the same time?

Yeah, I actually just got a bike. I wasn’t so sure about all the spandex and everything, but it’s fun and it’s actually pretty fast. As race car drivers, you know we love that. Going downhill is fun when we’re all in a pack drafting.

The thing that’s ironic and weird about cycling is when you lose the draft, you’re done. It’s like being at Talladega. So you gotta make sure you get tucked into the draft, stuff like that. But yeah, I’ve been doing it for the last month or so.

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

I’ve never used the middle finger. Five years ago, racing Legend cars, my second race, I was racing hard and I had no idea what I was doing. I got into somebody, whatever happened — and I got the bird. I got the middle finger.

I was kind of like, “Man, this is kind of a harsh way to start.” So I guess that’s just something that I’ve never chose to use after that; it kind of rubbed me the wrong way and it was kind of a tough thing to learn right out of the box that somebody would do that. So I just kind of never use it. 

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

Yeah, I think definitely so. When I watched as a kid, what was entertaining for me watching NASCAR was maybe not the same as I think now as a driver. When the cars are hard to drive and things aren’t going well, that’s frustrating as a driver but it’s entertaining as a fan. You gotta balance that.

I think you gotta really express your feelings about the race and not just hold back and always do what you think is best for you and your team. Sometimes you’ve got to make it exciting a little bit and that’s what makes it fun to watch.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, I think you kind of build (it) up. When you’re in the race car, you remember the number on the car, you remember the way the car looks, the way the person drives. You don’t always remember their name, ironically — you just kind of remember, “Hey, this person raced me this way last week,” or “This person keeps running me over every week,” or whatever, stuff like that. You just kind of take a mental note of that and either apply it or keep it and just make sure you have that in the back of your pocket if you need to use it.

But I think if somebody races you really clean, you tend to develop a friendship or develop a respect in the garage and talk to them before the race and stuff like that. So people like Daniel Hemric or Elliott Sadler are people I race against that race me really clean. I just keep racing them clean and ask them for advice, too.

That’s interesting. So in some cases, it could be like, “That red No. 90 car got in my way again! Oh my gosh!” And you don’t even necessarily know who it is exactly?

I mean, I know who it is, but the car and the number kind of take a personality of its own — and I think of that differently than when I see the guy in the garage. I think we all change when we’re in the helmet. We definitely do, because it’s never the same as you expect that person to be, so that’s probably the biggest difference.

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

I’d say in racing, just probably Mr. H (Rick Hendrick). That’s probably, for me growing up, the most famous person that I could picture and Mr. H and really just Jimmie or something like that would be the most famous person.

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

Sometimes I don’t always say what’s on my mind, so I think sometimes I kind of hold it inside. I think that’s sometimes a good quality to have, but sometimes to get things done, you have to say what’s on your mind. So that would be the one thing I would change if I could.

12. The last interview I did was with Daniel Hemric. He wanted me to ask a driver who started out with some financial backing how you overcame the stigma of being a money guy to being someone known for his talent.

I think that I had the sponsors like Liberty (University) with me early on, so that was my way of kind of connecting myself with somebody, kind of showing that I had a sponsor. But that sponsor wasn’t really interested with what I was doing on the racetrack, so it was more off the racetrack, and I think that did affect me because people were like, “What is Liberty doing on his car every week? His dad must know them,” or something like that. That always bothered me a little bit because it was a real sponsor and they were helping me.

I overcame it just with my on-track performance. Just kind of knowing how I started, how much I wanted to race as a kid — just like every kid wanted to — and the fact that I did get that chance was kind of rare. So I just took that opportunity and ran with it to try and win races and show that I can do things that other people couldn’t. That’s how I got to this point, and now I’ve kind of overcome that and I’m able to just be with JRM and Hendrick with everybody that can support me now.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with, but do you have a general question so I can ask the next driver?

What sport do they watch outside of racing and what things do our sport need to take and apply from other sports?

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

12 Questions with Daniel Hemric

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Daniel Hemric of Richard Childress Racing’s Xfinity Series team. I spoke to Hemric at Richmond International Raceway. This interview is available as a podcast and is also transcribed below.

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

I feel like for myself, the natural ability was always there, but given my upbringing and having to work on my own cars and build my own race cars and do all that stuff, I had to work at it — like work extremely hard at it.

As you get to this level, it seems like that is even more of a difference. So even if the natural ability is there, you’re also talking about, what, the top 120something best guys at this in the world? So you gotta have both sides of that in order to succeed.

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

I consider myself kind of like an old-school asphalt racer of those guys’ style because of just working on my own stuff and having to do it a different way from hard work and knowing the ins and outs of a race car — not just the showing up part of the racing. And that’s something that I felt has kind of set me (apart) to hopefully have fans from Dale Jr. and Tony Stewart.

Those (fans) who are looking for someone to attach themselves to: Do it with a guy that’s had to come up in kind of the same route in order to work hard to get to where they’re at. I try to pride myself on that, and hopefully it gives all the other kids opportunities that were in the same situation I am, fighting tooth and nail for their lives in order to have the opportunity of getting into a race car.

For me to be able to do that, I hope to help other kids do that someday and hopefully (fans) get attached to that.

Do you think knowing the car in and out so well can give you an advantage when you’re giving feedback to your crew chief, whether it’s for race setups or during a race?

Yup, I feel like that’s something my crew chief Danny Stockman and I actually live and breathe off of. The new package in the Xfinity Series, the new car for myself — we’re at Race No. 8 here in Richmond, and we’re kind of both learning on the go. So just the little stuff I’ve done, especially when we go short-track racing that has helped me in other style of vehicles, I feel like has applied and continues to apply as our relationship becomes better and better.

So I like to think that it gives me a little bit of the upper hand compared to a lot of the other younger guys as they’re trying to make a name for themselves here in the series.

The backside of that is sometimes you get in a situation where you’re trying to do too much of that, knowing the race car and stuff, so you’ve got to know when to disconnect from that.

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

I think from other levels, short-track racing to get to this level, there was never any time. I know a lot of guys say, “Oh, we never have enough time to do what we want to do during the week.” I kind of disagree with that because I remember the sleepless nights, building race cars all night, getting up and driving the truck to the racetrack.

So for me, it’s knowing what to do with the time, not having to come home every night to clean your fingernails and scrub your hands just to go to dinner with the wife and go back to the shop. It’s knowing what to do with that spare time that has allowed me to take on some other endeavors in life.

So you have too much time, or you have more free time than you’re used to?

Yeah, I wouldn’t say too much, but I have more free time than I’ve been accustomed to over the last 10 to 15 years, trying to make a name for myself in racing. But it’s allowed me to take on some other sports and pay attention to other world news and stuff like that. It’s something I never did growing up, so I’m trying to reconnect with stuff that I’ve lost out on in the past.

What’s something you’ve picked up with your additional time?

Golf is one thing that I never saw myself doing, but a round of golf is four to four-and-a-half hours, no matter how you want to look at it, so that’s something I’ve tried to take to. And it’s also helped in racing a little bit, just how you can mentally take yourself in and out of the game really quick. So I’ve tried to connect to that.

Throughout that, I’ve made some great relationships: I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) and (Kyle) Larson a couple of times, and Christopher Bell’s a good golf buddy of mine, so all of us kind of go in together and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed.

In golf, you only have yourself to blame if something goes wrong, and you can get mad at yourself in a hurry, you know?

Yeah, I had an old golfer tell me something just two weeks ago that made me think about it. Golf’s four-and-a-half hours, but the backside of that is you’re only playing for 90 seconds. Your backswing and your full swing is three-tenths of a second, so in 90 seconds, you can completely be in left field or at where you need to be. So I thought that was a pretty good analogy.

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

Absolutely. I feel like with where our sport’s at today, having those one-on-one encounters is gonna go further than maybe doing some meet-and-greets with large groups of people.

First off, if somebody notices me, that’s a plus in itself. I’m trying to do what I’m trying to do here. But on the backside of that, if I’m taking the time to make their encounter that much more special, it can lead to them trickling your name throughout other people (and) their family, which can lead to a big following. So come see me.

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

I think it’s everything behind the scenes. For me, I get a chuckle over a lot of the sponsorship stuff and how late some of these deals get put together.

A lot of people from the outside in, just the casual fans of the sport, don’t realize that there’s been plenty of times in all three garages, Truck, Xfinity and Cup, where cars are getting wrapped during the midnight oil and all that stuff, and (fire)suits are getting embroidered and all that stuff that makes the deal go around. A lot of people don’t get to see that side of it, so people in the background, they don’t get all the credit they need.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

The last driver I texted…here, let me look to be sure. I don’t wanna lie to you.

Brad Keselowski (his former team owner in the Truck Series). He’s the guy I always try to shoot a text to here and there, especially going to a new racetrack for the first time. And having a great relationship with him from running his truck, he’s always there to help me with what to look for and what not (to look for), so he’s the guy I always text.

So is he still willing to give advice?

Yeah, Brad’s honestly given some of the best advice, in my opinion. I know that I have a ton of depth in my RCR group as teammates, but Brad — doing all the things he’s done in the sport and being so successful in doing it a lot of the same way I’ve tried to come up doing it — he understands the trials of trying to jump in and not only go fast and perform, but do it at new places and do it in a quick manner.

It’s a lot to take in, so he kind of helps prep me on what to look for, what not to look for and how to get the balance of the race cars right. Just helping me do what I can do in the seat and trying to let the crew guys worry about the race car.

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

Note: I forgot to ask this question. My bad!

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

You know, I think I’ve thrown two or three middle fingers out the window over time, I’d say more so in lapped traffic, going through those situations.

But when you’re racing a guy really hard and he’s not giving you any room, even for position or for the lead lap, I find a casual deuces out the window is more of a, “Hey, watch this, watch me drive away from you,” remark. I feel like it makes more of a remark than a middle finger.

So you’re like “peace out?”

That’s exactly right.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, I think so. I feel like in the Truck Series, the racing was root and gouge. And the way the downforce in the trucks are, without getting too in-depth with the aero stuff, you can’t really get much room, so you find a lot of those enemies and things you want to pay back.

But in the Xfinity Series, having RCR and pretty much six cars, at the racetrack, we’re around each other a lot. So a guy like me and Austin Dillion spend a lot of time racing each other this year, and he’s a really smart racer at letting me go at times. We’ve both found each other in the situation of playing give and take throughout the course of the year.

Yeah, it’s crazy; you never forget all that stuff and it does go a long way.

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

I’d have to call it lunch, but I had a casual lunch in the hauler in my first year in the Truck Series (when) I was teammates with Travis Pastrana. It was such an interesting, crazy excitement, and the guy’s just always wound up.

I had a hard time eating and following where we were going with our conversation, but man, he’s such a cool dude and so down to earth, it was definitely an experience to sit down and have some time with that guy. Hopefully I can do a couple more of those.

It’s crazy how some of the bigger people in life don’t have the larger-than-life personality. I remember that Pastrana was so chill.

He was so chill, and if you can keep him on focused on what we’re talking about, it’s as good as it can get.

As we’re talking here, my mind goes one other place. It wasn’t a dinner, but just recently I had the opportunity to go to one of the top five biggest tennis matches in the world. I know nothing about tennis, but hell, I looked right, and three rows over sitting next to me is Bill Gates. I thought, “Man, here’s a kid from Kannapolis, North Carolina and Bill Gates is sitting less than 20 yards from me. Where am I at? How have I gotten here?” So that was pretty cool.

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

You know, I keep going back to the short track side of things, but you work all the time, and the healthy eating is hard to follow suit. At this level, working on yourself, studying races, doing all that stuff — that’s just stuff that I live for and thrive on, and working out I love. But I feel like I work out so I can eat what I want. I love food, I just wish I could figure out a way to get a more healthy lifestyle that way.

What are some of your guilty pleasure foods?

In downtown Mooresville, there’s JJ Wasabi’s Japanese restaurant. That’s my go-to. My wife Kenzie (Ruston) gets mad because I probably eat there three or four times a week and have no shame over it. But that’s my go-to.

12. The last interview was with Elliott Sadler. His question is: Should (NASCAR) draw a pill and invert a certain number of starting starts right before the green flag? So the polesitter would come out and draw a pill and then they invert X amount of spots. Would you be down with that?

Yeah, Elliott coming from a short track background (like) myself, that’s normal at a regular Friday or Saturday night local show. To go up and have six or eight Coke cans sitting on the wall and have a fan come down and flip one over and there’ll be a Sharpie number, you know, one through six or eight, and that’s where you’re gonna start whether you’re the fastest qualifier or eighth, you could be on the pole.

I don’t like the (full) inversion, but I like where you pick your random spot and you don’t know where or who you’re gonna be around. So I’d be all for that at some of the races, where we’re looking to amp everybody up a little bit.

I don’t know who the next interview is with, but do you have a general question that I can ask another driver?

I’d like to know maybe from one of the guys who maybe haven’t had to come up through it like Elliot Sadler or myself or Brad Keselowski — maybe one of the guys who had financial backing at a younger age — how do they transform from being that guy to being a guy who’s known for his own ability and not that paycheck?

So basically, how do you overcome the money guy perception?

Yeah, how do you overcome the perception of, “His daddy got him there,” or, “His sponsor got him there,” to, “This guy here means business, he’s gonna be here for a long time.”

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

NASCAR should keep pushing on Xfinity driver limits

Shortly after Justin Allgaier won the Phoenix Xfinity race on Saturday, Motorsport.com’s Jim Utter turned to me in the media center and gave me crap for a tweet implying the race was good because an Xfinity driver won.

Utter observed the race was good either way — and it still would have been a good race even if a Cup driver like Ryan Blaney or Erik Jones had edged Allgaier for the win.

So would I have claimed it was a bad outcome, Utter asked, if a Cup guy won?

It’s a fair argument, but I’ll own my viewpoint: No matter what happens or how exciting the race is, if it’s a Cup guy in Xfinity victory lane, I won’t like it.

In that sense, Saturday was a good race. Allgaier hadn’t won since 2012, and he won on a day when veteran Cup drivers (five years or more of experience) were banned from participating.

And yeah, if a Cup guy won, I wouldn’t have said it was a “good” race.

A true racer would judge the racing off the action — not the participants — so I realize that exposes me a bit. But I’ve just never been able to get pumped about watching Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano moonlight in a series and suck all the oxygen out of the room. Nothing against them personally, but I just don’t find it interesting when they win a minor-league race.

After the race, I asked Allgaier if the absence of the veteran Cup guys changed the dynamic on Saturday. Yes and no, he said.

On one hand, he said, the typically strong cars driven by those Cup stars — like from Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing — were still in the race with excellent drivers. They weren’t easy to beat, and it was a “dogfight,” Allgaier said.

On the other hand…

“Kyle is really good here, so one would have to think he’d be up front battling it out,” Allgaier said.

And he was nowhere to be found. So was that a good thing?

“I think it certainly changes the way the race looks,” winning team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “When Kyle in particular is in these races, he’s got such a great chance to win. The race from second on back is still probably as exciting, but he usually doesn’t make much of a race out of it. When he’s in the field, he doesn’t hardly get challenged by a lot of the teams.”

Busch fans complain the media just doesn’t like it when Busch wins, as if people are OK with any other Cup driver. Personally, I don’t feel it’s an Anybody But Kyle situation when it comes to who I want to see in victory lane.

But Utter was right to poke holes in my argument that it’s all Cup guys who I have an issue with, because it’s certainly a different feeling when a Suarez or Jones or Blaney wins vs. a Busch or Keselowski or Logano. I admit that.

Still, my thoughts haven’t changed since I used this as the topic for my very first NASCAR column in 2004: Cup drivers should not be allowed to race in the Busch/Nationwide/Xfinity Series.

There’s zero value to anyone but those teams who sell sponsorship around it; everyone else loses.

Invest in Xfinity by allowing the lower series drivers to build their own storylines and rivalries — “Names Are Made Here,” after all — and let the series have a completely unique identity.

NASCAR has been taking baby steps over the years — Cup drivers can’t run for points (2011), Cup drivers can’t race at Homestead (2016), veteran Cup drivers limited to 10 races (2017), etc. — but it can’t stop now.

But my fear is after seeing a positive result like Saturday, officials will say, “OK, we’ve fixed it and we don’t need to go any further.”

It could have easily been a Cup driver in victory lane, though, so it’s still just putting Band-Aids on a wounded series that needs stitches.

Ban Cup drivers from Xfinity races — period — and the series will be much better off.

 

12 Questions with Garrett Smithley

The 12 Questions interviews continue this week with Garrett Smithley, driver of the No. 0 car for JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. This interview is available in both written and podcast form.

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

I think you have to have natural ability. I started racing very late compared to a lot of guys. I started at 15 in Bandoleros and Legend cars. When I started racing, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have family that came from a racing background. I’m a first generation racer; my dad never raced. It’s a wonder we went to victory lane at all and won championships.

So I think it has a ton to do with natural ability. I think now that I’m in NASCAR the last few years, racing some Truck races, last year running pretty much a full season with JD Motorsports and coming back for a second full season, I think that’s when I’m really going to have to put in the work.

There’s only so much you can do on your natural ability side, so now I have to work at how to adapt to these tracks, how to adapt to these cars, how to make my car better. Anybody can drive a good-handling race car, it’s those who have to work at how to make that race car better (who stand out). My natural ability has gotten me to this point, now the hard work is going to get me to the next level.

If you started racing so late, how do you think you picked it up so fast? Did you just learn from watching races as a fan?

I think it had a lot to do with watching the sport for so long, going to short track races. My very first stock car race was at Pocono in an ARCA race, so I never did any short track Late Model stuff. I just did Bandolero and Legend cars. I think it was a combination of my ability to adapt and get in the car and know what to do and also just be that sponge.

I’m not that driver that says, “Oh, I know everything.” If somebody has been in the sport for 20 or 30 years — even 10 years — if they tell me something, I’m going to listen to that. And I’m going to take that to heart and apply it to what I’m doing. That’s just how I’ve always been.

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

I have fun with everything I do. Being in NASCAR, I don’t take it for granted. It’s such an amazing opportunity to be at this level, be at the second-highest stock car series in the world behind the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. I just have so much fun, and I love social media. I love being on Snapchat and Twitter and I love being vocal and interacting with fans. So I just think if you follow me, I have a good time, so I hope my good time translates to fans having good times.

We had a lot of fun last year with the 0 car doing the whole “Number Nuthin” thing. We have Nuthin Nation going. So come on over to Nuthin Nation; we’re having a blast.

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

Probably the sponsorship search, to be honest. For me, I’m pretty much making calls and dialing for dollars (during the week), trying to get sponsors in for JD Motorsports. We have some really great partners with Flex Seal and G&K Services and some of my partners I’ve brought from last year — KY FAME and Mubea — but it’s never enough.

Being a small three-car team, competing against Gibbs and RCR and JR Motorsports, it’s tough. It’s kind of the David and Goliath thing. So we always are trying to get more support. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I’m searching for sponsors and trying to get new partners to help us out to compete with those guys. And then Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I’m on the road and here at the racetrack.

But I’ve learned a ton doing that part. I’ve learned very early in my career that to be successful as a race car driver, you have to worry about the business side of it and the marketing side of it. That’s one thing I’ve really taken to heart. When I stop focusing on going racing all the time and being so obsessed with that and started focusing on the business side of it, that’s when I started becoming successful.

Do you cold call people and just hope it works out?

Yeah. So many times, you get 1,000 “nos” before you get that one “yes.” When that one “yes” comes and it’s a big thing, it’s huge.

I’ll sit there and go on Google Maps, look up where we’re racing — especially if we’re doing a standalone Xfinity race — and I’m looking at companies that are around the track and I’m calling, I’m sending emails, I’m doing the whole thing.

How do you deal with the rejection that comes with that? It has to be discouraging at times.

When I was a kid, I was really, really shy. And I was terrified of phone calls. And still to this day, I’m not scared of them, but I still get a little anxiety when I pick up the phone and call somebody for the first time.

You’ve just got to take it with a grain of salt. You’ve got to really realize what you’re doing it for and the payoff when you get to the track on Friday and Saturday and you run that car at a 190 mph. That’s the payoff and that’s why we do it.

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

I think maybe this answer might change, maybe if I get to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series level. But right now, I mean, yeah. I remember the very first time I got recognized out of my suit. I just thought that was so cool. I think there’s definitely a right way to do it.

We’re always out to dinner when (my parents) come to the racetrack. My mom and dad are very supportive and they’re always involved. Of course, when we’re out and a waiter or waitress asks, “Oh, are you guys in for the race?” (My mom says) “Oh yeah, my son is a NASCAR driver!” I’m always just like, “Oh no.” So that’s a little funny.

But I think there’s a right way to do it. If they come over and ask for the autograph, as long as if (when) you sign and take pictures, they don’t linger, I think that’s fine.

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

Oh, there’s so many stories. I think just the stories of all the guys behind the scenes. The driver stories always get told on where they started and where they came from and how they got up the ladder. But I think some of the crew guys that work so hard — especially our JD Motorsports team. We’ve got 14 or 15 guys that come out to the racetrack every week — for three cars. And there are teams with 15 guys for one car.

I think the story of our team and what they do at the shop and how hard they’ve worked all offseason — and I mean, that’s across the board, that’s every team, all the way up to the top. These guys work so hard week in and week out, and I think that story needs to be told a little bit more.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Probably Matt DiBenedetto. He and Ryan Ellis are always hanging out. They’ve been trying to get me to hang out all weekend. They’ve got the whole PR/driver duo thing going on. They’re fun. Ryan just recently got engaged and they had me over for their engagement party and we had a Mario Kart tournament. So we had a good time doing that.

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

Definitely. I come from a theater background, and when I was 6 or 7 years old, I did my first play with my mom. My parents were always very instrumental in putting us — me and my brother (who is two years younger) in everything. We sang at church, we danced, we did theater, we played baseball, we played football — all kinds of stuff.

They never pushed me to do one certain thing, so it’s kind of crazy when I finally got to the point when I said, “Racing is what I want to do,” they were supportive of it. They could only help so much, but they were always supportive.

So being in theater, I was in plays when I was in high school and I did leads, and there’d be times when I would race in the afternoon, then leave and book it to the theater and do a play that night.

So knowing the similarities behind it, it’s just a different performance. We’re still entertaining — getting the fans involved on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. We’re always trying to be entertaining and fun. I think that’s a lot of what’s missing, and that’s what I like to do.

I like to show my personality. I like to be out there, I like to do crazy things. I did some crazy dress-up thing at Darlington for the throwback weekend. I wore a big afro and platform shoes. You can go look on my Facebook. It’s fun.

What’s a notable role you played in a play or musical?

My very first big lead role — I was a junior in high school — was Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. That was so cool to do. And that was pretty much my dream role.

One thing about that: It was really cool, because me and Charlie have a lot of similarities. He was always thinking positive. And my motto on every car I drive is, “Patience, never give up.” So it’s kind of that mantra, and it was really cool to play it on stage.

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

I don’t think I’ve ever given the middle finger. That’s just not in my character. I mean, I’ll give hand signals like, “Hey, what are you doing?” I’ll get frustrated. (But) I’m not that guy to curse and yell and stuff like that.

I’m super competitive and I want to be the best, but I’ve always been that guy to talk things out. If something is going on, (I’ll say), “Hey man, what was that all about?” Or “Hey, give me some slack.” I only had one or two problems on the track last year, and we talked it out, and it was good afterward. I’ve never (given the finger) and I hope I don’t.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, 100 percent. We race 33 times a year in the Xfinity Series. If you’re constantly focusing on all the negative and, “Oh, I owe that guy,” you’re never going to be successful. Even that payback list — yeah, you always keep that in the back of your mind (and) maybe you race a little harder because of something they did the previous week. But at the end of the day, if you don’t let it go, you’re going to be fixated on it. My policy is just let it go. Definitely, if it happens again, you may want to say or do something. But you definitely show different guys different respect. If they cut you some slack, you’ll cut them some slack next time.

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

When I was 15 or 16 and racing Bandeleros and just starting racing, a buddy of mine was friends with Kyle Petty. And Kyle Petty showed up to dinner, and that was really, really cool, because that was the first time I had really met a NASCAR driver. I haven’t really had many famous dinners, but that one kind of sticks out to me. Because it was like the first time, like, “Oh my gosh, that’s Kyle Petty. That’s so cool.”

He’s a very engaging and friendly guy.

Yeah. He’s always had that personality and is definitely somebody I look up to. My all-time hero in racing was Dale Jarrett. I got to meet him. I had an incident on the track at Kentucky in practice where I got really, really sideways and slid and had a big save. And Dale was like, “Hey, that was awesome. He made an awesome save. I don’t know how he did that.” I was like, “Wow, that’s my hero talking about me making a save on track.” That was so, so cool.

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

Probably my organization skills and time management. I’ve never been really (good about) being on time and things like that. I know that’s kind of important. And just organization. I’m kind of a messy person, and everybody says I’m ADD or ADHD. I’ve never been diagnosed or anything like that, but I can get a little scatterbrained at times. I think that’s why I’m so good in the race car, because when I get in, I’m so laser-focused on what I’m doing that it just calms my brain down. So I’d definitely like to be more organized.

12. The question from the last person was Martin Truex Jr. His question is, “Who do you think the team to beat in Cup is this year?”

You gotta say Gibbs, right? I mean, last year, the Xfinity Series, Gibbs had it all wrapped up. Nobody could really touch them until really the end of the year. I think you’ve got to say Gibbs for sure.

And do you have a question for the next interview?

I’m hoping it’s a veteran driver. I’d like to ask when they were a rookie, what are some things they wish they did differently to better themselves?

And maybe follow me on Twitter.