Hi everyone. If you showed up here looking for my racing coverage…welp. I’m thinking you haven’t heard I’ve now moved to The Athletic. I’m still following racing, still doing 12 Questions interviews and the Top Five column — just in a different spot.
Hopefully, you’re already a subscriber to The Athletic. They cover every major sport and have tons of writers, so the subscription goes well beyond racing.
Five thoughts after Saturday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race…
1. Heat races, anyone?
This year’s edition of the All-Star Race — also known as NASCAR’s mad science experiment — produced some intriguing leads for concepts that could be brought to the Cup Series on a regular basis.
The exhibition has been a proving ground for ideas in the past. Double-file restarts and stages both had their roots in the All-Star Race before becoming routine. The current rules package did, too.
So what can NASCAR take this time?
A lot of the focus will be on the tweaks to the rules package — the hood scoops and the ridged splitter — but the biggest takeaway should be heat races.
The Open wasn’t just a B-Main, as Kyle Larson called it. It was almost a series of B-Mains, because the winner was removed after each stage and essentially created a new race.
And based on the intensity and hard driving we saw in those short-burst races, there’s nothing wrong with putting elimination on the line in a B-Main and moving to an A-Main later.
Why not try it in an actual Cup Series points race?
NASCAR has worried for years that if a star driver didn’t make the main event, sponsors and fans would riot. But what’s the difference between having a driver get eliminated in a B-Main and having them crash out on Lap 1 of the feature race? The driver still raced at the track that day and was still part of the overall show, even if they faced an early exit.
Having a battle for those last few spots — and the drama such scenarios create — is worth any griping or sponsor headaches. Forget money or a trophy; the desperation to be included in the main event is worth more than anything in that moment.
Oh, and last night’s A-Main winner came from the B-Main, which only added to the storyline.
NASCAR could try this concept at a place like Pocono or Michigan. It could hold qualifying for the top 20 spots, then use a pair of 25-mile heat races to take four more drivers from each. Eight cars would be eliminated for, say, a 300-mile feature.
Would eliminating drivers really detract from the show? Based on the Open, it would only enhance the fan and viewer experience.
2. As for the package…
The All-Star Race itself was certainly a good race and wildly entertaining. But what made it so?
If you ask the drivers, it was largely due to bunched-up racing more than the rule package tweaks.
“I honestly don’t feel like it was any different,” William Byron said of the package. “I think it was just the circumstance of how many restarts there were and how intense this race is.”
The longest green-flag run of the 85-lap race was the opening stint, which was 27 laps. After that, here were the length of the green-flag runs (in order): One lap, three laps, 13 laps, four laps, 10 laps, one lap, 12 laps.
The All-Star Race had nine starts and restarts in a relatively short amount of time. So yes, that certainly helped the entertainment value and the intensity.
“You can’t really pass after it gets strung out, so you’ve got two or three laps to be as aggressive you possibly can be,” Aric Almirola said. “If you check out of the throttle for just the slightest little bit, they go by you three and four-wide. It’s crazy. It’s all about momentum.”
The bottom line: The tweaks certainly didn’t hurt, but they probably weren’t solely responsible for the improved quality of the racing, either.
3. Charlotte should save its money
When it comes to the prize money being a major storyline of the race, everyone seems to make a big deal out of it — except for the people actually taking home the cash.
Winning $1 million — of which the driver likely keeps half or less, depending on his contract — just isn’t that important to these guys. You think Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick taking home an extra $500 grand or something on top of their annual salary is worth going crazy over?
Even Larson indicated the thrill of Saturday was about the victory, not the money.
“A million dollars is cool, but just winning is more cool than a million bucks to me,” he said. “Us drivers — NASCAR drivers — are in a good place in our lives. It pays well. So whatever.”
It must be nice to be able to say “whatever” about a million dollars, but don’t get mad at Larson for the comment — because that’s reality for these guys. Salaries have declined in the Cup Series, but they’re still quite large compared to other forms of racing. Drivers live the good life, with private jets and multi-million-dollar motorhomes and lakeside mansions.
So the whole hysteria of “He’s going for a MILLION dollars!” is kind of funny. It’s not like a lottery winner or a reality show contestant, where a normal person’s life is transformed forever. These drivers would almost certainly race the same way for zero dollars.
“Just winning a big race, a prestigious event, means more to me than the money,” Larson said. “I’m all about trophies and big wins.”
To wit: Do you know how much the Chili Bowl winner gets? The answer is $10,000 — and I’d bet Larson would rather win that race than last night’s.
Charlotte Motor Speedway could still offer a generous prize — say $500,000, which would still be a lot for a race win — while saving itself a half-million to spend on marketing or something else.
4. Nostril holes
A quick word about the air ducts being in the center of the hood: Race teams need to match the color to their hood if this concept is used in the future.
Some teams — like the Hendrick Motorsports cars — had their nostril holes painted to go with their sponsor scheme. But others just left it that black/primer gray or however the ducts are produced. That made it look someone took a two-hole punch and just pressed it into the middle of the hood.
NASCAR confirmed it was up to the teams whether they wanted to match the vents to the paint scheme. So hopefully if this idea sticks around, every team will do that to avoid a potentially ugly sight.
5. THAT’S the guy?
Clint Bowyer threw 11 punches at Ryan Newman after the race. He may have connected with all 11, for all we can tell.
How many of them do you think Newman felt? I’ll tell you: ZERO. He’s indestructible. Throwing a punch at Newman is like when the army launches those little rockets at Godzilla. It’s not going to do anything, and if he feels it, it’ll be a tiny pinch.
Look, I get why Bowyer was mad. Newman retaliated after the race, and even though Bowyer was at fault the first time — he pulled a jerk move on Newman after thinking the 6 car was a lap down — Bowyer had a right to go fight.
But damn, you’re really going to pick NEWMAN to battle with? The burly no-neck dude who already makes racing him a living hell for everyone who tries to make a pass? THAT’S the driver you want to feud with?
I’d apologize if I were Bowyer, and here’s why: If Newman gets mad after the next race and throws 11 punches at Bowyer, he’s done. His face would not heal in time for sponsor promo shots next year. Not worth it!
I could see trying to throw down with Larson or someone like that, but not Newman. Attack with some clever quips and insults; save the fists for someone who can’t hurt you back as easily.
This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Ryan Preece, Cup Series rookie for JTG Daugherty Racing.
It’s well documented that you had to take a risk, take a big bet on yourself to advance your career. When you were trying to make this decision, did you feel like this was by far the clear option for you?
No. It all really goes back to 2016 when I raced at JD Motorsports (in the Xfinity Series). At the end of the year I re-evaluated everything (after finishing 17th in the standings). I’m a racer. I come from winning a lot of races, and I didn’t see myself getting to where I wanted to be, so I moved home. I went home (to Connecticut).
From Charlotte. This was 2016. Going into 2017 I was hired by the guy I was driving for, Eddie and Connie Partridge, the (owner of) T.S. Haulers Motorsports, to work full-time on the race car. I had one of the most successful Modified seasons I had had.
So in 2017, there was an opportunity that came about that year. Carl (Edwards) retired, and a friend of my texted me. Kevin “Bono” Manion, a crew chief at Ganassi a while back, he worked at (Kyle Busch Motorsports) at the time, and he told me to call Steve de Souza (who oversees Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series program) at the time because there would be some openings. To me that was the opportunity that I needed because I knew I could win races; I just needed the car, I needed the team.
So I did everything I could to come up with funding as soon as I talked to Steve about what it would take. It got time to close it out and there was still $80 grand that needed to be found. I basically I looked at two people and said, “Hey, I need $80 grand. I need to figure this out, otherwise I can’t race this race,” or whatever it was going to be. And they loaned me the money.
It wasn’t like going to a bank, so I didn’t have to sit in an office and explain my business plan. I told them, “Hey, this is the opportunity I needed” and I’m lucky to have been surrounded by people like that.
But the mindset I had was I knew I could win races. I was winning from 2011 or 12 on — I was winning 15 to 20-plus races a year. And I knew that if I had the right opportunity that I could do it.
So ultimately it all came down to me believing in myself and not really accepting failure, not being content with just being at the Xfinity level in 2016. It was like, “Hey, I don’t want to just be here; I want to be successful here.” Sometimes taking a step back helps you get three steps forward.
I think that’s kind of a mindset that might be lost in today’s day and age. People might think taking a step backward is a bad thing when it might not necessarily be. But I was fortunate enough to have those opportunities and then do my part in them and succeed.
Let’s talk about that taking a step back part because I think that’s really interesting. I do think that there’s a mentality out there today where you always have to keep moving up the ladder, and if you’re not, like you at least make a lateral move. And you moving back home from Charlotte, I’m sure a lot of people once you told them, were like, “You’re leaving Charlotte?”
People who were close to me even said they didn’t agree with the move that I made. But at the end of the day it was really my decision. I see every in and out of this sport. It was the path that I needed to take.
I’m 28 years old, and in racing terms that’s very young still. Back in the day, you look at drivers and they were just getting Xfinity Cup rides at 28. They weren’t even getting full-time Cup rides until sometimes 30 or 33. You don’t have to be in Cup by the age of 21 to 24. It isn’t always going to work out that way.
You don’t have to drive a Late Model, or you don’t have to drive a Modified, you don’t have to drive a midget. You don’t have to race on dirt, you don’t have to race on asphalt. If you’re good at racing, you know you’re mentally tough enough and you’re obviously talented enough to do it, you’re going to get there or hopefully you get the opportunity to at least try to get there.
So there’s not necessarily one way to make it here, and I think that’s kind of a lost thing that we’ve seen in racing. There’s almost been a certain way that people think that, “Hey man, if I want to get to this level, I’ve got to do this, this, this and this.” It might have worked for a couple guys here, but it’s not necessarily going to work for you.
I didn’t have the funding to go run a K&N car or run an ARCA car. It just wasn’t gonna happen. So I did everything I could with where we were racing Modifieds and then Tommy Baldwin was a huge help along with other people to get me in Xfinity. My first start with Tommy I think was 2013 or 14 — one start in 2013, two starts in 2014 — a couple Cup starts just to kind of get me approved to get me through this process.
It’s been a six-year process to finally get to this point. It doesn’t have to happen overnight.
You’re always getting advice from people when you’re trying to make moves and you’re trying to figure out the right decision. But it sounds like you trusted your own gut enough, and that’s really hard to do if people are telling you something different. If you go against that because you believe in yourself, that’s a very powerful thing.
So when it came to racing and opportunities and kind of how all that went, I’ve asked for advice from very few people on what I need to do. Because every time I try to force something to happen it just never worked out.
I remember after I won Iowa and after I had run Kentucky for JGR I went to Joe (Gibbs), I went to Toyota, I went to all those guys and said, “Hey, what do I need to do to get a ride?” because nothing was coming about. It was like I finally after I went to them and said everything I could, I remember going home and I’m like, “Alright, well, I’ve done all I can at this point. Now it’s up to fate.” If it’s meant to be it’s meant to be.
And I remember I got a phone call. It was like 8:30 in the morning and I was taking my brother golfing for his bachelor party. I got a call from Steve de Souza saying, “Hey Ryan, we got a sponsor and they want you in the car for 10 races.” And it ended up turning into 15.
But that’s fate. I did my part and then a lot of it was the right people and everything else kind of falling into place. It was definitely a risk, but at the end of the day it’s no risk, no reward.
Is it just a matter of purely listening to your gut or do you write things down and weigh options when you’re trying to make tough decisions?
If you talk to my wife she’d tell you absolutely not, it’s like shoot off the hip.
So it’s trusting your gut.
It’s trusting my gut. I knew I’m capable of winning races. I’ve won a lot of races, and I’m very proud of that.
Sitting back in 2016 when I saw JGR 1-2-3 in practice, qualifying and racing for quite a few races, I knew they were a dominant team and that’s what the sport is all about. It goes in waves. I’ve always kind of looked at which team I felt was going to be the dominant one or the one that seemed to really be making strides in their program and that’s something that I still stay in touch with these days.
You hear Kevin Harvick say, “You can’t drive a slow car fast.” And that’s something that I learned when I was racing Modifieds, because there were times when I’d win three races in the row — and then we go up to the next race and we couldn’t run ninth. As much as a driver can win the race, a team helps them win that race, along with the crew, the crew chief building that setup. It’s really a team sport. So that’s something I learned.
We’ve been building our setup with this team (at JTG’s No. 47 car). We’ve been working on our speed and trying to find that niche for me, and once we get there we’re going to be running just like the 37 has at multiple times this year. We’re going to get there and I think that all those moments helped prepare me for this.
What’s the most important thing if somebody’s considering making a move or taking a bet on themselves to quit a job and try something else? What do you wish people would know about that process?
It’s a risk. It is. But if you believe in it and believe in yourself, if you’re willing to do what it takes — and I’m not just talking about putting your eight hours a day and that’s it, because it’s going to take a lot more than that. It’s going to take a lot of risk. But at the end of the day if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “Man, I can do this. I know I can,” believe in it and do it.
I’m from New England, so Barstool Sports is a big deal, and I watched the documentary that’s been going on with Dave Portnoy and how he started Barstool and how he’s built it to what it is this day. And that’s inspiring, too. I mean, that’s the American dream. Whether you enjoy his content or not, he is living the American dream on what he built. He took a risk on himself, just like I’ve taken a risk and many others have taken risks.
By being content and living your day-to-day life when you want more, you’re not going to get to that point by just sitting in your chair waiting.
How do you overcome the fear to do it?
I’ve never had fear when it came to things. I’ve always believed in myself, so I never feared failure — because failure was never an option, right? I just knew.
So I can’t relate to somebody who fears failing, because if you fear that you’re going to fail, more than likely you’re going to — whether you want to hear it or not. So you’ve just got to believe in yourself.
At the end of the day stay positive, and hopefully — not hopefully — it will end up happening.
The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Erik Jones of Joe Gibbs Racing. These interviews are recorded as a podcast but are also transcribed for those who prefer to read.
1. Are you an iPhone person or an Android person, and why?
Well I’m iPhone now; been that way for probably eight years now. I had an Android when they first came out and then I switched to iPhone right after. Back then (the iPhone) was better — I don’t know if they’re better or not now, but I’ve just stuck with it ever since.
Did you know up to this point we have had no Android people all year?
From how many drivers has that been now?
This is probably 12. (Editor’s note: Actually 14.)
All iPhone? I’m trying to think of who would have an Android. Do you have an Android?
No, no. Come on.
2. If a fan meets you in the garage, they might only have a brief moment with you. So between an autograph, a selfie or quick comment, what is your advice on the best way to maximize that interaction?
If I remember when I was a fan and I would go and try to get autographs, I would always just try to say something to a driver, whether it was, “Good luck,” or “Nice job” on this race or that race. I think that means more than any autograph or picture you’re going to take.
Even just going up and a pat on the back — some drivers might not like that, but I don’t mind — and just saying, “Hey, good job,” or “Good luck,” I think you remember that more than any time you get an autograph.
You kind of get into a mode when you’re giving out autographs when you’re not even sometimes looking at who you’re giving them to and you don’t really remember that interaction.
3. When someone pulls a jerk move on the road when you’re driving down the highway, does that feeling compare at all to when someone pulls a jerk move on the track?
For me it probably does. I mean, I’m not a very aggressive driver on the road, but yeah, it feels really similar.
It’s funny to me how bad people road rage on the road. It’s not frustrating for me because during the weekends, obviously road rage is 10 times higher than anything you’ll ever experience on the street. So it’s always kind of funny to me to see people get angry about it.
I just got flipped off last Monday driving down the road. This guy was talking on his phone and he was just in the way. I wasn’t really tailgating him, I wouldn’t say, but he looked up in the mirror and I guess he saw I was just behind him. So I went and passed him on the right and I looked over and him and his girlfriend were flipping me off.
The girlfriend too?
Oh yeah, both of them. It was a combined effort.
What a team they are.
I’ve never seen a team effort like that.
4. Has there ever been a time where you’ve had a sketchy situation with your safety equipment?
Probably a couple. I had to get in a car once in NASCAR — I’m not going to say what car it was because I don’t want to get into trouble for this — but I had to get into a car and I put the lap belts on and it was a last-minute deal and the lap belts didn’t fit.
I was like, “Man, I don’t know what to do.” We didn’t have time to change them and they weren’t adjustable. They were sewn belts. So I took them and I just wrapped them up and then put them together and I finally got them tight by wrapping them like a rope. So I pretty much had a rope around each side of my hips — which I don’t know what would have happened if I crashed.
But yeah, that’s probably the weirdest situation, something like you shouldn’t have done safety-wise. Other than that I’ve been pretty good safety-wise. I usually focus on it pretty good.
Were you thinking about that once you started driving? Was it in the back of your mind like, “Uhh…”
Yeah, a little bit. You think about it at first, but once you get racing you kind of zone in, lock in, you don’t think about it. I noticed it later in the race because it was uncomfortable. You kind of had basically a rope around your waist, so it wasn’t the most comfortable thing.
5. If your crew chief put a super secret illegal part on your car that made it way faster, would you want to know about it?
Yeah. I would want to know. I would be upset if we got busted for something I had no idea we were doing on a Sunday after the race. I would just be frustrated, like, “Why didn’t you tell me about this? You could have at least told me and I wouldn’t have been upset if we got busted after the race.” But if we win a race and we get caught for something illegal and I didn’t know, it would be frustrating.
Because you’d be blindsided.
You’d be thinking you’re celebrating this big win and have no thoughts (about losing the win). But at least if you knew in the back of your mind after the race, you’re like, “Well…”
You’re like, “I hope they don’t find this.”
“Eh, it might not work out.” That’s why I’d want to know.
6. What is a food you would not recommend eating right before a race and are you speaking with personal experience with this recommendation?
Skyline Chili. Not personal experience, but I know someone that ate it before a race. It was really hot and they had a couple bowls of Skyline Chili and it didn’t go well for them. They finished the race, but it doesn’t sound like it was very pleasant.
This must have been like a Kentucky race or something?
It was a Late Model race years ago and it was in Nashville at the Fairgrounds. It was hot — July or September or August race. Yeah, I’d stay away from it. I usually just eat chicken.
7. Is there life in outer space, and if so, do they race?
Yeah, I think there’s life somewhere. I mean, the universe is too big I think to not have something out there. There’s so much we haven’t been to.
But do they race? I don’t know. You think of life out there and you can only think of your own logic, right? It’s human logic how we think. You wouldn’t know how they think. If you’re thinking like us, then they race. I mean, everybody races, whether it’s cars or on foot or anything. Everything becomes a race if you want it to be. So I have to imagine that they do race in some form whether it’s cars or anything they’ve got out there.
8. What do drivers talk about when they’re standing around at driver intros before a race?
You know, I don’t really talk to the other drivers.
No, not really. I’ll go up and see a couple of my buddies out there, but for the most part I don’t really like making small talk. Most people that know me know that, so I just don’t enjoy going up there and being like, “What’s up man? How’s your week been? What have you been up to?”
I’m trying to go race. I mean, I always tell people (about being at the track) that I’m at work. Like I’m here working. It’s fun — I love to race — but I take it pretty seriously.
I’ve never been one to make small talk, but when we do, it’s usually about the car. If it’s one of my buddies, we’re talking about next week, maybe we can get together, grab dinner, go golfing, get out on the lake or something. Pretty small talk.
I’m kind of picturing your approach is like when I get on an airplane and I really do not want people to talk to me.
I’m the same way.
If people start I’ll kind of be like, “Yeah, uh huh, that’s right.” And then I’ll just kind of put my head down. So if you are at driver intros and somebody comes up to you and tries to strike up a conversation, are you just kind of like, “Yup, yup…”
Yeah, pretty much. I’ll go with it. If it’s someone I like, I’ll talk to them. But there’s some guys I don’t like, so I’m not going to like strike up a fake conversation with them just to be cordial, I guess.
But yeah, I’m the same way. I get on an airplane, I’ll just put headphones on right away. Hopefully I’m the first one in the row, and I just throw the headphones on and be done with it.
9. What makes you happy right now?
Right now probably my dog (Oscar), he makes me happy. My girlfriend (dirt racer Holly Shelton) makes me happy right now. Those two things are good for me I think.
Oscar’s been a really good addition since for almost the last two years now, and I’ve just enjoyed having him around — especially at the track. I get a lot of weekends by myself here, so it’s nice to go back to the bus at the end of the day and just see someone who doesn’t care what happened during the day. They’re just happy to see you, right? So that’s always kind of nice for me.
And your girlfriend’s kind of a badass.
Yeah, she’s a good race car driver. She’s not here this weekend (this was recorded at Talladega); she’s actually racing in California in the Outlaw kart stuff.
So that’s pretty cool and it’s been nice to have her around, to have someone that kind of understands the racing world and what goes on. If you have a bad day, they know how to handle that because she’s been in that situation and it makes things a little bit easier.
Do you ever get to watch her race? Do you get to go to her races?
I haven’t actually been to one. I watch her online. She’s actually racing tonight and I’ll be streaming it on my phone here after qualifying, so that’s kind of cool. Hopefully I get the chance to see her in the Indy one — she’s going to do hopefully the midget race there.
10. Let’s say a sponsor comes to you and says, “We are going to fully fund the entire rest of your racing career on the condition that you wear a clown nose and an 80’s rocker wig in every interview you do as long as you’re driving.” Would you accept that offer?
Just during the interview?
So like right now, or…?
I guess on TV, you’ve got to have that clown nose on, you’ve got to have the 80’s rocker wig on. But they’re going to fund you so you never have to worry about sponsorship again.
I could walk around pretty normal. Yeah, I guess I’ll do it. A TV interview is what, 45 seconds? I’d put it on for 45 seconds a couple times a weekend, and if that’s what it took. I guess you’re probably going against some moral standard in a way in some people’s minds, but yeah, I’d do it. Why not?
11. This is the 10th year of the 12 Questions. There has never been a repeat question until now. Pick a number between 1 and 100, and I’m going to pull up a random question from a past year’s series.
How about 69?
This is the second straight interview that somebody’s picked 69.
Really? (Laughs) You want me to pick a different number? I don’t want to do the same question again.
I was going to make a different question anyway. I had good intentions to assign a number to every question and now I’ve just been pulling random crap out of my butt.
That makes sense. It makes the interviews better anyway, right?
This is something you’ve answered before in 2015, so I wanted to compare your answer now. What is your preferred method with dealing with an angry driver after a race? (Editor’s note: This was recorded before Jones clashed with Clint Bowyer after the Kansas race.)
I feel like my answer’s probably going to be pretty close. For the most part, if they’re mad at me, I’ll try to shoot them a call if I can. But for the most part, it’s not going to make things a lot better. If I can see them after the race, I will.
I haven’t made anyone mad in a long time, which has been nice. There have been a lot of people that made me mad. I’ve had guys call me right after the race, it’s like, “Honestly, I don’t want to talk to you right now.” So I’ll wait a couple days and try to get ahold of them. But a lot of times it doesn’t seem like it’s going to help. But if they want to talk, I’ll talk.
What did I say then?
Back four years ago, you said basically it would be nice to call. You had just had an incident with Ryan Blaney, I guess this is Truck racing at the time, and you said you guys had talked about it and you respected him for that. So probably over the years you’ve realized it doesn’t make a difference.
Yeah, so that’s pretty early in my career still and now I’ve kind of realized it’s like, man, you talk to them and then they kind of yell at you for a minute on the phone. It’s like, “I don’t know if you feel better or not” — I mean they’re still going to be mad at you next week when we go racing. You’re not going to get raced very good.
And then I’ve had more incidents with guys who don’t ever call me. So it’s kind of like now you kind of just move on. It’s racing. You race so much in the Cup level that you can’t pick every battle each week to go out and try to fix.
12. The last interview was with Tyler Reddick. He wants to know about 2015 when he was running against you for the Truck title. His question was: That year, you had really fast trucks and you had a dominant season in the end but you didn’t win until June of that year. So what clicked for you that season or what did you have to find within yourself to finally win that season and then how were you able to keep that up and go to the championship?
Well that year was odd. We had really good trucks all year, really from start of Daytona to the end of Homestead. And for me it was like, man, things just wouldn’t come together. It was one of the hardest years I had in terms of having a lot of speed and not being able to put the whole race together.
We came really close. That was the year Kasey Kahne just beat us at Charlotte. Kansas we ran out of fuel leading; we led the whole race with two or three to go. There’s a lot of races at the start of the year where it’s like you’re just missing out.
And then we got into a situation where I felt like I started pushing too hard and making mistakes, get myself in trouble, and I actually sat down with Kyle (Busch, his team owner at the time) and talked to him about it.
I was like, “We have really fast trucks and this and that, what do I need to do?” And he said, “You just need to think now that you can just top-10 it every week, and if you can top-10 these races every week, not only are you going to win some of them along the way but you’re going to win the championship.” And then I’m like, “Well, that’s probably right.”
So we switched our mentality, I did, even Rudy (Fugle) did, my crew chief at the time, and went into the races more of just saying, “Let’s top-10 them. Let’s stop getting into this mode where we know we’re fast, quit trying to go out and just lead every lap and dominate the races. If we can win and those days are allowing that to happen, then let them come to you. But if it’s a day where you need to run sixth and things aren’t going your way, take that sixth.” And that’s what we weren’t doing at the start of the year.
So it turned around for me and the wins came with that and even at some places where I wouldn’t have thought we would have won at. But it just kind of worked out from that point forward.
You’re off the hook for a question for the next guy because the next one is going to go into the Indy 500 and I had to already do the Indy interview for that. So you don’t have to think of one.
That’s good. It’s hard to come up with questions. I struggle with that anyways.
Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway…
1. The package delivers
As the Kansas Speedway pavement kept cool on an unusually chilly May night, NASCAR’s new rules package found the ideal conditions to put on a good show.
Maybe that’s the key to unlocking this oft-discussed rules package. The NASCAR Winter Series, anyone?
“It used to be we wanted daytime races because it fit the rules,” race winner Brad Keselowski said. “Now it’s the opposite. Nighttime is the new daytime for NASCAR as far as the racing being better during the night, because it gives you the grip to be able to take advantage of what this car or rules setup is designed for.”
In Stage 3, after the sun had fully disappeared, the racing was as exciting as anyone could ever hope to see on a 1.5-mile track. Drivers were all over the track trying to get runs, throwing blocks and generally scrambling to grab track position before the field got sorted out.
It kept the leader from driving off and thus helped generate a three-way battle for the lead late in the race between Keselowski, Alex Bowman and Erik Jones.
“The package tonight was the closest iteration NASCAR is going to get to what I’m guessing they were shooting for,” Jones said. “We were very close to wide open. There were definitely some pack racing moments after the restarts.”
It also presented an opportunity for different teams to get into the mix, such as JTG Daugherty Racing’s Chris Buescher and Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick — who was making only his second career Cup Series start.
“I think this package did what it was designed to do,” Buescher said. “It’s kind of closing the field up a little bit, right? Get rid of the cars that could drive away and lap the entire field. With that, we had a good-driving race car and that was something that enabled us to go up there and run through it.”
A request to speak with NASCAR officials about the Kansas race was declined, and Steve O’Donnell commented only to a NASCAR.com camera crew for some reason. But you would have to guess the sanctioning body was pleased with what it saw.
That said, you also have to wonder if NASCAR is concerned Kansas might be a one-off rather than a trend. Had the race been run under warmer temperatures, cars may have been spread out while having a reduced ability to pass — as has happened in some other races this season.
It’s highly unlikely NASCAR will get lucky with another chilly night for the Coca-Cola 600 and beyond. Kentucky, for example, isn’t going to be 50 degrees in July. So the kind of racing we saw at Kansas might not be replicated until October or November, when the cool returns once again.
“I think this track suited what they were after, as far as being able to draft and be close to each other,” Chase Elliott said. “This is kind of the perfect form for it. I don’t really think it’s realistic everywhere. It was exciting tonight, so that was a win for them.”
2. Making a move
As the laps wound down, Keselowski was trailing Bowman and getting aggravated. He had his foot to the floor, all the way around the track, but wasn’t making any progress.
“In a lot of ways that’s frustrating, because it felt like before (in the old rules package) at least when you were lifting, there was something you could maybe do different,” Keselowski said. “But when you’re running wide open behind somebody and you can’t make the pass, you’re like argh.”
On the other hand, Keselowski noted making passes now is “a touch easier…because the draft helps pull you back to somebody.”
Even though Keselowski wasn’t gaining ground, Bowman still wasn’t driving away, either. So when Keselowski finally created an opportunity for himself to make a move, he was in position to capitalize.
With 11 laps to go, the No. 2 car got a run coming into Turn 1, and Bowman moved down to throw a block. But that got Bowman’s car juuuust out of balance enough for Keselowski to juke right and get to the No. 88 car’s outside.
“It feels a little bit like watching a football game and watching a corner versus a wide receiver and watch them kind of work each other,” Keselowski said. “You’re just trying to get him off balance and cut and go the other direction and get away from him. And that’s what we were able to do.”
3. What about Johnson?
It seems like Hendrick Motorsports has found some speed — at least in some of its cars. Bowman now has three straight second-place finishes and Elliott has three straight top-fives.
“Our race cars have gotten vastly better the last month or so,” Bowman said after the race.
Jimmie Johnson ended up in the top 10 at Kansas as well — putting three Hendrick cars in the top six — but he seemed more concerned than pleased.
“The first half, two-thirds of that race, we were terrible,” Johnson said. “That’s just the bottom line. … We’re still missing a chunk of speed even out there running by ourselves there’s a pretty good gap from our car to even our own teammates’ cars. We’re missing something.”
Johnson said the speed is there “company-wise,” as evidenced by Bowman and Elliott. But as his No. 48 team tries to get creative with its setups, Johnson sounds like he’s running out of patience as the halfway point of the regular season approaches.
“We’re probably on the aggressive side of trying to bring new stuff to the track and doing a nice thing for our company in developing and proving it,” he said. “So I’m trying to stay patient, but years are flying by. We’ve got to get to work. We’ve got to be winning races and finishing higher in the points if we’re going to have a shot at the championship. Hopefully we can clean that stuff up and get where we need to be.”
Johnson has been a good soldier for the company and kept any dissatisfaction private as the No. 48 continues its ho-hum performances. But now that his teammates have picked up the pace, Hendrick needs to double down on its efforts to get its legendary seven-time champion back up to speed as well.
4. Reddick alert
Can we talk a little more about Tyler Reddick?
Last year’s Xfinity Series champion was viewed somewhat warily when he took advantage of a track that suits his style (Homestead) to run the top line all the way to a championship — this after he won just one other race all year.
So was he really that good?
Why yes. Yes, he is.
Reddick, who has shined in the Xfinity Series this season, had quite a good showing Saturday night in what was his first “real” Cup race (the other was the Daytona 500, which was the final restrictor plate race).
The Californian had a legit shot at a top five finish and ultimately ended up with a top-10 — and then expressed disappointment! A lot of young drivers in his position would be elated with a top-10 in their first intermediate track race. But Reddick certainly wasn’t.
“I always want more; that’s just the way I am,” he said. “I’ve raced against some of these guy in the Xfinity Series and it was fun to go toe-to-toe with them. It was still a lot of fun to finish top-10, but we didn’t come here to run top 10. We came here to battle for the win.”
For example: Before the race on Saturday, he walked around the garage with samples of a shampoo product that was on his car (Tame the Beast) and passed them out to people while explaining how it makes his scalp refreshingly tingle (I’m not joking). Then he passed out a sample of the same company’s product — called “Nutt Butter” lotion — with instructions to use it…uh…down there (again, not joking).
Anyway, as fans get to know him both on the track and off it, he has a chance to become a driver who can make an impact when he gets to the Cup Series.
5. Are you listening?
NASCAR’s most popular driver doesn’t think officials care about his opinion, but you can bet they care that he said that.
On Friday, Elliott told reporters he’s tried to voice his opinion at times behind closed doors and said he’s realized “I just don’t think that my opinion matters to the people who make the rules.”
But he went a step further and wondered aloud if NASCAR should care. In his mind, maybe not.
“Why do the owners and the drivers and the teams even have a voice in some of that stuff?” he said. “When it comes down to it, just make the rules and be done with it. We’re racing. Either you like it or you don’t.”
The thing is, this goes against the direction of how NASCAR has been leaning recently. A decade ago, one of NASCAR’s biggest problems was said to be the sanctioning body’s lack of listening. Officials were criticized for making decisions without input from the rest of the garage, so now everything is changed.
Manufacturers have input. Teams have input. Drivers have input — first through the now-defunct drivers council, then through group driver sessions with NASCAR (which includes all drivers except Kevin Harvick, who hasn’t shown up for one yet).
But NASCAR points out that listening and acting on those opinions are different things. They might hear the drivers, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to do what the drivers ask.
As a result, the drivers feel frustration because they don’t have as big of a voice as others — namely the owners, though there are financial reasons for that. If it were up to the drivers, they’d have a high-horsepower, low-downforce package. Obviously, they got the opposite.
“Do I feel like the drivers have a great view of what is happening? Yeah, probably better than anyone because you can do all the CFD studies and show me all these squiggly lines, but there is nothing like real life when you get out there and actually feel it,” Joey Logano said. “… But we also have to realize and almost take a step back and look at it from a global view of what is best for our sport.
“I do feel like our voice is heard, I just feel like it is not everything and it probably shouldn’t be everything — because there are other groups that need to be heard as well.”
Some drivers and others in the garage — not just Elliott — believe NASCAR now seeks too much input. So it’s come full circle: The criticism for once not listening has turned into those seeking to return to the dictatorship.
And maybe they have a point, but it frustrates NASCAR — which has continued to make changes based on driver feedback. The playoff points, for example, were based on a Denny Hamlin concept. And just recently, Elliott asked NASCAR to find a way to fix the scoring if a driver has to go down pit road to avoid an accident — and NASCAR upgraded its pit road scoring loop technology as a result.
There are about a dozen other things NASCAR has done at the drivers’ request as well, but the bottom line is this: This era of seeking opinions has turned into opinions over whose opinions should be sought in the first place.
So perhaps Elliott is right: NASCAR should just do what it sees fit and everyone just has to live with the consequences — for better or worse.