Offseason NASCAR podcast: Five best quotes, five most memorable moments

What were the five best NASCAR quotes and the five most memorable moments of 2018? Jordan Bianchi returns to the podcast to give us his list and help answer that question. Plus a review of the most common 12 Questions answers and the best/worst races of 2018.

Explaining the Spire purchase of Furniture Row’s charter

Earlier this week, Spire Sports + Entertainment — a North Carolina-based agency — acknowledged it had purchased the No. 78 team’s charter from Furniture Row Racing and will be starting a race team.

Given the complexity of this situation, there are many questions floating around about what’s going on and what it might mean. Here’s an attempt to anticipate some of the questions and answer them.

Q: Did Spire buy Furniture Row Racing?

A: No. That’s not how this works. Spire bought the charter, which is like a franchise.

Q: I’ve never heard of Spire. Who are these people?

A: Race fans may not have heard of Spire, but every key player in the NASCAR garage has dealt with them. Founded by Jeff Dickerson (former Kyle Busch agent and spotter) and T.J. Puchyr (who formerly ran Braun Racing and Turner Motorsports), the agency now has 25 employees — including company president Ty Norris, who formerly held major roles at Michael Waltrip Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. It’s a mostly behind-the-scenes operation, but Spire has been pulling a lot of strings in the NASCAR world since 2010.

Q: OK, so they have racing people working for them. I still don’t get what Spire does.

A: Spire was originally intended to be a driver representation company, and that remains a big part of the business (Kyle Larson and James Hinchcliffe are among the clients). They handle things like contract negotiations and driver brands, for example. But over the years, Spire has expanded into also representing sponsors (5-Hour Energy, DC Solar, Brandt among them) and even working closely with race teams (Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing) and manufacturers (Toyota). Their client portfolio even includes a racetrack (Knoxville Raceway).

Q: Whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re telling me one company is negotiating on behalf of drivers, sponsors AND teams? Conflict of interest much?

A: It might sound crazy, but the company doesn’t shy away from it (this despite being named in the Brennan Poole lawsuit over the summer). I asked Dickerson, the CEO, in an interview this week about the appearance of conflict.

“These are the waters we navigate every day,” he said. “We certainly do not hide from anybody what we do. We’re not blind to the appearances and we will work with all of our clients to make them comfortable on what the priority is.”

And what’s the priority? The agency will remain the priority over the race team, he said.

Q: Uh, what? So why did the agency buy a charter to start a race team then?

A: Remember I mentioned how Spire has race teams among its partners? One of those was Furniture Row Racing, and Puchyr, the Spire co-founder, had developed a close relationship with Barney Visser and Joe Garone. In the process of shopping the charter, Visser floated the idea of Puchyr and Dickerson buying it themselves. At the same time, Spire had been looking for something big to make a statement to the industry and potential sponsors —  and a way to have something concrete for their own employees in a volatile business, which sometimes leaves them chasing commissions.

The Spire guys decided to take the leap. The deal was agreed to in September, although Visser couldn’t officially sell the charter until after the season.

“Beachfront property like this doesn’t come available very often and we’re here to do big things,” Dickerson said. “We think this purchase checks a lot of boxes on the messages that TJ and I are trying to send.”

Q: Can’t someone send a message without risking millions of dollars? And how can an agency possibly afford this?

A: Dickerson sees owning a race team in helping several different areas. For example: When his sales people go into a meeting with a potential client who has questions about the health of the sport, they can now point to this investment as proof they truly believe in racing’s future. Spire is essentially backing up its talk by putting money on the table while showing that it’s not going anywhere.

As for the expense, the 78’s charter was more valuable than others because weekly payouts from races are now based in large part on how a team has performed in the last three seasons. In Furniture Row’s case, it was 11th, first and second in the points. That means the checks from NASCAR after each race should help in repaying whatever loans Spire likely took out to obtain the charter.

Q: Oh, so is it a money grab? They’re just going to run a car and get the check?

Dickerson insists this is a long-term play and the team isn’t looking to just flip the charter. He scoffs at those who would suggest anyone is making big bucks in today’s ownership climate.

It’s different when it’s your butt writing that check and taking that risk,” he said. “This is a significant risk for us that we hope pays off.”

Q: OK, but what about the race team? Who is the driver? Where are they getting cars from? Are they going to be competitive?

A: The team is going to be called Spire Motorsports, and it will run a No. 77 Chevrolet. Those are all the details that have been confirmed at this time. Given Spire’s connections to Hendrick and Ganassi, you could probably guess they’ll end up in some sort of technical alliance with one of them in order to make the team function. (Update: The team will be leasing space in the Premium Motorsports shop and have a partnership — at least on some level — with Premium. However, Premium isn’t running the team.)

It’s hard to predict whether the team will be competitive until we know more about the plans to hire a driver (or drivers), a crew chief, crew, etc.

Q: I’m sorry, but just back up for one more minute. You’re telling me an agency that does business with Toyota is going to run Chevrolets? An agency that negotiates driver contracts and sponsorships with race teams is now going to race against some of the very drivers and sponsors it represents?

A: I asked Dickerson what all his company’s various partners thought of Spire starting a team. He said they were all consulted and gave their support.

“It’s just racing, man,” he said. “We all have raced for a long time and we’ve raced against our friends and our family. I think for three hours on Sunday we can figure it out.”

The truth about Bob

Bob Pockrass won’t be covering motorsports for ESPN after this season, a revelation that should set off alarm bells for anyone who cares about NASCAR.

It’s not so much about ESPN. Though it’s scary to see another major news outlet step back from racing, that alone won’t have much impact on NASCAR’s current fans.

What would have an impact, though, is losing Bob. His future at the moment is unclear, and it’s possible he could remain on the NASCAR beat should another employer come along to scoop him up.

Let’s hope that happens, because if this season was the final one with Bob at the racetrack, we’re all going to be worse for it.

I’ve been dreading the prospect of a Bob-less media center for years, but I always thought it would be because he keeled over after working himself to death — not because an employer willingly let him go.

Bob’s work ethic goes beyond the hours spent at the track, which are well-documented. A relentless journalism machine, Bob’s mind rarely takes a break from the job.

Here’s one small example: Back when we were co-workers at NASCAR Scene, Bob would spend his one day off per week by going to the county courthouse to search the names of every driver and team to make sure a story hadn’t fallen through the cracks. Even now, if you look over at his computer screen during downtime at the track, he’s often doing a search of court records.

Bob seems to know everyone in the garage, from the top Cup drivers to backmarker Xfinity owners. He’s always checking in and asking for information (“Anything new with you guys?”), which means even the most minor stories rarely catch him by surprise. As such, people seek him out in the NASCAR garage and start conversations with, “What do you know, Bob?”

Even in the media center — aside from often asking the tough questions that need to be asked — Bob is seen as a source of information. If someone can’t remember a NASCAR rule or procedure, they ask Bob. There have even been times when crew chiefs ask him for clarification (“Does this mean we have to start at the back, Bob?”). And he always knows.

Those are just a couple reasons why NASCAR stands to lose so much without Bob on the beat. It’s not a knock against other reporters, but no one obsesses over the nitty gritty details of the sport quite like he does. And when you think about it, those smaller details (pit stall selection, for example) add up to feed the passion of NASCAR’s most hardcore fans.

Bob’s dedication to his work has seemed borderline unhealthy at times to friends, who have tried at times to stage interventions. Take a break, Bob! Relax! But attempting to get him to do less is like trying to snatch a juicy steak from the jaws of a pit bull. His extreme sense of duty to inform readers — you’ve seen this through his Twitter interactions — cannot be matched.

One of the most recent arguments, a negotiation that began months ago, is what Bob would be willing to do for his 50th birthday next year. It’s on March 1, and NASCAR will be in Las Vegas — a perfect place to celebrate with a dinner. The only problem is it’s the same night as a Truck Series race, and Bob has indicated he’d rather not leave the track.

Because of his dedication, Bob has become the backbone of the NASCAR media over the years. He’d never say that himself, and he’s probably going to be pissed at this column putting him in the spotlight. There’s no ego or self-promotion when it comes to Bob. But whether he acknowledges it or not, Bob has been the best on the NASCAR beat.

Fortunately for Bob, his skills can apply to any form of journalism. There’s no substitute for hustle, and I’m certain he won’t have trouble finding another job (even ESPN would be wise to retain him in a different capacity). I know he’s going to be just fine.

Selfishly, though, I hope Bob stays in NASCAR. We will all be less informed and less knowledgeable if 2018 turns out to be his final lap.

The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR championship race at Homestead

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway…

1. Judging worthiness

After a season dominated by three drivers whose appearance in the final race seemed inevitable, it was someone else who ultimately won the NASCAR title.

For many fans, accepting Joey Logano as champion may be difficult — not only because he’s irked them over the years, but because he wasn’t the best car of the season.

Logano was tied for fourth in wins, fourth in top-fives, fourth in laps led and tied for third in average finish. Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch won eight races apiece and Busch ended up with the best average finish of any driver since 2007 — but finished fourth in points.

I’m not here to make the case for Logano as the Driver of the Year. He wasn’t. And that’s despite scoring the most points in the 10-race playoff, which might have won the title under the previous Chase format.

But the bottom line is this: Logano IS a worthy champion in 2018. And by that I mean he did everything required of him in this format, as did Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick (two wins as opposed to Christopher Bell’s seven).

They were great when it counted. And that’s what matters these days.

You may not like it or get nostalgic about the days of a season-long title race ensuring the best driver and team win, but Logano checked every box required of a champ these days.

He won the three times when it mattered — once to lock himself into the playoffs, once to advance to Homestead and once to win the championship. He went up against the best competition, beating the toughest field in the five-year history of the winner-take-all race. And he produced in the clutch, passing Busch and Martin Truex Jr. after the final restart.

That’s what it takes these days. Busch sharply said the most successful season of his life — with eye-popping stats! — was “all for naught.” And you know what? He’s right. It doesn’t matter in this era, which rewards great timing over great seasons.

No, Logano didn’t have the resume of a traditional champion. He even said if you asked 20 weeks ago, he would have said making the final eight was the goal.

But there’s not much traditional about NASCAR in 2018, if you haven’t noticed. It’s probably best to accept that for the sake of enjoying the sport. And if you’re holding on to the hope for a return to tradition, I’ve got news for you: Things are only going to change more in the years to come.

2. Logano as champ

In some ways, Logano is the perfect champion for NASCAR to sell to the masses.

He’s an aggressive racer on the track but one of the nicest, most giving guys off it. He’s wholesome and family-friendly. He’s personable and a Millennial.

The only problem is…the majority of NASCAR fans don’t like him! He received more boos than Kyle Busch several times this season, which is saying a lot. And that impression isn’t about to change now that he’s champion, so it’s sort of a lost cause to try and sell him to current fans. But perhaps NASCAR could use him to appeal to the casual fan rather than the hardcore fan who he’s already offended by clashing with their favorite drivers.

Either way, there’s a lot more to come for Logano. Jimmie Johnson didn’t win his first championship until he was 30. Logano is 28 and has 10 years of experience plus a title and 21 wins under his belt.

I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say Logano will win at least three championships and 30 more races before he’s done. Fans might need to quietly jump on the bandwagon while there’s still room, lest they risk having to watch a driver they can’t stomach continue to rack up trophies at the expense of their preferred racer.

3. Keselowski’s caution

When asked directly if he thought Brad Keselowski intentionally caused a caution to benefit Logano late in the race, Truex crew chief Cole Pearn didn’t outright dismiss the notion.

“It’s possible, for sure,” he said. “Who knows? Whatever. It is what it is.”

Keselowski made contact with Daniel Suarez while they were part of a near-four-wide situation, sending Suarez spinning. At the time, Logano was last among the playoff contenders and it looked like Truex was en route to winning the title.

Pearn wasn’t the only one in the garage who considered the possibility of some funny business with that caution. But I’ll be honest: I can’t see it.

When the caution happened, it was Busch — not Logano — who seemed to benefit the most. Busch needed that caution on his desperate pit strategy and that moment appeared to put him in position for a championship.

So do you really think Keselowski would have caused a caution that could have made a champ out of his rival? I don’t.

4. Going Home

Despite the lack of cautions for the first two and a half races of the weekend, Homestead-Miami Speedway is easily the best intermediate track in NASCAR. If only they could all be that way, right?

If they were, NASCAR probably wouldn’t be going to the extreme step it’s taking with the 2019 rules package. Whatever we’ll see next year, it’s a good bet it won’t look much like what we saw Sunday.

Like a lot of you, I’m worried about what the future holds with the racing. Was this the last “real” championship race? I’ll wait and see before judging.

But if I’m going to look back on this pre-pack-racing era in a few years or read this in 2023, I’d like my future self to remember this: The racing was great and thrilling at times, but not often enough. The cars and the tires and the track surfaces could occasionally combine to put on a good show, but not always.

That said, it felt like the drivers who won in this era were rising to the top based on their talent more than luck or chance. It felt like we were witnessing greatness. I’m worried we won’t have that same confidence about drivers of the future because of the rules package.

5. NASCAR is entertainment

This has seemed like a dark year in the world and in our country. It’s tough to turn on the news without feeling depressed about the latest bad story and it seems like we’re increasingly divided as Americans.

Oddly, that’s an opportunity for NASCAR. That’s because this is entertainment, the chance to escape all the crap that drains our energy in real life. NASCAR can be something that brings us together and makes us feel good, which would benefit everyone.

But NASCAR has yet to successfully take advantage of that fact, because there’s an endless cycle of negativity around NASCAR itself. And so often it seems self-inflicted, which is maddening.

From headline-stealing penalties to the dumb controversy of the week to any variety of off-track news, NASCAR seems like it can’t get out of its own way sometimes. If you can’t tell, I feel exhausted by it.

My wish for the future is NASCAR figures out a way to make this sport fun again. The drivers too often seem miserable, the teams upset, the media (myself included) overly critical, the fans angry. There doesn’t seem to be much joy about what goes on in this series.

And that’s a shame. Because as much as the ratings have fallen or attendance has slid, there’s STILL a lot of good things happening here. NASCAR should be uplifting, not a downer for the people who love it and invest time in it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If anyone has ideas on how to break that vicious cycle, let me know. I’m listening.

NASCAR fan follows Cup Series circuit for full season

Contessa Nyree made it to Homestead-Miami Speedway, her 37th Cup Series weekend of the season. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

After nearly 12 years, Contessa Nyree decided she had enough of being a lawyer in Manhattan. Mentally and physically exhausted by the job, Nyree saved up enough money to temporarily walk away from both the working world and New York — with enough in her bank account for an adventure or two.

Nyree eventually moved out of her 400-square-foot apartment, sold her furniture, packed all of her remaining belongings in an 8-by-10-foot storage unit and hit the road with two suitcases.

Her destination? Every track — and almost every race — on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit in 2018.

With the exception of the fall Richmond race (which she skipped to attend her godson’s baptism in Wisconsin), Nyree attended 37 Cup Series events this season — as well as the companion Xfinity/Truck Series races at those tracks and the Eldora Truck race.

She did it all on her own dime, receiving no freebies, discounts or extras from NASCAR or any of the tracks.

“I’m really happy I did it,” Nyree said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “It’s been an awesome trip. And not only the tracks, but I got to visit places like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls for the first time. There’s a lot of cool things to see in our country.”

Nyree drove to the majority of the races in a used 2015 Toyota Prius she purchased after leaving New York (there’s no reason to own a car in the city, after all). She estimates between the Prius and the cars she rented on the few trips that required flights, she drove approximately 40,000 miles.

There were times when she questioned herself, as well as some long and lonely days on the road. She spent her 40th birthday in September flying from Indianapolis to Las Vegas for the first playoff race.

It could be very tiring,” she said. “Not only the actual driving, but doing the planning, making sure I have my race tickets, have my hotels, where am I going to eat? You’re responsible for every single bit of your day, but without a base. Doing it while not having a home right now was difficult.”

“But then I’d go to the race weekends. I love the sport and I enjoy being at the racetrack. That would bring me back to, ‘This is why I’m doing it.'”

There were also a few headaches along the way, like when a few tracks sent tickets to her brother’s home in Wisconsin — currently her legal address — instead of leaving them at will call. But for the most part, the trip went smoothly.

Though she’s been a fan since 2005 — she cheered for Tony Stewart until his retirement, when she became a fan of Wood Brothers Racing — Nyree said she’ll remember much more than just the races themselves.

When I think back to any race weekend, it’s the random race fans you sit and talk with,” she said. “As fans, we all sit down and talk to each other — whoever is next to you to eat or in the stands. And you might not get their name or see them again, but you can talk racing.

“I’ll remember my experiences at the track more than anything, like my first time in the Neon Garage in Vegas or last weekend at ISM — their infield is amazing from a fan perspective.”

Although doing such a trip was expensive — particularly without any income — Nyree said traveling to races is more possible than many fans think because “there are ways to do it cheaper without feeling cheap.”

Her tips for fans include staying 45-60 minutes from the track (she said most of her hotels this season were under $150 per night) and looking for deals on the track’s websites (she would purchase her tickets anywhere from two months to two weeks out from the race).

So what’s next? Nyree is not sure what 2019 holds, but she has one more stop on her NASCAR tour before the year ends: Champions Week in Las Vegas.

“I’ve traveled from Feb. 6 until now,” she said. “I can’t not do Vegas.”