What the hell are flange-fit composite bodies, and why do they matter?

Here’s a quick Q&A — with myself — to help explain Wednesday’s news that NASCAR will move toward flange-fit composite bodies in the Xfinity Series:

Uh, what is this?

OK, so you know how all stock car bodies in NASCAR’s national series are made of one steel piece? NASCAR is looking to change that in the Xfinity Series by introducing something called flange-fit composite bodies.

I had to Google this, but a flange is basically an attachment, like a hook. And then composite describes the laminate material the body will be made of.

I don’t really get it. How’s that going to work, exactly?

There are now going to be 13 composite panels that make up an Xfinity Series body, held together by these flanges. Remember those 3D jigsaw puzzles? It’s kinda like that, from what I gather.

That’s crazy!!! Why in the world would NASCAR do that?

Racing is expensive and this is going to save teams some sweet, sweet cash in several different ways. Also, it should promote parity if it works.

OK. How and how?

The cost savings part is legit. Let’s say a car wrecks in practice and the body is pretty much junk, but the chassis is still good. Well instead of pulling out a backup car, now the team can just take the damaged panel off and put a new one on. And if there’s a crash during the race, it will be way less of a time suck to just replace the panels as opposed to hanging a new steel body on the chassis once the team gets back to the shop.

As for parity? Well, everyone is going to be running the same panels and they are supposedly tamper-proof with security features that will prevent teams from manipulating them for aero advantages.

Can they change the panels during the race?

Nope, because the five-minute clock will still be in effect for crash damage and it would take too long to swap out the panels.

Huh. But the teams can’t possibly be on board with this, right?

NASCAR says they are. Officials say the teams have been asking for this and worked with NASCAR and the manufacturers on this project. And apparently NASCAR got some strong buy-in, because officials are expecting all but a few teams to run it at the first available opportunity — even though it’s optional.

When is that? You got this far down in the story and didn’t even say when this is all happening.

Sorry, my bad. It’s Richmond, Dover and Phoenix this fall, and then all races except for superspeedways next season.

Wait, back up a couple questions. Did you say this is optional? If so, why wouldn’t some teams keep running the steel bodies in the future?

As of right now, steel bodies likely offer a competitive advantage over composite bodies because teams can manipulate them right up to the edge of the rules.

But in the near future, that may not be the case. Brett Bodine, NASCAR Senior Director of R&D, hinted there would be competition restrictions on the steel bodies that would make them heavier and take the incentive away to use them next year.

Clearly, NASCAR wants composite bodies to be the wave of the future.

Oh. So they’re coming to Cup then, probably.

Eh, maybe. But NASCAR won’t say that and wouldn’t go there on Wednesday. Officials insist they’re “100 percent focused” on seeing how it works in Xfinity first.

And by the way, NASCAR says fans won’t be able to tell the difference between a steel car and a flange/composite car by just watching from the stands or on TV.

Interesting. Well, it doesn’t sound all bad. Did NASCAR do something right?

We’ll have to wait and see, but at least it seems that way on first glance.

News Analysis: Reports say William Byron to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car

What happened: William Byron, age 19, will be named as the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car starting in 2018, according to (in order of reporting) SportsBusiness Journal, SBNation.com and Motorsport.com. The team has not officially announced the move (and I haven’t personally confirmed it, but I don’t doubt those who have). Byron, who grew up playing NASCAR video games but did not start racing until five years ago, will replace Kasey Kahne, whose departure from Hendrick was announced Monday. The racing prodigy is currently a rookie in the Xfinity Series, where he is second in points with three wins for JR Motorsports — this following his seven wins last season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series.

What it means: The face of Hendrick Motorsports has been dramatically altered in the last few years. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (combined 137 Cup victories) have been replaced with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Byron (combined zero Cup victories), who have an average age of 21.3. Byron will now be a full-time Cup driver after just one year each in Trucks and Xfinity — and that seems like an awfully quick move, similar to the rapid ascents of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. Byron is unquestionably talented, but it would have been nice to see him run another full season of Xfinity before getting promoted to Cup — something even Jimmie Johnson indicated last month. “At his age, I just don’t want to be in too big of a hurry to move him up,” Johnson told a small group of reporters at New Hampshire. “If you look back at past history, like a Joey Logano scenario, it just takes time. I feel so lucky I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. … I think I was just in a better place than the position some of these young guys are put in. They’re super talented, it’s just a lot of pressure to put on those guys.”

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even if Byron was the likely replacement after the team said Kahne was out, it’s still quite noteworthy that Hendrick continues to use young and relatively inexperienced drivers to fill its seasons considering veteran drivers like Matt Kenseth are on the free agent market. It wasn’t long ago that Hendrick was the most sought-after destination for established drivers who had already won many races. Now the seats are being snatched up by drivers who are unproven at the Cup level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. shed some light on why this might be the case for Silly Season in general, and it makes sense again in this scenario.

Three questions: Can Byron continue to immediately adapt and win at the next level, as he has done in each series along the way up the ladder? Since it turned out OK for Logano and Larson in the long run, what are the real risks of moving him up too soon? Who will replace Byron at JRM now that he will be vacating a championship-caliber seat in the Xfinity Series?

Related: Here are my 12 Questions interviews with Byron from 2016 and from 2017.


12 Questions with Blake Koch

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Blake Koch of Kaulig Racing. I spoke with Koch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 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?

Oh man. I would say that it’s probably 50/50. You can work as work as you want to, but if you don’t have that natural ability to drive a car at speed, it’s gonna be really difficult to make it. And if you have that natural ability to go fast but don’t put in the work, you’re not gonna make it, either. So I feel like both are equally important. You have to have that natural talent — that natural ability to drive a race car or for whatever you’re doing in life — and then you have to have the ability to work harder than anybody else at it to become successful.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, 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?

I welcome all fans. I think that’s the most important part of NASCAR, are the fans that come out to watch us. It wouldn’t be as fun racing in front of nobody, you know? I truly appreciate the fans. I like to get to know them. I like to utilize my social media platforms, whether it’s Facebook Live or Instagram Stories, to just show my fans the behind-the-scenes of my life and also follow them, too, and get to see what they do and what they’re like.

And you know the story of the Koch Krew, and how I just welcomed those guys in (through a tweet) and now they’re my biggest fans. They have their own T-shirt line now. So I just encourage people to follow me because I’m a real person. I am a race car driver on the racetrack, but I also didn’t grow up in it.

Six years ago, I was pressure-cleaning roofs Monday through Thursday to pay the bills and then racing on the weekends. And only four years ago, I was driving Trevor Bayne’s motorhome and spotting for Michael McDowell in the Cup Series, just trying to stay at the racetrack, be in front of the right people and just keep working at it like you have to in order to make it in the sport. Ever since I’ve met (LeafFilter owner) Matt Kaulig, he’s turned my career around and here I am competing for a Xfinity Series playoff position.

I love the story of the Koch Krew. They were people who were “Carl’s Crew” and they were looking for a new driver, like so many fans are now, and I retweeted them and said they were looking for a new driver. You were the only driver out of all the possible drivers to tweet them back. And now it’s like a match made in heaven.

It is cool. I remember they wrote a letter and you reposted it. I saw it and I was like, “Man, if they’re that big of fans of Carl Edwards, I would love to have those fans.” And then they just jumped all in and they showed up, I think Daytona was the first time I met them. Then they flew all the way to Vegas, they’ve been to Pocono, Dover, they go all over the place. And the Koch Krew is getting bigger now. I mean, they use the hashtag #KochKrew and they have the shirts like I said. We’re selling a lot of those shirts. And they’re just awesome people, man; they’re just really really nice and good people, and I’m proud to be their driver.

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

The hardest part of my job away from the racetrack would have to be just balancing time. I think that goes for any person that’s married with kids and has a career: just trying to balance that time, spending enough time with my kids, spending enough time with my wife, spending enough time working at my job and focusing on how to get better. So that balance is a constant struggle for me. And not really a struggle like I’m bad at it, but I make sure it’s a priority to have a good balance of time. That’s probably the most difficult part.

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

Absolutely! Yeah! Definitely come over for an autograph.

What if you’re in the middle of eating or something?

If I’m in the middle of eating, I would say still come over and talk to us. But if I’m with someone else, make sure you talk to them, too. It’s always kind of awkward when I’m talking to somebody or a fan and it’s my wife or friend sitting there and they’re feeling awkward. So make sure you say hi to everybody at the table.

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

I don’t know about a story, but I would like to hear the sponsors mentioned more. Like when you’re watching the races, watching practice, you hear, “Blake Koch, No. 11.” It would be nice to throw in LeafFilter. Every time you say my car, my name, it’d be nice to have sponsor plugs. We work really hard to get these sponsors and spend a lot of money. Anytime we can get their names mentioned on TV more is better.

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

Yes I do. I do think we are entertainers. Our job is to put on a good race and a good show for the fans watching on their mobile device or on their television or through Twitter. There’s so many ways to relive the race, but our job really is to entertain people, especially at the racetrack. If we’re doing a Q and A on stage at the Chevy trailer, you wanna be an entertainer; you want people to be excited and not just bored. So I think it’s important to entertain our fans.

7. Who is the last driver you texted?

Well that’s easy, let’s look. (Pulls out phone) Justin Allgaier is the last driver I texted.

Can you say what you were texting about?

It was last night at 8:30. We were doing media availability (on Friday of Indianapolis race weekend), and he’s like, “I figured out something about Indy where I didn’t really want to show my cars to everybody.” I texted him saying, “Hey what do you know about Indy? Call me.” And he said, “OK, I’ll call you.”

That’s a nice friend. He shared some info.

We’ll see if he shared. (Laughs) He gave me some info but it doesn’t sound like a big secret, so we’ll see.

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

Zero tolerance for the middle finger. It makes me more mad than I can even explain to you when someone flicks me off. The last person that did it, we ended up having a talk the next weekend. And I like to have a talk, I don’t like to jump to conclusions. So I just tell them, “You can’t flick me off. It’s not OK.” And I’m looked at as the nicest guy in the garage, so when I come up and have that serious conversation with you, I mean it. So that’s my policy: Zero tolerance.

So you’re just offended? If something like that happens, you’re like, “This is deeply offensive.” That’s why you’re so mad about it?

The way I was brought up, the middle finger means a particular word to you, and it would be like walking up to somebody and saying that to their face. What do you expect the reaction to be? It’s not gonna be good. So I literally see red on the racetrack, and I have to calm myself down and it kind of ruins my whole section of the racetrack. So it’s bad.

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?

Absolutely. I entered into NASCAR with respect for every single driver I race around. I don’t really keep a payback list, like I have to pay somebody back, but they do lose my respect and I will race them differently than I race someone that does cut me breaks.

So you remember who races you which way. I race people the way I wanna be raced, and then they race people the way they want to be raced. So if they’re racing you like an idiot, they obviously want to be raced like an idiot. That’s kind of how I look at it.

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

The most famous person I’ve had dinner with, well it was dinner in the hauler, more like a late lunch, but Mark Wahlberg.

How did that come about?

He sponsored my car in 2015 with the AQUAhydrate water company that he owns part of. So he came out to California Speedway and just sat in the lounge. We were up there for about an hour eating, so I can say we ate dinner together. It might not have been dinnertime, though. But I got to hang out with him and he sat on the pit box, went around the track after driver intros with him and spent some time with him. So that’s definitely the most famous person I’ve spent time with.

Did you find him to be down to earth, or did he have a celebrity air about him?

The most down to earth celebrity I’ve ever met was Mark Wahlberg. He’s just like he is in the movies; he’s just this tough guy. He was walking around, didn’t have any bodyguards with him or anything.

I think the funniest thing was he was walking behind me to driver intros, and you know at California you walk underneath that little tunnel. Well three people stopped me for my autograph and they didn’t even ask him for his autograph because they had no idea it was him — because why would he be there? So I think that was kind of funny.

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

That’s always a question I ask good friends. I’ll ask Michael McDowell in particular or Lonnie Clouse, our chaplain (from Motor Racing Outreach). Like what do you see? What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses as a person? And they’ll tell me, and I’ll work on those things.

But to improve would probably be something simple as remember people’s names. I wish I remembered everybody’s name. Our team owner Matt Kaulig, I feel like he knows every single person’s name at Leaf Filter and there’s like a thousand employees. Every time he talk to somebody, he says their name, and I think that’s very impressive and I’d love the ability to do that.

12. The last interview I did was with David Ragan. His question was: After a race, you typically go back to your hauler. What’s the first thing you look at when you get to your phone? 

If it’s a good race, it’s the text messages. If it’s a bad race, my phone’s blank. There’s not even one single text message. So I instantly go and answer some of my text messages and I’ll try to find my wife first and say, “Hi, I’m OK,” if it’s a bad race. Or if it’s a good race, thumbs up. So my wife’s the first one I text.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a general question I could ask a driver?

Yeah, one that’s already been asked that I thought was a really great question, and we’ll see if people will be open and honest about it: Who was your favorite teammate, and who was your least favorite teammate? I think that’s very interesting and when I was reading your responses, it was interesting to see that Kenseth said it was Carl. You would never think that anyone wouldn’t like Carl at first. I kind of like that behind-the-scenes information. So the next guy, I wanna know who their favorite teammate was or is, and who their worst teammate was or is.

Just Ban Them Already

Jan. 2011

Rule: NASCAR announces drivers must “pick a series” in order to run for a championship.

Quote: “We think it’s worth it in order to promote and create more of a clearer understanding on the difference between Sprint Cup and Nationwide races or Camping World races. The attention and the identity of the developing drivers we think is expedited with this move.” — Mike Helton.

Jan.  2016

Rule: NASCAR announces the 16 Chase drivers from 2015 are ineligible to run the 2016 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in order to put an emphasis on Xfinity and Truck regulars in the new championship race format.

Quote: “Many people like the idea that it’s unique that our best drivers get to compete with our up‑and‑coming drivers. Others, not so much. But we like it in general. It’s part of who we are. …. So we’ve had to modify it a little bit, of course, with changing the formats around. But generally speaking, that’s kind of where we stand.” — Brian France.

Oct. 2016

Rule: NASCAR announces Cup drivers with more than five years of experience can race in 10 Xfinity events and seven Truck events in 2017, but cannot compete in any playoff races or Xfinity Dash 4 Cash races. In addition, drivers who get Cup points (regardless of experience level) cannot compete in the Xfinity or Truck races at Homestead.

Quote: “The updated guidelines will elevate the stature of our future stars, while also providing them the opportunity to compete against the best in professional motorsports. These updated guidelines are the result of a collaborative effort involving the entire industry, and will ultimately better showcase the emerging stars of NASCAR.” — Jim Cassidy.


Rule: NASCAR announces Cup drivers with more than five years of experience can race in seven Xfinity events and five Truck events in 2018, but none of the playoff races, regular season finale or Xfinity Dash 4 Cash races — a limit which also now extends to all Cup drivers regardless of experience level.

Quote: “Fans have made it clear that they want to see the future stars of the sport racing against their peers in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series. These guidelines achieve that and preserve limited opportunities for developing drivers to compete against the best in motorsports.” — Jim Cassidy.

In the future, maybe next year

Rule: Another baby step toward solving the problem instead of actually just banning Cup drivers from running lower-series races altogether.

Social Spotlight with Tommy Joe Martins

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their social media usage. This week: Tommy Joe Martins, who will drive for B.J. McLeod Motorsports in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Iowa Speedway.

A lot of people don’t get to hear the perspective of the “other side” of sport, and you are really good at letting people know it’s not all glamorous. I saw a recent tweet of yours where somebody was saying, “You have a nicer house than I do from money you made off racing,” and you were like, “Actually I don’t get paid from racing. I get paid from my job out at a driving school in Las Vegas.” So from that perspective, what’s your social media philosophy in the messages you try to send out there?

I got called out for being a little bit of a shit-stirrer last year with a lot of the stuff that I did on social media. I had my blog that I wrote a lot about our adventures through the Truck Series and our perspective on things from a small team that you’re kind of referencing there.

I don’t think a lot of people heard that story before, so it’s kind of interesting getting a lot of feedback from it. And I’ll tell you, it was 95 percent, really positive feedback. And then there was also the side saying, “Quit complaining,” kind of like the comment you were referring to there. It’s like, “Oh you’ve got it made anyway, you’re getting to drive a race car.”

I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth here at all. I know how lucky I am to get to do this. But I think the business model and the way all this works and how you get a ride and how you have to wheel and deal back here, I don’t think it’s in a spot where it should be.

When I look at the other side of the garage, obviously it’s hard not to sit there and go, “Man, that looks really nice.” I wish, not even me personally, but just the guys on the team had it a little better, thought it was a little easier. So it’s hard for me not to press “send” sometimes when I see kind of the disparity that’s going on.

What kind of feedback, in general, do you get from people? Have you noticed that you’ve been able to build a following talking about this kind of stuff, where people like the underdog?

I just don’t see it as a detriment. NASCAR, the way they portray this is that they just don’t portray it. It’s just not talked about. So it’s not that they’re portraying it in a bad light, just nobody’s really talking about it.

And with the media and everything, here’s the crazy thing: I ran basically almost half the year in Xfinity in 2014 … and I only had one media member ever even come up to me to even learn my name. So when you see that, if you’re not aligned with a big team, if you’re not a driver that’s coming in with a PR staff (then you don’t get media attention). As a kid, I didn’t know any of that kind of stuff.

So I just think that’s a little weird how the media has kind of handled that. You’ve got basically half the garage area that nobody says a word about, and that just seems weird because it just seems like the stories back here are better. I can probably tell you 15 stories about Mike Harmon, how he’s had a blowout tire on the side of the road and had to get a local gas station crew to come out, bail him off the side. That’s interesting! I mean, that’s funny!

Especially when you’ve got practice coverage (on TV). Like what are you talking about? You wanna talk about Ty Dillon’s struggles the last weekend and how he battled back from qualifying 17th? That’s just not as interesting from a story standpoint.

So that’s it. I just like telling the stories that we have to go through. I find it interesting. In a way, it was almost cathartic for me (while blogging last year) because I was creating kind of my own narrative of the whole thing. And I thought if no one else even read it, it was gonna be my narrative and it was gonna be out there. People would be able to find it.

It’s interesting that social media has allowed people to do that, right? You wouldn’t really have had a platform before to send that message out, even if you had started a blog. If you can’t send the links out to get people’s attention with it, there’s no way to flag people down. So social media, in some ways, has given a small team or a small situation an opportunity to get a bigger spotlight in some ways.

I had Sports Illustrated call me for a story last year. They wanted to attribute me in a story about Dale Jr. when he came out and said he was gonna take time off for concussions. Like what chance did I ever have doing that running 25th in the Truck race? Never. But I had the platform and I had credibility.

I come from a journalism background, so for me the writing part was fun and it was interesting. But the way that I framed it, I was telling the story of the race, but it was in a bigger context. Journalists like yourself and a few other people — especially when I was controversial and said something that stood out — people wanted to latch on that a little bit and go, “OK, well this is really interesting.”

So I had a guy from Sports Illustrated call me and literally say, “I would have never called you if you were sending out press releases. What you did was so interesting.” And I had the credibility because I was a full-time Truck Series driver, had our own little small team and I was writing all of this stuff that was pretty eye-opening stuff and I just thought it caught a lot of people’s eyes.

Quite frankly, if I hadn’t done that, you probably wouldn’t be sitting here, Jeff. And that’s what weird to me: We still would have finished 11th (at Iowa), but nobody would’ve probably known my name. It would have just been something you wrote off, and you’d probably talk to another underdog that finished up there. But just kind of the way that I’ve branded myself, even though it’s not a conventional way, at least it was an effective way where at least some of the media now and other team owners in the garage know your name.

And that’s the biggest thing: You just cannot be irrelevant. That’s in any professional sport, but especially this one — in a sport where you need sponsors and you need eyeballs on you to be able to attract them or for owners to give you a shot — they’ve got to at least know who the heck you are. And unfortunately, I think we’re at a point now where you can’t do that just driving. There has to be something else that’s interesting about what you’re doing, and I think that’s what allowed me to get some attention and at least some notoriety.

That’s true, because I saw your blogs a couple of times, I wasn’t following you on Twitter at the time, and then basically I was like, “Wow, he has so many interesting things to say, I guess I’ll follow him on Twitter, too.” So that really opened a lot of doors, as far as people knowing who you were. That said, you don’t seem to do the blog anymore. Why not?

I didn’t do the blog this year, and you’re not the first person to ask me that. There has been so much indecision from us that I couldn’t even put together a coherent story. It would have taken me three weeks to write out one of them because it was, “OK, we’re going Truck racing. OK, now I’m gonna get a ride with MDM at Daytona. Well now we’re doing our own thing at Atlanta. Well now we’re not doing anything. Well now Brandon Brown is running our truck at Martinsville. Now we’re trading the number to another team. Now I’m getting this opportunity with B.J. (to drive the No. 78 Xfinity car).” And I get that all of those are individual stories, but to me it didn’t even make sense.

I do want to write something on the opportunity that B.J. has given me here, because it has been absolutely tremendous. But honestly, it’s kind of hard for me to write about happiness. That’s kind of this weird place that I’m in. It was easy for me to write about the despair. I think it’s tougher to write about just how happy I am with the situation I’m in right now, and I’ve been really thankful, but that almost sounds repetitive because everybody’s thankful. That doesn’t stand out.

We joke about it on the other side of the garage: Well yeah, they’re happy. Everything’s comfortable, everything’s cool. And so when I’m sitting here going, “Man, this is the best situation I’ve ever been in, everything’s happy, everything’s cool,” I think that’s worth probably one “like” where somebody goes, “Nice. Tommy Joe finally got a good shot. Good for him.”

And then after a while, you’re like, “Eh, I kind of miss the old Tommy Joe where he’s writing and ranting and raving,” because you get a following from writing controversial stuff. But I wasn’t always trying to be controversial. If anything, I was trying to be really open and truthful. And some of that might have come across as controversial. When you get a following from that, I think that there’s a need to have to keep doing that. I didn’t want to always be the guy stirring the pot, so I’ve kind of taken a little bit of a step back.

If I ever see anything that really makes me go, “Man, we have got to change this,” then I’ve gotta say something. It might not be longform journalism like I was doing — I mean good grief, I wrote a few posts that were probably eight to nine pages on my laptop. But I’m gonna tweet about, I’ll say something about it.

I don’t know if you’re allowed to say, but when you’re putting that stuff on social media, obviously NASCAR is seeing it as well. Some high-level people are seeing it, and you’re writing about the economics of the sport not being so great. Did you get any blowback at the time when that was going on?

When I wrote “The Problem,” which was kind of the big one last year, I made a very critical error as a writer. I should have published the complete thought at one time. And I’d broken it into two parts. So when I released that as Part One, it didn’t really end in the greatest place. It was pretty damning, and I actually think we can probably look back and find the tweet because you quote-tweeted me on that one and said, “Wow, this is tough,” or something like that and I was like, “Oh boy, this is probably gonna go in a negative direction here.”

I got a lot of positive feedback from that, because I said what a lot of people were feeling, and maybe I’d put some backbone to it. But I didn’t do a very good job of explaining the reasoning for it was because I love NASCAR so much, and I’m so passionate about it and I care about it so much. I think I did that better in the second part, so I should have just released the whole thing.

But it was like so long — like 10 pages long — I was like, “Man, nobody’s gonna read this!” Johnny Sauter’s wife came up to me at Bristol, said she read it and said, “Man, I loved this. This is so great. I made Johnny read it.” You know Johnny, how stubborn that guy is sometimes. And Johnny said, “It was good. It was too long.” Typical Johnny Sauter, short and to the point. But he was right, and that was one part of the blog, not even the whole thing!

So I think I did the right thing breaking it up, but I did the wrong thing. So when I did that little cliffhanger in the middle, obviously that didn’t sit super great with NASCAR. They didn’t love that. And they called me and said, “We just don’t see how this helps the sport.” I honestly think they had a pretty good point — it probably did not help much. But I made them talk about it, and at least maybe got the discussion going if nothing else happened.

But they were right. They said, “We don’t wanna fine you for conduct detrimental to stock car racing.” So they were actually pretty nice about it, but it was also kind of a heated talk, I think all the way to the top of the food chain. And that’s kinda crazy to think, “Man, I wrote a blog on my personal website and there was like this inner-circle meeting between Jim Cassidy and Brian France and all these guys like, ‘What are we gonna do about this?'”

I probably put them in a weird box because if they fined me 15 grand, I’m probably out of business! So then how does that look? So they were in a no-win situation and I stirred it up, so I probably didn’t make myself look a lot better. And they were saying, “How does this help you? This makes you look like you’re talking crap about something that you’re doing.” So after that, there was kind of a tipping point moment where I was like, “OK, I probably need to think about this a little differently.” That was probably the worst one.

But Claire Lang had me on her show saying, “NASCAR said they’re not gonna fine you, here’s some drivers backing you up saying, ‘You were right!'” It was just this big, weird thing that happened for like three weeks, and I could just see everybody in the garage area looking at me different. And it’s so weird because I’m a driver, I’m not trying to be a writer! It’s cool, I enjoy it, but I’m trying to be respected as a driver. It kind of like shifted the narrative for me in this weird way.

For people that don’t know a lot about your background, and I’ll include myself in that, what’s your story? How did you get latched onto racing in the first place?

So I started racing go-karts when I was young — typical story as everybody else — but not as young as everybody else. I started when I was 16.

This is in Mississippi?

This is at the local dirt tracks in Mississippi. This is like Meridian, Pontotaoc, Water Valley — I mean small-town Mississippi dirt track racing. And we ran WKA. We ran a few select events. We were pretty good. I think we finished in the top 15. It was me and my dad. We didn’t know what the heck we were doing at all.

You dad didn’t have a racing background?

None of my family had a racing background. I’ve been the only one who has ever cared anything about this. My dad has played along, because he has a successful business, he’s been able to finance 99 percent of this. And that’s why I’m sitting here; that’s why I get to do this.

I don’t know why so many guys have run from (talk about bringing money), honestly. I’m so thankful that my dad has let me do it. The thing is that we don’t have just as much money. If my dad had multiple millions of dollars, I would be over there at RCR. Without a doubt, I would. But we don’t have that. We only have a few thousand dollars. So that’s why we’re sitting here in this very eclectic trailer (from the late 1990s).

But we ran Late Models, and we did that over there at Nashville Fairgrounds for a long time. Ran ASA in 2009, something called the ASA Challenge Series, where we ran big tracks. Man, we were at Rockingham in a Pro Late Model. Like wide open, the whole way around there. And Nashville Superspeedway in a Pro Late Model. So kind of crazy stuff.

Came close to winning a few races out there, really close, a couple of heartbreaks and stuff. Memphis Motorsports Park was one of them, sat on the pole, broke the track record there. I think that still stands, actually; I think we’re still holding onto that one. That’s kind of a home race for me, being near Mississippi.

Then finally my dad kind of made this decision, which is, “We don’t have a lot of money, so if we’re gonna go do this, we might as well do it at a high level. I’m just gonna buy a couple of trucks, and let’s just go run trucks.” And that was kind of a foundational shift for us, where we were like, “Well Tommy Joe isn’t gonna get picked up by a team,” because we’d had teams come up to us and say, “We want you to bring a couple hundred thousand dollars for the year.”

So we learned that and went, “This isn’t gonna happen unless we just do it.” We got that mentality shift of, “We think it’s worse for Tommy Joe to be running around at local levels. Even if he’s competitive and winning, nothing’s gonna come from it. So if he wants to get to NASCAR, we just gotta go.”

And we did that with our Late Model team in 2009. We ran four races, finished around 20th. Didn’t do that great, but not bad. This was when the Truck Series was pretty good — 36 trucks showed up, and we were around 20th every time we ran. That’s pretty good for a Late Model team, and I had never done it.

Literally my first race in the truck, we took it out of the trailer at Nashville Fairgrounds, we ran it out there at an open Late Model practice — in a Camping World Truck Series truck! I ran two laps, and they said to take it easy because we’ve got to load this thing and run tomorrow. And that was it: I got two laps of practice before my first truck race. They wouldn’t even let me have a license if they knew that.

And so I did that in ’09, ran ARCA, a couple of races at Daytona. We just kind of bounced around. In 2014 we took a real shot at it. We wanted to run in Xfinity full time, and we tried to do it from Nashville, which as small team, that was a horrible, horrible decision. NASCAR was making so many design changes to the Xfinity cars back then, aero package and everything, we felt like we were changing the car, we spent so much money changing the car, running back and getting parts and everything. Our guys were just so worn out, being a small team. It was just an absolute mess. Our equipment wasn’t probably good enough anyway. We kind of set them up to fail. And so we took another shot at it in 2016, we came back.

So I think a lot of people ask me, “What makes you think that you deserve to be out there in NASCAR?” Quite frankly, I think a lot of guys deserve to be out here in NASCAR. They deserve to be, but unless you go and make it happen yourself, it’s just not gonna happen. So I see guys that I have so much respect for like Bubba Pollard, Jeff Choquette, a lot of these guys, and I just wish that one of them would kind of do what we did, which is just go buy one truck and one motor. And it’s gonna cost you a little bit, it’s probably gonna cost you $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 to do it — but then you’ll just have it, and you can go run four or five races a year at the short tracks or something. I’d just like to see that.

NASCAR (needs to) get to a point where that point of entry isn’t as quite as high, the car isnt quite as much, the engine isn’t quite as much, the per-race cost isn’t quite as much. If you did that, I think you’d see guys like that take a shot. But right now the point of entry is so high, it’s just really tough to get those guys in here. So it’s what we did: We just took a shot, figured if we just finish and not tear it up every time, we can come close to breaking even and only lose a little money. So we’ve just kind of done that for a few years.

You are here racing, but you had to come here and leave your day job, which is at a driving school in Las Vegas. You said you’ve been there for a few years?

Yeah, I have been. And that’s just a deal where that’s like the dark secret. I’m sure some of those guys (on the good side of the garage) are getting paid, but who’s paying them? Is the team paying them?

I’m sure in the case of the Cup drivers, it’s the team paying them, and they see them just like any other artist, right? Like if you owned a ballroom and you said, “I’m gonna get Adele to come play tonight,” well the expectation is you’re paying Adele, but you think that you’re gonna sell enough tickets that it’s gonna make you money.

And I’m sure you view Kyle Busch the same way: We’re gonna pay Kyle Busch, but we’re gonna sell sponsorship and make money on this. Same thing in Xfinity: they seem him as a property. And that’s fine. He is, and he is unbelievably talented.

But some of these other guys, I’m just not sure, because I have always had to bring at least some money to be able to run. Like with B.J. McLeod, he’s basically put me on a silver platter here, I’m basically running for him for nothing. So this is without a doubt the best deal I’ve had in my entire life. It just doesn’t come around for a lot of guys.

The best deal you’ve had is you don’t have to pay to drive?

That’s basically it. So I’m not making anything, but we’re not losing that much money, either. We just basically help him out a little bit on the tires, do other little things, but it’s not nearly as much what we’re spending on our own team– and I don’t make any money from it. We’re not really losing a lot of money. So it’s been a great deal, and I think a lot of guys would probably say the same thing.

And so I don’t know how (other drivers) are getting paid. Like if they’re bringing sponsorship to a team, they would probably have to take a cut out of that for them to make money. The way the business model is there is just really strange, and I just don’t think a lot of people know that. Or maybe they don’t wanna know that.

You think that you’re a professional athlete. I mean, I guess I am. I don’t really see myself that way, I’m a race car driver. I don’t feel like I’m a professional athlete. But we are racing in the second-highest series in the country! This is it, you know? We’re equal to IndyCar ratings-wise! This is it. There’s only one more bar here, and for three-quarters of the garage to not be getting paid as drivers, that’s just weird. I’m gonna sound like a crybaby, but I’m saying it, because I wanna get paid. We probably should get paid racing at this level, you know?

The people that are following you at your Tommy Joe Martins account, @TommyJoeMartins on Twitter — will this story have a happy ending? How do you see this going for yourself over the next few years here?

OK, we gotta think of the end goal here. So for me, I’m 30, and I look around and see William Byron. He’s 19, and he’s a badass, and he’s a great kid too, he’s awesome. He’s gonna get a Cup ride at Hendrick. So if I’m thinking I’m gonna get a Cup ride at Hendrick, that is the wrong thought.

So realistically, all I can hope to do is grow enough of a following that I can raise more sponsorship for myself. And not even to go to a better team — that’s not really the goal here — it would just be to have a career. Just have a career.

I’d like to do this for five or 10 years and get to drive, and then shift into the business of the sport because I love that part of it, as tough as it is and as crummy as it is. It’s almost like banging your head against the wall. Like how do you make money with a business that only loses money? How do you do that? I guess part of me enjoys the challenge of it.

But that’s it. That’s my career trajectory here, just hang around, get to race. I’d like to race full time and be in the points. That’s really the main thing, even if it’s on a small team. Even if it’s for B.J., just run full-time and see where we wind up, finish in the top 20 in points a few times.

I learned a long time ago I’m probably not going to be given a chance to win many races. And I just know that, running in the middle of the pack for smaller teams. You’re not gonna get a chance to win.

But you do have a chance to gain a lot of respect in the garage. And so that’s kind of currency for me, is if I can get other team owners, respected people in the garage to go, “Tommy Joe’s a pretty good driver. He’s got a goofy name, he talks a lot on Twitter, but he’s a pretty good driver and I know if I got him in my car, he’s gonna take care of it, he’s gonna get the best he can out of it and he’s gonna bring it back to me in one piece and not do anything stupid and a lot of other drivers respect him,” well that’s about the best situation I’m gonna find myself in. I’m 30 years old. I got a late start on this deal. I’m kind of in the middle of my career. I see it ending in five to 10 years if I’m lucky.

I think that’s a good trajectory. I don’t wanna look back on that and say, “That was bummer.” If I got to race in NASCAR at the higher levels — Trucks and Xfinity for 10 years — man, that’s really cool. So I don’t have any crazy ambitions here.

But I think it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. It always is, running where we’re running. When we’re running for a small team, there’s more bad days than good. So if you follow along, don’t worry, I’ll probably satisfy your taste for blood here. Because there are probably gonna be more bumps in the road.

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.