NASCAR - The Godfather
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Brad Keselowski announced yesterday that he will close the doors on his successful NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team at season’s end, leaving drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric without clear options for 2018 and beyond.

Speaking to the media today at Bristol Motor Speedway, the 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion – and 23-time event winner – said that while the decision was difficult, it is part of a larger business plan that could see him return to the sport in the future.

Keselowski has repeatedly said that his Truck Series team operated in the red, losing money each season despite being a perennial winner and championship contender. Asked if that lack of profitability played a major role in his decision to close the doors, he said, “There were a lot of decisions that went into it. There wasn’t really one reason, but at some point, every business needs to have some profitability. But I never went into it expecting to make money, so I can’t really blame that. Everybody is losing a little, but that was one of the factors. I wouldn’t say it was the only one.”

While admitting that he has plans for the current BKR facility, Keselowski cautioned that “we’re not ready to announce anything.” He hinted that his future plans could involve building a new business within the current BKR facility that eventually becomes a race team partner.

“It’s an idea, absolutely,” he said. “If you look at all the business owners at this level – and really all three of these levels – they have a sustainable, profitable business outside of motorsports. That’s going to remain the key for any owner to have success.

“The reality is, I can only be a race car driver for so long. When that time comes up, my business will have to shut down, because I don’t have a profit center. Having that profit center is what helps you get through the ebbs and flows that every race team has.

“I need to have one of those profit centers. That doesn’t mean that I’ll be a Cup owner one day, but it means when the time is right -- if we achieve the goals that I have -- I’ll have the opportunity to make that decision myself and not have it made for me.

“I know where I want to go and we’re in the middle of putting all that together,” he added. “Until it’s together, I don’t want to get too far down the road with it. But I know that I’m committed to the facility and the community to have an operational and functioning business in that area. I plan to do just that. Hopefully, that opens a spot to retain a good number of our people.”

He also said he plans to retain most of the team’s equipment and assets, adding, “The trucks and parts go out of style and are irrelevant so quickly that I’m going to liquidate that. But a good part of the equipment that we have I’m going to keep and utilize for future opportunities.”

Keselowski called the process of informing his drivers and employees “very difficult,” adding “I feel like we’ll be able to find a good home for probably 75 percent of the group. Whether that’s new business opportunities, Team Penske or different things… I still need people within the fold that I have.  I feel really bad for the 25 percent that I’m not going to be able to find a spot for, but I’m wishing them the best and thankful for their help over the years.

“Being a business owner, it’s more about the people than anything else,” he said. “You care about them. They give you their all and you want to give them your all.  In some ways, you feel like you’re letting them down when you’re not able to keep it going, so that’s never any fun.”

Despite his unexpected withdrawal and that of Red Horse Racing just a few weeks ago, Keselowski said he believes the NCWTS is still strong.

“The Truck Series has been around a long time,” he said. “It’s going to be around a lot longer than me, so I’m not so self-centered to think that series is based solely on my team and participation. It’ll be around. It’ll be all right. I don’t know where the future is going to take me in my life. I know that I’m trying to be positioned to have as many opportunities as possible to kind of control what (my future) might be, and this is a necessary step business-wise to have those opportunities.

“It’s not really the most pleasurable (decision) to undertake. In fact, it really kind of stinks. But it was the right move long-term and I’m hopeful that it works out for the best.”

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Former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick pulled no punches last night when talking about the imminent retirement of fellow driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., saying the sport’s perennial Most Popular Driver “had a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR” by not winning enough races.

Speaking on his weekly Sirius XM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours,” the 2014 series champion said he is puzzled by the popularity of Earnhardt, who has won just nine races in the last 10 seasons.

“He is the most popular driver, but did he have the credentials to back up being the highest paid driver in the sport? Probably not,” said Harvick. He was the most popular driver in the sport (and) he could demand a huge sum of money, because he brought things in from the souvenir side of things and a popularity side of things, that other drivers didn’t. He earned his money a different way. It wasn’t from a performance base.

“This is where some of the growth in this sport has not reached the levels that it should have,” he added. Because our most popular driver hasn’t been our most successful driver.

“When you look at other sports; basketball (and) football -- and you look at their most popular (athletes) -- they’re also right up there at the top of the list as their most successful. So, I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR, because he’s got these legions of fans. (He has) this huge outreach, being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won 9 races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports.

“Did we miss a lot of that wave because our most popular driver wasn’t winning?” 
Harvick admitted that “these aren’t the most popular comments,” but insisted “those are real-life facts that you can look up on the stat sheet.”

Harvick said Earnhardt’s massive fan base is “totally confusing to me,” adding that “Jimmie Johnson should be our most popular guy, because he’s won seven championships. But when you look at the souvenir sheets every week, he’s 3-4-5, coming off of a championship year.

“That part is a little bit confusing.”

Harvick said Earnhardt’s late father, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, Sr. “became Dale Earnhardt because of the fact that he won seven championships and was out there grinding every week. That hasn’t happened (with Junior). The thing that makes sports go around is success. The people… that are the most popular people in other sports, win.”

“Lebron James wins. Steph Curry wins. Peyton Manning won. That’s how you drive the sport and take it to a new level; when your most popular guys are winning, week after week after week. It’s so confusing to me, the whole scenario. I keep bringing up Jimmie Johnson because he’s won seven championships. (We should be) putting him on a pedestal with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but it’s like that doesn’t even register with everybody out there.”

Harvick also discounted Earnhardt’s recent comments about declining driver salaries, saying, “Dale’s never really been in a position -- since he’s been at Hendrick Motorsports -- to understand where normal driver salaries even are.

“He’s always been the highest-paid guy in NASCAR. He’s been the guy that makes the most money.

“Hendrick Motorsports is about to go through a total reset,” he said. “For years, they’ve had the highest-paid athletes in motorsports on their team. Now, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Kasey Kahne exiting within a two-year period, it’s a complete re-branding. Sure it’s going to lower the cost. Hendrick Motorsports has had the highest paid drivers for a number of years, with Jeff Gordon and the highest paid driver, Dale Jr.
“(In 2018), they’re going to have some of the lowest payroll with three of their drivers. They’re going to lean on Jimmie Johnson to be the veteran guy and lead the company; teaching those guys how to race. And they’re going to have to pay him more than the other three guys combined, in order to take that role and push Hendrick Motorsports forward.”

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Kahne is out at HMS
Three of NASCAR’s biggest names are currently “at leisure” for the 2018 season; a fact that many observers struggle to understand.

Hendrick Motorsports confirmed today that Kasey Kahne has been released from the final year of his contract, freeing him to explore other opportunities for 2018 and beyond. Last week, Stewart Haas Racing declined to exercise its contract option on Kurt Busch, while Matt Kenseth currently has no ride lined up for next season, after losing his spot with Joe Gibbs Racing.

How do three proven drivers with a combined 85 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins and two series championships find themselves on the outside, looking in? And while we’re at it, how does Greg Biffle – a former Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series champion with 19 career MENCS wins -- languish on the sidelines while drivers with a small fraction of his resume continue to compete every week?

The answer comes down to money, or the lack thereof.

“Kasey has worked extremely hard,” said team owner Rick Hendrick in announcing Kahne’s impending departure. “He’s a tremendous teammate and person, and he has been totally dedicated to our program since day one.”

Kurt Busch is a free agent...
All of that is unquestionably true. Unfortunately, Kahne is also a veteran driver who expects a certain level of compensation for his labor. And like Kenseth, Busch and Biffle, Kahne’s desired level of compensation makes him expendable in these changing economic times.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – who owns a top NASCAR Xfinity Series team in addition to his driving duties with Hendrick Motorsports – explained the realities of today’s NASCAR to recently, saying, “You’ve got a guy who you think has got a lot of talent (and) a lot of potential, and a veteran who is established but wants three, four, five, six times the amount of money. You’re going to go with the younger guy, because it’s a better deal financially.” is Kenseth.
Earnhardt said that in an era where sponsorship is increasingly difficult to come by, drivers can no longer write their own check when it comes to salary.

“The trickle-down effect is coming through in the drivers’ contracts and making a big difference in the decisions these owners are making,” said Earnhardt. “You can’t pay a driver $5 to $8 million a year, if you ain’t got but $10 million worth of sponsorship.”

And that, my friends, is the rub.

It’s not 1998 anymore. The days when a sponsor would happily stroke a check for $30 million per year are long gone, and they’re not coming back anytime soon. The number of sponsors willing (or able) to fund an entire, 38-race season can easily be counted on the fingers of one hand. And as sponsorship wanes, teams must respond by cutting payroll, slashing expenses and paring their operation closer to the bone than ever before.

End result?

Biffle: Still sidelined
A proven commodity like Kenseth finds himself jettisoned in favor of 21-year old newcomer Erik Jones, who will win races and contend for championships while cashing a much smaller paycheck than the man he replaced.

Busch has his contract option declined by Stewart Haas Racing, who will almost certainly attempt to ink a new pact with the former series champion, at a lower rate of compensation.

Biffle – who sources say was near the top of Richard Petty’s wish list when Aric Almirola was sidelined by injury earlier this season – gets passed over in favor of 23-year old Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, in large measure due to the gaping disparity in their pay demands.

And Kahne is let go by Hendrick Motorsports, likely in favor of young William Byron; a wildly talented 19-year old who will race competitively for less money than Kahne likely has scattered beneath his couch cushions.

NASCAR has recently come face-to-face with a difficult (though arguably long overdue) period of right-sizing. The days when mid-pack drivers owned their own private jets are long gone. The team owner’s helicopter went up for sale years ago, and the mountain chalet is now a luxury, rather than a necessity.

There is a leaner, meaner NASCAR on the horizon, and the transition will be uncomfortable for some. In the end, though, we will ultimately get back to what the sport was supposed to be about all along, racing instead of revenue

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Hendrick Motorsports has announced that Kasey Kahne has been released from the final year of his contract, allowing him to immediately pursue opportunities for 2018.

“Kasey has worked extremely hard,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “He’s a tremendous teammate and person, and he has been totally dedicated to our program since day one. I’ve always believed that he’s a special talent, and I know he will thrive in the right situation. We will do everything we can to finish the season as strong as we can.”

Kahne, 37, will complete the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series schedule for Hendrick Motorsports. He was signed by the organization in April 2010, nearly two years before his February 2012 debut in its No. 5 Chevrolet. Now in their sixth season together, Kahne has earned six of his 18 career points-paying Cup victories with the No. 5 team.

“I’d like to thank Rick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports for their hard work and dedication, along with providing me a great opportunity and success over the last six years,” said Kahne, who most recently won July 23 at Indianapolis. “We won six races together and I'm coming off of one of the biggest wins of my career at the Brickyard, which has given the (No.) 5 team a lot of momentum heading into the playoffs. We still have a lot of racing left in 2017 and finishing strong is our top priority. I look forward to what the next chapter in my career holds.”
Hendrick Motorsports will announce 2018 plans for its four-car operation at a later date.

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Busch was fuming after the race.
Kyle Busch stalked away from his M&Ms Caramel Toyota following Sunday’s I Love New York 355 at The Glen; trailed by a pack of reporters anxious to witness a promised, post-race dustup between the Joe Gibbs Racing driver and rival Brad Keselowski, who had tangled on-track earlier in the day.

Despite an earlier warning that his crew “better keep me away from that @#$%& after the race,” Busch disappointed the media entourage, walking straight to his team’s transporter without so much as a sideways glance toward Keselowski.

Their lap-45 crash – as well as an earlier pit road miscue that dropped him to the tail of the field – ruined what appeared to be a dominating day for the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, dashing his hopes of sweep the WGI weekend and claiming his second consecutive MENCS checkered flag.

The two raced side-by-side into The Glen’s tricky “bus stop;” a right-left-left-right chicane that is difficult to negotiate, even in single-file formation. They banged doors and spun, with Busch unable to re-fire until he had fallen nearly a half-lap behind the leaders. Both drivers were forced to pit shortly afterward for tires and body repairs, effectively ending their hopes for Victory Lane.

Kyle led early...
Busch rebounded to seventh at the finish, with Keselowski 15th after driving through too many pit stalls on his final stop and serving a NASCAR penalty.

"I was going in the corner and I had (AJ Allmendinger) behind me,” explained Keselowski afterward. “I got to the corner and my spotter said `somebody there.’ I had already gotten to the corner and by then I was already committed.

"I think he was probably committed (as well). It looked like he tried to make a big move from a couple of car lengths back and it was more than what there was room for. It probably didn't help either one of us. It was a bummer.”

Asked for his post-race take on the incident, Busch said simply, "Imagine that. I couldn't tell you (what happened). I haven't seen (the replay)."

Brad led late...
Busch and Keselowski have had their moments before on the 2.454-mile road course. In 2012, Busch spun after last-lap contact from Keselowski on an oil-slicked race track, ending his hopes for victory.

Earlier this season, they tangled on the opening lap of a NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Michigan International Speedway in June, and following a similar dust-up at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016, Busch called Keselowski “a dirty racer.”

This time around, however, both drivers likely owned a share of the blame, whether they accept it or not.

"This is a track where you fight for inches,” countered Keselowski. And we both are probably not willing to give in. It didn't help my day at all either, I can tell you that. I wasn't looking to get into him and I don't think he was looking to get into me. He probably had the dominant car. He didn't need any trouble. Neither did I.

After viewing the post-race videotape, Busch later tweeted that he “was going to make the corner just fine until I got drilled in my right side door.”

Asked if he expects to talk through the incident before this weekend’s race at MIS, Keselowski said, “I don’t think (Busch) is really the listening type.

“So that is pretty doubtful.”

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Martin Truex, Jr. drove to Victory Lane in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway two weeks ago, winning both preliminary stages and leading the final round by more than 15 seconds before surviving a final green-white-checkered flag restart to claim his third victory of the 2017 campaign.
Truex’s win – coupled with another three-stage sweep at Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this season and an even more-dominant performance in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte – drew howls of derision from some corners of the NASCAR universe, as fans complained about a lack of competition at the front of the pack.

Oh, if they only knew…

In 1967, a decade or three before many current fans were even born, Richard Petty authored the most dominant season in NASCAR history. In 47 premier-series starts on 14 paved ovals, 34 dirt ovals and the Riverside (CA) road course, Petty won a whopping 27 times (57.4%). In all but nine of those wins, Petty lapped the entire field.

Petty cruised to 27 wins...
The maximum number of cars finishing on the lead lap in any event that season was three. In the Beltsville 200at Maryland’s Beltsville Speedway on Friday night, May 19, only 16 cars took the green flag, with winner Jim Paschal, Petty and third-place finisher Bobby Allison finishing on the lead lap. Donnie Allison was two laps behind in fourth place, with Paul Lewis five laps back in fifth.

Imagine how today’s fans would react to a 16-car starting field, with just three lead-lap finishers. The din would be deafening.

Twice during that 1967 campaign, Petty went to Victory Lane after leading every lap from green flag to checkers, maintaining the top spot even during green-flag pit stops. His Petty Enterprises Plymouth was so dominant that for the season, the North Carolina native enjoyed an average victory margin of 1.5 laps.

...including a record 10 in a row.
From August 12 to October 1, Petty went undefeated, winning a record 10 consecutive races at Winston-Salem (NC), Columbia (SC), Savannah (GA), Darlington (SC), Hickory (NC), Beltsville (MD), Martinsville (VA) and North Wilkesboro (NC) Speedways.

Imagine the reaction if Truex, Kyle Larson or Jimmie Johnson copped even three checkered flags in a row this season.

In addition to being the biggest winner of 1967, Petty was also the only driver to run every event. He finished 6,028 points ahead of championship runner-up James Hylton, who competed in 45 of 47 races.  Third-place finisher Dick Hutcherson made only 32 starts, finishing nearly 9,000 points behind Petty.

“King Richard” also led a total of 4,496 laps that season; an average of 166 circuits per race.
Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to grouse about a modern-day driver “dominating the field” with a 10-second lead.

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As NASCAR hits its annual summer stretch, the weather is not the only thing heating up. Even as the battle for 16 berths in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs hits its stretch drive, Silly Season 2018 is already well underway.

Veteran Matt Kenseth kicked the speculation into high gear two weeks ago, announcing that he will not return to the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota next season. Days later, JGR confirmed Kenseth’s departure, saying that 2017 Rookie of the Year contender Erik Jones will replace the 2003 MENCS champion next season.

Team owner Joe Gibbs said the move has been in the works for some time, but was accelerated by Carl Edwards’ unexpected offseason retirement; a decision that accelerated young Daniel Suarez to the MENCS ranks sooner than expected.

“We got put in this situation with a lot of things happening to our race team over a period of about a year and half,” said Gibbs. “We didn’t want to be here, but we wound up here and had to make a decision.

“This wound up being a team decision, and (with) me owning the team, it fell to me to make this decision. We didn’t want to do this, it wasn’t the right timing for us, (but) a lot of things played into it where we had to make a decision.”

“We love everything about Matt,” said Gibbs of the driver who has won 14 races since joining JGR in 2013. “Everything he’s done for us has been awesome. He was great off the track, he’s a great driver with a lot of talent, and we hate the fact that we’ll be racing against him.”

Kenseth for Junior at HMS?
Kenseth is unlikely to remain unemployed for long. He has been linked with the No. 10 Ford at Stewart Haas Racing, should Danica Patrick not return to that ride next season. And multiple sources say that both Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are lobbying hard for Kenseth to replace Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports, when Earnhardt steps away from full-time competition at season's end. The 45-year old Kenseth would provide an ideal bridge between Earnhardt and heir-apparent William Byron, should team officials decide that Byron will benefit from an additional season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Hendrick also has a stake in young Alex Bowman, who recorded three Top-10 finishes in 10 starts last season after Earnhardt was sidelined with a concussion. Bowman’s best finish -- a sixth from the pole at Phoenix in November – was as good as anything mustered by four-time series champion Jeff Gordon in a similar relief stint, and marked Bowman as a potential star of the future.

For the driver known as “The Showman,” it’s all about sponsorship. If a backer can be found to roll the dice on a young, largely unproven driver – the way Axalta is reportedly willing to do with Byron – Bowman could well have a seat at the Hendrick table in 2018.

Kasey Kahne: Embattled
If he does, it will likely be at the expense of embattled veteran Kasey Kahne, who is believed to be on the hot seat despite having one year remaining on his current, three-year contact. Currently ranked 22ndin points and a long shot (at best) to make the playoffs, Kahne has managed just two Top-5 finishes this season. Since a fifth-place outing at Talladega in early May, Kahne has an average finish of just 25.7, with three results of 35thor worse.

That kind of results will not keep a driver employed for long, and with sponsors Farmer's Insurance and Great Clips already planning to leave at season's end, Kahne may need a competitive resurrection in the coming weeks to save his job.

“If I haven’t performed by 2018, I need to leave,” said a potentially prophetic Kahne a year ago. “It’s pretty simple. That will have nothing to do with William Byron or anyone else. If I haven’t performed by then, it’s time to go do something different.”

Ryan Blaney is also expected to be on the move at season’s end, leaving Wood Brothers Racing for a new, third Team Penske Ford. While not yet confirming the move, team owner Roger Penske has made no secret of his desire to bring Blaney in-house in 2018, leaving the Wood Brothers in need of a new driver for the second time in the last three seasons.

Menard: Wood Brothers-bound?
Sources say current Richard Childress Racing driver Paul Menard may be that driver, jumping to the Ford camp after seven seasons at RCR. Childress laid off approximately a dozen employees last week, not long after handing veterans crew chiefs Gil Martin and Slugger Labbe pink slips of their own. RCR spokespersons say the moves were nothing more than a reaction to overstaffing, but sources inside the walls say the team is preparing for the possibility of life without Menard and his lucrative, home improvement sponsorship. 

If Menard leaves, the door could be open for Ty Dillon to join elder-brother Austin in the RCR Cup camp. That would leave Ty’s current ride – the Germain Racing No. 13 Chevrolet – vacant.
Aric Almirola is also getting some Silly Season love, with scuttlebutt circulating that he and sponsor Smithfield could abandon Richard Petty Motorsports next season, possibly to replace Patrick at Stewart Haas Racing.

Darrell "Bubba" Wallace could also be a candidate for any open seat in 2018, after an impressive four-race stint in relief of Almirola that saw him improve his finishing position with every start. An 11th in his final race at Kentucky marked Wallace's 2017 high water mark.
No matter how the 2017 playoffs pan out, it appears that in the next few months, there could be as much NASCAR news made off the track as on it.

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One year ago, a single bad outing at Talladega Superspeedway cost Martin Truex, Jr. and Furniture Row Racing a shot at the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. This time around, the team appears to be in no mood for a repeat.

Truex dominated Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, leading 152 of 274 laps and winning all three stages en route to his third victory of the 2017 campaign. And in doing so, he established himself as a clear favorite to claim the 2017 MENCS title.

In 18 races this season, no other driver has swept all three stages in a single event. Truex has now done it twice, after turning the trick at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March. Saturday’s performance was the most dominant in NASCAR since last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when Truex clubbed the field by leading all but eight of 400 laps. Saturday, Truex claimed the checkered flag despite a final green-white-checkered flag restart that left him on old tires, while his closest pursuers pitted for new rubber. It didn’t matter, as Truex easily drove away from Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott to claim the win.

“I was worried every lap, waiting for a caution,” said an incredulous Truex afterward. “Especially at the end. You’re counting them down… the last 30, the last 20, the last 10, and then you get inside of five and you’re like, `Oh my God, there’s no way there’s not going to be a caution.’ And sure enough, there was. Fortunately, we were able to hold them off.

"This is very, very big to be able to do what we did," he added. "This was probably the best car I've ever had in my entire career. I can never recall saving fuel and pulling away from everybody before, so it was pretty amazing.”

The win was Truex’s third of the season, tying him with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the series lead. More important, it cemented Furniture Row Racing’s status as a team that can dominate – and win – at any time, on any size track. And with the 2017 playoffs now just eight weeks away, the Mayetta, NJ native has everything he needs to erase the memory of last season’s bitter Talladega elimination.

Truex collected his 13thstage win of the season Saturday night – nine more than any other driver. His 28 playoff points are a dozen more than second-best Johnson, and will give him a healthy head-start on the field when the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway on September 17. For an organization as consistently fast as Furniture Row, that head start should be enough to push Truex all the way to the Championship Four at Homestead Miami Speedway.

"Martin was super-fast,” said runner-up Larson Saturday. “He has been really, really fast all year long. I think we've been second best to him, but he's in a whole other league right now."

Larson’s “whole other league” assessment is shared by many in the NASCAR garage who have spent the last six months chasing the black No. 78 Toyota, without success.

In order to be successful in NASCAR’s new playoff format, a team must be consistent enough to avoid disasters; logging Top-10 finishes each week in order to advance. Barring that, a team must have the ability to win on demand; erasing a poor finish by driving to Victory Lane and claiming an automatic advancement to the next round.

Truex has both; consistency and the ability to win. He has led 257 more laps than any other driver this season, and tops the sport in checkered flags, as well. That combination will be difficult to beat, especially since the competition will be racing from behind in every round of the playoffs.

"I think he's peaking right now," said team owner Barney Visser following Saturday’s dominant win. “For the last year, I've thought he was as good as anyone in the garage. Now I think he's better than anyone in the garage. You saw what he did on that last restart, putting it down in Turn 1. He's just that good."

Visser stood by his driver during a traumatic 2014 season when Truex's longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, offering him an opportunity to step away from the sport and focus on Pollex; secure that his ride would be waiting on the other side. Truex ran every race that season, forging a bond with his owner and team that made them one of the best in the sport.

Ironically, Truex revealed Saturday that Pollex has had a recurrence of cancer -- as 80-percent of ovarian cancer survivors do – and underwent surgery last weekend in Charlotte, NC.

“We found out a while ago about it," he explained. "She went in this weekend to have some surgery done. Everything went perfectly good. It went as planned. I'm going to bring her home tomorrow. I'm excited to get home and see her, and everything is going great."

Pollex posted a video of herself leaving the hospital Sunday, smiling and focusing – as always – on the positive. Truex is doing the same, openly speaking of a 2017 championship that would define his career.

"I would say that it would change me,” he said. “It wouldn't change who I am (and) it wouldn't really change my life. But it would be a hell of an accomplishment for my career.

“We're going to try our best, and I feel like we have a good shot at it. We've consistently been a front-runner for the last couple years, and hopefully that continues.”

Make no mistake about it. With nine races remaining until the playoffs begin, Martin Truex, Jr. is the man to beat for the 2017 championship.

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Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is suddenly becoming a restrictor plate master. The Roush Fenway Racing driver won Saturday night’s 59th annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway, just weeks after winning his first career at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this season. “I kept my Talladega (winning) car and told them to build a new one,” said Stenhouse in Victory Lane. “They built a Fifth Third Ford that was really fast. I’ve been coming here since 2008… and it’s cool to put it in Victory Lane and get our second win this year. This validates what we did at Talladega.” Stenhouse was winless in his first 157 MENCS races, but now has two checkered flags in his last eight starts, cementing a spot in the 2017 playoffs.

There was no shortage of ruffled feathers Saturday night, as drivers traded paint and blocked aggressively, from start to finish. Runner-up Clint Bowyer said aggression and risk-taking are a requirement for anyone who expects to run up front at Daytona. "You've got to block hard, cut people off and push hard," he said. "You've got to stick your nose in there where it doesn't belong; all things that you know are capable of disaster. If you don't, the next guy is going to. And nine times out of 10, it works. That's just the nature of the beast."

Brendan Gaughan made his third MENCS start of the season Saturday night, claiming a stellar, seventh-place finish for an underfunded, undermanned Beard Motorsports organization that had not completed since Talledega in early May. Gaughan survived two bouts with the wall with 69 laps remaining, then drove his No. 75 Beard Oil Chevrolet back through the field to claim his second Top-12 result of the campaign.

Anxious times for Logano 
Joey Logano's encumbered win at Richmond is shaping up to be the biggest penalty in the history of NASCAR. With six playoff spots currently available to drivers based on points, Logano is on the outside, looking in. A crash-marred 35th-place finish Saturday night left the Team Penske driver three points out of a coveted playoff spot, trailing fellow non-winners Kyle Busch, Chase Elliot, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Boyer and Matt Kenseth. If he fails to win again in the next nine weeks -– and a driver below him in the standings goes to Victory Lane -- Logano could easily find himself watching the 2017 playoffs from the sidelines.

People who grouse that NASCAR should start July races in Daytona Beach at 11 AM to avoid those ever-present 3 PM thunderstorms ignore the fact that it rained at noon Saturday. You just can't predict what Mother Nature is going to do.

Wallace and Blaney: Good Times
Seeing the sport's most iconic entries -- Richard Petty's No. 43 and the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 -- run side-by-side for the lead at Daytona was worth the price of admission, all by itself. Best buddies Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney were likely beaming like Cheshire cats, at least until Blaney succumbed to the competitive nature that plagues all racers and hung Wallace out to dry with a testosterone-rich move that earned him the top spot just a few laps later. Perfect.

Joe Gibbs Racing's 2017 winless streak becomes more incomprehensible with every passing week.

At one point within sight of the checkered flag Saturday night, 16 of the top 18 drivers were chasing their first win of the 2017 campaign. Only Jimmie Johnson and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., had cracked Victory Lane already this season, and Stenhouse ultimately claimed the checkered flag.

Seeing David Ragan contend for the checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway no longer qualifies as a surprise. 

Dillon was strong at Daytona
Rookies Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez and Corey LaJoie all contended strongly for the win Saturday night, only to discover a harsh reality about restrictor plate racing. Nobody drafts with rookies when the chips are down.

Dillon correctly refused to second-guess the late-race move that dropped him from second to 16th in the finishing order. "I'm kicking myself because the finish doesn't show what we are capable of," he said, after pulling out of line in a bid to take the lead and drawing absolutely no drafting partners. "But I would be more disappointed just sitting there waiting and not making something happen. I'm a go-getter. My personality might have gotten us a bad finish, but it also got us up to the front." 

LaJoie's 11th-place finish was by far the best of his rookie MENCS season, after a trying freshman campaign aboard Ron Devine's No. 23 BK Racing Toyota. Prior to Saturday, the third-generation racer's best showings had been a pair of 24th-place finishes at Daytona and Bristol.

The lunatic conspiracy theorists who pointed to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s Daytona pole as proof of NASCAR's manipulation of events were predictably silent when the sport's perennial most popular driver failed to win Saturday. Earnhardt is now 25th in the championship standings, winless in 17 races this season and unlikely to qualify for the playoffs in his final run as a full-time driver. If the sanctioning body is really rigging races, they are colossally bad at it.

One unexpected byproduct of Stenhouse's victory? Seeing Danica Patrick smile; a sight that becomes more and more rare with every passing week.

Kahne (5) had another rough night
Kasey Kahne's luckless season continued at Daytona. After running at the front of the pack throughout the night and contending for the win in the late going, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was swept up in a late-race melee and finished 18th. Rumors continued to swirl surrounding his status at HMS, and Saturday night's result will do little to quiet the whispers.

 Michael McDowell will win a MENCS race one day. And when he does, the entire population of the NASCAR garage will smile. Except for Bowyer, who will almost certainly finish second.

Fans who bemoaned Saturday's record 14 caution flags somehow had no complaints with the thrilling, three and four-wide action that produced them. Crashes are a byproduct of intense, competitive racing. You can't have one without the other.

And finally, while we're on the topic, can anyone dispute that NASCAR's new stage racing format has interjected a whole new level of excitement to the first two-thirds of race events? When is the last time you saw drivers go four wide in an attempt to lead Lap 40 of a 160-lap race? I had my misgivings when the new system was announced, but those misgivings were long ago put to bed. 

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Danica Patrick just can’t win for losing.

The Stewart Haas Racing driver started her weekend at Sonoma Raceway is encouraging fashion; qualifying sixth for Sunday’s running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350. But as soon as the green flag waved, Patrick’s luck turned sour.

Just 14 laps into the event, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spun in Turn 11 and slid his Axalta-sponsored Chevrolet across the track, into the path of Patrick’s oncoming Ford.

"Wrong place, wrong time," explained Earnhardt afterward. "Danica was trying to protect her position, and I went even lower than we normally go. It's real slick down there, and I just locked up the rear tires. I'll take some of the responsibility, for sure."

Patrick sang a similar tune, saying Earnhardt, “kind of lost it.

“I went to the outside, and there were cars all slowing down ... and he spun across,” she said. “There was a lot of dive-bombing today… but there's a limit to the amount of grip and the amount of braking power that these cars have."

The impact damaged both machines, and crew chief Billy Scott called Patrick to pit road for repairs and fresh tires. The Code 3 Associates driver quickly worked her way forward from the back of the pack, however. climbing as high as 21st before a scheduled, green-flag pit stop on Lap 22 for tires and fuel.

Not long after the start of the race’s second stage, Patrick once again found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, Kyle Larson attempted a three-wide, banzai move that ended with a second round of contact with Earnhardt. Patrick went spinning into the path of boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who was left with nowhere to go.

"Tell Ricky I'm sorry," said a sheepish Patrick, after Stenhouse suffered sufficient damage to end his day.

“They were three-wide in front of us trying to go through Turn 4, which never works,” said an angry Stenhouse after a mandatory trip to the track’s Infield Care Center. “They were all dive-bombing each other and then (Danica) got spinning and I tried to go low. She just kept coming down the track. We just clipped it a little bit and tore the left front up too bad to continue.”

Patrick was able to continue, once again pitting for tires and repairs. She began the race’s final stage in 18th place, and ran as high as fourth as the field cycled through a series of green-flag pit stops. She dropped to 28th after a final pit stop on lap 80, before racing her battered Ford back through the pack to finish 17th at the drop of the checkered flag.

“It definitely wasn’t the day the Code 3 Associates team was expecting,” said Patrick of her pinball-esque afternoon. “But we were able to battle back to a decent finish. The car was just awful in the final laps of the last two runs, but we made the most of it at the end.

"It's just a lot of people dive-bombing” she added. “It's part of what makes road-course racing exciting in a stock car, because you don't climb wheels. You just bump fenders. It just wasn't the day we expected to have.

Someday, (our luck) it will go the other way.”

In the aftermath of Sunday’s outing, Patrick now stands 28thin the championship standings. Her only shot at a 2017 playoff berth is to win a race in the next few weeks; an unlikely prospect considering that she is winless in 233 career stock car starts, and has recorded just one Top-10 finish – a 10th at Dover earlier this month – in her last 78 races.

When Patrick first came to NASCAR in 2010, fans and media stood 30-deep around her car and radio and TV clamored to interview her before and after every race. Sponsorship flowed like water, and Patrick ranked as one of the sport’s most recognizable drivers.

Since then, however, the hype has cooled. A half-decade or more of mid-pack finishes has made Patrick less relevant to the media and less attractive to sponsors these days, and the rumor mill is rife with speculation that she will not return to Stewart Haas Racing next season.

Patrick has openly admitted “not having fun” on the race track this season, adding that if her performances don’t improve, she may look for something else to do on Sunday afternoons.

“Every year I come into it with hope,” said Patrick earlier this season. “Now, that hope has kind of been crushed. We’ve been through enough races (that) it’s not going to be like a light switch. It’s time for some honesty. It’s time for some figuring out what the hell we’re doing because this is not helping anybody.”

“It doesn’t really help anybody if I’m out there running 25th. I’m not sure that does a lot for me.”

Patrick certainly isn’t in it for the money. She has been well compensated throughout her IndyCar and NASCAR careers, and recently published a health and fitness book, “Pretty Intense.” She launched her “Warrior by Danica Patrick” line of fitness apparel earlier this year to rave reviews, and admitted that if her on-track fortunes do not improve, there could be a team change – or even a career change – in her near future.

“It could mean either, to be honest,” she said. “If I could do better with a different team, then I would do it. I love racing. But I don’t love being miserable every weekend like I am now.

“The people around me probably aren’t that happy, either. None of us want to go out there and not run well. It’s a matter of being realistic about what’s going to be possible, what makes sense and where I’m going to be the most successful.”

With just 10 races remaining in the 2017 regular season – 10 more chances to regain her on-track relevance – Danica Patrick stands at a career crossroads. If her performance continues to flounder, 2017 will almost certainly mark her final season with a top-tier NASCAR team.

A little luck would certainly help change that outlook.

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Today is the fourth anniversary of the day former NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series driver Jason Leffler lost his life in a savage Sprint Car crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Our eulogy for "LefTurn" remains one of the most-read articles in the history of, and we re-post it today in memory of our friend Jason. 

He is gone, but not forgotten.

Dave Moody

Charlie Dean Leffler’s daddy died last night, torn from the world in a crash so stunning, so horrific that it once again causes us to question our devotion to a sport that all too often breaks our hearts.

NASCAR driver Jason Leffler was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, after a grinding crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Witnesses said his 410 Sprint Car impacted the Turn Four wall during a qualifying heat race and flipped wildly down the front stretch of the 0.625-mile dirt oval.  Safety teams extricated the unconscious driver from his vehicle, with plans to transport him to Cooper University Hospital in Camden. His condition deteriorated rapidly while awaiting arrival of a medivac helicopter, however, and responders elected to transport him by ground ambulance to nearby Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
As word of the crash began to circulate, I did what I always do in situations like this. I told myself that the reports were untrue or exaggerated; the sad result of internet hysteria and a public raised on reality TV. When it became clear that a serious crash had indeed occurred, I prayed that Leffler’s injuries were not severe, assuring myself that he would back in the cockpit in a few weeks, or months.
Just before 10 p.m., however, a phone call from a colleague brought the horrible reality home. Jason Leffler was dead, leaving us to mourn – and remember --once again.
I have so many memories of the man we called “LefTurn.” He was a weekly guest on our Sirius XM Speedway radio program for years, sharing his life – both on and off the track – with a degree of candor that was both refreshing and rare. There were plenty of good days; wins in both the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, championship-contending rides with elite owners like Joe Gibbs and Chip Ganassi, and a trio of runs in the legendary Indianapolis 500.
There were also a few bad days; crushing race-day defeats, championship shortcomings and the loss of his Nationwide and Truck Series rides. When he and Alison decided to end their marriage a few years ago, Leffler made his weekly appearance as scheduled, despite a heavy heart.
“Leff, we don’t have to do this today,” I told him. “If you want to take a pass, we can catch up next week.”
“Nah, dude,” he replied. “It’s OK. I got no secrets.”
In the months that followed, Leffler spoke constantly of his desire to be a loving and involved father to Charlie, despite the demands of his racing career. Our weekly, 4 p.m. conversations often coincided with the end of Charlie’s afternoon nap, and the unpredictability of a newly-awakened two-year old made our visits an absolute joy.
A year ago, I crossed paths with Jason and Charlie, sharing a “Boys Day Out” lunch at a local restaurant. While Jason and I talked racing, Charlie demolished a massive salad, shoveling huge forkfuls of lettuce into his mouth while simultaneously carrying on a silent flirtation with my wife.
“Charlie, you ate the whole thing,” laughed Leffler at the end of our chat. “What am I supposed to eat?”
“Sorry Daddy,” replied Charlie, “I was very hungry!”
How do you tell a five-year old boy that daddy is not coming home tonight? How do you explain that his father, his best friend and his hero – all rolled into one – has been cut down by a sport that exacts such a horrible toll from its brightest lights?
The loss is unfathomable, unacceptable and unbelievable.
Today, I mourn the loss of a phenomenal talent; a man who could run an entire, 10-lap heat race at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals on three wheels, his left-front tire twitching in mid-air in an awe-inspiring display of chassis-bending bravado.
I mourn the loss of a friend whose zest for life, winning smile and goofy, faux-hawk hairdo never failed to make me smile.
I mourn the loss of a father who adored his son and deserved to see him grow up.
A quote attributed to the author Ernest Hemingway said, “There are but three true sports -- bullfighting, mountain climbing, and motor-racing. The rest are merely games.”
All sports include a varying degree of risk, but auto racing is especially adept at destroying its own. Racers have a special relationship with death. They brush shoulders with it daily, acknowledging its presence with a passing nod while clinging stubbornly to the belief that it’ll never happen to them.
“Last year, I did a part-time truck deal,” said Leffler to Motor Racing Network’s Winged Nation recently. “It was the least I had raced since I was 18 (and) mentally, it wasn’t good. I don’t like being home. I just like being in the race car at the race track.
“The (NASCAR) start-and-park deal is not for me,” he said. “I had a good run for over a decade, so it’s time to get back racing.”
Big-league NASCAR racing had not suffered a fatality since the great Dale Earnhardt crashed to his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In that time, SAFER barriers, HANS devices, improved helmet and seat technology and car construction have made the sport safer than at any point before. But make no mistake about it, auto racing is not safe, and it never will be.

As long as men and women strap themselves into objects capable of eclipsing 200 miles per hour, as long as they test the boundaries of human endurance at places like Daytona, Lemans, Winchester and Bridgeport, horrible things can – and will -- happen. Until the laws of physics are repealed, the immovable force will always trump the unstoppable object. And when it does, racers will die.
Jason Leffler knew that. We all knew that. But it doesn’t make what happened Wednesday evening any easier to accept.

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Sunday was not the greatest day of Darrell “Bubba” Wallace’s racing career. A trio of pit-road speeding penalties relegated him to 26thplace in Sunday’s Pocono 400, his inaugural Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start in “King” Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43 Ford.

After his imperfect Pocono outing, Wallace became lightheaded and fainted on pit road, before being treated and released at the track’s Infield Care Center.

“Heck of a way to end it, passing out,” joked Wallace, who became the first African-American driver to compete in NASCAR premier series event since Bill Lester in 2006. "It has happened three times now where I’m just so mad that I pass out."

The 23-year old Alabama native drove in place of Aric Almirola Sunday, after Almirola suffered a broken vertebra in a crash at Kansas Speedway last month. And earlier in the weekend, he spoke at length about the opportunity, admitting that he is conscious of the role he plays as an African American driver in a predominantly white sport.

“This is a huge step for NASCAR, bringing diversity to its top‑tier level of NASCAR,” said Wallace. “I'm glad to be leading the forefront of that right now. It shows that we're trying to bring in a new demographic. We're trying to bring in new faces, get a younger generation, no matter what color (or) what age. We're trying to get everybody involved. It's been a fun journey.”

He said that the perception of NASCAR as a sport unwelcoming to people of color was “shut down a long time ago. It's just a matter of finding what race track is in your area, going out and purchasing a ticket… just coming out and enjoying the sport. I think (minority) fans are making that call, wanting to come out and enjoy the sport; knowing they can get in, have a great time and cheer on their favorite driver.  And I could be their new favorite driver.”

Wallace said he has never been deterred by the lack of minority drivers in NASCAR, adding, “I started out in the sport because it was something fun and new for me. I never even paid attention to see if there was anybody that looked like me growing up in the sport. 

He said he ignores the continued presence of Confederate flags in the track’s infield each week, adding, “The only flags I see are green, white and checkered.

I think that goes back to my parents, teaching me at a young age to never see it as black and white. Everybody's equal. Everybody deserves the same opportunity, the same challenge. Everybody should live their lives to the fullest with no hassles, no hold‑backs, no matter what age (or) what color you are. We should have no barriers on what we want to do in life; no matter your color, your age, gender, disabilities, no matter what. It's something that should be taken care of. 

“I've hit a couple barriers growing up. There's definitely been some flak in the way. I would get the gestures and everything thrown out, (then) we'd show up the next weekend and win. That's how I was taught. My mom and dad always told me to block out the bad and take the good, use it as motivation.

“That's how I was raised, to ignore the stupidity, continue on and do what I need to do.”

Wallace said he spoke recently with the family of NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, who broke NASCAR’s color barrier decades ago with 495 starts and a single win in NASCAR’s premier series.

“Wendell Scott, Jr. called me last night,” revealed Wallace. “He was so pumped up. He said he was helping me drive the car this weekend.  He was pumped up about… this opportunity. That's huge when you still have that connection with the family (who) continue to carry on a legacy that their father laid.”

Asked about his inability to attract full-time sponsorship in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, Wallace pointed to his won/loss record, rather than the color of his skin.

“Being honest, it's probably the win column,” he said. “There's not a day that goes by where I don't think about that. That's probably the biggest battle. You can look at (my wins in) Trucks, but that was three or four years ago. Now, it's a new year. Times have changed. We're winless (and) that may have something to do with it. I'm beating myself up over it,

“At the end of the day, it is one of the most demanding and grueling sports. Nobody loves finishing second. You want to get everything you can out of it, but sometimes it just doesn't work out. The sponsorship stuff, everybody's battling that. I just happen to be one of those guys.”

The Alabama native admitted he has no idea what his future holds, once Almirola is cleared to return to competition.

I can't really touch on that, because I don't know what's going to happen,” he said. “One thing I can touch on is I know I'll go out there and prove to everybody -- inside the racetrack, outside the racetrack, on TV -- that I belong in the Cup Series. I’ll do the best that I can, give an extra 200% each and every time I climb in the car for Ford, for Richard Petty, for everybody on the team (and) for Smithfield.

“There's no need for me to go out there and try to set the world on fire, trying to win races and putting myself in a tough spot,” he said. “If the opportunity presents itself, yeah, we'll jump on it. But there's no need for me to force a hole (and) end up tearing up a race car. I'm getting this opportunity because people believe in me and have seen my talents coming up. I have to go out there and back that up; show them I can manage and perform, and that I belong in the series.”

While admittedly feeling the pressure of his first MENCS opportunity. Wallace said he is also taking time to enjoy the moment.

“(Eventual Pocono winner) Ryan Blaney texted me this morning -- actually woke me up this morning-- and he wants a picture this weekend.  He was like, ‘We're driving the two most iconic cars in the sport this weekend. We definitely have to capitalize on that.

“(I am) the first African American since 2006. That's a lot of history. I've always said I like to let the results speak for themselves and… let the history fall in behind that. Not focus on the big spotlight, the African American side, the iconic number. Let all that funnel in after we have our good runs, get out there on the racetrack and show everybody we can do it.”

By the time Almirola returns, Wallace will rank second to Scott on a regrettably short, eight-man list of African American drivers to compete in NASCAR’s top series. But predictably, the Alabama native will remain focused on racing, rather than race.

“I think everybody wanted to see this opportunity happen,” he said. “NASCAR wanted to see it, I believe, for multiple reasons. And Ford has been a great supporter of mine for the last two years, going on three years now. This has been a pretty big couple of days for me. It's an exciting opportunity, not only for myself but my family, my fans… everybody that's helped me get to this level ever since I started racing when I was nine years old. 

“This is the perfect opportunity, so I'm very thankful for that. I've always said that God has had my plans in his hands. A new door has opened and we'll go out there and make the most of it.”

“I've been through 14 or 15 years of racing; a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “There's more downs than ups. That's what makes you stronger, keeps you hungry and coming back for more. It's been a lot of blood, sweat and tears; from not only myself, but everybody that's helped me out along the way. A lot of family sacrifices to get me here. Everybody has a different story of how they got to their ultimate level. 

“It's (going to be) cool in a couple years to look back on it and see how far we've come.”

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It’s been one heck of a year to be a NASCAR inspector.

With fewer boots on the ground than ever before due to budget cuts and layoffs, NASCAR’s foot soldiers are being called upon to do more than ever these days, in less time. An influx of new technology has required NASCAR’s officials’ corps to learn new ways of doing things, while guiding race teams through previously uncharted technical territory.

And when things go wrong – as they frequently have – it’s the officials who take the heat when an over-aggressive crew chief gets caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar.

Numerous times this season, teams have been unable to make qualifying attempts after failing multiple pre-qualifying inspections. And when that happens, team members point the finger of blame in the direction of the sanctioning body, claiming that major adjustments on their machines produce little (or no) impact on the readouts.

“They’re out of calibration,” they claim. “They’re thrown off by the sun. Or the heat. Or the cold.”

NASCAR has countered those allegations, utilizing a non-adjustable test car dubbed “The Lunar Rover” to perform multiple re-calibrations of their inspection machinery, each and every week. And yet, the accusations continue.

Now, with 13 races in the record book – one half of the regular season schedule – it is possible to look back on the 2017 campaign and draw some cold, hard conclusions.

And the numbers don’t lie

A check of 2017 qualifying records shows that teams had no trouble passing pre-qualifying inspection at the circuit’s two restrictor plate races. In the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway in February, all 42 drivers successfully completed inspection in time to attempt qualifying. That trend continued at the 2.5-mile Talladega Superspeedway on May 6, with all 41 drivers attempting to qualify, without incident.

The series’ short track venues have been similarly devoid of pre-qualifying drama. Every driver made a qualifying attempt at Bristol on April 21 and Richmond on April 28, while qualifying was rained out at Martinsville Speedway on March 31, with the field set via the NASCAR rule book.

The one-mile ovals have also been trouble free this season, with all drivers successfully navigating pre-qualifying inspection at both Phoenix (March 17) and Dover last weekend.

It’s NASCAR’s intermediate tracks – the 1.5 and 2-mile ovals where aerodynamics are of critical importance -- where the issues seem to arise.

At Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 3, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Michael McDowell, Cole Whitt, Derrike Cope and Cody Ware all failed multiple inspections and were unable to complete even a single qualifying lap.

Three weeks later at Auto Club Speedway, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Matt DiBenedetto and Gray Gaulding did not make qualifying attempts, after failing multiple inspections.

Texas Motor Speedway saw nine drivers -- Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Erik Jones, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Chris Buescher, Timmy Hill and Derrike Cope – start at the back of the pack after failing to clear pre-qualifying inspection.

Kansas Speedway provided the season’s low point, when a total of 12 drivers -- Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kahne, Jones, Earnhardt, David Ragan, McDowell, Landon Cassill, Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie, Hill and Carl Long – were forced to start at the rear of the field after failing pre-qualifying inspections and being unable to turn a qualifying lap. 

On All Star weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, all 16 drivers passed inspection in time to attempt qualifying for the Monster Energy All Star Race. However, Sorenson and McDowell both failed inspections prior to qualifying for the companion Monster Energy Open.

One week later, Larson and LaJoie failed to pass pre-qualifying inspections at Charlotte and were forced to start the Coca-Cola 600 from the rear of the field.

Interestingly, the only 1.5-mile track to experience no pre-qualifying issues was Las Vegas Motor Speedway, arguably one of the hottest venues on the schedule.

If NASCAR was truly experiencing equipment issues – with LIS tables and other measuring devices succumbing to the vagarities of heat and humidity – why have the issues occurred only at tracks where rear camber and skew offer the largest advantage? Shouldn’t there have been just as many problems at Martinsville, Daytona and Bristol, where the same measuring devices were used under the same varying weather conditions?

Common sense says `yes.’

And yet, no such issues occurred.

In the absence of such across-the-board problems, regardless of the size of the venue, it is virtually impossible to blame the yardstick for this season’s inspection debacles. NASCAR’s LIS and template stations are inanimate objects, capable of neither human bias nor error. They don’t see names and car numbers; only concrete, indisputable measurements.

Every car is the same as the others. It either complies with the rules, or it doesn’t.

Chad Knaus had it right a few weeks ago when he said teams “have nobody to blame but themselves” for this season’s rash of high-profile inspection failures.

“We are paid to push the envelope,” admitted Knaus, the most successful crew chief of this (or arguably any) era. “NASCAR gives us a rule and a tolerance beyond the rule. As competitive as we are, we take all of that, and sometimes a little more.”

So enough with blaming the yardstick. Enough pointing the finger at Mother Nature. It’s time to place the blame where it has belonged all along; with the men and women who live their lives in the gray area of the NASCAR Rule Book.

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"It's genetic. That's just who I am."
Kyle Busch says people should learn to accept his sometimes surly post-race demeanor.

Not everyone in the NASCAR Garage agrees.

Busch drew criticism from some corners two weeks ago, after a terse post-race press conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway where he gave a sullen, six-word answer about his runner-up finish to Austin Dillon in the Coca-Cola 600, before ending the session with an abrupt mic drop.

Busch attempted to explain his post-600 unhappiness last weekend at Dover International Speedway,, saying, “There were a lot of things on the line that meant a lot to me (and) would have been special to me. I guess I should care less about those things and not show that sort of emotion.”

Busch admitted that he is not the most gracious loser in the sport, but argued that after 13 years as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver, people should be willing to cut him some slack.

“Different people show their emotions in different ways,”: said Busch. “And unfortunately for me, mine has never been very gracious. I don’t know that it ever will be. I’m learning that, as the days go on. My son is two years old (and) I see where that came from. It’s genetic. I’m sorry, that’s just who I am. That’s what I was given. If there’s anyone to blame, it’s probably the guy upstairs.

“I can probably get better and go to training and classes… but I don’t know," added the 2015 MENCS champion. "It is the way it is. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been blessed (and) to be in the opportunity that I’m in. I’ve got great partners and sponsors that are with me, and they’ve stuck with me through a lot worse than what happened this week.

“The people that are close to me understand me, know me and know who I am outside the race track as a person, as a friend. That’s why I’m able to continue to have the relationships and the sponsorships that I do.”

Brad Keselowski, however, is having none of it.

The Penske Racing driver called out Busch following his Coke 600 dust-up, saying via Twitter, "Maybe I should keep my mouth shut (but) I was taught to hate losing by working harder next time, not by being disrespectful to others. Not sure how or when "hating losing" got defined in this manner, but I'm pretty sure it's the wrong way...

Keselowski’s comments triggered a brief war of words with Toyota Racing Group Vice President/Technical Director Andy Graves, who responded, “You’re right. You should keep your mouth shut.”

Keselowski was not deterred, however, and spoke out again last weekend at Dover, criticizing those who view Busch’s tempestuous personality as a reflection of his determination on the race track.

"When the media comes out and says that's a reflection of him having the most desire to win, it makes me want to throw up," he said. "Not only is that a terrible message to send to anyone who's aspiring to be a part of the sport, it's a terrible message to send to anybody in general.”

GoFas Racing driver Matt DiBenedetto, also criticized Busch’s conduct, saying, “I would not choose to act that way. It is totally okay to be upset with losing. I mean, we’re competitors. (But) my role models are people like Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards (and) Mark Martin. I just choose to go about things their way. Those are the people I look up to. I would never act like Kyle Busch. It’s great for our sport and we need it, but that’s not how I would be.”

Not everyone sees an issue with Busch’s post-race snit, however.

"That s#it was funny. I was entertained.”
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. supported Busch last week, tweeting, “Don’t change Kyle Busch. The sport needs personalities. All of them. We all can’t be politically correct robots. If you don’t like him that’s perfectly fine, but that s#it was funny. I was entertained.”

Keselowski also said he strives to set a more positive example by conducting himself well, in both victory and defeat.

"When I look at teams and people in this sport, they all want to be associated with those who have the strongest hunger and desire and passion to be successful,” he said. “That's natural. That includes myself. (But Busch’s) message to convey -- whether it's through the media or through different mouthpieces -- is a terrible message that has serious effects; not only on our sport, but on our society.

“I don't think that's acceptable. Your desire to win can be expressed in a lot of other ways that are productive."

"(If) you want to show me desire and passion to win, it's when nobody is watching," Keselowski said. "That's what desire and passion is to win."

“Anybody that aspires to be great in this sport or (in) life, that’s what they should be looking at,” he said. “That’s the message we should be sending to kids and other people.”

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With the Memorial Day weekend now behind us, it’s finally safe to examine a few trends that have emerged from the first 12 races of the season, while simultaneously emptying the notebook from a busy 10-day stretch in the heart of NASCAR Country.

One Win May Not Be Enough -- NASCAR’s Youth Movement continued at Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday night, with Austin Dillon joining Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the list of first-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winners this season. Dillon becomes the ninth different victor in just 12 races this season, casting NASCAR’s traditional “Win And You’re In” playoff mantra into doubt for the first time ever.

Fourth-place points man Kevin Harvick and fifth-place Kyle Busch are comfortably nestled into playoff positions at present, despite being winless on the season. But with drivers like Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all high on the list of potential 2017 winners – and Joey Logano still gunning for an unencumbered win to replace his April 30 win at Richmond – with only 16 total playoff berths available, things could get uncomfortable toward the end of the regular season.  

“The Goop” HelpedHigh marks to Charlotte Motor Speedway officials for their decision to apply a resin-based traction enhancing compound to the middle and high grooves of the 1.5-mile speedway in advance of Sunday’s race. One week after a ho-hum All-Star Race that produced little or no on-track action, Truex called the move it a “good addition,” calling the VHT compound “a huge factor” in the competitiveness of the Coca-Cola 600. “I think last weekend the middle groove… was nonexistent,” said Truex after leading 233 of 400 laps and finishing third. “It was the slickest part of the racetrack. Tonight, it was the main groove. It definitely played a factor. It changed the race quite a bit.”

Dillon Saves The Day --Unfortunately, all the “Goop” in the world cannot change the laws of aerodynamics, which once again saw the race leader enjoy a substantial advantage over his pursuers at Charlotte. Dillon’s larcenous, fuel-mileage aided victory added some excitement to what was shaping up to be a decidedly dull finish, but most of the passing Sunday – at least up front – occurred immediately following an on-track restart.

The addition of a fourth stage Sunday did not appear to ramp-up the intensity, and quite honestly, the action at CMS tends to mirror the height of the sun. Day racing at Charlotte is generally competitive and entertaining. But once the sun dips below the horizon, “single-file” becomes the phrase of the day. It could be worse, though.

It could be Indy.

Larson Drops Points Lead -- Kyle Larson slapped the wall twice Sunday en route to a season-worst 33rd-place finish, losing the championship points lead to Martin Truex, Jr. for the first time since Phoenix in mid-March. The young phenom is unlikely to be shedding any tears over his loss of the top spot, since he was once again one of the fastest cars on the track at CMS. Teammate Jamie McMurray was also a contender before settling for 12th at the drop of the checkered flag, continuing a season that has both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers in solid contention for the championship.

With A Little Help From His Friends--Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Coke 600 start was good, but not great, as NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver overcame a miserable performance in the previous weekend’s Monster Energy All Star Race to finish tenth in the Coca-Cola 600. When it was over, Earnhardt gave a full measure of credit to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, saying, “We’ve got to thank Jimmie and the No. 48 guys. Jimmie was communicating with me all week, calling me, talking on the phone. He would come across the garage and get in my window, even during practice. Get out of his car and come talk to me. What a great teammate.

“We would have liked to have run a little bit better than that for sure,” he added. “We think we should be running in the Top-5 every week as a team, so that is still not really good enough, but compared to last week, it’s a huge improvement.”

Things Looking Up For JGRJoe Gibbs Racing once again showed signs at Charlotte of turning their lackluster 2017 around.The team is still collectively winless, but had arguably its best collective performance in the Coca-Cola 600. Kyle Busch led 63 laps Sunday and finished second, with teammates Matt Kenseth (fourth), Denny Hamlin (fifth) and Daniel Suarez (11th) close behind. JGR is still winless , after racking up seven wins at this point of the 2016 campaign, but seems to be finding the speed they have lacked in the early part of the season.  “Our speed is better, but we still have some work to do,” said Kenseth. “I still can’t run with the 78 and the 18 if they’re out in front of me. They’re still better than us. We still have some work to do, but we do have more speed and that’s encouraging.”

Busch Still A ChallengeDespite a solid, runner-up finish behind Dillon Sunday night, Kyle Busch once again reinforced his status as the most ingracious loser in all of professional sports. NASCAR’s resident Bad Boy answered just one question during his mandatory Infield Media Center appearance, saying, “I’m not surprised about anything. Congratulations,” before tossing down the microphone and refusing to participate further.

Busch continues to hear more catcalls during pre-race driver introductions than any driver this side of Joey Logano, and honestly, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver doesn’t seem to care. In fact, he actually seems to enjoy tossing off the occasional toddler-style temper tantrum.

One can only wonder how his team and sponsors feel about it.

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NASCAR made a number of changes in Saturday night’s Monster Energy All-Star Race, hoping to ratchet-up competition and build suspense. The sanctioning body utilized the multi-segment format that has energized Cup racing this season, adding a single set of softer “Option Tires” to each crew chief’s arsenal in an effort to increase passing.

None of it worked.

The annual Monster Energy Open provided cause for optimism, with plenty of passing and side-by-side competition. Once the sun set and the track cooled, however, Charlotte Motor Speedway became a one-lane race track, with the dreaded “aero push” providing the race leader with a substantial – and apparently insurmountable – advantage.

Time after time, second-place drivers ran down the leader from 12-15 car lengths back, only to encounter dirty air and stall out within sight of the lead.  

"You can't pass anywhere," said Wood Brothers Racing driver Ryan Blaney, who earned his All-Star spot with a spellbinding drive in the earlier Monster Energy Open. "It's not great track conditions, to be honest with you."

Kyle Larson led wire-to-wire in the opening two segments and clearly had the fastest car. But he was unable to overcome a balky final pit stop that left him fourth at the start of the final, 10-lap sprint, fighting mightily to wrest the runner-up position away from Jimmie Johnson on the final lap, a country mile behind winner Kyle Busch.   

Good night for Kyle, bad night for fans.
"I think we had the car to be the winner," said Larson afterward. "(But) you've got to be perfect to win a Cup race. I knew being the leader off pit road was going to be the big thing. When I could tell that the rear changer wasn't around nearly as fast as the front, I knew we were in trouble."

While failing to spark the kind of side-by-side racing many had hoped for, Goodyear’s new “Option Tire” at least offered hope for the future. None of the 10 surviving teams utilized the tires in the final, 10-lap stage, deciding that the 3-5/10ths of a second per lap speed advantage they offered was not enough to overcome a back-of-the-pack starting spot.

"There's no doubt that mile-and-a-half racing puts on a certain type of show," admitted Johnson after the race. "I think Charlotte Motor Speedway works as hard as they possibly can put on a great show. They're open minded to any and every idea… (but) we all run the same speed. The rule book is so thick and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed. You can't pass running the same speed. The damn rule book is too thick. There's too much going on.”

 “Mile-and-a-half racing is mile-and-a-half racing,” he said. “When all the cars are qualifying as tight as they do (and) we can't pass as easily, we have to logically look at it and say, 'Hey, we're all going the same speed, no wonder we can't pass.’”

"I have an opinion, but I don't have the answer."

Not a good enough option.
In the weeks leading up to the race, Goodyear predicted a 3-5/10ths of a second speed advantage for its new “Option Tire.” Saturday night, however, they were good for only about half that.

"There was a fair amount speed difference in practice,” confirmed Adam Stevens, crew chief for race winner Kyle Busch. "(But) as it cooled off, the discrepancy got smaller and smaller.”

"I don't think Goodyear hit the tire very well," said Brad Keselowski. "They missed pretty big. The tire was supposed to be much faster."

An even-softer “Option Tire” for next year’s race could help turn the tide, trimming lap times to the point where the leader’s aero advantage can finally be overcome. Expect Goodyear and NASCAR to conduct extensive testing before next year’s race, to ensure a better result.

While they’re at it, perhaps they should consider moving the All-Star event back to the heat of the day, eschewing a prime-time TV audience in favor of compelling racing on a hot, greasy race track.

Or perhaps it’s finally time to heed the cries of those who lobby for a traveling All-Star Race, taking the event “on the road” to venues that can provide a better, more exciting race than the competitively challenged CMS oval.

Sadly, none of those changes can be made in time for this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600; a race that was dominated a year ago by Martin Truex, Jr., who used a perfect race car and the aerodynamic edge all leaders enjoy to lead 392 of the race’s 400 laps.

With a month of wildly competitive point-counting events in the rearview window, the last thing NASCAR needs at this point is another “No Doze 600.”

Based on what we say Saturday night, however, that may be what we’re in for.

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In an era of HANS devices, containment seats, impact-absorbing form and computer-generated chassis technology, it is tempting to believe that people don’t get hurt in race cars anymore.

But Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, Aric Almirola reminded us once again that stock car racing remains a dangerous game.

Almirola, driver of the #43 Smithfield Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, was involved in a multi-car accident on Lap 199 of Saturday night's race, when a broken brake rotor on Joey Logano's car triggered a violent, fiery crash that demolished his car, along with those of Almirola and Danica Patrick. Almirola plowed into Logano's car as it skidded along the outside wall, hard enough to send the rear of Almirola's Ford high into the air.

The RPM driver slid to a stop against the SAFER barrier at the exit of Turn Two, and immediately dropped the window net. He failed to exit the vehicle, however, and safety workers were forced to remove his car’s roof to extricate him safely.

While conscious and alert, Almirola was placed in a cervical collar and removed on a backboard, grimacing in pain. He was transported by ambulance to the speedway’s Infield Care Center, before being airlifted to University of Kansas Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a fractured T5 vertebra.

He was held overnight for further observation, before returning to his home in North Carolina the following day.

“I’m saying a lot of prayers for Aric right now,” said a visibly shaken Logano afterward. “A lot of us took a hard hit. Something broke on my car. I don't know what it was. I tried to back it off, but you're going 215 (mph) and it's hard to check up. The car just took a big step sideways into the corner and I hooked Danica.

“You can see the right front (tire) popped,” he said. “I just hope everyone is OK. I hope Aric is all right. That's the last thing you want to see, a big hit like that for anyone. It's unfortunate for everyone.”

Patrick was animated and angry after bailing out of her flaming Ford on the track apron, and confronted Logano on their way to the ambulance.

"I told him, `I'm not sure if it was you, but I'm pretty sure it was you,'" she said. "He said it was a failure of some sort, which didn't make me feel better in that moment. I hope Aric is OK. He's definitely feeling the worst of everybody.''

Winner Martin Truex, Jr. also spoke of Almirola in Victory Lane, saying, "He and his wife (are) great people. Just such a nice family and such a nice guy. I was really scared when I saw that and worried for him, obviously. I hope he's doing good."

Runner-up Brad Keselowski spoke for many after the race, saying, "It's a dangerous sport. It always has been and it always will be.

“Sometimes, we take for granted that you see real hard hits and people walk away. Then you see one where someone doesn't, and it puts things back into perspective about just how dangerous it can be."

It has been a long time since NASCAR fans watched in stunned silence as the roof of a race car is peeled back to enable the extrication of its injured driver.

It’s been a long time since we averted our eyes from the action on the track to look skyward as a Life Flight helicopter lifts off from the infield, saying a silent prayer for the injured driver on board.

It’s been a long time since we were reminded that the laws of physics still apply in motorsports; that despite all the carbon fiber and impact absorbing foam, race car drivers remain fragile human beings, susceptible to bruises, burns, broken bones… and worse.

Aric Almirola will be sidelined for a time, giving his broken back sufficient to heal. Someone else will strap into his #43 Smithfield Ford this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, attempting to earn the team a spot in the sport’s annual All Star Race. NASCAR will examine the remains of his battered, beaten race car, hoping to learn how to prevent the type of injury he suffered Saturday from ever happening again.

And in a few days, we will once again begin the process of deceiving ourselves into believing that stock car racing is no longer a violent game.

Until next time.

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Tom Curley passed away Friday, and I haven’t had much to say about it, until today.

As someone who makes his living with words – both written and spoken – I found myself uncharacteristically speechless at the passing of a man who did so much to shape both my life and my career.

It wasn’t like we didn’t see it coming. Tom had been in failing health for years, as the crippling effects of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease slowly extinguished the competitive fire that had burned so bright for so long. Last fall, we made plans to have dinner together the night before the annual Milk Bowl at his pride-and-joy race track, Vermont’s Thunder Road International Speedbowl. But Tom was under the weather than evening, and was forced to cancel.

“We’ll catch up next time,” he promised. But I think we both knew that might not be true.

Tom was singularly the most complicated man I have ever known. His childhood was filled with turmoil and upheaval, and as an adult, he was more comfortable with conflict than most. He was a feisty Irishman, a “my way or the highway” kind of guy who could be your biggest supporter and greatest tormentor, all in the same day.

And when it came to promoting stock car races, he was the greatest of all time.

Curley had an uncanny ability to see 10 years down the road, properly positioning his tracks and series for what was to come. I only saw him get conned once, when the Detroit automakers convinced him (and NASCAR) that V8 engines were on their way out, and that V6 power would be the wave of the future.

He was among the first to rail against the skyrocketing cost of competition, and absolutely the first to do something about it. He took control of the engines, implementing a low cost crate-engine program, despite violent opposition from the engine builders who had lined their pockets for decades at his racer’s expense. He mandated spec shock absorbers, then ensured compliance by periodically requiring competitors to unbolt their shocks after qualifying and swap them with a fellow racer. He implemented track tires that were often harder than ideal, ensuring that deep-pocketed racers could not simply spend their way to Victory Lane.

Curley implemented a “ladder system” at his local tracks, allowing entry-level drivers to test their skill and resolve in a dirt-cheap, four cylinder race car, without mortgaging their home to do so. Those who experienced success graduated to the second tier – the Flying Tigers class at Thunder Road – where they spent a little more money and went a little bit faster. The ACT Late Models were the headline class; the “thunder and lightning” division where the top drivers showcased their skills.

Over the years, lots of drivers climbed Curley’s ladder, all the way to the top. Nick Sweet, Mike “Beetle” Bailey, Jason Corliss and a number of others became Late Model winners -- even graduating to the traveling American Canadian Tour – after beginning their careers in Curley’s Street Stock class. Sweet won the ACT Tour championship in 2016, and few moments made Tom happier, or more proud.

Curley’s pit meetings were the stuff of legend. He had definite opinions on the way drivers should conduct themselves on the race track, and he had no qualms about expressing those opinions, often at top volume.

Hundreds of times over the last three decades, I heard him preach his motorsports gospel.  

"If a guy has the balls to run the high groove, get alongside you and pinch you down in the turn, you owe him the lane,” he said. “Either concede the position, or be a jackass and wreck both of you. He earned that spot, give it to him!”

Tom was also a stickler for “taking what the day gives you.”

"If you’re having a shitty day, take your 15th place finish, bring your car home intact and come back next week,” he’d say. “Don't screw with the guy who’s having a good day. Let him have his day, just like he’ll let you have yours when it’s your turn.”

Tom was also a big fan of props, often bringing toy race cars to the track as part of an animated demonstration of what did (and did not) qualify as acceptable on-track behavior. More than once, he demolished the cars with a hammer for effect, captivating his audience and delivering his message loud and clear.

Once, at a time when ACT’s core group of officials oversaw three weekly race tracks and a traveling tour each week, Tom would elect to repeat the previous night’s pit meeting; something the traveling officials corps jokingly referred to as “a rerun.”

“Tom,” I said on one particular late-night drive back to Vermont, “you need new material. I’ve seen the same damned driver’s meeting, four nights in a row.”

On the rare occasion where a pre-race sermon failed to have its desired effect, Curley took a more hands-on approach. He was known to red-flag a race that produced multiple crashes in the opening laps, stopping the cars on the front stretch, marching down through the grandstands, pulling the drivers out of their cars and reading them the riot act in front of the entire house. Invariably, he received a standing ovation on his way back to the official’s tower, before enjoying a caution-free event, the rest of the way.

One on especially egregious night at Thunder Road, the Flying Tiger class compounded a lengthy rain delay by throwing off three caution flags in the opening two laps. Tom parked `em on the frontstretch and stormed trackside, delivering a patented, arm-waving T-Bone tirade for the ages, punctuated by a crack of his umbrella across the race leader’s windshield.

He re-entered the tower wearing an impish grin, prompting me to ask simply, “What happened?”

“Goddamnit,” he replied, holding his demolished umbrella. “This was my Norwich Alumni umbrella. I really liked this one…”

Curley was an innovator, once adding a pink flag to the standard mix of green, white, yellow and checkered.

“This is the Pig Flag,” he announced to an incredulous group of drivers. “If you want to be a jerk and hog both lanes, we will show you this flag. Do it again and we’ll show it to you again. Do it a third time and you’ll be parked for the night, because you’re a lousy racer.”

The “Pig Flag” is still in use at Tom’s race tracks, and no one has ever gotten it more than twice.

There were no names in Tom’s pit area, just car numbers. He was as likely to penalize the point leader as any backmarker, and one year, he gave the most popular driver in the history of Thunder Road, Dave Dion, the heave-ho after his crew ran onto the race track to confront a driver who had triggered a wreck that turned their car upside down.

“I need to behave myself,” said one driver known for his temper. “If Tom will throw Dave Dion out, he’ll sure as shit send me packing.”

Curley also had a knack for painting the “big picture,” convincing a group of tough, take-no-quarter racers to look out for each other on the race track, while also doing what’s right for the fans. Every Opening Day at Thunder Road, Tom would deliver a variation on the same speech.

“Ken and I don’t own this place,” he’d say. “We just pay the mortgage. Those people up there (pointing to the grandstands) own this place. Without them, we’re all out of business. They spend their hard-earned money to come and watch you race, and you owe them a good, respectable, competitive show.”

During the height of the GM National Stock Car Series in Canada, Tom and I traveled to Toronto every few weeks, where I would voice-over the TV broadcasts that aired north of the border on TSN. It was an eight hour drive each way, just to do a 90-minute voiceover, turn around and drive home again. 

We made nearly a dozen of those trips, creating a slew of unplanned adventures and new “Tom Curley Stories.”

One night, TC and I were heading back to Vermont after a midweek voiceover, driving a Chevy Lumina Pace Car that had been provided by GM of Canada. The car was pretty trick, with some extra horsepower-producing doohickeys under the hood, a multicolored graphics package and side exhaust pipes that ran the length of the vehicle.

As anyone who knew Tom will attest, he loved wringing every last drop speed out of whatever he was driving, and this Pace Car was no exception. Unfortunately, after a few months of high-speed T-Bone abuse, the car had begun to show clear signs of fatigue. Halfway home, the passenger-side exhaust pipe came loose from its bracket and began dragging across the asphalt in a shower of sparks. Pulling over the examine the situation, we quickly determined that some “guerilla engineering” was required, if we were to make it home before dawn.

Tom and I removed our leather belts, knotted them together and wrapped them around the dislodged exhaust, running the other end through the open passenger-side window for me to hold. That may have been the longest ride of my life.

A few weeks later -- during another top-speed Toronto return – we drove up on a State Police roadblock at the entrance to what was then called “The Indian Reservation” in upstate New York. The trooper in charge informed us that the resident Akwesasne Tribe was up in arms over the latest in a decades-long series of tax disputes with the State of New York, and had constructed a large bonfire in the middle of the highway to express their displeasure.

“I wouldn’t go in there,” he warned. “If you get in trouble, we can’t come in after you.”

“Are you saying we can’t keep going,” asked Tom, knowing that doubling back would add at least an hour to our already too-late arrival time at home.

“No, but if you do, you’re on your own.”

Tom gunned the throttle and drove on, saying, “I guess we won’t have to worry about speeding tickets for the next few miles.” Not far down the road, we did indeed encounter a roaring bonfire in the center of the two-lane highway, with a few dozen locals huddled around for warmth. Tom matted the accelerator and blasted past – two wheels on the asphalt and two on the shoulder – showering the Native American “protestors” with gravel as they dove for cover in an adjoining ditch.

Tom was infamous for running past "E" on the gas gauge before stopping to fill up. I don’t know if he saw it as a test of manhood, or an opportunity to thumb his nose at the universe and its conventions. Either way, his penchant for “running on fumes” often resulted in him being stranded by the side of the road -- at all hours of the day and night -- out of gas.

One night, we were driving back from Toronto at 1 AM, doing 85 mph in a 45-mph zone. As usual, the "low fuel" light had been burning for at least a half hour, and as we approached one of the last gas stations we would see for a while, I said, "Tom, if you run us out of gas again in the middle of the night, you are going to push this car, while I steer."

"What do you mean," he said. "I can't push this car, I have asthma!"

"You have asthma," I replied, "but I have brains enough not to drive past another goddamn gas station at 1 o'clock in the morning!"

He chuckled under his breath, and pulled into the gas station. I think that is the only argument I ever won with Tom Curley.

Not all of my memories of Curley are happy ones. Like anyone who worked with him for any length of time, I felt his wrath on a number of occasions. He fired me twice during our 30 years together; once from my part-time post as a PR rep/college student, for failing to collect admission fees from the crowd at a Saturday night concert during New England 300 weekend at Catamount Stadium. It didn’t matter than I had never been told to do so. In Tom’s mind, I should have known.

I have always suspected that my firing had more to do with not wanting to keep me on the payroll during a long, cold, PR-starved Vermont winter; a suspicion that was bolstered when he happily hired me back the following spring.

But hey, I can’t prove a thing.

My second firing came prior to what would have been my 31st season on the public-address microphone at Thunder Road, and in truth, it was less a firing than a mutual parting of the ways. Two years earlier, I had accepted a position hosting the afternoon drive program on SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s NASCAR Channel. It was a great career move for me – not to mention a substantial increase in pay – but for Tom, it was a difficult decision to accept. In his mind, you were either with him or against him; all-in or all-out. After nearly three decades, the announcer who had always been waiting at the pit gate when it opened at 2 p.m. was now rolling in at 7:15, missing the first heat race of the night.

It bothered him, and to be completely honest, it bothered me, too. I felt like I was short-changing Thunder Road and its fans, something I had never wanted to do. I was caught between a rock and a hard place, forced to either give less than 100% for the first time in my life, or resign the position I had dreamed of since I was a little boy.

Tom solved the problem for both of us, sending me a polite-but-firm note the following spring, saying he had decided to “move in a different direction.” It broke my heart, but I understood his rationale.

Thunder Road was his top priority, and he needed people around him who made it their top priority, as well.

There was also a softer, gentler side to Tom that not everyone got to see.

In the mid-1990s, ACT was hired by owner Michael Liberty to operate Maine’s legendary Oxford Plains Speedway for a couple of seasons. It was a lot of work, with Thunder Road, Oxford, New York's Airborne Raceway and the traveling American Canadian Tour all under the ACT umbrella. A number of us traveled the entire circuit, racing 4-5 nights a week and sleeping little.

I personally considered Liberty to be a $100 haircut on a $5 head; an untrustworthy opportunist who used people to pad his bank account before kicking them unceremoniously to the curb. He proved me right at the end of the 1995 campaign, throwing ACT out on its collective ear and refusing to pay a substantial amount of money he allegedly owed. I was at the Radisson Hotel in Burlington, Vermont, preparing for ACT’s annual post-season Banquet of Champions, when my phone rang.

“Can you come down to Tom’s room? We need to have a meeting.”

Once assembled, we were told that Liberty had defaulted on his financial obligations, essentially leaving ACT bankrupt. The point fund would be paid – with some delay – but the series was shutting down, effective immediately. It was crushing blow for a group of people who had poured their hearts and souls into the series for many years. None of us knew where our next paycheck was coming from, but Tom demanded that we dry our tears and proceed as planned that evening.

“These people deserve their night,” he said. “They busted their butts all season long, and they deserve a celebration tonight, not a wake. We’re going to go out there and do our jobs, and only at the end will I tell everyone what has happened.”

Emceeing that banquet was one of the toughest things I have ever done; pasting a smile on my face and talking about what a great season it had been. But it was absolutely the right thing to do, and we did it because Tom wanted it that way.

T-Bone could be a tough guy to work for. There were days when I wanted to take him by the throat and shake him. But there were other times – the vast majority of the time, really – where I and dozens of others would have walked through fire for the man, if he had asked us to.

Last month, Curley and longtime partner Ken Squier sold their beloved Thunder Road to former racer Cris Michaud and local real estate developer Pat Malone, ensuring that “The Nation’s Site of Excitement” will survive and thrive for decades to come. Just days later, Thomas Michael “T-Bone” Curley was gone.

I like to think those two events were connected, in some way.

I like to think that Tom hung around just long enough to ensure that race fans in Central Vermont got what they deserved, one last time.

Have a good ride, Tom.

And Rest In Peace.

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It’s always a good day when Junior wins at Talladega.

Sunday’s GEICO 500 was no exception, even though the “Junior” in question was not exactly the one most fans had in mind.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., carried Roush Fenway Racing back to Victory Lane Sunday for the first time since June of 2014, starting on the pole and prevailing on a green-white-checked flag finish to claim his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in 158 career starts.

Stenhouse’s upset victory puts his name at the top of a lengthy list of darkhorse victors at the 2.66-mile Alabama tri-oval, joining inaugural winner Richard Brickhouse, Dick Brooks, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard, Bobby Hillin, Jr. and Phil Parsons. Racing just 260 miles from his childhood home in Olive Branch, Mississippi, Stenhouse received a warm – if not quite Earnhardt-esque -- reception from the packed Talladega grandstand as he celebrated with team members, sponsors and girlfriend Danica Patrick in Victory Lane.

“This is for all the guys at the shop,” said Stenhouse. “Every race, we’re getting better and better.  We knew Talladega was a good track for us. It’s been good in the past and I’m glad we parked it for my buddy, (the late) Bryan Clauson. 

“This Fifth Third Bank Ford was so fast today. We qualified on the pole and got the win. It’s cool to have Jack Roush back in Victory Lane. This is cool. (It’s) the closest race track to my hometown and the fans were out here this weekend.”

Stenhouse’s win was the culmination of an early season competitive resurgence for Roush Fenway Racing, an organization that has had little to celebrate in recent seasons. The team contracted from three cars to two this season, allowing veteran Greg Biffle to seek his fortune elsewhere. Equally important were a series of management changes that revitalized RFR’s approach to winning races. Lifelong Roush man Robbie Reiser was reassigned from his post as General Manager; part of a long-overdue shift to newer, younger, more engineering-based minds.  

The results have been impressive, to say the least.

Stenhouse’s win was his fourth Top-10 finish in the last five weeks; following a 10that Martinsville, a ninth at Bristol and a fourth-place showing two weeks ago at Richmond. Teammate Trevor Bayne also contended for the win Sunday, before being eliminated in a 15-car backstretch melee with less than 20 laps to go. Bayne has recorded seven Top-15 finishes in 10 starts this season, and if the post-season playoffs began today, both Roush Fenway Racing drivers would receive tickets to the dance.

There is still a bit more work to do before RFR returns to the ranks of championship favorites, but Sunday’s GEICO 500 was proof positive that progress is being made.

"There was no panic,” stressed Jack Roush Sunday, beaming from beneath his trademark fedora in a raucous Talladega Victory Lane. “I've been a racer for nearly 60 years – 30 of them in NASCAR – and I've been in holes before.

“I've climbed out of every one of them.”

While never doubting his ability to rebound, Roush admitted that Sunday’s win “comes with some relief.”

“It doesn’t get any sweeter than this,” said a happy Stenhouse Sunday. “It’s awesome to finally finish it off. I look at our first 150 (races) and I can only hope that the next 150 are going to be kind of like Joey Logano’s. He’s had 300 races. The first 150 weren’t great, the next 150 were. Hopefully this is the start of that.

“Pulling into Victory Lane and seeing Jack and Danica standing there together, it was super special. They’re the same height,” he laughed. “She supports me through anything I need to do, whether it’s spending more time at the shop (or the) need to…spend a little bit more time with the guys at the shop. She’s been so supportive and knows how hard that I’ve worked, and to have her there was really awesome.

“Every race, we’re getting better and better,” he added. “My confidence has been really high all year. We know what race tracks we need to work on. I feel confident in the guys back at the shop, Brian (Pattie) and everyone. There are not many teams that pay attention to the details like the No. 17 team does.”

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It’s official. 

The 2017 season will be Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s last a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver.

The third-generation driver met with team owner Rick Hendrick to inform him of his decision on March 29 of this year, and the team confirmed just moments ago that after 18 seasons and more than 600 career MENCS starts, Earnhardt will step away at the end of the 2017 campaign. Earnhardt has driven for HMS since 2008, collecting nine of his 26 victories with the organization.

One year ago, concussion symptoms forced Earnhardt from the cockpit of his No. 88 Chevrolet for the second time in his career. NASCAR’s 14-time Most Popular Driver missed the final 18 races of the season, prompting widespread speculation that he would never return to competition.

“You want it to be on your terms,” said Earnhardt during the lengthy recuperation that followed. “You want to be able to say, ‘Alright, I’ve had enough. I’m done.’ If you get hurt and are forced to quit, that’d be incredibly emotional.”

Earnhardt refused to be carried from the battlefield on his shield last season; vanquished by a foe hidden deep inside his brain. After months of healing and therapy, he returned to competition in February at Daytona International Speedway, climbing back behind the wheel of his familiar, silver-and-blue Chevrolet and running up-front until a mid-race crash spoiled his bid for Victory Lane.

He returned to the sport on his own terms. And now, he will leave it the same way; walking away -- of his own accord -- while ranking as one of the most competitive and popular drivers of his era, or any other.

It is a fitting exit for a man who has given so such to the sport that has framed his existence from the beginning.

His childhood included a superstar father who was habitually absent while fulfilling the obligations of a NASCAR champion, often at the expense of his own children. Many of the photographs of Earnhardt, Jr.’s youth feature him in the background of various Victory Lane ceremonies, home from military school just long enough to stand on the sidelines as his legendary father celebrates with team members, sponsors and a stepmother who -- to this day – did little to include him in her husband’s happiness.

After such a rocky start, the relationship between Earnhardt Sr. and Jr. took many years to repair. And just when it had finally begun to bear fruit, “The Intimidator” was killed on our sport’s grandest stage, leaving his youngest son to shoulder an impossibly heavy burden of expectation that he had neither asked for, nor welcomed.

Despite a pair of championships in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Earnhardt, Jr. has heard his share of criticism over the years.

“He’s not his daddy.”

“He’s not aggressive.”

“He’s not a seven-time champion.”

Admittedly, Earnhardt, Jr. has never won a MENCS championship in his 18-year career. Currently ranked 24th in the championship standings, he is unlikely to do so this season, either. But at this point, who really cares?

When fans look back on Earnhardt’s career, they will certainly remember the wins and losses. But more importantly, they will remember the easygoing style that made him so beloved across NASCAR Nation. Last season, 25% of all NASCAR souvenir sales included Earnhardt’s name, number and/or sponsor. His fan base crosses international, economic and intellectual borders, and NASCAR will be hard-pressed to replace him in that regard.

Equally difficult to replace will be the honesty, humility and sense of humor that have made Earnhardt a Media Center favorite since his earliest days in the sport. No one puts more thought into an answer than Junior, and while he has never been a standard-bearer or spokesman for his fellow drivers, his opinion carries a weight and importance that very few competitors have ever equalled.

Despite his multi-million dollar bank account, Earnhardt remains a man of the people. Like his father before him, Junior resonates with the working man; the guys who build tree houses in their backyards and fill the woods with old junk cars.

Make no mistake about it, however. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is not his father. Never has been, never will be.

They share a name and an avocation, but that’s where the similarities end. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is no Intimidator. The “bull in a china shop” style that made his father a cult hero has never been part of Earnhardt the Younger’s racing DNA. With Junior in your rear-view mirror, you are more likely to be outfoxed that outmuscled; a fact that never sat entirely well with the small segment of his fan base that cheered him because of his genetics, rather than his personality.

Earnhardt has always been his own man. A man that we will miss seeing behind the wheel of a 200-mph NASCAR race car.

But let’s be honest. Since his injury at the midpoint of last season, most observers understood that Earnhardt’s driving career would likely be measured in months, rather than years. In many ways, he has raced on borrowed time since then, willfully dodging the high-speed impact that could end his career at any moment. If he is able to do so for another 28 weeks, the third-generation driver will walk away with life and limb intact, able to devote his attention to his JR Motorsports Xfinity Series organization, and – more importantly – to life outside of racing.

Recently married to the former Amy Reimann, Earnhardt spoke in January of last year about the impact marriage has had on his life.

"It's a very cool thing,” he said, “and I am so frustrated with myself that I didn't do it sooner. I didn't know things could be this good. It’s a great feeling to be able to depend on someone and (have) them be accountable and be there."

"Having her in my life has made my life an amazing thing.”

Now, there will be time for Dale and Amy to grow and explore as a couple, perhaps even starting that family he has spoken so glowingly of in the past.

And as for us, we will be just fine, you and I. NASCAR will survive without Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in the starting lineup, just as it did 15 years ago with his legendary father.