The Rise of Ryan Blaney

Dave Blaney was always a NASCAR fan favorite. Though winless in his 473 race career, the dirt track star gained respect from fans and his fellow competitors by charging hard and making the most out of second-rate equipment. His son Ryan, however, appears poised to reach far greater heights than his father ever did. After placing 6th and 2nd respectively, in two full-time seasons in the Camping World Truck Series, Ryan Blaney made the jump to the Sprint Cup Series for the 2016 season, piloting the #21 car for the Wood Brothers as they attempt their first full-time schedule in many years.

The Wood Brothers, although very capable, are not anywhere near the caliber of teams such as Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, or Team Penske. Even with the Wood Brothers’ new technical alliance with Penske, the car is still underfunded and understaffed. Despite this, Ryan Blaney has shone in the season’s first 15 races. He’s posted 6 top 10 finishes and currently sits 16th in the points standings. If the Chase for the Sprint Cup started now, Blaney and the Wood Brothers would qualify for the first time ever.

The Wood Brothers have run a part time schedule since the days of David Pearson. Now, with NASCAR’s new charter system, they’ll have to run full-time to receive a charter and a locked-in spot for the races. As the Wood Brothers move into the new NASCAR, Ryan Blaney appears to be the perfect driver to take them there.

 

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Nascar 2015: What Worked and What Didn’t

Nascar’s 2015 season definitely had some ups and downs. From Jeff Gordon’s retirement to the disastrous introduction of the high-downforce rules package, it was a wild year for Nascar. Let’s take a look back at some of the things that worked and didn’t work in 2015.

The medical waiver: Worked

There was a lot of controversy after Kyle Busch took home the championship at Homestead. Although Busch missed 11 races after breaking his leg in Daytona, he was able to race his way into the Chase by winning 4 races and finishing in the top 30 in points, after securing a medical waiver from Nascar which guaranteed his Chase eligibility. Kyle’s victory may have annoyed a lot of old-school fans, but there’s no question that Busch was one of the best drivers on track in the 25 races he competed in. Busch’s injury, after all, wasn’t his fault–Nascar could have prevented it by installing SAFER barriers on Daytona’s inner walls. Busch’s comeback was a great story for Nascar.

 

NBC: Worked

2015 also marked Nascar’s first year of its television contract with NBC. NBC, in a welcome change, signed on to replace TNT and ESPN/ABC. I’ve already written about TNT’s atrocious coverage, but ABC often did just as poor of a job, rolling out boring broadcasts often relegated to ESPN. NBC, on the other hand, was very good. They introduced new graphics and camera angles, and had solid amounts of Nascar coverage on their sports network, NBCSN. They assembled a strong first-year broadcasting team, bringing in former Hendrick crew chief Steve Letarte and retired racer Jeff Burton. There were some hiccups, but overall NBC did an excellent job, and looks to be a strong partner with Nascar in the future.

Rules package: Didn’t work

Nascar’s Generation 6 cars and its new rules package produced some of the best racing in years in 2014. So naturally, Nascar drastically altered the package in 2015, reducing the horsepower limit with a tapered spacer and increasing the downforce on the cars. The quality of racing dipped noticeably this year–passing was harder and the leader was able to easily pull away from the pack. Nascar’s disastrous experiment with a high-drag package at Indianapolis and Michigan demonstrated the problems inherent to the new setups–most drivers complained that passing was virtually impossible due to the aerodynamics. A low-downforce package, making the cars less stable and more maneuverable, was rolled out at Darlington. Drivers and fans alike enjoyed this setup the most, and Nascar will look to implement it in 2016.

The Kenseth suspension: Didn’t Work

After Matt Kenseth rammed Logano at Martinsville, knocking him out of the lead and the race, many Nascar fans approved. After all, Kenseth was just returning the favor–Logano had popped him two weeks earlier while he led in Kansas. Most fans expected just a fine for Kenseth, or maybe a 25-point penalty. Instead, the Joe Gibbs driver got socked with a 2 race suspension for taking out a Chase contender. The move enraged Nascar fans, many of whom love seeing good old beating and banging on short tracks. It also flew in the face of the precedent Nascar set after previous incidents–when Jeff Gordon took out Clint Bowyer in 2013 at Phoenix, ending Clint’s championship hopes, Gordon only got probation and a points penalty. Nascar’s sanctions against Kenseth were confusing and hasty overreactions. Fans love a villain, and they love seeing drivers settle disputes on the track. Nascar’s ratings could use more of that, not squeaky clean racing. The decision was bad for the Kenseth, bad for the sport, and demonstrated the need for consistent guidelines from the sanctioning body.

 

3 Races In: Is the New Chase Working?

Nascar’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup has begun! For those of you who missed it, Nascar changed the format of the Chase again (surprise surprise). This time, drivers must go through a series of elimination rounds to win the championship. After every 3 Chase races, the bottom 4 drivers still remaining are eliminated from contention, and everyone else gets a fresh slate of points.  This Sunday’s race at Dover was the first elimination race this season. So how did it go? Let’s find out.

The Winner: Jeff Gordon

If you’re not a Kevin Harvick or Jeff Gordon fan, the fight for the this race’s lead was pretty tame. Harvick started from the pole and led for 223 of the first 254 laps before a tire went down on his Chevy, damaging his splitter and knocking him out of contention for the win. After a 60-lap stint at the front by Brad Keselowski, Gordon took the lead from the 2 and led the rest of the way. With no cautions to bunch the field back up, Gordon pulled away from the pack, eventually finishing 5 seconds ahead of Brad. With not much passing going on at the front of the field, most of the action took place at the back of the pack, where the fight to survive this round of the chase was fiercely fought.

Surviving: Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin

Kahne and Hamlin managed to outlast their competitors, winning a war of attrition on the racetrack. While Hamlin made it through to the next round by a relatively comfortable 6 point margin, Kahne finished a lap down, just 2 points ahead of AJ Allmendinger. The battle for the final transfer spot was tight throughout the day, with Kahne, Allmendinger, and Kurt Busch all fighting for 12th place. For a while, it looked as though Kurt would avoid elimination, but an ill-handling car during the final 50 laps sent him sliding backwards and out of the transfer spot. He finished 5 points back of Kahne. Allmendinger, driving for single-car JTG Daugherty Racing, made a valiant effort to secure the final spot after being trapped a lap down early. However, a gamble to stay out longer than Kahne during green flag pit stops in hope of a caution doomed the Dinger. He fell two laps down and could not advance any further in the race. He ended up 2 points back of Kahne.

A Success? Yes

So was Nascar’s first ever elimination race a success? The battle for the final transfer spot was intense, but the drivers weren’t fighting each other for position. Allmendinger, Busch, and Kahne were usually separated by 4 spots and a straightaway on the track. Meanwhile, the race up front was a bit of a snoozefest, with Harvick and then Gordon running away with the lead. Many drivers who had solid days were barely mentioned during the broadcast, as coverage focused on the battle for the final transfer spot. In total, the race was exciting. While the action at the front wasn’t so hot, the battle at the back of the pack kept fans engaged and the race interesting. So far, it looks as though Nascar may have a hit with this new Chase.

 

 

 

 

The MWR Conspiracy: Did Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers knock Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman out of the Chase?

A new controversy is brewing in the sport of Nascar. On lap 393 of Sunday’s race at Richmond, Clint Bowyer spun out in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr, setting up a late race caution and restart. Now, at the time of the caution, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman‘s Chase hopes were looking good. Ryan Newman was leading the race. If he won, he would have snagged one of the two Wild Card spots in the Chase. Jeff Gordon was running 8th at the time. He was also 10th in the points standings, 3 points ahead of Joey Logano, who was running 2 laps down. As the drivers were running before the caution, Gordon and Newman would have made the Chase while Martin Truex Jr, Bowyer’s teammate at Michael Waltrip Racing,  and Joey Logano, both of whom had one win but were outside the top 10 in points, would have missed the Chase. Clint Bowyer’s spin changed all of that.

Bowyer’s spin sent all the race cars down pit road for one final pit stop. When they came out, Ryan Newman was no longer in first place. He pulled out of his box in fifth. That one bad pit stop cost Newman the race, as he eventually brought his Chevy home in 3rd place. As Newman failed to get the win, he lost out on a Chase spot to Martin Truex Jr.

However, all this would have been for naught had Jeff Gordon gotten into the Chase by beating Joey Logano on points. Logano would have still made the Chase by taking one of the Wild Card spots, but Truex would have been left on the outside looking in. Logano first put himself only one lap down by taking the wave-around under caution. However, with old tires and a starting spot at the very back of the field, it’s doubtful that Joey Logano would have been able to gain enough positions to race his way into the top 10 in points. On his last lap, Logano was the slowest car in the top 22. Logano needed some help, and Michael Waltrip Racing gave it to him.

As the field took the green flag on the final restart, Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers headed to the pits. Vickers’s crew was recorded telling him, “You’ve got to pit this time. We need that 1 point.” Bowyer’s crew held him in the pits for two laps, allowing Joey Logano to pass him on the racetrack. Vickers pitted and then drove out, but then proceeded to ride around the track 30 mph slower than any of the other cars in order to allow Joey Logano to pass him, which Logano did. Those two spots that Logano gained by passing the MWR cars proved to be the difference in Logano making the top 10 in points.

dddd

 

But remember, all of these shenanigans wouldn’t have happened if Bowyer hadn’t spun out. But did Bowyer spin his car intentionally? The evidence points to a resounding yes. Before the spin, Bowyer was informed that the 39 of Ryan Newman was leading, meaning that Martin Truex Jr would miss the Chase. His crew chief then cryptically asked Bowyer if his arm was hurting, and then told him to “itch it”. Bowyer then spun out.

ESPN analysts, including Rusty Wallace, declared after the race that after listening to Bowyer’s engine and seeing his actions on the in-car camera, they believed he spun out. Dale Earnhardt Jr, who was running behind Bowyer at the time of the incident, said that he saw Bowyer “hemming around on the brakes and jerking the car around, and then the thing just spun out.” Bowyer, of course denied any wrongdoing, but the evidence against him looks pretty damning.

Match fixing has always been one of the most reviled practices in sports, a sin even more heinous than drug use. Why should match fixing in Nascar be any different? The sanctioning body should deal out severe penalties after the race at Richmond. But not to Bowyer or Vickers. They’re  just following orders from their bosses at MWR. If they don’t comply, they could lose their jobs. So what should Nascar do? They should hand down a massive monetary fine to Michael Waltrip Racing, something on the order of $500,000. Nascar should also right the wrong that MWR did to Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon. Increase the Chase field to 14 cars and put Newman and Gordon in the field. Because until Bowyer spun to bring out the caution, Newman and Gordon had punched their tickets to the Chase.

 

Bowyer inches slowly out of the pits during the final green-flag laps.

 

 

 

 

 

WILD CARD WATCH: Tight Battle for the Final Spots in the Chase

There’s only 8 races left before the Nascar Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, and the fight to get into the postseason is tight. Eight drivers are on the bubble; that is, they are fighting for the last spots in the postseason. The drivers from 9th (Kurt Busch) to 16th (Ryan Newman) are separated by only 19 points. Here, I break down the chances that each of these drivers have of making it into the Postseason.

9th. Kurt Busch

0 wins, 2 pts ahead of 10th

What a year it’s been for the former champ and his new team, Furniture Row Racing. The team got off to a rocky start. Plagued by mechanical issues and driver error, the team staggered into Darlington, 20th in points and with only four finishes inside the top 20. But at the Bojangles’ Southern 500, something clicked. The 78 car started 1st and led the first 51 laps, and although handling issues and contact with Casey Mears relegated Busch to 14th, it was evident the team had turned a corner. Since Darlington, Busch has posted 5 top 10 finishes and has had only one finish outside of the top 12. Whether or not Busch and his team can maintain their Chase position depends on whether or not they can prevent the mistakes that plagued them at the start of the season from happening again. But if Barney Visser‘s team can perform as well as they have in the past several races, look for Kurt to be a strong contender for a spot in the chase as well as the championship. A win would greatly help him in his efforts.

10th. Tony Stewart

1 win. He is 10th.

Tony Stewart has had a season much like Kurt Busch’s. Tony started the year very poorly, only recording 1 top 10 in the first 11 races of the season. Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole got off to a bad start, as the organization fielded a third car for the first time in its history. Like Busch, Stewart managed to turn his season around in the middle of the season, placing 7th in the Coke 600 and then winning his first race of the year at Dover Downs. Since then, Stewart has run very well, taking 3 top fives including a 2nd place finish in the Coca-Cola Zero 400. Smoke has put himself in a good position with his win. The only thing holding Tony backing is his qualifying performances. He hasn’t started inside the top 10 since April 7th, at Martinsville. If Smoke can put himself in better starting spots, look for him to be a strong contender in the rest of the year.

11th. Martin Truex, Jr

1 win. 6 pts out of 10th

This has been a sweet year for Truex. At Sonoma, he broke a 218 race winless streak and put himself solidly in contention for the championship. After a long stretch of middling finishes and disappointments, the 56 team seems to have finally turned a corner. Truex has had 5 top 10’s in the last 9 races, but he’s also finished 23rd or worse 3 times, including a miserable night at Daytona where he crashed and wound up 41st. To make the Chase, Truex will have to become more consistent. He has a win, but another finish like at Daytona could send him plunging in the points.

12th. Kasey Kahne

1 win. 9 pts out of 10th

Poor Kasey just can’t catch a break. After an impressive start to the season in which he climbed to as high as 2nd in the points, Kasey has encountered awful luck. In the last 10 races, he’s had 7 finishes outside the top 15, including 4 outside the top 30. He got turned by Kyle Busch at Talladega and blew a tire while leading at Michigan. In Dover, Kasey spun out of contention while fighting for first. At Pocono, driveline problems ended his day on the first lap. Amazingly, Kasey is still only 9 points out of 10th and is hanging on to that 2nd wild card spot. His #5 Chevrolet has been running great, but somehow Kasey always seems to end up out of contention. The good news for his team is that they don’t have to change anything about the way they’ve been racing. They just need to ride out the spate of bad luck. Eventually it will subside, and when it does Kasey will be in a prime position to make the Chase.

13th. Brad Keselowski

0 wins. 11 pts out of 10th

Brad Keselowski has endured an absolutely horrible stretch of races. In the last 10 races he has finished in the top 10 once. That’s right. Once. He’s slid from 3rd to 13th in the standings, helped in no small part by 6 finishes outside of the top 20. The Blue Deuce is going in the wrong direction. Brad’s experienced his fair share of crashes, but unlike Kasey Kahne, he hasn’t been running too well otherwise. Brad’s team has been hit hard. They already lost 25 points due to an unapproved rear end housing earlier in the season, and may lose more. The #2 team was one of the 16 cars caught with unapproved roof flap spacers at Daytona. At this point, with Brad running the way he has been, the Miller Lite crew needs to adopt a go-for-broke strategy. A win or two could end up securing a wild card spot for Brad even if he is hit hard by penalties stemming from the roof flap problems.

14th. Jeff Gordon

0 wins. 12 pts out of 10th

Jeff Gordon’s campaign, for the second year in a row, has been marred by bad luck. Gordon has had 5 DNF’s this year, the most of any driver on this list. Aside from these 5 finishes outside the top 30, Gordon has been a model of consistency, with 11 finishes inside the top 13, including four top 3 results. In his non-DNF races he averaged a finish of 10.1, second best among all drivers.  Gordon, like Kasey Kahne, has been running well recently and just needs to ride out the bad luck he’s been having. Unlike Brad, if Jeff Gordon keeps up his solid finishes and performances, he should find himself in the top 10 in points come Richmond. But, if he has another DNF, it may be time for Jeff to start thinking about going all out in the quest for a win or two.

15th. Joey Logano

0 wins. 16 pts out of 10th

Joey Logano has had an eventful season. He had altercations early in the season with Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, including a wreck in Fontana, California that sidelined Hamlin for four weeks with a lumbar fracture. Since then, Logano has been making steady progress. Logano entered the Pepsi 400 in 10th, having cracked the Chase field for the first time. But the same late race wreck that sidelined Martin Truex took Logano out of contention, sending him plummeting to 15th. Logano is only 16 points out of a top 10 spot, but              he may fall further if penalties are dealt down for the unapproved spacers that were found on Logano’s car. If he loses a lot of points, he’s going to have to start going all-out for wins in order to claim a spot in the Chase.

16th. Ryan Newman

0 wins. 19 pts out of 10th.

Out of all the Chase drivers on the bubble, Ryan Newman is perhaps the most surprising. Newman has quietly been putting together a decent season. He failed to finish on 4 occasions,  but has finished 12 races inside the top 15. These stats seem pretty good at first, but the problem with Ryan Newman’s team has been their overall performance. In most races, Newman started in the middle of the pack and stayed there. Rarely has he been in contention for a win or even a strong finish–the 39 team has had only two top fives this entire season. At this point, even though Ryan is only 19 points out of 10th, he’s simply not driving good enough to win races or make a run at the postseason. The Quicken Loans team will have to turn things around and do it fast in order to have any chance of making the Chase.

These aren’t the only drivers fighting for the final Chase spots. Several others have the potential to make a run at a spot in the postseason.

17th. Jamie McMurray:  Jamie’s Earnhardt-Ganassi team is finally showing signs of life, and McMurray appears poised, improbably, to make a run at the postseason. He qualified 1st at Infineon, and has since posted finishes of 2nd and 7th, respectively. The 1 car has run in the top 10 in many other events, only to experience mechanical issues. If Jamie Mac can start showing some consistency, he could have a real shot at sneaking into the Chase. He’s only 26 points away from 10th.

20th. Paul Menard:  Menard started the season spending 12 week inside the top 12 in points. But since then, a wreck at Kentucky and an engine failure at Daytona pummeled Paul, sending him to 20th in points. Menard is 39 points out of the top 10, but is coming upon some favorable tracks, namely Loudon, where his worst finish over the past 3 years has been 14th, and Indianapolis, where he won in 2011. On another high note, the 3 drivers ahead of Paul may receive penalties after being swept up in the roof flap scandal. If Menard can win, or at least perform well at any of these upcoming tracks, he’ll be right back in the hunt for that Chase spot.

These two drivers, although fairly close to the top 10, probably won’t be making an appearance in the Chase.

18th. Ricky Stenhouse Jr: With an 11th place showing in the Coke Zero 400, the rookie moved up to 18th, 33 points back from a Chase spot. But with no top 10 finishes this year, and possible penalties coming from the roof flap scandal, don’t look for him to be making any big moves any time soon.

19th. Aric Almirola:  At one point, after a 10th place finish at Talladega, Aric was 8th in the points. However, he hasn’t finished in the top 15 since that race. He’s fading fast. If the 43 machine, which was caught with the bad spacers at Daytona, gets hit with a large points penalty, it could be the proverbial nail in the coffin for Almirola’s season.

This has been one of the most exciting battles to make it into the Chase since the postseason system was invented. With so few points separating the drivers on the bubble, the final spots in the postseason are anyone’s game.