ONE: Ryan Newman Simply Did His Job
Perhaps the most hated driver coming out of Bristol Motor Speedway had one of the most uneventful moments of contact throughout the weekend. Ryan Newman fought tooth and nail to remain on the lead lap when Matt DiBenedetto caught up with him, and the pair got together, causing minor left-front damage that “immediately flipped a switch and got tight.”
Whether the damage was the deciding factor that allowed Denny Hamlin to run down and pass DiBenedetto for the win, ending what would have been one hell of a Cinderella story, will never fully be known. After all, Hamlin did have fresher tires, though newer tires didn’t appear to be much of an advantage throughout the weekend.
But so many disagree with Newman’s fight to stay on the lead lap that he was the subject of much vitriol posted on social media as the laps wound down, after the checkered flag flew, and even well into Sunday.
The problem with that is Newman simply did his job. He has a responsibility to his fans, team, sponsors and even himself to race at 100%, especially since anything can happen before the checkered flag flies. He had as much of a right to race DiBenedetto as Hamlin did when he caught him. Since when did it become acceptable for anyone to expect a driver to just pull out of the way when the leaders approach?
And before you come at me saying NASCAR even has a flag to signal that the leaders are approaching and to move out of the way, remember that Newman was on the lead lap. While the rule book doesn’t indicate the blue flag with yellow stripes is used only for cars multiple laps down, it’s typically only used for those at least a lap down who are, more often than not, already racing a damaged vehicle.
Let me be clear here. I have ZERO issue with expecting lapped cars to pull out of the way for the battle for the lead. But when it’s someone still on the lead lap, their responsibility is to remain there and keep their win hopes alive, regardless of whether a trip to victory lane is realistic or not. And what Newman did was exactly what he and the rest of the field, for that matter, get paid to do each and every week. It’s really that simple.
TWO: IndyCar’s Pocono Predicament
Justin Wilson in 2015. Robert Wickens in 2018. For the third time in five years, the NTT IndyCar Series’ visit to Pocono was marred with a nasty crash. Thankfully, this time it wasn’t nearly as serious in that the worst injuries were for Felix Rosenqvist, who suffered “minor back pain and some headaches.” And for a wreck that saw Takuma Sato‘s car upside down on top of Ryan Hunter-Reay‘s, that’s pretty impressive.
Of course, there were those that immediately started talking about whether the series should even race there anymore, including Wickens and Stefan Wilson.
How many times do we have to go through the same situation before we can all accept that an IndyCar should not race at Pocono. It’s just a toxic relationship and maybe it’s time to consider a divorce. I’m very relieved (to my knowledge) that everyone is okay from that scary crash
— Robert Wickens (@robertwickens) August 18, 2019
Maybe the teams can all come together and instead of paying crash damage at Pocono can just put into a fund to pay sanctioning fee for a Watkins Glen return. Easily $1.5-2M in crash damage after 2 turns of the race…. Relax, I’m mostly joking ?♂️?
— Stefan Wilson (@stef_wilson) August 18, 2019
Glad to see everyone is ok. Never a good feeling when you see something like that especially when it’s your brothers. Think the answer is clear that we should not be here. In my opinion that question was answered awhile ago.
— Sage Karam (@SageKaram) August 18, 2019
I don’t want people to think that I dislike pocono. I think it’s a great track it’s just not meant for indycars. We need to be smart and move on and go to tracks that fit these cars. I love oval racing and want it in Indycar I just simply don’t love Indycar at pocono.
— Sage Karam (@SageKaram) August 18, 2019
My knee-jerk reaction was the same. After all, there’s been a death, a driver paralyzed and still trying to recover and this one, all within five years. Sage Karam‘s responses to his tweets were perhaps the most compelling argument against Pocono, but in favor of still running at places like Texas Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, both of which feature similar high speeds and long straights. He explained how the width of the track surface invites the two- and three-wide racing that ultimately leads to dicey situations and terrifying crashes.
But for those negative responses, there were those that defended the partnership between the series and the track.
“Honestly, I feel bad for Pocono,” Scott Dixon said. “The group of people here that work, they work extremely hard.
“Some mistakes that have happened on track … honestly, they could happen anywhere. If you look at Justin [Wilson, who was killed by flying debris at Pocono in 2015] or Robbie [Wickens], those can happen anywhere.”
Race winner Will Power echoed Dixon’s sentiments, calling Pocono a “great track” for the series.
“Obviously some unfortunate accidents here, like Scott said, that could happen anywhere,” he said. “Kind of got a bad rap for that. The crowd is up 15% every year we come back. It’s getting better. Like Scott said, the crowd was great today. It’s a good racetrack, man. A good track for racing. I really hope we come back, I do. I think the guys do a great job. A cool track for us. It’s hard for us to find good ovals these days that suit our cars.”
Meanwhile, third-place driver Simon Pagenaud said it was “tough to add to” Dixon and Power’s thoughts on whether the series should return to Pocono.
“It is a fun track to drive on,” he said. “Real unfortunate, close to New York, a great market for IndyCar. It’s an opportunity to bring people from New York to the IndyCar races.
“I love personally superspeedways. I think it’s been the best, like they said. Obviously, when you’re traveling at such high speed, you know a crash is going to be a big crash.
“Hopefully we can come back and hopefully we can keep working with people at Pocono because it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been racing here since 2012 in the series. I’ve enjoyed it more and more every year. So we’ll see what happens next. As a driver, I really enjoy coming here.”
As for what’s actually going to happen? That remains to be seen, though CEO Nick Igdalsky did tell the Associated Press that he “did float them the idea of being an every couple of years stop, every three years.
“I don’t want IndyCar to lose touch with the Northeast,” Igdalsky explained. “I don’t want IndyCar to lose touch with the Pocono fanbase. I don’t want Pocono to lose touch with IndyCar. It’s part of our history.
“If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, if it’s not the best thing for their operation, if it’s not the best deal for our operation, then it is what it is. I want their league to be successful.”
I don’t envy those in charge of making the scheduling decisions because it’s really a lose-lose situation. One group will question the logic in continuing to race there, while the other will complain that it was taken away once again. Perhaps the difference-maker in it all will be the additional driver protection measures expected to be introduced beginning with the 2020 season. Only time will tell.
THREE: Denny Hamlin, the Championship Afterthought
Think back to some of the latest conversations about this year’s championship contenders. I’d bet the name Hamlin doesn’t pop up in that discussion, does it? After all, he’s been in a position before to have a very real shot at winning the title, only to crumble under the pressure and falter in some way.
After scoring his fourth win of the 2019 season, though, it would be wise to add Hamlin’s name to the list of those who are championship favorites. He’s currently tied with Martin Truex Jr. at 23 playoff points he’ll be able to carry as an advantage throughout the title race, and the duo sits second to only Kyle Busch, who has 29.
The thing is, there’s something different about Hamlin this season. And no, I’m not just referring to his apology after beating DiBenedetto Saturday night, though that move showed a ton of class. It’s just in the way he seems to carry himself and the way he looks on the track. Sure, he’s made his mistakes, but the class with which he’s handled those, along with adversity he’s faced is a sign of someone who’s really coming into his own.
“I think Denny’s maturing, everything going on with him,” Joe Gibbs said. “He did mention off the track. I know he’s made a real effort in a lot of ways. So I think he is maturing as a person and certainly as a racecar driver.
“I think Chris [Gabehart, crew chief] deserves a lot of credit. I think he’s really got Denny grounded. I think when you get a lot of confidence going with the crew chief, it makes a huge difference. I think tonight is a good example. Everything in the world happened. For them to still win the race, I think it was a great effort.”
Hamlin didn’t really delve into the off-track portion of his life other than watching his children grow up, nor should he feel obligated to. It’s pure speculation but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if part of that maturing Hamlin has done in recent months stems from the loss of J.D. Gibbs at the age of 49 in January due to “complications following a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease.”
“For me personally, it’s a huge deal for me when I see J.D. over the door in the winner’s circle,” Gibbs continued. “Seeing Denny have this kind of year, it just makes me realize how much we miss him and how much he means to our race team, what he means to Denny, too.”
Loss of any kind, whether a family member, a co-worker or a friend, has a way of changing those affected by it in many different ways. And that could be where Hamlin’s transition is coming from.
I am in no way handing Hamlin the championship. Quite the opposite, actually, but the reality is that if you don’t take him seriously as a contender, he’s going to sneak up and surprise everyone.
FOUR: Rick Ware Racing v. Slayer
Rick Ware Racing stole the headlines at Bristol, but not for reasons the organization would have liked. Friday morning (Aug. 16), the team announced it had signed PODS Moving & Storage as primary sponsor for the No. 54 Chevrolet for Saturday’s Bristol race, along with associate sponsorship for the remainder of the season.
Of course, that raised the question of what had happened with the intended sponsorship by thrash metal band Slayer.
“The deal simply fell through and we decided to go another direction,” RWR general manager Bryan Clodfelter told WJHL Tri-Cities News. “We were very fortunate that PODS, LLC stepped up very quickly and filled the spots. PODS are also interested in making this a multi-race deal so it worked out even better.”
Meanwhile, the word from the track was similar.
For those asking about the Rick Ware Racing Slayer sponsor that was on the entry list, Rick told me that was the tentative plan but he ended up not doing the deal.
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) August 16, 2019
A statement issued on behalf of Slayer cited “reactionary concerns from other long-time participating sponsors” and claimed, “after nearly 40 years, Slayer apparently remains as terrifying to some as ever.”
In response to that statement, issued its own statement saying “there were no contracts or monetary transactions” involved and the band’s “brand image and beliefs.”
Sounds simple enough, right? Not so fast. Nuclear Blast USA, the “world’s biggest independent heavy metal record label” disputed the claim and called it a “classic case of back peddling.”
Pt 3 of 3: Ironically they left the blood splatter and barbwires designed for @Slayer and slapped a new logo on top!
— Nuclear Blast Records (@nuclearblast) August 16, 2019
Interestingly enough, a short look through Reddit uncovered this thread which includes this image of messages from Cody Ware via Twitter that were shared with requested permission by the user who posted them.
“We already had the [money] from the sponsorship and the wrap was on the car,” Ware’s message read. “We pulled the car off the trailer, took Slayer off, put pods on, and wired Nuclear Blast their money back. My dad took them off because off our religion and all the slayer imagery.”
Frankly, it doesn’t really matter to me that RWR changed its mind. Whether a team partners with a sponsor — or doesn’t for whatever reasons — is completely up to those in charge of making the decisions, and everyone should respect that. But what really matters is the perceived deception with which the whole situation was handled. Had the organization come right out and said it had a change of heart about the imagery associated with the band, there likely still would have been backlash from people who (rightfully) expect that there’s at least some degree of research before entering into a partnership.
With that said, a little upfront honesty goes a long, long way.
FIVE: Up Next, the Final Off-Weekend
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has its final off-weekend before the end of the 2019 season, but thankfully there will still be Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck series racing to fill the hole.
Just four races remain to set the 2019 Xfinity Series playoff field, and the next round comes at Road America this Saturday (Aug. 24). Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Cole Custer, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and Michael Annett all have wins this season and will account for half of the title battle, leaving six spots open for drivers to point their way in.
Meanwhile, the deficit between 12th-place Ryan Sieg and 13th-place Gray Gaulding is nearly 100 points, which is a large enough margin to require a win from those below the cut line to score their spot in this year’s playoff field.
Over on the Truck Series side, drivers are gearing up for the series’ lone visit to a road course at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park Sunday afternoon. With the first race in the Round of 8 complete, Brett Moffitt is the only driver that can breathe easy heading north of the border after locking his spot into the Round of 6 with a Bristol win.
Right now, Austin Hill and Tyler Ankrum sit below the cut line for the first elimination, though Ross Chastain ruffled enough feathers marching through the field last Thursday night (Aug. 15) that it will be worth watching whether there’s any retaliation this weekend.
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