Elliott inches closer to final four spot

Is it too early to pencil in Chase Elliott as one of the four finalists who will be in the running for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship at Homestead Miami Speedway next month?

At the moment, the Hendrick Motorsports drivers appears to be as good of a bet as anyone and better than most.

Elliott won for the third time this season Sunday and the second time in three weeks when he won the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Most folks seem to think it will be Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex in three of the four slots available for Homestead and a shot at the championship. The three have combined to win more than one-half of this season’s races and are the top three in laps led. They have also won three of the last four Cup championships.

Kick in a healthy number of bonus points earned through stage and race wins and while the three can’t coast into Homestead, their biggest concern is not beating themselves during these next three weeks.

With those matters seemingly settled, it’s been that fourth playoff spot that’s drawn the attention for much of the season. Kyle Larson was an early favorite, then fell out of favor for a bit, then resurfaced as a likely candidate.

But the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s hopes and dreams came to an end Sunday at Kansas when he finished third and needed to finish first.

Brad Keselowski was another driver penciled in at the No. 4 spot and his late summer run only seemed to cement his place at the table. The Team Penske driver won at Darlington and then the regular-season finale at Indianapolis and then the opening playoff race at Las Vegas. Impressive stuff even if the 2012 champ warned that his group still had some catching up to do.

Unfortunately for Keselowski, time ran out at Kansas as well.

There were others – Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones and Jimmie Johnson. But some only got as far as the first round while others fell out Sunday.

In the meantime, Elliott and the No. 9 team seem to have stepped up their game.

Not to dismiss Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola, other drivers who are just as much alive as Elliott.

But Logano hasn’t won since April, Bowyer since June. Kurt Busch won at Bristol in August and Almirola at Talladega earlier this month but none of the remaining tracks bear any resemblance to those two layouts.

Any one of those four could move on instead of Elliott. But it will probably require winning races and right now, Elliott’s the one doing that.

A different ‘Dega, until it wasn’t

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Maybe this one will be debated for a while, maybe it won’t, but it was a somewhat calm race on Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series.

Surprisingly calm in fact. Particularly for a playoff race.

Not that it didn’t have its moments. Or moment. But for the most part, the track that used to bill its annual race dates as “white knuckle weekends” looked about as tame as an afternoon drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“Look Ethel, the leaves are changing.”

They used to blame the track for being too fast and too dangerous when multicar pileups left more drivers in the care center than on the race track. Others pinned the fault on the drivers and that’s an argument that will never be won by either side.

The track is still fast and the racing, at 200-plus mph, continues to carry a certain danger. Sunday’s race wasn’t really any different.

But the lion seemed to have lost a few teeth.

You can send the thank you cards to Kannapolis, N.C., c/o Stewart-Haas Racing,

There are four SHR drivers competing in Cup and three of them combined to lead 155 of 193 laps in a race that went five laps beyond the originally scheduled distance.

Clint Bowyer was the only one out of the SHR camp who failed to lead a lap and he finished second.

Aric Almirola led only one lap. Actually, he only led a few hundred yards.

The distance didn’t matter. He was first to the checkered flag.

Meanwhile Kurt Busch started on the pole and kept his No. 41 Ford out front for 108 laps. Teammate Kevin Harvick led 46.

And that’s the way it appeared it would finish, all four team cars running 1-2-3-4 in one order or another.

And it would have, until a wreck involving Alex Bowman and William Byron and JJ Yeley and a couple of others brought out the eighth caution flag of the day on lap 187.

That incident pushed the race into overtime and fuel mileage suddenly became a hot topic.

Harvick was forced to pit road just before the final two-lap run when his car’s fuel cell began to run dry.

Busch stayed out and it looked as if he was going to make it. Until he didn’t.

He got as far as Turn 4 before his car sputtered and slowed. The finish line never looked so far away.

It took organization and cooperation, an all-for-one, one-for-all effort by SHR to make it work at Talladega and maybe folks will say that’s better than big crashes and injured drivers and there’s no argument there.

But it certainly was different.

Right up until the end of course.

Saturday notebook from Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Martin Truex Jr., a three-time Xfinity Series winner at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, hasn’t enjoyed the same sort of success in the Monster Energy Cup Series on NASCAR’s largest track.

The defending Cup Series champion, and driver of the No. 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing, heads into Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 looking for his first restrictor-plate victory.

“It’s crazy,” Truex, 38, said Saturday following the day’s lone practice session on the 2.66-mile layout. “I used to come here in the Busch Series days and the first three times I raced here, I won. I won at Daytona in the July race and I felt like it really wasn’t that difficult.

“Clearly all the stars and moons had lined up at those races for me because I really haven’t been able to reproduce that in the Cup Series.”

A year ago, Truex didn’t need outstanding performances on the series’ only two restrictor-plate tracks. The team, led by crew chief Cole Pearn, dominated the 1.5-mile venues which make up the bulk of the schedule. Seven of his eight wins came on the mile-and-a-half tracks. One came on a road course.

He went 13th and 34th at Daytona, 35th and 23rd here at Talladega.

Winning here, or at Daytona, he said, “would be a huge deal because it’s one of those styles of racing that I have won at yet in this series and it’s something that I’ve really worked on and I’ve tried hard to get better at.

“We’ve tried hard as a team as well … and it just hasn’t been in the cards for us yet.

“You want to be a guy that can win anywhere. You want to be a guy that the competitors look at you each and every week no matter what the track is that here’s a guy we’re going to have to beat.

“Including that aspect of it would be a big deal for me.”

• A LITTLE HELP HERE: Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott has already earned a spot in the next round of the playoffs. Teammate Alex Bowman has not. And Bowman sits 34 points below eighth-place Ryan Blaney.

Can the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet aid his teammate?

“I know that if I was in his position I would certainly want at least my teammates not to hurt my effort,” Elliott said. “You don’t want to impede that progress, but I feel like (team owner Rick Hendrick) has always kind of been a race win guy … I don’t think he is ever going to let something like that pull me out of potential contention to win or me laying over to let him win.”

Those conversations haven’t really come up during his tenure at HMS, Elliott said. As for not hurting Bowman’s chances, “I’m certainly open to doing that,” he said.

“If he can move on as well, that does nothing but help all of us in our company.”

• PSYCHO-DEGA: Aric Almirola said he has worked with various nutritionists and physical conditioning coaches through the years, “and different people that have a lot of knowledge about the human body and how to make it perform at its best.”

Thus far, however, he’s avoided consulting a sports psychologist.

“I’m scared to work with any sort of psychologist about what they would tell me about my brain,” he said.

“I know some guys have and I know it’s big in the golfing community and … big in tennis and other individualized sports, but I have not.

“I think coming to Talladega you do have to have the right mindset … the right frame of mind and being positive about it and being excited.”

You’re already beaten, he said, if you arrive thinking “Oh man, why did I sign up to do this? We’re just going to wreck and this is ridiculous. I hate restrictor-plate racing.”

“Previous success … always helps the mindset coming to different race tracks and, for me, Talladega is a place where I’ve had success.”

A former winner at Daytona, Almirola has finished eighth or better in his last four Talladega starts.

Johnson, Knaus stand behind ’19 change

CONCORD, N.C. – “It just feels like it’s time,” said Jimmie Johnson and “It’s the right time with the company,” chimed in Chad Knaus and one wonders if Johnson wasn’t mired in the longest losing streak of his career would we be having this conversation?

But he is and here we are, seated across from Johnson and Knaus inside the Axalta Customer Experience Center on the campus of Hendrick Motorsports.

Outside, Hurricane Michael, or what’s left of it, is still making a fuss. Indoors, Johnson and Knaus, one of the winningest driver/crew chief combinations in the 70-year history of NASCAR, are attempting to explain away Wednesday’s surprise announcement.

A day earlier, Hendrick Motorsports announced personnel changes for ’19 and jumping off the screen was the news that Johnson and Knaus, winners of 80-plus Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races and seven championships would not be paired together for an 18th consecutive season.

Instead, Knaus will be returning to the organization’s No. 24 team as crew chief for driver William Byron. It’s a homecoming of sorts as Knaus got his start at HMS working under Ray Evernham on the No. 24 with driver Jeff Gordon. He moved to the No. 48 in 2002 as crew chief when that team went fulltime.

Kevin Meendering, once the lead engineer on the No. 88 od Dale Earnhardt Jr. and more recently crew chief for Elliott Sadler and the No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, will become just the second full-time crew chief of the No. 48.

Darian Grubb, Byron’s crew chief this season, will take on the role of technical director, overseeing the company’s engineering and vehicle development programs.

A number of explanations for the breakup have been floated, but what it all boils down to is this: Johnson hasn’t won since last year and the No. 48 team has been underperforming for at least two seasons and he and Knaus expect to win a lot more often than that.

“We both are fierce competitors and want to win,” said Johnson, clad in jeans and a black polo shirt adorned with Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet logos.

“The last two years, although we did win three races last year, the year ended, it was difficult. This year has been tough.”

A 53-race winless streak will seem like that, particularly to a team that’s used to winning multiple races every year, qualifying for the playoffs and contending for titles when they weren’t winning them.

“We both want to win races, we both want to win championships and we acknowledge the fact that we’ve had a hell of a run,” Johnson said. “It’s been a long, amazing run of 17 years.

“Sometimes, change brings new opportunity. Change brings excitement, a new breath of fresh air, a spark. Whatever it might be, that opportunity is now here for us. We’ve been highly committed to each other, this team and our relationship, but it’s just to the point where we feel like change is the next step and potentially the next step for our next level of greatness as individuals. It just feels like it’s time.”

So it wasn’t because they didn’t get along and it wasn’t because Knaus is now a family man with other concerns and it wasn’t because Johnson will have a new sponsor next year and NASCAR will have a new rules package and it isn’t because it would be, you know, a clean break, a fresh start for all involved.

Knaus said a “fundamental shift” in 2017 created a lot of resets at HMS – what had been two separate buildings housing two teams each theoretically became four teams under a single roof and the resets and movement and machinery that went with that has created a lot of opportunities for others within the organization.

But still … if Johnson and Knaus and the rest of the 48 were winning?

“It’s not like we’re trying to kill each other,” Knaus said. “That’s not where this is. It’s an opportunity for growth for both of us. We’ve lasted longer than the average length of a marriage in the United States. We’ve worked really hard.

“In order to be committed in a team-oriented environment for that long, there’s a lot of deep digging that you have to get through. And we’ve done that and we’ve put forth the effort and it’s time right now to do something different. It really is it’s the right time for the company.”

The season isn’t over and six opportunities remain for Johnson and Knaus to get back on track.

Who knows? Maybe we haven’t seen the last of them just yet.

“I think we are at the point that we can still go out there and win races,” Knaus said. “The team is just starting to really get rolling.”

Knaus, Johnson won’t be paired in ‘19

The incredibly successful duo of crew chief Chad Knaus and driver Jimmie Johnson won’t be teamed together in 2019, according to a news release from Hendrick Motorsports.

On Wednesday, the organization announced crew chief changes for 2019 that impact the No. 48 team of Knaus/Johnson as well as the No. 24 entry driven by rookie William Byron and crew chief Darian Grubb.

Knaus, crew chief for Johnson since the California native began competing fulltime in 2003, will be paired with Byron next year while current Xfinity Series crew chief Kevin Meendering will take over the crew chief role for Johnson’s group.

Grubb, Byron’s current crew chief, will move into the role of technical director at HMS.

Together, Knaus and Johnson have won 81 points-paying races in NASCAR’s top series and seven championships. The win total is tops among active crew chiefs and third all-time, behind Dale Inman (193) and Leonard Wood (95).

Johnson, 43, has 83 career wins, earning two when Knaus was suspended by NASCAR. His seven championships are tied for the most in the series with two NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers – Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

It is the longest active driver/crew chief pairing in NASCAR.

“Chad and Jimmie will go down as one of the greatest combinations in sports history,” team owner Rick Hendrick said in the news release announcing the changes. “They defied the odds by performing at a championship level for longer than anyone could’ve possible imagined.”

Hendrick said there was agreement among the three that it was time for a change. Johnson is currently mired in the longest losing streak of his career at 53 races; he has won multiple races for 16 consecutive seasons, a streak that’s in jeopardy of coming to an end.

“It’s no secret that Chad and Jimmie have experienced their ups and downs over the years,” Hendrick said. “They’re fierce competitors, great friends and have immense respect for one another. They also fight like brothers.

“All three of us agree it’s finally time for a new challenge and that a change will benefit them and the organization.”

Johnson and Knaus did run well enough to earn one of this year’s 16 Playoff berths and Johnson nearly snapped his winless streak in the cutoff race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, spinning out after contact with Martin Truex Jr. in the last turn. Instead, Johnson failed to advance to the second round when he lost out on a tiebreaker for the final transfer spot.

Even so, it still marked Johnson and the team’s 15th consecutive Playoff appearance, a record no other group can claim.

Meendering, 37, is in charge of the No. 1 Xfinity Series team with driver Elliott Sadler and fielded by JR Motorsports. The organization is co-owned by Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt.

Prior to moving to JRM, Meendering worked his way up through the ranks at HMS, starting out as an intern and eventually serving as lead engineer for the No. 88 team with Earnhardt Jr.

“We already know how well he works with our people and that he’s a respected, forward-thinking crew chief,” Hendrick said. “Having worked with a veteran driver like Elliott Sadler for three years is extremely valuable experience. He’s the right fit for Jimmie at the right time.”

Byron, the 2017 Xfinity Series champ, has three top-10 finishes and is 22nd in points through 30 Cup races.

Hendrick said he has given Knaus full rein with the No. 24 group next year.

“I’ve asked him to build another winner and given him the green light to put his stamp on the team and to it his way,” he said.

LFR tabs DiBenedetto, Toyota for ‘19

Leavine Family Racing officials announced Matt DiBenedetto as driver of the organization’s No. 95 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series entry for 2019 on Wednesday, as well as a move to Toyota after a three-year association with Chevrolet.

DiBenedetto, 27, is in his fourth full season of Cup competition. He currently drives the No. 32 Ford fielded by Go FAS Racing, operated by Archie St. Hilaire. DiBenedetto, a native of Grass Valley, Calif., has four top-10 finishes in 134 career starts.

Kasey Kahne, LFR’s driver when the season began, announced in August that he was stepping away from full-time competition in NASCAR’s top series. Barely a week later, he announced he was stepping out of the ride due to dehydration issues that had begun to impact his ability to compete. Former driver Regan Smith has filled in during Kahne’s absence and on Wednesday, team owner Bob Levine said Smith would remain in the car for the remainder of the ’18 season.

Likewise, DiBenedetto will finish out his season in the No. 32 entry. He too had previously announced he would not return to the team next year.

The No. 95 entry is 25th in owner points heading into this weekend’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway; the No. 32 entry sits 31st.

The switch to Toyota affords the opportunity for LFR to align with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing Development (TRD). JGR fields entries for Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones.

JGR has a technical alliance with Furniture Row Racing, which won the 2017 series championship with driver Martin Truex Jr., but FRR owner Barney Visser announced earlier this year that he was shutting the team down at season’s end due to a lack of sponsorship and escalating costs associated with the alliance.

No changes in sponsorship for LFR were announced Wednesday. The team currently obtains a majority of its funding from Procore, a California-based software company involved in the construction business.

In a release announcing the ’19 plans, team owner Bob Leavine called DiBenedetto “a great addition” and described JGR and TRD as “first-class organizations and proven winners.”

“For us to be able to align with them is a huge step for our organization,” Leavine said.

LFR debuted in 2011, competing in four Cup races with driver David Starr. It has run the full schedule for the past three seasons. Top finishes for the team have been a pair of fourths – one by former LFR driver Michael McDowell at Daytona in 2017 and one by Kahne, also at Daytona, this past July.

Another step for NASCAR youth movement

It’s worth mentioning:

That the two most recent winners in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series are under the age of 25. Chase Elliott, 22, won Sunday at Dover while Ryan Blaney, a winner at Charlotte two weeks ago, is 24. Both “kids” now have two career wins in the series.

That it’s not unheard of for more than one driver under 25 to win in the series during the same season, even though I thought it was and that’s what sent me to the record book. In ’16, Chris Buescher and Kyle Larson won for the first time and both were under 25. When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon won last year, they weren’t exactly over the hill – Stenhouse was about to turn 30 while Dillon is 28.

That Jimmie Johnson’s hopes at ending a career-long winless streak aren’t over just because he failed to snap the skid at Dover, where he has 11 victories. It would be wise to remember the seven-time champion has an equally impressive record at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Nine of his 83 career wins have come at the .526-mile track.

That the last time Chevrolet failed to put up double-digit wins in Cup during a season was 2000 when teams won nine times. Elliott’s win on Sunday was just the third for the automaker this year. In the meantime, Ford teams have 15 wins, Toyota 12.

That Sunday’s Dover race marked the seventh time Kevin Harvick has led the most laps in a race this season. It was only the third time he didn’t come away with the win. Martin Truex has been the lap leader on six occasions, Kyle Busch on four this year. Brad Keselowski, on the other hand, hasn’t led the most laps in a race all year, but has three wins.

That the last six winners at Talladega, site of Sunday’s 1000bulbs.com 500, have come out of the Ford camp. And six of the last eight have been a Team Penske driver, either Keselowski (3) or Joey Logano (3).

That beginning in 2019, drivers will no longer be able to make track bar adjustments from inside the car. Such changes will once again be handled by crewmen during pit stops. According to Scott Miller, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition, drivers ask for the rule change.

That Leavine Family Racing has scheduled a press conference for Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The organization is expected to address its 2019 driver situation and manufacturer status. Kasey Kahne drove the No. 95 Chevrolet until recently, when he stepped aside to deal with a medical issue. Regan Smith has been the team’s interim driver for the past five races. Kahne has said he will not compete full-time in the series after ’18.

That while this weekend isn’t a cutoff race for the Cup series, it is for the Camping World Truck folks. Justin Haley and Grant Enfinger are guaranteed to advance to the round of six (Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix) thanks to wins in the opening round. On the outside as the series heads to Talladega are Ben Rhodes (-7) and Stewart Friesen (-10). Two-time series champ Matt Crafton, sixth in points, holds the final transfer spot.

’19 package comes with familiar refrain

They took away downforce and said the racing should be better.

In 2015. And ‘16. And ’17. And ’18.

The push toward less downforce and cars that were more difficult to drive was supposed to result in better racing and more passing opportunities and more lead changes for teams competing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Then why after all that time and effort, not to mention money, is NASCAR going to a rules package next year that is on the opposite end of the spectrum?

The 2019 package, announced earlier this week, will increase downforce on the cars at all venues through the use of a taller spoiler and changes to the radiator pan and splitter on the front of the cars.

Aerodynamic ducts located in the front facia area will be required at 16 tracks and will have an impact as well.

Additionally, NASCAR will do away with restrictor plates following next year’s Daytona 500 and rely on the use of tapered spacers, which likewise reduce airflow, to help control speeds. Spacers will restrict horsepower to 550 at tracks greater than one mile while a larger version will allow for up to 750 hp at tracks one mile or less and road courses.

More downforce and slower speeds at 21 of 36 stops next season.

It’s not the first time NASCAR officials have traveled down this path. In 2015, a higher downforce package was used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway.

The results were disappointing. Enlightening perhaps but ridiculed by fans and dismissed by drivers.

Meanwhile, a low downforce package was used at Kentucky and Darlington that year and showed promise. Thus, the march toward less downforce began in earnest.

Three years later, determining if the racing has improved depends on what one is using as factors. Lead changes? Those numbers have fallen almost every year since NASCAR rolled out the Generation 6 car in 2013. The number of race winners? There have been nine since 2014, including two more this season.

Recent races have been both competitive and memorable. Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval got high marks last weekend for both the use of the infield road course and what transpired on the race track. The Night Race at Bristol, the race at Watkins Glen, even Chicago, a 1.5-mile track, were praised for their on-track action.

Then why move away from a package that has gone through so much development and appears to be providing a better product? Because TV ratings and attendance numbers aren’t what they were a decade or more ago?

The ’19 rules package will be similar to what was used in this year’s All-Star Race and Open qualifying race at CMS.

Here are a few things that stood out from those events:

• There were six cars battling for the top spot on the final lap of the Open.

• There was plenty of two- and three-wide racing early in the All-Star Race and racing for positions throughout the event; drivers were getting big runs off the turns to catch those in front of them and attempt/make passes.

• Tire wear was big.

• While Kevin Harvick dominated the final stage, there was a lot of side-by-side racing immediately behind him.

On the other hand, the All-Star Race was only 80 laps – there are longer stages in some Cup races.

Also, it was the first opportunity for teams to race with that package. Give them months to work with it and find the edges and the haves will once again separate themselves from the have-nots. That will happen no matter what rules package is rolled out.

The All-Star Race was a snapshot when what NASCAR needs is an entire photo album.

Next year they’ll get it.

Will the racing be better? We’re told it should be.

Sound familiar?

Truex no fan of uncontrolled tire rule

CONCORD, N.C. – Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Martin Truex Jr., isn’t a fan of NASCAR’s uncontrolled tire rule and that’s not a surprise.

“I completely agree with Cole’s tweet from last week,” the Furniture Row Racing driver said Friday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “How’s that?”

Cole Pearn is crew chief of the No. 78 Toyota. After another uncontrolled tire penalty bit the team at Richmond Raceway Saturday night, Pearn posted “Saving the sport one uncontrolled tire at a time. #moodyblue was rolling tonight happy to be moving on” on social media.

Truex won the first two stages of the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond. But during his pit stop following the end of the second stage, his team was hit with an uncontrolled tire violation. Because the infraction occurred under yellow, Truex was required to start at the rear of the field instead of re-starting the race up front.

Had it occurred under green, the penalty would have been a return trip down pit road.

Fortunately for Truex, he was able to battle back through the field and finish third, clinching a spot in the next round of the Cup Series playoffs. But it was another case of what might have been for the team.

The No. 78 team has been penalized six times this season for uncontrolled tire violations. That’s two more than one other team, the No. 24 of William Byron, and double or more of every other team that has been penalized. Thirty-three teams have been dinged for the violation a total of 69 times this season.

Last year there were 35 uncontrolled tire violations. For the entire year.

According to the NASCAR rulebook, a crewmember must remain within arm’s reach and moving in the same direction as the tire/wheel when removing the tire/wheel from the outside half of the pit box. The tire/wheel must not cross the center of pit road or be permitted to roll free into an adjacent competitor’s pit box.

“I feel like if they (tires) stay in the box, you know what’s the big deal,” Truex said.

In the Daytona 500, his pit crew allowed a right-rear tire to roll out onto pit road.

At Charlotte, Daytona in July, Michigan in August, Darlington in September and Richmond last week, the team was penalized when the left-front tires were left momentarily unattended – even though pit crew members were still on the left side of the car completing their tasks and near the tires in question.

At Darlington, Erik Jones was second off pit road after pitting at the end of the first stage; an uncontrolled tire penalty dropped the Joe Gibbs Racing driver to 15th for the restart.

Byron, William Bowman and Kasey Kahne are also among those running in the top 10 only to have the penalty put them deep in the field on subsequent restarts.

NASCAR has rescinded the penalty on at least one occasion – doing so after initially calling it on the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team at Talladega.

Officials have also missed the call at least once – a left-side tire that got away from the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing entry at Texas didn’t result in a penalty although NASCAR’s Scott Miller later admitted officials erred in not making the call.

“I think our fans want to see hard racing and they want to see the guys that are up front battling, not going to the rear once every two or three weeks for a tire sitting there with a guy that’s a foot too far away from it,” Truex said.

“I don’t agree with it; I think we should look at it. But I don’t make the rules.”

A bit of a change after 30 years

If you’re looking for the last time NASCAR teams faced an unknown similar to this weekend’s trek to Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Roval, you’d have to go back about three decades.

Other venues have come along since then – New Hampshire in ’93 and Indianapolis in ’94, Auto Club in ’97 and Las Vegas in ’98 for starters. Kentucky and Kansas and Chicago, too.

But those venues weren’t tremendously different, with the possible exception of Indy, from places already on the schedule. Another 1.5-mile stop? Ho-hum. A 2-miler? Yeah, we’ve already got Michigan. A short, flat track? Have you ever been to Martinsville?

All were ovals. Some just a little longer than others. Teams had a pretty good idea what to expect.

That was hardly the case when Sonoma Raceway was added to the schedule in 1989.

It was a road course swap but not everyone was pleased when NASCAR announced it would pack up its show and head north to the Napa Valley region in an effort to keep a presence on the West Coast.

Richard Petty, the series leader in career wins and championships, said at the time that racing at Sonoma “is not us … not our kind of racing” but to be truthful the King could have been talking about road course racing in general. It wasn’t everyone’s favorite type of competition during that era.

Dale Earnhardt said he would “run four ovals in one day not to run here again.” And that was after his fourth-place finish in the inaugural event.

The year before had seen the final race at Riverside International Raceway, a 2.620-mile road course that hosted Cup events in ’58 and ’61, then became a yearly staple from ’63 through ’88.

At that time, Sonoma was seen as much narrower and thus more difficult to navigate than the wider Riverside or Watkins Glen.

There were drivers and teams glad to see another road course on the schedule of course Those drivers and teams were successful on such layouts. Drivers such as Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip. Few won more often on road courses during the ‘80s than those folks.

Wallace, Mark Martin and Elliott traveled to Sonoma three weeks before the race to participate in the Bob Bondurant driving school. According to reports, Bodine, Rudd and Sterling Marlin did likewise.

Earnhardt and Waltrip had made the trip out earlier in the season to brush up on their road course skills.

Three drivers were involved in roll-overs during the weekend – Jimmy Means during Thursday’s practice and Michael Waltrip on Friday. Mark Martin’s No. 6 Thunderbird flipped during the race after Martin had a right rear wheel come off. None were injured.

An additional 12,000 grandstand seats were brought in from Phoenix to help handle the increased fan turnout. Estimated attendance for the Sears Point 300 was a record 53,000.

Highlights of the race can be found on YouTube. Do yourself a favor and watch Rudd and Wallace battle it out over the final few laps for the win.

No one from the drivers to the teams knew what to expect. And the race was entertaining and exciting and a success.

Chances are, Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 will be, too.j