Trying to figure out this year’s Clash

I started writing a column earlier basically saying this year’s Advance Auto Parts Clash was a boring race. I wanted to call it a clunker, one full of single-file driving around the 2.5-mile track. Limited action.

And then I went back and watched the race again and while I still can’t say the race had me on the edge of my seat, it did have its fair share of side-by-side racing. Particularly in the first 30 laps or so. I guess clunker would have been a little harsh.

There were times in the latter stages when the Clash showed promise, too. But honestly, for the most part the final laps at Daytona International Speedway did turn into a case of follow-the-leader and let’s see what happens.

Thank goodness for Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott, two drivers who finally decided to break ranks and try to form up an inside line in an attempt to get to the front. And who was it? Martin Truex, who decided to tag along and see what those silly kids were up to?

The last-lap crash that kept Jimmie Johnson from finishing under power for the seventh consecutive year wasn’t the result of drivers putting it all on the line – it was a mere miscalculation, a tap from Kyle Larson that sent the Hendrick driver into the wall.

Maybe distance was partly to blame – I witnessed this one from nearly 500 miles away and saw only what the network, in this case FS1, chose to show me. I’ve often felt that you get a much better sense of what’s taking place when you’re actually at the event.

Maybe the new “no ride height rule,” a move that erased minimum ground clearance for cars at the superspeedways this year, had something to do with it. Maybe that was part of the reason the cars seemed a bit more difficult to handle in traffic and kept drivers in check and in line for most of the afternoon. Maybe other pieces of the rules package (a bigger spoiler?) had an impact.

Maybe the fact that there were only 17 cars in the field played a role. When 40 cars hit the start/finish line Sunday for the start of the Daytona 500, there will be several more drivers willing to take chances and a few more willing to go with those who take those chances. For whatever reason, there seemed to be too little of that Sunday in the Clash.

Sunday’s race wasn’t a clunker, but it wasn’t quite what I expected or hoped for either.

There were fewer leaders and lead changes in last year’s Clash, but that race seemed much more exciting. And that was before Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski tangled on the last lap, allowing Joey Logano to sweep past for the win.

I won’t say drivers were just “riding around” Sunday. But for whatever reason or reasons, there didn’t seem to be a lot of folks eager to jump out of line and take a risk until the very last moment.

Maybe that’s what it takes to win on a restrictor-plate track and anything attempted prior to the last lap is foolish and destined to failure.

But in a race with absolutely nothing on the line other than bragging rights, that feels more than just a little disappointing.

Not Your Average Rankings

Face it. We could do driver rankings every week or so just like everyone else but where’s the fun in that? Instead, let’s occasionally take a look at another side of motorsports.

What to do for a debut then? Since the Advance Auto Parts Clash is scheduled for Sunday at Daytona International Speedway (3 p.m. ET, FS1) and it’s a non-points race …

Best Non-Points NASCAR Races

7 – Daytona 500 Consolation Race: From 1959 through 1962, the race was a 10-lap, last-chance qualifier for drivers to earn a spot in the starting field for the Daytona 500. When it returned for 1981-85, it was a 30-lap race for drivers who wouldn’t be appearing in the 500. No points, just glory.

6 – Suzuka Thunder Special/Montegi: A three-year exhibition stint at Suzuka Circuitland, a 1.394-mile road course in Suzuka City, Japan (1996-97) and Twin Ring Montegi (’98), a 1.5-mile venue in Motegi City, Japan. The racing wasn’t tremendously memorable but give NASCAR and the teams an A for effort. And expense. It wasn’t the first time the series had ventured outside the U.S., but to date it’s been the last. Perhaps for a reason.

5 – Duel at Daytona: OK, sadly this one is no longer eligible since the top 10 finishers in the two qualifying races now receive points. Of course, there was a time when wins in the qualifying races counted toward a driver’s career total, too. Thankfully, that practice ended in 1972. But there were times when the race to snatch up one of the final spots for the Daytona 500 was more exciting than the actual race for the win. With only four positions up for grabs now, and teams not wanting to risk tearing up their cars before the 500, the wow factor isn’t what it used to be for this event.

4 – Clash at Daytona: Hardly a better way to kick off the season than with a short, fast-paced race featuring many of the same drivers that will be vying for a Daytona 500 win the following week. Now back as part of a Sunday show that includes Daytona 500 qualifying and no longer run under the lights, the Clash should provide a little better glimpse of what the 500 might actually look like.

3 – All-Star Race: There have probably been more complaints lodged against this one event than any other non-points race on the NASCAR schedule. Mainly that it’s held at the same venue, Charlotte Motor Speedway, every year. And that the drivers are the same that fans get to see every single week during the season. Both are true. But the venue did move once before – a disastrous effort at Atlanta in ’86 – and since the drivers will ALWAYS be the same competing every week, officials have tried to juice up the format instead. Sometimes it has worked, sometimes it hasn’t. There have been several memorable All-Star races through the years, but few of late.

2 – Goodyear NASCAR 500: It wasn’t out of this world but it was out of this country. In 1988, NASCAR teams packed up and headed to Melbourne, Australia to compete at the Calder Park Thunderdome – after the NASCAR season had already begun. It was the first NASCAR race on a superspeedway outside the U.S. Neil Bonnett, winner at Richmond the previous weekend, scored his second consecutive victory, outdueling Bobby Allison for the exhibition win. A trip to Australia for a non-points NASCAR race has a major cool factor surrounding it even today.

1 – International Race of Champions: OK, I’m going to pull a fast one here right out of the box. The IROC series, which ran from 1974 through 2006 (with one brief interruption) technically wasn’t a NASCAR Series. The annual four-race platform featured many of auto racing’s most talented drivers from various disciplines. Where else could you see Bobby Unser and A.J. Foyt and David Pearson and Emerson Fittipaldi go head-to-head? Yeah it got a little NASCAR top-heavy toward the end of its run, and by then the races were all held on ovals. But the idea and the effort and the action ranks tops. For a non-points event, it didn’t get much better than this.

(Bear in mind this is far from a “complete” list of non-points races. There have been many, many other consolation races, hooligan races, etc. These are simply a few that stood out to me. Thanks for stopping by.)

Clash: Looking back before moving forward

It seems odd when you look back at it, that first Clash held at Daytona in 1979, having nearly forgotten that the NASCAR season didn’t officially begin in Daytona Beach back then.

It would be three more years, 1982, before competition at Daytona opened the season; in ’79 Darrell Waltrip had already won at Riverside (Calif.) before teams headed south in search of sun, surf and checkered flags.

Buddy Baker won the pole for the Daytona 500, shattering the track record previously held by Cale Yarborough, and later won his qualifying race as well.

In between the two, Baker dominated the inaugural Busch Clash, a 20-lap race that featured a field of nine.

Baker, driving for Harry Ranier and with Herb Nab as his crew chief, led 18 of the 20 laps; Waltrip, the runner-up, led the other two.

It was Baker’s lone win in the special, non-points race.

Also noted: A third-generation driver named Kyle Petty won his first race, an ARCA event, at Daytona that week.

o Sunday’s running of the Advance Auto Parts Clash (3 p.m. ET, FS1) will feature a field of 17 consisting of last year’s pole winners, former Daytona 500 pole winners who didn’t win a pole last year and last year’s playoff drivers who also did not win a pole last year but qualified for the playoffs.

Twenty drivers are actually eligible but Matt Kenseth has no ride for ’18, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is out of the car and in the TV booth, and Danica Patrick will focus on her final Daytona 500 and NASCAR start.

Saturday, the starting lineup will be determined by a blind draw in the UNOH Fanzone featuring fans and crew chiefs for each eligible team.

Sunday’s 75-lap race will feature a pre-determined break after lap 25.

Eligible drivers are defending winner Joey Logano and teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney (Team Penske Ford), Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing Ford), Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones (Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota), Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet), Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray (Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing Ford), Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing Toyota), Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet) and Kasey Kahne (Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet).

In addition to Logano, Hamlin, Harvick, Johnson, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch are former Clash winners.

Upgrades for the track too tough to ignore

They tried to kill her off once before, stripped one race from her legendary asphalt and stuck her with a lone weekend date that many believed sounded the death knell once and for all.

They say, though, that Darlington Raceway is too tough to tame.

I say she’s too tough to ignore.

The legendary South Carolina track, one of only two that’s been on NASCAR’s premier series schedule every year since 1950, will get an influx of capital from its owners, International Speedway Corp., money that will go toward upgrades in the grandstands circling the 1.366-mile track along with other fan amenities.

The project, dubbed “A Better Darlington … The Tradition Continues,” will run $7 million or so.

That’s a far cry from the $400 million ISC spent to give rise to Daytona International Speedway a few years back.

Or the $178 million poured into ISM Raceway, formerly Phoenix International Raceway, for major upgrades that will be completed later this year.

Or the expected $30 million doled out to Richmond Raceway; Richmond Reimagined features a total re-build of the .75-mile track’s infield.

It’s not about how much here, though. That ISC continues to put back into its facilities in an effort to “enhance the fan experience” is a very, very good thing.

How much, for those wondering, is approximately $615 million between the four facilities, and that’s not pocket change.

Darlington’s slice of the pie will suffice because the old gal’s gotten by on a lot less for a lot longer than nearly everyone else. And that’ll be the case this time around, too.

Work was scheduled to begin Thursday (Feb. 1) and be completed in time for this year’s throwback extravaganza, the annual Bojangles’ Southern 500, set for Sept. 2.

“We have the coolest track in NASCAR,” track president Kerry Tharp said, adding that the project will “make the fan experience better than ever.”

Seats along the frontstretch, in the Tyler Tower, will now be wider. Stadium-style seating (bleachers with backrests) will replace those seats currently in the Wallace (frontstretch) and Colvin (backstretch) grandstands.

There will be more handrails, guardrails and restrooms will get upgrades as well.

The closest thing to changing anything on the actual track will be the addition of a “Wall of Honor” on the front and backstretch where the names of every race champion at Darlington will be featured.

Joie Chitwood, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of ISC, said the decision to move forward with the upgrades to Darlington was part of ISC’s “commitment to the fan in creating the best possible experience on our properties.

“It just shows the future is bright for Darlington,” he said. “This place is special but you want to combine it with amenities (for the new fans).”

The Bojangles’ Southern 500 has been a staple on the schedule for most of the track’s 69 years of existence. However, when the track’s spring date was shipped elsewhere in time for the ’05 season, the Labor Day date was moved as well.

Darlington, stuck with a lone race on Mother’s Day weekend, didn’t just survive but began to thrive, eventually selling out an event that was thought to be a stopping point along the way to non-existence.

In 2015, the track got its Labor Day date back, officials unveiled an annual “throwback” platform to recognize the heroes of NASCAR’s past and interest in the track and its race weekend has continued to soar.

“One thing that’s really nice is the fact that nothing is changing with the track (surface),” two-time premier series champion Terry Labonte said. “It will still be that good old historic race track. All I can see are big plusses for what they are doing.”

Plenty of newness for LVMS test

There will be a mix of the old and the new on hand Wednesday and Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when the 1.5-mile track hosts the first of three scheduled organizational tests for the series in 2018.

Of the 13 teams slated to participate, nearly half feature a driver change from 2017.

Erik Jones, the 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year, will be making his debut in the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing;

William Byron, the 2017 NASCAR XFINITY Series champ, will be behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports;

Speaking of Hendrick, after six years with the four-team organization, Kasey Kahne now finds himself behind the wheel of the No. 95 Chevrolet for Leavine Family Racing;

Darrell Wallace Jr., isn’t exactly new to the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports – the 24-year-old made four starts for the team last season while driver Aric Almirola was recovering from a back injury. However, Almirola has since landed at Stewart-Haas Racing and Wallace is now the full-time driver for RPM, which has made the move from Ford to Chevrolet.

Paul Menard is the newest driver of the No. 21 Ford fielded by Wood Brothers Racing. Menard won the 2011 Brickyard 400 while the Wood Brothers won the 2011 Daytona 500. Make of that what you will.

Last on the “new” front – SHR XFINITY Series regular Cole Custer will handle testing duties this week with Go Fas Racing in that team’s No. 32 Ford.

Absent from the roster is defending MENCS champ Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota team. The team dominated the 1.5-mile stops last year, with seven of its eight victories coming on the intermediate tracks. Truex did take part earlier this month in a Goodyear tire test at Texas Motor Speedway, another 1.5-mile venue.

Rounding out the roster of drivers and teams testing this week are:

Brad Keselowski, Team Penske No. 2 Ford; Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford; Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 Ford; Cole Custer, Go Fas Racing No. 32 Ford;

Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet; Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevrolet; Ty Dillon, Germain Racing No. 13 Chevrolet; Chris Buescher, JTG Daugherty No. 37 Chevrolet;

Wheel force cars from the three OEMs will be driven by Justin Allgaier (Chevrolet), David Ragan (Ford) and Drew Herring (Toyota).

Gates will open at 9 a.m. PT daily and fans will be admitted free of charge in grandstands and the popular Neon Garage both days.

LVMS will host the Pennzoil 400 Sunday, March 4, the wrap-up to a triple-header weekend that will also include Camping World Truck and NASCAR XFINITY Series races.

For CMS media tour, that’s a wrap

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Three days and nearly 50 drivers from NASCAR’s three national series collided here and suddenly it’s over and I guess from here on out folks will focus on racing.

Another NASCAR media tour, hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, is in the books and this one closed quietly. For the print folks, it was Team Penske driver Joey Logano chiming in on fatherhood and failing to meet the on-track expectations of 2017.

We’ll get back to that in a bit …

• The young driver/old driver storyline carried over into the final day and I really don’t know what to make of it. Too much or not enough?

if you’ve missed it, don’t worry. Chances are it will resurface in Daytona. For now, just know that NASCAR is hard behind its younger competitors and that’s not exactly a new tactic. Nor is it the worst idea.

Some veteran drivers will feel slighted and that’s to be expected. Some will speak out about it when asked and that’s to be expected too.

Fans need to know about the younger drivers coming into the series, but let’s not brand those drivers as stars until they’ve actually accomplished something.

Meanwhile, there are four full-time drivers suiting up this year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series who are 40 or older. Jimmie Johnson’s the eldest of the elder statesmen at 42, Kevin Harvick’s a few months younger, Jamie McMurray is 41 and if Ryan Newman were a Super Bowl he’d be XL.

Johnson has won seven premier series championships, could become the first ever to win eight and NASCAR ought to have a marketing campaign around the Hendrick Motorsports driver going into every year for that reason alone.

Harry Gant won 18 premier series races, all of them after he turned 42. Bobby Allison won a championship at 45. Young drivers left their marks early too. I guess the point is, don’t make too much of age, or what some marketing agency does with it.

• Kasey Kahne, the fresh-start kid, said expects to open up his Sprint car schedule now that he’s joined Leavine Family Racing for his Cup Series efforts. Kahne, whose KKR fields full-time World of Outlaw entries for drivers Daryn Pittman and Brad Sweet, hopes to run between 20-30 races himself in a third entry.

• Daniel Suarez, thrust into the No. 19 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing with the unexpected departure of Carl Edwards, said there have been “adjustments” made to his team in preparation for the ’18 season.

Those changes are primarily personnel – Suarez changed crew chiefs early in the year when Dave Rogers took a leave of absence and the driver said his No. 1 and 2 engineers changed “in the last two months of racing.” There was also a car chief change in the offseason. “Everyone knows the challenge that we have, and everyone knows all that we have (in place). I really like that,” Suarez said.

• Logano, the first driver to miss the Playoffs due to an “encumbered” win at Richmond last year, called the feeling one “we never want to have again.”

“We thought we would go win more races,” he said “No big deal. Then it was one thing after another and before we knew it our back was against the wall. … We did not see that coming at all.”

Sixteen teams made the Playoff. The No. 22 team wasn’t one of them.

As for fatherhood? Logano said he’s learned that “I can’t halfway do something.”

“When I go to work, I have to be 100 percent at work and when I go home, I have to put my phone down,” Logano said. “… There is a time for work and a time for family. I need to do 100 percent at each one of those and not try to do 50 percent at all of them. It doesn’t work.”

As always, thanks for stopping by.

On New Beginnings

The annual NASCAR Media tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway began Monday and today it will be wall-to-wall driver interviews from morning (9 a.m.) until evening (4:45 p.m.). By the looks of the rotation, there are 30 drivers scheduled to drop in and be asked about the upcoming racing season.

That, folks, is a lot.

I’ll not be there today but not by choice. Off to be poked and prodded a couple more times, a final tune-up I hope before a new journey and new season begins.

Won’t bore you with results, but I will let you know if I pass tech or have to make another trip around the garage.

In the meantime, this is our first gathering here at and I hope you see something you like. Your time is valuable, your interest is appreciated.

Folks sometimes ask and I wish I could recall but there’s no recollection of the first media tour I attended. Let’s say it took place in the 1980s and move on.

Which I only bring up because during two separate conversations Monday I was asked how I felt about the “new and improved” media tour.

First of all, it’s not really a tour in the sense that media members no longer board buses and visit race shops, engine shops, the occasional wind tunnel, etc.

Yeah, it got mighty uncomfortable spending the day on a bus, but we went to Dawsonville, Ga., one year and Fort Worth, Texas another (not by bus, thankfully), and Daytona Beach and Stuart, Va. and Spartanburg, S.C., and it was fun and informative and good grief did you ever learn things.

All you had to do was walk into a Hendrick Motorsports or a Richard Childress Racing, a Team Penske or Roush Fenway or Joe Gibbs Racing and you immediately knew why those organizations were successful. Sheer size, spotless shops. Buttoned up and so impressive. Dynos and set-up plates and pull-down rigs and always, always rooms that were “off limits.”

Then you’d make a stop at another competitor’s shop and it would be painful trying to wedge 100 or more media in the door. Run by folks who tried just as hard to win races but it was clear how much they had to overcome. But when they did? Man, those were stories.

They didn’t all start that way – big and spotless and impressive. Very few of them did in fact. We watched a lot of them grow and that was fun and it was news. We saw a lot of them that didn’t and eventually they would be gone and that wasn’t any fun at all.

You met with drivers and owners and crew chiefs and guys that did nothing more than clean parts. You couldn’t help but learn.

Today is different. There’s no travel, except for an occasional run out to CMS. It’s a chance to see drivers a final time before heading to Daytona and the season-opening SpeedWeek program gets under way.

That’s not to say there is no value in the tour, no questions to be asked. There have been changes among organizations and drivers who have changed teams and moves made involving the auto manufacturers. There are new faces in old places and old faces in new ones and the “tour” may have changed but it still has value.

I can’t imagine that ever not being the case.

Thanks for stopping by.