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Geoffrey Miller's five things to watch at Bristol Motor Speedway
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, as the circuit hits Bristol Motor Speedway for the Irwin Tools Night Race, a new light is shed on last week’s Jimmie Johnson-Ryan Newman post-race conversation. Also, count Charlotte as a market that will bury Saturday night’s NASCAR race and keep an eye on Kyle Larson, who could be the 13th driver to slip into the Chase based on race wins.
He said what? Ryan Newman vs. Jimmie Johnson got personal
ESPN’s cameras showed a war of words between Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman after last week’s race at Michigan. Newman declined an interview afterward and Johnson spoke of general frustration with Newman’s driving tactics. But what exactly was said between the two during their original moment of frustration?
Well, folks watching on TSN in Canada got to see and hear the showdown in its entirety. Simply put: things got salty. The highlights:
Ryan Newman: “I (expletive) raced you clean! Race me clean back. You’re better than that, but not today.”
Jimmie Johnson: “Feel better about yourself?”
RN: “I don’t have to feel better about myself.”
JJ: “You’re in the way (expletive) every single lap —“
RN: “I’m driving my ass off. If I had the motor you had I wouldn’t have been in your way. But I didn’t.”
JJ: “You had all of the (expletive) I have, and then you made a (expletive) bad decision to put yourself in this position.”
RN: “So be it —“
JJ: “Just like that on the track just now.”
RN: “You made a bad decision there, just let me tell you that.”
JJ: “Bring it.”
There is a lot to digest there — with the least important being Jimmie’s inconceivably weak closing shot of “bring it” — depending on how much merit you put into a heated, post-race confrontation. If you think there is a little bit of truth in anything, then Johnson’s claim that Newman’s own decisions led to him losing his Stewart-Haas Racing ride (with Hendrick engines) in 2013 strikes as interesting. The public story is that Newman simply wasn’t performing at a level that impressed Gene Haas and the rest was history.
Perhaps there was more to the story.
Otherwise, this is a continuation of several drivers having problems with Newman’s driving style and a negative assessment of the engines at Richard Childress Racing. Both Newman and Johnson seem to tacitly agree that the Hendrick Chevrolets are stronger than Childress’.
All told, the conversation seems very bitter. It’s tough to think Johnson and Newman will be fishing together anytime soon. And it might be a bit of a tinderbox of emotion just waiting to explode under the lights of Bristol on Saturday night.
Charlotte among 15 television markets burying Bristol race coverage
This isn’t the first time a NASCAR race on ABC has been moved in some markets to accommodate other programming, but it may be the most notable thanks to the actions of the local ABC affiliate in NASCAR’s de facto hometown.
Saturday night, residents of Charlotte, N.C., (and 14 other markets including the likes of Austin, Houston, Nashville and Washington D.C.) won’t get to see the Irwin Tools Night Race from Bristol like the rest of the country on the local ABC channel. Instead, WSOC-TV in Charlotte will bump the race to a sister channel (WAXN TV64) while Baltimore and Washington square off in a pre-season NFL tilt on the flagship channel.
The move is rooted from the time when Charlotte’s hometown team — the Carolina Panthers — didn’t exist, thus creating an extensive Washington fanbase in the land of the pines. Look no further than Kannapolis, N.C.’s own Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his extensive fandom of Daniel Snyder’s team for proof that Washington will draw ratings in the market.
The move is an implication of two things: first, WSOC expects the preseason NFL game to draw better than a fairly marquee NASCAR event, and two, NASCAR’s fan base — even in its hometown — isn’t nearly as fervent as it once was. Even casual observers of the sport know that, though.
While Charlotte is the most notable of the bunch, fans in locations like Casper and Cody, Wyo., St. Joseph, Mo., and San Antonio, Tex., may get completely hosed in the name of local affiliates opting to show alternate (typically sports) programming. Those markets will only see NASCAR on ABC if the subscribers have satellite television. Cable and over-the-air viewers will be out of luck.
ABC/ESPN, for its part, doesn’t control local programming decisions.
“We respect the right of ABC affiliates to make their own programming decisions and we appreciate that many of them were able to place the race telecast on alternate channels in their markets in order to serve NASCAR fans,” said Andy Hall, associate director of ESPN Communications.
Want to win at Bristol? Get up front by lap 300
As Saturday night cycles toward completion, it won’t be hard to spot the eventual winner. That’s because Bristol is a track that heavily rewards track position and tends to not favor those who need a late-race comeback.
Put simply: Giving up track position sometime after halfway in the 500-lap race doesn’t bode well for those who want to reach the checkered flag first.
In the past 15 races at Bristol, 12 race winners were running third or better at lap 300. Fourteen of those race winners were fifth or better. The lone outlier? Matt Kenseth, 2013 night race winner, who was scored in 24th on lap 300. Kenseth’s efforts that night were all together heroic as he drove the No. 20 from 27th to first in less than 100 laps after a mid-race setback.
Kenseth aside, the numbers tell the story. Drivers with a shot to win simply have to be in contention by just after halfway. Expect more of the same Saturday night.
The weekend of Kyle Larson?
With three races left until the cutoff, he’s not currently in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But for Cup rookie Kyle Larson, Bristol Motor Speedway could serve as his best shot to change all of that.
Larson, coming off his worst finish of the season last week at Michigan (he blew a tire, walloped the wall and finished dead last), desperately needs a few breaks should he want to join the 16-driver playoff field after Richmond. Currently 14th in points but winless, Larson is chasing Greg Biffle from 24 points back for the last spot currently available to non-race winners in the field.
That situation is highly fluid, of course, as any driver in the top 30 who gets a win between now and the Richmond finale would displace the last driver trying to get in via point standings. Larson could very well play that role at Bristol.
Friday at Bristol, Larson was quick in practice — he led the speed charts early in the session — and appeared ready to duplicate a solid spring performance at the half-mile. He finished 10th in March, but ran as high as second after starting 20th and spent 97.4 percent of the race inside the top 15. Also telling of more Bristol success is Larson’s Nationwide Series record at the track that includes two runner-up finishes and three top-5 showings in three starts.
Kyle Larson needs a boost to make the Chase. Maybe he’ll get it at Bristol.
Officiating blunders continue for NASCAR
NASCAR’s return to Bristol this weekend is also a return to the track where it suffered its biggest officiating mistake in quite some time. In the March Cup race delayed by rain, an errant flip of the caution light switch brought out a yellow flag in the closing laps of the race.
Fortunately for NASCAR, the mistake coordinated with a heavy rain shower that ultimately allowed series officials to consider the race complete and not force a green-white-checker restart. Carl Edwards got the win that looked firmly in hand before the yellow flag came out just before the white flag, and potential ramifications on the Chase — remember wins are considered all important now — were avoided.
But the issue came before a similar mistake at Auto Club Speedway a week later when an official failed to accurately indicate the opening of pit road to all drivers and this week’s revelation that an inspector in the Camping World Truck Series contributed to part failures on two trucks owned by Brad Keselowski. In the BKR instance — a problem from last week at Michigan — the team was told inaccurately to modify the noses of the race trucks in a way that ultimately caused structural failure and unnecessary pit stops during the race. Truck series director Chad Little apologized to the team afterward.
The issues, individually, are part of life for any sport with human officiating. But as NASCAR barrels toward its first use of a playoff system where individual races will mean so incredibly much to determining the sport’s champion, such mistakes just can’t happen.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.