New Sprint Cup rules package set to debut at Kentucky Speedway

NASCAR will introduce a new rules package July 11 at Kentucky Speedway, executive vice president Steve O’Donnell announced Tuesday afternoon.

The changes, which were slated to be used at the Sprint All-Star Race in May, will include a shorter spoiler (3.5 inches, down from the current 6 inches), less overhang on the front splitter (down by 1.75 inches), and softer tires (increased grip). Downforce will be reduced overall. Practice time on July 8 will be lengthened for teams to get comfortable with the adjustments.

O’Donnell, who also serves as NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, assured, “We’ve had an extensive testing plan with the industry over the last 19 months. We feel confident and we wouldn’t implement this if we didn’t feel confident as an industry to implement it at Kentucky.”

A rumor about the package surfaced last week, fueled by Lee Spencer’s story on Motorsports.com. The story states the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team used the changes at the Darlington Raceway test.

Although this is currently a one-race deal, O’Donnell expressed interest in using the rule package at other tracks—if it is successful.

“We certainly want to see more lead changes on the race track. We’ll evaluate not only that but a number of different factors coming out of Kentucky and seeing what we can learn and potentially implement down the road.”

He also added that the package is not final or “an abandonment of any rules package.”

Teams and drivers are very open to the idea, yet the executive vice president said the sanctioning body is still looking into making improvements as needed.

Only a Matter of Time: Truex claims long-awaited win at Pocono

Martin Truex Jr. hugs girlfriend Sherry Pollex after winning the Axalta 400 at Pocono Raceway. (Credit: @NASCAR on Twitter)
Martin Truex Jr. hugs girlfriend Sherry Pollex after winning the Axalta 400 at Pocono Raceway. (Credit: @NASCAR on Twitter)

Martin Truex Jr. is finally a winner.

The No. 78 team cashed their ticket in Sunday afternoon at Pocono Raceway, claiming victory after finishing in the top-10 in 12 of the last 13 races. His consistency wasn’t lost on anyone; media and fans alike waited for this moment to arrive.

The Richmond International Raceway scandal left Truex out of the Chase and with a bad taste in his mouth. After leaving Michael Waltrip Racing, his future looked bleak. He joined Furniture Row Racing, a one-car team that helped Kurt Busch get back on his feet. During 2013, Busch earned 11 top-10s and finished 10th in points. The New Jersey native decided to align with FRR and start all over.

It wasn’t going to be easy; 2014 was a difficult time for the No. 78 team, earning only one top-5 finish all season. The on-track struggle, however, wasn’t the only obstacle. Summer brought the news that Truex’s long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She underwent surgery, and the treatments soon began. November brought the end of a trying season.

Changes were made, including a crew chief switch. Cole Pearn stepped in, who became the second crew chief from Canada. This turned out to be exactly what the team needed.

Truex’s win at Pocono is the third of his career, propelling him to third in the point standings and the Chase. As he rolled his Chevrolet into victory lane, Pollex was there to give him a hug that brought tears to everyone’s eyes. The win gave her something to smile about, even with eight months of chemotherapy still ahead.

Pocono was full of cautions and great racing, but nothing could top such a deserving win. It was only a matter of time.

The No. 78 team will try to ride the momentum into Michigan International Speedway, the two-mile track next on the schedule. There hasn’t been much success there for Martin Truex Jr., but this season is a season of change for him. Kevin Harvick, who finished second at Pocono, will definitely rival whatever the newest Chase driver can put down.

Action is abundant in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and it’s time to get excited.

Busch to make All-Star return, receives Chase waiver

Kyle Busch is finally back.

After months of healing and rehabilitation, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was cleared to return to competition. He is set to make his comeback during Saturday night’s All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The news came Tuesday morning, along with a video Busch posted to Twitter.

The driver broke his leg in the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway, the season-opening race for the second-tier series. After he wrecked, his car went into an inside wall with no SAFER barrier. Busch has been out of a car since that incident, which was nearly three months ago.

NASCAR announced Wednesday morning that Busch will receive a waiver for The Chase, excluding the requirement of starting all regular season races. To make the playoff field, however, Busch needs to win a race and be in the top 30 in the point standings.

“Our decision to grant [Busch] a waiver that allows him to continue running for a championship is one we discussed extensively,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, in an official press release. “The spirit of the rule never was designed to punish drivers who are unable to compete due to extenuating circumstances such as recovering from a racing accident.”

This will be a big month for Busch, whose wife Samantha is expecting their first child any day now. The baby boy will add to the emotional resurgence his father is currently weathering.

Welcome back, Kyle Busch.

Johnson survives rain, late-race caution to win at Kansas

A lot of people dislike Jimmie Johnson, and that should make the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion smile.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver soared to victory lane at Kansas Speedway after making a risky pit call. With less than 10 laps to go, crew chief Chad Knaus determined they would stay out while others went to refuel and get tires. Teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. followed his lead, putting HMS on the front row with six laps remaining.

Heavy hitter Kevin Harvick attempted to climb back into the battle but only made it to second. The Stewart-Haas Racing machine was stout all evening, staying in contention throughout the entire evening.

“Entire” means before and after the rain delay.

Mother Nature rained on the NASCAR parade once again, unleashing a monsoon right before halfway. The hiatus lasted more than two hours, allowing fans and drivers to refocus and relax. This time was vital to the No. 48 team, who struggled in the first half of the Spongebob Squarepants 400. The weather was the enemy, yet NASCAR won out.

Once the race started up again, the action was abundant. Periods of three and four-wide didn’t go unnoticed, and neither did the impressive work by Martin Truex Jr. The Furniture Row Racing team has been close every weekend, and Saturday night seemed like his night. Unfortunately, the team decided to come down pit road and put two tires on. He couldn’t gather enough steam to make a run at Johnson.

The driver of the No. 48 secured his third win of the season and the 73rd of his career. This puts him seventh on the all-time winners list, only three victories behind Dale Earnhardt Sr. He also celebrated his 200th top-five and 300th top-10.

People don’t like seeing the same person in victory lane over and over again. Kyle Busch can attest to that fact. However, the haters are a good sign. It means Johnson is doing something right. There’s no doubt he will win a seventh championship. It’s the “when” that’s up in the air, yet it might not be that way for long if he keeps up his winning ways.

Earnhardt’s emotional victory overshadows final laps at Talladega

Everyone has that complex. You know, where you see the trashcan overflowing and say to yourself, “Oh, someone else will take care of that, so I won’t.” In psychology, it’s referred to as the Bystander Effect (although it’s technically about aiding victims of crimes).

And if you doubted that racing was psychological, Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway proved otherwise.

The 2.666-mile track is one of two restrictor plate layouts, and a specific standard is in place when NASCAR heads to these venues. Fans expect to see pack racing, where the cars are three-wide and the tension is tangible. That’s what makes Talladega and Daytona International Speedway special.

Unfortunately, Sunday’s event was only special for one reason. I’ll get to that later on.

The fact that weather didn’t threaten the action got the day off to a good start. Hendrick Motorsports claimed the front row, with Jeff Gordon on the pole and Kasey Kahne in second. Intensity mounted as the race began, cars going three wide to make up for bad qualifying efforts. Various drivers were in the mix, including Tony Stewart and rookie Ryan Blaney.

Around 15 drivers fell victim to “The Big One” and ended their afternoon early. Trevor Bayne got loose, and that’s all she wrote. A red flag allowed crews to clean up the damage. Drivers regrouped and refocused.

The rest of the race shifted between pack racing and single-file, and the latter prevailed in the last 15 laps. Twitter was alive, fans ranting about how drivers needed to make their moves. Everyone—fans, commentators, and drivers alike—began feeling antsy and waited for the big breakaway.

Laps dwindled down. Ten, nine, eight…nothing. The cars raced next to the outside wall, a long train just chugging along. Nobody went for it, they didn’t want to be first. Drivers figured someone would stick their neck out, and everyone would follow.

The white flag flew, and Denny Hamlin was that someone. The field immediately fanned out. Chaos swallowed up the back half, wrecking on the backstretch. As the race kept green, the fan favorite led like he did the majority of the event. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag and claimed his first victory of 2015.

Now, there are a few things that made this race disappointing. The lack of breakaway and caution for wreckage are the big two. However, that all washed away as Earnhardt emerged from his car in victory lane.

Overcome with emotion, the HMS driver could barely speak. His father, the late Dale Earnhardt, would’ve celebrated his 64th birthday a few days ago, yet that wasn’t the only reason he was nearly crying.

“I’m in such a good place right now, with my personal life…I’m so blessed, I really am.”

When NASCAR’s “Most Popular Driver” is overwhelmed and humbled, it’s a great day.

Genuine emotion is hard to come by today, and it’s refreshing to see one of the most famous and richest athletes let his guard down. On a day that lacked the “true racing” that’s expected at restrictor plate tracks, his interview and humility were needed.

There’s no real explanation as to why drivers kept to themselves the final 15 laps. Maybe it’s the Bystander Effect. Maybe everyone simply wanted to play it safe. Either way, it was everything Talladega is not.

Steve Byrnes, a grateful heart

Steve Byrnes found the ‘can’ in cancer.

When he underwent his first bout with the disease, the Fox Sports reporter knew he couldn’t back down. He mustered the strength to watch his son Bryson’s football games. He watched funny movies with his wife Karen. He smiled throughout his entire battle, even after it returned.

He refused to let cancer ruin his life.

That’s why losing him hurts so bad.

Early on, Steve gave me advice for my career. He told me to not give up and to swear less. We kept in touch, and I looked at him as the standard. I had the honor of interviewing him last fall on the one-year anniversary of his cancer diagnosis. As we spoke, he talked about his work, health, and family. One major thing became apparent.

He was selfless. All he cared about was how the treatments affected his family. He never complained, and he appreciated every single day.

“It’s about having a grateful heart.”

Those words echo now as I type. Steve was the epitome of a grateful heart, and that was obvious during the past weekend. He reiterated how thankful he was to be in the race name, for the signs, hashtag and opportunity to honor him, Karen, and Bryson.

This humility made him great at his job. Over decades, he acquired credibility and forged relationships with some of the sport’s best racers. It was a different era back then, where reporters and drivers stayed at the same hotel. Friendships were created, and the one he had with Dale Earnhardt Sr. was overwhelmingly genuine. The seven-time champion taught him about life and how to treat people.

“[Earnhardt] treated everyone the same.”

So did Steve.

He was one of the last connections to that era, where he interviewed drivers we now consider legends. That—along with his selflessness and strength—makes him a legend.

The world has lost a remarkable man. I’m grateful we got to know him.

Godspeed, Steve.

Tamper, Tamper: No. 31 team Penalized for Tire Modifications

After rumors of tire tampering, NASCAR handed down penalties to Ryan Newman and his team Tuesday evening.

Tires were evaluated after the race at Auto Club Speedway on March 22, and the No. 31 team’s tires failed the inspection. As a result, NASCAR called it a P5 penalty, the second-highest offense on their transparent scale.

The penalties include the loss of 75 points in both the driver and owner standings, a $125,000 fine for crew chief Luke Lambert, and a six-race suspension for Lambert, team tire technician James Bender, and team engineer Phillip Surgen.

Richard Childress Racing president Torrey Galida made this statement following the announcement: “We understand the seriousness of the penalty. In fact, RCR has been one of the most outspoken opponents against ‘tire bleeding’ since the rumors began to surface last season. Once NASCAR provides us with the specific details of the infraction, we will conduct a further internal investigation and evaluate our options for an appeal.”

The rumors ramped up after NASCAR champion, Jeff Gordon, mentioned the issue after the start of the season. Other tires taken after the race at Auto Club Speedway, including those of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, were found to be untampered. No problems arose from post-race inspection after this past weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway as well.

With these consequences in place, Newman falls from sixth to 27th in the standings.

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