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NASCAR Cup Series

Up-Down Drill, New Hampshire Motor Speedway Edition

Round 2 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs takes place Sunday at 2 p.m. ET with the running of the ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

So far, after Friday’s qualifying session and a total of three rounds of practice on Friday and Saturday, some clear trends are emerging about who’s up and who’s down at the Granite Mile.

With that in mind, here’s this week’s up-down drill.

UP: Kyle Larson

So far this year, Larson has been the second-best driver in the series behind only Martin Truex Jr. So far this weekend, Larson has shown typical speed, qualifying second in his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. He kept it up on Saturday, leading the field in the second practice and finishing a solid fifth in Happy Hour.

DOWN: Joey Logano

Four times, Team Penske tried to get Logano’s Ford through qualifying and four times it flunked, which means he never got to make a qualifying attempt. Logano will start the race in last place, and because his car flunked inspection four times, he was not allowed to practice at all in Happy Hour. Brutal.

UP: Ryan Blaney

After qualifying fourth on Friday, Blaney had the best 10 consecutive-lap average speed during Saturday’s final practice at NHMS. In four starts here, Blaney’s best finish is 11th. His Wood Brothers Racing Ford has had good speed throughout the weekend.

DOWN: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

NHMS isn’t a great track for Stenhouse, who has an average finish here of 20.444. Stenhouse qualified 24th, worst of the playoff drivers, and he was 23rd and 22nd in Saturday’s two practices. Not good numbers for the Roush Fenway Racing driver.

UP: Martin Truex Jr.

Well, duh. The Cup regular-season champion has another fast Furniture Row Racing Toyota. In Saturday morning’s first practice, Truex had the best 10 consecutive-lap average speed and in the final practice, he had the fastest single lap. So he will certainly be in the mix to win again.

DOWN: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Not a great weekend so far for NASCAR’s 14-time Most Popular Driver. On Sunday, Earnhardt will start back in 15th place and practice on Saturday initially didn’t go much better, as he was 19th in the first session, although he improved to eighth in the final practice.

UP: Kyle Busch

Two playoff races, two poles for Busch, who also has two victories at NMHS, and has led 787 laps, most of any active Cup racer. With the critical first pit stall at his disposal, Busch absolutely will be one of the favorites to win on Sunday.

DOWN: Richard Childress Racing

RCR teammates Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman qualified 17th and 18th, respectively, which certainly isn’t where the team wants to be. Saturday didn’t go any better, as Dillon was 22nd and 18th in the two practices, while Newman was 18th and 25th. No bueno.

UP: Denny Hamlin

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has three victories at NHMS, including earlier this year. And he’s been fast all weekend, qualifying fourth and running decently in both practices Saturday.

UP: Kevin Harvick

Ford’s best hope this weekend might just be Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, which will roll off sixth on the grid and has good long-run speed. Harvick was sixth and second in best 10 consecutive-lap average speed during Saturday’s two practices.

DOWN: Danica Patrick

In her final appearance at NHMS for Stewart-Haas Racing, Patrick qualified back in 27th place and on Saturday, she finished 26th and 21st in the two practices. Her  10 consecutive-lap average speed in the morning practice was 18th among 22 drivers who ran 10 consecutive laps.

UP: Kasey Kahne

Maybe getting a new crew chief will help Kahne. He qualified ninth, best of the four Hendrick drivers and was a respectable ninth and 11th in the two practices. He probably won’t be a threat to win, but he might help his chances of advancing in the playoffs with a top-five or top-10 finish.

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Commentary

7 Reasons Why Kyle Larson Could be the New Face of NASCAR

We are in a period of profound transition in NASCAR.

Jeff Gordon is gone from the cockpit. So are Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.

As of right now, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne don’t have signed deals for next year.

Most notably, NASCAR’s 14-time Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is retiring at the end of the season.

Now whether or not you agree with Kevin Harvick’s assertion that Earnhardt’s lack of victories stunted NASCAR’s growth, there’s no question that a lot of fans are searching for a new driver to follow after this wave of retirements.

Kyle Larson is staking a pretty solid claim to be that guy.

Larson scored a thrilling and dramatic victory in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway, where he split the race-leading Furniture Row Racing Toyotas of Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones on the overtime restart to win by leading only the final 2 laps of the race.

The victory came less than 24 hours after Larson finished second to Donny Schatz at the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals, the biggest dirt sprint car race of the year.

Could Larson be the new face of NASCAR? Here are 7 reasons why he could be that guy:

Mad skills

Larson obviously has tremendous talent behind the wheel. “To me he’s the best talent out there, and if we can put him in position, I think you’re going to get that outcome 99 percent of the time,” Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, said of Larson’s race-winning pass.

Winner

 The Michigan victory was Larson’s third of the season, which ties him for second in the Cup Series with Jimmie Johnson. No question, winning does help build popularity, though winning alone doesn’t make a driver a fan favorite.

Credibility

The fact that Larson loves to race sprint cars and is hugely successful in them helps him build a fan base for himself and the sport at a grass-roots level. It gives him an advantage most other NASCAR regulars don’t take advantage of. Larson has abundant short-track cred.

Fun factor

Larson has amazing car control and loves to run up in the high groove. Watching him come through the field at Michigan late in the race was exciting, no matter who you’re a fan of. Now that he’s cut down on the mistakes that plagued him early in his Cup career, Larson is much improved.

Fired up

Did you see how excited Larson and car owner Chip Ganassi were after the race? Larson did a fantastic burnout and Ganassi nearly knocked Johnston down. This wasn’t just, “I want to thank all my sponsors and all the guys back at the shop for working real hard.” This victory meant something special and it showed in how fired up Larson and the team are. That’s fun to witness and something fans can get behind.

Ready to lead

One of the key points of this is Larson wants to be that guy, the young gun who emerges as a fan favorite. “I think a lot of fans right now are kind of sad that we’re losing (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and some other veterans and stuff that are out of rides right now.  But I think it’s a great opportunity for our sport to take advantage of that and build on it, market us young guys and try and bring in younger fans, more fans, and yeah, I feel like I’m in a great position to kind of lead the way right now maybe just because I have a couple more wins than some of them.”

Intangibles

How can you not love a driver who has the nickname Yung Money, a strong social media presence and an adorable young son?

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NASCAR Cup Series

Ford Teams Look to Recapture Michigan Magic

Once upon a time, Michigan International Speedway was Ford Motor Co.’s playground, and in today’s Pure Michigan 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, the Blue Oval Boys will be looking to dominate again.

When the 2-mile MIS oval opened in 1969, Ford and Mercury cars won 12 of the first 15 Cup races up through 1976, when David Pearson and the Wood Brothers Racing team swept both events.

In 1985 and ’86, Bill Elliott won four straight in the powerhouse No. 9 Ford Thunderbirds fielded by Harry Melling.

Fords won the second MIS race of 1990 (Mark Martin), both ’91 races (Davey Allison and Dale Jarrett) and the first race of ’92, again with Allison.

Fords would go on to sweep at MIS again in 1994, ’96, ’97 and ’02.

The most recent Ford sweep at MIS came in 2013, with Greg Biffle and Joey Logano coming up big.

Will the Ford teams step up again today?

There’s a good chance they will.

Michigan native Brad Keselowski will start on the pole in his Team Penske Ford, flanked by teammate Joey Logano, with Kevin Harvick third in a Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

For Keselowski, winning at MIS would be a dream come true,

“Any success you have at your home track is right there with having success in the biggest races of the year like Daytona for the 500 and the championship,” Keselowski said.  “It’s a big deal for any driver, not just myself.  Of course, this is my home track and to be able to have any kind of success here just really feels so darn good and I just hope we can keep it up this weekend.”

Logano, on the other hand, is in dire need of a victory in one of the next four races or else he’ll miss NASCAR’s playoffs.

“I love the pressure.  I’m all right with pressure.  It’s good,” said Logano.  “I’d rather be in, but the pressure part is OK.  You’ve got to get used to that, but that’s what this sport is, especially during the playoffs.  We just have to turn into playoff mode a little bit earlier than everybody else to get in, but so far so good.”

As far as challengers to the Fords today, there are several of the usual suspects to watch out for: Cup points leader Martin Truex Jr. and is dominant Furniture Row Racing Toyota, two-time defending Michigan winner Kyle Larson in a Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, and the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Chase Elliott, who has finished second in each of his three MIS starts.

Expect a wide-open race and, as always at Michigan, fuel mileage could factor into who wins.

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Commentary

Camaro ZL1 Ups the Ante in Ford-Chevy NASCAR Wars

Rivalries are the lifeblood of all sports, and the more heated, the more passionate, the angrier, the better.

Think Duke-North Carolina.

Think Dodgers-Giants.

Think Alabama-Auburn.

Think Cowboys-Redskins.

These fans loathe each other. It isn’t just dislike, it’s I’d-disown-my-own-kid-if-they-married-one-of-those-fans rage. And all that bile and all that disgust and all that hatred is a beautiful thing, because it engages fans and gets them fired up.

Now, think about the long history of NASCAR and some of the rivalries we’ve seen over the years. There have been some titanic rivalries over the years in stock-car racing.

Petty vs. Pearson.

Waltrip vs. Yarborough.

Earnhardt vs. Gordon.

Bobby Allison vs. the world.

But I would humbly submit that the most intense rivalry in the entire history of NASCAR is Chevrolet fans vs. Ford fans. The Bowtie Brigade and the Blue Oval Boys despise each other with rage and passion. They own t-shirts with cartoon characters peeing on each other’s cars.

And within that group exists a subset who might be even more fired up: owners of Ford Mustangs vs. owners of Chevrolet Camaros. If you don’t believe me, try reading Camaro6 or Mustang6g and check out the ill will each side has towards the other. It’s ugly and it’s personal.

I mention this now, because on Thursday, Chevrolet dropped a huge bombshell: Next year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Chevrolet will race the Camaro ZL1.

The production ZL1 is a weapons-grade supercar, producing 650 horsepower, with o-60 miles per hour acceleration of 3.5 seconds, and a quarter-mile taking just 11.4 seconds. This is a seriously bad-ass muscle car that along with the Corvette represents that best Chevrolet has to offer in terms of technology and performance.

And the Cup version Chevy unveiled Thursday is just stunning. It looks fast sitting still.

As for Ford, well, in the Cup series, they race the Fusion, a sensible, practical, four-door, front-wheel drive car that’s available as a hybrid.

Doesn’t seem like a very good matchup, does it?

On the other hand, Ford does have its own ZL1 fighter, based on the Mustang. It’s called the Shelby GT350 and is a tremendous high-performance car — fast, agile and sexy as hell.

You get where I’m going with this, right?

If you want fans to be fired up about Ford vs. Chevy in NASCAR, the battle ought to be ZL1 vs. Shelby GT350, not ZL1 vs. Fusion. It would be a home run for NASCAR to have these two high-performance halo cars battling each other and Toyota on track every week.

Will it happen?

I asked a buddy at Ford Thursday night and the response I got was “As of now we’re sticking with Fusion.”

As of now.

My fervent hope is that by 2019, it’s Shelby GT350 vs. Camaro ZL1.

That’s a rivalry NASCAR fans could get real, real excited about. It would be good for the fans, good for NASCAR, good for Ford and good for Chevrolet.

And boy, would it be fun.

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Commentary

Expect the Unexpected Sunday at Watkins Glen

If Saturday’s two rounds of practice for the I Love NY 355 at the Glen Cup race at Watkins Glen International were any indication, Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race might be a very chaotic affair.

Brad Keselowski was fastest in final practice and the Toyota armada from Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing dominated the opening session. But lots of top drivers struggled on the day.

Among the drivers who crashed or spun in one of the sessions were seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 2004 champ Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, Corey LaJoie and Boris Said.

Add into that the fact that this race has had seven different winners in the last eight years, and Marcos Ambrose, the only repeat winner in that time, isn’t even in the field.

So on Sunday, expect the unexpected — chaos, crashes and fuel mileage all could factor into the outcome.

“There’s so many wrecks that happens on road courses, different strategy plays into the outcome,” said Denny Hamlin, who is on baby watch and may miss Sunday’s race if girlfriend Jordan Fish goes into labor.

Strategy also could play out in terms of fuel mileage.

“When you come to a track where the tires don’t wear out much and you don’t slow down much it definitely becomes a fuel mileage race,” said Joey Logano, who won here in 2015 and was second last year. “I think this race has come down to fuel mileage with everyone trying to pit when they can and not getting caught by the caution. Yeah, there will be a lot of strategy.”

And there will be crashes. There always are.

“We’re running pretty quick times here and so you hang a wheel off one corner and it becomes very tough,” said Hamlin, the defending winner of this event. “When you make a mistake it usually is pretty big.”

Johnson said he expects an aggressive race on Sunday.

“If you’re somebody that needs a win or who is desperate in points, you might have a bumper coming in your direction,” he said.

And that could mean some high drama, especially with drivers who need to win to make the playoffs.

“I anticipate it being very exciting here,” said Johnson, who is looking for his first win here. “The speeds are higher here versus Sonoma. So moving somebody out of the way is a bit trickier and I don’t think as common. But, it should be a very exciting race.”

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Commentary

At Watkins Glen, Raw Speed Might Be Enough

Quick: What do Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Busch have in common this season?

Give up?

OK, it’s this: They are the only three drivers to win Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races from the pole so far this season. In 21 Cup races contested so far, 17 have been won from a starting spot other than P1. The exceptions were Larson at Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, Stenhouse at Talladega Superspeedway and Busch at Pocono last week.

Or how about this little nugget: Only six of 21 Cup races have been won by the driver who led the most laps in the race — Martin Truex Jr. at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Kentucky Speedway; Larson at Auto Club and Michigan and Busch at Pocono.

Conversely, five drivers have won races this year in which they led 10 or fewer laps.

The Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest race, was won by Kurt Busch, who led only the final lap. Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600, another NASCAR crown jewel by leading only the 399th and 400th laps of the 400-lap race.

Ryan Newman won at Phoenix Raceway by leading six laps, Jimmie Johnson captured the spring race at Dover International Speedway by leading seven of 400 laps and Ryan Blaney scored his first Cup win after being out front for only 10 laps at Pocono.

These stats are worth remembering when you tune in for Sunday’s I Love NY 355 at the Glen Cup race at Watkins Glen International: The fastest car doesn’t always win. The fastest car doesn’t even usually win.

We’ll see on Sunday whether that holds true at Watkins Glen. But I wouldn’t bet against it.

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Feature

Joey Logano Feeling the Need for Speed

Joey Logano’s situation is pretty simple: If he wants to make the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs this year, he almost certainly needs to win one of the next five races.

And make no mistake about it, Logano and Team Penske expect to make NASCAR’s playoffs every year, especially after advancing to the championship round twice in the last three years.

This time, though, the challenge could be daunting.

Logano heads into Sunday’s I Love NY 355 at the Glen a distant 18th in the Cup driver standings, and 69 points out of the last transfer spot.

On top of that, the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing seem to have found the speed in recent weeks that the Penske Fords don’t quite have.

Saturday morning at Watkins Glen International, Toyotas held the top three speeds and four of the top five in the opening round of practice, while Logano was seventh, one spot behind teammate Brad Keselowski. Logano’s best lap was 0.734 seconds slower than Kyle Busch, an eternity in NASCAR time.

Earlier in the week, Logano talked about the speed deficit.

“The positive side is that the next four out of five races we’ve won at before. All of them but Darlington,”  Logano said Tuesday night during a screening for the new film “Logan Lucky,” in which Logano is one of a handful of NASCAR drivers with a cameo role.

“We’ve done this before,” Logano said. “We won Richmond this year. Bristol’s one of our best tracks that we always run up front at.  … And Watkins Glen’s been, really, in all honesty, one of our best tracks the last couple of years, finishing second (in 2016) and then winning the year before.”

Logano said he was pointing to Watkins Glen.

“I feel like we should be competitive this weekend,” he said. “Maybe our best shot (to win) might be this weekend.”

But Team Penske needs to find more performance.

“Speed’s been an issue, no doubt,” Logano said. “Yeah. Oh, yeah. It all starts with that. … The speed we had at Pocono, I don’t think you could put the right strategy in to win that race. We were going to fight for 10th. It’s hard to win with a 10th-place car. You’re going to have to get really lucky. Logano lucky, to make that happen.”

The bottom line?

“We’ve got to get faster,” said Logano. “No doubt.”

On Sunday, we’ll find out if indeed Team Penske got faster, or at least Logano lucky. 

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News

EXCLUSIVE: Toyota’s Racing Boss Wants Another Title

Every great racer has a fundamental personality trait at the core of their being:  They are fiercely, unapologetically competitive, craving victory and despising losing.

In NASCAR, that’s the fire that pushes every driver, crew chief and crew member. It’s also what drives the companies that compete in the sport. Just ask David Wilson, the president of TRD, U.S.A. and the leader of Toyota’s racing operations in the United States.

Under Wilson’s leadership, Toyota won its first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver championship with Kyle Busch in 2015, and its first Cup manufacturers’ championship last year. Plus, Toyota has now won all of NASCAR’s major events — the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Coca-Cola 600, Bojangles’ Southern 500 and the Monster Energy All-Star Race.

But it’s not enough.

For real racers, it never is.

In an exclusive interview with POPULAR SPEED, Wilson talked about why winning another championship this year matters so much to him personally and the Toyota operation.

Last year, Toyota went into the Cup playoffs with all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers and Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing in the title hunt. But Truex lost an engine at Talladega and got eliminated from the playoffs.

Worse yet, in the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, JGR drivers Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch battled for the title, only to see Edwards crashed out in the final 10 laps, just as it appeared he was about to win his first title.

And the ghost of Homestead 2016 is what has Wilson fired up about Toyota’s chances this year.

“The goal is that second championship,” he told PopularSpeed.com. “And believe me, I’m still upset about the way the championship played out last year. I’m greedy, right? We won all three manufacturers’ championships (Cup, XFINITY, Camping World Truck Series). How can you be upset about last year?  

“But we’re all competitors and we had the two best cars at Homestead and, somehow, we walked away without the driver’s championship and that pisses me off,” said Wilson. “So we want another driver’s championship. I remember how good that felt. And that second championship is a validation of sorts that the first one wasn’t a fluke, that we do have a strong enough organization and repeat. And I want to get that done as soon as possible.”

At the rate things are going, Wilson might not have to wait long.

With 21 of 26 races in the Cup regular season now complete, Toyota driver Truex has a commanding points lead and has 29 playoff points already, which puts him well ahead of Jimmie Johnson, who has 16, and Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson, each of whom has 13 playoff points.

Truex almost certainly will pick up 15 more playoff points for winning the regular season title, which at this point is a formality. With that many playoff points, and those points carrying over from round to round, Truex isn’t guaranteed to make it to the championship round, but it’s close.

After a frustrating first half of the season, when the team inexplicably went winless, JGR has won two of the last three races. So far this season, Truex has led 1,291 laps and Busch has led 1,114. No other driver has led more than 722.

Add it all up, and Toyota is well-positioned to grab a second title.

Asked who offers Toyota’s best chance for a title this year, Wilson said, “Without a doubt it’s the 78 (Truex) and the 18 (Busch). And I could care less which one. … I have to say, I’m delighted with what the 78 has done, I’m happy with where the 18 is. And that really just underscores how strong our performance has been.”

While Wilson is not cocky, he likes where Toyota is as the playoffs near.

“We’re just fine, because — forget about race wins — you just look at laps led. As a manufacturer, we’ve led 50 percent of the laps. You look at segments. We’ve won more segments than any other O.E.M. We’re sitting on poles, we’re winning practices. … Toyota drivers have led the most laps in 13 of the 21 races run so far.”

Wilson hopes that success will translate into a championship in November.

“The common denominator is speed and performance,” he said. “As long as we’re able to continue doing that, then I’m very confident in our chances to compete for another championship.”

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News

Furniture Row Won’t Appeal Two-Race Crew Chief Suspension

Penalties continue to play a huge role as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season heads into its final five races. 

On Wednesday, NASCAR announced that Chris Gayle, crew chief of the Furniture Row Racing No. 77 Toyota driven by rookie  Erik Jones, has been suspended for the next two races for a violation discovered after Sunday’s Overton’s 400 at Pocono Raceway.

As part of the penalty, the team also lost 25 owner and driver points, Gayle was fined $50,000 and the finish was considered encumbered.

Furniture Row said it will not appeal the penalties.

The violation occurred in the rear-gear area of Jones’ car.

NASCAR described it thusly: “Section 20.14.2 Rear Suspension I-4 f Truck Trailing Arm Spacers/Pinion Angle Shims. Spacers/pinion angle shims must conform to the following drawing: A-008- 01016d-16 REV. A. Notes: 6 The Truck trailing arm spacer / pinion angle shim mating surfaces must be planar and must be in complete contact with corresponding mating surfaces at all points and at all times. Race finish is encumbered per Section 12.10 Encumbered Race Finishes.”

Furniture Row issued the following statement Wednesday afternoon: “We understand and accept NASCAR’s penalty to our No. 77 team,” said team General Manager Joe Garone. “We will not appeal the unintentional infraction with the rear suspension and will move on with team engineer James Small taking over as the interim crew chief for the next two races.”

Jones was 16th in points prior to the penalty, but will fall to 18th with the 25-point penalty. He will need to win one of the next five races to make NASCAR’s playoffs, a task that now just got a little bit more difficult.

NASCAR also fined three chiefs $10,000 because their respective cars were each missing one lug nut after the race. The crew chiefs fined were Adam Stevens (Kyle Busch), Brian Pattie (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) and Matt Puccia (Trevor Bayne).

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News

Good Call: NASCAR Moves Overtime Line Back to Where it Should Be

Another good decision by NASCAR came Wednesday afternoon: While the sanctioning body will maintain its overtime line rule, starting with Watkins Glen International this weekend, the start-finish line will serve as the overtime line at most tracks. 

“NASCAR has been looking at the overtime procedure for quite some time,” said NASCAR executive vice president  and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell in a statement issued Wednesday. “After many discussions with key figures throughout the industry, we recognize that having the start-finish line serve as the standard overtime line position will benefit the race – and, most importantly, our fans. We are implementing this immediately, starting with this weekend’s races at Watkins Glen International.”

This is a big deal.

What stays the same is the overtime concept — if a race goes into overtime, once the race leader passes the overtime line, the next flag ends the race.

With this change, though, no longer will fans have to wonder where the overtime line is — it was usually somewhere on the backstretch.

Knowing the start-finish line is the overtime line at tracks makes races easier for fans to follow and easier to officiate, too.

In theory, it should alleviate issues like occurred in the recent Brickyard 400, when there was confusion about whether the caution flag came out before the racers reached the overtime line on the backstretch.

A NASCAR spokesman said the procedural change was reached “following continuous discussions with the industry, and feedback from our passionate fans.”

Not only is this a wise decision, it’s a good reminder that NASCAR is listening, too.