BRISTOL, Tenn. — After a whirlwind week of news following the checkered flag at Texas Motor Speedway, drivers returned to the racetrack Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
For some, it was like nothing ever happened.
The chatter all week centered on continuing issues over the common pit gun issued to teams this year, Monster Energy announcing a one-year series sponsorship extension amid NASCAR saying it might not sell series sponsorships anymore and restrictor plates at the All-Star Race.
That’s a lot to take in, news that likely would have been unpredictable even three years ago. It appears as a little bit of chaos, of a scramble to try to get the sport better in a world of desperate times requiring desperate measures.
“[The sport] has always had drama, but not like this,” 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski said. “It’s a different day, a different era for sure.”
Some drivers pay attention, especially if selected to the driver council that advises NASCAR on issues. Other drivers listen. Some don’t even care all that much to know.
“It matters to us just based on what the sport’s landscape looks like, but … I can’t control any of it,” 2015 NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Busch said. “My focus is just on what I can control. Obviously, I hear the other stuff, but it’s in one ear and out the other.
“What I can control is what I work on and how I can do better. I try to be the smartest, fastest and bestest race car driver that I can be no matter what package is developed and put on the racetrack.”
While drivers do get updates from the driver council, they don’t always get notice of upcoming announcements. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said he went to a competition meeting Tuesday and he talked about what he wanted for the All-Star Race next month to help prepare for the 600-mile race the following week at Charlotte Motor Speedway — that is when he found out they will be using restrictor plates for the All-Star event (a day before the official announcement).
Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is on the driver council, said it can be overwhelming with everything NASCAR is trying.
“I’m so close to it and see what’s going on, and I respect and appreciate all of the hard work that’s going into these decisions and the reasons behind them,” Johnson said. “I get it and think that everybody is just trying really hard to get things right.”
Johnson went on a more than seven-hour cycling ride Thursday and didn’t spend time thinking about the sport. He uses that to clear his head.
But when he’s not working out, he thinks about how the sport is attempting to navigate the challenging times.
“What pops up in my mind is just the way my days and weeks take place now and thinking about the big picture in the sport,” Johnson said. “My driver responsibilities certainly take up plenty of time at Hendrick Motorsports and the things that we do.
“But to be on various councils and to think of things in such a big picture and in so many different ways and so frequently, that part when you’re sitting in two- to four-hour council meetings two or three times a month, that’s totally new. … This isn’t typical driver responsibility.”
Keselowski said his responsibility is to do what he can when not driving.
“Honestly, there’s not a lot I can do,” Keselowski said. “There is only so many autographs I can sign, there is only so many TV shows I can do and I’m doing a damn lot of them. There’s only so much I can do.
“You do what you can do and then you move on and you go to bed feeling good about your efforts, your team’s efforts. Each of us have that responsibility. If everyone does what they can do — all of the stakeholders — we’ll be fine.”
Kyle Larson doesn’t seem to let anything get to him, especially the talk of rules and changes.
“I haven’t really paid attention to any of it all week,” Larson said about the news. “I have actually golfed every day, so I haven’t been on my phone a whole lot. I don’t ever really pay attention to that … it doesn’t really have anything to do with me.
“I just focus on driving and that is what I love to do. I don’t want to get wrapped up in all the other stuff.”
Seriously. He doesn’t. This is how he learned about the All-Star rules package: “I was golfing with Michael Waltrip the other day and he was like, ‘What do you think about the All-Star package?’ I was like, ‘I have no idea what you are talking about,'” Larson said. “He explained it to me. … I just show up and race, and whatever is whatever.”
Racing, no matter the level, is known for having some drama. Rules, interpretations of rules, technical violations and what is legal and not amid teams trying to push the “gray” area has led to arguments probably from the first checkered flag.
So racers probably are used to it.
“I’m not on the driver council, so I don’t really have to pay attention to any of it,” Stenhouse said. “The drivers that are on the council kind of keep us updated and send out stuff to us when things are getting ready to be announced. … I show up at the track and get in the car, and if I pull into the pit stall and they start using electric DeWalt pit guns, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s the same for everybody.”