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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Top 5: NASCAR’s great first half, Tyler Reddick’s win and F1’s Silverstone race

Five thoughts after this weekend’s NASCAR race at Road America and Formula One’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone …

1. Best season ever?

The first half of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule is a wrap, and it’s hard to imagine how it could have gone much better. It seemed there was something for everyone in the opening 18 points races, even for those who have wildly different measurements of what defines a good season.

Do you like unpredictability? You’ve got it with an astounding five first-time Cup Series race winners already this season, including all three road courses plus the Daytona 500. There have been some Cup Series seasons in recent history (2012, 2013 and 2015, to name a few) with zero first-time winners.

Do you like parity? There’s already been 13 different race winners in the first 18 races; in 2013, there were only 13 winners the entire year. On top of that, no one has more than two victories in the first 18 races — apparently the first time that has ever occurred.

Do you like good racing? Eleven races in the “Was it a good race?” poll have a rating of 80 percent or higher — which is on pace to smash last year’s record of 15 (this is the seventh season of the poll). Three seasons (2016, 2017 and 2020) didn’t even have 10 races reach 80 percent or higher over the 38-race schedule.

Do you like wrecks and yellow flags? In mid-June, NBC’s Dustin Long noted cautions were up 72.7 percent for accidents and spins this season.

Do you like great storylines? Then maybe you’ve enjoyed seeing the sudden success of Trackhouse Racing, which has vaulted into a consistent contender and might even be able to challenge for the championship this fall.

Much was made of Fox Sports’ “Best Season Ever” advertising campaign in 2021, which was built around excitement for new venues and a refreshed schedule. But from everything we’ve seen so far, it appears Fox was simply one year too early.

If the first half was any indication, it’s actually 2022 that might end up being the best NASCAR season yet.

2. Reddick, finally

No one had to tell him the number was five. Tyler Reddick was already well aware.

Until Sunday, Reddick had five second-place finishes in the NASCAR Cup Series without a win. And that doesn’t even count other close calls and disappointments, like the February race at Fontana when he led a race-high 90 laps but finished 24th.

“There’s a lot of things I could have done differently over those five second-place finishes to where I could have won the race, so I try to look back at that and learn from it,” Reddick said. “Hopefully when I’m in a position to win a race again, I don’t make those same mistakes.”

He certainly didn’t make those mistakes at Road America. If there was ever a time for a driver to fold or choke, Sunday might have been it.

There was Reddick, leading the race in the closing laps after passing the current best NASCAR road racer in Chase Elliott, with a playoff spot in his sights. The seemingly endless laps around the Wisconsin circuit — 14 turns, more than four miles — would give a driver plenty of opportunity to mess up a corner or run off track.

But Reddick didn’t. And in putting together the best drive of his Cup Series career, the Richard Childress Racing driver finally began to realize the potential everyone had long known was there.

It’s not like Reddick was under the radar and the win snuck up on everyone. His on-the-edge driving style has attracted attention in the NASCAR world ever since he won back-to-back Xfinity Series titles. The raw talent was obvious, leaving the question more about when he would harness it than if.

The runner-up finishes and close calls gave off similar vibes to Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Elliott — drivers whose talent was evident but who had to first suffer through the almosts and what-ifs before reaching victory lane for the first time.

That’s why Reddick was more relieved than anything on Sunday. As early as the preseason tests, Reddick had heard other drivers say this would be his breakout season, and he felt the same way. So when he fell out of the playoff picture with only two top-15 finishes in the last eight races, the frustrations and pressure began to mount.

But winning fixes everything, and Reddick has checked that box. He’s a NASCAR Cup Series winner, has secured a playoff berth and, at age 26, can begin to focus on fulfilling the vast potential he appears to possess.

3. What is Ferrari doing?

Poor Charles Leclerc. Amid what should be a career season, Leclerc is instead becoming F1’s Charlie Brown; every time it looks like he’s about to kick the (American) football, Ferrari does something to pull it away.

Check out the latest example from Sunday’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone, when Leclerc was leading the race and a safety car came out. Ferrari had a free pit stop for one of its drivers: It could either pit Leclerc, who was leading the race and had more pace than teammate Carlos Sainz (as has been the case all season) — or it could pit Sainz, who was running second but well behind Leclerc in the championship standings.

So what did Ferrari do? It pitted Sainz, who then took advantage of fresh, soft tires to pass Leclerc on older, hard tires and drive away to his first career F1 victory.

While that’s great for Sainz, it’s not great for the team. If anyone from Ferrari has a shot at winning the championship this year — on the off chance Max Verstappen and Red Bull collapse — it’s Leclerc, who won two of the first three races this season and has six poles. Leclerc and Sainz started off the year on equal footing, but Leclerc’s early success coupled with Sainz’s struggles should have made it obvious who was the team’s No. 1 driver.

And yet when Leclerc was stuck behind Sainz earlier in the race, with Lewis Hamilton gaining on both of them, Leclerc’s request to have Ferrari swap their positions was denied for too long. To later be told to stay out on old tires while Sainz got the fresh rubber was nonsensical, particularly with Verstappen having a bad day.

Had Ferrari pitted Leclerc and he won the race, it would have meant a 19-point gain on Verstappen (who finished seventh). Instead, Leclerc struggled to hang onto fourth place, gained only six points on Verstappen and actually lost ground to second in the standings when Sergio Perez ended up on the podium.

It wouldn’t be such a problem if this was an isolated incident, but Leclerc seems to be suffering through disappointments and heartbreak on a weekly basis — whether from Ferrari’s head-scratching strategy calls or reliability issues that have thwarted their fast cars.

You’d like to think Leclerc’s speed this season could eventually make things even out if he beats the Red Bull cars and reaches the top of the podium several more times. But he could use a little more help from his own team if that’s going to happen.

4. Blow the whistle

As the referees of a race, NASCAR officials have a whistle for when drivers cross the line. It’s time they use it.

When an angry Noah Gragson had a blatant takeout of Sage Karam during Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Road America, it triggered a 13-car pileup that amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in destroyed equipment and left one driver on the ground gasping for breath.

So what was the penalty for an obviously intentional move? Nothing. NASCAR officials elected not to take any action against Gragson, who continued the race and finished eighth.

That was an egregiously bad call because it sets a precedent and opens the door to more incidents. NASCAR has a responsibility to draw the line somewhere — and if Gragson’s move didn’t rise to that level, then what does?

Let’s be clear: This isn’t some personal attack against Gragson, who is good for the sport overall and gives NASCAR fans plenty to discuss with his aggressive driving, over-the-top celebrations, unique style and fan-friendly nature. You can insert any driver into this scenario, regardless of personality or popularity, and I’d still feel the same.

NASCAR simply cannot let its competitors get that far out of bounds without some sort of reaction because it’s going to lead to worse wrecks down the road. Having a talk with a driver after the race isn’t enough; officials need to at least issue a multiple-lap penalty, if not park the offending driver for the remainder of the race (and drivers have certainly been parked for much less in the past).

Yes, it’s true NASCAR has built its brand on full-contact incidents and uses them as a promotional tool. One oft-played Xfinity Series commercial features Gragson throwing punches. Wrecks, tempers and feuds are all selling points.

But there simply has to be a limit. There’s a difference between an NFL referee who has a physical “let ’em play” mentality and one who allows players to sucker-punch each other without throwing a flag.

It’s easy to get lured into thinking otherwise, but racing remains a dangerous sport. The cars may be safer than ever, but a driver shouldn’t be allowed to test the entire field’s safety advancements by losing his cool and dumping someone on the straightaway at full speed.

Other competitors are watching each situation like this and taking notes. Actions speak louder than words, and officials need to take action before someone gets hurt.

5. Sargeant conquers Silverstone

At one end of the bustling Miami Grand Prix paddock in May, people snapped photos of the driver most mentioned as being the next American in Formula One: Colton Herta, who currently races in IndyCar.

But at the other end, sitting at a glass-topped table outside the Williams Racing hospitality area, was the driver who might actually get there first.

Meet 21-year-old Logan Sargeant, who on Sunday became the first American to win a Formula Two race when he scored a victory at Silverstone (IndyCar’s Alexander Rossi won a 2013 race in the series when it was known as GP2). Sargeant, a member of the Williams driver academy, won the race from pole and moved to third in the standings for a series known as a launch pad to F1.

“I don’t mind if I’m the first or second or whatever, as long as I make it there,” Sargeant had said in Miami when the topic of American F1 drivers was broached. “That’s all that matters. And obviously being in Formula Two now, the path is there. It comes down to performance.”

Wearing a dark blue Williams team shirt and light blue shorts, Sargeant squinted into the sun of his native South Florida and appeared relaxed when talking about his career path and future. He decided to move to Europe because the F1 ladder system would give him the best opportunity at being prepared — he could race on the same Pirelli tires, familiarize himself with the same circuits F1 uses and get accustomed to a similar lifestyle.

Though older brother Dalton ended up on the NASCAR path (he won four ARCA races as a teen and made 22 starts in the Truck Series), Logan found that following the best competition from his youth karting days steered him toward the open-wheel route.

“We were just having fun and we wanted to keep racing,” Logan said. “I don’t think we were really too worried about the future when we were at that age. It just keeps stacking up and as you keep going, it gets more serious and the competition grows. It all sort of falls in line.”

Sargeant now lives in the heart of London and fills his days by going to the gym and working on the simulator at Williams and Carlin (which fields his F2 car). Other than that, he said, life overseas is about trying not to get bored and “dealing with the rain.” He misses his family, friends and the Florida beaches — but views this period of his life as a sacrifice to see if he can achieve his F1 dream.

Though his first driver coach was George Russell — the former Williams driver who now races for Mercedes in F1 — Sargeant is under no illusions about the difficulty he’ll have in actually making the next step to F1. A win like Sunday’s helps, but he’ll need many more than that.

“It’s all performance-based,” Sargeant said. “Nothing really matters but the results. It’s a ruthless sport. That’s all there is to it.”

(Photo: Mike Dinovo / USA Today)

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