NASCAR & Auto Racing

Q&A with NASCAR racing chief Steve O’Donnell

Kyle Larson walked away from a crunching crash at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on March 20.
Kyle Larson walked away from a crunching crash at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on March 20. Getty Images

Second in a question-and-answer series with Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing officer:

There have been two violent crashes recently in which drivers Jimmie Johnson [qualifying at Phoenix] and Kyle Larson [Fontana] walked away unhurt. Are you satisfied with where NASCAR is with safety? I don’t think we’re ever satisfied. You don’t want to be just learning whenever there’s a bad accident. Every day, there’s something to improve on, whether it’s inside the cockpit or soft walls. But I like the direction we’re headed.

Busch and others would like to see grass eliminated along the fringes of the racing surfaces. Why isn’t that an obvious fix? That’s a balance. Some tracks have made changes. But there are multi-event tracks that need it, and it’s also a drainage issue. There’s got to be someplace for the water to go, from an environmental standpoint. But it’s made a big difference at Daytona.”

Cup drivers have won all four Xfinity races this season. With the Chase concept being used for that series and the Trucks, is that a concern? Mark Martin won a ton of [Xfinity] races. Dale Earnhardt won a ton of races. Now Kyle Busch is winning a ton of races. It’s a balance for us to have them compete and the younger drivers prove themselves against them. But we also want to see those younger drivers have their moments. We will see some of those moments when these drivers win some races. Then when we do get to the Chase, we’ll focus on their storylines in Miami. But it’s early. We’re listening to fan sentiment over the totality of the season and we’ll see what to do in 2017. But now we’re hearing from Kyle Busch fans who love it. We hear from others who want to see somebody else win.

CEO Brian France said recently that NASCAR is open for other manufacturers to include in the sport. What’s your take? We have a lot of inquiries, about how that would work, what we could do that make it happen. We welcome [other manufacturers]. There are different tech possibilities, different branding. They want to see if our sport can deliver, and we obviously believe we can. Looking down the road, we’d like to see one or two more. That would help our race teams tremendously.

Are there any other competition issues you are looking at? Longer term, we’re looking at some things. We’re watching how the caution clock is working in the Truck series and the Dash For Cash in the Xfinity series. We’re looking at what fans think in the greater sports landscape. The Chase format on the Cup level; we’ve had a lot of pushback about that, now people like what they’re seeing.

What keeps you up at night worrying? Just worrying about making sure we have competitive racing. In other sports, their might be 18 games on given day that highlights can be shown. For us, we might have at most three races on a weekend. So we’ve got to deliver.

On the grid

Sprint Cup

STP 500

Noon, Sunday, Martinsville, Va.

Track: Martinsville Speedway, a .526-mile paved paper-clip oval.

Distance: 500 laps, 263 miles.

TV: FS1.

Last year’s winner: Denny Hamlin.

Other races

Alpha Energy Solutions 250: Truck Series, Martinsville, Va., 1:30 p.m., Saturday, Fox Sports 1.

Phoenix Grand Prix: IndyCar, Avondale, Ariz., 7:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC Sports Network.

Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals: The Strip, Las Vegas, thought Sunday, Fox Sports 1 (4 p.m. taped)

Bahrain Grand Prix: Formula One, 9:30 a.m., NBC Sports Network.

Worth mentioning: The Cup series returns after a week off, at Martinsville. ... The Xfinity series is off again, and will return at Texas on April 9 ... The Truck series has been off since Feb. 27 and returns at Martinsville.