NASCAR ensures star-studded ‘Logan Lucky’ stays grounded in racing reality

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CONCORD, N.C. – As crew members hustled through the Sprint Cup garage last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, there was one team that might have stood out.

Its car, equipment and uniforms were standard and blended in with the rest of the field furiously preparing for the Bank of America 500.

But closer scrutiny at those working on the car – while being recorded by a phalanx of cameras – would have revealed more to the story.

Or in this case, a script.

Logan Lucky spent a few days on location at Charlotte for a fully immersed shoot in the world of NASCAR. The Steven Soderbergh-directed movie, which is slated for release in the second half of 2017, is constructed around an elaborate heist during the Coca-Cola 600 and has a star-studded cast that includes Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig, Hilary Swank, Adam Driver, Seth MacFarlane and Katie Holmes.

The elevator pitch for the movie is Ocean’s Eleven (another Soderbergh vehicle project) set in NASCAR with Charlotte’s 1.5-mile track as the stand-in for Las Vegas’ Bellagio.

“It is a sort of different world,” producer Mark Johnson said. “Steven is obviously so good at doing heist movies, so the idea of doing this one in a NASCAR world is very similar. It’s the same philosophy, just different characters and different worlds. In the Ocean’s movies, you’ve got George Clooney and Brad Pitt in tuxedos. I haven’t seen a lot of tuxedos here at the racetrack.”

A scene shot last Sunday highlighted the unfamiliarity for Johnson, who is well accomplished in movies (part of the Academy Award-winning Rain Man in 1988) and TV (Emmys for outstanding drama with Breaking Bad in 2013-14) but wasn’t as well-suited for stand-in work as an extra playing a NASCAR official.

“I was the only one who didn’t know what he was doing,” Johnson said with a laugh, showing off a pair of gray inspector pants. “So I just walked around the car. I was counting the tires. Yep, there are four of them. OK!”

Johnson said screenwriter Rebecca Blunt set the film at a NASCAR track because it seemed “very exotic. The idea of having a heist take place while there’s a major race going on, just seemed like too delicious a concept to ignore.”

But the producers needed help with fleshing out story concepts and critical details, such as whether a Sprint Cup car would be equipped with a rearview mirror.

A team of NASCAR and track officials was happy to assist, particularly given the film crew’s attention to detail and nuance.

“We work on a bunch of different projects — TV and some film stuff — and we’re usually fighting to make sure that things are authentic,” NASCAR vice president of entertainment marketing and content development Zane Stoddard said. “These guys want it to be embedded, which is harder to do, so the scene is being shot that it feels like we’re there at a race. AJ Allmendinger’s car was literally right next to the car that was in the movie, and you wouldn’t have known the difference aside from the army of cameras.”

As the movie crew filmed a scene involving an ornery car owner (“a bit of a horse’s ass who has a driver that he beats up without mercy – not that there’d be anyone in NASCAR like that”), Johnson said Allmendinger’s crew wasn’t distracted.

“As long as we stayed out of their way, that was fine; they had a job to do,” Johnson said. “It was good for us in that it gives a great verisimilitude to the whole world because it is real. We’re shooting a silly scene, and yet all of this reality is happening behind us that has this great context.”

Shooting, which was scheduled to wrap this week, also took place at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but the crew took great pains to ensure the exteriors (all the way down to the colors of the concession stands) still resembled Charlotte “so the NASCAR fan would be able to see the movie and not be taken out of the, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not Charlotte. That’s not how races go or what a car looks like,’” Johnson said. It was very important to get it right.”

Stoddard, who also worked with movies crews while he was a marketing executive at the NBA, said NASCAR might be the “most difficult sport to make sure you get right because it’s not about a general audience. It’s about the guy who actually knows what’s going on inside our sport.”

The Logan Lucky production consulted with the NASCAR competition department for realism, but Stoddard said the crews didn’t need much correcting.

“These guys are real, real pros,” he said. “We’ve had a hard time finding flaws in things they’ve done.”

logan-lucky-ryan-blaneyThe film also will have some nods (or “Easter eggs,” as Stoddard calls them) to eagle-eyed NASCAR fans, too, in the form of several driver cameos. Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are playing West Virginia state troopers; Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are security guards; Ryan Blaney is cast as a delivery boy, and Kyle Larson will drive a limo.

But Johnson said he hopes the movie mostly wins over NASCAR fans with its realism.

“The NASCAR fan is rabid in his or her sense of the sport, its history and the meticulous of it where a lot of NBA and MLB people love the sports, but aren’t that specific,” he said. “We felt a real responsibility to get it right, even though the movie is taking place in a world that doesn’t – and really can’t — exist. It’s hopefully like all the movies and TV shows we do, you want to have respect for the audience. We’d love every NASCAR fan to see this movie. We want to make sure they feel the sport has been respected.”

The grassroots support will help an independently financed movie that is planning a wide release despite the lack of major studio support. Johnson said the movie plans to advertise through racetrack signage and ad buys on NASCAR broadcasts.

Stoddard said NASCAR will support the film through its digital and social channels.

“It’s in our best interests to make sure we’re leveraging everything we can to make NASCAR fans aware of this and engaged in it,” he said. “We’ve started to kick around some ideas. I know the film has the intent, just like with distribution, of being nonconforming, if you will. As we get past production and post-production, we’ll start to look at figure out what are some creative things we can do together to help drive the release.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman share thoughts on possible restrictor plates in Brickyard 400

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The Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this July will work as a testing ground for the future use of restrictor plates at the historic 2.5-mile track.

NASCAR announced earlier this week the July 22 race would be raced under the influence of the plates that have previously only been used at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and one Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.

Depending on the effectiveness of the plates on the level of competition, they could be used in future Cup Series races at the track.

On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he was “up for whatever” in hopes of improving the racing at a track that seen drastic declines in attendance in the last decade.

“That race is really suffering as far as the show and how entertaining I think it is to watch,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t really know what the answer is to make it more exciting, but I think this is a great opportunity to find out if this is the direction to go.  I am all for it. And I like the idea of trying it in the Xfinity Series or the (Camping World) Truck Series or what have you whatever track it is at to try it in that feeder series.  That is an opportunity to see if we can get it right without ruining anything for the Cup guys.”

NASCAR has been visiting IMS since 1994 and will return for the 24th Brickyard 400 weekend this summer. But the competition level in the race has paled in comparison to what’s usually seen two months earlier in IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500.

“I think NASCAR watches the Indy 500 and they see those guys drafting and passing and they are competitive,” Earnhardt said. “They have to try to put on that type of show if not better at that race track.  It is not good in conversation to have the IndyCar race be more exciting to watch than the NASCAR race there.  That is just business.  I think it’s great for them to be aggressive.”

Earnhardt referenced the big swing NASCAR took in the Brickyard 400 two years ago when Cup cars had an aero package that included nine-inch spoilers, an attempt at creating pack racing. The result was disappointing and widely panned.

NASCAR held a three-car test at IMS last October to try out eight different configurations with restrictor plates that included various splitter heights and gear ratios. The setup that will be used will also include NASCAR’s first ever use of “aero ducts.”

Xfinity teams will also use the 2016 specs for splitters and spoilers.

When it comes to the restrictor plates, 2013 Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman said his view of restrictor plates is they are used where there is a need for “a balance there on speed and safety.

“I don’t know what their sim results are or what their testing has been to validate what needs to be done, but I believe it’s all based off of safety,” Newman said of the decision to use restrictor plates. “Indianapolis is unique in the fact that the corners really are kind of 90 degrees. You never really hit at 90 degrees, but you’re hitting more so at a sharper angle than you are at a place like Fontana or Michigan or even at 1.5-mile race tracks. … But given the driver’s throttle response and acceleration and the ability to pass people is equally important. And we’ve seen some racing that gets pretty spread out at Indianapolis. I don’t know if a restrictor plate would make that the same or worse; or even better for that matter. To me, I think the restrictor plate, or at least the term restrictor plate, is usually more about safety and top speeds than it is anything else.”

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Starting grid for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400

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With the second pole of his NASCAR Cup Series career, Kyle Larson will lead the field to green Sunday in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

Joining Larson the front row is Denny Hamlin.

Filling out the top five is Brad Keselowski, Martin Treux Jr. and Ryan Newman.

Click here for the starting grid.

Kyle Larson wins pole for Auto Club 400, second Cup pole of career

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Kyle Larson ended a three-year drought by winning the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400.

Larson won his second Cup Series pole with a speed of 187.047 mph around Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. His first pole came in the August 2013 race at Pocono Raceway.

The pole continues Larson’s impressive start to 2017. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver leads the point standings after earning three consecutive second-place finishes.

“I felt like messed up there in Turn 1 and 2 and I got a little bit loose off the wall on the entry and it got me to split the seam in (Turn) 1 and 2,” Larson told Fox Sports. “I was able to commit to (being) wide open off (Turn) 1 and 2. I hadn’t ran up high in (Turn) 3 and 4 at all in practice or qualifying here. Didn’t really know what I would have out there but ran a good ways and it stuck. … Our Target team has been really amazing to start the season and to get a pole is great. … Got a little team dinner tonight, so this will be a good thing to celebrate.”

Larson’s run knocked Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin from the top spot. As Larson drove down pit road, a Fox Sports camera caught Hamlin playfully showing his dissatisfaction by emptying a cup of ice in the direction of the No. 42.

“This is No. 1 on my list of track I want to win,” Hamlin told Fox Sports. “It’s bitten me mentally and physically … definitely one I want to check off.”

Filling out the top five is Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr and Ryan Newman.

Daniel Suarez qualified 10th for his best career Cup start.

No Hendrick Motorsports entries will start in the top 10. Kasey Kahne was the top qualifier in 12th, followed by Chase Elliott.

Five cars did not make qualifying attempts, with one of them being by choice. Jimmie Johnson’s team elected not to make an attempt following his accident in practice. He will start 37th.

Joining Johnson at the back of the field will be Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Matt DiBenedetto and Gray Gaulding. All of their cars did not make it through inspection in time to qualifying.

Click here for qualifying results.

Jimmie Johnson’s team elects not to make qualifying run after accident in practice

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Following Jimmie Johnson’s accident in practice early Friday, Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team chose not to qualify with a backup car at Auto Club Speedway.

Johnson, a six-time winner at Auto Club Speedway, will start 37th in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Four other cars, including those of Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne, will start in the back after they did not make qualifying attempts. Their cars failed to get through inspection in time. Rookie Gray Gaulding and Matt DiBenedetto also did not qualify because their cars failed to get through inspection.

Johnson explained his team’s decision.

“We had a tough practice session and mid-pack was probably going to be our goal anyway,” he said. “So, to take our lumps here, at a track that’s really wide with a lot of lanes, a long race; we’ll just take our lumps and get the car right where we can take advantage of the precious minutes that we have in Saturday’s practice session and go from there. Pit road is going to be a problem. We’re not going to have a great pick there. We’re definitely not in a position we want to be in, so we’d rather take the time now and make sure we get everything right and get this car right; and also kind of control our risk factor.”

With ACS being such a wide race track with plenty of passing opportunities, Johnson is not in as bad a position to start Sunday’s race as he would be at more narrow track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang he wasn’t comfortable forcing Johnson to “hustle” to qualify a car he hadn’t practiced in.