Cup drivers in uncharted territory – stage racing on a road course

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For the most part, stage racing has brought added excitement and different forms of strategy to NASCAR Cup competition in the first 15 races of the season.

But how stage racing will impact Sunday’s road course race at Sonoma Raceway remains a mystery that won’t be answered until the checkered flag falls in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

First of all, the first stage ends on Lap 25 and the second stage ends on Lap 50 of the 110-lap race.

How those stages change the pit stop strategies devised by crew chiefs can range from little impact to radical changes.

While much of the strategy onus will fall upon crew chiefs, Cup drivers are also concerned how much stage racing will impact their race. Here’s what some of them are thinking about:

Sonoma polesitter, Cup points leader and Michigan winner Kyle Larson: “Yeah, I think stage racing or the stages will play into effect. I still haven’t talked to my engineers about it. We will have a pre-race meeting (Sunday) and kind of go over what their race plan is, as far as how many stops we are going to do and stuff like that. I don’t know yet, how it will affect it, but I’m sure it will be interesting.

“I don’t think it would turn into a four-stop race, but possibly a three-stop race rather than typically being a two-stop race, but I don’t know. I would have to talk to the engineers, they are smart. I just pit when they tell me to pit.”

Outside pole sitter Jamie McMurray: “The fact that we have a good starting spot at the beginning is going to be big. The stages are going to be interesting to see how that affects the race or if it does. But, yeah, got a good car and just ready for (Sunday).”

Denny Hamlin: “With the stages and everything that goes into play, the field’s going to be flip-flopped all day long and we just hope to be on the right end of it at the right time.”

Brad Keselowski: “The stages are going to throw these races … the road course and tracks like Pocono where you can pit and not lose a lap. … it throws these races a complete curve ball. I think you’ll see that here.”

Martin Truex Jr.: I feel like if you win the first stage, you’re probably not going to have a chance to win the race at the end. I think you’re going to see a lot of guys pit before the first stage is over. … I don’t play strategy, I don’t do strategy, I’ll leave that up to Cole (Pearn, crew chief), and hopefully he’ll figure it out. But it’s definitely going to be interesting. It’s going to be a lot more difficult, I think, to call this race than it has in years past. In the last few years we’ve seen tires play such a big role in winning this race that I think it’s been since about 2013 since this was won on two stops, or maybe actually 2012. So it’s been a long time since anyone done it on a one‑ or two‑stop strategy, and tires are going to be a big deal. So I think everybody stopped a least four times last year, and we’ll see what this year brings.”

Clint Bowyer: “It will certainly change a lot about this track. Who knows? That (stage racing) has been such a big thing and a good thing I guess for our sport. If there ever was an exception to that rule you hope it is not here. You make those rules to try to ramp up the competition everywhere across the board and sometimes there are race tracks that maybe didn’t need it. This is one of those places where you didn’t need anything but obviously you have to make rules to be good for everywhere. … I think the strategy side will kind of go by the wayside and you will have to push as hard as you can. We have been pretty easy on our equipment over the years by being able to pace ourselves, save fuel, not just dive-bomb every single corner of every lap. You might see some attrition show up because of it. And you will see desperation show up at the end.”

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NASCAR America: The challenges of Martinsville Speedway

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What Martinsville Speedway lacks in size compared to other tracks it makes up in difficulty say drivers and NASCAR America’s analysts.

Landon Cassill joined Carolyn Manno, Parker Kligerman and Jeff Burton on Thursday’s show and discussed the challenges of the half-mile paperclip track.

“It can be fun when it’s going well,’’ said Cassill, who will make his Cup season debut this weekend in the No. 00 for StarCom Racing. “That place, if you’re car is not handling well, you can end up going backwards and just by the time you’ve got some clear race track the leader is right behind you. So it can be frustration. I tend to like Martinsville.’’

Kligerman calls racing in the pack at Martinsville Speedway “the most aggressive racing I’ve ever been a part of in my life.’’

Jeff Burton said: “It’s … one of the hardest race tracks we go to period because you have to do it lap after lap after lap and it’s so easy to get, quite simply, just really, really mad at the guy you’re racing with because he’s hitting you and he’s banging on you.’’

Cup drivers have their description of the track. See what NASCAR America’s analysts and Cup drivers have to say about the track that hosts Sunday’s Cup race in the video above.

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Richard Childress Racing reinstates Xfinity crew chief Nick Harrison

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Richard Childress Racing has reinstated Nick Harrison to crew chief  of the No. 3 Xfinity team after he served a five-race suspension for a violation at Daytona International Speedway. 

Harrison’s first race back will be April 8 at Texas.

Harrison was suspended after the No. 3 car of Austin Dillon had a rear suspension violation in pre-qualifying inspection. Harrison and the team’s car chief were ejected by NASCAR after the violation. RCR imposed the suspension.

“I’m looking forward to being back with my team and winning races after my five-race suspension,” Harrison said in a statement from the team.

Brandon Thomas served as the interim crew chief while Harrison was out. Austin Dillon finished a season-best fourth for the team last weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Martinsville breakdown, Aric Almirola and Bubba Wallace

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and features host Carolyn Manno and Parker Kligerman in Stamford, Connecticut, and Jeff Burton and Landon Cassill from Burton’s Garage.

Among the topics today:

  •  Prepare for paint swapping, bent fenders, and bruised egos. It’s time to go short-track racing at Martinsville Speedway! Jeff, Parker and Landon will tell you what to expect this weekend at the famous half-mile. We’ll also see what it takes to succeed there, as Parker takes us for some quick laps in the NBCSN iRacing Simulator.
  • After making the switch to Stewart-Haas Racing in the offseason, Aric Almirola is off to the best start of his Cup Series career. Currently 10th in the standings, he’ll tell Marty Snider about his early season success.
  • Since finishing second at the Daytona 500, rookie driver Bubba Wallace has cooled off. Now he faces his first Cup Series start at Martinsville in the iconic No. 43 car, and he’s feeling confident — it’s where Wallace scored his first truck series win nearly five years ago. We’ll examine the struggles he might have to work through this season and also hear his reflections on his early years of racing in the latest edition of “A Driver’s Drive.”

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/ If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Weekend schedule for NASCAR at Martinsville Speedway

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NASCAR returns to its backyard this weekend after the three week West Coast swing.

The Cup and Camping World Truck Series visit Martinsville Speedway in Southern Virginia.

The weekend is capped off by Sunday’s STP 500. It will be the first Cup race broadcast on Fox Sports 1 this year.

Here’s the full weekend schedule complete with TV and radio info.

(All times are Eastern)

Friday, March 23

8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck garage opens

11:05 – 11:55 a.m. — Truck practice (No TV)

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Truck practice (Fox Sports 1)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Final Truck practice (FS1)

Saturday, March 24

7 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Cup garage open

7:30 a.m. — Truck garage opens

10:05 – 10:55 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

11:05 a.m. — Truck qualifying; multi-truck/three rounds (FS1)

12:15 p.m. — Truck driver-crew chief meeting

12:30 – 1:20 p.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

1:30 p.m. — Truck driver introductions

2 p.m. — Alpha Energy Solutions 250; 250 laps/131.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5:10 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 25

9:30 a.m. — Cup garage opens

Noon — Driver-crew chief meeting

1:20 p.m. — Driver introductions

2 p.m. — STP 500; 500 laps/263 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)