Ryan: NASCAR needs a Daytona 500 warmup act in South Florida

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Why does NASCAR start the Sprint Cup Series season with its version of the Super Bowl?

There are myriad explanations for a question that perpetually arises each winter, but there’s one succinct answer.

It shouldn’t.

That revelation has come into sharper focus through a scheduling change that resulted in an extra weekend between the Super Bowl and the start of Speedweeks in 2014 and ‘15.

There were many years in which the Super Bowl and the run-up to the stock-car equivalent butted against each other – five years ago, NASCAR moved Daytona 500 qualifying to Saturday because of a direct conflict with Super Sunday. Yet the past two years have provided a stark contrast that leads to a glaring conclusion.

On arguably the most lackluster weekend of the year in pro sports – with basketball and hockey in the doldrums, football in its offseason and baseball in pre-spring training lull – NASCAR is missing a chance to dominate the conversation.

This isn’t an indictment of the Daytona 500’s drawing power, nor the suggestion of a waning cachet. The Great American Race will command the widest audience regardless of its spot on the calendar, and last year’s scintillating victory by Dale Earnhardt Jr. – which didn’t seem dampened despite a six-hour rain delay – reaffirmed its stature on the NASCAR schedule.

The placement could be improved, though, and there is precedent for it.

From 1970-81, the season opened in mid-January at Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway before heading to Daytona Beach Fla., a month later. Considering the two greatest finishes in Daytona 500 history (’79 and ’76) occurred in that span, it hardly diminished the luster of the crown jewel.

Riverside still had its failings as a season opener. Why start a month earlier at a road course on the other side of the country?

Three decades later, there’s an optimum location that makes as much sense competitively as it does logistically.

Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Just four-and-a-half hours south of Daytona (which should make a turnaround for Speedweeks relatively easy) is a track that has made a deserving case for hosting a second annual Sprint Cup race ever since its 2003 reconfiguration.

Amid a rash of ill-conceived repavings over the past decade, Homestead’s progressively banked surface has become the gold standard for the 1.5-mile layouts that comprise 11 of the season’s 36 races and have been maligned for producing their fair share of processional racing.

There’s no such conundrum at Homestead, whose thrilling 2014 season finale punctuated the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff  It’s a crime the track is allowed to flaunt its considerable action only once a year – and then just before the circuit is mothballed for three months.

A new testing ban exacerbated the lack of buzz during this offseason, which mostly is a good thing. Overworked teams need the rest, and it also helps to have a break from incessantly flogging the marketing and promotion of Sprint Cup stars who are competing for 10 months annually.

But Thursday’s Daytona 500 Media Day will underscore the downside of a preseason with virtually no on-track activity. Though a bevy of rules changes (causing lower horsepower and downforce) offer much to discuss, the interviews figure to be an echo chamber of last month’s preseason Media Tour, where stars already were asked the same questions they will face Thursday.

Imagine if they were analyzing their results from Homestead, and what that portends for the rest of the season – particularly in the Chase for the Sprint Cup?

Racing a week earlier at Homestead adds another championship dimension to the Daytona 500. If a team mightily struggles in South Florida and is concerned about its speedway prospects, the restrictor-plate roulette wheel of Daytona suddenly promises the relief of a golden ticket to the Chase.

Bookending the schedule at Homestead will present some scheduling hassles (namely, would a race need to be dropped for the new opener), but they are outweighed by the benefits. This is the ideal way to tie the beginning and end of the season together in a Florida-shaped bow.

Dropping the green flag before Daytona won’t make NASCAR’s most iconic event any less super. It’ll make it more special.

Xfinity race results, point standings after Bristol

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Chase Briscoe led the final six laps and won Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol for his seventh win of the season.

Briscoe beat Ross Chastain for the win. The top five was completed by Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

Playoff standings

The 12-driver field for the playoffs has been set with Briscoe’s win in the regular-season finale.

Brandon Brown placed 12th and clinched the 12th and final spot.

Here are the re-seeded point standings entering the playoffs.

Chase Briscoe – 2,050 points

Austin Cindric – 2,050

Justin Allgaier – 2,033

Noah Gragson – 2,025

Brandon Jones – 2,020

Justin Haley – 2,018

Harrison Burton – 2,014

Ross Chastain – 2,010

Ryan Sieg – 2,002

Michael Annett – 2,002

Riley Herbst – 2,001

Brandon Brown – 2,000

Click here for the re-seeded standings.

Click here for the normal point standings.

Chase Briscoe wins Xfinity race at Bristol Motor Speedway

Chase Briscoe Bristol
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Chase Briscoe took the lead with six laps to go and won Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which marked the end of the regular season.

Briscoe passed Austin Cindric to assume the lead and went unchallenged to the checkered flag. The victory is his series-leading seventh of the season.

“I was so mad after last week (at Richmond),” Briscoe told NBCSN. “I told all the guys there ain’t no way we’re getting beat today. I was so mad after how we ran last week and I get on the internet all the time and see guys count us out after one bad race and I know what this team is capable. … I finished second here the last two races and I wanted to win here so bad and it’s awesome that I can actually celebrate it with all these race fans.”

The top five was completed by Ross Chastain, Cindric, Harrison Burton and Justin Allgaier.

More: Race results, playoff standings

Allgaier dominated the early portion of the race, leading 126 laps and winning the first two stages. But he lost the lead for good in the pits during the Stage 2 break.

Brandon Brown finished 12th and clinched the 12th and final playoff spot.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

STAGE 2 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ross Chastain led three times for 117 laps, but had to settle for his fifth runner-up finish of the season without a win … Austin Cindric earned his 13th top-10 finish in the last 14 races … Harrison Burton earned his 13th top five of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Brett Moffitt finished 27th after he had to pit three times in the opening laps and was penalized for taking fuel before the competition caution … BJ McLeod finished 34th after he was eliminated in a multi-car wreck that began when he made contact with teammate Jeffrey EarnhardtMichael Annett finished 31st and Joe Graf Jr. placed 27th after they were involved in an incident on Lap 120.

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “I hit pit road and I wanted to cry.” – Ross Chastain after he finished second for the fifth time this year. He is winless entering the playoffs.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Xfinity playoffs open at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 26 on NBCSN.

 

Fans not allowed at Las Vegas races

Fans not allowed
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Spectators will be not be allowed for any of the NASCAR playoff races next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the track announced Friday night.

A press release said only essential personnel will be allowed to attend the Cup, Xfinity and Truck playoff races there.

“To say we’re disappointed that we will conduct the South Point 400 playoff weekend without fans would be a gross understatement,” said Las Vegas Motor Speedway President Chris Powell. “Our staff has been working – many of them remotely – since the February Pennzoil 400 to prepare the speedway for our playoff tripleheader.

“But we must adhere to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s directive that limits gatherings due to COVID-19.  While we disagree with this policy, we have no choice but to oblige.  We certainly regret this situation for the thousands of race fans who won’t be able to attend our NASCAR-weekend events.”

Nevada’s re-opening plan does not permit fans at sporting events, concerts. Groups are limited to 50 or fewer people.

The Las Vegas Raiders announced last month that they would not have fans at any of the team’s home games in its inaugural season there.

The Truck playoff race will be at 9 p.m. ET Sept. 25 on FS1. The Xfinity playoff opener will be at  7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 26 on NBCSN. The Cup playoff race will be 7 p.m. ET Sept. 27 on NBCSN.

Fans holding tickets for those events will be contacted by the speedway ticket services department to discuss credits for future races or refunds.

Pit crew change for Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson teams

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Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson each will have a pit crew change for Saturday night’s playoff race at Bristol.

The change is the result of an injury to one pit crew member.

Dustin Lineback, jackman for Bowman’s team is out with an injury, the team stated. Kyle Tudor, who has been Johnson’s jackman, moves over to that role for Bowman’s team. Eric Ludwig, a backup for Hendrick Motorsports, moves up to be the jackman for Johnson.

MORE: Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, forecast, lineup

Bowman enters the elimination race 27 points ahead of teammate William Byron, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the second round. Bowman opened the playoffs by finishing sixth in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. He followed that by placing ninth at Richmond. Bowman was collected in a crash and finished 37th in the May Bristol race.

Johnson, who is in his final full-time Cup season, seeks his first victory of the season. He finished third at Bristol in May.