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.

North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will prove challenging to drivers

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NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.

Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday. That test was to continue Wednesday.

The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.

“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”

Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”

Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”

Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.

“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”

“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”

Chris Buescher runs laps during a Goodyear tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway, while Austin Dillon is on pit road. (Photo: Dustin Long)

One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.

While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.

In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup race at COTA

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has attracted an entry list that includes talent beyond that of the tour regulars.

Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.

MORE: NBC Driver Rankings: Christopher Bell is No. 1

Jenson Button won the Formula One championship in 2009 and has five F1 starts at COTA. He is scheduled to be a driver for the NASCAR entry in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kimi Raikkonen, entered by Trackhouse Racing as part of its Project 91 program, won the 2007 F1 championship and has eight F1 starts at the Austin track.

They will draw attention at COTA this weekend, along with these other drivers to watch:

FRONTRUNNERS

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best seasonal finish: 2nd (Atlanta I)
  • Past at COTA: 19th and 14th in two career starts

Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 5th and 33rd in two starts

The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win

Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 13th and 21st in two starts

Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s

Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.

William Byron

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I)
  • Past at COTA: 11th and 12th in two starts

Involvement in an accident at Atlanta ended Byron’s two-race winning streak. He’ll be looking to lead a lap at COTA for the first time.

 

 

Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended by NASCAR

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Three members of the Reaume Brothers Racing No. 33 Craftsman Truck Series team have been suspended for three races by NASCAR after a piece of tungsten ballast came off their truck during last Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The suspensions were announced Tuesday.

Crew chief Gregory Rayl and crew members Matthew Crossman and Travis Armstrong were suspended because of the safety violation. Mason Massey is the team’s driver.

MORE: Xfinity driver Josh Williams suspended for one race

In a tweet following the announcement of the penalty, the team said it will not file an appeal. “The ballast became dislodged only after the left side ballast container had significant contact with the racing surface,” according to the statement. “We would like to be clear that there was no negligence on the part of RBR personnel.”

NASCAR also announced Tuesday that Truck Series owner/driver Cory Roper, who had been suspended indefinitely for violating the substance abuse policy, has been reinstated.

The Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series are scheduled to race this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.

 

Josh Williams suspended for one race after Atlanta infraction

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NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Williams has been suspended for one race because of his actions during last Saturday’s Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Williams will be ineligible to participate in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. He would be able to return for the April 1 race at Richmond, Virginia.

Williams was penalized for a “behavioral” infraction, specifically disobeying a NASCAR request.

In a tweet after the suspension was announced, Williams said: “I stand behind what I did and I don’t regret any decisions I made. I stand behind NASCAR for these decisions and will continue and always support them.” He said Alex Labbe will drive the team’s No. 92 car at Circuit of the Americas this weekend.

MORE: Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended

NASCAR officials ordered Williams off the track during Saturday’s race after his car was involved in an accident. Debris falling from his car prompted a caution flag, leading NASCAR to order him to park.

Instead of going to the garage area, Williams parked his car at the start-finish line and walked to pit road.

Williams was escorted to the NASCAR hauler office at the track. He waited there until the conclusion of the race and then met with officials for about 20 minutes.

MORE: NBC Power Rankings: Christopher Bell rises to the top

Section 8.8.9.I of the Xfinity Series Rule Book states that with the Damaged Vehicle Policy, NASCAR can order a car off the track: “At the discretion of the Series Managing Director, if a damaged vehicle elects not to enter pit road on the first opportunity or if a damaged vehicle exits pit road before sufficient repairs had been made and thereafter causes or extends a caution (e.g. leaking fluid, debris, etc.), then said vehicle may incur a lap(s) or time penalty or may not be permitted to return to the Race.”

Williams later admitted he had violated a rule but said he was frustrated by the NASCAR decision.

“We all work really hard and to only run ‘X’ amount of laps and then to have something like a piece of Bear Bond and put us out of the race, it’s really frustrating,” Williams said after his meeting with series officials. “Small team. We work really hard. We’ve got to make our sponsors happy, right? It doesn’t do any good sitting in the garage. It is what it is. We’ll learn from it and move on.

“I told them I was a little bit frustrated,” Williams said of NASCAR’s call, “but it was in the rule book.”