Five things to watch in Sunday’s NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway

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The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 signifies the start of the “real” Sprint Cup season, minus the restricted engines of Daytona International Speedway. The rules in place for Sunday’s race at Atlanta will be those that are run in 32 of 36 races this season, making it a more accurate barometer of which teams will be fast out of the gate this year. Here are five things to watch Sunday:

1. Fast times: During Saturday’s final practice, Kevin Harvick topped the charts (despite an engine failure with a 191.054 mph lap – nearly bettering the fastest lap set in qualifying last season (191.278 by Aric Almirola). That pace is achieved despite new 2015 rules that feature a decrease of 125 horsepower and 24 percent downforce in an attempt to slow the cars and enhance the likelihood of passing.

So what gives? Temperatures are much cooler at Atlanta this weekend than when NASCAR visited over last Labor Day weekend, so there is more grip in the track. The colder temperatures also have caused a downforce spike that exceeds last year’s levels, according to Harvick.

“You’re talking a 50-degree swing in temperature,” he said. “When you’re adding 8-9 percent of downforce to the car just because of air density, that’s a big change. It’s making more downforce than what they took off probably, compared to last year”

Drag also has fallen by 12 percent, meaning cars cut through the air faster and effectively adding more horsepower than was lost in the detuned engines. Harvick also said engine gearing has an impact, helping raise corner speeds by a breathtaking 11 mph over last year. “So you’re turning around 9,000 rpm,” he said. “So that’s probably eight or 900 less rpm as well as the power reduction on top of that. When you take that much power and you do that again with the gear, you’re just going to be able to carry more throttle and corner speed.”

The cool conditions, though, multiply the impact of the other factors, and it’s expected speeds won’t be nearly as high next week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile oval. That might offer a better gauge of whether NASCAR’s goals are being achieved.

2. Engine worries: Atlanta’s 500-mile races always put an enormous strain on engines, and the new rules will add another layer to it. With the reduced horsepower, drivers can stay on throttle much longer during the course of a lap. Sam Hornish Jr. estimated during Thursday’s test that he could hold the accelerator at 100 percent for about 80-85 percent of the lap.

The green flag temperature is forecast for 47 degrees, and cooler conditions are optimum for engines turning maximum horsepower and being more susceptible to failures. There should be many skittish engine builders and teams when the green flag drops Sunday.

3. Different driving styles: Throw in the throttle changes with the tire management demanded by the always abrasive surface, and Sunday’s list of contenders at Atlanta might feature some new names because of the new approach. Danica Patrick, who finished a career-best sixth at Atlanta last year, said she likes the package because it suits a smoother approach that doesn’t require jamming on the brakes.

“Generally having to be smoother and not rolling a lot of speed is something I feel comfortable doing and like doing,” she said. “I do think it suits my comfort zone and how I like the car. I think that the car needs a certain platform and attitude to do that well. That is the kind of platform I like.”

4. The man in yellow: Ranking high on that list of fresh contenders might be the hottest driver in NASCAR. Pole-sitter Joey Logano will start Atlanta in the same position he finished the Daytona 500. Though he cut his teeth racing Legends cars as a kid on the tiny oval at Atlanta, he has struggled on the big track with one top-10 (a ninth) in eight Sprint Cup starts. He is a whiz in the Xfinity Series here, though, finishing in the top 10 of all four starts prior to Saturday.

“It is more towards an Xfinity car,” he said. “ You’ve got less horsepower and less downforce. So directionally, it could be a good thing for me. I think we need to see what happens in the race, but it does take a little bit of a different style.”

5. And the other Fords? Aside from the momentum from Logano’s career-making win, it’s been a quiet week for the Blue Oval. The only other Fusion starting in the top 10 is Hornish (eighth), and the Roush Fenway Racing cars of Greg Biffle (19th), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (20th) and Trevor Bayne (29th) will have some ground to make up early.

The Roush drivers cautioned during the preseason that it might take several races for their off-season overhaul to take effect. If they show improvement at Atlanta, it could bode well for a 2015 rebound.

Stage points crucial at Las Vegas in Round of 12

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Former champion Brad Keselowski views Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) as the “second most important” to win during the season after the championship race, “because these next two weeks are very difficult to prepare for.”

What’s so difficult about the two races after Las Vegas?

Two-thirds of the Round of 12 are made up of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval: a superspeedway known for its wild multi-car wrecks and a road course that can prove unpredictable.

“The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is the playoff bonus points and winning in Vegas,” Keselowski said. “The best thing we can do to control our own destiny is to go win Vegas and then Talladega just becomes what it is. It’s the same thing with the Roval, so we’re hopeful to just kind of not have to worry about it that way by scoring a win. If we’re not able to do that, I’d like to get a few more playoff bonus points with stages for those races and that would help a bunch, but, certainly, this round presents a lot of challenges for us.”

If anyone knows the importance of winning early in a round, it’s Keselowski. His victory two weeks ago at Richmond benefitted him in the cutoff race a Bristol when power steering issues resulted in a 34th-place finish.

Chase Elliott, who has won at both Talladega and the Roval in previous seasons, has a similar view to Keselowski.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver said “we would be messing up to already be looking ahead to Talladega,” later adding, “the way I kind of look at it is I’m probably going to crash – I think that’s just the odds.”

Were everything to go right for a driver, they can earn up to 20 stage points in the first two stages of a race.

“So, I think everybody knows how important stages are and what they can mean, especially stage wins,” Elliott said. “Getting that extra bonus point is a huge thing, too. I think everybody knows that and that’s certainly a game that’s been played. I don’t know that it was as much played that very first year that we had (playoff and stage points), but really ever since that first year, I think it has been known and everybody really gets that. And it’s just gotten more and more aggressive.”

Focusing on Vegas is key for Elliott because it’s been a “super hit or miss” track for him. In seven career starts, he has two top fives and four finishes of 26th or worse.

“We’ve crashed a bunch out there (three DNFs) and had some really bad finishes,” Elliott said. “That would be a fantastic opportunity, I think, to have a solid day.”

Kurt Busch noted that you could arguably view Las Vegas as “standard” when it comes to pit strategy and racing. But Busch provided a reminder of what happened earlier this year at Texas Motor Speedway.

“A place like Vegas fits into a track like Texas, as well; where you can change just left side tires like we saw Austin Dillon do to win the Texas race earlier this year,” Busch said. “So, there are all the different strategies and different things playing out.”

The four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16 – William Byron, Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto – scored a combined six stage points. All of them were earned by Byron.

Busch observed that just because four teams have been eliminated from the playoffs doesn’t mean there’s four less cars in the field vying for points.

“There are two Hendrick cars now not in the playoffs, but they’re fast,” Busch said of Byron and Jimmie Johnson. “Same thing with (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). You’ve got the No. 20 car, Erik Jones, not in the playoffs but he’s fast. Those are points that those guys could take away from the contenders that are still left in the situations they’re in. So, you’ve just got to race hard and race smart. There are three ways to get points each and every weekend: Stage 1, Stage 2, and the finish of the race. And, that happens at all the race tracks.”

Of the 12 remaining drivers left in the playoffs, here’s how many stage points they earned in the first round.

Most Stage Points Earned in 2020 Playoffs:

Chase Elliott  – 35
Kevin Harvick – 33
Martin Truex Jr.  – 32
Kyle Busch  – 31
Alex Bowman – 29
Joey Logano  – 28
Denny Hamlin  – 26
Kurt Busch – 22
Austin Dillon – 22
Brad Keselowski – 21
Aric Almirola – 7
Clint Bowyer – 4

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NASCAR fines
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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NASCAR has fined Hendrick Motorsports $100,000 for exceeding the amount of wind tunnel testing allowed this season.

NASCAR also announced that it had deducted 10 hours of wind tunnel testing from the organization for the 2020-21 amount allowed.

Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalty. The team reported the violation to NASCAR.

The Cup Rule Book states in section 5.3.e that organizations are allocated 150 hours to be used on cars through Dec. 31, 2021 with a maximum usage of 70 hours in 2020 and a maximum usage of 90 hours in 2021. NASCAR states that testing hours are defined as billable hours reported by the wind tunnel to NASCAR. The minimum test period is four hours. Wind tunnel testing of Next Gen cars by individual organizations will not be permitted.

The L2 penalty comes with a fine of at least $100,000 and no more than $200,000.

NASCAR also announced two fines for lug nut violations last weekend at Bristol.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chief Bruce Schlicker was fined $5,000 for the No. 10 car of Ross Chastain having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

In the Truck Series, crew chief Kevin Bellicourt was fined $2,500 for the No. 19 truck of Derek Kraus having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.


Carson Hocevar to run full Truck schedule in 2021

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Niece Motorsports has signed Carson Hocevar to run the full NASCAR Truck schedule in 2021, the team announced Thursday.

Hocevar, who turns 18 in January, has run five races for the team this season. His best finish this year is 12th at Dover. He’s scheduled to run at Martinsville on Oct. 30.

“I’m so excited to get the opportunity to race fulltime next year with the Niece Motorsports group,” said Hocevar in a statement. “We’ve had some really strong runs in the few starts that we’ve had this season and I am grateful for the chance to continue that next year. I’ve learned so much already this year and know that we will keep improving next year too.”

“Carson has really impressed us this season,” said team owner Al Niece in a statement. “He’s proven his talent – getting into the truck with no track time and really holding his own. We’re thrilled to have him with us fulltime next season and look forward to contending for wins together.”

TikTok to sponsor Ryan Vargas in six Xfinity races

JD Motorsports
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TikTok is coming to NASCAR.

The popular video sharing app will break into the sport next month as a sponsor of Ryan Vargas in the Xfinity Series.

TikTok has partnered with JD Motorsports to sponsor the 20-year-old Vargas in the final six races of the season, beginning with the Oct. 3 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

“TikTok has provided me with an incredible outlet to reach new fans and demographics through fun and creative content, and I’ve seen the highest growth in followers on TikTok over my other social channels,” Vargas said in a press release. “The opportunity to run the No. 6 TikTok Chevrolet Camaro in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for the rest of the season is an absolute dream come true. Johnny Davis and the whole JD Motorsports with Gary Keller team took a chance on me last year and I’m excited to bring this amazing TikTok partnership their way. I wouldn’t want to make this partnership a reality anywhere else.”

Vargas has made three Xfinity Series starts this year. His best finish was 13th at Pocono.

The sponsor deal is part of TikTok’s Latinx Heritage Month programming.

A native of La Mirada, California, Vargas joined TikTok last year. He is a former member of NASCAR’s Drive 4 Diversity programming and a winner of the Wendell Scott Trailblazer award, which is given to a minority or female driver who displays exceptional on-track performance, sportsmanship, and community service.

The partnership and paint scheme were inspired by a concept scheme by graphic designer Ryan Pistana, a friend of Vargas’.

“Creators of all sizes and backgrounds show up to TikTok with their genuine, authentic selves,” Nick Tran, TikTok’s Head of Global Marketing, said in a press release. “Partnering with an iconic brand like NASCAR to sponsor Ryan Vargas on his racing journey is a way for us to continue to support, celebrate and elevate the diverse creators that make our TikTok community what it is today. Ryan is an incredible athlete, and we’re looking forward to cheering him on alongside the rest of the TikTok community!”

According to CNBC in August, TikTok has roughly 100 million monthly users, up nearly 800% from January 2018.

TikTok, a Chinese-owned company, has been in national headlines recently after President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app in the United States for national security reasons if it was not sold to an American company. On Sept. 19 he approved a deal for its U.S operations to be operated by Oracle and Walmart.