Five things to watch in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – A tiny track but a towering beacon of hope.

That might be the best way to describe the view of Bristol Motor Speedway for Joe Gibbs Racing, which will enter Sunday’s Food City 500 with the promise of scoring its second short-track victory in three weeks.

Matt Kenseth’s pole position accentuated the first time this season that all four of JGR’s Toyotas reached the final round of qualifying as Carl Edwards (third), Denny Hamlin (fifth) and David Ragan (11th) also will start in the top 12 at 0.533-mile track where it helps to stay in front of the mayhem.

That was partly the key to JGR’s success in the March 29 race at Martinsville Speedway, were Hamlin’s win capped a trio of top fives for JGR (Kenseth fourth; Ragan fifth).

While Hendrick Motorsports’ chassis and engines have the field covered at the 1.5-mile speedways (Jimmie Johnson’s win at Texas Motor Speedway marked six consecutive victories by either Johnson or Kevin Harvick on the most common track layout in NASCAR), JGR seems to have rediscovered a short-track spark that was missing last season.

And with a Bristol victory virtually guaranteeing a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – and provide the stress-free security to work on improving the team’s speedway setups with an eye toward the five 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs – it’s fair to say this stretch of the season represents a critical juncture for JGR.

After Bristol, NASCAR will head to another short track (Richmond International Raceway) and then the unpredictable restrictor-plate chaos of Talladega Superspeedway. Afterward, the schedule turns back to four straight races at the high-speed ovals where JGR has struggled with cars that have lacked the speed and handling of Hendrick.

At Bristol, the equation shifts slightly more toward the driver than the car, and it’s easier to overcome such deficiencies just as Hamlin did at Martinsville.

“Certainly, when we get to short tracks they’re less dependent on aerodynamics and even the engine to a certain extent,” Kenseth said. “If you feel like you have a deficit in those areas then it doesn’t make as big of a difference at a short track, but I’m not so sure that we have a deficit in those areas. I think each track is important, and you try to make as much of a difference as you can everywhere.”

Other storylines to watch Sunday:

Struggling “Smoke”: It’s been a long drought at Bristol for Tony Stewart – his lone win here was nearly 14 years ago – and Saturday didn’t provide much hope of a rebound. Three-time series champion slapped the wall in the first practice and couldn’t crack the top 15 on the speed chart in the latter session.

However, Stewart did manage a fourth at Bristol last year, and teammates Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick set the mark for fastest lap and 10-lap average in the finale session. The speed is there at Stewart-Haas Racing, but Stewart needs to discover how to harness it into an optimum setup.

SAFER is better: This marks the first track that has covered its entire concrete walls with SAFER barriers (with the exceptions of the steel crossover gate in Turn 3) for a NASCAR race since Kyle Busch was injured by hitting an unprotected wall in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

While there were some concerns from drivers about the safety devices squeezing a few inches off a narrow racing surface, there were no major problems during practice and Saturday’s Xfinity race.

On deferment: After serving one day of a six-race suspension, Luke Lambert is back as Ryan Newman’s crew chief for at least one race while awaiting Richard Childress Racing’s final appeal of NASCAR’s penalty for tire manipulation. Newman could use the help at Bristol, where he has only one top five in 26 starts and one top 10 in his past six races.

Who’ll stop the rain? That was the refrain at Bristol over the course of two rain delays that lasted more than six hours a year ago, and it might bear repeating Sunday. The forecast is for a daylong onslaught of precipitation, and there’ll be many fingers crossed in hoping to avoid the first postponement of a Sprint Cup race since July 2014 at Daytona International Speedway.

NASCAR releases Cup rules packages for 2021

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NASCAR announced Thursday its rules package slate for the 2021 Cup Series season, a day after next year’s schedule was unveiled.

For returning tracks to the 36-race schedule, the rules are largely unchanged save for Darlington Raceway.

Cup teams will use the 750 horsepower, low downforce race package at the 1.366-mile track. It’s the package that’s been used this season on road courses and short tracks. Nashville Superspeedway, the 1.333-mile track being added in 2021, will use the same package.

The packages for the other new race tracks – Road America, Circuit of the Americas and the Indy road course – have not been decided on.

“We constantly review the race packages to try to put on the best possible racing for our fans,” John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice Presiden of Innovation and Racing Development said in a media release. “When he brought in the short track / road course package this season, Darlington was not part of it due to its unique size. We’ve been evaluating data from both race packages, as well as feedback from drivers, teams and OEMs and feel that the 750 hp / low downforce package best fits the track.”

Other rule changes include:

  • Teams are restricted to 150 restricted computational fluid dynamics runs per calendar month.
  • Teams must compete in a minimum of 16 points events with a short block sealed engine (up from 13).

Click here for the rule packages for each Cup race in 2021.

Team Penske looks to extend Talladega dominance amid 2020 woes

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If there’s one thing Talladega Superspeedway is known for, it’s chaos.

But for as much chaos as the 2.66-mile track can provide, Talladega has another quality it produces: consistency in Victory Lane.

In the 2010s and up through the June Cup race, the consistency has been produced by Team Penske.

Since May 2012, Penske drivers have won nine of 17 races. Brad Keselowski has four of his five Talladega wins, Joey Logano has three and Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races by .007 seconds.

The other eight races were won by Roush Fenway Racing (two wins), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Front Row Motorsports (one), Chip Ganassi Racing (one), Stewart-Haas Racing (one) and Joe Gibbs Racing (one).

When it comes to races like this weekend’s playoff event (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), one would expect even more chaos and less consistency among winners.

You’d be wrong on the latter.

Penske’s three drivers have combined to win five of the last six Talladega playoff races. The winner of the sixth race was Aric Almirola in the 2018 playoff race.

Last week Keselowski observed how races at superspeedways have “ebbs and flows” with them currently resembling “a MAVTV demo derby just a little faster.”

On Thursday, the 2012 Cup champion credited Team Penske having a “great” driver lineup with its ability to win in a form of racing that’s constantly evolving.

“I think we have the strongest driver lineup in Cup right now,” Keselowski said. “I know that’s probably arguable and it’s completely subjective. That’s played to our favorite tracks like the plate tracks and we’re going to continue to try and leverage it.”

While Blaney has enjoyed recent success at Talladega with his two victories, Keselowski looks to re-establish his winning ways at the track he has five victories, the most among active drivers.

After winning the 2017 playoff race, he has five consecutive finishes of 13th or worse, including two DNFs for wrecks.

“It’s been up and down for me,” Keselowski said. “The last few races have probably been down. Last fall I thought we were going to win the race with two or three (laps) to go. We were making the pass for the lead and the next thing I know we’re all wrecked. It’s a love-hate affair with that track for sure and hopefully we’ll love it. I feel like we’re due for a good finish there.”

Keselowski enters Sunday’s race after miserable outings in the last two playoff races. He finished 34th at Bristol (power steering problems) and 13th at Las Vegas.

Talladega could be the relief Keselowski’s teammates are looking for as well.

Blaney, who was eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16, hasn’t had a top-five finish in the last nine races. Logano, while he has two top fives in the playoffs (third at Darlington and Richmond), hasn’t won since the March race at Phoenix. That was the last race before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Keselowski said “it is a bit strange” that Team Penske can view Talladega as a track where it can turn its season around.

“We haven’t been where we want to be on the mile-and-a-halfs, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “The mile-and-a-halfs and road courses have been a weak spot for us. The superspeedways and short tracks have been a strong spot for us. Thankfully we have the superspeedway this weekend and couple of short tracks coming up in the next round (Martinsville).

“We need to kind of maximize out strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This weekend is certainly looking like a strength for us. We have high expectations.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”