Long: The struggles it takes just to be an underdog in NASCAR

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INDIANAPOLIS – This is the part of racing you don’t see, the part overshadowed by victory lane celebrations, teams so big that their complex rivals a small campus and drivers whose uniforms are speckled with sponsor logos.

As darkness descended upon Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday, a team’s car owner and driver went to a nearby home improvement store to buy lights so the crew could keep working on its car outside the Sprint Cup garage.

While crew members from other teams relaxed in hotels after a nearly 12-hour day, this crew was turning an Erector Set into a racecar under a starry sky.

As third-shift employees arrived at their jobs throughout the city, these crew members surpassed their 17th hour of work with two hours to go.

“We could have stayed all night, but we were tired,’’ crew chief Scott Eggleston said.

They went to their hotels and got maybe three hours sleep before returning.

That Timmy Hill will start today’s Brickyard 400 is remarkable considering what his understaffed, overworked crew did in less than 24 hours.

“These guys, they work plenty of hours as it is,’’ said Hill, who starts 42nd. “I can’t thank them enough.’’

Hill’s Premium Motorsports team is a small operation. Some teams brought more engineers to the track this week than there were crew members on Hill’s car.

With limited funds and resources, the team focused on preparing Hill’s primary car at the shop this week. When he crashed in Friday’s final Cup practice, it seemed unlikely Hill would make one of the sport’s highest-paying races. Winnings for every car in last year’s race at Indy was at least $119,950. Last place last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway paid $54,155.

Hill’s accident was too severe to repair the primary car. The contact knocked the front bumper bars back a couple of feet and shifted the motor plate, car chief Kevin Eagle said.

Going to a backup car wasn’t as simple as pulling it out of the hauler and sticking the driver in as it is for bigger organizations. The team was fortunate to even have a backup car. Eggleston said owner Jay Robinson had told the team to take the backup car off the hauler before leaving for Indy. The team didn’t have time to do so because they were too busy prepping the primary car.

Sean Irvan, the team’s engine tuner, marveled at Eagle’s determination in getting the car ready last week, noting Eagle “went in at 8:30 a.m. Monday morning and didn’t go home until the truck loaded Thursday morning.

“He slept a couple of hours in the shop. When we went to lunch, that was the only time he left the shop. It makes you work a little bit harder because you know they’re giving their heart and soul.’’

That backup left in the hauler was truly a skeleton. It had no motor, no transmission, no gears, no fuel cell. Thus, there wasn’t a reason to keep it on the truck because of all the work needed to ready it to race.

“When we rolled it out,’’ Eagle said of the backup car, “all it was just a body and a seat.’’

The crew began their work. Soon crew members from other teams arrived to help. A crew of five became about 20 people working on the car at one point, Eagle said.

“I don’t know who they were,’’ Eggleston said of many of the extra helpers. “I really don’t know where they came from, but they came and helped and came back (Saturday) morning and helped.’’

The team needed that. Scheduled to go first in qualifying because they had the slowest speed in Friday’s practice, the team was late for inspection. Once cleared, Hill jumped into a car he had worked on the night before but had not driven.

It was the slowest car. Hill’s qualifying speed of 166.018 mph was more than 19 mph slower than pole-sitter Carl Edwards’ time.

Hill made the race because his car ranked ahead high enough  in the owner points standings, which is used to determine provisionals.

“It’s an awful lot of work to come here and just have to turn around and leave without getting into the feature race,’’ said James Smith, who drives the team’s hauler and helps the crew.

Instead of leaving Friday night, Smith won’t be traveling until tonight – after his team has raced.

 

Alex Bowman fastest in final Cup practice at Auto Club Speedway

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Alex Bowman completed a sweep of Friday’s Cup Series practice sessions at Auto Club Speedway by posting the top speed in final practice. He was also fastest in first practice.

Bowman’s top speed was 176.626 mph. He recorded 32 laps in the session.

The top five was completed by Ryan Blaney (176.186 mph), Bubba Wallace (176.177), Kurt Busch (175.816) and Christopher Bell (175.695).

Bowman also had the best 10-lap average at 175.317 mph.

Kurt Busch recorded the most laps with 47.

The only incident in the session was defending race winner Kyle Busch brushing the wall in Turn 3 after his car got away from him on the bumps in the corner. Repairs were made to the car and Busch returned to the track with 17 minutes left in the session.

Click here for the speed chart.

 

Alex Bowman tops field in opening Cup practice at Auto Club

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Alex Bowman posted the fastest lap in opening Cup practice Friday at Auto Club Speedway. Bowman ran a top lap of 179.439 mph.

Bowman was followed by Kyle Larson (177.703 mph), Tyler Reddick (177.607), Kurt Busch (177.375) and Matt DiBenedetto (176.609).

Click here for full practice report

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Cup practice is scheduled from 5:35-6:25 p.m. ET today. Qualifying will be Saturday.

Xfinity practice report at Auto Club Speedway

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Harrison Burton was fastest in the final Xfinity Series practice session Friday at Auto Club Speedway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver recorded 22 laps and posted a top speed of 174.474 mph in the 25-minute session.

The top five was completed by Noah Gragson (173.779 mph), Austin Cindric (173.775), Chase Briscoe (173.578) and Brandon Jones (173.578).

Burton also had the best 10-lap average at 170.422 mph.

Gragson recorded the most laps in the session with 25.

There were no incidents in the session.

Click here for the practice report.

First practice

Noah Gragson led the way for the Xfinity Series in the opening practice session that saw more than half the 50-minute period under caution at Auto Club Speedway

Gragson ran a top lap of 177.139 mph. He was followed by Austin Cindric (176.022), Daniel Hemric (175.400), Brandon Jones (175.366) and Harrison Burton (175.187).

Click here for full practice report

Alex Labbe brought out the caution when an oil line came loose and he put oil down on the track. The cleanup took about 20 minutes.

Tommy Joe Martins brought out the caution late in the session with smoke coming from the car and then a small fire in the right front of the car.

 

 

Kyle Busch on Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson chasing bounty: ‘Bring it on’

Kyle Busch
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Twenty-four hours made quite a difference for Kyle Busch‘s tune regarding the $100,000 bounty placed against him in the Truck Series.

Thursday had the Joe Gibbs Racing driver outright dismissing the idea any full-time Cup driver would pursue the bounty, citing the $140,000 cost to rent a truck.

Then Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson dropped the hammer Thursday night, courtesy of a deal with GMS Racing. Elliott will have two shots at it, on March 14 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and May 30 at Kansas Speedway. Larson steps to the plate March 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Busch’s response?

“Bring it on.”

Busch addressed Elliott and Larson entering the bounty ring Friday during his media session at Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s all good,” Busch said. “I think it’s going to be interesting, exciting, whatever you want to term it.  I guess Cup drivers in the truck series do sell tickets. You know, take that for what it’s worth. I think it’s a unique opportunity for more attention on the series, which is good. Maybe if more drivers had more teams than had rides, there would be something else there besides just myself.”

The bounty is a joint effort by Kevin Harvick and Gander RV & Outdoors CEO Marcus Lemonis in the wake of Busch winning the last seven truck series races he’s entered, dating back to 2018.

If no Cup driver beats Busch in his remaining four Truck Series starts, the $100,000 will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

Atlanta Motor Speedway

“It’s brought a whole new chatter to (the truck series,” Busch said. “Whether that’s excitement or just chatter, I’m not sure which. I think we’ll see when we get to Atlanta what the grandstands look like and how the race goes.”

Even before the announcement by the drivers Thursday night, Busch had already given thought to the Cup competitors he could potentially square off against for the bounty and who his biggest threat was.

“I don’t remember who I told, but once Harvick kind of put the idea out there, I was like, ‘The guy who is really, really, really, gonna have a shot is Larson at Homestead,” Busch said.

The 1.5-mile track in Florida is widely viewed as Larson’s best track. He’s made three starts there in the truck series. He has two top fives, including placing fourth there in 2016 with GMS Racing.

But the first stop in the bounty challenge is Chase Elliott and his home track of Atlanta.

Harrison Burton, who raced for Busch last year in the truck series, shared his experience competing against Busch at Atlanta last year, a race Busch won.

“It’s going to be hard to beat Kyle, I know that much,” Burton said Friday. “I ran trucks last year and ran second to him for a lot of laps at Atlanta especially. I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’m about a tenth better than the field and he’s about three-tenths better than me so this is pretty impressive.’ Ran second most of that day. Didn’t finish second, but Chase is going to have his work cut out for him there and (Kyle) Larson is going to have his work cut out for him at Miami. Kyle hasn’t raced Miami in a truck in a long time because of the playoff schedule so that might be — Chase has a steeper hill to climb than Larson.”

Atlanta and its owner, Speedway Motorsports, also are getting involved in the show.

SMI and the track announced Friday a way for fans to contribute $5 to the charities of Elliott, Busch or Harvick through ticket purchases.

Fans who purchase a ticket to the March 14 NASCAR doubleheader – which includes the truck series race (1:30 p.m. on FS1) and a Xfinity Series race (4:00 p.m. on FS1) – can choose the driver and driver foundations that will benefit.

If additional challengers emerge, the drivers and their respective charities will also become eligible.

Fans can ensure their ticket purchase helps the driver charity of their choice by purchasing through the AMS ticket office (877-9-AMS-TIX) and stating the driver and foundation of choice or by going to https://www.atlantamotorspeedway.com/bounty/ and choosing their preferred driver. Tickets for the Saturday NASCAR Doubleheader – which includes the Georgia 200 bounty challenge race – are free for children 12 and under.

“The anticipation for this race and the buzz around this bounty is growing every day,” said SMI CEO Marcus Smith in a press release. “Where the drivers saw a chance to inject more fun and excitement into this race, we see a chance to step it up even more and help some people in need through some very worthy driver charities.”