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‘A major milestone’: Crew chief Adam Stevens recalls Kyle Busch’s 2015 win at Sonoma

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Don’t call it a comeback, crew chief Adam Stevens says about Kyle Busch’s stunner at Sonoma Raceway last year.

Or at least, don’t call it a comeback starting with the victory that permanently changed the tenor and trajectory of a 2015 Sprint Cup season that began with a broken right leg and fractured left foot the day before the Daytona 500.

“The comeback began before Kyle left the hospital in Daytona,” Stevens told NBC Sports in a phone interview. “When he committed himself to returning and doing all the hard things he was going to have to do to get his body back in shape to be able to drive a race car again. That’s when it really began.

“The win was a huge, huge part of everything we had to do to make it into the Chase. … There was still a lot of work that we had to do to make the Chase. Certainly the biggest hurdle of that whole thing was winning a race. So in that aspect, I wouldn’t say that’s where the comeback began, but it was certainly a major milestone in the comeback.”

In his return to Sonoma this weekend as the defending race winner and series champion, Busch is on much firmer ground. The 31-year-old virtually has qualified for the playoffs with three victories in the first 15 races. His No. 18 Toyota team consistently has been fast while enjoying the continuity of personnel, particularly behind the wheel.

Circumstances were much different on his last trip to the 1.99-mile road course in the wine country of Northern California.

To win his first Sprint Cup title, Busch had to overcome missing the first 11 races of the season because of injuries sustained in a crash during the Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway. NASCAR granted a waiver allowing Busch to make the playoffs despite not starting every race, but he still needed a win – along with cracking the top 30 in points.

In the first four races of his return last season, Busch twice finished outside the top 35 – leaving him a staggering 173 points behind 30th in the points standings and only 11 races to close the margin before the regular season.

For Stevens and team, the task was daunting.

“It’s a huge gap,” he said. “We dug the hole deeper.”

Stevens quickly assembled a plan to keep tabs on the deficit to 30th and translated it into what Busch’s average finish needed to be to overcome the margin.

“Every week, I tried to glance at that and keep that in perspective,” he said. “If you were having not your best weekend, there’s no point in making it worse trying to swing for the fence when really what you need is that average finish.”

But the main challenge still would be winning – and that didn’t seem certain until Sonoma.

“You know you can average a 15th-place finish, but that’s well within the capability of a Joe Gibbs Racing team,” Stevens said. “That’s a matter of not making mistakes. Winning a race in this series is tough. For a rookie crew chief and first-year team, it’s even tougher. Not having past history to know where you stack up and know how it’s all going to work out, that was by far the biggest hurdle we had to cross. Being able to jump that hurdle fairly early in the process lets you change the focus and relieve a major burden from the team going forward.

“Trying to predict if you get a win, there’s absolutely no guarantee that’s going to happen. It’s hard to say we’re going to score the points we need every weekend, and by the way, we need to win a race. Those two things don’t always work together. But when you can pull one of them out of the equation, that’s a lot more easy to achieve.”

The degree of difficulty was compounded by the relative inexperience of Stevens and team. Though he and much of the crew had notched 19 victories with Busch in the Xfinity Series, its first year in Cup began with a trial by fire.

But Stevens said it did have the team battle-tested when Busch finally was behind the wheel after a nearly three-month layoff.

“We had had a variety of experiences that a lot of teams don’t get to have,” Stevens said. “Not all of them would we choose to have again, but still you learn from those things and grow as a teammate and an individual through them. Then when you’re faced with the next adverse situation, you’re probably a little bit quicker to make a decision and more often going to make a correct decision and get through it.”

The toughest task for Stevens was working with three drivers (Matt Crafton, David Ragan, Erik Jones) who provided varying levels and styles of communication.

“Trying to relay that feedback into changes that were going to help the car for how they wanted to drive it” was tough, Stevens said. “With the series itself being new to me at that point and the cars and the rules, throw in the variable of getting someone else’s feedback that I’m not used to kind of made you approach the weekend in a different way.

“(It) made you think about things at a different level and a different type of feedback that we were getting from all the guys who helped us out, and being able to readapt that to Kyle.”

The transition rapidly evened out after Sonoma, which kicked off a stretch of three victories in four races for Busch that catapulted him into title contention.

His car mostly has seemed unstoppable since then … until this year’s run-up to Sonoma.

Busch has finished outside the top 30 in the past four consecutive races.

“There’s concerns over the finishes but not concerns over the job we’ve been doing or the cars we put on the racetrack,” Stevens said. “I feel we’ve had competitive cars. There’s been a couple of situations where we’ve probably experimented some and tried to learn things that maybe didn’t pan out, but by and large, I feel like our program is headed in a positive direction. Hopefully, we can put some races together soon to show everybody that.”

It took only one race last year.

RCR, Hendrick to collaborate on Chevy engine

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Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing will team up on research and development of a common Chevrolet engine after the conclusion of the 2020 season, the teams announced Thursday.

The two organizations will continue to function independently as they “fully leverage the knowledge and intellectual property of our two successful programs to advance Chevrolet’s engine for NASCAR,” they said in a joint statement.

Engines produced by Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing (via ECR Engines) have earned a combined 20 Cup titles and the two teams have totaled 369 Cup wins.

Jeff Andrews, the new executive vice president at Hendrick Motorsports, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” Thursday that discussions about the venture between his team and RCR began two years ago.

“The day was going to come when we really needed to figure out how to get these two programs together,” Andrews said. “A tremendous amount of talent, people and a tremendous amount of equipment and resources between the two programs. How could we do this? How could we take the longstanding heritage between these two companies and get that together to start working on an alliance that truly would produce the ultimate powertrain for Chevrolet NASCAR?”

RCR is headquartered in Welcome, North Carolina and Hendrick’s campus is in Concord, North Carolina.

“I think when you step back and look at it, ultimately you have to get to a point to where, when you have these resources and you have these people, we have to do what’s best for Chevrolet, first and foremost, to continue to push their performance and get them back to the front of the field and get them wins and championships,” Andrews said. “Really, we work together in a very similar fashion. We started two years ago on the aerodynamic side with our groups working very close together and we’re kind of taking somewhat of that template and applying to the engine side in starting this joint alliance.”

Chevrolet last won a Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson earned his record-tying seventh championship. Since then, Chevy has not had a car reach the championship four.

The Cup Series is in the middle of the Round of 12. The series races Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Of the 12 cars that remain, four are Chevrolets: Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch.

Chevrolet cars have won six times through 30 races this season. That’s compared to seven wins in all of 2019, four in 2018 and and 10 in 2017.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega

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The NASCAR playoffs roll on this weekend to Talladega Superspeedway.

All three national series will be racing on NASCAR’s largest oval. The weekend will be capped off by the Cup Series’ Round of 12 race.

More: Denny Hamlin on pole for Cup race at Talladega

MORE: 2021 Cup schedule features new tracks, bold changes 

Here is the weekend schedule for Talladega:

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Oct. 2

Noon – 2 p.m. – Driver motorhome parking (screening in progress)

1 – 3 p.m. – Truck Series haulers enter (screening and equipment unload)

3 – 9 p.m. – Truck Series garage open

3 – 8 p.m. – Truck Series garage access screening

3:30 – 4 p.m. – Truck Series rookie meeting (teleconference)

5:30 p.m. – Xfinity rookie meeting (teleconference)

6 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

8:30 – 10:30 p.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening in progress)

 

Saturday, Oct. 3

7:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

7:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. – Xfinity garage access (screening in progress)

10 a.m. – Truck Series garage opens

10 a.m. – Noon – Truck Series garage access (screening in progress)

12:45 p.m. – Truck Series drivers report to vehicles

1 p.m. – Truck Series race; 94 laps/250.04 miles (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

4 p.m. – Truck Series haulers exit

4:05 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to cars

4:30 p.m. – Xfinity race; 113 laps/300.58 miles (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5:30 p.m. – Cup rookie meeting (electronic communication)

6 p.m. – Cup driver-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7:30 p.m. – Xfinity haulers exit

8:30 – 10:30 p.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening in progress and equipment unload)

 

Sunday, Oct. 4

7 a.m. – Cup garage opens

7 a.m. – 1 p.m. – Cup garage access screening in progress

1:30 p.m. – Cup drivers report to cars

1:30 p.m. – Driver introductions

2 p.m. – Cup race; 188 laps/500 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

6:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit

2021 NASCAR Cup schedule features new tracks, bold changes

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The 2021 Cup schedule features the first race on a dirt track for the series in more than 50 years, three new venues and six road course points races.

Responding to fan interest, the series adds three road course events to the 2021 schedule. Those new races are May 23 at Circuit of the Americas, July 4 at Road America and Aug. 15 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. The other points races on road courses in 2021 will be at Sonoma, Watkins Glen and the Charlotte Roval. The Daytona road course will host the Busch Clash exhibition race.

The race that might gain the most attention, though, could be the March 28 Cup race at Bristol. The track will be converted to dirt.

There are no midweek races. Pocono Raceway continues to have the only doubleheader weekend. There is a two-week break in late July/early August during the Olympics. NBC’s portion of the schedule will begin with the June 20 race at Nashville Superspeedway.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president & chief racing development officer, says the plan is to have practice and qualifying for new venues (Circuit of the Americas, Road America, Nashville) and new configurations (Indy road course) along with key events (Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Phoenix championship weekend). The plan is for the other races to be one-day shows.

The schedule is flush with change. Here’s a look at those changes:

NEW EVENTS

March 28 – Bristol Dirt race: It is the first Cup race on dirt since 1970 at Raleigh, a race won by Richard Petty.

May 9 – Darlington: The track that NASCAR returned to after the season was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic this year will host two races in 2021. The track adds a spring date and it will be run on Mother’s Day. It will be only the third time in the last 40 years Cup has run on Mother’s Day. The added race comes from Michigan International Speedway, which will have one race in 2021.

May 23 – Circuit of the Americas: Inaugural race for the series on the road course in Austin, Texas that has hosted Formula One and IndyCar, among other series.

June 13 – All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway: First time the All-Star race has been held at this track. Marks third different year for the event after being in Charlotte in 2019 and Bristol this year.

June 20 – Nashville: The 1.333-mile track will hold its first race for Cup. The track hosted Xfinity and Truck races from 2001-11. The date comes from a Dover, leaving that race with one NASCAR race weekend in 2021. This weekend begins NBC Sports’ coverage of NASCAR races.

July 4- Road America: Will host the Cup Series for the first time. Gets holiday weekend with July 4 date. The date comes from Chicagoland Speedway, which will not have a NASCAR race in 2021.

July 11 – Atlanta: Kentucky race date moves to Atlanta to give track a second race. The first race at the track in 2021 will be March 21.

Aug. 15 – Indianapolis road course: After comping on the oval since 1994, Cup moves to the road course. Will be a part of a race weekend with the IndyCar Series. 

OTHER DATES OF NOTE

Feb. 21 – Miami: Moves to second race of the season and comes a week after Daytona 500.

Feb. 28 – Auto Club: Moves up a week earlier and this will be its last race as a 2-mile track. Track will be converted into a short track after this event for 2022.

April 10 – Martinsville: Track hosted its first night race in June but did not have fans because of the coronavirus. This April race will be at night. Provided fans will be allowed at that point, it will be their first time to witness a night Cup race there.

July 25 & Aug. 1: No Cup races because of the Olympics. 

Sept. 5 – Nov. 7: Cup playoffs. Same 10 tracks as 2020. Only difference is Texas and Kansas flip-flop weekends in the Round of 8. Texas will open that round on Oct. 17. Kansas will follow on Oct. 24. Round of 8 ends at Martinsville on Oct. 31. Phoenix again will host the title race, doing so Nov. 7.

 

2021 NASCAR CUP SERIES SCHEDULE

(Times, weekend schedule and TV info to be announced later)

 

Date Race / Track
Tuesday, February 9 Clash (Daytona Road Course)
Thursday, February 11 Duel at Daytona
Sunday, February 14 Daytona 500
Sunday, February 21 Homestead-Miami
Sunday, February 28 Auto Club
Sunday, March 7 Las Vegas
Sunday, March 14 Phoenix
Sunday, March 21 Atlanta
Sunday, March 28 Bristol Dirt
Saturday, April 10 Martinsville
Sunday, April 18 Richmond
Sunday, April 25 Talladega
Sunday, May 2 Kansas
Sunday, May 9 Darlington
Sunday, May 16 Dover
Sunday, May 23 COTA
Sunday, May 30 Charlotte
Sunday, June 6 Sonoma
Sunday, June 13 All-Star (Texas)
Sunday, June 20 Nashville Superspeedway
Saturday & Sunday, June 26-27 Pocono Doubleheader
Sunday, July 4 Road America
Sunday, July 11 Atlanta
Sunday, July 18 New Hampshire
Sunday, August 8 Watkins Glen
Sunday, August 15 Indianapolis Road Course
Sunday, August 22 Michigan
Saturday, August 28 Daytona
Sunday, September 5 Darlington
Saturday, September 11 Richmond
Saturday, September 18 Bristol
Sunday, September 26 Las Vegas
Sunday, October 3 Talladega
Sunday, October 10 Charlotte Roval
Sunday, October 17 Texas
Sunday, October 24 Kansas
Sunday, October 31 Martinsville
Sunday, November 7 Phoenix
  • Races in bold are playoff races

 

 

All-Star Race moves to Texas in 2021

All-Star Race
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The All-Star Race moves to Texas Motor Speedway in 2021, marking the third different track the event will held in a three-year period.

The 2021 race will be held June 13, the track announced Wednesday. Eddie Gossage, track president, said the race will be at night. He said he will talk to NASCAR about a format and wants to have fans play a role in the event.

The complete 2021 Cup schedule will be announced Wednesday afternoon by NASCAR.

MORE: COTA to host Cup road course race in 2021

MORE: 2021 Cup schedule features new tracks, bold changes 

The All-Star Race was held from 1985-2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway except for 1986 when Atlanta Motor Speedway held the race. The event moved to Bristol Motor Speedway in July because of COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings in North Carolina.

Chase Elliott won Bristol All-Star Race.

Texas also announced it will host a NASCAR Camping World Truck race June 11 on All-Star weekend. The Xfinity Series will race June 12.

Texas will remain in the playoffs in 2021. It will host a Cup playoff race Oct. 17. The Xfinity Series will race at Texas on Oct. 16.