Upon Further Review: Sonoma

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No matter how good or mesmerizing an athlete is, eventually, time and other factors prey on their performance. Only a few continue to succeed at a high level at the end of their career.

Jeff Gordon left on his own terms, winning a race and contending for the championship last year in Miami. Tony Stewart is leaving this year and could have the opportunity to exit as Gordon did last year if things go his way.

That both scored victories in their final season — Stewart won Sunday at Sonoma — is a rarity in NASCAR. Often victory lane is closed in a driver’s final season whether it is because of the driver, team or other factors. Richard Petty didn’t win in his final eight seasons. Rusty Wallace didn’t win in his final season, although he did make the Chase back when 10 drivers made it instead of 16. Bill Elliott won in his final full-time season in 2003 but continued driving in select events the next nine years without a win. Many others have had similar fates.

Stewart is aware of the chatter about him. How some have suggested that injuries have conspired against him, how much the tragic sprint car accident in New York took out of him and how much the missed time in recent years left him behind his competitors.

“I guess the one thing that I did think about is in this day of social media where everybody is a cricket, a lot of people are crickets,’’ Stewart said Sunday of what winning in his final season means. “On social media, they sit there and chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp until they’ve got to be in front of you, and then they don’t say a damned word, and listening to people say I’m old and washed up, I know how old I am. I know I haven’t ran good for the last three years, but I’ve felt like if we got things right that it was still there.’’

That’s one of the secrets of Stewart. The three-time series champion cares what others think. It might not seem that way with what can be a gruff exterior, but he’s well aware of the detractors.

It’s been easy to scrutinize Stewart since his last victory in June 2013 at Dover. He hadn’t won in his last 84 Sprint Cup starts before Sunday. He’s finished 20th or worse 44 times since that Dover win.

Stewart showed at Sonoma that when put in the right position, he still can win. It helped that a caution came shortly after crew chief Mike Bugarewicz called Stewart to pit road, putting Stewart into the lead. Then it was a matter of holding off the field — and getting by Denny Hamlin on the last corner after losing the lead.

What Stewart displayed late is something Joey Logano, who finished third, saw early in the race from the 45-year-old driver.

“It still shows he’s got what it takes if you give him the right stuff, and he’s going to push hard when he needs to,’’ Logano said. “I noticed it from lap one. I started right next to him, and he was hammering right off the bat, and I said, ‘All right, so we’ve got that Tony Stewart today.’ There’s two different ones. It was the aggressive one all day, and obviously we saw that going into Turn 11.’’

Hamlin took the lead in Turn 7 when Stewart’s car wheel-hopped, and Hamlin slipped underneath. Stewart came back when Hamlin drifted wide and failed to negotiate the hairpin properly, giving Stewart the chance to get underneath and pass for the win.

Now the question is what kind of a threat Stewart will be in the playoffs. His team has made progress in the last few weeks, but it still has a way to go to challenge the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, Team Penske’s duo and Jimmie Johnson.

The benefit for Stewart and his team is they have 10 weeks to get ready for the playoffs with what should be little pressure once they climb into the top 30 in points. Stewart is nine points behind heading to Daytona.

“Daytona is going to be a big hurdle,’’ he said. “As much as you want to go win that thing, it’s crisis management more than anything, I think, because I think if we can get through that, I feel like our performance is good enough to get us the rest of the way there. We’ve just got to take care of ourselves to get through there.’’

Something else to consider is that with eliminations in the Chase, Stewart’s teams needs to be only 12th best in the opening round, and then the points are reset. The second round includes Talladega, which can alter any Chase, and he’ll need to be in the top eight to advance.

“We’re getting closer to being where we need to be,’’ Stewart said. “We’re not there yet, but we’ve still got time to get there, and we’ve gained a bunch of ground in a short amount of time, and if we can keep making that ground and keep getting better, who knows.’’

STREAK CONTINUES

Tony Stewart’s win Sunday was the first Cup victory for crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. It is the fourth consecutive year a crew chief has scored his first Cup win at a road course (either Sonoma Raceway or Watkins Glen International).

Adam Stevens earned his first Cup win at Sonoma last year with Kyle Busch — the first of five races they won on the way to claiming the series title.

Crew chief Brian Burns scored his first win in 2014 at Watkins Glen with AJ Allmendinger.

In 2013, crew chief Chad Johnston scored his first Cup win at Sonoma with Martin Truex Jr.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN 

AJ Allmendinger was set to restart sixth after the final caution until NASCAR penalized him for a tire violation on his pit stop. Allmendinger dropped to 35th for the restart. He rallied to finish 14th.

Had he not been penalized, he likely could have scored a top-10 finish, if not a top-five finish. That penalty could have cost him about 10 points.

With 10 races left until the Chase field is set, there still is time to overcome such a deficit, but it doesn’t make Allmendinger’s task easier if he doesn’t win a race.

Winner Tony Stewart should climb into the top 30 in points and be Chase eligible soon if not after Saturday’s race at Daytona. That provisionally would put 11 different winners in the playoffs. Last year, there were 11 different winners before the playoffs began.

If Allmendinger does not win, then points will determine if he makes the playoffs. After Sunday’s race, he’s 18th in the standings, 20 points behind Kasey Kahne for the final transfer spot at this moment after climbing a position. With another new winner or two possible, the key spot to focus on would be Austin Dillon, who is 14th in the standings (he would be 15th if Stewart were Chase eligible at this point). Dillon is 33 points ahead of Allmendinger. The most points a driver can make up on another driver in a race is 47, so Allmendinger has a ways to go.

“You are not guaranteed anything until the checkered flag.’’ Allmendinger said Sunday. “It is part of life. We win and lose as a team. We have to get our stuff straight if we actually want to be a Chase team and consider ourselves a Chase team. Another fast race car — that is all I can ask for.”

PIT STOPS

Clint Bowyer had finished in the top 20 in four of the past six races for HScott Motorsports before placing 40th on Sunday.

Dylan Lupton finished 35th in his Sprint Cup debut Sunday.

— Kurt Busch’s 10th marked his fifth top-10 finish at Sonoma in the last six races.

Carl Edwards placed fourth Sunday. He has four top-five finishes, including a win, in his last six races there.

— Jimmie Johnson’s 13th ended a streak of seven consecutive top-10 finishes at Sonoma.

— Kasey Kahne’s ninth marked his fourth consecutive top-10 at Sonoma.

Will chaos (and rain) reign on Daytona road course?

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The biggest unknown for Sunday’s inaugural Cup race on the Daytona road course?

Ryan Newman says “there are so many unknowns that it would be fabricating for me to tell you if I knew what the biggest unknown was.”

But with all the uncertainties heading into the race (3 p.m. ET on NBC) on a new course for Cup teams — and no practice — Newman is counting on one near certainty.

“I hope it rains,” he said. “I hope you add in the extra that we have to bolt on rain tires and we get something that is just spectacular. I hope that. The reality is that could be the biggest unknown that we have. We’re in Central Florida in the middle of August when it pretty much rains every day. We’ll see. I don’t know. I look forward to it.”

Good chance he gets his wish.

The wunderground.com forecast for Sunday calls for scattered thunderstorms throughout the afternoon. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:24 p.m. ET. There is a 58% chance of scattered thunderstorms at that time.

Will rain tires be needed for Sunday’s Cup race on the Daytona road course? They’ll be available. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Goodyear will bring rain tires for the weekend and teams will run in the rain, provided it is not a downpour and there is not lightning within an 8-mile radius of the track. Cup teams have never run a race on rain tires.

Only three times in Cup history have rain tires been employed. Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin used them in a test in 1995 at Watkins Glen. Teams practiced and qualified on rain tires at Suzuka in 1997 for the exhibition race in Japan. Rain tires were last used in Cup for a practice session at Watkins Glen in 2000.

Rain or shine, the task of racing on a new course without practice will be challenging enough for competitors.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being difficult, this is a 10,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports.

“I’m excited for the challenge, the uniqueness of it all, how it’s just crazy, basically.”

Said Chase Elliott, who won last year’s race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval after crashing: I’ve never entered a race where you literally just have no idea what to expect.

Patience will be key. But not all 39 drivers will practice that equally when the green flag waves.

“I’ve got laps around that track without the extra chicane but that doesn’t mean I won’t haul off into Turn 1 and blow through the grass,” Newman said. “You don’t know. It will be more patience than aggressiveness I promise you by pretty much everyone. Those that don’t, you’ll notice.”

Kevin Harvick, who swept the Cup races at Michigan last weekend, will lead the field into Turn 1 and he’s not sure what to expect.

“I think me leading everybody into Turn 1 at Daytona could be interesting because I have no freaking clue where I’m going as we go down there,” he said. “Most everybody in the field is the same way.”

Turn 1 on the Daytona road course is a left-hand turn off the frontstretch just past pit exit. That begins the six-turn infield portion of the 3.61-mile course before cars return to the oval in what is its Turn 1. 

Teams stay on the oval through the backstretch before turning into the chicane there and going back on to the oval. A chicane was added off what is Turn 4 on the oval to help slow the cars before returning to the infield portion of the course. That was done for fear that the high speeds would wear the brakes over the race.

“I think it’s going to take everybody a little bit of time,” Matt Kenseth told NBC Sports. “I think there are going to be some people who have raced road courses a lot that probably feel more confident than others and possibly be overzealous and just charging it hard right away, and there’s probably going to be other people who are careful and see how many people slide into things. … It should be really interesting. If I was a fan, I’d be all about not having practice.”

Hailie Deegan: Road courses are ‘one of my stronger suits’

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Many drivers will be navigating the Daytona road course for the first time this weekend.

Hailie Deegan is not one of them.

Deegan, who competes in the ARCA Menards Series, will be in the field when the series takes to the 14-turn, 3.61-mile circuit for practice and a race Friday evening (5 p.m. ET on Trackpass).

“I’m pretty excited because this was not one of the races we had planned on our schedule,” Deegan told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast earlier this week. “At the beginning of the year I saw all the races, obviously to see which ones you’re looking forward to, like your favorites and stuff and obviously this on wasn’t on there.  … I like road courses. I raced at Sonoma about twice (in ARCA Menards West). I was decent there, I qualified on the pole one of the times (2019) there against a lot of good drivers. It was a confirmation that, ‘Ok, we’re decent at road courses.'”

Deegan, who enters the race fourth in the point standings behind Michael Self, first got a shot at the road course at the beginning of the year. As a Ford development driver, she took part in multiple days of testing before competing in a Michelin Pilot Challenge race in a GT4 Mustang.

“I would not say I’m perfect at road courses,” Deegan said. “But I feel that’s one of my stronger suits. I’m trying to learn this whole stock car world. Circle track, everything like that, that’s all been a foreign concept. So everything I’m learning I’m learning for the first time. But when we go back to road courses, I grew up in go karting, I grew up racing off-road trucks on courses where you turn right and left. So that’s not a foreign concept to me. So I feel more comfortable on road courses, especially with us only getting an hour of practice and all the time I have on that track.

“I have so many days of practice from the beginning of the year on that track. Obviously, it’s a different car, a GT4 Mustang.  … It’s easy to drive, but hard to be fast in an IMSA car. (While) the stock cars are harder to drive, but you have that experience, I feel like you can have a little bit of an advantage over people.”

With eight races left in the season, Deegan will try to take that advantage to victory lane for his first career ARCA win. The last time she visited Daytona in February, she finished second in the season opener to Self.

NASCAR’s weekend schedule for Daytona road course

Daytona road course
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For the first time this weekend, NASCAR will compete on the Daytona road course.

All three of NASCAR’s national series and the ARCA Menards Series will take to the 14-turn, 3.61-mile circuit, culminating in Sunday’s Cup Series race.

This weekend takes the place of the race at Watkins Glen International for Cup and Xfinity.

Kevin Harvick will start on the pole for Sunday’s Cup race. Austin Cindric will lead the Xfinity field to green on Saturday.

Here is the weekend schedule for the Daytona road course.

(All times Eastern)

Thursday, Aug. 13

10:30 a.m. – ARCA driver-spotter-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

11 – 11:30 a.m. – ARCA rookie meeting (teleconference)

11:30 a.m. – Noon – ARCA crew chief meeting (teleconference)

3 – 4 p.m. – ARCA haulers enter (screening in progress)

5:30 – 7:30 p.m. – Driver motorhome parking (screening in progress)

 

Friday, Aug. 14

9 a.m. – ARCA garage opens

9 a.m. – 4 p.m. – ARCA garage access screening in progress

2 – 3 p.m. – ARCA practice

3:30 p.m. – Xfinity rookie meeting (electronic communication)

4 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

4:50 p.m. – ARCA drivers report to their cars

5 p.m. – ARCA race; 28 laps/101.08 miles miles (MAVTV, Motor Racing Network)

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

7:30 p.m. – ARCA haulers exit

 

Saturday, Aug. 15

6 – 8:30 a.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening and equipment upload)

8:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

8:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. – Garage screening in progress

2 – 4 p.m. – Truck Series haulers enter (screening in progress and equipment unload)

2:50 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to cars

3 p.m. – Xfinity race; 52 laps/187.72 miles (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

4 – 7 p.m. – Truck Series garage access screening in progress

4 – 8 p.m. – Truck Series garage open

4:30 – 5 p.m. – Truck Series rookie meeting (teleconference)

4:30 p.m. – Cup rookie meeting (electronic communication)

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

5:30 p.m. – Xfinity haulers exit

 

Sunday, Aug. 16

6 – 8 a.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening in progress and equipment unload)

8 a.m. – Cup garage opens

8 a.m. – 2 p.m.  – Cup garage access screening in progress

9 a.m. – Truck Series garage opens

9 – 11 a.m. – Truck Series garage access screening in progress

11:40 a.m. – Truck Series drivers report to vehicles

Noon – Truck Series race; 44 laps/158.85 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

2:30 p.m. – Truck Series haulers exit

2:50 p.m. – Cup drivers report to cars

3 p.m. – Cup race; 65 laps/234.65 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

6:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit

NASCAR updates its COVID-19 guidelines

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NASCAR issued an update to teams to the sanctioning body’s COVID-19 guidelines this week.

If after 10 days, a NASCAR member is unable to produce two negative PCR tests, their return status may be medically reviewed by a NASCAR Consulting physician. Previously, a NASCAR member needed to have two negative tests more than 24 hours apart and a note from their physician to be cleared to compete.

MORE: Spencer Davis cleared to race after COVID-19 recovery

Truck Series driver Spencer Davis is the third driver to be cleared to resume racing after a positive test. He missed last week’s race at Michigan. Jimmie Johnson missed the Indianapolis race in July after a positive test. Brendan Gaughan is racing this weekend for the first time since he tested positive for COVID-19 in July.

NASCAR cites new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with updating the sport’s COVID-19 guidelines.

“As we’ve said since our return, NASCAR’s health and safety plans will continue to evolve, with the goal remaining the same – a safe event for both our competitors and the communities in which we race,” said John Bobo, NASCAR vice president, racing operations, in a statement. “NASCAR will continue to implement and execute a comprehensive plan to ensure the health and safety of our competitors and the surrounding communities.”

Here are NASCAR’s updated COVID-19 guidelines:

Confirmed Positive Cases – Symptomatic and Asymptomatic Cases. Confirmed positive cases may return to racing activities after they have received two negative test results taken at least 24 hours apart.

A. If after 10 days, a NASCAR Member is unable to produce two negative PCR tests, their return status may be medically reviewed by a NASCAR Consulting physician.

  • New CDC guidance of July 22, 2020, recommends discontinuing PCR testing after the conclusion of the 10-day isolation period for the onset symptoms for the initial COVID-19 infection, if a person is fever-free for a minimum of 24 hours without the use of medication.
  • Please note: Based on advice from consulting physicians, NASCAR counts the 10 days from the date of the first positive PCR test for COVID-19.
  • In its guidance, CDC research indicates that in no instances yet discovered has there been a case where the virus is able to self-replicate beyond the 10th day following a positive test among individuals who are not immunosuppressed and did not have severe disease (e.g. requiring ICU stay or ventilation), so an individual in this situation poses no harm to others.  In the event that the individual continues to be tested, it is very likely that the individual will continue to return positive results.
  • Based on this new CDC guidance, NASCAR consulting physicians would review the individual’s situation and determine if they appropriately fit the CDC requirements before being allowed to return to racing without two negative PCR tests.

B. They must also have written clearance from their personal physician to resume all racing activity.

Confirmed exposure to a positive COVID-19 person. Those exposed individuals are required to stand-down from competition and self-isolate. They may return to racing activities after they have received one negative test. NASCAR in its discretion may request a second test for clearance based on the nature of the exposure. Please note: a confirmed exposure is based on a totality of the circumstances as determined by NASCAR in consultation with their consulting physicians. Analysis will include: identifying people exposed over the last 10 days, accumulated time greater than 10 minutes, direct skin contact (shaking hands, etc.), lack of social distancing and the level of PPE use among the individuals involved in the contact.