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Jeff Gordon explains how rest of replacement schedule was set for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – Jeff Gordon had a “Welcome to Darlington Raceway” moment in Southern 500 practice Saturday, but this wasn’t the rude awakening the track has delivered to many NASCAR newcomers.

For the seven-time winner at the 1.366-mile oval (twice as many victories as any active driver), this was more surreal daydream than shock to the system.

“I had something happen to me today that’s never happened in my whole career,” Gordon said with a smile after the final Sprint Cup practice. “I’m out there running laps, and I had a moment where I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m out here at Darlington. What in the world am I doing here at Darlington?’

“But it was a cool moment. I was excited about it. So things are going well. I’m having fun here.”

Sunday’s race will mark the fifth for Gordon (who was 14th fastest in both rescheduled practices Saturday) in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is out for the rest of the season while recovering from a concussion. Hendrick Motorsports announced Friday the No. 88 Chevrolet will be split for the final 12 races between Alex Bowman and Gordon.

The four-time series champion will race Earnhardt’s car in the next two races at Darlington and Richmond International Raceway before turning the car over to Bowman for eight of the last 10 races. Gordon will race again at Dover International Speedway and Martinsville Speedway – tracks where he has combined for 14 victories.

Though the schedule lines up well with his strengths, Gordon said it wasn’t solely set by his preference. Bowman will race New Hampshire Motor Speedway because he already filled in for Earnhardt there in July. Because of schedule conflicts, Gordon can’t race at some 1.5-mile tracks, so it made more sense to keep Bowman at all of them.

“It’d be best for the team for him to be in all of those,” Gordon said. “We know he’s a talented driver, too, and want to see what he’s capable of doing. He does a lot of work in the simulator for us. Matching up actual race data and conditions to the simulator helps us develop the simulator, too.”

Making the schedule was a collaborative effort involving input from multiple sources.

“It’s a combination of what’s best for the team, what’s best for the sponsors and sort of Junior’s wishes as well,” Gordon said. “He’s big on Alex Bowman, and the team has really enjoyed having him in the car. We want to make sure our sponsors are getting everything out of it as well. They do a lot for us.

“So if I can help them on or off the track, or Junior do the same thing when he’s not in the car. And then Alex, the same thing. Everyone has enjoyed having him in the car. I was just happy to do whatever they wanted me to do, but when we knew this was coming, we sat down and looked at the tracks and thought about what was best for everybody.”

Earnhardt’s misfortune will give Gordon a chance to defend his Nov. 1, 2015 victory at Martinsville that seemed the last of his career after his 2015 retirement.

“When you leave there as a winner, you kind of don’t want to mess that up, but it’s also a track that I like a lot, and I feel confident at,” he said. “Depending on how this all goes with owner points, I’m hoping that we can be in a similar position to what we were last year from an owners point standpoint and go do something special there.”

Earnhardt’s car currently is eligible for the owners championship in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. If the car qualifies and advances to the third round, a repeat win at Martinsville would advance the car to the championship.

Gordon is a nine-time winner at the 0.526-mile oval, which he had singled out for potential one-off starts in retirement.

Could he win?

“I don’t see why we couldn’t,” he said. “It’s not about aerodynamics as much. I think our power is really good. We won there last year, and I don’t think a lot has changed other than less spoiler and splitter.

“The question is were we the best car there at that time? (Joey) Logano was pretty good. I felt I had something for him on the long run, but we didn’t know. So to me, I think we’ve got to be a little better than we were last year if we’re going to win this year.”

That would be a boost to a No. 88 crew that has weathered uncertainty for nearly two months.

“This team cares about Junior so much,” Gordon said. “They love him. They want him back. They’re handling it amazing. They really are.

“They’re in a really tough situation because not only is Junior not coming back this year, but they’ve got two different drivers they’ve got to work with, but they’ve handled it amazing. Their demeanor and attitude about it has been phenomenal. It’s really been a great experience for me, because I’ve spent so much time with the No. 24 team over the last 23 years, that going into the shop of the (Nos.) 48-88 guys, spending time with (crew chief) Greg (Ives), it’s been great for my new role at Hendrick. It’s allowed me to bond with those guys as well as the bond I have with my guys and see kind of how the teams work separately and together.”

 

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.”