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Nowhere to run – Talladega provides few safe havens for drivers

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — At a track where a NASCAR driver once claimed a voice told him to park his car during a race, is there really anyplace safe to run at Talladega Superspeedway?

That’s a question many Chase drivers wonder with the field of title contenders cut from 12 to eight after Sunday’s race at NASCAR’s fastest, longest and quite possibly scariest racetrack.

“I have wrecked racing up front, I’ve wrecked in the back and I’ve wrecked in the middle, and I can tell you it just feels better to be up front,’’ Carl Edwards said.

While many drivers agree that the front provides the safest place, NBC Sports’ study of incidents in the last five Talladega races raises questions about that assumption.

In more than half of the incidents (11 of 20) in the last five Cup races at Talladega, the first car involved was running in the top 10.

Of those 11 incidents, nearly half (five) started with a car in the top five, including the leader once.

The May race proved that running at the front was not as safe as drivers figured. Six of the eight accidents started with a car in the top 10. NASCAR’s race report listed 36 of the 40 cars as being involved in at least one incident.

Chase Elliott, one of four drivers not listed in an incident in that race, said that threat of rain increased the intensity and led to the chaotic pace.

“I think we were all pretty antsy because we felt like that rain could be there anytime,’’ said Elliott, who finished fifth in that race. “To me, the entire race looked like the last 20 laps of a typical weekend. To me, it didn’t have the same feel as the Daytona 500 did or the Fourth of July Daytona race did.’’

Twice in the May race at Talladega, a car running fourth was involved in an incident.

Michael Waltrip was running fourth when a shove from Martin Truex Jr, who was being pushed by Joey Logano, forced Waltrip off the track on the backstretch. He tried to run back up the track in Turn 3 but two other cars were collected.

In the other incident, Jimmie Johnson was fourth at the time when he lost control after being pushed by Kurt Busch. Three other drivers running in the top 10 at the time — Paul Menard, Regan Smith and Truex — were collected in the 21-car incident.

That incident was one of six since 2014 that saw at least 10 cars involved, according to NASCAR’s race statistics.

There was a 12-car incident also in last spring’s race. That started when Michael McDowell’s car hit Danica Patrick’s car, sending it into Matt Kenseth. Kenseth’s car then got airborne.

Even a normal race isn’t easy at Talladega.

“This is no doubt one of the toughest races there is just to stay mentally focused,’’ Truex said. “It’s not a physically demanding race, but the mental side is pretty insane to be three or four wide all day long, especially if you decide you’re going to try to stay up front all day and try to race all day and not ever go to the back and try to be in a safe spot.’’

If there is such a thing.

For those who think running at the back is better, Kyle Busch will likely disagree. Busch entered this race two years ago with a 26-point lead on the first car out. Busch was running 36th when he slowed for a crash in front of him and he was hit from behind by Austin Dillon.

Logano, who won this race last year, defines his safe place not by position but by his surroundings.

“When you’re around other cars it may not be who you’re driving against, it may just be the way their car handles,’’ he said. “You might say, ‘His car looks loose, or he looks out of control for some reason,’ and understanding that scenario and what position you’re in. There are times in the race that you can back out of it and say, ‘OK, let’s wait for this to calm down a little bit and then we’ll try to work our way back up.’ 

“The whole race you weigh out in your mind risk vs. reward.  That’s what you think about, ‘Am I willing to take this risk and if I do, what do I gain?’ You think about that when you’re trying to make a move and say, ‘Am I gonna make this move to take the lead and am I gonna go back to 20th if it doesn’t work?’ You weigh that out. Is it making a move that’s going to put you in a really tight spot and you could possibly crash to gain three or four spots? You’ve got to weight that out. Does that make sense? 

“A lot of that changes throughout the race. When it’s early in the race a lot more people are conservative and say, ‘It’s not really worth it at this point in the race.’ But at the end of the race everyone is trying to get every spot they can and depending on your point situation you’re going to have to make decisions.”

Martins Motorsports adds sponsorship to No. 44 Xfinity car

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Martins Motorsports announced Tuesday that it has renewed a partnership with Gilreath Farms Red Angus for the 2020 Xfinity Series.

Gilreath Farms and AAN Adjusters, which also is owned by Ken Gilreath, will be the primary sponsor of the No. 44 Xfinity car for 25 races this season. Gilreath Farms sponsored Martins for a race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2018 when Martins drove for BJ McLeod Motorsports.

“Having Gilreath Farms Red Angus on the car again is special,” Martins said in a statement. “This is really where my partnership with Ken started in 2018, so to see his commitment to us this year…I mean I’ve said it before, it completely changes our entire outlook for this season. It’s really special.”

The first race for the Red Angus Chevrolet will be at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Truck Series playoffs expands to 10 teams

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The playoffs for the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series will expand from eight to 10 drivers in 2020, NASCAR announced Tuesday.

Two teams will be eliminated after the first round and four eliminated after second round.

How each round of the playoffs will unfold:

Round of 10: World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Bristol Motor Speedway

Round of 8: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Martinsville Speedway

Championship 4: Phoenix Raceway

“Expanding the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series playoff field to 10 is a win-win for drivers, teams and, most importantly, the passionate fans who support our Gander Trucks,” Truck Series Managing Director Brad Moran said in a statement from NASCAR. “This will only increase the competitive intensity this series offers, as more drivers and teams vie for one of the most coveted championships in all of racing.”

Had there been 10 drivers allowed in last year’s playoffs, ThorSport Racing’s Ben Rhodes and Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Harrison Burton would have gotten those spots. KBM did not have any drivers in the playoffs.

The first two races of the playoffs, at Gateway and Canada, will feature the new pit road rules for standalone races in the Truck and Xfinity Series.

Reports: Daniel Suarez to drive for Gaunt Brothers Racing

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Multiple reports state that Daniel Suarez will drive the No. 96 Cup car for Gaunt Brothers Racing in 2020.

The team has not made any an announcement.

Toby Christie reported Friday at tobychristie.com that a deal was done for Suarez to drive the full Cup season for Gaunt Brothers Racing. Motorsport.com reported Monday that Suarez would join Gaunt Brothers Racing for the full season.

Suarez would replace Parker Kligerman, who confirmed to NBC Sports on Friday that he would not return to the No. 96 car this season.

This would be the fourth Cup season for Suarez. He drove for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017-18 before being replaced by Martin Truex Jr. Suarez moved to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 and was replaced after the season by rookie Cole Custer.

Suarez continues to seek his first Cup win. He has eight top-five and 32 top-10 finishes in 108 Cup starts. He won the 2016 Xfinity title, a year after winning rookie of the year honors in that series.

Gaunt Brothers Racing debuted in 2017, running one race with D.J. Kennington. The team ran 22 races the following year between Kligerman, D.J. KenningtonJeffrey Earnhardt and Jesse Little. The team ran 15 races last year with Drew Herring running once along with Kligerman’s 14 starts.

HighPoint to sponsor Chase Briscoe in multiple Xfinity Series races

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Chase Briscoe will have a new sponsor in 2020 in HighPoint.com, a customer service and technology solutions company, Stewart-Haas Racing announced Tuesday.

Briscoe, who returns for a second full-time Xfinity Series season with SHR, will have HighPoint as a primary sponsor on his No. 98 Ford for 10 races. The Sparta, New Jersey-based company will make its debut with the Feb. 15 season opener at Daytona.

For all other races, HighPoint will be an associate sponsor.

“Even though we race stock cars, there’s nothing stock about what we do,” Briscoe said in a press release. “The science of our cars is impressive, but the technology that goes into building our Ford Mustangs and then making them perform is even more advanced. Our IT needs are pretty complex, and we demand a lot from our technology every day, whether it’s at the shop or at the track. HighPoint is more than just a sponsor – they’re a partner that helps us perform.”

As part of the deal, HighPoint will be the team’s official IT solutions provider.

“Walk around our race shop during the week and the garage area on a race weekend and you’ll see how our race cars and our entire industry relies on technology,” Mike Verlander, SHR’s vice president of sales and marketing, said in a press release. “From engine diagnostics to fuel-mileage calculations, our business is dependent on service and technology solutions. Every company needs what HighPoint provides, and we’ll work diligently to facilitate those introductions.”