Ryan: Richmond never delivered the cutoff drama that it did the first time

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The final regular-season cutoff race at Richmond Raceway ended just the way most of the previous 13 had gone: A relatively muted finish with less than scintillating action and more than a regrettable mite of self-induced controversy.

The incongruous sight of an ambulance blocking pit entry – and nearly adversely affecting the championship chances of Matt Kenseth — will be the indelible image from Richmond’s finale as the finale for setting the championship field every season since NASCAR reordered its title structure in 2004.

It’s striking in the context of a Cup Series race … but much less so when viewed through the prism of the track whose once cleverly marketed rhyme (“One last race to make the Chase!”) was much more memorable than the racing in its showcase event.

With all due respect to the quaint River City and its many charms, it’ll be easy to say good riddance to Richmond as the gateway to the most important stretch of the season in NASCAR’s premier circuit.

Though the 0.75-mile oval – often described as the short track that races like a superspeedway and has been beloved by drivers since its 1988 reconfiguration by original owner Paul Sawyer – always seemed the perfect location for a regular-season crescendo, it rarely delivered on the promise of punctuating the season’s first 26 races with big moments.

In 14 cutoff races at Richmond, only five drivers raced their way into the playoff field, and only once – the first time when Jeremy Mayfield emphatically snatched the final playoff spot with a stunning victory – was it truly memorable.

The most notable instance in which drivers made the playoffs because of events at Richmond was in 2013 when Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon were added because of penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing for race manipulation and the extraordinary measure of expanding the field in light of tainted radio chatter.

That it had nothing to do with on-track racing and also was one of the most materially damaging chapters in NASCAR history puts it squarely on the through line of forgettable incidents at Richmond.

Whether an ambulance parked in the most obvious of “no unloading” zones, the itch that apparently got scratched with the most suspicious spin in the annals of NASCAR or the fan who thought the top of the Turn 4 catchfence offered a better vantage point than his seat, there is a pattern of infamous episodes that largely overshadowed mostly nondescript racing.

In 2018, the cutoff race will shift to a Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There has been much debate over whether the 2.5-mile track – whose heavy demands on handling and horsepower ensure that typically only powerhouse teams contend up front — will enhance the “drama” that determines the playoff field because it seemingly lessens the chance of a driver carrying his car to victory lane.

But in the absence of virtually any such examples at Richmond since Mayfield, the Brickyard might be the better table-setter for the championship run through the appeal of Indianapolis with prestige substituting for pressure.

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Though NASCAR has employed a traveling medical crew for the first time this season, it’s worth noting Saturday night’s ambulance in question was staffed by local track crew (which apparently disregarded repeated commands) – just as the safety truck was that inexplicably impeded the progress of drivers pitting at Richmond in the April 30 race (and causing a commitment line violation by Martin Truex Jr.).

Between those incidents and the 2014 fence-climber (who caused a caution in addition to drawing criminal charges), that’s a curious run of Richmond staff being involved in some awkward instances that had unfortunate impacts on races.

NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell (admirably) alluded to holding the scoring tower accountable for Saturday night’s blunders. But the track obviously bears some of the brunt for the ambulance incident, too, and absolutely should be called to task being in tune with NASCAR officials in the future.

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While it was commendable for O’Donnell to stand up and accept the blame Monday on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, it might have helped to have the message with the same level of candor and contrition Saturday night from NASCAR. Scott Miller deserves credit for taking questions then, but the senior vice president of competition doesn’t hold the necessary clout to speak as authoritatively as O’Donnell or a board-level executive.

It was reminiscent of the debacle at the 2008 Brickyard 400 when competition VP Robin Pemberton was marched in to face a hostile media center immediately after enduring three hours of nonstop triage in the pits, where tires were exploding with unnerving reliability. It predictably didn’t go well, and it wasn’t until two days later when late spokesman Jim Hunter took an extremely contrite stance on SiriusXM that the damage control finally began.

Richmond won’t have the same repercussions as Indianapolis, and O’Donnell struck a stronger message of remorse and transparency even earlier this time, but the lesson is the same. When there are embarrassing images from a significant event on national TV, the sooner the better that someone of great import at NASCAR addresses the matter with clarity, compunction and resolve.

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As it moves back to hosting two annual races under the lights next year and begins a $30 million infield renovation, Richmond still has some big questions to answer about its future. Though Saturday night’s race again proved that racing in sunshine seems to be the preferable alternative for on-track quality, the grandstands noticeably were more crowded than Sunday in April. It’s difficult to quibble with that move.

However, it isn’t unfair to ask questions about the track and its surface, which hasn’t seemed the same since a 2004 repave that came two years after the abandonment of a sealer that previous owner Paul Sawyer used to treat the asphalt since its 1988 opening.

Is it worth returning to a coal tar emulsion or maybe using the newly popular traction compound employed at many tracks this year?

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There were many reasons for Martin Truex Jr. to be angry Saturday night, but some seeds of rage already had been planted nearly a month earlier.

Lest we forget, the Furniture Row Racing driver also wasn’t happy with NASCAR for throwing a caution that cost him the win in the Aug. 13 race at Michigan International Speedway.

With NASCAR debris cautions at a 17-year low through 26 races, it’s understandable why Truex would be even more agitated about feeling disproportionately affected by judgment calls.

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The decision to wait on crowning Truex until Richmond as the regular-season champion – after he already had clinched at Darlington Raceway – seems suspect in retrospect.

Of course, if the yellow hadn’t flown, the timing would have been ideal – punctuating a Richmond win with a celebration of one of the greatest regular seasons in recent memory.

Instead, it was a seething Truex staring blankly (it surely isn’t easy projecting radiance when you just emerged from the care center) while accepting the award from NASCAR president Brent Dewar. After trumpeting the importance of rewarding drivers for the season (which inextricably is linked with the advent of stage racing), this wasn’t the way NASCAR wanted to mark the quasi-historic occasion.

Yes, if the award had been given to Truex a week earlier, the ceremony still would have happened with him reeling after a late crash and a win snatched away. But he also made a media center appearance after the Southern 500 and took every question with grace, so the trophy presentation still would have gone more smoothly (as Truex alluded in the interview with Marty Snider).

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The significance of Saturday night’s 10-point swing isn’t that Truex lost five points (barring a total collapse, the No. 78 Toyota is a lock to reach the third round and nearly a given for the finale). It’s that Larson gained five points by winning the race and moving into second in the playoff standings.

Truex remains the favorite to be among the four championship finalists, but the equation changes if Larson is title eligible at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the 1.5-mile oval that is his favorite on the circuit partly because its high line suits his style so well.

Truex’s chances of racing for a championship weren’t diminished Saturday, but his odds of winning the playoffs were lessened because the chances increased that he will be facing Larson at Miami.

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Redux from last week’s column asking about the line between bending the rules and breaking them to the point of “cheating”: A Twitter follower noted one of the best examples of celebrating the way teams push the boundaries aired earlier this year with the “Refuse to Lose” documentary that marked the 20-year anniversary of Jeff Gordon’s first Daytona 500 win.

In a well-received episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast in March, crew chief Ray Evernham recounted many of those memories and the games that he played with NASCAR inspectors.

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The news that Richard Petty Motorsports could be facing sponsorship woes for the 2018 season, raises questions about how NASCAR might handle its charter system with the current team economic climate (RPM still has two charters, including one that was leased this season).

Brent Dewar, who was named the fourth president in NASCAR history two months ago, was among the architects of the charter system, and he discussed what the future might hold as the guest on the 99th episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

Friday 5: Team’s departure adds to ‘extremely stressful’ time

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While NASCAR celebrates Michael Jordan’s entry as a Cup owner, his arrival comes at the expense of another team.

Jordan and Denny Hamlin purchased Germain Racing’s charter, marking the end of that single-car team when the season concludes Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.

Seven races remain for Germain Racing, Ty Dillon and the team’s 40-plus employees before they scatter, some within the sport and others elsewhere. The team races for the first time since the announcement Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN). 

“It’s not been real easy the last couple of weeks,” Dillon told NBC Sports.

He has been Germain Racing’s driver the past four seasons. The team, which won Truck titles in 2006 and 2010 with Todd Bodine, has competed in Cup since 2009. Germain Racing’s best Cup finish is fourth, accomplished by both Dillon and Casey Mears.

The team’s future soured when GEICO determined it would not return after this season. Without sponsorship money and with multiple groups interested in the team’s charter, a sale became the best route for owner Bob Germain. Hamlin and Jordan quickly put together an effort to buy the charter and made headlines with their deal.

With lives upturned by the novel coronavirus, Germain Racing employees now seek work in a pandemic. It adds stress to a 2020 that has tested so many.

“We all in life go through things,” Dillon said. “Life is … never going to be easy or perfect. For me, this has definitely been an extremely stressful time with all the things, the virus that is going on, our team announces that we’re selling and is sold now with seven races to go, and you still have people that you care about that you want to see get opportunities.

“Everyone is trying to keep a good attitude. It’s a very tough situation. Then I have a little girl (who turns 3 in November) and my wife is pregnant and we’re going to have our son in November. You have your virus concerns and also wanting to make sure your daughter is raised and still be able to get out and do things a 2 1/2-year-old should be able to do. That is what is most important to me over all things, spending time with her.

“Then you have in the back of your mind you want to provide for your family. I’m 28 years old and just getting started. … Also, I’ve been (racing) since I was 13, I’ve put a lot of effort and time in it myself. I feel like I still haven’t gotten to prove what I’m fully capable of yet. That’s always in the back of my mind. So it’s been extremely stressful.”

Dillon said he’s relied on his faith to navigate these challenges.

“I believe that God is with me in this process, no matter how much I don’t understand,” he said. “He’s on the other side. He’s going to put me in a place that is going to allow me to do the most for his kingdom, and he’s going to bring me the most joy at the end of wherever I’m going here.

“Knowing that is my teeth in this bit of a storm. It’s definitely not an easy season, and I’m immature in the fact that I want to know what is going to happen.”

Dillon, who finished a season-best 10th at Las Vegas in February, said he’s put together sponsorship for 2021. He is among a number of drivers who have not announced rides for next year. That list includes Clint Bowyer, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric and Justin Haley, among others. 

Dillon told NBC Sports that “this week and next week are going to be really crucial weeks in figuring out what the next step is. There’s an array of things that can happen and I’m not sure which one is going to happen.”

2. Staying Power

While Michael Jordan has made news for coming to NASCAR, the key is how long he stays as an owner.

The sport is filled with former athletes and celebrities who have come and gone in ownership roles through the years.

While many in the sport hope Jordan can help attract more fans and businesses, he needs to remain in the sport to help achieve some of those goals.

Denny Hamlin, who is partnering with Jordan on the new team with Bubba Wallace as driver, told NBC Sports and Fox in an exclusive interview this week that he is confident he can create a program with staying power.

“He has me to help him with the day-to-day stuff,” Hamlin said of Jordan. “Obviously, I’ve got a day job, racing a car and that’s what I’m going to continue to do for years and years with my FedEx team, but I know enough about this sport that I can help guide this ownership team in the right direction.”

The team is expected to align with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Another key will be the personnel hired to run the team with Hamlin racing and Jordan busy as owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and his other business ventures.

“I think we’re going to have the ability by starting a team from scratch essentially of hiring the best people available at every position,” Hamlin said. “Believe me, since this became public knowledge, we’ve already started those conversations.

“We’re going to give Bubba the best possibility or chance to win in Year 1. I believe that he can win in the first year, but I’m also not naive to think this is an easy business either. It’s hard to win.

“Two years ago, I didn’t win a race. I’ve got 12 years experience and I’m with the best team. My teammate, Kyle Busch, is one of the best, and hasn’t won yet in 2020. It’s not easy. It’s going to be difficult, but I have very good faith that Bubba is going to have everything that he needs to be capable of winning.”

If so, that should keep Jordan in the sport for a long time.

3. TikTok the timing was right

For all the time Ryan Vargas spent searching for sponsorship, networking in the NASCAR garage and looking for a ride in the Xfinity Series, he could have not imagined how he landed a deal with this year’s hottest social media property.

Credit goes to Ryan Pistana, a friend of Vargas who designs paint schemes for some NASCAR teams.

Pistana created a TikTok car for Vargas because Vargas uses the social app so much. Pistana posted his concept scheme for Vargas on social media in July.

TikTok soon saw the image and talks began.

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Ryan Vargas’ TikTok car for JD Motorsports mirrors the design Vargas’ friend, Ryan Pistana, created in July and posted on social media. (Photo: JD Motorsports)

“They loved the scheme, they loved the sport,” Vargas told NBC Sports. “They’re very enthusiastic about jumping in.”

TikTok also had a good representative in Vargas, who has more than 40,000 followers and nearly 600,000 likes. Vargas’ TikTok videos are a mix of fun, behind the scenes images and inspiration.

Within about two months, TikTok completed a six-race deal with Vargas and JD Motorsports that will begin next week at Talladega Superspeedway. The agreement allows Vargas to run the rest of the season.

Those six races equal the number of races Vargas has run in the series since last year. He ran three races last year and three this season.

When he hasn’t been racing, he’s often been on the road crew for JD Motorsports. In the last month, Vargas was a mechanic for BJ McLeod’s car at Richmond and Daytona, drove for the team at Darlington (finishing 25th) and was a mechanic for Jeffrey Earnhardt’s car at Dover.

“I learn just by doing that,” Vargas said of his role as mechanic at the track. “So when I hop into the car, I know what I want changed.”

It’s a great learning experience but drivers want to drive and Vargas is no different.

“I would be lying to you if I said that didn’t kind of sting sometimes, your friends are out there racing and doing what they want,” he said. “I’ve experienced what it’s like to have pretty much everything fall apart. I was very close to being completely done racing at the end of 2018, so I know what it’s like to sit out and not be in the car.”

Vargas credits a meeting with Mike Davis, director of brand strategy for JR Motorsports and co-host with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Dale Jr. Download, with helping him push through after the 2018 season.

“His piece of advice to me, be present, have your gear and never stop working,” Vargas said of what Davis told him in their meeting.

Vargas has kept following his dream. Now he has a ride for six races thanks to social media.

4. A fan’s last ride

For nearly 20 years, Kenneth Chase took grandson Brendon Harmon to NASCAR races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

They’d travel from Chase’s home in Sebago, Maine and camp with friends and family. Sometimes the group was so large, they’d need a second camper to accommodate everyone.

The trips started when Harmon was about 5 years old. They continued when Chase, known as Pa to his grandchildren, was found to have prostrate cancer.

Kenneth Chase with grandson Brendon Harmon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2014. (Photo: Brendon Harmon)

As his grandfather went through treatments in 2012, Harmon decided he wanted to take him to the Daytona 500.

Harmon worked two jobs and saved more than $3,000 so he could take his grandparents and mom to the 2013 Daytona 500. He paid for the plane tickets, race tickets and hotel.

Chase later got colon cancer. Doctors removed the tumor. The cancer returned. They did another surgery. The cancer came back and spread.

Chase died Aug. 25. He would have been 77 years old Saturday.

“He’s what I aspire to be some day,” Harmon said of Chase. “I really hope my future grandkids think of me the way I think of him.”

Harmon has found a way to honor his grandfather. The NASCAR Foundation and Martin Truex Jr. Foundation partnered for the Nominate a Cancer Hero program. The program auctions off space on a NASCAR Truck or car to put a person’s name for this weekend’s Las Vegas races. More than 40 drivers are participating. The program raised about $100,000.

Harmon found out about the auction shortly before it closed. He didn’t have enough money to provide a winning bid but asked friends for help and they rallied to provide the winning bid of about $2,800 to have Chase’s name on Alex Bowman’s car Sunday at Las Vegas.

Chase was a Dale Earnhardt fan. He switched to Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson after Earnhardt’s death. Chase remained a Hendrick fan after that, so putting his name on a Hendrick car was perfect for Harmon.

“He gets to go fast one more time,” Harmon told NBC Sports. “He gets to feel the race car one more time and hear the race car one more time.”

Harmon will gather with family Sunday and have a cookout at his house, serving deer steak and chicken on the grill. He’ll also have ice cream. Chase would eat ice cream, often chocolate, as he watched the races on TV.

Watching Sunday’s race on NBCSN and knowing his grandfather’s name will be on Bowman’s car will be special for Harmon.

“It’s going to kind of be a mixture of tears with joy,” he said.

5. Learn by example

The Xfinity playoffs begin Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

While Chase Briscoe enters after his seventh win of the season, tying regular-season champ Austin Cindric for the most victories this season, rookie Harrison Burton looks to take the lessons he’s learned this season and turn them into a title run.

Burton told NBC Sports that one of the areas he’s improved most this season is “using my head and thinking about things.”

He notes his third-place finish at Kansas Speedway was a turning point.

“I think Kansas was probably one of the most fun races I ever lost,” he said. “I was really thinking, how can I beat Austin (Cindric, who finished second to Brandon Jones)? What can I show him to make him do something that I want him to do? (It’s) things I listen to Denny Hamlin talk about and say on his radio. Using the mental side of the game to their advantage. That has been really fun to go to the places where that is a big deal and try to make the most of it.”

The key, Burton said, is having a car that will allow a driver to think as they’re hitting their marks in each corner.

“When that becomes muscle memory, that’s when you free up your brain and you’re able to strategize in your head,” he said. “You’re able to show people lines that you know are going to hurt their tires but it’s fast. Then you run them down on a long run because they have been doing that.”

Who has taught Burton a memorable lesson in such a situation?

“Briscoe does a good job of that, of showing you a different lane and catching you with a different lane and then he has the ability to pass you in a completely different (lane),” Burton said.

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Stage points crucial at Las Vegas in Round of 12

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Former champion Brad Keselowski views Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) as the “second most important” to win during the season after the championship race, “because these next two weeks are very difficult to prepare for.”

What’s so difficult about the two races after Las Vegas?

Two-thirds of the Round of 12 are made up of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval: a superspeedway known for its wild multi-car wrecks and a road course that can prove unpredictable.

“The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is the playoff bonus points and winning in Vegas,” Keselowski said. “The best thing we can do to control our own destiny is to go win Vegas and then Talladega just becomes what it is. It’s the same thing with the Roval, so we’re hopeful to just kind of not have to worry about it that way by scoring a win. If we’re not able to do that, I’d like to get a few more playoff bonus points with stages for those races and that would help a bunch, but, certainly, this round presents a lot of challenges for us.”

If anyone knows the importance of winning early in a round, it’s Keselowski. His victory two weeks ago at Richmond benefitted him in the cutoff race a Bristol when power steering issues resulted in a 34th-place finish.

Chase Elliott, who has won at both Talladega and the Roval in previous seasons, has a similar view to Keselowski.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver said “we would be messing up to already be looking ahead to Talladega,” later adding, “the way I kind of look at it is I’m probably going to crash – I think that’s just the odds.”

Were everything to go right for a driver, they can earn up to 20 stage points in the first two stages of a race.

“So, I think everybody knows how important stages are and what they can mean, especially stage wins,” Elliott said. “Getting that extra bonus point is a huge thing, too. I think everybody knows that and that’s certainly a game that’s been played. I don’t know that it was as much played that very first year that we had (playoff and stage points), but really ever since that first year, I think it has been known and everybody really gets that. And it’s just gotten more and more aggressive.”

Focusing on Vegas is key for Elliott because it’s been a “super hit or miss” track for him. In seven career starts, he has two top fives and four finishes of 26th or worse.

“We’ve crashed a bunch out there (three DNFs) and had some really bad finishes,” Elliott said. “That would be a fantastic opportunity, I think, to have a solid day.”

Kurt Busch noted that you could arguably view Las Vegas as “standard” when it comes to pit strategy and racing. But Busch provided a reminder of what happened earlier this year at Texas Motor Speedway.

“A place like Vegas fits into a track like Texas, as well; where you can change just left side tires like we saw Austin Dillon do to win the Texas race earlier this year,” Busch said. “So, there are all the different strategies and different things playing out.”

The four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16 – William Byron, Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto – scored a combined six stage points. All of them were earned by Byron.

Busch observed that just because four teams have been eliminated from the playoffs doesn’t mean there’s four less cars in the field vying for points.

“There are two Hendrick cars now not in the playoffs, but they’re fast,” Busch said of Byron and Jimmie Johnson. “Same thing with (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). You’ve got the No. 20 car, Erik Jones, not in the playoffs but he’s fast. Those are points that those guys could take away from the contenders that are still left in the situations they’re in. So, you’ve just got to race hard and race smart. There are three ways to get points each and every weekend: Stage 1, Stage 2, and the finish of the race. And, that happens at all the race tracks.”

Of the 12 remaining drivers left in the playoffs, here’s how many stage points they earned in the first round.

Most Stage Points Earned in 2020 Playoffs:

Chase Elliott  – 35
Kevin Harvick – 33
Martin Truex Jr.  – 32
Kyle Busch  – 31
Alex Bowman – 29
Joey Logano  – 28
Denny Hamlin  – 26
Kurt Busch – 22
Austin Dillon – 22
Brad Keselowski – 21
Aric Almirola – 7
Clint Bowyer – 4

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NASCAR fines
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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NASCAR has fined Hendrick Motorsports $100,000 for exceeding the amount of wind tunnel testing allowed this season.

NASCAR also announced that it had deducted 10 hours of wind tunnel testing from the organization for the 2020-21 amount allowed.

Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalty. The team reported the violation to NASCAR.

The Cup Rule Book states in section 5.3.e that organizations are allocated 150 hours to be used on cars through Dec. 31, 2021 with a maximum usage of 70 hours in 2020 and a maximum usage of 90 hours in 2021. NASCAR states that testing hours are defined as billable hours reported by the wind tunnel to NASCAR. The minimum test period is four hours. Wind tunnel testing of Next Gen cars by individual organizations will not be permitted.

The L2 penalty comes with a fine of at least $100,000 and no more than $200,000.

NASCAR also announced two fines for lug nut violations last weekend at Bristol.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chief Bruce Schlicker was fined $5,000 for the No. 10 car of Ross Chastain having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

In the Truck Series, crew chief Kevin Bellicourt was fined $2,500 for the No. 19 truck of Derek Kraus having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

 

Carson Hocevar to run full Truck schedule in 2021

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Niece Motorsports has signed Carson Hocevar to run the full NASCAR Truck schedule in 2021, the team announced Thursday.

Hocevar, who turns 18 in January, has run five races for the team this season. His best finish this year is 12th at Dover. He’s scheduled to run at Martinsville on Oct. 30.

“I’m so excited to get the opportunity to race fulltime next year with the Niece Motorsports group,” said Hocevar in a statement. “We’ve had some really strong runs in the few starts that we’ve had this season and I am grateful for the chance to continue that next year. I’ve learned so much already this year and know that we will keep improving next year too.”

“Carson has really impressed us this season,” said team owner Al Niece in a statement. “He’s proven his talent – getting into the truck with no track time and really holding his own. We’re thrilled to have him with us fulltime next season and look forward to contending for wins together.”