Photo by Tom Whitmore/Getty Images for NASCAR

Friday 5: Future NASCAR stars could get their start online instead of on track

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Is a future Daytona 500 winner competing in a sim race today having yet to drive a real race car?

For as far-fetched as it might seem, it was only five years ago that William Byron — his skills honed online in iRacing events — started driving a Legends car.

Although many of his competitors began racing by the time they were 7 years old (Byron was 15), Byron already has an Xfinity championship and won rookie of the year in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series in each of the past three seasons.

Now the 20-year-old drives the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Some suggest Byron will win a Cup race this year as a rookie.

Byron’s rise leads to the question: Is he the exception or the start of a trend as simulation racing and eSports become more popular to a younger generation?

If Byron succeeds, the search will be on to find someone like him. While many children start racing in karting, Banderlos or quarter midgets, many can’t because their families do not have the means or expertise to compete.

Byron didn’t come from a racing family, so he raced on a computer instead of track as a child.

“iRacing was my chance to really see if I had any ability to drive a car,’’ Byron told NBC Sports. “I think from that standpoint it’s a great starter for understanding if you do have some ability and seeing if that can translate.’’

William Byron at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

While he admits not everything transferred from the computer to a car, the hours spent racing online helped.

“The biggest thing was learning the restarts and learning being side by side, setting up passes – the technical things that you figure out in a race car, I could figure out on the sim and put that in the race car,’’ Byron said. “Driving on the track by myself, that was natural. But the race craft from iRacing was something that I think helped me get farther ahead quicker.”

In the search for the next great driver, at what point does it make sense for teams or manufacturers to create an iRacing league for specific age groups to see who might have potential similar to Byron and put them in a car to see if their skills carry over?

“That is something that is of interest and something we’ve spent some time on,’’ Jack Irving, director of team and support services for Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely non-traditional. I think that is evolving, the better the physics are, the better that iRacing becomes and even the home units.

“By no means do we discount iRacing. I think it’s as important as any other form of working out or going to the gym. Obviously, racing is racing, so being put against a bunch of kids on the track, competing against each other, tells you a lot and the ups and downs of it are real. You can’t reset a race track. If you go hit a wall, you’ve got to deal with the feelings of that after.

“The psychological aspect of racing, that’s one thing I think from William’s perspective is he was extremely special from the way his makeup was and how he approaches races and how he approaches competing. If William had a tough race, it was the same William the day after, he was going to build on it and get better.’’

Toyota Racing Development already has created a driver pipeline that has sent Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez to Cup rides at Joe Gibbs Racing and watched as Byron — he drove in the Truck series for Kyle Busch Motorsports — moved to Chevrolet. Toyota has Christopher Bell in the Xfinity Series, Todd Gilliland and Myatt Snider in the Truck Series and Hallie Deegan in the K&N Pro Series West, among others.

For every Jones, Bell or Gilliland, others could be missed because they didn’t have the opportunity to begin racing at an early age.

Before Toyota can do something like that, Irving notes his group needs to understand what to measure and what translates from computers to the track.

“Can we expand it and do more with what we have? Yes,’’ Irving said of its analytics study. “Just getting data has been relatively new to the sport over the last few years. So even kind of dissecting data and how you would traditionally go after athletes at every level, we’re just starting to get over that more and more and we’re continuing to get better at that in the last few years.

“Figuring out the metrics that you’re just rating real racers has been difficult. We’ve spent a fair amount of time the last two years doing that, three years doing that, and evaluating the people that are out there that are currently racing. I think, yes, to touch further backgrounds and to find in deeper regions, (online simulation games) is definitely a tool that can be what the future is.’’

2. Daytona Speedweeks Crash Report

Ninety-five vehicles were involved in accidents in Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck races at Daytona, based on race reports and replays.

Chase Elliott (No. 9), Kasey Kahne (95) and Danica Patrick (7) crash in the Daytona 500. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

That is tied for the second-highest total of vehicles involved in incidents during Daytona Speedweeks since 2013. Those in incidents range from cars destroyed to any that were slightly involved.

The 28 Cup cars involved in accidents in the Daytona 500 was down from last year when 35 cars were listed in incidents. But this year’s total was the second-highest for the Daytona 500 since 2012.

The 63 cars involved in incidents in the Daytona 500 the past two years rank as the highest two-year total in the last 10 Daytona 500s.

Here is how many Cup cars were involved in accidents in the Daytona 500 in recent years:

2018: 28 cars

2017: 35

2016: 11

2015: 18

2014: 25

2013: 18

2012: 23

2011: 29

2010: 17

2009: 15

3. A Good Sign for Austin Dillon?

Only once since 2012 has the Daytona 500 winner not finished in the top 10 in points. That happened last year when Kurt Busch placed 14th.

The last time a Daytona 500 winner also won the championship was 2013 with Jimmie Johnson.

4. Xfinity Series Debuts

John Hunter Nemechek, 20 years old, and Chase Briscoe, 23, each will be making their Xfinity Series debut this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Nemechek will be in the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. Briscoe will drive the No. 60 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.

5. The Last Word

While Austin Dillon and member’s of his team got tattoos to commemorate Dillon’s Daytona 500 victory last weekend, crew chief Justin Alexander did not do it.

“I said when I win a championship, I’ll get one on my face,’’ Alexander said Monday.

“Everybody document that,’’ Dillon said. “He’s going to get a tattoo on his face (after) a championship.’’

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David Ragan to make first Truck start since 2006 at Atlanta

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David Ragan is coming back and going home at the same time.

The Unadilla, Georgia native, who stepped down from full-time racing after last season, will drive in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Ragan’s home track, Atlanta Motor Speedway, on Saturday, June 6.

The 34-year-old Ragan will drive the No. 17 Ford for DGR-Crosley in his 30th career Truck Series start and his first since 2006.

David Ragan will make his first Truck Series start since 2006 in the June 6 race at his home track of Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“I’m really looking forward to racing one of DGR-Crosley’s F-150’s at Atlanta,” Ragan said in a media release. “We were originally going to run the truck at Richmond Raceway in April, but since that race was postponed (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), I wanted to return to my home state of Georgia with Select Blinds for this race.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve raced in the Truck Series. Atlanta has always been one of my favorite tracks since it’s my home track.”

Blake Bainbridge will serve as Ragan’s crew chief. The Atlanta race was originally scheduled for March, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since stepping away from full-time racing, Ragan has made just one start in 2020, finishing fourth in the Daytona 500 for Rick Ware Racing.

Ragan currently works in a development role with Ford Performance, where, according to the media release, “he assists teams with simulator work and has a hand in developing the NextGen car that will come into play in 2022.”

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NASCAR schedule for Cup, Xfinity races at Bristol

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NASCAR has put Charlotte in its rearview mirror and moves next to Bristol Motor Speedway.

One significant change to the schedule has already occurred. The Xfinity Series race originally slated for Saturday has been moved to Monday due to travel and setup challenges.

Here is the schedule for Saturday through Monday at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile:

(All times are Eastern)

Saturday, May 30

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

7 – 9 p.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening and equipment unloaded)

Sunday, May 31

7:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. – Cup garage access screening in progress

1:30 – 2:30 p.m. – Engine prime and final adjustments

3:20 p.m. – Cup drivers report to vehicles on starting grid

3:30 p.m. – Cup Series race, 500 laps/266.5 miles (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5 p.m. – Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit track

Monday, June 1

8:30 – 11:30 a.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening in progress)

11:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. – Xfinity garage access (screening in progress)

5 – 6:30 p.m. – Xfinity engine prime and final adjustments (pit road)

6:50 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to vehicles on starting grid

7 p.m. – Xfinity race, 200 laps/300 miles (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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Winners and losers after Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte

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WINNERS

Chase ElliottAfter losing the Coca-Cola 600 when he pitted from the lead before the overtime restart, Elliott scored the victory Thursday night at Charlotte. “I think we were hungry and wanted to get back and try again,” Elliott said after his seventh career Cup victory.

Denny Hamlin Crew chief serving the first race of a four-race suspension and Hamlin was starting 29th in a 310-mile race. No problem. He worked his way through the field, helped by his pit crew, and finished second.

Ryan Blaney He left Charlotte with a pair of third-place finishes in the two races. Many would take that.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Fourth-place finish is his second top-five result of the season in his first season at JTG Daugherty Racing.

LOSERS

Alex BowmanWon the second stage and had a fast car. Saw his night come undone when he hit the wall while running second. He had to pit for repairs and finished 31st.

Kyle BuschCut tire while racing in traffic sent him to the pits under green and he lost two laps. He never recovered, finishing 29th.

Friday 5: When fans can return, how many will be allowed at tracks?

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As NASCAR moves ahead with racing, among the key questions are when will fans be allowed back at the track and how many fans will be able to attend?

NASCAR has stated that there will be no fans at any of its races through June 21, covering events at Bristol, Atlanta, Martinsville, Miami and Talladega. NASCAR has not announced what its schedule will be after June 21 and when fans could be back in the stands.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, said “I think that NASCAR will be the first major sport with fans back in attendance, and I think it will be in a place where one, the state regulations allow it, and two, where the large outdoor facility gives an opportunity to provide plenty of space, plenty of distance and plenty of areas for people to still have fun but be in a  safe environment.”

Should Pocono Raceway maintain its June 27-28 Cup doubleheader weekend dates, it appears likely it would be without fans.

Pocono Raceway is in Monroe County in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf has set three phases for easing of restrictions — red (most restrictions), yellow and green (fewest restrictions).

Asked if NASCAR could race at Pocono, Gov. Wolf said in a May 18 press conference: “If Monroe County goes to yellow before that race happens and NASCAR, in fact, has the competition without spectators in the stands and they follow other guidelines to keep the competitors safe, yeah.”

Monroe County enters the yellow phrase today.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be the first track that hosts fans when it has the NTT IndyCar Series and Xfinity Series race on the road course July 4 and the Cup Series race on the oval July 5.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has a five-step plan in easing restrictions for the state where the final stage is projected to be enacted July 4 and states that “raceway events may return to full capacity.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials have not announced what plans they’ll have for the July 4-5 races. A track spokesperson told NBC Sports that they’re “hopeful” to have fans but “will be prepared to run with or without spectators.”

Whenever and wherever fans return, it won’t be at full capacity with the need for social distancing.

That will force tracks to determine who can attend races when they have more ticket buyers than seats they’re allowed to make available because of social distancing protocols.

“It’s going to be challenging,” Smith said. “I think if we have 40 percent or 50 percent capacity, it’s something that we’ll have to figure out. I don’t think we have those details yet, but it’s certainly something we’re sensitive to and working on right now.”

While Smith mentioned 40-50 percent capacity, he’s not sure what it will be at various tracks.

“Who knows if it’s 40 or 50 percent or 25 percent?” he said. “It’s something that when you take into account different regulations in different states, I think that percentage is going to change depending on what the regulations are.”

2. Feeling better

Crew chief Alan Gustafson admits it “wasn’t a great feeling” Sunday after his decision to pit Chase Elliott before overtime cost Elliott a chance to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But Gustafson didn’t let the decision wreck him the rest of the week.

“I don’t base my self‑worth on other people’s opinions, or if I’m doing a good job based on what other people say, but certainly I’m a human being, too, and when you get that many rocks thrown at you, it doesn’t feel great,” Gustafson said after Elliott won Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte. “It was a long couple days, but at the end of the day, you’ve just got to look past it and move on.”

Gustafson said of the decision to pit late in the 600: “There’s a lot of factors that went into it, and our struggles earlier in the race probably influenced me more than I should have let it, and it didn’t work out. We’re also assuming that we stay out and we win the race, so it’s tough. It’s just a tough situation.”

While it’s easy to look at how Elliott could have three wins in a row — he was running second late at Darlington when Kyle Busch’s contact wrecked him, then the 600 pit call and Thursday’s win — Elliott prefers to look at things differently.

“I think the biggest thing is if we can continue to put ourselves in position and give ourselves chances and we do a good job at controlling the things that are in our control, that’s all we can ask for,” Elliott said after Thursday’s win. “We can’t control when a caution comes out two laps to go and you’re kind of in a lose‑lose situation there. We’ve got to keep doing things that are in our hands and keep doing those well.”

3. Hold on tight at Bristol

Much was made about drivers not having practice and qualifying before they raced at Darlington Raceway since it is considered among the sport’s most difficult tracks.

While not as much has been mentioned about the obstacles drivers will face at Bristol Motor Speedway before Sunday’s Cup race and Monday night’s Xfinity race, they shouldn’t be overlooked.

Tyler Reddick, who won the Bristol Xfinity race last August and finished second in the April 2019 race there, notes some of the challenges drivers will face this weekend.

“I think the first challenge is going to be just completing that first lap,” he said. “That’s one of the toughest race tracks to go around when it doesn’t have rubber and heat on it. I’ve run Truck races there through my career and when we’re one of the first ones on the race track, that first hour of practice you can’t really learn much. The traction compound is slick – you go down in there to try to use it and you almost spin out. You run the middle and that’s about it. Man, the first hour or so of practice you can’t get up in that either because it’s slick and you almost wreck.

“I remember the first time they put traction compound down at Bristol. I went out for practice and I was in the middle, we were OK. But I wanted to try the bottom, so I went down there, got loose and couldn’t go anywhere. So, I was like ‘that’s not going to work’. I went up to try to use the top and I drove it straight into the fence.

“I’m worried that the start of the race is going to be very chaotic. I don’t know how that’s going to go. There’s only one groove and we’re going to be starting double-file, so that’s going to be very interesting.”

4. Midweek racing

Thursday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway marked the second midweek Cup race since NASCAR’s season resumed.

The series will race at Martinsville on June 10, a Wednesday night. There could be other midweek races as NASCAR seeks to run 32 Cup races in 25 weeks.

But what about next year? How realistic is it that there could be a Cup race in the middle of a week?

“Lot of people have talked about it,” Marcus Smith said this week. “Running midweek races with no attendees is not a concern in terms of how you pull it off. … You don’t have to take into consideration selling tickets and hosting live things.

“Very different model than hosting these big parties, these big events that we do. The biggest events happen on the weekends. That’s why NASCAR races typically are on a weekend. When you have these events as we do, and we have to think quickly and figure out how to catch up on this nine or 10-week delay of the NASCAR season, running races midweek was a natural way to get caught up.

“But going forward, I still don’t think that the biggest events in sports will be hosted midweek.”

Brad Keselowski would like to see midweek races continue.

“NASCAR, in my opinion, has hit gold with this format,” he said after Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “The limited practice, show up and race, and the time window that benefits both the East and West Coast. No qualifying. Inversion from the week before is really good because it mixes the field up and creates some good storylines there. I think it’s fair. 

“It’s compelling and it’s at a time where, quite frankly, the sports world, even if it wasn’t for COVID, midweek races in the summer, when you’re generally not having a lot of competition, is in a time period where everybody is hungry for content. I think they’ve got gold here. COVID or not, I hope we keep this for years to come. I think this is a great little format that’s good for the sport and good for the fans and good for everybody all around, so kudos to them.”

5. All-Star Race status

Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted four NASCAR races, including two Cup races, this week but none of those Cup races was the All-Star Race.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, was asked this week in a media conference about that event’s future and if it will remain at Charlotte.

“I think the plan is that it would be at Charlotte, but I think it’s important to note that we haven’t announced it because it’s just not ready to be announced yet,” Smith said. “With all the moving parts in this time, we have to be aware of how things change. Very soon, and I think in the next two weeks or less, we’ll have the next round of events that will be announced (by NASCAR) and it will help solve those schedules.”