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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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Joey and Caitlin Gase welcome twin sons

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Xfinity Series driver Joey Gase and his wife Caitlin are now parents to twin boys

The babies were born on Wednesday. Their names are Jace and Carson.

More: Brad and Paige Keselowski welcome second daughter

Silly Season Scorecard: Front Row Motorsports adds John Hunter Nemechek

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Front Row Motorsports filled one of the last major vacancies in the NASCAR Cup Series when it announced Thursday John Hunter Nemechek will compete for the team full-time in the No. 38 Ford.

With the announcement also came the news the team is retracting to two cars after fielding three in 2019.

As a rookie, Nemechek will have Michael McDowell as a teammate.

Here’s how the rest of NASCAR’s Silly Season has played out so far.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 00: Quin Houff will race for Star Com Racing full-time. Announced Nov. 27.

No. 1: Chip Ganassi Racing announced on Nov. 1 a multi-year extension with Kurt Busch.

No. 6: Roush Fenway Racing announced Oct. 30 that Ryan Newman would return to the car as part of the news that Oscar Mayer would sponsor the No. 6 through 2021.

No. 8: Richard Childress Racing made it official Oct. 2 that Tyler Reddick will move to Cup in 2020 and drive the No. 8 car.

No. 10: Aric Almirola confirmed Oct. 11 he signed an extension to race for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video Sept. 6 on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer was announced Oct. 17 as returning to Stewart-Haas Racing for a fourth season.

No. 15: Brennan Poole will make his Cup debut and will drive for Premium Motorsports full-time. Announced Dec 11.

No. 17: Chris Buescher will take over the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 ride in 2020 after the team announced Sept. 25 that it would part ways with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after this season.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

No. 32: Corey LaJoie will return for a second straight full season with Go Fas Racing and the No. 32 Ford. The team announced on Nov. 1 it would enter a technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing next year.

No. 37: Ryan Preece moves over from the No. 47 to the No. 37. He will have a new crew chief, Trent Owens, who has been crew chief on the No. 37 for the past three seasons.

No. 38: John Hunter Nemechek replaces the now retired David Ragan for Front Row Motorsports. Announced Dec. 12.

No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing announced Nov. 15 Cole Custer will replace Daniel Suarez.

No. 47: JTG Daugherty Racing announced Oct. 16 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will join Ryan Preece at the two-car team, essentially swapping seats with Chris Buescher. On Dec. 2, the team announced Stenhouse will drive the No. 47, with Brian Pattie serving as his crew chief.

No. 95: Christopher Bell moves to Cup in 2020 and will drive for Leavine Family Racing (announcement made Sept. 24).

Rick Ware Racing: JJ Yeley will drive one of the team’s three full-time rides.

 

YET TO ANNOUNCE DEALS FOR 2020

Daniel Suarez — The driver revealed Nov. 14  he would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2020 after one season driving the No. 41.

 

ANNOUNCED PLANS IN OTHER NASCAR SERIES

Xfinity Series 

Ross Chastain – Kaulig Racing announced Oct. 15 he would compete full-time for the team in 2020 driving the No. 10 Chevrolet, joining Justin Haley.

Joe Gibbs Racing — Announced Oct. 17 Harrison Burton will drive its No. 20 Toyota full-time in 2020. Announced Oct. 31 Brandon Jones would return for a third year in the No. 19. Revealed Nov. 5 it would field a third full-time entry with Riley Herbst in the No. 18.

JR MotorsportsJustin Allgaier will return to the team for a fifth year in the No. 7 Chevrolet. The No. 8 car will be driven by Daniel Hemric for 21 races, Jeb Burton 11 races and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for one race. Noah Gragson will also return for a second season in the No. 9 car, while Michael Annett returns for a fourth year with the team in the No. 1 car.

Richard Childress Racing — Will field a part-time car in the No. 21, which will be shared by Myatt Snider and Anthony Alfredo.

Stewart-Haas Racing – The team has not announced plans for the No. 00 Ford with Cole Custer moving to Cup or whether Chase Briscoe will return to the No. 98.

JD MotorsportsJesse Little will compete full-time for the team.

 

Truck Series

GMS RacingDriver lineup will include Brett Moffitt, Sam Mayer, Sheldon Creed and Tyler Ankrum

Kyle Busch MotorsportsRaphael Lessard will drive the No. 4 full-time while Christian Eckes will drive the No. 18 full-time.

Halmar Friesen Racing — Stewart Friesen will return for a third full-time season in the No. 52 Truck. The team will also switch from Chevrolet to Toyota Trucks in 2020.

Hattori Racing EnterprisesAustin Hill will return to the No. 16 Toyota for a second year.

Niece Motorsports: Ty Majeski will drive the No. 45 truck full-time, taking the place of Ross Chastain. Announced Dec. 10.

DGR-Crosley: Has not made any driver announcements, but will switch from Toyota to Ford. Announced Dec. 11.

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Felix Sabates to end tenure as NASCAR owner

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Felix Sabates, who has been a NASCAR owner in some form since his team SABCO Racing began competing in the Cup Series in 1989, will retire from ownership in 2020, Chip Ganassi Racing announced Thursday.

The Associated Press first reported the news.

Sabates, 74, is leaving his role as a co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, which he sold controlling interest of SABCO Racing to in 2001.

Together they have earned 43 total wins in NASCAR’s top two series, including the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

In addition to NASCAR, Sabates and Ganassi fielded entries in IMSA, where they won seven championships, 64 races, including a record eight Rolex 24 At Daytona races, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring.

The Cuba-native has experienced health problems in recent years. In 2016, he suffered from an illness that put him in intensive care for 73 days and in a coma for 29 days.

“I look back to the 1980s when I first started in this sport, and I can tell you that the landscape has really changed,” Sabates said in a press release. “It’s been challenging at times, and tremendously rewarding watching the sport grow. When I started the NASCAR team, it was just a different time —a smaller regional sport. Then NASCAR grew and grew into a big business and continued to grow after my partnership with Chip. I’m proud of what I’ve done over the last 30 years. I have friendships that will last a lifetime.

“I hope that what I have tried to give back to the sport — whether it be bringing NASCAR to Mexico or being instrumental in starting the sports car program with Chip — will be equal to what the sport has taught and given me. I’ve always said that I never wanted to be an old man walking around at the track; this is my way of honoring that commitment I made to myself years ago. I wish Chip and his teams all the success in the world and will be keeping a close eye on the sport from afar and maybe even make an appearance from time to time.”

Said Ganassi: “Where do you even begin to describe Felix Sabates? He’s done so much for the sport of racing. I teamed up with him almost 20 years ago, and he’s been a great business partner and an even better friend. In that time, the only thing we’ve had an argument over was who was picking up the tab at dinner. Felix helped me develop as an owner as well as an individual. His track record in this sport certainly sets the bar high for anyone that follows. I’m proud to call him a friend and wish him all the best.”

 

 

Natalie Decker recovering from gallbladder surgery

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Natalie Decker, a Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series driver, is recovering after undergoing surgery to have her gallbladder removed.

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Decker, who raced for DGR-Crosley in 2019, posted on Instagram Wednesday about what led to the surgery, including problems with her gallbladder the kept her from taking arthritis medication.

“Hi everyone now that I have had the surgery to remove my gallbladder I will share the whole story!” Decker said. “I have been not being able to eat much food and have been in so much pain every time I eat we went through lots of testing like upper endoscopy and gallbladder function test! They finally figured it out and my gallbladder wasn’t functioning right! I had to get my gallbladder removed before I could go back on my Arthritis medication. I’m so thankful everything went very well!”

Decker, 22, made 19 starts in 2019. Her best finish was 13th in the spring Las Vegas race.