Getty Images

Chase Briscoe, John Hunter Nemechek break down Xfinity debuts

Leave a comment

Well ahead of his Xfinity Series debut last weekend, Chase Briscoe was given a list by Ford of all 33 races the series will hold in 2018.

The 23-year-old was asked to rank them by the races he liked and thought would be the most important for him to run.

The track at the top of Briscoe’s ranking was Atlanta Motor Speedway.

A native of Mitchell, Indiana, with a dirt racing background, Briscoe wanted to get the toughest race out of the way.

“To me Atlanta was a crucial one to run just because it’s early in the year … it’s the first mile-and-a-half of the year,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “To me it’s the toughest mile-and-a-half that we go to when it comes to slickness. You’re constantly on edge and there’s tire fall off.”

Briscoe, a Ford development driver and one of three drivers piloting Roush Fenway’s Racing’s N0. 60 Ford this season, had been to Atlanta before. Driving for Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series last year, Briscoe started 25th and finished fourth in his first visit to the track.

On Saturday, he wasn’t the only rookie Xfinity driver trying to use past Atlanta experience to his advantage in their series debut.

Briscoe was joined by John Hunter Nemechek, driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet. The two drivers had very different debuts on NASCAR’s second-biggest stage.

Nemechek, 20, made his third start on the abrasive 1.54-mile oval. The first two, for his family’s NEMCO Motorsports team in the Truck Series, included one win in 2016.

“I think it’s all the same concept of being able to manage your tires and being there at the end when it counts,” Nemechek told NBC Sports. “If I was going in blind and had never run there or in an Xfinity car, I think it’d be a little bit tougher just from the fact of knowing how you have to run there, how much to save tires … the saving factor is definitely different for the Xfinity car to the truck for sure.”

Nemechek had “butterflies” on Friday, but he expected that.

“I feel like the weekend went very well from the perspective of never being in a Xfinity car until Lap 1 of practice,” Nemechek said. “I felt really good. … We were fast Friday in practice. The guys here at Chip Ganassi Racing brought me a really fast piece and as a driver that’s all you can ask for so it’s kind of in my hands not to make a mistake.”

Nemechek was eighth fastest in first practice and Briscoe was 20th. In final practice, Nemechek topped the chart and had the best 10-lap average. Briscoe had only risen one spot to 19th.

By the end of the day, they had varying expectations for how Saturday would go.

“I still had open expectations,” Nemechek said. “My confidence was high in race runs, but I’d never done a qualifying run until the first lap in qualifying on Saturday morning.”

Chase Briscoe competes during the Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Briscoe’s had changed significantly.

“I had every expectation that I could run up front and battle for the win,” Briscoe said. “After practice I realized it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. That was one of the things that’s humbling and very eye-opening how tough the field is and the depth of the field is so tough.”

The field was made tougher by the presence of four Cup drivers, including eventual race winner Kevin Harvick.

Briscoe leaned on Harvick as well as fellow Ford drivers Brad Keselowski (Briscoe’s former Truck Series owner) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for guidance.

“There’s a difference between being fast in practice and being able to race good,” Briscoe said. “So all of the guys told me, especially (with) Atlanta, you need to be tight. That’s one thing I’ve always struggled with in my career, I always like being loose compared to everybody.”

Stenhouse, who also comes from a dirt racing background, provided valuable insight in how to get around the track that hasn’t been repaved in 21 years.

“We talk the same language and some guys, typically the sprint car drivers, talk about side bite and forward bite,” Briscoe said. “If I want to get in the corner at a certain speed, I’ll actually start back peddling the throttle down the straightaway way before I get to the corner just so I can get to the corner at the speed I want and not have to go down in there wide open and lift out of the throttle and get into the brake. Stenhouse said he does the same thing, so it was just nice to reassure myself that’s what I should be doing.”

Meanwhile, Nemechek received advice from his Ganassi teammates, Larson and Jamie McMurray. He also got insight from former Cup driver Josh Wise, who works as a trainer for Ganassi.

“He’s definitely been a huge help over the offseason, being able to, I guess more of like a driver coach per say,” Nemechek said.

Wise’s advice?

“Have fun,” Nemechek said. “You want to make the most out of your opportunity. … Just being able to run all the laps and learn as much as you can.”

Nemechek ran all 163 laps. But he had to survive the two most hair-raising moments of the race to do it.

John Hunter Nemechek starts to get loose from racing with Kevin Harvick early in Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway  (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The first came within laps of the initial green flag. With his No. 42 Chevrolet hugging the line at the bottom of Turn 4, Harvick nearly made contact with his rear bumper, getting Nemechek loose and then some, but he somehow saved it.

“It’s kind of a driver’s instinct of being able to save it throughout the years,” Nemechek said. “I still think there’s some luck involved there.”

Briscoe experienced the same issues with aero in the early going.

He “limped a little bit” into Turn 1 on the first lap when he could have gone all out and was passed by three cars.

“That was probably the first one where I thought, ‘Well, you screwed that up,” Briscoe said. “The whole race is just so much different in the Xfinity car than the Truck was in dirty air. All of the first couple of laps were kind of that for me because I didn’t know what to expect being in that much air and that many cars around you.”

Nemechek’s second scare came again out of Turn 4 on Lap 11 as he raced with Cole Custer and Elliott Sadler behind him. The No. 42 drifted up in front of Sadler, who hit his rear end. That sent Nemechek down into Custer, who spun and hit the outside wall nose-first.

Cole Custer’s No. 00 Ford after his accident with John Hunter Nemechek. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“I didn’t expect (Sadler) to hit me like that,” Nemechek said. “He had the run on the top side and Cole had a run on the bottom. I was loose as it is and had to use up all the track. They were being really aggressive and I can understand that. … Apologize to those guys. It’s kind of one of those deals, I was in the wrong spot at the wrong time and so was (Custer).”

Before the first 40-lap stage was over, Nemechek had to endure one more near-miss in the form of a shredded right-front tire. Pitting to replace it sent the Nemechek one lap down.

He was back on the lead lap following the stage-ending caution a few laps later. Nemechek failed to finish in the top 10 in the first two stages, but he kept his No. 42 safe and drove to a fourth-place finish.

Nemechek attributed his spotter Derek Kneeland and crew chief Mike Shiplett with getting him back on track.

“More or less having the spotter and crew chief keep me calm and keep me focused and make sure I’m hitting my marks and not doing anything crazy,” said Nemechek, who will next be back in the No. 42 car on March 17 at Auto Club Speedway. “Then knowing there’s a lot of race left and things can play out in your favor if you’re patient enough and don’t put yourself in bad position.”

Briscoe had an uneventful day at Atlanta before finishing 15th, one lap down. But he’ll take it. His result came a week after No. 60 teammate Austin Cindric wrecked at Daytona on Lap 11.

“It builds team morale if you come back every weekend without scratches on the car and it’s not tore up,” said Briscoe, who will drive the No. 60 next on April 7 at Texas Motor Speedway. “Obviously there’s a difference between tearing it up battling for the win and tearing it up running 20th. That goes a long way and I think Jack (Roush) respected that and he said he was proud. Fifteenth wasn’t what I wanted to run, but I think in the big scheme of things he was happy with it and hopefully we can continue to build on and get better and better as the year goes out.”

NASCAR America: Better equipment, skilled drivers changed road racing

Leave a comment

The Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway is the first of three road course races on the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar and the preparation involved in setting up these cars is much greater today than it has been in the past, according to NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett.

“I think the same emphasis is put in those two road course races and the cars that will be in those races,” Earnhardt said. “And now the Roval that will be at Charlotte – being a very important race in the playoffs – these road course racers are even more important.”

Man and machine need to be equal to the challenge.

“Not only is the emphasis more on the drivers to prepare and learn how to become road course racers, but there is a lot more emphasis on the cars too,” Earnhardt said. “All the cars are so much more similar and there is a lot more dedication to preparing the cars for these particular races. It’s almost like there is as much effort into putting a good road course car on the track as there is speedway cars – like Daytona and Talladega cars.”

Even the best driver cannot compete in equipment that is not up to the challenge and it took some outside expertise to raise NASCAR to the level of other marquee road racing series mechanically. Car owners like Jack Roush and road ringers like Boris Said contributed to the evolution of the racing discipline.

“The cars are so much better now than when we started,” Dale Jarrett said. “Whenever I got started in the Cup series fulltime in ’87, there were a couple of good road racers – and I think of Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace … but Jack Roush brought something totally new into the sport a little later in the 80s and early 90s. … Their equipment was a little bit better because they understood road racing a little more. Now everybody has all that.”

Jarrett recalled what he believes might be one of the biggest upsets of his career. He won the pole for the 2001 Global Crossing at the Glen because he received a tip from Said, who told him he was not getting deep enough into the corners because his brakes were not good enough.

“You talk about road course ringers: Boris Said and Ron Fellows and some other guys coming in,” Jarrett said. “One of the things that helped them, they were better because they did it all the time, but they also would tell the teams they were going to drive for, ‘hey, there’s a lot better braking and other things out there that you can do.’ They came in and they had better equipment, which made them look even that much better than what we were.”

For more, watch the video above.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett preview upcoming races

NBCSN
Leave a comment

Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his weekly appearance on the show.

Krista Voda hosts with Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett from the Big Oak Table in Charlotte.

On today’s show:

· Not long ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bragged about his ability to remember who he’s beaten for wins in past races. In this episode, we’ll test his memory in a trivia game called “Who Did Junior Pass For The Win?” We’ll be taking your questions for Junior throughout the show. Just send it on social media with the hashtag #Wednesdale.

· Sonoma begins a critical summer stretch for the Monster Energy Cup Series. With Chicagoland, Daytona, Kentucky and New Hampshire on the horizon, teams will be challenged and playoff hopes will rise and fall. Dale Jr. & Dale Jarrett preview the upcoming races.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones at Sonoma

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones when the series visits Sonoma Raceway this weekend.

Ryan Newman leads the way with his 600th Cup start.

The Richard Childress Racing driver will become the 28th driver to reach the mark. His first start came on Nov. 5, 2000 at ISM Raceway with Team Penske.

Newman is one of four remaining active Cup drivers, including Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Derrike Cope, who competed against Dale Earnhardt in a Cup points race. Only Newman and Busch compete full-time.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin will make his 450th start. He will become the 52nd driver to reach that mark.

Hamlin’s first start came on Oct. 9, 2005 at Kansas Speedway. All of his starts have been with JGR.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will make his 200th career start. He will be the 132nd driver to reach that mark.

Stenhouse’s first start came in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 with Wood Brothers Racing when he substituted for Trevor Bayne, who was out due to illness. Every other start has been with Roush Fenway Racing.

The last race at Michigan International Speedway saw AJ Allmendinger make his 350th Cup start. 71 drivers have reached that mark.

How much does starting position matter at Sonoma?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Do you need to qualify on the pole, the front row or the even the top five to better your chances of winning a NASCAR race?

On a typical race weekend one would think that’s the case. Through 15 races this season, the winner has started in the top five eight times. Only four winners started 10th or worse.

But this isn’t a typical race weekend as the Cup Series heads to Sonoma Raceway for its first road course race of the season.

The series has held 29 races at the road course since 1989. In those 29 races, the winner started from the pole five times (17.2 percent).

That makes it the most prolific starting position at the track in terms of wins.

But a winner hasn’t come from the pole since 2004 when Jeff Gordon did it for a track-best third time.

The driver starting second has won three times, the last occurring in 2010 with Jimmie Johnson. Since that race, only one Sonoma winner – Carl Edwards (fourth) in 2014 – has started in the top five.

In the 13 races since Gordon last won from the pole, the race winner started in the top five three times.

The last three races saw the winner start 11th (Kyle Busch), 10th (Tony Stewart) and 12th (Kevin Harvick).

In contrast, the 14 races from 1992-2005 saw every race winner came from inside the top 10 and 11 from the top five.

What’s changed? Road course racing became much more aggressive with the transition to double fire restarts in 2009. The introduction of stage racing last year added another wrinkle to a type of racing that already saw aggressive pit strategy.

But Sonoma isn’t too kind to drivers starting in the back half of the field.

The deepest in the field that a race winner has started is 32nd, when Juan Pablo Montoya won in 2007. Only one other time has the winner come from outside the top 15, when Kyle Busch started 30th and won in 2008.