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What drivers said after first drafting session at Las Vegas

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Cup drivers were on track Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, running in a pack for the first time with the new rules package.

The rules package kept the cars closer together in a 25-lap run Thursday afternoon. Two more drafting sessions were scheduled for Thursday and two more for Friday.

Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch spoke to the media after the session. Here is some of what they had to say:

CLINT BOWYER

“The cars seemed like they handled well. Obviously a lot of wide-open throttle time, a lot of the things we knew going in. It’s going to be a work in progress how you balance that drag with downforce. Kind of business as usual for a test.”

“This is an important test. Everybody knows that. We need to learn as much as we can. The neat thing about what you just saw is a lot of different variations of what we can do with these race cars on the race track, whether it is pulling that drag out and making that thing go cat go and not handling the best or go for handling. That happy medium balance is going to be important when we come back and race.”

“Aric (Almirola) is already on my phone and Kevin (Harvick) is waiting on a phone call. They’re home watching. There are a lot of people watching what is going on because there’s opportunities within these changes and everybody is looking for those opportunities to beat the next guy to the punch.”

KURT BUSCH

“It’s been a good start for us on the (Chip) Ganassi team. For us, we’re just trying to do a lot of checklist items to make sure we were getting up to speed on all the communication items, all the little checkmark items as far as switching teams, as far as seat, mirror, a lot of little things that we were working on this morning. It seems like we’re off a little bit on speed. It’s because we really haven’t turned up the wick on how aggressive we were going to attack this package with. I’m expecting more out of the afternoon session. It will be fun to get out there with a different setup and see how it blends in with the traffic with all the cars mixed in.”

“This new package, the way that it drives, it is as radically different as when we switched to the Car of Tomorrow. That’s how much a dramatic difference it is. It’s a lot to adjust to, lot of differences. It’s wide open all the way around but when you do crack the throttle, you do lose a lot of speed and lose a lot of momentum and you’re trying to keep focused on the handling.”

“What we’re trying to do with this package is have a better on-track product and that is to get the cars side-by-side, have the draft down the straightaways, have the drivers have the option moreso than the engineers as far as where the speed comes from. It’s more a chess game, trying to balance out this setup and package right now. We just have to have better racing on track. That big draft that we saw earlier today, I was wide open and lost the draft in the back. That’s very similar to what you would see at Daytona and Talladega, so it’s just going to happen at a mile-and-a-half track instead of a big track.”

KYLE BUSCH

“I faded back to see how far back I could get, where I could find a relatively safe hole, I think it was sixth or seventh. I was able to pass a couple of guys and a couple of guys kind of quick and a couple of guys it kind of took a little bit to get by them. Then got back up to third or so and then the 3 (Austin Dillon) was fading, he was dropping back and then I was I behind the 14 (Clint Bowyer), trying to work over the 14 and the 14 pulled over and that’s how I got the lead back. There was no like once I got to second, it didn’t seem like you could anything with the guys in front of you.”

“It reminds me a lot of the trucks when we were with the truck race last spring with myself and Brett Moffitt. We ran 1-2 and kind of drove away. We could get in a draft and kind of drive away from the rest of the field. We were the ones that weren’t lifting as much as the rest of the competition was and I had a hard time passing Brett. I couldn’t get by him. I was behind him for 30 laps and couldn’t do anything to get by him. There’s just not enough off-throttle time for handling to come into play. You’re under the tire. You’re driving through the corners under the limits of the tire, so your speeds are just too slow. That doesn’t allow you, the runs on the straightway doesn’t allow you to get big enough runs to blitz guys on the inside or outside or whatever it might be. I did a couple of those today because guys were getting out of the gas. Once you get into race situations and guys figure out what they need to be a little bit better, those aren’t going to happen as easy they were today.”

“Guys are going to figure out how far they can trim their stuff out for how bad they can get the car to drive and then there’s going to kind of go back the other way a little bit, they’re going to put a little bit of drivability back into the cars. Right now, I feel like there were a couple of guys out there that looked a bit evil, their cars were ill-handling. Ours was driving pretty good, so we’re going to step their way and get my car to drive bad so we can figure out how bad is too bad in order to kind of play the fence a little bit and see what is going on.”

“Predictions (for what the March Cup race at Las Vegas will be like) are tough especially this early. But if I had to say, yeah, I think the competition is going to be closer together than what we’ve seen in years past. I don’t know that you’ll see a lead guy be able to stretch it out five, six, seven seconds or whatever. You might see the top three, four, maybe five guys that will kind of keep within two seconds of one another. As far as the racability and the maneuverability and the passing back and forth and runs and such, slingshot moves, I don’t foresee that coming. There’s not enough draft effect on the straightaways that give you enough speed to launch you into the next corner. When you get closer and closer and closer to the car in front of you, like you’re drafting off him because it’s helping you, then you get within a car length of him and it’s start to push him away. Like I tried to move out when I was behind Brad (Keselowski), I had a run on him and I tried to move out from behind him and I just hit the wind and my car was not as trimmed out as his so mine fell backwards. There’s not enough draft effect.”

“We’ve taken the driver’s skill away from the drivers in this package. Anybody can go out there and run around there and go wide open. It’s a lot more of a mental game. It’s going to be a lot more skill, it’s going to be a lot more chess match, thinking how you’re going to make moves and how daring you will be in making some of those moves and how hard of a time the guy that you’re trying to pass is going to give you back and suck you around or spin you or whatever it might be. We’ll see, we’ll see how that plays out. Overall, it’s going to be interesting.”

AUSTIN DILLON

“I thought it was pretty interesting. Really reminded me of the truck days, and I always feel like the Truck Series really races well and gets some exciting racing going. Restarts are going to be really aggressive. I thought we stayed together pretty good so there will be groups of guys racing really hard together at different points of the races. We have a lot to learn. We haven’t really quite hit the balance that we would like in our race car, but it shows some pretty good speed. I’m pleased with it and I’m having fun right now.”

“I thought that first drafting practice was solid. No one was kind of just out there riding around. I thought everybody was pretty aggressive and it’s a hard balance because you don’t want to tear anything up testing. I thought we got pretty aggressive. I got three-wide a couple of times off of Turn 2. That’s good. We can see what the package can do. I’m sure a lot of guys are like, whoa, we’ve got to change our direction because some guys were really good, some guys weren’t and some guys were OK.”

“I think my biggest thing was Clint and I hooked up a couple of times and I tried to push him by a car and it was kind of frustrating that I couldn’t push him past the side-by-side battle but … the side-by-side battle was pretty intense and it created three-wide. I think you’ll see a lot of three-wide this year to clear someone. If a guy is slower and guy goes under him and can’t pass him for a lap, then the next guy gets a huge run from that bubble and can create a three-wide pass down low. I think there’s draft studies that will continue to go on from each team to figure out where to place their car to make the best pass. It’s definitely going to be hard, but you’re going to see passing. It’s going to be more passing than we have in the last couple of years I feel like.”

JOHN PROBST, NASCAR VICE PRESIDENT OF DEVELOPMENT AND INNOVATION, to NASCAR.com:

“I’d say that kind of the takeaway that I took from that (first drafting session) was that if you watched the beginning of the run, there were some cars that were pretty good that stayed at the front there and if you watched the 1 (Kurt Busch) and the 21 (Paul Menard), they kind of hung out at the back there, the last five laps they were actually coming pretty quick through the field. I stopped by and talked to Travis Geisler of Penske before I came up here and they’re talking about having to make compromises. If you just want pure speed or do you want to be better later in the run, which should make for some pretty good strategy decisions that the teams are going to have to make kind of on how they feel yellows may fall during the race. If they want a fast car to check out and hopefully get a lot of yellows and keep doing that, or if you think there’s going to be a lot of green-flag runs and you got to set your car up, maybe you’re not so good at the beginning but by the end you’re coming to the front.”

“We’re encouraged by what we saw on the track. But by no means, we’ve all done this long enough, we’re not going to sit here and declare victory or anything. We know that teams are going to keep massaging on this package and we’ve just got to stay with them to make sure that we put on some really exciting races for our fans.”

“We’re trying to make it as competitive as we can from the top to the bottom. I think the one thing you know that is important out of this, we’re not trying to create some artificial level of competition. I think you’re still going to see the good guys are going to go out and win and compete for wins. That’s kind of the way we wanted it to be. That’s probably the way it should be. We want to have entertainment, but we want to keep the competition in it as well.”

NASCAR Penalty report from Michigan

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The NASCAR penalty report from Michigan International Speedway has been released.

It includes two fines for unsecured lug nuts. Chad Knaus, crew chief for William Byron‘s No. 24 Chevrolet, and Chris Gabehart, crew chief on Denny Hamlin‘s No. 11 Toyota, have each been fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut during the course of the weekend.

The report also includes the penalties issued Saturday to Roush Fenway Racing for the improper spoilers used on both Ryan Newman and Chris Buescher‘s cars.

Brendan Gaughan set for Daytona road course after COVID-19 recovery

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On July 15, part-time Cup Series driver Brendan Gaughan became the second NASCAR driver to announce he’d tested positive for COVID-19.

After quarantining for two weeks and testing negative for COVID-19 twice more than 24 hours apart, Gaughan has been medically cleared to go racing again.

And he won’t even have to wait until the Cup Series regular-season finale on Aug. 29 to do it.

Originally scheduled to only compete in the season’s four superspeedway races with Beard Motorsports, Gaughan will suit up to drive the No. 62 Chevrolet in Sunday’s race on the Daytona road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

He joins Jimmie Johnson in having tested positive for COVID-19 and returned to race. While Gaughan last competed in the June 22 race at Talladega, Johnson only missed the Brickyard 400 before returning to the track.

“I feel fantastic,” Gaughan said in a press release. “I’m finally out of the house. The toughest part of the whole ordeal was the mental aspect. I truly feel for people who struggle with depression and have to deal with COVID-19, because this thing is tough. You literally get stuck in a location by yourself. Fortunately for me, I had my puppy. I missed my two children tremendously. But it’s amazing now because we live in the age of the Jetsons that we can pick up a phone and look at their faces.”

To get clearance to race, Gaughan tested twice for COVID-19 in more than 24 hours and also had to get a doctor’s note saying he was good to go.

“That was it,” Gaughan said. “As long as I’m negative, they are good with it. They still have their protocols in place, so when we get to the track we are all still separated. The drivers don’t get to mingle with the teams right now. NASCAR has done a phenomenal job with it and they have been able to stay open for business while having very, very minor effects from this.”

While he was originally just going to race at Talladega and the Daytona oval, Gaughan says this weekend’s road course race “technically counts.”

“We said all of the Daytona races,” Gaughan said. “What happened is that as soon as it got added to the schedule immediately my mind went, ‘Wow, I would love to race the Daytona road course.’ There’s very few of us Cup drivers that have experience on that race course. And with no practice and no qualifying, that gives about 10 of us a very large advantage over the field.”

Brendan Gaughan
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Gaughan competed on the road course and earned a class victory in the 2011 Rolex 24 at Daytona, with his team beating second place by a full lap. He’s ran in the Rolex 24 twice since, finishing third in 2016 in the Prototype Challenge class and 14th in 2018 in the Prototype division.

“I was immediately enticed by it,” Gaughan said of the road course race. “Then you know how much I always speak so highly of Richard Childress Racing. Richard called and said, ‘Hey, come on man, you know you want to do it,’ and I kind of chuckled because everyone knows I love my road racing. I talked to the Beard family and said, ‘Hey, you want to add a race to the schedule?’ It wasn’t in the budget. It wasn’t planned originally, but the Beards were on board.

“They are in the same boat as me. This is a retirement year like me and they are having the same fun I am. They went, ‘Ooohh, we can do well there.’ So we called Richard up and he built me a brand new Beard Oil Distributing/South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet Camaro from RCR that we were able to rent for Beard Motorsports to go race.”

Gaughan, who will start last in the race due his lack of owner points, dissected how different it will be navigating the road course in Cup compared to the sports car he drove the last time he raced on it.

“I need to remember that the last time I raced there in an LMP car, I could lift at the ‘1’ sign going into the chicane on the back straightaway,” Gaughan said. “Now if I lift at the ‘1’ in a Cup car, I will end up at the airport. So I need to remember that I’m going to need a little more braking zone room. But you basically already know the line and you know where you want to be. You know the feel of the place.

“You know where some passing zones are. You kind of know how to run that race, which is the big advantage that comes with it. Having a car built from Richard Childress means that I don’t have to worry that it’s going to have parts and pieces that aren’t any good. And I still have Darren Shaw, my crew chief, who I’ve been working with at Beard Motorsports. We’ve still got our guys working it and our guys doing it, so I kind of have the best of all worlds here. And there is an advantage for people that have been there. I also gave myself a little bit of an insurance policy. I offered to sponsor Andy Lally in the Xfinity race. To me, Andy Lally is the premier sports-car racer in America.

“I don’t think anybody can argue that there is anybody better than Andy Lally. So, I offered to sponsor Andy because he’s racing Saturday. I told him he has to stay over Sunday and do some driver coaching and give me his notes. Not only do I have experience on the track, I will have notes from a stock car on the track from the day before.”

Christopher Bell: ‘Pretty scared’ about future before re-joining JGR

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Early last week, Christopher Bell was “pretty scared” about his NASCAR future after Leavine Family Racing, the Toyota-backed team the rookie driver competes for in the Cup Series, announced it would sell its assets to Spire Motorsports.

That left Bell’s relationship with Toyota, the manufacturer that’s been the “centerpiece” of his racing career since 2013 and 2015 in NASCAR, up in the air.

“I’ve said it time and time again, but Toyota has been my – they’re the ones that got me here,” Bell said Tuesday in a press conference. “They’re the ones that took me from dirt track racing to pavement racing to Truck (Series) racing to Xfinity racing and then obviously made this deal happen with LFR too. At the time, it’s either the 20 car (at Joe Gibbs Racing) or I’m done with Toyota. There’s no other options. It was very scary. I didn’t want that to end.”

Bell acknowledged that despite his 2017 Truck Series title, his seven Truck wins and 16 Xfinity wins, a lack of sponsorship backing didn’t make him the most valuable hire for another team.

“The sponsorship piece is a huge part of it,” Bell said. “It’s no secret, you have to have sponsors in order to succeed in this sport and I’ve been really fortunate to have Rheem with me for the last couple of years. If I get pushed out of the Toyota group, I don’t really have much to say, ‘hire me.’”

Bell said, “I knew that once LFR shut down, there was only one place for me to go and the 20 car has obviously got a great driver in there right now.”

That driver was Erik Jones, who has been with Joe Gibbs Racing in Cup full-time since 2018 and been a Toyota driver in NASCAR since 2013 in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“‘How is that going to work?'” Bell asked himself. “‘How am I going to be able to go to JGR whenever they’re full?’ Unfortunately my homecoming so to speak was at the expense of another driver.”

Two days after LFR’s announcement, Joe Gibbs Racing revealed Jones would not return to the team in 2021, a move that “blindsided” Jones.

On Monday, JGR announced Bell’s ascent up the ranks would finally land him in the No. 20 next season.

“It was very, I mean, uncomfortable is a good way to put it,” Bell said. “I don’t think any of us – myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota – none of us expected the whole LFR deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box. … I’m extremely grateful that I get to continue that relationship and that I get to continue to drive Camrys on Sundays and race with TRD for hopefully a long time to come.”

How does Bell see his relationship with Jones playing out over the final 14 races of the season?

“As far as me versus him, that situation is already done, so I don’t know how he’s going to race me going forward,” Bell said. “I’m going to be cheering for Erik, just as everybody is at Joe Gibbs Racing, just hoping that he gets a nice solid deal and lands on his feet. I’ll be cheering for him and trying to race him with as much respect as I can, just like every other competitor. I hope he performs well, and obviously, the better he performs now in the 20 car, the better off I’ll be at the start of the year with the owner points standings. It’s really important that he does well this year in the 20 car for my future next year as well.”

Bell observed that it’s “absolutely crazy” to look back at his career path, which began in UASC Midgets and has led to him driving a “house” Toyota Cup car at JGR next year.

Going into 2021, Bell said he still has a “great relationship” with the people at JGR from his time there in the Xfinity Series.

“Whenever I was on the Xfinity side, I still got to mingle and interact with the Cup shop a little bit, so I have a rough idea how everything operates there,” Bell said. “I got in a little bit deeper with the LFR deal, and having that technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but it’s going to be very nice to be able to go back home.”

Spire Motorsports confirms purchase of Leavine Family Racing

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Spire Motorsports confirmed Tuesday that it will acquire the assets from Leavine Family Racing upon the completion of the 2020 season. Spire Motorsports also will expand to a two-car team in the Cup Series in 2021.

The purchase will include LFR’s charter, the team’s race shop near Charlotte Motor Speedway and all of its owned inventory. LFR’s fleet of cars and chassis will be returned to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Spire, which began competing in 2019 after it purchased Furniture Row Motorsports’ charter, fields the No. 77 Chevrolet. It has made 58 starts for more than a dozen drivers since last year, including an upset win in the July 2019 race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel.

The team is co-owned by Jeff Dickerson and Thaddeus “T.J.” Puchyr.

“This is an exciting moment for Spire as we take the natural next step in our long-term plan to build our race team and prepare for the Next Gen car in 2022,” said Dickerson in a press release. “Bob Leavine invested more than money into LFR and this industry. He built a team brick-by-brick and we have long admired how he took his own steps in the garage. He also did it with his family at his side. We won’t let that be lost in this transaction. When you build something with your family, it always means a little bit more. His ability to connect with fans was genuine and we are thankful he chose us to carry this team forward.

“These are no doubt trying times, but I have never been prouder to be part of this sport. NASCAR has managed several difficult situations this spring and into the summer. We believe in the ownership model that NASCAR has built and where this sport is going now more than ever.”

The team said details about drivers and manufacturers for 2021 will come later.