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Tyler Reddick gears up for Xfinity title defense in new territory

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Tyler Reddick wishes he had been able to be more “selfish” with his offseason.

Over the last two months, Reddick didn’t have much time to dwell on anything – past or future.

He claimed his unlikely Xfinity Series championship Nov. 17 in Miami. The following weeks were filled by a trip to Universal Studios and driving to Bloomington, Illinois, and Nashville, Tennessee, for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Between the holidays, the 23-year-old’s championship was recognized in Charlotte at the Xfinity Banquet.

After putting roughly 10,000 miles on a brand new Chevy truck in less than two months, Reddick was taken out of commission for two weeks thanks to a tonsillectomy.

“With everything thrown together, I lost track of time,” Reddick told NBC Sports.

The offseason whirlwind didn’t leave him much time to contemplate what lays ahead in 2019 – being the first Xfinity champion to return to the series to try and defend his title since Chase Elliott in 2015 after winning in 2014.

But Reddick will have to do it under vastly different circumstances from last year.

New Team

When Reddick hoisted his title trophy in Miami, it was as the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports.

But just a few weeks earlier his move to Richard Childress Racing in 2019 – where he’ll drive the No. 2 Chevrolet – was made official.

Reddick now calls RCR’s campus in Welcome, North Carolina, his professional home.

When Reddick made his first trip to RCR’s campus he was taken aback by the vastness of the team’s campus.

In addition to RCR’s Cup and Xfinity programs, the campus is home to the RCR Museum, Richard Petty Motorsports, Kaulig Racing and the newly arrived Germain Racing.

“I’ve been involved in NASCAR, I can see what’s going on and what not, right?” Reddick said. “But I had no idea they had so many buildings. It’s just insanity.”

The primary reason behind Reddick moving to his third Xfinity team in three years? He was thinking ahead.

Tyler Reddick drives his No. 31 Chevrolet during Daytona 500 practice. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“It just looked like the avenue to get to the Cup Series with a more clear path than it was at JR Motorsports,” Reddick said. “That was the bulk of it. I got along great with (crew chief) Dave (Elenz) and my whole team. I loved them. I think they loved me as well.”

That foresight paid off quickly, with Reddick set to compete in Sunday’s Daytona 500. His first Cup start will come in RCR’s No. 31 Chevrolet. He’ll start 39th after finishing 13th in his qualifying race on Thursday.

But there are other reasons Reddick likes RCR.

“The thing that makes me feel really good is Richard just has a lot of involvement in everything that goes on,” Reddick said. “Honestly, he’s the decision maker. It’s his business. A lot of these team owners and what have you that are in NASCAR have other business that have been successful. Richard, like a couple of others, not many, Richard and Chip (Ganassi) are the two that come to mind that make their living, their bread and butter is racing. So they take it very seriously and spend a lot of time around it. For me that’s important.”

No (Official) Full-Time Teammates

A year ago Reddick was able to claim three full-time teammates, all who were 10 or more years older than him.

Now he’s technically alone.

RCR will field one full-time Xfinity car in 2019, with Reddick at the helm of the No. 2.

That’s two years after RCR fielded five cars. Last year, the team ran Daniel Hemric and Matt Tifft full-time and various drivers part-time in the No. 3.

But thanks to RCR’s many partners in its technical alliance, Reddick will have the equivalent of a teammate.

Reddick’s offseason was so chaotic he had to ask NBC Sports if Kaulig Racing had officially announced Justin Haley as the driver of its No. 11 Chevrolet.

“In all seriousness, he’s going to be like my teammate,” Reddick said after being told it was official. “Even though it’s not under the RCR banner … we’re still going to be sharing everything.”

Haley, 19, enters his rookie season in Xfinity. He’s made 50 starts in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series since 2015 and earned three wins last year. He also made three Xfinity Series starts with GMS Racing.

But the move to being essentially a one-car operation makes the No. 2 a “nimble” team in the eyes of the man who leads it.

New Crew Chief

Somehow, some way Reddick made it to the end of the 2018 season with Dave Elenz as his crew chief.

“I think any other crew chief in the garage would have pulled out his hair and quit on me halfway through the year but Dave wouldn’t do it,” Reddick said. “He believed in me, more so than anybody else did in the entire garage and that’s what held us together last year and got us to Homestead.”

After Reddick’s win at Daytona last year, the No. 9 team finished in the top five just twice in the next 22 races.

Their struggles stemmed partly from a difficulty to communicate when it came to diagnosing issues on the JRM cars, which were significantly different from what he drove in 2017 at Ganassi.

Reddick took the blame, saying he wasn’t consistent enough in what he conveyed to Elenz.

“Dave was at a huge disadvantage because at the time the Chip Ganassi Racing cars drove night and day different than what JR Motorsports cars did,” Reddick said.” I feel like in the sim (simulator), the Richard Childress Racing cars and JR Motorsports cars are a little bit closer together.”

Reddick says his Ganassi experience is part of the reason he’s connected so quickly with his new crew chief, Randall Burnett.

Burnett was crew chief on the No. 2 in 2018 when it was driven by Tifft. This will be Burnett’s third season as a crew chief for RCR after two years spent in Cup working with AJ Allmendinger.

Before that, Burnett spent 10 years as an engineer at Ganassi. That tenure included working “hand-in-hand” with crew chief Mike Shiplett to build its Xfinity team, which won 14 races from 2016-18 before shutting down due to a lack of sponsorship.

“I think we’ve got a lot of common ground with our racing background, growing up racing go karts and mini-outlaw karts and this, that and the other,” Burnett said. “I think we’ve just got a lot of common ground that we kind of relate to one another and are able to communicate really well so far.”

Burnett has a history of working with a multitude of drivers in a short amount of time. In 2017 he worked with four drivers, including the final five races with Hemric during his run to the Championship 4.

“I feel like I’ve kind of got a pretty good checklist of things to learn relatively quick so I can hit the ground running with a new driver,” Burnett said.

Without any time at a track in the last two months, the duo has adapted to each other through time at the team shop, talking on the phone and in the simulator.

“That’s been a huge benefit too, trying to learn how his language is about the car’s terms that he uses,” Burnett said of the simulator time with Reddick. “Like his scaling. How loose and tight the car is on a 1-10 scaling and how big of an adjustment I need to be able to make based on that scaling.”

Compared to other drivers he’s worked with, including Hemric, Paul Menard, Ben Kennedy and Allmendinger, Burnett describes Reddick as being more “laid back” and in the form of Kyle Larson.

“Kind of not too hands-on in the car setup stuff,” Burnett said. “Just kind of tells you, ‘Hey, it’s doing this.’ Where Daniel Hemric was kind of on the other extreme of that, he’s very in-tune, building his own race cars and everything. Tyler’s kind of on the opposite end. He’s like, ‘You do your job, I’m just going to tell you what it’s doing and you all fix it.'”

‘Do It Better’

With his title defense Reddick joins Christopher Bell, who won a rookie record seven races in 2018, in having a target on his back.

But Reddick says he feels less stress entering his title defense than he did last year.

“I feel like the weight is off my shoulders,” Reddick said. “I know that I can do it again, I just want to do it better than the first time. Winning a title is really cool and it’s great, but it wasn’t a perfect year. Everyone talks about they want to have a perfect year, they want to win every game they play and they want to win the Super Bowl at the end of the season. It’s very hard to do, but I want to strive more towards perfection.”

Simply, he wants to “be more like Christopher Bell” last year, even though he proved you don’t have to be to win the title. No matter how he does it, if Reddick pulls off back-to-back titles, he’d be the first Xfinity driver to do so since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2011-12.

“We can easily, if we execute properly and be smart and kind of play to our strengths, I think we should be able to have a year like Christopher Bell put together,” Reddick said.

Sunday’s Cup race at Bristol: Start time, forecast and more

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After four races on tracks more than 1 mile in length, NASCAR heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for Sunday afternoon’s race.

NASCAR’s first short track race of the season concludes a two-week period where the Cup Series will have run five times.

Kevin Harvick won the first race in this stretch May 17 at Darlington Raceway. Denny Hamlin won the May 20 Darlington race. Brad Keselowski won last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Chase Elliott won at Charlotte on Thursday night.

Here are the details for Sunday’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will give the command to start engines at 3:43 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:53 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 1:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 3:35 p.m. by Mike Rife, pastor of Vansant Church of Christ in Vansant, Virginia. The national anthem will be performed at 3:36 p.m. by Edwin McCain. There will be a flyover at 3:37 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the 0.533-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 3 p.m. Performance Racing Network will broadcast the race. Its broadcast begins at 2:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny conditions with a high of 70 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the race’s start.

LAST RACE: Chase Elliott took the lead from Kevin Harvick with 28 laps to go and went on to win Thursday night’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin finished second. Ryan Blaney placed third.

LAST RACE AT BRISTOL: Denny Hamlin passed Matt DiBenedetto with 12 laps to go to take the lead and went on to win last year’s night race. DiBenedetto finished second. Brad Keselowski placed third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

CATCHING UP TO SPEED WITH NBC SPORTS COVERAGE:

Matt DiBenedetto: “No margin for error” at Bristol Motor Speedway

Can Adam Stevens, Kyle Busch “get mojo back” at Bristol?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Forget practice, qualifying, “I just like to race”

Chase Elliott’s “Sent it, for Judd” in Charlotte Cup Series win

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

Where are they now? Catching up with Casey Mears

 

Matt DiBenedetto: ‘No margin for error’ at Bristol Motor Speedway

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It will be a weird feeling for Matt DiBenedetto on Sunday.

He and the rest of the Cup Series will embark on a 500-mile race at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first true short-track race of the season.

It will be DiBenedetto’s first trip back to the hall-mile track since last August, when he came within 12 laps of earning his first Cup Series win. Instead, he finished second to Denny Hamlin in his best career finish. For DiBenedetto, Bristol represents the site of “probably one of the most defeating and toughest days of my life” and one of the “most rewarding.”

“It was a tough week on us, so there was a lot of not really feeling how to feel,” DiBenedetto said Friday in a Zoom press conference. “But ultimately it led to being a big factor in me getting this opportunity to drive the 21 car this year, so it was a big day and everything was meant to be.”

DiBenedetto enters his ninth race as the driver for Wood Brothers Racing.  But he’s not revisiting last year’s night race in his preparation for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

“It’s still that painful that I’ve never watched (it),” DiBenedetto said. “I can’t remember what lap, but I cut it off and I can’t even watch it.  It would be too much.

“But as far as what I’m gonna try to learn for this Sunday, I’m actually gonna go back and probably watch mostly 2018 stuff because, thank goodness, we have the low downforce back for Bristol, which will make the racing way, way better, so I’m excited about that.”

As with the first four races back amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cup teams will get no practice before taking the green flag in “Thunder Valley.”

DiBenedetto said it has been “amazing” how cars have been able to fire off without any preparation, thanks to simulations and notes from previous races.

“The heights (on the car) and everything are usually pretty close, just because they have so much information to work (with),” DiBenedetto said.  “Really, it’s not too big of a deal.

“Actually, it’s even better than I thought just firing straight off in the race. The (competition) yellow and things like that help so you have a little time to adjust on your car and work on it, so they’ve done a good job with that.”

But Bristol is a different animal. DiBenedetto said the race will be “nerve-racking” without on-track preparation.

“Bristol, there’s just no margin for error.,” he said. “It’s really, really fast.  It’s an insanely fast short track.  You’re on edge already even when you have your car dialed in. … It’ll work out fine, for sure, but you just really are out and out praying that your car is dialed in right because it’s very sensitive.

“If you’re off just a little bit at Bristol, it can affect you worse than these tracks where it’s a big race track – a mile-and-a-half – and you don’t have to worry about going a lap down if you miss it or things like that, so this one will be a little bit more treacherous.”

DiBenedetto will be hoping to capture some of his Bristol magic from last year. Since finishing second at Las Vegas in February, DiBenedetto has finished better than 13th just once in the following six races, placing ninth in the second Darlington race.

After starting fourth Thursday night at Charlotte, he led 10 of the first 11 laps before ending the first stage in third, but finished 15th.

“Car speed is there and great and we’ve shown if we hit it or we’re close we can be up front at any of these races,” DiBenedetto said. “I’d say we’re not in our rhythm yet, but we will be. I have no doubt about that, but we’re still learning each other and making little mistakes figuring out each other’s communication.

“(Crew chief) Greg Erwin and I are figuring out working together and we still have a lot of room for improvement, which is a good thing because I know we can run up front and can contend for wins quite often. We have a lot of room for improvement on the execution side as far as putting our race together perfect from start to finish.”

Where Are They Now? Catching up with Casey Mears

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There are certain days most people never forget: their anniversaries, their children’s birthdays and for race car drivers, their first win.

These days Casey Mears may live 2,100 miles away from Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he was there in spirit for last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.

Mears won NASCAR’s longest race in 2007. He was in the right place at the right time, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin late in the race and hanging on for the final six laps – the only laps he led all day – for the win.

Casey Mears celebrates after winning the 2007 Coca-Cola 600. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“It was definitely the high point of my career, for sure,” Mears told NBC Sports. “I remember everything about that night.

“The one thing – and it’s not a regret – but it’s unfortunate that it ended up being a fuel-mileage race because we had a very fast car that night and ran inside the top 10 and top five the majority of the night.

“We probably weren’t going to win it, but we had a good shot at a top five and were going to be in the hunt. (Crew chief Darian Grubb) made a great call and we won the race, which was amazing for several different reasons.

“I mean, obviously winning in Charlotte, the 600 is the longest race, winning on Memorial Day weekend, which is a huge week for my family and then also being sponsored by the National Guard at that time. It was just a big night.”

While the 600 was his only Cup win, Mears also recalls several other key moments of his career, including runner-up finishes in 2006 at the Daytona 500 and later that year at Kansas.

“That night at Charlotte was a huge part of my career but some of the stuff that I feel like we earned on speed which was really cool were, we sat on the pole at Indy, did well at places like Chicago, Pocono and Michigan, being competitive and leading laps at places like Atlanta and Homestead, going back and forth with Tony Stewart at Atlanta one year.

“Some of those big moments in my career weren’t necessarily the only parts that stand out. The moments I remember the most were when we had competitive race cars and when we were on the verge of getting those wins and getting real close.”

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Mears lives in the Phoenix area with his family. It’s also where he met his wife, Trisha.

“We always said that when the NASCAR things slowed down, we’d like to be back out this way,” Mears told NBC Sports. “So we picked up and moved the kids and came out to Phoenix. We’re loving it, and I’m really enjoying spending a lot of time with them. I’ve also been fortunate to reconnect with some of my off-road racing buddies since I’ve been out here.”

This is the off-road truck Casey Mears co-drove in last year’s NORRA Mexican Baja 1000. (Photo courtesy Casey Mears)

Mears may be gone from NASCAR, but he’s still taking part in other forms of racing part-time, including off-road competition like the NORRA Mexican Baja 1000 last year with Lynn Chenoweth. Casey’s father Roger drove for Chenoweth back in the 1960s and 1970s, and also is part of Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks Series.

“I also hang out with (NBC IndyCar analyst and former racer Paul Tracy) and drive his Lamborghini sports car, just taking it on the track and sliding around, just having fun,” Mears said. “If opportunities come around, I’d love to race some more.

“I really, really enjoyed racing out in the desert, doing off road stuff. I’d also love to get involved in some sports car stuff as well if there’s an opportunity.

“I love what I’m being able to do right now, just dabble. Playing in Robby’s series, that’s been a blast and picking up random off road, desert opportunities. But racing’s racing, it always boils down to the dollars and cents and sponsors or finding some guy that just wants to go racing and spend some money and have fun. It’s few and far between these days.”

Even though Mears has moved on from NASCAR, he admits he misses it.

“I was fortunate to get to do it for about 15 years,” Mears said. “I lived that life and it really becomes almost the opposite. Your family and friends end up being all the people on the road and people at home become extended friends and family, you’re on the road so much.

“For sure I miss a lot of the people that you saw week in and week out. I definitely miss the competition. I don’t think I’ll ever not miss being in a race car because, like so many others in the sport, I didn’t really get to go out on my own terms.

“For so many people, the sport decides it for you before you’re ready to decide not to do it. I think I’ll always have that desire to want to get in a car again.

“But the one thing that helped me make this decision to move to Phoenix is that I didn’t want to be one of those guys that lingered in the sport either. I didn’t want to be with a back marker program and not be able to be competitive and that’s kind of probably what would have happened. I would have stuck around and would have gotten into something I probably really didn’t need to be in.”

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Mears made 489 career Cup starts, his last full-time season being in 2016. He came back for a start last year for Germain Racing in the season-opening Daytona 500. He started 40th and finished 40th, involved in a crash just past the halfway point.

Mears also made 107 Xfinity Series starts, earning his lone series win in 2016 at Chicagoland Speedway.

He still keeps his hand in NASCAR somewhat, just not on a steering wheel. He does promotional work for Phoenix Raceway and visits his former chums each time NASCAR comes to town.

Casey Mears, right, remains good friends with a number of his former teammates, including seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

He also keeps in regular contact with close friends and former teammates and bosses including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, Bob Germain and Doug Barnette.

But moving on from being a race car driver, pretty much the only thing he had known for more than 30 years since being a kid growing up in Bakersfield, California, gave Mears pause.

“This move really forced me to figure out what’s next in life,” he said. “I’m 42 years old and although I’ve done well and been very fortunate, but I need to do something.”

He’s looking at a variety of business opportunities in the Phoenix area, primarily in the automotive industry.

“I feel very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had in the sport,” Mears said. “I drove for a lot of real good teams and programs and learned a lot from a lot of people.

“The people I got to race with and learn from just from the business standpoint is going to help me later in my career with whatever’s next. I had some great opportunities and will always miss it, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to the future and what’s next.”

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Starting lineup for Monday night’s Xfinity race at Bristol

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Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Harrison Burton and Brandon Jones will start on the front row for Monday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway after a random draw.

Burton will start on the pole and Jones will be second. Austin Cindric will start third, Justin Haley starts fourth and Ryan Sieg starts fifth.

There are 37 cars in the field. NASCAR on NBC analyst AJ Allmendinger will start 27th in his season debut in the series.

Monday’s race is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET on FS1.

The starting lineup was determined through a random draw of the following groups:

  • Positions 1-12: The first 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up Eligibility will be assigned starting positions 1st – 12th using a random draw.
  • Positions 13-24: The next 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 12th- 24th using a random draw.
  • Starting positions 25-36:The next 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 25th -36th using a random draw.
  • Any vehicles that are eligible for the Event in position 37th – 40th will be assigned starting positions based on their order of eligibility.

Click here for starting lineup

 

NASCAR Xfinity Series at Bristol

Race Time: 7 p.m. ET Monday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (0.533-mile oval)

Length: 300 laps, 159.9 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 85. Stage 2 ends on Lap 170.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Cup race: May 31 at Bristol (500 laps, 266.5 miles), 3:30 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck Series race: June 6 at Atlanta (130 laps, 200.02 miles), 1 p.m. ET on FS1