Friday 5: Tensions between Cup teams test manufacturers

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Less than a month into the Cup season, there have been signs that the tenuous alliances among teams have not held up well on or off the track.

It’s led to an unease not often visible at this point in the season.

As the sport enters a time of transition — new rules, new car in 2021, new engine as early as 2022— can a manufacturer keep its teams together for these major projects? Or will there be fissures, much like what happened between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing in 2016 and Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing last season?

At the same time, NASCAR seeks new manufacturers and any company that comes into the sport likely will take teams from current manufacturers. Are the seeds of discontent being sown now?

Already manufacturers have had to react to issues between their teams.

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, conceded this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that at Ford, “we’re a family and every family has issues.”

Just look at the issues Ford has had this season:

Joey Logano confronted fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell on pit road after the Daytona 500 for pushing a Toyota and not Logano’s Ford on the final lap. McDowell told the media he was not happy with how fellow Ford drivers treated him in that race.

Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was not happy with Logano, who chastised Stenhouse on the radio for a move during the Daytona 500 that cost Logano several spots and, according to Logano, could have caused an accident.

“For sure we had our issues at Daytona, can’t deny that,” Rushbook said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “But as a family, we talked through those issues, tried to understand what led to those issues and then how can we fix that and make it even better going forward.”

Ford isn’t the only manufacturer that has had issues between some of its teams. Chevrolet understands the delicate balance between competition and cooperation.

Hendrick Motorsports partnered with Joe Gibbs Racing, a Toyota team, and not fellow Chevrolet teams Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing in the Daytona 500. The move was made to counter the strength of the Fords, which dominated both qualifying races and entered as the favorite to win the 500.

Kyle Larson’s comments this week on NASCAR America’s Splash & Go about Hendrick Motorsports “cheating” ruffled feelings in the Chevy camp. That led to a late-night Twitter apology from Larson and subsequent comments about how he had poorly chosen his words. Ganassi gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Larson said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that he had apologized to team owner Rick Hendrick. Said Larson: “We’re both moving on.”

There always will be conflict among competitors in the same camp. It’s natural with what is at stake each race weekend. But the manufacturers have stressed working together more. It was evident in how Toyota teams teamed together to win the 2016 Daytona 500 — a model adopted by others. At Ford, that banding of brothers is referred to as One Ford.

But this season, the slogan might be anything but togetherness.

2. New challenge for spotters

The new rules that are intended to tighten the competition at tracks — and should be the case this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway based on the January test — will change what spotters will do.

Many expect to be calling the race much like they do at Daytona and Talladega where they’re on radio almost constantly.

“I did a lot of talking in 25 laps,” Billy O’Dea, spotter for Ty Dillon, said, referring to the 25-lap races NASCAR held at the January test at Las Vegas.

One thing that spotters who were at the test noticed is that runs by cars behind their car were different from what they see in pack racing at Daytona or Talladega.

“In Daytona or Talladega, you don’t necessarily watch the car behind you,” said Tyler Green, spotter for Kurt Busch. “You watch  two or three behind because that’s where the runs come from.

“At Vegas, it seemed like you didn’t really watch the car two behind you. You watched the car right behind you. It just happens quick. There’s no really understanding of where the runs really come from unlike Daytona or Talladega.”

Other spotters at the test noticed that as well. That creates other challenges for them.

“Are they going to take (the run and try to pass) or are they just going to get close?” O’Dea said of what to tell a driver when a car behind has a run.

“When you see them moving, do you block it? It’s a lot of unknowns. Early in the race, do you really want to be blocking a guy going into (Turn) 1? If it’s continually a lot of passing, which I hope it is, it’s going to be a lot of give and take. It’s going to be interesting to see.”

Rocky Ryan, spotter for David Ragan, also was at the test. Ragan did not participate in the 25-lap races because he was driving the Ford wheel-force car, which has extra equipment on it and is too valuable to be risked in a race (the wheel-force cars for Chevrolet and Toyota also did not participate in those races).

During those races at the test, Ryan said he stood atop the spotters stand and acted as if he was spotting for a car to grasp how quickly things can happen in those drafts.

“The 15 of us that were there (for the test) will have a leg up on everybody,” Ryan said.

3. Drafting in qualifying

The expectation is that teams will draft in qualifying today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, saw what the draft could do when the No. 2 team took part in the January test there.

“It seemed like at the Vegas test, the (aero) ducts made a difference,” Wolfe told NBC Sports. “Basing off of Vegas, it seems like there were two- or three-tenths of a second to be gained in the draft.

“I still don’t think it’s going to be a draft like you see at Daytona, but it’s more about timing it right to get a good suck up (on the car ahead). I don’t see us going out there running nose to tail. I still don’t see that. I could be wrong.”

Wolfe said they saw the draft make a difference when a car was a quarter of a straightaway behind another car.

“The more cars you have (in a draft), you get a faster suck up, for sure,” Wolfe said.

The key is to figure out who is going to be the trailing car to get that advantage, or if teams will run extra laps in qualifying and trade positions so each car will have that chance to take advantage of the draft.

4. On the way to Miami

If a trend holds true, one of the Championship Four contenders may be known after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

Since 2014, one of the drivers racing for the title at Miami has won within the first three races of the season.

Throw out the Daytona 500. No winner of that race since 2014 has made it to the championship race. So that means that either Brad Keselowski, who won last weekend at Atlanta, or Sunday’s winner could be headed for a chance at the championship — provided the trend continues.

Three times since 2014, the driver who went on to win the championship won within the first three races of the season: Harvick won the second race in 2014 (Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson won the second race in 2016 (Atlanta), and Martin Truex Jr. won the third race in 2017 (Las Vegas).

Last year, all four title contenders won for the first time that season within the first 10 races. Kevin Harvick won in the season’s second race (Atlanta). Truex won in the fifth race (Auto Club Speedway). Kyle Busch won in the seventh race (Texas). Joey Logano won in the 10th race (Talladega). Harvick and Busch had other wins within those first 10 races.

5. Familiar faces

Brad Keselowski’s victory last weekend at Atlanta kept a streak going.

Six drivers have combined to win the last 18 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks. Martin Truex Jr. has six wins in that time, followed by Kevin Harvick (five wins), Kyle Busch (three), Keselowski (two), Joey Logano (one) and Chase Elliott (one).

The last time one of those drivers did not win a race at a 1.5-mile track was the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. Austin Dillon won that race.

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NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge continues at 7 pm ET on NBCSN

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After its debut Monday night, the iRacing component of Racing Week in America on NBCSN continues tonight at 7 p.m. ET.

The NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge began on a virtual Rockingham Speedway, with William Byron sweeping the two heat races and Kyle Busch receiving the Peacock Provisional from Steve Letarte.

The next round of the challenge will be held on a virtual Lucas Oil Raceway, a 0.686-mile track located outside Indianapolis that hosted the Xfinity Series from 1982-2011 and the Truck Series from 1995-2011.

Wednesday night’s races will be at a virtual Myrtle Beach Speedway.

The winners of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night’s races will advance to the championship round, Thursday night on a virtual Martinsville Speedway.

Here is the driver lineup for the remaining nights:

Tuesday at Lucas Oil Raceway: Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe, Harrison Burton, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Wednesday at Myrtle Beach Speedway: Landon Cassill, Matt DiBenedetto, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Timmy Hill, Ryan Preece and Myatt Snider.

How NASCAR tracks are helping during COVID-19 pandemic

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With COVID-19 pandemic continuing to take a toll on the world, more NASCAR tracks are stepping up to help out local communities in their time of need.

They join Charlotte Motor Speedway, which became the first professional sports facility in the country to host a COVID-19 test site starting last month, while Eldora Speedway in Ohio donated almost 3,000 face masks to its surrounding commmunity.

Here’s a look at tracks that are helping out:

Atlanta Motor Speedway

The track in Hampton, Georgia, has announced an American Red Cross blood drive on May 4.

The drive will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET in Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Tara Ballroom, located within the AMS Condo Building at 1500 Tara Place.

To ensure all participants have the opportunity to donate upon arrival, donations for the blood drive will be done by appointment only.

Red Cross employees have implemented additional precautions to ensure blood drives and donation centers are safe for donors and staff and reduce potential exposure to COVID-19.

To make an appointment use the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visit RedCrossBlood.org or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).

Each donor will receive a discount coupon to the AMS Gift Shop and photos with the AMS pace car. To prepare to give blood, the Red Cross recommends donors eat iron-rich meals and drink plenty of water. A photo ID will also be needed upon arrival.

To donate please visit RedCrossBlood.org and enter sponsor code “atlantaspeedway” and choose the donation time that works best for you.

Martinsville Speedway

Starting Wednesday, Martinsville Speedway in Virginia will be a COVID-19 test site.

The site will be open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 12-4 p.m. ET.

Individuals to be tested must be a resident of Martinsville City, Henry County, or Patrick County.

They will not be admitted to the testing site unless it has received proper documentation from a physician.

Click here for more.

Talladega Superspeedway

The track in Alabama will host a by-appointment blood drive on Wednesday from noon to 6 p.m. ET.

It will take place at the the International Motorsports Hall of Fame’s Fox Sports 1 dome, which is outside the entrance of the track.

These are the precautions that are being taken according to the St. Clair News-Aegis:

  • All individuals will have their temperatures taken before entering the blood drive, including staff and volunteers
  • Additional spacing between beds and stations that go above social distancing guidelines
  • No more than 15 people will be allowed in the venue at a time (includes donors, staff & volunteers)
  • Reinforcing existing and introducing new safety protocols including wearing gloves, routinely wiping down donor-touched areas, using sterile collection sets for every donation, and preparing the arm for donation with an aseptic scrub
  • Having hand sanitizer available

To make an appointment to donate, download the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visit RedCrossBlood.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) sponsor code: TALLADEGA.

Texas Motor Speedway

The track in North Texas hosted a blood drive last week that collected 32 pints of blood from more than 30 donors, an amount that can help up to 96 patients.

Homestead-Miami Speedway

As a result of a $40,000 donation made because of its eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race a few weeks ago, the track was able to distribute food and supplies to 1,000 families in its community through Farm Share.

Jeff Burton, Dale Jr., Carl Edwards on NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot for 2021

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NASCAR on NBC analysts Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. head a list of five newcomers nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which has revamped its balloting process for the 2021 class.

Carl Edwards, Jake Elder and Banjo Matthews also are first-time nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is splitting its ballot into three categories this year: Modern, Pioneer and Landmark.

Burton and Earnhardt both had winning careers in NASCAR’s top series before entering the broadcast booth.

MORE: Dale Jr. Pondered Hall Nomination in January

Burton, who was nicknamed “The Mayor” by former teammate Clint Bowyer because of his ambassadorial and leadership skills, has 21 Cup victories, including the 1999 Southern 500 and two Coca-Cola 600s (1999, ’01). The South Boston, Virginia, native also has 27 Xfinity Series victories.

Earnhardt, who was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 15 times by fans, has 26 Cup victories (including the 2004 and ’14 Daytona 500s). He won consecutive Xfinity Series championships in 1998-99.

Edwards had 28 Cup victories and two runner-up points finishes in a full-time career from 2005-16. He also won the 2007 Xfinity Series championship before making the stunning decision to retire at 37 more than three years ago.

Among other notables: crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine returns after being left off the 2020 ballot, and Janet Guthrie is back on the Landmark ballot after a one-year absence.

Sam Ard, Ray Fox, John Holman, Marvin Panch, Jim Paschal and Red Vogt fell off the 2021 ballot after being nominated last year.

Under a new structure announced by NASCAR in February, there will be two entries chosen from 10 Modern candidates, one entry apiece from five candidates in the Pioneer and Landmark categories. Modern candidates are eligible to be on the ballot 10 times (which is retroactive to the start of the Hall of Fame vote in 2009).

There is no limit to the eligibility for the Pioneer and Landmark awards. Competitors are eligible for the Modern ballot if their careers started within the last 60 years; Pioneer if their careers began prior to 60 years ago.

Modern era driver and crew chief nominees must have competed in NASCAR for 10 years and have been retired for two. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart were elected the past two years in their first year of eligibility. Earnhardt became eligible this year.

Next year, 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth will be eligible for the first time.

Last year, the NASCAR Hall of Fame inducted Stewart, Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte, Buddy Baker and Waddell Wilson.

Voting for the NASCAR Hall of Fame usually happens on the Wednesday before the Coca-Cola 600. A NASCAR spokesman told NBCSports.com that there was no update on when the 2021 Voting Day would be scheduled or whether it would be held virtually.

In the first 11 classes of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the top five vote-getters were inducted annually from a nominee list that initially was 25 and was shortened to 20 since the 2015 class.

Here is the ballot for the 2021 class:

Modern era (10): Neil Bonnett, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Harry Gant, Harry Hyde, Larry Phillips, Ricky Rudd, Kirk Shelmerdine and Mike Stefanik.

Pioneer (5): Jake Elder, Red Farmer, Banjo Matthews, Hershel McGriff and Ralph Moody.

Landmark (5): Janet Guthrie, Alvin Hawkins, Mike Helton, Dr. Joseph Mattioli, Ralph Seagraves.

Here is the breakdown of how the ballot from 2021 differs from last year’s ballot and here is a Twitter thread that helps explain the changes to the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting process:

On the 2020 ballot, not on 2021: Sam Ard (once on ballot, 2020); Ray Fox (eight years on ballot, 2013-20); John Holman (two years on ballot, 20019-20); Marvin Panch (once on ballot, 2020); Jim Paschal (once on ballot, 2020); Red Vogt (once on ballot, 2020).

On the 2021 ballot, not on 2020: In the Modern category, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Kirk Shelmerdine (returning after being on the 2019 ballot). In the Pioneer category, Jake Elder and Banjo Matthews.

Modern carryovers from the 2020 to the 2021 ballot (with remaining ballot eligibility): In the modern category, Neil Bonnett (eligible for nine more appearances after being on 2020 ballot); Harry Gant (eligible for eight more appearances after being on 2019-20 ballots); Harry Hyde (eligible for five more appearances after being on 2016-2020 ballots); Larry Phillips (eligible for two more appearances after being on 2013-2020 ballots); Ricky Rudd (eligible for six more appearances after being on 2017-2020 ballots); Mike Stefanik (eligible for four more appearances after being on 2015-2020 ballots)

–Pioneer carryovers (no limit on ballot eligibility): Red Farmer; Hershel McGriff; Ralph Moody.

–Landmark carryovers (no limit on ballot eligibility): Alvin Hawkins; Mike Helton; Doc Mattioli; Ralph Seagraves

–Landmark returnee: Janet Guthrie (absent from 2020 ballot)

Twists and Turns Tuesday takes center stage on NBCSN

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The 2018 debut of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval was among the most anticipated races in years and delivered in ways few could have imagined.

Relive all the excitement and energy again as NBCSN airs that race at 8 p.m. ET today as part of Twists and Turns Tuesday during Racing Week in America.

Ryan Blaney‘s victory in the inaugural Cup race at the Roval was just a small part of a dramatic last lap that saw Jimmie Johnson make contact with Martin Truex Jr. on the final corner while racing for the lead and Kyle Larson‘s remarkable wall-banging last lap to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

That’s just a part of Twists and Turns Tuesday.

From city streets to massive dirt jumps, NBCSN will showcase the best twists and turns that motorsports have to offer starting at 1 p.m. ET. Twists and Turns Tuesday includes a return to IndyCar Victory Lane for NBC Sports’ own James Hinchcliffe at iconic Long Beach; and the closest finish in Supercross history from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Here is today’s schedule:

COVERAGE TIME (ET) NETWORK
IMSA – Long Beach 2019 1 p.m. NBCSN
INDYCAR – Long Beach 2017 3 p.m. NBCSN
NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge – Lucas Oil Raceway 7 p.m. NBCSN
NASCAR – Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL 2018 8 p.m. NBCSN
NASCAR – Watkins Glen 2017 10 p.m. NBCSN
Supercross – Arlington 2019 12 a.m. NBCSN
Monster Jam World Finals 2019 2 a.m. NBCSN