Friday 5: Will 2021 Cup schedule add more short tracks, road courses?

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With the 2020 Cup schedule receiving positive reviews from many fans, the expectations for the 2021 schedule grow bigger.

While there will be talk of ending the season sooner, whether any tracks lose dates and if doubleheaders will be used more often, just as big of a question will be where the short track and road course events come from that fans want to see more of in the future?

Iowa Speedway could be an option. And there’s plenty of talk about Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee. But are there others that are feasible and could make the upgrades necessary to host NASCAR’s top series?

What about road courses? Would Indianapolis Motor Speedway be better off holding its Cup race on the road course? Or would it make sense to put a Cup race at Mid-Ohio or Road America or Canadian Tire Motorsports Park?

There’s excitement with the 2020 schedule because NASCAR mixed up the races among the same tracks. That’s all NASCAR could do because the five-year sanctioning agreements with tracks go through the 2020 season. After that year, NASCAR has the ability to make more radical changes to the schedule.

Denny Hamlin says that as NASCAR looks at revamping the schedule, one thing must remain constant.

“I love the idea of more short track racing for sure,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “I just want to make sure that the tracks are investing the proper money to make sure their facilities are good.”

In other words, make sure there are premier facilities for the premier series in NASCAR.

“It’s hard to sell this is big time if it doesn’t appear that way,” he said.

2. Will Texas be a true indication of the top teams?

Now that teams have had a little time to take what they learned from the West Coast swing and work on their cars, will the gap between Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing to the rest of the field shrink?

NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton suggests on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan that some teams could close the margin.

“I heard Clint Bowyer make a comment on the West Coast swing and he’s like, ‘Look we know we’ve got to get better, but it’s going to be hard to do it now. There’s things that we can’t evolve in our cars, there’s not enough time,’ ” Burton said. “So I think potentially that Texas is a place where you can see not just Stewart-Haas Racing but other teams improve as well. … They learned at Vegas. They learned at Atlanta. They learned at (Auto Club), and I think you’ll see teams pop up.”

Among the teams to watch this weekend:

Will this be the weekend Stewart-Haas Racing scores its first victory of the season. The organization has had at least one car finish in the top five in each race since the Daytona 500.

Hendrick Motorsports has not had a car finish better than ninth at Atlanta (1.5-mile track), Las Vegas (1.5) and Auto Club Speedway (2-mile track) this season. Can that organization get a car into the top five at Texas?

Richard Childress Racing has shown speed — Austin Dillon won the pole at Auto Club Speedway and started fourth at Las Vegas — but can that translate into stronger runs? Dillon finished 20th Las Vegas and overcame illness to finish 10th at Auto Club.

JTG Daugherty Racing’s Chris Buescher placed ninth at Atlanta, 18th at Las Vegas and 16th at Auto Club Speedway. That’s been a good start for that organization but how much better can it be?

“We spent a lot more time, a lot of resources and at JTG getting everything ready to hit the ground running to make sure we were prepared for this season,” he said. “It worked out really good to start. We’ve got to stay ahead of it. I promise, nobody is sitting idle at this point. We’re still trying to figure out how to make our cars better each and every week.”

3. Same old, same old?

NASCAR announced modifications to group qualifying this week. The biggest change was an incentive to make a lap in each round after all 12 cars in the final round at Auto Club Speedway failed to complete a lap before time expired.

Cars sit on pit road during the final round of Cup qualifying at Auto Club Speedway. Photo: Fox Sports

Now, if a car fails to record a lap in a round of qualifying because the team waited too long, the car will start at the back of the field.

With the draft still a factor, will the rule make much of a difference this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway?

“I don’t think it will be much different from what we’ve seen in the past,” Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports about what he expects qualifying to look like today. “I don’t know that it will be such a detriment to be the first car out because I think Turn 1 and 2, they are so quirky in the sense that it’s really one lane. I don’t know if you will want to be back in the pack or so. 

“I think (Turns) 3 and 4 will be … more wide open and you’ve got all the grip you need so you want to be behind someone. I’m not sure you want to be behind someone in (Turns) 1 and 2. It’s such a flat corner. It really depends on whether that (traction compound) works the way we think.

“My general feeling is that teams will overreact and make sure we leave extra early, and then there will be an opportunity for us, the guys that really push the limit will get the pole, the ones that decide to lay back.”

4. Back behind the wheel

Greg Biffle, who last competed in Cup in 2016, ran 14 laps Thursday at Texas Motor Speedway in Kyle Busch’s truck. Biffle did this as preparation for the June 7 Gander Outdoors Truck Series race he’ll compete in for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He and Busch had talked for a while about doing this. 

As of now, it’s a one-race opportunity.

Greg Biffle talks to the media after running 14 laps in the first of two Truck practice sessions Thursday for Kyle Busch Motorsports. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I could be talked into some more,” said Biffle, a former Truck and Xfinity series champion. 

While he might consider running more Truck races, he’ll need to fit it into his schedule of racing.

He will compete in the SVRA vintage and historic event this weekend at Road Atlanta and a couple of others this season. He also will take part in four off-road competitions with his UTV sand drag.

He’ll also drive in the 24 Hours of Lemons race April 27-28 at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, South Carolina. Those are races with cars that have been bought and track-prepared for $500 or less (not including safety equipment, brakes and wheels/tires).

“The last 24-hour race I did was the Rolex 24 in Daytona (in 2005 where his team finished 15th overall), so this will be a lot of fun,” Biffle said. “I don’t know why I wanted to do it, but it just sounded like a lot of fun.”

5. Racing for a bonus 

The top four finishers in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway will qualify for the first Dash 4 Cash event the following weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The highest finishing eligible driver in a Dash 4 Cash race wins a $100,000 bonus. The four Dash 4 Cash races will be Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Dover. Also, any driver that collects points in the Cup series is not eligible to compete in Dash 4 Cash races.

Nate Ryan contributed to this report 

Michigan Truck race results

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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Zane Smith scored his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win, securing a playoff spot with a last-lap pass in double overtime Friday night at Michigan International Speedway.

Christian Eckes finished second and was followed by Tanner Gray, Tyler Ankrum and Todd Gilliland.

Click here for race results

Todd Gilliland stretched his lead to 29 points over Tyler Ankrum for the final playoff spot after Friday’s race. Gilliland gained seven points on Ankrum. Gilliland in 10th in the standings. He’s one point behind Derek Kraus. Austin Hill continues to lead the points.

Click here for driver points  

Zane Smith uses overtime charge to score first Truck win

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Zane Smith passed Christian Eckes on the last lap of double overtime to score his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race Friday night at Michigan International Speedway.

Eckes finished second. Tanner Gray placed third.

Smith is 21 years old, Eckes is 19 and Gray is 21.

MORE: Race results

“I wish I was here to celebrate with my parents and my girlfriend,” an emotional Smith told FS1 after the race.

Grant Enfinger led on the restart but came down from the top lane and came down on Austin Hill and John Hunter Nemechek and spun. That allowed Eckes to take the lead and put Smith third. Smith passed Gray for second in Turn 4 coming to the white flag.

Smith dived under Eckes in Turn 2 on the final lap and pulled away to win.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brett Moffitt

STAGE 2 WINNER: Johnny Sauter

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Zane Smith was eighth with three laps to go and went on to win and secure a playoff spot. … Christian Eckes finished second for the third consecutive race. … Tanner Gray finished a career-high third.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Johnny Sauter spun and hit the wall while racing teammate Grant Enfinger for the lead with 16 laps to go. Sauter entered the race 63 points out of the final playoff spot after a 10-point penalty for an inspection issue before the race. … Stewart Friesen was eliminated in a crash on Lap 50  after contact with Christian Eckes. Friesen finished last in the 39-truck field. … Chandler Smith was eliminated in a crash on Lap 60 after contact with Ben Rhodes. Smith finished 38th.

NOTABLE: The combined age of the top three finishers (61) was just short of the series record for the youngest three finishers. That record of 55 was set in  June 2016 at Iowa when William Byron (then 18), Cole Custer (then 18) and Cameron Hayley (then 19) went 1-2-3.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race on the Daytona road course, Sunday, Aug. 18 at Noon ET on FS1.

Brandon Brown wants to reward father with a special celebration

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A week after he begged his father to let him race a go-kart, the 9-year-old finished last and in tears. He complained that the loaned go-kart was not fast enough.

Jerry Brown saw a passion he had not seen from his son when Brandon played soccer, baseball or did any other activity. Jerry didn’t know much about racing but he bought a go-kart, beginning a father-son journey that took them to races across the country and all the way to the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

“It’s been my dad and I every single weekend since the age of nine,” Brandon Brown told NBC Sports.

It was that way until this year.

MORE: Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America: Start time, forecast, TV channel

Jerry attended this season’s first four Xfinity races before the COVID-19 pandemic paused the sport. Father and son were together in an Atlanta hotel in March when NASCAR announced it would not race there that weekend.

While much of the world stopped, Jerry’s life changed.

A simple procedure in April led to a cancer diagnosis. His routine now includes “aggressive” cancer treatments. Jerry, 60, isolates to avoid the coronavirus. If he were to be infected, his treatments would have to stop until he recovered from the virus.

Brandon, 27, admits his father’s condition was a key point in moving from Virginia, where the family resides, to the Mooresville, North Carolina area and being closer to the sport’s hub. Traveling each week to races, Brandon didn’t want to take the chance he could catch COVID-19 and infect his father. So it was better to be apart, something they’ve rarely been.

“It’s been quite the emotional roller coaster,” said Brandon, who talks with his father daily. “I haven’t really opened up to anyone … it’s a feeling of fear constantly just because I keep seeing posts about people that have passed away from (the coronavirus), people without health issues that are getting it and things are going bad.”

“Joy and the hugs”

Jerry Brown looks back to all those days driving to races with Brandon and the trips that also included wife Valorie and son William. Jerry says buying that first go-kart and getting into racing was the “best decision we ever made” because of the time spent with family.

Valorie Brown with son Brandon, husband Jerry and son William. (Photo: Brandon Brown)

“You actually get to be with your kids as they are growing up and doing what they love to do,” he told NBC Sports.

“The gleam that you get to see on their faces when they’re 10-11 years old and going out and competing against 20 karts and winning and the joy and the hugs you get to give right there, you just can’t beat that.”

It’s not just the good times that are memorable.

“You also got to be with them in the heartaches, when things didn’t go right,” Jerry said. “The first national race (Brandon) won, a plug in the carburetor had fallen out, so at post-tech we got disqualified. … It’s not the best memory, but it’s one of those things that when you’re a father, you want to be there for your sons for the good and the bad.”

As Brandon climbed from Late Models to the NASCAR Truck Series and then Xfinity Series, Jerry was there. The journey hasn’t been easy for Brandon, who last won a race in 2012 in Late Models. He went to college, graduating in 2018 from Coastal Carolina. He ran a partial schedule while in school with the family team, Brandonbilt Motorsports.

“When you’re here racing this type of competition, you’re not going to win when you are a part-timer,” Jerry said. “He understood that.”

Brandon ran his first full Xfinity Series season last year. Competing against organizations such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing and Kaulig Racing, is formidable for any team, let alone a family team with eight full-time employees.

Brown finished 15th in the points last year. He holds the final playoff spot entering Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America (noon ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App).

“I’m not going to give up,” Brandon said. “That was something my dad has preached to me, among other things, thousands and thousands of times over. When you get a goal, you put your mind to it and get it done. Do the important things first and goof off later. I heard that a lot growing up.

“His push, his drive, his sacrifice, his determination is kind of in the back of my mind pushing me the entire time. It’s one of those things where I don’t want to fail.”

Brandon Brown’s best finish in the Xfinity Series is sixth at Daytona in 2019. His best finish this year is seventh at Daytona and Bristol. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Shocking phone call

Jerry went to the doctor’s office April 7 to have a swollen lymph node checked.

The node had to be removed and tested. After the procedure, the doctor told Jerry that he didn’t think the lymph node was cancerous.

Tests confirmed it was.

“Getting that call was devastating,” Jerry said.

Then came a series of tests to find the source before treatment could be set. Doctors determined that Jerry needed proton treatment, which is a new type of radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

He has had treatments every weekday since July 13. When he talked to NBC Sports on Thursday, he had completed treatment 19 earlier in the day. Jerry is scheduled to have 33 treatments, the last one set for Aug. 26.

“The chemo knocks you out really bad,” he said.

A special celebration

As his father goes through treatment, Brown goes to the track, seeking to make the Xfinity playoffs for the first time.

He goes to Road America 32 points ahead of Jeremy Clements but Clements scored his lone Xfinity win at this track in 2017. Nine races remain before the playoffs, including one race on the Daytona oval, two races on road courses and three on short tracks. There are many obstacles between Brown and a playoff spot. 

Brandon Brown holds the final Xfinity Series playoff spot heading into Saturday’s race at Road America. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“We can’t afford to make mistakes,” he said. “Jeremy is an excellent road course racer and also he’s run very, very strong at the short tracks. Just as he is going to have to give 110%, we’re going to have to give 111% just to keep that points buffer.”

Brown has built that margin on Clements and those behind him with consistent finishes. Brown has placed between 10th and 13th in five of the last seven races.

“Our goal is to show up, run all the laps, stay clean, finish the race,” he said. “With that mindset, we push to be right there in the 10th, 11th, 12th mark. We want to be be there to capitalize on if top-tier programs have incidents or wreck out or whatever, we have the ability to take advantage of the situation.”

Brown’s best Xfinity finish is sixth in 70 starts. He’s scored four of his five career top-10 finishes this season. The closer he gets to the front, the closer he gets to his first NASCAR win. 

“I’ve said if we win a race and dad is not there, I think it would be a bittersweet moment,” he said. “It would feel so good to finally win again and also prove to myself that I’m supposed to be here. It does get a little defeating when you’re best is some of those guys’ OK races. It can get a little defeating, but it would feel so good to climb that hurdle.”

And if he wins soon, he admits the “trophy would not leave my sight … I will throw it in the front seat of my truck and I will drive my butt to Virginia and I will do donuts in the cul-de-sac and celebrate with dad there.”

Jerry can’t wait.

“That would be awesome.”

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Saturday Cup race at Michigan: Start time, TV channel, lineup

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The Cup Series is set to hold its second doubleheader weekend of the year as it journies to Michigan International Speedway.

A few weeks after holding back-to-back races at Pocono, the series does so on the 2-mile speedway.

Saturday sees the first race of the doubleheader, with Joey Logano starting from the pole.

Here’s all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Michigan:

(All times are Eastern)

START: WWE Superstar The Big Show will give the command to start engines at 4:08 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 9 a.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. by Father Geoff Rose, OSFS President St. Francis De Sales School in Toledo, Ohio. The national anthem will be performed by 12-time Grammy winner CeCe Winans at 4:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 156 laps (312 miles) around the 2-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 40. Stage 2 ends on Lap 85.

PACE LAP: At the direction of race control, NASCAR will run the entire field down pit road during one of the pace laps for pit road speed verification. If a car stops anywhere on pit road for any reason, the car will start at the rear of the field.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 3:30 p.m. and the race broadcast. Motor Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the link.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for mostly sunny skies with a high of 81 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski triumphed over Denny Hamlin to win at New Hampshire.

LAST RACE AT MICHIGAN: Kevin Harvick beat Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

STARTING LINEUP: Cup starting lineup Saturday at Michigan

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Joey Logano draws the pole for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan

Up to 8,000 fans approved to attend Southern 500

Silly Season Scorecard: Erik Jones splits with Joe Gibbs Racing

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief makes a simple request

Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after 2020

NASCAR announces new method for setting starting lineups

NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

Truck Series driver Spencer Davis tests positive for COVID-19

NASCAR announces remaining 2020 schedule

Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski remain 1-2

Chip Ganassi Racing makes crew chief change

Leavine Family Racing announces it has been sold

Greg Zipadelli to serve as Clint Bowyer’s interim crew chief

Brad Keselowski signs contract extension with Team Penske