Indianapolis 500 could chart course for more IndyCar-NASCAR crossover

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INDIANAPOLIS – The first Indianapolis 500 for Dale Earnhardt Jr. will create indelible and vivid memories for a racing lifer who will enjoy an unusually fresh perspective in a long career.

Earnhardt will lead the field to the green flag in a Corvette pace car, hop onto the NBC broadcast for some high-profile commentary and probably duck into the Snake Pit to watch 30,000 grooving to an EDM song or two.

But what will he remember most about the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500?

The emotion and energy that will be coursing through Indianapolis Motor Speedway moments before all of that begins.

“The big takeaway from events like the Kentucky Derby or the Indy 500 is just the energy and it’s not a tangible thing,” Earnhardt recently told NBCSports.com. ” It’s a feeling that you get when the event is about to happen. When you’re walking with the horses to the gate or pushing the cars out onto pit road. And there’s a lot of emotion in that and a feeling that’s amazing and incredible that you can’t describe. That’s probably going to be the coolest part.

“I’m absolutely sure that the feeling I have standing on that grid before the race begins will be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced at a NASCAR race, much less at a Super Bowl, or the Winter Olympics. All these things I’ve experienced over at NBC over the last several months, I think this will be the highlight.”

The 103rd Indianapolis 500, Sunday 11 a.m. on NBC: How to watch

Look for no greater validation of the Indianapolis 500’s standing as auto racing’s marquee event than the endorsement of a retired driver whose surname is synonymous with NASCAR.

But it’s also confirmation that a new era of once unimaginable détente is under way between America’s two biggest racing series – offering the promise of newfound collaboration between two longtime rivals.

The olive branches are sprouting everywhere.

A seven-time NASCAR Cup champion jets to IMS just for a gander at cars whizzing around at speeds roughly 40 mph faster than he’d ever seen at the 2.5-mile oval … the defending Indianapolis 500 champion makes a cameo on Earnhardt’s popular podcast … series executives check out and talk up the competition amid louder rumblings of sharing a race weekend stage at the same track.

IndyCar and NASCAR seem to be together at last as unlikely, but increasingly necessary allies in a motorsports landscape facing constant scrutiny from corporate sponsors seeking greater returns and discriminating fans eager for more entertainment.

“For a motorsports perspective, this is good for all of us,” said IndyCar president Jay Frye, whose background in NASCAR as a team executive makes him a “great friend” to many of his stock-car counterparts such as Mike Helton, Steve Phelps and Steve O’Donnell. “This is an industry. This is something that I think that the more we can do collectively to enhance the industry from a holistic perspective is great.

“So we’re talking about doing more down the road with our biggest events. I think the more we can do together, the better.”

That includes growing support for an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader, which was recently floated on (where else?) the Dale Jr. Download Podcast by NASCAR president Phelps, who traveled Friday to Indy and attended Carb Day with O’Donnell.

It’s been a welcome thaw in what once was one of racing’s biggest cold wars.

“I think we have to get away from, and I think more people are coming to that realization today in motorsports, that I don’t think we can be one against the other,” said Chip Ganassi, who has teams in IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA. “We shouldn’t be in a circular firing squad. I don’t know what purpose that serves.”

The reaction to Earnhardt being named the pace car driver was a series of effusively welcoming social media posts, namely by reigning Brickyard champion Will Power (another recent Dale Jr. Download guest) and five-time series champion Scott Dixon, who was flummoxed as to why he was consulted on before final approval was given to bring in a 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver to drive an IndyCar pace car (Earnhardt was a last-minute fill-in choice).

“I think some people were a little worried about it, maybe just like it’s this NASCAR guy and all that,” Dixon told NBCSports.com with a chuckle. “And I was like, ‘This is awesome, man!’ And to come to his first Indy 500 and be part of the broadcast and also drive the pace car. It’s going to be his views of this spectacle for the first time in the broadcast. It’s massive.

“I think all around it’s a knockout great idea.”

Said Power, who invited Earnhardt to wedge into the cockpit of his Dallara-Chevrolet during a Thursday stroll through Gasoline Alley: “I think everyone in the paddock is happy Dale’s here, not only commentating but driving the pace car. I was happy to hear that. He’s a great ambassador for motorsports.”

Noting the “genuine” enthusiasm among his peers about having “a legendary name and great personality” with Earnhardt, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden said, “it seems like this whole competition of who’s top of the heap – ‘We’re better! You guys aren’t great! Our series is more competitive.’ — just seems to be going away.

“It was like that for the last 20 to 30 years, and it’s not necessary,” said Newgarden, the 2017 series champion. “We’re two different types of motorsport, but at the end of the day, we’re all motorsport. They’re equally as difficult and just totally different in a lot of respects. We’re racers. We all like each other. And just to see the respect now that we’re both interested in what each other does, I think we should work together.

“We should all respect each other because they’re both top-level motorsports. They’re all very talented drivers and teams that fill both fields. We should have drivers who want to go run in a stock car from IndyCar and have stock car guys who want to run on the IndyCar side.

“To see this ego and competition between the two get set aside, I think that just benefits everybody.”

Earnhardt, whose Indy welcome Thursday also included a two-seater ride with Mario Andretti, still felt more secure in having his choice as pace car driver be approved by IndyCar’s biggest names.

“I’m glad those guys are so excited to have me there,” he said. “We certainly wanted to make sure that was OK with the drivers before we accepted and make sure they’re OK with that. And they all seem to be on board. The IndyCar guys have a real unique perspective on whatever helps their sport, they seem to all be on the same page. They’re uniquely united in doing anything that helps get more eyeballs.”


United isn’t how the relationship between IndyCar and NASCAR would have been described over the past quarter-century since stock cars began racing at the Brickyard 400.

Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race in 1994 after living in nearby Pittsboro while racing open-wheel cars on his way to stardom, but there was still some Indiana-bred animus about having NASCAR at the tradition-steeped track that had been devoted to open-wheel cars for the bulk of its existence since opening in 1909.

Tony Stewart, the three-time Cup champion who was elected Wednesday to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, has admitted he was one of those Hoosier natives who initially blanched at the idea of stock cars at Indy.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Jarrett recalled a chillier reception in part because NASCAR was rising as IndyCar – which split into rival series from 1996-2008 that damaged its popularity – was suffering.

“We at NASCAR were on such a huge upswing through the early ‘90s and 2000s that I think that even drag racing and IndyCar were being pushed aside and weren’t used to that,” Jarrett said. “And you don’t like to be the afterthought in anything that you’re doing, and I think maybe they felt that a little bit.”

As NASCAR has wrestled with the challenges of audience retrenchment over the past decades, it’s made for more common ground between two series that have had to deal with trying to enhance their relevance in attracting fans.

“Now that things have leveled out somewhat, and NASCAR been humbled a bit over the last decade, that’s changed sort of everybody’s perception,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But as a driver, I’ve always been interested and curious about not only IndyCar but other forms of motorsport. You want to go see and look and walk around and check out. You want to be welcomed into that world.

“Even at the height of the rivalry or whatever that was, if Mario Andretti or anyone else would have walked down the middle of the garage area, we would have all been like, ‘Hey, holy cow. Welcome! Incredible to have you here!’ You just know that’s a race car driver. He’s curious about racing. He’s wanting to see what stock cars are and what they’re about. I think the rivalry has probably been more fan driven than anything else.”

Indeed, more IndyCar and NASCAR drivers have built stronger relationships, some driven by sponsors and manufacturer ties, but others have been formed by authentic camaraderie.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has become a buddy of five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, and it’s easy to spot the similarities between two low-key superstars whose accomplishments often go unappreciated

“I talk to Jimmie quite often, and there is a lot more crossover talk” of NASCAR and IndyCar, Dixon said. “It’s hard work right now, and everybody knows that. No one has the captive audience. It’s shifting. Everyone is trying to keep up to speed with the changes.

“If we can do it as a group as opposed to, ‘Oh no, we have a bigger following and we don’t want you to take any of ours’ and all that kind of jazz. It’s nice to see the egos have kind of left, and everyone is trying to get on the same page to help each other. At the heart of it, man, we’re all motorsports fans.”

Last Thursday, Johnson hopped an early morning flight to Indianapolis just so he could spend a few hours watching Indy 500 practice.

“I wanted to see that place packed full of people and feel the energy that I’ve heard about so many times,” said Johnson, who also texts regularly with other IndyCar drivers such as Newgarden.

“He’s just a racer who keeps tabs on everything that’s going on,” Newgarden said of Johnson. “To get perspective from him on someone who has been in the sport and done so much and been so smart and savvy about it, it’s cool to have that line of communication. Jimmie cares about what’s going on outside the NASCAR bubble. He’s got so many friends in the IndyCar paddock. He knows everybody. He’s poking us and wants insider information on the event to learn more about it, which is fantastic.”

While there was an era roughly five decades ago when A.J. Foyt and Andretti, both winners of the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, regularly would switch between disciplines, racing has become more siloed as today’s drivers became much more limited by team commitments.

There are some rare exceptions, such as Kurt Busch running the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day in 2014, but crossovers generally haven’t been feasible.

Aside from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway, the top IndyCar and NASCAR series race at separate venues, which also has contributed to limiting drivers’ interaction.

“I think we’ve just been removed from each other too much,” Newgarden said. “There were two bubbles created, and the bubbles didn’t cross over. We had that for too long, and now that we’re seeing that bridge be created again, everyone is very capable of getting along and enjoying what each other does. I think the IndyCar guys are very open minded to that.

“Maybe we’re more open minded because we got pushed more to the bottom. Stock car had a bigger rise than IndyCar. Maybe we’re more open minded to it because of where we were 10 years ago or so, but that’s not a knock on anyone. We’re all getting closer. Those bubbles are starting to disappear and we’re putting everyone in the same ecosystem, which is great.”

Jarrett, a three-time Brickyard 400 winner, spent last weekend at IMS, witnessing practice and qualifying for the Indy 500 for the first time. Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter Simon Pagenaud was among those who stopped the 1999 NASCAR champion, who considered it “a little bit of a shock” that he was recognized.

“Everybody was very nice,” Jarrett said. “There’s only a few of the IndyCar drivers that I really know, but a couple that I had never met or talked to or anything actually stopped me walking through the pit lane. So it was pretty cool to see and be a part of it in their world. A lot of people stopped and talked about NASCAR and the success that I had there. Race fans are truly race fans.”


Many drivers point at potential IndyCar-NASCAR weekend doubleheaders as being the best way to expose the racing to fans of both series.

Power and Graham Rahal are among IndyCar stars who believe they can race Saturday night on the Charlotte Roval, followed by a Cup race Sunday.

“We have to all help each other grow,” Rahal said on the most recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Doing these joint events that only certain tracks can do are huge. We have to do it. We have to build our sports together. To do it independently, yeah, we might make ground here or there, but ultimately we’ll never make enough.”

Because NBC Sports Group broadcasts the full IndyCar season and the final 20 races of the NASCAR Cup season, the tracks on its networks seem the ideal places for the most seamless crossover opportunities. (It worked for The Avengers!)

During a motorsports summit in December, NBC Sports executives brought together industry leaders from its various properties (NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA and Supercross) to discuss how to be more collaborative.

Frye, the IndyCar president, would be a “huge supporter” of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekend.

“It could be a cool American motorsports extravaganza-kind of weekend,” he said. “We’ve talked about we’d run a Saturday night, and that Cup stays in its normal spot on Sunday. There are a lot of crossovers with manufacturers and amongst teams. We’ve talked about the friendships we have with them.

“I think it would be a game-changer in a good way. It’s not something you do every week. If you did it once or twice a year. You have to do it one time first. See how it goes. There would be certain tracks we would go to that would fit. At end of day, why not try it? It’s good for NBC, good for IndyCar and good for NASCAR.”

It still could be tricky, though, to avoid the “headliner” status and other ways that could result in one series being viewed as inferior.

“What’s been the reservation from both sides working together is the comparison between the two,” Newgarden said. “And that’s what we’ve got to make sure doesn’t happen. It’s not a competition of which car is quicker. Or which car is more difficult.

“They are different forms of racing. (A stock car) weighs twice as much. The horsepower levels are different. It’s a different art. We’re not there to compare what car is fastest. That’s not what it’s all about, so I think that’s where some of the reservation comes in doing the doubleheader, but I’d love to see it. If anyone is going to win in that situation, it’s going to be the fans.”

Given that possible outcome, perhaps it’s apropos that the latest example of NASCAR-IndyCar harmony will be symbolically led by Earnhardt, who holds sway over more fans than the 33 drivers combined who will be trailing him around the Brickyard at 12:45 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC.

It’ll be quite a sight even for a racer who has seen nearly everything.

“When you look in that rear-view mirror and you don’t see stock cars,” Earnhardt said. “But you see these wild, exotic open wheel Indy cars.

“It’s going to blow my mind.”

NBC Sports ready to take fans the rest of the way to Miami

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We’re back!

In a season that has featured a scuffle on pit road at ISM Raceway, drivers beating and banging after the All-Star Race and three Cup races going to overtime, including the Daytona 500, NBC Sports is ready to bring you the final 10 Cup races of the regular season and then the 10 playoff races.

The intensity is just picking up.

Last year saw NBC Sports’ first Cup race of the season end with Dale Earnhardt Jr. yelling “Slide job!” as Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson battled on the last lap for the win at Chicagoland Speedway.

The excitement continued through the rest of the regular season and on to the playoffs where NBC Sports was there for the inaugural Cup race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and the dramatic finish that saw Jimmie Johnson crash into leader Martin Truex Jr. in the final chicane and Ryan Blaney going from third to the victory.

NBC Sports’ Cup coverage last year ended with Joey Logano’s win in Miami to claim not only the race but the championship.

NBC Sports will be there to bring you all the action the rest of the season for the Cup and Xfinity Series, beginning this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway on NBCSN.

Earnhardt, Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton are back with Rick Allen in the booth. Marty Snider, Dave Burns, Kelli Stavast and Parker Kligerman will again be reporting from pit road. Krista Voda, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan will set the day’s activities each race weekend. And also at the track will be Rutledge Wood, who will tell some of the unique stories of the weekend.

Get ready to catch all the action on NBCSN and NBC.

Here is when you can see the rest of the Cup and Xfinity seasons:

Cup Schedule

(All times Eastern)

June 30 — Chicagoland (3 p.m., NBCSN)

July 6 — Daytona (7:30 p.m., NBC)

July 13 — Kentucky (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

July 21 — New Hampshire (3 p.m., NBCSN)

July 28 — Pocono (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 4 — Watkins Glen (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 11 — Michigan (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 17 — Bristol (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Sept. 1 — Darlington (6 p.m. NBCSN)

Sept. 8 — Indianapolis (2 p.m., NBC)

Playoffs

Sept. 15 — Las Vegas (7 p.m., NBCSN)

Sept. 21 — Richmond (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Sept. 29 — Charlotte Roval (2:30 p.m., NBC)

Oct. 6 — Dover (2:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Oct. 13 — Talladega (2 p.m., NBC)

Oct. 20 — Kansas (2:30 p.m., NBC)

Oct. 27 — Martinsville (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Nov. 3 — Texas (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Nov. 10 — Phoenix (2:30 p.m., NBC)

Nov. 17 — Miami (3 p.m., NBC)

 

Xfinity Schedule

(All times Eastern)

June 29 — Chicagoland (3:30 p.m., NBCSN)

July 5 — Daytona (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

July 12 — Kentucky (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

July 20 — New Hampshire (4 p.m., NBCSN)

July 27 — Iowa (5 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 3 — Watkins Glen (3 p.m., NBC)

Aug. 10 — Mid-Ohio (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 16 — Bristol (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 24 — Road America (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Aug. 31 — Darlington (4 p.m., NBC)

Sept. 7 — Indianapolis (4 p.m., NBCSN)

Sept. 14 — Las Vegas (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Playoffs

Sept. 20 — Richmond (7:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Sept. 28 — Charlotte Roval (3:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Oct. 5 — Dover (3 p.m., NBCSN)

Oct. 19 — Kansas (3 p.m., NBC)

Nov. 2 — Texas (8:30 p.m., NBCSN)

Nov. 9 — Phoenix (3:30 p.m., NBC)

Nov. 16 — Miami (3:30 p.m. NBCSN)

NBC Sports Power rankings: Martin Truex Jr. is unanimous No. 1

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This week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings were thrown into disarray.

The culprit? The first road course race of the year.

While Martin Truex Jr. is the unanimous leader of the power rankings after his fourth win of the year Sunday at Sonoma, there are six new drivers in the top 10 from the last Cup ranking after Michigan.

The biggest jump comes from Denny Hamlin, who went from unranked after the Michigan race two weeks ago to third this week. Kevin Harvick also went from unranked to the top five.

Another of the new additions is Ross Chastain, who earned his second Truck Series win at Gateway a week after an inspection failure took a win away in Iowa.

1. Martin Truex Jr. (40 points): Has matched his 2018 win total with four wins over the last eight races. The only driver with multiple wins in that stretch.  Last time: 3rd

2. Kyle Busch (36 points): Scored his fourth consecutive top-five finish but couldn’t catch teammate Martin Truex Jr. at the end at Sonoma.  Last time: Tie for 1st

3. Denny Hamlin (26 points): Has not finished worse than 11th in the last three races and scored the most points at Sonoma. Last time: Not ranked

4. Joey Logano (21 points): Despite an alternator issue and a 23rd-place finish at Sonoma, still has seven top 10s in the last nine races and leads the points. Last time: Tie for 1st

5. Kevin Harvick (20 points): Lacked winning Sonoma speed of past three years but at least put together a strong sixth-place finish. Last time: Not ranked (was in others receiving votes).

6. Ryan Blaney (15 points):  Earned first top five since Bristol and his second straight top five on a road course. Last time: Not ranked

7. Matt DiBenedetto (12 points): As the whispers about his Cup future begin to swirl again, his first career top five was a statement. Last time: Not ranked

8. Ryan Newman (11 points): Seventh-place finish was his second top 10 in a row. He’s completed all but eight laps this season to rank third in most laps run (behind only Busch and Logano). Last time: Not ranked

(tie) 9. Tyler Reddick (9 points): Xfinity didn’t race last weekend but stays in the top 10 as numerous Cup drivers had off days at Sonoma. Last time: Tie for 6th

(tie) 9. Ross Chastain (9 points): His watermelon smash counted in Gateway when his winning truck passed inspection, giving him two wins this year. Previously: Unranked in normal Cup power rankings, but ranked 4th in Xfinity/Trucks ranking.

Others Receiving Votes: Aric Almirola (6 points), Kyle Larson (5 points), Brad Keselowski (5 points), Chase Elliott (3 points), Chris Buescher (1 point) and Todd Gilliland (1 point).

 

Jimmie Johnson looks to end winless streak at his best winless track

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It has been a very, very long time since Jimmie Johnson visited Victory Lane in the Cup Series.

It’s been two seasons and three races since Johnson won at Dover International Speedway in June 2017.

But it’s been even longer since Johnson enjoyed a victory at Chicagoland Speedway. In fact, Johnson’s lone win on the 1.5-mile track came in its inaugural Xfinity race in 2001. It is his only win in the Xfinity Series.

Yes, Johnson, the seven-time champion and 83-time Cup winner has not won at Chicago in NASCAR’s premier series.

It is one of three active Cup tracks he has multiple starts at that he has yet to win on, including Watkins Glen and Kentucky.

But there’s multiple reasons being winless at Chicago probably rubs Johnson the wrong way and why ending his winless streak would be made sweeter.

For one, he’s pretty good there.

Johnson has made 17 Cup starts at Chicagoland since 2002. He has led a track-record 695 laps. The next highest total for a winless driver at Chicagoland is Kurt Busch with 124 laps led.

Johnson’s total is the eight highest among Cup drivers who have the most laps led at a track without a win. At least Johnson doesn’t have to worry about being winless at Martinsville after leading 1,986 laps, as is the case with Bobby Allison.

Via: Racing Insights

Johnson has been close to winning in Chicago. He has earned three runner-up results there with the most recent coming in 2012 after he led 172 laps from the pole.

His most recent solid outing there came in 2016 when he started eighth and led 118 laps before he finished 12th.

Should Johnson break through Sunday, it would mark the longest winless streak that was snapped in Chicago.

The longest snapped streak belongs to David Reutimann, who ended a 42-race winless streak in 2010.

Why should Johnson feel confident about his prospects this weekend?

While he’s finished 12th or worse in the last three races, he enters the weekend with the longest active streak of top 10s on 1.5-mile tracks with three. That’s one more than Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher.

He was sixth in the Coca-Cola 600 two weeks after he finished eighth at Kansas Speedway. The streak began at Texas Motor Speedway in March, where he started from the pole, led 60 laps and finished second in Stage 1 before eventually placing fifth.

Preliminary entry lists for NASCAR at Chicagoland

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NASCAR returns to the NBC family this weekend as all three national series travel to Chicagoland Speedway.

Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series teams are at the same track for the first time since Dover at the start of May.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for all three series.

Cup – Camping World 400 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

There are 38 cars entered.

Garrett Smithley is entered in Premium Motorsports’ No. 15 Chevrolet.

Quin Houff is entered in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet.

There are no drivers listed for Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 and No. 52 cars.

Last year: Kyle Busch defeated Kyle Larson after a dramatic last-lap battle.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Camping World 300 (3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

There are 41 cars entered. Three cars will not make the race.

Ross Chastain will drive Kaulig Racing’s No. 10 Chevrolet for the third time this year. Landon Cassill will drive JD Motorsports’ No. 4 Chevrolet.

Zane Smith is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Riley Herbst will make his fourth start in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota.

Jeffrey Earnhardt is entered in XCI Racing’s No. 81 Toyota.

Last year: Kyle Larson won over Kevin Harvick and Cole Custer

Click here for the entry list.

Trucks – Camping World 225 (9 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

There are 33 trucks entered. One truck will not make the race.

Dylan Lupton will make his season debut with DGR-Crosley in the No. 5 Toyota.

Tyler Ankrum is back in DGR-Crosley’s No. 17 Toyota.

Brandon Jones is entered in Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 51 Toyota.

There is no driver listed with Reaume Brothers Racing’s No. 32 Toyota.

Last time: Brett Moffitt beat Ben Rhodes and Johnny Sauter.

Click here for the entry list.