Friday 5: Chase Elliott too busy looking ahead to relish Watkins Glen win

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott is relaxed and comfortable. About an hour after he sat in a Blackhawk helicopter and toured the city from a few thousand feet above, he’s in a Chevrolet Camaro at Fairgrounds Speedway.

It’s not the No. 9 car that took NASCAR’s most popular driver to his first Cup victory a year ago at Watkins Glen International and it won’t go as fast as that car, but this is still his comfort zone. In the fast-moving world that racing is, he slows down as he circles the .596-mile track, which could see NASCAR’s premier series return some day if Speedway Motorsports Inc. and city officials can complete a deal to upgrade the facility.

Elliott tours the banked track at an easy 50 mph — he’ll go about twice as fast later — but it gives him time to reflect upon the journey that leads him back to Watkins Glen for Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). And take him back to when he was known more as Bill Elliott’s son than by his name. Back when he toured the country’s short tracks.

Chase Elliott looks out at Nashville, Tennessee, from a Blackhawk helicopter during a trip to promote Bristol’s night race. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I feel like it’s been really everything to me,” Elliott tells NBC Sports of racing at short tracks early in his career, including Fairgrounds Speedway. “I think when anybody gets started in something, you’re going to build habits and you’re going to have tendencies and you’re going to do things from those days forward. … When you’re coming along and learning, you’re going to take that and you’re going to carry that on forever.

“I think that short track racing really made me be the driver that I am. I wish I could do more fo it. I feel that is home for me in a lot of ways. Love to go back and do some more of it somewhere down the road.”

Elliott is the only driver to win the Snowball Derby, the Winchester 400, World Crown 300 and the All American 400, the race held at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Those successes led him on a path that includes the 2014 Xfinity championship and 2016 Cup rookie of the year honors. His April victory at Talladega qualified him for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. But he enters this weekend at Watkins Glen in a drought.

He has failed to score a top-10 finish in his last seven starts. An engine failure ended his race early at Sonoma, crashes at Daytona and Pocono sidelined him and a mechanical issue proved too much to overcome at New Hampshire. A flat tire hindered him at Kentucky and poor pit stops led to a meager showing at Chicagoland Speedway.

“I can’t say I’m hung up on any of them,” Elliott said this week at an appearance promoting the Aug. 17 Bristol Motor Speedway night race. “Time goes on. The good news is you’re in the middle of the season so we’re not to the fall yet, which is when it really matters. I’d rather have a bad stretch now than come October.”

Elliott has been strong in the playoffs each of the past two years. He scored a top-five finish in 45% of the last 20 playoffs races and placed in the top 10 in 70% of those races. Elliott has the same number of top-five finishes (nine) in the past two playoffs combined as Kyle Busch. Elliott has one more top 10 than Busch (13) during that same time. A key difference, though, is that Busch has won five playoff races. Elliott has two wins in those playoff events.

Chase Elliott scored his first Cup career victory last year at Watkins Glen International. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Despite his recent struggles, Elliott will be viewed as among the key drivers this weekend after withstanding Martin Truex Jr.’s charge on the final lap last year at Watkins Glen before Truex ran out of fuel. The victory came after Elliott had finished runner-up eight times in Cup.

Amid the celebrating, he remembers what some told him that day about what would come next.

“Everybody is like the rest of them get easier,” said Elliott, who scored his first career Cup victory in his 99th start. “I really don’t believe that. I know we were able to win a couple more (in 2018), but I really don’t feel like they came any easier. Watkins Glen was definitely a relief. It was nice to get a win. We had been close so many times.”

The memories from last year’s victory are nice but they are just history to Elliott now.

“Obviously it was a special day,” he said, “and everybody likes to talk about that this year because of that and that’s a good thing but really just looking forward.”

The moment to reminisce is over. It’s time to go fast again.

2. Are chances dimming on NASCAR racing in Nashville in 2021?

With NASCAR targeting an April release date for its 2021 schedules and no agreement yet between Speedway Motorsports Inc. and Nashville city officials on a deal to upgrade Fairgrounds Speedway, any NASCAR race there could be a few years off.

Marcus Smith, president and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., acknowledged the challenge but said “we’re always up for moving quickly” if a deal is completed. Smith said he feels as the two sides are having “fine conversations.”

Construction continues near Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway has spearheaded SMI’s work with Nashville’s civic leaders, including Nashville’s Fair Commissioners Board, which oversees the track.

“I continue to be very encouraged,” Caldwell told NBC Sports. “We had that great conversation with the Fair Board back in May that has continued. We’ve had subsequent conversations that are very positive and cooperative. It’s a big process.”

A Major League Soccer stadium and mixed-use development are being built near the track and putting all those pieces together also has complicated the process.

“There’s a lot going on on this property, Fairgrounds as a whole, that plays into this,” Caldwell said at the track this week. “I think what you have here (with the track) is a diamond in the rough.”

This has been a project Caldwell and SMI have invested more than a year on already. Why keep going?

“I believe it’s because of the potential,” Caldwell said. “I think Marcus and Bruton (Smith) see that. They remain very interested and understand that sometimes things can take a while especially when it’s a property owned by the public.”

3. It’s all in the attitude

Daniel Suarez didn’t like Bubba Wallace’s one-finger gesture late in last weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway and told Wallace as much afterward.

But Wallace tried to convince Suarez not to be offended by it.

“We got into it in (Turn) 3 and I told him he was No. 1 for a whole lap,” Wallace said. “Ain’t nothing wrong with that. Telling him that he’s No. 1. That’s good.

“I do it to the guys that I like and can race around. If it’s Kyle Busch or (Martin) Truex are coming up to lap us, I’ll give them the finger, hey come on by. It’s funny. We’ll talk about it and laugh at it later. Truex is starting to pick up on it. It’s funny. That’s all it was.”

4. Planning ahead

Jimmie Johnson heads into this weekend’s race with Cliff Daniels making his debut as crew chief. With five races left in the regular season, Daniels’ job is to get Johnson into the playoffs. Johnson is 12 points out of the final playoff spot. While he’s been an engineer for Johnson in the past and was on Johnson’s 2016 championship team, Sunday will be Daniels’ first time making pit calls.

One of the strengths of Hendrick Motorsports, (Chase Elliott’s) team executed almost a flawless race last year,” Daniels said of Elliott’s win at Watkins Glen. “Not only did they have a fast car, they executed phenomenal strategy, Chase’s first Cup win. There are so many notes that we can pull from there that are such a big advantage to us.

“Jimmie’s style … he’s driven so many different types of cars and trucks growing up, he’s so willing and able to adapt to the different scenarios of a race depending on track position or strategically how we’re trying to call the race.

“We will absolutely have a plan that we will try to execute through the race. With that plan, you have to have contingencies of course. … We have so many factors that we can pull from to operate from a position of strength and it’s just going to be on us to go execute throughout the weekend.”

Since stage racing began in 2017, there has been one caution in the final stage in each of the last two races at Watkins Glen.

That likely will play a key role in how Daniels and other crew chiefs determine their pit strategy Sunday. Also, the last three Watkins Glen winners — Chase Elliott in 2018, Martin Truex Jr. in 2017 and Denny Hamlin in 2016 — each won by pitting only twice in the 90-lap race.

The second stage ends at Lap 40. Hamlin made his last stop at Lap 49 in 2016. Truex made his last stop at Lap 53 in 2017. Elliott made his last stop at Lap 55 last  year.

The last time a driver won the Cup race at Watkins Glen with a three-stop strategy was Joey Logano in 2015.

5. Nearly 5 wins in a row

Martin Truex Jr. could have nearly won each of the last five races on a road course or Roval. He won three of those races.

Truex won at Watkins Glen in 2017 and at Sonoma in 2018. He was second last year at Watkins Glen, running out of fuel on the last lap while pursuing Chase Elliott. Truex was in the lead when he was spun by Jimmie Johnson in the final chicane at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. Truex won at Sonoma in June.

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Long: No fans mutes Indy soundtrack, but Chase Briscoe still relishes win

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INDIANAPOLIS — Mimicking what his hero Tony Stewart twice did at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Chase Briscoe climbed the fence after winning Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the road course.

But unlike Stewart, who looked out to a sea of fans bathing him in cheers, Briscoe saw only empty gray bleachers and heard only the shouts of his crew members who joined him on the ascent.

The culmination of a historic doubleheader with the NTT IndyCar Series and the Xfinity Series also meant the end of a day — and a July 4 at that — unlike any other at the famed speedway.

No fans at NASCAR races have become common during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the sight — and lack of sound — at Indy was stark.

Sunday’s Cup race will not have fans. It also will not have seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who announced Friday he and his wife have contracted the coronavirus.

Johnson says he is asymptomatic but admits he has more questions than answers about how he and his wife got the virus and when he’ll be able to return to racing. Sunday was to have been his final Cup start in a race he’s won four times.

Johnson will be missed. So will be the fans. Just as they were Saturday.

The fans provide a soundtrack to any event, even a race where engine noise dominates. There was no roar from the crowd when the command to start engines was made. No cheers for the winner when he emerged from his car in victory lane. No oohs and ahhs when the top four cars in the Xfinity race sailed down the long front straightaway into a sharp right-hand turn with two laps left, dueling for the win.

The only sound came from the engines echoing off the canyon of empty seats.

Even in the smallest settings, interactions were missed. When Scott Dixon won the IndyCar race earlier in the day, his crew, unable to be in victory lane because of protocols, stood on a stairwell 20 feet above him and clapped.

When Briscoe won, there was no family to greet him. Two years ago his father had tears seeing Briscoe drive at Indy. One could only imagine what his reaction would have been Saturday.

My family is probably crying at home,” said Briscoe, an Indiana native. “I was thinking about that the last couple of laps. That is tough. I wish they could have been here to experience it. It is something that may not ever happen again. It is definitely bittersweet to win without them here.”

If he wins again at Indy, good chance it could be with Stewart-Haas Racing. Greg Zipadelli, SHR’s competition director, served as Briscoe’s interim crew chief because Richard Boswell was serving the final race of a four-race suspension and voiced his support for Briscoe.

“I think he is still young and has a lot to learn, but I am very, very impressed with how quick he is learning how to race these stock cars,” Zipadelli said. “I hope he is a part of Stewart-Haas for a long period of time.”

What makes Briscoe — only the second driver to win five of the first 13 races of a season in the Xfinity Series — stand out?

“He is able to dig deep,” Zipadelli said. “There are some people that when it is time to close, I see that a lot in him, he finds a little bit extra. He has a lot of confidence but isn’t getting cocky, which I love. Most of all he is just a good race car driver.”

While IndyCar had run on this course, this was new for Xfinity Series. Briscoe had prepared since February for this race, spending time weekly on the Ford simulator driving the 14-turn, 2.439-mile course. The training came through as Briscoe battled AJ Allmendinger, Austin Cindric and Justin Haley for the lead late. 

Even though Haley finished second to Briscoe, he still enjoyed the afternoon.

“I have zero complaints about the Indy road course,” Haley said. “I thought it was an amazing day

“When the fans are back, I think it’s going to be better.”

Briscoe said he can’t wait for fans to be back at this track and elsewhere.

“They are the reason you celebrate and the last couple of times I didn’t really celebrate because without the fans I don’t get hyped up,” he said. “Here I was obviously excited. I wish there were fans here.”

Even so, Briscoe would still have a celebration.

A former dirt track racer, Briscoe planned to visit a dirt track Saturday night within an hour’s drive of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“My little sister has decided she wants to try to drive a race car,” Briscoe said. “At the end of the night she is going to drive a mini-sprint around there for 20 or 30 laps. I am going to head there and see a lot of my friends I don’t get to see anymore and hang out with my dad and family.”

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Justin Allgaier ready for starring role as Jimmie Johnson’s understudy

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If Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was a Broadway play, Justin Allgaier would be the understudy stepping in to fill in for the star, namely, Jimmie Johnson.

And while it may be looked at as only a fill-in role for Allgaier driving Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet due to Johnson having tested positive Friday for COVID-19, a strong run in Sunday’s race (4 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App) could put Allgaier’s name on the list of potential replacements for Johnson, who is retiring at the end of this season.

“I would say the list for the 48 car of potential drivers is extremely long and I don’t know where I fit on that list,” Allgaier said after finishing sixth in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “For me, 100% is what I can give. I think it’s gonna be important to go out there and just do what I can do.

“And if an opportunity were to come out of that and to go somewhere, obviously I would love for that opportunity. But on the other side of that point, I have a great relationship with my team at JR Motorsports. … That’s gonna be the most important part is, just going it 100% (Sunday) and whatever happens after that happens.”

Johnson filling in for Johnson isn’t exactly a surprise. Allgaier has been Johnson’s designated backup since NASCAR resumed racing in May following a nearly three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have had our own basically secondary line-up and that includes anyone from driver to crew chief all the way through the crew members that travel to the race track,” Johnson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, said. “There really was no extra thought that we had to put into it. This lineup was already set.

“We had all the plans in place just out of the abundance of caution that we wanted to take. And again, even before going back racing in Darlington, this has been in place. There were no extra decisions to be made. Justin has been on stand-by this whole time and has been aware that this could happen.”

For now, Allgaier is slated to replace Johnson for Sunday’s Brickyard 400. There’s also the possibility he could stay in the No. 48 for next weekend’s race at Kentucky.

Johnson must have two negative COVID-19 tests in no less than a 24-hour period and also be given clearance by his doctor before he can return behind the wheel.

By missing the Brickyard 400, which he’s won four times, Johnson also snaps a streak of 663 consecutive starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie campaign in 2002. It’s the longest streak of any active driver in the Cup Series.

“I didn’t expect this opportunity would come to fruition,” Allgaier said. “I couldn’t ask for a better team, the 48 team, I’ve worked with a lot of guys on that team closely. I’m excited in one aspect, but the other part of this is we’re thinking about Jimmie and his whole family. Their safety is of utmost importance.

“No matter what happens tomorrow, we want to see Jimmie get healthy and (Johnson’s wife) Chandra get healthy.  … I texted Jimmie last night and said I want to see him get healthy quick so he can get back because I want to see him back in victory lane a lot more before the end of the season.”

While Allgaier is known most for his 319 Xfinity Series starts, 11 wins and 182 top-10 finishes, the 34-year-old native of Riverton, Illinois, also has 76 starts in the Cup Series on his resume, with a career-best finish of eighth at Bristol in spring 2015.

Given his prior Cup experience, as well as working hand-in-hand with Hendrick Motorsports in various capacities such as testing over the years – team owner Rick Hendrick is also a part-owner of JR Motorsports – Allgaier is both comfortable as well as somewhat nervous of becoming the first driver to ever fill in for Johnson during Johnson’s Cup career.

“That really resonates with me as a driver when you’re already on pins and needles when you’re filling in for somebody else,” Allgaier said. “You want to make sure you’re doing everything right and give them the best finish that you can give them.

“When you’re able to do that and be comfortable, that makes a big difference, and I think that’s what’s been the best part about all of this for me.”

Allgaier considers racing in Johnson’s shoes one of the most humbling experiences of his career.

“I can’t even begin to describe it to you, to be honest with you,” Allgaier said. “The cars at HMS, any of the four cars, it’s definitely an honor to drive and to be part of that program.

“The 48, being the iconic number it is, Jimmie winning seven championships and here (at Indianapolis) four times, the guy Jimmie is and the respect he has in the sport, you top that off with the fact he’s the only driver to drive the 48 since he started his career there.”

While Johnson and Hendrick aren’t putting any undue pressure on Allgaier, he understands the gravity of the position he’s been placed in.

“If you have the opportunity to drive for Mr. Hendrick, you take it, no questions asked and try to run with that ball,” Allgaier said.

But at the same time, Allgaier isn’t going to try and drive over his head or beyond his ability just because he has such a great opportunity.

“Opportunity or not does not supersede to go out there and do the job at hand,” Allgaier said. “100% is what I have to offer. That’s what I’m going to give them tomorrow.

“101 or 110 (percent) or trying to be a hero, there’s no place for that. This isn’t what this role is about. My plan is to go out and give the 48 car the best opportunity to run at its max potential.

“In my mind, I believe that max potential is to go out and win the race tomorrow. So I’ve gotta do a really good job. … I need to make sure that I don’t put myself in bad positions, I don’t do things Jimmie wouldn’t do and being somebody different in the car, everybody in the field is going to know that.

“There are going to be some that respect that and others who are probably going to take advantage of that. You just have to know who you’re racing against and put yourself in the best position you can.

“I just have to make sure when the checkered flag falls tomorrow, I’ve given it 100% and whatever the results are, that’s just what they’re going to be.”

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Cup start time at Indianapolis: TV, stream, lineup, forecast and more for Sunday

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The Cup Series looks to start a new tradition by racing on the Fourth of July weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick looks to continue his strong run this season and win at this historic track for the third time in his career and second year in a row.

The Cup race is scheduled to start at 4:24 p.m. ET (Watch on NBC or the NBC Sports app).

Denny Hamlin, who beat Harvick a day after Harvick beat him at Pocono, will look to win at the Brickyard for the first time after coming close before.

Justin Allgaier drives the No. 48 car today after Jimmie Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday.

Here is the Cup start time at Indianapolis and other info for Sunday’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records President & CEO, will give the command to start engines at 4:13 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:24 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 8 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 1:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 4:05 p.m by Pastor Mark Schuitema of College Park Church in Indianapolis. The national anthem will be performed at 4:06 p.m. by Valory Music Company recording artist Abbey Cone. Two A-10 Warthogs from the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard in Fort Wayne, Indiana, will perform the flyover.

DISTANCE: The race is 160 laps (400 miles) around the 2.5-mile speedway.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 12.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 50. Stage 2 ends on Lap 100.

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. with the NASCAR America Pre-Race Show on NBCSN. Countdown to Green follows at 3:30 p.m. on NBCSN before coverage moves to NBC for the race. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network’s coverage will begin at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

LIVE STREAM: You can watch the race on NBCSports.com or on the NBC Sports app.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy conditions with a high of 91 degrees and a 24% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Denny Hamlin won at Pocono. Kevin Harvick placed second. Erik Jones was third.

LAST RACE AT INDIANAPOLIS: Kevin Harvick won last September’s race. Joey Logano was second. Bubba Wallace placed third.

TO THE REAR: Justin Allgaier (replaces Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48)

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Jimmie Johnson uncertain how he got COVID-19

Jimmie Johnson tests positive for COVID-19

First 15 Cup races have been “eye-opening” for Christopher Bell

Indy says no need to alter barrier Brad Keselowski struck in 2019 race

Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis 

Face masks among precautions for Bristol All-Star Race

Indy provides a treasure trove of memories for Cup drivers 

Can anybody catch Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

 

 

Results, standings after Indianapolis Xfinity race

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After being pushed out of the lead, Chase Briscoe roared right back in the closing laps to win Saturday’s inaugural NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s Briscoe’s fifth win of the season. He predicted in the preseason that he would win eight races in 2020. He’s now just three wins away from that goal.

Justin Haley finished second, followed by Noah Gragson, AJ Allmendinger and Austin Cindric.

Click here for results

Ranked No. 1, Briscoe opened his lead on Noah Gragson to 21 points in the driver standings and a 55-point edge over third-ranked Ross Chastain.

Updated Xfinity driver points after Indy

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