Friday 5: Bowman Gray’s Madhouse represents what NASCAR’s future could be

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As the NASCAR community caravans to Martinsville Speedway this weekend, many will drive by Winston-Salem, North Carolina on the way to the Cup Series’ shortest track.

Although one can’t see Bowman Gray Stadium from the roads that many teams, media and fans will take to Martinsville, its impact on the sport can’t be overlooked.

Bowman Gray Stadium, which recently completed its 71st season of racing, could be the most important track to NASCAR.

As the sport looks to 2020 and beyond, NASCAR is carving a schedule that increases the chance for conflict and controversy — exactly what made Bowman Gray Stadium a must-see for fans, inspired the TV show “Madhouse” and stocks Google searches with stories and videos of altercations and cars ramming each other.

This could be the future of the Cup Series.

Call it a return to its past.

Beating and banging is nothing new in NASCAR. It’s part of Dale Earnhardt’s legacy. It’s why fans long for North Wilkesboro. It’s how some measure the present.

But NASCAR is putting in motion a plan that could increase the likelihood that the chaos often seen at Bowman Gray could become more common in Cup.

While next year’s Cup schedule features the same six short track races as this year, those tracks will have greater significance in the playoffs.

The Bristol night race moves into the playoffs for the first time and is the opening round’s elimination race. It will be held the week after Richmond, marking back-to-back short track playoff events for the first time. Don’t think there won’t be some contact and tempers?

And to raise the intensity, NASCAR moved Martinsville Speedway to the final race before the championship race next year.

Look at what Joey Logano did last year at Martinsville when it was the opening race in the Round of 8. Knocking Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead on the final lap to win guaranteed Logano a spot in the championship race in Miami. Logano went on to win at Miami to claim his first Cup title.

Aric Almirola said on NASCAR America’s MotorMouths this week that “Martinsville is always kind of a place where you have to get rough when you need, but I do feel like that Joey opened Pandora’s box there. … I think anybody else that is in the Round of 8 that saw that and sees that if they have an opportunity to win at Martinsville, don’t be nice. You have to take that opportunity.”

Imagine what it will be like next year when Martinsville is the last chance to get into championship race (which will be held at ISM Raceway, a track more conducive to beating and banging than Homestead-Miami Speedway).

Desperate times call for desperate measures. That could lead more contact on the track, which would could lead to an altercation with drivers and crew members on pit road after a race.

Isn’t that what many fans want to see? Drama, conflict and controversy.

Fans could see that again Sunday at Martinsville (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and even more likely next year with its place in the playoffs.

Yes, it could be just like a Saturday night at Bowman Gray Stadium.

“The first year moving here, I went to Bowman Gray,” AJ Allmendinger said on NASCAR America’s MotorMouths this week. “I was like what is this place? This is insanity … but this is awesome. I love this place.

“I love seeing the races there, the videos that go with it because it’s true passion and a little bit of craziness mixed in.”

And the future.

2. A faster approach

Although Corey LaJoie says he hasn’t signed anything with Go Fas Racing for next year — “we’re working toward making that happen,” he said last weekend at Kansas Speedway — he is seeking to add partners so the team can purchase better engines for some races next year.

Corey LaJoie (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“Faster you can make that horse that I sit on every week run a little faster, it hopefully puts me in the conversation the next couple of years for a race-winning ride,” he said.

“It costs money to go fast. It’s a matter of trying to get more and more of that money, because upgrading the engine package is substantial, especially stretched out for majority of the year.”

LaJoie said the focus is on upgrading engines with plans for the team to purchase some cars from Stewart-Haas Racing.

The key will be money. As it is for any driver and team.

“Bringing funding is the name of the game,” LaJoie said. “You can act like it doesn’t exist, but it does. The first thing they say is, ‘We’d love for you to drive for us.’ The second question is ‘How much you got? Because I’ve talked to this guy and he’s got $2 million and this guy has a million and a half. What are you bringing to the table?’ Bringing helmets and seats isn’t what moves the needle. You have to have actual cash money.”

3. Chasing a record

Joe Gibbs Racing’s 16 wins this season are two short of the modern-era record of 18 set by Hendrick Motorsports in 2007. NASCAR’s modern era is from 1972.

It seems likely JGR will tie the mark with four races left. JGR drivers have won the past four short track races: Kyle Busch won at Bristol in April, Martin Truex Jr. swept the two Richmond races this year, and Denny Hamlin won the Bristol night race in August.

Also, consider Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance at short tracks since 2009.

JGR drivers have won 31 of the 65 races at short tracks since that time. The next three teams: Hendrick Motorsports (10 wins), Team Penske (10) and Stewart-Haas Racing (seven) combine for 27 wins in that stretch.

4. A new look

The Kannapolis Intimidators are no more. The minor league baseball team, which took its name from Dale Earnhardt, announced previously that this would be its last season with that name. A team official told NBC Sports in February why it was changing the name that it had used since 2001.

Kannapolis Cannon Ballers logo (Photo: Kannapolis Cannon Ballers)

“Dale’s always going to be the Intimidator, Vince Marcucci, assistant general manager of the team told NBC Sports in February. “We’re not trying to get away from (it). I don’t think that’s the right way to put it. But, like, own our own brand. Because we don’t own the Intimidators. (Earnhardt’s widow) Teresa has the rights to that.

“So for speed and flexibility as we try to do creative things in the future, we’re going to need something we own ourselves.”

The team will be known as the Cannon Ballers.

But there still be an homage to Earnhardt. The mascot will have a bushy mustache like Earnhardt did. Also, in the logo, the B in Ballers is shaped like a 3 for Earnhardt.

5. Streaking

Kyle Busch seeks to tie Jimmie Johnson this weekend for second on the all-time list of most consecutive top-five finishes at Martinsville Speedway.

Busch has placed in the top five in each of the past eight races at Martinsville. Johnson had a streak of nine top-five finishes in a row from Oct. 2005 – Oct. 2009.

Jeff Gordon holds the record at the track with 11 consecutive top-five finishes. The streak began in April 2005 and ended in March 2010.

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NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.