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Friday 5: Youth movement expanding in NASCAR

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While the focus during the offseason is on which drivers will fill what seats in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks, there’s also a lot taking place for younger drivers seeking to reach NASCAR’s top levels someday.

Toyota Racing Development spends the end of the year evaluating talent and seeing what roles those drivers can have in the coming season.

“When I look at kind of that 16- to 21-year old group … there’s some pretty fantastic talent in that group,” Jack Irving, whose duties at Toyota Racing Development include overseeing the organization’s driver development program, told NBC Sports earlier this month. “(Also) we’ve literally tested 14- and 15-year olds that I’m extremely excited about in the same way.”

The question is where might that talent go if it remains in Toyota’s pipeline.

Toyota has five Cup seats with three filled by drivers who competed in the championship race this season — 2019 champion Kyle Busch, runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, who placed fourth in the points. Toyota’s other two Cup seats are filled by budding stars Erik Jones (23 years old) and 2020 Cup rookie Christopher Bell (24).

Joe Gibbs Racing’s 2020 Xfinity lineup includes Brandon Jones, who turns 23 in February. This will be his third consecutive season with JGR. Joining him is Riley Herbst, who turns 21 in February, for his first full season with the team, and 19-year-old Harrison Burton for his rookie campaign.

Kyle Busch Motorsports will have 18-year-old Raphael Lessard compete full time in 2020 after running five races for the team this past season. The team also will have 19-year-old Christian Eckes, who won the ARCA title this past season, drive full time. He made eight starts in 2019 and four starts for the organization in 2018. A third truck will feature several drivers. Chandler Smith, who doesn’t turn 18 until June and is limited in what tracks he can run before then, likely will run some races for the team.

Then there’s Derek Kraus, the 18-year-old who won the title in what is now known as the ARCA West Series. There’s also 18-year-old Hailie Deegan, who finished third in points in the ARCA West Series and shows signs of climbing NASCAR’s ranks. And Ty Gibbs, the 17-year-old grandson of car owner Joe Gibbs, who won twice in ARCA and once each in what is now ARCA East and ARCA West Series in 2019. Many others are in the pipeline, which stretches to the formidable Keith Kunz Motorsports midget teams.

As each season nears an end, the work increases for Toyota Racing Development to evaluate drivers and where they will race for next year. The competition can be intense.

“I think there is a point here somewhere quickly where you get pushed pretty hard to start winning and competing,” Irving said, “to compete for top five in all the races and not have wrecked cars and do all these things and then also be a good teammate and a good person and all those kinds of things that you don’t necessarily always talk about that are pretty important for what we do from a structure perspective.”

Another key factor can be how a young driver ends a season, even if it doesn’t end in a championship.

“You typically want to see them under pressure, so the end of the season really does matter in the whole scheme of things,” Irving said. “If they’ve had a tough season, how are they finishing? If they’re having a good season, then how are they finishing?

And there’s more that is examined.

“We typically go through an analytics run through with the group,” Irving said. “A few of us will get together and kind of go through … some of the things from the coaches, some of the things from the engineers who work with them and what they’ve done with the team, so we’ll start talking to the individuals in the team, if it’s the team owner, if it’s crew chief, car chief.”

It’s all about seeking to find the next talent for the Cup Series.

2. New Generation

Based on what driver lineups that are set for next year, the 2020 Daytona 500 could see half the field age 29 and younger.

Drivers who will be age 29 and under as of next year’s Daytona 500 (Feb. 16) and have rides announced are:

Age 22: William Byron, Cole Custer, Quin Houff

Age 23: Erik Jones

Age 24: Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick

Age 25: Christopher Bell

Age 26: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace

Age 27: Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson

Age 28: Matt DiBenedetto

Age 29: Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Ryan Preece

One also can add Corey LaJoie (age 28), Ross Chastain (27), Parker Kligerman (29) with the expectation they will each be in a Cup car for next year’s season-opening race. That would put the list at 20 drivers age 29 and under in next year’s Daytona 500. And there could be even more, including Daniel Suarez, who turns 28 in January, and John Hunter Nemechek, 22.

Compare that to 2015 when there were 13 drivers age 29 and under in that year’s season opener.

3. 99 Club

Five drivers completed at least 99% of the 10,255 laps run this season in Cup, the first time any driver has reached that mark since 2015.

Joey Logano led the way, completing 99.67% of the laps (10.221). That’s the highest percentage of laps completed by a driver since 2010 when Matt Kenseth ran 99.93% of the laps. Kenseth ran all but eight of the 10,778 laps run that year.

Also completing more than 99% of the laps this Cup season were Paul Menard (99.63%), Ty Dillon (99.18%), champion Kyle Busch (99.14%) and series runner-up Martin Truex Jr. (99.00%).

4. Ticket deals

With all the sales for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, many tracks also have announced special deals for tickets to NASCAR races this coming season.

NBC Sports’ Daniel McFadin has compiled what deals many tracks have starting today. You can find the information here.

5. Banquet week

The NASCAR Awards Show, which will celebrate Kyle Busch’s championship, takes place next week in Nashville, Tennessee. Festivities will be Dec. 3-5 with the Awards show taking place Dec. 5.

NBCSN will air Burnouts on Broadway at 11:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 4. and replay it at 7 p.m. ET Dec. 5. NBCSN will air the Cup Awards show from 8-10:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 5 with a replay immediately afterward.

The Xfinity Awards show will air from 9-11 p.m. ET on Sunday (Dec. 1) on NBCSN.

March 30 in NASCAR History: Denny Hamlin earns first Martinsville win

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Back in the late 2000s, Martinsville Speedway might as well have been called Johnsonville Speedway.

Entering the March 30, 2008 race there, Jimmie Johnson had won the previous three races on NASCAR’s oldest track and he had four total since 2004.

By spring 2009 he’d bring that total to six, but not before a Virginia native provided a respite from Johnson’s domination.

Denny Hamlin, in his third full-time season Cup, started second on a dreary, misty day in Virginia that saw the race slowed by 18 cautions. Hamlin led 87 laps around the half-mile track, including the final 74.

Johnson wasn’t a factor in the finish, but Hamlin saw another driver with deep Martinsville history in his rear-view mirror. Hamlin had to hold off Jeff Gordon, then a seven-time Martinsville winner, over the final few laps.

“Finally, the curse is over I think, I hope,” Hamlin told Fox. “We had such bad luck over these last few weeks. It finally feels good to come here and get a win in front of the home town fans. Can’t wait. This is a sign of things to come I believe.”

It would turn out to be his only win of 2008, just like 2007. But within two years, Hamlin would have three more Martinsville grandfather clocks.

The race at Martinsville was also the first career Cup start for Michael McDowell, who drove the No. 00 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Also on this date:

1952: Herb Thomas led all 200 laps from the pole to win a Cup race at North Wilkesboro.

1980: A year after winning his first career Cup Series race at Bristol, Dale Earnhardt went back to victory lane at the half-mile track, winning a second straight race following a victory at Atlanta. Richard Petty was scored as finishing eighth in the race, but he was relieved in the event by Richard Childress, according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era.”

2014: Kurt Busch claims a victory at Martinsville Speedway for his first win with Stewart-Haas Racing and his first win since 2011.

Winners and losers from virtual Texas

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WINNERS

Timmy Hill — Underfunded rides have defined his NASCAR career, but he’s among the more successful Cup drivers in iRacing. He showed that Sunday, winning the Pro Invitational Series race at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway.

Garrett Smithley — He and Timmy Hill are the only drivers to score top-five finishes in each of the first two Pro Invitational races. Smithley was third Sunday.

Kurt Busch — His 10th-place finish Sunday was 25 spots better than his last-place finish the race before at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Kyle Larson — His ninth-place finish Sunday was 24 spots better than his finish the race before at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson — He finished 19th Sunday, placing 12 spots better than he did the week before. His performance came a day after he ran in the IndyCar Challenge iRacing race at a virtual Watkins Glen International and finished 16th.

LOSERS

William Byron — Led a race-high 80 of 130 laps before a bump-and-run by Timmy Hill moved Byron up the track and out of the lead in the final laps. Byron went on to finish seventh. Still, it was better than his 34th-place finish the previous race.

Ty Majeski — After placing ninth the race before, he finished 30th Sunday after a speeding pit penalty on pit road.

Xfinity, Truck and regional series drivers — With so many Cup drivers taking guaranteed spots in the main event, it leaves few drivers to transfer from the qualifying race. The first week, six Xfinity, Truck and regional series drivers advanced. Sunday, it was four.

Timmy Hill celebrates win but knows payback could be coming

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Timmy Hill said he had to make the move.

He also knows there could be consequences.

“But that’s in the future,” Hill said. “I’m kind of living in the present and happy to get the win.”

The 27-year-old driver, whose career has been defined by underfunded rides in NASCAR, used a bump-and-run to take the lead from William Byron with nine laps left and win Sunday’s eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series event at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Race results 

MORE: What drivers said after iRacing race at virtual Texas

After he crossed the finish line first, Hill said his wife came up the stairs in their home to hug him and give him a cup of milk.

“Downed it right away,” Hill said.

But he likely was going to hold off contacting Byron, who finished seventh after leading a race-high 80 laps in the 130-lap event, extended by overtime.

“This is a very unique situation because, trust me, it feels real,” Hill said after the victory. “I’m sure (Byron) is mad. That’s one of the situations where I think if I call him today, he probably really wouldn’t even want to talk about it. I’ve got to probably give him some time to cool down.

“I may try to reach out to him. He’ll probably still be mad probably for the next coming weeks. Even though this is iRacing, it is virtual, the feelings are real.”

On the etiquette of iRacing and if there might be a payback, Byron tweeted “if he’s in front of me you can be sure of it” followed by a winking emoji.

The situation came about after a caution led to a restart with five laps left to the scheduled distance of 125 laps.

With four laps to the scheduled distance, Byron led with Hill on his rear bumper entering Turn 1.

“I didn’t go into it thinking I had to move William,” Hill said. ”I’m sure as everybody watched the race, Texas, with the way this format is, wide open in (Turns) 3 and 4, barely lift in (Turns) 1 and 2, I think you see drivers get in massive runs.

“The car in front has a couple options. You can try to race the guy heads‑up, side‑by‑side, or block all you can. For me, in the time remaining, when William threw a big block to protect his line, I had the option of either get hit from behind, hope I don’t get hit from behind, or give him a little bump and run and keep going.

“My mindset, had to make a quick split‑second decision, was to go for the win. I didn’t want to put myself in a bad spot to get hit from behind or take myself out of it. When William blocked going into Turn 1, kept a low line, protected his position, it left very few options for me in Turn 1. That’s kind of my mindset through it.”

Hill, who has no top-10 finishes in 96 career Cup starts and five top-10 finishes, including a third at Daytona in February, in 188 Xfinity starts, said that he hoped Sunday’s win could help with his underfunded teams when racing returns.

“Some of the best drivers are underrecognized because of the opportunity they’re in,” Hill said. “I’ve made a career personally out of taking cars that were 35th- to 40th-place cars, qualifying 25th. The reason I’ve been able to stay in this sport is because I can take a car and elevate it to a level to make fields, ultimately make a paycheck for teams.

“I wish people would kind of focus back towards that side of the garage, understand the deficits that we’re facing going into a race, because I think a lot of guys are shortchanged, some of their talents. I feel like I’m one of them. I feel like a lot of the guys in the top five (in Sunday’s iRacing race) are in the same boat as I am.

“I’m glad this is kind of showing a little bit of that. I don’t know if it will transfer in real life. I’m glad at least for the last couple weeks and going forward that can kind of showcase that a little bit.”

What drivers said after iRacing race at virtual Texas

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Timmy Hill — Winner: I definitely rank (the win) up there (among career achievements). The reason being is just because the platform is being televised on FOX, having essentially the entire NASCAR audience tuning in. I’ve won a lot of iRacing races. It’s neat to win on there. It’s really neat to win against your competitors that you race each and every Sunday.  … For me personally, what I’ll gain from this is recognition. For us, it’s hard to get that recognition because of the level of competition that we are in real life.  We’re doing our best. Frankly, we just don’t have the money, the dollars, to compete at a high level.  Every once in a while we’ll get a big sponsor and you’ll see us exceed normal expectations for us, like at Daytona where we had a really good Daytona 500 car, really good Xfinity car.  We finished third in the Xfinity race, made the Daytona 500. Every once in a while we’ll get that big payday and we can really reinvest in our race team. But most weekends we got to kind of do the best we can with the dollars we have. This win will hopefully gain some recognition and attract more sponsors for us maybe in the real world when we get back racing because they know Timmy Hill from iRacing.”

Ryan Preece — Finished 2nd:

 

Garrett Smithley — Finished 3rd: 

 

Alex Bowman — Finished 5th:

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Finished 6th:

 

William Byron — Finished 7th:

 

John Hunter Nemechek — Finished 8th:

 

Kurt Busch — Finished 10th:

Clint Bowyer — Finished 11th: “Today was all about survival, guys. I needed a redo for my Rush Truck Centers Ford Mustang because I got together with (Greg) Biffle, ‘The Biff’, off of (Turn) two. I guess we were three-wide. I didn’t realize we were three-wide. My spotter Jeff Gordon, I had to fire him halfway through the race and moved to Larry McReynolds. Larry said nothing when we were three-wide and I wrecked and collected a bunch of them. But again, a great time was had by all. Timmy Hill, big win for him and his brand. It’s going to be a lot of fun to compete in this over the next few weeks. But, man we are all in this together! Looking forward to next week.”

Parker Kligerman — Finished 12th:

 

Bobby Labonte — Finished 13th:

 

Michael McDowell — Finished 14th:

 

Kyle Busch — Finished 17th:

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 19th:

Chase Elliott — Finished 20th:

 

Erik Jones — Finished 21st:

 

Bubba Wallace — Finished 25th:

Alex Labbe — Finished 26th:

 

Austin Dillon — Finished 29th:

 

Ty Majeski — Finished 30th:

 

Ruben Garcia Jr. — Finished 31st:

 

Greg Biffle — Finished 32nd:

 

Daniel Suarez — Finished 33rd:

 

Anthony Alfredo — Finished 35th: