Photo: Rich Forman

Gio Scelzi hopes to use Chili Bowl as springboard to NASCAR

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Giovanni Scelzi grew up the son of a four-time National Hot Rod Association champion, and has been making a significant name of his own racing dirt midgets and sprints, particularly in the World of Outlaws series.

But there’s another race series that the 18-year-old Scelzi – “Gio” for short – has his sights set upon: NASCAR.

If all goes well, Scelzi hopes to begin climbing the NASCAR ladder – perhaps as early as this year.

But first things first: the Fresno, California native is participating in this week’s Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He’s one of more than 350 entries that also includes good friend Kyle Larson, plus other NASCAR drivers including Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Alex Bowman, Chase Briscoe, J.J. Yeley, James Davison, Ryan Ellis, Ryan Newman, Justin Allgaier and Christopher Bell, who has won the Chili Bowl the last three years.

Scelzi isn’t the only aspiring NASCAR driver from the World of Outlaws. David Gravel, who is also competing in the Chili Bowl, recently signed a part-time Truck Series deal with GMS Racing.

Once the Chili Bowl concludes Saturday night, Scelzi, son of four-time NHRA champion Gary Scelzi, and younger brother of fellow sprint/midget car racer Dominic Scelzi, will then travel with Larson to Australia, where they’ll compete in several races, most notably the biggest event of the Australian sprint car season, The Classic, on Jan. 23-24.

Gio Scelzi after one of his nine wins last season. (Jason Tucker Photos)

Needless to say, all the time together with Larson will give the youngest Scelzi a chance to further pick his fellow Californian’s mind about how to reach and race in NASCAR.

“I love sprint car racing, that’s always where my heart will be,” Scelzi told NBC Sports last week. “It’s obviously what I grew up doing, dirt racing.

“I’ll still race sprint cars as much as I can, but in the next 5-10 years, I hope to get into Trucks and Xfinity to get towards NASCAR (Cup).”

Scelzi and his father have been working on getting Gio some seat time this year in the ARCA Menards Series West (formerly K&N Pro Series West).

“Hopefully this year or next year I’ll transition over to ARCA, which is a good stepping stone, do something along those lines and get my feet wet on pavement,” Gio Scelzi said. “I’ve done some testing the last year, just trying to see if that’s the direction I want to go.

“Nothing’s been announced yet, but I think something will be announced here pretty soon to hopefully go down that path.”

Even though their father was one of the most prolific drivers in NHRA history, Gio and his brother Dominic went in a different direction when they first started racing themselves.

Instead of the straight and narrow, they chose round and dirty, you might say.

“The hardest part of drag racing, there really is no way for a kid that can race anything before you’re 16,” Scelzi said. “That’s kind of the age where you can earn a license and are allowed to race under power and really learn how to race.

“But in dirt racing, there’s micro-sprints, outlaw karts, you name it, there’s all kind of kids classes you could do to learn how to race. My dad went to dirt races a lot in California and really enjoyed it, was good friends with (NASCAR Hall of Famer) Tony Stewart and (sprint car racer) Danny Lasoski, so he always had a friend base in dirt racing and that was a way to get me and my brother in a race car when we were really young.”

Dominic began racing go-karts at five years old and Gio began racing micro-sprints at 6 at their home track, Plaza Park Raceway in Visalia, Calif., about 30 miles from Fresno.

“I think sprint car racing is so unique from other forms of racing,” Gio Scelzi said. “With a 410 sprint car, around the United States, you have the World of Outlaws, the All-Stars (All Star Circuit of Champions), IRA (Sprint Series), Knoxville (Nationals), I mean there’s probably 20 or 30 race tracks racing on a given weekend, with the same rules package, the same kind of cars and there are very good race car drivers in their own region.

“With a sprint car, what I’ve done the last two years, I’ve been based in Indianapolis and race wherever we want. If we want to race in an All-Star race in Ohio, we can go there. If we want to race an Outlaw race in North Dakota, we can go there.

“There are so many different options with that same rules package that is such a simple, powerful, exciting race car, I don’t think there’s no other kind of professional racing where you can make a living at it that has that kind of atmosphere.

“If you’ve got the money and the motors to race, you can race every weekend. Just the World of Outlaws schedule is 95 races. Or you can race the All-Stars, which is 50 races, and then maybe 20 races in Outlaws when you want to. There’s so much freedom with a team where you want to go and where you want to race, I think that’s what makes it unique.”

Gio Scelzi in one of his midget races last season. (Jason Tucker Photos.)

The youngest Scelzi has steadily been making a name for himself in the sprint car dirt racing world. At the age of 16 in 2018, he became the youngest winner in World of Outlaws history. He also won his first USAC Midget race in just his sixth career start in the series.

And at 17 last season, he was the youngest winner in the Knoxville Raceway’s history when he won an All Star Circuit of Champions race there, one of the most notable outings in a season that saw Scelzi make 71 starts across several dirt racing series, earning nine wins, 23 top-five and 40 top-10 finishes.

This week is the second Chili Bowl for Scelzi. He did well in his first start in 2018, finishing sixth in his preliminary race, was second in the B Main and then was running in the top 10 in the week’s main event – until the motor in his midget car blew halfway through the race and he finished last in the 24-car field.

Scelzi is racing at the Chili Bowl — his first race of the week is this evening, which kicks off the Nationals’ six-night run at the Tulsa Expo Center — as part of the Toyota Development program with Chad Boat (son of former IndyCar driver Billy Boat). His teammates include Christopher Bell and NBC Sports reporter Dillon Welch.

“I’m excited for it,” Gio Scelzi told NBC Sports. “The Chili Bowl as an event is huge and keeps growing and growing and attracting more attention through NASCAR and all kinds of racing fans.

“There’s a lot of good race cars, it seems like every year more and more guys and good race car drivers all-around get a ride and want to participate.”

Here’s a video of Scelzi getting ready and then taking to the track for his first practice session Monday (video courtesy Toyota Racing Development):

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Sunday’s Cup race at Bristol: Start time, forecast and more

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After four races on tracks more than 1 mile in length, NASCAR heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for Sunday afternoon’s race.

NASCAR’s first short track race of the season concludes a two-week period where the Cup Series will have run five times.

Kevin Harvick won the first race in this stretch May 17 at Darlington Raceway. Denny Hamlin won the May 20 Darlington race. Brad Keselowski won last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Chase Elliott won at Charlotte on Thursday night.

Here are the details for Sunday’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will give the command to start engines at 3:43 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:53 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 1:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 3:35 p.m. by Mike Rife, pastor of Vansant Church of Christ in Vansant, Virginia. The national anthem will be performed at 3:36 p.m. by Edwin McCain. There will be a flyover at 3:37 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the 0.533-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 3 p.m. Performance Racing Network will broadcast the race. Its broadcast begins at 2:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny conditions with a high of 70 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the race’s start.

LAST RACE: Chase Elliott took the lead from Kevin Harvick with 28 laps to go and went on to win Thursday night’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin finished second. Ryan Blaney placed third.

LAST RACE AT BRISTOL: Denny Hamlin passed Matt DiBenedetto with 12 laps to go to take the lead and went on to win last year’s night race. DiBenedetto finished second. Brad Keselowski placed third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

CATCHING UP TO SPEED WITH NBC SPORTS COVERAGE:

Matt DiBenedetto: “No margin for error” at Bristol Motor Speedway

Can Adam Stevens, Kyle Busch “get mojo back” at Bristol?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Forget practice, qualifying, “I just like to race”

Chase Elliott’s “Sent it, for Judd” in Charlotte Cup Series win

When fans can return, how many will be allowed at tracks?

Where are they now? Catching up with Casey Mears

 

Matt DiBenedetto: ‘No margin for error’ at Bristol Motor Speedway

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It will be a weird feeling for Matt DiBenedetto on Sunday.

He and the rest of the Cup Series will embark on a 500-mile race at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first true short-track race of the season.

It will be DiBenedetto’s first trip back to the hall-mile track since last August, when he came within 12 laps of earning his first Cup Series win. Instead, he finished second to Denny Hamlin in his best career finish. For DiBenedetto, Bristol represents the site of “probably one of the most defeating and toughest days of my life” and one of the “most rewarding.”

“It was a tough week on us, so there was a lot of not really feeling how to feel,” DiBenedetto said Friday in a Zoom press conference. “But ultimately it led to being a big factor in me getting this opportunity to drive the 21 car this year, so it was a big day and everything was meant to be.”

DiBenedetto enters his ninth race as the driver for Wood Brothers Racing.  But he’s not revisiting last year’s night race in his preparation for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

“It’s still that painful that I’ve never watched (it),” DiBenedetto said. “I can’t remember what lap, but I cut it off and I can’t even watch it.  It would be too much.

“But as far as what I’m gonna try to learn for this Sunday, I’m actually gonna go back and probably watch mostly 2018 stuff because, thank goodness, we have the low downforce back for Bristol, which will make the racing way, way better, so I’m excited about that.”

As with the first four races back amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cup teams will get no practice before taking the green flag in “Thunder Valley.”

DiBenedetto said it has been “amazing” how cars have been able to fire off without any preparation, thanks to simulations and notes from previous races.

“The heights (on the car) and everything are usually pretty close, just because they have so much information to work (with),” DiBenedetto said.  “Really, it’s not too big of a deal.

“Actually, it’s even better than I thought just firing straight off in the race. The (competition) yellow and things like that help so you have a little time to adjust on your car and work on it, so they’ve done a good job with that.”

But Bristol is a different animal. DiBenedetto said the race will be “nerve-racking” without on-track preparation.

“Bristol, there’s just no margin for error.,” he said. “It’s really, really fast.  It’s an insanely fast short track.  You’re on edge already even when you have your car dialed in. … It’ll work out fine, for sure, but you just really are out and out praying that your car is dialed in right because it’s very sensitive.

“If you’re off just a little bit at Bristol, it can affect you worse than these tracks where it’s a big race track – a mile-and-a-half – and you don’t have to worry about going a lap down if you miss it or things like that, so this one will be a little bit more treacherous.”

DiBenedetto will be hoping to capture some of his Bristol magic from last year. Since finishing second at Las Vegas in February, DiBenedetto has finished better than 13th just once in the following six races, placing ninth in the second Darlington race.

After starting fourth Thursday night at Charlotte, he led 10 of the first 11 laps before ending the first stage in third, but finished 15th.

“Car speed is there and great and we’ve shown if we hit it or we’re close we can be up front at any of these races,” DiBenedetto said. “I’d say we’re not in our rhythm yet, but we will be. I have no doubt about that, but we’re still learning each other and making little mistakes figuring out each other’s communication.

“(Crew chief) Greg Erwin and I are figuring out working together and we still have a lot of room for improvement, which is a good thing because I know we can run up front and can contend for wins quite often. We have a lot of room for improvement on the execution side as far as putting our race together perfect from start to finish.”

Where Are They Now? Catching up with Casey Mears

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There are certain days most people never forget: their anniversaries, their children’s birthdays and for race car drivers, their first win.

These days Casey Mears may live 2,100 miles away from Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he was there in spirit for last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.

Mears won NASCAR’s longest race in 2007. He was in the right place at the right time, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin late in the race and hanging on for the final six laps – the only laps he led all day – for the win.

Casey Mears celebrates after winning the 2007 Coca-Cola 600. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“It was definitely the high point of my career, for sure,” Mears told NBC Sports. “I remember everything about that night.

“The one thing – and it’s not a regret – but it’s unfortunate that it ended up being a fuel-mileage race because we had a very fast car that night and ran inside the top 10 and top five the majority of the night.

“We probably weren’t going to win it, but we had a good shot at a top five and were going to be in the hunt. (Crew chief Darian Grubb) made a great call and we won the race, which was amazing for several different reasons.

“I mean, obviously winning in Charlotte, the 600 is the longest race, winning on Memorial Day weekend, which is a huge week for my family and then also being sponsored by the National Guard at that time. It was just a big night.”

While the 600 was his only Cup win, Mears also recalls several other key moments of his career, including runner-up finishes in 2006 at the Daytona 500 and later that year at Kansas.

“That night at Charlotte was a huge part of my career but some of the stuff that I feel like we earned on speed which was really cool were, we sat on the pole at Indy, did well at places like Chicago, Pocono and Michigan, being competitive and leading laps at places like Atlanta and Homestead, going back and forth with Tony Stewart at Atlanta one year.

“Some of those big moments in my career weren’t necessarily the only parts that stand out. The moments I remember the most were when we had competitive race cars and when we were on the verge of getting those wins and getting real close.”

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Mears lives in the Phoenix area with his family. It’s also where he met his wife, Trisha.

“We always said that when the NASCAR things slowed down, we’d like to be back out this way,” Mears told NBC Sports. “So we picked up and moved the kids and came out to Phoenix. We’re loving it, and I’m really enjoying spending a lot of time with them. I’ve also been fortunate to reconnect with some of my off-road racing buddies since I’ve been out here.”

This is the off-road truck Casey Mears co-drove in last year’s NORRA Mexican Baja 1000. (Photo courtesy Casey Mears)

Mears may be gone from NASCAR, but he’s still taking part in other forms of racing part-time, including off-road competition like the NORRA Mexican Baja 1000 last year with Lynn Chenoweth. Casey’s father Roger drove for Chenoweth back in the 1960s and 1970s, and also is part of Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks Series.

“I also hang out with (NBC IndyCar analyst and former racer Paul Tracy) and drive his Lamborghini sports car, just taking it on the track and sliding around, just having fun,” Mears said. “If opportunities come around, I’d love to race some more.

“I really, really enjoyed racing out in the desert, doing off road stuff. I’d also love to get involved in some sports car stuff as well if there’s an opportunity.

“I love what I’m being able to do right now, just dabble. Playing in Robby’s series, that’s been a blast and picking up random off road, desert opportunities. But racing’s racing, it always boils down to the dollars and cents and sponsors or finding some guy that just wants to go racing and spend some money and have fun. It’s few and far between these days.”

Even though Mears has moved on from NASCAR, he admits he misses it.

“I was fortunate to get to do it for about 15 years,” Mears said. “I lived that life and it really becomes almost the opposite. Your family and friends end up being all the people on the road and people at home become extended friends and family, you’re on the road so much.

“For sure I miss a lot of the people that you saw week in and week out. I definitely miss the competition. I don’t think I’ll ever not miss being in a race car because, like so many others in the sport, I didn’t really get to go out on my own terms.

“For so many people, the sport decides it for you before you’re ready to decide not to do it. I think I’ll always have that desire to want to get in a car again.

“But the one thing that helped me make this decision to move to Phoenix is that I didn’t want to be one of those guys that lingered in the sport either. I didn’t want to be with a back marker program and not be able to be competitive and that’s kind of probably what would have happened. I would have stuck around and would have gotten into something I probably really didn’t need to be in.”

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Mears made 489 career Cup starts, his last full-time season being in 2016. He came back for a start last year for Germain Racing in the season-opening Daytona 500. He started 40th and finished 40th, involved in a crash just past the halfway point.

Mears also made 107 Xfinity Series starts, earning his lone series win in 2016 at Chicagoland Speedway.

He still keeps his hand in NASCAR somewhat, just not on a steering wheel. He does promotional work for Phoenix Raceway and visits his former chums each time NASCAR comes to town.

Casey Mears, right, remains good friends with a number of his former teammates, including seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

He also keeps in regular contact with close friends and former teammates and bosses including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, Bob Germain and Doug Barnette.

But moving on from being a race car driver, pretty much the only thing he had known for more than 30 years since being a kid growing up in Bakersfield, California, gave Mears pause.

“This move really forced me to figure out what’s next in life,” he said. “I’m 42 years old and although I’ve done well and been very fortunate, but I need to do something.”

He’s looking at a variety of business opportunities in the Phoenix area, primarily in the automotive industry.

“I feel very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had in the sport,” Mears said. “I drove for a lot of real good teams and programs and learned a lot from a lot of people.

“The people I got to race with and learn from just from the business standpoint is going to help me later in my career with whatever’s next. I had some great opportunities and will always miss it, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to the future and what’s next.”

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Starting lineup for Monday night’s Xfinity race at Bristol

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Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Harrison Burton and Brandon Jones will start on the front row for Monday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway after a random draw.

Burton will start on the pole and Jones will be second. Austin Cindric will start third, Justin Haley starts fourth and Ryan Sieg starts fifth.

There are 37 cars in the field. NASCAR on NBC analyst AJ Allmendinger will start 27th in his season debut in the series.

Monday’s race is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET on FS1.

The starting lineup was determined through a random draw of the following groups:

  • Positions 1-12: The first 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up Eligibility will be assigned starting positions 1st – 12th using a random draw.
  • Positions 13-24: The next 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 12th- 24th using a random draw.
  • Starting positions 25-36:The next 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 25th -36th using a random draw.
  • Any vehicles that are eligible for the Event in position 37th – 40th will be assigned starting positions based on their order of eligibility.

Click here for starting lineup

 

NASCAR Xfinity Series at Bristol

Race Time: 7 p.m. ET Monday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (0.533-mile oval)

Length: 300 laps, 159.9 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 85. Stage 2 ends on Lap 170.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Cup race: May 31 at Bristol (500 laps, 266.5 miles), 3:30 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck Series race: June 6 at Atlanta (130 laps, 200.02 miles), 1 p.m. ET on FS1