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Friday 5: Rule change is chance for drivers to go back in time

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Jeff Gordon marveled as he watched Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch run nose-to-tail or side-by-side lap after lap for the lead late in the 2017 spring Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

“These are the two of the most equal race cars and one of the best races for the lead I’ve seen here at Martinsville in a very long time,” said Gordon, a nine-time Martinsville winner, on the FS1 broadcast.

Keselowski and Busch rarely seemed apart for a spell within the final 100 laps, whether it was Keselowski pressuring Busch or Busch doing the same thing by closing on Keselowski’s rear bumper.

It is the type of racing NASCAR hopes will return with the announcement this week of a short track package, which includes a smaller spoiler, that shares similarities to what was run in 2017-18.

What makes that 2017 spring Martinsville race stand out is how close Keselowski and Busch ran to each other before Keselowski won.

It contrasts the 2019 spring race, which featured a larger spoiler as part of the high downforce package used at all tracks. Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps that day. Runner-up Chase Elliott could not run close to Keselowski for long. 

Brad Keselowski celebrates his 2017 Martinsville win after a duel with Kyle Busch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Keselowski explained to NBC Sports the differences in those packages and why the cars could run closer together in the 2017 race than the 2019 race.

“You’re able to brake differently, the cars were harder to stop, they had a smaller spoiler, so you had to really use a lot of finesse to work them down into the corner,” Keselowski said of the package used in 2017-18. “You didn’t lose the nose as quickly because you weren’t using aero as such an assist in the middle of the corner.

“If you had asked me earlier in my career if I thought aero would come into play at Martinsville, I would have said you were crazy. Same thing I would have said if you had told me that the cars would make almost 4,000 pounds of downforce. Those two conversations go hand in hand.

“The 2019 car, the easiest way I know how to explain this … at full speed at the tracks that we ran at, if the race track would have been inverted, the car would have stayed on the racetrack. That’s downforce. … It’s to a point where it could be a Hot Wheels track and we could run upside down. That tells you how much assistance the cars were getting from the air.”

The short track package will be used at all ovals 1 mile or less and the three road course events for a total of 14 races this year. Eight of the season’s final 15 races, including five in the playoffs, will be run with this package. The championship race at Phoenix will use this short track setup.

“Making this change is certainly a step in the direction of putting the racing back in the drivers’ hands and out of aerodynamics’ control,” Keselowski said. “More times than not, but not always, the result is better for the fans. I think it’s a win as a whole.”

2. Tire change with short track package

One of the complaints drivers and teams had last year was the lack of tire wear during events. Without such wear and tire falloff, drivers found it more challenging to pass, particularly at short tracks. 

With the lower downforce package at short tracks this year, Goodyear will construct a tire intended to wear more, said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

“We are going to make some changes,” Stucker told NBC Sports about the tire that will be used with the short track setup.

“From a traction, from a grip-level perspective, I go back to what we learned at the Martinsville test that we had there in July, what we learned at our Richmond test back in October. Granted that was in the Next Gen car, but we were able to evaluate some things and learn some things about Richmond and the same thing with Phoenix because we evaluated several different compounds. We got different reference points at those two tests along with stuff we’ve done in the past at those two race tracks testing-wise. We were able to formulate a plan to go a little softer than what we have been.

“Even understanding that the downforce is coming off, on top of that, we’re going to go ahead and take a step in trying to increase the grip level mechanically, which will also result in higher tread wear that, hopefully, will fall off.”

With a new short track package and a tire intended to wear more, will NASCAR need to use the traction compound (darker portion of the track) at Phoenix again this year? (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Goodyear will not do any testing before the first race with the short track package — Phoenix on March 8 — because there isn’t enough time.

NASCAR met with drivers, teams, Goodyear and others in Nashville before the December awards banquet to devise a course of action for the short tracks. That followed NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying before the season finale in Miami that “our promise to our fans … is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”

One issue that has not been determined is if the traction compound applied in the corners at Phoenix Raceway last year will be reapplied for the March race. With a new short track package and a new tire, the traction compound might not be needed.

“Our opinion, and I think everybody’s is … (the traction compound) is to enhance the multiple racing lines, it is enable multiple grooves to come in at a particular track,” Stucker said. “We’re not in favor of just applying traction compound on a racetrack just to go faster. That’s not the goal.”

3. Decisions, decisions

Among the challenges for some teams with the short track package is determining how much wind tunnel time to devote to that setup and to the higher downforce package used at the bigger tracks.

NASCAR announced in October that organizations would be limited to 150 hours of wind tunnel time in 2020.

While the short track package shares similarities to what was run in 2017 and ’18, it’s not the same. Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations for Joe Gibbs Racing, said that wind tunnel time will be important for the short track setup.

Makar told NBC Sports that it will be a “challenge” to properly divide the wind tunnel time between the low downforce and high downforce packages.

Even with simulation programs playing a greater role for teams, Makar says wind tunnel testing is still vital.

Kyle Busch scored his second Cup title in five years in 2019 for Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“You can learn a lot of basic things in (simulation) and kind of get your preliminary ideas and thoughts together and then apply them in the wind tunnel to get your final decision on how that change worked,” Makar said. “The wind tunnel, I think, probably is still your closest thing to the racetrack.”

Other key decisions for teams will come as the year progresses.

Teams will have to decide how to allocate resources in preparing high downforce cars, low downforce cars and also the Next Gen car that debuts in 2021.

“It does create a bit of a different challenge because it is that much different,” Makar said of the Next Gen car. “It’s completely, uniquely new to us. Just looking at the car and how things bolt together, it’s a big learning curve for all the teams. It’s not like over the years when you had a body change or an aero package change, it’s still the same car.”

Makar said one thing that will help is that with NASCAR putting a freeze on teams developing new parts, those crew members can focus on the Next Gen car.

Another key issue will be for any organization that has multiple teams in the playoffs — and even multiple teams in the final eight or the championship race. Go all in on a championship or work on the Next Gen car to begin next year strong?

“In my view, the obvious thing is (this year’s) championship is the first and foremost goal,” Makar said. “That’s what we have to focus on. That’s the next thing in line.”

4. His turn

The recent shuffling of drivers and crew chiefs at Team Penske could have some fans of Brad Keselowski feeling down.

Car owner Roger Penske split Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, sending Wolfe to work with Joey Logano. Penske also moved Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, over to be with Ryan Blaney. That left Jeremy Bullins, who had been Blaney’s crew chief, to join Keselowski.

So what would Keselowski tell his fans about now being paired with Bullins?

Jeremy Bullins moves over from Ryan Blaney’s team to be Brad Keselowski’s crew chief in 2020. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“First thing I’d tell my fans is that Jeremy is the only Cup crew chief at Penske of the three that hasn’t won the championship,” Keselowski said. “The way I see it, he’s the next one to win one.”

Keselowski is focused on this season but he did tell NBC Sports that “I’m super proud of everything we were able to do as a team with Paul as crew chief and everyone else that was on the team at that time. I haven’t really spent much time looking out the rear window because I can’t change anything. So I’m looking out the front windshield.”

With a new crew chief will come new demands.

“I’m sure that Jeremy and the team are going to challenge me to be better,” Keselowski said. “I think that’s healthy. I’m going to do the same with them. I guess I view it as a complete blank slate. Our goal is to be the best and win the championship in 2020.

“What’s great is that we all have enough experience for that to be a realistic opportunity. If you combine that with our willingness to try new things, I think it could be a lethal combination.”

5. A name to remember

Cannon McIntosh’s assignment last fall was to write an essay about himself as if the high school junior was preparing a college application.

He felt good about what he wrote.

Until he got his grade.

A zero.

McIntosh’s instructor thought what McIntosh wrote was not true, that it had been plagiarized. No way, the teacher assumed, this student was a race car driver.

Cannon McIntosh (right) with Jay Drake, team manager of Keith Kunz Motorsports.
(Photo by Swikar Patel/TRD)

The situation was quickly rectified. Soon more than McIntosh’s teachers will know who he is.

The 17-year-old has been making a name in midget racing the past year and earned a ride with Keith Kunz Motorsports for this week’s Chili Bowl as a Toyota Racing Development driver. Keith Kunz Motorsports has won the past five Chili Bowl titles, including the past three with Christopher Bell.

McIntosh, who grew up in the Tulsa, Oklahoma suburbs and has to only make a short drive to the site of the Chili Bowl, won his preliminary feature Monday night to earn his first berth in the Chili Bowl Nationals A main.

He can’t wait until Saturday night’s feature race.

“I’ve raced pretty much all the guys that are going to be in that feature,” McIntosh told NBC Sports. “I know what to expect, and I know what I’m going to have to bring to the table, racing against those guys.

“(Kyle) Larson and Bell are definitely going to be the ones to beat coming Saturday. I’ve raced them before and I know what to expect. I’m going to have to be on my game. No matter what happens, we did well, we made the feature. I’m just hoping we can put on a good show, let them know we were there to fight.”

Michigan Truck race results

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Zane Smith scored his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win, securing a playoff spot with a last-lap pass in double overtime Friday night at Michigan International Speedway.

Christian Eckes finished second and was followed by Tanner Gray, Tyler Ankrum and Todd Gilliland.

Click here for race results

Todd Gilliland stretched his lead to 29 points over Tyler Ankrum for the final playoff spot after Friday’s race. Gilliland gained seven points on Ankrum. Gilliland in 10th in the standings. He’s one point behind Derek Kraus. Austin Hill continues to lead the points.

Click here for driver points  

Zane Smith uses overtime charge to score first Truck win

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Zane Smith passed Christian Eckes on the last lap of double overtime to score his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race Friday night at Michigan International Speedway.

Eckes finished second. Tanner Gray placed third.

Smith is 21 years old, Eckes is 19 and Gray is 21.

MORE: Race results

“I wish I was here to celebrate with my parents and my girlfriend,” an emotional Smith told FS1 after the race.

Grant Enfinger led on the restart but came down from the top lane and came down on Austin Hill and John Hunter Nemechek and spun. That allowed Eckes to take the lead and put Smith third. Smith passed Gray for second in Turn 4 coming to the white flag.

Smith dived under Eckes in Turn 2 on the final lap and pulled away to win.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brett Moffitt

STAGE 2 WINNER: Johnny Sauter

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Zane Smith was eighth with three laps to go and went on to win and secure a playoff spot. … Christian Eckes finished second for the third consecutive race. … Tanner Gray finished a career-high third.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Johnny Sauter spun and hit the wall while racing teammate Grant Enfinger for the lead with 16 laps to go. Sauter entered the race 63 points out of the final playoff spot after a 10-point penalty for an inspection issue before the race. … Stewart Friesen was eliminated in a crash on Lap 50  after contact with Christian Eckes. Friesen finished last in the 39-truck field. … Chandler Smith was eliminated in a crash on Lap 60 after contact with Ben Rhodes. Smith finished 38th.

NOTABLE: The combined age of the top three finishers (61) was just short of the series record for the youngest three finishers. That record of 55 was set in  June 2016 at Iowa when William Byron (then 18), Cole Custer (then 18) and Cameron Hayley (then 19) went 1-2-3.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race on the Daytona road course, Sunday, Aug. 18 at Noon ET on FS1.

Brandon Brown wants to reward father with a special celebration

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A week after he begged his father to let him race a go-kart, the 9-year-old finished last and in tears. He complained that the loaned go-kart was not fast enough.

Jerry Brown saw a passion he had not seen from his son when Brandon played soccer, baseball or did any other activity. Jerry didn’t know much about racing but he bought a go-kart, beginning a father-son journey that took them to races across the country and all the way to the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

“It’s been my dad and I every single weekend since the age of nine,” Brandon Brown told NBC Sports.

It was that way until this year.

MORE: Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America: Start time, forecast, TV channel

Jerry attended this season’s first four Xfinity races before the COVID-19 pandemic paused the sport. Father and son were together in an Atlanta hotel in March when NASCAR announced it would not race there that weekend.

While much of the world stopped, Jerry’s life changed.

A simple procedure in April led to a cancer diagnosis. His routine now includes “aggressive” cancer treatments. Jerry, 60, isolates to avoid the coronavirus. If he were to be infected, his treatments would have to stop until he recovered from the virus.

Brandon, 27, admits his father’s condition was a key point in moving from Virginia, where the family resides, to the Mooresville, North Carolina area and being closer to the sport’s hub. Traveling each week to races, Brandon didn’t want to take the chance he could catch COVID-19 and infect his father. So it was better to be apart, something they’ve rarely been.

“It’s been quite the emotional roller coaster,” said Brandon, who talks with his father daily. “I haven’t really opened up to anyone … it’s a feeling of fear constantly just because I keep seeing posts about people that have passed away from (the coronavirus), people without health issues that are getting it and things are going bad.”

“Joy and the hugs”

Jerry Brown looks back to all those days driving to races with Brandon and the trips that also included wife Valorie and son William. Jerry says buying that first go-kart and getting into racing was the “best decision we ever made” because of the time spent with family.

Valorie Brown with son Brandon, husband Jerry and son William. (Photo: Brandon Brown)

“You actually get to be with your kids as they are growing up and doing what they love to do,” he told NBC Sports.

“The gleam that you get to see on their faces when they’re 10-11 years old and going out and competing against 20 karts and winning and the joy and the hugs you get to give right there, you just can’t beat that.”

It’s not just the good times that are memorable.

“You also got to be with them in the heartaches, when things didn’t go right,” Jerry said. “The first national race (Brandon) won, a plug in the carburetor had fallen out, so at post-tech we got disqualified. … It’s not the best memory, but it’s one of those things that when you’re a father, you want to be there for your sons for the good and the bad.”

As Brandon climbed from Late Models to the NASCAR Truck Series and then Xfinity Series, Jerry was there. The journey hasn’t been easy for Brandon, who last won a race in 2012 in Late Models. He went to college, graduating in 2018 from Coastal Carolina. He ran a partial schedule while in school with the family team, Brandonbilt Motorsports.

“When you’re here racing this type of competition, you’re not going to win when you are a part-timer,” Jerry said. “He understood that.”

Brandon ran his first full Xfinity Series season last year. Competing against organizations such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing and Kaulig Racing, is formidable for any team, let alone a family team with eight full-time employees.

Brown finished 15th in the points last year. He holds the final playoff spot entering Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America (noon ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App).

“I’m not going to give up,” Brandon said. “That was something my dad has preached to me, among other things, thousands and thousands of times over. When you get a goal, you put your mind to it and get it done. Do the important things first and goof off later. I heard that a lot growing up.

“His push, his drive, his sacrifice, his determination is kind of in the back of my mind pushing me the entire time. It’s one of those things where I don’t want to fail.”

Brandon Brown’s best finish in the Xfinity Series is sixth at Daytona in 2019. His best finish this year is seventh at Daytona and Bristol. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Shocking phone call

Jerry went to the doctor’s office April 7 to have a swollen lymph node checked.

The node had to be removed and tested. After the procedure, the doctor told Jerry that he didn’t think the lymph node was cancerous.

Tests confirmed it was.

“Getting that call was devastating,” Jerry said.

Then came a series of tests to find the source before treatment could be set. Doctors determined that Jerry needed proton treatment, which is a new type of radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

He has had treatments every weekday since July 13. When he talked to NBC Sports on Thursday, he had completed treatment 19 earlier in the day. Jerry is scheduled to have 33 treatments, the last one set for Aug. 26.

“The chemo knocks you out really bad,” he said.

A special celebration

As his father goes through treatment, Brown goes to the track, seeking to make the Xfinity playoffs for the first time.

He goes to Road America 32 points ahead of Jeremy Clements but Clements scored his lone Xfinity win at this track in 2017. Nine races remain before the playoffs, including one race on the Daytona oval, two races on road courses and three on short tracks. There are many obstacles between Brown and a playoff spot. 

Brandon Brown holds the final Xfinity Series playoff spot heading into Saturday’s race at Road America. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“We can’t afford to make mistakes,” he said. “Jeremy is an excellent road course racer and also he’s run very, very strong at the short tracks. Just as he is going to have to give 110%, we’re going to have to give 111% just to keep that points buffer.”

Brown has built that margin on Clements and those behind him with consistent finishes. Brown has placed between 10th and 13th in five of the last seven races.

“Our goal is to show up, run all the laps, stay clean, finish the race,” he said. “With that mindset, we push to be right there in the 10th, 11th, 12th mark. We want to be be there to capitalize on if top-tier programs have incidents or wreck out or whatever, we have the ability to take advantage of the situation.”

Brown’s best Xfinity finish is sixth in 70 starts. He’s scored four of his five career top-10 finishes this season. The closer he gets to the front, the closer he gets to his first NASCAR win. 

“I’ve said if we win a race and dad is not there, I think it would be a bittersweet moment,” he said. “It would feel so good to finally win again and also prove to myself that I’m supposed to be here. It does get a little defeating when you’re best is some of those guys’ OK races. It can get a little defeating, but it would feel so good to climb that hurdle.”

And if he wins soon, he admits the “trophy would not leave my sight … I will throw it in the front seat of my truck and I will drive my butt to Virginia and I will do donuts in the cul-de-sac and celebrate with dad there.”

Jerry can’t wait.

“That would be awesome.”

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Saturday Cup race at Michigan: Start time, TV channel, lineup

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The Cup Series is set to hold its second doubleheader weekend of the year as it journies to Michigan International Speedway.

A few weeks after holding back-to-back races at Pocono, the series does so on the 2-mile speedway.

Saturday sees the first race of the doubleheader, with Joey Logano starting from the pole.

Here’s all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Michigan:

(All times are Eastern)

START: WWE Superstar The Big Show will give the command to start engines at 4:08 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 9 a.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. by Father Geoff Rose, OSFS President St. Francis De Sales School in Toledo, Ohio. The national anthem will be performed by 12-time Grammy winner CeCe Winans at 4:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 156 laps (312 miles) around the 2-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 40. Stage 2 ends on Lap 85.

PACE LAP: At the direction of race control, NASCAR will run the entire field down pit road during one of the pace laps for pit road speed verification. If a car stops anywhere on pit road for any reason, the car will start at the rear of the field.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 3:30 p.m. and the race broadcast. Motor Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the link.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for mostly sunny skies with a high of 81 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski triumphed over Denny Hamlin to win at New Hampshire.

LAST RACE AT MICHIGAN: Kevin Harvick beat Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

STARTING LINEUP: Cup starting lineup Saturday at Michigan

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Joey Logano draws the pole for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan

Up to 8,000 fans approved to attend Southern 500

Silly Season Scorecard: Erik Jones splits with Joe Gibbs Racing

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief makes a simple request

Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after 2020

NASCAR announces new method for setting starting lineups

NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

Truck Series driver Spencer Davis tests positive for COVID-19

NASCAR announces remaining 2020 schedule

Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski remain 1-2

Chip Ganassi Racing makes crew chief change

Leavine Family Racing announces it has been sold

Greg Zipadelli to serve as Clint Bowyer’s interim crew chief

Brad Keselowski signs contract extension with Team Penske