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Friday 5: Key storylines entering Daytona Speedweeks

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Eighty-three days after Kyle Busch celebrated his second Cup championship, the garage opens today at Daytona International Speedway.

And with it will be the sense of renewal and unbridled optimism that often pervades during the offseason and Daytona Speedweeks.

Such feelings are evident in drivers who think this is their year to win the Daytona 500 and with smaller teams that count on the race’s big payday to help fund their operations for the coming weeks. Hope also will be strong with those among the many driver and crew chief changes made since last year.

With all the good feelings entering Daytona Speedweeks, here are five storylines to watch:

1. When will Kyle Busch’s Daytona 500 drought end?

While Kyle Busch has won a summer Cup race at Daytona, three qualifying races, a Busch Clash, a summer Xfinity race, a Truck race, and an ARCA race, he’s never won the Daytona 500 in 14 previous attempts.

The closest Busch has come to winning the season-opening race was last year when he placed second to Denny Hamlin as part of a 1-2-3 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing that included Erik Jones finishing third.

David Pearson celebrates winning the 1976 Daytona 500 after a last-lap crash with Richard Petty.(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

If it is any solace for Busch and his fans, Hall of Famer David Pearson didn’t win his lone Daytona 500 until his 15th attempt.

Others who needed more years before winning their first Daytona 500 were: Kurt Busch (in his 16th start), Darrell Waltrip (17th start), Buddy Baker (18th start) and Dale Earnhardt (20th start).

Of course, some Hall of Fame drivers never won a Daytona 500. Mark Martin failed to win the race in 29 starts. Rusty Wallace didn’t win in 23 starts. Tony Stewart, inducted into the Hall of Fame last weekend in a class that included Baker, did not win the Daytona 500 in 17 starts.

With Toyota the presumptive favorite again this season — based on few rule changes and Toyota’s 19 wins in 36 points races last year — will this be the year that Busch wins the Daytona 500?

2. Putting the puzzle together

Car owner Roger Penske shocked many by jumbling his driver/crew chief lineup after his organization won six races and placed all three drivers in the top eight in points.

But as Brad Keselowski recently said: “We want to be great. We want to win championships. You’ve got to recognize that winning races is still a significant accomplishment in this sport. It’s great competition week in and week out, so winning is good but also emphasize that greatness is the championship. We didn’t win it. It means we’ve got work to do.”

Todd Gordon (left) will serve as Ryan Blaney‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Daytona marks the debut of the new combinations. Keselowski is paired with crew chief Jeremy Bullins. Joey Logano is teamed with crew chief Paul Wolfe, who led Keselowski to a championship in 2012. Ryan Blaney is working with Todd Gordon, who guided Logano to the Cup title in 2018.

Other new pairings to watch include Martin Truex Jr. and James Small, who takes over with Cole Pearn leaving the sport, and Chris Buescher and Luke Lambert, who both come to Roush Fenway Racing from other teams.

Crew chief strategy often is limited at Daytona because of the need for cars within the same manufacturer to work together (i.e. pit at the same time), but Speedweeks can be valuable for new driver/crew chief pairings with communication. After Daytona, Cup teams race seven consecutive weekends before the Easter break in April. If the communication falters, the results may not be as good.

3. Will the chaos continue?

Last year’s Daytona 500 saw 36 of the 40 cars involved in a crash, according to NASCAR’s race report (Racing Insights, which supplies statistics to NBC Sports, had 37 cars involved in accidents).

“It’s incredible to me how many times we were able to crash in the last 10 laps,” Jamie McMurray said after last year’s race, his final Cup start.

“Brains come unglued,” Kyle Busch said after last year’s race. “That’s all it is.”

Just a portion of the chaos in last year’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

There were three cautions, including two red flags totaling nearly 40 minutes, in the last 17 laps. Those incidents collected 29 cars and forced the race to go seven laps beyond the scheduled distance.

Such destruction has become a trend. The past three Daytona 500s have seen an average of 32 cars involved in accidents. 

Last year’s Daytona Speedweeks was especially tough on Cup car owners. A total of 60 cars were involved in accidents in practices, qualifying races, the Busch Clash and the Daytona 500. That was an increase of 16.7% from the previous Daytona Speedweeks.

As another Speedweeks begins, key questions are how many cars will be damaged, how will that impact teams and who can emerge from the chaos to win?

4. Who steps up in this pivotal contract year?

Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski are among the drivers in the final year of their contract this season.

Who will drive this car in 2021? (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

What better way to have some leverage at the bargaining table then to be the reigning Daytona 500 champ?

Silly season could be frenzied with several drivers, including Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Clint Bowyer, among those in the last year of their contracts. A strong start could build momentum over the next several weeks and help drivers remain in their current spot or find a tantalizing ride elsewhere.

One thing is for certain, the No. 48 is open next year with Jimmie Johnson set to step away from full-time Cup racing after this season. 

5. Hailie Deegan’s Daytona debut

The 18-year-old makes her debut on Daytona International Speedway’s oval with today’s ARCA practice sessions. Of course, she was on track a couple of weeks ago in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race.

Hailie Deegan will compete in her first race on Daytona’s oval this weekend. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Deegan left Toyota’s development program for Ford in the offseason and will drive full-time in the ARCA Series for DGR-Crosley. She won three races in what was called K&N Pro Series West over the past two years.

Deegan’s move to ARCA will be watched closely at Daytona and throughout the season. She has the best funding and resources among any female drivers in NASCAR.

Some may view her as the next Danica Patrick but Deegan and her family are wanting to take a more measured approach to moving up the NASCAR ladder.

Deegan understands what’s at stake. She said last month during sports car testing at Daytona that “this is the year that’s very important and crucial to my career because it decides contracts for years out with sponsors getting behind you for the higher levels.”

It all starts this weekend for her.

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NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge continues at 7 pm ET on NBCSN

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After its debut Monday night, the iRacing component of Racing Week in America on NBCSN continues tonight at 7 p.m. ET.

The NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge began on a virtual Rockingham Speedway, with William Byron sweeping the two heat races and Kyle Busch receiving the Peacock Provisional from Steve Letarte.

The next round of the challenge will be held on a virtual Lucas Oil Raceway, a 0.686-mile track located outside Indianapolis that hosted the Xfinity Series from 1982-2011 and the Truck Series from 1995-2011.

Wednesday night’s races will be at a virtual Myrtle Beach Speedway.

The winners of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night’s races will advance to the championship round, Thursday night on a virtual Martinsville Speedway.

Here is the driver lineup for the remaining nights:

Tuesday at Lucas Oil Raceway: Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe, Harrison Burton, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Wednesday at Myrtle Beach Speedway: Landon Cassill, Matt DiBenedetto, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Timmy Hill, Ryan Preece and Myatt Snider.

How NASCAR tracks are helping during COVID-19 pandemic

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With COVID-19 pandemic continuing to take a toll on the world, more NASCAR tracks are stepping up to help out local communities in their time of need.

They join Charlotte Motor Speedway, which became the first professional sports facility in the country to host a COVID-19 test site starting last month, while Eldora Speedway in Ohio donated almost 3,000 face masks to its surrounding commmunity.

Here’s a look at tracks that are helping out:

Atlanta Motor Speedway

The track in Hampton, Georgia, has announced an American Red Cross blood drive on May 4.

The drive will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET in Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Tara Ballroom, located within the AMS Condo Building at 1500 Tara Place.

To ensure all participants have the opportunity to donate upon arrival, donations for the blood drive will be done by appointment only.

Red Cross employees have implemented additional precautions to ensure blood drives and donation centers are safe for donors and staff and reduce potential exposure to COVID-19.

To make an appointment use the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visit RedCrossBlood.org or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).

Each donor will receive a discount coupon to the AMS Gift Shop and photos with the AMS pace car. To prepare to give blood, the Red Cross recommends donors eat iron-rich meals and drink plenty of water. A photo ID will also be needed upon arrival.

To donate please visit RedCrossBlood.org and enter sponsor code “atlantaspeedway” and choose the donation time that works best for you.

Martinsville Speedway

Starting Wednesday, Martinsville Speedway in Virginia will be a COVID-19 test site.

The site will be open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 12-4 p.m. ET.

Individuals to be tested must be a resident of Martinsville City, Henry County, or Patrick County.

They will not be admitted to the testing site unless it has received proper documentation from a physician.

Click here for more.

Talladega Superspeedway

The track in Alabama will host a by-appointment blood drive on Wednesday from noon to 6 p.m. ET.

It will take place at the the International Motorsports Hall of Fame’s Fox Sports 1 dome, which is outside the entrance of the track.

These are the precautions that are being taken according to the St. Clair News-Aegis:

  • All individuals will have their temperatures taken before entering the blood drive, including staff and volunteers
  • Additional spacing between beds and stations that go above social distancing guidelines
  • No more than 15 people will be allowed in the venue at a time (includes donors, staff & volunteers)
  • Reinforcing existing and introducing new safety protocols including wearing gloves, routinely wiping down donor-touched areas, using sterile collection sets for every donation, and preparing the arm for donation with an aseptic scrub
  • Having hand sanitizer available

To make an appointment to donate, download the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visit RedCrossBlood.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) sponsor code: TALLADEGA.

Texas Motor Speedway

The track in North Texas hosted a blood drive last week that collected 32 pints of blood from more than 30 donors, an amount that can help up to 96 patients.

Homestead-Miami Speedway

As a result of a $40,000 donation made because of its eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race a few weeks ago, the track was able to distribute food and supplies to 1,000 families in its community through Farm Share.

Jeff Burton, Dale Jr., Carl Edwards on NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot for 2021

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NASCAR on NBC analysts Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. head a list of five newcomers nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which has revamped its balloting process for the 2021 class.

Carl Edwards, Jake Elder and Banjo Matthews also are first-time nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is splitting its ballot into three categories this year: Modern, Pioneer and Landmark.

Burton and Earnhardt both had winning careers in NASCAR’s top series before entering the broadcast booth.

MORE: Dale Jr. Pondered Hall Nomination in January

Burton, who was nicknamed “The Mayor” by former teammate Clint Bowyer because of his ambassadorial and leadership skills, has 21 Cup victories, including the 1999 Southern 500 and two Coca-Cola 600s (1999, ’01). The South Boston, Virginia, native also has 27 Xfinity Series victories.

Earnhardt, who was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 15 times by fans, has 26 Cup victories (including the 2004 and ’14 Daytona 500s). He won consecutive Xfinity Series championships in 1998-99.

Edwards had 28 Cup victories and two runner-up points finishes in a full-time career from 2005-16. He also won the 2007 Xfinity Series championship before making the stunning decision to retire at 37 more than three years ago.

Among other notables: crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine returns after being left off the 2020 ballot, and Janet Guthrie is back on the Landmark ballot after a one-year absence.

Sam Ard, Ray Fox, John Holman, Marvin Panch, Jim Paschal and Red Vogt fell off the 2021 ballot after being nominated last year.

Under a new structure announced by NASCAR in February, there will be two entries chosen from 10 Modern candidates, one entry apiece from five candidates in the Pioneer and Landmark categories. Modern candidates are eligible to be on the ballot 10 times (which is retroactive to the start of the Hall of Fame vote in 2009).

There is no limit to the eligibility for the Pioneer and Landmark awards. Competitors are eligible for the Modern ballot if their careers started within the last 60 years; Pioneer if their careers began prior to 60 years ago.

Modern era driver and crew chief nominees must have competed in NASCAR for 10 years and have been retired for two. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart were elected the past two years in their first year of eligibility. Earnhardt became eligible this year.

Next year, 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth will be eligible for the first time.

Last year, the NASCAR Hall of Fame inducted Stewart, Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte, Buddy Baker and Waddell Wilson.

Voting for the NASCAR Hall of Fame usually happens on the Wednesday before the Coca-Cola 600. A NASCAR spokesman told NBCSports.com that there was no update on when the 2021 Voting Day would be scheduled or whether it would be held virtually.

In the first 11 classes of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the top five vote-getters were inducted annually from a nominee list that initially was 25 and was shortened to 20 since the 2015 class.

Here is the ballot for the 2021 class:

Modern era (10): Neil Bonnett, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Harry Gant, Harry Hyde, Larry Phillips, Ricky Rudd, Kirk Shelmerdine and Mike Stefanik.

Pioneer (5): Jake Elder, Red Farmer, Banjo Matthews, Hershel McGriff and Ralph Moody.

Landmark (5): Janet Guthrie, Alvin Hawkins, Mike Helton, Dr. Joseph Mattioli, Ralph Seagraves.

Here is the breakdown of how the ballot from 2021 differs from last year’s ballot and here is a Twitter thread that helps explain the changes to the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting process:

On the 2020 ballot, not on 2021: Sam Ard (once on ballot, 2020); Ray Fox (eight years on ballot, 2013-20); John Holman (two years on ballot, 20019-20); Marvin Panch (once on ballot, 2020); Jim Paschal (once on ballot, 2020); Red Vogt (once on ballot, 2020).

On the 2021 ballot, not on 2020: In the Modern category, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Kirk Shelmerdine (returning after being on the 2019 ballot). In the Pioneer category, Jake Elder and Banjo Matthews.

Modern carryovers from the 2020 to the 2021 ballot (with remaining ballot eligibility): In the modern category, Neil Bonnett (eligible for nine more appearances after being on 2020 ballot); Harry Gant (eligible for eight more appearances after being on 2019-20 ballots); Harry Hyde (eligible for five more appearances after being on 2016-2020 ballots); Larry Phillips (eligible for two more appearances after being on 2013-2020 ballots); Ricky Rudd (eligible for six more appearances after being on 2017-2020 ballots); Mike Stefanik (eligible for four more appearances after being on 2015-2020 ballots)

–Pioneer carryovers (no limit on ballot eligibility): Red Farmer; Hershel McGriff; Ralph Moody.

–Landmark carryovers (no limit on ballot eligibility): Alvin Hawkins; Mike Helton; Doc Mattioli; Ralph Seagraves

–Landmark returnee: Janet Guthrie (absent from 2020 ballot)

Twists and Turns Tuesday takes center stage on NBCSN

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The 2018 debut of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval was among the most anticipated races in years and delivered in ways few could have imagined.

Relive all the excitement and energy again as NBCSN airs that race at 8 p.m. ET today as part of Twists and Turns Tuesday during Racing Week in America.

Ryan Blaney‘s victory in the inaugural Cup race at the Roval was just a small part of a dramatic last lap that saw Jimmie Johnson make contact with Martin Truex Jr. on the final corner while racing for the lead and Kyle Larson‘s remarkable wall-banging last lap to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

That’s just a part of Twists and Turns Tuesday.

From city streets to massive dirt jumps, NBCSN will showcase the best twists and turns that motorsports have to offer starting at 1 p.m. ET. Twists and Turns Tuesday includes a return to IndyCar Victory Lane for NBC Sports’ own James Hinchcliffe at iconic Long Beach; and the closest finish in Supercross history from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Here is today’s schedule:

COVERAGE TIME (ET) NETWORK
IMSA – Long Beach 2019 1 p.m. NBCSN
INDYCAR – Long Beach 2017 3 p.m. NBCSN
NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge – Lucas Oil Raceway 7 p.m. NBCSN
NASCAR – Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL 2018 8 p.m. NBCSN
NASCAR – Watkins Glen 2017 10 p.m. NBCSN
Supercross – Arlington 2019 12 a.m. NBCSN
Monster Jam World Finals 2019 2 a.m. NBCSN