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Friday 5: NASCAR’s decision to compete stands out among other sports

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UPDATE: NASCAR announced at 11:37 a.m. ET Friday that this weekend’s races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and next weekend’s races at Homestead-Miami Speedway have been postponed. No makeup dates have been set. 

MORE: President Trump to declare national emergency to combat coronavirus 

By the time the clock hit midnight, ending an unprecedented day and beginning a Friday the 13th, a new reality emerged because of COVID-19.

No NCAA Tournament. No Major League Baseball. No NBA. No NHL. No MLS. No Formula One race in Australia.

What was left? Primarily NASCAR and IndyCar.

While some NASCAR fans bristle at the notion that their sport be more similar to stick-and-ball sports, on this day, NASCAR was not.

With other sports postponing or canceling events, NASCAR announced plans to compete beginning today at Atlanta Motor Speedway with the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series. No fans will be allowed to attend. Same for IndyCar in St. Pete.

Thursday night, though, the NTT IndyCar Series announced that it had eliminated Friday’s two 45-minute practice sessions. Instead, the weekend will begin Saturday for that series. At the end of its release on the updated weekend schedule, IndyCar stated: “Due to the fluidity of the situation, more modifications may be forthcoming and will be announced at the appropriate time.”

Things can change. NASCAR’s statement Thursday announcing plans to race without fans started: “At this time …” and ended with: “We will work with public health officials as we determine future scheduling beyond these events.”

Plans remain for next weekend’s NASCAR races at Homestead-Miami Speedway to be held without fans.

But how much longer can this go? Or will this go? There are indications that other sports are prepared to be idle for weeks.

In a letter to fans Thursday night, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated: “This hiatus will last at least 30 days and we intend to resume the season, if and when, it becomes safe for. all concerned.”

Major League Baseball announced Thursday that it would delay the regular season “by at least two weeks due to the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic.” Opening day had been scheduled for March 26.

The NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournament, turning March Madness into March Sadness, and all spring sport championships, including some events that would not be held until after Memorial Day.

PGA Golf, which stated Thursday that The Players Championship would continue with no fans, reversed course and announced at 10 p.m. ET that it was canceling the event. That means every PGA Tour event is canceled up to the Masters, which is scheduled from April 9-12.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated Thursday that there were 1,215 total cases of COVID-19 (both confirmed and presumptive awaiting test results) in the United States with 36 deaths. The CDC stated that 42 states and the District of Columbia reported cases.

The CDC stated that Georgia, where NASCAR races this weekend, had reported 31 cases of COVID-19 (both confirmed and presumptive pending test results). Only Washington (366 cases), New York (217), California (175), Massachusetts (95) and Colorado (34) had more cases than Georgia.

Should NASCAR race this weekend and be one of the few sports to compete? To some sports-starved fans, NASCAR (and IndyCar) will be viewed as a hero for doing so. Others, though, may question both sports for holding an event during a pandemic.

Either way, today begins with NASCAR competitors scheduled to be on track at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

2. What’s next?

Once the NBA announced Wednesday night it was suspending its season because of COVID-19, momentum began to build for other sports to follow, leading to Thursday’s string of cancellations and postponements.

With NASCAR continuing, many questions remain. Beyond plans to race at Atlanta and Miami the next two weeks, then what?

Both Texas Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup race on March 29, and Bristol Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup race on April 5, issued statements via social media. Texas Motor Speedway’s statement noted that track officials are “closely monitoring facts and in frequent communications with public health officials. We are currently preparing to host our regularly scheduled events and will continue consulting with officials on best practices and recommendations.”

Bristol Motor Speedway stated Thursday that “there are no changes to our NASCAR race weekend April 2-5. Bristol Motor Speedway is working closely with our state and local health officials in preparation for our events.”

3. Bounty Race

With NASCAR stating it will race this weekend, the focus will turn to what is one of the most anticipated Truck Series races in years.

Kevin Harvick started the excitement by offering a $50,000 bonus for any Cup driver who could beat Kyle Busch in a Truck race. Marcus Lemonis, CEO of Gander RV and Outdoors, added another $50,000.

Busch has won his last seven Truck starts.

To collect the $100,000, a full-time Cup driver does not have to win. They only have to finish better than Busch but cannot do so by unfairly roughing him up. If more than one full-time Cup driver places ahead of Busch, the one who finishes highest wins all the money.

Cup regulars entered in Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta are Chase Elliott, John Hunter Nemechek and Brennan Poole.

But that bounty left Truck series regulars out. So, Halmar International and truck owner Chris Larsen are putting up a $50,000 bounty for any Truck series regular.

To collect the $50,000 from Larsen, a Truck series regular needs to win the race. Also, Busch must be running at the finish. The bounty is for Atlanta but would continue to Busch’s next race, Homestead, if he wins.

Should Busch win at Atlanta, Larsen and Hal-mar will donate $25,000 to the Bundle of Joy fund, which is a part of the Kyle Busch Foundation and provides funds for families struggling to conceive.

4. Ready to collect

Although Johnny Sauter could collect a $50,000 bonus for beating Kyle Busch and winning Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he’s not focused on the bounty.

Johnny Sauter has finished second, third and third in his last three Atlanta Truck races. (Photo by Adrian Garcia/Getty Images)

“There’s no greater thing in the world or feeling,” Sauter told NBC Sports of winning. “Even though I’ve been fortunate enough to win a lot of races, it never gets old. … That’s what we do this for, at least that’s what I do it for. It’s not for bounty money or anything else. Winning races is awesome. So when you have trucks that are capable of doing it, especially where we’re at right now, I feel like we’re going to win quite a few races this year.”

Sauter, the 2016 Truck champion, has finished no worse than third in the last three Truck races at Atlanta. He’s also off to a strong start this season, placing seventh at Daytona and second to Busch at Las Vegas.

While there will be plenty of attention on Busch, Sauter doesn’t focus on such things.

“It’s just another person to beat,” Sauter said. “There’s no question that Kyle brings his ‘A’ game, not only with himself but with the program and the whole deal. A lot of people, I think, it bothers them that he runs in the Truck Series. Me personally, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. I know why he does it, and I think it’s good for his business and his company to run the Truck Series personally.

“When I look at him, he’s beatable. We’ve beaten him before. There’s no question to beat him you’re going to have to have everything going the way it needs to go. But at the end of the day when you do beat him, it feels good, but I like beating everybody.”

If not Sauter, another candidate among the Truck Series regulars to beat Busch would be 2018 champion Brett Moffitt.

Moffitt won at Atlanta in 2018 — the last time a Truck Series regular won there (Busch won last year’s truck race there).

Brett Moffitt won the 2018 Atlanta Truck race. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“To have a shot for us to go win 50 grand from Chris Larsen, I think that makes it all the more exciting,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “I think it’s kind of Chris Larsen’s way of saying our guys are talented too … that they can run with any of the Cup guys that come down here.

“Obviously we haven’t done a good job of that in the last seven races that Kyle has been in, but I feel it can be done.

“I have confidence that we can beat him on the right day. With his talent and the amount of effort he puts into his organization at KBM, that Toyota helps him out with, it’s a tough combination to beat. He’s proven that.

“I think it can be done. I’ve had a few races over the last couple of years with him where I feel like if things would have fallen a little differently, I would have a shot at it, but I’m sure many others have felt the same way. We have yet to deliver on it and I understand that. We’ll just keep putting our best foot forward and go after it.”

5. Streakin’

Brad Keselowski has finished no worse than second in the last three Atlanta Cup races. He won in 2017, finished second in 2018 and won again last year.

Team Penske already has won two races this season with Joey Logano at Las Vegas and Phoenix. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney has had among the best cars in three of the first four races. Could it be Keselowski’s time to shine this weekend?

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eNASCAR Pro Invitational Qualifier to be streamed online

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The qualifying race for Sunday’s eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series event at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway will be streamed on enascar.com/live, NASCAR announced.

The qualifier features Xfinity, Truck and regional series drivers looking to advance to the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race that will be at 1 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox, FS1 and the Fox Sports App. At this time, four drivers from the qualifier will advance. That number could change depending on any late additions or drops to the race featuring Cup drivers.

MORE: Roush, Greg Biffle reunite for eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race

MORE: North Wilkesboro to make its comeback on iRacing 

MORE: eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series reminds Clint Bowyer of being a rookie

The qualifier is scheduled to take place at 11:02 a.m. ET and have 34 drivers battling for those four transfer spots.

The qualifier will be 30 laps at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway. The race will have no cautions.

Practice begins at 10:30 a.m. ET. Qualifying begins at 10:55 a.m., lasting five minutes, followed by the race.

Last week, six drivers advanced from the qualifier to the main event. They were: Anthony Alfredo, Justin Allgaier, Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Ty Majeski and Ryan Truex.

Drivers scheduled to compete in Sunday’s qualifier at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway are (with car number):

02 – Spencer Boyd

7 – Justin Allgaier

08 – Jeb Burton

15 – Brennan Poole

16 – Justin Haley

22 – Austin Cindric

23 – Sam Mayer

26 – Tyler Ankrum

27 – Ruben Garcia

29  – Kaz Grala

29a – Trevor Bayne

33 – Anthony Alfredo

35 – Todd Gilliland

36 – Jesse Iwuji

40 – Ryan Truex

45 – Ty Majeski

46 – Chandler Smith

50 – Jeffrey Earnhardt

52 – Stewart Friesen

53 – Joey Gase

54 – Kyle Weatherman

63 – Scott Stenzel

68 – Brandon Brown

74 – Sheldon Creed

78 – Ryan Ellis

80 – Joe Graf Jr.

81 – Christian Eckes

90 – Alex Labbe

93 – Myatt Snider

98 – Chase Briscoe

99 – Harrison Burton

TBD – Derek Kraus

TBD – Drew Dollar

TBD – JJ Yeley

March 28 in NASCAR history: Texas Terry Labonte gets a home win

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Terry Labonte’s last two Cup Series wins were anything but forgettable.

The last one, in 2003, came in the Southern 500. That was the same race he earned his first Cup win in way back in 1980.

But four years earlier, the two-time champion got a home win.

A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, the driver nicknamed “Texas Terry” claimed a victory in the 1999 race at Texas Motor Speedway. It was just the third Cup race held at the facility after it opened in 1997.

Labonte started fourth and would lead 124 of 334 laps around the 1.5-mile track, including the final 12 after he passed Dale Jarrett on the outside going into Turn 1 for the lead.

Jarrett wouldn’t get a chance to fight for the lead again. With four laps to go, Jimmy Spencer crashed on the frontstretch to bring out the caution. Labonte took the checkered and yellow flags together for his 21st Cup win.

“We picked places to go test this year and I said ‘I want to go here cause this is a race I want to win,” Labonte told CBS. “Besides Daytona, coming here to Texas is awesome.”

Making the day even better for the Labonte family was Terry’s younger brother, Bobby, placing third.

Also on this day:

1954: The premier series held two races on different sides of the country. Dick Rathmann won a 125-mile race at Oakland Speedway in California after starting last. In Georgia, Al Keller won his first career race at Savannah’s Oglethorpe Speedway.

1982: Sam Ard claimed his first career Xfinity Series win in a race at Martinsville Speedway. Ard would go on to win 22 Xfinity races and the championships in 1983 and 1984.

1992: Robert Pressley passed Harry Gant on the last lap to win the Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.

1993: Dale Earnhardt came back from a lap down to win at Darlington Raceway. It was his first win since the Coca-Cola 600 10 months earlier. Alan Kulwicki finished sixth in what would be his last race before his death in a plane crash on April 1.

2004: Kurt Busch won at Bristol for his third consecutive victory on the half-mile track.

Roush, Biffle reunite for eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race

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After four years, Roush Fenway Racing and Greg Biffle are getting the band back together … digitally.

Roush Fenway Racing announced its former driver will compete in Sunday’s eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series event on a digital Texas Motor Speedway.

Like he did in the Cup Series from 2003-2016, Biffle will pilot a No. 16 Ford in the race (1 p.m. ET on Fox and FS1).

“How exciting is it to get back behind the wheel of the No. 16,” Biffle said in a press release. “I watched the iRace last week on TV and I was really impressed with the overall quality of the broadcast and the racing. It was just a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to being a part of the show this weekend.

“We are running a really cool Castrol scheme on the car. I think it’s going to show up really well. My plan is to log a ton of practice time leading up to the race, so hopefully we can have a strong showing and you’ll see a lot of the Castrol green and red on the broadcast.”

This will be Biffle’s iRacing event debut.

After parting ways with Roush Fenway Racing after the 2016 season, Biffle returned to NASCAR last year for a one-off Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway with Kyle Busch Motorsports, which he won.

NASCAR teams impacted by North Carolina stay at home order

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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced a stay at home order for the entire state of North Carolina, beginning at 5 p.m. ET Monday because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The order is for 30 days.

The move impacts all NASCAR teams based in North Carolina.

“These are tough directives, but I need you to take them seriously,” Gov. Cooper said in afternoon news briefing.

MORE: N.C. Governor enlists Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson for COVID-19 PSA

MORE: North Carolina stay at home order

The order bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to stay at least six feet away from each other. The order requires all residents to stay at home except for essential activities. The order states: “non-essential business and operations must cease.”

The order also states that among the definitions for an essential business and operation is “Businesses that meet Social Distancing Requirements. Businesses, not-for-profit organizations or educational institutions that conduct operations while maintaining Social Distancing Requirements:

a. Between and among its employees; and

b. Between and among employees and customers except at the point of sale or purchase.”

Mecklenburg County and Cabarrus County, which are home to such race teams as Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing, were already under a stay at home order through April 16.

By the end of the week, more than 20 states will have issued stay at home orders, including California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Ohio.