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Friday 5: iRacing gives Cup rookie feel of the real thing and more

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Strapping into a Cup car to begin a race? No problem for rookie Christopher Bell.

But competing in an iRacing event in the comfort of his home?

Well …

“For whatever reason, I get more nervous whenever I’m racing on my computer than I do in real life,” Bell told NBC Sports. “I’ll be up there sweating and death gripping the steering wheel. … Whenever you get into a real race car it’s more off of reactions and instincts. You’re just kind of along for the ride.

“But, man, for whatever reason, basically everybody I’ve talked to said the same thing. You get more nervous on the computer than you do in real life.”

Understand that Bell has been racing on a computer for a decade or so. He also helped develop iRacing’s sprint car and dirt track racing, which debuted in 2017.

Bell’s nerves will return Sunday for the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, which debuts at 1:30 p.m. ET. on FS1 and feature drivers from the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series racing at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The multi-week Pro Invitational Series will feature Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Bell, among others.

“I’m just excited to see who all is going to participate in it,” Bell said. “It’s really cool to see how far this deal has come. It’s going to be a lot of fun to have something to race on Sunday.”

iRacing has become a haven for competitors and fans with NASCAR racing postponed through the May 3 Cup event at Dover International Speedway because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bell also is working on his World of Outlaws sprint car in his free time. He partnered with Chad Boat last year on a sprint car team and won in October at Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt, Indiana. There’s plenty of work to do on the car.

“We had it stripped from last year,” Bell said. “Our first race wasn’t scheduled until April 16 I think. Now that everyone has got a little bit of time off, we’re just trying to get it ready. If there are some races in the foreseeable future, we’ll go do them.”

Bell admits this break seems like another offseason but the difference is that he raced this past offseason in New Zealand and the Chili Bowl.

“It’s very strange not having anything to go race,” he said. “That’s a really big advantage of having iRacing right now and being active in it. You’re able to, obviously not feel the race car itself, but you are getting every other cue, all the visuals, all the reaction time. It’s real racing and it’s a lot of fun, too.”

2. A plan to help others

The coronavirus has put nursing homes and assisted living centers throughout the country on a virtual lockdown, preventing residents from having visitors because older adults are at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

As Jon Wood, senior vice president of Wood Brothers Racing, talked this week to his mother, who oversees marketing for a pair of assisted living centers in Stuart, Virginia, the question arose of what could be done for those residents.

Wood recalled watching the MSNBC show “Lockup” that goes behind the scenes at prisons. He remembered seeing how video conferencing took place between visitors and inmates to keep them separate. Wood thought the same concept could be done at assisted living centers and nursing homes to protect older adults.

Then it became a matter of purchasing enough tablets that could be used for the video conferencing. Wood Brothers Racing donated $1,500 and Wood put out a request on social media for $10 donations through the team’s website. Donations were done through the team’s store so Wood could have the address information for each donor to send thank you notes signed by Matt DiBenedetto.

Wood set a modest goal of a few hundred dollars in donations and has been overwhelmed at the response.

As of Thursday afternoon, Wood said $31,000 in donations had been made, allowing him to purchase about 200 tablets for nursing homes and assisted living centers.

“Every little $10 donation has added up and it’s crazy how it has exploded,” Wood told NBC Sports.

Wood was at a nursing home Thursday in Stuart as a person outside the building used one of the tablets to speak to a resident inside, who was communicating on another tablet.

“I’ll be honest,” Wood said, “the whole time I was nervous, hoping it would work.”

It did.

Now he’s getting requests from other retirement homes and assisted living centers for tablets to help their residents connect to family and friends.

Wood’s work isn’t done. Donations can continue to be made on the team’s website. For every $150, another tablet will be purchased.

“There’s no reason to stop,” Wood said. “I’ve got plenty of thank you notes.”

3. Challenges ahead

NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ comment this week that the sanctioning body intends to run all the Cup races this season and wants to reschedule the postponed races before the playoffs, has some crew chiefs pondering what things could be like this summer.

Providing NASCAR returns May 9 at Martinsville, that would leave 17 weekends to run 22 races and the All-Star Race. There are only two off weekends during that stretch (July 26 and August 2).

To run all those races before the playoffs means that NASCAR will have to do some creative scheduling, whether that is additional doubleheader weekends and/or mid-week races.

What seems certain is an increased workload on teams, particularly crew members who are traveling to each race.

Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott at Hendrick Motorsports, said he’s already pondered such scenarios.

“We’ve looked at all that and that’s going to be a huge logistical challenge,” Gustafson told NBC Sports. “I don’t know what the schedule is going to be but it’s certainly going to be difficult. The first thing that kind of comes to my mind is that the road crew is basically going to be removed from assisting any preparation in the shop, especially if you are racing on Wednesdays or you are racing two races in a row or you’re going to be traveling for an extended period of time.

“They’re not going to be able to assist in the production of the cars. It’s all going to fall back on the shop and it’s going to be extremely important for those guys to be able to carry that load, which our shop has done a fabulous job this year. Logistically, it’s going to be very, very difficult. It’s going to be tough to manage that.”

For as challenging as it could be for an organization such as Hendrick Motorsports, the task will be even greater for a smaller team such as Go Fas Racing, which has about 20 employees.

Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie and the No. 32 team said his team could face challenges if NASCAR does run all the postponed races before the playoffs. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“Even working ahead and being prepared, I see a lot of sleepless nights in the near future,” said Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie at Go Fas Racing. “I live for it man. I could give up sleep to go racing. I’m all good for it.”

Even more responsibility will be on LaJoie to do all he can to avoid an accident. Repairing cars will only add to the team’s workload during that time.

“The biggest thing that will help us is coming out of the race weekends clean,” Sparks told NBC Sports. “Not making any mistakes on the race track and tearing up a car where we can turn it around quickly and go to the next track if needed.”

Sparks said employees are working in the shop while keeping a safe distance to prepare cars for the coming races and for what could be a busy summer of racing.

“Being small and still being able to come to work and work ahead and be prepared is key in this moment,” he said. “If they just sprung it upon us at the last minute, we would really struggle.”

Sparks said while bigger teams will put new bodies on cars to run at other tracks, that isn’t always an option for his team. 

“That’s not going to take us to the next level,” he said of all that extra work with a small crew. “It’s just going to put us further behind. As long as we have a good, solid intermediate product, that’s what we’re going to take to each intermediate track where the bigger teams have track-specific cars.”

4. Work still to do

Although some race shops are closed and NASCAR has banned testing not related to the development of the Next Gen car, there’s still work for teams.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson says he and his engineers are examining areas that can improve the performance of Chase Elliott’s cars.

Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson are in their fifth Cup season working together. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“The rules this year are much more stringent than they’ve been in the past, we’re having to certify a lot of the components,” Gustafson said, referring to NASCAR’s freeze on many new parts for this season with the Next Gen car set to debut next season. “There’s not just a whole lot of places to go and find performance. I expect things to be similar when it restarts, but I think that’s certainly just an educated guess on my part.”

If so, that will be a good sign for Elliott fans. Elliott won three stages in the first four races.

But that’s not stopping Gustafson and his engineers, who are working from home, from trying to find any area to make the cars better.

“It’s very much like the offseason to me,” Gustafson said of the break in racing until at least May. “You know what you feel like you need to improve and you’re trying to mine as much as you possibly can. Then at the same time you have to be a little bit careful and say, ‘Hey I can’t get too caught up in these things because I’m assuming this is better and I don’t want to go down this road and ultimately be worse.’ It is much like a research and development phrase and you’re trying to be prepared.”

One of the advantages of working at home during this pause in the sport is it allows Gustafson to continue healing from the mountain bike accident he suffered last month while in Fontana, California for the race at Auto Club Speedway. Gustafson suffered a torn AC joint in his right shoulder and a hairline fracture in his right clavicle.

“It’s been more convenient for me to stay off of it,” he said. “Right now, I’ve just been in the phase of basically not doing a whole lot of (physical therapy). It’s just basically rebuilding the ligaments.”

5. Long, strange ride

Daniel Suarez and his girlfriend made it to California on Thursday, driving across the country to retrieve a 1963 VW double cab bus he found online and purchased.

Suarez’s first car was a VW Beetle and that has fostered a lifelong love of the make and hunt for such cars to restore.

He recently found the 1963 VW double cab bus, which he said was in good condition, having had only two owners and having been parked since 1982.

Suarez told NBC Sports that he originally joked with his girlfriend about driving out to California to get the vehicle but when she said yes, the trip was on.

Much has changed since they hit the road. When they first left North Carolina, restaurants were still serving people inside. Now, they’re only open for take out or the drive-thru lane. That has meant many meals in his truck. Suarez also said seeing cities vacant has been stunning.

“I’ve been surprised in many different places how different it is,” Suarez said. “We made this decision because we knew we were going to be safe staying away from everyone and just being in the (truck) for many hours.

“We just spent the night in Las Vegas, it was one of the most crazy things I’ve seen in my life. The whole Las Vegas is empty. It’s almost like a movie. It’s very, very incredible. We walked into a hotel and the hotel casino was empty. We got lucky that we got a room. Last night was the last night they were actually offering rooms (with Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak closing all nonessential business for 30 days to stem the spread of COVID-19). It’s extremely, extremely strange. We’ve just been trying to take care of ourselves.”

While on the trip, Suarez and his girlfriend have had a chance to visit some sites, such as Monument Valley, which is located on the Arizona and Utah border, and Horseshoe Bend in Arizona.

“I’m a big outdoor person and Julia is the same way,” Suarez said. “We’ve been talking about a road trip for like a year but with the racing schedule it’s almost impossible to do something like this without being in a hurry.

“Fortunately for us, some of the places that we have visited like Monument Valley and Horseshoe Bend, they’ve been open but they’ve been almost empty, which has been good for us because we’ve never been in those places before and we’ve been able to explore those places.”

Suarez and his girlfriend begin their journey back to North Carolina towing his VW bus today.

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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

Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP
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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.