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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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Stage points crucial at Las Vegas in Round of 12

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Former champion Brad Keselowski views Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) as the “second most important” to win during the season after the championship race, “because these next two weeks are very difficult to prepare for.”

What’s so difficult about the two races after Las Vegas?

Two-thirds of the Round of 12 are made up of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval: a superspeedway known for its wild multi-car wrecks and a road course that can prove unpredictable.

“The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is the playoff bonus points and winning in Vegas,” Keselowski said. “The best thing we can do to control our own destiny is to go win Vegas and then Talladega just becomes what it is. It’s the same thing with the Roval, so we’re hopeful to just kind of not have to worry about it that way by scoring a win. If we’re not able to do that, I’d like to get a few more playoff bonus points with stages for those races and that would help a bunch, but, certainly, this round presents a lot of challenges for us.”

If anyone knows the importance of winning early in a round, it’s Keselowski. His victory two weeks ago at Richmond benefitted him in the cutoff race a Bristol when power steering issues resulted in a 34th-place finish.

Chase Elliott, who has won at both Talladega and the Roval in previous seasons, has a similar view to Keselowski.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver said “we would be messing up to already be looking ahead to Talladega,” later adding, “the way I kind of look at it is I’m probably going to crash – I think that’s just the odds.”

Were everything to go right for a driver, they can earn up to 20 stage points in the first two stages of a race.

“So, I think everybody knows how important stages are and what they can mean, especially stage wins,” Elliott said. “Getting that extra bonus point is a huge thing, too. I think everybody knows that and that’s certainly a game that’s been played. I don’t know that it was as much played that very first year that we had (playoff and stage points), but really ever since that first year, I think it has been known and everybody really gets that. And it’s just gotten more and more aggressive.”

Focusing on Vegas is key for Elliott because it’s been a “super hit or miss” track for him. In seven career starts, he has two top fives and four finishes of 26th or worse.

“We’ve crashed a bunch out there (three DNFs) and had some really bad finishes,” Elliott said. “That would be a fantastic opportunity, I think, to have a solid day.”

Kurt Busch noted that you could arguably view Las Vegas as “standard” when it comes to pit strategy and racing. But Busch provided a reminder of what happened earlier this year at Texas Motor Speedway.

“A place like Vegas fits into a track like Texas, as well; where you can change just left side tires like we saw Austin Dillon do to win the Texas race earlier this year,” Busch said. “So, there are all the different strategies and different things playing out.”

The four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16 – William Byron, Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto – scored a combined six stage points. All of them were earned by Byron.

Busch observed that just because four teams have been eliminated from the playoffs doesn’t mean there’s four less cars in the field vying for points.

“There are two Hendrick cars now not in the playoffs, but they’re fast,” Busch said of Byron and Jimmie Johnson. “Same thing with (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). You’ve got the No. 20 car, Erik Jones, not in the playoffs but he’s fast. Those are points that those guys could take away from the contenders that are still left in the situations they’re in. So, you’ve just got to race hard and race smart. There are three ways to get points each and every weekend: Stage 1, Stage 2, and the finish of the race. And, that happens at all the race tracks.”

Of the 12 remaining drivers left in the playoffs, here’s how many stage points they earned in the first round.

Most Stage Points Earned in 2020 Playoffs:

Chase Elliott  – 35
Kevin Harvick – 33
Martin Truex Jr.  – 32
Kyle Busch  – 31
Alex Bowman – 29
Joey Logano  – 28
Denny Hamlin  – 26
Kurt Busch – 22
Austin Dillon – 22
Brad Keselowski – 21
Aric Almirola – 7
Clint Bowyer – 4

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NASCAR fines
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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NASCAR has fined Hendrick Motorsports $100,000 for exceeding the amount of wind tunnel testing allowed this season.

NASCAR also announced that it had deducted 10 hours of wind tunnel testing from the organization for the 2020-21 amount allowed.

Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalty. The team reported the violation to NASCAR.

The Cup Rule Book states in section 5.3.e that organizations are allocated 150 hours to be used on cars through Dec. 31, 2021 with a maximum usage of 70 hours in 2020 and a maximum usage of 90 hours in 2021. NASCAR states that testing hours are defined as billable hours reported by the wind tunnel to NASCAR. The minimum test period is four hours. Wind tunnel testing of Next Gen cars by individual organizations will not be permitted.

The L2 penalty comes with a fine of at least $100,000 and no more than $200,000.

NASCAR also announced two fines for lug nut violations last weekend at Bristol.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chief Bruce Schlicker was fined $5,000 for the No. 10 car of Ross Chastain having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

In the Truck Series, crew chief Kevin Bellicourt was fined $2,500 for the No. 19 truck of Derek Kraus having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

 

Carson Hocevar to run full Truck schedule in 2021

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Niece Motorsports has signed Carson Hocevar to run the full NASCAR Truck schedule in 2021, the team announced Thursday.

Hocevar, who turns 18 in January, has run five races for the team this season. His best finish this year is 12th at Dover. He’s scheduled to run at Martinsville on Oct. 30.

“I’m so excited to get the opportunity to race fulltime next year with the Niece Motorsports group,” said Hocevar in a statement. “We’ve had some really strong runs in the few starts that we’ve had this season and I am grateful for the chance to continue that next year. I’ve learned so much already this year and know that we will keep improving next year too.”

“Carson has really impressed us this season,” said team owner Al Niece in a statement. “He’s proven his talent – getting into the truck with no track time and really holding his own. We’re thrilled to have him with us fulltime next season and look forward to contending for wins together.”

TikTok to sponsor Ryan Vargas in six Xfinity races

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JD Motorsports
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TikTok is coming to NASCAR.

The popular video sharing app will break into the sport next month as a sponsor of Ryan Vargas in the Xfinity Series.

TikTok has partnered with JD Motorsports to sponsor the 20-year-old Vargas in the final six races of the season, beginning with the Oct. 3 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

“TikTok has provided me with an incredible outlet to reach new fans and demographics through fun and creative content, and I’ve seen the highest growth in followers on TikTok over my other social channels,” Vargas said in a press release. “The opportunity to run the No. 6 TikTok Chevrolet Camaro in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for the rest of the season is an absolute dream come true. Johnny Davis and the whole JD Motorsports with Gary Keller team took a chance on me last year and I’m excited to bring this amazing TikTok partnership their way. I wouldn’t want to make this partnership a reality anywhere else.”

Vargas has made three Xfinity Series starts this year. His best finish was 13th at Pocono.

The sponsor deal is part of TikTok’s Latinx Heritage Month programming.

A native of La Mirada, California, Vargas joined TikTok last year. He is a former member of NASCAR’s Drive 4 Diversity programming and a winner of the Wendell Scott Trailblazer award, which is given to a minority or female driver who displays exceptional on-track performance, sportsmanship, and community service.

The partnership and paint scheme were inspired by a concept scheme by graphic designer Ryan Pistana, a friend of Vargas’.

“Creators of all sizes and backgrounds show up to TikTok with their genuine, authentic selves,” Nick Tran, TikTok’s Head of Global Marketing, said in a press release. “Partnering with an iconic brand like NASCAR to sponsor Ryan Vargas on his racing journey is a way for us to continue to support, celebrate and elevate the diverse creators that make our TikTok community what it is today. Ryan is an incredible athlete, and we’re looking forward to cheering him on alongside the rest of the TikTok community!”

According to CNBC in August, TikTok has roughly 100 million monthly users, up nearly 800% from January 2018.

TikTok, a Chinese-owned company, has been in national headlines recently after President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app in the United States for national security reasons if it was not sold to an American company. On Sept. 19 he approved a deal for its U.S operations to be operated by Oracle and Walmart.