Friday 5: Drivers take fans behind the scenes online

Photo: Landon Cassill/Twitch
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As Landon Cassill streamed his practice laps Tuesday night on a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway, he explained how he entered the corners. After he finished, he showed video of William Byron entering the corners the same way by letting the car turn naturally on the banking before he moved the wheel.

It was a discussion Cassill might have had with his crew chief or another driver at a race track, but with sports paused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a discussion he shared with anyone watching his Twitch page.

As NASCAR transitions to iRacing, some drivers are streaming their practices, practice races and eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series events on Twitch, Instagram or elsewhere. Twitch, the world’s leading live streaming platform for games, allows fans to watch and chat with the person competing. On a driver’s Twitch stream, the viewer will see the driver’s in-car camera view with an insert box in the lower portion showing the driver.

Although he’s viewed others on Twitch, it wasn’t until last weekend that Cassill created a page for fans to watch him compete. He said he had about 5,000 unique viewers during his fourth-place run in last weekend’s iRacing event at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway. Garrett Smithley, who finished third in that race, has been streaming races on Twitch since 2017 and said he had about 2,800 viewers at any one time on his Twitch page during last weekend’s race.

Watching a driver’s livestream on Twitch, Instagram or anywhere else, allows fans to see a competitor in action and eavesdrop on conversations they have with their spotter, crew chief or other drivers. It’s like listening to a team’s radio channel during a race but this includes everything a driver says, not just what they say after they push the talk button in their car. And you can see the driver without their helmet.

It was during last weekend’s race when those watching Smithley’s Twitch heard him tell his spotter to text Timmy Hill’s spotter to suggest they work together. Smithley didn’t want to broadcast it over the audio channel all drivers are connected to in iRacing. So this was a way to do it without his competitors knowing.

Smithley knows the impact being on Twitch can have. He’s seen the crossover at tracks with younger fans.

“Even when I was doing it very, very casually and whenever I had some time in 2017 and 2018 … I found going to the real race track when I was racing full-time in the Xfinity Series, people would come to me, kids, very young, say middle school age and younger, they’d be like ‘Hey we love watching your stream,’ “ Smithley told NBC Sports. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually getting into a new (fan) reach.’

Garrett Smithley on his iRacing simulator. (Photo by Phillip Smalley)

“Now, doing the iRacing stuff, it’s opened up doors and I can start that back up and grow that. It’s just a way for me to connect to the fans.”

Smithley has a screen set up where he can see questions or comments from those watching his stream. That’s mainly for when he’s running practice or competing in races other than the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race.

“It’s a really, really good opportunity for fans to come and engage and get a lot more insight on what we’re doing,” he said.

For those who watched Cassill’s Twitch on Monday, they would have seen him testing with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson at the digital Bristol track and hearing their conversations.

“We practiced for a couple of hours at Bristol,” Cassill told NBC Sports. “Everything he said and everything I said was recorded and it was live-streamed and we had viewers. It was a great content. It was a lot of fun. I think we looked at data and talked about our driving styles at Bristol.”

After last weekend’s race, Cassill still had his livestream going when Dale Earnhardt Jr. started talking to him about the event. Fans watching got to hear two drivers discussing the race. For those who missed it, Cassill had the video segment clipped and posted on social media.

Cassill’s way of examining his driving style compared to Byron’s earlier this week was a benefit for those watching on Cassill’s stream.

“Breaking down the corner and what William was doing, what I saw him doing, what I wanted to replicate, his line, his steering wheel angle, all those things, if I weren’t streaming I still would have been doing those things and maybe have even been saying those things out loud to myself,” Cassill said.

“It kind of goes back to the summary of why I’m Twitch streaming, hey, this is content. I think that those types of clips can be repurposed to evergreen content that live on Youtube and can give people professional lessons on how to drive race cars on iRacing from a driver who does it in the physical world.”

2. iRacing sponsorships

Garrett Smithley and virtual Texas winner Timmy Hill are the only two drivers to score top-five finishes in each of the first two eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series events heading into Sunday’s race at a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.

With last weekend’s racing drawing 1.3 million viewers on Fox and FS1 — that’s more than the viewership for the Xfinity races this season at Auto Club Speedway (993,000 viewers) and Phoenix (1.192 million) — some drivers and teams are looking to add sponsors for these races.

Smithley said he and Rick Ware Racing have been looking to leverage his success and added attention on TV for sponsorship.

“Rick is working on some different things, and I’m working on some different things to try to grow it and add more value to the real racing,” Smithley said. “We’re absolutely trying to leverage it. It’s so new, so we’re trying to figure out the space. I’ve reached out to several different people in the eSports world to try to figure out the scope of things and how to add better value in this situation. That’s been going well. Just learning a whole lot about the industry.

“The biggest thing is to try to get back real racing, but I hope we can continue doing some some type of eSports thing with NASCAR and all the drivers in some capacity because I think it brings out a different demographic, and I think it brings out a little different excitement.”

Michael McDowell announced Thursday that energy drink Celsius would sponsor his Front Row Motorsports car for Sunday’s race.

3. Staying busy

Each morning the 35-plus Team Penske pit crew members receive an email from Jonathan Rowan, the organization’s director of sports performance.

The email details the day’s home workout plan as they wait for the chance to return to the race shop and for the sport to resume.

Trent Cherry asked Rowan to develop a program to keep the pit crew members active during this break.

Joey Logano‘s pit crew during the Cup race Logano won at Phoenix Raceway on March 8. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It will be at least two months between races. The last Cup race was March 8 and every Cup race up to May 9 at Martinsville has been postponed at this time.

Cherry isn’t worried about any skills slipping for the pit crew members during the break. Instead, he’s focused on another key area.

“Michael Jordan when he comes back from the offseason, he doesn’t forget how to shoot a jump shot,” Cherry told NBC Sports. “He also might not be completely game ready. I think there’s two separate things.

“I don’t think our guys will forget what they do or have done. It’s my job … to get them back in the groove. We left the first four weeks, we won two races (with Joey Logano). I felt like our pit crews were some of the best ones on pit road. My job is to try to maintain that when we come back. Part of that is just knocking the rust off once we get the OK to go back to work but it also means everybody focused on staying in shape.”

With NASCAR stating it intends to reschedule every postponed race before the playoffs begin Sept. 6 at Darlington, it likely means back-to-back races on some weekends and midweek races. It could lead to a few weeks with few days between races.

Cherry, a former tire changer, says his crews would look forward to such a schedule.

“I’m a big believer in if the guys go to the track fresh, they’re going to perform at the their best,” he said. “Our job as a coaching staff is to figure out what is enough to get them ready and what’s also enough to keep them fresh. Our guys have done a great job of responding to that.

“I would love to be able to pit Sunday, pit Wednesday, pit Sunday. Our guys like competing. Competing is winning races and being able to help the company out. I think our guys will really look forward to that.”

4. Potential help for teams

Today marks the first day businesses, which have 500 or fewer employees, can apply for the Small Business Paycheck Protection Program.

The $350 billion relief program is part of the government’s $2 trillion economic support package. With most race teams under the 500-employee cap, this program, should they chose to apply, could provide some financial aid while teams wait to return to racing next month at the earliest.

The relief program provides small business with funds to pay up to eight weeks of payroll costs, including benefits. The funds are provided in the form of loans that will be fully forgiven when used for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent and utilities. Loan forgiveness is based on the employer maintaining or quickly rehiring employees and maintaining salary levels.

NBC News reported that it wasn’t until Thursday that banks received 31 pages of guidance from the U.S. Treasury on how to lend the money and some banks had not decided if they could participate on Friday.

5. Additional NASCAR programming on NBCSN

Next week will feature the NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge and Racing Week in America on NBCSN.

The NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge features six different drivers competing in two races each Monday-Wednesday with the winners advancing to Thursday’s championship race at a virtual Martinsville Speedway. Full details are here.

The Monday race will be held at a virtual Rockingham Speedway and include Kyle Busch and William Byron.

The Tuesday race will be held at a virtual Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis and includes Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

The Wednesday race will be held at a virtual Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) Speedway and includes Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Timmy Hill.

Those races will be from 7-8 p.m. ET each night. The races are a part of Racing Week in America, which will feature memorable NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA races, among other series, from the past two decades aired by NBC Sports.

Here are details on next week’s schedule of races.

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NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great organizations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”