Photo: Landon Cassill/Twitch

Friday 5: Drivers take fans behind the scenes online

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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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Ryan Newman to be sponsored by Progressive Insurance at Atlanta

Ryan Newman
Roush Fenway Racing
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Ryan Newman and his No. 6 Ford will be sponsored by Progressive Insurance this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox), Roush Fenway Racing announced Wednesday.

“We’re excited to welcome Progressive Insurance to the team this weekend in Atlanta,” Newman said in a press release. “A major brand such as theirs fits well into the NASCAR space. Atlanta makes for a challenging and entertaining race with the differing options of the preferred line, so we’re looking forward to it with Progressive on board.”

This is the first time Progressive has been a primary sponsor on a car in a national NASCAR series.

“We’re inspired by the resolve of Ryan and thrilled to be working with him and the team at Roush Fenway Racing this weekend in Atlanta,” Jay VanAntwerp, Progressive’s Media Business Leader, said in the press release. “Racing fans, and sports fans in general, are craving live events, so everyone should be thrilled at the chance to see Ryan and his fellow drivers out on the track. Progressive’s competitive spirit is a great fit for the dynamic, fast-paced action of NASCAR, so we’re looking forward to being part of that excitement with the No. 6 car wrapped in blue and white and sporting the Progressive name. Hopefully we will see Ryan take the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon.”

Newman enters Sunday’s race coming off a 15th-place finish at Bristol. In the five races since NASCAR returned on May 17 at Darlington, Newman’s best finish is 14th in the second Darlington race.

Cup drivers preparing for hotter, slicker Atlanta race after March postponement

Atlanta Motor Speedway
Getty Images
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It’s time for NASCAR to go racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway, finally.

Almost three months after it was scheduled, NASCAR will head back to Georgia for its annual race weekend at the 1.5-mile track Atlanta.

Cars were hours away from being on track on March 13 when NASCAR announced that weekend’s races were postponed due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

All three national series will be in action, with the Cup Series highlighting the weekend with its race on Sunday (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

This is the first time the Cup Series has competed at Atlanta in June since 1965. The last five Atlanta weekends have been held in late February or early March after it was moved from Labor Day weekend in 2015.

With a forecasted temperature of 81 degrees at the start of the race, it will be the return of “Hotlanta.”

The series is preparing for the combination of warm weather and the track’s rough surface that hasn’t been repaved since 1997, thanks to petitioning by drivers.

“Atlanta is always a fun place to race because of the surface and how worn out it is,” Martin Truex Jr. said in a media release. “It has been a few years since we’ve raced there when it’s really hot to bring out just how slick the track can get, so that will be a bit of a challenge going in with no practice.”

Truex, who finished second in this race last year, is seeking his first victory of the year and his first win at Atlanta. Atlanta is one of two 1.5-mile tracks he hasn’t won at, joining Texas Motor Speedway.

Truex has failed to finish in the top 10 once in his last eight starts at Atlanta. He heads into Atlanta coming off a 20th-place finish at Bristol. Before that he had four consecutive top 10s.

“I feel pretty good about how we have ran on the bigger tracks where handling comes into play,” Truex said. “We need a little bit of speed overall, but we’ve been able to run pretty well at tracks where the surface is slicker, so I feel confident about the car we’ll unload and how we’ll run on Sunday.”

With the track’s rough surface, restarts will be vital according to Kyle Busch, a two-time winner at Atlanta.

“I don’t know if it has to do with the asphalt mix or whatever when they paved that place that now you can definitely tell the difference between the inside lane and that outside lane,” Busch said in a media release. “Also, the inside guy has a straighter launch than the guy on the outside – he’s always kind of turning so that’s something to be said for it. Overall, it’s just some places are that way. Atlanta is the worst for the launch. The application of throttle to not spin the rear tires is so crucial there and it’s so easy to do when you’re in that outside lane.”

Busch was the winner of the 2013 Atlanta race, which was held Labor Day weekend. That was also Toyota’s last Cup win there.

“Atlanta is one of those places where anything can happen and we’ll definitely have to be on our toes there this weekend,” Busch said. “You have to have good grip there, you have to have good (tire) fall-off – you have to be fast to start a run, yet you don’t want to fall off more than anybody else. So you have to take care of your stuff and bide your time a little bit. That lends itself to options by the driver to either push hard early (in the run) or save a little and be there late. We went there several months ago and didn’t get to race there, so expecting the weekend to be much different this time around than when we traveled there in March.”

Like Truex, Busch is looking for his first win of the year. Should they or any other Toyota or Chevrolet driver win, they would end a three-year reign by Ford on the 1.5-mile track.

Brad Keselowski won two of those races and Kevin Harvick claimed the other.

Bubba Wallace joins Mike Tirico on Lunch Talk Live on NBCSN

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Bubba Wallace will be on today’s “Lunch Talk Live” with host Mike Tirico. The show airs at Noon ET on NBCSN.

“Lunch Talk Live” focuses on the current state of the sports world, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.

You can also watch the show online here.

Wallace is also a guest on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, which airs at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Today’s scheduled guests are:

  • 12:00 p.m. – Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills head coach
  • 12:15 p.m. – Bubba Wallace
  • 12:30 p.m. – James Hinchcliffe, IndyCar driver
  • 12:40 p.m. –  Ken Niumatalolo, Navy football head coach
  • 12:50 p.m. – Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets captain

 

Bubba Wallace encourages drivers to speak on social issues

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Bubba Wallace, at times emotional in discussing the recent killings of unarmed black men, said on the Dale Jr. Download that he needs to be more vocal on such matters and encouraged fellow NASCAR drivers to do the same.

“Through all the chaos that has gone on in the world, all of the African Americans, all of the unarmed black men and women being killed, I’ve been silent,” Wallace said on the Dale Jr. Download. “I’ve read all of them and I’ve been silent. I just felt that wasn’t my place. That was a huge mistake.”

Wallace, the only black driver competing in the Cup Series, said he’s reached out to fellow competitors and NASCAR officials and encouraged them to speak out in the days after George Floyd was killed while in custody of Minneapolis police on May 25. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Wednesday, the murder charged was changed to second-degree murder. Also, three other former Minneapolis police officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder on Wednesday.

“We have got to do better, we’ve got to step up,” Wallace said on the show about a message he sent to fellow Cup drivers. “I encourage everybody to say what they feel. … This is way more important than any race win, any championship that you’ve ever accomplished. This is something that can change on a global impact.”

Wallace also discussed a conversation he had with Chase Elliott.

“I texted him (Monday) night,” Wallace said. “I said, hey man, you’re the biggest name in our sport right now bud, like it or not. You’re the biggest name and your voice carries over much more than mine in our sport. I said don’t be silent on this please, don’t let it go under wraps.

“He was like, I know it’s tough to comment on and I’ve been trying to come up with something. What’s really going to change? I said Chase I don’t know but think about this. Imagine a follower, two followers that you have in how many you got. One is a person that is going to go hate somebody, go kill somebody today and the other one is somebody that is getting discriminated against.

“Imagine you saying something and both of those people look at that and they’re like, ‘Wow, that changed who I am today. I’m not going to hate on anybody anymore. I’m not going to be discriminated against. I’m going to stand up for what’s right.’

“Imagine your words changing somebody else’s life. Being silent on that they could have just (said) ‘I was waiting for somebody to tell me something.’ We have that platform and that voice to tell people we have got to stop and change our ways. That’s how to think about it.

“Could my words have helped people? Pissed off people for sure. It could have helped that one person that needed it and didn’t know it. Wow Bubba Wallace just said that, he’s my favorite driver. You know what, I’m going to change my life today because of that. That makes me feel good.”

Wallace became emotional on the Dale Jr. Download as he described seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, gunned down in February in Georgia after a white father and son followed him. They and a third man have been charged with murder in connection with Arbery’s death.

“My heart was broken and my stomach was ripped out of my body when I saw that video and even thinking about it I’m getting emotional about it now, thinking about that video and seeing how an unarmed black man … to be jogging down the street and being hunted by two armed civilians and shot and killed in broad daylight with the other guy videoing and it sounded like he was loading his gun and ready to do the same thing.

“So that’s my take on that, and I’m just like what kind of world do we live I where we hunt people and take their life away because we assume something? We assume that this is a black guy that is terrorizing our neighborhood so we’re going to go kill him? What in the hell, man? I don’t see how people can wake up and think like that.”

Wallace later said: “I’m taking an effort to understand where all the hate, where all the anger, the pain, the suffering is coming from. I’m doing my research, I’m learning about things. I feel better about speaking out about it.”

Wallace also told the story of a cousin who was killed in a police shooting in 2003 in Tennessee.

“We were at my sister’s basketball tournament, I can’t remember where,” he said. “I was running around the gym with all the brothers and sisters there and all of a sudden I hear a scream like the worst scream that you want to hear, not like somebody scared you straight, like something bad had just happened. I look over and I see my mom running out the door and we had just found out that my cousin was shot and killed by a police officer.”

A judge later cleared the officer in the shooting. The family filed a civil suit and lost in court on appeal.

Wallace will appear on Lunch Talk Live with host Mike Tirico on Wednesday on NBCSN. The show airs at noon ET.

The Dale Jr. Download with Wallace airs at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.