Friday 5: Preparing for a ‘strange feeling’ when NASCAR returns

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
0 Comments

With NASCAR focused on resuming its season May 17 at Darlington Raceway, the Cup Series could be less than a month from being among the first sports in the U.S. to return during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But when NASCAR comes back, the sport will do so without fans in the stands.

It will be in moments before a race and after a race where the absence of fans will be felt the most, at least to Erik Jones.

“It’s going to be a strange feeling,” Jones told NBC Sports of competing without fans at the track. “I would say that before the race, the crowd gets you into it. You’re already excited to race as a driver, but when you see the fans there and they’re excited, I can think of a few times in my career where the crowd was really into it before the race. What a neat feeling that was as an athlete, as a driver, to have people so excited to see you go out and perform. That’s an awesome feeling.”

But there’s a feeling that can top it.

“One of the other cool parts about racing is when you do get a chance to win, you really do get to celebrate with the crowd and they’re really into it and want to see the burnout and the celebration,” Jones said. “That’s a cool moment for them and a cool moment for you. 

“To be a winner and take the checkered flag, and there’s nobody cheering. That would be something I don’t think any of us have experienced. It would be weird, for sure.”

It will happen when NASCAR returns.

Until then, Jones remains at home. He spends his free time reading. He recently read a book on country singer Johnny Cash and one about the city of Detroit.

Reading has been a lifelong passion for the 23-year-old. It was a family activity, especially when his dad took him to races.

“All the travel we would do cross-country, I know a lot of times I would pick a book or my dad would pick a book, and I would read it aloud going down the road so he could hear it while he was driving,” Jones said. 

He continues to read aloud. Jones started “Erik’s Reading Circle” for children this past Tuesday. His Facebook page streamed him reading “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss. At 7 p.m. ET next Tuesday, he’ll read another children’s book, “The Gruffalo.”

Reading to children online is an idea that came from earlier this season when he read a book to children the day of the Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.

“With everybody kind of being stuck at home, it was a nice opportunity to try to do something like that and see what the reception was,” Jones said of his reading circle. “Everybody is looking for something to do and something to be a part of, and I thought that was a good opportunity to give this thing a shot.

“I wasn’t sure how much interest it would really ever have. You never really know when you do something like that for the first time. I was surprised, really, how many people were interested in it and how many people wanted me to continue it.”

2. Still laughing 18 years later

It’s still among the most talked-about accomplishments for a driver who won four Xfinity races — and this was a race he didn’t win.

He actually didn’t have a ride when he went to Talladega in April 2002. When he got one, he wasn’t expected to finish the race

But after getting through the largest crash in Xfinity Series history, Tim Fedewa scored a third-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway that remains nearly as memorable as any of his victories.

Fedewa, now the spotter for Kevin Harvick, didn’t have a ride in the 2002 season and went to the first seven races without finding a ride. That changed at Talladega when someone said that the Biagi Brothers were looking for someone to drive Mike Wallace’s backup car. 

The plan was for Fedewa to run about 15 laps and park it. The crew left the qualifying setup on the car instead of changing to a race setup. They didn’t put any heat matting under the floorboard to protect Fedewa’s feet as would have been done if he was going to run the whole race.

Fedewa started 32nd. He was 39th, well behind the pack within the first few laps. His team asked him if he wanted to keep going, and he kept saying he did.

Then on the 15th lap, contact at the front of the field triggered chaos. Depending on the source, there were 27 cars in the crash or up to 32. Either way, it remains the largest crash in Xfinity Series history.

 

“I just kind of picked my way through,” Fedewa told NBC Sports. “I just remember specifically going through that wreck thinking ‘This is awesome. Hope no one is hurt, but I want to keep going here.’

The only injury in that incident was to Mike Harmon, who bit his tongue.

By getting through the crash, Fedewa was a top-10 car with so few cars left. He continued to race, but his feet were burned without the extra heat protection.

As the finish neared, Fedewa was third (and the last car on the lead lap). He was too far behind the leaders to challenge for the win. Unless Jason Keller and Stacy Compton wrecked.

“I’m just thinking, ‘Come on guys, just wreck, just wreck,’” Fedewa said. “Usually you don’t wish for people to wreck, but I was (wishing it) pretty damn hard. I cannot lie. They’re both good friends of mine. But at that particular moment, I was wishing bad things on them.”

Keller won, Compton was second and Fedewa finished third.

“It wasn’t a win, but it sure felt good,” Fedewa said.

The feeling wasn’t so great later. He recalls going to the track a week or two later and his feet still hurting, so he went to the infield care center.

“I burned my heel really, really bad and the side of my right foot really bad,” Fedewa said.

“It got really infected. So I went into the infield care center, and the doctor looked at it and said ‘You ain’t going to like what I’m going to do.’ He had to clean it with a syringe. I don’t know if you ever had a needle stuck in your feet, especially when you got open wounds on your feet. That was the closest I was to passing out, the most pain I felt in my life.”

Now? He laughs about it.

3. Could a driver race showing some COVID-19 symptoms?

NASCAR is in position to return before other sports because its athletes are isolated in a car.

While there are also crew members, those numbers are expected to be reduced to limit the number of people in the garage. Social distancing methods and protective equipment will be key for crew members to avoid any transmission of the coronavirus.

With so much of the sport based around the driver, should a driver be found with COVID-19 symptoms, it could end their championship hopes if it happens during the playoffs.

With that in mind, would it be possible for a driver to show potential signs of coronavirus, such as a slightly elevated temperature, and still be allowed to race?

Dr. John Torres, NBC News medical correspondent, raises some concerns about such a scenario.

“Theoretically, you could do something like that, where as much as they do with NASA astronauts they keep them isolated,” Dr. Torres told NBC Sports. “But there are people that help them get into the car that could be at-risk. If they get into an accident, there would be rescue crews who would be at risk. If somebody has to do CPR on them for whatever reason, that even puts them at a higher risk.

“Every time somebody competes with known symptoms of coronavirus or is suspected to have coronavirus, they are putting other people at risk. In an ideal situation, it would be saying, ‘Hey if you have symptoms, you can’t compete.’ It’s unfortunate, but it’s to protect other people.”

Erik Jones said he’s thought about what he will have to do when the season resumes to try to ensure he is not infected and misses races.

“I would say it’s all in the back of our minds that if we do go back racing, what if somebody tests positive?” Jones said. “What if a driver tests positive or even a crew member? I think anybody would be lying to you if they didn’t say they haven’t thought about it. The thing is the situation is so fluid, and it has been from the start. It changes day by day. I don’t think any of us can plan that far ahead.”

Another issue Dr. Torres notes is that that all sports may have to postpone events even after they resume competing if the coronavirus surges throughout the country again.

“Right now, everything is walking that fine line between protecting people from coronavirus, but at the same time getting back to our lives as best we can, including sports,” he said. “It is going to take some looking at it and saying, ‘Let’s start this,’ but being prepared to pull back if things do start cropping up and particularly being prepared to shut things down if we need to, if they do start showing more and more cases.

“Over time, especially once we get that vaccine, we’ll be able to do more and more. I think we’ll be able to do more and more even without the vaccine once we start getting this under control, and we see cases are lowering, deaths are lowering, and we’re getting a better understanding of how to handle the virus. This is going to take effort by all of us. This is a new normal.”

4.  Plane crash memories

During a recent appearance on the Barstool Sports podcast “Bussin’ with the Boys,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked about the plane crash he, his wife and daughter survived in August in Tennessee.

Earnhardt talked for about 16 minutes detailing the incident, starting with when the plane hit the ground and bounced on landing. The contact with the ground was hard enough that the blinds shut on the windows, preventing Earnhardt from seeing outside the plane.

“We just know we bounced up in the air,” Earnhardt said on the podcast. “I don’t know if we’re 10 feet in the air or 100 feet in the air. But I know we got to get down on that runaway, and it’s not a really long runaway, and we don’t have a lot of time to be bouncing.”

Remains of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s plane at Elizabethton (Tennessee) Municipal Airport in August 2019. (Photo: Dustin Long).

Earnhardt detailed how when the plane came back down, the right-side landing gear broke. The plane leaned to the right with the wing hitting the ground and the left wing higher in the air.

“That’s probably going to try to create some lift and put the plane up in the air and cartwheel the plane,” he said on the podcast of the elevated left wing. “You’re thinking you’re going to die.”

The plane went off the runaway, down a ditch — “that was extremely violent,” he said — before it went through a fence and came to a stop.

As daughter Isla screamed in the plane, Earnhardt said on the podcast that his thoughts were “God, please don’t let nothing be wrong with her.”

After a quick look at his daughter revealed no obvious injuries, Earnhardt handed Isla to his wife, Amy, and went to the rear of the plane to open the door.

“I went back there, and I’m seeing smoke come out of the toilet,” Earnhardt said on the podcast. “Black, dark, thick smoke. I hollered up to the front, ‘We’ve got a fire! We’ve got to go!”

Earnhardt also discussed the challenges in exiting the plane, what a paramedic did to comfort him in the ambulance and the feelings he, Amy and Isla have about flying since in the podcast.

To hear Earnhardt’s full description, you can listen to the podcast here.

5. Could there be a way to Twitch real races some day?

Parker Kligerman discusses on this week’s NASCAR on NBC Podcast how there could be real-world potential for Twitch – which is a site where people can watch others play video games or in racing, watch professionals compete in iRacing events such as Sunday’s Pro Invitational Series race at a virtual Talladega Superspeedway.

“One of the things we’ve been missing as an opportunity is thinking that (in-car cameras are) solely for the broadcast,” Kligerman said. “And what the Twitch streams have exposed in connection with the linear TV broadcast is these are being put up by the drivers themselves who are willing to do it and offer this inside little view. It’s not great for watching the whole race, but just seeing their little view and seeing their chat.”

He said such cameras on all cars could enhance race broadcasts.

“Then you have this flush of content that we don’t always have,” Kligerman said. “You see a wreck happen in 32nd place, and we don’t have a camera on it, and they don’t have an onboard camera. Well, now you have that chance. So I think the sport could think about it in a way that isn’t degrading the TV broadcast … but it’s almost adding content they maybe wouldn’t have had before.”

To listen check out this or other NASCAR on NBC Podcast episodes with Nate Ryan, go to Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play or wherever you get podcasts and download the episodes.

 

 

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

2 Comments

NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

1 Comment

Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

2 Comments

A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

0 Comments

FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”