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

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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.

 

 

NASCAR Penalty report from Michigan

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The NASCAR penalty report from Michigan International Speedway has been released.

It includes two fines for unsecured lug nuts. Chad Knaus, crew chief for William Byron‘s No. 24 Chevrolet, and Chris Gabehart, crew chief on Denny Hamlin‘s No. 11 Toyota, have each been fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut during the course of the weekend.

The report also includes the penalties issued Saturday to Roush Fenway Racing for the improper spoilers used on both Ryan Newman and Chris Buescher‘s cars.

Brendan Gaughan set for Daytona road course after COVID-19 recovery

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On July 15, part-time Cup Series driver Brendan Gaughan became the second NASCAR driver to announce he’d tested positive for COVID-19.

After quarantining for two weeks and testing negative for COVID-19 twice more than 24 hours apart, Gaughan has been medically cleared to go racing again.

And he won’t even have to wait until the Cup Series regular-season finale on Aug. 29 to do it.

Originally scheduled to only compete in the season’s four superspeedway races with Beard Motorsports, Gaughan will suit up to drive the No. 62 Chevrolet in Sunday’s race on the Daytona road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

He joins Jimmie Johnson in having tested positive for COVID-19 and returned to race. While Gaughan last competed in the June 22 race at Talladega, Johnson only missed the Brickyard 400 before returning to the track.

“I feel fantastic,” Gaughan said in a press release. “I’m finally out of the house. The toughest part of the whole ordeal was the mental aspect. I truly feel for people who struggle with depression and have to deal with COVID-19, because this thing is tough. You literally get stuck in a location by yourself. Fortunately for me, I had my puppy. I missed my two children tremendously. But it’s amazing now because we live in the age of the Jetsons that we can pick up a phone and look at their faces.”

To get clearance to race, Gaughan tested twice for COVID-19 in more than 24 hours and also had to get a doctor’s note saying he was good to go.

“That was it,” Gaughan said. “As long as I’m negative, they are good with it. They still have their protocols in place, so when we get to the track we are all still separated. The drivers don’t get to mingle with the teams right now. NASCAR has done a phenomenal job with it and they have been able to stay open for business while having very, very minor effects from this.”

While he was originally just going to race at Talladega and the Daytona oval, Gaughan says this weekend’s road course race “technically counts.”

“We said all of the Daytona races,” Gaughan said. “What happened is that as soon as it got added to the schedule immediately my mind went, ‘Wow, I would love to race the Daytona road course.’ There’s very few of us Cup drivers that have experience on that race course. And with no practice and no qualifying, that gives about 10 of us a very large advantage over the field.”

Brendan Gaughan
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Gaughan competed on the road course and earned a class victory in the 2011 Rolex 24 at Daytona, with his team beating second place by a full lap. He’s ran in the Rolex 24 twice since, finishing third in 2016 in the Prototype Challenge class and 14th in 2018 in the Prototype division.

“I was immediately enticed by it,” Gaughan said of the road course race. “Then you know how much I always speak so highly of Richard Childress Racing. Richard called and said, ‘Hey, come on man, you know you want to do it,’ and I kind of chuckled because everyone knows I love my road racing. I talked to the Beard family and said, ‘Hey, you want to add a race to the schedule?’ It wasn’t in the budget. It wasn’t planned originally, but the Beards were on board.

“They are in the same boat as me. This is a retirement year like me and they are having the same fun I am. They went, ‘Ooohh, we can do well there.’ So we called Richard up and he built me a brand new Beard Oil Distributing/South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet Camaro from RCR that we were able to rent for Beard Motorsports to go race.”

Gaughan, who will start last in the race due his lack of owner points, dissected how different it will be navigating the road course in Cup compared to the sports car he drove the last time he raced on it.

“I need to remember that the last time I raced there in an LMP car, I could lift at the ‘1’ sign going into the chicane on the back straightaway,” Gaughan said. “Now if I lift at the ‘1’ in a Cup car, I will end up at the airport. So I need to remember that I’m going to need a little more braking zone room. But you basically already know the line and you know where you want to be. You know the feel of the place.

“You know where some passing zones are. You kind of know how to run that race, which is the big advantage that comes with it. Having a car built from Richard Childress means that I don’t have to worry that it’s going to have parts and pieces that aren’t any good. And I still have Darren Shaw, my crew chief, who I’ve been working with at Beard Motorsports. We’ve still got our guys working it and our guys doing it, so I kind of have the best of all worlds here. And there is an advantage for people that have been there. I also gave myself a little bit of an insurance policy. I offered to sponsor Andy Lally in the Xfinity race. To me, Andy Lally is the premier sports-car racer in America.

“I don’t think anybody can argue that there is anybody better than Andy Lally. So, I offered to sponsor Andy because he’s racing Saturday. I told him he has to stay over Sunday and do some driver coaching and give me his notes. Not only do I have experience on the track, I will have notes from a stock car on the track from the day before.”

Christopher Bell: ‘Pretty scared’ about future before re-joining JGR

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Early last week, Christopher Bell was “pretty scared” about his NASCAR future after Leavine Family Racing, the Toyota-backed team the rookie driver competes for in the Cup Series, announced it would sell its assets to Spire Motorsports.

That left Bell’s relationship with Toyota, the manufacturer that’s been the “centerpiece” of his racing career since 2013 and 2015 in NASCAR, up in the air.

“I’ve said it time and time again, but Toyota has been my – they’re the ones that got me here,” Bell said Tuesday in a press conference. “They’re the ones that took me from dirt track racing to pavement racing to Truck (Series) racing to Xfinity racing and then obviously made this deal happen with LFR too. At the time, it’s either the 20 car (at Joe Gibbs Racing) or I’m done with Toyota. There’s no other options. It was very scary. I didn’t want that to end.”

Bell acknowledged that despite his 2017 Truck Series title, his seven Truck wins and 16 Xfinity wins, a lack of sponsorship backing didn’t make him the most valuable hire for another team.

“The sponsorship piece is a huge part of it,” Bell said. “It’s no secret, you have to have sponsors in order to succeed in this sport and I’ve been really fortunate to have Rheem with me for the last couple of years. If I get pushed out of the Toyota group, I don’t really have much to say, ‘hire me.’”

Bell said, “I knew that once LFR shut down, there was only one place for me to go and the 20 car has obviously got a great driver in there right now.”

That driver was Erik Jones, who has been with Joe Gibbs Racing in Cup full-time since 2018 and been a Toyota driver in NASCAR since 2013 in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“‘How is that going to work?'” Bell asked himself. “‘How am I going to be able to go to JGR whenever they’re full?’ Unfortunately my homecoming so to speak was at the expense of another driver.”

Two days after LFR’s announcement, Joe Gibbs Racing revealed Jones would not return to the team in 2021, a move that “blindsided” Jones.

On Monday, JGR announced Bell’s ascent up the ranks would finally land him in the No. 20 next season.

“It was very, I mean, uncomfortable is a good way to put it,” Bell said. “I don’t think any of us – myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota – none of us expected the whole LFR deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box. … I’m extremely grateful that I get to continue that relationship and that I get to continue to drive Camrys on Sundays and race with TRD for hopefully a long time to come.”

How does Bell see his relationship with Jones playing out over the final 14 races of the season?

“As far as me versus him, that situation is already done, so I don’t know how he’s going to race me going forward,” Bell said. “I’m going to be cheering for Erik, just as everybody is at Joe Gibbs Racing, just hoping that he gets a nice solid deal and lands on his feet. I’ll be cheering for him and trying to race him with as much respect as I can, just like every other competitor. I hope he performs well, and obviously, the better he performs now in the 20 car, the better off I’ll be at the start of the year with the owner points standings. It’s really important that he does well this year in the 20 car for my future next year as well.”

Bell observed that it’s “absolutely crazy” to look back at his career path, which began in UASC Midgets and has led to him driving a “house” Toyota Cup car at JGR next year.

Going into 2021, Bell said he still has a “great relationship” with the people at JGR from his time there in the Xfinity Series.

“Whenever I was on the Xfinity side, I still got to mingle and interact with the Cup shop a little bit, so I have a rough idea how everything operates there,” Bell said. “I got in a little bit deeper with the LFR deal, and having that technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but it’s going to be very nice to be able to go back home.”

Spire Motorsports confirms purchase of Leavine Family Racing

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Spire Motorsports confirmed Tuesday that it will acquire the assets from Leavine Family Racing upon the completion of the 2020 season. Spire Motorsports also will expand to a two-car team in the Cup Series in 2021.

The purchase will include LFR’s charter, the team’s race shop near Charlotte Motor Speedway and all of its owned inventory. LFR’s fleet of cars and chassis will be returned to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Spire, which began competing in 2019 after it purchased Furniture Row Motorsports’ charter, fields the No. 77 Chevrolet. It has made 58 starts for more than a dozen drivers since last year, including an upset win in the July 2019 race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel.

The team is co-owned by Jeff Dickerson and Thaddeus “T.J.” Puchyr.

“This is an exciting moment for Spire as we take the natural next step in our long-term plan to build our race team and prepare for the Next Gen car in 2022,” said Dickerson in a press release. “Bob Leavine invested more than money into LFR and this industry. He built a team brick-by-brick and we have long admired how he took his own steps in the garage. He also did it with his family at his side. We won’t let that be lost in this transaction. When you build something with your family, it always means a little bit more. His ability to connect with fans was genuine and we are thankful he chose us to carry this team forward.

“These are no doubt trying times, but I have never been prouder to be part of this sport. NASCAR has managed several difficult situations this spring and into the summer. We believe in the ownership model that NASCAR has built and where this sport is going now more than ever.”

The team said details about drivers and manufacturers for 2021 will come later.