Friday 5: Some drivers get early start back on track


When drivers strap into their Cup cars May 17 at Darlington Raceway, it won’t be the first time some will have raced since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sport in March.

Some drivers have run laps — or plan to do so — at GoPro Motorplex, an 11-turn, 0.7-mile kart track in Mooresville, North Carolina, to prepare for the resumption of the season.

“I think going to the karting track is something that’s big on our priority list,” William Byron said, noting that is among the reasons he won’t compete in Saturday’s Pro Invitational Series iRacing event at virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway.

“The karting track will be a good tool leading up (to Darlington). Also the Chevrolet simulator as well. I think there’s a lot of tools that can be used. I’m going to try to prepare as similar as I do for the first race at Daytona every year, try to just follow those lines.”

When Cup drivers race at Darlington next weekend, it will mark 71 days since they competed at Phoenix Raceway, the last event before the season was suspended. For perspective, this past offseason lasted 82 days between last year’s season finale at Homestead and the first day of practice at Daytona.

Kurt Busch told NBC Sports that he typically does some karting in January to prepare for the new season. He was karting earlier this week at GoPro Motorplex, posting a video on social media before he hit the track with Matt Kenseth and Ross Chastain.

But what makes karting so meaningful when drivers can stay home and compete on their iRacing simulators?

“It’s being in a car and feeling the adrenaline of the roadway underneath you and your seat-of-the-pants feel,” Busch said.

Tyler Reddick likens karting as another way to prepare mentally and physically to race.

“Where it gets challenging in the go-karts is that there’s no seat belt and you have to hold yourself up and steer the wheel and be smooth and be fast while doing it,” Reddick told NBC Sports.

“You’re constantly having to find ways, as you’re continuing to wear your body out, to be sure you are steering the kart to the best of your ability so you can continue to put out those fast lap times. I think that’s what makes it a lot harder.

“With that being said, a go-kart has no head rest. You’re working your neck, you’re working your arms, you’re working your core, your shoulders, every bit of your body is getting worked fairly hard even down to your legs. … It just further pushes the body, and I think it’s a great way to get a body … working really hard in a quick time.”

2. Simulator time 

Among the most popular tools drivers and teams will use to prepare for the May 17 Darlington race will be the simulators each manufacturer has. With no practice or qualifying before the race, the simulators that Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota have in the Charlotte, North Carolina region, will play a significant role in helping determine a car’s setup.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer was in Ford’s simulator earlier this week preparing for the return of racing. That session not only helped his team on setups but will help him because his first lap in a Cup car at Darlington will be when the green flag waves next weekend.

The manufacturer sim rigs provide significant data for drivers and teams before race weekends. 

“We can actually plug in our setups and make practice changes and stuff like that and actually get a feel of how things are going to react,” Custer said.

Since drivers won’t know how their cars will react until the green flag waves, at least being prepared for how they are expected to handle at the start should help.

3. Say what?

There are many additional details with NASCAR’s event protocol that crew chiefs and teams will have to be aware of before they go to Darlington next week.

Some of those points include the recommendation that teams minimize the contact the pit crew has with the road crew at the track, social distancing guidelines and adherence to NASCAR’s policy and directives.

But for each item there are many other issues to work through.

Crew chief Cliff Daniels at Watkins Glen in 2019. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

For example, everyone in the infield must wear a cloth mask at all times. That includes crew chiefs, who will have a mask between their mouth and radio mic when they talk to their driver, spotter or any other team members. With the noise from the cars racing by, any filter that could garble or soften a crew chief’s voice could create communication issues.

Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, has looked into the matter.

“That has been discussed and right now with the masks that we believe that NASCAR will require the teams to use and the ones that we’ve been using back at the shop, actually quite a few of these conference calls that I’m on daily, our teammates back in the shop are wearing these masks and it’s not nearly as bad (to understand them),” Daniels told NBC Sports.

“Right now our plan is to really be strict on ourselves to adhere to all the guidelines for wearing the masks and the (Personal Protective Equipment). I’m sure if there is some sort of communication issue, you may have to briefly peel the mask off to talk into the mouthpiece and put the mask back on. For right now, we all seem to be petty confident that we can be audible through the mask to talk over the headset.”

Ben Beshore, crew chief for Harrison Burton in the Xfinity Series, told NBC Sports’ Daniel McFadin: “I haven’t played with (the masks) yet. I’m going to have to at some point. I’m not too worried about that. I think some of the surgical type masks are thin enough the voice should travel through there. I just maybe have to talk up a little bit more. I don’t think it’ll be a big deal. We’ll work around it.”

4. Additional details when NASCAR returns

NASCAR recently addressed many guidelines that teams will be required to follow, including health screenings at the track.

Here are additional details from NASCAR’s event operations protocol that have been created after consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and local, state and federal government recommendations.

  • NASCAR will assign specific times for participants to arrive for pre-entry screening. Order of priority on race day will be NASCAR officials, approved suppliers, team road crew required for inspection and road crew by position. 
  • Participants are to confine their movement to their primary work area. An example is that spotters will not be allowed in the infield at any time. Spotters will be required to meet social distancing guidelines of being 6 feet apart from each other.
  • Team Haulers and race cars will have a minimum of 6 feet of open space between them when parked in the garage. Hauler doors will remain open as much as possible to allow entry and exit without touching the door. Designated restricted areas will be marked in the infield, including directional paths for walking.
  •  Teams will use a private chat with NASCAR as the primary communications with series officials during a race to minimize direct interaction.
  • If a driver is involved in an accident or otherwise unable to continue and track services personnel respond, the driver must continue wearing their helmet until a safety worker provides an appropriate face mask for the driver.
  • If a team does not finish the race, that team may exit the  garage area at their discretion but must undergo post-event screening requirements, post-event vehicle and equipment disinfecting requirements and maintain proper social distancing during their preparation and departure.
  • After a series departs, the garage area must be disinfected before another series occupies the garage.

5.  In case you believe in signs …

The last time Darlington Raceway hosted a Cup race in May … Matt Kenseth won.

It was in 2013. Denny Hamlin finished second and was followed by Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.

Kenseth makes his return to the Cup Series next weekend at Darlington. He takes over the No. 42 car after Chip Ganassi Racing fired Kyle Larson for using a racial slur during an iRacing event last month.

In 2014, Darlington moved to April on the Cup schedule and then returned to its traditional Labor Day weekend spot in 2015.

NASCAR states that Darlington will keep its Southern 500 race in September so the races the track will host May 17 and May 20 will come from other tracks. NASCAR plans to reveal next week the tracks that will lose a date this season.

Texas Truck race results: Carson Hocevar scores first series win

Texas Truck race results
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Carson Hocevar was in front after the leaders crashed in overtime and scored his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series victory Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Texas Truck race results

Rookie Nick Sanchez, who led 168 of the 172-lap race, dueled reigning series champion Zane Smith on the last lap when Sanchez’s truck hit Smith’s. As Sanchez tried to regain control of his vehicle, he was hit from behind by Hocevar. That contact sent Sanchez into Smith. Christian Eckes also was collected.

Hocevar’s first win came in his 59th series start.

Chase Purdy placed second. Stewart Friesen finished third. Ty Majeski was fourth. Jake Garcia completed the top five.


Richmond Xfinity results, driver points


RICHMOND, Va. — Chandler Smith won a stage, led a race-high 83 laps and rallied late to score his first career Xfinity win Saturday at Richmond Raceway.

MORE: Richmond Xfinity results

MORE: Xfinity points after Richmond race

John Hunter Nemechek placed second. The rest of the top five featured Josh Berry, Kaz Grala and Cole Custer. Austin Hill, who had won three of the first six races of the season, placed ninth.

Hill continues to lead the points. He has a 12-point advantage on Riley Herbst and an 18-point lead on Nemechek heading into the next series race in two weeks at Martinsville.

Chandler Smith scores first career Xfinity win with Richmond victory


RICHMOND, Va. — Chandler Smith held off John Hunter Nemechek to win his first career NASCAR Xfinity Series race Saturday at Richmond Raceway.

The 20-year-old Smith took the lead with 12 laps to go and withstood a restart with six laps to go to earn the victory for Kaulig Racing.

MORE: Richmond race results, driver points

His victory came about a month after being passed for the lead with two laps to go at Las Vegas and finishing third day.

“It obviously wasn’t in God’s works for me that and I was fine with that, I was good with that,” said Smith, who will make his Cup debut Sunday. “I knew there was something bigger and better that He was playing it out for me and I just had to be faithful and keep on trucking. Here’s proof of it.”

Nemechek was second. Josh Berry placed third and was followed by Kaz Grala and Cole Custer.

Justin Allgaier finished 13th to win the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

“Today was weird because of how we finished,” Allgaier said. “Given the same circumstances a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, 13th wasn’t going to win the Dash 4 Cash but today it did.”

Stage 1 winner: Chandler Smith

Stage 2 winner: Josh Berry

Who had a good race: A caution caught Justin Allgaier a lap down, ending his chances for a top-five finish but he was able to bounce back and win the Dash 4 Cash for a fifth time. … Derek Kraus finished 10th in his Xfinity debut. … Chris Hacker placed 14th in his Xfinity debut.

Who had a bad race: Riley Herbst had his career-long streak of top-10 finishes snapped after nine races. He placed 23rd after he was hit and spun late in the race.

Notable: This is the second time in the last four races that there has been a first-time series winner. Sammy Smith scored his first series win last month at Phoenix.

Next: The series is off until April 15 at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

Daniel Suarez, Ross Chastain move on from COTA incident


RICHMOND, Va. — Daniel Suarez says he’s been trying to “work on myself” after conflicts with teammate Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman last weekend at COTA but noted that if NASCAR doesn’t make adjustments with restarts on road courses, he’ll change his driving style.

NASCAR fined Suarez $50,000 on Wednesday for hitting another vehicle on pit road after the race. Suarez hit Chastain’s car at pit entrance and hit the back of Bowman’s car while they were both on pit road.

MORE: Cup starting lineup at Richmond 

“I’ve been trying to work on myself mostly during the week, trying to clear my mind and reset,” Suarez said Saturday at Richmond Raceway. “My team, we’re good. I think the issue wasn’t really with one driver. I feel like it’s more as an industry, how we are allowing to have those kind of bump-and-run restarts at the end of the races at road courses.

“I don’t think that’s right.”

Suarez restarted fifth in the second overtime restart. Alex Bowman, with Ross Chastain and Chase Briscoe aligned behind, charged and got beside Suarez as they approached Turn 1.

As Bowman slowed to make the tight turn, he was hit from behind and that sent him into Suarez, who clipped the left rear of Martin Truex Jr.’s car. Truex spun in front of Suarez and blocked his path, allowing the rest of the field to go by. Suarez finished 27th.

Chastain said he and Suarez have moved on from last week’s incident after talking this week.

“Every household on this earth has their moments of arguments and we had ours,” Chastain said Saturday.

“We’re family. We’re in the same house, right. It’s in our name. It’s Trackhouse. No matter what, we all think we have to put that behind and know that moving forward we’re brothers. … We’re brothers at Trackhouse and we’re going to be stronger together.”

Suarez is among the number of drivers who have raised concerns about the rough driving in the series. The Next Gen car is more durable and can take more hits — as evident in the Clash at the Coliseum to start the year when drivers barreled into the back of cars in the corners to slow down.

Add the emphasis of winning, less respect for one another and the result is the type of racing on display at the end of the race at Circuit of the Americas, as drivers charged down a long straightaway before braking hard for a tight turn and making contact with one another.

So, what can be done?

“I don’t have the answers to that,” Suarez said. “All I know is that NASCAR is working toward trying to make a better solution for some of these restarts. It doesn’t look right. This sport looks embarrassing.

“That’s not real. Just go into the corner and bump three cars to push people out of that way, that’s not real. We know that. That’s how some people got top fives and top 10s last week and some of the guys that were fast, like myself, finished 27th.

“If NASCAR does something about it, that’s amazing. If they don’t I’ll just join the party.”