Friday 5: Some drivers get early start back on track

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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.

Toyota exec ‘not throwing in the towel’ on keeping Christopher Bell

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The announcement by Leavine Family Racing earlier this week that it had been sold puts Christopher Bell‘s Cup career in “immediate peril,” according to Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson.

Wilson made his comments about Bell’s future Wednesday night to Claire B. Lang on “Dialed In” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“The immediate impact is to Christopher Bell,” Wilson said. “Christopher Bell, who is certainly one of our development drivers and somebody that we have invested a lot in over the years, it puts him in immediate peril. … We don’t know yet if we can recover, having to go out, it’s the first of August and this has been a relatively recent development. But to go out in this climate, in this environment, and to try to put together a partnership with no time and the demands required of that partnership from a sponsorship perspective, are just very difficult.”

Bell, a rookie, drives Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota. Leavine Family Racing is one of three teams, including Joe Gibbs Racing and Gaunt Brothers Racing, that receives support from Toyota.

While the identity of who bought LFR has not been disclosed, Wilson said “It’s doubtful that there’s a plausible solution” that sees Toyota’s current deal with the No. 95 team continuing with the new ownership next year.

“I think this is widely known, part of the partnership, part of the way LFR worked was a technical alliance, a hardware reliance on Joe Gibbs Racing,” Wilson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Those cars are leased, they’re not owned by Bob (Leavine) and the team. Those go back to Joe Gibbs Racing. What I can tell you is that as soon as we became aware of this problem, Joe and I have been working very closely, very aggressively, every day. It’s what’s keeping me awake every night right now, trying to figure out if we can adapt, if we can come up with a bridge to get us another year down the road.”

Bell has been a Toyota development driver his entire NASCAR career, including two full-time seasons in the Truck Series at Kyle Busch Motorsports and two full-time Xfinity Series seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing.

A winner of 16 Xfinity races, Bell joined Leavine Family Racing in part due to JGR’s stable of drivers being full in the Cup Series. Erik Jones, who drives the No. 20 Toyota, is in a contract year. That car could be driven by Bell in 2021.

But Wilson acknowledged Bell could not be in a Toyota come 2021.

“In the end, if we can’t, the collective we, Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing or a new Toyota affiliated team, if we cannot find a solution for Christopher then he’s got to do what he’s got to do,” Wilson said. “We are, again, very invested in Christopher. We’re not throwing in the towel, we are being very aggressive. I’ve been very candid in the past, probably overly so, to the effect that Christopher Bell is going to be in a Toyota for years and years and years to come. That has been our intention. That remains our intention. I would say today, stay tuned. It’s very late, but we’re working on it and we should have something to share between ourselves and Joe Gibbs Racing in the very near future.

NASCAR announces new method for setting starting lineups

NASCAR starting lineups
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NASCAR announced Thursday a new way of establishing starting lineups and pit selection order for races beginning with next weekend’s events on the Daytona road course.

NASCAR will use three competition-based performance metrics, replacing the random draw procedure that has been in place for a majority of races since NASCAR returned to racing in May.

More: NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

More: Starting lineup for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan

Owner points position and the finish and fastest lap from the most recently completed race will be weighted and averaged to establish the starting order. Points position will be weighted at 35%, finishing position at 50% and fastest race lap at 15%.

When the playoffs begin, playoff cars will fill the top starting positions. In the Round of 16, the top 16 starting positions will be playoff cars; in the Round of 12, the top 12 starting positions will be playoff cars; and so on.

“The random draw has served us well during the return to racing, but it is important that starting lineups are based on performance as we approach the playoffs,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said in a press release. “The entire industry is aligned on implementing a competition-based system to determine the starting lineup and pit selection order.”

Team Penske driver Joey Logano said Thursday that the formula “makes sense.”

“It’s maybe a little bit more confusing than what I would have gone with,” Logano said. “If they end up going with the process that has been talked about here, just for the race fans I feel like it’s confusing, but, outside of that, so it’s fair and I guess that’s all that matters. It’s fair and I’m sure that’s probably what the fans care about the most. If all of us competitors can agree that it’s a fair way to set the lineup, I don’t think any fan is really gonna care how it happened as long as we all feel like you earned your starting position, just like we used to.

“You used to earn your starting position by qualifying. Well, now you’re going to earn your starting position by three different ways, whether it’s lap time or finishing points position – those type of things. You’ve earned every one of those spots, so although it’s confusing it’s fair.”

NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

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NASCAR announced Thursday it will implement the choose rule starting with this weekend’s races at Michigan International Speedway.

The Truck Series races Friday (6 p.m. ET on FS1) and the Cup Series holds a doubleheader, racing Saturday (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The choose rule allows drivers to pick which lane they restart when a race resumes from a caution, with drivers able to secure better track position or restart in the preferred lane. It will be used in all races except those held on road courses and superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega).

With the Xfinity Series competing at Road America this weekend and on the Daytona road course next weekend, the choose rule won’t be used by the series until its Aug. 22-23 races at Dover.

The rule made its NASCAR national series debut in the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway and was warmly received by drivers.

Drivers chose their lanes on the lap before the restart when they drove to the right or left of an orange cone symbol painted on the track just beyond the start-finish line.

“Considering feedback from teams, drivers and fans, NASCAR has implemented these changes to enhance competition as we approach the playoffs,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, in a press release. “We received nothing but positive comments from the drivers on the choose rule following the All-Star Race, and felt it was an important addition to the restart procedure.

“I think the choose rule’s been needed for a long time,” Chase Elliott said after winning the All-Star Race. “I think it should be that way every week. I don’t think there’s really a reason to not have it. There’s no reason to me why you shouldn’t have the choice or you should be automatically told where you’re going to line up when one lane has an obvious advantage, just based on where you come off pit road. Life ain’t fair I guess, but just makes way more sense to put it in our hands and it either works out for you or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s your own fault and not luck of the draw and where you come off pit road.”

When asked about the choose rule Thursday, Joey Logano was enthusiastic.

“Finally,” Logano said. “I’ve been looking for this for years. I’ve brought it up in meetings for years and to see it kind of come into action at Bristol is something that I thought went really smooth. It was kind of exciting and interesting to see the decisions that drivers made and it was different every time. If you do that at Bristol, what’s it look like at Michigan?  … There’s a lot of questions that kind of come along with that on what it is and there might be some races where it looks identical to what it is right now where third is on the inside and fourth is on the outside. That can happen. .. It definitely adds another piece to the strategy and even more importantly it has everyone not doing the whole stopping at the end of pit road and letting a car go by because, for one, it’s not safe to stop at the end of pit road for anyone jumping over the wall and having cars swerve like that.

“But, two, that’s not racing. The goal should be in front of whatever car is in front of you, not let one go at the end of pit road so you can have the outside lane or the inside lane. That’s backwards. You don’t want to do that, so we can get past that. Every time we’d try to count cars like that someone would have a penalty anyway, so it never worked for me. You’d always let one go and then the car in front of you has an uncontrolled or a speeding penalty and you’re like,’ C’mon!’ So, it gets rid of all that. That’s nice.”

Truck starting lineup at Michigan

Truck starting lineup at Michigan
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Chandler Smith will be on the pole after a random draw set the Truck starting lineup for Friday’s race at Michigan International Speedway.

Brett Moffitt will join Smith on the front row of the Truck starting lineup. Rookie Christian Eckes will start third and be followed by Matt Crafton, who won at Kansas in the most recent Truck race, and Austin Hill.

Click here for Truck starting lineup

Here is how the lineup was set:

  • Positions 1 -10: The first 10 NGROTS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up Eligibility will be assigned starting positions 1st – 10th using a random draw.
  • Positions 11 – 21: The next 11 NGROTS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 11- 21 using a random draw.
  • positions 22 – 32: The next 11 NGROTS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 22nd – 32nd  using a random draw.
  • Any vehicles that are eligible for the Event in position 33rd – 40th will be assigned starting positions based on their order of eligibility.

NASCAR Truck Series at Michigan 

Race Time: 6 p.m. ET Friday

Track: Michigan International Speedway: Brooklyn, Michigan (2-mile speedway)

Length: 100 laps (200 miles)

Stages: Stage 1 ends Lap 20. Stage 2 ends Lap 40.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Motor Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); mrn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Cup race: Saturday at Michigan (156 laps, 312 miles) 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Next Xfinity race: Saturday at Road America (45 laps, 182.16 miles) noon ET on NBCSN