Today’s iRacing Cup race at virtual North Wilkesboro: Start time, more

Photo: Johnny Joo/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
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The seventh and final edition of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series takes place today on a digital North Wilkesboro Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox, FS1 and the Fox Sports App).

Hendrick Motorsports drivers have won the last four races: William Byron has won three, including last week at a virtual Dover Raceway, as well as Alex Bowman.

Here’s the info for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

DIGNITARIES: Country music artist and former NASCAR pit crew member Chase Rice will perform the National Anthem. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt will give the command to start engines. Cassi Mitchell Smith, wife of Speedway Motorsports President Marcus Smith, will give the invocation.

FORMAT: One hour of practice begins at 2 p.m. Qualifying begins at 2:50 p.m. The top 10 qualifiers will be inverted. The top-three finishers from Dover (Christopher Bell and Timmy Hill) will start from the back and will not make a qualifying attempt. Byron, who won last week’s event is not scheduled to compete.

RACE: The North Wilkesboro 160 is scheduled to begin at 3:13 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 160 laps (100 miles) around the virtual .625-mile oval.

RULES: Drivers will be allowed one reset to repair damage. Manual cautions will be determined by race officials. There will be a maximum of three attempts at a green-white-checkered finish.

TV: The race can be seen on FOX (where available), FS1 and the Fox Sports App. Coverage begins at 3 p.m.

DRIVERS SCHEDULED TO COMPETE (subject to change):

#3 Austin Dillon
#4 Kevin Harvick
#6 Ross Chastain
#8 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
#10 Aric Almirola
#11 Denny Hamlin
#13 Ty Dillon
#14 Clint Bowyer
#17 Chris Buescher
#18 Kyle Busch
#19 Martin Truex Jr.
#20 Erik Jones
#21 Jon Wood
#24 Jeff Gordon
#31 Tyler Reddick
#34 Michael McDowell
#37 Ryan Preece
#38 John Hunter Nemechek
#41 Cole Custer
#49 Chad Finchum
#51 Garrett Smithley
#52 JJ Yeley
#53 Joey Gase
#66 Timmy Hill
#77 Parker Kligerman
#89 Landon Cassill
#95 Christopher Bell
#TBD Bobby Labonte

WHAT DRIVERS ARE SAYING:

Erik Jones: “I’m looking forward to North Wilkesboro. It’s something completely different for me. I’ve never been there in real life or virtually until earlier this week when I ran some laps and some of the practice races. It should be fun. It’s really a unique track. It’s challenging from the time I’ve spent on it and the laps I’ve made. I know we’re all pretty excited to run there to finish it out. It’s been a good time in the Pro Invitational over the last month and a half that we’ve been running it since Homestead. Hopefully we can close it out with another good show. … We had a good shot at Dover and it would be nice to get up front and win one of these races.”

Austin Dillon: “It’s going to be interesting, that’s for sure. I’ve personally never raced at North Wilkesboro, but my family has a lot of experience there. North Wilkesboro was one of my dad’s favorite tracks when he was a driver. He’s won Late Model races there.”

Tyler Reddick: “I’m really looking forward to this Saturday’s race at North Wilkesboro . That’s a track I’ve never been to since it closed long before I started racing in NASCAR, but I’ve always wanted to race there. It’s a track I’ve seen a lot of old races at and heard a lot about from other drivers, so I was excited when I heard iRacing was not only scanning the track to add it to their program, but also that we’ll get to be the first people to race on it this weekend. One of the reasons I love iRacing so much is because it allows me to race at all these legendary short tracks, like North Wilkesboro. I hope one day I’ll get to race there in real life, but this is a great alternative for now.”

Kevin Harvick: “I actually tested my Cup car at North Wilkesboro in 2011 or 2012 – somewhere in that timeframe. We ran our car around there because they had it cleaned up enough and were running some races there. I’ve never actually run a race at North Wilkesboro other than those few laps I ran on that particular day. Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., and iRacing, obviously, pushed to get that track scanned, and it looks just like North Wilkesboro. I think it’s a great move, and I look forward to running there in my Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford Mustang before we go back to real racing.”

Aric Almirola: “I have actually really enjoyed my short time in iRacing. I think it’s so cool to be able to virtually race somewhere we can’t in real life. We finished 10th at Dover by surviving, and I’m sure that will be the strategy this weekend. I think it will be a bit more of an even playing field now because the track is relatively new to everyone. The coolest thing about racing this weekend is that we surprised my wife, Janice, with a paint scheme that she colored a few weeks ago. We got bored and decided to color some fun paint schemes with the kids. Smithfield was kind enough to approve it and put it on the racecar to dedicate to Janice for Mother’s Day. If I win in this paint scheme, we might have to run it again on a real track.”

Clint Bowyer: “How we used iRacing with our sport has been phenomenal. It gave us an opportunity to reach our fans and gave them some great entertainment. I’ve been entertained. I hope it shows. Jeff (Gordon) and I have been having a blast down there at the (FOX) studio calling these races. It has been a lot of fun, but it’s not much longer until we get back to real racing, and that’s what all of us want. I don’t know if you’ve noticed or paid attention, but the ones who are winning these iRaces are the ones that don’t have a family or a wife to answer to. So no, I don’t have much of a chance for success, but I’m still going to have fun in my Rush Truck Centers/Cummins Ford Mustang.”

Cole Custer: “I’ve never been to North Wilkesboro before, but it’s cool how when you drive to Bristol that you can see the track right off the highway, and you can kind of think about what it used to be back in its heyday. It will be really interesting since there are only a handful of guys who have driven on the track, so there will be a lot of learning for everyone to get it figured out, that’s for sure. I’ll definitely spend a couple more hours to try and get an idea of what to do in my Haas Tooling Ford Mustang since I’ve never been there.”

Denny Hamlin: “It’s certainly going to be interesting. Hats off to Dale Jr. for taking the initiative to get the track cleaned up and scanned by iRacing so that we could do it. Obviously, I’ll need to run plenty of practice laps leading up to Saturday to get a good feel for it. But it’s a short track, which is right in our wheelhouse. … (iRacing has) been great for our sport. We’ve given fans races to watch, plus gotten some new eyes watching our sport who maybe had never watched a race before. We’ve been providing live competition on national TV in a way that other sports couldn’t.”

Michael McDowell: “I’m sure that I am speaking for not only myself, but for the entire NASCAR community when I say that it has been a long two months without racing. I’m thankful for the recent news that we will be returning to the race track soon, and I’m also thankful for all of the hard work that iRacing, NASCAR and FOX Sports have put in to deliver fans, drivers, teams and partners with the closest thing possible to live racing during quarantine.”

John Hunter Nemechek: “It’s going to be really cool to race virtually at North Wilkesboro this weekend. No one has run an iRacing event at this track before, so it might be a little wild and crazy, but definitely worth tuning in. I think it will be the perfect finale to the Pro Invitational Series, and a great sendoff as we get ready to return to the track in Darlington next weekend.”

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Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.