Long: A day unlike any other in NASCAR

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Drivers walked alone to their cars Sunday at Darlington Raceway. No team members with them. No family around them. No fans anywhere.

New procedures in an era of the coronavirus.

Drivers carried their helmet, water bottle and other supplies. They headed to their cars amid questions about NASCAR’s first race in 10 weeks, making it the first major U.S. professional sport to return during these times.

Would masks and social distancing be effective? What if someone showed symptoms? What if it was a driver?

“Up until probably about two or three hours before the race, I was ready for something to go wrong,” Brad Keselowski said in a zoom call with media after finishing 13th in a race won by Kevin Harvick.

“What’s it going to be? Is someone going to be sick? Or is there going to be somebody boycotting outside the racetrack? But nobody did. Nothing bad happened. They pulled this thing off. It feels little bit like a Christmas miracle.”

Consider it Christmas all alone.

The track was empty except for about 900 essential personnel that included drivers, team members, series officials, safety personnel, TV personnel, media and others.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said everyone who went through the health screening passed and “our doctor at the check‑in … was 100% confident we were in a good place to go racing.”

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France was at the track but stayed out of the infield. Instead, he got on the track’s p.a. system before the race to thank the teams for their efforts to bring racing back.

Joey Logano carries his equipment to his car before Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Many were excited to be at the track again. Joey Logano said he was the first driver to arrive Sunday. After he passed his health screening, he went to his motorhome to isolate for a few hours before going to the car. When he unpacked his uniform — which normally would have been on the team’s hauler but is now the driver’s responsibility to limit contact with team members — Logano realized he had packed two left shoes.

Thankfully there was an extra pair in the hauler, but I thought that was funny,” he said.

After a few hours alone, the waiting finally ended and drivers emerged from their motorhomes or vehicles.

“About 10 minutes before we are supposed to be (by the cars), all of a sudden you see drivers popping out of their motorhomes carrying their helmets and walking to the grid,” Logano said. “That was funny. I have never seen anything like it.”

No one has.

Or heard anything like they did Sunday.

“Just very subdued, very quiet,” Denny Hamlin said. “That’s the biggest thing I noticed, it was just how quiet everything was.”

Erik Jones said it felt as if they were at a test.

“Then you get on pit road, and it feels more like a race,” he said, noting the pit crews in their stalls and cars on the grid. “You are just missing the fans. Unique, different. It was weird standing there for the anthem and it’s playing over the loudspeakers and then you hop in and go.”

After Darius Rucker sang the National Anthem, which was videotaped, a montage of healthcare workers came on TV screens and over the p.a system to give the command to start engines for the first time in 71 days.

“Man, that is a good sign,” Jimmie Johnson said to his team on the radio after he cranked his engine.

But the jitters remained for many.

No one knew what to expect when the green flag waved to begin the race. With no practice and no qualifying, drivers were making their first lap at speed on Lap 1. Seven of the 40 drivers competing Sunday had never run a lap at speed in a Cup car at Darlington.

“The feelings, the nerves, the anxiety, the excitement, knowing we were in uncharted territory,” Kurt Busch said about the start.

But nearly as soon as the green came out, the yellow flag waved. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with another car and crashed into the SAFER barrier on the inside wall along the backstretch. His race was over before completing a lap.

Drivers had a chance to catch their breath and then do it again.

Then, it became about racing. The lack of fans was noticeable in the background of TV shots. The color of the cars contrasted with the gray of many of the track’s empty seats.

As the race progressed, the focus remained on the track. Johnson wrecked on the final lap of Stage 1. Harvick and Alex Bowman showed they had the two best cars.

Bowman battled Harvick for two laps after a late restart but Harvick pulled away and went on to score his 50th career victory, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett on the all-time wins list.

A milestone victory, a first win this season, a fifth consecutive top-10 finish. All things to celebrate. Harvick screamed on the radio in celebration and did doughnuts at the start/finish line and then climbed to his car to silence.

“The weirdest part of the day for me was getting out of the car and not hearing anybody cheering,” Harvick said.

After his TV interview, he drove to Victory Lane for a muted celebration.

“There were two photographers there, no team guys,” Harvick said. “I was able to kind of get my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left Victory Lane, tell them great job. Those guys didn’t get a chance to take a picture with their car. Just a lot of sacrifices that go into it.

“But in the end, in the big picture of things, being able to do what we did today, and that’s race, is what everybody wants to do.”

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Saturday NASCAR schedule at Talladega Superspeedway

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Both the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series will race Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Cup cars will start the day’s action by qualifying for Sunday’s playoff race, followed by the Truck playoff race and then the Xfinity playoff race.

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Saturday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday, Oct. 1

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.