Xfinity Series storylines for Darlington

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Remember the Xfinity Series?

It’s been a while. Xfinity Series drivers will compete Tuesday night at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on FS1) in their first race since March 7 at Phoenix Raceway.

Jeff Meendering, the last crew chief to win in Xfinity, looks back at the March 7 race and it “honestly feels like it was the last race of the season and we’re getting ready to start a new season.”

But it’s not a new season. It’s race No. 5 of the 2020 season. Here’s a refresher on where the Xfinity Series is heading to Darlington.

1.) Joe Gibbs Racing Strikes Back

Entering 2020, there were a lot of questions surrounding Joe Gibbs Racing’s driver lineup, which consisted of Brandon Jones (one win in 137 starts), Harrison Burton (nine Xfinity starts, winless in 38 Truck Series starts) and Riley Herbst (winless in 17 Xfinity/Truck Series starts).

Even Jeff Meendering, crew chief on Jones’ No. 19 Toyota, had concerns.

We were pretty nervous going into the West Coast swing that, ‘Oh my gosh, we could come home and be in trouble car wise from potential wrecks and everything,'” Meendering said. “It actually didn’t turn out anything like that.”

Instead, JGR went into NASCAR’s COVID-19 imposed lockdown with two consecutive wins after Burton won at Auto Club Speedway and Jones found Victory Lane at Phoenix. Meanwhile, Burton, who finished in the top five in all four races, leads the point standings. The team’s only DNF was from Herbst at Daytona.

“We heard the doubters from outside, I guess, but that just only motivated us to be better,” said Burton, who went winless as a Kyle Busch Motorsports driver in the Truck Series in 2019. “There was the Big 3 last year (Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer), we had a meeting and we wanted our three guys to be the Big 3 this year. We wanted to race each other every weekend for wins and go against each other every weekend and have to beat our JGR teammates, which is kind of how it’s been.”

While Burton, 19, has led the charge for JGR, it’s Jones, 23, who is the veteran of the group. He’s in his fifth full-time Xfinity campaign and third with JGR.

“We all laughed at the start of the year,” Jones recalled. “I said, ‘Well, dang boys. I’m the old man of the group I guess this year.’ But it is it is interesting. Christopher (Bell) last year was obviously dominant. But I still have more races than he had in Xfinity, but he just took to the car so well. But this year kind of coming in, I feel that I’m kind of playing that role now a little bit. I’ve definitely helped (Burton and Herbst) come up to speed at race tracks and they’ve actually helped me too.”

Burton recalled how advice from Jones helped in his effort to win in his first start Auto Club Speedway on Feb. 29.

“I asked him, ‘Hey Brandon, how far are you going to drive in (to the turns)?’ and I ended up winning … and he said ‘I’m never telling you how deep I drive in ever again!'”

But with where the Xfinity Series is going tomorrow, Jones’ experience will be invaluable.

2) Darlington Rookie Stripes

When the green flag drops on Tuesday night’s Xfinity race, it will be a big moment for select drivers in the 39-car field.

Among the competitors will be 11 – more than 1/4th of the field – who have never taken a lap around Darlington. Not in practice, qualifying or a race.

The first lap will truly be the first lap of action at Darlington for Burton, Jesse Little, Herbst, Anthony Alfredo, Myatt Snider, Kody Vanderwal, Colby Howard, Ronnie Bassett Jr., Mason Massey, Joe Graf Jr. and Colin Garrett.

“I think I’d lie if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about it,” said Burton. “But the cool thing is, everybody’s nervous about it. Everyone’s in the same boat. … There’s an advantage to have in your head that everyone’s in the same boat and you just have to do your job the best you can do it.”

As for Burton’s crew chief, Ben Beshore, he doesn’t have too many concerns about Burton’s first Darlington experience.

“I felt that way about Fontana too and he showed up there and hauled ass,” Beshore said. “He’s really quick to adapt and uses the tools that he has available to him before he gets there. Whether it be studying data or notes that I sent him or running in iRacing races, he seems to be able to use that to his advantage.”

Little, a rookie driver for JD Motorsports, took on the mindset of “they’re gonna race with or without me” as he dove into his preparation of watching film, taking notes, talking to drivers and making laps on iRacing. Meanwhile, he reiterates to himself “I’m gonna go there and I’m gonna be cautious.”

When it came to advice from drivers, he didn’t have to go far.

“Definitely lean heavily on my roommate/landlord,” Little said.

That would be Cole Custer, current Cup Series rookie and winner of last year’s Xfinity race at Darlington.

“I’ve picked his brain as much as I can,” Little said. “I can’t really think of a better Xfinity driver to do it than him. … He’s helped me out quite a bit … (Making sure I’m not) psyching myself out, not being too timid or scared, you know, in a sense of, ‘It is Darlington, but if you approach it this way it’s really just another racetrack and you know, you’ll enjoy it.'”

Unlike Burton and Herbst at JGR and Alfredo at Richard Childress Racing, Little won’t make his first visit to Darlington in top equipment.

That’s something that concerns former JD Motorsports driver, Ross Chastain.

“I probably feel … the worst for Jesse, just knowing that situation and how important practice is,” Chastain said. “Even though in a normal situation going there he would only have one set of tires, he would have limited laps, but he would have 10 quality laps to learn the track and he has nothing now and you’re going to get thrown into a random draw starting position. That’s tough. Just because I know that.

“Harrison, Riley, those guys … They know their car is going to go down in the corner and it’s going to do normal stuff. Jesse’s, it can do something that he’s not expecting. And I just know that. He’s probably got the biggest, biggest challenge, but when you catch them or you’re passing them or they’re passing you, you just have to trust them.”

3) Briscoe’s Opportunity

The turnover in the Xfinity Series driver ranks this year stands out when looking at the results of the 2019 race at Darlington.

None of the top five finishers – Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Dale Earnhardt Jr. –  are entered in Tuesday’s race, with Custer, Reddick and Bell now rookies in the Cup Series.

That’s leaves Chase Briscoe as the highest-finishing returning driver from last year. In his first start at Darlington, he started fifth and finished sixth.

Count the 25-year-old driver among those excited about a lack of on-track preparation for the race.

“I actually like the no practice and qualifying deal,” Briscoe said. “I feel like that kind of fits my team’s style. You know, last year I wouldn’t have said that at all. But this year, even at the end last year we were just always really good off the truck.”

Briscoe heads into Darlington with three tops 10s, including one win (Las Vegas) through four races this season.

“I feel confident that we’ll be good,” Briscoe said. “And you know, there’s a lot of inexperienced guys in the field as far as never even racing at Darlington. I don’t have a ton of experience there, but at least I know what to expect. I think the biggest question mark for myself is (it’s) at nighttime now. How much does that change things? Last year, it was a pretty hot race and we were slick and sliding around. That fits my driving style a lot more.”

Briscoe also is concerned about there being more grip on the track, a result of Sunday’s Cup race. It’s a situation Xfinity drivers are not used to.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit nervous about the added grip that we’re gonna have, just because I feel like that kinda kind of evens the playing field,” Briscoe said. “Regardless of the temperature outside, it’s still gonna be slick to a certain extent.”

4) What day is it?

While the Cup Series competed on Sunday, Justin Allgaier watched from a distance.

The JR Motorsports driver said it was “hard to not get your blood pumping” as he’s in the final days of prepping for his own return to racing.

Allgaier and the rest of the Xfinity Series race at Darlington and then six days later will race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the oval.

“Some of the most difficult races that we have on the schedule now on the Xfinity Series side … are kind of happening in a short amount of time,” said Allgaier, who has nine Xfinity starts and two Cup starts at Darlington. “I’m looking forward to it. I think that it’s going to be a little bit different being (at Charlotte) on a Monday. Obviously, Memorial Day. It’s going to be super, super weird.

“But somebody the other day asked me if it threw me off to race on a Tuesday at Darlington. I said ‘Well, to be honest with you, because of this pandemic, I don’t know what day it is half the time anyways. So a Tuesday and a Saturday, they’re kind of the same.”

With the Charlotte race being held at night, rather than in the day like the last oval race there, Allgaier predicted that the track will have “a little bit more character” to it.

“We all call bumps character, we know that,” Allgaier said. “The weather has been kind of hot, cold, hot, cold here in North Carolina, obviously. And that a lot of times has more affect than just all the time hot or all the time cold.”

5) Over prepared

When Jeff Meendering was first able to enter the JGR shop after stay-at-home orders were lifted in North Carolina, his first stop was his office. The next was to check on the condition of the car Brandon Jones would race at Darlington.

“Obviously, we shuffled some our cars around a little bit,” Meendering said. “Our car racing at Darlington was originally going to be our Atlanta backup car. And the car we were taking to Texas originally is now going to Charlotte. So we’ve had to shuffle some stuff around, looking at the condition our cars are in and what makes sense with a limited crew to put it out.”

Despite the 10-week shutdown, Meendering’s team had been able to put together car builds through at least August. But Meendering and much of the NASCAR world didn’t know where they’d be racing beyond Charlotte until last week. On Thursday, NASCAR announced Cup and Xfinity would race at Bristol Motor Speedway the weekend after the Charlotte races.

“Those builds we were just basing them off of what the original schedule was,” Meendering said. “We got pretty deep into the original schedule. … We might have built for races that we don’t even go to now. I feel like we’re over prepared for whatever could get thrown at us.”

 

Ryan Newman to be sponsored by Progressive Insurance at Atlanta

Ryan Newman
Roush Fenway Racing
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Ryan Newman and his No. 6 Ford will be sponsored by Progressive Insurance this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox), Roush Fenway Racing announced Wednesday.

“We’re excited to welcome Progressive Insurance to the team this weekend in Atlanta,” Newman said in a press release. “A major brand such as theirs fits well into the NASCAR space. Atlanta makes for a challenging and entertaining race with the differing options of the preferred line, so we’re looking forward to it with Progressive on board.”

This is the first time Progressive has been a primary sponsor on a car in a national NASCAR series.

“We’re inspired by the resolve of Ryan and thrilled to be working with him and the team at Roush Fenway Racing this weekend in Atlanta,” Jay VanAntwerp, Progressive’s Media Business Leader, said in the press release. “Racing fans, and sports fans in general, are craving live events, so everyone should be thrilled at the chance to see Ryan and his fellow drivers out on the track. Progressive’s competitive spirit is a great fit for the dynamic, fast-paced action of NASCAR, so we’re looking forward to being part of that excitement with the No. 6 car wrapped in blue and white and sporting the Progressive name. Hopefully we will see Ryan take the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon.”

Newman enters Sunday’s race coming off a 15th-place finish at Bristol. In the five races since NASCAR returned on May 17 at Darlington, Newman’s best finish is 14th in the second Darlington race.

Cup drivers preparing for hotter, slicker Atlanta race after March postponement

Atlanta Motor Speedway
Getty Images
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It’s time for NASCAR to go racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway, finally.

Almost three months after it was scheduled, NASCAR will head back to Georgia for its annual race weekend at the 1.5-mile track Atlanta.

Cars were hours away from being on track on March 13 when NASCAR announced that weekend’s races were postponed due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

All three national series will be in action, with the Cup Series highlighting the weekend with its race on Sunday (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

This is the first time the Cup Series has competed at Atlanta in June since 1965. The last five Atlanta weekends have been held in late February or early March after it was moved from Labor Day weekend in 2015.

With a forecasted temperature of 81 degrees at the start of the race, it will be the return of “Hotlanta.”

The series is preparing for the combination of warm weather and the track’s rough surface that hasn’t been repaved since 1997, thanks to petitioning by drivers.

“Atlanta is always a fun place to race because of the surface and how worn out it is,” Martin Truex Jr. said in a media release. “It has been a few years since we’ve raced there when it’s really hot to bring out just how slick the track can get, so that will be a bit of a challenge going in with no practice.”

Truex, who finished second in this race last year, is seeking his first victory of the year and his first win at Atlanta. Atlanta is one of two 1.5-mile tracks he hasn’t won at, joining Texas Motor Speedway.

Truex has failed to finish in the top 10 once in his last eight starts at Atlanta. He heads into Atlanta coming off a 20th-place finish at Bristol. Before that he had four consecutive top 10s.

“I feel pretty good about how we have ran on the bigger tracks where handling comes into play,” Truex said. “We need a little bit of speed overall, but we’ve been able to run pretty well at tracks where the surface is slicker, so I feel confident about the car we’ll unload and how we’ll run on Sunday.”

With the track’s rough surface, restarts will be vital according to Kyle Busch, a two-time winner at Atlanta.

“I don’t know if it has to do with the asphalt mix or whatever when they paved that place that now you can definitely tell the difference between the inside lane and that outside lane,” Busch said in a media release. “Also, the inside guy has a straighter launch than the guy on the outside – he’s always kind of turning so that’s something to be said for it. Overall, it’s just some places are that way. Atlanta is the worst for the launch. The application of throttle to not spin the rear tires is so crucial there and it’s so easy to do when you’re in that outside lane.”

Busch was the winner of the 2013 Atlanta race, which was held Labor Day weekend. That was also Toyota’s last Cup win there.

“Atlanta is one of those places where anything can happen and we’ll definitely have to be on our toes there this weekend,” Busch said. “You have to have good grip there, you have to have good (tire) fall-off – you have to be fast to start a run, yet you don’t want to fall off more than anybody else. So you have to take care of your stuff and bide your time a little bit. That lends itself to options by the driver to either push hard early (in the run) or save a little and be there late. We went there several months ago and didn’t get to race there, so expecting the weekend to be much different this time around than when we traveled there in March.”

Like Truex, Busch is looking for his first win of the year. Should they or any other Toyota or Chevrolet driver win, they would end a three-year reign by Ford on the 1.5-mile track.

Brad Keselowski won two of those races and Kevin Harvick claimed the other.

Bubba Wallace joins Mike Tirico on Lunch Talk Live on NBCSN

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Bubba Wallace will be on today’s “Lunch Talk Live” with host Mike Tirico. The show airs at Noon ET on NBCSN.

“Lunch Talk Live” focuses on the current state of the sports world, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.

You can also watch the show online here.

Wallace is also a guest on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, which airs at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Today’s scheduled guests are:

  • 12:00 p.m. – Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills head coach
  • 12:15 p.m. – Bubba Wallace
  • 12:30 p.m. – James Hinchcliffe, IndyCar driver
  • 12:40 p.m. –  Ken Niumatalolo, Navy football head coach
  • 12:50 p.m. – Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets captain

 

Bubba Wallace encourages drivers to speak on social issues

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Bubba Wallace, at times emotional in discussing the recent killings of unarmed black men, said on the Dale Jr. Download that he needs to be more vocal on such matters and encouraged fellow NASCAR drivers to do the same.

“Through all the chaos that has gone on in the world, all of the African Americans, all of the unarmed black men and women being killed, I’ve been silent,” Wallace said on the Dale Jr. Download. “I’ve read all of them and I’ve been silent. I just felt that wasn’t my place. That was a huge mistake.”

Wallace, the only black driver competing in the Cup Series, said he’s reached out to fellow competitors and NASCAR officials and encouraged them to speak out in the days after George Floyd was killed while in custody of Minneapolis police on May 25. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Wednesday, the murder charged was changed to second-degree murder. Also, three other former Minneapolis police officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder on Wednesday.

“We have got to do better, we’ve got to step up,” Wallace said on the show about a message he sent to fellow Cup drivers. “I encourage everybody to say what they feel. … This is way more important than any race win, any championship that you’ve ever accomplished. This is something that can change on a global impact.”

Wallace also discussed a conversation he had with Chase Elliott.

“I texted him (Monday) night,” Wallace said. “I said, hey man, you’re the biggest name in our sport right now bud, like it or not. You’re the biggest name and your voice carries over much more than mine in our sport. I said don’t be silent on this please, don’t let it go under wraps.

“He was like, I know it’s tough to comment on and I’ve been trying to come up with something. What’s really going to change? I said Chase I don’t know but think about this. Imagine a follower, two followers that you have in how many you got. One is a person that is going to go hate somebody, go kill somebody today and the other one is somebody that is getting discriminated against.

“Imagine you saying something and both of those people look at that and they’re like, ‘Wow, that changed who I am today. I’m not going to hate on anybody anymore. I’m not going to be discriminated against. I’m going to stand up for what’s right.’

“Imagine your words changing somebody else’s life. Being silent on that they could have just (said) ‘I was waiting for somebody to tell me something.’ We have that platform and that voice to tell people we have got to stop and change our ways. That’s how to think about it.

“Could my words have helped people? Pissed off people for sure. It could have helped that one person that needed it and didn’t know it. Wow Bubba Wallace just said that, he’s my favorite driver. You know what, I’m going to change my life today because of that. That makes me feel good.”

Wallace became emotional on the Dale Jr. Download as he described seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, gunned down in February in Georgia after a white father and son followed him. They and a third man have been charged with murder in connection with Arbery’s death.

“My heart was broken and my stomach was ripped out of my body when I saw that video and even thinking about it I’m getting emotional about it now, thinking about that video and seeing how an unarmed black man … to be jogging down the street and being hunted by two armed civilians and shot and killed in broad daylight with the other guy videoing and it sounded like he was loading his gun and ready to do the same thing.

“So that’s my take on that, and I’m just like what kind of world do we live I where we hunt people and take their life away because we assume something? We assume that this is a black guy that is terrorizing our neighborhood so we’re going to go kill him? What in the hell, man? I don’t see how people can wake up and think like that.”

Wallace later said: “I’m taking an effort to understand where all the hate, where all the anger, the pain, the suffering is coming from. I’m doing my research, I’m learning about things. I feel better about speaking out about it.”

Wallace also told the story of a cousin who was killed in a police shooting in 2003 in Tennessee.

“We were at my sister’s basketball tournament, I can’t remember where,” he said. “I was running around the gym with all the brothers and sisters there and all of a sudden I hear a scream like the worst scream that you want to hear, not like somebody scared you straight, like something bad had just happened. I look over and I see my mom running out the door and we had just found out that my cousin was shot and killed by a police officer.”

A judge later cleared the officer in the shooting. The family filed a civil suit and lost in court on appeal.

Wallace will appear on Lunch Talk Live with host Mike Tirico on Wednesday on NBCSN. The show airs at noon ET.

The Dale Jr. Download with Wallace airs at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.