Friday 5: What’s next in these changing times for NASCAR?

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Midweek races. Inverted fields. No practice. NASCAR’s return after a 10-week suspension because of the COVID-19 pandemic comes with a much different look out of necessity.

But could some of the changes taking place become more permanent?

The sport is taking a close look at how it does things, what it can do without and what it can do more of.

At this point, no idea seems too far-fetched. Provided it doesn’t disrupt the competitive balance.

Whether it be the iRacing that kind of held the fans over a couple months, to coming back in this form it’s been a home run in my opinion for everyone at NASCAR’s management to make this happen,” Denny Hamlin said of NASCAR’s return.

“I like how nimble they are being. Just because we have done this for ‘X’ amount of years — we’ve always had practice and qualifying, but we never did an invert – they are willing to make changes and do it quickly. That’s something I haven’t seen in our sport in a very long time, or probably ever. It’s the most nimble as I’ve ever seen.”

While it seems unlikely NASCAR will do away with practice for every race, the question remains: Does the Cup Series need to be at some tracks for three days if they’re racing only once? Maybe it makes sense to run more doubleheaders. And midweek races.

Wednesday’s race at Darlington was delayed by rain but it gave a hint of what a midweek race could be like. Fans will get another chance to see a midweek Cup race Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway and June 10 at Martinsville Speedway.

“We can make it work,” Kevin Harvick said of midweek races. “From a team standpoint and from competitors, it’s great if we can shorten the schedule, do all those things.

“In the end, the telltale sign is going to be when those TV numbers come out. If they’re good, that’s what drives everything. That’s what everybody sells their sponsorship on. That’s what we all want to see, is great TV numbers. We’d love the fans at the racetrack, but in the end the biggest stick comes from how many people turn on the TV.”

If such races draw enough people, Hamlin notes “there’s an opportunity for us to own the summer where there’s less sports going on.”

On the track, ideas such as inverting the field instead of qualifying proved enticing to some.

“I thought it was okay,” Martin Truex Jr. “The good cars still worked their way to the front.”

But could there be other ideas? Austin Dillon suggested on social media after Wednesday’s race that drivers should be able to select what lane they want to restart in as is done at short tracks across the country.

“It brings another strategy to the table, it’s definitely something to talk about,” Joey Logano said. “You don’t have luck coming involved. You see guys hit their brakes at the end of pit road, number one that’s not real safe, but, two, you try to line yourself up sixth and then the car in front of you gets a speeding penalty and you’re like, ‘I gave up a spot and now I’m on the bottom, too. I really blew it.’

“That happens out there so many times that everybody is trying to play the game, so just put a cone out there and say, ‘Go left or right.’  Where you go is where you are. If you change after that, you go to the end of the line and you’re out. It’s an easy thing to do. I think right now it might be tough because we have plenty of changes right now with everything we’re doing, so I think we need to give a little bit of grace here, but I do think in the future I would love to try.”

Maybe it will be tried at some point. NASCAR seems open to many ideas. What could be next?

2. Three down, four to go

Kyle Busch’s quest to run seven NASCAR races in 11 days moves to Charlotte for the final four races in the stretch. When he’s finished, he will have run four Cup, two Xfinity and one Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race in that span.

Rain has messed up his schedule a bit. Tuesday’s Xfinity race at Darlington was moved to Thursday, shortening his preparation time for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 and the start of four races in four days.

I probably missed a day of working out overall and rehydrating,” said Busch, who finished second in both Wednesday’s Cup race and Thursday’s Xfinity race at Darlington. “Obviously, I’m a day later on getting my hydration ready for the 600 miles, but it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

After running three races since the season resumed, Busch said he feels good in the car.

“We had the race on Sunday and it was a little warmer out,” he said. “I saw a couple guys get out of the car and kind of sit next to their car and they were pretty wet and kind of hot and overheated maybe a little bit,” he said. “I felt fine. Then (Wednesday) night I had no issues and then (Thursday) again I had no issues. I’ve got enough cooling and things like that where I feel pretty good and ready to go.”

3. Blessings from afar

Maybe there was only time for a nod or a thumbs up but even those moments provided a sense of reassurance when there wasn’t time for prayer.

With NASCAR’s return to racing during the COVID-19 pandemic — and limits on who can be in the infield — such moments were gone at Darlington. For a sport that embraces prayer, that was significant.

“It was definitely different,” John Hunter Nemechek said.

Billy Mauldin, president and senior chaplain for Motor Racing Outreach, said that last weekend’s Cup race at Darlington marked the first time in decades that MRO did not have someone at the track offering a prayer to competitors before they climbed into their cars.

“I won’t lie to you,” Mauldin told NBC Sports. “It was hard to watch from home. … Our whole team misses not being able to do that. But we understand. We totally get it. We want things to be successful and to keep moving forward and however we can be a part of that. That has always been MRO’s attitude for 30-plus years: What we can we do? How we can we be a part of making things work for everybody?”

The ministry organization doesn’t attend to only drivers. Mauldin says he or someone else from MRO will offer prayers to pit crew members, Goodyear employees and others before each race.

Pit crews huddle in prayer before last year’s season finale in Miami. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

They still do now. Just digitally. MRO offers a virtual service each race day and specialized prayers for pit crew members and Goodyear employees that are sent so they can watch the brief video when they have time.

Mauldin understands that health guidelines may prevent MRO from being on pit road anytime soon.

“Under the best of times, when we go out on the line before the race to pray for the drivers, it’s not just a functional thing,” he said. “We know everybody, the drivers and their families.

“It’s really all different types of things going on at every car. Some it’s just a moment of prayer. Sometimes it’s just a thumbs up. Sometimes it’s just making eye contact through the windshield because they’re already pulling their helmets on.

“It’s very similar to the relationship a military chaplain shares with troops, particularly when they go downrange. You can’t always communicate but it’s the presence thing.”

Even in these times, Mauldin and MRO maintain a presence.

“We pray for them at the end of the drivers meeting,” he said. “We pray for them in the invocation. We’re still doing all of that right now. To the degree that our faith is the importance of pray and asking God to watch over them and keep them safe, that’s being done whether we get by the car or not.”

4. Quiet track

Chris Graythen, manager of motorsports for Getty Images, estimates he and fellow photographer Jared Tilton walked more than 40,000 steps and posted more 1,000 photos from Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway.

They were among three photographers on site at Darlington as all facets of the event were trimmed to only essential personnel. Teams were limited in how many crew members they could have and media also were limited (there were no more than four writers per event at Darlington and they were confined to the press box).

The three photographers (Note: NBC Sports uses Getty Images) had access throughout the track. They were in the garage with crews, on pit road with drivers and throughout the facility, giving them a rare insight to what it was like this past week at Darlington.

Kevin Harvick in Victory Lane after winning the Cup race last Sunday at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“What’s really interesting is the silence that is there,” Graythen told NBC Sports. “It’s just so quiet. When the national anthem ends, usually there is the flyover and the fans are cheering and the crews are getting ready and they crank up the engines. (At the Sunday and Wednesday Cup races,) the anthem ends and it’s just quiet. That’s kind of strange.”

Also what’s different is Victory Lane. Normally, cluttered with crew members, VIPs and others crowding around the driver and team as several photographers capture the scene, Victory Lane is practically barren.

“There’s no shouting, there’s no screaming,” Graythen. said. “It’s, hey Kevin (Harvick), look right here.”

Of the thousands of photos he took at Darlington, what is the image that stands out to Graythen?

“I think the weekend boils down to the picture of Kevin Harvick in Victory Lane, just him with the car and the trophy and the black mask over his face and nobody around,” Graythen said. “I’m sure he’s smiling under there.

“To me, that kind of boiled everything down into one picture because it shows, yeah, it’s good and it’s great, NASCAR is back, we have a winner, Harvick has got his 50th win, this is all very exciting for the industry. But it also has that mask, that starkness, that quietness that shows the time that we’re in.”

5. Experience a key factor?

The Truck Series returns to action Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, marking the first time the series has run since Feb. 21 at Las Vegas — a race won by Kyle Busch.

Just as the Cup and Xfinity Series have done in most events since returning, the Truck race at Charlotte will have no practice or qualifying. The first lap at speed will be when the green flag waves.

Former Truck series champ Johnny Sauter finished second to Busch at Las Vegas. As Sauter prepares to resume the season, what stands out to the ThorSport Racing driver?

“I feel great that I have the experience that I have at a lot of these race tracks,” he said. “The only thing that I look at is that some of these younger guys going to these racetracks having never even raced or turned a lap there getting in trouble. What I mean by that is that you just hope you’re not a victim of a mistake.”

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NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

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CONCORD, N.C. —  NASCAR announced Tuesday that it will not permit drivers to run against the wall to gain speed as Ross Chastain did in last year’s Martinsville Cup playoff race.

NASCAR made the announcement in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

MORE: NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

MORE: NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

Chastain drove into the Turn 3 wall and rode it around the track at higher speed than the rest of the field, passing five cars in the final two turns to gain enough spots to make the championship race. NASCAR allowed the move to stand even though some competitors had asked for a rule change leading into the season finale at Phoenix last year.

NASCAR is not adding a rule but stressed that Rule 10.5.2.6.A covers such situations.

That rule states: “Safety is a top priority for NASCAR and NEM. Therefore, any violations deemed to compromise the safety of an Event or otherwise pose a dangerous risk to the safety of Competitors, Officials, spectators, or others are treated with the highest degree of seriousness. Safety violations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.”

NASCAR stated that the penalty for such a maneuver would be a lap or time penalty.

Chastain said he’s fine with being known for that move, which will never be repeated in NASCAR history.

“I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a wave that will continue beyond just 2022 or just beyond me,” Chastain told NBC Sports earlier this month about the move’s legacy. “There will be probably a day that people will learn about me because of that, and I’m good with that. I’m proud of it.

“I don’t think it will ever happen again. I don’t think it will ever pay the reward that it paid off for us that it did that day. I hope I’m around in 35 years to answer someone’s question about it. And I probably still won’t have a good answer on why it worked.”

The video of Chastain’s wall-hugging maneuver had 12.5 million views on the NBC Sports TikTok account within a week of it happening. Excluding the Olympics, the only other video that had had more views on the NBC Sports TikTok account to that point in 2022 was Rich Strike’s historic Kentucky Derby win. 

Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso, Pierre Gasly and Daniel Ricciardo all praised Chastain’s move at the time, joining a chorus of competitors throughout social media. 

NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

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NASCAR’s preseason non-points race, now known as the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, was born in 1979 with the idea of testing the sport’s fastest drivers and cars on one of racing’s fastest tracks — Daytona International Speedway.

The concept was driver vs. driver and car vs. car. No pit stops. Twenty laps (50 miles) on the Daytona oval, with speed and drafting skills the only factors in victory.

Originally, the field was made up of pole winners from the previous Cup season. In theory, this put the “fastest” drivers in the Clash field, and it also served as incentive for teams to approach qualifying with a bit more intensity. A spot in the Clash the next season meant extra dollars in the bank.

The race has evolved in crazy directions over the years, and no more so than last year when it was moved from its forever headquarters, the Daytona track, to a purpose-built short track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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Over the decades, virtually everything about the race changed in one way or another, including the race length, eligibility requirements, format, calendar dates, sponsorship and title. From 1979-2020, the race was held on Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval and served as a sort of preview piece for the Daytona 500, scheduled a week later. In 2021, it moved to Daytona’s road course before departing for the West Coast last season.

Here’s a look at 10 historic moments in the history of the Clash:

NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 2022 — Few races have been as anticipated as last year’s Clash at the Coliseum. After decades in Daytona Beach, NASCAR flipped the script in a big way and with a big gamble, putting its top drivers and cars on a tiny temporary track inside a football stadium. Joey Logano won, but that was almost a secondary fact. The race was a roaring success, opening the door for NASCAR to ponder similar projects.

2. 2008 — How would Dale Earnhardt Jr. handle his move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports? The answer came quickly — in his first race. Junior led 46 of the 70 laps in winning what then was called the Budweiser Shootout, his debut for Hendrick. The biggest action occurred prior to the race in practice as Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch tangled on — and off — the track. Both were called to the NASCAR trailer, where the incident reportedly accelerated. Both received six-race probations.

3. 2012 — One of the closest finishes in the history of the Clash occurred in a race that produced a rarity — Jeff Gordon’s car on its roof. Kyle Busch and Gordon made contact in Turn 4 on lap 74, sending Gordon into the wall, into a long slide and onto his roof. A caution sent the 80-lap race into overtime. Tony Stewart had the lead on the final lap, but Kyle Busch passed him as they roared down the trioval, winning the race by .013 of a second.

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4. 1984 — A race that stands out in Ricky Rudd’s career, and not in a fun way. Neil Bonnett won the sixth Clash, but the video highlights from the day center on Rudd’s 15th-lap crash. He lost control of his car in Turn 4 and turned sideways. As Rudd’s car left the track, it lifted off the surface and began a series of flips before landing on its wheels, very badly damaged. Safety crews removed Rudd from the car. He suffered a concussion, and his eyes were swollen such that he had to have them taped open so he could race a few days later in a Daytona 500 qualifier.

5. 1980 — The second Clash was won by Dale Earnhardt, one of Daytona International Speedway’s masters. This time he won in unusual circumstances. An Automobile Racing Club of America race often shared the race day with the Clash, and that was the case in 1980. The ARCA race start was delayed by weather, however, putting NASCAR and track officials in a difficult spot with the featured Clash also on the schedule and daylight running out. Officials made the unusual decision of stopping the ARCA race to allow the Clash to run on national television. After Earnhardt collected the Clash trophy, the ARCA race concluded.

6. 1994 — Twenty-two-year-old Jeff Gordon gave a hint of what was to come in his career by winning the 1994 Clash. Gordon would score his first Cup point win later that year in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but he also dazzled in the Clash, making a slick three-wide move off Turn 2 with two laps to go to get by Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan. He held on to win the race.

7. 2006 — Upstart newcomer Denny Hamlin became the first rookie to win the Clash. Tony Stewart, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, had the lead with four laps to go, but a caution stacked the field and sent the race into overtime. Hamlin fired past Stewart, who had issues at Daytona throughout his career, on the restart and won the race.

8. 2004 — This one became the duel of the Dales. Dale Jarrett passed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap to win by .157 of a second. It was the only lap Jarrett led in the two-segment, 70-lap race.

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9. 1979 — The first Clash, designed by Anheuser-Busch to promote its Busch beer brand, drew a lot of attention because of its short length (20 laps) and its big payout ($50,000 to the winner). That paycheck looks small compared to the present, but it was a huge sum in 1979 and made the Clash one of the richest per-mile races in the world. Although the Clash field would be expanded in numerous ways over the years, the first race was limited to Cup pole winners from the previous season. Only nine drivers competed. Buddy Baker, almost always fast at Daytona, led 18 of the 20 laps and won by about a car length over Darrell Waltrip. The race took only 15 minutes.

10. 2020 — This seemed to be the Clash that nobody would win. Several huge accidents in the closing miles decimated the field. On the final restart, only six cars were in contention for the victory. Erik Jones, whose car had major front-end damage from his involvement in one of the accidents, won the race with help from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who was one lap down in another damaged car but drafted behind Jones to push him to the win.