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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Will chaos (and rain) reign on Daytona road course?

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The biggest unknown for Sunday’s inaugural Cup race on the Daytona road course?

Ryan Newman says “there are so many unknowns that it would be fabricating for me to tell you if I knew what the biggest unknown was.”

But with all the uncertainties heading into the race (3 p.m. ET on NBC) on a new course for Cup teams — and no practice — Newman is counting on one near certainty.

“I hope it rains,” he said. “I hope you add in the extra that we have to bolt on rain tires and we get something that is just spectacular. I hope that. The reality is that could be the biggest unknown that we have. We’re in Central Florida in the middle of August when it pretty much rains every day. We’ll see. I don’t know. I look forward to it.”

Good chance he gets his wish.

The wunderground.com forecast for Sunday calls for scattered thunderstorms throughout the afternoon. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:24 p.m. ET. There is a 58% chance of scattered thunderstorms at that time.

Will rain tires be needed for Sunday’s Cup race on the Daytona road course? They’ll be available. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Goodyear will bring rain tires for the weekend and teams will run in the rain, provided it is not a downpour and there is not lightning within an 8-mile radius of the track. Cup teams have never run a race on rain tires.

Only three times in Cup history have rain tires been employed. Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin used them in a test in 1995 at Watkins Glen. Teams practiced and qualified on rain tires at Suzuka in 1997 for the exhibition race in Japan. Rain tires were last used in Cup for a practice session at Watkins Glen in 2000.

Rain or shine, the task of racing on a new course without practice will be challenging enough for competitors.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being difficult, this is a 10,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports.

“I’m excited for the challenge, the uniqueness of it all, how it’s just crazy, basically.”

MORE: Starting lineup for Sunday’s Cup race

Said Chase Elliott, who won last year’s race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval after crashing: I’ve never entered a race where you literally just have no idea what to expect.

Patience will be key. But not all 39 drivers will practice that equally when the green flag waves.

“I’ve got laps around that track without the extra chicane but that doesn’t mean I won’t haul off into Turn 1 and blow through the grass,” Newman said. “You don’t know. It will be more patience than aggressiveness I promise you by pretty much everyone. Those that don’t, you’ll notice.”

Kevin Harvick, who swept the Cup races at Michigan last weekend, will lead the field into Turn 1 and he’s not sure what to expect.

“I think me leading everybody into Turn 1 at Daytona could be interesting because I have no freaking clue where I’m going as we go down there,” he said. “Most everybody in the field is the same way.”

Turn 1 on the Daytona road course is a left-hand turn off the frontstretch just past pit exit. That begins the six-turn infield portion of the 3.61-mile course before cars return to the oval in what is its Turn 1. 

Teams stay on the oval through the backstretch before turning into the chicane there and going back on to the oval. A chicane was added off what is Turn 4 on the oval to help slow the cars before returning to the infield portion of the course. That was done for fear that the high speeds would wear the brakes over the race.

“I think it’s going to take everybody a little bit of time,” Matt Kenseth told NBC Sports. “I think there are going to be some people who have raced road courses a lot that probably feel more confident than others and possibly be overzealous and just charging it hard right away, and there’s probably going to be other people who are careful and see how many people slide into things. … It should be really interesting. If I was a fan, I’d be all about not having practice.”

Here are Cup drivers entered for Sunday’s race who have competed on the Daytona road course (overall finish)

Clint Bowyer 2013 Rolex 24 (finished 16th)

Kurt Busch — 2005 Rolex 24 (27th), 2008 Rolex 24 (3rd)

Kyle Busch — 2009 Brumos Porsche 250 (10th), 2020 Rolex 24 (26th),

Cole Custer — 2018 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge (3rd), 2019 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge (9th)

James Davison — 2014 Rolex 24 (48th), 2015 Rolex 24 (29th), 2016 Rolex 24 (44th), 

Kevin Harvick — 2002 Rolex 24 (69th)

Timmy Hill — 2012 Rolex 24 (51st)

Jimmie Johnson — 2004 Rolex 24 (28th), 2005 Rolex 24 (2nd), 2007 Rolex 24 (36th), 2008 Rolex 24  (2nd), 2009 Rolex 24 (7th), 2010 Rolex 24 (21st), 2011 Rolex 24 (15th)

Matt Kenseth — 2005 Rolex 24 (27th), 2006 IROC race (10th)

Michael McDowell — 2005 Rolex 24 (42nd), 2007 Rolex 24 (10th), 2008 Rolex 24 (15th), 2011 Rolex 24 (7th), 2012 Rolex 24 (3rd)

Ryan Newman — 2006 IROC race (3rd)

Martin Truex Jr. — 2006 IROC race (6th)

Hailie Deegan: Road courses are ‘one of my stronger suits’

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Many drivers will be navigating the Daytona road course for the first time this weekend.

Hailie Deegan is not one of them.

Deegan, who competes in the ARCA Menards Series, will be in the field when the series takes to the 14-turn, 3.61-mile circuit for practice and a race Friday evening (5 p.m. ET on Trackpass).

“I’m pretty excited because this was not one of the races we had planned on our schedule,” Deegan told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast earlier this week. “At the beginning of the year I saw all the races, obviously to see which ones you’re looking forward to, like your favorites and stuff and obviously this on wasn’t on there.  … I like road courses. I raced at Sonoma about twice (in ARCA Menards West). I was decent there, I qualified on the pole one of the times (2019) there against a lot of good drivers. It was a confirmation that, ‘Ok, we’re decent at road courses.'”

Deegan, who enters the race fourth in the point standings behind Michael Self, first got a shot at the road course at the beginning of the year. As a Ford development driver, she took part in multiple days of testing before competing in a Michelin Pilot Challenge race in a GT4 Mustang.

“I would not say I’m perfect at road courses,” Deegan said. “But I feel that’s one of my stronger suits. I’m trying to learn this whole stock car world. Circle track, everything like that, that’s all been a foreign concept. So everything I’m learning I’m learning for the first time. But when we go back to road courses, I grew up in go karting, I grew up racing off-road trucks on courses where you turn right and left. So that’s not a foreign concept to me. So I feel more comfortable on road courses, especially with us only getting an hour of practice and all the time I have on that track.

“I have so many days of practice from the beginning of the year on that track. Obviously, it’s a different car, a GT4 Mustang.  … It’s easy to drive, but hard to be fast in an IMSA car. (While) the stock cars are harder to drive, but you have that experience, I feel like you can have a little bit of an advantage over people.”

With eight races left in the season, Deegan will try to take that advantage to victory lane for her first career ARCA win. The last time she visited Daytona in February, she finished second in the season opener to Self.

NASCAR’s weekend schedule for Daytona road course

Daytona road course
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For the first time this weekend, NASCAR will compete on the Daytona road course.

All three of NASCAR’s national series and the ARCA Menards Series will take to the 14-turn, 3.61-mile circuit, culminating in Sunday’s Cup Series race.

This weekend takes the place of the race at Watkins Glen International for Cup and Xfinity.

Kevin Harvick will start on the pole for Sunday’s Cup race. Austin Cindric will lead the Xfinity field to green on Saturday.

Here is the weekend schedule for the Daytona road course.

(All times Eastern)

Thursday, Aug. 13

10:30 a.m. – ARCA driver-spotter-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

11 – 11:30 a.m. – ARCA rookie meeting (teleconference)

11:30 a.m. – Noon – ARCA crew chief meeting (teleconference)

3 – 4 p.m. – ARCA haulers enter (screening in progress)

5:30 – 7:30 p.m. – Driver motorhome parking (screening in progress)

 

Friday, Aug. 14

9 a.m. – ARCA garage opens

9 a.m. – 4 p.m. – ARCA garage access screening in progress

2 – 3 p.m. – ARCA practice

3:30 p.m. – Xfinity rookie meeting (electronic communication)

4 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

4:50 p.m. – ARCA drivers report to their cars

5 p.m. – ARCA race; 28 laps/101.08 miles miles (MAVTV, Motor Racing Network)

6 p.m. – Truck Series driver-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7:30 p.m. – ARCA haulers exit

 

Saturday, Aug. 15

6 – 8:30 a.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening and equipment upload)

8:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

8:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. – Garage screening in progress

2 – 4 p.m. – Truck Series haulers enter (screening in progress and equipment unload)

2:50 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to cars

3 p.m. – Xfinity race; 52 laps/187.72 miles (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

4 – 7 p.m. – Truck Series garage access screening in progress

4 – 8 p.m. – Truck Series garage open

4:30 – 5 p.m. – Truck Series rookie meeting (teleconference)

4:30 p.m. – Cup rookie meeting (electronic communication)

5 p.m. – Cup driver-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

5:30 p.m. – Xfinity haulers exit

 

Sunday, Aug. 16

6 – 8 a.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening in progress and equipment unload)

8 a.m. – Cup garage opens

8 a.m. – 2 p.m.  – Cup garage access screening in progress

9 a.m. – Truck Series garage opens

9 – 11 a.m. – Truck Series garage access screening in progress

11:40 a.m. – Truck Series drivers report to vehicles

Noon – Truck Series race; 44 laps/158.85 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

2:30 p.m. – Truck Series haulers exit

2:50 p.m. – Cup drivers report to cars

3 p.m. – Cup race; 65 laps/234.65 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

6:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit

NASCAR updates its COVID-19 guidelines

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NASCAR issued an update to teams to the sanctioning body’s COVID-19 guidelines this week.

If after 10 days, a NASCAR member is unable to produce two negative PCR tests, their return status may be medically reviewed by a NASCAR Consulting physician. Previously, a NASCAR member needed to have two negative tests more than 24 hours apart and a note from their physician to be cleared to compete.

MORE: Spencer Davis cleared to race after COVID-19 recovery

Truck Series driver Spencer Davis is the third driver to be cleared to resume racing after a positive test. He missed last week’s race at Michigan. Jimmie Johnson missed the Indianapolis race in July after a positive test. Brendan Gaughan is racing this weekend for the first time since he tested positive for COVID-19 in July.

NASCAR cites new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with updating the sport’s COVID-19 guidelines.

“As we’ve said since our return, NASCAR’s health and safety plans will continue to evolve, with the goal remaining the same – a safe event for both our competitors and the communities in which we race,” said John Bobo, NASCAR vice president, racing operations, in a statement. “NASCAR will continue to implement and execute a comprehensive plan to ensure the health and safety of our competitors and the surrounding communities.”

Here are NASCAR’s updated COVID-19 guidelines:

Confirmed Positive Cases – Symptomatic and Asymptomatic Cases. Confirmed positive cases may return to racing activities after they have received two negative test results taken at least 24 hours apart.

A. If after 10 days, a NASCAR Member is unable to produce two negative PCR tests, their return status may be medically reviewed by a NASCAR Consulting physician.

  • New CDC guidance of July 22, 2020, recommends discontinuing PCR testing after the conclusion of the 10-day isolation period for the onset symptoms for the initial COVID-19 infection, if a person is fever-free for a minimum of 24 hours without the use of medication.
  • Please note: Based on advice from consulting physicians, NASCAR counts the 10 days from the date of the first positive PCR test for COVID-19.
  • In its guidance, CDC research indicates that in no instances yet discovered has there been a case where the virus is able to self-replicate beyond the 10th day following a positive test among individuals who are not immunosuppressed and did not have severe disease (e.g. requiring ICU stay or ventilation), so an individual in this situation poses no harm to others.  In the event that the individual continues to be tested, it is very likely that the individual will continue to return positive results.
  • Based on this new CDC guidance, NASCAR consulting physicians would review the individual’s situation and determine if they appropriately fit the CDC requirements before being allowed to return to racing without two negative PCR tests.

B. They must also have written clearance from their personal physician to resume all racing activity.

Confirmed exposure to a positive COVID-19 person. Those exposed individuals are required to stand-down from competition and self-isolate. They may return to racing activities after they have received one negative test. NASCAR in its discretion may request a second test for clearance based on the nature of the exposure. Please note: a confirmed exposure is based on a totality of the circumstances as determined by NASCAR in consultation with their consulting physicians. Analysis will include: identifying people exposed over the last 10 days, accumulated time greater than 10 minutes, direct skin contact (shaking hands, etc.), lack of social distancing and the level of PPE use among the individuals involved in the contact.