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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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.