Friday 5: Work remains for NASCAR after extraordinary week

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When NASCAR President Steve Phelps spoke about racial injustice last weekend, as cars sat silent at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and pledged that “our sport must do better,” he set NASCAR on a path toward seismic changes.

Giving competitors the ability to peacefully protest during the national anthem and banning the Confederate flag shattered iron-clad beliefs of some fans but proved a welcome sign to many others that NASCAR was ready to listen to them.

Drivers delivered that message in a video they posted last weekend, condemning racial inequality and racism.

“The process begins with us listening and learning because understanding the problem is the first step in fixing it,” drivers said in the video. “We are committed to listening with empathy and with an open heart to better educate ourselves. We will use this education to advocate for change in our nation, our communities and most importantly in our own homes. Even after the headlines go away.”

It’s a promise drivers must keep.

Bubba Wallace has taken the leadership role thrust upon him as the lone full-time Black driver in NASCAR’s national ranks.

“I’m really proud of what he’s doing, the effort he’s putting in, in wanting to kind of lead the charge,” Ryan Blaney said of his close friend. “I stand behind him. A lot of guys stand behind him in NASCAR, not only the drivers, but a lot of teams, as well, crew members.”

While NASCAR officials were discussing various changes to make, it was Wallace who went on CNN, saying of the Confederate flag: “Get them out of here.” Two days later, NASCAR did so.

It was really cool to see what Bubba was able to do,” Joey Logano said. “He should be proud of the movement he’s made for the African-American community in our sport. He always has just by being here, but when you look at the comments he made on CNN the other day and then NASCAR completely answered it. Kudos to NASCAR. Kudos to Bubba for bringing it up and using his platform for something good.”

The youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. was among many who applauded NASCAR on social media for prohibiting the display of the Confederate flag at all its events and properties.

“We want change, it starts with us,” Wallace said Thursday on the “Today” show. “We have to start basically from the roots and go from (the) ground up and really implement what we’re trying to say in our message.”

While now is a time to listen, there will be a time where more action is needed.

“There’s a lot of different ways you can go about this,” said Tyler Reddick, who was among the first Cup drivers to publicly support Black Lives Matter. “Just trying to make NASCAR a more friendly environment for all fans. The step that we made this week with the Confederate flag is one of those steps. I’m sure there are many others that they’re working on.

“Some of the drivers have talked about ideas and other things, and I don’t want to spoil their ideas, but just continuing to not lose sight of it. As they say, when the headlines finally clear and it goes back to a sense of normalcy, if you will, it’s just important to remain adamant that we need to go out there in our communities or we need to go vote and get the right people that we feel that are going to make those changes that we’ve been crying out for the last couple of weeks. … Stay diligent, and not lose sight of what’s important here.”

2. Enforcing Confederate flag ban

Shortly after NASCAR announced that the display of the Confederate flag would be prohibited at all its events and facilities, questions began to be raised about how that could be enforced.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, discussed that matter Thursday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“That will certainly be a challenge,” O’Donnell said of enforcing the ban. “We’ll try to do that the right way. We’ll get ahead of it as we are today in letting people know that, ‘Hey, we’re all about pride, we’re all about America, fly your U.S. flag high, fly your driver’s flags high and come on into the track.’ But if we see something displayed at the track we’re going to have react and we will. More details to come but I’m confident we’ll do that and we’ll do that in a smart way.”

Chuck Rosenberg, an NBC legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, notes that those who think they are protected by First Amendment rights at a NASCAR track or event would be wrong.

“NASCAR facilities are private property and so First Amendment protections do not apply,” he said. “NASCAR has the right to make the rules regarding how people must behave inside their facilities. It will be important for NASCAR to issue clear and thoughtful guidance so fans can comply.”

The first race with fans in the stands is Sunday’s Cup race at Miami. That will have up to 1,000 military guest and family members. The June 21 Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway will have to up 5,000 fans. There will be no fans for Cup races at Pocono Raceway (June 27-28), Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 5), Kentucky Speedway (July 12).

3. Grueling week

Sunday’s Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway marks the third Cup race in a week. While this isn’t the first time this season that the Cup series has had as many races within seven days, Brad Keselowski says of this stretch: “I don’t know if there’s ever been a more grueling stretch in Cup racing.”

Consider:

Last Sunday, Cup ran 500 miles at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The high was 84 degrees. Drivers spent much of the day fighting their cars as tires wore on the old pavement.

“Atlanta was a grueling race, very humid, 500 miles,” Keselowski said.

Wednesday night, Cup ran 500 laps at Martinsville Speedway. The high was 87 degrees during the day. While it cooled some at night, drivers noted how hot it was.

“I think a lot of guys, including myself a little bit, thought a night race at Martinsville wasn’t going to be hot,” Tyler Reddick said. “It was one of the hottest races that I’ve done in a very long time.”

Sunday, Cup drivers are set to run 400 miles at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The forecast calls for a high of 86 degrees.

“Honestly, Miami will probably be the hottest one we go to, most humid,” Blaney said.

While there is something to not having practice or qualifying for drivers and teams, that lack of track time can impact drivers during such a stretch.

“One thing about the practices – yes, it’s time on track, but it gives your body a little hint and a look into what you’re going to be experiencing for 500 miles or 500 laps, whatever it may be at the track that we go to,” Reddick said. “So, if you’re having any issues with the car, issues with your back, arms hurting after a 40- or 50-lap run or something in particular that’s bothering you from the week before, you have no insight to that going into the race and you’re going to have to fight it all race long.”

As for the challenge of this week, Keselowski said: “It’s the same for everybody. We all got to toughen up. I think it’s a great test of will, a great test of the drivers. I think it’s what makes these few weeks so compelling not just as a participant but as a fan myself.”

4. Streakin’

A few streaks to keep in mind this weekend for the Cup Series.

Kevin Harvick has had 12 consecutive top-10 finishes in Miami.

Jimmie Johnson enters this weekend having finished in the top 10 in each of the last three races. Since he won his seventh Cup title in 2016, this is only the second time he’s had three consecutive top-10 finishes.

In Martin Truex Jr.‘s last three Miami starts, he has one win and two runner-up finishes, leading a total of 201 laps.

No rookie has finished in the top 10 at Miami since David Ragan placed 10th in the 2007 race. Rookie Tyler Reddick won his last two Xfinity starts there and finished runner-up in a Truck race there.

5. Coming Tuesday

NASCAR Hall of Fame voters selected the 2021 Class on Tuesday. The votes have been tabulated and will be announced at 5 p.m. ET Tuesday (June 16) on NASCAR America. Among those eligible for the Class of 2021 are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Ricky Rudd, Neil Bonnett and Harry Gant in the Modern Era category.

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win, but without hometown fans

Kurt Busch
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A win by Kurt Busch in tonight’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) couldn’t come under more bittersweet circumstances for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Should Busch claim the victory on the 1.5-mile track, he’d go from being the last driver on the playoff grid (3,001 points entering the race) to the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

While it would be his first victory of the year, it would also be his first NASCAR win at his home track in 23 starts across the Cup and Xfinity Series.

More: Stage points critical at Vegas

“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” Busch said this week. “And the teams that I’ve raced for just have never quite found that right magic set-up or combination. And then for me, it’s a track that I just have that trouble with.

“There are a few tracks like Indianapolis and Martinsville; those are a few places where I struggle. And so with Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”

The 42-year-old Las Vegas-native rolls off ninth on the 1.5-mile track. It’s his fourth while driving for Ganassi.

In his 21 Cup starts in Las Vegas, Busch’s best result is third in 2005 when he competed for Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one other top five. That came in last year’s spring race when he drove a throwback paint scheme to his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series championship.

That day he led 23 laps. It was only the seventh time he’d led laps there and just the third time he’d totaled more than six laps led.

In February, Busch finished 25th.

If Busch were to finally make it to Vegas’ Victory Lane, the celebration would be somewhat muted.

It was announced last weekend that fans would not be allowed to attend the races at Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love to win through the spirit of the camera and everything on NBC Sports; and I know the fans there, local, will be watching and cheering on the Busch brothers,” Busch said. “So, that’s where I would connect. And hopefully do it through the TV side of it. We’ll get fans back one day and we’ll come back and race.”

Busch enters the Round of 12 having earned just one top 10 in the first round, an eighth-place finish at Darlington. He finished 13th at Richmond and 15th at Bristol.

“What I like is we have had better lap times at all three races so far compared to maybe the five or six races leading into the playoffs,” Busch said. “We know that our cushion is gone. We ended Bristol with 33 points to the good. And now we start Vegas minus four (points behind Austin Dillon in the cutoff spot). So that’s just part of the system and now we have to be perfect. We have to get every point possible that we’re able to get on our own at Vegas, Talladega, and the Roval. And, that should help us advance.”

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan were teammates from 1982-84 at the University of North Carolina and Eastern Conference rivals throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the NBA.

But their friendship was about more than just hoops. While growing up on opposite ends of the Tar Heel State, Daugherty and Jordan both developed a passion for following NASCAR.

Tobacco Road meant fast cars and hard-driving heroes for these two North Carolina natives.

LIFELONG FAN: Michael Jordan explains why he’s partnering with Denny Hamlin

In a NASCAR on NBC feature, Daugherty recalls how NASCAR impacted his life and Jordan’s and led both into team ownership. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they will form a team to field cars for Bubba Wallace next season.

Daughterty notes in the feature that Wallace “has led a dynamic transformation as NASCAR banned Confederate flags and recommitted to inclusion amidst times of great unrest. This is a huge moment for NASCAR, a cultural momentum shift. This is people of all colors coming together to create an all-American race team already with championship lineage.

“With proper funding, equipment and crewmembers, this will be the best chance ever for a Black driver to win – and while driving for a Black owner. An opportunity to shock the world like Muhammad Ali once did.”

Watch the feature above on Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan or by clicking this link.

Las Vegas Xfinity results, driver points

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Chase Briscoe‘s victory Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sends him into the next round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Noah Gragson led a 2-3-4 finish for JR Motorsports. Gragson was second and followed by Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg finished fifth.

Briscoe dominated the race, leading 164 of the 200 laps.

Click here for Xfinity race results

POINTS

Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers, and fell out of a transfer spot to the second round. He’s two points behind Harrison Burton for the final transfer spot. Michael Annett is 10 points behind Burton. Riley Herbst is 14 points behind Burton. Brandon Brown is 20 points behind Burton.

Click here for driver points report

Chase Briscoe scores 8th Xfinity win of year with Las Vegas triumph

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Chase Briscoe met a preseason goal of winning eight races with his victory in Saturday night’s Xfinity playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Briscoe, who also won at Las Vegas in February, advances to the second round.

Briscoe dominated, winning both stages on the way to his second consecutive victory and eighth of the year. He led 164 of 200 laps.

“Awesome car,” Briscoe said on the radio of the car that also won at this 1.5-mile speedway earlier this year. “Can’t say enough, awesome car.”

Gragson said of Briscoe’s car on NBCSN: “Lot of race cars out here and one space shuttle.”

Las Vegas native Noah Gragson finished second and was followed by JR Motorsports teammates Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg placed fifth.

Austin Cindric placed sixth and was followed by Michael Annett, Anthony Alfredo, Harrison Burton and Justin Haley.

Briscoe’s eight wins through 27 races ties him with Jack Ingram and Sam Ard for the most wins by non-Cup drivers through 27 races in a season. Ard and Ingram both did it in 1984. Briscoe’s eight wins ties him with Carl Edwards for most wins by a Ford driver in a season in the Xfinity Series. Edwards accomplished the feat in 2011.

“I knew this team was fully capable of achieving that and even more,” Briscoe told NBCSN of winning eight races this year. “I just can’t say thank you enough to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart and everyone that lets me drive these race cars. It has been an unbelievable season and we still have a lot, six more wins that we can try to get and a championship. That is what we are going to try to do. I am so happy to start the playoffs like this. After the last couple weeks we had, to go to Bristol and win and now here is a pretty good way to start our playoffs.”

The 25-year-old Briscoe does not know where he’ll run next season. He has a year left on his contract with Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Sieg’s fifth-place finish is his fifth top five of the season, the most he’s had in a season. … Runner-up Noah Gragson has finished in the top six in all four of his Xfinity Las Vegas starts. He did it by overcoming a bloody nose during the race. At one point, he put roll bar padding up his nose to clog it. … Daniel Hemric had finished 24th or worse in four of his last five starts before Saturday’s race. He finished third at Las Vegas.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers. It’s his first finish outside the top 10 at a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

NEXT: The series races Oct. 3 at Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) in the middle race of the opening round of the playoffs.