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Front Row Motorsports reaching new heights without practice

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For the last 12 Cup races, teams haven’t had the opportunity to practice as NASCAR navigates the hurdles of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the lack of practice sessions each race weekend has turned out to be a “tremendous” help for Front Row Motorsports, according to Drew Blickensderfer.

Blickensderfer is in his second year serving as crew chief on Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 Ford. Through 16 races, both McDowell and teammate John Hunter Nemechek each have two top-10 finishes, matching the team’s best total for a season.

McDowell’s two top 10s have come in the last three races – Pocono 1 and Brickyard 400 – and both of Nemechek’s have come since NASCAR returned on May 17 – Darlington 1 and Talladega.

“Where we lack compared to some of the other teams is when they unload on Friday they’ve got a team at the shop ready to look at the information from the racetrack and help the people at the racetrack get their car better,” Blickensderfer said in a Zoom press conference. “Guys like Kyle Busch, they are the best in the world at sitting in that seat and saying, ‘I need this to be better on Sunday.’ They know what the track is gonna do. They know what they feel.

“With us getting our race cars better Michael doesn’t always know. John Hunter is a rookie, he always doesn’t know what’s gonna happen on Sunday versus Saturday. They haven’t had great race cars for years and years like some of the veteran guys have had, so I think them not knowing that and not hurting us during practice has helped a ton. We don’t have the personnel back at the shop helping us work on the cars Friday and Saturday. We load up and go to the racetrack almost everybody in this shop goes to the racetrack.

“We don’t have guys sitting back here at the shop, at least an engineering staff that’s willing to help, so no qualifying hurt, no practice, I think, has been a huge benefit and I think our tools have shown that they’re as good as anybody’s because we’ve hit that first run really well since the pandemic.”

John Hunter Nemechek in last week’s Brickyard 400. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Since NASCAR’s return, FRM’s two cars have combined to finish in the top 15 10 times, with each driver claiming five.

Heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1), Nemechek and McDowell are 22nd and 23rd in the driver points. But in the owner points, which dictates where they start each race via random draw, Nemechek is 24th and McDowell is 25th.

In the random draw process, Nemechek can start anywhere from 13th to 24th and McDowell can start between 25th and 36th. On Sunday, Nemechek starts 22nd and McDowell rolls off 30th.

“Our cars have had more speed this year than we’ve ever had at Front Row, so that’s helped us, obviously, with performance and getting the results that we need to get,” said McDowell, who is in his third season with FRM. “But they’ve done an exceptional job unloading really close without any practice and having our cars very competitive, which is hard to do. But the downside … is we had a mechanical failure early on in the year and that hurt us in the points and then, for the most part we’ve been starting 26th, 27th, 30th, 32nd every weekend, so that’s tough.

“We’re only (six) points out of the top 24 in owner points, so it would be nice to get there. The unfortunate part is that my teammate is the next one in front of us, so we’d like to have both cars in the top 24 in owner points so that we can both start up front and I think we’re maybe 10 or 12 points back from that, so it’s not impossible but we’ve got some work to do. If we keep running how we’ve been running the last three or four weeks we should be able to get ourselves in there and not have to start so far back.”

McDowell said that Nemechek, in his rookie year, has done an “exceptional job” so far, but made sure to frame it through the lens of Nemechek benefitting from “three, four, five, six, seven years of a lot of people’s hard work, but he’s doing a good job making the most out of it and executing.”

“That’s not to take anything away from him, but John Hunter didn’t bring this speed to Front Row,” McDowell said. “Front Row was building that over years and he’s very fortunate that he’s got the opportunity this year while the cars are so good, just like I am.”

McDowell added: “Seth Barbour, his crew chief, has been with the organization for a long time and has done a great job of elevating it, alongside with Drew and Derrick Finley and a lot of people, so I think that this sport … it’s a lot about timing and his timing is really good right now to be in our cars and have them running as well as they are.”

McDowell said the two drivers have “been able to push each other … and that definitely helps, so having a teammate that’s fast and can push you is super-important, and he’s definitely done that, so it’s been good.”

Nemchek, who is making his first Cup start at Kentucky, said a lack of practice has been an “exclamation mark” on how much preparation is needed for a race.

“For myself, it’s just trying to be a sponge and soak up as much information as I can to have that experience and to be able to put everything into one basket and push forward.,” he said. “For myself, it’s been a little bit difficult. I feel like most weeks we’ve kind of shown speed right off the bat. We’ve continued to progress. Some weeks we’ve been on the struggle bus side, but, overall, from almost every week I’m kind of glad that we haven’t had practice.”

Nemechek said given the circumstances the team and sport is experiencing, “we’re still going into every weekend with no expectations. We want to run the best that we can every single week and we want to continue to push forward and run every lap. For myself, this year is about learning. It’s about taking in everything that I can and building that notebook on the experience side.”

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 his 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.