Friday 5: Weather conditions making greater impact on NASCAR

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For all the available apps and ways teams study weather conditions, Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ vice president of competition, whittles it down to its simplest form.

“The best weather app is just taking your hat off and seeing if it’s raining or not, and then you can stick it back on,” he said.

The future Hall of Famer is not wrong.

“We, unfortunately, are just like a weatherman on TV,” Knaus said. “You’re lucky if you get it about 75 percent. … We have our weather apps and programs. We do all the things most people do. But weather is weather, and it changes quickly.”

Weather will play a significant role for drivers and teams as they prepare for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET on Fox). It’s part of the greater impact weather conditions have had on the sport in recent seasons.

Ten of the 86 Cup races (11.6%) that have run since 2019 have been postponed because of rain.

That’s an increase of more than 100% compared to 2010-18, which saw rain postpone only 5.6% of Cup races. Rain was a factor last weekend at Circuit of the Americas, ending the Cup race 14 laps early with Chase Elliott the winner.

Rain delayed NASCAR Xfinity Series practice Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Weather also will play a key role this weekend in other ways.

The change in temperature from Friday’s Cup practice to Sunday’s race could be as much as 11-16 degrees, depending on the weather site one examines. Such a drastic change will alter setups and influence decisions by crew chiefs and drivers on how to prepare their car for NASCAR’s longest race of the year.

Weather’s impact on races only will increase as NASCAR becomes more willing to compete in wet conditions.

This season’s 36-race Cup schedule has a record seven road courses on it. Racing in wet conditions also could take place on short tracks. NASCAR held a wet weather tire test this week at Richmond Raceway. It followed a similar test in April at Martinsville Speedway. If all goes well, Cup cars may be able to race on a wet short track as early as this season.

NASCAR rain
The spray from cars created poor visibility for drivers last weekend at Circuit of the Americas. (Photo: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports)

As NASCAR embarks in this new direction, the sport is learning more.

The No. 1 issue is how to contain the spray of water from cars, which blinded drivers and led to multiple incidents at COTA. Kevin Harvick called racing in the rain at COTA the “most unsafe thing I’ve ever done in a race car.”

For drivers and teams, key issues include better windshield wipers and defoggers.

“In regards to wipers and blades and wiper motors and defrosters, defoggers,” Michael McDowell said, “we still have areas that we definitely need to be better, but it’s hard to know that until you get in those heavier rain conditions. 

“The (Charlotte Roval) last year was very different because the track was drying so fast and was almost dry when we started the race. Even though they had some spray and mist, the speeds are fairly low and it wasn’t a constant rain. So that was not a great test for the window and defogger. (Sunday at COTA) was the first time we’ve actually put it to a test.”

Five more road course races remain this season, including Cup’s first race at Road America since 1956 and the series’ first race on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“You have to anticipate that at some point you’ll have rain again, but it’s a process,” McDowell said. “Everybody is kind of learning from it as we go.”

Fluctuating temperatures are also challenging, especially at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Track conditions can change significantly there as the weather does. 

“All you can do is go back on your notes, maybe what hot temperatures compared to cool temperatures are and what it does to your balance, and try to adjust to that,” Joey Logano said. “That’s where experience, I think, really pays off.”

Friday night’s forecast calls for temperatures in the low-to-mid 80s when Cup cars practice. The temperature for the start of Sunday’s race is expected to be in the high 60s or low 70s.

The coldest Coca-Cola 600 was in 1971 when it was 66 degrees. The average temperature for the race the past 10 years has been 87 degrees.

“I think we have to be conscious of not over-adjusting in practice and not getting too tight or too loose and try to keep it somewhere in the middle and find a package that works,” William Byron said of practicing in warmer conditions than he’ll race.

“Honestly, I’m of the opinion that when the track is hotter and slicker (that) if your car handles better, it’s going to just handle better when you get to cooler conditions. We try to make it handle as well as possible for the conditions and then hopefully it’s just a little bit better when it gets cooler.”

2. A three-peat not seen in years

Hendrick Motorsports seeks to win its third consecutive Cup race this weekend for the first time since the 2015 playoffs when Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson won at Texas and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Phoenix.

The next Cup victory for Hendrick Motorsports also will break a tie with Petty Enterprises for most wins all-time in the series. Both organizations have 268. Hendrick enters the Coca-Cola 600 after Alex Bowman led a 1-2-3-4 finish at Dover two weeks ago, and Chase Elliott won last weekend at COTA. Kyle Larson has finished second in each of the last three races.

This has been a significant season for Hendrick Motorsports already. All four of its drivers have won a race, marking the first time that has happened in the same season since 2014.

Last year saw Hendrick Motorsports go 14 races between wins from May to August. Chase Elliott won the last two races of the season in capturing his first Cup title and the first for Hendrick Motorsports since 2016.

NASCAR Cup Series Drydene 400
Alex Bowman led a 1-2-3-4 Hendrick Motorsports finish at Dover earlier in May. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

It has been a long climb for Hendrick since Chevrolet debuted a new car in 2018. Chevrolet teams won only four races that season and seven the following season.

“I think we had to do some work on the car,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I think we submitted a car that was probably a little too vanilla, too many character lines, too much like a stock car when everybody else, Ford and Toyota, went more aggressive. We had to pay for it.

Then when the (Camaro) 1LE came out, all the teams worked together. It was (Chip Ganassi Racing, Richard Childress Racing) and us, and GM put a lot of effort into the car. We’re seeing the results. I feel like we’re even or as good as or better than a lot of the guys out there.”

Hendrick showed progress late last season and has carried that momentum into this year. Another key has been seven-time Cup champion crew chief Chad Knaus moving into the role of vice president of competition after last season.

“We’ve been working really hard since the middle of last year as an organization to get flipped and to get our performance where we needed it because we weren’t where we needed to be,” Knaus said. “And that wasn’t a happy place for anybody at Hendrick Motorsports.

“We decided at that point, as a company, that we were going to put our heads down and get to work and right the ship. By the end of the season, we were fortunate enough to get out there and win a couple of races in a row and pull off the championship in pretty dominating fashion with (Elliott’s team). I think we’ve been going down this path for a while, right? Have I helped? I hope so. If I’m not contributing, I’m probably not going to keep this job for very long (laughs).”

After 14 races, Hendrick Motorsports has five wins (two by Bowman and one each by Elliott, William Byron and Kyle Larson). The organization also has seven runner-up finishes. A Hendrick driver has finished second in six of the last nine races.

“We’ve been there every weekend,” said Larson, who has four runner-up finishes this year. “We’ve been challenging. You got to be happy with that. Like I said, we want the wins, but if you can’t win, second’s better than third.”

3. Highs and lows

Todd Gilliland turned 21 less than two weeks ago. Already his racing career has been one of extreme highs and lows.

After championships in what is now the ARCA Menards Series West division in 2016-17, Gilliland was viewed as one of the top prospects in NASCAR.

He joined Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series in 2018. But one win in 42 series starts and critical comments from Kyle Busch about the performance of his drivers, led to Gilliland moving on after the 2019 season. Front Row Motorsports started a Truck team in 2020 and Gilliland went there.

Last weekend at Circuit of the Americas, Gilliland scored his first win of the season — and first in the series since 2019.

He reflected this week on his trials and tribulations the last few years.

“It seems like you win a few races and you’re on top of the world, and then two or three so-so months go by and you’re just not being talked about and it’s the next guy up,” Gilliland said.

“I think just looking back, and even nowadays, there are so many super young guys that are being put out there as the next big thing, but even when I was younger you’re still so unproven. There’s still so much racing to go in your career. 

“I feel like I’ve matured leaps and bounds since I came into the Truck Series. People were saying great things about me when I came in, but I feel like I’m 10 times better than I was back then, so I think it’s all situational. I think you’ve just got to really take the best of every opportunity, but it definitely is hard going through it.”

The Truck Series races today at Charlotte Motor Speedway (8:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

4. “It’s sad, really”

Josh Berry has three races left this season with the No. 8 JR Motorsports team that he won with at Martinsville Speedway. Sam Mayer takes over the ride and will make his Xfinity Series debut June 27 at Pocono Raceway, a day after he turns 18 years old. Mayer will run the car the rest of the season.

Berry will drive for JR Motorsports in Saturday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET on FS). He’ll drive the June 5 race at Mid-Ohio for Jordan Anderson Racing and then run at Texas (June 12) and Nashville (June 19) for JR Motorsports.

“It’s sad, really,” Berry said of his time coming to a close with the No. 8 Xfinity team. “I love this group. We’ve had so much fun together. … We’ve had results to go with that over the last month or month and a half. You hate it, but we all knew that this was how it was going to be. There have been no surprises. We knew my opportunity was 12 races that we got to work together. I’m just thankful that it has gone as well as it has.”

Berry said he’s has discussions about potential rides, but he acknowledges commitments to JR Motorsports Late Model team and “that’s not something I’m willing to turn my back on.”

5. Looking to join the crowd

Brad Keselowski’s win in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 marked the first time he’s won this event. “I wanted to win the 600 my whole life,” Keselowski said after the race.

He was the third driver in the last four years to win the 600 for the first time. The others are Austin Dillon (2017)and Kyle Busch (2018).

Among those who have yet to win the 600 are points leader Denny Hamlin and former champions Joey Logano and Chase Elliott.

“I’ve been able to run really well at Charlotte over the years,” Logano said. “… I just haven’t won the Coke 600 yet, which is the one that stands out for me. Every time I look at a bucket list race, probably Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard are the ones that stand out that I really want next.”

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Where are they now? Scott Riggs races with son, Layne

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Scott Riggs, who raced for 15 years in NASCAR’s top three national series, now is guiding the racing career of his 20-year-old son, Layne.

And things are going well.

Layne won this year’s NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Late Model championship, scoring 16 wins in 43 starts and edging former series champion Peyton Sellers by four points for the title.

Riggs thus became the youngest champion in Weekly Series history.

“It all started when Layne was 10 years old, mostly just something to entertain him and to have some fun,” Scott told NBC Sports. “But it’s turned into a full-fledged job. My life and plate have been full.”

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes

The Riggs family’s race shop is located in Bahama, North Carolina, Riggs’ home base during his NASCAR career. Scott describes himself as the “truck driver, spotter, crew chief and in-shop mechanic.”

“I am very tired,” he said.

The team, which depends on volunteers, didn’t plan to race in so many events this season, but when Layne started the year with a string of victories, it made sense to chase the national championship and give him a chance to be the youngest winner ever.

“To chase it that hard and be that close and then to win it, it was very exhausting,” Scott said. “It was a very big relief to finish the year.”

Success on short tracks resulted in Layne racing in three Camping World Truck Series events this year with Halmar Racing. He had a best finish of seventh at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in his series debut.

MORE: Snowball Derby attracts top NASCAR drivers

Scott Riggs ended his NASCAR driving career in 2014 in the Truck Series. He won five Truck races and four Xfinity races and ran 208 Cup races without a win. He made his Truck debut in 1999, moved to Xfinity in 2002 (winning Rookie of the Year) and then to Cup in 2004.

Riggs, now 51, raced in the Cup Series from 2004-13 with stops at MB2 Motorsports and with teams owned by Gene Haas, Tommy Baldwin and Ray Evernham, among others. He had four top-five finishes.

“I think I was very fortunate and the timing was right for me to move up through the ranks and get so many good opportunities,” Riggs said. “I raced late models for a long time, and then all of a sudden I got the opportunity to get in a truck. Won some races and poles and won races and poles in Xfinity.”

MORE: Jody Ridley’s upset for the ages

He ran out of chances in Cup as team models shifted, including some downsizing and mergers.

“I felt like I couldn’t get an opportunity that I had worked for and earned,” Riggs said. “It was hard for me. I was bitter for a year or so. But I look back, and a realization came over me that I was fortunate to have that time with my kids when they were at the right ages. I got to watch them do their things and just be the dad I wanted to be — not being gone four out of every seven days racing.

“I don’t think I’d have the relationship I have today with my kids if I had had a longer time in the sport.”

 

 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

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The best quotes from drivers and others involved in NASCAR competition often come in the heat of the moment — after a crash or a close finish or a controversial decision by officials.

NASCAR’s history is filled with memorable quotes from drivers who won races to drivers who watched wins slip away to officials caught in a moment of history.

Here’s a look at 10 that stand out:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. “I didn’t mean to turn him around. I meant to rattle his cage, though.” — Dale Earnhardt, describing how he didn’t mean to wreck Terry Labonte after he wrecked Labonte on the last lap at Bristol Motor Speedway to win the Aug. 28, 1999 race.

2. “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass. There’s no way to get around that.” — Kevin Harvick, Feb. 21, 2010, offering his opinion on why Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team won so many races after Johnson outran him to win at Auto Club Speedway.

MORE: An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley wins at Dover

3. “It’s a stump-puller.” — Sterling Marlin, emphasizing the strength of his engine after he won the Daytona 500 Feb. 19, 1995.

4. “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.” — Joey Logano, talking about Kevin Harvick after they were involved in a late-race crash at Pocono Raceway June 6, 2010. Harvick’s wife, DeLana, often wore a firesuit similar to those worn by team members during races.

5. “Do you have a brother?” — Ward Burton, responding to a reporter who asked if it was tougher to finish second because the race winner was his brother, Jeff, March 7, 1999 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Memorable images from 2022 NASCAR season

6. “I couldn’t hear him. He’s got that little yap-yap mouth. I couldn’t tell what he was saying.” — Ricky Rudd, commenting on what Kevin Harvick said to him after they wrecked at Richmond Raceway, Sept. 6, 2003.

7. “We can’t race with tears in our eyes.” — team owner Robert Yates, explaining why his team would not participate in the next week’s race after its driver, Davey Allison, was killed in a helicopter crash, July 1993.

8. “He’d have to toast everyone with milk.” — Dale Earnhardt, commenting on the celebratory drink choice Jeff Gordon might make if he ever won the Cup championship. After he won the 1995 Cup title, Gordon followed through, toasting his championship with a glass of milk at the awards banquet.

MORE: 2023 NASCAR, ARCA schedules

9. “You know they say there’s talkers and doers. I’ve done this twice.” — Tony Stewart, winning the pre-race trash-talk contest with Carl Edwards prior to the 2011 race for the championship. Stewart had won the title in 2002 and 2005 and notched another over Edwards in 2011.

10. “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” — NASCAR President Mike Helton, confirming Earnhardt’s death at Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 18, 2001.

Honorable mentions: David Pearson, after being told that Richard Petty had said Pearson was the best driver he ever raced against: “I agree with him.” … CBS broadcaster Ken Squier, calling the famous finish of the 1979 Daytona 500: “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.” … NASCAR founder Bill France, providing a unique ending to a pre-race prayer after temporarily forgetting to use Amen: “Sincerely, Bill France.”

Snowball Derby entry list includes NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, Truck drivers

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Four Cup drivers are among those entered for Sunday’s 55th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

The Cup drivers entered are former series champion Brad Keselowski, playoff competitor William Byron, two-time Southern 500 winner Erik Jones and incoming Cup rookie Noah Gragson, who advanced to the Xfinity title race this year.

Also entered: Josh Berry, who competed in the Xfinity championship race this year, and Ty Majeski, who competed in the Truck championship race this year.

Majeski won the 2020 Snowball Derby. Gragson won the race in 2018. Jones won the event in 2012 and ’13.

Others entered include:

Chandler Smith, who won the 2021 Snowball Derby and will drive for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2023, is listed on the entry list but stated on social media he will not be competing.

The Snowball Derby is among the more prestigious Super Late Model races on the calendar and coming after the NASCAR season makes it easier for more Cup, Xfinity and Truck competitors to take part in the event.

Qualifying takes place Saturday. The Snowball Derby is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET Sunday. Racing America will stream Sunday’s race for $49.99. A three-day viewing pass can be purchased for $74.99.

 

 

An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley’s 1981 victory at Dover

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NASCAR’s history is sprinkled with upsets, from unlikely winners riding the Talladega draft to short tracks that yielded unexpected wins when favored leaders crashed on the final lap.

Survey the list of surprise winners over the decades, and Jody Ridley’s name likely will stand out.

On May 17, 1981, two days shy of his 39th birthday, Ridley won a 500-mile race at Dover Motor Speedway in Delaware. It was the only victory of Ridley’s Cup career and the only win scored by Virginia team owner Junie Donlavey, who participated in the Cup Series for 45 years, with 863 starts.

Donlavey’s team was perpetually underfunded, and his drivers often raced with tired, overused engines and tires that had too many laps. He survived with a mostly volunteer crew and enough sponsorship to carry him from race to race. Rival drivers and team owners considered Donlavey one of the most popular residents of NASCAR garage areas across those many years, but he rarely had the chance to reach for victory lane.

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On that spring day at Dover, one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, everything fell the right way. Many of the tour’s leading drivers parked with engine or overheating problems, and the day’s best car – the Wood Brothers entry driven by Neil Bonnett — was sidelined with an engine issue late in the race after leading 404 laps.

Ridley, running a steady race, benefited from an unusual day at Dover. The race had only two cautions, and the final 471 laps of 500 were run under green-flag conditions. A general lack of cautions prevented top teams from changing tires frequently, putting Ridley, who was used to running tires longer than normal, on better footing.

When Cale Yarborough left the race with engine trouble 20 laps from the finish, Ridley inherited the lead — he had been two laps down to Yarborough — and led the rest of the way. He won by 22 seconds over Bobby Allison, who was the only other driver on the lead lap. Dale Earnhardt finished third, a lap down. Illustrating the problems experienced by many in the field — not an unusual result in those days — was the fact that the fourth-place driver, D.K. Ulrich, was nine laps off the lead pace.

Ridley drove into Victory Lane for the first time, much to the delight of Donlavey’s crew.

“Junie took it all in stride,” Ridley, now 80, told NBC Sports. “He wasn’t as excited as the team guys were. Junie was the type of guy who didn’t want to cash in on other people’s bad luck. He kind of felt sorry for the guys who blew up. That’s just the way he was.

“For me, it was the highlight of my career. Once I got into Cup racing, I knew we probably wouldn’t do much winning because we didn’t have the equipment. It was icing on the cake to win that one.”

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Jody’s son Anthony, then 22 years old, was listening to the race via radio in Chatsworth, Georgia, where the family lived.

“I was upstairs at my girlfriend’s house, and I think I bounced all over the upstairs and then floated down to the first floor,” Anthony said. “It was all pretty cool. Dad called home. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get real excited about anything, but he was happy.”

The win paid $22,560. Ridley’s cut from the check (40 percent, generally standard in those days) was $9,024, a nice payday but not Ridley’s biggest in Cup. He would win more for finishing in the top 10 in the Daytona 500.

“We were having a good day,” Ridley said, “but I never thought about winning it. We just didn’t have the cars. But we stayed in the hunt, and the other teams couldn’t get too many new tires, and Junie had put a different gear in the car. Normally he would put in a taller gear and drop the RPMs down (to protect the engine), and you couldn’t keep up. For some reason that day, he didn’t. And it paid off.”

Before joining the Cup tour full time in 1980 at age 37, Ridley had established himself as one of the top short-track drivers in the country. Across the South, at top Eastern Seaboard tracks and into the Midwest, a visit by Ridley usually meant a tough night for the locals.

MORE: Five laps that impacted Cup season

Ridley’s older brother, Biddle, and Anthony kept the Ridley short-track cars running.

“We did all that together for 36 years,” said Anthony, who started changing tires during pit stops at the age of 14. “It was how we made a living, but trying to feed three families out of a race car is tough.”

Ridley still lives in Chatsworth, where his 1981 victory was a sports highlight for years.

“He can’t hear well, but he’s still tough as a pine knot,” Anthony said.