NASCAR President Steve Phelps shares vision of sport moving forward

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — NASCAR President Steve Phelps lauded the direction the sport is headed, hinted at a behind-the-scenes TV show, and noted the need to improve the weekend experience for fans at the track.

Those were among topics Phelps addressed in 60-minute session with reporters Friday at Phoenix Raceway.

He also talked about how the 2023 schedule won’t look like the 2022 schedule, along with the potential of moving the championship weekend to other venues.

One of the biggest issues in recent weeks has been attendance at tracks. Texas and Kansas had many empty seats, while Martinsville had a large crowd and Sunday’s Cup finale at Phoenix Raceway is sold out.

Phelps called the crowd size at Texas Motor Speedway “an unacceptable level of tickets sold in that marketplace.” He said NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports officials are working how to improve attendance there.

As for Kansas Speedway, which is owned by NASCAR, Phelps said 80% of the tickets were sold but only 60% of those tickets were scanned at the gates on the day of the race.

Phelps said for tracks owned by NASCAR, attendance is up for every race vs. 2019 with the exception of Darlington Raceway. That track went from one Cup race in 2019 to two this season.

As for the issue of making more races events, Phelps noted: “We need to make sure that the marketing and promotion is as strong as it can be. We need to make sure we are driving storylines. We need to make sure the event experience is better than it’s ever been. Are we satisfied with where that is? We’re not. We’re going to constantly get better.”

Some people have noted how the Netflix series “Drive to Survive” has helped boost Formula One interest in the U.S. and wondered why NASCAR can’t have something similar.

“We are in discussions with NBC Entertainment,” Phelps said. “Things look very positive. I think actually if we’re able to get a few contracts signed in the next couple weeks, they will begin production in December. They will be at the L.A. Coliseum (for the Feb. 6 NASCAR Clash).

“There’s a decent possibility that they will not just look at us as a segmented period of time like they were going to do in the playoffs, but they’ll extend it to potentially the entire season.

“Again, nothing to report there. If it looks like I’ve just reported something, I haven’t. But we are encouraged.”

As for future schedules, Phelps said: “I don’t know what the ’23 schedule is going to look like, but I know it’s not going to look like the ’22 schedule.”

Some drivers have said they would like to rotate the championship weekend. Phelps noted all the Phoenix community has done for this event, but he also acknowledged that the season finale could change at some point.

“I think the move from Miami to here was an important one after 20 years,” Phelps said. “I think thus far it’s worked out very well. The community here has embraced us. I think you see that.

“The question to me is really more about the competition, right? We’ve been embraced by this community. Would we be embraced by other communities? I suggest we probably would be.

So what is the best place to host or championship? Would we be open to rotation? Yes, we’d be open to rotation.

I would say every single option out there we look at. I think you’ve seen that over the last 18 months, that we are going to not be afraid to maximize the opportunity to create the best racing that we can in the best market we can and at the best racetracks that we can.”

Phelps also noted how the sport has seen growth.

“Our digital and social numbers are the highest they’ve been since 2015,” he said. “We continue to add on the social side. We feel that energy level, that excitement level throughout the digital and social channels.

Television, which gets a lot of focus, we are the most stable sport on television since 2018. No other sport, none, can match what NASCAR has done from a stability standpoint with our ratings. If you consider our share numbers since 2019 in our Cup Series, it’s up 18%, which is hard to do at this point. It’s just hard.

“Then you look at our ratings for Xfinity and our Camping World Truck Series, they’re up double-digits. The share in both of those series is up 25% to 30%. We are having a moment as a sport, it’s important that we keep it going, which is exactly what we’re going to do.

We’re going to continue to invest, we’re going to continue to collaborate with the rest of the industry to continue the growth this sport is on.”

Additional comments from Steve Phelps

Q. You said recently everything that’s still ailing NASCAR in terms of the Next Gen car, this is the panacea for what that is. What is your comfort with the level in terms of the economy with supply issues, certainly there seem to be some issues with the car, and right now you’re three months away from putting a product on track in front of a public audience, national television audience?

STEVE PHELPS: What I would say is that this car has been tested, run, more collaboration than any other new car in the history of this sport. Not even close. The Gen-5 car that came out, we ran a test in January before we raced it at Bristol for the first time.

I am confident, and we check all the time on supply chain issues. As of now there are no issues. We’ll continue to monitor that because it’s important. If you got 30 major components to the car, you only have 29 of them, you have a problem. Until the car is on the racetrack, we’ll continue to give it all the attention that it deserves, which is a lot.

With respect to issues with the car that we’re working through, right now it’s really down to two things that we see, which is steering, which you guys have talked about, and getting that right, the other is the heat in the car. We’ve got some solves for that that the drivers I believe are feeling more satisfied with.

Listen, until it comes out and we’re actually at the L.A. Coliseum, we’re at the 500, with race cars on the racetrack, I’ll continue to be concerned. But I would say Steve O’Donnell, Probst, Brandon Thomas, that group, working with our teams, working with our OEM partners, have done an incredible job getting us to this point.

I’m super proud of the group. I think this is a really important milestone for NASCAR. We have to get it right.

Q. We haven’t heard a lot on Fontana recently, converting it to a short track. Given supply chain issues, pandemic disruptions, are you still anticipating it will be a short track in 2023?

STEVE PHELPS: I don’t know. I think the difficulty to your point, there are a lot of uphill battles we have from a timing perspective. We are hopeful, right? Part of it has to do with there’s going to be a conversion of the two mile, right? What we know as the two-mile racetrack where we’re going to race next year, we’re selling some land around that. There are entitlements to it that no one really cares about, but we’ve got to make sure those things get done so we then can take the next steps to build that short track.

I think there’s a lot of excitement from the race fans. Talked to a number of people in the garage this morning. Look at Martinsville. Short-track racing at Bristol and Martinsville were incredibly exciting. Us adding another half-mile racetrack in a very important marketplace for us, I’ll call it the L.A. (designated market area), it’s important. We have more fans in L.A., in that L.A. (designated market area), than any other (designated market area) in the country. It’s fertile ground.

My expectation is we’re going to see an unbelievable crowd at the Coliseum. Many of those race fans, I would say 40% to 50%, probably will never have been to a NASCAR race before. Right now the ticket sales are trending really well. 50% of the people have never been to a NASCAR race. We want them there. We are going to expand the fan base. We’re doing it by meeting people where they are, whether that’s physically at a racetrack or through our mediums, whether it’s direct to consumer, over the air, radio, digital, social. We need to meet them where it is. Gaming. All of those things are important to the success of this sport. That’s why I think there’s such great opportunity for us.

Q. Your two predecessors, they seemed to be pretty high on the fact that a new manufacturer would be coming in. There’s more than a buzz going around in the garage about Dodge. If they were to sign on the dotted line, clearly I don’t know the answer, but how long before we could expect to see another manufacturer on the racetrack?

STEVE PHELPS: You know what, there are some discussions that are going on with other OEMs, new OEMs, that would come into the sport.

Our three existing OEMs are happy about that. Our race teams are happy about that. We’re happy about that. It’s been widely rumored that Dodge is one of those or closest. I won’t confirm or deny that.

It is important. We’ve made no bones about the fact that we want to have a new OEM in our sport. I think we got delayed with the pandemic.

With that said, we are an attractive place I believe for OEMs to come into the sport. Now is an important opportunity for them to do that because of the Next Gen car.

I also believe the fact that the sport is growing and has a relevance that it hasn’t had in decades is causing some real interest from other OEMs.

Nothing to report at this particular point. It is important. I would suggest things are progressing or I would say that things are progressing. When we have something to announce, we will.

Q. You talked in the spring about the importance of trying to bump up the vaccination rate in the industry. What is that rate now? How do you feel about those numbers?

STEVE PHELPS: It’s not high enough. We have seen a significant increase from where we were in the spring. I’ll just call it the garage. I think to me there’s a responsibility that individuals have to each other. That’s my opinion.

Do I think the vaccination rate is going to climb significantly from here? I don’t know. But I do think it’s important. As I said, I think there’s a responsibility that we each have to each other to make sure we’re staying safe. If you are someone who doesn’t believe in vaccinations, then making sure that you’re masked and socially distanced, making sure you’re taking the precautions necessary in order to have people stay safe is our responsibility.

Q. Anecdotally there’s a vocal segment of the fan base that doesn’t like the philosophy of what the 550 package represented. Even though it’s going to be a different rules package, the same philosophy is there, the lower horsepower. What do you see in terms of evidence from the fans that encouraged you to sort of double down with the Next Gen car?

STEVE PHELPS: I think, again, I would look at it two ways. As I said in my opening, optically what do you see? Do you think the racing is good or not? Our fan council data would suggest the answer is yes. Is there a vocal minority that says that they don’t like a 550 horsepower package, they want to see 750 plus? Absolutely.

I would go back past kind of the optics test or the I test, I would go to the data. The data suggests we have better racing right now than we’ve had arguably ever.

When you are at a 550 track, you have a restart, I mean, it is wild. These drivers are up on the wheel and they’re making moves that are incredible. I frankly don’t know how they do it. Certainly not something I would do. They’re incredible. I think they’re putting on some unbelievable racing.

So I’ve said it before, and I know that it seems convenient, but we are not going to make every race fan happy. I wish we could, I really do. But what one person likes, another person doesn’t. So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to look at the number of people who are saying, the maximum number of people who are saying, I really like that, give them more of what they’re getting.

I think we’ve responded frankly to what the fans have had to say. Fans said they want more road courses. We have more road courses. Fans say they want more short tracks. I think people who bang that drum, we’ll do our best to find short tracks that will satisfy them that can host Cup races, like we may see in the future in southern California.

 

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Texas Motor Speedway

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NASCAR Cup and Xfinity teams will be busy Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.

The Cup Series enters the second round of the playoffs with 12 drivers remaining for the title. Cup teams will practice and qualify today.

The Xfinity Series begins its playoffs Saturday with 12 drivers in championship contention. Xfinity teams will practice and qualify before racing.

All track activity will be broadcast on USA Network. The temperature will climb into the mid-90s Saturday, according to Weather Underground.

Saturday, Sept. 24

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 9:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 – 11:05 a.m. — Xfinity Series practice (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 11:05 a.m. – noon — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 12:35 – 1:20 p.m. — Cup Series practice (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 1:20 – 2:30 p.m. — Cup Series qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (200 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, NBC Sports App, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Saturday Texas Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The Xfinity Series playoffs begin this weekend. Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs enter as the favorites. They’ve combined to win 11 of the 26 races this season.

Gragson, who has six wins this season, seeks to win his fourth consecutive victory.

MORE: Noah Gragson’s special celebrations at Waffle House

Gibbs, who has five victories this year, is one of four drivers in the Xfinity playoffs for the first time. The other three are Josh Berry, Austin Hill and Sam Mayer.

Also in the playoffs are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric, Justin Allgaier, AJ Allmendinger, Brandon Jones, Jeremy Clements, Riley Herbst and Ryan Sieg.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Andy’s Frozen Custard executives Andy Kuntz, Dana Kuntz and Carol Kuntz at 3:38 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:49 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 8:30 a.m. … Practice begins at 10:30 a.m. … Qualifying begins at 11:05 a.m. … Driver introductions are at 3 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Bret Shisler of Texas Alliance Raceway Ministries at 3:30 p.m. … Janie Balderas will perform the anthem at 3:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 200 laps (300 miles) on the 1.5-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 45. Stage 2 ends at Lap 90.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 3:30 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3 p.m. on USA Network. The post-race show will air on USA Network. … Performance Racing Network coverage begins at 3 p.m. and also will stream at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 96 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Tyler Reddick gave Big Machine Racing its first series win in May. William Byron was second and Sam Mayer was third.

 

Ryan Blaney’s team to appeal Bristol penalty

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Team Penske will appeal the penalty to Ryan Blaney‘s team from last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the organization confirmed Friday.

NASCAR suspended crew chief Jonathan Hassler, jackman Graham Stoddard and rear tire changer Zachary Price four races each after a wheel came off Blaney’s car during a pit stop. His left rear wheel rolled off when he exited his stall and the tire bounced down pit road through before it was captured.

The penalty would have caused Hassler and the pit crew members to miss all of the second round and the first race in the third round. With the appeal. Hassler, Stoddard and Price will be able to participate in Sunday’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network.).

Blaney enters the second round holding the final transfer spot. He, Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell are tied with 3,013 points. He won the All-Star Race in May at Texas.

Chase Briscoe is the first driver below the cutline. He’s four points behind Blaney. Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez are each six points behind Blaney. Austin Cindric is seven points behind Blaney.

 

Friday 5: Waffle House provides special memories for NASCAR drivers

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After the burnout and victory lane celebration last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, the focus for Noah Gragson and his Xfinity Series team was which Waffle House they were going to on the way home. 

There was one about 5 miles from the track and another about 7 miles away. One person was tasked with choosing the location and making sure everyone knew.

Gragson, his team and the JR Motorsports hauler all made it, continuing what has become a part of Gragson’s victory celebration.

Most times, drivers who win a Cup or Xfinity Series race go from the track to a plane and fly home. For races closer to the sport’s Charlotte, North Carolina base, competitors will drive, allowing them the chance to stop at a restaurant on the way home.

Such experiences hark back to the early days of a driver’s career —when they raced at local short tracks, didn’t finish until late at night and sought a place to eat, relax and relive that evening’s event. Go to any short track, particularly in the Southeast, and it’s not uncommon to hear the winning team say that they’re taking the trophy to a Waffle House or any other restaurant that is open all hours.

Gragson’s first Waffle House celebration came in 2015, when he won the K&N Pro Series West race in Tucson, Arizona, leading his team to a 1-2-3 finish.

When Gragson won the Xfinity race at Phoenix in March, he went to a Waffle House upon landing in North Carolina. After his Darlington victory earlier this month — the first of three in a row — the team’s hauler also stopped at the Waffle House, joining Gragson and the team.

“Got all the cooks and (everybody) out there taking pictures and just loving it,” Gragson said. “It’s a good time. We played music on the jukebox and told them to turn it all the way up.”

“He’ll look back on that when he’s 60 or 70 years old,” teammate Justin Allgaier said of Noah Gragson, “and those are going to be the moments he’ll remember forever.”

Gragson brought the sword and trophy he collected after his Bristol victory to the Waffle House last weekend. He used the sword to cut his waffle and placed half of the waffle on the sword’s tip before taking a bite. 

“That was really cool to be able to party with the fans and have some waffles,” Gragson said. 

The Waffle House was packed with several Gragson fans, including those wearing his T-shirt. 

“It’s funny that they go to Waffle House,’’ teammate Justin Allgaier said, “but he’ll look back on that when he’s 60 or 70 years old and those are going to be the moments he’ll remember forever.”

Jeremy Clements, who is 37 and in the Xfinity playoffs for the third time, already looks back on such times fondly. His early days of racing were filled with Waffle House stops. 

“We were in the Waffle House all the time,” Clements said. “The races were always late. We had to eat. It didn’t matter if we won or not most times. We had enough in the budget to eat at Waffle House.”

Like many, Clements said that when he won, he brought the trophy into the Waffle House. 

“Why not show it off and have some fun?” he said.

To reigning Xfinity Series champion Daniel Hemric, Waffle House represents special memories. 

“I’d say 90% of my childhood weekends were spent in the Waffle House on Friday and Saturday nights,” Hemric said of the beginning of his racing career. “

Even now, he still goes to a Waffle House regularly. His daughter Rhen, born in May 2020, insists.

“She loves Waffle House,” Hemric said. “It’s kind of one of our little Sunday traditions every week or two weeks. We go as a family on Sunday, just me, (wife) Kenzie and Rhen.”

Waffle House isn’t the only special place for Hemric. After he won  $250,000 in a Legends car race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2010, he and about 20 family and friends went to a Steak ’n Shake about 4 miles from the track to celebrate. 

Hemric brought the trophy with him, but his celebration was muted. He had helped prepare about a dozen other cars for that event and was exhausted at that point of the night.

“Everybody was ordering food and I laid my head down and took a nap,” he said. 

Steak ’n Shake is a popular destination, particularly for Daytona 500 winners. The restaurant is located 2 miles from Daytona International Speedway.

Car owner Joe Gibbs took his family and the trophy in after winning the 1993 Daytona 500. Gibbs revived the tradition in 2019 after the second of Denny Hamlin’s three wins in that event. The Wood Brothers went there after Trevor Bayne’s 2011 Daytona 500 victory.

Cup rookie Austin Cindric celebrated his Daytona 500 win this year with family and his team.

“Really special to have both my mom and my dad there with my whole team,” Cindric said. “We had pit crew guys. We had everybody, and it’s one of those moments in life that you kind of have to appreciate while it’s happening … because it doesn’t happen every day.”

Cindric also brought the trophy into the restaurant. 

“Definitely cool to shut the place down with the biggest trophy,” he said.

2. NASCAR on Next Gen parts process, shifting and Martinsville

Former Cup champion Kevin Harvick has been critical of the Next Gen car in the playoffs, complaining about the vehicle’s “crappy-ass parts.”

Harvick was upset after a fire ended his race in the playoff opener at Darlington earlier this month. Two days after he was eliminated from title contention at Bristol, partially due to an issue with the left front wheel, Harvick posted a link to a T-shirt he was selling that played off his comment. 

John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of Racing Innovation, explained to NBC Sports the process that NASCAR went through — with the teams and manufacturers — in determining the vendors that would supply parts for the Next Gen car.

This marks the first time vendors supply the main parts instead of teams making their own. 

As NASCAR developed the car, Probst said the sanctioning body, teams and manufacturers set the specifications for parts before sending a Request for Proposal to vendors. This took place in 2019.

NASCAR sent RFPs to as few as five vendors and as many as 30 vendors for some parts. For those companies interested, NASCAR held a call to answer questions not covered in the 30-50 pages of documents the sanctioning body sent. 

Vendors had two weeks to prepare for in-person meetings that included representatives from NASCAR, teams and manufacturers, Probst said. 

About five days after the meetings finished, team and manufacturer representatives gave NASCAR their ranking of the top three candidates to supply a particular part. Probst said the teams and manufacturers often provided feedback on all those who presented. 

“We would have people sitting (in the meetings) that pretty much spanned the gamut from large to small teams,” Probst said, “because we wanted to get a pretty good cross-section of feedback from our industry from the team side.”

The team representatives typically were senior engineers or technical directors, Probst said. In cases where a team was bidding to supply any particular parts, their representative was not a part of the meetings with other vendors to avoid any conflict. 

After the feedback, NASCAR, teams and manufacturers made their selections.

“More than not, we had pretty good alignment with us in the industry,” Probst said. “On parts selections, I wouldn’t say every part selection was unanimous. I can also say that we did not select, as a matter of any rule, the cheapest part. 

“We chose the part that we felt served the function that we needed to have done. It wasn’t a case of just going with the low-cost supplier. It was going with the supplier, with the right cost with the right product that met our needs at the time.”

Probst said he’s proud of how the car has been a factor in the series seeing 19 different winners this year, tying for the most all-time in a season. With perennial winners Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski still seeking their first points victory of the season, that number could go beyond 20 before the season ends Nov. 6 at Phoenix.

Probst said he feels one misunderstanding with the car is the collaboration between NASCAR, teams and manufacturers.

“I think that sometimes when you read the driver quotes and the team feedback, crew chiefs are posting things on Twitter, it creates the sense of NASCAR vs. them vs. the world,” Probst told NBC Sports. 

“Really, it isn’t like that. I wish people could see how well we actually do work with the engineers on these teams, sorting through the problems. 

“I feel like we work hand-in-hand with them, but a lot of times when it gets to the public eye, for whatever reason, or if it’s in the heat of the moment, it comes across as though ‘NASCAR is making us do this,’ or ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’ but I think, in reality, that is so far from the truth. We have a really good working relationship with all of the teams, and I just think that gets lost.”

The Next Gen car has provided better racing at intermediate tracks, while the racing at short tracks has been disappointing. The spring race at Martinsville faced criticism from drivers. With next month’s Martinsville race the final chance for drivers to make the championship event, what happens there will be critical. 

Probst said there will be a gear change for Martinsville, “but as far as big changes, there are no large changes that we’re making going back there. We’ve had one data point at Martinsville so far this year, the coldest race of the year. We put down no rubber. It’s really hard to make wholesale changes to the car based on that.”

Probst later said of making changes: “We’ll continue to make changes as we need to, but … I feel like we need to make these changes based on data and what we’re seeing from our metrics and just make the best decisions we can.”

Another key topic this year has been shifting, which has been blamed by some for making it hard to pass, but also been used at the intermediate tracks, which has seen a renaissance in the racing compared to recent years. 

“I would say the debate continues,” Probst told NBC Sports on whether to allow shifting or reduce the dependency of it. “I would say that we certainly have some of our drivers who are very insistent that shifting is bad, the race would be better if we didn’t have shifting.

“We also have other drivers, who haven’t been as vocal publicly (for it), but by no means is there any mass agreement across the drivers that shifting is good or bad.”

Probst raised questions about one suggestion of giving drivers 1,000 horsepower for short tracks.

“The 1,000 horsepower would imply that I’ve got torque on demand, and I can get back to the gas and ‘Man, that’s going to make really good racing,’” Probst said. “In my mind, shifting is almost the same thing. 

“So like, if I need torque in the middle of the corner, I can downshift and boom, I got the torque to drive up off like I got a monster engine and all gears. So, I personally do not feel like we have the data that says shifting is good or bad.”

3. Inside the mind of a Cup playoff driver 

As Ross Chastain spoke about the Oct. 2 playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, he noted: “What’s so great about this sport and this series at this level is we’re allowed to just go and crash. 

“That’s on restarts, on a mile-and-a-half, or a short track, or racing all day at a superspeedway. I feel like it’s acceptable to just crash these expensive race cars. It’s a wild spot for me to be in, just mentally making that decision that I’m going to go put myself in that spot that I could be crashed or I could cause a crash.”

Sunday Dover Cup race
Ross Chastain is third in the Cup playoff standings.  (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Chastain, who enters Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway third in the points, spent a few years in the Xfinity Series in underfunded equipment with JD Motorsports that he couldn’t afford to wreck. Asked how he learned to make the adjustment from overly protecting the car to racing more freely, Chastain noted a situation in last weekend’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol that hit home for him.

“I just watched Bayley Currey go and take the No. 4 car (for JD Motorsports) and run top three with it at Bristol and was fine,” he said. “Then it came down to the end and some late restarts and I could tell he was protecting his car and he finished 11th. I know he wanted a 10th. Not that I ever ran top three in Johnny’s car, but there was times where you go and you’re fast enough and then it comes down to the end and it’s like ‘Man, weighing out that risk versus reward.’

“I think Bayley did a lot better job than I ever did in that scenario. I still tend to tear them up. Now, just aside from not crashing and being out of the race for points, just the thought of these cars coming back torn up is just more accepted.”

Chastain recalls that his mindset changed after his first Xfinity practice session in the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing at Darlington.

“I just was complaining about how loose the car was and was going to crash. So, I was pretty slow. Mike Shiplett, my crew chief, walks over and opens the top door to crawl up into the upstairs of the hauler and the backup car is sitting there.

He says, ‘You see this?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘It’s built exactly the same as the car out there, the primary, so go drive the car. If you crash it, we will unload this one and you will feel it drives exactly the same. So, I don’t want to hear about it being loose anymore. I want you to go drive it.’”

Chastain won the pole in qualifying. 

“High risk, yes, but that was the first time that was ever said to me. I just never looked at a backup that way.”

4. Chase Elliott’s focus 

The second round of the Cup playoffs could be the most treacherous for teams. 

After Sunday’s race at Texas (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network), the series races at Talladega and then ends the round with the Charlotte Roval.

Anything can happen at Talladega, and the Charlotte Roval could create some issues. Add rain there and it could be wilder. 

Texas schedule
Chase Elliott leads the points going into Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

That’s why some drivers view the Texas race as pivotal. Win Sunday to advance to the third round and it doesn’t matter what happens the next two weeks.

While it might be easy for some to look ahead at the potential pitfalls, Chase Elliott, who  enters this round atop the playoff standings, doesn’t do that.

“I take it a week at a time in general,” he said. “Half the time I don’t know where we’re going the next week. 

“The object is to win every single weekend. I don’t show up to a racetrack with the mindset of ‘Yeah, let’s go out here and make stupid decisions and finish last. That’s just not ever the mindset. I don’t see where it changes a whole lot. 

“You always want to have a good run. It just so happens a fresh round is starting this weekend and fortunately we’re still a part of the deal. We’ll go out there and try to have a good run at Texas.

“Try to have a good Saturday, try to have a good practice, try to qualify well, hopefully get you a good pit pick and some nice track position to start Sunday. … Wherever we come out of that, we’ll reevaluate what the situation is and where we need to go from there. You’re always trying to have good weekends, and I think taking it a week at a time, a day at a time is is pretty important.”

5. Double duty will continue for Ty Gibbs 

Two of the Xfinity Series title contenders will continue to do double duty even with the playoffs beginning for that series this weekend.

Both Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs are also entered in Sunday’s Cup race at Texas. 

Gragson has noted that he is a bit more cautious in the Cup car because of the impacts drivers are feeling with the Next Gen car. He doesn’t want an injury in a Cup car to hurt his championship chances.

Gibbs has been driving in place of Kurt Busch, who has been out since late July because of a head injury.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports this week that the plan is for Gibbs to continue to drive the Cup car throughout the playoffs unless Busch is ready to return.

“We’re comfortable with Ty running both for the foreseeable future,” Wilson said. “We still don’t know what Kurt is going to do. To be fair, he left the door open to potentially get back into the car before the end of the season. (Ty) is learning a lot.

“I don’t think any of us have the mentality that we’re putting him in harm’s way wheeling a Cup car. … We know, obviously that hits can be harder with this car, and we know that the teams and NASCAR are working on that. We’re not going to put any of our drivers in a car that we believe is inherently unsafe. 

“On the whole, we think Ty running on Saturday and Sunday for the next handful of races is going to benefit Ty and is not going to compromise his ability to compete for an Xfinity championship.”