Friday 5: A conversation with a NASCAR mover and shaker

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A reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway. Dirt again on Bristol Motor Speedway. The purchase of Dover Motor Speedway and Nashville Superspeedway. 

Marcus Smith, president and chief executive officer at Speedway Motorsports, continues to make a significant impact on NASCAR. 

He’s not done. With plans to remake Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville and restore North Wilkesboro Speedway, Smith’s influence on the sport will grow.

Speedway Motorsports, founded by Bruton Smith, has been known for innovation. While maybe not every idea worked, many have — from fan initiatives to creating the Charlotte Roval. Marcus Smith has been a key figure in such moves.

With NASCAR at Atlanta this weekend, the sport is in a stretch that will see 10 of 18 Cup points races held at tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports or promoted by the company.

The first race in that stretch for Speedway Motorsports was Las Vegas, held two weeks ago. Without revealing details, Smith said that the track’s attendance finished “a little bit ahead” of the 2020 race there, one of the lasts before the pandemic shut down the sport for more than two months. 

Smith talked with NBC Sports this week about many of his tracks and where things stand with Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway. 

Atlanta Motor Speedway

For years, drivers begged and pleaded for the track not to be repaved. Competitors loved the challenge of the track’s racing surface that made tires wear and put much of a car’s success into the driver’s hands.

Eventually, a repave was needed, but Speedway Motorsports was not content with that. Instead, the company reconfigured the track, increasing the banking in the turns to 28 degrees in an effort to create superspeedway racing on a 1.5-mile track. 

“We have a Next Gen car in NASCAR, and we have a Next Gen Atlanta Motor Speedway,” Smith told NBC Sports. “With the multi-million dollar investment we made there on widening the frontstretch, increasing the banking in the turns, bringing a Next Gen paving technology that is actually proving to be a more raceable surface within the first year, I’m really excited about it. 

“I think we’re going to see drivers three and four-wide through the turns. The fans are going to be in for some really exciting racing.”

Atlanta superspeedway
Kurt Busch on the repaved and reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway during a tire test in January. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Bristol Motor Speedway

For the second year in a row, Bristol’s track will be covered in dirt for its spring race. New this year is that race will be held on Easter night. 

Typically, the sport shied from racing on that holiday. This is an opportunity to make Easter a NASCAR holiday, much like Thanksgiving is known for NFL games, Christmas features NBA games and January 1 is known for college bowl games. 

“A lot of people go to church on Easter Sunday and get together as a family, maybe go to see mom and have lunch and then that night is a great time tune in for a NASCAR race,” Smith said. 

“For fans that are going be on site, we hope that they will enjoy this new tradition. We’re going to be putting on a really big Easter service. … We are going to create a really, really special weekend for people to do something different. It’s not unheard of to go somewhere for Easter. … This is a new somewhere to go.”

NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race
This year’s dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway will be held on Easter night. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Rain pushed last year’s Cup dirt race back a day. Rainouts can make it more difficult for tracks to sell tickets the next year because of the memory of that experience.

“That definitely provides a challenge,” Smith said. “Any time you have rain, the following year is a challenge on (ticket) renewals, but we do have the big plus of moving the race to nighttime and a lot of fans out there realize that dirt racing is best at night. We’ve also gotten (the race date) out of March and into April, which typically is a better weather pattern for the Bristol area.”

Circuit of the Americas

All three of NASCAR’s national series return there this year. The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races are March 26. Cup races March 27.

Speedway Motorsports does not own COTA. Instead, the company serves as the promoter for the NASCAR events. After last year’s races, Speedway Motorsports took some time to assess the inaugural event before deciding to promote NASCAR there again this year.

“We’re really committed to that marketplace and think it’s going to be good for the sport, and it has been already,” Smith said.

Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville

Speedway Motorsports, through Bristol Motor Speedway, has sought to operate the historic short track located near downtown Nashville since 2017. 

Nashville Mayor John Cooper agreed to a proposal last November by Bristol to revitalize Fairgrounds Speedway so it can host NASCAR racing. 

Financial plans are still being examined by city officials. The deal also needs approval from the Fair Board and Metro Council. Smith says that they’ve “gotten to what you might call the 1-yard line with the city and the state at moving forward on the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. 

“It’s going to be a part of our future. We’re really bullish about it and think it’s going to be a fantastic addition to the NASCAR schedule. Really, this renovated property is going to be an amazing asset for the community and the city of Nashville.”

With all that remains and then construction work to upgrade the facility, Smith was asked if 2023 was out of the question for Fairgrounds Speedway to be on the NASCAR schedule.

“Our team is so amazing, I don’t want to say no,” he said. “We can do amazing things. If things all come together quickly. Who knows what we can do.”

North Wilkesboro Speedway

This track, which hosted Cup races from 1949-96, could soon be back in action. 

Work continues on updating the facility with funding from the American Rescue Plan. The North Carolina budget earmarked $18 million to Wilkes County “to coordinate with relevant local government units for water and sewer and related infrastructure projects for … the North Wilkesboro Speedway.”

Asked about when the track could be race ready, Smith said: “It will be sooner than you think. We’re working on some details, so stay tuned.”

As for what type of racing could be there, Smith was clear.

“I don’t see Cup racing happening in that market,” he said, “but I think if we have local, regional racing, if we have short track racers return to Wilkesboro, this will be hallowed ground for anybody who races short tracks in the entire country. That alone is a big deal. 

“If, somehow, someway, we could have a larger national tour series, like you mentioned the Truck Series, it would be beyond the expectation, I think, of everybody involved.”

Texas Motor Speedway 

NASCAR President Steve Phelps called out the size of the crowd for last year’s playoff race at Texas, saying it was “an unacceptable level of tickets sold in that marketplace.”

Smith says things will be better this year, citing the start of the season and the racing the Next Gen car has created.

“Texas Motor Speedway, being in one of the biggest markets in the world, Dallas/Fort Worth,” he said. “It is a phenomenal faculty. We’re surrounded by millions of people, and I think we’re going to have a much better showing this year with the fans (and) that’s because the drivers and the teams are putting on a much better show for those races.”

2. A new way of doing things 

Starting this weekend, the rear tire changer on a Cup pit crew will be allowed to approach the car from the front. Previously, the rear tire changer was required to go around the back of the car to reach the rear tire.

Why does this matter?

Having the rear tire changer leave the pit wall from the front of the car could save pit crews three-tenths of a second or more, pit coaches tell NBC Sports. That could be the difference in spots gained or lost on pit road.

That difference in time is because a rear tire changer has to wait for the car to come by before going around the back of the car to the tire.

Now, the rear tire changer can join the front tire changer, jackman and tire carrier going around the front of their car. All can jump off the pit wall with the car one pit stall away. That allows the rear tire changer to reach to the tire sooner.

“It’s something that we’ve practiced for eight months now,” Chris Hall, pit coach for Joe Gibbs Racing, told NBC Sports. “As the field continues to get better on pit road, I’m excited to pull it out when we need to create separation (from other teams).”

Ruoff Mortgage 500
Starting this weekend at Atlanta, the rear tire changer will be able to go around the front of the car as the front tire changer, jackman and tire carrier do. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Just because teams can begin to do stops this way, it doesn’t mean fans will see it often at Atlanta. 

“I think it’s a very creative idea,” Ray Gallahan, pit coach for Team Penske, told NBC Sports of the new way to do pit stops. “I think it’s very innovative, and I think can work, but it’s going to have to be a very specialized set of circumstances, in my opinion, for it to work properly.”

With the repaved surface, tire wear is not expected to be an issue at Atlanta. Teams are more likely to change two tires per stop instead of four. 

Having the rear tire changer go around the front of the car for a two-tire stop is not effective.

It’s a penalty for a car to run over an air hose, and it’s also a penalty for throwing equipment over the wall, so the rear tire changer would have to run back around the front of the car before the vehicle could leave the pit stall on a two-tire stop, costing the team valuable time.

That’s something to keep in mind throughout the season. Think about those pit stops in the final laps when a crew chief changes his call from a four-tire stop to a two-tire stop as the car comes down pit road. 

If the rear tire changer is placed at the front of the car, there likely won’t be enough time for him to get to the other side of pit stall with his air gun and hose before the car stops. That means if a crew chief wants to have the rear tire changer come from the front of the car, then the call can’t be changed to a two-tire stop because of the time lost as the rear tire changer goes back around the front of the car so the air hose is not run over.

Pit coaches also told NBC Sports that having the rear tire changer go around the front of the car creates other challenges. 

With four people jumping off the pit wall in front of the car, that’s an extra person that could be in the way if a car pitting in the stall ahead is coming in to pit at about the same time. 

With much of the field often pitting together during a caution, it’s difficult to have that extra person going around the front of the car.

The exception will be those who have a pit opening in front of them. Pit coaches say that will put more emphasis on qualifying. The fastest car in all but rare instances takes  the stall closest to pit exit, meaning the team will not have a car in front of it. That will allow the rear tire changer approach the car from the front instead of the rear on four-tire stops.

Last summer at Atlanta, there were seven pit stalls that had openings in front. That race featured 37 cars, the same number of cars entered this weekend. That could allow those seven teams go with the faster pit stop on four-tire changes. 

Something else to consider is the rear tire changer’s air hose. There are crew members behind the wall who either grab the tires rolled from the right side or make sure the air hose has enough slack for the tire changers.

“(Holding) the hose and pulling the hose up front is one of the most important jobs behind pit wall,” Ray Wright, pit crew coach for Richard Childress Racing, told NBC Sports.

With limits to the number of crew members per team, should a crew member be ejected because the team’s car fails inspection multiple times, it could force someone to handle the air hose behind the pit wall who hasn’t done so as often. That can lead to the air hose being stuck under the car or getting tangled with the pit crew as they run to the left side of the car. 

3. Evolving driver 

Phoenix winner Noah Gragson is only the third driver in Xfinity history — and the first since 2012 — to start the season with four consecutive top-three finishes. 

The only drivers to do that are Elliott Sadler in 2012 and Kevin Harvick in 2005. No driver has ever scored five consecutive top-three Xfinity finishes, the mark Gragson goes for Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. 

But that streak is only a byproduct of the growth of the 23-year-old driver who is in his fourth season with JR Motorsports. 

“Noah is to the point where he’s been there and done that, he’s getting more experience,” Ryan Pemberton, director of competition at JRM, told NBC Sports. “The more experience, that allows you to do a better job, be more aggressive without stepping over (the line). 

“Noah is really knowledgeable of where he’s at, what he wants the car to do and understanding where it wants to be, what it’s supposed to feel like on Lap 20 vs. Lap 60 and that takes a long time.”

Another change for Gragson is that he’s working with a new crew chief. With Dave Elenz moving go Cup to work with Erik Jones at Petty GMS Motorsports, Gragson is paired with Luke Lambert.

“He told me the first time I met him, ‘I’m not looking to come in here and change the program that you guys had, but I want to be able to build on it and if we can find one or two things to make better, let’s keep building on that,’” Gragson said.

Gragson will be busy this weekend. He’ll make his debut for Kaulig Racing, driving the No. 16 Cup car this weekend. 

4. Strong start

Trackhouse Racing, which is co-owned by Justin Marks and Pitbull, has had a car finish in the top five in each of the last three races. It’s the longest active streak in the series.

Ross Chastain has two of those top fives, placing second at Phoenix and third at Las Vegas. Daniel Suarez has the other top five, finishing fourth at Auto Club Speedway.

Trackhouse Racing’s three top-five finishes are tied with Stewart-Haas Racing this season. Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske have a series-high four top fives this year.

The 83 laps led by Trackhouse Racing (all by Chastain) are the more laps than the organization led last season. 

“It’s a clean slate with this car, but these guys are smart,” Chastain said of his team after last weekend’s race at Phoenix. “The guys that are struggling right now, they’re going to be coming. We have to stay ahead of them if we want to compete like this all year.”

5. Winless drought

Toyota’s nine-race winless drought is its longest since the manufacturer went 31 races between Cup wins in 2014-15.

The last win by a Toyota driver was by Bubba Wallace at Talladega during last year’s playoffs. 

Since that time:

  • Denny Hamlin was passed for the lead with eight laps to go at the Charlotte Roval last year by Kyle Larson.
  • Hamlin spun from the lead at Martinsville after contact from Alex Bowman with eight laps to go.
  • Martin Truex Jr. lost the lead to Kyle Larson on pit road with 28 laps to in the championship race at Phoenix, won by Larson.
  • Bubba Wallace finished second to Austin Cindric in this year’s Daytona 500.
  • Kyle Busch seemed headed for the win earlier this month at Las Vegas before a caution sent the race to overtime and Alex Bowman won. 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

 

 

 

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”