Friday 5: Dale Jr. excited for Cup’s return to North Wilkesboro


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — For as special as it was to race at North Wilkesboro Speedway last August, Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows Sunday’s All-Star Race there will be emotional.

This weekend marks the return of the NASCAR Cup Series to the historic track for the first time since 1996.

“I can’t wait for this weekend,” said Earnhardt, who finished 16th in Wednesday night’s Cars Tour Late Model Stock Car race at North Wilkesboro and was instrumental in the track’s revival. “I think that’s probably going to trigger some more emotions when you see Cup cars racing around here.”

MORE: Former competitors share memories of North Wilkesboro 

Anticipation has built since last September’s announcement that Cup would race at North Wilkesboro this year. A capacity crowd of about 30,000 is expected for the All-Star Race.

Earnhardt admits he didn’t expect Cup to race there until Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, which owns the track, told Earnhardt of the plans.

“I thought he was going to tell me that we were going to have a Truck race. … I never thought Cup would ever go back,” Earnhardt said in April. “That was never the idea.”

Earnhardt kept telling Smith last year that Smith “probably could only run a Truck race there.” Earnhardt questioned if there was enough infrastructure for a Cup-size crowd. Speedway Motorsports has since made significant upgrades throughout the facility.

“He just called me one day,” Earnhardt said of Smith, “and was like, ‘Guess what?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is crazy.’”

“But it’s perfect. (The All-Star Race) needs a reboot. It’s great for the track. It’s great for the All-Star Race. This talk about ‘Do we need the All-Star Race?’ Come on. We need the All-Star Race.”

But does it need to be at North Wilkesboro every year?

“I think the All-Star Race should move around,” Earnhardt said Wednesday. “I think next year you should come here for a 400-lap race for points.”

Should NASCAR do so, there’s a good chance it could take place on a repaved track. Track officials already have had to make some repairs this week to the track, which was last paved in 1981.

“Maybe they need to repave it after the end of this week,” Earnhardt said. “If the pavement makes it through Sunday without real issues, they could consider taking that risk, but it would be such a risk. It would be a big risk to get that surface to last that much longer.

“Our cars, our program and our style of race can deal with a lot of imperfection, but the Cup crowd, it will not put up with problems and problematic surfaces. One little problem, one car has any kind of an issue from a rock going through their radiator or whatever, you can’t have that going on.

“It’s a big risk that they’re taking now with this surface for this Sunday. I think they won’t want to take that risk again. I’ll be surprised if they do.”

2. Dream gone?

Kyle Busch would like to run in the Indianapolis 500, but he says he’s not pursuing it after previous attempts failed.

Busch’s older brother, Kurt, ran both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in 2014 — the last time a driver competed in both races on the same day.

Kyle Larson is scheduled to compete in both races next year, driving in the Indy 500 for Arrow McLaren.

“Unfortunately, I think Larson got the ride that I was slated to get,” Kyle Busch said this week. “So he’s got that locked up for two years. … Just unfortunate for me wanting to go there and run that race. I had a sponsor lined up to do it and been told no everywhere. It’s really frustrating.”

Busch says he is no longer as focused on racing in the Indy 500.

“I’m not going to be making calls and pushing for it,” Busch said. “If somebody calls me and says they’re ready to go and it all lines up right, so be it, we’ll go do it.”

3. Better than a simulator

The cars aren’t the same. The tires aren’t the same. So what was the value for several Cup drivers running in either the Cars Tour races or the ASA Stars Super Late Model race on Wednesday at North Wilkesboro?

Daniel Suarez, who competed in a pair of races, also spent time on a simulator ahead of this weekend. Still, he found the track time helpful.

Suarez said a simulator can only do so much. He notes it’s also important for him to get as much track time as possible because his background is not in short tracks.

His Trackhouse Racing teammate, Ross Chastain, used his race Wednesday to learn the track. Chastain also benefited by being back in a car after his controversial actions in recent weeks and conversations he had with Rick Hendrick, Kyle Larson, Justin Marks and others earlier this week.

“The fun to come out here is nobody (except the spotter and crew chief) can talk to me when I’m in the car,” Chastain said.

William Byron, who has Cup-best three wins this season, continues to use such races to work on his craft.

“I ran a lot of super late models when I was coming up through the ranks but not as much as I wanted to,” he said. “I didn’t win as much as I wanted to. I wanted to get back in them and kind of understand the feel for them and get some experience.

“I feel like it helps me in different ways. I definitely feel like racing in general is helpful in anything I can get in.”

4. Looking to do more

IMSA star Jordan Taylor made his Cup debut earlier this season at Circuit of the Americas, driving for an injured Chase Elliott. Taylor will get another chance to run in NASCAR when he makes his Xfinity Series debut in the June 3 race at Portland International Raceway for Kaulig Racing.

A former IMSA champion, winner in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and overall winner in the 24 Hours of Daytona, Taylor has been looking to race on oval tracks.

Wednesday, he made his stock car oval debut, competing in the Cars Tour Pro Late Model race at North Wilkesboro. He finished 20th. Taylor said he got the ride with the help of Greg Ives, who has been overseeing the Garage 56 entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Taylor is a backup driver/coach with that entry.

Taylor said after he drove for Elliott at COTA, he had a conversation with Jeff Gordon, vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports, about what it would take to get more Cup opportunities.

Gordon said it would be possible for Taylor to switch disciplines “if you commit yourself to it.”

That was among the reasons Taylor drove at North Wilkesboro this week.

“I do have a full-time job that I love, doing a lot of sports car racing,” Taylor said. “It’s my passion, what I grew up doing. Now that I’ve kind of gotten a taste of the NASCAR side, I would love to try to do more, whether it is a limited schedule or what it is. After doing an oval here, I would love to do some more of these just to kind of get more experience with it. If there were openings for a part-time schedule somewhere down the road, I would love to give it a shot, for sure.”

5. Meaningful competition

Bubba Pollard, one of the nation’s top super late model drivers, won Wednesday’s ASA Stars event at North Wilkesboro, beating a field that included Cup drivers William Byron (second), Chase Elliott (third), Daniel Suarez (fifth) and Noah Gragson (30th).

That event followed the Cars Tour races. Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Justin Marks and Dale Earnhardt Jr. became co-owners of that series this year. Cup drivers who competed in the Cars Tour Late Model Stock Car race on Wednesday at North Wilkesboro were Ross Chastain, Brad Keselowski, Chase Briscoe, Harvick and Suarez.

Pollard says that having Cup drivers compete in short track races and the new ownership group for the Cars Tour is meaningful.

“The publicity,” Pollard said of the Cup drivers competing, “the fans coming out, just everything. This is big for short track racing. … Hopefully, it shows fans that there is some short track racing out there and what we do, and they’ll hopefully continue to watch.”

Pollard said he raced against Elliott and Byron when they were young and it is special to see those drivers return to their roots when they can.

“I grew up racing with Chase,” Pollard said. “I got a lot of respect for him. … It’s big when those guys come and put fans in the stands. It’s big for me. It can potentially bring something to the table for me, sponsor-wise. You never know.

“There’s a lot of opportunities that these guys bring in with (Dale) Jr. and Harvick and Burton doing the Cars Tour. It’s big for short track racing. It’s huge. … The future is bright for short track racing.”

Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup