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Five can’t-miss NASCAR Cup races in 2019 beyond Daytona 500

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We’re 32 days out from the biggest NASCAR event of the season in the Daytona 500, a race of such importance that needs no explanation.

But what else is there to look forward to?

There are 35 other Cup points races this season and they’re not all created equal.

Here are five races to pay closer attention to this season.

– Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on Feb. 24 on Fox)

The second Cup race of the season will probably have its biggest spotlight in recent memory when the 1.5-mile track is the first to host the 2019 rules package.

Derived from the 2018 All-Star Race package, it includes a tapered spacer and is intended to provide closer racing. Cars will run 550 horsepower at all tracks 1.33 miles and larger, which includes Atlanta. At tracks less than 1.33 miles, cars will have 750 horsepower.

Combine the hopeful intent behind the package and a rough track surface that’s being kept in place by the “most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C.,” and you have no excuse to not tune in and see what happens.

Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on June 30 on NBCSN)

The race that marks the start of NBC’s portion of the NASCAR schedule set an incredible precedent in 2018. The 1.5-mile track debuted in its new spot on the schedule with Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch’s dramatic last-lap battle and Busch’s win.

Was it a result of the drivers involved? The hot Chicagoland surface? Lapped traffic?

Yes.

Can it be topped?

We can only hope.

Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on Aug. 4 on NBCSN)

From the green flag last year, the Cup race on the New York road course was a barn burner, ending with a duel between Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. that resulted in Elliott’s first Cup win as Truex ran out of gas.

Races on the road course have had increasingly memorable finishes over the last seven years (beginning in 2012 with Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose). WGI shows no sign of providing a snoozer in the near future, especially as long as pit strategy is involved.

Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 29 on NBC)

The final lap of last season’s inaugural Cup race on the Charlotte Roval  had enough drama for three races on the new road course.

From Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson‘s contact in the final turn giving Ryan Blaney the win; Kyle Larson hitting the wall twice and passing a stalled car at the checkered flag to advance in the playoffs; and Aric Almirola passing enough cars to advance himself.

Do teams have the oval-road course hybrid figured out after one year? It’ll be fun to watch that question answered.

First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Oct. 27 on NBCSN)

We’re starting to run out of fingers to use to list memorable events in Martinsville’s recent history of hosting a playoff race.

You could argue it started with Dale Earnhardt Jr. banging doors with Tony Stewart to win his only Martinsville clock in 2014.

Since then?

We’ve seen Matt Kenseth’s retaliation against Joey Logano in 2015, which resulted in Jeff Gordon’s final Cup win.

Two years later, Denny Hamlin wrecked Elliott from the lead near the end of regulation. Kyle Busch then won in overtime as Martinsville’s version of “The Big One” unfolded. Afterward, an angry Elliott confronted Hamlin on the track as fans filled the air with cheers and boos.

Last year Truex and Logano provided a thrilling battle over the last six laps. Logano performed the bump-and-run on Truex in the final turn to win the battle in the “damn war” (which Logano also won in Miami).

 

Help design Bubba Wallace’s Auto Club car, get diecast with your name on it

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Fans are invited to take part in a special promotion that will see them design and have their name emblazoned upon Bubba Wallace No. 43 Chevrolet for the March 17 Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Fans can submit designs for the car Wallace will drive in the race. Once the final design is selected, fans will have their names on the car. A diecast model will also be produced with fan’s names on it and then sent to all who participate in the promotion.

The promotion is tied in with a one-race sponsorship for the event from Plan B Sales and Marketing. Fans can go to www.PlanBSales.com for instructions on how to participate, according to a Richard Petty Motorsports media release.

“I love it when we can get fans involved and be a part of the team,” Wallace said in a media release. “Richard Petty Motorsports and Plan B Sales really care about getting fans involved and feeling like they are a part of the team.

“This program is something cool and it’s easy to do. It’s an easy way to get a cool No. 43 diecast with your name on it and watch it race at California.”

Plan B Sales and Marketing is a leading producer of diecast models in motorsports.

“We have been with Bubba since the beginning of his career,” Plan B co-owner Brent Powell said. “When he embarked on his trek to success after racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Bubba actually signed his first diecast in our parking lot.

“We’ve maintained a relationship with him throughout the years and have always enjoyed having him as an ambassador. He is a loyal supporter of our brand and products.”

This promotion is similar to Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s last Mountain Dew Cup car at Talladega Superspeedway in 2017, when fan’s names were placed on his Chevrolet.

“Fans play a pivotal role in our company and in the sport as a whole,”  Powell said. “That notion drove us to make sure this partnership interacted with them – whether it be through the paint scheme design, or the addition of their names on the car at the event at Auto Club Speedway.”

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Josh Wise is Chip Ganassi Racing’s human optimizer

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At some point in the past two years Josh Wise had to say it out loud.

He wasn’t a professional race car driver anymore.

But what is he now?

“Man, I don’t know. I struggle with titles,” Wise says while sitting in a conference room at Chip Ganassi Racing’s shop.

It turns out the 35-year-old Wise is the driver performance manager for CGR’s NASCAR operations. That’s a vague title covering the work Wise has done “optimizing humans” for the team over the last two years and that now stretches to drivers like Noah Gragson and Brett Moffitt.

But Wise has other titles that tell the story of how he became a man who molds the eating, workout and driving habits of NASCAR drivers.

Former Professional Race Car Driver

Wise concedes the end of his NASCAR career, which lasted 10 years and 318 starts, was “not very romantic” compared to Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

His last start came on Nov. 6, 2016 in the Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway. Driving the No. 30 Chevrolet for The Motorsports Group, he started and finished last. His car was parked after 257 of 293 laps due to an electrical issue.

Josh Wise during his final season in the Cup Series in 2016. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“I was really tired of racing the way that I was having to race,” Wise says of the time, which capped off a two-year stretch of dissatisfaction. “I grew up racing with just a tremendous amount of passion and love for the sport.

“The thing that I enjoyed about it was being able to push myself to limits beyond what I thought I was capable of. The position I was in as a race car driver at that point in my career wasn’t that … It just wasn’t that fun anymore.”

Wise now finds himself dedicated to a job that that’s led him to say no to offers to race.

“I’ve actually turned them down because I haven’t wanted to blur the lines between wanting to be a race car driver anymore and doing what I’m doing now,” Wise says. “I really have no desire to be a race car driver anymore.”

But he had to say it out loud.

“I think at that point I told my wife (Ashley), I was like, ‘Hey, I’m done,’ ” Wise says. “She kind of knows when I draw a pretty distinct line when I say things like that. I have a bit of a switch I flip in my mind and I’m able to focus on another direction pretty efficiently.”

Iron Man

The path to Wise letting go of his racing identity began roughly a decade ago when he took part in his first Iron Man competition.

At the time, Wise was not the poster boy for driver fitness.

“I was amazed because I was a guy who had never run more than three miles in my life,” Wise says. “I had started cycling. I didn’t know how to swim. The first time I swam in a pool I didn’t make it across the pool one time before I had to stop.”

He began training himself to swim 2.5 miles, bike 112 miles and run a marathon without a break. He qualified for and competed in the Iron Man World championships in Zell am See-Kaprun, Austria, in 2015 with Landon Cassill.

During this period, Wise found himself consulted by other drivers for fitness advice. Wise trained with Jimmie Johnson, helped Trevor Bayne prepare for his own Iron Man event and worked with Erik Jones, who was racing in Xfinity at the time.

Wise became “fascinated” with the human body, its adaptability, the “fitness benchmarks” and “sensory demands” it needs to handle to process information and make decisions.

As he sought answers, the door to Wise’s future opened at the track where he made his last start. Walking through the garage at Texas Motor Speedway, he ran into Max Jones, CGR’s managing director of NASCAR operations and an acquaintance.

Wise told Jones about what he was pursuing. Jones then invited him to make a presentation to the team.

“I really just presented my philosophy and my foundation for what I was doing already and what I had hoped to build and what I thought I could bring to the table for their drivers,” Wise said. “We basically had made a commitment by the time I walked out of the room.”

Human Optimizer

Wise entered the 2018-19 offseason after two years with Ganassi.

Two seasons of controlling the exercise routines, diets and race prep for drivers.

Two years of “optimizing humans.”

That optimization helped result in four Cup wins for Kyle Larson and 11 wins in the Xfinity Series from five different drivers: Larson, Ross Chastain, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman.

What has Wise subjected his drivers to?

Food

Let’s start with trips to the grocery store.

“If there’s something in packages, I tell them no more than five ingredients and you better be able understand what every ingredient is in there,” says Wise. “Other than that, it’s all fruits, vegetables and meats as close to coming right off the animal as we can get them.”

That includes making farm-to-table restaurants a frequent destination for Ganassi teams on the road.

According to Nemechek – who has documented that he’s willing to eat grass –  one food Wise has imparted on his drivers is avocado on toast with jelly.

“That’s probably a pretty weird one,” Wise says. “It’ll blow your mind, but a good kind of whole grain toast with avocado and strawberry jelly is one of the tastiest, odd things that most people would ever try. Other than that, it just depends on what they’ve been exposed to. There’s some things that maybe I don’t what to share that I have them try that are a little bit unorthodox.”

Chastain, who was set to drive for Ganassi in the Xfinity Series in 2019 before that operation closed due to lack of sponsorship, described how Wise encourages his drivers to introduce themselves to an unusual eating pallet.

“(Wise says to) pretend you’re in the forest, and you’re going to eat all this stuff that you find and then you’re going to eat some salmon,” Chastain says. “There’s blueberries and strawberries and spinach and all this stuff and kale. Me being a (watermelon) farmer, (I ask) ‘What forest are you in? This is some enchanted forest and I want to go there and grow watermelons there because it sounds like anything can grow there.’ ”

Exercise

Among the Ganassi drivers, “everybody’s different” when it comes to a Wise-directed workout regimen.

“It’s a combination of my opinion on where they’re at in a certain area, their opinion on where they’re at in a certain area, what type of time constraints we have, what types of goals we have, what performance is showing we need,” Wise says. “Because in the end we’ve got to create on-track performance.”

He used Larson as an example on where opinions and scheduling come in to play.

“While I might think that Kyle needs to work out more, Kyle’s racing sprint cars all summer and Kyle needs to focus on recovery and Kyle needs to focus on watching video,” Wise says. “So to take resources away from that to say ‘you’ve got to run 6 miles,’ you can easily let ego make things counter productive.”

One driver who is willing to run 6 miles – and then some – is Nemechek.

Nemechek, who will compete for GMS Racing in 2019, frequently documents his running habits on social media.

In early December, he and Wise “felt guilty” after McMurray took part in a marathon.

Their solution? Run 16 miles through a very cold Davidson, North Carolina.

“Sixteen miles might be a little bit over the top,” Nemechek told Fox Sports. “But it takes about two hours to run if you’re really digging. Our races are normally, two, two-and-half-hours. … Granted it was cold, so that really didn’t help the fundamental of being hot in a race car, but still the endurance aspect is really huge.”

Eye Tracking

Reaction time is everything in auto racing, with drivers having to navigate close quarters and avoid accidents in a blink-of-an-eye.

Wise wants to help slow things down for drivers and Ganassi’s pit crews.

He used a driving simulator to highlight the significance of a driver’s vision.

“I could turn off the sound and they could go out and they could probably run a lap time,” Wise says. “Then I could turn the sound on and they’ll probably go run about the same lap time. I could turn off the feel in the steering wheel and they’ll probably go run the same lap time.”

But once you start tinkering with a driver’s visual inputs, “You’re not going to make a lap,” Wise says.

With this in mind, Wise turned to eye tracking.

Eye tracking involves a digital board that lights up with green and red dots. You touch the green dots and avoid the red ones.

The program is a product of Tobii Pro.

Tobii Pro

There are physical exercises that are also done in relation to eye tracking.

“One set would consist of something at a computer which takes a minute or two minutes and then you go and do a physical activity,” McMurray said in early 2018. “They’re not like normal exercises. You get tired and you do it again. It’s interesting. It’s hard. It’s very mind exhausting. It’s one of those things (where) you’re exhausted when it’s over and you haven’t done anything.”

McMurray, who was the oldest driver under Ganassi’s NASCAR umbrella last year at 42, actually found the eye tracking reassuring.

“I was concerned about that because I was the oldest,” McMurray said. “It just so happened that I happened to have the best eyes of all the group as far as just the typical eye chart. But there were some things that Kyle was really good at that I wasn’t at. There were some things Tyler was good at. Everyone had strengths. It was kind of good to see what are your weaknesses.”

Wise emphasizes that everything from a “decision-making and application standpoint” for a driver comes from “visual inputs.”

“All the other things are really supplementing that foundation,” Wise says. “The better that I can make them see, the better I can help them make decisions based on vision, the better the foundation they have as an athlete.”

Student-Teacher

Anyone who pays attention to Chip Ganassi’s personal Twitter account knows he likes winners.

Whether it’s with Josh Wise and Jamie McMurray in NASCAR or Dario Franchitti in IndyCar, Ganassi puts a premium on experienced drivers remaining involved in his race teams.

In 2018, that included six Xfinity Series wins and a fifth IndyCar championship with Scott Dixon.

“I think anytime you have guys that are current in the sport it’s an opportunity,” Ganassi said. “That is what guys like Josh or Dario or Jamie can bring.

“They are the most current guys that are maybe not driving for one reason or another and that is something that is invaluable in a team organization. You are constantly building this book of information and you are constantly tapping this book of knowledge or building it. You have another head in the room. It doesn’t have to be much, just one little piece of advice or one little tidbit of information can be invaluable on a race weekend.”

Wise has no intention of becoming stagnant in his one-man quest for human optimization. He plans to complete an online degree in specialized sports psychology from Capella University in the spring or summer.

“Just checking the boxes on meeting the needs for these athletes. It’s all I care about, really,” Wise says. “I want to be someone that I wish I had when I was doing this.”

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What might have been: Dale Earnhardt Jr. shares rejected Nationwide paint schemes

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You never know when Dale Earnhardt Jr. will strike.

At any moment Earnhardt’s Twitter account could provide a valuable insight on the state of NASCAR, a Tweetstorm detailing the history of a short track car he raced or some random retro photos from NASCAR’s yesteryear.

On Thursday, the NBC Sports analyst provided a nice “What if?”

After a user posted a series of NASCAR paint schemes that never saw the light of day, Earnhardt shared an almost one minute video. The video included a multitude of concept Nationwide paint schemes for his old No. 88 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports.

Watch the video in the tweet below.

For sake of comparison here are the primary Nationwide schemes that graced the No. 88 during Earnhardt’s tenure driving with the sponsor from 2015-17.

2017

(Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

 

2016

 

(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

 

2015

 

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

 

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NASCAR teams look for social media savvy, on-screen charisma in eSports players

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Earlier this month NASCAR announced it was charting new territory with its first eSports Pro League.

In coordination with the Race Team Alliance and 704Games, the league is powered by “NASCAR Heat 3,” the latest installment of the gaming franchise from 704Games.

The eNASCAR Heat Pro League will begin next spring and culminate during the real-world NASCAR playoffs. It will feature 16 races with up to 16 teams and 32 drivers. Each team will be owned and operated by a NASCAR race team. Each team will field two drivers, one competing on Xbox One and the other on a PlayStation 4.

Those drivers will be selected in a draft scheduled for February. The deadline to qualify for the draft is Jan. 15th.

The latest episode of 704Game’s web series previewing the Pro League features team executives discussing what they’re looking for in the drivers they’ll draft in the spring.

JR Motorsports co-owners Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Director of Digital, Bryan Cook, explain they’re looking for more than just someone who can go fast on a digital track.

JRM is looking for someone who is deft at promoting themselves on social media.

“You want someone with a good, open, outward personality. Obviously we want them to go fast,” Earnhardt Miller said.

“We also want them to be hands on, engaged with fans and other sim racers and be able to market and represent themselves and us really well,” Earnhardt said. “A great way for drivers to get noticed is promote themselves through social media, whether it’s Twitter or Instagram. But they need to use the hashtag #eNASCARHeat.”

Cook explained that JGR seeks drivers who are “good on camera” in addition to being fast.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be the Carl Edwards of the eSports series,” Cook said. “But you at least at least have to have some kind of presence, be yourself. We want people who are authentic on the track and natural on the track. But also just natural in front of the camera, even if it’s front of a webcam.”

In other words, they want someone who will give a good postrace interview, just like in the real world.

Watch more in the above video.