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Road course racing about being ‘accurate’, ‘smooth’ and not breaking anything

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For the first time this season, the Cup Series will have to turn left and right this weekend.

The circuit heads to the West Coast, where the 12-turn, 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway awaits.

After 15 races on ovals of varying designs, drivers will have to brush up on skills they mastered in other racing disciplines or skills they’re just now developing.

“My focus when I go to road courses is to not wheel hop, not spin out, not break anything,” Kyle Larson told NBC Sports. “But I seem to always do those things when I go there.”

Larson has only one top-10 finish (fourth at Watkins Glen in 2014) in four starts at each track.

“I never had any road course experience growing up, you know?” Larson said. “All my stuff was on dirt tracks and ovals, which was totally opposite, but in a way, those stock cars on a road course feel more similar to a sprint car on a dirt track to me than anything. … I feel like at road courses I can kind of feel the car a little bit better. I always qualify well at them. I don’t really race great for whatever reason.”

How do drivers get themselves in the mindset to turn right for the first time in a season?

Thanks to limits on testing, teams can use simulators and road course schools to give their drivers a boost.

That helps drivers like Bubba Wallace, who will make his Sonoma debut this weekend, and Alex Bowman, who makes his first road course start of any kind in Cup since 2015.

“I want to do everything I possibly can,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “So simulator, road course school, whatever I can get my hands on to be better.”

Bowman’s start will also come in an appropriate car.

“I’m excited to go road racing in a Hendricks Motorsports car,” Bowman said. “It’s going to be different. Last time I went road racing (with Tommy Baldwin Racing) we raced a superspeedway car. So it should be quite a bit of fun. A little bit more fun than that was.”

Wallace last competed on a road course in 2016 in the Xfinity Series at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio.

“I think the simulator will do,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “The simulator is good for putting the corners together. It is so hard to translate speed from a simulator, but then when we go to the actual road course for driving school the cars aren’t the same, the speeds aren’t the same so that is kind of tough as well.”

Fellow rookie William Byron will also make his first Cup start on a road course. In his championship campaign last season in Xfinity, Byron had finishes of 10th (Watkins Glen), 25th (wreck at Mid-Ohio) and sixth (Road America).

“I think road courses, you just try to be as accurate as you can,” Byron told NBC Sports. “It’s obviously a different skill set than it takes for an oval. So you have to adapt, and kind of grow your style at those places, but you don’t get to do it a lot. So I think the biggest thing there is being able to get through the gears and downshifts and everything successfully.”

What about veteran drivers who have already experienced the twist and turns and elevation changes at Sonoma?

Daniel Suarez, who will make his second Sonoma start in Cup, relies on his experiences from racing go-karts.

“One of the main things for me to think about was to be smooth and slow to actually (being) fast on the clock,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “That’s something very important. Sometimes you want to rush everything and to try to make things happen very quick and that’s when the car can do many things at the same time so you have to be smooth, aggressive, but everything at the right time so you can make some speed.”
Suarez and Bowman will get a little more track time this weekend. In addition to Aric Almirola and Erik Jones, they are entered into the K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma. Suarez competed in the race last year.

After Sonoma, Cup will race at Watkins Glen on Aug. 5 and then it will hold its inaugural race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course on Sept. 30.

But three road courses isn’t enough for Wood Brothers Racing’s Paul Menard, who has one top five at Sonoma and an Xfinity win at Road America.

“I don’t think we have enough of them on our schedule,” Menard told NBC Sports. “The whole thing with road racing is you … have these braking zones and you have these points and you always try to push it to get a little bit more in a braking zone, try to get back to the gas sooner all the while trying to be smooth so you are not abusing your tires, your brakes, your transmission.

“It definitely puts it in the driver’s hands a little bit more which is cool for us.”

Driver lineup set for Charlotte road course tests in July

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Charlotte Motor Speedway announced the driver lineup for the two days of testing that will take place in July on the track’s road course.

NASCAR created two separate test days. Tests will be July 10 and July 17. Both sessions will go from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET with a lunch break from noon to 1 p.m. ET.

The tests are open to the public.

The Cup series races on Charlotte’s road course Sept. 30 in the playoffs.

Scheduled to test on July 10

Martin Truex Jr.

Jimmie Johnson

Chase Elliott

Kevin Harvick

Clint Bowyer

Denny Hamlin

Daniel Suarez

Brad Keselowski

Paul Menard

Trevor Bayne

Jamie McMurray

Austin Dillon

Chris Buescher

Kasey Kahne

Michael McDowell

Gray Gaulding

Landon Cassill

B.J. McLeod

Scheduled to test on July 17

Kyle Busch

Erik Jones

Ryan Blaney

Joey Logano

Kyle Larson

Aric Almirola

Kurt Busch

Alex Bowman

William Byron

Bubba Wallace

Ryan Newman

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

AJ Allmendinger

Ty Dillon

Matt DiBenedetto

Corey LaJoie

David Ragan

Reed Sorenson

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NASCAR penalizes Joe Gibbs Racing teams for Michigan infraction

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NASCAR fined the crew chiefs for the Joe Gibbs Racing teams of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones $25,000 each and suspended their car chiefs each one race.

Joe Gibbs Racing will not appeal the penalties.

NASCAR penalized the teams for inspection issues with the splitter before last weekend’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. NASCAR stated the splitters did not meet rule specifications.

The $25,000 fines go to crew chiefs Mike Wheeler (Hamlin), Adam Stevens (Busch) and Chris Gayle (Jones). Car chiefs suspended for a race are Brandon Griffeth (Hamlin), Nate Bellows (Busch) and Jason Overstreet (Jones).

All three teams were forced to start at the rear for Sunday’s race because of the infraction.

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Riley Herbst set for Xfinity debut at Iowa with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Riley Herbst will join Justin Haley this weekend in making his Xfinity Series debut in Sunday’s race at Iowa Speedway.

Herbst, 19, will drive Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota in his only start for the team this season.

Advance Auto Parts will sponsor the car.

A second-year member of the NASCAR Next program, the Las Vegas native has driven for JGR in ARCA the last two seasons, earning one win, nine top fives and 15 top 10s in 27 starts. He was named Rookie of the Year last season.

Herbst’s win came in June 2017 at Pocono Raceway when he triumphed over Brandon Jones, who is now his teammate at JGR.

Sunday’s race marks Herbst’s first start in any of NASCAR’s three national series. He has made 20 combined starts in the K&N Pro Series East and West Series.

“I am super pumped to be making my first top-three NASCAR series start this weekend at Iowa Speedway,” Herbst said in a press release. “We are coming into the week with expectations of learning every single lap, in hopes of having our Toyota Camry up front by the end of the race. Iowa is a super cool track with a lot of racing lines so should be a great weekend for this No. 18 team.”

Herbst has one start at Iowa in a combined K&N West and East race. He started fifth and finished sixth in July 2016.

JGR has won three of the last four Xfinity races at Iowa with Sam Hornish Jr., Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

Mother Nature fooled several crew chiefs late in race at Michigan

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — With victory and a playoff spot there for any team willing to gamble Sunday evening at Michigan International Speedway, only one did not pit at the end of the second stage under threatening skies.

But that gamble was short-lived after the team pitted before the ensuing restart and gave the lead to Clint Bowyer, who went on to win.

It was shocking that more teams outside the top 10 did not stay out and gamble with low-hanging clouds, rain on the way and the race past the point where it was an official event and could end at any time.

“Part of you wants to stay out, but part of you wants to play the safe bet and try to outsmart those guys another way,” said Erik Jones, who was ninth at the end of the second stage and went on to finish 15th.

Crew chiefs said they were tricked by a sneaky weather system that made it appear as if several more laps would be run. Instead, the race went only 13 more laps after the second stage before rain ended the event.

For a brief time, Kasey Kahne was in position to steal the victory. He was 24th when the second stage ended. Everybody in front of him pitted. Crew chief Travis Mack had Kahne stay out and assume the lead under the caution.

“The rain was right on top of us,’’ Mack told NBC Sports, noting he and his team monitored four different radar applications from the pit box. “We knew it was a couple of minutes. We banked on those couple of pace laps and we could ride around and hope for rain. We knew if it started sprinkling, they wouldn’t go back green. So we had a couple minute window. If it started raining, we could have won the race.

“Just trying to put ourself in an opportunity to take advantage of something like that. If (other teams are) going to try to hand it to us, we’ll take every advantage to take it.’’

Mack had gambled earlier in the race. He called for a two-tire change at the end of the first stage, putting Kahne in the lead after he had finished that stage 18th.

Kahne led nine laps until Lap 71. He steadily fell back and was 14th on Lap 80. He pitted with the field after Kyle Larson’s spin brought out the caution on Lap 87. Kahne was mired outside the top 20 after that.

When the second stage ended, Kahne’s chance arrived.

He led two laps after those in front pitted, but then he went to pit road on Lap 125 with one lap to go until the race restarted.

With the radar changing, making it seem rain would not come soon, and Kahne on older tires, Mack brought his driver in.

“We did everything we could,’’ Mack said. “We were trying to make something happen.’’

Matt Borland, crew chief for Ty Dillon, admits that staying out would have been the “right call” but said he didn’t take the gamble — even though Dillon was outside the top 20 at the end of the second stage — because “we weren’t fast enough today.

“To have 30 laps on tires and put yourself in a situation where you can’t even get to the next (fuel) window, so now you’re going to be slow, (have to) pit an extra time; you take yourself from 20th-place position to 30th, three laps down.”

Dillon finished 21st, tied for his best finish in the last five races.

The field ran three laps in the final stage before the caution came out when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crashed after contact from Kahne. Rain fell. After four laps, NASCAR sent the cars to pit road and the race was over. Kahne finished 23rd.

Mack said he was “very surprised” nobody else tried his strategy.

Ryan Newman was 19th when the second stage ended and crew chief Luke Lambert is known for his gambling ways. Lambert’s decision not to pit late at Phoenix in March 2017 led to Newman’s most recent victory.

Lambert said Mother Nature fooled him Sunday.

We were running like two or three different weather applications and looking at everything,’’ Lambert told NBC Sports. “Honestly it was probably one of the most challenging calls to make as far as what the weather was going to do. It’s easy to make these decisions when you’ve got a clear storm front coming in and there’s a hard line on it’s going to rain and it’s this many miles out and it’s tracking at this speed and we can calculate pretty much on the point when it’s going to hit.

“This scenario was not one like that. What we had going on was there was a front to our west and it was breaking up. It looked like it was splitting to the north and the south (of the track). What we were concerned would happen ended up happening, but we couldn’t guarantee it .

“It just built right on top of us. It wasn’t something that was moving toward us at a trajectory we could anticipate. At the point in time, when we were making our decision for the last stage, it looked pretty clear like we were going to keep running.

“I did not expect … that we were going to have that short of a run and then get misted on and end the day.’’

Bubba Wallace was running outside the top 20 at the end of the second stage and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer said the radar kept him from pitting.

“The actual green stuff (signifying rain) was probably 30 miles away,’’ he told NBC Sports. “This mist wasn’t on the radar. It kind of caught us.’’

Because of that, Bowyer was able to emerge with the win due to a gamble by crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. Bowyer was second at the end of the second stage and Bugarewicz called for a two-tire change to get his driver back on track quickly.

“When we were coming on pit road, I was 100 percent sure two tires was the right call,’’ Bugarewicz said. “We got about three quarters of the way down pit road, I was about 70 percent sure. When he slid into the pit box, I was about 50 percent sure. By then, we were leaving. It was too late (to change).

“Clint asked, Are we the only one with two?

“Yeah, we’re the only one with two.’’

Bowyer held off teammate Kevin Harvick on the restart and used that pit strategy to win.

“It was a gamble on his part,’’ Bowyer said of Bugarwicz’s call. “Like I said, it was uncharacteristic for him. That’s part of growing, blossoming as a crew chief, being one of the elite. He did that today.’’

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