The NASCAR Xfinity Series season has been an “alternate” one for driver Austin Hill.
Starting with a victory in the Daytona International Speedway season opener, Hill has won every other race, also scoring at Las Vegas and Atlanta. If that trend holds, Hill will win Saturday’s Xfinity race at Richmond Raceway after finishing 37th last week because of engine trouble at Circuit of the Americas.
Hill leads the points standings entering Richmond. Second is Riley Herbst, who has two top-five runs this year.
Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Richmond Raceway
(All times Eastern)
START: The command to start engines will be given at 1:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled at 1:15 p.m.
PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 6 a.m. … The invocation will be given by Kaulig Racing President Chris Rice at 1 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by Nashville recording artist Celeste Kellogg at 1:01 p.m.
DISTANCE: The race is 250 laps (187 miles) on the .750-mile track.
STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 75. Stage 2 ends at Lap 150.
TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 1 p.m. … NASCAR RaceDay airs at noon on FS1. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. and can be heard at mrn.com. … SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.
FORECAST:Weather Underground — Mostly cloudy with a high of 68 degrees and a 15% chance of rain at the start of race.
Ranking historic moments in any sport is a risky business, but it’s difficult to deny that one of the biggest items in NASCAR’s 75-year history was the 33-year sponsorship of its top series by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston cigarette brand.
When federal legislation derailed cigarette advertising on television, RJR moved its millions from the tube to the racetrack, transforming NASCAR forever and adding layers of financial strength to its teams, drivers and promoters.
From 1971-2003, NASCAR and RJR enjoyed one of the most powerful sponsorship relationships in the history of professional sports, each entity feeding off the other as stock car racing grew from a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon.
Although giant superspeedways had opened in several states in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the calendar turned to the 1970s NASCAR’s Grand National schedule remained frozen in another time. For an organization that hinted at joining the big leagues of pro sports and longed for television exposure that might take it there, NASCAR’s 48-race schedule was far too unwieldy and tied to shorter, smaller tracks with little or no national impact.
When RJR signed the dotted line to become the top-level series’ primary sponsor in 1971, the name changed from Grand National to Winston Cup Grand National (and later to simply Winston Cup), but the evolution of the title barely scratched the surface of the shifts to come. Working with ideas suggested by RJR officials, NASCAR did major surgery on the Cup schedule for the 1972 season, abandoning outposts like Beltsville, Maryland and Macon, Georgia to concentrate on a streamlined “national” schedule that emphasized big events and a year-long march toward a driving championship.
So the 1972 season opened with 31 races on the schedule, dramatically downsized from 48 in both 1970 and 1971. The RJR/Winston effect was on.
Great things were ahead. Reynolds dumped millions into speedway improvements, from the biggest of tracks to the smallest. Red and white (not surprisingly, Winston’s colors) paint was slapped on speedway walls and buildings, adding spice to tracks that had fallen on hard times. Billboards and other signage promoting races went up in communities near racetracks.
Purses at Cup Series tracks grew, and RJR added incentives, boosting season-end points money and designing programs like the Winston Million, which paid $1 million to a driver who could win three of what then were considered the sport’s biggest races: the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (at Talladega), Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500.
The Winston, a rich all-star race, was added to the schedule. It continues today, although its name and format have changed over the years.
Perhaps most importantly, however, RJR invested millions in widespread and business-smart promotion of NASCAR, which, at the start of the 1970s, had a very limited – both in personnel and in dollars – public relations and communications presence. RJR unleashed dozens of public relations and marketing individuals into its NASCAR operations, bringing a professionalism and thoroughness rarely seen in such circles prior to the company’s arrival.
“I’ve been in this sport 50-plus years, and there have been some big moments,” team owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports. “R.J. Reynolds coming in was certainly one of the biggest. They brought in paint and built buildings and brought in media from all over the United States. And the billboards. I remember going to North Wilkesboro, and there was a big billboard about Winston and the race. That was a big deal back in the day – stuff that we never had before.”
Sports Marketing Enterprises, the sports arm of RJR, in effect became NASCAR’s public relations headquarters. SME employees produced annual NASCAR media guides, usually working through the Christmas holiday break to have updated editions ready for January distribution. Winston introduced weekly media phone press conferences with drivers, lobbied media outlets with little interest in NASCAR to cover races and developed fan experiences like the Winston Cup Preview, an annual January event in which drivers signed autographs for fans in a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, arena.
RJR also was instrumental in moving NASCAR’s annual Cup Series end-of-season awards banquet to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, a change that put the sport and its drivers in the media capital of the world for a few late-autumn days.
“Anybody at NASCAR recognizes the role that Winston played in helping promote the sport from so many different angles,” Chris Powell, a former RJR employee and now the president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “There was no question that the sport was a great vehicle to advertise the product. So many other corporations recognized the possibilities of promoting their products through the sport. It all made it grow and grow.”
Steadily, as RJR’s influence in the sport grew, NASCAR tracks (from the Cup Series down to weekly tracks with NASCAR affiliations) were splashed with Winston red and white. Women wearing Winston outfits offered fans entering tracks a free pack of Winstons if they would trade the brand they smoked. Red and white Winston “show” cars appeared in on-track parades prior to races and at events in towns hosting races.
The Winston name and colors were seemingly everywhere in and around tracks. If you weren’t a smoker entering the facility, you might be converted being there all day; and if you were a smoker but used a competing brand you might consider switching. The Winston presence was commanding.
As a former RJR employee put it, “It was about moving the sticks,” in-house vernacular for cigarettes.
“We were always in a tussle to outdo Marlboro,” Powell said. “There was data to show to executive management in the company that adult smokers who were NASCAR fans were more likely to be Winston smokers.”
RJR involved NASCAR drivers in all manner of activities. Race-week golf events sponsored by the company brought together drivers, NASCAR and track officials and others with track tie-ins. Winston representatives invited drivers and their team members to dinner gatherings during race weeks, with the check often reaching into four figures.
RJR often scheduled events pairing drivers and media members with an eye toward enhancing relations between the two. During a Talladega race week, a Winston skeetshooting competition resulted in Jeff Gordon, not particularly known as an outdoorsman, defeating big-game hunter Dale Earnhardt, who was so shocked by the result that he was seen closely examining his rifle in the aftermath.
Winston employees became involved in almost every official operation – and some not so official — related to race weekends. At Pocono one year, several Winston operatives, quite aware of the traffic difficulties associated with exiting the track after races, basically created a new exit route through a nearby wooded area.
The RJR ties to NASCAR included sponsorship of drivers and teams. Long-time Cup driver Jimmy Spencer ran for teams carrying Winston and Camel cigarettes sponsorship.
“They were probably the best sponsor I ever drove for,” Spencer told NBC Sports. “They knew what it took. They were all about promoting and all about the fans. That’s what made the sport grow. It will never be as big as it was with them. I remember (late NASCAR president) Bill France Jr. telling me it would change the sport forever.”
The key RJR officials involved with NASCAR were Ralph Seagraves, who started the Winston racing program, and T. Wayne Robertson, who directed operations through years when the Winston presence expanded significantly.
“T. Wayne was a hell of a visionary,” Spencer said. “Everybody around him learned so much. I remember him saying that they weren’t coming into the sport to take over, that they were there to help. ‘We don’t want to be bullies,’ he said. ‘We want to move it to the next level.’ ”
Some insiders predicted that Robertson, who was widely respected across motorsports and sports marketing, eventually would move into a management role with NASCAR. Tragically, he died in 1998 at the age of 47 in a boating accident.
RJR’s talent pool produced leaders who moved on to more prominent roles in racing. In addition to Powell becoming LVMS president, Ty Norris moved from RJR to lead Dale Earnhardt’s racing team and now is president of Trackhouse Racing. Curtis Gray worked at RJR before becoming president at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Grant Lynch, who directed sports operations for RJR, became president at Talladega Superspeedway and a key lieutenant for NASCAR and its ruling France family. Jeff Byrd, who was involved in media operations at RJR, became president at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The Richmond race is the first of three consecutive events on short tracks. The series will race on the dirt surface at Bristol Motor Speedway April 9 and the Martinsville Speedway half-mile April 16.
A look at drivers to watch Sunday at Richmond:
Points position: 13th
Best seasonal finish: 1st (COTA)
Past at Richmond: No finish better than 11th in five career starts
Reddick showed the promise of what could be a strong season by dominating Sunday’s race at COTA. His victory boosted him five spots in points to 10th. Richmond, a track where he has never led a lap, will be a test.
After opening the season with top-10 runs at Daytona, Fontana and Las Vegas, Saurez has plummeted into the 20s in three consecutive races. Richmond will present another big challenge. Suarez has five consecutive finishes of 16th or worse there.
Past at Richmond: Top finish of 20th in five career starts
Preece’s first full-time season in the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 has started poorly. He has been sidelined by accidents in three races and was more upset than most after being parked by a multi-car crash Sunday at COTA.
After last Sunday’s crashfest at Circuit of the Americas, the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings experienced another jumble, and William Byron returns to the top spot.
Byron took fifth place in the chaos of the triple-overtime finish. He and winner Tyler Reddick were the top dogs in the Cup Series’ first road race of the year, Byron leading 28 laps and Reddick 41. No one else led more than two laps.
Christopher Bell, last week’s No. 1, fell to fifth place after a 31st-place finish at COTA.
NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings
1. William Byron (second last week) — Byron, the season’s only multiple winner with two, finished fifth Sunday, marking his career first top five on a road course. He won the pole and the first stage.
2. Kyle Busch (third last week) — Busch continues to make his new partnership at Richard Childress Racing look good. His second-place run Sunday is his fourth top-10 finish in the season’s first six races.
3. Ross Chastain (sixth last week) — Despite being pushed around in the late going Sunday, Chastain persisted, re-emerging at the front to challenge the leaders and finish fourth. He has finished in the top four in all three COTA races and leads the points standings.
4. Alex Bowman (fifth last week) — Bowman continued his seasonal consistency, finishing third at COTA. He has finished in the top 10 in five of six races.
5. Christopher Bell (first last week) — Bell falls from the top spot in the rankings after being booted from Sunday’s race in a late-race accident. He dropped three spots in the Cup points standings to fifth.
6. Joey Logano (fourth last week) — Logano was mostly absent from Sunday’s front-of-the-pack jousting. He limped home in 28th and drops two spots in the rankings.
7. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick bursts into the rankings in a big way, easily outclassing the rest of the field on the way to victory at COTA. Challenged repeatedly by cautions that extended the race into three overtimes, he refused to give up the shot at his first win of the year.
8. Denny Hamlin (seventh last week) — Winless this year, Hamlin nevertheless keeps popping up around the front. Sunday’s late-race mess dropped him to 16th at the checkered flag.
9. Kyle Larson (eighth last week) — Larson seemed to be the race’s pingpong ball Sunday as he was bounced around during some of the tightest racing. He rallied to reach 14th.
10. Kevin Harvick (ninth last week) — Harvick’s final season has been a mix of the good and the bad, with two top-five runs, challenges for wins and a 33rd-place finish at Atlanta. He was 13th Sunday.