Kyle Larson hinted in September at what was to come in the Cup playoffs, but it was easy to overlook with the focus on Joe Gibbs Racing’s stable and if anyone could keep all four JGR drivers from advancing to the title race in Miami.
Even though Larson had yet to win at that time, he said in Las Vegas that he felt his cars were better than what he had in 2017 when he entered that postseason second in points and with four wins.
“I think this is as good of a shot, minus I don’t have as many playoffs points as that year,” Larson said a few days before this year’s playoff opener.
Larson was eliminated in the second round in 2017 but is among the eight remaining playoff drivers this year.
While Denny Hamlin won two weeks ago at Kansas, the most recent 1.5-mile track before this weekend, Larson led 60 laps before some sloppiness on pit road by him and his team and contact with a lapped car led to a 14th-place finish.
Even after that finish, Larson remained upbeat.
“Texas will be our best chance to get a win,” he said of the Round of 8 races at Martinsville, Texas and ISM Raceway near Phoenix.
Larson survived Martinsville, notable as one of his worst tracks. He finished ninth but scored the sixth-most points in that race thanks to crew chief Chad Johnston’s call not to pit shortly before the end of stage 2. That move gave Larson the lead and he finished the stage in second, collecting nine points.
After finishing the race, Larson said on the radio to his team: “Survived. It’s what we needed to do.”
A key for Larson will be have a clean race. He overcame a pit road penalty to finish eighth at Las Vegas. He was penalized one lap for pitting outside the box at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and placed 13th. A penalty for an uncontrolled tire at Kansas played a role in him finishing 14th.
While Larson acknowledged after Kansas that he had a points deficit to overcome, he noted “a win could fix all that.”
It could this weekend for him and his Chip Ganassi Racing team.
Gossage explained to NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan his hesitation with the traction compound previously:
“I was like, look, the asphalt will come in in time. You just got to stomach out the first couple of years. That kind of thing. I don’t know. I just didn’t see the need to do it. Others did and wanted to do it, and you’ve got to trust your people and listen to what they say. I’m talking from experience and pure gut instinct. They’re talking to me about all these friction coefficients and these devices they use to measure it. And so there’s a difference there.
“Most of the time they’re right when they use those devices. Sometimes they’re wrong. The key is to know when science is right and when your gut is right.”
Asked if the traction compound seems like a crutch that detracts from more important things, Gossage told Ryan:
“I look at it like there’s so much noise from a few people, the vocal minority, about so many things related to the sport, that it’s hard to know when to stick your fingers in your ear and ignore it. Because you want to listen to fans. It’s another one of those judgment things you’ve got to make. Yeah, I hear all the time from the detractors, and I thought Kansas was a watershed moment in NASCAR, but you hear these detractors, and you want to say, ‘Look, we’re not running a stock car off the showroom floor with an 8-inch bias-ply treaded tire anymore.’
“That’s not what we do. That’s not what this sport is. It’s evolved. It’s changed. The forward path is not a bad thing. It’s a tough line to straddle to stay in the old days where certain things were great because the way they were, and you also have to advance or die. So what do you listen to and who? The good old days for me are different from the good old days for you and somebody else. If I listen to most detractors, the good old days … the first Cup race I saw in person, Darrell Waltrip beat Bobby Allison by a lap. I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. Well if you did that today, they’d tear the place down. So you got to grow.”
As for Kansas being a “watershed moment,” Gossage said: “I thought Kansas was the first time where all the things that the playoffs bring about in every sport: Intrigue. Intensity. Mayhem. Nerves. Who’s in, who’s out. On and on. Great things. That was the story. That is what each playoff race needs to be like.”
3. Right tracks at the right time
Kevin Harvick enters this weekend at Texas having finished in the top 10 each of the past 10 races there, tying Greg Biffle for the longest steak of consecutive top 10s at that track.
No other drivers have had more than six consecutive top 10s at Texas. Since the track was repaved and reconfigured in 2017, Harvick has a 3.2 average finish in five races. He won two of those races.
But this is just the beginning for Harvick with some of his best tracks.
After Texas, the series heads to ISM Raceway. Harvick has 12 consecutive top-10 finishes going into that race.
The season finale is in Miami and Harvick has scored 11 consecutive top 10s there.
4. Moving closer to record
Martin Truex Jr.’s win last weekend at Martinsville gave Joe Gibbs Racing its 17th victory of the season.
The record for wins in a season by one organization in the modern era (since 1972) is held by Hendrick Motorsports, which won 18 of 36 races in 2007.
JGR has three races left to tie or surpass Hendrick Motorsports’ accomplishment.
5. F1 announces cost cap for 2021
Formula 1 announced several changes this week for the 2021 season, including a cost cap. That’s something that could be in place in NASCAR by 2021.
The F1 cost cap will limit teams to $175 million for the calendar year and is based on 21 races. The cap will not include wages for drivers, the team’s three highest paid personnel, marketing costs and travel costs. A NASCAR team cap is not expected to include driver salaries.
Auditors will be appointed to provide independent oversight of the F1 teams. Penalties for exceeding the cap could be a financial penalty, loss of constructors and/or driver points, ban for a certain number of races, limitations on testing and/or reduction of the team’s cost cap. In the most serious cases, penalties also could include exclusion from the World Championship.
This has been something team owners have been working on with NASCAR and will be interesting to see in what ways a NASCAR cap might mirror the F1 cap and other ways it might not.
For the first time in F1 history, financial rules will be enshrined in the new regulations
2019 has been a notable year for anniversaries in NASCAR.
Among them are the four active Cup Series tracks that are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Those include Talladega Superspeedway, Michigan International Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and the track NASCAR returns to this weekend – Dover International Speedway.
The Cup Series first ventured to Dover, Delaware, for a race on July 6, 1969, when the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 was “In The Year 2525” by Zagar & Evans and the film “Easy Rider” was eight days from being released.
On that day, Richard Petty took his No. 43 Ford to victory lane after leading 150 of 300 laps (the first 500-mile/lap race was in 1971). It was his first of seven wins there, including his 199th Cup win in 1984.
Also of note, the inaugural race was held only two days after the July race at Daytona International Speedway, almost 900 miles away.
“So we had to come up all the way up the East Coast, brought the car up here and had never seen the race track,” Petty recalled in 2013. “We were pretty dog tired by the time we drove the (Daytona) race, drove all the way up here and run the race.”
Here’s a look at interesting stats and facts from the track’s first 50 years.
– Dover first opened as a facility used to accommodate both harness racing and motorsports events.
– Sunday’s race will be the 50th held on the oval since the track went from an asphalt to concrete surface in 1995. The track’s surface is the oldest the Cup Series races on.
– The track changed its name from Dover Downs International Speedway to simply Dover International Speedway in 2002.
– The track changed the length of its races from 500 to 400 miles in 1997.
– NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Petty are next on the list with seven wins. Hall of Famer David Pearson holds the top-mark for pole positions with six. Ryan Newman’s four poles leads current drivers, with the most recent in 2007.
– Three times a driver has won three consecutive races – Pearson (1972-73), Rusty Wallace (1993-94) and Jeff Gordon (1995-96). The last time a driver won back-to-back races was Johnson in 2013-14.
– Kyle Petty won his last Cup Series race in 1995 at Dover after starting from 37th, the deepest in the field a Cup winner has started at the track.
– Mark Martin, a four-time race winner, holds the record for most runner-up finishes (eight).
– Ricky Rudd has the most starts at the track with 56. His first came on May 16, 1976 and his final start was on June 4, 2007. In-between, four of his 23 career Cup wins came at Dover.
– Hendrick Motorsports holds the record for most wins (20) for an organization at Dover. Since 2009, the team has not gone more than one season without a Dover win.
– Chevrolet leads all manufacturers with 40 wins in the first 99 races.
– Bad news for any driver hoping to get their first career Cup wins at Dover: It’s only happened twice, with Jody Ridley in May 1981 and Martin Truex Jr. in 2007.
Should a race winner do donuts? Should they do a reverse victory lap? Or a bow? Or climb a fence? Or the latest, offer a hug.
Just as there are different ways to enjoy a NASCAR win, drivers also have distinct opinions on how to celebrate those accomplishments.
“I don’t go too over the top, but we sure do like to hang around the track for a long time and we really don’t ever want to leave that Sunday night after the race,” Martin Truex Jr. told NBC Sports. “We just want to kind of hang out and maybe stay over in the motorhome or something and party in the campground. These races are tough and that’s kind of why you see guys enjoy it so much because you never know when you get another one.”
Brad Keselowski admits he’s a fan of sprint car drivers climbing on the wing of their car and celebrating after a win. Keselowski has created his unique victory celebration by having a pit crew member bring out an American flag to his car. It’s something he began doing in 2010.
“Honestly, in sprint cars, I only do donuts and stuff if it’s a really exciting finish,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I feel like when you win in NASCAR, like you’re obligated to do donuts just because that’s what they expect.”
Rookie Ryan Preece said that there is something better than donuts.
“The donuts are all well and cool, but I think they’re kind of overplayed,” he told NBC Sports. “I think the (reverse) victory lap is something that is pretty special. I would say the (reverse) victory lap is the coolest one of them all. I actually did it at Iowa (in 2017). It’s just not as rough on equipment and is pretty cool seeing all the fans.”
But Ryan Newman likes the donut celebration after a race for a particular reason.
“I still pattern my victory celebrations, which are rusty now at this point, after Alex Zanardi’s donuts,” Newman said. “I always admired him as a race car driver and his ability to celebrate and do it at different parts of the course, and I just thought that was spectacular.
“My dad has always told me if you can’t win, be spectacular. So, I guess if you win, you better be spectacular.”
For others, the celebration can be a moment of thanks. Xfinity driver Chase Briscoe kneels.
“I’m a pretty relaxed guy as it is,” Briscoe said. “I get excited but I don’t get too excited. I feel like my signature thing is just getting down on one knee and praying and just thanking God. I did that at the Roval (last year). I wasn’t in a dark place but really questioning myself and really thankful for the opportunity and just gave Him thanks and it was well received. I’m not going to hide my faith. I’m proud of it. I did it (at Iowa in July) as well.”
Austin Cindric bearhugged Rutledge Wood during his interview after Cindric scored his first career Xfinity win at Watkins Glen. Cindric then hugged Dillon Welch during his interview after winning at Mid-Ohio.
It’s that type of emotion Cindric said he likes seeing from others who win, citing Team Penske driver Will Power’s reaction after winning the 2018 Indianapolis 500.
“I think my favorite are the ones where you can see the emotion of the drivers and how much it means to them,” Cindric said. “I think of when Will Power won the Indy 500. He had been trying to win that race so long and to see him do it and be there in person and see how the emotion, there are so many pictures of him going crazy in victory lane, the crazy eyes and the smile, things that mean that much to drivers because there’s a lot of work that goes into it and there’s a lot of pressure you end up putting on yourself. I think that connects with race fans so well when you see ho much it means.
“What drives me nuts, I’ll take your standard Formula One interview, the guy who just had the greatest race of his career and he’s like ‘This is a good weekend, such a great opportunity, thank you to the guys.’ Just the most bland interview. The biggest moment of your life just happened. Get excited about it. I think that’s what makes our sport fun.”
2. Memorable throwback schemes
With NASCAR heading into to Darlington Raceway for its fifth throwback weekend, here’s a look at my favorite throwback schemes.
A classic look.
STP and the Petty Blue. The two were synonymous in NASCAR for years and it only made sense that for the inaugural throwback weekend in 2015, these two would return to the track with the paint scheme from 1972.
Aric Almirola got into the spirit of the weekend by sporting a Fu Manchu to match what Richard Petty once showcased.
Almirola finished 11th in that race.
Perhaps no car has looked as sharp under Darlington Raceway’s lights since the sport went to a throwback weekend format than this car, driven by Kyle Larson in 2015.
What made this car even better was that it had the paint scheme and proper sponsor to go with it.
This mirrored the car Kyle Petty drove for SABCO Racing from 1991-94 (and also the car Tom Cruise’s character, Cole Trickle, drove in the 1990 film “Days of Thunder”).
Larson finished 10th in this car, placing a spot ahead of Aric Almirola in that No. 43 car.
This car ran in the Xfinity Series race in 2016, as more Xfinity teams began embracing the throwback idea at Darlington. This continues to grow as several Xfinity teams come to Darlington with throwback schemes each year.
Ryan Reed drove this car for Roush Fenway Racing. The paint scheme pays tribute to Bobby Allison and the car he drove in 1975. Allison won three races that season, including a victory at Darlington.
Reed finished 13th in the Xfinity race.
Richard Childress Racing had both its No. 3 and 31 cars with this look for the 2017 Southern 500, but the No. 3 car looked the best to me.
RCR went with this look to honor Dale Earnhardt’s 1987 Southern 500 victory with the Wrangler paint scheme.
While Earnhardt will be remembered for his black cars, I always liked this paint scheme.
Dillon finished fourth with this car.
It was good to see Jeff Gordon’s rainbow paint scheme eventually return for the Southern 500 at Darlington in 2018.
Dylon Lupton drove a rainbow paint scheme car in the 2017 Xfinity race.
While Lupton’s car looked sharp, the paint scheme was meant to be on a Cup car for throwback weekend. Hendrick Motorsports did the right thing in 2018 by putting it on William Byron’s ride.
Newman has an average finish of 12.1 at Darlington, his best of all the active tracks that he’s had more than one start. His 13 top 10s at Darlington also are the most there among active Cup drivers. Suarez has never finished better than 29th in two Cup starts at Darlington. Bowyer has an average finish of 22.8 at Darlington and his only top-10 finish there came in 2007. Johnson is a three-time winner at the track but has not finished better than 12th in the last four races at Darlington.
4. Familiar face
Joe Nemechek, who turns 56 on Sept. 26, will drive the No. 27 Cup car for Premium Motorsports this weekend at Darlington Raceway. This will be Nemechek’s 668th career Cup start but first since March 1, 2015 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He’s continued to run in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
To put it into perspective, when Nemechek last raced in Cup:
# William Byron was in the K&N East Series (and would win the 2015 title)
# Erik Jones was in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series (and would become the youngest series champion that year)
# Daniel Suarez was in the Xfinity Series (and would become the rookie of the year)
# Kyle Busch was out after being injured in a crash during the February Xfinity race at Daytona (he would come back to win the Cup title that year).
Also, Nemechek is entered in both Xfinity and Cup races at Darlington this weekend. That will give him 1,174 career starts in NASCAR’s top series.
Richard Petty holds the record for most starts in NASCAR’s national series with 1,182 — all in the Cup Series.
Mark Martin is third on the all-time starts list with 1,143 across the three national series. Kevin Harvick is next with 1,139 career starts.
Since NBC Sports took over broadcasting the Cup series at Chicagoland Speedway, no driver has scored more points in that time than Denny Hamlin. The top four in points in that time are all from Joe Gibbs Racing.
Here are the drivers who have scored the most points since Chicagoland:
The story goes that Gray pulled off the track and quit the Bristol race so he could return to his Rome, Georgia, home and watch man walk on the moon on July 20, 1969.
Here’s what is known: NASCAR raced that day at Bristol. The Volunteer 500 began at 1:30 p.m. ET. with a field that included Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker among the 32 drivers.
Pearson won. Runner-up Bobby Isaac finished three laps down. Gray placed 15th, completing 206 of 500 laps. The reason he did not finish is listed as “quit.”
The race ended just after 4:30 p.m. ET. The Eagle lunar module with Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the moon at the Sea of Tranquility at 4:17 p.m. ET. Armstrong didn’t step on to the moon until 10:56 p.m. ET.
Based solely on the timeline, the story is possible that Gray quit to watch man walk on the moon.
But there’s a problem.
“That didn’t happen,” Gray told NBC Sports this week. “I don’t know how that got started.”
Gray is 86 — “I’ll be 86 and a half next month,“ he said. “Halves count when you get my age.” — and ran 374 Cup races from 1964-77. He never won.
His best finish was fourth at Nashville on July 30, 1966. Petty won the 400-lap race, leading every lap. Petty was followed by Buck Baker (five laps down), Allison (six laps down) and Gray (17 laps down) in a field of 28 cars. Henley went on to finish a career-high fourth in the points that season. It was the only season he placed in the top 10.
Since he wasn’t a “hot dog” as he called the factory-backed drivers of that era, Henley admits he quit some races. As an independent, he had to be wise with his money. Sometimes it wasn’t worth running 100 more laps in hopes of earning another $100 when the wear and tear on the car would be greater. So he packed up and headed to the next race.
“I was having a ball,” Gray said of his career. “I wasn’t making any money, but I was having a ball.”
After a crash at Michigan ended his driving career, Gray remained in the sport as an owner.
Dale Earnhardt drove for Gray in October 1977 at Charlotte. It was Earnhardt’s fourth career Cup start. He finished 38th after a rear end failure 25 laps into the race. Baker drove for Gray at Martinsville in April 1982, finishing 28th. Benny Parsons finished 28th at Daytona in July 1982 in Gray’s car.
Gray goes from one story to the next, recalling his career, laughing at the stories and times with drivers who have since passed.
But he is adamant. He didn’t leave Bristol early to watch man on the moon.
Now, there is one story that is true about Gray looking up to the heavens.
“(One) time, there were three of us on our way from Charlotte going down to Rockingham, an eclipse was going to happen at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said. “We pulled over on the side of the road and stood there for a while and watched all the eclipse and got back in the trucks and went on to the race.”
In the early 2000s, NASCAR frowned upon drivers standing on the car’s roof after a victory. NASCAR penalized a team after its roof was found to be too low. It so happened that the team’s driver jumped on the roof after winning. That celebration went away.
What Bowman and Busch did evokes the spontaneity some suggest has been lost because of corporate sponsorship and the need for drivers to thank sponsors before relishing a victory.
It’s a wonderful image. So is a driver standing on the roof of a car after winning. But both present potential problems for NASCAR.
In an era where a failure in post-race inspection can lead to a disqualification of any car, including the winner, NASCAR has to be mindful of ensuring the vehicle’s integrity while permitting celebrations that fans enjoy.
On the recent celebrations by Bowman and Busch, a NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports: “Our inspectors are very good at their jobs, so it hasn’t been an issue thus far. We will continue to remind the teams about celebrating responsibly.
“We will not hesitate to make a stand if celebrations turn nefarious, but the very recent trends of drivers being human and showing emotion over something they’ve worked so hard for isn’t hurting the integrity of the sport in our opinion.”
Previously, many watched radars for when rain would arrive at the track. Now, teams have to be aware of NASCAR’s policy that any lightning strike within an 8-mile radius of the track will stop the action.
While there’s no way to predict when and where lightning will strike, if an approaching storm features lightning, teams will have to be aware of that.
“I asked NASCAR about their policy and how they handle things and what they look at so we are now making sure we copy everything the same,” Kurt Busch said. “That will help us gauge how to call a better race.”
Said Kyle Busch: “That’s certainly something that we all have to got to look at and think about now.”
Lightning won’t be an issue this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, drivers will have to deal with the heat. Temperatures are expected to be in the 90s this weekend.
4. Beating the Big 3 in Xfinity
Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick went 1-2-3 last weekend in the Kentucky Xfinity race, continuing their dominance this season. They’ve combined to win 10 of the last 11 races (Ross Chastain‘s win at Daytona was the exception). Twice, the trio took the top three spots in a race (Bristol and Kentucky). In seven of the last 11 races, the trio has taken at least two of the top three spots.
So, who can top them?
Michael Annett finished fourth at Kentucky and said that was a key performance for his JR Motorsports team.
“At least I’m able to be up there and see where they’re better,” said Annett, who won at Daytona and has 12 top 10s in 17 races this season. “I’m at least able to see that now in the race and just be able to put a whole weekend together. That’s what you’re going to have to do to beat those guys.”
Justin Allgaier, who has six top-three finishes this season, also sees the progress Annett, his teammate, sees.
“I felt (at Kentucky) we were way closer to them speed wise than we have been,” said Allgaier, who finished seventh. “We ran right there with (Custer and Bell) for quite a while.”
Allgaier admits that’s something he couldn’t say earlier in the season.
Chicagoland Speedway and Grundy County Speedway are located roughly 25 miles apart. But until recently, that distance might as well have been 2,500 miles.
Their class of racing is as disparate as you can get. Chicagoland Speedway, located in Joliet, Illinois, plays host once a year to NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series, while Grundy County, located in Morris, Illinois, hosts four sportsman series on more than 20 weekends.
The 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway has a seating capacity of nearly 50,000, while the 1/3-mile Grundy County Speedway seats about 3,700. Ticket prices, concessions and souvenirs are also a world apart.
It used to be that the two tracks had little in common and little interaction. But that’s changing. Big tracks like Chicagoland Speedway realize that grassroots speedromes like Grundy County are fertile breeding grounds for racing fans. That’s why the two tracks are no longer competitors fighting for the same dollar. Now, they’re partners and friends in the racing world. Each supports the other, offers assistance and cross-promotes at the other’s events.
“They’re in our backyard essentially, we’re neighbors,” Denny Hartwig, Chicagoland Speedway’s public relations director, told NBC Sports. “There are several other short tracks around, but I think it’s so important to connect the dots between Chicagoland Speedway and Grundy County.
“We actually have some staff members that go there and work on their operations crew, so there’s a natural fit there. With them being so close to us and us to them, it’s important that we stay in touch. We find ways that are going to help them and there’s ways they can help us. But we need to be working hand-in-hand; it’s so important.”
Scott Kosak, founder of the grassroots racing site RacingIn.com (its motto is “For Fans of Fast”) has kept a keen eye on increased relationships between tracks like Chicagoland and Grundy County.
“Any time a major league entity recognizes the synergies with the minor league entities that are in proximity, that’s a great thing for the sport,” Kosak said. “Specifically for NASCAR, when the series only comes through Chicago once a year, many of those same race fans want to be engaged year-round.
“If they’re not able to watch a race on Sunday on TV, they can go to a place like Grundy County Speedway virtually 25 or 30 Fridays or Saturdays a year and be engaged by the product. That can only help race fans continue to feel engaged with a sport that has had its share of growing pains, but also has its share of opportunities if they’re able to continue to engage fans year-round rather than just watching on TV or a hand-held mobile device.”
Chicagoland Speedway opened in 2001. Grundy County has been around since 1905, first in rural Mazon, Illinois from 1905-71. When it outgrew its venue, Grundy County Speedway relocated 10 miles north to its current home.
“Short tracks right now are trendy, it’s hip, it’s cool,” Hartwig said. “It’s a pretty small space, so there are synergies between the two (tracks), and along that path, there are ways we can help them and they can help us. That’s going to help everybody involved, from the local guys to the (NASCAR) folks down in Daytona.”
In its 18-year existence, Chicagoland Speedway has hosted a number of NASCAR stars including Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Grundy County Speedway has also seen its share of NASCAR luminaries chase the checkered flag there, including Hall of Famers Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Stewart, as well as Tom and Ted Musgrave, late actor/racer Paul Newman, Johnny Benson, Ryan Newman and others.
“Those guys don’t forget their roots, they don’t forget where they come from, guys like Clint Bowyer, who hasn’t forgotten where he comes from in Kansas,” Hartwig said. “Going back at Grundy, some of the guys that have raced there are big names in addition to the guy that works at the local hardware store.
“There’s a ton of history and the need to default back to it, that this is where they started, how it’s evolved and to reconnect, to realize and make sure this works well for both of us.”
As Technical and Operations Director at Grundy County Speedway, Don Marshall is essentially the traffic cop who keeps things on the straight and narrow. If a fight breaks out in the pits or if there’s an on-track incident similar to what happened between Johnny Sauter and Austin Hill at the NASCAR Trucks race in Iowa earlier this month, Marshall has a zero-tolerance policy.
“I make the rules up and enforce them,” Marshall told NBC Sports. “My thing is if it’s in the rules, it’s black and white. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I don’t care who it is.
“If you want to fight, you’re going to get booted out. There’s no fighting, no leaving your pit to go to someone else’s pit and start something. Kids don’t need to see that or hear bad language. They want to see adults act like adults.”
Marshall oversees the racing with a soft-spoken but firm manner. Fields for the four classes have drawn a combined 87 cars entered this season, from the entry level Four-Cylinder Division, through the Street Stock and Mid-America classes, up to the kings of the track, the Late Models.
Racers come from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. And they bring family and friends.
“A lot of the fans in the stands probably know somebody who’s racing, and then there’s fans that have been going to races since they were kids,” Marshall said. “Their parents took them and now they’re bringing their own kids to the races.”
Those kids are the key to Grundy County’s future.
“We have to get the kids involved,” Marshall said. “We’ve got to take the phones away from the kids and also do things to get the costs down to get more people involved.”
Like in NASCAR, fans at Grundy County have their loyalties. One of the most successful drivers there is five-time track champion Eddie Hoffman Jr. The current Late Model points leader is bidding to tie his father, Eddie Hoffman Sr., for all-time titles (six) at the track this season.
“Eddie has fans and he has non-fans,” Marshall said with a smile. “When you’re a winner, people boo you. They don’t like repeat winners. If you win a lot, you’ll get booed.”
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Grundy County Speedway often played host to packed houses. And while Morris has grown in population, the track still suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis at times.
“There’s a lot of people in Morris that don’t even know the race track’s there,” Marshall said. “We’ll do some promotional stuff and people will be like, ‘There’s a race track in Morris?’ Yes, it’s been there since 1971.”
Marshall has been involved in racing for more than 40 years. A former midget car championship crew chief, he has been at Grundy County Speedway since 2011. As long as there’s racing and he’s involved, Marshall is happy.
“Once you get racing in your blood, it’s hard to get away from it,” he said. “I tried to get away from it for a little bit and I got drawn back in.”
The enhanced relationship between Grundy County Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway is paying dividends, bringing more fans to the short track, especially on a weekend like this with NASCAR in town, both Hartwig and Marshall agree. While Grundy County will welcome NASCAR fans on Friday night, Chicagoland Speedway will recognize and introduce some of Grundy County’s champions during Saturday’s pre-race activities, as well as have them take part in a meet-and-greet in the infield fan zone.
“The guys at most of these short tracks are pseudo celebrities,” Hartwig said. “They’ve built their own brands, are racing in front of the same people – they may be racing in front of their neighbors. We thought it would be cool to bring them out, put them in front of a new audience and with the ultimate intention that some of our fans go to their track, some of their fans come to our track and we just tell their story.
“Later this summer, we’re going to be the entitlement sponsor for one of Grundy County’s races, so it’s something we’re going to continue to grow and work closer together to make sure we help one another. Whether it’s us going to Grundy County for a night doing social media at their track or bringing our mascot or our show car. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that I think is going to pay dividends for both facilities.”
Grundy County Speedway sits on the northern edge of the Morris, a blue-collar town of about 15,000. Located 60 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, Morris is surrounded by fertile farmland and is bisected by Interstate 80, which sees thousands of semi-trailers and cars pass through daily.
On the northern edge of town sits the Grundy County Fairgrounds, where the annual Corn Festival – a five-day festival touted by the Heritage Corridor Convention and Visitors Bureau as “the perfect mix of small-town charm and big city fun” – is held and also is the home of Grundy County Speedway, which hosts races every Friday night (and occasionally on Saturdays) in spring and summer.
Two of Grundy County’s veteran racers are Randy Weese and Cheryl Hryn.
The 63-year-old Weese is celebrating his 25th year of racing at the speedway.
“I’m the old-timer,” Weese said with a laugh.
But racing keeps Weese young. He’s in excellent physical shape and could pass for someone 15 years younger. He attributes a lot of that to coming back week after week to race.
“It’s the camaraderie with the other drivers,” Weese told NBC Sports. “I was in it for about 21 years and then got out of it for about three years when we started our own (floor covering) business here in Morris and pulled me away from racing. I wanted to get that up and off the ground and then got lured back into the racing. I love it because it’s very exciting and it’s in the blood. Once you get it in the blood, it’s hard to get out of it and give it up.”
Grundy County Speedway has been good to Weese. He’s a two-time track champion and one of its biggest supporters. Not only does his company have several billboards and signage around the track, Weese also sponsors his own race car and six others driven by friends in the four divisions that regularly compete at the track.
He admits there are some unique moments with the cars he sponsors.
“It becomes interesting when your own sponsored race car is next to you and you’re doing a little bit of beating and banging or you’re trying to push that guy around and you say, ‘Hey, my name’s on that car,’” Weese said with a laugh.
But in a more serious tone, Weese says he believes in giving back to a track that has been so good to him. That’s why he writes so many sponsorship checks.
“If you don’t have cars, you don’t have a race track and you don’t have fans is what it boils down to,” Weese said. “You’ve got to fill the stands. But before you fill the stands, you have to fill the pits with race cars. People don’t like to see eight or nine cars. They would rather see 30 cars. Today, we’re 18 or 19 cars (in most classes). But I see that coming back, I see the car count getting better. That’s of course going to naturally increase the (number of fans in the) stands also.”
Although he has raced at other tracks, Grundy County Speedway is and always will be Weese’s home.
“It all started with my children,” Weese said. “I started coming out there when my children were six years old and I brought them year after year. I started getting to the point where I thought, ‘You know what, I could do this.’ My kids absolutely loved it. They’d pick out their favorite driver, go down into the pits after the race to get their autograph, get their hat or program signed. That’s what really keeps the people there.”
Weese’s 36-year-old daughter, Tracy, helps in the pits not only with his car but with others. The elder Weese sees himself racing for many more years.
“Even though I’m 63 years old, it’s still exciting,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. If the health stays well, I’m probably going to go to 70. It keeps you young.
“Most of the drivers out there are in their 30s or 40s. Hanging around that kind of age group keeps us older guys young. Plus, I’ve also taught a lot of guys racing things. We’ve got guys out there 15, 16 years old (racers can begin competition at 14 years old). I tell them to try this or that, and those 16 year olds started beating me. But I’m the kind of person that says, ‘You know what, that’s great, you tried it, it worked for you, you beat me, more power to you.’”
One of Weese’s fellow competitors and close friends is Hryn, who also competes in the Street Stock Division. The Blue Island, Illinois, resident followed in the footsteps of her father, who also was a sportsman racer.
“I always wanted to be behind the wheel,” Hryn said. “I thought it was neat when he did it and when I watched him against the people he competed with, that was what I wanted to do when I got older.”
Hryn is one of more than a half dozen females who compete at the speedway. She will make her first start of the season Friday.
“Each one of us girls, when we go out there, we stand on our own,” she said. “We fight tooth-and-nail with the guys and the other girls equally.”
Now in her 13th year of racing, the 49-year-old Hryn has ended the last few seasons thinking that maybe its time to hang up her helmet. But once January 1 rolls around, she’s already heavily into getting her race car ready for the upcoming season.
“It’s hard to walk away,” Hryn said. “I went to Rockford (Illinois) Speedway and they had a guy who was 78 years old in the Road Runner Division. When you’re almost ready to give up and then you go there and see someone out there 78 years old and still winning, how can you quit?”
Like Weese, racing is a family affair for Hryn. Her 31-year-old daughter Alexis is a major part of the crew, setting up the car, changing tires and more. It’s that kind of mother-daughter relationship that helps Hryn serve as one of the track’s key role models for female fans.
“Girls come up to me all the time,” Hryn said. “I have some of the real little ones that follow me real close. I have a Late Model driver whose daughter has been following me. She’s only five years old. Daddy was her favorite and now I’m her favorite.
“And then there are a couple of girls that race right now that have told me, ‘I’m doing this because of you. You made it interesting and you inspired me, so I want to race just like you.’ It makes me feel really great.”
Like Weese, Hryn also believes in giving back to the sport and to the track. Friday, she’ll have her fourth annual Kids Night bicycle giveaway, where she presents several dozen two-wheelers to kids attending the race.
“Last year, we gave away 86,” Hryn said. “Over 400 kids show up every year.
“That’s one of the reasons I do what I do with the kids because there’s a huge age gap between me and the next generation, and if you don’t get them in the stands, no one is going to be interested – and how are you going to keep the tracks going then?”
One of the closest observers of grassroots racing around the country, and particularly in Illinois is Scott Kosak, who started RacingIn.com in 2008. At the time, racing in all forms faced challenges in the U.S. Not only was that the height of the downturn of the economy, numerous grassroots short tracks and drag strips began closing.
“Over a decade ago, there were 1,600 grassroots tracks, including dirt and asphalt tracks, as well as drag strips,” Kosak told NBC Sports. “Now there are about 1,100.”
Grundy County Speedway is a survivor. Several popular grassroots tracks within a 100-mile radius of it have closed over the last two-plus decades, including Raceway Park (Calumet Park, Illinois); Santa Fe Speedway (Willow Springs, Ill.), Illiana Speedway (Schererville, Indiana) and Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) Raceway.
But Kosak has also noted a turnaround – primarily for grassroots tracks like Grundy County – in recent years.
“One of the benefits that grassroots racing has endured, while NASCAR has felt challenges over the last 10 years, is people that wanted to see great racing found it at their local race tracks,” Kosak said. “That’s not to say that NASCAR isn’t great racing, but as people’s attention spans have diminished over the last 10 years with the rise of social media, people wanted to see racing in a shorter segment, be able to see it close to home. They wanted to get their fix of fast, if you will, and they could see it in heats, and in a matter of three or four hours, they could see eight or 10 different races during that time period with shorter lap segments.
“I think NASCAR has adopted some of those things to its benefit and is starting to take a little bit from the playbooks of local tracks that are experiencing success because of some of the shorter attention span opportunities that they have evidence are successful.”
One of the biggest things that tracks like Chicagoland Speedway, Daytona International Speedway and others have taken from the playbooks of grassroots tracks is increased fan engagement and accessibility.
“The ability of race fans to see, touch and feel race cars and be a part of that experience (has rubbed off on NASCAR),” Kosak said. “The last time I went to Grundy County, what stuck out in my mind is that when they were done for the night, they opened the pit gates for people to be able to go into the pits and walk around.
“I believe that was an opportunity for everybody, whether they had a pit ticket or not. The racers of tomorrow are the youth of today. I think any time younger kids and younger fans and families can go and experience something like that and get as close to the action as that, that’s a plus for sure. NASCAR has some of those experiences now, as well.
“I think a lot of the reasons that grassroots racing is starting to come back is that the tracks that are surviving are finding ways to form partnerships with other larger entities to help them drive traffic. I think the relationships between grassroots tracks and some of the larger NASCAR tracks are a great example of that beginning to happen. We’re seeing that in the dirt world side with tracks in the World of Outlaws and other entities like that, but I think the parallel for paved oval track racing are relationships like what Chicagoland Speedway is doing with Grundy County Speedway.”