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Friday 5: Focus is on drivers, teams to be vigilant against COVID-19

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NBA and NHL players reside in bubbles. Major League Baseball and NFL players do not. While the NBA and NHL have not reported any positive tests from those inside their bubbles, Major League Baseball faces a COVID-19 outbreak on one team, and the NFL will see how well its system works with training camps underway.

NASCAR, meanwhile, rolls on.

There is no coronavirus testing in NASCAR. The onus is on competitors to avoid contracting the virus and infecting their team and others in the sport.

NASCAR’s plan is designed to keep drivers separate from their crews, pit crews separate from road crews and those that travel separate from team members working in the shop. If someone is infected, it should only impact a small group instead of an entire team.

The challenge is for drivers and crew members to remain vigilant against COVID-19 away from the track and shop as the year progresses and the desire grows to be in more public settings.

Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo: JGR)

“It’s easy to get fatigued with this and let off the gas and we can’t do that,” said Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing.

Teams need to run races to collect sponsor and TV money. When the series was shut down for 10 weeks, teams didn’t get paid. At least six Cup organizations received funds from the Paycheck Protection Program

After the 70-day shutdown, Cup teams ran 16 races in 68 days — an average of one race every 4.3 days — between the series resuming May 17 at Darlington Raceway and the July 23 race at Kansas Speedway.

August will not be much easier. Cup teams will race seven times between Sunday’s race at New Hampshire and Aug. 29 at Daytona. Five of those races will be held in a 16-day period — a pair of doubleheaders at Michigan and Dover each and the series’ inaugural race on the Daytona road course.

So, if anyone deserves a break, it is the Cup drivers and crew members. Last weekend provided that opportunity and some shared photos on social media about their getaways.

But with no COVID-19 vaccine available and what’s at stake should they be infected, drivers and team members must balance being cautious in what they do outside the track and shop and living life.

Christopher Bell said he plans to run in midget races next Tuesday and Wednesday at Pennsylvania.

“The biggest thing is just trying to use common sense and being as smart as I can about going to the races and making sure you keep your distance,” Bell said of balancing health concerns with personal decisions. “Instead of traveling up to the Pennsylvania races on a plane, like I probably would, I’m going to be riding in the rig and isolating from the masses as much as I can anyway. I think it’s a matter of just doing your part. Wearing masks when you need to and making sure that you’re staying away from people and just using common sense.”

Although Ryan Preece admits he’d like to race a modified between Cup events this summer, he isn’t doing so.

“I think it’s hard right now with the way things are to do it and not know if you’re going to be forced into quarantine or whatever it may be,” Preece said. “I’m used to racing 60 to 80 times a year, but at the same time my focus is on the Cup series.”

And that means avoiding situations that could compromise his health and force him out of his ride temporarily at JTG Daugherty Racing while he would have to quarantine.

You don’t put yourself in those situations,” Preece said. “That’s really it … because I want to race. And that’s it.”

Alpern says Joe Gibbs Racing reinforces car owner Joe Gibbs’ message of “Just be smart” to the organization’s drivers and team members about when they are not at the track or the shop.

NASCAR informed all teams and others in the industry going to New Hampshire for Sunday’s race that they are “prohibited from patronizing any restaurants (take-out/to-go/delivery orders only) or bars in the area and must limit their travel to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and their hotel only.”

Such restrictions are mandated by a modified travel-related quarantine the state of New Hampshire approved for those traveling to put on the race.

Jimmie Johnson missed one race after testing positive for COVID-19. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is the only Cup driver to miss a race for testing positive for COVID-19. He missed the July 5 Indianapolis race after he and his wife tested positive. Johnson said he did not know how they were infected. Also this month, Brendan Gaughan stated he tested positive. He is not scheduled to compete again until the Daytona oval race Aug. 29.

Formula One, which tests drivers and team members, announced Thursday that Sergio Perez had become the first series driver to test positive for the coronavirus. He will miss this weekend’s British Grand Prix.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps defended the sanctioning body’s protocols earlier this month.

To those who raise questions about NASCAR not doing COVID-19 testing, Alpern says he understands the reasoning.

“When we were talking about protocols, there was a ton of discussion about testing and should we test, should we not test,” he said. “We went back. I know testing is not like you just walk down the road and get one. It’s not super easy, but it’s a lot easier right now than it was. When we came back (to race in May), there was a lot of sensitivity to people who really needed tests not being able to get a test.

“So I think our sport wanted to be sensitive to the fact. Do we really have to use up tests for folks? The challenge that you have when you don’t have a bubble, let’s say for example we were testing people every day, the second you leave the bubble, the test is rendered useless because you tested but now you have gone and exposed yourself. If you’re in a bubble, testing makes complete sense because then you’re protecting the bubble.

“Once you are in the bubble you can act like things are normal. We are not acting like things are normal at the track or (at the shop) because of that. We are spacing, we are wearing masks because it’s difficult when people are coming in and out of the bubble as we talked about before. I think the process we have is working pretty well.”

2. Frustrating stretch

Last week at Kansas Speedway, Ryan Preece didn’t finish last. 

It’s been that kind of a month for the JTG Daugherty Racing driver who had finished last in three consecutive races before he placed 34th last week at Kansas. But that race marked the fourth consecutive time he’s failed to finish: three times because of an accident and once because of a transmission failure.

“Whenever I hear people talk about bad luck or that, I’ve always been a believer of making your own luck,” Preece said. “But this has probably been the first time in my career that I really, wrong place wrong time, things that were out of my control happening. I’m not one to make excuses, but it’s been frustrating for sure.

“The thing that’s even more frustrating is Kansas. I really don’t know what else I could have done. I don’t think there was anything else I could have done. But we had a fast race car right there, at that point in time when it needed to be and that’s kind of been the case. We’ve struggled at the beginning of the races and then gotten our car better as the stages have gone on. The only thing you can do at this point is really go and gamble on things. I’ve got nothing else to lose.”

He was collected in a crash at Kansas that sent his car into the inside SAFER barrier on the backstretch. Asked how long he was sore after that vicious crash, Preece said: “I was ready to go as soon as I got out of that race car.”

He says he won’t let these struggles beat him.

“You’ve just got to be positive,” Preece said. “It’s easier to say than it is to do, but I feel like over the past few weeks of just constantly living that way, things have become easier. My life has become much happier. I’m probably a lot better to be around. And you just put in the hard work, that’s it.

“Just sitting there hoping things are going to turn around … it doesn’t work like that. Life doesn’t work like that. So, I’m just going to continue fighting and hopefully we can finish 2020 better than we have.”

3. Different stage length

One thing that will be different about Sunday’s race at New Hampshire (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is the length of the last two stages.

Stage 1 ends on Lap 75 as it has in the past. Stage 2 will end on Lap 185 — 30 laps later than it has in the past. That makes the final stage shorter by 30 laps.

Randall Burnett, crew chief for Tyler Reddick, says the changes to the stage length could make an impact since the race is among the shorter ones, which puts a premium on track position.

“It will definitely make it a little more interesting I think with the longer stage,” he said. “You have tire wear, you’re going to have fuel mileage stuff to look at. It’s definitely going to change the strategy a little bit, which we’re going to have to stay on top of. You’re going to have a Lap 30 competition caution, which should give you a good read on tires, as far as what kind of wear you’re going to be looking at throughout the race and the lap time fall off. So, I think that’s going to kind of dictate what you do in that second stage, for sure.”

4. One way of looking at it

It’s easy to look at Ryan Newman’s season and think how different it could have been had the Roush Fenway Racing driver won the Daytona 500 instead of crashing as he came to the checkered flag.

“No doubt I’ve thought about it, but the reality is it’s not the truth, it’s not what happened, it’s the what could have been and everybody has that in their season,” he said. “We have to do our job to go back and kind of replay those events and make corrections to whatever mistakes or whatever differences we can to try to be victorious. That doesn’t go just for Daytona, that goes for every racetrack. 

“The season no doubt has been a challenge in so many ways for so many people and our team, I feel like we’ve struggled a little bit, but I feel like we have the things that we need to make the corrections to be better and be stronger and be successful, so we’re just gonna keep our nose to the grindstone and carry on.”

5. Will dominance continue?

A few things to watch for in Sunday’s race:

Joe Gibbs Racing has finished either first or second in 13 of the last 14 Cup races at New Hampshire. JGR cars have led 45% of all the laps run in those last 14 races.

Toyota cars, led by JGR, have been dominant in the last five races, leading 84.3% of the laps run in that time. Chevrolet teams have led 2.9% of the laps in the races at New Hampshire since July 2016.

Martin Truex Jr. has won the first stage in three of the last four years there. His 744 laps led there makes him the driver to lead the most laps at the 1-mile track and yet to score a win. His best New Hampshire finish is third.

Monday’s Cup race at Talladega: Start time, forecast and more

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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Let’s try this again. After rain and lightning on Sunday, the Cup Series will be back at Talladega Superspeedway for Monday’s race, NASCAR’s first superspeedway race since the Daytona 500 in February.

Teams will get their first experience with a different superspeedway rules package from what they had at Daytona.

Martin Truex Jr. starts first and and Denny Hamlin starts second.

Here are the details for Monday’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Astronaut Doug Hurley, on board the International Space Station, will give the command to start engines at 3:10 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to be waved at 3:22 p.m.

PRERACE: Drivers report to their cars at 2:48 p.m. The invocation will be given at 3:02 p.m. by sports broadcaster Niki Noto Palmer. The national anthem will be performed by the 313th United States Army Band at 3:04 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 188 laps (500 miles) around the 2.66-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 60. Stage 2 ends on Lap 120.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 25

TV/RADIO: Fox will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 3 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race. Its broadcast begins at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms with a high of 85 degrees and a 18% chance of rain at the race’s start.

LAST RACE: Denny Hamlin won in Miami, beating Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.

LAST RACE AT TALLADEGA: Ryan Blaney beat Ryan Newman in a photo finish to win last fall’s playoff race.

TO THE REAR: William Byron (two inspection failures), Garrett Smithley (two inspection failures), Joey Gase (three inspection failures), Brendan Gaughan, Daniel Suarez and BJ McLeod (unapproved adjustment).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Cup starting lineup

CATCHING UP TO SPEED WITH NBC SPORTS COVERAGE:

Brendan Gaughan ready to mix it up with big teams at Talladega

Friday 5: Despite 2 wins in a row, Toyota boss has sharp words for teams

Stewart-Haas, Penske employees tested positive for COVID-19

Aric Almirola could tie Dale Jr.’s top-10 record at Talladega

Brad Keselowski: ‘You have to keep evolving at Talladega’

Can Kurt Busch finally run for daylight at Talladega?

One Month Back: Key moments from NASCAR’s return

Brendan Gaughan ready to mix it up with big teams at Talladega

Brendan Gaughan
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Brendan Gaughan hasn’t been competed in a NASCAR race since the Daytona 500 in February, but that doesn’t have him worried for today’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

“I’m no rustier than anybody else,” Gaughan said this week ahead of his start for Beard Motorsports.

The 44-year-old Gaughan, who hasn’t competed full-time since 2017, noted that “nobody has raced a superspeedway race since the last time I raced one.”

That race saw Gaughan pilot the No. 62 Chevrolet to a seventh-place finish as he earned 30 owner points for Beard Motorsports. It was enough to ensure Gaughan would be able to sttart today’s race in a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated qualifying for races.

“We’re excited that we were able to stay in the top 40 in points,” Gaughan said. “We were sweating that for a bit, especially after Bristol (on May 31). I said earlier that I love Tommy Baldwin and B.J. McLeod – they’re my buddies and I like them a lot. After Bristol, I started to go ‘uh-oh’. … Who would have thought we’d be sitting here in the world the way it is now and that seventh-place finish at Daytona for the No. 62 pays dividends yet again, and kept us locked in for Talladega.”

Sunday’s race will be Gaughan’s 14th for Beard Motorsports. The part-time team, which gets chassis from Richard Childress Racing and engines from ECR, has just one full-time employee, crew chief Darren Shaw, one part-time employee, car chief Drew Mickey, and two mechanics who help out on race weekends.

Despite the lack of man power, Gaughan is not to be overlooked on superspeedways.

“When we show up, we’re not some team that everybody goes, ‘Oh boy, watch out for that one,'” Gaughan said in a media release. “When we walk in that place, people want to work with us. Now, our first year and even our second year a little bit – I had to go up to people and remind them a bit and say, ‘Hey, hey, Jimmie (Johnson), don’t forget, I’ve got a big-thumping ECR motor and a good RCR-built Chevrolet. Remember, I’ve got good stuff.’ Now, we show up to the racetrack and I’ve got guys from other manufacturers going, ‘Hey, do you have to play in the Chevy games or are you a free agent?’

“Then I’ve got Chevy inviting us to play in their reindeer games and say, ‘Hey, you’re a Chevy, you’re here with us.’ It feels great to know that this little bitty team, when we show up now, people come and find us and say, ‘Hey, we’ll work with you. We know how good you are.’”

Unlike his previous starts for Beard Motorsports, the team hasn’t had a practice to help dial-in the car before Gaughan rolls off the grid from 39th.

“It affects us probably more than most teams,” Gaughan said. “Most teams at least have some sort of an engineering staff, at least have some sort of equipment to pull that race car down repeatedly to make sure they’re going to hit their travels. Our race team does not. It’s difficult, also, to get time in other peoples’ shops right now with the way NASCAR has the teams sequestered. … I do know that it got pulled down, I do know they were able to get some time on the pull down rig. But not as much as others or other races we’ve had. …

“But thankfully, for us, the equalizer is that there is going to be a competition caution and I have a feeling the No. 62 team will be very graciously looking forward to that competition caution if we happen to miss our travels, hit the splitter too hard or anything like that.”

Gaughan believes the early stages of the 188-lap race will see many drivers, including him, “practicing” moves to see what their cars are capable of.

“The way this thing is now with the organizations that all work so well together, I think you’ll be able to see people probably practice those together, maybe even orchestrate some of them during the race if they get a calm setting to maybe say ‘Hey, can I see what mine looks like in the front versus the back’,” Gaughan said. “Maybe some teams will work with each other to do that. I think you’re going to see maybe a little bit of coordinated effort team-wise and some people will get it faster than others, just like anything else in life. You’ll have a lot of laps to be able to try and practice a few things if you put yourself in the right situation.”

NASCAR to move location of car numbers for All-Star Race

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NASCAR will use the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway to experiment with the location of numbers on race cars.

Instead of the traditional location of numbers on car doors, those numbers will be pushed back toward the rear wheel. All teams competing in the All-Star Race and All-Star Open are required to have the car number in this location. The move allocates more space on car sides for sponsors, something teams have requested.

On Wednesday’s Motor Racing Network’s Crew Call, NASCAR president Steve Phelps explained the reason for the change to show host Mike Bagley:

“I think the All-Star (Race) historically has been an opportunity for us to test things, and I think that’s exactly what we’re doing with this,” Phelps said. “Teams have asked us to take a look at this, provide some additional visibility for sponsors, so that’s what we’ll test.”

The change will be for the All-Star Race and All-Star Open only.

“We’ll evaluate it,” Phelps said. “Is it the right thing to do? Is it not the right thing to do? I  know some folks that came out and said ‘this is not for me, I don’t like it,’ so we’ll take that all under consideration and as we move past the All-Star (Race) we’ll see what it looks like moving forward.”

In addition to having another option to increase sponsor visibility on cars, the move of the car number is also seen as a combination of catering to tradition and existing fans along with attracting new fans.

“I think not in every instance, but there are instances where you actually can do both,” Phelps told Bagley. “I don’t think you have to have the two at odds with each other. Sometimes that’s going to happen, but for us, we’ve talked about hearing from the core fans and we do.

“We want to hear from the core fans and what they think, traditional fans. There are certain things we want to try out or we believe is in the best interest in the sport after collaborating with the industry and saying this is something we should test. This is one of those opportunities.

“I don’t know if it appeals to a newer fan vs. a fan for 40 years, the changes in the paint schemes. But again, it’s one race, the All-Star Race, what better time to test it?”

This would not be the first time where car numbers have been placed on areas other than the door. It was a practice for some teams in the early 1950s, according to NASCAR historian Ken Martin, per a story on NASCAR.com.

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Fifteen drivers are locked into the All-Star Race by virtue of wins in 2019 and 2020 (to date): Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones, Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Alex Bowman, Justin Haley and Matt Kenseth.

There are five opportunities remaining for other drivers to get automatic berths in the All-Star Race field by virtue of winning at any of the five races still to be held prior to the All-Star Race: Talladega, the Pocono doubleheader, Indianapolis and Kentucky.

Several other drivers are eligible to be voted in as part of the NASCAR Fan Vote, currently under way through noon ET July 14. Click here to vote. Drivers are eligible for the Fan Vote by having attempted to qualify for the 2020 Daytona 500.

Those drivers are: Quin Houff, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Aric Almirola, Ty Dillon, Clint Bowyer, Brennan Poole, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron, Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie, Michael McDowell, David Ragan, Ryan Preece, John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chad Finchum, Joey Gase, B.J. McLeod, JJ Yeley, Brendan Gaughan, Timmy Hill, Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell and Daniel Suarez.

If any of those drivers win a stage in the NASCAR Open qualifying race prior to the All-Star Race, that driver will be locked into the field and not eligible to be the Fan Vote winner.

One Fan Vote winner has gone on to win the All-Star Race in the event’s history: Kasey Kahne in 2008.

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Entry lists for NASCAR at Talladega

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NASCAR returns to its largest oval track this weekend with its first trip of the year to Talladega Superspeedway.

Cup and Xfinity Series teams will be in action this weekend.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for both races.

Cup – GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox)

Forty cars are entered.

Gray Gaulding is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 27 Ford.

Brendan Gaughan is entered in Beard Motorsports’ No. 62 Chevrolet.

BJ McLeod has replaced James Davison in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet.

Garrett Smithley will now drive BJ McLeod’s No. 78 car.

Last year, Chase Elliott won this race over Alex Bowman and Ryan Preece. The playoff race was won by Ryan Blaney in a photo finish with Ryan Newman.

Click here for Cup entry list

 

Xfinity – Unhinged 300 (5:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Thirty-nine cars are entered.

A.J. Allmendinger, who won at Atlanta and then claimed a $100,000 Dash 4 Cash prize Sunday at Miami, is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet.

Jeb Burton is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet for the second time this season.

Anthony Alfredo is entered in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

Timmy Hill is entered in Hattori Racing Enterprises’ No. 61 Toyota.

Last year, Tyler Reddick won this race over Gray Gaulding.

Click here for the entry list