COVID-19 pandemic

Texas Motor Speedway to admit fans for July 19 Cup race

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Texas Motor Speedway officials announced Friday that fans will be able to attend the July 19 NASCAR Cup race there.

Speedway president Eddie Gossage announced the news via both a media release and a YouTube video (see above).

The rescheduled O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 will be the first major sports event in Texas open to fans since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the media release, “The grandstands and suites at No Limits, Texas will be open to race fans subject to social distancing requirements and additional protocols.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has issued guidelines that currently allow sports venues to hold up to 50% of seating capacity. Texas Motor Speedway’s current capacity is just under 130,000. The track is currently working on how many fans will be allowed into the track under state social distancing and other safety guidelines.

“(There is) no set number but many factors are involved,” a track spokesman told NBC Sports. “Still to be finalized (include) a safe social distancing seating chart for the grandstands, fans who’ve purchased tickets for the March weekend now have to figure out if they can come in July, state guidelines, the Texas heat in July, etc.”

Gossage said all tickets will be mobile tickets. Previously printed tickets for the originally scheduled race weekend back on March 27-29 are ineligible to be used. Fans holding tickets for that event are asked to reach out to the Speedway to have new tickets issued.

“We hope everybody comes to the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 on July 19,” Gossage said. “But if they’re not comfortable, we’ll gladly give them a credit, even a refund, to make sure we do right by them. Not a problem at all.”

Also, fans will not be admitted to other events slated for the rescheduled race weekend, namely Xfinity and Truck Series races both scheduled for Saturday, July 18. Each race will be run without practice or qualifying sessions and the starting lineups will be based on a draw system.

The state of Texas reported 3,516 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, exceeding the previous record of new cases set just one day earlier, 3,129 on June 17.

Gossage appeared on a media teleconference Friday afternoon and was asked if the governor’s office has told him that the Speedway may have to reverse course if positive test results continue to climb.

“No sir,” Gossage said. “Obviously, if something happens, we’re going to follow the directions from the state.

Earlier, Gossage said, “Safety remains the primary focus for everyone who takes part in the weekend events, from fans to competitors, officials and track staff, so we continue to work with federal and state officials to comply with both Texas and CDC recommendations and requirements.”

NBC Sports asked Gossage if he has compared notes about hosting fans with entities like the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans, who are working on their own social distancing and accommodation plans for fans to attend their games in the near future.

“I’m sure they’re really happy it’s us because I think you always want the other guy to go first and you can learn from them,” Gossage quipped. “No, I haven’t heard from them or talked to them. The big thing is we’re outdoors. The Cowboys play basically indoors … they go basically playing the whole season without ever opening the roof.

“We’re just a completely different animal because we’re completely outdoors.”

Also, per the track release:

“Fans will be allowed to bring food and unopened beverages in a soft-sided clear bag no larger than 14x14x14 inches. Standard coolers will be prohibited to limit interpersonal contact at security checkpoints. Speedway Motorsports and NASCAR will continue to adapt and improve procedures to ensure they are effective and can be scaled to support increasing the number of fans in the future.”

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Friday 5: What’s next in these changing times for NASCAR?

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Midweek races. Inverted fields. No practice. NASCAR’s return after a 10-week suspension because of the COVID-19 pandemic comes with a much different look out of necessity.

But could some of the changes taking place become more permanent?

The sport is taking a close look at how it does things, what it can do without and what it can do more of.

At this point, no idea seems too far-fetched. Provided it doesn’t disrupt the competitive balance.

Whether it be the iRacing that kind of held the fans over a couple months, to coming back in this form it’s been a home run in my opinion for everyone at NASCAR’s management to make this happen,” Denny Hamlin said of NASCAR’s return.

“I like how nimble they are being. Just because we have done this for ‘X’ amount of years — we’ve always had practice and qualifying, but we never did an invert – they are willing to make changes and do it quickly. That’s something I haven’t seen in our sport in a very long time, or probably ever. It’s the most nimble as I’ve ever seen.”

While it seems unlikely NASCAR will do away with practice for every race, the question remains: Does the Cup Series need to be at some tracks for three days if they’re racing only once? Maybe it makes sense to run more doubleheaders. And midweek races.

Wednesday’s race at Darlington was delayed by rain but it gave a hint of what a midweek race could be like. Fans will get another chance to see a midweek Cup race Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway and June 10 at Martinsville Speedway.

“We can make it work,” Kevin Harvick said of midweek races. “From a team standpoint and from competitors, it’s great if we can shorten the schedule, do all those things.

“In the end, the telltale sign is going to be when those TV numbers come out. If they’re good, that’s what drives everything. That’s what everybody sells their sponsorship on. That’s what we all want to see, is great TV numbers. We’d love the fans at the racetrack, but in the end the biggest stick comes from how many people turn on the TV.”

If such races draw enough people, Hamlin notes “there’s an opportunity for us to own the summer where there’s less sports going on.”

On the track, ideas such as inverting the field instead of qualifying proved enticing to some.

“I thought it was okay,” Martin Truex Jr. “The good cars still worked their way to the front.”

But could there be other ideas? Austin Dillon suggested on social media after Wednesday’s race that drivers should be able to select what lane they want to restart in as is done at short tracks across the country.

“It brings another strategy to the table, it’s definitely something to talk about,” Joey Logano said. “You don’t have luck coming involved. You see guys hit their brakes at the end of pit road, number one that’s not real safe, but, two, you try to line yourself up sixth and then the car in front of you gets a speeding penalty and you’re like, ‘I gave up a spot and now I’m on the bottom, too. I really blew it.’

“That happens out there so many times that everybody is trying to play the game, so just put a cone out there and say, ‘Go left or right.’  Where you go is where you are. If you change after that, you go to the end of the line and you’re out. It’s an easy thing to do. I think right now it might be tough because we have plenty of changes right now with everything we’re doing, so I think we need to give a little bit of grace here, but I do think in the future I would love to try.”

Maybe it will be tried at some point. NASCAR seems open to many ideas. What could be next?

2. Three down, four to go

Kyle Busch’s quest to run seven NASCAR races in 11 days moves to Charlotte for the final four races in the stretch. When he’s finished, he will have run four Cup, two Xfinity and one Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race in that span.

Rain has messed up his schedule a bit. Tuesday’s Xfinity race at Darlington was moved to Thursday, shortening his preparation time for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 and the start of four races in four days.

I probably missed a day of working out overall and rehydrating,” said Busch, who finished second in both Wednesday’s Cup race and Thursday’s Xfinity race at Darlington. “Obviously, I’m a day later on getting my hydration ready for the 600 miles, but it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

After running three races since the season resumed, Busch said he feels good in the car.

“We had the race on Sunday and it was a little warmer out,” he said. “I saw a couple guys get out of the car and kind of sit next to their car and they were pretty wet and kind of hot and overheated maybe a little bit,” he said. “I felt fine. Then (Wednesday) night I had no issues and then (Thursday) again I had no issues. I’ve got enough cooling and things like that where I feel pretty good and ready to go.”

3. Blessings from afar

Maybe there was only time for a nod or a thumbs up but even those moments provided a sense of reassurance when there wasn’t time for prayer.

With NASCAR’s return to racing during the COVID-19 pandemic — and limits on who can be in the infield — such moments were gone at Darlington. For a sport that embraces prayer, that was significant.

“It was definitely different,” John Hunter Nemechek said.

Billy Mauldin, president and senior chaplain for Motor Racing Outreach, said that last weekend’s Cup race at Darlington marked the first time in decades that MRO did not have someone at the track offering a prayer to competitors before they climbed into their cars.

“I won’t lie to you,” Mauldin told NBC Sports. “It was hard to watch from home. … Our whole team misses not being able to do that. But we understand. We totally get it. We want things to be successful and to keep moving forward and however we can be a part of that. That has always been MRO’s attitude for 30-plus years: What we can we do? How we can we be a part of making things work for everybody?”

The ministry organization doesn’t attend to only drivers. Mauldin says he or someone else from MRO will offer prayers to pit crew members, Goodyear employees and others before each race.

Pit crews huddle in prayer before last year’s season finale in Miami. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

They still do now. Just digitally. MRO offers a virtual service each race day and specialized prayers for pit crew members and Goodyear employees that are sent so they can watch the brief video when they have time.

Mauldin understands that health guidelines may prevent MRO from being on pit road anytime soon.

“Under the best of times, when we go out on the line before the race to pray for the drivers, it’s not just a functional thing,” he said. “We know everybody, the drivers and their families.

“It’s really all different types of things going on at every car. Some it’s just a moment of prayer. Sometimes it’s just a thumbs up. Sometimes it’s just making eye contact through the windshield because they’re already pulling their helmets on.

“It’s very similar to the relationship a military chaplain shares with troops, particularly when they go downrange. You can’t always communicate but it’s the presence thing.”

Even in these times, Mauldin and MRO maintain a presence.

“We pray for them at the end of the drivers meeting,” he said. “We pray for them in the invocation. We’re still doing all of that right now. To the degree that our faith is the importance of pray and asking God to watch over them and keep them safe, that’s being done whether we get by the car or not.”

4. Quiet track

Chris Graythen, manager of motorsports for Getty Images, estimates he and fellow photographer Jared Tilton walked more than 40,000 steps and posted more 1,000 photos from Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway.

They were among three photographers on site at Darlington as all facets of the event were trimmed to only essential personnel. Teams were limited in how many crew members they could have and media also were limited (there were no more than four writers per event at Darlington and they were confined to the press box).

The three photographers (Note: NBC Sports uses Getty Images) had access throughout the track. They were in the garage with crews, on pit road with drivers and throughout the facility, giving them a rare insight to what it was like this past week at Darlington.

Kevin Harvick in Victory Lane after winning the Cup race last Sunday at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“What’s really interesting is the silence that is there,” Graythen told NBC Sports. “It’s just so quiet. When the national anthem ends, usually there is the flyover and the fans are cheering and the crews are getting ready and they crank up the engines. (At the Sunday and Wednesday Cup races,) the anthem ends and it’s just quiet. That’s kind of strange.”

Also what’s different is Victory Lane. Normally, cluttered with crew members, VIPs and others crowding around the driver and team as several photographers capture the scene, Victory Lane is practically barren.

“There’s no shouting, there’s no screaming,” Graythen. said. “It’s, hey Kevin (Harvick), look right here.”

Of the thousands of photos he took at Darlington, what is the image that stands out to Graythen?

“I think the weekend boils down to the picture of Kevin Harvick in Victory Lane, just him with the car and the trophy and the black mask over his face and nobody around,” Graythen said. “I’m sure he’s smiling under there.

“To me, that kind of boiled everything down into one picture because it shows, yeah, it’s good and it’s great, NASCAR is back, we have a winner, Harvick has got his 50th win, this is all very exciting for the industry. But it also has that mask, that starkness, that quietness that shows the time that we’re in.”

5. Experience a key factor?

The Truck Series returns to action Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, marking the first time the series has run since Feb. 21 at Las Vegas — a race won by Kyle Busch.

Just as the Cup and Xfinity Series have done in most events since returning, the Truck race at Charlotte will have no practice or qualifying. The first lap at speed will be when the green flag waves.

Former Truck series champ Johnny Sauter finished second to Busch at Las Vegas. As Sauter prepares to resume the season, what stands out to the ThorSport Racing driver?

“I feel great that I have the experience that I have at a lot of these race tracks,” he said. “The only thing that I look at is that some of these younger guys going to these racetracks having never even raced or turned a lap there getting in trouble. What I mean by that is that you just hope you’re not a victim of a mistake.”

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Thursday’s NASCAR Xfinity race at Darlington: Start time, lineup and more

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The NASCAR Xfinity Series will resume its season Thursday at Darlington Raceway.

The series was scheduled to race Tuesday (After the starting time was moved up two hours because of rain in the forecast), but rain pushed it to Thursday.  The race is now scheduled for noon ET Thursday.

MORE: 5 storylines in the Xfinity Series

MORE: Ross Chastain, Chip Ganassi Racing sticking to their “plan”

Noah Gragson will start on the pole and be joined on the front row by JR Motorsports teammate Michael Annett.

Here are the details for the race:

NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway

(All times are Eastern)

START: First responders from the city of Hartsville, city of Darlington and Darlington County, South Carolina, will give the command to start engines at 12:05 p.m.. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 12:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 10 a.m. Drivers report to their cars at 11:50 a.m. The invocation will be given at 11:57 a.m. by Dr. Bill Curtis, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Darlington, South Carolina. The National Anthem will be performed at 11:58 a.m. by Senior Master Sergeant Steven David, South Carolina Air National Guard.

DISTANCE: The race is 147 laps (200 miles) around the 1.366-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 45. Stage 2 ends on Lap 90.

PACE LAPS: At the direction of race control, drivers will have the opportunity to run one pace lap down pit road before the green flag for a pit road speed check. If you stop in your box for any reason, pull over or slow down, you will start at the rear of the field.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 15. The field will be frozen at the caution. When pit road is open, only the top 20 cars will be allowed to pit. Each car that pits must beat the pace car off pit road to retain its position. On the next lap, the other 19 cars will pit. Each car that pits must beat the pace car off pit road to retain its position. Then, the top 20 cars will be allowed to pit a second time. On the next lap, the other 19 cars will be allowed to pit again. After the second cycle for each team is completed, the lineup will be set and the race will resume.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race at noon. Motor Racing Network’s coverage will begin at noon and can also be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for thunderstorms with a high of 74 degrees and 86% chance of rain at the race’s start.

LAST RACE: Brandon Jones won at Phoenix on March 7 in the last Xfinity race before the season was suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Points leader Harrison Burton was second. Kyle Busch placed third.

LAST RACE AT DARLINGTON: Cole Custer won last September after Denny Hamlin‘s winning car failed post-race inspection. Tyler Reddick placed second. Ryan Blaney was third.

LINEUP (set by rule book and random draw): Click here for the starting lineup.

No family at track will make for lonely experience for drivers

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Matt DiBenedetto could experience one of the greatest moments of his life today.

And he would celebrate it alone.

With NASCAR allowing only essential personnel at Darlington Raceway in its first race since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, drivers will not be allowed to have family or friends with them.

MORE: Viewer’s guide to today’s race

MORE: Ryan – NASCAR’s return another sign of Darlington’s resilience

MORE: Rookies try to prepare for what Lap 1 may be like

Should DiBenedetto earn his first Cup victory, doing so without his parents and his wife at the track with him, would be bittersweet.

“We’ve actually been talking about that quite a bit,” DiBenedetto told NBC Sports.

Since his parents moved from California to North Carolina to further DiBenedetto’s racing career when he was a teen, they have been with him on a journey that saw climb the sport’s ranks one small team at a time.

They celebrated with him as if he won when he finished sixth at Bristol in 2016, and they consoled him when he finished second there in 2019.

They’ve almost always been with him at the track.

Until today. And for the foreseeable future.

“It’s out of our control,” DiBenedetto said. “I think it is tough on them to know that I’ll be not too far down the road chasing that first win.

“I just want that first win no matter what, no matter who is there, but, obviously, it’s better with your family there.”

It’s not just DiBenedetto who will have to adjust to not having family or friends at the track. Every driver will in some way.

Instead of sharing the final moments before they head to the grid with family or friends, drivers will be secluded in motorhomes. While there are many ways to communicate with family and friends, it’s not the same as being there.

Tyler Reddick won’t have girlfriend Alexa De Leon and infant son Beau with him at the track.

“It’s just totally different,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “I can’t remember a time where I haven’t had some friend or family at  the racetrack alongside me.”

And drivers will be alone as they head to the car. There will be no family awaiting them. No wife or girlfriend to hug and kiss before climbing into the car. No children standing with them during the pre-race ceremonies.

I don’t know that I’ve ever just went to the race track by myself to race without either family, friends or even motorhome drivers,” said Erik Jones, who won last year’s Southern 500 at Darlington. “They’re normally there if nobody else is there.

“That’s going to be really unique just walking out to the grid and hopping in the car. There’s not going to be anybody by the car other than us and maybe the interior guy to help us get the window net up. So, yeah, it’s going to be odd and it’s going to be unprecedented in what we’ve always done. It’s a weird feeling. A new normal for right now.”

Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington: Start time, lineup and more

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Racing is back!

After a 10-week break because of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR returns with the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway.

There will be no fans. Teams will be limited to essential personnel and must adhere to NASCAR’s guidelines, which includes wearing a mask.

But racing is back today.

Here’s all the info for today’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Healthcare workers across the country will give the command to start engines at 3:42. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:53 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 1:30 p.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 2 p.m. and can be seen on NASCAR.com. Drivers report to their cars at 3:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 3:35 p.m. by Rev. Sam Turbeville from McLeod Regional Medical Center. The National Anthem will be performed at 3:36 p.m. by three-time Grammy winner Darius Rucker.

DISTANCE: The race is 293 laps (400 miles) around the 1.366-mile oval.

PACE LAPS: At the direction of race control, drivers will have the opportunity to run one pace lap down pit road before the green flag for a pit road speed check. If you stop in your box for any reason, pull over or slow down, you will start at the rear of the field.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 90. Stage 2 ends on Lap 185.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 30. The field will be frozen at the caution. When pit road is open, only the top 20 cars will be allowed to pit. Each car that pits must beat the pace car off pit road to retain its position. On the next lap, the other 20 cars will pit. Each car that pits must beat the pace car off pit road to retain its position. Then, the top 20 cars will be allowed to pit a second time. On the next lap, the other 20 cars will be allowed to pit again. After the second cycle for each team is completed, the lineup will be set and the race will resume.

TV/RADIO: Fox will televise the race. Coverage begins at 3. Motor Racing Network’s coverage will begin at 2:30 p.m. and can also be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for mostly cloudy skies with a high of 85 degrees and 15% chance of rain at the race’s start.

LAST RACE: Joey Logano won at Phoenix on March 8 in the last Cup race before the season was suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was Logano’s second win in the season’s first four races. Kevin Harvick was second. Kyle Busch placed third.

LAST RACE AT DARLINGTON: Erik Jones won last September’s Southern 500. Kyle Larson was second. Kyle Busch placed third.

LINEUP (set by owner points and random draw): Darlington Cup starting lineup

TO THE REAR: Kyle Busch (car failed pre-race inspection twice)

PRERACE READING:

Nate Ryan: NASCAR return another sign of Darlington’s resilience, renaissance

Ryan Newman: “I feel like a complete walking miracle”

No time to wait: “We’re just going all in” on Lap 1 at Darlington 

NASCAR’s break from racing familiar to Kyle Busch

NASCAR’s Steve Phelps: “I don’t foresee any further shutdown for us”

Friday 5: Will iRacing grudges carry over to track?

Matt Kenseth not expecting “any kind of special treatment” at Darlington

Storylines: What will NASCAR’s top free agents do?

Storylines: New Procedures for drivers, teams in return to racing

Storylines: What’s changed in NASCAR Cup Series

Storylines: Where Cup series left off