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Jim France bullish on the future: ‘We’re getting some momentum back’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a rare interview Friday, NASCAR CEO and chairman Jim France said he’s bullish about the momentum of his racing series, particularly since last year’s ISC merger.

“Very much so,” France said when asked if he’s looking forward to the return of stock cars to Daytona International Speedway next month for Speedweeks. The Daytona 500 will kick off the Cup Series season Feb. 16.

“We’re coming off of a very good year I felt like last year where we’re really getting some momentum back,” France said. “It’s exciting now going into this coming year.”

Much of the focus has been on the discussions around a possible revamping of the 2021 schedule.

“(NASCAR President) Steve Phelps is working diligently on that,” France said with a laugh. “There’ll be announcements coming in the not-too-distant future.”

France said last year’s merger of NASCAR and International Speedway Corp., which had been publicly traded before the deal, provides more flexibility on the schedule.

“It makes a big difference,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to respond quicker to the changing environment out here with the economy and all the things that are going on that impact motorsports. It was a major big step that we needed to make probably for quite a while.”

France spoke with a small group of reporters after a major news conference at Daytona involving the IMSA Series that will create a bridge for the premier sports car classes at Daytona and Le Mans.

“The way I view it is if you ever catch the Ferrari vs. Ford movie where the cars went back and forth with Le Mans, that’s the era that we’re getting ready to enter into here is my optimistic hope,” said France, who is also the chairman of IMSA.

A ‘crucial’ year for Hailie Deegan’s career begins today at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Hailie Deegan will be racing a sports car today at Daytona International Speedway with an eye toward her future in stock cars.

Signed by Ford Performance to a developmental deal that will put her in a full-time ARCA car (and possibly a truck race or two) this season, Deegan was surprised when the manufacturer also expressed a desire to put her in a few IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge events.

The first will be Friday’s season-opening BMW Endurance Challenge, a four-hour warmup race at Daytona International Speedway ahead of Saturday’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.

Deegan and Xfinity Series veteran Chase Briscoe will start 20th in the No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4.

MEET HAILIE DEEGAN: ‘I put my helmet on the same way as everyone else’

“I originally never planned on this, but (Ford) came to me and were like ‘we want to get you on our IMSA program,’” Deegan said. “’That’s what we did with Briscoe, (Cole) Custer, (Austin) Cindric. All the guys that came through the ranks with Ford.’

“When they told me that, I was excited because more road courses will be in the NASCAR world, and there already are quite a few. I think what makes an all-around good driver are the ones that are good at every single type of track.”

There’s been much talk of adding road and street races to the Cup schedule in the next few years, and the Xfinity Series schedule just expanded to five road courses with the move from the oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4 that will be driven by Hailie Deegan and Chase Briscoe.

Deegan, 18, still remains a long way from the top two national series, but they are her goal, which makes 2020 critical for earning results.

“This is the year that’s very important and crucial to my career because it decides contracts for years out with sponsors getting behind you for the higher levels,” said Deegan, who had three K&N Series victories in 2018-19. “If we can do good this year, I feel I can get more people behind me so we can go in the top three level series (of NASCAR), and have sponsors that want to stay with me full time while I’m there.

“My goal is to win a few races in the ARCA Series, which is going to be hard. There are a lot of good guys, good cars this year.”

Aside from running full time in ARCA for DGR-Crosley, Deegan would “love to do a truck race” if the sponsorship materializes, “but funding right now is all focused on ARCA so we can try to work toward those championships and winning races. I know I want to be in a good car with good people behind me. If we can focus on that, hopefully everything else will come along.”

Click here to read the full version of this story from NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk.

2020 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Start time, TV schedule, lineup and more

Dominique Van Wieringen fastest on Day 2 of Daytona ARCA test

ARCA Menards Series
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The ARCA Menards Series capped off a two-day test at Daytona International Speedway Saturday in preparation for its Feb. 8 race at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.

Dominique Van Wieringen posted the fastest speed of the day at 181.397 mph. She only made four laps.

“I was really surprised when (owner) Mark (Rette) said we went to the top of the charts,” Van Wieringen said in a media release. “I was practicing trying to time the draft for qualifying and I didn’t get it times just right. Hopefully when we come back for the race I can time it out a little better in qualifying and get even more.

“It’s been a good experience. It’s really intimidating because you go really fast and when things go wrong they go wrong really fast. For the first time out, it was better than I thought it would be. It was actually really relaxing. I don’t know how to explain it, it was just really relaxing.”

Out of 41 cars to make a lap, the top five was completed by David Gravel (181.236 mph), Sean Corr (181.174), Michael Self (181.145) and Drew Dollar (181.134).

Gravel, a World of Outlaws driver, will make his series debut next month.

Hailie Deegan was 16th on the speed chart after recording 62 laps throughout the day, which was the most.

 

Kyle Busch gives sports cars a spin: ‘You can drive the snot out of them’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch climbed from his new ride Friday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway with a wide smile and a few shrugs at his AIM Vasser Sullivan Racing teammates.

How was the prep work going for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut?

“I was able to run some pretty decent times,” Busch said at a news conference between practice sessions during the opening day of the Roar Before the Rolex test. “That’s what the guys said anyway. I don’t know.”

Rarely does Busch, quite possibly the most demanding and exacting driver in NASCAR’s premier series, find himself at a loss for explaining all of the nuances that make a race car handle at optimum speed.

Which made Friday’s indoctrination at Daytona a sometimes disorienting mix of confusion alleviated by maximum camaraderie for the two-time Cup champion, who constantly was surrounded by helpful faces.

“Everyone has done a great job of welcoming me in and making me feel part of the team, getting me up to speed, getting me accustomed and used to what this form of racing is and what it entails,” said Busch, who is only six weeks removed from his second title. “But certainly a lot to improve on still. I’ve got my NASCAR driving techniques just embedded in my brain. I’ve got to get rid of those a little bit more.

“Getting more accustomed to what this car can take and what the driving techniques are that are different between the two vehicles take is certainly a lot.”

The team’s two cars had 90 minutes over two practices to break in the most famous of its eight drivers for the 24-hour endurance classic, which will take place Jan 25-26.

Busch did two stints Friday over the course of about 35 minutes in the No. 14 Lexus during the opening session. After Jack Hawksworth shook down the car for about 20 minutes, Busch climbed in at 11:25 a.m. and was within 3 seconds of his teammate during a 10-lap stint.

After an 8-minute pit stop for adjustments, Busch shaved off another second over a 14-minute run in the car in which he posted lap times the team felt was respectable.

“He’s right where he should be,” said Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, one of several executives in the AIM Vasser Sullivan pit to observe Busch at the test. “So much of endurance racing is about confidence and being comfortable.”

Traffic and technology also will be the two major hurdles for Busch getting acclimated to sports cars. AIM Vasser Sullivan races in the GTD division, which is about 10 seconds slower around the 3.56-mile road course than the premier DPi prototype class.

That means Busch (who had one other IMSA start at Daytona nearly 12 years ago in a prototype) will be getting lapped much more often than which he is accustomed in Cup. In a role reversal of sorts, NASCAR veteran Cody Ware will be competing against Busch in the faster LMP2 division for the Rolex 24.

Especially when racing at night, Busch will rely on spotter Tony Hirschman to keep him abreast of the divergent speeds (which he also can distinguish through the varying colors of the cars’ lights).

He will be navigating the field while also adapting to cars that stop on a dime because of sophisticated antilock braking systems that are much different than his No. 18 Toyota in Cup.

“The braking is certainly the biggest adjustment,” Busch said. “I’m used to our big heavy stock cars, where you have to start the slowdown process way early, and the braking zone is forever. By the time you turn in, you have to be off the brakes because otherwise the inside wheels lock up, and you’ll skid the tires. So you also have to take care of our brakes on the Cup cars because they’re so heavy and steel and you can really overheat them.

“Completely different techniques that you have to work with on these cars. You can drive the snot out of them. You can throw it off into the corner as far as you feel you can get in there. And stomp the pedal as hard as your leg will allow you to do it.”

Busch spent some of Friday finding those limits, once driving 50 feet deeper into a chicane than teammate Jack Hawksworth. “That was too far,” Busch chuckled. “Noted.”

He had many places to look for advice. Townsend Bell, the NBC Sports analyst who also drives for the team, offered encouragement and pointers for several minutes Friday as the first to greet Busch after his first stint.

Hawksworth, a veteran of sports cars and IndyCar who scored two class wins for AIM Vasser Sullivan last year, flew to North Carolina recently to tutor Busch through a five-hour session in the driving simulator at TRD’s Salisbury facility.

“That was very useful and a great learning tool,” he said. “Definitely learned a lot. Came out of that with a good baseline for being able to come here and have a better understanding of what to expect.

“Without that, I’d be completely lost. It was good to do that. Jack’s been my biggest help and supporter. Townsend as well, too. I’ve talked to him a few times on the phone. Having Jack hands on with us at the test and being my teammate here has been big.”

But yet Busch also sheepishly confessed to at least one instance in which “I’m already trying to set up the car.

“It’s got understeer here, oversteer there or whatever. I suggested us going softer (on the setup), and they’re like, ‘We’re as soft as we can get,’ and I said “Well, that ain’t soft enough!’

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that we’re as soft as we can go. You always think of different ways of being able to engineer something. Obviously, there’s a rulebook as well, too, and I have no familiarity with any of that. So I could be totally off base to what my team already knows and I don’t.”

The Rolex 24 has been unfamiliar territory for many NASCAR interlopers before Busch. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Larson and Busch’s older brother, Kurt, are among many who have crossed over with some success.

Buch hopes to match that as the latest interloper.

“It would mean a lot” to win, he said. “Of course I want to have fun, but more importantly, I want to go out there and win for Lexus and AIM Vasser Sullivan and be able to put on a good show for the fans that show up but also the NASCAR community as well.

“Definitely a lot of guys have shown their taste of the Rolex 24, and this is my chance to be able to do that, so just hope we can keep it all on the racetrack for the whole race and have a shot at the end.”

Bobby Gerhart to miss first ARCA Daytona season opener in 33 years

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Bobby Gerhart’s heart will still be in the upcoming ARCA Menards Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway, even though his body won’t be behind the wheel.

For the first time in 33 years, Gerhart will not be in the field on the 2.5-mile superspeedway. It’s a race he has won eight times and has 15 top-10 finishes.

The reason is simple, although it could have been very serious: the Lebanon, Pennsylvania native recently suffered a heart attack.

“I guess you could say I got the greatest Christmas gift of all,” Gerhart told ARCAracing.com. “I was at home and wasn’t feeling well and drove myself to the doctor. When I got there they said I had a pretty serious heart attack. It could have been a matter of five minutes or five hours, but had I waited, it’s pretty likely it would not have ended up as well as it did. I still have a very long road to go but I have been given a second chance here and for that I am very lucky and very grateful.”

For now, the 61-year-old Gerhart will continue to be involved in his race team as owner, driving coach and cheerleader for his other drivers. But he won’t be behind the wheel for the foreseeable future.

“I guess we can say I am stepping out of the seat immediately due to health issues,” Gerhart told ARCAracing.com. “It’s maybe not the way I envisioned it but at the same time I feel like I was given a gift with the way it all went down.

“I travel all over the country, not just with racing but buying and selling big rigs for work. Had that happened when I was away from home, who knows if I would have decided to drive myself to the nearest hospital and get checked out.

“I never felt any symptoms. I don’t eat fried foods and I don’t eat a lot of red meat. I’ve never had high blood pressure. I just won the genetic lottery I suppose. But with the way it all went down – versus the way it could have – I got really, really lucky.”

Gerhart has made 341 career ARCA starts since his first race in 1988. His nine career wins include the eight at Daytona. He’s also made 24 NASCAR Cup, 18 Xfinity Series and 10 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series starts in his career as well.

Gerhart will be with his team at the upcoming series test at Daytona on Jan. 10-11, calling the shots from atop the pit box and along pit road. He still hasn’t named a driver for the No. 5, though, and with most drivers already with other teams, it’s a challenge.

Still, Gerhart hopes things can shake out positively for the season opening race on Feb. 8.

“It’s awfully late in the going, we know that,” Gerhart told ARCAracing.com. “But we have really great equipment ready to go. All we need is a driver to plug in and we can go win Daytona.

“We’ve done programs like this in the past with drivers like Kyle Krisiloff and Blake Feese. We have a great record of success at Daytona and working with other drivers so we’re hoping even with just a few weeks to go we can find someone who wants to go race.

“We’ll look at any opportunity, from one-race deals to partial season deals to a full season deal. We know we can be an asset to someone who is looking to go and run up front at Daytona. We are going to work hard to keep these race team going.”

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