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Friday 5: NASCAR’s decision to compete stands out among other sports

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UPDATE: NASCAR announced at 11:37 a.m. ET Friday that this weekend’s races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and next weekend’s races at Homestead-Miami Speedway have been postponed. No makeup dates have been set. 

MORE: President Trump to declare national emergency to combat coronavirus 

By the time the clock hit midnight, ending an unprecedented day and beginning a Friday the 13th, a new reality emerged because of COVID-19.

No NCAA Tournament. No Major League Baseball. No NBA. No NHL. No MLS. No Formula One race in Australia.

What was left? Primarily NASCAR and IndyCar.

While some NASCAR fans bristle at the notion that their sport be more similar to stick-and-ball sports, on this day, NASCAR was not.

With other sports postponing or canceling events, NASCAR announced plans to compete beginning today at Atlanta Motor Speedway with the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series. No fans will be allowed to attend. Same for IndyCar in St. Pete.

Thursday night, though, the NTT IndyCar Series announced that it had eliminated Friday’s two 45-minute practice sessions. Instead, the weekend will begin Saturday for that series. At the end of its release on the updated weekend schedule, IndyCar stated: “Due to the fluidity of the situation, more modifications may be forthcoming and will be announced at the appropriate time.”

Things can change. NASCAR’s statement Thursday announcing plans to race without fans started: “At this time …” and ended with: “We will work with public health officials as we determine future scheduling beyond these events.”

Plans remain for next weekend’s NASCAR races at Homestead-Miami Speedway to be held without fans.

But how much longer can this go? Or will this go? There are indications that other sports are prepared to be idle for weeks.

In a letter to fans Thursday night, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated: “This hiatus will last at least 30 days and we intend to resume the season, if and when, it becomes safe for. all concerned.”

Major League Baseball announced Thursday that it would delay the regular season “by at least two weeks due to the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic.” Opening day had been scheduled for March 26.

The NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournament, turning March Madness into March Sadness, and all spring sport championships, including some events that would not be held until after Memorial Day.

PGA Golf, which stated Thursday that The Players Championship would continue with no fans, reversed course and announced at 10 p.m. ET that it was canceling the event. That means every PGA Tour event is canceled up to the Masters, which is scheduled from April 9-12.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated Thursday that there were 1,215 total cases of COVID-19 (both confirmed and presumptive awaiting test results) in the United States with 36 deaths. The CDC stated that 42 states and the District of Columbia reported cases.

The CDC stated that Georgia, where NASCAR races this weekend, had reported 31 cases of COVID-19 (both confirmed and presumptive pending test results). Only Washington (366 cases), New York (217), California (175), Massachusetts (95) and Colorado (34) had more cases than Georgia.

Should NASCAR race this weekend and be one of the few sports to compete? To some sports-starved fans, NASCAR (and IndyCar) will be viewed as a hero for doing so. Others, though, may question both sports for holding an event during a pandemic.

Either way, today begins with NASCAR competitors scheduled to be on track at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

2. What’s next?

Once the NBA announced Wednesday night it was suspending its season because of COVID-19, momentum began to build for other sports to follow, leading to Thursday’s string of cancellations and postponements.

With NASCAR continuing, many questions remain. Beyond plans to race at Atlanta and Miami the next two weeks, then what?

Both Texas Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup race on March 29, and Bristol Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup race on April 5, issued statements via social media. Texas Motor Speedway’s statement noted that track officials are “closely monitoring facts and in frequent communications with public health officials. We are currently preparing to host our regularly scheduled events and will continue consulting with officials on best practices and recommendations.”

Bristol Motor Speedway stated Thursday that “there are no changes to our NASCAR race weekend April 2-5. Bristol Motor Speedway is working closely with our state and local health officials in preparation for our events.”

3. Bounty Race

With NASCAR stating it will race this weekend, the focus will turn to what is one of the most anticipated Truck Series races in years.

Kevin Harvick started the excitement by offering a $50,000 bonus for any Cup driver who could beat Kyle Busch in a Truck race. Marcus Lemonis, CEO of Gander RV and Outdoors, added another $50,000.

Busch has won his last seven Truck starts.

To collect the $100,000, a full-time Cup driver does not have to win. They only have to finish better than Busch but cannot do so by unfairly roughing him up. If more than one full-time Cup driver places ahead of Busch, the one who finishes highest wins all the money.

Cup regulars entered in Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta are Chase Elliott, John Hunter Nemechek and Brennan Poole.

But that bounty left Truck series regulars out. So, Halmar International and truck owner Chris Larsen are putting up a $50,000 bounty for any Truck series regular.

To collect the $50,000 from Larsen, a Truck series regular needs to win the race. Also, Busch must be running at the finish. The bounty is for Atlanta but would continue to Busch’s next race, Homestead, if he wins.

Should Busch win at Atlanta, Larsen and Hal-mar will donate $25,000 to the Bundle of Joy fund, which is a part of the Kyle Busch Foundation and provides funds for families struggling to conceive.

4. Ready to collect

Although Johnny Sauter could collect a $50,000 bonus for beating Kyle Busch and winning Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he’s not focused on the bounty.

Johnny Sauter has finished second, third and third in his last three Atlanta Truck races. (Photo by Adrian Garcia/Getty Images)

“There’s no greater thing in the world or feeling,” Sauter told NBC Sports of winning. “Even though I’ve been fortunate enough to win a lot of races, it never gets old. … That’s what we do this for, at least that’s what I do it for. It’s not for bounty money or anything else. Winning races is awesome. So when you have trucks that are capable of doing it, especially where we’re at right now, I feel like we’re going to win quite a few races this year.”

Sauter, the 2016 Truck champion, has finished no worse than third in the last three Truck races at Atlanta. He’s also off to a strong start this season, placing seventh at Daytona and second to Busch at Las Vegas.

While there will be plenty of attention on Busch, Sauter doesn’t focus on such things.

“It’s just another person to beat,” Sauter said. “There’s no question that Kyle brings his ‘A’ game, not only with himself but with the program and the whole deal. A lot of people, I think, it bothers them that he runs in the Truck Series. Me personally, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. I know why he does it, and I think it’s good for his business and his company to run the Truck Series personally.

“When I look at him, he’s beatable. We’ve beaten him before. There’s no question to beat him you’re going to have to have everything going the way it needs to go. But at the end of the day when you do beat him, it feels good, but I like beating everybody.”

If not Sauter, another candidate among the Truck Series regulars to beat Busch would be 2018 champion Brett Moffitt.

Moffitt won at Atlanta in 2018 — the last time a Truck Series regular won there (Busch won last year’s truck race there).

Brett Moffitt won the 2018 Atlanta Truck race. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“To have a shot for us to go win 50 grand from Chris Larsen, I think that makes it all the more exciting,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “I think it’s kind of Chris Larsen’s way of saying our guys are talented too … that they can run with any of the Cup guys that come down here.

“Obviously we haven’t done a good job of that in the last seven races that Kyle has been in, but I feel it can be done.

“I have confidence that we can beat him on the right day. With his talent and the amount of effort he puts into his organization at KBM, that Toyota helps him out with, it’s a tough combination to beat. He’s proven that.

“I think it can be done. I’ve had a few races over the last couple of years with him where I feel like if things would have fallen a little differently, I would have a shot at it, but I’m sure many others have felt the same way. We have yet to deliver on it and I understand that. We’ll just keep putting our best foot forward and go after it.”

5. Streakin’

Brad Keselowski has finished no worse than second in the last three Atlanta Cup races. He won in 2017, finished second in 2018 and won again last year.

Team Penske already has won two races this season with Joey Logano at Las Vegas and Phoenix. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney has had among the best cars in three of the first four races. Could it be Keselowski’s time to shine this weekend?

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Jimmie Johnson hopes for ‘more crossover’ between auto racing stars

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For one day last November, Jimmie Johnson was the envy of the NASCAR community.

A week after the end of the Cup season, the seven-time Cup champion swapped rides with Formula One star Fernando Alonso and piloted a F1 car around the Bahrain International Circuit.

It was the third such swap between NASCAR and F1 drivers following the Jeff Gordon-Juan Pablo Montoya switch in 2003 at Indianapolis and the Tony Stewart-Lewis Hamilton swap in 2011 at Watkins Glen.

On Tuesday, Johnson expressed a desire to see “more crossover” between auto racing’s elite in competitive circumstances and to see stars moonlighting to support smaller series.

“I just think that in motorsports in general, we need guys to cross over from a local level,” Johnson said during Hendrick Motorsports’ media day after being asked about NASCAR’s influence in the Chili Bowl Nationals. “Although the Chili Bowl is huge, but they’re Midgets and more people typically get their starts (at that level).

“Our stars come back down and run and put on such a great show. That helps them and I think it helps us. It also helps that community and there are a lot of young drivers that are trying to find their way up.”

The Chili Bowl, held last week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was won by Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell for the third straight year. He had to battle Cup driver Kyle Larson in the final feature, with the outcome being decided with a last-lap pass.

Johnson then turned to the major racing series and the lack of crossover between them in recent years.

“Hopefully we can get more crossover going, even between IndyCar and NASCAR or NASCAR and Formula 1 or whatever it might be,” Johnson said. “I feel like we had a lot of heroes that we looked up to and those guys would race anything and everything.

“And in the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve focused more on championships than we have marquee events. And I completely understand why, but it’s really nice to see people trying to move around and race other things. Hopefully we’ll have somebody trying the double again at Indy and Charlotte. There is a lot of good that comes from those opportunities.”

Kurt Busch was the last driver to attempt “The Double” of competing in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day in 2014.

The prospect of Larson, who competes for Chip Ganassi Racing, making the attempt has been brought up on a somewhat regular basis in recent years with Larson saying in July 2017 that violent IndyCar wrecks at IMS have kept him from committing to it.

Kyle Busch said in July 2017 he had committed to make an attempt at The Double before it was shut down by Joe Gibbs.

In 2016, Brad Keselowski teased everyone when he took a few laps around Road America in a Team Penske IndyCar during a test.

There were crossovers between IndyCar and NASCAR in 2018 with Danica Patrick competing in the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 and a Xfinity Series start by Conor Daly at Road America.

Other than that, the list of drivers who have expressed an interest in making the jump from open-wheel to stock cars without fulfilling it gets longer every year.

That goes both ways. In November, Johnson expressed a desire in giving IndyCar a try on road courses.

But Johnson said he doesn’t have any forays into other series planned right now.

“I have some great new friends at McLaren and they have lots of things getting involved with racing-wise,” Johnson said. “So, down the road there could be some opportunities there for me potentially. I’d love to go endurance racing with Fernando (Alonso).

“We joked about that some. Nothing has developed from that yet, but hopefully down the road we can send some more teasers out and have some more fun.”

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Jimmie Johnson intrigued with racing IndyCar, sports cars in the future

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After his “mind-blowing” experience driving a Formula One car, Jimmie Johnson said he would be interested in competing in IndyCar and sports car races when he’s done driving NASCAR.

Johnson’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports expires after the 2020 season and he could try other forms of racing then.

“I’ve been approached many times for the Indy 500,” Johnson said Monday after driving a Formula One car as part of a ride swap with Fernando Alonso. “I’m not overly excited about those fast ovals, but I think with my status and relationships, I could put together some road course races in IndyCar.

“I’d look at anything. I’ve done sports car racing in the past. I’ve finished second in the Rolex 24. Would love to get back to doing that. Anything is open. I’m far from done. I want to keep driving and hopefully I can find some good opportunities.”

The 43-year-old Johnson knows age will slow him at some point but he says not yet. 

“Certainly age is a number and at some point it will start to fade on you, but I think most drivers deeper in their career, the workload that goes with it is what they don’t enjoy,” Johnson said. “For whatever reason, I like to work. From training and suffering, the longer the ride, the longer the run, the better I perform. I just really enjoy working. I don’t subscribe to that you get to a certain age and you can’t do it. I think you get to a certain age and it’s hard to stay motivated to put in the time and I don’t feel like I’m there yet.”

Three of the top four drivers in points in IndyCar last year were age 37 or older, led by 38-year-old series champion Scott Dixon. Tony Kanaan, who turns 44 on Dec. 31, will return to A.J. Foyt Racing for his 21st season of open-wheel racing in the U.S.

Johnson’s focus Monday was on driving a 2013 Formula One car around Bahrain International Circuit. Alonso drove one of Johnson’s Cup cars.

“The sensation of speed, clearly the speed is so high,” the seven-time Cup champion said. “The simulator was a really nice experience, great visual aid but to have the wind moving by and your sensation of speed and G-forces, it takes a little while to kind of absorb that and have the newness of that go away and focus on what you’re doing. I felt like every time I went out, my surroundings went slower and it was easier to piece together my braking points.

“Literally my first outing, my helmet was trying to leave my head, and I was staring at the microphone because my helmet was so high. I got my helmet under control and it was really my eyes trying to find their way far enough ahead and far enough around the turns. At the end, I really quit focusing on the braking markers themselves and was able to look at the apex (of the turns) and had an idea of when to hit the brakes and was able to put together some good laps. It was fun.”

Johnson said the experience could help him when NASCAR races on its road course events.

“Just the philosophy of how the use the car under brakes will be really good for me in the road course racing we will do,” he said. “I will start trying to get more out of the car on the straight line and then get off the brakes … and roll the car through the apex.”

Johnson admits “at the end of the day I got a way better swap experience than (Alonso) did. If we could come for a day or two, get our gearing dialed in, do some suspension changes, the proper tire, the (stock car) could have been quite a bit faster. I rode in a car with him at Abu Dhabi on hot laps and then again today and he should be a dirt racer. He loves to be sideways and smoking the tires.”

Johnson said he encouraged Alonso to drive a stock car on a NASCAR track to get the true experience of the car.

“When you can put them on a banked track, they really have the chance to shine,” Johnson said. “Dover, Bristol, even some of the banked mile-and-a-halves, really impressive. We’ll put a little pressure on him to do it. The way he likes to drive things I don’t see why he would say no.”

Johnson was asked if Alonso would do well on NASCAR’s road courses.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson said. “When you look at Juan (Pablo Montoya), when Juan was able to jump in a Cup car, he was fantastic on those tracks. In talking to Dario (Franchitti), in talking to Juan and Danica (Patrick), they don’t drive a car often with oversteer, so I assume that would be something (Alonso) wouldn’t like, but every time I looked he was dead sideways. Maybe he’s the perfect open-wheel driver to go to a stock car.”

Alonso said his focus for the first part of 2019 will be on the select races he will do, including the Indianapolis 500.

Asked if he could imagine what it would be like to drive a stock car at Daytona International Speedway with 39 other cars, Alonso said: “I told Jimmie before, it’s hard to imagine for me now after the feelings I had today with the very low grip and a lot of problems with traction how this car would feel on oval racing because they are no more traction demanding. That I think is a very different way to drive the car.”

Will Alonso jump in a stock car again?

“For now, it’s OK,” he said. “I have now a couple of weeks off but then immediately at the beginning of the year I will be very busy. I don’t want to put any extra tests or thoughts because I really need to charge the battery.”

Jimmie Johnson, Fernando Alonso end ride swap with tandem doughnuts

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Jimmie Johnson and Fernando Alonso ended their play day with dueling doughnuts Monday at Bahrain International Circuit.

Johnson piloted a 2013 Formula One car, while Alonso drove one of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet Cup cars on the road circuit – just the third time NASCAR and Formula One drivers have swapped rides. Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya traded rides in 2003 at Indianapolis and Tony Stewart and Lewis Hamilton switched rides in 2011 at Watkins Glen.

The doughnuts ended a journey that began in January when Alonso and Johnson met during NASCAR Media Day in Charlotte, North Carolina. Johnson said Alonso suggested they switch rides at some point. They worked during the spring to find a venue and date that would match both their schedules. Eventually, they picked a date after the NASCAR and Formula One seasons ended.

“It’s the ultimate car,” Johnson said earlier this month of why he wanted to try a Formula One car. “To feel the downforce of one of those cars has always been in the back of my mind. I’ve always wanted to experience it.”

Here’s a look at the how the day went for Johnson and Alonso in their ride swap:

Friday 5: What Joey Logano has in common with other champions

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While Joey Logano might not have had the best season statistically, he left Miami as the Cup champion.

For those who question Logano’s merits as a champ because he didn’t win the most races, understand that it is common for the champion to not have the most wins in a season.

In the last 20 years, the champion has not had the most wins 65 percent of the time. That’s a stretch that includes when the championship was decided by season-long points total, when the Chase was created and when the elimination format debuted in 2014 that led to the one-race championship.

Logano admits that he didn’t think he was a title contender in the first third of the season.

“I thought, man, if we get to the Round of Eight, that’s pretty good this year for where we were at the time,” Logano said. “We were consistent, that’s what kept us up in the points all year long. We didn’t have many bad races throughout the season.

“But I guess just as the playoffs went, everyone rose to the occasion. You always talk about how you have to find another little bit inside of you to just maintain when the playoffs starts because everyone is able to get a little bit better, and then as we do that, we started running better, and we were running top five and winning stages.”

And becoming a champion.

Logano is in some good company among champions who didn’t win the most races in their title season.

In four of Jimmie Johnson’s seven championship years, he did not have the most wins those seasons. In two of Tony Stewart’s three championship years, he did not have the most wins those years.

Logano’s three wins this season are the fewest for a champion since Kurt Busch won three times in 2004. Matt Kenseth has the fewest wins for a champion in the last 20 years with one when he won the title in 2003 — the last championship determined by the season-long points total.

2. Changes coming?

While the idea of a spending limit for teams was discussed in the recent owners meeting a few days before the season finale in Miami, nothing is expected for next year.

“I think there’s two things when you start to consider financial stuff,” car owner Joe Gibbs told NBC Sports. “There’s cut and revenue. I think that’s where we are, trying to get those two to meet so you have healthy owners, healthy sport and you’re inviting new people to come in, all those things are a part of it.

“I think right now is a critical time. Maybe I look at every year that way, but right now is a big, big, critical time for our sport, where we’re going. I think there will be some big decisions within the next year.”

Gibbs said the owners and NASCAR also discussed how to get more fans to attend races.

“There’s all kinds of things that affect that, our racing on the track, what it takes to come to the race, our venue, where we go racing some places are obviously better than others,” Gibbs said. “All those kind of things are wrapped into it. The one thing I’m really thankful for is NASCAR and now Jim (France, interim Chairman) being involved the way he is, they’ve been pretty aggressive on not being afraid to go after stuff and change stuff, which I think is good.”

3. What a difference a year makes

After last year’s season finale in Miami, Brad Keselowski noted Toyota’s dominance and looked ahead to a 2018 that featured a new car for Chevrolet.

“As to what will happen for 2018, you know, I don’t know,” Keselowski said after the race a year ago. “I would assume that Chevrolet will be allowed to design a car the same way that Toyota was for this one, but Ford doesn’t have any current plans for that. If that’s the case, we’re going to take a drubbing next year, so we’ll have to see.”

This year featured the debut of the Optical Scanning Station, a camera-based inspection station that scrutinized the car in a way it hadn’t before. Ford teams hoped before the season that it would keep all three manufacturers close.

When the checkered flag waved in Miami last weekend, Keselowski’s teammate, Joey Logano, won the race for Ford — the company’s 19th Cup victory in 36 points races. Logano’s championship marked the first time since 1999 that Ford won the driver and manufacturer’s title in Cup in the same year.

“I’m certain that the inspection process … that changes part of it because any time you go through a big change like that, it does affect how the teams prepare the cars and bring the cars to the track,” Mark Rushbrook, Global Director of Ford Performance said of what led to the manufacturer’s success this season.

“But I think the biggest part is the advanced tools that we’ve developed over the last couple years have really matured to the point that they were able to help us, especially in the area of CFD, where we use that advanced computational fluid dynamics tool, the same tool that we use on our road cars and road trucks to make them better. 

“We have turned that and applied it into racing starting two years ago, and it took a little bit of time to adjust those tools, test those tools in this environment to make them even better, and now that is paying off on the performance on the track with the Fusion with what we’ve seen, hopefully contributing to the Mustang to come strong out of the box at Daytona next year.”

4. Gone but not forgotten

Overlooked Sunday was JJ Yeley’s 32nd-place finish with the team that once was BK Racing.

Days before the Daytona 500, BK Racing owner Ron Devine put his team in Chapter 11 bankruptcy to keep a bank that stated it was owed more than $8 million from taking the team’s charter.

So began numerous court hearings over the year that eventually led to a judge approving a Trustee to run the team instead of Devine and eventually the sale of the team in August. Front Row Motorsports purchased BK Racing for $2.08 million and kept the team intact.

During all that and after the sale, the team ran every race — as required by the charter it had.

It wasn’t pretty. The team finished 35th among the 36 charter teams in owner points, but the team made it to the end.

5. Something to ponder

Greg Maffei, CEO of Liberty Media, which owns, among other things, Formula One and the Atlanta Braves, gave a wide-ranging interview with NBC News this week.

Maffei was asked about NASCAR possibly being on the market.

“We like motor sports,” Maffei said. “If NASCAR were available, we’d certainly take a look.”

During an investor analysts call May 10, Maffei responded to a question about if NASCAR in light of the reports then that NASCAR could be for sale.

“I think it’s not as clear what the synergies are between the two assets (Formula One and NASCAR), and I would note the trends have not been perfect in NASCAR,” Maffei said. “Unless we had a good thesis on how and why we could fix them, it’s not an obvious to us.”