Friday 5

Stage is set for Cup teams in race for points

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With 10 races left in the Cup regular season, the push for stage points is starting to play a key role in strategy and the results are showing in the standings.

Austin Dillon holds what would be the 16th and final playoff heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1). But as Matt Kenseth nearly showed last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a victory by a driver outside the top 16 will take a playoff spot away from one hoping to make it by points.

Teams also are mindful that the regular season finale will be at Daytona International Speedway, which could lead to a surprise winner. Three of the last five Cup points races at Daytona saw a driver score either their first or second career Cup win: Dillon, Erik Jones and Justin Haley.

Teams already are trying different strategies to get away from 16th in the standings or climb into a potential playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto entered the Pocono doubleheader weekend 15th in the standings. Focusing on stage results, he scored 17 stage points in the two races that weekend and added 11 stage points last weekend at Indy.

Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” DiBenedetto said after the Pocono weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs.”

Those 28 stage points he’s earned the past three races helped DiBenedetto climb to 12th in the standings heading to Kentucky. He’s scored 26 more stage points than Clint Bowyer the past three races. That 26-point advantage helped put DiBenedetto three points ahead of Bowyer in standings.

William Byron‘s stage win at Indy proved key in helping him climb the points standings. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

William Byron won the first stage last weekend at Indy and collected 10 stage points (and one playoff point) after crew chief Chad Knaus had Byron stay on track under caution when most of the leaders did pit with eight laps left in the stage. Byron restarted in the lead and held that position for the final four laps of the stage under green.

Those 10 points helped Byron pass Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for 14th in the standings. Byron leads Johnson, who sat out Indy because he had tested positive for COVID-19, by two points. Johnson has since had two negative tests for the coronavirus and been reinstated for this weekend.

Another driver who has benefitted from a strategy focused on stage points is Dillon. He’s scored 18 stage points the past three races to nine stage points by Jones. Dillon holds what would be the final playoff spot by six points on Jones.

2. Will this be Kyle Busch’s weekend?

The reigning series champion has one win in the last 38 races but heads to a Kentucky Speedway that has been good to him, even though Kurt Busch nipped his younger brother for the win in last year’s race.

Kyle Busch has two wins in nine starts at Kentucky and leads all drivers in top-five finishes (seven), top-10 finishes (eight) and laps led (621) at the track.

Busch’s lone victory in the last 38 races came in last year’s championship race in Miami. In that same span, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have combined to win 14 races.

Also during that 38-race stretch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have combined to win 16 races (42.1%). Each has eight wins in that time.

3. Speeding on pit road

Here’s a look at the number of pit road speeding penalties drivers have had in the first 16 races of the Cup season:

6 – Quin Houff

5 – Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace

4 – Corey LaJoie, Garrett Smithley, Daniel Suarez

3 – Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JJ Yeley,

2 – Christopher Bell, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Timmy Hill, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Brennan Poole, Ryan Preece.

1 – Chris Buescher, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Joey Gase, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick,

0 – Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr.

4. Streakin’

With Jimmie Johnson missing last weekend’s race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19, his consecutive starts streak ended at 663, ranking fifth on the all-time list. Johnson has since been cleared to race this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

Kevin Harvick ranks sixth on the list of longest consecutive starts streak with 656 consecutive starts heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Here is the top 6 in longest consecutive streaks:

797 — Jeff Gordon

788 — Ricky Rudd

704 — Bobby Labonte

697 — Rusty Wallace

663 — Jimmie Johnson

656 — Kevin Harvick

5. More of the same for Chevy teams?

Chevrolet teams are winless in their last eight Cup races and the manufacturer has one win in nine races at Kentucky. That victory came last year with Kurt Busch beating Kyle Busch at the finish.

Since Chase Elliott won the second Charlotte race in late May, Chevy drivers have not won. Elliott finished second in Miami, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was second at Talladega and Matt Kenseth was second at Indianapolis.

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Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis

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The wizardry of crew chief Rodney Childers will be tested after a random draw gave Kevin Harvick the 11th starting spot for Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Only twice since 2010 has an Indy winner started outside the top 10. Paul Menard won on a fuel-milage gamble after starting 15th in 2011. Kasey Kahne won in 2017 after he pitted before a caution late in the race, putting him at the front. He won in overtime.

Such is the challenge Harvick and Childers have at a place where track position and strategy are critical and passing is difficult.

“I think everybody in the field can have a different strategy and that different strategy can work for any of those people,” Childers told NBC Sports. “Just depending on when the caution comes out. There’s so many different things that can go on.”

Harvick had a dominant car in last year’s race but also benefitted when he pitted from the lead — and before most of the field — on Lap 128 of the 160-lap race. The caution came out while he was on pit road. That put him back at the front while others pitted during the caution. Had Childers not called Harvick in at that point, they would not have been able to take advantage of that break.

But what happens early can determine if a team will be in position to contend late in the race.

If Harvick’s car is good early, the question becomes how many positions can he gain before the field stretches out single file?

Then, there’s the competition caution, which is set for Lap 12. The first stage ends at Lap 50. A full fuel run should make it to the end of the stage from the competition caution.

One thing Harvick could do is what Childers did in 2018. Childers had Harvick, who was running second at the time, pit before the competition caution to change four tires (fuel cannot be added before the competition caution).

The plan was for Harvick to come back down pit road during the competition caution for fuel only, making that a quicker pit stop than those who changed four tires and get out ahead of them. That plan was undone by a penalty for an uncontrolled tire.

Still, it shows what Childers is willing to do. Another consideration is that if a car is about six seconds or more behind the leader, it’s unlikely they can pit under green and remain on the lead lap by the time they get back to speed.

Tire wear also will play in what crew chiefs decide. Tires will wear more early in the race with less rubber on the track.

Then, there’s the thought of how many cautions will there be between the competition caution and the end of the first stage. Last year, a right front tire went down and sent Landon Cassill’s car into the wall, creating a caution on Lap 43. The year before, Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution on Lap 42 after a mechanical failure.

There’s much to consider for any crew chief.

“You can’t do the same thing (as the leaders) and have the same result,” Childers said. “That’s where it becomes tricky is just thinking all of it through. Having a good group of people behind you that are constantly thinking about that stuff (is key) and trying to think it through. Just one person, like myself, can’t think it through on my own.”

But those who make the right decisions – and maybe get some help from a well-timed caution – could be celebrating after Sunday’s race.

2. Aging like fine wine

Since the Cup Series resumed in May, nine of the 11 races have been won by drivers 36 and older. Seven of those wins have come from drivers 39 and older.

There’s no doubt that 44-year-old Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), 40-year-old Martin Truex Jr. (Joe Gibbs Racing), 39-year-old Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) and 36-year-old Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) drive for some of the top organizations in the sport.

Still, they’ve won during this stretch, while others, such as Kyle Busch, remain winless. Harvick has three wins, Hamlin has three victories, Keselowski has two wins and Truex has one triumph.

The only drivers younger than 36 years old to have won since May are 24-year-old Chase Elliott at the second Charlotte race and 26-year-old Ryan Blaney at Talladega.

So is this a matter of veteran drivers using their experience with no practice before races? Or is this a case of older talent showing it can remain among the sport’s elite longer?

“The experience level obviously comes into play,” Harvick said. “I think when you are surrounded with a good team and a good organization and are able to work those details out, I think the potential is to drive into your 50’s. Why not? I think with the health side of things and the way that people take care of themselves and work out, I think the longevity of the body on most of us going forward is going to be more durable than what it has been in the past.”

Harvick has won 15 races since 2018.

“I think I kind of had a second life I guess you could say coming to SHR,” said Harvick, who has been with Stewart-Haas Racing since 2014. “That was very motivating, and I think as you look at it now, for me it is still very motivating. You work your whole career to get into a situation like this.

“I had a long conversation with Mark Martin. You work your whole career to get in this situation, why would you want to give that up and just say, ‘I quit’? As long as (wife) DeLana and my family are supportive, I don’t think the drive and enthusiasm, as far as showing up to the racetrack every week, will go away anytime soon. You just have to balance those things. I think as you look at Martin (Truex Jr.) turning 40 and Denny (Hamlin) and a lot of the success has been from that particular age group. I don’t think that is going to change any time soon.”

3. Location, location, location

A key to what happens on the track Sunday could be what happens in the stands.

While there will be no fans at Indy this weekend, spotters will move from atop the pagoda to the Turn 1 stands to allow for social distancing. Secondary spotters will be positioned in Turn 3.

With the group stretched out, a spotter for the leader can’t run to spotters of slower cars and tell them what lane the leader wants. Catching a slower car in the corner, especially at Indy, can cost the faster car a couple of seconds or more and allow those behind to close.

It’s something that could impact pit strategy. It did for Erik Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle last Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

“It’s a huge thing,” Gayle said of being held up by slower cars. “We were in the same scenario at this (past) weekend at Pocono where we came up on (Ryan Newman). We were running out (of fuel) and were going to do a fuel only strategy, had pretty much decided that’s what we were going to do but it was about staying in clean air for the majority of the time that we could toward the end of that race. We came up on the 6 car (Newman) and it’s notorious for how hard it is to get around him. I’m like, I’m going to give (Jones) one lap to pass the 6 car. If we don’t get it in one lap, we were pitting because we knew we could come out in another clean spot.”

Jones went on to finish third. Newman finished 18th, the first car a lap down.

4. Standout performance

With the focus on Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick last weekend at Pocono Raceway, it was easy to miss one of the weekend’s key performances.

Matt DiBenedetto scored the sixth-most points in the two Cup races at Pocono. That’s important because of what the weekend meant for him.

Matt DiBenedetto scored 72 points, including 17 stage points, last weekend at Pocono. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

He headed to Pocono 16th in points, holding what could be the final playoff spot. After those two races – and buoyed by scoring more stage points than Hamlin and Harvick — DiBenedetto is 14th in the driver standings. He’s 43 points ahead of Erik Jones, who is 16th.

With the regular-season finale scheduled for Daytona, there’s a greater chance than in previous years that a driver outside the top 16 could win that race and claim a playoff spot. The key is to keep out of the 16th spot. DiBenedetto’s performance last weekend, particularly in each stage, was a key step in that goal.

“Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” said DiBenedetto, whose 17 stage points in the doubleheader were the fifth-most scored last weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs and, for us, really climbing back up in the points to where we think we are running weekly.”

Keep an eye on DiBenedetto this weekend. Crew chief Greg Erwin helped Paul Menard to top-10 finishes each of the past two years at Indianapolis.

5. Rough going

After 15 races this season, Kyle Busch has no wins, no stage wins and no playoff points.

Last year at this time, he had four wins, five stage wins and 25 playoff points.

His avenge finish this season is 14.7. His average finish at this time last year was 6.3.

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Friday 5: Work remains for NASCAR after extraordinary week

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When NASCAR President Steve Phelps spoke about racial injustice last weekend, as cars sat silent at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and pledged that “our sport must do better,” he set NASCAR on a path toward seismic changes.

Giving competitors the ability to peacefully protest during the national anthem and banning the Confederate flag shattered iron-clad beliefs of some fans but proved a welcome sign to many others that NASCAR was ready to listen to them.

Drivers delivered that message in a video they posted last weekend, condemning racial inequality and racism.

“The process begins with us listening and learning because understanding the problem is the first step in fixing it,” drivers said in the video. “We are committed to listening with empathy and with an open heart to better educate ourselves. We will use this education to advocate for change in our nation, our communities and most importantly in our own homes. Even after the headlines go away.”

It’s a promise drivers must keep.

Bubba Wallace has taken the leadership role thrust upon him as the lone full-time Black driver in NASCAR’s national ranks.

“I’m really proud of what he’s doing, the effort he’s putting in, in wanting to kind of lead the charge,” Ryan Blaney said of his close friend. “I stand behind him. A lot of guys stand behind him in NASCAR, not only the drivers, but a lot of teams, as well, crew members.”

While NASCAR officials were discussing various changes to make, it was Wallace who went on CNN, saying of the Confederate flag: “Get them out of here.” Two days later, NASCAR did so.

It was really cool to see what Bubba was able to do,” Joey Logano said. “He should be proud of the movement he’s made for the African-American community in our sport. He always has just by being here, but when you look at the comments he made on CNN the other day and then NASCAR completely answered it. Kudos to NASCAR. Kudos to Bubba for bringing it up and using his platform for something good.”

The youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. was among many who applauded NASCAR on social media for prohibiting the display of the Confederate flag at all its events and properties.

“We want change, it starts with us,” Wallace said Thursday on the “Today” show. “We have to start basically from the roots and go from (the) ground up and really implement what we’re trying to say in our message.”

While now is a time to listen, there will be a time where more action is needed.

“There’s a lot of different ways you can go about this,” said Tyler Reddick, who was among the first Cup drivers to publicly support Black Lives Matter. “Just trying to make NASCAR a more friendly environment for all fans. The step that we made this week with the Confederate flag is one of those steps. I’m sure there are many others that they’re working on.

“Some of the drivers have talked about ideas and other things, and I don’t want to spoil their ideas, but just continuing to not lose sight of it. As they say, when the headlines finally clear and it goes back to a sense of normalcy, if you will, it’s just important to remain adamant that we need to go out there in our communities or we need to go vote and get the right people that we feel that are going to make those changes that we’ve been crying out for the last couple of weeks. … Stay diligent, and not lose sight of what’s important here.”

2. Enforcing Confederate flag ban

Shortly after NASCAR announced that the display of the Confederate flag would be prohibited at all its events and facilities, questions began to be raised about how that could be enforced.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, discussed that matter Thursday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“That will certainly be a challenge,” O’Donnell said of enforcing the ban. “We’ll try to do that the right way. We’ll get ahead of it as we are today in letting people know that, ‘Hey, we’re all about pride, we’re all about America, fly your U.S. flag high, fly your driver’s flags high and come on into the track.’ But if we see something displayed at the track we’re going to have react and we will. More details to come but I’m confident we’ll do that and we’ll do that in a smart way.”

Chuck Rosenberg, an NBC legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, notes that those who think they are protected by First Amendment rights at a NASCAR track or event would be wrong.

“NASCAR facilities are private property and so First Amendment protections do not apply,” he said. “NASCAR has the right to make the rules regarding how people must behave inside their facilities. It will be important for NASCAR to issue clear and thoughtful guidance so fans can comply.”

The first race with fans in the stands is Sunday’s Cup race at Miami. That will have up to 1,000 military guest and family members. The June 21 Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway will have to up 5,000 fans. There will be no fans for Cup races at Pocono Raceway (June 27-28), Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 5), Kentucky Speedway (July 12).

3. Grueling week

Sunday’s Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway marks the third Cup race in a week. While this isn’t the first time this season that the Cup series has had as many races within seven days, Brad Keselowski says of this stretch: “I don’t know if there’s ever been a more grueling stretch in Cup racing.”

Consider:

Last Sunday, Cup ran 500 miles at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The high was 84 degrees. Drivers spent much of the day fighting their cars as tires wore on the old pavement.

“Atlanta was a grueling race, very humid, 500 miles,” Keselowski said.

Wednesday night, Cup ran 500 laps at Martinsville Speedway. The high was 87 degrees during the day. While it cooled some at night, drivers noted how hot it was.

“I think a lot of guys, including myself a little bit, thought a night race at Martinsville wasn’t going to be hot,” Tyler Reddick said. “It was one of the hottest races that I’ve done in a very long time.”

Sunday, Cup drivers are set to run 400 miles at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The forecast calls for a high of 86 degrees.

“Honestly, Miami will probably be the hottest one we go to, most humid,” Blaney said.

While there is something to not having practice or qualifying for drivers and teams, that lack of track time can impact drivers during such a stretch.

“One thing about the practices – yes, it’s time on track, but it gives your body a little hint and a look into what you’re going to be experiencing for 500 miles or 500 laps, whatever it may be at the track that we go to,” Reddick said. “So, if you’re having any issues with the car, issues with your back, arms hurting after a 40- or 50-lap run or something in particular that’s bothering you from the week before, you have no insight to that going into the race and you’re going to have to fight it all race long.”

As for the challenge of this week, Keselowski said: “It’s the same for everybody. We all got to toughen up. I think it’s a great test of will, a great test of the drivers. I think it’s what makes these few weeks so compelling not just as a participant but as a fan myself.”

4. Streakin’

A few streaks to keep in mind this weekend for the Cup Series.

Kevin Harvick has had 12 consecutive top-10 finishes in Miami.

Jimmie Johnson enters this weekend having finished in the top 10 in each of the last three races. Since he won his seventh Cup title in 2016, this is only the second time he’s had three consecutive top-10 finishes.

In Martin Truex Jr.‘s last three Miami starts, he has one win and two runner-up finishes, leading a total of 201 laps.

No rookie has finished in the top 10 at Miami since David Ragan placed 10th in the 2007 race. Rookie Tyler Reddick won his last two Xfinity starts there and finished runner-up in a Truck race there.

5. Coming Tuesday

NASCAR Hall of Fame voters selected the 2021 Class on Tuesday. The votes have been tabulated and will be announced at 5 p.m. ET Tuesday (June 16) on NASCAR America. Among those eligible for the Class of 2021 are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Ricky Rudd, Neil Bonnett and Harry Gant in the Modern Era category.

Friday 5: Ty Dillon speaks from heart on racism, social injustice

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Ty Dillon listened to his heart. And it told him to speak up.

Dillon was among the first NASCAR drivers to comment on the death of George Floyd, beginning a lengthy Instagram post last Sunday by writing: “I never want to be seen as someone who is silent on the subject of racism and social injustice.”

He followed that with a video chat with Bubba Wallace on Instagram the following night. Wallace shared his feelings about recent incidents and his experiences of racism.

Dillon told media Thursday that he felt he had to speak up.

“I don’t care if I ever win a race or a championship in my life or lose every follower I have on Instagram or sponsor that I have, but when my children grow older and I take my last breath, I want to be sure that I was on the right side of what I felt is going on in history,” Dillon said. “And that means way more than acquiring fame and trophies and wins. Those things all fade away.

“But the impact you had on human beings in your life, the relationships last forever. So, that’s my heart behind this. I know some people might not feel the same as me and I understand that, as well. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. I just wanted to stop, in the middle of my career, and say hey, this is where I stand. … I know at the end of the day, this is what I believe in and I’ll stand up for what I believe in.”

Dillon said listening to Wallace this week as they talked made him aware of experiences he never knew, including racist incidents at tracks in other series when Wallace was younger and encounters with police.

“I’ve known him my whole career and growing up and have seen him grow up as well, and to hear the stories about how Bubba was treated in some of those situations and knowing Bubba’s character and knowing him as a human being, that blew my mind because I would have never thought Bubba as a person, would have gone through anything like that,” Dillon said. “But, I think that’s just what it is.

“I think sometimes it’s easy for us who don’t know, as a white man or a white person, in general, we don’t know these stories. We don’t all the time ask the right questions to become informed.

“I think just hearing those stories impacted me in just saying that Bubba’s going through this, so is everyone else that looks like him, so why can’t we emphasize to learn more and hear the stories so that we can help make a change, have the right verbiage in our communities and in our groups, so that this problem doesn’t continue on.”

Since Dillon’s Instagram post, other drivers have spoken about social injustice, including seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who said he was for peaceful protesting. As NASCAR heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend as one of the only sports currently competing, Dillon was asked if there’s anything that can be done by NASCAR, its competitors and teams.

“I think obviously anything that’s said or expressed has to come from a true heart, so that does come from the individual,” Dillon said. “But I think it does take, as a group, saying that we don’t stand for it. And once we all know that we’re all on the same page as saying we don’t stand for it, we come together with a united voice saying that we don’t tolerate hate, racism, bigotry in our sport and that it’s not okay.

“There’s great conversations going on with the folks in our sport on this in planning a united front to make a statement. And I’m very proud of that.”

Dillon said the reaction to his comments on social media have been positive.

“I’ve had a really great reaction,” the 28-year-old said. “Obviously, there’s the few that don’t agree. But, I’m not looking for someone to agree with me. I’m just talking about how I feel on the subject. You can’t do anything in this day without making one person mad or somebody else happy, but this is who I am. I want to use my platform to talk about things that matter to me, whether it makes some people uncomfortable, or not.”

2. A fresh viewpoint

Nineteen-year-old Xfinity rookie Harrison Burton says the death of George Floyd, the ensuring protests and conversations about racism and social injustice have impacted him.

“It’s a tough thing for me as a young kid trying to figure things out in the NASCAR world and to be honest, I’ve always been so focused on racing,” Burton said Thursday in a media conference. “That’s been my whole life. The more we get into this year, it seems like the more I’m focusing on other things, focusing on the world as a whole.

Harrison Burton. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“You realize that racing isn’t the whole world. You get so caught up in ‘I got to win Atlanta next week. I got to go run as good as I can because this is my life, this what I’ve worked for, this is what I love to do.’ Which is all true, but there’s also the real world going on and so many issues out there as well that people are going through. I think there’s a lot of people that are looking introspectively and trying to see what they can do to help.”

Burton said he has.

“I think everyone has taken a look at themselves and said ‘How can I be better?’ and help this situation,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of people do a lot of great things in the NASCAR community. I think the peaceful protests are great way to have people’s voices be heard and things like that. But what is really exciting also – along with that – is sports have a way of bringing people together.

“People rooting for a driver together or working on a team together or things like that bring people together from all different places in the world, which is amazing. I think that when you have the opportunity to be that sport that it’s kind of on us to help people in need – and you can help bring people together – that is an amazing opportunity.

“I’m excited for that as well. I think there’s a lot of great things that are going on. People that are reflecting personally on what they could do to be better, and I know there has been a lot of conversations amongst a lot of people about how can we make a positive change from this tragedy.”

Chase Briscoe also has posted on social media his feelings in this time.

“Our God says, ‘Love your neighbor like you love yourself,’ “ Briscoe said of his tweet on Tuesday. “And I think that’s the perfect way to put it. We all need more love. 

“That’s really the best way I can put it is we just need more love, and if everybody loved their neighbor like we loved ourselves, then it would be a lot better place.”

3. Minimum attendance requirement

As a publicly traded company, Dover Motorsports must make various documents available to the public, including sanction agreements with NASCAR for its races in 2021 at Dover International Speedway and Nashville Superspeedway.

The 2020 season marks the end of the five-year agreements NASCAR had with tracks, so 2021 provides a look at any changes to the sanctioning agreements.

In the sanctioning agreements for races at Dover and Nashville in 2021 is a minimum attendance clause.

It states: “Promoter will use best efforts to ensure a minimum spectator attendance in grandstand seating during the NASCAR Cup Race portion of the Competition of at least seventy percent (70%) of Capacity of the Facility.”

That isn’t 70% of all of a track’s seats but 70% of all seats that are available and not covered by signs or banners. The sanctioning agreement states: “Any seats or stands not included as part of the Capacity for the Event must be covered, removed or concealed in a first-class manner reasonably acceptable to (NASCAR) and the broadcast partner. Social zones, viewing platforms or other general areas without permanent seats, and enclosed suites will not count in calculating a Facility’s Capacity.”

The agreement also states that the track promoter must provide NASCAR within 15 days of the event a report that shows the number of tickets scanned for the event, the number of tickets sold or distributed for the event and the capacity of the event. The agreement states that NASCAR “agrees all such attendance reports provided by Promoter shall remain confidential and not shared with any third-party without the written consent of Promoter.”

4. Staggered shifts

With the need to maintain social distancing, including in race shops, bigger teams have gone to staggered shifts with employees to keep the work going in a safe way.

Tim Cindric, president of Team Penske, explained on a recent call with media what is taking place with his organization.

“We’ve chosen at this point to work in shifts rather than have our entire workforce together,” Cindric said. “You have to remember we have almost 500 people in the building on a normal basis, so we’ve really been working to maybe a third of the workforce, if you will, on any given day, split into shifts.

“Our shifts have been six-hour shifts, so we’ve been working from 6 (a.m.) to noon, and then we’ve taken a two-hour break for sanitization and so forth, and then we’ve worked then from 2 to 8 (p.m.) with a different shift. That’s been across the board through all of our series, and we’ll continue that process here for the foreseeable future. It helps us maybe take less risk with our people but also put ourselves in a position to where we’re not as vulnerable should someone get infected.”

5. Busy schedule ahead

With NASCAR seeking to catch up in races after a 10-week break because of the COVID-19 pandemic, upcoming weekends will offer plenty of racing for fans.

Seven of the next eight Saturdays feature doubleheaders, including a NASCAR/IndyCar doubleheader.

Here are the Saturday doubleheaders:

June 6: Truck and Xfinity at Atlanta Motor Speedway

June 13: Truck and Xfinity at Homestead-Miami Speedway

June 20: Xfinity and ARCA at Talladega Superspeedway

June 27: Truck and Cup at Pocono Raceway

July 4: Xfinity and IndyCar at Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course

July 18: Truck and Xfinity at Texas Motor Speedway

July 25: Truck and Xfinity at Kansas Speedway

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Friday 5: Will iRacing grudges carry over to track?

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It was supposed to be fun, but some of the hostilities between drivers during the Pro Invitational iRacing series could carry over to the track, some competitors say.

“I really, truly think a lot of these drivers, myself included, are going to be carrying grudges from the iRacing world over into the real world,” Tyler Reddick told NBC Sports. “I really do.

“I may just be the one crazy one, but how I’ve been raced on iRacing and unfortunately, probably not always on purpose, how I’ve raced others, is probably going to carry over as well. That’s just something you’ve got to think about.”

That virtual racing could elicit such feelings from drivers might surprise some.

Maybe it shouldn’t.

“We’re all very competitive,” Reddick said of the drivers. “Whenever we feel like someone does something wrong to us, it sticks with you, regardless of if it was on the highway or if it was in the grocery store or the parking lot.”

After a 71-day break due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cup drivers are back on track Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX). They’ll have no practice or qualifying. Their first lap at speed will be when the green flag waves. And fuel some of those restless drivers with memories of what others did to them in virtual racing the past two months. Then see what happens.

Every time a driver competes against another, whether in the virtual or real world, they add to their notes on that foe. Each slight is catalogued for potential payback.    

Ryan Preece wrecks Matt DiBenedetto during the Pro Invitational Series iRacing event at virtual Richmond Raceway in April. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“It could be another thing in your notebook that you carry over and remember about this guy like that,” Matt DiBenedetto told NBC Sports on what could carry over from iRacing. “Like Ryan Preece and I. You’re not going to go crash each other, and we joked a little bit about it after. But it’s also like, man, I’ve been frustrated with him a couple of times on track before, maybe not using his brain like I think he should have. And then that’s another note in the notebook when you’re racing around him.”

During the iRacing race at virtual Richmond Raceway in April, DiBenedetto and Ryan Preece had contact that wrecked Preece. He returned the favor. DiBenedetto retaliated. iRacing officials parked DiBenedetto.

Matt DiBenedetto wrecks Ryan Preece in retaliation for an earlier incident at virtual Richmond Raceway in April. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

That isn’t the only iRacing incident that quickly comes to mind for DiBenedetto that is bothersome.

“At (virtual) Dover at the last race, just trying to be smart, and I checked up for a couple of guys in front of me, Jimmie (Johnson) and Kurt (Busch),” DiBenedetto said. “They got stacked up a little, so I check up some and Ross Chastain is behind me. He tries to use it as an opportunity to dive under me. He drives right through me and crashed me.

“Well, again, that’s another one in the notebook. Everybody knows that Ross is insanely aggressive, has a bunch of talent but still has some things to learn as far as patience.

“From iRacing to that, yes, it can still put things down in your notebook that you remember about that guy. It was funny to see that some of those guys, for example Ross, not picking on him, he’s a talented guy, but those characteristics were the same on iRacing as in real life.

“Then you would have Kevin Harvick that was out there being very smart and giving room and all that. I’m like yep, that’s Kevin. You could see that Kevin may not be as experienced in iRacing, but he was the same as in real life, giving some room and being real smart about what he was doing and not trying to crash people.”

But not every driver thinks what happened in iRacing will make an impact on the track.

“iRacing it’s not real,” Christopher Bell told NBC Sports. “It’s not real money going into the cars. It’s not real resources going into the car. At least from my end, nothing from that will carry over.”

What about other drivers?

“I would hope not,” he said.

2.  Heated discussions during a pandemic

After 400 miles Sunday at Darlington, some drivers will be upset with fellow competitors.

In normal times, a driver might seek another on pit road to apologize to them. Or confront them.

Some discussions end peacefully. Others escalate, as happened last October between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin at Martinsville. In some cases, not much is said before drivers tussle, as Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick did after last October’s Xfinity race at Kansas. In rare cases, no words are spoken. Only a punch is thrown, as Kyle Busch did to Logano after the 2017 Las Vegas race.

But with social distancing guidelines, what is the protocol for drivers in such matters after a race?

Will they stand 6 feet away and yell at each other? Will they stand much closer to argue and risk being fined as much as $50,000 for violating NASCAR’s COVID-19 guidelines? Or do they go back to their motorhome and text each other?

“I don’t think you really know until that moment happens,” Brad Keselowski told NBC Sports.

Matt DiBenedetto knows what he’d prefer to do.

“I’ve always been the guy to where I want to talk to that guy right now as soon as I get out of my race car and settle this immediately — and it’s not necessarily about any physical harm or anything,” he said. “I want to talk to this guy face-to-face right now and let him know that, hey, I mean business and I’m not going to tolerate this. I’ve always been a very stern guy. I try to give respect to everybody, and you want to get that respect as well.

“That (post-race scenario on pit road now) will actually be a weird one. I thought about that, if I want to address something with somebody. I don’t like doing it over texts. I only like face-to-face conversations because in a text message, things can get misconstrued.”

Denny Hamlin has a possible solution to having an issue with another driver.

“Meet them at the exit,” he joked.

“That’s the only thing I can think of. I don’t know. I actually thought about that, as well. If there’s ever a time to be aggressive, probably ruffle some feathers, this is probably the time to do it because you don’t have to face consequences right after the race.”

3. “Epic race”

Drivers have raced without practicing or qualifying before. It last happened at Indianapolis in 2018.

But that race can’t compare to the challenges drivers will face Sunday at Darlington after a 10-week layoff and temperatures expected to be near 90 degrees.

“It’s going to be a daunting challenge this week,” said Brad Keselowski, who won that 2018 Indy race and starts Sunday’s race on the pole. “There’s no doubt about it. I think it’s an opportunity for a team to rise to the top, so I’m cool with it.

“It’s going to be incredibly hot. South Carolina is another level of hot. I don’t know why South Carolina hot is hotter than hot everywhere else, but it just is.

“Then you’ve got the racetrack, one of the faster racetracks on the circuit. You’re right up against the wall, very little room for error. You have tires that wear out a lot. You get late in a run and you’re really sliding around, a huge opportunity to make a mistake. You’ve (also) got all the downtime for the drivers (since the last race). Perhaps even more dangerous than that is a lot of time spent on simulators, so an abundance of overconfidence, which always causes issues.

“No practice. No rubber on the track. You have an entire list here of reasons why this race (could) be a calamity. A lot of pressure in this race. You want to get back going and have a great race. There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this race, so you expect the pressures that come with that. This is going to be an epic race. There’s no way around that. That’s what NASCAR needs, an epic race.”

Add to the list of issues for drivers Sunday is that with no practice, they won’t have a chance to practice entering pit road. Darlington’s pit road entry is tricky. Keselowski missed pit road while running seventh in last year’s race. Ryan Blaney missed pit road in the 2017 race there after hitting the wall. Denny Hamlin missed pit road while leading the 2017 race with 54 laps to go and rallied to win.

Even though Sunday’s race is 400 miles instead of the typical 500 miles at Darlington, there’s a likelihood of multiple green-flag pit stops. With the way tires wear, as soon as one prominent car pits for tires, it will drag the rest of the field to pit road for fresh tires. That can bring trouble.

“Darlington, in my opinion, is the most challenging pit road entry of the entire year,” Matt DiBenedetto said. “I think of all things, that might be one of the most nerve-racking parts of the race. Doing that cold turkey is a lot harder than just firing off for the green flag and racing.”

So what makes Darlington’s pit road entry so hard?

“Pit road entry there is so far down the racetrack,” DiBenedetto said.  “So you enter the corner and you’re on the racetrack and you start slowing down. It feels like you have to park just to hang a really, really hard left and go way down across the apron where you can’t even see. You’re on the racetrack and you can’t even see the pit road entry. You’re going by more of marks on the racetrack.”

4. Picking teams

With NASCAR limiting the number of team members for upcoming races, crew chiefs and competition directors had to decide who will go to Darlington this weekend and who stays behind.

Typically, teams have 10 road crew members, which includes the crew chief and spotter.

NASCAR now limits teams to six road crew members, including the crew chief and spotter. So that left four spots. Nearly every team brought its car chief, leaving three spots.

Top teams each have two engineers. What to do with those engineers was a point of debate for some teams.

“We have deliberated on this quite extensively,” Kevin Kidd, competition director at Roush Fenway Racing, told NBC Sports.

Each of Roush’s two teams will take only one engineer to the track.

“The job on the pit box is a pretty busy one,” Kidd said. “To really just rely on the crew chief and quite frankly to have the bandwidth to process everything that you need to process live and in real time is probably asking too much. Can you support things from home and can you do things? Yes. And we will. … We feel like an engineer to assist the crew chief is a critical part of the race.”

Each of Hendrick Motorsports’ four teams will have one of its engineers at the track.

“I feel honestly, that the preparation at the shop is what’s going to really be the key,” said Chad Knaus, crew chief for William Byron. “So, we wanted to keep a good, strong, staff of mechanics at the shop with good and recent racetrack experience to try to make sure that when we unload the race car that we’re absolutely race ready.”

None of Joe Gibbs Racing’s teams will have an engineer at the track Sunday.

Crew chief Chris Gayle, who helped lead Erik Jones to the Southern 500 win at Darlington last year, said he wanted an extra mechanic at the track over an engineer.

“I wanted to make sure that I had enough (mechanics) so that if we had damage, we had the correct people who could work on things,” Gayle told NBC Sports. “I didn’t want to sacrifice that. … It pretty much left you where you didn’t have too many options.”

5. So many unknowns

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I asked several competitors what they were curious about Sunday, whether it was on the track or off the track. Here’s what some said:

Kevin Harvick: “I think with all the meetings that I’ve been a part of at home and iRacing and the way that the teams are functioning, there’s going to be some things that come out of this situation that are permanent and what those things are will start this weekend. I don’t really know what it is or what they will be, but I think this weekend will be the start of a process that you kind of have to look around and say: ‘You know what? That wasn’t a bad idea. We did it out of necessity to go in this racetrack and race and put on a show, but is that something we can carry forward?’ And I think that question is going to be asked a lot as we do things going forward.”

Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson: “What I’m really curious to see is going to be the evolution of any given competitor throughout the race. … It’s going to be really curious if you see somebody unloads and is blazing fast for the opening run, the track takes rubber, things evolve and change for the behavior of the track. Maybe they don’t keep up with it as well. Does that same guy that is blazing fast end up 12th? Or do you have somebody that barely struggles to stay on the lead lap by the end of the first stage? Do they come in and make an extended pit stop … and then they end up third. That’s what I’m curious to see. … Given that we don’t have practice and given that there’s no qualifying and we don’t have time to really tune to the track for the given weekend, I’m curious to see that. That’s a challenge I’m really looking forward to.”

Cole Custer: “That first lap will be interesting to see how aggressive everybody will be. I think how the team, all of us kind of work together to get prepared for the race. Those are really the only two things. I think for me, I’ve been trying to just focus on what I’m preparing myself for, and I don’t really worry about everything else.”

Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie: “I’m curious who is going to be the first person to take their mask off and get a $10,000 fine. I pray that it’s nobody on our race team. It’s a new normal. It’s going to be a pain in the butt when you have a mask on your face and its 80 degrees and you’re trying to talk on the radio and it’s muffled. It’s going to take some getting used to, following NASCAR’s guidelines. We want to keep everybody safe. We don’t want to get anybody sick or anything like that. … I’m curious to see how everything is going to go, non-racing, everything affected by COVID-19. I think NASCAR has got a pretty good plan to get us in and out of there. It’s going to be interesting once you get there and see how it works.”

John Hunter Nemechek: “I’m curious about the viewership that we’re going to have. … I’m just kind of curious about the whole weekend, how it flows, how the racing goes.”

Brad Keselowski: “I think there are two things that really stand out me. One, the 88 car (of Alex Bowman) has been the best car on a mile-and-a-half (tracks). It left California as the fastest. It was probably the car that should have won Las Vegas. I’m curious if they have that speed (this weekend). I’m curious because I entered the season effectively with a new team, and we finished California with a top-five car and had a long list of areas that we thought we could to improve. I’m curious if we do just that this weekend at Darlington and find that level of speed like the 88 car had.”

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