front row motorsports

Winners and losers after Saturday’s Cup race at Pocono

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WINNERS

Kevin Harvick Finally scores that elusive Cup victory at Pocono Raceway.

Stewart-Haas Racing — Placed three of its drivers in the top 10.  Kevin Harvick won. Aric Almirola placed third. Clint Bowyer finished seventh.

Joe Gibbs Racing — Had three of its drivers finish in the top 10. Denny Hamlin finished second. Kyle Busch placed fifth. Martin Truex Jr. was sixth.

Front Row Motorsports: Michael McDowell’s eighth-place finish marked the first time the organization has posted back-to-back top-10 finishes. McDowell’s run came a week after John Hunter Nemechek was eighth at Talladega.

Christopher Bell Finished a career-high fourth on Saturday.

LOSERS

Erik Jones Saw his streak of three consecutive top-five finishes at Pocono end after a crash with Tyler Reddick.

Joey LoganoWas running in the top 10 late in the race when his left front tire blew. He finished 36th. He did win a stage and finish second in the other.

Matt Tifft to undergo new test to seek cause of seizures

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NASCAR driver Matt Tifft revealed Wednesday he will undergo additional testing this week to potentially determine what caused two seizures that have kept him sidelined from racing for the past seven months.

Tifft, who turns 24 on June 26, suffered his first seizure Oct. 26, 2019 at Martinsville Speedway and has not raced since then. Tifft and his team, Front Row Motorsports, announced Nov. 13, 2019, that they were mutually ending their agreement so he could focus on his health.

Tifft revealed earlier this year that he suffered a second seizure on December 12, 2019, while on his honeymoon.

“I know you’ve been asking for a health update from me,” Tifft said Wednesday to followers in a video post on Twitter. “So today I’m actually flying up to Columbus, Ohio, and then riding up to Hinckley (his hometown of Hinckley, Ohio) from there this week. I’m going to University Hospitals (south of Cleveland).”

MORE: Friday 5: Mat Tifft on the road to recovery from December seizure

Tifft will undergo an electroencephalogram – commonly known as an “EEG” – that detects irregularities in electrical activity of the brain.

“What that means is they put a bunch of probes on my head to try and figure out what has been causing these past seizures,” Tifft said in his video tweet.

According to MayoClinic.org, “An EEG can determine changes in brain activity that might be useful in diagnosing brain disorders, especially epilepsy or another seizure disorder.

“An EEG might also be helpful for diagnosing or treating the following disorders: brain tumor, brain damage from head injury, brain dysfunction that can have a variety of causes (encephalopathy), inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), stroke and sleep disorders.”

Tifft, who underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in mid-2016, appeared upbeat and optimistic in Wednesday’s 41-second video.

“Hopefully, this gives us some answers,” he said. “And based on that, we’ll have some treatment plan to hopefully correct and fix this moving forward so it never happens again.

“Thanks for all your concern and thoughts through all this time and everybody stay safe and we’ll let you know what happens here soon.”

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John Hunter Nemechek ready for even better Round 2 at Darlington

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Earning the first top-10 finish of your NASCAR Cup career is a significant accomplishment for a Cup rookie.

Doing so at one of the toughest tracks in the sport makes it an even greater and sweeter achievement.

Such was the case Sunday for John Hunter Nemechek at Darlington Raceway. In just his eighth career Cup start, he finished a career-best ninth.

“We came in with no expectations, we just kind of had the mindset to run every lap and learn the most that we possibly could,” Nemechek said in a media teleconference. “And while doing that we made the right adjustments all day.

“We stayed on top of the race track and we kind of ran our own race and it led to us running top 15 most of the day, which is a really great accomplishment for myself and Front Row Motorsports for my first time being at Darlington in a Cup car and just trying to learn.”

Not only did Nemechek learn, he may have taught the venerable “Lady In Black” a few lessons as well.

“It’s definitely a hard race track, but, overall, the pit crew did amazing,” Nemechek said. “(Crew chief Seth Barbour) and myself did great at communicating.

“The engineers were awesome. It was a full team effort and we stayed on top of it, so it was definitely a great day and something to be proud of for us.”

It was also Front Row Motorsports’ best effort ever on a mid-range track (between one and two miles). Darlington is 1.366 miles in length.

“It’s pretty amazing to have that accomplishment and hopefully we can continue to have the momentum roll our way,” Nemechek said. “It came down to the final restart and we had our car tuned up for the end.”

Nemechek was one of two rookies to end Sunday’s race in the top 10. Tyler Reddick finished seventh.

“I was hoping we were gonna have a couple more laps,” Nemechek said. “I think we could have got Reddick and Erik Jones (finished eighth), but, overall, a solid day.  I’m looking forward to going back to Darlington on Wednesday.”

Tonight’s race has had its start time pushed forward to 6 p.m. ET because of the threat of rain.

How he performed Sunday and hopes to perform tonight, weather permitting, is quite the juxtaposition for Nemechek compared to his first-ever visit in a race car to Darlington last year in the Xfinity Series.

He started 16th and finished 21st, one lap down from the leaders.

“We weren’t very good at Darlington last year in the Xfinity Series, so for myself to kind of go there with an open mindset (for Sunday’s Cup race), a lot of preparation was done, a lot of video was watched,” he said. “(I also) talked to quite a few Cup drivers during the quarantine about Darlington when we knew that we were going back there and just tried to be a sponge and just soak everything up.

“I would say Darlington last year I didn’t really like the place. It definitely was a struggle for myself and for our team last year. We weren’t that great.

“So coming into Darlington this year it was completely different than the Xfinity car, just trying to make the most of the situation. And with no practice I definitely (feel) like it almost gave our team a little bit of a better opportunity to run good as we didn’t have time to either mess up our car or our adjustments and set up through practice.

“But it didn’t really allow others to make major gains through practice, where we might not be able to do the same, so it was a lot of fun being able to tame the Lady in Black, and I had a blast.

“It’s a place I really like now, not really from last year, but being able to slide around and tire wear, being able to run multiple grooves, it was overall just a really fun race and really great just to be back in the seat.

“I think from a confidence standpoint it definitely makes me feel really good to be able to go back there.”

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CarParts.com extends sponsorship of Michael McDowell for 2 more races

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After making its debut on Michael McDowell’s No. 34 Ford Mustang this past Sunday at Darlington Speedway, CarParts.com has extended its relationship with McDowell and Front Row Motorsports.

CarParts.com will also serve as primary sponsor on McDowell’s car for tonight’s return Cup race at Darlington and the May 27 midweek race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“We have seen the excitement that the NASCAR Cup Series, Front Row Motorsports, and Michael McDowell are bringing to sports fans during this time, and appreciate the opportunity to be a part of it,” said Lev Peker, CEO of CarParts.com and US Auto Parts. “Our customers have been tuning in, and we are looking forward to watching tonight’s race and next week’s race in Charlotte.”

Sunday’s race at Darlington on FOX drew 6.32 million viewers, the largest non-Daytona 500 viewership of a Cup race since Atlanta in March 2017.

CarParts.com also will continue its relationship with Sunoco Rookie of The Year driver John Hunter Nemechek throughout the season.

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Friday 5: Drivers take fans behind the scenes online

Photo: Landon Cassill/Twitch
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As Landon Cassill streamed his practice laps Tuesday night on a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway, he explained how he entered the corners. After he finished, he showed video of William Byron entering the corners the same way by letting the car turn naturally on the banking before he moved the wheel.

It was a discussion Cassill might have had with his crew chief or another driver at a race track, but with sports paused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a discussion he shared with anyone watching his Twitch page.

As NASCAR transitions to iRacing, some drivers are streaming their practices, practice races and eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series events on Twitch, Instagram or elsewhere. Twitch, the world’s leading live streaming platform for games, allows fans to watch and chat with the person competing. On a driver’s Twitch stream, the viewer will see the driver’s in-car camera view with an insert box in the lower portion showing the driver.

Although he’s viewed others on Twitch, it wasn’t until last weekend that Cassill created a page for fans to watch him compete. He said he had about 5,000 unique viewers during his fourth-place run in last weekend’s iRacing event at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway. Garrett Smithley, who finished third in that race, has been streaming races on Twitch since 2017 and said he had about 2,800 viewers at any one time on his Twitch page during last weekend’s race.

Watching a driver’s livestream on Twitch, Instagram or anywhere else, allows fans to see a competitor in action and eavesdrop on conversations they have with their spotter, crew chief or other drivers. It’s like listening to a team’s radio channel during a race but this includes everything a driver says, not just what they say after they push the talk button in their car. And you can see the driver without their helmet.

It was during last weekend’s race when those watching Smithley’s Twitch heard him tell his spotter to text Timmy Hill’s spotter to suggest they work together. Smithley didn’t want to broadcast it over the audio channel all drivers are connected to in iRacing. So this was a way to do it without his competitors knowing.

Smithley knows the impact being on Twitch can have. He’s seen the crossover at tracks with younger fans.

“Even when I was doing it very, very casually and whenever I had some time in 2017 and 2018 … I found going to the real race track when I was racing full-time in the Xfinity Series, people would come to me, kids, very young, say middle school age and younger, they’d be like ‘Hey we love watching your stream,’ “ Smithley told NBC Sports. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually getting into a new (fan) reach.’

Garrett Smithley on his iRacing simulator. (Photo by Phillip Smalley)

“Now, doing the iRacing stuff, it’s opened up doors and I can start that back up and grow that. It’s just a way for me to connect to the fans.”

Smithley has a screen set up where he can see questions or comments from those watching his stream. That’s mainly for when he’s running practice or competing in races other than the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race.

“It’s a really, really good opportunity for fans to come and engage and get a lot more insight on what we’re doing,” he said.

For those who watched Cassill’s Twitch on Monday, they would have seen him testing with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson at the digital Bristol track and hearing their conversations.

“We practiced for a couple of hours at Bristol,” Cassill told NBC Sports. “Everything he said and everything I said was recorded and it was live-streamed and we had viewers. It was a great content. It was a lot of fun. I think we looked at data and talked about our driving styles at Bristol.”

After last weekend’s race, Cassill still had his livestream going when Dale Earnhardt Jr. started talking to him about the event. Fans watching got to hear two drivers discussing the race. For those who missed it, Cassill had the video segment clipped and posted on social media.

Cassill’s way of examining his driving style compared to Byron’s earlier this week was a benefit for those watching on Cassill’s stream.

“Breaking down the corner and what William was doing, what I saw him doing, what I wanted to replicate, his line, his steering wheel angle, all those things, if I weren’t streaming I still would have been doing those things and maybe have even been saying those things out loud to myself,” Cassill said.

“It kind of goes back to the summary of why I’m Twitch streaming, hey, this is content. I think that those types of clips can be repurposed to evergreen content that live on Youtube and can give people professional lessons on how to drive race cars on iRacing from a driver who does it in the physical world.”

2. iRacing sponsorships

Garrett Smithley and virtual Texas winner Timmy Hill are the only two drivers to score top-five finishes in each of the first two eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series events heading into Sunday’s race at a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.

With last weekend’s racing drawing 1.3 million viewers on Fox and FS1 — that’s more than the viewership for the Xfinity races this season at Auto Club Speedway (993,000 viewers) and Phoenix (1.192 million) — some drivers and teams are looking to add sponsors for these races.

Smithley said he and Rick Ware Racing have been looking to leverage his success and added attention on TV for sponsorship.

“Rick is working on some different things, and I’m working on some different things to try to grow it and add more value to the real racing,” Smithley said. “We’re absolutely trying to leverage it. It’s so new, so we’re trying to figure out the space. I’ve reached out to several different people in the eSports world to try to figure out the scope of things and how to add better value in this situation. That’s been going well. Just learning a whole lot about the industry.

“The biggest thing is to try to get back real racing, but I hope we can continue doing some some type of eSports thing with NASCAR and all the drivers in some capacity because I think it brings out a different demographic, and I think it brings out a little different excitement.”

Michael McDowell announced Thursday that energy drink Celsius would sponsor his Front Row Motorsports car for Sunday’s race.

3. Staying busy

Each morning the 35-plus Team Penske pit crew members receive an email from Jonathan Rowan, the organization’s director of sports performance.

The email details the day’s home workout plan as they wait for the chance to return to the race shop and for the sport to resume.

Trent Cherry asked Rowan to develop a program to keep the pit crew members active during this break.

Joey Logano‘s pit crew during the Cup race Logano won at Phoenix Raceway on March 8. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It will be at least two months between races. The last Cup race was March 8 and every Cup race up to May 9 at Martinsville has been postponed at this time.

Cherry isn’t worried about any skills slipping for the pit crew members during the break. Instead, he’s focused on another key area.

“Michael Jordan when he comes back from the offseason, he doesn’t forget how to shoot a jump shot,” Cherry told NBC Sports. “He also might not be completely game ready. I think there’s two separate things.

“I don’t think our guys will forget what they do or have done. It’s my job … to get them back in the groove. We left the first four weeks, we won two races (with Joey Logano). I felt like our pit crews were some of the best ones on pit road. My job is to try to maintain that when we come back. Part of that is just knocking the rust off once we get the OK to go back to work but it also means everybody focused on staying in shape.”

With NASCAR stating it intends to reschedule every postponed race before the playoffs begin Sept. 6 at Darlington, it likely means back-to-back races on some weekends and midweek races. It could lead to a few weeks with few days between races.

Cherry, a former tire changer, says his crews would look forward to such a schedule.

“I’m a big believer in if the guys go to the track fresh, they’re going to perform at the their best,” he said. “Our job as a coaching staff is to figure out what is enough to get them ready and what’s also enough to keep them fresh. Our guys have done a great job of responding to that.

“I would love to be able to pit Sunday, pit Wednesday, pit Sunday. Our guys like competing. Competing is winning races and being able to help the company out. I think our guys will really look forward to that.”

4. Potential help for teams

Today marks the first day businesses, which have 500 or fewer employees, can apply for the Small Business Paycheck Protection Program.

The $350 billion relief program is part of the government’s $2 trillion economic support package. With most race teams under the 500-employee cap, this program, should they chose to apply, could provide some financial aid while teams wait to return to racing next month at the earliest.

The relief program provides small business with funds to pay up to eight weeks of payroll costs, including benefits. The funds are provided in the form of loans that will be fully forgiven when used for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent and utilities. Loan forgiveness is based on the employer maintaining or quickly rehiring employees and maintaining salary levels.

NBC News reported that it wasn’t until Thursday that banks received 31 pages of guidance from the U.S. Treasury on how to lend the money and some banks had not decided if they could participate on Friday.

5. Additional NASCAR programming on NBCSN

Next week will feature the NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge and Racing Week in America on NBCSN.

The NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge features six different drivers competing in two races each Monday-Wednesday with the winners advancing to Thursday’s championship race at a virtual Martinsville Speedway. Full details are here.

The Monday race will be held at a virtual Rockingham Speedway and include Kyle Busch and William Byron.

The Tuesday race will be held at a virtual Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis and includes Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

The Wednesday race will be held at a virtual Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) Speedway and includes Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Timmy Hill.

Those races will be from 7-8 p.m. ET each night. The races are a part of Racing Week in America, which will feature memorable NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA races, among other series, from the past two decades aired by NBC Sports.

Here are details on next week’s schedule of races.

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