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Ross Chastain, Chip Ganassi Racing sticking to their ‘plan’

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The last 10 weeks provided surreal sight after surreal sight as the NASCAR community and the world at large navigated the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of those odd sights came on May 5 courtesy of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch. In a video posted to Twitter, Busch showed off his racing gear as he prepped to take part in go-kart races at the GoPro Motorplex in Mooresville, North Carolina, to get ready for NASCAR’s return 12 days later at Darlington Raceway.

At one point, Busch showed two figures social distancing in the parking lot. Busch referred to them as “secret weapons.”

The one sitting on a curb was 48-year-old Matt Kenseth, recently brought in from the cold to drive the team’s No. 42 Chevrolet 17 months after his last NASCAR start.

The other was 27-year-old Ross Chastain, the CGR development driver who competes full-time in the Xfinity Series for Kaulig Racing.

Making it more surreal: Chastain was the driver many expected to get the nod to replace Kyle Larson after his firing by CGR.

Chastain is all about opportunities to race.

Last year, he competed in 77 of a possible 92 national NASCAR series races, competing full-time in the Truck Series while missing only one of 36 Cup Series races.

Before NASCAR entered its COVID-19 imposed lockdown in March, Chastain had competed in every national NASCAR series race – four Cup races, four Xfinity races and two Truck races. Over the course of those 10 races, Chastain drove vehicles for five different teams: Kaulig Racing, Niece Motorsports, Spire Motorsports, Ryan Sieg Racing and Roush Fenway Racing as a substitute driver for Ryan Newman (and as one of its drivers in the Pro Invitational iRacing Series).

“It’s just been when opportunities come up in the top three levels of NASCAR like, yes, yes, take them as a driver and make the best of them,” Chastain told NBC Sports.

Chastain will be back in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 (Chip Ganassi Racing prepared) car for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. But before that, he returns to his full-time job driving Kaulig Racing’s No. 10 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series, which is scheduled to end its 10-week hiatus tonight at Darlington.

But for a brief window of time last month, Chastain seemed the logical choice to take over the CGR’s No. 42, and to be in it last Sunday.

However, that wasn’t part of the plan.

Ross Chastain on the track during Xfinity practice at Phoenix Raceway in March. (Photo by Lyle Setter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Obviously, what all happened (with Larson) hit everybody really fast,” Chastain said. “I don’t know all of the details about it. But I just know that in my mind, we’re on a path. … Obviously, when Chip and (Chief Operating Officer) Doug Duchardt and (Managing Director) Max Jones and I … sat down two years ago or I guess the middle of 2018 and set out this plan, there was a lot of other factors involved like we all know and that all went away.

“All the other factors that supported me with them went away and they’ve kept me on, they’ve kept building out a plan for me and they didn’t give up whenever they very easily could have. … I just know that they haven’t given up on me and I surely haven’t given up on them.”

And you won’t hear Chastain complaining about having Kenseth as an unexpected teammate five months into the year.

“Too much of our plan was in place and obviously getting to know Matt now, he’s the right guy,” Chastain said. “He knows stuff and has been a part of stuff that I only watched as a kid on TV and he just rattles off this scenario, that scenario, this racetrack, that race car. And it’s great to be around him a little bit and learn from for sure.”

Kenseth and Busch took to the track Sunday at Darlington in the first NASCAR race in 71 days. It was also the first NASCAR race without Chastain in the field since last year’s Xfinity finale in Miami. Chastain expected to talk to Kenseth and Busch “a bit annoyingly” afterward to get feedback.

“They can just talk in such literal terms of, everything else aside, what did the track do?” said Chastain. “Doesn’t matter what kind of race car you had, if you were the leader, you were 32nd place, what did the racetrack do? What were the trends? Was it normal Darlington? What do you see? That’s where I found that Kurt is really, it’s why Matt says he’s such a good teammate so often is that he just can articulate what we all think, but we can’t put in words. … He genuinely wants to help.”

When Chastain straps into his No. 10 car at Darlington, it won’t be his first time in it since March. Last week, he and teammate Justin Haley visited Kaulig Racing’s shop on the Richard Childress Racing campus in Welcome, North Carolina, and gave their cars for the races at Darlington and Charlotte (Monday, May 25) shake down drives.

“We did the Charlotte car first and it worked fine, drove for two laps around the RCR compound and hopped over into the Darlington one,” Chastain said.

That’s when the team discovered an issue on Chastain’s car that could have resulted in a “big scare” tonight.

“We actually had a (radio) wiring harness in the Darlington car that did not work,” Chastain said. “I couldn’t hear my crew and they couldn’t hear me.”

Chastain said his team “kind of felt silly. … We all were laughing like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ And then as soon as that happened and we replaced the whole wiring harness … we were like, ‘Okay, it was all worth it.”

Chastain feels “confident” going into Darlington, the track where he made his debut with CGR two years ago in the Xfinity race and had a good shot at a win before an incident with Kevin Harvick. That performance helped lead to his signing with CGR later that year.

But Chastain admits “just because I had a good run there two years ago does not mean a whole lot.”

“I’ve used the end of that race as motivation for a lot of stuff and a lot of training,” he said. “Looking back at it. Yeah, obviously, you want to go replicate how the first two thirds that race went, if you can, and then clean up the end.”

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Friday 5: Some drivers get early start back on track

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When drivers strap into their Cup cars May 17 at Darlington Raceway, it won’t be the first time some will have raced since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sport in March.

Some drivers have run laps — or plan to do so — at GoPro Motorplex, an 11-turn, 0.7-mile kart track in Mooresville, North Carolina, to prepare for the resumption of the season.

“I think going to the karting track is something that’s big on our priority list,” William Byron said, noting that is among the reasons he won’t compete in Saturday’s Pro Invitational Series iRacing event at virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway.

“The karting track will be a good tool leading up (to Darlington). Also the Chevrolet simulator as well. I think there’s a lot of tools that can be used. I’m going to try to prepare as similar as I do for the first race at Daytona every year, try to just follow those lines.”

When Cup drivers race at Darlington next weekend, it will mark 71 days since they competed at Phoenix Raceway, the last event before the season was suspended. For perspective, this past offseason lasted 82 days between last year’s season finale at Homestead and the first day of practice at Daytona.

Kurt Busch told NBC Sports that he typically does some karting in January to prepare for the new season. He was karting earlier this week at GoPro Motorplex, posting a video on social media before he hit the track with Matt Kenseth and Ross Chastain.

But what makes karting so meaningful when drivers can stay home and compete on their iRacing simulators?

“It’s being in a car and feeling the adrenaline of the roadway underneath you and your seat-of-the-pants feel,” Busch said.

Tyler Reddick likens karting as another way to prepare mentally and physically to race.

“Where it gets challenging in the go-karts is that there’s no seat belt and you have to hold yourself up and steer the wheel and be smooth and be fast while doing it,” Reddick told NBC Sports.

“You’re constantly having to find ways, as you’re continuing to wear your body out, to be sure you are steering the kart to the best of your ability so you can continue to put out those fast lap times. I think that’s what makes it a lot harder.

“With that being said, a go-kart has no head rest. You’re working your neck, you’re working your arms, you’re working your core, your shoulders, every bit of your body is getting worked fairly hard even down to your legs. … It just further pushes the body, and I think it’s a great way to get a body … working really hard in a quick time.”

2. Simulator time 

Among the most popular tools drivers and teams will use to prepare for the May 17 Darlington race will be the simulators each manufacturer has. With no practice or qualifying before the race, the simulators that Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota have in the Charlotte, North Carolina region, will play a significant role in helping determine a car’s setup.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer was in Ford’s simulator earlier this week preparing for the return of racing. That session not only helped his team on setups but will help him because his first lap in a Cup car at Darlington will be when the green flag waves next weekend.

The manufacturer sim rigs provide significant data for drivers and teams before race weekends. 

“We can actually plug in our setups and make practice changes and stuff like that and actually get a feel of how things are going to react,” Custer said.

Since drivers won’t know how their cars will react until the green flag waves, at least being prepared for how they are expected to handle at the start should help.

3. Say what?

There are many additional details with NASCAR’s event protocol that crew chiefs and teams will have to be aware of before they go to Darlington next week.

Some of those points include the recommendation that teams minimize the contact the pit crew has with the road crew at the track, social distancing guidelines and adherence to NASCAR’s policy and directives.

But for each item there are many other issues to work through.

Crew chief Cliff Daniels at Watkins Glen in 2019. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

For example, everyone in the infield must wear a cloth mask at all times. That includes crew chiefs, who will have a mask between their mouth and radio mic when they talk to their driver, spotter or any other team members. With the noise from the cars racing by, any filter that could garble or soften a crew chief’s voice could create communication issues.

Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, has looked into the matter.

“That has been discussed and right now with the masks that we believe that NASCAR will require the teams to use and the ones that we’ve been using back at the shop, actually quite a few of these conference calls that I’m on daily, our teammates back in the shop are wearing these masks and it’s not nearly as bad (to understand them),” Daniels told NBC Sports.

“Right now our plan is to really be strict on ourselves to adhere to all the guidelines for wearing the masks and the (Personal Protective Equipment). I’m sure if there is some sort of communication issue, you may have to briefly peel the mask off to talk into the mouthpiece and put the mask back on. For right now, we all seem to be petty confident that we can be audible through the mask to talk over the headset.”

Ben Beshore, crew chief for Harrison Burton in the Xfinity Series, told NBC Sports’ Daniel McFadin: “I haven’t played with (the masks) yet. I’m going to have to at some point. I’m not too worried about that. I think some of the surgical type masks are thin enough the voice should travel through there. I just maybe have to talk up a little bit more. I don’t think it’ll be a big deal. We’ll work around it.”

4. Additional details when NASCAR returns

NASCAR recently addressed many guidelines that teams will be required to follow, including health screenings at the track.

Here are additional details from NASCAR’s event operations protocol that have been created after consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and local, state and federal government recommendations.

  • NASCAR will assign specific times for participants to arrive for pre-entry screening. Order of priority on race day will be NASCAR officials, approved suppliers, team road crew required for inspection and road crew by position. 
  • Participants are to confine their movement to their primary work area. An example is that spotters will not be allowed in the infield at any time. Spotters will be required to meet social distancing guidelines of being 6 feet apart from each other.
  • Team Haulers and race cars will have a minimum of 6 feet of open space between them when parked in the garage. Hauler doors will remain open as much as possible to allow entry and exit without touching the door. Designated restricted areas will be marked in the infield, including directional paths for walking.
  •  Teams will use a private chat with NASCAR as the primary communications with series officials during a race to minimize direct interaction.
  • If a driver is involved in an accident or otherwise unable to continue and track services personnel respond, the driver must continue wearing their helmet until a safety worker provides an appropriate face mask for the driver.
  • If a team does not finish the race, that team may exit the  garage area at their discretion but must undergo post-event screening requirements, post-event vehicle and equipment disinfecting requirements and maintain proper social distancing during their preparation and departure.
  • After a series departs, the garage area must be disinfected before another series occupies the garage.

5.  In case you believe in signs …

The last time Darlington Raceway hosted a Cup race in May … Matt Kenseth won.

It was in 2013. Denny Hamlin finished second and was followed by Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.

Kenseth makes his return to the Cup Series next weekend at Darlington. He takes over the No. 42 car after Chip Ganassi Racing fired Kyle Larson for using a racial slur during an iRacing event last month.

In 2014, Darlington moved to April on the Cup schedule and then returned to its traditional Labor Day weekend spot in 2015.

NASCAR states that Darlington will keep its Southern 500 race in September so the races the track will host May 17 and May 20 will come from other tracks. NASCAR plans to reveal next week the tracks that will lose a date this season.

Brett Moffitt: ‘I’ll be ready’ when Truck Series resumes

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It’s not strange to start a phone call, whether it’s with a friend or an interview subject, with the simple question of “How are you?”

But that question has a deeper meaning for Truck Series driver Brett Moffitt, who gives a hearty laugh when this is mentioned.

A month-and-a-half after breaking the femur in both his legs in a motorcross bike accident, how is Brett Moffitt doing?

“Honestly, pretty good,” Moffitt told NBC Sports on Wednesday. “I went to physical therapy this morning. They kind of kick your ass in that.”

When GMS Racing announced Moffitt’s injury on March 16, it came with an estimate that his rehabilitation would take six to eight weeks. It’s now been six weeks.

Moffitt said there’s “no clear answer” for when he’ll be cleared to compete in a truck again, but “I think 100% I’ll be ready before we get back to racing.”

Moffitt believes he’ll have another set of X-rays taken next week.

“They did X-rays three weeks ago now, two weeks out of surgery and there was already pretty good bone growth coming back,” Moffitt said. “It’s up to the doctors. They’ll do the X-rays next week and probably make a decision based off of that. … Hopefully I can keep progressing. Obviously, I feel like I’m ready.”

The 2018 Truck champion is already getting back behind the wheel, taking part in 45-minute sessions once or twice a week in a racing kart at the GoPro Motorplex in Mooresville, North Carolina. He does it under the eye of trainer Josh Wise.

“If you can handle one of those (racing karts), you can definitely handle a truck,” Moffitt said. “The go-karts beat you up in a hurry. They’re extremely difficult to drive … and wear you out. … I was pretty pleased with the outcome. I tried to avoid the curves as much as I could. Did not really have the hard impacts, but I did get into them a few times on accident. … Those things hurt whether you have injuries or not.”

In addition to that, Moffitt has installed a new iRacing rig at his recently purchased home. Wise conducts private racing sessions with Moffitt and other Chevrolet drivers, like Ross Chastain and Sheldon Creed.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Moffitt said. “Sometimes it’ll be sports cars on road courses, sometimes it’ll be dirt cars. … It’s a good way to practice and try to get better. Probably been making my fiancé mad with how much time I’ve been spending on iRacing, but it’s been good.”

Moffitt can sit in his rig for “four to five hours at a time and be fine.”

Through all this, Moffitt hasn’t missed a single Truck Series race.

Moffitt’s accident occurred at friend’s house in Mooresville around 3 p.m. ET on March 14.

That was about the time that Moffitt would have been competing in the Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. But the day before, it and every NASCAR race through the following weekend (and eventually mid-May) were postponed due to the emerging danger of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moffitt flew back to North Carolina Friday night.

“Yeah, I should have been in a truck,” Moffitt said. “I’ve been telling people I don’t know which comes first, the chicken or the egg. Because this quarantine is a blessing for the recovery time, but it would never have happened had we been at the race track.”

Moffitt said he had a “good amount” of experience on dirt bikes and 4-wheelers growing up in Iowa, but on this day he “just messed up.”

Moffitt came up short on a double jump and hit his front tire on top of the landing ramp. He then went forward over the bars, but his feet stuck to the pegs.

“My bodyweight going over the handle bars I guess was enough to break the femurs,” Moffitt said. “They just kind of snapped over the handle bars, I do believe.”

After his surgery on Sunday, Moffitt left the hospital Tuesday and began the recovery process.

He quickly acquired a walker, a seat for his shower and a device with arm rests that let him get up from the toilet.

“I have everything I need for when I’m about 75 years old,” Moffitt joked.

The early parts of the recovery were “really painful. It was hard to sleep at night, obviously they give you pain killers and stuff. It was lot of pain up front.”

Moffitt said the early stages of rehab were “the highlights of my week,” with him attending on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“Basically the other days I would just sit on the couch all day and watch TV,” said Moffitt, who consumed Neflix’s “Tiger King” series and old episodes of “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “Friends.”

“Initially it was kind of getting the mobility back, getting the muscles loosened up,” Moffitt said of his rehab. “Then they kind of jump right into strength as soon as possible. With breaking both the femurs, they put rods in both my legs up through the center of the bone essentially. As soon as that is done, you can then put full weight on your legs. Now, it’s really painful and most of the time your muscle can’t take it … But obviously, that’s the goal to get back to putting full weight (on it) as soon as possible.”

Wednesday’s therapy session included more leg strength work outs, including squats, balancing on one leg, and leg presses.

While he feels no discomfort when navigating the pedals in a kart or his iRacing rig, walking still has its issues.

“It’s just the outsides of my hips that are a little rough,” Moffitt said. “I now have a nice little waddle to me now. … We spent today working on getting rid of that waddle. It’s a little bit of a pain, currently, but I’m getting around pretty good. … You want to wake up and be healed one day and that’s just not the reality.”

When he’s back to being more like his pre-accident self, Moffitt is eager to go for a run.

“I was probably in the best running shape of my life right before this happened,” Moffitt said. “I did a half marathon at like a low eight-minute mile pace, which for me is really good. So that’s probably a big bummer, because I put in a lot of work to get good running. Hopefully, it comes back.”

What likely won’t be coming back are his dirt bike riding privileges.

Are there any new clauses in his contract with GMS Racing?

“It came with the medical bills, I believe,” Moffitt said. “Yeah, that one’s done.”