DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Hailie Deegan will be racing a sports car today at Daytona International Speedway with an eye toward her future in stock cars.
Signed by Ford Performance to a developmental deal that will put her in a full-time ARCA car (and possibly a truck race or two) this season, Deegan was surprised when the manufacturer also expressed a desire to put her in a few IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge events.
The first will be Friday’s season-opening BMW Endurance Challenge, a four-hour warmup race at Daytona International Speedway ahead of Saturday’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.
Deegan and Xfinity Series veteran Chase Briscoe will start 20th in the No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4.
“I originally never planned on this, but (Ford) came to me and were like ‘we want to get you on our IMSA program,’” Deegan said. “’That’s what we did with Briscoe, (Cole) Custer, (Austin) Cindric. All the guys that came through the ranks with Ford.’
“When they told me that, I was excited because more road courses will be in the NASCAR world, and there already are quite a few. I think what makes an all-around good driver are the ones that are good at every single type of track.”
Deegan, 18, still remains a long way from the top two national series, but they are her goal, which makes 2020 critical for earning results.
“This is the year that’s very important and crucial to my career because it decides contracts for years out with sponsors getting behind you for the higher levels,” said Deegan, who had three K&N Series victories in 2018-19. “If we can do good this year, I feel I can get more people behind me so we can go in the top three level series (of NASCAR), and have sponsors that want to stay with me full time while I’m there.
“My goal is to win a few races in the ARCA Series, which is going to be hard. There are a lot of good guys, good cars this year.”
Aside from running full time in ARCA for DGR-Crosley, Deegan would “love to do a truck race” if the sponsorship materializes, “but funding right now is all focused on ARCA so we can try to work toward those championships and winning races. I know I want to be in a good car with good people behind me. If we can focus on that, hopefully everything else will come along.”
A two-time Cup champion accustomed to knowing exactly what he wants in a race car will be learning on the fly for the first time in years as a 24-hour sports car rookie.
How will Busch adapt to being in his IMSA team’s supporting cast after often being the driving force behind Joe Gibbs Racing?
By embracing his situation with a humility that often isn’t associated with such a brash and mercurial superstar.
“It’s not hard for me, and I say that because I’m not the top dog,” Busch told NBC Sports. “There’s a top dog that’s way better, way smarter, way more experienced at these cars than I am, so I let Jack kind of take the reins.”
“Jack” is Jack Hawksworth, the IndyCar and sports car veteran who has become Busch’s de-facto driving coach for Daytona. Beginning with an intensive five-hour session in a driving simulator last month at Toyota Racing Development in Salisbury, N.C., Busch constantly has cited Hawksworth’s pointers with being invaluable for getting up to speed.
“I thought he did a good job,” Hawksworth said. “It’s a completely different car from anything he’s driven.”
That didn’t stop Busch’s demanding side from playfully peeking out at one point.
“I’ll prod (Hawkwsorth) a little bit when we he’s like, ‘You need to open up your hands, mate, in order to like get the drive off the corner,’ ” Busch said, affecting a British accent with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Well if the car was better I wouldn’t have to open up my hands so how about me tell them to try to fix it a few things for us and make it a little bit better.’ ”
Striving for greatness is the central thrust of Busch’s desire to race the Rolex 24 (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC on Saturday and includes NBCSN and NBC Gold: Track Pass during the event before concluding from noon – 2 p.m. ET on Sunday on NBC).
He has watched the race draw champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon) and Formula One (Fernando Alonso) as well as Indianapolis 500 winners (Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay).
“It’s pretty cool to watch the different guys that come from be it IndyCar or NASCAR or even V-8 Super Cars or guys from overseas that come over here and give this race a go,” Busch said. “It means a big deal and means a lot to a lot of guys.”
Here are a few of the more difficult aspects of his transition:
Traffic: While being lapped incessantly, Busch will be relying heavily for help in navigating a track that will be jammed with more than three dozen cars for a full day. AIM Vasser Sullivan races in the GTD division, which is both the largest (18 of the 38 cars in the field) and slowest of the four classes. The DPI and LMP2 cars will be turning laps that are roughly 9 to 12 seconds faster than Busch’s Lexus, which also will be slightly off the pace of the similar GTLM cars.
Tony Hirschman, his longtime spotter in NASCAR, will be relaying information on the type of cars that are coming and the drivers behind the wheel. A system of lights also can help identify the division.
“It’s a bit of an adjustment, for sure, of being able to know what’s coming, who’s coming, what type of car and trying to figure out all of the little tricks of the trade,” Busch said. “The spotter’s communication is a big deal of where they’re at, how fast they’re gaining, knowing the closing rate and trying to figure that out so you can kind of figure out a spot on the track of where you know you’re going to be clear. I imagine in the race when there’s a heck of a lot of them coming at you in a hurry that it’s going to be a bit trickier.”
Corvette Racing’s Jordan Taylor, who raced in the top division of the Rolex the past seven years, said he always was glad to be driving the faster car while tiptoeing through the GT battles in the middle of the night.
“It’s mayhem,” Taylor said. “They’re glued together half the race. Which he (Busch) used to, but it’s going to be different. He’s got to share the car, it’s 24 hours. It’s so easy to get in the middle without getting caught up in a battle with one guy. Those sorts of things still happen to me after like 10 years of this race. I’ll get caught up in something and realize, “Why am I doing this?”
“He’ll have those same moments of battling someone and say, ‘This doesn’t matter. I need to relax.’ Or else he’ll get caught up in it.”
Two sports car veterans with NASCAR experience believe Busch will be fine as long as he has patience and strategy.
Colin Braun, who became a friend of Busch’s while racing often in the Truck and Xfinity series from 2008-11, said stock-car drivers have the skillset to adjust.
“Racing those guys and seeing how good they are on road courses, and the feel they have for the car on the limit is impressive,’ Braun said. “Those guys are superstars, and a guy like Jimmie Johnson showed that many times coming into Grand Am DP cars back in the day. I have no doubt a guy like Kyle is going to be really, really fast. When I first went into NASCAR, being fast wasn’t the issue. It was just the experience.
“A guy like Kyle I don’t think has been passed by eight prototype cars lined up nose to tail while working through the GTLM field, so I think the experience is toughest the thing to gain.”
Andy Lally, a five-time Rolex 24 winner who spent the 2011 season in the NASCAR Cup Series, said “the biggest thing coming from a racing series that races one class of car is that when you’re at Daytona and it’s 24 hours long and you’re interacting with four different races going on at the same time.
“There is definitely a way to strategize getting by and getting people by you to make it efficient so that your lap time is staying consistent. It’s impossible to rail off qualifying laps while Prototypes are coming by while you’re fighting with cars in class. But there’s definitely an efficient way to get it by for both speed and safety.”
Technology: Busch will have some new toys to employ: An antilock braking system (ABS) and traction control, neither of which is available in NASCAR.
It theoretically should allow for much better handling, but it also will require Busch retraining himself to trust a car that is lighter, sleeker and more responsive than his No. 18 Toyota in Cup.
“There’s a lot of driver assist with (sports) cars,” Busch said. “Being able to abuse the heck out of the car and just drive the living snot out of it into the corners, braking as late as you can, as hard as you can, getting right to the ABS limit then trailing your brake and getting ready for the apex and all that sort of stuff.
“It’s very, very different than what we’re accustomed to in NASCAR with our cars not having any of that stuff. You’ve got to make sure you’re mindful of all that. Here, it’s a completely different pace.”
How different? In NASCAR, drivers are rewarded for managing their brakes at a short track such as Martinsville Speedway, keeping them cool enough to last 500 laps.
In sports cars, it’s virtually the opposite. As Taylor explained, ABS allows drivers to “stand on (the brakes) as hard as you want, and it just does everything for you. It’s like a video game, but it’s hard to wrap your head around being able to brake and not worry about it. (Busch) has driven his whole career locking up brakes and adjusting brake pressures, and now he doesn’t have to, so it’s going to be weird.
“Some guys late in their careers can’t adjust to that because their muscle memory is so in tune.”
Taylor was teamed with Jeff Gordon on the 2017 overall winner at the Rolex 24, and he said the four-time series champion actually drove under the limits of his traction control because he hadn’t used it during a two-decade career.
“ABS is the weirdest thing to drive with; I don’t like it,” Taylor said. “There will be some weird little things that Busch is going to learn that sports car racing has.”
Driver changes: There will be multiple stints for Busch in the car he is sharing with Hawksworth, Parker Chase and Michael de Quesada, which will mean some frenzied swaps behind the wheel.
Though teams often practice how to make a driver change before the race, it’s difficult to simulate the race conditions that necessitate scrambling into a cramped cockpit under duress and then go full bore back on track.
Busch is familiar with accomplishing the switch in a race, having run a four-hour race at Daytona nearly 12 years ago.
“It’s a very choreographed effort,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure you know what you’re ready for and doing. As I’ve already made my practice runs, I’ve been working on where I got to get the belts and everything when I come down, to get ready to get out.”
Kyle Busch gives sports cars a spin: ‘You can drive the snot out of them’
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch climbed from his new ride Friday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway with a wide smile and a few shrugs at his AIM Vasser Sullivan Racing teammates.
How was the prep work going for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut?
“I was able to run some pretty decent times,” Busch said at a news conference between practice sessions during the opening day of the Roar Before the Rolex test. “That’s what the guys said anyway. I don’t know.”
Rarely does Busch, quite possibly the most demanding and exacting driver in NASCAR’s premier series, find himself at a loss for explaining all of the nuances that make a race car handle at optimum speed.
Which made Friday’s indoctrination at Daytona a sometimes disorienting mix of confusion alleviated by maximum camaraderie for the two-time Cup champion, who constantly was surrounded by helpful faces.
“Everyone has done a great job of welcoming me in and making me feel part of the team, getting me up to speed, getting me accustomed and used to what this form of racing is and what it entails,” said Busch, who is only six weeks removed from his second title. “But certainly a lot to improve on still. I’ve got my NASCAR driving techniques just embedded in my brain. I’ve got to get rid of those a little bit more.
“Getting more accustomed to what this car can take and what the driving techniques are that are different between the two vehicles take is certainly a lot.”
The team’s two cars had 90 minutes over two practices to break in the most famous of its eight drivers for the 24-hour endurance classic, which will take place Jan 25-26.
Busch did two stints Friday over the course of about 35 minutes in the No. 14 Lexus during the opening session. After Jack Hawksworth shook down the car for about 20 minutes, Busch climbed in at 11:25 a.m. and was within 3 seconds of his teammate during a 10-lap stint.
After an 8-minute pit stop for adjustments, Busch shaved off another second over a 14-minute run in the car in which he posted lap times the team felt was respectable.
“He’s right where he should be,” said Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, one of several executives in the AIM Vasser Sullivan pit to observe Busch at the test. “So much of endurance racing is about confidence and being comfortable.”
Traffic and technology also will be the two major hurdles for Busch getting acclimated to sports cars. AIM Vasser Sullivan races in the GTD division, which is about 10 seconds slower around the 3.56-mile road course than the premier DPi prototype class.
That means Busch (who had one other IMSA start at Daytona nearly 12 years ago in a prototype) will be getting lapped much more often than which he is accustomed in Cup. In a role reversal of sorts, NASCAR veteran Cody Ware will be competing against Busch in the faster LMP2 division for the Rolex 24.
Especially when racing at night, Busch will rely on spotter Tony Hirschman to keep him abreast of the divergent speeds (which he also can distinguish through the varying colors of the cars’ lights).
He will be navigating the field while also adapting to cars that stop on a dime because of sophisticated antilock braking systems that are much different than his No. 18 Toyota in Cup.
“The braking is certainly the biggest adjustment,” Busch said. “I’m used to our big heavy stock cars, where you have to start the slowdown process way early, and the braking zone is forever. By the time you turn in, you have to be off the brakes because otherwise the inside wheels lock up, and you’ll skid the tires. So you also have to take care of our brakes on the Cup cars because they’re so heavy and steel and you can really overheat them.
“Completely different techniques that you have to work with on these cars. You can drive the snot out of them. You can throw it off into the corner as far as you feel you can get in there. And stomp the pedal as hard as your leg will allow you to do it.”
Busch spent some of Friday finding those limits, once driving 50 feet deeper into a chicane than teammate Jack Hawksworth. “That was too far,” Busch chuckled. “Noted.”
He had many places to look for advice. Townsend Bell, the NBC Sports analyst who also drives for the team, offered encouragement and pointers for several minutes Friday as the first to greet Busch after his first stint.
Hawksworth, a veteran of sports cars and IndyCar who scored two class wins for AIM Vasser Sullivan last year, flew to North Carolina recently to tutor Busch through a five-hour session in the driving simulator at TRD’s Salisbury facility.
“That was very useful and a great learning tool,” he said. “Definitely learned a lot. Came out of that with a good baseline for being able to come here and have a better understanding of what to expect.
“Without that, I’d be completely lost. It was good to do that. Jack’s been my biggest help and supporter. Townsend as well, too. I’ve talked to him a few times on the phone. Having Jack hands on with us at the test and being my teammate here has been big.”
But yet Busch also sheepishly confessed to at least one instance in which “I’m already trying to set up the car.
“It’s got understeer here, oversteer there or whatever. I suggested us going softer (on the setup), and they’re like, ‘We’re as soft as we can get,’ and I said “Well, that ain’t soft enough!’
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that we’re as soft as we can go. You always think of different ways of being able to engineer something. Obviously, there’s a rulebook as well, too, and I have no familiarity with any of that. So I could be totally off base to what my team already knows and I don’t.”
The Rolex 24 has been unfamiliar territory for many NASCAR interlopers before Busch. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Larson and Busch’s older brother, Kurt, are among many who have crossed over with some success.
Buch hopes to match that as the latest interloper.
“It would mean a lot” to win, he said. “Of course I want to have fun, but more importantly, I want to go out there and win for Lexus and AIM Vasser Sullivan and be able to put on a good show for the fans that show up but also the NASCAR community as well.
“Definitely a lot of guys have shown their taste of the Rolex 24, and this is my chance to be able to do that, so just hope we can keep it all on the racetrack for the whole race and have a shot at the end.”
Austin Cindric wins IMSA Pilot Challenge race at Road Atlanta
If you’re Austin Cindric and you have your first weekend off from your full-time Xfinity Series job in 15 weeks, how do you spend it?
You go run a race and win, of course.
The Team Penske driver competed in and won the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Road Atlanta on Friday, driving Multimatic Motorsports’ No. 15 Ford Mustang GT4 with teammate Seb Priaulx.
It is Cindric’s second career Pilot Challenge win and his second start this year.
The 21-year-old Cindric has competed in IMSA races since 2014.
“I’ve had a lot of fun when Ford Performance brings over the NASCAR Xfinity guys and we get to do some of these races in the GT4 cars,” said Cindric. “Multimatic kind of kickstarted my career. It took off in a lot of different directions and I wouldn’t be where I am without them. I see the same thing with Seb. They believe in him and he’s done an awesome job.”
Priaulx, 18, is the son of three-time World Touring Car Cup champion Andy Priaulx, and was making his North American racing debut.
“Thanks to Austin, he did a great job to get the car home in first place,” said Priaulx. “It was a good race. We had good pace at the start, not to get the P1 spot but it was good enough to win the race today, so I’m really happy. Thanks to Multimatic and Ford Performance to give me a chance to race this car and with Austin.”
You can watch Cindric’s win at 7 p.m. ET Oct. 18 on NBCSN.
Matt DiBenedetto taking IMSA GTO throwback to Darlington