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Friday 5: North Wilkesboro to make its comeback on iRacing

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Long gone but never forgotten, North Wilkesboro Speedway will make a comeback.

On iRacing.

Steve Myers, executive vice president and executive producer at iRacing, told NBC Sports that “we’re on track to get (North Wilkesboro) released the first week of June.”

No other long lost track is as revered among NASCAR fans as the .625-mile speedway where the frontstretch went downhill into Turns 1 and 2 and the backstretch went uphill into Turns 3 and 4.

NASCAR ran 93 Cup races there from 1949 — when it was the finale in the inaugural season of NASCAR — to 1996. Hall of Famer Junior Johnson was the local favorite. Richard Petty and Bobby Allison had an epic door-banging battle in 1972. Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt tangled on the last lap in 1989 and crashed, leading Rudd to hide in the back seat of a passenger car to escape the wrath of fans. Jeff Gordon won the final Cup race there in 1996.

The track was revived in 2010 and held a few races. Its final race was 2011. 

North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1966. Jim Paschal won the pole and the race. David Pearson started second and finished third. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

In December, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others helped clean the surface so the track could be scanned and added to iRacing’s sim racing program.

“There were certainly sections of the track that were much worse condition than could possibly be raced on,” Myers said. “Turns 3 and 4, the pavement was sliding. You could see it was buckling in on a section of the track … from sitting unused for so many years.

“Going into Turn 1, the drainage coming out from underneath the grandstands kind of ran across the track and because it was downhill, it was funneling down the front straight pit wall and right along into Turn 1 and collecting in the apron at the exit of the pits. You could tell there (had been) a lot of water there because the pavement started peeling up along that wall. So those things are kind of the obstacles that we have in the production process of trying to figure out how to smooth those things out and do the best we can.

“The data, we looked through it already, we’re pretty far along on the development of the track. It actually looks pretty good.”

That’s not the only track iRacing is working on to give race fans. They are working to do a version of Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville.

“Everyone that has kind of been clamoring for that, I think, is going to be excited about that,” Myers said.

2. Offseason iRacing?

OK, it was one event under extraordinary times where there were no other live sporting events on TV at time when normally there would have been NCAA basketball tournament games, NBA and NHL contests, among other sports, but the excitement (and viewership) for last weekend’s debut of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series has raised the question of if this is something that could be done in NASCAR’s offseason.

With NASCAR looking to end future seasons earlier and possibly making the offseason longer, a question was posed on social media if iRacing with Cup drivers would be a good offseason element for the sport and its fans.

Tim Clark, NASCAR senior vice president and chief digital officer, told NBC Sports this week that “anything is possible, (but) I do think it’s probably early to think about that now.

“I think we’re in a unique position in that we’ve got not only sim racers like you see in the (eNascar) Coca-Cola (iRacing) Series but also professional drivers that are able to do this at a high level,” Clark said. “What that does, I think it gives us some flexibility to determine what we’re going to do with these platforms and the timing. I think we want to strike the balance between having some opportunities to do more in this space but also being cognizant enough to not oversaturate.”

Should there be something in the offseason, it would face obstacles. Many drivers typically take vacations after the season. With the holidays of December, that makes it more challenging.

Now, if there was an interest in a short series of offseason races, January could be the time. Sundays could prove difficult because of NFL playoff games. So maybe a midweek event? Still that would face competition from other pro and college sports. And of course, the biggest question is if people will still want this after sports resume throughout the calendar.

3. IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheaders

Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s announcement Thursday that it was moving its IndyCar GMR Grand Prix from May 9 to July 4, puts it on the same day as the Xfinity race there, also on the road course, and a day before the Cup race on the oval.

IndyCar and NASCAR doubleheaders have been discussed often in the last year and Josef Newgarden ran six laps in an IndyCar on the Charlotte Roval in September. Now fans will have the chance to see the NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR’s top two series at the same facility on the same weekend.

Josef Newgarden drove demonstration laps Sept. 27, 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval. (Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series, explained the move and what it could mean for the future.

“It’s not like we had a plan in place,” Miles said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “It’s something that comes up. It’s been clear for a long time that both series, under the right circumstances, thought it could be a good thing for the sport and for each of our series.

“The spirits have always been willing. It hasn’t necessarily always been the highest priority, but this just sort of created the opportunity of here’s an opportunity, let’s go for it and as has been said there wasn’t much hesitation.”

IndyCar driver Graham Rahal expressed his feelings with running at Indy with NASCAR and the possibility of future doubleheaders with NASCAR.

“I’m extremely excited to run with NASCAR,” Rahal said in a social media video. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our sport, for their sport to come together. Opportunity maybe for some doubles to be done, which we’ll look into and things like that. But I do think that’s really good and it’s exciting for all of us to go off and do that together.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway also announced Thursday that the Indianapolis 500 would move from May 24 to Aug. 23.

4. What to do?

With shops closed or running with a limited crew because of no racing until May 9 at the earliest for Cup organizations, teams are trying to figure out what to do next.

“What became very apparent to me about two Mondays ago is after Atlanta is that you could not make a long-range plan,” Philippe Lopez, general manager of Richard Petty Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “Because I did. I did it on Tuesday. I redid it on Wednesday. Then on Friday, I said, ‘You know what, it’s impossible. We’ve never gone through this.’ ”

RPM driver Bubba Wallace with team owner Richard Petty earlier this season. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lopez said the RPM shop was closed this week and was closed part of the previous week.

“The biggest thing we’ve told (employees) that right now this is about them and their families and we wanted them to be home and be safe. We have continued to pay our employees and not cutting anything yet.

“They know, obviously if this goes on for much longer, we can’t afford to stay at that rate and that pace. There are, fortunately, some teams that can but we’re, unfortunately, not one of those.”

Lopez said that he is reaching out to employees each Friday to give them the plan for the coming week.

“The biggest thing was,” he said, “is we’re all going to get through this together.” 

He said a group text for employees has been “really heartwarming to see how they are taking care of each other. It’s just a good bunch. Everyone is taking care of each other right now. I told them to not worry about the racing part. We can build cars in two weeks.”

5. Long wait

There are certainly bigger issues in the world with COVID-19 infecting more people in the U.S. than any other country and the demand for medical supplies.

While racing, along with all sports, waits to resume, there have been many stories that have intrigued me. One is Jesse Little.

The 22-year-old senior at UNC Charlotte spent the previous five seasons trying to make it in NASCAR’s Truck Series but never competing in half the races any of those season. His was a case of a driver seeking work his way into a full-time ride.

He got that chance this season in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports and after four races, he, like everyone else, waits for when sports can return.

Jesse Little is in his first season in the Xfinity Series. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Little understands his plight does not compare to others who are suffering.

He also understands that this pause is just part of a journey he has gone through to become a full-time racer.

“I’ve learned to expect nothing and be prepared to react to everything,” Little told NBC Sports.

The Xfinity Series is not scheduled to return to racing until May 23 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, meaning teams would go 11 weeks between races. He’s gone months between starts in his Truck career, which has seen him run between four and nine races since 2015.

He admits there have been times when his career could have ended because of the lack of rides.

“Like a lot of drivers in my position, there were always crests and there were troughs,” said Little, whose best finish this season was 14th at Las Vegas. “I think at the end of 2017 when I ran only four Truck races that year and my last race I crashed and was, like ‘OK this might be it. Luckily, I’m going to school full-time who knows.’

“We were fortunate enough to be able to make the investment and go racing and bring back some people I had great chemistry with and had good notebook and that’s when I had my most successful year in Trucks in 2018. So in the span of six months, I went from thinking I was pretty much done to having my best career finishes and leading laps.”

And it led to him getting a full-time ride this season.

“I’m fortunate to have the support system I do,” said Little, the son of former NASCAR driver Chad Little, of family and friends. “If it wasn’t for them, without a doubt, I probably would have said, ‘All right this racing stuff didn’t work out. I played my cards.’ “They forced me to continue down the path and in doing so, each step … I’ve been given chances and I’ve seen personally that I believe I have what it takes and I’m confident enough in myself. It’s proved to me and I think to the people I want to prove, I think I deserve a shot at showcasing the potential I have. Each one of those things has given me the next step to readjust and get to that next spot.”

While he waits to race, he keeps busy with school work.

“The week heading into Atlanta I was stressing a lot because the week going into Homestead was my midterms and I was swapped absolutely with school,” said Little, whose major is management information systems. “The week after my midterms was my senior project. Literally racing got put on hold right when I needed to focus on my two classes at school the most. That’s what I’m taking up my time and I’m able to focus on my school stuff.”

Even with that, he’s still doing his race prep work from exercising and studying race film.

“I want to be as prepared as I can,” he said about when racing returns.

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IMS president discusses possibly lighting historic track under Penske leadership

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Track president Doug Boles and Roger Penske were a part of a group that walked the grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Tuesday until they couldn’t.

They simply ran out of light at the historic 2.5-mile track.

“We didn’t leave last night until it got too dark to see in some of the buildings that we’ve turned the power off in different places around the facility (to save money),” Boles said Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.” “(Penske) finally said, ‘OK, we’ve had enough, that’s great.'”

Penske’s group, which was touring the facility the racing legend will soon own pending government approval, could have kept going if the track had lights to brighten the facility for night racing and other events.

The prospect of lighting the track – which hosts the Indianapolis 500 in May and the Brickyard 400 on July 5 next year – has picked up buzz since it was announced Monday that Penske would purchase the track, IndyCar and IMS Productions from Hulman & Company.

MORE: Penske bullish on Brickyard 400, NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheaders

But Boles told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio the idea of equipping the 108-year old track with lights is not a new one.

“I’ve been there for nine years and I’ve been in this position for six, and over the last several years … we’ve often talked about things we could do to invest and make this (track) way better,” Boles said.

“Lights are one that we’ve had a serious conversations about. But we’ve never really been able to sit down and think about, ‘Ok, does this make sense? How can you invest this and really make it pay off?’ Or how can we look at it and say ‘This is what the investment would be and there’s no way that it ever pays off. So let’s move on.’ Having Roger Penske, the Penske organization, the deep bench that they have to help you understand, look at data, understand how you get from Point A to Point B or how you say, ‘Look, we don’t want to go from Point A to Point B because it doesn’t make sense. We’re going to pivot.’

“That’s what he brings.”

Boles further discussed the “fiscal impact” of lights at IMS.

“There’s ROI (Rate of Investment) impact,” Boles said. “If you invest $20 plus million dollars in lights at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, how long does it take to pay that off? Not only is Roger passionate about motorsports. He’s a great businessman and he’s going to make an investment that makes sense for everything. So we have a lot to look at. I think that’s something we’ll definitely keep looking at and his team will keep looking at and we’ll see where it goes.”

Boles said any plans for lights would face “a hurdle” with the community in Speedway, Indiana. But Boles said it would really be a hurdle if “we started thinking about an endurance race.”

“The nice thing about our community though is Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in a corn field and the neighborhood has come up around it,” Boles continued. “Most of the people that live in and around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway live there because they love it. So we have a base there that wants to be supportive of any of our events.”

Part of early discussions about lights have even included an analysis from Musco Lighting, a company responsible for installing lights at race tracks and other sporting facilities.

“Musco’s really helped us understand what it would cost to light not just the race track, but the rest of the facility,” Boles told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “So (we’re) walking through those studies at a really high level with Roger and his team so at least that seed he’s sort of planted in the announcement, he can start beginning to look at and decide if it’s something we should move forward with.”

Roger Penske to purchase IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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Roger Penske will soon own IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The development was revealed Monday morning by the track. The Board of Directors of Hulman & Company will announce later this morning the sale of the company and certain subsidiaries, including IndyCar, the historic speedway and IMS Productions to the Penske Entertainment Corp., a subsidiary of Penske Corporation.

The transaction will close following receipt of applicable government approvals and other standard conditions.

Roger Penske is the owner of Team Penske, which fields teams in IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA.

Penske is the winningest owner in Indianapolis 500 history with 18 victories, including this year with Simon Pagenaud. He won the 2018 Brickyard 400 with Brad Keselowski.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of three tracks the Cup Series competes on that is owned independently from NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. The others are Pocono Raceway and Dover International Speedway.

“We recently approached Roger Penske and Penske Corporation about this opportunity and began working to put an agreement in place,” said Tony George, Chairman of Hulman & Company, in a press release. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been the centerpiece and the cathedral of motorsports since 1909 and the Hulman-George family has proudly served as the steward of this great institution for more than 70 years. Now, we are honored to pass the torch to Roger Penske and Penske Corporation, as they become just the fourth owner of the iconic Speedway. There is no one more capable and qualified than Roger and his organization to lead the sport of IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway into the future.”

Said Penske: “My passion for racing began at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1951 when I attended the Indianapolis 500 with my father. We have so much respect and appreciation for the history and tradition of the Speedway and the sport of IndyCar racing. I want to thank Hulman & Company for the opportunity to build on this legacy and it will be an honor for Penske Corporation to help lead these great institutions forward into a new era.”

Said Mark Miles, President and CEO of Hulman & Company: “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and the NTT IndyCar Series have enjoyed considerable growth over the past decade, with significant increases in television, digital and social media audiences combined with record attendance at many of our race venues. With their track record of business success, their venue, operation and event experience and their passion for motorsports, Roger Penske and Penske Corporation will help us take the IndyCar Series, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all of our properties to new heights. Everyone on our team looks forward to working with them to capitalize on the momentum that the Series and the Speedway have achieved.”

NASCAR released the following statement from Chairman and CEO Jim France.

“The Hulman-George family has been instrumental in the growth of motorsports through their passion for racing, elevating Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series to a global scale, and we thank them for their leadership and significant contributions to NASCAR. Roger Penske is incredibly accomplished across both motorsports and business and we look forward to the successful operation of these properties under his experienced leadership.”

Kurt Busch eyes racing in Cup through 2021, another IndyCar effort

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Kurt Busch said talks are progressing with Chip Ganassi Racing on a contract extension and that he also has talked with the team about possibly running another IndyCar race.

Busch, who signed a one-year contract with the Ganassi before this season, said he’s excited about the Next Gen car in Cup that will debut in 2021 and that driving that car is “part of my decision-making with trying to extend my contract with Ganassi.”

The 2004 Cup champion said talks with the team are “headed in a good direction.”

Busch also said that “some of my talks with Ganassi are about an IndyCar.”

He was the 2014 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year after finishing sixth for Andretti Autosport. Busch also noted that with talk of a possible IndyCar/NASCAR weekend in the future, he would be interested in running that IndyCar race, depending on where it would be.

Chip Ganassi Racing is scheduled to field full-time IndyCar entries in 2020 for Scott Dixon, Felix Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson.

Busch, 41, isn’t the only Cup driver who is interested in driving an IndyCar at some point. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has expressed an interest in running an IndyCar on a road course. Kyle Busch also has expressed an interest in running an IndyCar.

Will Team Hendrick steal the show at the Brickyard?

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If there ever was a good place for Jimmie Johnson to break his 84-race winless streak, or for young teammate William Byron to earn his first career NASCAR Cup win, it’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend.

Say what you want about Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance this season, the 2.5-mile Brickyard has definitely been a Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports track.

In the 25 prior editions of the Brickyard 400, Chevy has won 17 times, with 10 of those coming from Hendrick drivers: five by Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, four by Johnson and one by Kasey Kahne, who won in 2017. That equals 40% of all Brickyard 400 races since the first in 1994 (won by Gordon). No other Cup team has more than five total wins in Indy (Joe Gibbs Racing).

Indianapolis is one of 13 NASCAR tracks where HMS has reached 10 wins. In addition, three different HMS drivers have won three of the last seven editions of the 400. And over the 25-year history, of 94 collective starts in the Brickyard by all HMS drivers, nearly half – 40 – have ended up with top-10 finishes.

To extrapolate that even further, Hendrick Motorsports has never gone more than three years without a Brickyard win in the quarter-century existence of the 400-mile race there.

While Johnson needs no additional motivation to do well Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC) to assure he makes the playoffs, here’s a few other facts the driver of the No. 48 Chevy should keep in mind:

* The winner of the 400 has gone on to win the championship nine times in that same season: Johnson three times; Jeff Gordon twice; Kyle Busch, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart once.

* Of the seven Cup championships Johnson has earned in his career, he went on to win the title in three of the four years he won at Indianapolis.

Given that Sunday is the final race of the 26-race regular season and will finalize the 16-driver field for the Cup playoffs, Hendrick Motorsports is sitting pretty coming in with three of its four drivers already qualified for the post-season: Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman.

“We go to a lot of places that we are really strong at and there are a lot of good tracks for us in the playoffs,” Bowman said. “We have a lot of work to do I think, but I think the tracks that suit us can be very good. Starting at a place like Vegas, going back to Kansas and Dover, we are going to a lot of tracks that are good for us so we should be really strong. I think a lot of it is building momentum these two weeks after the off weekend.”

Added Elliott: “Our number one goal is to get better at Indy and run better more consistently. That’s the main goal. It is such a special place that we want to run well. You want to run well everywhere you go, but especially at Indy.”

Johnson, who is 18 points out of the final  playoff spot, is the only Hendrick driver who remains uncertain to make the playoffs. If he does not, it would mark the first time in his career that he missed a chance for the championship.

No one has to tell him what’s at stake Sunday.

“We are running out of days and if we miss it, it’s just going to be by a few I believe,” Johnson said. “If I look back over the first half of the season, I see a lot of races where we gave away a few points. So, it’s kind of unfair to put all the pressure on one race in Indy. But it is what it is and we are going to go there to win a race.”

That may be the only way to assure his playoff streak continues.

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