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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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N.C. Governor enlists Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson for COVID-19 PSA

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On Thursday, the office of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper debuted a public service announcement with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson instructing state residents on how to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 1 minute and 16 second video shows Gordon and Johnson advising on proper hand washing and face touching habits, as well as for people to stay home.

“You can feel healthy but still carry this disease to more vulnerable people,” Johnson says in the video.

The video also provides a web site from the state government that provides facts on the situation: ncdhhs.gov/coronavirus.

The message comes a day after Cabarrus County in North Carolina became the second county that is home to NASCAR teams to issue an order for residents to stay at home because of COVID-19. The order, which restricts non-essential travel and bans gatherings of more than 10 people, starts at 5 p.m. ET Thursday and goes through April 16.

The number of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina was 636 as of Thursday morning, an increase of 132 cases in 24 hours. The state also recorded its first two deaths from the virus on Wednesday.

 

March 25 in NASCAR history: Car of Tomorrow makes debut

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After years of development with the intention of making stock car racing safer, NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow” or the Gen 5 car if you’re into that – made its debut on the Cup Series stage on March 25, 2007 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The race featured a thrilling green-white-checkered finish, as Kyle Busch held off Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon to win the Food City 500.

Then Busch, who’d led the final 20 laps, thew water on NASCAR’s new toy after the usual post-race interview pleasantries.

“I’m still not a big of these things,” Busch told Fox. “I can’t stand to drive them, they suck.”

Busch and the rest of the Cup Series would be stuck with that generation of car, and its ugly rear wing for a few more years. After rolling out full-time in 2008, the “Car of Tomorrow” stuck around through the 2012 season.

Even today, the well intentioned car leaves a bad taste for some.

Also on this date:

1973: Cale Yarborough led all 500 laps to claim a Cup win at Bristol Motor Speedway. For Yarborough, it was his first Cup win since returning to NASCAR full-time after two years spent competing in USAC Champ Cars. Yarborough finished two laps ahead of second-place finisher Richard Petty.

Dave Marcis on being friends with Dale Earnhardt and spinning him

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Editor’s note: This is part two of our interview with NASCAR driver Dave Marcis, where he discusses his relationship with Dale Earnhardt. Part one ran Monday and can be read by clicking here.

It was one of the more unlikely friendships in NASCAR, a guy from Northern Wisconsin and a guy from Kannapolis, North Carolina.

One had a pronounced Wisconsin accent – which remains even after living near Asheville, N.C. for the last 50 years – and was kind of quiet. And when it came to work, he’d rather work for himself than anyone else, even if it meant struggling financially.

The other one had a Southern drawl and countless smirks that belied a confidence – some might call it arrogance – that he was the best behind the wheel. The high school dropout also became a master at business to go along with his success on the track.

Dave Marcis, the wing-tipped shoe wearing wonder from Wausau, Wisconsin, and the man who would become The Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, were an unlikely pair but that’s also what made them so close.

In addition to coming up through their respective short track ranks in the Midwest and Southeast, the two men shared common interests that included hunting, fishing and working on both their race cars and personal cars.

Here are some of the stories Marcis told NBC Sports about his friendship with Earnhardt:

“When I first heard of Dale racing down here, he wasn’t in NASCAR yet, but he was running the short tracks and had a good reputation – but he also had a rough reputation at the same time,” Marcis said. “A lot of people would say to me ‘you ought to go run this track and race against Earnhardt.’”

They would eventually do so on several short tracks before racing against each other in several hundred NASCAR Grand National and Winston Cup races. Marcis made his NASCAR debut in the 1968 Daytona 500, while Earnhardt made his NASCAR debut in the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In 1978, Marcis was near the end of a one-year deal driving for owner Rod Osterlund when he found out that his contract would not be renewed. His replacement for 1979 was Earnhardt, who would go on to win his first of seven Cup championships in 1980.

Marcis wasn’t upset that his friend would replace him behind the wheel. Rather, he looked forward to returning to his roots as an independent team owner/operator and wished Earnhardt the best of luck.

But there were a few instances over their quarter-century of racing against each other in NASCAR where that friendship was tested, with one time in particular, Marcis recalled.

“We were at Martinsville and Dale was hammering at me and hammering at me, and I got ticked off about it and spun him out,” Marcis said, adding with a laugh, “he wouldn’t talk to me for two months. He was mad.

“But you know what, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I had to stand up for myself and I can’t let people run over me because if I did, then I was going to have trouble all the time.

“Finally one day, he walked up to me and grabbed me around the neck, had a big old grin on his face and said, ‘You know that deal at Martinsville?’ And I said, ‘Yes sir.’ And he said, ‘I had that coming. My daddy always told me if you have any problem with anybody, don’t carry it down the road. I guess you had a problem and you didn’t carry it down the road.’”

When Neil Bonnett was killed in a crash while practicing for the 1994 Daytona 500, Earnhardt turned to his friend Marcis to fill Bonnett’s shoes as his test driver.

“We became the biggest, greatest friends, hunted and fished together,” Marcis said. “After we lost Neil Bonnett, who had done a lot of testing for Dale, I did all of Dale’s testing. I was quite honored to have tested the car, worked with Larry McReynolds and all the guys on the team on the car Dale won the Daytona 500 with and he thanked me in victory circle for that testing.

“He was a great guy, did a lot of things for a lot of people that a lot of people didn’t know nothing about and he didn’t want publicity about.”

With others of their era like Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon, Marcis admits he sometimes wondered why Earnhardt chose him to be so close to over the years.

“I think he had respect for me, and exactly why, I don’t know,” Marcis told NBC Sports. “But a lot of people told me, and I don’t know if there was any truth in it, but they said he kind of looked at me kind of like his father because I worked all the time on the car, drove it and hauled it like his father had to do.

“He was a great person. There are some people who would disagree with you, but you have to remember, he had a lot of respect for everybody but he made things happen on the race track. I remember when he bumped Terry Labonte at Bristol, he said he meant to tap him or bump him out of the way, he didn’t mean to wreck him.”

But that was Earnhardt, he was that competitive. And that same drive extended to things away from the race track. Marcis recalled one incident with a big laugh:

“We’d go somewhere to eat and he’d get in line and the first thing he would do, he would not want to be the last guy in that line,” Marcis chuckled. “He’d walk in front of every one of us that he knew and he’d be the guy to be first ahead of you. He wanted to be first.”

In addition to Earnhardt’s largesse off the track, he was especially benevolent to Marcis over the years, giving him parts, advice and money – but usually on Earnhardt’s terms.

“We were at Talladega one day testing and he asked what was I doing tomorrow?” Marcis recalled. “I told him I’d be home at my shop, getting (his own) car and working on it to get it ready to come back here.

“Dale wanted me to test his car for him but I told him I couldn’t, and I only had a couple of guys at that time. He didn’t say no more about it.

“Then that evening, when the track closed, he came up to me, pulled three $100 bills out of his pocket, stuffed it in my shirt pocket and said ‘Here, take your guys out to eat tonight and this will help pay for your motel room. I already called the people at the motel you’re staying at and told them you were staying another night,’ and then just walked away. So what are you going to do? The next day, where was I? I was at Talladega, testing for Dale.”

Being one of the last independent full-time team owner/operators in NASCAR, Marcis was perhaps more in constant search for sponsorship than better- and more fully-funded teams like Earnhardt’s GM Goodwrench Chevrolet.

One day, Marcis asked his buddy if he would be willing to sponsor his race car.

“We were at Darlington one time and I wanted to ask him to sponsor my car at North Wilkesboro,” Marcis said. “I finally got the nerve to go up to him and told him, ‘Dale, you need to sponsor my car at Wilkesboro with Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet.’

“He asked how much did I want. I told him $2,500. He said that wasn’t enough. He never said another word the rest of the weekend to me about it. Monday I’m at the shop working and the phone rang and it was Dale. He asked where did I want him to send the decals to, my address. I ended up outqualifying him. About two weeks later, the mail came and he sent me $5,000. You just never knew what to expect from him.”

Earnhardt also had a special bond with Marcis’ wife, Helen.

“Whenever my wife Helen would be in the garage, Dale never walked by her without giving her a hug. How many drivers would do that? That’s just the kind of guy he was.”

Helen also figured in a practical joke Earnhardt played on Marcis.

“One time, he called my wife at the house and told her, ‘Tell Dave to be ready at the Asheville airport tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. I’ll pick him up and we’re going to go hunting,’ Dave Marcis said. “When I came home for supper, she told me about the call and I said to her, ‘What are we hunting for?’ She said he didn’t say, where we were going or anything, just told her to tell me to be there.

“So I get out there the next morning, was there at 6 a.m. It was a little after 7 a.m. and he still hadn’t shown up. I kept asking (tower officials) if they had a clearance for his plane to land, that it would only take them about 20 minutes to fly from Statesville.

“By then it was about 7:30 a.m., they landed and Dale comes walking in, looks at me smiling and says, ‘I bet you were here at 6 o’clock, weren’t you?’ You know what I told him. We then went to Texas on a deer hunt.”

Earnhardt was proud to call Marcis a friend, to the point where unbeknownst to his buddy, agreed to put both of them on a set of racing trading cards in 1995, the only time The Intimidator did so with another driver.

“Earnhardt had some trading cards made with his picture on one side and my picture on the other,” Marcis said. “I don’t know why he ever did make them. It says on the cards, ‘Dual Jewels.’ He never told me about why he did it.”

When Marcis, then 60 years old, failed to qualify for the 2001 Daytona 500, he hung out with Earnhardt for the rest of the week leading up to the day of the fateful race that would claim Earnhardt’s life.

Earnhardt worried about his good buddy, who was 11 years his senior, and proposed Marcis hang up his fire suit for good and come to work for him.

“Dale was telling me that week that I need to retire,” Marcis said. “He was going to buy some hunting land around the country in different places and we talked about putting together a race team for Kerry (Earnhardt, Dale’s oldest son).

“Dale wanted me to look at hunting land, maybe even hunt it, and decide if it’s worth buying it because he said, ‘I’m going to start spending my souvenir money on hunting land. You’ve accomplished so much, there’ll never be anybody that’s ever going to accomplish what you’ve done with what you’ve done it with. You need to think about retiring and then I’m going to put you to work.’”

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FS1 to show iRacing Pro Invitational Series race with NASCAR drivers

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Fox Sports will broadcast Sunday’s iRacing Pro Invitational Series, an exhibition event featuring many current and former NASCAR drivers.

The multi-week series begins at 1:30 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1 with a 100-lap race on a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

NASCAR has postponed all races through the May 3 Cup race at Dover International Speedway because of the COVID-19 pandemic. NASCAR would have visited the real Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend.

The exhibition series will feature: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and Christopher Bell.

Other drivers will include Bubba Wallace, Chris Buescher, William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Timmy Hill, Michael McDowell, John Hunter Nemechek, Ryan Preece, Garrett Smithley, Erik Jones, Ross Chastain, Parker Kligerman, Landon Cassill and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The full field with Xfinity and Truck Series drivers will be announced on Sunday.

FOX NASCAR broadcasters Jeff Gordon, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds will call the action in the 90-minute broadcast.

Bowyer will serve as an in-race analyst.

“This is a unique opportunity to offer competitive and entertaining racing to our viewers as we all work through these challenging times together,” Brad Zager, FOX Sports Executive Producer, EVP/Head of Production & Operations said in a press release. “We are following CDC guidelines to maintain a safe work environment, as the well-being of all those involved is paramount. We value our relationships across the NASCAR community and appreciate all of the effort that it took in bringing this project to life.”