Jesse Little

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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Silly season scorecard: Daniel Suarez joins Gaunt Brothers Racing

Daniel Suarez
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The biggest remaining piece to the puzzle that was the 2019-20 NASCAR silly season has been put into place with the confirmation that Daniel Suarez will compete full-time in the Cup Series with Gaunt Brothers Racing.

Suarez moves from Stewart-Haas Racing over to GBR to drive its No. 96 Toyota. This will be the first full-time Cup campaign for the team.

Here’s a recap of all the major headlines from silly season.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 00: Quin Houff will race for Star Com Racing full-time. Announced Nov. 27.

No. 1: Chip Ganassi Racing announced on Nov. 1 a multi-year extension with Kurt Busch.

No. 6: Roush Fenway Racing announced Oct. 30 that Ryan Newman would return to the car as part of the news that Oscar Mayer would sponsor the No. 6 through 2021.

No. 8: Richard Childress Racing made it official Oct. 2 that Tyler Reddick will move to Cup in 2020 and drive the No. 8 car.

No. 10: Aric Almirola confirmed Oct. 11 he signed an extension to race for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video Sept. 6 on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer was announced Oct. 17 as returning to Stewart-Haas Racing for a fourth season.

No. 15: Brennan Poole will make his Cup debut and will drive for Premium Motorsports full-time. Announced Dec 11.

No. 17: Chris Buescher will take over the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 ride in 2020 after the team announced Sept. 25 that it would part ways with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after the 2019 season.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

No. 32: Corey LaJoie will return for a second straight full season with Go Fas Racing and the No. 32 Ford. The team announced on Nov. 1 it would enter a technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing next year. Ryan Sparks will serve as his crew chief.

No. 37: Ryan Preece moves from the No. 47 to the No. 37. He will have a new crew chief, Trent Owens, who has been crew chief on the No. 37 for the past three seasons.

No. 38: John Hunter Nemechek replaces the now retired David Ragan for Front Row Motorsports. Announced Dec. 12.

No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing announced Nov. 15 Cole Custer will replace Daniel Suarez.

No. 47: JTG Daugherty Racing announced Oct. 16 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will join Ryan Preece at the two-car team, essentially swapping seats with Chris Buescher. On Dec. 2, the team announced Stenhouse will drive the No. 47, with Brian Pattie serving as his crew chief.

No. 77: Ross Chastain will drive the car as part of a partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing and Spire Motorsports in the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600 (announcement made Jan. 9).

No. 95: Christopher Bell moves to Cup in 2020 and will drive for Leavine Family Racing (announcement made Sept. 24).

No. 96: Daniel Suarez joins Gaunt Brothers Racing for his fourth full-time Cup season and the team’s first (announcement made Jan. 28).

Rick Ware Racing: JJ Yeley and Joey Gase will drive two of the team’s three full-time rides. The third driver has not been named yet, although David Ragan will compete in the Daytona 500.

Kaulig Racing: The Xfinity Series team will attempt to make its Cup Series debut in the Daytona 500 with Justin Haley (announcement made Jan. 10).

ANNOUNCED PLANS IN OTHER NASCAR SERIES

Xfinity Series 

Kaulig Racing announced Oct. 15 Ross Chastain would compete full-time for the team in 2020 driving the No. 10 Chevrolet, joining Justin Haley, who returns for a second full-time season and will drive the No. 11 Chevy.

More: Kaulig Racing announces full-time crew chiefs for 2020

Joe Gibbs Racing — Announced Oct. 17 Harrison Burton will drive its No. 20 Toyota full-time in 2020. Announced Oct. 31 Brandon Jones would return for a third year in the No. 19. Revealed Nov. 5 it would field a third full-time entry with Riley Herbst in the No. 18.

JR MotorsportsJustin Allgaier will return to the team for a fifth year in the No. 7 Chevrolet. The No. 8 car will be driven by Daniel Hemric for 21 races, Jeb Burton 11 races and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for one race. Noah Gragson will also return for a second season in the No. 9 car, while Michael Annett returns for a fourth year with the team in the No. 1 car.

Richard Childress Racing — Will field the No. 21 full-time with three drivers, Myatt Snider, Anthony Alfredo and Kaz Grala. Andy Street will serve as crew chief. Snider will also compete in selected races for Ryan Sieg Racing.

Stewart-Haas RacingChase Briscoe will remain with the team for his second full-time season (announcement made Jan. 6).

JD MotorsportsJesse Little will compete full-time for the team, while Colby Howard will compete for the majority of the season.

SS Greenlight Racing – Former Richard Childress Racing driver Joe Graf Jr. will compete full-time in the No. 08 Chevrolet (announcement made Jan. 16)

Martins MotorsportsTommy Joe Martins‘ team returns to the track with Martins set to drive the No. 44 car (announcement made Dec. 24).

Truck Series

GMS RacingDriver lineup will include Brett Moffitt, Sam Mayer, Sheldon Creed, Tyler Ankrum and in six races, World of Outlaws driver David Gravel.

Kyle Busch MotorsportsRaphael Lessard will drive the No. 4 full-time while Christian Eckes will drive the No. 18 full-time.

Halmar Friesen Racing — Stewart Friesen will return for a third full-time season in the No. 52 Truck. The team will also switch from Chevrolet to Toyota in 2020.

Hattori Racing EnterprisesAustin Hill will return to the No. 16 Toyota for a second year.

Niece Motorsports – Ty Majeski will drive the No. 45 truck full-time, taking the place of Ross Chastain. Announced Dec. 10. Carson Hocevar and Natalie Decker will compete part-time for the team.

DGR-Crosley/Front Row Motorsports – An alliance between the two teams will field an entry for Todd Gilliland in the No. 38 truck (announced Jan. 13), but it will be in a Ford instead of a Toyota (Announced Dec. 11).

McAnally-Hilgemann Racing – 2019 NASCAR ARCA Menards Series West champion Derek Kraus will compete full-time for the new team in the No. 19 (announcement made Jan. 13).

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Reports: Daniel Suarez to drive for Gaunt Brothers Racing

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Multiple reports state that Daniel Suarez will drive the No. 96 Cup car for Gaunt Brothers Racing in 2020.

The team has not made any an announcement.

Toby Christie reported Friday at tobychristie.com that a deal was done for Suarez to drive the full Cup season for Gaunt Brothers Racing. Motorsport.com reported Monday that Suarez would join Gaunt Brothers Racing for the full season.

Suarez would replace Parker Kligerman, who confirmed to NBC Sports on Friday that he would not return to the No. 96 car this season.

This would be the fourth Cup season for Suarez. He drove for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017-18 before being replaced by Martin Truex Jr. Suarez moved to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 and was replaced after the season by rookie Cole Custer.

Suarez continues to seek his first Cup win. He has eight top-five and 32 top-10 finishes in 108 Cup starts. He won the 2016 Xfinity title, a year after winning rookie of the year honors in that series.

Gaunt Brothers Racing debuted in 2017, running one race with D.J. Kennington. The team ran 22 races the following year between Kligerman, D.J. KenningtonJeffrey Earnhardt and Jesse Little. The team ran 15 races last year with Drew Herring running once along with Kligerman’s 14 starts.

Parker Kligerman will not return to No. 96 Cup car

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Parker Kligerman said Friday that he will not drive the No. 96 Cup car for Gaunt Brothers Racing this season.

Kligerman ran 14 races for the team last year, finishing a season-high 15th in the Daytona 500 and also in the fall Talladega playoff race. Kligerman ran four races with the team in 2018, placing a season-best 23rd at Sonoma.

“It was a super cool opportunity,” Kligerman told NBC Sports of driving for Gaunt Brothers Racing. “I didn’t think I was going to get a second shot at Cup. Then I had that opportunity at the Coke 600 (in 2018 with the team) and last year we did way more races than I ever thought we would do and got to be a part of the Toyota family.

“I felt like we really, as race team, improved and improved and improved and got to where our last race at Texas was one of our best races of the year. We were just solid, speed-wise and execution and all that stuff. It was cool to see that and be a part of that. That’s why I did that. I felt like we were building something.

“(Owner Marty Gaunt) has been great to me, super open to the process in the offseason. In my position, being a driver that doesn’t have any personal funding, you always know, especially being a part-time driver, you’re on borrowed time. I’m very happy for them. I wish them all the best.”

Kligerman said he does not have any rides for 2020 in any of NASCAR national series. Kligerman is a NASCAR on NBC broadcaster and co-host of the show “Proving Grounds” on NBCSN.

The team has not announced its plans for the 2020 season. Daniel Suarez, linked to the team, has not announced his plans for this year after losing his ride at Stewart-Haas Racing after last season.   

Gaunt Brothers Racing debuted in 2017, running one race with D.J. Kennington. The team ran 22 races the following year between Kligerman, Kennington, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Jesse Little. The team ran 15 races last year with Drew Herring running once along with Kligerman’s 14 starts.

Colby Howard to drive for JD Motorsports for majority of Xfinity season

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JD Motorsports has tapped 18-year-old Colby Howard to drive one of its cars for the majority of the upcoming Xfinity Series season.

Howard, a native of Simpsonville, South Carolina, will make his first start in the March 7 race at Phoenix Raceway.

Howard started in the final two Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series races last year, earning a best finish of 21st at Phoenix. He also has four ARCA Menards Series starts over the last two years, with a best finish of eighth at Salem (Indiana) Speedway in 2018.

“I am really looking forward to starting this season with JDM,” Howard said in a press release. “It’s going to be a steep learning curve for sure with all the new tracks on my schedule, but I’m sure we can handle it. My goal is to go out there and learn as much as I possibly can, all while aiming for solid top 20 runs. This is a big step in my career, and I am excited to show what I am capable of.”

Howard will be sponsored by the Project Hope Foundation, which aims to help children cope with autism difficulties in daily life activities. Other sponsors will be announced at a later date, along with Howard’s car number.

Howard will have Jesse Little as a full-time teammate this season.