Josef Newgarden

Austin Cindric, Daniel Hemric ready to fight, claw in Monday Xfinity race

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Normally, Xfinity Series drivers like Austin Cindric and Daniel Hemric would spend Memorial Day with family, maybe enjoying a barbecue and just relaxing.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a new normal. Instead of the Xfinity Series heading into the holiday weekend with a race on Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the series will instead race tonight.

“It’s weird,” Cindric said, noting that typically he’ll race on Saturday, fly to Indianapolis for a family reunion as well as watch the Indy 500 on Sunday (his father, Tim, is President of Team Penske and also strategist for two-time defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden).

But that’s all out the window. The Indy 500 has been postponed to August 23 and the Xfinity Race was pushed back to tonight.

Speaking on a NASCAR teleconference, Cindric then added, “I just feel lucky to be back racing no matter what the weekend is.”

He and the rest of his fellow drivers were in a holding pattern until the coronavirus pandemic hiatus was lifted last week. The Xfinity Series was due to resume last Tuesday at Darlington Raceway. But rain pushed the race back to last Thursday. It was a good day for Cindric, as he finished fourth behind winner Chase Briscoe, Kyle Busch and Justin Allgaier.

“I have a lot of friends, past teammates, co-drivers that are sitting on the couch right now waiting for their race series to start back up,” Cindric said, “or a lot of questions looming over whether they’re going to get to race this year, participate in something like that and other series. So I feel very lucky to be part of NASCAR and the fact that we’re resuming our season.”

Cindric hopes tonight to extend the momentum he achieved at Darlington, where he finished fourth behind race winner Chase Briscoe, Kyle Busch and Justin Allgaier.

Cindric comes into tonight’s race third in the Xfinity driver standings, 26 points behind series leader Briscoe.

Daniel Hemric stands on the grid during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Toyota 200 at Darlington Raceway last Thursday. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Hemric, meanwhile, is also looking to extend the momentum he gained from his sixth-place finish at Darlington. One of three drivers who will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, Hemric has made starts in four of the first five races, with mixed results.

Hemric, who is scheduled to drive 21 of the Xfinity Series’ 33 scheduled races, comes into tonight’s race 15th in the standings, 129 points behind Briscoe.

After missing the season-opening race at Daytona, Hemric finished 35th at Las Vegas, qualified fourth and finished seventh at Auto Club Speedway, was 30th at Phoenix and bounced back for his best finish this season at Darlington.

“Darlington was a weekend we needed as the 8 team, but also as the race community, to get back to the race track to have an opportunity,” Hemric said. “To do something that was somewhat normal was great for all of us, and for us in general, right.

“We needed to try to get on base, that’s what we kept saying because we haven’t had anything to get our momentum going throughout the first part of the year here. So it was a good day and just execute and have a solid day and end up inside the top-10.

“It was just one of those deals where you fight and claw and it just worked out where we ran sixth.”

Now it’s back to fighting and clawing tonight.

“You know there’s nothing better than a home race,” Hemric said. “So hopefully we’ve turned the right knobs and have our Camaro tuned up where we need it come race time.”

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All 14 Team Penske drivers to take part in iRacing event on Tuesday

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Bragging rights will be on the line tonight when all 14 Team Penske drivers compete against each other in a series of virtual races to help raise funds and awareness for small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Verizon-sponsored “Pay It Forward Live” iRacing event kicks off at 8 p.m. ET, with all 14 drivers across five different motorsports platforms taking part.

The drivers are:

* NASCAR competitors Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto and Austin Cindric

* IndyCar drivers Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden

* IMSA competitors Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ricky Taylor and Dane Cameron

* Supercar drivers Fabian Coulthard and Scott McLaughlin.

The event, in support of small businesses affected by COVID-19, will stream on Twitter @Verizon, Yahoo, Verizon’s Facebook page, and Fios Channel 501. The event will be available on Verizon’s platforms for one week following the live stream.

The 14 Team Penske drivers will participate in multiple races as they share and support their favorite local businesses, engage with fans, and create small-business-themed in-game experiences – all while encouraging viewers to visit Verizon.com/PayItForwardLive to do what they can to support local businesses by shopping online, buying a gift card or ordering a meal.

For every use of the hashtag #PayItForwardLIVE, Verizon will donate $10, up to $2.5 million, to support small businesses. Last week Verizon announced an additional $2.5 million commitment to support small businesses, bringing the total commitment to up to $7.5 million.

“iRacing has been one of the best ways to stay connected to my teammates and all of our fans during the quarantine,” Power said in a media release. “Being able to rally the group to partner with Verizon and the Verizon’s Pay it Forward LIVE initiative to help support small businesses is something I know we’re all happy we can do.”

Jimmie Johnson to compete in IndyCar iRacing Challenge opener

Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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Jimmie Johnson, who has expressed an interest in running on a road course in the NTT IndyCar Series after this season, will race against IndyCar drivers in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge at a virtual Watkins Glen International.

The race will be 4 p.m. ET Saturday and streamed at indycar.com and also on IndyCar’s YouTube page and Facebook as well as iRacing’s Twitch. The NBC broadcasting team of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will call the action. The entry list of 25 drivers includes Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power.

Johnson stated before this season that this would be his final season racing NASCAR Cup full-time. He was to have tested April 6 for Arrow McLaren at Barber Motorsports Park before that was scrubbed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more on this story go to Motor Sports Talk.

https://twitter.com/IndyCaronNBC/status/1243609810152632320

 

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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President Donald Trump awards Medal of Freedom to Roger Penske

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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President Donald Trump awarded car owner Roger Penske the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, Thursday in a ceremony at the White House.

“A legend in so many ways,” President Trump said of Penske.

The Medal of Freedom was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and is awarded to individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of America, to world peace or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

“Receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom is really something special,” Penske said during the White House ceremony, “and to me it means more than any business success or motorsports trophy.”

Others who have been awarded the Medal of Freedom since 2018 by President Trump include Tiger Woods, Elvis Presley, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former NFL great Roger Staubach and former NBA greats Bob Cousy and Jerry West.

Team Penske has recorded 545 major race wins, 621 pole positions and 36 championships. His teams have won the Indianapolis 500 a record 18 times. He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January. His IndyCar team won the championship this year with Josef Newgarden. Team Penske has two drivers, reigning series champion Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, in the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Cup playoffs.

Penske is the founder and chairman of Penske Corp., which manages businesses with consolidated revenues of more than $32 billion and employs more than 64,000 people worldwide.