Junior Johnson

March 29 in NASCAR history: Dale Earnhardt snags Darlington win from Bill Elliott

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On March 29, 1987, Bill Elliott tried to win at Darlington Raceway by going the final 72 laps on one tank of gas.

That didn’t work out.

Instead, Elliott ran out of gas on the final lap and had to watch the No. 3 of Dale Earnhardt zoom by on his outside in Turn 4 and take the checkered flag.

“When it ran out, I just pulled down out of the way,” Elliott said according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era.” “I sure wasn’t going to push him into the wall. I don’t drive that way.”

Earnhardt, who led 239 of 367 laps, stopped for fuel with 11 laps to go.

Then, as he chased Elliott, he smacked the wall in Turn 2 with four laps to go.

“I knocked the hell out of the wall, but I still wound up winning. That’s tough to do,” Earnhardt said according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing.”

The win was Earnhardt’s third Darlington victory in four races.

Also on this date:

1959: Junior Johnson won a 100-mile race at Wilson (N.C) Speedway. He did it in front an audience who didn’t have a place to sit. According to “NASCAR: The Complete History,” the grandstands caught fire and burned to the ground less than an hour before the race began.

1992: While the above mentioned race from 1987 started a four-race win streak for Earnhardt, the 1992 TranSouth 400 at Darlington represented the opposite for Elliott. The win followed victories at Rockingham, Richmond and Atlanta. Even despite four wins in the first five races of the season, Elliott was second in the points to Davey Allison, who won the Daytona 500 and finished fourth or better in the next four races.

1997: After leading the final 22 laps, Dick Trickle defeated defending champion Randy LaJoie at Hickory Motor Speedway to earn his first Xfinity Series win and his first national NASCAR series win. Trickle was 56 at the time of the victory. In 461 starts across Cup and Xfinity, he only earned two wins, both in Xfinity.

1998: Jeff Gordon won the spring race at Bristol for the fourth consecutive year.

2010: In a green-white-checkered finish, Denny Hamlin goes from fourth to the lead to claim a win at Martinsville.

2019: Kyle Busch won the Truck Series race at Texas to complete a sweep of his first four Truck Series starts of the year. He’d win his fifth and final start in May at Charlotte.

 

March 27 in NASCAR history: Cale Yarborough’s show car wins at Atlanta

Cale Yarborough
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Four races into the 1983 NASCAR Cup Series season and Cale Yarborough was batting .500.

In those four races – the Daytona 500, Richmond, Rockingham and Atlanta – the three-time champion had won twice.

And he’d earned both those wins in backup cars.

He’d won the Daytona 500 on a last-laps pass in a quickly prepared LeMans after he’d flipped his primary car the week before in qualifying.

Two races later, at Rockingham, Yarborough was involved in a wreck with Neil Bonnett after leading 161 laps. That car was the same one his team had intended to take to the March 27 race at Atlanta.

Instead, the car Yarborough showed up with in Atlanta and beat Bonnett for the victory was another backup car. And not just any backup car.

“We had to pull a show car out of a mall to race,” Yarborough said after the race according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era.”

Yarborough won four times in 1983. The Atlanta win and his ensuing win at Michigan came after he started 41st and 37th.

Also on this date:

1960: Lee Petty bumped his way by Junior Johnson with 14 laps to go and won a race at North Wilkesboro to claim his 49th career Cup win, passing Herb Thomas for the most all-time. Fans were not pleased with how Johnson, a native of North Wilkesboro, lost. According to “NASCAR: The Complete History,” they showered Petty with rocks and debris as he celebrated in victory lane.

1977: Cale Yarborough celebrated his 38th birthday with a dominating win at North Wilkesboro. He led 320 of 400 laps and beat Richard Petty and Benny Parsons.

1988: Darlington Raceway hasn’t been the site of too many upset Cup Series wins, but it was 1988. Lake Speed, then 40, dominated to win the TranSouth 500 by 18.8 seconds over Alan Kulwicki. Speed, who made 402 Cup starts between 1980-98, led 178 of 367 laps. Speed, Kulwicki and third-place finisher Davey Allison were the only drivers on the lead lap.

2004: Martin Truex Jr. led 134 of 250 laps at Bristol and won his first career Xfinity Series race and his first national NASCAR series race. Truex, the 2004 and 2005 Xfinity champion, would have to wait 15 more years to capture his first short-track win in the Cup Series, in 2019 at Richmond.

2011: Kevin Harvick passed Jimmie Johnson on the last lap to win the Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.

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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March 26 in NASCAR History: Matt Kenseth turns Jeff Gordon, Gordon shoves back

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Bristol Motor Speedway is used to fireworks, and the Food City 500 on March 26, 2006, was no exception.

It began with five laps to go with Matt Kenseth leading Kurt Busch, winner of four of the last eight Bristol races.

Busch, in Team Penske’s No. 2 Ford, got into Kenseth’s rear bumper, causing Kenseth to get wicked sideways and letting Busch rocket by as Kenseth fell to third in front of Jeff Gordon.

With two laps to go, Gordon got Kenseth loose exiting Turn 4 and passed him.

As they raced through Turns 1 and 2 on the last lap, Kenseth returned the favor and sent Gordon into a spin.

Meanwhile, Busch outran Kevin Harvick to the take the checkered flag.

During the cool-down lap, Kenseth showed his own displeasure by quickly driving up to Busch and veering toward him, but not making contact.

Then, as Busch performed snow angels on the frontstretch (it had snowed in the area that weekend), Gordon exited his car with his helmet still on, made a beeline for Kenseth and gave him a hard shove.

“Kenseth got shuffled out and you know, he’s holding guys up,” Gordon told Fox. “I got to him a couple times and showed my nose and he shut the door on me. The next time I got the opportunity I definitely moved him, but I didn’t wreck him. We went down into (Turn) 1 afterwards and he just wrecked me. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do it and all that stuff, but I wasn’t happy about it and I showed it to him after the race. … That stuff rarely ever happens with him. I’m going to give back to him what he gives to me.”

Also on this date:

1955: Fonty Flock, driving a No. 14 car owned by Frank Christian, won a premier series race at Columbia Speedway in Cayce, South Carolina. Flock became the first driver to win a race for Chevrolet in NASCAR’s top series.

1961: Bob Burdick only made 15 Cup Series starts in his career, but he left an impression. At Atlanta this year, Burdick led 44 of 334 laps to score an upset win. According to “NASCAR: The Complete History,” he did so in an unsponsored Pontiac car on used tires and with an inexperienced crew in the pits. He beat Rex White and Ralph Earnhardt.

1972: After making up seven seconds in the last 30 laps, Bobby Allison beat A.J. Foyt by about five car lengths to win at Atlanta. Allison earned Chevrolet’s first win on a speedway since 1963. Allison raced for Junior Johnson, who won that 1963 race at Charlotte.

1995:  After 314 career Cup Series starts, Sterling Marlin earned his first win on a non-restrictor plate track with a victory at Darlington. His first two Cup wins were back-to-back in the Daytona 500 in 1994-95.

2000: Rusty Wallace claimed his eighth career win at Bristol, which also marked his 50th Cup Series win.

Friday 5: As season nears, a bigger deadline looms for NASCAR

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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While the Cup garage opens in two weeks at Daytona International Speedway to begin the 2020 season, a bigger deadline is looming.

It is less than 10 weeks from NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of announcing the 2021 schedule around April 1.

Phelps made it clear in November what will be key elements to the upcoming schedule.

“We’re looking at where we’re going to have the most competitive racing that we can have, where we’re going to have full grandstands, and what does that market look like, is it a new market that we can service,” Phelps said the morning of last season’s finale in Miami.

Tracks that host Cup races — now mostly owned by NASCAR — were put on notice by Phelps’ comments.

“The two things that teams need: We need butts in seats and eyeballs on the TV,” said Steve Newmark, Roush Fenway Racing president, this week.

He stated how important attendance is for teams by noting the growth at Watkins Glen International, which had its fifth consecutive sellout of grandstand seating last year.

Fans at Watkins Glen in 2019. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“When I started in 2010, we didn’t take a lot of partners to Watkins Glen,” Newmark said of sponsors. “Now you take a partner to Watkins Glen in a heartbeat. It is sold out, the energy there. I understand the capacity at Watkins Glen is not the same but it has this feeling, and I think really what we’re trying from a team perspective, from a Roush Fenway perspective, that’s the most important thing.

“I want to go to areas that embrace having the race, that people show up in the stands, that there is a lot of energy. That’s where I want to take my partners. I want them to see their brand in that type of setting.

“Some venues can do that with two races. Other venues it’s been more of a struggle. I would love to see us try these new venues. There will be an energy around that.”

Among Newmark’s suggestions of where NASCAR should consider racing at some point: “Mexico, Canada, street courses, different road courses, different short tracks, look at it all.”

Ryan Newman, who enters his second year at Roush Fenway Racing, said that NASCAR should consider running a Cup race on dirt.

“I’m not trying to bash anybody, we just can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing,” he said this week. “We just can’t. We’ve got to mix it up as a sport. We’re working on doing that and I know that.

NASCAR Trucks at Eldora Speedway in 2019. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“But we’ve got to mix it up and make the fans want to see something different, want to see something new. A different driver. A different venue. A different type of anything. Not just a Next Gen car, that’s a part of it. … Going dirt racing can be done with the Next Gen car. If Junior Johnson was here, he’d tell you, ‘Let’s go race dirt.’ I’m telling you.”

Only the Truck series races on dirt, competing at Eldora Speedway. Cup last raced on a dirt track Sept. 30, 1970 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, North Carolina. Richard Petty won that race.

As the sport continues to evolve — adding a night race at Martinsville, a doubleheader weekend at Pocono, and the debut of the Next Gen car next season — the makeup of the schedule in the coming years will be among the biggest tasks for NASCAR officials.

2. A big deal

After winning the Chili Bowl for the first time in 13 attempts, Kyle Larson said moments after the triumph on the MavTV broadcast: “Its a pretty different range of emotions 365 days later. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I’m sorry NASCAR, I’m sorry Daytona, but this is the biggest (expletive) race I’ve ever won. I hope to win Daytona in a few weeks but this is bad ass.”

Larson, who lost the Chili Bowl the previous year on the last lap, later explained his comment in his press conference.

“It will be fun to watch the dirt fans and the NASCAR fans go at it and maybe get a text from (NASCAR’s Steve) O’Donnell and probably (Chip Ganassi Racing chief operating officer) Doug Duchardt,” Larson said.

“I think they understand the energy that this race brings to me and how much I want to win and have wanted to win it. Obviously, I’ve said in the past that the Chili Bowl, to me, is bigger than the Daytona 500. Obviously, it’s not just because of the size of the crowd and the purse of the Daytona 500, nothing compares with that I’ve raced in.

“On a personal level, just how close I’ve been to winning this race, I think that’s where I think this race has meant more to me. But now maybe after winning the Chili Bowl, the Daytona 500 will be that next race that’s going to mean the most to me that I want to win. It’s just been a great little run and hopefully we can turn this into some good momentum into the NASCAR season.”

Ryan Newman, who competed at the Chili Bowl Nationals for the first time, defended Larson’s excitement with winning that event.

“There’s 360 drivers, 360 teams going for one trophy. That’s spectacular,” Newman said. “I raced midgets races before where I won and there were 16 cars that entered and I felt really good about it. Going back to the Kyle Larson (comment), when there’s 360 (drivers) and you have been working … your whole life to get that trophy, it makes it special. It makes it more special than anybody who is out of his shoes to understand.”

3. Memorable win

NASCAR’s test this week on the Indy road course for the Xfinity Series will give those drivers a chance to accomplish a first — be the first Xfinity driver to win on that circuit.

Brad Keselowski after winning the 2012 Nationwide race at Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Brad Keselowski won the first Xfinity race at Indy (it was known as the Nationwide Series at the time) in 2012. That remains a special accomplishment.

“It sticks with you,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m proud of it. … It makes me … a little sad because I don’t get to compete in that series anymore with all the rules, it’s not feasible. So there is a little bit of sorrow I have with that question (of winning there) but it certainly was a defining moment for my career.”

Keselowski also won the final Xfinity race at Lucas Oil Raceway — where the series competed from 1982-2011 before moving to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

4. 15 and counting …

Call it a good sign for some, an omen for others or one crazy coincidence but each of the past 15 Cup champions have had an even-number car number.

The last driver to win the championship with an odd number on the car was Kurt Busch. He won the 2004 title (the inaugural Chase) driving the No. 97 car.

So, if one believes in signs, the even-number streak could be a bad sign this season for drivers with odd numbers, such as Busch (No. 1), Chase Elliott (No. 9), Denny Hamlin (No. 11) and Martin Truex Jr. (No. 19) among others.

5. NASCAR at Rolex

Kyle Busch is the only active Cup driver competing in this weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway (coverage will be on NBC, NBCSN and NBC Gold: Track Pass), today’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge will have some additional NASCAR flavor.

MORE: A “crucial” year for Hailie Deegan’s career begins today at Daytona

MORE: Full Rolex 24 Hours coverage at MotorSportsTalk

The four-hour endurance race begins at 1:10 pm. ET (and will be streamed on the NBC Gold: Track Pass) and includes Xfinity drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Also competing will be Hailie Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s in the offseason. She’ll spend most of her time this season running in the ARCA Series. Deegan and Briscoe will co-drive the No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4.