Marcus Lemonis, from series sponsor Gander RV & Outdoors, added another $50,000 to Harvick’s bounty. Truck owner Chris Larsen pledged $50,000 to any Truck Series regular who could win a series race with Kyle Busch.
Suddenly, Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway became the most anticipated series event since the Trucks ran at Eldora Speedway for the first time in 2013.
With sports shut down, including NASCAR, for the foreseeable future because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saturday became a day of confusion. What to do with no racing and no sports.
“I’m sitting here at home on a Saturday. It feels weird,” Matt DiBenedetto said in a video to fans.
Texas Motor Speedway issued a statement Saturday that track officials are “currently preparing to host our regularly scheduled events and will continue consulting with officials on best practices and recommendations.”
Things can change. NASCAR’s statement Thursday announcing plans to race without fans started: “At this time …” and ended with: “We will work with public health officials as we determine future scheduling beyond these events.”
Plans remain for next weekend’s NASCAR races at Homestead-Miami Speedway to be held without fans.
But how much longer can this go? Or will this go? There are indications that other sports are prepared to be idle for weeks.
In a letter to fans Thursday night, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated: “This hiatus will last at least 30 days and we intend to resume the season, if and when, it becomes safe for. all concerned.”
The NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournament, turning March Madness into March Sadness, and all spring sport championships, including some events that would not be held until after Memorial Day.
PGA Golf, which stated Thursday that The Players Championship would continue with no fans, reversed course and announced at 10 p.m. ET that it was canceling the event. That means every PGA Tour event is canceled up to the Masters, which is scheduled from April 9-12.
The CDC stated that Georgia, where NASCAR races this weekend, had reported 31 cases of COVID-19 (both confirmed and presumptive pending test results). Only Washington (366 cases), New York (217), California (175), Massachusetts (95) and Colorado (34) had more cases than Georgia.
Should NASCAR race this weekend and be one of the few sports to compete? To some sports-starved fans, NASCAR (and IndyCar) will be viewed as a hero for doing so. Others, though, may question both sports for holding an event during a pandemic.
Either way, today begins with NASCAR competitors scheduled to be on track at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
2. What’s next?
Once the NBA announced Wednesday night it was suspending its season because of COVID-19, momentum began to build for other sports to follow, leading to Thursday’s string of cancellations and postponements.
With NASCAR continuing, many questions remain. Beyond plans to race at Atlanta and Miami the next two weeks, then what?
Both Texas Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup race on March 29, and Bristol Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup race on April 5, issued statements via social media. Texas Motor Speedway’s statement noted that track officials are “closely monitoring facts and in frequent communications with public health officials. We are currently preparing to host our regularly scheduled events and will continue consulting with officials on best practices and recommendations.”
Bristol Motor Speedway stated Thursday that “there are no changes to our NASCAR race weekend April 2-5. Bristol Motor Speedway is working closely with our state and local health officials in preparation for our events.”
To collect the $100,000, a full-time Cup driver does not have to win. They only have to finish better than Busch but cannot do so by unfairly roughing him up. If more than one full-time Cup driver places ahead of Busch, the one who finishes highest wins all the money.
But that bounty left Truck series regulars out. So, Halmar International and truck owner Chris Larsen are putting up a $50,000 bounty for any Truck series regular.
To collect the $50,000 from Larsen, a Truck series regular needs to win the race. Also, Busch must be running at the finish. The bounty is for Atlanta but would continue to Busch’s next race, Homestead, if he wins.
Should Busch win at Atlanta, Larsen and Hal-mar will donate $25,000 to the Bundle of Joy fund, which is a part of the Kyle Busch Foundation and provides funds for families struggling to conceive.
4. Ready to collect
Although Johnny Sauter could collect a $50,000 bonus for beating Kyle Busch and winning Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he’s not focused on the bounty.
“There’s no greater thing in the world or feeling,” Sauter told NBC Sports of winning. “Even though I’ve been fortunate enough to win a lot of races, it never gets old. … That’s what we do this for, at least that’s what I do it for. It’s not for bounty money or anything else. Winning races is awesome. So when you have trucks that are capable of doing it, especially where we’re at right now, I feel like we’re going to win quite a few races this year.”
Sauter, the 2016 Truck champion, has finished no worse than third in the last three Truck races at Atlanta. He’s also off to a strong start this season, placing seventh at Daytona and second to Busch at Las Vegas.
While there will be plenty of attention on Busch, Sauter doesn’t focus on such things.
“It’s just another person to beat,” Sauter said. “There’s no question that Kyle brings his ‘A’ game, not only with himself but with the program and the whole deal. A lot of people, I think, it bothers them that he runs in the Truck Series. Me personally, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. I know why he does it, and I think it’s good for his business and his company to run the Truck Series personally.
“When I look at him, he’s beatable. We’ve beaten him before. There’s no question to beat him you’re going to have to have everything going the way it needs to go. But at the end of the day when you do beat him, it feels good, but I like beating everybody.”
If not Sauter, another candidate among the Truck Series regulars to beat Busch would be 2018 champion Brett Moffitt.
Moffitt won at Atlanta in 2018 — the last time a Truck Series regular won there (Busch won last year’s truck race there).
“To have a shot for us to go win 50 grand from Chris Larsen, I think that makes it all the more exciting,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “I think it’s kind of Chris Larsen’s way of saying our guys are talented too … that they can run with any of the Cup guys that come down here.
“Obviously we haven’t done a good job of that in the last seven races that Kyle has been in, but I feel it can be done.
“I have confidence that we can beat him on the right day. With his talent and the amount of effort he puts into his organization at KBM, that Toyota helps him out with, it’s a tough combination to beat. He’s proven that.
“I think it can be done. I’ve had a few races over the last couple of years with him where I feel like if things would have fallen a little differently, I would have a shot at it, but I’m sure many others have felt the same way. We have yet to deliver on it and I understand that. We’ll just keep putting our best foot forward and go after it.”
Brad Keselowski has finished no worse than second in the last three Atlanta Cup races. He won in 2017, finished second in 2018 and won again last year.
Team Penske already has won two races this season with Joey Logano at Las Vegas and Phoenix. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney has had among the best cars in three of the first four races. Could it be Keselowski’s time to shine this weekend?
Kyle Larson is scheduled to drive a Truck for GMS Racing on March 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway against Busch.
Busch has won the past seven Truck races he’s entered.
Ballew was a Truck series owner from 1996-2012. Busch drove for Ballew’s team from 2005-09, winning 16 of 62 races (25.8%).
Finch, who will appear on this week’s “The Dale Jr. Download” (5-6 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN), owned cars in either the Xfinity or Cup Series from 1989-2013. He won one Cup race, which came in 2009 at Talladega with Brad Keselowski.
“We decided we would come and do a joint effort and come get us a driver,” Ballew told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “After some things that we’ve done with Erik Jones in the past, winning the Snowball Derby, … we put a deal together.”
Ballew said the $100,000 bounty put up by Harvick and Lemonis, chairman of Camping World, spurred this effort.
“I don’t know that I would have overtaken this, even with James’ help, if it wasn’t for that (bounty),” Ballew said.
Busch addressed Elliott and Larson entering the bounty ring Friday during his media session at Auto Club Speedway.
“It’s all good,” Busch said. “I think it’s going to be interesting, exciting, whatever you want to term it. I guess Cup drivers in the truck series do sell tickets. You know, take that for what it’s worth. I think it’s a unique opportunity for more attention on the series, which is good. Maybe if more drivers had more teams than had rides, there would be something else there besides just myself.”
“It’s brought a whole new chatter to (the truck series,” Busch said. “Whether that’s excitement or just chatter, I’m not sure which. I think we’ll see when we get to Atlanta what the grandstands look like and how the race goes.”
Even before the announcement by the drivers Thursday night, Busch had already given thought to the Cup competitors he could potentially square off against for the bounty and who his biggest threat was.
“I don’t remember who I told, but once Harvick kind of put the idea out there, I was like, ‘The guy who is really, really, really, gonna have a shot is Larson at Homestead,” Busch said.
The 1.5-mile track in Florida is widely viewed as Larson’s best track. He’s made three starts there in the truck series. He has two top fives, including placing fourth there in 2016 with GMS Racing.
“I’d like to beat him and think that I could have $100,000 in my pocket, but yeah; it’s really not about the money to me,” Larson said. “I think it’s a cool fun kind of challenge, and I look forward to trying to beat him, and if the money is still out there when I do get that chance, it’ll be a lot of fun. But, Kyle Busch is the best. It doesn’t matter what type of car he’s in. It’s not going to be easy. It never is, no matter what car or truck you’re in. But, it’ll be fun and I feel like Homestead is my best track and my best opportunity to do it.”
But the first stop in the bounty challenge is Chase Elliott and his home track of Atlanta.
Harrison Burton, who raced for Busch last year in the truck series, shared his experience competing against Busch at Atlanta last year, a race Busch won.
“It’s going to be hard to beat Kyle, I know that much,” Burton said Friday. “I ran trucks last year and ran second to him for a lot of laps at Atlanta especially. I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’m about a tenth better than the field and he’s about three-tenths better than me so this is pretty impressive.’ Ran second most of that day. Didn’t finish second, but Chase is going to have his work cut out for him there and (Kyle) Larson is going to have his work cut out for him at Miami. Kyle hasn’t raced Miami in a truck in a long time because of the playoff schedule so that might be — Chase has a steeper hill to climb than Larson.”
But a second bounty was issued Friday. Chris Larsen, principal owner of Halmar Friesen Racing, said his construction company would offer $50,000 to a regular Truck series driver if they beat Busch and win the Atlanta race, provided Busch is running at the end of the race. Larsen said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Dialed In” that if Busch won at Atlanta, the bounty would remain at Homestead, Busch’s next Truck race.
“I hope it’s great for everybody,” Larsen said Friday night on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I hope it’s great for the fans, great for the truck drivers. We all owe Kyle a big thank you for making us all better chasing him.
Atlanta and its owner, Speedway Motorsports, also are getting involved in the show.
SMI and the track announced Friday a way for fans to contribute $5 to the charities of Elliott, Busch or Harvick through ticket purchases.
Fans who purchase a ticket to the March 14 NASCAR doubleheader – which includes the truck series race (1:30 p.m. on FS1) and a Xfinity Series race (4:00 p.m. on FS1) – can choose the driver and driver foundations that will benefit.
If additional challengers emerge, the drivers and their respective charities will also become eligible.
Fans can ensure their ticket purchase helps the driver charity of their choice by purchasing through the AMS ticket office (877-9-AMS-TIX) and stating the driver and foundation of choice or by going to https://www.atlantamotorspeedway.com/bounty/ and choosing their preferred driver. Tickets for the Saturday NASCAR Doubleheader – which includes the Georgia 200 bounty challenge race – are free for children 12 and under.
“The anticipation for this race and the buzz around this bounty is growing every day,” said SMI CEO Marcus Smith in a press release. “Where the drivers saw a chance to inject more fun and excitement into this race, we see a chance to step it up even more and help some people in need through some very worthy driver charities.”
Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson to pursue $100K bounty in Truck Series
Elliott will compete in the March 14 Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the May 30 race at Kansas Speedway with GMS Racing. Larson will compete with GMS Racing in the March 20 event at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Elliott will be sponsored by Hooters for the Atlanta race.
Elliott has 12 career Truck Series starts. His last two, at Atlanta and Martinsville in 2017, came with GMS Racing. Elliott won the Martinsville race. Busch was not in that race.
“Once the word got out about the challenge, we were able to put this together with Mike Beam at GMS in just a couple of days,” Elliott said in a press release. “Atlanta is one of my favorite tracks, so I’m really looking forward to getting back into a GMS truck there with Hooters on the truck and make a run for a win.”
Larson has 13 career starts and his last three, including a win at Eldora and top five at Homestead in 2016, came with GMS Racing.
“When I heard about the $100,000 bounty I wanted in!” Larson said in a press release. “I’m thankful for GMS and Chevy giving me this opportunity, Homestead is one of my favorite tracks so looking for to the challenge!”
There’s a potential third bounty hunter waiting in the wings.
Not long after Larson’s announcement, Denny Hamlin, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, tweeted that he’s acquired the funding to field a ride. There’s just one hangup, and it’s Kyle Busch Motorsports:
The $100,000 bounty against Busch was proposed by Harvick and Lemonis, CEO of Gander RV & Outdoors, last week. It will go to any full-time Cup Series driver who beats Busch in any of his remaining four Truck Series starts this year. Busch has won the last seven Truck Series races he’s entered.
“We are blessed with this opportunity. To have an owner that is up for the challenge and a manufacturer that will support the extra effort necessary is really special,” said Mike Beam, President of GMS Racing, in a press release. “It’s great to have these two talented young men back behind the wheel for us and to have the extra attention on the Truck series is great.”
I was and it is a huge compliment form KH. But I don’t think the “all in good fairness” comment form Kevin came til after I said press comments. All in good fun… I’m good w it! 🏁 https://t.co/4BGj2q7ElI