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Mario Andretti named honorary pace car driver for Roval Cup race

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Racing legend Mario Andretti has been announced as the honorary pace car driver for the Cup Series race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval on Sept. 29.

The Indy 500 and Daytona 500 champion will pilot a Toyota Camry XSE pace car around the 17-turn, 2.28-mile road course and lead the field to the green flag for the second Cup race on the circuit.

Andretti was part of the development of the track before its debut last year.

He visited Charlotte Motor Speedway in March 2017 for a test drive around the Roval.

“When (Speedway Motorsports, Inc. CEO) Marcus Smith was creating the Roval, he invited me to check out the improvements to the infield road course,” Andretti said in a press release. “It was such a fun course to drive and the more I drove it the more I got into a rhythm, but I knew it would be challenging to the NASCAR competitors with the elevation change and transition from road course to oval.

“After last year’s successful playoff debut for the course, I’m honored that Marcus would ask me to return to lead the field to green for this year’s Bank of America Roval 400.”

After the test, Andretti suggested adding chicanes on the frontstretch and backstretch to slow the cars down and create additional passing zones.

“I liked the higher speeds so I was hesitant, but after hearing it from someone of his caliber and expertise, it made even more sense to create chicanes on our straightaways,” Smith said in a press release. “Mario’s forward thinking and his unparalleled vision for creating a spectacle contributed to the incredible finish we had last year with Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.”

Andretti made one start at Charlotte in his racing career, competing in the fall 1967 race on the 1.5-mile oval. He finished 27th.

Friday 5: Chase Elliott too busy looking ahead to relish Watkins Glen win

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott is relaxed and comfortable. About an hour after he sat in a Blackhawk helicopter and toured the city from a few thousand feet above, he’s in a Chevrolet Camaro at Fairgrounds Speedway.

It’s not the No. 9 car that took NASCAR’s most popular driver to his first Cup victory a year ago at Watkins Glen International and it won’t go as fast as that car, but this is still his comfort zone. In the fast-moving world that racing is, he slows down as he circles the .596-mile track, which could see NASCAR’s premier series return some day if Speedway Motorsports Inc. and city officials can complete a deal to upgrade the facility.

Elliott tours the banked track at an easy 50 mph — he’ll go about twice as fast later — but it gives him time to reflect upon the journey that leads him back to Watkins Glen for Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). And take him back to when he was known more as Bill Elliott’s son than by his name. Back when he toured the country’s short tracks.

Chase Elliott looks out at Nashville, Tennessee, from a Blackhawk helicopter during a trip to promote Bristol’s night race. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I feel like it’s been really everything to me,” Elliott tells NBC Sports of racing at short tracks early in his career, including Fairgrounds Speedway. “I think when anybody gets started in something, you’re going to build habits and you’re going to have tendencies and you’re going to do things from those days forward. … When you’re coming along and learning, you’re going to take that and you’re going to carry that on forever.

“I think that short track racing really made me be the driver that I am. I wish I could do more fo it. I feel that is home for me in a lot of ways. Love to go back and do some more of it somewhere down the road.”

Elliott is the only driver to win the Snowball Derby, the Winchester 400, World Crown 300 and the All American 400, the race held at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Those successes led him on a path that includes the 2014 Xfinity championship and 2016 Cup rookie of the year honors. His April victory at Talladega qualified him for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. But he enters this weekend at Watkins Glen in a drought.

He has failed to score a top-10 finish in his last seven starts. An engine failure ended his race early at Sonoma, crashes at Daytona and Pocono sidelined him and a mechanical issue proved too much to overcome at New Hampshire. A flat tire hindered him at Kentucky and poor pit stops led to a meager showing at Chicagoland Speedway.

“I can’t say I’m hung up on any of them,” Elliott said this week at an appearance promoting the Aug. 17 Bristol Motor Speedway night race. “Time goes on. The good news is you’re in the middle of the season so we’re not to the fall yet, which is when it really matters. I’d rather have a bad stretch now than come October.”

Elliott has been strong in the playoffs each of the past two years. He scored a top-five finish in 45% of the last 20 playoffs races and placed in the top 10 in 70% of those races. Elliott has the same number of top-five finishes (nine) in the past two playoffs combined as Kyle Busch. Elliott has one more top 10 than Busch (13) during that same time. A key difference, though, is that Busch has won five playoff races. Elliott has two wins in those playoff events.

Chase Elliott scored his first Cup career victory last year at Watkins Glen International. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Despite his recent struggles, Elliott will be viewed as among the key drivers this weekend after withstanding Martin Truex Jr.’s charge on the final lap last year at Watkins Glen before Truex ran out of fuel. The victory came after Elliott had finished runner-up eight times in Cup.

Amid the celebrating, he remembers what some told him that day about what would come next.

“Everybody is like the rest of them get easier,” said Elliott, who scored his first career Cup victory in his 99th start. “I really don’t believe that. I know we were able to win a couple more (in 2018), but I really don’t feel like they came any easier. Watkins Glen was definitely a relief. It was nice to get a win. We had been close so many times.”

The memories from last year’s victory are nice but they are just history to Elliott now.

“Obviously it was a special day,” he said, “and everybody likes to talk about that this year because of that and that’s a good thing but really just looking forward.”

The moment to reminisce is over. It’s time to go fast again.

2. Are chances dimming on NASCAR racing in Nashville in 2021?

With NASCAR targeting an April release date for its 2021 schedules and no agreement yet between Speedway Motorsports Inc. and Nashville city officials on a deal to upgrade Fairgrounds Speedway, any NASCAR race there could be a few years off.

Marcus Smith, president and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., acknowledged the challenge but said “we’re always up for moving quickly” if a deal is completed. Smith said he feels as the two sides are having “fine conversations.”

Construction continues near Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway has spearheaded SMI’s work with Nashville’s civic leaders, including Nashville’s Fair Commissioners Board, which oversees the track.

“I continue to be very encouraged,” Caldwell told NBC Sports. “We had that great conversation with the Fair Board back in May that has continued. We’ve had subsequent conversations that are very positive and cooperative. It’s a big process.”

A Major League Soccer stadium and mixed-use development are being built near the track and putting all those pieces together also has complicated the process.

“There’s a lot going on on this property, Fairgrounds as a whole, that plays into this,” Caldwell said at the track this week. “I think what you have here (with the track) is a diamond in the rough.”

This has been a project Caldwell and SMI have invested more than a year on already. Why keep going?

“I believe it’s because of the potential,” Caldwell said. “I think Marcus and Bruton (Smith) see that. They remain very interested and understand that sometimes things can take a while especially when it’s a property owned by the public.”

3. It’s all in the attitude

Daniel Suarez didn’t like Bubba Wallace’s one-finger gesture late in last weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway and told Wallace as much afterward.

But Wallace tried to convince Suarez not to be offended by it.

“We got into it in (Turn) 3 and I told him he was No. 1 for a whole lap,” Wallace said. “Ain’t nothing wrong with that. Telling him that he’s No. 1. That’s good.

“I do it to the guys that I like and can race around. If it’s Kyle Busch or (Martin) Truex are coming up to lap us, I’ll give them the finger, hey come on by. It’s funny. We’ll talk about it and laugh at it later. Truex is starting to pick up on it. It’s funny. That’s all it was.”

4. Planning ahead

Jimmie Johnson heads into this weekend’s race with Cliff Daniels making his debut as crew chief. With five races left in the regular season, Daniels’ job is to get Johnson into the playoffs. Johnson is 12 points out of the final playoff spot. While he’s been an engineer for Johnson in the past and was on Johnson’s 2016 championship team, Sunday will be Daniels’ first time making pit calls.

One of the strengths of Hendrick Motorsports, (Chase Elliott’s) team executed almost a flawless race last year,” Daniels said of Elliott’s win at Watkins Glen. “Not only did they have a fast car, they executed phenomenal strategy, Chase’s first Cup win. There are so many notes that we can pull from there that are such a big advantage to us.

“Jimmie’s style … he’s driven so many different types of cars and trucks growing up, he’s so willing and able to adapt to the different scenarios of a race depending on track position or strategically how we’re trying to call the race.

“We will absolutely have a plan that we will try to execute through the race. With that plan, you have to have contingencies of course. … We have so many factors that we can pull from to operate from a position of strength and it’s just going to be on us to go execute throughout the weekend.”

Since stage racing began in 2017, there has been one caution in the final stage in each of the last two races at Watkins Glen.

That likely will play a key role in how Daniels and other crew chiefs determine their pit strategy Sunday. Also, the last three Watkins Glen winners — Chase Elliott in 2018, Martin Truex Jr. in 2017 and Denny Hamlin in 2016 — each won by pitting only twice in the 90-lap race.

The second stage ends at Lap 40. Hamlin made his last stop at Lap 49 in 2016. Truex made his last stop at Lap 53 in 2017. Elliott made his last stop at Lap 55 last  year.

The last time a driver won the Cup race at Watkins Glen with a three-stop strategy was Joey Logano in 2015.

5. Nearly 5 wins in a row

Martin Truex Jr. could have nearly won each of the last five races on a road course or Roval. He won three of those races.

Truex won at Watkins Glen in 2017 and at Sonoma in 2018. He was second last year at Watkins Glen, running out of fuel on the last lap while pursuing Chase Elliott. Truex was in the lead when he was spun by Jimmie Johnson in the final chicane at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. Truex won at Sonoma in June.

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Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval to have change made to course

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Charlotte Motor Speedway announced changes to the backstretch chicane for its Roval that are intended to create a wider zone to enhance passing and slow the cars through that section.

The chicane’s original layout was 32 feet wide at its widest point. The new version will be 54 feet at its widest point and feature additional runoff areas that were not available last year.

The new chicane is meant to require heavier braking and a sharper entry. Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., said that cars were going about 130 mph through that section of the course last year.

“This is all about a very hard braking zone, a hard real left turn and another right,” Smith said Sunday at Sonoma Raceway. “It’s slow in but fast off. We think that’s going to set the cars up for a really great frontstretch chicane as well and give us a chance for more side-by-side racing.”

That backstretch chicane was one that went through some change last year. Kyle Larson was among the first to cut the chicane in testing last summer, leading officials to put a tire barrier out further after consulting with several drivers. After Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones crashed into the tire barrier during practice on race weekend, series officials adjusted the angle of the tire barrier.

Larson was among those consulted before this change.

“My hat’s off to Marcus and the team at Charlotte Motor Speedway for talking with drivers and industry experts as they work to further improve the Roval,” Larson said in a statement from Charlotte Motor Speedway. “The changes to the backstretch look like they will help create an additional passing zone and make it that much more exciting for the fans. After last year’s wild finish, I’ll take every possible opportunity to gain track position and earn some points.”

Track officials also announced Sunday that the Xfinity race will be 12 laps longer. That will make the race 67 laps. Stage 1 will be 20 laps. Stage 2 will be 20 laps. The final stage will be 27 laps.

Last year’s 55-lap Xfinity race was 1 hour, 32 minutes. Chase Briscoe won that race.

 

Friday 5: Return of Sonoma’s Carousel will challenge Cup drivers

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A new wrinkle to Sonoma Raceway could make a significant impact in Sunday’s Cup race.

The addition of the Carousel — a half-mile section that includes a blind and sweeping left-hand turn — is a part of the track that no active Cup driver will have run a Cup car on until today. The Carousel was last used for Cup in 1997.

Martin Truex Jr. said in a media release this week that the addition of the carousel is a “game changer.”

Alex Bowman is among those drivers who have tested the course on a simulator and says “getting off the Carousel seemed tougher than I thought it would be. I think it’s going to be interesting.”

It won’t only be drivers who are challenged with the change to the track.

Previously, the track’s key areas were right-hand turns — Turn 4 that led to a straightaway, Turn 7 that provided a passing zone and Turn 11, the hairpin. Crew chiefs were focused on how the car handled in those and other right-hand turns and worried less about the left-hand turns on the course because they did not lead to such key passing zones.

Now, the Carousel adds a key left-hand turn and can set a driver up for a passing zone in Turn 7.

“The Carousel definitely changes things up for us, a little bit,” Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “The other important part about the Carousel, it appears that Turn 7 could potentially be a good passing zone, so kind of being somewhat good through the Carousel I think may be important as it leads to a potential passing zone.

“That Carousel corner is quite a bit different mindset of what you would typically work on at Sonoma, where you would ty to work for drive and maybe not as much lateral grip. The Carousel is going to call for more lateral grip. The things that you do for Turn 11, Turn 7 and Turn 4 like we typically work on, will be different then maybe what the car is asking for.”

2. Sonoma strategy

Another key decision for crew chiefs will be when to pit. The course is now 2.52 miles (it was 1.99 miles without the carousel). With the longer lap, the number of laps is now 90 (it was 110 laps last year). Even with fewer laps, the race will actually be longer this year (226.8 miles compared to 218.9 miles last year).

With the focus on pitting under green at the road course since a driver won’t lose a lap, many teams pitted shortly before the end of stage 1 and stage 2 last year. Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. both pitted from the lead before the end of a stage and finished 1-2 with Truex winning last year’s race.

Both did that because they already had wins and were focused on victories instead of acquiring stage points.

With only six winners this season, several playoff spots appear as if they will be determined by points. Will crew chiefs of winless drivers this season give up stage points to go for a victory or seek those stage points?

Denny Hamlin, who stayed out and won stage 2 of last year’s race finished 10th. Chase Elliott, who finished second in stage 2, placed fourth in the race. No other driver who finished in the top 10 in stage 2 finished better than eighth in the race.

So the question will be for many teams — do you want points or the chance at a win?

3. Is it time to run the boot at Watkins Glen?

It’s a question that often is asked but with Charlotte Motor Speedway going to the Roval for its October race and Sonoma Raceway bringing back the Carousel, is it time to consider a change at Watkins Glen? Or is it better to leave that track alone?

There are various issues to consider but one key one would be if adding the Boot would provide any additional passing zones. The belief is that with the Carousel at Sonoma, it will create another passing zone and give fans more excitement.

Kevin Harvick, who suggested to Speedway Motorsports Inc. President and CEO Marcus Smith that his company bring back the Carousel at Sonoma, also wonders about changes at Watkins Glen.

“I think Watkins Glen could do the same thing,” Harvick said earlier this month at Michigan International Speedway. “It seems like SMI is more aggressive in these types of situations with changing things up and trying new things and doing things more on the edge of not knowing what the outcome is going to be.”

It is worth pondering if adding the Boot and making a lap longer at Watkins Glen would be best for NASCAR.

4. Xfinity regulars get extra track time

Three Xfinity Series regulars will compete at Sonoma with that series off this weekend.

Justin Haley will make his second career Cup start this weekend, driving for Spire Motorsports.

Cole Custer and Noah Gragson will each compete in the K&N Pro Series West race at the track Saturday.

5. Enjoy it now … 

The Xfinity Series is off this weekend and then races 15 consecutive races before its next weekend off in October.

NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader? ‘Bring it on’ say some drivers

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CONCORD, N.C. — What do NASCAR drivers think about the prospect of their world colliding with IndyCar’s in a hypothetical doubleheader weekend, with their top series competing at the same track?

The idea of a doubleheader has been part of the conversation this week in Indianapolis, where the Indy 500 preceded tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

At least three NASCAR drivers would embrace it with open arms.

“Sure, bring it on,” Daniel Hemric told NBC Sports. “I have nothing against it. Obviously, Chevrolet does a lot for our garage, as well as that side of it. I think it would be cool.”

Denny Hamlin echoed Hemric’s sentiment about the possible mixing of the two different motorsports circuses.

“I think it’d be great,” Hamlin said. “I mean I think that sometimes our fans are not the same and so it would be an opportunity to introduce each other. I’ve never been to an IndyCar race before, so it would be an opportunity for me to kind of see it up close and personal and I wouldn’t mind wandering around the garages and seeing how they do things.”

Former Team Penske driver Justin Allgaier experienced the NASCAR-IndyCar overlap when he competed for the team in the Xfinity Series. Allgaier is “all for” a doubleheader.

“When I was at Penske, being able to go through the IndyCar shop, I’ve made a lot of friends over there,” Allgaier said. “The technology in those cars are fantastic. I love watching IndyCar races. I’m hopeful that we can make it happen.

But Allgaier admitted “there’s a lot of challenges” facing the two sanctioning bodies.

“There’s safety, (NASCAR’s) AMR team vs (IndyCar’s) Holmatro team,” Allgaier said. “The difference in tires. Having the different rubber compounds. For us it doesn’t affect us as much, but it affects them a lot. There’s a lot of question marks. You know what, if any two series can make it happen, I really firmly believes it’s NASCAR and IndyCar. It’d be great to have a doubleheader.”

With NASCAR expected to make overhauls to its schedule in the coming years, the possibility of the two different racing disciplines’ top series coming together for a weekend under one tent has picked up momentum.

IndyCar president Jay Frye has said he would be a “huge supporter” of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekend.

“It could be a cool American motorsports extravaganza-kind of weekend,” Frye said. “We’ve talked about we’d run a Saturday night, and that Cup stays in its normal spot on Sunday. There are a lot of crossovers with manufacturers and amongst teams. We’ve talked about the friendships we have with them.”

The two worlds already get a small taste of one another each June when IndyCar and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series share Texas Motor Speedway for a weekend. There’ll be a second IndyCar-Trucks weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway starting next year.

Other tracks NASCAR and IndyCar compete on at different times of year include Iowa Speedway (Xfinity and Trucks), Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Road America (Xfinity), Mid-Ohio (Xfinity) and Pocono Raceway.

Texas and Charlotte Motor Speedway are among the eight tracks that Cup visits that are owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc.

SMI CEO and President Marcus Smith said he was aware the topic had come up earlier in the week.

“I wouldn’t say it’s on my top 10 list at this point,” Smith told NBC Sports and the Athletic prior to the Coca-Cola 600. “But we’re certainly open for discussions because we like to do things that are different and fun. So who knows? Our schedule for NASCAR is set for next year. I’m sure if it’s interesting to IndyCar after they finish the Indy 500 then they’ll want to talk about it.”

Which of his eight tracks would best fit the bill for a doubleheader?

“We have a lot of tracks that could run IndyCar,” Smith said. “I don’t know off the top of my head where it’s best suited. People have talked about maybe running the Roval in the fall as a doubleheader. There’s a lot of logistics that need to be worked out. Our entire business is a logistics business. We’re in the entertainment business, but in order to do that we’ve got thousands upon thousands of items that need to be to kind of checked off the list. The details, the space, the timing. So many things that come to my mind. We’ll just have to look and see. Certainly, all of our tracks except Bristol could host.”