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Leader of the pack: These Cup drivers raced to history

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Today brings the inaugural Cup race on the Daytona International Speedway road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will start on the front row. But given the chaos that can be expected on the first lap for a road course race when there wasn’t practice or qualifying, who will be able to claim they led the first lap?

Leading the first lap of inaugural Cup races at a new track is a big deal.

For the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, Dale Earnhardt pressed the issue so much that he caused his No. 3 Chevrolet to slap the outside wall exiting Turn 4.

He still didn’t lead the first lap. That honor went to pole-sitter Rick Mast.

Among the information available for the 24 active Cup tracks (excluding Richmond Raceway), only four times has the driver who led the first lap of an inaugural race not started in first place. Those occurred in 1950 at Darlington, 1961 at Bristol Motor Speedway, 1969 at Michigan International Speedway and 2011 at Kentucky Speedway.

Three drivers have led the first lap more than once: Dale Jarrett (Texas Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway), Kurt Busch (the last two inaugural races at Kentucky and the Charlotte Roval) and Fireball Roberts (Atlanta and Charlotte).

Here’s a look back at all the inaugural Cup races at each active track and the drivers who led the first lap in each event.

 

Charlotte Roval, 2018: Kurt Busch (started first)

Kentucky Speedway, 2011: Kurt Busch (started third)

Kansas Speedway, 2001: Jason Leffler (started first)

Chicagoland Speedway, 2001: Todd Bodine (started first)

Homestead-Miami Speedway, 1999: David Green (started first)

Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 1998: Dale Jarrett (started first)

Auto Club Speedway, 1997: Joe Nemechek (started first)

Texas Motor Speedway, 1997: Dale Jarrett (started first)

Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1994: Rick Mast (started first)

New Hampshire Motor Speedway, 1993: Mark Martin (started first)

Sonoma Raceway, 1989: Rusty Wallace (started first)

Phoenix Raceway, 1988: Geoffrey Bodine (started first)

Pocono Raceway, 1974: Buddy Baker (started first)

Dover International Speedway, 1969: David Pearson (started first)

Michigan International Speedway, 1969: LeeRoy Yarbrough (started second)

Talladega Superspeedway, 1969: Bobby Isaac (started first)

Bristol Motor Speedway, 1961: Junior Johnson (started second)

Charlotte Motor Speedway, 1960: Fireball Roberts (started first)

Atlanta Motor Speedway, 1960: Fireball Roberts (started first)

Daytona International Speedway, 1959: Bob Welborn (started first)

Watkins Glen International, 1957: Buck Baker (started first, led every lap)

Richmond Raceway, 1953: Due to poor record keeping, the info isn’t available.

Darlington Raceway, 1950: Gober Sosebee (started third)

Martinsville Speedway, 1949: Curtis Turner (started first)

Will chaos (and rain) reign on Daytona road course?

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The biggest unknown for Sunday’s inaugural Cup race on the Daytona road course?

Ryan Newman says “there are so many unknowns that it would be fabricating for me to tell you if I knew what the biggest unknown was.”

But with all the uncertainties heading into the race (3 p.m. ET on NBC) on a new course for Cup teams — and no practice — Newman is counting on one near certainty.

“I hope it rains,” he said. “I hope you add in the extra that we have to bolt on rain tires and we get something that is just spectacular. I hope that. The reality is that could be the biggest unknown that we have. We’re in Central Florida in the middle of August when it pretty much rains every day. We’ll see. I don’t know. I look forward to it.”

Good chance he gets his wish.

The wunderground.com forecast for Sunday calls for isolated thunderstorms throughout the afternoon. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:24 p.m. ET. There is a 34% chance of isolated thunderstorms at that time. The chance of scattered thunderstorms increase in the afternoon.

Will rain tires be needed for Sunday’s Cup race on the Daytona road course? They’ll be available. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Goodyear will bring rain tires for the weekend and teams will run in the rain, provided it is not a downpour and there is not lightning within an 8-mile radius of the track. Cup teams have never run a race on rain tires.

Only three times in Cup history have rain tires been employed. Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin used them in a test in 1995 at Watkins Glen. Teams practiced and qualified on rain tires at Suzuka in 1997 for the exhibition race in Japan. Rain tires were last used in Cup for a practice session at Watkins Glen in 2000.

Rain or shine, the task of racing on a new course without practice will be challenging enough for competitors.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being difficult, this is a 10,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports.

“I’m excited for the challenge, the uniqueness of it all, how it’s just crazy, basically.”

MORE: Starting lineup for Sunday’s Cup race

Said Chase Elliott, who won last year’s race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval after crashing: I’ve never entered a race where you literally just have no idea what to expect.

Patience will be key. But not all 39 drivers will practice that equally when the green flag waves.

“I’ve got laps around that track without the extra chicane but that doesn’t mean I won’t haul off into Turn 1 and blow through the grass,” Newman said. “You don’t know. It will be more patience than aggressiveness I promise you by pretty much everyone. Those that don’t, you’ll notice.”

Kevin Harvick, who swept the Cup races at Michigan last weekend, will lead the field into Turn 1 and he’s not sure what to expect.

“I think me leading everybody into Turn 1 at Daytona could be interesting because I have no freaking clue where I’m going as we go down there,” he said. “Most everybody in the field is the same way.”

Turn 1 on the Daytona road course is a left-hand turn off the frontstretch just past pit exit. That begins the six-turn infield portion of the 3.61-mile course before cars return to the oval in what is its Turn 1. 

Teams stay on the oval through the backstretch before turning into the chicane there and going back on to the oval. A chicane was added off what is Turn 4 on the oval to help slow the cars before returning to the infield portion of the course. That was done for fear that the high speeds would wear the brakes over the race.

“I think it’s going to take everybody a little bit of time,” Matt Kenseth told NBC Sports. “I think there are going to be some people who have raced road courses a lot that probably feel more confident than others and possibly be overzealous and just charging it hard right away, and there’s probably going to be other people who are careful and see how many people slide into things. … It should be really interesting. If I was a fan, I’d be all about not having practice.”

Here are Cup drivers entered for Sunday’s race who have competed on the Daytona road course (overall finish)

Clint Bowyer 2013 Rolex 24 (finished 16th)

Kurt Busch — 2005 Rolex 24 (27th), 2008 Rolex 24 (3rd)

Kyle Busch — 2009 Brumos Porsche 250 (10th), 2020 Rolex 24 (26th),

Cole Custer — 2018 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge (3rd), 2019 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge (9th)

James Davison — 2014 Rolex 24 (48th), 2015 Rolex 24 (29th), 2016 Rolex 24 (44th), 

Kevin Harvick — 2002 Rolex 24 (69th)

Timmy Hill — 2012 Rolex 24 (51st)

Jimmie Johnson — 2004 Rolex 24 (28th), 2005 Rolex 24 (2nd), 2007 Rolex 24 (36th), 2008 Rolex 24  (2nd), 2009 Rolex 24 (7th), 2010 Rolex 24 (21st), 2011 Rolex 24 (15th)

Matt Kenseth — 2005 Rolex 24 (27th), 2006 IROC race (10th)

Michael McDowell — 2005 Rolex 24 (42nd), 2007 Rolex 24 (10th), 2008 Rolex 24 (15th), 2011 Rolex 24 (7th), 2012 Rolex 24 (3rd)

Ryan Newman — 2006 IROC race (3rd)

Martin Truex Jr. — 2006 IROC race (6th)

NASCAR stock market: Ups and downs heading to Kansas

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On a recent edition of the “Positive Regression” podcast, racing analytics expert David Smith and broadcaster Alan Cavanna asked what was the third-best team in Cup behind those of Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

It was an interesting discussion with no clear-cut answer as they examined the pros and cons of Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

It showed how up-and-down this season has been with teams struggling to find consistency in a time where there is no practice. You might see one driver rival Hamlin and Harvick for a couple of weeks and then be replaced by someone else before they fade back to the field.

MORE: NASCAR to speak to driver for “very poor decision” at Texas

MORE: Cup Series playoff grid after Texas

Cup teams again will have no practice before they race Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Kansas Speedway. NASCAR is not scheduled to have any practice for Cup teams for the next month.

Logano won two of the season’s first four races but then struggled after the series returned in May. His third-place finish Sunday at Texas was his best result since winning at Phoenix in March — the last Cup race before the season was suspended for 10 weeks by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s harder to recover,” Logano said about when teams fall behind the top teams. “When I said lost puppy, that’s what we are, that’s what we were. You don’t have a chance to fix anything, right? You get done with the race, this, this, and this we need to make better on the racecar at least. We’ll try this, this and this next week, but it’s a different track. We’ll go and race, have no practice. Who knows if we’re going to make it better or worse, right? How do you find direction out of that?

“That’s where practice was so important. You could go out there, make a run, make one change, go back out and say, ‘Was that better or worse? Now we’re done with the race, we have things we want to fix. Let’s go to a track that’s nowhere near the same as we just went to and make some changes to our car and tell me if it’s better or not.

“You can’t. You can’t. You only can tell just by overall finish compared to the field. That’s kind of what we worked on. Seems like there was some progress made.”

Lack of practice is something Kyle Busch has mentioned as to why he’s winless in 18 Cup races this year. He also has yet to win a stage this season and has no playoff points. Last year at this time, he had a series-high 25 playoff points. At this time in 2018, he had a series-high 30 playoff points.

Level of respect declining in Xfinity?

It has been a question asked throughout this season as more incidents take place on the track. The Xfinity Series is back on track at 5 p.m. ET Saturday at Kansas Speedway on NBCSN.

Last weekend at Texas saw Noah Gragson, who has already had issues with Myatt Snider, Harrison Burton and teammate Justin Allgaier this season, run up on the back of Riley Herbst, making contact and causing Herbst to crash before the race was six laps old. Herbst said afterward that he “got absolutely drove through” by Gragson.

“I don’t get it,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said on the broadcast after the incident. “I just don’t get it. Five laps into the race why you have to be that aggressive on a slick race track with Riley in front of him. I know Noah didn’t drive in there with the intention of wrecking (Herbst) … but definitely pushing the issue early.”

Said NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also is Gragson’s car owner, on the broadcast: “To me, it looks like Noah got in the back of (Herbst) and didn’t give him a break. Just ran into the back of him. … I’ve got to put that on Noah. This early in the race Noah had a chance to cut that 18 a break.”

Kyle Busch says he’s seen a big change in the Xfinity Series in how drivers race each other.

“Nobody races with respect anymore,” Busch said after last weekend’s race at Texas. “They all just run as hard as you can every lap and when you’re running on ovals and stuff like that, you have to give room and you have to be courteous sometimes.

“Yeah, there’s going to be times you have to run hard, but other times where – like I was getting blocked down the back straightaway today by (Anthony Alfredo) on the second restart or something like that. What are we doing? It’s a long way from the end of the race and if you want a crashed car right now, I’ll give you one and you won’t even make it to the end of the race. I guess that’s what everybody else is kind of thinking too.”

Ross Chastain, who has built a reputation as someone who is hard to pass, says losing any positions can be too difficult to overcome in the shorter races.

“Track position is key in any series now,” Chastain said. “I definitely think there are some things that I’ve had some run-ins with and we agree to disagree on about everything. That’s just part of it.”

Busch said he understands that “you try to make it as hard on your competition as you can possibly can” but there are times to be smart about it.

“I learned from the likes of Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart and Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon and in that era,” Busch said. “Let’s call in the late 90s, early 2000s that it seemed like respect was a big deal on the racetrack and then you just started to get more and more call them kids that come on here and they beat and bang on short tracks in late models and K&N and ARCA and stuff like that and they just keep bringing it up into these levels.

“I don’t think they have a whole (lot of) respect for the equipment that they’re in sometimes because many of them have probably never worked on them before. They just pick up another ride and go on to the next year and run that stuff and then go on and move on.

“It’s just about trying to figure it out and pick and choose your battles. That’s typically what it boils down to. I certainly made poor decisions in the past and kind of still do sometimes today. You have to be smart as much as you can.”

Starting lineup draw Wednesday

NASCAR will set the starting lineup for the Cup race with a random draw on Wednesday.

Since replacing Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer in the top 12 in owner points — and eligible for starting positions 1-12 in the random draw — Almirola has started in the top five all four times the random draw was used. Almirola started on the pole last weekend at Texas.

Bowyer became eligible for starting positions 13-24 since he fell into that group in owner points. In the four races the random draw has been used, Bowyer has started 18th, 22nd, 15th and 17th.

The way that the draw is for the top 12 it basically just protects those guys and makes it virtually impossible for anybody outside of that to capitalize on that first stage, which puts them in a really good position points wise for the rest of the race,” Bowyer said. “Furthermore, it puts you in a situation to have to try to gamble either at the tail end of that first stage or throughout that second stage to try to capitalize off some points, whether it be that second stage or set yourself up for the end of the race.

“Anytime you go to gamble we all know that it can either win or lose big. Nine times out of 10 the house wins from what I can see. So, I am kind of frustrated in a sense that I feel like over the last month and a half we have had a lot better runs than our stats show.”

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Myrtle Beach Speedway moves one step closer to shutting down

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One of the oldest and longest operating tracks in NASCAR and other racing series is one step closer to shutting its doors forever.

The Horry County Council in South Carolina passed the first reading of a rezoning request Tuesday night that will likely lead to Myrtle Beach Speedway being redeveloped into a commercial and residential development, per a story by the Myrtle Beach Sun News/MyrtleBeachOnline.com.

The rezoning request needs two more readings in front of the Council before approval would be given to complete the sale of the speedway property. Including the track, the overall size of the property is about 45.5 acres and worth about $2.17 million, per the Sun News.

The .538-mile paved oval was built in 1958 and has operated for the past 62 years. Because its rezoning and sale are expected to be approved, the track has set August 15 as its “farewell race,” according to the Sun News. However, the track’s web site still lists events into early December.

This past February, track owner Bob Lutz, who purchased the property in 2012, said operating the facility continues to be a money losing proposition, according to the Sun News.

“(Closing the track) isn’t an easy decision to do that but the problem is it’s getting harder and harder for short tracks to survive, and the reason why is because we’re just not getting the attendance that they used to years ago,” Lutz told the Sun News in February. “It makes it hard, because you struggle and do everything you can. I think me and my team have shown that we have put 100 percent effort into building the speedway and making it successful and making it a great place for people to race at, and even though we’ve put in all the effort it still continues to lose money.”

NASCAR has a long history with the track, including holding events in Cup (1958-65) and the Xfinity Series (1988-2000). Since then, the facility has hosted a number of races across a variety of racing series.

Drivers who have raced at Myrtle Beach over the years include NASCAR On NBC and 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Dale Earnhardt Jr. (see video above of his race there in 1999); NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ned Jarrett and Dale Jarrett; Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler and NASCAR On NBC analyst Jeff Burton.

Speedway general manager Steve Zacharias, who has been at the track for nearly a decade, had previously told the Sun News that he and two partners have agreed to purchase Florence (S.C.) Motor Speedway and essentially move racing operations to there from Myrtle Beach Speedway.

Plans are for the new ownership group to hold its first race at Florence Motor Speedway on September 4, according to the Sun News.

As for Myrtle Beach Speedway, it’s a bittersweet ending for Lutz.

“It is so expensive to operate a facility like that, we continue losing money year after year and just at some point you have to say we tried with everything we possibly could and realize that without people in the stands you’re never going to be able to survive,” Lutz told the Sun News in February. “So the people that say, ‘Why is it going away?’ and ‘We wish it would stay,’ I wish those people would support us week after week and we wouldn’t have to do this.”

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Kurt Busch to make 700th career Cup start

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Former champion Kurt Busch will make his 700th career Cup start today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App).

Busch becomes only the 16th driver to amass at least 700 career Cup starts. Richard Petty owns the series record with 1,185 starts.

Busch, who starts second today at Indy, has the most career starts among active drivers. He has two more starts than Kevin Harvick, who is scheduled to make his 700th career Cup start July 19 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Busch made his first career Cup start Sept. 24, 2000 at Dover, finishing 18th.

He has 31 career victories, including the 2017 Daytona 500. Busch won the 2004 Cup title. He has 307 career top-10 finishes.

The 41-year-old marvels at making his 700th career Cup start today.

“It’s amazing,” Busch said. “To have this opportunity and to have been blessed to have raced with so many great race teams over the years, just making it past the local track was something that I thought was an achievement because my dad was a local racer. He won a lot. But it was like money, sponsors, and the whole challenge of even getting to like the Southwest Tour and Late Model division, that was even tough for us way back in the past.

“So, it’s amazing. Twenty years of racing at the top series level and now having 700 starts, I never would have guessed.”

Busch is 10th in points entering today’s race. He has yet to win his year but has three top-five finishes and nine top-10 results in 15 starts for Chip Ganassi Racing.

MOST CAREER CUP STARTS

1,185 – Richard Petty

906 – Ricky Rudd

890 – Terry Labonte

883 – Dave Marcis

882 – Mark Martin

829 – Kyle Petty

828 – Bill Elliott

809 – Darrell Waltrip

805 – Jeff Gordon

784 – Michael Waltrip

763 – Ken Schrader

748 – Sterling Marlin

729 – Bobby Labonte

706 – Rusty Wallace

700 – Kurt Busch