Martinsville Speedway

March 28 in NASCAR history: Texas Terry Labonte gets a home win

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Terry Labonte’s last two Cup Series wins were anything but forgettable.

The last one, in 2003, came in the Southern 500. That was the same race he earned his first Cup win in way back in 1980.

But four years earlier, the two-time champion got a home win.

A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, the driver nicknamed “Texas Terry” claimed a victory in the 1999 race at Texas Motor Speedway. It was just the third Cup race held at the facility after it opened in 1997.

Labonte started fourth and would lead 124 of 334 laps around the 1.5-mile track, including the final 12 after he passed Dale Jarrett on the outside going into Turn 1 for the lead.

Jarrett wouldn’t get a chance to fight for the lead again. With four laps to go, Jimmy Spencer crashed on the frontstretch to bring out the caution. Labonte took the checkered and yellow flags together for his 21st Cup win.

“We picked places to go test this year and I said ‘I want to go here cause this is a race I want to win,” Labonte told CBS. “Besides Daytona, coming here to Texas is awesome.”

Making the day even better for the Labonte family was Terry’s younger brother, Bobby, placing third.

Also on this day:

1954: The premier series held two races on different sides of the country. Dick Rathmann won a 125-mile race at Oakland Speedway in California after starting last. In Georgia, Al Keller won his first career race at Savannah’s Oglethorpe Speedway.

1982: Sam Ard claimed his first career Xfinity Series win in a race at Martinsville Speedway. Ard would go on to win 22 Xfinity races and the championships in 1983 and 1984.

1992: Robert Pressley passed Harry Gant on the last lap to win the Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.

1993: Dale Earnhardt came back from a lap down to win at Darlington Raceway. It was his first win since the Coca-Cola 600 10 months earlier. Alan Kulwicki finished sixth in what would be his last race before his death in a plane crash on April 1.

2004: Kurt Busch won at Bristol for his third consecutive victory on the half-mile track.

NASCAR wants to run postponed races before playoffs

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NASCAR President Steve Phelps said that series officials are looking “broadly at what our options are” but intend to run every points race and the All-Star race this season and are planning to reschedule postponed races before the playoffs so the season can end as scheduled at Phoenix Raceway.

Phelps acknowledged in a teleconference with reporters Tuesday — the first time he’s spoken to reporters since last weekend’s races at Atlanta Motor Speedway were postponed — that there is the possibility of races being run without fans. He noted that many questions remain in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and such decisions will be based on what health experts that NASCAR consult with suggest.

MORE: Full transcript of NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ call with reporters

Phelps also said that officials had no specifics on any financial help for teams with the sport paused until at least May 3 but said “we want to make sure teams get through this.” NASCAR has postponed seven race weekends (nearly 20% of the season). The next Cup race scheduled is May 9 at Martinsville Speedway.

As for this year’s schedule, Phelps said: “At this particular point, we would like to finish the season at Phoenix and keep the playoff portion intact. With that said, that would require a lot of different opportunities for us to look at and we’re in the process of doing that. No specifics about mid-week races. I’ve heard about doubleheaders and different things. At this particular point, a lot of things on the table for us to look at, working with our race teams, working with our race tracks to make sure the things that are put on the table are feasible to do.”

The Cup playoffs are scheduled to begin Sept. 6 at Darlington Raceway and end Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.

Phelps later said in the call with reporters that he hoped not to have doubleheaders during the playoffs at tracks that have had races postponed (Bristol, Texas, Martinsville and Talladega).

As for racing without fans, Phelps said: “Would we consider racing without fans at some point to get back racing more quickly? That’s in the consideration set. I don’t know. It’s changing so rapidly and what it means for mass gatherings and what is that number. We’ll work with our health officials and we’re working with a number of infectious disease professionals that are going to help us through what that looks like and whether it makes sense to race without fans or have our first race be back with fans.”

As for the teams and the financial hardships they could face before racing is scheduled to resume in May and if NASCAR would provide any type of subsidy, Phelps said:  “No specifics around subsidies or anything of that nature. We are working with our teams closely to … make sure we are all financially viable moving forward during this postponement of our races.”

Later in the call Phelps was asked about that topic and said: “Are we concerned about teams broadly and their financial health? Of course we are. We want to make sure that each of our teams gets through this, each of our stakeholders in the industry gets through this crisis as well as we all can.

“Lots of things on the table. No specifics at this point that we are prepared to discuss. Financially we need to make sure that our financials are handled with obviously the stakeholders separately, make sure that we are all aligned with what that’s going to look like. As of right now, nothing to share.”

As for the impact this delay is having on the Next Gen car, which is set to debut next season, Phelps said:  “We are still pushing forward right now with the Next Gen car. We are still pushing forward with changes to our (2021) schedule. We’re trying to do it as smartly as we can.

“The variables keep changing, right? The hurdles keep being put in front of this industry, and this industry keeps jumping over them, then there’s another, it jumps over that, then another and another.

“It’s not an easy situation for sure, but it’s one that this industry is managing together.  Really proud of how this industry has come together to try to support each other and to try to get through this as best we can. Again, it’s a difficult situation.”

NASCAR postpones five more races; looks to return in May

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NASCAR announced Monday that it will postpone five more race weekends because of COVID-19 with the hope of returning to racing May 8-9 at Martinsville Speedway.

Race weekends postponed will be Texas (March 27-29), Bristol (April 3-5), Richmond (April 17-19), Talladega (April 24-26) and Dover (May 1-3).

NASCAR stated Monday:

“The health and safety of our fans, industry and the communities in which we race is our most important priority, so in accordance with recent CDC guidance, NASCAR is currently postponing all race events through May 3rd, with plans to return racing in Martinsville. We appreciate the patience of our fans and we look forward to returning to the racetrack. We intend to hold all 36 races this season, with future rescheduling soon to be determined as we continue to monitor this situation closely with public health officials and medical experts. What is important now transcends the world of sports and our focus is on everyone’s safety and well-being as we navigate this challenging time together.”

MORE: Latest coronavirus coverage from NBC News

Previously, NASCAR postponed last weekend’s races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and this weekend’s races at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

No makeup dates have been set.

NASCAR’s move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that that organizers cancel or postpone events for the next eight weeks that consist of 50 people or more in the United States. According to John Hopkins University and Medicine, there were 4,287 confirmed cases in the U.S. as of Monday afternoon with 74 deaths.

The White House released new coronavirus guidelines Monday afternoon that included “avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people.”

Bristol Motor Speedway stated that ticketholders on file at Bristol Motor Speedway and through Food City stores may use their April 3 – 5, 2020 tickets for the postponed event, choose to receive an event credit for the full amount paid plus an additional 20% or choose to receive a full refund of their purchase price. The event credit can be applied towards any admissions, including, but not limited to, grandstand seating, infield tickets, camping, fan hospitality and pit passes. The 120% event credit can be used during the remaining 2020 or 2021 seasons for a NASCAR sanctioned event at any Speedway Motorsports owned track, subject to availability.

Also Monday, NHRA announced that it was suspending all events for 30 days because of COVID-19. NHRA said in a release that it plans to resume its schedule April 17-19 with the NHRA SpringNationals at Houston Raceway Park.

Major League Baseball announced Monday it will adhere to the CDC’s recommendation and that the opening of the 2020 season would be pushed back in accordance with those guidelines, meaning the season would not begin until mid-May.

 

 

NASCAR releases tentative testing schedule for Cup teams

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NASCAR issued a rules bulletin update to teams Wednesday that included a tentative testing schedule for the Next Gen car for the rest of the year.

NASCAR noted the schedule is subject to change based on testing needs.

Here is the tentative testing schedule for 2020 (all tests will be with the Next Gen car only):

March 2-3: NASCAR test at Auto Club Speedway

March 16-17: NASCAR test at Atlanta Motor Speedway

April 6-7: NASCAR test at Bristol Motor Speedway

May 4-5: NASCAR test at Dover International Speedway

June 2-3: NASCAR test at Charlotte Motor Speedway

July 14-15: NASCAR test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

August 25: Open test at Charlotte Motor Speedway oval

Sept. 1-2: Goodyear tire test at Richmond Raceway

Sept. 8: Open test at Charlotte Motor Speedway oval

Sept. 22-23: Organizational test at Texas Motor Speedway

Sept. 29: Open test at Charlotte Motor Speedway oval

Oct. 6-7: Goodyear tire test at Daytona International Speedway

Oct. 13: Open test at Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval

Oct. 20-21: Organizational test at Dover International Speedway

Oct. 27: Open test at Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval

Nov. 2-3: Goodyear tire test at Martinsville Speedway

Nov. 10: Open test at Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval

Nov. 17-18: Organizational test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Nov. 24: Open test at Charlotte Motor Speedway oval

Dec. 8: Open test at Charlotte Motor Speedway oval

Dec. 15-16: Organizational test at Phoenix Raceway

The Cup playoffs begin Sept. 6 at Darlington Raceway and end Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.

NASCAR limits organizations to one team per organization at an organization test. Participation is not mandatory. Only drivers licensed and approved for competition in the Cup series are eligible to participate in a NASCAR Cup Series organizational test. Spectators are permitted at an organizational test at the race track’s discretion.

An open test session is open for all Cup teams. Participation is not mandatory. Only drivers licensed and approved for competition in the Cup series are eligible to participate in a NASCAR Cup Series organizational test. Spectators are permitted at an organizational test at the race track’s discretion.

The number of race teams invited to a NASCAR test is based on the needs of the test.

A Goodyear tire test will included at least three teams. Teams in the top 20 in car owner points the previous year are assigned tire tests. Those assignments have not been released. Only full-time Cup drivers may participate in a tire test.

 

Friday 5: New slogan spotlights Jimmie Johnson’s focus in 2020

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CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson is not chasing history. He seeks to enjoy it.

Johnson’s revelation this week that he has ditched #chasing8 for #One FinalTime as the slogan for his final Cup season is not a sign of surrender, he insists.

Instead, he wants to be more focused on the moment and hope that leads to greater goals.

“I’m not chasing anything,” the seven-time Cup champion said Thursday at the Hendrick Motorsports complex.

Johnson used #6pack on his quest for a sixth title and #se7en in his bid for a seventh title. He had used #chasing8 while seeking an unprecedented eighth Cup title for a driver.

Jimmie Johnson on his final season: “I’ll lay it on the line and go.” (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Even without the slogan, Johnson says he remains focused on this coming season.

“I’m going to get in that car, I’m going to give it 100% as I always do … I’ll lay it on the line and go,” he said.

But Johnson’s go has been slow in recent years. He is winless in 95 races, dating back to June 2017 at Dover International Speedway.

Since that victory, Johnson has six top-five finishes, 29 top 10s and led 216 laps. He has not finished better than third in a points race in that span.

Such struggles make it easy to discount a driver for championship contention — even one of only three seven-time champions in series history.

It’s not been just one thing, though, that has held the 44-year-old back. His struggles coincided with a decline in performance for Hendrick Motorsports in 2017 and ’18. Chevrolet’s Camaro had its issues. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus split after the 2018 season. Johnson went on to change crew chiefs again in 2019 when performance soured.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Johnson said of missing the playoffs last year for the first time in his career. “I was angry, embarrassed.”

He cites last year as a learning experience in racing without Knaus on his pit box. Without Knaus’ leadership, there was a vacuum and Johnson had to understand how to help fill it. As his performance waned, the team struggled. A late-summer crew chief change failed to get Johnson into the playoffs.

Johnson, considered among NASCAR’s greatest drivers, said that “winning races, making the playoffs would be a good season (this year). A great season is going (multiple) rounds (in the playoffs). The ultimate season is being in that championship four.”

First Johnson must be able to run at the front. And win again.

Jimmie Johnson celebrates his 2016 title with wife Chandra and daughters Lydia (held by Johnson) and Genevieve.(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

While his 83 career Cup victories are tied for sixth with Cale Yarborough on the all-time list, Johnson’s focus is to win again to show his daughters what he can do. Genevieve is 9 years old and Lydia is 6.

“I think deep down inside it would be very satisfying,” Johnson said of winning again. “In my heart of hearts I still now I’m doing my best work out there.

“I can also say from a family perspective, to have another moment or two this year with my family in that environment and winning at the top level would be very special for us.

“I guess, ultimately, my kids don’t remember going to victory lane. They don’t have any vivid memories of it. They have no filters. To come home and especially Lydia is like, ‘so Dad, we didn’t win, what happened?’ Evie is so polite about it: ‘Dad you tried hard, good job.’

“To have that moment with them and a moment they will hopefully remember … would be really special.”

2. Hope for Nashville for 2021?

NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. are not ready to publicly shut the door on a race at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville for 2021, even though no deal has been announced between Nashville and SMI. NASCAR is expected to release the 2021 Cup schedule in April.

“We’re having great discussions with leadership in Nashville,” Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., told NBC Sports this week. “We think it’s a great opportunity for the city and for NASCAR and for Speedway Motorsports. … Everything we’re working on seems to be moving forward in a reasonable pace.

Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville in July 2019. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I don’t think I can really put a timeframe on it right now because it would just be speculation. I’m very optimistic about NASCAR in Nashville.

“The timing is one of those things that once we get the agreement done, then we’ll have some planning and … the actual construction will take place. It’s a big project and one that when it’s done, the city of Nashville will be really proud of.”

Speedway Motorsports Inc. seeks an agreement with the city to bring top-tier stock-car racing back to Nashville but has not been able to work through financing and other issues. SMI proposed a $60 million renovation plan in May for the historic .596-mile track that would increase seating capacity from 15,000 to 30,000, among other projects.

A previous plan for $54 million in bond payments was rejected by then-Mayor David Briley. John Cooper defeated Bailey to become the city’s mayor in September.

The Tennessean reported in December that the mayor’s spokesperson confirmed that the administration received a new proposal from SMI and it was being reviewed.

Cooper told the Nashville Rotary Club on Monday, according to The Tennessean, that “racing needs to be a success, not just soccer (at the Fairgrounds property). It has to be a workable overall site plan.”

However, The Tennessean notes that that Cooper has not said if he supports a deal to bring NASCAR’s top-tier series to the Fairgrounds.

The Tennessean reported Thursday that Cooper had met with auto racing advocates this week.

Asked if Nashville was still a consideration for the 2021 schedule, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said: “I would say Nashville as a market is a high priority for us in 2021.”

3. Changes for 2020

Along with the changes to stage lengths this season — and how a race will be official once it hits the halfway mark (unless the end of the second stage occurs first) — NASCAR also revealed a few other changes for the coming season.

Last year, NASCAR typically took no more than one car to the R&D Center after a race. That was primarily to study trends in the sport and if NASCAR needed to adjust any rules. The point was to get away from issuing penalties days after the race.

This year, series officials said they would look at taking multiple cars back to the R&D Center after Cup races.

“We tried to do the best we could in response to the teams and try to curb development,” said Jay Fabian, NASCAR Cup director. “Part of that there is that there’s been a new set of rules as far as a parts freeze. Teams have to submit a significant amount of parts and they have to run those parts throughout the year. They have options of each part, they can mix and match as long as they are on that list.

“We will bring more cars back this year because that’s, quite honestly, a lot of work postrace. So we’re going to bring that back and make sure everybody is on the up and up.”

Fabian said if NASCAR found “a major, significant issue, we’d react to it” by issuing a penalty that week.

Erik Jones drives the Next Gen car in a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Jan. 2020. (Photo: NASCAR)

In regards to the Next Gen car, NASCAR’s next test will be March 2-3 at Auto Club Speedway. That’s expected to have only one car but NASCAR anticipates having two cars test by April. That would give officials more information on how a Next Gen car reacts behind another car. Teams are expected to take delivery of their first Next Gen car by July. Tests will be set up for August and beyond.

Five tests are expected to be held for teams before next season. How those tests will be done — whether only one car per organization is allowed or one car per team — will be determined later.

Also, NASCAR officials were scheduled to meet Wednesday with manufacturers in the sport and those that could join the sport about a new engine for 2023, among other issues.

4. Stress of rule change on teams

There have been many reasons discussed for Team Penske’s decision to change its entire driver/crew chief lineup for this season after winning six Cup races and placing all three drivers in the top 10 in points.

As Brad Keselowski acknowledged this week, that type of season was good but not good enough.

“We want to be great,” he said. “We want to win championships. You’ve got to recognize that winning races is still a significant accomplishment in this sport. It’s great competition week in and week out, so winning is good but also emphasize that greatness is the championship. We didn’t win it. It means we’ve got work to do.”

Brad Keselowski with crew chief Paul Wolfe last season. As part of Team Penske’s moves, Wolfe will be Joey Logano‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Keselowski, who will be teamed with crew chief Jermey Bullins this season, also expressed his belief on why the change was made at Team Penske.

“I’ll be honest with you, I think the rules package is as much a factor as anything else,” Keselowski said. “The rules changed when we went to the high downforce and the really small horsepower. That’s really hard to accept. It’s hard to accept for the drivers. It’s really hard to accept for the teams with respect some of the things that we consider telltales of the past that are not necessarily the telltales of today.

“Used to get into this car and you were a good racecar driver if you could run every lap within half a tenth to a tenth (of a second). With these rules, the lap time variance is very significant. You might run one lap, let’s say around (Charlotte Motor Speedway), a 30 (second) flat and the next lap you catch the draft wrong in all the wrong places and you run a 31 flat and the team sees that and they say ‘What the hell? What is this guy out here doing? Is he drunk? Is he not focused? What’s going on?’

“I think it’s part of the package. When you’re not winning, when you’re having the bad days you’re going to have in this sport … it really has put a lot of stress on the team relationships, driver relationships, that dynamic. I think that dynamic has caused a fair amount of rift and ripples across the whole sport and the easiest way for Team Penske to fix it was this change because it forces everyone to think a little bit more thoroughly and different about it.

“That’s one of many examples, it’s not the only reason. I do think the rules change has had a drastic impact on the drivers’ and teams’ abilities to communicate with each other and value the right things.”

5. An unforgettable ride

One of John Andretti’s greatest gifts was what he could give others. Sometimes it was his wit that left one laughing. Sometimes it was his smile and positive nature even through a battle with colon cancer that ended Thursday with his death at age 56.

Other times it was his drive.

Andretti, the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, won an IndyCar race, two Cup events, a Rolex 24 and even a USAC national midget race. He also competed in NHRA, reaching the semifinals once. 

Of all that, there was one drive that illustrates Andretti’s essence.

It came in his 1999 Cup win at Martinsville Speedway for Petty Enterprises. Andretti won the day after Petty Enterprises claimed the Martinsville Truck race, completing a weekend sweep for the famed organization that no longer exists.

But Andretti’s path was not easy that day. He fell a lap down less than 50 laps into the event after he was hit from behind by Ward Burton and spun. No Martinsville Cup winner in the previous decade had come back from a lap down to win.

MORE: Motorsports world mourns passing of John Andretti 

Andretti needed less than 100 laps to pass leader Jeff Gordon and get back on the lead lap. A two-tire pit stop with about 120 laps left played a key role and Andretti did the rest. He was third with 50 laps to go.

Andretti passed Gordon for second with about 12 laps to go as his car suffered a vibration.

“With 12 to go, I figure the heck with it,” Andretti said later that day. “Nobody is going to remember if you run third.”

Andretti challenged close friend Jeff Burton for the lead and drove past the Virginia driver with four laps to go as the crowd cheered.

After taking the checkered flag, Andretti took an extra victory lap. On his way to victory lane, he stopped to give car owner Richard Petty a ride.

The sight of Petty sitting on the driver’s window opening as Andretti drove the No. 43 to victory lane is a memory that won’t be forgotten.