NASCAR Cup

Cole Custer ready for encore of first career Cup top-5 finish

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Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway will be a night and day difference.

In recent years, the Cup race at the 1.5-mile Sparta, Kentucky track has primarily been a nighttime affair. Teams have compiled big notebooks of data from racing under the lights.

That won’t be the case Sunday, as the green flag is slated to drop at 2:54 p.m. ET.

While this will be his first career Cup start at Kentucky, rookie Cole Custer is no stranger to the track, having won last summer’s Xfinity race there – and scored consecutive fifth-place finishes in the two preceding races in 2017 and 2018.

“It’s something that you definitely see a difference in the track, I feel like, when it’s day and when it goes to night,” Custer said in a media teleconference. “So trying to figure out how you want to adjust your car to kind of a slicker track is gonna be pretty important.

“And also the biggest difference is we don’t have all the practice sessions before the race to work in the track. You saw that Thursday night with the Xfinity race, there was dust all over. The bottom lane was not worked in very well, so it’s gonna take a little while for that bottom lane to work in. We’re gonna see how worked in it is by the time we get to our race.

“There’s a lot of differences, honestly, but, at the same time it’s still the same track. It’s a really edgy racetrack because it’s new pavement, it’s a repave, so the tires are a little bit harder. The track takes a little bit of time to get worked in and you have that PJ1 (traction compound), so you’re able to take things from the Xfinity car – what lines kind of worked there and how it changed throughout the weekend – so basic characteristics with the track you’re able to kind of carry over. But at the same time, the feel in the car is completely different and how you work traffic and things like that.”

Custer enters Sunday’s race ranked 25th in the Cup standings, the lowest position of the four major drivers in this year’s Cup rookie class (Tyler Reddick is 18th, John Hunter Nemechek is 22nd and Christopher Bell is 24th).

“There’s definitely been a lot of learning, for sure,” Custer said. “Obviously, these cars are a lot different than what the Xfinity cars were, so trying to wrap your head around that and figure out how to effect every little thing, whether it’s passing or restarts or how to work traffic or pit road, just anything about it, you’re trying to make sure you’re getting 100 percent out of it.

“It’s always going to be challenging being a rookie, but at the same time it’s probably been a little bit more challenging this year because you don’t have practice, we didn’t have rookie testing, and these cars are a big difference from the Xfinity Series. It’s hard to do that without the practice time.

“I think it pushes all of us to be better because we all want to compete against each other and make sure we’re not falling behind too much. I think it’s just a matter of you still have to focus on yourself most of the time. If you’re focused on other people, you’re not gonna be making yourself better and working on your own problems. But at the same time it does push you to make sure you’re pushing yourself as much as you can.”

Custer is coming off his first top-five finish of the season at Indianapolis last weekend. He  has just one other top 10 in the first 16 races.

Still, Custer’s finish at Indy, which included pushing Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick to the win, leaves Custer optimistic heading into this weekend.

“At that point, my best shot was to push Kevin and that might have got me in a better position to try and maybe make a move to try to win the race also,” Custer said. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking. I mean, you’re coming to that line and you’re like, ‘I’ve got to do this right. This is important right here. We need this.’

“So I’ve been in those situations before where you’ve got to push people if you’re running up front in the Xfinity cars or the Truck Series or whatever it is, so you have experience doing that kind of stuff, but doing it at this level puts that much more pressure on it and you’re at the Brickyard 400 so you want to make it happen. It was definitely nerve-wracking, but it was something that we were able to kind of control those nerves and make sure that we do our jobs right.

“Now I feel like we’re at a good point where we’re putting it all together and get close to affect all those little things. But you have to do it on a consistent basis and I think we’re gaining on that.”

The driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang has his work cut out for himself Sunday, starting 29th.

“I feel like I’ve already spent hours trying to figure that out,” Custer quipped. “It’s definitely gonna be a tough race.

“It looks like it’s gonna be a really dominant top lane kind of race, so that makes it a little bit tough to pass. But at the same time, the track is gonna be changing throughout the whole weekend, so it’s hard to tell exactly what our race is gonna be like yet.

“You’re trying to work through all the different possibilities in your mind of what our race might look like. But overall I feel like it’s gonna be a track position race. You’re gonna want to try to get towards the front on restarts and on pit road, and from there you’re just trying to run a solid race without having mistakes.”

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Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’m smarter, stronger’ after COVID-19 episode

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Having been in an admitted “dark head space” after testing positive for COVID-19 a week ago, Jimmie Johnson said Friday that he is “ready to go” to return to the NASCAR Cup Series and Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Johnson was forced to miss last weekend’s race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19.

Earlier this week, Johnson tested negative twice more than 24 hours apart. After that and being cleared by a doctor, NASCAR reinstated Johnson.

“It’s been an interesting week or so, to have a positive test and then the two negative tests, just the emotional journey you go through and worrying about your safety, your family’s safety, watching a race with someone else in your race car,” Johnson said during a media Zoom conference. “Coming to grips with the reality of all that has been challenging.

“I feel like I’m a smarter, stronger person today experiencing all this. Clearly extremely happy to be reinstated and ready to be back with my race team and that race car.”

Johnson proved to be asymptomatic. He demurred when asked if the original test was a false positive.

“I’ve had no symptoms through this journey,” he said. “There are a lot of scenarios that can play out and to go through them and to form an opinion would just be speculating. At this point, I just don’t think that’s very intelligent or smart to do.

“I followed the protocol that NASCAR has in place and is the same protocol all the other major sports have as well. I’ve been watching the numerous positives take place and also seen many examples of a double negative within a 24-hour period take place and those athletes have been reinstated. It’s a science-based reinstatement process.

“… I’ve followed the protocol, it brings a lot of questions as to where I was in the journey of being positive. There’s a lot of speculation there. I don’t know those answers and I’m the most frustrated person out there, especially living in the world of facts that I do. To not have the facts drives me bananas.”

Johnson pronounced himself fit for Sunday’s race: “I feel great, I’m excited and I’m ready to go. … I’m super excited. In my head of optimism, boy, what a comeback story, the COVID comeback. It would really be a special moment. I’ve always been highly motivated but it would be really cool to have great success Sunday or certainly in the near future with everything.”

As the last week has played out, Johnson has run the gamut of emotions since he was first told about the positive result.

“My first response was just anger, I started cussing and I used every cuss word I knew of and I think I invented a few new ones,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “It was just so weird at the anger because I’ve been asymptomatic. First anger hits and then speculation in my mind and it was like wait a second, there’s nothing good to come of this. No one knows, I don’t know, it’s just time to move on.

“Then I got very excited looking at the facts: I missed just one race, still am above the (playoff) cut line and then the optimism I hope I get that second negative (result) and then I did. I feel like I’m more on the optimistic side of things and really out of the dark head space I was in, and moving in the right direction and looking forward in all this.”

Last Sunday, sitting at his family’s home in Colorado, Johnson admitted it was strange to see someone else – namely fill-in driver Justin Allgaier – in his No. 48 Chevy for the first time since Johnson first began driving that car in Cup late in 2001.

“It’s a weird set of events,” Johnson said. “Saturday night trying to go to sleep was probably the most difficult time for me, knowing I wasn’t going to be in the car.

“It was the peak of emotions going with missing a race and the consecutive start streak coming to an end, not being in a car, my final year (racing in NASCAR), all the things you can think of.

“Sunday morning wasn’t great, but I joined the team call we have before the race, I was able to hear the voices of my crew guys, and give them a shot in the arm and pump them up and just be involved in that team moment. It’s crazy how that relaxed me because I was convinced I wasn’t going to be able to watch the race.”

Johnson’s teleconference lasted nearly 30 minutes. Here are some other topics he covered:

Racing this weekend at Kentucky, one of only four current tracks the seven-time Cup champ has never won on (others are Charlotte Roval, Chicagoland and Watkins Glen): “Kentucky has probably been one of my top two or three most difficult tracks to compete at. I have mixed feelings for the place because when I first started at Hendrick Motorsports, I felt like I lived at that raceway doing testing for the team, getting in my laps and reps as a rookie coming into the sport. I have positive vibes from there, but my race experience there from the Busch Series days and even the Cup (series), has been demanding and tough. I hope to conquer the track from that personal standpoint and then clearly with what I’ve been through, my friends, family and fan base have been through, it’d be nice to leave there with a trophy.”

Why he tweeted out another show of support for Bubba Wallace earlier this week: “With the current events, just letting it be known I stood with Bubba at the beginning of this journey and I continue to stand with Bubba. (It was in response) to the tweet the President put out.”

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Starting lineup for Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky

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Two-time winner Kyle Busch will start from the pole for Sunday’s Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1) thanks to a random draw.

He will be joined on the front row by Joey Logano.

The top five is completed by Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman.

Click here for the starting lineup

NASCAR Cup Series at Kentucky

Race Time: 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Track: Kentucky Speedway; Sparta, Kentucky (1.5-mile speedway)

Length: 267 laps, 400.5 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: Thursday at Kentucky (134 laps, 201 miles), 8 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck race: Saturday at Kentucky (150 laps, 225 miles) 6 p.m. ET on FS1

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Sunday’s Cup race at Pocono: Start time, forecast and more

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The second part of the NASCAR Cup Series’ Pocono Raceway doubleheader weekend will be held Sunday afternoon with a 350-mile race around the “Tricky Triangle.”

The race will wrap up the first tripleheader in NASCAR history at one track. The day starts with Sunday morning’s Truck Series race (rescheduled after Saturday’s rain), the Xfinity Series race at 12:30 p.m. ET and the Cup Series race at 4 p.m. ET.

The top-20 finishers from Saturday’s Cup race will be inverted for Sunday’s starting lineup.

Here are the details for Sunday’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by James Mascaro, director of special projects for J.P. Mascaro & Sons at 4:13 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:24 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments are at 1:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 4:05 p.m. by Billy Mauldin of Motor Racing Outreach. The national anthem will be performed by saxophonist Mike Phillips at 4:06 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 140 laps (350 miles) around the 2.5-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 30. Stage 2 ends on Lap 85.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 4 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race. Its broadcast begins at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms with a high of 79 degrees and a 50% chance of rain at the race’s start.

LAST RACE: Saturday’s Cup race at Pocono Raceway, won by Kevin Harvick. Denny Hamlin finished second followed by Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell and Kyle Busch

LAST RACE AT POCONO: Kevin Harvick snapped a 38-race winless streak at Pocono Raceway, earning his first career win there on Saturday. He’s been close several times before, including four runner-up finishes there before Saturday’s triumph.

TO THE REAR: Ryan Preece (engine change), William Byron (engine change), Chase Elliott (transmission change), Alex Bowman (backup car), Tyler Reddick (backup car), Joey Logano (backup car), Erik Jones (backup car), BJ McLeod (transmission change), Quin Houff (backup car).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Kevin Harvick wins for first time at Pocono in Saturday Cup race

What drivers said after Saturday Cup race at Pocono

Results, standings after Saturday’s Cup race at Pocono

NASCAR to run three races Sunday at Pocono

Bubba Wallace fans at Talladega: “We were there for him”

Friday 5: Ford boss reaffirms commitment to motorsports

Aug. 2 Cup race at New Hampshire to allow roughly 19,000 fans

Brad Daugherty: ‘It’s incumbent upon us at NASCAR to do better’

NASCAR releases image of noose but cannot determine who did it

FBI says no federal crime committed at Talladega

After 38 starts, will Kevin Harvick finally earn first Pocono win?

Pocono gives Kyle Busch two chances to end winless streak

Power Rankings after Talladega: Ryan Blaney unanimous No. 1

Bubba Wallace shares with Dale Jr. behind scene stories from Talladega

Bubba Wallace on ‘Today’ show: ‘We want to change. It starts with us’

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Appearing on Thursday’s “Today” Show on NBC, Bubba Wallace said he believes the sport will attract new and more diverse fans following Wednesday’s announcement that NASCAR will ban the display of Confederate flags at its racetracks.

The only full-time Black driver in NASCAR, Wallace was encouraged by the number of new fans who tuned into Wednesday’s Cup race from Martinsville Speedway.

“We had a lot of first-time watchers last night, which was super incredible, a lot from the African-American community that would never give NASCAR a chance,” Wallace said. “There were so many comments I read that were all shocked at how NASCAR’s approach to everything has really opened their eyes.

“I think my favorite one was Alvin Kamara, former Tennessee Vols who plays for the (NFL’s New Orleans) Saints, he was asking when’s the next race. He was giving lap-by-lap updates. It was incredible.

 

“Everybody was tuned in last night, so it was a big watching party. Hopefully, that’s for the future as well. We encourage all backgrounds and all races to enjoy our crazy sport, it’s action-packed from the drop of the green flag to the drop of the checkered flag.”

Wallace and NASCAR both received expressions of support on social media from numerous sports figures and celebrities, including Kamara and NBA great LeBron James.

Wallace drove the iconic Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevrolet emblazoned with #BlackLivesMatter on it to an 11th-place finish in Wednesday night’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

Bubba Wallace drives the #BlackLivesMatter car in Wednesday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

He said he is confident NASCAR will vigorously enforce the flag ban and prevent its display at all NASCAR tracks.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll take really strict measures to not allow this to happen,” Wallace said. “If it doesn’t, then there’ll be another conversation I will have. Not sure exactly how NASCAR is planning on this.

“I know fans are starting to be allowed to come back (to racetracks after the COVID-19 hiatus) here in a couple of weeks. It’ll be interesting to see. There are a lot of things unfolding for our sport and for our nation and really the world, and we’re just piecing it together day by day. We’ll just continue to push on and fight for what’s right.

“… We want change, it starts with us. We have to start basically from the roots and go from ground up and really implement what we’re trying to say in our message.”

Wallace also was asked about comments made by part-time NASCAR Truck Series driver Ray Ciccarelli, who said Wednesday that he disagreed with the ban of the Confederate flag and will quit the sport at the end of the current season.

“I seen that comment and I was kind of baffled by it, honestly,” Wallace said. “I think he just solidified his career and no longer being part of NASCAR.

“I would encourage NASCAR to really step up and look at that if he tries to reinstate. I seen a comment where to most, (the Confederate flag is) a sign of heritage. But to a large group of people, it’s a sign of hate and oppression and just a lot of negative and bad things that come to mind.

“We’re not saying you can’t fly it at your house. You can do whatever you want. But when it comes to a sporting event where we want all races, everybody to be included – inclusion is what we’re trying to accomplish here.

“Unity, bring everybody together and enjoy a sporting event and cheer on your favorite driver, not be shy and introverted because they see a Confederate flag flying. They should be able to live life to the fullest with nothing holding them back.

“And if the flag is holding them back, then let’s just take it down for the sporting event. We’re not saying get rid of it out of your life completely.”

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