Friday 5: Will 2021 Cup schedule add more short tracks, road courses?

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With the 2020 Cup schedule receiving positive reviews from many fans, the expectations for the 2021 schedule grow bigger.

While there will be talk of ending the season sooner, whether any tracks lose dates and if doubleheaders will be used more often, just as big of a question will be where the short track and road course events come from that fans want to see more of in the future?

Iowa Speedway could be an option. And there’s plenty of talk about Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee. But are there others that are feasible and could make the upgrades necessary to host NASCAR’s top series?

What about road courses? Would Indianapolis Motor Speedway be better off holding its Cup race on the road course? Or would it make sense to put a Cup race at Mid-Ohio or Road America or Canadian Tire Motorsports Park?

There’s excitement with the 2020 schedule because NASCAR mixed up the races among the same tracks. That’s all NASCAR could do because the five-year sanctioning agreements with tracks go through the 2020 season. After that year, NASCAR has the ability to make more radical changes to the schedule.

Denny Hamlin says that as NASCAR looks at revamping the schedule, one thing must remain constant.

“I love the idea of more short track racing for sure,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “I just want to make sure that the tracks are investing the proper money to make sure their facilities are good.”

In other words, make sure there are premier facilities for the premier series in NASCAR.

“It’s hard to sell this is big time if it doesn’t appear that way,” he said.

2. Will Texas be a true indication of the top teams?

Now that teams have had a little time to take what they learned from the West Coast swing and work on their cars, will the gap between Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing to the rest of the field shrink?

NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton suggests on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan that some teams could close the margin.

“I heard Clint Bowyer make a comment on the West Coast swing and he’s like, ‘Look we know we’ve got to get better, but it’s going to be hard to do it now. There’s things that we can’t evolve in our cars, there’s not enough time,’ ” Burton said. “So I think potentially that Texas is a place where you can see not just Stewart-Haas Racing but other teams improve as well. … They learned at Vegas. They learned at Atlanta. They learned at (Auto Club), and I think you’ll see teams pop up.”

Among the teams to watch this weekend:

Will this be the weekend Stewart-Haas Racing scores its first victory of the season. The organization has had at least one car finish in the top five in each race since the Daytona 500.

Hendrick Motorsports has not had a car finish better than ninth at Atlanta (1.5-mile track), Las Vegas (1.5) and Auto Club Speedway (2-mile track) this season. Can that organization get a car into the top five at Texas?

Richard Childress Racing has shown speed — Austin Dillon won the pole at Auto Club Speedway and started fourth at Las Vegas — but can that translate into stronger runs? Dillon finished 20th Las Vegas and overcame illness to finish 10th at Auto Club.

JTG Daugherty Racing’s Chris Buescher placed ninth at Atlanta, 18th at Las Vegas and 16th at Auto Club Speedway. That’s been a good start for that organization but how much better can it be?

“We spent a lot more time, a lot of resources and at JTG getting everything ready to hit the ground running to make sure we were prepared for this season,” he said. “It worked out really good to start. We’ve got to stay ahead of it. I promise, nobody is sitting idle at this point. We’re still trying to figure out how to make our cars better each and every week.”

3. Same old, same old?

NASCAR announced modifications to group qualifying this week. The biggest change was an incentive to make a lap in each round after all 12 cars in the final round at Auto Club Speedway failed to complete a lap before time expired.

Cars sit on pit road during the final round of Cup qualifying at Auto Club Speedway. Photo: Fox Sports

Now, if a car fails to record a lap in a round of qualifying because the team waited too long, the car will start at the back of the field.

With the draft still a factor, will the rule make much of a difference this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway?

“I don’t think it will be much different from what we’ve seen in the past,” Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports about what he expects qualifying to look like today. “I don’t know that it will be such a detriment to be the first car out because I think Turn 1 and 2, they are so quirky in the sense that it’s really one lane. I don’t know if you will want to be back in the pack or so. 

“I think (Turns) 3 and 4 will be … more wide open and you’ve got all the grip you need so you want to be behind someone. I’m not sure you want to be behind someone in (Turns) 1 and 2. It’s such a flat corner. It really depends on whether that (traction compound) works the way we think.

“My general feeling is that teams will overreact and make sure we leave extra early, and then there will be an opportunity for us, the guys that really push the limit will get the pole, the ones that decide to lay back.”

4. Back behind the wheel

Greg Biffle, who last competed in Cup in 2016, ran 14 laps Thursday at Texas Motor Speedway in Kyle Busch’s truck. Biffle did this as preparation for the June 7 Gander Outdoors Truck Series race he’ll compete in for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He and Busch had talked for a while about doing this. 

As of now, it’s a one-race opportunity.

Greg Biffle talks to the media after running 14 laps in the first of two Truck practice sessions Thursday for Kyle Busch Motorsports. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I could be talked into some more,” said Biffle, a former Truck and Xfinity series champion. 

While he might consider running more Truck races, he’ll need to fit it into his schedule of racing.

He will compete in the SVRA vintage and historic event this weekend at Road Atlanta and a couple of others this season. He also will take part in four off-road competitions with his UTV sand drag.

He’ll also drive in the 24 Hours of Lemons race April 27-28 at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, South Carolina. Those are races with cars that have been bought and track-prepared for $500 or less (not including safety equipment, brakes and wheels/tires).

“The last 24-hour race I did was the Rolex 24 in Daytona (in 2005 where his team finished 15th overall), so this will be a lot of fun,” Biffle said. “I don’t know why I wanted to do it, but it just sounded like a lot of fun.”

5. Racing for a bonus 

The top four finishers in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway will qualify for the first Dash 4 Cash event the following weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The highest finishing eligible driver in a Dash 4 Cash race wins a $100,000 bonus. The four Dash 4 Cash races will be Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Dover. Also, any driver that collects points in the Cup series is not eligible to compete in Dash 4 Cash races.

Nate Ryan contributed to this report 

Podcast: Austin Dillon on last year’s Daytona 500 finish, learning driver ethics from Tony Stewart

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It’s been a year since Austin Dillon made contact with and wrecked Aric Almirola on the last lap of the Daytona 500, clearing the way for his win in the “Great American Race.”

With the 2019 season beginning Sunday with the Daytona 500, the defending race winner sat down with the NASCAR on NBC podcast. Among the topics the Richard Childress Racing driver discussed were the fallout from that last-lap incident and how his driver code was shaped by the previous generation of drivers.

Dillon was impressed by how Almirola handled losing his shot at a win after the contact while racing for the lead.

“You lose the biggest race of the year, and he acted amazing,” Dillon said. “He handled it how you’re supposed to. I feel like I would handle it, understand it, but I don’t know if my emotions would be able to be held like his were together. So that was impressive I thought from him from that standpoint. He handled that really well. But I do feel like he knows that I didn’t just turn him. I made a move left, he did a pretty good job blocking, and I just went right. And when I went right, it hooked him.”

Dillon is in a unique position entering his sixth full-time season on the Cup circuit.

The 28-year-old driver has been around long enough to claim to have raced against Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, pillars of the generation of Cup drivers that preceded him.

Dillon discussed how Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, opened his eyes to the drivers ethics of the old guard and how they viewed hard racing.

Dillon’s Stewart-taught lesson came at Indianapolis one year, a week after Dillon held him up for a few laps in a race at Kentucky Speedway.

“I had a fast car,” Dillon said. “I’m running down Tony, and Indy is one of those places you can make it hell on somebody if you want to and your car is good in that certain area. Tony held me up for probably a full stint. Like a full fuel run. I could not get by him. I about hit the wall. I was so frustrated. After the race, he came by and said ‘Hey, I know you had the faster car and I could have let you go, but you know that was for last week, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah man, whatever.’

“That’s kind of what the older guy mentality was. ‘We’re not going to race hard when the other guy is faster. You’re not going to do that.’ I kind of had to morph into that.”

Dillon said there’s “two different transitions going on” now with younger drivers entering Cup set on, “We’re going to race the (expletive) out of each other from Lap 1.”

“I was in a good transition period to understand … why certain people race that way,” Dillon said. “In Xfinity I raced hard every lap and then I got to the Cup Series and then I was like, ‘This is different.’ You got to learn how to do it. More guys are coming in now that just race hard, and I think everybody is starting to adapt to everybody just racing a lot harder.”

You can listen to the full episode below.

Other highlights:

— How Dillon became a good friend of Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, who will attend the Daytona 500 as a guest of Dillon’s (10:00)

—  Why Dillon believes the 2019 rules package will play into his hands (15:00)

—  The advice of Shaquille O’Neal on the Harley J. Earl trophy (20:00)

Austin Dillon’s connection with Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey

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Austin Dillon had no inside knowledge of the Charlotte Panthers’ plans before the 2017 NFL draft.

But he somehow knew he would be making a future connection with Christian McCaffery.

“I hit him up when he was at Stamford because I was a fan watching him run these crazy 100-yard runs that no one could tackle him,” Dillon said on the most recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Getting close to the NFL draft time, I hit him up on DM (direct message) and said, ‘Hey man, I think you’re going to get drafted by the Panthers. I feel it.’ ”

The Panthers took the running back with the eighth pick, and Dillon immediately rolled out the red carpet.

“I told him ‘Dude, you’re coming here, you don’t know anybody. When you get here, hit me up, we’ll hang out,’” Dillon said on the podcast. “I got his number, and we started texting.”

Christian McCaffrey carries the ball for the Carolina Panthers during their Dec. 30 game against New Orleans. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

As McCaffrey adjusted to the rigors of being an NFL rookie, he and Dillon didn’t spend much time together until after the ’17 season. McCaffrey and several other Panthers players came to the All-Star Race last year. “That was the first time we met,” Dillon said. “He had a blast, hung out with us, saw the All-Star Race, and afterward, he was ready to beat Jamie McMurray up. He said the 1 car was in my way. I said, ‘Man, it’s just racing all good.’ ”

Dillon and McCaffrey since have hung out more often and now share the same hair stylist.

McCaffrey is planning to be at Daytona International Speedway this weekend to attend his second Cup race, watching as Dillon attempts to repeat as the Daytona 500 champion.

“That’s going to be cool,” Dillon said. “Yeah, I’m glad he’s going to come enjoy that in his offseason. He’s so strict about what he does during the season and the offseason, he’s just a legend when it comes to training and taking care of his body, diet. He’s really serious. If you can get him to slip out, it’s once in a lifetime because he’s so focused on his craft.”

McCaffrey’s training regimen has inspired Dillon to change his diet and get fit.

“We went to dinner, and they chose this spot in downtown Charlotte, all organic stuff,” Dillon said. “He talked about things he doesn’t eat. I was doing that a couple of years ago and stopped. I was eating right. No bread, no cheese before. But (McCaffrey) takes it to another level with certain things. I’m going to learn more from him this year. Might stop out in Colorado to talk about his diet and the people he uses.”

During the podcast, Dillon also discusses:

–His relationship with crew chief Danny Stockman, who taught him many lessons about racing in winning Xfinity and truck championships. The pair are being reunited in Cup this season;

–Why he thinks the 2019 rules package will benefit him;

–His enthusiasm about NASCAR’s foray into eSports;

–His unique perspective on how young drivers and veterans view racing ethics differently.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking above or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play and wherever you download podcasts.

Podcast: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s favorite memories of racing Rolex 24 with his father

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When Dale Earnhardt came to Daytona under different circumstances, the preparation remained the same for shepherding the seven-time champion with an enormous fan base.

Corvette Racing manager Doug Fehan recalled arranging security for Earnhardt and his son for getting to and from their motorhomes while they raced the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. It turned out to be mostly unnecessary as they drew large packs of respectful fans but without a mob scene.

“They were very respectful,” Fehan recalled during the second half of a two-part NASCAR on NBC Podcast about the Earnhardts racing the 2001 Rolex. “It was amazing to see.”

ROLEX 24 COVERAGE: Full announcer lineup, NBCSN/NBC Sports App schedule

Earnhardt was moved by it enough to remark about the sports car atmosphere while having lunch with Fehan.

“(Earnhardt) said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this,’” Fehan said. “‘This has been one of the most rewarding experiences in racing seeing this.’ I said, ‘I want you to enjoy it.’ It’s what racing can be when you’re not running for a million dollars a race. When you put big money on it, it wouldn’t be like this. This is a family. Every team in this paddock is in the same boat paddling. We just have a different oar.

“He loved it. He liked the whole experience. He loved that form of racing. Which led to further conversations about wanting to (race the 24 Hours of) Le Mans. Going to Le Mans was going to be like the pinnacle for him.”

It might have been the first of many post-NASCAR excursions in racing for The Intimidator, who was killed in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 two weeks after the Rolex 24.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. discusses his 2001 Rolex 24 run during a recent interview. The replica street model of the car is behind him (NBC Sports).

“When I think about (the 2001 Rolex 24), sometimes I think about that, and sometimes I don’t,” Earnhardt Jr. said in the podcast. “I just appreciate that we got to do that, before he was taken away from us. Because that was probably one of the first dominoes in a series of things that he might have wanted to do outside this life as a race car driver in NASCAR.

“He may have had other unique things that he had to check off his list. And that was probably the first one because I was real surprised when he came up with the idea to even do it. I didn’t think he was the type of guy who would do these extracurricular things outside of his immense responsibilities. He was a busy, busy man.”

Earnahrdt Jr. said he was “absolutely, 100% sure” that his father would have run Le Mans. Fehan said the logistics already were being formulated for getting Earnhardt to France, and Corvette Racing had a spot in one of its cars.

“We worked out how to fit scheduling for testing and travel,” Fehan said. “I don’t want to say it was 90 percent of the way there, but everybody agreed on doing this. We had the framework and the foundation pretty solidified.

“It was his dream. He was only going to run one more year of Cup. Then he saw himself to be able to compete a number of years. Not just a Le Mans race. He wanted to do more sports car racing.”

After Earnhardt’s death, Corvette honored the NASCAR Hall of Famer with special stripes on its car for a few years. Earnhardt Jr. ran a black-themed bumper on his No. 88 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports as a tribute to the Rolex 24, where the No. 3 Corvette finished second in class and fourth overall.

Earnhardt Jr. also has a street model replica of the No. 3 Corvette. His father was supposed to have a matching version.

“It means more to me now than I ever thought it,” Earnhardt Jr. said of the car. “When we decided to have these cars made, I didn’t know Dad was going to be taken from us just a short time later. It took a while for these cars to get built. The wing on my car came from the second place-finishing Corvette at Le Mans that year. The wing on Dad’s car came from the winning car.

“Dad didn’t want his wing painted. He wanted all the rubber and debris from the race still on the wing. I wanted mine to be painted because I wanted it to match (and) I wanted to drive around town. I wasn’t even thinking or I’d have left it alone. That’s why Dad was so smart! He left his wing dirty.”

Dale Earnhardt makes a lap during the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. (Jon Ferrey/Allsport)

Earnhardt Jr. drove the car for several years but doesn’t anymore after replacing the splitter (“because it’s so low to the ground, I don’t want to hurt it”) and re-decaling.

“This is a bit of a symbolic piece for me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Something that we did together at the end of his life.

“I only have a handful of cars to my name, and there’s only one or two that I will never ever get rid of, and this is one of them. I’ll always have this.”

Also in the podcast:

–Earnhardt Jr. discusses whether he will return to the Rolex 24 (“The door is always open to run that race again. I’d never run full time. Never want to really run Le Mans. But the Daytona 24 Hours race having done it before makes it very special to me. The cars are so much fun.”);

–The lasting bonds and friendships formed by the Earnhardts during the Rolex 24;

–How each of them performed during the race.

You can listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher or Spotify or by clicking on the embed below.

Click here for information on watching NBC Sports Group’s coverage of the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona this weekend.

Podcast: The Earnhardts race the Rolex 24 … recalling one of the last rides for ‘The Intimidator’

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Their first spins around Sebring International Raceway in sports cars were a little too literal for Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

There were some lucrative silver linings from a crash course in learning how to race a Corvette, though.

In preparing for the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, the Earnhardts went to Sebring to learn the nuances of driving a GT car, which have more sophisticated cockpit technology and precision braking and handling than the stock cars of which they were accustomed.

Within his first 15 minutes on track, Earnhardt Jr. had crumpled the back end of the Corvette. Late in the day, his father joined him

ROLEX 24 COVERAGE: Full announcer lineup, NBCSN/NBC Sports App schedule

“We got a pile of parts sitting there from both of them crashing,” Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan said in a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast (links below). “Dale says, ‘This isn’t really the way we wanted to start.’ I said, ‘I think it was inevitable. End of the day, I’m not sure it wasn’t a good way to start because you both have learned the limits of the car.”

Earnhardt told Fehan he still felt bad about the expense and trouble for the team. Fehan pointed at the pile of parts.

“Don’t worry, you and Junior are going to sign all those, and we’re going to sell them,” Fehan said. “We’re going to get the money back.”

The Earnhardts then grabbed Sharpies and headed to the scrap heap.

Beyond making the best of it with their autographs, Earnhardt Jr. said crashing early “probably was a good thing” in getting acclimated to the Corvettes.

“I’m the guy that everyone looks at and thinks, ‘Man, he’s probably the weakest link,’ ” Earnhardt Jr. said in the podcast. “So I put a ton of pressure on myself right out of the gate to be very fast.

“I mashed the gas, and it just spun out. It had so much power, you could just spin that thing out so easily just by touching the throttle pedal. I backed into a bridge abutment. I thought I had killed this race car.”

Dale Earnhardt makes a lap during the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. (Jon Ferrey/Allsport)

Once the car was back in the garage, though, the Corvette team unzipped some large black bags and had the rear end replaced in about 20 minutes.

“‘OK, get back in!’” Earnhardt Jr. recalled the team saying. “I tore this thing to hell, and you’re going to fix it with new stuff and want me to get back in it! You’re not going to let me take a couple of hours to think about what I did, send someone else out there. ‘No! Get back in, you’ve got to learn!’

“I got back in and took a little better care of it the rest of the day.”

It was near the end of the session when his father lost control on a fresh set of tires, and Earnhardt Jr. believes he was partly responsible.

“Dad’s out there, I’m way faster than him,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’m like, ‘Dad, look at me, doing good!’ and he’s like, ‘It’s not important how fast we’re going. We ain’t even racing here. I don’t know what the big deal is.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’

“Well right at the end of the day, I think it was eating away at him a little bit. He wouldn’t admit it. It’s 5 o’clock. It’s time to stop. He’s like, ‘Put me some tires on this!’ One last run, he goes out and is running a lap by the flagstand to start his run. He nosed the car into the tire barrier head first in the last corner.

“I knew he was pushing as hard as he could to match or better my time. So there was some competition between us two that I think he would never admit to. Because I’d be like, not ‘I’m better than you,’ but ‘Look at what I’m doing! Isn’t this cool?’ He’d be like, ‘We don’t even race at Sebring. We race at Daytona! I don’t know why you’re pushing so hard, you’re going to tear it up.’ We had two completely different approaches.”

But there was much common ground for a duo that didn’t always spend much time together at the track. When Earnhardt Jr. was up and coming in Late Models, his father rarely attended his short-track races. They competed together for only one season together in Cup but on separate teams.

The Rolex 24 provided a unique opportunity to work together on a full-time basis.

“This is the closest I’ve ever been to him to be able to do that,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Usually we’re racing on the racetrack and against each other. He might not even see me all day or know what I’m doing. Here we are together, debriefing and talking about the car and changing things on the car together.

“This is a really great opportunity for me to show him just what I thought about race cars and how I communicated.”

Listen to the NASCAR on NBC podcast to hear more stories about the Earnhardts’ run in the 2001 Rolex 24, including:

–How Dale Earnhardt grew close with the Corvette Racing team (“He said I want to be treated like any other guy on this team,” Fehan said. “I don’t want to be treated as Dale Earnhardt. I’m just a driver like anyone else on this race team. Coming from anyone else, I would have thought it was BS. Coming from him, it was genuine. He was serious about it.”)

–The welcoming reception he received in the sports car community (“Dad had a lot of respect for people all across all forms of motorsports. He sort of crossed those lines and boundaries. So I think everybody was like, ‘This is great!’ They weren’t intimated by him from a competitors’ standpoint. He didn’t act like, ‘Boy I’m going to light the world and show you guys. I’m Dale Earnhardt, move out of the way and give me my space.’ He just came in there inquisitive, asking all the right questions. Easy to approach, and people just liked it, man.”

–Why Earnhardt initially believed the team didn’t necessarily need a fourth driver, and the Daytona test that told him otherwise.

You can listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher or Spotify or by clicking on the embed below.

Part II of this special narrative edition of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast will be released early Thursday morning.