Nate Ryan

NASCAR to speak to driver for ‘very poor decision’ at Texas

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NASCAR plans to talk to rookie Quin Houff this week about his “very poor decision” to dive down from the second lane in Turn 4 and attempt to enter pit road late in Sunday’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

When Houff, who was nine laps behind the leaders at the time, came down the track, he hit Christopher Bell and Matt DiBenedetto. The contact brought out a caution on Lap 307 of the 334-lap race and dramatically altered the event.

DiBenedetto was critical of Houff on social media afterward, saying of the driver “This guy having zero awareness ruined our day … Lovely.”

Houff posted a video on social media taking blame for the incident.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, was asked on “The Morning Drive” on Monday by NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan about what actions the sanctioning body would take with Houff.

“I think nobody could argue that it was a very poor decision,” Miller said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Yes, we do review every incident of every race. We didn’t speak to the driver (Sunday) night, but we will before we get going again at Kansas (on Thursday night). Got to do better than that. Racing incident, things are going to happen. Every decision that is made out on the racetrack is an instantaneous, spur-of-the-moment decision, but I think that nobody could argue that wasn’t a poor one.”

After the race, Brad Keselowski, responding to a reporter’s question, said that NASCAR should consider demoting a driver when they’re involved in numerous on-track issues. Sunday’s incident was the third caution Houff has been listed on NASCAR race reports as being responsible for since the Martinsville race on June 10.

The caution for the incident Houff triggered changed Sunday’s race. Austin Dillon took two tires during that caution and restarted second to teammate Tyler Reddick, who took fuel only. Dillon took the lead and held the field off on two more restarts to win his first Cup race since the 2018 Daytona 500.

Bump and Run: Who had most impressive Darlington run?

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Who had the more impressive performance Sunday at Darlington: Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick or Matt Kenseth?

Nate Ryan: Kenseth. A new team he barely knew (and hardly could get to know much because of social distancing restrictions), a downforce-horsepower package he hardly raced, a track he hadn’t practiced on … not exactly a recipe for his second consecutive top 10 in Cup races that were 547 days apart. What he did at Darlington was as impressive or more than finishing sixth in his Cup debut at Dover in September 1998 (filling in for Bill Elliott with a team he also barely knew).

Dustin Long: Matt Kenseth’s performance considering his circumstances was impressive, but I’m going to go with rookie Tyler Reddick. He’s been fast, he’s been toward the front in some races this season but hadn’t put together a complete race. To do so in his first Cup start at Darlington and without the benefit of practice of qualifying speaks volumes of his performance. Even Kenseth was impressed

Daniel McFadin: Matt Kenseth, easily. To come off the bench after more than 15 months of not competing in NASCAR and race at Darlington without any practice or qualifying and finish 10th further cements him as one of the most reliable drivers of his era. Chip Ganassi is probably very relieved.

Jerry Bonkowski: Matt Kenseth. Here’s a guy who had not been in a Cup car for more than 1 1/2 years, had no practice or qualifying, and yet was able to earn a top-10 finish in his first race back. It was like riding a bike: Kenseth didn’t forget how to race. If there was a theme song that best epitomized Kenseth’s return on Sunday, it’s “Back In The Saddle Again” (either the Gene Autry or Aerosmith version).

 

Sunday marked the first of five Cup races scheduled in 14 days. They series is scheduled to race twice at Darlington, twice at Charlotte and once at Bristol by May 31. What will you be watching for in this stretch?

Nate Ryan: Whether the gulf between well-funded and well-staffed powerhouse teams and the have-nots becomes even greater. And which drivers and teams are the most physically and mentally fit to handle the frenzy (keeping an eye on Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch).

Dustin Long: I want to see who excels and who falters. This stretch represents more than 20% of what is remaining in the regular season. That’s a significant portion. A series of strong runs could elevate a team. And a series of poor finishes could all but destroy a team. Who will rise and who will fall?

Daniel McFadin: I’ll be watching to see if performance from one race translates to the next, especially with the Darlington and Charlotte races. With Kevin Harvick’s team bringing his winning car back Wednesday night, will his car still perform the same way under the lights as it did in the daytime?

Jerry Bonkowski: Fatigue will be the biggest thing to watch for, particularly next Wednesday’s race at Charlotte and the race at Bristol. Whoever can best manage the fatigue of five Cup races in two weeks could make a big statement. Hand-in-hand with managing fatigue is consistency. The driver who has the best combination of finishes in those five races could potentially lift himself to be the driver to beat heading into the meat of the schedule.

 

What do you think of how NASCAR is setting the starting lineup for the second Darlington and second Charlotte Cup races by inverting the top 20 from the previous race at those tracks?

Nate Ryan: A good idea that makes me as intrigued to watch Wednesday night as Sunday’s return (and maybe even more so). The shorter race distances for both events also are a good idea for ratcheting up the action.

Dustin Long: Will be interested to see how this plays out in a shorter race. Adds another element to the race. 

Daniel McFadin: I’m very intrigued by it and whether it will have a significant impact on who is competitive. Having Ryan Preece and Ty Dillon start on the front row Wednesday is enticing. Will the rules package help them stay up front longer or will they quickly be afterthoughts? It’s also a valuable move for sponsors of teams that might not run in the top 10 often.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given there is no practice or qualifying, I think that’s a very fair way of setting the starting lineup. It makes everyone on the same page and, in a sense, really isn’t all that much different from how a driver qualifies in regular fashion. Some days you’re going to qualify higher and other days lower. Inverting the top 20 from the previous race finish is the best way to do so until we eventually go back to qualifying.

Ryan: NASCAR return another sign of Darlington’s resilience, renaissance

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They tried to give up on the old girl too soon.

“The Lady in Black,” the moniker given to Darlington Raceway by sportswriter Benny Phillips more than 50 years ago, is meant to reference the fearsome qualities of the most formidable racetrack in NASCAR

But it also could be applied to how often Darlington once seemed dressed for death’s door.

NASCAR stripped a race away from its first superspeedway (which opened in 1950 with a 75-car field). It ripped away its tradition-steeped Labor Day weekend (and the accompanying parade with Clint Eastwood once serving as a grand marshal).

Even the signature Southern 500 — synonymous with the South Carolina region known as the Pee Dee — disappeared for a few seasons in the mid-2000s.

But slowly (aside from a second annual Cup race), it’s all come back.

A Buck Baker tribute car was on display during the Sept. 5, 2015 return of the Southern 500 Parade in Darlington (Jonathan Moore/Getty Images).

The Southern 500.

The Labor Day race weekend (with a wildly popular new throwback tradition).

The parade through the streets of a city with roughly 6,000 people.

And now NASCAR is back, too.

At Darlington.

The 1.366-mile oval will be the epicenter not only of stock-car racing but major-league sports in the United States over a four-day stretch that never would have seemed possible even a few years ago.

Left to the buzzards when the Cup Series chased the almighty dollar and the promise of new fans a couple of decades ago, Darlington has become a lifeline to rescue NASCAR from the brink starting Sunday.

If it wasn’t so readily usable because of its proximity — along with Charlotte Motor Speedway — to help play host to four Cup races in 11 days and alleviate a backlog of 32 races that still need to be completed in the next six months, there would be a much less rosy tune coming from NASCAR executives in Daytona Beach and Charlotte.

Instead, they are singing the praises of Darlington.

“You look at unintended consequences, or in this instance, maybe opportunities,” senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said during a NASCAR America at Home episode Friday (video above). “Not only is Darlington there and available. It’s an iconic racetrack. It goes back with our roots. Of all the places you can open up, it’s a win-win for everybody. It’s got that historic atmosphere. Drivers love to race there and want to win there as well.

“So it became crucial to us to go there not once but twice, race under the lights and then be able to go to Charlotte. And both those venues really enabled us to keep much of the schedule intact on the back half because we’re able to pack those (races) within two weeks.”


There’s been a misconception that NASCAR is being opportunistic as among the first major sports to wave the green flag. President Steve Phelps and others have trumpeted the ancillary benefits of enjoying a much brighter spotlight Sunday.

But to suggest it’s the primary thrust of NASCAR restarting is as reductive as saying Kyle Busch won the 2019 championship because he had the fastest car at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This is much less about seizing the moment and much more about survival.

Brad Keselowski, in his throwback No. 2 firesuit, celebrates after winning the 2018 Southern 500 (Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images).

Motorsports generally isn’t built to withstand long periods of inactivity. Unlike the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, there aren’t dozens of teams owned by deep-pocketed billionaires who can wait out a shutdown. There aren’t coffers stuffed to the brim with emergency reserves of cash.

NASCAR and many other series essentially have two options: Race as soon as humanly possible, or risk extinction by remaining idle.

It’s why we’re seeing virtually every other form of motorsport (IndyCar, IMSA, Supercross, World of Outlaws, NHRA, MotoAmerica, short tracks, etc.) announce plans and schedules while the rest of the big leagues officially are mum on their next steps.

As always with the “Track Too Tough to Tame,” there is a looming danger here.

Some sports probably don’t want to win the race to be first to return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

NASCAR has built a thorough logistical playbook and will have severe restrictions on access Sunday. But the sanctioning body will be flying as blindly into its first race without fans in 72 years as the drivers will be entering Turn 1 without practice or qualifying.

“It’s a big responsibility that we take very seriously because we know we must get it right,” Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp told NBC Sports. “There’s been a lot of planning, organization and details going into this.

“This entire region and the state of South Carolina all the way to the top is very humbled and very excited that we’re able to do this. What better place in my mind to come back racing than a track that is so steeped in history and tradition?”

It’s been a trendsetter, too, since Harold Brasington built the egg-shaped oval more than seven decades ago.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway laid the groundwork for superspeedways in this country, but it’s hard to imagine a Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway if Darlington hadn’t been the blueprint for the South.

“Darlington changed the sport in 1950,” Kyle Petty said on a recent episode of NASCAR America at Home. “Darlington has an opportunity to change the sport again in 2020. This may be a glimpse into the future of how NASCAR races are run moving forward (without practice or qualifying), moving from this date to 2021 and 2022. This little place in South Carolina has changed the sport two times.”

It’s another case of pride for Tharp, a Kentucky native who proudly has called South Carolina home for 35 years.

“I think Darlington exemplifies the state in which it is located in,” Tharp said. “South Carolina is a very gritty and resilient state in my mind. It’s a handshake state. You shake somebody’s hand, and they give you their word, they’re going to live up to it. Those are the kind of people in this state.”


That self-determination also is shaded by some bloodshed and ugliness stemming from the stir of Antebellum echoes in the South Shall Rise Again.

The Civil War started at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. It was the first state to secede from the Union. The Confederate flag flew on the grounds of the South Carolina State House in Columbia until five years ago (after Dylann Roof entered an African-American church in Charleston and slaughtered nine people).

There also are many indicators of its resilience as a unifier.

South Carolina has survived countless hurricanes. After many body blows to its economy, it remains among the country’s poorer states, but its income growth and employment numbers rapidly were improving pre-pandemic. The state made bold shifts to tourism and major manufacturing, and Greenville-Spartanburg and Charleston became bustling centers of growth.

It could be argued that the handling of COVID-19 is another example of its bounce-back spirit. In Senate testimony Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci praised South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s response as a model for reopening that “I almost would want to clone.”

Gov. McMaster also has been instrumental in ensuring NASCAR could restart at Darlington – another clear sign that some fans’ ill will of nearly 20 years ago has long subsided.

During what seemed would be the last Labor Day race weekend at Darlington in 2003, T-shirts reading “Money Talks, Tradition Walks” dotted the grandstands. Longtime attendees angrily described the betrayal of moving the weekend to Auto Club Speedway in Southern California as a slap in the face.

“Tradition is something NASCAR doesn’t believe in anymore,” one local told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long at the time. “The so-called rednecks who made this sport can’t go there anymore. NASCAR needs to remember who made them.”

Brad Keselowski, in a throwback No. 2 Miller Lite Ford, races William Byron, driving a No. 24 Hendrick City Chevrolet car, in two of the throwback paint schemes from last year’s Southern 500 (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

Those origins eventually were recognized, particularly with the Southern 500 being returned to Labor Day weekend since 2015. In a grassroots renaissance campaign that caught fire in the first year, Cup and Xfinity teams rolled out achingly crafted tributes to NASCAR history that have become the most highly anticipated paint schemes of the season.

“When two races went down to one, the fans and that community and this racetrack stood tall,” Tharp said. “And the crowds were still here. The stands were still full or nearly full. And then when the return to Labor Day, coupled with the throwback platform, came about six years ago, it just solidified the fact that Darlington is indeed one of the crown jewels of the sport.”

And a crown jewel of the state’s sports scene. The college football programs of Clemson and South Carolina reign supreme, of course, and Hilton Head Island has a prestigious golf tournament.

Yet Darlington remains beloved as South Carolina’s literal diamond in the rough.

“You come rolling down Highway 151 from the North Carolina area, and you go through some fields and farmland,” Tharp said. “And all of a sudden, you’re up on a really cool iconic racetrack. Darlington. It’s just a special place in a lot of people’s minds.”

And this Sunday, it’ll be a savior for NASCAR.

The Lady is Back.

Fans cheered during the return of the Southern 500 parade Sept. 5, 2015 in Darlington, S.C. (Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

When can fans attend NASCAR races?

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NASCAR remains hopeful that fans will be able to attend races later this season but has no timetable at this point.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, made the comment during an appearance Friday on NASCAR America at Home with NBC’s Rick Allen and Nate Ryan.

NASCAR announced this week its revised schedule through June 21 for Cup, Xfinity, Trucks and ARCA. No fans will be allowed at any of those events.

When fans return will be based on local and state COVID-19 guidelines for each track.

“We’d love (the fans) there this weekend,” O’Donnell said of Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway, “but we also understand that we’ve got to do what’s right in the local communities in each state. Some of the calls we’ve had with governors have said, ‘Hey, we may be ready and we may be open to that,’ so I’m encouraged by those conversations. We’ve not heard a ‘no way’ for the rest of the year.”

Among the plans by states to ease restrictions, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced a five-phase plan May 1. It lists goals of permitting social gatherings of more than 250 people and sports events to resume by July 4. The NASCAR Xfinity and NTT IndyCar Series are scheduled to have a doubleheader July 4 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, and the Cup series is scheduled to compete on the oval on July 5.

O’Donnell said that NASCAR is close to completing its schedule for the rest of the season. He said series officials had a call scheduled Friday with a governor that he did not reveal to see if that state would be “good to go” with NASCAR’s race dates “and then we would be set. As long as things stay the same or continue to improve, we feel really good about the schedule in place.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf confirmed he talked with NASCAR, according to a tweet from Dan Gelston of The Associated Press and that Gov. Wolf “told them Pennsylvania is not ready to make a decision.”

The Cup series is scheduled to run a doubleheader June 27-28 at Pocono Raceway.

O’Donnell said that NASCAR had a call scheduled Friday with drivers to go over procedures for Sunday’s race. A question among some drivers has been about confronting a competitor after the race to discuss or argue an incident that happened during the event.

“I think from our standpoint, it’s not lost on us the responsibility we have as a sport in showcasing the protocols that we have in place,” O’Donnell said. “I would say that we would heavily discourage (confrontations). We’ve got a lot on the line with this race to be able to race. We understand emotions will be high. Maybe that’s something we call (UFC President) Dana White up and he can arrange a separate bout for those guys in Jacksonville (Florida). We can send them down there on Monday, and they could come back and join us for the race (at Darlington) on Wednesday.”

Officials from others sports and health officials are expected to be at Darlington to monitor how NASCAR runs its health screening process and its event, O’Donnell said on NASCAR America at Home.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations,” O’Donnell said of talks with other sports leagues. “(NASCAR President) Steve Phelps talked to folks at the NBA, obviously we’ve talked to IndyCar, the Carolina Panthers. We’ll have a representative from the Carolina Panthers there (the team’s director of security). Obviously, outside the track but just kind of observing what we’re doing as people come in, protocols, what they can learn as well.

“And then we’ll have health officials from the Charlotte area coming down to look at what’s in place. What we may need to tweak in terms of being able to enhance our protocols at Charlotte as well, so we’ve been really transparent with what we’re doing with other leagues. By the same token, the other leagues have been the same. I think what’s great about this is we all want to be back. We all want to be back in a way that’s safe, so if we can share and learn from each other, I think that’s what we’ve done, and it’s worked well.”

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Bump and Run: What happens when green waves at Darlington?

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Drivers will have no practice, no qualifying and will not have been in a car for more than 70 days when the green flag waves at Darlington. What do you think Lap 1 will be like?

Dustin Long: I’ve gotten mixed responses from drivers I’ve talked with on this subject. Some believe the start will be calm. Some acknowledge how difficult it is to pass and that the start is a good time to gain positions. I would expect the field to be nice to each other for a few seconds after the green waves and that’s it. Wouldn’t be surprised to see a caution in the first five laps.

Daniel McFadin: Tense and exhilarating. A field full of drivers who haven’t gotten to do much over the last two months, let alone race, are about to unleashed at 180 mph on one of the hardest tracks on the circuit. I can imagine a wild scramble to be able to lead the first lap back. Even if it’s pretty tame, it’ll be a cathartic moment.

Jerry Bonkowski: While some fans are likely expecting there to be a wild, frantic free-for-all, particularly going into Turn 1, I think it will be just the opposite. I believe drivers will be tentative and methodical and wait at least 25 or more laps before they start taking risks or making dicey moves.

Nate Ryan: Some very awkward driving and a crash. It’s easy to say, “Oh, everyone will be conservative!” There will be 40 separate views of what constitutes “conservative” and 40 separate reactions to those definitions.

 

What are you most intrigued about with Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway?

Dustin Long: I want to see what happens on pit road. Pit crews also will have to shake off the rust from this long break. Will their timing be off and they enter the pit stall too soon? More importantly, with fewer people behind pit wall — and some people likely in unfamiliar roles — will there be a spate of pit road penalties because tires get away from team members reaching over the wall? Pit road penalties could cost a team a win and the playoff berth that comes with it.

Daniel McFadin: Matt Kenseth. The whirlwind of how he became the driver of the No. 42 after more than a year out of NASCAR is just hard to comprehend. With the field being set by owner points, Kenseth will start seventh, so we won’t have to wait long to see how he stacks up against fellow competitors who haven’t raced in more than 70 days.

Jerry Bonkowski: How NASCAR will handle the logistics of keeping everyone safe, including taking participants’ temperatures both entering and leaving the racetrack and what happens if anyone tests positive for COVID-19.

Nate Ryan: How much the rust will affect drivers and teams. If it’s like last week’s World of Outlaws return at Knoxville Raceway, there will be many errors, and they will have a siginificant impact on results.

 

What are up to three key issues you’re are interested in seeing how they develop with the season resuming?

Dustin Long: I’m intrigued to see how free agency develops as the season progresses and if there might be as many changes as some expected before the season, or if the best deal for many drivers is to remain with the same team. It will be interesting to see how the schedule progresses and how teams are able to respond to multiple races in a week. I also want to see how fans embrace midweek races and if that’s something that can be done in the coming years to end the season well before early November.

Daniel McFadin: I’m interested to see how NASCAR’s plan of one-day shows evolves as it get more races under its belt and how long that format will stay in place this season. If it unfortunately occurs, I’m curious to see how NASCAR and race teams will handle it should just one person on a team test positive for COVID-19. That has the potential to derail NASCAR’s triumphant return.

Jerry Bonkowski: 1. Will the return to live racing draw high numbers of viewers to watch on TV? 2. Will drivers who had success in iRacing, such as William Byron, Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithley, be able to transfer their prowess behind a computer screen to behind the wheel of a Cup car? 3. How will Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman fare in their return to Cup racing?

Nate Ryan: I won’t have a good answer until after this race (and probably the next three). There are too many variables and unknowns.

 

Was the Pro Invitational Series a success?

Dustin Long: It was in providing a distraction and some entertainment, but the longer the series went, the more it seemed to wane. Those behind the scenes who made this series happen cannot be given enough credit. Still, the dichotomy between those competitors who took this seriously and those wanting to have fun created a tug of war that, quite frankly, seemed to take away from the experience.

Daniel McFadin: For the most part I think it was successful. It allowed NASCAR to stay relevant in some form in a world without sports, which means NASCAR won’t be appearing out of the blue on Sunday with the Darlington race. While I wish the Invitational had visited more unique tracks rather than staying faithful to the NASCAR schedule, Saturday’s event on a virtual North Wilkesboro more than made up for that. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Without question, it was a huge success in my mind. It filled a major entertainment void when fans needed some excitement and to keep themselves engaged. Frankly, I’m saddened to see the Pro Invitational Series go away. However, I think NASCAR would be very smart to bring the virtual series back in some fashion, particularly during the offseason. Why let all the momentum and attention fall by the wayside now that we’re going back to real-life racing?

Nate Ryan: Yes, it filled a void for content and kept NASCAR on the radar.