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Friday 5: NASCAR’s planned return to racing comes with a twist

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NASCAR’s return not only will mark the return of Ryan Newman from his Daytona 500 crash and Matt Kenseth from an unplanned retirement but of a new way of racing.

No practice. 

No qualifying (in most cases).

Just go and race.

NASCAR announced Thursday that there will be no practice before the Cup, Xfinity and Truck races scheduled for May 17-27 at Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. There also will be no qualifying at those races except for the May 24 Coca-Cola 600. Each event will be held in one day, allowing teams to return home afterward and not stay in a hotel.

The idea of one-day, midweek events could be considered for future seasons when normalcy returns and NASCAR ponders a schedule that ends before November. This year could provide a good test case.

But as the calendar turns to May, the focus for drivers is on competing at Darlington Raceway, considered among the sport’s more challenging tracks. Each driver’s first lap at speed on May 17 will come when the green flag drops for the race.

“I think we’re going to see real tangible value in our simulators,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports, alluding to how simulators will determine car setups in lieu of no practice.

Said Alex Bowman: “I think going to a place like Darlington is going to be really tough. Probably be a little rusty getting into Turn 1 if that was the first (lap of the day). That would be a tough place.”

Busch notes just how challenging those early laps at Darlington will be without practice.

“The biggest thing we’re all going to be faced with is the track’s rapidly changing conditions because we used to have the Truck Series or Xfinity Series to help lay down the rubber and create the look of where the groove is, and now (the groove is) going to be as green as it has ever been,” he said, noting Cup will be the first seres to resume.

“The pace is going to be astronomically fast in the beginning and (the groove is) going to be getting glazed over more rapidly during our race. Those are the things that crew chiefs, lead engineers and drivers are going to be challenged with in this unique setting.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said there would be a competition caution early in the May 17 Darlington race.

“Obviously we’re still working through what that may look like,” O’Donnell told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “We want to allow for some adjustments for the teams, so (there’s) a lot of dialogue still going on. I’m also confident when (Cup goes) back on Wednesday night on (May) 20th, you may see some different things based on what we learned with our opening event.”

When Cup drivers raced at Darlington in last September’s Southern 500, they faced a green track after rain delayed the race’s start by more than three hours. NASCAR added a competition caution at Lap 35 for that event since rain washed the rubber off the track.

“It’s just adapting to all that and trying to stay on top of it,” Bowman said of what racing at Darlington will be like.

2. “Huge responsibility”

NASCAR is set to become the first major sport to return during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Many likely will be watching to see how NASCAR does.

“We realize up front it’s a huge responsibility for us as a sport,” NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said of returning ahead of the NBA, NHL and before Major League Baseball can begin. “But I’m also confident in the group we’ve gathered to put this plan together. … We’re certainly going to learn as we go. But the process we put in place I think gives the industry the confidence that we can be first, we can do this in Darlington.”

After consultation with various medical and health officials at local, state and national levels, this is what NASCAR is planning for team members, drivers and others working upcoming races:

  • Anyone who will work at the track is being asked to self-monitor for five days for symptoms before the event.
  • Each person working at the track must fill out a questionnaire on their health and go through a temperature screening check.
  • If there are concerns based on a person’s temperature, they will go through additional screening that will include monitoring heart rate and oxygenation.
  • There also will be additional screening for essential personnel.
  • Temperature checks will be done randomly throughout the event. Symptomatic patients will be removed from the event and given medical care if needed.
  • Everyone going into the infield must wear cloth masks as they move about.
  • Cup haulers will be spread out in the infield for social distancing among teams. Driver motorcoaches also will be spread out to keep competitors away from each other.
  • There will be one-way walkways to further promote social distancing.
  • On pit road, over-the-wall crew members must have a fireproof sock mask that will go from their nose down to below their chin or use a face screen from above their eyes to below their chin.
  • Spotters will be spread out in the empty stands, all at least 6 feet away from each other.
  • After the race, NASCAR will stagger the exit of crews to maintain social distancing.
  • Because COVID-19 tests remain in limited supply, NASCAR states those tests should be targeted for people most in need.
  • NASCAR recommends that crew members who are at the track not work in the race shop between events.
  • NASCAR also asks all participants to keep a log of who they’ve interacted with throughout the course of a day in case they later have a positive test. That way, those who have come in direct exposure can be contacted and asked to isolate for 14 days.

“We have a lot of confidence in our plan,” said John Bobo, NASCAR vice president of racing operations. “We know we have to work together as an industry to keep our own folks safe, to keep each community safe.”

Brian Symmes, communications director for South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, issued a statement to NBC Sports about NASCAR’s guidelines to race at Darlington. Symmes stated:

“We’ve worked closely with NASCAR as they’ve planned this event and developed their exhaustive guidelines and requirements for anybody working at the raceway that day. We’re confident that those plans will protect South Carolinians from the virus and allow for a great experience for NASCAR fans to enjoy the start of the season.”

3. Getting the band back together

Chip Ganassi Racing’s hiring of Matt Kenseth for the rest of the season for the No. 42 car, reunites Kenseth with former teammate Kurt Busch.

They both drove for what is now Roush Fenway Racing from 2000-05. Kenseth won the 2003 championship. Busch won the 2004 title.

Kenseth told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan earlier this week about reuniting with Busch:

“I’ve always said he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of really good teammates. Kurt as a teammate is always very unselfish. He always works really, really hard at it. Puts in the extra time. Asks the questions. Gives his input. Does all the things that you really appreciate as a teammate.”

Busch called Kenseth’s words “humbling.”

Busch said his approach is guided by the philosophy that “if I can make the whole team better, then I’ve got a better chance of winning.”

Busch said Kenseth was instrumental to him early in his career.

“He taught me consistency when we were younger,” Busch said. “He had an incredible ability to just bang out solid, solid finishes every week. When I finally got my footing, it helped propel me to that championship in 2004. I think the two of us did a great job of pushing each other as young guys. We had Mark Martin and Jeff Burton to look up to. The communication has always been seamless with Matt.”

Now, Kenseth likely will lean on Busch. Kenseth last raced in the Cup Series in the 2018 season finale. Busch said he will help Kenseth in any way.

Said Kenseth this week: “Hopefully once we get this thing rolling, I can reciprocate and help (Busch) as well.”

4. Just the beginning

Cup teams racing four times between May 17-27 is just the beginning of what will be a busy time. NASCAR intends to run the remaining 32 races in the next 25 weeks, finishing the season Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway as scheduled.

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said that the intention remains for Pocono to host the first Cup doubleheader on June 27-28 but that there could be one or two tracks with doubleheaders. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday, Dover Motorsports, which operates Dover International Speedway, stated that it is “possible that our May NASCAR Cup Series event will be moved to August and that we hold a doubleheader with back-to-back NASCAR Cup Series events held on Saturday and Sunday.”

With all this racing in a compressed window this season, what will it do to teams?

“We have to ramp up motor-wise, gearbox-wise, all these things,” car owner Rick Ware said. “We’ll be able to get through this. It’s going to be a lot of work.”

Getting the work done between races could prove challenging for some teams.

“I think the more bench strength you have, the more you’re able to absorb the added workload and extra demands,” Richard Childress Racing President Torrey Galida told NBC’s Jerry Bonkowski. “The teams that will really take it on the chin are the small teams. They only have a few people in the shop when they leave for the racetrack.”

5. What if …

With no qualifying for the upcoming races — except for the Coca-Cola 600 — NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell was asked how the field will be set.

He said the first race back for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks likely would be based on car owner points but after that?

He stated various ideas were being examined including setting a starting lineup based on the finishing order of the previous race.

That’s similar to how NASCAR will align the field for the second race during the Pocono doubleheader weekend in June. The starting lineup for the weekend’s second race will be an inversion of how all the lead-lap cars finished in the weekend’s first race.

A new concept catching on? Hmmm.

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President Trump seeks to make sports central part of economic revival

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President Donald Trump spoke with sports leaders Wednesday, expressing his desire to make sports a central part America’s economic revival, according to a press pool report.

The report sates that Lesa France Kennedy, executive vice chair, represented NASCAR on the call. Others on the call included NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred.

According to the press pool report: “The President expressed optimism to the major sports organizations that are eager to get their athletes back on courts, courses, and fields of play, and for the millions of sports fans who are missing their favorite teams and players. Leaders of the sports organizations expressed appreciation for the President’s attention to their industry and offered innovative input on social distancing guidelines.

“President Trump acknowledged the important role that sports play in American life and expressed his desire to make sports a central part of the great American economic revival.”

MORE: Dr. Anthony Fauci on how sports can return: Regular testing, no fans

MORE: N.C. Gov: “Our new normal” may have no in-person crowds for awhile

President Trump held a call with sports league executives April 4. That call included NASCAR President Steve Phelps. President Trump later said in a press briefing that day:

I want fans back in the arenas. Whenever we’re ready and as soon as we can, obviously. The fans want to be back, too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go out on the golf courses and breath nice clean beautiful air.

“I can’t tell you a date, but I think it’s going to be sooner rather than later. We’re not going to have to have separation for the rest of our times on the planet. We need it for this period of time. Eventually, people are going to be able to occupy those seats in arenas next to each other like we have for all of my life and all of your life.”

NASCAR has postponed seven races through May 3 at Dover International Speedway. NASCAR’s next scheduled race is May 9 at Martinsville Speedway, but Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order from March 30 to June 10. The next scheduled events after that would be All-Star weekend (May 14-16) and Coca-Cola 600 weekend (May 22-24) at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina.

According to the press pool report, these were the individuals on Wednesday’s call with President Trump:

* Todd Ricketts—Chicago Cubs
* Jerry Jones—Dallas Cowboys
* Mark Cuban—Dallas Mavericks
* Ari Emanuel— Endeavor
* Robert Kraft—The Kraft Group
* Mike Whan—LPGA
* Robert Manfred— MLB
* Don Garber—MLS
* Adam Silver—NBA
* Lesa Kennedy—NASCAR
* Mark Emmert—NCAA
* Roger Goodell—NFL
* Gary Bettman—NHL
* Lisa Baird—NWSL
* Jay Monahan—PGA TOUR
* Dana White—UFC
* Sarah Hirshland—U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee
* Patrick Galbraith—USTA
* Cathy Engelbert—WNBA
* Vince McMahon—WWE

Friday 5: North Wilkesboro to make its comeback on iRacing

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Long gone but never forgotten, North Wilkesboro Speedway will make a comeback.

On iRacing.

Steve Myers, executive vice president and executive producer at iRacing, told NBC Sports that “we’re on track to get (North Wilkesboro) released the first week of June.”

No other long lost track is as revered among NASCAR fans as the .625-mile speedway where the frontstretch went downhill into Turns 1 and 2 and the backstretch went uphill into Turns 3 and 4.

NASCAR ran 93 Cup races there from 1949 — when it was the finale in the inaugural season of NASCAR — to 1996. Hall of Famer Junior Johnson was the local favorite. Richard Petty and Bobby Allison had an epic door-banging battle in 1972. Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt tangled on the last lap in 1989 and crashed, leading Rudd to hide in the back seat of a passenger car to escape the wrath of fans. Jeff Gordon won the final Cup race there in 1996.

The track was revived in 2010 and held a few races. Its final race was 2011. 

North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1966. Jim Paschal won the pole and the race. David Pearson started second and finished third. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

In December, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others helped clean the surface so the track could be scanned and added to iRacing’s sim racing program.

“There were certainly sections of the track that were much worse condition than could possibly be raced on,” Myers said. “Turns 3 and 4, the pavement was sliding. You could see it was buckling in on a section of the track … from sitting unused for so many years.

“Going into Turn 1, the drainage coming out from underneath the grandstands kind of ran across the track and because it was downhill, it was funneling down the front straight pit wall and right along into Turn 1 and collecting in the apron at the exit of the pits. You could tell there (had been) a lot of water there because the pavement started peeling up along that wall. So those things are kind of the obstacles that we have in the production process of trying to figure out how to smooth those things out and do the best we can.

“The data, we looked through it already, we’re pretty far along on the development of the track. It actually looks pretty good.”

That’s not the only track iRacing is working on to give race fans. They are working to do a version of Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville.

“Everyone that has kind of been clamoring for that, I think, is going to be excited about that,” Myers said.

2. Offseason iRacing?

OK, it was one event under extraordinary times where there were no other live sporting events on TV at time when normally there would have been NCAA basketball tournament games, NBA and NHL contests, among other sports, but the excitement (and viewership) for last weekend’s debut of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series has raised the question of if this is something that could be done in NASCAR’s offseason.

With NASCAR looking to end future seasons earlier and possibly making the offseason longer, a question was posed on social media if iRacing with Cup drivers would be a good offseason element for the sport and its fans.

Tim Clark, NASCAR senior vice president and chief digital officer, told NBC Sports this week that “anything is possible, (but) I do think it’s probably early to think about that now.

“I think we’re in a unique position in that we’ve got not only sim racers like you see in the (eNascar) Coca-Cola (iRacing) Series but also professional drivers that are able to do this at a high level,” Clark said. “What that does, I think it gives us some flexibility to determine what we’re going to do with these platforms and the timing. I think we want to strike the balance between having some opportunities to do more in this space but also being cognizant enough to not oversaturate.”

Should there be something in the offseason, it would face obstacles. Many drivers typically take vacations after the season. With the holidays of December, that makes it more challenging.

Now, if there was an interest in a short series of offseason races, January could be the time. Sundays could prove difficult because of NFL playoff games. So maybe a midweek event? Still that would face competition from other pro and college sports. And of course, the biggest question is if people will still want this after sports resume throughout the calendar.

3. IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheaders

Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s announcement Thursday that it was moving its IndyCar GMR Grand Prix from May 9 to July 4, puts it on the same day as the Xfinity race there, also on the road course, and a day before the Cup race on the oval.

IndyCar and NASCAR doubleheaders have been discussed often in the last year and Josef Newgarden ran six laps in an IndyCar on the Charlotte Roval in September. Now fans will have the chance to see the NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR’s top two series at the same facility on the same weekend.

Josef Newgarden drove demonstration laps Sept. 27, 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval. (Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series, explained the move and what it could mean for the future.

“It’s not like we had a plan in place,” Miles said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “It’s something that comes up. It’s been clear for a long time that both series, under the right circumstances, thought it could be a good thing for the sport and for each of our series.

“The spirits have always been willing. It hasn’t necessarily always been the highest priority, but this just sort of created the opportunity of here’s an opportunity, let’s go for it and as has been said there wasn’t much hesitation.”

IndyCar driver Graham Rahal expressed his feelings with running at Indy with NASCAR and the possibility of future doubleheaders with NASCAR.

“I’m extremely excited to run with NASCAR,” Rahal said in a social media video. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our sport, for their sport to come together. Opportunity maybe for some doubles to be done, which we’ll look into and things like that. But I do think that’s really good and it’s exciting for all of us to go off and do that together.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway also announced Thursday that the Indianapolis 500 would move from May 24 to Aug. 23.

4. What to do?

With shops closed or running with a limited crew because of no racing until May 9 at the earliest for Cup organizations, teams are trying to figure out what to do next.

“What became very apparent to me about two Mondays ago is after Atlanta is that you could not make a long-range plan,” Philippe Lopez, general manager of Richard Petty Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “Because I did. I did it on Tuesday. I redid it on Wednesday. Then on Friday, I said, ‘You know what, it’s impossible. We’ve never gone through this.’ ”

RPM driver Bubba Wallace with team owner Richard Petty earlier this season. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lopez said the RPM shop was closed this week and was closed part of the previous week.

“The biggest thing we’ve told (employees) that right now this is about them and their families and we wanted them to be home and be safe. We have continued to pay our employees and not cutting anything yet.

“They know, obviously if this goes on for much longer, we can’t afford to stay at that rate and that pace. There are, fortunately, some teams that can but we’re, unfortunately, not one of those.”

Lopez said that he is reaching out to employees each Friday to give them the plan for the coming week.

“The biggest thing was,” he said, “is we’re all going to get through this together.” 

He said a group text for employees has been “really heartwarming to see how they are taking care of each other. It’s just a good bunch. Everyone is taking care of each other right now. I told them to not worry about the racing part. We can build cars in two weeks.”

5. Long wait

There are certainly bigger issues in the world with COVID-19 infecting more people in the U.S. than any other country and the demand for medical supplies.

While racing, along with all sports, waits to resume, there have been many stories that have intrigued me. One is Jesse Little.

The 22-year-old senior at UNC Charlotte spent the previous five seasons trying to make it in NASCAR’s Truck Series but never competing in half the races any of those season. His was a case of a driver seeking work his way into a full-time ride.

He got that chance this season in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports and after four races, he, like everyone else, waits for when sports can return.

Jesse Little is in his first season in the Xfinity Series. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Little understands his plight does not compare to others who are suffering.

He also understands that this pause is just part of a journey he has gone through to become a full-time racer.

“I’ve learned to expect nothing and be prepared to react to everything,” Little told NBC Sports.

The Xfinity Series is not scheduled to return to racing until May 23 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, meaning teams would go 11 weeks between races. He’s gone months between starts in his Truck career, which has seen him run between four and nine races since 2015.

He admits there have been times when his career could have ended because of the lack of rides.

“Like a lot of drivers in my position, there were always crests and there were troughs,” said Little, whose best finish this season was 14th at Las Vegas. “I think at the end of 2017 when I ran only four Truck races that year and my last race I crashed and was, like ‘OK this might be it. Luckily, I’m going to school full-time who knows.’

“We were fortunate enough to be able to make the investment and go racing and bring back some people I had great chemistry with and had good notebook and that’s when I had my most successful year in Trucks in 2018. So in the span of six months, I went from thinking I was pretty much done to having my best career finishes and leading laps.”

And it led to him getting a full-time ride this season.

“I’m fortunate to have the support system I do,” said Little, the son of former NASCAR driver Chad Little, of family and friends. “If it wasn’t for them, without a doubt, I probably would have said, ‘All right this racing stuff didn’t work out. I played my cards.’ “They forced me to continue down the path and in doing so, each step … I’ve been given chances and I’ve seen personally that I believe I have what it takes and I’m confident enough in myself. It’s proved to me and I think to the people I want to prove, I think I deserve a shot at showcasing the potential I have. Each one of those things has given me the next step to readjust and get to that next spot.”

While he waits to race, he keeps busy with school work.

“The week heading into Atlanta I was stressing a lot because the week going into Homestead was my midterms and I was swapped absolutely with school,” said Little, whose major is management information systems. “The week after my midterms was my senior project. Literally racing got put on hold right when I needed to focus on my two classes at school the most. That’s what I’m taking up my time and I’m able to focus on my school stuff.”

Even with that, he’s still doing his race prep work from exercising and studying race film.

“I want to be as prepared as I can,” he said about when racing returns.

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Michael Annett cheering on former teammate in Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Long before Michael Annett sped around race tracks in NASCAR, he sped around skating rinks as a junior hockey league player.

His final season of competition came in the 2003-04 season with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League.

You can watch the above video from 2015 for more on Annett’s hockey career.

While Annett’s life took him to auto racing, his captain that year stuck with hockey.

It’s worked out for Joe Pavelski.

After breaking into the National Hockey League in 2006, Pavelski is in his 13th season playing for San Jose Sharks and is captain of the team as it competes in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Pavelski and the Sharks are down 2-1 in the best-of-seven-games, first-round series against the Las Vegas Knights. Game 4 is set for 10:30 p.m. ET today on NBCSN.

“I watch it as much as I can,” Annett told NBC Sports of the playoffs. “Watching (Pavelski) captain the San Jose Sharks sharks now is pretty cool. They got to get their act together if they’re going to beat the Knights. They got to pick it up a little bit. The intensity of playoff hockey is so much fun. You usually wait 15 minutes for a goal or a big play and it seems like if you blink you’re going to miss something in the playoffs, it’s just so much fun to watch.”

The JR Motorsports driver said he and Pavelski were “real close” during their year playing for the Black Hawks in Iowa.

“You get those 30 guys from all over the country that you can find to play for one team for a season, you all grow really close like brothers,” Annett said. “I’m just really proud of him. I know what it takes, I know how many hot, little kids are hockey players and that’s what they dream of doing. To see him still doing it at the level he is as the captain of a team that’s made the playoffs (in all but one of Pavelski’s 13 seasons), just really proud of him.”

He was probably really proud of Pavelski last week when he accidentally scored a goal with his jaw in Game 1 and lost a couple of teeth in the process.

While they don’t talk by phone anymore, Annett and his former captain do keep in touch.

“It’s all through Instagram messages,” Annett said, noting Pavelski reached out to him after his first Xfinity win in February at Daytona. “When somebody does something pretty cool you reach out and tell him that ‘That was pretty awesome, I’m still following you.'”

Michael Annett celebrates his win at Daytona in February.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Annett is 15 years removed from his hockey days and 11 years into his full-time NASCAR career.

Does he miss his hockey days? Only when the Stanley Cup is at stake.

“I really don’t miss it until the playoffs come around to be honest with you,” Annett said. “It’s the hardest time when the hockey is just so exciting, it’s so intense. You remember that camaraderie you had with the guys and how much hard works goes into a playoff run. This is the toughest time to watch.”

Here’s tonight’s Stanley Cup Playoff schedule.

Tampa Bay Lightning at Columbus Blue Jackets; 7 p.m. ET on CNBC

New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins; 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Winnipeg Jets at St. Louis Blues; 9:30 p.m. ET on CNBC

San Jose Sharks at Las Vegas Knights; 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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