Forty cars are entered for Wednesday night’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).
It’s the same 40 teams but there are driver changes from Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. They are:
Josh Bilicki will drive the No. 7 car for Tommy Baldwin Racing.
JJ Yeley will be in the No. 77 for Spire Motorsports. He had originally been listed as driving the No. 27 car for Rick Ware Racing. Gray Gaulding is now entered in the No. 27.
All three cars will start at the rear because of the driver change. There is no qualifying for Wednesday’s race. The top 20 finishers from Sunday are inverted for Wednesday’s starting lineup. The remaining positions are based on where the car finished Sunday (except for those with driver changes).
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.”
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.
Bubba Wallace’s sudden departure from Sunday’s Pro Invitational Series race and his sponsor’s reaction provides a reminder that even though virtual racing — “a video game” as Wallace called it in a tweet — doesn’t seem to have consequences, it can.
Earnhardt was asked on Monday’s call with reporters about the the balance between fun and business with virtual racing in light of Wallace’s situation.
“All of the race teams are trying everything they can to keep their sponsors and keep their employees,” Earnhardt said. “Keeping their sponsors allows them to keep their employees. I think as a racer, I think of someone who is participating, competing in these events online, it’s an opportunity for you to get engagement for the fans. Obviously, they’re going to enjoy the content and the race, but it’s also an opportunity for you to get your sponsors and partners, who are getting nothing right now, on TV, which lends to social engagement, either promoting the race or after the race talking about it. It’s not as good as the real thing, there is not the at-track engagement or activation, but it’s really the only thing we’ve got going.”
“There are two things that are happening,” Ware told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Some of our sponsorship revolves around just the social media, the amount of TV time, the way sponsors leverage it. Some of it is they are regional or franchise companies, so they bring in a handful of people and use it as an opportunity to do some light hospitality, meet and greets, promote sales, etc.”
Earnhardt also is using his virtual car in the Pro Invitational Series for JR Motorsports sponsors until racing returns.
“When I go and get on there, for example for (virtual) Texas we ran the Hellmann’s car and when we run the Sunday race at Richmond, I’m going to run another JRM initiative. It’s basically kind of appease and make those partners feel some value, which in turn helps our employees, helps us keep our employees.
“I told (sister) Kelley (Earnhardt Miller), when we don’t have an initiative that we can do or use at JRM, I’m just going to run that FilterTime car, but if we can, or if there is any opportunity for us to run anything else to help Hellmann’s or any of our other partners, I want to be doing that. I want to do anything I can to help us maintain our employees.
“I think as a driver that’s how you have to approach it. You’re going to be on (iRacing). You’re going to be doing it. Your team wants you to be there. Your partners want you to be there. Enjoy it. Have fun with it. Obviously don’t let it get under your skin if you get wrecked. Video games have a real good way of doing that.
“I’ve seen a lot of friendships get lost either playing Madden or racing online. If you’re going there and doing that, have fun and enjoy it. But also remember that you also have to maintain some professionalism because there are some other things bigger than what’s happening in that room on that sim rig. There are implications beyond what you are doing on sim racing.”
Garrett Smithley lands sponsor for iRacing events, Brickyard 400
Following his top-five finishes in the first two NASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series events, Garrett Smithley has landed a new sponsor that could transition into real life.
Rick Ware Racing announced Friday that GunBroker.com will sponsor Smithley in the next five Pro Invitational races before potentially sponsoring Smithley in the real life Brickyard 400, which is currently scheduled for July 5 but could have its date changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“I am excited to have GunBroker.com on board my No. 51 entry,” Smithley said in a press release. “I have been iRacing for several years, and I’m glad that NASCAR, iRacing and Fox Sports have given the drivers, teams and sponsors the opportunity to continue to race, during this difficult time.”
GunBroker.com is an online marketplace where buyers can shop for new and used guns, ammunition, and accessories.
“iRacing is great racing and wonderful entertainment in these difficult times.” Steve Urvan, CEO of GunBroker.com, said in a press release. “We are excited to partner with our long-time friend Rick Ware and up-and-coming driver Garrett Smithley and look forward to seeing them both in victory lane.”
The website has been a sponsor in NASCAR before, sponsoring entries in the Truck Series in 162 races since 2007, 13 races in the Xfinity Series since 2004 and twice in the Cup Series in 2011 and 2013.
“We’re thrilled to have GunBroker.com back on board with Rick Ware Racing,” Rick Ware said in a press release. “Garrett is a fantastic young race car driver and has recently been given the opportunity to showcase his talent in the iRacing Series. Having GunBroker.com come back on board not only for the iRacing events, but as a potential primary for other Cup events is a huge opportunity, especially during this difficult time.”
Sunday’s race at a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway begins at 1 p.m. ET on Fox and FS1.
Friday 5: Drivers take fans behind the scenes online
As Landon Cassill streamed his practice laps Tuesday night on a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway, he explained how he entered the corners. After he finished, he showed video of William Byron entering the corners the same way by letting the car turn naturally on the banking before he moved the wheel.
It was a discussion Cassill might have had with his crew chief or another driver at a race track, but with sports paused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a discussion he shared with anyone watching his Twitch page.
As NASCAR transitions to iRacing, some drivers are streaming their practices, practice races and eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series events on Twitch, Instagram or elsewhere. Twitch, the world’s leading live streaming platform for games, allows fans to watch and chat with the person competing. On a driver’s Twitch stream, the viewer will see the driver’s in-car camera view with an insert box in the lower portion showing the driver.
Although he’s viewed others on Twitch, it wasn’t until last weekend that Cassill created a page for fans to watch him compete. He said he had about 5,000 unique viewers during his fourth-place run in last weekend’s iRacing event at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway. Garrett Smithley, who finished third in that race, has been streaming races on Twitch since 2017 and saidhe had about 2,800 viewers at any one time on his Twitch page during last weekend’s race.
Watching a driver’s livestream on Twitch, Instagram or anywhere else, allows fans to see a competitor in action and eavesdrop on conversations they have with their spotter, crew chief or other drivers. It’s like listening to a team’s radio channel during a race but this includes everything a driver says, not just what they say after they push the talk button in their car. And you can see the driver without their helmet.
It was during last weekend’s race when those watching Smithley’s Twitch heard him tell his spotter to text Timmy Hill’s spotter to suggest they work together. Smithley didn’t want to broadcast it over the audio channel all drivers are connected to in iRacing. So this was a way to do it without his competitors knowing.
#NASCAR … It's a virtual world. Garrett Smithley wants to pass along a message to Timmy Hill so Smithley asks his spotter to text Timmy's spotter with the message
Smithley knows the impact being on Twitch can have. He’s seen the crossover at tracks with younger fans.
“Even when I was doing it very, very casually and whenever I had some time in 2017 and 2018 … I found going to the real race track when I was racing full-time in the Xfinity Series, people would come to me, kids, very young, say middle school age and younger, they’d be like ‘Hey we love watching your stream,’ “ Smithley told NBC Sports. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually getting into a new (fan) reach.’
“Now, doing the iRacing stuff, it’s opened up doors and I can start that back up and grow that. It’s just a way for me to connect to the fans.”
Smithley has a screen set up where he can see questions or comments from those watching his stream. That’s mainly for when he’s running practice or competing in races other than the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race.
“It’s a really, really good opportunity for fans to come and engage and get a lot more insight on what we’re doing,” he said.
For those who watched Cassill’s Twitch on Monday, they would have seen him testing with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson at the digital Bristol track and hearing their conversations.
“We practiced for a couple of hours at Bristol,” Cassill told NBC Sports. “Everything he said and everything I said was recorded and it was live-streamed and we had viewers. It was a great content. It was a lot of fun. I think we looked at data and talked about our driving styles at Bristol.”
After last weekend’s race, Cassill still had his livestream going when Dale Earnhardt Jr. started talking to him about the event. Fans watching got to hear two drivers discussing the race. For those who missed it, Cassill had the video segment clipped and posted on social media.
Jr dropped into the Twitch stream to chat (Download?) today’s race. We figured this was the virtual version of having beers by the hauler after a rip around the track, thanks @DaleJr! pic.twitter.com/P58ZEjnvIz
Cassill’s way of examining his driving style compared to Byron’s earlier this week was a benefit for those watching on Cassill’s stream.
“Breaking down the corner and what William was doing, what I saw him doing, what I wanted to replicate, his line, his steering wheel angle, all those things, if I weren’t streaming I still would have been doing those things and maybe have even been saying those things out loud to myself,” Cassill said.
“It kind of goes back to the summary of why I’m Twitch streaming, hey, this is content. I think that those types of clips can be repurposed to evergreen content that live on Youtube and can give people professional lessons on how to drive race cars on iRacing from a driver who does it in the physical world.”
2. iRacing sponsorships
Garrett Smithley and virtual Texas winner Timmy Hill are the only two drivers to score top-five finishes in each of the first two eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series events heading into Sunday’s race at a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.
With last weekend’s racing drawing 1.3 million viewers on Fox and FS1 — that’s more than the viewership for the Xfinity races this season at Auto Club Speedway (993,000 viewers) and Phoenix (1.192 million) — some drivers and teams are looking to add sponsors for these races.
Smithley said he and Rick Ware Racing have been looking to leverage his success and added attention on TV for sponsorship.
“Rick is working on some different things, and I’m working on some different things to try to grow it and add more value to the real racing,” Smithley said. “We’re absolutely trying to leverage it. It’s so new, so we’re trying to figure out the space. I’ve reached out to several different people in the eSports world to try to figure out the scope of things and how to add better value in this situation. That’s been going well. Just learning a whole lot about the industry.
“The biggest thing is to try to get back real racing, but I hope we can continue doing some some type of eSports thing with NASCAR and all the drivers in some capacity because I think it brings out a different demographic, and I think it brings out a little different excitement.”
Michael McDowell announced Thursday that energy drink Celsius would sponsor his Front Row Motorsports car for Sunday’s race.
3. Staying busy
Each morning the 35-plus Team Penske pit crew members receive an email from Jonathan Rowan, the organization’s director of sports performance.
The email details the day’s home workout plan as they wait for the chance to return to the race shop and for the sport to resume.
Trent Cherry asked Rowan to develop a program to keep the pit crew members active during this break.
It will be at least two months between races. The last Cup race was March 8 and every Cup race up to May 9 at Martinsville has been postponed at this time.
Cherry isn’t worried about any skills slipping for the pit crew members during the break. Instead, he’s focused on another key area.
“Michael Jordan when he comes back from the offseason, he doesn’t forget how to shoot a jump shot,” Cherry told NBC Sports. “He also might not be completely game ready. I think there’s two separate things.
“I don’t think our guys will forget what they do or have done. It’s my job … to get them back in the groove. We left the first four weeks, we won two races (with Joey Logano). I felt like our pit crews were some of the best ones on pit road. My job is to try to maintain that when we come back. Part of that is just knocking the rust off once we get the OK to go back to work but it also means everybody focused on staying in shape.”
With NASCAR stating it intends to reschedule every postponed race before the playoffs begin Sept. 6 at Darlington, it likely means back-to-back races on some weekends and midweek races. It could lead to a few weeks with few days between races.
Cherry, a former tire changer, says his crews would look forward to such a schedule.
“I’m a big believer in if the guys go to the track fresh, they’re going to perform at the their best,” he said. “Our job as a coaching staff is to figure out what is enough to get them ready and what’s also enough to keep them fresh. Our guys have done a great job of responding to that.
“I would love to be able to pit Sunday, pit Wednesday, pit Sunday. Our guys like competing. Competing is winning races and being able to help the company out. I think our guys will really look forward to that.”
4. Potential help for teams
Today marks the first day businesses, which have 500 or fewer employees, can apply for the Small Business Paycheck Protection Program.
The $350 billion relief program is part of the government’s $2 trillion economic support package. With most race teams under the 500-employee cap, this program, should they chose to apply, could provide some financial aid while teams wait to return to racing next month at the earliest.
The relief program provides small business with funds to pay up to eight weeks of payroll costs, including benefits. The funds are provided in the form of loans that will be fully forgiven when used for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent and utilities. Loan forgiveness is based on the employer maintaining or quickly rehiring employees and maintaining salary levels.
Next week will feature the NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge and Racing Week in America on NBCSN.
The NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge features six different drivers competing in two races each Monday-Wednesday with the winners advancing to Thursday’s championship race at a virtual Martinsville Speedway. Full details are here.
The Monday race will be held at a virtual Rockingham Speedway and include Kyle Busch and William Byron.
The Tuesday race will be held at a virtual Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis and includes Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.
The Wednesday race will be held at a virtual Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) Speedway and includes Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Timmy Hill.
Those races will be from 7-8 p.m. ET each night. The races are a part of Racing Week in America, which will feature memorable NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA races, among other series, from the past two decades aired by NBC Sports.