Ricky Rudd

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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By the Numbers: Dover’s first 100 Cup races

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2019 has been a notable year for anniversaries in NASCAR.

Among them are the four active Cup Series tracks that are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Those include Talladega Superspeedway, Michigan International Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and the track NASCAR returns to this weekend – Dover International Speedway.

The “Monster Mile” will host its 100th Cup Series event Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) as the first race in the second round of the playoffs.

The Cup Series first ventured to Dover, Delaware, for a race on July 6, 1969, when the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 was “In The Year 2525” by Zagar & Evans and the film “Easy Rider” was eight days from being released.

On that day, Richard Petty took his No. 43 Ford to victory lane after leading 150 of 300 laps (the first 500-mile/lap race was in 1971). It was his first of seven wins there, including his 199th Cup win in 1984.

Richard Petty won his 199th Cup race in 1984 at Dover (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images).

Also of note, the inaugural race was held only two days after the July race at Daytona International Speedway, almost 900 miles away.

“So we had to come up all the way up the East Coast, brought the car up here and had never seen the race track,” Petty recalled in 2013. “We were pretty dog tired by the time we drove the (Daytona) race, drove all the way up here and run the race.”

Here’s a look at interesting stats and facts from the track’s first 50 years.

– Dover first opened as a facility used to accommodate both harness racing and motorsports events.

– Sunday’s race will be the 50th held on the oval since the track went from an asphalt to concrete surface in 1995. The track’s surface is the oldest the Cup Series races on.

– The track changed its name from Dover Downs International Speedway to simply Dover International Speedway in 2002.

– The track changed the length of its races from 500 to 400 miles in 1997.

Jimmie Johnson leads all drivers with 11 victories. His last win there in 2017 was also his most recent win overall.

Jeff Gordon is the last driver to win three consecutive Cup races at Dover, from 1995-96. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

– NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Petty are next on the list with seven wins. Hall of Famer David Pearson holds the top-mark for pole positions with six. Ryan Newman’s four poles leads current drivers, with the most recent in 2007.

– Three times a driver has won three consecutive races – Pearson (1972-73), Rusty Wallace (1993-94) and Jeff Gordon (1995-96). The last time a driver won back-to-back races was Johnson in 2013-14.

– Kyle Petty won his last Cup Series race in 1995 at Dover after starting from 37th, the deepest in the field a Cup winner has started at the track.

– Mark Martin, a four-time race winner, holds the record for most runner-up finishes (eight).

– Ricky Rudd has the most starts at the track with 56. His first came on May 16, 1976 and his final start was on June 4, 2007. In-between, four of his 23 career Cup wins came at Dover.

– Hendrick Motorsports holds the record for most wins (20) for an organization at Dover. Since 2009, the team has not gone more than one season without a Dover win.

– Chevrolet leads all manufacturers with 40 wins in the first 99 races.

– Bad news for any driver hoping to get their first career Cup wins at Dover: It’s only happened twice, with Jody Ridley in May 1981 and Martin Truex Jr. in 2007.

 

Sonoma could be great opportunity for Cup drivers without wins

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Who is ready for another first-time winner this season in the Cup Series?

A poll taken of the Cup garage would probably bring back everyone but the six drivers who have hogged Victory Lane through the first 15 races of the season.

Divided among just three teams – Joe Gibbs Racing (nine wins), Team Penske (five) and Hendrick Motorsports (one) – variety among teams has not been in the cards so far.

Enter Sonoma Raceway.

NASCAR makes its first trip to a road course this season with the California circuit, which has been reconfigured for its 50th anniversary with the re-introduction of “The Carousel.”

Sonoma may be a prime opportunity for a winless driver to break through to Victory Lane, according to history.

In 12 of the last 16 seasons, dating back to 2002, the driver who visited victory lane in Sonoma was doing so for the first time that year.

Before 2002, it was done only four times in the track’s first 13 years of holding Cup races, with all four occurring before 1998, when the Cup Series stopped running on the “Carousel.”

Drivers in the field this year who will try to repeat history are Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer.

Harvick holds the distinction of being the most recent driver to get his first win of the season at Sonoma. He pulled it off in 2017.

Should he repeat the feat, it would be his first win since November’s Texas playoff race (17 races) and be Stewart-Haas Racing’s first of the year. He’d also join Ricky Rudd (1989, 2002) as the only drivers to achieve that twice.

Drivers who earned first win of the year at Sonoma

Event Date    Race Winner
6/25/2017    Kevin Harvick
6/26/2016    Tony Stewart (only win that year)
6/28/2015    Kyle Busch
6/23/2013    Martin Truex Jr. (only win)
6/24/2012    Clint Bowyer
6/26/2011    Kurt Busch
6/21/2009    Kasey Kahne
6/24/2007    Juan Pablo Montoya (only win)
6/25/2006    Jeff Gordon
6/26/2005    Tony Stewart
6/22/2003    Robby Gordon
6/23/2002    Ricky Rudd (only win)
5/4/1997    Mark Martin
5/16/1993    Geoff Bodine (only win)
6/7/1992    Ernie Irvan
6/11/1989    Ricky Rudd (only win)

How soon before Kentucky Derby-type finish happens (again) in NASCAR?

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While it has occurred before in NASCAR, the winner being disqualified — as happened in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby — will happen again in stock car racing.

NASCAR all but assured that before this season. Series officials announced that they would disqualify the winner if its car failed inspection after the race.

“We’re changing the culture,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, on Feb. 4. “We’ve tried to do it one way, and it hasn’t worked.”

So far, no winner in Cup, Xfinity or the Gander Outdoors Truck Series has failed inspection after the race. 

It’s coming. It’s just a matter of who, when and where.

When it does, the grandstands will be empty … unlike Saturday at Churchill Downs. More than 150,000 fans were in attendance and waited 22 minutes after the Kentucky Derby before stewards disqualified Maximum Security and made runner-up Country House, a 65-1 longshot, the winner. Country House will go for the next leg in the Triple Crown at the Preakness on NBC on Saturday, May 18.

NASCAR officials said before the season that they hoped to have inspection done about 90 minutes after each race. Fans will be on their way home by that time. There won’t be the gasps and groans from the crowd at Churchill Downs when the Kentucky Derby was declared official with a new winner.

History shows that there will be a day (or night) when NASCAR fans will see one car cross the finish line first and another later declared the winner.

It’s in the sport’s DNA.

NASCAR’s first race in 1949 saw the winner disqualified. Records list Jim Roper as the winner but he finished second to Glenn Dunaway at Charlotte. Dunaway was disqualified because his car did not pass inspection afterward.

Eventually, NASCAR decided it was best for fans that if the driver who crossed the finish line first was the winner even if the car failed inspection afterward.

Richard Petty kept his 198th career victory in 1983 at Charlotte despite having an oversized engine and left side tires on the right side of the car. Instead, he was fined a then-record $35,000 (the winner’s purse was $40,400) and stripped 104 points.

In 1991, NASCAR penalized Ricky Rudd for spinning Davey Allison out of the lead just before the final lap at Sonoma Raceway. Rudd crossed the finish line first but was given the black flag. Allison, who came across the line behind Rudd, was given the checkered flag and ruled the winner.

Those are rare instances where NASCAR reacted.

Last year, Kevin Harvick had cars fail inspection after he won at Las Vegas in March and Texas in November. NASCAR disallowed Harvick a berth in the championship race for his Texas violation but allowed him to keep the win (as it allowed him to keep the Las Vegas win).

But the next time a winning vehicle fails inspection in NASCAR, the record books will no longer list that person as the winner. Just as the list of Kentucky Derby winners will have Country House as the 2019 champion instead of Maximum Security.

NASCAR Hall of Fame fan vote underway

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Fan voting for the 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame class has begun.

Fans can vote online and the five nominees receiving the highest percentage of votes will comprise the Fan Vote ballot.

The fan vote ends on May 20 at 11:59 a.m. ET. The class will be formally voted on and announced at the Hall of Fame on May 22.

Here are the 20 nominees for the 2020 class:

Sam Ard, NASCAR Xfinity Series pioneer and two-time champion

Buddy Baker, won 19 times in the NASCAR Cup Series, including the Daytona 500 and Southern 500

Neil Bonnett, won 18 times in the NASCAR Cup Series, including consecutive Coca-Cola 600 victories

Red Farmer, three-time Late Model Sportsman champion; 1956 Modified champion

Ray Fox, legendary engine builder, crew chief and car owner

Harry Gant, winner of 18 NASCAR Cup Series races, including two Southern 500 victories

Joe Gibbs, combined for nine car owner championships in Cup and XFINITY series

John Holman, won two NASCAR Cup Series championships as co-owner of Holman-Moody Racing

Harry Hyde, 1970 NASCAR Cup Series championship crew chief

Bobby Labonte, won a championship in both the Cup Series and XFINITY Series

Hershel McGriff, 1986 NASCAR west series champion

Ralph Moody, won two NASCAR Cup Series championships as co-owner of Holman-Moody Racing

Marvin Panch, won 17 times in the NASCAR Cup Series, including the 1961 Daytona 500

Jim Paschal, 23 of his 25 NASCAR Cup Series wins came on short tracks

Larry Phillips, first five-time NASCAR weekly series national champion

Ricky Rudd, won 23 times in NASCAR Cup Series, including the 1997 Brickyard 400

Mike Stefanik, winner of record-tying nine NASCAR championships

Tony Stewart, three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, two-time Brickyard 400 winner

Red Vogt, the first master mechanic of NASCAR, and a founding member

Waddell Wilson, won three NASCAR Cup Series championships as an engine builder

Click here to vote on the Hall of Fame class.