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Chase Briscoe: Austin Cindric has been ‘mentor’ in NASCAR rise

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Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric had a tall order in store for them when the 2020 Xfinity Series season began.

A year after struggling to find success against the onslaught of the “Big 3” of Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer, they had a chance grab more of the spotlight.

But Briscoe, in his second full-time year with Stewart-Haas Racing, and Cindric, in his second full year with Team Penske, had to do it as the only Ford drivers in the field.

It’s worked out so far.

Ahead of the doubleheader races at Kentucky Speedway this week, Briscoe has a series-leading five wins – four more than in his last two seasons. Meanwhile, Cindric is winless but he’s fourth in the points after posting seven top fives in addition to two top 10s.

Their resilience against the competition is helped in part by the defacto Ford teammates having been joined at the hip in their rise through the racing ranks.

“We drive for different race teams, but we’re the only two Fords in the series and as soon as I came to pavement (from dirt racing), Austin’s really been by my side throughout that whole thing,” Briscoe said Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On Track.” “When I was driving in ARCA for (Briggs) Cunningham, he came in and ran a limited schedule. The next year we’re teammates in the Truck Series full-time (at Brad Keselowski Racing). Then following year in 2018 we’re teammates at Roush (Fenway Racing) and do an IMSA stuff together. Austin really has been my mentor throughout all the road course racing stuff.”

Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in 2017 and at Roush Fenway Racing in 2018. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Briscoe said when they first started in IMSA, he was four to five seconds off Cindric’s pace. On Saturday, he topped Cindric and road-course ace AJ Allmendinger to win the inaugural race on the Indianapolis road course.

“(Cindric) was there to coach me along the way and teach me all the little things he knows,” Briscoe told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Now even in the Xfinity car, every time we go to a road course, even at Indy, the day of the race I talked to him, we went and had lunch together. I’m asking him questions that truthfully I’m probably not expecting him to give the honest answer. But I know he’ll shoot me straight just because that’s the kind of guy he is.”

Even though they’re the closest thing they have to teammates, Briscoe believes “no matter what, me and Austin are always going to be really hard competitors against each other for winning races. But we still want to see each other succeed. If I can’t win, I want to see Austin win. I know he’s the same way with me. So it’s really nice when you can have that camaraderie.”

Of Briscoe’s five wins this season, two have been on 1.5-mile tracks. Thursday’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1) will be his fourth overall start at Kentucky Speedway and his second in Xfinity. The 25-year-old driver isn’t too fond of the track in Sparta, Kentucky.

“Statistically, I’ve always been terrible at Kentucky for whatever reason that is,” Briscoe said. “I haven’t had the best luck there.”

However, backed by his five wins, Briscoe is confident he’ll have a good car for the doubleheader. He also notes his former Xfinity teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, Cole Custer, was “really good” there last year, when he led 88 laps and won. Briscoe finished fifth.

“I feel like from an experience standpoint and a confidence standpoint, I’ll be way better this year,” Briscoe told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I’m looking forward to going there and trying to get two wins.

“Normally if you have a bad race you gotta wait a whole ‘nother week to get back behind the wheel. And we’re fortunate to have another chance the next day. It kind of goes back to Homestead this year. Saturday, we had an issue and felt like we were the best car but we were able to redeem ourselves Sunday. Hopefully you’re there this week and get two wins.”

Zach Price, Ryan Blaney’s injured tire changer, to miss Kentucky

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Zach Price, tire changer on Ryan Blaney‘s No. 12 Team Penske Ford Mustang who was injured in a pit road incident Sunday in Indianapolis, will not attend this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

A Team Penske statement issued Tuesday afternoon said:

“Zach Price continues to recover at home from a lower left leg injury sustained following Sunday’s pit road incident at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Curtis Thompson will serve as rear tire changer for the No. 12 Advance Auto Parts Ford Mustang this weekend at Kentucky.”

Price was struck by the car of Brennan Poole on pit road. Price was taken by ambulance to an Indianapolis-area hospital after the incident for examination and treatment and was subsequently released to return home to the Charlotte area.

Thompson is a rear tire changer on the No. 32 Go Fas Racing team. Team Penske provides the pit crew for the No. 32 team. Thompson shifted to replace Price on Blaney’s team for the remainder of Sunday’s race.

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Jimmie Johnson tests positive for coronavirus

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Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has tested positive for coronavirus, becoming the first NASCAR Cup driver do so.

Johnson, a four-time Brickyard winner, will miss Sunday’s Cup at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and next week’s IndyCar test on the Indy road course for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Hendrick Motorsports said in a statement Friday that Johnson will not return until he is cleared by a physician.

Johnson, 44, has not experienced symptoms of COVID-19, according to the Hendrick Motorsports statement.  He was tested upon learning Friday morning that his wife Chandra tested positive after experiencing allergy-like symptoms.

Justin Allgaier will drive for Johnson in his absence.

“My first priority is the health and safety of my loved ones and my teammates,” Johnson said in a statement from Hendrick Motorsports. “I’ve never missed a race in my Cup career, but I know it’s going to be very hard to watch from the sidelines when I’m supposed to be out there competing. Although this situation is extremely disappointing, I’m going to come back ready to win races and put ourselves in playoff contention.”

Johnson, who is in his final full-time Cup season, has the longest streak for consecutive starts among active drivers at 663. He was to have started fourth in Sunday’s race.

Said car owner Rick Hendrick in a statement: “Jimmie has handled this situation like the champion he is. We’re relieved he isn’t showing symptoms and that Chani is doing great, and we know he’ll be back and ready to go very soon. It’s going to be difficult for him to be out of the car and away from his team, but it’s the right thing to do for Jimmie and everyone involved.”

NASCAR announced that it has granted Johnson a playoff waiver should he win a race before the playoffs begin. NASCAR also stated:

“Following the guidelines outlined in the Event Operations Protocol manual, Jimmie Johnson has alerted NASCAR that he has tested positive for COVID-19.

“NASCAR has outlined the steps for Johnson’s return, in accordance with the CDC’s current guidelines, which includes that Johnson is symptom free and has two negative COVID-19 test results, at least 24 hours apart. NASCAR requires Johnson to be cleared by his physician before returning to racing.

“Jimmie is a true battle-tested champion, and we wish him well in his recovery. NASCAR has granted Jimmie a playoff waiver, and we look forward to his return as he races for an eighth NASCAR Cup Series championship.”

Hendrick Motorsports stated that as a precaution, it identified one member of the No. 48 traveling crew to self-quarantine due to close contact with Johnson.

Last month Stewart-Haas Racing confirmed that two employees had tested positive for coronavirus. Team Penske confirmed last month that one of its employees tested positive.

Hendrick Motorsports stated that it has implemented detailed procedures to protect the health of its team members. That includes daily COVID-19 screenings at the team facilities; the separation of facility operations and traveling personnel; split work schedules; stringent face covering and social distancing requirements; and an increased level of disinfecting and sanitization of all work areas.

The announcement about Johnson came shortly after Major League Baseball announced Friday that 31 players have tested positive. Nineteen different teams had at least one player test positive.

This comes as the nation sees a surge in coronavirus cases. The United States reported more than 55,000 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a daily global record. Global coronavirus cases exceeded 11 million on Friday, according to a Reuters tally.

This weekend’s Cup, Xfinity and IndyCar races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be held without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis

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The wizardry of crew chief Rodney Childers will be tested after a random draw gave Kevin Harvick the 11th starting spot for Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Only twice since 2010 has an Indy winner started outside the top 10. Paul Menard won on a fuel-milage gamble after starting 15th in 2011. Kasey Kahne won in 2017 after he pitted before a caution late in the race, putting him at the front. He won in overtime.

Such is the challenge Harvick and Childers have at a place where track position and strategy are critical and passing is difficult.

“I think everybody in the field can have a different strategy and that different strategy can work for any of those people,” Childers told NBC Sports. “Just depending on when the caution comes out. There’s so many different things that can go on.”

Harvick had a dominant car in last year’s race but also benefitted when he pitted from the lead — and before most of the field — on Lap 128 of the 160-lap race. The caution came out while he was on pit road. That put him back at the front while others pitted during the caution. Had Childers not called Harvick in at that point, they would not have been able to take advantage of that break.

But what happens early can determine if a team will be in position to contend late in the race.

If Harvick’s car is good early, the question becomes how many positions can he gain before the field stretches out single file?

Then, there’s the competition caution, which is set for Lap 12. The first stage ends at Lap 50. A full fuel run should make it to the end of the stage from the competition caution.

One thing Harvick could do is what Childers did in 2018. Childers had Harvick, who was running second at the time, pit before the competition caution to change four tires (fuel cannot be added before the competition caution).

The plan was for Harvick to come back down pit road during the competition caution for fuel only, making that a quicker pit stop than those who changed four tires and get out ahead of them. That plan was undone by a penalty for an uncontrolled tire.

Still, it shows what Childers is willing to do. Another consideration is that if a car is about six seconds or more behind the leader, it’s unlikely they can pit under green and remain on the lead lap by the time they get back to speed.

Tire wear also will play in what crew chiefs decide. Tires will wear more early in the race with less rubber on the track.

Then, there’s the thought of how many cautions will there be between the competition caution and the end of the first stage. Last year, a right front tire went down and sent Landon Cassill’s car into the wall, creating a caution on Lap 43. The year before, Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution on Lap 42 after a mechanical failure.

There’s much to consider for any crew chief.

“You can’t do the same thing (as the leaders) and have the same result,” Childers said. “That’s where it becomes tricky is just thinking all of it through. Having a good group of people behind you that are constantly thinking about that stuff (is key) and trying to think it through. Just one person, like myself, can’t think it through on my own.”

But those who make the right decisions – and maybe get some help from a well-timed caution – could be celebrating after Sunday’s race.

2. Aging like fine wine

Since the Cup Series resumed in May, nine of the 11 races have been won by drivers 36 and older. Seven of those wins have come from drivers 39 and older.

There’s no doubt that 44-year-old Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), 40-year-old Martin Truex Jr. (Joe Gibbs Racing), 39-year-old Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) and 36-year-old Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) drive for some of the top organizations in the sport.

Still, they’ve won during this stretch, while others, such as Kyle Busch, remain winless. Harvick has three wins, Hamlin has three victories, Keselowski has two wins and Truex has one triumph.

The only drivers younger than 36 years old to have won since May are 24-year-old Chase Elliott at the second Charlotte race and 26-year-old Ryan Blaney at Talladega.

So is this a matter of veteran drivers using their experience with no practice before races? Or is this a case of older talent showing it can remain among the sport’s elite longer?

“The experience level obviously comes into play,” Harvick said. “I think when you are surrounded with a good team and a good organization and are able to work those details out, I think the potential is to drive into your 50’s. Why not? I think with the health side of things and the way that people take care of themselves and work out, I think the longevity of the body on most of us going forward is going to be more durable than what it has been in the past.”

Harvick has won 15 races since 2018.

“I think I kind of had a second life I guess you could say coming to SHR,” said Harvick, who has been with Stewart-Haas Racing since 2014. “That was very motivating, and I think as you look at it now, for me it is still very motivating. You work your whole career to get into a situation like this.

“I had a long conversation with Mark Martin. You work your whole career to get in this situation, why would you want to give that up and just say, ‘I quit’? As long as (wife) DeLana and my family are supportive, I don’t think the drive and enthusiasm, as far as showing up to the racetrack every week, will go away anytime soon. You just have to balance those things. I think as you look at Martin (Truex Jr.) turning 40 and Denny (Hamlin) and a lot of the success has been from that particular age group. I don’t think that is going to change any time soon.”

3. Location, location, location

A key to what happens on the track Sunday could be what happens in the stands.

While there will be no fans at Indy this weekend, spotters will move from atop the pagoda to the Turn 1 stands to allow for social distancing. Secondary spotters will be positioned in Turn 3.

With the group stretched out, a spotter for the leader can’t run to spotters of slower cars and tell them what lane the leader wants. Catching a slower car in the corner, especially at Indy, can cost the faster car a couple of seconds or more and allow those behind to close.

It’s something that could impact pit strategy. It did for Erik Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle last Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

“It’s a huge thing,” Gayle said of being held up by slower cars. “We were in the same scenario at this (past) weekend at Pocono where we came up on (Ryan Newman). We were running out (of fuel) and were going to do a fuel only strategy, had pretty much decided that’s what we were going to do but it was about staying in clean air for the majority of the time that we could toward the end of that race. We came up on the 6 car (Newman) and it’s notorious for how hard it is to get around him. I’m like, I’m going to give (Jones) one lap to pass the 6 car. If we don’t get it in one lap, we were pitting because we knew we could come out in another clean spot.”

Jones went on to finish third. Newman finished 18th, the first car a lap down.

4. Standout performance

With the focus on Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick last weekend at Pocono Raceway, it was easy to miss one of the weekend’s key performances.

Matt DiBenedetto scored the sixth-most points in the two Cup races at Pocono. That’s important because of what the weekend meant for him.

Matt DiBenedetto scored 72 points, including 17 stage points, last weekend at Pocono. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

He headed to Pocono 16th in points, holding what could be the final playoff spot. After those two races – and buoyed by scoring more stage points than Hamlin and Harvick — DiBenedetto is 14th in the driver standings. He’s 43 points ahead of Erik Jones, who is 16th.

With the regular-season finale scheduled for Daytona, there’s a greater chance than in previous years that a driver outside the top 16 could win that race and claim a playoff spot. The key is to keep out of the 16th spot. DiBenedetto’s performance last weekend, particularly in each stage, was a key step in that goal.

“Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” said DiBenedetto, whose 17 stage points in the doubleheader were the fifth-most scored last weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs and, for us, really climbing back up in the points to where we think we are running weekly.”

Keep an eye on DiBenedetto this weekend. Crew chief Greg Erwin helped Paul Menard to top-10 finishes each of the past two years at Indianapolis.

5. Rough going

After 15 races this season, Kyle Busch has no wins, no stage wins and no playoff points.

Last year at this time, he had four wins, five stage wins and 25 playoff points.

His avenge finish this season is 14.7. His average finish at this time last year was 6.3.

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Xfinity drivers chase historic checkered flag at Indy

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Chase Briscoe said in February that there was no reason he couldn’t win a quarter of the Xfinity races this year.

Even as he focused on becoming the series’ dominant driver, he concentrated on another goal — winning the inaugural Xfinity race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC).

A win this weekend for the series points leader would compliment the four Xfinity victories he’s scored this year and the six he has in his career, which includes winning the inaugural Charlotte Roval Xfinity race in 2018. 

Briscoe has practiced weekly for the Indy road course race on the Ford simulator since February.

“Every Wednesday I’ve been running at least an hour and a half to two hours at Indy, just trying to get prepared for the racetrack,” the Indiana native said.

“I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea of where to make speed. It’s hard to really say how much the simulator will correlate over to the real-life thing, but I feel like I have a really good general idea of what to do, and I’m not going to be lost for those first couple of laps.”

The only NASCAR driver who has tested the road course is Matt DiBenedetto. He drove a Team Penske Xfinity car in a January test, compiling data for all teams. DiBenedetto said he is looking forward to watching Saturday’s race.

“I’m super-jealous of those guys,” he said. “They’re going to have a blast. That course is awesome. It’s so much fun, has really good passing zones, so I’m going to be watching really closely.”

Briscoe’s challenge won’t be just with the 14-turn, 2.439-mile course that winds through Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield and includes the tracks famous frontstretch. Among his key foes are expected to be Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger.

Cindric and Allmendinger combined to win three of the four Xfinity road course races last year. Cindric won at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. Allmendinger won at the Charlotte Roval.

Cindric said that there is extra meaning this weekend because of the uncertainty of the Xfinity schedule beyond this month. All four series road course events last year were held after July. NASCAR has not announced the Xfinity schedule for the rest of the season beyond July.

“It’s no (surprise) that the road courses are … a strong suit for our team, and we don’t know how many of those are left,” he said.

Cindric says that Saturday’s race on the Indy road course will be fun and notes the passing zones.

“I think it’s going to be the best layout as far as passing goes that NASCAR goes to,” he said. “You’ve got two really great passing zones at the end of the both straightaways, that’s something you can’t really say about the Roval and Watkins Glen, those races are better for other reasons.”

Allmendinger should be formidable foe for Cindric, Briscoe and others based on his road course experience. Ross Chastain said Allmendinger has been a key asset for Kaulig Racing as it prepared for this event.

“AJ Allmendinger has definitely led the charge for drivers to drive the simulator and he’s built out our setups and what we should feel on those rigs with Team Chevy and (Richard Childress Racing),” Chastain said.

Allmendinger is more motivated to win at Indy than just to win the inaugural Xfinity race on the road course.

“There are very places … when you go to a racetrack that has so much history behind it, whether it’s IndyCars or stock cars, whatever its may be, you say the word, Indy and people that aren’t in motorsports understand what the history is being that racetrack,” he said.

“I want to be a part of that history. It would be something special to kiss the bricks, even if we had to do it with masks on. I don’t care. I’ll kiss them with the mask on.”

But he’ll first have to get through the two-day weekend for the series. With running on the road course for the first time, teams will have two practices Friday. That will be key for drivers, including Jeremy Clements, who won at Road America in 2017.

“I don’t know anything about (the track),” Clements said. “We don’t have any simulators or any of that stuff. Kind of going in blind. So I’m going to be a little behind there.”

One thing he is certain of, though.

“I think it will be a survival type race,” he said.

Briscoe just hopes he’s first to drive past the checkered flag. He admits, should he do so, it will feel different because fans, including friends and family, will not be allowed at the track this weekend because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I hate, first off, that there’s not going to be fans at Indianapolis just because when I go there, there are so many people that come from my hometown (Mitchell, Indiana) and from my area that don’t get to see me race anywhere else. 

“Just feeling the support every time I go there is so special. Last year in driver’s intros when we were riding around in the trucks, I literally had tears in my eyes just the amount of people that were standing up and cheering for me. It wouldn’t suck to win Indy without fans, but it would be bittersweet because none of my family would be there, none of the fans that don’t get to watch me anywhere else (would be there). I’m not going to turn away a win at Indy just because there are no fans, but it is tough to go there and not have fans.”