SPARTA, Ky. — As Kurt Busch decided last year where he would drive this season, it didn’t take long.
A short meeting with car owner Chip Ganassi laid the foundation for a deal that was completed in about three hours, announced in December and bore fruit last weekend with Busch’s first victory of the season.
In the 30-minute conversation Busch had last year with Ganassi about driving for the car owner, Busch found what he sought.
“(Ganassi’s) level of commitment as a racer is something that I saw,” said Busch, who had run the previous five seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing. “Yes, Tony Stewart is a racer, but I was more on the Gene Haas side. When Chip said, ‘I want you to win for me, I want you to make these guys winners, and if you can bring that (Monster Energy) sponsorship with you, I’m going to pay you this,’ it was just like the most respect that I had felt in a long time when it came to a contract negotiation.”
Respect was a word the former Cup champion used in multiple interviews Saturday in discussing his move to Ganassi.
Busch said on NBCSN’s post-race show that when a contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t work, he called Ganassi and quickly had a deal.
“That’s just the respect factor that I was looking for,” Busch told Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett.
Busch went on to say in the media center after the race about how quickly a deal was agreed upon: “It meant that I was wanted. And when you have that, that’s that extra desire to push and to make this group a winner.”
When the deal was announced in December, Ganassi said: “It’s not oftentimes that a NASCAR champion, a Daytona 500 winner becomes available. When you’ve got a guy that is a racer like Kurt … you’ve got to take a serious look at it. It didn’t take me long when he became available.”
As Busch, who turns 41 on Aug. 4, looks ahead to the playoffs, he also has to focus on what he’ll do next season. The deal with Ganassi is only for this year. So what’s next for Busch?
“For me, it’s a matter of just having the dominos line up and everybody fall together and to make it happen,” he said. “I guess the easiest way to move things forward is request for proposals are going out Monday with sponsors, with manufacturers, with team owner.
“Yes, a win, that might have happened last week at Daytona, is one of those moments. Tonight is one of those stamps on — this 1 team is a powerful team, and it would be stupid not to keep this group together, and that’s part of my leverage, but at the end of it, we just want to make it work for all parties.”
After a night like Saturday, Busch said: “It gives you that energy of, yeah, it’s fun, and let’s get our sponsors lined up and let’s do this (again).”
Ryan Newman has a simple rule on blocking, a tactic that has become more prevalent with the race package this year.
“I don’t do that personally, that’s not the way I race, I race hard,” Newman said. “Because it’s not the way I want to be raced. It’s not right.
“You don’t change the way that you enter a corner to choke somebody off knowing that it’s going to slow you down. You as a racer are supposed to go out there and race as hard as you can to try to catch the guy in front of you, not let the guy behind you stay behind you.”
Newman also noted a conversation he had with Ryan Blaney earlier this season after he was blocked by Blaney multiple times.
“Ryan Blaney and I have had it out after the race, not in a mean way,” Newman said. “(I) just told him, I said, ‘Listen, the next time you do that, it’s not going to be good for you. That’s not the way I race. You want to block me, it’s not going to be good.’ I don’t mean it as a threat. I’m just telling him that’s the fact of it.
“I don’t race that way. If I block you, you’ve got the right to turn me around, but if you choke me down going into the corner just to try keep me behind you, expect to get loose.”
Blaney admitted he threw “a couple of big blocks” on Newman in the Charlotte races in May.
“You make those decisions in a split-second,” Blaney said. “You’re not trying to screw that guy over, you’re just like ‘I have to help myself.’ Between me and Ryan (Newman), I’ve always liked that you could talk to someone afterwards and have an understanding about it.
“Newman said that was a big block, that was a kind of a late one. I said, ‘Yeah, I knew it was close, sorry.’ You could tell how close it was by how hard he hit you on the bumper. It’s good to talk about it and not kind of let it brood over. Me and Ryan have always been good friends. He’s someone I’ve looked up to for a long time. He’s been a friend of my family’s for a long time. It was good to talk to him and understand it.”
To NASCAR,it was a simple call in penalizing William Byron for jumping the restart at Kentucky Speedway.
Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, explained the penalty on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday.
“(Byron) fired first in the restart zone, and he wasn’t controlling the restart,” Miller said. “It’s kind of as simple as that.”
In the rules video that was played in the drivers meeting at Kentucky, it stated: “It will be the control vehicle’s discretion to restart in the zone between the double marks and the single mark on the outer wall and on the racing surface.”
The penalty took place on Lap 184 of the 267-lap race. Byron went from second place to a lap down after serving the penalty and never recovered. He finished 18th.
Paul Menard confirmed this past weekend his contract status for next season, saying:
“I have a good job, for sure. I love the Wood Brothers. I love my race team. They are good people. I have a contract for next year. I guess it is getting to be that time of year when people start talking about things. I have a contract and I love my team. We just have to perform better, that is all.”
Menard finished 11th Saturday. He is 20th in the season standings, 54 points out of the final playoff spot.
Sponsorship issues nearly cost eventual Truck champion Brett Moffitt his playoff eligibility last year and threaten the playoff eligibility for Tyler Ankrum this season.
Ankrum won last weekend’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Kentucky but lack of sponsorship could be an issue for him.
Ankrum was set to run a full season for DGR-Crosley once he turned 18 in March. He announced in June that he would not be running a full season with the team because of lack of sponsorship.
He started races at Iowa and Gateway for NEMCO Motorsports and retired after less than 20 laps in both races, finishing 31st at Iowa and 30th at Gateway. By starting those races, he kept his playoff eligibility. Ankrum received a waiver from NASCAR for missing the season’s first three races because he was not 18 years old at the time and could not run at Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas. He’s run the remaining races.
DGR-Crosley is a Toyota team and it leads to the question of what responsibility Toyota has to ensure that one of its playoff teams remains eligible for a championship run.
David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said the company will help in ways its best suited to do so.
“Our focus is on providing technical support to our team partners, and David Gilliland and his family, they’re not maybe at the (Kyle Busch Motorsports) level but make no mistake, we do have a strong technical partnership with them,” Wilson told NBC Sports after Ankrum’s win.
Wilson said that Toyota had been with the team when they took what was the winning truck to a wind tunnel earlier.
“We obviously are engaged and hopeful that they can put enough (sponsorship) together to keep Tyler moving forward, and we’d love to have him in the playoffs,” Wilson said.
Wilson admits a focus for Toyota is on Kyle Busch Motorsports. Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland are both outside a playoff spot with three races left in the regular season.
Toyota has two teams in the playoffs as of now with Ankrum and Austin Hill, who won at Daytona for the reigning Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship team, Hattori Racing Enterprises.
Whatever Toyota teams are in the playoffs will get Wilson’s attention.
“Obviously we’re going to focus our resources on whomever is fighting to win the championship,” Wilson said. “There’s not a question about it. If it happens to be non-KBM trucks, so be it.”
“I still tell people to chase it,” he said of going after their dreams of competing at racing’s highest levels.
Chastain is among three drivers who overcame long odds early in their careers to win NASCAR races within the last month. Coincidence? Sure, but it also shows how perseverance can be rewarded.
Chastain, who has driven for low-budget teams and saw a full-time Xfinity ride go away in the offseason because of a sponsor’s legal issues, won last weekend’s Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway and won a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race last month at Gateway.
Brett Moffitt, the reigning Truck champion whose career early was plagued by lack of funds, won last month at Chicagoland Speedway.
Alex Bowman, who once found out he had lost a Cup ride on Twitter and spent time as a sim driver for Hendrick Motorsports, scored his first Cup victory at Chicagoland Speedway.
“All of us … have been in bad situations in their career,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “Some people, they get that good opportunity, and when that falls through, they just don’t have the willpower to fight back and do what you have to do to survive. It sucks, I’ll admit it.
“I’ve been in really bad equipment at times and it’s really frustrating and you find yourself asking why you’re doing this, and you just keep working away and hoping the right opportunity comes back.
“I think that’s what you’ve seen between Alex, Ross and myself. We’ve all paid our dues and done the bad stuff. Fortunately, we all find ourselves in a good position now.”
Chastain admits there is no guarantee that someone can climb the ranks that he, Moffitt and Bowman have, but the odds are worse if one doesn’t try.
“It might be six months, it might be six years, it might never happen,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s the same way if you graduate college today and you try to go get a job. You’re not guaranteed to go find a job, not the one you want. So you might have to take a start-and-park job.”
Chastain had to start and park in the Truck Series, but he doesn’t regret it.
“You run 10 laps all weekend, but … you have a whole year to think about the track,” he said. “I see so much value in track time and laps on track.”
Moffitt was without a ride in 2017 when Red Horse Racing shut down after the fifth race of the Truck season. He later ran seven races for BK Racing in Cup.
“You’re just doing it for money,” Moffitt said of taking a ride with the low-budget Cup team that went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy before being sold during the 2018 season. “I did it at the end of ’17 after Red Horse shut down and I went and raced for BK Racing simply to pay bills. You’ve got to do what you’ve go to do to pay rent and to keep yourself relevant in the sport. It kept me going through the offseason and fortunately I landed the job at Hattori (Racing) the following year.”
That led to the Truck Series title.
It’s a crown he looks to defend with GMS Racing. One of his main challengers will be Chastain, who is with Niece Motorsports.
Chastain admits Bowman provides a lesson even for him.
“Something like Alex, I’d always heard him for years say Mr. (Rick) Hendrick is not going to call me, but (Hendrick) did,” Chastain said. “I think the same thing. Chip Ganassi is not going to ask to be in his Cup car. The Xfinity car, yeah, but that was a whole different situation. He’s never going to ask me to be in his Cup car, but I’ve got to keep trying. I’ll be there if they ever need me.
“Running this truck race and the Cup race Saturday night and running in the 30s will help me if that day ever comes. If not, I got to run a freaking Cup race and I got to come here with the opportunity to win in the Trucks.”
Chastain also has a sense of perspective when he looks at where he’s come.
“Go back one year and look at all that has happened,” he said, standing on pit road at Kentucky Speedway. “One year ago … I was just racing and having fun.”
Now he’s having more fun winning. Just like Moffitt and Bowman.
2. Lightning strikes at Daytona
More than 40 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes were recorded within an 8-mile radius of Daytona International Speedway during a two-hour period Sunday, according to data from Earth Networks and the company’s Total Lightning Network.
The lightning strikes were recorded from just before NASCAR stopped last weekend’s Cup race to shortly before series officials declared the race finished.
NASCAR’s policy is to stop all activity at a track for any lightning within an 8-mile radius of the facility.
Randy Smith, Homeland Security Specialist for Earth Networks, told NBC Sports that the first lightning strike within an 8-mile radius of Daytona International Speedway was recorded at 3:12 p.m. ET. That strike was located about 6.3 miles east of the track in the Ormond Beach area.
Cars were called to pit road soon after and the race was stopped at 3:18 p.m. ET, according to NASCAR.
There were nearly 30 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes from 3:12 – 3:45 p.m. ET Smith said, according to data from Earth Networks’ Total Lightning Network.
The network recorded no cloud-to-ground lightning strikes from 3:46 – 4:23 p.m. Drivers were back in their cars and close to restarting their engines when another lightning strike hit within the 8-mile radius.
Smith said data showed there was a lightning strike 6.7 miles south of the track at 4:23 p.m. About 10 lightning strikes within the 8-mile radius soon followed. Rain later followed.
NASCAR receives direct notifications from The Weather Company in Atlanta throughout a race weekend. There is a dedicated senior meteorologist at The Weather Company who is on call throughout the weekend with NASCAR. NASCAR also is in contact with representatives from law enforcement, medical support and other local, state and federal agencies monitoring weather conditions.
3. New Daytona class
This season’s Daytona points races saw a unique winning class.
Three of the five points race winners at Daytona International Speedway this year scored their first series win: Austin Hill in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Michael Annett in the February Xfinity race, and Justin Haley in the July Cup race.
Ross Chastain won the July Xfinity race, giving him his second career series victory. The outlier this year was Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who scored his 32nd career win with that victory.
Since 2017, five of the 15 points race winners at Daytona scored their first series win. Joining Hill, Annett and Haley on that list are Erik Jones (2018 July Cup race) and Kaz Grala (2017 Truck race).
Since 2017, 11 of the 15 points race winners at Daytona scored either their first or second series win with the victory. Those that scored their second career series win at Daytona were: Chastain, Tyler Reddick (2018 February Xfinity race), Austin Dillon (2018 Daytona 500), Ryan Reed (2017 February Xfinity race), William Byron (2017 July Xfinity race) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017 July Cup race).
4. Deal or no deal?
Justin Haley said he’s received offers for additional Cup races since he won last weekend’s rain-shortened race at Daytona International Speedway.
But Haley has said no deal to all of them. He’s not scheduled to run another Cup race this year and that’s fine with him.
“I’m so focused on the Xfinity stuff, and I really don’t like jumping out and doing a lot of extra races,” he said. “I just like to focus where my job is at.”
But what about the extra track time he could get?
“In my deal, I think the only place I can be super competitive (with Spire Motorsports) are the super speedways because of the 10-inch spoiler,” he said. “I think we saw at Talladega I was very competitive and I wrecked the race car that was our backup car that we took to Daytona. It was just as fast. I could have went up there and raced. I could have competed in the top 10 all day, but they were three wide and I didn’t want to put myself in that position because I already wrecked one of their car cars.
“It was so hard to keep in the back because I definitely could have went up there and raced. Everyone was like a back marker won … it was a personal and team decision to run in the back because we knew there would be a big one. I think taking that car to a mile and a-half probably wouldn’t be helpful for me. And those cars are so much easier to drive than Xfinity cars with the downforce and everything, you’re pretty much wide open. The Xfinity cars are the hardest cars to drive right now.”
The deal Haley wants is on the winning car. He wants to buy it but the team has such few cars it’s not willing to part with the car at this time.
“I’m in talks to get it,” Haley said. “It’s my first win car. I don’t care what it takes. I’ll probably end up with it somehow, if I have to buy another car (for the team) or whatnot.
Once Haley gets the car, where will he put it?
“I’d probably knock a wall down,” he said, “and put it in my living room.”
5. How times change
This weekend marks the ninth year Cup has raced at Kentucky Speedway but only about a third of the drivers who competed in that inaugural Cup race in 2011 are still in the series.
Twenty-nine of the 43 starts are no longer competing in Cup. That includes drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and David Reutimann, who finished second in that race to Kyle Busch.
We’re 54 days out from the Sept. 1 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, which will mark the fifth year of NASCAR’s official Throwback Weekend.
That means there will be a multitude of retro paint schemes racing around the 1.3-mile track in Darlington, South Carolina. You’ll be able to see all of them in action on NBCSN.
Here’s your guide to the paint schemes that have been announced so far for the weekend, including schemes for the Aug. 31 Xfinity Series race.
Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet – Dillon will boast a paint scheme that was driven by his grandfather and team owner Richard Childress in the late 1970s.
Ryan Newman, No. 6 Ford – With Oscar Mayer taking the place of Valvoline, Newman’s car will take its cue from the scheme Mark Martin raced in 1993 when he earned Roush Fenway Racing’s first Southern 500 victory.
Daniel Hemric, No. 8 Chevrolet – Hemric will drive a car inspired by the design of CAT equipment and the logo used on them from its launch in 1925 until 1931.
Chase Elliott, No. 9 Chevrolet – Elliott will boast the scheme his father, Bill Elliott, claimed his first Cup pole with in 1981 at Darlington.
Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota – Hamlin’s car will evoke Darrell Waltrip’s Western Auto paint scheme from the 1990s.
Ryan Blaney, No. 12 Ford – The Team Penske driver will have a scheme inspired by Michael Waltrip’s Pennzoil car from 1991-95.
Martin Truex Jr., No. 19 Toyota – The Joe Gibbs Racing driver will throwback to himself with the Bass Pro Shops paint scheme he drove during his 2004 Xfinity Series championship campaign. That year he drove for Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Chance 2 Motorsports.
Paul Menard, No. 21 Ford – Wood Brothers Racing will pay tribute to late team founder Glen Wood with the paint scheme Wood drove himself in 1957, including in his only appearance as a driver at Darlington.
Corey LaJoie, No. 32 Ford – GoFas Racing’s car will be based on Dale Jarrett’s 1990-91 Nestle Crunch sponsored Xfinity car.
David Ragan, No. 38 Ford – The Front Row Motorsports driver will drive a scheme inspired by David Pearson’s 1969 championship car.
Alex Bowman, No. 88 Chevrolet – Bowman’s Axalta-sponsored car is inspired by Tim Richmond‘s Folger’s Coffee scheme from 1986-87.
Stewart-Haas Racing – In celebration of co-owner Tony Stewart’s election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, three SHR drivers will have paint schemes based on the cars Stewart raced to his three Cup Series titles. Aric Almirola‘s No. 10 Ford will be based on Stewart’s 2002 car, Daniel Suarez‘s No. 41 Ford will be based on the 2005 season and Clint Bowyer‘s No. 14 Ford will look like the car Stewart drove to his 2011 title.
Michael Annett, No. 1 Chevrolet – The JR Motorsports driver will channel Jeff Gordon circa the 1992 Xfinity Series season with Gordon’s Baby Ruth paint scheme when he drove for Bill Davis Racing.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Chevrolet – Earnhardt will pilot the scheme his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., drove in his first Cup start in the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Justin Haley, No. 11 Chevrolet – Kaulig Racing will boast Jeff Burton’s 1994 rookie Cup paint scheme with matching sponsorship from brake parts company Raybestos. It also serves as a tribute to team owner Matt Kaulig’s father and team chief financial officer, Bob Kaulig, who served as a vice president of Raybestos from 1985-2008.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Seven words transported Landon Cassill through time and space last weekend.
After Alex Bowman retreated from the roof of his car at Chicagoland Speedway, celebrating his first career Cup win, he said of the triumph: “It’s all I’ve wanted my whole life.”
Those words struck Cassill.
“I’ve said the same thing a lot,” Cassill said Thursday, walking from the Xfinity garage to the Cup garage as he competes in both events this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “If I could win just one race. I’ve thought that to myself.
“I think that hit me because I saw myself as (Bowman) winning that race. Then it kind of made me think about everything it takes from the time you are a little kid and everything that somebody like Alex Bowman or myself has had to do in his career.”
Every driver’s journey is different. Cassill was hired as a development driver for Hendrick Motorsports before he graduated high school in Iowa. He served as a test driver, helping the team develop the Car of Tomorrow. Cassill drove for JR Motorsports in 19 of 35 Xfinity races in 2008 but then ran only one Xfinity race the following season.
He moved to Cup in 2010. His 16 races were spread among three low-budget teams. Much of his career has been with such operations. Cassill, who turns 30 Sunday, has driven for four Cup teams that since have folded.
Still, he’s made 305 Cup starts but has never won. His best finish was fourth at Talladega on Oct. 19, 2014. Combined with Xfinity and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Cassill has made 440 starts in NASCAR national series. He continues to seek his first win in any of those series.
So when Bowman — whose first 71 Cup starts were with an organization that since has folded — won last weekend, the significance wasn’t lost on Cassill.
Bowman gives those racers hope, showing that one can climb from the depths of the sport to reach Victory Lane.
“It’s a tremendous amount of hope,” Cassill said of Bowman’s feat. “It’s a reminder to me, you still need massive support to get there, but it was hope that you still need to fight for the kind of support.”
Bowman saw Cassill’s tweet and appreciated the comments.
“Him and I raced each other a lot in the back half of the garage over the years,” Bowman said. “He’s obviously super good and does a lot with a little. You look at guys like Ross Chastain that have kind of had a similar career path. I feel like the back half of the garage doesn’t get the credit they deserve sometimes.”
It’s challenging to move up from the back half of the field. After losing his ride, Bowman was hired by Hendrick Motorsports to be its simulator driver. There were no races with that deal, but it led to nine starts for JR Motorsports, then to substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr. after he missed the last half of the 2016 season because of a concussion. Bowman took over Earnhardt’s ride in 2018 after Earnhardt retired.
That Bowman’s victory happened just before Cassill’s 4-year-old son drove a go-kart for the first time also made Cassill pause.
“I was looking at a 4-year old,” he said, “and I’m like ‘Man, kid, there’s just no telling what it’s going to take to win just one race.’ ”
2. End of an era
This weekend marks the last time Daytona International Speedway is scheduled to host a Cup race on or near July 4. The track has held its race around that time every year but one since 1959. The exception was 1998 when wildfires forced the event to be rescheduled for October. Next year, Daytona will host the regular-season finale on Aug. 29.
In 1949, NASCAR’s inaugural season, the series raced on the beach at Daytona on July 10. When the track opened in 1959, the July 4 date became a staple.
While some view this as a significant weekend because of the date change next year, Clint Bowyer doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s a race, man,” Bowyer said. “I hate to say it. I hope this doesn’t rub someone the wrong way and me saying this, but it’s almost like don’t claim Fourth of July. That’s not the Fourth of July Daytona race. It’s the Fourth of Damn July. Make no mistake about it.
“I don’t like having to be there practicing Thursday at Daytona. I feel like we’re asking our fans to be there as well. If we’re on the racetrack, that means you’re asking fans to be there. I don’t want it to take away from their Fourth of July.
“I got a family, I got kids. Everybody likes to come over to my house. And unfortunately, that’s going to be a Wednesday night show instead of on the Fourth. Still you could go down then and still put on a show. In my opinion, Daytona stands on its own two feet and it always will. It doesn’t need Fourth of July to be a part of that. Daytona is a celebration all of its own.”
Ryan Blaney said: “I always liked having the Daytona race that weekend, but at the end of the day, it is just a weekend and just a race, and you can move it to whatever date you want. As long as you are going there, you know you are going to a very special racetrack. I always enjoy it being on the weekend of the Fourth.”
But Daytona isn’t the only track to host a Cup race on July 4. Oswego, New York (1952), Spartanburg, South Carolina (1953), Weaverville, North Carolina (1954) and Raleigh, North Carolina (1956-58) also have held races with NASCAR’s top series on July 4.
David Pearson has the most Cup wins on July 4 with five. Tony Stewart and Cale Yarborough scored four wins each on or around July 4.
“I just think the basis of that idea was to have live-streaming cameras in every single race car,” Dillon said. “We can afford that in this sport and whoever wants to do it can do it. That way, we can maybe live stream from each driver’s personal account, team’s account or it can vary week to week. This is to drive fan engagement to certain sponsors, teams and add value that way.”
Dillon wants to do more. He wants drivers to have the ability to respond to fans during a race. He’s willing to extend a stage break caution to do so.
“Drivers, owners, race teams, TV providers all have to understand the importance that we have to open our minds to the fact that between stages is just as important to the future of the sport to communicate to our fans as it is to get in the right call of information,” Dillon said. “Yes, you have to get the right information into our crew chief first, but we can maybe take an extra pace lap under caution for a social lap.”
It’s an interesting concept. Maybe there will come a day where competitors will take an extra lap of caution during stage breaks to answer questions from fans.
As he returns for tonight’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), he’s seeking to forget last year’s finish.
“I was more upset with myself and disappointed in myself,” Haley said of that finish. “I’ve never watched the race back. I’ve never seen the finish. I probably won’t watch the race still. It’s just a sore subject for myself. I’m upset that I let my team down and my family down more than anything.”
Even though he has not watched the end of that race, Haley showed Friday he had not forgotten what he calls his first Xfinity win, tweeting about the finish.
Only once since 1983 has a driver won both Daytona races in the same season. Jimmie Johnson performed the trick in 2013.
Why is it so much more difficult to sweep at Daytona and Talladega than other tracks?
Let Denny Hamlin, who is going for the sweep Saturday (7 p.m. ET Saturday) after winning the Daytona 500, explain.
“The reason it’s so hard is it’s not about a fast car,” Hamlin said. “It’s not like you can hit on a setup at a racetrack and sweep both races. You see that a lot in a season. Whoever wins the first race at say Pocono or Martinsville, or Richmond, they’ve won that race because they have hit on a setup and their car is fast. When they go back there, they use those notes and they are going to be fast again.
“At Daytona, it’s not setup driven. It is strategic that you really have to make yourself a great race-car driver here. It’s just putting yourself in the right position here at the right time and avoiding the wrecks. It’s hard enough to win one, let alone two, because of all of the variables. It’s so hard to do. The odds are stacked so far against you. That’s why you don’t see it happen very often.”
Chicagoland Speedway and Grundy County Speedway are located roughly 25 miles apart. But until recently, that distance might as well have been 2,500 miles.
Their class of racing is as disparate as you can get. Chicagoland Speedway, located in Joliet, Illinois, plays host once a year to NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series, while Grundy County, located in Morris, Illinois, hosts four sportsman series on more than 20 weekends.
The 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway has a seating capacity of nearly 50,000, while the 1/3-mile Grundy County Speedway seats about 3,700. Ticket prices, concessions and souvenirs are also a world apart.
It used to be that the two tracks had little in common and little interaction. But that’s changing. Big tracks like Chicagoland Speedway realize that grassroots speedromes like Grundy County are fertile breeding grounds for racing fans. That’s why the two tracks are no longer competitors fighting for the same dollar. Now, they’re partners and friends in the racing world. Each supports the other, offers assistance and cross-promotes at the other’s events.
“They’re in our backyard essentially, we’re neighbors,” Denny Hartwig, Chicagoland Speedway’s public relations director, told NBC Sports. “There are several other short tracks around, but I think it’s so important to connect the dots between Chicagoland Speedway and Grundy County.
“We actually have some staff members that go there and work on their operations crew, so there’s a natural fit there. With them being so close to us and us to them, it’s important that we stay in touch. We find ways that are going to help them and there’s ways they can help us. But we need to be working hand-in-hand; it’s so important.”
Scott Kosak, founder of the grassroots racing site RacingIn.com (its motto is “For Fans of Fast”) has kept a keen eye on increased relationships between tracks like Chicagoland and Grundy County.
“Any time a major league entity recognizes the synergies with the minor league entities that are in proximity, that’s a great thing for the sport,” Kosak said. “Specifically for NASCAR, when the series only comes through Chicago once a year, many of those same race fans want to be engaged year-round.
“If they’re not able to watch a race on Sunday on TV, they can go to a place like Grundy County Speedway virtually 25 or 30 Fridays or Saturdays a year and be engaged by the product. That can only help race fans continue to feel engaged with a sport that has had its share of growing pains, but also has its share of opportunities if they’re able to continue to engage fans year-round rather than just watching on TV or a hand-held mobile device.”
Chicagoland Speedway opened in 2001. Grundy County has been around since 1905, first in rural Mazon, Illinois from 1905-71. When it outgrew its venue, Grundy County Speedway relocated 10 miles north to its current home.
“Short tracks right now are trendy, it’s hip, it’s cool,” Hartwig said. “It’s a pretty small space, so there are synergies between the two (tracks), and along that path, there are ways we can help them and they can help us. That’s going to help everybody involved, from the local guys to the (NASCAR) folks down in Daytona.”
In its 18-year existence, Chicagoland Speedway has hosted a number of NASCAR stars including Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Grundy County Speedway has also seen its share of NASCAR luminaries chase the checkered flag there, including Hall of Famers Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Stewart, as well as Tom and Ted Musgrave, late actor/racer Paul Newman, Johnny Benson, Ryan Newman and others.
“Those guys don’t forget their roots, they don’t forget where they come from, guys like Clint Bowyer, who hasn’t forgotten where he comes from in Kansas,” Hartwig said. “Going back at Grundy, some of the guys that have raced there are big names in addition to the guy that works at the local hardware store.
“There’s a ton of history and the need to default back to it, that this is where they started, how it’s evolved and to reconnect, to realize and make sure this works well for both of us.”
As Technical and Operations Director at Grundy County Speedway, Don Marshall is essentially the traffic cop who keeps things on the straight and narrow. If a fight breaks out in the pits or if there’s an on-track incident similar to what happened between Johnny Sauter and Austin Hill at the NASCAR Trucks race in Iowa earlier this month, Marshall has a zero-tolerance policy.
“I make the rules up and enforce them,” Marshall told NBC Sports. “My thing is if it’s in the rules, it’s black and white. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I don’t care who it is.
“If you want to fight, you’re going to get booted out. There’s no fighting, no leaving your pit to go to someone else’s pit and start something. Kids don’t need to see that or hear bad language. They want to see adults act like adults.”
Marshall oversees the racing with a soft-spoken but firm manner. Fields for the four classes have drawn a combined 87 cars entered this season, from the entry level Four-Cylinder Division, through the Street Stock and Mid-America classes, up to the kings of the track, the Late Models.
Racers come from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. And they bring family and friends.
“A lot of the fans in the stands probably know somebody who’s racing, and then there’s fans that have been going to races since they were kids,” Marshall said. “Their parents took them and now they’re bringing their own kids to the races.”
Those kids are the key to Grundy County’s future.
“We have to get the kids involved,” Marshall said. “We’ve got to take the phones away from the kids and also do things to get the costs down to get more people involved.”
Like in NASCAR, fans at Grundy County have their loyalties. One of the most successful drivers there is five-time track champion Eddie Hoffman Jr. The current Late Model points leader is bidding to tie his father, Eddie Hoffman Sr., for all-time titles (six) at the track this season.
“Eddie has fans and he has non-fans,” Marshall said with a smile. “When you’re a winner, people boo you. They don’t like repeat winners. If you win a lot, you’ll get booed.”
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Grundy County Speedway often played host to packed houses. And while Morris has grown in population, the track still suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis at times.
“There’s a lot of people in Morris that don’t even know the race track’s there,” Marshall said. “We’ll do some promotional stuff and people will be like, ‘There’s a race track in Morris?’ Yes, it’s been there since 1971.”
Marshall has been involved in racing for more than 40 years. A former midget car championship crew chief, he has been at Grundy County Speedway since 2011. As long as there’s racing and he’s involved, Marshall is happy.
“Once you get racing in your blood, it’s hard to get away from it,” he said. “I tried to get away from it for a little bit and I got drawn back in.”
The enhanced relationship between Grundy County Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway is paying dividends, bringing more fans to the short track, especially on a weekend like this with NASCAR in town, both Hartwig and Marshall agree. While Grundy County will welcome NASCAR fans on Friday night, Chicagoland Speedway will recognize and introduce some of Grundy County’s champions during Saturday’s pre-race activities, as well as have them take part in a meet-and-greet in the infield fan zone.
“The guys at most of these short tracks are pseudo celebrities,” Hartwig said. “They’ve built their own brands, are racing in front of the same people – they may be racing in front of their neighbors. We thought it would be cool to bring them out, put them in front of a new audience and with the ultimate intention that some of our fans go to their track, some of their fans come to our track and we just tell their story.
“Later this summer, we’re going to be the entitlement sponsor for one of Grundy County’s races, so it’s something we’re going to continue to grow and work closer together to make sure we help one another. Whether it’s us going to Grundy County for a night doing social media at their track or bringing our mascot or our show car. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that I think is going to pay dividends for both facilities.”
Grundy County Speedway sits on the northern edge of the Morris, a blue-collar town of about 15,000. Located 60 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, Morris is surrounded by fertile farmland and is bisected by Interstate 80, which sees thousands of semi-trailers and cars pass through daily.
On the northern edge of town sits the Grundy County Fairgrounds, where the annual Corn Festival – a five-day festival touted by the Heritage Corridor Convention and Visitors Bureau as “the perfect mix of small-town charm and big city fun” – is held and also is the home of Grundy County Speedway, which hosts races every Friday night (and occasionally on Saturdays) in spring and summer.
Two of Grundy County’s veteran racers are Randy Weese and Cheryl Hryn.
The 63-year-old Weese is celebrating his 25th year of racing at the speedway.
“I’m the old-timer,” Weese said with a laugh.
But racing keeps Weese young. He’s in excellent physical shape and could pass for someone 15 years younger. He attributes a lot of that to coming back week after week to race.
“It’s the camaraderie with the other drivers,” Weese told NBC Sports. “I was in it for about 21 years and then got out of it for about three years when we started our own (floor covering) business here in Morris and pulled me away from racing. I wanted to get that up and off the ground and then got lured back into the racing. I love it because it’s very exciting and it’s in the blood. Once you get it in the blood, it’s hard to get out of it and give it up.”
Grundy County Speedway has been good to Weese. He’s a two-time track champion and one of its biggest supporters. Not only does his company have several billboards and signage around the track, Weese also sponsors his own race car and six others driven by friends in the four divisions that regularly compete at the track.
He admits there are some unique moments with the cars he sponsors.
“It becomes interesting when your own sponsored race car is next to you and you’re doing a little bit of beating and banging or you’re trying to push that guy around and you say, ‘Hey, my name’s on that car,’” Weese said with a laugh.
But in a more serious tone, Weese says he believes in giving back to a track that has been so good to him. That’s why he writes so many sponsorship checks.
“If you don’t have cars, you don’t have a race track and you don’t have fans is what it boils down to,” Weese said. “You’ve got to fill the stands. But before you fill the stands, you have to fill the pits with race cars. People don’t like to see eight or nine cars. They would rather see 30 cars. Today, we’re 18 or 19 cars (in most classes). But I see that coming back, I see the car count getting better. That’s of course going to naturally increase the (number of fans in the) stands also.”
Although he has raced at other tracks, Grundy County Speedway is and always will be Weese’s home.
“It all started with my children,” Weese said. “I started coming out there when my children were six years old and I brought them year after year. I started getting to the point where I thought, ‘You know what, I could do this.’ My kids absolutely loved it. They’d pick out their favorite driver, go down into the pits after the race to get their autograph, get their hat or program signed. That’s what really keeps the people there.”
Weese’s 36-year-old daughter, Tracy, helps in the pits not only with his car but with others. The elder Weese sees himself racing for many more years.
“Even though I’m 63 years old, it’s still exciting,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. If the health stays well, I’m probably going to go to 70. It keeps you young.
“Most of the drivers out there are in their 30s or 40s. Hanging around that kind of age group keeps us older guys young. Plus, I’ve also taught a lot of guys racing things. We’ve got guys out there 15, 16 years old (racers can begin competition at 14 years old). I tell them to try this or that, and those 16 year olds started beating me. But I’m the kind of person that says, ‘You know what, that’s great, you tried it, it worked for you, you beat me, more power to you.’”
One of Weese’s fellow competitors and close friends is Hryn, who also competes in the Street Stock Division. The Blue Island, Illinois, resident followed in the footsteps of her father, who also was a sportsman racer.
“I always wanted to be behind the wheel,” Hryn said. “I thought it was neat when he did it and when I watched him against the people he competed with, that was what I wanted to do when I got older.”
Hryn is one of more than a half dozen females who compete at the speedway. She will make her first start of the season Friday.
“Each one of us girls, when we go out there, we stand on our own,” she said. “We fight tooth-and-nail with the guys and the other girls equally.”
Now in her 13th year of racing, the 49-year-old Hryn has ended the last few seasons thinking that maybe its time to hang up her helmet. But once January 1 rolls around, she’s already heavily into getting her race car ready for the upcoming season.
“It’s hard to walk away,” Hryn said. “I went to Rockford (Illinois) Speedway and they had a guy who was 78 years old in the Road Runner Division. When you’re almost ready to give up and then you go there and see someone out there 78 years old and still winning, how can you quit?”
Like Weese, racing is a family affair for Hryn. Her 31-year-old daughter Alexis is a major part of the crew, setting up the car, changing tires and more. It’s that kind of mother-daughter relationship that helps Hryn serve as one of the track’s key role models for female fans.
“Girls come up to me all the time,” Hryn said. “I have some of the real little ones that follow me real close. I have a Late Model driver whose daughter has been following me. She’s only five years old. Daddy was her favorite and now I’m her favorite.
“And then there are a couple of girls that race right now that have told me, ‘I’m doing this because of you. You made it interesting and you inspired me, so I want to race just like you.’ It makes me feel really great.”
Like Weese, Hryn also believes in giving back to the sport and to the track. Friday, she’ll have her fourth annual Kids Night bicycle giveaway, where she presents several dozen two-wheelers to kids attending the race.
“Last year, we gave away 86,” Hryn said. “Over 400 kids show up every year.
“That’s one of the reasons I do what I do with the kids because there’s a huge age gap between me and the next generation, and if you don’t get them in the stands, no one is going to be interested – and how are you going to keep the tracks going then?”
One of the closest observers of grassroots racing around the country, and particularly in Illinois is Scott Kosak, who started RacingIn.com in 2008. At the time, racing in all forms faced challenges in the U.S. Not only was that the height of the downturn of the economy, numerous grassroots short tracks and drag strips began closing.
“Over a decade ago, there were 1,600 grassroots tracks, including dirt and asphalt tracks, as well as drag strips,” Kosak told NBC Sports. “Now there are about 1,100.”
Grundy County Speedway is a survivor. Several popular grassroots tracks within a 100-mile radius of it have closed over the last two-plus decades, including Raceway Park (Calumet Park, Illinois); Santa Fe Speedway (Willow Springs, Ill.), Illiana Speedway (Schererville, Indiana) and Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) Raceway.
But Kosak has also noted a turnaround – primarily for grassroots tracks like Grundy County – in recent years.
“One of the benefits that grassroots racing has endured, while NASCAR has felt challenges over the last 10 years, is people that wanted to see great racing found it at their local race tracks,” Kosak said. “That’s not to say that NASCAR isn’t great racing, but as people’s attention spans have diminished over the last 10 years with the rise of social media, people wanted to see racing in a shorter segment, be able to see it close to home. They wanted to get their fix of fast, if you will, and they could see it in heats, and in a matter of three or four hours, they could see eight or 10 different races during that time period with shorter lap segments.
“I think NASCAR has adopted some of those things to its benefit and is starting to take a little bit from the playbooks of local tracks that are experiencing success because of some of the shorter attention span opportunities that they have evidence are successful.”
One of the biggest things that tracks like Chicagoland Speedway, Daytona International Speedway and others have taken from the playbooks of grassroots tracks is increased fan engagement and accessibility.
“The ability of race fans to see, touch and feel race cars and be a part of that experience (has rubbed off on NASCAR),” Kosak said. “The last time I went to Grundy County, what stuck out in my mind is that when they were done for the night, they opened the pit gates for people to be able to go into the pits and walk around.
“I believe that was an opportunity for everybody, whether they had a pit ticket or not. The racers of tomorrow are the youth of today. I think any time younger kids and younger fans and families can go and experience something like that and get as close to the action as that, that’s a plus for sure. NASCAR has some of those experiences now, as well.
“I think a lot of the reasons that grassroots racing is starting to come back is that the tracks that are surviving are finding ways to form partnerships with other larger entities to help them drive traffic. I think the relationships between grassroots tracks and some of the larger NASCAR tracks are a great example of that beginning to happen. We’re seeing that in the dirt world side with tracks in the World of Outlaws and other entities like that, but I think the parallel for paved oval track racing are relationships like what Chicagoland Speedway is doing with Grundy County Speedway.”