NASCAR: Shortened weekday races earning rave reviews

Shortened, weekday NASCAR races have become a necessity as the circuit tries to complete its full slate. But drivers are loving the change.

Unlike their NFL counterparts, NASCAR’s attempts at Thursday night proceedings earned some positive reviews.

With the circuit emerging as the first North American team sports unit to return from its coronavirus-induced hiatus, NASCAR has embarked on an ambitious plan to complete its full schedules. Such an endeavor required the premier Cup Series, as well as the lower-tier Xfinity and Truck circuits, to run races beyond their normal weekend timeslots. The latest endeavor came on Thursday night, as a busy week at Charlotte Motor Speedway wrapped up with the Alsco Uniforms 500 at the Cup level. Weather played a factor in the Thursday scheduling, as storms from Tropical Depression Bertha washed out the original date on Wednesday. CMS had previously played host to the Cup Series’ Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday as well as Xfinity and Truck races earlier in the week.

Fans old and new have been treated to the exciting racing NASCAR has become known for, but there have been some changes. To turn race weekends into single-day events, qualifying has been mostly eliminated, as has practice. These races have also been run sans spectators and in front of limited in-person media. Social distancing mandates have also limited the number of team personnel at the track.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The plan, while ambitious, was rife with concerns. Was it right to subject drivers to such a workload? How would drivers work without on-track practice? Could social distancing realistically be maintained?

So far, NASCAR has been able to alleviate these concerns, giving other sports a model to follow as they slowly start to make their own plans toward a revival. They might be learning a thing or two about their own sport along the way.

Weekday races haven’t been perfect. The weather has been a bit uncooperative (a Cup event at Darlington Raceway ended early and both Charlotte races featured delays) and there have been some early on-track incidents in the early going of some races (i.e. Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase wrecking on Thursday’s opening lap). But, in rare unanimity amongst participants, the drivers are responding well.

“I feel really good,” Thursday winner Chase Elliott said about the short turnaround time in a postrace Zoom conference call. “I feel like I tried to stay biking and doing things throughout those two months off, and honestly coming back and going back to Darlington where it was hot and then coming into the 600, it kind of just threw us back right to the wolves, and I think that was really a good thing just to really get some hot races and some long races in right off the bat and just jump right to it.  I feel good, and I’m certainly tired, it’s been a long week, but I’m going to rest these next couple days and get ready for Bristol.”

One of the most glaring differences in the weekday events is how long they last. Whereas most races operate by miles, often those seen in the race’s label, the races run during the week have gone by titular kilometers. The Alsco Uniforms 500, good for 208 circuits around a 1.5-mile oval, was the shortest-ever Cup Series event held at Charlotte, which is best known for hosting the longest race in NASCAR (the aforementioned Coca-Cola 600).

Everyone loves to go racing, but some drivers actually prefer the short lengths. The difference has also been seen on a different kind of stopwatch. Thursday’s race, removing the circa 75-minute rain delay, took just over two-and-a-half hours to finish. Thursday’s runner-up Denny Hamlin likened such a runtime to a regulation NBA contest.

“Heck with tradition; you’ve got to advance with the times,” said Hamlin, the winner of the Cup Series’ previous weekday event at Darlington’s Toyota 500. “I think that keeping people’s attention span for three hours is a good thing. It’s a very good thing. These cars are different now than what they used to be.  It used to be a battle of machine, you’re going to wear out your tires and your brakes and whatnot. They just don’t wear out anymore, so essentially it just becomes a long race after that.”

Elliott himself felt that the shortened race raised the on-track tenacity, in contrast to the time-biding strategies often seen in lengthy events like Sunday’s 600-mile competition.

“I think it’s great. I think it ups the intensity. I think you have to have your car driving really well from the start, and if it doesn’t, you have to make those big swings early.  I feel like it just ramps up the intensity and everything that comes with that. Just the clock is ticking and you don’t have a lot of time to do much of anything.”

The pace of play argument has become prevalent across major sports. Baseball has perhaps led the way with numerous time-saving proposals (including pitch clocks and opening extra innings with a man on base. One of the XFL’s tenets before its cancellation was maintaining a manageable game length.

Weekday races could well become the new norm, even when sports and society begin to revert to even more familiar settings. It could be one of the ways NASCAR maintains the newfound popularity it has discovered through fans perhaps biding their time until their usual favorite sports return.

NASCAR’s season is far longer than its competition, beginning with candies on Valentine’s Day and running until its end breaches the Thanksgiving turkey’s territory. It’s good to leave an impact on the calendar, but with such a long season comes the challenge of making every single portion relevant. NASCAR’s biggest event remains the season-opening Daytona 500 but its ten-race playoff proceedings happening in the heat of fall’s jam-packed schedule. Basketball on both the professional and amateur levels is reopening, as is the NHL. The NFL season is in full swing, and their college counterparts are battling for bowl and playoff positioning. The fact that a majority of NASCAR events are held the weekend during popular exploits on the gridiron can serve only as a detraction. Even in NASCAR’s supposed southern hubs, viewership isn’t guaranteed. It’s cruel to convince a fan in, say, Alabama to choose between Talladega and Tuscaloosa.

Weekday races could be a way to create autumn separation.

If anything, NASCAR’s status as one of the only major professional team sports leagues operating gives it a chance to experiment as they continue to roll out their slate. The Cup Series enters more familiar territory with a Sunday race at Bristol Motor Speedway this Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox), and there’s at least one experiment coming. On Wednesday, June 10, Martinsville Speedway will host its first-ever night race. That event is currently the last weekday event on the slate (with the exception of some previously scheduled Truck races) but the modern flexibility afforded (NASCAR currently has races confirmed through June 21) could change that.

If the drivers’ comments are any indication, they’ll certainly hope for some revisions.

“I certainly like the change, and on a weeknight time slot that we have, it’s got to be tightened up anyway, so I think this was a good taste of it,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “They’ll gather the data and figure out what’s best for them in the future.  Maybe it’s keeping them long, I’m not sure. Let the people that know a lot more about it speak on it.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Ryan Preece looking to capitalize on big opportunity

Ryan Preece’s NASCAR career has defined by hard knocks, but the Connecticut native is looking to make the most of a rare opportunity.

In Sunday’s exciting return to NASCAR action, The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway provided late-race drama that a sports-starved nation has salivated over while live events are put on hold. With three circuits to go in the 293-lap event, a dramatic pass was made to secure first-place. The beneficiary then held off a furious challenge over the remaining turns to secure the victory.

Now, this battle did not take place at the front of the pack. Kevin Harvick’s healthy two-second interval was more than enough to hold off Alex Bowman for the win.

But so crazy are our modern times that a battle for 20th in one race wound up determining the leader in the next.

Preece’s pass of Bubba Wallace on lap 291 secured him the pole position, meaning he will lead the field at the start of Wednesday night’s Toyota 500 (6 p.m. ET, FS1). The resulting front row starting spot is part of NASCAR’s efforts to feasibly return during the ongoing health crisis, which eliminates qualifying and practice sessions. The first 20 positions were determined by inverting the top finishers from Sunday’s return event, The Real Heroes 400. It was the premier NASCAR Cup Series’ first competition since shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic nearly two months prior. The remaining 19 positions were determined purely by finishing order, relegating Wallace to starting 21st.

The 29-year-old native of Berlin, Connecticut told Terrin Waack of NASCAR.com that he knew what was at stake with that fateful pass.

“I knew we were in 21st in the last 10 laps,” he said. “We had a really good car to begin with, so it created the opportunity to get back by Bubba (Wallace). But that’s why I was really pushing the issue to get by him because that was the difference of 20 spots, right? It’s going to make you push that much harder.”

It’s a bit of an unusual position for Preece, the driver of the No. 37 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing. The team is perhaps NASCAR’s equivalent of, say, the Memphis Grizzlies…a relatively low-budget team that occasionally musters a name or a win on its docket, but never truly a threat for a championship. One of the team’s owners is former top overall NBA draft pick Brad Daugherty and the spoils of five NASCAR national series victories reside in their trophy case (one at the premier Cup Series level when AJ Allmendinger won the 2014 Watkins Glen race). JTG’s most recent prestigious days came last season when Chris Buescher mustered 16 consecutive finishes in the top 20. Buescher would play that success into a more prestigious ride, taking over the No. 17 Ford at Roush Fenway Racing.

This is Preece’s second year of both full-time Cup racing and with JTG Daugherty, albeit his first under No. 37 branding. He ran his rookie campaign in the team’s No. 47, whose 2020 duties went to Roush castaway Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He has paid his dues at NASCAR’s lower levels, first making a name for himself on the prototype Whelen Modified Tour with a 2013 championship before earning a pair of national Xfinity Series wins with Joe Gibbs units. Preece was able to provide the team with some much-needed good news during the coronavirus pause by building momentum on NASCAR’s simulated iRacing Pro Invitational Series. The virtual No. 37 earned four top ten finishes over the seven-race exhibition slate held on the iRacing platform. That included a runner-up spot at the Texas Motor Speedway recreation, where Preece fell just short (0.050 seconds) of beating out Timmy Hill for the win.

With the middling budget provided at JTG Daugherty, Preece has done what he can with what he has. His debut with the team, for example, was an eighth-place finish at the 2019 Daytona 500. Since then, however, bad luck has drafted with the team and has refused to back off.

A good follow-up of Atlanta after the opening was ruined by a pit road incident with BJ McLeod. Last October’s Talladega race saw him involved in three big wrecks alone. He was battling Denny Hamlin for the win at the most recent Daytona 500, but a fiery wreck that ate up multiple cars ended his chances with two laps to go.

Preece knows there’s an opportunity to be had on Wednesday night. Part of his Cup Series woes could stem from poor starting position. His best start to date was a 14th-place posting the Charlotte Roval race last fall (he brought the car home 21st that afternoon).

“Track position…is so hard to get,” Preece said. “So if you have a good race car and you already have that track position, then it’s just about everybody executing the way they need to. Staying up front and keeping that clean air right in the front half, front third of the pack, it’s a big deal. That can pretty much set the tone for your race.”

Tough finishes in the early going have created a lot of ground for Preece to make up if he wants to get a JTG Daughtery machine back into the NASCAR playoffs. Their last, and only such endeavor came in the aforementioned 2014 when Allmendinger was able to get to the postseason with the Watkins Glen win as his ticket (the No. 47 finished 13th in the standings that season). Preece is currently 61 points out of the final playoff seed.

Keeping the position won’t be easy. Starting immediately behind Preece in Wednesday’s 228-lap event will be the elite Fords of Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. 19th-place finisher and Preece’s front row companion Ty Dillion will be equally hungry for track position as he is in a similar budget crunch with Germain Racing’s No. 13 Chevrolet.

“We know we have a fast race car,” Preece said Waack. “It’s a bittersweet type of thing because I really felt like we had a much better car than 20th last week. Just circumstances out of your control really is what it is. But at the same time, it gives us an opportunity to rebound on that and have a solid day. Start us off on the right foot when it comes to it on Wednesday.”

For the full starting lineup for Wednesday’s race, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick wins in NASCAR’s Darlington return

NASCAR returned in style on Sunday, as Kevin Harvick became the 14th driver in Cup Series history to earn 50 wins.

Live, team-oriented sports returned in style on Sunday, as the NASCAR Cup Series circuit staged the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Kevin Harvick was the first victor, leading 159 of 293 laps en route to his first victory of the 2020 season/

Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, also earned the 50th victory of his career. He join an illustrious list of 13 other drivers to earn that tally on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

“When you look at a win like this today, this is an organizational win because you have to have your car dialed in when you get here in order to win a race like this,” Harvick said in a Zoom video conference call after the race. “Our guys have just done a great job of putting all the pieces together. Today we were able to capitalize on that and win a race.”

The win, despite the historic weight attached to it, came with a sense of hollowness for Harvick, the first winner in the unusual times for NASCAR.

Sunday’s event was, in racing terms, run under caution in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The stands were empty and media invitations were kept to a minimum. Practice and qualifying were canceled, so drivers were embarking on an endeavor at a locale known as “The Track Too Tough to Tame” with literally no on-track preparation. Harvick’s victory lane celebration was perhaps best labeled by his posing with the race trophy under the protection of a facemask and no one else around, contrasting the normally raucous, confetti-spewing antics that ensue after a win.

“Usually you get out of the car and the crowd is screaming and yelling, react. Today out of the car it was like, well, I don’t really know what to do here,” Harvick said with a smile. “I got in my car, drove to Victory Lane. There were two photographers there, no team guys. I was able to kind of get my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left Victory Lane, tell them great job. Those guys didn’t get a chance to take a picture with their car. Just a lot of sacrifices that go into it.”

“But in the end, in the big picture of things, being able to do what we did today, and that’s race, is what everybody wants to do.”

But the veteran of nearly two Cup Series decades was proud to put on a show at a time the country needed it the most.

“There’s a lot of people that put a lot of effort into this,” he remarked. “I’m glad it went the way that it went. I hope people that watched for the first time liked what they saw. This is a unique racetrack here at Darlington. In the end, it’s just having that opportunity to present yourself to new people. Hopefully, you can make a lot of new fans as you go forward.”

Harvick has been by far the most consistent driver during the interrupted NASCAR season. He is the only driver to appear in the top ten in each of the five races run thus far and leads the points standings over Alex Bowman, whose No. 88 Chevrolet appeared in Sunday’s runner-up slot.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – MAY 17: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light #YOURFACEHERE Ford, leads Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 ChevyGoods.com NOCO Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Cup Series The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 17, 2020 in Darlington, South Carolina. NASCAR resumes the season after the nationwide lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

It was Bowman who gave Harvick his biggest challenge of the afternoon. The Hendrick Motorsports star and winner of this spring’s race at Fontana lined up next to Harvick on what became the final restart after a caution for Ryan’s Newman’s spin on lap 254. Harvick’s No. 4 team won the ensuing race off of pit road before its driver held off a furious challenge from Bowman and Kurt Busch. The Busch Light-branded Ford then drove off to Harvick’s first Darlington victory since August 2014.

“I feel like watching it back, I could have been really aggressive and cut the corner into one a little bit and maybe cleared him. I was already pretty aggressive with that,” Bowman said in another Zoom call. “Maybe I could have acted like I was going to clear myself and got him to lift. If he doesn’t lift, we both crash. In three and four I got loose under him. He did a good job of getting on my door, taking some side force away.”

“That’s tough. You’re racing one of the best in the business at one of the most technical, hard racetracks we go to. Just to have the opportunity to race him hard and clean like that was a lot of fun.”

NASCAR will remain at Darlington as they continue a quest to run all 36 races on their docket. The lower-tier Xfinity Series win run on Tuesday night (8:00 p.m. ET, FS1) before the Cup Series returns to action on Wednesday with the Toyota 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1). The 500-kilometer race will run for 228 laps around the 1.5-mile track.

Race Notes

  • The first lap of action provided instant fireworks, as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s No. 47 Chevrolet spun and hit the wall before completing his opening circuit. It brought out the first of ten Sunday caution flags. Stenhouse wound up finishing dead-last in 40th.
  • Included in the yellow flags was a competition pause shortly after the 30th lap. The field was frozen, allowing the teams to get extended adjustments on pit road while neither gaining or losing position.
  • Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson nearly won the first stage of the race, but a crash right before its finale at lap 90 ended his day early. Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet hit the way when he ran out room trying to put Chris Buescher’s No. 17 Ford a lap down. The 38th-place finisher announced earlier this month that the series’ pause would not change his plans to retire from full-time racing at the end of this season.
  • After Johnson’s wreck, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron took home the first stage. Byron’s day would likewise take a turn for the worse shortly after, as his No. 24 Chevrolet cut a tire and wrecked on lap 111. He would bring the car home in the 35th spot, 14 laps down.
  • The day wasn’t a total loss for Hendrick’s squad. Bowman finished in the runner-up spot while Chase Elliott finished fourth. Bowman recently signed a deal that would keep him with Hendrick through the 2021 season. He has driven the No. 88 Chevrolet full-time since 2018
  • Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas took up three spots in the top ten. Defending Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin rounded out the first five while Martin Truex Jr. finished right behind him. Erik Jones pulled off the trifecta at eighth.
  • Rookies had a banner day at Darlington, with Tyler Reddick (7th) and John Hunter Nemechek (9th) pulling off top ten finishes. Nemechek’s posting in the No. 38 Ford was the first top ten finish for the underfunded Front Row Motorsports at a track other than Daytona or Talladega since August 2017.
  • Veteran returns were a common theme as the series itself made a comeback. Matt Kenseth finished 10th in his first race in the No. 42 Chevrolet since replacing the disgraced Kyle Larson. Meanwhile, Newman recovered from his spin to finish 15th. It was his first race in the No. 6 Ford after being involved in a scary wreck at the end of February’s season-opening Daytona 500.
  • With qualifying canceled, the starting lineup for Wednesday’s event was set by inverting the top 20 finishers. Thus, 20th-place man Ryan Preece will lead the field to the green, while Ty Dillon (19th) lines up next to him. The positions outside the first 20 will be set by their Sunday finishing positions (i.e. 21st-place finisher Bubba Wallace will start 21st on Wednesday).

For full results, click here

For full Cup Series standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags