How dirt racing can become NASCAR’s Winter Classic

NASCAR returns after a week off for Easter, but the world can’t stop talking about Bristol’s dirt endeavor.

To put things in layman’s terms…or at least those in terms familiar to those away from the racetrack…two of NASCAR’s national series running on dirt installed at Bristol Motor Speedway would perhaps best compared to the NHL Winter Classic.

Through dirt and simulated pond ice, the two events harken back to the competitors’ earliest days of participation in the sport. With their fledgling days long behind them, they’re placed in settings long-forgotten and far removed from the usual professional settings: dirt tracks and the great outdoors. The NHL has since expanded the original outdoor trip, begun in Buffalo in 2008, to numerous open-air events, the most recent being a four-team excursion to Lake Tahoe in February. A similar attempt to make things annual has already been announced, as the track will be re-dirtied come 2022.

NASCAR returns from an Easter break this Saturday, as the Cup Series resumes at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Yet, the Bristol dirt event, won by Joey Logano, remains the talk of the motorsports world. Little has been done to curb the conversation: the return trip to the dirt was announced while the original event was ongoing.

How can NASCAR find similar success? ESM investigates…

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Make It a Night Race

Enough can’t be said about the job that NASCAR and Bristol’s crew did during the race weekend. They recovered from torrential rains in the Sullivan County area to put on an entertaining doubleheader on Monday between the Cup and Camping World Truck Series.

One problem that stood out, however, was dusty conditions that led to a slew of caution flags and wrecks in the premier Cup event. The dust issue was only exacerbated by late afternoon settings that left drivers temporarily blind in certain areas of the track.

“For fans’ sake, for visibility of the drivers’ sake, I think a lot of the wrecks happened because of the dust and we couldn’t see anything,” third-place finisher Denny Hamlin noted.

Future dirt events could benefit from prime time settings at night. For as many changes that the current schedule has made, the current Cup slate is surprisingly low on night races as there are only three on the pre-playoff ledger (Martinsville, Charlotte, Daytona) before each of the first four postseason events commence after sundown.

Bristol is already well revered for its night event (set to close the opening round of the playoffs). Putting the dirt race at night, much like the Truck Series did for its proceedings at Eldora Speedway (2013-19) could truly give the event a primetime feel

“I do think that racing at night is the key to this,” Logano said. “I think that brings some of the moisture up from the dirt. I think that would help. Plus you don’t have the sun glaring through the dust. That’s what made it really hard through turns one and two. You couldn’t see.”

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Change the Venue

When the Winter Classic was introduced, they didn’t keep things eternally situated in Western New York. Outdoor hockey fanfiction could write a whole book, with the aforementioned Lake Tahoe setting being the most ambitious to date. NASCAR can benefit from a similar change of pace.

The NASCAR schedule has been through plenty of (welcome) upheaval as is. Bristol’s dirt edition is the first of five weekends where the Cup Series will make its maiden voyage (the next being the May 23 event at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin). But it’d certainly be interesting to see what other tracks, perhaps Bristol’s fellow short circuits like Martinsville and Richmond, would look like in new settings.

Over the past year, we’ve seen drivers adapt well to new settings, whether it’s running well on new tracks like Bristol covered in dirt or Daytona’s road course. Logano feels like his fellow drivers would be able to solve the quandary of other venues, much like he was able to at Bristol.

“I think more than anything, (the Bristol race) really shows the talent in this Cup level, right? Racecar drivers are racecar drivers, they’re going to figure it out,” Logano said. “You give them time, a few laps, they’re going to figure out how to make a race car go fast.”

“The amount of good racing we saw (at Bristol) throughout the field in very challenging conditions, a very slick track and very dusty, you can’t even see where you’re going, you saw guys that never even raced on dirt be pretty good. It goes to show that the talent in this NASCAR Cup level is something else.”

(Photo: Courtesy of NASCAR)

Finalize the Set-Up

Dirt racing has been introduced to the Cup Series at an interesting time. This season will be the final season where drivers run the Gen-6 car, as the “Next Gen” unit (featuring wider, single-lug nut tires, a new chassis, and independent rear suspension) is set to debut next season after the ongoing health crisis pushed things back a year.

Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler, whose No. 22 Ford was piloted into victory lane by Logano, noted just how important getting the Next Gen setup right would be in 2022, especially with the dirt race potentially retaining its early spot in the Cup schedule.

“If this car was a challenge, it’s going to be a whole other set of challenges. Certainly early in the season for the whole industry, so we’ll still be kind of new to that car, which will make it even more challenging,” Geisler, a former Cup Series crew chief, said. Runner-up finisher Ricky Stenhouse Jr. suggested finding solutions for longer tire runs.

“Our Kroger Camaro was really good in the long run today. I didn’t have the short-run speeds so I needed those long runs. So hopefully with the package that we have when we come back, we can get those 75-lap, 100-lap runs,” Stenhouse, driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet, said. “Next year is going to be just as much of a toss-up with a different race car.”

The circuit also has a year to review any changes they’d like to make to raceday procedures. While the Bristol event was a clean race, some elements certainly take some getting used to, namely the pit stops that took place during scheduled breaks through stage endings and competition cautions. The dust factor was combated by reverting to single-file restarts, which had been eliminated back in 2009. 

The drivers adapted very well to the changes, but finalizing the setups and format should be imperative. There will be enough to get used to with the Next Gen making its official debut. If there’s one less thing to worry about, drivers and teams can focus solely on competing and building on what was already a strong showing.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three pleasant surprise teams at the Easter break

In a year of dramatic parity, these three NASCAR teams have provided some solid surprise early showings through seven races.

There will be no Easter egg roll on asphalt on dirt for NASCAR’s national series, as the Cup, Xfinity, and Truck units have gone a brief hiatus. The premier Cup Series will return to action next Saturday night at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

With seven of 36 events down at the Cup level, parity has been the name of the game. We’ve seen seven different drivers win the first seven races. While some of the trophy-hoisters have been expected (Martin Truex Jr./Joey Logano), we’ve seen first-time winners (Michael McDowell/Christopher Bell), long droughts end (Kyle Larson/Ryan Blaney), and a young veteran start to build his tally up (William Byron).

This trio of teams has been particularly surprising, as we give them their due on a quiet weekend at the track…

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 08: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #47 Kroger Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 08, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

JTG Daugherty

Many eyes have turned to the NASCAR endeavors of a certain University of North Carolina alum turned NBA All-Star. The subject, of course, is Brad Daugherty and his shared team with Jodi and Tad Geschickter. There’s obviously plenty of time for Michael Jordan’s squad, 23XI Racing, to find their groove. In the meantime, it’s hard not to appreciate what Daugherty’s team has done in this young season.

One of the more interesting stories of the 2021 season is perhaps that of Ryan Preece. His No. 37 Chevrolet doesn’t have a charter, but he has managed to keep it competitive in the early going. Preece was one of four drivers (Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell the others) to finish in the top ten in each of the first two races. He’s also one of 11 drivers who have run at the finish of each of the seven events run so far.

Meanwhile, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came to the team’s No. 47 after a disappointing tenure at Roush Fenway Racing. He has earned top 20 finishes in all seven races to date, capping it off with a runner-up posting at Bristol. The team currently holds one of the 16 playoff spots, a fantasyland that JTG Daugherty has not seen since its lone appearance in 2014 (A.J. Allmendinger). Stenhouse will undoubtedly be capable of winning at Talladega later this month. He won the 2017 spring event and drove the No. 47 to a narrow runner-up finish there last season.

Adding to their consistency, both Preece and Stenhouse have done a great job keeping their cars clean this season. The two have failed to complete only a combined six of a possible 3,388 laps.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Ellsworth Advisors Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco Uniforms 300 at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 06, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Kaulig Racing

Anyone who has kept an eye on the NASCAR Xfinity Series would know that Kaulig Racing was on the rise through its victorious triumvirate. Such consistency has continued on the developmental level (Allmendinger won the Las Vegas race while he, Justin Haley, and Jeb Burton have united for 13 top tens). But their Cup program took some steps forward in the early showings as they inch closer to full-time status. Things got started when Kaz Grala raced his way into the Daytona 500’s main event (even leading 10 laps) before Allmendinger earned a top ten run at the ensuing road course event.

“I think it’s been the worst-kept secret that they have aspirations to get to the Cup Series, racing it full-time down the road, try to be a multi-car team down the road,” Grala said following his success at the Bluegreen Vacation Duels. “This is the first small step towards a big picture. I know (racing at Daytona) a victory for everybody at the team.”

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – MARCH 29: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 Camping World Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 29, 2021 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Trackhouse Racing

It was fair to keep expectations low for Trackhouse Racing. Even with strong backing from recording artist and philanthropist Pitbull, new teams have often struggled to gain their footing in modern NASCAR. Behind the wheel was Daniel Suarez, who struggled mightily, even by low-budget standards, in Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 last season.

But Suarez has enjoyed a slight resurgence in the seat of the team’s No. 99 Chevrolet. Signs of progress were apparent even before his top five run at the Bristol dirt event. The team probably would’ve earned a top ten finish at Atlanta if not for Suarez’s speeding penalty on pit road. He earned top 20 runs in the next two races after getting caught up in the early “Big One” in Trackhouse’s Daytona debut. The No. 99 currently sits in 20th in the standings, best amongst new teams and 28 points out of a playoff spot.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: JTG Daugherty Racing

As one North Carolina basketball legend prepares to make his NASCAR ownership debut, another is trying to string consistency together.

2021 JTG Daugherty Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Ryan Preece 37 Trent Owens Kroger
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 47 Brian Pattie Kroger/NOS Energy Drink

History

A University of North Carolina basketball legend, a mid-1980s NBA Draft pick, and a star from a 1996 hoops comedy is looking to succeed in NASCAR.

We are, of course, talking about Brad Daugherty, a five-time All-Star with the Whoopi Goldberg film Eddie on his filmography.

Daugherty, the top pick of the 1986 NBA Draft, has been involved in NASCAR since his basketball retirement. Among his first racing endeavors was ownership in the early days of the NASCAR Craftsman (now Camping World) Truck Series. Future star Kevin Harvick was among his drivers, as was the late Kenny Irwin Jr. (who won two races during the 1997 campaign). Daugherty has united with Tad Geschickter and his wife Jodi to form JTG Daugherty racing in 2009, separating from a partnership that originally included Wood Brothers Racing. The team’s lone win to date came in 2014, when A.J. Allmendinger went to victory lane at Watkins Glen.

2020 in Review

The mid-budget squad had a bit of a roller-coaster season. Stenhouse, a two-time Xfinity Series champion, took over the No. 47 Chevrolet from Chris Buescher (ironically occupying Stenhouse’s old ride at Roush Fenway Racing) and got things off to a good start by winning the pole at the Daytona 500 (the team’s first pole since Allmendinger won two in 2015). He led 24 laps of the Great American Race (only Brad Keselowski and winner Denny Hamlin led more), but he fell back to a 20th-place finish. While Stenhouse struggled to maintain consistency, he did recover to finish third in the ensuing race at Las Vegas, two more at Charlotte and Talladega. The latter race saw Stenhouse miss out on a win (and the playoff spot that came with it) by .007 seconds to Ryan Blaney. In either case, Stenhouse’s trio of top five finishes was the best from a JTG Daugherty car since Marcos Ambrose earned four in the team’s debut year.

Things weren’t as bright in the No. 37 stall belonging to Ryan Preece. Taking over a car that Buescher drove into a top 20 standings finish in 2019, Preece endured a brutal summer. Despite starting on the pole in two races at Darlington and Pocono (via 20th-place finishes when the lineup was determined by inverting the top 20), Preece failed to capitalize. July was particularly tough, as Preece finished last in three consecutive races before enduring a particularly scary wreck at Kansas. The Connecticut native did manage to end things on a somewhat brighter note, recording top 20 finishes in eight of the ten playoff races (his best being a 9th at Bristol).

Meet the Drivers

Ryan Preece

Experience: 3rd full season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 29th
Best standings finish: 26th (2019)

Preece is in a precarious position in 2021, as his No. 37 doesn’t own a charter and has sponsorship for 24 of 36 races. He is thus considered an “Open” car, one that could well miss races entirely if he isn’t careful. So far, he’s responded to the pressure well. Preece was the fastest car amongst Open competitors during Wednesday single-car qualifying session and he later finished a career-best fifth in his Bluegreen Vacations Duel race.

“You show up every single week trying to get the most out of your equipment. So that doesn’t change anything about what I’m doing. Our approach for Daytona is the same as it has been every year, except I think we’ll be a little more aggressive than we have been in years past when it comes to stages,” Preece said of his 2021 outlook. “We’re going to continue week after week and hopefully everything is there, we’re having a solid season and everything comes together.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 

Experience: 9th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: Daytona, summer 2017)
2020 finish: 24th
Best standings finish: 13th (2017)

We’ve seen Stenhouse steal playoff slots before through superspeedway racing. Wins at both Talladega and Daytona during the 2017 season…thus far the only wins of his Cup career…allowed him to start the 2017 playoffs in the No. 8 seed. He has had chances to get back to victory lane, but fate has been no friend to him.

But Stenhouse saw progress throughout his first year in the No. 47 and was particularly pleased that the team was almost entirely held together from last season to this one.

“We all believe in each other. I feel like this is a really good group of guys that are working on our race cars,” Stenhouse said. “We all believe that we under-performed, as far as the finishes go and the year-end points results. But there were a lot of highs, I feel like, with the speed of our cars when we showed up at the race track.”

“On my side, I need to clean up my pit road mistakes because I feel like I can count on a full hand that I felt like I gave up some really good opportunities to run well inside the top-10 at some of these race tracks from having a pit road penalty. So, for us, I like that we have the same group.”

Outlook

For Preece, the key will be competing in as many races as he can, to treat this season as if it’s an elevator pitch for new sponsors and potentially new teams as well. Stenhouse could well steal a playoff spot in one of the superspeedway events, but getting the No. 47 into the top ten on a consistent basis would be an admirable landmark to reach.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Five underdogs who could steal Talladega

This Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series will visit Talladega on the first day of summer. Is there a red hot upset in the making?

This weekend, Talladega Superspeedway’s 2.66-mile course will feature mischief and mayhem…and 5,000 of its closest friends will be there to witness it.

The NASCAR Cup Series will welcome back a select number of fans to the track as the GEICO 500 will run 188 circuits on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, Fox). Talladega is one of several “superspeedways” on the NASCAR schedule and its longest track, one that has been known for big pile-ups and close racing. While Sunday’s race will feature a new technical rules package (one created to avoid scary wrecks like the one involving Ryan Newman at the end of the Daytona 500), Talladega’s penchant for tight racing (similar to Daytona) has often seen upset winners steal the show. Winners of NASCAR races are more or less afforded a spot in the NASCAR playoffs, provided they finish in the top 30 in points.

The Cup Series’ usual suspects (I.e. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, etc.) will undoubtedly be in play for GEICO glory. But there could be several underdogs on hand ready to seize their postseason moment…

Austin Dillon

To say it has been an eventful two weeks for Dillon would perhaps be the understatement of the year. He was forced to retire from last Wednesday’s Martinsville race early when the loss of crush panels in his car caused the interior to reach sweltering temperatures. Four days later, he and his wife Whitney welcomed their first child (a son named Ace) before he drove the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to a seventh-place finish. It’s been part of a solid return to the track for Dillon, who (the Martinsville incident aside) has finished no worse than 11th over the last five races. Such a performance has allowed Dillon to enter Talladega holding the final playoff spot. Ending his win drought at 83 races would certainly help him breathe a lot easier, that last win coming at the 2018 Daytona 500.

Brendan Gaughan

Gaughan has run one full-time Cup Series season (2004) but has kept active on NASCAR’s lower-tier national series. He has been a staple in the part-time car of Beard Motorsports, having run each Cup event at a superspeedway since 2017. The No. 62 Chevrolet has been reasonably competitive in such races, as Gaughan came home seventh in February’s Daytona 500. Last fall, he ran up front all day, posting as high as second at Talladega (after finishing eighth in the spring event) but an aerial wreck relegated him to 27th. Gaughan announced in February that 2020 would be his final NASCAR season. Could he earn an early retirement gift in his penultimate Talladega visit? As a part-time driver with no playoff burden, Gaughn will have zilch to lose on Sunday.

John Hunter Nemechek

The rookie Nemechek (second behind Tyler Reddick in the Rookie of the Year race) has remained competitive in his full-time Cup debut. His No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford has been running at the end of each of the first dozen events in 2020 and Nemechek has completed all but 12 laps on the circuit thus far. Nemechek also finished in the top ten in a pair of Xfinity starts at Talladega, including a sixth-place result last season. A Talladega steal from the mid-budget Front Row squad is not unheard of. The first win in team history came in 2013 when David Ragan and David Gilliland swept the first two slots in an overtime finish at the spring race.

Ryan Newman

It’s great to see Newman back in his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford after the scary incident at the end of the Daytona 500, but his return has been a bit of a struggle thus far. He has yet to finish in the top ten since his return and an early spin at Homestead long to a long day that ended in 30th. But a Newman victory at Talladega would make for an incredible headline. In addition to his last-lap crash in February, Newman was literal inches away from a victory at last October’s Talladega event, but he lost to Ryan Blaney by .007 seconds. If he’s going to race his way into the playoffs, Newman would have to break a 113-race winless streak. Talladega could present his best opportunity. In five events since October 2017, Newman has earned four top ten finishes, including a pair of runner-up postings.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Mired in a 21st-place hole in the standings, it may be a lot to ask Stenhouse to make up a 63-point playoff deficit, even with the regular season running through late August. Stenhouse has often gone the “wreckers or checkers” route at Daytona and Talladega. Back in 2017, he was able to swipe a playoff spot by winning at both tracks, including his first career victory at the latter, when he started on the pole and held off a furious challenge from Jamie McMurray for the win. If he and the No. 47 JTG Daugherty team have playoff aspirations, they might have to go all out on Sunday.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags