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Friday 5: A conversation with a NASCAR mover and shaker

Chase Briscoe survives two late restarts to win his first NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway, becoming the 200th winner in Cup Series history.

A reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway. Dirt again on Bristol Motor Speedway. The purchase of Dover Motor Speedway and Nashville Superspeedway.

Marcus Smith, president and chief executive officer at Speedway Motorsports, continues to make a significant impact on NASCAR.

He’s not done. With plans to remake Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville and restore North Wilkesboro Speedway, Smith’s influence on the sport will grow.

Speedway Motorsports, founded by Bruton Smith, has been known for innovation. While maybe not every idea worked, many have — from fan initiatives to creating the Charlotte Roval.Marcus Smith has been a key figure in such moves.

With NASCAR at Atlanta this weekend, the sport is in a stretch that will see 10 of 18 Cup points races held at tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports or promoted by the company.

The first race in that stretch for Speedway Motorsports was Las Vegas, held two weeks ago. Without revealing details, Smith said that the track’s attendance finished “a little bit ahead” of the 2020 race there, one of the lasts before the pandemic shut down the sport for more than two months.

Smith talked with NBC Sports this week about many of his tracks and where things stand with Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Atlanta Motor Speedway

For years, drivers begged and pleaded for the track not to be repaved. Competitors loved the challenge of the track’s racing surface that made tires wear and put much of a car’s success into the driver’s hands.

Eventually, a repave was needed, but Speedway Motorsports was not content with that. Instead, the company reconfigured the track, increasing the banking in the turns to 28 degrees in an effort to create superspeedway racing on a 1.5-mile track.

“We have a Next Gen car in NASCAR, and we have a Next Gen Atlanta Motor Speedway,” Smith told NBC Sports. “With the multi-million dollar investment we made there on widening the frontstretch, increasing the banking in the turns, bringing a Next Gen paving technology that is actually proving to be a more raceable surface within the first year, I’m really excited about it.

“I think we’re going to see drivers three and four-wide through the turns. The fans are going to be in for some really exciting racing.”

Atlanta superspeedway

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 06: Kurt Busch, driver of the 23XI #45 Toyota Camry during NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear Tire Testing at the revamped Atlanta Motor Speedway on January 6, 2022 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bristol Motor Speedway

For the second year in a row, Bristol’s track will be covered in dirt for its spring race. New this year is that race will be held on Easter night.

Typically, the sport shied from racing on that holiday. This is an opportunity to make Easter a NASCAR holiday, much like Thanksgiving is known for NFL games, Christmas features NBA games and January 1 is known for college bowl games.

“A lot of people go to church on Easter Sunday and get together as a family, maybe go to see mom and have lunch and then that night is a great time tune in for a NASCAR race,” Smith said.

“For fans that are going be on site, we hope that they will enjoy this new tradition. We’re going to be putting on a really big Easter service. … We are going to create a really, really special weekend for people to do something different. It’s not unheard of to go somewhere for Easter. … This is a new somewhere to go.”

NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - MARCH 29: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Toyota, leads a pack of cars 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)

Getty Images

Rain pushed last year’s Cup dirt race back a day. Rainouts can make it more difficult for tracks to sell tickets the next year because of the memory of that experience.

“That definitely provides a challenge,” Smith said. “Any time you have rain, the following year is a challenge on (ticket) renewals, but we do have the big plus of moving the race to nighttime and a lot of fans out there realize that dirt racing is best at night. We’ve also gotten (the race date) out of March and into April, which typically is a better weather pattern for the Bristol area.”

Circuit of the Americas

All three of NASCAR’s national series return there this year. The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races are March 26. Cup races March 27.

Speedway Motorsports does not own COTA. Instead, the company serves as the promoter for the NASCAR events. After last year’s races, Speedway Motorsports took some time to assess the inaugural event before deciding to promote NASCAR there again this year.

“We’re really committed to that marketplace and think it’s going to be good for the sport, and it has been already,” Smith said.

Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville

Speedway Motorsports, through Bristol Motor Speedway, has sought to operate the historic short track located near downtown Nashville since 2017.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper agreed to a proposal last November by Bristol to revitalize Fairgrounds Speedway so it can host NASCAR racing.

Financial plans are still being examined by city officials. The deal also needs approval from the Fair Board and Metro Council. Smith says that they’ve “gotten to what you might call the 1-yard line with the city and the state at moving forward on the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.

“It’s going to be a part of our future. We’re really bullish about it and think it’s going to be a fantastic addition to the NASCAR schedule. Really, this renovated property is going to be an amazing asset for the community and the city of Nashville.”

With all that remains and then construction work to upgrade the facility, Smith was asked if 2023 was out of the question for Fairgrounds Speedway to be on the NASCAR schedule.

“Our team is so amazing, I don’t want to say no,” he said. “We can do amazing things. If things all come together quickly. Who knows what we can do.”

North Wilkesboro Speedway

This track, which hosted Cup races from 1949-96, could soon be back in action.

Work continues on updating the facility with funding from the American Rescue Plan. The North Carolina budget earmarked $18 million to Wilkes County “to coordinate with relevant local government units for water and sewer and related infrastructure projects for ... the North Wilkesboro Speedway.”

Asked about when the track could be race ready, Smith said: “It will be sooner than you think. We’re working on some details, so stay tuned.”

As for what type of racing could be there, Smith was clear.

“I don’t see Cup racing happening in that market,” he said, “but I think if we have local, regional racing, if we have short track racers return to Wilkesboro, this will be hallowed ground for anybody who races short tracks in the entire country. That alone is a big deal.

“If, somehow, someway, we could have a larger national tour series, like you mentioned the Truck Series, it would be beyond the expectation, I think, of everybody involved.”

Texas Motor Speedway

NASCAR President Steve Phelps called out the size of the crowd for last year’s playoff race at Texas, saying it was “an unacceptable level of tickets sold in that marketplace.”

Smith says things will be better this year, citing the start of the season and the racing the Next Gen car has created.

“Texas Motor Speedway, being in one of the biggest markets in the world, Dallas/Fort Worth,” he said. “It is a phenomenal faculty. We’re surrounded by millions of people, and I think we’re going to have a much better showing this year with the fans (and) that’s because the drivers and the teams are putting on a much better show for those races.”

2. A new way of doing things

Starting this weekend, the rear tire changer on a Cup pit crew will be allowed to approach the car from the front. Previously, the rear tire changer was required to go around the back of the car to reach the rear tire.

Why does this matter?

Having the rear tire changer leave the pit wall from the front of the car could save pit crews three-tenths of a second or more, pit coaches tell NBC Sports. That could be the difference in spots gained or lost on pit road.

That difference in time is because a rear tire changer has to wait for the car to come by before going around the back of the car to the tire.

Now, the rear tire changer can join the front tire changer, jackman and tire carrier going around the front of their car. All can jump off the pit wall with the car one pit stall away. That allows the rear tire changer to reach to the tire sooner.

“It’s something that we’ve practiced for eight months now,” Chris Hall, pit coach for Joe Gibbs Racing, told NBC Sports. “As the field continues to get better on pit road, I’m excited to pull it out when we need to create separation (from other teams).”

Ruoff Mortgage 500

AVONDALE, ARIZONA - MARCH 13: Crew members of the #47 Fry’s/NOS Chevrolet, driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., leap into action during the the Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 13, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Just because teams can begin to do stops this way, it doesn’t mean fans will see it often at Atlanta.

“I think it’s a very creative idea,” Ray Gallahan, pit coach for Team Penske, told NBC Sports of the new way to do pit stops. “I think it’s very innovative, and I think can work, but it’s going to have to be a very specialized set of circumstances, in my opinion, for it to work properly.”

With the repaved surface, tire wear is not expected to be an issue at Atlanta. Teams are more likely to change two tires per stop instead of four.

Having the rear tire changer go around the front of the car for a two-tire stop is not effective.

It’s a penalty for a car to run over an air hose, and it’s also a penalty for throwing equipment over the wall, so the rear tire changer would have to run back around the front of the car before the vehicle could leave the pit stall on a two-tire stop, costing the team valuable time.

That’s something to keep in mind throughout the season. Think about those pit stops in the final laps when a crew chief changes his call from a four-tire stop to a two-tire stop as the car comes down pit road.

If the rear tire changer is placed at the front of the car, there likely won’t be enough time for him to get to the other side of pit stall with his air gun and hose before the car stops. That means if a crew chief wants to have the rear tire changer come from the front of the car, then the call can’t be changed to a two-tire stop because of the time lost as the rear tire changer goes back around the front of the car so the air hose is not run over.

Pit coaches also told NBC Sports that having the rear tire changer go around the front of the car creates other challenges.

With four people jumping off the pit wall in front of the car, that’s an extra person that could be in the way if a car pitting in the stall ahead is coming in to pit at about the same time.

With much of the field often pitting together during a caution, it’s difficult to have that extra person going around the front of the car.

The exception will be those who have a pit opening in front of them. Pit coaches say that will put more emphasis on qualifying. The fastest car in all but rare instances takes the stall closest to pit exit, meaning the team will not have a car in front of it. That will allow the rear tire changer approach the car from the front instead of the rear on four-tire stops.

Last summer at Atlanta, there were seven pit stalls that had openings in front. That race featured 37 cars, the same number of cars entered this weekend. That could allow those seven teams go with the faster pit stop on four-tire changes.

Something else to consider is the rear tire changer’s air hose. There are crew members behind the wall who either grab the tires rolled from the right side or make sure the air hose has enough slack for the tire changers.

“(Holding) the hose and pulling the hose up front is one of the most important jobs behind pit wall,” Ray Wright, pit crew coach for Richard Childress Racing, told NBC Sports.

With limits to the number of crew members per team, should a crew member be ejected because the team’s car fails inspection multiple times, it could force someone to handle the air hose behind the pit wall who hasn’t done so as often. That can lead to the air hose being stuck under the car or getting tangled with the pit crew as they run to the left side of the car.

3. Evolving driver

Phoenix winner Noah Gragson is only the third driver in Xfinity history — and the first since 2012 — to start the season with four consecutive top-three finishes.

The only drivers to do that are Elliott Sadler in 2012 and Kevin Harvick in 2005. No driver has ever scored five consecutive top-three Xfinity finishes, the mark Gragson goes for Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

But that streak is only a byproduct of the growth of the 23-year-old driver who is in his fourth season with JR Motorsports.

“Noah is to the point where he’s been there and done that, he’s getting more experience,” Ryan Pemberton, director of competition at JRM, told NBC Sports. “The more experience, that allows you to do a better job, be more aggressive without stepping over (the line).

“Noah is really knowledgeable of where he’s at, what he wants the car to do and understanding where it wants to be, what it’s supposed to feel like on Lap 20 vs. Lap 60 and that takes a long time.”

Another change for Gragson is that he’s working with a new crew chief. With Dave Elenz moving go Cup to work with Erik Jones at Petty GMS Motorsports, Gragson is paired with Luke Lambert.

“He told me the first time I met him, ‘I’m not looking to come in here and change the program that you guys had, but I want to be able to build on it and if we can find one or two things to make better, let’s keep building on that,’” Gragson said.

Gragson will be busy this weekend. He’ll make his debut for Kaulig Racing, driving the No. 16 Cup car this weekend.

4. Strong start

Trackhouse Racing, which is co-owned by Justin Marks and Pitbull, has had a car finish in the top five in each of the last three races. It’s the longest active streak in the series.

Ross Chastain has two of those top fives, placing second at Phoenix and third at Las Vegas. Daniel Suarez has the other top five, finishing fourth at Auto Club Speedway.

Trackhouse Racing’s three top-five finishes are tied with Stewart-Haas Racing this season. Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske have a series-high four top fives this year.

The 83 laps led by Trackhouse Racing (all by Chastain) are the more laps than the organization led last season.

“It’s a clean slate with this car, but these guys are smart,” Chastain said of his team after last weekend’s race at Phoenix. “The guys that are struggling right now, they’re going to be coming. We have to stay ahead of them if we want to compete like this all year.”

5. Winless drought

Toyota’s nine-race winless drought is its longest since the manufacturer went 31 races between Cup wins in 2014-15.

The last win by a Toyota driver was by Bubba Wallace at Talladega during last year’s playoffs.

Since that time:

  • Denny Hamlin was passed for the lead with eight laps to go at the Charlotte Roval last year by Kyle Larson.
  • Hamlin spun from the lead at Martinsville after contact from Alex Bowman with eight laps to go.
  • Martin Truex Jr. lost the lead to Kyle Larson on pit road with 28 laps to in the championship race at Phoenix, won by Larson.
  • Bubba Wallace finished second to Austin Cindric in this year’s Daytona 500.
  • Kyle Busch seemed headed for the win earlier this month at Las Vegas before a caution sent the race to overtime and Alex Bowman won.