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Friday 5: Changes lead Cup drivers to moonlight in other forms of racing

Kim Coon, Dustin Long and Dale Jarrett react to Alex Bowman's injury that will keep him out for three-to-four weeks with a fractured vertebrae.

As Kyle Larson and Rick Hendrick put a contract together for 2021, the car owner asked Larson what he wanted in the deal.

“I’d like to run some dirt races,” Larson said.

It was a bold request. Hendrick prevented his drivers from racing in many other forms of motorsports, including sprint cars, fearing injury. After discussing it within the organization, Hendrick relented and allowed Larson to race sprint cars.

That decision created opportunities for all of Hendrick’s drivers to race beyond NASCAR: William Byron honed his skills in Late Models. Alex Bowman ran sprint and midget cars. Chase Elliott drove in the Chili Bowl, the 24 Hours of Daytona, SRX races and a Nitro Rallycross event.

Next year, Larson will compete in the Indianapolis 500, marking the first time since 2014 that a full-time Cup driver will compete in that race.

“The crew chiefs and I have talked about it,” Hendrick said in June 2021. “They think it’s good. The safety deals are better. I’ve told (the drivers) they can drive what they want to.”

He also told his drivers something else.

“If you get hurt,” he said, “I got to put somebody in the car.”

Josh Berry is in Bowman’s car for the next three to four weeks after Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car crash Tuesday night. He was injured racing in a series Larson co-founded. Larson finished third in that event.

Bowman is the second Cup driver to be injured racing in another series this year. Chase Briscoe broke his left middle finger in a dirt late model race — which also featured Larson and Kyle Busch — a few days before the dirt race at Bristol. Briscoe didn’t miss any Cup races.

The injuries, particularly Bowman’s, bring back the issue of if Cup drivers should compete in any other racing series.

Bowman told NBC Sports earlier this month that sprint car racing is his “golf game” and a way to get away from the pressures in NASCAR’s premier series while honing his racecraft.

“I think it has its pluses and minuses, honestly,” Bowman told NBC Sports about the value of racing a sprint car. “I think anytime you’re in a race car is good. Obviously, I’m learning a lot. Every night is a learning experience in those cars.”

More drivers have raced in other series since NASCAR reduced the weekend schedule.

Four years ago, Cup teams had 150 minutes of practice spread over two days before the spring Dover race.

This weekend, Cup teams will be divided into two groups and each group will have about 25 minutes of practice at Dover. That’s a reduction of more than 80% of practice time.

It’s a trend that started when NASCAR returned during the COVID-19 pandemic. NASCAR raced without practice at most events in 2020 before bringing back some practice time at tracks in 2022. Limited practice was viewed as a cost-cutting move for teams, but it might have had the biggest impact on drivers.

The loss of practice time follows a reduction of race lengths. In 2016, drivers ran 1,040 more laps than the Cup series raced last year in the same number of events. That’s nearly a 10% decrease in the number of laps run.

Then consider the limits on Cup drivers in the Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series. Drivers with more than three full-time years in Cup, who also score Cup points, are limited to no more than five Xfinity and five Craftsman Truck Series races a season.

The reduction in practice and race length, along with restrictions on the number of NASCAR national series drivers can run, limit their opportunities to learn in real-life situations. While simulators can help close some of the gap, it can’t replace the wheel-to-wheel action on track or dueling on a restart.

More drivers started looking to race beyond Cup after Larson’s historic 2021 season when he won 10 series races, the championship and some of the biggest dirt races in the country.

While some owners may consider further restrictions if more injuries persist, drivers are going to want to race as much as possible. If there’s not an option in NASCAR, drivers will look elsewhere to compete.

“Driving a racecar is the best thing I can be doing,” said Ross Chastain, who was scheduled to compete in his first Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model race Friday at Georgetown (Delaware) Speedway before a forecast for rain postponed the event to August.

As for racing in that dirt late model series, Chastain conceded: “I’m in way over my head. I should be in like the beginner hobby stock class … that’s like my dirt level driving ability and experience.”

But there’s a value in the experience and that’s among the reasons Chastain looked to compete in that event.

For those who want to keep drivers away from other series to keep them safe, drivers can get hurt in other ways. Hendrick knows that all too well. Elliott missed six races this season after fracturing his left tibia in a snowboarding accident. Jimmie Johnson broke his left wrist surfing atop a golf cart a few weeks after winning the first of his five consecutive Cup titles.

But it’s not just Hendrick drivers that have gotten hurt in unusual ways.

Elliott’s father, Bill, missed two races in 2000 after he suffered a fractured kneecap when he tripped and fell in his garage carrying a bag of fertilizer. Carl Edwards broke two bones in his right foot playing Frisbee with friends in 2009 but didn’t miss any races. Greg Biffle bruised ribs when he slipped trying to jump from the dock to a boat in 2009 but didn’t miss any Cup races. Denny Hamlin tore his ACL in his right knee less than two weeks before the 2015 playoffs and kept racing.

Unless drivers are going to be put in bubblewrap between races, things are going to happen. With drivers seeking more track time in other forms of racing since their Cup track time is limited, they will face the potential for injury. And car owners will face the decision of if to allow drivers to race.

2. Countdown to Chicago

It is a little more than two months until the Cup Series makes its debut on the streets of Chicago.

While NASCAR has big plans for the July 2 event, including concerts and other fan amenities that weekend, there have been questions about the event’s future even with a three-year contact.

Some of the consternation has centered on the holiday date, street closures and the city’s deal with NASCAR.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, who takes office May 15, said in a March interview that he would review the deal if elected.

NASCAR’s contract with Chicago calls for the event to be held in 2023-25. NASCAR may request to extend the deal through 2027.

The contract states that the city of Chicago can terminate the agreement “at any time for convenience by providing NASCAR with prior written notice at least 180 days prior to the next Event. NASCAR shall not be entitled to any compensation or expectation damages due to termination by the District.”

Julie Giese, former track president at Phoenix Raceway, spearheads NASCAR’s efforts in Chicago. While the contract was done with the outgoing administration, she’s in touch with the incoming administration.

“We have had conversations with (Johnson’s) transition team and have briefed them on where we are with everything, especially over the last week with the traffic and street closures,” Giese told NBC Sports last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

“As we’ve solidified with the city what that plan looks like, we’ve spent some time with his transition team, bringing them up to speed on that, answering questions. The conversations have been very positive. For me, it’s just arming them with as much information as possible. I think, for us, the commitment we have is to put on the absolute best event weekend that we possibly (can).

“We’ve told that to the residents and the businesses and just the city in general. We owe that to them, and we’re committed to doing that. We’ve had a ton of planning meetings that really have, I think, (been) setting us up for success, but, ultimately, we have to execute a fantastic event.”

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Some aldermen have raised issues about the race and the impact on the residents around Grant Park, which cars will race around and through.

“We do have an open dialogue with the aldermen,” Giese said. “We do regular briefings with them just to keep them in the loop. … (They detail) what they’re hearing from residents, businesses, sharing that with us and, honestly, I do think it’s incumbent on us, as well as the city, to just work through solutions.”

Giese confirmed that NASCAR has spent $50 million for this event, which marks the first Cup street course race.

This is among the new initiatives for NASCAR to take the sport to more people. It’s why the Clash moved from Daytona International Speedway to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, just a few miles from downtown LA. This year marked the second time the event was held at the Coliseum.

Giese told NBC Sports that 76% of the ticket buyers for the Chicago race are new to NASCAR. That means that they have not personally purchased a ticket, although they could have gone to NASCAR races with someone who purchased the ticket for them.

That number is similar to a figure NASCAR noted the first year the series held the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 2022. About 50,000 fans attended that event. About 50,000 are expected for each of the two days at Chicago in July.

3. Hectic pit road

Dover presents many challenges for drivers but its pit road is among the more difficult ones on the circuit.

Just getting to pit road can be hard. A driver has to slow down and not go faster than 35 mph or be penalized. Last year’s race had eight pit road speeding penalties and one commitment line violation.

Ross Chastain, who finished third in last year’s race, explains the challenges of getting on to pit road at Dover.

“It all starts with slowing down, and if you turn down on to the apron too soon in Turn 3, you’re going too fast,” Chastain told NBC Sports of entering pit road under green.

“It’s like Darlington. It’s scary to think about. You just have to really trust the process.”

One of the most famous incidents on pit road at Dover came in the 2004 Chase when Matt Kenseth, the reigning Cup champion at the time, came down pit road under green and lost control of his car and slammed into a tire barrier, ending his race.

“I think about that,” Chastain said in regards to what can happen entering Dover’s pit road. “I’ve spun in a truck, and I luckily spun on to pit road sideways and then straight down. I was speeding. I was going 90 mph. I was looking out the right side window at those barrels. It straightened out and I sped, but at least I didn’t hit anything.”

Once on pit road cleanly, challenges remain. A driver can’t go any faster than 35 mph or they’ll be penalized for speeding. So a driver is watching their dashboard to make sure they don’t speed. If they are coming in during a caution period, they’re right on the back of the car ahead and making sure they don’t run into that car. The spotter or crew chief is telling them when to turn into the pit stall.

“It’s the toughest multitasking part, I think, of our job really,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished second last year at Dover, told NBC Sports. “You’re listening to your spotter. They’re telling you 10 (stalls) out, then five out and your crew chief is guiding you into the box. You’re also looking for three pit stalls away. If nobody is in them, you can pull in three away.

“You’ve also got the people in front of you that you’re waiting (on to move). Sometimes they’re peeling off right in front of you. … When they peel off, they slow down, so you have got to slow down, but then you have got to get back to your speed as quick as you can. You’re looking for your sign in your pit box. I think pit road is one of the toughest things to do, depending on which track.”

4. All in a name

Trackhouse Racing co-owner Pitbull will call his upcoming album Trackhouse in a nod to the race team.

“The whole initiative when we got together with Trackhouse was all about uniting people and also creating awareness for Trackhouse and also for the sport,” Pitbull said.

“I feel that music is a universal language. It unites. It doesn’t divide. It’s the same way you can utilize the race car and how everybody loves racing, so you put them together. That, to me, is what it’s all about. How do we find different ways, unconventional and untraditional ways to be able to create awareness to unite people, bring them out to the tracks, so they have fun and enjoy (it), making them fall in love with Trackhouse on our journey.”

He admitted he had another name for the album but “then one day it dawned on me, what better stories to put together than Trackhouse and everything that’s happened to me in the music industry and what we got going on right now.”

The album will be the 12th internationally distributed album for the multi-platinum Grammy-award winning singer. The album is scheduled to be released July 7. The team will celebrate the album with a special paint scheme on Daniel Suarez’s car this weekend at Dover.
Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain enters Sunday’s race at Dover second in the season standings. Teammate Suarez is 17th.

5. Rising and falling

With 10 races complete in the season, it’s a good time to see how drivers are doing in the points compared to this time last year. Here’s a look at those who have gained the most spots in the standings since last year and those who have fallen the most.

Drivers on the rise

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has gained 18 spots to be 13th at this point in the season

Brad Keselowski has gained 17 spots to be 12th. Last year, he was penalized 100 points, dropping him so far in the points

Denny Hamlin has gained 14 spot to be 10th.

Christopher Bell has climbed 13 spots to lead the points.

Tyler Reddick has gained nine spots to sixth with his new ride at 23XI Racing.

Driver falling

Chase Elliott has lost 30 spots to 31st after missing six races due to injury this season

Austin Dillon has dropped 16 points to 29th but part of that is due to a 60-point penalty that RCR is appealing. That appeal is scheduled to be heard Tuesday.

Aric Almirola has fallen 14 spots to 24th.

William Byron has descended 11 spots to 14th but that’s also due to a penalty.

Erik Jones has dropped eight spots to 25th.

Two drivers are in the same spot in the points as they were last year. Bubba Wallace is again 21st. Last year, he had 193 points. This year, he has 191 points. Harrison Burton is again 30th. Last year, he had 130 points. This year, he has 121 points.