Bruce: Throwbacks or not, Darlington chock full of lasting memories
RELATED: Paint schemes, then and now DARLINGTON, S.C. -- What year was it, 1985? The season Bill Elliott captured the Winston Million bonus the very first season it was put up for grabs by then-series sponsor RJ Reynolds? Ol' Bill, who would finish the season with an amazing 11 victories but lose the championship battle to Darrell Waltrip. Recollections of Elliott smiling broadly as "Million Dollar Bills" floated through the air in Victory Lane. That was probably it, the first time I covered a NASCAR premier series race at Darlington Raceway . The backstretch today was the frontstretch then, the big red press box and suites sitting there just outside Turn 1. It provided a grand view, possibly one of the best of any stops on the circuit . Watching the field roar out of the fourth turn, so incredibly close to the wall. Then flying down the frontstretch, hammer down and into Turn 1 to start the process all over again. Just sitting there. Soaking it all in. Overlooking history in the making. More than three decades. Time does fly, I suppose. The track's hugely popular throwback program, now in its second season, rekindles a lot of racing memories. Paint schemes that we haven't seen in years suddenly re-appear, roll out of the garage and in a sense, roll back the calendar. But then again the memories always stir a bit when it comes to Darlington. No throwback program is necessary. Maybe it's because the track is an honest-to-goodness landmark, cut out of the sandy soil by Harold Brasington and opened for business in 1950. It was NASCAR's first paved oval of more than 1 mile in length. Brasington had a vision and wasn't shy about pursuing it. But more than that he was also a kind and caring soul to all of us and I never make the trek down here for a race without thinking about him. The action on the track? Yeah, that stands out, too. But it wasn't always the kind of things you hoped to be writing about -- hard crashes and injuries could, and did, happen other places as well but a couple that occurred here haven't been forgotten. Neil Bonnett's crash in the spring race of 1990 is one of them. The extremely personable Bonnett was one of 10 drivers collected in the Turn 4 incident during that year's spring race. Briefly knocked unconscious, Bonnett was eventually transferred to the local hospital and hours later it was reported that he was suffering from amnesia. More than a decade later, it was Steve Park. The Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver was competing in a Busch (now XFINITY ) Series event when, under caution, his Chevrolet suddenly veered left and into the path of Larry Foyt. The impact was tremendous to have happened under caution. But the sadness of such instances doesn't completely overshadow the good times. Jeff Gordon 's Winston Million victory in 1997, the final year of that format, was the perfect bookend to that program's 13-year run. His battle with Jeff Burton in the closing laps of that race was as memorable as any that have unfolded on the 1.366-mile track. Speaking of Burton, there are recollections of his 1999 Darlington sweep in a pair of rain-shortened races here; toss in Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch bringing the fans to their feet with an absolutely amazing finish in 2003; and Regan Smith rising up with the then-small Furniture Row Racing operation to slay the field, and Carl Edwards in 2011. This year's Bojangles' Southern 500 , scheduled to get underway Sunday (6 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the 67th running of the legendary classic. I've seen some of the cars and heard many of the stories from several of the men who were there when the legend of Darlington began. For a lot of others, I've been there to witness it firsthand. It's been worth every minute of it.
Darlington dedicates garage to Cale Yarborough
RELATED: Darlington throwback paint schemes DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The first time he went to Darlington Raceway , Cale Yarborough had to sneak under the fence to get inside. Saturday at the track considered the toughest on the circuit , it was only fitting that officials named the premier series garage area after one of NASCAR's toughest individuals. It is now the Cale Yarborough Garage. No sneaking required. "This is a great honor; there's no place like Darlington to me," a smiling Yarborough, 77, said after the unveiling. "I slipped under the fence when I came to see my first race and now … I've got a garage named after me." Great could also describe Yarborough's career, which saw the Timmonsville, South Carolina, native win three consecutive championships (1976-77-78) and 83 races. A NASCAR Hall of Fame selection in 2012, he won at Darlington five times; all five victories (1968, '73, '74, '78, '82) came in the legendary Southern 500. The '68 victory, which came in the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Mercury, remains his favorite, he said. "This place, it will bite you," Yarborough said. "If you win a race here … everybody would love to have Darlington in their resume, I'll tell you that. "Winning that 1968 Southern 500 on the original Darlington race track; I wouldn't take anything for that." Track president Kerry Tharp noted that "when you think of Darlington Raceway and its history, one of the first people you think of is Cale. "The opportunity to name the garage area in his honor means a great deal to the track, to this part of the state and to NASCAR as well," he said. "There's no more appropriate driver to name it after than Cale, a native son."
NASCAR TV schedule: September 19-25
RELATED: Find NBCSN in your area All times ET Monday, September 19 4 p.m., NASCAR 120, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR America, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR Race Hub, FS1 Tuesday, September 20 5:30 p.m., NASCAR Scan All Special: Sonoma , Daytona, Kentucky (re-air), NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR America, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR Race Hub, FS1 7 p.m., The Season (re-air), NBCSN 11:30 p.m., NASCAR The List: Daytona Memories (re-air), NBCSN Wednesday, September 21 6 p.m., NASCAR America, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR Race Hub, FS1 Thursday, September 22 6 p.m., NASCAR America, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR Race Hub, FS1 7 p.m., NASCAR Whelen Modified Series: South Boston (taped), NBCSN Friday, September 23 11:30 a.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice, NBCSN 1:30 p.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice, FS1 3:30 p.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series final practice, FS1 3:30 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series practice, NBCSN 4:30 p.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coors Light Pole Qualifying, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series final practice, NBCSN 7:30 p.m., The Season (re-air), NBCSN 8:30 p.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coors Light Pole Qualifying (re-air), NBCSN 10 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series final practice (re-air), NBCSN Saturday, September 24 9 a.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice, CNBC 10 a.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Keystone Light Pole Qualifying, FS1 11:30 a.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series final practice, CNBC 12:30 p.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series SetUp, FS1 1 p.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series UNOH 175 , FS1 4:30 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series Coors Light Pole Qualifying, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR Coors Light Pole Qualifying (re-air), NBCSN 7:30 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series Countdown to Green, NBCSN 8 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 , NBCSN Sunday, September 25 11:30 a.m., NASCAR RaceDay, FS1 1 p.m., NASCAR America Sunday, NBCSN 1:30 p.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Countdown to Green, NBCSN 2 p.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bad Boy Off Road 300, NBCSN 5 p.m., Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge from Circuit of the Americas (taped), FS1 5:30 p.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Post-Race Show, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR Victory Lap, NBCSN 11:30 p.m., NASCAR Victory Lap (re-air), NBCSN 1 a.m., NASCAR Victory Lane, FS1 &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;nbsp;
NASCAR TV schedule: September 12-18
RELATED: Find NBCSN in your area All times ET Monday, September 12 12:30 a.m., The Season (re-air), NBCSN 1:30 a.m., NASCAR Victory Lane, FS1 Noon, NASCAR 120, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR America, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR Race Hub, FS1 Tuesday, September 13 5:30 p.m., NASCAR Scan All Special: Sonoma , Daytona, Kentucky (re-air), NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR America, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR Race Hub, FS1 Wednesday, September 14 6 p.m., NASCAR America, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR Race Hub, FS1 Thursday, September 15 6 p.m., NASCAR America, NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR Race Hub, FS1 Friday, September 16 12:30 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series practice, NBCSN 1:30 p.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice, NBC Sports App 3 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series final practice, NBC Sports App 4:30 p.m., NASCAR Keystone Light Pole Qualifying, FS1 6 p.m., NASCAR America, NBCSN 6:45 p.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice, NBCSN 8 p.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series SetUp, FS1 8:30 p.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series American Ethanol E15 225 , FS1 10:30 p.m., NASCAR Race Classic: 1993 DAYTONA 500 (re-air), FS1 Saturday, September 17 10:30 a.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice, CNBC 11:45 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series Coors Light Pole Qualifying, NBC Sports App Noon, NASCAR XFINITY Series Coors Light Pole Qualifying, NBCSN 12:30 p.m., WeatherTech SportsCar Championship: Circuit of the Americas, FS2 1 p.m., NASCAR America, NBCSN 1:30 p.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series final practice, NBCSN 2:30 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series Countdown to Green, NBCSN 3 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series Countdown to Green, NBC 3:15 p.m., NASCAR XFINITY Series Drive for Safety 300 , NBC 9 p.m., NASCAR Whelen Series Utah Motorsports Campus (taped), NBCSN 10 p.m., NASCAR Whelen Series Utah Motorsports Campus (taped), NBCSN Sunday, September 18 2 a.m., WeatherTech SportsCar Championship: Circuit of the Americas (re-air), FS1 9 a.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series American Ethanol E15 225 , FS1 Noon, NASCAR RaceDay, FS1 1:30 p.m., NASCAR America Sunday, NBCSN 2 p.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Countdown to Green, NBCSN 2:30 p.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 , NBCSN 6 p.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Post-Race Show, NBCSN 9:30 p.m., NASCAR Victory Lap, NBCSN 11 p.m., NASCAR Victory Lane, FS1 &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;nbsp;
Defending Darlington champ Edwards reflects on last year's win
RELATED: See this year's throwbacks " Comparing past and present looks They'll trot out their throwback paint schemes and throwback uniforms this week when NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams travel to Darlington Raceway for Sunday's Bojangles' Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR). It's a nod to NASCAR's past draped around today's technology. But strip it all away and some things remain unchanged. The 1.366-mile track continues to be the most difficult to master of any on the circuit , and the Southern 500 is still one of stock-car racing's crown jewel events. "To me, it's a real race," defending race winner Carl Edwards said. "There is no better film to watch than the old races at Darlington. Watching (David) Pearson and those guys sliding under each other, slide-jobbing each other lap after lap in all those races. There's just something special about it." Pearson, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, won a record 10 times at Darlington. If anyone ever came close to understanding what was required to endure 500 miles on a treacherous layout once dubbed "The Lady in Black," it was the Spartanburg, South Carolina driver. The circuit is oddly shaped, like an egg rather than an oval, and the asphalt while not worn still takes its toll on tires. Contact with the outside wall is considered a rite of passage and they even have a name for it -- the Darlington stripe. You don't beat Darlington; you simply try to survive it. Edwards did just that last year, sprinting away from Brad Keselowski ( Team Penske ) and JGR teammate Denny Hamlin on a restart with eight laps remaining to earn the victory. Twice a runner-up at Darlington, Edwards said the win was memorable for two reasons. One because it was another victory, at the time the 25th of the Missouri native's career. Second, he said, "it's the Southern 500. And that in itself, it's probably next to the Coke 600 -- those two together were both the biggest wins of my career. "For me, that race was really a hard-fought battle; at one point we were I believe two laps down. We fought back. We didn't quit and we made it back to the front. "So it wasn't an easy win; it was a really special win. "I really like the place; I like how it races. It's a really mentally and physically exhausting track so I like the challenge. ... I think I can speak for all the drivers in saying yeah, it's one of the biggest events of the year." Edwards' No. 19 Toyota will feature an orange and white throwback paint scheme in honor of three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart this weekend. Stewart won two of his three titles while at JGR; he is retiring from Sprint Cup competition at year's end. "It will be cool to do that for Tony's last year," Edwards said. "I've got my helmet ready to throw and everything." The throwback program is in its second year. Edwards got a taste of it much earlier. Eight years earlier in fact. With none other than Pearson. "We did this media day at Darlington (in 2008)," Edwards said. "I went and picked up Pearson at his local airport, flew over to the race track and I remember taking the metal picture -- 'Don't ever forget this moment.' " Edwards, then with Roush Fenway Racing , was making laps in his No. 99 Ford. "Driving through Turns 1 and 2, just kind of goofing off slow," he said. "... I look over and here's Pearson in the 21 Wood Brothers ('71 Mercury) with his arm out the window beside me, just smiling. 'Man, I'm at Darlington with Pearson in that car.' That's like being a part of history for a moment. That was really cool." MORE: See the 2015 race filmed in old-school look
Kyle Larson's parents missed son's first Sprint Cup win, but eager to see more
Perhaps Mike and Janet Larson should have seen it coming as they proudly and nervously watched their television and computer screens while son Kyle led the field to the checkered flag in Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway . The Larsons attend a healthy dose of their 24-year-old son's NASCAR races, but somehow have missed each of Kyle's inaugural NASCAR victories from the K&N Series, to the Camping World Truck Series and XFINITY Series. They were at home in Elk Grove, California, on Sunday when Larson scored his first victory at the sport's premier Cup level, too. "That's OK though," Mike Larson said, his voice full of happiness and emotion. "As long as he wins, I don't have to be there. "Janet and I would have been in the grandstands anyway, that's where we go every time to watch him race. It would have taken us half the (victory) ceremony anyway just trying to get back over there (to Victory Lane)." Instead, the Larsons stood in front of their television sets, tears rolling, hearts full, taking it all in. The dedication, the sacrifices, the hope, the joy that was this family's "every weekend" for years had resulted in a big-time, clutch victory three weeks before NASCAR's playoffs, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . And while Mike and Janet might not have been trackside last weekend, they still had quite the view. "I was upstairs watching the end of the race, thinking 'Man, Janet is awful quiet today,'" Mike Larson said. "And then it got to be that last restart and Kyle gets the lead and I can hear her starting to stress. I don't hardly make a sound, but I thought, 'She's stressing me out.' "My heart, I'm telling you, it was just pumping over those last nine laps. I just kept thinking a yellow is going to come out, you think something is going to happen to derail this. I'm still very quiet watching, but then my arms went straight up in the air ... and I cried. I can admit that. "I get emotional about that." The Larsons can smile about their timing now. They took Kyle to his first race a week after he was born. Then, this close-knit family spent years together trekking around the West Coast watching Larson win and dominate races – karts and USAC features – from the time he was a little boy. From childhood, he loved this sport of racing so much he dressed up as NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon for Halloween – and still has the photo proof. The Larson's support has never wavered or waned even as their son earned his shot in NASCAR's big leagues and has quickly emerged as one of the most popular drivers on the circuit . Truth be told, the kind, funny, humble and extremely talented third-year Cup driver Larson has been one of the sport's bona fide stars even before hoisting his first Cup trophy. And now the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is a legitimate first-time title contender, too. And he should be quite optimistic about his chances at hoisting the big trophy. RELATED: Current stars' first Sprint Cup Series victory Larson's 2014 showing in Chase races – not as a Chase contender – was an incredible rookie effort and an enviable clutch performance. He boasted six top-10 finishes in the his No. 42 Target Chevrolet during the final 10 races that year. The Chase venues have been good for Larson. In the Chicago Chase-opener, Larson has finishes of third and seventh. His overall average finish at Dover is 6.2, and he's never fared worse than 11th there. He has a runner-up finish at Kansas (2014), was third at Martinsville in April and finished fifth at Homestead last year. He has at least one top-10 finish at every Chase track. "He thinks those are good tracks for him," his team owner Chip Ganassi said Sunday evening. "We think they're good tracks. He's shown before he knows his way around Miami [Homestead]. That's always good, to be good at the final track. "He's a shootout kind of guy. A lot of those races turn into shootouts. You're not so much racing the entire field in those races a lot of times. I look forward to it. ... I think he's the kind of driver that the Chase is made for, that format." After a throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway , NASCAR's newest Chase contender Larson will host his "Outlaw Kart Showcase" at hometown Cycleland Speedway in Chico, California. Less than two weeks later, Larson will begin his first Chase run thanks to that emotional, hard-fought victory Sunday. "This feels different because it's taken me a lot longer than it took me in any of the other stuff to get a win," Larson said Sunday. "It took me a couple months to win my first sprint car race, four days after my 15th birthday. Took me a few months to win when I got into USAC. Took me a few years to win an Outlaw race. "This, after the way my rookie season started, coming close a few times, not getting it done, you can visualize the win that early in your career. It's going to happen. It's going to happen. But it just never happened. "This one's different just cause of how long we had to wait and how much harder I've had to work for it. Like I said, it's special because all the hard work's paid off." And the good news for the Larson family is there will be plenty more wins to experience first-hand, and good odds they celebrate a championship sometime soon too.
Betty Jane France's giving nature honored at her funeral
PHOTOS: Remembering Betty Jane France DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR employees sat alongside community leaders. Race team owners shared pews with Betty Jane France's many, many friends. Her beloved and close-knit family members -- including her brother-in-law Jim France, NASCAR Chairman Brian France and his family, and International Speedway Corporation CEO Lesa France Kennedy and her son, Ben -- were among the more than 500 people who gathered to wish Betty Jane France a proper and heartfelt farewell. Anyone driving into Volusia County on Thursday morning surely noticed the prevailing Tropical Storm Hermine clouds often parted in spots revealing blue sky, a fitting natural tribute to one of NASCAR's brightest personalities. Richard Petty, Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon , sportscar star Hurley Haywood and all of NASCAR's executives were among those gathered to pay respects to France. Bouquets of white orchids, lillies, hydrangeas, and roses decorated the church alter, and the calming scent of seeded eucalyptus came from floral arrangements adorning the ends of the pews. Former Daytona Beach Mayor Glenn Ritchey spoke of France's great ability to inject humor and bring smiles to her work, yet she always had the ability to "make us feel special." Several times he brought the crowded church sanctuary -- and nearly 100 others seated in an extra wing watching the service on closed circuit -- to laughter, reminiscing about France and her husband, former NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. He told the story of how the couple would often find itself waiting in a long line to go up the elevators at Daytona International Speedway . Track workers offered to escort the Frances around the line, but Betty Jane always refused to get in front of anyone else. Bill France, Ritchey said smiling and drawing laughter, might have politely gone along with his wife's wishes, but probably would have preferred the short cut. Several times he used the word, "impact" in describing France's many contributions. And that was the decided theme injecting Betty Jane France's sunshine this cloudy Thursday morning. Brian France also addressed the church and spoke eloquently and lovingly of his mom, reminding, "Her life was a gift to us.’" He shared the three things that seemed most important to Betty Jane -- her family (her marriage, children and grandchildren), her devotion to the local community, and her commitment to the NASCAR community at large. He graciously thanked all the people for caring and for coming and told the congregation, "we should all be so lucky" to have lived as his mother did. After the nearly hour-long service at the Seabreeze United Church of Christ, people mulled around, shaking hands, smiling and sharing their Betty Jane stories of generosity and goodwill. "Betty Jane was charming, beautiful, intelligent and she played her role in NASCAR to perfection," Waltrip said. "She was the right person to do all she had to do. "Just a great lady." And as the track presidents mingled with business leaders and community members shook hands with Petty and Waltrip, there was a prevailing sense of gratitude to Betty Jane, for all she has done and all she inspires us to do.
Hard tires, reworked curbing present challenges at repaved Watkins Glen
RELATED: Before and after: Watkins Glen repave WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams wrapped up a two-day organizational test Wednesday at newly repaved Watkins Glen International, emerging with better ideas of the challenges they'll face when the series returns for the Aug. 4-7 race weekend. Among those challenges: reworked curbing, a fast circuit and a harder-compound tire that has made grip elusive. A total of 16 Sprint Cup teams -- one permitted from each organization -- tried to unlock the novelty of the $12 million resurfacing project, using a Goodyear tire that emphasizes durability at the expense of traction and wear. The rubber compound chosen is similar to that used July 9 at Kentucky Speedway, site of the Sprint Cup Series' most recent race on a repaved track. At Kentucky, the tire selection made for treacherous conditions in certain spots and made passing a delicate process. Though road courses don't lend themselves to the multi-groove racing seen at several well-aged oval tracks, Watkins Glen might still be a tricky place to maneuver when the series reconvenes for the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen. "The main thing we've learned so far is how hard the tire is," said Jamie McMurray, driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet. "It just seems to be no wear at all or lap time fall-off right now. This place didn't ever wear tires like Sonoma, but it seems like the tire is pretty hard." Sonoma, the other road course where the Sprint Cup Series races, is a much more intricate circuit with qualifying speeds roughly 30 mph slower than at Watkins Glen's open, free-wheeling layout. The Goodyear tire compound designated for both the Watkins Glen test and the race weekend is the same used for right-side tires in XFINITY Series competition at Iowa Speedway. Those Iowa right-sides will be used at all four corners for the Sprint Cup event at the 2.45-mile road course. Racing with a softer tire with more adhesion would potentially introduce the threat of excessive wear or blistering. It's a trade-off that Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Chase Elliott says he's willing to accept. "I think a lot of it is just having a fresh surface like this, you've got to have a tire that's pretty hard," said Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports' driver representative for the two-day test. "It's fast, and to ask a tire to hold up, you've got to bring something that's durable. It puts Goodyear in a tough spot, but I think they do a good job of trying to make the most of tough situations. There's been a lot of repaves here lately and I know they're working hard." David Groseclose, NASCAR's lead tire engineer, said Wednesday that the benefits of competing with a more rigid rubber compound outweighed the potential drawbacks. "As with all repaves -- same thing as Kentucky -- if you don't have a hard tire, you're going to blister them up," Groseclose said. "The way that works is if you've got a soft compound and you use it, the soft compounds tend to retain heat. It's just the nature of a soft compound. But on a repave, it's not going to wear so that heat's not going to be dissipated out of the tire. It has nowhere to go, so it stays in the tire, so that's why it blisters up. That's what we saw at Kentucky with the XFINITY and Truck Series." In addition to the surface itself, the track features new concrete for the rumble strips that border the circuit's turns and run-off areas. Some drivers found the differences barely noticeable, but Kurt Busch discovered a distinction the hard way with an early Tuesday spin as he bounded over the apex points in the backstretch chicane on one of his initial laps. "It's a lot different," said Tony Gibson, Busch's crew chief on the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Chevrolet. "Kurt's like, 'I've got to learn all the curbs again.' The curbs over in the bus stop (chicane) are probably the biggest change. They're way more aggressive, and they've tightened up, so it's a lot tighter lane through there." Said Elliott, who will race here in Sprint Cup for the first time next weekend: "Some of the curbs may be a little different here or there, some a little rougher, a little smoother just depending on how they laid the asphalt in or however it worked. It's as close as you could make a track from an old surface to a repave, for sure." Five Sprint Cup teams participated in a Goodyear tire test May 10-11, and another 16 were present for this week's organizational test. For the remaining half of the field, the work toward finding the proper handle begins with opening practice on Friday, Aug. 5. "If you get your balance right, it'll be a no-drama," Gibson said. "Man, I told Kurt earlier, 'I'd hate to know I had to come here next Friday and hit the track for the first time and try to figure out these curbs and how much the race track has changed.' It'll be a handful in the short amount of time we get to practice. "It'll be interesting to see when we come back who has issues and who doesn't. But it's definitely going to be a plus to come and learn the race track, even if your car is not right or whatever, just getting here and getting behind the wheel and getting time on the race track is going to mean more." Pit notes: -- The full roster (in alphabetical order) of drivers and teams participating in the test: AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty Racing), Ryan Blaney (Wood Brothers Racing), Clint Bowyer (HScott Motorsports), Chris Buescher (Front Row Motorsports), Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing), Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing), Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing), Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports), Brad Keselowski (Team Penske), Michael McDowell (Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing), Jamie McMurray (Chip Ganassi Racing), Casey Mears (Germain Racing), Brian Scott (Richard Petty Motorsports), Regan Smith (Tommy Baldwin Racing), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing), Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing). -- Casey Mears turned the fastest lap in the two-day test, which was divided into four sessions of four hours apiece. Mears pushed the Germain Racing No. 13 Chevrolet in the closing session to a best lap of 126.7 mph, a good bit slower than the track qualifying record of 129.491 mph set by Marcos Ambrose in August 2014. -- Brad Keselowski returned to the track Wednesday, one day after his severe, nearly head-on crash in Turn 1. He turned 74 laps over both sessions in a reserve Team Penske No. 2 Ford. -- Two teams -- Furniture Row Racing (driver Martin Truex Jr.) and Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing (driver Michael McDowell) -- were absent from testing's opening day, arriving in the Watkins Glen garage Wednesday in time for the two closing sessions. -- Wednesday's final session was extended 30 minutes to a 5:30 p.m. ET close because of a nearly hour-long clean-up for fluid on the track. After Chase Elliott's No. 24 Chevrolet suffered a broken axle, Clint Bowyer's No. 15 Chevy ran over the part, damaging the car's transmission. -- NASCAR XFINITY Series teams are scheduled to turn their first laps on the new Watkins Glen surface next Thursday. The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East will stage a support race the following day on the 2.45-mile course.
Plenty of tests passed already for The Glen's new look
RELATED: See before and after photos of the Watkins Glen repave WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- The true test will come this weekend, but in some ways, the new pavement at Watkins Glen International has already had its share of trial runs -- both for the racing surface itself and the safety systems off it. A tire test in May, an organizational test last week, and now Friday's practice before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series holds its final road course event of the season, Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at the Glen (2:30 p.m. ET, USA, MRN, SiriusXM). But another true test came with getting the stamp of approval from the man in charge. "They knocked it out of the park," said Michael Printup, Watkins Glen International track president, lauding the collaborative effort to freshen the 2.45-mile circuit's layout, curbing and drainage. Besides all those laps logged, it's also had its safety measures put to the test with Brad Keselowski 's severe crash in Turn 1 during last Tuesday's opening test day. His Team Penske No. 2 Ford was totaled, and Keselowski escaped without injury. But the Sprint Cup champion was also critical in remarks last weekend at Pocono Raceway , saying that the inherent danger of the Glen's opening corner -- a sharp, 90-degree right-hander at the bottom of a hill -- was an accepted but steep risk with potentially dire consequences. Those comments struck a sour tone with Printup, who cited similar nose-first accidents in the same corner -- by Jimmie Johnson in 2000 and Denny Hamlin in 2011 -- where the safety system in place did its job. The track uses a combination of the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier system and tire-pack barriers in front of the Armco steel guardrails. "We're glad Brad walked away. We're not happy with the comments, to be blunt," Printup said this week. "I think we all believe he was out of line because if that was anything but Armco and tire barrier, it might've been -- as he put it -- the one out of 1,000. That is by far the best (barrier). … "At 90 degrees, the worst thing you can hit is SAFER, but it's only tube steel for 10 inches and then an 18-inch gap and then it's cement wall. That cement wall would've never have moved for Jimmie or Denny. Who knows what it could've been. But by far, I think Brad just doesn't understand the engineering part of it, and the engineers will tell you that at 90 degrees, tire barrier and Armco is by far the safest." Safety mechanisms were just part of the assessments made in the $12 million offseason project, which Printup said had been debated for at least five years before proceeding. The effect of New York's harsh winters and pounding from competition had yielded nearly annual patching projects. When engineers noticed an advanced degradation in the layers of the asphalt, Printup said the time had come. What ensued was a group effort between NASCAR, paving experts at Lane Construction, International Speedway Corporation and Watkins Glen's team. The result was an ultra-smooth surface that will host stock-car racing for the first time this weekend. "About a year ago, NASCAR really started to get into the foray of understanding the asphalt, said Jerry Kaproth, NASCAR's manager of race track infrastructure. "Otherwise, it's always been left to the experts to do their own thing independently. This is the first year we've really started to track some of that. The cooperation between the organizations has never been better and part of that is we have enough insight from our consultants to know a little bit and to ask the right questions." The early reviews -- muddled somewhat by the necessary use of a harder-compound Goodyear tire for durability's sake -- have been largely positive. Printup said that drivers participating in the tire test in May found no dramatic changes aside from the curbing layout in the bus-stop chicane on the backstretch. The curbs, he said, were rebuilt to the same specifications, but extended length-wise at the corner's entry. "You'll recall some of the exciting racing that's gone on in the bus stop where they're cutting the corners -- they're hitting dirt and grass, and it was getting dangerous because they were basically digging a hole, which then can upset the car or slice a tire," Printup said, adding that track crews were tasked with patching and refilling the gaps multiple times through a race weekend in the past. "It all adds up to the right thing to do." The recent repaving covered not just the 2.45-mile portion of the track used by NASCAR series, but also the 3.4-mile configuration that includes "The Boot" layout of turns used in IMSA and IndyCar events. Tony Stewart , readying for his final Watkins Glen start, raced the longer circuit during a ride-swap here with Formula One star Lewis Hamilton in 2011. After the experience, Printup said Stewart grabbed him by the shirt, saying, "Dude, we gotta race the boot." Printup said he's had informal discussions with NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O'Donnell about making that happen. He said that one of the only drawbacks would potentially be a reduction in lap count to achieve the same distance, meaning drivers would make fewer appearances at the track's different vantage points, but said that as a self-professed "road course guy," he'd love to see the longer configuration get its own test. "I would love to take a hard look at that and see, can we do the K&N race, can we do XFINITY down there," Printup said. "I don't think it would be right to just jump to the (Sprint) Cup cars, in my opinion, but man, I would like to see sometime in my tenure, I would love to see NASCAR in one of those three or four series run the boot. I think it'd be great."
Stewart snaps 84-race skid, foils Hamlin in Sonoma thriller
RELATED: Race results " Updated standings SHOP: Stewart gear SONOMA, Calif. -- Is Tony Stewart having fun yet? In his last year of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing, Stewart came to Sonoma Racing asserting on Friday he wasn't having much fun driving a Sprint Cup Series car. That all changed in Sunday's Toyota-Save Mart 350 at the 1.99-mile road course, where Stewart bulldozed Denny Hamlin into the outside wall in Turn 11, executing a dramatic last-lap pass for his first victory since June 2, 2013 at Dover to snap an 84-race losing skid. In the three years since that victory, a succession of injuries and a personal tragedy have limited the three-time champion's time in a Sprint Cup Series car and limited Stewart's effectiveness when he was behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet he co-owns with Gene Haas. RELATED: See Stewart's Victory Lane celebration But on Sunday, after a prescient pit call by crew chief Mike Bugarewicz put Stewart in the lead for a restart on Lap 91 of 110. Stewart held the top spot at the start/finish line for the rest of the race, but that hardly describes the excitement of the final lap. For the second straight circuit , Stewart wheel-hopped the No. 14 Chevrolet into Turn 7, and Hamlin took full advantage, giving Stewart a bump and charging past him. In hot pursuit through the esses and Turn 10, Stewart caught Hamlin in the hairpin (Turn 11) when Hamlin slipped and ran wide. "I made mistakes the last two laps," acknowledged Stewart, who missed the first eight races of the season after injuring his back in an ATV accident during the offseason. "I had just a little bit too much rear brake for Turn 7, and wheel-hopped it two laps in a row. I felt a nudge when I got down there and he knew where it was and he did the right thing doing it there." "But if I could get to him, he knew what was coming. He told me (after the race) he was proud of me. He knows what it means. We were teammates for a long time (at Joe Gibbs Racing ), and we respect each other a lot." Contact from Stewart's car sent Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota fish-tailing into the outside wall, but Hamlin held the runner-up spot, crossing the stripe .625 seconds behind the race winner. "I take that, but I'm probably going to get the (crap) beat out of me," Stewart said on his radio, after notching his third victory at Sonoma , his eighth on a road course and the 49th of his career. MORE: From 1 to 49, see all of Stewart's wins Though disappointed at the outcome, Hamlin didn't begrudge Stewart the victory, given the circumstances. Stewart needed a win to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup , and with Sunday's result, Smoke is 32nd in the standings, nine points away from the 30th position he needs to achieve to become Chase-eligible. In other words, Stewart is all but a lock to compete for a fourth title in NASCAR's 10-race playoff. "I thought with two or three (laps) to go he pretty much had it, but he made a couple mistakes and allowed us to get pretty close," Hamlin said. "And then we just both wheel-hopped into 7, and I just let off my wheel-hop a little bit so I could get to his rear bumper and get him out of the groove just a touch. "It was perfectly executed, but I was going through the esses knowing that I needed to get the biggest gap that I could going into (Turn) 11, and when he was two back or so going into 11, I just ... I didn't run a low enough line in Turn 11 from wheel-hopping in Turn 7. I got the rears hot, wheel-hopped it a little bit again, got out of line, and obviously gave him the inside line." Third-place finisher Joey Logano was trailing the action into the final corner, hoping Hamlin and Stewart would take each other out. "Going into Turn 11, I was 100 percent sure that Denny was not going to win just by watching it, and we were right there on the cusp of trying to sneak one by," Logano said. Having opened up the inside lane in Turn 11, Hamlin shared Logano's sense of inevitability. "Once I knew he had position, and we had a wall on the other side of us, then I knew, pretty good chance, that we were going to go in the wall," Hamlin said. "I don't think he was going to leave it to chance, a drag race coming off Turn 11. We definitely had a car that should have won, but we were on the bad end of the deal." Had Stewart and Bugarewicz not chosen the perfect time to make a pit stop, however, Stewart almost certainly would not have won the race. With NASCAR officials scanning the track after reports of debris between Turns 6 and 7, Stewart and his crew chief decided to gamble and bring the car to the pits on Lap 86. NASCAR called the caution a lap later, and when all the rest of the contending cars pitted under yellow on Lap 88, Stewart inherited a lead he would hold -- with the exception of Hamlin's brief interlude from Turns 7 to 11 -- for the rest of the race. "It was just a chance that we took, a chance to get a win," Bugarewicz said. Coors Light Pole Award winner Carl Edwards -- who led 24 laps -- finished fourth, followed by Martin Truex Jr ., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch . Ryan Newman , Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch completed the top 10. Harvick retained the series lead by 35 points over second-place Kurt Busch . Road-racing expert AJ Allmendinger led 20 laps in the JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 Chevrolet and finished 14th. His team was penalized for an uncontrolled tire on its final pit stop, knocking him from contention. Home-state driver Kyle Larson spent much of the day in the top five, but fell from the hunt with a pit-road speeding penalty in a Lap 70 stop. He finished 12th. Notes: Clint Bowyer , a winner at Sonoma in 2012, was sidelined after completing just five laps by an electrical issue that filled the cockpit of his No. 15 Chevrolet with smoke. "Smoke is never good in the cockpit and it stinks. Hell, I couldn't breathe," said Bowyer, who finished last in the 40-car field. … Former NASCAR Next driver Dylan Lupton finished 35th in his Sprint Cup debut as the last driver on the lead lap. … Sunday before the race, Toyota -- the race co-sponsor and the track's official vehicle -- announced a three-year extension of its partnership with Sonoma Raceway. The deal continues a sponsorship that has been in place since 2007. … The series' next race is scheduled Saturday at Daytona International Speedway , which will host the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola (7:45 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM). Contributing: Staff reports