After finishing 39th last year, Grant Enfinger wins ARCA opener at Daytona

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Grant Enfinger completed just 12 laps and finished next-to-last (39th) in last year’s season-opening ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway.

The only way for Enfinger to go was up.

And up he went indeed, as one year later, he rallied late in the race to capture Saturday’s season-opening Lucas Oil 200 at DIS.

“This is pretty special,” Enfinger said. “I felt like we were owed a few here. It was so heartbreaking a few years ago to lose some real close ones, so to get this one, Iowa and Mobile last year, really means the world to me.”

Enfinger essentially had a career season in just a part-time effort in 2013. While he started just eight of the season’s 21 races, he won two (Iowa and Mobile) and compiled four top-5 and five top-10 finishes.

Now, with hopes of running the entire ARCA schedule for just the second time in his career, the 29-year-old native of Fairhope, Ala., kicked things off in the best way possible.

“It doesn’t get much better than this,” Enfinger said. “I think we’re going to be running for this thing (ARCA championship). I feel really strong about this team. We’re like the little engine that could, we have a lot of heart.”

Saturday’s finish was a far cry from his three previous starts at the legendary 2.5-mile high-banked track: 30th in 2010, ninth in 2011 and 39th in 2013.

“It means a lot to us,” team owner Howard Bixman said. “We work real hard every day. This is for my dad, he went in the hospital yesterday.”

Enfinger’s win marked the first time Ford has won an ARCA race at Daytona since Ryan Newman did so in 2001.

He also became the 37th different winner in 51 season-opening ARCA races at Daytona.

While Enfinger celebrated, Frank Kimmel once again left Daytona frustrated. While the series’ winningest driver (80 in 470 starts) finished runner-up at Daytona for the third time in his career, he came up short once more.

“We overachieved a lot today,” said Kimmel, who has seeking his 11th ARCA championship this season. “The guys worked so hard but we just didn’t have enough speed with the car when we needed it.”

Perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the race after Enfinger’s win was the third-place finish by Clay Campbell – as in Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway.

Having just turned 54 on Feb. 7, Campbell was competing in just his fourth-ever ARCA race, driving a car owned by legendary NASCAR driver Ken Schrader.

“I couldn’t be happier being able to drive the Federated Auto Parts Chevrolet for Kenny Schrader,” Campbell said. “This is an icon and for me to drive this car and finish this well, I’m tickled to death.

“We were lucky enough to get through some of the skirmishes and that’s what we you’ve got to do. You’ve got to finish it and you’ve got to be there at the end to have a shot, and we did that.”

Campbell plans on racing again in April at Talladega. What about racing on his home track?

“I’ve got a day job there,” Campbell said with a laugh.

Rounding out the top-5 were Tom Hessert in fourth and Tyler Reddick in fifth.

Two names that received a lot of attention were youngsters Dylan Kwasniewski, who started from the pole and controlled much of the first half of the 85-lap race before fading to a 14th-place finish, as well as Chase Elliott (son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott), who finished ninth.

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American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida