Runner-up finish at Chicago could be start of turnaround for Trevor Bayne

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JOLIET, Ill. — Saturday’s runner-up finish in the EnjoyIllinois.com 300 Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland Speedway may very well be a turning point for Trevor Bayne in the 2014 season.

His run tied a season-best showing (second at Dover), left him in sixth-place in the standings, just 50 points behind with 15 more races to go.

And if Bayne can continue his momentum this coming weekend at Indianapolis, his hopes for a Nationwide championship in his final year in the series could potentially come true.

Bayne ran a strong race, finishing second to NNS rookie and new points leader Chase Elliott, who won his third event of the season. Elliott’s margin of victory was 1.7 seconds over Bayne’s Ford.

“The last two runs of the race, we had a car that could win it,” Bayne told MotorSportsTalk. “That’s as competitive as we’ve been all year long and ties our best finish of the season at Dover.

“I felt like we had a better chance in this race than at Dover. … We ended up coming home second, just short, which is a little bittersweet, but we’ll take the sweet part because it’s just nice to be in contention in these things and have cars that are capable of winning races. If we can do that week in and week out, we’ll be there.”

In 18 starts this season, Bayne has three top-fives and 13 top-10s. He’s also had two DNFs.

But Saturday’s run brought out a new kind of confidence that even though Bayne characterizes the first part of this season as having been a struggle, there’s no reason why the second half of the season has to be the same.

“(If there had been) 10 or 15 (more) laps, I think we might have had something for them,” Bayne said. “We’re pretty happy with our run there and I was pumped to just be able to see the leader there and be making gains at him.

“This season has been a struggle for us overall. It’s nice to just have some speed here at a mile-and-a-half, track and there’s a lot of mile-and-a-halfs that are the same, so we’re hoping that carries on through the rest of the season for our Advocare Mustang.

“I’m hoping this run at Chicago can give us that momentum and knowledge we’ve been looking for. … We’ve made a lot of changes to our cars to make them all season long and we finally seemed to make some gains Saturday night.

“When you go to Chicago, you want to think you’ve learned something there that you can take to places like Atlanta, Kentucky and Charlotte, places like that and do real well at.”

Next up for Bayne is the legendary 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Having already won NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, Bayne would love to win either the NNS or Sprint Cup event at Indy.

“Indy is one of the most overwhelming tracks you can go inside as a driver,” Bayne said. “You look down the frontstretch, it looks like a tunnel going down into Turn 1 and all of a sudden it’s just a 90-degree left without any banking, and you start second-guessing yourself if this thing is going to stick.

“We look forward to going there because we think we can run real well there, especially with the experience we have.”

And a trophy from Indy – be it NNS or Sprint Cup – would find a welcome home next to his Daytona 500 trophy.

“We’d like to add any trophy, so we’ll take them anywhere we can get ’em,” Bayne said with a laugh. “Indy is a really special place and I think it’s close to Daytona, if not tied with it, as far as motorsports is concerned.

“Indy has as much or more history than any track we go to, and to win any kind of race there, whether it’s Nationwide or Cup, winning the Brickyard 400 would be a huge deal, but winning the Nationwide race would also be great. To have a chance there, it’d be awesome to come down to the finish and see what we’ve got, sailing into Turn 4 for the last time for a battle. We look forward to going there and think we can run well there.”

Bayne has plenty of incentive to win at Indy, but there’s a bit more added this time: he’s one of four drivers who will be in contention for the Nationwide Dash-4-Cash promotion, where the highest finisher of the four drivers will take home a cool $100,000.

Bayne saw Brian Scott do just that Saturday night at Chicagoland, finishing sixth, the best of the four drivers chosen for that event.

Where Bayne goes from there remains to be seen. But if the feeling he has after Chicagoland is any indication, a turnaround is definitely on his mind.

“We’ve been consistent all year long,” Bayne said. “We had a couple races where we weren’t consistent. We got tangled up in the rain (at Road America) and got taken out at Michigan. Those were tough races for us to swallow because that’s what gave us that deficit in points.

“It’s a long season still ahead of us. There’s still two road courses left, we’ve got Bristol, some other short tracks like Richmond coming up where those guys can have bad days.

“We can have bad days, too, but we’ll just try to avoid those. Hopefully, those are between us and we can capitalize on some points.”

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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