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Putting roofs on racetracks, getting knocked out in a crash

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By Matt Crider

Drivers with area ties give perspective on big changes for new NASCAR season

Chris Buescher of Prosper pulled off the upset of 2016 when he won the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. The rookie was driving for underdog Front Row Motorsports, and the win earned him a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff berth.

Buescher won the 2015 Xfinity Series championship for Roush Fenway Racing, which then loaned him to Front Row. In an unusual move, the Ford team this season is loaning Buescher — and a franchise-style charter that guarantees he’ll start every Cup race — to JTG Daugherty Racing, where he’ll drive the No. 37 Chevrolet and be A.J. Allmendinger’s teammate.

“A.J. and that [No.] 47 team ran extremely strong at the end of the season last year and were able to find some things that really helped and things that we’re going to try and apply along with the stuff that I learned last year,” Buescher said. “This year, being that I do have a year under my belt and have a little bit of experience, it takes one puzzle piece and puts it in place, so I think that will make it a little bit easier.”

While Buescher may gain comfort with his second full season in Cup, NASCAR shook things up with the announcement that all races now will be divided into three segments. The new format is intended to ramp up the intensity of competition and make every lap more exciting.

The top 10 finishers in early stages will earn championship points, and stage winners will earn bonus points to carry into the season-ending playoff — one playoff point for winning Stages 1 or 2 and five points for winning the race.

“I am a visual person, and I am going to have to see it unfold to fully grasp what is going on,” Buescher said. “I don’t see where it’s going to change a whole lot for us from the driving side of things. I mean, we always put in 100 percent effort the whole time.

“I like that fact that it’s going to reward teams and drivers that have a really good day and get caught up in a mess or have a failure ... and get 38th-place points, where now, if they run well enough during the race, they’ve got some bonus points. They accumulate something to show for their efforts.”

Buescher’s home track, Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, also announced a major change for 2017. The 1 1/2-mile oval will be repaved in time for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 in April. The old surface became difficult to dry, and TMS experienced weather delays in all three of its marquee races last year.

“I’m really excited about it because I’ve never run too well at the big track at Texas,” Buescher said. “Most of the time I would say that I like the old asphalt and I like the places with character.

“But I do realize that for our fans it was the right thing to do — to give them an opportunity to see a race that’s not six hours delayed because of a 10-minute rain shower. We have to stay up with times, and until we figure out how to put a roof over our stadiums, we need to keep up with it.”

TMS also is reconfiguring Turns 1 and 2 by reducing the banking from 24 to 20 degrees and widening the racing surface from 60 feet to 80.

“Top speed is not what makes the racing great — it’s making sure we have room to race. So taking a little banking away and slowing the corner speeds down is not going to hurt the racing product,” Buescher said. “It is going to make for great racing. It’s going to be wide enough to where we can move around and be able make passes.”

Buescher will start 37th in today’s season-opening Daytona 500.

Richardson sees positives in TMS, concussion changes

Pilot Point hay farmer Robert Richardson Jr. shocked the Cup Series a year ago when he laid down a lap of 190.496 mph and qualified for the Daytona 500. It was his 162nd career start in NASCAR’s three national series, and at the moment he doesn’t have another one lined up.

“For us to show up and make the 500 ... was unbelievable,” said Richardson, who finished 38th in the No. 26 Stalk It Toyota after experiencing engine problems. “[Stalk It founder Lane Segerstrom] told me late last summer that he was going to put a deal together for the 500. I guess that fell through.”

Pilot Point resident Robert Richardson Jr. raced in last year’s Daytona 500.Courtesy photo
Pilot Point resident Robert Richardson Jr. raced in last year’s Daytona 500.
Courtesy photo

Richardson, a McKinney native and former SMU quarterback, said friends from home and his church came together to support him — some traveling to Daytona Beach, Florida — for last year’s race.

“Definitely memories to last a lifetime,” he said. “A lot of people came out of the woodwork.”

Back in Denton County, Richardson said TMS had been due for the repave, especially where the high-banked track crosses the tunnels that allow access to the infield.

“The tunnel bumps were getting worse year after year. It was getting difficult to run the top [lane],” Richardson said. “They’ve needed to change something for a while to bring back the tight pack racing.

“[Speedway Motorsports Inc. founder] Bruton Smith, [SMI president] Marcus Smith and [TMS president] Eddie Gossage and those guys at TMS know what to do to get fans to the racetrack and put on a good show.”

Without drivers, there can’t be a show, and Richardson said he’s glad NASCAR expanded its concussion protocol last week.

Any driver whose car sustains damage from contact and goes behind the pit wall now is required to visit the infield medical center for evaluation. NASCAR also requires infield physicians use a diagnostic tool to screen for head injuries.

Richardson said NASCAR saw the issues the NFL has been facing regarding concussions.

“They do it to protect themselves from any kind of legal battle,” he said. “It’s a win-win for NASCAR and the drivers’ safety and overall health, especially down the road and later in their lives.”

Richardson said he had to do a baseline concussion test when he renewed his NASCAR license, and he had a related experience in 2008.

“I had an incident at Michigan,” he said. “I was knocked out for a short amount of time. I was cleared after the fact.

“The medical department at NASCAR, they do a phenomenal job staying on the drivers. They do a checkup with you [at home] and make sure everything’s going good.”

Concussions became impossible to ignore in racing after a head injury caused NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to miss half of last season.

“I’m glad to hear that he’s going to get back behind the wheel of a race car,” Richardson said. “He’s taking his life in his own hands. He’s eventually going to have to decide if he wants to keep racing or raise a family — as most drivers do.”

MATT CRIDER can be reached at 940-566-6906.