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Doug Turnbull's Race Blog

    There were many questions heading into this Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 race weekend. The majority of those centered around the first look at part of NASCAR’s new handling/horsepower package for the Cup cars. The predictions varied about some idiosyncrasies with drafting, but by Sunday morning, there seemed to be a common coda in the garage: restarts really matter and the long runs would look like the same Atlanta Motor Speedway races from the past. Those prophecies were spot on.  The restarts were bananas. Qualifying and practice made the Team Penske cars look like garbage, but they shot out of a cannon on the restarts on race day. Eventual race winner Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, and Joey Logano all seemed to ascend into the top 10 or 15 in the blink of an eye. Kevin Harvick, the defending race winner, also took very little time climbing from his 18th starting spot to the top 10. These drivers were among those that really made hay when the field was bunched up. A crew chief told me this morning these cars in this package take a lap or two to get wound up, similar to a restrictor plate.  But once the cars get settled in their positions, the running order did not change dramatically. The second place car seemed to have a better shot at catching the leader than did other cars behind them in traffic. Some drivers seemed to work the draft, even with lapped vehicles, to get that desperately needed push to add to their momentum. But making up lost spots over the course of a run was incredibly difficult.  Kyle Larson led a race-high 142 laps, but never could climb the whole ladder from outside the top 20. He finished 12th. Pole sitter Aric Almirola took the entire race to overcome his early speeding penalty. And if drivers made wrong moves on restarts, they were stuck in purgatory.  The tire fall off and multiple groove characteristics at AMS normally produced long green flag runs with little incident, which certainly was the case in Sunday’s race. But past races also saw drivers displaying more abilities to come on strong or fall off during runs. Tire management still played a huge role in the Cup race, but spotters and crew chiefs generally told drivers to not burn their tires up chasing a car they couldn’t catch in dirty air.  Dirty air played a big factor in Martin Truex Jr.’s not being able to catch Keselowski in the closing laps. Truex Jr. fumed over Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s lapped car holding the bottom lane and dirtying the 19 car’s air. This kept Truex Jr. at bay long enough for Keselowski to win. Keselowski said after the race that he probably could have only held Truex Jr. off for two or three more laps.  The coda in the garage leading up to the race was that Atlanta was a unicorn. The other tracks that would run this package (except Darlington) would have the front air dams to manipulate the air differently and those tracks would also have far less tire wear.  With the air dams and the lack of tire fall off at most of the other tracks, drivers may be able to hold their cars wide open for most of the runs. This could create some big packs with drafting and the restarts will almost certainly be wild. But we saw at AMS that clean air was absolutely king. Drivers seemed aggravated post-race at how little they really could do to determine their outcomes and make up spots on long green flag runs. The real real test of the package comes this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Will the front air dams make clean air less important? That is a must for this new package to be a success. 
  • If the NASCAR media corps took a shot for every time we uttered the word “package” Friday, we would be as drunk as we are sugar-buzzed in the QuikTrip-laden media center. The rules package for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is a radical departure from what the series has been running. At tracks greater than a mile, Cup cars are running a higher spoiler (to create more drag), a bigger front splitter (for more downforce), and engines with a greater tapered spacer (to choke horsepower down 200 counts to 550). This is all in hopes of keeping the pack closer together on race day, hopefully creating more meaningful passes for position.  After a few tests and months of speculation, the MENCS cars took to the track for practice and qualifying Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Since the cars were in qualifying trim for the bulk of the session, drivers still didn’t get a feel for how long they would be able to run laps wide open around AMS’ worn, 22-year-old surface. Only Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and his teammate Erik Jones ran 10 or more consecutive laps.  The Stewart-Haas Racing Fords of Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola led the session. Afterwards, drivers didn’t seem to agree on how the race or qualifying would unfold. Crew chiefs and engineers may very well hold those cards.  As qualifying for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 got underway just after 5 p.m., the skies had darkened, the wind picked up, and the temperatures were far cooler than the lunchtime practice. Speculation about how the draft would come to play in group qualifying went mostly out the window. Cars generally laid down laps without drafting. But drivers, however, had to hit the track quickly, as the three rounds had shortened to 10, 10, and five minutes a piece. Some drivers did flirt with drafting. Hamlin and teammate Martin Truex Jr. ran about a car length apart in Round Three, timing into the show 3rd and 9th.  Momentum seemed to be the biggest decider. Drivers began using their warm up laps to gain speed on the high line and the fastest ones hugged the yellow line on the bottom of the turns on lap two. This netted Almirola his second-career pole (first since the 2012 Coca-Cola 600), with a speed of 181.473 mph. Kyle Busch won the pole year ago at 184 mph and speeds in 2018 topped 186 in Round One of that qualifying session.  For the decrease in horsepower, the decrease in speed is very small. This shows how much engineers and mechanics have already figured out to keep the corner speeds up and compensate for the rules change. While some smaller teams had decent qualifying efforts - Michael McDowell was 12th, Matt DiBenedetto 20th, Ty Dillon 21st, David Ragan 22nd, and Corey Lajoie 24th (he was 13th in Round One) - the cream generally rose to the top.  The Penske Fords were nothing like their counterparts at Stewart-Haas. Brad Keselowski was 19th, Ryan Blaney 26th, and Joey Logano 27th. And while SHR’s Almirola, Bowyer, and Daniel Suarez were 1st, 3rd, and 5th, defending AMS winner Kevin Harvick was only 18th.  Roush Fenway Racing looked very stout with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. placing 2nd and Ryan Newman 13th. And Richard Childress Racing is looking better than it has in a while, as Austin Dillon qualified 10th and was 3rd in practice. His rookie teammate Daniel Hemric was only 28th.  Teams will switch to racing trim for happy hour practice and prepare for Sunday’s race. But AMS is a different animal than other tracks, because of tire wear. Drivers speculated that next weekend’s Las Vegas race may see cars running wide open much of the time. In fact, many likened this package (drink) to how the Gander Outdoor Truck Series races. Skip around on this video and watch how that Truck race at Vegas played out a year ago. It was quite entertaining.  So whatever transpires Sunday, fans shouldn’t read too deep into it. Atlanta races totally different than other tracks and doesn’t run the front air dams that tracks like Vegas will. And by the time the Cup Series completes its West Coast swing in a month, drivers and crews will have more data to bolster their fleets and their strategy and change the complexion of the races soon enough.  Listen to the Performance Racing Network on GoPRN.com and the PRN app for live coverage of the Rinnai 250 Xfinity Series race at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at 1 p.m. Sunday. The Gander Outdoors Truck Series runs at 4:30 p.m. Saturday on the Motor Racing Network. Hear Turnbull’s interviews with Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Corey Lajoie, Reid Wilson, Matt Tifft, Daniel Hemric, and Austin Hill on a bonus episode of the “Five to Go” racing podcast. 
  • Sure, people complained about the type of racing NASCAR drivers delivered through most of Speedweeks. The single-file, follow-the-leader parades that were the Advanced Auto Parts Clash, the Gander RV Duels, and the Xfinity Series race were boring and even some drivers didn’t understand why more of their brethren weren’t taking chances passing on the low line. And then there was the bloodbath of a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race that saw only nine of 32 entries finish. And a litany of late race wrecks made the last ten laps last an hour in Sunday’s Daytona 500. But the Great American Race delivered a show on levels many weren’t expecting.  First, most of Sunday’s 207 laps (remember that seven were run in NASCAR Overtime) saw the pack staying two-wide and many rows deep. Passing the leader was still difficult, as the two lead cars could usually push themselves away from the pack enough to keep the challenging rows at bay. But, save a large portion of the 60-lap Stage 2, this Daytona 500 displayed the kind of racing many expect at this track and Talladega. Pit strategy, handling, and executing the precise moves also came into play, meaning the race would not crown some random winner. The Daytona 500 belched more storylines than a clogged interstate does smog on a summer day. First, Denny Hamlin’s second triumph in the sport’s biggest race helps silence the whispers about his future in the No. 11 FedEx Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, after a winless 2018 campaign. Hamlin ran near the front most of the day and did so with Chris Gabehart in his first race as the No. 11 team crew chief. Hamlin won the 2016 500 in Mike Wheeler’s first race in the same role.  The Joe Gibbs Racing angle may be the biggest story of the weekend and is certainly the most sentimental. Gibbs’ son, J.D., passed away at age 49 in January. J.D. ran the team for over two decades, until a neurological illness began diminishing him mentally in 2015. There was a tribute to J.D. Gibbs on lap 11, because that is the number Gibbs used when he raced part-time. To have not just a Gibbs car win, but the No. 11 of Hamlin’s is what Coach Joe called the greatest night of his occupational life. He has won three Super Bowls as a head coach and now three of NASCAR’s “Super Bowls”. JGR cars finished 1-2-3, only the second a time a team has done that in Daytona 500 history.  Speaking of, racing virtuoso Kyle Busch finished 2nd and was leading for much of the later part of the event. In fact, the No. 18 M&M’s Chocolate Bar Toyota led 37 laps. But Hamlin grabbed the lead right before the last yellow flag and held him at bay until the end. Busch has 51-career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins, placing him 11th-most of all-time and second only to Jimmie Johnson (83 wins) among active drivers. But Busch is now 0 for 15 in the Daytona 500, a race that has held many of the sport’s greats at bay. He has come close before and likely will again. Regardless, his frustration was awfully palpable post-race.  The race’s giant wrecks eliminated many entries, leaving only 19 running at the finish and 14 on the lead lap. But damaged cars still got good finishes. Erik Jones (3rd) drove up from 7th in the last two laps and came back from being a lap down and having heavy rear end damage. Johnson (9th) had the left rear shredded from his car as he came to pit road and Tyler Reddick got wrecked into him. The fuel nozzle was dangling. Then Johnson got damage on the other corners of his No. 48 Ally Chevy in the race’s other big wrecks. He rallied back to score a top 10 in his first race with new crew chief Kevin Mendeering. Kyle Larson (7th) was in about four different wrecks and Ryan Newman (14th) rode the last nine laps (two under green flag) on the inner liner of his tire that he cut down with the damaged part of his car. His damaged vehicle policy clock was down to 30 seconds and he wasn’t able to run a full lap at minimum speed to reset it.  And, as is often the case in plate races, underdogs shined. Matt DiBenedetto’s first race in the JGR-affiliated No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota saw him lead the most laps in the race, but get turned by Paul Menard with ten laps to go, triggering the 22-car melee that eliminated both them and many others. Michael McDowell finished 5th, driving from the back to the front after a pit penalty. Rookie Ryan Preece must play darts or sew, because he drove right through the heart of two big wrecks to put his No. 47 Kroger Chevy in 8th. And Ross Chastain brought Premium Motorsports a 10th-place finish, also rallying from two laps down at one point. Chastain ran all three races on the weekend and placed well.  Conflict arose post-race, as Joey Logano (4th) confronted McDowell verbally for making the wrong move and costing both Ford drivers the win. McDowell told the media afterwards that his job isn’t to push Logano to the win. He also said that other Fords were not friendly to him during the race.  Saturday’s Xfinity Series race crowned a first-time winner in journeyman veteran Michael Annett. After a couple of years of struggling in good equipment, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that he and others had to get Annett into a more confident mind state. Annett had driven for years in backmarker cars and was arriving at races just absolutely thinking he couldn’t win. Annett said that he saw the trophy in the driver’s meeting and thought he absolutely could win this race. And the win was redemptive for crew chief Travis Mack, who left the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella in 2018 to partner with Kasey Kahne at the No. 95 Leavine team; he left mid-season and joined Annett.  Friday’s NGOTS race also crowned a first-time winner in Austin Hill, a youngster who was getting his first NASCAR opportunity in good equipment. He’s had doubters, since he supplanted 2018 NGOTS champ Brett Moffitt, due to funding. And while Atlanta and the coming races are the start of the real season, Hill proved he could make race-winning moves and earn his salt with Hattori Racing Enterprises.  The crowds were large all weekend. The Daytona 500’s grandstands sold out for the fifth-straight year, after the track renovation eliminated many seats. Still, the crowds came. The campgrounds were packed. The infield fan zone was bumper-to-bumper with flesh. And there were many Gen-Z and millennials, decked out in new race gear. Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney...fans are buying the shirts and hats.  Finally, owners, drivers, manufacturers, and NASCAR executives have made clear that a new era in the 71-year-old sport is on the horizon. A new schedule with possibly shorter races, less races, and more short tracks could start taking form in 2020. The Gen-7 racecar in 2021 is supposed to attract new OEM brands into the sport, because the bodies and engines will more resemble the consumer models. The new aero package that debuts at Atlanta Motor Speedway this coming weekend will reduce horsepower and bunch up the field, though reviews have been mixed on it in tests. And the newer drivers are continuing to mature into contenders.  The 2019 Daytona 500 was the beginning of a new season, but it also could be the beginning of the end of an era of sorts. Tapered spacers replace restrictor plates at Talladega in May, though the racing on these tracks will stay similar. The real racing season begins in just a few short days and how the aero package plays out will be pivotal in how the aforementioned steps advance. But the buzz leaving Daytona International Speedway is as good, if not better than it has been in years. Momentum is important in racing - both on the track and off of it. 
  • Austin Hill gets first win in first race with championship team  Daytona International Speedway is exciting not just because the weekend crescendos up to NASCAR’s biggest event of the year. The restricted engines roaring around the high banks on the 2.5-mile oval and the tight racing bring fans to their feet and trigger tight finishes and spectacular wrecks. This type of racing also crowns underdog, first-time winners and does so, again, for the biggest race in each of NASCAR’s top three series.  Enter 24-year-old Austin Hill. The Winston, GA driver took the reigns of the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota from last year’s Gander Outdoor Truck Series championship winner Brett Moffitt, as the team needed the funds Hill brought. That move brings with it pressure, critics, and expectations.  Hill was at a crossroads just four years ago, he said, after scoring five wins in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and one in the West. Hill and his family started a part-time NGOTS team in 2016 that became a full-time endeavor with Young’s Motorsports in 2018. Those years netted a handful of top 10s and mid-pack average finishes, but no victories and really no shots at any. When HRE approached Hill about 2019, he said he didn’t know what his plans would be and he certainly has taken flack for being an unproven driver replacing the reigning champ in Moffitt.  But flukey Daytona didn’t crown a flukey winner. Though Friday night’s thrilling NextEra Energy 250 was a bloodbath - only nine trucks finished the double overtime event - the pack stayed tight. The twitchy trucks raced two-wide for most of the night’s 56 green flag laps (55 were run under yellow). And Hill led a race-high 39 laps (green and yellow), precisely blocking the high and low lines and keeping his competitors at bay. Hill started 10th and first assumed the lead on lap 62, ceding it twice to Ben Rhodes, and holding it for the last 12 laps.  Hill wasn’t just a proficient blocker. When Rhodes got turned by rookies Sheldon Creed and Gus Dean coming to the white flag, triggering an eight-truck melee, Hill dove low and barely missed it. His wife, Ashlyn, holding their five-month-old Kensley, paced nervously behind the pit fence, watching the ISM Vision big screen. The HRE pit crew erupted in cheers when Hill avoided the major wreck. But the race wasn’t over.  “Nervous is an understatement,” she said, adding she just wanted her husband to finish the race at that point.  Hill still had to survive two more restarts and a surge from runner-up Grant Enfinger, who had just gotten back on the lead lap after damage from a lap 55 wreck. Hill had gotten a little too far out front on the final restart, but spotter Mike Herman told Hill to crack the throttle and draw back just enough to both block Enfinger and his teammate Matt Crafton and catch their draft, without them passing him. Enfinger said he had to get out of the throttle when he had that run to avoid wrecking all of them. Herman guided Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories in 2017: at Talladega in May and the July in Daytona.  And Hill had to save an immense amount of fuel, as the race went 11 laps longer than scheduled. In fact, it was the longest race in distance in NGOTS history. Hill’s crew chief Scott Zipadelli told him to keep up with the pace car, continue cutting off the engine, and assured him they would not be pitting. Zipadelli said after the race that he was fine taking that risk, because pitting would have put the No. 16 back in the pack and they probably would have wrecked. The front row was the safest spot.  Hill held a tight pack at bay for laps 110 and 111 to win his first race in any NASCAR national series. He’s now locked into the Truck Series playoffs, won an RV from Gander Outdoors (the new title sponsor of the series, after Camping World acquired the brand), got some bonus money, and simply can now race for wins.  But Hill said in his post-race press conference that his biggest memory of the night would be that his siblings, wife and children were all there for it. They didn’t attend very many races in recent years and did they ever pick a weekend to come.  Smithley and JD Motorsports together again, racing with heavy hearts Garrett Smithley’s genesis in NASCAR was supposed to be a cup of coffee with hopes of a big sponsor showing up and keeping him in the game. The Peachtree City, Georgia 26-year-old suddenly is making his 100th start in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this weekend, driving a car that has become synonymous with him: the No. 0 Chevy for JD Motorsports. Smithley affectionately calls the effort “Number Nuthin’”- but his time in the car has taken plenty of effort.  Smithley often is cold-calling and finding his own sponsors to stitch together deals and funding to keep his team on the track and himself as the driver. This side of the garage often sees drivers with the most money win the spots. So Smithley’s early time in the car was in question at any moment. He has only missed one race with JD Motorsports, due to funding, since. And now he is back for another full season and not just because of the sponsorship.  “It started as a three-race deal,” Smithley said, while eating dinner with his family outside their RV in the Daytona Infield Friday. Smithley took the wheel from veteran driver Eric McClure after the 2016 Daytona season-opener. But team owner Johnny Davis told Smithley that McClure was supposed to return to the car at least for a race or two. That never came to be, as McClure was winding down his career and Smithley, meanwhile, was eeking out good enough finishes to keep his small team in the top 20 in points.  Smithley said the team got to midway in the ‘16 season and they were in the top 20 and Davis made the decision to keep him in the car. Smithley kept the car in the top 20 and team got an $85,000 bonus. Drivers in the middle of the pack have plenty of incentive to race hard for, say 17th-place. Each race pays bonuses to teams, based on their owners points. That is huge for teams so sparse on funding.  Small teams can score big at plate races like Daytona. Smithley’s only top 5 finish was 5th a year ago. Two of his other three top 10s have come at Daytona or Talladega. So their plan for the Flex Tape Chevy is to ride in the back, survive the carnage, and then drive to the front.  Then the real season starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Smithley will drive the No. 0, but also is working on a deal to get into a Legends car. “I started my career racing Legends cars at Atlanta Motor Speedway and I want to bring it full-circle at my hometrack,” he said. He also is working on plans to enter one of the two other races that weekend, but those have not been finalized.  On a somber note, Smithley and his family are mourning the loss of John C. Ward, who died on Tuesday. His cousin’s father-in-law will have a sticker above the passenger window.  And a long time employee of JD Motorsports passed away this week, Smithley and his family said. Longtime car painter Bryan “Hippie” Dorsey suddenly got very sick early this past week, went to the hospital, and died on Thursday morning. So the entire four-car organization will have that on their minds as they race. Cockrum racing to honor his mom this weekend  Chris Cockrum has been coming to Daytona Speedweeks as a driver all but one of the last 11 seasons. First in ARCA, then in the NGOTS, Cockrum now has opened each of the last five seasons in the NXS. But 2019 is completely different for the 32-year-old from Conyers.  In September of last year, Cockrum’s mother, Lynn, got very sick and went to the hospital with what they thought was a respiratory problem. It turned out it was cancer in her lungs and she coded one night, lost brain activity, and died a few days later. The family was stunned.  Driving for Rick Ware Racing’s No. 17 entry, Cockrum will carry familiar colors, but will also have his mom’s name above the passenger door and on the rear bumper cover. The back of the car reads, “In Loving Memory of Lynn Halstead Cockrum We Will Always Love You and Miss You Mom!”  For those that have felt this kind of loss, they know how hard returning to places is. Cockrum’s father, also named Lynn, always nervous and intense about his son’s racing efforts, has that same tenor, but also has a nostalgic look in his eyes. Chris has just a slightly different tone in his voice. And they have more family and friends with them this weekend than they normally do.  “You just have to keep your mind screwed in,” Cockrum said, when asked how he stays focused. “If I let my mind get off of the main focus at all, I lose track.”  Cockrum’s mom was the glue that held their race weekends together. She would buy or cook food for the race team and the family and friends staying in the RV. She insisted I stay with them in the RV when she found out I was going to camp in my car. And when the boys, including Chris’ younger brother Andrew, were amped up and frustrated about the racing, she was always the cool breeze that soothed the mood and centered everyone. They will all be looking upward for that calm this weekend.  While Cockrum’s car and many other small teams struggled in the post-practice inspection line, Cockrum has decent speed this weekend and, like Smithley, hopes to ride around and avoid the Big One. He failed to qualify for this race a year ago. His best finish is 21st, back in 2015. But just as the NGOTS showed Friday night, surviving may be the name of the game and if Cockrum can change his luck and avoid the big wrecks, he could have a big day. As long as he is safe, his mom is sure to be looking down and smiling.  Follow Doug on all weekend for updates on Twitter: @DougTurnbull and Instagram: @FireballTurnbull . 
  • On a morning that started in the high 20s in Metro Atlanta, Atlanta Motor Speedway officials had to sigh. There would be no ticket voucher “Good Weather Guarantee” for the free Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Pit Party in Norcross. But that worry subsided when fans showed up in force an hour before the 10 a.m. kickoff time Saturday.  The rap on NASCAR for the last 13 years has been the declining attendance and television ratings. The 2018 season’s returns didn’t turn around that notion. But events like Saturday’s show that potential for a comeback for the 71-year-old sport is a possibility.  QT, Coca-Cola, and AMS arranged a DJ, tons of giveaways, food samples, a driving simulator, a tall inflatable slide, face painting, and drivers Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez to sign autographs. This soiree on the corner of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Brook Hollow Parkway, just west of I-85, drew in many passersby, sure. But it also pulsated on the calendars of the diehard north Georgia race fans, who had to choose between this party and the CRA Speedfest super late model race a couple hundred miles south in Cordele with Kyle Busch and Harrison Burton.  21-year-old Diego Castoneda took an almost two-hour bicycle ride from Lawrenceville, in the freezing cold, to be the first in line for driver autographs at 9:30.  'To have all these cultures in NASCAR is huge, because not many drivers get an opportunity in this sport,' Castoneda said, when asked about the significance to him of having Suarez, a Mexico native, in NASCAR. He put Wallace’s autographed hero card in a trapper keeper notebook full of driver cards. 'It's an honor to get every driver you can. You never know when they're going to be big or when they are going to retire. Some of these autographs are going to be valuable. For me, it's just an experience.' Castoneda was one of hundreds who waited in the long lines for, first, Wallace and then Suarez. He is the rare Generation Z NASCAR fan. He said his dad had him watching races from the age of eight and similarly had the goal of getting each driver’s signature.  The 25-year-old Wallace, NASCAR’s only black driver, got generational in his media session, noting that his “Young Guns” class has a certain understanding of and with fans.  'I think the younger generation coming up through is changing the game a little bit, giving the fans something more to latch onto,” though Wallace notes that this will take time, as he and his cohorts adapt to the highly competitive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. “You've got the dominance from the older guys, obviously. But it takes seat time for us to get comfortable.'  Wallace is a big believer in the power that social media has in engaging fans. He starred in a Facebook Watch documentary before his rookie season a year ago and is very active on Twitter and Instagram. 'We try to do as much as we can with the fans. Me, personally, I love doing stuff like this and when it's in-market [in the same city as a NASCAR track], you go out to dinner and you run into fans. It's just all about being engaging with them.'  Steve Letscher loves Wallace’s vibe. The white 47-year-old doesn’t stand out as the top candidate to have Wallace’s unbridled millennial persona as his favorite driver. But Letscher diverted a two-day drive from South Dakota to Charlotte, to arrive for the Wallace appearance. He had Wallace sign 10 diecasts, each of a different paint scheme from his rookie campaign.  'I got about an hour outside of Kansas City and it was pretty early in the afternoon and I thought that since I had so many cars for Bubba, that I could make it down here and get some signed from him.” Letscher blew off seeing a friend in Shreveport to come to Atlanta, after learning of Wallace’s Georgia appearance on his Twitter page. “So I decided at the very last minute to keep driving yesterday afternoon. I was up 15 hours yesterday. I stopped about a half hour north of Nashville last night at about midnight, got about three hours of sleep, got up, got a shower, got on the road, and got here at about 11:30.' After the Pit Party, Letscher will further show his dedication by driving to Charlotte to hang with his buddies for a week at the NASCAR Hall of Fame ceremonies. He has about 1,600 diecast race cars in his basement, he says.  Letscher thinks that the key to outsiders getting passionate about drivers is the wheelmen’s personalities. Undoubtedly, fans in the last 15 years have complained of the lack of color drivers show. The likes of Wallace, Suarez, Ryan Blaney, Noah Gragson, and others are trying to bring that back.  Suarez, who just turned 27, is not necessarily high on the overall NASCAR popularity charts. But he begins his third Cup season with a large legion of Latin American fans, as he is the only full-time NASCAR driver from Mexico. Telemundo and Mundo Hispanico covered him at the event. And several hispanic fans circled behind Suarez with enthusiasm, as he spoke to the media.  'For me, as a Mexican driver in the United States...you're always missing something [not] racing at home. I used to race in Mexico for a long time and I was used to racing in front of my family and a lot of friends. That was a hell of an experience. I've been missing that for a while,” Suarez explained fluently in his second language. “Now, for the last few years in Cup, more people are getting to know myself and things I am doing in the sport. It feels so good to come back to places like here in Atlanta where there are a lot of Hispanic people and places like Texas, California, Phoenix - all these places. I say this a lot: I don't get to race at home, but these places feel like home. I'm just very happy to be here to spend a few hours with a lot of great friends and I look forward to getting back here in a month.'  Suarez says he has a chance to attend Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta and just may do it. And, like Wallace, he loves chances to actually talk with fans. 'It feels so good. I wish we were coming to Atlanta more often, instead of just once every year. It feels so good to be back and to spend some time with the fans. When I am in the racetrack, it is a little bit harder to have these 10 to 15 second conversations with the fans, because you are going. You don't have a lot of time to do this stuff; you have to drive the racecar and focus on that. I really enjoy times like these, where I am not thinking about the racecar, I'm not thinking about the race. I'm just thinking about having a good time with them and that's what it's all about.” Fans at the Pit Party had a great time, young and old, dancing to top 40 and hip-hop music from the last few years. Lines for each attraction stretched dozens deep. There wasn’t one mullet or country song played - not that those aren’t a large part of the racing experience. This was a jumping, energetic event that never lulled and saw a large cross-section of age, color, class, and style.  Newly-minted AMS GM Brandon Hutchinson looked impressed, as did his deputies. But when I told VP of Marketing and Promotions, Dustin Bixby, I was surprised at the turnout, I was even more surprised with his answer.  “I’m not! I know Atlanta has a ton of race fans.”  Hutchinson’s and Bixby’s jobs over these next four weeks will be to get this fan base charged up enough to drive to Hampton for the race weekend. If Saturday served as any indicator, the tide may be turning.  The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race highlights the February 22nd-24th race weekend with all three NASCAR national series in action at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Get tickets and learn more at AtlantaMotorSpeedway.com. 
  • Maybe the age of opinion echos has just manifested itself again or maybe those with the perpetual sour taste about the state of NASCAR in their mouths simply have it again. But after a thrilling Ford EcoBoost 400 that saw statistically the four best drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series compete for the Championship 4 and race near each other all 400 miles, this same crowd couldn’t see the forest for the trees. This year’s championship race delivered.  The sport’s “Big Three”, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr., combined to win 20 races and did almost all of that damage in the first two-thirds of the season. The championship would undoubtedly go thru them. But as Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, and eventually Aric Almirola started tallying wins, the spotlight on the other three dimmed. However, none of this winning group really emerged as “the guy” to slay the three-headed dragon. So this seemed to set up the Homestead-Miami race as one that obviously Harvick, Truex Jr., or Busch would win.  There is a reason races aren’t run in simulators. Busch or Harvick should have put on a clinic Sunday, as Truex Jr. and the soon-closing No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota had seen their recent performance wane a bit. But Logano, who had been consistent but not front-running all season, secured his Homestead ticket by running Truex Jr. hard to the finish and taking the Martinsville win from him. And suddenly, the No. 22 team looked like a contender. But certainly Harvick, who had dominated the Texas race (with an illegal spoiler), and Busch, who had won the previous week at Phoenix, would be firing on all cylinders in Homestead. As it turns out, all four championship drivers were in some respect.  As you may remember, Busch, Truex Jr., and Logano started in the top 5 and Harvick had to climb up from 12th at Homestead. Harvick took no time driving up into the top 10 and took the lead after the first pit stops to win Stage 1. And then these four stayed right on each other all race long, with pit stops becoming a game of cat and mouse. The stops continuously cost Busch precious time and sunk an already ill-handling car deeper in the pack. But the 2015 champ kept clawing back.  Harvick had the race won after the last green flag stop. Truex Jr. had the speed on that long run at the end, but Harvick and Logano came to pit road one lap before him and Harvick was poised to win the championship. But Busch, with no chance to win conventionally, stayed out on old tires, hoping and praying for a caution to freeze him in the lead.  When Keselowski (Logano’s teammate) got into Daniel Suarez (Busch’s teammate) and brought out a yellow, Busch got the miracle he needed and his crew delivered him the lead from the first pit stall. Here’s your game seven moment: the Championship 4 would comprise the first two rows for the 15-lap shootout. Wouldn’t betting money land on Busch? He’s widely regarded as the best restarter in the sport and the driver with likey the most raw talent. With a championship on the line, the pendulum had swung in favor of Busch.  Busch got the break, but couldn’t capitalize. With equal tires and nearly equal track position, Truex Jr. and Logano dusted him and pulled away. The 2018 title would come down to last year’s MENCS Cup winner, whom Logano roughed up for a Martinsville win and who said Logano would not win the war. The war would be decided by them.  The two drivers had made contact incidentally, racing close in the race, but this battle came down to man vs. machine vs. the weather/time-worn track. Logano made a champion’s move on Truex Jr. on the fourth lap of this final run. Logano sailed the No. 22 high into a turn to a degree that made announcers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton think he missed the corner. And Logano wrested the lead away and never looked back. If the race had 30 or 40 laps remaining, Truex Jr. would have won. Or maybe Harvick. Busch finished well back in 4th. But it was Logano, who rivals Busch in the boos he gets from fans, who now joins the Big Three as a single-Cup championship winner.  For those who thought they saw bad racing on Sunday, the broadcast didn’t do any favors. NBC did a poor job covering any battles on the track that didn’t involve the lead or the Championship 4 drivers and they need to address this. Also, despite there being multiple grooves, the aero-factor definitely spread the field out. But tire wear and the difference in setups allowed drivers to make up these differences over a long run. Neither the Camping World Truck Series race Friday (race and championship won by Brett Moffitt) or the Xfinity Series race Saturday (race and championship won by Tyler Reddick) had any cautions that weren’t stage breaks. That usually prompts fans to give bad marks.  The drama Sunday may be seen as manufactured by some, but it was real. The four title contenders raced each other hard all 267 laps. And while there were some lulls in this race...like most any race...the drama and tension were palpable in those closing laps. Each move felt like it would decide the title. Not two drivers, but four decided the Monster Energy Cup and their battle was one for the ages. Or at least I hope. Could we as fans let this one live in the canon of great battles or will the sour tastes and negative fog taint this one also? Hopefully the former.  Watch the race rewind and fast forward to 10 minutes to see that final restart. 
  • This is a re-post of my blog post just after the Atlanta Motor Speedway Labor Day weekend race in 2014, the first after the passing of Captain Herb Emory. Four years to the day after his passing, please enjoy the memories and thank you for Remembering Captain Herb.  A banner at the United Against Mouth and Throat Cancer tent, an organization that provides free screenings in the Atlanta Motor Speedway Fan Zone outside the Hampton, Georgia track, had a banner that read “Remembering Capt. Herb Emory.” That was a theme for the entire NASCAR race weekend at AMS. Conyers driver Chris Cockrum piloted the No. 87 Advanced Communications Group Ford in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race. Track President and GM Ed Clark and his staff arranged for a display case with Captain Herb’s WSB Skycopter Lounge hat to mark his spot in the AMS Media Center, which they also named after the late Marcy Scott. TEAM Georgia, the safe and sober driving coalition Captain Herb helped found, presented his wife Karen with a community service award named after the late champion of safe driving. Several fans showed up with “Captain Herb Memorial Ride” t-shirts from the May event in the Captain’s Douglas County community that raised money for Toys for Tots. Emory, as many Atlantans know, died of a heart attack while helping at the scene of a crash in front of his house in April. WSB listeners, people from the Atlanta community, and straight up people we had no idea knew about Captain Herb poured out support and continue to in the months since that tragedy. But we hadn’t had an Atlanta race weekend since his passing - and it was hard sitting in the Marcy Scott Media Center next to a space with a clear box that used to be filled with his bellowing laugh and big smile. Seeing the empty space next to the fence outside of the Media Center, where the WSB tent used to proudly sit each race day morning, signaled the end of an era. We didn’t do a racing show this weekend, but instead decided to remember Captain Herb’s legacy with a series of reports and interviews with some luminaries from the long-running “Allan Vigil Ford 120,” which eventually changed names to “The Speedshop.” (These reports ran through the weekend on News 95.5/AM750 WSB and you can listen to them all in links at the end of this post). Captain Herb's race show stood out for several reasons. It highlighted Georgia-based racers, covered some local short tracks, and had that old school personality that new era radio and racing lacks. Captain Herb played pranks on the air, but just as easily made new drivers to the scene feel at ease. Instead of clicking off the same vanilla, polished interviews that many pull off so well, he would inject his affable, mischievous personality into them and bring out that certain guest's own character. That personality extended into the nickname business. My nickname is 'Fireball'. Jason Durden, a longtime fixture on Speedshop, is Jason 'Banjo, Spongebob Squarepants, Dale Jr.' Durden. Performance Racing Network booth anchor Mark Garrow, who delivered the 'FastCar Newsdesk' for several years already had the nickname 'Guru' - but Captain Herb had to assign his own moniker. 'He'd call me 'The Doctor of Love' and we had fun with that,' Garrow laughingly reflected, also saying he enjoyed the mix of people whom Captain Herb’s smile and authenticity drew into that WSB tent each race weekend. Atlanta Journal Constitution motorsports writer Rick Minter gave insightful racing analysis on Speedshop for many years and says that Captain Herb was so enthusiastic and credible about racing, because he took an announcing job at the now-closed Seven Flags Speedway in Douglasville. 'That showed he was true to the roots of racing. A good, all-around motorsports enthusiast,' Minter says when reflecting on the show. 'He made just as sure Dixie Speedway was covered as he did Daytona International Speedway or Atlanta Motor Speewday.' And when fans tuned into Speedshop, they knew exactly where each driver stood with him. 'He didn't make any doubt about who his heroes were and who he didn't like. He was like the number one fan in Atlanta. It's almost like a 110 appliance plugged into a 220 outlet when the show came on the air. You can't not be excited when he's that excited.' Minter also says that Captain Herb was ahead of his time in comparison to other local media in covering the local ties to a national sport. Captain Herb's appreciation for the Georgia drivers was a staple of Speedshop during race weekends. Former NASCAR driver Bill Lester moved east from California to race in the Camping World Truck Series in the 2000s. Captain Herb reached out to Lester, inviting him to the annual Toys for Tots drive he hosted at Fred's BBQ House in Lithia Springs and often put him on or mentioned him on his show. This flattered the new guy in town. 'He kind of brought me under his wing,' Lester, now an Arkansas resident, says. 'I'm surprised that anybody took notice.' Lester says that friendship put him at ease in his new world of stock cars in a new part of the country. In 2006, Lester became the first black driver to start a Sprint Cup Series race since the 1980s, making his debut at his adopted home track AMS.The WSB tent outside of the Media Center was one stop on Lester's crazy morning on that historic day and he says he's so thankful for all Captain Herb and the AMS staff did to get the word out about his feat. Georgia resident Rex White won the 1960 Sprint Cup Series championship and will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015. Many greats of White's era are either dead or forgotten. But Captain Herb never forgot the driver of the famous No. 4 'Gold Thunder' car. 'He was always great to talk to. He always made it so easy to be interviewed,' White said just before an appearance at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame display at AMS over race weekend. Bill Elliott is the most renowned of the Georgia drivers. Elliott remembers fondly shooting the bull with Captain Herb and seeing him at Allan Vigil Ford, a dealership and sponsor they both shared. “The Speedshop” saw its prominence when Elliott's career was in its doldrums in the late 1990s. Elliott says that didn't turn Captain Herb away from Driver 94. 'He was always a friend, someone to talk to, someone to bounce ideas off of.' Elliott is the 1988 Sprint Cup Series champion and will be inducted with White into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. When asked what Captain Herb would think of seeing both drivers go in at once, White summed it up best - though stammering a bit. 'He'd be flabbergasted.' Indeed he is looking down with a smile. Elliott’s 18-year-old son, Chase, is blazing a winning trail in his rookie NASCAR Nationwide Series series. His success has been supreme in 2014 and he fittingly won his first-career NNS pole Saturday for his first NNS race at AMS. He finished 5th. Elliott took his first victory in the series on April 4th at Texas Motor Speedway. He won again the next Friday night at the circuit's toughest track, legendary Darlington Speedway. Captain Herb died the next day, April 12th. 'I think that was special,” the older Elliott says. “I'm sure [Captain Herb] had that in his head with whatever else he had going on that day.' David Ragan has been the banner carrier for the Georgia gang in recent years, with two wins each in both the Sprint Cup and the Nationwide Series. Captain Herb befriended him as a teenager running Legends cars and Bandeleros on AMS' quarter-mile track and interviewed him at the media days the track would set up. 'We've got a long history. Some of my first interviews were with Captain in the late '90s,' Ragan told me in his team hauler before Sprint Cup practice Saturday afternoon. He said he missed Captain Herb not just for his racing show that he had each week and also each Atlanta race weekend, but for shows elsewhere. 'I even thought about it at Bristol. He'd always come up and do a little Saturday show.' Ragan, like Captain Herb, never forgot his local racing roots and always made a point to stop by the WSB tent for his ritual race morning Speedshop appearance. Captain Herb's impression on Ragan was so deep, that the Captain’s locally famous 'Mayberry Patrol Car/Aunt Bea' Ford Galaxie - a replica of the one on 'The Andy Griffith Show' - made Ragan want his own. 'I specifically looked for one and bought one just because of Herb.' He wanted it so much he specially ordered it and had it shipped from Kansas. As Ragan's career progressed and he moved to North Carolina, Cockrum and his family became close friends with Captain Herb and made regular appearances on Speedshop. The Cockrum family was so impressed by Captain Herb's outreach, they carried 'CaptainHerb.net' - the Captain’s homepage for racing and traffic news and community events - on the rear bumper cover of his Camping World Trucks and his Nationwide Series car in the few races he was able to run. Cockrum invited Captain Herb and Karen to Daytona to see the No. 07 Advanced Communications Group truck back in February. 'I can say I took this man to his final race,' Cockrum told WSB, while choking up in his race team's hauler before Nationwide Series practice Friday. He showed up in a beautiful car with a 'WSB blue' background and 'WSB gold' accents and lettering with some red, soundboard-light graphics on the back. Cockrum says it had to happen that way. 'When he passed away in April, it really rocked my world. So I automatically circled this date.' The sight of the car moved Karen Emory to tears, as Cockrum and his family hugged consoled her and Durden, who accompanied her to the race and has been a staple for her since the love of her life’s passing. Before Saturday's race, just before TEAM Georgia and Durden presented Emory with the 'Captain Herb Community Service Award,' Emory took a pin she had earlier removed from Captain Herb's old leather bomber jacket and pinned it on Cockrum's driver's suit. 'Something that's been on a jacket for 20 or 30 years...I couldn't think of a better person to receive something from than Captain Herb,' a sweat-drenched and exhausted Cockrum said after Saturday’s race. He finished laps down in 29th, driving an ill-handling machine for backmarker team Rick Ware Racing. But the rookie kept the car out of trouble, so the crowd could see the 'Remembering Captain Herb' lettering circle 1.5-mile AMS track again and again. The staff at AMS helped handily in promoting Cockrum's being in the race with the 'Herb car.' But they dealt with a big gap and loss of their own. The aforementioned Marcy Scott was the engine behind the marketing and promotions staff, processing hundreds of requests by the vast media presence at the track and arranging events and marketing to spread the word about the races. Those that worked with her will never forget her drive and passion and those new to the game will always remember it with the Media Center in her name. Doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer a few years ago, but she overcame that and seemed well. Then the cancer showed up again in her brain last year. She passed away in November and missed last year’s race, even though she begged for Clark, her boss for eight years, to participate. He explains her impact. 'She was so much a part of our race weekends - the promotion, the planning, and the execution. We miss her - we think about her daily.' Much like Captain Herb’s untimely death, Scott’s drew the sympathy from many areas, especially the full-time national media, whom she helped facilitate their coverage needs. Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass, widely known as the hardest-working reporter in the NASCAR media corps, reflected on Twitter about how she forced him out on the dance floor at the NASCAR banquet a couple of years ago. She was more than a hard worker, she was a friend and mentor. She certainly worked hard to make sure we could pull of our show on WSB and had to shoosh us more than once when we would cut up in the back of the Media Center. Clark also had a longtime friendship with Captain Herb...about 23 years (the length of his time at AMS) to be exact. 'This is the first NASCAR weekend that I'm experiencing without him” he somberly reflects. “He was a friend not only to us, but to so many in the entire Metro Atlanta area.' Besides holding his place in the Media Center, Clark took the remembrance a step further and had 'Capt. Herb' painted in the infield grass. That gesture was a total surprise to us at WSB and to the legions of dedicated Captain Herb fans who saw it from the grandstands. 'Herb may not be with us here physically, but he's a part of this weekend, just like he always has been.' That Captain Herb grass painting had a great seat for the whole weekend - especially its ending. Sunday's Cup winner Kasey Kahne saw his win and ticket to NASCAR’s Chase slip away after a late caution. But another caution allowed him to catch up and have a chance to race hard with Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin and take that needed win, the biggest of his career. He did celebratory burnouts right next to the grass tribute. That's a way to cap it off. Summer storms threatened all AMS weekend, but barely slowed any on-track activities - a big relief for a track that has suffered both weather and ticket sales problems in recent years. NASCAR is moving the track’s Labor Day race to Darlington and AMS will now assume the 2nd race date of the season on March 1st. Fittingly, this short tradition ends in a time of remembrance for the passing of a titan in the Georgia racing community and another staple in the circus that is NASCAR. To Captain Herb Emory and Marcy Scott - Godspeed to you from Georgia’s altar of high speed. Remembering Captain Herb audio:  Ed Clark piece on Captain Herb and Marcy Scott  Ed Clark full interview  Bill Lester and Mark McKay piece  Bill Lester full interview  Rick Minter and Mark McKay piece  Rick Minter full interview  Mark Garrow piece Mark Garrow audio, part 1 Mark Garrow audio, part 2  Chris Cockrum piece Chris Cockrum full interview, part 1 Chris Cockrum full interview, part 2 Chase Elliott/Chris Cockrum piece David Ragan piece David Ragan full interview Rex White piece Rex White full interview Bill Elliott piece  Bill Elliott full interview   
  • The wait is over. Chase Elliott has won his first-career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. He held off 2017 MENCS champion Martin Truex Jr. in a thrilling finish in the Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen Sunday. His win came in his 99th career start, just over halfway thru his third full-time season with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. That may not be exactly the fairytale Elliott imagined when he dreamt of becoming a Cup star like his father. But both William Clyde Elliott’s, son and father, had to suffer some near-misses before their Victory Lane kisses. Each driver started with a family racing team. Chase with his affluent and established father’s Bill Elliott Racing stable and Bill with his brothers Ernie and Dan and father and car dealer George. The Elliott matriarch, Mildred, was both a moral and financial mainstay on Bill’s team. Chase’s mom, Cindy, was and is still a marketing and PR maven.  Chase had a bigger leg up starting out than Bill did, very simply because of Bill’s Hall of Fame success and comeuppance in a time when NASCAR was booming. Chase blazed through go karts and Legends cars to being a late model campaign at age 13. He won in the first two months of the 2009 season and won the Georgia Asphalt Series championship as a rookie. The fairytale was in place.  Bill succeeded on the short tracks, but struggled when he first got to Cup. This was in a different time, when really almost anyone with a car could enter and make the fields of races. Elliott’s scrappy, but ingenuitive literal band of brothers got the No. 9 Ford to the racetrack for part-time schedules from 1976-1982. But Bill didn’t get his first top 10 until his 16th start (the 1977 Southern 500) and often fell victim to the most common occurrences in races of the era: attrition. With so many levels of cars and so little of the polished sophistication and advancement of today’s generation, just finishing a 500-mile race was a miracle. Finishing on the lead lap was nearly akin to winning. So when the light switch of consistency flipped on, Bill’s results suddenly exceeded what was expected of smaller teams in those years.  Chase had great equipment through his ascent, but ran into a bit of a roadblock in 2011. At just 15-years-old, the high school sophomore signed a driver development deal with Hendrick Motorsports at a time when those were no longer en vogue. Along with his heavy pro and super late model diet, Elliott would now compete full-time for Hendrick in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.  The heavier K&N cars, higher experience level, and fact that Elliott was with a new team against more experienced ones in that series meant that his results were far more pedestrian than they had been in late models. Elliott had zero wins and only six tops 10s in 12 races in 2011 and just one win in the series in 2012 (the combined East and West series race at Iowa Speedway). He finished 9th and 4th in the points in his two years in K&N. Max Gresham won the 2011 championship. Kyle Larson did so in 2012.  Elliott kept burning up the local short tracks through those years and ran a partial schedule in ARCA and the Camping World Truck Series in 2013, garnering a quick win in each. He also won crown jewel paved short track races: the All-American 400, Winchester 400, and World Crown 300. He was rolling and ready to jump.  When NAPA Auto Parts left Michael Waltrip Racing, they partnered with Chase and JR Motorsports for the 2014 Xfinity Series campaign, a season where Elliott won three races and the championship with ease. On the eve of his 2015 campaign, Hendrick motorsports tapped the 19-year-old as Jeff Gordon’s replacement in the legendary No. 24 Chevy for 2016.  Elliott also drove five races in Cup for Hendrick in a NAPA No. 25 in preparation for his 2016 Cup career. He had a disastrous debut at Martinsville, but put together some solid runs aside from that. His 2015 NXS campaign netted just one win and a second-place points finish to champ and older young gun Chris Buescher. But Elliott remained extremely consistent in the No. 9 Chevy and carried momentum into the anointed 2016 Cup Series campaign.  Fairytale: commence. Elliott won the pole for the Daytona 500 and garnered extraordinary hype. But he got loose in the tri-oval early in the race and wrecked, as he raced three-wide in the middle. The rookie remained consistent, however, scoring his first-career top 10 the very next week at his hometrack, Atlanta Motor Speedway. Elliott went on an incredible run of top 10s and top 5s in the spring and early summer, then got into some scrapes and poor finishes. But he then scored his first of eight-career runner-up finishes at Michigan in August. Winner Kyle Larson passed him with 10 laps to go.  Elliott made a deep run into the 2016 Playoffs, but a wreck on a restart at Charlotte Motor Speedway swept him up and took him from championship contention. All in all, however, 2016 was a great rookie campaign and his numbers in 2017 were better. But a pattern had developed.  Elliott just wasn’t great at holding his position on restarts. He lost a World Crown 300 at Gresham Motorsports Park early in his Super Late Model career on a late race restart. And he famously lost several races in 2017 late in the going. Elliott finished 2nd in three out of four races to start the 2017 playoffs, including a Dover race he had in hand.  At Dover, Elliott had a comfortable lead, but didn’t change his line as Kyle Busch ate into the cushion. Busch passed Elliott with two laps to go. Elliott also led late at Martinsville, before Denny Hamlin infamously used him up and spun him out of contention for the race and likely the championship.  Then two races later on a late race restart at Phoenix, Elliott took the lead from Matt Kenseth, who made his Cup debut subbing for Bill in 1998. The restart, by the way, came as a result of Elliott and Hamlin racing hard, Elliott pinching Hamlin into the wall and giving him a tire rub, and Hamlin wrecking. Payback. Elliott led for 19 laps and then Kenseth got by him with 10 laps to go for his sentimental last win in the No. 20 car. Elliott was out of the Playoffs.  Hendrick Motorsports’ performance has been sluggish in 2018 and Elliott’s results have followed that arc. But the No. 9 team, rebranded for 2018 but with his No. 24 crew, has often beaten its four stablemates. Elliott got his 8th-career runner-up at Richmond in the spring, though he didn’t lead a lap. And while the No. 9 hasn’t been a factor most of the year, it has shown some life the last three weeks. Elliott was 5th at New Hampshire, 7th at Pocono (another race that he faded on the end race run), and then won Watkins Glen. He won Stage 2 in each race. Elliott was rapping on the winning door yet again.  Sunday’s race didn’t seem like Elliott’s at first, though the No. 9 started 3rd. Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota was on a rail, dominating Stage 1 until strategically pitting just before the green-checkered flag. Martin Truex Jr. won the stage and hung in the top 5 all race long. Busch, Elliott, Truex Jr., and Denny Hamlin all duked out the top 4 spots for much of the day, but Elliott won Stage 2 outright. He then lost the race off of pit road in a strange pit sequence that saw him almost run over a crew member and Busch have to pit again for a fueling issue. Busch’s miscue gave Elliott the lead on the restart and set up an epic Stage 3 showdown with Truex Jr.  As Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota closed in on Elliott’s No. 9, one could almost hear the “Jaws” music. Elliott Nation, just like any Georgia or Atlanta sports fan, was waiting for the choke once again. On a tricky road course, the chances for foibles are plentiful. Elliott almost cashed it in on Turn 1 of the final lap - he wheel-hopped. He broke down what happened in the Hendrick Motorsports post-race press release.  “I started wheel-hopping and I had two options – knock it out of gear or spin out,” he recalled of the split-second, clutch decision. “We were coming to that white flag, I felt like I had a pretty nice gap, just don't mess up, and I messed up, of course. I had to knock it out of gear and I completely missed Turn 1. Luckily, I had a big enough gap that he couldn't get up next to me.”  Elliott has infamously been hard on himself after his failures to execute. But he acknowledged that those hard times got him to where he is now.  “You have to realize that you were in those positions for a reason, A; and B, if you were in them at one point in time, you can get back to them and learn from whatever it was that prevented you from ultimately getting a win and try to correct it to do so.”  Recalling these moments and the early career of who is now the heir to the moniker of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver gives a pathology of where Elliott is now. He no longer has to answer the question of how much pressure he is under to win. Really, he has gotten that question since he was in grade school. And Elliott has always had to live in the shadow (or glow) of his father’s greatness and expectations based upon the smoothly paved road to his career.  The Apostle Paul writes in the Bible about trials wisely in Romans chapter 5, verses 3-4: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”  Elliott and his Alan Gustafson-led team have certainly persevered through their hard times. That’s gained them the character of these losses - loss being something Elliott even surprisingly experienced in some of his formative racing years. And with that character - and now a win - there is hope for more Victory Lane champagne and, with a guaranteed playoff berth, even a championship.

News

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance late Friday concerning the wearing of cloth face masks while out in public. The CDC, according to President Donald Trump, said that people, when going to public locations, should now wear “non-medical, cloth face coverings.” The action is voluntary, Trump said in his afternoon press briefing. Since the beginning of the battle against COVID-19, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said that people didn’t need to wear masks unless they were sick and coughing, The New York Times reported prior to Trump’s announcement. Thursday evening, Trump had said his administration would have regulations when it came to the general population and the wearing of masks. Some opportunities for wearing masks while in public would be when going to pharmacies and grocery stores, the Times reported. Many people may now be looking for ways to make their own personal protective equipment or to make PPE for those working the front lines. There are many designs to make, from no-sew options to ones that need some needle and thread. No Sew Supplies: A bandanna or piece of finished cloth Hair elastics Sewn versions Supplies: Paper, to make a pattern Cotton fabric Fusible interfacing Elastic Pins Sewing machine The New York Times has an alternate pattern. Click here for step by step instructions. Kaiser Permanente has also shared a design approved by the health system for donation to hospitals, The Washington Post reported.
  • A Brooklyn landlord waived this month’s rent for hundreds of his tenants. Mario Salerno posted signs on the 18 buildings he owns throughout the borough letting tenants know they do not have to pay April’s rent, The New York Times reported. “My concern is everyone’s health,” Salerno told the Times. “I told them just to look out for your neighbor and make sure that everyone has food on their table.” Salerno had not calculated how much he would be losing from not collecting rent on the 80 apartments, but it’s likely hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Times reported. “I’m really not concerned about the rent right now, I’m concerned about people’s health,” Salerno told Greenpointers.com. “Not only are we up against an epidemic, these poor people have no jobs and they’re worried about getting sick. I didn’t think it was much on a person like me, who God was good to, to help them all out.” It has helped ease the stress for some tenants who are out of work because of the coronavirus. Tenant Paul Gentile has lived four years in one of Salerno’s buildings. He works as an attorney but lost his job when the courthouses closed March 18. “You don’t see that, especially in a landlord-tenant relationship in New York City,” Gentile told the Times. “He’s amazing.”
  • A Michigan sugar company purchased $131,000 worth of gift cards from restaurants in communities where it operates. The Michigan Sugar Co. gave each of its 1,300 employees a $100 gift card from more than 50 restaurants, MLive reported. “We hope this helps ease the pain of this pandemic for those businesses just a little bit,” Michigan Sugar Co. Board Chairman Adam Herford told MLive. The company has also donated personal protection equipment including masks, gloves and safety glasses to Michigan-area health care facilities.
  • A Detroit bus driver who complained about a coughing passenger in a video posted on social media, has died from the coronavirus. Jason Hargrove got sick four days after posting the video on March 21 where he went on a profanity-laced tirade about a woman who coughed repeatedly while on the bus. The bus drivers’ unions said Hargrove, 50, died Wednesday. The coronavirus can spread through the air, health officials have said. “Public workers doing our job, trying to make (an) honest living, take care of our families,” Hargrove said in the video. “For you to get on the bus ... and cough several times without covering up your mouth and you know (we’re) in the middle of a pandemic — that lets me know that some folks don’t care.” The city stopped collecting fares March 17. The buses were to be more thoroughly cleaned and passengers were required to enter and exit from the rear door only. Mayor Mike Duggan expressed condolences and urged others to watch Hargroves’ video. “He was infected before we closed the front doors (on buses),” Duggan said. “Some of his language is graphic, but I don’t know how you can watch it and not tear up. He knew his life was being put in jeopardy ... by someone who didn’t take this seriously and now he’s gone.”
  • A Pennsylvania man who lost a lung to cancer about a decade ago has survived another health battle -- this time, with the coronavirus. It started as what he assumed was just a cold, but when Richard Botti, 61, started to feel lung pain in early March, he thought his cancer had returned. It turned out to be COVID-19 instead. Because of his previous bout with cancer, he was at higher risk. His family told WPXI they got very concerned when his conditioned started to worsen. “It slowly got worse and he wasn’t getting out of bed,” said Vanessa Venezie, his daughter. “You immediately think the worst because of everything you’re seeing and reading.” He soon tested positive for the coronavirus and had to be hospitalized. However, he pulled through, spending 11 days at Heritage Valley Hospital hooked up to oxygen. Botti’s daughter wanted to share not all coronavirus outcomes are grim. “We’re just really happy and we want people to know there is hope for them,” Venezie said. “Stay focused on the positive. Do things that make you feel good. We can all get trapped in the negative.” Botti was taken back home by medics in an ambulance equipped to handle COVID-19 cases. He has to self-isolate in his room away from his family for two weeks.
  • More than one million people worldwide -- including more than 245,000 people in the United States – have been infected with the new coronavirus, and the number of deaths from the outbreak continues to rise. Officials are attempting to contain the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. as hospitals brace for unprecedented patient surges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking cases in the U.S. here. Live updates for Friday, April 3, continue below:  CDC advises public to wear masks as death toll tops 7,000 Update 6 p.m. EDT April 3: President Donald Trump says his administration is encouraging many Americans to wear face masks in public, though he stresses that the recommendation is optional and is conceding that he will not be complying with it. The new guidelines, announced Friday, encourage people to use more rudimentary covering like T-shirts, bandannas and non-medical masks. And President Donald Trump himself suggested scarves could be an good alternative to masks. While these new recommendations were being announced Friday evening, the U.S. death toll increased to 7,077 according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Hobby Lobby closes all store locations Update 5:15 p.m. EDT April 3: Hobby Lobby is closing all its stores nationwide and furloughing employees without pay. The arts and crafts store released a statement Friday saying it’s closing its doors due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hobby Lobby also said in the statement that it will be furloughing a large portion of corporate and distribution employees. Hobby Lobby statement: 'As the country continues efforts to manage and mitigate the devastating health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 virus, Hobby Lobby will, after careful consideration, close the remainder of its stores, and furlough nearly all store employees and a large portion of corporate and distribution employees, effective Friday, April 3rd, at 8:00 p.m. The stores will remain closed until further notice. “In order to allow our furloughed employees to take full advantage of the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation and Recovery Rebates provided to eligible employees by the federal government, we are ending emergency leave pay and suspending use of Company provided paid time off benefits (PPTO and Vacation) in accordance with the requirements outlined in the CARES Act (subject to State law requirements). However, we will maintain medical, dental, life, and long-term disability benefits for employees while furloughed through at least May 1, 2020, and will pay the cost of employee premiums for these benefits on behalf of employees while furloughed without pay. We encourage furloughed employees to file their claims with their State’s unemployment commissions as soon as possible. Upon return, employees will retain their original dates of hire and any accrued PPTO and Vacation. Our sincere gratitude goes out to our dedicated employees at this difficult time, and we look forward to the day when we can welcome them back, once we are able to reopen.” “We know our customers relied on us to provide essential products, including materials to make personal protective equipment, such as face masks, educational supplies for the countless parents who are now educating their children from home, and the thousands of small arts and crafts businesses who rely on us for supplies to make their products. Over the past several weeks, we implemented several best practices to provide a safer shopping environment, including the installation of physical barriers between customers and cashiers, enhanced cleaning, and the enforcement of social distancing measures. We are prepared to reopen our stores in a responsible way when the current situation improves, and look forward to welcoming our valued customers back to our stores. Until then, we pray for those affected by the virus, protection for the health care professionals caring for the sick, economic security for all impacted businesses and employees, and wisdom for our leaders.” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announces stay at home order starting Saturday Update 5:15 p.m. EDT April 3: Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a shelter-in-place order that will go into effect 5 p.m. Saturday. Republican governors in Florida, Mississippi and Georgia on Wednesday also reversed course and issued stay-home directives after previously resisting such a statewide order. Nationwide death toll approaches 7,000 Update 4:45 p.m. EDT April 3: According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, there have been at least 6,889 deaths from the 266,671 cases in the U.S. New York state alone accounts for more than 2,900 dead, an increase of over 560 in just one day. Most of the dead are in New York City, where hospitals are getting swamped with patients. About 15,000 people were hospitalized statewide, most of them in the city. White House to test anyone expected to be near Trump, Pence for COVID-19 Update 3:45 p.m. EDT April 3: The White House is stepping up precautions to protect the president and vice president from contracting the new coronavirus. Starting Friday, anyone who is expected to be in “close proximity” to either President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence will be given a quick COVID-19 test “to evaluate for pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers status to limit inadvertent transmission,' according to White House spokesman Judd Deere. All visitors to the White House complex already have their temperatures taken when entering the building and if they will be in close proximity to either Trump or Pence. Trump took the new COVID-19 test on Thursday and the White House doctor said results were back in 15 minutes. He tested negative. California reports 10,701 confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide Update 3:35 p.m. EDT April 3: Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said Friday that 10,701 coronavirus infections have been confirmed in the state. Newsom said 2,188 of those infections were serious enough to require hospitalization. He added that 901 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units Friday. “This disease can impact anyone,” he said. “Stay home. Take this seriously.” Supreme Court postpones oral arguments Update 3:30 p.m. EDT April 3: Officials with the Supreme Court on Friday announced the postponement of oral arguments planned for the Court’s April session due to the coronavirus outbreak. Court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg said officials with consider rescheduling cases from the March and April sessions for later in the Court’s term, if possible. “The Court will consider a range of scheduling options and other alternatives if arguments cannot be held in the courtroom before the end of the term,” she said. Arberg added that justices will continue to review cases argued so far this term and post opinions on the Supreme Court’s website. 3,067 COVID-19 cases reported in Tennessee Update 3:10 p.m. EDT April 3: Officials in Tennessee reported 3,067 total coronavirus cases across the state Friday, WHBQ-TV reported. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Health said 293 of those cases were serious enough to require hospitalization. Thirty-seven people have died of COVID-19 in the state while 248 people have recovered, according to WHBQ-TV. Ohio considering releasing some inmates due to coronavirus Update 3:05 p.m. EDT April 3: Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio said Friday that authorities are looking into the possibility of releasing 23 women who are pregnant or have had a child in prison, WHIO-TV reported. Officials said there were also 15 people over the age of 60 who are within 60 days of their planned prison release dates who might also be released. Authorities said all the inmates being considered for early release are non-violent, non-sexual offenders, according to WHIO-TV. Officials with the Ohio Department of Health have reported 3,312 coronavirus cases in the state. The virus has claimed at least 91 lives in Ohio. 1 in 5 Americans killed by COVID-19 middle-aged Update 2:50 p.m. EDT April 3: A first look at recent U.S. death certificate data confirmed that most of the initial American coronavirus deaths were people age 65 and older. But it also notes that about 1 in 5 were middle-aged. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted the data online Friday. It reflects 1,150 U.S. coronavirus deaths that occurred through the last week of March. That tally is several hundred deaths lower than other totals reported for the same period, because it relies on death certificate information which can come in weeks after other kinds of reports. The new data said 56% of deaths were people 75 and older, and another 23% were people in their late 60s and early 70s. But another 17% were ages 45 to 64, and 3% were 35 to 44. The statistics were smaller for younger adults. One child died. Pennsylvania governor urges residents to wear cloth masks in public Update 2:40 p.m. EDT April 3: Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and state Secretary of Health Rachel Levine urged people Friday to begin wearing masks in public in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, WPXI reported. Officials stressed that N95 respirator and surgical masks were not necessary. Instead, they suggested people wear cloth masks, a bandanna or something similar to cover people’s noses and mouths, according to WPXI. “Wearing a mask will help us cut down the possibility that we might be infecting an innocent bystander, like the grocery store cashier, the pharmacist, or someone stocking shelves,” Wolf said. “These people are keeping us alive by getting us the supplies we need. We owe it to them to do everything we can to keep them safe. Right now, that means wearing a mask.” Mississippi officials report 181 new coronavirus cases Update 2:25 p.m. EDT April 3: Health officials in Mississippi reported 181 new coronavirus infections Friday, bringing the state’s total number of cases to 1,358, WHBQ-TV reported. Officials also reported three new deaths, according to WHBQ-TV. Statewide, 1,358 people have died of COVID-19, officials said. 2 more federal inmates die of COVID-19, officials say Update 2:15 p.m. EDT April 3: Officials with the Federal Bureau of Prisons on Friday announced two more inmates have died of COVID-19. Authorities said Wallace Holley Jr., a 56-year-old inmate at the Federal Correction Institution Oakdale I in Oakdale, Louisiana, died Thursday. Officials said Holley, who had long-term,pre-existing medical conditions, tested positive for COVID-19 prior to his death. Margarito Garcia-Fragoso, a 65-year-old inmate at Federal Satellite Low Institution Elkton in Lisbon, Ohio, also died Thursday after he tested positive for COVID-19. He also had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions, officials said. COVID-19 cases top 10,000 in Louisiana Update 1:55 p.m. EDT April 3: Health officials in Louisiana reported 1,157 new coronavirus infections Friday, raising the state’s total number of cases to 10,297. Officials with the Louisiana Department of Health also noted the death toll attributed to the coronavirus doubled from the 185 reported Thursday to 370. IMF official: Recession caused by coronavirus ‘a crisis like no other’ Update 1:50 p.m. EDT April 3: The head of the International Monetary Fund says the recession sparked by the coronavirus pandemic is “way worse” than the 2008 global recession. IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva described the situation as “a crisis like no other.” “Never in the history of the IMF have we witnessed the world economy coming to a standstill,” she said. “We are now in recession, it is way worse than the global financial crisis and it is a crisis that requires all of us to come together.' Georgieva said 90 countries have already approached the institution for emergency financing. She called on countries to prioritize health expenditures and to make sure doctors, nurses and other health workers are paid. She added that the world’s most fragile countries must be protected, noting that “$90 billion have flown out” and damaged emerging economies. 4,372 new coronavirus cases reported in New Jersey Update 1:40 p.m. EDT April 3: Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey said Friday that 4,372 new COVID-19 cases have been reported, bringing the statewide total to 29,895. In addition, Murphy said 113 new fatal coronavirus cases were identified. In all, 646 people have died of COVID-19 in the state. Murphy identified one of the victims as James Brown, the principal of Grover Middle School in Caldwell. He was 48 years old. CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin tests positive for COVID-19 Update 1:15 p.m. EDT April 3: CNN reporter Brooke Baldwin announced Friday on Instagram that she’s been diagnosed with COVID-19. “I am OKAY,” she wrote Friday. “It came on suddenly yesterday afternoon. Chills, aches, fever. I’ve been social distancing. Doing ALL the things we’re being told to do. Still -- it got me.” She said she has no underlying health conditions and that overall, she feels “like one of the lucky ones.” “I look forward to being back on (television) and seeing you real soon,' she wrote. She also thanked health care workers for their efforts on the front line of the coronavirus battle. Baldwin is at least the second CNN anchor to test positive for coronavirus. Earlier, reporter Chris Cuomo said he was self-isolating after being diagnosed with the viral infection. Special small business loans available beginning Friday Update 1:10 p.m. EDT April 3: Beginning Friday, small businesses struggling to stay afloat as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread across the United States can apply for the nearly $350 billion in loans set up through the CARES Act passed by Congress last month. Four programs are now in place to help small businesses to stay in business until the public health crisis triggered by COVID-19 abates. The programs came from the CARES Act which was signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27. 109 new coronavirus cases reported in Oklahoma Update 12:45 p.m. EDT April 3: Officials in Oklahoma said 109 new coronavirus infections were reported Friday, raising the total number of cases in the state to 988, according to KOKI-TV. Four new coronavirus-related deaths were also reported in the state, bringing Oklahoma’s COVID-19 death toll to 38. The four new fatal cases involved patients who were all over 65 years old. Pennsylvania officials report 1,404 new coronavirus cases Update 12:40 p.m. EDT April 3: Officials in Pennsylvania reported 1,404 new coronavirus infections Friday, bringing the state’s total to 8,420, WPXI reported. In addition, officials with the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 12 more deaths. Statewide 102 people have died of COVID-19, according to WPXI. 104 new coronavirus infections reported in DC Update 12:20 p.m. EDT April 3: Officials in Washington D.C. said 104 new coronavirus infections have been reported, bringing the total in the district to 757. Mayor Muriel Bowser said three new fatal cases were also reported Friday. In all, 15 people have died due to COVID-19 in Washington D.C. Delta Air Lines giving passengers 2 years to rebook flights Update 12:15 p.m. EDT April 3: Delta Air Lines announced Friday that the company is extending its window to redeem travel credits from one to two years amid the coronavirus outbreak. The change will allow for travel credits to be used through May 2022. “Just as our business is changing, we know that events in our customers’ lives are being changed and canceled, too,” airline officials said Friday in a statement. “Whether customers have been affected by recent schedule adjustments or want additional reassurance about upcoming travel, we’re now extending the ability to plan, re-book and travel with us for up to two years – giving Delta customers some extra breathing room.” Temporary military hospitals to begin taking COVID-19 patients, Pentagon says Update 11:55 a.m. EDT April 3: The Pentagon said it will begin accepting COVID-19 positive patients at Pentagon-supported medical facilities in Dallas and New Orleans that previously had been designated as non-COVID hospitals. COVID-19 positive patients in convalescent care and those deemed non-urgent cases will be accepted at the Morial federal medical station in New Orleans and at the Kay Bailey Hutchison federal medical center in Dallas. These patients must first be screened at a local hospital. President Donald Trump on Thursday announced that he had approved New York’s request that COVID-19 patients be accepted for care at the Pentagon-supported Javits center, which previously had taken on non-COVID patients. The Pentagon also said Friday that screening for care of non-COVID-19 patients on the hospital ship USNS Comfort in New York harbor is being modified in an effort to reduce a backlog at some New York hospitals. Instead of requiring patients to be tested for COVID-19 at the hospital from which they are being transferred, each patient transferred to the Comfort will be screened by temperature and given a short questionnaire pier-side. The Pentagon also announced that the number of COVID-19 positive cases in the active-duty military had risen to 978 as of Friday morning. That is up 85 from a day earlier. New York reports 562 new fatal COVID-19 cases Update 11:30 a.m. EDT April 3: Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said the state saw its “highest single increase in the number of deaths since we started” on Friday. Officials reported 562 new deaths attributed to COVID-19, bringing the state’s death toll to 2,373. 102,863 coronavirus infections reported in New York Update 11:20 a.m. EDT April 3: Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said Friday that 10,481 new coronavirus infections have been reported, bringing the state’s total number of COVID-19 cases to 102,863. New York has been the state hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. UK prime minister to continue self-isolating Update 11 a.m. EDT April 3: Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom said Friday that he will continue to self-isolate past the recommended seven-day period as he deals with a “minor symptom” lingering since his COVID-19 diagnosis. Johnson said he continues to have a fever. “In accordance with government advice, I must continue my self-isolation until that symptom itself goes,' he said. “But we’re clearly working the whole time on our program to defeat the virus.” Mayor tells New York City residents to wear face coverings in public Update 10:50 a.m. EDT April 3: Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City said Friday that residents should wear face coverings while around people who are not part of their families or households to stymie the spread of the new coronavirus. He said in a video posted Friday to Twitter that he’s been asked several times recently whether masks are appropriate for people in the general public. “The masks -- the surgical masks, those N95 masks -- we want to keep those for the health care workers, for the first responders,” he said. “We’re now advising all New Yorkers, when you go outside and you’re close to other people -- not your own family and people under your same roof, but when you’re close to other people -- have a bandanna, a scarf, some kind of face covering you can use when you happen to be in close proximity to people.” He emphasized that the mask does not protect against coronavirus and urged people to continue keeping at least 6 feet of space between each other. “(This) will help make sure that if, God forbid you’ve contracted the disease, even if you’re not yet symptomatic, that you won’t inadvertently spread it to someone else,” he said. “It’s a precaution to protect others.” Cruise ship en route to Florida confirms 12 COVID-19 cases Update 10:20 a.m. EDT April 3: Health officials have confirmed a dozen coronavirus infections on a Princess Cruise Lines ship headed toward Fort Lauderdale, Florida, company officials said Thursday. Princess Cruise Lines said that on Tuesday, crew members on the Coral Princess sent 13 COVID-19 test samples to health officials in Barbados. Of those, samples from seven guests and five crew members tested positive for the viral infection. The Coral Princess had set sail March 5 from Chile, one week before Princess Cruises announced a 60-day pause of operations. It was scheduled to travel to Argentina, where passengers were set to disembark March 19. Stocks open lower after US government reports 700,000 job losses Update 9:50 a.m. EDT April 3: Stocks wavered in early trading on Wall Street after the U.S. government reported that more than 700,000 jobs were lost last month. Businesses have shut down across the country and the world as people stay home in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. The S&P 500 was up 0.4% in the first few minutes of trading. European markets were down Friday after losses in most of Asia. The price of oil continued to rise on hopes for a global deal to limit overproduction, which helped boost energy stocks. The price of benchmark U.S. crude rose 7%. Grupo Modelo to halt production of Corona beer Update 9:45 a.m. EDT April 3: Grupo Modelo, the Mexican company that brews Corona beer, said Friday in a statement that it will halt production of the drink and others it brews to comply with Mexico’s closure of non-essential businesses. U.S. economy lost 701,000 jobs in March Update 9:15 a.m. EDT April 3: A new report from the Labor Department on Friday showed the economic storm associated with the coronavirus battering the U.S. economy in March, causing the loss of 701,000 jobs, and pushing the jobless rate up by almost one percent -- the largest monthly increase in over 45 years. The unemployment rate was at 4.4 percent in March, not far under the 4.7 percent rate when President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the highest jobless rate of his presidency. 'Employment in leisure and hospitality fell by 459,000, mainly in food services and drinking places,' the Labor Department reported. “Notable declines also occurred in health care and social assistance, professional and business services, retail trade, and construction,” the report added. UK officials report 684 new fatal coronavirus cases  Update 9:05 a.m. EDT April 3: Officials in the United Kingdom recorded 684 new fatal COVID-19 cases on Friday, raising the country’s coronavirus death toll to 3,605. The number is slightly higher than the 569 deaths reported Thursday. Authorities with the British Department of Health and Social Care also announced 4,450 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases. In all, officials said 33,718 people have been diagnosed with coronavirus infections in the U.K. Germany becomes 4th nation to surpass China’s total coronavirus count Update 7:53 a.m. EDT April 3: The global death toll attributed to the novel coronavirus hit 54,137 early Friday, and Spain’s total number of infections surpassed that of Italy, according to a tally maintained by Johns Hopkins University. In the four months since the virus was first identified in Wuhan, China, it has infected at least 1,030,628 people worldwide. Four countries – the United States, Spain, Italy and Germany – have now confirmed total infection counts well above China’s 82,509 tally. • The United States has reported 245,573 cases, resulting in 6,058 deaths. • Spain has reported 117,710 infections, resulting in 10,935 deaths. • Italy has confirmed 115,242 cases, resulting in 13,915 deaths. • Germany has reported 85,063 cases, resulting in 1,111 deaths. • China has recorded 82,509 cases, resulting in 3,326 deaths. • France has confirmed 59,929 infections, resulting in 5,398 deaths. • Iran has recorded 53,183 cases, resulting in 3,160 deaths. • The United Kingdom has reported 34,192 cases, resulting in 2,926 deaths. • Switzerland has confirmed 19,145 cases, resulting in 573 deaths. • Turkey has recorded 18,135 cases, resulting in 356 deaths. UK field hospital NHS Nightingale opens less than 2 weeks after project began Update 7:41 a.m. EDT April 3: Less than two weeks after crews began repurposing London’s ExCel conference center to accommodate overflow novel coronavirus patients, the NHS Nightingale field hospital stands ready to serve. Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, called the timely transformation a “spectacular and almost unbelievable feat.” “(It’s) an example – if ever one was needed – of how the impossible could be made possible,” he said Friday via a video-link from Scotland, where he has been self-isolating after being diagnosed with the virus in March. “In this dark time, this place will be a shining light,” Prince Charles said, adding, “It is symbolic of the selfless care and devoted service taking place in innumerable settings, with countless individuals throughout the United Kingdom.” To date, the United Kingdom has reported 34,192 cases, resulting in 2,926 deaths. Coronavirus cases continue mounting in Brazil, Japan Update 6:56 a.m. EDT April 3: With more than 1 million novel coronavirus cases now recorded worldwide, new – and some old – hotspots are emerging as the pandemic continues its global spread. • Brazil confirmed Thursday its third consecutive day logging at least 1,000 new cases. The South American country now reports a total of 7,910 infections, which have resulted in at least 299 deaths. • Japan confirmed early Friday that 235 additional novel coronavirus cases have brought the East Asian country’s total to 3,329, resulting in at least 63 deaths. • Tokyo reported its largest single-day increase in new cases on Friday with 97. Japan’s capital city has now confirmed a total of 684 cases. Portion of famed Paris market repurposed as makeshift morgue Update 6:33 a.m. EDT April 3: A portion of the Rungis food market on the outskirts of Paris has been converted into a temporary morgue to handle the swelling number of novel coronavirus fatalities reported in the region. According to The Washington Post, the Paris Police Prefecture is converting one isolated building in the world’s largest meat and vegetable market into a makeshift morgue, capable of accommodating between 800 and 1,000 coffins. “This location will permit the coffins of the deceased to be kept in the most dignified and acceptable conditions from a health point of view, pending their burial or cremation in France or abroad,” the prefecture said in a statement, circulated widely among French media. According to a tally maintained by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, France has recorded at least 59,929 COVID-19 infections since the global pandemic began, resulting in 5,398 fatalities. Libya confirms 1st coronavirus-related death Update 4:35 a.m. EDT April 3: Libya’s National Center for Disease Control confirmed the country’s first novel coronavirus-related fatality in a statement released Thursday. The patient, who was not diagnosed until after hear death, was an 85-year-old woman. According to a tally maintained by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the North African nation has reported a total of 11 infections to date. Lenders question Friday rollout of $349B small business coronavirus relief program Update 4:23 a.m. EDT April 3: The $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program is slated to launch today, but banks tapped to disperse the emergency federal small business loans told The Washington Post they are skeptical the plan is rollout-ready. “Having just received guidance outlining how to implement a $349 billion program literally hours before it starts, we would ask for everyone to be patient as banks move heaven and earth to get a system in place and running to help America’s small businesses and the millions of men and women who work at them,” Richard Hunt, president and chief executive officer of the Consumer Bankers Association, said in a statement. The Paycheck Protection Program, considered a key element of the $2.2 trillion economic relief package approved by Congress one week ago, is intended to deliver a “sharply streamlined, same-day approval process unheard of in the history of federally backed small business lending,” the Post reported. Several participating lenders indicated in interviews with the Post as late as Thursday, however, that they are still awaiting finalized program guidelines from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Small Business Administration before processing any applications despite today’s launch date. Amid coronavirus crisis Disney to furlough employees ‘whose jobs aren't necessary at this time’ Update 3:28 a.m. EDT April 3: Walt Disney Co. has officially notified employees that those “whose jobs aren’t necessary at this time” will be furloughed beginning April 19. The global entertainment empire shuttered all 12 of its theme parks on March 12 and has been paying its employees salaries in the interim. Per the latest announcement, those payments will cease on April 18. The company said in its statement it has been “forced to make the difficult decision to take the next step and furlough employees” because there is “no clear indication of when we can restart our businesses.” All furloughed workers will remain employed by Disney and retain their benefits. Mexico’s Grupo Modelo halts production of Corona beer Update 2:54 a.m. EDT April 3: Mexican brewer Grupo Modelo announced late Thursday it will temporarily halt production of Corona beer as the novel coronavirus pandemic pits essential products against those deemed nonessential. In a news release, Grupo Modelo said the move is in response to the Mexican government’s Tuesday directive that suspends temporarily most industries not deemed “essential” services such as health care and agriculture. In turn, the company plans to cease producing its brews on Sunday with no clear timeline outlined for a return to production. Supplies seized from suspected Brooklyn hoarder donated to medical staffs fighting coronavirus Update 2:32 a.m. EDT April 3: Some New York and New Jersey medical personnel are slightly better stocked after a Brooklyn man’s arrest led authorities to a stockpile of hoarded medical supplies, CNN reported. Prosecutors contend in court documents that Baruch Feldheim, 43, sold N95 masks to doctors and nurses at substantially inflated prices. In turn, the roughly 192,000 in-demand respirator masks and assorted other supplies are being redistributed to medical personnel across New York and New Jersey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Sony launches $100 million global coronavirus relief fund Update 2 a.m. EDT April 3: Sony is preparing to launch $100 million fund to provide global relief to those affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic. “Sony extends its condolences to the families of those who have passed away as a result of the coronavirus crisis and extends its sympathies to all those who have been impacted,” Kenichiro Yoshida, Sony’s president and chief executive officer, said in a prepared statement, adding, “In order to overcome the unprecedented challenges that as a society we now face around the world, we will do all we can as a global company to support the individuals on the front lines of the battle against coronavirus the children who are our future, and those who have been impacted in the creative community.' US coronavirus deaths hit 6,053, total cases top 245K Update 12:30 a.m. EDT April 3: The number of novel coronavirus cases in the United States surpassed 245,000 early Friday morning across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, there are at least 245,540 confirmed U.S. cases of the virus, which have resulted in at least 6,053 deaths. U.S. cases now more than double the 115,242 reported in Italy and the 112,065 confirmed in Spain. Of the confirmed U.S. deaths, 2,374 – or roughly 40 percent of the nationwide total – have occurred in New York, 537 in New Jersey and 417 in Michigan.  In terms of diagnosed cases, New York remains the hardest hit with at least 92,720 confirmed cases – or more than three times the next-closest state – followed by New Jersey with 25,590 and California with 11,042. Seven other states have now confirmed at least 6,000 novel coronavirus cases each, including: • Michigan: 10,791, including 417 deaths • Louisiana: 9,159, including 310 deaths • Florida: 9,008, including 144 deaths • Massachusetts: 8,966, including 154 deaths • Illinois: 7,695, including 163 deaths • Pennsylvania: 7,268, including 90 deaths • Washington: 6,588, including 271 deaths Meanwhile, Georgia and Texas each has confirmed at least 5,000 novel coronavirus infections; Connecticut, Colorado and Indiana each has confirmed at least 3,000 cases; and Ohio, Tennessee and Maryland each has confirmed at least 2,000 cases. Click here to see CNN’s state-by-state breakdown. The Associated Press contributed to this report.