Five things to watch in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway


MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Cramped confines, constant congestion and a crawling pace.

With the flat turns of its beloved paper clip-shaped layout, Martinsville Speedway is the most agonizingly easy track to deliver a terse message of rage during a race in NASCAR’s premier series.

It’ll be remarkably easy after Sunday’s STP 500, too.

The 133rd race at Martinsville in the Sprint Cup circuit will be the first since NASCAR changed its postrace parking policies this season. All cars now are stopped in the pits to raise the hood and remove the tapered spaces used to decrease horsepower.

That already helped engender confrontations at Daytona International Speedway between Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano.

Those might pale when measured against the powder keg that could be ignited Sunday when 43 weary drivers exit their cars within swinging distance of each other after 500 laps of blood-boiling, patience-sapping madness at Martinsville.

At the 0.526 mile oval that is the shortest in NASCAR, it never is a matter of if tempers will flare – it’s whose, why and when.

“Contact is almost unavoidable at this racetrack,” Denny Hamlin said. “If you put us on a quarter-mile track, we’re probably going to have even more altercations with each other. It’s just the smaller the track, the more chances of that is going to be inevitable.”

Unlike the series’ most recent stop at Auto Club Speedway, which features multiple lanes for passing, there is only one preferred line around the track, and it’s navigated at an average speed around 95 mph that feels like a snail’s pace compared to the supersonic

As drivers fight to keep ill-handling cars glued to the bottom each lap, the pressure builds along with the knowledge that playing rough is tricky.

“You get mad at guys, but you have to understand that if you want to run over a guy 100 laps into the race, he is going to have 400 opportunities to get you back,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “You better have a damn good reason I guess to go pushing guys around.”

Said Logano, who will start on the pole Sunday: “There’s a lot of mistakes that happen and, even though it’s a mistake, it still makes you mad if you’re on the bad end of the deal. And then also it’s hard to pass, so then when you’re trying to pass someone for 20 laps, eventually you get frustrated and then that guy gives you the bumper, and it escalates from there.”

The vitriol extends beyond the drivers, too, leaving team members just as on edge.

“Every time somebody takes a swipe at your race car you get a little bit madder and a little bit madder,” said Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson. “It’s not just the guys inside the race car.”

That could make for an emotionally combustible atmosphere as drivers begin climbing out of their cars Sunday.

NASCAR rules preclude more than two crew members being present for the removal of the tapered spacer, so that could limit the potential for a fracas worthy of the Texas Motor Speedway brawl last November between the crews of Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon that resulted in the suspensions of four team members.

Some teams will be self-policing, though.

“I don’t think I have to remind my guys,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Gordon, said with a broad smile. “We are good on that.”

Other storylines to watch Sunday:

Built to last: Through practice and qualifying, it’s been difficult to judge the impact from the reduction of 125 horsepower in this season’s engines. Drivers seem to be experimenting with shifting, though, and that could put some undue stress on engines and parts that isn’t normal for Martinsville.

A new gearing rules also could force drivers into relying more heavily on their brakes, but a brisk forecast (temperatures in the 40s are expected) could help negate overheating.

Burning rubber: There will be a two-fold focus on tires.

In a cost-saving measure, NASCAR is allowing teams one fewer set of tires at this race, which could wreak havoc on strategies if Sunday’s race turns into a caution-filled affair (Knaus said the No. 48 team used all 11 of its four-tire sets a year ago).

But there will be even more focus on Goodyears after the race, given that NASCAR confiscated four teams’ tires at Auto Club Speedway (and sent several for further investigation by an independent laboratory). With whispers of tire tampering lingering as the series’ hottest controversy, it seems likely NASCAR will seize more tires Sunday.

Denny’s day: Hamlin, a Chesterfield, Va., native, owned his home-state track from 2006-10 with four wins and eight top fives in nine races (the other finish was a sixth). But he has only one top five in the past seven starts as Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled to solve the short tracks.

With JGR and Toyota off to a slow start this season, Hamlin could use a triumphant return to winning form that would secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and allay myriad concerns for his team and manufacturer.

“It’s these tracks that you become a little more concerned with and are anxious for us to see where our program stands,” he said. “This is kind of a one-off race track that the driver can make up a little bit of a difference and that’s why you see the same drivers up front here really no matter what’s going on in their (teams). I’m very confident when we come here that this is one of those opportunities where you just need to seize as a race team. We should be in the mix.

“It’s been tough and it’s been a hard year for the organization and the manufacturer. Not that a win here would just satisfy all those needs – we still know that realistically we’ve got a lot of work to do — but it definitely would take a lot of pressure off because right now we’re all in that hornets’ nest.”

Perils of youth: The focus has been firmly on Chase Elliott and his Sprint Cup debut, but the 2014 Xfinity Series champion will be one of several newcomers at Martinsville. Jeb Burton, Brett Moffitt, Chris Buescher, Alex Kennedy and Matt DiBenedetto also are making their first starts here in a Sprint Cup car.

It could be a long afternoon particularly for DiBenedetto, who already drew the ire of Tony Stewart in practice.

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Milestones in reach for NASCAR Cup drivers in 2023


While the countdown to the start of the 2023 NASCAR season in February continues, here’s a look at some of the milestones Cup drivers could reach in the upcoming season:

AJ Allmendinger

Allmendinger returns to drive the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing in 2023. He’s scheduled to make his 400th career Cup start March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, a race he nearly won last year.

Aric Almirola

Almirola is 26 laps away from leading 1,000 laps in his Cup career.

Ryan Blaney 

Blaney is scheduled to make his 300th career Cup start Sept. 24 at Texas in the playoffs. Texas was the site of his last Cup win, which came in the All-Star Race in May.

Chase Briscoe

Briscoe is scheduled to make his 100th career Cup start Sept. 10 at Kansas in the playoffs.

Kyle Busch 

Busch needs one win to set the NASCAR record for most consecutive seasons with a win. He is tied with Richard Petty with 18 entering the 2023 season, which will see Busch drive for Richard Childress Racing.

Busch is 92 laps away from leading 19,000 laps in his Cup career.

He is 34 starts away from tying Dale Earnhardt Sr. for 23rd on the all-time list of most career starts at 676. Busch is scheduled to tie Earnhardt’s mark Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the playoffs and surpass the mark the next weekend at Martinsville Speedway in the playoffs.

William Byron 

Byron is scheduled to make his 200th career Cup start July 16 at New Hampshire.

Chase Elliott

Elliott is a win from scoring a victory in six consecutive Cup seasons.

He is 100 laps away from leading 5,000 in his Cup career.

Justin Haley

Haley is scheduled to make his 100th career Cup start Sept. 10 at Kansas in the playoffs.

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin is two wins away from 50 career Cup wins. That would tie him with Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 13th on the all-time victory list. 

Kevin Harvick

Harvick is scheduled to make his 800th career Cup start April 23 at Talladega.

He is 15 starts from tying Jeff Gordon for ninth on the all-time list for most career Cup starts at 805. Harvick is scheduled to tie Gordon’s mark June 4 at World Wide Technology Raceway and is scheduled to move ahead of Gordon on June 11 at Sonoma.

Harvick is 99 laps away from leading 16,000 laps in his Cup career.

He is five top fives away from having 250 in his Cup career.

Brad Keselowski

Keselowski is scheduled to make his 500th career Cup start June 4 at World Wide Technology Raceway.

He is 93 laps away from 9,000 career laps led in Cup.

Kyle Larson

Larson is scheduled to make his 300th career Cup start March 19 at Atlanta.

He is four top 10s away from 150 career top 10s.

Joey Logano

Logano is one win from having a Cup victory in 12 consecutive seasons, which would tie him for 13th on the all-time list with Denny Hamlin.

Logano is one top five away from 150 career top-five finishes.

He is nine starts away from tying Richard Petty for 19th on the all-time list of consecutive starts at 513. Logano is scheduled to reach that mark April 16 at Martinsville and surpass it April 23 at Talladega.

Tyler Reddick

Reddick is nine top 10s away from 50 career top 10s.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse is scheduled to make his 400th career start in the season finale at Phoenix.

He is five top 10s away from 50 career Cup top 10s.

Daniel Suarez

Suarez is one top 10 away from 50 career top 10s in Cup.

Martin Truex Jr.

Truex is 16 starts from tying Jeff Burton for 10th on the all-time list of consecutive starts at 628. Truex is scheduled to reach that mark at June 11 at Sonoma and surpass it June 25 at Nashville.

Bubba Wallace

Wallace is scheduled to make his 200th Cup start June 25 at Nashville.

Sammy Smith to run full Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023


Sammy Smith will run the full Xfinity schedule in the No. 18 car, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday.

The 18-year-old Smith, a Toyota development driver, won the ARCA Menards Series East title for a second consecutive year in 2022 and also made nine Xfinity starts with JGR.

Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt will be sponsors on Smith’s car throughout the 2023 season. Jeff Meendering will be Smith’s crew chief.

“This is an opportunity I have been working towards,” Smith said in a statement from the team. “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel full-time and am looking forward to a great season. I learned a lot in 2022 that will really help me to be competitive and run up front in the Xfinity Series. Thank you to Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Toyota Racing Development for supporting me in my racing career. I am excited for next year and appreciate the opportunity.”

Said Steve DeSouza, JGR executive vice president of Xfinity Series and driver development, in a statement: “Sammy is a fantastic addition to our 2023 Xfinity lineup. He proved to have the passion and the talent to necessary to compete for wins in the races he ran for us in 2022,” .“We are excited to get him in the No. 18 full time and know he will be competitive from the jump.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers


Some drivers carry one car number throughout their racing careers. The most famous racers in NASCAR’s 75-year history typically are associated with one number, although some have raced under several.

Victories, championships and driver personalities give life to something as generally mundane as a number. And the most popular produce even bigger numbers, as in sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most iconic NASCAR numbers:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 43 — Since Richard Petty’s emergence as a superstar in the 1960s, the number 43 has been NASCAR’s most iconic. Although Lee Petty, Richard’s father, usually drove No. 42, he actually scored the first win by the 43, in 1959. The Petty blue No. 43 carried Richard to a string of championships. He scored 192 of his 200 race wins with the number. It rolls on today with Erik Jones, who took the 43 to the Southern 500 victory lane this season.

2. 3 — The fiercely facing forward No. 3 became ultra-famous while driven by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt (although Earnhardt won his first title driving the No. 2). Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet carried the number to new heights, but Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Buddy Baker and Ricky Rudd, among others, also won in the car.

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

3. 21 — The list of drivers who have raced Wood Brothers Racing’s famous No. 21, with the familiar gold foil numbers, reads like a history of NASCAR. David Pearson brought the most fame to the number, but Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, team owner Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Dale Jarrett also have driven the 21.

4. 11 — This number is responsible for more race wins — 228 — than any other. It also has scored eight championships — three each by Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and two by Ned Jarrett. Other stars in the 11 over the years: Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and Denny Hamlin. And some guy named Mario Andretti.

5. 48 — This number was largely ignored until the arrival of Jimmie Johnson, who carried it to seven championships, including five in a row.

6. 24 — The number 24 was a lonely number until 1994 when a kid named Jeff Gordon drove it to its first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The brightly colored 24 became a regular visitor to victory lane from that point forward, carrying Gordon to four championships and becoming one of NASCAR’s most decorated numbers.

MORE: Will Kyle Busch follow footsteps of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

7. 18 — Although Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte won in the 18, Kyle Busch, draped in the bright colors of sponsor M&Ms, took it into new territory.

8. 22 — NASCAR’s first Cup champion (Red Byron) and its most recent (Joey Logano) rode with the 22. The number has produced 87 wins over the years, including victories by Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Byron and Logano.

9. 2 — Although the 2 carried Dale Earnhardt (1980) and Brad Keselowski (2012) to Cup championships, it is perhaps most identified with Rusty Wallace, whose menacing black No. 2 was powerful at Team Penske. Also successful in the 2: Bill Blair, Kurt Busch and Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

10. 9 — The 9 was basically nondescript until Bill Elliott roared out of the north Georgia mountains to turn it into a big winner in the mid-1980s. His son, Chase, continues the trend.



Truck Series: Rajah Caruth joins GMS Racing


Rajah Caruth will drive the No. 24 truck full-time for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023, the team announced Tuesday.

The 20-year-old Caruth ran a full season in the ARCA Menards Series last year, placing third in points. He also made seven Xfinity starts and four Truck starts last year. 

“I am extremely honored, and really excited to join GMS Racing and be in the fold of a professional race team with so much history,” Caruth said in a statement from the team. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this throughout my whole career, and I’m going to do the best in my power to make the most of it.

“First and foremost, I can’t thank everybody at GMS enough for believing in me and believing that I have what it takes to drive one of their trucks. Same goes for everybody at Chevrolet for their support, we truly wouldn’t be able to make this happen without them. 

Caruth joins Grant Enfinger and Daniel Dye as GMS Racing’s full-time Craftsman Truck Series drivers. Chad Walter will be Caruth’s crew chief. Jeff Hensley will be Enfinger’s crew chief. Travis Sharpe will be Dye’s crew chief. 

The primary partner on Caruth’s truck will be the Wendell Scott Foundation. The foundation, named for the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race, seeks to provide resources and services to underprivileged Black youth communities near Scott’s hometown of Danville, Virginia. Since the foundation’s formation in 2011, more than 25 students have been awarded more than $50,000 from the Wendell Scott Legacy Scholarship programs.

“We are excited for Rajah to compete full-time with GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023,” said Dayne Pierantoni, GM Racing Program Manager for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “Through Chevrolet’s partnership with Rev Racing, we have been impressed with Rajah’s talent both on and off the track. He has proven his ability to compete at the NASCAR national level, and we look forward to seeing his continued success with a series championship winning team.”

The Truck season begins Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway. 

In other Truck Series news:

Dean Thompson will drive the No. 5 for TRICON Garage this coming season. The 21-year-old was a rookie in the series this past season. He had a season-best finish of 11th at Las Vegas.

“I am thrilled to start the next chapter of my career with TRICON Garage and Toyota Racing Development,” Thompson said in a statement from the team. “The team and manufacturer have quickly made a statement in the Truck Series as striving to be the best of the best. I’m ready to take on the challenge and live up to the expectations of being a driver for TRICON.”

McAnally Hilgemann Racing announced Tuesday that Christian Eckes and Jake Garcia will drive full-time in the Truck series for the team next season.

Eckes, who will drive the No. 19 truck, moves over from ThorSport Racing. Garcia will drive the No. 35 truck in pursuit of the series Rookie of the Year award.

NAPA AutoCare will continue as a team sponsor.

Garcia is 17 and is scheduled to make his first start March 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Because of NASCAR’s age restrictions, he will miss the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The team’s Daytona driver has not been announced.