Five things to watch in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – David Ragan’s uniquely eventful season could take its most interesting turn yet Sunday.

Ragan will close out his nine-race stint in place of injured Kyle Busch in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota with Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, and it’s prompted some curiosity about a scenario that Ragan already has experienced at the 2.66-mile oval known for unexpected endings and bizarre twists.

What if Ragan, who conquered Talladega in 2013, wins in his final start for JGR before moving to Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota to finish out the 2015 season?

Start with the obvious – Ragan would become eligible for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, regardless of whose car he is piloting. Though his MWR team technically wouldn’t be in the Chase (unless he were to win in that car), it still would reap the PR benefits of having a driver compete for a championship in one of its Camrys.

But so would JGR.

A win for the No. 18 by Ragan would catapult the car into the owner’s championship, creating the possibility for the first split driver-owners title in NASCAR’s premier series since 1963. In that season, Joe Weatherly won his final driver title, and Wood Brothers Racing took the owners championship.

There has been only one other split title in Cup – Lee Petty (driver) and Herb Thomas (owner) finished the 1954 season as respective champions – but it’s been a common occurrence in the Xfinity Series, where JGR and Team Penske rotate drivers through top-caliber cars and Sprint Cup drivers can’t earn points. The past three seasons have featured split driver-owner champions on the Xfinity circuit.

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, the field for the playoff (which started at 10 drivers, expanded to 12 in 2007 and grew to 16 last year) has featured no deviation between the eligible contenders and the cars they drive full time. The drivers competing for the title are mirrored by their teams vying for the owners championships.

But there always has been the possibility of “parallel” Chases for the driver and owner championship in which a driver might be racing for a title even though the car isn’t eligible.

And it’s more than semantics. There are millions at stake for each share of the championship. The championship driver and team roughly split the point fund money doled out by NASCAR and Sprint for winning the title. Last year, Kevin Harvick received a bonus check for nearly $5 million, bringing his total season winnings to $12.7 million.

When Chase Elliott won the Xfinity title last season, he picked up a bonus of nearly $1 million, and Team Penske (whose No. 22 Ford won the owners championship) earned a similar haul in bonus money.

In a season that perhaps has become best known for a spinning carousel of replacements for drivers sidelined by injuries and suspensions, it would seem fitting to have Ragan win before he hops into his third car in three months.

The Unadilla, Ga., native probably has a better shot at it than when delivered Front Row Motorsports’ underfunded No. 34 Ford to victory lane here in May 2013. That was the second of Ragan’s two career Sprint Cup wins at restrictor-plate tracks (he also won at Daytona International Speedway in July 2011), and he seems confident again.

“Man, I feel great,” he said after qualifying ninth Saturday. “I feel like we’ve got a car that can win this race. There are obviously a lot of really good cars, a lot of really good drivers, but at the end of the day, we’ve just got to execute. We’ve got to be perfect on pit road – no mistakes –and just have to be in contention.”

Other storylines to watch Sunday:

Strange bedfellows: Alliances often used to determine the outcome of restrictor-plate races before they even began as drivers, teams and manufacturers made deals to work together exclusively in the draft.

But that’s faded over the past two years with the Gen 6 car, which doesn’t allow partnerships so easily because it’s more difficult to maneuver.

The latest proof was Matt Kenseth pushing rival Brad Keselowski to a victory last October. After shoving Keselowski after the race a week earlier at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kenseth would have preferred to help any other driver, but he said he had no choice – which has become common.

“It was so much easier to pass guys in the past and team up with people and make things happen, so you could pick and choose,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Saturday. “You could say, ‘I don’t want to work with that guy. He’s going somewhere, but oh, he’s a Ford. I’m going to get over here with this Chevy, and we’re going to team-up and I’ll see him later. In another lap or two, we’ll go by him’. Today, you’ve got to take whatever you can get. Every significant run is so rare, that you might not like the guy, but you’ve got to do it and help people you don’t want to help.

“It’s difficult because a lot of times you’re helping people get by people you like, or your teammates, even. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do because these opportunities are few. You’ve got to be in the top three all day long to expect to be in the top three at the end when it counts. If you get shuffled out, it’s so hard to pass these people with this kind of car. So, we sit there in two lines: the bottom and the middle, and you aren’t going to jump out there by yourself and go around them. So, you’ve sort of got to sit there in line and hopefully some dummy pulls out, and he gets shuffled back. Hopefully, that happens a lot, and you end up toward the front.”

Big Mac: It’s hard to call Jamie McMurray a dark horse considering that four of his seven victories in Sprint Cup have occurred on plate tracks. But as the lesser heralded driver at Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle Larson was the consensus preseason pick as 2015’s breakthrough star), McMurray quietly is putting together one of the best seasons of his career. A fourth last week at Richmond International Raceway (on a gamble by rookie crew chief Matt McCall) was McMurray’s fourth top 10, which has him a solid ninth in the points standings.

Though he will start 27th Sunday, McMurray has been strong at Talladega since making his Sprint Cup debut here in October 2002 (in place of injured Sterling Marlin), and he is less than two years removed from his last win at the 2.66-mile oval (in October 2013). A win would qualify McMurray for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, one of the only voids on a resume that includes victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

Dynamic duo: The past two plate races have been won by the Team Penske Fords of Keselowski and Joey Logano, who opened 2015 with a win in the Daytona 500. It isn’t by accident as Earnhardt and others have taken note of the prowess of the Penske drivers. Just as he did over 500 miles at Daytona International Speedway, Logano won Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega by making every right move in a 200-mph chess match where a mistake can drop a driver from first to 30th.

Faster horses: Hendrick Motorsports engines claimed five of the top six spots in qualifying, including a stunning gap of 0.3 seconds from pole-sitter Jeff Gordon to Hendrick teammate Kasey Kahne. Though NASCAR essentially equalizes what’s under the hood at a plate race, a significant edge can magnify the margin over the competition.

In his most impressive of six wins at Talladega, Gordon paced 139 of 194 laps and credited the engine for his dominance in the May 2005 race, in which he drove a Star Wars-sponsored Chevrolet. A decade later, a sequel could be brewing.

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Cup practice groups

Cup qualfying order

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High 71.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.

Friday 5: Clash at Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing

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Mired in traffic was not where Chris Buescher expected to be. Sure, he knew that racing 22 cars on a quarter-mile track inside a stadium that has hosted the Super Bowl, Olympics and World Series would put him in tight confines, but when the green flag waved for last year’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Buescher was in traffic on the freeway.

He was headed to the airport — along with the rest of RFK Racing. 

Both Buescher and team owner Brad Keselowski failed to make last year’s feature, sending them home earlier than expected.

“A punch to the gut,” Buescher told NBC Sports.

NASCAR’s return to the Coliseum for Sunday’s Clash is not a redemption tour for RFK Racing, said Jeremy Thompson, the team’s vice president of race operations. He calls it a reset.

That’s what last year was thought to be with Keselowski leaving Team Penske to become an owner/driver of an organization that had gone more than four years without a points victory before 2022. The Clash was a chance for RFK Racing to show its new direction.

Instead, RFK Racing and Spire Motorsports were the only multi-car teams not to have a car in the feature.

“Yes, it was not a points race, but it just looked bad,” Buescher said. “And it was bad. It hurt our feelings more than anybody else’s, I promise.”

Through that disappointment, lessons were learned.

“We didn’t have a lack of hunger that was holding us back,” Keselowski said of last year’s Clash. “We had a lack of understanding our vehicle dynamics. Understanding was just not good enough on a lot of levels.

“We continue to invest in resources and people to continue to push that forward to where we can go to events like that and feel that we’re a threat to win and we’re not just trying to make the race.

“I don’t think I understood that when I came in, where we were at as a company on the vehicle dynamics side.”

It was clear immediately that Buescher and Keselowski were in trouble. Buescher was 21st on the speed chart in practice; Keselowski was 33rd of 36 cars. 

“The car bounced so bad that I thought we were going to rip the transmission right out,” Buescher said of last year’s Clash weekend. “We spent all of practice trying to make the car just drive in a circle vs. trying to make it faster. We missed … before we ever left (the shop).”

Said Thompson about last year’s Clash: “I felt like our effort going into that was exceptionally high. We left no stone unturned. We just turned over some of the wrong stones.”

Two weeks later, both Keselowski and Buescher won their qualifying races at Daytona, but there was much work to do to overcome flaws with other parts of their program.

“We’re pushing really hard on vision and values of what it takes to be a high performer at this level, whether that is getting all the details right in the shop or on the road,” Keselowski said.

RFK Racing learned from its struggles early in the season, particularly with its short track program. Buescher, who had never placed better than 16th at Phoenix at the time, finished 10th there last March, a little more than a month after the Clash. He called his top 10 that day “a small win.”

Progress continued but it was not quick. Buescher placed third at Richmond last August before winning the Bristol night race in the playoffs. Keselowski was seventh at New Hampshire last July and won the first stage at the Bristol night race in September before a flat tire ruined his chances.

Keselowski acknowledges that turning RFK Racing into a team that can contend weekly for wins will take some time, but he sees progress.

“We’re not everywhere we need to be, but we definitely have a plan to get there,” he said. “Navigating that plan is challenging, but we’re on a path.”

2. Why not more horsepower?

NASCAR will take what it learned in last week’s Phoenix test to the wind tunnel on Feb. 13. If the wind tunnel test of short track enhancements goes well, changes could be implemented before the April 2 race at Richmond.

The changes being tested in the wind tunnel are a smaller spoiler (2 inches) and some adjustments to the underbody of the car. 

Still, one suggestion drivers often make is to give them more horsepower.

“I think there’s a misconception that we could take the existing engines and just throw 200 horsepower in it,” said John Probst, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, in response to a question from NBC Sports. 

“We do have multiple-race engines today that we have to keep in mind. (More horsepower) is something that we are actively discussing, but, obviously, we don’t do that in a vacuum. We do that with the engine builders.

“But anybody that has been around, we’ve raced high horsepower and low downforce before and ended up at some point in time deciding to go away from that to get more entertaining racing. … I think we’re open to entertaining any horsepower gains that we can get with our current (engine) architecture, but anything beyond that is actually not something that can happen quickly.”

Probst later said that keeping the engines in the current horsepower range could prove helpful for any manufacturer looking to join the sport.

“One of the reasons we landed on the horsepower range we’re in now is to try to land in areas that have existing racing engines designed for them, similar to our current (manufacturers),” Probst said. “We’re not hiding from the fact that we would like to encourage some new (manufacturers) to come in. That is part of the equation for that whole thing. I’m not saying it’s the driving reason, but it is a consideration.”

3. Crossing the line

The quarter-mile oval in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will provide plenty of chances to hit bumpers, doors and other parts of the car Sunday.

But there’s a line between short track racing and racing without respect. 

For Ryan Preece, who is running his first race in the No. 41 for Stewart-Haas Racing this weekend, there is a clear divide.

“There’s certainly a way to go about it in quarter-mile racing where you can pass somebody without hitting them,” said Preece, a veteran of racing modifieds in bullrings. 

So how does he tell what’s crossing the line on a short track?

“If somebody drives into me getting into the center of the corner, they’re in control of their race car at that point,” Preece said. “So that or door slamming somebody, not even trying to make the corner, are two good examples (of not racing with respect).”

Preece relies on a lesson he learned racing modifieds with how to race in close quarters.

“I’ll never forget this, I was at Thompson (Speedway) and I used (seven-time modified champion) Mike Stefanik up pretty well into Turn 2 with probably six or seven laps to go, trying to chase down the leader. It didn’t happen. 

“I said, ‘Oh, hey man, I’m sorry. I had to do what I had to do for my team.’ He looked at me and said ‘Well, what about my team? What about the guys I race with?’ 

“I think that day really helped me understand that side of things. You want to race with as much respect as you possibly can. There’s a way to do it, a way to race somebody hard but not overstep the line.”

4. On the same page

Ty Dillon moves to Spire Motorsports this season as a teammate to Corey LaJoie.

Dillon will drive the No. 77 car, which has never finished in the top 30 in car owner points since its debut in 2019. The best the car placed was 31st in owner points in 2021.

Dillon says he has confidence in building the program based on Spire Motorsports’ approach.

“We aren’t unrealistic about where we are,” Dillon told NBC Sports.

But he also said that management has workable goals.

“We said, ‘Hey, here’s where we stand in the spectrum of the race teams,’ ” Dillon said. “Here’s our goals. Here’s what we believe we can accomplish. The structure of what everybody knows and how we’re all pulling in the same direction is a real confidence (boost).

“We know we’re not going to be the team that competes every single weekend for wins, but we’re going to be the best at who we are. Over time, people are going to say, ‘Damn, Spire has taken a step.’ … We’re long-term focused and everybody’s on the same page as that.

“I’ve been a part of a team that said, ‘Hey, we’re wanting to build something.’ Well, you get 10 races in and they haven’t won a race and they’re throwing everybody out the door.”

Dillon said the “realistic, genuine expectation” at Spire Motorsports makes this situation feel different for him.

“The hope and optimism is knowing that we’re all on the same page,” he said.

5. Rule book changes 

NASCAR announced a series of rule changes this week and stated that it would outlaw the video game move Ross Chastain made on the final lap of last year’s Martinsville race. 

NASCAR also made a number of changes to the rule book this week.

Among those:

— Intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead a Cup driver to be penalized 25-50 points and/or 25-50 owner points and/or $50,000 – $100,000 fine. Last year, intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead only to a fine of $25,000 – $50,000.

— Member to member confrontations with physical violence and other violent manifestations could result in a fine and/or indefinite suspension or membership revocation. Last year, such an infraction was listed as incurring a penalty of 25-50 driver and/or team owner points and/or a fine of $50,000 – $100,000. Violations also could result in a race suspension(s), indefinite suspension or termination.

— In the past, if a car could not go when it was time to make a qualifying attempt, it was put on a five-minute clock to do so. That’s changed this year. Now, the clock will be no more than one minute unless it is a safety issue. 

Also, NASCAR listed the length of each Cup race. The inaugural Chicago Street Course Race is scheduled for 100 laps.

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

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Harrison Burton made the first start of his NASCAR Cup Series partnership with the Wood Brothers in the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Burton and the Woods teamed last season as Burton jumped into full-time Cup racing after two full seasons (and four wins) in the Xfinity Series. Their first race was the Clash at the Coliseum, and it was a good start — Burton qualified for the feature and finished 12th on the lead lap.

Then things headed downhill. Crashes at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway left Burton with finishes of 39th and 33rd, respectively. After the first five races of the year, he had four finishes of 25th or worse.

Now, Season Two, and there are higher expectations. Much higher.

MORE: Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

“The start of last year was really, really rough,” Burton told NBC Sports. “It kind of put us in a hole. We got into the wreck in the 500 and crashed at Fontana. Things kind of stack up on you, and all of a sudden you’re buried in points and it’s hard to make it back up.

“But, at the end of the year, three of the last four weekends were big for us (three consecutive top-20 finishes). We need to build off that and try to get out of the West Coast swing and have a clean group of those races. That’s really important. We need to get our average finish up in the first four to five races and not put ourselves in a hole we can’t get out of, and then go from there.”

The Wood Brothers team typically brings strong cars to the Daytona 500, the season’s first point race. Trevor Bayne scored the team’s latest win in stock car racing’s biggest event in 2011.

“We ran well in the 500 last year until I was upside down,” Burton said. “We had a fast car and qualified well and finished third in our duel. Then in the second Daytona race we put ourselves in good position late, so we were in contention in both Daytona races. The speed was there, and the cars drove well.”

The team’s primary goal is to make the playoffs, Burton said. “And we want to be a contender,” he said. “Cup races are so hard. First, you have to contend. Having a good average finish is really important. If you average around 17th or 18th all year, you can kind of point your way into the playoffs, and doing that is on our minds for sure.”

MORE: Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

Burton looks for a strong start in Sunday’s Clash, which will present teams with a mix of the old and the new. Drivers got the experience of racing inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year, and notes from that race will be useful, but the racing surface will be all new again.

“Every repave has a different tendency,” Burton said. “We’ll see how close it is to last time and how different. Obviously, there is experience on that track, but still it’s a completely new surface, so it’s going to be a mixture of old and new. There’s some knowledge we can build off of, but we kind of have to go into the weekend with that knowledge as tentative because we don’t know if the track is going to be different.”

Burton heads for Los Angeles with a win already under his belt this year. He and teammate Zane Smith, last year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, won last Friday’s International Motor Sports Association’s Michelin Pilot Challenge Series race on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

Burton drove the finishing laps in the four-hour race. He was third with about 50 minutes to go but moved in front with 22 minutes left when leader Elliott Skeer parked. Burton outran second-place Spencer Pumpelly by .688 of a second for the win.

“I thought we could run well,” Burton said. “After the test we did, we were really fast, so I was pretty excited. But apparently there is a lot of sandbagging that goes on there, so I wasn’t sure where we were. We had to have some things go right for us, and they did.”