Ryan: All was right about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Talladega – except the racing

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TALLADEGA, Ala. –At the epicenter of Earnhardt Nation, all seemed right again late Sunday afternoon.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated in victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway for the first time in more than a decade. His adoring legions raucously cheered in nearly sold-out grandstands. A ‘WINNER’ sticker signifying a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth was affixed to the No. 88 Chevrolet.

All seemed right about the feel-good finish that left a 12-time most popular driver on the verge of tears of joy in postrace interviews – except everything that transpired before it.

For the second time in its past four Sprint Cup races, Talladega’s reputation as the most thrilling of NASCAR tracks took a serious hit in the Geico 500.

Earnhardt took the lead off the final restart and didn’t face a serious challenge over the final 26 laps.

At a 2.66-mile oval renowned for its furiously entertaining scrambles and infamous for its sickening high-speed pileups, the finish featured a mostly single-file line that had more in common with the preponderance of processionals at 1.5-mile speedways that have NASCAR focused on tweaking its rules.

It would have seemed extremely odd if it weren’t so oddly familiar. In the October 2013 race at Talladega, Jamie McMurray took the checkered flag as a 500-mile race ended with a 15-lap parade.

This is a disturbing trend for a track that has built its reputation around photo finishes and furious charges to the front.

Of the 10 closest finishes in Sprint Cup during the two-decade era of electronic scoring, three have occurred at Talladega – more than any other track. In the final victory of his storied career 15 years ago, the late Dale Earnhardt zoomed from 18th to first in the final five laps – a virtually implausible scenario at any other track on the circuit.

But this increasingly isn’t the Talladega of yore. Over the past decade, a confluence of factors – a repaving of the track, new models of Sprint Cup cars, the rise and subsequent eradication of two-car tandems – have contributed to a decline in the late-race strategy plays that made Talladega so enthralling.

Something seems rotten in the state of restrictor-plate racing at NASCAR’s palace of speed. Is there any way to recapture it?

“If we could, we would,” Earnhardt said. “If we knew what makes the best package, we would put it on the cars. I know we would.

“But the cars evolve.  They always have.  We went from big old tanks in the late ’70s to the downsized ’81 cars, into Monte‑Carlos, big old Thunderbirds.  The cars just continue to get smaller, bigger, taller, shorter. The sides get flatter. The quarter panels get longer.  The cars are just always changing.  That alters how they draft.”

The draft is the key to everything at Talladega, and there is a serious problem with how it currently functions in the waning laps when the leader settles into the top lane, and the field tucks in behind.

Earnhardt said surveying 43 Sprint Cup drivers would yield 43 answers on how to fix it. But there is a consensus on what’s broken: There is no incentive to risk pulling out of line to form the massive packs now needed to challenge the leader

Jeff Gordon led 47 laps, but he knew his chances were shot after speeding in the pits on his final stop and restarting in 31st with 26 laps remaining. That would have been an eternity to make a recovery at Talladega with a strong car years ago.

But on Sunday, Gordon knew he was toast. He settled for small gains and slowly crept into the top 20 before a last-lap spin.

“It wasn’t that no one was trying,” he said. “It’s that you’ve got to get organized. It takes a group to get it done. There was a lot of effort being made. I was one of them for a while. Then I realized it wasn’t going anywhere.”

Tony Stewart and a few others attempted to mount a counterattack in the bottom lane – and they paid the price by plummeting through the field without the immense drafting help needed to catch the leader.

“It’s not about trusting one (driver), you’ve got to trust 10,” Gordon said. “You can’t just go down there by yourself. When they’re lined up on the top, you need nine, 10, 12 cars to run in that lower lane to make it work. Even then it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to work. You have to have the right cars.

“Guys would go down there, make a little of ground and then get shuffled back. It was like one step forward and three steps back. It’s frustrating.”

As Earnhardt put it Saturday, it’s about waiting until “hopefully some dummy pulls out, and he gets shuffled back. Hopefully, that happens a lot, and you end up toward the front.”

It’s a far cry from his April 2003 win at Talladega. Earnhardt’s Chevy sustained damage in a multicar wreck on the fourth lap, but he was in the lead again just past the halfway point, and he outmaneuvered several strong cars with plate-racing savvy and skill.

Drivers can’t make as much of a difference anymore because their cars won’t allow it.

“They’re slower, they’re lazy,” Earnhardt said. “The runs we used to get years ago, man, you’d fly by guys, just dominate. The runs that the cars get, even with the great cars we have, are real lazy. You really aren’t sure it’s a run you need to take advantage of or not.

“I made about three real power moves (Sunday).  Maybe 10 years ago you would get 20 of those in a race. The cars just were way more active, reactive to each other. Another thing about this particular car is they get stuck side‑by‑side.  The side draft is so powerful that basically you get on the guy’s quarter panel, you start side drafting him to slingshot by him, he can counter you by side drafting you. You go nowhere.”

Earnhardt conceded Sunday if he were in the same position as Gordon, he would have been just as helpless.

“Man, if you get back there, you don’t have a chance,” he said. “If you’re sitting third, fourth, whatever, you’re sitting there thinking, ‘This ain’t a bad spot.’ “

As Carl Edwards put it, “it’s like a big sociology experiment. You’re waiting for one guy to go and everybody to follow.”

It’s known as a herd mentality.

Of course, the hordes of fans at Talladega didn’t care Sunday as they waved their No. 88 flag and saluted their hero.

All was right in Earnhardt Nation.

But it’s worth asking whether all will remain right at Talladega with more finishes like Sunday’s.

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.