Looking ahead: Who could be headed to Chase and who could be disappointed

3 Comments

With NASCAR halfway to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the pressure builds on drivers who have yet to win and all but secure a chance to race for the title.

There have been nine different winners this season (compared to 10 a year ago), leaving seven spots for the Chase to be determined by points – at this time.

Last year, there were 13 winners when the Chase began, leaving three spots open for those via points. It likely will be about the same this year.

So, as the series heads to Pocono Raceway to begin a stretch of 13 races in 15 weeks, here’s a look at who is in contention for those final Chase spots and the chances they have of making it.

 

MARTIN TRUEX JR.

Chase appearances: 2 (best finish 11th in 2007 & 2012)

Points position: 2nd (ranks first among winless drivers)

Notable performances: Has led the most laps in last three points races but did not win any of those.

Why he’ll make Chase: Clearly has one of the fastest cars and even if he doesn’t win, he should make it via points.

Why he won’t make Chase: He and team decide to take four-week summer vacation and miss a few races. Would have to be that drastic.

 

JAMIE McMURRAY

Chase appearances: 0

Points position: 7th (ranks second among winless drivers)

Notable performances: Has an average finish of 9.7 at the seven tracks the series has run that will host a Chase race.

Why he’ll make Chase: It’s amazing that the former Daytona 500, Sprint All-Star and Brickyard 400 winner has not made the Chase in his career. Everything finally goes his way.

Why he won’t make Chase: Can’t afford a number of poor finishes. If only three drivers make the Chase on points as happened last year, he could be teetering on the edge if he doesn’t win a race.

 

KASEY KAHNE

Chase appearances: 5 (best finish 4th in 2012)

Points position: 8th (ranks third among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 4th at Phoenix and Dover.

Why he’ll make Chase: Should score a win to secure a spot. Could come this weekend at Pocono where he won in 2013 and has two top-two finishes in last five starts there.

Why he won’t make Chase: He didn’t win until Atlanta last year – two races before the Chase cutoff. That race moved, so he won’t have that track to bail him out if he doesn’t have a win that late in the season.

 

JEFF GORDON

Chase appearances: 10 (best finish 2nd in 2007)

Points position: 9th (ranks fourth among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 3rd at Bristol. Led 87 laps in Daytona 500 but was collected in last-lap wreck.

Why he’ll make Chase: There could be no worse disappointment than not to make the Chase in his final full season. If things get hairy, the full resources of Hendrick Motorsports will be focused on getting him in the Chase, much like how Kasey Kahne won late to make last year’s Chase.

Why he won’t make Chase: If he has more speeding penalties on pit road at the wrong time. One such penalty likely cost him a shot to win at Martinsville.

 

ARIC ALMIROLA

Chase appearances: 1 (best finish 16th in 2014)

Points position: 10th (ranks fifth among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 5th at Dover

Why he’ll make Chase: He’s been steady all season with no finish worse than 26th and only two finishes of 20th or worse. He’s maximizing what the car and team are providing.

Why he won’t make Chase: He’s about two poor finishes from falling too far out of the third spot among winless drivers – the likely cutoff for winless drivers to make the Chase – if he doesn’t score a victory.

 

PAUL MENARD

Chase appearances: 0

Points position: 12th (ranks sixth among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 3rd at Talladega and 4th at Auto Club Speedway

Why he’ll make Chase: He’s been steady for much of the season with only one finish worse than 25th. He needs to be even stronger. Has led only one lap this season, so unless something changes, winning will be difficult to achieve.

Why he won’t make Chase: If one can’t lead laps, they can’t win. If he has a couple of bad performances, he likely won’t be able to overcome that to make it via points.

 

RYAN NEWMAN

Chase appearances: 6 (best finish 2nd in 2014)

Points position: 13th (ranks seventh among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 3rd at Las Vegas and Phoenix

Why he’ll make Chase: He’s doing the same thing as he did last year with consistency. He has eight top-10 finishes this season compared to four at this point a year ago. He’s used to the pressure – just recall his last-lap move on Kyle Larson at Phoenix to make the Chase finale last year.

Why he won’t make Chase: Consistency only gets one so far. It may not be enough this time.

 

CLINT BOWYER

Chase appearances: 5 (best finish 2nd in 2012)

Points position: 17th (ranks eighth among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 7th in Daytona 500

Why he’ll make Chase: Likely will have to win to do so.

Why he won’t make Chase: Team hasn’t shown it’s strong enough to challenge for a victory. Has led just two laps this season and has eight finishes of 20th or worse. That won’t cut it if he can’t score a win.

 

DANICA PATRICK

Chase appearances: 0

Points position: 18th (ranks ninth among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 7th at Martinsville

Why she’ll make Chase: Will need to win a race somewhere.

Why she won’t make Chase: Hasn’t been in position to win a race. That likely will continue, keeping her out of the Chase.

 

GREG BIFFLE

Chase appearances: 7 (best finish 2nd in 2005)

Points position: 19th (ranks 10th among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 2nd in Coca-Cola 600

Why he’ll make Chase: Nearly stole a win at Charlotte on fuel mileage. If he can do it somewhere else, he’ll be in.

Why he won’t make Chase: While his car showed it was better in the Coca-Cola 600, there’s still a long way to go for Roush Fenway Racing to compete for wins. Until it does so, RFR won’t have a driver in the Chase.

 

KYLE LARSON

Chase appearances: 0

Points position: 20th (ranks 11th among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 3rd at Dover

Why he’ll make Chase: Team picks up performance and matches the potential of this driver in the final 13 races before the Chase field is set.

Why he won’t make Chase: This team has been off at times this season with six finishes of 25th or worse. If that continues, he won’t make the Chase.

 

TONY STEWART

Chase appearances: 8 (won title in Chase format in 2005 & ’11)

Points position: 28th (ranks 19th among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 6th at Bristol

Why he’ll make Chase: Must win. Best bet is Daytona, Bristol or maybe the road courses.

Why he won’t make Chase: Although scoring better finishes lately compared to start of the year, this team has not shown the speed to compete for a win that it must have to make the Chase.

 

KYLE BUSCH

Chase appearances: 7 (best finish 4th in 2013)

Points position: 40th (ranks 31st among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 11th in Coca-Cola 600

Why he’ll make Chase: He’s been fast in his first two races back and put himself in position to have strong finishes until some late issues.

Why he won’t make Chase: Can’t overcome deficit of missing 11 races.

 

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

0 Comments

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

0 Comments

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

0 Comments

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

0 Comments

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.