Ryan: Bristol shows the grit of Michael Waltrip Racing

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Rob Kauffman gritted his teeth for much of Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

For the majority owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, this might have been a familiar feeling after an agonizing week in which he delivered the news to 200 employees that the team would be shuttered after the season.

But this wasn’t the soul-sapping angst of fretting about an uncertain future.

This was the exhilarating anxiety of a team that raced with nothing left to lose Saturday night and nearly left with a victory on the rough-and-tumble 0.533-mile oval.

With 150 laps remaining, MWR teammates Clint Bowyer and David Ragan were running 2-3, and Kauffman, watching from a Speedway Motorsports Inc. suite overlooking the 160,000-seat bullring, politely asked forgiveness from a visitor while he gnashed his molars.

“I said, ‘Give me one second, when the guys are side by side, I grit my teeth a lot,’” Kauffman said with a laugh. “So sadly, 100 laps later, I gritted my teeth for a different reason.”

On Lap 371, disaster struck just as things seemed to be unfolding so well for MWR.

Just as it always seems to do during the team’s tumultuous, star-crossed existence over the past decade.

The flagship of Toyota’s ballyhooed entry into NASCAR’s premier series … that was plunged into a jet fuel controversy in the opening race of its nightmarish first season.

An organization on the cusp of entering the top echelon of Sprint Cup two years ago … that slowly sank into oblivion after the fateful night it all unraveled in a team orders scandal at Richmond International Raceway.

The narrative continued Saturday night at Bristol with MWR poised to deliver one of the season’s most unlikely outcomes.

Battling for third place, Jimmie Johnson and Ragan collided off the second turn. Ragan made contact with Bowyer, spun into the wall with heavy damage and finished 40th.

Bowyer got punted by Brad Keselowski and fell to 12th for repairs, but he rebounded and drove all the way to fifth over the final 100 laps.

“I drove my ass off and just came up short,” Bowyer said. “But (crew chief) Billy Scott and all these guys, they’re digging.

“It’s fun to be a part of a group that can answer the call. When you’ve got to dig down and reach down and get a little bit more to get in that Chase and be a part of an elite group. These guys are up for the challenge. They are really finding that extra something that you have to find for a championship-caliber team to compete.”

With the specter of unemployment looming, Bowyer’s team is trying to stay laser-focused through extraordinary circumstances that easily could undermine morale.

But the esprit de corps was evident at Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota as driver and owner made the rounds congratulating team members. Eventually, their paths crossed while Bowyer was being interviewed.

“Good job, bud,” Kauffman told his driver.

“Sorry, man,” Bowyer replied.

Though not his fault, he still was hung up on the wreck that ruined an impressive run for Ragan, who had qualified in the top five for the third time in the past six races after replacing Brian Vickers (blood clots) in the No. 55 two months ago.

“Really bad deal,” Bowyer said. “It’s just frustrating. David has done such a good job with coming in and stepping up to the plate, filling in that seat and that void and being a great teammate.”

It still wasn’t a total loss for the team. Clinging to the final provisional spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Bowyer increased his cushion with two races remaining in the regular season.

He has a 35-point lead on Aric Almirola after his first top five since June 29 at Sonoma and his fourth top 10 in the past five weeks.

“You don’t want to get in the Chase and be just part of it and be the first one out,” said Bowyer, who lost 27 points off his lead with a 41st last week at Michigan International Speedway. “You want to hit this thing with stride, momentum, confidence.

“We had a big hiccup last week, but nonetheless, we were again a top-five car. These are the cars we’ve got to keep unloading. It’s fun to see these guys step up to the plate when we need it.”

Kauffman seemed pleased, too, but stopped short of agreeing he was “reveling” in a strong finish after a difficult week.

“We only really revel if you have Gatorade and confetti on the car,” he said. “A top five is nice, but we’re here to win.”

They won’t be much longer.

But Saturday night at least proved the team’s true grit.

Kauffman might not be done gritting his teeth — for a good reason.

 

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.