Restart controversy all the rage entering Chase

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CHICAGO – From lengthening the controversial zone where a leader controls the field to expanding NASCAR’s enforcement, every Chase for the Sprint Cup contender seemingly had an opinion about restarts Thursday.

It’s been the topic du jour for the past month in the Sprint Cup Series, where prerace driver meetings have drawn a plethora of questions from drivers, crew chiefs and team owners about the proper procedures. After a final restart Saturday at Richmond International Raceway by winner Matt Kenseth left rival team owner Roger Penske fuming at NASCAR for the lack of a penalty, it remained top of mind for title contenders entering Sunday’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway on NBCSN.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon suggested NASCAR should lengthen the restart zone in which the leader is required to hit the accelerator. The distance of the zone in feet is the pit speed doubled – for example, if pit speed is 35 mph, the zone is 70 feet long.

“The first thing you’ve got to do is make the restart box bigger,” Gordon said. “I mean, we’ve been asking for this for a long time. It’s too small. We went from having it way too big to now it’s way too small.

“The box is so small that the guy who is in second place has an advantage. They can anticipate the start because they know you’re going to start in that box. So of course a driver is going to try to get any edge he can, and they’ve earned that right being the leader, and the leader is supposed to start the race. So that’s why guys are jumping.”

Gordon hadn’t seen a replay of Kenseth’s restart but said it wouldn’t be surprising if Kenseth left early because “he knows they’re not going to call it. And until they call it, guys are going to continue to push (the limit). And it’s mainly because the restart box isn’t big enough. If you make the restart box bigger, they’re not going to have to worry about calling that because now you can (go) anywhere in that box and get that edge you deserve (as the leader).”

NASCAR implemented double-file restarts six years ago, and the howls from competitors began almost immediately. For the 2013 Chase opener, a rule was changed to allow the second-place car to beat the leader to the starting line after gamesmanship prompted controversy.

Officials have maintained they want to leave the officiating in the drivers’ hands, but Kyle Busch said NASCAR needed to be more proactive in throwing the black flag for restart infractions.

“I’m not comfortable one bit with how they’re officiating it,” he said. “I think they need to step in. I think it’s gone too long. It’s really stupid the way some of these restarts are being handled by the drivers.”

Busch, who was in a precarious points position trying to make the Chase after missing the first 11 races of the season, said he had been punished by NASCAR’s laissez-faire policy.

“I’ve had it bite me,” he said. “I always have it in the back of my mind there’s a chance I’m going to get black-flagged for a bad restart or a poor choice in how I handle a restart. Some of these other guys, I don’t think they give a crap. They do whatever they want and get away with it.

“You can’t have one guy being scared of it and another guy taking advantage of not being afraid of it. You just have to start having everybody being afraid of NASCAR stepping in. … I have come to the conclusion myself that I can’t give NASCAR that opportunity to penalize me. I have to do it by the book and make sure it’s right so I don’t put it in their hands to make a bad choice because they’re really good at making bad choices for me.”

Busch said another option would be for drivers to return the positions gained by an unfair advantage on a restart. He suggested he would have done so if asked after passing Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin for the lead on a restart at Richmond.

“It’s probably the better thing to do to have the race still play out without having as big a penalty as if you were black-flagged and had to do a pass-through on pit road,” he said. “That kills your race.”

“If somebody is laying back and they get a run and pass a guy, if they want to give us the opportunity to fix it first, that’s fine. I’m OK with that. If somebody jumps a restart, if they give the lead up on the track or fall to second or third, but if they give it up and go back and race again, that’s OK in my book. You have a chance to fix it.

“But if you just flat out jump a restart and they don’t do anything about it, and it wins the race, that’s not what we need to be having happen.

What other Chase drivers were saying about restarts Thursday:

Kevin Harvick: “It’s very gray. I don’t think any of us really know for sure how far you can push it, but you have to push it because you can. How far is too far? I don’t think anybody really knows. If there’s going to be a restart zone, I would prefer it be pretty black and white as to how it’s managed. If there’s not going to be a restart zone, we just need to take the lines down and race like we did forever growing up with the leader being in control of the restart and going when you want to.”

Denny Hamlin: “I think drivers want longer restart zones. Ultimately now, it’s so short that if you don’t go right away, the second-place guy does – and knowing he can beat the first-place guy to the line, there’s no repercussions for it. At a local short track, (the box) is between (Turns) 3 and 4 and nearly the flagstand (where) the leader restarts the race. So the second-place person can’t anticipate that much. I think it would be better to open that zone up two or three times the size it is right now – and then don’t let that second-place guy be the first one to the line.”

Clint Bowyer: “NASCAR should do this: Call ‘em out. That’s all you’ve got to do. … All you’ve got to do is call somebody on ‘em once and that’ll fix the problem. I understand their intent of not wanting to get involved in that, but that’s not a good answer. Call ’em. Whether it’s me or anybody else. And if you do that once, I won’t do it again.”

Brad Keselowski: “I have said it before but I still view restarts as rock-paper-scissors, and you have to counter the moves of the person next to you. It starts with the leader in the zone, not being allowed to get there first. If the guy in second place is lagging back, the only defense is to go early, both of which are illegal by definition, and neither of which have been consistently called as an infraction. If one guy lags back and beats you, when you do everything legal, then you have to defend it. That’s your job. I felt like as the leader at Darlington, I probably had half a dozen or more attempts at controlling the restart, and I kept the lead the majority but not 100 percent of the time. The few times where I lost the lead it was very obvious that the car next to me had lagged back significantly and there was no call made. That forces your hand the next time you have the lead to do something to react to it. In a sense it is kind of vigilante justice. That is just how you have to play it.”

Joey Logano: “I just say we need to be consistent with the calls. If the call is that you can jump the start that is OK, just let us know. If the call is you can’t jump the restarts, let us know. Obviously there is talk about opening the box and all these other things. It is a tough position for them and I understand where NASCAR is with it. It is a ball and strike call. But baseball does that every week with every pitch. They make a ball and strike call. A lot of times someone isn’t happy about it, but if it is something blatantly obvious, you have to make the call. You have to do it. It is a tough position for them when you look at angles and when there is a race win or possibly a championship on the line, it could be a lot larger than what happened last weekend. Really all we need to know is what can and can’t we do and be consistent with that.”

Carl Edwards: “There’s still a lot of gray area there that I don’t think everyone in the garage understands exactly what is allowable and what’s not. There’s a lot of people that hang back pretty far and get runs. When you’re on the front row – let me put it simply as I think that the leader now he’s in a little bit worse of a position than he’s ever been probably on the restarts just because everyone is getting so good at hanging back or pushing the envelope. It’s tough to decide what to do as the leader.

“The restart is neat because it gives you an opportunity to get an advantage. It is tough and it’s a dynamic part of the race. It’s just where do you draw the line? Can I go 50 feet early or 100 feet early? If the leader doesn’t go, can I just go and beat him into Turn 1? I don’t know exactly what’s allowable and, yes, you don’t want to have the start happen and have no penalty thrown and have given up an advantage. Let me put it simply: If you do the restarts by the book – the way they say to go at it – you’ll get passed by about four guys every restart, so nobody really knows what to do.”

Kenseth:I think that they need to probably make some calls, and then we’ll get everybody more honest. When the second-place guy jumps the first-place car and it’s obvious, I think they need to make that call and then it won’t happen anymore. It’s just, I think, you’ve got to make that call. I think when the third-place guy lays back too far and gets a run and passes the whole front row before they get to Turn 1, I think they need to make that call. I think you make that call one time, two times, three times – whatever it may be – and it will stop.”

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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.

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.