Letarte: Making the case for why teamwork works in racing

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The Daytona 500 has prompted a new wave of chatter on social media and otherwise about an age-old debate in NASCAR: Are teammates good for the sport?

After the dominance of the Toyotas in the Sprint Cup season opener, many are questioning whether teamwork is healthy for NASCAR. It’s been an ongoing dialogue for decades, and I think it’s flared up again with the recent introduction of charter system that guarantees spots for 36 cars in every race. That’s prompted some people saying, “It’ll be nine owners, four cars each.”

I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future, but I am here to make this argument to those who don’t like multicar teams: Teammates ensure a better quality of racing and a higher level of competition in auto racing.

And the two biggest auto races to happen in the world over the past month – both at Daytona International Speedway — prove exactly why.

In the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, the Corvette C7.Rs finished 1-2 in the GT LeMans class with a margin of victory of 0.034 seconds – the closest class finish in Rolex 24 history.

Oliver Gavin and Antonio Garcia finished virtually side by side after 24 hours, and that only happened because Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan allowed it. He controls both cars. So if he had said with 30 minutes remaining, “We’re done, you had nearly a full day to race it out, here’s how we’re going to finish,” he could have.

But he didn’t. He respected the sport. He respected the sanctity of racing. He allowed his two racers to compete to the finish without trying to orchestrate the outcome.

It was one of the best examples of factory-driven, big-time racing not affecting the results or predetermining a winner.

I think Joe Gibbs Racing and the Toyota Racing Development cars in the Daytona 500 is the second-best example of this.

Without a doubt, they played nice for 99% of the race until the final lap. Yes, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. purposely worked with one another, and I’m fine with that strategy.

If Hamlin hadn’t won by pulling out of line and making the winning move on the last lap, I’d be standing here today and saying that ruins racing if no one attempts to win. But the fact that Denny pulled out of line past the white flag, got the big push and won the race – that proves that large teams do not hurt racing.

Even though Hamlin claimed he won by accident in trying to block Kevin Harvick, we also heard Kyle Busch say that he planned to make the same move before Hamlin beat him to it.

Hamlin tried to win. If there were magical team orders he was worried about, he could have not won that race. He could have not passed Kenseth for the lead in the last corner.

There were some instances where the teamwork was very obvious. On some restarts, Truex started on the inside and allowed Kenseth’s faster Camry to take the lead.

I have no problem with this. These are 500-mile marathons. In the end, it’s cutthroat, and everyone wants to win, but the first thing you have to do is get through the first 11 chapters of the book. You have to get there.

I feel that they were using whatever means necessary to get there. If that means letting someone in, then that’s what they did.

I’m a racing purist who loves the sport. Having large manufacturers and multicar teams isn’t hurting racing, as long as the manufacturers, Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs, Jack Roush and other owners maintain their responsibility to continuing that that trend.

That’s because the manufacturers and those owners — not NASCAR and not the fan base – ultimately control the ability to affect the racing.

There needs to be a clear-cut line in the sand where the concept of teammates ends.

Based on their postrace comments, Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers knew when they saw the white flag, it was on. They would stick together until the last lap.

The most important part of any multicar team plan is it has to be so lucid that every driver has a window of opportunity to win the race. If your agreement is to work together, it might be until the white-flag lap, but that opportunity still exists. That’s the difference.

That’s why the five TRD drivers were OK with what happened. Maybe they didn’t like how it ended for them, but they were OK with it. Not at one point was Kenseth saying, “I can’t believe Denny, my teammate, did that.”

The plan was to let the best man win – and I like that.

If we ever lost that, then you’re going to lose a race fan in me because one car shouldn’t have to race against five.

This was a major problem with the two-car tandems that were prevalent at Daytona and Talladega five years ago. NASCAR eliminated them because only half the field had a chance in every race.

When I was a crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, there was only one team order: Don’t wreck each other while trying to win the race. That nearly happened when my driver, Jeff Gordon, tried unsuccessfully to battle his way past Jimmie Johnson for the lead in a March 2007 race at Martinsville Speedway.

Later that season, Jimmie and Jeff waged one of the greatest two-man battles for the title in NASCAR history. Jeff is Jimmie’s mentor and brought him in the sport, and he damn well didn’t expect him to give us a championship. It wouldn’t have been a way better story to say we still beat him for the title.

When the green dropped, there was a level of professional understanding among our cars. I knew I wasn’t going to ask Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, a question that I wouldn’t want him to ask me. When you’re racing your teammate in the closing laps, and I’m not going to ask which lap they’re going to pit. I’d never ask Chad Knaus to give me information for me to take advantage of him. Why would I put him in a position where he even feels like he needs to be dishonest?

It was an open book for six and a half days a week. For three hours during the race, it needed to be needed to be every car number trying to win the race for its fans, sponsors and itself. 

That’s what we saw at Daytona twice this season.

During crunch time with two of racing’s biggest prizes at stake, athletes were allowed to perform at their peak by the powers that be — unburdened by the concerns of team allegiances.

Covette Racing spent millions on competition and marketing to achieve and promote its 1-2 finish. But there became a point where the reverence for racing outweighed everything else. The priorities of carrying the Covette banner weren’t bigger than the magnitude of the Rolex 24. For the greater good, they raced tooth and nail, and it was the key to honoring the event.

Technical associations and multicar teams won’t hurt the racing if the drivers still are allowed to race.

As long as that’s what we’re doing, I’m good with it.

Sammy Smith to run full Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023

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Sammy Smith will run the full Xfinity schedule in the No. 18 car, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday.

The 18-year-old Smith, a Toyota development driver, won the ARCA Menards Series East title for a second consecutive year in 2022 and also made nine Xfinity starts with JGR.

Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt will be sponsors on Smith’s car throughout the 2023 season. Jeff Meendering will be Smith’s crew chief.

“This is an opportunity I have been working towards,” Smith said in a statement from the team. “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel full-time and am looking forward to a great season. I learned a lot in 2022 that will really help me to be competitive and run up front in the Xfinity Series. Thank you to Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Toyota Racing Development for supporting me in my racing career. I am excited for next year and appreciate the opportunity.”

Said Steve DeSouza, JGR executive vice president of Xfinity Series and driver development, in a statement: “Sammy is a fantastic addition to our 2023 Xfinity lineup. He proved to have the passion and the talent to necessary to compete for wins in the races he ran for us in 2022,” .“We are excited to get him in the No. 18 full time and know he will be competitive from the jump.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers

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Some drivers carry one car number throughout their racing careers. The most famous racers in NASCAR’s 75-year history typically are associated with one number, although some have raced under several.

Victories, championships and driver personalities give life to something as generally mundane as a number. And the most popular produce even bigger numbers, as in sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most iconic NASCAR numbers:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 43 — Since Richard Petty’s emergence as a superstar in the 1960s, the number 43 has been NASCAR’s most iconic. Although Lee Petty, Richard’s father, usually drove No. 42, he actually scored the first win by the 43, in 1959. The Petty blue No. 43 carried Richard to a string of championships. He scored 192 of his 200 race wins with the number. It rolls on today with Erik Jones, who took the 43 to the Southern 500 victory lane this season.

2. 3 — The fiercely facing forward No. 3 became ultra-famous while driven by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt (although Earnhardt won his first title driving the No. 2). Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet carried the number to new heights, but Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Buddy Baker and Ricky Rudd, among others, also won in the car.

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

3. 21 — The list of drivers who have raced Wood Brothers Racing’s famous No. 21, with the familiar gold foil numbers, reads like a history of NASCAR. David Pearson brought the most fame to the number, but Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, team owner Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Dale Jarrett also have driven the 21.

4. 11 — This number is responsible for more race wins — 228 — than any other. It also has scored eight championships — three each by Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and two by Ned Jarrett. Other stars in the 11 over the years: Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and Denny Hamlin. And some guy named Mario Andretti.

5. 48 — This number was largely ignored until the arrival of Jimmie Johnson, who carried it to seven championships, including five in a row.

6. 24 — The number 24 was a lonely number until 1994 when a kid named Jeff Gordon drove it to its first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The brightly colored 24 became a regular visitor to victory lane from that point forward, carrying Gordon to four championships and becoming one of NASCAR’s most decorated numbers.

MORE: Will Kyle Busch follow footsteps of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

7. 18 — Although Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte won in the 18, Kyle Busch, draped in the bright colors of sponsor M&Ms, took it into new territory.

8. 22 — NASCAR’s first Cup champion (Red Byron) and its most recent (Joey Logano) rode with the 22. The number has produced 87 wins over the years, including victories by Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Byron and Logano.

9. 2 — Although the 2 carried Dale Earnhardt (1980) and Brad Keselowski (2012) to Cup championships, it is perhaps most identified with Rusty Wallace, whose menacing black No. 2 was powerful at Team Penske. Also successful in the 2: Bill Blair, Kurt Busch and Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

10. 9 — The 9 was basically nondescript until Bill Elliott roared out of the north Georgia mountains to turn it into a big winner in the mid-1980s. His son, Chase, continues the trend.

 

 

Truck Series: Rajah Caruth joins GMS Racing

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Rajah Caruth will drive the No. 24 truck full-time for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023, the team announced Tuesday.

The 20-year-old Caruth ran a full season in the ARCA Menards Series last year, placing third in points. He also made seven Xfinity starts and four Truck starts last year. 

“I am extremely honored, and really excited to join GMS Racing and be in the fold of a professional race team with so much history,” Caruth said in a statement from the team. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this throughout my whole career, and I’m going to do the best in my power to make the most of it.

“First and foremost, I can’t thank everybody at GMS enough for believing in me and believing that I have what it takes to drive one of their trucks. Same goes for everybody at Chevrolet for their support, we truly wouldn’t be able to make this happen without them. 

Caruth joins Grant Enfinger and Daniel Dye as GMS Racing’s full-time Craftsman Truck Series drivers. Chad Walter will be Caruth’s crew chief. Jeff Hensley will be Enfinger’s crew chief. Travis Sharpe will be Dye’s crew chief. 

The primary partner on Caruth’s truck will be the Wendell Scott Foundation. The foundation, named for the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race, seeks to provide resources and services to underprivileged Black youth communities near Scott’s hometown of Danville, Virginia. Since the foundation’s formation in 2011, more than 25 students have been awarded more than $50,000 from the Wendell Scott Legacy Scholarship programs.

“We are excited for Rajah to compete full-time with GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023,” said Dayne Pierantoni, GM Racing Program Manager for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “Through Chevrolet’s partnership with Rev Racing, we have been impressed with Rajah’s talent both on and off the track. He has proven his ability to compete at the NASCAR national level, and we look forward to seeing his continued success with a series championship winning team.”

The Truck season begins Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway. 

In other Truck Series news:

Dean Thompson will drive the No. 5 for TRICON Garage this coming season. The 21-year-old was a rookie in the series this past season. He had a season-best finish of 11th at Las Vegas.

“I am thrilled to start the next chapter of my career with TRICON Garage and Toyota Racing Development,” Thompson said in a statement from the team. “The team and manufacturer have quickly made a statement in the Truck Series as striving to be the best of the best. I’m ready to take on the challenge and live up to the expectations of being a driver for TRICON.”

McAnally Hilgemann Racing announced Tuesday that Christian Eckes and Jake Garcia will drive full-time in the Truck series for the team next season.

Eckes, who will drive the No. 19 truck, moves over from ThorSport Racing. Garcia will drive the No. 35 truck in pursuit of the series Rookie of the Year award.

NAPA AutoCare will continue as a team sponsor.

Garcia is 17 and is scheduled to make his first start March 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Because of NASCAR’s age restrictions, he will miss the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The team’s Daytona driver has not been announced.

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry

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Jarrett Companies will increase the number of races it will sponsor Josh Berry‘s No. 8 JR Motorsports ride in 2023, the Xfinity Series team announced Monday.

Jarrett Companies will sponsor Berry in six races after serving as the primary sponsor in three races in 2022. Those six races will be Phoenix (March 11), Richmond (April 1), Dover (April 29), Atlanta (July 8), Indianapolis (Aug. 12) and Texas (Sept. 23).

The deal gives Berry at least 26 races with sponsorship for next season. Bass Pro Shops will serve as the primary sponsor of Berry’s car in 11 races in 2023. Tire Pros is back with JRM and will sponsor Berry in nine races in the upcoming season.

Berry, who reached the Xfinity title race and finished fourth in the points, will have a new crew chief in 2023. Taylor Moyer will take over that role with Mike Bumgarner serving as JRM’s director of competition.

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.