What drivers said after Sunday’s Auto Club 400 in Fontana

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Drivers talked a lot about their finish and performance in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Here’s what they said:

Jimmie Johnson, finished 1st: “I knew we had a great car. To go there at the end and have good tires on the car, (Kevin) Harvick and I got by Joey (Logano) at the start. I had a great run off Turn 2 and thought maybe I had a shot at this thing, which I didn’t expect to have, because Harvick’s been so fast. I cleared him and kind of got away. We just saved our best for last, for sure. I told everybody that Superman would kick Batman’s butt, and it happened. It might send a statement, but it’s a long year and we need to keep doing this all year long, especially late in the season.”

Kevin Harvick, 2nd: “We weren’t very good on restarts for four, five laps, unless we were by ourselves. We just weren’t able to drive it in like I needed to. Just didn’t have the front tires turning and the back wouldn’t grip. Still, a good day for us. We’ll keep at it.”

Denny Hamlin, 3rd: “It’s a disappointing third, I can tell you that. But two penalties, radio changes, just a lot of mistakes on my part early on. I gave ourselves a shot there and (Joey Logano), the one time he didn’t get a good restart, we didn’t have that push there and it hurt us there. Those two (Johnson and Harvick) linked up on the bottom and there was really nothing we could do at that point.”

JOEY LOGANO, 4th: (On the incident with Martin Truex Jr.) “It was completely my fault. I was going to go in on the outside of him and he was going to go in on the top as well and I just ended up being right on him. We never touched each other, but just taking the air off these cars makes them uncontrollable.  I didn’t mean to do that. I was going to try to go to the top and I just got a little bit close to him and got him free, so I’m taking the hit on that one.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 5th: “It was really good for us. That was a crazy restart there at the end.  We had a really good Fastenal Ford on the long run and that’s where we excelled – kind of like Atlanta and Las Vegas. On the long run we excelled and that really paid off today. Our tires were good every pit stop, which was good for us, and we made the right adjustments there at the end. It was just a really good bounce back weekend for us.”

Chase Elliott, 6th: “We were able to get up to third. I thought we had a really good car. Just need to get going a little bit better on those restarts and try to maximize that opportunity. This race track already produces good racing and I think with this package, if they optimize that a little bit more, I feel like there were a lot of different lanes you could run and that’s the kind of race track that you want to watch. And I feel like it was a good show for the fans.”

Carl Edwards, 7th: “We had every type of challenge you could have. We had a little bit of tire trouble. The tires, you could take it easy on them and you could kind of create your own destiny there. I think Goodyear has a good tire here and just have to be careful with them. … Some of those restarts were just a blast. That’s what it’s about. We were really – I was having a blast. At the end, I just got choked up one time behind Brad (Keselowski), he got really loose and kind of killed our momentum.”

AJ Allmendinger, 8th: “I thought we were as competitive as anybody on short-run speed. We just needed something there for the last 10 to 15 laps. We will work on it. The pit crew was awesome. They bounced back with great stops all day. Big momentum for everybody here at the shop. Just keep digging.”

Brad Keselowski, 9th: “We gave it all we had, but just came up a bit short. We seemed to be about a fifth to 10th-place car, probably with everybody having some troubles we should have finished fifth. I slid back to eighth there, which was frustrating, but, all in all, it was a decent day.”

Jamie McMurray, 10th: “We got a really good finish. We ran, I think, around 13th or 15th most of the day. We got caught in the pits on a green-flag stop and had to go to the back. And I still made my way up a little bit, but man, right before the caution came out, we were fading fast. The tires were just gone and I was sliding around and we were going backwards quick. That caution was a big turnaround for us. I think we restarted 17th and finished 10th. So it was good to have a really good restart.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., 11th: “I had a blast. I love racing here regardless of what aero package we have. This is a fun track. I like the low downforce. What can I say? I’m having fun and had a good time today. Usually, you would be real frustrated driving the cars we drove the last two years finishing 11th, but I had fun running anywhere on the race track. No matter where we were we were racing somebody and driving the thing. (On Jimmie Johnson passing your father in wins) “It’s something inevitable I guess. I remember when Jeff (Gordon) passed Daddy and now he got all the way up to 93 wins. Jimmie is going to have quite a few more. He maybe will surpass Jeff. That will be a great story as well since Jeff sort of brought him onto the team. I’m not going to be surprised if (Johnson) matches Daddy and Richard (Petty) in that championship deal if we can’t get it.”

Brian Scott, 12th: “(Finishing 12th) was really important. We had a couple of hard weeks, so to have a good finish here – not only for the team but for our sponsors … everybody that’s on board this program – because we sold it and pushed it to them. We said, ‘We’re going to do good things this year.’ The first part of the year was tough, but we had to get through and now we’re bringing some new cars to the track and our performance is picking up. It’s great.”

Landon Cassill, 16th: “The car was really good on long runs but really, really bad on short runs. Fortunately, with 40 to go we had a long run that put us in the top 20 and the guys had a phenomenal pit stop that held my position and we just had a great restart for the green-white-checker. Sometimes you’re proud of what you did, but I feel like I got lucky in some ways that the line just went my way and we were able to run 16th.”

Aric Almirola, 21st: “I’m of course disappointed in our finish today (21st). We started off the afternoon with a much stronger car than where we finished. We struggled with a loose Smithfield Ford Fusion through the first part of the race, and then as the track cooled down our car tightened up.  We ended up losing the front downforce on our car and we never could find a solution that would get it driving for me. But, I’m proud of how hard my team fought this weekend, and I know that we’ll bounce back in Martinsville.”

Kasey Kahne, 28th: “I passed her in (Turns) 3 and 4 and then she had the momentum off the top and went back under me going down the front stretch. So I went just to kind of catch a side draft to make sure I was in position getting into Turn 1 and it didn’t hold me up when I got there because I was the one coming and I just got too close and the car was moving around and we hit and she had a bad wreck. I felt really bad because it was far from anything than just trying to hold my position. I’ve never had an issue with Danica at all. It was an avoidable accident in the middle of the straightaway that was far from anything but just trying to hold my position that I had just gained.”

MARTIN TRUEX, JR., 32nd: “We had a good run going until  (Joey Logano) put our car into the fence. There was a lot of right-side damage to the car, and we were pretty much toast after that incident. Not sure what he (Logano) was thinking about at the time, but that hit spoiled our day. We went from being a contender to the back of the field. Really frustrating to have a good car and not have anything to show for it. I think we were running in or close to the top five when the (No.) 22 rammed our Toyota.”

Chris Buescher, 33rd: “It’s unfortunate we had the flat tire there because we had a lot of speed in our Love’s Travel Stops Ford Fusion. I had a lot of fun today. We’ve made a lot of really big gains in a short period of time. If we hadn’t had that happen, we would have been in the top-20, no doubt, and probably a little bit better than that.”

Ryan Blaney, 35th: “We blew a tire.  I don’t know what happened. There was no warning and the tire just exploded into three. That stunk. We were good on some runs, but at the end of the race we weren’t very good. We really struggled bad on restarts, really bad. We were going to salvage a decent day, and then the tire exploded.”

Greg Biffle, 37th: “We’re not really sure. It might be something in the engine. It started smoking a little bit there and it was down on power, so we figured we would just bring it in and take a look at it before we break something out on the race track.”

Danica Patrick, 38th: (On wreck with Kasey Kahne): “We were on a restart and I had a run on him so I went down low. If you get too close to them then it will drag you both back. I was going low. I saw him chase me down the track and then the next thing I know I was getting spun up the track.  I was passing him. He was behind me in the right rear. I don’t know what kind of day he was having. I just heard he was a lap down actually. I feel bad if he felt like he was put in a position to have to be that desperate a lap down. It’s just unfortunate; he must be having a very tough time. I was having a pretty good recovery day, kind of like last weekend. I was just running good race laps and on the lead lap at the end of the race back up into the top 20 from a bad starting position.”

Kyle Larson, 39th: “We were struggling all day. We were really bad. And just on that backstretch, my left rear tire got cut and spun me to the outside wall and then spun me back into the inside wall. By the time I could hit the brakes it must have ripped the brake line and I had no brakes. They just went to the floorboard. I couldn’t slow down and had a hard hit there; head-on. I’m okay. I’m thankful for SAFER barriers and thankful that I’m all right. That was definitely probably the hardest hit I’ve ever had in my career.  I’m glad to be on my feet right here.”

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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.