Upon Further Review: Pocono

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Is a revolution about to take place in the Sprint Cup Series?

As young drivers excel, it becomes more likely there could be multiple first-time winners this season — something that hasn’t happened since 2014 when A.J. Allmendinger and Aric Almirola each scored their first series victory.

Chase Elliott’s fourth-place finish Monday at Pocono marked the eighth time in the past 10 Cup races that a winless driver placed in the top five.

Elliott is one of five drivers seeking their first series win to score a top-five finish this season. The others are Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. They are a part of a youthful rise as the series transitions from an era dominated by Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and others.

“There is a lot of competition out there right now between the group of young guys, who is going to win the first race, and you want to be a part of that and … prove yourself,’’ Dillon said.

Many will view Elliott as the favorite to score his first series win this year. His five top-five finishes is the most among drivers seeking their first Cup win and tied for most by a rookie after 14 races with Dale Earnhardt’s start in 1979. Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports car has been strong at a variety of tracks from Pocono (fourth) and Texas (fifth) to Dover (third) and Bristol (fourth). With return trips to each this year, Elliott could be in position to win at any of those tracks, if not somewhere else.

Larson also has shown he’s close to winning in the last month. He teased fans with three runner-up finishes as rookie in 2014 but had struggled until earlier this year. He placed third at Martinsville and in the last month finished second at Dover and challenged for the win in the Sprint All-Star Race.

“We started the year off not great, but everybody stayed positive and kept digging,’’ Larson said recently. “Lately, we have been bringing really good stuff to the track. It’s been really cool just to see how hard work has been paying off and how we have been close.’’

Dillon has had his ups and downs this season but was third at Talladega, fourth at Martinsville and fifth Las Vegas, showing that he and his Richard Childress Racing team are moving closer to scoring a win.

“Hopefully I can keep proving myself on the track each and every weekend,’’ he told NBC Sports.

Blaney’s Wood Brothers Racing team benefits from its alliance with Team Penske. Blaney was fifth at Kansas. The Penske cars have shown more speed lately. Brad Keselowski won at Talladega and Logano won the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“The Penske organization has always been one of the best, I think, at being ahead of the game as far as rules changes and being prepared for it,’’ Blaney said last month. “That’s a great part about being kind of a satellite team to the Penske group. We get a lot of info from them and, hopefully, (can) be ahead of the ball with these new rules changes.”

Stenhouse has shown progress as the Roush Fenway Racing cars improved. He had a season-best finish of fifth at Auto Club Speedway.

While they will still have to beat Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and others to win this year, should more than two first-timers do it, it would make the most prolific year for new winners since 2011 when five made their first trip to victory lane in the Cup series.

That year featured new winners Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500), Regan Smith (Southern 500), Paul Menard (Brickyard 400), David Ragan (July Daytona) and Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen).

When does the revolution begin? Will it be this week at Michigan International Speedway, later in the summer or further away? And who will lead it?

REPEAT PERFORMANCE?

After finishing sixth Monday at Pocono Raceway, a question for Kasey Kahne and his team is if they can score back-to-back top-10 finishes this week at Michigan.

It seems like an easy question. Why wouldn’t a Hendrick Motorsports car have consecutive top 10s? Especially at Pocono and Michigan where horsepower and aerodynamics mean so much and Hendrick cars often are good in both categories. Also, with a rule change this weekend that will reduce downforce and sideforce, shouldn’t that play to the top teams, including Hendrick, and be good for Kahne?

Maybe it will. Maybe for only the second time in the last 65 races — going back to Aug. 2014 — Kahne will score two top-10 finishes in a row this coming week.

Monday was a positive sign for Kahne despite a pit road speeding penalty. He radioed his team early in the race: “Car feels really good. Like really good.’’

Although the penalty during the competition caution dropped Kahne briefly to 37th, he worked his way into the top 10 before halfway in the 160-lap race. He bounced outside the top 10 for a spell before running the final 20 laps in sixth.

It’s these types of performances — and better — car owner Rick Hendrick had in mind when he signed Kahne to a contract in Aug. 2010, more than a year before Kahne would drive for the team, replacing Mark Martin in 2012.

Kahne finished fourth in the points in his first year for Hendrick. He made the Chase each of his first three years with the team. The performance earned Kahne a contract extension through the 2018 campaign.

Yet, there have been struggles. Kahne and his team have searched for better performances. Crew chief Keith Rodden replaced Kenny Francis before the 2015 season.

Since joining Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has won five times in 158 races. Jimmie Johnson has 22 wins during that time, Dale Earnhardt Jr.  has eight and Jeff Gordon had eight before retiring last year.

Progress won’t come in giant steps but several small ones. A key for Kahne and his team will be to follow the Pocono performance with a top-10 result at Michigan.

DYNAMIC DUO

Only two drivers have each scored three top-five finishes in the past five races: Former champion Brad Keselowski and rookie Chase Elliott.

Keselowski won at Talladega, finished fifth in the Coca-Cola 600 and was third Monday at Pocono.

“It was a pretty strong weekend,’’ Keselowski said. “The last four or five weeks have been strong runs.’’

Elliott was fifth at Talladega, third at Dover and fourth at Pocono.

“We certainly had, I feel like, one of our best days of the year,’’ said Elliott, who led a career-high 51 laps Monday. “I thought for us to be able to contend and lead laps all day and have a car that could fight for the lead the majority of the day was great.’’

TROUBLING TURN

Kyle Busch’s 31st-place finish marked his third consecutive finish of 30th or worse.

He had not gone three consecutive races without a top-five finish in the last 24 races — the equivalent of two-thirds of a season.

Busch’s chances of winning ended when he was mired in traffic and clipped by Ryan Newman, who had moved up the track after Kasey Kahne went under him.

The contact sent Busch into the wall.

PIT STOPS

Josh Wise finished a season-high 27th at Pocono.

— Regan Smith’s 22nd-place finish was his best finish of the year in a non-restrictor-plate race (he was a season-best eighth in the Daytona 500).

— In the last five races, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has finished 16th (Talladega), 13th (Kansas), 14th (Dover), 15th (Coca-Cola 600) and 15th (Pocono).

—  After scoring one top-10 finish in the first eight races, Matt Kenseth has had five top-10 results in the last six races.

Kevin Harvick’s average finish on tracks 1.5 miles or larger (not including the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega) is 5.4.

— Tony Stewart lost 11 points on 30th in the points standings Monday after his crash at Pocono left him with a 34th-place finish. He’s 71 points out of 30th in the standings with 12 races to go. He needs to be in the top 30 in points should he win to be eligible for a Chase spot.

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.