Upon Further Review: Michigan

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s slide in the points could be worrisome to his fans, but how concerned should they really be?

Maybe not as much as they are.

Since placing second at Bristol in mid-April, Earnhardt has had one top 10 and three finishes of 30th or worse. He enters this off weekend 12th in the standings, 30 points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, the first driver outside a Chase spot.

With 10 different winners in the first 15 races, the question is how many more will there be before the playoffs being in September. That’s pivotal if Earnhardt doesn’t win a race. More winners means fewer spots to make the Chase via points.

Last year, five winless drivers made the Chase. In 2014, it was three.

Take a look at what this eight-race slide has done to Earnhardt’s position in the standings. Since Bristol, Earnhardt has scored 133 points (Brad Keselowski has scored a series-high 256 points during that time).

The four drivers behind Earnhardt in the standings who also are in a Chase spot all have closed on him. Austin Dillon has gained 35 points on Earnhardt in those eight races. Jamie McMurray has gained 42 points, Ryan Newman has gained 54 points, and Ryan Blaney has gained 57 points. On average they’re making up between four to seven points per race on Earnhardt. With 11 races left until the Chase field is set, they’d pass him at this rate.

Of course, one would question if Earnhardt’s struggles will continue and allow those drivers to catch him at that rate.

Among drivers outside a Chase spot at this time, Kahne has gained 35 points on Earnhardt in the last eight races, Trevor Bayne has gained 40 points, and Kyle Larson has gained 50 points. Again, can they continue to catch Earnhardt at the same rate if they don’t win a race?

Now, look at what has taken place on the track. Three times in the last eight races, Earnhardt has been eliminated by a crash (Talladega, Dover and Michigan). Dillon, McMurray, Newman and Blaney — all behind Earnhardt in a Chase spot — have been eliminated by an accident a combined three times in that stretch.

Do you think Earnhardt’s misfortune will continue? Better yet, do you think those four drivers will avoid being collected in accidents in the coming weeks?

Also, the six times in the last eight races that Earnhardt made it to the halfway mark, he’s gained a total of 40 spots from the start. In five of those races he’s been running between seventh and 11th at the halfway point.

That’s well enough to make the Chase if he can finish there.

Something else to consider is that with Sonoma next it would be easy for Earnhardt fans to fret because of how he used to run there, but he’s placed seventh and third in his last two races there. Not a guarantee he’ll do that again, but he’s been much better there than he was.

Now, all this isn’t to say there’s work to do. There is. Qualifying, as crew chief Greg Ives noted in a tweet after Sunday’s race at Michigan, must get better. Running between seventh and 11th won’t be good enough to win a championship. That’s the goal.

Earnhardt knows it and has said so in recent weeks.

Still, there’s time for this team to improve and be a title contender instead of an underdog.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

While much was made of young drivers Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson finishing second and third in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Michigan, the entire weekend showcased NASCAR’s youth movement.

Last Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway was won by 18-year-old William Byron. Saturday’s Xfinity race was won by 24-year-old Daniel Suarez, and Sunday’s Sprint Cup race was won by 26-year-old Joey Logano.

Combined, the average age of those winners is 22.7 years — the youngest average age for winners in the same weekend in NASCAR’s top three series since last year’s season-opening races at Daytona.

The 2015 season started with Tyler Reddick, then 19 years old, winning the Truck race at Daytona. Ryan Reed, then 21, won the Xfinity race, and Logano, then 24, won the Daytona 500. Their combined average age was 21.3 years old.

“The future of NASCAR is present, and it’s going to be big,’’ Logano said after his win Sunday at Michigan in reference to being followed across the finish line by Elliott and Larson. “It’s amazing you see some of those guys that are coming in how good they are, and particularly with Chase today and Larson, as well, here recently how fast he’s been.’’

Sunday’s Cup race marked the ninth time in the last 11 points events that a driver seeking his first series win finished in the top five with Elliott and Larson doing so. It also marked the third time in the last six points races that two drivers seeking their first series win each finished in the top five in a  Cup race.

A GOOD SIGN FOR Tony Stewart

There’s still work to do, but Tony Stewart finally had a good weekend — weekend being the key point — since coming back after missing the first eight races of the season with a back injury.

Stewart was solid throughout the weekend. He was 20th in the opening practice, qualified third, ran 16th in the first practice Saturday, 19th in the final practice and finished seventh in Sunday’s race.

Not spectacular numbers some could argue, but Sunday marked only his seventh race with new crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. Compare it to what he did at Charlotte two weeks ago. Stewart was 28th, 15th and 26th in the three practice sessions, qualified 21st and finished 24th.

“That is the kind of weekend I’ve been looking for all year out of this group,’’ Stewart said after the Michigan race. “Today is proof that we can do it. I would rather have this than win a race and run 15th to 20th the next week. From start to finish all weekend, it’s been solid, and that is what we are looking for right now. I’m tickled to death.”

Stewart’s result moved him to within 45 points of 30th in the season standings. He needs to be in the top 30 in points to be eligible for a Chase spot should he win one of the remaining 11 races before the playoffs begin.

OH WOE IS JOE (GIBBS RACING)

For the first time since last May and June, Joe Gibbs Racing failed to score a top five in back-to-back races.

The team’s top finisher Sunday at Michigan was Carl Edwards, who was sixth. He was the team’s only driver in the top 10.

Reigning champion Kyle Busch scored his fourth consecutive finish of 30th or worse after an engine issue. Denny Hamlin placed 33rd after an incident. Matt Kenseth finished a quiet 14th. No Gibbs cars led a lap.

Of course, many teams would like to have the problem of being noted for not scoring back-to-back top-five finishes.

PIT STOPS

— The last seven Cup points races each have had a different winner: Carl Edwards (Richmond), Brad Keselowski (Talladega), Kyle Busch (Kansas), Matt Kenseth (Dover), Martin Truex Jr. (Charlotte), Kurt Busch (Pocono) and Joey Logano (Michigan). It’s the longest streak of different winners since there were eight from the 2013 season finale to the first seven races of the 2014 season.

— Kurt Busch remains the only driver to have completed all 4,664 laps this season. The last time a driver had completed every lap this late in the season was 2012 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He ran every lap through the first 20 races that season.

— Hendrick Motorsports has gone 10 races since its last victory (Jimmie Johnson at Auto Club Speedway). The team went 15 races between wins last year. In the last 36 races (equivalent to one season), Hendrick cars have won six races. Joe Gibbs Racing leads the way with 18 victories during that stretch. Team Penske has won eight races in the time, followed by Stewart-Haas Racing (three wins) and Furniture Row Racing (one). No other team won during that stretch.

Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.

 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”