Mayor’s platform: NBC’s Jeff Burton discusses Jeff Gordon, Chase Elliott and the racing this season

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Jeff Burton was nicknamed the Mayor when he raced in NASCAR for his view on many topics. Those opinions remain for the NASCAR on NBC analyst, who addressed questions about the sport, Jeff Gordon, Chase Elliot and others as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Watkins Glen this weekend for Sunday’s race on USA Network.

Here’s what Burton had to say:

Q: How good of a chance does Jeff Gordon have of winning at Watkins Glen in his third race in the No. 88 car for Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

JEFF BURTON: I don’t think you can discount Jeff’s skill. At the same time, being perfectly blunt, it wasn’t like Jeff lit it up last year. I know that Jeff won Martinsville and made it to the Chase with a real chance to win the championship, but if you look at the number of laps that they led and if you look at the year they had last year, it wasn’t great by any means. And I believe that Hendrick Motorsports isn’t the Hendrick Motorsports we’re accustomed to seeing, but you’re going to a road course race and Jeff Gordon is a really good road racer.

Everything I heard from the test was that the track is different than it used to be. I think that this race is an opportunity for a lot of people to make something happen. I don’t necessarily think that Jeff is going to go out there and outrun, just go flat outrun say the 16 people that he’s going to have to just flat outrun, but I, without a doubt, believe that they can win the race. I know he’s good enough. I know he can make enough pace to put himself in position to take advantage of some things that can happen at Watkins Glen.

When you’ve raise your hand and said ‘‘OK it’s time for someone else to do this, I’m ready to go to the next phase of my career, my life’’ and you come back, it’s a different attitude. I think we saw that with Tony Stewart, too. I think Tony had moved on. I think Tony had emotionally said, ‘‘OK, I’m not having fun, I’m ready to do the next thing.’’ They put him in the position to win at Sonoma and he executed. Boom, like it’s a whole different Tony Stewart. I think the same thing can happen to Jeff Gordon.

When you put a guy like Jeff Gordon, when you put a guy like Tony Stewart, you put a guy who is competitive in nature and has a tremendous amount of pride and has had a lot of success and is considered one of the best ever, you put that guy in the right situation and light that wick, man, fantastic stuff can happen. That’s why I say that they can win, but by far they are not my favorite. You just can’t look at a champion like Jeff Gordon, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, going to Watkins Glen and not say that those guys that those guys will have a chance to win.

Q: Chase Elliott has finished outside the top 20 in five of the last six races. Although he’s still in a Chase spot, he’s fallen in the points. What kind of concern is there with five races to go?

BURTON: I think as a young driver or an experienced driver, when you have a string of races … where you’ve been in wrecks, it forces you to have to look at things a little differently. I think he summed it up best after the race. ‘‘Hey, I’ve got to figure a way to do something different’’ is basically what he said. I think that is astute. I think that is recognizing the situation that you’re in and understanding that there is five races to go. You have a good enough point lead, you don’t have to be spectacular and don’t slow your pace down, keep your pace up but be a little more in those few moments in the race where there’s a decision to be made, error on the side of caution a little bit.

That’s hard to do. You race the way you’re comfortable racing. When you start to change that it’s easy to get you knocked off your rhythm. It’s a fine line. It’s easy for me to say in the booth to say that Chase needed to not to make that mistake because of the position he’s in. It’s much harder in that race car to change who you are as a driver. That’s how you gotten there. It’s a delicate balance, but I do think that he has to look — and not every wreck that he has been in is his fault by any means — but as a driver you have to look at every wreck that you’re in as if it were something you could have done different. Because if you don’t look at it that way, you never learn. The attitude of any driver should be I always need to be doing something different.

He clearly said after the race what I thought was 100 percent correct. People get on Chase because he’s so hard on himself and people act like that is a sign of weakness. I believe the exact opposite. It’s a sign of confidence. It’s a sign of strength. It’s a sign of ‘‘Hey, I have confidence that I can do what I need to do … I have confidence to do what I need to do just that I need to experience it.’’ That’s what he’s saying. I’d much rather hear that than just say those (drivers) around me running all over people. I’d much rather hear what he says than what some other people say.

Q: Martin Truex Jr. had awful luck at Pocono and damaged the car he dominated the Coca-Cola 600 with. Should the team not have parked it after they went to the garage instead of going back out on track, which led to further damage to the car?

BURTON: For years our sport has been about having pride in getting back on the race track and doing everything you can do to never quit. I think there’s something to be said for that. Now, it is a different time. I could fully understand someone say we have nothing to gain. I get it. I still believe that there’s experiences can be drawn from every situation. I like a team that collectively says we’re not going to quit. Also it prepares the team and the driver to go through those situations because that might the difference between you moving to the next round or not. I think having done that experience is helpful.

As far as having a magic car, I think those days are over. If you have a car that goes to Charlotte and kicks everybody’s ass and you can’t replicate that car, there’s something wrong with your system. I would say that Cole (Pearn) would say if you can’t make the next car better, something is wrong with your system. As far as destroying cars and all that, we’re in a time where with all the technology available to the teams, teams should not have a favorite car. Those days are over.

Q: Kyle Larson raced Austin Dillon cleanly for the lead at the halfway mark Monday at Pocono when competitors thought the race would end soon. It was similar to how Larson raced Matt Kenseth at Dover for the win in May. What do you see out of how Larson raced at Pocono?

BURTON: I thought Larson on Monday didn’t have as fast a car as Austin had. Austin kept putting pressure on him, kept putting pressure on him. I thought he blocked Austin and did everything he could to slow that momentum down but Austin was coming. Once he got there, he had not choice but to give him room, which is the same thing he did earlier in that run and he was able to beat Austin off Turn 3. This time it didn’t work out because Austin got loose and ran into him.

I don’t know what else (Larson) could have done. When somebody behind you is faster, you’re trying to push your car a little harder than it needs to go because that’s the only way you’re going to stay in front of him. He blocked and didn’t make it easy for Austin. Ultimately, there was nothing he could do because Austin got loose and into the side of him.

Q: What else is on your mind?

BURTON: I would say this, after leaving Indy and all the negatives from Indy, fan attendance, quality of race, the next race on a 2.5-mile flat race track was freaking awesome. If you look at the number of the people that were at the race track (at Pocono) on Sunday and you look at the number of people that came on Monday. For a day when to be honest with you not many of us thought we were going to race, then you look at the quality of the race on a 2.5-mile race track, long straightaways and flat corners, to me it shows me the state of the sport can’t be valued on one race.

There was so much negativity, although the number of people that watched on TV was awesome, but there was so much negativity leaving Indy, like leaving Pocono was a completely different feel. I don’t think we should lose sight of that. Granted, I’m the ever optimist and tend to find the good things in that stuff. You compare the state of the sport after Indy versus the state of the sport of Pocono. It’s two completely different universes. I think that is worth noting. We can’t look at our sport after one great race or after one poor race and say that’s what NASCAR is. NASCAR is a collection of races that run throughout the whole year. There’s going to be good races, there’s going to be bad races. It’s just how it is. No different than football, basketball, and baseball.

Pocono was so good to me that the guy that had the fastest car on the race track without question was Kevin Harvick. I think it’s fair to say that Kevin Harvick did not get the majority of coverage. That’s because there were so many things going on … there were so many different strategies, Kevin Harvick wasn’t the main talking point even though it appeared to me he had the dominant car. I just left Pocono thinking about Indy and it just reminded me that we as a sport, the fans, the competitors, everybody involved has to be careful not to look at the sport as one race and look the sport as the collection of races and understand there’s good days and bad days. In whole, this year has been really good.

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.