Upon Further Review: Bristol Night Race

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — On one pit stop, a socket came off and slowed Kevin Harvick’s crew. Then came the stop where he fell from first to third because of slow work with a tire.

Just under 200 laps remained in Sunday night’s Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway and Harvick’s team was finding ways to beat itself again. For the past three years, this team has been one of the sport’s fastest but has lost several chances at wins because of mechanical maladies, pit stop problems or miscues on track.

Sunday night, crew chief Rodney Childers stepped down from the pit box after the latest issue. On the way to a restroom, he collected his thoughts. When he returned to the pit box, he gathered his team.

“Being mad and taking it out on your guys isn’t the right way,’’ Childers told NBC Sports. “I see people do it all the time.’’

Instead, he delivered a different message.

“They were kind of beating themselves up as the night went and it was kind of getting worse and worse every stop,’’ Childers said. “We had a good talk and you could tell in their eyes, they were relieved after I talked to them and told them you’ve got to believe in yourself and if you believe in yourself, we can win this thing.’’

They responded and helped Harvick win his second race of the season.

It’s that type of mentality Harvick said his team needs to have as it moves closer to the playoffs. While many view the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing as the key obstacles to the championship, Harvick isn’t focused on them. He’s focused on his team.

“I feel like if we do everything right, we can be the rabbit,’’ Harvick  told NBC Sports. “We’ve just made some mistakes. We’ve had some things go wrong. We’ve had some miscues. I feel like we’ve fixed pit road. I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of the mistakes. We’ve had a lot of bad luck. There’s just a lot of things that haven’t gone in our particular direction this year, but I feel like the speed of the race cars has been good.’’

“As a whole, I want our team to focus on ourselves. I don’t want them to worry about how fast this guy is running. I don’t want them to worry about how fast that guy is running. I want them to worry about how fast we’re running and how thorough can we be from top to bottom and front to back on that race car and in the preparation from what we do as race drivers to engineers to crew chiefs, and let’s get the most out of our weekend because I believe that will be competitive and have a chance to and be where we need to be when we get to Homestead.’’

WELL NOT DRY FOR TOYOTA

Toyota Racing Development’s president admits that he’s “disappointed” to lose William Byron to Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports next season, but the manufacturer’s well of talent remains deep.

Byron, who leads the points and has won five of the 13 Camping World Truck Series races this season, will drive in the Xfinity Series next year for JR Motorsports.

“William has all to do with our future down the road,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said.

Even with Byron’s departure, Toyota still has 20-year-old Erik Jones, who moves to the Sprint Cup Series next year and 24-year-old Daniel Suarez in the Xfinity Series.

Toyota’s Camping World Truck Series roster includes 21-year-old Christopher Bell, 19-year-old Ben Rhodes and 24-year-old Rico Abreu, among others. Toyota’s development roster includes 16-year-old Todd Gilliland, who has won five of nine K&N Pro Series West races this year, and 20-year-old Tanner Thorson, the 2015 National Midget Driver of the Year, who made his ARCA debut Sunday.

“The reality is more aren’t going got make it than are going to make it,’’ said David Wilson, TRD’s president. “It gets a lot more difficult the further you go up the ladder.’’

With TRD focused on the four rides at Joe Gibbs Racing and two starting next year at Furniture Row Racing, it won’t be easy for young drivers to move up to those seats.

“We’re comfortable now with Furniture Row and Joe Gibbs Racing,’’ Wilson said. “We have to be careful that we don’t push that growth too fast too soon. Getting to the sixth (Sprint Cup) team … was very, very difficult and again you want to make sure you don’t overload your partners and put yourself in a position they’re not performing like we’re performing right now.’’

With Byron moving out of the Toyota camp next year, there could be a place for Gilliland, son of Sprint Cup driver David Gilliland, to possibly run some Truck races for Kyle Busch Motorsports next year. Todd Gilliland will be limited to running at tracks 1.25 miles and under because he is under 18 years old. He won’t turn 18 until May 2018.

“We’re really impressed with what we see with Todd and think he’s truly one of the handful of special guys,’’ Wilson said. “We’re working with him and his father and certainly would love to see him in a Tundra (in the Truck Series) within the next year or two.’’

Thorson is another driver who is intriguing with his success on dirt tracks.

“One of the critical junctures is going from open wheel to a full-bodied car,’’ Wilson said. “How he performs in these couple of ARCA rides and Late Model rides will dictate when he’s ready to attack a K&N season or a full ARCA season. I like Tanner. He’s a good kid. I think he’s got a future.’’

Thorson finished 12th despite overheating issues in his series debut on the dirt track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

And there’s Bell, who has watched Byron win so often in the Truck Series. Bell is fifth in the series points with one win (Gateway), five top-five finishes and nine top 10s in 13 starts this year.

So how does Toyota judge Bell’s progress, considering what Byron has done this year?

“You do start by judging him by his peers and by his teammates because of the equipment, but you have to really work with each one of these drivers as individuals because every one of them responds differently,’’ Wilson said. “Christopher came up the open-wheel level.

“With Christopher, what we’ve seen is from day one he’s had speed. One of the toughest things for him and this is indicative of USAC and POWRi racing is they do a couple of 10-lap heat races and then a 25-lap main. Christopher, when he sees that green flag, he drives it like a 25-lap main. It’s great he has speed. Now he’s learning his race craft, he’s learning to take care of his car, take care of his tires, manage his equipment. We’re very pleased with what we’ve seen.’’

SURGING FORWARD

Before last month, Chris Buescher had not finished in the top 15 in a Sprint Cup race. Since placing 14th at Indianapolis, he was won at Pocono, finished 30th at Watkins Glen and placed fifth at Bristol.

The Bristol effort moved him to 30th in the points, making him eligible for the Chase three races before the playoffs. He holds a 13-point lead on David Ragan, who is 31st in the season standings.

Buescher said he saw a turnaround at Kentucky last month before they were collected in a wreck, which we called a “pretty big letdown.’’

The team repaired that Kentucky car — a Roush Fenway Racing car — and Front Row Motorsports used it at Bristol. He had his best overall weekend, making the final round of qualifying for the first time this season and scoring the top-five finish.

“This is very satisfying,’’ crew chief Bob Osborne said of the weekend’s effort. “One thing in our favor for this particular weekend is that Chris has a knack for Bristol. We’ve got momentum on our side.’’

PIT STOPS

Kurt Busch’s streak of opening the season by running every lap ended Sunday in a crash at Bristol. He had run 6,273 consecutive laps to open the season before his crash. That equates to 8,691.914 miles.

Michael McDowell finished 19th at Bristol, marking back-to-back top-20 finishes. He placed 17th at Watkins Glen. This marks the first time in McDowell’s career he’s scored back-to-back top-20 finishes in Cup.

— Kevin Harvick’s victory at Bristol was the first at the track for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Denny Hamlin had his season-high eighth speeding penalty on Sunday at Bristol.

— Kyle Busch’s average finish in two races at Bristol this year: 38.5. Average finish in all the other races: 10.7.

— Bristol marked the first time in the last 10 races that Hendrick Motorsports placed all four cars in the top 15: Jimmie Johnson was seventh, Jeff Gordon was 11th, Kasey Kahne was 13th and Chase Elliott was 15th.

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.