Justin Haley’s K&N East title a family affair

NASCAR
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The morning of the most important race of his career, Justin Haley sought the council of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Dover International Speedway, site of the K&N Pro Series East season finale on Sept. 30, was drenched in rain that morning. But the finale wouldn’t begin until late afternoon, giving the 17-year-old Haley plenty of time to get “in the right mindset” for the 126-lap race.

If he finished 25th or better, he would be the series champion. No big deal. How did he get his mind prepared for such an occasion?

On Haley’s phone is an app called “Motivate.” It contains seven motivational recordings, with titles that include “Arnold’s Wisdom,” “Prove Them Wrong” and “Why Do We Fall?” Ranging between three and a half to nine minutes, the recordings are spliced together snippets from sermons, famous speeches and movies, including the “Rocky” franchise.

“It’s almost like listening to Bible verses, just a little more amped up,” Haley says. “I listened to (all of them). I listened to them before I went to bed the previous night, I listened to them while I was in the shower. Getting in that mindset was the biggest thing and just wanted to be extra sure I could use that, and I could deliver the best performance in my ability to my team that day.”

While Stallone and Schwarzenegger may have psyched Haley up on the day, they were only reinforcing the work done over the last eight years by his parents.

OUT OF TOWN

Melissa Braun-Dennis was nervous.

Unlike her husband, Nate Dennis, she wasn’t in Dover to experience her son’s big day.

Instead, she was about 730 miles west in Winamac, Indiana, the town she and her family spent their entire lives in until Haley’s budding racing career uprooted them to Charlotte, North Carolina, last year. She was back home in Northern Indiana visiting her oldest daughter, who attends a preparatory school that was holding its first “Parent’s Day” of the year.

“I had to sit out on this one,” says Braun-Dennis, a mother of four. “It was pretty hard to do that.”

It was hard because even with Haley’s 25-point cushion for the championship, there were lingering doubts.

“There was always that thought of ‘What if?’ ” says Braun-Dennis. “What if we’ve come this far and it doesn’t happen and how are we going to handle ourselves tomorrow? How are we going to be able to recover quickly and not let this really get us down?”

As the laps ticked off in Dover, Haley’s mother drove down the highway to her mother-in-law’s house. The road didn’t always have her attention.

“I had the race on my phone and was trying to check it periodically … safely, while driving down the road,” Braun-Dennis says. “There was a point where I actually had to get out of the car and go inside a gas station to get a drink because I was so nervous.”

Braun-Dennis finally arrived at her mother-in-law’s for dinner. She entered the house to “all the aunts and uncles … staring at their phones.”

She began waiting for a specific message from her husband.

GROWING PAINS

Nate Dennis has witnessed every lap of his stepson’s career.

It began when a 9-year-old Haley asked his mother if he could pursue a career in quarter midgets after driving a cousin’s quarter-midget at a birthday party.

“He was showing it to all of us,” Haley recalls. “I was like ‘Man, that’s pretty cool. Can I just drive it around the driveway a few laps?’ They got it down for me, pushed me off. I think it turned into a few hundred laps. I spent countless hours there in a quarter midget and then went to my mom and said ‘I want one of these.'”

“As long as Nate does it with you, I’m fine with it,” his mother said.

Haley’s first days in a quarter midget, when they raced two cars through four classes, was the beginning of what Dennis called a “kind of funky” progression for Haley.

“Quarter midget kids start practicing at four and a half and you race at five,” Dennis says. “Justin didn’t even race in a race car until he was nine, nine and a half. I always felt like we were behind them. At the mini sprint stage, it kind of evened out a bit, where there were some kids who had been doing it the same amount of time or longer.”

But Dennis himself was as much a rookie as his stepson.

“He didn’t know a thing about racing except being a spectator, which we all know is very different from the other side of racing,” says his wife, who grew up in a family that had been around racing since the 70s. “(Nate) basically put himself out there and started asking questions and bothering people. He learned it so quickly that he found the right people for Justin and when you surround yourself with good people, good things happen.”

For a few years Haley ran street stocks and mini sprints simultaneously. It wasn’t until Haley finished second in the 2012 Tulsa Shootout in the non-winged stock class that Dennis thought “maybe we’re not wasting money.”

But Haley wasn’t seeing his family often thanks to being on the road with his stepdad.

“They would be gone three days, home four days and that was pretty much seven months out of the year,” says Braun-Dennis. “We would beg the school system to have the extra time to travel for races.

After about 18 months of that, Dennis and Haley decided to move to Mooresville, North Carolina, as he was set to begin his K&N career.

“About six months later, I decided being separated in Indiana and them  being down here it wasn’t a lot of fun,” Braun-Dennis said. “We decided to move down here so we could have more family unit.”

FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME

In 2015, his first K&N season at HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks, Haley competed in a full season in one series for the first time. He would win his first race on March 26, 2016, at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

At Dover, Haley had a chance to bring HScott its fourth K&N East title in as many years.

“Having that pressure on me, it wasn’t the biggest concern,” Haley says. “But it was definitely there to get four consecutive. It’s just a super cool feeling to know that a start-up team four years ago could end up with four consecutive titles.”

Haley clinched the championship with his fourth-place result, ending a season that included 13 top-five finishes in 14 races.

Dennis finally got to send his wife the message she was waiting for.

“The excitement in the room and the moment when Nate said ‘I think we got it,’ it was such a huge relief,” says Braun-Dennis.

Even though Haley had won races in the last eight years, including twice in 2016, he’s never gotten to properly celebrate.

“They wouldn’t let me do a burnout after my wins this year because it’s so hard on the drivetrain and the motor and stuff like that,” Haley says. “They were like, ‘You win the championship, you get to do a burnout.’ They just kept telling me that and telling me that. I guess they were trying to motivate me.

“Once I won the championship it was, ‘Yeah, I can finally burn them down here.’ ”

As Kyle Benjamin went to victory lane for the victory, Haley took his No. 5 Chevrolet to the frontstretch. Giving him instructions over the radio was his spotter, driver coach and life coach, Michael Self.

“He was on the radio pretty in-depth, telling what to do, when to use the front brake, what gear to be in and stuff like that,” Haley says.

A month after Kyle Larson first did it in a Sprint Cup race at Michigan, Haley burned his tires down while holding his steering wheel outside his window in “probably the highlight of my career.”

“I think he’s shown me his burnout about a dozen times today,” Braun-Dennis says a few days after the race. “He always makes sure to point out the steering wheel is out the window.”

DESTINATION UNKNOWN

Before his first burnout, Braun-Dennis’ proudest moment from her son’s career came in August 2015.

On Aug. 19, Haley, at 16, made his first start in the Camping World Truck Series. It came at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Haley drove a truck owned by his uncle Todd Braun, who once owned Braun Racing, a small Xfinity Series team that eventually became part of the DNA of HScott Motorsports. Haley started 21st and finished 14th.

“I raced Kyle Busch for about half a lap,” Haley says. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”

But his first start in the lowest of NASCAR’s three national series meant even more to Braun-Dennis.

“When he was, gosh, 14 years old, we were kind of putting all of our heart and our time and our soul into everything, he looked at me one day and said ‘All I want to do is start a Truck race.'”

He did it on her 40th birthday.

“I remember that the most,” she says. “Bristol is an amazing track. It was my mother’s favorite track. His grandmother who has since passed away. They both loved racing and actually both my parents owned race teams in their careers and so for him to be there at that track on my 40th birthday was probably the biggest accomplishment.”

With his K&N title, a ride in the Truck series would be the next logical step for the teenager’s career. But there’s the awkward issue of him not turning 18 until April 28, 2017, which keeps him from competing in the series’ full schedule.

“I’m not sure about my plans for next year,” says Haley. “My birthday is kind of in the worst spot possible. I don’t turn 18 until about a quarter of the way through the season. It kind of chops out my chance of racing for the championship in a national series. With that being said, we’re trying to do something that’s going to be effective in my career.”

Wherever he winds up, he’ll have his family behind him.

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.