Upon Further Review: Listening to good advice

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Enough of the lessons, Joey Logano says, he’s ready to win a championship.

Two years ago, he was told to treat the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway like any other race.

“I said, yeah, OK,’’ Logano said in a disbelieving manner.

Instead of following the advice, he hyperfocused on the task, constantly seeking to game plan with crew Todd Gordon.

“You’re looking at every little detail, as you should, but you’ve also got to be able to turn it off, and that’s where I didn’t do that before,’’ Logano said after his win Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway put him in the title race for the second time in three years.

He’s learned that the words given to him two years ago are what he should be following.

“We race to win every week; why should we race differently for a championship, right?’’ said Logano, who seeks his first series title. “We’re racing to win that race, and that’s ultimately going to have a championship attached to that. 

“We’ve just got to do the same thing we did this weekend. We’ve got momentum. We’ve won multiple races. We’ve got on rolls before where you’ve got that momentum and that confidence and it just keeps stacking up like it did last year, and we’re in good position to do that again.’’

Two years ago, Kevin Harvick won the championship and Logano was consoled by those who told him his time would come.

“After the race, everyone told me, you’ve got to lose one to win one, and I thought that was the biggest crock of crap I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said. “But you know what, it’s not the fact that you have to lose one to win one, it’s the fact that maybe it really helped me to just live through it once, and since then, we’ve been in those situations.

“We raced (Sunday) for a championship. We raced in Talladega for a championship. We’ve done this before.

“Homestead (in 2014) was the first time we ever had to do that.  You think about the way that Chase went, you know, we’ve won races in each round, where we never really had our back against the wall or anything. These last few years we’ve been in the position that we’ve had our back up against the wall and had to win, and we’ve been able to do that this year a couple times.’’

NOT A HAIL MARY

While it is easy to label the decision not to pit Denny Hamlin late in Sunday’s race a tremendous gamble, that’s not how crew chief Mike Wheeler saw it. Instead, he viewed it as a move they had to make.

Hamlin was running sixth when the caution flag waved for Martin Truex Jr.’s accident on Lap 257. Hamlin trailed Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — drivers he was racing for a spot in the title race.

Wheeler decided to keep Hamlin on track, while the rest of the field pitted. Hamlin restarted in the lead with Kenseth second, Logano sixth and Busch seventh.

Hamlin fell to second off the restart and stayed there until a debris caution on Lap 267. After that restart, Hamlin fell back, while Kenseth moved into the lead and Logano took second. Hamlin later pitted during overtime because he was close on fuel. He finished seventh, failing to make it to the championship round.

Wheeler explained the decision not to pit on Lap 257:

“At the end of the day we were behind the guys,’’ Wheeler said of those they were racing to make it to the championship round, “so we had to do something different to get ahead of them. We were too equal to beat them straight up without some kind of off-sequence deal.

“We talked about it beforehand. We knew that this was one of those places that tires didn’t matter that much. I think if we don’t get multiple cautions, we actually make it. We ran second that stint. We don’t get any more cautions, we finish second or third and we probably make it in. I don’t say it’s a Hail Mary but it’s definitely an aggressive move to gain track position.’’

THREE LONG YEARS

Phoenix marked the three-year anniversary since Richard Childress Racing last won a Sprint Cup race. The organization is winless in its last 108 Cup races.

RCR’s last win came with Kevin Harvick on Nov. 10, 2013. Austin Dillon has yet to win a Cup race for the organization, Ryan Newman also has not won with the organization, and Paul Menard’s lone victory came in the 2011 Brickyard 400 for the team.

Menard was the team’s top driver Sunday, placing 10th. RCR has placed one driver in the top 10 in six of the nine Chase races.

Car owner Richard Childress acknowledges that work remains for his company.

“We have been disappointed with some of our finishes but the things we have worked on the last several months, I have seen a real good gain in the speed in our cars,’’ he said. “We have been in the right position several times for a win but just couldn’t pull it off.

“I think the people that Eric Warren (director of competition) and Mike Dillon (vice president of competition) have gone out and found and been able to bring in is going to make a huge difference in our competition.

“I think we will be in really good shape next year and we have added Matt Borland (to be Menard’s crew chief in 2017), and we have added two or three new engineers. We also have stepped it up in our engine program in Cup.”

MAKING PROGRESS

Kyle Larson’s third-place finish Sunday marked his best run in the Chase and his second top-10 result in the last five races.

Although eliminated from title contention after the first round, Larson has made progress this season.

His average finish was 22.6 in the season’s first 11 races. Twice he failed to finish races.

In the 11 races since his victory at Michigan, his average finish is 11.9.

“We were so bad to start the year that I felt like our gains were extremely noticeable throughout the first third of the year,’’ Larson said. “Then up until I won at Michigan and a little bit after, I feel like we haven’t gained as much each week as we did earlier in the year.

“We’ve made gains but they haven’t been as big of gains because we’re closer to where we need to be. We haven’t had a whole lot of luck in the last eight races that we’ve run, but we’ve continued to stay positive, work hard and try to make our stuff faster to build the notebook for the offseason and start of next season.”

PIT STOPS

Erik Jones seeks to become the first driver to win a Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series title in back-to-back years this weekend in Miami.

Michael McDowell’s incident after a blown tire set up the overtime finish Sunday at Phoenix. It marked the second time in this Chase he has had an incident that sent a race into overtime. It also happened at Chicagoland Speedway in the Chase opener. In both cases, the driver leading when McDowell had his incident did not win the race in overtime.

— Joey Logano’s victory Sunday was his third of the year. He is the eighth different driver this season to win at least three races. The last time that has happened was 1962.

— Joey Logano also recorded his seventh Chase win since 2014. That is more than any other driver in that period.

— Kevin Harvick’s fourth-place finish was his seventh consecutive top-five result at Phoenix.

Ryan Blaney’s eighth-place finish was his first top-10 result since the opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway.

— Average age for the four drivers competing championship round in the Sprint Cup Series is 33.8.

— Average age for the four drivers competing championship round in the Camping World Truck Series is 33.8.

  Average age for the four drivers competing championship round in the Xfinity Series is 28.8

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.