Upon Further Review: How Cup teams assess start of their season

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With NASCAR’s excursion to the West Coast done, and the first five races run, Cup teams can begin to take what they’ve learned and apply it for upcoming races.

This opening five-race stretch can prove vital in helping a team throughout the rest of the year. Teams often say that with so little turnaround time for cars before races at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Auto Club Speedway on consecutive weekends those cars have to be prepared well in advance.

NBC Sports talked to the those who oversee the competition departments for NASCAR’s top Cup teams to have them assess their strengths and areas of improvements based on the opening five races.

Thursday, NBC Sports will have what those team officials said they’ll be focused on in this next five-race stretch, which features three short tracks, a repaved (and reconfigured )1.5-mile track and a restrictor-plate track.

CHIP GANASSI RACING

Consider this: Had Kyle Larson not run out of fuel on the final lap of the Daytona 500 and not been impatient on the final restart at Phoenix, he could have won three of the season’s first five races. Larson’s car has been among the fastest this season. Teammate Jamie McMurray also has shown a lot of speed, giving this organization something to be excited about.

It’s a marked change from the start of last year when Larson had three finishes of 26th or worse in the first five races, and McMurray had four finishes of 16th or worse in the same stretch.

This year, Larson has finished second or better in each of the last four races. McMurray has three top-10 finishes in the last four races.

Wins: 1 (Kyle Larson at Auto Club Speedway)

Key Fact: Kyle Larson ranked first in restart speed in each of the last two races, Phoenix and Auto Club, and ranked third in that category at Las Vegas and fourth at Atlanta, according to NASCAR’s Loop Data.

Team Manager Tony Lunders: “We’ve had the chance to test our stuff and our car’s ability and our team’s ability and happily have been pretty pleased with that so far.

“We’d still like to improve our restrictor-plate stuff. I think we took a pretty big step from last year’s performance at Daytona and Talladega. Jamie’s car was good enough to win but got in a wreck there. Kyle, obviously, was leading with a lap to go and ran out of fuel. We’d like to see a little bit of a step forward there come Talladega.

“I would say our pit crews have come together and have stepped up over the last few weeks as well, and they’re rolling. It’s hard to point to (a weakness) right now, it sounds maybe arrogant, but our stuff has been running pretty good at each of these tracks that we’ve seen.

“I look at last year’s performance at about this time of the year, we were struggling. The group has been doing its own chassis here for as long as the place has been around. We took that as one of the main components. You have a hundred items or whatever that is. We went to work on all of them from brakes to fuel systems. You name it, we dove into every component of the car and tried to figure out what can we improve on it.

“On the chassis, we had room on it like everything else. At this level it’s all small gains. Probably the difference maker is when you can polish the details out.’’

FURNITURE ROW RACING

Martin Truex Jr. has been fast, but it’s the performance of rookie Erik Jones and his team that stands out.

It’s not easy to add a team to what had been a single-car operation and continue to perform as well as the team did last year.

Also, the team overcame an issue with its templates that caused building its cars incorrectly, something that was a factor at Daytona. Even with having to redo its cars, this team maintained the speed it has had.

Wins: 1 (Martin Truex Jr. at Las Vegas)

Key Fact: Martin Truex Jr. has led 225 laps this season, second only to Kevin Harvick, who has led 342 laps.

Team President Joe Garone: “I think now that we have these races behind us, we can clearly see we have speed in the 77 car  (Jones) and certainly the 78 (Truex) at least on the tracks we’ve been on.

“As far as the growth that we went through in the offseason leading into this year, everything went really well right up to Daytona, and we kind of had a snafu coming out of the shop with our template grids, which was a disaster because we had several cars already built, and we had to come back and basically start over. When you go through something like that, it was pretty intense, there were a lot of hours spent by the guys at the shop. In some ways, it really rallied the guys together. We hired close to 40 people (with adding the second team), and everybody dug down and got in the trenches and got ourselves bailed out.

“Now that the dust has kind of settled, and we’re through that, I think we’re better for that. I don’t want to ever go though something like that, but I really liked what I saw as far as how the guys handled it in the shop to recover, and it really brought everybody together.

“The important thing is through all that is that the cars have speed. We expected that with Martin. We didn’t know what to expect with Erik. He should have had top 10s in all these races had we not had issues on pit road and other areas.

“Right now the weakest point is our pit stops, and that’s not just the pit crew, it’s a little bit of working with Erik on getting in and out of the pits, optimizing pit road. I think he would tell you that one of the differences between Xfinity and Cup, everything is on kill in Cup, there’s nowhere to relax. You have to come down pit road right on the brink of speeding, you have to get in your box right on the point of sliding out of it. Everything has got to be perfect, or you lose a massive amount of track position.

“The stops, we’re working on getting them better like you would expect with a new team. We’re going to have some ups and downs for sure. The key is keeping speed in the cars, and we have got speeds in the cars, so we’re happy with that.’’

HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS

This is only the second time since 2010 that Hendrick Motorsports has not scored a win by the season’s fifth race. The only other time it happened was in 2012 when the organization didn’t win until the 11th race of the year.

Other than Chase Elliott (63 stage points), the Hendrick drivers have not fared well in the stages. Jimmie Johnson (18 points), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12) and Kasey Kahne (zero) all rank outside the top 10 in stage points. Johnson is 11th, and Earnhardt is 14th. That’s an area that has gained the attention of Hendrick Motorsports.

Wins: 0

Best Finish: Chase Elliott, 3rd at Las Vegas

Key Fact: Chase Elliott is the only driver to rank in the top five in green-flag speed at Atlanta (third), Las Vegas (fourth), Phoenix (fourth) and Auto Club (third), according to NASCAR’s Loop Data.

General Manager Doug Duchardt: “The 24 team (of Elliott) has done a really good job … been very competitive, led laps, been a factor basically in about every race that we’ve run. So very happy with that.

“I would say that our engines have shown well between Chase and Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports). I feel like our engine shop has responded well through the beginning of this year and have been competitive.

“I think that we have shown overall decent speed. Chase has run well. (Johnson’s) team obviously hasn’t had the finishes that we wanted. I feel like at Atlanta they had a top-five car. At Vegas, they kind of got behind in strategy there on that second stage. In Phoenix, they were running top five and the way things ended we ended up (ninth). This weekend obviously was not what we wanted (21st at Auto Club). I think up to this weekend, I thought they were, obviously not as strong as the 24, but were pretty good.

“I think that (Kahne’s) team had started strong. In the past two weekends, we didn’t finish where we wanted, but the car was running better than that. I try to look at the pace of the car vs. where it finished. Where were they running? For instance at California, Kasey was ninth until the next-to-last restart and got split up and fell back to 18th in one lap. You try to look at it more how did it go through the weekend. Did they seem like they had speed? Then it’s to minimizing your mistakes mechanically and on pit road, pit road speeding and pit stops and things like that. I think that the 5 team has had a good start and would like to see them bounce back here after a couple of rough finishes.

“I think that Dale and Greg (Ives) are showing signs of the car getting better. I think they’re going in the right direction. Overall I think the company, we’re good relative to the competition, but obviously we’re going to have to continue to work and make the next step as far as speed in the cars.

“I think we need to qualify better as a group. We typically have some pretty decent long-run speed, sometimes our short-run speed isn’t where we want it, it’s track to track and tires and things like that, but I think just in general we need to qualify better to put us in position to get points in that first stage.’’

JOE GIBBS RACING

Expectations are high at Joe Gibbs Racing, which had won 26 of the last 67 races (38.8 percent) entering this season. While not winning a race in the first five isn’t the end of the world, it is a shock considering how dominant this team has been the past two years.

Last year, the team led 415 laps in the first five races. This year, the organization has led 143. Kyle Busch has led 139 laps, Denny Hamlin four laps, Matt Kenseth zero laps and Daniel Suarez zero laps.

Wins: 0

Best Finish: Matt Kenseth, 3rd at Atlanta & Kyle Busch, 3rd at Phoenix.

Key Fact: Joe Gibbs Racing has scored its first win of the year by the sixth race of the season the past nine years. Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway marks the sixth race of this season.

Senior Vice President of Racing Operations at Joe Gibbs Racing Jimmy Makar. Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Jimmy Makar: “We have a great driver lineup. We’ve got drivers very capable of running up front and competing for wins and even with Daniel (Suarez) coming on board, I like his learning curve, the way he’s approaching races. He’s not getting over his head. He’s coming up with some good finishes. He’s improving from the beginning of races to the end of races. He’s just kind of quietly and methodically doing well. That makes you feel good about our driver lineup.

“I still feel like our pit crews, the way they’ve been performing, they’ve kept us in the hunt and in good shape.

“Obviously, we didn’t start off as strong as we thought we were going to be. I guess this package has hindered us more than we thought compared to other teams. We’re a little disappointed in that. We’ve had to go to work.

“Atlanta kind of gave us the first glimpse of it. We’ve improved on all of our races since then, I feel good about that, that’s a positive. We’ve been getting better week in and week out, and we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve gotten in contention to win a few of these races here toward the end of the race. That has been a good thing. I still feel like we’re still a little behind the eight-ball on the way our cars drive compared to the field. I think we’ve got some work to do there.

“If you just look at it, it would make sense that the next reduction (in downforce), we should be able to still be on the top of our game. We’ve actually been talking about that a little bit.

“It may be something, I’m not saying this is it, but it could be something like our competitors, everybody has strong points and weak points, whether its chassis or setup or aerodynamic advantages that they have found depending on where they have worked the hardest at. It could be that our advantage has been our aero department and with our guys working very hard at that and we’ve put a lot of emphasis on that and maybe a little less emphasis on some of the other areas. Now that we’re taking this much downforce away, the difference between our competitors and ourselves have gotten so narrow, we can’t overcome some of our other issues that we may be behind on if that makes sense to you. I’m not saying that is it. That is a different way of looking at it, why this time we seem to be struggling a little bit more than last year obviously.’’

RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING

Crew chief Luke Lambert’s gamble not to pit put Ryan Newman in position to win at Phoenix and give Richard Childress Racing its first Cup win since Nov. 2013. That was important for an organization with a history of success.

Now, the work is to be the car that is dominant and wins the race because it is the best. That’s the next step for this team.

Wins: 1 (Ryan Newman at Phoenix)

Key Fact: The team’s average starting spot among its three drivers is 16.5 with only three top-10 starts.

Dr. Eric Warren, director of competition for Richard Childress Racing. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images)

Director of Competition Dr. Eric Warren: “It’s a little bit of a mixed bag I would call it. We started out, I thought we were competitive in the race for sure at Daytona, we made some mistakes there. We ran out of fuel there with the 3 (Austin Dillon). A lot of people did there. We pitted the last time ahead of the 41 and had a chance to probably put more fuel in it than we did. Felt like we were competitive there.

“Went to Atlanta and qualified great with the 3 and 31 (Newman) and really had a lot of speed. Really the 3 was passing the 2 there and 31 was good. Atlanta is a low-grip track, the first time with the aero package, I thought OK, we’ve really got a good start here, got a good baseline. Been struggling with the 27 (Paul Menard), getting some performance and getting that group to get something to build off of, I think that’s a concern that we’ve got to keep working on with Paul and the 27.

“Phoenix, Vegas, you get to the West Coast swing, starting out with Vegas, we had two tire issues with Austin that were just punctures, no overcamber, no issue. We thought at Vegas we didn’t quite have the speed in practice and qualifying that we had in Atlanta, so we were trying to understand what was different between the cars, what was different between the setups. Was Atlanta the fluke? Or was Vegas the fluke where we didn’t quite have our package together?

“I think, overall, looking as a whole, clearly the areo package has forced us to kind of change some of our mechanical setups. A lot of things we were doing toward the end of last year setup-wise are not working as much as we would like them to.

“It takes a couple of races to understand that. We’ve had a bunch of mechanical issues honestly. Alternators burned up basically at Atlanta on the two cars running in the top five. Had the issues of tires on the 3 and also Newman was kind of sixth to 10th the whole race at Vegas, had a right rear flat at the very end. Go to Phoenix, Newman ran fifth, sixth-place car the whole race. Fortunate to make the right call and won the race, which was really good for us as a company.’’

ROUSH FENWAY RACING

The struggles at Roush Fenway Racing have been well chronicled for an organization that has not won the past two seasons and downsized from three cars to two cars for this season. Roush has made many changes in the last year, including internally. Work remains, but there are signs of progress.

Wins: 0

Best Finish: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (fourth at Phoenix)

Key Fact: The organization’s average finish through the first five races this season is 18.0. Last year, the team’s average finish through the first five races was 21.4.

Competition Director Kevin Kidd: “So far reasonably happy with the improvement we’ve seen in the company as a whole. Obviously, a tremendous amount of room for improvement over the last couple of years. Very targeted areas that we went to work on: pit crews, aerodynamics, some of our race execution, engines, strategy and everything else. We’ve had those areas that were selected and targeted as areas of improvement, and I think we’ve moved the needle in all of them. We’re happy that we’ve been able to do that.

“We’re certainly better right now at the Atlanta, Fontana style tracks where the tire wear is high. We seem to have pretty good long-run pace and that’s suited our needs at the moment. We ran OK at Vegas. I think it doesn’t suit us quite as well. All in all, fairly pleased with where we’re at, but pleased in regard of the fact that we’ve made progress. We’re certainly not satisfied with where we’re at. We’ve got a long ways still to go.’’

“We’re not bashful at going out and being aggressive at fixing problems, whether that is a problem with the race car or a problem with how we’re structured here internally with how we go about our business. We’re turning over a bunch of rocks and trying to fix problems. At the same time, we’re trying to just build a better culture, and in doing that, we’ve had to sort of accept the longview mentality where we know the problems that we have are large problems and that they are going to take a lot of time to fix. We want to be aggressive and get those problems fixed as quickly as we can.’’

STEWART-HAAS RACING

Stewart-Haas Racing started the year by scoring its first Daytona 500 win and seemed on pace to open the year with back-to-back wins before Kevin Harvick lost the lead because of a speeding penalty late at Atlanta.

Harvick has shown speed throughout the first five races, but it has been sporadic for his teammates. Remember, this is a team that switched from Chevrolet to Ford in the offseason, and that still has had an impact.

Wins: 1 (Kurt Busch, Daytona 500)

Key Fact: Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway marked the first time this year that SHR had a driver other than Kevin Harvick ranked in the top five in green-flag speed in a race. Clint Bowyer ranked fourth in that category at Auto Club, according to NASCAR’s Loop Data.

Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli: “Honestly, I think as a group everybody is working well together, and with the crackdown from a body perspective and templates, where they’re trying to move, it has been a real moving target for us, especially for us building new cars, trying to learn these cars. Honestly, I feel like we’re pretty scattered right now, that’s just being very honest with you.

“I think our group has done a good job. The improvements standpoint, a lot of it is the tools and things behind the scenes that I would say the group has worked really hard on and done a really good job on getting things moving forward. Until we really got to Daytona, it was hard to really pinpoint what was going to happen at the racetrack.

“There’s two things. We’ve switched from Chevrolet to Ford, so we’re learning many of the little details with the Ford body. We’re still learning that. Then NASCAR, we’ve all asked them to treat people fair and rein things in and they’ve been working on that. This weekend at Martinsville there are some new tolerances and some templates. From Daytona to Martinsville, they’ve been slowly going that way. When you’re moving, you’re changing everything that is done. You’re learning and re-learning. For our group that doesn’t have years of experience at building the car, every time we go back, we somewhat start over. I don’t feel like we have a great baseline at building these cars. We’re still working on our Texas cars right now. We’re literally building them because I feel like we’re behind.’’

TEAM PENSKE

This organization has been fast. Both Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas) and Joey Logano (Phoenix) have won a pole. Keselowski has made it to the final round in each of the first five races. Also, Penske driver Ryan Blaney, who drives for Wood Brothers Racing, a satellite team, has two top-five qualifying efforts, showing that his team also has speed.

Wins: 1 (Brad Keselowski at Atlanta)

Key Fact: Team Penske led 102 laps last year through the first five races of the season. This year, the team has led 226 laps.

Competition Director Travis Geisler: I think strength-wise I would say our general speed has been very good. It’s been good to have Joey and Brad both have a pole, (Blaney) has qualified fairly well. In the races, it seems we’re able to run a fairly competitive position on track and maintain competitive lap times.

“I think the biggest weaknesses is just in execution, attention to detail and execution of the event. We’ve had more penalties than we should have had. We’ve had some issues on pit road that we need to clean up. We had a part failure at Vegas that cost us a win.

“I think we’re realizing how important it is to continue to stack up those (stage) points throughout the day. Like Brad did this weekend, he finished second, but we still lost points to everybody we’re around. The 78, the 24 and especially the 42, they all were at the front of the stages, and they ended up putting up a bunch of points between you. That’s a tough situation, but it’s the reality of it, and I think we’re all realizing that you have to be good all day long. You can’t just finish well. That’s a change of mindset.’’

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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.