Ryan: In sizing up silly season, the most recent winner could be among first again on the move

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Amidst seemingly infinite permutations of potential impending driver movement in the Cup Series, there is one constant in the swirl.

NASCAR’s latest fairy tale has a finite shelf life.

The Ryan Blaney breakthrough at Pocono Raceway represented many positives: the furthering of an omnipresent youth movement expected to carry NASCAR to the next generation; the resurgence of a storied organization that seemed headed for the boneyard eight years ago; the expansion of a playoff field that promises to be Cup’s first winners-only championship invitational (despite including some unexpected qualifiers).

But the 23-year-old’s inaugural victory also signified a mostly overlooked reality: Blaney’s tenure with the venerable No. 21 Ford has an expiration date that rapidly is approaching.

Blaney’s initial contract was with Team Penske, which essentially has farmed him out to technical affiliate Wood Brothers Racing since 2015. The partnership strengthened when the 67-year-old team returned to a full schedule last year for the first time since 2008 and took another step in the offseason with the relocation of Wood Brothers Racing headquarters in close proximity to Penske’s sprawling shop in Mooresville, N.C.

But just like Trevor Bayne, Elliott Sadler, Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty before him, Blaney isn’t expected to stay long since earning his first Cup win with Wood Brothers Racing.

Jarrett was off to Joe Gibbs Racing within six months of his August 1991 win at Michigan. Petty had moved onward within three years of February 1986 at Richmond.

For the team’s two previous winners before Pocono, Sadler was announced as joining Robert Yates Racing roughly 15 months after March 2001 at Bristol Motor Speedway, and Bayne’s plans for a full-season ride at Roush Fenway Racing were unveiled barely theee years after his  2011 Daytona 500 shocker (a departure that probably was delayed by the driver’s illness while running a partial schedule).

Because of his existing contract with Penske, a parting with Blaney could be announced more suddenly than any of those.

But it’s become an accepted way of doing business to survive for Wood Brothers Racing, which deserves credit for evolving over the past quarter-century from a storied powerhouse (99 victories with the likes of David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Neil Bonnett among more than a dozen winners in the No. 21) to a solid satellite of Penske in the Ford Performance stable.

As Petty noted on NASCAR America this past week, other legacy teams belonging to Petty Enterprises, Junior Johnson and Bud Moore couldn’t make the transition because they didn’t embrace the mandatory survival instincts as well as Wood Brothers Racing did.

Team co-owner Eddie Wood was candid when asked by NBCSports.com about the understanding that Blaney can’t stay long-term.

“The relationship we have is great,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said. “Nobody can ever take this away. Just like with Trevor Bayne, nobody can ever take that win away.

“When Ryan came to drive our car, it was actually kind of understood that he was going to be moving on probably the next year, and then it didn’t happen, and whenever it happens, that’s fine. Everybody will move on, and he’ll go on to bigger and better and greater things. He’s going to win a lot of races, and I think he’s going to win some championships. Whatever we do from there, it’ll be fine.”

Blaney’s thoughts? “What (Wood) said,” he said. “I like where I’m at.”

The most authoritative voice on the matter belongs to Roger Penske, who wasn’t heard from in the postrace news conferences at Pocono. “The Captain” already had tipped his hand a week earlier in a USA Today Sports story that quoted Penske hinting Blaney would join the Team Penske fold “sooner rather than later.”

There have been rumblings since May of overtures about Blaney’s availability since Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced the 2017 would be his last season in the No. 88 Chevrolet.

Consecutive axle failures at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway for the No. 21 prior to Pocono (perpetuating the negative perception of whether the team’s purpose was partly as an R&D outfit) helped fuel the conjecture, and Penske’s recent on-the-record reaffirmation of keeping Blaney under his umbrella seems conspicuously timed, considering contracts can contain escape clauses predicated on teams fielding cars for their drivers.

Blaney’s future fits into a larger tapestry of teams that could reshuffle driver and sponsor lineups based on an array of factors ranging from performance to preference to purse strings.

Who could be involved? Here’s a lap around the Cup circuit.

Brad Keselowski: He reiterated his loyalty to Penske this week and said he hopes to announce his plans soon, but there hasn’t been a definitive declaration of his landing spot.

The 33-year-old, who also owns a truck team that has lost seven figures annually, needs to secure the most financially lucrative deal possible while in the prime of his career (“Some great charts show a driver’s best years are right around age 39 … so I still have six of the best years of my career left”), and he has leverage. 

When he left to join Team Penske, Rick Hendrick famously said he would like to bring Keselowski back, and Earnhardt’s vacant No. 88 offers that option.

It still would be stunning to absorb Keselowski exiting Penske, where he has emerged as a star over the past eight seasons. He shares Michigan roots with Penske (whose empire is based in the Detroit area) to make the pairing a natural fit.

Yet a move doesn’t seem improbable. Asked six weeks ago whether he’d be interested in the Hendrick ride, Keselowski replied, “Do I have to have a yes or no?” with a smile.

“It’s a Hendrick car, which by nature means it’s going to be one of the best cars available for a long period of time,” he said. “But I also would say the car that I’m in is one of the best available. The team I’m with, I have a lot of equity in, so I’m pretty darn happy where I’m at, but I’ve learned in this world to never say no.”

If Keselowski made the surprising decision to depart, Blaney would be an obvious choice in the No. 2 for Penske.

Besides an established working relationship with teammate Joey Logano (who re-signed with Penske through 2022 in February), Blaney would be an easy sell to primary sponsor Miller Lite. The iconic beer brand surely took notice of Blaney reveling post-Pocono in a beer-swilling celebration on social media while also promoting an edgier side through a weekly podcast that has dabbled in a swath of Barstool Sports-esque ribald humor.

Kasey Kahne: He has a contract with Hendrick Motorsports that runs through next season, but the team would appear to hold all the cards on whether it’s fulfilled.

Whether via performance (Kahne hasn’t won since 2014 and is on pace for his worst points finish since 2005) or sponsorship (the No. 5 Chevy appears to be far short of a full slate for 2018), there are many indicators this could be Kahne’s last season with an organization that recently restructured management (and that Johnson conceded is exploring “a lot of options”).

A cryptic Twitter posting did little to allay this assessment.

Danica Patrick: She said last week she intended to drive next season, but it’s questionable whether it will be in the No. 10 Ford of Stewart-Haas Racing. 

Similar to Kahne, she signed a deal through 2018 (in concert with Nature’s Bakery, whose troubled sponsorship will end a year early in a greatly diminished capacity), but her middling results coupled with financial uncertainty left her status murky beyond this year. The Associated Press reported this week that her contract now will end this season, and the Sports Business Journal has reported Patrick and Stewart-Haas Racing have discussed whether she will drive for the team in 2018.

Erik Jones: His rookie season with Furniture Row Racing’s second car has been a success, but similar to Blaney, his primary contract is with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Team owner Barney Visser, whose bluntness is legendary, made it clear he has Jones locked down for only one year, and that he expected Jones would leave after ’17. If Jones returned to Gibbs, the only available opening would be the No. 20 of Matt Kenseth as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez are under contract beyond 2017.

Kenseth: His deal expires after this season, making the 45-year-old’s future the source of seasonlong speculation that has revealed little (aside from an unwelcome reminder of the Internet’s unreliability as a purveyor of journalism). Kenseth recently addressed his outlook with a nugget in his fan club newsletter.

Kurt Busch: Stewart-Haas Racing announced a multiyear extension with Busch in October 2015 that included expanded sponsorship from Monster Energy. The energy drink company became the title sponsor of NASCAR’s premier series this season with a deal for two years plus a two-year option.

After two seasons with SHR and Busch, it’s worth pondering if this also is a contract year for Monster’s team sponsorship, and whether the overlapping outlays might complicate a team renewal.

Paul Menard: His family’s home improvement chain sponsorship typically is an annual renewal that gets negotiated and announced during the summer. After making the playoffs in 2015, Menard is ranked in the mid-20s in points for the second consecutive season, his seventh in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 27 Chevrolet. Prior to RCR, Menard drove for Ford teams from 2009-10.

Carl Edwards: He has passed so far on returning, but the smart money still is on trading in his tractor for a stock car at some point.

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While the attention was focused on Lowe’s committing to only one season with Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet as part of the driver’s three-year extension, the silver lining was the news that the company would be continuing its primary sponsorship for 38 race weekends (36 points races, plus the two exhibition events).

Several companies (such as Miller Lite) have balked at full-season commitments and elected to reduce their investments in recent years. It might be looked at as a preferable compromise to the decrease the length of a deal’s terms in order to maintain the integrity of the $20 million-plus price tag.

If Lowe’s, a full-season sponsor of Cup for more than two decades, had reduced its slate of races, it certainly would have been viewed as a major canary in the coal mine on the state of team sponsorship.

“I certainly would hope and think that it would go on further, but very excited to have a one-year contract with them now,” Johnson said of Lowe’s. “Thirty-eight races at a full-time primary sponsorship is nothing to sneeze at.”

Now that Hendrick has secured Lowe’s at least for 2018, the focus shifts to what Nationwide chooses after Earnhardt leaves the No. 88. Hendrick has signaled optimism about keeping the company, but the decision inextricably will be linked with the car’s next driver.

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Crew chief Chad Knaus also is signed through next season with Johnson. Knaus indicated this weekend he planned to stay until at least 2020 (when he turns 49; he doesn’t intend to work as a crew chief past 50), and he said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast in February that a record eighth championship with Johnson is the goal.

“I don’t see why there isn’t an opportunity for that to happen,” Knaus said on the podcast. “Obviously we all know the structure of the industry is changing with the rules, the formatting, the competition is tougher than it ever has been. Racing is a harder thing to do now than at any other point in our lives because the culture and the environment has changed so much.

“Technology has come into play that has taken a little bit of the basic racer — which is what I am. I’m just a racer, I’m not an engineer. I’m not as smart as half the people that work for me — out of our hands to a degree. You approach it differently. My job has changed significantly since the first time I was a crew chief in 1999. We’ve got possibilities. We’ve got a lot of good stuff coming. There’s a lot of really neat things coming on the horizon that will be good for the 48.”

Listen to the rest of Knaus talking about his future on the podcast here (it starts around the 32-minute mark).

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Chevrolet program manager Alba Colon was a guest on the most recent NASCAR on NBC podcast and shed some light on the new spirit of cooperation between Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing.

Colon, who has worked in NASCAR for General Motors since 1994, said the teams’ collaboration on a wheel force transducer project proved the spirit of unity was at an unprecedented level.

“One team was building the vehicle, the others were testing and sharing the information and going to the tests together,” Colon said. “We didn’t see that before. They all realize the goal is to beat the other (manufacturers). We have to do it working together.”

Part of that cooperation has stemmed from a Chevy Racing simulator that opened in Huntersville two years ago. Ford Performance and Toyota Racing Development were ahead in building and unveiling their driver simulators to the public, but Colon said Chevy recently has been validated by buy-in from several drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. tested on the simulator before Dover International Speedway, and Colon said Johnson logged several sessions of making laps in virtual reality.

“You see drivers asking for that, you’re doing something right,” Colon said.

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The afterglow of Blaney’s win at Pocono also fueled a debate over exposure values. Brett Wheatley, executive director of North America for Ford Customer Service Division, said Friday that Blaney’s 2017 season had delivered “upward of $50 million” in media value for Ford, Motorcraft and its other brands that sponsor the No. 21.

Jon Wood, the director of business development at Wood Brothers Racing, tweeted the metrics were derived partly through Joyce Julius. That prompted several social media posts about the authenticity of exposure values, which isn’t a new discussion.

In a Twitter exchange earlier this year, Richard Childress Racing’s chief marketing officer noted many NASCAR teams had moved away from Joyce Julius to relying on Nielsen’s Repucom to measure sponsorship impact.

Interestingly, in the most recent post on Joyce Julius’ site, Blaney was listed as the 10th most mentioned driver during Cup broadcasts in the 2017 season through Dover (the race before his win).

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.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”

 

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.