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Here’s everything you need to know about Xfinity Series playoff opener at Kentucky

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The NASCAR Xfinity Series kicks off its seven-race playoffs Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway in the VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300.

Thanks to our friends at Racing Insights, here’s a primer on the race, the 12 drivers that have qualified for the playoffs, and the history of Kentucky Speedway:

Kentucky Notes

  • This weekend’s race is the 23rd NXS event at Kentucky Speedway and the first of the 2017 Playoffs
  • The stage end laps for this weekend’s race are lap 45, lap 90 and lap 200
  • 2017 is the sixth season where the NXS will race twice a year at Kentucky, Kentucky will host only one race in 2018
  • The first NXS race at Kentucky was in June 2001 and was won by Kevin Harvick
  • The last eight races at Kentucky were won from a top-seven starting position
  • 20 of the 22 NXS Kentucky races were won from a top-10 starting position including eight from pole
  • Kyle Busch, with two, is the only repeat winner at Kentucky in the last seven races
  • Joe Gibbs Racing drivers won the pole for the last four races at Kentucky with three different drivers
  • Joe Gibbs Racing (five), Team Penske (five), Richard Childress Racing (three) and JR Motorsports (two) combined won the last 15 NXS races at Kentucky
  • The pass for the win came in the final nine laps in five of the last seven races at Kentucky
  • The winner of only two of the last 10 races at Kentucky got his first win of the season
  • Two races at Kentucky ended in an overtime finish (9/15 and 7/16)
  • The driver leading the most laps won only two of the last seven races at Kentucky
  • There were 12 cautions in this race last year, the most ever in a NXS race at Kentucky, the average green flag stretch was 10 laps
  • The track record set July 2016 of 187.318 mph (28.828 seconds) by Kyle Busch was over six MPH faster than the prior track record set in June 2005 by Carl Edwards (181.287 mph, 28.787 seconds)
  • Eight of the last 11 poles at Kentucky were won by Non-Cup Competitors
  • 11 of the 22 NXS Kentucky races were won by Non-Cup Competitors including six of the last 11
  • Elliott Sadler led only 11 laps when he won at Kentucky last September, the fewest led by a winner in the last 16 races there
  • The final green flag stretch was nine laps or less in seven of the last nine races at Kentucky
  • Austin Dillon, 2012, is the only driver to sweep both races at Kentucky in a season; his first two NXS wins came at Kentucky in 2012
  • There were eight speeding penalties at Kentucky in July, more than the prior three races at Kentucky combined
  • The last driver to recover from an in race infraction at Kentucky to go on to win was Joey Logano in June 2009 who rebounded from a speeding penalty to win
  • Joe Gibbs Racing drivers led 437 of the 601 laps raced at Kentucky since the repave prior to 2016 (73%)
  • Ryan Blaney is the only driver to finish in the top-10 in all three races at Kentucky since the reconfiguration

1.5 Mile Track Highlights

  • This weekend’s race is seventh race on a 1.5 mile track in 2017
  • Five of the seven Playoff races in 2017 are on 1.5 mile tracks
  • Justin Allgaier won at Chicagoland last week from a starting position of 14th, the only race won from outside a top-10 starting position on a 1.5 mile track in the last 24 races
  • Five drivers won the six races on 1.5 mile tracks in 2017, Kyle Busch with two is the only repeat winner
  • Only two of the last 10 races on 1.5 mile tracks were won by Non-Cup competitors (Justin Allgaier at Chicagoland in 2017 and Daniel Suarez at Homestead in 2016)

Who is Hot Entering Kentucky:

No. 20 Ryan Preece

  • Won at Iowa and finished second at New Hampshire in his two starts in 2017, both with JGR
  • Finished 15th and 30th in his two NXS Kentucky starts
  • 15th place finish at Kentucky in July 2016 is his best finish on a 1.5 mile track

No. 3 Brian Scott

  • Finished third at Iowa in 2017 in his only start of 2017
  • Finished Kentucky best second in September 2014, one of two top-10 finishes at the track
  • Finished top-10 in each of his last two starts on 1.5 mile tracks but his last was at Homestead in Nov. 2015

No. 22 Sam Hornish Jr.

  • Won two of his last seven starts including a win at Mid-Ohio in his last
  • Finished top-10 in five of his six NXS Kentucky starts with a best finish of second in September 2012
  • Making his first NXS start on a 1.5 mile track since finishing fourth in this race last year

No. 7 Justin Allgaier (Second in playoffs)

  • 13 top-10s in 2017 with two wins (Phoenix and Chicagoland)
  • 495 laps led in 2017 are his most ever in a single season
  • Finished top-10 in five of the last seven races of 2017
  • Six top-10 finishes in 10 NXS Kentucky starts
  • Top-10 finishes in three of the last five races on 1.5 mile tracks including his win at Chicagoland last race

No. 9 William Byron (First in playoffs)

  • Won three of the last 13 races of 2017
  • Finished in the top-10 in 11 of the last 14 races (finished 25th at Mid-Ohio, 22nd at Bristol and 33rd at Chicagoland)
  • Finished seventh at Kentucky in July in his only NXS start at the track
  • Won the 2016 Truck race at Kentucky
  • Best finish in the NXS on a 1.5 mile track is seventh (three times)

No. 00 Cole Custer (Eighth in playoffs)

  • 13 top-10 finishes in 2017 including four top-five finishes
  • Finished top-10 in seven of the last 10 races of 2017
  • Led 41 laps last race at Chicagoland, more than he had in his career prior
  • Has never finished in the top-10 at Kentucky (finished 32nd and 11th in his two NXS starts there and 14th in his only Truck start there)
  • Five top-10 finishes in 10 starts on 1.5 mile tracks with a best of fourth at Charlotte in May 2016

No. 1 Elliott Sadler (Third in playoffs)

  • 19 top-10 finishes and 11 top-five finishes in 2017 lead all drivers
  • Regular season champion
  • One win (9/16) and eight top-10 finishes at Kentucky in 12 starts
  • Finished third at Chicagoland last race, his 11th top-10 finish on a 1.5 mile track in the last 13 races

No. 48 Brennan Poole (Fifth in playoffs)

  • Finished top-10 in seven of the last 10 races of 2017, 12 times total
  • Won his first NXS pole at Daytona-2
  • Two top-10 finishes in five NXS Kentucky starts
  • 2014 ARCA win at Kentucky
  • Only one top-10 finish on a 1.5 mile track this season (eighth at Charlotte)

No. 21 Daniel Hemric (Fourth in playoffs)

  • Finished top-10 in 12 of his 26 NXS starts with a best finish of second at Mid-Ohio
  • Finished top-10 in six of the last nine races of 2017
  • Three of his five top-five finishes in 2017 came in the last six races
  • Three top-10s in the six races on 1.5 mile tracks in 2017 (best of fourth at Chicagoland last race)
  • Finished ninth at Kentucky in July in his only NXS start at the track

Not Hot Entering Kentucky:

No. 42 Tyler Reddick

  • Three top-10 finishes in 2017 in 14 starts but none in his last five starts
  • Finished 10th at Kentucky in July in his only start at the track in the NXS, it was his last top-10 finish
  • Finished 10th in two of his three NXS stats on 1.5 mile tracks

No. 62 Brendan Gaughan (11th in Playoffs)

  • Only seven top-10 finishes in 2017, had 13 through 26 races in 2016
  • Matched his best finish of 2017 at Road America (fifth)
  • Eight top-10 finishes at Kentucky are his most of all tracks
  • Last NXS win came at Kentucky in this race in 2014
  • Finished ninth at Charlotte, only top-10 finish on a 1.5 mile track this season

No. 5 Michael Annett (12th in Playoffs)

  • Finished NXS best second at Road America but it is his only finish better than 12th in the last 12 races
  • Only three stage top-10 finishes in 2017, all three on plate tracks
  • Five top-10 finishes at Kentucky are his most on a track
  • Only two top-15 finishes on 1.5 mile tracks this season

No. 23 Spencer Gallagher

  • Finished 10th at Richmond in April, his second career top-10 finish, but has only four top-15 finishes this season
  • Finished 14th at Chicagoland, his best finish in the last 10 races
  • Finished 13th at Kentucky in July in his only NXS start there, his second best finish of 2017
  • Finished top-14 in three of the last four races on 1.5 mile tracks

No. 33 Brandon Jones

  • Only three top-10 finishes in 2017 and none in the last seven races
  • Had 11 top-10 finishes after 26 races in 2017 and was in the playoffs
  • Finished 12th at Chicagoland, his best finish in the last seven races of 2017
  • Finished fifth at Kentucky in September 2015, his only top-10 finish in four starts
  • Only one top-10 finish in the last 11 races on 1.5 mile tracks

No. 16 Ryan Reed (Sixth in playoffs)

  • Has a win and five top-10 finishes in 2017
  • Finished 12th at Richmond, his best finish in his last eight races
  • Finished seventh in this race last year, his best finish in seven Kentucky starts
  • Only two top-10 finishes on 1.5 mile tracks but both came in the last 11 races

Warm Entering Kentucky:

No. 11 Blake Koch (Ninth in Playoffs)

  • Only four top-10 finishes in 2017 but three of the four came in the last eight races
  • Finished top-14 in seven of the last eight races of 2017 including the last six
  • 11 NXS Kentucky starts with a best finish of 11th in this race last year
  • Two top-10 finishes on 1.5 mile tracks (ninth at Kansas in 10/16 and ninth at Chicagoland 9/17)

No. 19 Matt Tifft (10th in playoffs)

  • Seven top-10 finishes in 2017
  • Finished top-10 in three of the last six races of 2017 including his career best finish of third (twice)
  • Finished top-15 in all three starts at Kentucky, his most of all-tracks, including two top-10s (best of fifth in this race last year)
  • Six top-10 finishes in 12 starts on 1.5 mile tracks

No. 18 Kyle Benjamin

  • Started on the front-row in all four NXS starts but has only one top-15 finish (second at Iowa2)
  • Making his first NXS start on a 1.5 mile track

Also in playoffs:

No. 51 Jeremy Clements (7th in playoffs)

• Win at Road America put him into the Playoffs and gave him his five Playoff points
• Finished the regular season 17th in points
• One top-five finish and two top-10 finishes in 2017 (win at Road America, seventh at Iowa1)
• 13 NXS Kentucky starts with a best finish of 12th (twice) including this race last year
• Best NXS final season point ranking prior to 2017 was 14th in 2012 and 2015

Recent NXS Trends

  • 14 different drivers won the 26 races in 2017
  • Nine races in 2017 were won by Non-Cup Competitors, five of the nine were won by JR Motorsports drivers
  • Seven of the last 13 races of 2017 were won by Non-Cup Competitors
  • The driver leading the most laps failed to win in seven of the last 11 races including the last four
  • 15 of the last 17 races of 2017 were won from a top-eight starting position, Jeremy Clements won from 24th at Road America (the lowest starting position of a race winner this season) and Justin Allgaier won from 14th at Chicagoland last race
  • Six of the last 11 races of 2017 were won from pole
  • The final green flag stretch was eight laps or less in six of the last eight races of 2017
  • The final green flag stretch at New Hampshire was 104 laps, the longest green flag stretch in a race this season
  • Five races in 2017 were won by drivers rebounding from pit road infractions: Ryan Reed at Daytona (Crew over wall too soon), Kyle Larson at Auto Club Speedway (Speeding), Erik Jones at Bristol (Speeding), Kyle Busch at Watkins Glen (Drove thru too many boxes) and Kyle Busch at Bristol-2 (Speeding)
  • Two races in 2017 were won from drivers starting in the rear under penalty: Ryan Blaney at Charlotte and William Byron at Daytona2
  • Sam Hornish Jr.’s pole time at Mid-Ohio set a new track record, Brad Keselowski’s round one time set a new track record at Las Vegas, Kyle Larson’s pole winning time at Bristol set a new track record
  • 19 stages in 2017 were won by NXS eligible drivers: Elliott Sadler (five), Justin Allgiaer (three), William Byron, Daniel Hemric and Blake Koch (two), Darrell Wallace Jr. , Brendan Gaughan, Ryan Preece, Sam Hornish Jr. and James Davison (one)
  • Nine of the 26 races in 2017 were slowed due to red flags
  • There were 12 cautions at Charlotte, most in a race this season
  • There were only three cautions at Pocono, New Hampshire and Richmond2, the fewest in a race this season
  • Five races in 2017 ended with an overtime finish (Daytona-1, Richmond, Daytona-2, Iowa-2 and Darlington)
  • 11 of the 25 poles in 2017 were won by Non-Cup competitors
  • Eight drivers won their first pole in 2017, only one driver got his first pole in 2016 and only two in 2015
  • The pass for the win came in the final 10 laps in 10 of the 26 races this season and in the final four laps seven times
  • Two races in 2017 ended with a last lap pass for the win (Pocono and Michigan)
  • Four races in 2017 had issues with weather: Bristol (slowed mid-race), Daytona2 (started one day, completed another and slowed mid-race), Kentucky (postponed from Friday night to Saturday), New Hampshire (slowed mid-race)
  • Only twice has a driver swept both stages and won the race: Brad Keselowski at Pocono and Kyle Busch at Bristol-2

NXS 2017 Season Breakdown:

* Different Winners: 14
* Different Pole Winners: 15
* Non Cup Winners: 6 (William Byron-3, Justin Allgaier -2, Sam Hornish Jr., Ryan Preece, Ryan Reed and Jeremy Clements-1)
* Most Wins: 5- Kyle Busch
* Most Poles: 7- Kyle Busch
* Most Runner Ups: 5 – Ryan Blaney
* Most Top-fives: 11 – Elliott Sadler
* Most Top-10s: 19 –Elliott Sadler
* Most Laps Led: 731 – Kyle Busch

Among NXS Eligible Drivers

* Most Stage Wins: 5- Elliott Sadler (Brad Keselowski has the most of all drivers with eight)
* Most Stage Top-fives: 24 – Elliott Sadler
* Most Stage Top-10s: 36 –Elliott Sadler

Best Finishing NXS Driver in each Race:
* Daytona: Ryan Reed 1st
* Atlanta: Elliott Sadler 5th
* Las Vegas: Justin Allgaier 4th
* Phoenix: Justin Allgaier 1st
* Auto Club Speedway: William Byron 5th
* Texas: Cole Custer 5th
* Bristol: Elliott Sadler 4th
* Richmond: Justin Allgaier 2nd
* Talladega: Elliott Sadler 2nd
* Charlotte: Cole Custer 7th
* Dover: Cole Custer 4th
* Pocono: Justin Allgaier 2nd
* Michigan: William Byron 2nd
* Iowa: William Byron 1st
* Daytona: William Byron 1st
* Kentucky: William Byron 7th
* New Hampshire: Ryan Preece 2nd
* Indianapolis: William Byron 1st
* Iowa: Ryan Preece 1st
* Watkins Glen: Justin Allgaier 4th
* Mid-Ohio: Sam Hornish Jr. 1st
* Bristol2: Elliott Sadler 3rd
* Road America: Jeremy Clements 1st
* Darlington: William Byron 5th
* Richmond: Daniel Hemric 4th
* Chicagoland: Justin Allgaier 1st

Track History

  • The founder and developer of Kentucky Speedway was Jerry Carroll the former owner of Turfway Park. The speedway is located in Sparta KY the county seat of Gallatin County the smallest county by land area in Kentucky. The county has under 9,000 residents. Sparta has an area of 5.6 square miles and a population under 300.The track has hosted the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series since the 2000 season and the NASCAR Nationwide Series since 2001. Indy Car races were held from 2000 to 2011.
  • Constructed on 850 acres, 63 miles from Louisville, 35 miles from Cincinnati, and 150 miles from Indianapolis, Kentucky Speedway is a 1.5-mile tri-oval with 14-degree banking in the turns and a 1,600-foot backstretch. The tri-oval is 57-feet wide and includes a 12-foot apron. The facility also includes a paved quarter-mile track. Ground was broke July 18, 1998; Opened June 16, 2000; Cost: $153,000,000. Was the largest excavation project ever in Kentucky. Nearly 7 million people live within a 100-mile radius
  • Kentucky Speedway opened with 66,000 seats, went to 106,000 Seats in 2011 and to 86,000 seats in 2017.
  • Parking For More Than 50,000 Cars (was 30,000 in 2011)
  • After many years of campaigning for a Cup race, the track was sold to Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) on January 1, 2009 for $78.3 million. On August 10, 2010, NASCAR announced a Sprint Cup Race at Kentucky Speedway in 2011 as part of a triple header weekend. The weekend took the place of the Chicagoland Speedway date, which moved to September to be the leadoff race in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup. It was the first Cup race awarded to a track since 2001.
  • In June 2012 the State of Kentucky completed projects that expanded Kentucky Highway 35 to seven lanes, widened the I-71 ramp to Ky. Hwy. 35 to three lanes and constructed a pedestrian tunnel that connects the massive Ford Parking lot east of Ky. Hwy. 35 to Kentucky Speedway. In addition to acquiring and engineering 170 new acres for the Ford Parking lot, Kentucky Speedway converted 50 new acres of previously unusable land to parking and added gravel aisles to 100 acres of previously all-grass parking. In total, the projects yielded parking for an additional 20,000 vehicles compared to 2011 bringing the total to 50,000. These changes eliminated the horrendous traffic/parking snafus from the inaugural race in 2011.
  • Kentucky Speedway did a complete repave of the track for the 2016 season, and also reconfigured turns 1-2.
  • — Turn 1-2 banking changed from 14 degrees to 17 degrees
  • — Turn 1-2 narrowed from 74 feet to 56 feet
  • — Banking in the tri-oval was changed from 8 degrees to 8-10 degrees
  • — 3,200 feet of SAFER-Barrier was added
  • Kentucky Speedway added an additional surface repave in October 2016

Kentucky State Factoids

  • The Kentucky Derby is the oldest continuously held horse race in the country. It is held at Churchill Downs in Louisville on the first Saturday in May.
  • Chevrolet Corvettes are manufactured in Bowling Green.
  • The first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant owned and operated by Colonel Sanders is located in Corbin, KY.

 

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NASCAR updates rule book about race damage in regard to possible penalties

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NASCAR updated its rule book Wednesday to include language in the book’s penalty section that series officials could consider any damage caused during a race when assessing if a violation has occurred.

Section 12.4.a now reads (bold added to highlight updated section):

“NASCAR may issue penalties as it deems fit to provide for the orderly conduct of the sport. Such determinations may be made by NASCAR before, during, or after the Event, and may consider, to the extent deemed reasonable by NASCAR in the interests of racing competition and fairness, any modifications caused or required as a result of damage caused by In-Race accidents.
The change could impact whether a winner (or any other car inspected after the race) is disqualified for failing post-race inspection.
Section 8.3.c of the Cup Rule Book already had a similar statement in regards to vehicle eligibility. It stated:
“Such determinations may be made by NASCAR before, during, or after the Event, and may consider, to the extent deemed reasonable by NASCAR in the interests of racing competition and fairness, any modifications caused or required as a result of damaged caused by In-Race accidents.”
Rear spoiler with the wicker that was added at Talladega. Photo: Dustin Long

NASCAR also announced Wednesday that the Cup package for next weekend’s race at Daytona International Speedway will be the same as used in the race at Talladega Superspeedway.

At Talladega, teams had a wicker added to lower speeds. What will be used at Daytona will be a one piece spoiler/wicker. The overall dimensions remain the same for the spoiler.

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET with Ty Dillon

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This week’s episode of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs today from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and features Germain Racing driver Ty Dillon.

Dillon will join Marty Snider and Dale Jarrett as they take viewer phone calls.

If you can’t catch either of today’s shows on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Hattori Racing Enterprises, Austin Hill to compete in Xfinity race at Daytona

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Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Austin Hill make his Xfinity Series debut next week at Daytona International Speedway, Hattori Racing Enterprises announced Wednesday.

Hill, who won the season-opening Truck Series race at Daytona, will drive the No. 61 Toyota Supra for Hattor Racing Enterprises, which makes its first Xfinity Series start since 2015.

Scott Zipadelli, who serves as Hill’s crew chief in the Truck Series, will serve the same role in the July 5 race.

Hill will be sponsored by AISIN Group, Aisin AW, and ADVICS, as well as United Rentals.

“You always want to move up the ladder, and I can’t wait to get in the car,” Hill said in a press release. “I honestly never thought I’d have this opportunity. All thanks goes to (owner) Shige (Hattori) and AISIN Group. They’ve been working on this for a while and it’s a big deal for all of us to put a program together to race the Supra. We have a great team here, and it’s going to make the transition a lot smoother working with Scott and the entire truck series team. We set the bar pretty high for ourselves at Daytona, so hopefully we can have the same success as we did in February.”

Hill’s win in Daytona was his first career Truck Series victory. Through 11 starts this season he is seventh in the standings with two top fives and six top 10s. He has 62 Truck Series starts since 2014.

The team stated in the release it is trying to put together more Xfinity races this season.

“We’re very excited to return to the Xfinity Series,” Hattori said in a press release. “The Toyota Supra is extremely important to our partners and very popular in Japan and we want to be part of the Supra program in NASCAR. It’s exciting for our team to compete in the Xfinity Series at Daytona, especially after winning there earlier this year. Austin has done a good job in the truck so far and this will be good to get him more experience.”

 

‘The Sims:’ How virtual reality is changing motorsports

Photo: Dustin Long
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CONCORD, N.C. — A man leans his head into the window of Rajah Caruth’s race car. Caruth does not know him.

The man bows his head and prays, just as he’s done with the other drivers.

Shortly afterward, Caruth cranks the 125-horsepower engine and guides his white No. 13 Legends car from the staging area to pit road. Rain earlier rid this June night of humidity. The heat that baked drivers during the day is bearable as the sun sets behind the Charlotte Motor Speedway grandstands.

While Caruth and 18 competitors wait for the first semi pro feature of this year’s Bojangles’ Summer Shootout, an official walks between the rows of cars fist-bumping each driver.

Rajah Caruth prepares to run his first Legends car feature race. Photo: Dustin Long

“For those folks to come up and say ‘you got this’ or ‘good luck,’ that was pretty cool,” Caruth later said.

Clad in a plain black uniform and helmet, Caruth focuses on staying calm inside his car before he takes a monumental step in his racing journey.

Then comes the order to start engines. Each car, a 5/8-scale version of the NASCAR modifieds that ran in the sport’s early days, fires off with the buzz of bees on to the quarter-mile track.

As Caruth weaves his car from side to side to warm the tires, a thought strikes him.

“OK, we’re in it.”

Just what it is, Caruth doesn’t know.

He’s seen what’s about to happen for years but never from this viewpoint. His previous racing experience came on a computer with a reset button. There is no such button here.

Days shy of his 17th birthday, Caruth is about to start his first race.

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A first-generation NASCAR fan who traces his interest in the sport to the 2006 animated film “Cars” that included characters voiced by Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, Caruth wanted to be a driver. He wore a Jimmie Johnson uniform for Halloween in the second grade. But with no tracks near his Washington, D.C. home and the prohibitive costs to enter the sport, even for his two-income family, Caruth settled for racing on a computer, hoping to follow the path William Byron took to NASCAR’s premier series.

While many of NASCAR’s top drivers were racing by the time they were 8 years old, Byron did not begin until he was 14, gaining his experience with an iRacing simulator. When Byron hit the track, he quickly succeeded. He won the K&N Pro Series East title at age 17, a Truck series rookie record seven races at 18, the Xfinity championship at 19 and Cup rookie of the year honors at 20 last season for Hendrick Motorsports.

Byron notes that others can follow his unusual path.

“It’s still based on the interest that you have and the will to kind of make it happen,” he said. “If they are expecting to just decide they want to go race at age 14 … it’s going to be difficult for them to make it work. But for me, I had studied it for years and watched it.

Rajah Caruth on the track in a Legends car. Photo: Dustin Long

“Once I was 14, I was well ahead of my time even though I hadn’t been in something. I think there are a lot of kids out there that have a lot of potential that I’ve seen on iRacing and just racing against them, that would do very well in a situation if they could get there.”

Caruth’s quest does not take place in a vacuum. He is a part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Youth Driver Development program and is the only one of the four who came from iRacing. The other three have actual racing experience. While there are various avenues to NASCAR, Caruth’s path will become a gateway, says a Toyota Racing Development executive who oversees the company’s driver development program.

“In the long run … I’m thinking three to five years, the simulation investment and the time and effort to find new top-level talent, it will come from simulator racing,” said Jack Irving, senior manager, commercial director for Toyota Racing Development, whose duties include TRD’s driver development program.

Three to five years is too far away for Caruth. Now is his chance, piloting a car similar to what former Cup champions Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano once drove.

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Five days before Austin Dillon wins the 2018 Daytona 500, Caruth prepares to race. On foot. It is the day of the District of Columbia State Athletic Association indoor track meet. He will compete in the 800-meter run.

A seventh-place finish is not the day’s most significant event for Caruth.

Instead it is the conversation he has with his father, Roger.

Roger Caruth and son Rajah. Photo: Dustin Long

As others compete, Caruth and his father discuss Caruth’s racing future. The previous summer Caruth drove go-karts in a league at an indoor facility located between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. He had not raced in the winter.

“I was a little stressed just because of trying to figure out what I could do,” Caruth said.

He presents various options to his father. One is for the family to purchase a Legends car or something comparable. The costs, though, are too much. Another option is to find sponsorship, rent a car, and run whatever races they can afford. iRacing also is debated. 

iRacing is viewed as the best option. Caruth will upgrade his setup. He buys a steering wheel and eventually purchases a new computer, spending more than $1,000 combined on those items, but it is still much cheaper than buying a car or renting one for multiple races.

Instead of going to a track, Caruth will race from home.

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As simulator technology and racing games improve, they provide a way to train and evaluate drivers. Still, there are limits to racing solely on a computer.

“The actual models are becoming so good,” said Toyota’s Irving. “What hasn’t been mastered yet — and will be — is the feel of the car in your home systems. … To get a full immersion simulator, it’s still almost the cost of a race car.”

Irving acknowledges that there remain challenges even with the simulators Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet have for their drivers in NASCAR, IndyCar and other series.

“You only get so much out of that,” Martin Truex Jr. said of using a simulator to prepare for last weekend’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway, which he won for a second consecutive year. “All the visual cues are there, but you don’t have the feel, the sensation of speed, the G-forces, the rises and the falls, all of that.”

Even without that, Irving says iRacing can reveal talent, particularly a driver who succeeds in different types of racing on it. 

“You need to be able to race in multiple disciplines,” he said. “I think a simulation racer that we’re going to be able to engage with is going to have to be really, really good on dirt, really, really good on the rally race, really, really good on the road course, just absolutely exceptional on multiple modalities because their adoption of being able to learn. That is going to be important, no different than the great drivers (that) can typically get in anything and race.

Kyle Busch: “Everybody has their own different paths” to NASCAR. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“If Kyle Busch decided to run (a midget car) in the Chili Bowl, I think he would do quite well just because he’s a gifted race car driver. No different than Kurt Busch at the (Indianapolis) 500 and that kind of stuff.”

Kyle Busch credits his success to understanding his car. That goes back to when he started racing. 

“My vehicle understanding and the reasons why I’m somewhat successful at what I’ve done is a huge credit to my dad,” Busch said. “Growing up in the shop, working on the cars, building the cars, understanding what springs were and meant and how to rate them and what corner to put them in, shocks, cambers, casters – all of that sort of stuff, I learned.

“I built my cars from the ground up with my dad. I tore my Legends car apart one off-season when we were done racing for the year. I ripped it all the way down to the ground because I thought if I strip it, he will be OK if I wanted to paint it, to repaint the chassis and kind of go through everything. I stripped it all the way down and was like, ‘Alright, I’m ready, let’s take it to the paint shop.’ He was like, ‘Nope, I’ll buy you a can of spray paint and you can put it all back together by yourself.’ 

Everybody has their own different paths of how they grow up and how they understand things and what they understand.”

Caruth seeks to gain such knowledge as he also learns to race.

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The green flag waves.

Caruth starts the 25-lap race at the back of the 19-car field since this his first start.

He passes three cars on the first lap.

He passes another car on the second lap.

On the third lap, a car makes contact with Caruth’s, sending it into the SAFER barrier. Caruth falls to last.

He fights the car’s handling and goes a lap down 10 laps into the race.

Rajah Caruth hopes to follow William Byron from iRacing to Cup. Photo: Dustin Long

Eight minutes after Caruth took the green flag, the race is over. He finishes 17th. The contact with the wall bent the right front ball joint, control arm and spindle, making the car hard to turn.

To understand the challenge Caruth faces, look at his competition. Jason Alder, who turned 16 a couple of days after winning this race, began competing at age 6. Alder started in go-karts, moved to Banderlos and is in his third season in Legends car. This was his first win in a Legends car at Charlotte. For as challenging as it has been to reach this point, he knows the difficulties Caruth may experience.

“Racing is really about the passion behind it,” said Alder, who is nearly a year to the day younger than Caruth. “If you have the passion and the determination to continue in the darkest of times, you’re always going to look to the bright side even when you’re learning.”

Caruth is not dejected with his result.

He’s determined.

“I cannot wait until tomorrow,” he said.

It’s another chance to race.

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Caruth is not alone in his quest. There are those who can relate to his journey.

Max Brady and his brother Kenny both didn’t start racing until four years ago. Max was 15 and Kenny 13. Before then, their racing experience consisted of racing video games on their Xbox. They’ve since moved to iRacing. 

Max and Kenny understand that a racing simulator or game can help a driver but also know it can’t prepare a driver for everything they’ll feel once they are strapped into their vehicle.

That’s not an excuse to fail. Max recently won his first Legends car race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kenny won numerous Banderlo races in three years there before driving a Legends car this year.

Still, Kenny faced challenges with the move to Legends cars. He finished 21st in his first race. The next race, which Max won, Kenny finished eighth. 

While Max and Kenny don’t have as much experience as some of their competitors, they have more than Caruth.

Rajah Caruth receives guidance from Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Stefan Parsons. Photo: Dustin Long

“Being so new to it, it’s going to take some time to learn race strategy and how to keep the car clean, racing around others, being consistent, knowing how to make moves, when to make the moves,” Kenny Brady said. “He’s going to learn as he goes.

“When I started out, I thought if I just got in the car and I was fast, I was going to win right off the bat. It’s so different.”

Kenny is confident Caruth will excel as he gains experience. Kenny has been friends with Caruth for a couple of years. He and Max helped Caruth transition to iRacing last year so Caruth could have better results.

Kenny also has seen Caruth’s ability in a go-kart. Caruth and his dad went to Georgia in late May and Caruth raced with Kenny at an indoor karting facility.

“I was impressed,” Kenny said. “Rajah was on my tail. I beat him twice. He beat me twice. I was very surprised at how well he did, how smooth he was.”

Those traits were evident at the combine to select the Drive for Diversity youth development drivers earlier this year.

“We wanted him to build speed,” said Matt Bucher, director of competition for Rev Racing, which operates the Drive for Diversity program. “I think we got him within three- or four-tenths of where the fast guys were.”

Caruth showed enough talent, despite his lack of experience, to earn a spot in the program.

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Although Rajah Caruth’s racing uniform contains no sponsors, no website address and no stripes or other designs, it’s what is inside that matters this night to him.

He wears a Bubba Wallace T-shirt he got when he and his family attended last year’s Cup playoff race at Richmond Raceway.

Wallace is competing this evening in a different division, a night after he ran the rain-delayed Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.

Caruth wants to talk to Wallace but doesn’t want to appear starstruck. Instead, Wallace approaches.

Caruth, coming off his first career race the night before, and the 25-year-old Wallace, who is in his second full season in Cup and has been racing for nearly two-thirds of his life, talk mechanics. Caruth is trying to get his braking down and maximize his car’s speed in the center of the corner. Wallace offers a few tips.

“Getting it from him just helps me understand it a little bit more,” Caruth said.

Chase Cabre also is here this night helping the Drive for Diversity drivers. Cabre is coming off his first career K&N Pro Series East victory June 1 at Memphis International Raceway.

Cabre knows that it will take time for Caruth.

“The difference between here and what’s he used to … everything happens very fast,” Cabre said. “Once he learns the speed factor, the feel, the smells and it all slows down for him, he’ll start to get one thing after another.”

Rajah Caruth’s car after the oil leak was fixed. Photo: Dustin Long

Caruth’s night has its challenges. In qualifying, debris causes an oil leak but Caruth doesn’t recognize the issue. He stays on track, fighting the steering wheel. The back of the car acts as if it wants to slide, a result of the oil getting on the tires. The problem is found and fixed in the garage in time for the semi feature. He finishes third in that race. In the feature, he starts 17th among 21 cars.

On the schedule, Caruth’s race is to take place after the school bus race among local principals and before the “Chicken Dance” contest. A bus oils down the track, delaying Caruth’s race, so the chicken dance proceeds. After it ends, the track is still not ready so the “Hokey Pokey” is played on the track’s speakers to keep fans entertained.

When Caruth gets on track, he notices an issue with his shifter and comes to the pits before the green flag. He loses a lap before the issue is resolved.

Even though he’s not on the lead lap, he battles another car in the final circuits. The duel goes through the final corners. Caruth is passed just before at the finish line. He finishes 17th.

It is in this race that Caruth gets his first taste of being hit from behind.

“That was a pretty cool experience getting moved, honestly, to feel it physically what it feels like so I know moving forward if I’m getting pushed or it’s a good shot,” Caruth said. “He was getting me square except for the last time he got me. He got me a little squirrelly. It was fine.”

That’s what they call “just racin.”

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Caruth’s first two nights have had their ups and downs but he’s staying true to a philosophy he picked up from Hailie Deegan, whose personality and K&N Pro Series West success — two wins this year, one point out of the series lead — has increased her popularity

“I have little goals, kind of like what Hailie Deegan did this last year,” Caruth said. “Little goals week by week and they ended up adding to her race wins.”

Caruth’s progression of goals are to run a clean race, finish in the top 15, finish in the top 12, score a top 10, finish in the top seven, score a top five and eventually win. They are listed in his phone.

He is ready for his third chance to score a top-15 finish. Caruth starts 20th.

Lacy Kuehl salutes Rajah Caruth after he finished 12th in his feature race. Photo: Dustin Long

He charges to 15th in two laps.

He climbs to 14th.

A couple of laps later Caruth is 13th.

He moves to 12th.

Coming through the second turn, Caruth deftly bumps the car ahead of him, moving it up a lane. Caruth zips by to take 11th with the veteran move.

Caruth goes on to finish 12th. Another goal met.

But after the race, he’s unsure of what to do next. He looks for the car he bumped out of the way to talk to the driver.

“I don’t know if I should apologize or what,” Caruth later said. “I didn’t do it right. I got him up out of the groove but my right front caught their left rear so it knocked the wheel slightly out of my hand. I just held it.

“I was full intent trying to move him. I wasn’t trying to hit him hard. It was to the point where I could tell he was already free. If I hit him too hard, he would have spun out and I would have (been penalized) and gone to the rear. In iRacing, I hate hitting people.

“Today kind of helped me realize that OK, I’ve got to get physical.”

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Hurry up and wait.

Tuesday night marks Caruth’s fourth race of the season and it’s his longest night. His class will run the final race of the evening, one slowed by multiple red flags in other divisions.

Rajah Caruth scored his first top-10 finish in his fourth race. Photo: Dustin Long

When it comes time to race, Caruth is ready. As he makes progress, the handling on his car becomes more difficult. The car wants to break free.

Oil is overflowing on to his tires. He spins in Turn 1. Caruth keeps his foot in the gas to turn the car but sees it headed for the curb and stops the car. The caution is out. Caruth heads to the pits. The hood is opened and engine checked. He’s sent back out.

It’s a caution-filled race and Caruth moves up as others have problems.

When the checkered flag waves, he is 10th. He will be scored ninth when the winning car fails inspection.

In less than three weeks, Caruth has gone from a teen who raced solely on a computer to going on track and scoring a top-10 finish in a 20-car field.

This is a night to celebrate. He and his father head to Friday’s so Caruth can get some chicken fingers and watch the video of his race from the GoPro camera mounted on his car. There’s much to savor but also much to learn.

“It’s been a crazy first leg of the journey,” Caruth said, “but I’ve got still go more to go.”

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