What Cup drivers said after Charlotte, the Round of 12 opener

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CONCORD, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. opened the Round of 12 the same way he started the 2017 playoffs: with a victory.

The Furniture Row Racing driver scored his sixth victory of the season in Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I’m so lucky to get to do this and I don’t know, it’s just one of those weekends – lot of pressure,” said Truex, who started 17th. “We qualified horribly and I was mad about it. Cole (Pearn, crew chief) was mad about it, and (after) twenty minutes (of discussing), we’re like, ‘All right. I think this is where we went wrong.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s where we went wrong. We screwed up, we’ll get them Sunday.’ Just thankful to him and this whole team.

“Unbelievable win. Just a total team effort. Every single guy – every guy on this team just did a perfect job today, and I can’t be more proud of them and at this time of the year is just when you want it to happen. You dream about days like today. I don’t know if we had the best car, but we damn sure go it in victory lane.”

Here’s what other drivers were saying after Sunday’s race:

Chase Elliott — Finished second: “We needed to be a little better I think in the middle stage and not lose so much track position. That was where Martin came on and got his track position and we lost ours and it was just hard to get all of it back there toward the end. It was a hard-fought day and really, from where we were in those middle stages, I was proud of the way we fought back and were able to get back to the front. It’s frustrating to run like this. We’re definitely tired of running second. But, if we keep running like we are, hopefully the opportunities will be there. … I don’t know why it was so hot. It didn’t feel that bad. But that was one of the tougher races of the year, I feel like and here we are in October.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished third: “That’s about about where we were gonna run, second or third.  We just kind of lost a little bit of the track there as the VHT started to wear off in the second half of the race.  But they did a great job all day.  For the most part, we had good stops all day – just the timing of the bad one came at the end, but, for the most part, they did a great job. Everybody in the field had a bad stop at some point today, so it was a good day for our Ford, and everybody is doing a good job with the speed of the cars.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished fourth after starting on pole: “Pit crew did a phenomenal job. Number one pit stall was big for us as well. It’s just, you know Charlotte on restarts, having a car fast enough to kind of make moves. We were decent in the long run, but you know still – not as fast as what we needed to be short or long.”

Jamie McMurray — Finished fifth: “We had such a good car at the beginning and you knew the race track was going to change as the substance wore off.  We just were so good at the beginning in that sticky stuff.  We were still good at the end, it is just man, it was all about getting in the right lane on the restarts. We had awesome pit stops. I’m so proud of those guys, they have turned their year around.  We honestly, had the best pit crew on pit road today.  But, it was good day, stage points in both stages, good top five finish.  Long day, it was super humid and I think it’s really hard to explain to people how sticky it is out there today.  It was super hot. … Well, we just had a good car.  Honestly, they don’t feel aggressive when your car is really good.  The track is so fast and that sticky stuff has so much grip until it just has none.  I actually wrecked on one of the restarts because I had good grip and then it just all of a sudden went away.  So, I honestly wasn’t being overly aggressive, my car was just that good.”

Jimmie Johnson – Finished seventh“It was OK. We worked our way up to fourth and then had a little miscue on pit road and restarted 16th or something and got back up to seventh.  Decent progress, the car was not easy to drive and not fun to drive, but my conditions were a lot better than the other guys and I could work my way back up through there. … Humidity was up, but the track just had very little grip.  When you had clean air you could run really fast, but as soon as you got to someone or around someone, man you are like three-quarters of a second slower and out of control.  Traffic and passing was really tough and unfortunately, we had to come through the traffic a couple of times.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished eighth: “It’s solid.  It stinks we couldn’t get any stage points, especially in that first one, but I thought we did a good job of getting better throughout the race.  We were a lot better at the end of the race than what we were at the beginning.  That says a lot about the team and hopefully we can keep it up and run decent the next two weeks.  I’m proud of the effort to get better and the hard work, so that’s what we needed.  We just need to start better.”

Kasey Kahne — Finished ninth: “Yeah, we had to work really hard. The guys did a really nice job and had a pretty good car the first half of the run and then I would get pretty loose.  A little rough riding, but I was happy with a lot of things today.  We had to come from the back, a lap down when that right-rear went flat when we were running well.  So, it was a good fight.  Ended up top 10.  We will keep working on it.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 10th: “The damage made me a little nervous. But Daniel (Suarez) got a good restart behind me and got to my outside and was on my door pretty hard. I got loose and lost a bunch of ground. I felt like I had a car to win. I made a mistake on pit road early. We rebounded from that. And then we had a costly mistake late and somewhat rebounded; but then those last two restarts didn’t go my way.”

Matt Kenseth — Finished 11th: “It was really frustrating, really puzzling. We were running third that one run, catching both leaders and the end of the run thought we were pretty close, just wanted a little adjustment. I don’t really know what happened. We took off the next stop, and it was just totally out of control. It was just so loose you just couldn’t drive it. We got a little bit better that last long run. We’re going to get back up in the top 10 there somewhere, it’s just I couldn’t restart either. It was just a frustrating day all around.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Finished 12th: “I don’t know that I have worked any harder at any race this year, but looking at all these drivers, everybody is worn out.  What they did to the racetrack and had the race track kind of all screwed up, got everybody worn out.  We didn’t know where to run and how to run you were just in there chasing the race car around the corner, a lot of work.  So, the effort was hard.  Considering how little practice we got and how bad the car was at some points in the race, pretty happy with 12th to be honest with you.  I mean, we ran 18th – 20th all day.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 13th: “We definitely brought a better Ford to the track this weekend than we did at Chicago. I’m happy with our better effort.  We thought if we could be 15th to 10th it would be a good day for us.  We didn’t get any stage points, which was a bummer, but we rebounded there on that last restart, which was key.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 15th: “It wasn’t the day we wanted, so we’ve got two races left to go and we need to have two strong races. … It was hot.  I was probably more frustrated with not being as fast as we wanted to be.  That makes the day a lot longer, but a little bit of heat, that’s what this sport is about. … It seems like Charlotte and Kansas we have just not been able to connect what we’re looking for here the last two fall races.  Hopefully, we can go to Talladega and connect with what we’re looking for.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 21st: “My team worked hard this weekend in Charlotte. We didn’t unload how we needed to on Friday, and then we didn’t get any practice laps in yesterday because of the rain. So, we had to make adjustments on the first few pit stops to get what I needed balance-wise. I felt pretty good late in the race, but I just needed track position. Charlotte is a tricky track, and it can be hard to pick up spots. We were really making progress, though. I was 15th when I had to pit for a flat tire with 13 laps to go. It was an unfortunate end to the day. I wish we could have gotten the top-15 finish, but that was out of our control. We have good notes to take home and be ready for next year.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 29th after crashing multiple times and being treated in the care center post race: “I’m all right. I’m better now. I got heat soaked and felt like I had heat stroke just from being inside the race car for 200 laps with the crush panels knocked out of it. Obviously, it was my bad, just trying to get a little too much too early in the race and got too high out of the groove and got myself into the fence and tore the right side off of it. My guys did a great job trying to rebound and get it back together as much as we could throughout the day. It was just evil out there the rest of the day trying to stay with a relative pace with the rest of the field. We were just kind of hanging on. After I first tore it up, it was just a handful from there. Literally as soon as I did it, just coasting around under caution I could feel it being about 50 degrees hotter inside the car. It just got so hot that you literally felt like you were going to puke and just trying to make it to the end of the race and luckily we did. From there, just trying to get cooled down and get body temperature back to normal.”

David Ragan — Finished 37th after crashing: “I just got into Turn 1 a little too high.  There’s a very fine line where there was a lot of grip and not much grip.  Our car was really bouncy and loose.  It was a handful for a lot of the day. Our team made some good adjustments, but we were just trying to hang on.  I should have been a little bit more conservative, but we were trying hard to just stay one lap down and I got a little too high and got loose.  I thought I was going to be OK, and I just ran back down the track, and Danica hit me.  She didn’t have anywhere to go.  If I would have locked the brakes up, I probably would have just backed it into the wall, so I was trying to do something and I ran out of talent and couldn’t hang on.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 43rd after a Lap 43 wreck with Clint Bowyer“For sure I didn’t see him. I know I got tight underneath him, and I washed up, but I checked-up and when you check-up sometimes you wash up even more, but nevertheless, I don’t know if he turned me on purpose or not, he probably had a right to, but it was early in the race, and we had a good car. The (car) was coming back through, we lost three spots on the pit stop and that was rough, but we started passing some cars and just either my mistake or his mistake, both of us going for the same piece of real estate off Turn 2.”

 

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.