Greg Erwin ready for new challenge as Cup crew chief with Wood Brothers and Paul Menard

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Greg Erwin has had a good, productive tenure with Team Penske. He’s served in a number of roles since first joining the organization in 2012, including Xfinity program manager and Xfinity team crew chief.

But Erwin has always felt he left some things unfinished and unfulfilled from his previous tenure as a Cup crew chief with Greg Biffle at Roush Fenway Racing.

After five years of patiently waiting, Erwin is finally getting that chance, joining Wood Brothers Racing as crew chief for Paul Menard, who moves over after a seven-year stint with Richard Childress Racing.

“Just being at Penske under the system I’ve spent the last five years I’ve worked under is good for me and this is what I was looking to do,” Erwin told NBC Sports.

In a unique twist, Erwin remains part of the Team Penske family as part of their partnership with Wood Brothers Racing. That means he will have worked for two of the most legendary teams in motorsports: Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing.

“The winning combination for me is I get to do it still as part of the Penske umbrella, so to speak,” Erwin said. “Opportunities to be a Cup crew chief, they come and go, they come yearly, but it’s not always necessarily with the organization that you committed yourself to be a part of, like I did at the end of 2012.

“These folks at Team Penske have been very honest and very good to me and they run their company and shop and go about building their race cars and managing their people. There’s some very key players within the organization that have a big part to play in all of that. If I ever felt myself really going Cup racing again, I decided that this was the place I wanted to do it.

“It’s taken almost five years to get an opportunity to go back, but that’s what it’s taken. I’ve done my time here and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

It’ll be a fresh start for Paul Menard and crew chief Greg Erwin at Wood Brothers Racing in 2018. (Getty Images)

A native of Hatboro, Pennsylvania, Erwin began his career in NASCAR in 1995. Along the way, he worked in various roles for Felix Sabates’ Team Sabco, Chip Ganassi Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Robby Gordon Racing and Robert Yates Racing before landing at Roush Fenway Racing.

A graduate of Clemson University with an engineering degree, Erwin was paired with Biffle from May 2007 through mid-2011 as crew chief, leading Biffle to five of his 19 career Cup wins.

Overall, Erwin has five overall wins, as well as 39 top-5 and 79 top-10 finishes and 4 poles as a crew chief in 250 Cup starts. In the Xfinity Series, he has an impressive record: In 119 starts, he has 12 wins, 77 top-5 and 100 top-10 finishes, along with 13 poles.

Being paired with Menard will not exactly be a brand new situation for Erwin.

“There’s a brief relationship with Paul that existed when I was at Robby Gordon’s,” he said. “We had Menard’s sponsorship on many of our race cars and there was a handful of times that Robby would tap Paul for testing or when (Gordon) was stuck in Baja.

“I remember one year very vividly when we were a go or go home car at Homestead, where we had to qualify in on time. Paul was able to get us in the race on time and we waited for Robby to come back and race the thing.

“So I’ve known Paul and obviously we’ve worked side-by-side a little bit when I was at Roush (Fenway Racing) and he was running those Roush Yates Fords for Doug (Yates) across the street (2009 in Cup and 2009-2010 in Xfinity). So there’s a known there.”

Erwin and Menard succeed Ryan Blaney and crew chief Jeremy Bullins, who have moved together to the No. 12 car with Team Penske.

“We’d kind of known all along that Blaney was going to be good enough to do a good job over there with the 21 and Jeremy and the group he’s been working with have developed a very good working relationship,” Erwin said. “It was obvious when it was announced that Ryan was going to drive the 12 in 2018, that Jeremy was going to follow him.

“I’ve been in the Xfinity series for a long time now, so when the opportunity came up to backfill (Bullins’) spot, I was the next one in line. Management here at Penske asked me if I still wanted the opportunity to go Cup racing, and when I told them yes but under the right situation, it was in a couple of weeks (that it happened).

“They’ve (Wood Brothers Racing) known me for a long time, ever since my affiliation with the 16 car. There’s just a bunch of knowns. They know me, I kind of know them, I know Paul and I know the system here, so it all just fit really well.”

Greg Biffle and Greg Erwin (right) worked together for more than 5 years.

Erwin, 47, knows he has some early challenges in his new role, but he’s up for them.

“I’ve been out of the Cup game now for five years, so I know there’s a lot of learning to be had,” Erwin said. “I felt when I was doing it last back in 2012, I was very current with rules, officiating, how races were run, the cars I had been working on. I had been with the 16 car for over five years (including before he became Biffle’s crew chief). I was very comfortable in understanding the game I was playing.

“Right now, it’s going to take me some time to learn (Cup). They’ve had some rules packages that have come into play in the last couple of years that I’m not used to working with on a daily basis, so I think there’s a learning curve for me, certainly, to get back to the comfort level of where I’ve been or where I am with the Xfinity car and the Xfinity program.

“The segment length of the races changed, the Cup segments don’t quite play out like the Xfinity segments, the ride heights of the car have changed.

“Now you tell me I’m going to get to go to Daytona and run under a rules package that I’m not even going to get a chance to test first. … Now we’re going to go down and within two hours of being on the racetrack, we’re going to have to effectively qualify this thing and run the 150s.”

But Erwin has a strong support system behind him with Ford, the Wood Brothers and, of course, Team Penske.

“It’s not intimidating because I’m not standing on an island, I’m not a single-car program,” he said. “I’ve got the 22 (Joey Logano), 2 (Brad Keselowski) and 12 (Ryan Blaney) to fall in line with, but nonetheless, the rules of the game are different and I’ve come to understand that the last few years.

“I think this is somewhat of a feel-good story hopefully also for Paul. He’s going to be in cars that are identical in every way, shape and form to the 22, 2 and 12. We all hope we’re gong to be able to provide him a better opportunity than he’s had in the last several years to be competitive in what we hope is better equipment.”

Greg Erwin, left, along with Ryan Blaney in the Xfinity race at Indianapolis in 2015.

And potentially lead Menard to his second career Cup win and arguably what would be one of the most significant wins in Wood Brothers Racing history: their 100th Cup triumph. Blaney came close, giving the Wood Brothers their 99th Cup win in June at Pocono, and now Erwin and Menard stand ready to take the torch from Blaney and go out and win No. 100 for the Wood Brothers.

“I think about all the guys I know in the garage area and all the drivers that have driven the cars for those guys at the 21 and I think it’s going to be pretty cool to have an opportunity to do that,” he said. “I’m not getting any younger, I realize that.

“This continues to be gearing towards a younger guys’ sport, so to get the opportunity to do that while still under the Penske technical alliance and then get to work real close with Len and Eddie (Wood), the guys they have on staff are going to continue be a big part of our program and stay in the spots they’re in.

“Getting that 100th win for them would be pretty neat, for sure.”

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.