New year, new teams bring improvement for Matt Tifft, Brandon Jones

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It took until March 9 for Matt Tifft to realize it wasn’t 2017 anymore.

During a press conference at ISM Raceway, Tifft was not introduced as the driver of the No. 19 Toyota owned by Joe Gibbs Racing.

That honor went to the driver sitting to his left – Brandon Jones.

“I was like, ‘Oh wait, that’s not me,’” Tifft said that day.

On race days in the Xfinity Series, Tifft now pilots Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevrolet.

The end of the 2017 season and resulting offseason saw arguably the silliest of “Silly Seasons” in recent NASCAR history.

Drivers retired, got promotions, were forced to unceremoniously retire and in a few cases, swapped teams.

The last option was the case for Tifft and Jones.

Brandon Jones during the Xfinity race weekend at ISM Raceway (Getty Images).

A STEP BACK

Things did not go well last year for either driver.

Specifically Jones.

The 21-year-old driver calls his last 33 races with RCR “bizarre” and “confusing.”

It started with Jones on the pole for the season-opener at Daytona.

It ended with Jones 16th in the standings (he was 10th in 2016). He recorded no top fives, three top 10s and seven DNFs.

“It was definitely rough time, man,” Jones says. “It was just confusing because we had guys on the team and stuff that were top-of-the line guys and we put this team together and we were honestly having so much fun as a team that it almost took away from having bad luck and bad runs and stuff.”

Almost.

“I had everything possible except for a blown motor that could have gone wrong,” Jones says. “It was just bizarre. Couldn’t ever catch a break. We kind of put that behind ourselves this year. Wanted to try and start fresh whenever I made the move to JGR.”

WELCOME TO WELCOME

In the middle of 2017, Tifft had a conversation with Ben Kennedy, then one of the drivers rotating in and out of RCR’s No. 2 car.

Kennedy brought up his crew chief, Randall Burnett.

“I just lean on this guy because he’s got to much experience,” Kennedy said. Burnett was in his first season as an Xfinity crew chief. In 2016, he was crew chief for AJ Allmendinger in Cup after 10 years as a Chip Ganassi Racing engineer.

“That was way before I knew I was going to RCR,” Tifft told NBC Sports.

Matt Tifft drives the No. 2 Dollar Shave Club Chevrolet  at ISM Raceway on March 9. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

In October, the 21-year-old driver was announced as moving to RCR after one full-time season with JGR.

While his rotating cast of teammates won 12 of 33 races in 2017, Tifft came up empty. He earned just two top fives, at Mid-Ohio and Road America, and 13 top 10s.

Even without a win Tifft made the playoffs, where he placed in the top 10 in seven of the eight races. But was eliminated after the second round.

“I felt like we were competitive in the playoffs. That’s the time there I felt like we were starting to get there. But it took that long,” Tifft says. “I think I just had a hard time putting the races together and dealing with pressure and the ups and downs. I don’t think I knew exactly how to handle it. I think part of it was I didn’t know how to prepare for it, too.”

Tifft eventually found himself eating lunch at “one of the few restaurants” in Welcome, North Carolina, where RCR is headquartered.

With him was Burnett, who he had found out that day would be his crew chief in 2018.

“I felt like there was just a really good connection there as far as personalities and where he was at,” Tifft says. “This deal is so stressful that you’ve got to be able to have that trust in a relationship with your crew chief. Jimmie Johnson talks about it all the time. It really is a relationship. You’ve got to have that.”

Early on Tifft established a clear understanding with his car chief, Cam Strader.

“He said straight up, ‘Hey, we’re going to bust our tails to make sure that we’re bringing the best stuff for you but you make sure you focus on what you need to do, not only from a driver side of things, but also from a promotional side of things.,’” Tifft says. “If we’re out doing events and stuff and I can’t be at the shop that one day they understand because I want to make it clear to them if I’m not in the shop I’m doing something that’s productive for our race team.”

Blake Koch has a new role as a mentor to Matt Tifft. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

COACH KOCH

Tifft is keeping his side of the deal with Strader.

Where race preparation was a weakness last season, Tifft isn’t just relying on resources provided by RCR to improve.

He’s getting a little help from “the hardest working” guy he knows in the garage – Blake Koch.

While Tifft and Jones landed safely during “Silly Season,” Koch found himself without a ride at the end of 2017, replaced at Kaulig Racing by Ryan Truex.

Now, through a mutual connection who manages drivers, he’s Tifft’s unofficial driver coach.

“It wasn’t like I was in a dire situation where I needed somebody like that,” Tifft says. “But I was just thinking back to when you start racing in go karts and late models and all that stuff, there’s usually a strong mentor piece or someone that’s looking out for you. I felt like I was going to have a very strong foundation there this year at RCR with having (Daniel) Hemric as a teammate and whoever’s rotating through the 3 car is going to be really strong I felt like. Anything I could do to try to step up my game and keep on accelerating that learning curve to where I can make our organization better by being a better teammate, just trying to give the best effort I could.”

Koch, who has 213 Xfinity starts since 2009, helps Tifft with his workouts, weekend prep and debriefs him after the race weekend.

“He’s very particular about every single thing I’m doing,” Tifft says. “From first lap on practice to coming up to speed in qualifying, your lines and techniques. … I think a lot of the fundamental stuff that you can improve on as a driver was something I felt I needed to get better at last year and I felt like I made that jump in the playoffs.”

Koch is even picky about “garage flow,” an effort to declutter Tifft’s mind at a track

“When you show up to a race track and you get in your car you shouldn’t have to wonder how the heck you get on the race track,” Koch says. “When you get to the race track, the only thing you should have to think about is hitting your marks and running in a perfect line and focusing on your task at hand, not the other small details that are just cluttering your mind.”

What’s been Koch’s emphasis through the first few weeks of their partnership?

Tifft points to being more efficient in passing.

For Koch, it’s all about restarts

“That was the main thing we focused on going into the year, let’s be the best at restarts,” Koch says. “I think five races in he’s had better restarts than he had in the entire year last year and that’s pretty important in our series right now with the stages, with track position being so important. I would say that’s the No. 1 improvement.”

Brandon Jones drives the No.19 Juniper Toyota, during the NASCAR Xfinity Series DC Solar 200 at ISM Raceway on March 10. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

SIMULATOR DAYS

There’s not that much different in terms of resources when it comes to teams like RCR and JGR.

But Jones has found there’s a difference in how they’re used.

No more so than when it comes to simulator time.

Every Tuesday, he and teammate Christopher Bell spend the day in Toyota Racing Development’s simulator. Bell takes the morning shift and Jones takes over in the afternoon.

“We’re there and talking to each other and bouncing stuff off each other, what’s working and what didn’t,” Jones says. “That’s been a really big help for me this year. There were times last year where I was able to run a little bit on the simulator, but it wasn’t every single week and it wasn’t a set date. That’s been one of the things that’s been really cool about going to Toyota this year is just having a set date for their simulator every single week.”

Also, there’s data. So much data. The information proved to Jones that simply having better cars wasn’t the only reason the field was left chasing JGR the last few years.

“I think they were available to me at RCR, either I didn’t know to ask for it was they didn’t cram it down my throat kind of deal,” says Jones. “I get everything possible I can for a driver.”

Some of that info comes straight from the mouths of JGR’s Cup drivers.

“Even when it comes to talking to Kyle Busch or one of those guys on how they do pit stops, ‘Man, I do it way differently, but your way is more effective, so I’m going to work on doing it that way.’” Jones says. “It’s hard to know how to do all that stuff without ever being taught it. At the end of the day, some of it’s pretty obvious when they show it to you, but you would have never thought of doing stuff like that without seeing it.”

BACK ON TRACK

Whether it’s data, equipment or luck, Tifft and Jones’ first five races of 2018 are a marked improvement from last year.

Following Saturday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Jones has two top 10s and he’s finished outside the top 15 once.

Last year, he didn’t have a top 10 until race 13. He’s also catching breaks he didn’t in 2017.

At Atlanta, he cut a tire and brushed the wall, but narrowly avoided being rammed by cars as he dove to pit road. He finished 17th.

At Phoenix, Jones “saw my life flash before my eyes” when he avoided a lapped car on the backstretch that didn’t have power steering. He placed 11th.

In Fontana, after a harmless spin in practice, he kept from wrecking with Kaz Grala at the checkered flag. He finished 13th.

“Just about everywhere we were pretty quick,” Jones says. “We’re very close. I think by the end of the year, we’re going to be very, very close if not right there with them. … We’ve got the long-run speed figured out. It’s more just trying to figure out how to get short-run speed out of me and how to qualify just a little better.”

Tifft has seen improvement every week. After finishing 19th at Daytona, he had finishes of 12th, 11th, seventh and then eighth in Fontana after starting 20th.

His first consecutive top 10s last year weren’t until races 11 and 12.

Even though they’ve swapped teams, Tifft doesn’t see Jones as his head-to-head competition, at least not yet.

“To be focused on one car and beating them is kind of stupid unless you’re in the Dash 4 Cash or the playoffs,” Tifft says. “It’s too early in the year to say we need to go out and beat the 19 car. You’d just drive yourself crazy for no reason.”

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.