Ryan: More rules changes needed for NASCAR’s next Talladega race?

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It’s a fine line – usually a split-second bobble or a mistimed flick of a steering wheel between breathtaking exhilaration and bone-chilling dread at Talladega Superspeedway.

Sunday might have confirmed the margin is just as narrow with rules changes at the 2.66-mile oval.

The well-intended removal of ride-height restrictions (to help reduce the likelihood of cars getting airborne) might have seemed benign on its face, but it produced the most ill-handling pack of 200-mph missiles at Talladega in years.

From the moment Cup drivers took the wheel (and surely from the moment Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Chevrolet barrel-rolled down the backstretch seven and a half times early in Friday practice), there was a general unease about the dearth of drivability in the pack.

Confidence helps in the literal death-defying environs of a restrictor-plate race, and when things get extremely skittish, a single line usually forms – a quasi-sit down strike in which drivers effectively log laps with the tacit understanding that everyone plays nice until the final 100 miles.

But the difference Sunday was that even when drivers wanted to force the action, they couldn’t. With cars low to the ground and lacking downforce and stability, scooting to the front was as tough as it’s ever been at the track where Dale Earnhardt famously charged from 18th to first in the final five laps of his last win.

The 25 lead changes were the fewest at Talladega since 20 in the Oct. 11, 1998 race, but it wasn’t an anomaly – the total lead changes in each of the past seven races were 30, 26, 31, 37, 30, 27 and 38 after a stretch in which 13 of 18 races from 2005-14 featured at least 50 lead changes. (Per an astute number-crunching fan, quality passes also hit a record low for the spring race at Talladega.)

Racing at Talladega has been creeping this way as increased emphasis on handling has lessened the free-for-all nature that normally has defined NASCAR’s biggest and fastest track.

As Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long postrace Sunday, handling has become so important to performance, winning teams bring cars better suited for downforce than raw speed (a concept that once would have been unheard of at Talladega).

And approaching a plate race as if it were an event at Kansas, Charlotte or Chicagoland seems to produce a different brand of racing.

Rather than form the massive packs with rows three wide and 10 deep, drivers for at least one championship-contending team were instructed before Sunday’s race to avoid heavy traffic (and the pileups that invariably occur with it).

There still were two multicar crashes, one triggered by a seven-time champion losing control.

Has NASCAR made the cars too difficult to drive at Talladega?

NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell indicated Monday that there would be no changes for the July 7 plate race at Daytona International Speedway, which is understandable given that the 2018 Daytona 500 produced a highly entertaining spectacle with the same rules.

But on the next trip to Talladega in five months, it might be wise to restore drafting confidence via stability. When the Drivers Council meets with NASCAR this week, the feedback might be “if you give us a larger spoiler or a minimum rear ride height, we will race better.”

Yes, the tradeoff might be higher speeds (presuming last Friday’s plate change is reversed) along with the increased likelihood of cars lifting off the pavement and going airborne – the preventive reason that restrictor plates were introduced 30 years ago to choke down horsepower (after Bobby Allison’s car sailed into the Talladega catchfence in the May 3, 1987 race).

But if the fan reviews were as mixed as social media indicated, it could be a move that NASCAR is forced to make, just as it was in the elimination of tandem drafting because of vehemently negative feedback.

Unfortunately, a cardinal rule of restrictor-plate racing is that safer isn’t always better for the show.

Sunday’s most intriguing storyline easily was Chase Elliott taking umbrage at receiving no drafting help from Ford drivers, and he didn’t mince many words about it.

In the absence of any visits to victory lane by the “New Kids On the Track” (with apologies to the moniker coined by Eddie Gossage, most boy bands would be playing shopping malls if they took this long to score a No. 1 single), the shade thrown by Elliott toward veterans Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch made for a delicious reminder of a potentially simmering narrative. (Especially given Harvick’s recent digs at the youth brigade’s lack of success.)

It also was a welcome departure from a typical Elliott interview, which is always polished and professional but sometimes can feel slightly rote.

It’s good for NASCAR if the driver most likely to be named most popular in December is comfortable and confident with speaking his mind so bluntly (and consistently in multiple postrace interviews).

The first clue this wasn’t the most eventful Talladega race ever?

Maybe it was that the race’s buzziest social media item was an enormously large power saw.

NASCAR could use a decent feud right now.

The best hope for a compelling 2018 rivalry remains the much ballyhooed generation gap, and it’ll take some results to stoke those flames (Talladega winner Joey Logano, who turns 28 this month, actually is young enough to be in the youth movement, but his 10 seasons of experience disqualifies him).

Bubba Wallace led five laps Sunday in finishing 16th (his fourth top 20 in six races), and an eighth last month at Texas Motor Speedway (where he kept Harvick behind him for three dozen laps) also was a “huge confidence-booster,” as were some words of encouragement from crew chief Drew Blickensderfer.

“The young guys, we’re coming about, we’re getting there,” Wallace told NBC Sports.com after a Tuesday morning sponsor announcement. “You look at what (Ryan) Blaney is doing, I put him at the top of all of us right now. Him and Larson. It’s cool to see what we’re all doing in trying to get there. For us, it’s going to take a little bit more. We’re a smaller team on a smaller budget.

“I was devastated about the finish at Bristol (where he led six laps but finished 16th), but Drew says we’re the smallest team taking like 25 percent of the big team’s budget and outrunning them with it, and that’s what you have to look at it.”

Logano led the final 42 laps at Talladega, a track that once produced a minimum of 87 lead changes in three straight Cup races.

During the Talladega plate era, that’s the third-most consecutive laps led to the checkered flag by a winner, and Logano also holds the second-highest total (45 in his Oct. 23, 2016 win).

The record for most consecutive laps led to end a Talladega plate race? Davey Allison led the final 71 on May 3, 1992.

A humble request: Can we stop referring to accidents involving several cars as “The Big One” (ack)?

It’s a crash. It’s a pileup. It’s a wreck.

And there’s a certain level of gravitas that should be employed with describing the violence of a 200-mph collision.

It demands a label more befitting and less flippant than something that possibly could be confused with the title of an Aerosmith album.

Sammy Smith to run full Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023


Sammy Smith will run the full Xfinity schedule in the No. 18 car, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday.

The 18-year-old Smith, a Toyota development driver, won the ARCA Menards Series East title for a second consecutive year in 2022 and also made nine Xfinity starts with JGR.

Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt will be sponsors on Smith’s car throughout the 2023 season. Jeff Meendering will be Smith’s crew chief.

“This is an opportunity I have been working towards,” Smith said in a statement from the team. “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel full-time and am looking forward to a great season. I learned a lot in 2022 that will really help me to be competitive and run up front in the Xfinity Series. Thank you to Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Toyota Racing Development for supporting me in my racing career. I am excited for next year and appreciate the opportunity.”

Said Steve DeSouza, JGR executive vice president of Xfinity Series and driver development, in a statement: “Sammy is a fantastic addition to our 2023 Xfinity lineup. He proved to have the passion and the talent to necessary to compete for wins in the races he ran for us in 2022,” .“We are excited to get him in the No. 18 full time and know he will be competitive from the jump.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers


Some drivers carry one car number throughout their racing careers. The most famous racers in NASCAR’s 75-year history typically are associated with one number, although some have raced under several.

Victories, championships and driver personalities give life to something as generally mundane as a number. And the most popular produce even bigger numbers, as in sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most iconic NASCAR numbers:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 43 — Since Richard Petty’s emergence as a superstar in the 1960s, the number 43 has been NASCAR’s most iconic. Although Lee Petty, Richard’s father, usually drove No. 42, he actually scored the first win by the 43, in 1959. The Petty blue No. 43 carried Richard to a string of championships. He scored 192 of his 200 race wins with the number. It rolls on today with Erik Jones, who took the 43 to the Southern 500 victory lane this season.

2. 3 — The fiercely facing forward No. 3 became ultra-famous while driven by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt (although Earnhardt won his first title driving the No. 2). Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet carried the number to new heights, but Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Buddy Baker and Ricky Rudd, among others, also won in the car.

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

3. 21 — The list of drivers who have raced Wood Brothers Racing’s famous No. 21, with the familiar gold foil numbers, reads like a history of NASCAR. David Pearson brought the most fame to the number, but Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, team owner Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Dale Jarrett also have driven the 21.

4. 11 — This number is responsible for more race wins — 228 — than any other. It also has scored eight championships — three each by Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and two by Ned Jarrett. Other stars in the 11 over the years: Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and Denny Hamlin. And some guy named Mario Andretti.

5. 48 — This number was largely ignored until the arrival of Jimmie Johnson, who carried it to seven championships, including five in a row.

6. 24 — The number 24 was a lonely number until 1994 when a kid named Jeff Gordon drove it to its first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The brightly colored 24 became a regular visitor to victory lane from that point forward, carrying Gordon to four championships and becoming one of NASCAR’s most decorated numbers.

MORE: Will Kyle Busch follow footsteps of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

7. 18 — Although Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte won in the 18, Kyle Busch, draped in the bright colors of sponsor M&Ms, took it into new territory.

8. 22 — NASCAR’s first Cup champion (Red Byron) and its most recent (Joey Logano) rode with the 22. The number has produced 87 wins over the years, including victories by Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Byron and Logano.

9. 2 — Although the 2 carried Dale Earnhardt (1980) and Brad Keselowski (2012) to Cup championships, it is perhaps most identified with Rusty Wallace, whose menacing black No. 2 was powerful at Team Penske. Also successful in the 2: Bill Blair, Kurt Busch and Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

10. 9 — The 9 was basically nondescript until Bill Elliott roared out of the north Georgia mountains to turn it into a big winner in the mid-1980s. His son, Chase, continues the trend.



Truck Series: Rajah Caruth joins GMS Racing


Rajah Caruth will drive the No. 24 truck full-time for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023, the team announced Tuesday.

The 20-year-old Caruth ran a full season in the ARCA Menards Series last year, placing third in points. He also made seven Xfinity starts and four Truck starts last year. 

“I am extremely honored, and really excited to join GMS Racing and be in the fold of a professional race team with so much history,” Caruth said in a statement from the team. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this throughout my whole career, and I’m going to do the best in my power to make the most of it.

“First and foremost, I can’t thank everybody at GMS enough for believing in me and believing that I have what it takes to drive one of their trucks. Same goes for everybody at Chevrolet for their support, we truly wouldn’t be able to make this happen without them. 

Caruth joins Grant Enfinger and Daniel Dye as GMS Racing’s full-time Craftsman Truck Series drivers. Chad Walter will be Caruth’s crew chief. Jeff Hensley will be Enfinger’s crew chief. Travis Sharpe will be Dye’s crew chief. 

The primary partner on Caruth’s truck will be the Wendell Scott Foundation. The foundation, named for the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race, seeks to provide resources and services to underprivileged Black youth communities near Scott’s hometown of Danville, Virginia. Since the foundation’s formation in 2011, more than 25 students have been awarded more than $50,000 from the Wendell Scott Legacy Scholarship programs.

“We are excited for Rajah to compete full-time with GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023,” said Dayne Pierantoni, GM Racing Program Manager for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “Through Chevrolet’s partnership with Rev Racing, we have been impressed with Rajah’s talent both on and off the track. He has proven his ability to compete at the NASCAR national level, and we look forward to seeing his continued success with a series championship winning team.”

The Truck season begins Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway. 

In other Truck Series news:

Dean Thompson will drive the No. 5 for TRICON Garage this coming season. The 21-year-old was a rookie in the series this past season. He had a season-best finish of 11th at Las Vegas.

“I am thrilled to start the next chapter of my career with TRICON Garage and Toyota Racing Development,” Thompson said in a statement from the team. “The team and manufacturer have quickly made a statement in the Truck Series as striving to be the best of the best. I’m ready to take on the challenge and live up to the expectations of being a driver for TRICON.”

McAnally Hilgemann Racing announced Tuesday that Christian Eckes and Jake Garcia will drive full-time in the Truck series for the team next season.

Eckes, who will drive the No. 19 truck, moves over from ThorSport Racing. Garcia will drive the No. 35 truck in pursuit of the series Rookie of the Year award.

NAPA AutoCare will continue as a team sponsor.

Garcia is 17 and is scheduled to make his first start March 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Because of NASCAR’s age restrictions, he will miss the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The team’s Daytona driver has not been announced.

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry


Jarrett Companies will increase the number of races it will sponsor Josh Berry‘s No. 8 JR Motorsports ride in 2023, the Xfinity Series team announced Monday.

Jarrett Companies will sponsor Berry in six races after serving as the primary sponsor in three races in 2022. Those six races will be Phoenix (March 11), Richmond (April 1), Dover (April 29), Atlanta (July 8), Indianapolis (Aug. 12) and Texas (Sept. 23).

The deal gives Berry at least 26 races with sponsorship for next season. Bass Pro Shops will serve as the primary sponsor of Berry’s car in 11 races in 2023. Tire Pros is back with JRM and will sponsor Berry in nine races in the upcoming season.

Berry, who reached the Xfinity title race and finished fourth in the points, will have a new crew chief in 2023. Taylor Moyer will take over that role with Mike Bumgarner serving as JRM’s director of competition.

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.