Friday 5: Pair of drivers question further limiting Cup drivers in Xfinity

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As NASCAR debates if to further restrict Cup drivers in the Xfinity Series, two drivers suggest that the decision could have a far-reaching impact on Cup.

Kyle Larson, who finished runner-up in three Xfinity races to Cup drivers in 2013 — the only season he ran every race in that series — worries that if future Xfinity drivers aren’t challenged by Cup competitors as he was, it could hurt them.

“I would just be worried that you’re making the guys that come from Xfinity, your young guns, that make it to Cup in future years, I don’t think they’re going to be up to speed enough,’’ Larson said Thursday during a visit to a Chevrolet plant that assembles the Camaro ZL1 in Lansing, Michigan.

“When I ran Xfinity, I learned a ton off of getting beat by Kyle Busch and (Brad) Keselowski and (Joey) Logano and whoever other Cup drivers that were racing every week with me. It made me better. I learned a lot.

“Now, I feel like if you limit those guys getting to race with us, they don’t know where the bar is set. It’s actually set when they’re racing just with Xfinity regulars who don’t really have a lot of experience. I feel like they’re making our sport less competitive for the future when you do that.’’

Larson’s comments, in a way, echoed what Kevin Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” earlier this week.

Harvick, who will compete in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Michigan International Speedway, gave his opinion in response to the fact that the series has had 11 different winners in the first 12 races.

“Four of those 11 races everybody was excluded from the Cup side to run in the Xfinity races,’’ Harvick said, noting the Dash 4 Cash races that did not allow any Cup drivers. “I think as you look at the variety of winners, I think that’s definitely intriguing for the series.

“Look, there’s a lot of great race car drivers in the Xfinity Series and there’s a lot of great young drivers, but I think right now one of the interesting things to me is looking at the young guys in Cup and how much longer it has taken them to win.

“Is that a result of dumbing down the Xfinity Series by not letting as many Cup guys in the series? Are those guys learning the same things that they would be learning if you had it how it was 10 years ago with more Cup guys in the series? Are they learning as much? Are they rushed? What’s the difference?

“Why is it taking them longer to win in Cup now? Why aren’t the young guys winning as many Cup races as what the young guys used to win 10-15 years ago when they came to Cup? Lot of interesting questions.’’

Many of the top young drivers viewed as most likely to win — Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez — competed in Xfinity against Cup drivers on a regular basis before moving to Cup. While experience is a key, their teams also are a factor.

Hendrick Motorsports has struggled this season, making the challenge greater for Elliott, Bowman and rookie William Byron. Chevy teams are behind as they sort out the Camaro ZL1. Blaney moved from the Wood Brothers to Team Penske and that group has been fast but inconsistent at times. Jones and Suarez have had noteworthy moments but also lacked consistency at Joe Gibbs Racing.

If further restrictions are put on Cup drivers, then it could lead to the concerns Larson and Harvick posed.

With five of the top 12 drivers in points heading into Sunday’s race at Michigan age 38 and older, another transition could start in the next few years, creating an avenue for more young drivers to enter Cup.

Will they be prepared for the jump to Cup when their time comes?

2. What’s next for the All-Star Race aero package?

NASCAR has yet to state where the All-Star Race package will be used in Cup this season.

Matt Kenseth is clear on how he feels about the package and where it should not be run.

“I can’t say I was a huge fan of it,’’ said Kenseth at a tire test this week at Darlington Raceway. “I don’t know how different it will be once everybody has some time to work on it. I really think that for mile-and-a-halves, it’s probably not the right package, I think, depending on what everybody is looking for.

“Charlotte was a good race, especially the Open, but man if you look back at last year’s races, it was a really good race, too, the Open was. It was crazy, three-wide for the win at the end. When you have those short races and you throw cautions every 20 laps, it’s going to stay bunched up and be pretty exciting.

“I think there’s probably some potential there for some tracks, maybe somewhere like Indy where it was good for the Xfinity cars. Even as we saw at Pocono last weekend (in the Xfinity Series), it really wasn’t that great.’’

Greg Ives, crew chief for Alex Bowman, says that 1.5-mile tracks could be key for this package.

“If we’re going to try to do it as a season-long package, I think we need to try a race track that is the bulk of what we do, the mile-and-a-half,’’ Ives told NBC Sports on Thursday.

“Michigan, I’ve heard floated around. That will turn into another superspeedway-type race. … It’s going to be tricky to try. Michigan, I think, is going to be a tough place to get a true understanding of how a mile-and-a-half is going to race. ‘’

Only two 1.5-mile tracks remain before the playoffs begin — Chicagoland (July 1) and Kentucky (July 14).

The Xfinity cars will run a similar package this weekend for the second race in a row.

“I think what us as an industry and me as a crew chief have to have is an understanding of what our future product needs to be,’’ Ives said. “Four hundred horsepower cars are probably not the perfect answer when you’re a premier series in racing, but there is something that can be done to make our fans appreciate the racing, appreciate not only the driver’s talent because it takes a talent to get into these races.

“That’s what the compromise needs to be. Drivers, they want to be able to race, race hard and showcase their talent.’’

3. Betting on NASCAR

Delaware became the first state outside of Nevada on Tuesday to offer betting on several different sports, including NASCAR.

Bets are being taken for this weekend’s Cup and Xfinity races at Michigan.

As of Thursday, Kevin Harvick is the favorite to win Sunday’s Cup race at 3/1, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch at 4/1. Next is Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney at 12/1. They are followed by Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin at 18/1.

New Jersey lawmakers passed legislation to authorize legal sports betting in that state on Thursday, sending the measure to Gov. Phil Murphy for his signature, which would make the state second to Delaware to offer sports betting outside Nevada.

4. Could it be four in a row for Kyle Larson?

Kyle Larson is going for his fourth consecutive victory at Michigan this weekend. While among the favorites this weekend, he knows the challenges to keeping this streak going.

“I think the last one we won was really difficult,’’ he said. “I ran like 10th all race long but we were able to have some good pit strategy and a good restart at the end. The other two we won I felt like we had the best car, probably, going into the race. Where right now you look at the same three guys (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick) as being the favorites.

“We’re just a little step behind those guys right now. I think with having three wins, confidence will be up and that could be important.’’

If Larson wins, he’d match what Bill Elliott did when he swept the Michigan races in 1985 and ’86.

5. Close to 100 percent

Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer are the only drivers who have completed more than 99 percent of the 4,462 laps run this year.

Logano has completed all but two laps this year. Bowyer has completed all but 28 laps this season.

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Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.

 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

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.”