Friday 5: Recent winners share long journey to Victory Lane

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Recent races reaffirm Ross Chastain’s message to young drivers.

“I still tell people to chase it,” he said of going after their dreams of competing at racing’s highest levels.

Chastain is among three drivers who overcame long odds early in their careers to win NASCAR races within the last month. Coincidence? Sure, but it also shows how perseverance can be rewarded.

Chastain, who has driven for low-budget teams and saw a full-time Xfinity ride go away in the offseason because of a sponsor’s legal issues, won last weekend’s Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway and won a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race last month at Gateway.

Brett Moffitt, the reigning Truck champion whose career early was plagued by lack of funds, won last month at Chicagoland Speedway.

Alex Bowman, who once found out he had lost a Cup ride on Twitter and spent time as a sim driver for Hendrick Motorsports, scored his first Cup victory at Chicagoland Speedway.

“All of us … have been in bad situations in their career,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “Some people, they get that good opportunity, and when that falls through, they just don’t have the willpower to fight back and do what you have to do to survive. It sucks, I’ll admit it.

“I’ve been in really bad equipment at times and it’s really frustrating and you find yourself asking why you’re doing this, and you just keep working away and hoping the right opportunity comes back.

“I think that’s what you’ve seen between Alex, Ross and myself. We’ve all paid our dues and done the bad stuff. Fortunately, we all find ourselves in a good position now.”

Chastain admits there is no guarantee that someone can climb the ranks that he, Moffitt and Bowman have, but the odds are worse if one doesn’t try.

“It might be six months, it might be six years, it might never happen,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s the same way if you graduate college today and you try to go get a job. You’re not guaranteed to go find a job, not the one you want. So you might have to take a start-and-park job.”

Chastain had to start and park in the Truck Series, but he doesn’t regret it.

“You run 10 laps all weekend, but … you have a whole year to think about the track,” he said. “I see so much value in track time and laps on track.”

Moffitt was without a ride in 2017 when Red Horse Racing shut down after the fifth race of the Truck season. He later ran seven races for BK Racing in Cup.

“You’re just doing it for money,” Moffitt said of taking a ride with the low-budget Cup team that went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy before being sold during the 2018 season. “I did it at the end of ’17 after Red Horse shut down and I went and raced for BK Racing simply to pay bills. You’ve got to do what you’ve go to do to pay rent and to keep yourself relevant in the sport. It kept me going through the offseason and fortunately I landed the job at Hattori (Racing) the following year.”

That led to the Truck Series title.

It’s a crown he looks to defend with GMS Racing. One of his main challengers will be Chastain, who is with Niece Motorsports.

Chastain admits Bowman provides a lesson even for him.

“Something like Alex, I’d always heard him for years say Mr. (Rick) Hendrick is not going to call me, but (Hendrick) did,” Chastain said. “I think the same thing. Chip Ganassi is not going to ask to be in his Cup car. The Xfinity car, yeah, but that was a whole different situation. He’s never going to ask me to be in his Cup car, but I’ve got to keep trying. I’ll be there if they ever need me.

“Running this truck race and the Cup race Saturday night and running in the 30s will help me if that day ever comes. If not, I got to run a freaking Cup race and I got to come here with the opportunity to win in the Trucks.”

Chastain also has a sense of perspective when he looks at where he’s come.

“Go back one year and look at all that has happened,” he said, standing on pit road at Kentucky Speedway. “One year ago … I was just racing and having fun.”

Now he’s having more fun winning. Just like Moffitt and Bowman.

2. Lightning strikes at Daytona

More than 40 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes were recorded within an 8-mile radius of Daytona International Speedway during a two-hour period Sunday, according to data from Earth Networks and the company’s Total Lightning Network.

The lightning strikes were recorded from just before NASCAR stopped last weekend’s Cup race to shortly before series officials declared the race finished.

NASCAR’s policy is to stop all activity at a track for any lightning within an 8-mile radius of the facility.

Randy Smith, Homeland Security Specialist for Earth Networks, told NBC Sports that the first lightning strike within an 8-mile radius of Daytona International Speedway was recorded at 3:12 p.m. ET. That strike was located about 6.3 miles east of the track in the Ormond Beach area.

Cars were called to pit road soon after and the race was stopped at 3:18 p.m. ET, according to NASCAR.

There were nearly 30 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes from 3:12 – 3:45 p.m. ET Smith said, according to data from Earth Networks’ Total Lightning Network.

The network recorded no cloud-to-ground lightning strikes from 3:46 – 4:23 p.m. Drivers were back in their cars and close to restarting their engines when another lightning strike hit within the 8-mile radius.

Smith said data showed there was a lightning strike 6.7 miles south of the track at 4:23 p.m. About 10 lightning strikes within the 8-mile radius soon followed. Rain later followed.

NASCAR receives direct notifications from The Weather Company in Atlanta throughout a race weekend. There is a dedicated senior meteorologist at The Weather Company who is on call throughout the weekend with NASCAR. NASCAR also is in contact with representatives from law enforcement, medical support and other local, state and federal agencies monitoring weather conditions.

3. New Daytona class

This season’s Daytona points races saw a unique winning class.

Three of the five points race winners at Daytona International Speedway this year scored their first series win: Austin Hill in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Michael Annett in the February Xfinity race, and Justin Haley in the July Cup race.

Ross Chastain won the July Xfinity race, giving him his second career series victory. The outlier this year was Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who scored his 32nd career win with that victory.

Since 2017, five of the 15 points race winners at Daytona scored their first series win. Joining Hill, Annett and Haley on that list are Erik Jones (2018 July Cup race) and Kaz Grala (2017 Truck race).

Since 2017, 11 of the 15 points race winners at Daytona scored either their first or second series win with the victory. Those that scored their second career series win at Daytona were: Chastain, Tyler Reddick (2018 February Xfinity race), Austin Dillon (2018 Daytona 500), Ryan Reed (2017 February Xfinity race), William Byron (2017 July Xfinity race) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017 July Cup race).

4. Deal or no deal?

Justin Haley said he’s received offers for additional Cup races since he won last weekend’s rain-shortened race at Daytona International Speedway.

But Haley has said no deal to all of them. He’s not scheduled to run another Cup race this year and that’s fine with him.

“I’m so focused on the Xfinity stuff, and I really don’t like jumping out and doing a lot of extra races,” he said. “I just like to focus where my job is at.”

But what about the extra track time he could get?

“In my deal, I think the only place I can be super competitive (with Spire Motorsports) are the super speedways because of the 10-inch spoiler,” he said. “I think we saw at Talladega I was very competitive and I wrecked the race car that was our backup car that we took to Daytona. It was just as fast. I could have went up there and raced. I could have competed in the top 10 all day, but they were three wide and I didn’t want to put myself in that position because I already wrecked one of their car cars.

“It was so hard to keep in the back because I definitely could have went up there and raced. Everyone was like a back marker won … it was a personal and team decision to run in the back because we knew there would be a big one. I think taking that car to a mile and a-half probably wouldn’t be helpful for me. And those cars are so much easier to drive than Xfinity cars with the downforce and everything, you’re pretty much wide open. The Xfinity cars are the hardest cars to drive right now.”

The deal Haley wants is on the winning car. He wants to buy it but the team has such few cars it’s not willing to part with the car at this time.

“I’m in talks to get it,” Haley said. “It’s my first win car. I don’t care what it takes. I’ll probably end up with it somehow, if I have to buy another car (for the team) or whatnot.

Once Haley gets the car, where will he put it?

“I’d probably knock a wall down,” he said, “and put it in my living room.”

5. How times change

This weekend marks the ninth year Cup has raced at Kentucky Speedway but only about a third of the drivers who competed in that inaugural Cup race in 2011 are still in the series.

Twenty-nine of the 43 starts are no longer competing in Cup. That includes drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and David Reutimann, who finished second in that race to Kyle Busch.

The 14 drivers who ran in that race and remain in the series are Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, David Ragan, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Landon Cassill, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer, Michael McDowell.

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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.