Long: NASCAR’s future steals spotlight from the past at Darlington

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — On a weekend when the past was prevalent, did NASCAR fans glimpse the sport’s future?

Erik Jones and Kyle Larson dueled for the lead in the final stage of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, showing that a track that rewards experience can be tamed by younger drivers.

What made the moment special was how rare it was. And not just because it was after 1 a.m. ET when their battle was taking in the rain-delayed event.

Although the race was Larson’s 209th Cup start and Jones’ 100th, they hadn’t had any memorable encounters for the lead in NASCAR’s premier series.

But with Larson 27 years old and Jones 23, this could be just the beginning.

Jones went on to win the Southern 500 and Larson finished second, marking the first time the two placed first and second in a Cup race.

“It’s cool when you get to get out and race hard,” Jones said of racing Larson. “That’s what we love to do is get to get out there and battle with the best of the best, and there’s no better feeling than when you’re battling with a guy for the lead who is considered one of the better guys in the series, and especially at a place like Darlington (where) I feel like is really one of Kyle’s better tracks.”

The key moment came when Larson led the field to a restart on Lap 283 of the 367-lap race. Jones powered underneath Larson in Turn 2 to take the lead.

Erik Jones’ two career Cup wins have come at Daytona and Darlington. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Even though patience is preached at Darlington, Jones knew he needed to be aggressive.

“You’ve got to pick and choose your battles, and the one with Larson there was one I felt like was necessary to pick,” Jones said. “I felt like if I got behind him, I don’t think we win the race.

“This package is really tough to pass with here. I felt like tonight was a really big struggle as far as the package itself and making our way forward.  We made some passes on the very long runs in the race that we had and some on pit road and were able to position ourselves up front, but I knew if we got behind him, he was just fast enough he would have been able to defend. He’s a good enough driver he’s going to defend the same way I did him and Kyle (Busch).”

Larson countered in Turn 3 and moved ahead. Jones reclaimed the lead on the next lap. He went under Larson’s car in Turn 1 and barely cleared Larson when he moved up in front of the No. 42 Chevrolet.

“He cut me a little bit of a break letting me clear him up in 1 and 2, and I knew at that point we had to get the lead,” Jones said. “I knew if we could get it, we could set our pace. But I enjoyed racing with him. We raced hard.”

Larson, who would not get back by Jones, lamented his restart.

“We just didn’t have the greatest restarts there to allow Erik to get by me,” he said.

Jones’ victory marked the seventh time in 25 Cup races (28%) this season that a Cup driver under the age of 30 had won. Go back to early in last year’s playoffs and drivers under 30 have won 12 of the last 33 Cup races (36%).

That number could rise with the number of 20-somethings making an impact in the sport. Twenty of the 39 Southern 500 drivers this past weekend were under the age of 30, including eight of the top 14 finishers.

Darlington marked the fourth time this year that drivers under the age of 30 finished first and second in a Cup race. It also happened at Talladega (Chase Elliott won, Alex Bowman second), Chicagoland (Bowman won, Larson second), Daytona in July (Justin Haley won, William Byron second) and the Southern 500.

Last year, only once did drivers under the age of 30 finish first and second in a race. That came in the Daytona 500 when Austin Dillon won and Bubba Wallace finished second.

Already, Jones’ two Cup wins have come at Daytona (July 2018) and Darlington. Quite a way to start a career.

“It’s pretty crazy, right?” Jones said.

“The Southern 500 is a race that is the top three in my list for sure, and to get a win here this early in my career, it really means a lot to me.”

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The Southern 500 was to have started at 6:15 p.m. ET Sunday but rain delayed the event nearly four hours.

The green flag didn’t wave until 10:07 p.m. for a race that often takes around four hours to run. This past weekend’s race ended at 1:53 a.m. ET.

So why did NASCAR start the race so late?

Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, explained Tuesday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that Hurricane Dorian played a key role in the decision. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued an evacuation order for residents living along the South Carolina coast that began at noon ET Monday.

“It was just a situation where we really felt like that … the sooner we could get the race in the books, the better for the officials of the state to be able to kind of move on and do what they needed to do to protect the people of South Carolina and then certainly worried about the fans and everybody (at the track) being able to get out of there,” Miller told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“A bit of an unpredictable situation with the weather, so the best thing for us was to do what we did and try to get everybody safe and sound.”

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Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman head into this weekend’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway tied in points for the final playoff spot and not seeing eye-to-eye on an incident in the Southern 500.

Suarez holds the final playoff spot over Newman on a tiebreaker, which is based on best finish this season. Suarez’s best finish this year is third at Texas. Newman’s best finish this season is fifth at Daytona in July.

MORE: Click here for points report

But the issue between them at Darlington took place early in the race. The caution came out on Lap 142 for Newman’s spin. It came after a duel with Suarez for 19th place.

“My car is clean,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “We all race very hard. Newman, he’s very well known for racing extremely hard. He’s one of the hardest guys to pass out there and I have a lot of respect for him. It was, I think, the second time or third time I was trying to pass him getting into (Turn) 1. He was just blocking me. At that time, I got him aero loose. I didn’t touch him. My car is 100% clean. That’s hard racing. He raced me hard and I raced him hard back.”

Newman told NBC Sports after the race: “He had me jacked up going into the corner and they said he hit me, pretty much uncalled for. He was struggling to catch me for a while and finally got to me and then just turned me around. Whether he hit me or not, he turned me around. So I guess what comes around, goes around.”

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Erik Jones’ victory gives Joe Gibbs Racing wins in each of the sport’s crown jewel races run this year, heading into the final crown jewel race of the year.

Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500. Martin Truex Jr. won the Coca-Cola 600. Jones added his name to the list with his Southern 500 win. This weekend the series races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for what is considered one of the sport’s crown jewels.

No organization has swept all four races in the same season since Cup began racing at Indy in 1994.

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Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

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The 2023 NASCAR season will begin with Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the second race on a purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Although a non-points race, last year’s Clash generated intense interest as NASCAR moved the event from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to Los Angeles. The race was rated a success and opened doors for the possibility of future races in stadium environments.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

MORE: Toyota looking to expand NASCAR presence

Year Two will find drivers competing on a familiar landscape but still with a track freshly paved. Last year’s racing surface was removed after the Clash.

Drivers to watch Sunday at Los Angeles:

FRONTRUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Finished 2022 as Cup champion
  • Last three races: Won at Phoenix, 6th at Martinsville, 18th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Won in 2022

Logano put bookends on 2022 by winning the first Clash at the Coliseum and the season’s final race at Phoenix to win the Cup championship. He’ll be among the favorites Sunday.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 2nd in 2022
  • Last three races: 3rd at Phoenix, 4th at Martinsville, 2nd at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Did not qualify last year

Chastain was the breakout star of 2022, winning a pair of races and generally putting himself front and center across much of the year. Can he start 2023 on a big note? If so, he will have to do so without replicating his Hail Melon move at Martinsville after NASCAR outlawed the move Tuesday.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 15th in 2022
  • Last three races: 5th at Phoenix, 16th at Martinsville, 8th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 10th in 2022

Sunday will begin the final roundup for Harvick, who has said this season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver. He is likely to come out of the gate with fire in his eyes.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 13th in 2022
  • Last three races: 7th at Phoenix, 29th at Martinsville, 9th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 2nd in 2022

Welcome to Kyle Busch’s Brave New World. After 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he begins a new segment of his career with Richard Childress Racing. He led 64 laps at last year’s Clash but couldn’t catch Joey Logano at the end.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 14th in 2022
  • Last three races: 23rd at Phoenix, 35th at Martinsville, 35th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 21st in 2022

Reddick ran surprisingly strong in last year’s Clash, leading 51 laps before parking with drivetrain issues. He starts the new year with a new ride — at 23XI Racing.

Ty Gibbs

  • Points position: Won Xfinity Series championship in 2022
  • Last three (Cup) races: 19th at Martinsville, 22nd at Homestead, 22nd at Las Vegas
  • Past at Clash: Did not compete in 2022

After a successful — and controversial — Xfinity season, Gibbs moves up to Cup full-time with his grandfather’s team. Will he be the brash young kid of 2022 or a steadier driver in Season One in Cup?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Bell will carry Interstate sponsorship in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the All-Star Race May 21, the Coca-Cola 600 May 28, at Texas Motor Speedway Sept. 24 and at Martinsville Oct. 29.

Gibbs, in his first full season in Cup racing, will be sponsored by Interstate at Daytona Feb. 19, Bristol April 9, Nashville June 25, Chicago July 2, Texas Sept. 24 and Charlotte Oct. 8.

Hamlin will ride with Interstate sponsorship March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, and Truex will be sponsored by Interstate July 23 at Pocono.

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.