Friday 5: Bowman Gray’s Madhouse represents what NASCAR’s future could be

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As the NASCAR community caravans to Martinsville Speedway this weekend, many will drive by Winston-Salem, North Carolina on the way to the Cup Series’ shortest track.

Although one can’t see Bowman Gray Stadium from the roads that many teams, media and fans will take to Martinsville, its impact on the sport can’t be overlooked.

Bowman Gray Stadium, which recently completed its 71st season of racing, could be the most important track to NASCAR.

As the sport looks to 2020 and beyond, NASCAR is carving a schedule that increases the chance for conflict and controversy — exactly what made Bowman Gray Stadium a must-see for fans, inspired the TV show “Madhouse” and stocks Google searches with stories and videos of altercations and cars ramming each other.

This could be the future of the Cup Series.

Call it a return to its past.

Beating and banging is nothing new in NASCAR. It’s part of Dale Earnhardt’s legacy. It’s why fans long for North Wilkesboro. It’s how some measure the present.

But NASCAR is putting in motion a plan that could increase the likelihood that the chaos often seen at Bowman Gray could become more common in Cup.

While next year’s Cup schedule features the same six short track races as this year, those tracks will have greater significance in the playoffs.

The Bristol night race moves into the playoffs for the first time and is the opening round’s elimination race. It will be held the week after Richmond, marking back-to-back short track playoff events for the first time. Don’t think there won’t be some contact and tempers?

And to raise the intensity, NASCAR moved Martinsville Speedway to the final race before the championship race next year.

Look at what Joey Logano did last year at Martinsville when it was the opening race in the Round of 8. Knocking Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead on the final lap to win guaranteed Logano a spot in the championship race in Miami. Logano went on to win at Miami to claim his first Cup title.

Aric Almirola said on NASCAR America’s MotorMouths this week that “Martinsville is always kind of a place where you have to get rough when you need, but I do feel like that Joey opened Pandora’s box there. … I think anybody else that is in the Round of 8 that saw that and sees that if they have an opportunity to win at Martinsville, don’t be nice. You have to take that opportunity.”

Imagine what it will be like next year when Martinsville is the last chance to get into championship race (which will be held at ISM Raceway, a track more conducive to beating and banging than Homestead-Miami Speedway).

Desperate times call for desperate measures. That could lead more contact on the track, which would could lead to an altercation with drivers and crew members on pit road after a race.

Isn’t that what many fans want to see? Drama, conflict and controversy.

Fans could see that again Sunday at Martinsville (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and even more likely next year with its place in the playoffs.

Yes, it could be just like a Saturday night at Bowman Gray Stadium.

“The first year moving here, I went to Bowman Gray,” AJ Allmendinger said on NASCAR America’s MotorMouths this week. “I was like what is this place? This is insanity … but this is awesome. I love this place.

“I love seeing the races there, the videos that go with it because it’s true passion and a little bit of craziness mixed in.”

And the future.

2. A faster approach

Although Corey LaJoie says he hasn’t signed anything with Go Fas Racing for next year — “we’re working toward making that happen,” he said last weekend at Kansas Speedway — he is seeking to add partners so the team can purchase better engines for some races next year.

Corey LaJoie (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“Faster you can make that horse that I sit on every week run a little faster, it hopefully puts me in the conversation the next couple of years for a race-winning ride,” he said.

“It costs money to go fast. It’s a matter of trying to get more and more of that money, because upgrading the engine package is substantial, especially stretched out for majority of the year.”

LaJoie said the focus is on upgrading engines with plans for the team to purchase some cars from Stewart-Haas Racing.

The key will be money. As it is for any driver and team.

“Bringing funding is the name of the game,” LaJoie said. “You can act like it doesn’t exist, but it does. The first thing they say is, ‘We’d love for you to drive for us.’ The second question is ‘How much you got? Because I’ve talked to this guy and he’s got $2 million and this guy has a million and a half. What are you bringing to the table?’ Bringing helmets and seats isn’t what moves the needle. You have to have actual cash money.”

3. Chasing a record

Joe Gibbs Racing’s 16 wins this season are two short of the modern-era record of 18 set by Hendrick Motorsports in 2007. NASCAR’s modern era is from 1972.

It seems likely JGR will tie the mark with four races left. JGR drivers have won the past four short track races: Kyle Busch won at Bristol in April, Martin Truex Jr. swept the two Richmond races this year, and Denny Hamlin won the Bristol night race in August.

Also, consider Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance at short tracks since 2009.

JGR drivers have won 31 of the 65 races at short tracks since that time. The next three teams: Hendrick Motorsports (10 wins), Team Penske (10) and Stewart-Haas Racing (seven) combine for 27 wins in that stretch.

4. A new look

The Kannapolis Intimidators are no more. The minor league baseball team, which took its name from Dale Earnhardt, announced previously that this would be its last season with that name. A team official told NBC Sports in February why it was changing the name that it had used since 2001.

Kannapolis Cannon Ballers logo (Photo: Kannapolis Cannon Ballers)

“Dale’s always going to be the Intimidator, Vince Marcucci, assistant general manager of the team told NBC Sports in February. “We’re not trying to get away from (it). I don’t think that’s the right way to put it. But, like, own our own brand. Because we don’t own the Intimidators. (Earnhardt’s widow) Teresa has the rights to that.

“So for speed and flexibility as we try to do creative things in the future, we’re going to need something we own ourselves.”

The team will be known as the Cannon Ballers.

But there still be an homage to Earnhardt. The mascot will have a bushy mustache like Earnhardt did. Also, in the logo, the B in Ballers is shaped like a 3 for Earnhardt.

5. Streaking

Kyle Busch seeks to tie Jimmie Johnson this weekend for second on the all-time list of most consecutive top-five finishes at Martinsville Speedway.

Busch has placed in the top five in each of the past eight races at Martinsville. Johnson had a streak of nine top-five finishes in a row from Oct. 2005 – Oct. 2009.

Jeff Gordon holds the record at the track with 11 consecutive top-five finishes. The streak began in April 2005 and ended in March 2010.

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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.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.