Ryan: Here’s why Martin Truex Jr.’s title hopes just got doubly dangerous

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Martin Truex Jr. said it well upon joining the NASCAR on NBC postrace show Sunday night after his first career win at Martinsville Speedway.

“I don’t give a damn,” the championship favorite said with a broad smile greeting Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Krista Voda (video above).

It was referencing his take on the postrace scuffle between the Nos. 11 and 22 teams, but it also could have been in general about the philosophy of the No. 19 Toyota team.

Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn never have cared about anyone’s opinions but those they share with each other and among their crew.

It’s how they were able to survive a difficult 2014 (their first season together) when Pearn never questioned Truex’s concerns about an ill-designed chassis (which Truex recently discussed during the Letarte on Location Podcast).

And it’s how they’ve built into a perennial championship contender that forcefully has emerged as the class of these 2019 playoffs — by far.

Truex’s average finish of 6.3 the past seven races is easily the best in Cup (and skewed by a 26th at Talladega), and his 317 total points in the playoffs dwarf the total of second-ranked Denny Hamlin (by 42).

“Yeah, it feels damned good to be the best right now,” Truex said.

Truex and Pearn are doubly dangerous now.

They will have extra time to prepare for the Camry for the championship finale, an advantage that has proved critical as two of the past three Martinsville winners have won the championship (Jimmie Johnson in 2016 and Joey Logano in ’18).

And they also can make life extremely difficult on their three title rivals by winning at Texas and Phoenix and making whoever will join them at Homestead-Miami Speedway sweat longer while counting every point.

It’s what Truex and Pearn faced in each of the previous three times they made the championship round. They still won in ’17 and might have had the best car on long runs last year (when a late caution bit and allowed Logano to pass Truex on a restart for the title).

Now they have a chance to spend a little more time optimizing their stuff for the Nov. 17 finale.

“We’ve never been in this position before,” Truex said. “It’s good territory to be in, but honestly we can’t change who we are. You race every week the same, just there’s more on the line as you go down the road here.

“I mean, obviously there’s going to be a lot of effort put into our car for Homestead, which is probably already started, but now there will be a little bit of extra time for Cole and the guys to work on their thoughts and their plan.  But we’re going to go try to win the next two.  Just like (Martinsville), we’ve never won the next two tracks, and we want to, so here we go.”

With the high downforce and low horsepower untested at Homestead-Miami Speedway, this is a good season to have an extra two weeks of prep, too.

“We’ve kind of been working on Homestead already, but now we’ll be able to kind of dive into it deeper,” Pearn said. “It’s going to be a challenging year.

“I think every Homestead, we’ve never gone through a big rules change like we’re going to experience this time.  Usually you’re able to work on last year’s notes and things like that, and this year that’s not the case.

“You’re going to a track for the first time with this rules package and you’ve got two 50‑minute practices to figure it out. We can work all we want on it, but to know exactly what we want to do is still a bit of a guess.”

Chances are, Pearn and Truex will be figuring it out first with a head-start.

And they won’t give a damn if and when anyone else does.


The fan sentiment and the heightened stakes for next year’s races make it clear that NASCAR must improve the racing at Martinsville next season.

Two races with three lead changes apiece isn’t going to cut it at a track that typically produces great racing at the front (witness the battle between Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch in the March 26, 2018 race that was the most consistently memorable recently).

And as Dale Jarrett noted on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, it starts with tire wear.

Despite a Goodyear test in July at the 0.526-mile oval, NASCAR returned with the same left-side tire last weekend as it has used for the past seven seasons at Martinsville. In March, team engineers estimated it could run 3,000 laps without being changed. On Sunday, it seemed like 10,000.

“I’m probably going to make the people at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company mad, and they do a fantastic job building good tires,” Jarrett said. “But I think with this package, they have been too far on the safe side with these tires.

“I think that a softer tire right and left side, but the left-side tires, the drivers and a couple of crew chiefs tell me they literally wouldn’t have to change left-side tires as far as wear goes. That’s how little tire wear they were getting. The tires are way too hard. You need tire wear to make good racing and changes throughout a run because handling comes into play even more. If your tire doesn’t change other than the air pressure building, whoever has the car out front is going to have the best situation.”

Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. certainly proved that in 2019, combining to lead an astounding 910 of 1,000 laps. Some of that undoubtedly could be attributed to the high-downforce package with the massive spoiler creating a turbulent wake for any trailing car. Though there were some exceptions for strong cars (such as Chase Elliott’s No. 9 starting from the rear and reaching the top five in the first 180 laps), the disconcerting specter of aerodynamics on a short flat track is a serious problem.

“I’m sure we’re kicking a dead horse, but passing was just so difficult,” said pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, who never led again after losing the lead in the pits. “You just couldn’t overcome it. I certainly couldn’t overcome it.

“Hate to say it: This is a new Martinsville. It’s not the Martinsville of old where if your car is really good you can make it through the field.”

NASCAR needs the old Martinsville back, and even if the rules already are set for 2020, it should look at all means necessary for accomplishing that.

It’s understandable that Goodyear wants to avoid the negative PR of failures that accompany building a less bulletproof tire that wears more quickly.

But the optics of two more clunkers next year at Martinsville – which will host a prestigious night race and the gateway to the championship race — would be much, much worse.


Is Kyle Busch really all that much unhappier this season? Or are we just getting a more frequent window into how much Busch hates losing because of NASCAR’s new mandatory media availability policy that requires all playoff drivers to do postrace interviews?

Even some members of Busch’s fervently supportive Rowdy Nation have begun asking why their hero seems to be smiling less this season.

But look no further than his most recent Wednesday appearance on NASCAR America’s Motor Mouths show – the third time that Busch has been engaging, funny and self-deprecating a few days after a finish in which he was seething – to realize what team owner Joe Gibbs has seen when he talks to his driver a day removed from the racetrack on Monday nights.

“He has a great sense of humor at night when I call him,” Gibbs said, pausing to chuckle. “‘When are you going to give me the good car?’ Stuff like that.”

Maybe much like Tony Stewart’s infamous truculence, there isn’t much more to say about Busch’s postrace curtness other than this:

He is an acknowledged sore loser who once simply ducked the media when he had little to say because he knew it won’t come off well.

“I’m not sure we can analyze that, OK?” Gibbs said Sunday when asked what was wrong with the No. 18 driver. “Think about his whole life.  He’s got (wife) Sam and (son) Brexton, but other than that, it’s racing.  And when something goes bad in racing for him, think about how important that is, and it upsets him.

“Normally the next day he’s a lot better at the race shop and everything, but I think this has been a tough stretch for him.”

Normally in previous seasons, Busch often would have declined comment while purposefully striding away after a disappointing result. This year’s new media policy precludes that without facing punishment.

So instead, Busch has faced the throngs of reporters in the bullpen and spat out mostly one-word answers while occasionally tossing in a few Marshawn Lynch-isms.

He seems to accept the consequences of how that (fairly) is perceived in a negative light.

Maybe we should accept it, too, without overanalyzing beyond that.


The spin that saved Joey Logano’s championship hopes at Martinsville was suspicious in its intent, but it’s hard to judge the Team Penske driver if he did loop his car intentionally.

With the dearth of “natural” caution flags the last few years (particularly for debris), there also have been some more notable single-car spins with flat tires – particularly on the apron at large tracks – that avoid contact with the wall or other cars.

NASCAR officials also are in a spot with the way they’ve called yellows this year (e.g., the sometimes quick trigger fingers at the Roval). When asked by NBCSports.com about the Logano incident, a spokesman said it wasn’t reviewed by the scoring tower.

As Dale Jarrett noted on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, it’s logical for drivers to put the onus on NASCAR to make a call for an intentional spin that probably wouldn’t be much worse of a penalty than falling two laps down on a green-flag stop.

By the way, there was nothing particularly incriminating on the 22 radio about the spin. Crew chief Todd Gordon told Logano he thought his tires, specifically the left front, were up. Logano responded, “I’m pretty sure they’re flat. Or one of them is flat. I spun out.”

A team spokesman said the left rear went flat, and all four tires were changed on the stop.


Mechanical failures on consecutive days crippled Chase Elliott’s championship hopes, but team owner Rick Hendrick maintained a positive outlook.

“I don’t know how many motors we build a year, and we have one that breaks a rod bearing, and rear ends, we build them for (Kyle Larson) and several other teams, and it’s just a fluke,” Hendrick said. “You have mechanical parts, they’re going to break. I don’t think it’s anything to clean up. It’s hard to believe it could happen to (Elliott) twice in a weekend. Two different things, though, so we’ll see what we can do. It’s just go out and try to win Texas.”

Coupled with an early failure at Dover International Speedway, the No. 9 Chevrolet has endured two engine failures and an axle breakdown in the past four races. Even if they aren’t flukes, it might not be a process that can be addressed before the championship finale (if Elliott reaches the title round).

“Rick Hendrick is a great mentor, friend, boss and businessman because he’s going to compliment in public and criticize and question in private,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said on NASCAR America Splash & Go this week. “He’s going to ask, ‘What in the heck is going on? How can this happen?’ I don’t disagree with what he said. These things do happen. Amazing it’s happening to the absolute wrong car at Hendrick at the absolute wrong time.

“But there’s nothing they can change in five days (to fix it). No process. No procedure. No radar vision to look at these parts. Failures are a product of whatever procedures you have ahead of time. If you want to avoid failures, you have to work on procedures upstream. I’m sure changes will be made at Hendrick but nothing that will have an effect on the next few weeks.”


There isn’t much more to analyze about the scuffle between the teams of Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, the feuding that precipitated it or the punishment that has followed.

So how about another Zapruder-esque examination of what was said between the drivers in the run-up to Logano’s shot to Hamlin’s right shoulder?

Let’s go to our crack staff in Stamford, Connecticut, that helpfully scrutinized the audio from what was caught on camera:

Logano: “You went all the way up, like …”

Hamlin: “Yeah.”

Logano: “Like all the way, like I wasn’t even there.”

Hamlin: “I knew you were there.”

Logano: “Put me into the wall.”

Crosstalk

Logano: “You wouldn’t have known (that I was there). You were driving like I wasn’t even there.”

Hamlin: “No. I knew you were there, but I was just trying to take all the space I could.”

Logano: “I’ll take all the space I want to now. Just think about that. In the future, I can take the space.”

Hamlin raises finger, Logano hits shoulder, fracas begins.

Fin–

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.

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.