Friday 5: Multiple changes have crew chiefs ‘starting over’ at Phoenix

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Although their drivers have combined to win three of the last four Cup races at Phoenix Raceway, crew chiefs Rodney Childers and Adam Stevens enter this weekend uncertain of what they’ll see.

NASCAR’s low-downforce package, which will be used at road courses and tracks less than 1 mile, debuts this weekend and is paired with a new tire that has the championship crew chiefs for Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch aware that if their setups are off in Friday’s opening practice, it could make for a long weekend.

Add that Phoenix Raceway hosts the championship race in November — the first time in the playoff era that the title race will be a track that hosts more than one Cup race a season — and this will be a busy weekend for drivers, crew chiefs and teams.

“I think the biggest thing is just making sure that you get out of the first race what you need to and learn as much as you can,” Childers told NBC Sports about this weekend. “It’s going to be about taking probably the best notes that you’ve ever taken before (at the track). Just being really precise about the things you may need when you come back.”

Kevin Harvick celebrating his 2018 win at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

No one has been better at Phoenix since 2014 when Harvick and Childers joined Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick has won five of the 12 Phoenix Cup races since 2014. Harvick has never finished outside the top 10 at Phoenix with Childers as his crew chief.

Harvick’s most recent win there was in spring 2018 — with a package that is viewed as similar to the short track package NASCAR is using this season that creates less downforce with a significantly shorter spoiler than last year.

One driver who has challenged Harvick in recent years at Phoenix is Busch, who has won two of the last three races there, scoring victories in the 2018 fall race and last year’s spring race. He also has scored nine consecutive finishes of seventh or better at Phoenix.

Such success doesn’t comfort Stevens.

“Going into it there’s so much new that it’s almost like starting over or back to an older aero package that is not the same as 2018 but very close,” Stevens told NBC Sports about this weekend. “We’ve got a new tire combination with softer tread compounds so that the tires are going to wear out more throughout the run. Durability is a concern (at Phoenix in the past). You see a lot of right fronts giving up in the long run, so that might be more of a concern now.”

And the track will have PJ1 traction compound added again but lower in the corners than last fall’s race. Drivers generally felt that the PJ1 traction compound was too high on the track to be effective.

Crew chief Adam Stevens says of this weekend at Phoenix with so many unknowns: “It’s almost like starting over.” (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“There’s so much new going into it, everybody is going to be scratching their head a little bit,” Stevens said of this weekend. “So you’re going to see quite a bit of discrepancy in speed off the truck than you normally would. Some guys are going to be a little closer (to the right setup) than the others. Maybe that gap will close up as the weekend goes. There’s a lot of learning to do and only two 50-minute practices to do it.”

With such limited practice time, teams can’t afford to be far off on speed.

“You can’t just change all four springs and all the heights and all the bump stops and stuff like that and go out and try something,” Childers said. “There’s just not enough time (to make all the adjustments in those sessions). If you have something that is pretty close, you kind of have to work around it and make it the best you can.”

While teams can do much prep work through simulation, there remains the question of the tire and how it will react to a team’s setup. Stevens calls every tire change a “wildcard” because teams don’t do their own tire testing.

“If your understanding of the tire is just a little bit off, then all of your setups and sim results are wildly off,” Stevens said. “So you have to understand the tire completely to get good results out of the sim.”

Childers has another question entering this weekend.

“We’ve never raced the Mustang with a little spoiler on the back, so we have no idea what we’re getting into,” he said. “Obviously, the new Chevrolet body, they’ve never raced it with a small spoiler on the back either. We’ll have to see how that part goes.”

2. What to take of this weekend

One of phrases likely to be stated often this weekend is if a team is slow, they have eight months to get better before the series returns to Phoenix for the championship race.

Yes, that’s true … but there’s a catch.

Looking back at 2018 — since that season’s package is similar to what is being run this weekend — shows that many of the strongest cars at Phoenix in the spring were among the strongest eight months later.

Examining the best 10 consecutive lap averages in final Cup practice shows that five of the top seven in the spring also were among the top seven in that same category in the fall.

Harvick was the fastest in that category for both the spring and the fall. Harvick won the spring race and finished fifth in the fall. Busch was sixth on the chart in the spring and fourth in the fall. Busch finished second in the spring race and won that fall race that year.

“I honestly think that the short tracks, I would call Phoenix one of them … the actual setup themselves haven’t evolved much,” Childers told NBC Sports. “I think if you found something that worked for you in 2015, it’s still going to work pretty good in 2020. The things that evolve the most are the cars and the aerodynamics and finding downforce.”

Stevens said teams are still learning and even if the results don’t show significant change over time, much has taken place.

“The thing you have to realize is everybody is developing and everybody is trying to get better,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to close that gap because … if you start behind, generally everybody is processing it and makes it tough to really close that gap. That gap isn’t just car potential, it’s in driver capability and certain drivers are better at certain tracks. Then there’s a certain group of drivers that are pretty at almost every track.”

3. What drivers say

Here is what some drivers say heading into Phoenix:

Brad Keselowski: “There are a lot of questions I have about the PJ1. They are putting it down, will they put it down in the fall? That could potentially make it not as important if they change what they are going to do there. That should be pretty interesting to see how it plays out. I think we would all like to believe that if you go out and win the Phoenix spring race that you will go out and win the fall race but a lot of things can change between now and then.”

Martin Truex Jr.: “It’s definitely unique going to (the track that will host the championship) twice. I don’t necessarily like that. I like that Homestead was a one-off deal. …  I felt like since the repave (between races in 2011), it’s taken a little bit for us to get our arms around it. I feel like we’re getting better there and that’s a good thing. Some good runs there the last couple years.”

Joey Logano: “I think everyone looks at Phoenix 1 now being maybe the most important race early in the season because it will be where you are racing for a championship. You need to really learn as much as possible. You want to have a strong run there and learn from your mistakes there more than anywhere and make sure you are clear about everything when you are done with the race. It is one of those tracks that you will spend more time afterwards dissecting every little piece of it.”

Kyle Busch: “I look forward to Phoenix, it’s always fun and a good place for us. Lately, we’ve been able to really pick up on some things that help us there that have made us better there the last few times and now this package is different. I think that will lend itself back into a couple years ago I guess. Felt like we were just kind of hitting on something there and was a bit racier through traffic and such. We’ll see how all that goes.”

4. Three in a row, but …

Kevin Harvick is the only Cup driver to score a top-10 finish in each of the first three races this season. Going back to last season, Harvick has scored eight consecutive top-10 results. He’s placed fifth in the Daytona 500, eighth at Las Vegas and ninth at Auto Club Speedway this season.

Crew chief Rodney Childers looks at what could have been.

“I felt like Daytona we had the best we’ve had there probably ever,” he said. “We didn’t ride around up front and show a lot of speed, but I think in the duel we showed that we had a lot of speed. We got some damage in the 500 that hurt our speed late in the race. Overall, it was a good weekend and got a top five out of it.

“Vegas was kind of disappointing at the end after running so well all day. We had a short-run car, which is what we planned. … It just didn’t work out at the end. Maybe I should have stayed out (instead of pitting) and taken a shot at it. I would had never thought that many were going to stay out. Overall, not getting a top five out of that was disappointing.

“This past weekend (at Auto Club Speedway) was just kind of a dud I guess you could say. Kind of took the wrong car and the wrong build. Just fought and fought and fought all weekend to make something out of it. No matter what you did to it, it was just kind of a one-speed (car) and just couldn’t get through the corners as fast as we needed.”

5. Interesting request

Early in last weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Kyle Busch asked his team if they could look at his throttle trace from last year’s race (which he won) to compare with his throttle trace to see where he was off.

With the telemetry available, all teams can look at such items and any other team’s telemetry.

“We haven’t had a conversation like that, so that was kind of interesting,” Stevens said. “We weren’t as good as we needed to be, and we were really good (there) last year. I think from the seat he was having a hard time figuring out where his weakness was. The easiest thing to do was to compare back to last year, which everybody had that data. Anybody in the field could have given him that answer.

“Normally we wouldn’t look back toward a race that was a year prior even though the rules were the same because of the track conditions are different, they did tweak the tire. … We were able to do that quickly.

“I think it just confirmed what he thought.”

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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.