Kyle Busch bewildered by Cup car’s performance

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Reigning Cup champion Kyle Busch is among the best drivers at diagnosing a car and understanding how to make it go faster, so when he says “I don’t know what’s going on” as his Cup car lacks speed, it is a stunning admission.

As the Cup Series reaches the halfway point in the season this weekend, Busch, a two-time series champion, remains winless. Not since 2013 has a reigning Cup champion gone so deep into a season without a points victory.

Busch has not even won a stage this year. He has no playoff points. The longer he goes without scoring playoff points, the more likely that he’ll need to win in later rounds of the playoffs to advance to the championship race for what would be a sixth consecutive year.

“There’s just no speed in our race cars for some reason,” Busch said after his runner-up finish in Wednesday’s All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I don’t know what’s going on.

“It’s certainly been frustrating this year. It seems like any time I fall into a rhythm, I back up myself just a little bit to 90, 95%, I’m going backwards. I’m getting passed, slowing down. You can’t run at 100% all the time every lap. When you do, you start making mistakes.”

A speeding penalty just past halfway in the Coca-Cola 600 dropped Busch from second place. It took him the rest of the race to climb back into the top five. While he finished fourth, he didn’t have a chance to win that race.

Held up by a lapped car at the second Pocono race, Busch slowed and was hit by Ryan Blaney’s car. The contact sent Busch’s car into the inside wall.

At Kentucky, Busch started on the pole after the random draw but led only nine laps and wasn’t a factor, finishing 21st. That marked his sixth finish of 20th or worse this season. He only had four such finishes last season.

Busch has been vocal about the lack of practice. In the 13 races since the series resumed in May, Cup teams have not had a practice session.

Busch said last month at Miami that the lack of practice has impacted his team.

“We would prefer to have a practice, whether it’s 30 minutes, 50 minutes, 60 minutes, whatever it is, but just one set of tires to be able to go out there, get a baseline, run some laps, check our heights and make sure our cambers and stuff are all set and good because so far that’s where we’ve been missing it the most I feel like,” he said a month ago. “We’ve come to some of these race tracks over-cambered on the right-front and we’re really making the right-front tire mad.

“That’s what happened in Bristol for us. We still ran good, but it was still not right and then also Martinsville, that was definitely our problem. We just couldn’t overcome it once we got that lap down and then we went two laps down and then we were one lap down. We were all over the place. One set of tires and one practice would certainly bode well for us.”

Having a practice session would require teams to have a backup car. But with NASCAR running multiple races in a week — the Cup Series is in the middle of a stretch of four races in 11 days — and many Cup teams working in shifts at the shop to keep their crews separate, having backup cars prepared is too taxing on teams.

“The further we go, the more difficult it is to run the midweek races or run two races a week, just simply because now we’re having to turn cars around where they were available the first few weeks (back from the COVID-19 break),” said Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Christopher Bell.

While Busch struggles, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin has excelled. Hamlin has won four races this season and has 10 top-10 finishes in 17 races. Teammate Martin Truex Jr. has one win and nine top-10 finishes this year.

Busch, who has been a runner-up three times this season, compares this year to 2014 — when Joe Gibbs Racing won two races.

“We struggled super bad when we came out with this new body style, the Gen‑6 body style,” Busch said. “We were pretty bad as a company at JGR that year.”

Busch said the organization’s turnaround didn’t happen until 2015. 

“It took us a good year and a half to get back up to the top of the circle,” said Busch, who went on to win his first Cup title that year. “I don’t know if that’s what we’re on now. I certainly hope not. It’s definitely frustrating. Trust me, it’s not very fun where we’re at.”

2. A fine line

It wasn’t uncommon, crew chief Greg Erwin said, that at some point during a race he would call for an adjustment to be made to Matt DiBenedetto’s car and it wouldn’t work.

It’s an issue the new driver and crew chief combination might have resolved earlier this year had there been practice. Without that extra track time, the two had to learn each other on the fly.

“I would find myself typically over-adjusting to the intensity of his comments about how his car was driving,” Erwin said.

Erwin and his engineers spent time going into the Pocono doubleheader trying to find a setup that would suit DiBendetto’s driving style.

Matt DiBenedetto ranks tied for third in the amount of stage points scored in the last four Cup races. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“We really put a lot of emphasis on our communication and fixing and addressing one thing each week and learning a little more about each other, and I feel like we’ve kind of dialed it in, especially here recently,” DiBenedetto said.

DiBenedetto also noted that he’s focused on taking what the car will give him instead of trying to do more than it can handle.

“It’s a little easier to be tempted to be like, ‘We’re so close to that guy right there (near the lead),’ ” he said. “I’ve worked real hard on making sure, no matter what, to just focus on our car and our day and how to make our car the best it can be.”

The result is that DiBenedetto is the only driver to score points in all eight stages in the last four Cup races.

DiBenedetto also has scored the same number of stage points during that time as Kevin Harvick.

Here are the drivers who have scored the most stage points in the last four races:

39 – Ryan Blaney

38 – Aric Almirola

37 – Matt DiBenedetto

37 – Kevin Harvick

34 – Joey Logano

DiBenedetto’s success also helped the team climb to 12th in owner points. That’s significant because of the way the starting lineup is determined.

Those in positions 1-12 in the owner points draw for those starting spots. While DiBenedetto will start 11th Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, he could have started as high as the pole if that number had been drawn. For a team 13th in the owner points, they draw for positions 13-24. So one spot in the owner points could mean the difference between starting on the pole or as far back as 24th in a race.

“You may be 12th one week,” Erwin said, “and you may sit on the pole two weeks later, so we’ll try and turn that into points every opportunity we get.”

3. A better way?

For as much as Aric Almirola seems to draw a front row starting spot — Sunday’s race at Texas (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) marks the fifth time in the last 10 races he’s started first or second — Christopher Bell seems to draw about as poor a starting spot as possible.

Bell is in the group that draws for positions 24-36 based on his spot in the owner points. He moved up to 25th in owners points after last weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

He’ll start 33rd at Texas, marking the seventh time in the last eight races he will have started 32nd or worse. The one exception was the second Pocono race, which inverted the top 20 finishers from the first Pocono race. He started 17th based off his fourth-place finish the day before.

Crew chief Jason Ratcliff and Christopher Bell. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Bell is in this spot because he’s so far back in points. He opened the season by finishing 21st, 33rd, 38th and 24th. That put him 35th in car owner points at Phoenix in March before the season was suspended by the pandemic.

Bell has struggled to overcome that start.

Bell’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, wonders if there is not another way to determine the starting lineup even without qualifying.

“In a perfect world, you just invert the top 20 from a previous event like they did a couple of times,” Ratcliff said. “I thought that worked well. That gives teams that are performing well at this point in the season opportunities to start closer to the front.

“For us, the first four races were a disaster and now we’re starting (33rd) because of that, but we’re performing well enough that if we had an invert, we could start in the top 15 week every week.

“I know that (NASCAR has) done the best they could with the current situation … everyone is not going to be happy with the decision that they’ve come up with. For the most part, it’s fair, but if we did this long term, I definitely think we could do a better job with it.”

4. Lost points

Jimmie Johnson holds what would be the final playoff spot despite missing one race, having his car disqualified in another and wrecking while in the lead within a lap of winning a stage.

It’s been that kind of year for the seven-time champ who is in his final full-time Cup season.

Johnson, who missed the playoffs last year, goes to Texas 15th in the driver standings with 412 points. He leads Austin Dillon by 24 points and Tyler Reddick by 41 points.

Johnson missed Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19. He finished second in the Coca-Cola 600, but his car failed inspection after that race, costing him 45 points. He was set to win the first stage at the first Darlington race before crashing on the last lap of that stage. He finished that race with one point.

It’s easy to see that between those three races, Johnson lost about 90 points. If he had those points, he’d be ninth in the standings and in a much more secure spot to make the playoffs.

5. A Stewart-Haas Racing weekend at Texas?

Stewart-Haas Racing has a good chance to make it three points wins in a row in the Cup Series. Kevin Harvick won at Indianapolis and that was followed by rookie Cole Custer‘s victory last weekend at Kentucky.

Harvick, who is making his 700th career Cup start this weekend, has won three of the last five series races at Texas. He’s scored a record 11 consecutive top-10 finishes there. Teammate Aric Almirola enters the weekend with six top-10 finishes in a row, the longest streak of his career. He has placed eighth or better in each of the last three Texas races. Clint Bowyer finished second there in March 2019. Custer won in the Xfinity Series there in November 2018.

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Friday 5: Is it time to change how NASCAR champion is determined?

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Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both raise questions about how NASCAR determines its champion with a one-race event after whittling the 16-driver playoff field to four through a trio of three-race rounds.

Since 2014, the driver who finished the highest among the four championship contenders in the season finale won the title. The format creates a Game 7 type of moment for the sport in an event that has become a winner-take-all race. Joey Logano won the season finale at Phoenix to win his second Cup title. Ty Gibbs claimed the Xfinity title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. Zane Smith won the Truck title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. 

Thursday, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series announced a new way of determining its series champion that mirrors the NASCAR format. The late model series will cut its field of playoff drivers through eliminations, leading to one race where the four remaining championship contenders will vie for the title in 2023.

One of the questions with the NASCAR format is if it provides the most fair way to determine a series champion. Of course, the NFL determines its champion by the Super Bowl, a winner-take-all game. The best team hasn’t always reached that game or won that game, but the event has been played for more than 50 years with no change in sight.

Those who question NASCAR’s way of determining a champion note that the Super Bowl is between two teams, while the championship race for Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series not only includes the four teams racing for a crown but also the rest of the field, which can include 30 more vehicles. What those drivers and teams do can make an impact on the race and play a role in who wins the championship.

“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly,” Hamlin said. “Should one season come down to this three-hour window?”

Hamlin, who seeks his first Cup title, says that the previous Cup champions have been worthy and admits that “I’m the last one that should comment on this” because he doesn’t have a title. 

Still, he raises questions.

“From a purist’s standpoint, it needs to have a bigger sample size,” he said.

Hamlin notes how he knew he wouldn’t win the 2020 Cup title even though he was among the four contenders because his team was not as strong at the shorter tracks such as Phoenix. 

“If you had more of a sample size, you have a chance,” he said. 

Earnhardt expressed the questions he had about the format when he spoke with former NASCAR Chairman Brian France on the Dale Jr. Download this fall.

Earnhardt said the playoff format, which features three-race rounds, is “compelling. It can be argued that it’s relatively fair. Everybody’s got the same opportunity. It’s three races. You can kind of dig yourself out of a hole. But I’ve always kind of struggled with the final race being all or nothing.

“The reason why I struggle with that is because the venue may suit a team or a driver. … You wouldn’t ever consider running it at a road course or a superspeedway because that certainly suits some drivers more than other. You try to have it at a neutral facility, if you will, like a Homestead or a Phoenix.

“But I always had a hard time with saying, ‘OK, it all boils down to this one race where you’ve got to get it right and if you don’t you’re not a champion this year.’ Even though you’ve really got this amazing body of work. You can still have that guy that wins one race be the champion and the guy that wins six not even make the final round.

“I wish we could figure out a way to make that championship moment not an all or nothing three-hour affair. … I’ve really warmed up to everything else we’ve done. It took me a long time because I was too much of traditionalist. But I still feel like there’s got to be a better scenario for the final moment.”

France responded to Earnhardt’s query by saying: “The reason you feel that way is because those are fair points that you make. They are.”

France went on to say that such questions are “part of the challenge of a playoff format in general with auto racing. You’re just going to have to accept that is not exactly perfect.”

France then said: “My decision was we’re not going to hold ourselves back from getting those (Game 7) moments because auto racing doesn’t quite fit perfectly into that. We just couldn’t do it.”

NASCAR changed how its champion was crowned ahead of the 2004 season. From 2000-03, three champions were so far ahead in the points that they clinched the title with one race left in the season (Bobby Labonte in 2000, Jeff Gordon in 2001 and Matt Kenseth in 2003). 

The Chase was created to generate interest in the fall, particularly when NASCAR was going against the NFL on Sundays. The Chase morphed into the playoffs and included eliminations and one race to determine the champion. 

Hamlin says a three-race round to determine the champion will keep the interest of fans.

“I think when you spread it out amongst a bigger sample size, such as a three-race (round), I don’t see how that’s not a positive thing for ratings. People will be compelled every week to tune in because this is the championship round. I think there’s something to be gained there.”

Asked about what if one of the title contenders wins the first two races to all but assure them the title ahead of the final race, Hamlin said: “Will not happen. There’ll be no lockup. No one will be locked going into the final race.”

Hamlin acknowledges that his viewpoint will not be shared by all.

“I’m a traditionalist like Dale,” Hamlin said. “This is just my opinion. I think that everyone is going to have a different opinion on it, but I just believe a larger sample size of our champion makes it more legitimate. I think it would be hard for anyone to argue that, especially in the industry. 

“If you ask the drivers, ‘Do you see championships as valuable today as they did 10 years ago?’ I don’t think any one considers them as valuable just because it’s one race. It’s one race.”

2. Plugged in

Tyler Reddick moves to 23XI Racing and will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as his bosses. Reddick says that Jordan is not an absent owner.

“We’ve gotten to spend time (together) a little bit, here and there,” Reddick said of Jordan. “His involvement with the team is, I think, more than most realize.”

Reddick referenced the Martinsville race in October when he pulled out of the event because he wasn’t feeling well after contact on the track. Jordan reached out to Reddick afterward.

“It was really cool that you have a guy like him checking in on you to make sure you’re OK,” Reddick said. “He’s definitely locked in, and he really wants the team to do well. I’m excited to be working with him.”

3. Staying home

Kyle Larson said he will race very little this offseason. He’s staying at home for the birth of his third child with wife Katelyn Sweet.

Larson will compete in the Wild West Shootout, a dirt late model event at Vado (New Mexico) Speedway Park on Jan. 7-8 and Jan. 11-15.

Larson will not compete in the Chili Bowl this year. 

He said his focus will be on family this offseason.

“Help out where I can and just spend as much time with the family,” Larson said. “I normally go race a lot, but this year I’m not. I’m actually excited about it. I’ve only run one race so far this offseason. I’m surprised that it already feels like the offseason is going by really fast because I thought it’d be really slow with me not racing. It’s been good to just not race for once.”

4. Looking to improve

Ryan Blaney said he and crew chief Jonathan Hassler have looked back on the season and compiled a list of things to do for next year.

Blaney won the All-Star Race but did not win any points races. He finished eighth in points. It’s the sixth consecutive year he’s finished in the top 10 in points, but he’s never placed higher than seventh in the standings at the end of a season.

“We were up front so many races and led a lot of laps and won a bunch of stages, just never won (a points race),” Blaney said. “It is kind of a bummer. 

“So what kept us out of victory lane? Was it me? Was it a bad pit stop? It was kind of everything in some certain races. Sometimes they don’t work out for you. Some are self-induced. I felt like we took ourselves out of a handful of races I felt like we had a good shot of winning. … It is a bummer we didn’t win, but I was proud of the consistency and just hope to build on that.” 

Blaney is ready for the new season to begin.

“I’m kind of like two weeks is nice and then I kind of get itching to get back going,” he said. “It is nice to reset, and you kind of go through things you want to be better at. You have your own little list between myself and my team. … It’s a perfect time to work on that stuff.”

5. New partnership 

Among the new driver/crew chief pairings for 2023 is Austin Dillon working with Keith Rodden.

Rodden last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne. Rodden served as crew chief for William Byron in one race in 2020 but returns to full-time duty with Dillon, who finished 11th in points this past season, tying his career best. 

Rodden most recently worked on the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors. He takes over for Justin Alexander.

“Keith and I first got to work together in a wheel-force test for the Next Gen car at Richmond,” Dillon said. “It was a two-day test. We had dinner that night. It was good to talk to him. … Just knowing his passion was still very high to get back to the Cup level and crew chief. Him having the ability the work with Chevy this past year and seeing the different odds and ends of the Next Gen car was really the key to us (for him) to come over and crew chief for.”

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.