Friday 5: Focus is on drivers, teams to be vigilant against COVID-19

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NBA and NHL players reside in bubbles. Major League Baseball and NFL players do not. While the NBA and NHL have not reported any positive tests from those inside their bubbles, Major League Baseball faces a COVID-19 outbreak on one team, and the NFL will see how well its system works with training camps underway.

NASCAR, meanwhile, rolls on.

There is no coronavirus testing in NASCAR. The onus is on competitors to avoid contracting the virus and infecting their team and others in the sport.

NASCAR’s plan is designed to keep drivers separate from their crews, pit crews separate from road crews and those that travel separate from team members working in the shop. If someone is infected, it should only impact a small group instead of an entire team.

The challenge is for drivers and crew members to remain vigilant against COVID-19 away from the track and shop as the year progresses and the desire grows to be in more public settings.

Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo: JGR)

“It’s easy to get fatigued with this and let off the gas and we can’t do that,” said Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing.

Teams need to run races to collect sponsor and TV money. When the series was shut down for 10 weeks, teams didn’t get paid. At least six Cup organizations received funds from the Paycheck Protection Program

After the 70-day shutdown, Cup teams ran 16 races in 68 days — an average of one race every 4.3 days — between the series resuming May 17 at Darlington Raceway and the July 23 race at Kansas Speedway.

August will not be much easier. Cup teams will race seven times between Sunday’s race at New Hampshire and Aug. 29 at Daytona. Five of those races will be held in a 16-day period — a pair of doubleheaders at Michigan and Dover each and the series’ inaugural race on the Daytona road course.

So, if anyone deserves a break, it is the Cup drivers and crew members. Last weekend provided that opportunity and some shared photos on social media about their getaways.

But with no COVID-19 vaccine available and what’s at stake should they be infected, drivers and team members must balance being cautious in what they do outside the track and shop and living life.

Christopher Bell said he plans to run in midget races next Tuesday and Wednesday at Pennsylvania.

“The biggest thing is just trying to use common sense and being as smart as I can about going to the races and making sure you keep your distance,” Bell said of balancing health concerns with personal decisions. “Instead of traveling up to the Pennsylvania races on a plane, like I probably would, I’m going to be riding in the rig and isolating from the masses as much as I can anyway. I think it’s a matter of just doing your part. Wearing masks when you need to and making sure that you’re staying away from people and just using common sense.”

Although Ryan Preece admits he’d like to race a modified between Cup events this summer, he isn’t doing so.

“I think it’s hard right now with the way things are to do it and not know if you’re going to be forced into quarantine or whatever it may be,” Preece said. “I’m used to racing 60 to 80 times a year, but at the same time my focus is on the Cup series.”

And that means avoiding situations that could compromise his health and force him out of his ride temporarily at JTG Daugherty Racing while he would have to quarantine.

You don’t put yourself in those situations,” Preece said. “That’s really it … because I want to race. And that’s it.”

Alpern says Joe Gibbs Racing reinforces car owner Joe Gibbs’ message of “Just be smart” to the organization’s drivers and team members about when they are not at the track or the shop.

NASCAR informed all teams and others in the industry going to New Hampshire for Sunday’s race that they are “prohibited from patronizing any restaurants (take-out/to-go/delivery orders only) or bars in the area and must limit their travel to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and their hotel only.”

Such restrictions are mandated by a modified travel-related quarantine the state of New Hampshire approved for those traveling to put on the race.

Jimmie Johnson missed one race after testing positive for COVID-19. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is the only Cup driver to miss a race for testing positive for COVID-19. He missed the July 5 Indianapolis race after he and his wife tested positive. Johnson said he did not know how they were infected. Also this month, Brendan Gaughan stated he tested positive. He is not scheduled to compete again until the Daytona oval race Aug. 29.

Formula One, which tests drivers and team members, announced Thursday that Sergio Perez had become the first series driver to test positive for the coronavirus. He will miss this weekend’s British Grand Prix.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps defended the sanctioning body’s protocols earlier this month.

To those who raise questions about NASCAR not doing COVID-19 testing, Alpern says he understands the reasoning.

“When we were talking about protocols, there was a ton of discussion about testing and should we test, should we not test,” he said. “We went back. I know testing is not like you just walk down the road and get one. It’s not super easy, but it’s a lot easier right now than it was. When we came back (to race in May), there was a lot of sensitivity to people who really needed tests not being able to get a test.

“So I think our sport wanted to be sensitive to the fact. Do we really have to use up tests for folks? The challenge that you have when you don’t have a bubble, let’s say for example we were testing people every day, the second you leave the bubble, the test is rendered useless because you tested but now you have gone and exposed yourself. If you’re in a bubble, testing makes complete sense because then you’re protecting the bubble.

“Once you are in the bubble you can act like things are normal. We are not acting like things are normal at the track or (at the shop) because of that. We are spacing, we are wearing masks because it’s difficult when people are coming in and out of the bubble as we talked about before. I think the process we have is working pretty well.”

2. Frustrating stretch

Last week at Kansas Speedway, Ryan Preece didn’t finish last. 

It’s been that kind of a month for the JTG Daugherty Racing driver who had finished last in three consecutive races before he placed 34th last week at Kansas. But that race marked the fourth consecutive time he’s failed to finish: three times because of an accident and once because of a transmission failure.

“Whenever I hear people talk about bad luck or that, I’ve always been a believer of making your own luck,” Preece said. “But this has probably been the first time in my career that I really, wrong place wrong time, things that were out of my control happening. I’m not one to make excuses, but it’s been frustrating for sure.

“The thing that’s even more frustrating is Kansas. I really don’t know what else I could have done. I don’t think there was anything else I could have done. But we had a fast race car right there, at that point in time when it needed to be and that’s kind of been the case. We’ve struggled at the beginning of the races and then gotten our car better as the stages have gone on. The only thing you can do at this point is really go and gamble on things. I’ve got nothing else to lose.”

He was collected in a crash at Kansas that sent his car into the inside SAFER barrier on the backstretch. Asked how long he was sore after that vicious crash, Preece said: “I was ready to go as soon as I got out of that race car.”

He says he won’t let these struggles beat him.

“You’ve just got to be positive,” Preece said. “It’s easier to say than it is to do, but I feel like over the past few weeks of just constantly living that way, things have become easier. My life has become much happier. I’m probably a lot better to be around. And you just put in the hard work, that’s it.

“Just sitting there hoping things are going to turn around … it doesn’t work like that. Life doesn’t work like that. So, I’m just going to continue fighting and hopefully we can finish 2020 better than we have.”

3. Different stage length

One thing that will be different about Sunday’s race at New Hampshire (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is the length of the last two stages.

Stage 1 ends on Lap 75 as it has in the past. Stage 2 will end on Lap 185 — 30 laps later than it has in the past. That makes the final stage shorter by 30 laps.

Randall Burnett, crew chief for Tyler Reddick, says the changes to the stage length could make an impact since the race is among the shorter ones, which puts a premium on track position.

“It will definitely make it a little more interesting I think with the longer stage,” he said. “You have tire wear, you’re going to have fuel mileage stuff to look at. It’s definitely going to change the strategy a little bit, which we’re going to have to stay on top of. You’re going to have a Lap 30 competition caution, which should give you a good read on tires, as far as what kind of wear you’re going to be looking at throughout the race and the lap time fall off. So, I think that’s going to kind of dictate what you do in that second stage, for sure.”

4. One way of looking at it

It’s easy to look at Ryan Newman’s season and think how different it could have been had the Roush Fenway Racing driver won the Daytona 500 instead of crashing as he came to the checkered flag.

“No doubt I’ve thought about it, but the reality is it’s not the truth, it’s not what happened, it’s the what could have been and everybody has that in their season,” he said. “We have to do our job to go back and kind of replay those events and make corrections to whatever mistakes or whatever differences we can to try to be victorious. That doesn’t go just for Daytona, that goes for every racetrack. 

“The season no doubt has been a challenge in so many ways for so many people and our team, I feel like we’ve struggled a little bit, but I feel like we have the things that we need to make the corrections to be better and be stronger and be successful, so we’re just gonna keep our nose to the grindstone and carry on.”

5. Will dominance continue?

A few things to watch for in Sunday’s race:

Joe Gibbs Racing has finished either first or second in 13 of the last 14 Cup races at New Hampshire. JGR cars have led 45% of all the laps run in those last 14 races.

Toyota cars, led by JGR, have been dominant in the last five races, leading 84.3% of the laps run in that time. Chevrolet teams have led 2.9% of the laps in the races at New Hampshire since July 2016.

Martin Truex Jr. has won the first stage in three of the last four years there. His 744 laps led there makes him the driver to lead the most laps at the 1-mile track and yet to score a win. His best New Hampshire finish is third.

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.