Friday 5: A one in a million shot never before seen in NASCAR

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Lightning and NASCAR have frustratingly intertwined this summer, leading to numerous race delays, but who could have imagined their connection to one person?

The probability of Martin Truex Jr.’s five consecutive third-place finishes nearly equals the chances a person has of being struck by lightning in a given year.

The odds of Truex scoring back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back third-place finishes were 1 million to one, according to Jeremy Losak, assistant professor at the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University.

The odds of being stuck by lightning in a given year are 1 in 1.2 million, according to the National Weather Service.

Never in NASCAR’s history has a driver finished in third place for five races in a row.

That doesn’t impress Truex.

“Seems like third place is just where we’re at right now,” he said with a hint of disdain after last weekend’s race on the Daytona road course.

Crew chief James Small calls those third-place finishes “frustrating” because the team has been so close to wins.

He tries to console himself, though. Small notes that finishing third is “better than fourth. It’s better than crashing.”

But then he adds, “it’s not fun.”

Martin Truex Jr., shown during the Daytona road course race, has gone more than a month since he finished in a position other than third place in a Cup race. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Truex’s streak almost ended Aug. 8 in the first Michigan race, which marked his third consecutive third-place finish. He was eighth on the overtime restart. Truex passed five cars on the first lap of overtime but could not gain any other positions on the final lap. He finished behind winner Kevin Harvick and runner-up Brad Keselowski.

Truex will have a chance to break the streak — or extend it for a sixth consecutive race — Saturday at Dover International Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The odds of Truex finishing third in all six of these races is 23.5 million to 1, said Losak, who determined the probabilities for NBC Sports.

The odds of winning the jackpot in the Mega Millions is 302 million to 1. So compared to that, there’s a good chance Truex will finish third again Saturday.

However long Truex’s run lasts, it will become a part of Losak’s sport data and analysis class at Syracuse.

“I’m probably going to show (the students) this as an example of how to do this sort of thing,” he said.

Losak discovered the probabilities with the help of a teaching assistant, who provided research. Losak, used DraftKings odds on drivers, reviewed historical data, wrote a code and ran 100 million simulations to determine the odds.

“The more simulations I run, the more accurate the number is,” Losak told NBC Sports. “Given how unlikely an event this is to occur, if I didn’t run enough simulations, you would have a bunch fo times it would happen zero times. So I had to run the simulation enough times to get some times where it actually hit.”

Losak noted that Truex’s odds are better than most drivers because Truex has a better record. Most drivers, Losak noted, would have about a 4 million to one chance of placing third in five races in a row. Losak also said that for those drivers, they would have an 85.7 million to one chance of finishing third in these six consecutive races.

“I enjoy doing stuff like this,” Losak said. “It’s just fun to fiddle with the data.”

Truex will save his fun for when he’s back in Victory Lane.

2. Personal changes

Noah Gragson has endured much on the track this season. He’s had a run-in with teammate Justin Allgaier, a fight with Harrison Burton and contact with Riley Herbst and Myatt Snider. But it is off the track that Gragson has focused on recently.

“I’ve kind of made a lot of changes in my personal life in the past week and a half, two weeks,” Gragson said after his third-place finish last weekend on the Daytona road course. “Just trying to clean up things on my end, not even on the racetrack, just trying to be in a better headspace when I get to the racetrack.”

Asked about what he’s done in particular to achieve that, Gragson said:

“Just trying to focus on my priorities and focus on what is going to better myself for our team at JR Motorsports and how I apply myself more. Whether it be friendships that aren’t really the best that are kind of bringing drama in my life or just different things, just trying to eliminate those options.

“I’ve spent a lot of time by myself at home, really not doing anything, studying film, playing Xbox and going to the shop. … Trying to clean up my friends, trying to clean up stuff that brings extra drama to my life, things that the less I can think about during the day, the better I can be on the racetrack. There are a lot of things that are rolling through my head right now.”

Gragson enters this weekend’s Xfinity Series doubleheader at Dover third in points with victories in the season-opening race at Daytona and at Bristol. He goes into Saturday’s race (12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) with top-10  finishes each of the past two weeks.

3. Choose your path

The choose rule returns this weekend at Dover International Speedway.

The rule, which was tried at the Bristol All-Star Race, and used at Michigan earlier this month, will be in place the rest of the season except at the Charlotte Roval and races at Daytona and Talladega.

The rule allows drivers to choose whether to restart on the inside lane or outside lane. Chase Elliott used it to take the lead at Michigan. He was fifth in line but the top four cars took the outside lane, so he took the inside lane and restarted next to leader Kevin Harvick. Elliott passed Harvick and led nine laps. Harvick retook the lead and went on to win the first of two races that weekend. Elliott fell to seventh.

For all the preparation teams might put into figuring what lane to choose based on what other drivers do, William Byron says it isn’t that complicated on what to do.

“I think Dover is fairly even on lane choice,” he said. “I know the bottom lane doesn’t accelerate as well on the restart zone. So if you’re maybe second, you might choose to restart fourth (outside lane row 2) instead of on the inside in second. I think it’s all just feel and how your car is handling. Obviously, the engineers can try to science it out as best they can. But typically, just common-sense plays into a rule like this for sure.”

4. Looking ahead

Car owner Jack Roush explained this week to reporters what he liked among the changes this season and one thing in particular that could be better for owners.

Roush is a fan of one-day races, echoing sentiments from others, including Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart and JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty.

“We’ve demonstrated we can do one-day races and there may be a chance to go to some place we hadn’t otherwise planned to go to that maybe doesn’t have enough hotel room capacity,” Roush said. “Some of the other things would tend to rule out having one of our Cup events, so I think that we may be able to take some one-day races, that’ll be fun.”

He also noted another change he liked.

“The one thing that comes from the short tracks that I hadn’t experienced before, but the choice or opportunity to have every car and every driver make a choice if he wants to start inside or outside (on a restart) … that’s an interesting dimension of strategy and consideration that I think makes the racing more exciting for me,” Roush said.

On the challenges owners face, Roush said: “NASCAR is in a position to take a look at most of the money that comes into the sport and what it takes to run the racetracks or their affiliations with the racetracks, what it takes corporately to make their organization work. I’m not the person to comment on either, but for the money that gets portioned out to the teams it’s not enough to make it very exciting from a business point of view.”

5. Out of sync

If Kyle Busch fails to win either Cup race at Dover this weekend, it will mark the first time in his Cup career he has failed to win by race 26 in a season.

Busch has one win in the last 45 races. That victory came at Miami in last year’s season finale, giving Busch his second career series title. During that same time, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have 15 wins.  Busch has 56 career Cup victories, one ahead of Kevin Harvick.

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.