Friday 5: Brad Keselowski tells team ‘Why not us?’ for title

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At a socially distanced gathering Wednesday, former Cup champion Brad Keselowski sought to inspire his crew with the rallying cry of “Why not us?” winning the title.

For a team with three wins this season — more than any other except playoff co-favorites Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin — the slogan seems tame.

Shouldn’t the mantra be more aggressive and evocative?

Keselowski’s team is about to enter a 10-week stretch that likely will challenge them but could reward them should they make it to the Nov. 8 title race at Phoenix Raceway. The journey begins with Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Keselowski said he chose the slogan to reflect the recent results for his team.

“I think what gets caught up in all of that is the mentality oftentimes that you’re only as good as your last race, as good as your last few weeks, and the last two or three weeks have not been as strong as I’d like them to be as a team,” said the 2012 Cup champ who is seeded third in the 16-driver playoff field.

Brad Keselowski’s most recent win came in August at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“We went out and kicked some serious butt at Loudon, New Hampshire. I was really proud of that, but we weren’t as strong as I hoped we’d be at Daytona and Dover. I think there’s moments as a team where sometimes people reflect on that a little deeper than is needed — not just as a team but media — and you have to remind yourselves what you’re capable of. Sometimes the easiest way to remind yourself what you’re capable of is, in my mind, eliminating the fears of what you’re not capable of.

“I think ‘Why not us?’ is my way of saying, ‘Give me a legit reason why we can’t win this championship right now?’ And we’ll come up with it and we’ll hammer it down in the ground with a 100-pound sledgehammer and we’ll fix it. ‘Why not us’ is as much a rallying cry to addressing and fixing all the little gaps.”

Keselowski said examining the matter that way can help a team evolve into a championship unit.

“What becomes of it is a culture, a mentality and a mindset of continuous improvement to eliminate your weaknesses,” he said. “Hopefully, there’s a tenacity born out of that that will serve us.”

Keselowski’s team is an intriguing option to counter Harvick, Hamlin and others in the NASCAR playoffs.

Keselowski won in May at Bristol, which will host the cutoff race in the first round. He scored a dominant victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track that shares qualities with Richmond and Phoenix. He finished second at Kansas, which hosts the opening race in the third round of the NASCAR playoffs.

Kansas is where Keselowski’s title hopes ended last year. He entered that race 20 points ahead of the first driver outside a spot to advance to the third round. The final restart doomed Keselowski. He lost six spots on the overtime restart. Keselowski finished three points behind Chase Elliott for the final spot to advance.

Despite that disappointment other years stand out to Keselowski in failing to win a second title.

“I had a great team and it didn’t come together — ‘14 probably for reasons just as much of luck as anything else, ‘15 was probably more my fault with some things I didn’t execute at the level I needed to execute. But all together the scorecard was still zero and we had efforts that were capable of winning the championship those two years, so that stings.”

So this year, it’s “Why not us?”

While other sayings might have more vigor, that slogan has a good history.

It was the rallying cry of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. They won their first World Series in 86 years that season.

2. Is this Chase Elliott’s time?

One of the key lessons about the NASCAR playoffs came last year with Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski. Elliott entered the Kansas race 24 points behind the Team Penske driver. Elliott beat Keselowski for the last transfer spot to the third round.

“It just kind of shows you that it’s not over until it’s over in a lot of those cases,” Elliott said.

Elliott’s playoffs would end in the third round after three finishes of 32nd or worse. He’s yet to advance to the championship race in four previous playoff appearances.

Chase Elliott’s wins this year have come at Charlotte, the Daytona road course and the Bristol All-Star Race. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

“I mean you can’t win the championship without making that final four; and that’s been that point of the playoffs that we haven’t been able to bust through yet,” said Elliott, who is seeded fifth in the 16-driver playoff field. “I feel like we’ve been really close at times, to doing it. I think we’re very capable of making the final four.

Could this be Elliott’s year to make it to the title race? He’s having one of his best seasons with two wins, 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes.

“I feel like we’ve had some really good runs at the beginning of the year and then got into a little bit of a dip there over the last couple of months,” said Elliott, who also won the All-Star Race in July at Bristol. “And then I thought Dover was back competitive again. So, I think for me, I just look at a little bit of the inconsistency.

“I think we need to be more consistent across the board. I’m encouraged by the fact that when I feel like we have things going, we can compete for wins at a lot of different style race tracks, which is awesome. So that definitely gives me confidence. But this deal is all about what has happened lately, what your performance has been up to this date, and what you have ahead to try to improve on and how much you need to improve.”

Only Martin Truex Jr. (seven wins) and Kyle Busch (six) have more than the three victories Elliott has had in playoff races since 2017.

Playoff rookie Matt DiBenedetto calls Elliott his dark horse pick.

Elliott gets an early shot Sunday to show what he can do. He’ll start first in the Southern 500.

“I think even a bigger deal to have is that first pit box, which is super valuable,” Elliott said. “Hopefully we’re fast enough for it to matter and we can put that thing to use.”

3. Quite a streak

The last time Kevin Harvick was penalized for speeding on pit road in a Cup race, it cost him a playoff win.

That was 2018 at Kansas Speedway.

Harvick has not been penalized for speeding on pit road in the last 66 races. 

Kevin Harvick, the No. 1 seed in the NASCAR playoffs, has not had a speeding penalty in a Cup race since 2018. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Harvick, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch and rookie Cole Custer are the only playoff drivers not penalized for speeding this season.

“I think as you look at the things that we do on pit road it’s really the shape of the pit road, the strategy of the location of the pit stall and making sure that my gauges and things are set up to the way that I like them,” he said. “Something that works for me and our team to be able to maximize that. So it’s just like anything else, you want to maximize everything that you do on pit road, but there’s a lot of little details that go into making that happen.”

Bowman notes there are other challenges when going down pit road anywhere between 30-60 mph.

“A Cup car doesn’t drive smoothly at those speeds and the pit roads aren’t perfectly smooth,” he said. “The lights (on the dashboard noting the car’s speed on pit road) jump around a lot, basically. If you want the lights accurate, they jump around a lot. If you make them not jump around, they aren’t very accurate. So, just finding what works for you as a driver in that sense is really important.

“There’s a lot of factors to it. It’s really tough on a busy pit road trying not to run into people, trying to hit your pit box well. It’s definitely important, but it’s a big risk versus reward. Like if you have a green flag speeding penalty, it’s a huge, huge deficit for the rest of your day, especially at a speedway race. So, there are times to push and times not to push, for sure.”

Here is how many speeding penalties each playoff driver has this year:

5 — Austin Dillon

3 — Kyle Busch

2 — Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

1 — Aric Almriola, Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Martin Truex Jr.

0 — Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick

4. A new parking spot

When Joey Logano worked with crew chief Todd Gordon, Logano’s pit stalls often were near pit exit.

Among the changes Logano has experienced with new crew chief Paul Wolfe this season is a different philosophy in picking pits. Wolfe often prefers a stall near pit entrance. In six of the last eight races, Logano’s pit stall has been among the first stalls after pit entrance. For Sunday’s Southern 500, Logano’s pit stall will be the first one after pit entrance.

NASCAR stock market
Crew chief Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“That’s been the running joke here at Team Penske for a little bit,” Logano said. “Todd will always go furthest forward possible, and Paul will be the guy that kind of goes back and forth on just trying to figure out what’s best for that particular weekend,” Logano said.

“So, the first few weeks was a little bit odd because I’m used to being all the way down at the other end, and I didn’t want to drive by the stall.

“Now I’ve kind of gotten used to it and Paul has done a good job at some pit selections. That was one of the things we went through at the beginning of the year is what works for me with pit stalls, and what direction can we get the best rolling times with and each racetrack is different. 

“Some narrow pit roads are different than the wide ones and pit openings are bigger than others and timing lines, there’s a lot that goes into that game. It’s not a random selection sometimes as much as some people think. There’s a lot that goes into that and I don’t know if there’s one more challenging than the other being in the front or the back. It’s just more or less a strategy of how do we have the best rolling time at the end of pit road.”

5. Future of single-car teams

Ty Dillon’s impassioned plea during a media session in August foreshadowed the news this week that owner Bob Germain was pondering his 2021 plans, including a potential sale of the team.

Germain Racing team has GEICO as a sponsor but the deal expires after this season. the team does not have a sponsor signed for next year. 

Dillon told reporters that changes need to be made in the sport to help single-car teams.

“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” Dillon said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible about of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”

Bob Leavine sold Leavine Family Racing, a single-car team. Spire Motorsports, a single-car team, will take over that operation after this season.

Leavine has been critical about the business model for teams. Jeff Dickerson, co-owner of Spire Motorsports, said on a recent episode of the Dale Jr. Download that “charter values (for Cup teams) are increasing. There is a real market for these and there are several groups trying to obtain them. Both inside the sport and outside the sport.”

NASCAR has made rule changes in an effort to save teams money. The Next Gen car is designed to do that. The car’s debut was pushed back to 2022 because development was stalled for several months by the novel coronavirus.

“We are working with our teams and frankly have been working with our teams over the last four or five years to try to improve the business model,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said this week. “We want healthy teams.”

Phelps said those outside the sport have noticed what how the team model has changed.

“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher,” Phelps said. “Certainly when I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for the direction of what team ownership looks like.”

Said Dillon: “I believe in our sport and the direction it is going. And, I know everyone has a mindset to make it better. But we just have to get there. We have to do everything that it takes. … “We can only get better as a sport if we all get better. We can’t just keep focusing on the big-end teams and the guys running up-front week in and week out. So, if we want the sport to thrive, it takes a lot of focus throughout the field.”

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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.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”