Friday 5: Thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

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Ryan Blaney’s message to competitors in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race is simple.

I caution those in front of me that I am not going to be behind them for very long if we are faster than them,” he said.

Ditto for Matt DiBenedetto.

“You’re not going to do anything stupid,” he said, “but you can’t sit and wait behind them.”

Those two drivers face the biggest challenges to advance to the second round of the playoffs. DiBenedetto is 25 points behind Clint Bowyer, who holds the final transfer position entering Saturday’s race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Blaney trails Bowyer by 27 points.

No driver so far back entering an elimination race has made it to the next round since the playoff format debuted in 2014.

“I would love to say it is another race weekend, but it is our season, pretty much,” Blaney said Saturday’s race.

It will take a mix of aggression and patience during the 500-lap playoff race by Blaney and DiBenedetto to advance.

The line between aggressive and dirty driving can be blurry. Not every driver will see it the same way. With the need to move through the field and score as many points as possible — or win stages and the race — Blaney and DiBenedetto will have less patience, but where is the line?

DiBenedetto goes back to the All-Star Open in July. He restarted deep in the field after pitting in the first stage when not all the cars did. He worked his way through the field to win the final stage to advance to the All-Star Race.

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race were aggressive to get through the field,” DiBenedetto said. “Everything’s on the line and you’re trying to make the All-Star Race and it’s a very short race. 

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race, if it were a regular points race and we’re at the beginning of the race or something, some of those moves probably at that time were just considered aggressive because everyone knows what we’re doing and what’s at stake. In other situations, they could have been dirty because I moved some people out of the way. That’s a little bit of a moving target, so it’s hard to answer that question. 

“I would say for this weekend that everyone usually knows what’s on the line for different people.”

2. Out of sight but not out of mind

Crew chief Johnny Klausmeier knew that he faced a one-race suspension late in the Southern 500 when it was evident that Clint Bowyer’s car had two lug nuts not tight.

From my vantage point on the pit box, I kind of watched the tire changers, and I saw that it didn’t look like he was hitting all the lug nuts,” Klausmeier said. “He was swinging for them, but not making contact and then the car left. I kind of knew that we would have some kind of issue there, so we kind of went back and looked at the video and made sure that it wasn’t going to be a safety thing.”

Johnny Klausmeier and driver Clint Bowyer enter Bristol holding the last transfer spot to the second round. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/NASCAR via Getty Images)

The team didn’t see a safety issue so Bowyer stayed on track, finishing 10th. Had Klausmeier called his driver back to pit road to secure the lug nuts, Bowyer likely would have lost at least 10 points. Instead of holding on to the final transfer spot entering Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bowyer would have been outside the cutline.

Saving those points, though, meant that Klausmeier would miss last weekend’s race at Richmond because of the suspension.

What was it like not to be at the track and still call the race?

“I didn’t feel like it was more efficient than actually being there,” Klausmeier said. “There is a delay in the audio. There is a delay in the broadcast. There is a delay in the information transfer.

“Then just being there and when the tires come off the race car on a pit stop, being able to walk down behind the pit box and visually look at the tires and see what the wear looks like. (Also) coming up and calculating changes and things that you’re going to do based on what you see and feel looking at the racetrack and getting that information real time. 

“I do not think the role of a crew chief can be done virtually. I think you have to be there. You have to be immersed in it. You can’t just go down and get the pit crew guys rallied up. You can’t see what’s going on with the car, so you miss out on those things and there is a little bit of a delay in the communications, so it’s not ideal but we managed to do it.”

3. Pit road speeding

Pit road speeding penalties could play a key role in Saturday’s Cup race.

Twenty-one speeding penalties were called in the May Cup race there. Each of the last three Cup races at Bristol has had at least 11 speeding penalties.

Brad Keselowski overcame a pit road speeding penalty to win the May race — but he was helped by leader Denny Hamlin hitting the wall and then Chase Elliott and Joey Logano later making contact racing for the lead in the final laps.

Matt DiBenedetto was caught speeding on pit road after Stage 1. He finished the stage seventh and restarted 28th because of the penalty. DiBenedetto was 22nd when he was collected in a nine-car crash, ruining his race. He finished more than 40 laps behind the leaders.

Joey Logano and Kyle Busch also were penalized for speeding on pit road in the May race. Austin Dillon was penalized twice in May. Both times came after he was involved in a crash on Lap 330.

4. Almost there

Brandon Brown is set to clinch the final spot in the Xfinity Series playoffs Friday night at Bristol. He enters with a 49-point lead on Jeremy Clements for the final transfer spot. Brown will clinch a playoff spot provided there is not a new winner outside the top 12 in points.

Brandon Brown is in position to make the Xfinity Series playoffs on Friday night for the first time. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Brown’s family-run team has eight employees. He spends part of his time at the shop helping with the vehicles. Brown also is focused on trying to find sponsorship for this season and next year.

He has been to a simulator only once this season, going before the Daytona road course race. When he wants to get some sim time, he starts his iRacing rig. And his physical training? It’s limited to running. The gym he uses in his apartment complex is closed because of COVID-19.

So with all that around him, he’s about to clinch a playoff spot.

Brown also knows some view him as being aggressive on the track. He doesn’t hide from such viewpoints.

Getting down to the playoffs and having an opportunity like this, it’s not something that comes around for everyone,” Brown said. “So for me, it pushes me that much harder to want to make that happen.

“It’s hard to back yourself down to ‘I need to run smarter to make sure we’re bringing the car home all four corners on it.’ At the same time, I want to get everything out I can out of the car and push to get the best result possible because this is our run, our chance at the playoffs.

“Taking a little bit extra risk, to me, it’s worth it, to really put my name out and to really make something happen this year. The risk is worth the reward to me, but I’m sure that others would view it differently.”

5. Odds and ends

# Matt DiBenedetto said his contract with the Wood Brothers is through this year with options for 2021, ’22 and ’23. He said the deadline for the team to pick up the option for next season is the end of this month.

I guess I should know pretty soon,” he said. “I wish I knew now because I don’t want to go anywhere and it would put me in a pretty bad situation if something were to change, but I don’t expect any changes.”

# The Joey Logano Foundation will donate $22,000 each week of the playoffs to organizations that support children and young adults in crisis. The organizations selected help those that are homeless, within the foster care system or aging out of the foster care system.

Those organizations include Children’s Hope Alliance, The Relatives, Youth Villages, Least of These and Crossnore School & Children’s Home.

# Martin Truex Jr. has won four of the last seven races at short tracks.

# Kyle Busch has one victory in his last 50 Cup races.

# Kevin Harvick has scored 46% of his Cup wins after turning age 40.

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Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.

 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”