Friday 5: Next Gen car plays role in attracting new Cup team owners


The Next Gen car could do more than impact the action on track. It could help revolutionize team ownership.

More than a season before the Next Gen car debuts, the car and the sport’s focus on cutting costs have lured new owners into the sport.

Within the last few weeks, two new teams revealed they’ll join the Cup Series next year with charters. Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan announced in September they will form a new team with Bubba Wallace as driver. Justin Marks announced this week that his Cup team, Trackhouse Racing, will debut next season with Daniel Suarez as the driver.

There were only three new full-time teams that entered Cup from 2018-2020. Two had charters.

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin will debut a new Cup team in 2021. Photo: Getty Images

Jordan said in an interview with NBC Sports and Fox that after his financial advisors examined the business model of NASCAR team ownership, he told Hamlin that “there’s an interest there and then everything started to present itself.”

Said Hamlin: “I believe NASCAR is taking steps to help the financial model for the owners. This is why it was a great time for us to come in when we did. I’m going to make sure Michael is in this sport for a very long time.”

While the Next Gen car creates added expenses for teams in switching to that vehicle, the expected benefits are long-term savings. Other changes include NASCAR limiting how many days teams are at the track, limits on how many crew members can go to the track and reduction of wind tunnel time for teams.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps noted in September that there has been increased interest in team ownership.

“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher,” he 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.”

Challenges remain. The two new teams will debut with the current car and then switch their inventory to the Next Gen model for 2022. That can create a financial burden.

“I don’t know how the model can be sustained with these new owners, especially new ones coming in right now for next year knowing they have to buy old useless inventory and then essentially scrap it when it’s all done,” said Kyle Busch, who owns a Truck Series team. “That, to me, makes absolutely no sense.”

Even with those obstacles, Marks sees this as the right time to enter the sport.

“The barriers of entry to this sport over the past decade … have just been insurmountable to somebody like me that can’t really come in and spend $50 million,” he said. “When NASCAR announced that they were going to this new car, all of a sudden it was a huge light that went off inside my head that saw there was a tremendous opportunity.

“In going through the due diligence of figuring out how to put a team like this together during that process, the (Next Gen) car got delayed a year, but we built a structure of how to come into this sport for being very intelligent with our allocation of capital and very intelligent with our growth plans. Even though the new car was delayed, there was still an opportunity to go racing, a way that we could be competitive and start laying the groundwork for that new car.”

2. Crowded house

Having to choose between two young drivers for one Cup seat — as Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing did in selecting Christopher Bell over Erik Jones for next season — shows what can happen to a driver development program when there aren’t enough available rides.

Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Bell are likely set at JGR for the next few years. While no announcement has been made, the Hamlin/Michael Jordan team is expected to partner with Toyota and align with Joe Gibbs Racing. Bubba Wallace will drive for the new team.

Unless that team adds a second car for 2022 or Toyota adds another Cup team, there doesn’t appear to be a place to move Toyota’s young drivers.

So, is Toyota’s driver development coming to a halt?

“We look at it a little bit differently,” Tyler Gibbs, vice president and general manger of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “We’re looking a bit further out than ’21.”

Brandon Jones has won three Xfinity races this season for Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Toyota’s Xfinity program features Brandon Jones, Harrison Burton and Riley Herbst. Jones has had a breakthrough season with three wins. Burton, who has two victories this year, and Herbst are in their first full-time seasons each in the Xfinity Series.

For sure, both (Jones and Burton) need to continue racing and winning more races in Xfinity before moving up,” Gibbs said. “So for us, we look at it and say that no one is ready to move up in ’21 at least not obviously ready, not that you couldn’t do something if you had to, (but) they’re probably not ideally ready yet. Then you look at ’22 and we look at that and say Next Gen is coming.”

There might not be as much movement of Xfinity drivers to Cup full-time next year since 2021 is the final season for the current car.

Team Penske will take that approach with Austin Cindric, the Xfinity regular-season champion. Cindric, who has five wins this season, will drive full-time in Xfinity next year along with select Cup races (likely road course events) before moving full-time to Cup in 2022 when the Next Gen car debuts.

The news Thursday night that Clint Bowyer will go to the Fox Sports booth for NASCAR races next year could open the No. 14 ride for Chase Briscoe, who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity program. With many Cup veterans looking for rides next year, there’s a good chance the 2021 rookie class could be small.

3. Changing dynamics?

NASCAR’s push to add more road courses will see six such events showcased on the 2021 Cup schedule — seven, including the Busch Clash exhibition race on the Daytona road course in February. NASCAR also talked about the potential of adding another road course or a street course in the future. 

The Charlotte Roval will be one of six road courses on the 2021 Cup schedule.(Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With the focus on the road courses — they’ll comprise 19.2% of the races in the regular season — is this a sign that development programs will focus more on road courses?

“I would say it will appear that some things have changed,” Tyler Gibbs, vice president and general manger of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “I don’t think they actually have changed for us.”

Gibbs says that with Toyota debuting its GR Supra GT4 in the Michelin Pilot Challenge next season, there will be additional opportunities for young drivers to gain road course experience. That’s similar to what Ford has done with its Mustang GT4. Hailie Deegan and Chase Briscoe were teammates in the Daytona Michelin Pilot Challenge race in January.

“Teaching them how to road course race, giving them the opportunity to road course race, those are some things that have been on our agenda the last couple of years even before NASCAR was really looking to expand that,” Gibbs said. “If you look again at our programs across the board … there is a need for silver drivers, extra silver drivers for endurance races.

“Could some of these kids develop into participating in those events on their way to potentially other activities? Could they become sports car racers? I think there’s a lot of different possibilities for us.”

4. Racing in the rain

Among the many challenges with racing in the rain is the course itself, Alex Bowman notes. He says the Roval’s tight infield course could present additional challenges for drivers if they race in the rain Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

The forecast calls for about a 50% chance of rain during the event.

“I think the particular challenge about the Roval in the rain is it’s so narrow through the infield,” said Bowman, who will take over the No. 48 car next year. “There’s not a lane to run off groove. A lot of racetracks you go to, you run off groove to stay out of the rubber because, obviously, rubber and oil in the rain gets very slick. At the Roval, there’s not really room for that.

“There’s a lot of painted sections, which paint in the rain gets really slick. You’re always using a lot of curbs through the infield. Curbs in the rain get really slick.

“In the simulator (Tuesday) I was looking at it, trying to figure out where you’d run through each corner and there’s not a great place to run anywhere.  t’s going to be really interesting. I think it’s going to be very difficult if (rain) does happen.”

Only three times in Cup history have rain tires been employed. Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin used them in a test in 1995 at Watkins Glen. Teams practiced and qualified on rain tires at Suzuka in 1997 for the exhibition race in Japan. Rain tires were last used in Cup for a practice session at Watkins Glen in 2000.

Bowman enters Sunday’s race with the best average finish (3.0) among all Cup drivers at the Roval. He finished second last year despite driving a backup car and having contact with Bubba Wallace on the first lap that sent Bowman to pit road for repairs.

Bowman and Clint Bowyer are the only drivers with top-five finishes in each of the two Cup Roval races. Bowman goes into Sunday’s race seventh in the standings. He’s 22 points ahead of Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon, who are the first drivers outside a transfer spot.

5. A helping hand

During Nate Ryan’s reporting for his detailed behind-the-scenes look at how NASCAR resumed its season after the COVID-19 pandemic pause, he came across a tidbit he couldn’t get in his story but passed along.

At one point, Toyota and Chevrolet nearly worked together in the same North Carolina shop.

Toyota’s engine shop is in California, but it could not open as soon as race shops in North Carolina because of state restrictions. That presented a dilemma for Toyota’s engine department if the NASCAR season resumed.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, detailed to Ryan what happened next.

“I lost a lot of sleep because I didn’t have control of my own destiny,” Wilson said. “Working on contingency plans to have to send guys to North Carolina. Richard Childress called me one day and offered up to partition his engine shop and let us work out of his shop. It’s incredible. It may be cliché but the sense of community that comes from crisis, because in the end we all want to be able to compete in a healthy manner.

“It was very close to being ready to supply for the restart. I think we were able to open our doors (in California) May 4. It wasn’t that we were going to cut (Cup’s return May 17 at) Darlington short, because we had inventory on the ground at (Joe Gibbs Racing) already in the race cars literally.

“Certainly there was enough on the shop floors at Joe Gibbs Racing that could get us through the first two to three weeks, but we certainly were approaching the point by six weeks in, we’re in real trouble.

“We did get very aggressive, even after we reopened, because we didn’t know how long we’d be able to stay open here in California. Things got bad again. They started shutting things down again, and I was engaged with our county board of supervisors. I built a relationship with the mayor of Costa Mesa doing my best to politick and suggest that we were going to take care of our people, please, please, please don’t shut us down. Because it could have really impacted our ability to compete.”

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Jimmie Johnson to run Chicago Street Course Cup race


LOS ANGELES – Jimmie Johnson says that one of his Cup races this season with Legacy Motor Club will be the July 2 Chicago Street Course race, which will air on NBC.

The seven-time champion will run select Cup races this season after spending the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. Johnson, who left NASCAR in 2020, will return in two weeks at Daytona International Speedway as a driver and part owner of Legacy MC. His No. 84 car does not have a charter and he’ll have to secure one of the four spots for non-chartered cars.

Johnson said on Fox before Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum that he looked to do more Cup races beyond Daytona and Chicago but did not announce any others. He will drive the NASCAR Garage 56 entry in June in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.


Kevin Harvick to join Fox booth in 2024


LOS ANGELES – Kevin Harvick will move from the car to the TV booth next year when he joins Fox Sports.

Harvick, who is in his final season driving in Cup, will join Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer in the booth for the NASCAR races on Fox in 2024.

“I’m looking forward to that,” Harvick said on Fox on Sunday. “We’re coming right to the booth. I couldn’t be happier. For me, the timing in life has just been absolutely perfect with everything on the driving side and now to have this opportunity to tell people about racing, there’s not anything I love more and I can’t wait.”

The announcement was made before Sunday night’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Harvick advanced to the Clash through his heat race.

RFK Racing drivers fail to qualify for Clash at the Coliseum


After heat races and a pair of last chance qualifiers, RFK Racing drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher failed to qualify for the NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum for the second straight year.

Former champion Chase Elliott led wire-to-wire Sunday to win the second last chance qualifier to move on to the feature. He was joined by second-place Ty Gibbs and third-place AJ Allmendinger.

Michael McDowell led all 50 laps in the first last chance qualifier race to advance to the feature. Also moving on to the 150-lap main event were Christopher Bell and Todd Gilliland.

MORE: Clash at the Coliseum starting lineup

Among those failing to advance from the first last chance race were Harrison Burton, whose late-race slide cost him several spots, and Ty Dillon.

Austin Cindric got the provisional starting spot and will be 27th — and last — at the green flag. The race is scheduled for an 8:20 p.m. ET start.

William Byron led all 25 laps in winning the fourth heat race.

Also transferring to the feature from the fourth heat were Bubba Wallace, Ross Chastain, Ryan Preece and Erik Jones, who took the fifth and final spot with two laps to go.

Denny Hamlin dominated the third heat, leading 20 of the 25 laps to win. Chase Briscoe, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney and Daniel Suarez followed in the top five to transfer to the main event.

The biggest loser in the third heat was Bell, who spun out after late-race contact and finished sixth.

Martin Truex Jr. took the lead from Kyle Busch late in the second heat and won easily. Busch was second, Austin Dillon third and Kyle Larson fourth.

Kevin Harvick, starting his final season in Cup, made a strong last-lap move and edged Elliott for fifth and the final transfer spot to the feature.

Aric Almirola, who failed to make the Clash feature last season, took the lead late in the first heat race and won the 25-lapper in front of Alex Bowman and Justin Haley.

“It was about being more prepared,” Almirola told Fox Sports. “There was no way to be prepared a year ago. I was really disappointed to watch this race from the grandstands last year.”

Rookie Noah Gragson and defending race and reigning series champion Joey Logano also finished in the top five to join the first three in the feature.

Burton spun out early in the first heat.

MORE: Heat race 1 results

MORE: Heat race 2 results

MORE: Heat race 3 results

MORE: Heat race 4 results

Last Chance Qualifier race 1 results

Last Chance Qualifier Race 2 results

Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks

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Crew chiefs must develop their approach to today’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum using only last year’s data, plus this year’s practice and qualifying.

Fans wagering (for fun and/or profit) must contend with the same lack of data as they make their Clash picks.

The shortest regular-season track is a half mile. A quarter-mile track is a different beast, even with a year’s worth of Next Gen experience.

“Last year everything was brand-new – the track, the format and the car,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, said in a team release. “We’ll have a little bit better of an idea of what we’re going for this time around, but the track is so unique that even with going there last year, we’re still learning.”

As are the fans.

There are a few changes to keep in mind as you make your Clash picks.

NASCAR increased the field from 23 cars to 27. With 36 drivers entered, only nine will miss the Clash. Even without points on the line, no one wants to head home before the main event’s green flag.

Last year, equipment failures caused four out of five DNFs in the main race. Expect fewer mechanical issues this year.

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

Last year’s practice times showed no correlation with Clash performance. Eventual winner Joey Logano finished practice last year with the 26th fastest lap — also known as the 11th-slowest lap. But he qualified fourth.

This year, despite losing about 40 hp to mufflers, Martin Truex Jr. set a fastest lap of 13.361 seconds. Truex’s lap beats last year’s best practice lap time of 13.455 seconds, set by Chase Elliott.

Although only seven-tenths of a second separate the fastest practice lap and the slowest, the change is far from linear.

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

  • The top 11 drivers are separated by just 0.048 seconds out of a 13- to 14-second lap
  • Brad Keselowski, who didn’t make the race last year, had the third slowest practice time.
  • Tyler Reddick ran the most total practice laps with 117. He was followed by Kevin Harvick (116), and Noah Gragson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom made 115 laps.
  • Most drivers ran their best times in their first or second session. Austin Dillon, however, ran his best time on lap 109 of 112.
  • The top three in practice also had the three best 10-lap averages.

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

Last year, qualifying position correlated well with driver finish in the Clash. If your driver qualified on the front two rows for his heat race, last year’s results suggest that the only thing keeping him from making tonight’s Clash is an accident or mechanical failure.

That’s bad news for Ty Gibbs, who wasn’t allowed to qualify and will start in the back of the field. It’s also a negative for Ryan Blaney, who posted a 40-second lap, however, Blaney has a shot at the provisional and Gibbs doesn’t.

The heat races are only 25 laps, which doesn’t leave much time for passing. Heat race starting position is highly correlated to heat race finishing position.

  • Last year, the pole-sitter for each of the four heat races held the lead for the entire race.
  • Of the 12 drivers starting in the top three for each heat race, nine drivers — 75% — finished in the top three.
  • Only the top-four finishers of each heat race advanced last year. This year, the top five move on. Last year, 16 of the 25 drivers (64%) starting in positions one through five finished in the top five of their heat races.
  • No driver who started a heat race from ninth finished better than sixth. That’s not encouraging news for Blaney and Gibbs, among others.

That means Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron are pretty much guaranteed locks for a good starting spot in the Clash.

The 20 drivers who qualified in the top five for their heat race have a very high probability of making it through to the main — and of finishing well there.

As was the case last year, practice showed little correlation with qualifying. Martin Truex Jr. qualified 22nd despite posting the best practice time.

The Last Chance Qualifiers

Three drivers from each of the two last chance qualifiers fill out the final rows of the Clash starting grid. Last year, drivers were more aggressive in these 50-lap races than the first four heats.

Again, the closer to the front a driver starts, the better his chance of making the race. Last year, both pole-sitters finished in the top three and advanced.

The last chance qualifiers are long enough for a driver starting in the rear to make it to the front. Last year, Ty Dillon came from 10th place to win the second race. He was subsequently disqualified for jumping the final restart and Harrison Burton, who had started seventh, advanced. If you’re looking for long-shot Clash picks, don’t count the back of the field entirely out.

The Big Show

Last year, the 150-lap main had five lead changes and five cautions.

  • Of last year’s four heat-race winners, two finished in positions one and two, while the other two didn’t finish the race.
  • Of the six drivers who advanced from the last chance qualifiers, none finished higher than A.J. Allmendinger in ninth.
  • Allmendinger tied with Erik Jones for most spots gained. Jones started 16th and finished fourth.
  • Excluding drivers who failed to finish the race, Danial Suárez had the biggest position loss, starting fifth and finishing 14th.

If you want to avoid the frontrunners, you might want to keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who qualified fifth, and had the seventh best 10-lap average run during practice. Austin Dillon didn’t put together a strong 10-lap run, but his team found something in the last minutes of practice that allowed him to go from finishing practice in 22nd to qualifying sixth.

And although Bubba Wallace qualified 16th, he ranked first in runs of 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 laps. He was second in five-lap speed.

Good luck with your Clash picks!