Friday 5: In a moment of confusion, a chance for clarity

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Noah Gragson tried to detail his gut-wrenching loss last weekend at Texas, but the words came out in uneven bursts. Pain filled the pauses. Faraway glances searched for a different ending.

In position to win and secure a spot in the Xfinity championship round at Phoenix, Gragson saw it all disappear when Harrison Burton passed him on the final corner of the final lap to take the victory.

Gragson’s NBCSN interview afterward was a combination of a driver’s default setting to thank their sponsors and a driver trying to comprehend what just happened with an accidental expletive slipping out. Justin Allgaier, who had been eliminated by a crash, saw the interview and knew he needed to reach out to his JR Motorsports teammate.

But what would he say?

And would Gragson listen?

While their relationship has improved, there have been times when it has been complicated by actions on the track. They made contact in the final laps at Bristol in June while racing for the lead. Allgaier crashed. Gragson won. Allgaier later said they would remain friends but “it might take a while to get back on good terms.”

As Allgaier searched for Gragson at Texas last weekend, he pondered how to approach his teammate after such a loss. When Allgaier found Gragson alone near the garage, Allgaier stood in front of Gragson, put his hand on Gragson’s shoulder and asked how he was doing.

“I said, ‘Listen, you’re going to lose a lot more races than you’re ever going to win,’ ’’ Allgaier told NBC Sports of the extended conversation he had with Gragson. “If the scenario was different and Harrison passed you with five to go or 10 to go, would you have been as upset as you are right now? All it takes is circumstances to have something happen like what did. I said the difference for you is going to be today is today and you’ve still got an opportunity to go to Martinsville and have a good day and obviously still make the playoffs.’

“He’s got to win to to be in, but he’s got a shot to going and making the (title race). I said I wished in the moment that I had had somebody have a conversation with me because I’ve let stuff like that kind of fester and not be able to necessarily get over it.

“I think that was the biggest reason I wanted to catch him before he really had a chance to go talk to anybody else.”

Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson talk after Gragson was passed for the win by Harrison Burton on the last corner of the last lap in the Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo: JR Motorsports)

While Allgaier’s actions are noble, NASCAR is unique in that teammates compete against each other. Allgaier and Gragson both will race Saturday at Martinsville (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC) for the three remaining spots in the championship race. It is possible that one’s finish could keep the other out of the title race.

So, why didn’t Allgaier just have a short conversation and let Gragson figure it out for himself? If it affects him for the next race, then so be it. They’re competing for the chance to race for a championship.

“This sport has always been and will always be about people,” Allgaier said. “Whether it’s a teammate or not even a teammate. I’ve had other competitors that I’ve helped in the last two or three years that have turned around and beat me with some of the information I’ve told them. Chase Briscoe is a great example of that.

“Chase and I have had a lot of conversations. I remember a conversation we had at Indy two years ago … and he’s taken some of the stuff I’ve told him and he’s beat me with it. You know what? I’m OK with that.

“I’ve had people help me in my career. When it’s all said and done, you can help somebody with something. That doesn’t mean that they can always go out and beat you with it. … I think from my standpoint it’s always about people. Whether Noah was a teammate or not, (he was) somebody who was in that moment and you could see the physical pain that they’re going through. To me, it’s a no-brainer to go help them. That’s just who I was raised to be and who I am. I don’t plan on changing that anytime in the near future.”

The conversation continued between Allgaier and Gragson after they walked away at Texas. They texted back and forth.

“Man, I’ll be honest with you,” Allgaier said he wrote in a text to Gragson. “I struggled to come up and say something. … I didn’t want it to come off as me gloating over top of you or telling you that you were wrong. I was truly genuine in what I said.’

“That goes even further to our challenges that Noah and I have had in our teammate career. I think that a lot of what caused our challenges amongst the two of us was I don’t think he necessarily always understood where I was coming from. I think there was always this question of like ‘Is he trying to help me or is he not trying to help me?’ I think there were some people in Noah’s life that were probably telling him he needed to go, he’s talked about it, about being selfish, and go and do his own thing.

“That’s fine. If that’s what works for him, that’s awesome. Go do it. But I also wanted him to see the other side of it, too. You can have teammates, and you can be a team player and still go out and run good and have wins and do all those things that you need to go do. … At the end of the day, they always say, treat people like you want to be treated. That’s kind of how I’ve been.”

Allgaier also hopes that Gragson can someday help a teammate or another competitor after a devastating finish.

“I told him, I said, ‘Listen this may not help you for (this) weekend at Martinsville,” Allgaier said. “It may not help you for Phoenix. It may not help you for the next five years.’ But he’s plenty talented enough and he knows he’s talented enough that at some point in his life … there’s going to be something that came out of this past weekend that’s going to help him get through something else that happens to him somehow in his racing career.

“I hope that when it does, that conversation creeps back into his memory. On the other side of that, I hope he takes the information I gave him and he can impart that on to somebody else.”

2. Staying power

Kyle Busch’s struggles this season have raised the question of if changes could be made to the No. 18 team after this season.

Just like any sport when a team underperforms, the coach — or the crew chief in this case — is among those looked at first.

Sunday’s win, though, showed what Busch, crew chief Adam Stevens and the No. 18 team can do. So the question becomes do changes still need to be made?

Stevens and Busch are among the top duos in the sport. They’ve won 14.2% of their races together since they partnered in Cup in 2015. That’s the same winning percentage for crew chief Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick, who have been together since 2014 but have one less championship than Busch and Stevens.

Asked about his future after the Texas win, Stevens said he hadn’t had such conversations with Joe Gibbs Racing, but he knew one thing.

“I know that I have a home at Joe Gibbs Racing and that’s most important, but this is a performance business, and we need a lot more nights like (Wednesday), a lot more like what we’re used to having,” Stevens said. “We’ll have those conversations here shortly I’m sure.”

Busch was asked that with some questioning him and Stevens what did the Texas win mean.

“That we can do it under any situation,” Busch said. “We can do it under pressure situations of racing for a championship and winning the final races at Homestead and bringing home two championships there, we can do it in the Coke 600, we can do it here when we’re knocked out of the playoffs and people would say that we’ve got nothing to race for, but we come out here and we’re able to win.

“There’s all kinds of different circumstances and different opportunities for us, and I’d like to think that we can be successful for a long time.”

3. New experience

Saturday’s Xfinity race at Martinsville — which will determine the final three drivers in the title race — is the first time the series has raced there since 2006. It is only the second time there in the last 25 years for the series.

“I would say that Martinsville is the biggest wildcard,” Justin Haley said of the playoff tracks for the series.

Said Ross Chastain: “I love that place. I’d race a wheelbarrow around there if it had a motor on it.”

Even with simulators and iRacing giving drivers a sense of what it will be like to run that track with the Xfinity car, there will still be plenty of learning during the race.

““Everyone is gonna be learning what’s possible and what’s not,” Austin Cindric said. “Obviously, the durable nature of an Xfinity car I think is gonna give a lot of people some second chances in that race, so unless you hit really hard, you’re not out. 

“I think there’s gonna be plenty of playoff drivers that are gonna have to never give up all race with how aggressive the style of racing is at Martinsville as of late in the Xfinity Series.”

Chase Briscoe is the only playoff driver who has qualified for the championship round at Phoenix.

Cindric, Justin Allgaier and Haley are in the remaining three transfer spots heading into the race. Cindric is 14 points above the cutline. Allgaier is eight points above the cutline. Haley is four points above the cutline.

Those who are below the cutline are Brandon Jones (-4 points), Chastain (-15), Noah Gragson (-24) and Ryan Sieg (-43).

4. One last chance

Sunday’s Cup race is the final chance for Chevrolet to snap its championship race drought.

The manufacturer has not had a car in the Cup title race since Jimmie Johnson won his seventh and final crown in 2016.

Chevrolet has three cars left in the playoffs but all are outside a transfer spot. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott are each 25 points behind Brad Keselowski for the final transfer spot. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch is last among the eight remaining playoff drivers. He’s 81 points out of the last transfer spot and can only advance by winning.

On being down 25 points, Bowman said: “I view it like we should have run better all year and accumulated more playoff points. We run third and fifth the last two weeks and only lost points or stayed about the same. It comes down to we needed more playoff points throughout the year. … Martinsville has been very hit or miss for me. I feel like we need to go there and win.”

That’s the same approach for Elliott.

“For us, we need to go win,” he said. “That’s really the bottom line. I am not even going to look at points because, in my opinion, it really just doesn’t matter. If you can’t win races and win them consistently in the series you aren’t going to win a championship, anyway. We need to go there with the mindset of trying to win.”

5. Playoff comebacks

Only twice in the six previous years of the playoff format has a Cup driver outside a transfer spot entering the penultimate race of the season advanced.

Kevin Harvick entered the final race of the Round of 8 last among the playoff drivers in 2014. He won at Phoenix to advance and then won the championship the following week.

Last year, Denny Hamlin entered the final race of the Round of 8 fifth in the standings. He was 20 points out of a transfer spot. Hamlin won at Phoenix to make it to the title race. He finished fourth in the season standings.

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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.