Friday 5: Will Phoenix title race lead to bump-and-run finish?

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At some point this week, either before or during Sunday’s title race, each of the Championship 4 drivers may have a discussion with the devil.

Just how far will they go to win a championship?

NASCAR’s decision to move the season finale to Phoenix Raceway from Homestead-Miami Speedway presents a greater likelihood that title contenders could be closer together in the final laps.

Fans could see a bump-and-run for the championship. Or if done incorrectly, a bump-and-wreck for the title.

Such drama is among the reasons why NASCAR moved the playoff cutoff races to Bristol, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville. And moved the title race to Phoenix (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC). Closer racing means a greater chance for beating and banging.

Ryan Newman secured the final spot in the 2014 title race by forcing Kyle Larson into the wall to grab that position to transfer at Phoenix. In 2017, Chase Elliott paid back Denny Hamlin for contact at Martinsville that cost Elliott a win. Elliott bumped Hamlin and then pinched Hamlin into the wall at Phoenix. Hamlin suffered a tire rub and later crashed. He failed to advance to the championship race.

Now, a championship could be at stake. How will the playoff drivers play it?

I think I’m probably a little more of a purist than what some of the younger guys that come into the sport now are,” Hamlin said. “I mean, you see Truck races and Xfinity races and guys just kind of running all over each other. That might just be the way racing is now. But it’s just not the way that I saw it back in the day, and so I modeled myself after guys that really kind of took care of their equipment and appreciated the purer side of things. You work a guy over.

“The art of working over a pass is such a beautiful thing if you can get it done. And so nowadays it’s just like, you just get frustrated after two laps and you knock the guy out of the way and move on and you don’t even have to say sorry later. It just becomes expected.

“Certainly within this final four everyone will have their own feelings about what they think is allowed and whatnot, but we’ve seen people within this group also make aggressive moves and everyone else is there watching. So it’s like, well, you can’t be mad if it comes back around to you because you’ve done it in the past.”

Joey Logano moved Martin Truex Jr. out of the way to win at Martinsville in 2018 and earn a spot in the title race. Logano won the championship that year.

The temptation of knocking someone out of the way to win the crown?

“Very well it can happen a lot easier,” Logano said. “You seen what happened at Martinsville last week (with Kevin Harvick wrecking Kyle Busch on the last lap to try to advance and was not penalized by NASCAR). Shoot, I was running fifth or so in the beginning of the race. They’re rooting and gauging each other out 20, 30 laps into the race, running into each other. Oh, boy, this is going to get crazy. 

“That was just to get into the Championship 4. Imagine what it’s going to be to win the championship itself in Phoenix.”

In late May at Bristol, Logano hit the wall after Elliott dived under him to try to take the lead in the final laps and hit Logano. The contact allowed Keselowski to win that race.

Could that be a learning experience for Elliott if he needs to make a drastic move Sunday?

“I feel like when you get put in situations, you have to make a decision and go on down the road whether it works out or doesn’t work out,” Elliott said.

“It’s so hard to prepare for all of them because you don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you. What point in the race are you going to have a challenge, something not go your way, whatever. It’s so hard to simulate some of that because you don’t know until you get faced with it.

“Just try to rely on past situations, past experience, use those little pieces of learning experiences to make a better decision next time. That’s all we can do.”

Keselowski prefers to put his focus elsewhere.

“I would suspect that there will be some kind of moment where there will be a little fender‑bender,” he said. “How much? I don’t know. 

“I haven’t put too much thought into that. Again, my focus is really on just getting in the lead and driving away. I hope we can do that and not have to worry about those things.”

2. Gone (from title contention) but not forgotten

Kevin Harvick still could become only the third driver to win 10 or more Cup races in a season in the last 25 years.

But he won’t win the championship even if he wins Sunday at Phoenix.

Denny Hamlin reached out to Kevin Harvick after Harvick was eliminated from title contention. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Harvick was eliminated last weekend at Martinsville. Denny Hamlin, who dueled Harvick throughout the season — at one point they combined to win nine of 14 races — talked to Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers this week.

“I understand their pain,” Hamlin said. “I mean, it easily could have been the other way around, They’re sitting there and they’re talking to us about, ‘Man, it sucks. You guys deserve it,’ but you’re not there.

“It would be hard for me to say, and you probably should ask them, but would they take a three‑win season and make it to the final four and not winning a championship or nine wins and not making the final four? I would take the nine wins and move on. It’s been a great season.”

Hamlin said before the playoffs began in September that the two “have a lot of respect between each other” and that the “right scenario” would be the two of them competing for the championship at Phoenix.

Childers expressed his gratitude for Hamlin reaching out this week, stating on Twitter: “I have really appreciated this, and the respect between the two teams all year long. The drivers, crew chiefs, road crews, pit crews, etc. It really has been top notch.”

3. A special car

Brad Keselowski will have the same car this weekend that he used to win with at New Hampshire and Richmond earlier this season.

But it wasn’t as easy as saving that car for Phoenix as Keselowski told NBC Sports on Thursday.

Brad Keselowski’s winning car at Richmond. The car also won at New Hampshire. He’ll run it this weekend at Phoenix. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I’m a car lover,” he said. “You get a car you like, you run it. That’s very anti-Penske. They don’t feel that way at all. So I get a lot of strange looks when I tell them, ‘Hey, this car is good.’ And they’ll look at me like ‘Oh, no, all of our cars are the same. We have this laser system. And the laser grid has all these cars exactly the same.’ I’m looking at them going, ‘Mmm-hmm. You’re overengineering this.

Probably one of the biggest heartbreaks in my entire life. In 2014, went to Kentucky, we sat on the pole, led the majority of the race, probably were a half-tenth to a tenth faster than the field the whole weekend. Just awesome. Perfect weekend.

“I came back into the shop Monday for debriefs. By Monday afternoon, debriefs were done, and Kentucky being a Saturday race, the cars were back in the shop first thing Monday morning. By the time, we got done with debriefs around 4 or 5 o’clock on Monday, I walk back in the shop and there was that car and they’d cut it up. When I say cut it up, I’m not talking about like cut a fender off. There was nothing left of this car.

“I was just like how could you do that? And the whole group was, ‘Oh, we’ll build another one. This car had two races on it.’ I didn’t win another mile-and-a-half race that entire year.

“I sat through that experience and went please don’t ever do that again. I still get a lot of those looks from part of the manufacturing team at Penske. I do believe there are certain cars that, for whatever reason, perform slightly better than others. Yes, the quality control processes and procedures have evolved tremendously, but to say you can build every car the same, is a farce to me.

“When this came up when we were going to run this car again, I made sure it was not even an option for it to circulate outside of the Phoenix race.”

4. Special guests

The championship contenders in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks will be allowed a limited number of guests to attend their title races this weekend at Phoenix.

For Xfinity Championship 4 driver Justin Allgaier, he’ll have wife Ashley and 7-year-old daughter Harper Grace at the track for one of the first times this season.

“The fact of them being there, her and my wife both, means a lot to me,” Allgaier said. “It’s been probably one of the more rough circumstances of 2020 is just not being able to travel with them.”

The helmet Justin Allgaier’s daughter, Harper Grace, designed for him for the playoffs. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

While race weekends have mainly been one-day shows, Allgaier has often stayed through the next day for the Cup event, serving as a backup driver. He was used by Hendrick Motorsports at Indianapolis when Jimmie Johnson could not race after testing positive for the coronavirus.

While his family has not been able to travel with him most of this season, Allgaier’s daughter has been with him in spirit throughout the playoffs with the helmet she designed for him. 

“One of the things I love is when she painted my helmet for 2020, her thought process immediately went to put the cacti from Phoenix, the logo, on to my helmet,” Allgaier said. “I told her the other day, if I do win at Phoenix and we win this championship, you’re going to have to paint cacti on my helmet forever, as long as we’re doing a playoff helmet and the season ends at Phoenix.”

To win the championship Saturday at Phoenix (5 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Allgaier will have to beat Chase Briscoe, the series’ winningest driver this year, Austin Cindric and Justin Haley.

5. Lucky break

That Brett Moffitt has a chance to win his second Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series title in the past three years is remarkable and shows how unusual this year has been.

Moffitt broke the femur in both legs on March 14, the day the Truck Series was scheduled to race at Atlanta. That race, though, had been called off the day before — the first NASCAR weekend postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.

So instead of racing, Moffitt was with a friend on dirt bikes. Moffitt came up short on a double jump. His front tire hit the top of the landing ramp, sending him over the front of the bike but his feet stuck to the pegs.

“When I wrecked, the first thought was ‘What did I just do?’ and ‘What’s going to be the repercussions for it?’ ’’ he said. “I was probably 20 minutes into post-accident and that first 20 minutes I spent calling my manager, figuring out what we were going to do. I wasn’t even worried about calling an ambulance at the time. I was more worried about how we were going to handle it.

“You always got to be afraid that something like that could cost you your job. Thankfully the Gallagher family was very faithful and loyal to me and stood behind me the whole way and kept me in the truck and thankfully, the break was long enough to to recover and not miss a race.”

Moffitt will race for the championship tonight. He’ll go against GMS Racing teammates Sheldon Creed and Zane Smith and ThorSport Racing’s Grant Enfinger for the crown.

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Sammy Smith to run full Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023

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Sammy Smith will run the full Xfinity schedule in the No. 18 car, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday.

The 18-year-old Smith, a Toyota development driver, won the ARCA Menards Series East title for a second consecutive year in 2022 and also made nine Xfinity starts with JGR.

Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt will be sponsors on Smith’s car throughout the 2023 season. Jeff Meendering will be Smith’s crew chief.

“This is an opportunity I have been working towards,” Smith said in a statement from the team. “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel full-time and am looking forward to a great season. I learned a lot in 2022 that will really help me to be competitive and run up front in the Xfinity Series. Thank you to Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Toyota Racing Development for supporting me in my racing career. I am excited for next year and appreciate the opportunity.”

Said Steve DeSouza, JGR executive vice president of Xfinity Series and driver development, in a statement: “Sammy is a fantastic addition to our 2023 Xfinity lineup. He proved to have the passion and the talent to necessary to compete for wins in the races he ran for us in 2022,” .“We are excited to get him in the No. 18 full time and know he will be competitive from the jump.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers

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Some drivers carry one car number throughout their racing careers. The most famous racers in NASCAR’s 75-year history typically are associated with one number, although some have raced under several.

Victories, championships and driver personalities give life to something as generally mundane as a number. And the most popular produce even bigger numbers, as in sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most iconic NASCAR numbers:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 43 — Since Richard Petty’s emergence as a superstar in the 1960s, the number 43 has been NASCAR’s most iconic. Although Lee Petty, Richard’s father, usually drove No. 42, he actually scored the first win by the 43, in 1959. The Petty blue No. 43 carried Richard to a string of championships. He scored 192 of his 200 race wins with the number. It rolls on today with Erik Jones, who took the 43 to the Southern 500 victory lane this season.

2. 3 — The fiercely facing forward No. 3 became ultra-famous while driven by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt (although Earnhardt won his first title driving the No. 2). Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet carried the number to new heights, but Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Buddy Baker and Ricky Rudd, among others, also won in the car.

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

3. 21 — The list of drivers who have raced Wood Brothers Racing’s famous No. 21, with the familiar gold foil numbers, reads like a history of NASCAR. David Pearson brought the most fame to the number, but Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, team owner Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Dale Jarrett also have driven the 21.

4. 11 — This number is responsible for more race wins — 228 — than any other. It also has scored eight championships — three each by Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and two by Ned Jarrett. Other stars in the 11 over the years: Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and Denny Hamlin. And some guy named Mario Andretti.

5. 48 — This number was largely ignored until the arrival of Jimmie Johnson, who carried it to seven championships, including five in a row.

6. 24 — The number 24 was a lonely number until 1994 when a kid named Jeff Gordon drove it to its first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The brightly colored 24 became a regular visitor to victory lane from that point forward, carrying Gordon to four championships and becoming one of NASCAR’s most decorated numbers.

MORE: Will Kyle Busch follow footsteps of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

7. 18 — Although Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte won in the 18, Kyle Busch, draped in the bright colors of sponsor M&Ms, took it into new territory.

8. 22 — NASCAR’s first Cup champion (Red Byron) and its most recent (Joey Logano) rode with the 22. The number has produced 87 wins over the years, including victories by Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Byron and Logano.

9. 2 — Although the 2 carried Dale Earnhardt (1980) and Brad Keselowski (2012) to Cup championships, it is perhaps most identified with Rusty Wallace, whose menacing black No. 2 was powerful at Team Penske. Also successful in the 2: Bill Blair, Kurt Busch and Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

10. 9 — The 9 was basically nondescript until Bill Elliott roared out of the north Georgia mountains to turn it into a big winner in the mid-1980s. His son, Chase, continues the trend.

 

 

Truck Series: Rajah Caruth joins GMS Racing

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Rajah Caruth will drive the No. 24 truck full-time for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023, the team announced Tuesday.

The 20-year-old Caruth ran a full season in the ARCA Menards Series last year, placing third in points. He also made seven Xfinity starts and four Truck starts last year. 

“I am extremely honored, and really excited to join GMS Racing and be in the fold of a professional race team with so much history,” Caruth said in a statement from the team. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this throughout my whole career, and I’m going to do the best in my power to make the most of it.

“First and foremost, I can’t thank everybody at GMS enough for believing in me and believing that I have what it takes to drive one of their trucks. Same goes for everybody at Chevrolet for their support, we truly wouldn’t be able to make this happen without them. 

Caruth joins Grant Enfinger and Daniel Dye as GMS Racing’s full-time Craftsman Truck Series drivers. Chad Walter will be Caruth’s crew chief. Jeff Hensley will be Enfinger’s crew chief. Travis Sharpe will be Dye’s crew chief. 

The primary partner on Caruth’s truck will be the Wendell Scott Foundation. The foundation, named for the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race, seeks to provide resources and services to underprivileged Black youth communities near Scott’s hometown of Danville, Virginia. Since the foundation’s formation in 2011, more than 25 students have been awarded more than $50,000 from the Wendell Scott Legacy Scholarship programs.

“We are excited for Rajah to compete full-time with GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023,” said Dayne Pierantoni, GM Racing Program Manager for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “Through Chevrolet’s partnership with Rev Racing, we have been impressed with Rajah’s talent both on and off the track. He has proven his ability to compete at the NASCAR national level, and we look forward to seeing his continued success with a series championship winning team.”

The Truck season begins Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway. 

In other Truck Series news:

Dean Thompson will drive the No. 5 for TRICON Garage this coming season. The 21-year-old was a rookie in the series this past season. He had a season-best finish of 11th at Las Vegas.

“I am thrilled to start the next chapter of my career with TRICON Garage and Toyota Racing Development,” Thompson said in a statement from the team. “The team and manufacturer have quickly made a statement in the Truck Series as striving to be the best of the best. I’m ready to take on the challenge and live up to the expectations of being a driver for TRICON.”

McAnally Hilgemann Racing announced Tuesday that Christian Eckes and Jake Garcia will drive full-time in the Truck series for the team next season.

Eckes, who will drive the No. 19 truck, moves over from ThorSport Racing. Garcia will drive the No. 35 truck in pursuit of the series Rookie of the Year award.

NAPA AutoCare will continue as a team sponsor.

Garcia is 17 and is scheduled to make his first start March 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Because of NASCAR’s age restrictions, he will miss the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The team’s Daytona driver has not been announced.

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry

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Jarrett Companies will increase the number of races it will sponsor Josh Berry‘s No. 8 JR Motorsports ride in 2023, the Xfinity Series team announced Monday.

Jarrett Companies will sponsor Berry in six races after serving as the primary sponsor in three races in 2022. Those six races will be Phoenix (March 11), Richmond (April 1), Dover (April 29), Atlanta (July 8), Indianapolis (Aug. 12) and Texas (Sept. 23).

The deal gives Berry at least 26 races with sponsorship for next season. Bass Pro Shops will serve as the primary sponsor of Berry’s car in 11 races in 2023. Tire Pros is back with JRM and will sponsor Berry in nine races in the upcoming season.

Berry, who reached the Xfinity title race and finished fourth in the points, will have a new crew chief in 2023. Taylor Moyer will take over that role with Mike Bumgarner serving as JRM’s director of competition.

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.