Friday 5: New year brings three Cup teams closer to NASCAR debut

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Shortly after crew chief Mike Wheeler joined 23XI Racing last fall, he was encouraged to keep a diary to chronicle the experience of building a new team.

“Some of this stuff we’re going through is nuts … but it’s awesomely nuts,” Bootie Barker, the team’s senior engineer, told Wheeler and suggested the diary.

The recommendation also could be a good idea for those at Trackhouse Racing and Live Fast Motorsports, new teams that will join 23XI Racing in their first season in NASCAR. They each will make their Cup debut in about five weeks at Daytona.

Wednesday proved worthy of another entry for Wheeler’s diary. The first two Daytona cars for Bubba Wallace arrived. Denny Hamlin, who co-owns the team with Michael Jordan, was there to see the cars roll into the shop after their trip from Joe Gibbs Racing.

MORE: Bubba Wallace’s motto is “No more excuses” for 2021

“It’s a car in primer and on casters, and you’re like, yep, there it is,” Wheeler said. “There’s no confetti, no candles. It’s just a race car.”

Wheeler recognized the significance of the cars arriving, but it was hard to get too excited because of the work that remains.

Co-owner Denny Hamlin looks over one of the first two cars brought to the 23XI Racing shop on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo: 23XI Racing)

Take what his Wednesday was like.

“It was an all-around day,” Wheeler told NBC Sports. “There have been a lot of these.”

He awoke after 5 a.m. and was in the shop by 6 a.m. for a workout. Work began at 7 a.m. with a brief meeting with many of the shop’s 20-plus employees.

One of the day’s key projects was getting the shop’s paint booth serviced and certified. There also were discussions about how many brake lines to order and other parts and pieces.

Hamlin spent half the day at the shop, spending some of that time with Wheeler, a car chief and engineers — the team has six — discussing car details and shop needs. The hauler is expected to arrive from Ohio today and the team completed its preparations for that.

“It’s going good,” Wheeler said of all the work. “I would tell you this, though, that every day it is two steps forward and one step back. Denny left at 5 o’clock and goes, ‘Hey, call me when you’ve got some good news for once.’ He said it jokingly. It’s neat seeing this place progress to the point that it is, but it’s not without hurdles, for sure.”

Starting a team isn’t easy, but starting it so late makes it more challenging. The team was not revealed until Sept. 21 — less than five months before the Feb. 14 Daytona 500. Even with the late start, the team announced its five major sponsors last month.

It’s not just sponsors that want to be involved with a team co-owned by one of the NBA’s greatest players, backed by Toyota and aligned with JGR.

Wheeler said the team received more than 500 resumes. Some employees from Leavine Family Racing followed Wheeler — where he had been the past two seasons — to 23XI Racing. Some former Germain Racing team members were hired and others came from elsewhere in the sport.

Wheeler said he wants to build the team in a different manner than most.

“Most of the thing we’re trying to do is set up a good structure, both building and people, that can handle a lot of this without me being engaged in every decision,” Wheeler said. “One of the things I dream about this place, with everyone’s blessing, is to kind of run it more like an F1 shop.

“Fortunately, I’ve got JGR cars and a (Toyota Racing Development) alliance, so that’s a big chunk off my plate. I’ve got a good group of guys from (Leavine Family Racing) that I trust and know firsthand, and I’ve got other guys from JGR that I know as well.

“I’m leaning on my engineers and leaning on my mechanics wholeheartedly, probably as much as any crew chief, if not more, to help make the right decisions quicker. I think I’ve learned in the past, a lot of times people dwell on decisions, trying to make it themselves instead of listening to people around them. I’m definitely leaning on the point of having enough engineers … and enough experienced mechanics so when three guys are in the agreement of something, I’m good with that.”

2. Trackhouse Racing’s turnkey setup

Even when he’s not working, Trackhouse Racing crew chief Travis Mack is thinking about his new team.

“I wake up every night at 2 in the morning with another thought or idea and I have to jot it down,” Mack told NBC Sports. “I’m thinking so much. Even on the drive up, it’s a 45-minute drive, it gives me plenty of time to think about things to do.”

The Justin Marks-owned team is aligned with Richard Childress Racing and housed in RCR’s shop next to the No. 3 cars of Austin Dillon and No. 8 cars of Tyler Reddick.

Richard Childress Racing’s shop was built to hold at least three teams, so there’s room for the Trackhouse Racing cars, which will be driven by Daniel Suarez. Trackhouse will use some of the equipment that was there for the No. 27 team when RCR ran three cars. Mack said RCR was building cars for Trackhouse before any team members were hired.

Travis Mack Trackhouse
Crew chief Travis Mack joined Trackhouse Racing after having spent the past 2 1/2 seasons with Michael Annett at JR Motorsports. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“It’s really nice to have that turnkey performance side of the team already in place,” Mack said.

He was the team’s first hire. Mack selected team members who matched the vision Marks and Mack have “to really think outside the box.

“I just wanted to build the team around a bunch of racers,” Mack said. “I want to build that racer mentality. I really feel like we’ve done a really good job of that. We have a wide range of racers from our team. Everybody is a racer but they’ve come from different backgrounds.”

One of the team’s engineers, Eric Smith, excels in iRacing and was Suarez’s crew chief for the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series events last season when the sport paused for the pandemic. Another engineer, Jose Blasco, has worked with Suarez previously.

Other crew members came from various racing disciplines, including modified racing, late model racing, dirt racing and drag racing.

“I’ve really just built a team around a bunch of racers,” Mack said. “It just carries through the whole team. They know what it takes to build a race car and get to the racetrack and they’re not scared of the work.”

That helps Mack, who has never worked with Suarez, to spend more time with his driver. Mack has listened to radio communications of about half a dozen races between Suarez and his team last season to understand what Suarez needs from a crew chief and how the driver relays info.

“At the beginning of the year, they really weren’t happy with their communication and they worked on it all season long and got better and I was wanting to listen to that to see how it changed,” Mack said.

It’s all just a part of building a team.

“I’m pumped up,” Mack said. “It’s a lot of pressure on myself. I hope we achieve great things. I know it’s going to take a lot of work.”

3. Live Fast Motorsports plans for the future

B.J. McLeod was struck by the sense of relief he felt as he walked into the race shop Wednesday in Mooresville, North Carolina, and saw some of the Live Fast Motorsports cars.

It has been a hectic few months for the team co-owned by McLeod and Matt Tifft.

The team purchased the charter and equipment from Go Fas Racing. In December, team members worked in the Go Fas Racing shop putting cars together before transporting them to the Live Fast Motorsports shop, which also houses McLeod’s Xfinity Series operation.

Working in both shops made for a hectic time.

AUTO: JUL 28 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series - Gander Outdoors 400
B.J. McLeod, who co-owns Live Fast Motorsports with Matt Tifft, has made 57 career Cup starts. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“You’re trying to get stuff built and sent over here,” McLeod told NBC Sports. “You don’t have all your people there. They’re in and out. They’re moving stuff.”

But the equipment was all in place and so were the people when McLeod walked in the shop Wednesday.

“All right, this is a Cup team,” he said. “I could believe it finally. … Then it’s the next step.”

One of the main focuses for McLeod, who also will drive the No. 78 car for the new team, is an addition to the shop. McLeod’s shop is 17,000 square feet. The addition is scheduled to be 14,000 square feet, pending city approval.

“The No. 1 thing right now is to get the shop addition as soon as possible,” McLeod said. “It just helps out with infrastructure. More room, people are happier. They’ve got more room to do their stuff, more room to be organized.

“Some people would look at the shop and be like, ‘Wow this is awesome, this is really cool. It’s set up great.’ … I know what I want. I want my Cup guys to have everything they need. I want my Xfinity guys to have everything they need.”

As for now, the team has 12 cars it purchased from Go Fas Racing, along with equipment, including a pit box and tool box. McLeod said he feels his team is in good shape in terms of preparing for next month’s Daytona 500.

“Everybody always wants to be more prepared,” McLeod said. “I don’t think anybody ever says, ‘we’re way ahead.’ The racer mentality, no matter what, if you give them another week, they’ll rebuild stuff. That’s the way we do it.

“I feel good … We’ve got all our chassis and bodies and suspensions hung and sitting there and wiring and dashes. We’re in really good shape. We’ve got motors sitting on the floor. We’ve got a leased engine for Daytona. Everything we need is coming together.”

4. A new approach for Front Row Motorsports 

NASCAR’s move to add more road courses — six of the 26 regular-season races this season will be on such courses and one will be in the playoffs — led Front Row Motorsports to change its focus for Michael McDowell’s No. 34 team.

McDowell, an accomplished road racer before coming to NASCAR, now has more chances to excel. This after a season where he had a career-high four top-10 finishes and placed in the top 20 in 18 of 36 races — nearly equal to how many top-20 finishes he had in 2018 and ’19 combined.

NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling 235
Michael McDowell finished 10th in last year’s race on the Daytona road course. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

With the addition of road course races at Daytona, Circuit of the Americas, Road America and Indianapolis, Front Row Motorsports is putting more focus on its road course program, general manager Jerry Freeze says.

“The one thing our crew chiefs and engineer crowd kind of felt strongly was that the package we were taking to the road courses could definitely be better,” Freeze told NBC Sports. “Certainly on the Daytona road course and the Charlotte Roval, where we’re actually running the banking on the traditional track with the road course.

“They felt like we underperformed at those tracks (McDowell finished 10th on the Daytona road course last year) … and a lot of the problems were raw speed on the banks and transition from the flat to the banks. There were some things we could do … more so, a redo on the body spec to come up with something that was a little more downforce friendly. We’re kind of looking at the road courses a little differently than we have in the past.”

The solution is that instead of having an extra downforce chassis, the team will have an extra road course chassis. One road course chassis will be setup to handle downforce better on the banked corners at the Charlotte Roval, Daytona road course and possibly be used at Watkins Glen with its high-speed sections.

The team also will have a traditional road course chassis — where downforce will not be as integral — to be used at Sonoma, COTA, Indy and Road America.

“It just made sense for us that if we’re going to do something different and invest a few more dollars into something or do something differently,” Freeze said of the focus on road courses. “That was the area to do it in.”

5. Chevrolet’s closer bonds

Since moving from Richard Childress Racing to become Chevrolet’s Director of NASCAR Programs late last season, one of Dr. Eric Warren’s duties is finding ways for the Chevy teams to consolidate resources.

“What we are trying to do is make our organizations stronger,” Warren told NBC Sports. “Finding the areas that can be shared in a common way. Instead of having four people working on a simulation program with one team, have 20 working on it in a shared group.”

Chase Elliott Most Popular Driver
Chase Elliott celebrating his Cup title last November at Phoenix Raceway. It marked Chevrolet’s first Cup title since Jimmie Johnson‘s 2016 championship. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Chevrolet won the Cup title last season with Chase Elliott. That marked the first time since 2016 that Chevrolet had a car in the Cup title race. Last season saw Chevy teams win nine races — Toyota won nine races and Ford won 18.

Chevrolet’s win total continued to increase since winning four races in 2018 in the first year of the Camaro ZL1. Chevy teams won seven times in 2019. 

“The struggles of 2018 really was some of the catalyst for the teams working closely together,” Warren said. “Some of the work going on with the 2020 Camaro ZL1 1LE was definitely an improvement over the previous car.

“It started out the season really strong. Came back after (the COVID-19 pause) and had some flashes but went through a period where there was a lot going on last year. New car, new air balance a little bit. You’re showing up at the track with no practice.

“I think it really kind of highlighted the importance of simulation and being able to predict your balance and what you want to be setup-wise. … Now you have to hit the balance absolute (with no practice before most races) and it changes how you approach it.”

That’s among the areas Warren will look to help teams be better this season.

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NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).