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.

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“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.

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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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