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.

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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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Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

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.