Friday 5: Drivers get ready for a challenging season of change

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As Kevin Harvick prepares for a NASCAR schedule as diverse as he’s ever experienced, the former Cup champion sees more change coming.

With a record seven road course races, the first Cup race on dirt since 1970 and fewer events at 1.5- and 2-mile tracks, NASCAR is going through a dramatic transition with its schedule.

“The most changes since 1969,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president, when the schedule was unveiled in September.

The result is that competitors will be tested in ways they have not.

Harvick, the oldest active full-time Cup driver at age 45, only can imagine what challenges will come for the next generation of racers.

“As motorsports goes forward, I think that the preparation and the level of things that you need is going to be different than the tools you’ve needed in the past,” he told NBC Sports. “You’re going to have to be very versatile in the things that you do.

“You look at this particular season. You’re going to have to be a darn good road racer on the NASCAR side, but you’re also going to have to have a little bit of dirt experience in there along with some short-track experience.

“You look at everything that it takes, I think you need to be as well rounded as you bring these kids up. … I don’t think that’s going to change. I think that’s going to become more extreme in how versatile you need to be.”

For some competitors, the changes already seem extreme — even after a season where there was no practice or qualifying before most races.

“It will be interesting and exciting to watch, for sure, and a little nerve-racking for the competitions as we have no idea what is around the corner,” Joey Logano told NBC Sports.

Six of the seven road courses are in the regular season. There had not been more than two in the regular season since NASCAR switched to a postseason format to determine the champion in 2004. While reigning champion Chase Elliott has won the past four road course races, others are not conceding any of those races this season.

“I’m no Chase Elliott, but I try to hang the best I can on the road course,” Ryan Blaney told NBC Sports.

He’s done well. Blaney has four top-five finishes in the last six road course races, including a win.

William Byron said he anticipates this year’s schedule will alter the balance of power in the sport.

“I think you’ll see less of domination from one team because you won’t be able to just go off the setup that you ran at Michigan and take that to another 2-mile track and do well like you see during the summer,” he told NBC Sports. “Typically in the summer, the guys that are fast at Michigan (that) kind of carries over to some of the bigger tracks and it’s kind of hard to overcome the dominance of those guys and their teams.

“Now with a bunch of road courses in the mix, I doubt you’re going to see consistency like that to be fast every week.”

Harvick and Denny Hamlin combined to win eight of 11 races between last June and August at tracks 1.5-miles or longer.

Also different is that three of the final seven races in the regular season will be on road courses: Road America (July 4) Watkins Glen (Aug. 8) and Indianapolis (Aug. 15). Those races could alter who makes the playoffs.

The Bristol dirt race also could give Cup drivers with a dirt background a chance to secure a playoff spot with a win early in the season.

“I don’t think anybody has a clue of how it’s going to be,” Kyle Larson told NBC Sports of the March 28 race at Bristol. “I think that’s what intriguing to me is the unknown and kind of having to adapt to something totally different. Even though it’s a dirt track, it’s not even close to what I’m used to racing on on dirt.”

After this year? There’s a new car radically different from what competitors have raced.

This is a new era in NASCAR,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports. “Lack of practice, jumping into these races and trying to collect stage points vs. putting yourself in position to win. The new simulators, the iRacing world, the new tracks, the new car. … If you get stuck in your ways, you’re getting put a lap down right now.”

2. Special anniversary

Cup rookie Chase Briscoe had overlooked the significance of Monday until a tweet he posted on Feb. 1, 2014, popped up on his phone.

Briscoe began his journey to North Carolina that day, leaving Indiana. He wrote in the tweet that he didn’t have a ride with any team and that “I’m not going to get anything unless I’m down there in the middle of it. I’m looking forward to this adventure and hoping to get back in a car soon.”

Briscoe said seeing the tweet seven years later brought back the emotions of that day.

“I was so excited to kind of start a new journey but also so nervous and really didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said. “I was fresh out of high school. I remember my mom, right before I left, literally trying to teach me how to do the laundry because she had always done it for me while I was in high school. 

“I was green to everything. I never had a credit card or a debit card. I literally went down with $150 in cash and just pretty much thrown into the world and try to figure it out.”

After two years, he still did not have a ride and was set to return to Indiana.

“Literally the day I was driving home I remember I was in Kentucky, called my mom,” Briscoe said. “I was in tears and told her I was moving back home. I was over it. I had been down there for two years and didn’t have anything. I was going to go run a midget that weekend and the following Monday I was going to drive back down, get my stuff and go back home. 

“Two hours later … I got a call from an ARCA team asking me if I was interested in coming and doing a test, and that was the Cunningham Motorsports team. I went there that following Monday and started volunteering my time.

“I’d been sleeping on couches for almost two years to that point and just started hanging out around their shop trying to be the first one to be there and the last guy to leave. I think I volunteered for a full nine or 10 months until I even got in a race car. They somehow, I don’t know why, decided they were going to let me race for them, and we went and ran for the championship in 2016 and was able to win the championship.”

That led to a development deal with Ford. His win in the Xfinity Roval race in 2018 led to a ride with Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity program and to the Cup ride this year.

“There were so many doors that probably shouldn’t have been opened that were somehow able to get opened,” he said. “When that (memory) popped up today, I just think of all the people that were willing to give me an opportunity when I didn’t have a resume.”

3. Tears of appreciation

Ryan Newman says he has no memory of his accident in last year’s Daytona 500 that bruised his brain.

“I don’t have any fear because I don’t have any memory” of the accident, Newman said.

The Purdue University engineering graduate says he’s looked at various videos of the incident to study the crash and understand all that the car went through.

“YouTube is an amazing tool,” Newman said. “I didn’t realize somebody had created a YouTube video of every angle of my crash until probably a month or two, maybe three months ago. … I literally laid in bed one morning as it popped up – ‘We know you like these things, so check this out.’ ‘Well, hell, that’s me.’

“So I looked at it and I watched it and it was just a different perspective. It brought tears to my eyes. Like, ‘Damn.’ But those are tears of respect and appreciation, not tears of sadness because I was here and I was able to watch it and know that just down the hallway my kids were going to wake up shortly.”

4. A “Super” conversation

Asked which athlete they’d like to meet, a few Cup drivers pointed to Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, who goes for his seventh Super Bowl title Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.

“His competitive nature, I think, is something that anybody could respect,” Chase Elliott told NBC Sports. “That would be a guy that I would love to have a conversation with and talk about a little of everything.”

Elliott would want to talk to Brady about his mental approach.

“People are always like you set your mind to it, you can do whatever, within reason,” Elliott said. “You can really manipulate a lot of thinking in your head with the right amount of nudge from one corner or the other. It can really sway you.

“There’s absolutely a big mental game in anything you do, whether it’s sports or anything. I think the mental side is big, and he seems like a guy who has that very well in hand and obviously just his presence and whatever he brings from a leadership side of things is impressive. If you look at what he’s done this year. That’s pretty wild.”

Joey Logano also would like to have a conversation with Brady.

“Doing it for so long as he has and to be at that level would probably be my questions, how has he evolved over the years,” Logano told NBC Sports. “Playing as a 25-year-old is different than playing as a 40-something year old. How he has evolved has been pretty impressive. How he has changed his strengths over the years to be great is something really cool to see, and I’d like to ask him about that.”

5. Small group

Only four active driver/crew chief combinations have been together for more than 100 races heading into the Feb. 14 Daytona 500.

Those pairings are:

248 races — Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers

177 races — Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson

142 races — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and crew chief Brian Pattie

118 races — Alex Bowman and crew chief Greg Ives

The next pairing is Austin Dillon and crew chief Justin Alexander. They’ve been together for 95 races.

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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.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”

 

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

MORE: A better way to determine the Cup champion?

Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.