Analysis: Blocking is commonality between Daytona victory, defeat


Brad Keselowski’s seething, on simmer for a few months, was brought to a boil on an early July afternoon two years ago in Daytona. He’d finally taken a stance on blocking and his adrenaline was churning, so much so that he was oblivious to the traffic flow in the Cup garage during practice for the Coke Zero 400. NBC Sports’ Marty Snider had to usher Keselowski out of the way of moving cars.

And then, camera on, microphone hot, Keselowski let fire.

I’m trying to send a message. I’m not lifting,” he told Snider. “We’ve been wrecked in four of the last five plate races, quite honestly because I let people pull moves like that on me.”

The incident began when William Byron attempted a block. It wasn’t just any block, though; it was a last-minute block in practice. Keselowski’s refusal to lift out of the throttle was too complex to be considered a party foul.

Given the basic physics behind drafting — when the lead car (in this case, Byron) blocks the air, reducing the wind resistance for the second car (Keselowski), the second car travels faster, sometimes without its driver standing wide-open on the gas pedal — the only surefire way Keselowski would’ve avoided collision was to smash the brake pedal. That’s an action with different, potentially bigger ramifications.

Keselowski, never one to keep quiet on slights, was sloughed off by fans used to his antics. A few drivers disagreed with his stance.

I don’t think he ‘sent a message’ to anybody. I think it was kind of careless,” said Jimmie Johnson, Byron’s then-fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver. “He feels pretty good about what he did. We’ll see how it all unfolds for him.”

It unfolded that night in Daytona’s driver motorcoach lot, when Byron confronted Keselowski. While the talk wasn’t totally amicable, it also wasn’t unproductive. Interestingly, Keselowski’s message resonated with its victim; Byron listened, learned, and quietly vowed to sharpen his blocking ability.

“I just kind of wanted to learn some things from him,” Byron told NBC Sports. “He was adamant that you’ve got to make those moves quickly and aggressively and not delay the reaction.”

“A lot of guys do it too slow.”

Hendrick’s drafting program is perennially speedy, but the incident with Keselowski and subsequent conversation prompted Byron to request more nimbleness in his car’s handling — a rapid response from the moment the steering wheel feels his input — in an effort to perfect this particular move on the racetrack.

“We worked a lot on my car to make sure I can do those moves quickly, with less effort,” he said, pointing out his desired goal. “As soon my eyes go there (to the spot in front of the car he wants to block), we’ve been trying to get the car to go there, too.”

His technique evolved: Gone were the sharp diagonals, in were the rounded edges. He also improved his timing, learning to respect the opposing driver’s run — aside from side-drafting, which scrubs his opponent’s speed but removes his own chance at a block, there’s not much he can actually do to thwart it — by reacting a few beats sooner than necessary to allow for wiggle room. For Byron, a block is a commitment. Haphazard efforts no longer suffice.

It’s fitting his first Cup Series win of any kind came in last year’s Duel qualifier at Daytona, following a successful defense of his lead with a well-executed, lane-changing block on Johnson:

Byron left plenty of breathing room for Johnson, whose inability to answer for the young driver’s tactics was misconstrued by some, including Byron, as playing nice with his corporate teammate, seeming content with the role of pusher while approaching the finish line.

“We talked briefly in victory lane and he said, ‘Thanks for pushing me,’” recalled Johnson. “I said I wasn’t trying to push him – ‘I was trying to pass your ass.’”

Blocking is equal parts necessity and skill.

The necessity, for Daytona and Talladega, stems from recent shifts within the rules packages, including the move to the current 9-inch spoiler height. Now, it’s a chore, as the leader, to keep the field at bay. Opposing runs are faster and too often inevitable.

“After the rules change … the race at Daytona, specifically the 500, turned into a crash-fest,” said Keselowski. “You had little to no ability to kind of control the race as the leader.”

Some of those leaders and frontrunners did what anyone would do in their situations: Block. But blocking is a skill requiring mastery, which too few drivers have achieved. Sloppy or bad blocks have not only defined recent Daytona races, but also transformed the front of the pack, once a safe haven, into a minefield.

“To me, definitely it used to be if you’re in the top 10, you felt safe,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a Daytona winner in 2017. “Nowadays, that’s kind of where the wrecks start happening, that fifth-to-10th range, versus I felt like back in the day, it was 15th-to-20th place where the chaos started.”

Stenhouse is spot-on with his estimation. A study of the Daytona accidents over the last eight years — 45 crashes involving four or more cars — confirms the danger zone’s location change:

From 2013-16, Daytona saw 19 eligible accidents. Its occupants running inside the top 10 saw, at worst, a 26% inclusion rate in crashes. That high-end number skyrocketed between 2017-20, a span including 26 similar accidents, to 54%, better than a coin flip’s chance. Third place went from Daytona’s safest spot (no inclusion in big crashes) to one of its worst (50% inclusion).

The leader’s risk for inclusion has increased from 5% to 27%, but the lead car’s movements are clearly affecting nearby positions. Sixth place has been caught in eight of the last nine multi-car crashes, dating back to the 2019 Daytona 500, while 13th place was included in each of the last five.

“Everyone has seen the leaders playing the lines, going back and forth, trying to block this line, that line,” three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin said. “Those (movements) end up having a chain reaction that starts right around that three-four-five-six spot.”

There are two preferred pathways to avoiding these large crashes. One involves riding near the rear of the field, as Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing did for large stretches of last year’s season opener. The other is to get out front and throw blocks — dangerous with redundancy, but perhaps the only way to play defense.

“You have to block, man,” T.J. Majors, spotter for Joey Logano, told NBC Sports. “How else do you keep the lead?”

Logano and Majors hunker down for video sessions before every race on drafting tracks, figuring they’ll have to adjust for any quirks within the rules that alter the timing needed to guarantee such dicey moves.

“The draft never stays the same. It evolves,” said Logano, who focused recent game-planning with Majors on the prospect of blocking in the era of bigger spoilers. “We used to have more of a bubble behind us where you can block cars and be able to block them without checking up the whole line or getting hit from behind.”

“Every time they make a package change, people don’t ever really think about it,” Majors said. “Maybe a lot of spotters don’t think about it. It changes your runs, it changes your closing rates. It changes everything, man. So, when they make the spoiler bigger, you gotta learn it again.”

“Now, shoot, two cars get linked up together and you’re two or three car lengths out? They’re coming. It didn’t used to be that bad, you know?”

Whereas spotters like Majors once were able to command lane changes and see immediate effect, the current closing rate has made the call-and-response dynamic between drivers and spotters difficult, bordering on impossible. Byron, for one, utilizes spotter Tab Boyd for getting through the field, but once he’s in the lead, it’s all mirror-driving and reaction time.

“Well, now the closing rates are so big,” said Byron. “Tab can’t do much other than suggest, ‘Hey, take that lane away’ or ‘That run is the biggest.’”

This leaves drivers to their own devices, a concern for competitors like Hamlin who typically find themselves questioning the decisions of those with mediocre blocking skills.

“Everyone thinks they know how to block and they have enough time to do it,” Hamlin said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to live to race another lap. I’ve seen guys do late blocks at the halfway point. It’s like, there’s no guarantee the guy’s even going to clear you. Just let him get beside you and y’all figure it out.”

It’s not difficult to identify a bad block. Timing is the tell, as is the ensuing response from trailing cars:

Ryan Blaney’s sharp motion in last year’s Daytona 500 caused him to lose the lead and momentum, forcing those behind him to check up or scramble, but it didn’t wipe out the field. He cut it close, sure, but there were no wrecked race cars, and ultimately, this fact is what places his maneuvering above the fine line between right and wrong.

“At the end of the day, you block because it works,” said Clint Bowyer, now with Fox Sports. “And it works until it doesn’t. The only unfortunate difference between one that works and one that doesn’t is a crash. It’s successful until it’s not, and then you’re the bad guy. You wrecked the whole field because it’s an untimely block and you wrecked everybody. But, if you didn’t (block), you should’ve, and you’re going to lose the race.”

Tyler Reddick’s attempt at a block in last summer’s Coke Zero 400 was a desperation heave, one he later lamented despite not wrecking himself. He had no support from a trailing car and didn’t properly account for the closing rate when making the lane change. The chain reaction arrived on cue:

The pileup was indeed Reddick’s fault, but a bid to maintain his position — a playoff spot was on the line with a win, after all — was the move expected of him. It’s a delicate situation for drivers balancing what they have to do with what their efforts could do.

It’s something Byron reckoned with, realizing he needed to get better at the only definitive method for retaining leads on NASCAR’s biggest tracks.

“When it comes time to go at the end, I mean, you’ve got to make those big blocks and the big lane changes to have success.”

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season


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


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


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.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK

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.