Friday 5: The ‘best-kept secret’ in NASCAR is champion’s journal few have seen

0 Comments

The NASCAR Cup Series championship is forever. The memories are special, but there is one thing about winning a Cup title that makes Joey Logano’s smile stretch a bit wider.

“The coolest part about winning the championship,” he tells NBC Sports of the journal passed from one champion to the next. “It is the best-kept secret in our sport. That’s the best part about this is that nobody even really knows what it is. Nobody knows … what’s written in it.”

The journal’s existence was hidden until 2017, when Jimmie Johnson posted a picture on social media handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr., the series champ that year. Johnson started the tradition in 2011 after a chat with NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton about how nothing was passed from one champion t the next.

The tradition continued in December. Kyle Busch gave the journal to reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott when both competed in the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

Elliott said he is waiting to find the right time to go through the book.

“That’s been one of the coolest things about this whole deal is taking possession of it and getting to read it,” Elliott told NBC Sports. “It makes you wish that somebody had started that back 30-plus, 40 years ago to just see what some of those guys would have to say or even when NASCAR was started. I think it would be really cool.

“On the flip side, I think about the guy or the girl who wins the championship in 2050 or 2060. How cool is that going to be to look back to see what Tony Stewart had to say or what Jimmie Johnson had to say, two legends of our time. Really cool tradition and proud to be a part of that.”

Busch said he spent a good bit of time thinking about what to write to Elliott. Busch wrote multiple drafts before penning the page-long note.

NASCAR Cup Series Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500
Kyle Busch said he spent a lot of time crafting the note he wrote to Chase Elliott in the champion’s journal. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“I ran out of space,” Busch told NBC Sports. “I filled a whole page. I probably could have done a page and a half on the backside if I kept going. I tried to keep it to a page because it seems everybody was keeping it to a page, so I didn’t want to be the guy to screw it up.”

What did he need all that space to say?

“Just that, to me, it’s the growth of Chase Elliott,” Busch said. “I’ve seen him at such a young age and as a young driver and race against guys much older than him, much more experienced than him.

“He grew up with a famous father. He grew up on TV. His dad was friends with Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. He was in pictures with Dale Sr. all the time and stuff like that.

“I guess I just was kind of explaining like, ‘Hey, this is new territory for you, but this is a territory where you can not necessarily change the sport or change the world, but man, just live it up and enjoy it and know that you’re Chase Elliott and now that you’re a champion, you’ve made it in this sport.’”

While Busch needed a few drafts before writing, Martin Truex Jr. needed more time before giving the journal to Logano. Truex did so a few months after Logano bumped him out of the lead on the last lap to win the Martinsville playoff race and advance to the championship in Miami. Logano beat Truex for the 2018 title.

“When it came time for me to write mine, it was tough,” Truex told NBC Sports. “I had to wait a little while, because I didn’t want to write something that just kind of came out, a knee-jerk reaction. I wanted to make sure I wrote what I should write, which is take the heat-of-the-battle things out of it and write important things that somebody would enjoy reading after I’m done racing and this stuff doesn’t matter anymore.

“Jimmie gave it to me at the banquet (the previous year). I couldn’t give it to Joey until the next season started. I feel like I did it for the right reasons. In the end, I meant what I wrote and felt he deserved to have something written to him that meant something.

“It’s a big enough honor to ignore your feelings of hate or resentment or being mad about any race and talk about more what it means to pass on a championship, to pass the torch in something that is really bigger than you are.”

Logano said fear was among the emotions he felt when he received it from Truex.

“The first thing you think is, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to be the guy to lose this,’” Logano said. “First thing, I put it in a safe.

“It’s so much fun to take this step back. Jimmie started it and you start reading. They’re one page most of the time, a letter to the next champ. Some of them are pretty deep. Some of them are very quick. ‘Here you go, whatever.’

“There’s usually a story that goes behind it. It’s really fun to just read through it. It’s something that I thought was very special. I thought it was the coolest part of winning the championship just because of the uniqueness of the book and seeing people’s stories and their feelings about maybe their championship season or whatever it may be to the next champion.

“I hope to get it again. I’d love to see kind of where it’s gone over the last couple of years.”

When his reign ended, Logano presented the journal to Busch. They’ve had their issues and Logano sought to address that.

“I wrote a letter to Kyle,” Logano said. “Obviously, Kyle and I have had our run-ins on the racetrack and there’s no secret to that. At the same time, I think we respect each other as competitors. I think we’re very different people, but I think as competitors, we’re probably more similar than he thinks. It’s just kind of connecting at a different level and then handing it off.”

How did Busch feel about Logano’s note?

“I can admit I was not touched by what Joey wrote to me,” Busch said. “I felt as though he was trying to explain something or why our differences were. He was giving his side of the story and not necessarily understanding both sides of the story.

“He can say he put a lot of effort into it and thought into it and that’s great. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. But under different interpretations, it could come off a little bit differently. That’s all. I think the champion’s journal is pretty cool. It’s got some unique touches to it.”

2. New owners coming to NASCAR?

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, hinted Thursday to reporters that new ownership groups could be coming to NASCAR.

“I’ll say candidly that we’re talking to no less than two potential owners that are not racing today — that are outside the sport entirely — because of (the) Next Gen (car), because of circumstance, because of the relationship we’ve been building,” he said.

“They’re interested in taking a shot potentially. That’s exciting when you get new ownership that comes from the business world that is well funded, that’s credible. I think the sport is going to be rocked. Stay tuned.”

The Next Gen car, which is scheduled to debut next season, has been cited as a reason for raising the interest in team ownership. While costs will be high the first year as teams change from the current car to the new one, the Next Gen car is anticipate to help reduce costs to team owners by year three or four. That makes the financial model for team ownership more viable for more owners.

Wilson said he is interested in adding another, as he calls it, “top-tier” Cup team to the Toyota family.

“I’d love to see three organizations that are relatively independent and are healthy from a sponsorship standpoint and have top-tier driver talent,” he said. “We’re counting 23XI (Racing) as one of those three teams (along with Joe Gibbs Racing).”

Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, has made it known that the organization wants to expand to a multi-car team at some point.

The 23XI Racing team is one of three new Cup teams this season. Trackhouse Racing is in the Chevrolet camp, and Live Fast Motorsports is a Ford team.

3. New look

One of the challenges in starting a season with the Daytona 500 is that new spotter/driver combinations don’t have much time to work together before one of the year’s biggest races.

That’s critical because Daytona and Talladega are among the tracks that spotters matter the most to drivers. Ensuring that the spotter feeds the driver what they want and how they want it is something that can take time.

Brad Keselowski experienced the adjustment in 2019 when Coleman Pressley became his spotter.

Keselowski said that Pressley “was up to speed right away. Still, there’s a comfort level that comes with who you are working with. Those reps take time. You can’t really simulate them.

“I look at 2016 where Matt Kenseth didn’t have his normal spotter and it probably cost him the 500.”

Denny Hamlin won that race, passing Kenseth in Turn 3 on the last lap. Kenseth went high to block and Hamlin cut underneath. Kenseth did not counter Hamlin’s move quick enough. Hamlin went on to edge Martin Truex Jr. for the win.

Truex and Michael McDowell are among the drivers with new spotters this season.

Truex has Drew Herring as his spotter to help get better at speedway racing. Truex is winless in 16 Daytona 500s.

“Drew’s been working really hard in the offseason to prepare for this, and as a driver himself, he knows the things that I need to hear and want to hear,” Truex said. “It will be a work in progress for sure. It will take a little time to get on the same page and just to be able to understand exactly what he means when he says something.”

Truex’s former spotter, Clayton Hughes, will be McDowell’s spotter. McDowell has finished in the top 10 in two of the last three Daytona 500s.

“Having Clayton up on top of the roof gives me a lot of confidence,” McDowell said. “He’s won a lot of races and won a championship and has worked with Martin for a long time and worked with a lot of great drivers, so he’s a huge asset that we’re very fortunate to bring to Front Row. 

“But, like you said, it’s tough to come to Daytona not working with somebody and getting that communication down, so (Wednesday) in practice, we jumped right out in the draft and tried to get in the pack just so we could kind of get used to each other a little bit. Everything has gone pretty smooth and then (Thursday) with the Duels, that will give us an opportunity to race and then debrief afterwards and talk about what I need different, what he can do different, what I can do different.”

4. Changes to make

While the last-lap contact between Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney made for a thrilling finish with Kyle Busch winning Tuesday’s Clash, it overshadowed a key issue in the race.

Dirt and mud were kicked up on the track in the backstretch chicane known as the “bus stop.” Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick each spun after hitting the dirt and mud. Truex hit the wall and his race was over.

While the Clash was an exhibition race, the series holds a points race on the Daytona road course on Feb. 21, a week after the 500.

Drivers said some sort of adjustment needs to be made in that area of the chicane before next weekend’s race.

“I think we need some sort of curbing,” Kurt Busch said. “It needs to be a mid-range style height. The big yellow curbs that are on the front straightaway chicane are a bit too abrupt for the speed that we run back there. The paint, where it was, once we rubbered that in on the curbing, you couldn’t tell where the curbing ended and the grass started.”

Said Truex: “The biggest thing is that was the first time we’ve raced here at night. It was a lot darker. It was really hard to see. It was really hard to distinguish where the grass was, where the curb started. Then when guys started going through the mud, track conditions changed lap to lap. I think we need some kind of visual that is not just flat. The rumble strips in the bus stop are even with the grass and the pavement. With it being that dark, you can’t distinguish it.”

Next weekend’s race is scheduled 3 p.m. ET, so darkness shouldn’t be an issue.

“When we were here in August, you could see the sand and the dust pick up and be on the racetrack,” Truex said. “But it wasn’t mud. I definitely think we could do something better.”

5. Offense is the best defense

Aric Almirola admits that his tactic at the end of his qualifying race might not work all the time, but it was a move he felt he had to make to win the race.

Entering Turn 3, Joey Logano was second to Almirola. Logano was backing to Christopher Bell, who was third, to get a push to get by Almirola. That’s when Almirola made his move.

“I just knew I wanted to try to move around before he started his run to try and mess up his run or get him off on thinking which way he was going to go,” Almirola said. “I was able to do that to where I could at least get him going in a direction that I knew he was going to go opposite of me rather than me guessing where he was going to go.

“I felt like I did everything I could. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop his run. I wasn’t going to be able to just blatantly block him. That would probably cause a wreck. Our race car was way too fast. I wasn’t going to concede the win, but I certainly wasn’t going to get my really fast Smithfield Ford Mustang tore up trying to be overly defensive.

“I made a move one way, then I blocked the top. He got to my inside. I was able to just side draft him and pull him back to where he couldn’t clear me.”

That’s one way drivers have to counter the runs trailing cars get. Blocking those runs can lead to wrecks.

“You still can get wrecked if you block too much,” said Austin Dillon, who won the second qualifying race. “I noticed that. There’s some that you don’t want to step in front of, then there’s some if you time it early enough, you can step in front of. You got to be careful.”

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

0 Comments

Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

0 Comments

Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

0 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

0 Comments

Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.