Daytona 500 takeaways: Denny Hamlin loses control of race, Kyle Larson’s return


For a while, Denny Hamlin indeed made it look easy again.

An ill-fated pit strategy under green flag conditions may have put the kibosh on his bid to become the first driver to win three consecutive Daytona 500s on Sunday night. But not before Hamlin showed again why he’s become so dominant on the superspeedways in recent years.

“We were controlling the lines, controlling the pace – It was easy for a little while,” Hamlin said after a race where he led the most laps (98) and swept both stages. “But I knew it was all gonna be about that last pit stop if we didn’t have any other cautions.”

Before things went awry, Hamlin dictated the proceedings with his Toyota teammates often behind him. Of course, a good spotter is essential to mastering the art of superspeedway racing – and in Chris Lambert, Hamlin has one of the best.

“He really does a great job painting a picture for me in the mirror, that way I don’t have to look,” Hamlin said of Lambert. “I can just trust in what he’s saying and make a move. That’s been the key, I think, to me, being able to control and move side to side in tight spaces. It’s been our communication and how well we’ve worked together.”

MORE: Daytona 500 win rewards resiliency of Michael McDowell

But after he and his teammates were shuffled back in the field following the green flag cycle with less than 30 laps to go, Hamlin was at the mercy of the single-file line that droned around the 2.5-mile oval until roughly two laps to go.

Following the Fords and Chevrolets, the Toyotas were the last to pit during the cycle on Lap 173. But when they came out, Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Bubba Wallace were all separated on the track.

Now running in single-file with Joey Logano at the front, the Fords and Chevrolets quickly swallowed them up. Hamlin ended up slotting into 13th at Lap 176. When the white flag waved 23 laps later, he had only been able to move up to ninth.

He avoided the fiery, multi-car wreck on the last lap to finish fifth. Afterwards, he seemed miffed over the lack of effort in making a move with a win on the line.

“I understood at the end of stages, waiting until the last lap – you’re gonna get some points, no matter what,” he said. “But ultimately, and this is selfishly speaking, I’m wondering, ‘What in the world? Why are we running in a single file line crossing the white – 10th, 12th, 8th, 6th, are you just happy with that finish or are you gonna go for it?’ Especially since there were really no Fords beyond fifth or sixth – it was them and everyone else. Then, surprise, everyone else didn’t go.

“I wasn’t sure who was leading that, whether it was Austin (Dillon) or Chase (Elliott). I don’t know. You gotta go for the win. I tried to do everything I could from 12th. I kept pulling out of line, trying to side-draft guys, try to pick them off one by one. But I couldn’t make it happen. Once I got to eighth in line after I passed some lapped cars, I was like, ‘This is all I’ve got.’ I just hoped that they’d crash with two to go and we’d get a restart and then I’ve get a shot. It just didn’t happen in our favor.”

All’s well that ends well for Larson

Kyle Larson appeared to have escaped the last-lap crash like Hamlin did, but contact from another competitor sent him into the Turn 4 wall and spinning.

Despite the incident, Larson was credited with a 10th-place finish after NASCAR froze the field at the time of the caution. That capped an official return to Cup racing which had its ups and downs.

Larson scored points in both stages, but toward the end of Stage 2, he suffered a left rear tire failure after getting knocked into the wall. After finishing eighth in the stage, he was assessed a pit road penalty for a safety violation.

He quietly made his way back toward the front, and was within striking distance of the leaders on the final lap before the crash.

“I thought we were in an OK spot there at the end to get a top five, if not, maybe a win if things worked out down the backstretch and through (turns) three and four,” Larson said afterwards. “They all kind of started crashing in front of me.

“I almost made it through; I think I barely clipped the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) car and then kind of slid all the way through (turns) three and four. Thought I might save it, couldn’t save it and started spinning. Lost some spots, but it was still a top 10.”

Spire scores double top 10

Spire Motorsports expanded to a two-car program in the offseason with Corey LaJoie as its mainstay in the No. 7 Chevrolet. For the Daytona 500, its other entry, the No. 77, was driven by 2010 race winner and Fox Sports NASCAR analyst Jamie McMurray in a one-off effort.

Both drivers scored top 10 finishes with McMurray in eighth and LaJoie in ninth. Prior to Sunday, the team had only one top 10-finish in Cup competition – its rain-shortened win with Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley at Daytona in July 2019.

McMurray recovered from two separate incidents during the race. He was involved in the 16-car pileup on Lap 14, and was later sent spinning behind Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s incident on Lap 112.

McMurray also recorded the fastest lap of the race at 44.945 seconds (200.245 mph) on Lap 189.

Rule of 3’s

Twenty years after he lost his life in the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt was honored with a tribute at Lap 3 in Sunday’s race. Fans in the grandstands and competitors on pit road raised three fingers, while the scoring pylon lit up top to bottom with Earnhardt’s famous No. 3.

Lap 3 also saw the first elimination in Sunday’s race. Derrike Cope, who capitalized on Earnhardt’s flat tire on the final lap to win the 1990 Daytona 500, suffered a tire failure and crashed out of what was likely his final career Cup start.

Cope was driving the No. 15 entry for Rick Ware Racing. Earnhardt drove the No. 15 entry for Bud Moore during the 1982 and 1983 seasons, earning – of course – three wins during that span.

The following year, Earnhardt returned to Richard Childress’ No. 3 Chevrolet for good.

Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023


Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing


Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.


Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona


In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”


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


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.”