Friday 5: Daytona 500 crashes continue recent trend

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Nearly 75% of last week’s Daytona 500 field was collected in a crash, continuing an alarming trend for NASCAR’s showcase event.

In the last five Daytona 500s, 79.5% of the field has been involved in an accident. The five Daytona 500s before that saw 44.8% of the field collected in crashes.

While this year’s Daytona 500 had its fewest number of cars wrecked compared to the previous two years, there were still 29 of 40 cars damaged in accidents.

“I definitely tug on the belts a little harder at Daytona and Talladega, more so than Martinsville, I can promise you that,” Corey LaJoie said.

He finished ninth in the Daytona 500 — one spot worse than last year when his car slammed into Ryan Newman’s and catapulted Newman’s car across the finish line. Newman was hospitalized for two days with a bruised brain.

That Newman is the only driver to be severely injured in the last five Daytona 500s despite the high crash totals attests to the safety of the cars.

“I know John Patalak just from working with him through the development with some of (Randy LaJoie’s) seats over at the R&D Center,” Corey LaJoie said of NASCAR’s senior vice president of innovation and racing development, who oversees the sanctioning body’s safety efforts. “He is one of the sharpest guys that I know. And he’s trying to make these race cars as safe as possible.

“We’re looking forward to the Next Gen car (in 2022), which is considerably more safe than what we have now. So, when you get in, you know that NASCAR is doing everything they can to keep the cars as safe as possible.”

Still, the number of cars wrecked at Daytona raises questions about if the risk will become too great.

“At the end of the day, we’re in control of our race cars,” said Ryan Preece, who finished sixth in the Daytona 500 after he bounced off the wall on the last lap. “We’re paid to take these risks and to put ourselves in position to win these races. So, that’s the name of the game. It comes down to who is willing to risk it all, I guess.”

This year’s Daytona 500 marked the fifth consecutive year the event has had at least a 12-car crash. There were 21 cars collected in a crash in the 2019 Daytona 500, the highest total in the last five years. Sixteen cars wrecked shortly before lightning and rain delayed the race for more than five hours last weekend. 

“I was shocked that there was as much pushing and shoving going on as there was there at the beginning,” Chase Elliott said after his runner-up finish.

LaJoie said it’s part of the aggressiveness that has become standard in speedway racing.

“You see guys making runs or throwing blocks because they know to protect their track position they’ve got to be aggressive with those blocks,” he said. “I think where some of the speedway racing product has changed over the past couple of years is because the cars are tighter (and) the drivers are being a little more aggressive.”

Sixteen cars were involved in a crash early in last week’s Daytona 500. Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Car owner Rick Hendrick saw Alex Bowman, who started on the pole, eliminated in the Lap 14 crash. William Byron, who was in a backup car after being in a wreck in his qualifying race, had his hopes of winning end with a damaged car in that melee.

Hendrick didn’t have it as bad as car owner Roger Penske. Ryan Blaney was eliminated in that early crash. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Austin Cindric all wrecked on the last lap. Keselowski was in a backup car after he was involved in a wreck in his qualifying race.

“You put so much work into those cars to make them as aerodynamic as can be,” Hendrick said before the Daytona 500. “They are like a fine watch, and when the race is over, they look like they raced at Martinsville. It’s just something we live with and it’s the Super Bowl for us.”

This year’s race also featured the third last-lap crash in the last four years. Keselowski was going for the lead when contact with Logano triggered a fiery eight-car incident. No one was injured. The accident marked the fourth time in the last five years Keselowski has failed to finish the Daytona 500 because of a crash. Only Daniel Suarez has had as bad a fortune as Keselowski in that stretch.

It’s why before Daytona Keselowski said: “I’m just so hopeful I can make it through the whole race without getting destroyed.”

He fell about a mile short of reaching that goal — and winning his first Daytona 500.

The accident finished a week at Daytona International Speedway that saw 93 vehicles in wrecks among Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series events. The total is down 8.8% from last year but the decline is because the Busch Clash was held on the road course this year instead of the oval.

The Busch Clash had three cars involved in incidents this year, including Ryan Blaney and Elliott as they raced for the lead through the final chicane. Last year’s Busch Clash had all 18 cars involved in at least one incident. Erik Jones won the race despite being a part of three accidents.

2. A bonus of more than $1 million

Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 victory provided a nice payday for him and the team last week but that win will continue to pay the team over the next few years.

A source with knowledge of the charter system estimates that Front Row Motorsports should collect an additional $1.6 million over the next three years because of the win — with more than $1 million being paid to the team next season.

Chartered teams are paid a set amount per race. They’re also paid based on where they finish and receive money based on the performance of the charter over the past three seasons.

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500
Michael McDowell celebrates his Daytona 500 win. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

By winning a race and making the playoffs, the team will finish at least 16th in the car owner points this season. In the last three years, McDowell’s car finished 28th (2018), 28th (2019) and 25th (2020) in car owner points.

A source with knowledge of the charter system said that Front Row Motorsports could receive about $30,000 extra per race next year just by finishing last among the 16 playoff teams this year. The money could prove significant as teams transition to the Next Gen car next season. While car owners anticipate a cost savings with the car, that won’t come next year with the need to replace all the cars run this season with the Next Gen car. An extra million dollars won’t hurt any team.

Jerry Freeze, general manager of Front Row Motorsports, is hopeful that the win can help the team’s search for sponsorship.

“It all has to do with partnerships for us, and it’s always just trying to marry the driver with the partner and the program to make it all fit and make it all work,” he said after the victory. “Unfortunately, Front Row just hasn’t been in a position to do multi-year deals with sponsors, so we’ve been on single-year deals with them, just like we have been with the drivers.

“Maybe with (last week’s) success, hopefully that might change some things, but I think we have to prove that we’re a solid team week-in and week-out to be in that position.”

3. Building momentum?

Ryan Preece’s sixth-place finish doesn’t guarantee how things will go this season, but he’s already ahead of where he was fives races into last year.

Preece heads into Sunday’s race on the Daytona road course (3 p.m. ET on Fox) with 46 points. He didn’t reach that total until the fifth race last year after finishing 29th or worse in three of those events.

Preece said among the ways last year proved challenging was that there was very little practice once the season resumed in May. That limited on-track time with crew chief Trent Owens in their first season together.

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500
Ryan Preece (37) finished sixth in the Daytona 500 for his third top 10 in the last eight races. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

“We didn’t have that opportunity every week when the practice dropped,” Preece said. “So I really felt we started to excel the final 10 races, and I think that’s carried over into Daytona. I’m looking forward to going to the road course and just keep executing and having solid days.”

Preece had eight top-20 finishes in the final 10 races of last season.

Car owner Tad Geschickter also is hopeful Preece’s momentum from the Daytona 500 continues. The No. 37 team, which does not have a charter, has sponsorship for the first two-thirds of the season only.

“Admittedly, his first two years in Cup has been a steep learning curve, but we believe he can do it,” Geschickter said of Preece. “He’s figuring it out week by week. It just takes time. Ultimately, the best way for us to give him the best equipment we could every week is run when we’re funded. He understands that. We could try to stretch 25 races worth of money into 36. I don’t believe we’ll have to do that.

“We’re not giving up on selling sponsorship for him. Finishing sixth and getting all the TV time he got last week created interest of the people we’ve been talking to.”

4. Back at the track

Chad Knaus was not at last week’s Daytona 500 in his new role as vice president of competition for Hendrick Motorsports. He’ll be at the track this weekend.

With his role, he will split time at the track with Jeff Andrews, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports.

“I’m just going to sit back and try to help the guys where I can,” Knaus said of going to the track this weekend. “Be a resource for them, observe. Obviously, we’ve got amazing crew chiefs, amazing teams. These guys don’t need a whole lot, so I’m just there in a support role.”

As for not being in Daytona for the season-opening weekend?

“For qualifying, it was really odd,” said Knaus, who won seven Cup titles as Jimmie Johnson‘s crew chief. “It was tough. … I was sad that I couldn’t participate, but I was really excited when we got the front row. It’s a different thing, for sure.”

5. Rumble strips added

Drivers said last week that NASCAR needed to do something to the backstretch chicane after dirt and mud got kicked up on the track and contributed to Martin Truex Jr.‘s wreck in the Busch Clash.

The track has added rumble strips and curbing to prevent drivers from getting off course and into the grass.

“It was strange because last year in the Xfinity race I didn’t feel like the chicane, at least dirt-wise, it wasn’t a big deal,” said AJ Allmendinger, who is entered in both the Xfinity and Cup races this weekend for Kaulig Racing. “I was actually quite surprised how much dirt was on the race track during the Clash because I didn’t remember that even in the Cup race last year being that big of an issue.

“I’m not sure if it was because it had rained so much at that point last summer that everybody was afraid to drop a wheel and do damage to the race car. It’s something that we’ll have to all figure out. … It will be the same for all of us. I don’t see it being that big of an issue.”

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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.

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.