Analysis: For Brad Keselowski, all-around dominance the next frontier

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Lost in the celebration of a popular, new champion was a driver who had the car and the ability to earn his second NASCAR Cup Series title. Brad Keselowski finished one spot short in last season’s king-making finale at Phoenix Raceway, a loss that still nags him.

“I wouldn’t say I’m not over it,” Keselowski said. “To be quite honest, I don’t like losing. I certainly don’t like being that close.”

Chase Elliott’s margin of victory over Keselowski was 2.7 seconds, but consider the day the runner-up finisher had. His car — the vehicle that walloped fields in New Hampshire and Richmond — was the fastest of the championship race per timing and scoring data. He turned in a pass differential five positions better than his statistical expectation and gained four spots on four restarts from the non-preferred groove.

MORE: Brad Keselowski to start on pole at Phoenix

Ultimately, his above-par passing failed to overcome a dud from his pit crew, which cost him 13 positions out of caution flag stops; his final turn as the race’s leader ended after lap 195, on pit road, not on the racetrack.

“I take solace in feeling like I did everything I could do,” Keselowski said. “Losing hurts way more when you feel like you left something on the table personally. I don’t feel like I left anything on the table at Phoenix. That helped me quite a bit but still, obviously, I know that I was this close to realizing my dream of a second championship.

“But, you know, not close enough.”

His pathway to championship eligibility in the season finale began once NASCAR made Phoenix the host of the championship race, the day Team Penske unofficially became a specialist on 750-horsepower tracks, reallocating its R&D efforts onto the track type that now matters most.

The aggressive refocusing — in hindsight, a market inefficiency dutifully exploited — was confirmed by Travis Geisler, the organization’s competition director, during the weeklong buildup to last November’s event.

Both Keselowski and Joey Logano benefited, securing spots in the Championship 4. The brand of speed they displayed in Phoenix — a dominance that launched conspiracy theories from those who didn’t recognize the three fastest 750-horsepower cars all season as eligible for the championship and motivated by a lucrative payout — made the organization-wide focus a worthwhile effort.

It’s obvious Keselowski wants more. That consists of all-around dominance, which includes 550-horsepower tracks. At Homestead, a track fitting that bill, he was the lone Penske driver running inside the top 10 near the conclusion of a race where all four affiliated teams missed on long-run setup. A bizarre pit strategy, a lottery-odds bet on a caution, placed him on pit road with 30 laps to go. The green-flag run continued, making the strategy at a track with 3-second degradation on worn tires less viable by the lap. The result was a 16th-place finish for the car ranked fourth in median lap time.

Last weekend, Penske supplied him a car capable of the second-best median lap time, the fastest flag-to-flag car he’s had on a 1.5-mile facility since NASCAR shifted its biggest tracks to 550 horsepower in early 2019. His effort was relentless, especially on restarts, where he gained 17 positions when restarting from inside the top 14 — the biggest single-race net gain under that parameter by any driver since 2017 — and 27 positions overall, including his 18th-to-eighth haul on lap 185. He finished second to Kyle Larson, but it was a run possibly symbolic of a new, meaningful strength.

“I felt like all along Vegas was the clearest indicator of what we’re going to see for a lot of the season,” Keselowski said of the tracks representing the first few events on the 2021 schedule. “Both of these races, Vegas and (this) week in Phoenix, I think they represent what it’s going to take to win the championship, being good on tracks of these two types.”

For Keselowski, there’s more than a championship on the line this season. He settled for a one-year contract extension last year at a reduced salary, in part due to reactionary cutbacks as a result of COVID-19. While a suitor with the wherewithal and desire to rival a Penske offer might not be realistic, a year in which he reminds the industry of his status — he’s one of just seven drivers who regularly wins multiple races in a season — could steer his take-home pay back in a direction to his liking. He’s worth $4.715 million per year on the open market, based entirely on on-track production, a valuation that can increase as a result of banner season. Such an effort would prove timely, ahead of a period in his career containing prime earning potential:

At 37, he’s two years from what is, on average, a Cup Series driver’s statistical peak. It’s possible he has two more big-money contracts in front of him, but whatever he signs this season represents the theoretical max in terms of value and production, his best chance to earn the most money he’ll ever make driving a race car.

A championship and a high win tally — observable barometers for success in auto racing — are not completely within his control in a team sport too often mis-categorized as an individual endeavor, though his influence is paramount. With a car ranked as the seventh fastest for all of 2020, the slowest machine among the Championship 4, he registered four victories.

His key peripheral statistics, ranging from above average to elite in categories like initial track position — his average running spot after one lap — restart offense, restart defense and surplus passing, created a well-rounded team in regards to track position procurement, malleable to most track types and race-breaking situations. His average finish splits between races without late restarts and those containing one or more were 7.9 and 12.2; he was one of just three drivers to surpass 13th-place averages in both scenarios.

The team’s most recognizable weakness was position retention on green-flag pit cycles, represented on the spider chart above as “GFPC Defense.” With crew chief Jeremy Bullins, Keselowski’s running position was retained on 44.4% of qualified cycles, 20 percentage points below the series-wide rate. Through four races this season, that rate is at 57.1%, the best mark by a Keselowski crew chief since 2018.

The driver has made his livelihood as a jack of all trades but a master of none. If the details beyond his control have indeed seen a turn for the better, a standout year is in the cards. Such an occurrence would alter Keselowski’s career narrative, enhancing a value that feels perennially underestimated.

Sammy Smith to run full Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023

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Sammy Smith will run the full Xfinity schedule in the No. 18 car, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday.

The 18-year-old Smith, a Toyota development driver, won the ARCA Menards Series East title for a second consecutive year in 2022 and also made nine Xfinity starts with JGR.

Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt will be sponsors on Smith’s car throughout the 2023 season. Jeff Meendering will be Smith’s crew chief.

“This is an opportunity I have been working towards,” Smith said in a statement from the team. “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel full-time and am looking forward to a great season. I learned a lot in 2022 that will really help me to be competitive and run up front in the Xfinity Series. Thank you to Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Toyota Racing Development for supporting me in my racing career. I am excited for next year and appreciate the opportunity.”

Said Steve DeSouza, JGR executive vice president of Xfinity Series and driver development, in a statement: “Sammy is a fantastic addition to our 2023 Xfinity lineup. He proved to have the passion and the talent to necessary to compete for wins in the races he ran for us in 2022,” .“We are excited to get him in the No. 18 full time and know he will be competitive from the jump.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers

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Some drivers carry one car number throughout their racing careers. The most famous racers in NASCAR’s 75-year history typically are associated with one number, although some have raced under several.

Victories, championships and driver personalities give life to something as generally mundane as a number. And the most popular produce even bigger numbers, as in sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most iconic NASCAR numbers:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 43 — Since Richard Petty’s emergence as a superstar in the 1960s, the number 43 has been NASCAR’s most iconic. Although Lee Petty, Richard’s father, usually drove No. 42, he actually scored the first win by the 43, in 1959. The Petty blue No. 43 carried Richard to a string of championships. He scored 192 of his 200 race wins with the number. It rolls on today with Erik Jones, who took the 43 to the Southern 500 victory lane this season.

2. 3 — The fiercely facing forward No. 3 became ultra-famous while driven by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt (although Earnhardt won his first title driving the No. 2). Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet carried the number to new heights, but Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Buddy Baker and Ricky Rudd, among others, also won in the car.

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

3. 21 — The list of drivers who have raced Wood Brothers Racing’s famous No. 21, with the familiar gold foil numbers, reads like a history of NASCAR. David Pearson brought the most fame to the number, but Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, team owner Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Dale Jarrett also have driven the 21.

4. 11 — This number is responsible for more race wins — 228 — than any other. It also has scored eight championships — three each by Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and two by Ned Jarrett. Other stars in the 11 over the years: Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and Denny Hamlin. And some guy named Mario Andretti.

5. 48 — This number was largely ignored until the arrival of Jimmie Johnson, who carried it to seven championships, including five in a row.

6. 24 — The number 24 was a lonely number until 1994 when a kid named Jeff Gordon drove it to its first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The brightly colored 24 became a regular visitor to victory lane from that point forward, carrying Gordon to four championships and becoming one of NASCAR’s most decorated numbers.

MORE: Will Kyle Busch follow footsteps of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

7. 18 — Although Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte won in the 18, Kyle Busch, draped in the bright colors of sponsor M&Ms, took it into new territory.

8. 22 — NASCAR’s first Cup champion (Red Byron) and its most recent (Joey Logano) rode with the 22. The number has produced 87 wins over the years, including victories by Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Byron and Logano.

9. 2 — Although the 2 carried Dale Earnhardt (1980) and Brad Keselowski (2012) to Cup championships, it is perhaps most identified with Rusty Wallace, whose menacing black No. 2 was powerful at Team Penske. Also successful in the 2: Bill Blair, Kurt Busch and Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

10. 9 — The 9 was basically nondescript until Bill Elliott roared out of the north Georgia mountains to turn it into a big winner in the mid-1980s. His son, Chase, continues the trend.

 

 

Truck Series: Rajah Caruth joins GMS Racing

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Rajah Caruth will drive the No. 24 truck full-time for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023, the team announced Tuesday.

The 20-year-old Caruth ran a full season in the ARCA Menards Series last year, placing third in points. He also made seven Xfinity starts and four Truck starts last year. 

“I am extremely honored, and really excited to join GMS Racing and be in the fold of a professional race team with so much history,” Caruth said in a statement from the team. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this throughout my whole career, and I’m going to do the best in my power to make the most of it.

“First and foremost, I can’t thank everybody at GMS enough for believing in me and believing that I have what it takes to drive one of their trucks. Same goes for everybody at Chevrolet for their support, we truly wouldn’t be able to make this happen without them. 

Caruth joins Grant Enfinger and Daniel Dye as GMS Racing’s full-time Craftsman Truck Series drivers. Chad Walter will be Caruth’s crew chief. Jeff Hensley will be Enfinger’s crew chief. Travis Sharpe will be Dye’s crew chief. 

The primary partner on Caruth’s truck will be the Wendell Scott Foundation. The foundation, named for the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race, seeks to provide resources and services to underprivileged Black youth communities near Scott’s hometown of Danville, Virginia. Since the foundation’s formation in 2011, more than 25 students have been awarded more than $50,000 from the Wendell Scott Legacy Scholarship programs.

“We are excited for Rajah to compete full-time with GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023,” said Dayne Pierantoni, GM Racing Program Manager for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “Through Chevrolet’s partnership with Rev Racing, we have been impressed with Rajah’s talent both on and off the track. He has proven his ability to compete at the NASCAR national level, and we look forward to seeing his continued success with a series championship winning team.”

The Truck season begins Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway. 

In other Truck Series news:

Dean Thompson will drive the No. 5 for TRICON Garage this coming season. The 21-year-old was a rookie in the series this past season. He had a season-best finish of 11th at Las Vegas.

“I am thrilled to start the next chapter of my career with TRICON Garage and Toyota Racing Development,” Thompson said in a statement from the team. “The team and manufacturer have quickly made a statement in the Truck Series as striving to be the best of the best. I’m ready to take on the challenge and live up to the expectations of being a driver for TRICON.”

McAnally Hilgemann Racing announced Tuesday that Christian Eckes and Jake Garcia will drive full-time in the Truck series for the team next season.

Eckes, who will drive the No. 19 truck, moves over from ThorSport Racing. Garcia will drive the No. 35 truck in pursuit of the series Rookie of the Year award.

NAPA AutoCare will continue as a team sponsor.

Garcia is 17 and is scheduled to make his first start March 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Because of NASCAR’s age restrictions, he will miss the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The team’s Daytona driver has not been announced.

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry

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Jarrett Companies will increase the number of races it will sponsor Josh Berry‘s No. 8 JR Motorsports ride in 2023, the Xfinity Series team announced Monday.

Jarrett Companies will sponsor Berry in six races after serving as the primary sponsor in three races in 2022. Those six races will be Phoenix (March 11), Richmond (April 1), Dover (April 29), Atlanta (July 8), Indianapolis (Aug. 12) and Texas (Sept. 23).

The deal gives Berry at least 26 races with sponsorship for next season. Bass Pro Shops will serve as the primary sponsor of Berry’s car in 11 races in 2023. Tire Pros is back with JRM and will sponsor Berry in nine races in the upcoming season.

Berry, who reached the Xfinity title race and finished fourth in the points, will have a new crew chief in 2023. Taylor Moyer will take over that role with Mike Bumgarner serving as JRM’s director of competition.

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.