Friday 5: Bristol provides dirt racers a chance to shine, turnaround season

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Maybe Kyle Larson will be right. Maybe after 250 laps Sunday on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway, the results will look similar to many other Cup races.

Then again, maybe the first Cup race on dirt since 1970 will be a wildcard as some suggest, and fans will see a different winner for the seventh consecutive race.

Larson and Christopher Bell, among the favorites, already have won this season. But there are others whose dirt background could help them win and eliminate the stress of trying to make the playoffs by points. Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chase Briscoe are among those who could be contenders.

MORE: Starting lineups for Cup qualifying races at Bristol 

MORE: What drivers are saying about racing on dirt at Bristol 

Dillon, who has extensive dirt late model experience, is 11th in the season standings. Stenhouse, whose background is with sprint cars, enters the weekend 17th in the standings. He’s six points out of what would be the final playoff spot.

Briscoe, who won his first 410 sprint car race at age 13, is 27th in points. Reddick, who won a Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model race at age 15, is 28th in points.

“Obviously, we need to turn it around quick or we’re gonna be in a must-win situation fairly early,” Briscoe said. “We’re almost already to that point, so we’ll see how this weekend goes.”

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 Qualifying
Chase Briscoe has had a challenging start to his rookie Cup season but knows his dirt background could help turn things around this weekend at Bristol. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

This season already has proved challenging for Briscoe after he won a series-high nine Xfinity races last year.

Adding to the difficulty has been Stewart-Haas Racing’s struggles. Briscoe, Aric Almirola and Cole Custer each have yet to score a top-10 finish and have combined to lead one lap. Teammate Kevin Harvick has five top 10s in the first six races but has led only 17 laps.

“It’s no secret, I feel like we’re off as a company a little bit right now … it seems like our cars don’t have the raw speed of the other cars, and they just don’t drive very good right now, either,” Briscoe said. “I know there is definitely a concern. Our competition meetings have been very intense the last couple of weeks.”

Briscoe’s best finish this season is 18th at Miami. The Cup rookie has placed between 18th and 23rd in all but one race this year.

“I just try to keep in perspective that Chase Elliott is last year’s champion and it took him (99) races to get (his first Cup) win, so just trying to remember it’s not gonna come right away,” Briscoe said. “Every rookie, I feel like, struggles a little bit, and it just takes time to get your feet underneath you.”

Briscoe shared that sentiment with Austin Cindric before last weekend’s Cup race at Atlanta. Cindric was making his second series start.

“The Cup deal is just no joke,” Briscoe said. “Everybody is so good from a driving standpoint. Everybody’s car is really good, and I was telling Cindric a couple hours before the Atlanta race I said, ‘This is gonna be the most frustrating day of your life. You’re gonna race as hard as you can. You’re gonna run a great race and you’re gonna ask them at some point during this race what position you’re in and they’re gonna tell you you’re in 25th place, and you’re not gonna believe it.’ 

“And he came up to me right after the race and said, ‘Man, you weren’t kidding. I asked them about halfway through what position I was in, and I was in 25th.’ It’s just crazy how you race so hard and you’re 20-25th place. It’s just really tough in the Cup Series for sure.”

This weekend’s race offers hope for Briscoe and others with a dirt background, although no one really knows what to expect.

Some suggest that top teams will remain at the front and the track will become similar to a worn paved track. Others think the dirt experience will prove helpful in understanding how the track changes throughout the event.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Eldora Dirt Derby
Chase Briscoe winning at Eldora in 2018. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Six of the seven drivers who won the Camping World Truck Series race on the dirt at Eldora Speedway will compete in Sunday’s Cup event: Dillon (won Eldora in 2013), Bubba Wallace (2014), Bell (2015), Larson (2016), Briscoe (2018) and Stewart Friesen (2019).

Briscoe said instead of asking Harvick for advice, as he often did when in the Xfinity Series, Harvick is asking him questions.

“It’s definitely been weird for me to be the guy that Kevin is coming to,” Briscoe said. “Typically, it’s me going to Kevin. We actually talked on Monday for probably 20-30 minutes on the phone just going through the different things of what I felt like the car is gonna need to have, things that he can expect to see, feelings he can expect to feel and just kind of where he needs to try to get his car during practice. …  Hopefully, I didn’t steer him in the wrong direction, and hopefully, he can have a good run. 

“I told him that it would not surprise me at all for him to go run really, really good there, just the throttle control and all the things that it takes to go good on dirt is something that he’s really phenomenal at on pavement, so I think he’ll be just fine at it.”

2. Team Penske Future

Car owner Roger Penske says “I think we’re moving in the right direction” to sign Brad Keselowski to a contract extension.

The 37-year-old Keselowski signed a one-year extension last season. He has been at Team Penske since 2010. Keselowski won the Xfinity title in 2010 and Cup crown in 2012. He scored Team Penske’s 500th win in Sept. 2018 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“With COVID, we haven’t been able to get together, but we’ve had conversations with Brad before,” Penske said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction. There’s no reason we wouldn’t renew for sure. 

“I guess it’s just a matter of us sitting down and putting it together, but with everybody not being able to move around, you don’t do that over the phone and you don’t do it by Zoom, so we want to do that face-to-face.”

Keselowski is the most successful Cup driver whose contract expires after this season. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. each signed contract extensions in February.

Brad Keselowski (2) and Joey Logano (22) crashed while racing for the lead on the last lap of the Daytona 500. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Penske also plans to have a face-to-face conversation with his drivers before next month’s Talladega race to discuss the end of the Daytona 500. Keselowski and Joey Logano wrecked racing for the lead on the last lap, allowing Michael McDowell to win the race.

“I think we’ll talk about a number of subject matters,” Penske said. “What’s the right thing, because at the end of the day if you have three or four cars in the race, only one is gonna win. But if one wins, the whole team wins, so we cannot forget that. 

“These guys are contracted with us. They’re part of the success we’ve had, and I think after the situation at Daytona, we’re gonna have some good, solid conversations, and I think we’ll hopefully come up with something that will be meaningful. 

“I can’t talk about what the other teams do. The Fords want to help Fords. The Chevys want to help Chevys, so there’s a lot of give-and-take in parts of that race. I’ve always said in the past, ‘Let’s go for it in the last 10 laps, but let’s take care of ourselves until we get there.’ Now, I might have to change my tune based on what I saw at Daytona.”

3. Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing making progress

Back-to-back 16th-place finishes are a sign of progression for Bubba Wallace and 23XI Racing. Just as meaningful could be the next four races.

While expectations have been high for the new team because of its alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, it’s easy to overlook that this is a new operation. The team didn’t receive its first car until early January.

“From the beginning, (co-owner Denny Hamlin) was big on progression, just getting everything underneath us,” Wallace said. “We’ve had some things not go our way but been quick to capitalize on that and make sure that doesn’t happen again. We’ll just continue to go on.”

NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Bubba Wallace says of his 23XI Racing team: “We’ve been … steadily improving and showing progress.” (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

One area of progression has been in the communication between Wallace and crew chief Mike Wheeler.

“We had a really strong debrief (after Atlanta),” Wallace said. “Just communication is the biggest thing. What I’m feeling, what I need, the number scales, everybody is different. Making sure I provide the right feedback is crucial for making our program progress.”

The next few weeks could see Wallace and his team top their best finish of 16th.

While not necessarily viewed as a favorite for Sunday’s race at Bristol, Wallace won a dirt race at Eldora Speedway in the Camping World Truck Series in 2014.

After Bristol, the series takes the Easter weekend off. The season resumes April 10 at Martinsville, April 18 at Richmond and April 25 at Talladega.

Wallace won Truck races in 2013 and ’14 at Martinsville. He’s finished in the top 15 in two of the last three Cup races there. He placed 12th at Richmond in 2019 fall race.

Talladega will be the first Superspeedway race since Daytona. He finished second in his qualifying race at Daytona in February. Wallace ran toward the front in the Daytona 500 before a loose wheel after what was to have been his final pit stop. That forced him to make a green-flag stop and he fell off the lead lap and eventually finished 17th.

4. Family affair

Stewart Friesen racing against his wife, Jessica, is no big deal. They’ve done it often in dirt late modifieds and finished first and second last August.

But they’ve never raced against each other in the Camping World Truck Series. That could happen Saturday night at Bristol if Jessica Friesen finishes well enough in her qualifying race.

She’ll get this chance after some encouragement from the team.

“There has been a truck that (Halmar Friesen Racing) acquired when they went on their own,” Jessica Friesen said. “It was an older speedway truck that has been sitting in the corner of the shop for quite some time collecting dust. They talked about the best option for that truck was to turn it into a dirt truck (because) it was too much work to try to turn it into anything else.”

Soon the team began to call that second Truck her ride.

“I’m up for it and would love to do it,” she told the team. She gathered some sponsors and the ride was her’s.

Today’s practice sessions will be Jessica Friesen’s first time in a Truck. She spent last weekend racing a dirt late modified and finished fourth, placing a spot behind Stewart at Port Royal (Pennsylvania) Speedway.

She’ll face a challenging field in her qualifying race Saturday at Bristol. Jessica Friesen will start eighth. Her 11-truck race will feature former series champions Johnny Sauter and Matt Crafton and former Cup champion Martin Truex Jr.

“It’s just amazing to have this opportunity at all and race as a family with Stewart and (son) Parker,” Jessica Friesen said. “This will be our story for our grandkids someday.”

5. Driver Academy Debuts

The Bill McAnally Racing Drivers Academy debuts this weekend at All American Speedway in Roseville, California.

The acadmey is scheduled to have 40 races at five California tracks. Drivers will compete in full-sized stock cars utilizing a 625-horsepower NASCAR Yates Spec Engine and the same chassis components as ARCA and the NASCAR Truck Series. Speed Sport TV will stream the events.

Along with seat time is the chance to race in other series. Each time a driver wins, they are entered in a drawing to drive the No. 19 McAnally-Higemann Racing Truck at Phoenix in November.

The points leader after race Nos. 14, 24 and 32 will be awarded the opportunity to drive a Bill McAnally Racing car in an ARCA event.

The program provides equipment, crew and training. McAnally says it costs $800,000 to run a full ARCA season but to run the academy’s full 40 races, a driver needs $268,000.

“The idea of this came knowing that we need to find a way to get drivers moving forward in the bigger heavier race cars,” McAnally said. “There are just so of them many that want to, but there is not an affordable way.”

Amber Balcaen is among the drivers set to run the full season with the academy. She says the costs, offset by sponsorship she secured, is worth all the racing.

“This is the absolute perfect opportunity for me to get seat time,” Balcaen said. “That’s something I’ve really lacked in the last few years. Forty races, I haven’t raced 40 races in the last five years combined. To be able to run 40 races this year and get what it feels like to be in that ARCA car with a good crew, with Bill, I don’t think there can be anything better that can set me up for success in the future.”

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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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.”

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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.”

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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

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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.

 

 

Winners and losers from the Clash at the Coliseum

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the non-points race that opened the NASCAR season:

WINNERS

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex limped through a frustrating 2022 season, going winless and contemplating writing “finish” to his driving career. But he decided late in the year to make another run, and that choice paid big dividends Sunday as he put Joe Gibbs Racing in victory lane.

Richard Childress Racing — RCR opened the season with power, putting Austin Dillon in second and newcomer Kyle Busch in third. The new teammates even enjoyed some late-race collaboration, Busch backing off a second-place battle to give Dillon a chance to make a run at eventual winner Truex.

Ryan Preece — Preece, given a shot in the offseason at a full-time ride in Cup with Stewart-Haas Racing, showed strength in his first outing, leading 43 laps before electrical issues dropped him to seventh.

Bubba Wallace — Wallace held the lead at the halfway point and totaled 40 laps in first but was drop-kicked by Austin Dillon late in the race and finished 22nd.

LOSERS

Chase Elliott — It was a lost weekend for the former Cup champion. Elliott was lapped during the race, failed to lead a lap and finished 21st.

Ty Gibbs — Suspension problems parked Gibbs after 81 laps, and he finished next-to-last a day after his car caught fire in practice.

Michael McDowell — McDowell was involved in several on-track incidents during the evening and finished 24th after running out of fuel, along with teammate Todd Gilliland.

Long: Drivers make their point clear on Clash at the Coliseum

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LOS ANGELES — So what to do with the Clash at the Coliseum?

The second edition of this exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum showcased beating, banging and 16 cautions in a 150-lap race won by Martin Truex Jr. on Sunday night.

A year remains on NASCAR’s three-year contract with the Coliseum — NASCAR holds the option for next year — and it seems all but certain Cup cars will be back next year.

With Auto Club Speedway President Dave Allen saying Saturday that his track will not host a NASCAR event in 2024 while being converted from a 2-mile speedway to a half-mile track, the Los Angeles area would be without a NASCAR race if the Clash did not return.

NASCAR is not likely to leave the nation’s No. 2 TV market without a race. 

A question this weekend was if the Clash would become a points race next year to replace the Auto Club Speedway date and allow NASCAR to have a new venue for the Clash.

“I think they should put (the Coliseum race) in the playoffs, personally. That would be perfect,” Denny Hamlin said straight faced after Sunday’s race before breaking into a smile to show he was speaking sarcastically.

Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano was emphatic in his response.

“No,” Logano said, shaking his head Sunday night. “We can’t do that.”

Why?

“You’re going to fit 40 cars out there? We can’t even make a caution lap without the pace car bumping the last-place car.”

Logano smiled as he spoke — then again he often smiles as he talks. He was not speaking sarcastically as Hamlin showed with his smile. Logano’s grin was part of a passionate defense.

“No. You can’t do that,” Logano continued of why a points race at the Coliseum is a bad idea. “That’d be dumb.”

Even in a celebratory mood after his first victory in NASCAR in more than a year, Truex was clear about his feelings of making the Clash a points race.

“Why would you screw it up,” he said, “and make it a points race?”

Just because drivers don’t like something doesn’t mean it won’t happen. 

But much would have to happen to make this event a points race.

Those familiar with the charter agreement between teams and NASCAR told NBC Sports that they weren’t sure that the language in the agreement would permit a points race at such a venue. With the charter system guaranteeing all 36 teams a spot in a race, it’s not feasible to run so many cars on this small track. Only 27 cars ran in Sunday’s Clash. That almost seemed too many.

Should there be a way to make this event a points race without all 36 running in the main event, there are other issues. 

The purse would have to significantly increase. NASCAR stated that the purse for Sunday’s Clash was $2.085 million. Last year’s championship race at Phoenix had a purse of $10.5 million. The purse for last year’s Cup race at Watkins Glen was $6.6 million. The purse for last year’s race at Nashville Superspeedway was $8.065 million.

If NASCAR made the Clash a points race, then the purse would be expected to fall in line with other points races. Of course, there still would be the logistics. 

But is it worth it to try to make an event something it doesn’t need to be?

While the attendance appeared to be a little less than the estimated 50,000 for last year’s race, it wasn’t enough of a drop to warrant abandoning this event. Is a points race at the Coliseum going to increase the attendance significantly? No.

Just bring this event back next year as is.

“I think it’s good for what it is,” Logano said. “It’s a non-points race. I think we need to go back to maybe only four cars (instead of five) transferring from the heat (races) … there’s just too many cars (on the track). I think that’s part of the issue as well.”

Then, to make sure he got his point across about if next year’s Coliseum race should be a points race, Logano said: “A points-paying race. No. I’ll be the first to raise my hand that’s a very bad idea.” 

But it’s possible 2024 could be the final year for this event at the Coliseum. 

If Auto Club Speedway’s conversion to a short track can be done in time to be on the 2025 schedule, then the Los Angeles region would have a short track and NASCAR could move the Clash to a new area to reach more fans.

That’s part of the goal this new dynamic NASCAR, which has moved Cup races to different venues in the last couple of years and will run its first street course race in July in Chicago. 

While NASCAR has made such changes, making the race at the Coliseum a points race serves no purpose. Just listen to the drivers.