Friday 5: Martinsville begins stretch that could preview Cup playoffs

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Saturday night’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway begins a five-week stretch at tracks that will host playoff races this season.

These events should show who the early title favorites are.

After Martinsville, the series races at Richmond (April 18), Talladega (April 25), Kansas (May 2) and Darlington (May 9).

The only other playoff track the series has yet to visit in the regular season is Texas Motor Speedway. It will host the June 13 All-Star Race.

Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski have started strong. The question is can they continue their momentum?

Larson won at Las Vegas, which hosts a playoff race, and was in contention to win on the Daytona road course and at Atlanta before late issues.

Hamlin and Keselowski are the lone drivers with top-five finishes this season at Las Vegas and Phoenix, the only two playoff tracks the series has run this year (Bristol is not comparable since it was held on dirt and its playoff race won’t be).

In this season of parity, Larson, Hamlin and Keselowski aren’t the only competitors who have done well. Eight drivers have placed in the top 10 at both Las Vegas and Phoenix this year. Joining Larson, Hamlin and Keselowski on that list are: Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell, William Byron and Joey Logano.

Bell’s crew chief, Adam Stevens, says this five-race stretch is key to his team for many reasons.

“I think for us, what’s important is to probably try some things to see how good we can be, and make sure that we are running all the laps and finishing strong in the races,” Stevens said.

“It seems like we fell off that wagon a little bit here recently, and it’s reflecting in our starting position, which makes it hard for pit selection and makes it hard for stage points early in the race. To make a deep run in the playoffs, you’re going to need some bonus points on occasion. I think that trying to balance learning for the playoffs and scoring some points here to right the ship a little bit is where we’re kind of at right now.”

With seven different winners to open the season, no one has built a large gap in playoff points, which can be critical in advancing.

James Small, crew chief for Truex, noted that lack of playoff points kept the team from reaching the title race last year.

“That has to be a priority,” Small said of playoff points, “because that’s where we kind of got let down and we were forced to win at Martinsville and Texas (to advance to the championship race) last year and just missed out on both.”

2. How about this for the schedule?

Created out of necessity, NASCAR’s schedule has undergone a radical shift since the COVID pandemic last year. Such forward thinking continues.

The Bristol dirt race, new Cup stops at Road America, Circuit of the Americas and Nashville Superspeedway, along with additional road course events have transformed a series that moved its title event from Miami to Phoenix last year.

With talk that an iRacing Chicago street course event might someday herald an actual race there, Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith’s plans for Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, and his recent comment on the Dale Jr. Download that “we haven’t forgotten” about North Wilkesboro, it makes one wonder what the series schedule could be like in the next few years.

Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president for strategic development, recently told NASCAR.com that “as we look at future schedules, certainly have everything on the table.”

That philosophy and Smith’s comments about North Wilkesboro have some dreaming of NASCAR returning to the rundown track.

Terry Labonte (No. 5) and Elton Sawyer (No. 27) lead the field at the start of the First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway on April 14, 1996. Mark Martin (No. 6) Bobby Hamilton (No. 43) follow. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Josh Berry, who runs select Xfinity races for JR Motorsports and has extensive experience running Late Models, has another suggestion for the sport to consider.

“I think that would be a great thing to do (update North Wilkesboro), but at the same time, there’s a lot of great short tracks around that are still functioning race tracks that desperately need something like that to survive,” Berry said.

“I could name a ton of them that are beautiful facilities, or some facilities with a little bit of upkeep (that) would be ready to host ARCA, Trucks, Xfinity races. I don’t know necessarily why you have to swing for the fences and just do a total rebuild of a track when there are all these other short tracks around the country that are ready to have a race.”

Ryan Preece, who competed in Thursday’s NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race at Martinsville Speedway, suggested South Boston (Virginia) Speedway as one such track.

“It would be cool to see if they can hold a Cup race because there are two pit roads there,” Preece said.

Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville likely will give NASCAR another historic short track — with the benefit of being in a large city.

While there would be many challenges, the idea of a race — whether a points race or the All-Star Race — at a local short track could be interesting. NASCAR could move that race to different local short tracks so that event has a fresh vibe each year.

More than likely, the obstacles will be too great for something like that to happen, but if it could someday, it’s an idea to consider.

3. Playoff chaos

Martinsville Speedway could see the eighth different driver to win a Cup race to open the season.

The record for different winners to start a season in the modern era (since 1972) is 10. That happened in 2000.

But why stop at just 10? For utter playoff chaos, why not different winners in the first 16 races of the season? The odds are against it, of course, but here’s one look at how it could happen.

April 10, Martinsville: Brad Keselowski — He has nine top fives, including two wins, in his last 10 Martinsville starts. Team Penske placed its three drivers second, third and fourth in both of last year’s Martinsville races. Keselowski makes the streak eight different winners to open the season, something that hasn’t happened since 2003. The biggest challenge from a driver who has already won this year is Martin Truex Jr. He won the June 2020 race at Martinsville and has won four of the last 10 races on short tracks.

April 18, Richmond: Denny Hamlin — He finished third at Phoenix this year with the same tire compound that will be used at Richmond. Hamlin has three wins at this track, his last coming in 2016. Biggest threat from a driver who has won this year would be Truex, who won both Richmond races in 2019. Should Keselowski win at Martinsville, he would be among the favorites for this race. Keselowski won at Richmond last year (Truex was second).

April 25, Talladega: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He finished next-to-last in the most recent Talladega race after an accident and was second in the first Talladega race last year. The pendulum swings back to a finish at the front. A top contender from this year’s group of winners would be Joey Logano, who was about a mile away from winning the Daytona 500 before contact with Keselowski crashed both.

May 2, Kansas: Kevin Harvick Maybe this is the day he scores the first win of the season for Stewart-Haas Racing. Among the likely favorites who already have a win this year will be Kyle Larson. He won at Las Vegas. Kansas and Las Vegas both use the same right-side tire compound.

May 9, Darlington: Chase Elliott Karma gets him this win. Elliott was wrecked by Kyle Busch at this track while running second in the May 20, 2020 race. Martin Truex Jr. raced Elliott for the lead late in last year’s Southern 500 when contact sent both cars into the wall. Truex, Larson and Logano would be among drivers who have won already who could add to their win total here.

May 16, Dover: Kyle Busch Martin Truex Jr. won at this track in May 2019. Denny Hamlin won one of the Dover races in 2020. Kyle Busch makes it a third year in a row that a Joe Gibbs Racing driver wins at this track. This also is a place that Larson could score another win. He won in October 2019 when driving for Chip Ganassi Racing.

May 23, Circuit of the Americas: Kurt Busch The first seven races of the season have not gone as well as hoped for Kurt Busch and his team. Maybe this track could change things, if they haven’t changed by this point in the season. Truex will be among the favorites, along with Elliott.

May 30, Coca-Cola 600: Alex Bowman Hendrick Motorsports nearly won this race last year with Chase Elliott and will do so this year for its first 600 victory since Jimmie Johnson won the race in 2014.

June 6: Sonoma: Erik Jones No one saw Christopher Bell winning the Daytona road course earlier this year. Bell’s two Cup road course results in 2020 were 24th (at the Charlotte Roval) and 21st at Daytona. With that in mind, an upset pick here — if there are going to be 16 different winners in a row, there are going to be some upsets, so the pick is Jones and Richard Petty Motorsports. Jones finished 14th on the Daytona road course this year. He was third at the Roval last year and 11th on the Daytona road course.

4. Not as much parity as it seems?

Brad Keselowski was asked this week about his take on the parity in Cup this season with the seven different winners to open the season.

He had an interesting response. He also noted that maybe the parity isn’t as great as it seems.

“I think the body change or template change, rules change, whatever you want to call it, to start 2020 on the quarter panels of the car was pretty significant,” he said. “That leveled the field out pretty dramatically. I think it hurt some teams pretty significantly that has probably been well-documented. I think that’s probably a contributing factor. 

“Another factor is the schedule disparity — a huge change in the schedule. We’ve been at every type of track between dirt, short track, intermediate, road course, superspeedway in the first seven races. It’s hard to see how that couldn’t play a factor into it, and then there’s just some all-out luck factors as well. 

“I think Kyle Larson has probably had the fastest car in over half of those races and he’s had a few mistakes. He’s had a little bit of bad luck to where it hasn’t played out for him to win. So a number of those pieces come together at the end of the day and end in the result that, at least externally, looks like a lot of parity.

“But the reality is I think if you looked at parity in the sense of who has had the fastest car the majority of the races, in my eyes at least, there hasn’t been a huge difference in parity. That might be a better way to judge it than race winners.”

5. NASCAR’s new “Mr. Excitement”

Jimmy Spencer had the nickname of “Mr. Excitement.” He last raced in NASCAR in 2006, so maybe it’s a good time to revive his nickname and give it to Noah Gragson.

The JR Motorsports driver is unapologetic about his aggressive driving. It has gotten him in trouble with fellow competitors. Daniel Hemric joined the list last month at Atlanta when he scuffled with Gragson in response for an incident earlier in the race.

Gragson said this week that he planned to talk to Hemric ahead of tonight’s Xfinity race at Martinsville Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1). Gragson starts eighth.

“There’s no hard feelings toward Daniel or anybody else in the Xfinity garage, but at the same time I need to keep a job, and I need to race as hard as I can,” Gragson said this week.

He also explained why he races the way he does.

“In my opinion, aggressiveness gets you up front and gets you there,”  Gragson said. “It could be Bristol dirt. It could be Martinsville. It could be Daytona or anywhere in between, you have to be aggressive to get up front in these races.”

That means being aggressive on the first lap even if there has been no practice or qualifying before the race.

“It kind of shows the guys who are maybe a little more ballsy on the first lap,” Gragson said. “You can kind of pick those guys out and see. You don’t know what your car is going to handle like. You get out on the racetrack and you got to fire it off full speed into Turn 1 on the first lap. I think that shows where the men and the boys are.”

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NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

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

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great organizations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”