Friday 5: Stewart-Haas Racing searches for answers at Kansas


Rarely does a race in early May seem so significant, but Sunday’s event at Kansas Speedway is pivotal for Stewart-Haas Racing.

The four-car organization has struggled this season and is on track to have one driver make the playoffs. Three years ago, all four of its drivers were in the final eight of the playoffs.

Crew chief Rodney Childers acknowledged what’s at stake this week in an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“If we can’t go there and run good,” he said of Kansas, “then we’ve definitely got big issues.”

SHR’s challenge has been the lack of balance with its cars. Childers told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio earlier this season that a change in how officials inspect the rear wheel well area “knocked 70 counts of downforce off the car, and when you knock that amount of downforce off, especially when it mainly comes off the rear, it just completely messes up your aero balance.”

That’s slowed the cars.

No SHR car has ranked higher than eighth in green flag speed at the three 1.5-mile races this season. Three Stewart-Haas Racing cars each ranked outside the top 20 in that category at all three races.

“Until you get a car that you can run wide open for at least four or five laps at a 550-horsepower track (such as Kansas), then you don’t have enough downforce,” Childers said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Lord, we haven’t been able to run a single lap wide open.”

The result is that Kevin Harvick, who won a series-high nine races last year — the most victories by a driver in a season since 2008 — is winless this year. He also has not scored any playoff points.

Two years ago, he had two playoff points after the first 10 races of the season and still made it to the championship race. But in that season, he had a 5.3 average finish in the first three races on 1.5-mile tracks. His average finish through the first three races on such tracks this year is 11.7.

“You have to get every single point you can get every single weekend just to make sure you don’t put yourself in a hole that you can’t get out of,” Harvick said in a team release this week. “The one weekend I kick myself in the butt for is Las Vegas because we should’ve finished eighth or ninth there and I wound up knocking both front fenders off (and finishing 20th).

“We’ve all been in this position before. Our season is so long that you really have to focus on making sure you’re in the right spot when you get to the end of race No. 26. We’ve been on both sides of this fence — we’ve been slow starters, we’ve been fast starters, we’ve run good all season — we’ve experienced it all. We definitely have to be in this particular mindset until we 100 percent get it fixed. I think everybody’s doing a great job of just making sure that we’re doing that right now. Getting the most out of each weekend is very important.”

NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500Cole Custer (left) and Chase Briscoe (right) each scored their season-best finish last weekend at Talladega. Custer was 10th; Briscoe 11th. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Teammates Aric Almirola, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe have struggled to do that. They’ve yet to score a top-15 finish in the three races on 1.5-mile tracks this season.

With restarts key at such tracks, the struggles of Stewart-Haas Racing are magnified.

“We’ve got to be more competitive,” Almirola said. “I’ve got to be more on offense and less on defense. I feel like our mile-and-a-half program has been off, and because of that, every restart you’re just playing major defense. It’s hard to play offense because the car’s not driving good — don’t have a lot of speed in the car and it’s a handful — and not as fast as the cars around you.

“So you’re just playing a lot of defense, and when we’ve been at our best, that’s not the case. You fire off on every restart and you’re on offense. You’re picking and choosing lanes and putting your car in places where you need it to go to make passes, not to try and block a run or try and play defense.”

What makes Sunday’s race at Kansas key for Stewart-Haas Racing is that it is the first race on a 1.5-mile track in six weeks and can gauge the progress the team has made. Should Kansas — a playoff track — not provide the performance SHR seeks, the team will have only three more races on 1.5-mile tracks (including the All-Star Race at Texas) before the playoffs.

While NASCAR’s schedule is focused more on road courses this season — five of 11 Cup points races will be contested on such tracks beginning May 23 — the 1.5-mile tracks still matter in the playoffs.

It’s not unreasonable to say that the championship race in Phoenix and the season’s penultimate race at Martinsville (which sets the championship field) are the only playoff races more important than the race at Las Vegas to open the second round.

That round includes Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. The Las Vegas race is critical because of the uncertainty that can happen at both Talladega and the Roval. A bad race at Las Vegas and then getting swept in a crash at Talladega could end a driver’s titles hopes.

Get through those obstacles and the third round opens with races at Texas and Kansas, both 1.5-mile tracks.

“Hopefully, we can just keep striving and working hard and making changes and not be scared of what the consequences are and go out there and start winning some races,” Childers said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week.

With work to do, Harvick said he’s not focused on how others view his organization.

“I respect the fact people outside our team have a job to do, but that doesn’t mean I have to pay attention to it or put any stock into what is said and what is not said,” Harvick said in a team release. “And, honestly, I don’t have time to worry about that stuff.

“It really doesn’t make any difference in the communication I have with my team, because that’s the most important thing right now — to make sure you pick out those details of every single weekend, to make sure you’re part of the process of putting the right pieces back in place.

“A lot of people have a tough time doing that, but I have no problem. It makes some people mad with the way we go about those types of things, but it’s the best thing for the team to be as low key as possible in these types of situations. We keep our heads down and work on fixing our problems, and that’s important.”

2. Matt Kaulig’s vision

When Kaulig Racing debuted in the Xfinity Series in 2016, the team finished 16th in car owner points.

Five years later, nearly half the cars that finished ahead of Matt Kaulig’s team no longer exist. Gone are cars from Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Kaulig’s operation, meanwhile, expanded to three full-time Xfinity teams and will run a full-time Cup team next year.

The growth is unparalleled in the series in that time. That’s how Kaulig does business.

“There’s a quote that I have that I really live by, and I do this in business and even in the business of racing: ‘Either you continue to grow or you begin to die,’” Kaulig told NBC Sports. “That’s up on the wall for everybody to see in the race shop.

“You want to keep getting better, and you want to keep growing. I do not want to be one of those statistics (of teams no longer in the series since 2016).”

The former Akron Zips quarterback built LeafFilter North, Inc., from his home into a business that has 112 locations in the U.S. and Canada and says will do $1.5 billion in sales this year.

He seeks to be as impactful in racing.

“We want to be one of the bigger teams in NASCAR,” Kaulig told NBC Sports. “That is our goal. We do want to dominate. We do want to win races. We look at the other organizations out there like Gibbs, Penske and Hendrick. We want to be like those organizations.

“We’re young. I’m 48 years old. Our president, Chris Rice, is 47 years old. So we’ve got a lot of years left. We’ve got a lot of energy. We want to accomplish a lot of things.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series Beef. It's What's For Dinner. 300AJ Allmendinger (No. 16) and Jeb Burton (No. 10) each has won a race in the Xfinity Series this season for Kaulig Racing. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kaulig’s organization will be the fourth new full-time Cup team since this season, a move influenced by the debut of the Next Gen car in 2022. Trackhouse Racing, 23XI Racing and Live Fast Motorsports each debuted this season. The Next Gen car is intended to reduce costs over time because many of the its parts will come from vendors instead of teams needing to make those items.

The influx of new teams is something NASCAR President Steve Phelps hinted at in September 2020.

“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher,” Phelps said then. “Certainly when I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for the direction of what team ownership looks like.”

While the path to Cup has come relatively quickly, Kaulig also has taken a measured approach. The team will run at least 10 races this season.

Kaz Grala finished sixth in last weekend’s Cup race at Talladega. Allmendinger placed seventh for the team at the Daytona road course in February. Grala was 28th in the season-opening Daytona 500.

“We wanted to do a few things,” Kaulig said. “We wanted to be in the (Cup) garage … They do things different. Inspections are different. It’s, seriously, just learning all of that stuff for 10 or 11 races.”

As the organization moves ahead on its Cup plans, it doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting the team’s Xfinity Series program.

Kaulig Racing has won two of the first eight Xfinity races this season. AJ Allmendinger won at Las VegasJeb Burton won last weekend’s race at Talladega. Justin Haley has six top-10 finishes in the first eight races of the season.

The team celebrated Burton’s win Monday with lunch. It was another sign of how far the organization has come since its debut.

“We used to have top-10 lunches,” Kaulig said. “Then it went to top-five lunches.”

Now, the lunches are for wins.

3. In the spotlight

Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win has raised his profile and has him on pace for his first playoff appearance. The win also got him his first national TV commercial

With a raised profile come more media sessions and questions. In light of NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying last weekend that the series seeks to have more drivers engage with the public about vaccinations, I asked McDowell how he balances discussing such a topic with any desire to keep his status personal.

“I appreciate the question,” he said. “With so much that’s gone on over the last couple of years, and with social media being somewhat polarizing and this election being polarizing and just all the events with the pandemic and racial injustice and all the things that have gone on over the last two years, it’s very easy to get mixed up in it — and mixed up in it good or bad — however you want to look at it.

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win was the first in his Cup career and the third series win for Front Row Motorsports. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“At the beginning of this year, I sat down with my team, and I sat down with Bob Jenkins, our owner, and we just agreed that we’re a race team. That’s what we do. We race. This is not a political platform for us. This is not for us to have agendas or trying to encourage people to do things how we do it or vice versa. 

“We’re a race team. We’re gonna talk about racing. So that’s how I’ve kept it. When it comes to those things, I’m just gonna talk about racing because that’s what I am, a race car driver. In my house and in my family, we have these conversations, and we talk about it, and the thing about it for me is that it shouldn’t be so divisive, and I don’t want to be a part of being divisive. That’s not what I’m about. 

“I’m a race car driver, so you’ve got people that are anti this and pro this, and it’s not that I’m trying to avoid the question, I’m just gonna talk about racing because that’s what we do. I feel a lot of times athletes, they feel like they have this platform to have a voice, and there’s too many voices out there. There’s just too many voices. I mean, you guys see it every day. Everybody’s got an opinion.”

McDowell has used his platform to discuss his faith. I asked him how he felt that was different from what he had mentioned.

“For me, who I am is a follower of Christ,” McDowell said. “That’s who I am. I am not a pro-vaccinator. I am not an anti-vaccinator. I’m a follower of Christ. So the reason I use my platform to share that is because that’s who I am. That’s what is important to me.

“Whether you’re vaccinated or not is not important to me currently because I’m not a doctor or a scientist or a biologist. There are a lot of people that are telling you lots of different things, but, for me, sharing my faith is important because that’s who I am. I’m not a doctor or scientist, so that part of it isn’t important to me.”

4. Unique fan interaction

As part of Dr Pepper’s sponsorship of Bubba Wallace this weekend at Kansas Speedway, the company has a program where Wallace will surprise two families in the Kanas City area by delivering lunch.

It is among early examples of drivers and fans socializing in person instead of through Zoom. Such interactions are what teams and the sport have looked forward to reviving. NASCAR will allow a limited number of guests and media who are fully vaccinated into the garage next weekend at Darlington Raceway. It marks the first time since the garage has been open to those beyond teams and competitors since the series resumed last May.

As for the interaction with fans, Wallace said he is looking forward to it.

Bubba Wallace Netflix
Bubba Wallace is 33 points out of the final playoff spot. (Photo by Sean Gardner/23XI Racing via Getty Images )

“It means we’re getting over the hump, I would say, from COVID,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “Excited about the activation that Dr Pepper has put together for us to be able and go out and mingle with some fans and share some appreciation. … It is good that we are taking the right steps to make sure we can do this safely with everything that is still going on. I’ve started my first round of vaccinations. It will be good.”

As more fans are permitted to races — Dover International Speedway revealed Thursday that it will be allowed to host up to 20,000 fans for its NASCAR weekend in May — Wallace said the interaction is key.

“We say it’s all about the fans,” Wallace said. “There are so many new fans coming to our sport now. … They’re excited to be there. When they are excited to be there, that makes you want to put on an even  better race and just put on a great show for all the fans that are there.”

Wallace enters Kansas 20th in the standings. He’s 33 points behind Chris Buescher, who holds what would be the final playoff spot. Wallace and 23XI Racing seek their first top-10 finish this season.

“Our debrief meetings are really in-depth of how we are going to perform better,” Wallace said. “It’s giving good insight for me. It’s giving good insight for the team. It’s building that data base. Just finished up a good test session on the (Toyota Racing Development) sim (Wednesday).

“You’ve got to treat those like you’re showing up at the track and practicing and that’s how you’re building your notes. We were at Kansas, Darlington and COTA (on the sim Wednesday) and you’re building your notes for when you get there. You have to make those moments count because you don’t have practice (at most tracks).

“So doing as much sim work as you can, watching as much film as you can, study (data), all those things are translating over to our performances and understanding how to look more in-depth at things. It’s only going to propel us further.”

5. 10 for 10?

The last nine races on a 1.5-mile speedway have been won by nine different drivers. Will the streak go to 10 in a row?

Here are the drivers who have won the last nine races at those tracks:

2021 Atlanta — Ryan Blaney

2021 Las Vegas — Kyle Larson

2021 Miami — William Byron

2020 Texas (playoffs) — Kyle Busch

2020 Kansas (playoffs) — Joey Logano

2020 Las Vegas (playoffs) — Kurt Busch

2020 Kansas — Denny Hamlin

2020 Texas — Austin Dillon

2020 Kentucky — Cole Custer

 and on Facebook

Friday 5: Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell on path to be NASCAR’s next superstars


NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett says that he believes Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell “are your next superstars that are coming.”

The NASCAR on NBC analyst also sees how the dirt racing backgrounds of Reddick and Bell go well with the Next Gen car and could influence car owners to look there for future drivers.

“I think they’re that good, that talented,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell. “The background that they come from, I think, means a lot with the way they can handle these cars and what they can get out of them that others have a more difficult time getting.

“These are the two names, in my opinion, that as long as they stay with their current teams right now, they’re in the best position (to succeed). It’s going to be hard to dominate in a respect, but they’re going to win more often than a lot of others out there.”

Reddick (four) and Bell (three) have combined to win seven of the last 25 Cup races, including Reddick’s victory last weekend at Circuit of the Americas.

Since the start of last year’s playoffs at Darlington Raceway, Bell has two wins, tied with Reddick and William Byron and trailing only reigning champion Joey Logano’s three wins. Bell’s 10 top 10s in that 16-race stretch are more than any driver in the series in that time except Denny Hamlin, who has 11 top 10s.

“I think what we’ve seen from them already,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell, “they’re just getting to the point now that they have the experience to know what to expect in these races at all different types of tracks.”

Both drivers have nearly the same number of starts. Reddick has 116 Cup starts, Bell has 114. Both have four Cup wins. Among current full-time Cup drivers, only Brad Keselowski scored more wins (eight) in his first 116 Cup starts than Reddick and Bell.

* Christopher Bell has 114 Cup starts                                             List is active full-time Cup drivers only

The next three races set up well for Bell, starting this weekend at Richmond Raceway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has finished sixth or better in the last four Richmond races, including a runner-up result there last August.

Then comes the dirt race at Bristol. The 28-year-old will be among the favorites due to his extensive dirt racing background. Following Bristol is Martinsville. While Ross Chastain is remembered for his video game move the last time the series raced there, it was Bell who won the race. It marked the second time in the playoffs that Bell had to win to advance and did.

“The sky is definitely the limit,” crew chief Adam Stevens said of Bell after they won the Charlotte Roval playoff race last October. “He’s young. He’s getting better at a tremendous rate. He’s already extremely good. You can’t hide the talent that he has.”

It was that same type of talent that led 23XI Racing to sign Reddick last summer for the 2024 season. Once Richard Childress Racing got Kyle Busch for this season, the team released Reddick from the final year of his contract and allowed him to join 23XI Racing starting this season.

The 27-year-old Reddick is making an impact with his new team. Toyotas struggled last year on road courses — even with Bell winning at the Charlotte Roval. Reddick had the dominant car at COTA, giving Toyota its first victory of the season.

“It’s why I went after him as early as I did,” said Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, after Reddick’s victory last weekend. “I wanted to get the jump on all the other teams because I knew he was going to be the most coveted free agent in a very, very long time. That’s why I got the jump on it. It cost me a lot of money to do it, but it pays dividends.

“You have to have that driver that you feel like can carry you to championships and wins for decades. I think we have that guy. It’s not going to stop at road courses. Dirt racing, short tracks, speedways, he’s got what it takes on every racetrack we go to.”

After making his series debut in 2013, Reddick ran a majority of the 2014 Truck schedule for Brad Keselowski’s team. He finished second in points in 2015 and won three races with Keselowski’s team before moving to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team in 2017.

Reddick went to JR Motorsports in 2018 and won the Xfinity championship. He repeated in 2019 but won the crown with Richard Childress Racing. He moved to RCR’s Cup program in 2020, breaking out with victories at Road America, the Indianapolis road course and Texas.

Bell’s path was groomed by Toyota Racing Development, taking him from the dirt tracks all the way to Cup. He claimed the 2017 Truck title and won 15 of 66 Xfinity starts (22.7%) in 2018-19, his two full-time seasons in that series.

Eventually, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota decided to replace Erik Jones with Bell in 2021. Bell had his breakout season last year, winning at New Hampshire, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville.

Jarrett sees that talent in both Reddick and Bell, in part, from their dirt backgrounds.

“I really just believe it’s their car control is what I like the best,” Jarrett said. “You see someone like Reddick and what he did at COTA and what we saw him do a couple of times on road courses last year and the fact that he can make his car go that fast but yet not have to give up. That’s a talent that you’re able to do that.

“Christopher Bell does a lot of the same things. We see this come out on the short tracks and the difficult tracks where tire conservation means a little bit. It’s not that they’re trying to conserve the tire, it’s just their driving experience and driving abilities allow them not to abuse the tires on these cars as much as others are having to to try to match that speed that they have.”

2. What now?

In a rare public admission, NASCAR stated that it was “disappointed” that the National Motorsports Appeals Panel overturned some of the penalties to Hendrick Motorsports this week.

The Appeals Panel rescinded the 100-point penalty to Hendrick drivers Alex Bowman, William Byron and Kyle Larson, as well as the 10-point playoff penalty to each.

“A points penalty is a strong deterrent that is necessary to govern the garage following rule book violations, and we believe that it was an important part of the penalty in this case and moving forward,” NASCAR stated.

The Appeals Panel agreed with NASCAR that Hendrick Motorsports violated the rules by modifying the hood louvers of each of its cars. NASCAR discovered the issue before practice March 10 at Phoenix and took the hood louvers after that practice session.

The Appeals Panel kept the the $100,000 fines and four-race suspension to each of the four Hendrick crew chiefs for the infraction.

The Appeals Panel did not explain its reasoning for altering NASCAR’s penalty.

Hendrick Motorsports stated three key elements when it announced that it would appeal the penalties. Those three factors were:

  • “Louvers provided to teams through NASCAR’s mandated single-source supplier do not match the design submitted by the manufacturer and approved by NASCAR
  • “Documented inconsistent and unclear communication by the sanctioning body specifically related to louvers
  • “Recent comparable penalties issued by NASCAR have been related to issues discovered during a post-race inspection.”

When the National Motorsports Appeals Panel amended a NASCAR penalty last year — rescinding the 25-point penalty to William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas but increasing Byron’s fine from $50,000 to $100,000 — NASCAR made a change to the Rule Book two days later.

NASCAR removed one word — or — so there was no option between a point penalty or fine but that such an infraction would constitute a point penalty and fine.

The question is if NASCAR will make any changes to the Rule Book this time to prevent the Appeals Panel from altering a similar penalty as the Hendrick infraction in such a way again — maybe something that more clearly states that an infraction found before a race is a point penalty.

This was only the second time in the Next Gen era that a team was penalized points for an infraction found before the race. The other case was when Cody Ware’s car failed pre-qualifying inspection four times. At the time, the Cup Rule Book stated that such an infraction was an L1 penalty. Such a penalty could result in a 20-point penalty, which Cody Ware and team owner Rick Ware received.

Another key question is what, if anything, will NASCAR do to improve quality control of parts that teams get from vendors.

Chad Knaus, Hendrick vice president of competition, said March 17 that more emphasis needed to be put on the quality of the parts coming to teams from single-source suppliers.

“We as a company, we in the garage, every one of these teams here are being held accountable to put their car out there to go through inspection and perform at the level they need to,” he said March 17 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “The teams are being held accountable for doing that.

“Nobody is holding the single-source providers accountable at the level that they need to be to give us the parts we need. That goes through NASCAR’s distribution center and NASCAR’s approval process to get those parts, and we’re not getting the right parts.”

3. Single-file restarts

The overtime restarts last weekend at Circuit of the Americas have led to talk about if NASCAR should consider single-file restarts for all or some of its road courses.

Joey Logano discussed the notion on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week, saying: “There’s a lot of different opinions floating around. Probably the best I’ve heard is single-file restarts on road courses.”

The key issue is that at COTA and the Indianapolis road course both have a long straightaway for drivers to build speed before barreling into a sharp turn — at COTA it’s a hairpin left-hand turn, at Indy it’s a sharp right-hand turn.

Last year at Indy, Ryan Blaney was fourth on the last restart and got spun. While a single-file restart likely would have lessened the chances of such an incident, it also would have lowered Blaney’s chances to win because he would have been further away from the leader.

“The single-file restart is something I’ve been hearing around, and at some tracks I could see it working,” Blaney said, noting COTA and Indy.

He admits, that’s not the only idea.

“Do you move the restart zone?” Blaney said. “Do you give the leader more of an opening window of when to go? At COTA … do you give the leader the choice where he can go anytime between (Turn) 19 and the restart zone? So you kind of have like a short stint, slow down, turn, and then you have your long straightaway to where it kind of gaps everybody.

“You’re still doing double-file, but it kind of gaps (the cars) a little bit to where it’s not everyone nose-to-tail 15 rows deep diving in there. There’s a lot of differing opinions and ideas that are floating around, and we’ll see what we come up with, but, personally, from a driver’s standpoint it just gets messy.”

There’s time for NASCAR to decide if anything needs to be done. The next Xfinity race is June 3 at Portland. The next Cup road course race is June 11 at Sonoma.

“I don’t think you need to do anything for Sonoma,” Blaney said. “The way the restart zone is there it’s slow and you’re going up the hill right away. You don’t get the four-wide kind of thing there, so I don’t think Sonoma is anything we need to be working on.”

After that will be the inaugural Xfinity and Cup races at the Chicago street course on July 1-2. That course has a sharp left-hand turn shortly after the start/finish line that could replicate the chaos seen in restarts at COTA and Indy.

“I think Chicago is gonna be wild no matter what you do,” Blaney said.

4. Another new short track winner?

Sunday presents the opportunity for a ninth consecutive different winner of a short track race on pavement.

Here’s a look at those last eight winners:

Martin Truex Jr. (Richmond, September 2021)

Kyle Larson (Bristol, September 2021)

Alex Bowman (Martinsville, October 2021)

Denny Hamlin (Richmond, April 2022)

William Byron (Martinsville, April 2022)

Kevin Harvick (Richmond, August 2022)

Chris Buescher (Bristol, September 2022)

Christopher Bell (Martinsville, October 2022)

5. Race for cash

Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond marks the return of the Dash 4 Cash program.

JR Motorsports and Kaulig Racing have combined to win the $100,000 bonus each of the last 12 times. JR Motorsports has won it seven times, Kaulig Racing five times.

Of the four drivers eligible for the bonus Saturday, three race for JR Motorsports or Kaulig Racing: Justin Allgaier (JRM), Sam Mayer (JRM) and Daniel Hemric (Kaulig). The fourth driver is Sammy Smith for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Smokin’: Winston fueled NASCAR for 33 years


Ranking historic moments in any sport is a risky business, but it’s difficult to deny that one of the biggest items in NASCAR’s 75-year history was the 33-year sponsorship of its top series by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston cigarette brand.

When federal legislation derailed cigarette advertising on television, RJR moved its millions from the tube to the racetrack, transforming NASCAR forever and adding layers of financial strength to its teams, drivers and promoters.

From 1971-2003, NASCAR and RJR enjoyed one of the most powerful sponsorship relationships in the history of professional sports, each entity feeding off the other as stock car racing grew from a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon.

Although giant superspeedways had opened in several states in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the calendar turned to the 1970s NASCAR’s Grand National schedule remained frozen in another time. For an organization that hinted at joining the big leagues of pro sports and longed for television exposure that might take it there, NASCAR’s 48-race schedule was far too unwieldy and tied to shorter, smaller tracks with little or no national impact.

When RJR signed the dotted line to become the top-level series’ primary sponsor in 1971, the name changed from Grand National to Winston Cup Grand National (and later to simply Winston Cup), but the evolution of the title barely scratched the surface of the shifts to come. Working with ideas suggested by RJR officials, NASCAR did major surgery on the Cup schedule for the 1972 season, abandoning outposts like Beltsville, Maryland and Macon, Georgia to concentrate on a streamlined “national” schedule that emphasized big events and a year-long march toward a driving championship.

So the 1972 season opened with 31 races on the schedule, dramatically downsized from 48 in both 1970 and 1971. The RJR/Winston effect was on.

Great things were ahead. Reynolds dumped millions into speedway improvements, from the biggest of tracks to the smallest. Red and white (not surprisingly, Winston’s colors) paint was slapped on speedway walls and buildings, adding spice to tracks that had fallen on hard times. Billboards and other signage promoting races went up in communities near racetracks.

Purses at Cup Series tracks grew, and RJR added incentives, boosting season-end points money and designing programs like the Winston Million, which paid $1 million to a driver who could win three of what then were considered the sport’s biggest races: the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (at Talladega), Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500.

The Winston, a rich all-star race, was added to the schedule. It continues today, although its name and format has changed over the years.

Perhaps most importantly, however, RJR invested millions in widespread and business-smart promotion of NASCAR, which, at the start of the 1970s, had a very limited – both in personnel and in dollars – public relations and communications presence. RJR unleashed dozens of public relations and marketing individuals into its NASCAR operations, bringing a professionalism and thoroughness rarely seen in such circles prior to the company’s arrival.

“I’ve been in this sport 50-plus years, and there have been some big moments,” team owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports. “R.J. Reynolds coming in was certainly one of the biggest. They brought in paint and built buildings and brought in media from all over the United States. And the billboards. I remember going to North Wilkesboro, and there was a big billboard about Winston and the race. That was a big deal back in the day – stuff that we never had before.”

Sports Marketing Enterprises, the sports arm of RJR, in effect became NASCAR’s public relations headquarters. SME employees produced annual NASCAR media guides, usually working through the Christmas holiday break to have updated editions ready for January distribution. Winston introduced weekly media phone press conferences with drivers, lobbied media outlets with little interest in NASCAR to cover races and developed fan experiences like the Winston Cup Preview, an annual January event in which drivers signed autographs for fans in a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, arena.

RJR also was instrumental in moving NASCAR’s annual Cup Series end-of-season awards banquet to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, a change that put the sport and its drivers in the media capital of the world for a few late-autumn days.

Bill Elliott
Bill Elliott celebrates winning the Winston Million bonus Sept. 1, 1985, at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

“Anybody at NASCAR recognizes the role that Winston played in helping promote the sport from so many different angles,” Chris Powell, a former RJR employee and now the president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “There was no question that the sport was a great vehicle to advertise the product. So many other corporations recognized the possibilities of promoting their products through the sport. It all made it grow and grow.”

Steadily, as RJR’s influence in the sport grew, NASCAR tracks (from the Cup Series down to weekly tracks with NASCAR affiliations) were splashed with Winston red and white. Women wearing Winston outfits offered fans entering tracks a free pack of Winstons if they would trade the brand they smoked. Red and white Winston “show” cars appeared in on-track parades prior to races and at events in towns hosting races.

The Winston name and colors were seemingly everywhere in and around tracks. If you weren’t a smoker entering the facility, you might be converted being there all day; and if you were a smoker but used a competing brand you might consider switching. The Winston presence was commanding.

As a former RJR employee put it, “It was about moving the sticks,” in-house vernacular for cigarettes.

“We were always in a tussle to outdo Marlboro,” Powell said. “There was data to show to executive management in the company that adult smokers who were NASCAR fans were more likely to be Winston smokers.”

RJR involved NASCAR drivers in all manner of activities. Race-week golf events sponsored by the company brought together drivers, NASCAR and track officials and others with track tie-ins. Winston representatives invited drivers and their team members to dinner gatherings during race weeks, with the check often reaching into four figures.

Jimmy Spencer #23
In April 1999, Jimmy Spencer runs practice laps at Bristol Motor Speedway in a Ford sponsored by Winston. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Allsport)

RJR often scheduled events pairing drivers and media members with an eye toward enhancing relations between the two. During a Talladega race week, a Winston skeetshooting competition resulted in Jeff Gordon, not particularly known as an outdoorsman, defeating big-game hunter Dale Earnhardt, who was so shocked by the result that he was seen closely examining his rifle in the aftermath.

Winston employees became involved in almost every official operation – and some not so official — related to race weekends. At Pocono one year, several Winston operatives, quite aware of the traffic difficulties associated with exiting the track after races, basically created a new exit route through a nearby wooded area.

The RJR ties to NASCAR included sponsorship of drivers and teams. Long-time Cup driver Jimmy Spencer ran for teams carrying Winston and Camel cigarettes sponsorship.

“They were probably the best sponsor I ever drove for,” Spencer told NBC Sports. “They knew what it took. They were all about promoting and all about the fans. That’s what made the sport grow. It will never be as big as it was with them. I remember (late NASCAR president) Bill France Jr. telling me it would change the sport forever.”

The key RJR officials involved with NASCAR were Ralph Seagraves, who started the Winston racing program, and T. Wayne Robertson, who directed operations through years when the Winston presence expanded significantly.

“T. Wayne was a hell of a visionary,” Spencer said. “Everybody around him learned so much. I remember him saying that they weren’t coming into the sport to take over, that they were there to help. ‘We don’t want to be bullies,’ he said. ‘We want to move it to the next level.’ ”

Some insiders predicted that Robertson, who was widely respected across motorsports and sports marketing, eventually would move into a management role with NASCAR. Tragically, he died in 1998 at the age of 47 in a boating accident.

RJR’s talent pool produced leaders who moved on to more prominent roles in racing. In addition to Powell becoming LVMS president, Ty Norris moved from RJR to lead Dale Earnhardt’s racing team and now is president of Trackhouse Racing. Curtis Gray worked at RJR before becoming president at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Grant Lynch, who directed sports operations for RJR, became president at Talladega Superspeedway and a key lieutenant for NASCAR and its ruling France family. Jeff Byrd, who was involved in media operations at RJR, became president at Bristol Motor Speedway.







Dr. Diandra: Data points to speed as key to breaking Blaney’s losing streak

1 Comment

Richmond Raceway presents a chance for Ryan Blaney to break a losing streak that started after his win at the regular-season-ending Daytona race in 2021. A fast scan of his stats suggests Blaney is off to a good start to do just that in 2023.

Despite a poor showing at COTA, where he failed to run any higher than 16th all race, Blaney has a season average finishing position of 12.8. He’s tied with Kevin Harvick for fourth-best average finishing position among full-time drivers.

Blaney finished second at Phoenix, where the new short track aeropackage debuted. But he has not won.

Things look good on the surface

Before getting too worried by Blaney’s drought, remember that the season is only six races old. Two of those six races were superspeedway events, and a third was a road course where running through other cars has become the norm.

With 30 more races in the season, it’s far from time to hit the panic button.

Basic statistics suggest that Blaney is matching (and sometimes beating) his teammate, defending champion Joey Logano. I’ve included the statistics for sophomore driver Austin Cindric in the table below, as well.

A table comparing wins, top-fives and top-tens for Penske drivers

Logano won Atlanta and has two top-five finishes. No driver has more than three top fives thus far. Despite Logano’s win, Blaney’s average finishing position beats Logano’s.

Cindric has two top-10 finishes and an average finish of 16.5. His best finishes are sixth-place finishes at Las Vegas and last week at COTA.

After the National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded the 100-point penalty assessed to each Hendrick Motorsports driver and team, Ryan Blaney occupies eighth place in the season points standings.

Things would appear to look good for breaking Blaney’s losing streak this year.

Digging Deeper

But a different pattern emerges upon diving into the loop data. The next table compares more detailed statistics for all three Penske drivers. I’ve highlighted the lowest-scoring driver’s numbers in red for each metric.

A table showing some of the metrics that must be improved for to break Blaney's losing streak

Cindric lags his more experienced teammates in number of laps led, number of fastest laps and number of laps run in the top 15. But in the other stats, Blaney is the third out of three at Penske.

Average running position measures driver performance across all laps of a race, instead of just the last one. Blaney’s best average running position of the season was at Phoenix, with a 7.47. His worst was last week at COTA, where his average running position was 29.28. Apart from Phoenix, Blaney didn’t break the top 10 in average running position at any race this year.

The average speed-on-restarts rank compares a driver’s average speed in the first two laps of each green-flag run to other drivers’ speeds. Blaney ranks 32nd out of 35 full-time drivers in average restart speed rank. That places him behind Logano and Cindric.

Speed early in a run and speed late in a run measure a driver’s speed compared to everyone else on track during the first and last 25% of each green-flag run. In both metrics, Blaney again ranks 32 out of 35.

The fact that top-ranking Penske driver Logano only ranks 12th and 16th in early and late speed respectively suggests that the problem is at least partly company wide.

In overall green-flag speed — the average speed over a full green-flag run — Blaney ranks 29th out of 35. Logano ranks 12th and Cindric 19th.

These numbers identify one challenge that must be overcome to break Blaney’s losing streak.

Year over year

I’ll set aside Cindric’s numbers in this section for the sake of clarity. Blaney’s first six races this year show a large drop-off in most metrics relative to the first six races of 2022. Logano, however, either improved or stayed relatively constant in the same metrics.

In the table below:

  • Green indicates a 10% or better improvement in 2023.
  • Red indicates the 2023 value is at least 10% worse.
  • Black indicates a change (either way) less than 10%.

A table comparing statistics for Blaney and Logano in 2022 and 2023

Blaney has led a little more than 10% of the laps he led in 2022 and has less than half the number of fastest laps. His drop-offs on the speed metrics (the last four rows) are much greater than Logano’s changes.

In 2022, Blaney was beating Logano in all four speed metrics. This year, Logano is ahead.

The Promise of Richmond

The encouraging news to pull from this analysis is that Blaney’s numbers for Phoenix are the best of the 2023 season so far. He ranked seventh in green-flag speed, second in restart rank, eight in early-run speed and fourth in late-run speed. All of that bodes well for a good finish at Richmond.

Blaney won the pole in last spring’s Richmond race and finished seventh. He finished 10th in the fall race after qualifying 10th.

And Blaney himself is optimistic.

“Richmond will be a good gauge of where you stack up – slow, a bunch of mechanical grip, tire conservation,” Blaney said. “So I’m optimistic for it, for sure. I thought we had good cars there last year in both races from the whole team, and I’m excited to get there.”

But breaking Blaney’s losing streak is only the start to a successful season. He must improve his speed metrics at other tracks if he is to contend for a championship.

NASCAR weekend schedules: Richmond/Texas


NASCAR’s three major national series will be in action this weekend at two locations.

The Cup and Xfinity Series will race at Richmond Raceway in Virginia, and the Craftsman Truck Series will share the weekend with the IndyCar Series at Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth.

MORE: Drivers to watch at Richmond

Tyler Reddick won last Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas to put Toyota in the win column for the first time this season.

Here is a look at the weekend schedule for both tracks:

Richmond Raceway (Cup and Xfinity)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly cloudy. High of 72. Winds 10-20 mph. 13% chance of rain.

Saturday: Light rain early. Sunshine later. High of 75. Winds 20-30 mph. 24% chance of rain at start of Xfinity race.

Sunday: Sunny. High of 62. No chance of rain at start of Cup race.

Friday, March 31

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. — Cup Series

Saturday, April 1

Garage open

  • 6 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 7 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 8:05 – 8:35 a.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 10:05 – 10:50 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 10:50 – noon — Cup qualifying (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity race (250 laps, 187 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, April 2

Garage open

  • 12:30 – 10 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (400 laps, 300 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Texas Motor Speedway (Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Scattered thunderstorms in morning. Sunny and windy later. High of 79. Winds 20-30 mph. 50% chance of rain.

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 74. Winds 10-15 mph. No chance of rain at start of Truck race.

Friday, March 31

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • Noon – 5 p.m. — Truck Series

Saturday, April 1

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. — Truck Series

Track activity

  • 10:35 – 11:05 a.m. — Truck practice
  • 11:05 a.m. – noon — Truck qualifying
  • 4:30 p.m. — Truck race (167 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)