Friday 5: NASCAR’s future rides on more than Next Gen car

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Days before NASCAR celebrates its past, the sport looked to its future.

Amid smoke and lights, the Next Gen cars for Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota roared into the public’s view for the first time, a few days before the Cup Series convenes at Darlington Raceway for its throwback weekend.

A sport with roots to moonshiners racing the law, seeks to show that innovative spirit more than 70 years later. And do it with a car unlike any other in NASCAR’s history.

“Simply put, this car will make our sport healthier and stronger,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said as he stood before each of the three models Wednesday.

But it won’t just be a car that impacts NASCAR’s future.

It will be a mindset.

The sport needs to be aggressive in how it positions itself, following a trend it has taken in the last year that included banning the Confederate flag, shaking up the schedule and pointing toward a future with a hybrid engine.

The car plays a role. It provides a visual cue that this can be a different NASCAR with vehicles that satisfy Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet in sharing more with their road counterparts.

But the car needs to provide more.

The racing must be closer. The costs to teams more affordable. And entry to the sport more enticing for another manufacturer. Achieve those and series officials can point the sport in a direction not out of desperation but expectation.

“This was a project that’s taken a long time, and the reason is we want this to go out into the future and be a product that can not only race in ’22 but well beyond that for the fans,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief racing development officer.

This car will be the third for NASCAR since the Car of Tomorrow debuted in 2007. The Gen 6 car followed in 2013. The Next Gen car was scheduled to run this season before the coronavirus pandemic pushed the car’s debut to 2022.

A new car about every seven years. Can something like that truly be transformative for NASCAR?

“We need a car that’s going to service our industry for years and years and years to come,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “We can’t afford to do tear-ups every few years.”

That stability is key for many reasons, including team ownership. Three teams — Trackhouse Racing, 23XI Racing and Live Fast Motorsports — debuted this season and cited the transition to the Next Gen car as a key factor to entering the sport now. Kaulig Racing plans to field a full-time Cup team next year, while also running its Xfinity Series operation.

The expectation is that the Next Gen car will reduce costs for teams in the future, as vendors supply key parts. Teams no longer will need to develop and build key pieces. That will allow them to reduce their workforce. Transitioning from this car to the Next Gen car, though, will be costly for teams. New parts. New pieces. New equipment.

NASCAR Next Gen Car Announcement
Denny Hamlin in front of the Toyota Camry Next Gen car that will debut in 2022. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“We budget on the safe side to say this car will probably be slightly more expensive for a couple years, then we kind of see what happens after that,” said Denny Hamlin, who co-owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan.

Another car change in the next seven years could challenge teams financially. So this car needs to be right.

One of the advantages this car has is “future proofing” as Mark Rushbrook, Global Director of Ford Motorsports, calls it.

The Next Gen car will be adaptable for a hybrid engine. Plans have pushed that engine program back a few years, but series officials hope the engine’s debut provides an entry point for a fourth Cup manufacturer. 

Cup has had three manufacturers since Dodge left after the 2012 season. Toyota was the last manufacturer to enter Cup, doing so in 2007.

“I think the reality is the entry point with a car that we’ve been racing is just too steep to entice a new manufacturer,” Toyota’s Wilson said. “That’s just reality. We do believe that with Next Gen and the direction, the relevancy to a (manufacturer), it’s a reset that there’s a much higher likelihood we could see another (manufacturer) or two.”

The sport has sought that for years.

“Would it be nice to have another one? Yeah, it would be nice,” Phelps said of another Cup manufacturer. “It would help in a number of different areas, not just competing with the other three (manufacturers), but also provide additional support to the garage, which is important. The dollars only go so far, and you get kind of the mid to the back pack of the garage don’t get a ton of additional support from our (manufacturers).”

The car’s benefits also should be seen on the track — particularly road courses — and that could lead NASCAR to new venues and a new audience.

“When I drove it at the Roval, (it) was much more agile with its acceleration, deceleration, and primarily, it’s maneuverability to switch back, left to right,” said Kurt Busch, who tested the car at the Charlotte Roval in November with Martin Truex Jr. “And the car was an impressive, easy two seconds quicker on the Roval circuit.”

This season’s Cup schedule has seven such races. A street course could be in NASCAR’s future. 

Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks has pushed that idea for years, saying in 2018: “I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people.

“In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series, and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.

“I think that the days of people driving 500 miles from their home to spend four days at a racetrack camping are numbered.”

A street course is among the races that couldn’t have been done a few years back when the sport was locked in five-year agreements with tracks. Stability has its benefits but is not exciting to the public.

This year’s schedule has provoked much discussions with a dirt race at Bristol, a new Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway, and three new road course events (Circuit of the Americas, Road America and Indianapolis).

Such changes breath energy into the sport.

“We hope to see a similar dynamic schedule, not following into a regular routine like we seemed to have, to keep the schedule fresh,” Ford’s Rushbrook told NBC Sports.

“The level of change from ’20 to ’21 was significant. I don’t think we can expect that same level every year … but just the idea to keep mixing it up, to go to new markets and it’s maybe one new one a year. … We were in a routine where the 2018 schedule wasn’t that different than the 2017 schedule, wasn’t that different from the 2016 schedule.”

That’s the mandate for NASCAR. Celebrate the Next Gen car but make it a piece in a well-defined strategy that can attract a new manufacturer, compete at new sites and reach a wider audience.

2. Wondering what if?

One of the benefits of having a single supplier for various parts is it takes the burden off teams to develop and make those pieces for the Next Gen car.

One of the worries, at least to Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, is just having all the parts and pieces for the start of next season.

“From the parts and supply thing, I think that’s going to be a general concern all the way up until we get to Daytona,” Hamlin said. “Once we get into on-track testing here in (August), September, October, November, we hope that this car puts on a better racing product out on the racetrack.

“If we test and we find out we might need to tweak some things, now we’re in a really tight timeline to get all those parts and pieces to everyone before Daytona.

Single supplier, I think there’s a lot of different manufacturers of parts and pieces. I’m okay with single supplier. I think it makes it easier for everyone, especially if that supplier is right here in the home of NASCAR, a lot of the teams. They can deliver, they can have trackside services. That’s all a very viable thing.

Ultimately, the immediate concern and things that kind of keep you up at night is, ‘Man, are we going to have enough parts and time?’ Once we get past the first part of the season, I think everyone will have a sigh of relief that we’re past the rush now, I think we’re going to be okay.”

3. Finishing strong

Kyle Larson’s frustration was evident last week after he led a race-high 132 laps but did not win at Kansas Speedway.

Another day where I lead a lot of laps and don’t win,” he said after finishing 19th.

While circumstances on restarts contributed to Larson losing the lead, the issue of leading many laps and not winning is a reoccurring theme. Last week marked the 15th time he’s led at least 100 laps in a Cup race. He’s won three of those races.

The 20% winning percentage is among the worst for active drivers who have led 100 laps or more in a Cup race at least five times.

Here is a look at the worst and best winning percentage via Racing Insights:

Worst winning percentage among active drivers who led at least 100 laps in a Cup race

0% — Ryan Blaney (0 wins in 8 races)

20% — Kyle Larson (3 wins in 15 races)

22.2% — Chase Elliott (2 wins in 9 races)

35.9% — Martin Truex Jr. (14 wins in 39 races)

41.2% — Joey Logano (7 wins in 17 races)

Best winning percentage among active drivers who led at least 100 laps in a Cup race

60% — Ryan Newman (6 wins in 10 races)

53.8% — Kurt Busch (14 wins in 26 races)

49.1% — Kevin Harvick (26 wins in 53 races)

47.6% — Brad Keselowski (10 wins in 21 races)

44.1% — Denny Hamlin (15 wins in 34 races)

4. Streaking

William Byron heads into Sunday’s race with a career-high streak of nine consecutive top-10 finishes.

Erik Jones also goes to Darlington with a long streak. The 2019 Southern 500 winner has never finished outside the top 10 at the famed track.

He had six consecutive top-10 finishes in Cup for Joe Gibbs Racing and two top-10 Xfinity finishes for JGR.

Jones and Kevin Harvick were the only Cup drivers to finish in the top 10 in all three Darlington races last year.

Jones, who is in his first season with Richard Petty Motorsports, said that his success at Darlington is “pretty high on my accomplishments that I’m proud of.

“It’s a tough place. It’s just a challenge of everything. Not just driver. It’s car, motor. It’s a little bit of everything that you have to have well.

“It’s definitely on my list of things that I’m very proud of, for sure, how we’ve run in the past. We’ve put a lot of work into this week at RPM, really the last two weeks coming up to this race. (Crew chief Jerry Baxter) and the guys all know how much this track means to me and how well I’ve been able to run there. We want to be to do the same thing in the 43.”

5. Change coming?

NASCAR may look to slow the cars when the series races at Daytona International Speedway in the regular-season finale in August. That is the next superspeedway race.

The change would come after Joey Logano’s car got airborne in a crash at Talladega last month.

Logano’s crash was triggered when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with Denny Hamlin’s car. That sent Hamlin’s car into the left rear of Logano’s car. The contact turned Logano’s car. As it went down the banking, it was hit by Stenhouse’s car and air lifted Logano’s car.

While applauding the measures that kept him safe in the crash, Logano expressed frustration with what led to getting in the air.

“I am wondering when we are going to stop because this is dangerous doing what we are doing,” he said after the incident. “I got a roll bar in my head. That is not okay. I am one hit away from the same situation Ryan Newman just went through (in the 2020 Daytona 500). I just don’t feel like that is acceptable.

“A lot of it is the big spoiler and the big runs and all the pushing. It is nobody’s fault. Denny (Hamlin) is trying to go, and (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) is trying to go. It is a product of this racing. We have to fix it though. Someone already got hurt and we are still doing it, so that’s not real smart.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer provided an updates on NASCAR’s investigation into the crash:

“In terms of Joey’s incident, yeah, we’ve done a lot of work on that,” O’Donnell said. “We actually just presented it to the drivers. We’re having ongoing dialogue with the drivers. I think, if anything, you can see us take a look at the speeds of the car as we head potentially into our next superspeedway race.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers

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

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

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

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

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

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

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Truck Series: Rajah Caruth joins GMS Racing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other Truck Series news:

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

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

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

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

NAPA AutoCare will continue as a team sponsor.

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

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry

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

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

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

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

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