What matters at Darlington: High horsepower, tire allotment create new ballgame

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What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and how will teams be impacted by an increase in horsepower? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends and that will shape the Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1):

Darlington: Now with 200 more horsepower!

Though relegated to just 550 horsepower, Cup Series races at Darlington across the last two years carried staples of the storied track — the high lines, the Darlington stripes and a surface that gnawed on Goodyear rubber.

What lacked was heavy brake use. The impact of braking at high horsepower forces more tire degradation the deeper a run goes and, at this track, it was a sight for fans to behold and a riddle for drivers and teams to solve.

It’s back. Darlington’s quintessential element — coming to grips with a lack of grip — returns with the decision by NASCAR in advance of this season to utilize the 750-horsepower, lower-downforce package on the 1.366-mile track, a rules shift that renders last year’s results predominately useless.

What should we expect? Crew chiefs and engineers have scoured their notes from the 2018 race, Darlington’s last before the era of reduced horsepower, for trends and insight into what worked and what didn’t, but not everything will perfectly correlate. Still, some expectations are better than none.

The lone Darlington race three years ago saw regular lap-time falloff upwards of two seconds, a less forgiving amount than the falloff ranging from 1.5 to 1.7 seconds on worn tires that allowed for 2v1 stop strategy across the final stage of last fall’s 500-mile contest. Surely, this is enough for game-planning to take a different shape, but teams will also be thrown a cost-cutting curveball.

Cup Series teams will be given 11 sets of tires today, one less set than what they were given for last season’s 400-mile race. Understanding how quickly teams burned through all nine of their allotted sets across a rain-shortened race last year (scheduled for 311 miles but ultimately only 284), drivers will be asked to baby the brakes in order to protect their tires, as strategy will center around how to best optimize fresh rubber.

Today’s race offers the right amount of mystery at a familiar setting, a trial-by-fire exercise for teams, at worst, looking to build a reliable set of notes for this season’s playoff opener in September.

A sea change on restarts?

Darlington’s outside groove from the second row on back retains positions on restarts at a historically higher clip than its inside groove, a trend that predates the current rules package. One key difference offered by the shift from 550 to 750 horsepower might be the competitiveness of cars restarting from the front row.

Across 35 clean restarts at 550 horsepower, the car restarting from the outside of the first row retained position 82.8% of the time compared to the inside’s 48.5% retention rate. This was a striking difference from Darlington races in 2017 and 2018:

Cars restarting from the inside of the front row from 2017-18 never lost position, a reliance that went away with the horsepower reduction, moving all reliability to the top groove.

Teams caught wind of the shift in groove preference during the 2019 race. Pole-sitter William Byron selected the inside groove for the initial start but was defeated within the ensuing two laps by Brad Keselowski. The inside was selected again by race leader Kurt Busch for the lap-107 restart, but Kyle Larson overtook him for the lead. In all 39 of the restart attempts that took place since, the outside was the chosen launching point for the race leader.

With additional horsepower, Darlington’s inside line might ride again, a potential busting of a trend that emerged over the last two years.

Logano, seeking first Darlington win, looks to capitalize

In the 2018 Darlington race, Joey Logano was out-dueled by Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, saddled with a second-place result. It was, to date, the closest the 30-year-old driver has come to winning at the South Carolina track. Today’s race might represent his best shot at checking it off of his bucket list.

There’s arguably no other driver standing to benefit from the shift in horsepower at Darlington than Logano, who not only will reap the rewards of Team Penske’s deliberate pivot towards specializing in this specific package but should produce well given what he’s managed this season:

Per his Production in Equal Equipment Rating — a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his or her contribution — Logano is the most productive driver in the series on 750-horsepower tracks. The difference in his production splits between 550 and 750 horsepower is not only noticeable, but also one of the series’ biggest. A standout strength of his driving acumen is his efficient use of brakes on tracks, like Darlington, where braking is abundant. This trait should allow him to compete for the outright win in today’s race.

Such an effort, with Wolfe now on his pit box, would avenge his 2018 loss and further separate him from his peers on a style of driving and track type with the highest degree of import during the playoffs. It’d also close an apparent gap to other obvious title contenders on playoff tracks: Omitting Talladega, Logano’s averaged a 7.4-place finish this season at facilities with playoff representation. Martin Truex Jr. (3.8), Denny Hamlin (4.8) and Byron (7.2) each fare better.

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.