What matters at Charlotte: 600 miles with minimal tire wear

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What matters in tonight’s NASCAR Cup Series race in Charlotte and how will teams reckon with minimal tire wear across 600 miles? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET on FOX).

Is 600 miles too long for Kyle Larson?

Kyle Larson has never won a 500-mile race, a worthwhile topic when discussing him as the odds-on favorite for today’s 600-mile race. It’s a notion of which Larson is fully aware.

“My friends texted me,” Larson said. “We’re in a group chat, and they’re like, ‘Oh that’s cool, you’re the odds-on favorite to win!’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but it’s 600 miles. I’m more of a 380-mile guy.’”

His self-deprecation is a nice touch, but Larson realizes long races are a riddle he’s yet to solve. He’s led laps and finished well, but hasn’t closed the deal since entering the Cup Series in 2014.

“A lot of times it’s my fault,” Larson said. “But also a lot of times it’s circumstantial, where somebody else has a better pit stop, or I don’t get a good push on a restart as the leader or whatever. And then I run second or third, then I overdrive to try and get back to the lead and I crash or something like that. So, I don’t know.

“I think those wins will come, but they haven’t yet.”

The win could come as soon as tonight. Larson, who starts from the pole, tops the series in Production in Equal Equipment Rating at 550-horsepower tracks while also having the fastest car, based on average median lap rank. Given the difficulty in passing with this specific rules package and the kinds of dominant stretches Larson has demonstrated on 1.5-mile tracks like Atlanta and Kansas this season, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that, if he doesn’t stumble, he’ll finally break the long-race seal with a win in one of NASCAR’s crown-jewel events.

The mental durability of a 600-mile race, Larson insists, isn’t a factor. If anything, the changing track conditions in the shift from day to night, something with which he’s struggled, prompts a heightened focus.

“I feel like I focus even more during this race to try and figure out what I need when it does go from daytime to night,” Larson said. “I’ve always been really good here in the sun. Then it goes to nighttime. This place, for whatever reason, I don’t have a good feel for. So if anything, I feel like I focus and try harder here than I do in other places.”

Besides the race length, the track itself, namely the lack of tire wear it elicits, offers the field an opportunity to rein in a potentially dominant Larson.

All tire strategies are viable with minimal degradation

Cup Series teams are utilizing the same Goodyear tire combination that saw, at most, a 1-second lap-time degradation deep into runs last year. The minimal falloff assisted in Brad Keselowski’s Coca-Cola 600 win — thanks to a decision to eschew pitting in advance of the overtime restart — and formed Greg Ives’ call for just two tires following a rain delay, a choice that jumped Alex Bowman from 13th to first in the running order. From there, Bowman earned two stage wins and tallied the fourth-most points despite finishing 19th.

Under green-flag conditions, long-pitting — stopping beyond the most populated few laps of pit window — is a more sturdy strategy than usual, a bid by teams for a caution flag or stage points with less risk of the plan disassembling. There won’t be an insurmountable lap time difference between the teams that short-pit Charlotte’s green-flag windows and those that don’t.

Under yellow, two tires or no stop at all is possible, given the cadence of caution flags toward the ends of stages (the 600-mile contest contains three) or the race itself. Ives believes we’ll see teams attempt to emulate what he did in last year’s race but stresses it’s a design that requires clean air, leading to a quick getaway, to work as intended.

“I would say you may look at some calls that are similar to that,” Ives told NBC Sports. “Sometimes it’s all about positioning, right? I was fortunate enough to get the front row each time we did that and it made it work for us. But you saw a couple of guys also last year stay out and fall back to 17th, 18th with fast cars.

“So, it’s about playing the right strategy when we need to and not putting ourselves behind by being too cute.”

The choose rule’s impact on pit road “gambles”

The choose rule hadn’t been conceived when last year’s Coca-Cola 600 rewarded those who brushed aside conventional four-tire stops. Had teams been given the ability to pick their restarts, Ives reckons Bowman, third in the running order among drivers who didn’t pit prior to the final restart, would’ve been in much better contention for a finish commensurate with his race-long performance.

“At the end of the 600, we stayed out and — we had a fast car all night — we thought we had the ability to win that race,” Ives said. “We went down into Turn 1 and got super tight and it ended up pointing it (toward the outside of the turn). If we had the ability to potentially choose the outside there, maybe it would’ve worked out better for us.”

Instead of choosing, Bowman was slotted into the third-place spot on the inside of the second row, a location in which its occupants had a 56.67% chance of defending at Charlotte over the last two years, less favorable than the fourth-place spot to its outside. He was lined directly behind Keselowski instead of then-Hendrick stablemate Jimmie Johnson, Ives’ ideal scenario:

“We would’ve lined up right behind Jimmie, we would’ve pushed Jimmie potentially,” Ives said. “The 12 car (Ryan Blaney) would’ve chosen the bottom and pushed (Keselowski) and I don’t feel like we get tight. It helps when you have the ability to choose.”

Keselowski realizes the choose rule, and the likelihood of faster cars or cars with fresher tires being placed in more advantageous restart spots, could’ve thrown him a much different challenge than what he ultimately received.

“Being able to pick your lane with new tires give you options to be where you want to be,” Keselowski said. “I can’t say specifically how it would’ve played out because you don’t know what everybody would have done, but I suspect it would’ve been definitely harder to defend the lead or the position I was in.”

Given each team’s ability to select their own launching points on restarts, the decision between four tires, two tires or no stop becomes more pronounced — in both directions — giving them more control in how their “gambles” materialize.

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.