Friday 5: Is Hendrick Motorsports’ recent run overshadowing a weakness?

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Hendrick Motorsports’ domination the past three weeks has been impressive, but it comes with an important caveat.

All three wins were at tracks that are not in the playoffs.

In a season where teams will transition to a new car next year and the focus on playoff tracks has evolved, the question is what does Hendrick’s streak mean?

The recent run is reminiscent of the team’s dominating days.

Kyle Busch, who finished third in the Coca-Cola 600, said after that race: “On a one to 10 (scale), if Larson was a 10 tonight, we’re about a seven, so we’ve got some work to do.”

It’s a matter of how much they have to do.

“As close the cars are … you’ve just got to be a little bit better and you look like a hero,” Travis Geisler, competition director for Team Penske, told NBC Sports.

Todd Berrier, technical director at Joe Gibbs Racing, told NBC Sports: “Racing is a game of advantages, and we have to work a little bit more.”

But that’s the thing. How much and in what areas?

Geisler notes the results from the 600 can’t be discounted even though the Charlotte oval won’t host a playoff race.

“This kind of speed carries over to a lot of different tracks,” he said.

But will it carry over to enough such tracks? Only three of the 10 playoff tracks are 1.5-mile speedways: Las Vegas, Kansas and Texas.

There are more tracks 1 mile or less in the playoffs: Martinsville, Richmond, Bristol and Phoenix, site of the championship race.

James Small, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said that after Truex finished 10th in the season finale at Phoenix last year, he spent the offseason working on ways to be better there.

The result was that Truex won at Phoenix this year. All three of his wins this season have come at tracks that will host playoff races — Darlington (playoff opener), Martinsville (sets field for championship race) and Phoenix (title race).

Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers, meanwhile, combined to lead less than 1% of the 1,105 laps run at Darlington, Martinsville and Phoenix this year.

Larson finished second to Truex at Darlington and Elliott was second to Truex at Martinsville. Hendrick isn’t too far behind, but it is evident the organization has work to do at those tracks, which feature the lower downforce package.

Hendrick Motorsports did win earlier this year at Richmond. Alex Bowman led the final 10 laps to win. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers led 315 of the 400 laps in that race before finishing second, fourth, fifth and eighth. Hendrick had only one other driver finish in the top 10 in that race. William Byron was seventh.

Penske’s Geisler said that every team has to be careful about focusing too narrowly on playoff tracks because all races pay playoff points.

“Certainly stacking points right now matters,” he said. “So you don’t want to just give that away.”

Larson has the most playoff points with 19. Truex has 18.

For as good as Hendrick has been lately, it’s still three months until the playoffs begin. While there won’t be practice at most events, there’s still the chance for others to improve during the summer.

Just like last season.

Elliott won twice in the first 31 races a year ago and then won three of the last five races, including the finale in Phoenix, to claim his first title. Kevin Harvick, who won seven of the 26 races in the regular season and scored two more victories in the first round of the playoffs, failed to advance to the championship race.

“You see it a lot, the team that’s the best throughout the regular season isn’t the team that always is the best throughout the playoffs and wins the championship,” Larson said. “I think we all know that at Hendrick Motorsports, and I think that’s why we continue to not settle with where we’re at.”

2. Help for young athletes 

Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart often said how there was no manual to prepare a young driver for what they would experience at the sport’s highest level, particularly dealing with media. It’s something that some athletes would say about their sport.

The issue became magnified this week when Naomi Osaka, the world No. 2 tennis player, withdrew from the French Open, citing mental health concerns.

The 23-year-old, who is the reigning Australian Open and U.S. Open champion, stated before the French Open that she would not attend press conferences during the event. She sought to avoid what she viewed as a potentially unhealthy situation.

Osaka was fined $15,000 because she skipped a media session after her first-round win at the French Open. She decided to withdraw from the tournament.

In her explanation, Osaka noted that she had suffered “long bouts of depression” since her U.S. Open championship in 2018, and “I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”

Bubba Wallace, who has talked openly about struggles with depression, said he understands Osaka’s feelings.

“Any profession you do, you grow up and practice how to play tennis, you grow up and practice how to race cars,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “Everything else falls into place, talking in front of media, talking in front of crowds, being a public speaker. None of that is practiced. … I can totally relate to what she’s saying. It’s tough for anybody.

NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Texas Grand Prix Practice
Bubba Wallace says he relates to Naomi Osaka’s comments on feeling anxiety talking with the press and says ‘showing your signs of what you’re going through is not a sign of weakness.” (Photo by Carmen Mandato/23XI Racing via Getty Images)

“It may come more natural for (some) people, but at the end of the day, it’s still tough. It’s something that we’re not comfortable with just because we didn’t practice or learn it growing up.

“It just happens, ‘Oh by the way you need to talk to people after you make your qualifying run here.’ ‘Uh, OK.’ I can see where the anxiety builds up. You say one wrong thing, people lash out at you. It definitely puts you in a bad mindset. Definitely can relate on all levels there. Introvert, extrovert. It’s still a tough task to, I guess, be good at or just be comfortable with.”

In May 2019, Wallace gave an emotional interview where he said he was on the “verge of breaking down.” 

Wallace said then of his negative mindset: “I’ll be damned if it doesn’t all go away when you get behind the wheel. I guess it’s just 16 years of driving helps. But it’s tough. You see what you get now, I’m on the verge of breaking down.”

Seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton said Thursday that there needs to be more support for young athletes in dealing with media duties.

“When I was young, I was thrown into the pit and I wasn’t given any guidance or support,” Hamilton said ahead of Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. “And what I do know is that, you know, when youngsters are coming in, they’re facing the same thing as I did. And I don’t necessarily know if that’s the best for them. I think we need to be supporting more, and I think it shouldn’t be a case where you’re pressured.

“For example, with Naomi’s scenario, she didn’t feel comfortable for her own personal health not to do something. And the backlash is ridiculous.”

Wallace said that Osaka speaking up is powerful, just as it was for Wallace when he’s talked about his struggles.

“Showing your signs of what you’re going through is not a sign of weakness,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “It’s actually very powerful and encouraging others to speak out and to be strong about what they feel.”

3. Tough challenge

Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway (4 p.m. ET on FS1) marks the first Cup race there since 2019. That year marked the return of teams running the Carousel. Teams had the high downforce package that season. Sunday’s race will feature the low downforce package. Also, there’s no practice or qualifying this weekend.

So how will Martin Truex Jr., who has won the past two Sonoma races, prepare with all those changes?

“Not really a whole lot you can do,” he said. “I went and ran the Toyota simulator (Tuesday) for a bit just to kind of re-acclimate myself to the track. Hopefully that gave us a bit of an indication of what the low downforce will be like. Really, that’s about all you can do. We were able to win there years ago and, obviously, it’s a little bit different now. The low downforce package we ran really well there in ’17 and felt like we were in position to win the race and lost an engine. We’ve got some good notes to go off and everything else. We’ll just have to see.”

The Carousel adds another challenge for drivers. The section of track goes down from Turn 4 through Turns 5 and 6 before leading into the course’s longest straightaway and the Turn 7 hairpin.

“I think it’s just a really awkward corner, and it doesn’t feel like a corner a race car should be going through,” Cole Custer said. “It’s really tight, really downhill, off camber. 

“It’s just a really tough corner, and it’s something that you never go through there and feel like you did it right. It never feels natural, so it’s one of those things you just kind of have to hit your marks and make sure you don’t overdo it through there.”

4. Best road course racers

Via Racing Insights, here is a look at the active drivers with the best average finish in road course races:

9.21 – Chase Elliott

12.98 – Kevin Harvick

13.54 – Joey Logano

13.57 – Ryan Blaney

14.15 – Martin Truex Jr.

14.27 – Brad Keselowski

14.41 – Kurt Busch

14.42 – Erik Jones

15.33 – Kyle Busch

15.57 – AJ Allmendinger

15.71 – Alex Bowman

15.91 – Denny Hamlin

16.06 – Kyle Larson

16.60 – Ryan Newman

17.10 – William Byron

5. “Taking the Lead”

Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, can add author to his title.

Taking the Lead: Winning Business Principles that Fuel Joe Gibbs Racing” debuts June 8.

The book is more than just about business principles, detailing how Alpern rose from intern to an executive at the company with good friend J.D. Gibbs, one of Joe Gibbs’ sons. Alpern also shares stories of J.D. Gibbs, Joe Gibbs and others.

Alpern said he was motivated to write the book after his father died before finishing his own book. His father was in the CIA.

“He really kind of deprived our family of this amazing story we never got to hear,” Alpern said. “So 10 years ago, I told my wife, my story is not as interesting as my dad’s, but I’m going to write a book because I want my boys and future generations to hear this story about Joe Gibbs Racing and how I started as an intern and all that stuff.”

Alpern is donating his proceeds to the J.D. Gibbs Legacy Fund. J.D. Gibbs died Jan. 11, 2019 from complications following a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease. He was 49.

Milestones in reach for NASCAR Cup drivers in 2023

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While the countdown to the start of the 2023 NASCAR season in February continues, here’s a look at some of the milestones Cup drivers could reach in the upcoming season:

AJ Allmendinger

Allmendinger returns to drive the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing in 2023. He’s scheduled to make his 400th career Cup start March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, a race he nearly won last year.

Aric Almirola

Almirola is 26 laps away from leading 1,000 laps in his Cup career.

Ryan Blaney 

Blaney is scheduled to make his 300th career Cup start Sept. 24 at Texas in the playoffs. Texas was the site of his last Cup win, which came in the All-Star Race in May.

Chase Briscoe

Briscoe is scheduled to make his 100th career Cup start Sept. 10 at Kansas in the playoffs.

Kyle Busch 

Busch needs one win to set the NASCAR record for most consecutive seasons with a win. He is tied with Richard Petty with 18 entering the 2023 season, which will see Busch drive for Richard Childress Racing.

Busch is 92 laps away from leading 19,000 laps in his Cup career.

He is 34 starts away from tying Dale Earnhardt Sr. for 23rd on the all-time list of most career starts at 676. Busch is scheduled to tie Earnhardt’s mark Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the playoffs and surpass the mark the next weekend at Martinsville Speedway in the playoffs.

William Byron 

Byron is scheduled to make his 200th career Cup start July 16 at New Hampshire.

Chase Elliott

Elliott is a win from scoring a victory in six consecutive Cup seasons.

He is 100 laps away from leading 5,000 in his Cup career.

Justin Haley

Haley is scheduled to make his 100th career Cup start Sept. 10 at Kansas in the playoffs.

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin is two wins away from 50 career Cup wins. That would tie him with Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 13th on the all-time victory list. 

Kevin Harvick

Harvick is scheduled to make his 800th career Cup start April 23 at Talladega.

He is 15 starts from tying Jeff Gordon for ninth on the all-time list for most career Cup starts at 805. Harvick is scheduled to tie Gordon’s mark June 4 at World Wide Technology Raceway and is scheduled to move ahead of Gordon on June 11 at Sonoma.

Harvick is 99 laps away from leading 16,000 laps in his Cup career.

He is five top fives away from having 250 in his Cup career.

Brad Keselowski

Keselowski is scheduled to make his 500th career Cup start June 4 at World Wide Technology Raceway.

He is 93 laps away from 9,000 career laps led in Cup.

Kyle Larson

Larson is scheduled to make his 300th career Cup start March 19 at Atlanta.

He is four top 10s away from 150 career top 10s.

Joey Logano

Logano is one win from having a Cup victory in 12 consecutive seasons, which would tie him for 13th on the all-time list with Denny Hamlin.

Logano is one top five away from 150 career top-five finishes.

He is nine starts away from tying Richard Petty for 19th on the all-time list of consecutive starts at 513. Logano is scheduled to reach that mark April 16 at Martinsville and surpass it April 23 at Talladega.

Tyler Reddick

Reddick is nine top 10s away from 50 career top 10s.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse is scheduled to make his 400th career start in the season finale at Phoenix.

He is five top 10s away from 50 career Cup top 10s.

Daniel Suarez

Suarez is one top 10 away from 50 career top 10s in Cup.

Martin Truex Jr.

Truex is 16 starts from tying Jeff Burton for 10th on the all-time list of consecutive starts at 628. Truex is scheduled to reach that mark at June 11 at Sonoma and surpass it June 25 at Nashville.

Bubba Wallace

Wallace is scheduled to make his 200th Cup start June 25 at Nashville.

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.