Friday 5: Chase Elliott looks to put on a show for fans at Road America

0 Comments

NASCAR is set to enjoy another large crowd this weekend, and reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott says it is important that the sport ensures that fans have a good experience.

Road America hosts the Xfinity Series on Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) and the Cup Series on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). The track’s campsites sold out quickly for this weekend, and the track is encouraging fans to carpool and arrive early.

Nashville Superspeedway sold out its grandstands, hosting nearly 40,000 people for its inaugural Cup race two weeks ago, but the start of the race was delayed because of traffic issues for some fans.

Last weekend, Pocono Raceway announced a sellout of its infield camping for its doubleheader Cup weekend and had what some observers considered the track’s largest crowd in years.

Now comes the first Cup race at Road America since 1956 and the anticipation for that event.

“When you have a great crowd, I feel like you have a responsibility to treat the crowd properly,” Elliott said. “I know there were some problems at Nashville, traffic and things like that, and that’s not good.

“If I was a fan and I had to wait in a long line of traffic to come to a race for the first time, that would make me think twice about going again. … We need to make sure we are treating our fans (well), especially with the facilities and traffic in and out, just making sure we’re taking good care of them. If they are there to support us, we need to make sure their time is enjoyable and they had a good trip.”

The day after the Nashville race, track president Erik Moses sent a letter to fans thanking them for their attendance and stating that traffic issues would be addressed.

For the drivers, racing in front of large crowds, the goal, Elliott says, is to “just try to put on a good show.”

Few have been better than Elliott at road courses lately. He’s won five of the past seven Cup road course races. That includes his victory in the inaugural Cup race at Circuit of the Americas last month.

His six career road course victories tie him for third on the all-time list with Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd.

Elliott’s success on the track and his lineage have made him the sport’s most popular driver, but he says that doesn’t mean he should be considered the face of the sport.

“Who is to say there needs to be one face?” Elliott said. “We’re a sport of a lot of drivers and a lot of personalities and a lot of teams. … There’s no one person that, I don’t think, can carry the load of attracting everyone to watch.

“Fans have certain people they like watching. My fans like watching me, and there’s a lot of people who probably don’t and that, to me, is what makes it special because it’s not about one person. My response is that I think it takes all shapes and sizes to make this deal work, and I feel I’m a piece of the puzzle.”

Hendrick Motorsports has figured out the puzzle on the track. The organization has won six of the last seven points races. Elliott won at COTA, Alex Bowman won at Pocono and Dover, and Kyle Larson won the Coca-Cola 600, Nashville and Sonoma.

Hendrick Motorsports has won 14 of the last 33 Cup race races. The success, though, has led to the question of if the organization is peaking too soon.

“I definitely think that can happen,” Elliott said. “I’ve watched it happen, so I know it’s real, but I do know continued hard work and continuing to push in the areas that we’re pushing in and continuing to work together as a team and push each other to be better, I think we continue to perform at a high level throughout the entire season. That’s ultimately what we need to do.”

2. Jeff Gordon looks ahead

While Jeff Gordon has played a leadership role at Hendrick Motorsports since exiting the car, the team recently announced he would become vice chairman, the No. 2 spot in the organization behind only team owner Rick Hendrick.

Gordon talked to the media last weekend at Pocono and discussed his role:

Q: Did you always feel that you were going to be on this ownership path?

Gordon: You have to understand that I’ve been a part of this since 1999. I’ve been behind the scenes, understanding and learning the business side of it. Gradually, over time, obviously my focus was on driving throughout all those years. But as I started getting closer to stepping away in 2015 from the driving role, my interest level in the business side, the culture that Rick has created and how he’s done that and how it impacts things far beyond just what I was doing as a driver, was interesting to me.

So, each year, that ramped up more and more as I had pretty much half the season to dedicate my time to it. And the more I did that, whether it was coming to the track or being back at the shop on race day or just talking to the marketing department about sponsorship or talking to NASCAR about Next Gen or any business decisions that were going on there with other owners, I realized that this is where my true passion lies.

I love the sport. I love racing. But the competition and being a partner with one of the best owners there will ever be in NASCAR, that’s really what I was getting excited about looking ahead.

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway
Jeff Gordon chats with Kyle Larson earlier this season at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Q: What do you have to learn with the new job now?

Gordon: Well, luckily right now, we’re in a great position, and it’s about maintaining what we currently have. But that all got started so many years ago before I even got to Hendrick Motorsports with Rick, and the culture that he creates and how he treats people and how he finds talent and nurtures that.

Of course right now, we’ve learned a lot about how our teams are working together more than they ever have before. And we’re seeing the success because of that. Right now, it’s about maintaining it.

But as we move forward, it’s just continuing to look at the business model and try to understand how we take care of our current partners and nurture those relationships and make sure that they’re excited about NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports. They certainly are right now, and we want to continue to see that grow. But also, what new partners can we potentially look at and bring in.

Q: Did working in TV give you any perspective toward the business side you didn’t expect?

Gordon: Oh yeah. That’s one of my goals is to really connect with our TV partners and make sure that our drivers and crew chiefs recognize that their personality, their performance, the show on the race track, that it means way more than you think.

As a competitor, you get very narrowly focused on the competition. And this sport wouldn’t have the fans and wouldn’t be as big as it is if millions of people weren’t watching it on TV. And they want to see rivalries, right? They want to see personalities and frustrations and excitement.

I think that my perspective, coming from the last six years doing TV, it is definitely going to be present at Hendrick Motorsports and how we move forward. And I think our guys do a great job with that, but there’s no doubt we can do more.

3. Staying the course

One of the challenges for teams is when reports state that a driver will be headed to a different organization the following season or such announcements have been made. The key is not to let those situations impact the current season.

Reports state that Brad Keselowski will move to Roush Fenway Racing next season as a driver and part-owner in the team. No official announcement has been made. The Cup Series just entered the second half of the season last weekend, so plenty of racing remains, including the playoffs.

Keselowski is only the second driver crew chief Jeremy Bullins has worked with in Cup. Bullins previously worked with Ryan Blaney before Team Penske moved its crew chiefs within the organization before the 2020 season, so he hasn’t had to manage a team with a driver expected to leave it after the season until now.

“I think the biggest thing for me is honesty and transparency about the situation,” Bullins said. “Letting the guys know what I know. Having Brad let them know what he knows. Let everybody try to be kept on the same page and understand what the situation is.

“We are all professionals and our team is handling this very professionally. We know that no matter what happens beyond 2021 that we have a great opportunity with Brad to win races and put ourselves back in the (Championship) four at Phoenix.

“We will deal with 2022 then or in the off-season. For us, the main thing is that the timing was unfortunate because we had a few weeks with issues and things going wrong and penalties at a time when all these rumors were going around. … I hope last weekend proved a point that we are here to contend for wins and a championship. We had a great weekend at Pocono and feel like we got our legs back under us a little bit and are ready to go through the summer.”

Keselowski had six consecutive finishes outside the top 10 until last weekend at Pocono. He placed 10th in Saturday’s race and third in Sunday’s race. That finish was his best result since placing third at Kansas in early May.

4. The challenge of Road America

AJ Allmendinger will compete in both the Xfinity and Cup races this weekend at Road America for Kaulig Racing. He’s won there in both the former Champ Car World Series (2006) and Xfinity Series (2013).

Allmendinger said the road course has a uniqueness that many might not notice.

“It’s probably one of the harder road courses to learn,” Allmendinger said of the 4.048-mile, 14-turn course. “There are so many corners and they all kind of connect to each other.

“At some road courses, yeah, there is this corner and then the next corner. Sometimes they just don’t actually connect to each other. They’re just like separate corners. Road America, for the most part, every corner kind of connects to each other.

“So if you mess up that corner, it’s going to hurt you for the next corner, or it’s going to hurt you down the straightaways. It is a difficult racetrack to learn because some of the corners are either blind uphill or they’re flat, so trying to find your marks of getting into the corners (is not easy).”

5. Top performers in the last 10 Cup races

It’s no surprise that Kyle Larson has scored the most points in the last 10 races — he’s finished in the top two in seven of the last eight races — but once you get past the top five, the next driver might be a surprise.

Tyler Reddick has scored 314 points in the last 10 races to rank sixth. He has six top-10 finishes in that span. It’s helped Reddick climb from 22nd in the points entering the Talladega race in late April to 13th in the standings — and in a playoff spot — going into Sunday’s race at Road America.

David Smith examined Reddick’s season this week, showcasing what the driver has done well and where improvement is needed.

Here is a look at the drivers who have scored the most points in the last 10 Cup races:

460 — Kyle Larson

405 — Kyle Busch

380 — William Byron

348 — Chase Elliott

327 — Denny Hamlin

314 — Tyler Reddick

312 — Kevin Harvick

307 — Alex Bowman

300 — Brad Keselowski

299 — Joey Logano

 and on Facebook

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

0 Comments

In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

0 Comments

Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

0 Comments

Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

0 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”