Road America takeaways: Aggressive driving ratchets up

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — Denny Hamlin’s aggressive driving against Kyle Larson at Road America showed how much the race for the Cup regular-season championship is heating up. 

Larson, who entered Sunday’s race two points behind Hamlin, was poised to take the series lead after outscoring Hamlin by 10 points in the first two stages. That advantage went away when Larson was spun late in the race by teammate Alex Bowman and finished 16th, while Hamlin placed fifth.

Hamlin holds a three-point lead heading into this weekend’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“You hate to give up points, but there’s still a lot of racing left before the playoffs start,” Larson said of the six races that remain before the regular season ends.

“Just keep trying to do a good job in the stages and be nice to get back and win some stages, win some more races and pad our bonus points and then, obviously, would be good to beat Denny and get those five extra (playoff) points (to the regular-season champion).

“Really shooting for it. You can tell he’s shooting for it. He was really aggressive today.”

Hamlin, who has led the points since the second event of the year, acknowledged he raced Larson differently Sunday because of the tight points race.

“Harder than I normally would race him, for sure,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “I’m trying to fend him off. He’s so (expletive) fast. I’m doing everything I can to hold him off. I’m out there driving like a dick. I’m not doing anything that other people don’t do. I just normally don’t race that way. I’ve got a ton of respect for him.”

Hamlin said Larson was to fly back to North Carolina with him after the race.

NASCAR Cup Series Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip
Kyle Larson’s run since May has put him in position to take the points lead from Denny Hamlin. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

The friends have been part of an intriguing storyline in recent weeks.

Hamlin led Larson by 144 points after the Mother’s Day event at Darlington Raceway. That race started a streak of seven top-two finishes in eight races for Larson. Hamlin had only two top-five finishes in that stretch.

“Just trying to keep it close going into Daytona to be honest with you,” Hamlin told NBC Sports, referencing the regular-season finale Aug. 28 at Daytona International Speedway. “Those guys have got really, really fast cars right now. I mean extremely fast.

“We’re just trying to weather the storm until we get there. … Realistically, those guys probably should win every race right now.”

What makes this duel critical to Hamlin is his lack of playoff points. He has five; Larson has 32. The regular-season champion gets 15 playoff points. The driver second in the  standings at the end of the regular season receives 10 playoff points.

“You have to try to get as many as you can to try to get as much cushion to kind of protect you if something goes wrong,” said Chad Knaus, vice president of competition for Hendrick Motorsports. “Those guys are going to continue to battle for that. I don’t see it ending any time soon.

“I think we can all anticipate the Gibbs guys are going to run stronger and stronger. We know they weren’t going to be on their heels for long.

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Chase Elliott leads Matt DiBenedetto and Kyle Busch in front of the crowd in Turn 5 at Road America. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

VIBRANT ATMOSPHERE

Sunday’s Cup race at Road America marked the third race in the last six weeks the series has competed at a new venue: Circuit of the Americas (May 23), Nashville Superspeedway (June 20) and Road America.

Understandably, crowds are often largest at first-time events. But those events also showed the value of altering the schedule from year to year.

“I think it’s a clear showing to me how we were stuck in a box for so long and how we’re breaking that box open and showing immediate results,” Brad Keselowski said of the changes to the Cup schedule for this season. “I think that’s a good thing.

“More specifically, I think it goes to show that the schedule cannot be static. It needs to be dynamic in a lot of different ways. Not everything in every year needs to be up for grabs. A certain amount of variability can be extremely healthy for our sport.”

NASCAR Cup Series Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip
Fans on a grassy field at Road America. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Josh Bilicki, a Wisconsin native who has raced at Road America often, said Sunday’s crowd was unlike any he’s seen at the 4-mile track.

“I was here early at 7:30, 8 (a.m. Sunday) and there were more people here than I’ve ever seen that early in the morning,” he said.

Race winner Chase Elliott also was struck by the crowd around the 4-mile track.

“This place was packed,” he said. “This is a massive road course. They were literally, I mean, people everywhere around the course.

“It’s exciting, man. When they change the schedule up, go to new places, you bring energy and excitement that our series deserves to have. I think we saw that today.

Erik Jones said he hoped the sport continued to look at new venues.

“Hopefully, we’re just learning from it and seeing that going to these new venues and maybe just going to places just once a year is beneficial,” he said. “Sometimes I think you can oversaturate a market pretty quickly.”

While NASCAR has not announced the 2022 Cup schedule — that likely will be done later this summer — the track promoted ticket sales for next year’s event. No date was announced, though.

CALM DEMEANOR

Martin Truex Jr.’s ninth-place finish marked only his second top-10 finish in the last eight races. Both top 10s have come at road courses. There’s only one such track in the playoffs.

Truex has gone from the championship favorite after he won earlier this year at Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington — all key tracks in the playoffs — to not even the best car at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“There’s no concern at all,” crew chief James Small told NBC Sports after Sunday’s race. “As a company we’ve been off a little bit. Last week (at Pocono), we thought both days we had a top-six car. It’s just the way things played out with strategy, we had a bad pit stop and things just snowballed.

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A pit road speeding penalty doomed Martin Truex Jr. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“It’s a little bit like (Sunday at Road America), you get back in traffic and it’s so hard to pass back even if you do have a car advantage. None of us are worried. We have a process we live by. We’ll keep following that and ultimately it will pay off, I think.”

A speeding penalty hurt Truex on Sunday. He was in position to be the leader to begin the final stage before the speeding penalty on pit road.

Truex had to start at the rear when the final stage began since his infraction occurred just before the end of the second stage. That meant that he started the final stage 32nd.

“You put yourself back in (32nd), it’s hard to recover,” Small said. “Could have been a lot worse. Ninth is OK. It’s just hard.”

Still, it was a top-10 finish.

“It’s better than the way it’s been going the last few weeks,” he said. “It just seems that everything is going wrong right now. Still a long way to go before the (playoffs) here and we get a reset.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Trackhouse Racing’s announcement last week that it has purchased Chip Ganassi Racing, effective at the end of the season, leaves questions about its relationship with Richard Childress Racing.

Trackhouse Racing is housed at RCR in Welcome, North Carolina. Team owner Justin Marks said Trackhouse Racing would move into Chip Ganassi Racing’s shop in Concord, North Carolina, for the 2022 season. Marks is looking to move the team to Nashville, Tennessee, as early as for the 2023 season.

What the relationship between the Chevrolet teams will be like next year remains to be seen.

NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Texas Grand Prix
Car owner Richard Childress said that his organization will have discussions with Trackhouse Racing to see what their future relationship will be. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“We’re going to sit down here in a week or so and talk about what we’re going to do and maybe have an extra engine program with it,” Childress told NBC Sports. “We’ve got to see what all comes out of it.”

With many of the elements of the Next Gen car coming from vendors, traditional alliances between teams — where one team builds chassis for another team — likely will need to focus more on engineering or other elements.

“We have a great working relationship with RCR,” Marks said last week. “We have to give them the respect first of exploring with them what a partnership moving into the future looks like, but those are all things we’re going to be considering in short order.”

Richard Childress Racing has alliances with Trackhouse Racing, Kaulig Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports. Kaulig Racing will field two full-time Cup entries next season.

“I just don’t want to overload ourselves,” Childress said. “I did that once before. Kaulig is our key player right now. We’re working with them and (Richard Petty Motorsports) and see where the Pettys go. We’ve got other opportunities if that’s the direction we want to do.”

 

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.

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.