Friday 5: Youth movement growing stronger in Cup Series

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The youth movement in the Cup Series continues to gain momentum with this week’s announcement that Austin Cindric will drive the No. 2 car for Team Penske and Harrison Burton will drive the No. 21 for Wood Brothers Racing in 2022.

Cindric will be 23 years old when next season begins Feb. 20 with the Daytona 500. Burton will be 21, the youngest full-time Cup driver next season.

Last month, Kaulig Racing announced that 22-year-old Justin Haley will drive one of its Cup cars full-time next season.

The Cup Series is on pace to have more than half of the Daytona 500 field filled by drivers in their 20s for a fourth consecutive year. This year’s Daytona 500 marked the first time that the event had at least 20 drivers in their 20s for three consecutive years, according to Racing Insights. 

The sport has skewed toward those in their 20s with the departure of veterans Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon since 2015. All were in their 40s. Many of them were replaced by drivers in their 20s.

Hendrick Motorsports leads this youth movement with all four of its drivers in their 20s.

Kyle Larson is the oldest. He turns 29 on July 31. Alex Bowman is 28, Chase Elliott is 25 and William Byron is 23.

Elliott was the third-youngest champion to win a Cup title last year. Only Bill Rexford (age 23 in 1950) and Gordon (age 24 in 1995) won titles at a younger age.

Larson and Bowman have signed contract extensions this year through 2023. Both Elliott and Byron are signed through next year.

“My plan is for Chase and William to retire with us,” car owner Rick Hendrick said this week. “I love the lineup, and I want to keep the band together.”

Hendrick’s approach has gained noticed elsewhere in the sport.

“It clearly, with other things, worked well for them,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports.

It could work well for Team Penske, which will become younger with Cindric replacing Brad Keselowski after this season.

The combined age for car owner Roger Penske’s Cup lineup next season won’t add up to his age. Penske turns 85 on the day of next year’s Daytona 500. The combined age of his drivers that day will be 82 — Joey Logano will be 31, Ryan Blaney will be 28 and Cindric will be 23. Add Burton with Wood Brothers Racing, which is affiliated with Team Penske, and Penske will have among the youngest lineups in the series.

“I don’t say it’s a gamble, I think what it is is an opportunity,” Penske said of his lineup for next season.

Six drivers under the age of 30 have won at least one race this season to earn a playoff spot: Larson, Elliott, Byron, Bowman, Blaney and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell.

A key to the movement is how well organized development programs are. Toyota’s TD2 development program is rooted in analytics and sports science principles and has a deep pipeline of talent. The development program has helped grow Toyota’s driver lineup throughout NASCAR, but the manufacturer’s limited seats in various series have led to some of its drivers moving elsewhere.

Burton is the latest who will move beyond the Toyota developmental program, which he’s been a part of since he was 13 years old.

“My years that I spent with Toyota have all been amazing ones, and I really am thankful for the opportunities they’ve given me,” Burton said. 

Others from the Toyota chain now racing elsewhere include Larson, Daniel Suarez (Trackhouse Racing) and Erik Jones (Richard Petty Motorsports). Those who came from Toyota’s development program in its Cup lineup are Bell and Bubba Wallace (23XI Racing).

Ford’s development program has paved the way for Chase Briscoe, Cole Custer and now Cindric to move to Cup.

“We put a lot of focus on our own development program and bringing drivers up through that as you saw with Chase Briscoe,” Rushbrook said. “But the way the sport works, the timing of bringing drivers up and having them ready when seats are open, you can’t always plan on that or be ready for that.

“So when drivers are available that have come up through different systems, you need to take advantage of that and bring them into the overall Ford program or with the team in the right way with the right support.”

The Wood Brothers are becoming accustomed to having young drivers. Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 at age 20. Blaney scored his first Cup win with the team when he was 23 years old.

“It’s just like watching your kids grow up,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said of seeing the younger drivers develop.

2. Thanks are coming

Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Eddie Wood explained why the team did not thank Matt DiBenedetto for his time with the organization in Thursday’s announcement that Harrison Burton will drive the car next season.

“Well, in our eyes, we’re not done,” Wood said. “There are five races left before the playoffs. We’re gonna try to win a race and get in the playoffs. We obviously have to win a race, and then there are 10 races after that, so it just didn’t feel right. 

“I’m not ready to say goodbye. Everybody who has ever driven our car becomes family, and we view Matt as family. Everybody knows Matt. Everybody loves Matt. Matt’s a great driver. 

“He’s a great person, got a great big heart — got big arms, too — but it’s just a thing that we viewed that as we get through the year. We give our best effort. He’s gonna give his best effort and that way when it comes time to say goodbye and thank you, that’ll happen, but Matt will always be a part of our family.”

In his video to fans Thursday, DiBenedetto stated that the Wood Brothers are “family and always will be. … I’m so freaking lucky and still am to be driving the 21 car. Love it. I want to get that 100th (career) win for them bad.”

3. What a week

A few years ago, could anyone had imagined a week where two Hendrick Motorsports drivers were competing in short track events during the Cup season?

Chase Elliott competed in a USAC national midget race in Oklahoma and was to have competed also in Kansas but that event was rained out. He’s racing in the SRX event Saturday night at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway.

Kyle Larson also has been racing this week with the World of Outlaws in Ohio.

Hendrick Motorsports’ announcement this week that it had signed Larson to a contract extension through 2023 and would have hendrickcars.com sponsor him through that period came with an interesting item.

The sponsorship package was not only for 35 Cup races each season, but the company also will sponsor Larson in all non-NASCAR events in which he competes, including branding on the driver’s helmets, gloves and firesuit.

“For us, from a marketing perspective, it’s a brand extension,” said Brian Johnson, vice president of marketing for the Hendrick Automotive Group. “Kyle talked about brands being associated with drivers throughout history. We want to have the same effect with him.

“So whenever he’s in a late model or a sprint car or whatever he’s in. Whenever he competes, we want that hendrickcars.com brand with him. It touches a different audience. In marketing we’re trying to reach specific audiences through all of our different campaigns we can.

“A lot of those fans are just as passionate about cars. There are potential technicians there. There are potential customers there. We want to make sure we reach that segment, extend our brand but also support Kyle in his efforts.”

Car owner Rick Hendrick said: “It’s just a whole new group of fans. They buy cars. Kyle’s popularity is growing like crazy. He’s got so many fans on both sides. Now we’re seeing more people wearing sprint car stuff at the Cup races. If he’s racing, we want to be there (with hendrickcars.com).”

4. Unique race

One of the tracks that is viewed as being helped by the addition of traction compound in the corners is New Hampshire Motor Speedway. NASCAR, though, won’t apply traction compound for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

That’s the case because the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour races before the Xfinity Series event and its tires don’t work as well with the traction compound. Traction compound also will not be applied before Sunday’s Cup race.

Noah Gragson said not having the traction compound is significant. He said the key in the Xfinity race will be “who can figure it out sooner just because it hasn’t been that way for us for a while.”

The traction compound has been used at New Hampshire Motor Speedway since 2017.

Modified racer Doug Coby explained on social media this week the challenge the traction compound presents for that series:

 

5. Champion’s list

The Cup series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Eleven of the past 12 New Hampshire winners were either Cup champions when they won or later became series champions. The last 12 winners there:

Sept. 2013 – Matt Kenseth

July 2014 – Brad Keselowski

Sept. 2014 – Joey Logano

July 2015 – Kyle Busch

Sept. 2015 – Matt Kenseth

July 2016 – Matt Kenseth

Sept. 2016 – Kevin Harvick

July 2017 – Denny Hamlin (only driver without a Cup title on this list)

Sept. 2017 – Kyle Busch

July 2018 – Kevin Harvick

July 2019 – Kevin Harvick

Aug. 2020 – Brad Keselowski

 and on Facebook

 

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
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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.