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

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NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.