Analysis: Appreciating the best strategists among crew chiefs

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Among NASCAR’s crew chiefs, several productive strategists stand out from the rest, impacting race results from a variety of different running whereabouts this season.

Here’s a look into what five crew chiefs, separated by average running position (ARP), have accomplished on behalf of their drivers during green-flag pit cycles through the first 22 races:

Cliff Daniels, ARP 7th-12th

Potentially lost in Kyle Larson’s ascent is the rise in crew chief Cliff Daniels’ reputation as a strategist; he’s sufficiently weaponized Larson’s speed around green-flag pit cycles as an aggressive method for defending top-five spots.

And it’s worked well, to the tune of a 70.37% retention rate for all of Larson’s running positions within that range, over 18 percentage points better than the series-wide average. Without many spots up for grabs when running toward the front this frequently, the No. 5 car has actually gained one position this season on non-drafting ovals, a rare feat among the fastest teams.

“Knowing that one of our strengths is physically pitting the car, the guys do such a good job,” Daniels said in May. “I’m actually excited when I see a green-flag pit cycle come around because I know that’s one of our strengths.”

Defense aside, Daniels’ offense was integral to Larson’s second-place finish at Darlington. Across four green-flag pit cycles, Daniels found 11 positions on Larson’s behalf, which included a jump from sixth to second in the cycle running from laps 207-240.

Similarly, the crew chief netted four spots for his driver in the Sonoma race win, where a multitude of strategies were executed around him. In a backup car in the Sunday tilt at Pocono Raceway, Daniels kept Larson afloat in the running order with a whopping 41-position net for the day, helping the 20th-fastest machine, per its median lap rank, achieve a second-place finish.

Greg Ives, ARP 13th-18th

In two of Alex Bowman’s three wins this season, the strategic designs of crew chief Ives proved instrumental. At Richmond, Ives scored nine positions across the final three green-flag pit cycles, moving the fourth-fastest car into a winning position against the likes of Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

At Pocono, Ives’ six positions gained on Bowman’s behalf, including a leap from seventh to fourth on the final cycle, placed the No. 48 car in a spot high enough to benefit when Larson and Hamlin before him eschewed the second-most valuable launching spot at the 2.5-mile track prior to the final restart. It was that restart that propelled Bowman to the front, in optimal sniffing distance to capitalize on Larson’s blown left front tire.

For the year, he’s supplied Bowman an additional 10-position net, with 24 coming on non-drafting ovals. His 16 cycles consisting of at least a two-position gain ranks as the fifth most in the series.

Ives’ 76.74% retention rate across all green-flag pit cycles ranks fifth among full-time crew chiefs and first among those qualified for the playoffs. He’s retained Bowman’s spot on 66.67% of cycles when relinquishing a top-five position, over 14 points higher than the series average.

Mike Shiplett, ARP 19th-22nd

Shiplett’s been a revelation among strategists since he was promoted from the Xfinity Series along with Cole Custer in 2020. Last season, he earned 109 positions — the second most among all crew chiefs — on Custer’s behalf, including 19 in their win at Kentucky.

After a sluggish start to 2021, Shiplett is back on the same trajectory, with 64 positions gained — with 42 coming on road courses — and a 72.97% retention rate. The latter number is particularly impressive when considering his ability to defend position; in 37 total cycles in which Custer’s No. 41 car participated, it suffered just one loss of five or more spots, a total not replicated by any other team averaging a top-30 running position.

He recently chipped in 14 positions during the second part of the Pocono doubleheader, a necessary effort given Custer’s 38th-place starting spot that day in a backup car.

Drew Blickensderfer, ARP 19th-22nd

Michael McDowell’s finishing average has improved to 18.2, beyond the 20.9 that was the previous best of Front Row Motorsports’ history last year. Key in this progression is the strategy of Blickensderfer, who’s supplied his driver 181 positions across the last two seasons with 55 across this year’s first 22 races.

And that’s a tally that’s a taken a hit recently — the No. 34 car lost 16 positions via green-flag pitting at Road America earlier this month — but a broader view suggests Blickensderfer’s maneuvering is relatively airtight; his 21 cycles with gains of two or more positions ranks first among all crew chiefs, as does his 43-position net on non-drafting ovals.

There’s a line from the crew chief’s output to the driver’s standout finishes. Blickensderfer’s best efforts — a 24-position net at Nashville, a 16-spot gain at COTA and 14 positions earned in the Daytona 500 — respectively led to McDowell’s best finish on a paved 750-horsepower oval, a seventh place finish and a race win.

Ryan Sparks, ARP 23rd-34th

Plucking crew chief Ryan Sparks from GoFas Racing along with driver Corey LaJoie was a masterstroke by Spire Motorsports. Last year, Sparks supplied his driver 74 positions across green-flag pit cycles, and the focus on offense has only grown in their second season together.

LaJoie’s improved all-around passing acumen — he ranks first in surplus passing value among full-time drivers on 750-horsepower tracks and third in the same category on all non-drafting ovals — is a boon, and coupled with Sparks’ 66 positions gained this season on green-flag pit cycles, the No. 7 car is a reliable mover on long runs despite being the 29th-fastest car, per its average median lap ranking.

Sparks has tallied 17 cycles consisting of at least two-spot gains, including the final cycles leading to two of LaJoie’s recent top-20 finishes at Charlotte (from 19th to 17th) and Nashville (from 19th to 16th).

Sammy Smith to run full Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023

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Sammy Smith will run the full Xfinity schedule in the No. 18 car, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday.

The 18-year-old Smith, a Toyota development driver, won the ARCA Menards Series East title for a second consecutive year in 2022 and also made nine Xfinity starts with JGR.

Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt will be sponsors on Smith’s car throughout the 2023 season. Jeff Meendering will be Smith’s crew chief.

“This is an opportunity I have been working towards,” Smith said in a statement from the team. “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel full-time and am looking forward to a great season. I learned a lot in 2022 that will really help me to be competitive and run up front in the Xfinity Series. Thank you to Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Toyota Racing Development for supporting me in my racing career. I am excited for next year and appreciate the opportunity.”

Said Steve DeSouza, JGR executive vice president of Xfinity Series and driver development, in a statement: “Sammy is a fantastic addition to our 2023 Xfinity lineup. He proved to have the passion and the talent to necessary to compete for wins in the races he ran for us in 2022,” .“We are excited to get him in the No. 18 full time and know he will be competitive from the jump.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers

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Some drivers carry one car number throughout their racing careers. The most famous racers in NASCAR’s 75-year history typically are associated with one number, although some have raced under several.

Victories, championships and driver personalities give life to something as generally mundane as a number. And the most popular produce even bigger numbers, as in sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most iconic NASCAR numbers:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 43 — Since Richard Petty’s emergence as a superstar in the 1960s, the number 43 has been NASCAR’s most iconic. Although Lee Petty, Richard’s father, usually drove No. 42, he actually scored the first win by the 43, in 1959. The Petty blue No. 43 carried Richard to a string of championships. He scored 192 of his 200 race wins with the number. It rolls on today with Erik Jones, who took the 43 to the Southern 500 victory lane this season.

2. 3 — The fiercely facing forward No. 3 became ultra-famous while driven by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt (although Earnhardt won his first title driving the No. 2). Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet carried the number to new heights, but Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Buddy Baker and Ricky Rudd, among others, also won in the car.

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

3. 21 — The list of drivers who have raced Wood Brothers Racing’s famous No. 21, with the familiar gold foil numbers, reads like a history of NASCAR. David Pearson brought the most fame to the number, but Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, team owner Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Dale Jarrett also have driven the 21.

4. 11 — This number is responsible for more race wins — 228 — than any other. It also has scored eight championships — three each by Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and two by Ned Jarrett. Other stars in the 11 over the years: Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and Denny Hamlin. And some guy named Mario Andretti.

5. 48 — This number was largely ignored until the arrival of Jimmie Johnson, who carried it to seven championships, including five in a row.

6. 24 — The number 24 was a lonely number until 1994 when a kid named Jeff Gordon drove it to its first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The brightly colored 24 became a regular visitor to victory lane from that point forward, carrying Gordon to four championships and becoming one of NASCAR’s most decorated numbers.

MORE: Will Kyle Busch follow footsteps of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

7. 18 — Although Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte won in the 18, Kyle Busch, draped in the bright colors of sponsor M&Ms, took it into new territory.

8. 22 — NASCAR’s first Cup champion (Red Byron) and its most recent (Joey Logano) rode with the 22. The number has produced 87 wins over the years, including victories by Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Byron and Logano.

9. 2 — Although the 2 carried Dale Earnhardt (1980) and Brad Keselowski (2012) to Cup championships, it is perhaps most identified with Rusty Wallace, whose menacing black No. 2 was powerful at Team Penske. Also successful in the 2: Bill Blair, Kurt Busch and Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

10. 9 — The 9 was basically nondescript until Bill Elliott roared out of the north Georgia mountains to turn it into a big winner in the mid-1980s. His son, Chase, continues the trend.

 

 

Truck Series: Rajah Caruth joins GMS Racing

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Rajah Caruth will drive the No. 24 truck full-time for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023, the team announced Tuesday.

The 20-year-old Caruth ran a full season in the ARCA Menards Series last year, placing third in points. He also made seven Xfinity starts and four Truck starts last year. 

“I am extremely honored, and really excited to join GMS Racing and be in the fold of a professional race team with so much history,” Caruth said in a statement from the team. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this throughout my whole career, and I’m going to do the best in my power to make the most of it.

“First and foremost, I can’t thank everybody at GMS enough for believing in me and believing that I have what it takes to drive one of their trucks. Same goes for everybody at Chevrolet for their support, we truly wouldn’t be able to make this happen without them. 

Caruth joins Grant Enfinger and Daniel Dye as GMS Racing’s full-time Craftsman Truck Series drivers. Chad Walter will be Caruth’s crew chief. Jeff Hensley will be Enfinger’s crew chief. Travis Sharpe will be Dye’s crew chief. 

The primary partner on Caruth’s truck will be the Wendell Scott Foundation. The foundation, named for the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race, seeks to provide resources and services to underprivileged Black youth communities near Scott’s hometown of Danville, Virginia. Since the foundation’s formation in 2011, more than 25 students have been awarded more than $50,000 from the Wendell Scott Legacy Scholarship programs.

“We are excited for Rajah to compete full-time with GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023,” said Dayne Pierantoni, GM Racing Program Manager for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “Through Chevrolet’s partnership with Rev Racing, we have been impressed with Rajah’s talent both on and off the track. He has proven his ability to compete at the NASCAR national level, and we look forward to seeing his continued success with a series championship winning team.”

The Truck season begins Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway. 

In other Truck Series news:

Dean Thompson will drive the No. 5 for TRICON Garage this coming season. The 21-year-old was a rookie in the series this past season. He had a season-best finish of 11th at Las Vegas.

“I am thrilled to start the next chapter of my career with TRICON Garage and Toyota Racing Development,” Thompson said in a statement from the team. “The team and manufacturer have quickly made a statement in the Truck Series as striving to be the best of the best. I’m ready to take on the challenge and live up to the expectations of being a driver for TRICON.”

McAnally Hilgemann Racing announced Tuesday that Christian Eckes and Jake Garcia will drive full-time in the Truck series for the team next season.

Eckes, who will drive the No. 19 truck, moves over from ThorSport Racing. Garcia will drive the No. 35 truck in pursuit of the series Rookie of the Year award.

NAPA AutoCare will continue as a team sponsor.

Garcia is 17 and is scheduled to make his first start March 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Because of NASCAR’s age restrictions, he will miss the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The team’s Daytona driver has not been announced.

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry

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Jarrett Companies will increase the number of races it will sponsor Josh Berry‘s No. 8 JR Motorsports ride in 2023, the Xfinity Series team announced Monday.

Jarrett Companies will sponsor Berry in six races after serving as the primary sponsor in three races in 2022. Those six races will be Phoenix (March 11), Richmond (April 1), Dover (April 29), Atlanta (July 8), Indianapolis (Aug. 12) and Texas (Sept. 23).

The deal gives Berry at least 26 races with sponsorship for next season. Bass Pro Shops will serve as the primary sponsor of Berry’s car in 11 races in 2023. Tire Pros is back with JRM and will sponsor Berry in nine races in the upcoming season.

Berry, who reached the Xfinity title race and finished fourth in the points, will have a new crew chief in 2023. Taylor Moyer will take over that role with Mike Bumgarner serving as JRM’s director of competition.

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.