Michigan takeaways: COVID-19 protocols ‘very frightening’ for Cup on eve of playoffs

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BROOKLYN, Michigan – There was confusion, frustration and resignation, but the overriding emotion last weekend about NASCAR’s COVID-19 protocols seemed to be fear.

With one race remaining until the playoffs begin and COVID-19 cases surging across the country, the specter of a NASCAR championship being dashed even without a positive test left Cup Series drivers so on edge, NASCAR executives commissioned a Zoom call last Friday to explain the risks with Corey LaJoie sidelined amid increasing restrictions.

While the call assuaged some worries about potential exposure (including some tweaks to the weekly media availability that caused pushback from stars), it hardly put anyone at ease.

“Under normal circumstances, I don’t think I’d ever miss a race, but definitely the Corey LaJoie piece, how he’s not sick and he’s not here today, is very, very frightening,” said Christopher Bell, who is on the cusp of beginning his first championship bid for Joe Gibbs Racing. “It’s not ideal for sure. It’s very eye opening for all of us drivers to understand the protocol that’s in place. You don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a shame that it’s that way.

“Yeah, it’s definitely unnerving that a guy that’s not sick is not allowed to race because unfortunately he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. So that just doesn’t seem right for sure. I don’t know. Hopefully he can stay healthy, and I guess lock yourself in your house for the next 10 weeks.”

LaJoie, who watched Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway with fans on Instagram while serving his mandatory seven-day quarantine for a close contact, could be back as early as Saturday at Daytona International Speedway and has received a waiver for making the Cup playoffs if he wins.

A waiver has been granted in each of three instances that a Cup driver was sidelined in season by COVID-19 as NASCAR has seemed slightly more lenient than other professional sports leagues (which have mandated daily testing while heavily incentivizing vaccinations).

That hardly seemed of any solace at Michigan, where some drivers stood nearly 10 feet away from reporters during their media availabilities.

“I think obviously it’s a concern of everybody,” Kyle Larson said, gesturing toward two reporters. “Like one of you guys could test positive, and we’re screwed.”

Chase Elliott spoke at length Sunday about what he felt was a powerless situation.

“I don’t know what you do about it,” the 2020 champion said. “Some things you can’t control. You can be smart about what you do and where you go, but that still doesn’t guarantee it’s not going to happen to you, so it’s a tricky situation is the best way for me to put it without getting political. I feel like it’s just tricky. Especially for our situation this time of year. You can’t really afford to miss a race. Especially once the playoffs start.”

The backdrop of all the angst and worry is a world-weariness that is shared by everyone about being 18 months into a pandemic that seemed to be subsiding as recently as six weeks ago.

“I feel as though it’s … I don’t know,” Kyle Busch said with a laugh. “As the world we live in, it’s about time to move on, but I’m definitely not as smart as the smart guys.

Said Joey Logano: “Everyone is going off guidelines that have been put out there, and the guidelines change daily. It can go either way from here. We can be locked down more so than what we are tomorrow. Or who knows, maybe (case) numbers change the other way, and we’re good to go.

“We were just about good to go two weeks ago, and then everything started to lock back down again to a certain level. There’s only so much we can actually do about it. Some of it is out of our control. The main thing is to be racing. That’s most important, and we need to do that safely.”

Logano said Sunday that he got vaccinated last week after LaJoie’s situation came to light because of the benefits of being able to return more quickly after a close contact.

LaJoie’s exposure occurred on a Monday, meaning he could have been cleared to race at Michigan by Thursday, Friday or Saturday if he were vaccinated, vs. the seven-day mandatory quarantine he served instead.

“If it’s a matter of when you get to race, I think that’ll change a lot of opinions,” Erik Jones told NBC Sports about the rules for being vaccinated vs. unvaccinated. “It’s definitely brought up a lot of opinions in the garage area between drivers. I don’t want to get too deep into that obviously because it’s kind of a sensitive subject with everybody. But there are definitely a lot of opinions on it right now of how the drivers’ stance might change on that.”

Here were some observations from Michigan about drivers’ thoughts on COVID-19 protocols:

What drivers think and what they want: Since LaJoie’s benching, drivers have lobbied NASCAR to tweak its exposure protocols (which parallel the Centers for Disease Control guidelines).

“It’s just from our standpoint of how can you trust a positive test but not trust a negative,” Denny Hamlin said. “It’s a whole other Pandora’s Box that if you treat one test as negative, believe it. If it’s positive, believe it. There’s just a lot of protocols.”

Instead of a mandatory seven-day quarantine for an unvaccinated driver, or a three-day wait for the vaccinated to be cleared, drivers believe that multiple negative tests should be enough to get a driver out of protocols early.

“I feel like if you take multiple tests and come back negative over the course of numerous days, you’re probably good to go,” Brad Keselowski said.

Said Elliott: “I feel like if you don’t have COVID, I’m not sure why you can’t be here. It makes sense if you have a negative test, logically speaking. Why can’t you be around? I don’t know.”

NASCAR Michigan takeaways
Tyler Reddick said he made the decision to get vaccinated “months and months ago” (Sean Gardner/Getty Images).

Logano suggested that drivers would be willing as a compromise to return to last season’s policy of being cordoned off from their teams until walking to their cars alone shortly before the green flag.

“You can come to the racetrack and never see anybody,” Logano said. “You can drive yourself to the track and stay in the car until it’s game time. You can walk out with some hazmat suit on if you want. As a driver, I feel safe with that. I’m not going to get COVID from the guy in the race car next to me. We’re going 200 mph. I think everyone would feel OK about that, but that’s not my decision.”

Of course, the twist to LaJoie’s close contact also is that it’s the first time a Cup driver has been out without a positive test (which happened to Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon last year).

“It’s a tough, unfortunate situation, but it’s part of what makes COVID-19 such a very impactful virus,” Tyler Reddick said. “You can go days and days and days and test negative, negative, negative and still have a good chance over a period of time where you could then become positive and infect a lot of people.”

Though NASCAR President Steve Phelps has said he wants drivers to advocate for vaccination and get their shots, there have been no signs that COVID-19 testing or vaccines would become mandatory.

In a sport that’s built around the rugged individualism and resourcefulness of being a racer, any move by NASCAR to require vaccinations likely would be met by blowback from drivers who typically have found through embracing independence that often can border on bullheaded.

“There’s no real facts that say vaccinating or unvaccinated is really any different these days,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I’m really happy that they haven’t went down the mandatory road (of vaccinations) because I don’t think that’s fair from any perspective at all. I just don’t think it’s fair you can force someone to do something that they don’t want to do. If they want to take the chance, they take the chance.

“We see other sports leagues doing that. You can’t play if you don’t get vaccinated. So it’s a controversial subject obviously. I’m happy with the route NASCAR is taking. I think they’re being as smart and safe as possible. I don’t think they’re being careless in any way. They’re putting a lot of effort into it just like they did last year, and if you look at what we were able to do last year coming back before anyone and finishing our season when nobody thought we could, I think they’ve done a great job of making the right decisions, and I think everybody in our industry has done a great job of trying to take care of each other and be as safe as possible.”

NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan
Martin Truex Jr. is against making vaccines mandatory (Sean Gardner/Getty Images).

Despite the call last week, there still is some misinformation about the impact of vaccination, though.

During Sunday’s media sessions, several drivers referred to there being only a “two-day difference” between the waiting period for vaccinated vs. unvaccinated when it’s actually four days (vaccinated drivers can be cleared by a test in three to five days after exposure; unvaccinated drivers must wait seven days with a negative test on the fifth day).

“The policy is so fuzzy and X amount of days and X amount of hours and X amounts of tests,” Bell said. “So I don’t really understand it all.”

Even though he didn’t necessarily agree with all of the polciies, Logano said he still respected them. “What do I know? I’m a race car driver,” he said. “I drive in circles. I don’t study COVID stuff. I do know what the protocol is, and I need to adjust to that.”

What drivers are doing: There seems to be a blend of rapid reactions and status quo to last week’s news.

Logano said he has cleared his schedule of all public appearances for the foreseeable future. Aric Almirola (Stewart-Haas Racing) and Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing) both said their teams have changed policies to move any sponsor visits out of indoor suites.

Chase Elliott said he already had been limiting his visibility.

“I feel like we’ve been on that side of things just until we kind of get a better idea of where things are going and what the landscape is,” he said. “We’re fortunate to still have jobs and still come to work every week and be able to do what we love to do. So I think we’re all very fortunate just to be here. There’s a lot of people that aren’t. I recognize that first and foremost.

“From my end, I’ve tried to be smart about where you go and what you do and who you’re around. But man, I don’t know how you just completely eliminate the possibility of you getting sick. I just don’t know how you do that. There’s just way too many ways you can get COVID or just get sick in general. By inadvertently being around somebody that may not know they have it. It’s a tricky situation, and I don’t really know how else to put it.”

During a weeklong visit to his native Michigan, Erik Jones threw out the first pitch for a Detroit Tigers game, announced his new foundation in Flint and also attended the Woodward Dream Cruise in downtown Detroit.

“We’ve done a good job of keeping everyone spaced out at events, so I didn’t feel concerned about it,” he said.

Before his victory Sunday at Michigan, Ryan Blaney said he had made no changes to his schedule. “I just try to be as safe as I can and do the same things I’ve been doing for a year and a half,” he said. “That’s the best thing you can do. Whatever happens, happens. The best thing you can do is do what you’re doing, try to stay safe and social distance and stay as healthy as you can.”

What drivers will do next: While it seems likely more drivers will get vaccinated, it’s unlikely to be revealed.

Aside from Logano, only Tyler Reddick and William Byron confirmed Sunday at Michigan that they had been vaccinated. At least seven other drivers demurred when asked or preemptively said they would not be disclosing their vaccination status.

“That’s not a topic of conversation I’m interested in having,” said Almirola, who noted that NASCAR medical and infield care staff are aware of drivers’ statuses.

Could the calculus change, though, for drivers weighing the benefits of getting vaccinated as Logano did before Michigan?

“I don’t know,” Chase Elliott said. “That’s tough. I view it as a personal thing, right? I think it’s a personal decision for everybody. And just as it’s a personal decision. I think it’s personal whether or not you want to share that with people or how you want to go about voicing that. We all have a voice. Sometimes we have a bigger voice than we might realize, so I’ve always tried to keep my private life and my health and all the things that I do day to day, a lot of them I keep to myself, and this being one of them.

“So I’m not sure … I don’t think anyone knows what the right answer is or how you navigate this properly. So for me, I’m going to make my decisions with the information I have available to the best of my ability. And I’m going to keep those things to myself.”


Down and dirty

There has been no better team in Cup this season on 550 horsepower package tracks than Hendrick Motorsports. So it raised an eyebrow when points leader Kyle Larson said he was glad that only three of the final 11 races are on 550 hp intermediate tracks similar to Michigan.

NASCAR Michigan takeaways
Kyle Larson finished third Sunday after leading a race-high 70 laps at Michigan (Sean Gardner/Getty Images).

“You don’t really get to race here,” Larson said. “You kind of just race on the restarts and race at the end. Other than that, you’re just trying not to race so you don’t get stalled out.”

But hasn’t Hendrick been so good at these tracks?

“We’ve been good at every track,” he said with a smile. “Yeah.”

What kept Larson happy last week was nonstop dirt racing after his prestigious Knoxville Nationals victory in the four days prior to Michigan. He won three more times between two Midget races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dirt oval and Dirt Late Model events at Williams Grove Speedway in Pennsylvania and Sharon Speedway in Ohio.

“I chose those ones just because logistically it works out really well,” he said. “I ran Williams Grove Friday and had a four-hour drive to Hartford, Ohio, which is only three and a half hours from (Michigan International Speedway). I don’t have to get on an airplane, fly and risk travel stuff going wrong. So I can just drive and get sleep, good sleep, all that. Most of the time, I pick the race around logistics.”

Larson said he has no dirt races this week but will have “a handful” before the playoffs begin. The open-wheel racing schedule will tail off in the fall, but Larson said he still was open to running dirt during the playoffs.


Spotter swap

The spotter swap that began at Michigan between Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano was about best friends as much as business. Logano has known former No. 2 spotter Coleman Pressley for more than 20 years.

“We talk every day about what life and racing,” Logano said before the Michigan race. “When Brad made his decision to move on (to Roush Fenway Racing next season), Penske didn’t want to lose Coleman. This was the best thing for our team and really a good thing for Brad as well. I think this is a win-win on both sides.

“The connection I have with Coleman is something pretty rare across the field. Where you kind of know what each other is thinking without even saying it. He knows how to connect and tell me what I need, so I think it’ll be a successful pairing for those reasons. I would argue TJ and Brad have the same thing. It took a long time to make this change because you’re nervous to jeopardize a relationship over a job. You’re working with friends becomes sometimes a little tough.”

Keselowski has been friends for nearly 15 years with TJ Majors, who had been spotting since 2018 for Logano after a long run with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“We were in an interesting situation with the team change and shuffles and all that going on, and the spotters’ contracts were all in different positions and trying to get alignment on it, and I think it ended up working out in a really good way for all parties,” Keselowski said. “So I’ve had a lot of good success with Coleman Pressley and proud of that history we had and look forward to doing the same with TJ. I feel like I’m looking at having the No. 1 spotter in the sport here, so that’s a big kind of get for me. Not just now but in the years to come.”


An ode to AJA

Is the most popular storyline in NASCAR currently in the Xfinity Series?

After hearing the fans’ reaction to AJ Allmendinger’s victory Saturday at Michigan, it certainly seems the feel-good story of the 2021 season.

Though it also helped that the winner earned his roars of approval by channeling a Helio Castroneves-style catchfence victory climb … before electing to stop a little short of the four-time Indy 500 winner’s famously high peaks.

“Since I saw Helio on Monday at the Meyer Shank (Racing) golf tournament there, I was feeling like I still had some of that energy from Helio,” Allmendinger said. “I know I have a lot of energy, but he surpasses me by a lot. So I wasn’t going to go all the way to the top of the fence, because I wasn’t quite confident in my climbing ability. So I gave it like a half-Helio and then made sure I got back down.”

Allmendinger is on an all-time high during his first full-time season in the Xfinity Series (and his first in NASCAR since 2018). He already has a career-best three victories this year and has emerged as the primary challenger to defending series champion Austin Cindric. He also scored his biggest victory in NASCAR in the first Cup race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

A week later, Michigan was the continuation of a remarkable career arc that started with a dreadful Cup rookie season (missing 19 of 36 races in 2007). Allmendinger, 39, hung on through a 2012 firing by Team Penske for a positive drug test and returned to win his first Cup race in 2014 … and then waited five years until his next checkered flag in a NASCAR national series.

He celebrates every victory as if it’s his last, which is a combination of his effervescent personality and an appreciation for having emerged from many valleys during the past 14 years.

“I spent a lot of years in my career in NASCAR barely sniffing a win, not even close to it,” he said. “So I don’t get tired of (celebrating).”

Nor are crowds getting tired of watching after his inspirational and memorable journey.

Witness the Michigan fans who screamed “AJ! AJ! AJ!” for a few minutes Saturday after he burst from his No. 16 Chevrolet.

NASCAR Michigan takeaways
AJ Allmendinger celebrates in victory lane at Michigan after his second oval victory in NASCAR (Mike Dinovo/USA TODAY Sports).

“When they’re chanting my name, it means so much to me,” Allmendinger said. “I think more than anything, and all of you that have covered me, good and bad, what you see is what you get. You see my emotion. You see the love that I have for the race teams that I drive for, and especially for Kaulig Racing.

“It means the world to me to get these opportunities, and when you win, you need to celebrate it. That’s how I’ve always been. I love what I do and when it’s going well, because I know when it’s going bad, it’s really bad and can be miserable. So just enjoy it. That’s what (Kaulig Racing president) Chris Rice has pounded into my head. Just be a part of the team and keep making us better.

“Sometimes it may not seem like it because of how outgoing I can be, but there’s a lot of times I don’t have a lot of confidence in myself. It’s like I’m always trying to prove to myself that I belong here. So it’s one of those things that I have a lot of passion for the fans, for the sport, for enjoying it and maybe that resonates with people. What you see is what you get. And that’s the way it’s always going to be.”

Friday 5: Is it time to change how NASCAR champion is determined?

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Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both raise questions about how NASCAR determines its champion with a one-race event after whittling the 16-driver playoff field to four through a trio of three-race rounds.

Since 2014, the driver who finished the highest among the four championship contenders in the season finale won the title. The format creates a Game 7 type of moment for the sport in an event that has become a winner-take-all race. Joey Logano won the season finale at Phoenix to win his second Cup title. Ty Gibbs claimed the Xfinity title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. Zane Smith won the Truck title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. 

Thursday, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series announced a new way of determining its series champion that mirrors the NASCAR format. The late model series will cut its field of playoff drivers through eliminations, leading to one race where the four remaining championship contenders will vie for the title in 2023.

One of the questions with the NASCAR format is if it provides the most fair way to determine a series champion. Of course, the NFL determines its champion by the Super Bowl, a winner-take-all game. The best team hasn’t always reached that game or won that game, but the event has been played for more than 50 years with no change in sight.

Those who question NASCAR’s way of determining a champion note that the Super Bowl is between two teams, while the championship race for Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series not only includes the four teams racing for a crown but also the rest of the field, which can include 30 more vehicles. What those drivers and teams do can make an impact on the race and play a role in who wins the championship.

“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly,” Hamlin said. “Should one season come down to this three-hour window?”

Hamlin, who seeks his first Cup title, says that the previous Cup champions have been worthy and admits that “I’m the last one that should comment on this” because he doesn’t have a title. 

Still, he raises questions.

“From a purist’s standpoint, it needs to have a bigger sample size,” he said.

Hamlin notes how he knew he wouldn’t win the 2020 Cup title even though he was among the four contenders because his team was not as strong at the shorter tracks such as Phoenix. 

“If you had more of a sample size, you have a chance,” he said. 

Earnhardt expressed the questions he had about the format when he spoke with former NASCAR Chairman Brian France on the Dale Jr. Download this fall.

Earnhardt said the playoff format, which features three-race rounds, is “compelling. It can be argued that it’s relatively fair. Everybody’s got the same opportunity. It’s three races. You can kind of dig yourself out of a hole. But I’ve always kind of struggled with the final race being all or nothing.

“The reason why I struggle with that is because the venue may suit a team or a driver. … You wouldn’t ever consider running it at a road course or a superspeedway because that certainly suits some drivers more than other. You try to have it at a neutral facility, if you will, like a Homestead or a Phoenix.

“But I always had a hard time with saying, ‘OK, it all boils down to this one race where you’ve got to get it right and if you don’t you’re not a champion this year.’ Even though you’ve really got this amazing body of work. You can still have that guy that wins one race be the champion and the guy that wins six not even make the final round.

“I wish we could figure out a way to make that championship moment not an all or nothing three-hour affair. … I’ve really warmed up to everything else we’ve done. It took me a long time because I was too much of traditionalist. But I still feel like there’s got to be a better scenario for the final moment.”

France responded to Earnhardt’s query by saying: “The reason you feel that way is because those are fair points that you make. They are.”

France went on to say that such questions are “part of the challenge of a playoff format in general with auto racing. You’re just going to have to accept that is not exactly perfect.”

France then said: “My decision was we’re not going to hold ourselves back from getting those (Game 7) moments because auto racing doesn’t quite fit perfectly into that. We just couldn’t do it.”

NASCAR changed how its champion was crowned ahead of the 2004 season. From 2000-03, three champions were so far ahead in the points that they clinched the title with one race left in the season (Bobby Labonte in 2000, Jeff Gordon in 2001 and Matt Kenseth in 2003). 

The Chase was created to generate interest in the fall, particularly when NASCAR was going against the NFL on Sundays. The Chase morphed into the playoffs and included eliminations and one race to determine the champion. 

Hamlin says a three-race round to determine the champion will keep the interest of fans.

“I think when you spread it out amongst a bigger sample size, such as a three-race (round), I don’t see how that’s not a positive thing for ratings. People will be compelled every week to tune in because this is the championship round. I think there’s something to be gained there.”

Asked about what if one of the title contenders wins the first two races to all but assure them the title ahead of the final race, Hamlin said: “Will not happen. There’ll be no lockup. No one will be locked going into the final race.”

Hamlin acknowledges that his viewpoint will not be shared by all.

“I’m a traditionalist like Dale,” Hamlin said. “This is just my opinion. I think that everyone is going to have a different opinion on it, but I just believe a larger sample size of our champion makes it more legitimate. I think it would be hard for anyone to argue that, especially in the industry. 

“If you ask the drivers, ‘Do you see championships as valuable today as they did 10 years ago?’ I don’t think any one considers them as valuable just because it’s one race. It’s one race.”

2. Plugged in

Tyler Reddick moves to 23XI Racing and will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as his bosses. Reddick says that Jordan is not an absent owner.

“We’ve gotten to spend time (together) a little bit, here and there,” Reddick said of Jordan. “His involvement with the team is, I think, more than most realize.”

Reddick referenced the Martinsville race in October when he pulled out of the event because he wasn’t feeling well after contact on the track. Jordan reached out to Reddick afterward.

“It was really cool that you have a guy like him checking in on you to make sure you’re OK,” Reddick said. “He’s definitely locked in, and he really wants the team to do well. I’m excited to be working with him.”

3. Staying home

Kyle Larson said he will race very little this offseason. He’s staying at home for the birth of his third child with wife Katelyn Sweet.

Larson will compete in the Wild West Shootout, a dirt late model event at Vado (New Mexico) Speedway Park on Jan. 7-8 and Jan. 11-15.

Larson will not compete in the Chili Bowl this year. 

He said his focus will be on family this offseason.

“Help out where I can and just spend as much time with the family,” Larson said. “I normally go race a lot, but this year I’m not. I’m actually excited about it. I’ve only run one race so far this offseason. I’m surprised that it already feels like the offseason is going by really fast because I thought it’d be really slow with me not racing. It’s been good to just not race for once.”

4. Looking to improve

Ryan Blaney said he and crew chief Jonathan Hassler have looked back on the season and compiled a list of things to do for next year.

Blaney won the All-Star Race but did not win any points races. He finished eighth in points. It’s the sixth consecutive year he’s finished in the top 10 in points, but he’s never placed higher than seventh in the standings at the end of a season.

“We were up front so many races and led a lot of laps and won a bunch of stages, just never won (a points race),” Blaney said. “It is kind of a bummer. 

“So what kept us out of victory lane? Was it me? Was it a bad pit stop? It was kind of everything in some certain races. Sometimes they don’t work out for you. Some are self-induced. I felt like we took ourselves out of a handful of races I felt like we had a good shot of winning. … It is a bummer we didn’t win, but I was proud of the consistency and just hope to build on that.” 

Blaney is ready for the new season to begin.

“I’m kind of like two weeks is nice and then I kind of get itching to get back going,” he said. “It is nice to reset, and you kind of go through things you want to be better at. You have your own little list between myself and my team. … It’s a perfect time to work on that stuff.”

5. New partnership 

Among the new driver/crew chief pairings for 2023 is Austin Dillon working with Keith Rodden.

Rodden last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne. Rodden served as crew chief for William Byron in one race in 2020 but returns to full-time duty with Dillon, who finished 11th in points this past season, tying his career best. 

Rodden most recently worked on the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors. He takes over for Justin Alexander.

“Keith and I first got to work together in a wheel-force test for the Next Gen car at Richmond,” Dillon said. “It was a two-day test. We had dinner that night. It was good to talk to him. … Just knowing his passion was still very high to get back to the Cup level and crew chief. Him having the ability the work with Chevy this past year and seeing the different odds and ends of the Next Gen car was really the key to us (for him) to come over and crew chief for.”

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

MORE: Dr. Diandra: The best driver of 2022

MORE: RCR reveals Kyle Busch sponsors 

The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.