Richmond storylines: More playoff chaos on tap?

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With all the calamity that struck NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers Sunday night at Darlington Raceway, Aric Almirola knew finishing 16th, while not ideal, was better than it could’ve been.

He avoided all the wrecks and the costly pit road issues. For that, he sits three points above the cutline to advance as the series heads for Richmond Raceway to resume the Round of 16 on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

After a wild playoff opener, Almirola expects that things won’t get any calmer.

“It’s gonna be tough, it’s gonna be intense,” he said in a Tuesday media teleconference. “There’s gonna be a lot of battling, and I have no doubt that you will see a playoff car or a couple or a few run into some trouble.

“It just happens and you just don’t want to be that guy.”

On the back foot

“That guy” happened to be a lot of guys last Sunday at Darlington. Entering Richmond, three of the four drivers below the playoff cutline wrecked out of the Southern 500.

Kyle Buschwho was later fined $50,000 for his post-crash actions at Darlington – went from 17 points above the cutline to two points below it in the playoff standings. William Byron went from nine points above the cutline to nine below it. Michael McDowell went from the cutline to 20 points below it.

Above them are Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman, who are tied on the cutline. Reddick owns the tiebreaker of best finish in the round. He finished 18th Sunday; Bowman was 26th.

All of them need a solid result Saturday night, particularly McDowell at 20 points out. But the Daytona 500 winner has never finished better than 12th at Richmond in 20 career Cup starts.

On the flip side, Kyle Busch has six career Richmond Cup wins. He’s also finished inside the top 10 there in seven consecutive races and in 10 of the last 11 races.

The one with the most to prove may be Bowman, whose streaky regular season made him one of the biggest question marks in the playoff field.

His 26th-place finish at Darlington was his fourth finish of 16th or worse in the last five races. But if he can repeat what he did in the spring at Richmond – score points in both stages, then charge late to get the win – he can establish himself as a proper threat.

JGR runs Richmond

In that spring Richmond race, Bowman upended a dominant run by Joe Gibbs Racing tandem Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr, who combined to lead 314 of 400 laps.

Will both of those drivers see Saturday’s race as a chance to settle some unfinished business?

Hamlin’s on to the Round of 12 with his Darlington win but can deny another playoff driver the opportunity to advance with a victory.

Truex and his No. 19 team will be extra motivated after a pit road speeding penalty with less than 50 laps to go cost them a chance to win last week.

As noted in colleague Dustin Long’s Darlington takeaways, that was Truex’s fourth pit road speeding penalty of the season.

One of them came this spring at Richmond. Truex ran second in both stages and led 107 laps. But on his Lap 294 pit stop, he was caught speeding and dropped to 12th. He rallied to finish fifth.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see at least one JGR driver in contention Saturday. JGR’s 16 Cup wins at Richmond are the most all-time.

The organization has won four of the last six Richmond races and seven of the last 11. Its trio of Hamlin, Truex and the aforementioned Kyle Busch have a combined 11 Richmond wins.

Look out for JGR’s fourth driver, Christopher Bell, too. One of his four top-five finishes this season came in the spring Richmond race, where he ran fourth. Additionally, he’s won three times there for JGR in the Xfinity Series.

Dale Jr. rides again

Saturday afternoon’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) will include Dale Earnhardt Jr. competing in the No. 8 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.

Since retiring from full-time competition after the 2017 season, Earnhardt has made a single Xfinity start each season.

In September 2018 at Richmond, he led a race-high 96 laps before finishing fourth. Since then, he’s recorded consecutive fifth-place finishes at Darlington in 2019 and Homestead-Miami last year.

Earnhardt could be in the mix Saturday. His JR Motorsports team has won four of the last six Xfinity short track races. Back in April on the half-mile at Martinsville, Josh Berry won in the same No. 8 entry Earnhardt will drive.

As Earnhardt makes his return, the Xfinity Series’ playoff picture could also gain more focus in this penultimate race of the regular season.

Jeremy Clements (+78 above cut line) and Brandon Jones (+65) sit 10th and 11th, respectively. Riley Herbst holds the 12th and final playoff spot with a 46-point cushion over JRM’s Michael Annett.

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.