Friday 5: Kyle Busch backs words with action

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Those weren’t idle words Kyle Busch spoke heatedly after his crash at Darlington in the opening race of the Cup playoffs.

Frustrated with his car’s performance that night, Busch told NBC Sports: “I don’t know what our problem is, but every time I go to the (simulator) … and think we had a good sim session, we go to the racetrack and we suck. So, I’m done with that.”

Busch stayed true to his word this week.

“We had originally planned a Vegas (simulator) session, but I threw that out the window after Darlington,” he said of preparations for Sunday’s playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “We’re just going to go off our notes from earlier this year, how we ran out there.

“We actually did simulate for Vegas (for the March race), and when we showed up, we were way off. We had to work on the car all race long. Finally, the third stage, we were pretty decent. We were able to drive our way back up to the front and finish third.”

Those notes will help but a key difference is that the temperature was in the mid-70s for the March race. The temperature for this weekend’s race is expected to be in the lower 90s. Such a change between those races can impact a car’s handling.

With practice not held at nine of the 10 playoff races – the Phoenix championship weekend is the exception – teams rely on simulators and other computer programs to set the car for each event. Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota each has a simulator for their teams in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area.

Canceling a simulator session isn’t necessarily a disadvantage for Busch, the two-time series champion. He has been frustrated for more than a year with how information from the simulator does not always correlate to on-track success.

“I don’t think it works worse for me,” Busch said of the simulator. “It’s different for everybody. Even our (Kyle Busch Motorsports) Truck guys have found frustrations in the sim and it all relates to where the rubber meets the road. It’s all about the tire model and whatever tire model you put into the sim is kind of the characteristics of what your vehicle will drive like.

“Every driver has their own interpretation as to what they feel like they’re feeling and the exact feel that they get from their butt to the chassis. It’s hard to do.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series Henry 180
Kyle Busch finished 35th at Darlington, ninth at Richmond and 21st at Bristol in the opening round of the Cup playoffs. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Sunday’s race at Las Vegas (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) is viewed by many in the garage as critical in the Round of 12. The race is viewed as more predictable than the other two events in the round: Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. A good race at Las Vegas can help overcome a poor result due to a crash at Talladega or the Roval.

“You can be riding along and all of a sudden, a 12-car pileup happens right on top of yourself at Talladega,” Busch said. “You can be running fourth or fifth and get run into at the Roval and get spun off and sent off course and now you’re outside the top 20.”

Busch enters this round fifth in the standings, nine points above the cutline. That doesn’t give him much margin for error.

What’s clear is Busch isn’t as fast as the top cars. He’s led 3.1% of the 1,817 laps run in the last seven races. Busch has led 286 laps this season. His record low for a season is 362 laps led in his rookie campaign in 2005.

“Unfortunately, we just started too far off at Darlington,” Busch said of the playoffs. “We didn’t have a chance to get to where we wanted to get. We were probably going to run eighth or ninth that race.

“Richmond, we came out fine. We got the lead, but we were probably only going to run second or third there (before a pit road speeding penalty). Bristol, I think we were going to run fourth or fifth (before a cut tire). We’re not where we need to be. I keep saying that.

“We’re not the Kyle Busch of old where we’re leading tons of laps like (Kyle) Larson and running up front and battling for leads and stage wins and all that stuff. Trying to get that message across in a nice manner that we still have some work to do in order to better ourselves to get further up.”

As Busch and his team try to resolve those issues, they have to be careful about overcompensating in other areas.

“You can’t overpush things on restarts and get yourself in a bad spot,” he said. “I feel like sometimes, tires are an important gain. If you take care of the tires, they’ll reward you on the (end of a run).

“JGR, our cars have always, more times than not, been historically better on long runs. That’s kind of where you just have to be patient and bide your time and wait for that long run to come in.

“The Penske cars, you would argue, are more short-run speed, so those guys will fire off hard and do everything they can on restarts, but they might fade. So you have that time in which the field will cross over. Sometimes, those cautions come out in tough spots for us and it doesn’t quite work out that way. That’s part of the game.”

2. More with less

While much has been made about Joe Gibbs Racing winning two playoff races and Kyle Larson winning at Bristol, Brad Keselowski says not to overlook his team – even though he enters the Round of 12 below the cutline.

“We knocked a few guys out of the first round that, quite frankly, were considerably faster than us, so that bodes well for us,” he said Thursday. “If we can put the speed with all the other pieces we have, we’re a very dangerous team.”

A quick look at Keselowski’s first round shows that he led 10 laps in three races and scored points in three of six stages. Not awe-inspiring. But he and his team avoided mistakes and misfortune. 

“I’m incredibly proud of the round that we had,” he said. “We didn’t win a race. We didn’t contend to win a race in that first round, but we went to Darlington with a 15th-place car and put together a solid top-10 finish (seventh). 

“We went to Richmond with a 15th-to-20th-place car unfortunately, and put together a solid finish, got some stage points out of it and ended up 13th. 

“And we went to Bristol with probably the best car we’ve had, probably a top-five car, and scored the third-most points and finished sixth. 

“In a lot of ways, the media and the fans look at the race winner as the guy that ran the best race. To me, I always look at the field and say, ‘Who did the best with the car they had?’ 

“And I feel like we’re out-finishing our speed right now by a good bit. That’s a combination of certainly the moves I’m making on the racetrack and the moves that we make on pit road and with respect to pit strategy and the pit crew themselves, so I’m really proud of that.”

Brad Keselowski
Former Cup champion Brad Keselowski enters the second round of the Cup playoffs six points below the cutline. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The challenge grows for Keselowski and his team this weekend at Las Vegas. He is six points below the cutline. Keselowski said before the playoffs that “we just haven’t shown the speed” at 550-horsepower package tracks similar to Las Vegas.

While he finished second at Las Vegas in March, he’s had inconsistent results in other races with the package. He has two top-five finishes, a 10th-place finish and two finishes outside the top 10 at 1.5-mile tracks this year. He’s also failed to score stage points in two of those races.

“I really don’t know what I’m gonna have this weekend,” Keselowski said. “If we went there and we ran top five all (race) and snuck out a race win, I wouldn’t be shocked. If we went to Vegas and ran 10th to 15th all (race) and finished in that range, I wouldn’t be shocked.”

3. Looking for a spark

Bubba Wallace’s 16th-place finish last week at Bristol in his first race with crew chief Bootie Barker was an improvement over the previous two races.

That is something 23XI Racing is looking for in these final weeks of the season. Wallace is 22nd in points with seven races left in the season.

Co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team moved the crew chief role from Mike Wheeler, who also is the team’s director of competition, so Wheeler could focus on preparing the organization to run two teams next year. Kurt Busch will be Wallace’s teammate in 2022.

“I just think that we were kind of overwhelming (Wheeler) with everything he kind of needed to do,” Hamlin said. “There were some projects, there’s a long list of projects to get our shop ready …  but I (also) need performance on the 23. How can I ask him to spend more time working on that but yet, ‘Hey, by the way I need you finish this list of stuff as well.’”

With Wheeler focused on next year, Bootie Barker was tapped to be Wallace’s crew chief. Barker was a Cup crew chief from 2003-17. He worked in the shop in various roles before the switch.

“I do think he’s a very calming voice that can work with Bubba,” Hamlin said of Barker. “It seems like (Wallace) has resonated with those old-school type guys in the past.”

As for next year, Hamlin said the team is “looking at all options” for Wallace’s crew chief.

4. Uncertain future

As he enters his first Xfinity Series playoffs Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Jeb Burton knows he’s racing for more than a title.

“I’m auditioning for my career,” he said.

The 29-year-old has an uncertain future because sponsor Nutrien Ag Solutions will not return after this season.

This season is Burton’s first full-time effort since he was with an underfunded Cup team in 2015. Since then, he’s run as few as six races in a season in NASCAR’s top three series (2018) and no more than 16 races (2016) in a season.

That’s what made this year so meaningful. After all those part-time efforts, he secured a full-time ride with Kaulig Racing. He won at Talladega for his first Xfinity victory. Burton enters the Xfinity playoffs seeded seventh among 12 drivers, four points above the cutline.

With all that he’s accomplished this season, the recent news that his sponsor was leaving hit hard.

“Man, it’s difficult,” Burton said. “It’s hard on my family. That’s for certain. My mom and dad, it has been an emotional roller coaster the last couple of weeks. I’m trying not to let my emotions get to me now.”

5. A special helmet

It’s become tradition for Justin Allgaier’s daughter Harper to design his helmet for the playoffs.

This year’s design features glitter and flames, including purple, on a black helmet. The 8-year-old also has a special message on the back of the helmet that reads: “I love you daddy! Use every chance you get!”

Justin Allgaier’s helmet, which was designed by his daughter Harper. It includes a special message for him. (Photo: JR Motorsports)

Allgaier said the helmet has additional meaning to him that he doesn’t think his daughter truly knows.

“She knows that I like flames, but I don’t think she really necessarily understands kind of the background of the flames for me,” he told NBC Sports.

“My very first race car, when I was 5 years old, had flames on it. My very first helmet had flames on it. My second firesuit actually had flames on it as well.”

Just as meaningful is her message to him.

“Lately, for whatever reason she’s changed what she tells me pre-race,” said Allgaier, who is seeded third in the Xfinity playoffs. “She tells me to take every chance I can get.

“Its really kind of stuck in my head. To her, it’s just something, it’s a ritual she tells me each and every week before I get into the racecar, but it’s something that has really stuck with me and made me think a lot more about what I’m doing on the racetrack vs. what I’m not doing.”

Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.

 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”