Friday 5: Talladega’s unpredictability has playoff drivers on edge

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As he teeters above the cutline, heading into what can be one of NASCAR’s most unpredictable races, Joey Logano admits his position is “not comfortable.”

“It is stressful because your whole season can be decided this weekend and that may be somewhat out of your control,” he said of Sunday’s Round of 12 Cup playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Logano enters the race six points above the cutline. He has never been eliminated before the Round of 8 in the Cup playoffs.

He’s made the championship race four times, winning the title in 2018. Logano was eliminated after the Round of 8 in 2015 and 2019. He did not make the playoffs in 2017.

Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval make this round unsettling for drivers because of the potential for chaos. One of the reasons Denny Hamlin celebrated his Las Vegas win last weekend so much was because it sent him to the next round.

“I’m more looking forward to it now than worrying about all the ‘what ifs’ of what can happen that can take you out,” Hamlin said. “During the course of my career, I’ve had just about all the ‘what ifs’ actually happen. It’s good to know we’ve got nothing to lose at this point.”

But Logano says someone could lose big in this round.

“This is the round that a true championship contender can be a surprise knockout,” he said.

Ryan Blaney, who enters Sunday’s race fifth in the standings with a 24-point cushion on William Byron – the first driver outside the cutline – says a driver can’t worry about what can happen at Talladega.

“You understand what Talladega is, and you understand you can get wiped out as an innocent bystander,” said Blaney, who has won two of the last four Cup races at Talladega. “It is what it is. If you let it eat at your head and get to you, then you’re kind of behind the eight-ball already. You’ve go to focus on how to win that race.”

Kyle Busch just wants to get a good finish.

Asked about his feelings going into a Talladega playoff race, he says: “Dread it.”

It’s understandable. Busch has never finished better than 11th in a Talladega playoff race. His average finish in Talladega Cup playoff races is 25.7.

He enters Sunday’s race third in the standings, 35 points above the cutline. That can provide some comfort.

Logano and Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, though, hold the final two transfer spots entering Talladega.

Neither has been spectacular, but both have been steady in these playoffs. Logano has finished between fifth and 11th in each playoff race. Keselowski has placed between sixth and 13th in those same races.

“I feel up to last week, we’ve done a tremendous job through the playoffs by getting every point,” Logano said. “That’s been our slogan: ‘Every point.’ Get every one. Every one. We left eight to 10 points on the racetrack last weekend. We’ve got to regroup and be better. That’s on all of us. We’ll regroup and try to make up those eight points.”

The superspeedway races have not been kind to Logano this year.

  • He led entering Turn 3 of the last lap for the Daytona 500 when contact with Keselowski wrecked both.
  • Logano was third when he was clipped by Denny Hamlin at Talladega in the spring. The contact turned Logano and sent his car into the air. His car landed on its roof. Logano was uninjured.
  • He suffered a flat tire with less than 10 laps left while running third in the Daytona regular season finale.

To me, it’s all about seeing the checkered flag,” Logano said. “Being toward the front but mainly seeing the checkered flag on the lead lap will be big for our points day.”

Many other playoff drivers would feel the same way.

2. Looking to rally again

Running at or below the cutline is not new to Alex Bowman.

In his first two playoff appearances (2018 and ’19), Bowman was at or below the cutline throughout the first round before advancing both times. He did the same thing in the first round of these playoffs.

Bowman enters Sunday’s race at Talladega 13 points behind Brad Keselowski for the final transfer spot to the Round of 8.

Bowman said having the experience of running while at or under the cutline previously helps.

“The biggest thing for me is just trying to maximize each and every race and every stage,” he said. “You can’t freak out and try any harder because I’m already trying as hard as I can every week. Approaching every race like normal and really just trying to maximize each and every thing.

“Last year we didn’t change what we were doing that worked. This year we didn’t change what we were doing that hasn’t worked. But just trying to maximize every stage and every race. You can’t really worry about the points. They kind of are what they are right now.

“We’re not in a great spot, and we’re going to a place that’s a huge wild card. But at the same time, we could be on the good side of the wild card and have other guys get torn up and have an opportunity to win the race. So, we’ve just got to wait and see how it shakes out. If it works out for us, it does. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

3. The race for rides

While the focus for some drivers is on the playoffs, this is a time where other drivers are trying to find a ride for next season.

Among those without Cup rides for next year are Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Newman and Ryan Preece.

Corey LaJoie knows the feeling well, although he doesn’t have to go through that this year.

“Every year, up until this one, it was always uncertainty,” said LaJoie, who will return to Spire Motorsports next season. “A lot of times, my deals didn’t get done until late December or early January. Just when the music stopped, you hoped you had a seat you were holding on to. It’s really kind of a weird spot to know where I’m going to be at least next year and possibly many years after that.”

LaJoie sees those struggles play out with DiBenedetto, his friend.

DiBenedetto will not return to the Wood Brothers after this season. Harrison Burton will take over that ride next season. DiBenedetto has yet to secure a ride for next season.

“I’ve been working on everything,” he told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “It’s just crazy.

The performance of our team is obvious, and the things we’ve done to make some great improvements and be fast and performing very consistently, but still, as it is pertains to next year, man, it’s odd. Any door that kind of seems to crack open, closes.

“I’m trying to figure out what God’s plan is and what that means because, at this moment, I’ve got zero. Absolutely nothing. So it’s a very weird landscape.”

DiBenedetto also acknowledged the lack of sponsorship that he brings hurts.

“Now that I’m in a free agency market, I don’t have the funding behind me,” he told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

LaJoie knows that all too well.

“Unfortunately, where we’re at as a sport in its entirety is the only thing makes you stand out is how much sponsorship you bring with you,” LaJoie said. “You can write all the letters you want to and have all the good runs, win all the poles and have all the wins under your belt. If you don’t have good partners that continue to back you and keep growing their investment in the sport as much as my brand each and every year, then you’re going to be on the bottom of anybody’s list in terms of drivers.”

4. Admiration for former champ

Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, completed his first season running road courses and street courses in the NTT IndyCar Series last weekend.

It was not an easy transition.

Johnson placed 17th in the season-ending race at Long Beach. He finished on the lead lap in three of the last four races of the season after not recording a lead-lap finish in the first eight races.

Despite the challenges, he earned praised from some of his former NASCAR competitors for racing in another series.

“I know he’s gotten a lot of grief over this year, but it’s like ‘Give the guy a break,'” Ryan Blaney said. “He’s done plenty enough for NASCAR and he wants to try something else. … I feel like any motorsports racer wants to do that. You want to try new things and see how these cars compare to other cars, what’s different, what’s similar.

“He had a great opportunity to go do that. I think he’s done a good job this year, honestly. He’s gotten better and better. I got a chance to talk to him a good bit at Indy (when NASCAR and IndyCar raced on the same weekend in August) and watch him. He’s having a lot of fun with it, too.”

Kyle Larson said: “For him to step out of his comfort zone and try something new and dedicate a lot of time and effort to it, I think is amazing. … I hope to see him do some oval stuff.”

5. Another year together

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. confirmed Thursday what had been expected for some time. He’ll be back with JTG Daugherty Racing in the 2022 season.

The team had already stated it would be a single-car entry. It had only one charter this year, running Ryan Preece’s car without a charter. With the rising cost of the charter, JTG Daugherty Racing passed on securing one for its second car.

NASCAR Daytona Drafting Test
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 21st in the points heading into Sunday’s race at Talladega. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

“I’m just looking forward to a third season with the team,” Stenhouse said. “I felt like this year was kind of like the first year with the organization, with the way last year went and the way it was kind of thrown on us and not being able to hang out with the guys and be in the shop and really spend time with each other.

“And now, I’m enjoying … we went to the Daytona test with the new car, and I felt like we had a successful test. It’s been fun going to the race shop and helping kind of design the cockpit of the car, where we want things, and just kind of make it custom to what I need and working with everybody in the shop. So, I think next year could be our best year yet, and even my best year in Cup in general. So I’m really looking forward to the opportunity that next year presents.”

As for being a single-car team instead of having two drivers, Stenhouse said there would be adjustments.

“I definitely think it could be a negative on one hand, and then a positive on the other,” he sad. “Obviously, when you’re practicing and testing, you can have more ideas and run different things through both cars. It definitely helps kind of speed the process up. But we would also have to share the seat when it comes to testing. So, I feel like what I look for in a race car and what somebody looks for in a race car and the way they drive, is sometimes totally different.

“So, I feel like we’re going to be able to kind of build around me and at least the set-ups and things like that will be more around what I’m looking for in the race car, and all our focus will be on one car. I feel like that will be a positive thing. I know everybody at JTG Daugherty Racing so far has been all in on the new car and trying to speed the process along.”

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.