Kansas takeaways: Holding tracks to a ‘higher standard’ on promotion

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The contrast was jarring Sunday.

More than 140,000 people attended the Formula One race at Circuit of the Americas, while the crowd for Kansas Speedway’s Cup playoff race appeared to be no more than a third that size.

Look beyond those numbers to a deeper divide. COTA hosted an event. Kansas Speedway held a race.

“I feel like why are people at COTA for Formula One?” Kyle Busch said before Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas. “Is it because they only come here once a year, and we’ve got 38 shows, and so we’re a little redundant, maybe?”

Sunday’s Formula One race was the first time that series has competed in the U.S. since 2019. It had a full weekend of practice and qualifying that drew more than 400,000 people, making it among the largest three-day weekend crowds in F1 history, if not the largest.

Celebrities were abundant. Among those in attendance were Serena Williams, Megan Thee Stallion, Logan Paul, and Shaquille O’Neal. Billy Joel performed a concert Saturday night, joining Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake and Sir Elton John as among those who have played at COTA on race weekend.

Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas featured no practice or qualifying leading to the event, a standard for many races during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cup race was the 72nd in the U.S. since Formula One last competed in the country.

Denny Hamlin has talked about NASCAR adapting “more of an F1-style approach to a race weekend and how we host hospitalities, parties, just all of those things.”

He said before the Kansas race that more should be done by the tracks.

“Certainly I think the tracks have not been held enough to a high enough standard when it comes to promotion,” Hamlin said. “I think they’ve just really dropped the ball on that. Certainly, a lot of it was because it was such a small part of the revenue it’s just not a needle mover for them.”

Since the pandemic, PR and track marketing staffs have been cut and consolidated.

A view of the fans celebrating the win of Red Bull Racing Honda driver Max Verstappen during the United States Grand Prix Race at Circuit of the Americas. (Photo: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Hamlin said he spoke with NASCAR President Steve Phelps last week about a variety of issues, including track attendance.

“I had some great conversations with Phelps on Wednesday. … I certainly think he saw Texas (Motor Speedway) last week and was like that’s absolutely unacceptable,” Hamlin said. “Whether we’ve got to work with them or audit them, whatever it might be, we’ve got to fix the promotion side of things.

“Certainly, I think that everyone could be held to a higher standard, especially the tracks given the revenue they have.”

Tracks also could be incentivized by minimum attendance clauses that have been added to NASCAR sanctioning agreements in recent years. It’s just a matter of how NASCAR is willing to enforce that during a pandemic.

According to a Dover Motorsports filing, promoters are required at Cup races “to use best efforts to ensure minimum spectator attendance … of at least (70) percent of capacity of the facility.”

Kyle Busch also raised questions about what tracks are doing to attract fans.

“I had a friend of mine who I’d been friends with for 10 or so years reach out to me last weekend and said, “‘Oh, I had no idea you guys were in town for the Texas race. I live 6 minutes from the speedway,” Busch said. “You tell me how we’re going to fix it.”

Making more NASCAR races into events should lead to more promotion, so more people know when a track’s race weekend is.

NASCAR schedule questions stadium
The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will hold the NASCAR Clash exhibition race Feb. 6 to begin the 2022 NASCAR Cup season. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Events make a splash. It’s why NASCAR will start next season inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum instead of at Daytona International Speedway – as the sport has traditionally done.

“I think that’s something we can look at in the future is what other venues like this would you realistically be able to do something like that,” Ben Kennedy, NASCAR vice president of strategic initiatives, told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan in September about the race at the Coliseum.

“But that said, really our core focus right now is really putting on a special event at the Coliseum for our fans and something new and fresh.”

One hope for NASCAR is the event at the Coliseum also will have a celebrity component that is being worked out.

NASCAR has made adjustments to the schedule. COTA hosted its first Cup weekend in May to a good crowd despite rain on race day. Nashville Superspeedway had a sellout crowd of about 38,000 for its first Cup race in June. Road America had a large crowd for its Cup weekend.

Inaugural races often do well. The key is maintaining that excitement and enthusiasm. If not, a track can go away like Kentucky Speedway did. It debuted in 2011 to a record crowd besieged by nightmarish traffic issues and was off the schedule by 2021 as attendance eroded.

NASCAR is making its Championship 4 weekend into an event. The Cup season finale Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway already is sold out. Multiplatinum entertainer Dierks Bentley will perform a concert before the race. Emmy and Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth will perform the national anthem. 

But there’s also been talk of if the championship race should be held at one track annually or moved around. Phoenix will host the season finale for a third consecutive year in 2022.

Former Cup champion Brad Keselowski notes the difference in broadcast and admission revenue when looking at F1 and NASCAR and their approach.

“(Formula One) seems to, at least for the United States, be more interested in the event than broadcast, where (NASCAR) seems to be the opposite and more interested in broadcast than any event,” Keselowski said.

“That’s flipped over years. Twenty years ago I would have said (NASCAR was) probably the opposite. We were where they are. Generally speaking, when you can’t get the broadcast money, you go after the event money. You try for the broadcast money first because it’s much bigger, so much larger pot. In that sense I would say we are ahead, undoubtedly compared to them here in the United States.

“There’s no reason why we can’t have both. I think that’s something that we should certainly aspire to and there’s a lot of reasons we can do that. Ultimately I think there’s enough smart people in the sport we could pull it off pretty easily if they were properly motivated to do so, but, at this point in time, have never been motivated to do it.

“If that changes, we could get there. At this moment it hasn’t. I guess we’ll see how that plays out. It’s really more a question for those that have the power and control to do it than it is probably for the drivers.”

While NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports do not disclose track financials, Dover Motorsports, a publicly traded company, does.

In 2019, the last season before the COVID-19 pandemic, track records show that Dover recorded $4.9 million in admission revenue, while collecting $34.2 million broadcast revenue. Contracts with tracks stipulate that tracks keep 65% percent of its broadcast revenue and put 25% of that revenue into the race purse for teams. NASCAR keeps 10% of the broadcast money.

“I think when I first started coming to the races before the broadcast was so important, it was more about the events,” Keselowski said. “The thing that stood out the most to me was you could go to the midway and it felt like you were at a fair. It doesn’t feel that way now. That’s changed so much. Not that that’s good or bad. I think there’s a lot of ways we can spice it up.

“My No. 1 contention is simple things like driver interaction. I would love to interact more with the fans. Any time  I go to do it, I get charged. Why would I pay to interact with fans? That seems absurd.”

Asked what he meant, Keselowski explained:

“If I want to go do an event somewhere, or if I want to just even park a souvenir trailer outside and sign autographs for fans, it’s “That will cost you 20 grand.’

‘No, I’m doing this for the fans.’

‘Nope, we want our 20 grand. In fact it’s 40 grand.’

‘I’m not going to pay 40 grand (to) you to sign autographs for you to collect the ticket money. That makes no sense.’

“Until those things change, there’s at least, from my side, a complete demotivation to do those things. Whether they will or whether they won’t, I don’t know. I don’t have the ability to control those things. Certainly understand the affects of them.”

With NASCAR owning a majority of the tracks, Keselowski was asked about possible change.

“I’d like to see it change,” he said. “It’s very possible. Do we want to get there or do we not.”

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Reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott goes to Martinsville Speedway 34 points above the cutline in his quest to race for the championship Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.

Elliott also hopes to see the Atlanta Braves play in the World Series. The Braves play Houston for Major League Baseball’s championship. The series starts Tuesday in Houston. Games 3 and 4 are Friday and Saturday in Atlanta.

“I really want to go,” Elliott said. “I’m a huge Braves fan. If it works out and I’m able to figure out a way to go, I definitely will.

“I wasn’t alive the last time they won it (Elliott was born a month after Atlanta won the 1995 title). I was like 3 or 4 when they went back. Really kind of the first time to watch your favorite team go to the World Series, which is a really big deal in America. Hope I can. I’ll try to go. Love to go. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, you never know.”

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Last year, Kevin Harvick entered the Martinsville race 42 points above the cutline and failed to advance to the championship race.

No driver this year is more than 34 points above the cutline. That is Chase Elliott.

A year ago, Elliott entered this race 25 points below the cutline, but he won to earn a spot in the title race. That left two positions for points. Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski took those spots, leaving Harvick, who won nine races, failing to advance.

It’s why Elliott won’t let himself be comfortable even with his lead.

“As you saw today, I am not sure that any amount of points is safe,” he said after the Kansas race. “I think anyone in this round can win next week. So, we are really going to have to be on it, but looking forward to the opportunity and excited for the challenge.”

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

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.