Martinsville storylines: Keep it together

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One can argue that Ryan Blaney should have a Martinsville grandfather clock in his possession right now.

The Team Penske driver has been a contender to win in his last three visits to the Virginia half-mile track. But he came away empty-handed each time.

The common denominator in those setbacks? Pit road.

In the June 2020 race at Martinsville, Blaney was leading when a caution came out on Lap 327. During subsequent pit stops, a member of his No. 12 crew went over the wall too soon and Blaney was sent to the rear. He climbed all the way back to second with less than 50 laps to go but went no further.

When the NASCAR Cup Series returned to Martinsville that November, Blaney rallied from an early pit road speeding penalty and was running second at the race’s final caution with 59 laps to go. But in the pits, he lost two spots and took the final restart in fifth (one car stayed out to inherit the lead). Again, Blaney got up to second, but came up short.

Then came this past April’s race at Martinsville, where Blaney won both stages and appeared set to fight Denny Hamlin for the win. But on Blaney’s final pit stop under caution with 47 laps to go, he ran over his air hose and took the pit gun with him as he left his stall.

The subsequent penalty sent him to the rear for the restart. Blaney finished 11th. As for Hamlin, he ultimately failed to hold off winner Martin Truex Jr. in the final green flag run to the finish.

As Martinsville hosts Sunday’s Cup playoff Round of 8 elimination race (2 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock Premium), Blaney and his No. 12 team are in a battle among those on the cutline seeking to reach the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7.

Kyle Busch holds the final transfer spot by a point over Blaney. Truex, winner of three of the last four Martinsville races, is three points back. Blaney’s teammate, Keselowski, is six points back.

All of them have multiple paths to get to Phoenix. As for Blaney, setbacks aside, he’s been heating up at Martinsville. He’s recorded five top-five finishes in his last seven races there. Going deeper, he’s also picked up three stage wins and scored in 15 of 18 stages at Martinsville.

That’s not bad considering how chaotic that track can be. But he and his team can ill afford another costly mistake Sunday to ruin their title hopes.

Wide open

For the first time since the 2017 season, all Championship 4 spots are up for grabs in the NASCAR Xfinity Series entering its final playoff elimination race.

That season, Christopher Bell (on his way to a Truck Series title) and Erik Jones (finishing his Cup rookie season) won the first two races in the Round of 8 to set up the elimination race at Phoenix Raceway. At that juncture, Elliott Sadler led the playoff standings with a 29-point cushion above the cutline.

Four years later, Phoenix now hosts the title finale (Nov. 6). And entering Saturday night’s elimination race at Martinsville (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN), two drivers hold bigger points buffers than Sadler. Reigning series champion Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger are both at +47.

Below them, but still above the cutline, are Justin Allgaier (+9) and Daniel Hemric (+7). Justin Haley (-7) has a manageable deficit, while Noah Gragson (-24), Brandon Jones (-40) and Harrison Burton (-51) likely need to win Saturday in order to reach Phoenix.

Gragson and Burton were the biggest losers last week at Kansas Speedway. Contact between Burton and Sam Mayer sent Burton into the wall while collecting Gragson. The incident cost Gragson 26 points to the cutline and Burton 30 points to the cutline.

But there is hope for both drivers.

Gragson didn’t get the clean day at Kansas that he’d hoped for, but said entering last week’s race that he felt his No. 9 JR Motorsports team had a “pretty good package” for Martinsville. Gragson has finished third and second there in his first two Xfinity starts.

He’s also posted an average finish of fifth across the three short track races this season, best among the remaining playoff drivers.

As for Burton, he won last year’s Martinsville playoff race after being eliminated from title contention in the opening Round of 12. He’s the only remaining playoff driver this season with a previous Martinsville win.

“We’re in a tough situation,” Burton said Wednesday in a media teleconference. “We had a really great car at Kansas contending for the win there and ended up getting in a crash that put us in a bad spot. So now we know we have to win to get into the Championship 4, which we believe we’re capable of. We’ve shown that we’re capable of it at Martinsville in particular… Just time to go get after it, have at it.

“This is going to be fun. These are the situations that — you know, there’s no great comeback without a setback at first. I’ve got a great group of guys around me, great leadership. (Crew chief) Jason Ratcliff has been in this situation before, having to win at Phoenix to have a chance for a championship – and him and Christopher (Bell) got it done, so I don’t see why we can’t get it done, either.”

Break’s over

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series hosts the first of this weekend’s playoff elimination races at Martinsville on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, FS1).

Like the Xfinity Series, all Championship 4 spots will be decided ahead of the Trucks’ Nov. 5 season finale at Phoenix.

When we last saw the Trucks on Oct. 2 at Talladega, playoff contender John Hunter Nemechek missed out on clinching a Championship 4 berth.

Nemechek was leading on the last lap of overtime when he and Tate Fogleman made contact coming to the checkered flag. Nemechek went spinning as Fogleman held on to earn his first career Truck win – only to be immediately spun himself by contact from another competitor.

Entering Saturday, Nemechek and Ben Rhodes have the clearest paths to reaching the title race in Phoenix. Nemechek, the regular-season champion, has a 36-point cushion above the cutline. Rhodes is at +35.

The final two transfer spots may be the most hotly contested. Three-time Truck Series champion Matt Crafton (+10) and reigning Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed (+5) are not far above the cutline, while Stewart Friesen (-5) is not far below it.

Behind Friesen are Chandler Smith (-34), Carson Hocevar (-37) and Zane Smith (-40). They all likely need a win to advance.

Last fall’s Truck playoff race at Martinsville had two spots in the Championship 4 up for grabs after Creed and Brett Moffitt previously advanced there with wins in the Round of 8.

Grant Enfinger won the race to earn an automatic advance, while Zane Smith’s third-place finish was enough to claim the last transfer spot by three points over Crafton.

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.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”