Friday 5: Former driver could have the greatest impact on NASCAR’s title races

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It’s doubtful anyone in NASCAR had a better weekend at Martinsville last week than Josh Wise.

This weekend at Phoenix could be even better for the former racer, who trains 15 Chevrolet drivers in NASCAR’s top three series.

Martinsville marked the first time drivers in his program swept a race weekend. Alex Bowman won the Cup race. Noah Gragson won the Xfinity race. Zane Smith won the Camping World Truck Series race.

Gragson and Smith were in must-win situations to reach the Championship 4 of their series. Wise also trains Kyle Larson, who will compete for his first Cup title Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

This is the first time Wise has had a driver in each of the three championship races in the same season. Sheldon Creed was the first driver to win a title while in Wise’s program. Creed won the Truck Series championship last year.

“Josh definitely doesn’t get the credit maybe he deserves,” Gragson said after his Martinsville win. “I think I owe him so much for all his hard work. He really, truly cares about us, and definitely makes us a much better driver, but most importantly, I think he makes me a better person.”

Wise in his fourth season working with Gragson. Wise has worked more than five years with Larson.

“I trust him a lot, and I think that’s important to have somebody that you trust and respect,” Larson said. “He’s one of the greatest people I know. Glad that we have him in our corner. I hope he’s somebody I can be with forever.”

Wise has the respect of drivers because he raced. He was the 2005 USAC national midget champion and 2006 USAC national sprint car champion. Wise moved to NASCAR but spent much of his career driving for lower funded teams. He drove 318 races across NASCAR’s three national series, including 156 in Cup.

While he raced, Wise improved his fitness and went on to compete in the 2015 Iron Man World Championship. As Wise trained, he became more intrigued in the human body and optimizing its performance physically and mentally.

He focused on performance training after his driving career ended. Wise started working with Chip Ganassi Racing drivers and expanded his efforts to include the Drivers Edge Development Program for Chevrolet. That program features drivers from GMS Racing, JR Motorsports and other Chevy teams.

“He just says to look at the long-term goal, and what are you willing to do to be great?” Gragson said of Wise’s approach.

Work can be anything from running or riding bikes to eye training and race craft. Wise also has given books to the drivers to read for homework.

It’s all about making the driver better. 

“I want them to be so prepared, so advanced in the way that they are thinking, (and) so physically fit and equipped with strategies that are beyond what anyone else has begun to think about,” Wise said.

It’s worked this year. Wise’s drivers won 14 of 35 Cup races (40%). Larson won nine races, Bowman won four and Kurt Busch won once. In the Xfinity Series, Wise’s drivers won four times. Gragson had three victories. Josh Berry won once.

Larson credits Wise with helping him prepare for races.

”I have my set way of doing stuff, but with him and the data that he has compiled, with the other people he has working with him, you can go into races with a plan and be confident,” Larson said.

Among Wise’s team is Scott Speed, who raced in Formula 1 and NASCAR. He has been used to help train drivers for road courses with the spike in those events on the schedule. Wise also has utilized former Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen, who won a gold medal in the 1,000 meters in 1994. Jansen can aid in conditioning but also can relate his Olympic experience to the drivers.

With NASCAR determining its champion in a single race, it’s relatable to the Olympic experience. Olympic athletes train for that one moment in the Games. The buildup is immense. The pressure intense. The rewards significant.

“This sport is about peaking at the right time,” Wise said. “Understanding the cycles and the long game of how to do that both physically and psychologically is an important part of our process and has been for years. Dan understands that philosophy and can be a good part of continuing to build on that.”

Wise likens the challenges in a season that stretches from February to November to running a marathon.

“If you’re running a marathon and you take off the first mile running as fast as you can, your last mile is going to be a little slower,” he said. “We work on pacing a marathon (of the season) to finish the last mile perfectly.”

Adding other instructors and the continued evolution of optimizing performance means that Wise is always learning and sharing new methods with his drivers.

“That’s the most exciting part,” he said. “I just feel like I’m still getting started with this. We have such a good group of drivers.

“The thing that I’m learning more and building more around are the psychological side of this, and the models that we have for the entirety of what it takes to be successful at this in a lot of ways.”

2. Practice and qualifying return

For the first time since mid-August, practice and qualifying is back this weekend.

Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck teams each will have practice and qualifying. The last time NASCAR had such sessions was with Cup and Xfinity at the Indianapolis road course.

How much will practice matter for Cup playoff teams?

“I feel like it really removes the opportunity for somebody to just completely step on their own toes and really make a mistake or a bad decision that hurts them,” Martin Truex Jr. said.

“I honestly think it’s a more fair competition for four guys to all have practice and go out there and lay it on the line and see who can do the best job.”

Chase Elliott says he won’t get caught up in who is fast in Friday’s practice.

“For me, I’m just going to focus on the way I want the car to drive and try to get it as close to that natural feeling that I want,” he said.

We’ll get it as close as we can, and we’ll see where we stack up on Sunday. This deal is not over until the checkered flag waves. We all know that. Getting tore up over how Friday goes is, I think, doing yourself and your team a pretty large disservice.”

Practice and qualifying have been held in only a limited number of times since the sport returned in May 2020 after being halted by the pandemic. With no practice, teams didn’t have to prepare a backup car for those events. That provided a cost savings to teams while facing financial hardships caused by the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

With the Next Gen car debuting next season, practice and qualifying are expected to return for all Cup races.

3. Working together

Car owner Rick Hendrick said he doesn’t plan to be on the pit box for either Chase Elliott’s or Kyle Larson’s team in Sunday’s championship race.

The two drivers are seeking to give Hendrick Motorsports its 14th Cup championship in the last 27 seasons. Should Elliott win the crown, it will make him the first driver to win back-to-back championships since Jimmie Johnson won five consecutive titles for Hendrick Motorsports from 2006-10.

“The guys that are working, that go to the track with the 5 car, they want to win,”  Hendrick said of Larson’s team. “The guys that are with (Elliott’s) car, they want to win. But they’re all in there together. They do have feelings that they want their car to win the race, but they’re looking for the organization to do well.

I don’t think there’s tension between our cars. There’s just tension and nerves that they know it all comes down to just one race. We worked so hard all year, won a lot of races, but it’s just going to come down to who can win this race or finish in front of the other guys. … I fully expect the guys to race hard, race clean.

“I’ve been in this situation before with Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon. I’ve been in the meetings with the teams. I say, ‘Look, guys, I’m going to tell you if the 9 car wins, I’m going to go tell the 5 guys congratulations, a great year.’ Then, I’ll go celebrate.

I worry about showing any favoritism to any one of them. I won’t be on the 9 box or the 5 box, I’ll be somewhere neutral. I do think a lot about whatever happens Sunday, I don’t want to hurt the momentum we’ve got now.

However it works out, we’ve got to come back and race in ’22, and we want to have the same success that we had this year. The reason we have is because everybody’s working together.

4. Kids and their ways

With all the races Kyle Larson has won in NASCAR and at dirt tracks this season, he was asked if 6-year-old son Owen was just getting used to going to victory lane any time he was at his dad’s race.

Larson chuckled at the question.

“Maybe a dirt race,” he said. “He hasn’t been to any of the Cup races I’ve won this year. He was able to come to Victory Lane at (the Charlotte Roval), but he had a baseball game that day. So, no.

“Actually a month, month and a half ago, he was like, ‘Dad, why don’t you ever win a NASCAR race? You always finish second when I’m there.’

Yeah, hopefully that will change this weekend with him there.”

Larson then was asked about 3-year-old daughter Audrey’s fandom of William Byron.

Loves William Byron,” Larson said of his daughter. “We had a little team outing at the shop on Tuesday. William was there. I brought my kids.

“She got to go take a picture with William. She was too shy to talk. She was embarrassed. She was, like, pushing me and hitting me. She was acting goofy, I think, because she was nervous.

Loves William Byron. Yes, she cheers for William way more than she cheers for me.”

5. Odds in his favor?

It’s pretty simple to Daniel Hemric. All he has to do is beat three drivers — reigning series champion Austin Cindric, AJ Allmendinger and Noah Gragson — to win the Xfinity Series championship Saturday at Phoenix (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

“For me, that’s the best odds I’ve ever had at anything,” Hemric told NBC Sports. “We compete against thousands of kids, looking for that next opportunity. You progress through the ranks. Same thing against thousands of kids trying to get the next opportunity.

“When you get to this level, you’ve already won the lottery. You’re already the luckiest guy in the world to even do this.

“To know you have a chance to be that guy, a guy that gets to hold that (championship trophy) when it’s all said and done, that’s a feeling in the pit of your stomach that you can never put words to.”

He was asked where he plans to put the championship trophy after he wins it.

“The trophy will go in the man cave, a place that I can go to with my buddies,” Hemric said. “A place that you don’t have to say anything, it sits there for itself. It being there does the talking for you.”

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