Phoenix continues trend of first-time NASCAR series champion


AVONDALE, Ariz. — As NASCAR embarks on a new era with the Next Gen car, it’s well into a transition to new champions.

Phoenix marked the fourth time in the last five years that the Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series champions each earned their first series title.

The weekend started with Ben Rhodes’ deft driving in the Truck race, followed by the 24-year-old’s tipsy press conference, where he thanked his “good friend Bud (a can of Bud Light) and later said “Libations are good. Championship is awesome.”

Daniel Hemric, 30, followed the next night by winning his first race in 208 NASCAR national series starts and claiming his first championship. He scored the victory with a bump-and-run on reigning series champ Austin Cindric coming to the finish.

Kyle Larson completed his remarkable season and the weekend by collecting his 10th Cup win of the season — 11th counting the All-Star Race — to capture his first series crown. It was his first championship in racing since he won the 2012 title in what is now the ARCA Menards Series East.

“I don’t know if there’s another race that could ever top this win here (Sunday), winning the Cup Series race at Phoenix for a championship,” Larson said. “It doesn’t get any bigger.”

The 2021 champions follow in what is becoming quite a line of first-time champs in a series.

Chase Elliott (Cup), Cindric (Xfinity) and Sheldon Creed (Trucks) each won their first series title last year.

In 2018, Joey Logano (Cup), Tyler Reddick (the first of back-to-back Xfinity crowns) and Brett Moffitt (Trucks) each won their first series title.

In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. (Cup), William Byron (Xfinity) and Christopher Bell (Trucks) each won their first series championship.

Since Jimmie Johnson won five consecutive titles from 2006-10, only two drivers have won multiple Cup titles. Johnson won additional crowns in 2013 and 2016. Kyle Busch, the only active driver with two Cup championships, won his titles in 2015 and 2019.

Part of the trend is because of NASCAR’s winner-take-all-format in the title race. The best finisher of the four contenders wins the championship. One race for the crown can mean chance plays a bigger role in the outcome.

Had it not been for a late debris caution, Larson would not have had the opportunity to go from fourth to first on the final pit stop.

A two-car crash sent the Xfinity race into overtime, giving Hemric one last chance to get by Cindric to win the race and title.

“I knew I could race Austin hard, aggressively, respectfully,” Hemric said. “That’s the way we’ve raced each other all year.”

There were no late cautions in the Truck race, but the key moment might have come on the first lap when John Hunter Nemechek, who won a series-high five races this season, got into the wall.

Contact with another truck led to a tire going down and dropping Nemechek two laps down. He made it back to the lead lap but was never a factor. Nemechek returns to Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series for 2022 and another shot at his first Truck title.

Nocturnal crew chief

Cup champion crew chief Cliff Daniels revealed that he didn’t get any sleep before Sunday’s Cup race.

That’s not new. He says he doesn’t sleep before any Cup race.

“You can ask my wife, and I promise you all the time she lectures me: ‘You have to get sleep, you have to get sleep,'” Daniels said. “I cannot sleep because I hold myself to a really high standard, and I think the folks around me know that.”

Daniels said he went to bed at 9 p.m. in Phoenix the night before the Cup title race, but he knew it would be pointless.

“I saw every hour, every single hour all the way until I got up at 6:30 (a.m.),” Daniels said. “Somewhere around 2 a.m., I got up, drank some water, kind of walked around.

We stay right over here where the (football and hockey) stadiums are. So I could see all the folks leaving after the hockey game, and they went out to the bars and stuff.

And I’m going to be honest, there’s some Bible devotionals that I read and watch and listen to, and did that in the middle of the night. And I knew that my anxiety that I’ve had all year long probably wasn’t warranted, but it’s still a real thing.

“So when Larson was like, ‘Man, you didn’t sleep last night?’ I was like, ‘Dude, I haven’t slept all year. So I’m right where I should be. It’s okay.’ He’s like, ‘Really? I didn’t know that.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I hide it from you. It’s okay.’

So, yeah, I never sleep the night before a Cup race. Probably never will. As long as he’s my driver. With Kyle Larson as your driver, you’re the weak link, not him. That’s the way I see it.”

Uncertain times

It was nearly 19 months ago when Kyle Larson lost his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing and was suspended by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online race.

While out of NASCAR, Larson spent time working to make amends and to mature. He also received a second chance to restart his NASCAR career when Hendrick Motorsports signed him.

“Eighteen months ago, I didn’t think that I was ever going to be in a Cup car again,” Larson said. “Strapping in for the Daytona 500 didn’t even seem real, let alone winning the championship.

“It’s definitely been a journey, a roller coaster. But I’m very thankful for my second chance and every opportunity I’ve been given in these last 18 months.

Life is a crazy thing, and you’ve just got to stay positive through it all, and everything will hopefully work out for you.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps praised Larson for his outreach since last year’s incident.

“I was so proud of how Kyle approached last season,” Phelps told NBC Sports. “He owned it. He went above and beyond to try to educate himself to learn to be a better person and he lives that now. You just see it. He’s true to everything he says. He’s authentic. I’m just so proud of him.”

NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation


NASCAR has docked Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club 60 points and five playoff points each, suspended crew chief Dave Elenz two races and fined him $75,000 for the L1 violation discovered this week at the R&D Center. The team was found to have modified the greenhouse.

The penalty drops Jones from 26th to 30th in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

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“We have been diligently working with NASCAR regarding the penalty and are working internally to determine the course of action in response,” said Joey Cohen, vice president, race operations for Legacy MC, in a statement. “We will announce that decision within the timeframe determined by the NASCAR Rule Book.”

Cohen will serve as interim crew chief during Elenz’s suspension.

Jones’ car was among those brought to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, after last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway.

NASCAR cited the team for violating:

Section 14.1.C: Vehicles must comply with Section 14 Vehicle and Driver Safety Specifications of the NASCAR Rule Book at all times during an Event. Failure to comply will be subject to Penalty pursuant to Section 10 Violations and Disciplinary Action.

Section 14.1.D: Except in cases explicitly permitted in the NASCAR Rules, installation of additional components, repairs, deletions, and/or modifications to Next Gen Single Source Vendor-supplied parts and/or assemblies will not be permitted.

Section 14.1.2.B: All parts and assemblies must comply with the NASCAR Engineering Change Log.

NASCAR also announced penalties Wednesday in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Crew chief Andrew Abbott has been fined $5,000, Young’s Motorsports has been penalized 25 points and Chris Hacker has been docked 25 points for a violation with the team’s window net.

Crew chief Charles Denike has been fined $2,500 for a lug nut not properly installed on Christian Eckes‘ truck for TRICON Garage.

Kamui Kobayashi to make NASCAR debut with 23XI Racing at Indy

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LE MANS, France (AP) — Left out of the NASCAR celebration at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota used Wednesday at the track to showcase its own stock car program and the upcoming Cup Series debut for one of the top racers in the world.

Kamui Kobayashi will make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Toyota in August driving for 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.

The announcement made Wednesday had several top NASCAR executives in attendance – including chairman Jim France – as Toyota found Le Mans to be the perfect backdrop to spotlight the one-race deal.

Toyota Gazoo, after all, has won Le Mans the last five consecutive years and Kobayashi, part of the 2021 winning effort, is team principal of the two-car organization that will try to make it six straight wins in the most prestigious endurance event in the world.

Toyota had initially felt jilted when NASCAR blindsided the industry last year by announcing it would bring its new Next Gen car to centenary Le Mans in a specialized category that showcases innovation, but the project was with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Toyota was the first rival NASCAR manufacturer to complain, and NASCAR has since tried to include all its partners in this weekend’s celebration and France signed off on holding the Kobayashi announcement at Le Mans.

It allowed Toyota to display the Camry it races in NASCAR; Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 in the Aug. 13 race. This will be the second race for the No. 67 car for 23XI Racing. Travis Pastrana finished 11th in the car at this year’s Daytona 500.

“We’ve been working on this assignment actually for a couple of years and Kamui has become a friend and we understood it was his dream one day to race in NASCAR,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, U.S.A. “With this great new Next Gen Toyota Camry TRD, the stars and planets started to align themselves and the next question became: Where should we announce this?

“It dawned on me with Kamui’s record of success, and being the team principal, to do it on this global stage at the biggest sports car race in the world.”

Kobayashi will be only the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR’s top Cup Series and only the fifth to race in one of NASCAR’s top three national series. Kobayashi will be the first driver from Japan to race in the Cup Series in a Toyota, which entered NASCAR’s top series in 2007.

“It’s my dream, actually,” Kobayashi told The Associated Press. “It’s such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category.

“But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers. Toyota has been in NASCAR a long time, but there has never been any Japanese drivers for Toyota. That’s also why I say I appreciate this opportunity for myself.”

Kobayashi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota in 2021 and hasn’t finished lower than third since 2018. He has six podium finishes in eight appearances in the iconic endurance race.

Toyota trails only Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche for most wins at Le Mans. Porsche holds the record with 19 victories.

Kobayashi in 2021, after winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title driving for Toyota Gazoo, was named team principal.

Kobayashi started his racing career karting in Japan but was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe. He was named one of Toyota’s reserve Formula One drivers and made his debut during the 2009 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He raced in F1 through 2014 with one podium finish in 75 career starts.

Following his F1 career, Kobayashi returned to Japan and switched to the Super Formula Series, a class he still actively competes in. He’s since won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and was the anchor on an IMSA endurance sports car team in the United States for two seasons that was formed by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Kobayashi loves racing in the United States, but IMSA’s adoption of new regulations to make its top class eligible to compete at Le Mans created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi’s Toyota responsibilities and continuing to race in IMSA, where Toyota is not represented in the top class. Toyota does field a Lexus in a lower IMSA division and Kobayashi raced for Vasser Sullivan Racing last June in Canada to get a feel for the GT car.

Many consider NASCAR’s Next Gen car to be very similar to the GT Lexus sports car that Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, and that’s his closest experience to driving a stock car. He’ll be permitted to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis, and expects some time on the simulator.

Either way, he isn’t worried about seat time.

“I think I’m a guy who doesn’t need much practice, to be honest,” the 36-year-old Kobayashi told the AP. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I’m not really concerned about form.”

Drivers to watch at Sonoma Raceway


This weekend begins a key period for Cup drivers. Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway begins a stretch of four road course events in the next 10 races. The race to make the playoffs and to score playoff points is intensifying.


Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 10th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Circuit of the Americas)
  • Past at Sonoma: Does not have a top 15 in two previous starts

Reddick has won three of the last five Cup races on road courses, but Sonoma has been his kryptonite. He has yet to lead a lap there. Reddick’s three road course wins have been at Road America, Indianapolis and COTA.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Fontana)
  • Past at Sonoma: Four top 10s, including a runner-up, in six starts

Elliott returns to the series after sitting out last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway due to suspension. He’s in a must-win situation to make the playoffs. Known for his prowess on road courses, Elliott’s last win at such a track came in 2021 at Road America. In the nine races at road courses since that win, Elliott has two runner-up finishes and six top 10s.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 7th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Fontana, Talladega I, WWT Raceway)
  • Past at Sonoma: Had six straight finishes of seventh or better before placing 30th last year

Busch is tied with William Byron for the most wins this season with three. Busch has placed in the top three in the last two road course races. He has led in five of the last seven Sonoma Cup races. He is a two-time Sonoma winner, taking the checkered flag in 2008 and ’15.


Denny Hamlin 

  • Points position: 8th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Kansas I)
  • Past at Sonoma: Five consecutive top 10s until finishing 31st last year

Hamlin has not had a top-10 finish at a road course in the Next Gen car. He has an 18.4 average finish at road courses since last season. His best finish at a road course in that time is 13th at the Charlotte Roval.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Dover)
  • Past at Sonoma: Two straight top-10 finishes

Chastain lost the points lead last weekend after his third consecutive finish outside the top 20. His fourth-place finish at Circuit of the Americas this season broke a streak of three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 at road courses.

Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best finish this season: 3rd (Talladega I)
  • Past at Sonoma: His runner-up finish last year was his first top 10 there in six starts

Until last year, Sonoma had not been kind to Buescher. He enters this weekend have scored six consecutive top 10s at road courses.

NASCAR Power Rankings: William Byron, Kyle Busch rank 1-2


Kyle Busch moved closer to the top spot after his win Sunday at WWT Raceway, but William Byron keeps hold of No. 1 after another top-10 run.

The series heads to Sonoma Raceway this weekend, the second race of the season on a road course.


(Previous ranking in parenthesis)

1. William Byron (1) — He goes into Sonoma with six consecutive top-10 finishes after his eighth-place result at WWT Raceway. Byron has led a series-high 717 laps this season.

2. Kyle Busch (4) — Recorded his third win of the season Sunday. He is tied with Byron for most wins this year. Busch scored 59 of a maximum 60 points and won his first stage of the year Sunday. He has 16 playoff points. Only Byron has more with 17 this season.

3. Kyle Larson (3) — His fourth-place finish continued his up-and-down season. In the last nine races, Larson has two wins, four top fives, a 20th-place result and four finishes of 30th or worse. He has led 588 laps this season, which ranks second this year to Byron.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (2) — His fifth-place finish is his sixth top 10 in the last eight races. He ranks third in laps led this year with 383.

5. Denny Hamlin (7) — Runner-up result at WWT Raceway is his fourth top 10 in the last seven races.

6. Ryan Blaney (10) — Followed Coca-Cola 600 win with a sixth-place run at WWT Raceway. He had an average running position of 2.6 on Sunday, second only to winner Kyle Busch’s average running position of 1.9.

7. Joey Logano (9) — Third-place finish is his second top 10 in the last four races.

8. Kevin Harvick (NR) — His 10th-place finish is his fourth consecutive finish of 11th or better.

9. Ross Chastain (6) — Lost the points lead after placing 22nd, his third consecutive finish outside the top 20.

10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (NR) — Headed for his eighth top 15 in a row until he was collected in a crash after the contact between Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon late in Sunday’s race.

Dropped out: Chase Elliott (5th), Tyler Reddick (8th)