Friday 5: More Cup drivers look to run races outside of NASCAR in 2022


Team owners are allowing — and even encouraging — their drivers to compete in races outside of NASCAR this year after Kyle Larson did so and won the Cup championship last season.

The result is that fans should have more chances to see Cup drivers at local tracks this year. 

Owners, who once were not in favor of their drivers racing outside of NASCAR due to the risk of injury, recognize how little track time Cup drivers get. Cup practice is limited, and rules restrict how many Xfinity and Camping World Truck races Cup drivers can run. Even with simulation and iRacing, there’s nothing like actually racing, no matter the vehicle.

“When I think of somebody that spends as much time in a race car as possible, trying to learn and trying to get better, (Larson) has got everybody beat by a lot,” Tyler Reddick told NBC Sports. “You could probably add the amount of lap time or track time that he has and you could probably throw five or six other drivers together and you wouldn’t still get the amount he has. He’s just raced so much.”

Larson, who won 10 Cup races last season, said he has “a little bit more racing” on his schedule this year compared to a year ago. His Cup title completed one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history. He also won the Chili Bowl Nationals midget race, the Knoxville Nationals and Kings Royal sprint car races and the Prairie Dirt Classic late model race in 2021.

“I race so much, and I openly talk about how it makes me a better race car driver and then to have the results on the Cup side has, I think, definitely convinced some owners that it works,” Larson told NBC Sports about running multiple series. “They probably want their drivers to do a little bit more.”

Among other drivers following Larson’s path:

  • Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman says he looks to run a sprint car “30 to 35 times” and also might run a pavement midget “a little bit” this year after running select races last year.
  • Chase Briscoe, who said he ran two dirt races last year, plans to run 15-25 dirt races this year.
  • Justin Haley, who has a dirt modified team, says team owner Matt Kaulig has encouraged him to run 30-40 races this season. 
  • William Byron looks to run select Super Late Model races to prepare for a possible run in the Snowball Derby this year.
  • Former Cup champion Chase Elliott said he’s not sure how much he’ll run outside NASCAR this year but has “a couple of things that I’m working on.”
  • Ryan Blaney said he could “venture out a little bit” with Team Penske softening its stance on its drivers competing in races outside of NASCAR.
Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson, shown in a midget car, is proving to car owners that Cup drivers can compete in other events and still be successful in NASCAR’s premier series. (Photo: Kyle Larson)

Cup drivers look to race more because of how little time they spend in their cars. 

Only six of the 36 Cup points races will have extended practice this season. There will be no practice at both Talladega races and the August Daytona race. Teams will get 15 minutes of practice at all other ovals and 20 minutes of practice at road courses. 

Cup drivers with three or more years experience in the series are limited to no more than five Xfinity and five Truck races a season. Cup drivers are not permitted to run the final eight races in Xfinity and Trucks and other select races in each series.

Elliott, who ran midgets, sprints, the Rolex 24 and the SRX race at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway last year, said even though many of those cars are unlike his Cup ride, driving them can prove valuable. 

“Just seeing new challenges, seeing things that you’ve never seen before, car tendencies, and just those fine details it takes to be successful in different disciplines,” Elliott told NBC Sports of the benefits of competing in various cars.

“I feel like that learning curve of getting there is helpful. As these (Cup) cars change this year, you might have just learned one little spec of something in a different car that might translate. There you go. You’re a step ahead.”

Every driver seeks any advantage with the debut of the Next Gen car this season. There are few similarities between the new car and last year’s car. Drivers have had only a few test sessions to learn the vehicle before the season begins. Next week’s organizational test at Phoenix is the final one before Cup teams begin racing.

Alex Bowman at Chili Bowl during hot laps. (Photo: Alex Bowman)

Bowman told NBC Sports that he looks to do more sprint car races to “get outside my comfort zone and hopefully make myself a better race car driver for Sundays.”

“Staying in the seat the most I possibly can, I think, can only help you for Sundays. Winged (sprint) cars are so fast that I think it somewhat slows things down when you get back in a Cup car.”

While Team Penske’s philosophy has been to restrict its drivers on what they race beyond NASCAR, Walt Czarnecki, vice chairman, said this month that the organization is open to races that will help its drivers.

“I think you’re going to see a couple of our drivers, perhaps, participating in other series,” he said. “It will help them, I believe, in developing those skills for some of the new venues that we’re going to, going back to dirt.

“I know it was interesting to watch Joey Logano last year run in a super modified race. … It was quite a whole new experience for him, but it really benefited him when they went to Bristol, so we’ll pick and choose and work with the drivers.  

“We want to be flexible. We want to give them opportunities to expand their skill set. Is Ryan Blaney going to be running full-time in the World of Outlaws? I don’t think so, but there will be opportunities that will present themselves.”

Blaney and Logano have both said they’d like to race more, but both don’t have any firm plans at this time. Team Penske’s Austin Cindric will team with Wood Brothers Racing’s Harrison Burton in the four-hour Michelin Pilot Challenge on Jan. 28 at Daytona International Speedway. Cindric also will compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the GTD Pro Class on Jan. 29-30.

Byron will branch out more beyond his Hendrick Motorsports ride this year. He plans to run six to eight Super Late Model events, including a 100-lap race at New Smyrna (Florida) Speedway a week before the Daytona 500. He will run some karting events to help him with road courses. Byron also might find himself racing on dirt, something Larson has talked to him about.

Justin Haley, shown driving his dirt modified car, says car owner Matt Kaulig has encouraged him to run more races beyond NASCAR this season. (Photo: Justin Haley)

Racing beyond NASCAR — and having success — could prove helpful on Cup weekends in various ways.

“Getting in the dirt car and going out and winning a feature boosts my morale,” said Haley, who moves to Kaulig Racing this season. “I think that’s why they want me to do it. 

“If I’m at a dirt track, I’m usually in a pretty good mood and having a good time with a bunch of my buddies. It’s just laid back, relaxed racing. I think (Kaulig Racing President) Chris Rice and (team owner) Matt Kaulig, not only want me to be successful but also really care about my personal attitude.”

One of the major concerns about racing outside of NASCAR is the chance for injury. Santino Ferrucci, who ran select Xfinity races last year, said he suffered a “minor concussion” in a flip at the Chili Bowl earlier this month. Elliott was uninjured in a separate flip. 

Those incidents were at a quarter-mile track. It’s understandable that a car owner could be concerned with losing a driver for a Cup race or more because of an injury suffered in another series.

“The risk is always there,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “You could get hurt driving down the interstate.”

Briscoe will start his season competing in the Jan. 28 Michelin Pilot Challenge at Daytona, sharing his ride with Truck Series driver Hailie Deegan. That’s just part of what Briscoe hopes will be a busy season that could include midgets, wing sprint cars, non-wing sprint cars, dirt late models and a pavement late model.

“I think more owners see it makes their drivers happier and makes their drivers better,” Briscoe said of the extra racing. “The past couple of years, with no practice and no qualifying, they have to find a way to let their drivers have seat time. That’s opened the door for us to do things.”

It’s not just owners backing drivers. Sponsors are starting to follow along. Ally sponsored Bowman when he ran a few sprint car races last year and at this year’s Chili Bowl. 

Mahindra Tractors, which signed a multi-year deal to be a primary sponsor for Briscoe in Cup beginning this season, also sponsored his midget at the Chili Bowl this year.

“They flat out told me last week at Chili Bowl, ‘If you feel like you need to go run more dirt races to be better on Sunday, then we’re going to support that,’’’ Briscoe said of his sponsor. “As a race car driver that’s huge to have that support.”

2. Chili Bowl bound?

Earlier this month, seven drivers who ran full-time in Cup last year competed at the Chili Bowl Nationals: Christopher Bell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman, Larson, Elliott, Bowman and Briscoe. Bell led the contingent, finishing second in the main event to Tanner Thorson.

Bell, though, could have a Joe Gibbs Racing teammate join him at the Chili Bowl some day.

Former Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. says he’d like to run a midget and possibly compete in a future Chili Bowl. 

Drivers said Richmond
Martin Truex Jr. would like to race a midget car. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I played around in a midget with Toyota last summer,” Truex told NBC Sports. “Had a friggin’ blast. I’m definitely going to race one of those cars one day. 

“Bell, he tried to talk me into the Chili Bowl. I kind of procrastinated too long. I would love to race one of those cars one of these days. Preferably a small track (like the quarter-mile track at the Chili Bowl). I’d like to get a little more experience before I go to that race with 400 cars.”

So what is it about racing a midget car that is so alluring to the 2017 Cup champion?

“Just watched midget racing for years,” Truex said. “I remember growing up watching Thursday Night Thunder from (Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park). Just always intrigued by them and watched them.

And when he got into a midget car for the first time last year?

“It was like throwing a duck into the water,” Truex said. “I just got in there and went. It felt really good. I definitely want to do some more of that.”

3. Fighting chance

Harrison Burton quickly realized that he was not well prepared to fight when he got into an altercation with Noah Gragson after the July 2020 Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway.

Gragson and Burton raced for fourth in the final laps when the cars made contact and hit the wall. They both continued, falling outside the top five.

After the race, they had a heated conversation before Burton shoved Gragson a second time and Gragson responded by punching Burton.

It was after that experience that Burton said he began to do mixed martial arts training.

“It was the first time I had ever been in a real fight, and I was like ‘What the heck do I do?’ Burton told NBC Sports. “I tackled him and he tried to take my head off with a punch. So, that was why, but now it’s become a training tool, and it’s something that I just enjoy doing.”

Burton, who enters his rookie Cup season with Wood Brothers Racing, said mixed martial arts has helped prepare him for the longer Cup races.

“I’ve found it’s more similar to racing than I thought it would be because you’re tired, you’re focusing on things that are happening really quick, have to happen right now and it’s become kind of a really great tool,” Burton said.

There’s motivation not to lose focus when training.

“You better not mess up or you’re going to get punched in the face,” he said.

At some point, Burton would like to attend a UFC fight to see how those athletes handle fighting. And maybe pick up a thing or two. As for Gragson, Burton says no worries.

“Noah and I are fine now,” Burton said.

4. Ready to go

Bubba Wallace is set to take part in next week’s organizational test at Phoenix Raceway, marking the first time he will test the Next Gen car since a test at the Charlotte Roval in October. 

Wallace had shoulder surgery after the Cup season in November and missed two Next Gen tests at the Charlotte oval and the Daytona test earlier this month. 23XI Racing teammate Kurt Busch drove the car at those tests and at a tire test earlier this month at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500
Bubba Wallace says he is “100%” after having shoulder surgery in the offseason. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Wallace told NBC Sports that he’s “100%” after having surgery for a torn labrum.

“Just aching after races last year,” he said. “Just getting that out of the way was good. Just wear and tear from my career. I haven’t had anything dramatic to it.”

Although he didn’t test at Daytona, Wallace, who scored his first Cup win last fall at Talladega, kept up with the session and how the car drove.

“Just hearing feedback from so many guys that were a part of the test,” he said. “They said it wasn’t too much different, but I think, as a whole, the car is a little bit of a handful to drive, which is good. It puts it back in our hands. 

“So, it will be the best of the best going at it. So, we’ll see how some of my speedway tactics pan out with the new car.”

5. A new feeling

Since announcing this month that he will retire from full-time Cup racing after this season, Aric Almirola said he’s heard from a number of people.

“So many people just happy for me,” Almirola told NBC Sports. “Some people jealous. Some people wondering what the heck I’m doing. Why would you walk away from the sport you love and you make good money doing it? I’ve had every range of questions and emotions but overwhelmingly positive and people extremely supportive. 

Aric Almirola
This year will be Aric Almirola’s 11th and final full-time Cup season. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

“From my seat, I am just excited. I am free. I feel so free that I’m going into this season, and I know it’s my last one.

“I’m not racing to hang on to my job, to hang on to my career. I’m not racing and trying to fly all over this country to appease sponsors and corporate partners to make sure they’ll continue on for one more year. It is a very freeing feeling knowing that I’m going to race this year purely for the joy and love of it.”

But the Stewart-Haas Racing driver also makes clear that he has some work left before he climbs out of the car for a final time at Phoenix in November.

“I am competitive just through and through, so this is not a ride around, farewell tour, collect a paycheck and just cruise,” he said. “I’m going to get after it.

“I am going to race my heart out, and I would love nothing more to have a quote-unquote drop the mic season where I win several races and race for a championship.”

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


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)