Friday 5: Joe Gibbs Racing looks to revolutionize pit stops

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It’s not uncommon for teams to make changes to their pit crews before the start of a season, but Joe Gibbs Racing seems to have gone to an extreme.

It’s as if the organization wrote every pit crew member’s name on a sheet of paper, threw those papers in the air, and wherever the names landed, that became the pit crew for Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell and 23XI Racing’s Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace.

Only four of 20 pit crew members are on the same Joe Gibbs Racing team heading into Sunday’s Daytona 500 as they were in last year’s season finale at Phoenix. To compare, Hendrick Motorsports has only one pit crew change from the lineups it had at Phoenix last year to Daytona this season among its four teams. 

JGR’s change comes as the Next Gen car transforms the sport, including pit road. The tires have a center lug nut instead of five lugs and that’s changed the thinking, at least at Joe Gibbs Racing, about how to assemble a pit crew.

Previously, tire changers needed to remove the five lug nuts in less than a second to be among the best. With only one lug on the wheel, the focus turns to how the athlete moves from pit wall to the car, gets up after changing the tire and moves around the car to the other side. 

Over 10 months, Joe Gibbs Racing mixed-and-matched pit crew members and had them practice three days a week at the shop with the single-lug nut wheel. The stops were taped, analyzed and dissected. 

Chris Hall, director of player advancement at Joe Gibbs Racing, said the pit stops were “broken down into 100 time-stamped intervals” to study each athlete’s action. JGR partnered with a biomechanics company that specializes in movement and measures the force and displacement of the athletes. 

Say what?

Hall put it into a racer’s terms.

“We’re measuring the shocks and sway bars of our athletes,” he said.

They do it by measuring how an athlete moves laterally and their vertical jump, for example. By measuring various aspects of what each crew member does well, JGR can build a model of the optimal athlete for each position. 

“That kind of helps us in our recruiting efforts find guys who fall into these bubbles,” said Hall, who was a tire carrier on Truex’s 2017 championship team. “If you fall within a threshold of a bonafide top-three jackman in the sport, chances are you’re a hit. 

“(Data) is such a big part of our work. … The best guy plays. It’s all based off the work you put in practice, it’s the work you put in the gym and it’s what our models and biomechanical assessments say about you. 

“It’s really all these pillars we’re trying to build. Honestly, it’s about the system we’re putting in place at Joe Gibbs Racing.”

That system showed the JGR coaching staff how to mix and match their crew members. 

Hamlin’s team has only the same fueler as last year. Same for Truex’s pit crew. Bell has five new pit crew members with their experience ranging from rear tire changer Daniel Olszowy, who is making his first Daytona 500 start this weekend, to jackman T.J. Ford, who started as a pit crew member at Dale Earnhardt Inc. Kyle Busch’s team has three new pit crew members this year. 

“We always want people chasing us,” Hall said. “That bleeds through all of our company, but especially on pit road. 

“You’ll hear all the time — and it will drive me insane — ‘If we can come down pit road and not lose any track position.’ That’s not our philosophy. We come down pit road looking for blood. We’re ready to take advantage of teams that aren’t as prepared as we are and hope to capitalize on that any chance that we get.”

It also means the team is looking for new ways to service the car. Joe Gibbs Racing gave a sneak peak on social media recently to what is in store next month.

Starting March 20 at Atlanta, NASCAR will allow all pit crews to jump off the wall in front of the car. Currently, the rear tire changer must wait for the car to get into its stall and go around the back of the car. In that format, one crew member changes both rear tires and one changes both front tires. 

JGR has found it is more effective to have all five crew members jump off the pit wall in front of the car. The tire changer on the right front goes around the car to the left rear to change that tire instead of going to the left front. The crew member that changes right rear tire goes around to the left front.

It all looks good on paper. Now it has to work at the track.

2. Changing times

As teams prepared for the 2020 Daytona 500 — the last time this race was sold out before Sunday — there was no dirt race on the schedule, no race on Easter, only three road courses for Cup (instead of six) and series officials had only started the process to run the Clash inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The change has been swift and significant. 

The Clash at the Coliseum was a success with TV numbers and attendance that made series officials happy. While NASCAR has not stated if it will exercise the option to return the event there next year, it seems a good bet that the Clash will be back there. 

Those moves by NASCAR  — along with the debut of the Next Gen car this season — has energized the sport.

“I think the moves on the schedule have been a huge success,” RFK Racing co-owner Brad Keselowski said. “You could maybe argue long overdue. I am really happy to see the changes we have made and eagerly anticipating changes we will make to the schedule for years to come. 

“I think it drives an energy into our sport that is critical for our sustainability and success. If that comes with expense to the team along the way — and I think I can say this as a team owner now — we need to just suck it up and make it work. 

“When you look at those costs, they aren’t nothing without a doubt, but they are nowhere close to even more than 1 or 2 percent of our budget. I try not to sweat it.”

Among the changes this year to the schedule is putting the dirt race at Bristol on Easter, a holiday the sport traditionally did not race.

“There are a lot of people that are probably frustrated over racing on Easter in the garage area, but that is one of the biggest TV weekends for sports, so it made sense to me from that perspective,” Keselowski said. “I think we have a lot of good things going on, more good than bad than I have seen in my time at the Cup level which is 12 or 13 years now.

“There is a lot of reason for excitement, and I think we are on an upward trend and a big part of that starts with schedule variability that we really hadn’t had five or six years ago. It isn’t the only thing we have to be excited about but it is certainly one of the high tides for sure.”

Of course, one of the biggest changes is the new car, which is intended to lower barrier to entry for owners by having more parts provided by vendors instead of built by teams.

The result is that Sunday’s Daytona 500 will feature cars owned by Michael Jordan (23XI Racing), Pitbull (Trackhouse Racing) and famed boxer Floyd Mayweather (The Money Team Racing). None was in the sport in 2020.

“If you sit still, you get passed,” Joey Logano said. “It is like that on the race track and in life. If you get comfortable because it worked in the past, someone is figuring out how to get better. 

“On top of that, society is just changing and everything is moving along and technology changes, and if you don’t try to keep up with it, you get old and slow. We can’t let that happen. We have to keep moving forward and finding the next thing. I think we have done that over the last few years.”

3. Keep an eye on …

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said this week that he thinks Tyler Reddick will be a driver to watch.

“I think Tyler Reddick is going to have an amazing season,” Larson said. “I think he’s been the best car at all the tests. I think he showed last week at the Clash that he is really good.”

Reddick started second in the Clash after winning his heat race. His Clash came to an end when he had a prop shaft failure while leading the event.

With the Next Gen car featuring a composite body, the car can take more of an impact. For a driver like Reddick, who is known to run along the wall, that could be key. The previous car was prone to have the fender bend and cut a tire when the car hit the wall or another vehicle. 

Last year, Reddick put a focus on road courses after struggling on those in 2020. He went on to win the pole at Circuit of the Americas last year and finish ninth. He placed eighth at Road America and was second at the Charlotte Roval.

He used those offseason lessons to guide him this offseason in an effort to further improve.

“I feel when I watch him, I am watching myself just because we are both really aggressive,” Larson said of Reddick. “He seems to be even a little more aggressive and kind of keep things in control better than I could back when I was running really hard in Ganassi equipment trying to run up front.”

“He’s the guy that I look at this year that I feel like is going to have the breakout season and win a lot of races.”

4. Still paying dividends 

A year after Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500, that victory is making an impact for Front Row Motorsports.

One of the biggest benefits is how teams are paid. Part of their payment from each race is based on where the team finished in points the past three seasons. McDowell’s win put him in the playoffs and he finished 16th. General Manager Jerry Freeze told NBC Sports that without the win, the team would have been 23rd in points last year.

That difference, likely to be seven figures, is key as teams are faced with the expense of switching to the Next Gen car.

Freeze also said the win helped with sponsorship, saying the No. 34 team is in a better place than it has been.

“We’ve been able to get more response out of it we previously ever did,” he said. “I think it just gave Front Row Motorsports, Michael McDowell, more recognition with other marketers and other industries that maybe aren’t NASCAR savvy.”

Freeze said that only three races remain unsold on McDowell’s car this year.

But there is more than a financial benefit.

“The impact from Daytona, I feel as much, is just attitude of guys in the shop, that we can win a race against these guys,” Freeze said.

He noted the hiring of crew chief Blake Harris, who had been the car chief at Joe Gibbs Racing for Martin Truex Jr.’s team.

“I don’t know if the guy would have even considered us if we hadn’t proven we could win a race,” Freeze said.

5. Racing the boss

While Bubba Wallace is familiar with racing his boss, Denny Hamlin, last season, it will be a new experience for Chris Buescher, who is a teammate to team co-owner Brad Keselowski at RFK Racing.

Both Keselowski and Buescher seek their first Daytona 500 win, but both won their qualifying races Thursday night.

Keselowski was in position to win last year’s race before contact with teammate Joey Logano wrecked them and others on the last lap of the race, allowing Michael McDowell to win.

Buescher, whose best finish at in the 500 is third in 2020, was asked this week if he would feel comfortable moving Keselowski for the win.

“At the end of the day, for the 500, or for any race, I think I have told him that I will take a shot, but I am not going to wreck my teammate, and I am definitely not going to wreck my boss,” Buescher said. “I think you have to race hard, right? You want to be running 1-2 and have the opportunity to put the cars 1-2 across the line.”

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.

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.