Dale Jr: Buckle up! Here’s what to look for in the Daytona 500

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EDITOR’S NOTE: NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr., a two-time Daytona 500 champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer, drove the Next Gen car during a two-day test at Daytona in January. He shares his thoughts about the challenges drivers could face in Sunday’s Daytona 500 with the new car.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Think about this. You’ve been a brain surgeon for years, and right before surgery, somebody walks in and hands you new instruments that you’ve never used and you must use them in the next operation. That would be a little unsettling. 

That, in a way, is what NASCAR Cup drivers face in racing the Next Gen car in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Drivers are in a completely different car that reacts differently in the draft than what they’ve run for years. They have to be willing to go to class and take notes as they run. Some drivers will be real stubborn and try to keep forcing the same sort of effects and techniques that don’t really apply anymore. 

The way I would handle this and figure out the side draft would be like putting your foot in the water. You go a little in and then a little more. Just like the draft. You try a little of the side draft. As it works, you try a little more to understand what the car and the air will do. You are going to be learning about this car all the way through the 500, into the Talladega race in the spring, and Daytona later in the year. You’re going to be learning all year.

One thing that has stood out so far is that it looks like the Fords tandem draft very well. They can push in the corners. They can push in the straightaways. I don’t know that the Toyota or the Chevrolet drivers are that comfortable with the way their bumpers work to do that.

You don’t want to go into this race feeling like you have a handicap. The tandem for the Chevrolets, when we were trying to do it at the January test at Daytona, was quite uncomfortable. The lead car was getting steered around very easily like a forklift. The bumpers just don’t match and tries to turn and tries to upset the car in front while the Ford nose is very flat. The tail pieces are very flat, and they can actually push in the corner.

If you are a Ford guy, you’ve got to be happy about that advantage. Those are the type of things that will give you some heartache and cause you to lose a little sleep at night if you are in a different car.

NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2 at Daytona
Fords have been strong this week at Daytona. Joey Logano (22) led Chris Buescher (17), Michael McDowell (34) and Harrison Burton (21) late in their qualifying race Thursday. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Another thing to watch is how much drag these cars have. I noticed that in the test. I came off the gas pedal just a little bit to wait on what was happening around me and almost nearly lost the draft. With that much drag, it is like you are fighting a headwind all the time.

For the guy at the very tail end of the line, they are almost in panic mode for fear of losing the draft. It seems like, especially when the Fords are in front, they can push in tandem. They can drop these guys off the back of the draft, and they see that. They got out of their cars after the Duels and said to each other: “Hey did you see that happening? Let’s try to do that in the race. Let’s try to make that a race amongst ourselves.”

What we’re seeing reminds me kind of the package we ran in 2004, ’05 and ’06 when you could have separation. You can have guys that are lost off the back of the draft. In ’04 when I won it, Tony Stewart and I were by ourselves for a good chunk of the end of the race. Those guys never got a chance to get back to us under caution or anything, so they never got a chance to race us for the win. That’s a real possibility this year.

With that possible, getting on and off pit road is going to be critical because of how draggy the car is. If you get off pit road and you give up 50 yards or 100 yards to a pack of cars, you most likely aren’t going to be with those cars anymore. Getting on to pit road, getting off pit road, the pit stop itself under green flag conditions are probably more critical than it has been in the past. 

Something else I would do before Sunday’s 500 would be to talk to my spotter after seeing Joey Logano’s crash in the Duels and hearing Logano say that the run behind him was quicker than he thought. I’d talk to my spotter about the air bubble between cars. Previously, the air bubble slowed your progress before you burst through to get the car’s rear bumper while running nose-to-tail. Now, it’s easier to get through the air bubble and that makes the runs quicker.

I would tell my spotter: “Hey, it’s a new ballgame. We’ve got to be on our toes. The runs are coming out of thin air, and that bubble that I depended on to sort of give me a little time to process the runs coming is no longer there.”

NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2 at Daytona
What the spotter sees and how quickly they convey that to drivers will be a key in Sunday’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Another thing to watch is the rack-and-pinion steering, which is new with this car. Now, you don’t turn the wheel much at all in the corners. 

I was talking to William Byron at the Daytona test in January, and I asked William: “When you get into situations in that race and you’ve got to make a move on the steering wheel, how are you going to learn that you need almost half as much?”

With your muscle memory and years of experience, your instant reaction is going to be to turn the wheel way more. That’s going to get you in big trouble because you’re going to do too much with the steering wheel and run into another car or spin yourself out. 

He said he felt that same concern and anxiety, but he’s tested the car enough and he’s got himself in enough situations where he’s starting to develop muscle memory and how to use the rack-and-pinion steering in bad situations. 

Look at a lot of these other guys that have not been in a bad situation yet. There’s a couple of guys that haven’t tested this car much. They haven’t gotten sideways. They haven’t  been in a situation with this car and this steering rack. They’re going to be in that situation for the very first time at some point this weekend, and I think that’s when we’re going to see big problems and that would keep me up at night on Saturday.

So what will the race be like? 

If you’ve ever been to a haunted house or haunted trail with your friends, when you all start out everybody is like, “You go first. I ain’t going.” Everybody is taking baby steps waiting on something to jump out and scare the hell out of you. As you go through the house or the trail, your pace picks up a little bit. You start to enjoy it even as you’re getting the hell scared out of you. 

I think that’s the way the drivers will be in the race. As the race goes on, the comfort level rises, their confidence rises and this car, which feels foreign to them, it is all going to start making sense. Then the driver and the car kind of become one.

So buckle up and enjoy what these drivers are about to do in Sunday’s race. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated his second Daytona 500 win in 2014. Who will be celebrating after this year’s Daytona 500? (Photo by Jim Fluharty/NASCAR Illustrated/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

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.

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 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.”

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

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Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

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Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.