Drivers to watch for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas

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For now, things are wide-open in the NASCAR Cup Series as everyone continues to unlock the secrets of the new Next Gen car.

Nineteen different drivers have posted a top-10 finish over the first two races of the season.

Next up is Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which has seen several drivers become familiar faces at the front. But with the new car comes the potential for newcomers to join them.

Our list of drivers to watch for Las Vegas includes perennial Vegas favorites and others who haven’t had much luck there, but do have momentum going into Sunday.

FRONT RUNNERS

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 10th
  • Finishes in first two races: Ninth – Daytona 500; 27th – Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: 12 finishes of seventh or better in last 13 Las Vegas races, including three wins (2014, 2016, Sept. 2018)

Multiple spins prevented Keselowski from getting a solid result last week, but the new driver/co-owner at RFK Racing has run well to start the year. That gives him confidence in maintaining his successful record in Las Vegas, which he achieved as a member of Team Penske.

“I know we didn’t have the finishing position to show for it in Fontana, but I felt good about where we unloaded in terms of speed,” Keselowski said this week. “We definitely have something to build from coming out of there, and Vegas for me is a place I feel confident at, and one I’ve had some great success at over the years.

“As I have said all along, this will be a slow grind to get to where we want to be, and this weekend is yet another opportunity to continue that.”

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: Eighth
  • Finishes in first two races: 32nd (DNF) – Daytona 500; WIN – Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: Seven top-10 finishes in last eight Las Vegas races (missed Sept. 2020 race – indefinite suspension), including March 2021 win

Coming off victory at Auto Club, Larson visits the track where he earned his first win with Hendrick Motorsports — an early but important piece of his epic 2021 season.

Larson has now claimed five of the last seven points-paying Cup races. He stands a good chance to make it six for eight at Las Vegas, which has been solid for him throughout much of his Cup career. His average finish there of 9.8 (11 starts) is eclipsed only by Joey Logano‘s 8.6 (17 starts) and Ryan Blaney‘s 8.8 (11 starts).

And lest we forget, 1.5-mile tracks like Las Vegas were Larson’s bread and butter in his 2021 title run. Over nine races last season on 1.5-mile tracks, Larson won four of them and led 1,317 laps (most all-time on that track type).

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: Third
  • Finishes in first two races: 13th – Daytona 500 and Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: Eight straight finishes of eighth or better in last nine Las Vegas races, including two wins (March 2017, Sept. 2019)

Among drivers without a top-10 finish so far in 2022, Truex is highest in the standings. That’s largely because of his overall performance at Daytona, which included 25 stage points (20 from his two Daytona 500 stage wins, five from his Duel qualifier).

Looking ahead to Las Vegas, Truex has been one of the most consistent drivers there. But the new Next Gen car presents a wild card.

“There’s usually not a ton that you can take from Fontana to Vegas because of the difference in the track surface and the banking,” Truex said this week. “Overall, we were pretty happy with our car to start the race last week and we were moving up through there until I got into the wall.

“After that, it wasn’t very good, but I was excited about the way we started and the moves I was able to make, so that gives me confidence going into this weekend.”

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Aric Almirola

  • Points position: Seventh
  • Finishes in first two races: Fifth – Daytona 500; Sixth – Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: Five straight finishes of 13th or worse … Career-best finish of sixth, Sept. 2018

A classic case of “something has to give.” Almirola has started his final full-time season as the lone driver to post top-10 finishes in both races, but now comes to one of his worst tracks.

He’s only had three top-10 finishes in 17 Cup starts at Las Vegas, the most recent top 10 coming in March 2019 (seventh). Maybe his luck will change with the new Next Gen car?

“I think this new car offers that opportunity,” Almirola said this week. “I’ve always struggled a bit at Vegas and moving around on the racetrack. It’s a very unique track so, for me, going there with new everything gives us plenty of opportunities to perform at a high level and keep this momentum going.

“We also have to be patient and understand that these cars are going to behave differently and we have to take every single data point we have to make it better and be there at the end.”

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 21st
  • Finishes in first two races: 35th (DNF) – Daytona 500; 24th – Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: Earned career-best finish at Las Vegas last September, finishing sixth … Had finished 18th or worse in his three prior Cup starts there

Reddick was hard done last week at Auto Club, leading a race-high 90 laps before a flat tire and run-in with William Byron ended his chances of winning. If he and the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing team carry over their performance on the track and pit road, could they threaten again?

For his part, Reddick believes Las Vegas is positioned to race much like Auto Club did.

“Same type of situation, I think,” Reddick said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Barely on in runs, you’re gonna see cars able to run all three lanes fairly early on and be able to make lanes work for their cars. You’re gonna have to be able to run all three lanes in a lot of different points in the run — early run, middle of the run, at the end of the run. I think it’ll be a lot like Fontana.”

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 30th
  • Finishes in first two races: 37th (DNF) – Daytona 500; 15th – Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: Three straight top-five finishes (including his Sept. 2021 win) and 305 laps led (38% of the total laps run) during that span

Hamlin should be a frontrunner considering his recent work in Las Vegas, and as the winner last time out at Las Vegas, he was always going to be one to watch.

But he returns in a big points hole after he was collected in a crash at the season-opening Daytona 500. Last week at Auto Club, overheating issues, a late-race speeding penalty and a final-lap brush of the wall marred his race.

Can he avoid a third straight subpar finish to open 2022?

“We definitely have room for improvement,” Hamlin said this week. “I felt like our (car) was good and the pit crew was incredible last weekend (at Auto Club), but we need to be better to get over that hump to run in the top five.

“It seemed like we could get up to around sixth and we kind of stalled out there. Overall, I think there were some positives that we can build on, and as a group, I feel like we learned a lot that will help us moving forward.”

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.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

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.