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

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The top teams in NASCAR are still finding their way to Victory Lane to open the 2022 Cup Series season.

This week, Phoenix Raceway poses a unique challenge, as teams visit the 1-mile oval for the first of two races this year. The other, of course, is the title-deciding race during championship weekend in November, forcing teams to put more emphasis on Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox) as they continue to learn the Next Gen car.

Who should be expected at the head of the pack as the West Coast Swing winds to a close? And who needs their luck to turn around after just three races?

FRONT RUNNERS

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: First
  • Finishes in first three races: 32nd (DNF) — Daytona 500; WIN — Auto Club Speedway; Second — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Six straight finishes of seventh or better at Phoenix (missed Nov. 2020 race, suspension), including November 2021 victory.

A runner-up finish last week at Las Vegas makes Larson the only driver with two top-five finishes in 2022. He heads back to Phoenix for the first time since winning his first Cup championship in November.

His recent Phoenix numbers have been phenomenal, even before he climbed into Hendrick Motorsports’ top-tier equipment. Larson has four top fives in his last five Phoenix races and has scored points in 13 of his 18 stages there, including two stage victories.

Larson’s performance here last spring was admittedly not stellar — ninth in Stage 1, 13th in Stage 2, led one lap and finished seventh after two separate speeding penalties — but he and crew chief Cliff Daniels clearly learned enough to come back and claim the title eight months later.

Let’s not forget that Larson has also won five of the last eight races. The No. 5 team is still the hottest in NASCAR.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: Second
  • Finishes in first three races: 13th — Daytona 500 and Auto Club Speedway; Eighth — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Five top-10 finishes in last six races, including top-two finishes in both 2021 events.

Truex is the defending race winner this week, the latest triumph in a long stretch of excellence at Phoenix. Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 2019, Truex has three top-two finishes in six Phoenix races. He seemed poised to collect his second Cup championship in November, leading teammate Denny Hamlin through what looked to be the final run. But a caution with 30 laps to go — followed by the pit stop of a lifetime by Larson’s team — thwarted that path to the title and instead finished second.

The task is to continue this run of success this weekend. Truex believes the January test provided plenty data to lean on entering this week.

“We felt like we learned a ton at the test that hopefully gives us an idea of what we need to bring back,” Truex said in a release. “That was our first time on a smaller, flatter track in these cars, so we really went to work on trying as many things as possible that we can use and build on throughout the year.”

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: Seventh
  • Finishes in first three races: 10th — Daytona 500; 26th — Auto Club Speedway; Ninth — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Three straight top fives at Phoenix including 2020 title win.

Elliott is a contender every time NASCAR rolls into Arizona. The 2020 champion has four consecutive top-seven finishes to accompany his top-five streak and has scored points in 18 of the 20 stages at Phoenix.

The No. 9 team tops the series in average running position at 8.190, according to NASCAR’s loop data statistics, barely edging nine-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick.

Elliott has shown speed in every race this season, including a fierce battle for the lead at Auto Club Speedway with 20 laps to go before contact from teammate Kyle Larson. Hendrick Motorsports has also won each of the last two races with Larson and Alex Bowman. Another top five from Elliott seems probable this weekend.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 30th
  • Finishes in first three races: 37th (DNF) — Daytona 500; 15th — Auto Club Speedway; 32nd (DNF) — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Five top fives in last six races, including a 2019 win that sent him to the Championship 4.

Hamlin is off to the worst start of his career after three races, holding an average finish of 28.0 and sitting 30th in points. The last time Hamlin began with an average finish even close to this was 2008, his third full-time season when he began the year with a 22.3 average.

The good news for Hamlin is that Phoenix is next, a track at which he has excelled lately. In addition to his recent top-five accumulation, Hamlin has finished fourth or better in each of the last three Phoenix contests. In last year’s title race, Hamlin qualified third, finished fourth in Stage 1, finished third in Stage 2 and ultimately finished third after leading 33 laps.

So maybe a bad start can be wiped away with a strong run Sunday at Phoenix.

“Everyone on the team is very confident,” Hamlin said in a press release. “We know what we’re capable of and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota are doing a great job giving us cars capable of running up front. It’s just a matter of getting to the finish without anything crazy happening and unfortunately, that has been easier said than done so far. At the end of the day, we just have to go out and execute and we’ll be fine.”

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 16th
  • Finishes in first three races: 30th (DNF) — Daytona 500; Seventh — Auto Club Speedway; 12th — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: 12 top fives in last 17 races

Anytime the series rolls into Phoenix, Harvick’s name rockets to the top of the list of contenders. With nine career wins at the 1-mile oval and 17 straight top 10s, omitting the No. 4 team from this list would be inexcusable.

His 2022 has been quiet so far and largely overshadowed by his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates’ success. Aric Almirola remains the only driver with top 10s in each of the year’s opening races, and Chase Briscoe has been near the front early and often.

Harvick, as is typical for the 2014 Cup champion, has been lurking and collecting good-but-not-flashy finishes. That can easily change at Phoenix, where he last won in 2018.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 12th
  • Finishes in first three races: Ninth — Daytona 500; 27th — Auto Club Speedway; 24th — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Three straight top 10s, including a fourth-place finish in November.

Keselowski has shown early speed in his new venture driving the No. 6 Ford for the RFK Racing program he now co-owns. But the results so far have been mixed.

After winning his qualifying Duel race at Daytona and contending for the Daytona 500 win, the 2012 champion has spun at least once in each of the last two races at Auto Club and Las Vegas. Surely that comes as he continues to adapt to the Next Gen car, but those incidents are costing him results.

In Phoenix, Keselowski has finished inside the top 10 in five of the last seven events since the start/finish line was moved. He’s also led 164 laps over the past eight races at Phoenix, spending time out front in six of the last events.

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.

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 team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

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.