Friday 5: The many sides of Alex Bowman


Alex Bowman’s life is full of contradictions on and off the track.

Start with his dogs: Roscoe, a beagle mix, and Finn, a Labrador retriever.

“Finn is an awesome dog,” Bowman told NBC Sports in the offseason. “You can take him anywhere. Super chill. Take him to the racetrack, (he) doesn’t mind.

“Roscoe. Total opposite. … Hates all other dogs beside Finn. Causes a scene wherever you take him. He’s like that person at the bar that is always causing a scene. That’s my dog Roscoe. He stays at home most of the time because of that, but I love them both.”

Just as his dogs provide contrasts, so does his racing career. 

Amid his victory celebration last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Bowman’s career faced scrutiny because of Kyle Busch’s rant. 

Busch, who was on the way to winning until a late caution took away his advantage and pit strategy gave it to Bowman, unleashed a string of expletives on his team’s radio about Bowman’s seemingly good fortune in many of his victories. 

Bowman told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he and Busch talked this week and Busch — who has finished runner-up to Bowman three times — expressed that his comments were made in the heat of the moment.

Still, Bowman’s victory marked yet another time he won a race in the final laps. 

Five of Bowman’s seven career Cup victories have come when he took the lead with 10 laps or less remaining. While that shows he can put himself in position to win, others may view it as a sign of luck or good fortune and overlook his talent. Don’t do that.

Since the start of last season, Bowman has won five Cup races. Only Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson has more victories (11) during that time. A lack of consistency, though, has plagued Bowman and his team since he began running full-time at Hendrick in 2018, making the narrative on Bowman more challenging to decipher. 

Bowman has finished 20th or worse in 43 of his 147 starts (29.3%) at Hendrick. This year follows the pattern. He placed 24th in the Daytona 500 and 25th at Auto Club Speedway before winning at Las Vegas. 

Bowman knows being more consistent is key for this season, but even that might not be enough to avoid being overshadowed on his own team. 

“I have quite possibly the most talented race car driver of our generation as a teammate,” Bowman told NBC Sports last year, referring to Larson. “I have the most popular race car driver of our generation as a teammate (Elliott). And I have ‘Boy Wonder’ in William Byron as a teammate. 

“I’m just a guy that likes to wrench on race cars, spend time at home with my dogs. I’m a very regular person. I don’t mind if the media thinks I’m fourth in line to those three because they’re all pretty special, and it’s just cool to be their teammate.”

NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500
William Byron (left), Alex Bowman (center) and Kyle Larson (right). Since last season, Larson and Bowman have combined to win 16 of 39 Cup races. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

But Bowman’s path to Hendrick differed greatly from his teammates.

Elliott and Byron have been with Hendrick Motorsports their entire career. Larson has raced for Chip Ganassi Racing and Hendrick Motorsports since going full-time in Cup in 2014. 

Bowman’s first race was with BK Racing. His first start came in the 2014 Daytona 500 under challenging circumstances.

“Our superspeedway cars were so slow and we weren’t locked in,” Bowman told NBC Sports about his first Daytona 500. “Talk about pressure in the playoffs. Try pressure being a broke race car driver tying to make it, trying to make your first start at the Daytona 500 when there’s (49) cars there, a bunch of guys going home.”

The first two Cup teams Bowman raced for — BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing — no longer exist. After finding out on social media he had lost his ride at Tommy Baldwin Racing shortly before the start of the 2016 season, Bowman was hired to be the driver in the simulator for Hendrick Motorsports. After Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion that season, Bowman was tabbed for 10 races. 

The next season, Bowman ran only two Xfinity races, spending his time in the simulator for Hendrick. He took over the No. 88 in 2018 after Earnhardt retired from full-time Cup racing. Bowman moved to the No. 48 last season, taking over after Jimmie Johnson left to go to IndyCar. 

Now, half his teammates have won championships. Larson and Elliott have combined to win the last two Cup titles. Could Bowman make it three in a row for Hendrick Motorsports this season?

For those who view him as more lucky than good, the question could seem ludicrous. But viewing Bowman as lucky misses the point. Just look at last week’s win at Las Vegas. 

He ranked third in average running position for the race at 6.55, trailing only Ross Chastain (3.82) and Byron (6.48). Bowman did that despite a pit-road penalty for equipment interference on Lap 136 of the 274-lap race. 

Bowman climbed to fourth before the final caution. While those ahead of him took four tires, crew chief Greg Ives called for a two-tire stop that got Bowman off pit road behind only Larson. That put the two winningest drivers in the series since last year on the front row for a two-lap shootout. 

And Bowman won. It marked the third time Larson has finished second to Bowman.

Dramatic finishes are not new to Bowman. Among his four wins last season, three came in the final 10 laps:

“It was awesome last year to win four races,” Bowman told NBC Sports in the offseason. “Obviously want more consistency. … I’m here to win trophies and Mr. Hendrick wants wins, and that’s what I’m here to deliver. While we would like to tie it together with more consistency, that’s obviously the goal for ’22, I like trophies.”

To win more trophies and gain that consistency, Bowman is trying new ways to be a better driver.

“I’ve really worked on trying to get outside my comfort zone,” he said in the offseason. “I’ve done a lot of types of training. I went to a flat track motorcycle school, which is something I never thought I would do and, to be quite honest, will never do again. 

“I fell down a lot, and I was way outside my comfort zone, but stuff like that, it’s why I’m going to race cars a lot this year and race cars that I haven’t raced before. Just try to do things that help me learn and try to do things that improve myself as a driver for Sundays.”

As for the flat track experience, Bowman said the track was too muddy, so the school ran on a dirt bike course. 

“A lot of time on the ground,” he said. “A lot of time getting really muddy. That was really it. I think the biggest thing for me was trying to figure out how to lean over and not wash the front end out. It was definitely interesting.

“Very uncomfortable. Pretty much the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in my life. It was rough.”

So was the early part of his Cup career, but he’s shown the ability to win.

2. Don’t overlook Trackhouse Racing

While much has been made of Trackhouse Racing scoring a top-five finish with Daniel Suarez (fourth at Auto Club) and Ross Chastain (third at Las Vegas), part of that attention is based on the team being an underdog in the sport.

That’s not how Chastain sees it.

“We are no underdog,” he told reporters Thursday.

Justin Marks’ organization is in its second season. The team expanded to a two-car operation this season. It seeks its first Cup victory. Chastain gave the organization its first stage victory last week at Las Vegas.

NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 - Qualifying
Trackhouse Racing teammates Daniel Suarez (left) and Ross Chastain have each scored a top-five finish this season. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

While recognizing the milestone, Chastain says the team seeks bigger goals.

“The plan is and the preparation we’re putting in is to get to a point where it’s just ‘Yep, OK, we won another stage. Did we win the race?”‘ Chastain said. “I don’t view us as an underdog. We don’t feel we’re lacking anything.”

After crashing in practice at Auto Club Speedway and going to a backup car, Chastain bounced back to finish third last weekend at Las Vegas and lead a career-high 83 laps. 

Chastain said he didn’t leave Las Vegas disappointed despite not getting the win after such a strong performance. 

“It was great, it is great,” Chastain said of his result. “Especially coming off the start of our season, it’s exactly what we needed. …  Super happy. I have no regrets. I know things I could have done better, I know things I could have been faster at, but as far as a whole picture, if I could have written down how the weekend would go, I would’t change anything for how it went.”

3. Sneak peak

Justin Allgaier was among three drivers who took part in a wheel force transducer test last week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, marking the last time drivers will be on the repaved and reconfigured track before next weekend’s events for Cup, Xfinity and the Camping World Truck Series. 

Wheel Force Transducer Tests allow manufacturers and Goodyear to collect data using specialized vehicle mounted transducers. Each manufacture is allowed to have a car at the test to compile data. Allgaier drove Chevrolet’s car. David Ragan drove Ford’s car. Drew Herring drove Toyota’s car.

For Allgaier, it was his second time on the track. He took part in the Xfinity tire test there in January. 

He says the Xfinity and Cup cars drive differently at Atlanta.

What I can tell you is the packages between the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series are completely different,” Allgaier said. “I was really surprised in the difference of speed and kind of how the cars drove.

“I would say the Cup car is obviously a lot faster and more on the limit of grip vs. what the Xfinity Series car was at the test. That will be interesting to see how that all plays out. …  I think when you look at the course of the weekend, between the Trucks, Xfinity and the Cup Series, I think you’re going to see three different types of racing over the course of the weekend, so I’ll be very excited to watch the other two.”

Cup cars will run the superspeedway package that was used at Daytona and Talladega, but will the race look like the pack racing common at those tracks?

“I think some of it is going to come down to do teams really try to go full Daytona/Talladega and trim their cars way out and do all the things we do at Daytona and Talladega?” Allgaier said. “I think there’s a lot of thought that’s going to be the right way to do it. 

“Truth be told, when we get there, having the most downforce, the most grip you can have is going to be super important because the tire doesn’t seem to fall off a lot, so the speeds stayed up kind of the whole time. You’ve got some grip to be able to maneuver around if you wanted, if you wanted to go to the middle or the top. I don’t foresee there being any issues, it’s just whether or not the drivers and teams are comfortable with being two- and three-wide.”

AUTO: JAN 06 NASCAR Goodyear Tire Test
The repaved frontstretch at Atlanta Motor Speedway during the January Goodyear tire test. Kurt Busch was among those who tested then. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

NASCAR hasn’t made a formal announcement, but Steve O’Donnell, chief operating officer, suggested that the sanctioning body would have the double yellow-line rule for Atlanta.

That rule is used at Daytona and Talladega. Any driver going below the double yellow lines to pass another car will be black flagged. Any driver that forces another car below the double yellow lines to avoid being passed may be black flagged. 

Since the January tire test, Atlanta Motor Speedway, at the suggestion of drivers, made an alteration to the frontstretch wall.

A Speedway Motorsports spokesperson said track officials “softened” the entry coming out of Turn 4 and into the traditional dogleg corner by moving the outside wall in about five feet at the dogleg corner for 320 feet. A new SAFER barrier and concrete wall were put in that section.

That won’t reduce the frontstretch width, as track officials repaved much of what used to be frontstretch grass. 

4. Dirt track ready to go at Bristol

Steve Swift, senior vice president operations and development for Speedway Motorsports, says the dirt track at Bristol Motor Speedway is ready to race, adding that the task was completed about two weeks ahead of schedule.

The track will host the Bristol Dirt Nationals March 20 – April 2 before the Camping World Truck Series (April 16) and Cup Series (April 17) compete there, followed by the World of Outlaws April 28-30.

The track is using the same dirt as last year. It was stored on the track’s property. 

Citing driver feedback, officials adjusted the banking on the track. Swift said the banking is progressive, steeper at the top than the bottom.

“In talking with several of the drivers, they felt like that would make much better racing, make the track much better, make all lanes come in a lot easier,” Swift said this week.

The banking is 19 degrees at the top, 18 degrees in the middle and 16 degrees at the bottom.

5. 2023 Cup schedule update

Ben Kennedy, senior vice president of racing development and strategy for NASCAR, said the goal is to release the 2023 Cup schedule this summer. 

The past two years, NASCAR announced the schedule for the upcoming season in September. Before then, NASCAR was revealing the schedule in the spring. The schedule reveal was pushed back on the calendar the past two years as the sport dealt with the COVID pandemic. 

The later the schedule is released, the more time NASCAR has to potentially add any new venues. 

A report last month from Sports Business Journal stated that NASCAR remained in talks with Chicago for a street course race there, possibly as early as next year.

Asked about that, Kennedy said: “Definitely continue to consider all the options from a scheduling standpoint. Chicago has been one of them, and I think that’s no secret from the iRacing event we had last year. That said, nothing to confirm at this point. Still looking at a handful of different options on the table.”

NASCAR Cup Series Busch Light Clash
A estimated crowd of at least 50,000 attended The Clash at the Coliseum last month at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, marking the first time NASCAR raced in the historic stadium. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kennedy also said talks continue on the status of the Clash at the Coliseum for next year. NASCAR’s contract to have the event at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was for this year but also included options for NASCAR to have the event there in 2023 and 2024.

NASCAR’s contract with the Coliseum states that the sanctioning body must inform the facility within 90 days of the race if it seeks to run the event there next year. That would put the deadline at May 6 for NASCAR to inform Coliseum officials.

“We’re still pulling together a ton of data and recaps over the next couple of weeks or so,” Kennedy said. “Hopefully, in the next few months or so, we’ll share more on that. 

“I think overall a great event this year. A lot of new fans that were out there, both in person as well as tuned in on TV. I think it was a great way to kick off our season with the Next Gen car, which definitely didn’t disappoint as well on the racetrack.”

Friday 5: Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell on path to be NASCAR’s next superstars


NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett says that he believes Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell “are your next superstars that are coming.”

The NASCAR on NBC analyst also sees how the dirt racing backgrounds of Reddick and Bell go well with the Next Gen car and could influence car owners to look there for future drivers.

“I think they’re that good, that talented,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell. “The background that they come from, I think, means a lot with the way they can handle these cars and what they can get out of them that others have a more difficult time getting.

“These are the two names, in my opinion, that as long as they stay with their current teams right now, they’re in the best position (to succeed). It’s going to be hard to dominate in a respect, but they’re going to win more often than a lot of others out there.”

Reddick (four) and Bell (three) have combined to win seven of the last 25 Cup races, including Reddick’s victory last weekend at Circuit of the Americas.

Since the start of last year’s playoffs at Darlington Raceway, Bell has two wins, tied with Reddick and William Byron and trailing only reigning champion Joey Logano’s three wins. Bell’s 10 top 10s in that 16-race stretch are more than any driver in the series in that time except Denny Hamlin, who has 11 top 10s.

“I think what we’ve seen from them already,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell, “they’re just getting to the point now that they have the experience to know what to expect in these races at all different types of tracks.”

Both drivers have nearly the same number of starts. Reddick has 116 Cup starts, Bell has 114. Both have four Cup wins. Among current full-time Cup drivers, only Brad Keselowski scored more wins (eight) in his first 116 Cup starts than Reddick and Bell.

* Christopher Bell has 114 Cup starts                                             List is active full-time Cup drivers only

The next three races set up well for Bell, starting this weekend at Richmond Raceway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has finished sixth or better in the last four Richmond races, including a runner-up result there last August.

Then comes the dirt race at Bristol. The 28-year-old will be among the favorites due to his extensive dirt racing background. Following Bristol is Martinsville. While Ross Chastain is remembered for his video game move the last time the series raced there, it was Bell who won the race. It marked the second time in the playoffs that Bell had to win to advance and did.

“The sky is definitely the limit,” crew chief Adam Stevens said of Bell after they won the Charlotte Roval playoff race last October. “He’s young. He’s getting better at a tremendous rate. He’s already extremely good. You can’t hide the talent that he has.”

It was that same type of talent that led 23XI Racing to sign Reddick last summer for the 2024 season. Once Richard Childress Racing got Kyle Busch for this season, the team released Reddick from the final year of his contract and allowed him to join 23XI Racing starting this season.

The 27-year-old Reddick is making an impact with his new team. Toyotas struggled last year on road courses — even with Bell winning at the Charlotte Roval. Reddick had the dominant car at COTA, giving Toyota its first victory of the season.

“It’s why I went after him as early as I did,” said Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, after Reddick’s victory last weekend. “I wanted to get the jump on all the other teams because I knew he was going to be the most coveted free agent in a very, very long time. That’s why I got the jump on it. It cost me a lot of money to do it, but it pays dividends.

“You have to have that driver that you feel like can carry you to championships and wins for decades. I think we have that guy. It’s not going to stop at road courses. Dirt racing, short tracks, speedways, he’s got what it takes on every racetrack we go to.”

After making his series debut in 2013, Reddick ran a majority of the 2014 Truck schedule for Brad Keselowski’s team. He finished second in points in 2015 and won three races with Keselowski’s team before moving to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team in 2017.

Reddick went to JR Motorsports in 2018 and won the Xfinity championship. He repeated in 2019 but won the crown with Richard Childress Racing. He moved to RCR’s Cup program in 2020, breaking out with victories at Road America, the Indianapolis road course and Texas.

Bell’s path was groomed by Toyota Racing Development, taking him from the dirt tracks all the way to Cup. He claimed the 2017 Truck title and won 15 of 66 Xfinity starts (22.7%) in 2018-19, his two full-time seasons in that series.

Eventually, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota decided to replace Erik Jones with Bell in 2021. Bell had his breakout season last year, winning at New Hampshire, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville.

Jarrett sees that talent in both Reddick and Bell, in part, from their dirt backgrounds.

“I really just believe it’s their car control is what I like the best,” Jarrett said. “You see someone like Reddick and what he did at COTA and what we saw him do a couple of times on road courses last year and the fact that he can make his car go that fast but yet not have to give up. That’s a talent that you’re able to do that.

“Christopher Bell does a lot of the same things. We see this come out on the short tracks and the difficult tracks where tire conservation means a little bit. It’s not that they’re trying to conserve the tire, it’s just their driving experience and driving abilities allow them not to abuse the tires on these cars as much as others are having to to try to match that speed that they have.”

2. What now?

In a rare public admission, NASCAR stated that it was “disappointed” that the National Motorsports Appeals Panel overturned some of the penalties to Hendrick Motorsports this week.

The Appeals Panel rescinded the 100-point penalty to Hendrick drivers Alex Bowman, William Byron and Kyle Larson, as well as the 10-point playoff penalty to each.

“A points penalty is a strong deterrent that is necessary to govern the garage following rule book violations, and we believe that it was an important part of the penalty in this case and moving forward,” NASCAR stated.

The Appeals Panel agreed with NASCAR that Hendrick Motorsports violated the rules by modifying the hood louvers of each of its cars. NASCAR discovered the issue before practice March 10 at Phoenix and took the hood louvers after that practice session.

The Appeals Panel kept the the $100,000 fines and four-race suspension to each of the four Hendrick crew chiefs for the infraction.

The Appeals Panel did not explain its reasoning for altering NASCAR’s penalty.

Hendrick Motorsports stated three key elements when it announced that it would appeal the penalties. Those three factors were:

  • “Louvers provided to teams through NASCAR’s mandated single-source supplier do not match the design submitted by the manufacturer and approved by NASCAR
  • “Documented inconsistent and unclear communication by the sanctioning body specifically related to louvers
  • “Recent comparable penalties issued by NASCAR have been related to issues discovered during a post-race inspection.”

When the National Motorsports Appeals Panel amended a NASCAR penalty last year — rescinding the 25-point penalty to William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas but increasing Byron’s fine from $50,000 to $100,000 — NASCAR made a change to the Rule Book two days later.

NASCAR removed one word — or — so there was no option between a point penalty or fine but that such an infraction would constitute a point penalty and fine.

The question is if NASCAR will make any changes to the Rule Book this time to prevent the Appeals Panel from altering a similar penalty as the Hendrick infraction in such a way again — maybe something that more clearly states that an infraction found before a race is a point penalty.

This was only the second time in the Next Gen era that a team was penalized points for an infraction found before the race. The other case was when Cody Ware’s car failed pre-qualifying inspection four times. At the time, the Cup Rule Book stated that such an infraction was an L1 penalty. Such a penalty could result in a 20-point penalty, which Cody Ware and team owner Rick Ware received.

Another key question is what, if anything, will NASCAR do to improve quality control of parts that teams get from vendors.

Chad Knaus, Hendrick vice president of competition, said March 17 that more emphasis needed to be put on the quality of the parts coming to teams from single-source suppliers.

“We as a company, we in the garage, every one of these teams here are being held accountable to put their car out there to go through inspection and perform at the level they need to,” he said March 17 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “The teams are being held accountable for doing that.

“Nobody is holding the single-source providers accountable at the level that they need to be to give us the parts we need. That goes through NASCAR’s distribution center and NASCAR’s approval process to get those parts, and we’re not getting the right parts.”

3. Single-file restarts

The overtime restarts last weekend at Circuit of the Americas have led to talk about if NASCAR should consider single-file restarts for all or some of its road courses.

Joey Logano discussed the notion on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week, saying: “There’s a lot of different opinions floating around. Probably the best I’ve heard is single-file restarts on road courses.”

The key issue is that at COTA and the Indianapolis road course both have a long straightaway for drivers to build speed before barreling into a sharp turn — at COTA it’s a hairpin left-hand turn, at Indy it’s a sharp right-hand turn.

Last year at Indy, Ryan Blaney was fourth on the last restart and got spun. While a single-file restart likely would have lessened the chances of such an incident, it also would have lowered Blaney’s chances to win because he would have been further away from the leader.

“The single-file restart is something I’ve been hearing around, and at some tracks I could see it working,” Blaney said, noting COTA and Indy.

He admits, that’s not the only idea.

“Do you move the restart zone?” Blaney said. “Do you give the leader more of an opening window of when to go? At COTA … do you give the leader the choice where he can go anytime between (Turn) 19 and the restart zone? So you kind of have like a short stint, slow down, turn, and then you have your long straightaway to where it kind of gaps everybody.

“You’re still doing double-file, but it kind of gaps (the cars) a little bit to where it’s not everyone nose-to-tail 15 rows deep diving in there. There’s a lot of differing opinions and ideas that are floating around, and we’ll see what we come up with, but, personally, from a driver’s standpoint it just gets messy.”

There’s time for NASCAR to decide if anything needs to be done. The next Xfinity race is June 3 at Portland. The next Cup road course race is June 11 at Sonoma.

“I don’t think you need to do anything for Sonoma,” Blaney said. “The way the restart zone is there it’s slow and you’re going up the hill right away. You don’t get the four-wide kind of thing there, so I don’t think Sonoma is anything we need to be working on.”

After that will be the inaugural Xfinity and Cup races at the Chicago street course on July 1-2. That course has a sharp left-hand turn shortly after the start/finish line that could replicate the chaos seen in restarts at COTA and Indy.

“I think Chicago is gonna be wild no matter what you do,” Blaney said.

4. Another new short track winner?

Sunday presents the opportunity for a ninth consecutive different winner of a short track race on pavement.

Here’s a look at those last eight winners:

Martin Truex Jr. (Richmond, September 2021)

Kyle Larson (Bristol, September 2021)

Alex Bowman (Martinsville, October 2021)

Denny Hamlin (Richmond, April 2022)

William Byron (Martinsville, April 2022)

Kevin Harvick (Richmond, August 2022)

Chris Buescher (Bristol, September 2022)

Christopher Bell (Martinsville, October 2022)

5. Race for cash

Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond marks the return of the Dash 4 Cash program.

JR Motorsports and Kaulig Racing have combined to win the $100,000 bonus each of the last 12 times. JR Motorsports has won it seven times, Kaulig Racing five times.

Of the four drivers eligible for the bonus Saturday, three race for JR Motorsports or Kaulig Racing: Justin Allgaier (JRM), Sam Mayer (JRM) and Daniel Hemric (Kaulig). The fourth driver is Sammy Smith for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Smokin’: Winston fueled NASCAR for 33 years


Ranking historic moments in any sport is a risky business, but it’s difficult to deny that one of the biggest items in NASCAR’s 75-year history was the 33-year sponsorship of its top series by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston cigarette brand.

When federal legislation derailed cigarette advertising on television, RJR moved its millions from the tube to the racetrack, transforming NASCAR forever and adding layers of financial strength to its teams, drivers and promoters.

From 1971-2003, NASCAR and RJR enjoyed one of the most powerful sponsorship relationships in the history of professional sports, each entity feeding off the other as stock car racing grew from a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon.

Although giant superspeedways had opened in several states in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the calendar turned to the 1970s NASCAR’s Grand National schedule remained frozen in another time. For an organization that hinted at joining the big leagues of pro sports and longed for television exposure that might take it there, NASCAR’s 48-race schedule was far too unwieldy and tied to shorter, smaller tracks with little or no national impact.

When RJR signed the dotted line to become the top-level series’ primary sponsor in 1971, the name changed from Grand National to Winston Cup Grand National (and later to simply Winston Cup), but the evolution of the title barely scratched the surface of the shifts to come. Working with ideas suggested by RJR officials, NASCAR did major surgery on the Cup schedule for the 1972 season, abandoning outposts like Beltsville, Maryland and Macon, Georgia to concentrate on a streamlined “national” schedule that emphasized big events and a year-long march toward a driving championship.

So the 1972 season opened with 31 races on the schedule, dramatically downsized from 48 in both 1970 and 1971. The RJR/Winston effect was on.

Great things were ahead. Reynolds dumped millions into speedway improvements, from the biggest of tracks to the smallest. Red and white (not surprisingly, Winston’s colors) paint was slapped on speedway walls and buildings, adding spice to tracks that had fallen on hard times. Billboards and other signage promoting races went up in communities near racetracks.

Purses at Cup Series tracks grew, and RJR added incentives, boosting season-end points money and designing programs like the Winston Million, which paid $1 million to a driver who could win three of what then were considered the sport’s biggest races: the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (at Talladega), Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500.

The Winston, a rich all-star race, was added to the schedule. It continues today, although its name and format has changed over the years.

Perhaps most importantly, however, RJR invested millions in widespread and business-smart promotion of NASCAR, which, at the start of the 1970s, had a very limited – both in personnel and in dollars – public relations and communications presence. RJR unleashed dozens of public relations and marketing individuals into its NASCAR operations, bringing a professionalism and thoroughness rarely seen in such circles prior to the company’s arrival.

“I’ve been in this sport 50-plus years, and there have been some big moments,” team owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports. “R.J. Reynolds coming in was certainly one of the biggest. They brought in paint and built buildings and brought in media from all over the United States. And the billboards. I remember going to North Wilkesboro, and there was a big billboard about Winston and the race. That was a big deal back in the day – stuff that we never had before.”

Sports Marketing Enterprises, the sports arm of RJR, in effect became NASCAR’s public relations headquarters. SME employees produced annual NASCAR media guides, usually working through the Christmas holiday break to have updated editions ready for January distribution. Winston introduced weekly media phone press conferences with drivers, lobbied media outlets with little interest in NASCAR to cover races and developed fan experiences like the Winston Cup Preview, an annual January event in which drivers signed autographs for fans in a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, arena.

RJR also was instrumental in moving NASCAR’s annual Cup Series end-of-season awards banquet to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, a change that put the sport and its drivers in the media capital of the world for a few late-autumn days.

Bill Elliott
Bill Elliott celebrates winning the Winston Million bonus Sept. 1, 1985, at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

“Anybody at NASCAR recognizes the role that Winston played in helping promote the sport from so many different angles,” Chris Powell, a former RJR employee and now the president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “There was no question that the sport was a great vehicle to advertise the product. So many other corporations recognized the possibilities of promoting their products through the sport. It all made it grow and grow.”

Steadily, as RJR’s influence in the sport grew, NASCAR tracks (from the Cup Series down to weekly tracks with NASCAR affiliations) were splashed with Winston red and white. Women wearing Winston outfits offered fans entering tracks a free pack of Winstons if they would trade the brand they smoked. Red and white Winston “show” cars appeared in on-track parades prior to races and at events in towns hosting races.

The Winston name and colors were seemingly everywhere in and around tracks. If you weren’t a smoker entering the facility, you might be converted being there all day; and if you were a smoker but used a competing brand you might consider switching. The Winston presence was commanding.

As a former RJR employee put it, “It was about moving the sticks,” in-house vernacular for cigarettes.

“We were always in a tussle to outdo Marlboro,” Powell said. “There was data to show to executive management in the company that adult smokers who were NASCAR fans were more likely to be Winston smokers.”

RJR involved NASCAR drivers in all manner of activities. Race-week golf events sponsored by the company brought together drivers, NASCAR and track officials and others with track tie-ins. Winston representatives invited drivers and their team members to dinner gatherings during race weeks, with the check often reaching into four figures.

Jimmy Spencer #23
In April 1999, Jimmy Spencer runs practice laps at Bristol Motor Speedway in a Ford sponsored by Winston. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Allsport)

RJR often scheduled events pairing drivers and media members with an eye toward enhancing relations between the two. During a Talladega race week, a Winston skeetshooting competition resulted in Jeff Gordon, not particularly known as an outdoorsman, defeating big-game hunter Dale Earnhardt, who was so shocked by the result that he was seen closely examining his rifle in the aftermath.

Winston employees became involved in almost every official operation – and some not so official — related to race weekends. At Pocono one year, several Winston operatives, quite aware of the traffic difficulties associated with exiting the track after races, basically created a new exit route through a nearby wooded area.

The RJR ties to NASCAR included sponsorship of drivers and teams. Long-time Cup driver Jimmy Spencer ran for teams carrying Winston and Camel cigarettes sponsorship.

“They were probably the best sponsor I ever drove for,” Spencer told NBC Sports. “They knew what it took. They were all about promoting and all about the fans. That’s what made the sport grow. It will never be as big as it was with them. I remember (late NASCAR president) Bill France Jr. telling me it would change the sport forever.”

The key RJR officials involved with NASCAR were Ralph Seagraves, who started the Winston racing program, and T. Wayne Robertson, who directed operations through years when the Winston presence expanded significantly.

“T. Wayne was a hell of a visionary,” Spencer said. “Everybody around him learned so much. I remember him saying that they weren’t coming into the sport to take over, that they were there to help. ‘We don’t want to be bullies,’ he said. ‘We want to move it to the next level.’ ”

Some insiders predicted that Robertson, who was widely respected across motorsports and sports marketing, eventually would move into a management role with NASCAR. Tragically, he died in 1998 at the age of 47 in a boating accident.

RJR’s talent pool produced leaders who moved on to more prominent roles in racing. In addition to Powell becoming LVMS president, Ty Norris moved from RJR to lead Dale Earnhardt’s racing team and now is president of Trackhouse Racing. Curtis Gray worked at RJR before becoming president at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Grant Lynch, who directed sports operations for RJR, became president at Talladega Superspeedway and a key lieutenant for NASCAR and its ruling France family. Jeff Byrd, who was involved in media operations at RJR, became president at Bristol Motor Speedway.







Dr. Diandra: Data points to speed as key to breaking Blaney’s losing streak

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Richmond Raceway presents a chance for Ryan Blaney to break a losing streak that started after his win at the regular-season-ending Daytona race in 2021. A fast scan of his stats suggests Blaney is off to a good start to do just that in 2023.

Despite a poor showing at COTA, where he failed to run any higher than 16th all race, Blaney has a season average finishing position of 12.8. He’s tied with Kevin Harvick for fourth-best average finishing position among full-time drivers.

Blaney finished second at Phoenix, where the new short track aeropackage debuted. But he has not won.

Things look good on the surface

Before getting too worried by Blaney’s drought, remember that the season is only six races old. Two of those six races were superspeedway events, and a third was a road course where running through other cars has become the norm.

With 30 more races in the season, it’s far from time to hit the panic button.

Basic statistics suggest that Blaney is matching (and sometimes beating) his teammate, defending champion Joey Logano. I’ve included the statistics for sophomore driver Austin Cindric in the table below, as well.

A table comparing wins, top-fives and top-tens for Penske drivers

Logano won Atlanta and has two top-five finishes. No driver has more than three top fives thus far. Despite Logano’s win, Blaney’s average finishing position beats Logano’s.

Cindric has two top-10 finishes and an average finish of 16.5. His best finishes are sixth-place finishes at Las Vegas and last week at COTA.

After the National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded the 100-point penalty assessed to each Hendrick Motorsports driver and team, Ryan Blaney occupies eighth place in the season points standings.

Things would appear to look good for breaking Blaney’s losing streak this year.

Digging Deeper

But a different pattern emerges upon diving into the loop data. The next table compares more detailed statistics for all three Penske drivers. I’ve highlighted the lowest-scoring driver’s numbers in red for each metric.

A table showing some of the metrics that must be improved for to break Blaney's losing streak

Cindric lags his more experienced teammates in number of laps led, number of fastest laps and number of laps run in the top 15. But in the other stats, Blaney is the third out of three at Penske.

Average running position measures driver performance across all laps of a race, instead of just the last one. Blaney’s best average running position of the season was at Phoenix, with a 7.47. His worst was last week at COTA, where his average running position was 29.28. Apart from Phoenix, Blaney didn’t break the top 10 in average running position at any race this year.

The average speed-on-restarts rank compares a driver’s average speed in the first two laps of each green-flag run to other drivers’ speeds. Blaney ranks 32nd out of 35 full-time drivers in average restart speed rank. That places him behind Logano and Cindric.

Speed early in a run and speed late in a run measure a driver’s speed compared to everyone else on track during the first and last 25% of each green-flag run. In both metrics, Blaney again ranks 32 out of 35.

The fact that top-ranking Penske driver Logano only ranks 12th and 16th in early and late speed respectively suggests that the problem is at least partly company wide.

In overall green-flag speed — the average speed over a full green-flag run — Blaney ranks 29th out of 35. Logano ranks 12th and Cindric 19th.

These numbers identify one challenge that must be overcome to break Blaney’s losing streak.

Year over year

I’ll set aside Cindric’s numbers in this section for the sake of clarity. Blaney’s first six races this year show a large drop-off in most metrics relative to the first six races of 2022. Logano, however, either improved or stayed relatively constant in the same metrics.

In the table below:

  • Green indicates a 10% or better improvement in 2023.
  • Red indicates the 2023 value is at least 10% worse.
  • Black indicates a change (either way) less than 10%.

A table comparing statistics for Blaney and Logano in 2022 and 2023

Blaney has led a little more than 10% of the laps he led in 2022 and has less than half the number of fastest laps. His drop-offs on the speed metrics (the last four rows) are much greater than Logano’s changes.

In 2022, Blaney was beating Logano in all four speed metrics. This year, Logano is ahead.

The Promise of Richmond

The encouraging news to pull from this analysis is that Blaney’s numbers for Phoenix are the best of the 2023 season so far. He ranked seventh in green-flag speed, second in restart rank, eight in early-run speed and fourth in late-run speed. All of that bodes well for a good finish at Richmond.

Blaney won the pole in last spring’s Richmond race and finished seventh. He finished 10th in the fall race after qualifying 10th.

And Blaney himself is optimistic.

“Richmond will be a good gauge of where you stack up – slow, a bunch of mechanical grip, tire conservation,” Blaney said. “So I’m optimistic for it, for sure. I thought we had good cars there last year in both races from the whole team, and I’m excited to get there.”

But breaking Blaney’s losing streak is only the start to a successful season. He must improve his speed metrics at other tracks if he is to contend for a championship.

NASCAR weekend schedules: Richmond/Texas


NASCAR’s three major national series will be in action this weekend at two locations.

The Cup and Xfinity Series will race at Richmond Raceway in Virginia, and the Craftsman Truck Series will share the weekend with the IndyCar Series at Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth.

MORE: Drivers to watch at Richmond

Tyler Reddick won last Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas to put Toyota in the win column for the first time this season.

Here is a look at the weekend schedule for both tracks:

Richmond Raceway (Cup and Xfinity)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly cloudy. High of 72. Winds 10-20 mph. 13% chance of rain.

Saturday: Light rain early. Sunshine later. High of 75. Winds 20-30 mph. 24% chance of rain at start of Xfinity race.

Sunday: Sunny. High of 62. No chance of rain at start of Cup race.

Friday, March 31

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. — Cup Series

Saturday, April 1

Garage open

  • 6 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 7 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 8:05 – 8:35 a.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 10:05 – 10:50 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 10:50 – noon — Cup qualifying (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity race (250 laps, 187 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, April 2

Garage open

  • 12:30 – 10 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (400 laps, 300 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Texas Motor Speedway (Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Scattered thunderstorms in morning. Sunny and windy later. High of 79. Winds 20-30 mph. 50% chance of rain.

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 74. Winds 10-15 mph. No chance of rain at start of Truck race.

Friday, March 31

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • Noon – 5 p.m. — Truck Series

Saturday, April 1

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. — Truck Series

Track activity

  • 10:35 – 11:05 a.m. — Truck practice
  • 11:05 a.m. – noon — Truck qualifying
  • 4:30 p.m. — Truck race (167 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)