Friday 5: A conversation with a NASCAR mover and shaker

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A reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway. Dirt again on Bristol Motor Speedway. The purchase of Dover Motor Speedway and Nashville Superspeedway. 

Marcus Smith, president and chief executive officer at Speedway Motorsports, continues to make a significant impact on NASCAR. 

He’s not done. With plans to remake Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville and restore North Wilkesboro Speedway, Smith’s influence on the sport will grow.

Speedway Motorsports, founded by Bruton Smith, has been known for innovation. While maybe not every idea worked, many have — from fan initiatives to creating the Charlotte Roval. Marcus Smith has been a key figure in such moves.

With NASCAR at Atlanta this weekend, the sport is in a stretch that will see 10 of 18 Cup points races held at tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports or promoted by the company.

The first race in that stretch for Speedway Motorsports was Las Vegas, held two weeks ago. Without revealing details, Smith said that the track’s attendance finished “a little bit ahead” of the 2020 race there, one of the lasts before the pandemic shut down the sport for more than two months. 

Smith talked with NBC Sports this week about many of his tracks and where things stand with Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway. 

Atlanta Motor Speedway

For years, drivers begged and pleaded for the track not to be repaved. Competitors loved the challenge of the track’s racing surface that made tires wear and put much of a car’s success into the driver’s hands.

Eventually, a repave was needed, but Speedway Motorsports was not content with that. Instead, the company reconfigured the track, increasing the banking in the turns to 28 degrees in an effort to create superspeedway racing on a 1.5-mile track. 

“We have a Next Gen car in NASCAR, and we have a Next Gen Atlanta Motor Speedway,” Smith told NBC Sports. “With the multi-million dollar investment we made there on widening the frontstretch, increasing the banking in the turns, bringing a Next Gen paving technology that is actually proving to be a more raceable surface within the first year, I’m really excited about it. 

“I think we’re going to see drivers three and four-wide through the turns. The fans are going to be in for some really exciting racing.”

Atlanta superspeedway
Kurt Busch on the repaved and reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway during a tire test in January. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Bristol Motor Speedway

For the second year in a row, Bristol’s track will be covered in dirt for its spring race. New this year is that race will be held on Easter night. 

Typically, the sport shied from racing on that holiday. This is an opportunity to make Easter a NASCAR holiday, much like Thanksgiving is known for NFL games, Christmas features NBA games and January 1 is known for college bowl games. 

“A lot of people go to church on Easter Sunday and get together as a family, maybe go to see mom and have lunch and then that night is a great time tune in for a NASCAR race,” Smith said. 

“For fans that are going be on site, we hope that they will enjoy this new tradition. We’re going to be putting on a really big Easter service. … We are going to create a really, really special weekend for people to do something different. It’s not unheard of to go somewhere for Easter. … This is a new somewhere to go.”

NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race
This year’s dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway will be held on Easter night. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Rain pushed last year’s Cup dirt race back a day. Rainouts can make it more difficult for tracks to sell tickets the next year because of the memory of that experience.

“That definitely provides a challenge,” Smith said. “Any time you have rain, the following year is a challenge on (ticket) renewals, but we do have the big plus of moving the race to nighttime and a lot of fans out there realize that dirt racing is best at night. We’ve also gotten (the race date) out of March and into April, which typically is a better weather pattern for the Bristol area.”

Circuit of the Americas

All three of NASCAR’s national series return there this year. The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races are March 26. Cup races March 27.

Speedway Motorsports does not own COTA. Instead, the company serves as the promoter for the NASCAR events. After last year’s races, Speedway Motorsports took some time to assess the inaugural event before deciding to promote NASCAR there again this year.

“We’re really committed to that marketplace and think it’s going to be good for the sport, and it has been already,” Smith said.

Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville

Speedway Motorsports, through Bristol Motor Speedway, has sought to operate the historic short track located near downtown Nashville since 2017. 

Nashville Mayor John Cooper agreed to a proposal last November by Bristol to revitalize Fairgrounds Speedway so it can host NASCAR racing. 

Financial plans are still being examined by city officials. The deal also needs approval from the Fair Board and Metro Council. Smith says that they’ve “gotten to what you might call the 1-yard line with the city and the state at moving forward on the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. 

“It’s going to be a part of our future. We’re really bullish about it and think it’s going to be a fantastic addition to the NASCAR schedule. Really, this renovated property is going to be an amazing asset for the community and the city of Nashville.”

With all that remains and then construction work to upgrade the facility, Smith was asked if 2023 was out of the question for Fairgrounds Speedway to be on the NASCAR schedule.

“Our team is so amazing, I don’t want to say no,” he said. “We can do amazing things. If things all come together quickly. Who knows what we can do.”

North Wilkesboro Speedway

This track, which hosted Cup races from 1949-96, could soon be back in action. 

Work continues on updating the facility with funding from the American Rescue Plan. The North Carolina budget earmarked $18 million to Wilkes County “to coordinate with relevant local government units for water and sewer and related infrastructure projects for … the North Wilkesboro Speedway.”

Asked about when the track could be race ready, Smith said: “It will be sooner than you think. We’re working on some details, so stay tuned.”

As for what type of racing could be there, Smith was clear.

“I don’t see Cup racing happening in that market,” he said, “but I think if we have local, regional racing, if we have short track racers return to Wilkesboro, this will be hallowed ground for anybody who races short tracks in the entire country. That alone is a big deal. 

“If, somehow, someway, we could have a larger national tour series, like you mentioned the Truck Series, it would be beyond the expectation, I think, of everybody involved.”

Texas Motor Speedway 

NASCAR President Steve Phelps called out the size of the crowd for last year’s playoff race at Texas, saying it was “an unacceptable level of tickets sold in that marketplace.”

Smith says things will be better this year, citing the start of the season and the racing the Next Gen car has created.

“Texas Motor Speedway, being in one of the biggest markets in the world, Dallas/Fort Worth,” he said. “It is a phenomenal faculty. We’re surrounded by millions of people, and I think we’re going to have a much better showing this year with the fans (and) that’s because the drivers and the teams are putting on a much better show for those races.”

2. A new way of doing things 

Starting this weekend, the rear tire changer on a Cup pit crew will be allowed to approach the car from the front. Previously, the rear tire changer was required to go around the back of the car to reach the rear tire.

Why does this matter?

Having the rear tire changer leave the pit wall from the front of the car could save pit crews three-tenths of a second or more, pit coaches tell NBC Sports. That could be the difference in spots gained or lost on pit road.

That difference in time is because a rear tire changer has to wait for the car to come by before going around the back of the car to the tire.

Now, the rear tire changer can join the front tire changer, jackman and tire carrier going around the front of their car. All can jump off the pit wall with the car one pit stall away. That allows the rear tire changer to reach to the tire sooner.

“It’s something that we’ve practiced for eight months now,” Chris Hall, pit coach for Joe Gibbs Racing, told NBC Sports. “As the field continues to get better on pit road, I’m excited to pull it out when we need to create separation (from other teams).”

Ruoff Mortgage 500
Starting this weekend at Atlanta, the rear tire changer will be able to go around the front of the car as the front tire changer, jackman and tire carrier do. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Just because teams can begin to do stops this way, it doesn’t mean fans will see it often at Atlanta. 

“I think it’s a very creative idea,” Ray Gallahan, pit coach for Team Penske, told NBC Sports of the new way to do pit stops. “I think it’s very innovative, and I think can work, but it’s going to have to be a very specialized set of circumstances, in my opinion, for it to work properly.”

With the repaved surface, tire wear is not expected to be an issue at Atlanta. Teams are more likely to change two tires per stop instead of four. 

Having the rear tire changer go around the front of the car for a two-tire stop is not effective.

It’s a penalty for a car to run over an air hose, and it’s also a penalty for throwing equipment over the wall, so the rear tire changer would have to run back around the front of the car before the vehicle could leave the pit stall on a two-tire stop, costing the team valuable time.

That’s something to keep in mind throughout the season. Think about those pit stops in the final laps when a crew chief changes his call from a four-tire stop to a two-tire stop as the car comes down pit road. 

If the rear tire changer is placed at the front of the car, there likely won’t be enough time for him to get to the other side of pit stall with his air gun and hose before the car stops. That means if a crew chief wants to have the rear tire changer come from the front of the car, then the call can’t be changed to a two-tire stop because of the time lost as the rear tire changer goes back around the front of the car so the air hose is not run over.

Pit coaches also told NBC Sports that having the rear tire changer go around the front of the car creates other challenges. 

With four people jumping off the pit wall in front of the car, that’s an extra person that could be in the way if a car pitting in the stall ahead is coming in to pit at about the same time. 

With much of the field often pitting together during a caution, it’s difficult to have that extra person going around the front of the car.

The exception will be those who have a pit opening in front of them. Pit coaches say that will put more emphasis on qualifying. The fastest car in all but rare instances takes  the stall closest to pit exit, meaning the team will not have a car in front of it. That will allow the rear tire changer approach the car from the front instead of the rear on four-tire stops.

Last summer at Atlanta, there were seven pit stalls that had openings in front. That race featured 37 cars, the same number of cars entered this weekend. That could allow those seven teams go with the faster pit stop on four-tire changes. 

Something else to consider is the rear tire changer’s air hose. There are crew members behind the wall who either grab the tires rolled from the right side or make sure the air hose has enough slack for the tire changers.

“(Holding) the hose and pulling the hose up front is one of the most important jobs behind pit wall,” Ray Wright, pit crew coach for Richard Childress Racing, told NBC Sports.

With limits to the number of crew members per team, should a crew member be ejected because the team’s car fails inspection multiple times, it could force someone to handle the air hose behind the pit wall who hasn’t done so as often. That can lead to the air hose being stuck under the car or getting tangled with the pit crew as they run to the left side of the car. 

3. Evolving driver 

Phoenix winner Noah Gragson is only the third driver in Xfinity history — and the first since 2012 — to start the season with four consecutive top-three finishes. 

The only drivers to do that are Elliott Sadler in 2012 and Kevin Harvick in 2005. No driver has ever scored five consecutive top-three Xfinity finishes, the mark Gragson goes for Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. 

But that streak is only a byproduct of the growth of the 23-year-old driver who is in his fourth season with JR Motorsports. 

“Noah is to the point where he’s been there and done that, he’s getting more experience,” Ryan Pemberton, director of competition at JRM, told NBC Sports. “The more experience, that allows you to do a better job, be more aggressive without stepping over (the line). 

“Noah is really knowledgeable of where he’s at, what he wants the car to do and understanding where it wants to be, what it’s supposed to feel like on Lap 20 vs. Lap 60 and that takes a long time.”

Another change for Gragson is that he’s working with a new crew chief. With Dave Elenz moving go Cup to work with Erik Jones at Petty GMS Motorsports, Gragson is paired with Luke Lambert.

“He told me the first time I met him, ‘I’m not looking to come in here and change the program that you guys had, but I want to be able to build on it and if we can find one or two things to make better, let’s keep building on that,’” Gragson said.

Gragson will be busy this weekend. He’ll make his debut for Kaulig Racing, driving the No. 16 Cup car this weekend. 

4. Strong start

Trackhouse Racing, which is co-owned by Justin Marks and Pitbull, has had a car finish in the top five in each of the last three races. It’s the longest active streak in the series.

Ross Chastain has two of those top fives, placing second at Phoenix and third at Las Vegas. Daniel Suarez has the other top five, finishing fourth at Auto Club Speedway.

Trackhouse Racing’s three top-five finishes are tied with Stewart-Haas Racing this season. Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske have a series-high four top fives this year.

The 83 laps led by Trackhouse Racing (all by Chastain) are the more laps than the organization led last season. 

“It’s a clean slate with this car, but these guys are smart,” Chastain said of his team after last weekend’s race at Phoenix. “The guys that are struggling right now, they’re going to be coming. We have to stay ahead of them if we want to compete like this all year.”

5. Winless drought

Toyota’s nine-race winless drought is its longest since the manufacturer went 31 races between Cup wins in 2014-15.

The last win by a Toyota driver was by Bubba Wallace at Talladega during last year’s playoffs. 

Since that time:

  • Denny Hamlin was passed for the lead with eight laps to go at the Charlotte Roval last year by Kyle Larson.
  • Hamlin spun from the lead at Martinsville after contact from Alex Bowman with eight laps to go.
  • Martin Truex Jr. lost the lead to Kyle Larson on pit road with 28 laps to in the championship race at Phoenix, won by Larson.
  • Bubba Wallace finished second to Austin Cindric in this year’s Daytona 500.
  • Kyle Busch seemed headed for the win earlier this month at Las Vegas before a caution sent the race to overtime and Alex Bowman won. 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”