Sage Karam ready to tackle NASCAR in his next chapter

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Sage Karam has spent time behind the wheel of just about any style of race car you can think of.

From IndyCar and rallycross to dirt micro sprints and sports cars, Karam has driven it all.

The 27-year-old is turning his attention to NASCAR. After making four Xfinity Series starts and one Truck Series start in 2021, Karam makes his Xfinity season debut Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway driving the No. 44 Chevrolet for Alpha Prime Racing with sponsorship from The Driveway Company.

Karam has competed in each of the last eight Indianapolis 500s, seven of which came with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. With Chip Ganassi Racing in 2015, Karam made 12 IndyCar starts and earned a career-best third-place result at Iowa Raceway.

After 24 IndyCar starts, 17 sports car races and successful stints in Nitro Rallycross, why make the switch to pursue stock-car racing now? The catalyst was his seventh-place finish in last year’s Indy 500, his best career finish in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“After that, I kind of got put back on some radars that I think I went missing on the last few years,” Karam told NBC Sports this week.

Those radars included some in NASCAR, an avenue Karam had yet to explore.

Jordan Anderson Racing was in the midst of its inaugural season at the Xfinity level. With the series due to compete the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Karam became a target for the team’s No. 31 Chevrolet. Karam finished fifth in Stage 1 in his series debut and saw his day end early due to an electrical issue, but the team was impressed with his pace.

Suddenly, one race became two races and two races grew to four. In all, Karam made starts at Indy, Bristol, the Charlotte Roval and Phoenix. His truck start also came in Anderson’s No. 3 Chevrolet at Martinsville.

Bristol was where Karam made his biggest impression — to other team owners and even himself. After starting 32nd with no practice or qualifying, Karam finished 16th in his short-track debut, one lap down but with a clean car.

His performance was enough to catch the eye of long-time team owner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Childress.

“After Bristol, I was standing in the hauler and I was changing, and I got a knock on the door,” Karam recalled. “I opened it up and it was Richard Childress. And he just wanted to say, ‘Hey, man, just wanted to congratulate you on your run tonight. That was really, really cool to see a guy come over on one of the hardest tracks and do as well as you did. That’s not easy.’

“And for a guy like that to notice that — and it’s only a 16th-place run at Bristol. But I think what people see is that it’s a huge step, and when you can have runs like that, that’s pretty cool.”

Planting roots in racing

Karam grew up in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, a Lehigh Valley town famous for its legendary racing residents, the Andrettis.

His father, Jody, is a high school wrestling coach who spent 26 years heading Liberty (Bethlehem) High School’s team with 362 matches won in that span and one state champion. After stepping away in 2019, Jody Karam returned to his alma mater at Easton High School to coach its wrestling program in 2020.

The elder Karam moved his family from Easton to Nazareth in 1999, when Sage was 4 years old, and wound up just down the street from the Andretti property. With that move came a dirt oval in the family’s yard for the young Karam to race around. Jody Karam quickly became good friends with Michael Andretti and at one point became his personal trainer.

“My whole childhood was basically spent up at the Andretti house,” Sage Karam said. “I had more dinners there than at our own house growing up, so I was just kind of surrounded by the racing world.”

Karam got his first go-kart at age 5. While Michael Andretti was busy running a full-time IndyCar schedule, Jody Karam spent weekends driving Sage and Marco Andretti to Oakland Valley Raceway Park in Upstate New York to compete regularly.

Fast forward a decade. Karam, 15, is in the midst of a rapid, chaotic ascent through the open-wheel racing ranks. His first stop through Skip Barber cars led him to US F2000 with Andretti Autosport in 2010, winning nine of 12 races and the national title, which propelled him to the Star Mazda Championship in 2011 and 2012, where he stuck with Andretti.

The next year brought further success. Karam rocketed through the ranks, earning a full-time ride in Indy Lights at age 18 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He won three races and finished on the podium nine times in 12 races.

Wrestling with reality

Karam’s career reached a fever pitch in 2015.

After spending the 2014 season making four Daytona Prototype starts for Chip Ganassi Racing and his Indy 500 debut for Dreyer & Reinbolt, Ganassi thrust Karam into the No. 8 car for 12 races in the 2015 IndyCar season.

Karam was immediately fast but also caught a quick reputation for his aggression, notably angering Ed Carpenter en route to Karam’s first podium finish, a third-place effort at Iowa Speedway.

Then came Aug. 23, 2015, the day and race that changed Karam’s life at Pocono Raceway, just 30 miles northwest of his hometown.

Leading with 21 laps to go, Karam’s car got loose and snapped sideways in the middle of Turn 1. Karam careened into the outside wall, sending debris scattering along the racetrack.

One of those pieces of debris was the nosecone of his car, which struck driver Justin Wilson in the head. At a nearby hospital, Wilson died the next day as the result of the traumatic head injury he suffered.

Karam, who suffered a bruised foot in the crash, fell into a deep depression in the aftermath of the accident, often questioning what might have happened if he hadn’t spun.

His solace, he recalled this week, was wrestling. Karam, then 20, was only a year removed from graduating from Nazareth High School and his father was still coaching at Liberty. When the high school season began, Karam joined his father at practices as a volunteer coach to help other student-athletes.

“I went through a pretty dark spot in life and didn’t really come out of my house all that much. And the one reason I did end up coming out of my house was when wrestling season started,” Karam said. “Wrestling was a way for me to get out of the house, put a smile on my face, and kind of block out what was going on elsewhere at the time. It really did kind of progress my life and get me through kind of one of those darker times in my life, so I owe wrestling a lot.”

Karam continues to volunteer his time at Easton High School, where his father now coaches. Karam was wearing an Easton Wrestling T-shirt during his conversation with NBC Sports.

What’s next?

After five years without a definitive, full-time racing schedule, Karam wants more out of racing.

His path back to the track after 2015 was difficult but aided by Dennis Reinbolt, owner of Dreyer & Reinbolt Racing, without whom Karam says he wouldn’t be racing at all. DRR has fielded Karam in every Indy 500 since 2016 as well as cars in the Nitro Rallycross.

In January, Karam was announced to make select Xfinity Series starts for Alpha Prime Racing. Karam told NBC Sports his target is “eight to 12 races” driving the program’s Nos. 44 and 45 Chevrolets.

“That would be a great schedule for me, a great year for me,” he said. “And that would give me a little bit of variety of doing some superspeedway racing, mile-and-a-half (tracks), road courses, short-track racing. Just knocking everything off the checklist and seeing what I can do on different types of tracks.”

Karam is set to compete in his ninth Indianapolis 500 this May with DRR, alongside teammate Santino Ferrucci, who made seven Xfinity starts for Sam Hunt Racing in 2021. Karam is still good friends with many drivers in the IndyCar paddock and enjoys running open-wheel cars. If an opportunity there presented itself, Karam would be interested in pursuing it.

But for now, his eyes are set on NASCAR.

“I think for me, the better opportunity right now is to go chase NASCAR and try to get full-time in the Xfinity Series next year, or even (a) Truck Series full-season effort,” Karam said. “I want to do something at a full-time level, and I haven’t done that in a long, long time. I want to learn, and I want to be able to prove myself and I want to do it right.”

There is one other item on Karam’s radar: another chance to race at Pocono Raceway.

“Pocono was obviously really hard, but I think one of the main things I want to do is go race Pocono again,” Karam said. “That might be a possibility this year for me to go do that in an Xfinity car. And if I could do that, I think that’d be really special for me in the way of just getting through that last part of the healing process I needed to get through.”

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

 

 

 

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”