Drivers to watch for in the NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway

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NASCAR heads to Richmond Raceway this weekend for the first points race at a short track this season.

The Next Gen car has yet to be utilized on a track quite like Richmond, but that’s because no track on the schedule offers a straight-up comparison to what will be displayed Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

What we do know is that drivers who tend to run well on short tracks continue to excel at the ¾-mile oval. That’s not expected to change this weekend.

FRONT RUNNERS

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: Seventh
  • Last three races: 35th (DNF) — Phoenix; 8th — Atlanta; 7th — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: Won three of last five races, including September 2021

Truex has been exceptional at Richmond since 2016, dating back to his days with Furniture Row Racing. Since the fall race of 2016, Truex has led 1,157 laps and boasts a streak of six straight top fives. The 2017 series champion has scored points in 17 of the 18 stages run at Richmond and notoriously finds his way to the front of the field.

Truex has been fairly quiet throughout the season’s first six races, notching three top 10s (seventh at COTA, eighth at Las Vegas and Atlanta), two finishes of 13th (Daytona, Auto Club) and a crash at Phoenix that left him 35th. He was, however, hot on the heels of teammate Kyle Busch for a potential Las Vegas win before a late caution and subsequent pit strategy jolted the results.

If ever there was a track where Truex could make a statement, Richmond would likely be it. The next step is waiting to see whether his prior successes can translate to the Next Gen car.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 11th
  • Last three races: 7th — Phoenix; 33rd (DNF) — Atlanta; 28th — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: 11 top-10 finishes in last 12 races

Joe Gibbs Racing is highly touted in this week’s edition for good reason: the organization has won eight of the last 12 races at Richmond and finished 1-2-3 in two of the last five.

Busch, of course, is a significant contributor to that stat line, collecting six career wins at Richmond, the most recent in September 2018. While it’s been some time since Busch’s last victory here, the two-time Cup champion has collected eight straight finishes of ninth or better. No driver with more than 15 starts at Richmond holds a higher average finish than Busch’s 6.9, and no active driver has more top fives at Richmond than Busch’s 18.

The last two weeks have produced dismal results for the No. 18 team. Richmond may be the perfect place to turn those around.

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Third
  • Last three races: 8th — Phoenix; 9th — Atlanta; 31st — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: Three straight top fives

Logano is the only driver to win at a short track in the Next Gen car, courtesy of his victory at the quarter-mile track built within the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the exhibition Clash.

That almost certainly won’t translate this weekend, but Logano has a strong track record in Richmond regardless. The 2018 Cup champion has two wins here, along with 13 top 10s in his last 15 Richmond starts.

Logano has just one top-five finish this year (fifth at Auto Club) and comes off a disappointing run at Circuit of the Americas. But he and teammate Ryan Blaney have proven Team Penske are frontrunners this season — Blaney leads the series in average running position at 10.107 and Logano sits third at 12.014. To see the No. 22 Ford up front would be no surprise.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 22nd
  • Last three races: 13th — Phoenix; 29th (DNF) — Atlanta; 18th — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: Four top-fives in last five races

On the heels of two consecutive runner-up finishes at Richmond, Hamlin should be expected to contend for the win Sunday. But it’s hard to afford the No. 11 team the benefit of the doubt right now.

After six races, Hamlin sits 22nd in points and has failed to finish half the races this season. His 13th-place finish at Phoenix remains his best of the season. It’s a stark contrast from what has been expected of Hamlin in recent years, although he went to Victory Lane just twice in 2021 (Darlington 2, Las Vegas 2).

The good news is that Richmond, his home track, has been somewhere Hamlin excels. With three career wins there, Hamlin is the active leader in laps led (2,108) and stage wins (five) and has led at least 45 laps in each of the last three races. The list of winners this year is growing, and with 20 events left in the regular season, it’s not crazy to think Hamlin may soon need a win to advance into the playoffs.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: Second
  • Last three races: 4th — Phoenix; 17th — Atlanta; 6th — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: Two finishes of 11th or better in 2021

Richmond is unquestionably Blaney’s worst track at which he’s made more than two starts. In 11 starts at the ¾-mile track, Blaney has just one top-10 finish, a 10th-place finish in September.

He leads the series in laps led in 2022, but Blaney has never led a lap at Richmond. The finishes haven’t been his only enemy either — Blaney has scored points in just two of his 18 stages there.

Last season, his Richmond results finally took a swing in the right direction, coupling an 11th-place effort in the spring to go with his lone top 10. Those mark his only two top 15s in 11 starts. Luckily for him, the Next Gen car has suited him well through six races. Perhaps it can help solve Blaney’s Richmond woes.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: Fourth
  • Last three races: 14th — Phoenix; 10th — Atlanta; 2nd — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: Two top 10s in last three races

Bowman led the final 10 laps of the spring race at Richmond a season ago en route to his first of four wins in 2021.

Richmond has historically not been a great track for him. In 11 career starts, Bowman has finished 12th or worse nine times and scored points in six of 14 stages. His last three Richmond starts, though, have built some semblance of consistency, collecting finishes of ninth (fall 2020) and 12th (fall 2021) to accompany his win.

The last four races this season have produced good results too, with a win at Las Vegas, a runner-up at Circuit of the Americas and two top-15 runs sandwiched in between. Whether that continues remains to be seen.

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.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.