Rajah Caruth looks to add to Richmond memories in Xfinity Series debut

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Rajah Caruth’s parents told him to gather a few things for an overnight trip, but they didn’t say where they were headed. After the family left their Washington, D.C., home, Caruth fell asleep in the car. 

When he awoke, he saw a sign for Richmond Raceway parking. It took a moment for his grogginess to wear off, but as soon as it did, Caruth’s excitement mirrored that of any other 12-year-old going to Disney for the first time.

He had been fascinated with stock car racing since he saw the movie “Cars.” Caruth wore a Jimmie Johnson uniform for Halloween in the second grade. He watched races, studied results and dreamed of being a driver.

For years, Caruth asked his parents to take him to a NASCAR race. They surprised him with this trip in 2014. Roger Caruth saw his son near tears when they reached the track.

Rajah Caruth recalls getting a race program that came with a diecast car and stopping at a concession stand for Papa John’s pizza. He walked to the stands and proceeded to the fence while Cup cars qualified ahead of that night’s Nationwide Series race.

“The sun sets right out of Turn 4, and they still had that Ferris wheel at the entrance of Turn 3 and it just resonates in my mind,” Caruth told NBC Sports. “I remember having my pizza in my hand and my backpack on and just race cars (on track)… and the sun is setting. It’s a beautiful scene.”

Eight years later, Caruth looks to make more memories at the same track. 

The 19-year-old Winston-Salem State University student will be on the other side of the fence Saturday, making his Xfinity Series debut in the No. 44 Chevrolet for Alpha Prime Racing. He’ll be one of two Black drivers competing in either Cup or Xfinity this weekend, joining Bubba Wallace.

Caruth’s path to this weekend, though, is unlike that of his competitors. 

He remains the only driver to enter the Drive for Diversity program without on-track experience. Caruth’s training came from iRacing, the simulation racing program. His Xfinity debut occurs less than three years after his first race in an actual car, a Legends car event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’s made a remarkable climb in a short time.

“I really can’t grasp it,” Caruth said of his quick rise from Legends cars to late models, ARCA and the Xfinity Series. “It’s pretty bonkers.”

Those who work with Caruth say he’s ready for this opportunity.

“We’ve taken him to a lot of places and thrown a lot of different things at him,” Matt Bucher, competition director at Rev Racing, told NBC Sports. “I never feel like he’s in over his head.”

A new direction

Without on-track experience, Caruth had to stand out in other ways if he hoped to be selected to NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Youth Driver Development program with Rev Racing in 2019. 

Bucher, who was one of those involved in the selection process, said Caruth’s social media presence was important. Caruth tweeted often and posted videos about his iRacing and his interest in NASCAR.

“We’re trying to push together other avenues to get into racing other than having a last name that takes you there,” Bucher said. “You can go and pick up a basketball at a Dick’s Sporting Goods for $20 and play basketball. You can’t buy a race car for that. There needs to be other avenues for children that want to do this (and) can kind of try it and not destroy perfectly good race cars or do things like that.”

If Caruth could succeed, Bucher said, it would show iRacing as “an avenue that we can look for drivers down the road as well. Just to kind of open a door that really wasn’t there.”

The idea that someone could go from iRacing to driving actual cars was shown by William Byron. His on-track experience didn’t begin until he was 14 years old, many years after many of his competitors. He won a Camping World Truck Series rookie record seven races at 18, the Xfinity championship at 19 and Cup rookie of the year honors at 20. 

Byron was 21 when Caruth was selected to the youth driver development program. A path was there for Caruth to follow.

Trying to catch up

Caruth’s white No. 13 Legends car starts at the back of a 19-car semi-pro field in his maiden race June 10, 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He wears a bulky, black driver uniform void of sponsor logos and a personal website address. 

Caruth is days shy of his 17th birthday. Some drivers have completed their first decade of racing by this time. He’s about to start his first race. 

The green flag waves. Caruth charges. He passes three cars on the first lap and another on the second lap. A car makes contact with Caruth’s on the third lap, sending Caruth’s vehicle into the SAFER barrier. He drops to last. The car’s handling is affected and he goes a lap down. Eight minutes after his first race started, it is over. He finishes 17th.

The learning has begun.

“I cannot wait until tomorrow,” Caruth says looking ahead to the next race.

Roger Caruth and son Rajah in 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the Legends car Rajah drove. (Photo: Dustin Long)

That summer, Bubba Wallace runs Legends car races in the pro division between his Cup starts. Caruth has looked up to Wallace for years.

Wallace’s Truck Series win in 2014 at Martinsville Speedway resonates with Caruth. Wallace’s vehicle that day honored NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, the first Black driver to win a Cup race in NASCAR history.

“It means something to see people who look like us do stuff, because that representation gives us confidence to be able to do it,” Caruth said of seeing Wallace win.

Throughout the 2019 summer, Caruth talked with Wallace and learned from him. They practiced together. Wallace had Caruth follow him to see the proper line to run. Wallace also told Caruth to try to hit his car, but Caruth could never catch him.

“I was hard on him, but then I had to realize, man, he’s never raced before,” Wallace told NBC Sports. ” … I had to kind of tone the reins back a little bit and appreciate what he’s been able to do.”

Caruth didn’t mind Wallace’s tough love.

“From a coaching standpoint, that has worked for me through my other sports, especially if I know that person cares and isn’t doing it in a negative manner,” said Caruth, who played basketball and ran track in high school.

As Caruth moved through various racing divisions, he reached out to drivers, crew chiefs and mechanics to seek ways to improve.

“He asked a lot of questions early on to me that I’m thinking, ‘You really don’t know the answer to that?’ There again he’s an iRacer, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,” said Chris Lambert, spotter for Denny Hamlin in Cup and part-time spotter with Caruth in ARCA. 

“It’s good that (Caruth) asks a lot of questions. He’s a student of the game.”

Caruth needs to be to make up for all that experience others have over him. 

Keeping track

The notebook is not what one would expect to see a driver carry. Most drivers type notes about how they performed and how their car ran on a computer, phone or tablet.

Caruth’s notebook is an actual notebook. The mustard-colored cover features a repeating design of flamingos. In a white box, it reads: NOTEBOOK. Below that word it reads THOUGHTS & IDEAS.

Caruth updated the notebook by writing on the cover in a black marker: POST RACE NOTEBOOK. In the lower right hand corner, he wrote RAJAH CARUTH.

He started taking notes June 27, 2020. He competed in twin 40-lap late model features at Hickory Motor Speedway, which bills itself as “The Birthplace of NASCAR Stars.” The track’s champions include Ralph Earnhardt, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson and Harry Gant. Josh Berry, who competes in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports, was the track’s champion in 2014. 

Rajah Caruth looks through the notebook he’s kept for races since June 27, 2020. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Caruth wrote that in the first 40-lap feature he started 18th and finished 18th, noting: “Felt good physically, was a little jittery initially but got into a good rhythm.”

He stated how he was faster than another car but “couldn’t figure out how to pass him.”

In the second twin, Caruth started 18th and finished 18th, noting that he “steadily fell off as the race progressed.”

Caruth summarized that he “kept getting more tired (as the race progressed). Need to eat more pasta and de-stress. Nerves likely contributed to exhaustion as well.”

His early notes read more like a journal entry about how he ran. As he gained experience, the notes become more detailed about the car and how he performed.  

Flipping through the pages, Caruth stops on the notes from a late model race at Florence Motor Speedway in September 2020. 

“This race was big for me because I was very doubtful going into it,” he said.

He had made a mistake the previous race at Myrtle Beach Speedway and wrecked on the backstretch. Caruth carried that disappointment into the race at Florence. 

“How I usually get,” he said of the angst he carried within. “End of the world. Not thinking positively. I started eighth (in Florence) and there were only like 12, 14 cars but it was very top heavy (with good drivers). … I drove up to second.”

His good run ended when his engine blew with 18 laps to go. That didn’t diminish how he good he felt about his performance. 

“I guess,” Caruth said, “the racing gods or God himself (was saying), ‘Look at that. How clear do I have to make it to you that you have what it takes?’”

Contending for an ARCA win

About midway through last month’s ARCA race at Phoenix Raceway, Caruth battled his Rev Racing teammate Nick Sanchez for fifth place. Their duel allowed the leaders to pull away.

Later, Caruth got on the radio to Lambert, crew chief Brad Parrott and Mark Green, Rev Racing’s director of driver development, to apologize.

“I’m sorry for racing my teammate so hard,” Caruth said during the caution break. “I’ve got to make the most of my opportunity. I’m trying to stay in front of him until my tires come in.”

His car was better on a long run. The challenge was that while Caruth would restart fifth, there were less than 50 laps to go and likely more cautions. How would he keep a car that was not as strong early in a run in position to contend for the win?

He maintained until a series of late cautions. On a restart 12 laps from the scheduled distance, Caruth was fifth. He hung back on the restart and worked his way to third within two laps of the restart. He made it to second on the next-to-last restart.

A caution sent the race to overtime. Caruth started on the front row. He again hung back coming to the green flag, but he spun his tires, was stuck four-wide for second and lost positions. He recovered to finish fourth. 

Caruth placed behind winner Taylor Gray, Daniel Dye and Sammy Smith. All three drive for top organizations in the ARCA Menards Series. Gray races for David Gilliland Racing, Dye is with GMS Racing and Smith competes for Kyle Busch Motorsports. 

It was a good effort for Caruth. One he could learn from.

“At the end of the day, it’s (Caruth) believing in himself,” Parrott told NBC Sports after the race, “and that’s what I’m trying to push.”

AUTO: MAR 11 ARCA Menards Series - General Tire 150
Rajah Caruth drove this car to a fourth-place finish in the ARCA Menards Series race at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Reflection

Last year, Caruth took a 1/64 diecast of Dale Earnhardt’s 1998 Daytona 500 winning car with him to races as a good luck charm. 

This year, he’s taking the 1/64 diecast red Coca-Cola car Earnhardt drove in the 1998 NASCAR exhibition race in Japan as his good luck charm.

It goes back to his high school days when he longed to be a driver. He used to bring diecast cars with him to school.

“I wouldn’t even play with them, I would just have them in my backpack,” he said. “If I would get stressed, I would pull one out and have it in my hand or put it in my pocket.”

Even now, having a diecast car can calm Caruth.

“Personally, I’m probably insanely critical about myself,” he said. “Not probably, it is unhealthy, I guess, how critical I am on myself pertaining to my craft of driving. When I’m reflective, I kind of remember how it seemed so foreign to pass somebody or see the leader. Second race of the year (this season) and we go and almost win at Phoenix.

“I remind myself to be reflective, to look at it and put things into perspective, because it’s easy to get into my own head, and I’m terrible about that … and just internalizing negative stuff.”

For as much as he talks about having a positive outlook, he worries about what comes next in his racing career, beginning with Saturday’s Xfinity race at Richmond.

“I know I have to approach it as just another race, but also like it has the opportunity to make or break my career because it is on a national stage,” he told NBC Sports.

Caruth says that even though he’s scheduled to run six Xfinity races this season for Alpha Prime Racing. He’s scheduled to run at Dover, Pocono, Kansas, Martinsville and Phoenix this season. 

So, why does he view Richmond as a make-or-break type of race?

“We started this partnership with Chevrolet this year,” he said. “I‘m hoping I can ride with them, have it parlay into other opportunities and have me grow as a driver in NASCAR. 

“Honestly, after those six races after this year, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll have the opportunity to come back (to Rev Racing) and race ARCA, hopefully. But there’s no Truck plans, no Xfinity plans, no long-term sponsors. 

“Really, I see it as every race with Tommy (Joe Martins) and Alpha Prime, I kind of see it as make or break, it’s an audition. I see that. I still have less than 60 stock car races, and I know I’m very under-experienced. Luckily, I’m able to compete against people that have been racing longer than I’ve been alive and been competitive against them. 

“I hope I can help my draft prospect through these races. It just holds an insane amount of gravity for that reason. … Of course there’s talks and other people (say) ‘come here’ and ‘come here,’ but it’s always ‘How much money can you bring?’ Why do you automatically assume I have funding? I don’t. 

“That’s my look at it. In reality, every race doesn’t have to be make or break. (But) that’s how I see it. That’s the gravity it holds on me. Hopefully, I do good enough.”

Photos by Dustin Long

William Byron focused on Talladega, not upcoming appeal

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — William Byron enters today’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway not knowing if he truly is above the cutline or below it.

He’s listed as eight points outside the final transfer spot after NASCAR penalized him 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports’ appeal will be heard this week. Should the team win, Byron could get those 25 points back. 

But that doesn’t matter to Byron this weekend. He views himself outside a playoff spot.

“I race eight behind,” said Byron, who starts ninth in today’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC).  “I don’t think about the hypotheticals.

“Obviously, I feel like we’ve got a good case and a good amount of evidence that we put together, but I race (as the points are). So just move forward with it. Go after the stage points and feel like we’re capable of running really well at superspeedways.”

If he wins today to advance to the next round, the points he was penalized won’t matter, but if he doesn’t win, those could prove valuable. 

The points deducted are an element of the Hendrick appeal. 

“The severity of the penalty, that’s what we were opposed to and that’s what the appeal is about,” Byron said.

His point is that being docked a similar amount of points in a three-race round as during a 26-race regular season is too severe. The suggestion being that point penalties should be modified for the playoffs because drivers have fewer races to make up those points before the playoff field is cut. 

That will be up to the appeal panel to determine. Should Hendrick lose, the team could further appeal that decision. 

Byron is in this situation after being upset with how Hamlin squeezed him into the wall last week at Texas. Martin Truex Jr. crashed to bring out the caution a few laps later. As Hamlin, running second, slowed, Byron ran up to Hamlin’s car and hit it in the back, sending Hamlin spinning through the infield grass. 

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said series officials in the control tower didn’t see the contact. Series officials did not penalize Byron during the event but announced a penalty two days later. 

Hamlin had wanted to be placed back in his original spot after the contact but series officials put him back in the field where he blended in. Asked if he was satisfied with the penalty to Bryon, Hamlin said: “It didn’t help my finish. … It didn’t change the fact that I could have won the race instead of finishing 10th.”

Byron said he and Hamlin spoke this week.

“It was a good conversation, learned a lot from him,” Byron said of Hamlin. “Got a better understanding of what he was thinking.”

Byron’s incident shares similarities to what happened to him at Darlington in May. Joey Logano was upset with Byron for crowding him into the wall with 26 laps left. Logano caught Byron and hit the back of Byron’s car, knocking it out of the way with two laps left. Logano won. Byron finished 13th. NASCAR did not penalize Logano.

That incident was under green and in the final laps — when NASCAR is more likely to allow drivers to settle the race between themselves within reason. Byron’s contact of Hamlin last week was under caution and NASCAR typically frowns upon such action.

Earlier this season in the Xfinity Series, NASCAR did not penalize Noah Gragson for wrecking Sage Karam and triggering a 13-car crash at Road America. Four days later, NASCAR penalized Gragson 30 points and $35,000.

Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.