Friday 5: For 2 NASCAR drivers from Ukraine, war causes pain, grief

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Igor Romanov apologizes, although he doesn’t need to do so. One of two drivers from Ukraine in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, Romanov speaks English well, but there are times when he pauses, waves his arms, and searches for the right word as he discusses the impact of war in his country. 

“It’s really hard when you are emotional, you forget some words,” he told NBC Sports.

Romanov lived in Kyiv, Ukraine until Russian missiles rained on his city and troops advanced. The explosions were distant, yet the shock waves rattled his windows. 

“We need to go,” Romanov told his wife. 

He, his wife, 10-year-old son and the family cat fled the city shortly after the attack started in February. They traveled nearly 350 miles to Lviv in western Ukraine.

Romanov sees videos and pictures of the devastation in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Buildings he is familiar with are destroyed or damaged. The shopping mall destroyed by a missile — the impact caught on a security camera — he knows well. He was there a couple of weeks before the war began when he had a meeting about having a new TV studio there.  

In his role as a director of photography at a Ukrainian TV station, he sees his hometown’s devastation daily. Even so, the notion is hard to fathom.

“I remember in my head, all these places are still like they were before the war,” he said via Zoom. “I see the photos (of the damage). I post them on Facebook because I want the world community to see this crazy destruction.”

The images are painful to view.  

“It’s really hard to see that,” Romanov said. “I understand how many lives were destroyed, how many dreams were destroyed. It’s probably the hardest thing. I see how many children have died. It’s not a problem to build a new building or something like that (but) we will (not have those lives) back.”

A friend of his, who was a cameraman, was killed in Mariupol, the besieged port city that has been a focal point in the war and faces a devastating humanitarian crisis. 

As Romanov discusses the war, he talks about dreams lost. That’s personal to him. While he’d always been a motorsports fan — he served as an announcer for NASCAR races on Ukraine TV until the war started — he dreamed of competing.

Igor Romanov has run select races in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series the past two seasons. (Photo courtesy of Igor Romanov)

Romanov became a fan of IndyCar racing in the late 1990s. He bought a satellite system and soon saw NASCAR races.

“When I was watching the Daytona 500 for the first time in 2000, I said, ‘Wow, it is absolutely fantastic!’ I became a real big fan of NASCAR,” he said.

Bobby Labonte became Romanov’s favorite driver. When Labonte competed in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series in 2017-18, Romanov met him and told him of his desire to race. Labonte encouraged him to pursue his dream.

Romanov went to a racing school when he was 40 years old. He made his EuroNASCAR2 debut in 2020 at age 44. Romanov made his EuroNASCAR Pro debut in 2021. He is unsure of his racing plans this season, but NASCAR has provided some comfort in the way teams and drivers have supported various causes for Ukraine.

“We are really grateful to the United States of America,” Romanov told NBC Sports. “Really grateful for the NASCAR community, for Richard Childress, Roger Penske, Stefan Parsons, Hailie Deegan … Team Hendrick. It’s really important for us. We are proud to be Ukrainian. I want one day to come on one of the (NASCAR) circuits with the Ukrainian flag.”

Childress spurred a move to donate ammunition to Ukraine soldiers. Team Penske cars have decals of Ukraine flags, and the Penske Corporation made a $1 million donation to the World Central Kitchen, which provides meals in response to humanitarian crises. 

Parsons’ BJ McLeod Motorsports Xfinity car ran “Ukraine Strong” on the hood at Las Vegas. Deegan’s Truck for David Gilliland Racing had the Ukraine flag on the bed of the vehicle at Atlanta. Team owner Rick Hendrick and the Hendrick Automotive Group committed $200,000 to Samaritan’s Purse to support disaster assistance and pledged $2,000 toward Ukraine relief for every lap a Hendrick Motorsports car led at Las Vegas. 

The donations are meaningful, just as are images of the Ukraine flag.

Yevgen Sokolovskiy

Yevgen Sokolovskiy, who is from Odessa, Ukraine, also races in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series and is never far from his country’s flag. Sokolovskiy, a fan of Jimmie Johnson because they both drove the No. 48 in stock cars, wears a blue-and-gold wristband that represents his country’s flag with his watch.

He’s also had Ukraine’s flag on his car.

“Last two years I have questions from people, ‘Why do you drive with the Ukraine flag? You’ve lived in Germany for 20 years,’” Sokolovskiy told NBC Sports via Zoom. “I am a citizen of Ukraine. I have a Ukraine passport. … I am proud of my country.”

While Odessa, Ukraine is not on the frontlines, the war has impacted Sokolovskiy’s family. His mother and sister were in Odessa when the war began. 

That first day produced a flurry of calls and messages from friends and family throughout the country. He told his mother to take his sister and leave. They did and are safe. 

“We wait,” Sokolovskiy said. “We’re looking every day at the news. We’re waiting for positive news.”

He also struggles with seeing the destruction in his country.

“It’s not easy to see because it’s a very, very beautiful city, Kyiv,’ he said. “Very, very beautiful city Kharkiv. Odessa the same.”

The war has changed how Romanov views life. He used to look ahead to summer vacations, NASCAR Euro Whelen Series races, his next broadcast and a possible trip to the U.S. to visit NASCAR shrines, including Daytona Beach’s Streamline Hotel, the birthplace of NASCAR.

But now?

“I’m thinking only about tomorrow because I don’t know how the situation will change in the next couple of hours,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m worried about the lost dream. It’s really important. When you have a dream, you have the possibility to move, to do something not only for you personally but for all people around you. 

“First thing I realized when I come with my family to a more safe place than Kyiv … I’m worried they lost this dream. The night before, I’m thinking about my future, the future of my family. … After (Feb. 24) I didn’t understand the future. I didn’t understand if we will wake up tomorrow or not.

“Now, I believe we’ll get our dreams in our hearts. I think it’s really important for every people on our planet. … After my broadcasts of NASCAR Cup races on Ukrainian TV, I told my audience, ‘You may believe in your dream. Your dream knows the way. If you believe in your dream, you will find the right way.’ 

“Now, I think every one of us need to believe in our dream.”

Igor Romanov broadcasting the Clash at the Coliseum in early February on Ukraine TV. His last broadcast was the Daytona 500 before the war began and halted such programming. (Photo: Igor Romanov)

2. Cup future?

Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JR Motorsports, says “the window is not closed” for a potential shift to Cup, but she told NBC Sports’ Zach Sturniolo this week that the timing would need to be right.

JR Motorsports has looked at a Cup operation but there have been several challenges. Those have ranged from acquiring a charter to if the team would need another partner since co-owner Rick Hendrick would have to divest from the team because no person can have ownership in more than one Cup team.

Several teams have entered Cup recently because of the potential long-term savings with the Next Gen car. Live Fast Motorsports, 23XI Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Petty GMS Motorsports and Kaulig Racing all have joined Cup as full-time teams since 2021. 

“To me, it’s all about timing,” Earnhardt Miller said. “What’s going to make sense, right? So, we were thinking through it last year, in terms of the new car. Obviously, that kind of propelled our thought process on … that barrier of entry and … what we thought would be more competitive.”

She said team officials had conversations about charters, but things didn’t fall into place to do a deal.

“I’m really all about timing,” Earnhardt Miller said. “I don’t like to rush things. If I absolutely feel 100 percent good about it, I’m ready to pull the trigger. But if I have reservations, I’m ready to do my due diligence.”

She and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have relied on Hendrick for help as they pondered a Cup operation.

“He was our first call because there’s not much that he’s put his finger on that hasn’t went well,” Earnhardt Miller said. “How do we do this? Can we do this? What do you think about us doing this? And they’ve been right alongside of us to try to answer questions and help us navigate what it could look like.”

If JR Motorsports had a Cup team, what would the ownership structure look like with Hendrick having to divest?

“In a perfect world, I don’t want partners,” Earnhardt Miller told NBC Sports. “I like doing things. I think we’re capable of doing things, where we have a great group here and management here and would have to fill out our team.”

She also acknowledges that a new partner could benefit a move to Cup.

“We have a good track record, we’ve got a great brand in JR Motorsports, we’ve got a great personality with Dale Jr.,” Earnhardt Miller said. “He really wants to participate and be in the Cup Series. So, you know, in the perfect world, we would either be majority (owner) or not have a partner but, you know, the world’s not perfect.”

3. Greater parity

An average of seven different teams are recording top-10 finishes per race through the first six events of the season. Last year, an average of 6.1 different teams scored top-10 finishes per race through the first six events.

During Wednesday’s MotorMouths (6-7 p.m. ET Mondays and Wednesdays on Peacock), the panel was asked who they were worried about. NASCAR on NBC analyst Kyle Petty, noting the balance in the sport, took a different approach.

“I’m worried about the establishment and what I mean by that is Hendrick, Penske and Gibbs,” Petty said. “The guys that run up front week in and week out. Eight cars in the top 10 with two organizations. … These guys are showing up individually, Kyle Busch might show up. Joey Logano might show up. If we look at it, this past weekend at COTA, six different organizations in the top 10.

“We’ve had races where nine different organizations were in the top 10. Where is the establishment? Where is that cornerstone that what we felt was the solid part of the sport, the sharp end of the stick, those guys dominating week in and week out. They haven’t shown up.

“I’m not saying they won’t show up. I am concerned … I am concerned because they haven’t shown up. … They had all the opportunities to show up before JTG showed up, before Petty GMS showed up, before Trackhouse showed up. They had every opportunity to be the first guys out of the gate and they’re not.”

No organization has had a car place in the top 10 in all six races this year. Last year, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing each had at least one car place in the top 10 in each of the first six races.

In three races a year ago, Hendrick and JGR cars combined for 60% of the top 10. That’s happened only once this year (both teams combined for 70% of the top 10 at Las Vegas).

4. Return to Victory Lane

While this season has been celebrated for having three first-time winners in the the first six points races, it also means that a number of former champions have yet to reach Victory Lane this season. 

Reigning Cup champ Kyle Larson is the only former champion to win a points race in the series this year (Joey Logano won the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race).

Here is a look at the winless streaks for former Cup champions entering Sunday’s race at Richmond Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox):

49 races – Kevin Harvick

35 races – Joey Logano

32 races – Brad Keselowski

23 races – Kyle Busch

22 races – Chase Elliott

21 races – Kurt Busch

14 races – Martin Truex Jr.

4 races – Kyle Larson 

 5. Young talent 

Three drivers are scheduled to make their Xfinity debut Saturday at Richmond. That equals the number of drivers who have made their series debut in the first five races of the season.

Making their debut Saturday are: Derek Griffith, Rajah Caruth and Howie DiSavino III.

Griffith, 25, is the 2018 Pro All Stars champion. DiSavino, 21, grew up in Chesterfield, Virginia, which is a short drive to Richmond Raceway. Caruth, 19, started racing less than three years ago. 

Griffith will drive the No. 26 for Sam Hunt Racing. Caruth will drive the No. 44 for Alpha Prime Racing. DiSavino will be in the No. 45 for Alpha Prime Racing. 

Parker Chase has the best finish this season for a driver making their series debut. He placed 19th last weekend at Circuit of the Americas. Nick Sanchez was 26th at Phoenix. Parker Retzlaff was 36th at Phoenix after qualifying sixth. 

 

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

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Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.