Long: Toyota boss celebrates win weeks after ‘our worst performance’ in Cup

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RICHMOND, Va. — Three weeks after what the president of Toyota Racing Development described as “our worst performance in our history racing in (the Cup) series,” a Toyota was in victory lane Sunday at Richmond Raceway.

Denny Hamlin’s win meant so much for the manufacturer and Joe Gibbs Racing, giving both a better feeling about the future.

Concern was raised last month at Phoenix Raceway. Toyotas led none of the 312 laps at the track that will host the championship race in November. 

Toyota had won the Phoenix playoff race from 2017-19, but has not won the playoff race there since it became the site of the championship in 2020.

While Toyota had two cars in the top 10 at Phoenix last month — Kurt Busch was fifth and Kyle Busch was seventh — the struggles with the Next Gen car were eye-opening for Wilson.

“It was absolutely embarrassing,” he told NBC Sports on Sunday. “We more than missed it. We screwed that up royally, and we made some mistakes heading to Phoenix. Knowing that obviously the championship is going to be settled at Phoenix, we needed to figure out what we did wrong, and we needed to run well here.

“This, for us, as much as anything, gives us a degree of confidence, and believe me, we are feeling a lot better getting back to Phoenix in the fall.”

What changed after Phoenix for Toyota?

Wilson said Toyota and its team did a better job with its simulation program and understanding how the new, larger tire reacts on the track. 

“We made some errors … in some of the work we had been doing,” Wilson told NBC Sports without revealing specifics. “We’ve had some a-ha moments over the past few weeks. What translated to the racetrack gave us the confidence of ‘OK, now we have a better understanding of that,’ and it’s pointing in the right direction.”

Hamlin’s victory snapped an 12-race winless streak for Joe Gibbs Racing. That doesn’t seem like much but Gibbs had won 46 of the last 108 races (42.6 percent) entering this season.

“When you’ve had the level of success we’ve enjoyed, you have expectations of yourself, and the folks that I work for have expectations,” Wilson said. “You become a bit of a victim of your own success. In saying that, we checked a huge box.”

Sunday marked the first time this year that JGR placed all four of its cars in the top 10.

Richmond helps make up for some of the early woes for JGR and Toyota. That included the February race at Auto Club Speedway. Toyota designed a screen to keep debris out of the radiator, but the screen ended up clogging with debris and caused overheating issues.

“We’ve been beating ourselves up like you cannot believe because some of what we’ve seen over the first six races have been shooting ourselves in the foot,” Wilson said.

“Those are the tough ones and the hard ones to swallow. The good news is that we have found some things that we missed and that we are looking at now, and I think those things will help us as we move forward the next few weeks.”

Even with the win, it doesn’t mean Toyota has caught up to Chevrolet, which has won four of the first seven races, or even match Ford, which was two wins this year. 

“In today’s NASCAR schedule, the one thing that’s hard to find is anything common,” said winning crew chief Chris Gabehart. “We’re comparing Richmond to Phoenix, which any insider would tell you is not much of a comparison. But it’s all we have to draw off of these days because (NASCAR has) done such a nice job of diversifying the schedule such that there is not a common thread.”

Sunday’s race, the seventh points race of the season, marked the seventh different type of track. Next week’s race at Martinsville Speedway will be the first time the series will race on a similar style track — a short track — this season but even that is a bit misleading. What is learned at Richmond won’t necessarily translate to Martinsville because these short tracks vary greatly.

It also doesn’t mean that Hamlin will retain his success at Martinsville, a track at which he’s scored five Cup wins in his career. That’s how much the Next Gen car can impact things and how much teams have to learn about the new car.

“I could see Martinsville being one of the more different races for a guy like Denny that we’ve went to yet,” Gabehart said. “Denny is so honed in at Martinsville through so many different types of cars over his career.

“In a Cup car, we took 80 horsepower away from him, gave him 2-inch wider car. It is a 200-pound heavier car. It has a higher center of gravity and better brakes. He’s going to go to Martinsville in the first 10 laps and be as lost as last year’s Easter egg.

“He was so honed in on perfection of what that car was for so many years. This car is going to be wildly different. I think that’s going to be a lot of fun for you watch, why you’re seeing great racing. But golly, it’s a lot of learning for these guys, for sure.”

That’s what makes Sunday’s win mean so much and the overall performance by Toyota. Its drivers combined to lead 149 of 400 laps. 

“What I keep telling everybody, what I’m looking forward to most is I know we’re not at our best right now,” Gabehart said. “There’s a lot of things internally we got to get better. We’re on a road to doing it. It’s nice to win in spite of that, to be honest.”

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.

 

Ryan Truex to drive six races for JGR Xfinity team in 2023

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Ryan Truex is scheduled to run six Xfinity Series races in the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023.

Truex ran five races for JGR in 2022, finishing in the top five three times. He ran third at Atlanta.

Truex also drove limited Xfinity schedules for JGR in 2011 and 2012.

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“We are looking forward to having Ryan back in our lineup in 2023 to run the No. 19,” said JGR vice president Steve DeSouza in a statement released by the team. “He has done well in the races he has run at JGR. His previous experience and driving ability will be assets as the No. 19 competes for an owner’s championship next year.”

JGR has not announced which races Truex will run or which drivers will be his teammates in the 19.

“I am thrilled to be behind the wheel of the No. 19 for a few races next season,” Truex said in a team statement. “It was fun to run well with this team this past year. I appreciate the opportunity to race for JGR again next year.”

Jason Ratcliff will be the team’s crew chief.

Truex, 30, has run 26 Cup, 84 Xfinity and 73 Camping World Truck Series races without a win.