Friday 5: Ryan Blaney the student seeks to be the teacher at Martinsville

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After finishing 25th in the April 2017 Martinsville Cup race, Ryan Blaney studied how Brad Keselowski, then his teammate at Team Penske, won that race.

“I went back and looked at Brad’s data from that whole race,” Blaney told NBC Sports earlier this year. “What did he do at the start of the run? What did he do in the middle? What did he do at the end of a run with his feet, brake, rolling speed, getting on the gas?”

Blaney’s first three Cup races at Martinsville netted finishes no better than 19th. After studying Keselowski’s data, Blaney placed eighth at Martinsville in the October 2017 race and followed it in March 2018 by finishing third, winning a stage and leading 145 laps. 

It’s an example of how driver data, such as throttle trace, steering angle, brake usage and more, can prove helpful.

“To an extent it’s hard to teach you something new, but if you really work on it and it clicks, then it is great,” Blaney said of the driver data available to competitors. “That was probably the biggest one of night and day difference (after studying data).”

Blaney heads into Saturday night’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1), having finished no worse than 11th in his last six starts at the track. He also enters the eighth Cup race of the season tied with close friend Chase Elliott in points at the top of the standings.

Blaney has started on the front row in each of the last four races, winning the pole three times. He’s also led the most laps this season while he continues to seek his first victory of the season.

Even with that success, Blaney admits preparing for each race with the new car is challenging.

“A lot of it right now is trying to take as much notes as you can from Phoenix, Richmond, apply it to Martinsville, honestly maybe take a little bit at what we learned at the (Clash at the) Coliseum and apply it,” Blaney said this week. “Some of it is kind of shoot from the hip and you just hope that what you sim and what you engineer, kind of think up, you hope is close.

“I will say we’ve done a great job of being close unloading at all these tracks this year.”

By having the setup close to what Blaney needs, it allows him to run more laps in the abbreviated practice sessions. 

At Phoenix, he ran the most laps in practice, finishing second on the speed chart and second in best average over 10 consecutive laps. The result was a fourth-place finish that saw him win a stage and lead 143 laps. 

At Richmond, he ran 44 laps in practice, second only to teammate Joey Logano’s 49. Blaney was third on the speed chart and had the best average over 10 consecutive laps. That led to a seventh-place finish, his top result at that track.

Running all those laps helped Blaney adjust to the car at each track. He’s ranked among the leaders in laps run in practice since Auto Club Speedway, the second race of the year. 

“My biggest thing is just to have an open mind going to these tracks,” Blaney said. 

He’s also had to break some habits he had with the previous car. Those extra laps in practice help with that, but it’s not always easy.

Ruoff Mortgage 500 - Qualifying
Ryan Blaney has led in every Cup race this season. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

“I would say going to (Auto Club) and Vegas, that was really difficult because big, fast race tracks, you can wreck pretty easy at those tracks,” Blaney said of changing his habits. “The shorter tracks, it’s a little bit easier to kind of get up to speed just because you’re not going as fast, you have a general idea, sense of where you’re lifting and you can gauge the brake pedal a little bit more than running 190 in the corner at (Auto Club and thinking), ‘I hope this thing sticks, I hope I didn’t lift too late.’ 

“It’s just a little bit different. Muscle memory is hard to overcome, and I catch myself doing tendencies that I used to do with the old car with this one. Just have to kind of learn to kick those. 

“Some tendencies still work. It’s still a race car at the end of the day and you’re fighting the same things. You just have to learn to adapt, that’s the biggest thing.”

But going off into the corner at 190 mph isn’t what makes him most nervous these days. It’s off the track where nerves can strike most.

He founded the Ryan Blaney Family Foundation in 2018 and has partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association and UPMC Sports Medicine. 

Blaney’s grandfather was stricken with Alzheimer’s. The University of Pittsburgh’s Sports Medicine facility offers a range of services for athletes of all ages and status. That is where Dale Earnhardt Jr. received treatment for his concussion symptoms. Blaney’s father, Dave, also received treatment there after a severe concussion in a racing accident. 

Blaney’s foundation will hold a charitable event before the Coca-Cola 600 in May to fund a pair of fellowships at UPMC. It will be the first major event for Blaney’s foundation since COVID.

“Hopefully, this goes well and we raise a bunch of money for UPMC,” Blaney said. “It’s nerve-racking. I get more nervous planning those events than racing because it is something fairly new to me and not something you have a huge control over, you just hope people support it.”

2. Helping hand

NASCAR Hall of Famer Ray Evernham turns 65 in August, but he’s not looking to slow down.

“One of my mentors is Roger Penske,” Evernham told NBC Sports, “and he’s 85 and he’s still rolling.”

So … yes, Evernham is willing to take on another project.

“I would love to find a place in the sport for me,” he said. “I feel like I still have something to add. I don’t want to be 200 days a year on the road like I was. I would love to be able to find a way to work with NASCAR or (Speedway Motorsports) or race tracks. I want to be around it. I feel I have something to add. I’ve got over 40 years of experience, hopefully I’ve got something there.”

NHOF Class of 2021 Blue Jacket Ceremony
Ray Evernham talks with Joe Gibbs during the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2021 jacket ceremony . (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Evernham has had many roles throughout his career. He raced modifieds and had the nickname “Hollywood Ray” at the time. He moved on to a role as a crew member before he became Jeff Gordon’s crew chief. Evernham revolutionized the sport while winning three championships and 49 races in the 1990s, including a pair of Daytona 500s and Brickyard 400s with Gordon. 

Evernham led Dodge’s return to the sport in 2001 and came back to Cup as a car owner. His drivers won 13 times, including Bill Elliott’s victory at the 2002 Brickyard 400. 

He later moved into a role as a TV commentator, became a track owner and helped Tony Stewart start the Superstar Racing Experience (SRX), the summer series that debuted last year and raced at select short tracks across the country.

Evernham no longer has an active role in the series, giving him the chance to search for his next project. 

“I’ve done a lot of things in the business and development side,” he said. “I feel I’d be a good advisor … or a good project manager. What I was able to do with SRX last year was a complete combination of all those things I did. I would love to do with that NASCAR or something now.”

It would seem that there could be a valuable role for Evernham to play somewhere in the sport.

“I feel like I’ve always had an ability to look out into the future,” Evernham said.

Imagine the places he could help NASCAR go.

3. Looking ahead 

Erik Jones has taken a different approach since joining Richard Petty Motorsports last season.

Once a part of Toyota’s driver development program with Kyle Busch Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, Jones took advantage of the equipment he had, winning the 2015 Truck title as a rookie, 2016 Xfinity rookie of the year and 2017 Cup rookie of the year. He’s the first driver to win rookie honors in Truck, Xfinity and Cup in consecutive seasons. 

When Joe Gibbs Racing brought Christopher Bell in to take Jones’ spot for the 2021 season, Jones moved to Richard Petty Motorsports, which merged with GMS Racing before this season to form Petty GMS Motorsports.  

“Going to RPM, I knew it would be a shift,” Jones said. “I didn’t expect to go out and win races right away. I knew it was going to be a building process. I think everybody was on the same page as that. 

“I think that was just the outlook I had. I think that’s what kept me in the game, was looking to the future of what we can do to improve. I stayed confident in my ability, still confident in my ability. It was just a matter of getting the right people and the right people in position.

“I think multiple things in the off-season have helped that, merging with GMS, Dave (Elenz) coming on board (as crew chief). All these things were planned to help our program.”

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 - Qualifying
Erik Jones is closing in on 200 career Cup starts. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones has been running better than he’s finished this year. His average running position is 14.8. His average finish is 19.1.

Jones’ best result this year is third at Auto Club Speedway. He finished ninth at Circuit of the Americas and was 14th at Atlanta, but he’s had three finishes of 25th or worse this season. Two of those results came after he was eliminated in an accident.

Saturday’s race at Martinsville will be Jones’ 191st Cup start and he doesn’t turn 26 until May 30. 

“There’s guys in this sport that have started after me and won multiple championships, and I’ve been able to be in the sport now for five years at this point and just continue to build to where I want to be,” he said.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson didn’t make his first Cup start until he was 25 years old in 2001. Former Cup champion Brad Keselowski had two Cup starts before he turned 25. Former Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. had five Cups starts before he turned 25. 

“I have 20 more years in NASCAR if I want and if I get the opportunities to be here for that long,” Jones said. “That’s kind of the way I look at it and just know that time’s on my side. I never looked at it that way until last year, but I think you have to be analytical somewhat of the situation you are in and that’s how I approach things.”

4. Race lengths

Saturday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway will be 400 laps, marking the first time since October 1956 that the track has had a scheduled 400-lap Cup race. The Cup races have most often been 500 laps. A reason for the change is the switch to a night event.

Earlier this month, Atlanta Motor Speedway ran its first Cup race with the superspeedway configuration, making the racing more like Daytona and Talladega than a traditional 1.5-mile speedway. The Atlanta race had 11 cautions and lasted 3 hours, 57 minutes, 14 seconds.

That race was 91 seconds shorter than last year’s Coca-Cola 600, which had 100 more miles.

This year’s Atlanta race was nearly 30 minutes more than what each of the last four 500-mile races at the that track were. Each of those four races had five cautions. 

Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president, racing development and strategy, addressed the Atlanta race and its length this week.

“I think race length is something that we’re always certainly thinking about,” he said. “To your point, that was a longer race than I think we had expected. 

“The racing product was compelling the entire day. A lot of side-by-side racing. A lot of hard racing between the competitors. I think it made it really exciting for our fans. Something we’ll continue to monitor as we think about the event and the lengths of the event. I think overall, certainly an exciting event, and a good way to kick off our season with one of the earlier events.”

5. Stage points

A look at the drivers with the most stage points this season (via Racing Insights):

74 – Ryan Blaney

64 – William Byron

62 – Chase Elliott

61 – Joey Logano

53 – Kyle Larson

51 – Martin Truex Jr.

43 – Ross Chastain

40 – Chase Briscoe

38 – Tyler Reddick

35 – Brad Keselowski

 

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.