Long: Martinsville Cup race leaves drivers seeking changes

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The lasting image of this weekend’s action at Martinsville Speedway will be the punches Ty Gibbs threw at Sam Mayer after Friday’s Xfinity Series race.

That will overshadow what happened in Saturday’s Cup race — even with the feel-good moment of William Byron celebrating the win with his mom a year after she had a stroke-like event at this race.

It’s just that Martinsville often builds an anticipation of close racing, passing, beating and banging and drama at the end. While Saturday’s Cup race went to overtime, this might be an event that fades into track’s storied history.

Saturday’s Cup race had five lead changes among four drivers. Chase Elliott led the first 185 laps, and Byron led the next 118 before green-flag pit stops. He regained the point and went on to lead the final 43 laps. That was it.

“I know, certainly, we want to put on a better product than that,” Denny Hamlin said of the racing with the Next Gen car after finishing 28th.

A combination of factors led to the type of racing fans saw — or didn’t see. The race featured only four cautions, including two for stage breaks. 

With temperatures hovering around 40 degrees during the night race, tire wear was not an issue.

“Anytime it’s below 40 degrees I’d say, the tires don’t even lay rubber,” Byron said. “That was definitely a factor all night.”

Ryan Blaney said after finishing fourth that more work can be done with the tires. 

“The left sides just don’t wear on this car,” he said. “That’s just kind of how it is, so I know they’ve been playing around with softer lefts and things like that, so go for it. I mean, go way softer, especially on the lefts and see where it gets you.”

While Ross Chastain finished fifth after starting 27th, drivers talked about the challenge of passing — or getting close enough to pass.

Cole Custer started third and ran in the top five for the first two stages until a pit road penalty for an uncontrolled tire put him at the back of the field. He never recovered, finishing 21st.

“It just seemed, at least from my point of view, that the cars would actually get a little bit aero tight in the corner,” Custer told NBC Sports. “When you’re back in traffic, it just made it so you couldn’t get to the guy’s bumper and really do what you need to do. Everybody’s cars were pretty equal, honestly, too, and no rubber got put down.”

Hamlin and Bubba Wallace each kept the leader from lapping them for several laps at one point. 

“I just aero blocked,” Hamlin said. “It’s crazy to say that. You just try to take away his air and run on the curb and maybe he’ll mess up. We sucked so bad we couldn’t hold him off.

Brad Keselowski told NBC Sports: Aero was a big problem.”

He got shuffled to the back after a pit road penalty and finished 17th. 

“It was a different type of race,” Keselowski said. “I’m not sure I would say (the Next Gen cars) were not right for short tracks, but I would say we also could do a little more work.”

Kevin Harvick, who finished 14th, told NBC Sports: “The car is fine. The gear ratios are way wrong.”

Hamlin said it’s not one issue that led to Saturday night’s racing.

“If you drove these cars, you’d know that the wake is big,” he said. “We just don’t have the ability to have the mechanical grip right now to pass. It’s a combination of the car, track and tire. It’s those things put all together that equal what we have. We’re learning, we’re trying to get better, but no idea of how you fix this thing right now.”

But Hamlin said timing could be a key for any changes.

“Listen, if we want big changes, we have to be testing now for next year because we have to get new parts made. We can’t even get the parts we’ve got now,” he said. “Everything is just so delayed. 

“We can’t go to the end of this season and say ‘Alright, let’s address the racing at Martinsville, Phoenix and Richmond.’ It is too late then. It is too late. You can’t get the parts. We have to be testing now, and I think probably what we could do or should do is get a couple of engineers or something from each team to collaborate on what do we think will make it better.  

“That’s what happened when we re-tested Charlotte (in December). NASCAR came to us and said please help us. … So the teams got together, ‘Let’s try this’ and ‘Let’s try that.’ And we made it better. The car was dramatically better from when I tested in Charlotte (in November) from when the guys went back, but it doesn’t address this type of racing.”

As teams and the sport learn more, any adjustments can be made in time before the series returns to Martinsville in October for the season’s penultimate race and final chance to make the championship event. 

Charlotte Cup race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — All-day rain Sunday forced the postponement of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race to Monday.

The postponement means that Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled to host 900 miles of stock car racing Monday. A 300-mile Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled Saturday and first postponed to noon Monday, has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Monday (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Cup race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to start at 6:21 p.m. ET, but light rain was still falling at that time in the speedway area near Charlotte. Rain intensified a few minutes later and, despite an evening forecast that showed slight improvement, officials decided at 6:30 p.m. to postpone the race.

Monday’s forecast calls for a 34% chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race and a 30% chance at the start of the Cup race.

William Byron will start the race from the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday night.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. BuildSubmarines.com will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”