Drivers to watch for the NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol dirt

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With only one Cup race complete on Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt surface, there isn’t a plethora of data points heading into this year’s event.

Ahead of Sunday night’s race (7 p.m. ET, Fox), though, there are some drivers who stood out more than others as Cup cars flung mud around the half-mile, clay-covered bullring.

Here are the drivers you should have your eye on entering this weekend’s dirt race:

FRONT RUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: 4th
  • Last three races: 31st — Circuit of the Americas; 17th — Richmond; 2nd — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: Won the race and Stage 2, led 61 laps

Logano is the only active driver with a NASCAR Cup Series win on dirt, making him an immediate favorite for the second race at Bristol Dirt.

The Team Penske driver had a couple poor races at COTA and Richmond, but an impressive rebound at Martinsville Speedway saw the No. 22 Ford finish second while challenging William Byron for the win in overtime.

Logano had to hold off charges from Denny Hamlin and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in overtime a year ago in the dirt at Bristol and claimed the checkered flag. The 2018 champion doesn’t have tons of dirt experience, but participated in dirt late model races to prepare for last year’s event and will rejoin the Camping World Truck Series for its Saturday race this weekend.

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 12th — COTA; 3rd — Richmond; WIN — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: Finished 6th after notching a 2nd-place finish in Stage 1

Byron is far better known for his ability in an asphalt late model, but the No. 24 Chevrolet had a decent showing at Bristol last spring.

Byron has now won two of the last four Cup races and established himself as a regular front runner in the series. If last year’s Bristol race proved anything, it’s that major dirt experience isn’t a requirement to run well in a Cup Series dirt race — evidenced by Logano, Daniel Suarez and Martin Truex Jr.

Momentum is in Byron’s favor. Whether that translates to the Bluff City red clay Sunday night is unknown, but hard to go against the only driver in the series with multiple wins this season after posting a top-10 finish here one year ago.

Daniel Suarez

  • Points position: 18th
  • Last three races: 24th — COTA; 16th — Richmond; 29th — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: 4th in Stage 1, 2nd in Stage 2, finished 4th, led 58 laps

One of the biggest surprises in last year’s dirt race was Suarez, who took a still-new Trackhouse Racing car to the front of the field to lead 58 laps and bring home a top-five finish.

This year, Trackhouse has proven to be formidable on nearly every track type, but Suarez has struggled in the past three races, failing to score a top-15 finish after notching three top 10s in the first five races.

Bristol Dirt was the site of the organization’s first top five and Suarez already has two this season. The No. 99 team could back up last year’s performance Sunday night.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 21st
  • Last three races: 18th — COTA; WIN — Richmond; 28th — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: Finished 3rd in both stages as well as the race, led one lap

Hamlin was among the drivers with limited dirt experience who shined at Bristol a season ago. The No. 11 Toyota lined up second for the overtime restart but was unable to hold off Stenhouse, sending Hamlin back to third.

This year has been full of misses for the No. 11 team, which has failed to finish inside the top 10 in seven of the eight races. The lone exception, of course, was Hamlin’s win at Richmond Raceway on April 3.

Bristol Dirt is a beast of its own, so perhaps the woes that have plagued Hamlin will subside one more week.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 7th — COTA; 4th — Richmond; 22nd — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: Led race-high 126 laps, won Stage 1, 4th in Stage 2; flat tire in OT while running 3rd

Truex dominated the Bristol Dirt weekend a year ago, leading the most laps in both the Cup and Truck races. He won the Truck Series race, but a flat tire in Cup Series overtime ruined what looked sure to be a top-five run.

But plenty is different about this year’s car than last, including an independent rear suspension and the banking in the corners.

Truex has arguably been Joe Gibbs Racing’s most consistent driver this season but has still yet to finish higher than fourth, where he finished at Richmond after leading 80 laps. But at his best track at Martinsville, Truex was a nonfactor. He and crew chief James Small should be eager to put that behind them with a strong run at Bristol.

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 13th
  • Last three races: 29th — COTA; 5th — Richmond; 19th — Martinsville
  • Last year at Bristol Dirt: Involved in Lap 53 crash with Christopher Bell, finished 29th

Running fourth at Lap 53, Larson was taken out of contention when Christopher Bell spun from second directly in front of the No. 5 Chevrolet. Larson contacted Bell’s door and was subsequently slammed in the left front by Ross Chastain.

Larson is unquestionably the top dirt racer in Cup and was expected to be the favorite in last year’s race. That hasn’t changed this season as PointsBet lists the defending series champion as the favorite at (+500) odds.

But Larson has had a terrible start to the season with five finishes of 19th or worse in eight races. His saving grace is the other three finishes are a win at Auto Club Speedway, a runner-up at Las Vegas and a fifth-place finish at Richmond. The dirt race might come at the perfect time for Larson.

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.