Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega

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After a weekend of unknowns on dirt, NASCAR returns to the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway this week.

Superspeedway racing can be unpredictable, but some drivers excel more than others in the full-throttle, fast-paced packs typically featured at Talladega and Daytona.

Here’s who could be in the mix Sunday (3 p.m. ET, Fox) in Alabama:

FRONT RUNNERS

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: 2nd
  • Last three races: 7th — Richmond; 4th — Martinsville; 5th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Won 2 of last 5 races

Blaney may not be Team Penske’s most recent Talladega winner, but the No. 12 Ford has shown recent excellence at the Alabama superspeedway.

Blaney has won two of the last five races at Talladega. He’s also led in eight of the last 11 races there. His success across superspeedways has been impressive, notching three top-10 finishes in the last four such races, including a win at Daytona in August 2021.

Team Penske has combined to win eight of the last 13 races at Talladega. Considering the speed shown by Fords in February’s Daytona 500 — won by Penske driver Austin Cindric with help from Blaney — the No. 12 Ford is almost a guaranteed sight toward the front of this weekend’s field.

Bubba Wallace

  • Points position: 22nd
  • Last three races: 26th — Richmond; 16th — Martinsville; 28th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Earned first career win in October 2021

Wallace enters Talladega as the track’s most recent Cup Series winner, leading the field when a caution fell at Lap 117 for Ryan Preece‘s crash in Turn 3. Rain followed and ended the race prematurely.

Wallace has been stout at both Daytona and Talladega. He has finished inside the top two in each of the last three superspeedway events. Another result like that this week could land him in esteemed company as just the fifth driver to accomplish that feat.

Since finishing second at Daytona this year, Wallace has struggled to find success with just three top-20 finishes in the following eight races. But Wallace has led laps in six of his eight Talladega starts and won Stage 2 in each of the two events last year. This could be the week Wallace turns it around.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 30th
  • Last three races: 13th — Richmond; 17th — Martinsville; 11th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Defending race winner

Keselowski is the winningest active driver at Talladega with six victories, tying him with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon for second-most all-time. He also scored the win here in April 2021, his most recent Cup win.

Keselowski, now driving and co-owning the No. 6 Ford for RFK Racing, could use a win now more than ever. The 2012 series champion sits 30th in points after a 100-point penalty levied by NASCAR after the No. 6 team inadequately repaired a tail panel, which is a single-source supplied part teams are not permitted to modify.

Keselowski has failed to finish inside the top 10 since a ninth-place showing at the Daytona 500, where he led 67 laps and scored points in both stages after he and teammate Chris Buescher swept the Duel qualifying races during Speedweeks. The good news is that Keselowski has finished inside the top 15 in four of the last five races after failing to finish on the lead lap at Auto Club, Las Vegas or Phoenix.

The rebranded team is taking steps to erase its early season woes. A win at Talladega would cure a lot of them.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Austin Cindric

  • Points position: 14th
  • Last three races: 20th — Richmond; 11th — Martinsville; 16th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Three top-five finishes in six Xfinity starts

Cindric showed off his superspeedway racing skill by winning the Daytona 500 in his second attempt back in February.

The rest of the season has been a struggle for the rookie driver. Cindric sits 14th in points but has just one top 10 since that breakthrough victory, an eight-place finish at Circuit of the Americas.

Cindric is driving a Team Penske Ford, which seems like an automatic advantage heading into Talladega. He also has teammate and three-time Talladega winner Joey Logano to lean on in addition to Blaney. The resources are available and he’s already won one of these types of races. Now to see what he’s learned.

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 23rd
  • Last three races: WIN — Richmond; 28th — Martinsville; 35th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Four finishes of 7th or better in last five races

With three Daytona 500s under his belt, Hamlin is rightly regarded as a superspeedway ace. His recent record at Talladega is strong too, scoring top 10s in seven of his last 11 starts including a win in October 2020.

But his struggles this season are no secret. In nine races, Hamlin has failed to finish four times this year — twice for crashes, twice for mechanical failures. For perspective, Hamlin completed all but four of the 9.200 laps run in 2021, completing a series-best 99.96% of all laps last season. Outside of his Richmond win on April 3, Hamlin has failed to finish better than 13th (Phoenix) in 2022.

He won seven times in 2020 and twice a year ago, qualifying for the Championship 4 in each of the past three seasons. But with a quarter of the season complete — and a third of the way through the regular season — a good run this week would be a much-needed bump after two finishes outside the top 25.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 13th
  • Last three races: 2nd — Richmond; 14th — Martinsville; 34th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Three top 10s in last four races

Harvick’s name may not be one of the first that comes to mind at Talladega, especially considering his lone win at the track came in April 2010.

But Harvick has had some strong results at the 2.66-mile oval lately, bringing home finishes of fourth and eighth in 2021. The 2014 Cup champion has led laps in 23 of the last 29 Talladega events and scored stage points in nine of the 20 stages there.

Crash damage eliminated Harvick at Bristol Dirt, his first DNF since the Daytona 500. But it’s been an otherwise OK season for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford with one top five and three top 10s in nine races — OK by the standards set by the previous success of Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers. The team has proven plenty capable this year and should show speed again on Sunday.

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.