Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington

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The NASCAR Throwback Weekend is here again at Darlington Raceway.

Joe Gibbs Racing swept the track’s two races in 2021, highlighted by Denny Hamlin‘s dramatic win in the Southern 500 in September. But does that make JGR the team to beat Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1)?

Here’s who could be in the mix this weekend in Darlington:

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 21st — Bristol Dirt; 5th — Talladega; 12th Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: Two straight top-five finishes

Truex has been a steady contender for wins at Darlington. A two-time victor at the track “Too Tough to Tame,” Truex has four top 10s in his last five Darlington starts, including a win in this race one year ago.

The 2017 Cup champion earned a Southern 500 victory in September 2016 and led 248 of 293 laps in last spring’s event en route to the win. With only three finishes outside the top 10 in his last 10 Darlington starts, Truex is a must-watch driver this weekend

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 4th — Bristol Dirt; 4th  Talladega; 6th Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: Three top-3 finishes in his last three starts at the track

Kyle Larson has yet to win at Darlington Raceway, but he has been as close as he can get without visiting victory lane. Larson has finished runner-up in each of his last three starts at the 1.366-mile track, a streak which dates back to 2019 since he missed the three 2020 events.

Larson had a last-lap, last-ditch effort in Turn 4 trying to chase down Hamlin last September but came up just short. With seven top 10s in eight Darlington starts, maybe this weekend is finally Larson’s time to take the checkered flag first.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 12th
  • Last three races: 34th — Bristol Dirt; 10th — Talladega; 9th Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: Two wins and five top-five finishes in last eight races

Kevin Harvick isn’t lighting the world on fire this year, but maybe that’s set to change at Darlington Raceway. Harvick is the active leader in top fives (12), top 10s (17) and laps led (812) at “The Lady in Black.” And what he’s done lately has been remarkable.

Harvick has scored 12 consecutive top-nine finishes at Darlington and won three of the track’s last 11 races. He’s also scored 10 top fives in the last 12 races and has led laps in 11 of the last 15 contests. The Next Gen provides new obstacles, but maybe Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers end their 54-race winless streak.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 23rd
  • Last three races: 35th — Bristol Dirt; 18th Talladega; 21st Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: Two straight top fives, including a win in September

No one is (or should be) questioning Denny Hamlin’s ability at Darlington Raceway. Hamlin is the track’s active wins leader with four victories after last fall’s triumph, plus he’s scored four top fives in the past five Darlington races with two wins in that span.

However, Hamlin’s best finish this season aside from his Richmond victory remains a 13th-place finish at Phoenix. After a wheel detached from his car after Stage 1 last week at Dover, Hamlin rallied back to fourth but was struck trying to avoid Cody Ware‘s car crashing on the frontstretch. The No. 11 team could use any positive luck this week at one of his best tracks.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 33rd — Bristol Dirt; 1st Talladega; 3rd Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: 3rd in September’s Southern 500

Ross Chastain seems to be a threat for the win no matter where the Cup Series goes these days. Tied with William Byron with a series-best two wins this season, Chastain has proven to be the more consistent of the two, scoring seven top-five finishes in 11 races.

Chastain’s third-place finish at Darlington last fall was a career-best there after four prior finishes of 15th or worse. This year has proven his past statistics don’t matter much. But heading to a track where he’s had recent success should only make Chastain more confident come race day — spelling trouble for everybody else.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 4th
  • Last three races: 1st — Bristol Dirt; 3rd  Talladega; 7th Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: Finished 7th or better in three of past four races

The two-time Cup Champion hasn’t won at Darlington since 2008, but Busch regularly finds a way to produce good results there. In 10 of the track’s past 13 races, Busch has finished inside the top seven, including this race a year ago when he rebounded from an early spin to place third.

In the fall, contact between Busch and Austin Dillon sent Busch into the outside wall in Turn 2 and ended his day prematurely.

 

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.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.

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 team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

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.

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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.