‘The most dangerous … 22nd-place points team in the history of the sport’

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — Denny Hamlin’s damaged car, packaged with the disappointment of another race gone awry, had been loaded into the Joe Gibbs Racing hauler Sunday night at Darlington Raceway when crew chief Chris Gabehart surveyed the scene and the status of the No. 11 team a third of the way through the Cup season.

“I am convinced that we are the most dangerous … 22nd-place points team in the history of the sport,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “I am convinced that we are the most venomous snake laying in the grass. Any week we can jump up and turn this thing on its ear. We could have won last week. We could have won this week.”

A race that was playing into Hamlin’s hands veered when a slow pit stop put him deep in the field and into the path of a multi-car crash. Hamlin was left with his second consecutive 21st-place finish after having one of the stronger cars.

“We’re all frustrated,” Gabehart said. “Gosh, it’s hard. I don’t know what you do other than go race next week. Again, the speed and the ability of everyone on the team is not lacking. When it is, that’s what’s really hard to fix. That’s a long-term march and slog. … We’re not there, but gosh it’s frustrating to go through it week in and week out for sure.”

Darlington marked the fifth consecutive race Hamlin finished 18th or worse. Other than his win at Richmond in early April, he’s not scored a top-10 result this season.

So, how can a team that has fewer top 10s than 22 drivers this year be one to watch? It’s what this team does even in those races that end with bad results. 

Sunday, Hamlin had to start at the rear because the underbody was damaged in qualifying and needed repairs. He was in the top 10 by Lap 57 and finished the opening stage seventh. 

The second stage showcased the team’s strength. Hamlin was seventh when Gabehart pitted him on Lap 134 ahead of many other cars. That helped Hamlin gain two spots when the green-flag pit cycle was complete. 

A caution at Lap 168 for the incident involving Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch led the field to pit road. Hamlin was fourth at the time. His crew gained him a spot, moving him to third. Hamlin finished Stage 2 in fourth.

During the caution at the end of that stage, Hamlin’s crew got him off pit road first, allowing him to go from the back of the field at the start of the race to be in control of the event. He led 42 of the next 51 laps. 

NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400
Denny Hamlin led 42 laps Sunday at Darlington Raceway but saw his race change after a slow pit stop and then damage to his car in a crash after a restart. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Hamlin’s race unraveled under caution for Alex Bowman’s incident. Hamlin was seventh because a few cars in front had yet to pit. He exited pit road outside the top 15 because of a slow stop. Gabehart said that a tire changer did not reset the pit gun to tighten the lug nut after removing it to change tires. 

Mired mid-pack, Hamlin’s car was damaged in the nine-car crash after the restart. 

“As maddeningly frustrating as this is, I will take this to running 12th every week and not knowing how to go forward,” Gabehart said. “… To overcome adversity, start in the rear at Darlington — a one-lane racetrack — and graining control of the race at the start of Stage 3, I’ll gladly take this. I’ll gladly take a car and team that’s capable of lapping the field at Dover the way we were over 12th and searching (for speed).”

Another challenge remains for this team. Gabehart is facing a four-race suspension for a wheel coming off Hamlin’s car at Dover. Joe Gibbs Racing will appeal the penalty. Gabehart understands there’s a good chance he might not be at the track soon.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough,” he said. “Morale is important. Right now we’re like Denny says, waiting for the anvil to drop on our heads. It’s just where we’re at. Again, the speech is simple, the message is simple. We have the ability to win every week from the pit crew to the driver to the crew chief to the engineers to the mechanics, top to bottom, we have the ability.

“This is no longer a points system, it’s no longer a season that is defined by 36 races, it’s not. It’s defined at getting hot at the right time and dominating when it’s time to dominate, and this team has the ability to do that. That’s the message. The message is try to gain some more playoff points and get hot when it’s time. We have the ability to do that.”

Getting there won’t be easy just for all the issues that have plagued this team. Hamlin said he felt he had the best car at Las Vegas before he missed a shift and broke the drivetrain, ending his race. He led 67 laps at Dover and won the opening stage before his wheel fell off. He led 42 laps at Darlington and scored a season-high 11 stage points before the slow pit stop and then crash. 

All the issues the No. 11 car has suffered, Gabehart noted, has made an impact on the team. 

“We’re all so gun-shy and snake bit right now that inevitably you’re performing at your 90-95th percentile in those instances because psychologically you’re waiting on what’s next,” he said. “Once you break through that barrier, I think you’ll really see top end capability, and I’m just waiting for this team to do it.”

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“We’re trending!”

Crew chief Brian Pattie smiled Sunday night after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished eighth, giving Stenhouse back-to-back top 10s for the first time since joining JTG Daugherty Racing in 2020. 

“It’s nice to finally have a few breaks go your way,” Pattie told NBC Sports. “I think the engineering group, we’ve settled on a couple of things we were working on and it’s proven out to be decent the last two weeks. We’ll just continue that route.

“Obviously, a one-car team it kind of puts you behind the eight ball (with information gathering).”

Stenhouse said after finishing second last week at Dover that the team had been “trying to come up with a new philosophy” for some tracks. 

Pattie explained the change. 

“Some of it was approach,” he said. “The cars are so much different, so much to work on, aero and mechanical also, that we’ve had to — ‘Let’s step back and make it simple, don’t trick ourselves’ — and we run better.”

NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. followed his runner-up finish at Dover with an eighth-place result at Darlington, the first time since 2018 that he’s scored consecutive top 10s in Cup . (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Pattie said the team worked on the car throughout the night. The No. 47 car benefitted from pit strategy. Pattie called Stenhouse to pit on Lap 229, making him among the first to pit. Stenhouse was 14th before pitting. He was fifth when the green-flag cycle ended. 

A caution at Lap 256 allowed Stenhouse to pit with the field for the last stop of the race. He went on to finish eighth behind winner Joey Logano.

“A one-stop strategy (in the final stage) was probably the fastest on paper but our car fell off so bad after 32, 34 laps, we just made the decision we were going to two-stop it right on our numbers and see what happens,” Pattie said of the team’s evolving strategy. 

“Luckily, a caution fell whenever it needed to and was running top five and that was the lucky break you get.”

It’s what the team has been needing.

“Finally something goes your way,” Pattie said. 

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A day before finishing a season-best third at Darlington Raceway, Justin Haley noted the progress his Kaulig Racing team has made this season. 

“Just got to take the good weeks and maximize those and take the bad weeks and learn from them,” he said. 

NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400
Justin Haley has scored four consecutive top-15 finishes. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Kaulig Racing and Haley have done that. Haley has scored four consecutive top-15 results, placing 14th on the dirt at Bristol, 12th at Talladega, 11th at Dover and third at Darlington.

Haley’s finish Sunday was his best in Cup since his 2019 win at Daytona. Sunday’s result was the best for Kaulig in Cup since AJ Allmendinger’s win at the Indy road course.

“The last three weeks means a lot,” Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, told NBC Sports. “… It just means a lot to Kaulig Racing to come and contend.”

Haley benefitted from pit strategy, but when he was in position, he took advantage to score a top-five result.

“I don’t think we had a third-place car, but we’re an organization that can have a good strategic day and get up front,” Haley said after the race.

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.