Friday 5: Cup teams scramble for playoff points halfway through regular season

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With 11 different winners in the first 13 races, this Cup season is starting to look unlike most years. 

Already this season, three drivers have collected their first career Cup victory — Austin Cindric (Daytona 500), Chase Briscoe (Phoenix) and Ross Chastain (Circuit of the Americas).

Even with all the different winners, three former champions — Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — remain winless this season. 

But there’s something else to be mindful of as the series reaches the halfway point of the regular season: The playoffs this year could be tighter.

William Byron has a series-high 13 playoff points. That’s the lowest total for the series leader at the halfway mark of the Cup regular season since playoff points were added to the NASCAR scoring system in 2017.

In another sign of the parity this season, nine drivers are within seven playoff points of Byron. There has never been more than three drivers within seven playoff points of the leader at this point in the season since 2017.

With five playoff points for a win and one playoff point for each stage win, seven playoff points is the maximum for a race — except the Coca-Cola 600, which has an extra stage, giving it a maximum of eight playoff points. 

What this all means is that the second half of the season could see more intense racing for stage wins and race wins.

Playoff points have proved key in previous seasons.

Truex was the final driver to advance from the second round last year. He finished 25 points ahead of Harvick for the last transfer spot to the third round. The difference was playoff points. Truex had 27 more playoff points (29-2) than Harvick.

Truex also was the last of the four drivers to advance to the title race a year ago, beating teammate Kyle Busch by three points. Playoff points again were a factor. Truex had six more playoff points than Busch.

In 2019, Busch was the only driver to advance via points to the championship race. He beat Joey Logano by seven points for the final transfer spot. Busch had 16 more playoff points than Logano. Busch went on to win his second Cup title that year.

After a 21st-place finish for Denny Hamlin at Darlington earlier this month, crew chief Chris Gabehart said his message to his team was clear: Playoff points. 

“It’s no longer a season that is defined by 36 races, it’s not,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “It’s defined as 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.”

Hamlin could use those. He’s ranked lowest in points among the 11 winners this season. The top 10 drivers in points at the end of the regular season receive between one and 15 additional playoff points. Hamlin is too far from the top 10 to have a realistic chance of scoring any of those playoff points. He’ll have to score his during races.

Keep an eye on the end of the stages the rest of the regular season because the intensity is likely to increase for many drivers.

2. 16 different winners?

It’s a common debate when there is a string of different winners early in the season. Will every driver making the playoffs need a win? Will someone win in the regular season and not make the playoffs?

Five more different winners in the next 13 races will make it 16 for the season. 

While a driver or two often gets hot in the second half of the regular season and keeps others from scoring wins, could this season be the year that doesn’t happen?

There’s a lack of consistency throughout the garage with this car. 

Eight times this season, a driver won a Cup race the week after finishing 18th or worse in the previous event. No driver showed how much things can change in a week than Joey Logano and his Team Penske group. He placed 29th at Dover, finishing four laps off the lead. Logano then won the following weekend at Darlington.

Kurt Busch, who won last weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway, said it took him the first part of the season before he changed his mindset. Busch wanted to make certain changes to the car but with teams limited by NASCAR on what they could change, Busch’s requests couldn’t be completed.

“I knew the rules, I knew it was an impound (race with limited adjustments allowed), but I kept focusing on the wrong things,” Busch told NBC Sports. “I think we’re finding a better rhythm. We’re seeing patterns as well, between Bubba (Wallace) and myself as far as driving styles.”

How did Busch break his habit?

He laughs.

“At Darlington, I said I’m going to keep it simple, it’s either going to be tight or it’s either going to be loose, and I’m going to tell you and I’m going to walk away,” he said. “The keep-it-simple-stupid approach is the easiest way to describe it for us these last few weeks.”

Many other drivers are still challenged by the car and will continue to be throughout the season.  

“I think there are going to be surprises there as long as you’re going to places you haven’t been,” Alex Bowman told NBC Sports. “It definitely feels more normal than where we started the season.

“But as long as you’re going to new racetracks you haven’t been with it, there are always going to be things that catch you by surprise.”

The second half of the regular season features several challenges for drivers. 

There are four road courses among the next 13 races. The Cup Series races for the first time at World Wide Technology Raceway, a 1.25-mile track near St. Louis. The series returns to Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.33-mile concrete track, for only the second Cup event there. There’s a race at Pocono Raceway, a 2.5-mile triangle that is unlike any other track. 

Such a schedule and a new car could lead to a situation where there are more different winners and the possibility that all 16 playoff drivers will need a win to qualify.

3. Working toward a deal with Kyle Busch

Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota continue to finalize a deal to keep Kyle Busch in the No. 18 car after this season. This is the final season in Busch’s contract. 

Busch was cryptic about this future with JGR last month at Talladega. David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said then he was a “little disappointed” in Busch’s comments.

Wilson said this week he is “optimistic” that Busch will remain with JGR and Toyota. Wilson noted that Busch has accounted for 36% of Toyota’s wins across NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.

“So any scenario that doesn’t have Kyle Busch retiring from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota would be a monstrous disappointment for us and for Coach Gibbs and the family,” Wilson said. 

“Yes, Kyle has been a little outspoken. You have to be somewhat emphatic or try to be and put yourself in his shoes. He’s on the out year of his contract. This is so rare.  What the team, what we try to do is get well ahead of us, particularly with a tier-one driver like Kyle Busch. The circumstances unfortunately have made that challenging 

“We’re working on it. It’s a conversation I have with Joe (Gibbs) every week. I’m optimistic. Kyle, he doesn’t want to go anywhere else. 

“He had been very candid. He can’t wait for the day that his little boy, Brexton, races a Toyota Tundra out of the Kyle Busch Motorsports stable. He has that in his sights and that’s not going to be for another 10-plus years, which means that we’ve got to make sure that we’re still together, long after Kyle is out of the driver’s seat full-time.”

Asked how things got to this point with Busch not having a contract extension entering this year, Wilson said:

“It did simply because of Mars’ decision to leave the sport (after this season) and that catching all of us a little bit by surprise. Mars is one of a handful of Fortune 500 companies that were probably at the highest level of sprsnroshiop and the reality is that Joe Gibbs Racing can’t afford to pay Kyle Busch. That comes from corporate sponsorship. 

“Every driver’s salary comes from whatever is on that racing car on Sundays. It’s circumstantial and yet we remain optimistic. It’s a prized property in the end and has a lot of potential, and we’re working on a solution, a number of different solutions, harder than we ever have before.”

4. Pit road highs and lows

Bubba Wallace’s frustration with his pit crew after last weekend’s race at Kansas was felt by others, including the president of Toyota Racing Development. 

23XI Racing gets its pit crews for Wallace and Kurt Busch from Joe Gibbs Racing. 

Wallace’s crew was penalized twice at Kansas, causing Wallace to rally from the back multiple times before finishing 10th. Asked if he could feel good about placing in the top 10, Wallace told NBC Sports: “Nope. Pit crew sucks.”

The pit crews from Joe Gibbs Racing are posting some of the fastest times in the sport’s history but not everything has been smooth all the time. 

Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, and two pit crew members will begin serving a four-race suspension after this weekend for a tire coming off Hamlin’s car at Dover. The team lost its appeal this past week.

At Kansas, Hamlin’s team had two penalties for equipment interference and Wallace’s crew was penalized for a tire violation and a crew member going over the pit wall too soon.

Kurt Busch’s car had the left rear come off in his pit stall at Darlington, but the team stopped him from taking off. It was put back on, but he lost several positions.

Kyle Busch’s team was penalized for removing equipment from the pit box at Talladega. 

Wallace and Christopher Bell each were penalized for having a crew member going over the wall too soon at Martinsville.

“We do have work to do, and the area right now where we’re focused more so than anywhere else is execution on pit lane,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said this week. 

“That has been a difference maker. What’s truly been amazing is the fact that we had six cars finish in the top 10 (at Kansas) with as many mistakes as were made on pit lane.”

Wilson noted that Wallace would have had a better result at Kansas if not for his pit road issues.

“He was going to finish top three I’m convinced, and he had to restart 18th because he had a ridiculous pit stop,” Wilson said. “In spite of all of that, he had the speed to drive back to the front. 

“We saw what Denny did heroically at Dover, in having to win that race almost twice two different ways. It’s not for lack of speed, but we all know that cliche, this is a team sport. 

“In order to win you have to execute not just behind the seat but underneath the hood. You have to execute on pit lane. It takes a team. This has been one of the absolute strengths of Joe Gibbs Racing historically. 

“For Coach (Joe) Gibbs and I to spend as much time as we have been the past few weeks talking about this is indicative of how we collectively hold ourselves accountable and we need to fix that.”

5. A different perspective

NBC Sports’ Diandra Leslie-Pelecky takes an interesting look at who is the fastest early in a run and on restarts. It’s a good precursor to Sunday night’s All-Star Race, which will feature numerous short runs on the way to awarding $1 million to the winner.

With the new car and new package, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. noted that he’s attacking restarts differently this year.

“I felt like you wanted to stay in line as long as you could (at Kansas) until you got to the corner and had a good lane to get in, because if you pulled out of line at the start/finish line when we’re allowed to, you’ve got so much drag on your car, you lost speed,” said Stenhouse, who has scored three consecutive top-10 finishes.

“I feel like you’ve got to stay in line a lot longer and then make your decision once you get into the corner and people start having to lift. You need a full lane of clear track to get your car to handle it the way you want it to.

“Any little bit behind a car, you definitely lose some downforce on your car, and it just doesn’t drive really good. Felt like our restarts were really good at Kansas, and I was able to get to some clear track and have that speed.

“Our old car, I feel like you could be half a car width out from somebody and feel the benefit. I feel this car you need a full lane. It’s trying to get that good launch, stay in line as long as possible and pick a lane.”

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry

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Jarrett Companies will increase the number of races it will sponsor Josh Berry‘s No. 8 JR Motorsports ride in 2023, the Xfinity Series team announced Monday.

Jarrett Companies will sponsor Berry in six races after serving as the primary sponsor in three races in 2022. Those six races will be Phoenix (March 11), Richmond (April 1), Dover (April 29), Atlanta (July 8), Indianapolis (Aug. 12) and Texas (Sept. 23).

The deal gives Berry at least 26 races with sponsorship for next season. Bass Pro Shops will serve as the primary sponsor of Berry’s car in 11 races in 2023. Tire Pros is back with JRM and will sponsor Berry in nine races in the upcoming season.

Berry, who reached the Xfinity title race and finished fourth in the points, will have a new crew chief in 2023. Taylor Moyer will take over that role with Mike Bumgarner serving as JRM’s director of competition.

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

 

Where are they now? Buddy Parrott enjoying down time

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Buddy Parrott played outsized roles in two of the most dramatic races in NASCAR history.

Now 83 years old and retired from the sport since 2001, Parrott looks back on those two days as highlights of a career that began in the early 1970s.

In the 1990 Daytona 500, champion driver Dale Earnhardt seemed on course to end his frustration in NASCAR’s biggest event. He held the lead roaring down the backstretch on the last lap. Suddenly, Earnhardt slowed with a blown tire.

The lead was inherited by Derrike Cope, who charged to the checkered flag to score one of racing’s biggest upsets.

Parrott was Cope’s crew chief.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

In 1984, Richard Petty edged Cale Yarborough to win the summer race at Daytona International Speedway. It was Petty’s 200th – and final – win.

Parrott was Petty’s crew chief.

Those victories were high marks in a long pit-road career that saw Parrott’s drivers win dozens of races. He worked with, among others, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton and Petty and for team owners Jack Roush and Roger Penske.

Parrott remains active at 83, although he admits to having moved to a slower gear.

“I haven’t been living on the edge,” Parrott told NBC Sports. “I’ve been taking it really easy. I told my sons when you get to be 80 you can do anything you want because basically you’ve already done it.”

MORE: NASCAR, ARCA 2023 schedules

His strongest current connection to NASCAR is as a voter in the annual Hall of Fame balloting.

After more than 20 years roaming pit roads as a crew chief, Parrott moved into a general manager role at Roush Racing in 1997. He retired four years later and didn’t look back.

“I finally told Jack one day, ‘I don’t have time to ride my motorcycle,’ ” Parrott said. “He looked at me and said, ‘What do you want to do about it?’ I said, ‘I’m ready to retire.’ He told me I could work whatever schedule I wanted, but I decided that was it. I didn’t have a going-away thing or whatever.”

Parrott spent much of the next 15 years traveling with his wife, Judy, who died in 2016, and playing with his grandchildren.

“I had a great time in retirement because Judy was ready and I was ready,” he said. “We had a lot of fun. We’d go to Florida for two and three months at a time. I’m so happy that I didn’t hang on and go to the shop every day and try to find something to do. I spent that time with Judy, and we had 16 years of good retirement.”

Parrott, a native of Gastonia, N.C., lives in Statesville, N.C. His sons, Todd and Brad, also were NASCAR crew chiefs.

MORE: Jody Ridley’s Dover win an upset for the ages

Parrott is perhaps best remembered as crew chief for Rusty Wallace, Team Penske and the No. 2 black cars sponsored by Miller Lite. From 1992-94, they won 19 races and were consistently competitive at the front.

“I still get a lot of cards sent to me to sign from those years,” Parrott said. “I can say that was some of the happiest times I had. Those years with Rusty – and then with Jack Roush – really stand out. And who in the hell could not have fun having a beer sponsor?”

 

 

NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”