Friday 5: Aggressive driving making more of an impact in Cup


While some might suggest Ross Chastain has hurt his chances of winning the Cup championship because of his aggressive driving this season, maybe the question should be is if that aggressive driving will help Chastain (or any other driver) win the title?

Signs point to a more volatile stretch of racing this season that could make the bumper-car action at Indianapolis seem tame. Consider:

  • Four races remain in the Cup regular season. The only way drivers outside a playoff spot can make it is to win. That can lead to aggression. 
  • The playoffs appear to be as wide open as ever. Making bold moves could be what helps competitors avoid elimination in the early rounds.
  • The durability of the Next Gen car and the challenge of passing make restarts more critical and drivers more open to aggressive behavior. 
  • NASCAR’s mixed message on retaliation leaves the door open for interpretation by each driver. 

Last weekend’s event on the Indianapolis road course proved chaotic because of the track’s setup with a long straightaway preceding a narrow, sharp right-hand turn. 

Ryan Blaney contended for second on the final restart when he was in the middle of a three-wide pack of cars entering Turn 1. Blaney was spun in the entry to Turn 2 on the road course and finished 26th.

“It’s a case of just getting wrecked,” he said after the event. “That’s all people do at the end of these things, just dive in there and wreck you. I don’t know who shoved who and I don’t care, but tires didn’t matter at the end. We restarted top three both times and tires don’t really matter.  

“It’s just a matter of getting through on the restart, but, apparently, that’s a hard thing to ask. People just run over each other … I didn’t have a shot to get to (Tyler Reddick) to try to put the bumper to him or anything like that, just get wiped out. I don’t know. I’m pissed off about it, and I have every damn right to be.”

Blaney’s frustration is understandable. He would have clinched a playoff spot with a victory. Instead, he could still miss the playoffs even though he is second in points going into Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network).

Drivers can be more aggressive because of the new car. With the previous version, it wasn’t uncommon for contact to lead to a cut tire. With the Next Gen car, the vehicle is more durable. Cut tires are not as common.

Blaney’s teammate, Austin Cindric, benefitted from that final restart to finish second and noted how the new car allows drivers to charge more. 

“All I can say is wow,” Cindric said after his best finish since winning this year’s Daytona 500. “There’s no other form of racing that you can do that and … get away with it (without significant damage).

“Pretty wild, pretty crazy. … These (cars) are tanks. Absolutely, they are tanks. Yeah, you’ll get the toe bent and it affects the bumps and makes it hard to drive, but as long as I don’t get a flat tire, I’m still digging.”

That’s the mindset throughout the field. 

“Right, wrong or indifferent, you either get or you get got right now in the NASCAR Cup Series,” Corey LaJoie said on Wednesday’s MotorMouths on Peacock. 

Joey Logano said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that drivers essentially have no choice but to be aggressive. 

“These cars all run almost the same speed,” he said. “We all have the same parts and pieces now. There’s only limited things we’re changing to make them faster than the other car, so that just makes it harder to pass. 

“You send it down into the corner and you get out of control, you just go too fast. That’s what you saw in Turn 1 (at Indy) not just on restarts but other times, too. That was the big passing zone. If I don’t pass them here, then I’m stuck behind them for Lord knows how long, so I’ve got to go. That’s what those mistakes are. 

“Is it disrespect? I don’t know if it’s disrespect as much as it is just guys driving over their head to make a pass because that’s the only way to do it.”

Another factor is how NASCAR responds to such driving — and retaliation. 

After Noah Gragson tired of Sage Karam’s contact, he turned Karam on a straightaway during the Xfinity race at Road America. Eleven other cars were collected in the incident. It wasn’t until four days later that NASCAR penalized Gragson for the action. NASCAR fined Gragson $35,000 and docked him 30 points. 

Last Friday in the Camping World Truck Series race, Carson Hocevar retaliated against Colby Howard for contact. Hocevar turned Howard on the straightaway at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, sending Howard into the wall. No other vehicles were collected. NASCAR did not penalize Hocevar.

While NASCAR has previously stated it judges each incident on its own, nothing happens in a vacuum in the sport. Drivers watch how NASCAR reacts. 

Unless something is done in the near future, aggressive driving may become worse.

“Somewhere there’s been that disconnect to young drivers, to really, really young drivers … I’m talking about 7-8-9-10-11-year olds,” Kyle Petty said on MotorMouths on Wednesday. “They think that’s how you race. They think you go and run over each other. 

“Then, it’s just magnified when you get to (the Cup) level because  they’ve already got that set in their head that that’s OK.”

2. Sign of the times?

Kyle Busch’s contract status isn’t the first time a former Cup champion has faced challenges recently with a contract extension.

Brad Keselowski signed a one-year contract extension with Team Penske in August 2020 that carried him through the 2021 season. Part of the challenge then was that it came during the pandemic, which impacted companies and marketing budgets. 

By the time the contract extension was announced, Keselowski had scored three or more Cup wins for a fifth consecutive season. With his contact up after last season, Keselowski agreed to a deal to become driver and be a part owner for what is now Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing.

Joe Gibbs Racing had a potential sponsor in place for Busch’s team this year before that deal went away. With about six months left until the 2023 season begins, JGR has not announced a new sponsor for the No. 18 car or a contract extension for Busch. 

Last month, David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports that JGR and Toyota were working on contingency plans while still seeking to sign Busch. The two-time Cup champion said last weekend at Indianapolis that he was willing to make concessions “to race for under my market value” to remain at JGR.

On the other side, Hendrick Motorsports announced in February that it had signed Chase Elliott to a five-year contract extension that will take him through the 2027 season.

Still, Keselowski noted the challenges for drivers at this point.

“The sport is going through a dramatic reset,” he said. “The tides have changed pretty dramatically over the last decade, maybe even two decades. We went from a point in time where the drivers made an incredible amount of money. … and the team owners had no value at all.

“I look at Robert Yates, who had been a staple of the sport for 30-some years and had to sell his race team for effectively liquidated value when he was ready to retire. Think of what an absolute travesty that was, an investment he put in it. At the same time, there were drivers making as much and arguably more a year than what he was able to liquidate all his assets for, and that seems really wrong.

“We’re seeing a flip of that now, where now the team owner assets are worth considerably more money and the driver pay is declining very rapidly. It’s a flip for sure. You can argue which one is better for the sport, but definitely a dynamic shift for sure.”

Keselowski cites the charter system and media rights deal, which go through the 2024 season, as making teams more valuable.

“I feel like I got into the team ownership piece at exactly the right time and kind of saw this coming,” he said.

3. Ford and Kyle Busch?

When Kyle Busch made his NASCAR debut, it was in a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing in the Truck Series in 2001. 

One of the interesting elements about Busch’s future is what could happen to Kyle Busch Motorsports if Busch does not sign a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and moves to a manufacturer other than Toyota.

Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, was asked this week about how might KBM be incorporated if a Ford team was interested in signing Busch.

“Any time we have an opportunity to improve our program, whether it is with drivers at a certain level in NASCAR or teams at all the levels in NASCAR, then that’s certainly something that is our responsibility to consider and make decisions on how it makes our program better or doesn’t,” he said. “So, certainly we would consider all options.”

Asked if he would personally want Busch in a Ford, Rushbrook said: “That’s not for me to answer, not from a personal perspective.”

Stewart-Haas Racing has not announced who will drive the No. 10 Ford next season. Aric Almirola announced before the season that this would be his final full-time Cup effort. That might change. 

Almirola said last month that he had been asked by “decision makers” about next season, leading to the possibility of a part-time or full-time return with Smithfield back as sponsor. Co-owner Tony Stewart declined comment to NBC Sports last weekend at Indianapolis on what the team’s plans are for next year.

If Almirola returns in a full-time role and SHR keeps its lineup intact, that would leave Team Penske and RFK Racing as the main Ford teams for Busch to consider.

Asked about Busch last week, team owner Roger Penske said: “We’ve really got four cars that we’re involved in today. We support the Wood Brothers and obviously Harrison (Burton). We’re full of drivers, and we’re happy with the guys we have there. They’re young and ready to go, and I think our sponsors are fully aligned with us.

“It’s interesting that Kyle hasn’t gotten a spot yet. Look … he’s one of the best out there. I think his expectations, along with what the sponsors and the team want to step up with, sometimes that doesn’t align. So at the moment I think we’ll wait and see.”

As for RFK Racing, Keselowski said this week: “We’re in a really good spot with Chris Buescher. I think he’s an excellent driver. I see him being a long-term driver with us here at RFK. ”

Keselowski suggested that with only two charters, there’s no room for Busch at RFK.

4. 4 is not enough

As the Cup series prepares for its 23rd race of the season, Ford has four victories this year, last among the manufacturers. Chevrolet has 13 wins. Toyota has five.

“Four wins is not enough,” Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, said this week. “It’s not acceptable. We need to get more wins. We need to have drivers further up the standings and hopefully at least four, if not more drivers, into the playoffs.  

“It’s certainly going to be hard with where we are with only four regular season races left, so it’s been a struggle with the new car, the new package with getting our head around it and how to set it up properly going to the track and optimizing it.  

“We’ve seen a lot of success with speed at different tracks where we have understood it, but we still didn’t bring the win home. So, there’s a lot of work to do, but that’s racing. We always need to make all elements of the car better, the engine, the aerodynamics, the chassis, the setup, the tire model, our simulator model, and that’s what we’re working on. We have a lot of meetings and advancements with our teams to try and do better every week.”

As for what he feels has been the key area in Ford’s struggles this season, Rushbrook said: “We’ve had different strengths across different cars at the different tracks. I think that’s part of the struggle is this car is so sensitive that even when one team is taking four cars or two cars to the track with very small differences, you’ll see one near the top of the board and two or three or four down at the other end of the board.  

“So, that’s part of it and just understanding how sensitive it is and making sure we can really find the optimum spot for these cars to run.”

5. Building momentum

With Chase Elliott’s streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes ending last weekend at Indianapolis, Bubba Wallace holds the longest active streak of top 10s with three in a row.

Wallace has finished third at New Hampshire, eighth at Pocono and fifth at Indianapolis. It is his longest top-10 streak in his Cup career and the longest for 23XI Racing.

For a team that has been plagued by pit road mistakes, strategy miscalls and accidents to have even a small three-race top-10 streak is “massive,” Wallace said.

“We needed to all step up,” he said. “We all needed to look ourselves in the mirror and do better. We’ve been doing that, so I’m proud of everybody.”

Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, said the team is working on a contract extension with Wallace.

“We’ve got something on the table and, obviously, want him longterm with us,” Hamlin said.

Corey LaJoie calls fourth-place finish ‘huge’ for him, Spire Motorsports


HAMPTON, Ga. — With about 30 laps left in Sunday’s Cup race, Joey Logano looked around and suddenly saw Corey LaJoie’s car near the front.

“Oh, there he is,” Logano, the eventual winner, said he thought to himself. “Where has he been all day?

“Corey just kind of popped up there.”

LaJoie took a methodical approach — he ran in the top 10 for only 13 of the first 167 laps — and found himself toward the front for the third consecutive race since Atlanta Motor Speedway was reconfigured. 

His career-best fourth-place finish Sunday continued his strong runs at Atlanta, but also showed the growth in his Spire Motorsports team. While it’s only five races into the season, LaJoie is 14th in the points. He’s never finished better than 29th in Cup.

LaJoie placed fifth at Atlanta in March 2022 and was passed by Chase Elliott for the lead two laps from the finish in the July 2022 race there. Sunday, his push launched Logano on the final lap to pass Brad Keselowski for the win. 

While LaJoie continues to seek his first career Cup win, he was excited about his result.

“Hell, yeah, there’s moral victories,” he said after Sunday’s finish. “If you get … smashed 35 weekends out of the year, here’s an opportunity where you can win. When you can run fourth, there are so many good things wrapped up in that. … For me, it’s huge. For our team, it’s huge.”

Also significant was that LaJoie was the top-finishing Chevrolet.

“That’s a really big deal for us,” crew chief Ryan Sparks told NBC Sports. “Just kind of prove ourself and hopefully continue to build a relationship with Chevrolet. It’s always great to be (Chevrolet’s) top finisher. Obviously, we want to win the race. We’re getting closer. I think we’ll get up there for the year is done.”

After failing to make the feature in the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race, LaJoie finished 16th in this year’s Daytona 500. He followed that by placing 14th at Fontana, California and then was 20th at Las Vegas and 26th at Phoenix before Sunday.

He has an average finish of 16.0 in the first races of the season. He’s never had an average finish better than 24th in his previous full-time Cup seasons. 

His performance this year has him in a playoff spot and ahead of in the standings:

  • Three cars from Stewart-Haas Racing
  • Both cars from 23XI Racing
  • Both cars from Legacy Motor Club
  • Both cars from Front Row Motorsports
  • All the Hendrick cars (although their penalties will be appealed)
  • Both Kaulig Racing cars

“We’ve started the year off really, really solid,” LaJoie said. “I don’t think we could have started any better. We messed up at Phoenix, but we came back and rebounded and put a good payday in the bank and a couple of points around the guys we are racing as well.

“It’s inevitable that a lot of the guys we’re in front of are going to catch us, those guys are the ones that run top 10 and top 15 consistently, so we have to get to where we can, on any given intermediate or any given short track, run in the top 15 a little bit better. We’re getting there. Days like this give us more confidence.”


Sunday’s race matched two drivers who are among the best in the sport at speedway style racing dueling for the win in former teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

It marked the first time they had finished 1-2 in a speedway style race, as Logano passed Keselowski on the last lap to win Sunday at Atlanta.

“I feel like Brad is one of the top five best speedway racers on the racetrack,” Logano said. “I feel like I’m in there. A few others that are in there that you just know are really, really good at it.

“We were kind of duking it out back and forth, side by side, side drafting each other. Okay, this is what you would expect. It’s fun going up against the best like that.

“He works really hard at it. He studies it. He’s really smart at speedway racing, for sure. When you think of driver and spotter combinations, you’re going against two of the best right there, right? Whether it’s T.J. (Majors) and Brad or myself and Coleman Pressley) , if I’m picking a couple pairings of people that understand the draft, those two groups are the best at it. So it was fun to kind of go back and forth there at the end.”

Said Keselowski of racing Logano: “We know each other’s moves pretty well, for sure, but it’s just a matter of how the cookie crumbles and it kind of came his way there at the end and he made a good move. Kudos to him.”

It was a much different ending from their duel on the final lap of the 2021 Daytona 500. Logano led Keselowski when they made contact, triggering a multi-car crash and allowing Michael McDowell to win the race.


Brad Keselowski’s runner-up finish continued his improved start to the season compared to last year. 

“We’re right there, though, as our team just continues to improve and show what we’re made of,” Keselowski said, “so I’m proud of that.”

A look at how much better this season has started for Keselowski compared to last year:

His average finish in the first five races of this season is 13.2 compared to 19.2 at this time last year.

He’s run in the top 15 in 85% of the laps run this season compared to running in the top 15 in 37.4% of the laps in the first five races of last season.

His average running position in a race is 9.5 this year compared to 18.3 at this time last year.




Several Cup drivers running extra race at COTA


Seven Cup drivers will do double-duty this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.

Four Cup drivers are entered for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at the road course in Austin, Texas. They are:

Aric Almirola (No. 08 SS Green Light Racing)

AJ Allmendinger (No. 10 Kaulig Racing)

William Byron (No. 17 Hendrick Motorsports)

Ty Gibbs (No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing)

Three Cup drivers are entered for Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at COTA. They are:

Alex Bowman (No. 7 Spire Motorsports)

Ross Chastain (No. 41 Niece Motorsports)

Kyle Busch (No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports)

In the Cup Series, there are 39 entries that includes a few road racing specialists:

Jordan Taylor (No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports)

Jenson Button (No. 15 Rick Ware Racing)

Kimi Raikkonen (No. 91 Trackhouse Racing)

Also entered this weekend is Jimmie Johnson in the No. 84 for Legacy Motor Club and IndyCar driver Conor Daly in the No. 50 for TMT Racing.

COTA Cup Entry List

COTA Xfinity Entry List

COTA Truck entry list





Winners and losers at Atlanta Motor Speedway

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A look at winners and losers in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway:


Joey Logano — Logano had won 31 Cup Series races entering Sunday’s 400-miler, but none had come at Atlanta. He changed that statistical column in a big way, leading 140 laps and making a risky move around leader Brad Keselowski on the final lap to record win No. 32.

Brad Keselowski — Keselowski’s struggle to return RFK Racing to prominence has taken many months, but he has had impressive runs this year. He led 47 laps Sunday and was on the verge of victory.

Christopher Bell — With better organization from the Toyotas at the front, Bell would have had a shot at a win. He finished third and has been in the top six in four of the season’s five races.

Corey LaJoie — Sunday’s fourth-place run was LaJoie’s best in 205 Cup starts, and his smart start to the season is an indication that better things might be ahead.


William Byron — Byron’s two-race winning streak ended with a thud — literally — Sunday as he was involved in a multi-car crash and finished 32nd.

Kevin Harvick — From one instant to the next, Harvick fell from first place to out of the race. He lost control of his car in tight racing with Ross Chastain and hit the wall. He finished 33rd.

Kyle Larson — Larson fought the good fight with the more dominant Fords much of the day in the top 10, but his car was damaged in a crash with Aric Almirola. Larson parked and finished 31st.

Long: One lap, 30 seconds of action with so much at stake at Atlanta


HAMPTON, Ga. — As they began the final lap of Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Brad Keselowski led Christopher Bell by a car length. Joey Logano ran third, with Corey LaJoie on his rear bumper in fourth, and Tyler Reddick beside LaJoie in fifth.

So much was at stake over the final 1.54 miles and would be determined in the next 30 seconds on a brisk day at a track that looks like an intermediate speedway but races like Daytona and Talladega. 

Here’s what mattered for each:

  • Keselowski sought to end a 66-race winless streak that stretches nearly two years.
  • Bell looked to score his third win in the last nine Cup races, which would have been more than any other driver in that span.
  • Logano sought a win in a season that Fords have had few chances to do so.
  • LaJoie was focused on winning his first Cup race.
  • Reddick looked to earn his first victory with his new team.

It started with Keselowski, who is in his second year as owner-driver at RFK Racing. The organization fought through struggles last year before teammate Chris Buescher won the Bristol night race. 

Keselowski was going for his first Cup victory for his team in what has been a markedly better start to this season compared to last year.

“You need days like this,” Keselowski said afterward. “You just wish they were wins. We were right there, just didn’t come together at the end.”

Bell is proving to be the under-appreciated ace in the Cup series. 

He twice needed to win to advance in the next round of the playoffs last year — and did so. Both victories were overshadowed. The focus at the Charlotte Roval was on Chase Briscoe eliminating Kyle Larson from the playoffs instead of Bell’s win. Ross Chastain’s video game move was the talk of Martinsville instead of Bell’s triumph that day.

Nobody had won this year in Cup except Chevrolet drivers. That made this a key race for Ford and Toyota drivers. 

“We haven’t had the start to the season we’d want or hope for,” said Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Logano. “The West Coast swing was pretty rough on us. We had speed at times, but not really where we need to be on any of those tracks. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.

“We know the speedways with all the aero changes to all the manufacturers, the speedways are probably the strengths for the Fords right now. I think we saw that in Daytona as well. If you look at qualifying (Saturday), that will probably point to that same sign.

“We have to take advantage of these races right now. If this is our strength, we got to make sure we execute. That’s probably what I’m most proud of, is we were able to come here and get the win. Now we’ve really have to squeeze hard to get more speed out of our cars on the downforce tracks.”

LaJoie finished fifth in this race a year ago and was passed for the lead with two laps to go. He entered Sunday’s race winless in 204 career Cup races. He had three top-20 finishes in the first four races of the year, solid performances for his Spire Motorsports team. He’s gained some attention for those efforts.

“If we have a good car like we saw at Fontana or Las Vegas,” LaJoie said earlier this week of his 14th at California and 20th at Las Vegas, “then I can go get the job done and be up front. So, certainly a crucial beginning part of the season for me with the future of my career. I want to make sure people know what I’m capable of, no matter whether it’s an intermediate or a short track or superspeedway.”

Reddick is in his first season with 23XI Racing and it has been a rough start to the season. He was eliminated by accidents in the first two races of the year. He scored his first top 10 of the year last week at Phoenix and looked for even more Sunday.

It is what all those situations hovering as the white flag waved to begin the final lap.

The key moment came with LaJoie planted on the back of Logano’s rear bumper on the inside lane.

“Joey got such a huge run down the frontstretch,” Keselowski said. “There was nothing I could do to stop it other than wreck all of us.”

Logano said that LaJoie “clobbered me at the start/finish line, gave me such a big run.”

That energy allowed Logano to go from the bottom lane to the top lane — while narrowly slipping between Keselowski and Bell.

“When you get a run like that on the last lap, you can’t lift, you just can’t,” Logano said. 

He knew he needed to move up the track to avoid having Keselowski block him on the bottom lane.

“I had to get up there and slip to his outside,” Logano said. “Ultimately, that’s the move that was going to win the race.

“If I got to his inside, you have a chance, maybe a 20% chance of winning the race depending on what kind of push you get down the backstretch. Most likely we were not going to win the race.”

He did and Keselowski finished second.

“We know each other’s moves pretty well, for sure, but it just matters how the cookie crumbles and it kind of came his way at he end and he made a good move,” Keselowski said. “Kudos to him. We’re right there, though, as our team just continues to improve and show what we’re made of, so I’m proud of that.

Bell finished third and was left to wonder what if.

“I had the position (Logano) had and I decided to bail on it and go to the top,” Bell said. “To come so close is disappointing.”

LaJoie finished a career-best fourth.

“Hell, yeah, there’s moral victories,” LaJoie said after Sunday’s finish. “If you get … smashed 35 weekends out of the year, here’s an opportunity where you can win. When you can run fourth, there are so many good things wrapped up in that. … For me, it’s huge. For our team, it’s huge.”

For Reddick, a day that started with John Hunter Nemechek on standby because Reddick wasn’t feeling well, ended with Reddick scoring his second consecutive top five.

“I was trying to create an opportunity to where myself Christopher Bell and Denny Hamlin could all break away and take advantage of momentum,” Reddick said. “It didn’t quite work out timing-wise where it needed for that. All in all, an OK day.”