Friday 5: Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 effort drawing interest

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Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks says the interest in NASCAR among drivers worldwide will help fuel his Project 91, which debuts next weekend at Watkins Glen International with former F1 driver Kimi Raikkonen making his Cup debut.

“I know — and have known for a long time — that there is significant global interest among the elite motorsports drivers of the world in participating in a NASCAR race,” Marks said this week. “It’s a unique series. People in Europe and around the world look at NASCAR as this giant form of motorsports in America, which it is, and have an interest in trying that.”

The challenge has been getting that chance. With NASCAR debuting the Next Gen car this season, and spaces in the 40-car fields not taken, there is an opportunity for an effort like this to make Cup races.

Marks’ plan this season is only one race for Project 91, which is intended to provide entries for international drivers. Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One champion and winner of 21 F1 races, was sought by Marks to be in this car for its maiden effort. Marks flew to Switzerland to detail the opportunity to Raikkonen.

“If we were going to launch this thing, obviously, we needed somebody relevant globally to set it off,” Marks said of getting Raikkonen, who made 350 Formula One starts from 2001-21 and ran one Xfinity race and one Truck race in 2011.

Raikkonen took part in a driver orientation test Thursday on the Virginia International Raceway road course.

Marks says there was much interest in the project shortly after announcing his plans in late May. After stating there would only be one race this year for Project 91, conversations slowed but interest remains. 

“The conversation got more lively among a lot of these personalities globally in motorsports,” Marks said. “They’re paying attention to it. They think it’s really, really cool, and they’ve got an interest if their schedules and contracts allow for them to be a part of it. 

“I anticipate after Watkins Glen, when everybody sees this program in the flesh, Kimi has a good race and it looks cool and all that kind of stuff, that (conversations) will start ramping up.”

Raikkonen will be one of three international drivers expected to compete at Watkins Glen. Daniil Kvyat, who made 110 Formula One starts from 2014-20, made his Cup debut at the Indianapolis road course for Team Hezeberg and is expected back at Watkins Glen. Spire Motorsports announced this week that Mike Rockenfeller, a two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, will drive the team’s No. 77 car at Watkins Glen.

One driver who could be a good fit for the Project 91 in the future could be four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Hello Castroneves.

“I spent some time with Helio, and he’s a guy that’s a perfect fit for what the Project 91 thing is all about, but we haven’t had any meaningful discussions because we’re focused on getting through Watkins Glen, then there’s going to be playoffs and then we’ll kind of reassess,” Marks said.

The project’s debut will come two weeks before the playoffs begin. Both of Trackhouse’s drivers, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez, are in the playoffs after victories this season. It’s easy to wonder if the Project 91 effort will diminish the organization’s efforts for the playoffs. 

“I wouldn’t say we’re spread thin,” Marks said. “We’re certainly asking people to do some extra work. I think everybody understands from a business standpoint why we’re doing Project 91.

“It was important for me to do it during the regular season and not during the playoffs and to only do one race. It’s been a little bit of extra work, but the company is in a really good spot where we can do this project and and do it well. Hopefully, it’s the beginning of something that’s just going to grow over time.”

2. Impressive beginning

Kevin Harvick was among the estimated 9,000 who attended the opening night of racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway earlier this month. He liked what he saw.

“I thought it was great,” Harvick said. “I was really happy that the community came out and supported the event. That was the best part. I think it caught everybody off guard how many people actually showed up.

“I think all these races would have been super intriguing, it was intriguing anyway, but it would have been just massively intriguing if you could actually get tires. I think there would be 100 Late Model stock cars, there would have been 60 or 70, modifieds, (but) you can’t get tires.”

While racing will take place Friday and Saturday at North Wilkesboro Speedway, the racing there scheduled Aug. 19-20 has been canceled because of supply issues and the shortage of race tires. 

“That’s really kind of been the detriment of a lot of racing … that you can’t get tires,” Harvick said. “And I can’t even imagine how many cars would have shown up to that particular event, but the main thing is the people from the community showed up.

“Hopefully, they keep showing up and keep participating in the events because it’s cool facility. There’s just something about those old nostalgic facilities that you can go back to and kind of go back in time.”

Much work remains to the facility, but Harvick says he could see type of national series race at North Wilkesboro someday.

“I don’t know why you go through all that work and not have something like that there,” he said. “That would be ludicrous to think that that track is just going to survive off a Late Models and modifieds, Saturday night shows. No way. There’s no way. There’s gotta be some sort of plan for Trucks or Xfinity or something that goes into that.”

3. Work never ends

Cup rookie Harrison Burton sheds some light on the work that he does in preparation for an event. 

“We’ve got a really cool process where the crew chief, the spotter and engineers all sit in and we have a film room that we can go and watch race film in,” Burton said. “So we kind of start that meeting and go over some baseline things and setup ideas – normal race meeting kind of stuff – and then we just put on the race and talk about it as it goes on.  

NASCAR Production Days
Harrison Burton finished a career-high third at the Indianapolis road course in July. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“We’ll watch the whole race and skip through to restarts and things and just talk about it. … When I get home I like to watch a lot of the SMT data, where it’s all modeled cars in there and you can see steering, throttle, brake traces – see what guys are doing well, what guys aren’t doing well. You can kind of zoom in on guys or zoom out and watch the whole race.  

“What I tend to watch for in that is kind of trying to understand what guys are fighting and understand what they do better than others. You go to Martinsville and see, ‘Hey, why is this guy faster than other guys?’ And his car is a couple feet higher. At this point in the corner he’s leaving low, so whatever it might be. I look for small details by myself, and I don’t really have a super structured way to do that. I kind of just go through and pick through the data, watch different guys that I know are really great at certain racetracks and try and take off of them.”

Burton says he took a bit of a different approach in his preparation for Sunday’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network) since the series is returning there for the second time this year.

He’ll just watch his car on film and the data from the track’s spring race. Burton finished 18th in that event.

He’ll do that to “see everything I could have done better – every single moment, every single decision you make as far as restart selections. All of that you can watch back and understand what you did and didn’t do.”

4. How did he do it?

The last time Cup raced at Richmond this season, Denny Hamlin used a two-stop strategy in the final stage to win. Kevin Harvick used the same strategy to finish second, while William Byron, who pitted only once in last stage, was passed by both and placed third.

With all that time Hamlin and Harvick lost to Byron making an extra stop in the last stage, how did they pass him in the final laps?

With the help of Racing Insights, here’s a breakdown of how they did and something to keep in mind during the final stage of Sunday’s Cup race.

Harvick’s next-to-last pit stop was on Lap 308 of the 400-lap race.

Hamlin’s next-to-last pit stop was on Lap 310.

Byron’s last pit stop was on Lap 311.

Harvick made his last pit stop at Lap 353 under green.

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400
Despite making an extra pit stop in the final stage, Denny Hamlin passed William Byron for the lead with five laps to go to win at Richmond in April. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Hamlin, running second to Byron, made his last pit stop at Lap 354 under green. Hamlin was 4.85 seconds behind Byron when he entered pit road. Hamlin came off pit road 11th. He was 34.287 seconds behind Byron. 

Hamlin was a lap behind Byron for nine laps after that pit stop. Hamlin got back on the lead lap with 37 laps to go. 

Aided by fresher tires, Hamlin’s average lap time during the final 45 laps was 24.134 seconds. Slowed by older tires, Byron’s average lap time during that same span was 24.954 seconds.

Hamlin passed Byron for the lead with five laps to go.

Harvick passed Byron for second with four laps to go. 

Hamlin made up nearly 37 seconds in the final 45 laps and finished 2.735 seconds ahead of Byron, who placed third. In this case, fresher tires proved the difference, along with Hamlin’s ability to get through traffic and not have a caution when he was a lap down after his final stop. 

5. Examining the race for the final playoff spot

Ryan Blaney enters Sunday’s Cup race holding the final playoff spot. He’s the only driver among the 16 in a playoff position without a victory this season.

Blaney leads Martin Truex Jr. by 19 points with three races left in the regular season. 

Should there be a driver who hasn’t won yet this season win before the regular season ends, they could put themselves in a playoff position and knock out Blaney (provided he is not the one to win).

If it gets to 16 different winners before the regular season ends, then the driver with fewest points – among those with one victory this season – would be on the bubble. That would put Kurt Busch in the position. Richmond will be the fourth consecutive race Busch misses because of symptoms from a concussion. He has 485 points.

Busch’s status remains week-to-week. Some winless drivers, who also are in the top 30 in the standings, are more than 100 points behind Busch. So, if there were 16 different winners and they won, they might not have enough points to bump Busch out of the playoff spot. 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American 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.”