Friday 5: Trackhouse duo completes long road to Cup playoffs

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When the calendar turned three years ago to Jan. 1, Daniel Suarez and Ross Chastain found themselves in much different places.

Chastain wondered if his NASCAR career was over. Suarez hoped to revive his Cup career.

Now teammates at Trackhouse Racing, Chastain and Suarez both prepare for their first Cup playoff appearance. Chastain enters Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m ET on USA Network) ranked third in the points, while Suarez is 13th in the 16-driver field. 

Three years ago, Chastain and Suarez could not have imagined the path that would lead them both to Trackhouse Racing and a chance to win a Cup championship.

After the 2018 season, Chastain looked forward to his first full season in the Xfinity Series with Chip Ganassi Racing. That changed on Dec. 18 when the FBI raided the home of DC Solar CEO Jeff Carpoff and the headquarters of DC Solar, which was to be Chastain’s sponsor. Carpoff was sentenced last November to 30 years in prison and ordered to pay $790.6 million in restitution for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering.

Without a sponsor, Ganassi shut down its Xfinity program before the 2019 season. That left Chastain without a ride.

“From the night I found out the raid happened, which was a day and a half later, to Jan. 2, in my head I was done racing in NASCAR,” Chastain said. 

“In my head, once that was gone, I just never thought I’d have an opportunity like that. I wasn’t mentally ready to go back and run scuffed tires.”

That was his reference to running with another team at the back of the field that couldn’t or didn’t typically pay for a full allotment of new tires, forcing him to run on older tires more in a race. It’s easy to get buried in such rides and never find a ride with a top team.

“Ultimately, I decided to go back and run scuffed tires,” Chastain said. 

He took any ride he could get in 2019, running 77 Cup, Xfinity and Truck races. Since 2006, only Kyle Busch had run more races in a season than Chastain did that year.

Chastain’s determination and performance led him back to Ganassi for the 2021 Cup season. He felt secure there until Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks bought Ganassi’s operation to make Trackhouse a two-car team for this season. Chastain’s anxiety faded when Marks told him he had a place with the team.

That paired Chastain with Suarez for this season. But Suarez’s journey had its roadblocks.

Suarez joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 when he was let go by Joe Gibbs Racing after two Cup seasons there. While Suarez finished what was then a career-best 17th in the points, it was not enough to stay at SHR. He was replaced by Cole Custer for the 2020 season.

Suarez was left to search for any opportunity. With options limited, he went to Gaunt Brothers Racing, an underfunded team. He didn’t score a top-15 finish that season and was at a crossroads in his career. Rarely do drivers at such teams return to among the elite organizations.

Suarez’s opportunity came when Marks pitched him a concept of what Trackhouse Racing could be. Suarez considered that offer, along with one from a team that had won. He was unsure about the team that had won and went with Marks.

“My father told me I was crazy,” Suarez said. “A few friends from Mexico told me that ‘I’m not sure you’re making the right call.’ Eight months later, they told me, ‘I’m glad you made that call.’ 

“Sometimes you just have to trust your gut a little bit. Justin looked at me in the eyes and said, “You have to trust me on this. We’re going to build something great, and I’m going to be able to give you the opportunity to build a team around,’ something that nobody else allowed me to do before the Cup Series. It makes a huge difference when you have a team for you.”

The result is that Chastain has won twice this year and Suarez has won once, putting both of Trackhouse’s cars in the playoffs. Suarez recently signed a contract extension to remain with Trackhouse through the 2023 season. 

Challenges remain for both — Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch have each questioned if Chastain can win a championship with so many drivers upset by his driving this season, while Suarez has one top-10 finish in his last five starts — but Chastain and Suarez still have a chance for a championship.

“I’m just here to hang on for the ride,” Chastain said.

2. Short track connections

Chase Elliott said Wednesday’s sellout crowd of about 18,000 at North Wilkesboro Speedway for the CARS Tour race that featured Dale Earnhardt Jr., was an “amazing spectacle for short track racing.”

“I think the track needed that,” Elliott said. “I think the series needed that. I think our sport needed that, honestly, just from the sense of what could be. 

“We’re all connected, one way or another, whether it’s short track racing or NASCAR on Sunday, it’s all connected in a way. I just think it was really positive and cool to see that when everybody comes together and wants to support something, they show out like that.”

North Wilkesboro, a 0.625-mile speedway, hosted Cup races from 1949-96. It had largely sat idle other than select events 2010-11 before hosting various races in August. 

Earnhardt’s interest in the track helped on-going efforts to save the speedway.

“I thought for sure it was gone forever. And here we are,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports’ Mike Hembree before competing in Wednesday’s race (Earnhardt finished third).

It’s not just North Wilkesboro Speedway that could have a different future. 

Elliott has been a vocal supporter of Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. The 0.596-mile track hosted at least one Cup race a year from 1958-84. The Xfinity Series raced there in 1984, ’88, ’89 and from 1995-2000.

Speedway Motorsports, which owns North Wilkesboro Speedway, seeks a deal with the city of Nashville to operate Fairgrounds Speedway and bring NASCAR races to that track.

Elliott competed in an SRX race at Fairgrounds Speedway last year with his Hall of Fame father Bill and noted the electric atmosphere. He said Fairgrounds Speedway could be “one of the, if not the best stop, on our schedule.”

But Elliott knows more must be done to help tracks such as North Wilkesboro and Fairgrounds Speedway.

“It’s really important to talk about these things,” said Elliott, who goes into this year’s Cup playoffs as the No. 1 seed. “And if you care about something, then go out there and support it. 

“And then for the fans, too, it’s more than just chiming in on Twitter and saying that you agree, it’s about going and supporting it. You saw that at Nashville with the SRX race when dad and I were up there racing, you saw that (Wednesday) night with Dale. I think that’s a really powerful statement for short track racing and for our sport.”

3. Feeling better

Denny Hamlin says he’s improving as he recovers from last week’s crash in Daytona that was triggered by a wet track.

“The best way I can describe it is like I got beat up at a bar and somebody was kicking me in the ribs while I was on the ground,” said Hamlin, who was scheduled to compete in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Darlington but is skipping to heal for Sunday’s Southern 500. “That’s really all I can equate it to. The whole right side just felt smashed.

“It was one when I hit the wall for sure, that initial hit to the wall and then somebody came and hit me on the left side. That was another pretty heavy spike as well. I’m not really sure which one did the most damage.”

Drivers have noted this year that they are experiencing harder hits with the new car. Drivers have been more vocal about the impacts since Kurt Busch suffered concussion-like symptoms in late July. 

In years past, teams could make adjustments with particular parts and pieces but with those items coming from vendors, who do the drivers talk to about safety concerns?

“It’s all in the hands of NASCAR,” Hamlin said. “It’s up to them to make sure that all of the drivers are safe and whatever the product they hand us.

“We didn’t design the Next Gen car. We left it in their hands to design it and they farmed it out to these companies to build. Certainly in the old days, we would do things in our own race shop to make them a little better based off the feedback we have, but we just have to wait and see what they hand us.”

Asked if he felt this car is as safe as it could be, Hamlin said: “I’m not really sure. … Certainly it could be better, but anytime you build something that’s more rigid and built to last longer, the softest part, which is your body, is going to take the brunt of it. Right now, that’s where we’re getting beat up.”

4. Kurt Busch update

Kurt Busch will miss his seventh consecutive race this weekend at Darlington, as he continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms suffered in a July 23 crash at Pocono Raceway.

23XI Racing co-owner Denny Hamlin provided an update Thursday.

“He’s getting better and he’s kind of plateaued, which is something he wouldn’t think would happen,” Hamlin said. “He’s gotten to about 80 percent and it’s kind of stayed there. I think the rest is just going to take quite a bit of time.”

There is no timetable for Busch’s return. Ty Gibbs continues to replace Busch.

But with Busch having won at Kansas in May, the No. 45 car is competing for the owner’s championship in the playoffs. 23XI Racing announced this week that Bubba Wallace would move from the No. 23 to the No. 45 car for the playoffs to help that car move as high as possible in the owner points standings. Gibbs goes from the No. 45 to the No. 23 car.

“It’s a lot of heavy lifting to ask Ty at 19 years old to keep it off the fence for 500 miles at Darlington,” Hamlin said of the drivers switching car numbers. “It’s probably going to be a tough ask so we wanted to put our best and most experienced guy out there to give us a chance to continue to move on and up in the standings.”

5. Youngest playoff field 

Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric, who makes his Cup playoff debut Sunday at Darlington, turns 24 Friday.

This year’s 16-driver playoff field is the youngest in the 19 seasons of NASCAR’s playoff system, which started in 2004 with the Chase. 

The average age of this year’s field is 31 years, 0 months, 16 days. Nine of the 16 playoff drivers are in their 20s. They are Cindric (24), William Byron (24), Tyler Reddick (26), Chase Elliott (26), Christopher Bell (27), Chase Briscoe (27), Ryan Blaney (28), Alex Bowman (29) and Ross Chastain (29).

Cindric is the youngest driver in the playoff field. His birthday typically is a low-key event.

“It’s just another day in the year and another tick on the calendar,” said Cindric, who enters the playoffs ranked 14th. “I guess I’m not that excitable when it comes to birthdays.”

But he does remember when he turned 10. His family had a Survivor-themed birthday party that was based on the TV show.

“All of my buddies from school came over and everyone had the bandanas and this and that and had all of the challenges, so we went all-out on the 10th birthday,” Cindric said. 

Some of the memories have faded from that day but Cindric recalled one of the games they did that day.

“I do remember there always used to be the food challenge in Survivor, where you had to eat the gross foods and not throw up,” he said. “I think we did a certain extent of that, not too far, but I do remember one where you had the Oreo on top of your head and you’ve got to get the Oreo in your mouth without using your hands.”

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

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CONCORD, N.C. —  NASCAR announced Tuesday that it will not permit drivers to run against the wall to gain speed as Ross Chastain did in last year’s Martinsville Cup playoff race.

NASCAR made the announcement in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Chastain drove into the Turn 3 wall and rode it around the track at higher speed than the rest of the field, passing five cars in the final two turns to gain enough spots to make the championship race. NASCAR allowed the move to stand even though some competitors had asked for a rule change leading into the season finale at Phoenix last year.

NASCAR is not adding a rule but stressed that Rule 10.5.2.6.A covers such situations.

That rule states: “Safety is a top priority for NASCAR and NEM. Therefore, any violations deemed to compromise the safety of an Event or otherwise pose a dangerous risk to the safety of Competitors, Officials, spectators, or others are treated with the highest degree of seriousness. Safety violations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.”

NASCAR stated that the penalty for such a maneuver would be a lap or time penalty.

Chastain said he’s fine with being known for that move, which will never be repeated in NASCAR history.

“I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a wave that will continue beyond just 2022 or just beyond me,” Chastain told NBC Sports earlier this month about the move’s legacy. “There will be probably a day that people will learn about me because of that, and I’m good with that. I’m proud of it.

“I don’t think it will ever happen again. I don’t think it will ever pay the reward that it paid off for us that it did that day. I hope I’m around in 35 years to answer someone’s question about it. And I probably still won’t have a good answer on why it worked.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

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NASCAR’s preseason non-points race, now known as the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, was born in 1979 with the idea of testing the sport’s fastest drivers and cars on one of racing’s fastest tracks — Daytona International Speedway.

The concept was driver vs. driver and car vs. car. No pit stops. Twenty laps (50 miles) on the Daytona oval, with speed and drafting skills the only factors in victory.

Originally, the field was made up of pole winners from the previous Cup season. In theory, this put the “fastest” drivers in the Clash field, and it also served as incentive for teams to approach qualifying with a bit more intensity. A spot in the Clash the next season meant extra dollars in the bank.

The race has evolved in crazy directions over the years, and no more so than last year when it was moved from its forever headquarters, the Daytona track, to a purpose-built short track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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Over the decades, virtually everything about the race changed in one way or another, including the race length, eligibility requirements, format, calendar dates, sponsorship and title. From 1979-2020, the race was held on Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval and served as a sort of preview piece for the Daytona 500, scheduled a week later. In 2021, it moved to Daytona’s road course before departing for the West Coast last season.

Here’s a look at 10 historic moments in the history of the Clash:

NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 2022 — Few races have been as anticipated as last year’s Clash at the Coliseum. After decades in Daytona Beach, NASCAR flipped the script in a big way and with a big gamble, putting its top drivers and cars on a tiny temporary track inside a football stadium. Joey Logano won, but that was almost a secondary fact. The race was a roaring success, opening the door for NASCAR to ponder similar projects.

2. 2008 — How would Dale Earnhardt Jr. handle his move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports? The answer came quickly — in his first race. Junior led 46 of the 70 laps in winning what then was called the Budweiser Shootout, his debut for Hendrick. The biggest action occurred prior to the race in practice as Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch tangled on — and off — the track. Both were called to the NASCAR trailer, where the incident reportedly accelerated. Both received six-race probations.

3. 2012 — One of the closest finishes in the history of the Clash occurred in a race that produced a rarity — Jeff Gordon’s car on its roof. Kyle Busch and Gordon made contact in Turn 4 on lap 74, sending Gordon into the wall, into a long slide and onto his roof. A caution sent the 80-lap race into overtime. Tony Stewart had the lead on the final lap, but Kyle Busch passed him as they roared down the trioval, winning the race by .013 of a second.

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4. 1984 — A race that stands out in Ricky Rudd’s career, and not in a fun way. Neil Bonnett won the sixth Clash, but the video highlights from the day center on Rudd’s 15th-lap crash. He lost control of his car in Turn 4 and turned sideways. As Rudd’s car left the track, it lifted off the surface and began a series of flips before landing on its wheels, very badly damaged. Safety crews removed Rudd from the car. He suffered a concussion, and his eyes were swollen such that he had to have them taped open so he could race a few days later in a Daytona 500 qualifier.

5. 1980 — The second Clash was won by Dale Earnhardt, one of Daytona International Speedway’s masters. This time he won in unusual circumstances. An Automobile Racing Club of America race often shared the race day with the Clash, and that was the case in 1980. The ARCA race start was delayed by weather, however, putting NASCAR and track officials in a difficult spot with the featured Clash also on the schedule and daylight running out. Officials made the unusual decision of stopping the ARCA race to allow the Clash to run on national television. After Earnhardt collected the Clash trophy, the ARCA race concluded.

6. 1994 — Twenty-two-year-old Jeff Gordon gave a hint of what was to come in his career by winning the 1994 Clash. Gordon would score his first Cup point win later that year in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but he also dazzled in the Clash, making a slick three-wide move off Turn 2 with two laps to go to get by Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan. He held on to win the race.

7. 2006 — Upstart newcomer Denny Hamlin became the first rookie to win the Clash. Tony Stewart, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, had the lead with four laps to go, but a caution stacked the field and sent the race into overtime. Hamlin fired past Stewart, who had issues at Daytona throughout his career, on the restart and won the race.

8. 2004 — This one became the duel of the Dales. Dale Jarrett passed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap to win by .157 of a second. It was the only lap Jarrett led in the two-segment, 70-lap race.

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9. 1979 — The first Clash, designed by Anheuser-Busch to promote its Busch beer brand, drew a lot of attention because of its short length (20 laps) and its big payout ($50,000 to the winner). That paycheck looks small compared to the present, but it was a huge sum in 1979 and made the Clash one of the richest per-mile races in the world. Although the Clash field would be expanded in numerous ways over the years, the first race was limited to Cup pole winners from the previous season. Only nine drivers competed. Buddy Baker, almost always fast at Daytona, led 18 of the 20 laps and won by about a car length over Darrell Waltrip. The race took only 15 minutes.

10. 2020 — This seemed to be the Clash that nobody would win. Several huge accidents in the closing miles decimated the field. On the final restart, only six cars were in contention for the victory. Erik Jones, whose car had major front-end damage from his involvement in one of the accidents, won the race with help from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who was one lap down in another damaged car but drafted behind Jones to push him to the win.

 

 

 

SunnyD to sponsor Kevin Harvick in two races, Riley Herbst in Daytona 500

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Kevin Harvick has picked up a sponsor for the new season, and Riley Herbst has picked up a ride in the Daytona 500.

Stewart-Haas Racing announced Tuesday that orange drink SunnyD will be the primary sponsor for Harvick’s No. 4 Ford at Darlington Raceway (May 14) and Kansas Speedway (Sept. 10).

SunnyD also will be the sponsor for Herbst as he joins the entry list for the Daytona 500 in the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing car. The orange drink also will be an associate sponsor for Herbst in the No. 98 Xfinity car fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing in the Xfinity Series.

The 2023 season will be Harvick’s final year as a full-time Cup driver.

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The Daytona 500 will mark Herbst’s first Cup Series start. The 24-year-old native of Las Vegas has made 109 Xfinity Series starts.

“It’s great to have Riley making his first NASCAR Cup Series start with RWR and be a part of the next step in his career,” said team owner Rick Ware in a statement released by the team.

“As a kid you always dream of being able to race in the Daytona 500, and I’m able to accomplish that with Rick Ware Racing,” Herbst said. “It’s such a big event and for it to be my first Cup start will be a crazy experience.”

 

 

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).