Friday 5: Trackhouse duo completes long road to Cup playoffs


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 penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation


NASCAR has docked Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club 60 points and five playoff points each, suspended crew chief Dave Elenz two races and fined him $75,000 for the L1 violation discovered this week at the R&D Center. The team was found to have modified the greenhouse.

The penalty drops Jones from 26th to 30th in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

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“We have been diligently working with NASCAR regarding the penalty and are working internally to determine the course of action in response,” said Joey Cohen, vice president, race operations for Legacy MC, in a statement. “We will announce that decision within the timeframe determined by the NASCAR Rule Book.”

Cohen will serve as interim crew chief during Elenz’s suspension.

Jones’ car was among those brought to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, after last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway.

NASCAR cited the team for violating:

Section 14.1.C: Vehicles must comply with Section 14 Vehicle and Driver Safety Specifications of the NASCAR Rule Book at all times during an Event. Failure to comply will be subject to Penalty pursuant to Section 10 Violations and Disciplinary Action.

Section 14.1.D: Except in cases explicitly permitted in the NASCAR Rules, installation of additional components, repairs, deletions, and/or modifications to Next Gen Single Source Vendor-supplied parts and/or assemblies will not be permitted.

Section 14.1.2.B: All parts and assemblies must comply with the NASCAR Engineering Change Log.

NASCAR also announced penalties Wednesday in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Crew chief Andrew Abbott has been fined $5,000, Young’s Motorsports has been penalized 25 points and Chris Hacker has been docked 25 points for a violation with the team’s window net.

Crew chief Charles Denike has been fined $2,500 for a lug nut not properly installed on Christian Eckes‘ truck for TRICON Garage.

Kamui Kobayashi to make NASCAR debut with 23XI Racing at Indy

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LE MANS, France (AP) — Left out of the NASCAR celebration at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota used Wednesday at the track to showcase its own stock car program and the upcoming Cup Series debut for one of the top racers in the world.

Kamui Kobayashi will make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Toyota in August driving for 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.

The announcement made Wednesday had several top NASCAR executives in attendance – including chairman Jim France – as Toyota found Le Mans to be the perfect backdrop to spotlight the one-race deal.

Toyota Gazoo, after all, has won Le Mans the last five consecutive years and Kobayashi, part of the 2021 winning effort, is team principal of the two-car organization that will try to make it six straight wins in the most prestigious endurance event in the world.

Toyota had initially felt jilted when NASCAR blindsided the industry last year by announcing it would bring its new Next Gen car to centenary Le Mans in a specialized category that showcases innovation, but the project was with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Toyota was the first rival NASCAR manufacturer to complain, and NASCAR has since tried to include all its partners in this weekend’s celebration and France signed off on holding the Kobayashi announcement at Le Mans.

It allowed Toyota to display the Camry it races in NASCAR; Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 in the Aug. 13 race. This will be the second race for the No. 67 car for 23XI Racing. Travis Pastrana finished 11th in the car at this year’s Daytona 500.

“We’ve been working on this assignment actually for a couple of years and Kamui has become a friend and we understood it was his dream one day to race in NASCAR,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, U.S.A. “With this great new Next Gen Toyota Camry TRD, the stars and planets started to align themselves and the next question became: Where should we announce this?

“It dawned on me with Kamui’s record of success, and being the team principal, to do it on this global stage at the biggest sports car race in the world.”

Kobayashi will be only the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR’s top Cup Series and only the fifth to race in one of NASCAR’s top three national series. Kobayashi will be the first driver from Japan to race in the Cup Series in a Toyota, which entered NASCAR’s top series in 2007.

“It’s my dream, actually,” Kobayashi told The Associated Press. “It’s such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category.

“But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers. Toyota has been in NASCAR a long time, but there has never been any Japanese drivers for Toyota. That’s also why I say I appreciate this opportunity for myself.”

Kobayashi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota in 2021 and hasn’t finished lower than third since 2018. He has six podium finishes in eight appearances in the iconic endurance race.

Toyota trails only Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche for most wins at Le Mans. Porsche holds the record with 19 victories.

Kobayashi in 2021, after winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title driving for Toyota Gazoo, was named team principal.

Kobayashi started his racing career karting in Japan but was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe. He was named one of Toyota’s reserve Formula One drivers and made his debut during the 2009 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He raced in F1 through 2014 with one podium finish in 75 career starts.

Following his F1 career, Kobayashi returned to Japan and switched to the Super Formula Series, a class he still actively competes in. He’s since won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and was the anchor on an IMSA endurance sports car team in the United States for two seasons that was formed by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Kobayashi loves racing in the United States, but IMSA’s adoption of new regulations to make its top class eligible to compete at Le Mans created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi’s Toyota responsibilities and continuing to race in IMSA, where Toyota is not represented in the top class. Toyota does field a Lexus in a lower IMSA division and Kobayashi raced for Vasser Sullivan Racing last June in Canada to get a feel for the GT car.

Many consider NASCAR’s Next Gen car to be very similar to the GT Lexus sports car that Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, and that’s his closest experience to driving a stock car. He’ll be permitted to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis, and expects some time on the simulator.

Either way, he isn’t worried about seat time.

“I think I’m a guy who doesn’t need much practice, to be honest,” the 36-year-old Kobayashi told the AP. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I’m not really concerned about form.”

Drivers to watch at Sonoma Raceway


This weekend begins a key period for Cup drivers. Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway begins a stretch of four road course events in the next 10 races. The race to make the playoffs and to score playoff points is intensifying.


Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 10th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Circuit of the Americas)
  • Past at Sonoma: Does not have a top 15 in two previous starts

Reddick has won three of the last five Cup races on road courses, but Sonoma has been his kryptonite. He has yet to lead a lap there. Reddick’s three road course wins have been at Road America, Indianapolis and COTA.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Fontana)
  • Past at Sonoma: Four top 10s, including a runner-up, in six starts

Elliott returns to the series after sitting out last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway due to suspension. He’s in a must-win situation to make the playoffs. Known for his prowess on road courses, Elliott’s last win at such a track came in 2021 at Road America. In the nine races at road courses since that win, Elliott has two runner-up finishes and six top 10s.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 7th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Fontana, Talladega I, WWT Raceway)
  • Past at Sonoma: Had six straight finishes of seventh or better before placing 30th last year

Busch is tied with William Byron for the most wins this season with three. Busch has placed in the top three in the last two road course races. He has led in five of the last seven Sonoma Cup races. He is a two-time Sonoma winner, taking the checkered flag in 2008 and ’15.


Denny Hamlin 

  • Points position: 8th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Kansas I)
  • Past at Sonoma: Five consecutive top 10s until finishing 31st last year

Hamlin has not had a top-10 finish at a road course in the Next Gen car. He has an 18.4 average finish at road courses since last season. His best finish at a road course in that time is 13th at the Charlotte Roval.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Dover)
  • Past at Sonoma: Two straight top-10 finishes

Chastain lost the points lead last weekend after his third consecutive finish outside the top 20. His fourth-place finish at Circuit of the Americas this season broke a streak of three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 at road courses.

Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best finish this season: 3rd (Talladega I)
  • Past at Sonoma: His runner-up finish last year was his first top 10 there in six starts

Until last year, Sonoma had not been kind to Buescher. He enters this weekend have scored six consecutive top 10s at road courses.

NASCAR Power Rankings: William Byron, Kyle Busch rank 1-2


Kyle Busch moved closer to the top spot after his win Sunday at WWT Raceway, but William Byron keeps hold of No. 1 after another top-10 run.

The series heads to Sonoma Raceway this weekend, the second race of the season on a road course.


(Previous ranking in parenthesis)

1. William Byron (1) — He goes into Sonoma with six consecutive top-10 finishes after his eighth-place result at WWT Raceway. Byron has led a series-high 717 laps this season.

2. Kyle Busch (4) — Recorded his third win of the season Sunday. He is tied with Byron for most wins this year. Busch scored 59 of a maximum 60 points and won his first stage of the year Sunday. He has 16 playoff points. Only Byron has more with 17 this season.

3. Kyle Larson (3) — His fourth-place finish continued his up-and-down season. In the last nine races, Larson has two wins, four top fives, a 20th-place result and four finishes of 30th or worse. He has led 588 laps this season, which ranks second this year to Byron.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (2) — His fifth-place finish is his sixth top 10 in the last eight races. He ranks third in laps led this year with 383.

5. Denny Hamlin (7) — Runner-up result at WWT Raceway is his fourth top 10 in the last seven races.

6. Ryan Blaney (10) — Followed Coca-Cola 600 win with a sixth-place run at WWT Raceway. He had an average running position of 2.6 on Sunday, second only to winner Kyle Busch’s average running position of 1.9.

7. Joey Logano (9) — Third-place finish is his second top 10 in the last four races.

8. Kevin Harvick (NR) — His 10th-place finish is his fourth consecutive finish of 11th or better.

9. Ross Chastain (6) — Lost the points lead after placing 22nd, his third consecutive finish outside the top 20.

10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (NR) — Headed for his eighth top 15 in a row until he was collected in a crash after the contact between Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon late in Sunday’s race.

Dropped out: Chase Elliott (5th), Tyler Reddick (8th)