Friday 5: Waffle House provides special memories for NASCAR drivers

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After the burnout and victory lane celebration last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, the focus for Noah Gragson and his Xfinity Series team was which Waffle House they were going to on the way home. 

There was one about 5 miles from the track and another about 7 miles away. One person was tasked with choosing the location and making sure everyone knew.

Gragson, his team and the JR Motorsports hauler all made it, continuing what has become a part of Gragson’s victory celebration.

Most times, drivers who win a Cup or Xfinity Series race go from the track to a plane and fly home. For races closer to the sport’s Charlotte, North Carolina base, competitors will drive, allowing them the chance to stop at a restaurant on the way home.

Such experiences hark back to the early days of a driver’s career —when they raced at local short tracks, didn’t finish until late at night and sought a place to eat, relax and relive that evening’s event. Go to any short track, particularly in the Southeast, and it’s not uncommon to hear the winning team say that they’re taking the trophy to a Waffle House or any other restaurant that is open all hours.

Gragson’s first Waffle House celebration came in 2015, when he won the K&N Pro Series West race in Tucson, Arizona, leading his team to a 1-2-3 finish.

When Gragson won the Xfinity race at Phoenix in March, he went to a Waffle House upon landing in North Carolina. After his Darlington victory earlier this month — the first of three in a row — the team’s hauler also stopped at the Waffle House, joining Gragson and the team.

“Got all the cooks and (everybody) out there taking pictures and just loving it,” Gragson said. “It’s a good time. We played music on the jukebox and told them to turn it all the way up.”

“He’ll look back on that when he’s 60 or 70 years old,” teammate Justin Allgaier said of Noah Gragson, “and those are going to be the moments he’ll remember forever.”

Gragson brought the sword and trophy he collected after his Bristol victory to the Waffle House last weekend. He used the sword to cut his waffle and placed half of the waffle on the sword’s tip before taking a bite. 

“That was really cool to be able to party with the fans and have some waffles,” Gragson said. 

The Waffle House was packed with several Gragson fans, including those wearing his T-shirt. 

“It’s funny that they go to Waffle House,’’ teammate Justin Allgaier said, “but he’ll look back on that when he’s 60 or 70 years old and those are going to be the moments he’ll remember forever.”

Jeremy Clements, who is 37 and in the Xfinity playoffs for the third time, already looks back on such times fondly. His early days of racing were filled with Waffle House stops. 

“We were in the Waffle House all the time,” Clements said. “The races were always late. We had to eat. It didn’t matter if we won or not most times. We had enough in the budget to eat at Waffle House.”

Like many, Clements said that when he won, he brought the trophy into the Waffle House. 

“Why not show it off and have some fun?” he said.

To reigning Xfinity Series champion Daniel Hemric, Waffle House represents special memories. 

“I’d say 90% of my childhood weekends were spent in the Waffle House on Friday and Saturday nights,” Hemric said of the beginning of his racing career. “

Even now, he still goes to a Waffle House regularly. His daughter Rhen, born in May 2020, insists.

“She loves Waffle House,” Hemric said. “It’s kind of one of our little Sunday traditions every week or two weeks. We go as a family on Sunday, just me, (wife) Kenzie and Rhen.”

Waffle House isn’t the only special place for Hemric. After he won  $250,000 in a Legends car race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2010, he and about 20 family and friends went to a Steak ’n Shake about 4 miles from the track to celebrate. 

Hemric brought the trophy with him, but his celebration was muted. He had helped prepare about a dozen other cars for that event and was exhausted at that point of the night.

“Everybody was ordering food and I laid my head down and took a nap,” he said. 

Steak ’n Shake is a popular destination, particularly for Daytona 500 winners. The restaurant is located 2 miles from Daytona International Speedway.

Car owner Joe Gibbs took his family and the trophy in after winning the 1993 Daytona 500. Gibbs revived the tradition in 2019 after the second of Denny Hamlin’s three wins in that event. The Wood Brothers went there after Trevor Bayne’s 2011 Daytona 500 victory.

Cup rookie Austin Cindric celebrated his Daytona 500 win this year with family and his team.

“Really special to have both my mom and my dad there with my whole team,” Cindric said. “We had pit crew guys. We had everybody, and it’s one of those moments in life that you kind of have to appreciate while it’s happening … because it doesn’t happen every day.”

Cindric also brought the trophy into the restaurant. 

“Definitely cool to shut the place down with the biggest trophy,” he said.

2. NASCAR on Next Gen parts process, shifting and Martinsville

Former Cup champion Kevin Harvick has been critical of the Next Gen car in the playoffs, complaining about the vehicle’s “crappy-ass parts.”

Harvick was upset after a fire ended his race in the playoff opener at Darlington earlier this month. Two days after he was eliminated from title contention at Bristol, partially due to an issue with the left front wheel, Harvick posted a link to a T-shirt he was selling that played off his comment. 

John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of Racing Innovation, explained to NBC Sports the process that NASCAR went through — with the teams and manufacturers — in determining the vendors that would supply parts for the Next Gen car.

This marks the first time vendors supply the main parts instead of teams making their own. 

As NASCAR developed the car, Probst said the sanctioning body, teams and manufacturers set the specifications for parts before sending a Request for Proposal to vendors. This took place in 2019.

NASCAR sent RFPs to as few as five vendors and as many as 30 vendors for some parts. For those companies interested, NASCAR held a call to answer questions not covered in the 30-50 pages of documents the sanctioning body sent. 

Vendors had two weeks to prepare for in-person meetings that included representatives from NASCAR, teams and manufacturers, Probst said. 

About five days after the meetings finished, team and manufacturer representatives gave NASCAR their ranking of the top three candidates to supply a particular part. Probst said the teams and manufacturers often provided feedback on all those who presented. 

“We would have people sitting (in the meetings) that pretty much spanned the gamut from large to small teams,” Probst said, “because we wanted to get a pretty good cross-section of feedback from our industry from the team side.”

The team representatives typically were senior engineers or technical directors, Probst said. In cases where a team was bidding to supply any particular parts, their representative was not a part of the meetings with other vendors to avoid any conflict. 

After the feedback, NASCAR, teams and manufacturers made their selections.

“More than not, we had pretty good alignment with us in the industry,” Probst said. “On parts selections, I wouldn’t say every part selection was unanimous. I can also say that we did not select, as a matter of any rule, the cheapest part. 

“We chose the part that we felt served the function that we needed to have done. It wasn’t a case of just going with the low-cost supplier. It was going with the supplier, with the right cost with the right product that met our needs at the time.”

Probst said he’s proud of how the car has been a factor in the series seeing 19 different winners this year, tying for the most all-time in a season. With perennial winners Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski still seeking their first points victory of the season, that number could go beyond 20 before the season ends Nov. 6 at Phoenix.

Probst said he feels one misunderstanding with the car is the collaboration between NASCAR, teams and manufacturers.

“I think that sometimes when you read the driver quotes and the team feedback, crew chiefs are posting things on Twitter, it creates the sense of NASCAR vs. them vs. the world,” Probst told NBC Sports. 

“Really, it isn’t like that. I wish people could see how well we actually do work with the engineers on these teams, sorting through the problems. 

“I feel like we work hand-in-hand with them, but a lot of times when it gets to the public eye, for whatever reason, or if it’s in the heat of the moment, it comes across as though ‘NASCAR is making us do this,’ or ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’ but I think, in reality, that is so far from the truth. We have a really good working relationship with all of the teams, and I just think that gets lost.”

The Next Gen car has provided better racing at intermediate tracks, while the racing at short tracks has been disappointing. The spring race at Martinsville faced criticism from drivers. With next month’s Martinsville race the final chance for drivers to make the championship event, what happens there will be critical. 

Probst said there will be a gear change for Martinsville, “but as far as big changes, there are no large changes that we’re making going back there. We’ve had one data point at Martinsville so far this year, the coldest race of the year. We put down no rubber. It’s really hard to make wholesale changes to the car based on that.”

Probst later said of making changes: “We’ll continue to make changes as we need to, but … I feel like we need to make these changes based on data and what we’re seeing from our metrics and just make the best decisions we can.”

Another key topic this year has been shifting, which has been blamed by some for making it hard to pass, but also been used at the intermediate tracks, which has seen a renaissance in the racing compared to recent years. 

“I would say the debate continues,” Probst told NBC Sports on whether to allow shifting or reduce the dependency of it. “I would say that we certainly have some of our drivers who are very insistent that shifting is bad, the race would be better if we didn’t have shifting.

“We also have other drivers, who haven’t been as vocal publicly (for it), but by no means is there any mass agreement across the drivers that shifting is good or bad.”

Probst raised questions about one suggestion of giving drivers 1,000 horsepower for short tracks.

“The 1,000 horsepower would imply that I’ve got torque on demand, and I can get back to the gas and ‘Man, that’s going to make really good racing,’” Probst said. “In my mind, shifting is almost the same thing. 

“So like, if I need torque in the middle of the corner, I can downshift and boom, I got the torque to drive up off like I got a monster engine and all gears. So, I personally do not feel like we have the data that says shifting is good or bad.”

3. Inside the mind of a Cup playoff driver 

As Ross Chastain spoke about the Oct. 2 playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, he noted: “What’s so great about this sport and this series at this level is we’re allowed to just go and crash. 

“That’s on restarts, on a mile-and-a-half, or a short track, or racing all day at a superspeedway. I feel like it’s acceptable to just crash these expensive race cars. It’s a wild spot for me to be in, just mentally making that decision that I’m going to go put myself in that spot that I could be crashed or I could cause a crash.”

Sunday Dover Cup race
Ross Chastain is third in the Cup playoff standings.  (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Chastain, who enters Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway third in the points, spent a few years in the Xfinity Series in underfunded equipment with JD Motorsports that he couldn’t afford to wreck. Asked how he learned to make the adjustment from overly protecting the car to racing more freely, Chastain noted a situation in last weekend’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol that hit home for him.

“I just watched Bayley Currey go and take the No. 4 car (for JD Motorsports) and run top three with it at Bristol and was fine,” he said. “Then it came down to the end and some late restarts and I could tell he was protecting his car and he finished 11th. I know he wanted a 10th. Not that I ever ran top three in Johnny’s car, but there was times where you go and you’re fast enough and then it comes down to the end and it’s like ‘Man, weighing out that risk versus reward.’

“I think Bayley did a lot better job than I ever did in that scenario. I still tend to tear them up. Now, just aside from not crashing and being out of the race for points, just the thought of these cars coming back torn up is just more accepted.”

Chastain recalls that his mindset changed after his first Xfinity practice session in the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing at Darlington.

“I just was complaining about how loose the car was and was going to crash. So, I was pretty slow. Mike Shiplett, my crew chief, walks over and opens the top door to crawl up into the upstairs of the hauler and the backup car is sitting there.

He says, ‘You see this?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘It’s built exactly the same as the car out there, the primary, so go drive the car. If you crash it, we will unload this one and you will feel it drives exactly the same. So, I don’t want to hear about it being loose anymore. I want you to go drive it.’”

Chastain won the pole in qualifying. 

“High risk, yes, but that was the first time that was ever said to me. I just never looked at a backup that way.”

4. Chase Elliott’s focus 

The second round of the Cup playoffs could be the most treacherous for teams. 

After Sunday’s race at Texas (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network), the series races at Talladega and then ends the round with the Charlotte Roval.

Anything can happen at Talladega, and the Charlotte Roval could create some issues. Add rain there and it could be wilder. 

Texas schedule
Chase Elliott leads the points going into Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

That’s why some drivers view the Texas race as pivotal. Win Sunday to advance to the third round and it doesn’t matter what happens the next two weeks.

While it might be easy for some to look ahead at the potential pitfalls, Chase Elliott, who  enters this round atop the playoff standings, doesn’t do that.

“I take it a week at a time in general,” he said. “Half the time I don’t know where we’re going the next week. 

“The object is to win every single weekend. I don’t show up to a racetrack with the mindset of ‘Yeah, let’s go out here and make stupid decisions and finish last. That’s just not ever the mindset. I don’t see where it changes a whole lot. 

“You always want to have a good run. It just so happens a fresh round is starting this weekend and fortunately we’re still a part of the deal. We’ll go out there and try to have a good run at Texas.

“Try to have a good Saturday, try to have a good practice, try to qualify well, hopefully get you a good pit pick and some nice track position to start Sunday. … Wherever we come out of that, we’ll reevaluate what the situation is and where we need to go from there. You’re always trying to have good weekends, and I think taking it a week at a time, a day at a time is is pretty important.”

5. Double duty will continue for Ty Gibbs 

Two of the Xfinity Series title contenders will continue to do double duty even with the playoffs beginning for that series this weekend.

Both Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs are also entered in Sunday’s Cup race at Texas. 

Gragson has noted that he is a bit more cautious in the Cup car because of the impacts drivers are feeling with the Next Gen car. He doesn’t want an injury in a Cup car to hurt his championship chances.

Gibbs has been driving in place of Kurt Busch, who has been out since late July because of a head injury.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports this week that the plan is for Gibbs to continue to drive the Cup car throughout the playoffs unless Busch is ready to return.

“We’re comfortable with Ty running both for the foreseeable future,” Wilson said. “We still don’t know what Kurt is going to do. To be fair, he left the door open to potentially get back into the car before the end of the season. (Ty) is learning a lot.

“I don’t think any of us have the mentality that we’re putting him in harm’s way wheeling a Cup car. … We know, obviously that hits can be harder with this car, and we know that the teams and NASCAR are working on that. We’re not going to put any of our drivers in a car that we believe is inherently unsafe. 

“On the whole, we think Ty running on Saturday and Sunday for the next handful of races is going to benefit Ty and is not going to compromise his ability to compete for an Xfinity championship.”

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”

 

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

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Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.