Year’s worth of preparation leads to Martinsville for William Byron

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It is for this type of weekend coming up at Martinsville Speedway that William Byron ran several Late Model races this year. 

While there’s plenty of chances to run laps on a simulator or on iRacing, there’s a value in running actual laps in a race car, even if it is different than the Next Gen car. With limited practice in Cup, the more laps the better, especially for the 24-year-old Byron who didn’t begin competing until a decade ago — years after many of his competitors first started. 

Byron heads into this weekend on the verge of making the Cup championship race for the first time. He leads Denny Hamlin by five points for the last transfer spot. 

Byron’s experience running Late Model races this season gave him extra chances to work on his race craft, whether it was more time on restarts, managing tires or something else. His success this year — which included winning the Slinger Nationals in Wisconsin in July — also provided extra confidence. 

“Super proud of him for stepping out of his comfort zone and pushing his limits,” crew chief Rudy Fugle said in July on MotorMouths on Peacock. “That’s what is huge. 

“A lot of guys do that in different ways, but they don’t always do it in front of a crowd. You don’t do it in front of everybody who, if you go up there and miss the show … most people that don’t know how hard it is are going to laugh at you. You have to get past that. He’s done that and it has paid off. He’s a way more complete driver this year and is just going to keep growing.”

Byron heads to Martinsville having won the spring race (and the Camping World Truck Series race that weekend), but he faces a tough competitor in Hamlin, who has five Martinsville victories and 16 top-five finishes in 33 starts there. Byron will be making his 10th Cup start at the historic half-mile track. Hamlin has run nearly 16,000 laps in those Martinsville races compared to Byron, who has run just over 4,200 laps there. 

Byron’s spring win at Martinsville was his second of the season, but he hasn’t won in NASCAR since. He has won three Late Model races since. He won in May at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, in June at Berlin Raceway in Michigan and in July’s Slinger Nationals.

“I think it’s learning how to be versatile,” Byron said this summer of the value of racing Late Models. “Winning in different cars is a big boost because you’re not one dimensional. 

“Like before this year, I would have probably gone back and ran Late Models earlier if I felt like it was going to go pretty well. But I didn’t think I would be able to take what I do now and move around. Going and doing it this year has definitely bred some confidence to know that I can get in a car and learn.

“I think that’s what it takes on Sunday … that adaptability and being able to have different techniques and make it work.”

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Two weeks ago, Kyle Larson saw his chances of winning the driver’s title end when he was eliminated after the Round of 12 at the Charlotte Roval. 

But the No. 5 team was still high enough in the owner standings to have a chance at the owner’s title. It’s a credit to how crew chief Cliff Daniels kept the team focused on that goal after the disappointment at the Roval.

“Cliff did a great job with his team and getting them refocused on that,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports.

With Homestead in the Round of 8, it presented the No. 5 team for Hendrick Motorsports a great chance to secure a spot in the owner’s championship race at Phoenix. 

When Homestead hosted the Cup title race, the belief of series observers was that if Larson could make it that far, he would be the heavy favorite to win. With the Next Gen car featuring a composite body that can take more contact with the wall, it provided another advantage for Larson, who often runs along the wall there.

“I think (Sunday) honestly it paid off because I finally have a car strong enough for me,” Larson said, alluding to the composite body. “I can get in the wall and it’s not going to flatten your tire or mess up your aerodynamics

“I got in the wall probably three or four times (Sunday) a decent amount to where it would have been, with the old car, probably a pit stop, and I would have killed my race.

“Thankfully this car, I think, played into my favor a lot because I do push the limits more than others. You can see it in the right side of my car. That’s pretty obvious.”

Larson showed his strength, leading 199 of 267 laps and sweeping both stages.

“My car was amazing up against the wall,” he said. “It also has to handle how you want it to.

“It did everything I wanted it to against the wall. The ride quality was great into (Turn) 3. It turned where I needed it to turn on entry so I could carry speed. It turned on exit so I could just stay committed to the throttle. It wasn’t too loose on exit or too tight where I had to bail out of the throttle at all.”

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Martin Truex Jr.’s tough luck continued Sunday. 

He seemed in position to score his first victory of the season but was spun on pit road and saw his chances of winning end.

Truex was coming down pit road as the leader on Lap 246 of the 267-lap race. With the sun in his eyes, he abruptly slowed as he neared his pit stall and was hit from behind by Kyle Larson. The contact spun Truex into his stall backward. His pit stop lasted more than a minute and cost him any chance of winning.

“It was really hard to see through these windshields right now with the sun like that and all the stuff covering it,” Truex said. “I did see my box late for sure. So I slowed down before I turned down out of the way of (Larson) there. Partially on me.”

Truex finished sixth and added to the times he could have won but didn’t.

At Texas in September, Truex led when he had a tire go down on Lap 268 of the 334 lap race and crashed. He finished 31st.

At Darlington in September, Truex led with less than 35 laps left when he lost power steering and his engine began overheating. He finished 31st.

At New Hampshire in July, Truex led 172 of the first 206 laps. When the caution came out at Lap 206, Truex pitted. He was the first on pit road and first off it after taking two tires. Three cars stayed out. On the restart, Truex was trapped and got shuffled back. He eventually fell back to 11th before coming back to finish fourth in a race he had won both stages and been dominant.

At Nashville in June, Truex was in position to line up next to Chase Elliott on the front row for the final restart when he mistakingly followed his teammates down pit road. 

Elliott led when the caution came out with eight laps to go for Josh Bilicki’s blown engine. Elliott stayed on track, but Kyle Busch, who was second, and Denny Hamlin, who was third, both pitted.

Truex, who was fourth, was told to stay out if he could restart on the front row. With both Busch and Hamlin coming down pit road, that would have given Truex a spot on the front row for the restart, but he also went down pit road. Truex restarted 14th and finished 22nd.

NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great originations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”