Friday 5: Dale Jr. ‘thrilled’ Josh Berry back in Chase Elliott’s car


Dale Earnhardt Jr. awoke early Monday and couldn’t fall back asleep. A gnawing thought consumed him.

One hour passed.

Then two. 

After three hours, Earnhardt finally yielded to sleep. When he awoke, his apprehension returned.

He was worried about close friend and JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry.

The day before, Berry filled in for Chase Elliott in the Las Vegas Cup race. Elliott was out after he fractured his left leg snowboarding two days earlier.

It was Berry’s first Cup race in two years and his first time in the Next Gen car. While the other Hendrick cars finished 1-2-3 that day, Berry placed 29th, hindered by a throttle issue. 

As Earnhardt tried to sleep early Monday morning, the JR Motorsports team owner and NASCAR on NBC Sports analyst said he “worried about whether (Berry) would get another chance at Phoenix in (Elliott’s) car. That’s the friend in me wanting the best for him, wanting him to have another shot to redeem himself.”

Earnhardt said that the mechanical issue with Berry’s car meant Berry “didn’t get a chance to prove what he could do.”

Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday that Berry would drive the oval events until Elliott returns, beginning with Sunday’s race at Phoenix. Elliott’s recovery, according to the team, is expected to take about six weeks.

“I couldn’t have been more thrilled,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports about when car owner Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon told him that Berry would run more races in Elliott’s car. 

Berry is a driver Earnhardt has bet on. They met racing online and became friends. When Berry moved to North Carolina, he lived with Earnhardt’s mother and her husband. Berry is as close to being family without sharing the same last name. 

When Elliott won the Richmond Xfinity race for JRM in September 2015, Earnhardt spent nearly as much time in the post-race press conference talking about Berry, who finished seventh in his lone start of the season with the team.

That race was a “Hail Mary” for Earnhardt. He hoped that by putting his Late Model driver in the Xfinity race, Berry would do well enough to attract sponsorship to run more races.

“I’m ready to race Josh every week,” Earnhardt said that night. “We’ve just got to find a partner.”

It didn’t happen.

Berry ran three Xfinity races in 2016 and one in 2017, while continuing to run Late Models. He wasn’t back in the Xfinity Series until 2021. Earnhardt put Berry in the No. 8 car to run 12 of that season’s first 15 Xfinity races before Sam Mayer turned 18 years old and took over the ride.

Berry won at Martinsville in his sixth start of the season. Earnhardt admits he “cried like a baby” because of the long road Berry had traveled to that point. 

“I felt like I had watched my own son or brother win a race,” Earnhardt said.

That victory started conversations with sponsors and led to Berry returning to JRM in 2022. He reached the championship race, finishing fourth that year and gained more sponsors to fund another year with JR Motorsports. 

As for next year, Earnhardt has high hopes for Berry, who has drawn interest from Cup car owners.

That’s why Earnhardt was worried if Berry would get another chance in Elliott’s car after Las Vegas.

“Vegas didn’t go the way we hoped,” Earnhardt said. “With these people that are interested in Josh for next year, whoever’s looking at him, I badly, dearly wanted him to have another shot at Phoenix so he could somewhat improve on what he did. … I was just terrified that Josh wasn’t going to get that chance and would he ever.

“He was telling me, he said, ‘Man, I was riding around there those last 50 laps thinking these might be the last laps I run in a Cup car ever in my life.’”

Earnhardt said he could relate. He recalls being among one of 15 drivers who failed to make the 1997 fall Charlotte Busch Series race. He crashed in practice and his team didn’t have a backup car. Earnhardt said he worried about his future in the sport.

“I went home and I sat on the couch, and I thought my racing career was over,” he said. “I was never going to make it outside a Late Model stock car. I was convinced that it was over. 

“Drivers, we go on these massive roller coasters. Obviously, the reality of the situation is different, but we take it way, way lower than it has to go. We take the highs way, way higher than they have to go or should go. 

“That’s where I was (early Monday). I was sitting there going, ‘God I hope he gets a chance.’ I don’t know what Hendrick is thinking. I don’t know what they might be looking at. I know that people are wondering why he didn’t run better at Vegas.”

With the chance for Berry to run more races for Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt knows that Berry can provide an inspiration for other Late Model drivers, including those in the CARS Tour that Earnhardt acquired along with Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Justin Marks earlier this year.

“(Drivers in the CARS Tour) can at least sit there and think, man, if I can go out here and I win this race, with all the people that are watching on Flo (Racing) and all the people that are now tuned into a series like this because of the investment we’ve made … the right person might notice.

“While that path that Josh went on is unlikely for a lot of people, there’s still that chance. There is at least a glimmer of hope that if they do enough, the right person is going to mention their name and their name starts cycling into the conversation. 

“If a Mark Martin or Harvick or anybody was to positively comment on any of these drivers at the grassroots levels on social media, that introduces that driver to everybody that sees that comment. They’re now in the pipeline of the discussion of who should we be paying attention to, who’s a good guy that deserves a chance.”

For now, the focus is on Berry and what he’ll be able to do in Elliott’s car. Earnhardt can’t wait to see what’s next for Berry.

“My hope is that by the end of this year he’s got a deal for next year at the Cup level with someone,” Earnhardt said. “That would be the best-case scenario. 

“JR Motorsports, even if we were going Cup racing, I would be hesitant to make Josh have to deal with that growth and building that program. He’s 32 years old. He’s Cup ready.”

2. Fill-in experience 

David Ragan understands better than most what Josh Berry is likely to experience in his fill-in role for Chase Elliott.

Ragan had the same role in 2015 when Kyle Busch was injured. Busch suffered a compound fracture of his lower right leg and fracture of his left foot in a crash in the Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona. 

The injuries sidelined Busch for 11 Cup races. Ragan drove Busch’s No. 18 car for nine of those events, scoring a fifth-place finish at Martinsville for Joe Gibbs Racing.

When Busch returned, he won five races on the way to the first of his two Cup championships. 

Ragan, who does wheel-force testing, simulator development and driver coaching for Ford these days, understands the challenges for any fill-in driver to excel with an elite team.

“What I would encourage Josh to do,” Ragan told NBC Sports, “is to take this opportunity to learn and to enjoy it, but also remember that you’re just keeping that team rocking and rolling.  You are keeping them moving forward so when Chase comes back, he will be 100 percent and the team still will be 100 percent.”

David Ragan, filling in for an injured Kyle Busch, at Martinsville in March 2015. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Ragan points to his fifth-place finish at Martinsville as a key example from that 2015 season. When the series returned to Martinsville in the playoffs, Busch finished fifth, better than he had placed in his previous three races at the short track.

“I remember Kyle texted me after that race, ‘Thank you for all the things you did in the spring because it helped us today,’” Ragan said. “That kind of made me proud … I felt like the effort that I put in six months earlier, it allowed them to not miss a beat and they ended up running well in the fall at that same track.”

Ragan admits it took a little time for him to feel comfortable in how he fit in with the team until a conversation with crew chief Adam Stevens.

“I was a little hesitant the first several weeks to really criticize the car or to say certain things because you just didn’t know how they would take it, and I didn’t really know my role just yet,” Ragan said. “After the first couple of weeks, Adam was like, ‘Look, you’re the driver. You tell us if the thing is not driving good. You feel free to talk to me about the pit crew. Feel free to talk to me about what setup direction we’re going to unload at a racetrack.’”

Communication between a driver and crew chief can be critical to a team’s success. How long it takes for a driver and crew chief to work together varies. That adds a challenge for a fill-in driver. 

“I think the crew chief is certainly going to put in some extra effort into that communication,” Ragan said. “It took me a few weeks to relax and take a deep breath. The newness was pretty intense those first couple of weeks. 

“You’re stepping into one of the most well-known cars in the circuit and replacing one of the most well-known drivers. It’s a fast car. 

“You do have a lot that could make you nervous, but, at the end of the day, you take a deep breath and remind yourself as a driver, they chose me for a reason, I need to go do my job and be who I am.”

3. SHR’s start of the season

Kevin Harvick heads into Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway third in the season standings. No other Stewart-Haas Racing driver is in the top 20 in points after three races.

Chevrolets have been strong, winning the first three races: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Daytona 500), Kyle Busch (Auto Club) and William Byron (Las Vegas). Fords have struggled. Stewart-Haas Racing, other than Harvick, has not had strong results.

Aric Almirola is 21st in the points, Ryan Preece is 31st and Chase Briscoe is 32nd. Almirola and Preece have each failed to finish two races because of accidents. Briscoe has failed to finish one race because of an accident. Almirola’s best finish this season is 16th, Briscoe’s best result is 20th and Preece’s best finish is 23rd.

Asked about what’s happened among the Fords, Harvick said: 

“I think everything is kind of a crapshoot right now for us because our cars are a little bit different than what it was before. We raced in the top five at California and Daytona most of the day, so Vegas wasn’t spectacular and we raced seventh to 10th all day.  

“I think we have some things that we need to work on on the 4 car and try to get our balance right and do some things differently than what we did last year based upon the balance of the race cars and the things that we’ve done, but sometimes you just have to survive the West Coast swing and get home and start working on your cars.  

“You’ve got what you’ve got is basically what I’m telling you until you get back to Atlanta and start working on things. Atlanta is kind of a unique racetrack, but we definitely have a few things to work on, but, really, in the end, it looks pretty similar to what the Chevrolets had last year when we started the season.”

4. A long time ago …

Kevin Harvick has scored 19 consecutive top-10 finishes — including six wins — at Phoenix. The last time Harvick did not finish in the top 10 there was March 3, 2013, when he placed 13th in what was the season’s second race.

That race was won by Carl Edwards. Thirty-three of the 43 drivers in that field no longer compete full-time in Cup.

In that race, Harvick raced against the fathers of three sons he now races against in Cup: Jeff Burton (son Harrison), Dave Blaney (son Ryan) and David Gilliland (son Todd).

Among those that Harvick will race Sunday, Cup rookie Ty Gibbs was 10 years old at the time of that March 2013 Cup race. William Byron, who won last weekend’s Cup race at Las Vegas, was 15 years old and just at the start of his driving career. 

5. Friendly advice

After starting on the pole, Chandler Smith led 118 of 200 laps in last weekend’s Xfinity race at Las Vegas but was passed for the lead by Austin Hill with two laps to go. 

Smith went on to finish a career-high third in just his sixth series start. Hill won his second race of the year.

To have had the dominant car and lead 53 laps in a row before losing the lead so close to the end can be devastating.

Kaulig Racing President Chris Rice used lessons he learned two years ago in how he approached Smith after the race.

Rice pointed to the September 2020 Xfinity race at Darlington that Ross Chastain, driving for Kaulig at the time, finished second. Chastain lost the lead to Denny Hamlin with less than two laps to go, but Hamlin hit the wall and Chastain ran into the back of him, allowing Brandon Jones to win.

“(Chastain) had a heck of a race,” Rice told NBC Sports, recalling that Darlington race. “It was devastating for him because he had tried all year to win and finished second quite a few times. He kind of taught me how to deal with that situation.

“(At Las Vegas) I basically told Chandler, ‘You’ve got to lose them before you win them. Don’t be negative, be positive. … At the end of the day it’s only three races in. You’ve been a competitor and competing for the win each time. That’s the positive.’

“We’ve got to remember he’s 20 years old and he’s run six Xfinity races.”

Friday 5: Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell on path to be NASCAR’s next superstars


NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett says that he believes Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell “are your next superstars that are coming.”

The NASCAR on NBC analyst also sees how the dirt racing backgrounds of Reddick and Bell go well with the Next Gen car and could influence car owners to look there for future drivers.

“I think they’re that good, that talented,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell. “The background that they come from, I think, means a lot with the way they can handle these cars and what they can get out of them that others have a more difficult time getting.

“These are the two names, in my opinion, that as long as they stay with their current teams right now, they’re in the best position (to succeed). It’s going to be hard to dominate in a respect, but they’re going to win more often than a lot of others out there.”

Reddick (four) and Bell (three) have combined to win seven of the last 25 Cup races, including Reddick’s victory last weekend at Circuit of the Americas.

Since the start of last year’s playoffs at Darlington Raceway, Bell has two wins, tied with Reddick and William Byron and trailing only reigning champion Joey Logano’s three wins. Bell’s 10 top 10s in that 16-race stretch are more than any driver in the series in that time except Denny Hamlin, who has 11 top 10s.

“I think what we’ve seen from them already,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell, “they’re just getting to the point now that they have the experience to know what to expect in these races at all different types of tracks.”

Both drivers have nearly the same number of starts. Reddick has 116 Cup starts, Bell has 114. Both have four Cup wins. Among current full-time Cup drivers, only Brad Keselowski scored more wins (eight) in his first 116 Cup starts than Reddick and Bell.

* Christopher Bell has 114 Cup starts                                             List is active full-time Cup drivers only

The next three races set up well for Bell, starting this weekend at Richmond Raceway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has finished sixth or better in the last four Richmond races, including a runner-up result there last August.

Then comes the dirt race at Bristol. The 28-year-old will be among the favorites due to his extensive dirt racing background. Following Bristol is Martinsville. While Ross Chastain is remembered for his video game move the last time the series raced there, it was Bell who won the race. It marked the second time in the playoffs that Bell had to win to advance and did.

“The sky is definitely the limit,” crew chief Adam Stevens said of Bell after they won the Charlotte Roval playoff race last October. “He’s young. He’s getting better at a tremendous rate. He’s already extremely good. You can’t hide the talent that he has.”

It was that same type of talent that led 23XI Racing to sign Reddick last summer for the 2024 season. Once Richard Childress Racing got Kyle Busch for this season, the team released Reddick from the final year of his contract and allowed him to join 23XI Racing starting this season.

The 27-year-old Reddick is making an impact with his new team. Toyotas struggled last year on road courses — even with Bell winning at the Charlotte Roval. Reddick had the dominant car at COTA, giving Toyota its first victory of the season.

“It’s why I went after him as early as I did,” said Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, after Reddick’s victory last weekend. “I wanted to get the jump on all the other teams because I knew he was going to be the most coveted free agent in a very, very long time. That’s why I got the jump on it. It cost me a lot of money to do it, but it pays dividends.

“You have to have that driver that you feel like can carry you to championships and wins for decades. I think we have that guy. It’s not going to stop at road courses. Dirt racing, short tracks, speedways, he’s got what it takes on every racetrack we go to.”

After making his series debut in 2013, Reddick ran a majority of the 2014 Truck schedule for Brad Keselowski’s team. He finished second in points in 2015 and won three races with Keselowski’s team before moving to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team in 2017.

Reddick went to JR Motorsports in 2018 and won the Xfinity championship. He repeated in 2019 but won the crown with Richard Childress Racing. He moved to RCR’s Cup program in 2020, breaking out with victories at Road America, the Indianapolis road course and Texas.

Bell’s path was groomed by Toyota Racing Development, taking him from the dirt tracks all the way to Cup. He claimed the 2017 Truck title and won 15 of 66 Xfinity starts (22.7%) in 2018-19, his two full-time seasons in that series.

Eventually, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota decided to replace Erik Jones with Bell in 2021. Bell had his breakout season last year, winning at New Hampshire, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville.

Jarrett sees that talent in both Reddick and Bell, in part, from their dirt backgrounds.

“I really just believe it’s their car control is what I like the best,” Jarrett said. “You see someone like Reddick and what he did at COTA and what we saw him do a couple of times on road courses last year and the fact that he can make his car go that fast but yet not have to give up. That’s a talent that you’re able to do that.

“Christopher Bell does a lot of the same things. We see this come out on the short tracks and the difficult tracks where tire conservation means a little bit. It’s not that they’re trying to conserve the tire, it’s just their driving experience and driving abilities allow them not to abuse the tires on these cars as much as others are having to to try to match that speed that they have.”

2. What now?

In a rare public admission, NASCAR stated that it was “disappointed” that the National Motorsports Appeals Panel overturned some of the penalties to Hendrick Motorsports this week.

The Appeals Panel rescinded the 100-point penalty to Hendrick drivers Alex Bowman, William Byron and Kyle Larson, as well as the 10-point playoff penalty to each.

“A points penalty is a strong deterrent that is necessary to govern the garage following rule book violations, and we believe that it was an important part of the penalty in this case and moving forward,” NASCAR stated.

The Appeals Panel agreed with NASCAR that Hendrick Motorsports violated the rules by modifying the hood louvers of each of its cars. NASCAR discovered the issue before practice March 10 at Phoenix and took the hood louvers after that practice session.

The Appeals Panel kept the the $100,000 fines and four-race suspension to each of the four Hendrick crew chiefs for the infraction.

The Appeals Panel did not explain its reasoning for altering NASCAR’s penalty.

Hendrick Motorsports stated three key elements when it announced that it would appeal the penalties. Those three factors were:

  • “Louvers provided to teams through NASCAR’s mandated single-source supplier do not match the design submitted by the manufacturer and approved by NASCAR
  • “Documented inconsistent and unclear communication by the sanctioning body specifically related to louvers
  • “Recent comparable penalties issued by NASCAR have been related to issues discovered during a post-race inspection.”

When the National Motorsports Appeals Panel amended a NASCAR penalty last year — rescinding the 25-point penalty to William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas but increasing Byron’s fine from $50,000 to $100,000 — NASCAR made a change to the Rule Book two days later.

NASCAR removed one word — or — so there was no option between a point penalty or fine but that such an infraction would constitute a point penalty and fine.

The question is if NASCAR will make any changes to the Rule Book this time to prevent the Appeals Panel from altering a similar penalty as the Hendrick infraction in such a way again — maybe something that more clearly states that an infraction found before a race is a point penalty.

This was only the second time in the Next Gen era that a team was penalized points for an infraction found before the race. The other case was when Cody Ware’s car failed pre-qualifying inspection four times. At the time, the Cup Rule Book stated that such an infraction was an L1 penalty. Such a penalty could result in a 20-point penalty, which Cody Ware and team owner Rick Ware received.

Another key question is what, if anything, will NASCAR do to improve quality control of parts that teams get from vendors.

Chad Knaus, Hendrick vice president of competition, said March 17 that more emphasis needed to be put on the quality of the parts coming to teams from single-source suppliers.

“We as a company, we in the garage, every one of these teams here are being held accountable to put their car out there to go through inspection and perform at the level they need to,” he said March 17 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “The teams are being held accountable for doing that.

“Nobody is holding the single-source providers accountable at the level that they need to be to give us the parts we need. That goes through NASCAR’s distribution center and NASCAR’s approval process to get those parts, and we’re not getting the right parts.”

3. Single-file restarts

The overtime restarts last weekend at Circuit of the Americas have led to talk about if NASCAR should consider single-file restarts for all or some of its road courses.

Joey Logano discussed the notion on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week, saying: “There’s a lot of different opinions floating around. Probably the best I’ve heard is single-file restarts on road courses.”

The key issue is that at COTA and the Indianapolis road course both have a long straightaway for drivers to build speed before barreling into a sharp turn — at COTA it’s a hairpin left-hand turn, at Indy it’s a sharp right-hand turn.

Last year at Indy, Ryan Blaney was fourth on the last restart and got spun. While a single-file restart likely would have lessened the chances of such an incident, it also would have lowered Blaney’s chances to win because he would have been further away from the leader.

“The single-file restart is something I’ve been hearing around, and at some tracks I could see it working,” Blaney said, noting COTA and Indy.

He admits, that’s not the only idea.

“Do you move the restart zone?” Blaney said. “Do you give the leader more of an opening window of when to go? At COTA … do you give the leader the choice where he can go anytime between (Turn) 19 and the restart zone? So you kind of have like a short stint, slow down, turn, and then you have your long straightaway to where it kind of gaps everybody.

“You’re still doing double-file, but it kind of gaps (the cars) a little bit to where it’s not everyone nose-to-tail 15 rows deep diving in there. There’s a lot of differing opinions and ideas that are floating around, and we’ll see what we come up with, but, personally, from a driver’s standpoint it just gets messy.”

There’s time for NASCAR to decide if anything needs to be done. The next Xfinity race is June 3 at Portland. The next Cup road course race is June 11 at Sonoma.

“I don’t think you need to do anything for Sonoma,” Blaney said. “The way the restart zone is there it’s slow and you’re going up the hill right away. You don’t get the four-wide kind of thing there, so I don’t think Sonoma is anything we need to be working on.”

After that will be the inaugural Xfinity and Cup races at the Chicago street course on July 1-2. That course has a sharp left-hand turn shortly after the start/finish line that could replicate the chaos seen in restarts at COTA and Indy.

“I think Chicago is gonna be wild no matter what you do,” Blaney said.

4. Another new short track winner?

Sunday presents the opportunity for a ninth consecutive different winner of a short track race on pavement.

Here’s a look at those last eight winners:

Martin Truex Jr. (Richmond, September 2021)

Kyle Larson (Bristol, September 2021)

Alex Bowman (Martinsville, October 2021)

Denny Hamlin (Richmond, April 2022)

William Byron (Martinsville, April 2022)

Kevin Harvick (Richmond, August 2022)

Chris Buescher (Bristol, September 2022)

Christopher Bell (Martinsville, October 2022)

5. Race for cash

Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond marks the return of the Dash 4 Cash program.

JR Motorsports and Kaulig Racing have combined to win the $100,000 bonus each of the last 12 times. JR Motorsports has won it seven times, Kaulig Racing five times.

Of the four drivers eligible for the bonus Saturday, three race for JR Motorsports or Kaulig Racing: Justin Allgaier (JRM), Sam Mayer (JRM) and Daniel Hemric (Kaulig). The fourth driver is Sammy Smith for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Smokin’: Winston fueled NASCAR for 33 years


Ranking historic moments in any sport is a risky business, but it’s difficult to deny that one of the biggest items in NASCAR’s 75-year history was the 33-year sponsorship of its top series by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston cigarette brand.

When federal legislation derailed cigarette advertising on television, RJR moved its millions from the tube to the racetrack, transforming NASCAR forever and adding layers of financial strength to its teams, drivers and promoters.

From 1971-2003, NASCAR and RJR enjoyed one of the most powerful sponsorship relationships in the history of professional sports, each entity feeding off the other as stock car racing grew from a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon.

Although giant superspeedways had opened in several states in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the calendar turned to the 1970s NASCAR’s Grand National schedule remained frozen in another time. For an organization that hinted at joining the big leagues of pro sports and longed for television exposure that might take it there, NASCAR’s 48-race schedule was far too unwieldy and tied to shorter, smaller tracks with little or no national impact.

When RJR signed the dotted line to become the top-level series’ primary sponsor in 1971, the name changed from Grand National to Winston Cup Grand National (and later to simply Winston Cup), but the evolution of the title barely scratched the surface of the shifts to come. Working with ideas suggested by RJR officials, NASCAR did major surgery on the Cup schedule for the 1972 season, abandoning outposts like Beltsville, Maryland and Macon, Georgia to concentrate on a streamlined “national” schedule that emphasized big events and a year-long march toward a driving championship.

So the 1972 season opened with 31 races on the schedule, dramatically downsized from 48 in both 1970 and 1971. The RJR/Winston effect was on.

Great things were ahead. Reynolds dumped millions into speedway improvements, from the biggest of tracks to the smallest. Red and white (not surprisingly, Winston’s colors) paint was slapped on speedway walls and buildings, adding spice to tracks that had fallen on hard times. Billboards and other signage promoting races went up in communities near racetracks.

Purses at Cup Series tracks grew, and RJR added incentives, boosting season-end points money and designing programs like the Winston Million, which paid $1 million to a driver who could win three of what then were considered the sport’s biggest races: the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (at Talladega), Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500.

The Winston, a rich all-star race, was added to the schedule. It continues today, although its name and format has changed over the years.

Perhaps most importantly, however, RJR invested millions in widespread and business-smart promotion of NASCAR, which, at the start of the 1970s, had a very limited – both in personnel and in dollars – public relations and communications presence. RJR unleashed dozens of public relations and marketing individuals into its NASCAR operations, bringing a professionalism and thoroughness rarely seen in such circles prior to the company’s arrival.

“I’ve been in this sport 50-plus years, and there have been some big moments,” team owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports. “R.J. Reynolds coming in was certainly one of the biggest. They brought in paint and built buildings and brought in media from all over the United States. And the billboards. I remember going to North Wilkesboro, and there was a big billboard about Winston and the race. That was a big deal back in the day – stuff that we never had before.”

Sports Marketing Enterprises, the sports arm of RJR, in effect became NASCAR’s public relations headquarters. SME employees produced annual NASCAR media guides, usually working through the Christmas holiday break to have updated editions ready for January distribution. Winston introduced weekly media phone press conferences with drivers, lobbied media outlets with little interest in NASCAR to cover races and developed fan experiences like the Winston Cup Preview, an annual January event in which drivers signed autographs for fans in a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, arena.

RJR also was instrumental in moving NASCAR’s annual Cup Series end-of-season awards banquet to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, a change that put the sport and its drivers in the media capital of the world for a few late-autumn days.

Bill Elliott
Bill Elliott celebrates winning the Winston Million bonus Sept. 1, 1985, at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

“Anybody at NASCAR recognizes the role that Winston played in helping promote the sport from so many different angles,” Chris Powell, a former RJR employee and now the president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “There was no question that the sport was a great vehicle to advertise the product. So many other corporations recognized the possibilities of promoting their products through the sport. It all made it grow and grow.”

Steadily, as RJR’s influence in the sport grew, NASCAR tracks (from the Cup Series down to weekly tracks with NASCAR affiliations) were splashed with Winston red and white. Women wearing Winston outfits offered fans entering tracks a free pack of Winstons if they would trade the brand they smoked. Red and white Winston “show” cars appeared in on-track parades prior to races and at events in towns hosting races.

The Winston name and colors were seemingly everywhere in and around tracks. If you weren’t a smoker entering the facility, you might be converted being there all day; and if you were a smoker but used a competing brand you might consider switching. The Winston presence was commanding.

As a former RJR employee put it, “It was about moving the sticks,” in-house vernacular for cigarettes.

“We were always in a tussle to outdo Marlboro,” Powell said. “There was data to show to executive management in the company that adult smokers who were NASCAR fans were more likely to be Winston smokers.”

RJR involved NASCAR drivers in all manner of activities. Race-week golf events sponsored by the company brought together drivers, NASCAR and track officials and others with track tie-ins. Winston representatives invited drivers and their team members to dinner gatherings during race weeks, with the check often reaching into four figures.

Jimmy Spencer #23
In April 1999, Jimmy Spencer runs practice laps at Bristol Motor Speedway in a Ford sponsored by Winston. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Allsport)

RJR often scheduled events pairing drivers and media members with an eye toward enhancing relations between the two. During a Talladega race week, a Winston skeetshooting competition resulted in Jeff Gordon, not particularly known as an outdoorsman, defeating big-game hunter Dale Earnhardt, who was so shocked by the result that he was seen closely examining his rifle in the aftermath.

Winston employees became involved in almost every official operation – and some not so official — related to race weekends. At Pocono one year, several Winston operatives, quite aware of the traffic difficulties associated with exiting the track after races, basically created a new exit route through a nearby wooded area.

The RJR ties to NASCAR included sponsorship of drivers and teams. Long-time Cup driver Jimmy Spencer ran for teams carrying Winston and Camel cigarettes sponsorship.

“They were probably the best sponsor I ever drove for,” Spencer told NBC Sports. “They knew what it took. They were all about promoting and all about the fans. That’s what made the sport grow. It will never be as big as it was with them. I remember (late NASCAR president) Bill France Jr. telling me it would change the sport forever.”

The key RJR officials involved with NASCAR were Ralph Seagraves, who started the Winston racing program, and T. Wayne Robertson, who directed operations through years when the Winston presence expanded significantly.

“T. Wayne was a hell of a visionary,” Spencer said. “Everybody around him learned so much. I remember him saying that they weren’t coming into the sport to take over, that they were there to help. ‘We don’t want to be bullies,’ he said. ‘We want to move it to the next level.’ ”

Some insiders predicted that Robertson, who was widely respected across motorsports and sports marketing, eventually would move into a management role with NASCAR. Tragically, he died in 1998 at the age of 47 in a boating accident.

RJR’s talent pool produced leaders who moved on to more prominent roles in racing. In addition to Powell becoming LVMS president, Ty Norris moved from RJR to lead Dale Earnhardt’s racing team and now is president of Trackhouse Racing. Curtis Gray worked at RJR before becoming president at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Grant Lynch, who directed sports operations for RJR, became president at Talladega Superspeedway and a key lieutenant for NASCAR and its ruling France family. Jeff Byrd, who was involved in media operations at RJR, became president at Bristol Motor Speedway.







Dr. Diandra: Data points to speed as key to breaking Blaney’s losing streak

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Richmond Raceway presents a chance for Ryan Blaney to break a losing streak that started after his win at the regular-season-ending Daytona race in 2021. A fast scan of his stats suggests Blaney is off to a good start to do just that in 2023.

Despite a poor showing at COTA, where he failed to run any higher than 16th all race, Blaney has a season average finishing position of 12.8. He’s tied with Kevin Harvick for fourth-best average finishing position among full-time drivers.

Blaney finished second at Phoenix, where the new short track aeropackage debuted. But he has not won.

Things look good on the surface

Before getting too worried by Blaney’s drought, remember that the season is only six races old. Two of those six races were superspeedway events, and a third was a road course where running through other cars has become the norm.

With 30 more races in the season, it’s far from time to hit the panic button.

Basic statistics suggest that Blaney is matching (and sometimes beating) his teammate, defending champion Joey Logano. I’ve included the statistics for sophomore driver Austin Cindric in the table below, as well.

A table comparing wins, top-fives and top-tens for Penske drivers

Logano won Atlanta and has two top-five finishes. No driver has more than three top fives thus far. Despite Logano’s win, Blaney’s average finishing position beats Logano’s.

Cindric has two top-10 finishes and an average finish of 16.5. His best finishes are sixth-place finishes at Las Vegas and last week at COTA.

After the National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded the 100-point penalty assessed to each Hendrick Motorsports driver and team, Ryan Blaney occupies eighth place in the season points standings.

Things would appear to look good for breaking Blaney’s losing streak this year.

Digging Deeper

But a different pattern emerges upon diving into the loop data. The next table compares more detailed statistics for all three Penske drivers. I’ve highlighted the lowest-scoring driver’s numbers in red for each metric.

A table showing some of the metrics that must be improved for to break Blaney's losing streak

Cindric lags his more experienced teammates in number of laps led, number of fastest laps and number of laps run in the top 15. But in the other stats, Blaney is the third out of three at Penske.

Average running position measures driver performance across all laps of a race, instead of just the last one. Blaney’s best average running position of the season was at Phoenix, with a 7.47. His worst was last week at COTA, where his average running position was 29.28. Apart from Phoenix, Blaney didn’t break the top 10 in average running position at any race this year.

The average speed-on-restarts rank compares a driver’s average speed in the first two laps of each green-flag run to other drivers’ speeds. Blaney ranks 32nd out of 35 full-time drivers in average restart speed rank. That places him behind Logano and Cindric.

Speed early in a run and speed late in a run measure a driver’s speed compared to everyone else on track during the first and last 25% of each green-flag run. In both metrics, Blaney again ranks 32 out of 35.

The fact that top-ranking Penske driver Logano only ranks 12th and 16th in early and late speed respectively suggests that the problem is at least partly company wide.

In overall green-flag speed — the average speed over a full green-flag run — Blaney ranks 29th out of 35. Logano ranks 12th and Cindric 19th.

These numbers identify one challenge that must be overcome to break Blaney’s losing streak.

Year over year

I’ll set aside Cindric’s numbers in this section for the sake of clarity. Blaney’s first six races this year show a large drop-off in most metrics relative to the first six races of 2022. Logano, however, either improved or stayed relatively constant in the same metrics.

In the table below:

  • Green indicates a 10% or better improvement in 2023.
  • Red indicates the 2023 value is at least 10% worse.
  • Black indicates a change (either way) less than 10%.

A table comparing statistics for Blaney and Logano in 2022 and 2023

Blaney has led a little more than 10% of the laps he led in 2022 and has less than half the number of fastest laps. His drop-offs on the speed metrics (the last four rows) are much greater than Logano’s changes.

In 2022, Blaney was beating Logano in all four speed metrics. This year, Logano is ahead.

The Promise of Richmond

The encouraging news to pull from this analysis is that Blaney’s numbers for Phoenix are the best of the 2023 season so far. He ranked seventh in green-flag speed, second in restart rank, eight in early-run speed and fourth in late-run speed. All of that bodes well for a good finish at Richmond.

Blaney won the pole in last spring’s Richmond race and finished seventh. He finished 10th in the fall race after qualifying 10th.

And Blaney himself is optimistic.

“Richmond will be a good gauge of where you stack up – slow, a bunch of mechanical grip, tire conservation,” Blaney said. “So I’m optimistic for it, for sure. I thought we had good cars there last year in both races from the whole team, and I’m excited to get there.”

But breaking Blaney’s losing streak is only the start to a successful season. He must improve his speed metrics at other tracks if he is to contend for a championship.

NASCAR weekend schedules: Richmond/Texas


NASCAR’s three major national series will be in action this weekend at two locations.

The Cup and Xfinity Series will race at Richmond Raceway in Virginia, and the Craftsman Truck Series will share the weekend with the IndyCar Series at Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth.

MORE: Drivers to watch at Richmond

Tyler Reddick won last Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas to put Toyota in the win column for the first time this season.

Here is a look at the weekend schedule for both tracks:

Richmond Raceway (Cup and Xfinity)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly cloudy. High of 72. Winds 10-20 mph. 13% chance of rain.

Saturday: Light rain early. Sunshine later. High of 75. Winds 20-30 mph. 24% chance of rain at start of Xfinity race.

Sunday: Sunny. High of 62. No chance of rain at start of Cup race.

Friday, March 31

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. — Cup Series

Saturday, April 1

Garage open

  • 6 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 7 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 8:05 – 8:35 a.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 10:05 – 10:50 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 10:50 – noon — Cup qualifying (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity race (250 laps, 187 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, April 2

Garage open

  • 12:30 – 10 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (400 laps, 300 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Texas Motor Speedway (Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Scattered thunderstorms in morning. Sunny and windy later. High of 79. Winds 20-30 mph. 50% chance of rain.

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 74. Winds 10-15 mph. No chance of rain at start of Truck race.

Friday, March 31

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • Noon – 5 p.m. — Truck Series

Saturday, April 1

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. — Truck Series

Track activity

  • 10:35 – 11:05 a.m. — Truck practice
  • 11:05 a.m. – noon — Truck qualifying
  • 4:30 p.m. — Truck race (167 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)