Friday 5: Is a Cup crew chief’s place still atop the pit box?


Denny Hamlin sees a day “not far” in the future when a crew chief doesn’t go to the track but calls the race from the team’s race shop. Brad Keselowski says such a moment would just be a part of the sport’s evolution.

As technology improves, teams invest more in remote access and track crew limits remain, the sport is moving closer to a day when a crew chief — or the person assigned to calling a team’s strategy — doesn’t have to be at the track for a race or even a weekend.

The question, some say, is who will be the first to do so. This weekend’s race on the dirt at Bristol would have been a good time to have done so — rain is in the forecast Friday and Sunday’s race features non-competitive pit stops during stage breaks — but no Cup teams plan to purposely keep their crew chiefs at home.

Having a crew chief work from the team’s race shop for even a couple of races would give them extra time to focus on upcoming races, reduce the wear and tear of travel in a 38-weekend schedule and be similar to what teams are doing for road crew members to give them a break.

Rodney Childers, who is in his 19th season as a Cup crew chief, admits that he is not ready to leave the track to work from the shop voluntarily. He had to do so last year when he was suspended four races after the rear deck lid on Kevin Harvick’s car was modified and came away impressed with what can be done remotely.

“It was eye-opening last year,” Childers said of working from the team’s race shop during his suspension. “I could do it from the war room every week and not have a single issue.”

Hamlin said that crew chief Chris Gabehart experienced similar feelings when he served a four-race suspension last year and worked remotely.

“When Gabehart sat out, he said that he actually had a better view of all the information and technology,” Hamlin said.

Tom Gray was a longtime engineer for crew chief Alan Gustafson at the track before moving to a role in performance development at Hendrick Motorsports that kept him at the shop.

After working races this season at the shop, Gray was pressed into interim crew chief duties for Josh Berry when Gustafson was suspended, along with the other Hendrick crew chiefs, for modifications discovered to hood louvers last month at Phoenix.

Gray says that what can be done from the shop is getting closer to what a crew chief can do do at the track during the race.

“The streams and network connectivity here make it so that when you’re back there in the war room, honestly, it’s pretty good,” Gray said. “It’s not a huge departure from being at the track.”

Gray said he doesn’t think the sport is far away from having a crew chief work remotely instead of going to a race. He also said that working from the shop during races provides a good training ground for engineers, the position most likely to be promoted to fill crew chief openings.

“I will say this about the war room, the learning curve for those engineers in terms of the feel and atmosphere of being at the track is that much quicker,” Gray said. “You’re pretty immersed when you’re in it.”

With more engineers working remotely since NASCAR rules limit how many crew members can be at the track, the next generation of crew chiefs works away from the track. Will they feel more comfortable working at the shop during a race instead of on the pit box should they become a crew chief?

Even as technology makes working at the race shop more feasible during an event, it can’t replace everything, some say.

“I really feel like there’s a value to the face-to-face interaction to being there, to looking at the tires, to sensing the driver’s comment,” Michael Nelson, vice president of operations at Team Penske and a former Cup crew chief, told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan.

Nelson is not alone in that thinking.

Keith Rodden was an engineer and crew chief before joining the Motorsports Competition strategy group at General Motors. He left that position to be Austin Dillon’s crew chief this season. Even though he’s experienced races remotely, he’s more in favor of being at the track as a crew chief.

“I think if I had been sitting in the shop (for the race at Circuit of the Americas) … I would have gotten the strategy wrong because I wasn’t there, seeing, feeling, ingrained in it,” Rodden said. “I was the one talking to Austin.”

If he was working from the shop, he would have had to send messages to the person on the radio with Dillon to ask specific questions to get his feedback instead of talking directly to him.

“I think, as a crew chief, you need to be there all the time for your guys,” Rodden said.

Some say that while it’s fine to rotate mechanics and engineers at the track to give them a weekend off, it’s not as good to do that with crew chiefs because of how closely they work with the driver.

Keselowski said he could make it work.

“I’m comfortable with whatever makes me more successful,” he said. “If that makes us more successful, then I’ll get comfortable fast.”

2. NASCAR reacts

It’s no surprise that NASCAR made changes to the Rule Book on Thursday after the confusing actions by the National Motorsports Appeals Panel in separate appeals recently.

NASCAR had to do something.

The notion that NASCAR could penalize a team only to see the appeals panel issue its own form of justice stripped NASCAR of some of its power and left the garage trying to figure out the mixed messages being sent.

The appeals panel ruled that Hendrick Motorsports had modified hood louvers, violating the rule. The issue was discovered before practice last month at Phoenix.

But the panel rescinded the penalties of 100 points and 10 playoff points to Hendrick drivers Alex Bowman, William Byron and Kyle Larson and all four Hendrick teams, while keeping the four-race suspensions and $100,000 fines to each of the four Hendrick crew chiefs.

“We were surprised, as I think a lot of the fans were in the ruling on the Hendrick (matter), taking away points,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer.

The sport was left to try to understand what the decision meant since the panel was not required to explain its decision.

Then this week, a different three-person appeals panel ruled that Kaulig Racing violated the rule in modifying a hood louver at Phoenix but reduced the point penalty from 100 to 75 points while keeping the four-race suspension and $100,000 fine to the team’s crew chief intact. Again, no explanation was given.

Thursday, NASCAR made changes to rein in the appeals panel. Now, if the panel agrees with NASCAR that a rule was violated, the panel can not rescind a penalty as it did by giving back the 100 points and 10 playoffs points to the Hendrick drivers and teams. Now, the appeal panel can only reduce a penalty to the minimal amount in the Rule Book. For the Hendrick violation, that would have been 75 points and 10 playoff points.

Also, NASCAR changed its Rule Book to note that the panel must provide an explanation for its decision.

“We felt it was prudent for the appeals panel to have to explain why and sign off on that going forward for the transparency in the industry and the fans as well,” O’Donnell said.

One thing to note, both Kaulig Racing and Denny Hamlin, who lost his appeal Thursday, can appeal their decisions to the Final Appeal Officer. Kaulig Racing will do so. Hamlin said on his Actions Detrimental podcast Thursday that he would not.

O’Donnell said both cases would not fall under Thursday’s rule changes because their matters had started the appeal process before the changes.

O’Donnell also said Thursday that NASCAR will again display parts that are illegal beginning this weekend at Bristol so teams can see what violated the rules. NASCAR used to do that but then went away from that to avoid embarrassing teams. O’Donnell said NASCAR’s mindset has changed.

“As we’ve looked at this new car, as we’ve looked at what we need to do to really change the culture in the garage, we hear from the media, we hear from the fans, is NASCAR hiding the ball?” O’Donnell said. “No. We can easily display (the illegal parts). There’s nothing for us to hide.”

3. 2024 Scheduling

It appears that NASCAR will be returning to Circuit of the Americas next season.

That’s just one of a few questions looking ahead to next year’s schedule.

Speedway Motorsports rents the track to host the NASCAR weekend at the Austin, Texas, road course and there’s an option to hold the event there in 2024.

Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, hinted Thursday that the plan was to return to that track next year.

“I think Austin is a great market for NASCAR,” Smith said in response to a question from NBC Sports. “COTA is a world-class facility. I think it’s great for NASCAR. I think it’s great for us to be there. So we’re moving forward with COTA and looking forward to working with them in the future.”

Another key question is what will be the future of the Bristol Dirt race. This will be the third running of the event and the second time it has been held at night on Easter.

“Looking into next year, I can tell you that we’re starting to look at the calendar,” Smith said. “I think it’s been a success when you consider the challenges that we’ve had. We sold more tickets this year going into this weekend than we had last year. Really pleased with that.”

Another question is about the street course race in Chicago. The city elected a new mayor Tuesday in Brandon Johnson. During a March 2 interview with NBC 5 in Chicago, Johnson was asked about if he would allow the NASCAR race and Lollapalooza to keep going as contracted.

“I would have to look at those contracts,” Johnson said in the interview. “That’s going to be important. But what I can say is moving forward under my administration, decisions that are made for the city of Chicago have to be made in a collective, collaborative way.

“That’s the type of leader that I am and have been as a teacher and an organizer and a Cook County Commissioner. You have to be collaborative. You have to be competent and compassionate. These are the characteristics I bring to the (city) and I’m looking to have people who work alongside of me to have the same characteristics.”

NASCAR’s contract with Chicago calls for the event to be held in 2023-25. NASCAR may request to extend the deal through 2027.

The city of Chicago can terminate the agreement “at any time for convenience by providing NASCAR with prior written notice at least 180 days prior to the next Event. NASCAR shall not be entitled to any compensation or expectation damages due to termination by the District.”

4. Different reactions

As the series returns to Bristol for this weekend’s dirt race, a key moment is recalled: Chase Briscoe’s banzai move to try to pass Tyler Reddick for the lead on the last lap. Briscoe not only spun but hit Reddick and spun him, allowing Kyle Busch to pass both and score his only Cup victory of last season.

While Ross Chastain faces scrutiny over some of his moves, time has passed on Briscoe’s and few bring it up. Admittedly, it helped that he and Reddick shook hands after the race and Reddick said, “It’s all good.”

So why the different reaction between Briscoe and Reddick compared to what others feel for Chastain?

“For me, looking back on that race, yeah I wish the ending would have been different – not only me, but also for Tyler,” Briscoe said. “Obviously it’s worked out for Tyler – he’s had four wins since then.

“I think the only reason why I didn’t get a black eye after that race was because it was a dirt guy I did the move to. If it was someone who wasn’t a Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Christopher Bell or Tyler Reddick in the field, I’m probably getting a black eye.

“But all four of those guys understood where that move was coming from. Even Tyler said he would have done the exact same thing, because that’s just what you do in those situations when you grew up dirt racing.”

5. Cautions on the decline

Although four of the first seven Cup races have gone to overtime this season, cautions are down compared to this point last year.

The first seven races this year are in the same order as the first seven races last year.

Cautions are down 28.1% this year compared to this time last season.

Cautions have been down in five of the seven races compared to last year. The only races that saw an increase of cautions this year compared to last year are the Daytona 500 (one more caution this year than last year) and last weekend’s race at Richmond (three more cautions than last).

The decline is not surprising because last year marked the first season with the Next Gen car. Drivers and teams struggled with the handling, leading to many accidents in races and even some in practice and qualifying. Teams have made the cars more stable, and drivers have become accustomed to the car’s nuances.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.