Friday 5: Changes lead Cup drivers to moonlight in other forms of racing


As Kyle Larson and Rick Hendrick put a contract together for 2021, the car owner asked Larson what he wanted in the deal.

“I’d like to run some dirt races,” Larson said.

It was a bold request. Hendrick prevented his drivers from racing in many other forms of motorsports, including sprint cars, fearing injury. After discussing it within the organization, Hendrick relented and allowed Larson to race sprint cars.

That decision created opportunities for all of Hendrick’s drivers to race beyond NASCAR: William Byron honed his skills in Late Models. Alex Bowman ran sprint and midget cars. Chase Elliott drove in the Chili Bowl, the 24 Hours of Daytona, SRX races and a Nitro Rallycross event.

Next year, Larson will compete in the Indianapolis 500, marking the first time since 2014 that a full-time Cup driver will compete in that race.

“The crew chiefs and I have talked about it,” Hendrick said in June 2021. “They think it’s good. The safety deals are better. I’ve told (the drivers) they can drive what they want to.”

He also told his drivers something else.

“If you get hurt,” he said, “I got to put somebody in the car.”

Josh Berry is in Bowman’s car for the next three to four weeks after Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car crash Tuesday night. He was injured racing in a series Larson co-founded. Larson finished third in that event.

Bowman is the second Cup driver to be injured racing in another series this year. Chase Briscoe broke his left middle finger in a dirt late model race — which also featured Larson and Kyle Busch — a few days before the dirt race at Bristol. Briscoe didn’t miss any Cup races.

The injuries, particularly Bowman’s, bring back the issue of if Cup drivers should compete in any other racing series.

Bowman told NBC Sports earlier this month that sprint car racing is his “golf game” and a way to get away from the pressures in NASCAR’s premier series while honing his racecraft.

“I think it has its pluses and minuses, honestly,” Bowman told NBC Sports about the value of racing a sprint car. “I think anytime you’re in a race car is good. Obviously, I’m learning a lot. Every night is a learning experience in those cars.”

More drivers have raced in other series since NASCAR reduced the weekend schedule.

Four years ago, Cup teams had 150 minutes of practice spread over two days before the spring Dover race.

This weekend, Cup teams will be divided into two groups and each group will have about 25 minutes of practice at Dover. That’s a reduction of more than 80% of practice time.

It’s a trend that started when NASCAR returned during the COVID-19 pandemic. NASCAR raced without practice at most events in 2020 before bringing back some practice time at tracks in 2022. Limited practice was viewed as a cost-cutting move for teams, but it might have had the biggest impact on drivers.

The loss of practice time follows a reduction of race lengths. In 2016, drivers ran 1,040 more laps than the Cup series raced last year in the same number of events. That’s nearly a 10% decrease in the number of laps run.

Then consider the limits on Cup drivers in the Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series. Drivers with more than three full-time years in Cup, who also score Cup points, are limited to no more than five Xfinity and five Craftsman Truck Series races a season.

The reduction in practice and race length, along with restrictions on the number of NASCAR national series drivers can run, limit their opportunities to learn in real-life situations. While simulators can help close some of the gap, it can’t replace the wheel-to-wheel action on track or dueling on a restart.

More drivers started looking to race beyond Cup after Larson’s historic 2021 season when he won 10 series races, the championship and some of the biggest dirt races in the country.

While some owners may consider further restrictions if more injuries persist, drivers are going to want to race as much as possible. If there’s not an option in NASCAR, drivers will look elsewhere to compete.

“Driving a racecar is the best thing I can be doing,” said Ross Chastain, who was scheduled to compete in his first Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model race Friday at Georgetown (Delaware) Speedway before a forecast for rain postponed the event to August.

As for racing in that dirt late model series, Chastain conceded: “I’m in way over my head. I should be in like the beginner hobby stock class … that’s like my dirt level driving ability and experience.”

But there’s a value in the experience and that’s among the reasons Chastain looked to compete in that event.

For those who want to keep drivers away from other series to keep them safe, drivers can get hurt in other ways. Hendrick knows that all too well. Elliott missed six races this season after fracturing his left tibia in a snowboarding accident. Jimmie Johnson broke his left wrist surfing atop a golf cart a few weeks after winning the first of his five consecutive Cup titles.

But it’s not just Hendrick drivers that have gotten hurt in unusual ways.

Elliott’s father, Bill, missed two races in 2000 after he suffered a fractured kneecap when he tripped and fell in his garage carrying a bag of fertilizer. Carl Edwards broke two bones in his right foot playing Frisbee with friends in 2009 but didn’t miss any races. Greg Biffle bruised ribs when he slipped trying to jump from the dock to a boat in 2009 but didn’t miss any Cup races. Denny Hamlin tore his ACL in his right knee less than two weeks before the 2015 playoffs and kept racing.

Unless drivers are going to be put in bubblewrap between races, things are going to happen. With drivers seeking more track time in other forms of racing since their Cup track time is limited, they will face the potential for injury. And car owners will face the decision of if to allow drivers to race.

2. Countdown to Chicago

It is a little more than two months until the Cup Series makes its debut on the streets of Chicago.

While NASCAR has big plans for the July 2 event, including concerts and other fan amenities that weekend, there have been questions about the event’s future even with a three-year contact.

Some of the consternation has centered on the holiday date, street closures and the city’s deal with NASCAR.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, who takes office May 15, said in a March interview that he would review the deal if elected.

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 contract states that 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.”

Julie Giese, former track president at Phoenix Raceway, spearheads NASCAR’s efforts in Chicago. While the contract was done with the outgoing administration, she’s in touch with the incoming administration.

“We have had conversations with (Johnson’s) transition team and have briefed them on where we are with everything, especially over the last week with the traffic and street closures,” Giese told NBC Sports last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

“As we’ve solidified with the city what that plan looks like, we’ve spent some time with his transition team, bringing them up to speed on that, answering questions. The conversations have been very positive. For me, it’s just arming them with as much information as possible. I think, for us, the commitment we have is to put on the absolute best event weekend that we possibly (can).

“We’ve told that to the residents and the businesses and just the city in general. We owe that to them, and we’re committed to doing that. We’ve had a ton of planning meetings that really have, I think, (been) setting us up for success, but, ultimately, we have to execute a fantastic event.”

Some aldermen have raised issues about the race and the impact on the residents around Grant Park, which cars will race around and through.

“We do have an open dialogue with the aldermen,” Giese said. “We do regular briefings with them just to keep them in the loop. … (They detail) what they’re hearing from residents, businesses, sharing that with us and, honestly, I do think it’s incumbent on us, as well as the city, to just work through solutions.”

Giese confirmed that NASCAR has spent $50 million for this event, which marks the first Cup street course race.

This is among the new initiatives for NASCAR to take the sport to more people. It’s why the Clash moved from Daytona International Speedway to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, just a few miles from downtown LA. This year marked the second time the event was held at the Coliseum.

Giese told NBC Sports that 76% of the ticket buyers for the Chicago race are new to NASCAR. That means that they have not personally purchased a ticket, although they could have gone to NASCAR races with someone who purchased the ticket for them.

That number is similar to a figure NASCAR noted the first year the series held the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 2022. About 50,000 fans attended that event. About 50,000 are expected for each of the two days at Chicago in July.

3. Hectic pit road 

Dover presents many challenges for drivers but its pit road is among the more difficult ones on the circuit.

Just getting to pit road can be hard. A driver has to slow down and not go faster than 35 mph or be penalized. Last year’s race had eight pit road speeding penalties and one commitment line violation.

Ross Chastain, who finished third in last year’s race, explains the challenges of getting on to pit road at Dover.

“It all starts with slowing down, and if you turn down on to the apron too soon in Turn 3, you’re going too fast,” Chastain told NBC Sports of entering pit road under green.

“It’s like Darlington. It’s scary to think about. You just have to really trust the process.”

One of the most famous incidents on pit road at Dover came in the 2004 Chase when Matt Kenseth, the reigning Cup champion at the time, came down pit road under green and lost control of his car and slammed into a tire barrier, ending his race.

“I think about that,” Chastain said in regards to what can happen entering Dover’s pit road. “I’ve spun in a truck, and I luckily spun on to pit road sideways and then straight down. I was speeding. I was going 90 mph. I was looking out the right side window at those barrels. It straightened out and I sped, but at least I didn’t hit anything.”

Once on pit road cleanly, challenges remain. A driver can’t go any faster than 35 mph or they’ll be penalized for speeding. So a driver is watching their dashboard to make sure they don’t speed. If they are coming in during a caution period, they’re right on the back of the car ahead and making sure they don’t run into that car. The spotter or crew chief is telling them when to turn into the pit stall.

“It’s the toughest multitasking part, I think, of our job really,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished second last year at Dover, told NBC Sports. “You’re listening to your spotter. They’re telling you 10 (stalls) out, then five out and your crew chief is guiding you into the box. You’re also looking for three pit stalls away. If nobody is in them, you can pull in three away.

“You’ve also got the people in front of you that you’re waiting (on to move). Sometimes they’re peeling off right in front of you. … When they peel off, they slow down, so you have got to slow down, but then you have got to get back to your speed as quick as you can. You’re looking for your sign in your pit box. I think pit road is one of the toughest things to do, depending on which track.”

4. All in a name

Trackhouse Racing co-owner Pitbull will call his upcoming album Trackhouse in a nod to the race team.

“The whole initiative when we got together with Trackhouse was all about uniting people and also creating awareness for Trackhouse and also for the sport,” Pitbull said.

“I feel that music is a universal language. It unites. It doesn’t divide. It’s the same way you can utilize the race car and how everybody loves racing, so you put them together. That, to me, is what it’s all about. How do we find different ways, unconventional and untraditional ways to be able to create awareness to unite people, bring them out to the tracks, so they have fun and enjoy (it), making them fall in love with Trackhouse on our journey.”

He admitted he had another name for the album but “then one day it dawned on me, what better stories to put together than Trackhouse and everything that’s happened to me in the music industry and what we got going on right now.”

The album will be the 12th internationally distributed album for the multi-platinum Grammy-award winning singer. The album is scheduled to be released July 7. The team will celebrate the album with a special paint scheme on Daniel Suarez‘s car this weekend at Dover.

Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain enters Sunday’s race at Dover second in the season standings. Teammate Suarez is 17th.

5. Rising and falling

With 10 races complete in the season, it’s a good time to see how drivers are doing in the points compared to this time last year. Here’s a look at those who have gained the most spots in the standings since last year and those who have fallen the most.

Drivers on the rise

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has gained 18 spots to be 13th at this point in the season

Brad Keselowski has gained 17 spots to be 12th. Last year, he was penalized 100 points, dropping him so far in the points

Denny Hamlin has gained 14 spot to be 10th.

Christopher Bell has climbed 13 spots to lead the points.

Tyler Reddick has gained nine spots to sixth with his new ride at 23XI Racing.

Driver falling

Chase Elliott has lost 30 spots to 31st after missing six races due to injury this season

Austin Dillon has dropped 16 points to 29th but part of that is due to a 60-point penalty that RCR is appealing. That appeal is scheduled to be heard Tuesday.

Aric Almirola has fallen 14 spots to 24th.

William Byron has descended 11 spots to 14th but that’s also due to a penalty.

Erik Jones has dropped eight spots to 25th.

Two drivers are in the same spot in the points as they were last year. Bubba Wallace is again 21st. Last year, he had 193 points. This year, he has 191 points. Harrison Burton is again 30th. Last year, he had 130 points. This year, he has 121 points.

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.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson is building a team and pointing to Le Mans

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.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

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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.