Friday 5: New Cup owners reshaping sport with their bold moves


NASCAR’s newest Cup owners are reshaping the sport through bold decisions that could force other team owners to react accordingly or risk falling behind.

The move this week by Legacy Motor Club — co-owned by Maury Gallagher and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson — to join Toyota in 2024 is the latest in a string of aggressive moves new Cup owners have made seeking a competitive edge.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson unsure of 2024 driving plans but NASCAR a priority

Justin Marks (Trackhouse Racing), Brad Keselowski (RFK Racing) and Denny Hamlin (23XI Racing) all have made moves in the past two years that not only impact the sport now but likely will do so for years to come. Those three teams have five drivers in the top 12 in points heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

“A lot of the battles that you see on the racetrack are happening in the boardrooms, with decisions on hiring drivers, hiring crew chiefs and where to put resources — aero, engine, vehicle dynamics — how to get that next great talent out of the schools, whether it be for a pit crew member or an engineer,” Keselowski said.

“These are very serious battles. They fight every day. There’s winners and losers on these every day. The guys that are good at it, they’re the ones that are winning the races. It hides behind the driver that won the race, and I think a lot of these owners are quite OK with that, myself included.

“But the reality is a lot of battles happen at the ownership and the (general manager) level of what you see on any given Sunday.”

Marks, Keselowski and Hamlin — all new owners since 2021 have had their share of victories off the track.

Marks was a single-car team owner in 2021 when he purchased Chip Ganassi Racing, securing both charters from that organization and later signing Ross Chastain to join Daniel Suarez on the team.

Both drivers made the playoffs last year. Chastain finished second to Joey Logano for the championship a year ago and leads the points nearly a third of the way through this season.

Keselowski left his ride at Team Penske — where he had been for more than a decade — to be a part owner in what is now RFK Racing after the 2021 season. In his first year as a team owner, Keselowski celebrated Chris Buescher’s victory at Bristol last fall, the organization’s first Cup victory since 2017. Both Keselowski and Buescher enter this weekend in a playoff spot.

Denny Hamlin and co-owner Michael Jordan shocked many in July 2022 when 23XI Racing announced it had signed Tyler Reddick for the 2024 season and beyond.

Hamlin celebrated the announcement by posting a chess piece on his Twitter account, the inference that his team plays chess while the rest of the garage plays checkers.

“We’ve said from the beginning that 23XI Racing wants to be a different kind of a race team and that’s a forward-thinking team,” Steve Lauletta, president of 23XI Racing said at the time.

The move wasn’t unprecedented, but it is rare to sign a driver more than a year before they’ll join an organization. Hendrick Motorsports signed Kasey Kahne in 2010 to join the team beginning in 2012. Stewart-Haas Racing signed Clint Bowyer in 2015 to take over Tony Stewart’s ride in 2017.

After Richard Childress Racing signed Kyle Busch, the organization allowed Reddick to leave a year early and join 23XI Racing for this season. Reddick already has a victory, winning at Circuit of the Americas, and is sixth in the points.

Now comes the move by Legacy MC to Toyota, joining Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing in that camp. Legacy MC was never going to be among the top three organizations at Chevrolet. Those are Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Trackhouse Racing.

The move continues Gallagher’s aggressive style. Less than a year after he purchased Richard Petty Motorsports to form a two-car Cup team, he partnered with Johnson. The new ownership group was announced six months ago.

“It really has moved quickly,” Johnson said of going from new owner to announcing a new manufacturer for the team. “When Maury and I sat in that (press conference) room in November, I didn’t think we’d be sitting here today (announcing the move to Toyota). That just wasn’t in the cards. We weren’t having those conversations and our path forward looked a lot different.”

Johnson noted the team isn’t done making such decisions as it builds to be more competitive with Erik Jones and Noah Gragson.

“This is one chapter in that fast pace,” Johnson said. “We know that there are many more to come. We’re gearing up and getting ready for it.”

The rest of the sport better be ready because it won’t be only Legacy MC with bold moves.

2. RFK Resurgence

RFK Racing scored top-10 finishes for both its cars in the past two weeks at Talladega and Dover. It marks the first time since 2014 that the organization has had consecutive top 10s for both cars.

It’s quite a contrast from last year.

At this time a year ago, Keselowski had one top-10 finish. He has five this season. Buescher had three top 10s a year ago. He has four this season.

Keselowski said he saw progress start to be made for RFK Racing last fall.

“By then, it’s really hard to see because you’re kind of buried in the points and all those things, it just doesn’t really show up,” he said. “Over the offseason, we added a few more key pieces and people and resources. You have the start over with the points and now it’s very visible, two cars in the playoff hunt.”

Keselowski is ninth in points; Buescher 12th. Keselowski notes that the organization has had a shot to win in about a third of the races this season.

But for all that RFK has done, it guarantees little. The season is just under a third of the way through. That’s a key milepost to Keselowski.

“I really look at the season in thirds,” he said. “You have your first third of the season where you kind of unload with all of your preseason changes, really trying to see who made the right ones in the offseason.

“The middle part of the summer is really about refining who you are and then you have the playoff push in the third part of the season. … The summer stretch is a really important stretch to just try to have a little bit of momentum getting into the playoff and if you’re not in the playoffs, you really need to solidify yourself  with wins or good runs.”

After going to Kansas this weekend, the series heads to Darlington. Both are playoff tracks. Teams that go to North Wilkesboro for the All-Star Race before ending the month at Charlotte. Kansas and Charlotte are 1.5-mile tracks and Darlington is a 1.366-mile track. This stretch will give teams a good view of how they compare at aero tracks.

“I look at Kansas, Darlington and Charlotte, those are big races for us,” Keselowski said.

3. Thrill ride

As Formula One driver Pierre Gasly drove the Charlotte Roval in an RFK Racing car on Tuesday, he experienced something he had not in motorsports.

Driving on a track banked 24 degrees in the turns.

“Going through the banking in fifth gear … bottoming out, I did think about my insurance and whether their car was well-insured,” said Gasly, who is competing in Sunday’s Miami Grand Prix. “They say don’t push too much, but you don’t how to do that. If you jump in the car, you want to feel the limits.

“I must say I was quite amazed with the braking. I didn’t expect the car to brake that hard.”

He also came away impressed with the race shop.

“I was amazed with the factory,” Gasly said of visiting the RFK Racing shop and museum.

His Alpine teammate Esteban Ocon drove the car on the Roval and left enthused.

“I did enjoy it massively,” Ocon said. “It was awesome just to have an experience in a proper NASCAR new generation car.”

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton said in Miami that he remains interested in competing in a NASCAR race but remains focused on his F1 career.

If Hamilton runs in NASCAR some day, he would follow other F1 champions who have tried Cup, including a pair this year. Former F1 champions Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button both drove in the Circuit of the Americas Cup race this season. Button also is scheduled to compete at Chicago and the Indy road course this season.

4. Kyle Larson’s ups and downs

Kyle Larson’s uneven season continued last weekend at Dover, making one wonder if he might be due for a strong finish this weekend at Kansas.

Larson has failed to finish or had to go to the garage during a race six times in the first 11 events this season. He failed to finish after crashes in the Daytona 500, Atlanta, Talladega and Bristol Dirt Race.

Larson has four top-five finishes, scoring wins at Richmond and Martinsville. He placed second at Las Vegas and was fourth at Phoenix.

Circuit of the Americas is the only race among the first 11 this year that Larson has not had a top five, failed to finish or had to to go to the garage for repairs. He finished 14th that day, completing all 75 laps.

Through it all, Larson has scored the most playoff points so far. His two wins and two stage victories give him 12 playoff points. William Byron is next with 11 playoff points, followed by Kyle Busch, who has 10 playoff points.

5. A new winner?

There has been a different winner in each of the last eight races on a 1.5-mile track (excluding Atlanta, which is now in the same category as Daytona and Talladega with its drafting).

Those last eight winners are:

Las Vegas (March 2023) — William Byron

Homestead (October 2022) — Kyle Larson

Las Vegas (October 2022) — Joey Logano

Texas (September 2022) — Tyler Reddick

Kansas (September 2022) — Bubba Wallace

Coca-Cola 600 (May 2022) — Denny Hamlin

Kansas (May 2022) — Kurt Busch

Las Vegas (March 2022) — Alex Bowman

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.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson on his NASCAR team and his approach to Le Mans

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns from injury

“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

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

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.