Trackhouse Racing is launching a program to bridge the gap between NASCAR and other forms of motorsports.
The two-car team will bring a third entry to at least one Cup race this season — the No. 91 Chevrolet — as part of “PROJECT 91, a program designed to expand its international reach by fielding a NASCAR Cup Series entry for renowned international racing drivers,” the team announced Tuesday.
In a press release, the second-year team notes its goal is to become a “destination for global superstars from other racing disciplines eager to compete in America’s most popular form of motorsports.”
“PROJECT91’s mission is to activate the intersection point of NASCAR racing and global motorsport culture,” said Justin Marks, team owner of Trackhouse. “I truly believe the NexGen car represents an opportunity for NASCAR to enter the global professional motorsport conversation. We now have a race vehicle with international technological relevance where world-class drivers from other disciplines can compete at NASCAR’s highest level without the steep learning curve that the previous generation cars required.
“Vehicle advancements used in other forms of motorsports, such as diffusers, independent rear suspension, the sequential gearbox, and other more common components, have resulted in a platform much less reliant on intimate proprietary stock car knowledge, which has historically made any transition to NASCAR difficult.”
The team will announce the program’s first driver and race in the coming days, according to the press release. Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez are Trackhouse Racing’s full-time drivers. Chastain has won two Cup races this season.
Sunday, Blaney and Cindric raced each other for the win.
Asked if the discussions from last year impact how he raced Cindric, Blaney said: “I wanted to try to win the race for Roger Penske. Whether that was me or another car, that’s what I was doing, and I didn’t want to make a move too early because that throws a big chance out the window. That’s about it.”
Blaney went high coming down the frontstretch. Cindric moved from the bottom up the track. They made slight contact and Blaney hit the wall.
Cindric then dived back down the track to block Bubba Wallace’s move before the finish line.
“The last lap, I got good pushes on the bottom from (Wallace) and then I was able to get Austin in front,” Blaney said. “Off of (Turn) 4, where we were good enough to make a move, I got blocked and I ended up getting fenced.”
Asked if the block was fair or foul, Blaney said: “I don’t know. Congrats to him, I guess. You’ve got to throw a block in that situation.”
Said Cindric on Monday morning about how he raced Blaney: “I have absolutely zero regrets. I think that everybody behind me put themselves in position to win the race, and I think I did the same and, obviously, it worked out quite well.
“I’m just really proud of the effort, proud of the teamwork there, proud of the teamwork with Fords throughout the race, so I’ve got zero complaints and zero regrets.”
Tim Cindric, president of Team Penske and Austin’s father, spoke with Blaney after the race.
“If there’s a guy that deserves to win the Daytona 500, it’s Ryan Blaney,” Tim Cindric said Monday. “The frustration of finishing second and so forth, I think you see that with Bubba Wallace and those that haven’t been able to do it yet.
“Without a doubt, I talked to (Blaney) after the race as far as congratulations and he wanted it. He wanted to win the race. Every driver does. From my standpoint, you wish there could be two guys that win the race because they both deserved to win.”
Penske cited safety concerns as the reason the team altered the wheels. Even so, some suggest the changers could make it easier for a tire changer to put the wheel on or take it off, providing a potential competitive advantage.
Penske said the team reached out to NASCAR on the matter.
“I think that we had contacted NASCAR a week before and said that the wheels we were getting were not all the same, and we felt we needed to modify the holes where the drive pins go,” Penske said. “We didn’t really get any feedback, and at that point we went ahead and opened the holes up.
“In fact, when you look at it, they’re much … smaller … than we had either on IndyCar or in sports car. I just think there was so much going on and trying to get the communication back and forth —we certainly talked about it with them. This wasn’t something we did under the covers trying to beat anybody. It was right there.”
Jeremy Bullins, crew chief for Austin Cindric, said that the team had a set of wheels for the Daytona 500 that the pin holes did not measure to what they were comfortable using. Bullins said the team did not use that set “because we were afraid they might not go on.”
The garage is watching how NASCAR reacts to this situation.
“I still carry the pain for him and the frustration for him from the season finale,” Wallace told NBC Sports in January. “Crazy way to end.
“The thing that you can take a page out of his book from is how he handled it after the race. … He got out and gave his praise and was thankful for the opportunity and moved on. That was it. It was just like, ‘I want to be mad, but I can’t.’ Just something to learn.”
Such flashes showed what could be. He moved to Cup full-time in 2014 for Chip Ganassi Racing, but it wasn’t until 2016 that Larson won his first series race. It came in his 99th career start.
“I feel like for a long time I could have been viewed as the most overly hyped driver in the Cup Series … because I think everybody saw the potential,” he said.
As the wins didn’t come, the questions continued for Larson.
“You just don’t know if you’re lacking on equipment and stuff like that, or if it’s just you,” he said. “So, yes, I think back then, it’s like, ‘Man, maybe I’m not as good in a stock car as some people think that I might be or as good as I want to be.’”
After the season Larson has had and the chance to win his first Cup championship Sunday at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock), it seems hard to believe that he could have had such doubts.
Losing the 2019 Chili Bowl Nationals on the last lap devastated Larson. This was the event he wanted the most at that point in his career. He led the 2018 race only to have engine issues with less than 15 laps left. To lose the prestigious midget car race so close to reaching his goal hurt.
“I remember the … Monday after the last Chili Bowl he lost three years ago,” said Josh Wise, a former racer who works with Larson and other drivers to optimize their performance.
“I remember seeing a light bulb go off that day as we talked through that experience.”
The details remain private, but Wise said they discussed mindset and the power of thought. It proved to be one of the keys for Larson to reach his high goals.
“I think (it) helped put me in a better mentally strong place as a race car driver and not talking myself into losing races anymore in the future,” he said of that win.
How does a driver who had so much success on dirt even let such thoughts enter their mind?
“I think you just think bad thoughts because I had so many things go wrong there (at the Chili Bowl),” Larson said. “You just talk yourself into it and something goes wrong. I don’t know how to explain it. If you can think positive thoughts, usually positive things happen.”
His NASCAR career paused in April 2020 after he uttered a racial slur during an online race, costing him his job and the chance to race stock cars the rest of the year. He returned to sprint car racing and continued winning.
It’s easy to see the success and acknowledge that Larson has reached an elite level with his Hendrick team, but what is it about Larson that truly makes him so good?
Brad Sweet is Larson’s brother-in-law and a racer. Sweet will clinch his third consecutive World of Outlaws championship Thursday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, so he knows about winning. Sweet sees things about Larson that most sitting in the stands don’t.
“I guarantee you,” Sweet told NBC Sports, “if you asked every driver who the best driver that they’ve raced against in this generation, that 99% of the people that have raced against Kyle would say Kyle Larson because you just see things that he does on the racetrack, whether it be in a dirt car, whether it be in a go-kart playing in the backyard, whether it be in a stock car. You just see a natural talent that is just able to elevate anything he drives to another level.”
Sweet notes the one ability Larson has that few can match is “his eyes and his hand-eye coordination, how he sees things.”
Sweet said the way Larson processes what is happening as he’s in the car separates him from other drivers. It’s as if things are going much slower, allowing Larson the time to react that others don’t grasp. That ability can lead to subtle moves before others can counter or drastic moves that others don’t see until it’s too late.
“When he talks about a race, he’ll tell you something about how he saw you move your line, or he saw a piece of mud that moved a little, or he saw the scoreboard on the backstretch and knew there were this many laps to go. … He doesn’t realize, for other drivers, it’s not happening that slow for them,” Sweet said.
“The stock car world is going to see. He’s going to be a force, a factor for a very long time, as long as he wants to be. We’ve known about how talented he is in the dirt world for a very long time because none of us had never seen anything like him.”
Cliff Daniels, Larson’s crew chief, marvels at what Larson can do in the car.
“Our job and my job is to make sure that he sees all the notes and all the perspective of a race just for how to manage a race. If you get behind, how do you get ahead. What different strategies can play out, things like that,” Daniels said.
“Not only is he an amazing talent, he’s also very, very smart behind the wheel of understanding what is going on with other racers around him. If somebody is off sequence. If we’re off sequence. What does that look like. He does such a good job.”
Combine Larson’s skill with Hendrick’s resources and Daniels’ leadership, and it has led to a dominating season.
Larson leads the series in victories (nine), stage wins (17), top fives (19), top 10s (25) and laps led (2,474). He’s been as strong in the playoffs, winning four of nine races. The last driver to win four races in the playoffs was Martin Truex Jr. in 2017. He won the title that year.
Sweet marvels at what Larson has done.
“You’d have to put Kyle Busch in a category of Kyle Larson,” Sweet said, comparing Larson with the two-time Cup champion. “Obviously, there’s talents like Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen that are out of this world. I’m not going to go as far and say that Kyle (Larson) is the best racer in the world, but he’s certainly in the debate as one of the greatest talents that we’ve ever seen in our generation and one of the best overall drivers in the world.
“I’d love to see how he stacked up in an IndyCar. I’d love to see how he would stack up in a Formula One car. He’s the type of person that can actually draw all of motorsports together because he’s the only guy, I think, that is naturally talented enough that he could get in all these different cars, a late model, a sprint car, an IndyCar, a stock car and actually be up to speed very quick.
“You just plug him in the car, you give him two or three laps, a couple of runs and he’s going to be as fast or faster than his teammate or whoever is in something similar. It’s just who he is and how he is able to adapt. It’s very unbelievable. I wish I knew exactly what it was how he sees things. He can’t explain it. I’ve asked him a thousand times.”
All that is left for Larson this year is to be a Cup champion and complete his year of winning big races in stock cars and sprint cars.
“Not that I don’t want to be just referenced as the greatest NASCAR driver of all time or the greatest sprint car driver of all time,” Larson told NBC Sports before the playoffs began, “I want to be known as somebody who could climb into all different types of cars and be great at what they do.”
In the last three races, Hendrick drivers have combined to lead 89.8% of the 854 laps run.
Kyle Busch, who finished third in the Coca-Cola 600, said after that race: “On a one to 10 (scale), if Larson was a 10 tonight, we’re about a seven, so we’ve got some work to do.”
It’s a matter of how much they have to do.
“As close the cars are … you’ve just got to be a little bit better and you look like a hero,” Travis Geisler, competition director for Team Penske, told NBC Sports.
Todd Berrier, technical director at Joe Gibbs Racing, told NBC Sports: “Racing is a game of advantages, and we have to work a little bit more.”
But that’s the thing. How much and in what areas?
Geisler notes the results from the 600 can’t be discounted even though the Charlotte oval won’t host a playoff race.
“This kind of speed carries over to a lot of different tracks,” he said.
But will it carry over to enough such tracks? Only three of the 10 playoff tracks are 1.5-mile speedways: Las Vegas, Kansas and Texas.
There are more tracks 1 mile or less in the playoffs: Martinsville, Richmond, Bristol and Phoenix, site of the championship race.
James Small, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said that after Truex finished 10th in the season finale at Phoenix last year, he spent the offseason working on ways to be better there.
The result was that Truex won at Phoenix this year. All three of his wins this season have come at tracks that will host playoff races — Darlington (playoff opener), Martinsville (sets field for championship race) and Phoenix (title race).
Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers, meanwhile, combined to lead less than 1% of the 1,105 laps run at Darlington, Martinsville and Phoenix this year.
Larson finished second to Truex at Darlington and Elliott was second to Truex at Martinsville. Hendrick isn’t too far behind, but it is evident the organization has work to do at those tracks, which feature the lower downforce package.
Hendrick Motorsports did win earlier this year at Richmond. Alex Bowman led the final 10 laps to win. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers led 315 of the 400 laps in that race before finishing second, fourth, fifth and eighth. Hendrick had only one other driver finish in the top 10 in that race. William Byron was seventh.
Penske’s Geisler said that every team has to be careful about focusing too narrowly on playoff tracks because all races pay playoff points.
“Certainly stacking points right now matters,” he said. “So you don’t want to just give that away.”
Larson has the most playoff points with 19. Truex has 18.
For as good as Hendrick has been lately, it’s still three months until the playoffs begin. While there won’t be practice at most events, there’s still the chance for others to improve during the summer.
“You see it a lot, the team that’s the best throughout the regular season isn’t the team that always is the best throughout the playoffs and wins the championship,” Larson said. “I think we all know that at Hendrick Motorsports, and I think that’s why we continue to not settle with where we’re at.”
2. Help for young athletes
Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart often said how there was no manual to prepare a young driver for what they would experience at the sport’s highest level, particularly dealing with media. It’s something that some athletes would say about their sport.
The 23-year-old, who is the reigning Australian Open and U.S. Open champion, stated before the French Open that she would not attend press conferences during the event. She sought to avoid what she viewed as a potentially unhealthy situation.
Osaka was fined $15,000 because she skipped a media session after her first-round win at the French Open. She decided to withdraw from the tournament.
In her explanation, Osaka noted that she had suffered “long bouts of depression” since her U.S. Open championship in 2018, and “I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”
“Any profession you do, you grow up and practice how to play tennis, you grow up and practice how to race cars,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “Everything else falls into place, talking in front of media, talking in front of crowds, being a public speaker. None of that is practiced. … I can totally relate to what she’s saying. It’s tough for anybody.
“It may come more natural for (some) people, but at the end of the day, it’s still tough. It’s something that we’re not comfortable with just because we didn’t practice or learn it growing up.
“It just happens, ‘Oh by the way you need to talk to people after you make your qualifying run here.’ ‘Uh, OK.’ I can see where the anxiety builds up. You say one wrong thing, people lash out at you. It definitely puts you in a bad mindset. Definitely can relate on all levels there. Introvert, extrovert. It’s still a tough task to, I guess, be good at or just be comfortable with.”
In May 2019, Wallace gave an emotional interview where he said he was on the “verge of breaking down.”
Wallace said then of his negative mindset: “I’ll be damned if it doesn’t all go away when you get behind the wheel. I guess it’s just 16 years of driving helps. But it’s tough. You see what you get now, I’m on the verge of breaking down.”
“When I was young, I was thrown into the pit and I wasn’t given any guidance or support,” Hamilton said ahead of Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. “And what I do know is that, you know, when youngsters are coming in, they’re facing the same thing as I did. And I don’t necessarily know if that’s the best for them. I think we need to be supporting more, and I think it shouldn’t be a case where you’re pressured.
“For example, with Naomi’s scenario, she didn’t feel comfortable for her own personal health not to do something. And the backlash is ridiculous.”
Wallace said that Osaka speaking up is powerful, just as it was for Wallace when he’s talked about his struggles.
“Showing your signs of what you’re going through is not a sign of weakness,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “It’s actually very powerful and encouraging others to speak out and to be strong about what they feel.”
3. Tough challenge
Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway (4 p.m. ET on FS1) marks the first Cup race there since 2019. That year marked the return of teams running the Carousel. Teams had the high downforce package that season. Sunday’s race will feature the low downforce package. Also, there’s no practice or qualifying this weekend.
So how will Martin Truex Jr., who has won the past two Sonoma races, prepare with all those changes?
“Not really a whole lot you can do,” he said. “I went and ran the Toyota simulator (Tuesday) for a bit just to kind of re-acclimate myself to the track. Hopefully that gave us a bit of an indication of what the low downforce will be like. Really, that’s about all you can do. We were able to win there years ago and, obviously, it’s a little bit different now. The low downforce package we ran really well there in ’17 and felt like we were in position to win the race and lost an engine. We’ve got some good notes to go off and everything else. We’ll just have to see.”
The Carousel adds another challenge for drivers. The section of track goes down from Turn 4 through Turns 5 and 6 before leading into the course’s longest straightaway and the Turn 7 hairpin.
“I think it’s just a really awkward corner, and it doesn’t feel like a corner a race car should be going through,” Cole Custer said. “It’s really tight, really downhill, off camber.
“It’s just a really tough corner, and it’s something that you never go through there and feel like you did it right. It never feels natural, so it’s one of those things you just kind of have to hit your marks and make sure you don’t overdo it through there.”
4. Best road course racers
Via Racing Insights, here is a look at the active drivers with the best average finish in road course races:
The book is more than just about business principles, detailing how Alpern rose from intern to an executive at the company with good friend J.D. Gibbs, one of Joe Gibbs’ sons. Alpern also shares stories of J.D. Gibbs, Joe Gibbs and others.
Alpern said he was motivated to write the book after his father died before finishing his own book. His father was in the CIA.
“He really kind of deprived our family of this amazing story we never got to hear,” Alpern said. “So 10 years ago, I told my wife, my story is not as interesting as my dad’s, but I’m going to write a book because I want my boys and future generations to hear this story about Joe Gibbs Racing and how I started as an intern and all that stuff.”
Alpern is donating his proceeds to the J.D. Gibbs Legacy Fund. J.D. Gibbs died Jan. 11, 2019 from complications following a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease. He was 49.
A schedule that includes a dirt race, more events on road courses and other changes has plenty of options to choose from, but here are the five can’t-miss Cup races for 2021.
Bristol dirt race
The March 28 race at Bristol Motor Speedway is set to be the first time Cup has raced on dirt since 1970. No one truly knows what to expect. That makes it worth watching whether you like the idea of Cup racing on dirt or not.
It’s the last chance to make the championship race. This season that final chance comes on Oct. 31. Chase Elliott won at Martinsville this past season to advance to the championship race and won that event to claim his first Cup title. Kevin Harvick, who won a series-high nine races last year, failed to advance to the title race. Harvick attempted to knock Kyle Busch out of the way at the finish to get the point Harvick needed to advance to the title race but both cars spun.
There’s often drama at the Virginia short track in the playoffs.