LOS ANGELES —Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.
“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”
The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.
Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.
The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.
Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.
Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.
Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”
The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.
While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.
Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:
— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick.
— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.
— Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series.
— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.
— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.
— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.
— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief.
— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing.
— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.
— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.
— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.
— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation.
— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.
— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.
— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.
— Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list.
— Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.
Kyle Busch and Tyler Reddick — among the key storylines this season — got their first days on track with their new teams this week.
Busch, Reddick and Austin Cindric participated in a tire test Monday and Tuesday at Circuit of the Americas. The session marked Busch’s first official laps with his Richard Childress Racing team. It also was Reddick’s first laps with his 23XI Racing team.
Busch, a two-time Cup champion, joins RCR after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing. Lack of sponsorship led to his move.
Busch heads into this season having won at least one Cup race in each of the past 18 seasons, tying him with Richard Petty for the all-time Cup record.
Busch, who estimated he ran 200 laps during the two days at the 3.41-mile road course in Austin, Texas, was pleased with the session.
“Had a lot of fun,” he told NBC Sports. “Was able to work with the guys and really (have) good communication, give good feedback and have that opportunity to have dialogue of ‘Let’s do this. Let’s do this. Let’s try this. What do you think about this?’
“(Was) able to talk about the car in ways I’m used to and have them hear me describe things in certain ways, so they can get a better understanding where, as you go on, you can say less words and they get what you’re saying.”
Reddick said the session was helpful to get settled in the No. 45 Toyota.
Reddick told NBC Sports that a goal at the session was to “try and close the gap Toyota feels like they’ve had on the Chevys and some of the other competition last year on the road courses. I think we made some gains, but certainly, we’re going to work hard on that.”
“Some of the things they’re learning (have) started to trickle on to our side,” Graves said of the Garage 56 car. “They’ve done some things on the underbody.
“As NASCAR is looking to make short tracks in particular a little bit better, we’re trying to be less dependent on the outer body with aero and get more of it with the underbody — with the theory that it’s going to be less affected by traffic.”
Graves said that the plan is for the rear spoiler to be smaller at the Phoenix test with the underbody of the car generating more of the car’s downforce. NASCAR also is looking to better channel the air underneath the car with the diffuser.
Graves explained how having more of a car’s downforce generated underneath it could impact the race:
“When you look at the lap times, the guys that are up front have a huge advantage, but when they get to the back of the pack, they run the same speed.
“That’s what everybody in the pack is doing the whole race, running the same speed and having a hard time getting around each other. Hopefully, this will help with some of that, where it’s not so dependent on the outer body. You get into turbulent air, dirty air (in traffic) the (aero on the) outer body really goes away. The theory is that the underbody is still going to have that air underneath the car, so it will keep it a little bit better.”
Could he be joined by Kyle Busch? Busch has expressed an interest in also doing the double — something his brother Kurt did in 2014.
“I think that’s great that Kyle (Larson) has been able to kind of button that up early and get that done for himself to run the Indy 500 in 2024,” Busch told NBC Sports.
“I wasn’t so fortunate (in the past). We had a couple of deals kind of right there, right to the sign phase almost I guess you would say. It just didn’t really materialize. Teams got other deals that were more important to them that kind of didn’t want to give me the chance, or they didn’t want to go from three cars to four cars, whatever it might have been.
“A lot of discussions happened behind the scenes, but nothing materialized. I would say that our industry, both NASCAR and IndyCar is just short on people, having the right amount of people and good people to go and do these ventures. Yeah, you could go do it and go run circles and make laps, but is it going to be a winning effort was the question. That’s just kind of why it never materialized.”
Asked if he felt the door was closed to him to running the Indy 500, Busch said: “Yeah, I would say 2023, the door’s closed. I would say 2024, with Kyle (Larson’s) announcement, the door closed because that’s probably about the only team that could do it. Given the nature of who he’s racing with, but just with other teams trying to stretch too thin and not have enough people. Again it comes down to the people part. So, you just never know. See what happens.”
4. Looking into the future
As NASCAR celebrates its 75th anniversary season, it’s a chance to look back at many of the memorable moments on and off the track.
When NASCAR celebrates its 100th season and others in the future, Chastain’s move is likely to be among those memorable moments.
“I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a wave that will continue beyond just 2022 or just beyond me,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “There will probably be people that will learn about me because of that. I’m good with that. I’m proud of that.
“I don’t think it will ever happen again. I don’t think it will ever pay the reward that that paid off for us. I hope I’m around in 35 years to answer someone’s question about it, and I probably still won’t have a good answer on why it worked, or why I did it.”
5. A celebration
NASCAR takes time tonight to honor its past and induct three people into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“We’re looking forward to seeing the No. 8 Netspend Chevy on race tracks across America and delivering our key marketing and business objectives through this unique platform with the RCR team partnership,” said Kelley Knutson, Netspend president, in a statement released by RCR.
Busch won five races in 2019, more than the next three years combined.
His average finish of 13.8 in 2020 was his worst since 2014.
Busch didn’t finish a season between 2015-19 ranked lower than fourth, including two championships. He hasn’t ranked higher than eighth in the last three years.
Excluding DNFs — more on why in a moment — Busch’s finishing averages are not that different from 2021. The table below breaks out average finishes by track type.
Busch was similar or better in all categories except road courses and the three “other” tracks.
“Other” tracks — large tracks that are neither superspeedways nor road courses — are Busch’s second-best track type, with a career win rate of 10.1%. In 2022, he crashed at Michigan and was disqualified at Pocono.
Reason two: Many of Busch’s 2022 problems were not his fault
I excluded DNFs in the above analysis because they reflect on both driver and team. You might blame a driver for causing a crash, but it’s not the driver’s fault if the car gives out.
Busch had two engine failures. Both were in the first round of the playoffs while running at or near the front. He was leading at Darlington and in the top five at Bristol. He also started from the back twice due to engine changes.
Toyota teams took longer to come up to speed with the Next Gen car. For example, Christopher Bell had the best average finishing position at road courses (11.5, including one win) among JGR teams. But second-best Martin Truex Jr. had an average finish of only 17.8 and a high finish of seventh.
Busch does have to take responsibility for leading the series in spins; however, the number of spins in 2022 was three times the total in 2021, so he wasn’t alone there.
But RCR earned four wins in 2022, anchored by Tyler Reddick’s three checkered flags. Although Busch won only one race, he outperformed Reddick in all but road course and the “other” category of track.
Reddick, who will race for 23XI in 2023, won two road courses and finished top eight in five of the six road courses in 2022. RCR knows how to build and set up road course cars.
Busch has a career win rate of 8.5% at road courses, third highest among track types for him. Look for Busch to return to form in road courses in 2023.
Busch’s perennial weakness is superspeedways. His career average finishing position is 20.0 with a 2.74% win rate. Superspeedway performance is even more important going forward given six superspeedway-type races per season.
RCR’s strength is superspeedways. Busch’s new teammate Austin Dillon has a 5.0% career win rate at superspeedways.
Personality and culture collisions can torpedo driver-crew relationships, especially when the team isn’t winning.
Busch typically is not patient when things aren’t going the way he wants them. Crew chief Randall Burnett’s challenge will be managing the driver as much as the car. Burnett seems to understand this, but beginnings are often filled with friction.
If Busch and his new team can overcome the pitfalls of a new partnership, look for him to have a much better 2023 season.