Toyota Racing Development

Friday 5: Title race a reminder of how Jimmie Johnson looms over Cup

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Although Jimmie Johnson is not a part of the championship discussion this weekend, his shadow towers over the Cup Series and could play a role in how this generation’s drivers are judged.

The seven-time champion remains the only active driver with more than one Cup title heading into Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Should Denny Hamlin win the championship, Johnson will remain the only active multi-time champ. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, who also are in the Championship 4 race, each has one title.

All four drivers are members of the Johnson generation, a fraternity of talented racers who had the misfortune of competing during Johnson’s reign. Hamlin and Busch have each raced their entire Cup career against Johnson. Harvick started running Cup full-time in 2001, a year before Johnson.

In that time, they’ve seen Johnson win a record five consecutive titles from 2006-10 to go with crowns in 2013 and ’16. He’s also collected 83 series victories, which ranks sixth on the all-time wins list.

While Denny Hamlin (left) seeks his first Cup title, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch go for their second series crown Sunday. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“Definitely behind in wins and championships,” said Kyle Busch, who has 55 career Cup victories. “Why? The list goes on. It’s a pretty long one. So how many can you get now is about where it’s at. If I end with one (championship), that’s going to suck. If I can only get two, well, whatever. 

“But three, four, five, I think five’s still achievable. But when you get to this final race in this moment, this championship format the way that it is, and five years in a row and you only come away with one, that gets pretty defeating.”

Johnson’s success won’t keep Harvick, Busch and Truex out of the NASCAR Hall of Fame after their career ends. One Cup championship has been a gateway to immortality. Mark Martin, who never won a Cup title, showed that there’s still room in the Hall of Fame. Should Hamlin never win a series crown, he likely is headed to the Hall with his 37 career victories, including a pair of Daytona 500 triumphs.

While Johnson’s career is measured against Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, how should those who raced against Johnson be viewed since they have fewer titles?

One consideration is to look at the Championship 4 appearances by each driver.

This is Harvick’s fifth title race appearance in six years. Busch is making his fifth consecutive championship race appearance. Truex is racing for a title for a third consecutive year.

“I think there’s some merit to championship appearances,” Hamlin said as a measuring stick for greatness. “I think one race, winner-take-all, anything can happen. I mean, if you have a mechanical failure on Lap 25, does that mean you’re not good enough? You made the final four.

Making the final four is the culmination of your whole year. That is what deems your year a success. You made it to Homestead.  Every single driver here will tell you that. No one is going to discount their year based off of the outcome on this weekend.”

Said Truex: “I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win (a championship). I don’t know how to view that, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s final four appearances, straight‑up race wins. Championships are huge. I think it’s harder to win now than ever. Maybe one means more than one used to.”

2. Picking the right strategy

The strategy for Sunday’s race would seem easy for the Cup title contenders. Set the car up for a short run. Since the winner-take-all format in 2014, four of the five title races have had cautions in the last 15 laps, setting up a short run to the finish.

Last year, Joey Logano, whose car was set for the short run, passed Martin Truex Jr., whose car was set for a long run, with 12 laps left to win the race and the championship.

Kevin Harvick warns it’s not quite that simple with strategy, especially for a race that starts in the afternoon and ends at night under cooler track conditions.

“The only problem with short runs is you got to stay on the lead lap during the day,” Harvick said of when track conditions are warmer and more challenging to a car’s handling. “So you have to have some good balance and good adjustability built into your car. 

“The short run has definitely been what’s won this race over the past few years, but having … the proper track position to take advantage of that short‑run speed is still necessary in the first half of the day. I don’t think these cars are going to race like what we have raced here before.

“I just don’t see the characteristics being exactly how they have been in the past for the amount of laps and things that have happened when your car is good and when your car goes to falling off and things like that. I think that those numbers are going to change. I don’t know exactly what that number will be as far as the crossover and falloff, but we’ll just have to see.”

3. End of the road

This weekend marks not only the end of the season but the end of a journey for Ross Chastain.

He’ll race for a Ganders Outdoor Truck Series championship tonight and run in Sunday’s Cup season finale. When the weekend ends, he will have competed in 77 races across Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. That equals the number of races Kyle Busch ran in those series in 2006. Busch topped that total three times, including 2009 when he ran 86 races across those series.

“Yes, I’m tired,” said Chastain, who will compete in 23 Truck, 19 Xfinity and 35 Cup races this year. “The best part about it is that if I had a bad race, I had another one in a couple days, I would forget about it. … Now the bad part was when we had a good race, I didn’t have any time to celebrate.

I don’t know what the future will hold on that. I don’t know if we’ll hit this many races for years to come. There’s a reason nobody does it.”

Chastain will run the full Xfinity schedule next year for Kaulig Racing and is expected to also be back in Cup.

“I’m a big yes man,” said Chastain, who ran 74 races across all three series last season. “If any NASCAR team owner calls me, stops me at the track and says, ‘I want you to drive for me.’ I’m like, Of course. I’ve begged all these guys for years. Now that they say yes, I’m like, Of course, yes.”

Here’s a look at the most races run in a season in recent years (Note: Chastain’s stats are entering this weekend in Miami)

Season

Driver

Trucks

Xfinity

Cup  

Total

2009

Kyle Busch

15

35

36

86

2008

Kyle Busch

18

30

36

84

2010

Kyle Busch

16

29

36

81

2006

Kyle Busch

7

34

36

77

2019

Ross Chastain

22

19

34

75

2010

Brad Keselowski

4

35

36

75

2006

Clint Bowyer

3

35

36

74

2018

Ross Chastain

7

33

34

74

2013

Kyle Busch

11

26

36

73

2007

Carl Edwards

2

35

36

73

To end the season, Chastain will have a different type of motorhome for the weekend. He borrowed one from a friend and made the 3 1/2-hour drive from Ft. Myers, Florida to Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Plugged in, got air‑conditioning, water, everything,” Chastain said. “Yeah, you go in and you turn and there’s a door and there’s a bathroom. Most campers and buses, there’s a bedroom. There’s no bedroom. The bedroom is the living room. It’s small. Yeah, it’s cool.”

4. Meaningful title

While the Cup driver and owner titles will be determined Sunday, the manufacturer’s crown was claimed last weekend at ISM Raceway by Toyota, which won the crown for the third time in the last four years. 

The manufacturer championship is overlooked by many but not those at Toyota.

“That championship I wish garnered more than it does,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “You can make no mistake, for Toyota that’s an important championship. That’s one that resonates all the way back to Japan.

“The culture of racing internationally is a little different than with NASCAR, which is a driver-centric sport and always has been and will be, and that’s great. But everywhere else we race, it’s manufacturer-centric. It’s Toyota against Porsche, Audi or somebody.”

5. A new view

Derek Kneeland, who has been Kyle Larson’s spotter, will be Tyler Reddick’s spotter next year in Reddick’s rookie Cup season.

“What brought it all into perspective for me is when I was running part‑time at Ganassi (in 2017), I would go up and sit or stand next to Derek during practice, the races, really get an understanding of his vantage point, what he sees, how he communicates, how well of a job he did,” said Reddick, who races Christoper Bell, Cole Custer and Justin Allgaier for the Xfinity title Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“That brought it all together for me when I was doing those races when I did have him, when I was in the racecar, it gave me a better understanding of how hard that job is and how good he was at it.

“It just came about that he wasn’t going to return (to work with Larson) next year. He was having a lot of fun working with me. Everyone at RCR really enjoyed how well of a job he did at Talladega to get our first win of the year, week in, week out.

Drew Herring to make Cup Series debut in Miami wth Gaunt Brothers Racing

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Drew Herring, a test driver for Toyota Racing Development, is set to make his Cup Series debut Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Tuesday that Herring, 32, will drive its No. 96 Toyota in the championship race.

Herring, a native of Benson, North Carolina, spends most of his time in Salisbury, North Carolina, testing setups for TRD and its affiliated race teams.

Herring has 22 Xfinity Series starts, with the last coming in the 2017 spring race at Phoenix. His best finish is fourth at Kentucky in 2012 for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am,” Herring said in a press release. “I spend so much time getting to fine tune these awesome race cars, to get back out there on track, in real racing conditions, at maybe the biggest race of the season, it’s really an incredible opportunity.”

Sunday’s race will be the 15th of the season for Gaunt Brothers Racing. NBC Sports analyst Parker Kligerman has been the driver of the No. 96 in the first 14 starts.

The team is coming off its best finish on a non-superspeedway track as Kligerman finished 22nd at Texas Motor Speedway.

“So much of Toyota’s success on track comes from preparation,” says team owner Marty Gaunt in a press release. “The teams, engineers, crew members, drivers, and TRD as an organization are always working so hard to be the best, and Drew plays a very big role in that. Not only am I confident he’ll run a good race, I also believe his feedback will make us an even better race team.”

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota doing more with less as it goes for ‘Crown Jewel’ sweep

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Sunday’s Brickyard 400 (2 p.m. ET on NBC) presents a big opportunity for Joe Gibbs Racing as NASCAR heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The four-car team has the chance to become the first team to complete a sweep of the Cup Series’ four “Crown Jewel” races – which includes the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 — in the same year.

And should Kyle Busch come out on top with his third Brickyard win, it will have completed the sweep with all four of its drivers.

Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500 for his second victory in the race in February, Martin Truex Jr. then claimed his second Coke 600 title in May and Erik Jones finally broke through with his first win of the year in the Southern 500.

“That’s just insane, it truly is,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.” “To do it with one organization, to do with so far with three different drivers, again it kind of comes back to having the balance that we have across that organization.”

Jones’ win gave JGR 13 wins through 25 races and JGR is the only team to have every driver win this season. The 13 wins is the second-most all-time through 25 races. Carl Kiekhafer Racing had 20 wins at this point in the 1956 season.

Before this year, the most recent examples of a team scoring at least 11 wins through 25 races was Hendrick Motorsports in 2007 and 1998.

“We certainly didn’t expect to win this many races this early in the season,” Wilson said. “Candidly, this year our target was to win no less than 12 races. We’ve checked that box. Our target was to get four Toyota drivers into the playoffs. We checked that box. My gosh, we darn near had five drivers in the playoffs with the way (Matt DiBenedetto‘s) been driving and what he almost did at Bristol.”

Compared to Toyota, Ford has seven wins and Chevrolet has five.

Those are remarkable totals given that Toyota Racing Development only has five full-time entries in the Cup Series, which includes Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 car. In the Southern 500, there were 16 Ford entries and 17 Chevrolet entries, plus Joey Gase, who also raced a Toyota.

Wilson discussed how Toyota, with JGR as its flagship organization, has found success in the Cup Series despite its low car count.

“This has been a very deliberate strategy,” Wilson said. “It’s contrary to our initial strategy when we came in the sport (Toyota entered the Cup Series in 2007). … At the time Dodge was still participating so we were one of four manufacturers. I simply divided by four and said ultimately our target is to have a proportionate representation on the race track. But circumstantially that just never worked out and what we came to realize and came to appreciate is that having a disproportionate of a few number of cars allowed us to concentrate our resources.

“Because don’t think as we add teams I get more budget, that just doesn’t happen. So again, by having fewer, yet higher quality teams, that’s proven quite successful. It bites us on the speedways (Daytona and Talladega) in the way we’ve come to race on the speedway, just because it does become a numbers game. But by and large you look at the last five years and that served us very well.”

Toyota has two Cup championship since 2015 and has won 72 Cup races in that time

What would it take for Toyota to invest in more entries? Simply, lower costs to compete.

“We as a manufacturer could expand our footprint without necessarily expanding our budget,” Wilson said. “Again, if we can do that in a manner that doesn’t compromise our overall effort as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer), then we’re certainly open to that. The other thread to that common denominator is that it’s not just numbers, it is the quality of the teams and organizations. The industry has been talking a lot about this recently and Matt DiBenedetto and his situation at Leavine Family Racing is kind of an example of this. But it’s not just good enough to have a great driver, you have to have a business plan that will support that driver, partners and sponsors and all of those pieces coming together.

“Again, our success is founded upon the strength of our teams and every piece of that team, the driver, the crew chief, the engineer, the manufacturing, all that comes together. If there are opportunities that present themselves to us with quality organizations, quality people and tied to, again, a model, a participation model that allows us to more with the same, then why wouldn’t we consider adding to our fold?”

‘The Sims:’ How virtual reality is changing motorsports

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CONCORD, N.C. — A man leans his head into the window of Rajah Caruth’s race car. Caruth does not know him.

The man bows his head and prays, just as he’s done with the other drivers.

Shortly afterward, Caruth cranks the 125-horsepower engine and guides his white No. 13 Legends car from the staging area to pit road. Rain earlier rid this June night of humidity. The heat that baked drivers during the day is bearable as the sun sets behind the Charlotte Motor Speedway grandstands.

While Caruth and 18 competitors wait for the first semi pro feature of this year’s Bojangles’ Summer Shootout, an official walks between the rows of cars fist-bumping each driver.

Rajah Caruth prepares to run his first Legends car feature race. Photo: Dustin Long

“For those folks to come up and say ‘you got this’ or ‘good luck,’ that was pretty cool,” Caruth later said.

Clad in a plain black uniform and helmet, Caruth focuses on staying calm inside his car before he takes a monumental step in his racing journey.

Then comes the order to start engines. Each car, a 5/8-scale version of the NASCAR modifieds that ran in the sport’s early days, fires off with the buzz of bees on to the quarter-mile track.

As Caruth weaves his car from side to side to warm the tires, a thought strikes him.

“OK, we’re in it.”

Just what it is, Caruth doesn’t know.

He’s seen what’s about to happen for years but never from this viewpoint. His previous racing experience came on a computer with a reset button. There is no such button here.

Days shy of his 17th birthday, Caruth is about to start his first race.

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A first-generation NASCAR fan who traces his interest in the sport to the 2006 animated film “Cars” that included characters voiced by Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, Caruth wanted to be a driver. He wore a Jimmie Johnson uniform for Halloween in the second grade. But with no tracks near his Washington, D.C. home and the prohibitive costs to enter the sport, even for his two-income family, Caruth settled for racing on a computer, hoping to follow the path William Byron took to NASCAR’s premier series.

While many of NASCAR’s top drivers were racing by the time they were 8 years old, Byron did not begin until he was 14, gaining his experience with an iRacing simulator. When Byron hit the track, he quickly succeeded. He won the K&N Pro Series East title at age 17, a Truck series rookie record seven races at 18, the Xfinity championship at 19 and Cup rookie of the year honors at 20 last season for Hendrick Motorsports.

Byron notes that others can follow his unusual path.

“It’s still based on the interest that you have and the will to kind of make it happen,” he said. “If they are expecting to just decide they want to go race at age 14 … it’s going to be difficult for them to make it work. But for me, I had studied it for years and watched it.

Rajah Caruth on the track in a Legends car. Photo: Dustin Long

“Once I was 14, I was well ahead of my time even though I hadn’t been in something. I think there are a lot of kids out there that have a lot of potential that I’ve seen on iRacing and just racing against them, that would do very well in a situation if they could get there.”

Caruth’s quest does not take place in a vacuum. He is a part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Youth Driver Development program and is the only one of the four who came from iRacing. The other three have actual racing experience. While there are various avenues to NASCAR, Caruth’s path will become a gateway, says a Toyota Racing Development executive who oversees the company’s driver development program.

“In the long run … I’m thinking three to five years, the simulation investment and the time and effort to find new top-level talent, it will come from simulator racing,” said Jack Irving, senior manager, commercial director for Toyota Racing Development, whose duties include TRD’s driver development program.

Three to five years is too far away for Caruth. Now is his chance, piloting a car similar to what former Cup champions Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano once drove.

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Five days before Austin Dillon wins the 2018 Daytona 500, Caruth prepares to race. On foot. It is the day of the District of Columbia State Athletic Association indoor track meet. He will compete in the 800-meter run.

A seventh-place finish is not the day’s most significant event for Caruth.

Instead it is the conversation he has with his father, Roger.

Roger Caruth and son Rajah. Photo: Dustin Long

As others compete, Caruth and his father discuss Caruth’s racing future. The previous summer Caruth drove go-karts in a league at an indoor facility located between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. He had not raced in the winter.

“I was a little stressed just because of trying to figure out what I could do,” Caruth said.

He presents various options to his father. One is for the family to purchase a Legends car or something comparable. The costs, though, are too much. Another option is to find sponsorship, rent a car, and run whatever races they can afford. iRacing also is debated. 

iRacing is viewed as the best option. Caruth will upgrade his setup. He buys a steering wheel and eventually purchases a new computer, spending more than $1,000 combined on those items, but it is still much cheaper than buying a car or renting one for multiple races.

Instead of going to a track, Caruth will race from home.

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As simulator technology and racing games improve, they provide a way to train and evaluate drivers. Still, there are limits to racing solely on a computer.

“The actual models are becoming so good,” said Toyota’s Irving. “What hasn’t been mastered yet — and will be — is the feel of the car in your home systems. … To get a full immersion simulator, it’s still almost the cost of a race car.”

Irving acknowledges that there remain challenges even with the simulators Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet have for their drivers in NASCAR, IndyCar and other series.

“You only get so much out of that,” Martin Truex Jr. said of using a simulator to prepare for last weekend’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway, which he won for a second consecutive year. “All the visual cues are there, but you don’t have the feel, the sensation of speed, the G-forces, the rises and the falls, all of that.”

Even without that, Irving says iRacing can reveal talent, particularly a driver who succeeds in different types of racing on it. 

“You need to be able to race in multiple disciplines,” he said. “I think a simulation racer that we’re going to be able to engage with is going to have to be really, really good on dirt, really, really good on the rally race, really, really good on the road course, just absolutely exceptional on multiple modalities because their adoption of being able to learn. That is going to be important, no different than the great drivers (that) can typically get in anything and race.

Kyle Busch: “Everybody has their own different paths” to NASCAR. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“If Kyle Busch decided to run (a midget car) in the Chili Bowl, I think he would do quite well just because he’s a gifted race car driver. No different than Kurt Busch at the (Indianapolis) 500 and that kind of stuff.”

Kyle Busch credits his success to understanding his car. That goes back to when he started racing. 

“My vehicle understanding and the reasons why I’m somewhat successful at what I’ve done is a huge credit to my dad,” Busch said. “Growing up in the shop, working on the cars, building the cars, understanding what springs were and meant and how to rate them and what corner to put them in, shocks, cambers, casters – all of that sort of stuff, I learned.

“I built my cars from the ground up with my dad. I tore my Legends car apart one off-season when we were done racing for the year. I ripped it all the way down to the ground because I thought if I strip it, he will be OK if I wanted to paint it, to repaint the chassis and kind of go through everything. I stripped it all the way down and was like, ‘Alright, I’m ready, let’s take it to the paint shop.’ He was like, ‘Nope, I’ll buy you a can of spray paint and you can put it all back together by yourself.’ 

Everybody has their own different paths of how they grow up and how they understand things and what they understand.”

Caruth seeks to gain such knowledge as he also learns to race.

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The green flag waves.

Caruth starts the 25-lap race at the back of the 19-car field since this his first start.

He passes three cars on the first lap.

He passes another car on the second lap.

On the third lap, a car makes contact with Caruth’s, sending it into the SAFER barrier. Caruth falls to last.

He fights the car’s handling and goes a lap down 10 laps into the race.

Rajah Caruth hopes to follow William Byron from iRacing to Cup. Photo: Dustin Long

Eight minutes after Caruth took the green flag, the race is over. He finishes 17th. The contact with the wall bent the right front ball joint, control arm and spindle, making the car hard to turn.

To understand the challenge Caruth faces, look at his competition. Jason Alder, who turned 16 a couple of days after winning this race, began competing at age 6. Alder started in go-karts, moved to Banderlos and is in his third season in Legends car. This was his first win in a Legends car at Charlotte. For as challenging as it has been to reach this point, he knows the difficulties Caruth may experience.

“Racing is really about the passion behind it,” said Alder, who is nearly a year to the day younger than Caruth. “If you have the passion and the determination to continue in the darkest of times, you’re always going to look to the bright side even when you’re learning.”

Caruth is not dejected with his result.

He’s determined.

“I cannot wait until tomorrow,” he said.

It’s another chance to race.

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Caruth is not alone in his quest. There are those who can relate to his journey.

Max Brady and his brother Kenny both didn’t start racing until four years ago. Max was 15 and Kenny 13. Before then, their racing experience consisted of racing video games on their Xbox. They’ve since moved to iRacing. 

Max and Kenny understand that a racing simulator or game can help a driver but also know it can’t prepare a driver for everything they’ll feel once they are strapped into their vehicle.

That’s not an excuse to fail. Max recently won his first Legends car race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kenny won numerous Banderlo races in three years there before driving a Legends car this year.

Still, Kenny faced challenges with the move to Legends cars. He finished 21st in his first race. The next race, which Max won, Kenny finished eighth. 

While Max and Kenny don’t have as much experience as some of their competitors, they have more than Caruth.

Rajah Caruth receives guidance from Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Stefan Parsons. Photo: Dustin Long

“Being so new to it, it’s going to take some time to learn race strategy and how to keep the car clean, racing around others, being consistent, knowing how to make moves, when to make the moves,” Kenny Brady said. “He’s going to learn as he goes.

“When I started out, I thought if I just got in the car and I was fast, I was going to win right off the bat. It’s so different.”

Kenny is confident Caruth will excel as he gains experience. Kenny has been friends with Caruth for a couple of years. He and Max helped Caruth transition to iRacing last year so Caruth could have better results.

Kenny also has seen Caruth’s ability in a go-kart. Caruth and his dad went to Georgia in late May and Caruth raced with Kenny at an indoor karting facility.

“I was impressed,” Kenny said. “Rajah was on my tail. I beat him twice. He beat me twice. I was very surprised at how well he did, how smooth he was.”

Those traits were evident at the combine to select the Drive for Diversity youth development drivers earlier this year.

“We wanted him to build speed,” said Matt Bucher, director of competition for Rev Racing, which operates the Drive for Diversity program. “I think we got him within three- or four-tenths of where the fast guys were.”

Caruth showed enough talent, despite his lack of experience, to earn a spot in the program.

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Although Rajah Caruth’s racing uniform contains no sponsors, no website address and no stripes or other designs, it’s what is inside that matters this night to him.

He wears a Bubba Wallace T-shirt he got when he and his family attended last year’s Cup playoff race at Richmond Raceway.

Wallace is competing this evening in a different division, a night after he ran the rain-delayed Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.

Caruth wants to talk to Wallace but doesn’t want to appear starstruck. Instead, Wallace approaches.

Caruth, coming off his first career race the night before, and the 25-year-old Wallace, who is in his second full season in Cup and has been racing for nearly two-thirds of his life, talk mechanics. Caruth is trying to get his braking down and maximize his car’s speed in the center of the corner. Wallace offers a few tips.

“Getting it from him just helps me understand it a little bit more,” Caruth said.

Chase Cabre also is here this night helping the Drive for Diversity drivers. Cabre is coming off his first career K&N Pro Series East victory June 1 at Memphis International Raceway.

Cabre knows that it will take time for Caruth.

“The difference between here and what’s he used to … everything happens very fast,” Cabre said. “Once he learns the speed factor, the feel, the smells and it all slows down for him, he’ll start to get one thing after another.”

Rajah Caruth’s car after the oil leak was fixed. Photo: Dustin Long

Caruth’s night has its challenges. In qualifying, debris causes an oil leak but Caruth doesn’t recognize the issue. He stays on track, fighting the steering wheel. The back of the car acts as if it wants to slide, a result of the oil getting on the tires. The problem is found and fixed in the garage in time for the semi feature. He finishes third in that race. In the feature, he starts 17th among 21 cars.

On the schedule, Caruth’s race is to take place after the school bus race among local principals and before the “Chicken Dance” contest. A bus oils down the track, delaying Caruth’s race, so the chicken dance proceeds. After it ends, the track is still not ready so the “Hokey Pokey” is played on the track’s speakers to keep fans entertained.

When Caruth gets on track, he notices an issue with his shifter and comes to the pits before the green flag. He loses a lap before the issue is resolved.

Even though he’s not on the lead lap, he battles another car in the final circuits. The duel goes through the final corners. Caruth is passed just before at the finish line. He finishes 17th.

It is in this race that Caruth gets his first taste of being hit from behind.

“That was a pretty cool experience getting moved, honestly, to feel it physically what it feels like so I know moving forward if I’m getting pushed or it’s a good shot,” Caruth said. “He was getting me square except for the last time he got me. He got me a little squirrelly. It was fine.”

That’s what they call “just racin.”

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Caruth’s first two nights have had their ups and downs but he’s staying true to a philosophy he picked up from Hailie Deegan, whose personality and K&N Pro Series West success — two wins this year, one point out of the series lead — has increased her popularity

“I have little goals, kind of like what Hailie Deegan did this last year,” Caruth said. “Little goals week by week and they ended up adding to her race wins.”

Caruth’s progression of goals are to run a clean race, finish in the top 15, finish in the top 12, score a top 10, finish in the top seven, score a top five and eventually win. They are listed in his phone.

He is ready for his third chance to score a top-15 finish. Caruth starts 20th.

Lacy Kuehl salutes Rajah Caruth after he finished 12th in his feature race. Photo: Dustin Long

He charges to 15th in two laps.

He climbs to 14th.

A couple of laps later Caruth is 13th.

He moves to 12th.

Coming through the second turn, Caruth deftly bumps the car ahead of him, moving it up a lane. Caruth zips by to take 11th with the veteran move.

Caruth goes on to finish 12th. Another goal met.

But after the race, he’s unsure of what to do next. He looks for the car he bumped out of the way to talk to the driver.

“I don’t know if I should apologize or what,” Caruth later said. “I didn’t do it right. I got him up out of the groove but my right front caught their left rear so it knocked the wheel slightly out of my hand. I just held it.

“I was full intent trying to move him. I wasn’t trying to hit him hard. It was to the point where I could tell he was already free. If I hit him too hard, he would have spun out and I would have (been penalized) and gone to the rear. In iRacing, I hate hitting people.

“Today kind of helped me realize that OK, I’ve got to get physical.”

——————————————————————————————————————————

Hurry up and wait.

Tuesday night marks Caruth’s fourth race of the season and it’s his longest night. His class will run the final race of the evening, one slowed by multiple red flags in other divisions.

Rajah Caruth scored his first top-10 finish in his fourth race. Photo: Dustin Long

When it comes time to race, Caruth is ready. As he makes progress, the handling on his car becomes more difficult. The car wants to break free.

Oil is overflowing on to his tires. He spins in Turn 1. Caruth keeps his foot in the gas to turn the car but sees it headed for the curb and stops the car. The caution is out. Caruth heads to the pits. The hood is opened and engine checked. He’s sent back out.

It’s a caution-filled race and Caruth moves up as others have problems.

When the checkered flag waves, he is 10th. He will be scored ninth when the winning car fails inspection.

In less than three weeks, Caruth has gone from a teen who raced solely on a computer to going on track and scoring a top-10 finish in a 20-car field.

This is a night to celebrate. He and his father head to Friday’s so Caruth can get some chicken fingers and watch the video of his race from the GoPro camera mounted on his car. There’s much to savor but also much to learn.

“It’s been a crazy first leg of the journey,” Caruth said, “but I’ve got still go more to go.”

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Bump & Run: What should NASCAR do about inspection violations before race?

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Eight of 37 cars failed inspection before the Richmond Cup race and lost their starting spot. Is there a better way for NASCAR to handle such infractions to limit talk before a race being about penalties?

Nate Ryan: There has to be a solution, and whatever it is, NASCAR needs to implement it quickly. Switching from headlines about woes in postrace inspection to woes in prerace inspection is an improvement, but the preferred solution should be no headlines about inspection at all. 

Dustin Long: Until NASCAR figures out a way to do things differently, inspection failures will dominate talk before a race, especially if it involves more than 20% of the field as it did at Richmond.

Daniel McFadin: Unless you change the penalties for failing inspection (again), the cars will fail regardless of if you hold qualifying inspection right after qualifying or on race day. Only real solution I can think of is to have inspection before qualifying and for that to be the only inspection until after the race. That would just continue the endless cycle we seem to be in on the issue.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s just the nature of the beast, particularly when you have such a large number of cars that failed pre-race inspection. The larger the number of cars penalized, the greater the attention that is placed upon the situation by the media. Perhaps more attention should be focused on what NASCAR could do to improve and streamline the overall inspection process. And if it has to swing the pendulum even further, increase penalties to keep crew chiefs from playing games with their cars. Kick out the crew chief from the race, or perhaps hold the car for the first five laps of the race. That will change things in a hurry.

NASCAR tried another format for Cup qualifying at Richmond, limiting each round to five minutes. Should this be the format at most tracks the rest of the season?

Nate Ryan: Makes no difference here as long as the focus is on qualifying results and whoever won the pole position, not on the process for getting there. 

Dustin Long: Whatever it does, NASCAR needs to get out of this rabbit hole soon.

Daniel McFadin: I’m 50/50 on this. I’d prefer the first round being 10 minutes at anything larger than 1 mile, which allows teams to make more than one run – but that’s based on the premise drivers won’t wait until the final minute to make their first.

Jerry Bonkowski: Five minutes works fine on short tracks. Not so much on longer tracks of 1.5 miles and greater. That’s why I believe open qualifying should be replaced by having two to four cars (depending on the size of the racetrack) go out at a time for two or three qualifying laps. This creates attention and a kind of race-within-qualifying excitement among fans to see which driver can “beat” the other drivers, so to speak.

There’s been a lot of talk about what Joe Gibbs Racing will do with its Cup lineup for next year with Christopher Bell’s continued success in Xfinity, but Cole Custer has won twice for Stewart-Haas Racing in Xfinity. What kind of dilemma could SHR face with its driver lineup for 2020?

Nate Ryan: With no disrespect to Cole Custer, he has yet to show he is in Christopher Bell’s league, nor is there the external pressure of a huge investment in his development to avoid letting a coveted prospect escape (as is the case with the millions Toyota Racing Development has spent on grooming Bell). Because Custer is related to the SHR executive Joe Custer and effectively sponsored by team owner Gene Haas, the dynamics are incomparable. If Custer shows enough promise for promotion, the team probably could make room in Cup next season, but there is no sense of urgency as exists with Bell.

Dustin Long: Gene Haas said last year that Cole Custer needed to win more often. If Custer continues to do so, it will make him a more inviting driver for a team, whether that is SHR or another Ford operation.

Daniel McFadin: Cole Custer is already in his third full-time Xfinity season, which makes him middle-aged in Xfinity driver years. While we’re not privy to driver contract lengths, Kevin Harvick is locked in to at least 2021, Daniel Suarez is in his first and Aric Almirola continues to be strong in his second year. Clint Bowyer probably has the biggest question mark being in his third year with the team. Gene Haas will have to decide who’s a better long-term investment: A 39-year-old Bowyer or a 21-year-old Custer. Bowyer grabbing some wins this year could complicate that.

Jerry Bonkowski: One potential option could be embedding Bell with another Toyota team such as Leavine Family Racing in 2020, like when Erik Jones was with Furniture Row Racing in 2017. I think you’ll see a similar embed of Custer with another Ford team, perhaps Front Row Motorsports. Or, because Custer’s father, Joe, is a top executive at SHR, it would not surprise me to see Daniel Suarez shifted to another Ford team to make way for the younger Custer at SHR.

The IndyCar race at Long Beach ended with series officials penalizing Graham Rahal one spot for blocking Scott Dixon on the last lap. Should blocking be a penalty in NASCAR?

Nate Ryan: No. Different series, different cars, different tracks.

Dustin Long: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Don’t need any more judgment calls for NASCAR to make.

Daniel McFadin: Heck no. As much as Tony Stewart may have despised it, blocking is a racing maneuver. If a driver doesn’t like it, just show your displeasure with a love tap to the rear bumper.

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, particularly if it puts the driver being blocked and other trailing drivers at risk of crashing. I’ve long felt that egregious blocking should be penalized. But if that were to happen, it could open a Pandora’s Box of additional issues, such as bump-and-run moving an opponent out of the way. How would NASCAR draw the line between egregious blocking/bumping and legitimate blocking/bumping?

Jimmie Johnson ran in Monday’s Boston Marathon. What is another event you’d like to see a NASCAR driver attempt to take part in someday?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event and paired with Michael Jordan.

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson as a bobsled driver. Also, Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event.

Daniel McFadin: Since Ryan Newman is sponsored by Oscar Mayer, he should enter the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4.

Jerry Bonkowski: The Baja 1000 is the first one that comes to mind. That, to me, is the most grueling combination of man and machine. I’d also like to see more NASCAR drivers try their luck in the Indianapolis 500 and, conversely, do “the double” by racing later that same day in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Lastly, although it would be difficult due to the Cup schedule, I’d also like to see some of the best golfers among Cup drivers try their luck at The Masters.