Friday 5: What matters most in Cup? Youth or experience

0 Comments

As a Cup champion will switch teams for the second year in row, a key question becomes what is more valuable in NASCAR’s top series: Youth or experience?

Brad Keselowski moved this year from Team Penske to what is now RFK Racing to be an owner/driver. Kyle Busch moves next year from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing. 

In both instances, the move came near the peak season, statistically, for each as a driver. David Smith — who operated his own analytics website and worked for NBC Sports before joining RFK Racing before this season — noted that the age 39 season was a driver’s peak season. Keselowski turned 38 before this year’s Daytona 500. Busch turns 38 next May.

MORE: Kyle Busch and JGR: A long, sometimes rough road

As the Cup lineup trends younger, what is the place for drivers in their late 30s?

Keselowski was replaced by Austin Cindric, who turned 24 earlier this month. Joe Gibbs Racing is expected to replace Busch with Ty Gibbs, who turns 20 in October.

Cindric is worthy, having nearly won back-to-back Xfinity championships the previous two seasons. Gibbs won in his first Xfinity start last year. He’s won more than 20% of his Xfinity starts. 

“We know Ty Gibbs is ready to race (in Cup),” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development told NBC Sports in July.

Cindric and Gibbs were among eight drivers in last weekend’s Cup playoff race at Kansas Speedway who are age 25 or younger. 

The average age of last weekend’s Cup race — won by 28-year-old Bubba Wallace — was 30.4 years. 

That’s a slightly younger average age than the field for last weekend’s IndyCar season finale at Laguna Seca. The average age for that race — won by 25-year-old Alex Palou — was 30.8.

Car owner Rick Hendrick started the change toward younger drivers in Cup, hiring a 21-year-old Jeff Gordon to run the full season in 1993. Two years later, Gordon won the first of his four championships.

It took time for other others to follow, but the sport has gradually looked to younger drivers. That became more important when the economy forced companies to scale back sponsorship of teams. Younger drivers don’t cost as much as veterans. That helped drive some of the sport’s movements in recent years. 

Joe Gibbs Racing planned to keep Busch after Mars, Inc. announced last year that it was not returning to the team and sport after this season. JGR had a company to sponsor Busch’s No. 18 team until the deal fell through because of economic factors. 

Without a sponsor, JGR could not offer Busch what he felt the only active two-time Cup champion deserved, something he alluded to last month at Watkins Glen when he foreshadowed change.

You want to be able to go somewhere that you feel like you have a legit shot to race to win,” Busch said. “You know, trust me, I don’t feel like it’s fair to me or my family or anything else if we’re going to have to spend less time together moving forward because we are going to have to change our lifestyle, no question. 

“There’s a big change coming. And so, is it worth it to go run around and not have an opportunity to win right away versus building something versus jumping in something that can win. All those questions are certainly being weighed out.”

Busch said this week, after announcing he will join RCR, that he was told at one point that returning to the No. 18 car at JGR was no longer an option.

Asked how could a deal not get done with JGR, Busch said: “Only thing I can say to that is it didn’t happen. Apparently, they’ve got other irons in the fire, maybe other sponsors for other drivers and that’s the road they’re going down.”

Asked if he felt JGR was looking at a cheaper option than paying a former champion, Busch paused and said: “Fair assessment.”

For as much as people prefer sports to be about the events, it’s often about business. Without the financial resources, teams can’t compete. Owners such as Roger Penske, Gene Haas and Hendrick can have an advantage because they have other companies and can connect those companies with sponsors, making deals more valuable to companies. 

It’s not surprising that Hendrick (nine titles), Penske (two) and Haas (two) have combined to win 13 of the last 16 Cup championships. Joe Gibbs has two titles and Barney Visser, whose Furniture Row Racing team no longer is in the sport, has the other title in that time. 

This is what teams such as RFK Racing and Richard Childress Racing face to win a championship. 

None of RFK’s cars made the playoffs this year. Both of RCR’s cars made the playoffs. Tyler Reddick enters Saturday night’s elimination race two points above the cutline, while teammate Austin Dillon is three points below. 

Richard Childress Racing seeks to have a driver finish in the top 10 in points for the first time since 2014. Busch is expected to help the organization, which has three wins this year, become even more competitive.

“I know how serious (Busch) is about wanting to win that next championship,” said Childress, who last won a Cup title in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt. “I think with his knowledge of cars and his knowledge as a racer, he’s going to bring some stuff to the table.”

Kevin Harvick said in July he would be for having Busch join Stewart-Haas Racing because of how Busch could help a team.

“I know there’s a lot of things that go on around Kyle, but in the end Kyle is still one of the best that’s ever come through this garage,” Harvick said. “There’s a lot of teams that can say that they’ve never had one of those types of drivers. He literally could rebuild an organization if somebody took a chance that hasn’t had one of those types of drivers.”

Harvick, who is 46 years old, has won twice this season. He’ll likely need to win Saturday night to advance to the second round after a fire and crash sidelined him in the first two races of this round.

Hamlin also has shown what an older driver can do. The 41-year-old seeks his fourth consecutive appearance in the title race. 

“I still think that there’s a level of experience that really, really matters in our sport,” said Hamlin, who owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan. “I feel as good as I’ve ever been in the car. My craft, I feel as good as ever. 

“I’ve been lightning fast even though the win column hasn’t shown it as much this year. So I’m pretty happy with where I’m at considering my age. When I see Harvick, still being competitive and winning at this age, it just makes me look at my future and say, you know, I’ve got a longer runway than I thought.”

2. Former champs seek to avoid elimination

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick both enter Saturday’s playoff elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) outside a transfer spot. 

Busch and Harvick have combined to win three of the last eight titles. Busch’s championships came in 2015 and ’19. Harvick won the 2014 crown. They account for 32% of all Cup title race appearances.

Neither driver has been eliminated in the first round since the playoff format debuted in 2014. Harvick was in a must-win situation in 2015 and won to advance to the second round.

He is in a similar situation after a fire eliminated him at Darlington and a crash ended his race early last week at Kansas. Harvick goes into Bristol 35 points from the transfer spot and all but needs a victory to move on in the postseason.

“It is what it is,” Harvick said last week at Kansas of his deficit. “We were racing to win anyway today, so that is what we will do again next week.”

Busch entered the 2015 first round elimination race outside a transfer spot by one point and finished second to Harvick at Dover to advance. Busch and Harvick took the spots of Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray, eliminating them.

Busch is two points out of a transfer spot this time. While he doesn’t need to win, he is winless in his last 17 short track races, dating back to 2019. His longest short track winless drought is 18 races from 2012-15.

Busch has 23 total wins at Bristol. He has eight Cup wins on concrete and won the spring race there on the dirt. He also has nine Xfinity wins and five Truck victories there. 

“If I can have past Bristol results be Bristol results, then, yeah, shouldn’t be a problem,” Busch said after the Kansas race of advancing to the next round. “But if I have Bristol results similar to what’s happened this year every week, then no, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

3. What it will take to advance

A look at what it will take for drivers to advance to the second round of the Cup playoffs.

Christopher Bell — Has clinched a spot in the second round. Reached the second round in last year’s playoffs before he was eliminated. 

William Byron (+48 to the cutline) — Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Was eliminated in the first round in 2020, made it to the second round in 2021.

Denny Hamlin (+47 to the cutline)— Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race each of the past three years. 

Joey Logano (+40 to the cutline)— Needs to score 16 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race every even-numbered year of the Cup playoffs: 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20.

Ryan Blaney (+36 to the cutline)— Needs to score 20 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has been eliminated in the first round only once. That was in 2020.

Alex Bowman (+30 to the cutline)— Needs to score 26 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to at least the second round in each of the past four seasons.

Chase Elliott (+28 to the cutline)— Needs to score 28 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the championship race each of the past two seasons. 

Kyle Larson (+27 to the cutline)— Needs to score 29 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Reigning Cup champion. 

Ross Chastain (+26 to the cutline)— Needs to score 30 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs.

Daniel Suarez (+6 to the cutline)— Needs to score 50 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. 

Tyler Reddick (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Eliminated in the first round last year in his first time in the Cup playoffs.

Austin Cindric (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. 

Kyle Busch (-2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Two-time Cup champion who has never been eliminated in the first round. 

Austin Dillon (-3 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has twice been eliminated in the first round. 

Chase Briscoe (-9 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). First time in Cup playoffs. 

Kevin Harvick (-35 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). The 2014 Cup champion has never been eliminated in the first round. 

4. Bristol’s questions  

Saturday night’s race at Bristol is a mystery for teams. 

The spring Bristol race was on dirt, so this marks the first time on the track’s concrete surface. Other than wheel-force testing with one car per manufacturer, no teams have been on the track. And the right side tires are different from anywhere else the series runs (the left side tires are the same as those used at Pocono).

“It’s certainly an unknown,” Randall Burnett, crew chief for Tyler Reddick, told NBC Sports. “I think it makes for exciting races when you go into an unknown like that. … I think you’ve really got to do your homework, and I think our team strives on that. 

“These tracks that we’ve had a lot of unknowns, I feel like we’ve unloaded well and rose to the challenge. I look forward to these kind of races.”

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, calls Bristol the “the last challenge of the Next Gen car and the last unknown setup-wise of the Next Gen car.”

While the series will race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the first time this year later in the playoffs, teams will be able to test there ahead of time. That will give them a better understanding of what is needed there than what teams have going into Bristol.

“I don’t know where you go get notes for Bristol,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “It’s very unique, so I am so thankful to be going into Bristol with a very large (points) cushion. Some of those guys toward the back of the (playoff) standings, having to go to Bristol and run 500 laps with this car, it’s going to be a nail-biter.”

5. Back in the playoffs 

Jeremy Clements said on Wednesday’s NASCAR America MotorMouths that an appeal panel rescinding the penalties against his team and putting him back in the Xfinity playoffs this week felt like “we won again. We’re celebrating again.”

Clements won at Daytona last month to earn a spot in the playoffs, but NASCAR penalized the team three days later for an intake manifold infraction found at the NASCAR R&D Center. Among the penalties was that Clements’ victory would not count toward playoff eligibility.

“We ended up noticing that there were other winning engines there and they didn’t have their intakes, and we, unfortunately, brought ours just because we didn’t know and it didn’t need to be,” Clements said on why the team appealed.

Part of the argument from Clements and his team was that other organizations did not have their intake manifolds inspected and that the Clements team shouldn’t be penalized for bringing their intake manifold to the R&D Center.

Clements said the appeal panel “just had common sense and that’s what prevailed. Just so happy to get this victory back and be back in the playoffs.”

With Clements back in the playoffs, it meant one person was dropped. Ryan Sieg, who was holding the final playoff spot after Clements’ penalty, fell out of a playoff spot with Clements back in. 

Landon Cassill holds the final playoff spot going into tonight’s regular season finale for the Xfinity Series at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). Cassill leads Sieg by 19 points. Sheldon Creed trails Cassill by 32 points. 

Friday 5: Family’s inspiration provides drive for NASCAR tire carrier

0 Comments

As 5-year-old Brett Sanchelli recovered from his internal injuries, he’d sit at the end of his sister’s bed in the hospital room they shared.

He always wanted to help her. If there wasn’t anything to do, Brett just wanted to be with his 4-year-old sister. Maybe they would play a game. If they did, he’d move all the pieces. Courtney couldn’t. The accident left her a quadriplegic. 

While Brett helped as caretaker when Courtney returned to their home in Jefferson Township, New Jersey, he was always her big brother. He’d feed her, push her wheelchair on strolls and do whatever he could to make her smile. 

Courtney’s resiliency inspired him. As did his mother and father, whose selflessness kept the family together during many difficult days.  

After Brett turned 18, he honored his sister and parents with a tattoo. The image is covered by the firesuit he wears as a tire carrier for Michael McDowell’s pit crew. But if Sanchelli peeled his uniform and the shirt underneath off, one would see, above his heart, a shield similar to Superman’s. Instead of an S in the emblem, there is the letter H for heart.

“We were always about heart,” Brett said, sitting next to Courtney on the deck of their parents’ home along High Rock Lake near Lexington, North Carolina. 

“We never gave up. We always fought through any adversity that life threw at us.”

No day was worse than Aug. 30, 2000, for the family.

Debbie Sanchelli had Brett and Courtney with her when their vehicle veered off the road about a mile-and-a-half from their home and smashed into a tree. 

A family friend who was an EMT was in traffic behind Debbie. The friend and a police officer, who was nearby, quickly arrived and began to perform CPR on Courtney. A paramedic on a training run heard the call and was the first ambulance on site by four minutes. 

Brett’s pre-kindergarten teacher saw the family’s car and stopped. Debbie, who suffered a broken hip, leg and ankle, told the teacher to get her husband. When Michael was informed of the crash, he rushed out of the house without shoes.

Brett Sanchelli laughs with his sister Courtney while spinning her wheelchair on the deck of their family’s home in Lexington, NC (Photo: Dustin Long)

At the hospital, a doctor told Michael that Courtney might not live through the night. Courtney’s heart stopped multiple times over the next week. At one point, Michael was asked about signing a do-not-resuscitate order for his daughter. He needed to talk to Debbie, but she was two floors above her children’s hospital room under medication for her injuries. 

It has taken years, but Debbie says the day of the accident is “a day we’ve come to almost celebrate. I know it’s hard for people, when they look at Courtney, to understand that it could have been worse. She’s fully cognizant. So, like any child growing up, she can tell me she loves me. … But it could have been so much worse. We’re grateful to all be here.” 

Debbie wipes a tear.

“We don’t talk about it a lot,” Michael said. “It’s there. It’s never going to leave. That day … your worst nightmare.”

Courtney looks at that day and doesn’t lament her fate. Instead, she looks at what she has. 

“I could have lost everything,” she said. “I could have lost my brother. I could have lost my mom. He means the world to me, as much as I’m sure I mean to him. Without him, I don’t know where I would be in life, where I would be spiritually, mentally and physically.”

Brett Sanchelli looks at the graphic design work Courtney has done on her computer. (Photo: Dustin Long)

With Courtney facing major surgery in early 2012 that had her anxious, Brett sought to find a way to make her feel better. He and a friend hatched a campaign to get her nominated for homecoming queen in fall 2011. 

The day the nominees were announced, Brett was excused from school to get his driver’s license. Debbie recalls him going to school so he could hear the announcements and if Courtney, then a sophomore, would be nominated before he went to get his license that day.

The day that the homecoming queen would be announced at the school’s football game, it rained. Trying to get Courtney to the middle of the field in her wheelchair would be a chore, but members of the community collected plywood. They placed the pieces on the field so she could be pushed to midfield by Brett.

They were together when Courtney was selected as homecoming queen.

“That was the best feeling ever to get to see that smile on your face when we won,” Brett tells Courtney on their family’s deck.

“That was pretty good,” Courtney says, who keeps the tiara from that night in a case among other prized possessions. 

Debbie dabs her eye as she thinks about that night and what Brett did for Courtney.

“It was probably one of the proudest moments, knowing that I raised a son who was so selfless and wanted to do that for his sister,” she said. “And great joy on her behalf, knowing that there was a lot she wouldn’t be able to do, and that the community and students got together to support her and to give her that nod.”

The tattoo Brett Sanchelli had put over his heart in honor of his sister Courtney and their parents. (Photo: Dustin Long)

After Brett graduated from high school, he faced one of his most difficult challenges. He wanted to be a pit crew member after seeing the crews in action in a race at Dover International Speedway, but to do so meant moving from New Jersey to North Carolina and leaving his sister and parents behind. 

“It was definitely difficult,” said Brett, who left home a couple of months after graduating high school. “I visited about a month after I left and every time I visited it was harder to leave.”

On those occasions he made it back home, one night was set aside for Courtney. It was popcorn-and-movie night.

“She got to pick the movie,” Debbie said, “and he would just sit at her bedside or crawl into the bed and snuggle with her and they’d watch their movie.”

These days, Courtney takes college classes online. Her dream is to be a graphic designer. 

To Brett, she is so much more. She is inspirational.

“Everybody has God-given abilities to do everyday things that she cannot do,” he said. “I never take that for granted. I told myself that I would rather use up every ounce of my God-given ability than ever waste an ounce of it.”

That pushes him each day he trains at RFK Racing as a member of McDowell’s pit crew for Front Row Motorsports.

“You got to work hard every single day,” he said. “You have to be driven. Some people wake up and they think, ‘Oh, today is an off day.’ I don’t ever think I’m going to have an off day.”

Each day he removes his shirt is a reminder of what his family has endured and how they’ve overcome challenges. 

“I’m always thinking about them,” Brett said. “They are the reason why I go out there on Sundays. Everybody has to have a why. Otherwise you’re just doing just based off willpower, and willpower eventually wears out. 

“You’ve got to have a why. The reasons why you get up every single day, why you do the things that you do and things that you love. They are. Every single day.”

2. Comparing Kevin Harvick to other greats

Kevin Harvick’s victory at Richmond at the age of 46 years, 8 months and 6 days does not make him the oldest driver to win a Cup race, but what Harvick has done puts him in elite company when looking at age-related achievements in other sports.

The oldest NBA player to score at least 40 points in a game is 23XI Racing co-owner Michael Jordan. He was 40 years and 4 days when he scored 43 points against what was then the New Jersey Nets on Feb. 21, 2003.

The oldest NFL quarterback to throw five touchdowns in a game is Tom Brady. He was 44 years, 2 months, 7 days when he did it Oct. 10, 2021, vs. the Miami Dolphins. 

The oldest Major League Baseball pitcher to throw a no-hitter was Nolan Ryan. He was 44 years, 3 months and 1 day when he no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays on May 1, 1991. 

But Harvick still has a ways to go to catch some marks.

The oldest driver to win a Cup race is Harry Gant, who was 52 years, 7 months and 6 days when he won at Michigan on Aug. 16, 1992.

The oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby is Bill Shoemaker, who was 54 years, 8 months and 15 days when he won the 1986 Kentucky Derby aboard Ferdinand.

3. Staying positive

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson is winless in his last 22 Cup races and has four top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts, but he’s kept a positive outlook on what has been a challenging year.

A year ago, Larson had one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history. He won the Cup championship, the All-Star Race and 10 points races. His five playoff wins matched Tony Stewart’s record in 2011 for most during the postseason.

In 2021, Larson won the Chili Bowl Nationals, the most prestigious midget car race in the country. He won the Knoxville Nationals, the premier sprint car race in the country and also won the Kings Royal, another elite event. He won the Prairie Dirt Classic dirt late model race, among the country’s top events for that series.

The wins, though, haven’t come as often this year in any form of racing for Larson.

NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400
Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson’s only Cup win this year came in February at Auto Club Speedway, but he feels his team is pointed in the right direction to make a deep playoff run. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I don’t let it get to me,” he said. “I’d probably be in a better mood if I was winning all the time, but I still feel like I’ve done a good job of staying positive though not winning as much. I have a pretty realistic mindset. … I won 46 races in 2020 and 33 last year. 

“That’s a lot of to win. Not often you see someone win that much. I realistically know that you’re going to have bumps in the road. Kind of everything went right for me the last couple of years. It seems like this year not much has gone right.”

But with the playoffs near, Larson feels confident about what’s ahead.

“I feel like we’re getting some momentum to the tail end of our regular season,” he said. “We’ve had good cars every week, so that’s the most important piece, I feel like, to contend for the championship. 

“It’s about limiting our mistakes as a whole, and I think we can make a good run at it. Everybody’s season has really been inconsistent, maybe aside from Chase (Elliot) there for a month and a half or two months. If you can find consistency, I think you can make a deep run in the playoffs.”

4. Next Gen will make Glen a different experience 

This weekend marks the first time the Next Gen car has competed at Watkins Glen. The only time the Next Gen car has been at Watkins Glen was for a May 24-25 tire test with Chris Buescher, William Byron and Martin Truex Jr.

Christopher Bell said the Next Gen car should change things based on what he experienced in the simulator this week.

“It is a lot different,” Bell said. “The run-off area we have outside the carousel, we would use that all the time with the old car, but with the Next Gen car it just becomes very sketchy whenever you  jump over the rumble strips,” he said, noting the Next Gen’s underside and how it impacts aerodynamics. “The really rough racetrack on the outside there, makes the car very unsettled. I would expect that to be completely different.

“The bus stop, the way you jump off the curbs and land really abruptly, I think that will be really different too. … Certain parts of the racetrack are going to be vastly different.”

Kyle Larson hasn’t been on the track but he’s studied data and an on-board camera from Byron’s car from the test. 

“It’s a much faster pace,” Larson said of his observations. “I just feel like you don’t have as much time to relax. I feel like we’ll be running qualifying laps the whole time. I don’t think you’re going to be able to pass very well. Restarts and stuff, you may be able to get people, but as soon as things get strung out, it will be very, very difficult to pass just because the braking zones are way shorter than the previous car (with the better brakes on the Next Gen car).”

Larson noted that there’s a chance of rain for Sunday’s race. 

“I honestly hope it rains because I think that will make the racing a lot better,” he said. 

5. Number crunching

Chase Elliott will clinch the regular season title with a 61-point lead over second place after Watkins Glen. He currently holds a 116-point lead on second heading into Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET on USA Network).

Ryan Blaney holds the final playoff spot. He leads Martin Truex Jr. by 26 points. Blaney has outscored Truex by 53 points in the four previous road course races this season.

Seven of the 16 drivers who won races last season have yet to win this year. They are AJ Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski, Bubba Wallace, Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola, Blaney and Truex.

Fifteen different winners through 24 races ties for the most through 24 races.

Chevrolet has won all four road course races this year. Trackhouse Racing and Richard Childress Racing have two wins each. Ross Chastain won at Circuit of the Americas and Daniel Suarez won at Sonoma for Trackhouse Racing. Tyler Reddick won at Road America and Indianapolis for RCR.

 

23XI Racing signs Bubba Wallace to multi-year contract extension

0 Comments

Bubba Wallace has signed a multi-year contract extension with 23XI Racing, the team announced Friday.

“Bubba was a key part of the early stages of 23XI, and I am thrilled that he will continue with the team,” said 23XI Racing Co-Owner Denny Hamlin in a statement. “When we announced Bubba as our first driver the goal was to help him take his career to a higher level, and we have done just that.

“Bubba and the No. 23 team earned the organization our first win and first pole award, and with a career-best four consecutive top-10 finishes heading into Richmond this weekend, Bubba is continuing to get more competitive each week. We’re excited to see his growth as he and the team work toward achieving our goals.”

Wallace has scored a career-high four consecutive top-10 finishes heading into Sunday’s race at Richmond Raceway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network). Wallace is outside a playoff spot with three races to go in the regular season.

Wallace gave 23XI Racing its first Cup victory last year at Talladega.

“It feels great to get this renewal done and to know I have a home at 23XI Racing,” said Wallace. “Thanks to (Michael Jordan) and Denny for continuing to believe in me. We’ve come a long way together in less than two years and we’ve checked off some major goals along the way – including the team’s first win and first pole. We know we still have work to do, both on and off the race track, but I feel good about our team and the direction we’re heading.”

23XI Racing previously announced it had signed Tyler Reddick to join the team beginning in 2024.

Bubba Wallace looks to have winning feeling again at Michigan

0 Comments

BROOKLYN, Mich. — Five years ago, Bubba Wallace waited for phone calls to race.

Today, he’ll lead the Cup field to the green flag at Michigan International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network). Four races remain in the regular season and Wallace needs a win to make the playoffs.

But this 2-mile track has the chance to provide another special memory for Wallace — just as it did five years ago.

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Cup race at Michigan 

Wallace’s 2017 season was short-circuited by lack of sponsorship in the Xfinity Series, leading Roush Fenway Racing to park his team after 12 races. 

Wallace did run four Cup races for an injured Aric Almirola. When Almirola returned to the No. 43 ride, Wallace again was left to look for a ride.

He got the chance to drive in the Truck race at Michigan in August 2017. Wallace led the final 11 laps to win that race, which saw Christopher Bell finish second and Kyle Busch place third. 

Wallace calls that Truck race “one of the biggest races in my career.” The victory was his first NASCAR national series win since 2014 and showed him “that I still got it.”

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series LTi Printing 200
Bubba Wallace celebrating his 2017 Truck win at Michigan (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

He needed that after wondering where his career was headed.

“When they pull the plug (on your team) and you’re sitting on the couch and you’re reevaluating life, and then you get one opportunity to come out and capitalize on it and you do that, it’s emotional for sure.”

Wallace, in his second season with 23XI Racing, enters today’s Cup race having scored a top 10 in each of the last three races. With Chase Elliott’s top-10 streak ending at six last weekend, Wallace owns the longest active top-10 streak in the series. 

While that seems minor, it’s significant for a team that has had pit road miscues, a strategy mistake in the Coca-Cola 600 and failed to finish five races this year.

There were signs that if Wallace’s team could avoid those pitfalls it could challenge for wins.

Wallace had one of the best cars at Kansas in May but two penalties on his pit crew forced him to the back of the field each time. He recovered to finish 10th, leaving questions of what might have been. 

He also was strong in a tire test at Michigan on May 31-June 1 that included Joey Logano and Austin Dillon.

An eighth two weeks ago at Pocono confirmed the speed in Wallace’s car.

“I told my crew after this test, I pulled them off to the side and I said, ‘I usually circle Martinsville, Daytona or Talladega as a race to win,” said Wallace, whose first Cup win came at Talladega last fall, “‘If we don’t win this race, then I’ll be very pissed off.’ 

“If something happens that’s out of our control, sure. But with the speed we had at the test and the speed we have now, we have to go out and do it.”

Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, said he was confident the Toyotas would be strong this weekend. All six Toyotas qualified 11th or better.

Now, Wallace has his best chance to win since Kansas.

“No matter what is thrown at you throughout the season, you’ve got to keep showing up … and executing,” Wallace said. “Man, we’ve been one of the best teams these last couple of weeks. I came on the radio after the first run (on track Saturday) and said ‘it’s fun to have fun.’ 

“It’s pretty fun right now.”

Kurt Busch hints at 2023 retirement

2 Comments

Veteran Kurt Busch Thursday tossed out a hint that the 2023 NASCAR Cup season might be his last as a driver.

Busch appeared on “CBS Mornings” Thursday to discuss NASCAR’s Tuesday announcement regarding the scheduling of a street race in Chicago in July next year.

Busch drives for 23XI Racing, co-owned by fellow Cup driver Denny Hamlin and former NBA star Michael Jordan.

Busch, 43, expressed excitement at being able to participate in the Chicago event.

“I’ve been in this sport 23 years, and this, to me, is like one of those kid-in-the-candy store moments of, ‘I wanna be a part of this,’ ” Busch said on the program. “And I’m glad I’m having the chance to drive next year for the team, and I might be done driving after that.”

Pressed to talk more about possible retirement, Busch didn’t elaborate.

The 23XI team announced recently that it has signed driver Tyler Reddick for the 2024 season but offered no clues on whether he might replace another driver or be in an additional car. If Busch indeed retires after next season, Reddick’s move into Busch’s No. 45 would seem a natural progression.

“We need to start to look at who the next talent is and where the sponsorships are,” Busch said.

Busch is expected to remain with the team after his final race as a driver.