Column By: REID SPENCER & HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Kyle Larson will start on the pole for Saturday’s all-important Coke Zero Sugar 400 NASCAR Cup Series race after rain at Daytona International Speedway on Friday forced cancellation of qualifying for the final regular-season race.
Larson won last Sunday at Watkins Glen and topped the Daytona field according to metrics, which by rule are used to order the field in case of a cancellation.
Regular-season champion Chase Elliott will start beside his Hendrick Motorsports teammate on the front row. Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez will take the green flag from the third and fourth positions.
Given the withdrawal of Kurt Busch from Playoff competition because of lingering concussion symptoms, there are now two Playoff spots available in the final regular-season race. Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. currently hold positions 15 and 16 on points, with Blaney maintaining a 25-point edge entering Saturday’s race.
Truex will start 12th in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 and Blaney 15th. But it’s not as if those drivers don’t have something to worry about. Any one of 13 drivers below them in the standings could steal one of the remaining Playoff spots with a victory.
Seven of those 13 competitors—Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, Justin Haley, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell and Austin Dillon—have Daytona victories on their resumes.
Also part of the group of 13 is 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace, Kurt Busch’s teammate. Wallace has three runner-up finishes in 10 Daytona starts, including the last two races at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
Chris Buescher doesn’t have a points win at Daytona, but he and teammate Keselowski won their respective Duel 150-mile qualifying races at the track in February. Buescher starts eighth—closest to the front among eligible drivers below the Playoff cut line.
“I guess I can’t say I’m shocked by the way this weekend is starting,” Buescher said. “We definitely knew today was pretty rough on radar. I guess with that it does give us a pretty good starting spot for Daytona, but if there’s any race that’s not track-position sensitive, this is it.
“That being said. It’s good to have a good spot. I know we’re going to have a fast race car… We’ve got to be smart about it, we’ve got to be clean and take the speed that we know we’ll have and make something out of it.”
Martin Truex Jr. faces his most important race of 2022
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. could only smile and acknowledge that Saturday night’s regular-season finale, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, was poised to be the biggest race of the season for the 42-year old former NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Truex goes into the race trailing Penske Racing driver Ryan Blaney by 25 points with two positions in the 16-driver Playoff field still to be determined. If either driver wins the race, the other should get in on points. If there is a first-time season winner, then Truex must make up the 25-point deficit to Blaney to qualify for the Playoffs.
“Obviously it’s not been the season we’ve wanted,’’ said the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion, who has three top-5 and 11 top-10 finishes and sits sixth in overall points earned—but is still winless.
“It would have been nice to be locked in. You never want to come here to Daytona and not be locked in and having to make something happen. So that’s why, we’ll just go race tomorrow night, see what happens and really (try) not to think about it either way, to be honest with you.’’
Truex has never won a race in 34 previous starts at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway. He does have a runner-up finish in the summer race here in 2018 and was runner-up in the 2016 Daytona 500.
He comes to Daytona ranked sixth in the championship standings. However, 14 other drivers earned wins to take automatic bids into the Playoffs, which begin next week in Darlington, S.C.
Kurt Busch won a race at Kansas this summer—and therefore was Playoff eligible—but he announced this week that he was still not medically cleared to race after an accident in qualifying at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in July. Consequently, two driver Playoff positions will be decided Saturday night.
“I think we had a really strong car here in February,’’ Truex said. ”Led a ton of laps, won two stages. Then we got kind of banged up and then finished kind of tore-up, so you didn’t have the speed at the end of the race.
“But I had a really strong day going and Talladega went good as well, so I feel like our car is really fast here. And hopefully we can take advantage of that. Would be a fun way to win one here with everything on the line.’’
Three-time runner-up Bubba Wallace craves a visit to Daytona Victory Lane
In 23XI Racing driver Bubba Wallace’s five-year full-time NASCAR Cup Series career, he has four runner-up finishes. Three of them have come at Daytona International Speedway. He has finished second in the last two races at the historic track, and he was runner-up in his first ever Daytona 500 in 2018.
However, Wallace doesn’t necessarily consider his past success at the track a true indicator of his chances going forward.
“Like maybe five years ago, it would be like, ‘Man, we deserve a win here.’” Wallace said. “Five years to work on that. Now, it’s like you don’t deserve anything. Let’s go out and earn it. No matter if you finish second, how many times we’ve done it, we can still blow up or we could still break something. You don’t know. And so for us it’s just (important) to not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s focus on what we need to do.
“It’s just making sure you’re there for the last—I always say five laps, but we may wreck 10 times in five laps—so just make sure you’re there for the last two laps and set yourself up for being one of the first four cars,’’ Wallace added. “That’s what we need to focus on. Let’s get up that point.”
Wallace comes to Daytona ranked 20th in the standings, and his only shot at advancing to the 2022 Playoffs is to win Saturday night. The 28-year old has earned four Top-10 finishes in just the last six weeks, including a runner-up at Michigan.
Craftsman to return as entitlement sponsor for NASCAR Truck Series
Craftsman Tools, whose early sponsorship of the NASCAR Truck Series helped spur its growth and popularity, will return as the entitlement sponsor for the series in 2023.
“It doesn’t matter who you are—an auto enthusiast, a home builder, a homeowner—you can relate to the genuine edge that is the Truck Series,” said Doug Redpath of Stanley Black & Decker, Craftsman’s parent company, during Friday’s announcement at Daytona International Speedway.
“It has something different, and that’s what Craftsman has—a lot of heritage, we a lot of history together that everybody’s excited about and everybody can relate to. I think that’s what makes this relationship so exciting. It’s a new beginning, it’s a bright future and it’s an exciting future for all of us.”
Craftsman was the title sponsor of the Truck Series from its inception in 1995 until 2008. The return of the brand will take place when the trucks race at Daytona on Feb. 17, 2023.
Friday’s press conference also included an announcement that Stanley Black & Decker has been named Official Tools Partner of NASCAR.
Aric Almirola will continue to bring home the bacon with Stewart-Haas Racing
Aric Almirola announced Friday that he will be back competing for Stewart-Haas Racing next year and that team sponsor Smithfield Foods has re-signed for a multi-year deal. Almirola said the formal agreement to continue driving the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was only finalized this week, despite reports otherwise.
Almirola has carried Smithfield branding every season of his 12-year NASCAR Cup Series career—no matter which team he drove for or who was CEO leading the Smithfield corporation at the time.
“I know that doesn’t come as a surprise to many of you, but I put a lot of thought and a lot of discussing it with (wife) Janice and the kids and ultimately, the subject continued to get broached from the race team and Smithfield,” Almirola said.
“And through all of that dialogue, mainly with the race team and Smithfield, it was very evident that not only did they want me back, but that Smithfield wanted to increase their marketing campaign around NASCAR and around me.’’
Almirola, who scored his first NASCAR Cup Series win in the 2014 Daytona summer race, originally announced he would retire from full-time competition following the 2022 season. But he says Smithfield lured him back, hoping to continue their longstanding partnership at the SHR team.
While the brand has a long-term deal with the team, Almirola said he has yet to determine how long he will commit to racing fulltime, however, he said his children—nine-year Alex and eight-year old Abby—were elated at the news that dad was going to continue driving the race car.
And Almirola said he’s learned to balance his job as a race car driver, as a sponsor spokesman and as a husband and father—even coaching his son’s baseball games during the week.
Essentially, the situation just all worked out. “Smithfield has been the primary sponsor on my race car my entire Cup career and so to continue to have their support and their backing is just an awesome feeling to be their guy and to be wanted,” Almirola said.
Longtime Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Greg Ives to step aside
Greg Ives, crew chief of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and a longtime member of the organization announced Friday that at the end of the 2022 season he will be stepping away from his crew chief duties and instead, taking a new role at the Hendrick team shop.
“After 17 seasons on the road and making countless memories, I’ve decided to step away,’’ Ives said in a statement released on social media, noting that he wanted to be home more with his wife and his children as they are growing up instead of maintaining the heavy travel schedule required in the crew chief position.
“Leading the #48 has been one of the great privileges of my life, and I’m excited to go into the playoffs and chase a championship with Alex [Bowman] and this incredible group of people. I’m also looking forward to the next step in my career, which will be here with my Hendrick Motorsports family.’’
Phoenix Raceway president Julie Giese is Chicago-bound in new executive role
Newly-named Chicago track president Julie Giese met with the national media for the first time since being named to the new position last week. She moves to the new role after serving as the Phoenix Raceway president for the past five years – overseeing the massive renovation at the track, which began hosting the NASCAR Championship Weekend two years ago.
A Wisconsin native, Giese said she intends to move to Chicago immediately and is looking forward to the track’s July 1-2, 2023 debut on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule—the first true street course event.
“I want to be in the community,’’ Giese said of her impending move back to her Midwestern roots, acknowledging that her presence is important in demonstrating the commitment NASCAR has to the community and to this event.
The Chicago NASCAR weekend will also include an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race as well as concerts and food trucks in the downtown Chicago track area, anchored by famous Grant Park. Giese said the idea is to give the event a “festival” feel in a market not currently hosting a NASCAR race. And, she says, a crowd of approximately 50,000 is expected each day.
Certainly, Giese’s experience overseeing the massive Phoenix track project, along with welcoming and overseeing successful NASCAR’s high-profile Championship Weekends, gives her a leg up on managing the new Chicaco race.
“I’m a detail person, and it will take a lot of detail,’’ said Giese, who said she has actually been working on the Chicago race for months behind the scenes and considers herself equipped with a good running start.
“This is another opportunity to bring NASCAR To a new set of fans,” Giese added