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Friday 5: Frankie Muniz wants to show ‘I’m where I’m supposed to be’

Nate Ryan harkens back to the first NASCAR race that was broadcast in full, and a snowstorm that created a captive audience for Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough's Daytona fight.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The ink has faded, a sign of how old the tattoo is. For years, it served only as a reminder of what was, a message once so meaningful that Frankie Muniz wanted it with him forever. But when his path sent him in a different direction, the tattoo lost its luster.

Etched on his left wrist are twin checkered flags and the message “Please Keep Me Very Safe.” They have a renewed meaning as the actor/drummer returns to what he says is his true passion — racing.

Now 37, married, a father and nearly two decades removed from starring in the TV show “Malcolm in the Middle” and the “Agent Cody Banks” movies, Muniz will make his ARCA Menards Series debut Saturday at Daytona International Speedway (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

He insists this isn’t a publicity stunt. Instead, he’s trying to make up for lost time in following a dream. One he marked with that tattoo more than a decade ago.

“This is relevant again,” Muniz told NBC Sports as he looked at the tattoo. “I’m so excited about that.”

He recalls the day he got the tattoo. He wasn’t sure what type of racing image he wanted when he met the artist. Muniz thought about having a race car as the tattoo. It likely would have been an open-wheel car. Stock cars were not on his radar at the time.

He ran 32 races from 2007-09 in the Cooper Tires Atlantic Championship Series, a stepping stone to what is now the IndyCar Series. Among his teammates then was Simona De Silvestro, who has started the Indianapolis 500 six times.

So, what kind of tattoo to get?

The artist had an idea.

“It turned out great,” Muniz said.

Muniz was geared toward a racing career as a second act in his life until a crash in 2009 left him with a broken back and other injuries that took time to heal. He thought he would return to racing, but then acting opportunities continued. He then started playing drums in a band, and that sent him on the road.

Each day moved him further away from racing.

Until March 22, 2021 and the birth of his son Mauz.

“When he was born, I felt like I was nothing, as lame as that sounds,” Muniz said. “I was like racing is the thing that I always wanted to do. I’m not getting any younger.

“If I’m going to do it, I need to do it now. I want him to grow up in that environment of him seeing me reaching for a goal, reaching for a dream and striving for something that is not easy. There are a lot of guys that do this and have success and a lot that don’t. I wanted that, and I’m doing everything in my power to do that.”

Frankie Muniz tattoo

Tattoo on the inside left write of Frankie Muniz. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Acting, particularly on a stage, performing in a band and racing are visceral experiences. It’s as if Muniz is bouncing from one high-energy endeavor to another chasing something.

“All three of those things are things that you really have to put yourself out there,” Muniz told NBC Sports. “You have to perform. If you’re not performing well in any of those three, it’s probably not going to work out.

“I like things that are challenging. I’ve always been challenged since I was eight years old. I have moved around to a bunch of different careers and different type of things. Maybe that’s what I’m chasing. I like feeling the challenge and then, hopefully, (experiencing) that feeling you get when you feel like you’ve accomplished it.

“I don’t know what that means in the racing world. I want to be accepted as a racecar driver. I want people to look at me and go, ‘Wow, he belongs in that series. He belongs in that car.’”

That doesn’t mean the end of his acting career. With only three ARCA races in the next two months, he said he would do a movie, starting the day after the March 10 ARCA race at Phoenix Raceway. He’ll only be needed for about three weeks of shooting, giving him time to prepare for the April 22 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He admits he could have raced on a smaller scale with less of a spotlight, less scrutiny, but he strives for bigger goals. He wants to race in NASCAR but he knows this is a step and there’s no guarantee he’ll go beyond this season. He got a good start Thursday, posting the fastest lap in ARCA practice at 182.212 mph. Qualifying is Friday.

The lap in practice made much of the past two years trying to get to this moment worth it for Muniz. It took nearly that long to put together funding and find the right team in Rette Jones Racing to make this move.

Now, Muniz will race against drivers nearly half his age with way more racing experience and other drivers who were competing in the last decade while Muniz was not in the sport.

Among those who will be in Saturday’s ARCA race are Jack Wood, who will run for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series this season, Connor Mosack, who will run three Xfinity races for Joe Gibbs Racing this year, and Jesse Love, a two-time ARCA Menards Series West champion who will run three Truck races for Tricon Garage this year.

Cup rookie Noah Gragson and Cup veteran Corey LaJoie have both helped Muniz prepare for the challenges he faces.

“It’s really cool for Frankie to get in,” Gragson said. “He’s raced some open-wheel stuff in his career years back and has another opportunity and shot at doing this. You can tell he’s all-in and has bought in. He wants to do this. He is getting a little later start, but he has a different perspective on things that he may have had at an earlier age and in his career the first time by.

“It’s a great group, and I know he’s in good hands. I know when I first came in, I had a lot of things I wanted to know but didn’t know what questions to ask. So to be there for him and not hold his hand but to talk him through everything is important to me.”

Now that Muniz is here at Daytona and will soon race, the magnitude of the moment is hitting him.

“It does mean a lot to me that this is here,” he said, “because it proves to me that I’m where I’m supposed to be … and that’s a pretty cool feeling.”

2. Game changer?

Thursday night’s second qualifying race marked the first time Cup drivers got to choose what lane to restart. Drivers said the rule change could make a big impact in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Among the Cup rule changes this season was allowing the choose rule to be in place at superspeedway races. Previously, cars lined up double-file as they were running. Now, they can choose which lane to restart as they do at every other oval.

Corey LaJoie said he was surprised how much of an impact it made in his qualifying race.

“It’s definitely going to change the dynamic on Sunday, a little bit more than I anticipated,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “Even that last choose, I was a little bit like “oh shoot, it’s a big decision.’ Which lane goes, which lane doesn’t. Track position is so hard to get with these cars.”

Joey Logano, who won the first qualifying race, admits the rule change is “a new thing to think about. A lot of conversation around it, so we’ll see how it plays out.”

Could there be a case where a driver chooses not to line up behind a teammate on a late restart because the other lane might offer a better opportunity to win?

“Possibly,” Logano said. “It just kind of depends on the scenario. Who’s around you, who’s fast, who’s a good drafter, who is not.

“You want to position yourself in the best spot, and you don’t want to penalize your teammate ever. You’d rather have friend out there than not have a friend. But being together and being 15th isn’t worth anything.”

Making it more challenging is that drivers will have to make decisions quickly on what lane to choose.

“You don’t have a lot of time to think about it because a lot of those decisions are going to be a reaction off of what happened right in front of you,” Logano said.

“Your spotter has got to be on point of understanding as a team what you want and then reacting quickly because as a driver you can’t see the choose good enough on what everybody is doing there. It makes it tricky for sure, really hard.”

3. A 235-foot reminder

Coming and going, the message is always there for Trackhouse Racing employees.

A line dissects the road that leads to the team’s race shop in Concord, North Carolina. There is another line that dissects the road 235 feet away.

The distance is no mistake.

Team owner Justin Marks had the lines drawn during the offseason to note how close Ross Chastain came to winning the championship. Chastain finished 235 feet behind series champion Joey Logano in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.

“Inside that 235 feet is room for improvement,” Marks said. “My message to everybody in the company was what are the little things that you can do to contribute everyday to making up those 235 feet? … It’s that philosophy of constant improvement and self-audit that is a message we want to champion in our workforce.”

The message works for Chastain.

“The more I drive over (the lines), I grip the wheel a little bit there and it drives me to be better,” he said. “Justin has that way about him.”

Trackhouse Racing enters its third season and has both drivers signed to multi-year agreements. The team announced its signing of Daniel Suarez on Wednesday and followed with Ross Chastain’s signing on Thursday in front of friends and family at Daytona International Speedway.

Both Chastain and Suarez had never won a Cup race before last season. Chastain won twice and Suarez won once. Both made the playoffs.

While pushing his team for better success, Marks also is looking at other ways to grow the organization. The team’s Garage 91 Project, intended for drivers outside of NASCAR, made its debut last year at Watkins Glen with former Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen. Marks said an announcement on the program for this year could come in 14-18 days.

Marks also has expressed an interest in having a car in the Indianapolis 500 someday. With Kyle Busch now in the Chevrolet camp after moving from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, could Marks partner with Busch on an Indy 500 ride?

“I wouldn’t say anything is off the table,” Marks said in response to a question from NBC Sports. “I don’t want to scale my race team just to have race cars on the racetrack. I need to go to Indy and have it be something really special and have it be something that people haven’t seen before.

“So, if it’s one of our drivers doing the double or partnering with someone like Kyle Busch and doing it, I think all of that is on the table.

“Fundamentally, it’s just finding a team and partners and getting to a place where we can feel really good about the effort because we don’t want to go and run 30th. We want to go there and be a big part of the story and contend to win.”

4. Is this the year?

Kyle Larson, who starts on the front row in the Daytona 500 for the second year in row, still seeks his first top-five finish in this race.

Larson nearly won this race in 2017 but ran out of fuel while leading the last lap. Kurt Busch won that race.

Larson has not finished better than seventh in the Daytona 500.

“It’s definitely a unique style of racing and one that I haven’t quite figured out yet,” he said. “I’ve had good races where I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ve got a handle on this,” and then come back the next time you crash on like Lap 20, and you’re like, ‘Okay, no I don’t.’

“It’s unique. It’s hard to study for because it changes. Almost every time you go, you go back to a place where setups evolve, cars evolve, so it’s hard. There’s a handful of guys that seem to always be up front no matter what generation car it is or what rules package it may be. They just have a good understanding of it.

“I think the best thing to do is just piggyback off of those guys and just stay glued to their rear bumper and go wherever they do. I don’t really know like how to answer these questions because I haven’t quite figured it out.”

5. Guilty

Reigning Daytona 500 champion Austin Cindric shared the unique offseason he had. He served on a jury in North Carolina.

Cindric received a jury summons two weeks after he won last year’s Daytona 500. He was able to get a deferral because of his racing schedule but was called for jury duty in December. Cindric served for about a week-and-a-half in a murder trial.

Asked this week if the accused was guilty or not guilty, Cindric said: “Very guilty.”

Cindric also said he did not want to be the jury foreman.

“I didn’t want to be the one to deliver the bad news,” Cindric said.

Cindric’s focus now is on winning back-to-back Daytona 500s. Denny Hamlin is the most recent driver to do so, winning this race in 2019 and 2020. The only others to win back-to-back Daytona 500s are Sterling Marlin (1994 and ’95), Cale Yarborough (1983 and ’84) and Richard Petty (1973 and ’74).