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Friday 5: Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 effort drawing interest

Kevin Harvick joins the Motormouths crew to discuss the relief he feels to have clinched a playoff spot with his NASCAR Cup race win at the Michigan International Speedway and how he is preparing for the playoffs.

Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks says the interest in NASCAR among drivers worldwide will help fuel his Project 91, which debuts next weekend at Watkins Glen International with former F1 driver Kimi Raikkonen making his Cup debut.

“I know — and have known for a long time — that there is significant global interest among the elite motorsports drivers of the world in participating in a NASCAR race,” Marks said this week. “It’s a unique series. People in Europe and around the world look at NASCAR as this giant form of motorsports in America, which it is, and have an interest in trying that.”

The challenge has been getting that chance. With NASCAR debuting the Next Gen car this season, and spaces in the 40-car fields not taken, there is an opportunity for an effort like this to make Cup races.

Marks’ plan this season is only one race for Project 91, which is intended to provide entries for international drivers. Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One champion and winner of 21 F1 races, was sought by Marks to be in this car for its maiden effort. Marks flew to Switzerland to detail the opportunity to Raikkonen.

“If we were going to launch this thing, obviously, we needed somebody relevant globally to set it off,” Marks said of getting Raikkonen, who made 350 Formula One starts from 2001-21 and ran one Xfinity race and one Truck race in 2011.

Raikkonen took part in a driver orientation test Thursday on the Virginia International Raceway road course.
Marks says there was much interest in the project shortly after announcing his plans in late May. After stating there would only be one race this year for Project 91, conversations slowed but interest remains.

“The conversation got more lively among a lot of these personalities globally in motorsports,” Marks said. “They’re paying attention to it. They think it’s really, really cool, and they’ve got an interest if their schedules and contracts allow for them to be a part of it.

“I anticipate after Watkins Glen, when everybody sees this program in the flesh, Kimi has a good race and it looks cool and all that kind of stuff, that (conversations) will start ramping up.”

Raikkonen will be one of three international drivers expected to compete at Watkins Glen. Daniil Kvyat, who made 110 Formula One starts from 2014-20, made his Cup debut at the Indianapolis road course for Team Hezeberg and is expected back at Watkins Glen. Spire Motorsports announced this week that Mike Rockenfeller, a two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, will drive the team’s No. 77 car at Watkins Glen.

One driver who could be a good fit for the Project 91 in the future could be four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Hello Castroneves.

“I spent some time with Helio, and he’s a guy that’s a perfect fit for what the Project 91 thing is all about, but we haven’t had any meaningful discussions because we’re focused on getting through Watkins Glen, then there’s going to be playoffs and then we’ll kind of reassess,” Marks said.

The project’s debut will come two weeks before the playoffs begin. Both of Trackhouse’s drivers, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez, are in the playoffs after victories this season. It’s easy to wonder if the Project 91 effort will diminish the organization’s efforts for the playoffs.

“I wouldn’t say we’re spread thin,” Marks said. “We’re certainly asking people to do some extra work. I think everybody understands from a business standpoint why we’re doing Project 91.

“It was important for me to do it during the regular season and not during the playoffs and to only do one race. It’s been a little bit of extra work, but the company is in a really good spot where we can do this project and and do it well. Hopefully, it’s the beginning of something that’s just going to grow over time.”

2. Impressive beginning

Kevin Harvick was among the estimated 9,000 who attended the opening night of racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway earlier this month. He liked what he saw.

“I thought it was great,” Harvick said. “I was really happy that the community came out and supported the event. That was the best part. I think it caught everybody off guard how many people actually showed up.

“I think all these races would have been super intriguing, it was intriguing anyway, but it would have been just massively intriguing if you could actually get tires. I think there would be 100 Late Model stock cars, there would have been 60 or 70, modifieds, (but) you can’t get tires.”

While racing will take place Friday and Saturday at North Wilkesboro Speedway, the racing there scheduled Aug. 19-20 has been canceled because of supply issues and the shortage of race tires.

“That’s really kind of been the detriment of a lot of racing ... that you can’t get tires,” Harvick said. “And I can’t even imagine how many cars would have shown up to that particular event, but the main thing is the people from the community showed up.

“Hopefully, they keep showing up and keep participating in the events because it’s cool facility. There’s just something about those old nostalgic facilities that you can go back to and kind of go back in time.”

Much work remains to the facility, but Harvick says he could see type of national series race at North Wilkesboro someday.

“I don’t know why you go through all that work and not have something like that there,” he said. “That would be ludicrous to think that that track is just going to survive off a Late Models and modifieds, Saturday night shows. No way. There’s no way. There’s gotta be some sort of plan for Trucks or Xfinity or something that goes into that.”

3. Work never ends

Cup rookie Harrison Burton sheds some light on the work that he does in preparation for an event.

“We’ve got a really cool process where the crew chief, the spotter and engineers all sit in and we have a film room that we can go and watch race film in,” Burton said. “So we kind of start that meeting and go over some baseline things and setup ideas – normal race meeting kind of stuff – and then we just put on the race and talk about it as it goes on.

NASCAR Production Days

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA - JANUARY 18: NASCAR driver Harrison Burton poses for a photo during NASCAR Production Days at Clutch Studios on January 18, 2022 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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“We’ll watch the whole race and skip through to restarts and things and just talk about it. … When I get home I like to watch a lot of the SMT data, where it’s all modeled cars in there and you can see steering, throttle, brake traces – see what guys are doing well, what guys aren’t doing well. You can kind of zoom in on guys or zoom out and watch the whole race.

“What I tend to watch for in that is kind of trying to understand what guys are fighting and understand what they do better than others. You go to Martinsville and see, ‘Hey, why is this guy faster than other guys?’ And his car is a couple feet higher. At this point in the corner he’s leaving low, so whatever it might be. I look for small details by myself, and I don’t really have a super structured way to do that. I kind of just go through and pick through the data, watch different guys that I know are really great at certain racetracks and try and take off of them.”

Burton says he took a bit of a different approach in his preparation for Sunday’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network) since the series is returning there for the second time this year.

He’ll just watch his car on film and the data from the track’s spring race. Burton finished 18th in that event.

He’ll do that to “see everything I could have done better – every single moment, every single decision you make as far as restart selections. All of that you can watch back and understand what you did and didn’t do.”

4. How did he do it?

The last time Cup raced at Richmond this season, Denny Hamlin used a two-stop strategy in the final stage to win. Kevin Harvick used the same strategy to finish second, while William Byron, who pitted only once in last stage, was passed by both and placed third.

With all that time Hamlin and Harvick lost to Byron making an extra stop in the last stage, how did they pass him in the final laps?

With the help of Racing Insights, here’s a breakdown of how they did and something to keep in mind during the final stage of Sunday’s Cup race.

Harvick’s next-to-last pit stop was on Lap 308 of the 400-lap race.

Hamlin’s next-to-last pit stop was on Lap 310.

Byron’s last pit stop was on Lap 311.

Harvick made his last pit stop at Lap 353 under green.

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - APRIL 03: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, and William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 03, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

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Hamlin, running second to Byron, made his last pit stop at Lap 354 under green. Hamlin was 4.85 seconds behind Byron when he entered pit road. Hamlin came off pit road 11th. He was 34.287 seconds behind Byron.

Hamlin was a lap behind Byron for nine laps after that pit stop. Hamlin got back on the lead lap with 37 laps to go.

Aided by fresher tires, Hamlin’s average lap time during the final 45 laps was 24.134 seconds. Slowed by older tires, Byron’s average lap time during that same span was 24.954 seconds.

Hamlin passed Byron for the lead with five laps to go.

Harvick passed Byron for second with four laps to go.

Hamlin made up nearly 37 seconds in the final 45 laps and finished 2.735 seconds ahead of Byron, who placed third. In this case, fresher tires proved the difference, along with Hamlin’s ability to get through traffic and not have a caution when he was a lap down after his final stop.

5. Examining the race for the final playoff spot

Ryan Blaney enters Sunday’s Cup race holding the final playoff spot. He’s the only driver among the 16 in a playoff position without a victory this season.

Blaney leads Martin Truex Jr. by 19 points with three races left in the regular season.

Should there be a driver who hasn’t won yet this season win before the regular season ends, they could put themselves in a playoff position and knock out Blaney (provided he is not the one to win).

If it gets to 16 different winners before the regular season ends, then the driver with fewest points – among those with one victory this season – would be on the bubble. That would put Kurt Busch in the position. Richmond will be the fourth consecutive race Busch misses because of symptoms from a concussion. He has 485 points.

Busch’s status remains week-to-week. Some winless drivers, who also are in the top 30 in the standings, are more than 100 points behind Busch. So, if there were 16 different winners and they won, they might not have enough points to bump Busch out of the playoff spot.