Friday 5: NASCAR’s $1 million question is can the culture change?
NASCAR Cup teams have paid nearly $1 million in fines this season, more than triple what they paid last season for inspection-related infractions.
The money — $975,000 after just 14 of 36 points races — goes to the NASCAR Foundation. While the fines help a good cause, it is a troubling number, a point that a senior NASCAR official made clear this week.
Stewart-Haas Racing was the latest Cup team to be penalized. NASCAR issued a $250,000 fine, among other penalties, for a counterfeit part found on Chase Briscoe’s car following Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. The team cited a “quality control lapse” for a part that “never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack.”
Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said this week that if violations continue, the sanctioning body will respond. NASCAR discovered the infraction with Briscoe’s car at the R&D Center. Series officials also discovered a violation with Austin Dillon’s car at the R&D Center after the Martinsville race in April.
“If we need to bring more cars (to the R&D Center), we’ll do that,” he said. “Our part of this as the sanctioning body is to keep a level playing field for all the competitors, and that’s what they expect us to do and that’s what we’ll continue to do. … Whatever we need to do, we will do that.”
Sawyer also noted that the “culture” of race teams needs to change with the Next Gen car.
“From a business model and to be equitable and sustainable going forward, this was the car that we needed,” Sawyer said. “To go with that, we needed a deterrent model that would support that.
“We’ve been very clear. We’ve been very consistent with this … and we will continue to do that. The culture that was in our garage and in the race team shops on the Gen-6 car was more of a manufacturing facility. The Next Gen car, that’s not the business model.
“The race teams, they’re doing a better job. We still have a lot of work to do, but they have to change that culture within the walls of the race shop.”
While NASCAR has made it clear that single-source vendor parts are not to be modified, teams will look for ways to find an advantage. With the competition tight — there have been 22 different winners in the first 50 races of the Next Gen car era — any advantage could be significant.
Twelve races remain, including Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway, before the playoffs begin. The pressure is building on teams.
“Some race teams, at this stage in the game, their performance is not where they would like for it to be and they’re going to be working hard,” Sawyer said. “If they feel like they need to step out of bounds and do things and just take the risk, then they may do that. That’s not uncommon. We’ve seen that over the years.
“The one thing that we have to keep in mind is we’ve raced the Next Gen car for a full season. We’re in year two, just say 18 months into it. So last year, they were just getting the parts and pieces, getting ready, getting cars prepared and getting to the racetrack.
“Now they’ve had them for a year. They’ve had them for an offseason. It’s given their engineers and the people back in the shop a lot more time to think, ‘Maybe we could do this, maybe we could do that.’
“By bringing these cars back (to the R&D Center) and taking them down to basically the nuts and bolts and a thorough inspection — and we will continue to do that — I believe we will get our message across. We’ll have to continue to do this for some period in time, but I have great faith that we will get there.”
A similar message was delivered by Sawyer to drivers this week when NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in retaliation for being forced into the wall.
Sawyer told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “in the heat of the battle things happen, but (drivers) have to learn to react in a different way.”
Sawyer also noted that the message on how to race wasn’t just for those in Cup.
“We have to get that across not only to our veterans, guys that are superstars like Denny, like Bubba (Wallace) and like Chase and all our of national series Cup drivers, but also our young drivers that are coming up through the ranks that are racing in the Northeast in modifieds and in short tracks across the country,” he said. “That’s just not an acceptable behavior in how you would race your other competitors.
“There are a lot of things you can do to show your displeasure. That’s just not going to be one of them that we’re going to tolerate.”
2. Special ride
Corey LaJoie gets to drive a Hendrick Motorsports car this weekend due to Chase Elliott’s one-race suspension.
“It’s a far cry difference from when I started my Cup career six years ago,” LaJoie said on his “Stacking Pennies” podcast this week. “There was a Twitter page “Did Corey crash?” … Going from that guy just trying to swim and stay above water and trying to learn the ropes to filling in for a champion like Chase Elliott for Hendrick Motorsports, it feels surreal.”
It was a little more than three years ago that LaJoie gave car owner Rick Hendrick a handwritten note to be considered to replace Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car after the 2020 season.
“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick told NBC Sports in February 2020 of LaJoie’s letter. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter and it was really personal.
“I was impressed with him before and am more impressed after.”
LaJoie admitted on his podcast this week that he wouldn’t have been ready to drive the No. 48 car then.
“I wouldn’t have been ready, whether it be in my maturation, my game, my knowledge of the race cars,” he said. “The person that I was wasn’t ready for the opportunity like that.”
Now he gets the chance. He enters this weekend 19th in the season standings, 38 points behind Alex Bowman for what would be the final playoff spot at this time.
“It’s an opportunity to hopefully show myself, as well as other people, what I’ve been thinking (of) my potential as a race car driver,” LaJoie said on his podcast. “But I also think you have to just settle in and be appreciative of the opportunity.”
3. Special phone call
With Corey LaJoie moving into Chase Elliott’s car for Sunday’s Cup race, LaJoie’s car needed a driver. Craftsman Truck Series driver Carson Hocevar will make his Cup debut in LaJoie’s No. 7 car for Spire Motorsports.
Once details were finalized this week, the 20-year-old Hocevar called his dad.
“I don’t know if he really believed it,” Hocevar said.
He told his dad: “Hey, this is actually happening.”
His father owns a coin and jewelry shop and is looking to close the store Sunday and have someone watch his two puppies so he can attend the race.
For Hocevar, it’s quite a turnaround for a driver who has been at the center of controversy at times.
Ryan Preece was critical of Hocevar’s racing late in the Charlotte Truck event in May 2022. Preece said to FS1: “All you kids watching right now wanting to get to this level, don’t do that. Race with respect. Don’t wreck the guy on the outside of you trying to win your first race. It doesn’t get you anywhere.”
NASCAR penalized Hocevar two laps for hooking Taylor Gray in the right rear during the Truck race at Martinsville in April.
Hocevar acknowledged he has had to change how he drives.
“Last year was really, really tough for me and that’s no excuse,” Hocevar said this week. “I just was mentally wrong on a lot of things, had the wrong mindset. I wanted to win so badly that I thought I could outwork stuff and it kind of turned some people away. … I wasn’t enjoying the time there. I was letting the results dictate that.
“I was taking results too personal. If we were going to be running seventh, I took it as I was a seventh-place driver and I wasn’t good enough. So I started making desperate moves. I did desperate things at times, even last year, that I’ve been able to calm down and look myself in the mirror and had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations.”
He called the Martinsville race “a turning point” for him and knew he needed to change how he drove. He enters this weekend’s Truck race with three consecutive top-five finishes.
4. Moving forward
In a way, Zane Smith can relate to what Carson Hocevar will experience this weekend. Smith, competing in the Truck Series, made his Cup debut last year at World Wide Technology Raceway. Smith filled in for RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, who missed the race because of COVID-19 symptoms. Smith finished 17th.
“That one that I got for RFK Racing was a huge opportunity,” Smith said of helping him get some Cup rides this season. “I was super thankful for that. I think that run we had got my stock up and then, honestly, getting the Truck championship helped that rise as well.
“I think just time in the Cup car is so important, and I think once that new Cup car came out, people realized that you don’t have to do the route of Truck, Xfinity, Cup. The Cup car is so far apart from anything, though it does kind of race like a truck, so I don’t think you need to go that round of Truck, Xfinity, Cup. I think a lot of people would agree with me on that.
“I’m happy for these Cup starts that I’m getting. I’m happy for that one that I got last year at a place like Gateway. I think every time that you’re in one you learn a lot.”
Smith has made five Cup starts this season, finishing a career-best 10th in last week’s Coca-Cola 600 for Front Row Motorsports. The former Truck champion has two Truck series wins this year and is third in the season standings.
5. Notable numbers
A look at some of notable numbers heading into this weekend’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois:
5 — Most points wins in the Next Gen car (William Byron, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott)
7 — Different winners in the last seven points races: Christopher Bell (Bristol Dirt), Kyle Larson (Martinsville), Kyle Busch (Talladega), Martin Truex Jr. (Dover), Denny Hamlin (Kansas), William Byron (Darlington), Ryan Blaney (Coca-Cola 600).
17 — Points between first (Ross Chastain) and sixth (Christopher Bell) in the Cup standings
88 — Degrees at Kansas, the hottest temperature for a Cup race this season (the forecast for Sunday’s race calls for a high in the low 90s)
100 — Consecutive start for Austin Dillon this weekend
500 — Cup start for Brad Keselowski this weekend
687 — Laps led by William Byron, most by any Cup driver this season
805 — Cup start for Kevin Harvick this weekend, tying him with Jeff Gordon for ninth on the all-time list.