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Friday 5: New Cup owners reshaping sport with their bold moves

Nate Ryan, Dale Jarrett, and Parker Kligerman make NASCAR predictions for the rest of the season ahead of the playoffs.

NASCAR’s newest Cup owners are reshaping the sport through bold decisions that could force other team owners to react accordingly or risk falling behind.

The move this week by Legacy Motor Club — co-owned by Maury Gallagher and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson — to join Toyota in 2024 is the latest in a string of aggressive moves new Cup owners have made seeking a competitive edge.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson unsure of 2024 driving plans but NASCAR a priority

Justin Marks (Trackhouse Racing), Brad Keselowski (RFK Racing) and Denny Hamlin (23XI Racing) all have made moves in the past two years that not only impact the sport now but likely will do so for years to come. Those three teams have five drivers in the top 12 in points heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

“A lot of the battles that you see on the racetrack are happening in the boardrooms, with decisions on hiring drivers, hiring crew chiefs and where to put resources — aero, engine, vehicle dynamics — how to get that next great talent out of the schools, whether it be for a pit crew member or an engineer,” Keselowski said.

“These are very serious battles. They fight every day. There’s winners and losers on these every day. The guys that are good at it, they’re the ones that are winning the races. It hides behind the driver that won the race, and I think a lot of these owners are quite OK with that, myself included.

“But the reality is a lot of battles happen at the ownership and the (general manager) level of what you see on any given Sunday.”

Marks, Keselowski and Hamlin — all new owners since 2021 have had their share of victories off the track.

Marks was a single-car team owner in 2021 when he purchased Chip Ganassi Racing, securing both charters from that organization and later signing Ross Chastain to join Daniel Suarez on the team.

Both drivers made the playoffs last year. Chastain finished second to Joey Logano for the championship a year ago and leads the points nearly a third of the way through this season.

Keselowski left his ride at Team Penske — where he had been for more than a decade — to be a part owner in what is now RFK Racing after the 2021 season. In his first year as a team owner, Keselowski celebrated Chris Buescher’s victory at Bristol last fall, the organization’s first Cup victory since 2017. Both Keselowski and Buescher enter this weekend in a playoff spot.

Denny Hamlin and co-owner Michael Jordan shocked many in July 2022 when 23XI Racing announced it had signed Tyler Reddick for the 2024 season and beyond.

Hamlin celebrated the announcement by posting a chess piece on his Twitter account, the inference that his team plays chess while the rest of the garage plays checkers.

“We’ve said from the beginning that 23XI Racing wants to be a different kind of a race team and that’s a forward-thinking team,” Steve Lauletta, president of 23XI Racing said at the time.

The move wasn’t unprecedented, but it is rare to sign a driver more than a year before they’ll join an organization. Hendrick Motorsports signed Kasey Kahne in 2010 to join the team beginning in 2012. Stewart-Haas Racing signed Clint Bowyer in 2015 to take over Tony Stewart’s ride in 2017.

After Richard Childress Racing signed Kyle Busch, the organization allowed Reddick to leave a year early and join 23XI Racing for this season. Reddick already has a victory, winning at Circuit of the Americas, and is sixth in the points.

Now comes the move by Legacy MC to Toyota, joining Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing in that camp. Legacy MC was never going to be among the top three organizations at Chevrolet. Those are Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Trackhouse Racing.

The move continues Gallagher’s aggressive style. Less than a year after he purchased Richard Petty Motorsports to form a two-car Cup team, he partnered with Johnson. The new ownership group was announced six months ago.

“It really has moved quickly,” Johnson said of going from new owner to announcing a new manufacturer for the team. “When Maury and I sat in that (press conference) room in November, I didn’t think we’d be sitting here today (announcing the move to Toyota). That just wasn’t in the cards. We weren’t having those conversations and our path forward looked a lot different.”

Johnson noted the team isn’t done making such decisions as it builds to be more competitive with Erik Jones and Noah Gragson.

“This is one chapter in that fast pace,” Johnson said. “We know that there are many more to come. We’re gearing up and getting ready for it.”

The rest of the sport better be ready because it won’t be only Legacy MC with bold moves.

2. RFK Resurgence

RFK Racing scored top-10 finishes for both its cars in the past two weeks at Talladega and Dover. It marks the first time since 2014 that the organization has had consecutive top 10s for both cars.

It’s quite a contrast from last year.

At this time a year ago, Keselowski had one top-10 finish. He has five this season. Buescher had three top 10s a year ago. He has four this season.

Keselowski said he saw progress start to be made for RFK Racing last fall.

“By then, it’s really hard to see because you’re kind of buried in the points and all those things, it just doesn’t really show up,” he said. “Over the offseason, we added a few more key pieces and people and resources. You have the start over with the points and now it’s very visible, two cars in the playoff hunt.”

Keselowski is ninth in points; Buescher 12th. Keselowski notes that the organization has had a shot to win in about a third of the races this season.

But for all that RFK has done, it guarantees little. The season is just under a third of the way through. That’s a key milepost to Keselowski.

“I really look at the season in thirds,” he said. “You have your first third of the season where you kind of unload with all of your preseason changes, really trying to see who made the right ones in the offseason.

“The middle part of the summer is really about refining who you are and then you have the playoff push in the third part of the season. … The summer stretch is a really important stretch to just try to have a little bit of momentum getting into the playoff and if you’re not in the playoffs, you really need to solidify yourselfwith wins or good runs.”

After going to Kansas this weekend, the series heads to Darlington. Both are playoff tracks. Teams that go to North Wilkesboro for the All-Star Race before ending the month at Charlotte. Kansas and Charlotte are 1.5-mile tracks and Darlington is a 1.366-mile track. This stretch will give teams a good view of how they compare at aero tracks.

“I look at Kansas, Darlington and Charlotte, those are big races for us,” Keselowski said.

3. Thrill ride

As Formula One driver Pierre Gasly drove the Charlotte Roval in an RFK Racing car on Tuesday, he experienced something he had not in motorsports.

Driving on a track banked 24 degrees in the turns.

“Going through the banking in fifth gear … bottoming out, I did think about my insurance and whether their car was well-insured,” said Gasly, who is competing in Sunday’s Miami Grand Prix. “They say don’t push too much, but you don’t how to do that. If you jump in the car, you want to feel the limits.

“I must say I was quite amazed with the braking. I didn’t expect the car to brake that hard.”

He also came away impressed with the race shop.

“I was amazed with the factory,” Gasly said of visiting the RFK Racing shop and museum.

His Alpine teammate Esteban Ocon drove the car on the Roval and left enthused.

“I did enjoy it massively,” Ocon said. “It was awesome just to have an experience in a proper NASCAR new generation car.”

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton said in Miami that he remains interested in competing in a NASCAR race but remains focused on his F1 career.
If Hamilton runs in NASCAR some day, he would follow other F1 champions who have tried Cup, including a pair this year. Former F1 champions Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button both drove in the Circuit of the Americas Cup race this season. Button also is scheduled to compete at Chicago and the Indy road course this season.

4. Kyle Larson’s ups and downs

Kyle Larson’s uneven season continued last weekend at Dover, making one wonder if he might be due for a strong finish this weekend at Kansas.

Larson has failed to finish or had to go to the garage during a race six times in the first 11 events this season. He failed to finish after crashes in the Daytona 500, Atlanta, Talladega and Bristol Dirt Race.

Larson has four top-five finishes, scoring wins at Richmond and Martinsville. He placed second at Las Vegas and was fourth at Phoenix.

Circuit of the Americas is the only race among the first 11 this year that Larson has not had a top five, failed to finish or had to to go to the garage for repairs. He finished 14th that day, completing all 75 laps.

Through it all, Larson has scored the most playoff points so far. His two wins and two stage victories give him 12 playoff points. William Byron is next with 11 playoff points, followed by Kyle Busch, who has 10 playoff points.

5. A new winner?

There has been a different winner in each of the last eight races on a 1.5-mile track (excluding Atlanta, which is now in the same category as Daytona and Talladega with its drafting).

Those last eight winners are:

Las Vegas (March 2023) — William Byron

Homestead (October 2022) — Kyle Larson

Las Vegas (October 2022) — Joey Logano

Texas (September 2022) — Tyler Reddick

Kansas (September 2022) — Bubba Wallace

Coca-Cola 600 (May 2022) — Denny Hamlin

Kansas (May 2022) — Kurt Busch

Las Vegas (March 2022) — Alex Bowman