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Friday 5: More Cup drivers look to run races outside of NASCAR in 2022

The second Daytona 500 won by Dale Earnhardt Jr. started his last season with crew chief Steve Letarte, who became his co-worker at NBC Sports. The ring he received for winning the race is going in his Hall of Fame case.

Team owners are allowing — and even encouraging — their drivers to compete in races outside of NASCAR this year after Kyle Larson did so and won the Cup championship last season.

The result is that fans should have more chances to see Cup drivers at local tracks this year.

Owners, who once were not in favor of their drivers racing outside of NASCAR due to the risk of injury, recognize how little track time Cup drivers get. Cup practice is limited, and rules restrict how many Xfinity and Camping World Truck races Cup drivers can run. Even with simulation and iRacing, there’s nothing like actually racing, no matter the vehicle.

“When I think of somebody that spends as much time in a race car as possible, trying to learn and trying to get better, (Larson) has got everybody beat by a lot,” Tyler Reddick told NBC Sports. “You could probably add the amount of lap time or track time that he has and you could probably throw five or six other drivers together and you wouldn’t still get the amount he has. He’s just raced so much.”

Larson, who won 10 Cup races last season, said he has “a little bit more racing” on his schedule this year compared to a year ago. His Cup title completed one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history. He also won the Chili Bowl Nationals midget race, the Knoxville Nationals and Kings Royal sprint car races and the Prairie Dirt Classic late model race in 2021.

“I race so much, and I openly talk about how it makes me a better race car driver and then to have the results on the Cup side has, I think, definitely convinced some owners that it works,” Larson told NBC Sports about running multiple series. “They probably want their drivers to do a little bit more.”

Among other drivers following Larson’s path:

  • Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman says he looks to run a sprint car “30 to 35 times” and also might run a pavement midget “a little bit” this year after running select races last year.
  • Chase Briscoe, who said he ran two dirt races last year, plans to run 15-25 dirt races this year.
  • Justin Haley, who has a dirt modified team, says team owner Matt Kaulig has encouraged him to run 30-40 races this season.
  • William Byron looks to run select Super Late Model races to prepare for a possible run in the Snowball Derby this year.
  • Former Cup champion Chase Elliott said he’s not sure how much he’ll run outside NASCAR this year but has “a couple of things that I’m working on.”
  • Ryan Blaney said he could “venture out a little bit” with Team Penske softening its stance on its drivers competing in races outside of NASCAR.
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Kyle Larson in a midget. Photo: Kyle Larson

Cup drivers look to race more because of how little time they spend in their cars.

Only six of the 36 Cup points races will have extended practice this season. There will be no practice at both Talladega races and the August Daytona race. Teams will get 15 minutes of practice at all other ovals and 20 minutes of practice at road courses.

Cup drivers with three or more years experience in the series are limited to no more than five Xfinity and five Truck races a season. Cup drivers are not permitted to run the final eight races in Xfinity and Trucks and other select races in each series.

Elliott, who ran midgets, sprints, the Rolex 24 and the SRX race at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway last year, said even though many of those cars are unlike his Cup ride, driving them can prove valuable.

“Just seeing new challenges, seeing things that you’ve never seen before, car tendencies, and just those fine details it takes to be successful in different disciplines,” Elliott told NBC Sports of the benefits of competing in various cars.

“I feel like that learning curve of getting there is helpful. As these (Cup) cars change this year, you might have just learned one little spec of something in a different car that might translate. There you go. You’re a step ahead.”

Every driver seeks any advantage with the debut of the Next Gen car this season. There are few similarities between the new car and last year’s car. Drivers have had only a few test sessions to learn the vehicle before the season begins. Next week’s organizational test at Phoenix is the final one before Cup teams begin racing.

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Alex Bowman at Chili Bowl during hot laps. (Photo: Alex Bowman)

Bowman told NBC Sports that he looks to do more sprint car races to “get outside my comfort zone and hopefully make myself a better race car driver for Sundays.”

“Staying in the seat the most I possibly can, I think, can only help you for Sundays. Winged (sprint) cars are so fast that I think it somewhat slows things down when you get back in a Cup car.”

While Team Penske’s philosophy has been to restrict its drivers on what they race beyond NASCAR, Walt Czarnecki, vice chairman, said this month that the organization is open to races that will help its drivers.

“I think you’re going to see a couple of our drivers, perhaps, participating in other series,” he said. “It will help them, I believe, in developing those skills for some of the new venues that we’re going to, going back to dirt.

“I know it was interesting to watch Joey Logano last year run in a super modified race. … It was quite a whole new experience for him, but it really benefited him when they went to Bristol, so we’ll pick and choose and work with the drivers.

“We want to be flexible. We want to give them opportunities to expand their skill set. Is Ryan Blaney going to be running full-time in the World of Outlaws? I don’t think so, but there will be opportunities that will present themselves.”

Blaney and Logano have both said they’d like to race more, but both don’t have any firm plans at this time. Team Penske’s Austin Cindric will team with Wood Brothers Racing’s Harrison Burton in the four-hour Michelin Pilot Challenge on Jan. 28 at Daytona International Speedway. Cindric also will compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the GTD Pro Class on Jan. 29-30.

Byron will branch out more beyond his Hendrick Motorsports ride this year. He plans to run six to eight Super Late Model events, including a 100-lap race at New Smyrna (Florida) Speedway a week before the Daytona 500. He will run some karting events to help him with road courses. Byron also might find himself racing on dirt, something Larson has talked to him about.

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Justin Haley (Photo: Justin Haley)

Racing beyond NASCAR — and having success — could prove helpful on Cup weekends in various ways.

“Getting in the dirt car and going out and winning a feature boosts my morale,” said Haley, who moves to Kaulig Racing this season. “I think that’s why they want me to do it.

“If I’m at a dirt track, I’m usually in a pretty good mood and having a good time with a bunch of my buddies. It’s just laid back, relaxed racing. I think (Kaulig Racing President) Chris Rice and (team owner) Matt Kaulig, not only want me to be successful but also really care about my personal attitude.”

One of the major concerns about racing outside of NASCAR is the chance for injury. Santino Ferrucci, who ran select Xfinity races last year, said he suffered a “minor concussion” in a flip at the Chili Bowl earlier this month. Elliott was uninjured in a separate flip.

Those incidents were at a quarter-mile track. It’s understandable that a car owner could be concerned with losing a driver for a Cup race or more because of an injury suffered in another series.

“The risk is always there,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “You could get hurt driving down the interstate.”

Briscoe will start his season competing in the Jan. 28 Michelin Pilot Challenge at Daytona, sharing his ride with Truck Series driver Hailie Deegan. That’s just part of what Briscoe hopes will be a busy season that could include midgets, wing sprint cars, non-wing sprint cars, dirt late models and a pavement late model.

“I think more owners see it makes their drivers happier and makes their drivers better,” Briscoe said of the extra racing. “The past couple of years, with no practice and no qualifying, they have to find a way to let their drivers have seat time. That’s opened the door for us to do things.”

It’s not just owners backing drivers. Sponsors are starting to follow along. Ally sponsored Bowman when he ran a few sprint car races last year and at this year’s Chili Bowl.

Mahindra Tractors, which signed a multi-year deal to be a primary sponsor for Briscoe in Cup beginning this season, also sponsored his midget at the Chili Bowl this year.

“They flat out told me last week at Chili Bowl, ‘If you feel like you need to go run more dirt races to be better on Sunday, then we’re going to support that,’’’ Briscoe said of his sponsor. “As a race car driver that’s huge to have that support.”

2. Chili Bowl bound?

Earlier this month, seven drivers who ran full-time in Cup last year competed at the Chili Bowl Nationals: Christopher Bell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman, Larson, Elliott, Bowman and Briscoe. Bell led the contingent, finishing second in the main event to Tanner Thorson.

Bell, though, could have a Joe Gibbs Racing teammate join him at the Chili Bowl some day.

Former Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. says he’d like to run a midget and possibly compete in a future Chili Bowl.

Drivers said Richmond

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Red White Blue Toyota, stands on the grid during the national anthem prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders at Richmond Raceway on September 11, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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“I played around in a midget with Toyota last summer,” Truex told NBC Sports. “Had a friggin’ blast. I’m definitely going to race one of those cars one day.

“Bell, he tried to talk me into the Chili Bowl. I kind of procrastinated too long. I would love to race one of those cars one of these days. Preferably a small track (like the quarter-mile track at the Chili Bowl). I’d like to get a little more experience before I go to that race with 400 cars.”

So what is it about racing a midget car that is so alluring to the 2017 Cup champion?

“Just watched midget racing for years,” Truex said. “I remember growing up watching Thursday Night Thunder from (Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park). Just always intrigued by them and watched them.”

And when he got into a midget car for the first time last year?

“It was like throwing a duck into the water,” Truex said. “I just got in there and went. It felt really good. I definitely want to do some more of that.”

3. Fighting chance

Harrison Burton quickly realized that he was not well prepared to fight when he got into an altercation with Noah Gragson after the July 2020 Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway.

Gragson and Burton raced for fourth in the final laps when the cars made contact and hit the wall. They both continued, falling outside the top five.

After the race, they had a heated conversation before Burton shoved Gragson a second time and Gragson responded by punching Burton.

It was after that experience that Burton said he began to do mixed martial arts training.

“It was the first time I had ever been in a real fight, and I was like ‘What the heck do I do?’ Burton told NBC Sports. “I tackled him and he tried to take my head off with a punch. So, that was why, but now it’s become a training tool, and it’s something that I just enjoy doing.”

Burton, who enters his rookie Cup season with Wood Brothers Racing, said mixed martial arts has helped prepare him for the longer Cup races.

“I’ve found it’s more similar to racing than I thought it would be because you’re tired, you’re focusing on things that are happening really quick, have to happen right now and it’s become kind of a really great tool,” Burton said.

There’s motivation not to lose focus when training.

“You better not mess up or you’re going to get punched in the face,” he said.

At some point, Burton would like to attend a UFC fight to see how those athletes handle fighting. And maybe pick up a thing or two. As for Gragson, Burton says no worries.

“Noah and I are fine now,” Burton said.

4. Ready to go

Bubba Wallace is set to take part in next week’s organizational test at Phoenix Raceway, marking the first time he will test the Next Gen car since a test at the Charlotte Roval in October.

Wallace had shoulder surgery after the Cup season in November and missed two Next Gen tests at the Charlotte oval and the Daytona test earlier this month. 23XI Racing teammate Kurt Busch drove the car at those tests and at a tire test earlier this month at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA - OCTOBER 04: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 McDonald’s Toyota, waits on the grid prior to victory lane ceremonies after winning the rain-shortened NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 04, 2021 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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Wallace told NBC Sports that he’s “100%” after having surgery for a torn labrum.

“Just aching after races last year,” he said. “Just getting that out of the way was good. Just wear and tear from my career. I haven’t had anything dramatic to it.”

Although he didn’t test at Daytona, Wallace, who scored his first Cup win last fall at Talladega, kept up with the session and how the car drove.

“Just hearing feedback from so many guys that were a part of the test,” he said. “They said it wasn’t too much different, but I think, as a whole, the car is a little bit of a handful to drive, which is good. It puts it back in our hands.

“So, it will be the best of the best going at it. So, we’ll see how some of my speedway tactics pan out with the new car.”

5. A new feeling

Since announcing this month that he will retire from full-time Cup racing after this season, Aric Almirola said he’s heard from a number of people.

“So many people just happy for me,” Almirola told NBC Sports. “Some people jealous. Some people wondering what the heck I’m doing. Why would you walk away from the sport you love and you make good money doing it? I’ve had every range of questions and emotions but overwhelmingly positive and people extremely supportive.

Aric Almirola

LOUDON, NEW HAMPSHIRE - JULY 18: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18, 2021 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

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“From my seat, I am just excited. I am free. I feel so free that I’m going into this season, and I know it’s my last one.

“I’m not racing to hang on to my job, to hang on to my career. I’m not racing and trying to fly all over this country to appease sponsors and corporate partners to make sure they’ll continue on for one more year. It is a very freeing feeling knowing that I’m going to race this year purely for the joy and love of it.”

But the Stewart-Haas Racing driver also makes clear that he has some work left before he climbs out of the car for a final time at Phoenix in November.

“I am competitive just through and through, so this is not a ride around, farewell tour, collect a paycheck and just cruise,” he said. “I’m going to get after it.

“I am going to race my heart out, and I would love nothing more to have a quote-unquote drop the mic season where I win several races and race for a championship.”