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What’s new in NASCAR this season heading into the Daytona 500?

NASCAR driver Kyle Busch holds a trophy and jokes with team owner Joe Gibbs, who is behind two boys.
Driver Kyle Busch, left, jokes with team owner Joe Gibbs in victory lane. Busch has left Joe Gibbs Racing before NASCAR’s 75th season.
(Terry Renna / Associated Press)
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NASCAR continues its unique position in the sports landscape Sunday when it holds its biggest event at the beginning, rather than the end, of its season with the running of the 65th Daytona 500. Wait, you say, isn’t this the 75th anniversary of NASCAR? Indeed, it is, but more on that later.

Daytona isn’t even the first 500-mile stock-car race because the Southern 500 at Darlington preceded it. But it was on the sands of Daytona Beach, Fla., that Bill France Sr. started an auto racing circuit where drivers were in cars that looked and acted like the ones people drove to work, except faster. Some even drove their race cars to the track in the beginning.

There is little stock in stock car racing now. The cars are precision crafted and tested and cost a quarter-million to more than a half-million dollars. Since the cars can wreck, the big teams have plenty of extra motors and bodies.

Speaking of teams, the little single-car guy is at a disadvantage because there are 17 teams on the circuit, including Hendricks Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing, which have four cars each, the maximum allowed by NASCAR. In addition to the research and development pluses, drivers from the same team often help their partners in drafting, pushing and blocking situations.

So, what makes this season different? Here are a few expected story lines in this year’s version of NASCAR.

NASCAR’s 75th season

Fireworks light up the night sky during an intermission for NASCAR's Clash at the Coliseum.
Fireworks light up the night sky during an intermission for NASCAR’s Bud Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles on Feb. 5.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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It won’t take long before the constant mention of the 75th season will start to sound like an old LP with a scratch in it. NASCAR has a few tricks, including the unveiling of its 75 greatest drivers, a 25-person addition from the list they did 25 years ago. Even something as fan-friendly as this can rile up its passionate fan base. At the Rose Parade, NASCAR caught some blowback from fans when its float had depictions of Dale Earnhardt Sr., Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon but left Jimmie Johnson off the float.

NASCAR also has an inaugural street race in Chicago over July 4th weekend that includes the iconic Grant Park and Lake Shore Drive. NASCAR is returning to North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway for its All-Star Race on May 21. The short track has been mostly shuttered since 1996 until Dale Earnhardt Jr. and civic leaders made it a project to reopen the track.

Parity on the track

A sport rarely knows which is better, to have a dominant performer whom everyone can root for or against week after week, or an anyone-can-win sense of equality that brings the excitement of unpredictability. NASCAR seems to be traversing the path of parity. Last year, it had a record-tying 19 winners over 36 races. Five were first-time winners. A lot of the credit to this newfound sense of equality comes from the Next Gen cars that were introduced last year. The goal was to make it more about the skill of the driver instead of the money behind the R&D of the teams.

Steve Phelps, NASCAR president, offered evidence to NBC Sports, which broadcasts the second half of the schedule after NFL Sundays. Fox has the rights to the first half.

“We had a meeting with one of our race teams, who some people consider to be back of the [starting] grid,” Phelps said. “And this principal said to me when I go to a racetrack, every single time, I believe we can win. I’ve never felt that before this Next Gen car, which is terrific. The underdog can come in here and win.”

Justin Haley was fastest at 67.099 mph in Saturday’s qualifying ahead of Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, where ‘it’s racing, but it’s so much more.’

Feb. 4, 2023

What’s going on at Joe Gibbs Racing?

First answer, yes, it’s that Joe Gibbs, who won the Super Bowl three times as coach of Washington. That’s two times fewer than he’s won the NASCAR Cup series as an owner. A lot has changed since last year. Most importantly, two-time NASCAR champion Kyle Busch has left the team to join Richard Childress Racing. That leaves veterans Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex, Jr. and up-and-comer Christopher Bell.

Busch is being replaced by Ty Gibbs, the grandson of the owner. It does not appear as if the move is swaddled in nepotism as Ty is incredibly talented despite the fact he has the baby face of a 20-year-old who is just learning to shave. Last year he won the Xfinity Series, the triple-A for NASCAR.

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He has some growing up to do. At Martinsville’s Xfinity playoff race last year he made contact with teammate Brandon Jones’ car on the final overtime lap, eliminating his teammate, even though Gibbs had already qualified for the final. After the race he compared himself to Jesus in a radio interview. At the spring Martinsville race, he was eliminated from competition on the last lap by Sam Mayer. During the cool-down lap, Gibbs ran into Mayer’s car, resulting in a fist fight on pit road.

NASCAR driver Ty Gibbs addresses the media.
NASCAR driver Ty Gibbs, who won the Xfinity Series title last season, is flocked by the media during NASCAR Championship media day in November.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

Is Kyle Busch in trouble?

In short, not as far as NASCAR is concerned. The two-time NASCAR Cup champion was sentenced to 3 ½ years in a Mexican prison and fined $1,100 earlier this month for “carrying a firearm without a license and possession of cartridges for the exclusive use of the armed forces” while boarding a private plane in Cancun to return to the United States. The gun had six hollow points in the chamber. Busch said he has a concealed carry permit in the U.S. and forgot the handgun was in his bag when he went through a routine security check. There is no explanation as to how he was able to leave and how or if he will have to serve his prison sentence. Busch said the situation has been resolved.

A NASCAR spokesman told Autoweek: “We do have a Member Conduct policy. With the information we received, we did not feel it warranted any disciplinary action.” Busch apologized and took responsibility for the incident.

Busch was asked about the gun charge at NASCAR Media Day on Wednesday and he referred to his previous statement that it was resolved. He was questioned if an incident in August in which he and his family had been present at a shooting incident at the Mall of America in Minnesota played any role in him having a gun. He said he was a gun carrier before in jurisdictions that you are allowed it.

Finally, he was asked why he carries a gun. “Doesn’t matter,” Busch said.

Busch has 60 Cup wins, tying him with Kevin Harvick for the most victories by an active full-time driver.

Comings and goings

Retirements in NASCAR tend to have the same feel as those of professional boxers. It’s tough to give it up. With that caveat always hovering, Kevin Harvick, 47, has announced that this season will be his last as a full-time racer. The key word here is “full-time.” Harvick issued this statement: “It’s definitely been hard to understand when that right moment is because we’ve been so fortunate to run well. But sometimes there are just other things going on that become more important and, for me, that time has come.”

After a poor 2022 season in which Truex, 42, didn’t finish a single race in the top three, breaking a seven-year winning streak, there was speculation that if things didn’t improve this could be it for him. But Truex won the Clash at the Coliseum recently. More success like that could keep retirement discussion on the back burner.

NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr. stands on his car and raises his arms in triumph after winning the Clash at the Coliseum.
NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr. stands on his car and raises his arms in triumph after winning the Clash at the Coliseum on Feb. 5.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

And speaking of retirement, Jimmie Johnson, 47, has come out of his on a part-time basis after leaving NASCAR two years ago. He plans to run a limited schedule, including the Daytona 500. He’s also become a partner in the rebranded Legacy Motor Club, formerly Petty GMS Motorsports. Maury Gallagher and Richard Petty are also part of the ownership group.

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“Working through the 2022 season, I knew I wanted to come back in NASCAR and still moonlight in Indy cars,” Johnson told The Times. His schedule hasn’t been announced but Johnson says Auto Club Speedway in Fontana is on his “short list” if things can be worked out. The El Cajon native once called Fontana his home track.

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