Auto Racing  

Noah Gragson to miss NASCAR race at Sonoma with concussion-like symptoms

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Noah Gragson will miss Sunday's NASCAR race at Sonoma Raceway with concussion-like symptoms from a crash last weekend outside St. Louis.

Legacy Motor Club said Thursday that Truck Series driver Grant Enfinger will make his Cup debut as Gragson's replacement in the No. 42 Chevrolet.

“Noah’s health is the highest of priorities and we commend him for making the decision to sit out this weekend,” team co-owners Maury Gallagher and Jimmie Johnson said in a statement. “We are appreciative that Grant was available and willing to step in since the Truck Series is off this weekend.”

In 15 starts this season, Gragson earned a best finish of 12th at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He is 32nd in points.

Enfinger is the 2015 ARCA champion and a Truck Series regular. He has two wins this season, most recently last week at Gateway outside St. Louis. He's third in the Truck Series standings.

“My thoughts are with Noah, I know how much he loves this team and the guys on it,” said Enfinger. “I’m happy to help out Legacy Motor Club and the No. 42 team.”


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NASCAR and its growling Next Gen car take over Le Mans, looking to make statement on a global stage

LE MANS, France (AP) — The engine of the Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn't cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

France has been waiting since 1962 — the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans — to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car" class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR's 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear — NASCAR's winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier — to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn't start until Saturday, but NASCAR's arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad's vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished," France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don't fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we're gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don't want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn't NASCAR's first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR's Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France's guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. "This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We've overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven't seen this car live yet, it's an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year's Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you'd have told me I'd be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I'd never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we're doing both and we're going to do it right.”

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn't even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn't want the project to end.

“It's like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it's done,” Hendrick said. “It's just really special to be here.”


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Hendrick hopes rough racing settles down after Chase Elliott suspension

LE MANS, France (AP) — Rick Hendrick fully supports Chase Elliott as he returns from a one-race suspension for deliberately wrecking Denny Hamlin, but the team owner believes on-track aggression has gotten out of control this season and NASCAR sent a message by parking the superstar.

“Until something was done, I think that kind of rough racing was going to continue,” Hendrick told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Elliott missed last week's race outside St. Louis as the five-time fan-voted most popular driver served a one-race suspension for retaliating against Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The two had made contact several times, with Elliott hitting the wall before he deliberately turned left into Hamlin to wreck him.

Hamlin immediately called on NASCAR to suspend Elliott, which the sanctioning body did despite his star power and the effect his absence from races has on television ratings. Elliott missed six races earlier this season with a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding crash and NASCAR lost roughly 500,000 viewers during his absence.

Hendrick, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with NASCAR's special Garage 56 project, told the AP he understood the suspension. NASCAR last year suspended Bubba Wallace one race for intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson, another Hendrick driver.

“Pushing and shoving, it's a fine line, and when someone puts you out of the race, you get roughed up, emotions take over and you react. I think maybe guys will run each other a little bit cleaner moving forward," Hendrick said. "We understand the suspension and nobody really likes to have to go through that, but you just do it and move on.”

Hendrick said he believes drivers have gotten far too aggressive with the second-year Next Gen car, which has not only tightened the field but is a durable vehicle that can withstand bumping and banging. Contact that used to end a driver's day now barely leaves a dent.

It's led to drivers being more forceful and, in Hendrick's opinion, too many incidents of drivers losing their cool.

“There's rubbing. But if you just harass people by running them up into the wall, every time you get to them, you get tired of it,” Hendrick said. "And that's what so many of them do to cause accidents, but then they don't get in the accident themselves.

“I think everybody understands the rules,” Hendrick continued. "But you’ve got an awful lot of tension and when you’re out their racing like that, and you are almost to the finish, and somebody just runs over you for no reason, I think the cars are so close and it’s so hard to pass, they get frustrated.”

Elliott, with seven missed races this season, is ranked 27th in the standings headed into Sunday's road course race in Sonoma, California. He's been granted two waivers by NASCAR to remain eligible for the playoffs, but the 2020 champion needs to either win a race or crack the top 16 in standings to make the field.

An outstanding road course racer with seven wins across several tracks, Elliott will be motivated to get his first win of the season Sunday at Sonoma, one of the few road courses on the schedule where he's winless.

Hendrick said when he spoke to Elliott he urged him to use caution moving forward.

“I just said ‘Hey, we’ve got to be careful with that,'” Hendrick said. "But I support him, I really do support him. You get roughed up and it ruins your day, you know, you let your emotions take over.”


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NASCAR penalizes Jones, Legacy Motor Club for illegal modification

NASCAR issued another set of penalties Wednesday for illegal modifications to its second-year Next Gen car, this time against Legacy Motor Club and driver Eric Jones.

NASCAR said the team modified the greenhouse on the No. 43 Chevrolet and fined crew chief Dave Elenz $75,000 and suspended him one race. Both Legacy and Jones were also docked 60 points and five NASCAR playoff points.

NASCAR has taken a zero tolerance stance on modifications to its new car, which debuted last year and is largely a spec vehicle with single-source vendor parts. It was designed to both cut costs and even the playing field.

An emphasized written deterrence system was created with penalties clearly laid out for altering the Next Gen. Last week, NASCAR docked 120 points from both Chase Briscoe and Stewart-Haas Racing and stripped Briscoe of 25 playoff points. Crew chief John Klausmeier was suspended six races and fined $250,000.

“We would much rather be talking about the phenomenal racing we just had... than penalties,” Elton Sawyer, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition, said last week. “We are the custodians of the garage."

NASCAR in March hammered Hendrick Motorsports with the largest combined penalties for a single organization in series history. HMS was docked 100 regular-season points and 10 playoff points for three drivers for modifying air-deflecting pieces at Phoenix Raceway.

An appeals panel later overturned some of the penalties against Hendrick, as well as for Kaulig Racing.


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Kobayashi to make NASCAR debut as 1st Japanese driver to race with Toyota in Cup Series

LE MANS, France (AP) — Left out of the NASCAR celebration at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota used Wednesday at the track to showcase its own stock car program and the upcoming Cup Series debut for one of the top racers in the world.

Kamui Kobayashi will make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Toyota in August driving for 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.

The announcement made Wednesday had several top NASCAR executives in attendance — including chairman Jim France — as Toyota found Le Mans to be the perfect backdrop to spotlight the one-race deal.

Toyota Gazoo, after all, has won Le Mans the last five consecutive years and Kobayashi, part of the 2021 winning effort, is team principal of the two-car organization that will try to make it six straight wins in the most prestigious endurance event in the world.

Toyota had initially felt jilted when NASCAR blindsided the industry last year by announcing it would bring its new Next Gen car to centenary Le Mans in a specialized category that showcases innovation, but the project was with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Toyota was the first rival NASCAR manufacturer to complain, and NASCAR has since tried to include all its partners in this weekend's celebration and France signed off on holding the Kobayashi announcement at Le Mans.

It allowed Toyota to display the Camry it races in NASCAR; Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 in the Aug. 13 race.

“We've been working on this assignment actually for a couple of years and Kamui has become a friend and we understood it was his dream one day to race in NASCAR,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, U.S.A. “With this great new Next Gen Toyota Camry TRD, the stars and planets started to align themselves and the next question became: Where should we announce this?

“It dawned on me with Kamui's record of success, and being the team principal, to do it on this global stage at the biggest sports car race in the world.”

Kobayashi will be only the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR's top Cup Series and only the fifth to race in one of NASCAR's top three national series. Kobayashi will be the first Japanese driver to race in the Cup Series in a Toyota, which entered NASCAR's top series in 2007.

“It's my dream, actually,” Kobayashi told The Associated Press. "It's such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category.

“But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers. Toyota has been in NASCAR a long time, but there has never been any Japanese drivers for Toyota. That's also why I say I appreciate this opportunity for myself.”

Kobayashi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota in 2021 and hasn't finished lower than third since 2018. He has six podium finishes in eight appearances in the iconic endurance race.

Toyota trails only Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche for most wins at Le Mans. Porsche holds the record with 19 victories.

Kobayashi in 2021, after winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title driving for Toyota Gazoo, was named team principal.

Kobayashi started his racing career karting in Japan but was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe. He was named one of Toyota's reserve Formula One drivers and made his debut during the 2009 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He raced in F1 through 2014 with one podium finish in 75 career starts.

Following his F1 career, Kobayashi returned to Japan and switched to the Super Formula Series, a class he still actively competes in. He's since won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and was the anchor on an IMSA endurance sports car team in the United States for two seasons that was formed by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Kobayashi loves racing in the United States, but IMSA's adoption of new regulations to make its top class eligible to compete at Le Mans created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi's Toyota responsibilities and continuing to race in IMSA, where Toyota is not represented in the top class. Toyota does field a Lexus in a lower IMSA division and Kobayashi raced for Vasser Sullivan Racing last June in Canada to get a feel for the GT car.

Many consider NASCAR's Next Gen car to be very similar to the GT Lexus sports car that Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, and that's his closest experience to driving a stock car. He'll be permitted to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis, and expects some time on the simulator.

Either way, he isn't worried about seat time.

“I think I'm a guy who doesn't need much practice, to be honest,” the 36-year-old Kobayashi told the AP. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I'm not really concerned about form.”


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Hendrick wins class in Le Mans pit crew competition

LE MANS, France (AP) — NASCAR scored a victory at Le Mans on Tuesday when the Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit crew competition.

NASCAR's “Garage 56” is entered in the 24 Hours of Le Mans but not eligible to win the twice-round-the-clock race because the No. 24 Chevrolet is competing in a specialized category.

But the five-person Hendrick team was eligible to win the pit crew competition and it topped 16 teams to capture the GTE class. HMS was the only team to compete with a manual jack.

The Hendrick crew pulled off a final four-tire change in 10.364 seconds to beat Northwest AMR by 0.12 seconds to win the class. Hendrick finished fifth overall.

“It was actually our fastest stop of the day, so I would say I was surprised, but also very pleased,” said Hendrick pit crew coach Evan Kureczka. "You can tell the fans were very impressed with the fact that we were using a jack to jack the car up. You could see the smiles on their faces, we put on a great show for the fans.”

The Hendrick crew all compete for Hendrick cars in NASCAR's Cup Series.

“This is a special moment to be able to represent Hendrick Motorsports, represent our families, America and NASCAR as a whole,” said Donovan Williams, the only jackman competing in the competition. “We just relied on our training and it came into place instinctively. I think we all just went out there and performed and didn’t think too much.

“That’s what’s special about sports — we all come from athletic backgrounds and were able to lean on that when you talk about canceling out the crowd, locking in and being in the moment. It was a special moment and we were able to capitalize.”

Garage 56 is a special project approved to participate in the centenary 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car is a version of the second-year Next Gen raced in the Cup Series, and the project is between NASCAR, Chevrolet, Hendrick and Goodyear — marrying the winningest team, manufacturer and tire in NASCAR's 75-year history.

The NASCAR brigade began arriving in full force on Tuesday, when NASCAR chairman Jim France, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi all made the journey from the United States. It's an unprecedented collaboration and brought together many top industry minds.

Chad Knaus, who won seven championships with Jimmie Johnson, is spearheading the project alongside Greg Ives, who at the end of last season stepped down as a Cup crew chief for a projects role at Hendrick.

Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon is expected to arrive in France on Wednesday, when action resumes at the raceway. The No. 24 is being driven by Johnson, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller, the 2010 Le Mans winner.

Even though Garage 56 can't win the race, the participants are racing Saturday into Sunday for pride and to showcase the skills required to build a program and developing a car capable of completing the 24 hours of Le Mans.

So the effort is, of course, at top level with heavy professionalism and also a very splashy presence. The amount of people associated with the project makes the NASCAR garage stall — it's all the way at the end of pit road — a gathering place. The bright blue Chevy was on display Tuesday outside the garage and other drivers stopped to take a look.


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Kyle Busch and Richard Childress, once enemies, now winning NASCAR combination

MADISON, Ill. (AP) — Twelve years to the day that Richard Childress and Kyle Busch came to blows in one of the parking lots of Kansas Speedway, the two were celebrating a NASCAR Cup Series victory at a track straight down Interstate 70 near St. Louis.

It was proof of many things: That a team that once dominated NASCAR's top series with Dale Earnhardt behind the wheel of the famed No. 3 could still contend for championships, that Busch could be every bit as successful after moving on from powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing, and perhaps most importantly, that a couple of boys can grow up.

“Yeah, I mean, people change,” Busch said after holding off Denny Hamlin on Sunday night to win at World Wide Technology Raceway.

“The relationship that I have now, and the effort that's gone into securing me, to get me to go to RCR — the discussions and talks that happened there — just proves them right, right?”

Sure seems that way.

It's not as if Busch has magically turned around the No. 8 team in his first season; Tyler Reddick drove the car to three wins a year ago. But with his green-white-checkered victory just outside St. Louis, the two-time Cup Series champion matched the total and is now halfway toward reaching Childress' audacious goal of winning six times this season.

“It's been fun to have that group around,” said Busch, who's also won at Talladega and Auto Club Speedway in California. “They know when we go to places, we struggle at places, that we all want to get better, right? I could do a better job most of the time. (Crew chief) Randall Burnett and the guys can do a better job as well. We just all continue to strive and work hard and bounce off of each other in order to come out and have the best possible stuff every time we hit the race track.”

Hard to believe there's such synergy between Busch and Richard Childress Racing given where they once were.

The infamous brawl between Childress and Busch came after a Truck Series race in 2011 at Kansas. Busch had been racing hard with Joey Coulter, who was driving for RCR, and Childress didn't appreciate it. He went to confront Busch and, after removing his watch and handing it to grandson Austin Dillon, proceeded to put him in a headlock and begin throwing punches.

Childress, a spry 65 at the time, had to be pulled off Busch, who went to the ground defensively to avoid any more punches. He was later fined $150,000 by NASCAR and placed on probation for the remainder of the season.

“Yeah, we put that totally behind us,” said Childress, now 77 yet every bit as fired up about winning races. “We talked about it. That was one of the first things we talked about. That’s history. We’ve both grown a lot. I know I’ve grown up. I’ve grown older, but I’ve grown up, too. There’s an old song out there, ‘I’m still growing up but I’m getting older.’”

His team is getting better, too.

After winning four times with Kevin Harvick during the 2013 season, Richard Childress Racing went 0-for-everything in the Cup Series the next three years. At its nadir during the 2016 season, the team managed just six top-10 finishes in 108 starts, and the trio of Dillon, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman did little to engender confidence in the direction of the program.

Even after Newman ended that maddening 112-race winless streak at Phoenix in 2017, the wins were hard to come by. The team won once more that season and reached victory lane just twice over the next four seasons combined.

But last year was a breakthrough of sorts with Reddick winning four times and combining with Dillon to finish in the top three on 10 more occasions. There was clearly speed in the RCR cars again, and with Reddick soon to depart for 23XI Racing, it was only a matter of finding a driver capable of utilizing that speed in the the No. 8 car.

Busch has turned out to be the improbably perfect fit.

“You know, we won a lot with Harvick, won a lot with Earnhardt. Our plan is to win a lot with Kyle,” Childress said, “and not only be a contender for that championship. If we make the final four, we’ll have a shot at winning it for sure.”

Not just this year but for years to come.

“Kyle has been really — he’s such a pleasure to work with,” Childress said. “Everybody says, ‘Man, how y’all going to get along?’ Same questions they asked me about, ‘You and Dale won’t last six months.’ We lasted 20 years. I want to keep Kyle here, and hopefully we can end his career when he gets ready to.”


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Column: Penske rolls into Le Mans on top of motor sports seeking evasive 1st win

LE MANS, France (AP) — Roger Penske won the Indianapolis 500 on a Sunday and celebrated Josef Newgarden's thrilling win as if it was the first for Team Penske, not a record-stretching 19th for The Captain.

He watched on his cellphone as Ryan Blaney won the Coca-Cola 600 on a Monday, streaming the rain-delayed NASCAR race during the Indy 500 banquet. As any avid race fan would do.

Blaney's victory gave Penske a resume builder that somehow had evaded his illustrious career: Team Penske swept the two Memorial Day weekend races in the U.S. in the same year.

There was zero time to bask in his press clippings. Penske was in Detroit by Tuesday to oversee the return of downtown street racing for the first time in 32 years — a three-day festival for a reenergized city as Penske's gift to his adopted hometown.

The whirlwind week closed with a sold-out Sunday race in which Team Penske driver Will Power finished second, but Penske's engine is still running at full throttle. He leads the American return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is due to arrive in France on Tuesday with a three-car effort chasing a victory that has eluded him.

“We want to win Le Mans, that’s what we’d like to do,” Penske told The Associated Press. ”We’ve got three good cars and it’s going to be competitive. But just to go there and compete, this first year with Porsche, that’s something we wanted to do for a long time with a quality brand.

“We can build on this. But we are going to win.”

He is 86 years old, yet Penske still moves at the same pace he did during his early days dabbling as a race car driver. And in this same year when he swept Indy and the Coca-Cola 600 — a year he has reigning series champions Joey Logano in NASCAR and Power in IndyCar under contract — he also wants to add the only race Penske has never won.

Penske himself once entered the legendary French endurance race in 1963, driving a Ferrari for the North American Racing Team. The car started on the pole and never ran lower than sixth when, about nine hours into the race, a broken oil pipe ended Penske's only run at Le Mans behind the wheel.

He eventually gave up driving — at the urging of his father — to focus on building his global transportation business and, in his spare time, one of the most respected empires in motor sports.

Penske returned to Le Mans as a team owner in 1971, an effort derailed by early engine failure.

Make no mistake, Le Mans means every bit to Penske as those 19 wins at Indy. And he wants one. Badly.

“I guess I put Le Mans in the category of the Indianapolis 500. These are the two of the greatest races ever around the world,” Penske said.

His quest is part of an agreement made with the NASCAR-owned IMSA sports car series, which reorganized its top class this year to hybrid engines to make its competitors eligible to race at Le Mans. The move by IMSA made it the first North American series to switch to hybrid, and it lured new manufacturers to the series with new goals.

Penske makes his return to Le Mans as the factory program for Porsche, and one of his 963 hybrid prototypes will carry the number 75 to commemorate 75 years of Porsche sports cars in the centennial celebration of the race.

He joins Chip Ganassi, who has a pair of Cadillacs entered, as well as another Caddy from Action Express Racing, a team owned by Bob Johnson and supported by NASCAR CEO Jim France.

France also is bringing a version of the Next Gen car now in its second season of NASCAR competition as part of the Garage 56 program with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. That means seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is coming along with Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon in a crossover nobody saw coming even five years ago.

But all eyes are on Penske, who is on a roll.

He last won the Indy 500 with driver Simon Pagenaud in 2019, the year before he bought Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He wasn't pleased to be stuck on 18 wins for three consecutive years at Indy; Team Penske and Newgarden knew it, too.

Newgarden had barely given him win No. 19 before Penske already was talking about a 20th.

"That's what we're here for: to set goals for other people to try to achieve," Penske said. “The 19th win at Indy was long overdue.”

He's relentless, at any age, and offered a vociferous defense of Blaney's 59-race winless streak finally snapped last Monday. Penske cited mechanical failures, pit road mistakes and a letdown from Team Penske to Blaney as to why the driver had struggled to win.

And then he was talking about Detroit, where Penske Entertainment was the promoter of the downtown IndyCar event. The race used to be downtown for both Formula One and an earlier version of Indy cars, but it became a hassle and fell off the schedule entirely.

It was Penske who brought IndyCar back to Detroit after his 2006 stint as chair of Detroit's Super Bowl committee. He wanted more for the city after its cleanup from the NFL title game, so he revitalized the IndyCar race on repurposed and dramatically cleaned Belle Isle.

This year he wanted it back downtown and he wanted the event to be a celebration of IndyCar, of partner Chevrolet and of downtown Detroit. He wanted a party and his staff pulled it off, even with driver complaints about the actual course.

The sparkling wine has barely dried from last week's sweep, and Detroit is still buzzing about Sunday's race, but Penske has no time to rest. He's got to pack and head to Le Mans, where he believes he's got a chance to win.

Should his team pull it off, there would be a surprisingly short list of firsts for Penske to chase. That's OK because he prefers to look out the front windshield. Win Le Mans this weekend and Penske immediately will turn to winning two in a row.


Formula 1: Mercedes optimistic after significant progress shown at Spanish GP

MADRID (AP) — Mercedes came out of Formula One's Spanish Grand Prix with increased confidence after showing significant progress and finishing ahead of Aston Martin and Ferrari.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen put on another dominant performance to win Sunday’s race from pole position, but Mercedes took a big step forward with Lewis Hamilton finishing second and teammate George Russell third to give the team its first double podium finish of the season.

Mercedes acknowledged that the gap to Red Bull remained significant, but there was optimism after the team’s much-anticipated upgrade package showed it has the potential to keep the team ahead of Aston Martin and Ferrari.

The upgrades couldn’t be introduced at Imola after the race was canceled because of floods in Italy. The changes made it to the cars in Monaco but the street circuit was not ideal to give a real sense of their potential.

“This result is definitely what we were working towards,” Hamilton said. “This is amazing and it’s down to all the great, great work that is going on with the people back at the factory, keeping their heads down. I hope everyone is feeling really proud back at the factory.”

With Hamilton’s second podium finish of the season, and Russell’s first, Mercedes overtook Aston Martin for second place in the constructors’ championship, while Ferrari stayed fourth.

“George did a really good job, so we delivered good points on a whole,” Hamilton said. “We’ve just got to try to keep this up. For us to be quicker than the Ferraris and the Astons was really mega.”

Hamilton was second after starting fifth on the grid at the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit. Russell moved up from 12th to make it to the podium.

“This result highlights all the hard work and efforts that have gone on at the factory to bring these upgrades,” said Russell, who is fifth in the drivers’ standings, just behind Hamilton. “We had a strong race here last year, so the next couple of races will be key to see if we can consistently produce results like this and close the gap to Red Bull.”

Mercedes chief Toto Wolff celebrated the podium finish but noted the team had to remain “realistic.”

“We are a good team at grinding away,” he said. “Once there is a clear direction we just go for it. Let’s keep our expectations real though. We’ve got a long way to go to catch Red Bull but it’s good to see we are moving in the right direction.”

Aston Martin had one of its worst performances of the season, with Fernando Alonso – the veteran two-time champion who is third in the drivers’ standings – finishing in seventh place. Teammate Lance Stroll was sixth.

Ferrari also struggled and seemed to take a step back from previous races, with Carlos Sainz Jr. finishing fifth and teammate Charles Leclerc 11th, out of the points.

“I think we generally had better pace than them,” Hamilton said. “Collectively as a team, we generally did a better job, we made less mistakes, we delivered through the sessions.”

Mercedes’ next chance to show its improvements and confirm where it really stands will be at the Canadian GP in two weeks, where Hamilton – who hasn’t won a race since the Saudi Arabia GP in 2021 -- finished third last year behind Sainz Jr. and Verstappen.

“We are learning more and more about the car. I am hoping that the car continues to be like it was this weekend,” Hamilton said. “I am hoping from here onwards we are in a good place. For sure, there will be some circuits where the car isn’t quite in the right window but hopefully the next few races should suit us.”


Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni


Detroit Grand Prix aims to make track improvements for 2nd year on downtown streeets

DETROIT (AP) — The Detroit Grand Prix's short, narrow and bumpy track took some shots a day before the race returned to streets downtown.

“We recovered any potential damage," race chairman Bud Denker said Sunday.

Alex Palou won the race with a dominant performance, leading 74 of 100 laps, a day after saying the 1.7-mile circuit was too tight and too short for IndyCar.

While the Spaniard did say the race went smoother than expected, he suggested it can be improved for 2024.

“Hopefully, we can we can tweak some stuff and make it even better,” Palou said.

Denker said that's the plan.

Changes will be made to the breaking zone at Turn 3, where drivers slowed from 180-plus mph for a hairpin, and in the area near Turn 8 before the split pit lane.

The track was eight-tenths of a mile longer when it was previously downtown in 1991, but Denver said lengthening the track isn't an option because of adjacent neighborhood, businesses and a tunnel that connects Detroit to Canada.

“We are where we are,” Denker said.

Open-wheel cars first ran in Detroit in 1982, when Formula One raced on the streets of downtown before the event moved to Phoenix in 1988. The now-defunct CART series ran at Belle Isle from 1992 to 2001.

The IndyCar started racing at Belle Isle in 2007 and left the island in the Detroit River after last year's race.

“When we moved, we said we can’t bring this back downtown and put up a giant fence,” said Michael Montri, president of the Detroit Grand Prix. “We wanted it to be inclusive.”

More than half of the race track was accessible without an admission charge and some had a view from boats and jet skis on the Detroit River that separates the U.S. from Canada.

Denker said about 20,000 fans paid to watch Sunday's race and an unknown number of people took advantage of access points that were free, including an area to celebrate the winner while a fireboat in the Detroit River sent streams of water in the air.

“Honestly, Detroit did a tremendous job,” Palou said. “The fans were amazing. I was mind-blowed by how many fans we had being a first-time event. Also the podium on Victory Lane was really fun.”


AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Kyle Busch holds off Denny Hamlin for NASCAR Cup Series win outside St. Louis

MADISON, Ill. (AP) — Kyle Busch had been in and out of his car through a lengthy weather delay. He had idled on the track through two red flags. He had kept his poise through 11 cautions, including five down the stretch as he tried to protect his lead.

Must have seemed like Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series Race at World Wide Technology Raceway would never end.

It finally did in the twilight, though, some six hours after the green flag initially dropped. Busch got a big push from Denny Hamlin on the last restart and then held him off in a green-white-checkered finish for his third victory of the year.

“That was pretty awesome, man, to sit on the pole, lead a lot of laps and have my guys do such a great job today. It was pretty phenomenal for us,” Busch said. “We're going to have a great time with this one. This one is pretty cool.”

Bubba Wallace brought out the 11th and final yellow when he was fighting for a top-10 finish and his brake rotor let go with five laps remaining, the last in a series of broken rotors that ended the race for at least three other drivers.

Busch, who had held off Kyle Larson on each previous restart, had one last phenomenal jump in him. He was well ahead of the rest of the field by the backstretch with just over a lap left and was never seriously challenged by Hamlin after he took the white flag, giving Richard Childress Racing another victory after triumphs at Talladega and Auto Club Speedway.

"Any time we give him a car capable of winning, he's going to win it,” Childress said. “Those last three or four or however many restarts, I thought that was pretty tough, but I knew he would do his job.”

The win was especially gratifying for Busch’s crew chief, Randall Burnett, who not only produced a car fast enough to win the pole in his hometown but also made all the right calls on Sunday. Burnett hails from nearby Fenton, Missouri, and had plenty of friends and family in a sellout crowd of about 60,000 on a brutally hot late spring day.

“It means a lot to me coming home," Burnett said.

Hamlin finished second while Joey Logano, the winner a year ago in the Cup Series debut at the track, got around Larson on the final lap for third. Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top five ahead of Ryan Blaney, last week’s winner at Charlotte.

“Long day for sure,” Logano said after climbing out of his car. “There were four or five cars that were just better than us. We made some good adjustments at the end and we were in the hunt.”

It was a long day for Corey LaJoie, who filled in for Chase Elliott in the No. 9 car for Hendrick Motorsports and spent most of the day near the back before finishing 21st. Elliott was suspended for the race for intentionally wrecking Hamlin last week.

It also was a long day for everyone on pit stands. There were some technical issues that not only prevented them from having communication with teams back at their shops, but also limited the amount of data that they were able to see.

“It was interesting for sure,” Truex said. “It was just an uphill climb."


The race went to caution on the second lap when Tyler Reddick spun on the back stretch. Moments later, the race was halted due to popup lightning in the area. While the delay lasted about two hours, rain never fell on the track.


Carson Hocevar made his Cup Series debut in place of LaJoie in the No. 7 for Spire Motorsports. But the car still carried LaJoie’s name, so the 20-year-old Hocevar walked through the fan area several hours before the green flag handing out drinks to make sure everyone knew he was in it. Hocevar was on the move Sunday when his brake rotor broke during Stage 2.

“I was running 16th and it was so surreal. I thought we were going to have a good day and be in a good spot,” Hocevar said. “Hopefully that call for a Cup ride isn’t the only one I get in my life.”


The egg-shaped oval at World Wide Technology Raceway is particularly hard on brakes. Reddick was running seventh when his rotor exploded, putting him into the wall and out of the race. The same fate as Hocevar and Reddick hit Noah Gragson, who spun from the bottom of the track up into the wall and made hard contact with 42 laps to go.


Thomas Hatcher, who changes the right front tire for Erik Jones, was hurt when he got tangled with another crew member as the car slid into the stall during a pit stop. Hatcher was taken by ambulance to the hospital but was awake and alert.


The series heads next Sunday to the road course in Sonoma, California. Daniel Suárez became the first Mexican-born driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race when he dominated the final stage to win the race a year ago.


Alex Palou wins Detroit Grand Prix in IndyCar's return to downtown track

DETROIT (AP) — Alex Palou went from critic to champion in a day.

He started and finished first in the Detroit Grand Prix on Sunday, roughly 24 hours after the IndyCar points leader said the street course was too tight and short for the series.

“It was a lot better than I expected," said Palou, who won his second race in less than a month and the sixth of his caeer.

The Spaniard, who won the Indianapolis Grand Prix, led 74 of 100 laps on Detroit's new street circuit and went ahead for the last time on lap 77. He stayed in front after Will Power made a move that didn't pan out as he made contact with Scott Dixon on lap 91.

“I couldn’t get him,” said Dixon, a Team Penske driver. “I tried everything. My one chance was when Dixon got into me.”

After a seventh yellow flag, Palou pulled away in his Honda with five laps left and beat Power's Chevrolet by 1.1843 seconds. Flex Rosenqvist finished third, followed by Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi.

Indianapolis 500 champion Josef Newgarden finished 10th in the 27-car field.

The race got off to a rough start.

It was waved off because there wasn't enough space between cars. When the race resumed on the second lap going into Turn 3, Callum Ilott damaged Kyle Kirkwood's wing by running into him in the middle of the pack.

Palou said his plan was to stay in front with clean air ahead of the chaos as much as possible.

It worked out well.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver led the race from the start until pitting on lap 29 and allowing Power to pull into the lead.

When Power pulled into the split pit five laps later, Pato O’Ward had a lead that didn't last long. Just after leaving a pit stop, his Honda stalled due to a mechanical issue and his Chip Ganassi Racing crew had to push him back to address the problem.

Trying to make up ground, O’Ward made an aggressive move to get inside Santino Ferrucci and ran into a barrier wall ending his day 41 laps into the 100-lap race.

Palou, meanwhile, was fast and steady enough to lead the race for most of the afternoon.

While he complained about the short, tight and bumpy circuit, fans seemed to enjoy the day above the fray and some watched for free. More than half of the race track was accessible without an admission charge and some had a view from boats and jet skis on the Detroit River that separates the U.S. from Canada.

The Detroit Grand Prix returned downtown for the first time since 1991, when it was held on a 2.5-mile course in the same area, after running up the river at Belle Isle.

“Detroit did a tremendous job,” Palou said. “The fans were amazing.”


Flavor Flav, a founding member of Public Enemy, was at the track during the weekend and Power's friends were impressed by his photos with the hip hop artist.

“It’s pretty cool to put on your personal Facebook,” Power said.


Palou has won two of the last three races and two straight poles.

“We'll try and keep the wave rolling if we can,” he said coming off the first IndyCar street course victory of his career. “It’s a great moment for us.”


Romain Grosjean, an Andretti Autosport driver, started third and finished 24th in Detroit and lamented a suspension failure in a Twitter post.

“Guess the track wasn’t made for our car,” he wrote in the post.

Grosjean finished 30th the previous week in Indianapolis.


Coming off the Indy 500 and Detroit Grand Prix in consecutive weeks, the series gives its drivers and teams a much-needed break before racing June 18 in Wisconsin at Road America.


AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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