NASCAR approaches new season with some changes

AP photo by Chuck Burton / Ross Chastain races ahead of Kevin Harvick and Daniel Suarez (99) out of the fourth turn during a NASCAR Cup Series playoff race last October at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway.

NASCAR has essentially banned the "Hail Melon," the celebrated move used by Ross Chastain last fall at Martinsville Speedway to race his way into the four-driver championship field for the Cup Series season finale.

Chastain last year mashed the gas and deliberately smashed into the wall so that the energy would speed his car past his rivals. The move, his only real chance at that point to remain in contention for the overall championship, was lauded by motorsports figures around the world.

His NASCAR colleagues, though, thought the trick was both dangerous and not in the spirit of fair competition — and with a new season just around the corner, NASCAR clarified this week that the type of wall-hugging, jaw-dropping pass Chastain made would be penalized in 2023.

"Not a new rule," said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "I think we all remember the last-lap move at Martinsville in the fall. Brought a great deal of excitement, a great deal of exposure to our sport. But it also came with some scrutiny."

NASCAR cited rule, which states "any violations deemed to compromise the safety of an event or otherwise pose a dangerous risk to the safety of competitors, officials, spectators or others are treated with the highest degree of seriousness."

Sawyer said there was internal discussion about needing to "do something," but NASCAR waited until after the season to collaborate, study data and dig into the rulebook.

"This is not new language," he said. "Basically if there's an act that we feel that's compromising the safety of our competitors, officials, spectators, we're going to take that seriously. We will penalize for that act going forward. Basically it would be a lap or time penalty at the end of the race. That move at Martinsville would be a penalty in 2023."

Chastain was on the verge of playoff elimination when he harkened to a racing move he used while playing video games on the Nintendo GameCube with his brother, Chad, as a kid. He plastered his car against the outside wall, let go of the steering wheel and pushed the pedal to the floor.

It worked just like it did in the video game. Suddenly, on the final half-lap at the Virginia short track, Chastain's Trackhouse Racing No. 1 Chevrolet looked as if it was turned up to hyperspeed while everyone else was poking along. Going at least 50 mph faster than everyone else, he passed five cars in a matter of seconds to secure the final contender's spot in the title race.

In the season finale the following week at Phoenix Raceway, he finished second to Joey Logano as the Team Penske driver won his second Cup Series career championship five years after his first.

A new season will have its unofficial kickoff Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which is hosting the Clash exhibition race for the second year in a row. Coverage of heat races begins at 5 p.m. on Fox, with the main event set for 8.

The first Cup Series race of the year, the Daytona 500, is Feb. 19. Single-car qualifying is on Feb. 15, with the qualifying duel races the day after that.

Other notable changes for the Cup Series in 2023:

Losing a wheel will no longer be a four-race suspension to the crew chief and two crew members. It will be a two-race suspension for two crew members if it happens beyond pit road.

— There will no longer be stage breaks at road courses. NASCAR will still award points at the end of stages, only without the artificial caution.

— NASCAR will give teams seven minutes on pit road to work on their cars if they are damaged in a collision. It was six minutes last year before being increased to 10 minutes for the Cup Series playoffs.

— Restart zones will be increased by 50%, with 25% more room before the start/finish line and 25% more at the end. The rule change goes into effect for the first five events of the season and will be reevaluated from there.

— NASCAR removed the top 30 in points requirement for drivers trying to make the playoffs. Drivers will still be required to participate in every event unless granted a waiver (typically for an injury).

— Mufflers will be used in the Clash, with the reduction of engine noise intended to create an atmosphere better suited for fan conversations at a stadium not designed for motorsports.

— NASCAR tweaked language in its rulebook to mandate fire-retardant underclothing from the neck to the wrists to the ankles. It had previously been recommended.

— NASCAR will use new recording systems in cars that will provide more powerful crash data. It's a significant upgrade from the black box technology first used in 2002 after Dale Earnhardt's death when he hit the wall on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

— NASCAR will have a "large increase" in the number of drivers who will wear mouthpiece sensors at races. They were not available at every event in 2022 but will be beginning in 2023. Data recorders measure what cars experience; this would provide data directly from drivers and what they go through during races, specifically in crashes.

— NASCAR officially designated eight locations at which wet-weather packages (rain tires) will be available in 2023: the Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro (for the All-Star Race), Phoenix and Richmond. NASCAR will have rain tires and teams will be required to have windshield wiper hookups and rear lights in case NASCAR wants to race in damp conditions for the Clash, Martinsville, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Daytona interests Daly

IndyCar driver Conor Daly would accept a last-minute Daytona 500 ride if offered a chance to enter "The Great American Race."

Helio Castroneves last week ruled out trying to make the Cup Series season opener because the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner did not believe there was enough time to prepare. Castroneves, after a ride failed to materialize with Trackhouse Racing, entered discussions with the team owned by Floyd Mayweather.

Daly, meanwhile, made his Cup Series debut last October driving for Mayweather's team. Daly indicated Wednesday that talks with The Money Team Racing about the Daytona 500 opened after Castroneves pulled out.

"Who knows what will happen in the next couple days or weeks, I guess," he said. "If that opportunity were to come up, I chatted with a young man by the name of Helio Castroneves earlier, and I think for him an opportunity like that could probably come about really anytime.

"But for me, I don't know if an opportunity like that would come again. If there is a chance, I feel like I can't not do it, or not try to do it at least."

TMT last year made the Daytona 500 with driver Kaz Grala in the first NASCAR race for Mayweather's team. Grala finished 26th.

Daly's only NASCAR experience on an oval was in the third-tier Truck Series. His Cup Series race in the No. 50 was on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a hybrid road course that uses a portion of the oval. He finished 34th.

"Really cool to get to do that and be a part of the NASCAR Cup Series and hopefully obviously shine some light on the IndyCar Series, as well," Daly said.