Clint Bowyer’s fateful spin with seven laps to go last Saturday night at Richmond began one of the most tumultuous weeks in the history of NASCAR.
And as the sanctioning body scrambled to restore credibility in the eyes of its fans – twice altering its post-season field in the span of five days – surely there was a moment where everyone involved surveyed it all and inwardly sighed.
“Sunday can’t come soon enough.”
Well, folks, Sunday is here. And so is a Chase that, before it has officially begun, is already unlike any other we’ve seen in its 10-year run as the Sprint Cup Series’ post-season system.
The first battleground: The 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway, the kind of bread-and-butter intermediate track that makes up the majority of the Chase schedule. What we see today outside the Windy City could very well show who will have the edge this fall and who’s gonna have to dig a little deeper.
As NASCAR’s big stretch run to the championship begins today, questions are plentiful about a Chase that feels very tough to predict:
After a stellar regular season with five victories (three of which came on those all-important 1.5-mile ovals), can top seed Matt Kenseth cap off what has been his most competitive season to date with a second Cup title – and his first in the Chase format?
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 crew hit the skids heading into the Chase with four straight finishes of 28th or worse. Can one of the sport’s most dominant squads find their groove again when it counts?
Kyle Busch has been very strong this year, racking up both wins and consistently high results. Could he be the one that delivers the biggest push for Kenseth, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, in the Chase? And if so, what kind of effects would it have on the JGR team as we get closer to the Homestead finale?
Kurt Busch has already pulled off a major feat by getting the small Furniture Row Racing team into the Chase. But while he’s got the talent and the pace to make an impact, will his pit crew ultimately help or hurt his chances?
The Ford camp seems to have picked up the pace, as evidenced by Carl Edwards’ victory last Saturday at Richmond. But will it be enough to enable Edwards, Greg Biffle and Joey Logano to overcome their Chevy and Toyota rivals?
There’s been nothing “lame duck” about Kevin Harvick’s final campaign with Richard Childress Racing, but can he get R.C. his first Cup title since 1994 (Dale Earnhardt, Sr.) before going off to Stewart-Haas Racing?
Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Ryan Newman have had their ups and downs this regular season, and not many are picking them as legitimate title contenders. Can they find the consistency that hasn’t always been there for them in 2013?
Finally, there’s Bowyer, the one that started the whole firestorm but is still in the mix for a championship even after the penalties against Michael Waltrip Racing. His question is the same as Logano’s: Will the controversy prove to wear him down? Another valid query: What kind of unholy rage will the NASCAR diehards unleash if Bowyer does do well?
The general manager of Pfaff Motorsports received 370 text messages about the No. 9 Porsche being driven to the GTD Pro victory by Mathieu Jaminet over the No. 2 KCMG Porsche of Laurens Vanthoor (who helped Pfaff win the 2021 GTD title).
“I’ve never had my phone blow up like ever,” Bortolotti told NBC Sports. “I was like, ‘What the (expletive)? This is better than the actual race! It was awesome.”
His phone blew up again last week at Daytona International Speedway – but for an altogether different reason.
The Pfaff Motorsports truck driver proudly had sent a photo to the team’s group text chat, showing that the No. 9 was parked directly beside the gleaming haulers for the new Porsche Penske Motorsports.
As the defending series champions in GTD Pro, Pfaff was situated beside the nine cars in the ballyhooed new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category with the next-best spot in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship garage.
It’s indicative of Pfaff’s impressive growth curve over less than a decade in IMSA, building in stature from plaid-clad Canadian underdog to GT powerhouse while continuing to punch above its weight against the biggest factory teams in sports-car racing.
“Everyone is like, ‘That’s awesome, we’re on the front side of the garage!’ ” Bortolotti said. “That’s really cool for my guys. I never even thought that it mattered. I just was like, ‘Oh shit, there’s going to be a lot of traffic and people around because we’re beside Penske.’ They’re looking at it as, ‘This is really cool and something I’ve always wanted.’ You really don’t know what motivates people, and they probably didn’t know they wanted that until they had it.”
Bortolotti has been leading Pfaff Motorsports, which is based in a 20,000-square-foot shop 20 minutes north of Toronto, since its inception in 2015.
Chris Pfaff (the team’s CEO and president) entered sports car racing as a sponsor promoting the Pfaff Automotive dealership network in Canada. He founded Pfaff Motorsports after discovering many of the Pfaff Automotive employees worked in racing on the side (and often competing against the Pfaff-sponsored car).
Within five years, the team realized its goal of reaching IMSA’s national series in 2019. Within the next three years, it had two championships (in GTD and GTD Pro the past two years) and the 2022 Rolex 24 victory.
“It all starts with a vision to know what you’re striving for or else, racing becomes a fast waste of money if you aren’t chasing something,” Bortolotti said.
It’s been a memorable run for a team that has only seven full-time employees and celebrates its gritty spirit as a Porsche customer team beating factory-backed operations with budgets that could be up to 50 percent larger. On the Pfaff Motorsports website, all of its team members are featured with mug shots and titles – as well as “Turbo Ted,” the shop dog.
Bortolotti is proud that the team has been kept mostly intact over the past eight years with technical director Andrew Marangoni (who started as an engineer) and car chief Corey Whiteman among the stalwarts in another example of quality over quantity.
“I’d rather have seven extremely talented people,” Bortolotti said. “I’d put my seven up against anyone … give me seven in those equal jobs in other teams, I bet mine are better. I think that confidence I have in them, and they need confidence in themselves but can’t be cocky. There’s a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. I’m glad that most of my guys are confident in their abilities and not here to become celebrities. They’re just here to win races.”
With an influx of cash and staffing this year in GTP (which added Porsche and BMW), Bortolotti fretted that some of his team would be peeled off by the premier prototype division, but its tight-knit culture held firm against recruitment from the factory programs.
“One gentleman was approached hard by two manufacturers and told them ‘I go racing because I enjoy it here,’ ” Bortolotti said. “He’s worked for those programs, in Formula One and elsewhere. He said, ‘Look, I wake up every day and enjoy doing stuff with (Pfaff). It’s not worth another however many thousands to (leave Pfaff).’ That was nice to hear we’re building something great.
“I’m very adamant there aren’t a lot of egos within our team. I feel that’s a huge detriment in racing.”
Pfaff’s lowest moment came just before its biggest successes.
The COVID-19 pandemic was doubly hard for the team, which faced the specter of economic hardship layoffs mixed with quarantine restrictions that lasted through June 2021 and made travel extremely difficult across the border.
But Pfaff soldiered through and added Vanthoor (who was left without a ride Porsche shuttering its GTLM team) to pair with Zacharie Robichon for the 2021 championship season.
“The worst year of my life was 2020,” Bortolotti said. “I never knew if we were going to get back here. A lot of people had to make a lot of sacrifices. Everyone took it with a smile on their face. Leaders of companies are really judged on how they handle those situations.
“As much as it hurt not racing in 2020, it was the way we handled it and came back, which allowed us to continue building what we had started in ’19 and ’20. If you look at ’21, you see a huge ramp up of our results after Watkins Glen (in late June). We finally got to go back to testing and learning and getting back in the swing of things.”
After winning the 2022 Rolex 24 and the GTD Pro championship with Pfaff, its trio of Jaminet, Matt Campbell and Felipe Nasr moved on to Porsche Penske Motorsport in GTP. It’s another sign of Pfaff’s appeal to world-class drivers.
“They want our car,” Bortolotti said. “I feel this pressure that these guys are finding me on Instagram and DM’ing to request us. That’s kind of cool. You have the seat that everyone is wanting.”
He believes the team’s success of as a customer team that can beat factory-backed operations is a preview of the future in GT professional racing.
“They’re spending how many of millions to compete, and we’re paying them to do it,” Bortolotti said. “So from a business standpoint, it’s quite attractive for them to be in this situation.
“I think the days of a full factory effort, as financial changes happen in a global economy, are numbered. The way we’ve done it with commercial support and raising money and partnering with a factory where they put some in, we put some in. I think that’s truly the way forward in pro level GT racing because there is something to sell. There is no reason for one manufacturer to have to pay for it all themselves. It doesn’t really make sense at the end of the day if one person is spending $5M to go racing.”
The team will have a factory-level talent with the return of Vanthoor as its endurance driver in a lineup that also includes Patrick Pilet (a 2015 GTLM champion and 2014 Rolex 24 winner) and Klaus Bachler. In addition to new drivers, the team also has a new car in the Porsche 911 GT3 R (992).
There was no bitterness over a reunion between the team and Vanthoor, who was lobbying Bortolotti to return just months after his heartbreaking defeat in last year’s Rolex 24.
Daytona is the only long-distance race missing from the CV for Vanthoor, who has won the 24-hour races at Le Mans, Spa and Nurburgring. The Belgian driver told NBC Sports he “cried like a baby” on the cooldown lap and then needed 10 minutes alone to regain composure.
But he then sent congratulations to his former and future team.
“With Mathieu and Pfaff, that was the first thing I did was congratulate them and give them a handshake because they are very good friends,” Vanthoor said. “And we were there trying to win and they fair and square won. There’s nothing to be angry about; I have a ton of respect for them. And that was it.
“There were no hard feelings. I was very happy for Pfaff to win it.”
Bortolotti said Vanthoor requested a spreadsheet with mugshots of all the Pfaff team members so he could greet everyone by name upon his return.
“After (the 2022 Rolex 24), I gave him a big hug, and I was heartbroken for him because I knew how bad he wanted it, how hard he tried and how great a fight he put up,” Bortolotti said. “I’m excited to have him back. He’s a great guy. We want redemption for him as a team as much as he wants redemption for the finish last year.
“It’s almost been a cool way to motivate our guys to try to do it again because we got it last year, let’s get it for Larry this year. We’re extremely motivated to get him his Rolex this year because we get ours last year.”