Helio Castroneves hoping SRX win leads to seat in Daytona 500

Castroneves SRX Daytona 500
Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images
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Justin Marks’ own mother heard the rumor and texted her son, the owner of Trackhouse Racing, to find out if SRX winner Helio Castroneves will be running the Daytona 500 for the NASCAR team.

That would be the logical spot for the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner who has longed to give NASCAR a shot. Don Hawk, the first-year CEO of the Superstar Racing Experience, told Castroneves that if he won one of the summer all-star series races, Hawk would help Castroneves get a NASCAR start.

Well, Castroneves won the SRX opener last Saturday night, and Hawk has been burning up the phone lines since.

Trackhouse Racing last month announced “Project91” to help international drivers enter NASCAR races. Retired Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen is first up with a scheduled August start on the road course at Watkins Glen.

“My side job is representing Mr. Castroneves,” Hawk said. “Phone calls have been taking place, the ball is rolling. We’re not ready to say a whole lot publicly. But the ball is rolling. It all depends on how this thing rolls out, whether we’re going to look at more than one race or optional races.

“The intention originally was he really wanted to run in the Daytona 500, it was a crown jewel. And so we’re really going to try to make the Daytona 500 work.”

Because of the Trackhouse program, speculation instantly turned to Project91 as the landing spot for Castroneves. He’s won Indianapolis four times, the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and an IMSA sports car championship, but could never convince Roger Penske to give him a shot in NASCAR.

Marks told The Associated Press that he has not spoken to Hawk about Castroneves, but “my mom texted me and asked `Are you talking to Helio?’ ”

Castroneves doesn’t know what deals Hawk might be working, but he’s very serious about getting into next year’s Daytona 500. He will be 47 years old when “The Great American Race” rolls around next February and now drives for Meyer Shank Racing in IndyCar, a team that does not prohibit him from extracurricular racing.

“I drove for so many years with Roger Penske and I was not able to get an opportunity there. Now, I have an opportunity in my contract, so why not, why not try something that I never did,” Castroneves said. “So now I’m trying SRX, IMSA, IndyCar. It will be very natural to try something that I’ve always (wanted to do), which was NASCAR.

“I know it will be tough, but hey, who knows, in racing you never expect how things could be surprising. Hopefully I’m going to get into it with Don and be in the Daytona 500 for sure.”

Part of Tony Stewart’s hope in creating SRX last year was that it would help drivers find other opportunities and it worked in its inaugural season. Ernie Francis Jr., a seven-time class champion in the Trans Am Series, caught Penske’s eye when he won the SRX race in Indianapolis and it led to a full-time ride this year in the Indy Lights Series.

Castroneves turning an SRX win into a Daytona 500 would be the biggest payoff for this strategy to date.

The wildest part of Castroneves’ deal with Hawk is that he won last Saturday night at Five Flags Speedway in Florida, where SRX had no idea Castroneves was racing. His participation over the six Saturday nights is built around his IndyCar schedule, and there was a misunderstanding over Castroneves’ participation in the opening race.

He was already on the plane headed to Pensacola last Friday night when it was discovered SRX did not know he was coming. SRX had available cars – the premise of the series is that all the cars are equally prepared for star drivers from multiple formulas of racing – and had one ready for Castroneves when he arrived.

“It shows you that the 16 cars we prepared are really what we say they are, they’re equal cars. That car was not even going to be raced and it won,” Hawk said. “He started scratch on the field and he won. There’s so many things that went in the right direction. We had four spare cars, any one of them you could just put your seat insert in and we’re good to go.”

SRX races this Saturday night live on CBS at South Boston Speedway in Virginia. Peyton Sellers, a native of Danville, Virginia, and six-time South Boston track champion, is the weekly “ringer” entered in the field.

“I rank this opportunity right at the top of things I’ve been able to do,” Sellers said. “I had the opportunity in 2005 to run the Rolex 24 at Daytona. I have had the opportunity to race an Xfinity car at Indianapolis. I’ve had a chance to race Daytona, Talladega, a lot of those tracks. To have the caliber of drivers we’ve got, to have the caliber of cars we’ve got in SRX is big. With the caliber of program SRX has put together, for me to be asked to be a part of it is a really neat opportunity.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”