DOVER, DE - SEPTEMBER 30:  Justin Haley, driver of the #5 Braun Auto Chevrolet, celebrates in Series Victory Lane after the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Dover 125 at Dover International Speedway on September 30, 2016 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
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Justin Haley’s K&N East title a family affair

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The morning of the most important race of his career, Justin Haley sought the council of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Dover International Speedway, site of the K&N Pro Series East season finale on Sept. 30, was drenched in rain that morning. But the finale wouldn’t begin until late afternoon, giving the 17-year-old Haley plenty of time to get “in the right mindset” for the 126-lap race.

If he finished 25th or better, he would be the series champion. No big deal. How did he get his mind prepared for such an occasion?

On Haley’s phone is an app called “Motivate.” It contains seven motivational recordings, with titles that include “Arnold’s Wisdom,” “Prove Them Wrong” and “Why Do We Fall?” Ranging between three and a half to nine minutes, the recordings are spliced together snippets from sermons, famous speeches and movies, including the “Rocky” franchise.

“It’s almost like listening to Bible verses, just a little more amped up,” Haley says. “I listened to (all of them). I listened to them before I went to bed the previous night, I listened to them while I was in the shower. Getting in that mindset was the biggest thing and just wanted to be extra sure I could use that, and I could deliver the best performance in my ability to my team that day.”

While Stallone and Schwarzenegger may have psyched Haley up on the day, they were only reinforcing the work done over the last eight years by his parents.

OUT OF TOWN

Melissa Braun-Dennis was nervous.

Unlike her husband, Nate Dennis, she wasn’t in Dover to experience her son’s big day.

Instead, she was about 730 miles west in Winamac, Indiana, the town she and her family spent their entire lives in until Haley’s budding racing career uprooted them to Charlotte, North Carolina, last year. She was back home in Northern Indiana visiting her oldest daughter, who attends a preparatory school that was holding its first “Parent’s Day” of the year.

“I had to sit out on this one,” says Braun-Dennis, a mother of four. “It was pretty hard to do that.”

It was hard because even with Haley’s 25-point cushion for the championship, there were lingering doubts.

“There was always that thought of ‘What if?’ ” says Braun-Dennis. “What if we’ve come this far and it doesn’t happen and how are we going to handle ourselves tomorrow? How are we going to be able to recover quickly and not let this really get us down?”

As the laps ticked off in Dover, Haley’s mother drove down the highway to her mother-in-law’s house. The road didn’t always have her attention.

“I had the race on my phone and was trying to check it periodically … safely, while driving down the road,” Braun-Dennis says. “There was a point where I actually had to get out of the car and go inside a gas station to get a drink because I was so nervous.”

Braun-Dennis finally arrived at her mother-in-law’s for dinner. She entered the house to “all the aunts and uncles … staring at their phones.”

She began waiting for a specific message from her husband.

GROWING PAINS

Nate Dennis has witnessed every lap of his stepson’s career.

It began when a 9-year-old Haley asked his mother if he could pursue a career in quarter midgets after driving a cousin’s quarter-midget at a birthday party.

“He was showing it to all of us,” Haley recalls. “I was like ‘Man, that’s pretty cool. Can I just drive it around the driveway a few laps?’ They got it down for me, pushed me off. I think it turned into a few hundred laps. I spent countless hours there in a quarter midget and then went to my mom and said ‘I want one of these.'”

“As long as Nate does it with you, I’m fine with it,” his mother said.

Haley’s first days in a quarter midget, when they raced two cars through four classes, was the beginning of what Dennis called a “kind of funky” progression for Haley.

“Quarter midget kids start practicing at four and a half and you race at five,” Dennis says. “Justin didn’t even race in a race car until he was nine, nine and a half. I always felt like we were behind them. At the mini sprint stage, it kind of evened out a bit, where there were some kids who had been doing it the same amount of time or longer.”

But Dennis himself was as much a rookie as his stepson.

“He didn’t know a thing about racing except being a spectator, which we all know is very different from the other side of racing,” says his wife, who grew up in a family that had been around racing since the 70s. “(Nate) basically put himself out there and started asking questions and bothering people. He learned it so quickly that he found the right people for Justin and when you surround yourself with good people, good things happen.”

For a few years Haley ran street stocks and mini sprints simultaneously. It wasn’t until Haley finished second in the 2012 Tulsa Shootout in the non-winged stock class that Dennis thought “maybe we’re not wasting money.”

But Haley wasn’t seeing his family often thanks to being on the road with his stepdad.

“They would be gone three days, home four days and that was pretty much seven months out of the year,” says Braun-Dennis. “We would beg the school system to have the extra time to travel for races.

After about 18 months of that, Dennis and Haley decided to move to Mooresville, North Carolina, as he was set to begin his K&N career.

“About six months later, I decided being separated in Indiana and them  being down here it wasn’t a lot of fun,” Braun-Dennis said. “We decided to move down here so we could have more family unit.”

FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME

In 2015, his first K&N season at HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks, Haley competed in a full season in one series for the first time. He would win his first race on March 26, 2016, at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

At Dover, Haley had a chance to bring HScott its fourth K&N East title in as many years.

“Having that pressure on me, it wasn’t the biggest concern,” Haley says. “But it was definitely there to get four consecutive. It’s just a super cool feeling to know that a start-up team four years ago could end up with four consecutive titles.”

Haley clinched the championship with his fourth-place result, ending a season that included 13 top-five finishes in 14 races.

Dennis finally got to send his wife the message she was waiting for.

“The excitement in the room and the moment when Nate said ‘I think we got it,’ it was such a huge relief,” says Braun-Dennis.

Even though Haley had won races in the last eight years, including twice in 2016, he’s never gotten to properly celebrate.

“They wouldn’t let me do a burnout after my wins this year because it’s so hard on the drivetrain and the motor and stuff like that,” Haley says. “They were like, ‘You win the championship, you get to do a burnout.’ They just kept telling me that and telling me that. I guess they were trying to motivate me.

“Once I won the championship it was, ‘Yeah, I can finally burn them down here.’ ”

As Kyle Benjamin went to victory lane for the victory, Haley took his No. 5 Chevrolet to the frontstretch. Giving him instructions over the radio was his spotter, driver coach and life coach, Michael Self.

“He was on the radio pretty in-depth, telling what to do, when to use the front brake, what gear to be in and stuff like that,” Haley says.

A month after Kyle Larson first did it in a Sprint Cup race at Michigan, Haley burned his tires down while holding his steering wheel outside his window in “probably the highlight of my career.”

“I think he’s shown me his burnout about a dozen times today,” Braun-Dennis says a few days after the race. “He always makes sure to point out the steering wheel is out the window.”

DESTINATION UNKNOWN

Before his first burnout, Braun-Dennis’ proudest moment from her son’s career came in August 2015.

On Aug. 19, Haley, at 16, made his first start in the Camping World Truck Series. It came at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Haley drove a truck owned by his uncle Todd Braun, who once owned Braun Racing, a small Xfinity Series team that eventually became part of the DNA of HScott Motorsports. Haley started 21st and finished 14th.

“I raced Kyle Busch for about half a lap,” Haley says. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”

But his first start in the lowest of NASCAR’s three national series meant even more to Braun-Dennis.

“When he was, gosh, 14 years old, we were kind of putting all of our heart and our time and our soul into everything, he looked at me one day and said ‘All I want to do is start a Truck race.'”

He did it on her 40th birthday.

“I remember that the most,” she says. “Bristol is an amazing track. It was my mother’s favorite track. His grandmother who has since passed away. They both loved racing and actually both my parents owned race teams in their careers and so for him to be there at that track on my 40th birthday was probably the biggest accomplishment.”

With his K&N title, a ride in the Truck series would be the next logical step for the teenager’s career. But there’s the awkward issue of him not turning 18 until April 28, 2017, which keeps him from competing in the series’ full schedule.

“I’m not sure about my plans for next year,” says Haley. “My birthday is kind of in the worst spot possible. I don’t turn 18 until about a quarter of the way through the season. It kind of chops out my chance of racing for the championship in a national series. With that being said, we’re trying to do something that’s going to be effective in my career.”

Wherever he winds up, he’ll have his family behind him.

Ryan: ‘Erase the Chase’ is an idea whose time had come

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CHARLOTTE – It was time to erase the Chase.

No, Monday’s announcement by NASCAR didn’t eradicate the 10-race stretch that has determined the champion of its premier series for the past 13 seasons. The structure remains largely untouched aside from a new wrinkle that carries over points from the regular season to ensure less arbitrary title outcomes.

But Monday did mark the death knell of what had become the primary pejorative in a NASCAR vernacular littered with unwieldy and unappealing terminology.

They are seemingly innocuous words that stoke the most hateful, negative and ugly reactions from passionate fans who claim precious ownership of racing like no other sport.

The Car of Tomorrow.

The top-35 rule.

The Chase.

Each of these terms, however well-intended, became the third rail for hyperbolic fan outrage on satellite radio and social media

And each of them now has disappeared into NASCAR’s dictionary dustbin of history.

The Car of Tomorrow was reconfigured and then renamed as the clever “Gen 6” car.

The top-35 rule essentially was erased and then replaced by the more benign charter system.

And now …

“I think that for all the folks that have been asking us to get rid of the Chase for years,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said with a sly smile, “this is a great day for them.”

The Chase is dead.

Long live the NASCAR playoffs.

Slapping a new title on a championship structure that has been maligned during its 13-year existent won’t be a cure-all for those who never have been fans of the format.

This admittedly is a PR and marketing exercise. It will have no impact on competition or the opinions of those who already believe the Latford points system of 1975-2003 shouldn’t have been abandoned.

There are Jeff Gordon fans who remain steadfast in their opposition to the Chase because they believe it cheated their hero out of multiple championships.

And there are others who actually will lament the disappearance of “Chase,” because they believe the term helped differentiate NASCAR.

But in an image-conscious sport desperate for corporate sponsorship, the switch to “playoffs” still matters even without an iota of on-track impact.

This isn’t a rebranding a la the Gen 6.

It’s about appropriating an existing sports term that carries major-league cachet.

The mere utterance of “Chase” became a dismissive rallying cry for many who hissed its name while railing about the system.

It’s harder to sound so disparaging when complaining about the “playoffs” (unless you’re Jim Mora). In fact, it sounds silly.

“Playoffs” are synonymous with indelible moments and must-see drama.

They connote an appealing sports conceit with an elegance and simplicity that always eluded “Chase”.

“When they’re talking about sports, people understand playoffs,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “We introduced a new word, i.e. the Chase, and we liked it at first, but when you really talk about it, when (Hendrick Motorsports president) Marshall Carlson is out talking to a sponsor, well, it’s ‘What’s the Chase?’  Well, it’s our playoffs.  And people immediately get that and they understand that.

“This is a big sport built on sponsorship for sponsors to understand, for fans to understand, and it’s a common word that most sports fans know.”

Some of us have been lobbying for ditching the Chase since NASCAR most recently overhauled it three years ago (and ratcheted up the action, intensity and pressure as a result).

But there always had been resistance to calling the Chase a playoff, despite how natural it seemed.

NASCAR heavily messaged the January 2004 news conference that introduced the Chase for the Championship. Reporters repeatedly were told by officials that “this is not a playoff” because “all of our events will continue to be Super Bowl-type races with 43 drivers competing.”

No one wanted to hurt the feelings of longtime fans asked to absorb a sea change that was antithetical to some core principles that were preached as gospel for decades.

There was major pushback on anyone who intimated that the Chase created two distinct seasons. When the Chase was introduced, NASCAR tirelessly emphasized there were no knockout rounds or points resets or anything analogous to how other pro sports handled their playoffs.

But things have changed. All that stuff has been happening in NASCAR since 2014.

There are eliminations. There are points resets (and still are with a few caveats). There is segmentation from the regular season.

It’s a playoff in every sense of the word – which is why the word changed.

The Chase is dead.

Long live the NASCAR playoffs.

Questions and answers about NASCAR’s announcement

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — OK everyone, let’s take a deep breath and we’ll get through this.

NASCAR announced enhancements to the race formats on Monday that are intended to give fans more exciting moments during a race and the season.

As with anything new, there are plenty of questions. Here are answers to those questions.

So what is it with these stages?

Each NASCAR race will be divided into three stages. Points will be awarded for the top 10 finishers in each of the first two stages. That descends one point per position. Thus, 10th place in a stage receives one point. The final stage marks the end of the race. The winner receives 40 points with second-place receiving 35 points, third gets 34 points … on the way down to 1 point for any driver that finishes 36th or worse.

When will these stages take place?

The first stage will take place approximately 25 percent into the full race distance. So, for a 400-lap race at Richmond, the first stage would end somewhere around Lap 100.

The second stage will take place about 25 percent later.

That will leave the last half of the race to be run to conclusion.

So what happens after the first stage?

Once the field completes the lap that marks the end of the first stage, the caution will come out. Pit road is then opened for any teams that wish to stop. Once the pit stops are complete, TV will go to commercial break so fans can see more green-flag racing. Once TV returns from break, the race will resume. NASCAR estimates the breaks should take about five minutes.

How do they align the field for the next stage?

The field lines up the way the cars come off pit road. If not every car pits, then they are at the front with cars that made pit stops behind them for the restart.

OK, so what about those caution laps after the segment ends? Do they count?

Yes. All laps count.

Anything else unique about the stages?

Yes, pit road will be closed for five laps before each of the first two stages end.

Wait, what if there’s a caution right before the end of a segment? Can a segment end under caution or will it be extended?

Segments can end under caution. The end of the race will still have the overtime policy.

What is NASCAR calling these stages?

Stage 1. Stage 2. Stage 3.

What about the Daytona 500?

The 500 will have segments. The top 10 finishers in each of the duel qualifying races will receive points just like a regular segment. One difference is that the segment winner will not receive a bonus point for the playoff (more on these a little further down).

So what is the maximum number of points a driver can earn in any race now?

A driver can earn as many as 60 points. That would be 20 points for the two stage wins (10 points each) and 40 points for the race win.

Wait a minute, you’re forgetting those points for leading a lap and leading the most laps, aren’t you?

No. There will no longer be bonus points for leading a lap or leading the most laps.

Isn’t there a way the race winner can score fewer points than the runner-up?

Yes. Consider if the race runner-up won both stages (20 points) and then had their 35 points for second. That would be 55 points. Say the race winner failed to score a point in either stage. Thus, they would have only 40 points (for the win) for the event. So, the runner-up could score 55 points and the winner 40 points.

What else was announced?

The regular-season points leader after the 26th race will be rewarded — something many fans had requested.

How will the regular-season champ be rewarded?

The regular-season winner will receive 15 bonus points that carry over to their total once the playoff field has its points reset to 2000.

Is that it?

No, the top 10 drivers leading into the playoffs will receive a bonus. The second-place driver in the standings after the regular season ends will earn 10 playoff points, third place will earn eight points, fourth place will get seven points and so on. All playoff points carry through to the end of the Round of 8.

OK, is that it?

No, NASCAR has made those bonus points more valuable. Follow me. Say a driver finishes with six wins in the regular season. They would earn 30 playoff bonus points (five wins for each win). Now, say, they won seven segments in the regular season, they would have seven bonus points (one playoff point for each segment win). And, let’s say they finished as the regular-season champ, earning 15 bonus points. That means they would have 52 bonus points (30 from wins plus seven from segments and 15 for regular-season crown).

The driver will continue to receive those bonus points in each round of the playoffs as long as he/she remained eligible for the title — plus any additional victory or segment points earned in that round.

Anything else I should be aware of?

Yes, NASCAR is now using the word “playoffs” to describe its run to the championship instead of Chase. As Dale Earnhardt Jr. joked: “I think that for all the folks that have been asking us to get rid of the Chase for years, this is a great day for them.’’

Are these changes for the Cup Series only?

No, they are for the Cup, Xfnity and Camping World Truck Series.

What were some things the drivers said about all of this?

Denny Hamlin: There are no off weeks. Every single race matters. Not only that, but every lap of every race matters. From our standpoint, you always felt a little bit relaxed once you got a race win, and you would sometimes maybe go into test mode or something. Now with each accomplishment that you have during each given race, whether you’re collecting points for the overall regular season or you’re trying to collect points through a stage win or a race win, each accomplishment gives your road to Homestead a little bit easier, gives you a little bit of cushion there to be able to get through the playoffs and make it to Homestead, and that’s what it’s all about for us is making it to Homestead and trying to race for a championship.’’

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “I love the fact that the bonus points or the playoff points will carry through the playoffs all the way to the last round. So everything you do throughout the season is really going to help you throughout the playoffs. That’s a great change.

Brad Keselowski: “Wait until you see it on the racetrack.When you see this on the racetrack, this is going to be the best racing you’ve ever seen.’’

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How will new in-race stages and points format be impacted by weather? (video)

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NASCAR can only control so much — but try as it may, weather is one thing it can’t.

How will the new enhancements to the points format be impacted if Mother Nature decides to open the skies and wreak her wet havoc upon races and racetracks?

NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell addressed that issue during Monday’s announcement of the enhanced points format.

NASCAR: From now on, it will be ‘the playoffs,’ not ‘the Chase’ (video)

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What’s in a name? For NASCAR going forward, it will no longer refer to its playoffs as “the Chase.” From now on, it will be simply “the playoffs.”

With the name change, the format for the playoffs will not change — with the exception of the enhancements to the points format that was announced Monday. 

NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said that it was time for the sport to move on from the unique “Chase” monicker, which spawned several similar formats and accompanying names in other sports, including drag racing and golf.