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Fast forward: Martin Truex Jr. ready to make new memories in Daytona 500

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Shortly after losing last year’s Daytona 500 by one-hundredth of a second, Martin Truex Jr. shrugged his shoulders and drew a heavy sigh before the words slowly exhaled with his breath.

“Just going to have to watch that on the highlight reel for the rest of my career, rest of my life,’’ he said with a forced smile.

As the calendar returns to February and “The Great American Race” approaches, Truex knows those final moments against Denny Hamlin will be shown more often, and he repeatedly will be asked about the closest finish in the race’s history.

“I don’t dread it yet,’’ Truex told NBC Sports during last week’s NASCAR Media Tour. “I don’t mind seeing (video of the finish). I think even for me it was exciting. It was a cool moment to be a part of it.

“I really wish I was the other side of that moment but still a cool thing to be a part of. I feel like someday I’m going to win that race, so seeing that is kind of just a reminder of how close we’ve been, how close we are and (how) one little different decision there, or one slight change of that last part of the straightaway, or that half of the straightaway, and it could have changed the outcome into something that you won’t forget.’’

It was unforgettable, just not in the celebratory fashion for Truex or Matt Kenseth, who led 40 3/4 of the final 41 laps. Kenseth led until he darted from the bottom lane in Turn 3 to block a charging Hamlin.

When Kenseth moved up the track, Hamlin cut down and squeezed between Truex and Kenseth. Hamlin and Kenseth made slight contact, sending Kenseth off pace and toward the wall. Truex crowded Hamlin and briefly led coming to the line before Hamlin nipped him by the nose of his car.

“I’ll be honest with you,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports, “I still YouTube the last five laps of the Daytona 500. I’ve watched it back a few times, even from different guys’ in-car cameras to see what exactly caused that last lap to be so magical for us. For us to go from fourth or fifth to the lead in one lap was definitely the best lap  I’ve ever driven.’’

That final lap symbolized Truex’s greatest season in Cup — a strong run that had an incomplete finish.

He won four races (he had won three in his first 10 seasons). Among his victories was the record-setting performance in the Coca-Cola 600 where he led all but eight of the 400 laps. No driver in NASCAR history has led so much in a single race.

Truex opened the playoffs by winning at Chicagoland. To further mark himself as a favorite, he won at Dover, the final race in the opening round.

But then his season unraveled. Truex finished 13th at Charlotte in the opening race of the second round. A clutch issue on the final pit stop ruined what likely could have been a top-five finish.

A fueling issue the next week at Kansas caused him to pit early, and the yellow came out while he was on pit road, dropping him to 20th. That altered his team’s strategy the rest of the race, and he finished 11th.

Truex’s title hopes ended the next week at Talladega Superspeedway when the pole-sitter’s engine blew and he finished 40th. Suddenly, a driver many expected to compete for the championship in Miami was out of contention.

“We’re definitely not over it,’’ Truex told NBC Sports about last year’s playoff woes. “I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s motivation. It keeps us hungry.

“The biggest thing we learned is there’s no room for error. Talladega was tough to have that happen out of the blue. It was a huge shocker, but it was a reminder that you need to attack. Kansas and Charlotte, two of our best race tracks and we didn’t perform as well as we should have. It’s just a reminder that you have to be on every single week and there’s no room for not getting the job done.’’

But after his strongest two seasons (five wins, 16 top fives and 39 top 10s in 72 starts), Truex knows he and his team will have to be better to have a chance at an elusive title. He’ll have help this year with the team expanding to two cars and adding rookie Erik Jones.

“We performed at a high level, so that isn’t really the question,’’ Truex said. “I guess more than anything, how do we perform at that high level again is probably more difficult.’’

The task will begin later this month back at Daytona.

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Long: Hall of Fame moment is special for father and son

Photo by Dustin Long
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CHARLOTTE — Sleep has not come easy for Doug Yates in some time.

It has only gotten worse lately.

He can’t stop thinking of his father, Robert, who battles liver cancer. Robert has undergone chemotherapy, but at one point doctors said they weren’t sure what how to treat the 74-year-old former NASCAR team owner and engine builder who was selected to the 2018 Hall of Fame Class on Wednesday.

That helpless feeling of not solving a problem counters what Robert and Doug have done all their lives. If there was an issue with an engine, they worked harder and longer until they fixed the matter.

This they can’t.

While Robert Yates undergoes experimental treatments, Doug is there to help take care of his father. There are bad days, Doug says, wincing.

“What I see is a man who is broken down and built back up because he is watching his father,’’ said Whitney Yates, Doug’s wife. “Sometimes (Robert) is so sick he can’t do anything and Doug is there.’’

They are more than father and son. They share a treasured relationship not every boy and his dad experiences, their bonds woven early and strengthened with each day together.

Doug fondly recalls sleeping on a cot in a race shop when he was about 5 years old while his father worked on an engine through the night. They traveled to races together. Doug reminisces of a trip to Richmond where his father, tired from work, told his son, then 12, to take the wheel while he slept. Yet, when a deer ran across their path, it was Robert who asked his son if he saw that.

They often went to the race shop together. Although family, Robert was still the boss. He would be hard on his son at times, but Doug cherishes even those memories.

Robert was only teaching his son what it took to succeed. Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett won two Daytona 500s and Davey Allison won another for Robert Yates Racing. Jarrett won the 1999 Cup championship with the team. As an owner, Robert Yates won 57 Cup races and 48 poles.

Now, Doug is the boss. He oversees the “vision” his father had of the Roush Yates Engines shop, which powered Kurt Busch to a Daytona 500 win and Ford teams to four other victories in the season’s first 11 races.

“He wants to make (his dad) proud,’’ Whitney said of Doug. “He’s always trying so hard.

“Doug is always moving the bar. I think Robert is so proud of that.’’

While Doug does what he can for his father and the family business, he couldn’t control what happened at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The past three years Robert, Doug and the rest of the family came to the Hall of Fame to see if Robert would be selected. Five are chosen each year. Robert ranked sixth in votes received twice, just missing enshrinement.

Robert Yates reacts after he is announced to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Each time, Robert said the voting panel got it right.

“Selfishly, I didn’t think so, but he did,’’ Doug said. “That was a lesson for me. Everything happens for a reason.’’

As Wednesday approached, Doug Yates’ anxiety grew. It was worse Wednesday morning and throughout the day.

As Doug walked into Hall of Fame, ahead of his father, he conceded he was “nervous.’’

He also was prepared.

Doug stocked multiple tissues in the pockets of his slacks.

“If he didn’t make it, I was going to break down,’’ Doug said of his father making the Hall of Fame. “If he did, I was going to break down.’’

Robert also felt nervous.

“If I don’t get in,’’ Robert told himself before the announcement, “that’s the reason to work real hard to be here next year to get in.’’

The family didn’t have to wait long to celebrate.

Robert Yates, who received 94 percent of the vote, was announced first.

“Wow,’’ Doug said. “I’m glad that’s over.’’

His father, sitting a row in front of Doug, reached back. Doug leaned forward. They held hands. 

After that it was a matter of relishing what had happened as four other men — Red Byron, Ray Evernham, Ken Squier and Ron Hornady Jr. — were selected to join Robert Yates in the next Hall of Fame Class.

Doug stay composed throughout. He wiped his eyes once.

When the ceremony ended, Robert Yates reached his arm around wife Carolyn and embraced her.

“My family means so much to me because they allowed me to work night and day,’’ Robert Yates said. “Do I love engines? Yes, whether one cylinder, two cylinders, six or 12 or 24. I love engines.’’

That passion led him to this moment.

“I feel like I could take a jack,’’ said the former jackman.

“I don’t know if I’ll sleep tonight.’’

Doug Yates will.

His father will be in the Hall of Fame.

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Announcer Ken Squier elected to NASCAR Hall of Fame (video)

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With 40 percent of the vote, announcer Ken Squier was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 2018 class.

Squier, 82, is one of the most iconic voices in NASCAR history.

A co-founder of the Motor Racing Network, Squier is famous for his call of the 1979 Daytona 500 on CBS, which was the first NASCAR race to be broadcast live on TV flag-to-flag. It was Squier who nicknamed the Daytona 500 the “Great American Race.”

Squier called races on CBS and TBS until 1997. For the last two years he has been a regular contributor to NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage, including calling select portions of the Southern 500.

“It feels pretty darn good,” Squier told NASCAR America. “I announced so many races in so many places and met so many people. That’s the overwhelming feeling. To get this honor from the stock car crowd, that to me is beyond belief because there’s so many others that are doing similar things. So many people who are so committed and so caring about this sport and to think that I’ve been sort of singled out, I’ve never quite understood that.”

 

 

Four-time Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr. elected to NASCAR Hall of Fame (video)

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With 38 percent of the vote, Ron Hornaday Jr. was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 2018 class.

Hornaday, 58, is a four-time champion of the Camping World Truck Series and holds the series’ wins record with 51 victories.

Hornaday raced in the series from its inception in 1995 through 1999 and then from 2005 through 2014.

He’s the first Truck Series champion to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

“There wasn’t even a Hall of Fame when I started racing, you just do it to put food on the table and enjoy it,” Hornaday told NASCAR America. “There’s so many people (to thank) … I don’t know who to thank and where to start.”

Hornaday won two of his championships driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and two for Kevin Harvick.

Ray Evernham, leader of the ‘Rainbow Warriors,’ elected to NASCAR Hall of Fame (video)

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With 52 percent of the vote, Ray Evernham was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 2018 class.

Evernham, 59, was the crew chief for Jeff Gordon and the “Rainbow Warriors” when they won three Cup Series championships from 1995-1998.

Evernham and Gordon won 47 races together before Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports in 1999 to lead Dodge’s return to NASCAR.

Evernham was in Indianapolis when he learned of his election to the Hall of Fame.

“I got my first NASCAR license in 1978 and that’s a long time ago,” Evernham told NASCAR America. “It’s a huge sense of relief but it’s also a very, very humbling feeling. There’s so many of my heroes who are in the Hall of Fame and so many of them that are nominated. When you have your name even mentioned in that, it’s incredible. This sport has been everything to me. It’s all I ever wanted to do, It’s all I’ve ever done.”