Bump & Run: Don’t overlook these drivers

5 Comments

There’s much to talk about just days before engines fire at Daytona International Speedway. But for all the conversations about enhancements to the points system, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s return and Carl Edwards‘ departure, there are other key areas you might be missing.

Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, who will be on NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long to discuss drivers you might be overlooking and more in this week’s Bump & Run.

Who is one driver people might not be paying much attention to but should this year?

Dale Jarrett: Chase Elliott is not being talked about a lot this year, but I really expect a lot of him. I think that we’re looking at a two or three wins kind of season for him. I think that he showed that kind of potential. As we get closer to the playoffs, this will be someone who we just won’t be talking about will he make the playoffs, but what impact he’ll have. I really think that the things he was able to learn — and sometimes you learn a lot more by not closing the deal — I think that it was a great learning year, still a great year, as a rookie. I think he’s someone to pay attention to.

Kyle Petty: The driver I’m watching is Austin Dillon. I thought last year he made big progress. He became the RCR team leader on and off the track. He showed more maturity on and off the track. RCR needs to produce wins this year. I know they want to, but they are in a need-to situation to survive. I don’t believe people (fans) are paying attention to him because of RCR’s recent performance. I believe Austin will surprise people this year.’’

Nate Ryan: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. This is the fifth season in NASCAR’s premier series for the driver whom Jack Roush once said would be remembered as the greatest ever to run for Roush Fenway Racing. Stenhouse is five years’ removed from the promise of consecutive Xfinity Series championships. If he finishes outside the top 20 in points for a fourth straight year, it’s worth pondering what the future might hold (particularly given Roush’s seemingly tenuous sponsorship situation). Stenhouse previously was coveted by other powerhouse teams. If he can exhibit at least flashes of the potential he showed in Xfinity, it could help shore up his future prospects (even if they don’t include Roush).

Dustin Long: I’ll be watching Kyle Larson. He’s shown improvement and scored his first Cup win last year. The key is his team. Can it provide him the equipment to excel and put him in situations to take advantage of? With Stewart-Haas Racing now at Ford, there’s a chance for Chip Ganassi Racing to climb up to the No. 2 spot at Chevrolet behind Hendrick Motorsports. If this team steps up, Larson could score multiple wins.

How do you forecast the rookie of the year battle in the Cup Series?

Dale Jarrett: I think this comes down to two drivers who are both very talented. I think that Erik Jones may have got his thought process off a little bit and maybe cost him even a better chance at winning that Xfinity championship last year. I think he’s going to be an outstanding Cup driver. I really believe that he’ll put himself in position to win some races. Will he able to do that? We’ll have to see because it’s tough. He’s going to be racing basically a teammate, certainly a Toyota teammate in Daniel Suarez. You have to look at the teams they are with. Even though Jones’ deal is a new car with Furniture Row Racing, the experience he has surrounding him and the ability to work with everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing still will be a huge benefit. Suarez, I know he’s trying to grasp all of this. He’s such a talented young man. There will be a lot for him to learn, tracks, the different cars. It’s going to be a steeper learning curve for him, but I think he’ll give Jones a run for his money in that. I really believe at the and of the year that Erik Jones is the rookie of the year.

Kyle Petty: The rookie battle is up for grabs as far as I’m concerned. I know Erik Jones is a favorite and I believe last year he showed why. My concern is he’s driving a second car for a team that has just broken into that elite level of Cup racing. Can he and a startup new team help himself and Martin Truex Jr., or will his addition to the team as a whole take Furniture Row back a step? If that’s the case, advantage Daniel Suarez. He may not have had the year Erik did as a driver, but he won the Xfinity championship. Also he’s driving the 19 car that Carl Edwards was within a handful of laps of winning the Cup championship in. Driving for a team that’s “been there, done that” has its advantages! I’m a fan of Ty Dillon and believe talent-wise he stacks up against Erik and Daniel pretty evenly; equipment-wise, I’m taking a wait and see attitude.

Nate Ryan: Even though Daniel Suarez beat him for the Xfinity championship last year, the rookie of the year title is Erik Jones’ to lose. Jones is the most accomplished of the class and already has proven adept in Cup cars. He will be joining a formidable Furniture Row Racing team with a championship-caliber teammate in Martin Truex Jr. Suarez is in a Toyota of equal quality and made great strides last season, but his development will remain ongoing this year (just as it was in the 2015-16 Xfinity seasons). It might be a fair fight by the end of the season, but Jones will have the upper hand for at least the first half. Among the rest of the rookies, Ty Dillon will deliver respectable performances but won’t contend for top-15 finishes.

Dustin Long: I agree with my colleagues that Erik Jones is the favorite for all the reasons they’ve mentioned. That said, I’ll be interested to see how Daniel Suarez performs with the No. 19 team, noting what Kyle stated about that team’s experience and personnel. I think this could be among the more fascinating rookie races in recent years with Jones finishing with winning the crown.

Watch Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty on NASCAR America today from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Long: Past, present come together for thrilling Daytona 500 finish

Leave a comment

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The kids paid homage to history and became part of it after Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Against a purplish sky, as day transitioned to night at Daytona International Speedway, the scoring towers blazed with the No. 3 and No. 43 in the top two spots. Not since April 1987 at Bristol have those iconic numbers stood together atop the results of a NASCAR Cup race.

But instead of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty in those cars, it was Austin Dillon piloting the No. 3 to the victory and rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. driving the No. 43 to a runner-up finish.

And in a nod to the sport’s rough-and-tumble days, the car ahead of the No. 3 on the final lap spun out of the lead after contact. A trail of sparks and smoke produced the lasting image of Aric Almirola’s car instead of it covered in confetti in Victory Lane.

Almirola, though, held no grudge against Dillon.

After all, that’s just racin’.

That’s what the public wants. The sport has faced a tug-of-war with fans ton how to make the racing more exciting. Older fans long for past days, recalling the rivalries but overlooking that the competition wasn’t always so balanced. New fans need more to keep engaged.

Stages were added last year to enhance the racing. It created chaos Sunday. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and youngsters Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Ty Dillon were eliminated through no fault of their own in a crash just before the first stage ended.

That was one of four multi-car crashes. Each time wayward cars avoided the path Dillon and Wallace took.

Then again, both Dillon and Wallace have taken their own paths through the years.

Dillon, the grandson of car owner Richard Childress, drove the No. 3 when he raced as a child. To NASCAR fans that number represented Earnhardt and became sacred after his death on the last lap of this race in 2001.

Childress admits he was “ready to get out of the sport” after the death of his best friend. What was left? His friend was gone.

“The relationship that him and Dale Earnhardt had was a friendship that you don’t find every day,’’ Dillon said. “I mean, it’s one of those friendships, a best friend that you trust and you love. I could tell how much as I grew older their friendship meant and still wears on him because he misses him.’’

Childress recalled a conversation he and Earnhardt had on a mountain in New Mexico during a hunting trip. The two men reflected upon their mortality. They agreed to go on if something happened to the other.

With that, Childress kept racing through the sadness and emptiness.

Then something came along to lift Childress’ spirits. His grandsons Austin and Ty. Both played sports but followed their father into racing. Childress backed them in the early days and groomed them, hoping they could carry Richard Childress Racing further.

As Austin Dillon progressed, he and Childress had a conversation about the No. 3. Dillon still used it but the closer he moved to NASCAR’s national series, the touchier the subject was for some.

“That was Dale’s number,’’ Childress reminded Austin.

“No it isn’t,’’ Austin told pop-pop. “It’s your number. You drove it, and that’s why I want to do it.’’

Childress was convinced that Dillon should continue to drive it in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series. The number had not run a Cup race since the Feb. 18, 2001, at Daytona. Until Austin did in 2014.

For Wallace, who has raced since a child, it is race that sets him apart.

He became the first African-American to compete in the Daytona 500 since Wendell Scott in 1969. Wallace’s achievement earned a tweet from Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton wishing him well.

“I got weak at the knees,’’ Wallace said.

Before he climbed into his car, Wallace was given the phone. Former Major League Baseball home run record holder Hank Aaron wanted to wish him good luck.

“Just knowing that people are tuning in and hopefully noticing the new face and the new change that’s coming to NASCAR and they get behind it and support it. Just exciting,’’ Wallace said.

Still, both drivers — essentially teammates with Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports in an alliance — were not the main story entering the 60th running of this race.

Dillon didn’t have time to ponder such things before Sunday’s race.

He was trying to console his wife about 90 minutes before the race. Dillon couldn’t understand why his wife cried as they prayed with family members in their motorhome.

‘’Are you okay?’’ Dillon asked Whitney. “What’s wrong?’’

Dillon’s words were not soothing.

“She kind of got mad at me for like, why are you crying,’’ he said. “She stormed off. So I walked back to the bathroom, like, ‘Babe, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?’’

“I get emotional when it comes to you,’’ Whitney told him.

“That’s good, but it’s okay, I’m going to be okay, it’s all good,’’ Dillon reassured. “We had it out there for a second, and I was like, ‘Look, before I get in this race car, my mind has got to be right, so tell me you love me.’ And she’s like, ‘I love you. That’s why I’m crying.’ ’’

Then she told him something else.

“This one is not going to be easy,’’ she said of the race.

“You’re not going to lead every lap and be up front much, but you’re going to do it when it’s clutch, you’re going to win when it matters, on the last lap,’’ she said.

It wasn’t just Whitney’s words with him. He had a lucky penny in his car — just as Earnhardt had in the No. 3 car when he won the 1998 Daytona 500.

Dillon got the penny earlier this week while doing an autograph session outside the garage. A child in a white Ford hat came through the line. Dillon, a Chevrolet driver, took off his hat, signed it and gave it to the child.

“I’ve got to be your favorite driver, right?’’ Dillon told the child he estimated to be 8 years old.

The next day, Dillon saw the child wearing his hat outside the garage fence. Dillon approached him. The child gave Dillon a penny that he put in his car.

Between Whitney’s words and the penny, Dillon only led only the final lap. Actually, he led less than half a lap, taking the lead after the contact with Almirola.

“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him,’’ Dillon said. “I guess that was my other option, give up a Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing. I don’t know, I’m glad he’s not mad. If he needs to do it to me at Talladega for everybody to feel good, I’ve got a Daytona 500 championship trophy, ring, whatever. I don’t care. I’ve got the 3 back in Victory Lane.’’

Back where Dillon was in 1998 as a 7-year-old, celebrating Earnhardt’s win that day and collecting all the sponsor hats the team wore.

Sunday, they were in Victory Lane for him. Childress and the team laughed, sprayed champagne and celebrated a night they hadn’t enjoyed after the Daytona 500 since last winning it in 2007.

As the team members posed for pictures with their sponsor hats, they didn’t raise their index finger to signal they were No. 1 as they cheered.

They didn’t raise two fingers for the number of Cup wins Dillon now has.

They raised three fingers.

 and on Facebook

Keeping pace with ‘The King’? Hard to do after second at Daytona

Getty Images
2 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For perhaps the first time in NASCAR history, “The King” wasn’t signing autographs.

“No, ain’t got time now buddy,” Richard Petty, smiling broadly but striding briskly below his famous black cowboy hat, said to a fan holding up a sharpie and program as he entered the pit lane at Daytona International Speedway, urgently searching for his famous No. 43 Chevrolet.

The 80-year-old’s purposeful pace finally slowed as he reached crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who informed Petty why his car was nowhere to be found – because driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace was involved in a postrace crash with Denny Hamlin.

“Did we beat him?” Petty asked.

“Yeah, we beat him,” Blickensderfer said.

Petty smiled while dropping his shades off his nose, turned on his heels and made a beeline back down the pit lane and into the garage, where he waved to throngs of fans cheering from the Fan Deck above while turning down three more autograph-seekers.

He paused briefly to escape the path of a wrecker towing the battered No. 43 back to the hauler and then tore off again for the care center.

Most you’ve walked in a while, King? “You got that! Damn right.”

He disappeared inside the care center and then emerged with Wallace, whom he gave a bear hug. He chatted briefly with family members and kept smiling while staring up at the scoring pylon before wandering over to some waiting reporters with a playfully gruff, “What do you want?”

Not a bad start to the season, huh?

“Almost,” Petty said. “(Wallace) was laying in there, and they was checking his blood pressure, and I walked in and said, ‘What was the last thing I told you?’ ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Don’t tear up my car.’ He just went out. I think his blood pressure went to 330!

“I wasn’t going to blame him. That’s for dang sure.”

Wallace, who placed a career-best second as the highest-finishing African-American in the 60-year history of the Daytona 500, later recounted his version of events.

“My heart is still pumping over that, sitting on the cot in the infield care center,” Wallace said. “(Petty) walks in livid, and he first thing he said, what’s the first thing I told you, with a very stern attitude and look, and I’m like, ‘Ummmm,’ and he says, ‘I told you not to wreck the car,’ and I was like, ‘I didn’t do it.’  So we shared a good laugh, and he come in and gave me a big hug after that.

“To see the smile on his face, I think you had to be there to experience that moment.”

The smile never left Petty’s face, which lit up when asked to describe Wallace’s performance.

“They’d make pit stops because they was adjusting the car, and he’d run himself back up to sixth, seventh,” Petty said. “He probably passed more cars than anybody. But he was in the race all day long. That was good. It was a good day for us.”

Particularly for a team that is hunting for sponsorship. Wallace scored Richard Petty Motorsports’ best finish since Aric Almirola’s July 2014 victory at Daytona.

“This shouldn’t hurt anything,” Petty said. “If we could have won the race, it would have been better, but second is the best thing besides winning. He was in the race all day long. That made us feel good.”

The seven-time champion seems to be in great spirits ever since hiring the 24-year-old Wallace, who said he served as Petty’s “Uber driver” for a Saturday night dinner.

“We were just making small talk, no cameras there,” Wallace said. “He’s been here since Day 1 running on the beaches, and ever since this was built, and just hearing all that just was like, ‘Wow.’ First of all, I wasn’t even born yet, wasn’t even a thought yet.  My parents were just born.  Just kind of showing his age there, and just hearing what he had to talk about.”

After Wallace excelled in a four-race audition substituting for an injured Almirola last season, RPM hired him last November. Petty has said Wallace puts the team in step with the new generation of fresh faces in Cup this season.

Does he also provide the car owner with extra energy?

“I’m trying to give him energy,” Petty said. “I’ve got plenty!”

Someone told him he had just proved that on his dash through the pits.

“Nobody could keep up,” he said with a wink.

Late Daytona wreck keeps Martin Truex Jr. from picking up where he left off last season

Leave a comment

Last season, Martin Truex Jr. won a series-high eight races en route to capturing his first career NASCAR Cup championship.

Truex hoped to pick up where he left off at the end of last season with his first career win in the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t his day, as Truex finished 18th in the season opener.

But that’s not to say he wasn’t close. On the contrary. Truex was running second with seven laps left, but was shuffled back after being involved in a wreck with two laps left in originally scheduled 200-lap distance.

And there went his winning hopes.

MORE: Bubba Wallace gets pre-race good luck call from baseball legend Hank Aaron

While his team managed to get him back on-track, the damage was done and he finished two laps down to the leaders.

“Not the day we were looking for,” Truex said. “It was our day for a while and then it wasn’t. It’s just the way it goes.

“Superspeedway racing – a lot of it is out of your control. That last caution in hindsight, we probably should have gotten tires. Tried to come up from the back because we were sitting ducks upfront.”

That he was running second so late in the race is a testament to the efficiency of Truex and his team. Earlier in the race, the No. 78 Toyota had fallen two laps back due to a punctured oil cooler, front end damage and a flat right rear tire after being caught up in a wreck.

But Truex managed to work his way back onto the lead lap and was in position to make a great comeback – only to fall short at the end.

“We didn’t have enough speed to keep up with some of those guys up front. I’d get back there but didn’t have the speed to get by them. It was just one of those deals where we needed it to stay green to be in a good spot. It just didn’t work out in the end.”

But there were some bright spots: he earned 11 championship points for finishing fifth and sixth in the first two stages.

“It was our day for a while and then it wasn’t,” Truex said. “It’s just the way it goes.”

Social Roundup: NASCAR community congratulates Austin Dillon on Daytona 500 win

1 Comment

Austin Dillon led only one lap to win Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’s the ninth different driver to win the race in the last nine years.

Not long after the 27-year-old driver took the checkered flag, NASCAR’s corner of Twitter began congratulating him.

First up is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was the grand marshal for the race. He left the track when Alex Bowman was collected in a Lap 198 crash, but he still sent Dillon his warm wishes.