Photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji

Ex-NFL star Shawne Merriman, racer Jesse Iwuji team up in NASCAR K&N effort

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On the football field and in business, former NFL star Shawne Merriman has had an astute eye for talent and opportunity.

So it’s not surprising that Merriman joined forces with NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver Jesse Iwuji.

A chance meeting with Iwuji at a recent fashion show in Los Angeles promoting Merriman’s “Lights Out” clothing line led Merriman to becoming Iwuji’s car owner.

“Talk about unexpected, right?” Merriman, a three-time NFL Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, told NBC Sports.

“I didn’t realize Shawne was going to be there,” Iwuji told NBC Sports. “I had never met him before, but I thought this would be a cool opportunity to introduce myself to him, tell him what I’m doing and see if there’s any interest in him to come on board.

Shawne Merriman
Shawne Merriman

“He told me to have a meeting the next week.”

Iwuji made the 10-hour round trip to Los Angeles to meet with Merriman.

“He saw how serious I was,” Iwuji said.

His drive and passion on and off the racetrack are evident. While Iwuji’s business proposal to Merriman was unique, it was his personality that sold Merriman.

“Jesse’s focused, just talking about ‘Lights Out,’ a future with him and what he has going on,” Merriman said. “At that point, I was so intrigued by his hunger, being focused. It gets me excited when other people get excited about being part of ‘Lights Out’ and the stuff we’re doing.”

The new driver-owner pairing kicks off with Sunday’s K&N Pro Series East opener at New Smyrna Speedway.

“Jesse is growing his notoriety and who he is in NASCAR,” Merriman said. “I love to start with people from the ground up. It’s so easy to come in and get a guy who’s already established and be a part of something, that’s easy. I like to be a part of the building stages, and that’s what Jesse is right now. He’s a tremendous talent coming up in NASCAR and I’m real happy to be part of it.”

After New Smyrna, Iwuji prepares for his second full 14-race season in K&N West. As a rookie in 2016, he finished 10th in the series, with his best race result a 10th-place effort.

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Photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji Racing

It’s not hard to understand why Merriman and Iwuji bonded so quickly. They’re both former football players: Merriman was a linebacker at the University of Maryland and then eight years in the NFL; Iwuji played cornerback and ran track at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Both also have a military lineage of sorts. Iwuji is an active-duty lieutenant in the Navy and serves as an administrator at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterrey, California.

Merriman spent considerable time visiting military bases around San Diego during his five-plus years with the NFL’s Chargers.

The son of Nigerian parents who immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s, the 29-year-old Iwuji is a native of Carrollton, Texas, a Dallas suburb.

While he’s been a lifelong motorsports fan, Iwuji didn’t get into active NASCAR competition until 2014.

“I did drag racing and road course racing for four years before I decided to pursue a racing career,” he said. “NASCAR was the first door that opened for me for that and I decided to jump on board, and I’ve never looked back.”

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This will be Iwuji’s second season with Patriot Motorsports Group, an Eagle, Idaho firm owned by John Wood. The team fields cars for as many as nine different drivers over the course of a season.

But Iwuji plans to become principal owner of the team next year. His enlistment in the Navy, which began in 2010, ends in May, when he’ll transition to the Naval Reserves. Doing so will allow him even more time to pursue his racing dreams.

“I basically don’t have a life outside of racing and the Navy,” Iwuji laughed. “My normal Navy job, I’m at work from 8 to 4 p.m., and then I spend three hours at home on my racing simulator to keep myself sharp racing, and then I spend another 4-5 hours every night working on marketing and promoting myself and my team.”

The Navy may be in Iwuji’s future as a potential sponsor, as well.

“I am currently working it, trying my best to put it all together and get the Navy on board,” Iwuji said. “NASCAR has never had an active-duty armed forces member ever compete in NASCAR and I know the Navy used to be a sponsor of a car in NASCAR.

“So why not come back in, use what I’m doing as a recruiting tool and outreach tool for the Navy and become a sponsor? That will help propel me while also helping the Navy bring in recruits and promote the Navy in a positive way.”

Some branches of the military have scaled back sponsorship of sports, particularly motorsports, due to Congressional pressure. Example: the National Guard pulled its sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the 2015 season.

Still, the Air Force remains an associate sponsor of Richard Petty Motorsports, and also will serve as primary sponsor of  the No. 43 Ford Fusion for two races this season.

Iwuji and Merriman also like the idea of using their combined racing and business platform to expand NASCAR’s diversity reach.

“We’re all about giving opportunities to new types of people who never would have had the opportunity to be in this sport and in NASCAR and to be able to do some of the great things that a few are able to do in this sport,” Iwuji said.

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Jesse Iwuji — photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji Racing

Added Merriman, “Bringing diversity into any sport is really going to open up the eyes of people who wouldn’t necessarily have any other direct involvement with it.

“Imagine a 12-year-old Shawne Merriman gets a chance to go to a NASCAR race and sees the excitement of what goes on there. Shawne Merriman could have been a NASCAR driver if he hadn’t ended up being a football player.”

Iwuji hopes to start climbing the NASCAR ladder in the next year or two.

“I know I have a long way to go since I haven’t been racing my whole life,” Iwuji said.“I’m still trying to catch up to all the guys that have been racing since they were five years old.

“But I have had some good runs, some good races and I’ve shown myself that I have the ability, I just need more seat time to hone my skills and get better and fine-tune some things so that I’ll eventually get there.

“I’m patient enough to make it happen and do see myself one day getting to where I want to be.”

Merriman, 32, is a long-time racing fan. He’s friends with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and in 2008 was grand marshal for the NASCAR Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in California. If things go the way Iwuji hopes, Merriman will be right alongside on the climb up the NASCAR ladder.

“No question about it,” Merriman said. “It’s what I call the groundwork of getting from where you are to where you want to go because there’s no easy path there. He has great knowledge about cars and what he’s doing.

“It’s like watching a football film about how to get a sack, to get to the quarterback. You line up, get to a three-point stance and then look everything on both sides of the ball. You get very detailed about your passion and what you love doing. If you talk to Jesse about the same thing, he’ll break down everything from every tire, axle to piece of machinery. He gets deep with it.”

It’s all about passion, motivation and drive – both on and off the race track, says Iwuji.

“I’m just working hard, grinding every single day,” he said. “Eventually, I’ll get to where I want to be. I just have to keep my head down and keep pushing.”

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Erik Jones fastest in 1st of 2 Cup practices at Fontana; Harvick, Ragan hit wall

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NASCAR Cup rookie Erik Jones was fastest in the first of two practice sessions Saturday at Auto Club Speedway in preparation for Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Jones drove his No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota to the top of the speed charts at the Fontana, California track with a best lap of 187.251, the only driver to exceed 187 mph.

Jones was followed by Chase Elliott (186.843), Ryan Newman (186.732), Jimmie Johnson (186.384) and Brad Keselowski (186.292).

There were two incidents of note during the session:

* With just over nine minutes remaining in the practice session, Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet hit hard into the outside retaining wall, sustaining damage on the right side.

However, the team chose to repair the damage rather than go to a backup car.

Prior to the incident, Harvick’s car was sixth-fastest (186.128 mph).

* In the final two minutes, David Ragan spun and impacted the Turn 3 wall. It appeared something came loose from under Ragan’s car before impact.

Given the amount of damage, Ragan will likely have to go to a backup car.

Click here for how Saturday’s first of two practice sessions played out:

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Danica Patrick: ‘NASCAR makes a really big mistake of fining for some stuff’

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Danica Patrick wants her money back. Or she at least wants to know what it bought.

Fined $70,000 over the past 17 months for intentionally wrecking a rival driver under caution and tossing and walking onto the track to gesture at another, Patrick was asked Friday at Auto Club Speedway how she felt about Austin Dillon avoiding a fine for crashing Cole Custer under caution at Phoenix.

Give me my money back,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “I think NASCAR makes a really big mistake of fining for some stuff, especially something that happens in the car because it makes for good TV, just like fights and all that stuff.  We can handle it.

“I think it’s a mistake.  I might be speaking too much, but I’ve been fined a few times, and I think that it makes for good TV, and I think that we handle it out on the track ourselves.”

NASCAR has said it funnels the fine payments to the NASCAR Foundation, which supports several charitable organizations.

Patrick would prefer NASCAR avoid fining everyone but is curious about how the money gets earmarked.

“I would actually rather know what it did,” she said. “I would actually love to see like the playground that got built for it, or homeless people that got food.  I would like to see actually what the money does for fines because it’s supposed to go to charity, right?  So what does it really do?  I would like to see that.”

Today’s Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images
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After four races, Xfinity Series regulars have won twice (Ryan Reed at Daytona and Justin Allgaier at Phoenix) and Cup drivers have won twice (Kyle Busch at Atlanta and Joey Logano at Las Vegas). The Xfinity Series regulars will look to take the lead in that category at Auto Club Speedway.

Here are the particulars for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Stu Crum, COO of Service King, will give the command for drivers to start engines at 4:07 p.m. ET. The green flag is scheduled for 4:16 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 150 laps (300 miles) around the 2-mile oval.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: The Xfinity garage opens at 10 a.m. The drivers meeting is at 2:15 p.m. Driver introductions are at 3:35 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Karen Waldrup will perform the Anthem at 4:01 p.m.

TV/RADIO: Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Its coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at mrn.com. MRN’s coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts 63 degrees at race time with a 7 percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Austin Dillon took the lead on a wild final lap and went on to win. Kyle Busch led and cut a tire. Daniel Suarez took the lead but ran out of fuel. Busch managed to retake the lead. Dillon got by Busch for the lead in Turn 4 after hitting the wall. Busch finished second and Darrell Wallace Jr. was third.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying at 12:30 p.m.

NASCAR’s Saturday schedule at Auto Club Speedway

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The Xfinity Series ends its part of the “West Coast swing” today with the Service King 300.

But the day is filled with Cup Series practice and Xfinity qualifying prior to the race.

Here is the full schedule for the day with TV and radio info.

All times are Eastern.

Saturday, March 25

10 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

10 a.m. – 6 p.m. – Cup garage open

11:30 a.m. – 12:25 p.m. – Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

12:30 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying; single vehicle/two rounds (FS1)

2:15 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

2:30 – 3:20 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

3:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

4 p.m. – Service King 300 Xfinity race; 150 laps/300 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)