All photos courtesy Talladega Superspeedway

Talladega is Sweet Home Alabama for track chairman Grant Lynch

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Grant Lynch has served as chairman of Talladega Superspeedway since 1994, the third-longest tenured track operator in NASCAR.

Yet in all that time, he has never found his way to victory lane after a race.

“I don’t have to be the guy that gives out accolades,” Lynch said. “I’m comfortable not being there, and I have other people that know how to do that.

“Also, I want the teams to spend time with the sponsors in Victory Lane because they’re the ones that pay a lot of money to put on these races. It’s just something I do.”

While winning drivers and teams are celebrating, Lynch is usually found directing operations to get race fans on their way out of the track as quickly as possible.

“Bill France Jr. once told me, ‘It’s your job to get these people out of here so they’ll come back.’ I believe Bill France Jr.,” Lynch said.

It’s one of many valuable lessons Lynch learned from France, his former boss. With France’s mentoring and leadership, Lynch has turned Talladega into a must-see track on any race fan’s bucket list.

NASCAR RETURNS TO ‘DEGA THIS WEEKEND

For the 47th time in his tenure, Lynch throws open the gates and doors to his second home, welcoming tens of thousands of fans to this weekend’s racing action for the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series.

During his time as head of Talladega, Lynch has elevated the fan experience with enhancements such as unlimited free camping, alcohol-free campgrounds (even though Talladega is still known for its parties) and Sunday morning church services.

Lynch is the third-longest serving track operator in NASCAR behind Martinsville Speedway’s Clay Campbell (assumed his role in 1988) and Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Ed Clark (1992) – who are also among his best friends.

But Lynch is more than just a track operator. For several years, he split that role with a role as a high-level operative for parent company International Speedway Corporation, which included overseeing the development of both Kansas and Chicagoland speedways.

He also flew to Washington State 70 times within a two-year period to seek legislative support to build a new racetrack in the Pacific Northwest.

“I’m not known for doing that because y’all see me two times a year at the races,” Lynch said. “Most people assume I’ve been here all the time, but I haven’t been here as long as people would think.”

IT ALL BEGAN BY DRIVING A SHOW CAR

Lynch has had a long career in motorsports. He began as a show car driver for RJ Reynolds, rising to that company’s Senior Manager of Operations and Public Relations during its tenure as NASCAR’s primary sponsor, before moving to Talladega in 1993 as general manager.

He learned his duties at the track from – and succeeded – a most familiar name in the sport: NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton, who was Talladega Superspeedway’s president before handing the reins to Lynch.

“Mike brought me into the fold very quickly and said, ‘Here’s the deal: I’m going to run May (1993), and you follow me around. And then you’re going to run July (1993) and I’ll see how you do. And if you do good, then I’ll plan to get out of your way.’

“He mentored me and showed me what to do and then he got out of my way. Once I took over, the sport was just blowing up and we grabbed a hold of it, rode it as hard as anybody did and built the place to what we built it to.”

A NEW ERA FOR NASCAR — AND TALLADEGA

Like pretty much every other NASCAR track today, Talladega has gone through an evolution due to the downturn in the economy, less demand for tickets and fewer fans attending races.

Lynch remains optimistic that things are turning around for both his track and the sport.

“Of course, we’re in a little downturn now and now we’re refining it,” he said. “We’re taking the seats that used to be uncomfortable, the little 18-inch chair back seats – I know I can’t fit into an 18-inch seat – and now they’re 22 inches wide in the towers and 21 inches wide elsewhere.

“We’ve spent money wisely here and continue to do things for the fans to tell them we don’t just want you here for the races, we want you here for the concerts, for the Big One on the Boulevard party, and we want you to have a good time.”

Even though he’s been at Talladega for nearly a quarter century, Lynch credits his development as an administrator to the late Bill France Jr. and ISC chairwoman Lesa France Kennedy, who both hired him.

Lynch with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, who still holds the NASCAR speed record, set at Talladega nearly 30 years ago.

At the time, ISC only owned only Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and half of Watkins Glen. Since then, with Lynch at the helm of much of its development, ISC has grown to own 12 tracks from Watkins Glen in New York to Auto Club Speedway in California.

“To have had the attention that I got from Bill France Jr. when I was learning how to run this place, it’s hard for people to understand in the fast-paced environment we have today, how many phone calls I got from Bill saying ‘What are you doing about so-and-so?’” Lynch said. “I became a much better track operator because of the attention Bill and Lesa gave me as I was coming up.”

ALABAMA HAS BEEN A GREAT HOME

Even though he grew up in North Carolina, it’s been Sweet Home Alabama for Lynch and his family for nearly 25 years.

“It’s a place I love,” he said. “The state of Alabama, when we moved here, I’m a big outdoorsman, and it offers so much in natural resources throughout the state to experience. Plus, my girls went through school here, then both went to college at Auburn and both are now in Birmingham, so that anchors us down to the area as well. It’s our home.”

Lynch is active in the community, serving on a various board of directors, and is involved in a number of charitable endeavors, including the Alabama Institute for the Blind and Deaf.

Sitting on a site of more than 400 acres, Talladega’s overall footprint is larger than that of sister track in Daytona. Its infield is so large that some have joked you could fit a small third-world country in it.

Or, as Lynch likes to say – especially since he’s deep in football country: “We can put every SEC football stadium inside Talladega … it’ll hold all 14 stadiums. Now that’s big!”

Lynch and Kurt Busch in 2010

But like Dale Earnhardt Jr.Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, the checkered flag is slowly coming into view as Lynch eyes his own eventual retirement.

“I’m in my early 60s and I don’t want to work forever, but at the same time, people are living a lot longer,” he said. “I plan on working some more years. We’re obviously going to be going through something with Dale Jr. retiring, which is another challenge we’ll face going forward as a speedway, and I’d hate to just bail on something like that coming down the pike.

“I want to continue to work. I don’t know if I want to work 10 more years, but I’m probably going to work more than one or two and then see when it’s time for me to leave.

“At some point, everybody is going to ride off into the sunset and I hope to be smart about making that decision and stay long enough that I don’t want to be un-useful or wear out my welcome, either.”

WHAT WILL NASCAR AND TALLADEGA DO WITHOUT DALE JR?

This will be a rather unique weekend at ‘Dega, as it will be Earnhardt’s next-to-last scheduled race at his most successful racetrack (six wins). While Lynch admits he’ll miss Junior after he retires from racing, he’s bullish on NASCAR’s next generation.

“The greatest thing we have going for us is the names we have coming up right now and how good these young people are,” Lynch said. “You see what an Erik Jones and Chase Elliott and others are doing right now.

“The teams are very strong right now, the finances are working for everybody right now, the sport is strong, we’re not what we were but we’re still very important in the motorsports world in the United States without a doubt. I think we’re going to have a time where we’re going to find some new fans that are going to attach to some new drivers and go on.

“I’m positive on the fact that we don’t need to quit what we’re doing here at Talladega because it’s generating good interest with the race fans, we’re beating most of our peers in a lot of the things we sell, and I think we have a bright future here just because of what we can do here that other people can’t.”

Come Saturday and Sunday, Lynch won’t be in victory lane once again. But that’s the way he likes it. It’s not about him, it’s about the drivers and the fans – and that’s the way he wants it to continue.

“I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve gotten to do,” he said. “I don’t know what I would trade it for. I’ve gotten to see a lot of places and go to a lot of places and meet a lot of people and worked with a lot of great people at the track and have been involved with some of the greatest fans in the world, so that’s a pretty blessed life.”

TALLADEGA — HOME OF SPEED AND RECORDS

Talladega Superspeedway has seen a number of NASCAR records set there, most during Grant Lynch’s tenure.

Here’s some of ‘Dega’s most notable racing achievements:

* All-Time qualifying speed record: 212.809 mph – Bill Elliott (1987).

* Elliott also holds the record for most poles at TSS (8).

* All-Time race speed record at TSS: 188.354 mph – Mark Martin (1997, which was also the first caution-free race ever contested there).

* Closest NASCAR Cup series finish: 2011 – Jimmie Johnson over Clint Bowyer (.002 seconds).

* Closest NASCAR Xfinity Series finish: .1999 – Terry Labonte over Joe Nemechek (.002 seconds)

* Closest NASCAR Camping World Truck Series finish: 2010 – Kyle Busch over Aric Almirola (.002 seconds)

* Most lead changes in a NASCAR Cup race: 88 – April 25, 2010 and April 17, 2011

* Most Leaders in a single NASCAR Cup race at TSS: 29 – April 25, 2010

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Kasey Kahne, Matt DiBenedetto marking Cup start milestones at Kansas

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway will mark career milestones for Kasey Kahne and Matt DiBenedetto.

Kahne, who is in the final five races of his tenure driving the No. 5 for Hendrick Motorsports, will make his 500th Cup Series start.

DiBenedetto, driver of Go Fas Racing’s No. 32 Ford, will reach the century mark with his 100th Cup start.

The two join the ranks of drivers who have celebrated similar milestones this season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. marked his 600th start at Auto Club Speedway. Kevin Harvick made his 600th start in the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway and Kurt Busch made his in the Bristol night race.

Brad Keselowski won Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in his 300th Cup start.

Kahne, 37,  made his first Cup start in the 2004 Daytona 500 for Evernham Motorsports. The 24-year-old driver won the Rookie of the Year that season, making him the youngest winner of the award at the time since Jeff Gordon earned it at the age of 22 in 1993.

Since then he has earned 18 wins, 92 top fives, 175 top 10s and 27 poles. He has yet to miss a race in his 14-year career in the Cup Series.

DiBenedetto, 26, made his first Cup start on March 15, 2015 in the CampingWorld.com 500 at Phoenix Raceway. The start, in the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing, came after he failed to qualify for the previous two races at Atlanta and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In the two years since, DiBenedetto has earned three top 10s, including two this year in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

His career-best finish is sixth in the April 2016 race at Bristol.

Through 31 races this year, DiBenedetto has an average finish of 26.8, an improvement over his totals in 2015 (32nd) and 2016 (30th).

In five Kansas starts, DiBenedetto’s best result is 24th in the fall 2016 race. His average finish is 28.2.

“I really enjoy racing at Kansas Speedway,” DiBenedetto said in a press release. “Our mile-and-a-half program has been very strong this year and (Crew chief) Gene (Nead) has been giving me fast race cars to compete with. We qualified in the second-round here at Kansas earlier in the season, so that gives us a lot of hope.

“I like the racing at Kansas because you can move around a lot groove-wise and find a line that works with the balance of your race car. I’m usually one of the first people to move up into the high-groove and that seems to help find us some speed. If we can get a balance on the race car like we had in the spring, I know we’ll be fast and competitive.”

NASCAR America: Scan All from the Alabama 500 at Talladega

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“Ol’ Dega is giving me one last thrill.”

That’s the remark Dale Earnhardt Jr. made after he narrowly avoided being collected in the second of three wrecks in the final 16 laps of Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, his last start at the track.

It’s one of many highlights in the latest edition of “Scan All,” which documents the Alabama 500 at the restrictor-plate track.

In the above video, Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe relive the race, which ended with Keselowski’s sixth win at the track.

Here are more highlights from “Scan All.”

  • Listen to the communication of the No. 48 team as confusion breaks out over whether they can work on Jimmie Johnson‘s car during a red flag.
  • “It is a restrictor-plate race, so I’m not going to promise you anything.” – Brendan Gaughan after remarking he hoped his team wouldn’t have to make too many body repairs. He would be eliminated in a crash with 10 laps to go.
  • “Those stands are packed. They should get a free Dale Jr. autograph.” – Clint Bowyer on the large crowd that took in Earnhardt’s final Cup start at Talladega.
  • “Holy (expletive). What an idiot. That was the absolute stupidest (expletive) thing he’s ever done.” Kyle Busch after a crash involving Jame McMurray, Erik Jones and Jeffrey Earnhardt. The crash began when McMurray slowed down enter pit road and Jones ran into him.
  • Listen as Keselowski and his team struggle to communicate with each other do to a faulty radio system.
  • “How in the (expletive) did we wind up in the (expletive) back? (Expletive) stupid.” – Part of a tirade by Bowyer following a Lap 157 crash that collected him. Bowyer pulled his car into his pit box, exited it, had a brief exchange with his crew chief and walked back to the garage.

Watch the above video for more.

Race distance for Charlotte Motor Speedway road course still TBD

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CONCORD, N.C. — It still might be known as the Bank of America 500, but 500 kilometers might not be the distance of the first road-course race in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Charlotte Motor Speedway announced Wednesday in the media center during a break in tire testing that next year’s Round of 16 cutoff race would be 500 kilometers or about 130 laps on the 2.42-mile layout. Track officials said it would be the longest road course race on the circuit (roughly 90 miles longer than the events at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International).

That prompted a raft of buzz on social media about a 500-kilometer race that likely would be pushing at least four hours with two stage breaks and a few cautions (lap times were in the 90-second range during the test).

But in a statement early Wednesday evening, NASCAR wouldn’t confirm 500 kilometers as the distance of the Sept. 30 race.

Here’s the statement:

This week’s test provided valuable data that will be part of the equation in determining the distance for next fall’s race. We will continue working closely with our partners to develop the best event for fans and competitors alike.

There was no immediate response from Charlotte Motor Speedway to the NASCAR statement. A release from the track near the conclusion of the two-day tire test late Wednesday afternoon referred to next season’s race as the Bank of America 500 but didn’t specify the race’s distance.

Charlotte road course could be Talladega, Part II as Round of 16 cutoff race

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CONCORD, N.C. – There are many unknowns about the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course – passing zones, tire compound, even race distance – but Martin Truex Jr. said Wednesday there is one certainty.

When the new layout makes its debut as the Round of 16 cutoff race next season, playoff drivers will want to be assured of advancing ahead of time.

“I’m going to be hoping I’m going to win one of the first two in that round,” Truex said. “I’m going to put this right in there with Talladega.”

The Furniture Row Racing driver tested tires Tuesday and Wednesday on the 18-turn, 2.42-mile track (which incorporates most of Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval) with Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and Daniel Hemric.

Busch said the layout was similar to the Daytona International Speedway road course but with a much smaller footprint that ratcheted up the intensity.

“There’s no room for taking a break or having a quick, deep breath down the straightaway,” Busch said. “As soon as you’re in high gear off turn 2, you’re in a chicane. Back through the gears, you’re downshifting on the brakes to go to the frontstretch chicane. It’s a very busy track.”

There is a 35-foot change in elevation on the course, which features two chicanes that track officials say are designed to encourage passing and provide an option for rain tires.

The transitions between the high-banked surface and the flatter road course make it tricky to navigate.

“There’s all kinds of craziness going on,” Truex said. “Turns 1 and 2 are pretty wild, narrow with concrete walls on both sides. Intimidating.

“It’s a unique track. I don’t know if I’ve run a road course anything like it because of the elevation changes, the bumps and the humps. Charlotte isn’t smooth to begin with and add in infield that has been around a long time, there’s a lot of swells in it. It definitely is interesting. It’s a unique challenge. I don’t know I’ve raced anything like it.”

The track announced the race distance as 500 kilometers, which would make it the longest road course race on the circuit, but NASCAR didn’t confirm the length of the first playoff race with right turns (saying “it provided valuable data that will be part of the equation in determining the distance for next fall’s race”).

Also in flux is the layout. Truex talked to Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Marcus Smith about adding some safety features such as curbing, runoff areas, tire barriers and walls.

Busch also has recommended eliminating Turn 8 to connect the seventh and ninth turn, reducing the number of slow corners on the track. “There are a lot of slow sections with turns 5, 6 and 7,” Busch said. “Those are good rhythmic corners. … (But) a 3,500-pound car going 35 mph too many times isn’t too exciting. We need to speed up the track a bit.”

Truex, who shaved 10 seconds off his lap time on the first day, estimated the top-end speed is about 175 mph and said the ninth turn (before entering the oval in Turn 1) is the slowest.

Where are the best passing zones?

“That’s a great question,” he said. “I can’t tell you that. Single-car runs so far, it’s hard to say. There’s a lot of places you can crash. I’m not sure about the passing yet.”

After starting on the Watkins Glen tire, it’s expected Goodyear could bring a softer tire next year for faster speeds and better grip. Lap times were in the 90-second range, which Busch said was slower than anticipated but illustrated the difficulty of balancing a tire between a high-speed oval and a road course that drove more like the technical Sonoma than the high-speed Watkins Glen.

“The corners are sharp, low grip and we have 800 horsepower, so we’re trying to put the power down and sliding the tires quite a bit,” Busch said. “The process is to work with Goodyear and Charlotte Motor Speedway to find things we can change safety-wise and recommend the shapes of chicane around the back straightaway and even the front straightaway section.”

Busch, who drove the No. 14 Ford in place of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, said he volunteered for the race because of its playoff implications in 2018.

“It’s a cutoff race,” he said. “Teams better get their arms wrapped around it and their heads focused on it because it’s one of the most important races of the year. When it’s a new situation like this, there’s a lot of oddities and variables. Fans will see it.”