Photo by Dustin Long

Long time coming: Eight years after then-record fine, Carl Long returns to Cup

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STATESVILLE, N.C. — It is 8:15 p.m. Monday, 14 hours after George Church and Ken Kotlowski arrived at the tiny warehouse where race cars, pit carts, tool boxes, fuel cans and old tires are scattered along with hopes and dreams.

There is a problem.

Less than three days before they will load what will be a green-and-yellow No. 66 Cup car for a trip to Kansas Speedway, Church stands in the doorway of Carl Long’s cramped office, cluttered with a rear axle housing on the floor, and gives Long the news.

“There is no way those headers are going to work,’’ Church said.

The car’s oil pan is not clear of the headers. If left unchecked, the headers will “boil the oil’’ Long says.

They need new headers.

Compared to what Long has experienced in his racing career, it is a minor inconvenience, another sign of the roadblocks the 49-year-old endures to compete in NASCAR.

For nearly eight years, Long was barred from the Cup garage, prohibited to own a car in that series and forbidden to race there because of an unpaid $200,000 fine for an oversized engine.

Long lost both appeals and was stuck with the burdensome fine he could not afford. In one appeal, the panel noted his “strong love of racing’’ and that his testimony “came across as genuine and heartfelt’’ but that the penalty, although extreme for the low-budget team, was warranted.

Exiled to the Xfintiy and Truck Series, Long toiled until his sentence was commuted by NASCAR before this season. Long only says that he and the sanctioning body reached an “agreement” on the matter.

Friday morning at Kansas Speedway, Long will walk into the Cup garage for the first time since 2009.

TRYING TO DO A LOT WITH A LITTLE 

Although he also oversees the operation, Carl Long isn’t noted as the team owner. He lists his 72-year-old father, Horace, in that role.

“I told him, now it’s going to be Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and you’re going to be right in the middle of them,’’ Long says with a laugh.

Long laughs a lot. It’s therapeutic.

Without self-deprecating humor, he would be miserable over the challenges he’s stomached to race. He once climbed into a trash bin at another team’s shop to take scrap pieces for his car years ago. He’s accepted used tires from teams, watched his savings account wither and winced at how human error before Xfinity qualifying at Daytona this year cost his team nearly $100,000 all told.

George Church works on Carl Long’s Cup car at the team’s shop earlier this week. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Yet, here he is in a 4,750-square foot structure — 50 times smaller than the space occupied by Team Penske’s NASCAR teams in its shop — to compete against the sport’s elites. There is no engineering department, no fab shop, no set-up plates, no engine shop, no R&D department and no training room. The most sophisticated piece of equipment in the shop might be each person’s cell phone.

There’s also not enough room.

Some cars are kept in storage containers nearby, others are kept in the haulers until it is time to switch them out and head to the next race. Another car is pushed outside the warehouse and placed on a grass patch by the street corner, as if it is a sign telling people where the race shop is located but fans don’t flock here.

If this was the 1960s, this might be one of the best shops in the sport. Instead, it’s a place for Long to work and try to survive in a sport he’s invested nearly 35 years of his life.

“Racing is an addiction,’’ Long says, leaning back in a black office chair, arms crossed. “There’s some people that get over an addiction real quick when they’re broke. But when you start off broke and somehow seem to manage it and it gets in your blood, it’s hard to just walk away.’’

He’ll do whatever it takes to race.

That includes driving the team’s hauler to Kansas Speedway. 

BACK IN TIME

Carl Long and wife Dee Dee looked over paint schemes for the car that will mark his return to NASCAR’s premier series. He showed the options to his eight full-time employees who help him field a two-car Xfinity operation and now a Cup entry.

They all told him to go with the green-and-yellow scheme that his car had at the 2009 Sprint Showdown — the last time he competed in a Cup race.

“There’s no better way to go back then the way you left,’’ said Jason Houghtaling, who joined Long’s operation in January.

The only difference will be that the number on the green roof will be yellow instead of red as it was in 2009. Long thinks the number will stand out more that way. Instead of No. 46, it will be No. 66, a tribute to Mark Thompson, a friend who has raced Long’s Xfinity cars in the past, including last weekend at Talladega. The 65-year-old Thompson finished 25th after an engine failure in that race.

Maybe a new number can provide Long with better fortune. His Cup career is best remembered by long-time NASCAR fans more for bad times than good.

He qualified for the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 only to see his car owner sell the ride so Darrell Waltrip, who had failed to qualify, could compete in that race in his final season. Long has never again qualified for the 600.

He tumbled down the backstretch at Rockingham in 2004, rolling four times after getting hit from behind.

His $200,000 fine in 2009 remained the largest NASCAR had issued until fining Michael Waltrip Racing $300,000 in 2013 for its team’s actions at Richmond.

While Long reached his dream of racing in the Cup series, he was tormented by lack of success. He’s competed in 23 Cup races but failed to qualify for 75 from 1999-2009. He never finished better than 29th in a Cup race.

It is one thing to dream but what happens when those dreams don’t pan out as hoped? Does one feel fortunate to have climbed so far or cursed at never getting the chance to excel?

“I won’t consider it a curse,’’ Long says. “I think I figured out early how to survive without cashflow. Because I built my cars and set up my cars and drove the haulers and did all that other stuff, it made it easier for me for someone who had a limited budget to work with.

“The issue with cars, everybody has their own opinion on what they could do if they had Kyle Busch’s car. I don’t think I would beat Kyle Busch, but I would be way better than I am now.’’

CUP HOPES RETURN

As they prepared the primer grey car for this weekend, the team had wiring issues and sent the car to the engine provider for help.

The car returned to the shop shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday, 10 hours before the hauler had to leave for Kansas.

Long purchased the car in December from HScott Motorsports and intended to convert it to the Xfinity Series, but he remained hopeful that NASCAR would permit a return to Cup.

Ken Kotlowski, in the engine area, and David Powers work on Carl Long’s Cup car. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It wasn’t until shortly before the Daytona 500 that he found out NASCAR would do so. It was too late to get the car ready for the 500. With the Xfinity Series off until May 27, this break gave Long and his team time to work on the car for this weekend. He also plans to race it in the Monster Energy Open at Charlotte next weekend provided the car isn’t damaged at Kansas. 

Should he return for the Open, it will complete the circle from when his Car career stalled in 2009.

NASCAR discovered that his engine for what was called the Sprint Showdown measured 358.197 cubic inches. The maximum allowed was 358.0 cubic inches. NASCAR fined Long’s crew chief, Charles Swing $200,000, suspended Long and his wife, who was listed as the car owner, 12 races each and docked both 200 driver and car owner points.

Long appealed. He didn’t contest that the engine was oversized but argued that the engine came from a third-party vendor, Ernie Elliott, and that the discrepancy may have been due to an error on the supplier’s behalf or expansion due to overheating or to general wear and tear. The National Stock Car Racing Commission didn’t agree.

“The Commission reaffirms that the race team is ultimately responsible for all components on the race car, including any supplied by third-party vendors.

“While it is tempting to consider penalties that this driver and team can more-readily bear, the sport would not be well served by having a sliding scale of penalties calibrated to a given team or member’s resources. Penalties of this magnitude for this type of infraction are warranted in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.’’

While a final appeal reduced the suspensions to eight races, the fine remained, effectively barring Long from the Cup series for nearly a decade.

NEXT CHAPTER

When Carl Long was 25, he set a goal of becoming a full-time Cup driver by the time he was 35 years old.

Four months shy of his 50th birthday Long, the 1990 street stock champion at Orange County Speedway, is still trying to meet that goal.

He admits that “the best talent today in racing is the ability to write a check. If you can write a check and keep writing them, you can get the best equipment there is.’’

An Xfinity car sits outside the race shop for Carl Long’s team. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Long knows his driving days are nearing an end. That doesn’t mean he’ll leave the sport. With a savings account that has about $1,500, his retirement plan is to keep working. His goal is to build his team to where more drivers are willing to pay to drive his cars.

“I’m very, very jealous of the people that I started racing with who can retire,’’ Long says with a laugh. “I remember when Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. come asked me for advice when we were running some Late Model races. I grew up racing with Scott Riggs, Hermie and Elliott Sadler.

“I never figured I was any better than any of the rest of those guys, but I had beat them and they had beat me, so I figured if they could do it, I could do it. I think the biggest problem I had was I never capitalized on good opportunities. I would follow them up and not be prepared. I’d prepare for a month or two months to go to Charlotte, go test, do what we needed to do, make the race, look good, everybody goes, ‘OK, this is good.’

“Next week, I’d go to Dover and didn’t have a clue where I was going, didn’t have the car set up, just took that same car and turned it around and go up there and wind up in the fence somewhere or another because I wasn’t prepared. I’d go from a hero to a zero.’’

Starting this weekend, he has another chance. It just took eight years to arrive.

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Update on Matt Kenseth report, Matt DiBenedetto visits

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and features Matt DiBenedetto, who is coming off a 16th-place finish at Richmond Raceway.

Marty Snider hosts and will be joined at the Big Oak Table by Kyle Petty, Nate Ryan and DiBenedetto.

On today’ show:
  • NBCSports.com’s Nate Ryan joins the show with the latest news following last night’s report from SB Nation that said Matt Kenseth is returning to the Monster Energy Series in a part-time role with Roush Fenway Racing.
  • Go Fas Racing driver Matt DiBenedetto will be our special guest! The leader of ‘DiBurrito Nation’ will discuss his solid run last weekend at Richmond and reveal his throwback scheme for this year’s Southern 500 at Darlington. But one question remains – will Matt bring fresh-baked treats from his Mom’s kitchen to the Big Oak Table?
  • We’ll have footage from the latest Dale Jr. Download, as Junior sits down with Kasey Kahne’s crew chief, Travis Mack – who tells the incredible story of how he unexpectedly delivered his own baby at home!
  • And our Tuesday tradition continues … We’ll listen in on all the action from drivers, crew chiefs and spotters on a Saturday night under the lights in Scan All Richmond!
If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Preliminary entry lists for Cup, Xfinity at Talladega

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Forty cars are entered for Sunday’s Geico 500 Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Joey Gase will be in the No. 00 car for StarCom Racing.

Brendan Gaughan is back in the No. 62 this weekend for Beard Motorsports.

Timothy Peters is set to make his Cup debut in the No. 92 for RBR Enterprises.

Cole Custer is listed in the No. 51 car for Rick Ware Racing but a team spokesperson told NBC Sports that Custer will not be driving the car.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won this race a year ago in overtime, beating Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch.

Click here for Cup entry list

Xfinity Series

There are 41 cars entered for the Sparks Energy 300 Xfinity race.

The race is a Dash 4 Cash event, so no drivers who earn points in the Cup Series are permitted to race in this event.

Noah Gragson, who finished second in his series debut last weekend at Richmond, is back in the No. 18 for Joe Gibbs Racing this weekend.

Shane Lee, who finished 14th in his series debut two weeks ago at Bristol, is back in the No. 3 for Richard Childress Racing.

Aric Almirola won this race a year ago, finishing ahead of Elliott Sadler and Joey Logano.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

Bump & Run: Who are drivers seeking first win of the year to watch?

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Among non-winners this season, who is one driver who has your attention and why?

Steve Letarte: Recently it’s been Jimmie Johnson. At the beginning of the year it was obvious the equipment wasn’t up to par. I don’t think the equipment has got a whole lot better yet, but I think Jimmie and Chad (Knaus) are learning to race with not-winning cars. I think Bristol and Richmond were two races that they performed very, very well. My point being we have seen Jimmie make mistakes and crash and have accidents, but in the last two weeks they have found a way to take their car and get better finishes than they were running most of the day.

Kyle Petty: Besides Jimmie Johnson? Ryan Blaney. He has started off these first few races stronger than I anticipated. Leading laps, stage wins, just the total effort he and that team have shown so far this season. I believe the usual suspects will get their wins in time. Oh, did I mention Jimmie Johnson?

Parker Kligerman: Alex Bowman; I know he hasn’t been flashy or spectacular, but he’s currently 13th in points and still ahead of his seven-time champion teammate Jimmie Johnson. He is showing consistent pace each week, and I’m sure there will be weekends like this past one at Richmond. If he keeps up his average, he may be a lock to make the playoffs. 

Nate Ryan: Erik Jones. He’s been among the least discussed of the youth brigade, but aside from some short-track stumbles, he has exhibited the promise to indicate his breakthrough is near.

Dustin Long: Joey Logano. He has eight top-10 finishes in the first nine races of the year. The only other driver who has accomplished that is Kyle Busch. Logano may be returning to Victory Lane soon.

Daniel McFadin: Aric Almirola. His instant speed this season and ability to move up through the field – especially going from 25th to second in the Stage 1 at Richmond – has been more than surprising. I expected it to take longer for the No. 10 team to get most of its wrinkles smoothed out. Now they just need to be consistent in putting together full races.

Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have combined to win six of the past 13 restrictor-plate races for Team Penske. Who do you view as their biggest threats this weekend at Talladega?

Steve Letarte: Each other. Let’s be clear, Talladega is still somewhat of a crapshoot, but good cars still tend to trend toward the front. The big thing that nobody is talking about in my mind is the new ride-height rule, I thought, changed Daytona dramatically and I think will change Talladega dramatically. This is only the second restrictor-plate race without ride heights. I think someone may have an advantage. We’re going to have to see who. You can’t throw out what Brad and Joey have done, but you’ve got to diminish it a little bit with the rule changes.

Kyle Petty: Anyone in a Ford. Honestly, if I go back to Daytona, Penske, SHR and Roush were all strong once the green flag fell, and I believe almost all the drivers have won on a plate track … almost.

Parker Kligerman: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Kyle Busch; fairly simple choices in my opinion. Since Kyle is a great superspeedway racer and is on fire. Ricky, obviously has the record and has so much confidence. He also is in a Ford and we know how the Fords are the cars to beat at superspeedway tracks.

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kevin Harvick. Along with Logano and Keselowski, those are the five best plate drivers in Cup. Throw in Ryan Blaney and Kurt Busch as dark horses and Kyle Busch because he can do no wrong lately.

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick are the names that immediately come to mind.

Daniel McFadin: I expect Logano and Keselowski to be challenged by Aric Almirola and their own Penske teammate, Ryan Blaney, who was the class of the field at Daytona before the late caution. As far as non-Ford drivers, I expect Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman to again be fast. It has to pay off as some point, right?

When the season is over who will have won more races — the drivers who have won already this year (Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon) or the rest of the field (Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, etc)?

Steve Letarte: I think the rest of the field wins by a race or two. I don’t think Austin Dillon is a threat to win maybe more than one more race. I would say Clint Bowyer maybe one more race. I just think there are too many big names, Larson, Elliott, Johnson, Jones, too many guys that I think can go out and win multiple races.

Kyle Petty: Kevin and Kyle. Those two together could win more than everyone else combined. Their teams are that good and they are that good. 

Parker Kligerman: Barring some massive change in the rules, the drivers who have already won. I feel that for whatever reason, with the current packages and tire specs, it obviously is suiting those drivers’ styles and therefore they are producing at a high level. 

Nate Ryan: Between Busch, Harvick and Truex, that trio could account for half of this season’s wins.

Dustin Long: It’s hard to see Busch, Harvick and Truex not piling up more wins in the coming weeks.

Daniel McFadin: With the first group containing Truex, Harvick and Kyle Busch, I would not be surprised if they have more victories than the current non-winners. 

Are the youngsters set to celebrate at Talladega?

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After Kevin Harvick won at Atlanta in February, he was asked about how the top eight finishers that day each had at least eight full-time seasons experience and if that was coincidence.

Recall, this was after some veterans expressed discontent with how NASCAR promoted younger drivers and that youngsters finished first and second in the Daytona 500 with 27-year-old Austin Dillon winning and 24-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr. placing second.

Harvick’s response to the question about experience that day in Atlanta?

“Talladega is April,’’ he said. 

As NASCAR heads to Talladega SuperSpeedeway this weekend, Harvick’s forecast proved correct. No driver under the age of 30 has won since Dillon’s victory in the Daytona 500.

So, will the youngsters prevail? For that to happen, they’ll have to  outwit the veterans.

But one who has done so is 27-year-old Joey Logano, who has won two of the last five Talladega races and three restrictor-plate races since 2015, including that year’s Daytona 500.

If not Logano, who?

Talladega has been known as a place for drivers to score their first career — and sometimes only — victory. Defending event winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who turned 30 in October, became the 11th driver to record his first Cup win at Talladega last May.

Dillon’s best finish in nine starts at Talladega is third in May 2016. Chase Elliott’s best finish in four starts there is fifth in that same race. Elliott continues to look for his first series win after finishing second last weekend at Richmond — the eighth time in 86 career starts he’s been second.

Erik Jones failed to finish either Talladega race last year. His best result was 33rd in May 2017. Kyle Larson’s best finish in eight Talladega races is sixth in Oct. 2016. Ryan Blaney‘s best finish in seven Talladega races is fourth in May 2015.

This will be the first Cup start at Talladega for Wallace and William Byron.

Of course, any of them will have to beat Kyle Busch, who has won the past three Cup races, or Harvick, who had his own three-race winning streak earlier in the season.

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