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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Ben Kennedy, the racer in the France family

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Until his racing career’s late start at 13, Ben Kennedy had a “normal childhood.”

He went to grade school, played multiple sports and even attended soccer camp.

“Hanging out and making friends and just being a kid,” Kennedy told NBC Sports. “That was something that kind of stuck out in my mind that I’m thankful for.”

Then there was the family business.

Ben Kennedy will be one of the drivers who pilots the No. 2 Chevrolet this year. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Kennedy has vague memories. Attending the Daytona 500, meeting his favorite driver Jeff Gordon at the age of 3 and the annual visits to the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City.

As the grandson of former NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr., Kennedy got plenty of opportunities to see the “moving circus” up close and personal.

“I think it took awhile to understand the scope of it and the roles my family has played both on the NASCAR and ISC side,” Kennedy said. “I understood my mom (Lesa France Kennedy) was involved in the tracks (as CEO of ISC) and my family was involved in NASCAR. It was awhile before I really grasped it completely, and I still don’t completely understand all the ins and outs of this sport. Maybe never will. It’s a cool sport. It amazes me everyday how complex it is and how many different facets there are between NASCAR and the tracks, the teams, the drivers, the partners, everybody involved. It’s so diverse.”

Now, at 25, he’s one of the moving circus’ performers.

Nearly a year ago, Kennedy became the first member of the France family to win a national NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway in the Truck Series. Last week at Talladega, he made his first start of the year in the Xfinity Series, driving for Richard Childress Racing. He finished fourth. He will split the season between RCR and GMS Racing in the No. 96 Chevrolet.

That’s in addition to his ownership of a part-time K&N Pro Series East team.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: In the seven months you were out of a car, how did you keep busy? What was a day in the life of Ben Kennedy?

Kennedy: It’s been really hectic for me. … Just staying as fit as possible. Staying healthy and training as much as I can to be ready for the season. Got some other stuff I’ve been working on with not only putting these Xfinity races together and finding partners. I’ve also got a K&N team down in Daytona. I’ve been managing that and been pretty involved with that this year. Also, random stuff, did “American Ninja Warrior” about a month ago. Just kind of all over the map.

NBC Sports: How did American Ninja Warrior come about?

Kennedy: Such a cool experience. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to train for it. Those guys that you’re going up against, they train for years and months on end. I didn’t have much time. Upper body is probably my weakness on this side of athleticism. I trained my tail off for it. I was sick the entire time training. It’s wild to get up there in front of all the bright lights and cameras and all that stuff. When you watch on TV from the couch and in the AC it’s a completely different experience then being out there in the elements.

(Writer’s note: Kennedy’s episode of airs on June 26 on the USA Network)

NBC Sports: In a couple of months we’ll be coming up on a year since you won at Bristol. Where’s that trophy located now?

Kennedy: It’s at my apartment in North Caroline right now. I got it up there, the Bristol trophy, along with the … flag from when I had team and family members sign at a celebration party after. I got it in a good spot in my place.

NBC Sports: How much space does it take up, because it looked like a pretty big trophy.

Kennedy: It takes up the floor. I tried to find counter space to put it on. Nothing really made sense and my girlfriend wasn’t really crazy about it. It’s on the floor right now.

NBC Sports: When you did the NASCAR on NBC podcast last year, you said that you really liked that you went to a college (University of Florida) where no one really knew who you were or who your family was. When that would eventually come up, how’d you address that ‘yeah, my family founded NASCAR?’

Kennedy: I never went out and said it. I never said I was a driver or anything. Any of that stuff. Naturally, it does come out. People Google you or Wikipedia or something. They find that out. Some people understood I was a driver, some people understood I was a driver and my family was involved in NASCAR. You’ve got to kind of embrace it and be a part of it. Your family is something you should definitely be proud of. At the same time be very cautious and know who your friends are. It’s kind of a double-edged sword in some ways. Nonetheless, they’re family to me. That’s all I know.

Ben Kennedy drives GMS Racing’s No. 96 Chevrolet during a May test at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo by Daniel McFadin)

NBC Sports: Do you remember the first time you saw or name or face on merchandise?

Kennedy: Gosh, it was probably a long time ago. I remember we made these hats that had my number on it a long time ago. It wasn’t really merchandise. I think my first shirt, and I’ve still got it somewhere, it was a Hanes shirt like you’d buy at Wal-Mart and a friend of mine embroidered Kennedy on it, put my No. 96 on it. It’s very retro and one of a kind.

NBC Sports: What’s your attachment to the No. 96?

Kennedy: I don’t know. It’s kind of been a number that I started with in go-karts. I kind of forget how I ended up with it. I think it’s one of those things where you have to pick a number but you have to pick a number no one else has so far. Ninety-six was one that was available. It’s one that stuck ever since.

NBC Sports: What’s on your bucket list that’s not related to racing?

Kennedy: I’m kind of an outdoor, action-adventure junkie. I think traveling the world is pretty cool. Obviously, something I want to do is go skydiving. That’s on my list. I went bungee jumping one time, which was incredible.

NBC Sports: Speaking of traveling the world, you won a race in Paris, France a few years ago (in 2012, the first oval race in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series history at Tours Speedway). What was that experience like?

Kennedy: That was awesome. It was neat because they set it up in a parking lot outside this convention center. You go Turn 1 and 2 and it’d be kind of smooth, then you’d go through Turns 3 and 4 and you’d hit a gutter. Pretty soon, all four tires are off the ground. It was the first year that they did it, but it was so neat because they did it parallel to a motorcycle convention that was out there at the time and I had never seen so many American flags in one place in my life and I thought that was really cool. …

The race itself was really fascinating because those cars are very spaced out, everything is very similar from car to car. Kind of a bit of a learning curve for me. The team I was working with didn’t speak great English. That was a little bit of a challenge. I remember in practice, I came in and I told them what was wrong with the car and what I wanted to adjust. They’re like, ‘ok, that’s fine. Go back out and practice. We can’t make any changes here, we don’t want to make any changes here.’ So, alright.

During the race, I actually got carbon monoxide poisoning. The crash panels were a little bit open between that and the body. I was sucking in fumes the entire race. There was a caution with like five to go or something, they were doing their first ever green-white-checkered there and they were trying to figure it out. … The pace car was going like 10 mph, I’m sucking up fumes. I almost passed out. I got out of the car. I was beat red in the face. The guy that was interviewing me asked me, ‘You must be working out hard out there.’ I said ‘I feel like I’m going to hurl right now, too.’ I did that.

Then I leaned over the side of the car and just caught my breath for a while and then did all the celebrations after that.

NBC Sports: If you were competing in a Cup race at Bristol, what would you choose as your intro song?

Kennedy: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t even know. Something cool. … Like Kings of Leon, something like that … What’s that one song, I don’t even know if it’s Kings of Leon, but “Centuries”?

NBC Sports: That’s Fall Out Boy.

 

Previous Xfinity spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

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Toyota executive calls Truck Series ‘critical step’ in developing drivers

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A Toyota Racing Development executive says that the manufacturer would accept a spec engine in the Camping World Truck Series, noting how valuable that series is for the development of drivers.

David Wilson, president of TRD, made the comments Friday on “Tradin’ Paint” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

NASCAR tested a spec engine for the Truck series multiple times last year and it is expected to be optional this season.

Wilson admits the spec engine idea has raised concerns among manufacturers.

“It is a little bit of a sensitive issue with all the manufactures,’’ Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Arguably the biggest single piece of (intellectual property) in any car or truck is the engine, so certainly that’s important to us.

“By the same token we understand the bigger picture. We have been working with NASCAR, all the (manufacturers) have been working with NASCAR to make sure that we keep this series going because here’s the bottom line — while our motivation to run in Trucks has changed over the years, it remains an absolute critical step in how we as an industry develop drivers.

“The leap from ARCA or K&N or Super Late Models straight to Xfinity, that’s too big of a leap. You need a step and that Truck Series is a very important step. You look the drivers that have come through just in our camp — Erik Jones, Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez — that experience in the Truck garage has been absolutely critical in preparing them to be successful in Xfinity and ultimately in Cup. We’re going to continue to take a big picture approach with the Truck Series and work with our friends at NASCAR. If there are some spec engines that have to be under a Tundra hood, so be it, we’ll be OK.’’

Last year’s Xfinity champion and rookie of the year, William Byron, ran a full season in Trucks in 2016. Erik Jones, the 2016 Xfinity rookie of the year, ran 17 Truck races before his Xfinity debut. Daniel Suarez, the 2017 Xfinity rookie of the year, had run only one Truck race before his Xfinity rookie season but he also ran 13 Truck races while competing in Xfinity that first year.

Those young drivers also illustrate Toyota’s emphasis on new talent. But with only five seats — four with Joe Gibbs Racing and one with Furniture Row Racing —  with Cup teams partnered with TRD, Toyota is having a hard time finding spots for all its drivers.

Wilson said the manufacturer remains committed to developing drivers.

“It’s a commitment that Toyota has made to NASCAR and to motorsports,’’ he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We enjoy a tremendous amount of value. NASCAR is simply a phenomenal place for us to race. This is part of our payback.

“We feel like we have the social responsibility to give back to the series. We know we’ll lose as many of these young guys and gals as we’ll be able to keep because we simply won’t have enough seats for them. That’s just simple math. It’s already been proven out by William Byron (who raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in Trucks before moving to Chevrolet in Xfinity and now Cup). We’ll be racing against William, who used to be in a Toyota.

“Bottom line this sport still benefits. As I’ve said before, getting to know these young kids and getting to know their parents at a young age and as they’re coming up in the sport, I believe that will pay dividends. These kids can have a career that spans decades. Who’s to say that we won’t cross paths again? By us building that relationship early on, showing them who we are … the responsibly we have to their well-being, I think it’s a sound investment.’’

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WATCH: Sneak preview of the Hall of Fame induction at 8 p.m. on NBCSN

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The NASCAR Hall of Fame’s ninth class of inductees won’t be remembered so much for the imprint left on the record books as on the revolutions in stock-car racing.

In a video essay that will be shown during tonight’s induction ceremony (which will begin at 8 p.m. on NBCSN), Robert Yates, Ray Evernham, Red Byron, Ken Squier and Ron Hornaday Jr. are saluted as much for what they achieved as how they accomplished it – and their lasting effects on the machines and people that they touched.

–Yates’ ingenuity with engines ranked him among the greatest engine builders. But along with the wins and championships, he also imparted life lessons and knowledge to the apt pupils who are carrying on his successful legacy.

— A crew chief with three Cup championships and 47 wins, Evernham transformed how races and teams were managed, from innovative car designs to clever tire strategies to finely tuned pit crews.

–As the premier series’ first champion, Byron raced with a special brace connecting his leg (which was injured in World War II) to the clutch pedal, embodying the self-determination and grit of NASAR.

–“The Great American Race” was coined by Squier, whose pitch-perfect wordsmithing helped make him a broadcasting legend whose dulcet tones described some watershed moments in evocative and remarkable detail.

–Four championships made Hornaday synonymous with the truck series, but he indirectly played a role in eight Cup titles, turning his couch into “Camp Hornaday” for fellow California natives and budding stars Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.

You can watch the video essay above or by clicking here.

Tune in at 8 p.m. for TV coverage of a ceremony that should feature special moments and some surprises.

The Hall of Fame ceremony also can be viewed via the online stream 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 8 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

The moral choice that Kyle Larson made in the closing laps at Miami

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CHARLOTTE – Every NASCAR driver has a code of ethics, and the closing laps of last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway presented a quandary for Kyle Larson.

If you can’t pass two title contenders with a championship on the line, does discretion become the better part of valor in choosing to pass neither?

It did for Larson, who reflected on his most recent Cup race this week.

With eventual champion Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch dueling ahead of him in the final 20 laps, Larson elected to stay in third place and let them settle the title instead of passing Busch and then taking a shot at Truex with his No. 42 Chevrolet, which led a race-high 145 laps.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who has led the most laps at Miami the past two years, said his only option in vying for a victory would have been having the consistent speed to assure he could overtake Truex and Busch.

“I think there were some laps I was faster than them,” he told NBC Sports during a Tuesday announcement to announce DC Solar as an expanded primary sponsor in Cup for 2018. “I obviously didn’t want to affect the outcome of the race. The only negative part of the (playoff) format is when you’re not in the final four, you can’t race your hardest.

“I don’t know if I would have won. I think I could have got to second and potentially the lead. I wanted to pass both of them quickly. I didn’t want to pass Kyle and then stall out for three laps and have him be upset or whatever.”

Indeed, Busch was upset with another driver, expressing frustration that he believed Joey Logano blocked him while trying to take fourth after the final restart.

Though Larson made a conscious choice to avoid separating Truex and Busch, he also dispelled the notion that he still wasn’t trying to muster the speed to win.

“I was driving my ass off,” Larson said. “Obviously, I ran into the wall a few times trying to pass them or get the run to pass both of them quickly, but I could never get it going. So no, I didn’t let (Truex) win or whatever. I was still racing hard.”

Larson, who scored a career-best four wins last year, seemed a good bet to be racing for a title until an engine failure at Kansas Speedway. After a busy offseason of racing sprint cars around the world, a refreshed Larson returned to his team’s NASCAR shop this week and ready to reset his focus.

“I don’t even think about NASCAR until now,” he said. “I feel like today is Day 2 of my offseason. I’m just now getting back into the swing of things.

Larson is enthused about a Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test of Chevrolet’s new Camaro at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (“You can kind of get an idea of how the start of your season will be there.”) before heading to Daytona International Speedway for Speedweeks.

“Last year, I didn’t know we were going to be that good, and then we started the year off really good, and we maintained that consistency and competitiveness,” said Larson, who led the points standings after the fourth through 11th races of the 2017 schedule. “I hope that we can do that again. I feel like when you get close like we did last year, it pushes everybody to be as good or better than what we were.

“I expect that we’ll be contenders again, but it’s hard saying with the new body and stuff like that. I’m sure there’ll be growing pains throughout it, but I definitely feel we have an extremely smart group of people who can do what it takes to get our cars better every week to have a shot.”

Daytona International Speedway releases Speedweeks schedule

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Daytona International Speedway has released the schedule for Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck teams for Speedweeks.

Cup teams will have one practice of 1 hour and 20 minutes for the Clash (down from 1 hour, 50 minutes for Clash teams last year).

Cup teams will have five practices for a total of 4 hours, 10 minutes in preparation for the Feb. 18 Daytona 500. Last year, Cup teams had seven practices for a total of 6 hours, 25 minutes before the Daytona 500. The two Cup practices the day of the Duel qualifying races have been eliminated this year.

Xfinity will have the same amount of practice as last year. Camping World Truck Series will have one more practice this year for an extra 1 hour, 20 minutes of track time this year.

Here is the track schedule for Speedweeks.

SPEEDWEEKS SCHEDULE

*subject to change

SATURDAY, Feb. 10

10:35 – 11:55 a.m. — Practice only for teams in Advance Auto Parts Clash

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Cup practice (for all teams)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Cup practice (for all teams)

4:45 p.m. — ARCA race

SUNDAY, Feb. 11

12:15 p.m. — Daytona 500 qualifying

3 p.m. — Advance Auto Parts Clash

MONDAY, Feb. 12

No track activity

TUESDAY, Feb. 13

No track activity

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 14

No track activity

THURSDAY, Feb. 15

11:35 a.m. – 12:55 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series practice

2:25 – 3:25 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series practice

4:35 – 5:25 p.m. — Final Camping World Truck Series practice

7 p.m. — Can-Am Duel 1

9 p.m. — Can-Am Duel 2

FRIDAY, Feb. 16

12:05 – 12:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Cup practice

2:05 – 2:55 p.m. — Final Xfinity practice

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Cup practice

4:30 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series qualifying

7:30 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series race NextEra Energy Resources 250

SATURDAY, Feb. 17

9:35 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying

12:05 – 12:55 p.m. — Final Cup practice

2:30 p.m. — Xfinity race PowerShares QQQ 300

SUNDAY, Feb. 18

2:30 p.m. — Daytona 500

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