Ryan: Anthem controversy reveals how patriotism can take many forms in NASCAR

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What if a race was held in NASCAR’s premier series, and nary a single driver was present and at attention on the grid when the national anthem was played?

Would there be the usual cheers as drivers flipped their dashboard switches, rumbled out of the pits and onto the track for a few hundred miles of fender banging?

There were for more than five decades. That was typically how drivers took part in honoring America at the crescendo of a pageantry-filled prerace – strapped inside their cockpits and waiting as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played.

Because within seconds of the anthem ending, engines were starting.

But that run of show changed at Dover International Speedway just more than 16 years ago.

In the first Cup race after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, drivers stood outside their cars with their team members as Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem for a sellout crowd of 140,000, virtually all of whom were waving U.S. flags that had been distributed at the track’s gates.

Given that the sacred ideals about honoring the military and respecting the flag (deeply held truths in NASCAR and among its fans) became the largest point of contention and conversation this week, it’s somewhat astounding to consider that the sport’s heroes once had on their helmets and harnesses during the anthem before it gradually became a standard practice to observe the song while outside their cars.

On Sunday, there will be a five-minute gap between the conclusion of the anthem and the command to start engines at Dover, where it all started on a patriotic Sunday in 2001 that ended with the race winner grabbing an American flag from a team member for a triumphant victory lap with Old Glory flapping around the 1-mile oval.

Just as Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the focal point that day in one of NASCAR’s most memorable moments of the 21st century, so has he also emerged as its most outspoken star in the tumult that followed comments by team owners Richard Childress and Richard Petty before Sunday’s race at New Hampshire. Both intimated they would fire any employees who kneeled during the anthem the way many NFL players did in the wake of President Donald Trump calling on teams to terminate players who kneeled.

On Monday morning, the president tweeted his support of NASCAR. About thirty minutes later, Earnhardt used a quote from JFK to support peaceful protests in what quickly became the most popular of his 12,500 tweets (drawing 150,000 retweets and nearly 400,000 likes).

“I kept seeing a lot of negativity about NASCAR on social media,” Earnhardt said on his podcast in explaining the stance. “It’s just the same tired stigma that we’ve dealt with for many, many years.

“So I didn’t feel like that Richard’s comments and Richard Petty’s comments were the way the entire sport felt. They have the right to their opinion. I just didn’t want anyone speaking for me. I felt like that you could assume that those were my own personal feelings as well. I wanted to make that clear.”

Earnhardt’s points are well taken.

NASCAR waited until Monday afternoon to release a statement (which attempted to thread the needle of placating its old-guard supporters’ love for anthem heritage while noting “the right to peacefully express one’s opinion” in a nod to a more diverse audience it seeks to build). That created a vacuum of leadership on a national controversy that was filled by two Hall of Famers associated with several of the greatest championships, moments and triumphs in stock-car history.

Many outside NASCAR presumed that Childress and Petty spoke with a monolithic certitude for the thousands who work in the country’s most popular racing series.

But there isn’t a consensus industry opinion on how anthem protesters would be handled.

There are many who would disagree with the beliefs of Childress and Petty (namely, the majority owner of Richard Petty Motorsports).

Of course, there are many who would agree with them as well, reflecting stock-car racing’s longstanding leanings and strongly held feelings of allegiance and faith.

Few sports leagues wrap themselves in God and country as much as NASCAR. Its deep roots in the Bible Belt are evident in the invocation delivered before every race, just before the anthem – a 1-2 combination of social conservatism and flag-waving patriotism that is unique in professional sports and intrinsic to the fabric of stock-car racing.

It’s why Brad Keselowski used Twitter to take issue with those who took a knee but also to reaffirm that his support of the anthem didn’t signify a lack of respect for civil disobedience. As someone who has raised millions to help wounded veterans and likely would have joined the armed services if he hadn’t pursued a racing career, the Team Penske driver was speaking from the heart.

But so was Earnhardt, who has his own patriotic bona fides (the No. 88 Chevrolet once carried National Guard sponsorship, and the Navy backed his Xfinity cars).

“I stand for the flag during the national anthem,” he said. “Always have, always will. We have an incredibly large military presence at our races. We go above and beyond to show our patriotism and what it means to be Americans and how proud we are of that and how proud we are of the flag and what it stands for.

“No surprise to me everyone at (New Hampshire) stood and addressed the flag during the anthem, which I think will continue. But I also understand that the man next to me, if he wants to do something different, that’s his right. I might not agree with everything somebody does, but it’s their right to have that opportunity to do that. I can’t take that away from them, and I don’t want them taking it away from me.’’

Free speech is an inalienable right, but it also is accompanied by consequences – and not just for those who choose to protest.

As business owners well within their rights to hire and fire personnel while weighing how their actions can impacts a team’s image, Childress and Petty are entitled to their opinions and to express them, and there are many fans who probably feel better about hearing them voiced.

But there are repercussions to classifying actions that you view as disrespectful with the disrespect of implying those who chose that tack should be humiliatingly stripped of employment or citizenship.

At best, it’s fodder for clickbait headline hyperbole. At worst, it negatively affects how NASCAR is perceived in the wake of protests that began because former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick wanted to raise awareness about minority oppression and police brutality.

This puts a new spotlight on NASCAR’s long slog toward diversifying, which hasn’t come easy (as detailed in the struggles of Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, the first black driver to win in Cup, and mentioned in a recent interview by Bill Lester, the first black driver to run Xfinity and one of four in Cup). There have been Twitter memes about the Confederate flag (which remains a presence in racetrack campgrounds despite NASCAR’s efforts to eradicate its presence), stern rebukes from coaches in other sports and late night talk show jokes about the lack of black drivers in NASCAR.

Meanwhile, NASCAR is making incremental progress in becoming more of an inclusionary and welcoming league. It needs and wants to be that if it intends to stem recent audience erosion by becoming more demographically reflective of a multicultural and multiracial America.

Its Drive for Diversity program, which is in its 14th season, has a hit-and-miss record, but graduate Darrell Wallace Jr. recently became the first black driver to race Cup in more than a decade. Mexico’s Daniel Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity champion and another product of the D4D program, became the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR title. There are more black pit crew members than at any point in NASCAR’s 69-year history.

Kyle Larson, the only Asian-American to race full time in Cup, has a legitimate chance to win the championship.

Those are realities – just as it is that drivers weren’t outside their cars more often than not in NASCAR history when the anthem has been played.

Those, of course, weren’t signs of disrespect. Patriotism can be expressed in many forms, and the enthusiastic and overt celebration of its cherished spectacle on race days is an indelible and laudable attraction of NASCAR.

What the industry learned this week is that publicly judging the manner of expression can be fraught with its own debates about respecting the flag.

Christopher Bell wins first career Xfinity Series race at Kansas

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Christopher Bell passed teammate Erik Jones with four laps left in the Kansas Lottery 300, withstood contact from behind by Jones and went on to claim his first career Xfinity Series win.

Bell, driving the No. 18 Toyota, earned the win in his fifth career start. It comes in the opening race of the second round of the playoffs.

Jones had dominated the race until the pass by Bell. He led 186 of the race’s 200 laps and swept the first two stages. He finished 15th, one lap down due to damage from running into the back of Bell.

It is the first win for Joe Gibbs Racing since Denny Hamlin won at Darlington Raceway, a five-race stretch. JGR has won 11 Xfinity races this season.

Bell, 22, is a full-time driver in the Camping World Truck Series.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Erik Jones

STAGE 2 WINNER: Erik Jones

Check back for more

Dale Earnhardt Jr. bursting with joy over thoughts of baby girl

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — They laughed.

When the doctor told Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy that Amy was pregnant, the couple laughed.

It wasn’t the kind of laugh one makes after a joke or a funny story. It was … well, let Dale explain:

“Something just comes out,’’ Earnhardt said Saturday at Kansas Speedway. “You just burst out like joy. It wasn’t funny ha-ha. It was a joyful moment.’’

And then they got to hear the heartbeat.

“Somebody says you’re wife is pregnant, that registers a little bit but, man, when you hear that heartbeat, it’s like yep, it’s real,’’ Earnhardt said. “This is a real thing in there. It’s here. My God, it’s happening. Just all this emotion pops out.’’

The prelude to the excitement was the waiting. It was almost too much for Earnhardt when they first went to the doctor’s office to confirm that Amy was pregnant.

We went to the doctor and I’m still thinking man, I’m not believing crap until this doctor tells me,’’ Earnhardt said. “So, we’re sitting in there for like 20 minutes. And they’re talking woman language and I’m not understanding. They are just talking about things and I’m like well, when is she going to say it? I want to hear it from the doctor’s mouth that she’s pregnant, so we can rejoice.

“It took them a while. I was scared to speak up. Finally, they said something that confirmed it for me and I was like, awesome. And then we had the ultrasound and got to hear the heartbeat and all that right there, and that was great. We go back for another checkup here soon, in a couple of days, and those are awesome. They are so much fun because it’s like the closest you can get to it before they’re born and I’m looking forward to each and every one of them.”

Earnhardt said on his podcast this week that the baby is due May 2.

“I know that Amy has changed my life a lot, and I imagine this baby is going to have the same impact and just can’t wait to meet her,’’ Earnhardt said Saturday. “It’s just taking forever.”

Earnhardt says he understands the excitement friends and family have had with their children.

“I guess the thing that hits me is I’ve watched all my friends, a lot of them, have kids and my sister have kids,’’ he said. “I was happy for those milestones in their lives, but I had no idea what that really meant. And as we found out and were going through these little moments through the pregnancy it’s just hitting home how impactful that child has been in all the lives of my friends and family. And I just really didn’t understand or appreciate, I guess, how incredible that moment must have been for them and how their lives completely changed. I saw it from a completely different point of view when I wasn’t experiencing it myself. 

“I look at my friends completely different. I look at my sister completely different knowing what I know now and what I’m learning as I go. And I know there is more to be exposed to and more enlightening and more eye-opening experiences that will make me not only appreciate what me and Amy, what we have, but what my friends and family and folks that I am very close to have and what they have experienced. 

“Because I thought I knew, childbirth is exciting, it’s awesome to have children and everybody says it changes your life and everybody says it’s the greatest thing ever, but you just don’t know until you really go through it.’’

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Ryan Blaney fastest in final Cup practice at Kansas

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Ryan Blaney was fastest in the final NASCAR Cup Series practice at Kansas Speedway.

Blaney, who will start last Sunday after failing post-qualifying inspection, posted a top speed of 182.057 mph.

He was followed by Kyle Busch (181.143), Kevin Harvick (181.720), Danial Suarez (181.665) and Matt Kenseth (181.543).

Pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. was 12th fastest.

Harvick posted the best 10-lap average at 180.120 mph.

Jimmie Johnson, who was 15th fastest, recorded the most laps with 53.

There were no accidents in the session.

Click here for the practice report.

Tyler Reddick wins pole for Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway

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Tyler Reddick claimed his first career Xfinity Series pole Saturday at Kansas Speedway, winning the top spot with a speed of 181.117 mph.

Rounding out the top five are Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Austin Dillon

William Byron was the highest qualifying playoff driver in sixth, but he will start from the year because of unapproved adjustments.

Reddick’s pole comes in his 17th Xfinity start. It also continues an impressive stretch for Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet. Both Reddick and Alex Bowman earned their first Xfinity wins in the last three races. Reddick won at Kentucky Speedway. Bowman won at Charlotte Motor Speedway two weeks ago.

“This cooler weather might be helping us,” Reddick told NBCSN. “We were really tight yesterday. I think that’s going to help us in the race.”

The pole also comes the week after one of his grandmothers, Carolyn Joyce Brown, passed away. Her name is on the roof of his car.

“The last two weeks have been rough,” Reddick said. “She was battling health for a long time and just finally lost the battle. She watched every single race and ever lap on track. She was there watching it at the race track or at home. Hopefully we can do something special for her. This will be the first race she hasn’t been here to see.”

Here is where the playoff drivers qualified:

William Byron – sixth

Cole Custer – seventh

Matt Tifft – eighth

Brennan Poole – ninth

Daniel Hemric – 10th

Elliott Sadler – 11th

Justin Allgaier – 13th

Ryan Reed – 15th

Click here for the qualifying results.