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.

AJ Allmendinger making return to Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2018

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After a one-year absence, AJ Allmendinger will return to the Rolex 24 at Daytona next month.

Allmendinger, who drives for JTG Daugherty Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series, will once again drive for Michael Shank Racing in the endurance race at Daytona International Speedway, which will be held Jan. 27 – 28.

A winner in the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Allmendinger will split time in the No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 in the GTD class with Justin Marks, Lawson Aschenbach and Mario Farnbacher.

Allmendinger drove for Michael Shank Racing in the endurance race from 2014-16. His best result during that stretch was fifth in the Prototype class in 2015.

“I am pumped to be back racing for Shank in the (Rolex) 24. I missed the race last year and I hated to, so I’m really glad to be back,” Allmendinger said in a press release. “His whole team did an awesome job with the Acura last year and it is awesome to be back with him for the Rolex. After racing for the overall win so many years in Prototypes, it will be a completely different experience to be racing in the GTD class, but I’m looking forward to it. Mike (Shank) always puts an awesome team together and this year is no different so I am counting down to get my first shot in this car.”

Allmendinger is coming off his fourth full year of driving the No. 47 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing. He finished the season 27th in the standings, his worst during his tenure with the team. He earned one top five and five top 10s.

Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s to sponsor RCR in Cup, Xfinity in 2018

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Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s will sponsor Richard Childress Racing in multiple races in the Cup and Xfinity Series next year, the team announced Monday.

Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s merged in September 2017.

The outdoors brands will be on Ryan Newman‘s No. 31 Chevrolet during the 60th Daytona 500 on Feb. 18 and in several other races during the season.

Richard Childress Racing

They will also be a primary sponsor for Austin and Ty Dillon on the No. 3 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series for several races.

“Our relationship with Bass Pro Shops dates back to the mid-1990s and we’re thrilled to be able to continue it during the 2018 season,” team owner Richard Childress said in a press release. “Austin, Ty and Ryan are terrific ambassadors for the great outdoors. They are all passionate about our hunting, fishing and conservation heritage which has made this partnership thrive.

“Next season will be exciting as we welcome Cabela’s, the iconic outdoor brand acquired by Bass Pro Shops, to the RCR family.”

Bass Pro Shops, founded in 1972 by Johnny Morris, is also a primary sponsor of Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota owned by Furniture Row Racing.

The store chain will be on the hood of the No. 78 in 16 races and on the sides of it in 14 others.

Here’s the eligible drivers for the 2018 Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona

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NASCAR has officially announced the 20 drivers who are eligible to take part in the Cup Series’ season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway.

The 75-lap exhibition event is set for 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 11, the same day as qualifying for the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

The race will be divided into two segments. A competition caution on Lap 25 will divide them.

Drivers become eligible for the Clash by winning a pole the previous season, being a Daytona 500 pole-winner who competed full-time the previous season or being a playoff driver the previous season.

Here are the eligible drivers.

2017 Coors Light Pole Award Winners (14)

Former Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole Award Winners (3)

2017 Playoff Drivers (3)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth are not expected to compete in the race. Earnhardt retired from Cup competition following the 2017 season and Kenseth doesn’t have a ride for the 2018 season.

Danica Patrick, the 2013 Daytona 500 pole-sitter, announced last month she was done as a full-time driver but that she planned to race in the Daytona 500. No definitive team plans have been announced for her.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram injury update: still in ICU, but continues to show progress

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram continues to show improvement from the serious injuries he suffered in a December 3 car crash in his native Asheville, North Carolina.

In an update Sunday written on CaringBridge.org, Ingram’s daughter, Ingrid Jones, said her father remains in the Intensive Care Unit at Asheville’s Mission Hospital.

According to Jones:

“Daddy continues to hold his own, making healing steps forward and then a step back, which we fully expected-but he’s surprising us each and every day with his strength and courage to overcome this. Overall, he’s doing amazingly well.”

Ingram’s family had hoped he could have moved out of ICU and into the Trauma Unit as the next phase of his recovery, but he remains in intensive care.

Said Jones:

“For now, he’ll remain in ICU until he can go a full 24 hours without ventilator assisted breathing. We’re almost there … but may still be a few days.”

Ingram, who turns 81 on Dec. 28, was able to sit in a chair and watched part of Sunday’s NFL game between the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings with his family. Jones wrote that Ingram also was surprised to learn that the mountain near the family’s Asheville-area home received a total of 16 inches of snow Friday and Saturday.

Jones added, “We continue to be optimistic for his health, and we also continue to appreciate the prayers and encouraging thoughts.”