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Drive for Diversity program gives four-time Trans Am champ Ernie Francis Jr. a shot at NASCAR

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As of two weeks ago, Ernie Francis Jr. had only driven a stock car four times.

The 19-year-old from Dania, Florida, had been behind the wheel for a test at Hickory Speedway, during the two-day tryout for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program at New Smyrna Speedway and in this year’s Xfinity Series race at Road America.

Even then, Francis still has the numbers for Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi saved in his phone.

“I’ve met personally and had meetings with and still talk on the phone with them every couple of weeks,” Franics told NBC Sports on Nov. 7 when he was announced as one of the six members of the 2018 Drive for Diversity class. “It’s been a good climate for me in meeting these people and the more connections the better.”

What does an aspiring NASCAR driver with next to no stock car racing experience talk about with two legendary car owners?

The future. Or potential ones.

“Kind of just talking about what I’m doing with my career and where I’m trying to go and what’s it going to take for me to get behind the wheel of their race cars,” Francis said. “I’ve had a lot of talks with Chip Ganassi about that and hoping every step that I take out here will get me closer to getting behind the wheel of one of those cars.”

Why would Penske and Ganassi have interest in the 19-year-old driver?

Ernie Francis Jr. waits in his car at New Smyrna Speedway on Oct. 17 in New Smyrna, Florida. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)


Francis stands in the Rev Racing shop, located less than a mile from Charlotte Motor Speedway. Overlooked by banners with the faces and accomplishments of Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez and Darrell Wallace Jr., graduates of the Drive for Diversity program, Francis isn’t intimidated.

Not by the precedence or by the boxy stock cars he’ll drive in the K&N Pro Series East’s road course races in 2018.

He’s been in much faster cars and won. A lot.

“When I hop behind the wheel of a K&N car or a Xfinity car I already know how to deal with that power and how to deal with that speed,” Francis said.

While new to NASCAR, Francis has spent the last four years breaking records in sports car racing in the Trans Am Series.

Since he was 16, Francis has won four championships with the team owned by Ernie Francis Sr., Breathless Performance Racing Team. He’s the youngest driver to reach that mark. The first three titles came in the TA4 Class and his 2017 title came in T4, driving a Ford Mustang.

He’s also won 33 races, the last coming in the season finale at Daytona three days after his introduction as part of the Drive for Diversity program.

So why make the jump to a different racing ladder?

Francis Jr., who grew up a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, sees NASCAR’s path to its top level as more likely to payoff in the long run.

“I’d say it’s about the same if not easier in stock car racing,” Francis said. “Road course racing is a very steep ladder and that’s the problem with stock car racing. The thing with stock car racing in general also is it all costs money to get to the top. Either it costs money or you’ve got to get recognized by a team. I think it’s easier to get recognized in the stock car racing world than it is in road course racing. Being that there’s so many road course racers, whether it’s in endurance racing where there’s four drivers in a car, there’s so many drivers you’re competing against compared to NASCAR when you’re out there.

“It’s smaller fields with one driver per car and it’s kind of easier to be recognized if you’re a good driver standing out in a field.”

With three test sessions and 16 Xfinity laps under his belt at Road America before an engine problem, NASCAR has turned out to be more than he expected.

“After getting out there on track I realized there’s a lot more to it,” Francis said. “It’s a lot more technical than people think. People think that it’s just going out there just running a car in a circle. There’s a whole different side to it. These cars are so intricate on the way the suspension set up is and how they need it to be to go around the track properly that I’ve had to learn in the couple of tests I’ve done. I’ve really come to appreciate that.”

In addition to his K&N road course races for Rev Racing, Francis will also compete for the program’s late model team. But there’s also the possibility of Francis driving in his first K&N oval race toward the end of the year.

“I don’t know how it’s going to be yet,” Francis said. “I need some more seat time before I get out there and just practice on one. The first goal is just going to be finishing the race and then the next one will be focusing on where we finish.”

When he does get time on an oval again, he’ll have the voice of his spotter from his first Hickory test, Lee Faulk of Lee Faulk Racing and Development, still ringing in his ears.

“He was the one yelling at me, yelling all kinds of things about how I was going too slow and pressing the brakes too much and all kinds off stuff,” Francis said. “His voice is still in my head whenever I go out there and run on the oval tracks, kind of helps me out.”

Father-Son Team

The speed and the adrenaline.

That’s why Ernie Francis Jr. chose racing over other sports while growing up in Florida

“There’s no sport where you get going 150, 200 mph on a race car flying around heading toward a wall and basically cheating death every lap you go around,” Francis said. “It’s pretty exciting.

“There’s no rush like driving a race car.”

Francis was exposed to that rush at the age of 4 by Ernie Francis Sr., when he started competing in go-karts on the regional circuit.

Francis Sr. raced in sports cars and his son helped however he could.

“My dad would take me to the track and I just wanted to watch the cars,” Francis Jr. says. “I would clean the cars. I would help strap him in as much as I could and I just loved it from the beginning.”

The relationship swapped roles once Francis Jr. got into go-kart racing, which he competed in until he was 12.

“It was just me and my dad, he was the one working on my go-kart and I was the one driving it,” Francis Jr. said.

In 2013, the year before Francis Jr. began his historic tenure in the Trans Am Series, the two raced each other for one season in the Pirelli World Challenge’s TCB Class. At 15, Francis was the youngest driver competing in the Pirelli.

Francis Jr. won seven races and finished third in the standings, also earning Rookie of the Year honors while his dad placed fifth.


With three Trans Am titles under his belt, the duo first visited North Carolina last year to get a tour of the Rev Racing shop Francis Jr.’s cars will be built out of and where a future that could involve the names Penske and Ganassi will begin.

The younger Francis says his father has “never really been” into NASCAR, but says “he likes” what his son is getting into.

Though Francis Sr. does have one demand.

“His main thing that he says is, if I start doing NASCAR racing he wants tickets for every race,” Francis Jr. said.

Two Cup cars to miss practice time Saturday

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Chase Elliott and Paul Menard each will miss 15 minutes of final Cup practice today at Martinsville Speedway inspection issues last weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

Final Cup practice is scheduled to take place from 12:30 – 1:20 p.m. ET today.

The forecast from calls for a  high of 43 degrees and a 50 percent chance of rain during the final practice session.

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NASCAR’s Saturday schedule for Martinsville Speedway

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A busy day is scheduled for NASCAR at Martinsville Speedway with the Camping World Truck Series race followed by qualifying for Sunday’s Cup race.

Here’s the full schedule for day with TV and radio info.

All times are Eastern

7 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Cup garage open

7:30 a.m. — Truck garage opens

10:05 – 10:55 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

11:05 a.m. — Truck qualifying; multi-truck/three rounds (FS1)

12:15 p.m. — Truck driver-crew chief meeting

12:30 – 1:20 p.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

1:30 p.m. — Truck driver introductions

2 p.m. — Alpha Energy Solutions 250; 250 laps/131.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5:10 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Without NASCAR ride, Blake Koch devoting energy to helping younger drivers

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Blake Koch‘s son Carter is 5, but he’s already developed some understanding of how NASCAR works.

“All he’s ever known is me as a race car driver,” Koch tells NBC Sports. “He’s smart enough to know now that when Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. retired and Matt Kenseth retired and Danica (Patrick) retired, he now knows what retirement means.”

At some point since last November, Koch had to explain to Carter why he wasn’t competing in 2018.

“He’s like, ‘Dad, are you retired?'” Koch says. “I was like, ‘No, buddy, I just lost my sponsor.'”

Koch is four months removed from his last start in Kaulig Racing’s No. 11 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series.

After two years racing full-time for the team, he was replaced by Ryan Truex, who brought sponsorship with him. Koch was left without a ride after making 213 starts in the Xfinity Series since 2009.

Koch has heard many of the same questions since November.

Are you done racing? Are you still trying to get sponsors? What are you doing?

“My answer is no, I’m not done racing,” Koch answers. “I can’t be done racing.”

At 32 and with 229 national NASCAR starts on his resume, Koch was left with two options when the 2017 season ended.

“Sit around and feel sorry for myself and read all the support and the tweets and let it (allow me) to think that an opportunity should come to me or go out and make something happen and have fun and utilize my resources and knowledge,” Koch says.

He decided he wasn’t going to pursue any ride this season. But Koch is not going anywhere.

In addition to a weekly appearance on Fox Sports 1’s “NASCAR Race Hub,” Koch wanted to try his hand as a driver mentor, helping young NASCAR drivers develop with the knowledge he’s accrued the last decade.

Koch jokes that his love of helping people may have been one of his “downfalls as a driver.”

“I helped other drivers,” Koch says. “If someone asked me what I was doing or about the race, I told them my honest opinion because I actually liked helping.”

Koch also observed a lack of people in similar roles in NASCAR.

“Every other sport has a coach or someone to lean on or someone on your side. Golfers, quarterbacks, everybody does. Except for NASCAR drivers,” Koch says. “Even Supercross racers have trainers and coaches and people making them better and better. But in our sport, it was just nonexistent, because there were no drivers that would retire and still want to be at the racetrack helping other drivers.”

Before committing to the idea, he went to former NASCAR driver Josh Wise for advice. Wise works with Chip Ganassi Racing helping their drivers.

“I did pick Josh’s brain a little bit on if he was happy doing it, if he missed being in a car and all that kind of stuff,” Koch says. “He still had the adrenaline rush, he loved what he was doing. … He saw results from the work he’s putting in. … You don’t want to do something and feel like there’s no results behind it and you don’t want to do something if you don’t think it’s going to be fun or rewarding.”

Through Chris Biby, a driver manager, Koch was connected with Matt Tifft, who joined Richard Childress Racing this season after a year with Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s also begun working with Truck Series driver Myatt Snider.

Koch and Tifft did not interact much last year, aside from greetings at driver introductions.

Their first real conversation came over a meal at Hickory Tavern in Huntersville, North Carolina.  Now they talk almost every day.

Koch didn’t officially begin his role helping out Tifft until after the season opener at Daytona.

“What I try to be for Matt Tifft is everything I’ve always wanted,” Koch says. “Confidence is key. It’s a big part of going fast, being confident in yourself. I believe that comes from hard work.

“I knew I had that feeling, and that’s something I implemented into Matt’s weekly routine, that when he shows up to the racetrack he knows he’s been working harder than every single person out there, and he’s more prepared than anyone out there. Then you have a little extra pep in your step when you’re walking in the garage.”

Koch says a “very small portion” of the work he does with his drivers is at the track. Most of his “two cents” comes between Monday and Friday.

On Sunday nights, he sets a schedule for Tifft and Snider, what to do with their workout program, race prep and what to work on in the simulator in addition to general notes for the race weekend.

Tifft says Koch is “very particular about every single thing” he’s doing.

“I set up specific workouts for him to do throughout the week and I tweaked his nutrition a little bit,” Koch says. “But he was already pretty disciplined with his nutrition. I set a checklist of things he needs to know every single week before he gets to the racetrack. Small details, even little things like garage flow. … When you get to the race track, the only thing you should have to think about is hitting your marks and running in a perfect line and focusing on your task at hand, not the other small details that are just cluttering your mind.”

Through roughly four weeks of working with Tifft and Snider, Koch has found the same satisfaction that Wise has in his role with Ganassi.

“When this opportunity came across to work with Matt, I could still race,” Koch says. “You have that competition, the adrenaline because you feel like you’re invested in part of it and I could help them out. It kind of helped fulfill the desire I had for helping people and helping someone make the best of their opportunity. I know how difficult it is to get an opportunity in this sport. When someone has that opportunity, I love nothing more than to see them maximize it. That’s what keeps me excited.”

Working with the two young drivers also keeps Koch on his toes in the case an offer materializes from a team.

“It absolutely helps,” Koch says. “I have to stay in shape and constantly watch, read and study data and work as hard as I was, probably working harder now than I was when I was driving. Because I have the accountability of Matt Tifft and Myatt Snider. Those guys are starting to push me harder in the gym, too. I have to get stronger. You can’t have your athletes stronger than the coach. I got to step up my game.”

Koch isn’t done adding things to his work life.

He plans to launch a new business in May, which he works on in the afternoons following his morning workout.

Koch isn’t giving away any details on that business will entail.

“The reason I started it is back when I was racing, if I poured as much effort and passion and hard work into my own business and product that I did into everybody else’s I’d be in a much better position right now,” Koch says. “I’ve learned a lot, about business and marketing and how to create a successful company, especially being friends with Matt Kaulig and seeing Leaf Filter grow over the years, I came up with an idea that I know people need and use and want, and I’m going to supply that to people here very soon.”

In the meantime, with the Xfinity Series off the next two weekends and Koch not making the trip to Texas Motor Speedway, he will spend his weekends nurturing his son’s dirt bike career. Carter competed in his first race last weekend.

“He was begging for it,” Koch says of the dirt bike. “I wanted to get him in a go kart or something a little safer but he’s just about as hardheaded and stubborn as I am.”

A Driver’s Drive: Darrell Wallace Jr. aggressive and confident


Returning to the site of his first Camping World Truck Series win provided a great opportunity for Darrell Wallace Jr. to reflect on his meteoric rise through the NASCAR ranks in the week’s edition of “A Driver’s Drive”.

Finishing second in the Daytona 500 put his name in the record book as the highest finishing African-American driver and raised expectations about Wallace’s potential at the Cup level.

Martinsville is going to raise another challenge to see if he can live up to that potential without stepping over the line. Wallace earned his first victory in one of NASCAR’s top three divisions on this track in the 2013 Kroger 200. He backed that up with another win in the same race the following year. Those victories add to his confidence and possibly his aggression on the bullring.

“Looking back on stats and what not, you’ll see that I’m one of the most aggressive guys coming up through the ranks,” Wallace said.

On Sunday, Wallace will need to temper that aggression if he wants to score another top-10 in Cup competition.

For more on what Wallace says, watch the video above.