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Bob Leavine reflects on his team’s rise from start-and-park car to Kasey Kahne’s new home

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — A week ago, Bob Leavine got on the phone with Andy Petree, the new vice president of competition at Richard Childress Racing.

The owner of Leavine Family Racing and its No. 95 Chevrolet told Petree his main goal for the 2018 Cup season, his team’s third as a full-time operation.

“To be the best RCR car in the alliance,” Leavine told NBC Sports and Racer.com Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “Beat all theirs. The 3 and the 31, that’s my first goal. To be the best RCR car in the alliance. If we do that, it’s like the process, the results will come. If we’re that car, we can do that, all other (goals) will come. You can read into that whatever.”

Why does Leavine have the confidence that his car could potentially up-show RCR’s flagship cars and even the No. 43 of Darrell Wallace Jr. at Richard Petty Motorsports, which is also now part of the RCR alliance?

Leavine Family Racing is coming off a 2017 season where the No. 95 Chevrolet, driven by Michael McDowell, finished 26th in the standings. He claimed one top five and top 10, in the July race at Daytona. It was a career-best result for McDowell and the team.

But McDowell no longer calls Leavine Family Racing home after four years with the team.

Not far from where Leavine answered questions was his new driver.

Kasey Kahne stood next to his No. 95. Procore Chevrolet, taking pictures with the car he’ll drive in February’s Daytona 500.

A 14-year Cup veteran and a 18-time winner, Kahne was announced as LFR’s new driver in September. Kahne comes to the team after a disappointing six-year stint with Hendrick Motorsports.

During that same six years, LFR slowly built itself up from a team that only made four races in 2011.

In 2018, Leavine says coyly, “There may be victory hats in our hauler.”

David Starr (left) and Bob Leavine (center) in 2011, the first year of Leavine Family Racing. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for TMS).

Bob Leavine had a five-year plan.

The owner of a construction company in Tyler, Texas, Leavine had originally started Leavine Family Racing in 2011 as a way to help veteran David Starr get more starts in the Cup Series.

The No. 95 was entered into eight races, but Starr only qualified for four.

That was enough for Leavine.

“That got my competitive juices going,” says Leavine, who got his start in NASCAR as a sponsor in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.

After Starr came Scott Speed, who made 15 of the 16 races LFR entered in 2012. Their best finish was 17th at Watkins Glen International.

However, the No. 95 only finished three of those 15 races.

“You couldn’t test back then,” Leavine says. “So we would use some races where you didn’t go start-and-park. You went to work on your car. Work on (getting) your guys more experience. So we were building experience by going and doing that. We’d love to be able to run the whole race, but we didn’t have enough money. We were still running out of our own pocket. So we had to pick the races we (ran) full-time. The ones with the better purse, then we’d add to it and we can run.”

It was during this time Leavine began planning out his five-year-plan to to run full-time in Cup.

In 2013, LFR made 20 races with four drivers, again finishing just three races.

The next year, Leavine hired veteran McDowell to take over the 95, which he qualified for 19 of 22 races it was entered into. This time, McDowell finished all but five races.

During all of this, Leavine saw himself as a “roadblock” to his team’s success, especially when it came to marketing and promoting the team.

“For two to three years, I didn’t worry about it,” Leavine says. “I wasn’t from marketing. I didn’t (use it) in our company in Texas, we got business by our reputation. Well, it doesn’t work that way in NASCAR. It’s sponsors and selling those things and I had no background (in it).

” … I was probably the biggest roadblock. It was me learning, figuring out what I needed to do. I could see how to put the operations side together because that’s where I came from. But the marketing and the whole strategy, none of that.”

To help in that effort, Levine brought on Jeremy Lange, who worked with Best Buy and GMR Marketing before joining the team. Lange is now the vice president and general manger of the team after having served as vice president of operations.

The team also faced the hurdle of a fire that devastated its 20,000-foot shop in May 2015, destroying four of the 12 cars they had.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Then Leavine’s five-year plan ended a year early in 2016 when NASCAR introduced the charter system, which guarantees 36 starting spots in a 40-car field.

“We were forced into (it) because there’s a big difference between a charter purse and an open purse, it really is,” Leavine says. “Then we had to get a partner and lease a charter (from Circle Sport Racing) to make that happen and we had to switch manufacturers (from Ford to Chevrolet). So we had three things going on in ’16.”

Leavine also entered a technical alliance with RCR after previously working with Team Penske. As part of that deal, Ty Dillon drove the 95 in seven races while McDowell took the rest.

“It was still a little disconnected,” Leavine says. “Ty did a great job, but that was the deal we made with RC, getting him rides.

“(In) ’17 it was us. Just us. Set up all the cars. Did it all ourselves, internally. Becoming more independent and self-sufficient. That gave us more confidence and we got better cars and faster cars. It just snowballed.”

The snowball ended – or reached its peak – with Kahne being announced as McDowell’s replacement on Sept. 19. On Tuesday, LFR announced Procore as the team’s first major sponsor with Kahne on the team. It will sponsor the team in six races each in 2018 and 2019, including the Daytona 500.

The 37-year-old driver will be the first for LFR who has a Cup win on his record.

Leavine has also been adding new team members who have seen LFR’s growth over the last few years.

The team added a new shop foreman from Richard Petty Motorsports and a front-end mechanic and a body man, both coming off championship seasons with Furniture Row Racing.

Leading the team – made up of roughly 30 employees – will be rookie crew chief Travis Mack, who comes to LFR after 14 years with Hendrick Motorsports, most recently as the car chief on the No. 88 car of now-retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Leavine feels in the last three years, after splitting his time between the team and his company in Texas, that Leavine Family Racing has finally begun to bear his “fingerprints.”

“I never really had my fingerprints on it for our culture like we had on our organization out in Texas,” Leavine says. “The majority of our people have been with us for 15, 20 years. So it’s building that culture of people, surrounding yourself and letting them do their job. That’s what we’ve done little by little in the last two-and-a-half, three years. Finding those people, doing well. Michael McDowell did a great job for us moving up through there, getting our car to run. Lot of credit to him.”

Hiring Kahne, along with the improved fortunes of the team, has grown the talent pool Leavine has to choose from.

“Having Kasey helps broaden the market we can go for,” Leavine says. “Because he’s had Farmers (Insurance) and some of those people like that. That’s important for Jeremy (Lange) in selling and marketing people. But acquiring people in the shop, (they) know ‘I’m going to work on Kasey’s car.’ So yes, it helped.”

What’s the biggest door that’s opened for the team in the two months since signing Kahne?

“It’s difficult to say,” Leavine answers. “A door or an attitude? An attitude can be a door. I think our optimism about what our future is, because you’ve got to have that person in order to carry you.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has ‘some interest’ in being part of group that buys Carolina Panthers

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not one of two race car drivers who are part of Felix Sabates’ group seeking to buy the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, according to the Associated Press.

NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver told the AP he hadn’t been asked by Sabates to join the group. But Earnhardt said he reached out to Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., about the possibility of being part of an effort to pursue the team.

SMI own Charlotte Motor Speedway and seven other NASCAR tracks.

“I said, ‘Hey, Marcus, if you guys are in the middle of it and you think it’s a good business deal, I definitely have some interest,'” Earnhardt told the AP. “But I am not one of the guys that Felix is talking about.”

Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, told the Charlotte Observer last week he was part of a local group in the Charlotte area seeking to buy the Panthers. Sabates said he is not in position to be the majority owner by a “long shot.”

Sabates’ group includes five businessmen, two of the team’s existing minority owners and two race car drivers, who Sabates declined to name.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is selling the team after it was revealed in December by Sports Illustrated that four former Panther employees received “significant settlements” for workplace misconduct that included “sexual harassment against female employees and for directing a racial slur at an African-American employee.”

NASCAR recently denied a report that CEO and Chairman Brian France was part of a group interested in buying the team.

Earnhardt, a noted fan of the Washington Redskins, recently retired from Cup racing after 18 full-time seasons on the circuit.

“I wouldn’t have the kind of money where I would move the needle too much, but it would be something to have a lot of pride in, and a good Charlotte NFL team is good for the city of Charlotte,” Earnhardt said. “I wish them success because of what it does for our community, not only from a pride standpoint, but an economical standpoint. I wouldn’t be a big player, and it wouldn’t be an investment that would really create a big change in my life.

“But I certainly would love to be supportive to the team and the success of the team to the community. That means a lot to me.”

Earnhardt will make his debut as a member of the NBC Sports broadcasting family next month during coverage of the Super Bowl and winter Olympics.

DC Solar to sponsor Chip Ganassi Racing in Cup, Xfinity races

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DC Solar will sponsor Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray in select Cup Series races and several Xfinity Series races this year, the team announced Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

DC Solar has backed Ganassi for the last three seasons in the Xfinity Series. It sponsored Brennan Poole‘s No. 48 Chevrolet for the last two seasons. Ganassi will only field one full-time car in the Xfinity Series this season.

The provider of mobile solar lighting devices will be on Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet and McMurray’s No. 1 Chevrolet in Cup. Both drivers will pilot the No. 42 in the Xfinity Series, along with John Hunter Nemechek.

McMurray hasn’t competed in the Xfinity Series since 2013.

DC Solar will make its Cup debut with Larson and the in the season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash exhibition on Feb. 11.

DC Solar provides mobile solar lighting solutions, EV chargers, and power stations to multiple tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, ISM Raceway (Phoenix) and Darlington Raceway.

The company has also partnered with ISM Raceway during its $178 million renovation project.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make NBC Sports debut with Super Bowl, Olympics coverage

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Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver, will make his debut as a member of the NBC family with the network’s coverage of next month’s Super Bowl and the winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Earnhardt, who just retired after 18 full-time seasons in the Cup Series, will be part of NBC’s pre-game coverage of the Feb. 4 Super Bowl in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

While there, Earnhardt will take part in outdoor events and activities taking place in city leading up to kickoff.

Earnhardt will then travel to PyeongChang, where he will explore the culture, people, and traditions in South Korea and experience the Olympics first hand. Earnhardt will visit the speed skating venue at Gangneung Ice Arena, and through the lens of a racer will view the speed, close contact, and tight turns on the speed skating oval.

Following a recent invite on social media from the U.S. bobsled team, Earnhardt will also travel to the Alpensia Sliding Center where he will get to ride in an Olympic bobsled.

The XXIII Olympic Winter Games begin Feb. 8.

“I’m excited to get to work with my new NBC family,” Earnhardt said in a press release. “Beginning with two huge events like the Super Bowl and Olympics, right out of the gate, should be quite the introduction. I’m looking forward to raising the profile of NASCAR, and all that we’re going to be doing during the 2018 season.”

Earnhardt will be an analyst on NBC’s coverage of the NASCAR season. The NBC portion of the Cup schedule begins July 1 at Chicagoland Speedway on NBCSN.

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Cody Coughlin joins GMS Racing in Truck Series

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GMS Racing announced Tuesday that it has signed Cody Coughlin to compete for the team in the Camping World Truck Series this season.

Coughlin, the son of NHRA driver and JEGS President John Coughlin, joins the team after one year driving for ThorSport Racing.

The 22-year-old driver will pilot the No. 2 JEGS Chevrolet in his second full-time season in the series.

“I couldn’t be more excited to join the GMS Racing family as well as be back running for Chevrolet,” Coughlin said in a press release. “GMS is a team that has proven to be one of the teams to beat every time they unload at the race track and now I have the same opportunity. I can’t thank GMS Racing, (team owners) Maury Gallagher and Mike Beam enough for this chance. I think we have the right tools and personnel in place with the No.2 team to run up front and contend for race wins every weekend.”

Coughlin joins Justin Haley, Dalton Sargeant and 2016 series champion Johnny Sauter.

Coughlin has 35 series starts since 2015. His best finish is third at Phoenix in November last season. It is his only top-five finish. He has three tops 10s.

The native of Delaware, Ohio, will be paired with crew chief Jerry Baxter. Baxter worked with Kaz Grala in 2017. Together they won the season opener at Daytona and earned five top fives and 11 top 10s.

Baxter has 10 wins as a crew chief in the Truck Series, including five with Darrell Wallace Jr.

“I’m more than ready to get the 2018 season underway,” Baxter said in a press release. “Last year we raced against Cody every weekend, so I have an idea of the type of driver he is. It will be even better to be able to work with him now firsthand. We have a good group of hard-working guys on the No. 2 that will definitely put us in the position to run well every time we’re at the track.”

The 2018 Truck Series season begins Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway.

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