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Daniel Hemric’s journey to Xfinity Series aided by loyal mechanic

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WELCOME, North Carolina — Three months ago, Daniel Hemric competed in the Xfinity Series championship race, driving Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

Hemric’s shot at a NASCAR title in his rookie season might not have been possible if not for a 1999 Ford Mustang GT.

The car became his saving grace in early 2006, but it didn’t belong to Hemric, who was weeks away from turning 15 years old.

The owner of the light Atlantic blue car was Tim Ladyga, then a rear tire changer on Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 car in the Cup Series.

At the time, Hemric was racing Bandoleros, but his career had hit a wall when it came to the financial support of his mother and stepfather, who worked as service writers at a car dealership in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area.

“That was really all we were going to be able to do,” Hemric, now 27, told NBC Sports.

That’s where Ladyga came in.

He had been friends with Hemric’s stepfather, Stephen Christopher Woods, when they raced pro stocks in the Northeast in the 1990s at tracks like Connecticut’s Thompson and Stafford Speedways.

When Ladyga moved to North Carolina in 1997, Woods invited him to Concord Speedway to watch a 6-year-old Hemric compete in a go-kart race.

Ladyga thought what he saw was “pretty cool.”

“It just got bigger, bigger and bigger,” says Ladyga. “We watched more and more and more.”

After a while, the family’s interactions trailed off. A few years went by without any contact between them.

Then one night at Millbridge Speedway, a dirt track in Salisbury, North Carolina, they crossed paths again at a go-kart race.

Ladyga spotted someone familiar competing.

“Whose that kid?’” Ladyga asked his wife, Cheryl.

“That’s Christi and Woody’s son, Daniel.”

“The kid in the go-kart back at Concord?” Ladyga responded. “God almighty, look at him.”

Ladyga described Hemric as “winning everything he drove that night.”

His interest in Hemric’s racing career rejuvenated, Ladyga began helping the family on its go-kart and Bandolero endeavors. Eventually, Woods asked him to supervise Hemric at the track one weekend when work got in the way.

“I think he kind of saw what I was doing with what I had,” Hemric says. “I was never going to get the chance to do anything else.”

The duo had a rough go at it their first weekend alone.

“I think something broke every time we went on the race track,” Hemric recalls. “He was miserable, I was miserable. When he left that race, he was like, ‘I’m going to figure out a way to get you a race car.’ At the time, the next step was Legend cars.”

Ladyga brought up the matter to Cheryl.

“We need to buy this kid a Legend car. He’s good,” Ladyga said.

“We ain’t got money for that,” Cheryl responded.

Daniel Hemric celebrates a 2014 Legend win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a car owned by Tim Ladyga. (Charlotte Motor Speedway)

Fueling the Habit

For Ladyga, auto racing is a “drug.”

“Once you get hooked on it, you can’t get out. It’s so, so intense and it’s just something you want to do. Either you do it or you don’t. It’s one or the other. Most people stay and do it. The ones that just get burned out of it never come back, you know.”

Ladyga developed his love of racing from living in a family where an uncle raced stock cars from the 1960s to early ’80s and his dad drag raced near his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut.

Eventually, Ladyga gave racing a shot. He bought a super late model for his uncle to race.

“My uncle drove it for a few races and I was like, ‘Why am I spending all this money for him to race for? Why can’t I race it?’” says Ladyga. “So I raced it. We were probably better off putting somebody else in. I tore it up more than I did good.”

When not racing, Ladyga worked at a tire company, changing tires on tractor trailers and heavy equipment. Eventually, his passion led him in 1995 to go from Connecticut to North Carolina every other weekend to help build and work on his brother’s late model.

Two years later, right after marrying his wife, the couple took two weeks of vacation in Daytona and North Carolina. Their return to Connecticut didn’t last long.

Ladyga informed his bosses he was moving of North Carolina. Four days later, the Ladygas packed a U-Haul and their cars and headed south.

Once in North Carolina, Ladyga set out to get on a national series team.

“In the beginning it’s hard and you just keep beating on doors, beating on doors, beating on doors trying to get a job,” says Ladyga. “I was working with a late model team at first. We off-road raced back with my brother in the ’80s with Walker Evans and Jimmie Johnson and Ivan Stewart and them guys. … We wound up meeting Walker down here and that’s how I got my foot in the door, working for his Truck team.”

By the time Ladyga became involved in Hemric’s racing fortunes a decade later, he had finished his first season with the No. 48 team in the Cup Series after a stint with the No. 31 car at RCR.

Even that wasn’t enough to satisfy his racing addiction.

It led to Ladyga one day arriving in front of Hemric’s house in Kannapolis, North Carolina, with a trailer.

In it was a used Legend car he bought with the money from selling his Mustang GT.

“The guy told me it was good, good car,” says Ladyga. “I didn’t know nothing about Legend cars, you know?”

Legend cars are spec vehicles built by U.S. Legend Cars International, based out of Concord, North Carolina. The cars are 5/8-scale fiberglass versions of old NASCAR modifieds.

The car Ladyga rolled out had an engine. It lacked a seat.

“Think you can drive this?” Ladyga asked.

Hemric jumped in the car and took off down the street.

GETTING THE GANG BACK TOGETHER

A decade later, Richard Childress had an important question for Daniel Hemric.

Hemric had been announced as joining RCR in September 2016 after two full-time seasons in the Camping World Truck Series.

Childress asked Hemric who he wanted as his crew chief during his rookie year.

“Right off the top of my head I knew Danny Stockman was my guy,” Hemric said. “Growing up with Austin and Ty (Dillon), I got to know Danny through Austin’s Truck (series) deal …

“As Stockman and I started working together, we knew he was going to be the leader and crew chief of our team. He already knew Ladyga and I’s relationship. He knew where we stood with each other and is as passionate about racing in general.”

At the time, Ladyga had returned to RCR to work as an underneath mechanic on its Cup operation after a tenure at Hendrick that included four straight championships with the No. 48 team.

When Hemric told Ladyga he was coming to RCR, Ladyga didn’t hesitate. He went to the team’s management and told them he wanted to work on Hemric’s car.

“Most guys, if it was their choice, once they get to the Cup level, that’s where they stay,” says Hemric. “Once they get out of that, that’s their retirement, so to say. He was willing and sacrificed everything that entails with taking a step of a tier back to make sure he was a part of our deal.”

Daniel Hemric drives his No. 21 Chevrolet during Championship weekend last November at Miami. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

SIDELINED

In more than 20 years in auto racing, Ladyga had never been seriously injured on the job. He had never missed a race he was supposed to work.

That changed last August.

Around 4:30 p.m. the Friday before the Xfinity race at Road America, Ladyga was driving a zero-turn lawn mower into the back of a truck at home.

While going up aluminum ramps, the deck of the mower hit the tailgate.

The mower turned sideways and flipped off the back of the truck. Ladyga jumped off and landed in the rock filled driveway. The impact broke the femur in his right leg, fractured his hip in six spots and tore his knee up.

Ladyga later told a paramedic they needed to hurry. He had a race to fly to in Wisconsin.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” the paramedic responded.

When a nurse entered Ladyga’s hospital room the next morning, they found him in tears.

The nurse asked what was wrong.

“This is the first time in 20 years I’ve missed a race,” Ladyga said.

A rod was placed in his leg. Doctors told him full recovery from his injuries would take six months to a year.

Without Ladyga working on the No. 21, Hemric made his march to the Championship race. As the finale neared, Hemric also lost Stockman, his car chief and an engineer to a four-race suspension for an infraction in the playoffs.

As Hemric progressed in the playoffs, Ladyga was adamant that he wanted to attend the final three races of the season.

His doctors repeatedly nixed the idea.

But three months after his accident, Ladyga made it to Homestead.

“For myself, that was huge to see him,” says Hemric, who finished fourth in the standings after mechanical problems in the race. “I think it was a great motivator for him to get back because he saw how strong we were becoming. To know that having him is just kind of the missing link to kick off 2018 all back as one group, that’s big for me. I’ve been with this guy through just about everything.”

The trip to Florida took a bit out of Ladyga.

“The old leg felt like it was ready to fall off,” he says. “But I made it through the weekend.”

The mechanic exceeded his doctor’s expectations on when he’d be back at work.

With a limp, Ladyga walked back into the RCR shop on Dec. 5.

YEAR TWO

The two sit at a conference table at RCR’s Welcome, North Carolina, campus two weeks before the start of Hemric’s sophomore Xfinity season.

Having his former Legends owner help put together his Xfinity car every week is “everything” for Hemric.

“I know I have a guy that’s willing and capable of doing anything that needs to be done,” Hemric says. “Ladyga is known, not only through my eyes, but everybody here, to be the first one here and one of the last ones to leave. Capable of doing anything on the race car that needs to be done at any given time. That’s a huge asset, not only from a race team standpoint, but from a personal standpoint. If I need something done, if I’m out of town, no matter what’s happening, he’ll figure out a way to get it done for me.”

As his racing career progressed over the last decade, Hemric says he tried emulating the work ethic and “resilience” Ladyga displays.

“He thrashed and did whatever he could, no matter what it was to provide the best for me or his wife or his race team, whoever he’s working for,” Hemric says. “He constantly gave everything he had.”

Including his car.

“Timmy’s heard me say this for 15 years, is that everything happens for a reason and you just got to have faith that it’ll work out the way it’s supposed to,” Hemric says. “I know that very moment has someway or somehow trickled down to me being here … and I’m thankful for that.”

As for the Mustang? Getting rid of the hot rod doesn’t nag at Ladyga.

“I bought it back a few years ago.”

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Mother’s tears a celebration of a journey more than a decade in the making

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — After her son Garrett raced to a career-high fifth-place finish in Saturday’s quintuple-overtime Xfinity race, Bethanie Smithley could not contain her emotions.

Memories flashed to when he wanted to race even though neither parent knew anything about the sport other than what they viewed from the stands. Then there was the sign that what they were doing was the right thing. And the memories of how pillow cushions helped Garrett’s racing career.

All that was before Garrett joined JD Motorsports, an underfunded team that is at the track each weekend but not often noticed.

He overcame an early spin and avoided the late crashes to collect his third career Xfinity top-10 finish, spurring a family celebration on pit road afterward.

“It’s the satisfaction that going out on a limb for your child when you don’t necessarily want to go out there … is worth it,’’ Bethanie said between tears.

“It’s the payback. It’s the affirmation that we made the right decision and that all the sacrifices we made, the family vacations we didn’t take, it was worth it.’’

Garrett Smithley, a 25-year-old from Ligonier, Pennsylvania, pointed to the Daytona International Speedway stands and about where he and his family sat 12 years ago.

A passion grew.

He started racing in 2007 in Bandolero cars.

“I had to learn to tow a race trailer,’’ Bethanie Smithley said.

“I had to learn how to be crew chief,’’ said RK Smithley, Garrett’s dad.

One of the requests the family made before buying a Bandolero car was that they be showed how to set it up.

“We could have never dreamed this would turn into a profession,’’ Bethanie said. “We thought it would be a short-term hobby. Every time he’s moved forward there’s just been some provision that I felt was divine providence for him to be a race car driver.’’

The first time Garrett went to test a Legends car, they pulled up to the shop. When Bethanie opened the truck door to exit, Bill Elliott stood 2 feet away.

“He was one of our favorite NASCAR drivers,’’ she said. “To me that was kind of a sign that it’s going to be OK that your son wants to go racing. All along the right person has come along at the right time to help him move forward.’’

While driving a No. 43 Legends car, Garrett’s talent was spotted and he was invited to a Richard Petty Driver Search.

Former Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope saw Garrett at a test, leading to Garrett’s ARCA debut in 2014. He shared a car at the test with another driver, who was much bigger. Garrett’s parents brought pillows from their hotel couch so he could fit in the seat.

The following year, Garrett made his Camping World Truck Series debut with the Mittler Brothers, the same team Carl Edwards made his series debut with in 2002. Garrett is in his third season with JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.

“Johnny went on a limb,’’ Garrett said. “He had some better deals. He said I really want you to drive my 0 car.’’

As often happens the night before the first race of the season, Garrett couldn’t sleep Friday. He posted a picture on Twitter after midnight of the lit Daytona stands with the note: “Never taking this for granted.’’

“You come so close to not making it and not making it and not making it … this feels really special,’’ Garrett said.

Enough to make a mother cry.

“Along the way somebody has always noticed that talent,’’ Bethanie said. “I fully believe it will lead to him being in Cup one day. I don’t know how long.

“I also say because he’s done so well at these superspeedways, I think one of these days he’ll be in Victory Lane, although right now it feels like we’re there.’’

Instead, she and RK stood behind pit wall. The sun faded behind the stands and sweepers cleaned pit road. A few people pushed team pit boxes into position to be loaded onto trucks and head to the next race. RK and Bethanie were alone.

As they walked away, she turned to one person working on the pit boxes that she knew.

“I need a hug.’’

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Race results, point standings after Xfinity Series opener at Daytona

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Tyler Reddick began his tenure with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series by coming out on top in the closest finish in national NASCAR series history.

Reddick beat Elliott Sadler by 0.000 to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. It is his second career win.

The top five was completed by Ryan Reed, Kaz Grala and Garrett Smithley.

Click here for the race results.

With his win, the 22-year-old driver leaves Daytona with a nine-point lead over Sadler.

Completing the top five in the standings are Spencer Gallagher (-11), Ryan Truex (-15) and Reed (-16).

Click here for the point standings.

Tyler Reddick wins Xfinity Series opener at Daytona in overtime finish

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Tyler Reddick won the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona after a track record 12 cautions, a record five restarts in overtime and one red flag period.

Driving the No. 9 Chevrolet, Reddick beat his JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler in the closest finish in national NASCAR series history, earning his second Xfinity win.

The margin of victory was 0.000.

“That was insane. I just saw a picture of it like 10 minutes ago. It’s not much,” Reddick said in the winner’s press conference. “I guess it was just enough, just soon enough.”

The previous closest finish was .001 in the 1995 Truck Series race at Colorado National Speedway, won by Butch Miller over Mike Skinner.

The top five was completed by Ryan Reed, rookie Kaz Grala and Garrett Smithley.

“Feels amazing,” Reddick told Fox Sports 1. “This was a hell of a way to start off the year with JR Motorsports. … This is a hell of way to get my second win, my first win with JR Motorsports.”

Reddick is now qualified for the Xfinity playoffs.

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity,” Reddick said. “It’s just going to take a little bit of time to het honed in. I guess we’re getting along good right off the bat. We were having some problems all day long. We were having some issues with the motor. I don’t know exactly what it was, but it held on all race long. It was getting worse at the end.”

Reddick, 22, led 11 laps in the race. None of them were in regulation.

Overtime was setup by a spin by Sadler with three laps to go in the scheduled distance on the backstretch. Sadler had previously been black flagged along with Chase Elliott for locking their bumpers together for too long with 26 to go.

Sadler was able to mount a comeback thanks to a crash with 22 to go.

It resulted in his third runner-up finish in the last three restrictor-plate races.

“I was trying to figure out how close to get to (Reddick),” Sadler told Fox Sports 1. “My spotter was telling me the 16 (Reed) was coming too, so I didn’t want to leave him the outside. Man, I really want to win this race. Most eventful race I’ve ever been a part of. Spun there twice. Got black flagged for absolutely no reason in my opinion but that’s the way it goes. … I’m proud that a JR Motorsports car went to victory lane, but I wish it was us today.”

Originally scheduled for 120 laps, the race ended after 143 laps. That’s a series record at Daytona.

The first overtime attempt was marred by a massive wreck on the backstretch that involved 18 cars.

The race marked the 100th for Xfinity as the series sponsor.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Larson

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Elliott

MORE: Race results and point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Garrett Smithley bounced back from a late-race accident to earn his first top five in his 67th start. His previous best result was eighth in this race last year … Ryan Reed earned his sixth top five. Four have come at Daytona … Spencer Gallagher finished a career-best sixth in his 41st start. Gallagher had been involved in a one-car accident on the second overtime restart … Jeff Green finished 11th for his best finish since placing 10th at Talladega last year.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: In his first start on an oval in Xfinity, Austin Cindric started a eight-car wreck in the tri-oval as the field began Lap 11. The wreck eliminated Cindric and Christopher Bell … With 14 to go in the original distance, the caution waived for separate spins by Garrett Smithley and Michael Annett in the tri-oval. Smithley was turned by Ryan Truex and Annett was turned by Brandon Jones … Drivers included in the massive crash on first overtime restart: Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Chase Elliot, Joey Gase, Aric Almirola, Justin Allgaier, Austin Dillon, Matt Tifft, Jeremy Clements, Joe Nemechek, Brandon Brown, Cole Custer, Daniel Suarez, Brandon Jones, David Starr, Jeff Green, Dylan Lupton and Caesar Bacarella.

NOTABLE: Reddick’s win is his second at Daytona. He won the 2015 Truck Series opener at the track. The average age of the field was 28 years, 10 months and 11 days, the youngest ever at Daytona … The 357.5 miles in the race is the second longest race in series history in terms of miles.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “When I have enough fuel, yes.” – David Elenz, crew chief for Tyler Reddick when asked if he likes unlimited restarts in overtime.

QUOTE OF THE DAY 2: “Either way, fine with me.” – JR Motorsports owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. after being told the margin of victory was the closest in history.

WHAT’S NEXT: Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway at 2 p.m. ET on Feb. 24 on Fox Sports 1.

Barney Visser back at track, still recovering from heart ailment

Dustin Long
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Barney Visser won’t be back to full health for at least another three months, but the owner of Furniture Row Racing will attend tomorrow’s Daytona 500 three months after a heart attack scare.

The episode kept Visser from seeing Martin Truex Jr. win the team’s first Cup championship in person.

It occurred on Nov. 4 and he underwent bypass surgery two days later.

“There’s nothing like getting new pipes,” Visser said Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. “As good as I feel now, this is a home run.”

Visser, who has fielded cars in NASCAR since 2005, was back at a track for the first time on Friday.

“I missed the people and the competitive spirit,” Visser said. “I heard the engines fire up the other day, and I realized how much I missed that.”

Visser’s health scare was preceded by six months of angina, a symptom of coronary artery disease.

“It was just a burning lung sensation that would come and go,” Visser said. “So I should have paid more attention to that.  But my arm was numb all night the night before I went in (to the hospital), and usually you get up in the morning and you shake that stuff off, but it just wouldn’t shake off.  So I went into the hospital, and they started running tests and did an angiogram that afternoon, and they couldn’t stent it after ‑‑ they’ll try to stent it if they can, and one of them was 99 percent blocked, and they just couldn’t do it. I had to wait for a bypass on Monday.

“If there was a heart attack, and the doctors in the hospital told me there was, my cardiologist ‑‑ these guys take a lot of pride in this stuff and whether or not the patients have heart ‑‑ he doesn’t think I did because of the numbers, but I think what happened is on the gurney on the way to the angiogram, it just felt like somebody was ripping my chest open, and I started complaining about it, and they handed me a nitroglycerin, and I passed out at that point and don’t remember much after that.  They did the angiogram, and I remember a bossy little woman who was the doctor.  She was an angioplasty specialist, and she was going to do the stent.  Everyone was terrified of her.  That’s all I remember about that.”

Visser said his father underwent bypass surgery 40 years ago. But the team owner said he never thought he wouldn’t make it through the procedure.

Visser believes he’ll have more energy at the race track following his ordeal.

“I feel like I’ll have a little more gas after the race now,” Visser said.  “I remember Claire (B Lang of SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) talking to me a few times after wins, and I don’t ‑‑ I just was almost dead.  I didn’t realize how tired I was.  I think it’ll be better now.  I’m looking forward to that.”

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