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25 Years Ago NASCAR lost Alan Kulwicki – a driver doing things ‘His Way’

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In a car named Sirloin because it is one of the toughest cuts of beef, Alan Kulwicki won the 1986 Rookie of the Year honor in what was then known as the Winston Cup series. Six seasons later, he beat NASCAR’s elite to capture the 1992 title.

It was one of NASCAR’s most dramatic moments in a history filled with them. From near obscurity to the pinnacle of stock car racing, fiercely independent Kulwicki did it his way as an owner/driver in a sport that was rapidly turning its back on the privateer.

Barely 4 1/2 months later—25 years ago today, April 1—Kulwicki lost his life in plane crash returning to Bristol, Tenn. for the 1993 Food City 500. He was coming from a sponsor appearance in nearby Knoxville. Kulwicki was set to defend his 1992 victory in that race.

Everyone knew the sport was changing.

At the end of 1992, Richard Petty was due to retire. A young sprint car driver named Jeff Gordon would make his first Cup start. Dale Jarrett, Ernie Irvan and Davey Allison were taking the place of the “old guard.” And Kulwicki was at still the beginning of what proved to be a very promising career.

“No matter what else you have when you talk about Alan Kulwicki, is the speculation and the loss of potential,” NBC analyst Kyle Petty told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“How many more championships could there have been? What else could he have done? So many wins. So many poles. So many things were left laying on the table that we’ll never know.”

Dave Kallmann of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel details how Kulwicki packed up his single car and headed south to Charlotte, North Carolina, with nothing more than a dream of being involved in NASCAR’s top level.

What he brought with him was more than that little bit of machinery. The most important things were inside his head — an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a burning determination and an ability to see stock car racing not as it was, but as it would soon become.

As the sport was beginning to use data in a way that was unprecedented, the college-educated driver from outside of NASCAR’s mainstream was not encumbered by the old ways of thinking.

“I will say, Alan had a leg up on everybody on understanding what came out on that computer screen,” said Petty. “He was there when the door was open, and he was able to take advantage of those first few years when the sport headed in that direction.”

And it was likely his unique way of looking at things that won Kulwicki his only championship. With six races remaining, he trailed by 278 points and chipped away at that margin until he was among the drivers with a shot at the title in the final race.

In the Hooters 500 at Atlanta, Kulwicki won the championship by crunching the numbers in his head while circling the track at 180 mph. He stayed out during a long late-race, green flag run to score enough bonus points keep Elliott from overtaking him in the standings.

Kulwicki won the title in a Ford nicknamed the “Underbird” (instead of the Thunderbird he was driving) with a pit sign made out of an image of the cartoon hero Underdog.

The sport is left to speculate what might have happened if Kulwicki had not perished in that plane crash.

Would he have eventually succumbed to the pressure that pushed most other independent, driver/owner combinations out of the sport? Or would he have won many more races and several more championships?

About that same time, Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs were establishing their teams. Kulwicki’s lone championship was wedged between four of seven earned by Dale Earnhardt.

Kulwicki’s career has been honored with four consecutive nominations to the Hall of Fame that includes a bid this year. And when he gets there, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” will play in the background, just as it did during the 1992 Winston Cup banquet.

Report: Matt Kenseth to return to Roush Fenway Racing?

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Roush Fenway Racing has what it is billing as a “Major Roush Fenway Partner Announcement” at 10 a.m. Wednesday, and a report states the team will reveal that Matt Kenseth will return to drive select races in the No. 6 Ford of Trevor Bayne.

No one from Roush Fenway Racing responded to multiple requests for comment from NBC Sports. Several industry insiders contacted by NBC Sports also had no knowledge of Kenseth going to the No. 6 car.

SB Nation’s Jordan Bianchi, citing unnamed multiple sources, reported Monday night that the 2003 Cup champion will rejoin the NASCAR team that Kenseth drove for from 1998-2012.

The report stated that Kenseth’s first race in the No. 6 is expected to be May 12 at Kansas Speedway.

Bayne is 26th in the points heading into Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. Bayne’s best finish this season is 12th at Texas. The 2011 Daytona 500 winner has not had a top-10 finish in his last 12 starts, dating back to last season. Sponsor AdvoCare signed a contract renewal with the team through the 2019 season in Nov. 2016. 

Kenseth left the series last year, unable to find a ride after he was told he would not be retained by Joe Gibbs Racing after the season. The move allowed JGR to put Erik Jones in the No. 20 car this year.

Kenseth told Nate Ryan in the NASCAR on NBC Podcast in November that he was putting his career on hiatus but didn’t say retirement.

“I’ve put a lot of thought into it and pretty much decided after Martinsville, which I kind of already knew anyway, but we decided to take some time off,” Kenseth told Ryan. “I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if that’s forever. I don’t know if that’s a month or I don’t know if that’s five months. I don’t know if that’s two years. Most likely when you’re gone, you don’t get the opportunity again. I just don’t really feel it’s in the cards.

“Really most of my life, everything has been very obvious to me. Moving to Joe Gibbs, everybody was like, ‘Oh that must have been the hardest decision. Actually, it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. Both ends, everything lined up. It lined up to not stay where I was for a whole bunch of different reasons, and it lined up to go over there for a whole bunch of different reasons. It was just like it was really easy. This one, I’ve been fighting it as long as I can, because I’m like, ‘Man, once you’re done doing this, not many of us get to do this, especially at the top level.’ I think I fought it for a long time.

“Sometimes you can’t make your own decisions, so people make them for you. That’s unfortunate, because I wanted to make my own decisions. I felt like in a way I’ve earned that to be able to go out the way other drivers who had similar careers to dictate when your time is up. Anyway, I just came to the realization it’s probably time to go do something different.”

Kenseth joined JGR in 2013 after 13 seasons in NASCAR’s premier series with Roush, compiling 24 victories while making the playoffs eight times. The 2000 Cup rookie of the year also scored 26 Xfinity wins with the team, finishing runner-up in the standings in 1998-99. He ranks 20th on the all-time Cup wins list with 39.

NASCAR America: Jimmie Johnson doing more with less in last two races

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For the last two Cup races, Jimmie Johnson looked more like his old self.

At Bristol, Johnson scored his first top five since October. On Saturday at Richmond, after running off the lead lap for 267 of 400 laps, the seven-time champion used a series of late-race cautions to finish sixth.

It marked Johnson’s first consecutive top 10s since October at Dover and Charlotte.

On NASCAR America, analysts Steve Letarte and Dale Jarrett discussed the No. 48 team’s improvement.

“I think very clearly Jimmie Johnson and (crew chief) Chad Knaus have figured out a way to do more with less,” Letarte said. “The secret of Jimmie Johnson the last 10 years — the fastest race car with the best driver. … That’s how they won at least six of their seven championships, was the best race car. I think when you’re that good for so long … you perhaps don’t build the skill set of running a lap down, you don’t build the skill set of racing a lap down. That’s different than running on the lead lap or pit strategy to win the race.”

Johnson is mired in the longest winless streak of his career at 32 races.

“It’s hard to believe that someone like Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus can learn a new trick, but they’ve learned one,” Letarte said. “Through the summer, as the cars get better, look out. Because if they keep this sort of patience with good cars, I expect Jimmie to win races again and win multiple times in 2018.”

Watch the above video for more on Johnson and his teammate William Byron.

NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Richmond recap, fantasy update

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and recaps last weekend’s Cup race in Richmond.

Carolyn Manno hosts from Stamford, Connecticut. Steve Letarte and Dale Jarrett join her from Burton’s Garage.

On today’ show:

•   In an overtime finish at Richmond Raceway, Kyle Busch made his way to Victory Lane for the third consecutive time this season. But first, “Rowdy” made an unexpected move – joining the fans in the crowd to celebrate. Our own Dave Burns was at the track Saturday to catch up with him after the win. 

•   We’ll also break down Saturday’s efforts for runner-up Chase Elliott, fourth-place finisher Joey Logano, and sixth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson. For Johnson and the No. 48 team, they’ve earned their first back-to-back top-10 finishes since last October. DJ & Steve debate why they’re finding ways to get good results while still lacking in speed.

•   The NBC Sports NASCAR America Fantasy League continues. Which NASCAR on NBC broadcaster and which fans are in the lead after three races. Join the conversation and share your league team each week using #NASCARAmericaFantasy.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Ryan: The curious lack of strategic gambling was the pits at Richmond

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Sometimes, the best option to win a race isn’t outrunning the competition but outmaneuvering them.

Never is that more applicable than with a late-race caution on a short track.

Which made the final pit stop sequence of Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway even more inexplicable.

When the yellow flag waved with a scheduled 10 laps remaining, all 16 cars on the lead lap pitted for four tires.

Why didn’t a crew chief gamble on keeping his car on track? Or at least taking two tires?

Generally, the tried-and-true axiom for any late caution at a short track is to do the opposite of those in the lead or near it – even in instances of the high tire wear evident Saturday at Richmond.

Sometimes, the strategy gets taken to the extreme.

In the April 18, 2004 at Martinsville Speedway, a caution flew with 85 laps remaining. Leader Jimmie Johnson stayed on track … and the 14 lead-lap cars behind him all pitted. On tires that fell off quickly, Johnson still managed to keep the lead for another 40 laps and hung on for a fourth-place finish. Crew chief Chad Knaus said two days later that he was “floored” that even the cars outside the top 10 stopped (expecting that at least a few might risk staying out and hanging on for a top 10).

Stunned would be an understandable reaction to Richmond, too, especially given the circumstances. When the race restarted, there were six green-flags left. As it turned out, because of a caution on the next lap, just four of the final 12 laps were contested under green.

Why not elect to remain on track or try a swifter two-tire stop rather than stay behind the top contenders?

For three drivers – Austin Dillon, David Ragan and Matt DiBenedetto – the strategy play wasn’t much of a choice. They took a wavearound 20 laps earlier and probably couldn’t risk the extra distance on tires.

But for every other driver who was trailing as eventual race winner Kyle Busch entered the pits on Lap 391 – a list that comprised, in running order, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez – rolling the dice was a legitimate option.

Ten of those 13 drivers don’t have a win, which is the easiest way to qualify for a playoff berth. While you can make the case for “every point matters,” if you were running outside the top 10 and had an opportunity to steal a victory, why pass it up?

Yes, worn tires would have factored into the call (it was roughly halfway through a typical green-flag run), and they highly increased the likelihood of spinning the tires and stacking up the restart.

That could have ruined the results for many other teams that then would have become the victim of circumstances beyond their control.

But who cares?

You are supposed to make life more difficult for competitors during a race, whether it’s by banging fenders or battling wits. There is no sense of entitlement or fair play that the front-running cars somehow “deserve” a clean restart to decide the race.

There also is strength in numbers. If the back half of the lead-lap cars had pitted, it would have been extremely difficult for the previous front-runners to regain many spots over barely three and a half laps of green on the 0.75-mile oval.

It certainly would have presented a show to watch unfold in a race that was relatively tame (though there was consistent passing for first and no runaway leader).

But fans were deprived of a potential slam-bang finish. Instead, we got another example of the garage groupthink that can be so pervasive, it comes at the detriment of competitive ingenuity.

When the 16-driver playoff field likely is set in September without some of those teams, none will point to Richmond as the race that cost them a championship bid because they won’t know for sure if it did.

Which is why at least a few of them should have tried to find out Saturday.


According to multiple media estimates, the crowd for Saturday night’s race was around 40,000. That would be up about 10,000 from the previous year on Sunday afternoon, which marked the second consecutive scheduled daytime start for Richmond’s spring race.

In moving both of its races back under the lights this season, track officials proclaimed that Saturday night racing was its “brand,” and the modest attendance uptick might affirm that.

However, does a track that once had a 112,000-seat capacity and sold out 33 consecutive races from 1992-2008 have its swagger back a little bit with the move?

Yes, there is that ongoing $30 million infield renovation that produced some positive vibes, and maybe encouraging signs have emerged from aligning with a renowned pro wrestling promoter in hopes of goosing promotions and ticket sales.

But with a (greatly reduced) capacity of more than 50,000, there probably were still at least 10,000 empty seats Saturday night. It was a good step forward but much work remains to be done in a market that always has been is a cornerstone for race fans.


Though it appeared to be triggered by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Ford scraping the wall, the final caution Saturday was sourced to “debris,” marking only the second debris yellow of the season and the first since the season-opening Daytona 500.

Last season, there were nine debris yellows through the first nine races.

This is the lowest total for debris yellows through nine races since at least 1990 (the first season in which caution reasons were listed for every race on Racing-Reference.info). There were four seasons (1990, ’91, ’92 and ’95) with three debris cautions through the first nine races.

As Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott noted postrace (and many others have said), last year’s implementation of stages came with a tacit understanding that the scheduled yellows would effectively serve as “planned” debris cautions.

NASCAR deserves credit for sticking to the pledge of letting races play out naturally, avoiding the quick-trigger temptation to bunch the field on restarts and draw the justified ire of its teams.


No one ever will confuse a seven-time champion with a wily starting pitcher, but Jimmie Johnson has been grinding out races this season with the efficacy of a journeyman trying to win without his best stuff every fifth day. As analyst Steve Letarte said Monday on NASCAR America, it’s tricky to keep winning as your fastball slides from 98 mph to 95, but Johnson is managing the dropoff.

Bristol (third) and Richmond (sixth) are the first time the Hendrick Motorsports driver has earned back-to-back top 10s since Dover and Charlotte last October, which isn’t exactly remarkable in a career with 344 top 10s in 588 starts (58.5 percent). But it’s been admirable to watch the way in which Johnson has adjusted to patiently gritting it out and making the most of what he is given.

During their heyday, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus could win on any Sunday because of their No. 48 Chevrolet’s speed. That they seem to be recalibrating their approaches is as impressive on some levels as their dominance.

“We’re taking steps forward,” Johnson said. “I’d love to take a jump forward, but we’re definitely taking steps forward.”

Maybe Johnson (whose quest to return to greatness was the subject of a well-done Associated Press story last week) should begin tweeting quotes from Jim Bouton instead of Babe Ruth.


So where are the Hendrick Chevrolets a quarter of the way into the Camaro era?

Elliott had said it would be reasonable to evaluate the team this season after Martinsville Speedway (when the West Coast Swing was over). Three races later, the No. 9 driver said he was “realistic” after finishing second at Richmond (where he mostly ran in the top 15 but benefited from some late breaks).

“I think we’ve been getting better, for sure, over the course of the past handful of weeks,” he said. “I thought (Bristol) was really probably our best effort as a company.

“I think we have to continue to be realistic with ourselves.  We can’t look at the results tonight and think we’re right there, because in reality I think we still have some work to do.  I think anybody amongst our team would say the same thing. I’m not knocking anyone, anybody on my team or whoever, but we all know we need to do better.  I think we just have to be realistic with ourselves.”

Talladega Superspeedway won’t reveal much next week, but the May stretch of Dover International Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway will be a critical test of how far Hendrick needs to go over the summer to be ready for a playoff push.


After coming up agonizingly short of a breakthrough victory at Richmond, Martin Truex Jr. at least can erase some of the sting at Talladega. The defending series champion has yet to win a restrictor plate race in 52 starts, which still falls short of his 0-for-75 record on short tracks.

According to Racing Insights, Truex (16 victories) ranks second behind Greg Biffle (19) for most wins without a short-track triumph. (Sterling Marlin is third with 10).

Truex said last year he needed to race “more like a jerk” to end his plate drought. With short tracks, it might be as simple as catching some good luck if the last two visits to Richmond are an indication.