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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Ben Kennedy, the racer in the France family

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Until his racing career’s late start at 13, Ben Kennedy had a “normal childhood.”

He went to grade school, played multiple sports and even attended soccer camp.

“Hanging out and making friends and just being a kid,” Kennedy told NBC Sports. “That was something that kind of stuck out in my mind that I’m thankful for.”

Then there was the family business.

Ben Kennedy will be one of the drivers who pilots the No. 2 Chevrolet this year. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Kennedy has vague memories. Attending the Daytona 500, meeting his favorite driver Jeff Gordon at the age of 3 and the annual visits to the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City.

As the grandson of former NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr., Kennedy got plenty of opportunities to see the “moving circus” up close and personal.

“I think it took awhile to understand the scope of it and the roles my family has played both on the NASCAR and ISC side,” Kennedy said. “I understood my mom (Lesa France Kennedy) was involved in the tracks (as CEO of ISC) and my family was involved in NASCAR. It was awhile before I really grasped it completely, and I still don’t completely understand all the ins and outs of this sport. Maybe never will. It’s a cool sport. It amazes me everyday how complex it is and how many different facets there are between NASCAR and the tracks, the teams, the drivers, the partners, everybody involved. It’s so diverse.”

Now, at 25, he’s one of the moving circus’ performers.

Nearly a year ago, Kennedy became the first member of the France family to win a national NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway in the Truck Series. Last week at Talladega, he made his first start of the year in the Xfinity Series, driving for Richard Childress Racing. He finished fourth. He will split the season between RCR and GMS Racing in the No. 96 Chevrolet.

That’s in addition to his ownership of a part-time K&N Pro Series East team.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: In the seven months you were out of a car, how did you keep busy? What was a day in the life of Ben Kennedy?

Kennedy: It’s been really hectic for me. … Just staying as fit as possible. Staying healthy and training as much as I can to be ready for the season. Got some other stuff I’ve been working on with not only putting these Xfinity races together and finding partners. I’ve also got a K&N team down in Daytona. I’ve been managing that and been pretty involved with that this year. Also, random stuff, did “American Ninja Warrior” about a month ago. Just kind of all over the map.

NBC Sports: How did American Ninja Warrior come about?

Kennedy: Such a cool experience. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to train for it. Those guys that you’re going up against, they train for years and months on end. I didn’t have much time. Upper body is probably my weakness on this side of athleticism. I trained my tail off for it. I was sick the entire time training. It’s wild to get up there in front of all the bright lights and cameras and all that stuff. When you watch on TV from the couch and in the AC it’s a completely different experience then being out there in the elements.

(Writer’s note: Kennedy’s episode of airs on June 26 on the USA Network)

NBC Sports: In a couple of months we’ll be coming up on a year since you won at Bristol. Where’s that trophy located now?

Kennedy: It’s at my apartment in North Caroline right now. I got it up there, the Bristol trophy, along with the … flag from when I had team and family members sign at a celebration party after. I got it in a good spot in my place.

NBC Sports: How much space does it take up, because it looked like a pretty big trophy.

Kennedy: It takes up the floor. I tried to find counter space to put it on. Nothing really made sense and my girlfriend wasn’t really crazy about it. It’s on the floor right now.

NBC Sports: When you did the NASCAR on NBC podcast last year, you said that you really liked that you went to a college (University of Florida) where no one really knew who you were or who your family was. When that would eventually come up, how’d you address that ‘yeah, my family founded NASCAR?’

Kennedy: I never went out and said it. I never said I was a driver or anything. Any of that stuff. Naturally, it does come out. People Google you or Wikipedia or something. They find that out. Some people understood I was a driver, some people understood I was a driver and my family was involved in NASCAR. You’ve got to kind of embrace it and be a part of it. Your family is something you should definitely be proud of. At the same time be very cautious and know who your friends are. It’s kind of a double-edged sword in some ways. Nonetheless, they’re family to me. That’s all I know.

Ben Kennedy drives GMS Racing’s No. 96 Chevrolet during a May test at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo by Daniel McFadin)

NBC Sports: Do you remember the first time you saw or name or face on merchandise?

Kennedy: Gosh, it was probably a long time ago. I remember we made these hats that had my number on it a long time ago. It wasn’t really merchandise. I think my first shirt, and I’ve still got it somewhere, it was a Hanes shirt like you’d buy at Wal-Mart and a friend of mine embroidered Kennedy on it, put my No. 96 on it. It’s very retro and one of a kind.

NBC Sports: What’s your attachment to the No. 96?

Kennedy: I don’t know. It’s kind of been a number that I started with in go-karts. I kind of forget how I ended up with it. I think it’s one of those things where you have to pick a number but you have to pick a number no one else has so far. Ninety-six was one that was available. It’s one that stuck ever since.

NBC Sports: What’s on your bucket list that’s not related to racing?

Kennedy: I’m kind of an outdoor, action-adventure junkie. I think traveling the world is pretty cool. Obviously, something I want to do is go skydiving. That’s on my list. I went bungee jumping one time, which was incredible.

NBC Sports: Speaking of traveling the world, you won a race in Paris, France a few years ago (in 2012, the first oval race in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series history at Tours Speedway). What was that experience like?

Kennedy: That was awesome. It was neat because they set it up in a parking lot outside this convention center. You go Turn 1 and 2 and it’d be kind of smooth, then you’d go through Turns 3 and 4 and you’d hit a gutter. Pretty soon, all four tires are off the ground. It was the first year that they did it, but it was so neat because they did it parallel to a motorcycle convention that was out there at the time and I had never seen so many American flags in one place in my life and I thought that was really cool. …

The race itself was really fascinating because those cars are very spaced out, everything is very similar from car to car. Kind of a bit of a learning curve for me. The team I was working with didn’t speak great English. That was a little bit of a challenge. I remember in practice, I came in and I told them what was wrong with the car and what I wanted to adjust. They’re like, ‘ok, that’s fine. Go back out and practice. We can’t make any changes here, we don’t want to make any changes here.’ So, alright.

During the race, I actually got carbon monoxide poisoning. The crash panels were a little bit open between that and the body. I was sucking in fumes the entire race. There was a caution with like five to go or something, they were doing their first ever green-white-checkered there and they were trying to figure it out. … The pace car was going like 10 mph, I’m sucking up fumes. I almost passed out. I got out of the car. I was beat red in the face. The guy that was interviewing me asked me, ‘You must be working out hard out there.’ I said ‘I feel like I’m going to hurl right now, too.’ I did that.

Then I leaned over the side of the car and just caught my breath for a while and then did all the celebrations after that.

NBC Sports: If you were competing in a Cup race at Bristol, what would you choose as your intro song?

Kennedy: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t even know. Something cool. … Like Kings of Leon, something like that … What’s that one song, I don’t even know if it’s Kings of Leon, but “Centuries”?

NBC Sports: That’s Fall Out Boy.

 

Previous Xfinity spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Elliott Sadler on his many career firsts and his favorite ‘Fat Cat’

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This weekend will mark the one-year anniversary of the race where Elliott Sadler‘s NASCAR career caught its second or maybe even its third wind, 21 years after it started.

On April 30, his 41st birthday, Sadler waited five minutes at the Talladega Superspeedway start-finish line to learn whether he or Brennan Poole had won the race. A wreck on the front stretch as the checkered flag waved resulted in a frozen field and confusion.

Elliott Sadler celebrates after his 2016 win at Talladega Superspeedway. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

“One-hundred percent the longest I’ve ever had to wait, and man, it felt a lot longer than it was,” Sadler told NBC Sports this week. “I’m telling you, it felt like a year.”

That metaphorical year was on top of the two real years that had passed since Sadler’s last Xfinity Series win.

Eventually, Sadler got the good news. His win sent him to the top of the points standings. Heading back to Talladega this weekend, the JR Motorsports driver has led the points standings for 23 of the 32 races since his win.

“Somebody showed me a stat two weeks ago that (60) percent of the races I have ran for JR Motorsports we have been leading the points,” Sadler said. “That’s a crazy stat.”

In eight full-time seasons, Sadler has been a points runner-up in the Xfinity points three times, including last season.

“I’m definitely looking for redemption this year,” Sadler said. “Believe me, I don’t need any extra incentive to want to win a championship.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed

NBC Sports: You celebrated your birthday on Sunday. What did you do to celebrate?

Sadler: Me and my wife and a bunch of friends went out to dinner that night and went to lunch with our kids during the day and cooked breakfast here at home. But just spent a lot of time around here at the house. We had the race Saturday at Richmond so we were home for the weekend. So it was nice to do some stuff with my friends.

NBC Sports: What’s the coolest birthday gift you’ve ever gotten?

Sadler: (Laughs) Man, I don’t know, I’ve had a lot of them in my lifetime. I would say the coolest birthday gift I’ve had was a car when I turned 16 years old. I’m not going to lie, in the state of Virginia when you turn 16 on your birthday, you get your driver’s license. My mom and dad, as long as I stayed on the honor roll, they bought me a car for my 16th birthday. I would say to this day that’s by far the coolest birthday gift I’ve ever gotten.

NBC Sports: That was going to be one of my other questions. What was your first car?

Sadler: It was a Mustang GT. I don’t know what the hell my parents were thinking, giving me something that fast. I won’t make that mistake with my kids. … It was a 1992 (model), black with gray stripes on it. It was beautiful with the new five-star wheels. That’s when they went from the honeycomb wheels to five-star. That thing would fly and it had a great radio system in it.

NBC Sports: You made your first Xfinity start at South Boston Speedway in 1995. What is your most vivid memory from that weekend?

Sadler: I have a couple different memories. It’s funny how your first weekend stands out. I can’t tell you what happened a year ago at a race. But your first race, I remember being fast in practice, then I qualified 15th, so I didn’t qualify good. I remember running third on the last lap, passing Elton Sawyer for second and we spun out. I spun completely out, did a 360 and finished (eighth). I finished (eighth) in my first race, but when I took the white flag I was passing a guy for second. That would have been neat if I had been able to pull that off in my first ever start and finish second. It was at my home track in front of my home town fans. Man, what a race, we had so much fun.

NBC Sports: Going forward a few years, your first Cup start is the 1998 Coca-Cola 600. What was that experience like for you?

Sadler: Well, I wanted to pick a really short race to start, you know. (laughs) … The biggest thing I remember about the Coca-Cola 600, I got very hungry during the race. I’m like, ‘this is a long race. I am hungry.’ The (Xfinity) races used to start at 12 o’clock every Saturday so I’d eat a little bit of breakfast, then I wouldn’t eat anymore until after the races were over with. Where the Coca-Cola 600, I got up and ate breakfast, and I was nervous and everything else and hanging out at the track and I didn’t eat anything. Halfway through the race I’m like, ‘man, I am starving.’ I remembered (thinking) ‘I’ve got to figure out how to do a better job of eating before these Cup races, they’re way longer.’

NBC Sports: I find it odd when I look at first Cup starts and it’s always like the Coke 600 or at Daytona or Talladega.

Sadler: Right, well there’s a reason for that. You got to look past that. Daytona and Talladega are really easy tracks for rookies to start at. Because it’s not really driving. It’s really if the car is fast at Daytona or Talladega, you’re going to make the race. It’s not really what you got to do. Charlotte, the reason people do it, teams don’t have to spend money on flying people somewhere, they don’t have to spend money on hotel rooms, cause you’re there at the race track and you’re there at Charlotte. So it’s a cheaper place to really start and kind of make a go at it, so that’s why I think you see those tracks stand out.

NBC Sports: You’ve won three Cup races, which one are you most proud of?

Sadler: I’m definitely most proud of Bristol (March 2001). Because that’s your first ever win and I won for the Wood Brothers at a place they had never won at before and it was close to home for them. So 100 percent that was the one I was most proud of, because it was the first one. It put you into a different group, man. It’s different when you win a Cup race compared to any other race. It put you into a whole new category and league. I was very proud to be able to make that happen.

NBC Sports: How did you celebrate that night?

Sadler: It’s not a long ride from Bristol, Tennessee, to Stewart, Virginia. Went back to Stewart that night and celebrated with everybody in the shop. Somebody had toilet papered Eddie and Len’s house there in Stewart and they had toilet papered the shop. It was like the whole town showed up for a Bar-B-Que that Sunday night. That was really neat for me to be a part of it at such a young age.

NBC Sports: What was the first NASCAR race you ever attended?

I think the very first one I’ve got pictures of and I can remember is the 1979 Daytona 500. We were there in the stands and our seats were off of Turn 4 and see back then, NASCAR when they threw the checkered flag they open the gates and let all the fans come in. We were walking around on the track and tacking pictures of the track and all of that stuff. That was a neat time.

NBC Sports: Do you remember the piece of merchandise that you saw your name or face on?

Sadler: Yes, when I drove Late Models in 1993 we went to the local, little photo shop here in town in Emporia and they made us a little post card and put my name and face on it. Man, it was something to be seen. It was neat to hand those out to people at the track and people could come get them, that was pretty cool to see.

Elliott Sadler celebrates atop “Fat Cat” at Darlington. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: Have you ever named a race car?

Sadler: We name pretty much all of our race cars and I always have since I ran Late Models. … They’re all named for different reasons and a lot of them have back stories. So a name I tell you probably isn’t going to mean anything to you, but my favorite car that we have now at JR Motorsports that I run all the time now is called ‘Fat Cat.’ It has a long story about why it’s called ‘Fat Cat.’ … ‘Fat Cat’ is a friend of mine that’s pretty funny that helps us do some stuff with the race team. One of my engineers thought we should name one of the cars after him. So my engineer named the race car that and we kind of went with that and I won at Darlington for the first time out of the box last year, so that became one of my favorite cars.

NBC Sports: It’s been a few years since you were in a Cup race at Bristol. If you were to get the chance again, what would you choose for your intro song?

Sadler: (laughs) Oh man, that’s a really good question. I would have to say some big hair band music style. Like some Journey or Bon Jovi. Something in that limelight I think would be something I would choose. I like the rift of “Separate Ways” by Journey when it starts or “Jukebox Hero” by Foreigner that’s got a bad beat to it. That’s what I would go with. Something old school from when I was coming along in school. That’s what I think I would like to have.

NBC Sports: Final question. On a day where you don’t have to be at the race track or the shop and your family is off doing something else. You’re by yourself, you have no obligations. What does Elliott Sadler do with his day?

Sadler: We’re going to go play some golf. Going to play some golf this time of year. During the winter time, it’s easy, I hunt. I hunt every single day. During the summer time this time of year I’m going to try and find some buddies and let’s go play a round of 18 somewhere on a golf course.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

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Kyle Benjamin fastest in final Xfinity practice at Richmond ahead of first start

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Before Friday, Kyle Benjamin had never raced an Xfinity Series car.

At the end of the day, Benjamin had the fastest speed in final practice for the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond International Raceway.

Driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, the 19-year-old from Easley, South Carolina, posted a speed of 117.081 mph around the short track.

Filling out the top five was Kyle Larson (116.540), Brennan Poole (116.429), Justin Allgaier (116.429) and Ty Dillon (116.444).

Cole Custer, who was fastest in the first session, was 10th quickest.

Larson had the best 10-lap average at 115.405 mph.

Austin Dillon recorded the most laps in the session with 64.

Click here for the full practice report.

 

Cole Custer fastest in first Xfinity practice at Richmond

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Cole Custer led the first Xfinity Series practice at Richmond International Raceway for the ToyotaCare 250.

The rookie posted a speed of 118.442 mph around the .75-mile track, leading a top five that had only one Cup driver, Ty Dillon.

The top five was made up of Custer, Brennan Poole (117.796), Dillon (117.596), Elliott Sadler (117.412) and Daniel Hemric (117.132).

Dillon had the best 10-lap average at 116.484 mph. He also recorded the most laps in the session with 55.

Click here for the full practice report.

 

 

Harvick, Keselowski part of Xfinity, Truck ‘Test Fest’ at Charlotte on Tuesday

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With NASCAR’s two-week stint at Charlotte Motor Speedway looming next month, the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series will have an all-day “Test Fest” next Tuesday at the 1.5-mile track.

Fans will be able to attend the test, which goes from 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. ET.

Cup drivers Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) and Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing) will be among the drivers participating in the Xfinity portion of test, which goes from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Either Denny Hamlin or Erik Jones will be among the four drivers who test for Joe Gibbs Racing. Truck driver Christopher Bell will be one of the four.

The Truck Series will run from 3 – 9 p.m. ET

Frontstretch grandstands will be open to the public. Speedway Club members, season ticket holders, race ticket holders and fans who purchase Cup tickets on Tuesday can watch the test from the infield pit suites and will receive guided garage tours.

Fans will also be able to participate in “Spin to Win” games that reward participants with free parking, concession bucks (good for food and drinks on race weekends), camping discounts or half-price adult tickets to the Hisense 4K TV 300 on May 27.

Here’s all the drivers and teams participating in the test.

Xfinity Series
Chip Ganassi Racing: Tyler Reddick, Brennan Poole

Stewart-Haas Racing: Kevin Harvick, Cole Custer

JGL Racing: Dakoda Armstrong

GMS Racing: Spencer Gallagher, Ben Kennedy

JR Motorsports: Elliott Sadler, Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, William Byron

Richard Childress Racing: Brandon Jones, Brendan Gaughan, Daniel Hemric

Joe Gibbs Racing: Matt Tifft, Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin or Erik Jones

Brandonbilt Motorsports: Brandon Brown

Biagi DenBeste Racing: Casey Mears

Roush Fenway Racing: Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Reed

Kaulig Racing: Blake Koch

Team Penske: Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney

Camping World Truck Series
Hattori Racing: Ryan Truex

Kyle Busch Motorsports: Christopher Bell, Noah Gragson, Myatt Snider

GMS Racing: Johnny Sauter, Justin Haley, Kaz Grala, Spencer Gallagher

Brad Keselowski Racing: Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe

ThorSport Racing: Cody Coughlin, Ben Rhodes, Matt Crafton, Grant Enfinger

Red Horse Racing: Brett Moffitt, Timothy Peters

NEMCO Motorsports: John Hunter Nemechek

AM Racing: Austin Wayne Self

Brandonbilt Motorsports: Brandon Brown

MDM Motorsports: Brandon Jones

Young’s Motorsports: Austin Hill

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