Terry Labonte

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Kasey Kahne evokes Hendrick Motorsports’ first winner with Geoff Bodine scheme for Southern 500

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Hendrick Motorsports has a long, entrenched history of winning in NASCAR with the likes of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip.

But the team’s winning ways began with Geoff Bodine.

Hendrick Motorsports and Kasey Kahne will honor Bodine by using his Levi Garrett paint scheme from the 1985 season in the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Kahne and his No. 5 Chevrolet will be sponsored by Great Clips.

Bodine raced for Hendrick Motorsports from 1984-89 and won seven times. Among those was his victory in the 1986 Daytona 500, which was Hendrick Motorsports’ first of eight wins in the “Great American Race.”

Kahne’s paint scheme is the third throwback scheme in Cup to be announced for the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, joining Ryan Blaney’s and Brad Keselowski’s.

Bodine made his first Cup start in the 1979 Daytona 500 and his last in the 2011 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In the intervening 32 years, Bodine made 575 starts and earned 18 wins. His first, in the April 1984 Martinsville race, also was the first Cup win for Hendrick Motorsports.

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Ryan: Has green-white-checkered run its course? A brief history of NASCAR overtime

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is right: NASCAR should eliminate the overtime line. In fact, it could go a step further than the 14-time most popular driver suggested and remove it at every track, including Daytona and Talladega.

Actually — if the goal is sanity and simplicity (admittedly, at the expense of some suspense) —  don’t stop there, either.

Why not just dump the green-white-checkered policy, too, and end every race at its scheduled distance?

It’s a concept that worked fairly well from, oh, 1948-2004.

That seems overlooked in the annals of NASCAR history, largely forgotten alongside the myriad plot twists that formed an overtime policy whose potentially infinite loop reflects its contorted route to creation.

In order to weigh the merits of extending races, let’s absorb an extensive history lesson on how the green-white-checkered finish (and, eventually, the overtime line) came into existence.

The genesis was roughly June 6, 1998 at Richmond International Raceway, where NASCAR stopped a race with seven laps to go for nearly 15 minutes to clean up a messy oil leak. Without the red flag, the race would have ended under caution with Dale Jarrett winning. Instead, Terry Labonte bumped Jarrett from the lead after the restart, and an officiating trend was born.

For the next six years, NASCAR arbitrarily began stopping races after late cautions to help an attempt at ending a race under green. Eventually, a lap number was announced in prerace driver meetings as the cutoff for using a red flag to help finish a race.

This seemed to placate crowds until a few endings under yellow still drew major fan derision – in particular, two at restrictor-plate tracks.

The July 6, 2002 race at Daytona International Speedway concluded with cars weaving through a shower of several hundred seat cushions heaved from the backstretch grandstands in anger.

The April 25, 2004 race at Talladega Superspeedway was frozen under yellow with four laps remaining – just before Earnhardt seized the lead from Jeff Gordon, whose No. 24 Chevrolet was pelted by beer cans during its victory burnouts.

Nearly three months later, NASCAR instituted the green-white-checkered rule, and it first came into play at the 2004 Brickyard 400, where Mark Martin and Earnhardt blew tires on the extra 2.5-mile circuit around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The new policy seemed here to stay, though, until …

In 2010, NASCAR tweaked its green-white-checkered rule during Speedweeks, adding three attempts at ensuring the final lap started at full speed. This stemmed from confusion over the rule during the TV broadcast of the season-opening Bud Shootout exhibition race.

A few days later, NASCAR told drivers during a preseason safety meeting that it would begin making three attempts at a green-flag finish. After grumbling from teams, it had an immediate impact – Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500 on the second attempt at a green-flag finish (instead of Kevin Harvick, who was leading when the caution waved the first time).

This seemed to work OK until a spate of fan injuries in green-white-checkered finishes in the Truck, Xfinity and Cup series at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway from 2012-15.

The solution was to limit green-white-checkered finishes to one attempt in October 2015 at Talladega, the final plate race of the season. It resulted in a bizarre “non-attempt” that was waved off and followed by one of the most controversial finishes in NASCAR history.

So before the 2016 season, “NASCAR Overtime” was decreed with the addition of a line on the backstretch of every track. Once the leader crossed it after an overtime restart, the race wouldn’t be restarted for a yellow – but there would be unlimited attempts to breach the overtime line under green.

That seemed fine again until Sunday … when the overtime line became the primary determinant of a Cup winner for the first time, and NASCAR Twitter melted down in a storm of poorly applied Speedi Dri.

After nearly 20 years of tinkering, it seemed a tipping point.

You can’t please everyone all the time, but you can confuse many by overlaying countless rulebook Band-Aids to ensure conditions for a thrilling ending.

There is no shame in concluding races when advertised. It actually once was an accepted maxim among Cup drivers. Prior to July 2004, the party line was about clinging to the sanctity of race lengths that matched the same lap totals listed on the entry blanks.

It was a worthy crusade borne of competitive integrity.

Fans don’t have an inalienable right to enjoy a fantastic finish. Displaying the yellow and white flags together works fine for other series and prestigious races.

The 2013 Indianapolis 500, which featured a record 68 lead changes, ended with three laps of yellow and a standing ovation for winner Tony Kanaan from a crowd that seemed happy to catch its breath after three hours of breathtaking action.

There was no sense of anyone feeling cheated by a muted finish. There was just an understanding that sometimes events unfold that way.

That’s racin’.

Returning to its method of concluding races for 56 years undoubtedly would draw pushback for NASCAR. This isn’t a drastic change, though, so much as a digestible reversion, a la returning the Southern 500 to Labor Day weekend. It ultimately could be as well-received as Darlington Raceway’s triumphant reclaiming of its history, a throwback in the same vein.

As Earnhardt said in lobbying to eradicate the overtime line, “It’s the way they did it for 50 years, so I think that people would be OK with it.”

The green-white-checkered finish started with good intentions, among the first in a wave of fan-driven initiatives that also spawned double-file restarts and the Gen 6 car. NASCAR should be commended for listening, but the catering also can become counterproductive.

Instead of further tweaking to an artificial construct, perhaps it’s time to remove the green-white-checkered rule in the same way races should end.

Definitively.

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A year after facing questions about why he wouldn’t close out races (by roughing people up), the Kyle Larson narrative now has shifted to why he can’t close out races.

Dover marked the third time in 14 races that Larson has lost the lead on a restart in the final 10 laps – twice to Jimmie Johnson in overtime.

It raises questions – which Larson understandably is growing tired of answering — about how an ace in the short-burst format of sprint cars can wrestle so much with quickly getting a stock car off the line.

Larson lost Dover in second gear, partly because he didn’t get a good jump, but also because Johnson got the perfect jump.

As NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Jarrett said on NASCAR America, restarts aren’t something a driver can work on like free throws in basketball. It’s a skill that can’t be honed except in the moment.

Drivers can gain a modicum of experience with every restart, but Jarrett also noted that being in the second, third or fourth row is completely unlike restarting on the front row.

As Larson continues to set the pace – he led a career-high 241 laps at Dover – he will learn how to control a restart as well as Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. And there was another very encouraging sign of maturation at Dover for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

His willingness to mix it up during the race with Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. showed he has learned lessons from the deference he occasionally has given too much to veterans.

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Chase Elliott seemed to spend much of his rookie season in self-flagellation when things went wrong. The Hendrick Motorsports driver had seemed less frustrated with a stretch of four consecutive finishes outside the top 20 before placing fifth at Dover.

But Elliott, demonstrating acute self-analysis for a 21-year-old, said he hadn’t changed, and that it was easy to understand why.

Unlike the 2016 season, which was marred by driver and team errors that cost wins for the No. 24 Chevrolet, this season mostly has been themed by uncontrollable misfortune.

“There is no secret, if I make a mistake I’m going to be mad at myself, and that is just a fact, and that is the way I am,” he said. “You can like it, you can hate it, but that is just how I am. That is how I grew up, and that is how I’m going to be.”

During a week of hyperbolic and sanctimonious dissections of driver personalities, it was refreshing to hear a rising star make no apologies for just being him.

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Regardless of whether the loose wheels at Dover for Kyle Busch and Chase Briscoe draw penalties, they already have generated too much discussion.

Legislating lug nuts mostly is an unnecessary distraction and embodiment of the busybody minutiae that sucks the oxygen from NASCAR’s more deserving storylines.

Near the beginning of the season, NASCAR said the goal was to move away from announcing midweek penalties so it could shift the focus toward storylines that actually move tickets.

It’s an admirable objective, but much work remains to keep garage and pit officiating in the background, where they belong.

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Crew chief Chad Knaus gave a brief and coy answer (“Yeah, there is definitely some strategy. For sure.”) when asked whether it was a calculated risk to keep Johnson on track (and in the lead) with 70 laps remaining at Dover as other contenders pitted under green. The strategy effectively put Johnson in position to win when a caution flag flew.

Given the way Fords were having tire problems Sunday, it might have been less of a gamble and more of another triumph in three-dimensional chess by Knaus.

The critical caution came when Regan Smith’s blown tire ended 62 laps without a yellow – the longest green-flag stint of a race that also featured cautions for tire problems involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Landon Cassill, David Ragan, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano.

The crew chief of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet probably knew the odds were stacked well in his team’s favor of catching a yellow late in the run.

Knaus, of course, would be the last to admit it.

Kurt Busch to serve as chairman of Motorsports Hall of Fame induction in Daytona

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Kurt Busch, 2017 Daytona 500 winner and 2004 NASCAR Cup champion, will serve as honorary chairman of the 29th Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (MSHFA) induction ceremony.

The ceremony will take place June 28 at the Shores Resort and Spa in Daytona Beach on June 28. The Hall of Fame relocated there last year after spending over 25 years headquartered in Michigan.

This will mark the second time Busch has served as honorary chairman of the MSHFA induction. He also served for the 2011 induction.

“I’m very thankful for the pioneers that helped pave the way to create the sport that we love and enjoy today,” Busch said in a media release. “And to have the opportunity to honor this group of inductees as Honorary Chairman is an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.”

This year’s induction class includes:

* Steve Kinser, Open Wheel Category

* Richard “Dick” Klamfoth, Motorcycles

* Terry Labonte, Stock Cars

* Paula Murphy, Drag Racing

* Scott Pruett, Sports Car

* Herb Thomas, Historic inductee

* Brock Yates, At Large

“It’s an outstanding class of inductees featuring pioneers, champions, record-breakers and innovators,” said MSHFA President Ron Watson. “And the presence of the 2017 DAYTONA 500 champion will help make this an induction for the ages.”

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Ryan: A requiem for the bump and run? Delving into the short-track debate gripping NASCAR

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RICHMOND, Va. – When it comes to the ongoing debate about what makes a NASCAR short-track race great, let’s concede the obvious.

The loudest voices on the subject also are those whose should matter least.

“A driver is going to like whatever he’s best at,” Brad Keselowski told a small group of reporters Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “That’s why you can’t ask an active driver, because an active driver is going to tell you if he’s good at running the top, that’s where the race needs to be. If he’s good at running the bottom and with the bump and run, that’s where the race needs to be.

“We always will give the selfish answer. I think it’s probably one of those questions that maybe current drivers shouldn’t answer out of respect to their answers being selfish. In reality, we need the answer that drives the sport and creates the most compelling action. That should be the guiding light before a driver’s preference.”

A two-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway (but none since the 0.533-mile oval was altered in 2012 in an attempt at re-establishing the bottom lane that actually created a preferred high line), Keselowski naturally prefers the low lane and the bump-and-run maneuvers that helped drive the track’s growth to a 160,000-seat colossus.

But many of his peers had opposing views on what defines a great short track. Points leader Kyle Larson doggedly worked in the high line during practice (attempting to negate the VHT applied to force drivers to the bottom) and incessantly lobbied before and after the race that the better Bristol was high and low.

Did he feel vindicated by a race that drew a high favorable rating in one popular online poll?

“I would say more people probably agreed with me by the end of the race,” Larson said. “You still had your older race fans that enjoyed the single-file racing around the bottom, but I know all the drivers enjoy when we can move around and find different lines on the racetrack because at least from our seat — maybe it doesn’t translate to TV as well — the racing is way better that way.

“And I thought Bristol last week was awesome. … There’s no other track on our circuit that has that exciting and intensive racing. I watched the race again last night and I thought it was amazing. Hopefully they don’t try and do anything more to make us go around the bottom because Bristol is awesome.”

OK, but what about the bump and run?

Larson, a longtime dirt racer who admittedly has a different perspective on the “rubbing is racing” philosophy, makes a few good points why it can’t work the same way anymore.

“The pace of our races nowadays have to be way faster than what they were running in the early 2000’s or whenever the best racing at Bristol was,” Larson said. “And, too, our bumpers line up. So, it’s not easy to do the bump and run. People do hit somebody in front of them, and the guy in front of him barely moves. Before the bumpers lined-up, you could get into somebody, pick them up, and move them.

“So, the bump and run is kind of gone away a little bit just the way I think our style of our bodies are, as well as I think we have more grip now days than they probably had back then. … I don’t think you’re going to get all the way back to how they all like it.”

If that truly is the case, then here’s a brief requiem for the bump and run to remember exactly why it’s so beloved … through five moments at Bristol.

2008: Carl Edwards vs. Kyle Busch

2002: Jeff Gordon vs. Rusty Wallace

1999: Dale Earnhardt vs. Terry Labonte

1997: Gordon vs. Wallace

1995: Earnhardt vs. Labonte

That’s the racing that is synonymous with Bristol – a point that NBCSN analyst Jeff Burton eloquently made here. You won’t find many stirring side-by-side battles for a win hailed among the greatest races at Bristol.

And that is what should give anyone pause about proclaiming that Sunday’s race should be the only path forward.

Quick, name the most indelible moment you remember from Martinsville Speedway this season?

The “purists” will point to the battle for the lead between Keselowski and Busch.

But the realists will point to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bumping aside Busch at the end of the race’s second stage as the highlight with the most traction in national media.

It also drew some of the loudest cheers during that race at Martinsville a few weeks ago.

Don’t forget about those voices. As Keselowski notes, they still matter most.

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With the perceived success of Bristol being treated with a VHT-style compound for the second consecutive race, it’s natural to ask whether it should be tried at other tracks – such as Richmond.

When owned by the Sawyer family, RIR actually was treated from 1988-2002 with a sealer that drivers loved, but the surface has remained untouched since a 2004 repave.

With Richmond producing divergent results in recent races – some are wildly competitive, others aren’t – there are mixed feelings on whether the 0.75-mile oval needs some help.

“If you ask the drivers, this is the perfect racetrack,” said Denny Hamlin, a hometown favorite who has attended races here since childhood. “To the fans, sometimes it’s not, because (the cars) do get strung out.

“I think the reason the drivers and teams like it best is because they hit their setup, they can just dominate a race here. It’s not always the best thing for TV, but it’s a good thing for the competitors. So it’s a balance of what’s good for the competitors and what’s good for putting on a fantastic race.

“I don’t know what you can do here. We’ve had races where we were running the wall or running the line and some guy led almost every lap. I don’t know whether spreading out the cars or making them run one line here is the best thing to do.”

Said Larson: “All of us complained a few years ago when it was single file around the bottom the whole time (at Richmond) and then Goodyear brought a great tire back, and now we’re running all over the racetrack, and the drivers and fans seem to like it. I think the racing is good, really good right now, and a lot of fun, too.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s busted oil cooler at Bristol was one of a few mechanical problems that seemed caused by debris on the track – which might indicate a possible downfall with VHT. Does the substance increase the “chunking” by tires and subsequently the likelihood of cars being damaged?

Regardless, it’s left Earnhardt in a precarious points position in his final Cup season. It would seem his best route to the playoffs would be via his first win in 18 months – putting extra emphasis on how next week’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. Earnhardt has six wins (most recently two years ago) on the 2.66-mile oval, which ranks him first among active drivers.

“Daytona seems to be more about the car, Talladega more about the driver and the moves, and (Earnhardt) makes some of the best moves,” Keselowski said. “So I would expect him to be one of the primary guys to beat for sure.”

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Is it May yet?

Because it’s about time for the hagiography around Fernando Alonso’s foray into IndyCar to end and for the journalism to begin.

Getting a two-time world champion committed to the world’s biggest race (as Alonso described it in his own words during an NBCSN interview last Sunday that surely had to deliver a sting for some in Formula One and his team) is undoubtedly a coup. The series justifiably maximized that exposure value during the Spaniard’s visit to Barber Motorsports Park last weekend.

Alonso is signing autographs! Alonso is climbing into Marco Andretti’s car! Alonso is talking to every microphone within shouting range!

All of this was great promotion for IndyCar, which could use the injection of attention as it tries to avert the letdown from following the centennial marking of its signature event.

But can we cool it a tad until he, like, turns an actual lap?

Because the narrative needs to shift gears well before then and explore some significant storylines. For example …

–When was the last time a driver with NO (as in zero!) oval experience before the month of May attempted to run one of the world’s toughest racetracks in an entirely new race car?

Last year’s surprise winner, Alexander Rossi, had several hundred laps around Phoenix International Raceway before the former F1 driver took the Indy plunge. Rubens Barrichello didn’t have that IndyCar oval race experience before his 2014 debut at Indy, but he at least had four races on street and road courses to get acclimated to the vehicle.

Ask Tony Stewart, who repeatedly has said among their biggest apprehensions about attempting the Indy 500 would be the lack of time in an Indy car beforehand. Alonso is in a class of his own, but it certainly is worth pondering if he can overcome others’ concerns about adaptability.

–How does the current pack racing that has become prevalent the last few years at the Brickyard make it more or less difficult for Alonso?

–How will Andretti Autosport manage the balancing act of fielding a competitive car for Alonso with five other entries? (At least one reporter has attempted to pose this question and unfairly been pilloried as a result).

Regardless of the answers to these and other questions, Alonso’s Indy 500 debut will rank among the most highly anticipated in recent racing memory.

It’s fine to celebrate the significance of that … but with a healthy dose of objectivity and perspective, too.

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The impending retirement of Earnhardt in the wake of Jeff Gordon and Stewart has kicked the discussions into hyperdrive about the next wave of superstars (and yes, as the employee of a NASCAR broadcast partner, I will plead guilty to being complicit in driving that conversation – a legitimate one).

While there has been justifiable focus on Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney because of their performance this season, and Daniel Suarez has gotten much attention because he is filling Carl Edwards’ ride, rookie Erik Jones mostly has been lost in the shuffle.

And it seems he might have noticed.

Based on the speed of his No. 77 Toyota the past two days, it isn’t inconceivable that Jones outruns the trio – if not outright win – at Richmond.

Keep in mind that, as we noted on the Michigan Home Track segment NASCAR America this week, Jones, 20, was winning prestigious Late Model races as a 14-year-old.

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There are some obvious candidates for the No. 88 ride, and that’s why William Byron’s noncommittal response was delivered correctly and perfectly Friday. The 19-year-old assuredly will race Cup for Hendrick in the future, but it doesn’t help to do anything but keep it boring when asked to speculate for now.

But there were some other answers from veterans that seemed a little … curious. For example, would Larson like to put to bed the rumors that he could go to Hendrick (which once courted him)?

“Oh, I’d have to talk to (team owner) Chip (Ganassi), I guess, before I came out in public about anything that serious,” he said. “So, I won’t talk about anything like that because I don’t even know if I’m allowed to, or not. I know (teammate) Jamie (McMurray) is very secret about all his stuff. But I don’t know.”

Any interest from Keselowski, who is in a contract year with Team Penske?

“Do I have to have a yes or no? It’s a Hendrick car, which by nature means it’s going to be one of the best cars available for a long period of time,” he said. “But I also would say the car that I’m in is one of the best available. The team I’m with, I have a lot of equity in, so I’m pretty darn happy where I’m at, but I’ve learned in this world to never say no.”

So is he negotiating an extension?

“There’s some stuff going on, but I’m not (going) to mention it in detail,” he said.

Hmmm.

Our take on this? Neither driver is leaving where they are. Larson’s current deal likely keeps him in the No. 42 for at least another three seasons, but Ganassi notoriously is tight-lipped about his contracts, hence his reticence.

Keselowski seems happy at Penske, but he has driven before for Rick Hendrick, who intimated he would like to bring him back in the fold someday as he was exiting to join The Captain.

Even if he is 100 percent committed to staying at Penske, having the leverage to secure the best-paying deal possible (from one of the most business-savvy owners in racing) is a good thing.

Where Are They Now? ‘Handsome Harry’ Gant still is rolling

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Tony Stewart retired at 45. Jeff Gordon retired at 44, returned to help out Dale Earnhardt Jr., and retired again at 45.

Jimmie Johnson, 41, says it’s unlikely he’ll be racing by the time he reaches 45. Don’t be surprised if 42-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t far behind his teammate.

Then there are drivers such as NASCAR icon Harry Gant. “Handsome Harry” retired from the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series in 1994 at the age of 54 and then returned to drive 11 races in the Camping World Truck Series two years later at the age of 56.

“My last win at Atlanta in a Busch car, I was 54,” he said, adding with a laugh, “Then I didn’t want to quit.”

He retired again at the end of the 1996 season and spent his “retirement” racing on short tracks across the country until he was 70 in 2010.

Now, the 77-year-old Gant officially is retired from all forms of racing, but he’s as busy as he was when he was behind the wheel. These days, Gant tends to a herd of 100 Black Angus cattle on his 300-acre ranch in Taylorsville, North Carolina, rides his motorcycle around the country and is enjoying the good life.

He still follows NASCAR racing somewhat, but where the sport was the end-all and be-all for Gant for 30 years – from his first race as a sportsman driver at Hickory Motor Speedway in 1966 – now Gant is more of a casual observer.

“I watch the races on TV when I can,” he told NBC Sports. “I like to watch the Truck and (Xfinity) races. I don’t go out of my way, but if I’m not doing anything, I’ll watch it then.”

Then, he adds with a laugh, “Sometimes, I’ll go to sleep at night watching the night races.”

STILL A FAN FAVORITE

Since his last Truck race in 1996, Gant has attended only two NASCAR Cup races in person. One was a few years ago at Texas Motor Speedway, and the other was late September when he took part in the Throwback Weekend festivities at Darlington Raceway.

Harry Gant, right, with lifelong friend and NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett.

One of the biggest highlights of that weekend was when Gant swung back behind the wheel of his legendary Skoal Bandit car and took a parade lap, which drew huge applause.

It was apparent that even though he hadn’t raced in 20 years, Gant was still a fan favorite at the “Track Too Tough To Tame.” He received some of the loudest applause of the NASCAR greats who attended and was swamped by fans welcoming him back as if he never had left.

Yet Gant also noticed something. While he enjoyed the attention, Gant admitted that the NASCAR of his era is not the same NASCAR of today.

“It was very strange being there because I really didn’t know anybody there,” he said. “I didn’t know any of the crew guys, crew chiefs, drivers, didn’t know anybody except just a few older people I knew and older fans.

“It’s a somewhat different ballgame when I was racing. It’s hard to put your finger on anything, there’s just so many little things that were different back then.”

Gant’s former crew chief, Andy Petree, brought back the old gang together in this tweet last year from Darlington:

SHORT-TRACK SUPERSTAR BEFORE HE CAME TO WINSTON CUP

While it was in NASCAR Cup and Xfinity races that Gant earned the most notoriety, he was a short-track driver first and foremost.

Sure, he earned 18 wins in the Cup Series and finished a career-best second in the season standings in 1984 and won another 21 races in the Xfinity ranks. But Gant earned more than 300 wins in the lower tiers of NASCAR racing, including the Sportsman championship in 1972-74. He also finished runner-up three times in what is today the Xfinity Series (1969, ’76 and ’77).

He paid his dues and served his racing apprenticeship before he cashed in with the then-Winston Cup Series.

“Back in the day, you had David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty – all them drivers – they started out not as young as they do now,” Gant said. “I started racing when I was 24 in a hobby car at Hickory.

“When I got to Winston Cup, I ran for Rookie of the Year in 1979 (at the age of 39 and competed against fellow rookies Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte), and when I first ran for (longtime sponsor) Skoal, I was 41 years old (1981).

“I was 42 before I won my first race in Cup (1982 Martinsville).”

TODAY’S YOUNG DRIVERS NOT PAYING ENOUGH DUES

Gant said that young drivers of today are jumping to the Cup Series much earlier than his era. In so doing, the young guns are not able to build the same type of large and loyal fan bases that drivers developed from their early days of Sportsman racing before moving up to Cup.

“We raced a lot of years, early years, with Sportsman cars, things like that,” he said. “Now, you see a guy who’s 20, racing in a Truck and then racing in NASCAR Cup, they haven’t had enough time to get a fan base. That’s what I think right now the problem today is the fan base for the new guys coming in to race.

“The other part of the problem is you have young guys that aren’t really car guys. Like me, I have always been into cars from the age of 18 or 19 years old, racing short tracks, dirt cars, sprint cars, all them things. I think the young people now don’t really associate with the young people that race, and the models of cars don’t matter to a lot of them.”

Gant still likes NASCAR racing but readily admits, “It’s just a lot of difference. Unless you were there, you can’t really pinpoint everything. Everything is more business-like today than it was.

“And the cars are so much different, looking at it on television. The cars are so much lower. I did not like running with restrictor plates that came out the last few years I raced. It puts you in a box, just like it is now. All the cars are the same in horsepower and the bodies are all the same.

“Back when I was racing, I liked the way it was. We had a stock car. We’d go to Daytona, and it’d be a Monte Carlo, Pontiac, Chevrolet or whatever was running.”

GANT REFLECTS ON HIS TOP CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Of his career, Gant said there were two high points that stand out to him, both markedly different from each other. First was in the Modified Series, while the other was in the Cup Series.

“We had so much fun racing prior to Winston Cup racing,” he said. “The first big race was when I won the Modified race at Daytona, and then also won at Charlotte. Winning at both those tracks were probably the biggest things of my career. A lot of people ask, ‘What about your Winston Cup career?’ Well, you wouldn’t have been there if you hadn’t won somewhere else to start with.”

As for his Cup tenure, it was winning four Cup races in a row in September 1991, along with two Busch Series wins in the same month. He earned his other famous nickname as a result; “Mr. September.”

“I felt like we couldn’t be beat,” he said. “We were coming up on the end of the year, and I could not wait to start the next season then.”

SOON TO BE BACK ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Gant once again is preparing to take part in the 23rd Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, which starts May 13 in Portland, Oregon, and finishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 19. Gant has been part of the Charity Ride each of the previous 22 years.

“We’ve been just about everywhere you can go,” Gant said.

But Gant will be far from the oldest driver on the Ride. Fellow former NASCAR racer Hershel McGriff will take part again in at least one or two segments of the Ride at the age of 89. McGriff competed in a short track race in California as recently as five years ago at the age of 84.

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THE HARRY GANT FILE

Harry Phil Gant — also known as “Handsome Harry” and “Mr. September” 
–Age: 74
–Home: Taylorsville, North Carolina
–NASCAR Cup stats: 474 starts, 18 wins, 123 top fives, 208 top 10s, 17 poles.
–NASCAR Xfinity stats: 128 starts, 21 wins, 52 top fives, 71 top 10s, 14 poles.
–NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: 11 starts in 1996, four top 10s.
–Notable: Holds record as the oldest driver ever to win a Cup Series race (52 years, 219 days) and as the oldest driver ever to earn his first career Cup win (42 years and 105 days).

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