Dustin Long

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 05:  Kurt Busch and his mother Gaye Busch arrive on the red carpet prior to the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards at Wynn Las Vegas on December 5, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Kurt Busch tells tearful mother ‘We conquered Daytona’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — As the celebration carried on from Sunday night into Monday morning, the congratulations rolled in for Daytona 500 champ Kurt Busch.

In between those texts Busch took time to make one call after his dramatic win Sunday night.

He called his parents, who had not attended the race.

His mom answered. 

She was crying.

“We conquered Daytona,’’ Busch told his mom, Gaye.

It meant as much to her that Busch made it through the chaotic race unscathed.

“For years, my mom, she’s always had a displeasure for Daytona and Talladega because … you’re a victim of circumstances a lot of times,’’ Busch said Monday morning at a breakfast honoring the winning team.

He said his mom’s “nightmare’’ came true two years ago when younger brother Kyle broke his right leg and left foot in a crash during the Xfinity race at Daytona. Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races of the Cup season before going on to win the championship.

“She just always thought that Daytona and Talladega were the toughest on her boys and she just wanted us to come home safe,’’ Kurt Busch said.“When I called her, I felt like I had placed this sword in the stone and said we conquered Daytona. She was crying, so happy that I was safe.’’

Many others were happy for Busch. He said of the more than 500 texts he received, three from one family stood out.

Busch received texts from Mario, Michael and Marco Andretti. Mario Andretti served as grand marshal of Sunday’s Daytona 500, a celebration of his victory in that race 50 years ago.

“That meant the world to me,’’ Busch said.

Busch drove for Michael Andretti’s team in the 2014 Indianapolis 500, finishing sixth and earning rookie of the year honors, and had Marco Andretti as a teammate.

“It was really neat to see the Andrettis reach out from the IndyCar world,’’ Busch said.

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Long: Tony Stewart finally gets chance to go to victory lane after a Daytona 500 win

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Tony Stewart was among the last to arrive to Daytona International Speedway’s victory lane Sunday night.

The future NASCAR Hall of Famer walked in to little fanfare, as cameras of all shapes and sizes focused on Kurt Busch, who drove through a maze of wrecked vehicles and then by fuel-starved cars in the final laps to win Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Stewart, now just a NASCAR owner after retiring from the series last season, arrived to the packed victory lane moments before Busch emerged from his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

Stewart was finally in victory lane for a Daytona 500.

No other track has teased, tormented and tortured Stewart like Daytona. Sure, he has 19 total wins here, but it only makes what transpired in 17 Daytona 500s so vexing.

“We probably could have, should have won four or five of them and they got away,’’ said Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s longtime crew chief who later became the competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Few hurt as much as the 2007 race when Stewart had one of the dominant cars before losing control and crashing into Busch.

Their paths intertwined in the 2008 Daytona 500 when Busch pushed Ryan Newman by Stewart on the final lap to help Newman win. Stewart finished third.

Stewart said he couldn’t look at Zipadelli for the week after that race, feeling he cost the team the win by not moving up to block Newman’s run.

There were other disappointments.

A favorite in 2002 after his Clash win, Stewart ran only two laps before his engine blew. He finished last. So frustrated, Stewart drove back to North Carolina instead of flying home.

Such disappointments became a pattern. The three-time series champion would excel in the events leading up to the 500 but be denied a victory in the sport’s biggest race.

His chances of winning faded in his final years driving in the series. His final three Daytona 500 appearances ended in finishes of 41st, 35th and 42nd before he missed last year’s race because of a back injury suffered a few weeks before the race.

No year could compare to 2001. Stewart tumbled down the backstretch and was taken to Halifax Health Medical Center. As Stewart was being treated, Dale Earnhardt was transported there after suffering fatal injuries in his last-lap crash.

Stewart went on to become one of the dominant voices in the garage in the following years. Five years after Earnhardt’s death, Stewart complained about the style of racing and said that if it continued “we’re going to kill somebody.’’

Stewart hated how blocking became prevalent — and necessary — to win restrictor-plate races. Even though he missed last year’s 500 because of his back injury, he made it clear he wouldn’t come back to run this event one more time because he never had won it.

It appeared as if his streak would continue Sunday even as an owner. Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer were eliminated by accidents. Kevin Harvick’s damaged car finished 22nd.

When Busch was the only SHR car left on the lead lap, Stewart moved to Busch’s pit box.

Although Busch ran near the front it seemed only a matter of time before something would happen to him. After all, Busch was winless in 63 career restrictor-plate points races before Sunday.

Even when Busch crossed the finish line ahead of Ryan Blaney and AJ Allmendinger, Busch’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, didn’t react. It took him a few moments to register what had happened. Stewart helped.

“You just won the Daytona 500!’’ Stewart told Gibson.

Stewart then turned to Zipadelli.

“Hey buddy, we finally got one of these.’’

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Racing with a purpose: Richard Childress Racing focused on returning to Cup victory lane

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Aligned side-by-side, NASCAR’s hierarchy is parked for all to see. Each race weekend, team haulers are positioned in the garage based on performance.

When the trucks arrived Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway to begin the new season, reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s hauler led the parade, followed by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Then came the Team Penske trucks. And Joe Gibbs Racing and three other organizations before the RCR trucks could park.

To walk from the Childress haulers to Johnson’s at the front of the field takes 136 steps. It’s a path that leads by exhaust-spewing cars, rumbling engines, scurrying crew members and gazing fans. Admittedly, some might take a few more steps, some not as many. But those steps more than anything measure where RCR is as it begins a critical season with Sunday’s Daytona 500.

A proud organization, which began with a headstrong driver and rocketed to prominence with an icon in the No. 3 car, has seen its place in the sport decline from its halcyon days.

“He and Dale Earnhardt, they were the standard,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said of Childress. “When I first started, I didn’t think anybody would ever beat them.’’

Now, the organization is mired in a three-year winless drought, its longest since 1983. Richard Childress Racing faces a challenge to remain competitive against Hendrick, Penske and Gibbs, which have combined to win 80 percent of the last 56 Cup races.

While teams are known to go through cycles where they’re not as competitive — Gibbs won two races in 2014 before winning 26 the next two seasons — it is rare for an organization to go multiple years without a win and return to a spot among the elite.

Ten organizations have won since RCR’s last Cup victory, which came 109 races ago at Phoenix International Raceway in Nov. 2013.

“It’s not cool,’’ Ryan Newman said of his and RCR’s winless droughts. “You take it personally, and you fight harder.”

The battle cry is to win now, a feeling spread by car owner Richard Childress and passed to every executive, driver, crew chief, mechanic and employee.

“I can promise you the winless drought is keeping him up at night,’’ said NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton, who drove for Childress from 2004-13, about his former boss. “He wants to win in the worst way. I’m sure the wick is turned up pretty high.’’

Nothing else matters for an organization that once was so used to winning.

HALL OF FAME CAREER

Richard Childress was among the independents who drove in NASCAR and never had the same backing as the sport’s stars.

All but raised at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Childress set out to drive when he was old enough. Sometimes just getting to a race was as much a challenge as racing.

Wife Judy recalls one time when it didn’t look as if her husband would be able to drive at Charlotte. His windshield was broke and he needed a replacement to compete. A search for a replacement proved futile. Childress rented a car and removed the windshield so he could put it on his car to race. After the race, he put the windshield back on the rental car and returned it.

While determined, Childress’ success was limited. As Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty and David Pearson won, Childress scored only three top-five finishes in 187 career starts in NASCAR’s premier series.

Childress realized he would be better off putting someone else in his car. The driver who replaced him in 1981? Dale Earnhardt.

The union lasted 11 races before Earnhardt went elsewhere for the 1982 season and Childress hired Ricky Rudd.

Two years later, Earnhardt joined Childress, forming one of the greatest teams in NASCAR history. They combined to win six championships and 67 races before Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

After Earnhardt’s death, Richard Childress Racing went through a transition period. The organization won only one race from 2004-05. The team recovered and won 16 races from 2010-13 for its best four-year stretch since the mid-1990s with Earnhardt.

Since, though, Childress has not been back to Victory Lane in the Cup Series.

FALLING BEHIND

How does an organization struggle to win after having so much success for so many years? It’s never an easy question. Rule changes can throw teams off. Sometimes another organization or manufacture finds something that gives those cars extra speed. Or it could one of many other things.

Sometimes success can hide the truth.

Three years ago, Newman nearly captured the championship despite not winning a race. The old Chase format rewarded consistency. While the Childress cars weren’t the fastest, they could challenge for a crown with a steady performance.

Dr. Eric Warren, RCR’s director of competition, admits that thinking would impact the team later.

“It kind of masked the fact that we lost that kind of ability to close out and get some wins,’’ he said.

“We’ve … had a lot of discussions over the winter with the crew chiefs and everything else that when I’m in that fifth or sixth place in the race, those moments when you’ve got to make the right kind of calls, we need to not be trying to protect a top-five finish.’’

There have been other issues as well. Austin Dillon needed time to adjust to the Cup series after joining in 2014. The organization needed to find the right people for the right jobs. The cars weren’t as strong.

Childress began to see some signs of progress last spring even after Newman crashed in a test at Pocono when a tire went down. The team had been trying some new suspension geometry. They used what they learned at Pocono in August.

Dillon, who had never finished better than 13th at Pocono, hounded leader Kyle Larson in what was viewed as a race to halfway with rain the area that day. Rain eventually arrived, allowing Chris Buescher to score the surprise win for Front Row Motorsports. Although Dillon finished 13th, he spent more than 89 percent of the race running in the top 15. Only three other drivers were in the top 15 more. One was his teammate Newman.

Richard Childress Racing took what it learned there and debuted new cars at Charlotte in the playoffs. Dillon advanced to that second round but wrecked after he was hit from behind by Martin Truex Jr. on a restart. Dillon had taken two tires on the pit stop during that caution while the rest of the field had taken four.

That incident played a role in Dillon losing a tiebreaker to Denny Hamlin to advance to the third round. A couple of weeks later at Texas, Dillon, with a new car, won the pole but wrecked after contact from Kevin Harvick. Newman showed speed two weeks later when he qualified third in the season finale in Miami, another 1.5-mile track, providing signs of progress on those tracks for the organization.

Of course, none of that guarantees any type of success this season.

“We have to work very hard to maintain our confidence and direction in our program and that means looking for incremental goals … and not allowing the ultimate prize that we’re trying to get to become overwhelming,’’ said Luke Lambert, crew chief for Newman. “If you want to climb Mt. Everest, you’ve got to do it one foot in front of the other.’’

PUTTING THE PUZZLE TOGETHER

In race shops full of cars, equipment and tools, it is the people that many say are the greatest commodity. Richard Childress Racing made a couple of key additions late last year.

Sammy Johns, a former crew chief and team executive, was hired to be the team’s operations director. Mark McArdle had held the position until leaving in Dec. 2015. His position was not filled but absorbed by Dr. Eric Warren.

“We missed that spot,’’ Warren said, noting the additional duties he had while also directing the competition efforts.

The team also added former crew chief Matt Borland to return to that role for Paul Menard. Borland is the third crew chief Menard has had since July 2016 as the organization seeks to find a way for that team to excel.

“You’ve got to keep bringing people to the team that are winners,’’ Warren said of the additions. “It’s important because that instinct of, ‘Hey, if I’m not winning, I’m upset.’ You have to have that kind of killer instinct.

“One of the things about Matt coming in is he has a very strong work ethic, been successful in the past. Not to take anything away from Slugger and Lambert, they both have great assets. We needed that, that person that can bridge the engineering side … but also has been a winning crew chief and an experienced crew chief.’’

WAITING TO CELEBRATE

The sport has been waiting years for the No. 3 to return to victory lane in a Cup race.

The number made famous by Dale Earnhardt, last went to victory lane in October 2000. Earnhardt charged from 18th to first in the final five laps to record the memorable victory. After Earnhardt’s death, Childress retired the No. 3 until Feb. 2014 when it returned with Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson.

While the number reverberates with race fans for what Earnhardt did, it has a special meaning for Dillon. When he and brother Ty told Childress they wanted to go racing, he got them go-karts. Ty wanted No. 2 because that was his father’s number when he raced. Austin wanted No. 3. Childress reminded him about the statue of that number because of Earnhardt. Austin told him that he wanted that number because that had been Childress’ number when he raced.

To older fans, the No. 3 always will represent Earnhardt. They eagerly await when that car will return what is to them it’s natural place — in victory lane.

“There’s so many things that could happen this year that would, I think, be really impactful for the sport,’’ said Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip. “The 3 winning a race would be pretty big to me.’’

To do that will take a team effort. Dillon enters his fourth full season in Cup and second full season with crew chief Slugger Labbe.

Dillon said Labbe learned last year what type of motivation works best for Dillon.

“I think he’s constantly giving me a little bit of a push, but it’s respectful,’’ Dillon said. “It’s not like a pump-you-up kind of push because he knows I’m already motivated. I think that’s where, when we first started, that’s where he thought he’d have to motivate me, but then he quickly learned I’m really motivated in everything I do.’’

TIME TO GO

Even as Richard Childress Racing seeks to move forward, Ryan Newman notes that it needs to look behind, if only for guidance.

“I think Richard Childress will sit here and tell you right now that last year we learned a lot of what not to do,’’ Newman said. “If you can take the things that you learned not to do and not making the mistake of doing them again and correct the things that you have done wrong than you should be a stronger team the following year.’’

The time is now to prove it.

“We’ve got to win races,’’ Menard said. “When Richard is mad it’s not a good day. When he is, happy things go well. We are going to do our best to make him happy.”

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Brandon Jones wins pole for today’s Xfinity race at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 25:  Brandon Jones, driver of the #33 Nexteer Automotive Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR XFINITY Series PowerShares QQQ 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 25, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Brandon Jones scored his first career Xfinity pole and extended Richard Childress Racing’s streak of three consecutive poles for the February Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway.

The series races in the Powershares QQQ 300 on Saturday afternoon. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:49 p.m. ET.

Jones won the pole with a lap of 184.472 mph. He will be joined on the front row by Roush Fenway Racing’s Ryan Reed. Brennan Poole starts third, Daniel Hemric starts fourth and Ty Dillon completes the top five.

Click here for Xfinity starting lineup

Austin Dillon starts 16th for Richard Childress Racing after an issue in qualifying. NASCAR confiscated his set of tires because the team had used a substance on the tire. He had to use a new set of tires to qualify and will have one less set of tires for today’s race. Teams are allowed to have four sets for the event. Austin Dillon’s team will have three sets. NASCAR stated that no further penalties would be issued.

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Nature’s Bakery responds to Stewart-Haas Racing lawsuit; claims team could not ‘control’ Danica Patrick

LOUDON, NH - JULY 15:  Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 Nature's Bakery Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series New Hampshire 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 16, 2016 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Nature’s Bakery states in court documents that Stewart-Haas Racing could not “control” Danica Patrick and “was more interested in cashing Nature’s Bakery checks than in making the sponsorship a success.’’

Nature’s Bakery, which served as the primary sponsor for Patrick’s team in 2016, filed a counterclaim Friday in North Carolina Superior Court for Cabarrus County. That was in response to a $31 million lawsuit SHR filed Feb. 3 after Nature’s Bakery terminated its three-year agreement two years early.

Brett Frood, president of Stewart-Haas Racing, issued a statement Saturday morning in response to claims made by Nature’s Bakery:

”Nature’s Bakery is in material breach of its contract with Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s an unfortunate situation, but we know we’ve delivered on all aspects of our agreement and more. We took great pride in elevating the brand awareness and relevance of its products and were prepared to continue activating pursuant to the agreement in 2017 and beyond. Nature’s Bakery chose to breach and terminate the contract. We’re confident with our position.”

Nature’s Bakery stated it court documents it did not see the return it was led to believe by Stewart-Haas Racing that it would experience.

Nature’s Bakery noted in court documents that it relied on Stewart-Haas Racing for guidance with activating the sponsorship properly because of a limited staff and lack of experience in the sport.

“SHR’s promises were illusory and misleading,’’ Nature’s Bakery stated in court documents. “There was no massive increase in sales. NASCAR viewership was retreating. The team had other significant operational problems. SHR lacked the ability to control Patrick’s performance under the Agreement.

“As a result, the Sponsorship came nowhere close to fulfilling its promises, nor justifying the more than $17 million Nature’s Bakery paid SHR in 2016.’’

Nature’s Bakery sent Stewart-Haas Racing a notice of termination on Jan. 19. The sponsorship, which Nature’s Bakery was to pay $15 million a year, was to have gone through the 2018 season. The company was to have been the primary sponsor on Patrick’s car for 28 races each season.

Among its complaints, Nature’s Bakery claimed that Patrick did not properly promote its product and endorsed a competitive product.

Nature’s Bakery stated in court documents that in “roughly 475” messages she posted on her Instagram account in 2016 that “only 15 or 3% referenced Nature’s Bakery.’’

Nature’s Bakery also stated that in “roughly 600 times to her Twitter account in 2016 … only 13 or 2% referenced Nature’s Bakery.

“Patrick posted more than 530 times to her Facebook account in 2016, but only 18 or 3% referenced Nature’s Bakery.’’

Stewart-Haas Racing stated in its lawsuit that the sponsorship agreement does not contain a requirement for such social media postings.

Stewart-Haas Racing previously stated that Patrick endorsed Six Star Pro Nutrition’s protein powder and that it was not a competing product.

Nature’s Bakery also cited that it wanted Patrick to hold its fig bar while walking around the pit area on race weekends. “That rarely happened,’’ the company stated in court documents. “But race fans and TV audiences saw her frequently with a bottle of Coca-Cola or Coke Zero in her hand, another sponsor of Patrick’s.

“When Nature’s Bakery asked SHR why it could not cause Patrick to showcase its products more frequently, SHR said it had difficulty controlling her conduct. Its failure to manage her performance robbed Nature’s Bakery of the fundamental promise and benefit of the relationship.’’

Patrick stated Feb. 22 that she saw no issues with how she promoted Nature’s Bakery.

“I think that it was a shock to all of us that one year into a three-year deal that there was a problem, but everything that was ever asked of me I did to the very best of my ability,’’ Patrick said.

Stewart-Haas Racing stated in its lawsuit that as a “gesture of good faith” it asked Patrick in December to stop posting on social media regarding items that Nature’s Bakery contended were competitive.

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