Nate Ryan

NASCAR on NBC

Darrell Wallace Jr. feels a connection to Wendell Scott without the pressure of his legacy

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WELCOME, N.C. – There will be many reminders of the history that Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. could make this season in NASCAR’s premier series, but this one was especially personal.

The first full-time African-American driver on the circuit in 47 years since Wendell Scott received a 2-minute voice mail recently from Scott’s son, Wendell Jr.

“(It said) don’t feel like I need to carry the pressure of his dad and the Scott legacy, just go out there and do me,” Wallace said, relaying the message last Friday during a break from a preseason production shoot. “That’s the way it’s always been. All the history falls in place after. That’s how I like to go about it. A small part carries him with me, but I don’t put that in the forefront.

“For me, it’s just to go out and get through practice, qualifying and the race. If we end up with a top five, then, hey, it’s the first African-American to do this or the first African-American to do that. I don’t really look at that stuff. That’s when the media kind of brings that in. You can sit back after the race and say, ‘Damn, that was pretty cool.’ ”

Wallace is accustomed to being in the headlines for unique accomplishments. His Oct. 26, 2013 win in the Camping World Truck Series at Martinsville Speedway was the first by a black driver in one of NASCAR’s national series since Scott’s Dec. 1, 1963 win at Jacksonville, Florida.

Wallace, 24, has notched five more truck victories since then (including his lone start on the circuit last August at Michigan International Speedway) and made the Xfinity Series playoffs in 2016.

But as he steps into the famous No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports (which has moved this year to Chevrolet and a new shop location adjacent to Richard Childress Racing, which will supply its cars and engines), Wallace acknowledges that “for sure, I’m carrying that banner” again for Scott. He got to know the racing pioneer’s family eight years ago after entering NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.

He understands the attention brought by his race, though he also sees evidence on social media that his fan base tires of hearing about it.

“It’s something I’ve embraced,” Wallace said. “I’ve accepted that it’s always going to be talked about no matter what I do. I’ll be the first African-American to take a piss in the Cup garage. Everything I do is a first. It’s going to be there. I’ve accepted it.

“The fans are (who) get so fired up over it. It’s like, ‘Why do we have to mention it?’ Because no one is there. It’s going to be mentioned. It has to be mentioned. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the show.”

Wallace made his Cup debut with RPM last season at Pocono Raceway, the first of four starts in place of injured Aric Almirola. He posted a respectable average finish of 17.8 while handling the increased exposure with aplomb.

Team owner Richard Petty said “there’s going to be a lot of pressure on (Wallace)” in 2018, but he thinks his crew won’t feel the effects.

“I don’t think it’s going to put that much pressure on RPM because they’re going to do the best they can for whoever it is,” Petty said. “It’s going to put a lot of pressure on him, so he’s going to have to learn to live with it.”

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer said Wallace already proved last year he is highly adaptable despite the heavy scrutiny.

“When we showed up at Pocono, we realized what it was all about,” Blickensderfer said. “It kind of gave you goosebumps to think about how special it was. We saw all the hoopla and everything that was going on around it, we thought, ‘This is something that’s a little different than just the kid who’s going to drive a race car.’ ”

It doesn’t feel so different away from the track, though, when Wallace brings his freewheeling presence through the shop.

“When he walks in be-bopping and giving people knuckles, it’s nothing,” Blickensderfer said. “It’s just a kid driving a race car. But I think when we get to Daytona and unload the car that has ‘Wallace’ on it and it’s his car, I think it’s going to be a little different. But it’s different in a great way.

“Everybody on this team looks at it like it’s cool. The way Bubba reacts to it, he just handles it. He does it remarkably well for a kid his age. He just kind of takes it in and is OK with it and goes about his business, much better than most people would. It makes it easier for us just to not even think about that weekly. When we get ready to fire engines for the Daytona 500, we’re going to be like, ‘He’s doing something really cool here.’ Until then it’s kind of business, and it’s just some kid driving a race car.

But as he prepares for his first full season in Cup, even Wallace finds himself occasionally caught in the moment – such as when he walked past one of his new Camaros – which was coated only in primer but had his last name across the windshield.

“I was thinking, ‘Damn that’s my Cup car,’” he said. “That’s cool. Nothing on it but ‘Wallace.’ I thought, ‘Damn, that’s really cool to see.’ It’s exciting stuff that’s happening right now. I’ll be anxious to see when we get to Daytona how giddy I’ll be.”

Versatile racing legend Dan Gurney dies

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Legendary racer Dan Gurney, a winner in NASCAR, Formula One, IndyCar and sports cars, died Sunday morning because of complications from pneumonia, a statement from his family confirmed. He was 86.

Gurney’s greatest career triumph was teaming with fellow American icon A.J. Foyt to win the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The next week, he scored the last of his four victories in Formula One, winning in his famous Eagle chassis in the Grand Prix of Belgium at Spa-Francorchamps. It was indicative of Gurney’s reputation as an innovator known for groundbreaking advancements in aerodynamics and safety as a team owner and driver. He even is credited with being the first to spray champagne on the winner’s podium.

But he also was known as one of the most prodigious and versatile drivers of the 20th century, perhaps best exemplified by his success in NASCAR’s premier series at Riverside International Raceway. Driving a Ford, he won in his first four starts (1963-66) on the road course in Southern California (where he lived most of his life). He won again from the pole position in 1968 – one of four wins he scored with Wood Brothers Racing.

In 16 Cup starts from 1962-80, Gurney notched 10 top 10s. He finished fifth in the 1963 Daytona 500.

He also made eight starts in the Indianapolis 500, finishing second in 1968 and ’69. He scored seven wins in Champ Car races from 1967-70.

Gurney raced the full F1 schedule in 1961, ’63-’64 and ’67 and finished fourth in the standings twice.

A winner in Trans-Am, Can-Am, NASCAR, Formula 1 and IndyCar, Gurney was the first to win in sports cars, Formula 1, NASCAR and Indy cars. Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya are the only drivers who matched the feat.

After retiring from full-time driving, he became a team owner and was instrumental in the formation of the CART Series. His All-American Racers team won dozens of racers in open wheel, stock cars and sports cars (including a streak of 17 straight from 1992-93 in IMSA GTP).

“The word ‘legend’ can sometimes be overused, but in describing Daniel Sexton Gurney, it’s the only word that fits,” IMSA President Scott Atherton said in a statement. “Dan Gurney was an American racing legend who accomplished nearly all there was to accomplish as a driver in our sport, from sports cars to NASCAR, Indy cars to Formula 1. Dan was an innovative car builder and a lifelong steward of motorsports beyond his on-track performance.

Gurney is survived by his wife, Evi, and four sons (Justin, Alex, Jimmy and Dan Jr.). Here is part of the statement from the family:

With one last smile on his handsome face, Dan drove off into the unknown just before noon today, January 14, 2018. In deepest sorrow, with gratitude in our hearts for the love and joy you have given us during your time on this earth, we say ‘Godspeed.’

Gurney’s family said his funeral will be private and asked that donations in his name be made to Hoag Hospital Foundation in Newport Beach, California. Fans who wish to express their sentiments about Gurney can send notes to eagleracingcarsusa@aarinc.com.

Ryan: The craziest twist in the Carl Edwards story, one year later

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Carl Edwards isn’t coming back.

But if he were, where would he go?

This is what has become the astounding part of Edwards’ saga, possibly more stunning than one year ago today when he walked into a conference room at Joe Gibbs Racing to explain why he was walking away from NASCAR.

Many expected he eventually would choose to return to the Cup Series, and he initially left many openings for climbing behind the wheel again (notably at Atlanta Motor Speedway last March).

But as the Columbia, Missouri, native’s comments in local media telegraphed last week, the siren call of staying on his 425-acre farm apparently outweighed racing stock cars.

And there hardly seems a path back to a top-flight ride in NASCAR’s premier series, which was transformed by a 2017 season that devalued the necessity of having a seasoned winner such as Edwards.

None of the top teams has a ride in imminent need of being filled, and any unexpected opening likely would be tabbed for someone much younger than Edwards, 38.

You could name a dozen instances last year – Ryan Blaney’s win at Pocono Raceway, Erik Jones’ anointment as successor to Matt Kenseth, Hendrick Motorsports’ selection of Alex Bowman and William Byron – in which that narrative seemed to have shifted, and it also could be attributed to many reasons – shrinking sponsor dollars, big-ticket driver salaries, engineering trumping experience.

But what if Edwards’ decision actually was the inflection point at which everything began to change?

What if a highly marketable and accomplished star leaving in the prime of his career marked the moment in which The Great Youth Movement of 2017-18 tacitly began?

What if we thought we were watching an ending … that actually was a beginning?

Subscribing to this notion requires connecting some dots with a healthy dose of nuance and a dash of sociology.

Edwards’ retirement didn’t directly trigger a cascading series of reactions that concluded with Byron and Bowman in Cup next year.

But it did plant some seeds and provide an accelerated test case of how a powerhouse team would handle being thrust into a changing of the guard at least a year ahead of schedule.

Aside from an early season blip in 2017, Joe Gibbs Racing hardly missed a beat without Edwards, and the team financially positioned itself well for the future with the byproduct of a major salary dump. Suarez is making a fraction of what Edwards did, a cost savings stretching well into the eight figures.

Though Jones was contractually obligated to join JGR in 2018, making the call for him to replace Kenseth probably became less fraught given the relative smoothness of the sudden transition to Suarez.

Surely, other teams noticed as well. Groupthink is a weekly pursuit in a Cup garage built around mimicry, but its tentacles also can extend to teams’ front offices, where prospects have soured for accomplished veterans.

Imagine if Edwards wanted to return now and placed an imaginary help wanted notice (the same way he once advertised himself for rides in trade publications). It would read something like this:

Veteran star from the Midwest. A long record of winning results at Roush Fenway Racing and JGR. Consistent championship contender.

Sound familiar?

The reasons that Kenseth couldn’t find a ride for 2018 are the same that would be facing Edwards, who might offer a more camera-friendly persona but actually has less impressive on-track credentials.

This is the current reality of Cup for stars who once could command high salaries: Be ready to accept a steep pay cut with a smile.

It’s why it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Edwards returns, particularly when considering his objective of reconnecting with his roots seemingly has been realized.

“I’m an all-or-nothing person, sometimes to my detriment,” he told the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “It’s taken about a year to actually wind down. I’m just now becoming the friend and person I should be to a lot of people that I basically didn’t spend a lot of time with for a long time. It’s an amazing opportunity, and I’ve really been enjoying it.”

Good for Edwards, who is an analytical and meticulous personality so well known for his planning, many peers have joked about him being a survivalist “prepper.”

Maybe our shock at his abrupt exit was misguided.

Edwards might have foreseen a bigger surprise was in store.

Ryan: Why the outcry over the All-Star Race location now? Many reasons for a tipping point

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The debate over moving the All-Star Race reached critical mass this past weekend.

At least a dozen drivers, media pundits and broadcast analysts (including NASCAR on NBC’s Jeff Burton in this compelling column) called on NASCAR to consider leaving Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The points are well-taken: The 1.5-mile track’s smooth surface (high grip plus high speeds = slot cars) magnifies aero-sensitivity at the expense of slam-bang action.

But why did the tidal wave of dissent finally crest this year?

It’s been no secret for many seasons that Charlotte hardly was conducive to holding this event.

Though Kyle Busch took the lead with a nifty pass to begin the final segment, he still led the last 10 laps – the fourth time in five years the winner has managed that feat. Aside from last year’s pass of Kyle Larson by Joey Logano with two laps remaining, the last All-Star Race whose outcome was in doubt after the green flag of the final segment was when Tony Stewart beat Matt Kenseth in 2009.

In 12 All-Star Races since Charlotte was repaved, there have been two lead changes in the final five laps.

Perhaps the cumulative dearth of action from the past decade was why this year became a tipping point. But there also might have been these factors that had many speaking out:

Stage racing: In case you missed it, NASCAR began splitting all of its races into segments in 2017. The enhancements have been a tremendous addition this season (stay tuned for a NASCAR on NBC podcast with Burton this week discussing their impact and origins), but they inadvertently have created another layer of redundancy for the All-Star Race.

It’s analogous to the addition of double-file restarts to points races nearly seven years ago. When two of the main features of the All-Star Race become part and parcel to the everyday routine, it’s worth asking if the approach and format of the event still makes sense.

–Swiftness of change: To its credit, NASCAR has become much more nimble over the past couple of years about 1) trying new ideas; and 2) quickly implementing them. This initially was illustrated in a fast and total reversal of its rules direction (resulting in lower downforce) midway through the 2015 season, and it’s been evident in many ways since then.

And those that don’t work also aren’t kept (good riddance to heat races in Xfinity and the caution clock in trucks), so there seems less tolerance for anything perceived as the slightest drain on NASCAR momentum (undoubtedly, much of this is driven by social media, but that’s a topic for another day). When something doesn’t meet the standards of quality, and the All-Star Race at Charlotte certainly qualifies in recent years, the drumbeat for revamping begins almost immediately.

Tire problem: There’s no getting around the fact that the option tires didn’t deliver as many had hoped. With the race predicated on a primary selling point that didn’t deliver, it naturally stoked a loud reaction.

This also held true with last year’s wacky and hastily assembled format, which actually delivered a decent race. But the much-ballyhooed rules were so impenetrable, they naturally became the focus.

–All-Star existentialism: NASCAR can find solace in having good company in seeking relevance for its all-star extravaganza. The NFL, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball have wrestled with the same philosophical conundrums of events whose purposes have become diluted over the years.

Here is the question that needs to be answered well in advance of next year: What’s the main objective of a NASCAR All-Star Race?

Should it be nonstop action? Showcasing the drivers’ personalities? Highlighting their skills? Saluting the heritage of stock-car racing?

You can say all of the above, but this is a zero-sum game. There needs to be a singular focus.

Answering this question would go a long way toward solving one of NASCAR’s greatest identity crises. In the meantime, here is one certainty about the All-Star Race.

When the 2018 schedule is released Tuesday, expect Charlotte Motor Speedway to remain listed as the host.

For now.

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One consensus positive opinion about this year’s event: Ending it well before everyone’s bedtime on a Saturday night was a good move. Though event sponsor Monster brought many of its athletes, there was a decided reduction of the pomp and circumstance that prolonged past events (e.g., a concert happened after the race instead of before or during the event).

It’s unclear if that was by design, but for the pace of the show (particularly given Saturday’s mediocrity), this was certainly an improvement.

The goal should be ending every All-Star Race by 10 p.m.

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Though a change in venue would be a wise move for the All-Star event, how about switching up the surface, too?

Kyle Larson’s slide job on Jimmie Johnson for second place on the final lap conjured images of Cup cars … on dirt.

If only there were a dirt track that already had been playing host to a NASCAR national series for the past, oh, four seasons.

A dirt track that already is built around segmented races.

A dirt track where aerodynamics matter so little, hitting the wall actually can be an advantage instead of an impediment.

Hmmm.

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Whether it’s Jordan Anderson’s truck at Atlanta or Erik Jones’ Toyota in the All-Star Open, the splitter has become the new scourge of drivers and mechanics everywhere because of its incompatibility with grass on the straightaways and car setups in general.

What is amusing: When the much-maligned Car of Tomorrow was being introduced, the splitter was hailed as the key to its aerodynamic success.

Many of the rules for the COT were written around the splitter. At an October 2005 test of the new model at Atlanta Motor Speedway, much of the work was devoted to finding the “sweet spot” of the splitter and trying to mimic the success NASCAR felt it had in the truck series with splitter designs.

This isn’t a defense of the splitter (an aesthetic blemish that deservedly seems headed for the boneyard) but a reminder the “fix” assuredly won’t be as simple as just removing it. That probably is a good start for Cup cars, though.

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The return of the souvenir haulers at Charlotte Motor Speedway seemed a big hit with longtime fans, per the anecdotal evidence available. But it also highlights another example of the tug of war between keeping the old-guard fan base happy while appealing to Millennials and younger.

There’s a distinct dichotomy in the push to make the races shorter (for the youth with shorter attention spans) while making the race days longer (for those who have grown up spending several hours on the midway before the green flag).

The downsizing of the souvenir truck fleet was sold in part as a way that NASCAR would reduce its carbon footprint, which matters to a younger set that has rallied around environmentally conscious topics. Many of today’s youth also have come of age in the on-demand era of same-day shipping and drone delivery.

While the souvenir haulers might hold some sentimental value and offer a natural gathering place, how many of the fans of tomorrow would prefer to buy at-track retail instead of shopping via online or mobile, where they spend most of their waking hours anyway?

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Speaking of mobile, a good guide for the success of an event these days is how easy it is to follow via social media.

If you kept abreast of the All-Star Race with only a Twitter feed, Saturday night was borderline incomprehensible in 140-character dispatches. That needs to be fixed.

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The ouster of Ford CEO Mark Fields shouldn’t have any impact on NASCAR in the short term. Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing are in long-term deals with the manufacturer.

But the reason for Fields’ exit – Ford’s sluggishness in developing autonomous cars – should be watched by those in NASCAR and the racing industry.

In an environment where electric car maker Tesla recently became worth more than General Motors (becoming the most valuable automaker despite selling about 9.9 million fewer cars), the discussion about the evolution of the street car — and its potential impact on stock-car racing – will remain an important one.

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With an aggregate win total of 173 in Cup, Xfinity and truck, there’s been much talk about Kyle Busch reaching 200 wins across the three national series. Largely unnoticed is that Busch has 48 wins in the Camping World Truck Series, three short on the circuit’s all-time list behind Ron Hornaday Jr. The all-time winner in the Xfinity Series (87 victories) hinted after Friday night’s win at Charlotte that the truck series might be an eventual victory lap.

“I look forward to hopefully being able to pass Ron and be able to set that (mark) a little bit higher,” said Busch, who has titles in Cup (2015) and Xfinity (’09). ”Hopefully, one day when I’m all said and done with the Cup stuff, maybe I’ll run my retirement tour in the truck series and win the championship and get the trifecta.”

Busch takes his share of grief for “stealing” wins from the regulars of the junior circuits. But his commitment to the series (and reinvesting millions through Kyle Busch Motorsports) is around racing and building roots, and the purity of essence should be lauded.

Dustin Long contributed to this report

Carl Edwards brings helmet and suit to Atlanta, laughs off rumors

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Halfway through an impromptu news conference at the back of the hauler for the No. 19 Toyota he was scheduled to drive this season, Carl Edwards paused and smiled.

“I should have started this a lot differently,” said Edwards, who was clad in a black button-down shirt branded with an Arris sponsor logo. “I could have messed with you guys somehow on the rumors and stuff. (Mexican multibillionaire) Carlos (Slim) pays me a million dollars a race to come hang out. Penske wants me to spy on the Toyotas.

“No, it’s pretty cool just to be here (and) that they want me here. I’m having fun.”

About six weeks after announcing he was stepping away from NASCAR this season, Edwards returned to a Cup race weekend for the first time this season, serving as a consultant to rookie Daniel Suarez.

But while he spoke highly of his replacement’s ability and learning curve (“He’s doing really well”), Edwards lamented about his absence from the cockpit of the orange Camry.

“Everybody calls it retirement; I haven’t called it retirement officially,” he said. “I admit I brought my helmet and driver suit today, just in case somebody needed something. But I’m having a lot of fun. I’m just so grateful to Coach (Joe Gibbs) and everybody for letting me make the decision I made. But it is cool coming back here and seeing everybody. It’s really fun.”

Someone asked if he would consider a ride in the truck or Xfinity series?

“I thought you said this evening,” he smiled. “I might be in this evening! I don’t know. I think it’s actually hard to come here and be half-in and half out, so I’m going to try really hard to stick to my plan, step away and make sure I get my perspective right, and if I decide I’m going to drive something, I’m going to do it 100%, but right now, I don’t know.

“I’m certain I wouldn’t agree to something full time right now.”

The main question might be if Edwards wanted to climb into his former Joe Gibbs Racing ride if he would have been allowed.

“That’s a great question,” Edwards said when asked if he were licensed. “I don’t know. I’ve snuck into a lot of racetracks and driven stuff, so I’m not above doing that. I don’t know. I haven’t filled out any paperwork.

“I did tell Richard Buck this morning I’m pretty sure that I passed the drug test, so that’ll be good.”

NASCAR confirmed Friday that Edwards hadn’t been issued a license yet this year.

Suarez said the team hadn’t discussed whether Edwards might take some laps in his car. “I don’t even think he has a license anymore,” Suarez said, adding with a smile. “I don’t even know how that (would) work. Honestly, we didn’t think about it. Definitely, he’s going to be here to help.”

Edwards flew his Cessna in Friday morning from his home of Columbia, Mo., where he lives with his wife and two young children. He deflected questions about how things were going at home. “You know I don’t talk about them, but everything’s been going really well,” he said. “I’m really, really grateful to have made the decision I made.”

Edwards, who has been using his plane to ferry medical patients who can’t fly commercial, said he could leave “at any minute” but might stick around through Saturday’s practices.

“Whenever they say they’re done with me, I’ll take off,” he said.

Suarez, who asked Edwards to attend during a commercial shoot Tuesday, seemed to acclimate quickly to the 1.54-mile oval, turning the 16th-fastest lap in the first practice.

“I thought it would be more talking to him about the racetrack, but he’s super quick and learning the place, obviously,” Edwards said. “He’s pretty fast.

“It’s been pretty neat just to be able to help him a little bit. I guess the proof will be in qualifying here. He’ll have somebody to blame it on if it goes poorly.”

That would be unlikely as Suarez clearly appreciates the help.

“He’s a great guy, very good friend,” he said of Edwards. “He just asked me, ‘Hey Daniel, do you want me to go over there? Do you think it would be helpful?’ I said, ‘Man to have a driver like you who has a bunch of wins here in Atlanta, it’s a big deal.”

Edwards, who has three Cup wins at Atlanta (including the first of his career 12 years ago), said he missed the people as much as anything about the NASCAR garage, said he didn’t have a schedule for future Cup races where he might help Suarez.

“I think some (tracks) I can help them,” Edwards said. “Some places I can’t. I think very quickly, I’ll be out of the picture because it’s his team. He’s proven himself. He doesn’t have to have me here. I’m only in addition to what he’s already got, and it’s only because he wants me here.

“I definitely don’t want to get in the way. I’m not a hanger-on type of guy. If they don’t want me here, I won’t be here.”

Edwards said he’d stay for Sunday’s race if asked but added it might not be that fun based off the Daytona 500.

“It was hard to watch the start of the 500,” he said. “But once they started wrecking a little bit, it wasn’t that hard to walk away from the TV. But this place, I love this place. I miss driving while I’m standing here.”

Edwards joked that at home, he mostly had been “spending a lot of time with my chainsaw in the woods. Probably end up in an emergency room soon. I’ve been doing stuff outside the house. I’m not good in the house yet.”

Was he still interested in running for Senate as a report indicated in January?

“I haven’t decided on the political stuff,” he said. “Like I talked about at that press conference, I really believe in individual freedom and liberty and what the United States is based upon. I think, like anybody, I’ve been paying attention. It’s a little scary what’s been going on as a whole in our country and in the world.

“If I can help with that down the line, great. But I don’t have any firm plans right now.”