NASCAR on NBC podcast

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 10:  2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers pose for a photo after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 10, 2016 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
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The origins of the NASCAR Drivers Council explained by Denny Hamlin … and what’s ahead

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin isn’t always the most verbose of NASCAR stars.

But when he has a point to make, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver always has made it firmly and simply while standing his ground.

It explains why Hamlin has emerged as a leader on the Drivers Council after spearheading its formation.

The scrutiny and heat that accompany being the face of the group is worth the trouble for the Chesterfield, Va., native.

“It’s because I’m passionate about it,” he said during the latest episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “And Gibbs says the same thing every time we come around to contract negotiations, you’re very passionate about something and stick to your guns.

“I just feel like when I’m passionate about something, first I want to make sure it’s right. I don’t want to just say, ‘This is my idea and it’s right because it’s my idea.’ I want to get feedback from other drivers on that to make sure it’s the right idea. I’m passionate about it and I feel I have a way to communicate that to NASCAR without pissing them off at times.”

The Drivers Council, which is in its third year, grew out of a meeting that Hamlin had with NASCAR executive Mike Helton in September 2014.

Hamlin was displeased that NASCAR was adding downforce and raising the spoiler and expressed it to Helton, who recommended organization.

“I credit Mike Helton for this,” Hamlin said. “He said, ‘If you guys overall feel there’s something as a group that we need to change, you get some drivers together and come meet us at the R&D Center and we’ll have a talk.”

Hamlin called up several Cup stars and had them in the parking lot at the R&D Center before the meeting. He distributed notecards with talking points because presenting a united front was important.

“I handed out notes (and said), ‘OK, guys if we don’t stay on track, that’s the No. 1 thing at times that NASCAR pinned against us,’” Hamlin recalled. “Hey this driver thinks this is the way. Hey this one thinks we should go this way. Instead they just go their own way.

“So I said we have to be united and have to have the same voice if we want to get anywhere. From that point on, it started clicking.”

The council has made an impact with NASCAR, contributing valuable input to the 2017 format enhancements and lobbying for the recently announced traveling safety team. Hamlin said improving pit access and monitoring to help keep fans from touching cars on race day mornings also is on the agenda.

“There are really small things we’re working on day by day,” Hamlin said. “Format changes. Talking about All-Star Races and making them more compelling. The stage and formats came from ideas with people within NASCAR, TV and drivers.

“We’re seeing the fruits of what was done behind closed doors.”

This year, the council has added Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott (click here for the full member list). Putting three drivers under 30 on the panel was by design.

“Those guys are going to be here for a very long time,” Hamlin said. “Kyle Larson was on it last year and honestly didn’t say a whole lot, but I can appreciate that. I can guarantee if I was in his position I probably wouldn’t either. But he took everything in and by end of year, he was starting to engage more and give his opinion a little bit more, which was good.

“I’m in the middle of my career. There’s a few others on the tail end. It’s good to have a young group see the veterans in the room and how they handle things. Because when they’re gone, it’s up to them to get that same message across. Even though they’re there to support and listen now. They’re going to be the future leaders.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ep. 65: Denny Hamlin

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 21:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates with the Harley J. Earl Trophy and shows off his champion's ring in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin didn’t have a race scheduled, but he did have a check.

So when he signed a development contract with Joe Gibbs Racing in February 2004, the driver who has a reputation for being a free spender didn’t wait.

“I bought a plasma TV and rims for my Ford Ranger,” Hamlin said with a laugh on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast. “I blew it within a week.”

And he made sure everyone at his family’s trailer hitch company knew about it.

“I got a Joe Gibbs Racing sweatshirt and wore that thing nearly every day to work,” he said. “Because it was like, ‘I’m with the Joe Gibbs Racing team as a development driver.’ Which meant nothing; just that i couldn’t sign with someone else.”

Eventually, Hamlin was slated for a few truck races and then finished eighth in his Xfinity debut at Darlington Raceway in November 2004. JGR named him its full-time driver for 2005, and he was promoted to NASCAR’s premier series the following year.

“It’s a chain of events that I think about all the time that if that didn’t happen or this didn’t happen, I never would have been here,” the defending Daytona 500 winner said. “It makes me wonder how many others are in my shoes from 13 years ago today that didn’t have that one thing that went right so they’ll never be seen. We’ll never know who they are.

“It’s incredible to see this whole process. It was a very tough road. I never remember anyone who went from Late Models on short tracks to racing Cup in one year.”

Hamlin’s break came at a JGR test for its diversity program at Hickory Motor Speedway. The team hired Hamlin to shake down the cars and help the drivers, but J.D. Gibbs was so impressed, he called his father and advised that JGR should get Hamlin under contract.

“I still don’t think today that I get that break unless J.D. Gibbs is at that test,” he said. “I just don’t think it ever happens. I was a 1 in 10 million.”

During the podcast, Hamlin also addressed:

–Reminiscing about his 2016 Daytona 500 victory;

–The reception in his hometown of Chesterfield;

–His role as the leader of the Drivers Council;

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

The three people Chad Knaus called on the night of his seventh championship

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet,  Chad Knaus looks on during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
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Chad Knaus called three people on the night of winning his seventh championship with Jimmie Johnson last November.

One took some extra work – fitting because it was the person who validated his tireless dedication to pursue a dream: Ray Evernham.

“I know I woke his butt up, too, he was sound asleep,” Knaus said with a chuckle during the most recent NASCAR on NBC podcast. “I called like three times. Obviously, I’d had a few drinks and was feeling pretty happy. ‘Man, you better answer the phone.’”

When Evernham did answer, Knaus expressed heartfelt gratitude to the man who gave him his big break in NASCAR. Before becoming Johnson’s crew chief in 2002, Knaus started his career at Hendrick Motorsports in 1993 on Evernham’s crew with Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet.

“(Evernham) was a big part of me understanding what I was capable of and gave me a lot of opportunity to grow when I was young,” Knaus said. “When I moved down from Chicago (with a) brash, straight-to-the-point attitude, (it) didn’t necessarily fit with the Southern guys.

“It was the good old boys, take it one race at a time whatever happens, happens and have a good time. That wasn’t the way we raced in the Midwest with Rusty Wallace, Dick Trickle and Mark Martin. It was hard, hard racing. Coming down to work with Ray and the 24 car, he just reaffirmed that hard work, dedication, doing what’s right and being smart about decision-making process is exactly what will make you successful, and that helped me tremendously. He definitely laid the foundation which was awesome.”

Evernham is fond of often telling the story that when he hired him, Knaus told Evernham “I want your job within five years.”

Now at least statistically, Knaus has surpassed Evernham, who was voted the greatest crew chief of all time after winning three titles with Gordon.

“That’s what he tells me,” Knaus said of Evernham. “He tells me that all the time. I still have the utmost respect for him.”

The other two people that Knaus, 45, called after the championship?

His father, John (whom he served as crew chief for as a 14-year-old in Rockford, Ill.) and his wife, Brooke, who couldn’t attend the finale.

She was the first person Knaus called after fulfilling a few hours of postrace media obligations. “She obviously was in tears and having a great time celebrating with friends back in Charlotte,” Knaus said.

During the podcast, Knaus also addressed:

–His relationship with Johnson and why the two have managed to stay together through 15 seasons and win a record-tying seven championships;

–The importance of car chief Ron Malec, who has been with Johnson and Knaus since the No. 48 team’s inception, and why Knaus doesn’t like to hire away from other teams;

–What the legacy of seven titles means to him;

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

 

NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ep. 64: Chad Knaus

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After making history with Jimmie Johnson last November, crew chief Chad Knaus decided to get away from it all.

A trip to Uruguay accomplished that by removing even the temptation of connecting to the outside world.

“I never saw a television,” Knaus said about his vacation during the latest episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “It’s not that we didn’t turn a television on, it’s that I never saw a television. Anywhere in the United States, any restaurant’s bar area has a TV or three to four TVs blaring sports or CNN.

“Down there, that’s not the case. It’s living life. It’s art. It’s the beach. It’s the fields. Watching the gauchos go out and rustle the cows and horses to bring them to the stables. It’s a really neat spot.”

The trip to the resort town of José Ignacio was suggested and planned by Knaus’ wife, Brooke, who is an aspiring painter (brookeknaus.com).

The couple spent much of the 10-day getaway exploring the artsy community that features sculptures, paintings and “the most random things you’ve ever seen in your life.

“Brooke found a beautiful place,” said Knaus, who hadn’t been to South America before. “The food was phenomenal. The culture is amazing.

“It’s one of the safest places I’ve been in my life. I really, really enjoyed the experience.”

During the podcast, Knaus also addressed:

–His relationship with Johnson and why the two have managed to stay together through 15 seasons and win a record-tying seven championships;

–The importance of car chief Ron Malec, who has been with Johnson and Knaus since the No. 48 team’s inception, and why Knaus doesn’t like to hire away from other teams;

–What the legacy of seven titles means to him;

–The three people he called the night after winning the championship and race in Miami.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

Alliance brought success and mistrust: ‘There were times teams thought we were fibbing’

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 13: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John's Chevrolet, and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Kobalt Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 13, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
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Rodney Childers called Kenny Francis last week, and the longtime friends who worked together a decade ago at Evernham Motorsports had a typically pleasant conversation.

But there are limits now to what topics can be broached between Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, and Francis, the former crew chief for Kasey Kahne who was moved to Hendrick’s technical director in 2014.

Since Stewart-Haas Racing’s announcement nearly a year ago about switching to Ford this season, its dynamics have changed with Hendrick, which had supplied Chevrolet chassis and engines to SHR for several years. After the announcement in February 2016, Hendrick continued to supply chassis and engines to Stewart-Haas last season but stopped sharing setup data.

“One reason I came here (to Stewart-Haas) was the relationship with Hendrick and Kenny Francis,” Childers said during the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “That led me to being here. All of that has always been good. Kenny and I are good friends and always will be.  On the other hand, we don’t like to be outrun, (and) they don’t like to be outrun.”

It was Stewart-Haas that had been outrunning Hendrick more often the last few seasons since Childers and Harvick were paired as a championship duo in 2014.

Last fall, Jimmie Johnson said the formidable pairing of Childers and Harvick “changed the game” and made Hendrick question whether it still was sensible to share setup data with a rival.

During last week’s podcast, Childers said the teams’ successes inherently created an atmosphere of mistrust at times.

“There were times it worked good,” Childers said. “Other times, other (Hendrick) teams thought we were fibbing about our notes, and we thought they were fibbing about their notes.

“It ends up just being a headache. We tried to always focus on the team and car.”

But when it worked well, the partnership could be unstoppable for both sides. Childers recalled an instance in which he duplicated the No. 48 Chevrolet’s setup in Harvick’s car at Dover International Speedway (where Johnson has a record 10 victories).

“We had the splitter heights wrong, and (Johnson crew chief) Chad (Knaus) was nice enough to send a sim file,” Childers said. “Next thing, we were fastest in (final practice). Those things happen.”

In the 2014 Southern 500 won by Harvick, Johnson used the No. 4’s setup after qualifying 26th.

“Halfway through, we’re leading, and they came from the back to second,” Childers said with a laugh. “They’re getting ready to outrun us with our setup.

“I liked the relationship. I thought it was fine. Some didn’t like it. Those (Hendrick) guys were great to me. It didn’t matter if it was the engine, chassis or whatever. No one treated me bad.”

In its switch to Ford this year, SHR has started building its own chassis, which made for a difficult transition but should allow more long-term autonomy.

“We’ve got to stand on our own two feet,” Childers said. “If I want a different chassis built, it’s easier to do that. We’ve got designers to do that and get it made and not share it with the rest of the world. Hopefully, it all works out.”

You can listen to the NASCAR on NBC podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

Knaus will be the featured guest on Wednesday’s episode of the podcast.