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Long: Never has there been a race like Atlanta 1992 … until today

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HOMESTEAD, Florida — With crowded grandstands as the backdrop, Bob Jenkins welcomed viewers to ESPN’s broadcast of the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup finale, proclaiming it “perhaps the biggest race in NASCAR history, at least in the modern era.’’

Richard Petty would run his final Cup race. Six drivers — some from racing’s royalty — entered with at least a mathematical chance to win the championship. A future superstar was set to make his first series start.

For the first time since that memorable fall day in Atlanta, a season finale has the power to match the significance of that 1992 race. Today’s Cup finale from Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC) features a four-man battle for the title and the departure of fan favorites, including the sport’s most popular driver.

“This is a lot of parallel to what ’92 was,’’ said Bill Elliott, who won the race that day in Atlanta but lost the championship by 10 points to Alan Kulwicki. “I still look back (to that race) as a big deal.’’

Petty said today’s race is “like a changing of the guard. You got so many different facets here.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 14-time and assuredly soon-to-be the 15-time most popular driver, will run his final Cup race.

I’m having a hard time trying to put my emotions and thoughts into words,’’ Earnhardt said Friday. “Usually I’m pretty decent at it.’’

Danica Patrick, a pioneering driver who introduced many young girls to the sport, announced Friday in an emotional press conference that this will be her final full-time season as a driver. She plans to run only the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 next year.

“I feel like this is where my life should be headed,’’ she said.

Former champion Matt Kenseth, is set to depart the sport after this season. Whether he’ll return is uncertain. He’s left that possibility open but has no ride for next year and concedes he might not race in Cup again.

And, there’s a four-driver race for the championship between Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski

Busch, Harvick and Keselowski each seek a second title and would join seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson as the only active multi-time champions. Truex, whose team has endured heartbreak and tragedy throughout the season, seeks his first series title.

“I know it’s a big mark,’’ Keselowski said of becoming a two-time series champ. “There’s only 15 drivers in the sport that have won multiple championships, and we’re 60‑some years into the sport now. 

“So if you think about it, there’s only been 15 multiple champions, and two of them are ‑ or at least one of them’s active now, and (Gordon and Tony Stewart haven’t) had a chance to get in the Hall of Fame, but it’s pretty much a certainty that those drivers will be in the Hall of Fame. Multiple championship drivers always will be. And it’s a chance to really make myself a Hall of Fame driver. That’s not something that anyone takes for granted.’’

That 1992 Atlanta race featured eight Hall of Famers: Petty, Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin and that list will grow in the coming years with Gordon and likely Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.

“I think the sport has evolved very well,’’ Elliott said.

One can only imagine what they might say of Sunday’s race 25 years from now.

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Long: Matt Kenseth relishes poetic, timely victory

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AVONDALE, Arizona — Maybe it was fate. How else to explain how everything came together Sunday at Phoenix Raceway for Matt Kenseth.

A season that saw him lose at New Hampshire on a pit call, suffer damage at Richmond because of a wayward ambulance and be eliminated from title contention at Kansas because his team sent one too many members to repair his car, now includes the end of a 51-race winless streak that, in a way, harkens to his Cup debut.

Kenseth made his first Cup start in Sept. 1998 at Dover, driving for Bill Elliott, who missed that race because of his father’s death.

Sunday, Kenseth passed Elliott’s son to win his 39th and likely final Cup race.

“It’s pretty neat,’’ Kenseth told NBC Sports of the symmetry. “The (1998) race itself was really fun and through that I got to know Bill and talk to him quite a bit.

“This makes me sound old, but I remember (when) Chase was just a little kid who would come with Bill all the time. Chase is a great driver and obviously is going to win tons of races. Sometimes you have a lot of those seconds before you bust through. You (then) see them just catch fire and win a ton of races.

“He’s a super-respectful, hard-working kid. I’ve always enjoyed seeing him around. It’s been fun racing against him. The only bad part is he’s really good, so he’s hard to beat. Other than that, it’s enjoyable.’’

While an Elliott was involved in Kenseth’s win, it also was fitting how Kenseth won. Overshadowed by others, he worked his way into the top five and maneuvered into position to strike. He moved into the lead on Lap 232 with the help of his pit crew and led 62 of the final 81 laps.

“It was classic Matt Kenseth,’’ crew chief Jason Ratcliff told NBC Sports. “We’ve seen him do that a number of times where you get down to the end of the race and he’s just hanging out and making sure he’s close. He gets passed with just a few laps to go and is able to get back on the leader’s bumper and make it happen, that’s one of the things he does best. I think that’s what most people in the sport will remember about Matt Kenseth. He’ll just kind of stalk you and close the deal.’’

Elliott lamented afterward on the radio to his team: “Sorry, I was trying freaking everything I knew to try. I’ll get it right some day.”

The 45-year-old Kenseth says he still believes he can win consistently but he won’t be able to prove it in Cup after this weekend’s season finale in Miami because he has no ride. With Erik Jones moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, there was no room there. Other teams went with other options. Kenseth, a former champion without any sponsorship to bring to a team, was left out despite his success and the likelihood that he’ll be a first ballot Hall of Famer when his time comes.

If nothing else, Kenseth will step away having won in one of his final starts and experiencing the thrill — and tears — of victory one more time.

“I cry all the time,’’ Kenseth told NBC Sports. “I try not to where anybody can see me. But I guess in general I’m somewhat of an emotional person.

“It’s been the longest year of my career by far. I can’t tell you what a long year it’s been. Honestly, the last four or five weeks, I’ve probably been, instead of enjoying it, knowing it’s my last four or five weeks, I’ve just sort of been like wanting to get through it, to be honest with you. I’ve been putting in all the work  … and racing as hard as I can, but it hasn’t really been as enjoyable as maybe I hoped it would, so it feels good to get the result. It feels good to have one work out for us.’’

The only thing missing was his family, who didn’t make the trip.

“I would have gave about anything for them to be here today and experience this with him,’’ Kenseth said of his wife and children. “I was able to FaceTime in victory lane. That was a really neat moment.’’

At least his connection worked better than earlier in the day. Daughter Kaylin, who is 8 years old, competed in her first gymnastics meet Sunday. Kenseth had trouble trying to keep up with her meet.

“She was all nervous,’’ he said. “I was trying to get on that app, I kept trying to text (wife) Katie and try to find out what was going on and how she did. She did pretty good. She finished second in one of the events. She was pretty excited. I hated that I missed it. I’m looking forward to see more of that in person for sure.’’

If that is how Kenseth spends his weekends next year, he enjoyed one last hurrah Sunday and gave fans one last memory.

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Long: It was an ‘over the moon’ weekend for Alex Bowman, Martin Truex Jr.

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CONCORD, North Carolina — Alex Bowman’s grandmother Loretta is fond of saying “over the moon” for significant events.

Her grandson gave her reason to cheer by winning Saturday night’s NASCAR Xfinity race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but it’s a phrase that also could be used for Martin Truex Jr., winner of Sunday’s Cup race there.

Truex’s victory moved him into the third round, putting him one step from the championship race next month at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Also significant is that Truex scored five more playoff points, giving him 64 playoff points. Only two drivers are within 40 playoff points of Truex: Kyle Busch has 41 playoff points and Kyle Larson has 34.

That’s key because in the next round, the remaining eight title contenders will have their points reset to 4,000 and then have their playoff points added. At this point, Truex will begin the next round with 4,064 points and would have a 25-point lead on Busch, who would be the closest driver.

With two more races in this round, there are 14 playoff points available (five points for a win in each of the two races and one point for each of the four total stages).

At least one driver will advance from the third round to the championship race via points. In two of the previous three years, three drivers advanced via points because those no longer eligible for the title won races and took away those automatic spots in the championship finale. Last year, only one driver made it on points as title contenders won each of the three races in the third round.

Despite the advantage in points, Truex isn’t about to assume he can coast into the championship race if he doesn’t win in the next round.

“If three guys win that are behind us in points and somebody like Kyle Busch doesn’t have a win but has a decent consistent run and we have two or three bad races, we could be out just like that,’’ Truex told NBC Sports.

Crew chief Cole Pearn told NBC Sports: “You can never have enough protection. That last round has a history coming down to points.’’

FAMILIAR POSITION

Chase Elliott’s second-place finish Sunday marked the sixth time in his Cup career (71 races) he’s finished second. It ranks second (naturally) all-time among drivers without a Cup victory. G.C. Spencer was a runner-up seven times without scoring a win.

Elliott, though, has a way to go to match James Hylton’s record of 12 runner-ups before scoring his first career Cup victory.

Elliott is closing on his father’s mark. Bill Elliott was a runner-up eight times before he won his first Cup race.

SPECIAL MOMENT

Sean Bowman admits he nearly broke down emotionally in victory lane after his son, Alex, won Saturday night’s rain-delayed Xfinity race.

It has been quite a journey for father and son, starting with the father, who was a race fan and saw his son’s fascination with cars. It led to Alex driving quarter midgets, then to midgets before moving to stock cars with the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East (he was rookie of the year), ARCA and then NASCAR.

“We bonded so much over racing, traveling the country together,’’ Alex Bowman told Nate Ryan in the NASCAR on NBC podcast.

So to be there when Alex won was a special moment for Sean.

“It was pretty emotional,’’ Sean Bowman told NBC Sports. “It means a lot for him to come out and run against the caliber of competition he did.’’

Other family members were at the race, including Bowman’s grandmother. She was in the stands and didn’t make it down to victory lane, but they talked shortly after his win on the phone.

Sunday was his grandmother’s birthday, so Bowman said he wished her happy birthday while standing in victory lane. No doubt, she was “over the moon’’ with that.

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Wood Brothers’ lifeline started with a phone call: ‘I’m going to fix that’

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DOVER, Delaware — Shortly after the Coca-Cola 600 ran without the Wood Brothers for the only time in the event’s history, co-owner Eddie Wood’s cell phone rang.

On the other end was Edsel Ford II, great-grandson of Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, a longtime supporter of the Wood Brothers.

Edsel Ford called for other reasons, but the conversation turned to the team’s struggles. Although it was late May, the 2008 season already had been difficult for the team.

The Wood Brothers failed to qualify for the Daytona 500, marking the first time since 1962 the family didn’t have a car in NASCAR’s most prestigious race.

The team failed to make the races at Las Vegas, Atlanta and Bristol in consecutive weekends. The Woods had the most wins among any team in NASCAR history at Atlanta at that time. They also didn’t qualify at Richmond before failing to make the 43-car field at Charlotte.

All that hung over Wood when he answered his phone in the Pocono Raceway garage during a test two days after the 600.

“Why haven’t we talked lately?’’ Edsel Ford asked Wood.

“Mr. Ford, we’ve run so bad and I’m so ashamed,’’ Wood said. “I’m ashamed to call you.’’

“So you’re telling me my 21 is broke?’’

“Yes sir. It’s broken. Really bad.’’

“I’m going to fix that.’’

SURVIVORS

When Ryan Blaney held off 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick to win at Pocono in June, he gave the Wood Brothers their 99th career Cup victory and qualified them for the playoffs for the first time.

For as storied as Wood Brothers history is — nine NASCAR Hall of Famers have run at least one race for the team — the organization has only one championship. The team won the 1963 car owner’s title less than three weeks before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Ryan Blaney. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Blaney enters Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway in position to advance to the next round. That the Wood Brothers are competing for a championship is remarkable considering what they overcame to remain in a sport that left many contemporaries behind.

More than 30 teams that competed in the Daytona 500 at one time or another between 2006-16 have faded away. They ranged from powerhouses to low-budget endeavors put together on a hope and a prayer.

Those teams relegated to history include Dale Earnhardt Inc., Petty Enterprises, Yates Racing, Evernham Motorsports, Bill Davis Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Red Bull Racing. They combined for 10 Cup titles and 16 Daytona 500 victories.

While they are gone, the Wood Brothers remain.

LOYALTY

Edsel Ford II calls the No. 21 Wood Brothers car Ford’s “company car.’’

He’s not exaggerating. The Wood Brothers always have run Fords, starting with Glen Wood. He and a friend paid $50 for a 1938 Ford Coupe to race in 1950.

In Glen Wood’s first race, contact in his heat bent the rear-end housing. It didn’t seem major until afterward when they towed the car back to Stuart, Virginia. The axle broke. Gas spilled and ignited from the sparks as the car’s rear end scraped the ground. Flames shot from the back of the car and spread.

The fire eventually burned out and the damage was minimal to the engine. So a few weeks later, Glen Wood again was racing that car, beginning a legacy with Ford.

Leonard Wood and Glen Wood pose with their car at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on January 22, 2012. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR)

For as much loyalty as the Wood Brothers have shown Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford II felt the same way with the team.

“We were dedicated to them, and they were dedicated to us,’’ Ford told NBC Sports.

Loyalty, though, doesn’t pay the bills and can’t always prop a team back up when it has fallen.

The Wood Brothers’ falloff was gradual, more like water dripping from a faucet instead of flowing.

Elliott Sadler led them to a 20th-place finish in the points in 2001, but the team’s performance yo-yoed through Sadler and Ricky Rudd before declining with a series of other drivers.

The organization expanded, adding a Truck team, but that didn’t prove effective. Decisions didn’t work out as hoped, and soon the Wood Brothers fell further behind the leading teams.

While they attempted to run every race in 2007, the Wood Brothers failed to qualify for two races. At Talladega, they were among nine teams that didn’t make the field. That included Red Bull Racing (AJ Allmendinger and Brian Vickers), Bill Davis Racing (Dave Blaney) and Michael Waltrip Racing (Michael Waltrip).

Then came the woes of 2008. The team failed to qualify for eight of 36 races.

“As far as racing goes, that’s about as bad a spot as you can be in, going to a race track and not being fast enough to qualify and race,’’ Eddie Wood said.

He and brother Len stayed at the track for the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400 (they also would miss that race that year) without a car competing.

“That’s the hardest part,’’ Len said. “You have no hauler, nowhere to go, no car to show anybody, nowhere to sit down.’’

Said Eddie: “You have nowhere to be.’’

FAMILY

The day after Edsel Ford’s call to Eddie Wood, another call came. Eddie and Len were told to fly to Detroit that day to meet with a Ford executive. Four hours later, they were in the air, but there was a problem. Neither had proper clothes for an executive meeting since they had been at a race. So after landing, they went to a Dillard’s department store for proper clothes.

Their meeting was postponed a day, but when it was held, it began a process for the Wood Brothers to become more competitive.

Eddie and Len Wood at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 23, 2016. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

“They’re such an important part of our family, they’re an important part of our sport, Ford Motorsports,’’ Edsel Ford II said. “To lose them would have been inconceivable to me.’’

More engineering help was added. Later, another idea emerged from Edsel Ford II.

Maybe the team should not run a full season beginning in 2009.

“Eddie and Len knew that the future was going to be there, now it was just a question of hanging on and how do we get there,’’ Ford said. “I think the three of us spent a lot of time strategizing, what does the long-term look like, so we’ll have to make some short-term sacrifices in order to get to the long-term. We all knew that some of these half-seasons were not what they wanted, certainly not what we wanted, but it was going to get us there.’’

But what races to skip? Len Wood examined the costs incurred at each track from hotel bills to tire bills and more. Eventually, the team decided it would be best to run the Daytona 500 and focus on tracks from 1.5 to 2.5 miles. That way they didn’t have to prepare cars for short tracks or road courses, saving costs there.

After having attempted to run every race from 1985-2008, the team ran 13 races in 2009 and 2010.

VICTORY

They met at a Steak ‘n Shake for lunch.

There sat the heirs to one of the most famous teams in NASCAR history and one of the sport’s most popular drivers. Eddie and Len Wood sat with Bill Elliott.

The Wood Brothers were aligned with Roush Fenway Racing. Through it, they acquired a couple of cars and a new crew chief when they parted ways with their crew chief late in the 2010 season. Soon after, Roush requested that Trevor Bayne drive for the Wood Brothers in the fall Texas race to be eligible for the 2011 Daytona 500. It was at that lunch the Woods told Elliott, their current driver, about the change of plans. Elliott said he’d help Bayne any way he could.

After the season, there was more talk about Bayne running for the team in 2011. He ended up in the No. 21 car for the Wood Brothers at Daytona.

Trevor Bayne celebrates after winning the 2011 Daytona 500. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Bayne’s Speedweeks did not go smoothly. A rookie, few would run with him in the tandem style of that period. Then his car was damaged in an accident on the last lap of his qualifying race. With help from Roush Fenway Racing, the team repaired the car instead of going to a backup.

The repairs were perfect. The race went beyond the scheduled 200 laps, and Bayne took the lead for the first time on Lap 203. He led the final six laps to win in just his second series start. Bayne’s victory provided one of the more memorable scenes that season when Richard Petty escorted Glen Wood to victory lane.

The feel-good moment didn’t turn into much more money. The team added a few more races in hopes of enticing sponsors to come on so it could run a full season. It didn’t happen. While the team ran 17 of 36 races that season, it would be five more seasons until there was the sponsorship and support to run a full season.

NIRVANA

Eddie and Len Wood won’t think about the possibility that in less than two months, the Wood Brothers could be champions. When you spend your life in the sport, it is dangerous to look too far ahead. Instead, focus on the what needs to be done and worry about what’s down the road when you come upon it.

Edsel Ford II can’t contain himself. For as much as he doesn’t want to look too far ahead, he smiles and his eyes widen at the thought of the Wood Brothers and Ryan Blaney winning the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“What does nirvana look like?’’ Ford asks.

Then he answers the question.

“I think to go to Las Vegas and be with them,’’ he said of where NASCAR celebrates its champion, “it would be pretty close to nirvana for me.’’

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Chase Elliott to switch numbers next season, run his father’s No. 9

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Chase Elliott will have a new number next season, running the No. 9 his father Bill excelled with, Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday night.

The organization also announced that William Byron will drive the No. 24 that Chase Elliott had raced the past two years.

Elliott drove the No. 9 to the 2014 Xfinity Series title. Bill Elliott scored 38 of his 44 Cup wins and his 1988 championship with the No. 9.

“I wasn’t sure I’d ever drive the ‘9’ again,” said Chase Elliott in a statement. “It’s a huge deal to my family and everyone back home (in Georgia), and I hope all of our fans will be pumped to see it back on the racetrack. There’s a legacy attached to that number, and I want to carry it on. I think it’s awesome that Hendrick Motorsports and NAPA wanted to do this. It’s impossible not to be excited.”

The debut of the No. 9 for Hendrick Motorsports marks the first time in nearly a decade that the organization will field a new number for one of its four full-time teams. The most recent addition was the No. 88, which was added in 2008, for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“I know what the ‘9’ means to Chase and his whole family,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “They’ve contributed so much to our sport, and I’m happy we can honor that history by bringing the number back. I think fans will really love seeing it out there. I told Chase we’d only do it if he promised to win a bunch of races, so I’m going to hold him to that.’’

Elliott’s team will remain with him next season.

Byron, who will move to Cup next season, will make his series debut with the number Jeff Gordon had so much success with for Hendrick Motorsports.

Byron, who turns 20 in November, will begin his rookie season at the same age as Gordon when Gordon made his series debut in 1992 at Atlanta.

“Jeff and Jimmie (Johnson) are the drivers I’ve always watched most closely and tried to learn from,” said Byron, 19, who signed with Hendrick Motorsports in August 2016. “I didn’t think I could be more motivated, but when Mr. Hendrick called to tell me (about driving the No. 24), it took things to another level. I have so much respect for all the people who have contributed to the success of the ‘24.’ I know it’s rare to have the chance to be part of something like this. I’m going to make the most of it.”

Said Hendrick: “The ‘fit factor’ is something I’ve always believed in, and that’s what I see with William and our organization. He reminds me a lot of Jeff at that age with regard to being a special talent and having a great head on his shoulders. But William is also his own person with his own career ahead of him. It’s going to be fun to watch him jump in the ‘24’ and show what he’s capable of.”

Bryon’s team will have Kasey Kahne’s pit crew next season.

With the changes, Hendrick Motorsports will withdraw its No. 5 car number from competition. It was the organization’s first car number in 1984 and has run full-time since. Terry Labonte drove the No. 5 to the Cup championship in 1996.

“That was by far the hardest part (of the car number decisions),” Hendrick said in a statement. “The ‘5’ means so much to everyone at Hendrick Motorsports and to a lot of our fans. The memories and the history will always be there, and I won’t rule out bringing it back some day. Never say never.”

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