Coca-Cola 600

Long: NASCAR’s young stars provide lessons for many at Dover

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DOVER, Delaware — As NASCAR transitions to a younger generation of drivers, they will have their chance to influence the sport as Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and others have.

This past weekend’s racing at Dover International Speedway gave the sport’s new kids a chance to show how to do things and possibly influence younger competitors elsewhere.

Ryan Blaney set the tone after winning Saturday’s Xfinty race. He celebrated at the start/finish line by giving the checkered flag to a youngster — one wearing a Kyle Larson hat.

Blaney’s action is far from the first kind act bestowed upon a child in the sport, but it provides a reminder of what’s important for NASCAR moving forward.

“He seemed really pumped up to be at the race,’’ Blaney said of the child he handed the checkered flag to through the fence. “There were a lot of kids here today, which was really cool.

“I kind of saw a little bit of myself. I was a little kid coming here and watching races. Anything we can do to try to keep them coming back and show them a pretty great experience, hopefully he enjoyed that experience and the race.

“He was pretty happy when he got (the flag). Whatever we can do to make their day, I feel like, is part of our job, to be honest with you.’’

Blaney’s comment is a sign of how NASCAR’s elders have passed their wisdom to the next generation.

With Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards no longer racing, Earnhardt out after this season and Matt Kenseth’s future in doubt, the sport is moving beyond some of its most popular drivers who helped mold NASCAR. It also likely won’t be too long before Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, among others, retire.  

While Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano should be in the sport for at least another decade, it is the drivers behind them that will help lead the sport further. That’s Blaney, Elliott and Larson, along with Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Austin and Ty Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr., Christopher Bell and William Byron

Maybe Blaney’s checkered flag giveaway becomes as much a tradition as when Edwards gave his trophy to a child after a win. No doubt others do the same thing at local tracks, but what if more people did it or something similar? A driver giving away a checkered flag or trophy in NASCAR’s premier series could show competitors at various levels that while winning is special, sharing it with a child is more meaningful.

Another key aspect of the weekend, though, was more subtle.

As Kyle Busch reeled in leader Chase Elliott in the final laps Sunday, there was a moment when there could have been chaos. Instead, there was a clean pass.

Elliott could have blocked or could have forced Busch into the wall when Busch tried to pass on the outside as they ran to the white flag. Busch noted Elliott’s actions after winning.

“Coming off of (Turn) 2 there, he could have pulled up and checked my momentum, and I did kind of check up because I wasn’t quite sure, but then he gave me enough room,’’ Busch said in victory lane.

Just like that, Elliott’s bid for his first career Cup win went away again, leaving him heartbroken.

NASCAR is a contact sport and there will be such battles for wins for races to come — maybe in the upcoming second round in the Cup playoffs — but there’s also something to be said for fair racing.

Admittedly, there will be those who will recall it was Elliott who bumped Ty Dillon out of the lead to win a Truck race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2013. Two of the four races there since have ended with the second-place truck making contact with the leader to get by to win. It has seemingly become OK to do so at that track.

One action doesn’t make a driver a saint or a devil, it’s what they do over a period of time. The more others see how the sport’s young drivers react in pressure situations, the more it could influence drivers as they come up through the NASCAR ranks.

An episode few saw this past weekend with a young driver came from Todd Gilliland. The 17-year-old son of former Cup driver David Gilliland, entered the K&N Pro Series East season finale eight points ahead of Harrison Burton for the championship. Gilliland’s title hopes ended when a right front tire blew and he crashed before midway in the race. Burton won the championship. Despite the devastation, Gilliland answered media questions in a mature fashion.

THREE AND OUT

The winners of three of the biggest races of the season all failed to advance to the next round of the Cup playoffs.

Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500, Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 and Kasey Kahne won the Brickyard 400. None was closer than four points from the final transfer spot.

This marks the second time in the four years of the elimination-style playoff format that there wasn’t a winner of any of those three races in the championship race.

The only driver to have won any of those races and make it to the championship race is Kyle Busch. He won the 2015 Brickyard 400 and went on to win the championship. He won the 2016 Brickyard 400 and finished third in the points.

DROUGHT CONTINUES

With Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman eliminated from title contention, it means that Richard Childress Racing will go a 23rd consecutive season since its last Cup championship, which came in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt Sr.

The organization started the season with the goal of winning races and did that with Newman winning at Phoenix and Dillon the Coca-Cola 600. But the organization had a lack of speed at various tracks, showing that more work needs to be done for it to return to being a title contender. Still, some goals were accomplished this season.

Questions remain about next season. Newman and Dillon are back, but Paul Menard will leave at the end of the year to join the Wood Brothers. That leaves RCR with an opening in a car that has a charter.

Among the options for Richard Childress Racing is to run the car or lease the charter to another team for a year, giving the organization more time to find sponsorship and return to a three-car lineup in 2019. Certainly, if sponsorship can be found for next season, the team will run it. 

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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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Even in victory, frustration prevailed for some with Joe Gibbs Racing at New Hampshire (VIDEO)

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For as much as Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated Denny Hamlin scoring the organization’s first Cup win of the season and Daniel Suarez tying his career high with a sixth-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire, there was much to lament.

Matt Kenseth saw his chances to win end with a questionable pit call late. Kyle Busch’s hopes of victory faded when he was caught speeding twice in the final 65 laps.

Without the missteps from Busch and Kenseth’s team, Hamlin likely doesn’t win.

That’s the type of season it has been for Busch, who has found numerous ways to lose Cup races, allowing five drivers to score their first win of the season.

Consider Busch’s season of frustration:

  • He pits from the lead during a late caution at Phoenix. Ryan Newman stays out and leads the final six laps — the only laps he leads — to win. Busch finishes third.
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passes Busch on the final lap of overtime to win at Talladega. Busch finishes third.
  • Austin Dillon gambles on fuel to win the Coca-Cola 600. Busch finishes second and follows it with his mic drop in the media center.
  • Ryan Blaney passes Busch with 10 laps to go to win at Pocono. Busch, on older tires, falls back to ninth.
  • Busch starts on the front row for the final restart at Kentucky. He has two fresh left-side tires, while Martin Truex Jr., the leader, did not pit. Truex wins. Busch finishes fifth after starting on the pole
  • Busch leads 95 laps at New Hampshire but two late speeding penalties on pit road end his chances to win. He finishes 12th.

“This is another one I threw away for us,’’ Busch said on the radio to his team after the race Sunday.

Crew chief Adam Stevens replied: “We win as a team and lose as a team.’’

Busch is winless in his last 35 Cup races heading into this weekend’s event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — site of his last Cup win.

There’s no doubt his car is fast enough to win. He’s led at least 95 laps in seven races since his Indy triumph a year ago but has yet to return to victory lane.

While Kenseth hasn’t had as many close calls, he can relate to miscues hurting him. He finished third at Atlanta despite two speeding penalties. He placed fourth at Bristol despite a speeding penalty.

Then came the pit call that cost Kenseth the win at New Hampshire and extended his winless drought to 36 races, a full season. When the caution came out on Lap 263, most of the lead field pitted. Kenseth led. Ratcliff called for a two-tire change. That got Kenseth off pit road first but the rest of the cars behind him took four tires. 

Kenseth restarted alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr., who did not pit. Kenseth took the lead after the restart but could not hold off Hamlin, who quickly passed with his four fresh tires. Kenseth never had a chance at the lead the rest of the 301-lap race and finished fourth.

“I let you down,’’ Ratcliff said on the radio after the race. “We should have won.’’

The Gibbs teams are getting closer to winning. Just as Hamlin forecasted in April at Richmond.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,’’ Hamlin said at the time. “I think we’ve identified some areas where we need to work. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.’’

Hamlin notes that even with his win at New Hampshire, more work remains.

“I think we’re there except for two cars,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports on Sunday. “(Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson) are the only ones that continually beat us on speed. As far as the rest of the field, I feel we’re there on speed. Our teammate (Busch) has been like the third-fastest car and we’ve been the fourth consistently just about every week. We’re there where we need to be, but I still feel like for speed-wise, we need more to catch those two.’’

As the Gibbs cars contend for more wins, the difference will come down to execution and not making mistakes.

“There’s a lot of things we can do to be better,’’ Hamlin said. “We have a championship-caliber team. We just have to get our cars a little bit faster. I’m running laps out there as good as I feel that I can do. My car is doing everything that I need it to do but (Truex) is just faster.

“He’s running me down, and he’s passing and putting a straightaway on me. I’m thinking (crew chief Mike Wheeler) there’s nothing else I can give you. I don’t want to screw up our car and finish sixth. Just leave it where it is and hope those guys make mistakes.’’

Sunday, it was his teammates who made the mistakes and Hamlin took advantage.

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NASCAR on stage racing: ‘Definitely here to stay’

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A senior NASCAR executive reiterated the sanctioning body’s support for stage racing but noted potential changes will be examined for next season.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, made the comments Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Asked about the status of stage racing as NASCAR nears the midpoint of the season for its national series, O’Donnell said:

“Definitely here to stay. We’ll sit down with the same group that kind of came up with that concept. We really liked what we’ve seen, and the industry does as well, the strategy that is playing out.

“The things that will be on the table, do you add one (stage), do you look at the different stages in terms of lengths, the number of caution laps, maybe starting the second stage from Lap 1 instead of kind of eight laps in versus caution laps counting or maybe take those off the backend. A lot of those things will be on the table for us but continue to be real enthusiastic how those are playing out.’’

The only change with stages in Cup this season was NASCAR’s decision to add a fourth stage for the Coca-Cola 600, the sport’s longest race of the season.

NASCAR announced last week it was adjusting the stages for the Xfinity race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The stages will end after Lap 30 and Lap 60. Previously, the stages were to have ended after Lap 25 and Lap 50. The change was made after consultation with teams on expected fuel and tire runs.

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Brad Keselowski: Wrong message sent by some about Kyle Busch’s mic drop

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DOVER, Del. — Brad Keselowski says that the way Kyle Busch’s frustration and mic drop were portrayed as signs that Busch has the most desire to win “makes me want to throw up.’’

Keselowski said the message sent was not the proper one.

“If I’m going to send a message for my daughter, or for kids or fans of mine, I want that message to be that that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the true definition of the most desire and most passion to win,’’ Keselowski said Saturday at Dover International Speedway.

Busch uttered six words in the media center after finishing second in last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600. After there were no more questions, Busch punctuated his frustration by dropping the mic on the table and exiting.

Busch said Friday at Dover that while people show emotions in different ways, he admits that “mine has never been very gracious, and I don’t know that it ever will be.’’

Busch said the frustration with losing the Coca-Cola 600 and not sweeping the All-Star Race and the 600 upset him as he dwelled more on the result.

Keselowski took issue with the way some in the media portrayed Busch’s actions.

“When people go out and write articles, or the media come out and say that’s a reflection of him having the most desire to win, makes me want to throw up,’’ Keselowski said Saturday after presenting the National Military Family Foundation a $20,000 donation from his Checkered Flag Foundation.

“Not only is that a terrible message to send to anyone who is aspiring to be a part of the sport, that is a terrible message to send to anyone in general in this world that that is a reflection over your desire to win.

“When I look at teams and people in this sport, they all want to be associated with those that have the strongest hunger and desires and passions to be successful. That’s natural. That includes myself.

“That message to be conveyed, whether it’s through the media or through different mouthpieces, is a terrible message that has serious effects not just on our sport but on our society. I don’t think that’s acceptable. Your desire to win can be expressed in a lot of other ways that are productive.’’

Keselowski, who starts eighth in Sunday’s race, said there are better ways to reveal passion and desire.

“You want to show me desire and passion to win, it’s what you do when nobody is watching,’’ he said. “That’s what desire and passion is to win.

“I would say that anybody that aspires to be great in this sport or life, that’s what they should be looking at.  That’s the message we should be sending to kids and other people.’’

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