HOMESTEAD, Florida — In an emotional press conference where she struggled to keep from crying, Danica Patrick said this will be her final full-time season as a driver.
After uttering that phrase, Patrick repeatedly stopped to wipe her eyes and cry.
“But I’m not totally done,” she said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in a press conference that included her family, sister and boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse in attendance. “I’m going to do the Daytona 500 next year and the Indy 500. I’m really excited about that. I think it’s going to be a great way to cap it off.’’
Patrick did not announce the teams that she’ll drive for in both races next year.
“We’re down the line with difference facets in moving forward, but nothing is final yet but hopefully it will be soon,” she said of the teams.
“She is a very talented race car driver,’’ car owner Tony Stewart said on the NBC Monday Morning Donuts podcast Sept. 20. “She has the ability to do what probably 95 percent of the drivers in the field don’t have the ability to do. She can stay in NASCAR if she wants. She can go back to IndyCar. She can go sports car racing. She’s very versatile. I want her to do what she’s passionate about and what feels good to her.’’
Daytona International Speedway has been the site of some of Patrick’s top career NASCAR highlights.
Patrick made her NASCAR debut in the 2010 Xfinity race at Daytona. Her first career Cup start came in the 2012 Daytona 500. She won her lone Cup pole in 2013 for the Daytona 500. She finished eighth in that race, her best finish in that event.
Patrick drove in the Indianapolis 500 from 2005-11. She finished a career-high fourth in 2005 and placed in the top 10 in six of her seven starts in that race.
“I never thought I would do it (again),” Patrick said of the Indianapolis 500. “I really didn’t. I always thought in my head never, but I never said never because I know better and thank God because here I am. It was really a conversation with my agent Alan (Zucker) … we ran through so many different ideas, different teams, different scenarios, just do these races, just do this race. I have been much more in the flow with it. I have not poked or prodded and asked many questions. I wanted this to unfold naturally and what was going to be was going to be.
“As I said to many of you years ago, if it’s not going to get better I don’t want to do it because it’s not fun. Here I am. It’s not fun. My urgency to push to keep doing everything was just not really there. So if something that wasn’t really enticing didn’t come up, I wasn’t going to push for something else.
“He called and just said ‘What about finishing up at Daytona? I don’t know where it came from but then out of my mouth came, ‘What about Indy?’ I don’t even know why I said it necessarily. It was really sort of the first idea that got me really excited. That was it.
“It just came from my heart. I think it’s going to be awesome.”
Although Patrick has not competed in IndyCar since 2011, there are signs that with the right team she could do well in next year’s race.
Formula One driver Fernando Alonso started fifth and led 27 laps before a mechanical issue sidelined him in this year’s race, the first time he had driven in that series. Kurt Busch placed sixth in 2014 when he competed in the race for the first time. Both Alonso and Busch won Rookie of the Year.
Even so, Patrick admits there will be challenges.
“I think it will take a little bit of adjusting,” she said. “It’s different for sure, but I don’t feel that today I’m a worse driver than I was when I drove IndyCars. I’m essentially a better driver. It will take a little bit of acclimating. We’ll cross that bridge once we get a little bit closer. I would like to get in a car before Indy.
“I definitely have like a level of fear and nervousness about it, just a little bit, because it’s been so long, but I believe I will catch on and remember quickly.”
TALLADEGA, Alabama — Sixteen years later, the sting and anger remain with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The night of one of his greatest triumphs in NASCAR — if not his greatest — remains soured by questions that all was not legit when he won the July Daytona race, the first Cup race there since his father’s fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
While Earnhardt celebrated his win that July night, Jimmy Spencer raised doubts about the legitimacy of the emotional victory.
A few days later, Earnhardt challenged those comments: “It’s really bothered me pretty bad. That’s like the biggest race of my career. That was my biggest win. Aside from the wins that I had when my father was there, that is going to be a day that I’ll always remember. For somebody to question its credibility, question my credibility, I feel like that’s a slap in my face, a slap in my father’s face and a slap in (crew chief) Tony Eury’s face.
“I never drove any harder in my life. I went out there and got the lead and I was blocking all night long.’’
Even now, Earnhardt can’t forget Spencer’s comments.
When Earnhardt sees Spencer’s diecast cars in the office of a JR Motorsports employee, Earnhardt’s thoughts return to what Spencer suggested.
“I see those diecasts, that’s the only thing that I think about,’’ Earnhardt said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. “So it bothers me today. A lot of times, myself included, you don’t think before you speak, but that was an incredible night for us in 2001 when we won that race. I just felt like even if he did feel that way, I was disappointed that he would do that and say that.
“For us to come back here the next race and win and have success over the next several years was sort of was like “Hey, it wasn’t a one-race fluke or illegal car, that’s just how good our program was at the plate tracks.’’
Earnhardt’s victory came during a three-plus season stretch of dominance by Dale Earnhardt Inc. The team won 10 of 13 restrictor-plate races between the 2001 Daytona 500 (won by DEI’s Michael Waltrip) and the 2004 Daytona 500 (won by Earnhardt).
“Of course, you know it’s Jimmy Spencer, it’s the kind of thing he does,’’ Earnhardt said. “I never really liked that too much and haven’t forgotten about. It’s hard to forget something like that.
“It was nice to keep winning and show people that that was legit. That was like for me, that’s the stuff movies are made of, to come back after you dad passes away and win that race was the greatest thing that I could imagine happening for me or anyone else, all his fans, all our family.’’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’’
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.
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.
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.
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.’’
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.’’
Give a driver not among your favorites who will be one to watch during the playoffs.
Dale Jarrett: I have to put Kurt Busch in that. He wasn’t someone until the last month that I was paying attention to, but they have seemed to have found something. Even though I still don’t put him really among the favorites to win the championship, they’ve run well enough to get high on my radar and to think with his experience, how he runs well at pretty much any type of track, that maybe they found something that other Fords haven’t been able to right now.
Steve Letarte: I think Ryan Blaney in the 21 is the sleeper pick for the playoffs. I know this is cold when I say this, but the fact is that Joey Logano missing the playoffs has increased the opportunities for Blaney and Brad Keselowski to go farther. I think it allows Penske to not distribute the effort and the manpower and divide it by three but now they get to divide it by two. I think that helps Ryan Blaney. While I don’t know if he has the firepower to go out and win in some of these rounds, but I do expect him to go past round one with just being consistent and crew chief Jeremy Bullins making good calls on top of the pit box.
Nate Ryan: Kurt Busch. He suddenly seems to have found another gear the past few weeks, and he has much to stay motivated about during the playoffs. Whether it’s his 2018 contract status, the future of crew chief Tony Gibson (who might be on his last hurrah) or the pride of proving the Daytona 500 victory wasn’t an anomaly, it’ll be easy to tap into a driving force over the final 10 races.
Dustin Long: Matt Kenseth. He’s in a Toyota, which is faster than the other manufacturers. He’s scored top-10 finishes in six of the last eight races. Don’t get hung up in that he hasn’t won yet this season. His time could be coming.
Which playoff driver is trending down for you entering the playoffs?
Dale Jarrett: I’m staying way from saying Jimmie Johnson because every time I do that he comes back and wins the next race and moves on to another round.As much as I talked about one Ford on the upswing with Kurt Busch, I think another is Ryan Blaney that is headed downward. I think the Fords, with what Brad Keselowski says, I don’t know that they’re at a disadvantage, but they’re just behind. It’s going to make it difficult for someone other than a Kevin Harvick or Kurt Busch type, and maybe Brad can work his way through there, but I think they’re going to have a difficult time of what I’ve seen recently of keeping up and accumulating enough points to move anywhere past two rounds.
Steve Letarte: Brad Keselowski has been trending a little down in playoff performance. I think he’s still a lock to make it past round one, but I’m waiting to see how much effort was being put into Joey Logano’s team to make the playoffs. I think that it definitely hurt the No. 2 in the last two or three weeks. I’m waiting to see if there is an instant uptick. I believe there will be, so I don’t have concern, but so far what I’ve seen on the race track I’d have to say Brad Keselowski is trending down.
Nate Ryan: Jamie McMurray. He still is enjoying one of the best and most consistent seasons of his career, but he seems slightly off the pace of teammate Kyle Larson and less of a weekly top-five threat as he was early in the season. The results were worthy of a playoff berth but might not be enough to reach the second round.
Dustin Long: Jimmie Johnson. The stretch just before the playoffs typically isn’t his best part of the season. He’s following form again this year. Even so, I just don’t see him as one of the four racing for the championship in Miami even though there are many good tracks for him. I expect him to be better in the playoffs than what he’s run lately, but I don’t know if he goes beyond the second round.
NASCAR has seen a decline in debris cautions this summer. After NASCAR called cautions too quickly in some cases at Richmond, how likely is it that officials will be more deliberate in calling cautions in the playoffs and how could that impact races and strategy?
Dale Jarrett: As much as competitors want it to be in their hands and we want it to be that, NASCAR can’t put them in a bad situation if there is a possibility of debris. The other night, that last caution there, there was nothing up there, nobody was going to get up in that and create a situation. That was just an overreaction. I would not go off of that as being the norm as to what’s going to happen here.
Steve Letarte: I think NASCAR will be more deliberate, and I think NASCAR must be more deliberate. The playoffs are high pressure for everyone involved. Drivers, crew chiefs, pit crews, sanctioning body, officials, broadcast partners and myself in the booth should and must feel the pressure of the playoffs to deliver the fan the experience they deserve. NASCAR has created a format where the champion will be crowned over a 10-week stretch. I love the format, but you must deliver top-notch performance within that format no matter what part of the NASCAR family you are a part of.
Nate Ryan: With debris yellows still at a 17-year low through 26 races, NASCAR will be more committed to letting races naturally unfold. Crew chiefs will be calling strategy accordingly.
Dustin Long: There still will be cautions, so how strong a car is on a restart will still be priority. Short pitting, though, could come into play at some tracks during long green-flag runs and that could alter who wins and advances in the playoffs.
Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte join Krista Voda on NASCAR America from 5-6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN.