CONCORD, N.C. — Tonight’s NASCAR Monster Energy All-Star Race has attracted a handful of Monster Energy sponsored athlete and other celebrities for the night’s festivities.
Among the Monster back athletes is Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza, who is serving as the Grand Marshal for the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Joining him are:
Motorcross racer and former NASCAR driver Ricky Carmichael, who will serve as honorary pace car driver.
World champion bull rider J.B. Mauney, serving as honorary starter.
Trophy truck truck racer B.J. Baldwin, serving as honorary Grand Marshal Truck driver.
Also taking in the 32nd All-Star Race are Washington Redskins running back DeAngelo Williams and Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Rudolph is a guest of Chip Ganassi Racing and the No. 42 team, which is sponsored by Minnesota-based Target.
While this weekend is Rudolph’s first Cup event, the Cincinnati-native is no stranger to NASCAR. Years before Cup competed there, Rudolph attended Xfinity Series races at Kentucky Speedway.
“It’s been awesome, we started yesterday over at the Ganassi shop and got to see the behind the scenes stuff things an outsider, or a fan from a distance, has no idea (about),” Rudolph told reporters Saturday in the No. 42 team’s hauler. “As a football player, there’s parallel’s. A lot of people think we just go practice for a couple hours a day and play on Sundays and that’s it. You don’t really know all the details and the things that are involved with the weekly preparation. We were able to learn about that yesterday and get a feel for everything that goes into putting the car on track on Sunday. That was a lot of fun, then we came over here and watched qualifying. Got to see Kyle sit on the pole and were super fired up for that, first NASCAR (Cup) race and we ended up in Victory Lane. Can’t complain with that.”
Rudolph, who has younger cousins that compete in Late Model cars on dirt tracks, last year was part of the “Kyle Goes Pro” video series for his Pro Bowl campaign. The series followed Rudolph as he stepped into the shoes of athletes with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.
Part of Rudolph’s NASCAR experience was visiting the NASCAR Hall of Fame. What was his favorite part?
“Definitely not the simulator,” Rudolph said. “Out of our group I came in last and my wife came in second. Still haven’t heard the end of that one.”
For the most part, NASCAR and the NFL won’t butt heads in the same cities too much when it comes to the 10 NASCAR Cup playoff weekends this year.
The NFL released its 2017 regular season schedule Thursday night, and with a few exceptions, racetracks in or near NFL teams are fairly in the clear when it comes to going head-to-head against their gridiron counterparts.
The most notable matchup will come on Sunday, November 5, a date Texas Motor Speedway boss Eddie Gossage is probably cursing about now.
While TMS’s NASCAR race begins at 2 p.m. ET that day, about 2 ½ hours and 30 miles down the road in Arlington, Texas, America’s Team – the Dallas Cowboys – will play host to the Kansas City Chiefs.
One other conflict of note – more so because of sentimental reasons – is September 24, when the New England Patriots host the Houston Texans, while New Hampshire Motor Speedway will host its last fall race (its race date is being moved to Las Vegas starting next season).
There’s also October 1, when Dover International Speedway hosts the third race of the playoffs. And while the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins are on the road, the Baltimore Ravens have a big game against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.
Here’s how NASCAR stacks up against the NFL during the 10-week NASCAR Cup playoffs:
Sept. 17 — Playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway – no conflict as Chicago Bears play at Tampa Bay.
Sept. 24 — New Hampshire Motor Speedway – moderate conflict – New England Patriots host the Houston Texans about 110 miles away. However, Pats fans who are also NASCAR fans may decide to skip the game to attend what will be the last fall race at NHMS for sentimental reasons.
Oct. 1 — Dover International Speedway – minor conflict – Baltimore Ravens host the Pittsburgh Steelers 90 miles away. However, other nearby teams play on the road: Philadelphia Eagles play at Los Angeles Chargers and the Washington Redskins play at the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 2 (Monday Night Football).
Oct. 8 — Charlotte Motor Speedway – no conflict – Carolina Panthers play at Detroit Lions
Oct. 15 — Talladega Superspeedway – minor conflict – Atlanta Falcons host the Miami Dolphins, but that’s about 110 miles and two hours away.
Oct. 22 — Kansas Speedway – no conflict – Kansas City Chiefs play at Oakland Raiders on October 19 (Thursday Night Football).
Oct. 29 — Martinsville Speedway – no conflict – (Carolina Panthers are at New York Jets, but Washington Redskins host Dallas Cowboys four hours and nearly 300 miles away).
Nov. 5 — Texas Motor Speedway – MAJOR conflict – NASCAR race starts at 2 p.m. ET, while Dallas Cowboys host the Kansas City Chiefs at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, at 4:30 p.m. ET (and 30 miles from TMS).
Nov. 12 — Phoenix Raceway – no conflict – the Phoenix Cardinals host the Seattle Seahawks, but that game will be held on November 9 (Thursday Night Football).
Nov. 19 — Homestead Miami Speedway – no conflict – the Dolphins enjoy a bye week (don’t be surprised if several players wind up at the NASCAR race).
The June 11 NASCAR Cup race at Pocono Raceway just became quite a bit awkward for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The diehard fan of the NFL’s Washington Redskins will be representing the enemy … Philadelphia Eagles … with a special “All Pro Teachers” scheme on his No. 88 Chevrolet for the Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400.
“I hope that my Redskin pals, all the fans, the fandom that I’m a part of, I hope you don’t disown me,” Earnhardt continued. “HTTR. Hail to the Redskins. … I know it probably shocked a few of my fellow Redskins fans. It seems like it made some of the Eagles folks happy. Interesting day. … I had to explain myself, how a Redskins fan is going to drive an Eagles car.”
On the football field and in business, former NFL star Shawne Merriman has had an astute eye for talent and opportunity.
So it’s not surprising that Merriman joined forces with NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver Jesse Iwuji.
A chance meeting with Iwuji at a recent fashion show in Los Angeles promoting Merriman’s “Lights Out” clothing line led Merriman to becoming Iwuji’s car owner.
“Talk about unexpected, right?” Merriman, a three-time NFL Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, told NBC Sports.
“I didn’t realize Shawne was going to be there,” Iwuji told NBC Sports. “I had never met him before, but I thought this would be a cool opportunity to introduce myself to him, tell him what I’m doing and see if there’s any interest in him to come on board.
“He told me to have a meeting the next week.”
Iwuji made the 10-hour round trip to Los Angeles to meet with Merriman.
“He saw how serious I was,” Iwuji said.
His drive and passion on and off the racetrack are evident. While Iwuji’s business proposal to Merriman was unique, it was his personality that sold Merriman.
“Jesse’s focused, just talking about ‘Lights Out,’ a future with him and what he has going on,” Merriman said. “At that point, I was so intrigued by his hunger, being focused. It gets me excited when other people get excited about being part of ‘Lights Out’ and the stuff we’re doing.”
The new driver-owner pairing kicks off with Sunday’s K&N Pro Series East opener at New Smyrna Speedway.
“Jesse is growing his notoriety and who he is in NASCAR,” Merriman said. “I love to start with people from the ground up. It’s so easy to come in and get a guy who’s already established and be a part of something, that’s easy. I like to be a part of the building stages, and that’s what Jesse is right now. He’s a tremendous talent coming up in NASCAR and I’m real happy to be part of it.”
After New Smyrna, Iwuji prepares for his second full 14-race season in K&N West. As a rookie in 2016, he finished 10th in the series, with his best race result a 10th-place effort.
It’s not hard to understand why Merriman and Iwuji bonded so quickly. They’re both former football players: Merriman was a linebacker at the University of Maryland and then eight years in the NFL; Iwuji played cornerback and ran track at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Both also have a military lineage of sorts. Iwuji is an active-duty lieutenant in the Navy and serves as an administrator at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterrey, California.
Merriman spent considerable time visiting military bases around San Diego during his five-plus years with the NFL’s Chargers.
The son of Nigerian parents who immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s, the 29-year-old Iwuji is a native of Carrollton, Texas, a Dallas suburb.
While he’s been a lifelong motorsports fan, Iwuji didn’t get into active NASCAR competition until 2014.
“I did drag racing and road course racing for four years before I decided to pursue a racing career,” he said. “NASCAR was the first door that opened for me for that and I decided to jump on board, and I’ve never looked back.”
This will be Iwuji’s second season with Patriot Motorsports Group, an Eagle, Idaho firm owned by John Wood. The team fields cars for as many as nine different drivers over the course of a season.
But Iwuji plans to become principal owner of the team next year. His enlistment in the Navy, which began in 2010, ends in May, when he’ll transition to the Naval Reserves. Doing so will allow him even more time to pursue his racing dreams.
“I basically don’t have a life outside of racing and the Navy,” Iwuji laughed. “My normal Navy job, I’m at work from 8 to 4 p.m., and then I spend three hours at home on my racing simulator to keep myself sharp racing, and then I spend another 4-5 hours every night working on marketing and promoting myself and my team.”
The Navy may be in Iwuji’s future as a potential sponsor, as well.
“I am currently working it, trying my best to put it all together and get the Navy on board,” Iwuji said. “NASCAR has never had an active-duty armed forces member ever compete in NASCAR and I know the Navy used to be a sponsor of a car in NASCAR.
“So why not come back in, use what I’m doing as a recruiting tool and outreach tool for the Navy and become a sponsor? That will help propel me while also helping the Navy bring in recruits and promote the Navy in a positive way.”
Some branches of the military have scaled back sponsorship of sports, particularly motorsports, due to Congressional pressure. Example: the National Guard pulled its sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the 2015 season.
Still, the Air Force remains an associate sponsor of Richard Petty Motorsports, and also will serve as primary sponsor of the No. 43 Ford Fusion for two races this season.
Iwuji and Merriman also like the idea of using their combined racing and business platform to expand NASCAR’s diversity reach.
“We’re all about giving opportunities to new types of people who never would have had the opportunity to be in this sport and in NASCAR and to be able to do some of the great things that a few are able to do in this sport,” Iwuji said.
Added Merriman, “Bringing diversity into any sport is really going to open up the eyes of people who wouldn’t necessarily have any other direct involvement with it.
“Imagine a 12-year-old Shawne Merriman gets a chance to go to a NASCAR race and sees the excitement of what goes on there. Shawne Merriman could have been a NASCAR driver if he hadn’t ended up being a football player.”
Iwuji hopes to start climbing the NASCAR ladder in the next year or two.
“I know I have a long way to go since I haven’t been racing my whole life,” Iwuji said.“I’m still trying to catch up to all the guys that have been racing since they were five years old.
“But I have had some good runs, some good races and I’ve shown myself that I have the ability, I just need more seat time to hone my skills and get better and fine-tune some things so that I’ll eventually get there.
“I’m patient enough to make it happen and do see myself one day getting to where I want to be.”
Merriman, 32, is a long-time racing fan. He’s friends with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and in 2008 was grand marshal for the NASCAR Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in California. If things go the way Iwuji hopes, Merriman will be right alongside on the climb up the NASCAR ladder.
“No question about it,” Merriman said. “It’s what I call the groundwork of getting from where you are to where you want to go because there’s no easy path there. He has great knowledge about cars and what he’s doing.
“It’s like watching a football film about how to get a sack, to get to the quarterback. You line up, get to a three-point stance and then look everything on both sides of the ball. You get very detailed about your passion and what you love doing. If you talk to Jesse about the same thing, he’ll break down everything from every tire, axle to piece of machinery. He gets deep with it.”
It’s all about passion, motivation and drive – both on and off the race track, says Iwuji.
“I’m just working hard, grinding every single day,” he said. “Eventually, I’ll get to where I want to be. I just have to keep my head down and keep pushing.”
The previous four times New England won a Super Bowl, Joe Gibbs Racing went on to win the Cup title in that year three times: Tony Stewart in 2002 and 2005 and Kyle Busch in 2015. The only other year New England won the Super Bowl crown (2004), Roush Fenway Racing won the Cup title with Kurt Busch.
Coincidence or not?
It’s something to think about while counting down the days to the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.