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Former NFL star Shawne Merriman, left, and driver Jesse Iwuji have teamed up to this seasons K&N Pro Series West campaign.
Photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji

Ex-NFL star Shawne Merriman, racer Jesse Iwuji team up in NASCAR K&N effort

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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.

Shawne Merriman
Shawne Merriman

“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.

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Photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji Racing

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.”

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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.

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Jesse Iwuji — photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji Racing

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.”

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New England Super Bowl win bad sign for Hendrick Motorsports?

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
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Take it how you want. Maybe there’s a connection. Then again, maybe it’s just pure coincidence and doesn’t mean a thing.

Since 2000, the New England Patriots have won the most Super Bowls in the NFL at five. Since 2000, Hendrick Motorsports has won the most Cup titles at eight.

But Hendrick Motorsports has never won a Cup title in the same year that New England won the Super Bowl.

So, New England’s come-from-behind 34-28 overtime victory against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night in Super Bowl LI might be a good sign for the rest of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Especially Joe Gibbs Racing.

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.

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Atlanta, New Hampshire Motor Speedway enter Super Bowl wager

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A lot will be at stake next Sunday – honor, bragging rights and free NASCAR tickets.

When the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots face off in Houston for Super Bowl 51, they won’t just be representing their cities and fans.

Thanks to a friendly wager, they’ll also be representing their closest NASCAR tracks, Atlanta Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Both facilities are owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc.

AMS is located in Hampton, Georgia, about 50 minutes south of where the Falcons have played at the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta. NHMS is in Loudon, New Hampshire, 107 miles north of Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots play in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

David McGrath, NHMS’ executive vice president and general manager and Ed Clark, Atlanta’s president and general manager, have agreed to a wager that would impact the next Cup Series victory lane celebration at either track and give a group of fans tickets to other’s next race.

Here are the stakes of the wager, which will be decided beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET next Sunday on Fox.

If the Falcons win:

  • Atlanta Falcons flag to be hung outside New Hampshire Motor Speedway office building the following two days and during the New Hampshire 301 NASCAR race week July 10-16.
  • McGrath will present Clark and the March 5 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 race winner with New England lobster in Victory Lane while wearing a Falcons jersey.
  • Four Falcons and Atlanta Motor Speedway fans will win premium tickets to the July 16 New Hampshire 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway ($500 value).

If the Patriots win:

  • New England Patriots flag will be hung outside Atlanta Motor Speedway office building the following two days and during the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 NASCAR race week Feb. 27-March 5.
  • Ed Clark will present David McGrath and the July 16 New Hampshire 301 race winner with Georgia peaches in Victory Lane while wearing a Patriots jersey.
  • Four Patriots and New Hampshire Motor Speedway fans will win premium tickets to the March 5 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway ($400 value).

The trash talking has already commenced between the two tracks and the executives.

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Jacksonville Jaguar named pace car driver for July Daytona race

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 25: #50 Telvin Smith #50 of Jacksonville Jaguars scores a touchdown in the second quarter on an interception in the second quarter during the NFL game between Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills at Wembley Stadium on October 25, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
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Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith will serve as the honorary pace car driver for the 58th annual Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola NASCAR Sprint Cup race July 2 at Daytona International Speedway.

The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Smith played at Florida State before being selected by the Jaguars in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He started all 14 games he played in 2015 for the Jaguars. Smith owns the NFL’s longest streak of 16 consecutive games with at least six tackles per game.

“I’m looking forward to this great experience,” Smith said in a statement from the track. “I’ve never been to a NASCAR event before, so the opportunity to attend my first race, as well as drive the pace car, will make for an unforgettable evening.”

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is buzzing about the Charlotte Hornets’ playoff run

during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 16, 2016 in Bristol, Tennessee.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. was contemplating the impact of a Super Bowl win on Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s profile when his mind suddenly turned to another Charlotte franchise.

“If (Newton) wins in the Super Bowl, without a doubt, it’d be one of the biggest things in this city in a long, long time,” Earnhardt said. “So … don’t forget about the Hornets! We’ve got some good Hornets. Don’t forget about the Hornets.”

NASCAR’s 13-time most popular driver never does.

When Game 2 of the Hornets’ first-round playoff series with the Miami Heat begins tonight, it’s a certainty Earnhardt will be paying rapt attention.

His Twitter timeline is filled with updates about Charlotte’s NBA franchise, and he spent much of a media availability last week offering an unprompted and detailed analysis of the team’s prospects of winning its first playoff game in 14 years.

“The Heat lost a lot of good guys,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said, referring to a team without star Chris Bosh. “I like our team if we can be healthy and stay healthy. If Marvin (Williams) can just keep playing and shooting 3s, it should be a lot of fun to watch them compete.

“They played well enough this year to get into a series they legitimately have a shot at winning, instead of being the eighth seed and getting swept. They haven’t won a playoff game since ’01-02, so it’d be great for them to be in the series and win it. It would give them a lot of excitement about the future, not just the rest of the playoffs but next year.”

Earnhardt, who frequently attends games at Time Warner Cable Arena, has been complimentary of the team’s chemistry under third-year coach Steve Clifford but worries about maintaining its core by keeping players such as impending free agent wingman Nicolas Batum.

“I know all those guys really like playing for Clifford,” Earnhardt said. “I hope they stick around. Batum, he’s real important. You don’t hear much about contract talks. You don’t hear much about his interest in staying with the city.

“But if they can keep the guys they’ve got, I love to watch them play. We don’t have to have a big guy, five-star player. I like the group we’ve got. They have a lot of fun playing together. And they’re fun to watch.”

Earnhardt, isn’t the only NASCAR driver with a strong affinity for the Hornets. Ty Dillon’s wife, Haley, is a member of The Honey Bees, the Hornets’ dance team, making the Richard Childress Racing driver a frequent attendee at games.