Terry Labonte

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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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Long: Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch is what NASCAR needs

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For as much as Kyle Busch’s sweep of the Truck, Xfinity and Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway turned some fans off, it was what NASCAR needed.

Even better, Busch understood.

After he won Saturday night’s Cup race, Busch goaded booing fans by putting his fingers to his ears, prompting more catcalls.

He walked to the back of his car and raised three fingers — for his three wins last week — as the boos (and cheers) grew louder.

And he smiled, a winner’s grin but also one of somebody who proved the doubters wrong. Again.

Part superstar, part showman.

The good guy to his fans, Busch also can be cast as the villain to the rest of the fanbase. He’s accepted that role, embraced it and learned how to egg on the haters in the stands and the trolls on social media. 

Sports is about us against them. While fans have their favorite drivers and teams, there remains the need to root against someone or some team. Without that distinction, sports would be as anticlimactic as a youth game — pick the sport: baseball, football, basketball, etc. — where no score is kept. That’s called recess.

Without Kyle Busch, who would make sane people insane and cause alcohol-fueled fans to do things they tell their children never to do? The new drivers haven’t been around long enough to anger the fan base. Maybe Kurt Busch could fill the role because anyone with the name Busch is more inclined to be booed. There are other drivers who have their detractors but not as much as Kyle Busch based on the visceral reaction he gets at many tracks.

“The best of the best that have won here have been booed … for a long, long time,’’ Busch said after his second Cup win of the season. “So I’m fine with that.’’

Busch follows a history of drivers that fans loathed (and some loved). Before Busch, it was Tony Stewart. He inherited the mantle after Dale Earnhardt, who took it from Darrell Waltrip and so on.

Earnhardt made the image of a villain into a cottage industry. For every boo and middle finger he received, he just smirked and kept on winning, infuriating his haters and thrilling his fans.

When Earnhardt was introduced before races, many fans didn’t sit. They stood to cheer or show how much they despised the seven-time champion.

Rarely was the anger as intense as the 1999 Bristol night race when Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte out of the lead on the final lap. Earnhardt said he “meant to rattle his cage.’’ Didn’t matter. Boos cascaded down the packed stands. Several minutes later, the track replayed the radio broadcast of the final laps on the P.A. system and when it came to the moment Earnhardt turned Labonte, a heavy chorus of boos reverberated throughout the stands from fans not yet ready to leave.

At 32 years old, Busch can grow more into such a role for years to come. And win more than his one championship.

Having not yet reached his prime, Busch is likely to keep winning — Saturday was his 40th Cup victory to tie Mark Martin for 17th on the all-time wins list. At his current rate, Busch will climb into the top 10 wins list before he retires. Busch can further irritate fans by also winning Truck and Xfinity races.

Us against them.

Yes, Busch will make fans cheer and boo for years to come.

“I’m sure they’re still booing, whining and crying all the way home tonight,’’ Busch said well after his win Saturday night. “They’re driving home mad, so people be careful.

“But, you know, my people get to go home safe and secure and slow and steady and patient because they get to celebrate.’’

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Flashback: 1997 Pepsi 400 at Daytona when John Andretti won for Cale Yarborough

Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images
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Twenty years ago, Jeff Gordon won his first Daytona 500.

You knew that already. Or you’ve been reminded recently thanks to regular airings of the abridged broadcast on Fox Sports 1 or the network’s (really good) documentary about the race.

John Andretti, driving Cale Yarborough’s No. 98 Ford,  was Yarborough’s first and only NASCAR Cup Series victory as a car owner. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

However, do you remember what happened 20 years ago this week?

An Andretti won at Daytona.

Thirty years after Mario Andretti won his only Daytona 500, his nephew John Andretti put his name in the history books by winning the 1997 Firecr … I mean, the Pepsi … wait, the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola.

You know what I mean.

On July 5, 1997, the 34-year-old Andretti won his first Cup race, what was then the Pepsi 400.

That weekend Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were exterminating  space bugs in theaters in Men in Black. In music, the top song was “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy … I mean P. Diddy. No, it’s Sean Combs. Yeah, that’s it.

You know what I mean.

When ESPN began its broadcast of the race, Andretti was third on the grid. He was next to Gordon and behind the Richard Childress Racing front row of Mike Skinner and Dale Earnhardt. The latter was in the midst of his first winless season since 1981.

To get the audience up to speed, ESPN featured a series of four musical montages to recap the season to date.

The songs of choice are in included in the below Spotify playlist.

In none of the storylines set up by those montages was Andretti’s name mentioned.

He drove the No. 98 RCA Ford owned by Cale Yarborough, who himself won at Daytona nine times in his racing career. Andretti was in his fourth full year of Cup racing and was three years removed from being the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coke 600 in the same day.

As the field came to the green, Andretti was 27th in the points and had only one top-10 finish through 15 races, a fourth-place finish at Talladega.

By Lap 3, Andretti was in the lead after having led only 20 laps the whole season – 19 at Talladega and one at Pocono.

On Lap 12, announcer Bob Jenkins made first mention of Andretti seeking his first Cup win. The son of Mario Andretti’s twin brother, Aldo, John Andretti made his first NASCAR start in October 1993 at North Wilkesboro Speedway driving for Tex Powell.

By July 1997, the cousin to Michael Andretti had only earned four top fives in 109 starts.

Here’s an observation on restrictor-plate racing in the mid-1990s – it was better.

This isn’t intended to be a typical “the racing then was better” statement.

In the years since tandem drafting was banned, restrictor-plate racing has largely become a large pack of cars where moves must be cherry picked at the right time and nothing can change for laps on end.

But in 1997, 10 years into the plate era, the field wasn’t bunched together, almost held against its will. While still close in proximity, drivers had room to maneuver in a slightly strung out snake, with no clearly defined lines. A driver could make something happen more easily without the risk of starting the “Big One.”

Instead of keeping your eyes on the screen waiting for chaos to break out, you were left waiting to see who made a push toward the front.

And when something bad did happen, chances were half the field wasn’t taken out … probably.

This was the case on Lap 33, when Jimmy Spencer got turned on the backstretch and only Chad Little and Mike Skinner were caught in it.

It resulted in the first pit stops of the day and a near scare for Andretti as he left the pits and Gordon nearly took him out at the pit exit.

He restarted second behind Bill Elliott and had the lead back by the time the field got to Turn 4.

Andretti’s previous career best for laps led was 41 in the 1995 Southern 500. In this race, he led 80 of the first 89 laps.

All the videos in the post are from a YouTube video that is the raw satellite feed from the ESPN broadcast, which means you don’t see the commercials.

During a commercial break with 95 laps to go, pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch radioed to the booth the following as Andretti led Ward Burton and Ken Schrader:

“Hey guys, I don’t know if you can get a shot of him, but Cale Yarborough is on top of the RCA truck in the garage and he’s so excited. He’s taking on the radio, he’s driving the race car. He’s cracking the guys up in the pit. He’s saying, ‘John, John, go help the 3, help that 4, help that 3, help that 4.’ They’re just dying. They said he’s jumping up and down on top of the truck.”

ESPN never got a shot of him.

Yarborough had reason to be excited. A 83-time Cup winner as a driver, Yarborough was a car owner from 1987 – when he drove for himself – to 1999. He fielded cars for Dale Jarrett, Dick Trickle, Derrike Cope and Jeremy Mayfield. Andretti replaced Mayfield with eight races left in the 1996 season.

In 371 races, Andretti’s win would be the only visit to victory lane for Yarborough as an owner.

“And I was just as happy walking in there as I was when I was driving in there,” Yarborough said.

With 43 laps to go, Andretti pulled off a maneuver that would be declared illegal in today’s NASCAR. Going down the backstretch, Andretti dove his No. 98 Ford down below the dotted white line to get by Rusty Wallace into fifth.

This was similar to the move Gordon made on Bill Elliott six months earlier on the frontstretch that eventually led to him winning the Daytona 500.

Speaking of Gordon.

The 1995 Cup champion was on his way to his second title that season. He would do it on the back of 10 wins, which matched his total from 1996. From 1995-97, the “Rainbow Warriors” won 27 times and they would add a modern record 13 in 1998.

By July 1997, many in the grandstands were sick of it.

So, when Gordon smacked the backstretch wall on Lap 125, they let their pleasure be known as the No. 24 limped to pits.

If you want to party like it’s 1997, you have my permission to crank this up while you sip a cold Pepsi or a Coca-Cola depending on your sponsor obligations.

When the race went green with 30 to go, Andretti was second. A lap later he had to take the lapped cars of Bill Elliott and Spencer three-wide to make a clear path to Mark Martin.

Now Andretti was experiencing déjà vu. Earlier in the year, Andretti finished fourth to Martin in the caution free Winston 500 at Talladega, a race he had the pole for and led 19 laps of early on. That day, no one could get out of line to take a shot at Martin in the closing laps.

“I got behind Mark and thought, ‘Not like Talladega again,’” Andretti said later, according to the Associated Press. “Luckily for me Bill Elliott pushed me through. I guess I owe Bill a check for this.”

The drafting help from Elliott came on Lap 137 after coordination between the two team’s spotters.

By the time there was 13 laps to go, The Intimidator was stalking his prey in the form of Andretti. Earnhardt was running in second, followed by Dale Jarrett and Martin.

The end of the race was heating up when the final caution of the race waved for a five-car crash in Turns 1 and 2 with four to go.

As the field raced back to the flag – which was still a thing at this point – ESPN cameras caught the No. 98 crew mildly celebrating, thinking the race was over.

They were wrong.

The wreck was cleaned in time for a final lap, with the green and white flag being displayed together.

When they waved, Andretti had a rear-view mirror full of a certain black car.

As Andretti celebrated his win, Ward Burton was put on a stretcher. He was taken to the hospital to be tested for a concussion, but results were negative.

Also negative were driver reactions to how the race ended.

“That wasn’t a shootout,” Earnhardt said. “That was a slugfest, a wreckfest. They know better than to do that.”

Said Kyle Petty, “What they just had is a recipe for somebody getting hurt real bad. NASCAR got what they wanted, the fans didn’t get anything because they saw some of their favorites get taken out on the last lap. And the same guy that was leading the race before the restart still won. Why didn’t we just end it under caution?”

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO: John Andretti

When it came to NASCAR, Andretti wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

He won once more in 393 Cup starts. Two years later, while in his second stint in the No. 43 for Petty Enterprises, Andretti found victory lane at Martinsville Speedway after leading only the final four laps.

His last full-time season came in 2002.

From 2003-10 Andretti competed sporadically in Cup while competing in one full Xfinity campaign in 2006.

His final NASCAR start came in the 2010 Daytona 500, where he finished 38th for Front Row Motorsports after a crash.

From 2007-11, he made 10 starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The final four, which included three attempts at the Indianapolis 500, were in a No. 43 Honda co-owned by Andretti Autosport and Richard Petty Motorsports.

Andretti returned to the spotlight earlier this year at the age of 54 with the news that had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.

On May 28, every car in both the Indy 500 and Coke 600 displayed decals supporting Andretti and advocating for people to get colonoscopies.

This is the third in an occasional series looking back at classic NASCAR races (at least those that are on YouTube).

Previously

Dale Earnhardt’s final Martinsville win in 1995

Bill Elliott’s 1985 Talladega win

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Talladega is Sweet Home Alabama for track chairman Grant Lynch

All photos courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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Grant Lynch has served as chairman of Talladega Superspeedway since 1994, the third-longest tenured track operator in NASCAR.

Yet in all that time, he has never found his way to victory lane after a race.

“I don’t have to be the guy that gives out accolades,” Lynch said. “I’m comfortable not being there, and I have other people that know how to do that.

“Also, I want the teams to spend time with the sponsors in Victory Lane because they’re the ones that pay a lot of money to put on these races. It’s just something I do.”

While winning drivers and teams are celebrating, Lynch is usually found directing operations to get race fans on their way out of the track as quickly as possible.

“Bill France Jr. once told me, ‘It’s your job to get these people out of here so they’ll come back.’ I believe Bill France Jr.,” Lynch said.

It’s one of many valuable lessons Lynch learned from France, his former boss. With France’s mentoring and leadership, Lynch has turned Talladega into a must-see track on any race fan’s bucket list.

NASCAR RETURNS TO ‘DEGA THIS WEEKEND

For the 47th time in his tenure, Lynch throws open the gates and doors to his second home, welcoming tens of thousands of fans to this weekend’s racing action for the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series.

During his time as head of Talladega, Lynch has elevated the fan experience with enhancements such as unlimited free camping, alcohol-free campgrounds (even though Talladega is still known for its parties) and Sunday morning church services.

Lynch is the third-longest serving track operator in NASCAR behind Martinsville Speedway’s Clay Campbell (assumed his role in 1988) and Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Ed Clark (1992) – who are also among his best friends.

But Lynch is more than just a track operator. For several years, he split that role with a role as a high-level operative for parent company International Speedway Corporation, which included overseeing the development of both Kansas and Chicagoland speedways.

He also flew to Washington State 70 times within a two-year period to seek legislative support to build a new racetrack in the Pacific Northwest.

“I’m not known for doing that because y’all see me two times a year at the races,” Lynch said. “Most people assume I’ve been here all the time, but I haven’t been here as long as people would think.”

IT ALL BEGAN BY DRIVING A SHOW CAR

Lynch has had a long career in motorsports. He began as a show car driver for RJ Reynolds, rising to that company’s Senior Manager of Operations and Public Relations during its tenure as NASCAR’s primary sponsor, before moving to Talladega in 1993 as general manager.

He learned his duties at the track from – and succeeded – a most familiar name in the sport: NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton, who was Talladega Superspeedway’s president before handing the reins to Lynch.

“Mike brought me into the fold very quickly and said, ‘Here’s the deal: I’m going to run May (1993), and you follow me around. And then you’re going to run July (1993) and I’ll see how you do. And if you do good, then I’ll plan to get out of your way.’

“He mentored me and showed me what to do and then he got out of my way. Once I took over, the sport was just blowing up and we grabbed a hold of it, rode it as hard as anybody did and built the place to what we built it to.”

A NEW ERA FOR NASCAR — AND TALLADEGA

Like pretty much every other NASCAR track today, Talladega has gone through an evolution due to the downturn in the economy, less demand for tickets and fewer fans attending races.

Lynch remains optimistic that things are turning around for both his track and the sport.

“Of course, we’re in a little downturn now and now we’re refining it,” he said. “We’re taking the seats that used to be uncomfortable, the little 18-inch chair back seats – I know I can’t fit into an 18-inch seat – and now they’re 22 inches wide in the towers and 21 inches wide elsewhere.

“We’ve spent money wisely here and continue to do things for the fans to tell them we don’t just want you here for the races, we want you here for the concerts, for the Big One on the Boulevard party, and we want you to have a good time.”

Even though he’s been at Talladega for nearly a quarter century, Lynch credits his development as an administrator to the late Bill France Jr. and ISC chairwoman Lesa France Kennedy, who both hired him.

Lynch with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, who still holds the NASCAR speed record, set at Talladega nearly 30 years ago.

At the time, ISC only owned only Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and half of Watkins Glen. Since then, with Lynch at the helm of much of its development, ISC has grown to own 12 tracks from Watkins Glen in New York to Auto Club Speedway in California.

“To have had the attention that I got from Bill France Jr. when I was learning how to run this place, it’s hard for people to understand in the fast-paced environment we have today, how many phone calls I got from Bill saying ‘What are you doing about so-and-so?’” Lynch said. “I became a much better track operator because of the attention Bill and Lesa gave me as I was coming up.”

ALABAMA HAS BEEN A GREAT HOME

Even though he grew up in North Carolina, it’s been Sweet Home Alabama for Lynch and his family for nearly 25 years.

“It’s a place I love,” he said. “The state of Alabama, when we moved here, I’m a big outdoorsman, and it offers so much in natural resources throughout the state to experience. Plus, my girls went through school here, then both went to college at Auburn and both are now in Birmingham, so that anchors us down to the area as well. It’s our home.”

Lynch is active in the community, serving on a various board of directors, and is involved in a number of charitable endeavors, including the Alabama Institute for the Blind and Deaf.

Sitting on a site of more than 400 acres, Talladega’s overall footprint is larger than that of sister track in Daytona. Its infield is so large that some have joked you could fit a small third-world country in it.

Or, as Lynch likes to say – especially since he’s deep in football country: “We can put every SEC football stadium inside Talladega … it’ll hold all 14 stadiums. Now that’s big!”

Lynch and Kurt Busch in 2010

But like Dale Earnhardt Jr.Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, the checkered flag is slowly coming into view as Lynch eyes his own eventual retirement.

“I’m in my early 60s and I don’t want to work forever, but at the same time, people are living a lot longer,” he said. “I plan on working some more years. We’re obviously going to be going through something with Dale Jr. retiring, which is another challenge we’ll face going forward as a speedway, and I’d hate to just bail on something like that coming down the pike.

“I want to continue to work. I don’t know if I want to work 10 more years, but I’m probably going to work more than one or two and then see when it’s time for me to leave.

“At some point, everybody is going to ride off into the sunset and I hope to be smart about making that decision and stay long enough that I don’t want to be un-useful or wear out my welcome, either.”

WHAT WILL NASCAR AND TALLADEGA DO WITHOUT DALE JR?

This will be a rather unique weekend at ‘Dega, as it will be Earnhardt’s next-to-last scheduled race at his most successful racetrack (six wins). While Lynch admits he’ll miss Junior after he retires from racing, he’s bullish on NASCAR’s next generation.

“The greatest thing we have going for us is the names we have coming up right now and how good these young people are,” Lynch said. “You see what an Erik Jones and Chase Elliott and others are doing right now.

“The teams are very strong right now, the finances are working for everybody right now, the sport is strong, we’re not what we were but we’re still very important in the motorsports world in the United States without a doubt. I think we’re going to have a time where we’re going to find some new fans that are going to attach to some new drivers and go on.

“I’m positive on the fact that we don’t need to quit what we’re doing here at Talladega because it’s generating good interest with the race fans, we’re beating most of our peers in a lot of the things we sell, and I think we have a bright future here just because of what we can do here that other people can’t.”

Come Saturday and Sunday, Lynch won’t be in victory lane once again. But that’s the way he likes it. It’s not about him, it’s about the drivers and the fans – and that’s the way he wants it to continue.

“I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve gotten to do,” he said. “I don’t know what I would trade it for. I’ve gotten to see a lot of places and go to a lot of places and meet a lot of people and worked with a lot of great people at the track and have been involved with some of the greatest fans in the world, so that’s a pretty blessed life.”

TALLADEGA — HOME OF SPEED AND RECORDS

Talladega Superspeedway has seen a number of NASCAR records set there, most during Grant Lynch’s tenure.

Here’s some of ‘Dega’s most notable racing achievements:

* All-Time qualifying speed record: 212.809 mph – Bill Elliott (1987).

* Elliott also holds the record for most poles at TSS (8).

* All-Time race speed record at TSS: 188.354 mph – Mark Martin (1997, which was also the first caution-free race ever contested there).

* Closest NASCAR Cup series finish: 2011 – Jimmie Johnson over Clint Bowyer (.002 seconds).

* Closest NASCAR Xfinity Series finish: .1999 – Terry Labonte over Joe Nemechek (.002 seconds)

* Closest NASCAR Camping World Truck Series finish: 2010 – Kyle Busch over Aric Almirola (.002 seconds)

* Most lead changes in a NASCAR Cup race: 88 – April 25, 2010 and April 17, 2011

* Most Leaders in a single NASCAR Cup race at TSS: 29 – April 25, 2010

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Where Are They Now? ‘Handsome Harry’ Gant still is rolling

Photos: Getty Images
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Tony Stewart retired at 45. Jeff Gordon retired at 44, returned to help out Dale Earnhardt Jr., and retired again at 45.

Jimmie Johnson, 41, says it’s unlikely he’ll be racing by the time he reaches 45. Don’t be surprised if 42-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t far behind his teammate.

Then there are drivers such as NASCAR icon Harry Gant. “Handsome Harry” retired from the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series in 1994 at the age of 54 and then returned to drive 11 races in the Camping World Truck Series two years later at the age of 56.

“My last win at Atlanta in a Busch car, I was 54,” he said, adding with a laugh, “Then I didn’t want to quit.”

He retired again at the end of the 1996 season and spent his “retirement” racing on short tracks across the country until he was 70 in 2010.

Now, the 77-year-old Gant officially is retired from all forms of racing, but he’s as busy as he was when he was behind the wheel. These days, Gant tends to a herd of 100 Black Angus cattle on his 300-acre ranch in Taylorsville, North Carolina, rides his motorcycle around the country and is enjoying the good life.

He still follows NASCAR racing somewhat, but where the sport was the end-all and be-all for Gant for 30 years – from his first race as a sportsman driver at Hickory Motor Speedway in 1966 – now Gant is more of a casual observer.

“I watch the races on TV when I can,” he told NBC Sports. “I like to watch the Truck and (Xfinity) races. I don’t go out of my way, but if I’m not doing anything, I’ll watch it then.”

Then, he adds with a laugh, “Sometimes, I’ll go to sleep at night watching the night races.”

STILL A FAN FAVORITE

Since his last Truck race in 1996, Gant has attended only two NASCAR Cup races in person. One was a few years ago at Texas Motor Speedway, and the other was late September when he took part in the Throwback Weekend festivities at Darlington Raceway.

Harry Gant, right, with lifelong friend and NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett.

One of the biggest highlights of that weekend was when Gant swung back behind the wheel of his legendary Skoal Bandit car and took a parade lap, which drew huge applause.

It was apparent that even though he hadn’t raced in 20 years, Gant was still a fan favorite at the “Track Too Tough To Tame.” He received some of the loudest applause of the NASCAR greats who attended and was swamped by fans welcoming him back as if he never had left.

Yet Gant also noticed something. While he enjoyed the attention, Gant admitted that the NASCAR of his era is not the same NASCAR of today.

“It was very strange being there because I really didn’t know anybody there,” he said. “I didn’t know any of the crew guys, crew chiefs, drivers, didn’t know anybody except just a few older people I knew and older fans.

“It’s a somewhat different ballgame when I was racing. It’s hard to put your finger on anything, there’s just so many little things that were different back then.”

Gant’s former crew chief, Andy Petree, brought back the old gang together in this tweet last year from Darlington:

SHORT-TRACK SUPERSTAR BEFORE HE CAME TO WINSTON CUP

While it was in NASCAR Cup and Xfinity races that Gant earned the most notoriety, he was a short-track driver first and foremost.

Sure, he earned 18 wins in the Cup Series and finished a career-best second in the season standings in 1984 and won another 21 races in the Xfinity ranks. But Gant earned more than 300 wins in the lower tiers of NASCAR racing, including the Sportsman championship in 1972-74. He also finished runner-up three times in what is today the Xfinity Series (1969, ’76 and ’77).

He paid his dues and served his racing apprenticeship before he cashed in with the then-Winston Cup Series.

“Back in the day, you had David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty – all them drivers – they started out not as young as they do now,” Gant said. “I started racing when I was 24 in a hobby car at Hickory.

“When I got to Winston Cup, I ran for Rookie of the Year in 1979 (at the age of 39 and competed against fellow rookies Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte), and when I first ran for (longtime sponsor) Skoal, I was 41 years old (1981).

“I was 42 before I won my first race in Cup (1982 Martinsville).”

TODAY’S YOUNG DRIVERS NOT PAYING ENOUGH DUES

Gant said that young drivers of today are jumping to the Cup Series much earlier than his era. In so doing, the young guns are not able to build the same type of large and loyal fan bases that drivers developed from their early days of Sportsman racing before moving up to Cup.

“We raced a lot of years, early years, with Sportsman cars, things like that,” he said. “Now, you see a guy who’s 20, racing in a Truck and then racing in NASCAR Cup, they haven’t had enough time to get a fan base. That’s what I think right now the problem today is the fan base for the new guys coming in to race.

“The other part of the problem is you have young guys that aren’t really car guys. Like me, I have always been into cars from the age of 18 or 19 years old, racing short tracks, dirt cars, sprint cars, all them things. I think the young people now don’t really associate with the young people that race, and the models of cars don’t matter to a lot of them.”

Gant still likes NASCAR racing but readily admits, “It’s just a lot of difference. Unless you were there, you can’t really pinpoint everything. Everything is more business-like today than it was.

“And the cars are so much different, looking at it on television. The cars are so much lower. I did not like running with restrictor plates that came out the last few years I raced. It puts you in a box, just like it is now. All the cars are the same in horsepower and the bodies are all the same.

“Back when I was racing, I liked the way it was. We had a stock car. We’d go to Daytona, and it’d be a Monte Carlo, Pontiac, Chevrolet or whatever was running.”

GANT REFLECTS ON HIS TOP CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Of his career, Gant said there were two high points that stand out to him, both markedly different from each other. First was in the Modified Series, while the other was in the Cup Series.

“We had so much fun racing prior to Winston Cup racing,” he said. “The first big race was when I won the Modified race at Daytona, and then also won at Charlotte. Winning at both those tracks were probably the biggest things of my career. A lot of people ask, ‘What about your Winston Cup career?’ Well, you wouldn’t have been there if you hadn’t won somewhere else to start with.”

As for his Cup tenure, it was winning four Cup races in a row in September 1991, along with two Busch Series wins in the same month. He earned his other famous nickname as a result; “Mr. September.”

“I felt like we couldn’t be beat,” he said. “We were coming up on the end of the year, and I could not wait to start the next season then.”

SOON TO BE BACK ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Gant once again is preparing to take part in the 23rd Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, which starts May 13 in Portland, Oregon, and finishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 19. Gant has been part of the Charity Ride each of the previous 22 years.

“We’ve been just about everywhere you can go,” Gant said.

But Gant will be far from the oldest driver on the Ride. Fellow former NASCAR racer Hershel McGriff will take part again in at least one or two segments of the Ride at the age of 89. McGriff competed in a short track race in California as recently as five years ago at the age of 84.

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THE HARRY GANT FILE

Harry Phil Gant — also known as “Handsome Harry” and “Mr. September” 
–Age: 74
–Home: Taylorsville, North Carolina
–NASCAR Cup stats: 474 starts, 18 wins, 123 top fives, 208 top 10s, 17 poles.
–NASCAR Xfinity stats: 128 starts, 21 wins, 52 top fives, 71 top 10s, 14 poles.
–NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: 11 starts in 1996, four top 10s.
–Notable: Holds record as the oldest driver ever to win a Cup Series race (52 years, 219 days) and as the oldest driver ever to earn his first career Cup win (42 years and 105 days).

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