Denny Hamlin’s Short Track Showdown takes driver back to roots (Watch race at 9 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

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SOUTH BOSTON, Va. – The reminders are there, subtle hints of what is possible. All one has to do is look up.

Yet, there isn’t always time to take a break in the infield at South Boston Speedway. The search for speed rarely rests. There’s a part to inspect, an idea to ponder or tweak to make to the car.

But in those scarce free moments for drivers parked along the frontstretch pits, they can look up, scan the crowd and its multi-colored shirts, some representing their favorite drivers, and see the grandstand sections named for competitors who once raced at this 4/10-mile track before going on to greater acclaim.

Denny Hamlin became the latest driver to have a portion of grandstands at South Boston named for him, joining Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton, Southern 500 champion Jeff Burton and others.

The honor was bestowed upon Hamlin when he returned to the track to host the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown (A one-hour recap of the event airs at 9 p.m. Saturday on NBCSN). The Late Model charity race ended with a dramatic finish and NASCAR placing one driver on probation for his actions after the checkered flag waved.

Late Model racing remains special to Hamlin and so does this track. Growing up in Chesterfield, Va., outside Richmond, Va., Hamlin would join his father about once a summer for trips to South Boston. When Hamlin moved into Late Model racing, he began to run at this track.

At this level, the driver is a part of the crew. They’re expected to work on the car, push it to inspection and do much of what any other crew member would do – unlike in the Sprint Cup Series where crew members rarely let drivers work on the car.

Winnings can be small. Money often goes back into making the car go fast with maybe a little left for a post-midnight trip to Waffle House.

South Boston Speedways marks the fulcrum of Hamlin’s career. It was here late one season while standing in line to register for that night’s race that car owner Jim Dean overheard Hamlin say that this race likely would be Hamlin’s last. Hamlin’s family no longer could afford to support his racing. Dean spoke to Hamlin briefly, starting a series of events that led to Hamlin’s sudden rise to the Sprint Cup Series.

“I remember calling my mom real quick, ‘Hey can you print up some kind of resume or something?’ ‘’ Hamlin recalls. “I remember handing it to him, and I remember racing probably my worst Late Model race. I’m thinking so much for that opportunity, blew that, but, lo and behold, he called me on Tuesday and said him and his driver had a disagreement and my opportunity was going to be driving his car the following week at Myrtle Beach.’’

Once Hamlin reached NASCAR’s top stage – where he’s won 25 Cup races, including a Southern 500 – he looked for a way to connect to his racing roots. At the same time, Tony Stewart was running his charity race at Eldora Speedway’s dirt track.

“I didn’t grow up on dirt, and I knew that there were several of us that didn’t grow up on dirt,’’ Hamlin said of his idea to run a Late Model charity race.

“I remember I used to live for the big Late Model race at Martinsville, and I always wanted to host a race like that that was one of the highlights to the local guys’ season. Martinsville is still the top of the line. I hope over time, with more sponsors, of course, grow the purse and make the field even tougher to get into and be that pinnacle event that I used to look forward to when I was running Late Models myself.’’

Each time Hamlin returns, the task becomes harder to win. He’s won once in eight years of the event. Twice Late Model regulars have won.

“Any of the guys here are definitely deserving of being in the top three series,’’ said Timothy Peters, 2004 track champion who has won eight Camping World Truck races, including at Daytona.

C.E. Falk, a Late Model regular, beat Hamlin in a door-banging final lap to win this event in 2010.

“If you were to write fairy tales for a living, that’s how it would go, David beat Goliath type of thing,’’ Falk said of his win against Hamlin when the event was at Hamlin’s home track, Southside Speedway.

Late Model regular Matt Bowling won this event in 2014, beating a field that included Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan and Hamlin. That win carried through the rest of the season for Bowling.

“Everybody got their confidence back up, me especially, and let me know I could do it,’’ he said.

While this race is a chance to recapture the roots for those who have reached NASCAR’s top ranks, for Late Model drivers it’s a chance to show that they deserve a chance even if they don’t have the financial backing of others.

“The opportunity and the window is almost shut for those guys,’’ Peters said. “I’m very fortunate that I’ve had a lot of people that believed in me and financed me to help me get there. Everybody wants to be a Truck, Xfinity and Cup driver and it’s very hard to get there regardless of the talent that you may have. That’s what’s so frustrating at times.’’

Hamlin worries about those who don’t get the opportunity he did. He didn’t bring sponsorship money. He just had talent. That’s often not enough these days.

“I think the competition has gotten better,’’ Hamlin said of Late Model racing, “but it’s just trying to convince these teams owner to go out and find the next talent.’’

That driver is there, whether at South Boston or some other track. It’s just a matter of getting the chance Hamlin did.

 

Martin Truex Jr. on Cole Pearn’s departure, what he seeks in next crew chief

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. got a phone call from Cole Pearn on Sunday and Truex quickly had a very bad feeling about it.

“When he started talking it was in the back of my mind that, ‘This is not good. I feel like something big is about to come,'” Truex recalled. “Sure enough, it was surprising.”

Pearn had called to tell Truex what everyone else would learn the next day: after five years together, he was resigning as his crew chief and leaving NASCAR.

Truex discussed the end of Pearn’s tenure and what he wants from his next crew chief during a break from giving out Christmas toys to patients at Levine Children’s Hospital.

“Thought I could get a couple more years out of him, to be honest,” Truex said before admitting he completely understood Pearn’s reasons for getting out of NASCAR while seemingly at the top of his game: a long season that keeps him from seeing his family.

“I understand the grind, I understand just how hard he has to work to produce a level of competition that he does,” Truex said. “I’ve seen it first hand, his hours and what’s he’s willing to do. I don’t know that there’s anyone in the garage willing to put as much work into racing as he did.”

He continued: “It’s time for him to move into doing something else. His kids are growing up too fast and he doesn’t get to see them that much. It was big decision for him and I know … he feels somewhat like he let all us down. I told him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do what’s best for your family, we all understand and all our guys will understand, we’ll go on and try to the best with someone else filling his role.'”

When it comes to figuring who will take over as crew chief on the No. 19 Toyota, Truex said, “We’ve got a few guys in mind. I feel like we’re narrowing it down. We should know something in the next couple of days for sure.”

Whoever takes over will follow in the wake of a crew chief who worked with Truex to produce 24 wins in five seasons, four appearances in the Championship 4 and the 2017 Cup title.

How did half a decade of success with Pearn change what Truex wants from a crew chief?

“Honestly, that’s a good question,” Truex said. “Obviously, I need to find somebody that has his demeanor, a guy that approaches racing the way he does, because it’s kind of what works for me. I feel like we approach racing the same way, Cole and I did. Our attitudes and just the way we thought about things was so similar. We could almost finish each other’s sentences.

“It’s so weird, we’re so different people outside of racing. In racing, that’s just the way we grew up. Our dads racing and racing go-karts and moving up through the ranks ourselves. We just did things a lot the same and we had similar beliefs in the way we did things. Just kind of the same thought process.”

Truex believes he and Pearn “approached a lot of things together more so than me being a rookie and him being a veteran like it was when I first started.

“No question, he was really good at getting the most out of me and I’ll need somebody to do that,” Truex said. “I’m not the most outspoken guy and so I need sometimes somebody to pull that information out of me, especially when it comes to the cars and building the cars. When they’re not good enough, how do you make them better? He was really good at that. I feel good about the guys we’re talking to and we’ve got a few options there and hopefully it’ll work out.”

Kyle Busch Motorsports announces 2020 driver, crew chief lineup

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced its driver-crew chief roster for the 2020 Gander Outdoors Truck Series season on Wednesday. It includes the addition of veteran Danny Stockman.

Stockman will be in charge of the No. 51 Toyota, which will be driven by Kyle Busch, Chandler Smith and more drivers to be announced at a later date.

Stockman was a long-time crew chief at Richard Childress Racing, most recently working with Austin Dillon in the Cup Series this season. He was Dillon’s crew chief when he won his titles in the Truck Series (2011) and Xfinity Series (2013).

Ryan “Rudy” Fugle will be paired with Christian Eckes on the No. 18 Toyota. Fugle worked on the No. 51 this year as it won six races, including all of Busch’s five wins and Greg Biffle‘s victory. Fugle has led KBM teams to five owner titles (2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019) and two driver titles (2015 and 2017).

Mike Hillman Jr. will be the crew chief for Raphael Lessard‘s rookie season in the No. 4 Toyota. Hillman has two Truck Series titles, including Toyota’s first in 2006 with Todd Bodine.

 

DGR-Crosley switches from Toyota to Ford beginning in 2020

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Ford Performance is strengthening its driver development program by joining forces with DGR-Crosley, which announced its move from Toyota to Ford Wednesday.

The multi-year agreement will see team co-owner David Gilliland, a former Cup Series driver, lead the team’s driver development program as it field entries in late models, the ARCA Menards Series and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.

“We’re very excited to have DGR-Crosley come to Ford as part of our long-term efforts to develop drivers for NASCAR,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports in a press release. “We have just scratched the surface of what is possible in developing the next generation of Ford drivers with people like Chase Briscoe, and we believe a coordinated effort with a team like DGR-Crosley will help move that process forward successfully.

“David Gilliland was a trusted and valued Ford driver in NASCAR for many years, and we look forward to renewing that relationship with him in this new effort.”

Said Gilliland: “I’m super excited about the partnership with Ford and how things are lining up for 2020. I spent a lot of time racing Fords throughout my career, and it’s really special to now be able to bring them into our race shop. A lot of time and consideration was spent on this decision, and internally we know that this is the move that we needed to make in order to advance our program to the top level. We have a great group of hard-working, talented people at DGR-Crosley, and with Ford coming on board, our future is really bright. We’re excited for all the things ahead.”

DGR-Crosley will announce its driver lineup at a later date.

The team first entered the Truck Series in 2018. Tyler Ankrum won its first race this year at Kentucky Speedway, qualifying for the playoffs in the process.

It fielded a team record five entries in the playoff race at ISM Raceway.

Brennan Poole to compete full-time for Premium Motorsports in Cup Series

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Former Xfinity Series driver Brennan Poole will compete full-time in the Cup Series in 2020 with Premium Motorsports, Poole announced Wednesday on social media.

Poole, 28, will drive the No. 15 Chevrolet and would make his Cup debut in the Daytona 500.

He joins a rookie class that includes Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer.

“I’ve been working towards this moment since I was 5 and feel blessed to have the caliber of people surrounding me that I have in this next chapter of my racing career,” Poole said in a press release. “I look forward to the opportunity to showcase our sponsor partners, both new and existing, who are supporting me at the highest level of NASCAR competition.”

Poole takes over the car that was driven by Ross Chastain in a majority of his Cup starts in 2019.

A native of The Woodlands, Texas, Poole drove for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series from 2016-17. His best finish was second in the 2017 race at Kentucky Speedway.

He made 13 starts in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series in 2019, driving for On Point Motorsports. His best result was second in the May race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I’m very happy to welcome Brennan and his group to the Premium Motorsports family,” team owner Jay Robinson said in the press release. “Brennan is a very talented and dedicated young man, I believe he has a very bright future in the NASCAR Cup Series.”