The inside story of why Shell stayed with Penske – and the NASCAR superstar they nearly chose instead

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During its first three seasons with Team Penske, Shell-Pennzoil endured two driver swaps, a failed drug test and a bevy of negative headlines surrounding its No. 22 car.

And to think, the oil and gas giant nearly went in a completely different direction with its Sprint Cup sponsorship – the No. 24 Chevrolet of Jeff Gordon.

Instead, Shell went with Roger Penske’s NASCAR organization five years ago, and the decision finally has paid off the last two seasons with the breakthrough of 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano in the No. 22 Ford.

In a story for NBC’s SportsWorld site, Nate Ryan examines the behind-the-scenes machinations that led ShellPennzoil to Penske (including a chance meeting at Homestead-Miami Speedway) and helped keep the company there despite all the turbulence from 2011-12.

Ryan writes:

       Shell’s first Sprint Cup driver with Team Penske was Kurt Busch, whose incessant invective on the team radio and multiple meltdowns with the news media caused an unceremonious departure in December 2011. Replacement A.J. Allmendinger didn’t reach the midpoint of the next season before being booted for a positive drug test for amphetamines.

“It was a conversation we had with Joey that, ‘Look you’re driver No. 3, and I’ve learned how to rebrand marketing overnight,’ ” Heidi Massey-Bong, a senior business advisor at Shell, told NBC Sports. “So don’t be that guy. I don’t want to have to do it again, but I’m not going to be afraid to pull the trigger, either, and I’m done with the craziness.”

Logano wasn’t exactly a safe play, either. Penske was asking Shell to take a chance on a former can’t-miss prospect who won only twice during his first four disappointing seasons in Cup.

Over the course of the hourlong meeting in August 2012, a contrite Logano detailed his missteps – by now a familiar refrain for a company twice burned by its drivers’ poor decision-making.

“It was a gamble for them to go with me after everything that was going on,” Logano recently said. “But they’ve been so supportive of everything we’ve done since. It’s been a great sponsor, and it’s been kind of interesting.”

The intrigue has run deep for Shell, which has weathered a fairly dizzying turn of events since shortly before announcing its move to Penske’s organization five years ago last week.

The runner-up in its sweepstakes for choosing a new team was the No. 24 Chevrolet of four-time champion Jeff Gordon, meaning Shell could have been celebrating the farewell tour of a future Hall of Famer this season if not for a chance meeting between old friends in a hallway at Homestead-Miami Speedway that led to Penske.

But there hardly is remorse given how things have worked out with Logano, who turns 25 next month.

Last season marked his long-anticipated breakthrough in NASCAR’s premier series, notching six victories and taking the No. 22 Ford to the first championship round of the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup. He opened the 2015 season with a Daytona 500 victory, bringing smiles to victory lane at Daytona International Speedway among team and sponsor executives who sat stone-faced across from each other in many boardrooms three years ago. Entering Saturday’s SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway (where Logano won the most recent race last October), he is ranked fourth in the points standings with eight top-10s in 10 races.

“You’re looking at this young kid, and he’s got his whole career ahead of him,” said Massey-Bong, who has overseen the NASCAR sponsorship since Shell entered Cup in 2007 with Richard Childress Racing. “We can be with him for another 20 years. We’ve got hopefully multiple more Daytona 500-type wins with him and hopefully a championship. We feel like we really hit the home run with him in somebody we can build our brand around long term.”

But Logano arrived only after the team faced “the unspoken third strike,” as Team Penske President Tim Cindric put it, of selecting a new driver.

During the tumultuous 18 months that began the Penske sponsorship, it would have been natural for Shell to question the value of an annual commitment well into eight figures (Sprint Cup teams generally ask at least $18 million per season for a top-line sponsorship, and companies spend as much marketing it).

Zak Brown, founder and CEO of the Just Marketing International agency that handles sponsorships in NASCAR, IndyCar and F1, said morality clauses would have allowed Shell to vacate its Penske contract during the Busch and Allmendinger ordeals, which both generated weeks of negative headlines.

“Sponsors always weigh their options, and I’d imagine there were plenty of conversations about, ‘What do we do here?’ ” Brown told NBC Sports. “Very few teams would have been able to retain Shell.”

So what made it work despite all the headaches?

Good business (the sponsorship essentially pays for itself).

And a good businessman behind it.

For more, check out the rest of Ryan’s story here.

NTSB releases final report on Dale Jr. plane crash

NTSB
Photo: Dustin Long
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Pilot error played a key role in the August 2019 crash of a plane carrying Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family, a final report by the National Transportation Safety Board stated Wednesday.

Earnhardt, wife Amy and daughter Isla were on board the plane, which crashed after a hard landing at Elizabethton (Tennessee) Municipal Airport on Aug. 15, 2019. The report stated all three suffered minor injuries. 

The NTSB listed the probable causes of the accident as: “The pilot’s continuation of an unstabilized approach despite recognizing associated cues and the flight crew’s decision not to initiate a go-around before touchdown, which resulted in a bounced landing, a loss of airplane control, a landing gear collapse, and a runway excursion. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to deploy the speedbrakes during the initial touchdown, which may have prevented the runway excursion, and the pilot’s attempt to go around after deployment of the thrust reversers.”

A “go-around” occurs when a pilot pulls out of a landing and gains altitude to make another landing attempt.

The report stated that “the flight crew made several comments about the airplane flying too fast and allowed the airspeed to increase well above the reference speed for the approach.”

The report stated that “the pilot did not extend the speedbrakes upon touchdown, which landing checklist required, but instead attempted to deploy the thrust reversers immediately after touchdown, which was a later item on the landing checklist.”

Earnhardt’s Cessna 680A Citation Latitude bounced twice upon landing as it traversed the 5,001-foot runaway.

After the fourth touchdown, the right main landing gear collapsed. The plane went off the road and through a 400-foot long area of grass. It went down an embankment, through a creek and a chain-link fence. It continued up an embankment. The plane came to rest about 600 feet beyond the runway at the edge of a four-lane highway.

The passengers and two pilots escaped as the plane burned.

The full report can be read here.

Champion or not, Chase Briscoe won’t let Xfinity title define season

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Like the 11 drivers he’ll compete against in the Xfinity Series playoffs, a championship is the endgame for Chase Briscoe.

However, with the Stewart-Haas Racing driver one win from matching his preseason goal of at least eight victories, Briscoe wouldn’t be too disappointed if he failed to claim the title at the end of the seven-race playoff.

“I feel like to this point if we don’t get to eight (wins) … I feel like I accomplished or proved what I was trying to say at the beginning of the year,” Briscoe told NBC Sports on Tuesday. “There’s still no reason why we can’t get to 10 wins. I feel 100% confident in my team that we’re going to have the cars capable of doing it, I just need to do my job. If we do that, hopefully we can get to Phoenix and then (whoever’s) the best team once we get there wins.”

As he prepares to open the playoffs Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Briscoe is wary of not letting “the championship define you and define your season. … Winning races is a big deal. That’s what you get paid to do is go win races and obviously win championships as well, but today’s format anything can happen in that final race.”

Briscoe can attest to importance of winning races. He enters the playoff with a series-leading seven wins, which has helped him start the postseason with 2,050 points and ties him with Austin Cindric.

Briscoe’s impressive numbers come a year after he had just one win in a season where Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer combined to win 21 of 33 races.

Briscoe believes the perception of his abilities as a driver are “way different” from last year as he struggled to chase those three drivers now competing in Cup.

“Personally, I felt like I could win races, and I think a lot of it was learning,” Briscoe said. “Last year, there were still a lot of tracks I had never been to before and didn’t even have 100 pavement starts in my entire career, and now I have that experience. I have the confidence to go with it and all of those things are totally different, and when I said what I said at the beginning of the year (about winning eight races) I felt like I was capable of doing that.

“If I could back it up, it would look even better. … I think I’ve proven my worth in this sport. I feel like if I do get the opportunity to move up, I feel like I’m ready, but I also feel like I could get a lot of benefit out of coming back to the Xfinity Series and running again.”

Briscoe, a Ford development driver, says he still doesn’t know what’s in store for him in 2021.

He said the uncertainty of his future is a “little bit easier” to handle compared to last year because of the wins he’s racked up.

Regardless of not knowing his NASCAR fate, if Briscoe can “somehow get to 10 wins this year and win the championship, then that would just make it, I feel like, a lot easier for the decision-makers.”

Mike Wallace’s appeal of indefinite suspension denied

NASCAR suspends Mike Wallace
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Mike Wallace‘s indefinite suspension by NASCAR was upheld by the National Motorsports Appeals Panel on Wednesday.

Wallace, who has made three Xfinity Series starts this season, was suspended Sept. 10 for violating Sections 12.1; 12.8; 12.8.1.e of the rule book.

According to the rulebook, a violation of section 12.8.1.e is any “Public statement and/or communication that criticizes, ridicules, or otherwise disparages another person based upon that person’s race, color, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, age, or handicapping condition.”

As part of the suspension, Wallace is required by NASCAR to attend sensitivity training.

The three-member appeals panel was made up of Dixon Johnston, Bill Lester and Kevin Whitaker.

Wallace has the right to appeal the decision to the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer.

Wallace wrote the following on Facebook shortly after his suspension was originally announced:

“You know as I fly across the United States today I’m ready various people’s political views and I have to say a famous four star Military General that I spent time with in the MidEast told me Mike let me give you some advice don’t ever get in a conversation about politics or religion unless you are really smart. I said why do you say that comment His response it’s like being balanced on a single edge razor blade if you slip you will get cut!

Think about that before we all make foolish uneducated post! Moral of this story is most of use just repeat what we have heard we really don’t know.
Have a great positive day!”

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character

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Following months of speaking out in support of racial justice and inclusion in NASCAR, Bubba Wallace‘s work has been recognized by The Musial Awards.

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been selected as the recipient of its Award for Extraordinary Character.

The award honors “an individual who demonstrates remarkable poise, perseverance and overall sportsmanship.”

The Musial Awards – presented by Maryville University in St. Louis – is named after Stan Musial, a former St. Louis Cardinal baseball player. St. Louis is also the home to one of Wallace’s sponsors, World Wide Technology.

More: Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

In the wake of the death of George Floyd in May, the 26-year-old Wallace has been active in helping lead NASCAR through social changes, including the banning of the Confederate flag at series events and tracks.

He also drove a Black Lives Matter car at Martinsville Speedway in June.

“Bubba Wallace exemplifies what the Stan Musial Award for Extraordinary Character is all about,” Frank Viverito, president of the St. Louis Sports Commission, which produces the Musial Awards, said in a press release. “He has overcome much to be where he is, and he has courageously stepped forward to take an important stand for change. He is most deserving of an award that stands for sportsmanship and character, and is named for Stan Musial, whose own actions promoted racial acceptance and unity.”

Wallace joins baseball legend Hank Aaron as a 2020 Musial Awards honoree. Aaron is receiving the Stan Musial Lifetime Achievement Award for Sportsmanship.

The Musial Awards will air nationally on CBS on Saturday, Dec. 26.

After three full-time seasons in Cup racing for RPM, it was announced earlier this week that Wallace would compete in 2021 for a Cup team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and basketball legend Michael Jordan.