NASCAR’s Next generation: Nicole Behar

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Nicole Behar had no idea who to thank.

The person who nominated the 18-year-old for inclusion in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” ­- which profiles young, up-and-coming athletes –  failed to reveal their identity to her.

As a result, Behar, a native of Otis Orchards, Wash., and competitor in K&N Pro Series West, was surprised when told she was included in the section, right below a lacrosse player from Florida named Tehoka Nanticoke.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” Behar told NASCAR Talk last week. “I actually didn’t know that until we were in Iowa. Someone there asked, ‘Hey, did you know that you were in Sports Illustrated?’ I was like, ‘No, I didn’t!’ That’s pretty cool to be in there. Everyone that sees it says something and I really liked it.”

It turns out SI’s senior racing writer Drew Lawrence was responsible for submitting her name.

When Behar spoke with NASCAR Talk, she had yet to track down the issue itself, which was published the week of May 18th.

“I actually can’t find the magazine. Which sounds very odd,” Behar said. “I keep finding every single one, besides the one that I’m in. Yesterday, my mom (Sherri Behar) had to go to the high school to get my cap and gown for graduation and my teachers there were like, ‘She’s on page 26 and Ronda Rousey is on the front cover.’ So, ok, now we know which one to look for and what page to go onto.”

When you look at the bio featured next to Behar’s beaming face, it’s clear why Lawrence would submit her name. On May 5, Nicole was introduced as one of 12 members of the 2015-16 NASCAR Next class in a presentation at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.  That honor came a month after she became the highest finishing female driver in the 61-year history of the series, placing second in the King Taco Catering/NAPA Auto Parts 150 at Irwindale Speedway.

Through five races in 2015, Behar has two top-five and four top-10 finishes.

When NASCAR Talk spoke with Behar she was on her way to class at Eastern Washington University where she is pursuing a degree in nursing.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NASCAR Talk: How did you find out you were selected to this year’s NASCAR Next class?

Nicole Behar: When I got the call that I was selected for the class, I was driving to school and they asked if it was a good time to talk. Of course, when (the call) is from NASCAR, it’s a good time to talk.

NT: What’s your earliest memory related to racing?

Behar: I can remember the first time I ever got into a go-kart when I was 8 years old at the work barn and I was racing on cow poop and I mean, at first you didn’t really think I would be at the stage that I am at 8 years old, you just (think) this is the start of a career.

And from being 8 years old, I absolutely loved racing.

NT: Your family has been racing for a long time.

Behar: Yes, I’m a fifth-generation racer. My parents actually met racing go-karts when they were young kids as well.

NT: Fifth generation, how far back does that go?

Behar: I believe that either my great grandpa or my great-great grandpa. I know that my great grandpa on my dad’s side raced a hobby car, I’d say. And my grandpa on my dad’s side raced in Hawaii a lot and he raced old-timers and hobby cars, all that good stuff. He was stationed (there) in the service. It was interesting having both sides of my family come from racing.

NT: If you could put someone’s name on your car who has been an important part of your life and career up until this point, who would it be?

Behar: My dad (Mike Behar). He’s been a huge help for my racing career and it definitely helps that since he was a racer himself, he can guide me in the right steps and help me with anything that I need off and on the track.

(Note: Mike Behar was Nicole’s crew chief until this year, when he chose Travis Sharpe to take over for him.)

NT: How was getting accustomed to a new crew chief, Travis Sharpe?

Behar: It was different at first because I had never heard someone else’s voice beside my dad on the radio. He’s a very good crew chief and a very good driver’s coach. He sees the same things that my dad sees when I’m in the car, so that makes it really helpful to me to know that they’re seeing the same thing. Our second race together, we finished second.

NT: What’s the most scared you’ve ever been outside of a racecar?

Behar: When I was riding with my mom and we were on the freeway and she hit a patch of ice and then we spun around backwards.

NT: What was it like growing up in Otis Orchards?

Behar: It’s part of Spokane (Wash.), I’d say Spokane is pretty big, but I haven’t really been anywhere else. It sucks that there’s not a lot of racing around here. I know back East there’s race tracks everywhere and you go to school with people that you race with. Around here, that’s definitely a rare occasion. I’ve never gone to school with someone that I’ve raced against. There are people that race motorcycles, but it’s kind of a rare thing to go to high school (at East Valley High School) or even college, with someone that races cars.

 

After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.

William Byron rallies to score top 10 in first Cup playoff race

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LAS VEGAS — William Byron called his first Cup playoff race “crazy.”

Contact with Ryan Blaney, a spin after a tire went down, help from a teammate to stay on the lead lap and a different pit strategy were all events in Byron’s seventh-place finish Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He was one of three Hendrick Motorsports drivers to finish in the top 10. Chase Elliott was fourth and Alex Bowman placed sixth.

Byron’s day allowed him to gain four spots in the points — most among the playoff drivers — and go from 13th, outside a cutoff spot, to ninth with two races left in the opening round. The series races at Richmond next.

But Byron’s top 10 wouldn’t have happened had he and his Chad Knaus-led team not persevered during an up-and-down night.

“You think about all the things that can go wrong in a race,” Byron said. “It’s tough. You’ve got to really manage the whole race and recover through things that happen. It seems like every car had something happen during this race. You’ve got to recover from it.”

Byron had been running in the top 10 when he had contact with Blaney on the restart to begin the final stage.

“I’ll be honest with you, I just heard about it,” Blaney said after finishing fifth. “I didn’t even know that I touched him. It must have been barely. Obviously, it wasn’t intentional. I was just trying to slow him down. I didn’t know that I got him. I feel bad for it. Obviously I didn’t  mean to get him. Just trying to sidedraft hard. That’s definitely not what I meant to do.”

Even so, the contact led to a tire rub. While Byron continued to run, the situation got worse and the tire went flat. He spun just before entering pit road to bring out the caution on Lap 182.

Byron quickly made it down pit road after the spin. Knaus had the team change the two left side tires to keep Byron on the lead lap. It helped that Elliott was leading. Elliott backed off behind the pace car down the frontstretch, giving Byron a cushion to exit the pits and remain on the lead lap. That allowed Byron to return to the pits on the next lap and change four tires and add fuel.

“I definitely owe him a big thank you,” Byron said of Elliott. “It was great that we were able to stay on the lead lap there.”

With a caution a few laps later, Byron was 22nd. Knaus brought Byron down pit road to add fuel and change four tires. Few cars stopped then. Knaus’ strategy allowed Byron to stay out longer than most cars and lead six laps before pitting on Lap 236 of the 267-lap race. Needing less fuel, the team only changed two tires for a quicker stop and that helped Byron score his second consecutive top 10.

It also helped how well the Hendrick cars ran, something Elliott, sixth in the points, noted afterward.

“I felt like we were closer today than we have been in the past few weeks,” said Elliott, who overcame contact on a restart that forced him to pit to fix a tire rub. “That was nice. Hopefully we can have cars like that the next nine weeks.”

Bowman said his car improved after early struggles.

“We just didn’t fire off very good,” he said. “As the race ran, we got our car much better. I think kind of the in-between from day to night was the best we were. When it grouped up there at the end, it helped out some of the other cars. But, proud of my guys. I wish we would have gotten some more stage points, but we’ll take sixth.”

Bowman fell to 11th in points. He’s 10 points ahead of Ryan Newman in 13th. The top 12 after the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval in two weeks will be eliminated.