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.

 

Myatt Snider: It’s ‘game on’ if conflict with Noah Gragson continues

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The spat between Xfinity Series drivers Myatt Snider and Noah Gragson may not necessarily be over.

The pair tangled in Sunday night’s Xfinity Series race in Las Vegas. Gragson made contact with Snider’s car, sending it into a spin.

Snider discussed the incident Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” and where things stand between the two drivers.

“It, to me, just seemed like some impatience on Noah’s part,” Snider said of the incident. “I had gotten into a rut and was trying to figure out how to make the car faster but at that point in time, I didn’t. So he was running me down and he actually had a run on me going to the frontstretch.

“So I was, ‘Okay, he’s going to go by me.’ Then I felt a little yoink in the left rear quarter and around I was going. It’s kind of unfortunate it had to go down that way, that’s not racing to me. But I’m a big believer in karma and what goes around, comes around. We’ll be performing at our best over these next couple of weeks and I’m not worried about it.”

Snider also told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he hasn’t texted or talked to Gragson since Sunday, but Snider said he’s ready if the spat continues.

“I’m the kind of guy that believes in racing people how you’re raced,” Snider said. “I’m not going to take any kind of stuff like that. If (Gragson) wants to send that kind of message early, then game on.”

On Tuesday, here’s how Gragson explained what happened on “Sirius Speedway” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It was just some hard racing between the two of us and we got into each other, so I think we both can look forward to the next couple of races and stay out of each other’s ways,” Gragson said. “I think we’re both at fault. It was a long race, none of us were going to give and we’re going to go on to California and run as good as possible and do as good as we can.”

Much has been made about the TV replays of Gragson and Snider meeting after the race to talk about the incident. Gragson tried to give Snider a fist bump only to have Snider walk away without fist bumping him.

“I told (Myatt) let’s play rock, paper, scissors,” Gragson quipped in part on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I went with rock and he still hasn’t gotten back to me if he wants scissors, paper or rock.”

Gragson won the season opener at Daytona and finished fourth at Las Vegas for JR Motorsports. Snider, who won the pole at Daytona, finished 33rd at Daytona and 16th at Las Vegas for Richard Childress Racing. Snider will race this weekend at Auto Club Speedway for RSS Racing.

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Ryan Newman gets standing ovation in visit to Roush Fenway Racing

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Exactly 10 months to the day when the country will celebrate Thanksgiving, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization gave thanks and a warm welcome to driver Ryan Newman, who visited the team’s shop Wednesday.

Newman, who was involved in a horrific crash coming to the finish line of the Daytona 500 just nine days earlier, received a standing ovation from his colleagues and posed for a number of photos.

While there is still no timetable for Newman’s return behind the wheel of his No. 6 RFR Ford Mustang — Ross Chastain is scheduled to drive the car until Newman comes back — Wednesday’s appearance was yet another positive move in that direction.

“Just a good day,” RFR president Steve Newmark tweeted about Newman’s visit.

Newman said in a prior statement he suffered an undisclosed head injury in the crash but did not suffer any broken bones or internal injuries.

Tuesday he took part in one of his favorite pastimes:

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Hendrick focused on Jimmie Johnson’s success, not successor

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Kyle Larson. Brad Keselowski. Ryan Blaney. Erik Jones.

No, we’re not talking about this week’s fantasy racing picks, but those four drivers have been among drivers mentioned most often when it comes time for Hendrick Motorsports to name a replacement for Jimmie Johnson, who will retire after this season.

Yet even though filling Johnson’s spot is important, it’s not as much a priority right now as it is for the entire organization to learn more about the nuances of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, according to HMS vice president of competition Jeff Andrews.

“We don’t have a timetable for that, to be honest with you,” Andrews said of naming a replacement for Johnson on Wednesday “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Our focus has been getting better race cars under Jimmie Johnson and getting better race cars for (crew chief) Cliff Daniels and his race team to work with on the weekend.

“The focus right now immediately for the 48 is to get a win, get that car in the playoffs, get multiple wins through the season and then get Jimmie Johnson to Phoenix at the end of the year to battle for that championship.”

Andrews admits the vibe around Hendrick Motorsports’ campus is markedly different this year, knowing it’s Johnson’s final season in the No. 48.

“I think the sense is pride here within Hendrick Motorsports, to just have been associated with someone like Jimmie,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “For those of us who have been here really throughout his career, we’re just incredibly proud that he chose to drive for Hendrick Motorsports throughout his whole career.

“But we’re also proud of all his accomplishments and what he’s done for this company. I think we would have an awful hard time of ever paying him back for all that. Our goal this year is giving him everything he needs for a multiple win season and to get to Phoenix. We owe him that at the least.”

The Hendrick organization has struggled in adapting to the new Chevrolet Camaro body style this year. In the season-opening Daytona 500, Chase Elliott (finished seventh) was the only HMS driver in the top 15.

Things were a bit better this past Sunday at Las Vegas. Johnson was the highest-finishing HMS driver (fifth), while Alex Bowman was 13th. But there was considerable sense of accomplishment overall for Chevrolet as a whole, with six of its Camaros in the top 10 (as opposed to only two Chevys in the top 10 at Daytona).

That leaves Andrews, the competition department at HMS and Chevrolet officials as a whole feeling optimistic as the series heads for the third race of the season this weekend at the two-mile track in Fontana, California.

“From a barometer perspective, we’re feeling good about where we’ve been,” Andrews said. “We haven’t had that finish, that win that we’re looking for, but certainly we’ve started off the year with some good speed in our cars.

“The one thing that all of our drivers were commenting on is we had more speed in our cars and just had a better platform in our cars and a better ability to run multiple lines on the racetrack, which is something we haven’t in recent years.”

Admittedly, it’s been a tough road for Hendrick drivers over the last three seasons. Since Johnson’s seventh Cup championship in 2016, no HMS driver has reached the Championship 4 round since.

Also during that time frame, only two drivers have finished in the top-10 overall in the last three seasons (Chase Elliott, fifth in 2017, sixth in 2018 and 10th in 2019; and Johnson, 10th in 2017).

These next five races, particularly the last two of that stretch at Homestead-Miami and Texas, will help give Andrews and his staff a better handle on where their adjustment to the Camaro goes from there.

“We know it’s a long season and have a long ways to go with this,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “We need to get through three or four more races.

“I think we’ve targeted as a company a better understanding of where we’re at after the Homestead/Texas timeframe to get some types of tracks and learn with this new car.

“Steep learning curve with the new car and we’ve got to act quick. We have just a year to work with this before we get to another generation of race cars. … We’re looking forward to going back to the track this weekend in Fontana and see where we go with it.”

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NBC Sports Power Rankings: Joey Logano takes top spot from Denny Hamlin

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Move over Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano is coming through.

By virtue of his win Sunday in Las Vegas, Logano replaces Hamlin atop this week’s NBC Sports Power Rankings.

Eightteen drivers received votes from NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.

Here’s this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Joey Logano (37 points out of 40): Bounced back from a DNF at Daytona to earn a gifted win at Las Vegas when the top two cars pitted late, allowing Logano to move to the lead and keep it. Last week’s ranking: unranked.

2. Kevin Harvick (34 points): Pitted before final restart, which likely cost him a chance at a top-five finish (he wound up eighth). Still, with top-10 finishes in the first two races (one of only two drivers to do so), Harvick is off to a strong start. Last week: 6th (tied).

3. Ryan Blaney (29 points): Late pit call cost him the win and a top 10 (finished 11th), but maybe there’s some solace in being atop the Cup standings heading to Fontana. Last week: 3rd.

4. Chase Elliott (24 points): Even though he finished 26th at Las Vegas, Elliott led 70 laps and won each of the first two stages. Including Daytona, he’s led nearly 100 laps in first two races. Now all he has to do is finish off a race with a win. Last week: 9th.

5. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (17 points): One of the biggest surprises this season. The move to JTG Daugherty Racing is agreeing with him. Led 24 laps at Daytona before late-race wreck and 30 laps at Vegas, finishing third. Definitely someone to keep an eye on. Last week: unranked.

(tie) 6. Denny Hamlin (15 points): After his win at Daytona, struggled through a rough day at Las Vegas, finishing 17th. Last week: 1st

(tie) 6. Kyle Larson (15 points): One of two drivers to finish in the top 10 in each of first two races. Looks to add to one win and two runner-ups in six Cup starts at Fontana on Sunday. Last week: 4th.

8. Matt DiBenedetto (14 points): Earned second-place finish in his second start for Wood Brothers Racing. Could he bring the organization it’s 100th Cup win at Fontana? Last week: unranked.

9. Jimmie Johnson (13 points): Finished fifth at Las Vegas (as well as being fastest in final Cup practice there). Has six career wins at his home track in Fontana. Can he make it seven on Sunday (which would break a 97-race winless streak)? Last week: unranked.

10. Alex Bowman (7 points): Showed some impressive speed late before being shuffled back to 13th place after last caution. Last week: unranked.

Others receiving votes: William Byron (3 points), Bubba Wallace (3 points), Austin Dillon (2 points), Brad Keselowski (2 points), Chris Buescher (2 points), Clint Bowyer (1 point), Chase Briscoe (1 point), Johnny Sauter (1 point).