NASCAR’s Next generation: John Hunter Nemechek

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John Hunter Nemechek will spend part of his 18th birthday today on a plane to Madison, Ill., headed to the next chapter in his career.

It’s at Gateway Motorsports Park that the son of Joe Nemechek will make his 15th career Camping World Truck Series start, but his first as a full-time driver, able to race on 1.5-mile tracks and larger. NASCAR rules prohibit drivers younger than 18 from running on the circuit’s bigger tracks. This also will be the NEMCO Motorsports driver’s second truck race since being named to the NASCAR Next class.

When NASCAR Talk spoke with the 2014 Snowball Derby winner, he was preparing to spot for his father in Joe Nemechek’s last race in the No. 8 Chevrolet before passing it on to his son this weekend.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NT: How did you find out you were a part of the NASCAR Next class?

John Hunter Nemechek: I got a phone call about two weeks before the announcement saying ‘Hey, you’ve been selected to be a part of the NASCAR Next group.’ I was excited because I smiled for awhile. It’s a great opportunity for us to be a part of that group.

NT: As an 18-year-old what does it mean to be considered an important part of NASCAR’s future?

Nemechek: It’s a great asset to be able to be part of that group, show what we’ve done in our past and to show what we’re going to go in our future … just to learn as much as we can, whether it’s media obligations or whatever it may be through NASCAR, will help promote ourselves and the series we’re running in.

NT: Are you close friends with any of the other members?

Nemechek: I pretty much grew up with Jesse Little and Cole Custer. There’s a few of us. It’s not an everyday thing, but every once in a while we’ll send each other a text saying ‘Hey, let’s go to the lake,’ or ‘Let’s go out and race some go-karts,’ or something like that.

NT: What’s your earliest memory of racing?

Nemechek: It would have to be going to Victory Lane with Dad, his first Cup win in ’99 I think it was. Going to New Hampshire. It was an awesome win. I remember going there and being in everyone’s arms, getting waved up above the trophy. Then you go back and look at all these pictures and that was an exciting day, to get your first win there and now we go back and race there, so it was pretty cool.

NT: Right now you’re a teammate with your dad. What’s that relationship like?

Nemechek: We’re very competitive with each other, but at the same time we try to help each other as much as we can. He’s been a big help in my career, getting me going. He’s taught me everything I know and he’s taught me everything he’s learned in a 20-year period to me in a three-year period. It definitely helps me advance on that curve with the younger generation coming up.

NT: One of your hobbies is fishing. What’s your best fishing story?

Nemechek: Probably when I was little, we were out fishing on the dock. I couldn’t have been more than 4 years old, something like that. I was just a small, little kid. We hooked this big, largemouth bass. I remember not being able to hold onto the fishing pole, somebody helped hold it, just kind of stuff like that.

NT: What’s the most scared you’ve ever been in a race car?

Nemechek: Probably had to be the first time I flipped a race car … it was one of those deals where you hold on and hope nothing happens. You’re kind of just along for the ride. (It was in an) Allison Legacy car, which is a ¾-scale stock car. I ended up winning the championship that year (2012). We were testing one day (at Rockingham Speedway) and ended up hitting the fence and it wasn’t good after that.

NT: Ryan Newman said he raced at Kansas Speedway so he could help you out with your career. What did you learn from him?

Nemechek: I learned a lot from him. Just kind of what they do in the Cup series, whether it be a veteran move on pit road, stuff all around, see where our trucks were at downforce wise or if he thinks we need to change anything. He was definitely a great help and hopefully we can get him in another race later this year, possibly. To have him, to learn from him all of what he’s done in his past, to look at what we did in our truck is pretty great.

NT: If you were in the Sprint Cup race at Bristol, what would you choose as your introduction song?

Nemechek: That’s a tough one. I don’t know if I’d pick my own song, I’d probably do a deal where I’d pick another driver’s song and I’d let them pick mine just to see what it was.

NT: What’s your favorite song?

Nemechek: It’s probably most of the songs by either Eric Church or Thomas Rhett.

NT: What non-social media app do you use the most?

Nemechek: I’d have to say Meet Ball. You’ll have to check it out. It’s a real time, almost like a navigation app, where you can use it for tailgating, for any festivities that you’re at. Say that I’m standing over there at that garage sign. I can make a Meet Ball and it’ll use the compass in your phone to show how far I am away, how many feet and which way you need to walk. It was originally intended for tailgating.

NT: What’s on your bucket list that’s not racing related?

Nemechek: I’d like to go skydiving one day. That’d be fun. It’s something I’ve wanted to do as a kid. I know when we go on family reunions we end up at an indoor skydiving places and we go flying around in there and I’ve never gotten the chance to go up in a plane, I think that would be fun.

John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.