Ryan: Bristol shows the grit of Michael Waltrip Racing

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Rob Kauffman gritted his teeth for much of Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

For the majority owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, this might have been a familiar feeling after an agonizing week in which he delivered the news to 200 employees that the team would be shuttered after the season.

But this wasn’t the soul-sapping angst of fretting about an uncertain future.

This was the exhilarating anxiety of a team that raced with nothing left to lose Saturday night and nearly left with a victory on the rough-and-tumble 0.533-mile oval.

With 150 laps remaining, MWR teammates Clint Bowyer and David Ragan were running 2-3, and Kauffman, watching from a Speedway Motorsports Inc. suite overlooking the 160,000-seat bullring, politely asked forgiveness from a visitor while he gnashed his molars.

“I said, ‘Give me one second, when the guys are side by side, I grit my teeth a lot,’” Kauffman said with a laugh. “So sadly, 100 laps later, I gritted my teeth for a different reason.”

On Lap 371, disaster struck just as things seemed to be unfolding so well for MWR.

Just as it always seems to do during the team’s tumultuous, star-crossed existence over the past decade.

The flagship of Toyota’s ballyhooed entry into NASCAR’s premier series … that was plunged into a jet fuel controversy in the opening race of its nightmarish first season.

An organization on the cusp of entering the top echelon of Sprint Cup two years ago … that slowly sank into oblivion after the fateful night it all unraveled in a team orders scandal at Richmond International Raceway.

The narrative continued Saturday night at Bristol with MWR poised to deliver one of the season’s most unlikely outcomes.

Battling for third place, Jimmie Johnson and Ragan collided off the second turn. Ragan made contact with Bowyer, spun into the wall with heavy damage and finished 40th.

Bowyer got punted by Brad Keselowski and fell to 12th for repairs, but he rebounded and drove all the way to fifth over the final 100 laps.

“I drove my ass off and just came up short,” Bowyer said. “But (crew chief) Billy Scott and all these guys, they’re digging.

“It’s fun to be a part of a group that can answer the call. When you’ve got to dig down and reach down and get a little bit more to get in that Chase and be a part of an elite group. These guys are up for the challenge. They are really finding that extra something that you have to find for a championship-caliber team to compete.”

With the specter of unemployment looming, Bowyer’s team is trying to stay laser-focused through extraordinary circumstances that easily could undermine morale.

But the esprit de corps was evident at Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota as driver and owner made the rounds congratulating team members. Eventually, their paths crossed while Bowyer was being interviewed.

“Good job, bud,” Kauffman told his driver.

“Sorry, man,” Bowyer replied.

Though not his fault, he still was hung up on the wreck that ruined an impressive run for Ragan, who had qualified in the top five for the third time in the past six races after replacing Brian Vickers (blood clots) in the No. 55 two months ago.

“Really bad deal,” Bowyer said. “It’s just frustrating. David has done such a good job with coming in and stepping up to the plate, filling in that seat and that void and being a great teammate.”

It still wasn’t a total loss for the team. Clinging to the final provisional spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Bowyer increased his cushion with two races remaining in the regular season.

He has a 35-point lead on Aric Almirola after his first top five since June 29 at Sonoma and his fourth top 10 in the past five weeks.

“You don’t want to get in the Chase and be just part of it and be the first one out,” said Bowyer, who lost 27 points off his lead with a 41st last week at Michigan International Speedway. “You want to hit this thing with stride, momentum, confidence.

“We had a big hiccup last week, but nonetheless, we were again a top-five car. These are the cars we’ve got to keep unloading. It’s fun to see these guys step up to the plate when we need it.”

Kauffman seemed pleased, too, but stopped short of agreeing he was “reveling” in a strong finish after a difficult week.

“We only really revel if you have Gatorade and confetti on the car,” he said. “A top five is nice, but we’re here to win.”

They won’t be much longer.

But Saturday night at least proved the team’s true grit.

Kauffman might not be done gritting his teeth — for a good reason.

 

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.

Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

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The most anticipated NASCAR team in years started with a joke.

Denny Hamlin said he was only kidding about owning a Cup team with Michael Jordan after reports linked the two in such an endeavor.

“Looks like we’re owners together, ha, ha,” Hamlin told Jordan. “Congratulations. He said, ‘Fake news, but if you want to make it real news, let me know.’ ”

Suddenly a team that will have Jordan and Hamlin as partners, Bubba Wallace as driver and potentially a far-reaching impact on the sport and Black community was born. Jordan said it all happened within 10 days.

Jordan and Hamlin discussed exclusively with NBC Sports and Fox on Wednesday their vision for their new team. Jordan, a six-time NBA champion and Hamlin a three-time Daytona 500 winner both look to win and plan to stay around for a long time.

Details have yet to be announced about a car number, sponsors, and manufacturer, although the team is expected to run Toyotas and align with Joe Gibbs Racing. Jordan, who becomes the first Black majority car owner since Wendell Scott, said Wednesday that when the sport opens up the infield to more than drivers and teams, he’ll be at the track often.

Hamlin admits Jordan’s reaction to his joke stunned him. It was only last November when Jordan told Dale Earnhardt Jr. in an interview on NBC before the championship race that he didn’t plan to be an owner.

“I’ve got a lot on my plate,” Jordan told Earnhardt then. “I love being a fan. I still understand the sport, but in terms of ownership, nah, I think I’m just going to sit back and watch it and support from afar.”

Jordan told NBC Sports on Wednesday that the timing was right when Hamlin joked with him.

“It was one of those things, again, it’s always been on my mind,” Jordan said of NASCAR team ownership. “I go with my gut feeling. When the time is right you know it. When this was presented to me, I felt good about it. When Bubba was involved in the whole conversation I felt good about it.

“My biggest conversation to Denny was, ‘Look, I don’t want to get in there just to go around the races and just go around and around and around and finish up 18th, 19th, 20th, 30th. I want to win. I want to be put in a position for the best chance for us to win. That’s my competitive nature. That’s always been who I am.

“When we got into this dialogue and I saw that OK, I might have a chance if we can put together the right situation to possibly win. That became more intriguing. That was my mindset going into this.

“I remember the conversation with Dale Earnhardt (last November). In essence, I love the sport. I was looking for an entry opportunity. This was the opportunity that was just presented to me in just the last 10 days.”

Hamlin said the competitive nature he and Jordan both have will ensure that “we will not do this team halfway. It will be a top-tier team sooner than later.” Hamlin said he will continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing while owning the team with Jordan.

“I have very good faith that Bubba is going to have everything that he needs to be capable of winning, and I think he’s got the talent to do it,” Hamlin said. “But still there would be growing pains here and there just like any team would have.”

Brad Daugherty, the only Black co-owner of a Cup team before Jordan’s entry, is looking forward to what Jordan’s team will do.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and teammate to Jordan on the University of North Carolina basketball team. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Part of the timing being right was the social change NASCAR has gone through this year. Drivers put together a video in a show of support for the Black community in June. NASCAR banned the Confederate flag at its tracks and races soon after. Drivers rallied around Wallace in June at Talladega it was thought he was a victim of a hate crime.

Jordan said one of his main goals is to create more opportunities for Black people in racing.

“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s absolutely huge. To me, you’re basically diving into a situation where very few Black people have been present into the NASCAR arena. In essence, you’re going in with the opportunity to expand that and to give a different lens to NASCAR as a whole. For so long, it’s been viewed from a negative aspect with the Confederate flag and all these other things that occurred.

“Now you go in with NASCAR making an effort to change the perspective and try to attract and connect to the next generation without losing something for today’s authenticity of the sport presented an opportunity for me to get involved in this whole process and know that I am spearheading a thought process of Blacks getting involved in NASCAR when in essence very few have since 1960s (when Wendell Scott competed and owned his own cars).”

Although Jordan unquestionably is the biggest celebrity to enter NASCAR, the sport’s history is littered with former athletes and celebrities who have come and gone as co-owners in teams.

Jordan said he plans to be in the sport for a long time.

“I’m not doing this to try to look at the financials,” Jordan said. “The financials are part of the process, but my passion drives me more than the financials. If I invest or not invest, I was still going to call Denny each and every Sunday and ask him what the hell is he doing, is he going to win today, what is he going to do, what happened?

“I’ve been a fan for so long, so I’m always going to be that. With making money or losing money, I’m going to be a fan to NASCAR. This is authenticity in the making for me in that I’m involved in something that I truly, truly love and I wake up each and every weekend looking forward to each and every race.”

Jordan’s interest goes to his childhood when his father used to take his family to the race.

“He was a big car person,” Jordan said of his father. “He used to work on engines for years. He became a big stock-car fan and he bredded us to do the same. Went to Darlington, Rockingham, Charlotte, Talladega. (Long-time NASCAR car owner) Hoss Ellington used to be from Wilmington and he used to work on cars with Hoss Ellington way back in the day. I’ve been involved in car racing for a long period of time as a fan.”

Jordan’s entrance has created an excitement in the sport for what he can potentially deliver in terms of a wider audience and potential connections with different companies. But there’s only so much one person can do to help elevate the sport. It is a more complicated puzzle.

“I’m a fan of the sport first,” Jordan said. “I love sports. I love, love NASCAR. I don’t go into with the idea and concept that I’m trying to change and shape NASCAR. I go in with my passion. I hope that whoever knows Michael Jordan or whoever supports Michael Jordan, whoever supports NASCAR see this as an opportunity to enjoy the sport.

“If we can introduce it to the next generation, to at least gauge an interest, that’s a beginning there. How that translates economically, I have no understanding of that. Those are things that I’m not in control of. All I can do is show the passion for the sport and hopefully people can understand that passion and adapt to that.

“The business aspect is the business aspect. … I go in because I love sports and then I get all these different other conversations, all these other people calling, saying, ‘hey, look, that’s pretty interesting, I would love to be involved.’ To me, that’s change. That’s how this is going to work. It may not work from a perspective of what people may expect.

“I don’t know what the agendas may be or what the barometer may be, but at the end of the day, I love that I got involved in NASCAR and if people appreciate that and want to be a part of that, great. If not, it’s not going to change my involvement. I just want to continually win.”

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Las Vegas Truck lineup

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Brett Moffitt will lead the Las Vegas Truck lineup to the green flag in Friday night’s payoff race.

Moffitt is coming off his runner-up finish to Sam Mayer in last week’s Truck playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Tyler Ankrum will start second in Friday night’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He’ll be followed by Grant Enfinger, Sheldon Creed and Chandler Smith. Austin Hill starts 11th, last among the playoff drivers.

Click here for Truck starting lineup

The Las Vegas Truck lineup is set by using a formula based on four statistical categories: owner points position, owner final race position, the finish and fastest lap from the most recently completed race.

Performance Metrics Qualifying is a total number based on the previous race. The formula is 15% of a fastest lap time position, 25% of the driver’s final race finish position, 25% of the owner’s final race position and 35% of the owner points position. Any ties will be broken by the rule book.

 

NASCAR Truck Series at Las Vegas 

Race time: 9 p.m. ET, Friday

Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway; Las Vegas, Nevada (1.5-mile speedway)

Length: 134 laps (201 miles)

Stages: Stage 1 ends Lap 30. Stage 2 ends Lap 60.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Motor Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); mrn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Lineup: Click here for Truck starting lineup

Next Xfinity race: Saturday at Las Vegas (200 laps, 300 miles), 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Next Cup race: Sunday at Las Vegas (267 laps, 400.5 miles), 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Las Vegas Xfinity lineup

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Chase Briscoe will lead the Las Vegas Xfinity lineup to the green flag as the series begins its playoffs Saturday night.

Briscoe enters the playoffs after his seventh win of the season last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. He has seven victories so far, two more than Austin Cindric who will start second Saturday night.

Justin Allgaier, who has won three of the last seven races, starts third. He’s followed by Ross Chastain and Harrison Burton. Michael Annett starts 13th, last among the playoff drivers.

Click here for Xfinity starting lineup

The opening round of the Xfinity playoffs goes to Talladega after Las Vegas and ends with the Charlotte Roval. The playoff field will be cut to eight drivers at Charlotte.

The Las Vegas Xfinity lineup is set by using a formula based on four statistical categories: owner points position, owner final race position, the finish and fastest lap from the most recently completed race.

Performance Metrics Qualifying is a total number based on the previous race. The formula is 15% of a fastest lap time position, 25% of the driver’s final race finish position, 25% of the owner’s final race position and 35% of the owner points position. Any ties will be broken by the rule book.

NASCAR Xfinity Series at Las Vegas 

Race time: 7:30 p.m. ET, Saturday

Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway; Las Vegas, Nevada (1.5-mile speedway)

Length: 200 laps (300 miles)

Stages: Stage 1 ends Lap 45. Stage 2 ends Lap 90.

TV coverage: NBCSN

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: NBC Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Lineup: Click here for Xfinity starting lineup

Next Truck race: Friday at Las Vegas (134 laps, 201 miles), 9 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Cup race: Sunday at Las Vegas (267 laps, 400.5 miles), 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN