(Photo courtesy Jennifer LaFever)

Jennifer LaFever: Maximizing the power in Roush Yates Racing Engines

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It would not be a stretch to say Jennifer LaFever is power hungry.

But that’s a good thing.

As quality manager for Roush Yates Racing Engines, it’s LaFever’s job to make sure every high-horsepower engine the company manufactures is as powerful as it can be when it’s placed under the hood of a NASCAR Sprint Cup or Xfinity race car or a Camping World Truck Series truck.

“We’re manufacturing a product and sending it out to be tested in real life, in real time,” LaFever told NASCAR Talk. “It’s being used by the end user and it better perform the way they want or else they’re going to be on our doorstep, asking why it didn’t.”

The 32-year-old California native worked in semiconductor tooling as an engineer after she graduated from the University of California-Davis. But the longtime race fan just didn’t feel her life was complete.

She moved to North Carolina to train at the NASCAR Technical Institute, landed an internship in the quality department at Roush Yates Engines, graduated and was promoted to her current role – all within about a year’s time.

“I quickly became a key player in the department,” LaFever said. “When I graduated from NTI, they said, ‘Hey, can you run the department?’ So I took on that. It shocked me that they trusted me, it really escalated quickly and the rest is history.”

LaFever’s hands touch and her eyes inspect every engine that Roush Fenway Racing, Team Penske, Richard Petty Motorsports and other Ford-associated teams purchase or lease from Roush Yates Engines.

In so doing, she was directly part of several high points this season including Joey Logano’s Daytona 500 win, Logano’s three consecutive wins in Round 2 of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, all of Logano’s six wins, as well as teammate Brad Keselowski’s performance.

“Every person in this building essentially touches an engine before it leaves, so every individual in our company is vital to that engine winning on Sunday, to winning a race or championship or just performing well every week,” LaFever said. “It is personally gratifying to see that win, to see that checkered flag show up in our hallway.”

But LaFever also gets gratification – and takes great pride in doing so – by being an example for and mentor to other young females who hope to carve out their own careers in the technical side of NASCAR racing or other forms of motorsports.

“I was a young female once and even with the passion and confidence I do have, I’ve had my moments of doubt and struggle, where there was someone resisting me and it did seem like it was just because I was a girl,” LaFever said. “Because I had those struggles, I am compassionate towards females who are going through those sorts of things. It really reignites the passion I have when I’m able to share my story and to encourage a female who’s feeling like the world’s against them.”

LaFever remains an advisor to NTI and is heavily involved in other programs that support female diversity in the industry.

“While I was in school, I found myself mentoring other females,” LaFever said. “A lot of females come into this industry thinking they’re the minority, are going to hang their head low and just do their thing and stay under the radar, not draw attention to themself because they don’t want to stand out or don’t want to make a mistake because it gets blown up.

“You can’t live your life like that. You have to go into it saying I’m a human being, this is what I have a passion for and this is what I want to do.”

Roush Yates Racing Engines employs about 200 people, with half of those dedicated solely to NASCAR racing. Many of LaFever’s co-workers also graduated from NTI, extending a kinship that formed when they were taking classes and hoping to someday make it in motorsports.

That’s why LaFever is the encouraging type. When others in training say they can’t do something, LaFever proves to them they indeed can.

“Male or female, whatever race you are, it’s not going to stop me because this is where I want to be and I have the credentials and experience to be here, as well as the passion,” LaFever said. “Passion is the biggest thing. I actually became a tutor at the California campus (of NTI before moving to North Carolina) and even male students were having doubts or struggling in their classes.

“Because I was older and had already been to college and worked in the industry, I was able to pass that information along. If this is what you want to do and keep working hard, you are going to get there. And I feel my story proves that. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re male or female, if you have the right credentials and work hard, you just have to do the work and do the work right. If this is what you want to do and you keep working hard, you are going to get there. I really feel like my story proved that.

“When you have conversations like this and people ask you questions … it reminds me that this is kind of a big deal, it is pretty cool and I should tell more people about it because maybe more people would want to be part of what I’m doing.”

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Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth to start at rear at Kentucky

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth each will start at the rear in Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway after their cars failed pre-race inspection twice.

Truex was to have started ninth. Kenseth was to have started 17th in the 38-car field.

Truex has won two of the last three races at Kentucky. Kenseth is coming off a runner-up finish last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky: Start time, lineup and more

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The final 10-race stretch of the regular season begins for the Cup Series Sunday at Kentucky Speedway.

After years of mostly only racing under the lights there, the series will race in the daytime.

Can Kyle Busch, who starts from the pole, earn his first Cup win of 2020?

Here’s all the info you need for Sunday’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START:  The command to start engines is at 2:43 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:54 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 2:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 2:35 p.m by Darrell and Stevie Waltrip. The national anthem will be performed at 2:36 p.m. by Robert Randolph.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400.5 miles) around the 1.5-mile speedway.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 25

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 1:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms with a high of 79 degrees and a 58% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Kevin Harvick beat Matt Kenseth to win the Brickyard 400.

LAST RACE AT KENTUCKY: Kurt Busch defeated younger brother Kyle Busch for the win.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Front Row Motorsports reaching new heights without practice

NASCAR to team: Address “complacency” toward COVID-19 protocols

Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’m smarter, stronger’ after COVID-19 episode

Stage is set for Cup teams in race for points

Glow in the dark: Cup cars get new look for All-Star Race

Here is what upcoming NASCAR Cup races fans can attend

NASCAR reveals schedule through end of Cup regular season

Harvick takes hot streak to Kentucky, one of his last winless tracks

Power Rankings after Indianapolis: Kevin Harvick back to No. 1

Zach Price, Ryan Blaney’s injured tire changer, to miss Kentucky

 

Racing community mourns driver killed after crash at Langley Speedway

Photo: Mark Wertz
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Shawn Balluzzo, an 11-time track champion at Langley Speedway, died after a crash in a modified race Saturday night, the track confirmed. Balluzzo was 64.

Balluzzo, who won 16 of the Hampton, Virginia track’s 17 modified races in 2019, died after his car went over the hood of another and hit the Turn 2 wall at about 70 mph, according to The Virginian-Pilot. The newspaper reported that safety personnel cut the roof of Balluzzo’s car off to extricate him.

Saturday’s twin modified races were the first of the season for that series at the track. Belluzzo finished second in the opening race.

Balluzzo and his daughter Bryce were featured last year by WAVY TV 10, which chronicled Bryce’s battle with leukemia.

 

Tributes to Shawn Balluzzo were abundant Sunday morning and came from throughout the racing community.

 

Cole Custer ready for encore of first career Cup top-5 finish

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Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway will be a night and day difference.

In recent years, the Cup race at the 1.5-mile Sparta, Kentucky track has primarily been a nighttime affair. Teams have compiled big notebooks of data from racing under the lights.

That won’t be the case Sunday, as the green flag is slated to drop at 2:54 p.m. ET.

While this will be his first career Cup start at Kentucky, rookie Cole Custer is no stranger to the track, having won last summer’s Xfinity race there – and scored consecutive fifth-place finishes in the two preceding races in 2017 and 2018.

“It’s something that you definitely see a difference in the track, I feel like, when it’s day and when it goes to night,” Custer said in a media teleconference. “So trying to figure out how you want to adjust your car to kind of a slicker track is gonna be pretty important.

“And also the biggest difference is we don’t have all the practice sessions before the race to work in the track. You saw that Thursday night with the Xfinity race, there was dust all over. The bottom lane was not worked in very well, so it’s gonna take a little while for that bottom lane to work in. We’re gonna see how worked in it is by the time we get to our race.

“There’s a lot of differences, honestly, but, at the same time it’s still the same track. It’s a really edgy racetrack because it’s new pavement, it’s a repave, so the tires are a little bit harder. The track takes a little bit of time to get worked in and you have that PJ1 (traction compound), so you’re able to take things from the Xfinity car – what lines kind of worked there and how it changed throughout the weekend – so basic characteristics with the track you’re able to kind of carry over. But at the same time, the feel in the car is completely different and how you work traffic and things like that.”

Custer enters Sunday’s race ranked 25th in the Cup standings, the lowest position of the four major drivers in this year’s Cup rookie class (Tyler Reddick is 18th, John Hunter Nemechek is 22nd and Christopher Bell is 24th).

“There’s definitely been a lot of learning, for sure,” Custer said. “Obviously, these cars are a lot different than what the Xfinity cars were, so trying to wrap your head around that and figure out how to effect every little thing, whether it’s passing or restarts or how to work traffic or pit road, just anything about it, you’re trying to make sure you’re getting 100 percent out of it.

“It’s always going to be challenging being a rookie, but at the same time it’s probably been a little bit more challenging this year because you don’t have practice, we didn’t have rookie testing, and these cars are a big difference from the Xfinity Series. It’s hard to do that without the practice time.

“I think it pushes all of us to be better because we all want to compete against each other and make sure we’re not falling behind too much. I think it’s just a matter of you still have to focus on yourself most of the time. If you’re focused on other people, you’re not gonna be making yourself better and working on your own problems. But at the same time it does push you to make sure you’re pushing yourself as much as you can.”

Custer is coming off his first top-five finish of the season at Indianapolis last weekend. He  has just one other top 10 in the first 16 races.

Still, Custer’s finish at Indy, which included pushing Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick to the win, leaves Custer optimistic heading into this weekend.

“At that point, my best shot was to push Kevin and that might have got me in a better position to try and maybe make a move to try to win the race also,” Custer said. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking. I mean, you’re coming to that line and you’re like, ‘I’ve got to do this right. This is important right here. We need this.’

“So I’ve been in those situations before where you’ve got to push people if you’re running up front in the Xfinity cars or the Truck Series or whatever it is, so you have experience doing that kind of stuff, but doing it at this level puts that much more pressure on it and you’re at the Brickyard 400 so you want to make it happen. It was definitely nerve-wracking, but it was something that we were able to kind of control those nerves and make sure that we do our jobs right.

“Now I feel like we’re at a good point where we’re putting it all together and get close to affect all those little things. But you have to do it on a consistent basis and I think we’re gaining on that.”

The driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang has his work cut out for himself Sunday, starting 29th.

“I feel like I’ve already spent hours trying to figure that out,” Custer quipped. “It’s definitely gonna be a tough race.

“It looks like it’s gonna be a really dominant top lane kind of race, so that makes it a little bit tough to pass. But at the same time, the track is gonna be changing throughout the whole weekend, so it’s hard to tell exactly what our race is gonna be like yet.

“You’re trying to work through all the different possibilities in your mind of what our race might look like. But overall I feel like it’s gonna be a track position race. You’re gonna want to try to get towards the front on restarts and on pit road, and from there you’re just trying to run a solid race without having mistakes.”

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