NASCAR’s Next Generation: Q&A with James Bickford

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James Bickford‘s family knows a bit about racing. His father’s brother is John Bickford, stepfather of recently retired NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon.

James Bickford’s pursuit of a racing career, which started in 2002, has led to being a member of NASCAR Next, a program that spotlights the sport’s emerging stars.

The Napa, California, native has racing goals that have nothing to do with his driving ability. Bickford, the 2014 Pro Series West Rookie of the Year, wants to fund a race team with a business he owns. At 17, Bickford’s off to a good start as owner of Pacific Vending, an operation of 50 candy vending machines he inherited in late 2014 from a family friend who wasn’t using them.

“It was something that I thought of, just to try something of owning my own business and get a different business perspective,” Bickford told NASCAR Talk.

Bickford’s primary focus is on his racing career, which saw him win in consecutive seasons (2014-15) in the K&N Pro Series West (both wins were at State Line Speedway in Post Falls, Idaho).

His most recent career step was moving to the Charlotte, North Carolina, area to seek his next racing opportunity after the end of the contract with his KNPSW team.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NASCAR Talk: Before you moved, how often did you get out to the Charlotte area?

James Bickford: Not often enough. My kind of ideal is that I’m moving series as well, trying to move into the East series. My contract with (team owner) Bob Bruncati was up, so out of sight, out of mind if you’re trying to race on the East Coast unless you’re out here involved in different activities and various events that they have, whether it’s for NASCAR Next, a racing event or needing to meet with a sponsor that’s going to sponsor you, you need to be readily available on the East Coast.

NT: Because you’ve been a part of NASCAR Next, how many opportunities have been open to you in that sponsorship area?

Bickford: (It’s) put me in the position necessary to open up sponsorship. We’ve done various events for NASCAR Next, and one of the events I participated in, we actually got to go to Charlotte Motor Speedway and be around for the entire (October race) weekend. That included going to the NASCAR R&D Center and enjoying that area and also meeting with the executives of NASCAR and asking them questions and getting more detailed information about the future of NASCAR and where it’s heading. Each NASCAR Next driver got to shadow a driver, and I got to shadow AJ Allmendinger. So it put me in a whole different group of people, and I was able to speak to some of the people from Freightliner and some people from Kroger and the sponsors AJ Allmendinger is supported by. That was a great opportunity. I was able to speak in front of these people and it put me in front of a possible person of interest that I would need in the future to continue my career.

ROSEVILLE, CA - OCTOBER 11: James Bickford, driver of the #6 Sunrise Ford/Interstate Plastics/Lucas Oil Ford, drives during the NASCAR K&N Toyota/NAPA Auto Parts 150 at the All American Speedway on October 11, 2014 in Roseville, California. (Noah Graham/NASCAR via Getty Images)
James Bickford drives during the NASCAR K&N Toyota/NAPA Auto Parts 150 at the All American Speedway on Oct. 11, 2014 in Roseville, California. (Noah Graham/NASCAR via Getty Images)

NT: Had you met AJ Allmendinger before that?

Bickford: I had never met him before and the first time was when I was dropped off in front of his hauler and given a contact. They really didn’t set up what was going to happen, so it was really unexpected because they didn’t know what the driver was going to want to do with us. They just knew we were shadowing them.

NT: You were just dropped off like it was your first day of school?

Bickford: Exactly, I could have been told ‘Hey, hi. This is the 47 hauler. OK. Thanks, bye.’ Or it could have been the complete opposite end. I think I was the only one where AJ actually put me on the spot, and he gave me a chance to talk to all of these people, and I’m talking to 150 people in the Freightliner hauler and 20 to 30 people outside his hauler with the sponsors and very important people. Obviously, he trusted me enough to talk to these people. I was thrown off guard, I thought I was just going to be standing and watching everything, but I also got to participate as well.

NT: What was your takeaway from talking with AJ Allmendinger?

Bickford: It completely exceeded my expectations. What I was able to take away from everything is what a Cup driver experiences on a regular race day and on top of that, I was able to experience what it’s like to present yourself at a Cup level in front of sponsors, and that’s critical. You almost play it as if it’s a game to try and make the people that support you enjoy themselves. You’re not just there to talk to them, you’re there to interact and be a part of their day and when you walk out of that hauler, they’re saying ‘Wow, I’m glad I got to see or meet AJ Allmendinger. He was such a nice guy.’ I think that’s the goal, I know that’s the goal for all of the Cup drivers, and I was able to realize that from being a part of the program.

NT: What’s the one track you’re looking forward to visiting for the first time as a driver and a spectator?

Bickford: I would have to go with probably Bristol or maybe Auto Club (Speedway) because it’s an oval in California. That’s a pretty tough question. To me, any Cup track. Going to Phoenix was like the biggest deal ever to me. I went from racing at All-American Speedway to racing at Phoenix International Raceway, and that’s the first Cup track I’ve participated on. It was completely a surreal experience. To be on the same track as a Cup driver is a privilege to anybody, and it really states who you are as a driver.

NT: What’s your favorite candy?

Bickford: I’d probably say jelly beans.

NT: Favorite flavor?

Bickford: Either sour cherry or berry blue.

NT: What’s a phone app not related to social media that you use the most?

Bickford: Probably Spotify. Maybe an hour a day or so.

NT: What’s your go-to playlist?

Bickford: Anything by G-Eazy.

NT: What’s your favorite G-Eazy song?

Bickford: My favorite G-Eazy song right now is “Calm Down” and then overall it’s probably “Get Away.”

NT: Who is a celebrity outside of racing that you’re dying to meet?

Bickford: Either Brodie Smith or G-Eazy.

NT: Who is Brodie Smith?

Bickford: I also play Frisbee, so I’m a big Frisbee fan. He does trick shot videos and plays on an Ultimate Frisbee team. Me and my friends have been dying to meet him. He actually went out to a NASCAR race and did a trick shot video at the (2014) Daytona 500, and I was so bummed because I didn’t get a chance to meet him.

Previous NASCAR Next Q&A’s:

Long: A sigh of relief punctuates the end of Daytona Speedweeks

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When it was over, when a Daytona Speedweeks that featured outrage and exhilaration saw its final checkered flag, there was little euphoria, many anxious moments and eventually a sigh of relief.

Confusion and concern reigned on pit road after Ryan Newman’s horrific crash at the end of Monday night’s Daytona 500. Racing for the win, Newman’s car slammed into the wall before the start/finish line, was struck while upside down by Corey LaJoie’s car and slid down the track, a shower of sparks trailing, before coming to rest beyond the exit of pit road.

A conversation on one team’s radio said Newman was out of the car, but others on pit road said he was not. With drivers and teams parked closer to pit entrance after the race, no one could tell what was happening at the other end of pit road.

Safety crews needed more than 10 minutes to roll Newman’s car over, attend to him and cut the crumpled roof off to extricate the 42-year-old father of two.

Moments earlier, Ryan Blaney pushed Newman past Denny Hamlin into the lead on the backstretch of the final lap. Blaney attempted to pass on the frontstretch, but Newman blocked. Blaney realized he was going to finish second and wanted to ensure a Ford won, so he pushed Newman. But one bump unsettled Newman’s car, triggering the incident.

Afterward, Blaney stood with his crew by his car on pit road for several minutes but little was said. They waited to hear about Newman’s condition. As many did.

When he talked to the media, Blaney’s face was ashen and his eyes blank as he recounted a last lap he’d like to forget but likely never will.

“I hope he’s alright,” Blaney said. “That looked really bad. Definitely unintentional. … Just waiting to see if he’s OK.”

As he spoke, an ambulance sped past, taking Newman to Halifax Health Medical Center.

Until the end of the Daytona 500, Speedweeks had provided its fill of drama, intrigue and bliss.

It started with the Busch Clash the week before where all 18 cars were involved in an at least one accident and winner Erik Jones was collected in three incidents. The main story that day, though, was Brad Keselowski’s  anger toward teammate Joey Logano for an accident that collected both and Kyle Busch.

A few days later the focus returned to racing. Logano won his qualifying race and William Byron won his qualifying race, his first Cup victory at Daytona. But Daniel Suarez suffered heartbreak when he was involved in a crash and failed to qualify for the 500.

The following night saw Jordan Anderson finish second by one-hundredth of a second, but he celebrated as if he won. The 28-year-old has raced in the Truck series most of the past five years but it hasn’t been easy. He has often pulled his truck in a dually and struggled to find funding. He sold equipment to help keep his team going in the offseason and purchase the truck he ran at Daytona.

After finishing second, Anderson couldn’t stop smiling.

“This finish tonight … is for every underdog in America, every kid that stays up late and works on his dirt late model or legends car and dreams of coming to Daytona,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, this finish tonight encourages them to never give up on their dreams.”

Less than 24 hours later, Noah Gragson was burning up the track. Literally.

Gragson celebrated his first Xfinity win with an extended burnout that had some rubber burning on the track.

“I caught the track on fire,” the 21-year-old driver for JR Motorsports said. “I thought that always would be really, really cool to catch the track on fire from doing a burnout, and I was able to do that.”

A Sunday filled with sunshine started with Air Force One delivering President Donald J. Trump. He spoke briefly to fans. They serenaded him with chants of “U-S-A!” He gave the command to start engines and his motorcade led the field on a pace lap, something never before done in a race. But rain delayed the start and the electricity that had built faded when the field only got 20 laps in before a second rain delay postponed the race to Monday.

Sunday’s energy grew through a late Monday afternoon under sunny and warm conditions. Crashes reduced the field but still left enough cars to create a dramatic win for Hamlin.

But that was overshadowed by Newman’s wreck.

And all the waiting.

Fans left the track without knowing Newman’s condition. Those at the track stood around. Nobody knew.

Informed of the severity of Newman’s crash, Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing muted their victory lane activities. A somber atmosphere hung over the track.

It was a stark reminder of how dangerous racing can be, something many have overlooked as they’ve applauded countless drivers who emerged with no serious injuries from high-flying cars that tumbled and rolled. It also showed how far safety has come in NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in 2001.

Two hours after Newman’s ambulance ride, the news came.

He was alive.

And a sigh of relief filled a silent racetrack.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends celebration by Denny Hamlin, No. 11 team

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NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. defended Denny Hamlin and his team’s celebration after winning Monday’s Daytona 500 as safety crews attended to Ryan Newman after Newman’s last-lap accident.

Hamlin and said he didn’t know the severity of Newman’s accident immediately. Car owner Joe Gibbs said the team muted their festivities in victory lane after they found out more about Newman’s situation.  

“I say to everybody out there, some people may have saw us and said, well, these guys are celebrating when there’s a serious issue going on,” Gibbs said. “I apologize to everybody, but we really didn’t know.”

Earnhardt, speaking on Tuesday’s NASCAR America, said he understood what Hamlin and his team were going through. He spoke on the 19th anniversary of his father’s fatal crash in the last lap of the Daytona 500.

“That was just so unfortunate the fallout from that,” Earnhardt said of criticism directed toward the No. 11 team for its celebrating. “I think back to 2001 when dad had his accident and Michael Waltrip had made it all the way to victory lane himself and celebrating what he feels like was the most incredible moment of his life and waiting on dad to walk right into that victory lane at any moment to celebrate with him.

“I think I can tell you … how that process can happen, how what happened with Denny and his team can easily happen. There’s a lot of other similar situations that are much like that to compare that to that make it understandable to what played out with Denny and his team.”

Roush Fenway Racing announced Monday night that Newman was in serious condition with injuries not considered life threatening. The team announced Tuesday that Newman was awake and speaking with family members and doctors. He remains at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“I just can’t stop thinking about Ryan and waiting on more news and more information and when we can see him, when can we physically talk to Ryan and put our own eyes on him and get a chance to see how he’s doing,” Earnhardt said on NASCAR America.

Earnhardt won two Daytona 500s among the 10 points races he won at Daytona and Talladega. He was asked on the show about how aggressive a driver has to be to win the Daytona 500.

“I always had the most success by always trying to lead the race and it’s not physically possible to lead every single lap … I felt like that was the best defense to being involved in an accident, to being caught up in something in the middle of the pack,” Earnhardt said.

“I tried every different way to run those plate races. For me, that was always the most effective approach. It starts when you show up to the racetrack. You’ve got to be that way in practice. You’ve got to go out there, and you might tick some people off in practice that you’re so aggressive, but you’ve got to show them this is how I’m going to race. On top of that, this is what my car can do, so when the green flag drops you see my car pull out, you have confidence to follow it because you’ve seen what it can do all weekend.

“When I approached the entire race that way and the weekend that way, I really, really had a lot of success with it. Sometimes it doesn’t always work and then you start thinking maybe I’ll take a different route, maybe I’m going to sit in the back and try to take care of myself and maybe work my way up through there late in the race. You start trying different things and maybe you think you need to rethink your entire strategy, but I was always coming back around to being aggressive and having a lot of success with that.

“The only problem with that is it’s hard to do. It’s hard to push yourself to work that hard every foot of the racetrack, every straightaway, every turn, every opportunity, every run the car gets, every opportunity presented to do something with that car, it’s hard to stay on the wheel the entire race because everybody at some point has to take a break, some sort of mental break. I think the ones that can sustain that sort of tenacity and fierce competitiveness has success there.

“You see the same guys up toward the front of those races year after year. I even said it before the end of the race, Denny Hamlin, if he’s not the winner, he’s in the picture when they cross the finish line at a lot of these races at Daytona and Talladega. He proved it again that he’s one of the best. I didn’t know whether he had lost the race or not down the backstraightaway. Somehow or another he never gave up.

“If he wasn’t going to win, he was pushing somebody to the win and he put himself back in the situation of where he ends up getting the checkered flag. That attitude of never quitting, never giving up, working to try to get to the front every single inch of the racetrack is, I think, similar to Denny and what makes him so good.”

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Las Vegas

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No driver is listed for Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford on NASCAR’s preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The car is normally driven by Ryan Newman, who is in serious condition with non-life threatening injuries after his last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 Monday night. Roush Fenway Racing announced Tuesday afternoon that Newman was awake and speaking with family and doctors.

If Newman does not participate in the race, it would be the first Cup event he’s missed since the start of his full-time career in 2002 (649 starts).

There are 38 entries for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

Garrett Smithley is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Ford for his first race of the year.

Reed Sorenson is entered in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet.

Joey Logano won this race last year over Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Martin Truex Jr. won the playoff race over Kevin Harvick and Keselowski.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity Series – Boyd Gaming 300 (4 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Thirty-six cars are entered.

Truck Series driver Brett Moffitt is entered in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet.

Daniel Hemric will make his first start of the year in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Timmy Hill is entered in Hattori Racing Enterprises’ No. 61 Toyota.

Kyle Busch won this race last year over John Hunter Nemechek and Noah Gragson. Tyler Reddick won the playoff race over Christopher Bell and Brandon Jones.

Click here for the entry list.

Truck Series – Strat 200 (9 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

There are 35 trucks entered.

With a full field limited to 32 trucks, three will not make the race.

Kyle Busch is entered in the No. 51 Toyota for his first of five scheduled Truck Series races this year.

Ross Chastain is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 40 Toyota.

Busch won this race last year over Moffitt and Matt Crafton. Busch went on to sweep all five of his series starts last season. Austin Hill won the playoff race over Chastain and Christian Eckes.

Click here for the entry list.

 

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Latest on Ryan Newman, Daytona 500

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NASCAR America will have the latest on Ryan Newman after his crash at the end of Monday’s Daytona 500.

Krista Voda hosts and will be joined by Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Nate Ryan. The show will include reports from Marty Snider in Daytona Beach and Dave Burns from Roush Fenway Racing.

Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also will call in.

Today’s show airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.