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:

Winners and losers from Las Vegas

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WINNERS

Paul Wolfe — Great call to have Joey Logano not pit before the final restart. Of course it helped that six other cars stayed out. Still, the top two cars came down pit road and Logano, running third, stayed out and won.

Matt DiBenedettoFinishes second in his second race with the Wood Brothers.

Jimmie JohnsonScored his first top-five finish since last summer’s Daytona race.

Bubba Wallace Decision not to pit allowed him to finish sixth, giving him his best Cup finish on a 1.5-mile track.

LOSERS

Todd Gordon and Greg Ives— For every high, there is a low. Gordon apologized on the radio to Ryan Blaney for calling him to pit road while leading before the final restart. Blaney finished 11th. Ives called Bowman to pit road while running second before the final restart. Bowman finished 13th. Ives tweeted that he was “VERY frustrated with my call at the end not to game on old tires, especially in Vegas.”

19 pit crew — Martin Truex Jr.’s pit crew got him into the lead under caution after Stage 2 but he had to return to pit under that caution to tighten loose lug nuts. Said Truex after the race: “We just need to quit having mistakes on pit road.”

William ByronLined up second on the final restart but contact with Matt DiBenedetto led to a tire rub and Byron falling back before he was involved in the crash that ended race. He finished 22nd.

Ross Chastain says his finish ‘unacceptable’ in place of Newman

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He scored a 10th-place finish in the first stage and ran as high as fifth Sunday in a car he never raced before.

Ross Chastain still had a harsh evaluation of his 27th-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the No. 6 Ford, which he drove in place of an injured Ryan Newman.

Chastain finished two laps down after causing the final caution on a Lap 262 spin, which he judged “unacceptable,” along with his restart performance (“guys kind of ate me alive”) as a substitute for Roush Fenway Racing.

“It’s hard to get out of the car after you have a top-10 car, and you go and run into people and pick the wrong lanes on restarts and then spin it out at the end,” Chastain said. “That’s pretty silly. Just a lot of mistakes on my end and then at the end just overdriving and for one position to be the first car a lap down. That’s unacceptable.”

Chastain had an average running position of 16.87 over the 400-mile race, which went south after he pitted under green from 15th on Lap 217 of 267. The yellow flag flew five laps later, and Chastain took a wavearound to restart 21st.

(Photo by Will Lester/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On the restart, he made contact with Kurt Busch and pitted under green to fix a tire rub, which left him a lap down when he spun with five laps remaining.

“There were a lot of small mistakes on my end, but I learned a ton,” he said. “The car deserved a lot better finish.  Obviously, we showed that early and I just didn’t have great restarts. I just have to be better.

“RFR and everybody puts so much into these cars, and ultimately I’m the one holding the wheel.  We had such a good first stage and had so much confidence and from there I just started making mistakes.”

Chastain, who finished 10th in Sunday night’s rain-delayed Xfinity race, will be driving the No. 6 for Roush while Newman recovers from his Daytona 500 crash. In a statement from the team Sunday morning, Newman indicated he plans to drive again this season, but no timetable has been provided for his return.

Chase Briscoe wins rain-delayed Xfinity race in Las Vegas

Chase Briscoe
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Chase Briscoe won Sunday’s rain-delayed Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, beating fellow Ford driver Austin Cindric by almost three seconds to claim his third career Xfinity win.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver led 89 laps in the race, which began late Saturday afternoon but was red flagged on Lap 51 due to rain.

Briscoe and Cindric were the only Ford drivers in the field.

Ryan Sieg placed third to earn his sixth career top-five finish and his first on a 1.5-mile track.

The top five was completed by Daytona winner Noah Gragson and Harrison Burton.

“That was really a team win,” Briscoe told Fox Sports. “We were really good, then as soon as the sun went down when we were in dirty air, we just weren’t really good. In clean air, obviously there at the end we were really good. … This is something I feel we can do all year long.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

STAGE 2 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

More: Click here for race results.

More: Click here for the point standings.

WHAT’S NEXT: Production Alliance Group 300 at Auto Club Speedway at 4 p.m. ET Feb. 29 on FS1.

Chevy drivers positive about new Camaro body after Las Vegas

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Positive reviews are in from a few Chevrolet Cup drivers after their first race on an intermediate track with the updated Camaro ZL1 1LE body, which was introduced this year in an effort to improve the manufacturer’s performance after two lackluster seasons.

Those reviews are backed by the final results for Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After the chaos created by a last-lap crash, six Chevrolets finished in the top 10. They were led by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson placing in the top five.

That followed Chase Elliott leading 70 laps and winning both stages before his one-car incident in the middle of the final stage.

In last year’s spring race on the 1.5-mile track, only two Chevys – Kurt Busch (fifth) and Elliott (ninth) – finished in the top 10. Three Chevy drivers combined to lead 23 of the race’s 267 laps.

“We’re trying to just understand this new Camaro body and the setup that needs to go with it,” said Johnson. “We’re close, but there’s still a little bit more work for us to do on our car to get the balance between the clean air and the traffic closer. But for the first try on a downforce track, the guys did a really nice job.”

Johnson earned his first top five since last July’s race at Daytona. He placed 19th in this race last year.

“It’s really rewarding to see,” Johnson said. “Last year when we left here, we had quite the opposite feeling and were pretty worried about what the year was going to hold for us. So, it’s really nice to have that change of perspective now. There’s a lot of Chevys up front, one of our Hendrick cars led for a while. So, we’re going the right way.”

Johnson’s teammate, Alex Bowman, was running in second when the final caution came out inside 10 laps to go. After his team chose to pit, Bowman placed 13th.

“This new Camaro, for its first time on a downforce track, I’m just really pleased with it so far,” Bowman said. “I think it’s going to be really good for us. Obviously, I’m bummed out to finish 13th after staring at a second place or a win. But it’s part of it; it’s how racing goes. We win as a team and lose as a team. It just didn’t go our way there at the end.”

Last year, Chevrolet only earned seven wins, with two coming on 1.5-mile tracks. Bowman claimed one of those at Chicagoland Speedway.

Added Bowman: “Compared to how we started the last two seasons, I think we’ve got something for them this year.”

One Chevrolet driver said it was “still early” for assessing the new bodies.

“I think the Hendrick cars were really good,” said Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, who placed ninth. “I felt about the same as last year. So, we just have to continue to get better.”