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:

Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.

 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”