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:

Truck Series gets minor name change for 2020

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Four days after the end of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series season, NASCAR announced the series will receive a minor name change for the 2020 season.

The series will be called the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series when the season starts in February at Daytona International Speedway.

This is the second name change for the series in two years.

This season saw the name change from the Camping World Truck Series, which had been the title from 2009-2018.

Gander Outdoors and Camping World are owned by the same company.

Next year will also see a different name for the Cup Series. With the series going to a new sponsorship model, it will simply be called the NASCAR Cup Series.

Silly Season Scorecard: Post-Miami edition

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NASCAR’s championship weekend in Miami has come and gone and with it came a flurry of driver announcements from teams about the 2020 racing season.

Among them was the news that Cole Custer is being promoted by Stewart-Haas Racing to the Cup Series, where he will take over the No. 41 Ford driven by Daniel Suarez this year.

Here’s a look at all the official driver announcements made so far for next season.

OPEN RIDES ANNOUNCED FOR 2020

No. 38: Front Row Motorsports must replace David Ragan, who stated Aug. 14 that 2019 would be his final season running a full schedule.

No. 36: Front Row Motorsports announced Nov. 13 it was parting ways with Matt Tifft so he could focus on his health following his seizure at Martinsville in March. Tifft said he could not commit to racing in 2020.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 1: Chip Ganassi Racing announced on Nov. 1 a multi-year extension with Kurt Busch.

No. 6: Roush Fenway Racing announced Oct. 30 that Ryan Newman would return to the car as part of the news that Oscar Mayer would sponsor the No. 6 through 2021.

No. 8: Richard Childress Racing made it official Oct. 2 that Tyler Reddick will move to Cup in 2020 and drive the No. 8 car.

No. 10: Aric Almirola confirmed Oct. 11 he signed an extension to race for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video Sept. 6 on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer was announced Oct. 17 as returning to Stewart-Haas Racing for a fourth season.

No. 17: Chris Buescher will take over the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 ride in 2020 after the team announced Sept. 25 that it would part ways with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after this season.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing announced Nov. 15 Cole Custer will replace Daniel Suarez.

No. 95: Christopher Bell moves to Cup in 2020 and will drive for Leavine Family Racing (announcement made Sept. 24).

JTG Daugherty Racing: It was announced Oct. 16 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will join Ryan Preece at the two-car team, essentially swapping seats with Chris Buescher. The team said that an announcement on car number and sponsor would come later.

Rick Ware Racing: JJ Yeley will drive one of the team’s three full-time rides.

AMONG THOSE YET TO ANNOUNCE DEALS FOR 2020

Daniel Suarez — The driver revealed Nov. 14  he would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2020 after one season driving the No. 41.

Corey LaJoie – The driver hasn’t announced his plans for 2020, but he said in October he and Go Fas Racing were “working toward” him returning to the No. 32 Ford. The team announced on Nov. 1 it would enter a technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing next year and that “2020 driver negotiations are still ongoing.”

Xfinity Series 

Ross Chastain – Kaulig Racing announced Oct. 15 he would compete full-time for the team in 2020 driving the No. 10 Chevrolet, joining Justin Haley.

Joe Gibbs Racing — Announced Oct. 17 Harrison Burton will drive its No. 20 Toyota full-time in 2020. Announced Oct. 31 Brandon Jones would return for a third year in the No. 19. Revealed Nov. 5 it would field a third full-time entry with Riley Herbst in the No. 18.

JR MotorsportsJustin Allgaier will return to the team for a fifth year in the No. 7 Chevrolet. The No. 8 car will be driven by Daniel Hemric for 21 races, Jeb Burton 11 races and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for one race. Noah Gragson will also return for a second season in the No. 9 car, while Michael Annett returns for a fourth year with the team in the No. 1 car.

Richard Childress Racing — Has not announced its driver plans for 2020, but Richard Childress said after Tyler Reddick claimed the Xfinity title that it would field a full-time entry.

Stewart-Haas Racing – The team has not announced plans for the No. 00 Ford with Cole Custer moving to Cup or whether Chase Briscoe will return to the No. 98.

JD MotorsportsJesse Little will compete full-time for the team.

Truck Series

GMS RacingDriver lineup will include Brett Moffitt, Sam Mayer, Sheldon Creed and Tyler Ankrum

Kyle Busch MotorsportsRaphael Lessard will drive the No. 4 full-time while Christian Eckes will drive the No. 18 full-time.

Hattori Racing EnterprisesAustin Hill will return to the No. 16 Toyota for a second year.

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Bump and Run: How many Cup championships will Kyle Busch win?

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How many Cup championships will Kyle Busch win in his career?

Dustin Long: Three. This winner-take-all format just makes it so difficult for anyone to collect several series titles in a row. In the future, the gold standard for drivers will be three titles and Busch will get there.

Daniel McFadin: I think Busch can at least get to four titles before it’s all said and done. Repeating in this format is hard, he’s the first to do it in six years. But given that Busch has been in the Championship 4 in all but one year under the elimination format is evidence enough for me that if anyone can get more than two it’s him.

Jerry Bonkowski: At 34 years old and having won two titles in the last five years, I think it’s very possible Busch can win another two, maybe even three more championships in his career. Even though he’s now raced full-time in Cup for 15 years, he is so competitive that I don’t see him retiring for at least another 10 years. There’s lots of championship opportunities to be had in that period of time.

What will you most remember about the Cup championship race years from now?

Dustin Long: The mistake by Martin Truex’s team with the tires and how sedate Kyle Busch’s demeanor seemed to be after he won his second series title. After being declared an underdog by many and ending a 21-race winless streak, one expected Rowdy to celebrate in a manner that would have included a bit more directed to those doubters.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.‘s tire mishap. In almost 25 years of watching and six years of covering NASCAR I can’t remember that happening in a race. For something so fluky to hamper Truex’s championship chances is remarkable. It proves anything can happen in a winner-take-all race.

Jerry Bonkowski: It was one of the calmest, most relaxed times I’ve ever seen Kyle Busch. He knew what was on the line and went out and simply did it. He didn’t get overly aggressive or tried to overdrive his car. He merely was patient, waited for the right opportunity, grabbed it for the taking at the right time and sailed on into the history books. One other thing: while the other three Championship 4 drivers and crew chiefs constantly talked about why they deserved to be the champs in interviews during the week leading up to the race, Busch and Adam Stevens were fairly quiet, didn’t fret about the 21-race winless streak and let their actions ultimately do the talking for them that needed to be done. That’s the way to do it.

Who wins a championship first: Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman or William Byron?

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. Think Toyota’s advantage carries over to next year with many other teams more focused on preparing for the NextGen car in 2021. Hamlin will finally get his moment as a champion.

Daniel McFadin: It’s a tossup between Hamlin and Elliott. Aside from Hamlin’s winless season in 2018, he and Elliott at this point feel like the only drivers who can put together consistent seasons worthy of a championship. Elliott’s steadily improved over the last three years, winning six times, while Hamlin just produced his best year in a decade. My gut says Hamlin.

Jerry Bonkowski: This could be the hardest question we’ve had all year because it could just as easily be phrased “who among these drivers will never win a championship?” You may be surprised at my answer, but I’m going with William Byron. I think another year or two with Chad Knaus and he’ll be ready to be considered a true championship contender. I’m less optimistic that any of the others will win a title any time soon.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. named honorary starter for 2020 Daytona 500

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It looks like Dale Earnhardt Jr. will complete a row on his Daytona 500-themed Bingo card next year.

Daytona International Speedway announced Monday that the NBC Sports analyst will be the honorary starter and will wave the green flag to begin the Feb. 16 Daytona 500.

A two-time winner of the “Great American Race,” it will mark the third year in a row Earnhardt has been part of the pre-race ceremonies for the event. In 2018, he gave the command to start engines and this year he was the honorary pace truck driver.

Include a win in the race, his 2011 pole as one box and that’s Bingo.

“The only thing left for Dale now is for him to sing the National Anthem prior to the Daytona 500,” said Daytona International Speedway President Chip Wile in a press release. “That probably won’t happen. But what will happen, come February, will be another outpouring of support from race fans about Dale’s involvement. There’s no way to exaggerate how much he means to the fans and to NASCAR. Any role he plays on a Daytona 500 weekend is significant.”

In the press release, Earnhardt joked “One thing is certain, I’m not doing any singing at Daytona no matter how hard they ask. But I am going to enjoy waving the green flag in February. The start of the Daytona 500 is a special moment in not only NASCAR but all of sports. I am truly honored to be part of that.”