‘Earnhardt Nation’: Q&A with author Jay Busbee


Fifteen years ago, the NASCAR community experienced one of its darkest days when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

You likely remember where you were that day, which is the unavoidable focal point for anyone attempting to tell the story of the Earnhardt family and the current state of NASCAR. The former is the task Yahoo! Sports writer Jay Busbee took upon himself with his upcoming book from Harper Collins titled, “Earnhardt Nation: The Full-Throttle Saga of NASCAR’s First Family.” 

The book, which will be released on Feb. 16, sets out to document the story of the Earnhardt’s, beginning with Dale Sr.’s father, Ralph Earnhardt, and his days of racing at Metrolina Speedway in North Carolina and ending with his grandson, 13-time most popular driver and two-time Daytona 500 winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Busbee, a native of Atlanta, developed his love of the sport through NASCAR’s annual season-ending visits to Atlanta Motor Speedway. He helped establish the “From the Marbles” NASCAR blog at Yahoo in 2008 and “Earnhardt Nation” is his first NASCAR related book.

Busbee spoke with NBC Sports about the origins and challenges of the book and shared his thoughts on the Earnhardt legacy.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC: What was the impetus for you to write this book? Was it the only topic you wanted to write about or did you pick from a variety of NASCAR topics? 

Jay Busbee: No, it wasn’t so much NASCAR topics, I was kicking around a bunch of topics with my agent, and I noted to him that no one had really done a biography of the Earnhardt family from beginning to end. There are plenty of books of Senior, plenty of really bad books on Senior. I wish you could see my bookshelf right now because I got all of them. I went through all of them and they range from some of them being written immediately after Senior died and they’re sort of over the top praising and some of them are just really amateurish stuff. There have been a few on Junior, most notably the one he did himself and the one he kind of had oversight over. But there hasn’t been one on the whole family, starting with Ralph and moving forward. I saw that as kind of a real hole in the market. What I have since learned is that a lot of publishers don’t necessarily want to or they don’t think NASCAR fans buy books. Harper Collins took a chance on me, and so we are determined to prove all of those publishers wrong. There’s just not a whole a lot of NASCAR books out there.

NBC: When I think of NASCAR books, I think of coffee table books, books written by the Waltrips and books that are typically ‘remember the good old days?’ Nothing that takes an actual hard look at a certain time and place in NASCAR history.

Busbee: I think you’re exactly right, and that’s what I was looking to do — give NASCAR the serious, honest, literary treatment. I’m not saying I’m so literary of an author, but give it the serious, honest treatment that it deserves. We’ve got some great writers in this sport. Ed Hinton could go toe-to-toe with anybody. These guys are great, and the sport deserves to have more literary recognition and more awareness. This is hopefully my small contribution to that.

Earnhardt NationNT: What was your research like? What sources did you seek out for this?

Busbee: I didn’t get to talk to the family, I reached out to them, and some of them I never heard from, some of them I heard from directly and they said ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ and they decided not to participate. I had talked to either the family or representatives of the family, and some of them were deeply considering it, but decided in the end not to talk to me. That was unfortunate, but the truth is most of the family has spoken enough in other places that I’ve gotten good commentary from them from other locations. Like Kelley Earnhardt has got a podcast, Dale Jr., that guy spills out his soul every week at a press conference. Then a lot of times, to get the true picture, it’s helpful not to talk to the subject, but to the people around the subject as you know. I had a lot of people that were very, very willing to help. Ranging from close, long-time friends, childhood friends, right on through to people that had one or two encounters with one of the Earnhardt’s. I tracked down a guy who used to race strictly stocks with Dale Jr. in Myrtle Beach, and they would tell stories about what they did back in the old days or guys like Eddie Gossage at Texas (Motor Speedway). He knew Senior back when they were just starting out in the late ’70s, early ’80s. He had some good stories then. That was my main approach.

NBC: With the prologue you wrote, there really isn’t another way you can start this story without starting on Feb. 18, 2001, right?

Busbee: Yeah, I thought about that, and I didn’t actually start it there. The first time that I wrote it, the first draft started with what is now a separate prologue, which is now part of chapter one and it starts at the Metrolina Speedway and it was a little bit more touchy feely I guess. It sets up the players there because the Metrolina Speedway was such a critical part of the development of the Earnhardt legend. But my editors and I discussed it and as painful as it is, as awful as it is, that date in 2001, that’s what it all revolved around. That’s where everything changed literally, symbolically, metaphorically, whatever you want to use. Everything rotates around that date and that moment. We’re 15 years past it now and it’s still a fresh wound for a lot of people, but we can start to get a historical distance on it and yeah, any story about the Earnhardt’s has to pivot around that date and always will.

NBC: In all of your research, what was the biggest tangent you went on to follow a story that you wanted to include in the book?

Busbee: There was a period of time in the early 2000s where Junior was just a flat-out celebrity. There’s just no way around it. After his father’s death, he became this huge celebrity in a People magazine sense. He was even in People’s Sexiest Men Alive issue. It was pretty funny running down that aspect, and all these people that wanted to meet him – Sheryl Crow wanted to meet him, Mötley Crüe wanted to meet him. He would go hang out with Ludacris and all this stuff, and I don’t think he does as much of that now, but for a short time there in his late 20s, early 30s, he was really living the celebrity life.

NBC: What surprised you the most about the Earnhardt family? Was there something about Dale Sr. you didn’t know?

Busbee: Senior, what fascinated me was once someone dies as you know, they become an icon, they become not a person, but an icon. What I found in talking to people is that Dale Sr., yeah he was an icon, he was that nine-foot statue (that’s) in Kannapolis, but he was a flawed human being just like all the rest of us. There were times he liked to joke around with people. His jokes would be flat-out mean sometimes. He could be a jackass to people, as we all can at times. I think that’s the important thing to remember is that he seemed to be by all accounts a good and decent soul who was trying to make up in his last years for the mistakes he knew he had made in terms of parenting in his early years. Because he was not a great father early on, and he admitted that. Especially with Taylor, he was much closer to her than his first three kids, and I think he really tried hard to mend those fences that he had never even built with his early kids.

Earnhardts Jr. and Sr. pose for a photograph
(Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images)

NBC: We just got the Jeff Gordon farewell tour. What do you think a Dale Earnhardt Sr. farewell tour, had he gotten it, would have looked like?

Busbee: I never even thought about that. That’s a really good question. I think it would look a lot like Tony Stewart‘s is going to because he would have been pissed off that he had to retire. Obviously, Stewart has had different issues that have dogged him. But I think that both of those guys, they didn’t know anything but racing. I think Senior’s retirement tour, everybody would have been giving him grief. Everybody. There would have been rocking chairs and walkers and all kinds of stuff.

NBC: Do you think Dale Jr. finally solidified his own identity as a driver when he won his second Daytona 500?

Busbee: I think he had done it before that, but I think that certainly helped. From a symbolic perspective, when you have passed your dad, you’ve won more Daytona 500’s than he did, he won it in straight out dominating fashion. I don’t know if you were at that or you remember it, but he was winning the whole damn thing all the way through it. It was great to see. It was a dominating performance, it wasn’t a rain-delayed victory or something like that. I think that did help him. The guy is always going to carry his father’s name with him because of his name. He’s always going to be Junior. If you’re Junior, you’re Junior to something. But I think he’s really proven himself to everybody but the most die-hard fans that he is his own person, he is his own driver, he’s got his own value, if you will, he’s got his own strengths and he stands apart from his father in a way that I think his father would be proud of him now.

NBC: Hindsight being 20/20, what’s a question you would have asked Dale Sr. for the book?

Busbee: I think I’m going to steal one, there’s a pretty famous question that people ask, I can’t remember who said it and I probably should. It’s a profile question where you ask someone, ‘When were you happiest in your life and why? What moment were you happiest?’ He might well have said if I asked him that in 2001, he might have said ‘Right now, in this moment,’ because people have asked him that kind of thing. I think there are so many questions that I would have loved to have asked him: ‘Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently? What would you tell that crazy-ass Dale Earnhardt back in 1977?’ Those kinds of things. It fascinates me what people learn over the course of their lives that could have helped them earlier on and the benefits of accrued wisdom.

“Earnhardt Nation” hits shelves on Feb. 16.

Rick Hendrick hopes rough racing settles down after Chase Elliott suspension


LE MANS, France (AP) — Rick Hendrick fully supports Chase Elliott as he returns from a one-race suspension for deliberately wrecking Denny Hamlin, but the team owner believes on-track aggression has gotten out of control this season and NASCAR sent a message by parking the superstar.

“Until something was done, I think that kind of rough racing was going to continue,” Hendrick told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Elliott missed last week’s race outside St. Louis as the five-time fan-voted most popular driver served a one-race suspension for retaliating against Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The two had made contact several times, with Elliott hitting the wall before he deliberately turned left into Hamlin to wreck him.

Hamlin immediately called on NASCAR to suspend Elliott, which the sanctioning body did despite his star power and the effect his absence from races has on TV ratings. Elliott missed six races earlier this season with a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding crash and NASCAR lost roughly 500,000 viewers during his absence.

Hendrick, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with NASCAR’s special Garage 56 project, told the AP he understood the suspension. NASCAR last year suspended Bubba Wallace one race for intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson, another Hendrick driver.

“Pushing and shoving, it’s a fine line, and when someone puts you out of the race, you get roughed up, emotions take over and you react,” Hendrick said. “I think maybe guys will run each other a little bit cleaner moving forward. “We understand the suspension, and nobody really likes to have to go through that, but you just do it and move on.”

Hendrick said he believes drivers have gotten far too aggressive with the second-year Next Gen car, which has not only tightened the field but is a durable vehicle that can withstand bumping and banging. Contact that used to end a driver’s day now barely leaves a dent.

It’s led to drivers being more forceful and, in Hendrick’s opinion, too many incidents of drivers losing their cool.

“There’s rubbing. But if you just harass people by running them up into the wall, every time you get to them, you get tired of it,” Hendrick said. “And that’s what so many of them do to cause accidents, but then they don’t get in the accident themselves.

“I think everybody understands the rules. But you’ve got an awful lot of tension and when you’re out their racing like that, and you are almost to the finish, and somebody just runs over you for no reason, I think the cars are so close and it’s so hard to pass, they get frustrated.”

Elliott, with seven missed races this season, is ranked 27th in the standings heading into Sunday’s road course race in Sonoma, California. He’s been granted two waivers by NASCAR to remain eligible for the playoffs, but the 2020 champion needs to either win a race or crack the top 16 in standings to make the field.

An outstanding road course racer with seven wins across several tracks, Elliott will be motivated to get his first win of the season Sunday at Sonoma, one of the few road courses on the schedule where he’s winless.

Hendrick said when he spoke to Elliott he urged him to use caution moving forward.

“I just said ‘Hey, we’ve got to be careful with that,’” Hendrick said. “But I support him, I really do support him. You get roughed up and it ruins your day, you know, you let your emotions take over.”

Concussion-like symptoms sideline Noah Gragson

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Noah Gragson will not compete in Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway because of concussion-like symptoms he experienced this week after his crash at WWT Raceway, Legacy MC announced Thursday.

Grant Enfinger will drive the No. 42 in place of Gragson.

“Noah’s health is the highest of priorities and we commend him for making the decision to sit out this weekend,” said team co-owners Maury Gallagher and Jimmie Johnson in a statement from the team. “We are appreciative that Grant was available and willing to step in since the Truck Series is off this weekend.”

The team states that Gragson was evaluated and released from the infield care center after his crash last weekend at WWT Raceway. He began to experience concussion-like symptoms mid-week and is seeking treatment.

Gragson is 32nd in the points in his rookie Cup season.

Enfinger is available with the Craftsman Truck Series off this weekend. Enfinger is coming off a victory in last weekend’s Truck race at WWT Raceway for GMS Racing, which is owned by Gallagher. That was Enfinger’s second Truck win of the season.

NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash

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NASCAR is implementing changes to Cup cars that strengthen the right side door area and soften the frontal area after reviewing the crash between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

The changes are to be in place for the July 9 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Larson and Preece were uninjured in the vicious crash late in the race at Talladega. Larson’s car was turned and slid down the track to the apron before coming back up in traffic. Preece’s car slammed into the right side door area of Larson’s car.

Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR vice president of safety engineering, said the difference in velocity of the two cars at the time of impact was 59 mph.

“It’s pretty hard to find that on the racetrack normally,” Patalak told reporters Thursday during a briefing.

The severe impact moved a right side door bar on Larson’s car. NASCAR announced last month that it was allowing teams to add six right side door bar gussets to prevent the door bars from buckling in such an impact.

Thursday, NASCAR announced additional changes to the cars. The changes come after computer simulations and crash testing.

NASCAR is mandating:

  • Steel plate welded to the right side door bars
  • Front clips will be softened
  • Front bumper strut softening
  • Front ballast softening
  • Modified cross brace

Patalak said that NASCAR had been working on changes to the car since last year and did crash testing in January at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NASCAR did more work after that crash test.

As for the changes to the front of the car, Patalak said: “From an engineering standpoint we’re reducing the buckling strength of those individual parts and pieces. The simplified version is we are increasing the amount of crush that the front clip will be capable of. That’s all an effort to reduce the accelerations that the center section and driver will be exposed to during these frontal crashes.”

Adding the steel plate to the door bars is meant to strengthen that area to prevent any type of intrusion or buckling of the door bars in a similar type of crash.

Patalak also said that NASCAR inspected the car of Blaine Perkins that barrel rolled during the Xfinity race at Talladega in April. Patalak said that NASCAR consulted with Dr. James Raddin, Jr., who was one of the four authors of the Earnhardt investigation report in 2001 for the sanctioning body, in that incident.

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival


Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.

Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.

“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.

A historic team with historic ups and downs

Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.

Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.

Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.

A vertical bar chart showing the challenges Brad Keselowski has in driving RFK's revival

The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.

Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?

“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s record

The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.

Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.

In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.

Comparing Brad Keselowski's finishes for his last two years with Penske and his first two years (so far) with RFK RacingKeselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.

On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.

Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.

I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.

A table comparing Brad Keselowski's attempt to drive RKF's revival with his last two years of loop data at Penske

In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.

Two keys for continued improvement

Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.

Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.

Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.

The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.

What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.

In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.

Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.

Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.

Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.