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

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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.

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.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”