‘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.

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)