Photo by Dustin Long

When a career ends, only a few hear the cheers

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — For many athletes, the cheers often are for someone else. Only a few bathe in the crescendoing chorus that celebrates a lifetime’s achievement.

Within the past six months, three of sport’s more recognized names — Gordon, Manning and Kobe — retired, walking away with highlight moments. Two of them, Jeff Gordon and Peyton Manning, will be at Bristol Motor Speedway for today’s Food City 500.

While Gordon didn’t win in his final NASCAR Sprint Cup start — he was one of four drivers racing for the championship — his November victory at Martinsville Speedway, where he jumped and shouted with childlike glee, provides an indelible image.

Three months later, Manning, who will be an honorary race official today, won the Super Bowl and left the NFL as a champion.

This past week, Kobe Bryant unleashed an awe-inducing 60-point performance in his final NBA game for the Los Angeles Lakers.

As time passes, none will be remembered as much for what they did in their final days competing but what they accomplished throughout their career.

That is why celebrities came to their final curtain call and fans showered these stars with adulation. For such celebrations, though, there are many other athletes who exit without fanfare or never know when their final event is until its well past.

LOOKING BACK

Carl Long leans against a stack of tires behind pit wall at Bristol Motor Speedway. Once a top driver at his local track, he moved up NASCAR’s ranks with limited success. He continues to race in the Xfinity Series because he can’t race in the Sprint Cup Series.

He still owes NASCAR $200,000 for a fine incurred in 2009 when his engine was found to be too large. Until the fine is paid, Long can’t drive in the Cup series.

“I’ve come to the reality for me to come up with $200,000 to pay the fine to go back on the other side and then to generate money to drive a car …’’ he said as his voice tails off.

His last Cup start in a points race came in 2006 in the Bristol summer night race. It was an event he wasn’t supposed to have run. When a car aligned with Long’s ride made the field but was left on the bubble in qualifying, Long said word was passed down to him not to bump the car because it was higher in points. He eased through his qualifying lap but still ran fast enough to make the show.

His race featured four penalties, including three for speeding on pit road, an engine that sputtered and hummed alternately and an upset stomach. After falling several laps behind, and the engine issues continuing, Long parked the car to avoid a wreck and immediately ran to the bathroom.

He attempted to make other Cup points races afterward but didn’t. Then came the penalty. And he was gone from that garage.

While circumstances differ, others also don’t know when their last Cup start has come.

David Gilliland has 330 career Sprint Cup starts and finished second twice, but he didn’t have a full-time ride after last season. He attempted to make the Daytona 500 in a third Front Row Motorsports car but didn’t. He said he’ll be entered at Talladega Superspeedway in a couple of weeks but doesn’t know if he’ll be in a Cup car for any additional events beyond that.

Brian Vickers said he wasn’t sure if he would be racing again after having to sit out multiple times because of blood clots. He’s returned to run select races for Tony Stewart, who is recovering from a back injury suffered in an all-terrain vehicle crash in January. Once Stewart returns for what will be his final season, Vickers will be left without a ride. Will it be his last or just an interlude?

BOTH SIDES

Kenny Wallace could not have imagined that when he climbed from his car after finishing 12th at Talladega in October 2008 he would not compete in a Cup series race again. He never won a Cup race in 344 starts. Three times he finished second, including a memorable runner-up run to Dale Earnhardt in what was Earnhardt’s last win in 2000 at Talladega.

“I have had a wonderful career and a wonderful life, but I will go to my grave upset on the inside, not fulfilled that I never won a Cup race,’’ Wallace said. “It bothers me. It is very disappointing.’’

For a driver who never made it Victory Lane in a Cup race, Wallace’s TV duties included doing shows from that location after races.

“That was the hardest thing on me, watching drivers drive into Victory Lane,’’ he said.

Nine times in the Xfinity Series, Wallace made that drive. After limited duty in 2013-14, he returned in 2015 for three races and made the exit in that series he never got a chance to do in Cup.

His record 547th Xfinity start took place last August at Iowa Speedway and became a celebration. His picture was put on a billboard at the track. He was in a Joe Gibbs Racing car. He was feted before the race for his accomplishments.

“It’s not that I needed to be loved,’’ Wallace said. “It made me feel good the everybody at Iowa recognized me, that I lived this sport. One of the things I’ll never forget is Wayne Auton, the boss of the Xfinity Series, he stood up in the drivers meeting … he said (of Wallace) ‘One of the best there ever was in the Xfinity Series.’ It caught me off guard.

“A week later, I said ‘Wayne you overdid that, I was not one of the best there ever was.’ He said, ‘Kenny Wallace, you don’t know it, but you were.’ ‘’

LOOKING AHEAD 

Gordon is gone. Stewart will be after this season. Three other Cup champions — Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth — are 40 or older. The sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is 41. None has stated they plan to retire soon, but they likely will be among those who get to choose when they leave the sport.

“Very few people get to do it on their own terms,’’ Kenseth said. “Even though I’ve been here for a long time, I never dreamed in a million years growing up in Wisconsin racing a little Late Model car that we bought for $1,800 at a little quarter-mile track that I would ever be able to do any of this stuff. Like Jeff’s been able to do and Tony … they can do it on their own terms. Yeah, if you had a choice, that’s what you want to do.”

Earnhardt, a boxing fan, cites famous boxers who did not exit with victories in their final bouts and says that didn’t diminish their aura.

“I don’t know if it’s key, critical that you have that great last race or go out on top,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s awesome if you can. A lot of guys love it so much that they don’t know how to go out when maybe they should. Or maybe they financially can’t and have to keep competing.

“I’ve always said I hope I get to make the choice on how I want to end my career, and hopefully, it’s not decided for me. When that time comes, I will handle it how I need to handle it and run as hard as I can run.’’

And when he exits the car, he’ll likely hear those cheers saved for very few.

Greg Zipadelli to serve as Clint Bowyer’s interim crew chief

Greg Zipadelli
Photo by Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images
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Greg Zipadelli, competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing, will serve as the crew chief for Clint Bowyer in Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, the team confirmed Monday.

Johnny Klausmeier will miss Saturday’s race, serving a one-race suspension because Bowyer’s car was found to have two lug nuts not safe and secure after last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Bowyer enters Saturday’s race at Michigan (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) 14th on the playoff grid. The top 16 will advance to the playoffs. Six races remain in the regular season.

Klausmeier will be able to resume his role for Sunday’s Cup race (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Michigan.

Zipadelli, who won Cup titles in 2002 and 2005 with Tony Stewart, will reprise the interim role he played earlier in the season in the Xfinity Series.

Zipadelli served as Chase Briscoe‘s crew chief for four races after crew chief Richard Boswell, the team’s car chief and an engineer were each suspended four races because ballast fell out of his car. Briscoe won three of the four races with Zipadelli as his crew chief.

Team Penske extends contract with Brad Keselowski

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Team Penske announced Monday that New Hampshire winner Brad Keselowski has agreed to a contract extension. Keselowski’s contract was to expire after this season.

A media release from the team did not state the length of the extension for Keselowski, 36. The Associated Press reported that the deal was for one year through the 2021 season.

Keselowski, who won the 2012 Cup title, has been with Team Penske since 2010, winning 31 Cup and 33 Xfinity races during that time.

“We are pleased that Brad will continue to be a part of our organization,” said Roger Penske in a statement. “Brad not only demonstrates talent and skill on the track, but his leadership away from it and his dedication to our partners have had a huge impact in making our organization one of the best in NASCAR. I am proud that we will be able to able to keep the continuity we have with Brad, Ryan (Blaney) and Joey (Logano) and look forward to competing for more wins and championships together.”

MORE: Winners and losers from New Hampshire

Said Keselowski in a statement: I have been racing for Team Penske for the vast majority of my NASCAR career and to continue to represent Roger Penske, our partners and his organization is exactly where I want to be. We’ve accomplished a lot of things together over the years, including winning both the Cup and Xfinity Championships, the Brickyard 400, the Southern 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Now, my goal is to win the Daytona 500, another championship and continue to build Team Penske into the best NASCAR team in the garage area.”

Logano is signed to at least 2022. In March, Blaney signed a multiyear extension with Team Penske.

Keselowski’s victory Sunday was his third of the season. He’s scored at least three wins in each of the past five seasons. Keselowski is second  in the points to Kevin Harvick.

GMS Racing, Brett Moffitt to honor Jimmie Johnson with special scheme

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GMS Racing and sponsor Plan B Sales have created a special paint scheme to honor seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on championship weekend in November at Phoenix Raceway.

Brett Moffitt, the 2018 Truck Series champion, will pilot the the specially adorned truck at Phoenix.

“Brett has been a part of the Plan B family and a great ambassador for our company over the years,” said Brent Powell, owner of Plan B Sales in a statement. “Last year we partnered with Brett and GMS for the Phoenix race, but this year is different with it being the season finale and Jimmie’s final (full-time Cup) weekend. It truly is an honor for us to showcase this throwback for Jimmie and hopefully see Brett clinch his second championship in our truck.”

Said Moffitt of Johnson in a statement: “I have looked up to him, leaned on him and had the utmost respect for everything he has done for our sport. This is the coolest paint scheme I’ve had in my career because of how much respect and admiration I have for Jimmie. I’m rooting for him to go out on top, and maybe we’ll both get the chance to celebrate a championship in Phoenix later this year.”

Johnson has announced this will be his final full-time Cup season. He drove a Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar in a July 28 test on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Johnson has expressed a desire to race different vehicles after this season.

 

Cup playoff grid after New Hampshire

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William Byron holds a 15-point lead on rookie Tyler Reddick for the final playoff spot in the Cup playoff grid after last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Six races remain in the regular season.

Byron finished 11th at New Hampshire, one spot behind Reddick, but Byron extended his advantage on Reddick by five points. Byron scored six stage points, while Reddick scored none.

MORE: Could New Hampshire be a sign of things to come in Cup?

MORE: Winners and losers from New Hampshire 

Jimmie Johnson fell to 25 points behind Byron for the final spot in the Cup playoff grid. Johnson overcame a spin after contact with Clint Bowyer to run in the top 10 but lost four spots in the final 20 laps to finish 12th.

“Good fight today guys,” Johnson told his team on the radio after the race. “Overcome a lot of (stuff) again.”

The series heads this weekend to Michigan International Speedway for two races. The Cup Series races there at 4 p.m. ET Saturday and at 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday. Both races will be on NBCSN.

Ten of the 16 playoff spots have been secured by drivers who have won at least one race this year: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and rookie Cole Custer.

Here is a look at the Cup playoff grid. Drivers shaded in green are locked in the playoffs. Drivers shaded in yellow are in a playoff spot based on their point total. Drivers shaded in red are outside a spot in the Cup playoff grid.

 

Cup playoff grid New Hampshire