When a career ends, only a few hear the cheers

Photo by Dustin Long
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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.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

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

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 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

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

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

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.