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.

eNASCAR Pro Invitational Qualifier to be streamed online

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The qualifying race for Sunday’s eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series event at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway will be streamed on enascar.com/live, NASCAR announced.

The qualifier features Xfinity, Truck and regional series drivers looking to advance to the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race that will be at 1 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox, FS1 and the Fox Sports App. At this time, four drivers from the qualifier will advance. That number could change depending on any late additions or drops to the race featuring Cup drivers.

MORE: Roush, Greg Biffle reunite for eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race

MORE: North Wilkesboro to make its comeback on iRacing 

MORE: eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series reminds Clint Bowyer of being a rookie

The qualifier is scheduled to take place at 11:02 a.m. ET and have 34 drivers battling for those four transfer spots.

The qualifier will be 30 laps at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway. The race will have no cautions.

Practice begins at 10:30 a.m. ET. Qualifying begins at 10:55 a.m., lasting five minutes, followed by the race.

Last week, six drivers advanced from the qualifier to the main event. They were: Anthony Alfredo, Justin Allgaier, Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Ty Majeski and Ryan Truex.

Drivers scheduled to compete in Sunday’s qualifier at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway are (with car number):

02 – Spencer Boyd

7 – Justin Allgaier

08 – Jeb Burton

15 – Brennan Poole

16 – Justin Haley

22 – Austin Cindric

23 – Sam Mayer

26 – Tyler Ankrum

27 – Ruben Garcia

29  – Kaz Grala

29a – Trevor Bayne

33 – Anthony Alfredo

35 – Todd Gilliland

36 – Jesse Iwuji

40 – Ryan Truex

45 – Ty Majeski

46 – Chandler Smith

50 – Jeffrey Earnhardt

52 – Stewart Friesen

53 – Joey Gase

54 – Kyle Weatherman

63 – Scott Stenzel

68 – Brandon Brown

74 – Sheldon Creed

78 – Ryan Ellis

80 – Joe Graf Jr.

81 – Christian Eckes

90 – Alex Labbe

93 – Myatt Snider

98 – Chase Briscoe

99 – Harrison Burton

TBD – Derek Kraus

TBD – Drew Dollar

TBD – JJ Yeley

March 28 in NASCAR history: Texas Terry Labonte gets a home win

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Terry Labonte’s last two Cup Series wins were anything but forgettable.

The last one, in 2003, came in the Southern 500. That was the same race he earned his first Cup win in way back in 1980.

But four years earlier, the two-time champion got a home win.

A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, the driver nicknamed “Texas Terry” claimed a victory in the 1999 race at Texas Motor Speedway. It was just the third Cup race held at the facility after it opened in 1997.

Labonte started fourth and would lead 124 of 334 laps around the 1.5-mile track, including the final 12 after he passed Dale Jarrett on the outside going into Turn 1 for the lead.

Jarrett wouldn’t get a chance to fight for the lead again. With four laps to go, Jimmy Spencer crashed on the frontstretch to bring out the caution. Labonte took the checkered and yellow flags together for his 21st Cup win.

“We picked places to go test this year and I said ‘I want to go here cause this is a race I want to win,” Labonte told CBS. “Besides Daytona, coming here to Texas is awesome.”

Making the day even better for the Labonte family was Terry’s younger brother, Bobby, placing third.

Also on this day:

1954: The premier series held two races on different sides of the country. Dick Rathmann won a 125-mile race at Oakland Speedway in California after starting last. In Georgia, Al Keller won his first career race at Savannah’s Oglethorpe Speedway.

1982: Sam Ard claimed his first career Xfinity Series win in a race at Martinsville Speedway. Ard would go on to win 22 Xfinity races and the championships in 1983 and 1984.

1992: Robert Pressley passed Harry Gant on the last lap to win the Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.

1993: Dale Earnhardt came back from a lap down to win at Darlington Raceway. It was his first win since the Coca-Cola 600 10 months earlier. Alan Kulwicki finished sixth in what would be his last race before his death in a plane crash on April 1.

2004: Kurt Busch won at Bristol for his third consecutive victory on the half-mile track.

Roush, Biffle reunite for eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race

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After four years, Roush Fenway Racing and Greg Biffle are getting the band back together … digitally.

Roush Fenway Racing announced its former driver will compete in Sunday’s eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series event on a digital Texas Motor Speedway.

Like he did in the Cup Series from 2003-2016, Biffle will pilot a No. 16 Ford in the race (1 p.m. ET on Fox and FS1).

“How exciting is it to get back behind the wheel of the No. 16,” Biffle said in a press release. “I watched the iRace last week on TV and I was really impressed with the overall quality of the broadcast and the racing. It was just a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to being a part of the show this weekend.

“We are running a really cool Castrol scheme on the car. I think it’s going to show up really well. My plan is to log a ton of practice time leading up to the race, so hopefully we can have a strong showing and you’ll see a lot of the Castrol green and red on the broadcast.”

This will be Biffle’s iRacing event debut.

After parting ways with Roush Fenway Racing after the 2016 season, Biffle returned to NASCAR last year for a one-off Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway with Kyle Busch Motorsports, which he won.

NASCAR teams impacted by North Carolina stay at home order

Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP
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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced a stay at home order for the entire state of North Carolina, beginning at 5 p.m. ET Monday because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The order is for 30 days.

The move impacts all NASCAR teams based in North Carolina.

“These are tough directives, but I need you to take them seriously,” Gov. Cooper said in afternoon news briefing.

MORE: N.C. Governor enlists Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson for COVID-19 PSA

MORE: North Carolina stay at home order

The order bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to stay at least six feet away from each other. The order requires all residents to stay at home except for essential activities. The order states: “non-essential business and operations must cease.”

The order also states that among the definitions for an essential business and operation is “Businesses that meet Social Distancing Requirements. Businesses, not-for-profit organizations or educational institutions that conduct operations while maintaining Social Distancing Requirements:

a. Between and among its employees; and

b. Between and among employees and customers except at the point of sale or purchase.”

Mecklenburg County and Cabarrus County, which are home to such race teams as Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing, were already under a stay at home order through April 16.

By the end of the week, more than 20 states will have issued stay at home orders, including California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Ohio.