(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Xfinity Series driver Brennan Poole built a city in his darkest hour

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Lego City
                                                                                   (Photo by Brennan Poole)

Brennan Poole is reminded of one of the most stressful times of his career every night.

Sitting on a TV stand in his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a city block.

There’s more than five buildings. A barber shop, a pet store and a few houses.

The city – built by Poole in December 2014 – is made of Lego blocks.

What led a 23-year-old driver to construct such a feat?

Years earlier, Poole began racing at a quarter midget track in Rio Linda, California — the same facility four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon got his start. But after 217 wins and nine championships through six series, Poole was trying to distract himself from the possible end of his career because of lack of sponsorship.

“It was just something to keep my mind off of it,” Poole tells NBC Sports in a phone interview. “I couldn’t think, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t do anything. I would just sit there and build. I built like a city in a month.”

THE PHONE CALL 

Two months before he built his city block, Poole won what he thought was likely his last professional race ever, an ARCA event at Kentucky Speedway.

Poole was two years removed from a full season in ARCA driving for Bill Venturini that saw Poole win at Pocono Raceway and Elko Speedway. But then Poole’s sponsorship money evaporated.

The 2013 and 2014 seasons were filled with Poole working for Richard Childress Racing filming Dartfish video – a program teams use that allows them to overlay video of one driver’s lap on top of another’s.

He also served as spotter for ARCA and Camping World Truck teams, while occasionally driving for Venturini’s team.

“I believed something would happen,” Poole says. “I was still trying to find some funding. I got probably a million nos over those two years and kept working hard at it.”

Though he managed two ARCA wins in 2013 in substitution of John Wes Townley, nothing materialized. Poole made seven starts in 2014 for Venturini while continuing his Dartfish and spotting jobs.

Then came that last ARCA race at Kentucky.

“It had been two years of trying to find funding and trying to get a ride and I felt like I was winning races and nothing was happening,” Poole says. “I was kind of to the point where I was ‘Hey, if this doesn’t happen, I’m going to have to do something else.’ ”

What would that be? Poole had graduated from high school a year early and moved to Charlotte at age 17 to pursue his stock-car aspirations, living on the couch of Late Model stock driver Jamie Yelton until he was 18.

By age 23, Poole owned a house and was living off a credit card.

“I can’t stay in North Carolina,” thought Poole. “I’m going to have to go home. Go to school. I don’t know. I’m going to have to do something.”

A month after that last ARCA race, a phone call put Poole in a state of shock.

FORT WORTH, TEXAS - APRIL 08: Brennan Poole, driver of the #48 DC Solar Chevrolet, leads Austin Dillon, driver of the #2 Ruud/Smurfit Kappa Chevrolet, during the NASCAR XFINITY Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 8, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

BACK FROM THE BRINK

The unexpected call had been from HScott Motorsports about possibly driving the No. 42 Chevrolet, which was co-owned by Chip Ganassi Racing.

Soon after, the anxiety set in that would result in Poole’s Lego city.

“I didn’t think anything was going to pan out because I didn’t have any money and I wasn’t sure what the team needed as far as sponsorship or what was going to happen or if they had anything ready,” Poole says. “None of that was covered in the phone call.”

Around New Year’s 2015, Pool found out the dream wasn’t over.

With sponsorship from DC Solar, Poole would compete in 17 Xfinity Series races for HScott Motorsports, splitting time with Kyle Larson and Justin Marks.

“It was kind of a huge relief when I found out around New Years that it was going to happen,” says Poole, who keeps the Lego City intact to remember what it felt like to know he would race again. “I can look at it every night and think of that moment.”

The beginning of the 2015 season was surreal for Poole, who admits he doesn’t really remember his first few starts.

“It kind of messed me up mentally because it was hard to be focused because I couldn’t believe I was there,” Poole says. “From absolutely nothing, to being with this great team with a great sponsor … I was just in shock.”

Poole’s best results in his 17 starts were top 10s at Las Vegas and New Hampshire. Halfway through the season he already knew he’d be competing full-time in 2016.

When he showed up at Daytona this February, Poole looked like a new man. After an awkward episode the previous season involving pushing his shoulder-length hair out of his eyes through an open helmet visor, Brennan cut his dark locks.

He also had a new number on his car, the No. 48, selected by Chip Ganassi.

“I’ve always looked up to Jimmie Johnson as a kid,” Poole says. “I’ve been saying in the shop among my team, we’ve been saying ‘rise to the occasion,’ because if you put that number on the car, you’ve got some expectations to live up to, right?”

                                                                        TALLADEGA TENSION

Elliott Sadler, gets out of his car and celebrates after being declared the winner of the NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race at Talladega Superspeedway, Saturday, April 30, 2016, in Talladega, Ala. NASCAR had to determine who was the actual leader when a caution froze the field in overtime. Brennan Poole (48) crossed the finish line first, but was denied his first career Xfinity Series win when NASCAR said the field was frozen with Sadler still ahead of Poole. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Brennan Poole is reminded about the “million nos” he received every race weekend.

He sees some of those companies sponsoring other teams.

“I was on the right path,” Poole says. “It was either that or I gave them the idea, right?”

Representatives of some of those companies were among those who lit up Poole’s phone after last month’s Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway.

The text messages arrived after Poole was the first to take the checkered flag, appearing to have won his first NASCAR race in his 26th series start.

“It was ‘Awesome job, I can’t believe you won!'” Poole says. “Then five minutes later, ‘Sorry.’ ”

Poole didn’t see those messages immediately. He was sitting near the start-finish line, along with Elliott Sadler, waiting to find out who won.

When Joey Logano was turned into the frontstretch wall after contact with Sadler, the track’s caution lights illuminated. NASCAR had to determine the running order when the caution flag waved. For five minutes, Poole and Sadler sat in their cars waiting.

“The longer it took,” he says, “the more I thought, ‘Man, this might be a lot closer than we all thought.’ ”

The decision came. Sadler emerged from his car, striking a victory pose atop his car.

Poole drove away. He was scored third.

Poole,  two years removed from almost leaving North Carolina and the sport behind, has no hard feelings about that finish.

“It’s just kind of a bummer because you’re so close,” Poole says. “But a rule is a rule. I’m glad that the right winner took the trophy home. It just wouldn’t feel right if I took it home and really wasn’t the winner.”

But he still can be. After “a million nos,” Brennan Poole continues to dream.

Winners and losers at Indy

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickWins Indy for the second year in a row and third time overall. He’s only one Indy victory behind his hero, Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times.

Stewart-Haas Racing — Placed three cars in the top five for the first time this season and fourth time in team history. Kevin Harvick won, Aric Almirola finished third and rookie Cole Custer was fifth. For Almirola, it was his fifth consecutive top-five finish. For Custer, it was his best Cup finish. Don’t forget about Chase Briscoe. He won the Xfinity race for the organization the day before on Indy’s road course.

Matt KensethWhile he had to settle for his fourth career runner-up finish at Indy, it was his best result since returning to the series and driving the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. Also of note, the two oldest drivers in the field finished 1-2.

Brad Keselowski — Finished fourth for his third top-four finish at Indy in the last four years. 

Michael McDowellHis seventh-place finish was his best Indy finish and his second top-10 in the last three Cup races this season.

 

 

LOSERS

All those involved in the pit road crash — Brennan  Poole, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier, Martin Truex Jr., Corey LaJoie and Ryan Preece were all eventually eliminated because of damage they suffered in a crash on pit road early in the race. Poole’s car hit Zach Price, a rear tire changer for Ryan Blaney’s team. The team stated that Price was treated and released from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis but did not disclose any injuries.

Those who suffered tire problems — Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, William Byron, Ryan Newman and Alex Bowman all hit the wall after tires went down. Hamlin crashed while leading with eight laps to go.

Return to Indy provides another runner-up finish for Matt Kenseth

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INDIANAPOLIS — All around him, before one of the biggest restarts of his career, Matt Kenseth had no friends.

Maybe this was Kenseth’s final chance to win a Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Three times before Sunday he had finished second at this fabled track but the former Cup champion — who was brought back after not competing in 2019 — had never kissed the bricks.

Before the race, the 48-year-old said he was more focused on week-to-week than looking ahead on if he will return to Chip Ganassi Racing or the series after this season.

As he lined up next to leader Kevin Harvick for an overtime restart, Kenseth faced the challenge of trying to topple one of the sport’s hottest drivers and the reigning race winner.

And Harvick had help.

Behind him was Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer. Behind Kenseth was Harvick’s teammate Aric Almirola.

Kenseth was surrounded by SHR cars.

“Aric was great,” Kenseth said. “He was ready and pushed me. I didn’t do the best job taking off. I didn’t want to get a penalty for jumping the start. I started going, he pushed me. 

“Didn’t look like Kevin was going, so I hesitated just that beat that kind of got Kevin out there.”

Harvick was waiting on Custer to hit his rear bumper and give him a shove.

“Cole got a really good restart, was able to get attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “Being right on the front row, especially late in the race, everybody is going to try to push as hard as they can to put themselves in a position to have the best restart.”

Said Kenseth: “(Almirola) still pushed me up there pretty good. Couldn’t get going that fast.”

Said Harvick: “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

The result was a fourth runner-up finish at Indy for Kenseth.

But it was the previous restart Kenseth lamented. It came with 22 laps to go.

Denny Hamlin led and restarted on the outside lane. Harvick was on the inside of the front row. Kenseth was fourth and started behind Hamlin. The outside lane was the preferred lane and had allowed the car restarting fourth to move to second soon after the green waved again.

Kenseth could only manage one spot and ran third behind Hamlin and Harvick.

“Really the restart before that was our chance,” Kenseth said.

With Hamlin and Harvick ahead, they controlled the race. Harvick assumed the lead after Hamlin crashed when a right front tire blew with eight laps left.

Although he didn’t win, the runner-up finish was Kenseth’s best since he began driving the No. 42 after Kyle Larson was fired for uttering a racial slur during a sim racing event while the series was not competing.

Sunday’s finish followed an 11th- and 12th-place finish in the two Pocono races last weekend.

“I feel like we had done some stuff at Pocono that really seemed to work for me and directionally seemed to be better,” Kenseth said. “The car drove pretty good here the whole entire day, too. I’m hoping we can just carry that momentum into Kentucky, just keep moving forward with that. Hopefully get to the front like we did today, running up front where this team belongs.”

Kenseth said such finishes as Sunday’s helps confidence.

“Whenever you run well, you build more confidence, not just for myself but for the team and everybody involved,” he said. “Running bad has opposite effect. Certainly we had a good day starting off at Darlington. I was super sloppy and rusty, we still finished 10th.

“Just kind of downhill from there. We went back and were a little faster. I hit the wall, got a bad finish. Nothing was going really well. Like I said, we had a couple decent races last weekend with no mistakes, no problems, no issues, got decent finishes. Today we were able to be competitive, run up front.”

The question is was this his last chance to win at Indy or will he back next year?

Aric Almirola’s team ‘has been on it’ amid top-five steak

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While Kevin Harvick got all the glory with his win Sunday in the Brickyard 400, he wasn’t the only member of Stewart-Haas Racing who left the track with something to smile about.

Harvick led a team effort that saw three SHR cars finish in the top five for the first time this year and for the fourth time in team history.

Finishing third was Aric Almirola, who overcame an early unscheduled pit stop for a tire vibration that briefly sent him a lap down. He scored his fifth consecutive top-five finish. Almirola entered this season having never earned consecutive top fives in his Cup career.

“We had such a fast race car and we kept getting behind the eight-ball because we kept having to pit for vibrations, but so proud of (crew chief) Mike Bugarewicz and this whole race team,” Almirola told NBC. “Just really proud of our race team. Five top fives in a row. We’re so consistent and when you run that consistently in the top five we’ll win races. … We just ran five top fives in a row at racetracks that are probably my worst racetracks statistically (Miami, Talladega, Pocono and Indianapolis). We’re going to some racetracks that are really good for me — Kentucky, Loudon, Bristol for the All-Star Race, so I’m excited for these next stretch of races. This team has been on it.”

Rounding out the top five was rookie Cole Custer, who earned his first Cup Series top five in his 19th start.

His previous best finish this season was ninth at Phoenix.

“It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy,” Custer told NBC. “It is (co-owner) Tony’s (Stewart) backyard so it is a huge race for us. For us, our team, this package has been exactly the opposite of what I am used to driving. For it to all come together today means a lot. … I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together.”

Why are things starting to come together for Custer through 16 races in his rookie season?

“I think it is just that I am getting better with the cars and knowing what to expect when we go to the track and getting better at what to bring in the cars to the track,” Custer said. “It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”

On the overtime restart to end the race, Custer restarted in the second row behind Harvick and helped push him to the lead.

“Cole had a great restart, got attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

Almirola said he was “really proud” of Custer.

“I think he’s been learning the ropes,” Almirola said. “He’s figured out that the jump from Xfinity to Cup is a big jump. He’s doing a great job. He’s learning. He’s bringing cars home in one piece. He’s continuing to build and get better.”

Sunday’s performance by SHR and Harvick’s win capped off a memorable doubleheader weekend for the team. On Saturday, Chase Briscoe won the inaugural Xfinity Series race on the Indy road course for his fifth win of the year.

Tire issues derail several competitors at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS — Denny Hamlin was among at least eight drivers whose cars had tire issues in Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, saying “it’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not.”

Hamlin’s team was one of three at Joe Gibbs Racing that had tire issues or vibrations throughout the race. Hendrick Motorsports had two drivers suffer tire problems, and Aric Almirola had to pit out of sequence because of tire vibrations before rallying to finish third to winner Kevin Harvick. Ryan Newman also hit the wall after a right front tire went down.

Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, explained in a statement what happened with tires Sunday: “The importance of air pressure, and getting it right, is something that we cautioned about before the race. With the high amount of downforce on the Cup cars down the straightaways, we asked teams to respect our recommended pressures so as not to hurt the tire. 

“Early in the race, without having the benefit of any practice, teams obviously had to be very mindful of that. Most of the race was run in the heat and teams were obviously searching for grip, while several issues happened later in the event when track temperature cooled off a bit and speeds picked up. We had our engineers on the ground all race, working with teams as we do every week, trying to emphasize the importance of right-front pressures.”

The 2.5-mile speedway is difficult on tires and has created challenges in the past, most notably in 2008 when cautions had to be called throughout the race to prevent tires from blowing.

Hamlin crashed when his right front tire went out while leading with eight laps left.

“I had a fast car obviously and was stretching it out there but wasn’t pushing right front at all,” Hamlin said. “It’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not and mine didn’t. You saw the end result.”

Hamlin’s teammate, Erik Jones, crashed earlier in the race after a right front tire went down.

“I felt it pop, and I was kind of along for the ride,” Jones said.

Kyle Busch said he “had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers also had issues. William Byron blew a left front. Alex Bowman crashed after a right front tire blew.

“We suffered a tire issue right before we made a green flag stop, which ended our day,” Bowman said.

Almirola finished third despite tire issues.

“We kept having left front tires come apart,” he said. “They would start shaking and vibrating so bad, I could hardly see where I was going on the straightaway. We had to pit for that. We kept getting off our pit sequence for our strategy.”

Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth, also had some tire issues.

I felt us have a problem one time and my crew chief confirmed we did,” he said. “Every time the tires would have an issue it was really concerning.  You blow a tire out here you wreck really hard and there’s no chance of saving it, so definitely concerned about that all race.”

Harvick said he had no tire issues in winning his third Brickyard 400.

“We had great tire wear today,” he said. “They hit the cambers and everything right on. I was able to really push my car hard, as hard as I could push it.”