Photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji

Ex-NFL star Shawne Merriman, racer Jesse Iwuji team up in NASCAR K&N effort

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On the football field and in business, former NFL star Shawne Merriman has had an astute eye for talent and opportunity.

So it’s not surprising that Merriman joined forces with NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver Jesse Iwuji.

A chance meeting with Iwuji at a recent fashion show in Los Angeles promoting Merriman’s “Lights Out” clothing line led Merriman to becoming Iwuji’s car owner.

“Talk about unexpected, right?” Merriman, a three-time NFL Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, told NBC Sports.

“I didn’t realize Shawne was going to be there,” Iwuji told NBC Sports. “I had never met him before, but I thought this would be a cool opportunity to introduce myself to him, tell him what I’m doing and see if there’s any interest in him to come on board.

Shawne Merriman
Shawne Merriman

“He told me to have a meeting the next week.”

Iwuji made the 10-hour round trip to Los Angeles to meet with Merriman.

“He saw how serious I was,” Iwuji said.

His drive and passion on and off the racetrack are evident. While Iwuji’s business proposal to Merriman was unique, it was his personality that sold Merriman.

“Jesse’s focused, just talking about ‘Lights Out,’ a future with him and what he has going on,” Merriman said. “At that point, I was so intrigued by his hunger, being focused. It gets me excited when other people get excited about being part of ‘Lights Out’ and the stuff we’re doing.”

The new driver-owner pairing kicks off with Sunday’s K&N Pro Series East opener at New Smyrna Speedway.

“Jesse is growing his notoriety and who he is in NASCAR,” Merriman said. “I love to start with people from the ground up. It’s so easy to come in and get a guy who’s already established and be a part of something, that’s easy. I like to be a part of the building stages, and that’s what Jesse is right now. He’s a tremendous talent coming up in NASCAR and I’m real happy to be part of it.”

After New Smyrna, Iwuji prepares for his second full 14-race season in K&N West. As a rookie in 2016, he finished 10th in the series, with his best race result a 10th-place effort.

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Photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji Racing

It’s not hard to understand why Merriman and Iwuji bonded so quickly. They’re both former football players: Merriman was a linebacker at the University of Maryland and then eight years in the NFL; Iwuji played cornerback and ran track at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Both also have a military lineage of sorts. Iwuji is an active-duty lieutenant in the Navy and serves as an administrator at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterrey, California.

Merriman spent considerable time visiting military bases around San Diego during his five-plus years with the NFL’s Chargers.

The son of Nigerian parents who immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s, the 29-year-old Iwuji is a native of Carrollton, Texas, a Dallas suburb.

While he’s been a lifelong motorsports fan, Iwuji didn’t get into active NASCAR competition until 2014.

“I did drag racing and road course racing for four years before I decided to pursue a racing career,” he said. “NASCAR was the first door that opened for me for that and I decided to jump on board, and I’ve never looked back.”

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This will be Iwuji’s second season with Patriot Motorsports Group, an Eagle, Idaho firm owned by John Wood. The team fields cars for as many as nine different drivers over the course of a season.

But Iwuji plans to become principal owner of the team next year. His enlistment in the Navy, which began in 2010, ends in May, when he’ll transition to the Naval Reserves. Doing so will allow him even more time to pursue his racing dreams.

“I basically don’t have a life outside of racing and the Navy,” Iwuji laughed. “My normal Navy job, I’m at work from 8 to 4 p.m., and then I spend three hours at home on my racing simulator to keep myself sharp racing, and then I spend another 4-5 hours every night working on marketing and promoting myself and my team.”

The Navy may be in Iwuji’s future as a potential sponsor, as well.

“I am currently working it, trying my best to put it all together and get the Navy on board,” Iwuji said. “NASCAR has never had an active-duty armed forces member ever compete in NASCAR and I know the Navy used to be a sponsor of a car in NASCAR.

“So why not come back in, use what I’m doing as a recruiting tool and outreach tool for the Navy and become a sponsor? That will help propel me while also helping the Navy bring in recruits and promote the Navy in a positive way.”

Some branches of the military have scaled back sponsorship of sports, particularly motorsports, due to Congressional pressure. Example: the National Guard pulled its sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the 2015 season.

Still, the Air Force remains an associate sponsor of Richard Petty Motorsports, and also will serve as primary sponsor of  the No. 43 Ford Fusion for two races this season.

Iwuji and Merriman also like the idea of using their combined racing and business platform to expand NASCAR’s diversity reach.

“We’re all about giving opportunities to new types of people who never would have had the opportunity to be in this sport and in NASCAR and to be able to do some of the great things that a few are able to do in this sport,” Iwuji said.

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Jesse Iwuji — photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji Racing

Added Merriman, “Bringing diversity into any sport is really going to open up the eyes of people who wouldn’t necessarily have any other direct involvement with it.

“Imagine a 12-year-old Shawne Merriman gets a chance to go to a NASCAR race and sees the excitement of what goes on there. Shawne Merriman could have been a NASCAR driver if he hadn’t ended up being a football player.”

Iwuji hopes to start climbing the NASCAR ladder in the next year or two.

“I know I have a long way to go since I haven’t been racing my whole life,” Iwuji said.“I’m still trying to catch up to all the guys that have been racing since they were five years old.

“But I have had some good runs, some good races and I’ve shown myself that I have the ability, I just need more seat time to hone my skills and get better and fine-tune some things so that I’ll eventually get there.

“I’m patient enough to make it happen and do see myself one day getting to where I want to be.”

Merriman, 32, is a long-time racing fan. He’s friends with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and in 2008 was grand marshal for the NASCAR Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in California. If things go the way Iwuji hopes, Merriman will be right alongside on the climb up the NASCAR ladder.

“No question about it,” Merriman said. “It’s what I call the groundwork of getting from where you are to where you want to go because there’s no easy path there. He has great knowledge about cars and what he’s doing.

“It’s like watching a football film about how to get a sack, to get to the quarterback. You line up, get to a three-point stance and then look everything on both sides of the ball. You get very detailed about your passion and what you love doing. If you talk to Jesse about the same thing, he’ll break down everything from every tire, axle to piece of machinery. He gets deep with it.”

It’s all about passion, motivation and drive – both on and off the race track, says Iwuji.

“I’m just working hard, grinding every single day,” he said. “Eventually, I’ll get to where I want to be. I just have to keep my head down and keep pushing.”

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NASCAR America: Kyle Busch seeks first Cup points win at Charlotte

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There’s a few notable holes on Kyle Busch‘s Cup Series resume.

He’s never won the Daytona 500 or the Coca-Cola 600.

To be even more specific, he’s never won a Cup points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He’s won at every other track on the Cup circuit.

In 28 starts at the 1.5-mile track, Busch has 11 top fives and three runner-up finishes. The most recent was in last year’s Coke 600. That was a week after he won the All-Star race for the first time.

He’s combined for 15 wins at the track in the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series, making him the track’s winningest driver.

Busch, who has three victories this season, made his effort to finally get a points win at Charlotte easier on Thursday when he qualified first for Sunday’s race.

“It’s important to me, but I’m not sure it’s important in the grand scheme of things,” Busch said of getting a win at Charlotte. “It’s certainly important to me and I would love to get that knocked out-of-the-way and to be finished with it until another new track comes up on the circuit and certainly it’s been a trying time here over the course of my career and to have it come to fruition in a points race, the last I checked I have a trophy at home that says, ‘winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway,’ so I’ll take that to my grave with me if I do never get a points win here. That will be my saving grace I guess.”

Busch came in second in last year’s Coke 600 after a fuel mileage gamble by Austin Dillon‘s team paid off, giving Dillon his first Cup win.

On NASCAR America, Steve Letarte, Landon Cassill and Kyle Petty discussed Busch’s struggle to get a Cup win at the track.

“At some point it’s kind of like Chase Elliott, ‘When’s he going to win? When’s he going to win?'” Letarte said. “Now, I think Kyle Busch feels like, when is he going to win? When is he going to win Charlotte? Starting on the front row matters, but we all know 600 miles … is very, very difficult.”

Watch the above video for more.

Reviewing Danica Patrick’s highs and lows at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the legacy left by her success

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So much of Danica Patrick’s fame can be traced to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s where she became a household name 13 years ago when she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and emerged as a transcendent athlete.

It’s where everything started. This Sunday, it’s where everything will end, too.

In her last warmup before starting the final race of her career, Patrick had a bumpy final practice Friday on Carb Day. She was eighth fastest, but her Dallara-Chevrolet was in the garage most of the session because of an electrical problem in the engine. After returning during the final 10 minutes of the session, Patrick’s No. 13 seemed to be OK.

“At the end of the day, these are things you’re actually glad for, because if this had happened Sunday, we would have been done,” she said. “I’m glad to get the issues out of the way early on. Overall, today felt good. We made some changes when I went out the second time, and I’m feeling good about starting seventh on Sunday.”
Though she has had her share of success – along with a fourth in her debut, there was a third in 2009 and six top 10s in seven starts — Patrick has learned well how to handle frustration at the 2.5-mile track, too.

Fuel mileage might have kept her from winning her debut, a pit collision ruined 2008, and an unstable setup made 2010 a wild ride.

For a review of her up-and-down history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and her legacy in racing, watch the video essay above that ran during Friday’s NASCAR America Motorsports Special on NBCSN.

 

Kaz Grala, father reveal how Fury Race Cars came to Xfinity Series

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CONCORD, N.C. — The text was sent at 4:04 p.m. on May 9, four days after the last Xfinity Series race at Dover International Speedway.

The sender was Darius Grala, father of Kaz Grala, the JGL Racing driver who announced May 15 that was no longer his job title.

The receiver was Shane Wilson, the long-time Xfinity crew chief who had worked in that role for Grala through the first 10 races of the season.

(Photo by Daniel McFadin)

The elder Grala asked: “Can u talk?”

That was the moment when Fury Race Cars, the race car building company Grala founded in 2016 with Tony Eury Jr. and Jeff Fultz, started becoming an Xfinity Series team.

PUTTING THE TEAM TOGETHER

It wasn’t official until Kaz Grala, 19, drove onto the track Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in his No. 61 Ford.

It capped a 15-day scramble for the Gralas, Wilson and other members of Fury Race Cars to become the newest Xfinity team. The effort was announced May 18.

It started with Darius Grala’s text. He had just gotten off the phone with JGL Racing owner James Whitener, who had offered to give them three of their Roush Fenway Racing built cars as a form of severance for Kaz Grala.

“We got the three cars from him because we left on great terms,” Kaz Grala. said. “He was a huge supporter of me, right up until the end, emotionally and financially, you name it. He was a big fan of mine and he helped me kick off my Xfinity career. He wasn’t able to continue funding my ride. He definitely wanted to help however he could.”

That allowed the group to get a “good jump” on the team building process in the midst of a two-week break for the series.

The process was made even easier with five of the six crew members who worked on Grala’s No. 24 car joining the team along with Wilson. They joined an operation in Fury Race Cars that for the last two years was devoted to building modifieds, sports cars and late models.

Darius Grala, a native of Poland who moved to the United States when he was 8, had his own background as a sports car driver. That went along with the extensive time served as NASCAR crew chiefs by Eury and Ricky Viers.

But at Fury Race Cars, they’d never worked with a Xfinity car until this month.

“I don’t want you to think we took it lightly,” Darius Grala said. “Because we didn’t we didn’t want to come and embarrass ourselves. But there wasn’t any question right from the first conversation, obviously being Kaz’s dad I want to do everything I can but after speaking with Tony and Jeff, they were all in 100 percent, whatever we need to do, let’s figure it out.”

The group worked many late nights to get ready for Saturday’s race.

“Yes, you have to get the car built, but you’ve got to have the tool box to organize …. you need to have a pit box,” Kaz Grala said. “You need to have the hauler organized, I needed race suits in eight days, I needed polos. Just every single little thing and one of our biggest challenges, just logistically, was that this came together so late, just trying to get our entry forms in in time for this race and for Pocono. Everything came so quickly, all the little I’s had to be dotted and T’s had to be crossed. All that stuff takes time and we just didn’t have time.”

Kaz Grala walks through the Xfinity Series garage on Thursday. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Even acquiring a fuel can was a hassle.

“They’re not easy to come by, it’s not like you can go to (a store) and buy one of those,” Darius Grala said.

They also had to pick a number.

“We let the team at Fury pick the number,” Kaz Grala said. “Actually you would be surprised when looking into numbers, I know I was, how few are actually on the market. Most of them are not. It really worked out perfectly, because Fury being modifieds is one of their main things that they build and all the guys at Fury are old-time, old-school guys and of course the 61 being Richie Evans’ was immediately what jumped out at them. That was kind of the inspiration for it. Not to mention my mom is actually from Rome, New York, as well, as Richie Evans was. Seemed like a good fit.”

The team loaded up its lone car for the Charlotte race weekend by 9 p.m. Wednesday, placing it in the team’s logo-free white hauler.

“That was the first relief since the day we started,” Darius Grala said.

He had a “really, really good” night of sleep.

A DEAL WITH GOD

With the sun setting on Fury’s first day as an Xfinity team, Kaz Grala pulled his No. 61 Ford into his garage stall – the very last stall meant for the lowest team in points or a new team without any – at the end of final practice.

On his last run, Grala posted the eighth best speed in the session at 179.784 mph. That placed him ahead of Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Ty Dillon and other drivers from big teams.

Where did they get that speed?

Darius Grala observes Xfinity practice atop the Fury Race Cars hauler. (Photo by Daniel McFadin)

“I don’t know, I guess a lot of hours and a lot of hard work right there, the car’s pretty darn good,” Grala said. “Couldn’t really ask for more than that.”

Has the driver who has competed in a full season of the Camping World Truck Series (and won one race) and 10 Xfinity races ever felt this good after a practice?

“Not in Xfinity, no,” he said. “I think we’re closer than we’ve been. We were within a couple of tenths of the 22 (Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski). If you’re within a couple of tenths of the 22 then you’re pretty darn good.”

In the Xfinity garage, JGL Racing’s No. 28 Ford driven by Dylan Lupton is parked right across from Fury’s stall. Lupton finished the session 24th.

“We’re still on good terms, we’re friends with all of them,” Grala said. “A little friendly competition, we’re a little bit quicker than them. We’re going to try and stay quicker than them. But we’re trying to be quicker than everyone here.”

The team’s next chance to be quicker than everyone else comes Saturday in qualifying. And the No. 61 team needs to qualify. They also need it to not rain. If it rains, they won’t be in the race.

“There’s 43 cars here and we have zero points,” said Darius Grala, noting the field would be set by owner points. “That’s about the only goal we have right now is we need to make a deal with God on the weather.

Qualifying is set to begin at 10:10 a.m. ET. The chance of rain then is 60 percent.

Regardless of the weather, the team will be back next week at Pocono and the two races after that. That fulfills the original sponsor deal Kaz Grala has with NETTTS, which has backed him since 2013 when he raced in modifieds.

The team is prepared to go beyond those four races, but won’t just stop looking for partners.

“As of right now, yes, it’s been a lot of work, but no one at Fury is scared of work,” Darius Grala said. “We’re looking at this being a step forward if at all possible.”

PJ1 traction agent, tire dragging in use at Charlotte

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Charlotte Motor Speedway is doing as much as it can to improve the racing product and create opportunities for passing this weekend at the 1.5-mile track.

A blue tractor spent Friday dragging two sets of tires in the upper groove in each turn, an effort to freshen the area where the PJ1 traction agent was applied.

A track spokesperson confirmed to NBC Sports that the substance was added to the upper grooves in both corners on Monday and Tuesday.

The spokesperson was not aware of plans to add more PJ1 or to drag the tires on Saturday.

“The Xfinity cars ran on that PJ1 a lot and definitely activated it and got the grip definitely up there,” Joey Logano said after qualifying second for the Coke 600. “It’s hard for me to say what was what, but, overall, the car got faster and that’s all I really care about.”

Charlotte first used the traction agent in the Coca-Cola 600 last year and again in October. Its presence in that race wasn’t popular due to an uneven application of the substance.

Bristol Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway have also used the substance in the last two years.