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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Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson to pursue $100K bounty in Truck Series

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The $100,000 bounty on Kyle Busch has its first contenders.

Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson each confirmed Thursday evening on Twitter that they’ll take a shot at the bounty placed by Kevin Harvick and Marcus Lemonis last week.

Elliott will compete in the March 14 Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the May 30 race at Kansas Speedway with GMS Racing. Larson will compete with GMS Racing in the March 20 event at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Elliott will be sponsored by Hooters for the Atlanta race.

The declarations by the two drivers came the same day that Busch said he didn’t believe any full-time Cup Series drivers would go after the bounty.

Elliott has 12 career Truck Series starts. His last two, at Atlanta and Martinsville in 2017, came with GMS Racing. Elliott won the Martinsville race. Busch was not in that race.

“Once the word got out about the challenge, we were able to put this together with Mike Beam at GMS in just a couple of days,” Elliott said in a press release. “Atlanta is one of my favorite tracks, so I’m really looking forward to getting back into a GMS truck there with Hooters on the truck and make a run for a win.”

Larson has 13 career starts and his last three, including a win at Eldora and top five at Homestead in 2016, came with GMS Racing.

“When I heard about the $100,000 bounty I wanted in!” Larson said in a press release. “I’m thankful for GMS and Chevy giving me this opportunity, Homestead is one of my favorite tracks so looking for to the challenge!”

There’s a potential third bounty hunter waiting in the wings.

Not long after Larson’s announcement, Denny Hamlin, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, tweeted that he’s acquired the funding to field a ride. There’s just one hangup, and it’s Kyle Busch Motorsports:

The $100,000 bounty against Busch was proposed by Harvick and Lemonis, CEO of Gander RV & Outdoors, last week. It will go to any full-time Cup Series driver who beats Busch in any of his remaining four Truck Series starts this year. Busch has won the last seven Truck Series races he’s entered.

If Elliott or no other Cup driver beats Busch in those four races, the bounty will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

“We are blessed with this opportunity. To have an owner that is up for the challenge and a manufacturer that will support the extra effort necessary is really special,” said Mike Beam, President of GMS Racing, in a press release. “It’s great to have these two talented young men back behind the wheel for us and to have the extra attention on the Truck series is great.”

Kyle Busch: $100K Truck Series bounty is a losing proposition

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Kyle Busch doesn’t believe any full-time Cup Series driver will attempt to claim the $100,000 bounty placed on him last week by Kevin Harvick and Marcus Lemonis.

Harvick and Lemonis, the CEO of Truck Series sponsor Gander RV & Outdoors, said they’d award that bounty to any full-time Cup Series driver who is able to beat Busch in any of his four remaining Truck Series starts this year.

Busch, who has won the last seven Truck races he’s entered, sees the challenge as a losing investment, especially if someone attempted it in one of Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Toyotas.

Thursday on the Barstool Sports’ “Rubbin’ is Racing” podcast, Busch said it costs $140,000 to rent one of his Trucks for a race.

“Right off the bat (it’s a losing proposition),” Busch said. “It’s not going to happen. Nobody is going to pay the 140 grand to rent a truck, whether it’s from me or from somebody else. (Show co-host Clint) Bowyer didn’t tell you the fact he can’t even rent a truck from me because I’m a Toyota team and he drives for a Ford team. So he has to go find a Ford truck in order to drive. So there’s those complications that fit into all of this, too.”

Denny Hamlin, Busch’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, expressed his interest in the bounty, as well Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, who said he was “working on” a deal.

After his win last Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Busch’s four remaining Truck Series starts are:

March 14 at Atlanta Motor Speedway

March 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway

March 27 at Texas Motor Speedway

May 30 at Kansas Speedway.

If no one beats Busch, the bounty will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America’s MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Marty Snider hosts and is joined by Kyle Petty, Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan.

James Hinchliffe will call into the show to discuss his new role as an analyst for NBC’s coverage of IndyCar, Indy Lights, IMSA and NASCAR.

You can call into the show via 844-NASCAR-NBC or submit your questions/comments via Twitter using #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Auto Club Speedway’s old surface provides ‘moving target’ for drivers

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Auto Club Speedway has a lot of character.

It’s a character that comes from the 2-mile track’s racing surface being among the oldest on the NASCAR circuit.

The surface hasn’t been repaved since the track first opened in 1997. That’s the same year that the surface for Atlanta Motor Speedway was last resurfaced (a planned repave was put on hold indefinitely in 2017 after outcry from drivers).

In the 23 years since, races at the track in Fontana, California, have turned into producers of multi-groove spectacles (especially on restarts) that come at the cost of high levels of tire wear.

The aged surface provides a “moving target” to drivers throughout the race weekend, according to Tyler Reddick.

“During the start of the weekend, you have to watch for the seams since it’s so slick out there,” the rookie Cup driver said in a media release. “Normally, the Xfinity cars are the first ones on the track, so I’m normally very careful. Now that I’m in the Cup Series, it may be a little different. I think this weekend will be fairly similar to Las Vegas where we started out running wide open, and I’ll have to run like that until the handling starts to go away in our No. 8 I Am Second Chevrolet (and) you have to start lifting. Then it’ll be important to assess why the handling is changing and how to adjust our car correctly to battle that.”

Cup and Xfinity teams only visit Auto Club Speedway once a year and this will be the second year they’ll do so with the high downforce aero package.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones believes Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox) will be a “different race” from the one seen last year.

“Going into Fontana last year, no one really knew what we needed car-wise, balance-wise and this year we have a whole notebook to look back on to try to get better,” Jones, who finished 19th in last year’s race, said in a media release.

“I think there will be a lot more lifting, the cars will be faster. Everybody has just gotten their cars better and more efficient and faster on the straightaways and that makes for more lifting in the corners. It will probably be a little different race, but Fontana is always a good show.”

But that show depends on where a driver chooses to run around the track.

Racing along the top of the track compared to running in the bottom lane proves for “two completely different types of racing” according to defending race winner Kyle Busch.

“You can run from the top to the bottom but, when you run the bottom, you really feel like you’re puttering around the racetrack,” Busch said in a media release. “You feel like you aren’t making up any time on the bottom. But when you are running the top groove, you feel like you’re getting the job done. The guys who run the bottom have a little bit more patience and handle it better than the guys who are on the gas on top.”

When it comes to how rough the track is, Matt DiBenedetto cites how bumpy Turns 3 and 4 are, but said in a media release that traversing the “back straightaway is like going over jumps.”

But just like with the old surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway, there are those who never want to see Auto Club’s surface actually improve.

“I did an appearance at Auto Club Speedway not too long ago and I told the track officials, ‘Whatever you do, don’t repave it!'” Austin Dillon said in a media release. “Or, wait to repave it until you can figure out how to make an asphalt that is very similar to what is on the track now.”

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