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

Photo courtesy Jesse Iwuji
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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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Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.