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.”

patriot-motorsports-group-logo

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: Aric Almirola replaces grim Kansas memories with fond ones

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The 2017 crash in the spring Kansas Speedway that seriously injured Aric Almirola and kept him from competing in seven races that season continues to define his career.

“Breaking my back was obviously not in the plan,” Almirola said in an interview on NASCAR America. “I didn’t anticipate ever being injured in a racecar. Everybody always thinks, ‘that’s not going to happen to me.’ ”

But it did and each time Almirola returns to Kansas – like he will Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC) – he is met with memories of the accident that will not go away. That’s because his crash continues to be part of the highlight reel for this track as one of its most dramatic moments.

As it turns out, his thoughts about the track have become fond ones.

Later in 2017, Almirola finished ninth in the fall Kansas race after finishing fifth the week before at Talladega. He finished ninth again this spring.

“Something that really stuck out to me there is how his perception has changed,” Parker Kligerman said on Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America. “Sometimes you have drivers who ascend to the top very quickly and they don’t have, maybe, a respect for what they’re doing and what they’re getting to do week in and week out. And when they’re … forced to watch the sport from another angle and … just observe, a lot of time they come away being faster, better, more appreciative.”

This week, Almirola goes to the track with an even better feeling after winning last week’s race at Talladega.

For more, watch the video above.

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Kansas Cup race could make elimination era history

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NASCAR is five years into the elimination era of the playoffs and a bit of history could be made with Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

The Cup Series enters the second-round elimination race with five different winners in the first five races.

There has not been six different winners to begin the playoffs since the elimination era began in 2014.

The five winners so far have been Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas), Kyle Busch (Richmond), Ryan Blaney (Charlotte Roval), Chase Elliott (Dover) and Aric Almirola (Talladega).

The last three races have each seen a driver earn their second career Cup win.

This five-race stretch only saw one win by a member of the regular season’s “Big 3” with Busch’s victory.

Martin Truex Jr. has gone 12 races since he last won at Kentucky Speedway. Kevin Harvick is winless in the eight races since his Michigan victory.

But with the arrival of Kansas for the elimination race chances are good to the two drivers could make playoff history.

Harvick claimed the win in the May Kansas race, leading 79 laps from the pole. Three of his seven wins this year have come on 1.5-mile tracks.

If he wins Sunday, Harvick will also continue his six-year streak of winning in the playoffs, which is the longest active streak.

Truex will try to defend his win in this race last year, which completed a sweep of the Kansas races. He also finished second to Harvick in May’s race.

Of Truex’s four wins this season, he has only one on a 1.5-mile track. But of his 12 wins since 2017, eight have come at mile-and-a-half tracks.

“As far as why we’ve been good there (at Kansas) over the years, I’m not sure,” Truex said in a press release. “It’s a place where I really feel comfortable. Have had chances to win multiple races there over the years with different teams even. It was one of the places I was successful at before Furniture Row so for whatever reason it just points towards my driving style and my comfort level, what I like in my race car and it just seems to work out well there.”

MORE: Truex looks to rebound at reliable Kansas

Here are the winners of the first six races in the first four years of the elimination era.

2014

Chicagoland – Brad Keselowski

Loudon – Joey Logano

Dover – Jeff Gordon

Kansas – Joey Logano

Charlotte – Kevin Harvick

Talladega – Brad Keselowski

2015

Chicagoland – Denny Hamlin

New Hampshire – Matt Kenseth

Dover – Kevin Harvick

Charlotte – Joey Logano

Kansas – Joey Logano

Talladega – Joey Logano

2016

Chicagoland – Martin Truex Jr.

New Hampshire – Kevin Harvick

Dover – Martin Truex Jr.

Charlotte – Jimmie Johnson

Kansas – Kevin Harvick

Talladega – Joey Logano

2017

Chicagoland – Martin Truex Jr.

New Hampshire – Kyle Busch

Dover – Kyle Busch

Charlotte  -Martin Truex Jr.

Talladega – Brad Keselowski

Kansas – Martin Truex Jr.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Kansas preview, Pete Pistone

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and gives you a final preview of this weekend’s races at Kansas Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman from Stamford, Connecticut. They will be joined by SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Pete Pistone.

Tune in to get the latest on Chip Ganassi Racing deciding to appeal the penalty against Kyle Larson‘s team from Talladega.

Also on today’s show:

Aric Almirola had one of the feel good moments of 2018 with his victory last weekend at Talladega. In his own words, Almirola tells the story of how his Kansas crash 17 months ago put him on the road to where he is today.

— As NASCAR America prepares for its 1,000th episode tomorrow, we’ll show you some of the best moments from our first 999 shows. Today, we’ll feature the best of the NBCSN iRacing Simulator. Parker then hops in the sim to show us what challenges await the Playoff drivers at Kansas.

— Carolyn and Parker also reveal their Kansas fantasy picks for this weekend.

Tune in after the show for the latest episode of the “Dale Jr. Download” at 5:30 p.m. ET.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it 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.

Chip Ganassi Racing appealing Talladega penalties against Kyle Larson’s team

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Chip Ganassi Racing announced Thursday it will appeal the penalties brought against Kyle Larson‘s No. 42 Chevrolet after Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

NASCAR confirmed the appeal will be heard Friday at 8:30 a.m. CT at Kansas Speedway. Here is a primer on how the appeals process works.

During a postrace inspection, NASCAR found that team violated Section 10.9.9.d in the rulebook, which notes: “Damaged vehicle repair, regardless of how the damage occurred, is permitted to have original body parts removed or reattached in their original location with fasteners and/or tape only.”

The L1 penalty, which was announced Wednesday, resulted in Larson losing 10 driver and owner points. His car chief, David Bryant, also was suspended for a race. Crew chief Chad Johnston was fined $25,000.

Chip Ganassi Racing was granted a deferral of Bryant’s suspension. He will be allowed in the Cup garage Friday until a decision has been reached by the appeals commission.

The team issued a statement Thursday afternoon:

“After reviewing the penalty, the rule and the procedure that we used during the race in Talladega, we feel strongly that we did nothing wrong.  Subsequently, we have decided to appeal the penalty.  Despite going through the appeal process, we will do everything in our power to keep our team focused on the race this weekend in Kansas and the balance of the season.”

With the loss of 10 driver points, Larson will enter Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) 11th in the standings and 36 points back from the cutoff spot to advance to the Round of 8.

With or without the penalty, the race still is essentially must-win for Larson.