Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Xfinity Series Spotlight: Q&A with Brandon Jones

Leave a comment

Wednesdays were an important part of the week for Brandon Jones.

That was the day the Atlanta native and some high school friends would leave school and head to Braselton, Georgia, home of Lanier Raceplex.

“We thought we were ready to race,” Jones told NBC Sports of one of his early racing memories. “The first ever race was me and two other guys out there on a little short track racing. … I ran around this guy forever. Didn’t pass him, didn’t hit him. Just ran really conservative. I wanted to pass him, but I just couldn’t figure out how to do it.”

He’d figure it out, but years later, Jones would find himself in similar positions. In 2016, Jones competed in his rookie campaign in the Xfinity Series driving the No. 33 for Richard Childress Racing. It was his first full-time season in any NASCAR series.

“I caught myself doing a lot of things, like putting myself in a lot of small holes that I normally wouldn’t have taken,” Jones said of his rookie season. “That became a habit as I was racing with those guys that have more experience. I didn’t even know I was doing it and then I was looking back, ‘Holy crap, I didn’t even know I could do that.’ Seeing how far I could take myself. I found some limits.”

In February, Jones took some of the lessons and put them toward earning the pole for the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona International Speedway. It was his first pole in 69 NASCAR starts.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: If you were in the Cup night race at Bristol, what would be your introduction song?

Jones: Man, I have put a lot of thought into this, too. Probably “House of the Rising Sun” by Five Finger Death Punch.

NBC Sports: Why a cover of the original?

Jones: They kind of took old school, western themes at the beginning and I kind of like that style now. Outlaw, western stuff like that. The cowboy-type stuff, I enjoy it. I don’t like the middle part though. I’m not a heavy metal death fan. I love country music, they kind of flipped flopped on it.

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Jones: My first car was a Dodge Ram pickup truck. I ended up later, after I moved up here to North Carolina, meeting a buddy through racing. We ended up lifting it up and putting a big motor in it and stuff. That turned into not a daily driver.

NBC Sports: Have you ever named a car, whether it be a race car or street car?

Jones: My big red Dodge, everyone called it “Clifford” in high school.

NBC Sports: What’s on your bucket list that’s not related to racing?

Jones: Probably going up in one of the F-16 fighter jets, something like that. I enjoy doing things with the military, I’ve gone out and trained with them before and I’ve done obstacle courses and done a lot of cool stuff with them. Flying in one of the jets is something I haven’t done. … That’s next on the list.

NBC Sports: What’s the best race you’ve ever seen in person?

Jones: It probably wasn’t the best race I’ve ever seen, but it was the most exciting for me. It was Las Vegas (Motor Speedway) a long time ago, my very first race ever that I went to. I was pretty young, this was probably in 2009 or so. I was just overwhelmed by the racing. I went to driver intros and all that stuff. I made the ultimate fan day out of it.

NBC Sports: What do you remember about the first time you met Richard Childress?

Jones: It was the same day I think. Looking back on it it’s crazy that I knew him so young … I met the Dillon boys. They were (about) 13 and up in one of his suites playing video games and stuff and not even caring about the race. It was pretty funny. It’s cool to see how we all work together now. Just a small world type deal.

NBC Sports: Growing up, who was your favorite NASCAR driver?

Jones: It was whoever won the previous week. I didn’t have a clue … about driver personalities or anything. Every week it was like ‘Oh man, Jimmie Johnson was the winner that week, so he’s going to win next week.’ I bounced back and forth between a lot of them. But I did have a lot of Jimmie Johnson gear. I had the jacket and the necklace and an action figure.

NBC Sports: You had a Jimmie Johnson action figure?

Jones: I did, yeah. It was kind of like a stationary one. It was on a platform.

NBC Sports: What would be your dream concert?

Jones: I just knocked Granger Smith off my bucket list, and he’s probably my favorite country music singer. … He’s got a couple of songs that are just starting to take off, like top five on the country music charts. We actually arranged to hang out with him before the concert, so we got to see him before he went on stage. The only thing I want to see now, and I think we’re going to in Charlotte, is (Granger Smith at the Circle K) Speed Street (Festival). … When we saw him he didn’t have his full band with him, it was just him playing his guitar and singing. I think the one in Charlotte he’s coming to, he’s bringing the entire band. That will be my next one to go see.

Previous Xfinity Spotlight Q&A’s

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

 and on Facebook

John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
Leave a comment

One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

NASCAR Twitter
Leave a comment

CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
1 Comment

Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
Leave a comment

UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.