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Kligerman: What does it mean to be a racer? Fernando Alonso might know

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In a sudden flurry of tweets and Instagram stories Wednesday, we were flooded with massive news.

Internet meme sensation and two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso would be attempting the Indianapolis 500. Foregoing the champagne popping, mirrored sunglasses and bikini-filled yachts of Monte Carlo, Monaco, for a 2.5-mile rectangular-shaped stretch of asphalt in the flat plains of the Midwestern United States.

Describe it like that, and you might think this is some sort of old European film about an affluent young man heading west to discover America.

But I left out the most important part: Alonso is a racer (aside from being a professional race car driver).

How do I know this?

In his own tweet, accompanied by a painting of the start of an Indy 500, Alonso wrote “I love RACING. I’m just a RACER. Indy 500 here we come!!!” Followed by a series of muscle emojis and hashtags.

Than directly above this tweet he retweeted an Indy 500 champion and one of his new teammates; Ryan Hunter-Reay, who wrote “Welcome to the team @alo_oficial!! The epitome of a true racer. Huge undertaking, big crossover taking it head on. Look fwd to working w/you” (No emojis or hashtags followed.)

At first glance, this seems the beginning of great camaraderie between two top-notch race car drivers, both of whom are under the impression that Alonso is a racer.

It’s a cliche term that I admit to having used a time or two but constantly has left me asking, “What does it mean to be a racer?”

A look at Fernando Alonso’s Twitter avatar provides a good example. Instead of the typical race car driver — firesuit, cool sunglasses and some flashy, edited photo – Alonso is in a go-kart (admittedly it’s a Fernando Alonso Kart).

No super car, no top of the podium from one of his favorite wins at the pinnacle of the sport, not even a workout photo.

Just him in a kart and on a track.

And what is Karting? Karting is where we all start. If you polled all the professional race car drivers in the world, most likely 99 percent would say they started in a kart.

It’s the first point in a race car driver’s life where the gifted start to outshine the pedestrian. It’s racing’s equivalent of the third-grade Saturday morning soccer field. It’s probably the only place and time an eventual professional race car driver competes for one reason: The fun and thrill of driving.

As a driver climbs the ladder, it all becomes muddled with terms such as funding, sponsorship, lack of funding, marketability, perception and (my personal favorite)  talent.

Every move is scrutinized. The more success you have, the more people will surround you to adjust these things. You put up with it because you want to be a pro driver, and this is what it takes.

But pull any pro driver away from the money, fame, parties, yachts and helicopters. Many will confide they enjoyed it most in a kart, racing with their family and friends for the thrill of driving. For the fun.

Why?

Because back then, it was about being only a racer. Which brings us back to Alonso’s avatar.

The significance of being in a kart is this F1 champion’s way of saying “We all put our pants on, one leg at a time.” Admittedly he’s adorned in multimillion-dollar sponsors from his F1 team. It’s this juxtaposition that shows his nostalgia for the days of old.

He is proclaiming in visual form that he is not in Formula One for the “stuff.” He is there because he loves to drive, and he loves to race and the top of that just happens to be in Formula One.

But is that a true racer? Many will say it is. We will see that from the bajillion times Alonso will be called racer over the coming weeks.

I’m not convinced.

Many proclaim the true racers never get to decide to be nostalgic about the days of their accession – because there was no accession. These racers still are racing at the karting track, bombing around dirt tracks and scrounging for the funds to continue. They are working 9-to-5 jobs so they simply can get to the racetrack.

They don’t get the chance to be envious of a less complicated form of racing because they never left it. This is where my questioning of the term develops.

Earlier this year, I tweeted that I had become a massive fan of Fernando Alonso in the last few years. My central reasoning was because of his absolute non-politically correct “I don’t give a @%!#” attitude, none more evident than this year’s preseason testing.

When asked about when the much faster F1 cars in 2017 meant he was flat-out through turn 3 at the Barcelona test, Alonso joked: “Yes, but I think we are full throttle in many corners!” His woefully underpowered McLaren-Honda struggled to reach a speed that necessitated lifting off the throttle.

Combine his current predicament with his comical accuracy in choosing to go to the wrong team at the wrong time, joining McLaren, Renault (again), Ferrari and McLaren (again) just as they were entering slumps.

You are looking at a guy who is arguably the best driver in Formula One — quite possibly in the world. Who should probably have at least double, if not a record-setting number of F1 championships.

Now he has chosen to try something entirely foreign and unique. Those qualities make me believe he is a rarity in modern-day racing — and I am not alone. In a recent Formula One survey by Motorsport.com, Alonso was vying for most popular driver against worldwide media sensation Lewis Hamilton.

So does racing the Indy 500 make Alonso a racer? No. To me, he already was one.

And does it answer the question of what it means to be a racer? No. I think that is in the eye of the beholder.

What I do know, as a race fan and a fellow professional race car driver, is this.

Whatever Fernando Alonso is, the sport only will benefit by having more like him.

Cup Series Thursday night racing factoids

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When it comes to 1.5-mile tracks like Charlotte Motor Speedway, no one driver is getting comfortable in Victory Lane.

Entering tonight’s 310-mile race at Charlotte (7 p.m. ET on FS1), the second Cup race in five days on the oval, the series has seen eight different winners in the last eight visits to a 1.5-mile track.

That streak dates back to June 2019 when Alex Bowman earned his first career Cup Series win in a race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Between that race and Brad Keselowski’s win in the Coca-Cola 600, winners on 1.5-mile tracks included: Kurt Busch (Kentucky), Martin Truex Jr. (Las Vegas), Denny Hamlin (Kansas), Kevin Harvick (Texas), Kyle Busch (Miami) and Joey Logano (Las Vegas).

The Cup Series hasn’t seen a stretch of parity like that on 1.5-mile tracks since 2011, when the last eight 1.5-mile races were won by a different driver.

Here are some other interesting tidbits heading into tonight’s race.

Jimmie Johnson is entering his 37th and likely final Cup Series points start on the Charlotte oval. His eight points race wins and four All-Star Race wins there lead all drivers.

– Johnson has led 1,936 laps on the Charlotte oval, second most all-time to Bobby Allison (2,338).

– Hendrick Motorsports has 19 points wins at Charlotte by seven different drivers. That number of drivers is tied for the most all-time. Hendrick has seven different winners at Pocono and Talladega. Wood Brothers Racing has seven different winners at Daytona.

– Joe Gibbs Racing has 21 Cup wins since the start of 2019, which is 49% of races. Denny Hamlin has eight of those wins, which leads all drivers. Team Penske is second with nine wins.

– Tonight’s Cup race at Charlotte is scheduled for 208 laps. Only two races at Charlotte were scheduled for less laps and both were qualifying races in 1961 at 67 laps each for the 1961 World 600.

 

Jeff Burton joins Mike Tirico on Lunch Talk Live on NBCSN

Lunch Talk Live
NBC Sports
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NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton will be on today’s Lunch Talk Live with host Mike Tirico. Today’s show airs at noon ET on NBCSN.

Also on Thursday’s show will be Supercross points leader Eli Tomac.

“Lunch Talk Live” focuses on the current state of the sports world and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.

You can also watch the show online here.

Today’s scheduled guests are:

  • Noon – Robbie Earle, Premier League on NBC
  • 12:05 p.m. – Terry Francona, Cleveland Indians manager
  • 12:15 p.m. – Chris Simms, FNIA/PFT/Unbuttoned/Notre Dame
  • 12:30 p.m. – Jeff Burton, NASCAR on NBC
  • 12:40 p.m. – Chris Mullin, Basketball Hall of Famer
  • 12:50 p.m. – Eli Tomac, Supercross current points leader

NASCAR adjusts Xfinity Dash 4 Cash schedule

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NASCAR announced changes to the Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash races on Thursday.

Here is the schedule:

June 1 – Bristol Motor Speedway (will determine four eligible drivers for first Dash 4 Cash event)

June 6 – Atlanta Motor Speedway (Dash 4 Cash event No. 1)

June 14 – Homestead-Miami Speedway (Dash 4 Cash event No. 2)

June 20 – Talladega Superspeedway (Dash 4 Cash event No. 3)

TBA – Next scheduled Xfinity series race after Talladega (Dash 4 Cash event No. 4)

Each Dash 4 Cash event will have four eligible drivers racing for the $100,000 bonus.

The driver who wins the bonus advances to the next Dash 4 Cash event. The next three-highest finishing Xfinity Series drivers eligible for the series title, qualify for the next Dash 4 Cash race.

Previously, Miami was to have served as the qualifying race and was to be followed by Dash 4 Cash races at Texas, Bristol, Talladega and Dover. All those events were postponed because of the COIVD-19 pandemic.

Cup, Xfinity entry lists for Bristol Motor Speedway

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Almost two months it was originally scheduled, NASCAR will finally hold its first Bristol Motor Speedway race weekend of the year.

The Cup and Xfinity Series continue their marathon of races this weekend. The Cup Series will race on Sunday and the Xfinity Series will compete Monday night.

Here are the entry lists for this weekend’s races.

Cup – Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 (3:30 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox)

Forty cars are entered into the race.

JJ Yeley is entered in Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 7 Chevrolet.

Gray Gaulding is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s 27 Ford.

Kyle Busch won this race last year over his brother Kurt Busch.

Denny Hamlin won last year’s night race over Matt DiBenedetto.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Cheddar’s 300 (7 p.m. ET Monday on FS1)

There are 37 cars entered.

Modified driver Patrick Emerling will make his Xfinity Series debut in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet. Brett Moffitt drove the car in the first six races of the season.

Carson Ware makes his Xfinity Series debut driving SS Green Light Racing’s No. 07 Chevrolet.

A.J. Allmendinger is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet.

Myatt Snider is entered in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

Christopher Bell won this race last year over Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer. Chase Briscoe, who finished fourth, is the highest finishing returning driver from that race.

Reddick won last year’s night race over Briscoe and John Hunter Nemechek.

Click here for the entry list.