Photo by Dustin Long

Long time coming: Eight years after then-record fine, Carl Long returns to Cup

6 Comments

STATESVILLE, N.C. — It is 8:15 p.m. Monday, 14 hours after George Church and Ken Kotlowski arrived at the tiny warehouse where race cars, pit carts, tool boxes, fuel cans and old tires are scattered along with hopes and dreams.

There is a problem.

Less than three days before they will load what will be a green-and-yellow No. 66 Cup car for a trip to Kansas Speedway, Church stands in the doorway of Carl Long’s cramped office, cluttered with a rear axle housing on the floor, and gives Long the news.

“There is no way those headers are going to work,’’ Church said.

The car’s oil pan is not clear of the headers. If left unchecked, the headers will “boil the oil’’ Long says.

They need new headers.

Compared to what Long has experienced in his racing career, it is a minor inconvenience, another sign of the roadblocks the 49-year-old endures to compete in NASCAR.

For nearly eight years, Long was barred from the Cup garage, prohibited to own a car in that series and forbidden to race there because of an unpaid $200,000 fine for an oversized engine.

Long lost both appeals and was stuck with the burdensome fine he could not afford. In one appeal, the panel noted his “strong love of racing’’ and that his testimony “came across as genuine and heartfelt’’ but that the penalty, although extreme for the low-budget team, was warranted.

Exiled to the Xfintiy and Truck Series, Long toiled until his sentence was commuted by NASCAR before this season. Long only says that he and the sanctioning body reached an “agreement” on the matter.

Friday morning at Kansas Speedway, Long will walk into the Cup garage for the first time since 2009.

TRYING TO DO A LOT WITH A LITTLE 

Although he also oversees the operation, Carl Long isn’t noted as the team owner. He lists his 72-year-old father, Horace, in that role.

“I told him, now it’s going to be Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and you’re going to be right in the middle of them,’’ Long says with a laugh.

Long laughs a lot. It’s therapeutic.

Without self-deprecating humor, he would be miserable over the challenges he’s stomached to race. He once climbed into a trash bin at another team’s shop to take scrap pieces for his car years ago. He’s accepted used tires from teams, watched his savings account wither and winced at how human error before Xfinity qualifying at Daytona this year cost his team nearly $100,000 all told.

George Church works on Carl Long’s Cup car at the team’s shop earlier this week. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Yet, here he is in a 4,750-square foot structure — 50 times smaller than the space occupied by Team Penske’s NASCAR teams in its shop — to compete against the sport’s elites. There is no engineering department, no fab shop, no set-up plates, no engine shop, no R&D department and no training room. The most sophisticated piece of equipment in the shop might be each person’s cell phone.

There’s also not enough room.

Some cars are kept in storage containers nearby, others are kept in the haulers until it is time to switch them out and head to the next race. Another car is pushed outside the warehouse and placed on a grass patch by the street corner, as if it is a sign telling people where the race shop is located but fans don’t flock here.

If this was the 1960s, this might be one of the best shops in the sport. Instead, it’s a place for Long to work and try to survive in a sport he’s invested nearly 35 years of his life.

“Racing is an addiction,’’ Long says, leaning back in a black office chair, arms crossed. “There’s some people that get over an addiction real quick when they’re broke. But when you start off broke and somehow seem to manage it and it gets in your blood, it’s hard to just walk away.’’

He’ll do whatever it takes to race.

That includes driving the team’s hauler to Kansas Speedway. 

BACK IN TIME

Carl Long and wife Dee Dee looked over paint schemes for the car that will mark his return to NASCAR’s premier series. He showed the options to his eight full-time employees who help him field a two-car Xfinity operation and now a Cup entry.

They all told him to go with the green-and-yellow scheme that his car had at the 2009 Sprint Showdown — the last time he competed in a Cup race.

“There’s no better way to go back then the way you left,’’ said Jason Houghtaling, who joined Long’s operation in January.

The only difference will be that the number on the green roof will be yellow instead of red as it was in 2009. Long thinks the number will stand out more that way. Instead of No. 46, it will be No. 66, a tribute to Mark Thompson, a friend who has raced Long’s Xfinity cars in the past, including last weekend at Talladega. The 65-year-old Thompson finished 25th after an engine failure in that race.

Maybe a new number can provide Long with better fortune. His Cup career is best remembered by long-time NASCAR fans more for bad times than good.

He qualified for the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 only to see his car owner sell the ride so Darrell Waltrip, who had failed to qualify, could compete in that race in his final season. Long has never again qualified for the 600.

He tumbled down the backstretch at Rockingham in 2004, rolling four times after getting hit from behind.

His $200,000 fine in 2009 remained the largest NASCAR had issued until fining Michael Waltrip Racing $300,000 in 2013 for its team’s actions at Richmond.

While Long reached his dream of racing in the Cup series, he was tormented by lack of success. He’s competed in 23 Cup races but failed to qualify for 75 from 1999-2009. He never finished better than 29th in a Cup race.

It is one thing to dream but what happens when those dreams don’t pan out as hoped? Does one feel fortunate to have climbed so far or cursed at never getting the chance to excel?

“I won’t consider it a curse,’’ Long says. “I think I figured out early how to survive without cashflow. Because I built my cars and set up my cars and drove the haulers and did all that other stuff, it made it easier for me for someone who had a limited budget to work with.

“The issue with cars, everybody has their own opinion on what they could do if they had Kyle Busch’s car. I don’t think I would beat Kyle Busch, but I would be way better than I am now.’’

CUP HOPES RETURN

As they prepared the primer grey car for this weekend, the team had wiring issues and sent the car to the engine provider for help.

The car returned to the shop shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday, 10 hours before the hauler had to leave for Kansas.

Long purchased the car in December from HScott Motorsports and intended to convert it to the Xfinity Series, but he remained hopeful that NASCAR would permit a return to Cup.

Ken Kotlowski, in the engine area, and David Powers work on Carl Long’s Cup car. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It wasn’t until shortly before the Daytona 500 that he found out NASCAR would do so. It was too late to get the car ready for the 500. With the Xfinity Series off until May 27, this break gave Long and his team time to work on the car for this weekend. He also plans to race it in the Monster Energy Open at Charlotte next weekend provided the car isn’t damaged at Kansas. 

Should he return for the Open, it will complete the circle from when his Car career stalled in 2009.

NASCAR discovered that his engine for what was called the Sprint Showdown measured 358.197 cubic inches. The maximum allowed was 358.0 cubic inches. NASCAR fined Long’s crew chief, Charles Swing $200,000, suspended Long and his wife, who was listed as the car owner, 12 races each and docked both 200 driver and car owner points.

Long appealed. He didn’t contest that the engine was oversized but argued that the engine came from a third-party vendor, Ernie Elliott, and that the discrepancy may have been due to an error on the supplier’s behalf or expansion due to overheating or to general wear and tear. The National Stock Car Racing Commission didn’t agree.

“The Commission reaffirms that the race team is ultimately responsible for all components on the race car, including any supplied by third-party vendors.

“While it is tempting to consider penalties that this driver and team can more-readily bear, the sport would not be well served by having a sliding scale of penalties calibrated to a given team or member’s resources. Penalties of this magnitude for this type of infraction are warranted in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.’’

While a final appeal reduced the suspensions to eight races, the fine remained, effectively barring Long from the Cup series for nearly a decade.

NEXT CHAPTER

When Carl Long was 25, he set a goal of becoming a full-time Cup driver by the time he was 35 years old.

Four months shy of his 50th birthday Long, the 1990 street stock champion at Orange County Speedway, is still trying to meet that goal.

He admits that “the best talent today in racing is the ability to write a check. If you can write a check and keep writing them, you can get the best equipment there is.’’

An Xfinity car sits outside the race shop for Carl Long’s team. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Long knows his driving days are nearing an end. That doesn’t mean he’ll leave the sport. With a savings account that has about $1,500, his retirement plan is to keep working. His goal is to build his team to where more drivers are willing to pay to drive his cars.

“I’m very, very jealous of the people that I started racing with who can retire,’’ Long says with a laugh. “I remember when Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. come asked me for advice when we were running some Late Model races. I grew up racing with Scott Riggs, Hermie and Elliott Sadler.

“I never figured I was any better than any of the rest of those guys, but I had beat them and they had beat me, so I figured if they could do it, I could do it. I think the biggest problem I had was I never capitalized on good opportunities. I would follow them up and not be prepared. I’d prepare for a month or two months to go to Charlotte, go test, do what we needed to do, make the race, look good, everybody goes, ‘OK, this is good.’

“Next week, I’d go to Dover and didn’t have a clue where I was going, didn’t have the car set up, just took that same car and turned it around and go up there and wind up in the fence somewhere or another because I wasn’t prepared. I’d go from a hero to a zero.’’

Starting this weekend, he has another chance. It just took eight years to arrive.

 and on Facebook

Premium Motorsports will cease Truck Series operation after 2018, auction equipment

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Five days after it earned its first top five in the series, Premium Motorsports announced Thursday it will not compete in the Camping World Truck Series next season.

The team, which has fielded entries in the series in 112 starts since 2015, is making the move “to be able to focus solely on their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing program in 2019.”

Premium will finish the season with its No. 49 Chevrolet, which is sponsored by Sobriety Nation. Wendell Chavous drove it for the first 19 races of the season. He retired from competition after last weekend’s Talladega race, where he earned his first career top five.

Nine other drivers have competed for the team throughout the season.

The team will auction off most of the its assets at the end of this month.

It has retained Gavel Auction Company NCAL6177 in Mooresville, North Carolina, for an auction to be held at 10 a.m. ET on Oct. 30.

 

Elliott Sadler begins final chapter with crew chief who revived career

Leave a comment

Elliott Sadler got his wish.

The 43-year-old JR Motorsports driver will end his NASCAR career racing “for all the marbles.”

Sadler, who announced the end of his full-time career in August, was determined to make the Round of 8 in the Xfinity playoffs. Then he could set out to fulfill the biggest wish of a career that began in 1995 – to be a NASCAR champion.

The final four races of Sadler’s career begins Saturday at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

“It’s cool to know that my last four races that I’m running in are not just to fill the schedule,” Sadler told NBC Sports. “There’s a lot on the line. We want to go there and do a good job.”

These races are also Sadler’s final chance to win a championship with the man who helped resurrect his career in its twilight and who will try do the same for Jimmie Johnson.

I KNOW A GUY

Kevin Meendering’s name was first brought up to Sadler by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It was October 2015 at Dover International Speedway and Sadler, then driving for Roush Fenway Racing, had just finished signing his deal to compete for JR Motorsports the next year.

Since returning to the Xfinity Series full-time in 2011, Sadler has won five times, but only once since 2013. He’d go winless in 2015.

Earnhardt thought the then 34-year-old Meendering was the solution to his friend’s problems.

The native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, had been with Hendrick Motorsports since 1999 when he was a 17-year-old intern in the team’s chassis department. By 2015, he had risen to lead engineer on Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet, where the team earned eight wins, 52 top five and 96 top-10 finishes in 178 starts.

“I want him to come and be your crew chief,” Sadler recalled being told by Earnhardt. “He is one of the reasons we won the races we did later on in my career, he really changed my outlook on racing. He will do you a great job.'”

Three years later, Sadler can’t help but agree.

“Man, was he ever right.”

Together, Sadler and Meendering won three times in 2016 at Talladega, Darlington and Kentucky.

Along with 14 top fives and a series-leading 29 top 10s in 33 races that year, Sadler made it to the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But without Meendering due to a suspension, Sadler lost the title to Daniel Suarez.

In 2017, Sadler went winless, but again made it to the championship four with help from 12 top fives (tied with William Byron) and a series-leading 25 top 10s. But Sadler missed out on the title to Byron after late-race contact with Ryan Preece.

“Last year, just being so close it just makes you want to work that much harder,” Meendering said last week following the announcement he will work with Johnson next season. “Seeing the disappointment in the guys on the team and Elliott, you just want to get back there and do a little better. I don’t want to say try harder because you are putting everything you’ve got into it, but you just want to win that championship.”

Entering their final four races together, Sadler and Meendering have 38 top fives and 75 top 10s.

Those numbers boosted Meendering’s portfolio to help give him the nod to replace Chad Knaus as Johnson’s crew chief next year in the Cup Series.

“I’ve been doing this 23 years and he is by far, and I mean by far, the best crew chief I’ve ever worked with all the way across the board if you have a lot of boxes to check,” said Sadler, whose crew chiefs have included Mike Beam, Todd Parrott and 2014 Cup champion Rodney Childers. “He’s very well deserving of this opportunity and he’s showing you his loyalty. These last couple of years he’s had a ton of job offers to leave, but Hendrick is where’s he been since he started in high school and he wanted to stay in that program. His patience has paid off.”

But before Sadler walks off into the Florida sunset and Meendering begins his quest to give Johnson an eighth Cup title, they’ll make one final push to give Sadler his long sought after NASCAR title.

TUNNEL VISION

For Meendering, giving Sadler a championship is “100 percent of my focus” despite the announcement of his impending promotion.

Sadler enters the Round of 8 in fifth, tied with Cole Custer with 3,011 points. They trail Christopher Bell (3,044), Justin Allgaier (3,039) and Daniel Hemric (3,013).

Of the top five drivers remaining, only Bell and Allgaier have won this year.

“Those guys with the wins, they have distanced themselves obviously, but we are also coming around to some very good tracks for Elliott,” Meendering said. “Through that summer stretch with the road courses and stuff, that is not really our strong suit as a team, but now we get back to Kansas, Texas, those are really good tracks for Elliott and I don’t see any reason why we can’t make it to Homestead.”

In his seven starts at Kansas since 2011, Sadler has never finished worse than 12th and has three top fives, the most recent in 2016.

The race in Kansas, the series’ only visit to the 1.5-mile this season, is one that Sadler has viewed as pivotal even before the season.

“Always to me, the last couple of years (with how) our point system is, even before you go to Daytona in February, I know that Kansas is the second most important race of the whole entire season,” Sadler said. “Homestead by far is the most important. Kansas is by far the second most important because it’s how you dictate, start off that final round. That’s what my mindset is this week. I know how important Kansas is. …. That’s all I’m really focused on. I haven’t really let the outside stuff affect me yet.”

The “outside stuff” is that the next four races – 1,100 miles and 800 laps barring overtime finishes – are his last planned in NASCAR.

Sadler said he has a “mental block” about the races and they don’t feel any more special than previous seasons.

“I know deep down inside it’s my last ever shot at ever winning a NASCAR championship,” Sadler said. “I just haven’t got to that point for some reason.”

But that point will come and then it will be gone.

If he and Meendering are unable to make the championship race and win the title, how does Sadler want to be remembered?

“If not, I hope people know we did it the right way,” Sadler said. “We did it fair and we did it even and we did it like we were supposed to. I was just a small town boy from Southern Virginia that was able to make it in the sport that he loved and cherished the most and that we did it the right way.”

 and on Facebook

NASCAR’s weekend schedule for Kansas Speedway

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NASCAR playoffs continue this weekend for the Cup and Xfinity Series as they visit Kansas Speedway.

Cup playoff teams will try to avoid elimination as Xfinity teams begin their second round.

Here’s this weekend’s full schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

Friday, Oct. 19

11 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

Noon – 8 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

2:05 – 2:55 p.m. – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

5 – 5:50 – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

7:10 p.m. – Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Saturday, Oct. 20

8 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m – Cup garage open

10:30 – 11:20 a.m. – Cup practice (CNBC, MRN)

11:40 a.m. – Xfinity qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (CNBC)

12:45 a.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. – Final Cup practice (NBCSN, MRN)

2:25 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

2:55 p.m. – Kansas Lottery 300; 200 laps/300 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 21

9 a.m. – Cup garage opens

12:20 p.m. – Driver-crew chief meeting

1:40 p.m. – Driver introductions

2:20 p.m. – Hollywood Casino 400; 267 lap/400.5 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR America: Will anyone below the bubble advance?

Leave a comment

In Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Steve Letarte said: “When you get to the Round of 12, it’s not about the points; it’s who you’ve got to beat.”

Brad Keselowski trails Martin Truex Jr. by 18 points. Letarte recalled a conversation with Paul Wolfe in which he questioned if it was realistic to beat Truex by that margin at Kansas. The answer was “no”.

The other three drivers below the cutline to advance to the Round of 8 are in an even more serious predicament.

Ryan Blaney is 22 points below the cutoff line. With his Talladega penalty, Kyle Larson is 36 points in arrears and Alex Bowman is 68 points behind. The most points available in a race is 60.

Keselowski’s surge at the end of the regular season that carried over to a playoff win at Las Vegas serves as an example of how these drivers can find a path to advancement. So does the fact that since the elimination-style playoffs were implemented, several drivers have earned dramatic wins in the final races of a round.

“Look at the playoffs,” Letarte continued. “I’m pretty scared to … say anything because Vegas was crazy, the Roval was crazy. Talladega was actually supposed to be crazy and it was calm.”

For more on whether the driver below the bubble can advance, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter