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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Ben Kennedy, the racer in the France family

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Until his racing career’s late start at 13, Ben Kennedy had a “normal childhood.”

He went to grade school, played multiple sports and even attended soccer camp.

“Hanging out and making friends and just being a kid,” Kennedy told NBC Sports. “That was something that kind of stuck out in my mind that I’m thankful for.”

Then there was the family business.

Ben Kennedy will be one of the drivers who pilots the No. 2 Chevrolet this year. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Kennedy has vague memories. Attending the Daytona 500, meeting his favorite driver Jeff Gordon at the age of 3 and the annual visits to the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City.

As the grandson of former NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr., Kennedy got plenty of opportunities to see the “moving circus” up close and personal.

“I think it took awhile to understand the scope of it and the roles my family has played both on the NASCAR and ISC side,” Kennedy said. “I understood my mom (Lesa France Kennedy) was involved in the tracks (as CEO of ISC) and my family was involved in NASCAR. It was awhile before I really grasped it completely, and I still don’t completely understand all the ins and outs of this sport. Maybe never will. It’s a cool sport. It amazes me everyday how complex it is and how many different facets there are between NASCAR and the tracks, the teams, the drivers, the partners, everybody involved. It’s so diverse.”

Now, at 25, he’s one of the moving circus’ performers.

Nearly a year ago, Kennedy became the first member of the France family to win a national NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway in the Truck Series. Last week at Talladega, he made his first start of the year in the Xfinity Series, driving for Richard Childress Racing. He finished fourth. He will split the season between RCR and GMS Racing in the No. 96 Chevrolet.

That’s in addition to his ownership of a part-time K&N Pro Series East team.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: In the seven months you were out of a car, how did you keep busy? What was a day in the life of Ben Kennedy?

Kennedy: It’s been really hectic for me. … Just staying as fit as possible. Staying healthy and training as much as I can to be ready for the season. Got some other stuff I’ve been working on with not only putting these Xfinity races together and finding partners. I’ve also got a K&N team down in Daytona. I’ve been managing that and been pretty involved with that this year. Also, random stuff, did “American Ninja Warrior” about a month ago. Just kind of all over the map.

NBC Sports: How did American Ninja Warrior come about?

Kennedy: Such a cool experience. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to train for it. Those guys that you’re going up against, they train for years and months on end. I didn’t have much time. Upper body is probably my weakness on this side of athleticism. I trained my tail off for it. I was sick the entire time training. It’s wild to get up there in front of all the bright lights and cameras and all that stuff. When you watch on TV from the couch and in the AC it’s a completely different experience then being out there in the elements.

(Writer’s note: Kennedy’s episode of airs on June 26 on the USA Network)

NBC Sports: In a couple of months we’ll be coming up on a year since you won at Bristol. Where’s that trophy located now?

Kennedy: It’s at my apartment in North Caroline right now. I got it up there, the Bristol trophy, along with the … flag from when I had team and family members sign at a celebration party after. I got it in a good spot in my place.

NBC Sports: How much space does it take up, because it looked like a pretty big trophy.

Kennedy: It takes up the floor. I tried to find counter space to put it on. Nothing really made sense and my girlfriend wasn’t really crazy about it. It’s on the floor right now.

NBC Sports: When you did the NASCAR on NBC podcast last year, you said that you really liked that you went to a college (University of Florida) where no one really knew who you were or who your family was. When that would eventually come up, how’d you address that ‘yeah, my family founded NASCAR?’

Kennedy: I never went out and said it. I never said I was a driver or anything. Any of that stuff. Naturally, it does come out. People Google you or Wikipedia or something. They find that out. Some people understood I was a driver, some people understood I was a driver and my family was involved in NASCAR. You’ve got to kind of embrace it and be a part of it. Your family is something you should definitely be proud of. At the same time be very cautious and know who your friends are. It’s kind of a double-edged sword in some ways. Nonetheless, they’re family to me. That’s all I know.

Ben Kennedy drives GMS Racing’s No. 96 Chevrolet during a May test at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo by Daniel McFadin)

NBC Sports: Do you remember the first time you saw or name or face on merchandise?

Kennedy: Gosh, it was probably a long time ago. I remember we made these hats that had my number on it a long time ago. It wasn’t really merchandise. I think my first shirt, and I’ve still got it somewhere, it was a Hanes shirt like you’d buy at Wal-Mart and a friend of mine embroidered Kennedy on it, put my No. 96 on it. It’s very retro and one of a kind.

NBC Sports: What’s your attachment to the No. 96?

Kennedy: I don’t know. It’s kind of been a number that I started with in go-karts. I kind of forget how I ended up with it. I think it’s one of those things where you have to pick a number but you have to pick a number no one else has so far. Ninety-six was one that was available. It’s one that stuck ever since.

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

Kennedy: I’m kind of an outdoor, action-adventure junkie. I think traveling the world is pretty cool. Obviously, something I want to do is go skydiving. That’s on my list. I went bungee jumping one time, which was incredible.

NBC Sports: Speaking of traveling the world, you won a race in Paris, France a few years ago (in 2012, the first oval race in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series history at Tours Speedway). What was that experience like?

Kennedy: That was awesome. It was neat because they set it up in a parking lot outside this convention center. You go Turn 1 and 2 and it’d be kind of smooth, then you’d go through Turns 3 and 4 and you’d hit a gutter. Pretty soon, all four tires are off the ground. It was the first year that they did it, but it was so neat because they did it parallel to a motorcycle convention that was out there at the time and I had never seen so many American flags in one place in my life and I thought that was really cool. …

The race itself was really fascinating because those cars are very spaced out, everything is very similar from car to car. Kind of a bit of a learning curve for me. The team I was working with didn’t speak great English. That was a little bit of a challenge. I remember in practice, I came in and I told them what was wrong with the car and what I wanted to adjust. They’re like, ‘ok, that’s fine. Go back out and practice. We can’t make any changes here, we don’t want to make any changes here.’ So, alright.

During the race, I actually got carbon monoxide poisoning. The crash panels were a little bit open between that and the body. I was sucking in fumes the entire race. There was a caution with like five to go or something, they were doing their first ever green-white-checkered there and they were trying to figure it out. … The pace car was going like 10 mph, I’m sucking up fumes. I almost passed out. I got out of the car. I was beat red in the face. The guy that was interviewing me asked me, ‘You must be working out hard out there.’ I said ‘I feel like I’m going to hurl right now, too.’ I did that.

Then I leaned over the side of the car and just caught my breath for a while and then did all the celebrations after that.

NBC Sports: If you were competing in a Cup race at Bristol, what would you choose as your intro song?

Kennedy: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t even know. Something cool. … Like Kings of Leon, something like that … What’s that one song, I don’t even know if it’s Kings of Leon, but “Centuries”?

NBC Sports: That’s Fall Out Boy.

 

Previous Xfinity spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

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

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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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.

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

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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
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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.

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

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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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.