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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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NASCAR America: Kyle Busch seeks first Cup points win at Charlotte

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There’s a few notable holes on Kyle Busch‘s Cup Series resume.

He’s never won the Daytona 500 or the Coca-Cola 600.

To be even more specific, he’s never won a Cup points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He’s won at every other track on the Cup circuit.

In 28 starts at the 1.5-mile track, Busch has 11 top fives and three runner-up finishes. The most recent was in last year’s Coke 600. That was a week after he won the All-Star race for the first time.

He’s combined for 15 wins at the track in the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series, making him the track’s winningest driver.

Busch, who has three victories this season, made his effort to finally get a points win at Charlotte easier on Thursday when he qualified first for Sunday’s race.

“It’s important to me, but I’m not sure it’s important in the grand scheme of things,” Busch said of getting a win at Charlotte. “It’s certainly important to me and I would love to get that knocked out-of-the-way and to be finished with it until another new track comes up on the circuit and certainly it’s been a trying time here over the course of my career and to have it come to fruition in a points race, the last I checked I have a trophy at home that says, ‘winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway,’ so I’ll take that to my grave with me if I do never get a points win here. That will be my saving grace I guess.”

Busch came in second in last year’s Coke 600 after a fuel mileage gamble by Austin Dillon‘s team paid off, giving Dillon his first Cup win.

On NASCAR America, Steve Letarte, Landon Cassill and Kyle Petty discussed Busch’s struggle to get a Cup win at the track.

“At some point it’s kind of like Chase Elliott, ‘When’s he going to win? When’s he going to win?'” Letarte said. “Now, I think Kyle Busch feels like, when is he going to win? When is he going to win Charlotte? Starting on the front row matters, but we all know 600 miles … is very, very difficult.”

Watch the above video for more.

Reviewing Danica Patrick’s highs and lows at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the legacy left by her success

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So much of Danica Patrick’s fame can be traced to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s where she became a household name 13 years ago when she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and emerged as a transcendent athlete.

It’s where everything started. This Sunday, it’s where everything will end, too.

In her last warmup before starting the final race of her career, Patrick had a bumpy final practice Friday on Carb Day. She was eighth fastest, but her Dallara-Chevrolet was in the garage most of the session because of an electrical problem in the engine. After returning during the final 10 minutes of the session, Patrick’s No. 13 seemed to be OK.

“At the end of the day, these are things you’re actually glad for, because if this had happened Sunday, we would have been done,” she said. “I’m glad to get the issues out of the way early on. Overall, today felt good. We made some changes when I went out the second time, and I’m feeling good about starting seventh on Sunday.”
Though she has had her share of success – along with a fourth in her debut, there was a third in 2009 and six top 10s in seven starts — Patrick has learned well how to handle frustration at the 2.5-mile track, too.

Fuel mileage might have kept her from winning her debut, a pit collision ruined 2008, and an unstable setup made 2010 a wild ride.

For a review of her up-and-down history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and her legacy in racing, watch the video essay above that ran during Friday’s NASCAR America Motorsports Special on NBCSN.

 

Kaz Grala, father reveal how Fury Race Cars came to Xfinity Series

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CONCORD, N.C. — The text was sent at 4:04 p.m. on May 9, four days after the last Xfinity Series race at Dover International Speedway.

The sender was Darius Grala, father of Kaz Grala, the JGL Racing driver who announced May 15 that was no longer his job title.

The receiver was Shane Wilson, the long-time Xfinity crew chief who had worked in that role for Grala through the first 10 races of the season.

(Photo by Daniel McFadin)

The elder Grala asked: “Can u talk?”

That was the moment when Fury Race Cars, the race car building company Grala founded in 2016 with Tony Eury Jr. and Jeff Fultz, started becoming an Xfinity Series team.

PUTTING THE TEAM TOGETHER

It wasn’t official until Kaz Grala, 19, drove onto the track Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in his No. 61 Ford.

It capped a 15-day scramble for the Gralas, Wilson and other members of Fury Race Cars to become the newest Xfinity team. The effort was announced May 18.

It started with Darius Grala’s text. He had just gotten off the phone with JGL Racing owner James Whitener, who had offered to give them three of their Roush Fenway Racing built cars as a form of severance for Kaz Grala.

“We got the three cars from him because we left on great terms,” Kaz Grala. said. “He was a huge supporter of me, right up until the end, emotionally and financially, you name it. He was a big fan of mine and he helped me kick off my Xfinity career. He wasn’t able to continue funding my ride. He definitely wanted to help however he could.”

That allowed the group to get a “good jump” on the team building process in the midst of a two-week break for the series.

The process was made even easier with five of the six crew members who worked on Grala’s No. 24 car joining the team along with Wilson. They joined an operation in Fury Race Cars that for the last two years was devoted to building modifieds, sports cars and late models.

Darius Grala, a native of Poland who moved to the United States when he was 8, had his own background as a sports car driver. That went along with the extensive time served as NASCAR crew chiefs by Eury and Ricky Viers.

But at Fury Race Cars, they’d never worked with a Xfinity car until this month.

“I don’t want you to think we took it lightly,” Darius Grala said. “Because we didn’t we didn’t want to come and embarrass ourselves. But there wasn’t any question right from the first conversation, obviously being Kaz’s dad I want to do everything I can but after speaking with Tony and Jeff, they were all in 100 percent, whatever we need to do, let’s figure it out.”

The group worked many late nights to get ready for Saturday’s race.

“Yes, you have to get the car built, but you’ve got to have the tool box to organize …. you need to have a pit box,” Kaz Grala said. “You need to have the hauler organized, I needed race suits in eight days, I needed polos. Just every single little thing and one of our biggest challenges, just logistically, was that this came together so late, just trying to get our entry forms in in time for this race and for Pocono. Everything came so quickly, all the little I’s had to be dotted and T’s had to be crossed. All that stuff takes time and we just didn’t have time.”

Kaz Grala walks through the Xfinity Series garage on Thursday. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Even acquiring a fuel can was a hassle.

“They’re not easy to come by, it’s not like you can go to (a store) and buy one of those,” Darius Grala said.

They also had to pick a number.

“We let the team at Fury pick the number,” Kaz Grala said. “Actually you would be surprised when looking into numbers, I know I was, how few are actually on the market. Most of them are not. It really worked out perfectly, because Fury being modifieds is one of their main things that they build and all the guys at Fury are old-time, old-school guys and of course the 61 being Richie Evans’ was immediately what jumped out at them. That was kind of the inspiration for it. Not to mention my mom is actually from Rome, New York, as well, as Richie Evans was. Seemed like a good fit.”

The team loaded up its lone car for the Charlotte race weekend by 9 p.m. Wednesday, placing it in the team’s logo-free white hauler.

“That was the first relief since the day we started,” Darius Grala said.

He had a “really, really good” night of sleep.

A DEAL WITH GOD

With the sun setting on Fury’s first day as an Xfinity team, Kaz Grala pulled his No. 61 Ford into his garage stall – the very last stall meant for the lowest team in points or a new team without any – at the end of final practice.

On his last run, Grala posted the eighth best speed in the session at 179.784 mph. That placed him ahead of Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Ty Dillon and other drivers from big teams.

Where did they get that speed?

Darius Grala observes Xfinity practice atop the Fury Race Cars hauler. (Photo by Daniel McFadin)

“I don’t know, I guess a lot of hours and a lot of hard work right there, the car’s pretty darn good,” Grala said. “Couldn’t really ask for more than that.”

Has the driver who has competed in a full season of the Camping World Truck Series (and won one race) and 10 Xfinity races ever felt this good after a practice?

“Not in Xfinity, no,” he said. “I think we’re closer than we’ve been. We were within a couple of tenths of the 22 (Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski). If you’re within a couple of tenths of the 22 then you’re pretty darn good.”

In the Xfinity garage, JGL Racing’s No. 28 Ford driven by Dylan Lupton is parked right across from Fury’s stall. Lupton finished the session 24th.

“We’re still on good terms, we’re friends with all of them,” Grala said. “A little friendly competition, we’re a little bit quicker than them. We’re going to try and stay quicker than them. But we’re trying to be quicker than everyone here.”

The team’s next chance to be quicker than everyone else comes Saturday in qualifying. And the No. 61 team needs to qualify. They also need it to not rain. If it rains, they won’t be in the race.

“There’s 43 cars here and we have zero points,” said Darius Grala, noting the field would be set by owner points. “That’s about the only goal we have right now is we need to make a deal with God on the weather.

Qualifying is set to begin at 10:10 a.m. ET. The chance of rain then is 60 percent.

Regardless of the weather, the team will be back next week at Pocono and the two races after that. That fulfills the original sponsor deal Kaz Grala has with NETTTS, which has backed him since 2013 when he raced in modifieds.

The team is prepared to go beyond those four races, but won’t just stop looking for partners.

“As of right now, yes, it’s been a lot of work, but no one at Fury is scared of work,” Darius Grala said. “We’re looking at this being a step forward if at all possible.”

PJ1 traction agent, tire dragging in use at Charlotte

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Charlotte Motor Speedway is doing as much as it can to improve the racing product and create opportunities for passing this weekend at the 1.5-mile track.

A blue tractor spent Friday dragging two sets of tires in the upper groove in each turn, an effort to freshen the area where the PJ1 traction agent was applied.

A track spokesperson confirmed to NBC Sports that the substance was added to the upper grooves in both corners on Monday and Tuesday.

The spokesperson was not aware of plans to add more PJ1 or to drag the tires on Saturday.

“The Xfinity cars ran on that PJ1 a lot and definitely activated it and got the grip definitely up there,” Joey Logano said after qualifying second for the Coke 600. “It’s hard for me to say what was what, but, overall, the car got faster and that’s all I really care about.”

Charlotte first used the traction agent in the Coca-Cola 600 last year and again in October. Its presence in that race wasn’t popular due to an uneven application of the substance.

Bristol Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway have also used the substance in the last two years.