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 Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.