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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Brennan Poole on his love of ‘Star Wars’ and owning an A.J. Foyt truck

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“Without a doubt” the most fun Brennan Poole has had in the Xfinity Series ended in disappointment.

It was a year ago at Talladega Superspeedway when a chaotic finish ended with Poole and Elliott Sadler waiting five minutes at the start-finish line to find out who won the race. Though Sadler left the track a winner, Poole still cherishes the experience.

“I ran up front the whole race,” Poole told NBC Sports. “I was racing with (Joey) Logano and Sadler and (Justin) Allgaier. We’re all racing really hard. I got Jeremy Clements pushing me. A strange finish to that. It was a lot of fun to basically win the race, then not win the race.

“A lot of people would think that would be a terrible memory or something bad. It’s just how it panned out. It’s just racing. So that was a lot of fun.”

Ahead of the 10th race this season, Poole is still looking to top that moment. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is 10th in points and seeking his first top-five finish of the year.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

 (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: OK, I’ve been wanting to ask you about this since February. Your Star Wars helmet. How did that come about?

Poole: As a kid I always liked Star Wars and my dad was a huge Star Wars guy. He took me to see it and I watched all of them when I was really little. I remember going to see Episode I, II and III when all those came out. My dad I would go and watch them together. This winter over the off-season, my family and I, we all went out to see Rogue One. We went to dinner afterward and I was sitting there, ‘Man, it would be really cool if I painted my helmet like a Star Wars helmet or something cool.’ Really, as a driver, our only thing of creativity that we get to decide on our own (is our helmet). That’s where we get to express ourselves a little bit, you know? I just started thinking about it, started looking at helmets. Just sitting down at dinner goofing off and talking about it. That’s really where the idea started and I thought it would be sick if I did a Luke Skywalker X-Wing helmet. I thought it would be cool and neat to do it all scratched up and beat up and kind of worn out like his was.

When I got home from doing Christmas and New Year’s with my family I called up my helmet painter, Jason Beam, and we just talked about it. He’s a huge Star Wars guy too, so he was pumped about it too. He’s the creative side of it. I just wanted to do a Star Wars helmet and he was like ‘We’ll do this, we’ll do that.’ Started coming up with the idea and he started sending me drawings and things that he had. Finding a way to incorporate DC Solar and stuff on the front and really keep the helmet true to Luke’s helmet in the movie. He just did an outstanding job. Just more than special. Every time I put that thing on I feel cool, you know?

NBC Sports: Which Star Wars movie is your favorite?

Poole: People ask me that a lot. I like Episode I. I was like 10 or 11 or something when it came out. I was racing quarter midgets and stuff. The pod races, man. That’s like the coolest thing. To me that’s like the coolest part. As I’ve gotten older and I’ve watched all the movies. I’ve seen a bunch of them. The new ones, the technology has just grown so much and they’re done so beautifully. I would say right now my favorite is Rogue One. They did such an amazing job telling that story.

NBC Sports: If you had a time machine and you had to choose between going to the world premiere of Star Wars in 1977 or attending the 1979 Daytona 500, which would you choose?

Poole: (laughs) Both would be really cool. The ’70s are an interesting time. The music and everything that was going on. Racing is what I love. That’s what’s in my heart, it’s all that I’ve ever wanted to do since I can remember. So I would definitely like to go back and experience the Daytona 500 in the late ’70s. Just experience the crowd, the fans and what it was like. The drivers and see those cars and seeing them in person go around the track was probably amazing at the time. It’s still amazing today, but it’s just a little bit different feel to it and I’d like to experience that feel. … Hands down I would go to the race. Thinking about Star Wars though, going back to see the world premiere, like that’s cool, but I would want to go back and be a part of how they actually made the film. See how they’re hanging star ships up and filming it. I would like to see how they did that because it changed film and how they shot film forever.

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Poole: My first car was a 1999 Ford F-350. It was a Legends Series and it used to be A.J. Foyt’s truck. A.J. Foyt owned it and he signed the dash. I bought it from the guy that built my dirt modified engines to pull my first modified trailer. I drove that thing to high school. When I turned 16 I got it and drove it all through high school. It was a good truck. … I could do burnouts for crying out loud. It was a lot of fun. I was that guy with the huge truck. People always gave me a hard time. ‘Why do you need a truck that big?’ ‘I pull my race car with it.’ Growing up in South Texas in Houston, I grew up in the city. Racing wasn’t a big thing. … I couldn’t even park it in the school parking lot. I had to take up multiple spots. It was kind of ridiculous. I pulled my race trailer and did all that stuff myself. I set up my own cars and couple of my buddies would help me, all young kids. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. … I had that truck up until, I sold it a few years ago … in 2011. But I still miss it man.

NBC Sports: Have you ever named a car?

Poole: I’ve had several cars named. Several, several cars. The last car that I had named, I had this all red car. A dirt modified. It’s name was ‘Ms. Vivian’ after the movie Pretty Woman. It was a redhead, the car was all red. The car had a red chassis, a red body. So it was an ol’ red head. It said ‘Ms. Vivian’ right on the bumper.

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

Poole: I think about this a lot, of things I want to do or things I want to experience. I definitely want to go to a NBA finals game. I’m a huge basketball fan. I’ve been watching the playoffs. I’ve been a huge Charlotte Hornets fan for a few years since I live a couple blocks away from the stadium and I’ve gone to like 20 games each year that last two years. Of course, I’m a Houston Rockets fan, that’s where I grew up. They got knocked out of the deal, so I’m kind of bummed. … I want to go to a basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York. I’m fascinated by New York City for whatever reason, so I’d like to experience that. Most of my bucket list things have to do with sport. I’d love to go to the Stanley Cup finals as well and see a game in person. Hockey is so entertaining and amazing in person, it’s not-stop action the whole time. … I can definitely tell you I don’t want to go skydiving. I have no desire to experience that whatsoever.

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

Poole: Yeah, it was pretty cool. I think the coolest thing for me, I’ve had shirts and I’ve had things like that. I think it’s different when it’s a real piece. They have those baseball cards of me. I didn’t even know they existed and I had a fan ask me to sign some one weekend. I was like ‘Man, that’s pretty cool. I have my own baseball card.’ That’s pretty special. I have my rookie card, it says ‘RC’ on it like ‘Rookie Card.’ So I have one myself because I think that’s pretty neat. I didn’t think they did that. … I think I signed 150 yesterday with (PR representative) Ian (Moye) at his desk. That was just kind of special to see for the first time.

NBC Sports: If you were competing in the Cup race at Bristol, what would be your introduction song?

Poole: Let’s just say ‘Down with the Sickness’ by Disturbed. That’s hard-core.

South Boston Speedway South Boston, Virginia. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: NASCAR announced the schedules for next year this week. If you could add one track to the Xfinity schedule, what would it be?

Poole: I think we should go somewhere ridiculous, like Hickory (Motor Speedway). It would be insane and there’s not even a pit road. People would be pitting all over the place. I’m just kidding, that would be insane. … I think I would like to see them go to South Boston, I never raced there. Just another short track or something. The Motor Mile (Speedway). Motor Mile’s pit road isn’t too terrible, they’d probably have to make it a little bit bigger or somethings. I would like a nice, tight short track. Maybe you got to do some bumping, some bump and runs, something like that would be a lot of fun.

NBC Sports: If you don’t have to be at the track or at the shop, all your family is busy and you have no obligations, how do you spend your day?

Poole: If you want a full day, you got it. Here we go. Probably wake up in the morning, have some coffee, make myself some eggs and bacon. I’d probably go on an hour and a half bike ride, maybe bust out 30 miles or something, 35 miles, something like that. Probably come home, literally would play X-Box for the rest of the afternoon. I’d probably be playing NBA 2K in ‘My Career’ playing as myself. Then I would order Hibachi. I would not leave the house. I would order Hibachi. There’s a great Hibachi place that delivers to where I live. Steak and shrimp. You get fried rice. You got to get noodles as well in the soup, I don’t know what the soup is called, the full deal. Just blow it out. Then I would watch some shows on Netflix as I’m falling asleep. That’s probably the full day.

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

Ben Kennedy

Blake Koch

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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.