Kurt Busch says he has offers from other teams; says Ford ‘surprised’ team declined contract option

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – In his first three days testing the NASCAR driver market, Kurt Busch already has received “a couple of offers.”

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver spoke with a small group of reporters Saturday morning before Cup practice at Watkins Glen International in his first interview since Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up Busch’s contract option for 2018.

“They chose not to pick up my options, but I see it as good options for me,” Busch, who turned 39 Friday, told ESPN.com, KickinTheTires.net and Motorsport.com. “I’m not too worried about it. I feel like there’s more options out there than what exist here.

“The phone didn’t stop ringing all week and not just because it was my birthday.”

Busch had said several weeks ago he expected to the option to be exercised because he had delivered the necessary results.

“There is no stress whatsoever,” the reigning Daytona 500 winner said. “There’s plenty of time for all options to unfold. There are a couple of offers already, so we will see how things work out.”

Stewart-Haas Racing has declined to address the news aside from posting a tweet Tuesday, indicating it expected both Busch and sponsor Monster Energy to return the No. 41 Ford. Busch said continuing at SHR, where he has raced since 2014, was a possibility.

“I’m looking for the best possible option to race a competitive car that has a chance to win races, win poles and compete for a championship,” he said. “There are different cars that are options for me, and Stewart-Haas is one of them.

Though he seemed unworried, Busch implied the team’s decision had created some tension within his team and caught SHR’s manufacturer off guard.

“The disruption of them not picking up my option, it gets the crew guys all flustered,” he said. “Ford was very surprised by it. We just have to stay focused, stay sharp. There’s no reason to not think we couldn’t be back here. It’s just a matter of making it all work out. I’m not too worried about it.

“Ford is definitely more on my side than they are with the way that the results came out. We’ll see how it all plays out.”

Asked for a reaction to Busch’s comments, Ford Performance released a statement: “Contracts are between drivers and teams with Ford having rights of approval. That said, we are hopeful that Kurt and Stewart-Haas Racing can come to an agreement that will keep him in a Ford going forward.”

Start of Saturday’s Cup race moved up by an hour

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Because of the threat of inclement weather, Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway will begin an hour earlier.

NASCAR announced Friday afternoon that the green flag will be at 6:46 p.m. ET for Saturday’s 500-lap race.

Various forecasts are putting the odds of scattered thunderstorms at more than 50% Saturday night.

Rain also is a possibility Friday night, so NASCAR elected to move up the start of the Xfinity race by 15 minutes for a 7:28 p.m. green flag.

Inside RPM: Bubba Wallace earns respect from fans, crew

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin Long is spending this week with Richard Petty Motorsports to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at all that takes place before a race. He will be with the team at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend. Watch for his stories each day through Sunday.

Part 1: Putting together a game plan for Bristol

Part 2: Searching for sponsorship 

BRISTOL, Tenn. — They brought diecast cars, hats, shirts and hero cards to be signed. A man wearing a No. 3 hat and an orange Bristol T-shirt brought a Winston Cup banner covered in signatures. Bubba Wallace became the 279th name to decorate it. A woman gave Wallace, a University of Tennessee fan, an orange Volunteers bracelet and a lanyard. A man just wanted to shake Wallace’s hand.

And then there was Maegann Wright, wearing a Bubba Wallace T-shirt. Among the 300 or so items Wallace signed Thursday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway, none was more unusual than what Wright requested. She slipped her left black-and-white checkered shoe off and handed it to the driver of the No. 43 car. He wrote his name next to Ryan Blaney’s fading signature.

“It smells disgusting,’’ Wright said of her shoe. “I felt bad, but I had to have him sign it.”

When the line emptied and the last selfies with fans were taken, Wallace returned to his motorhome to prepare for the weekend. The next race is always the most important for any competitor but that might be more true for Wallace and Richard Petty Motorsports.

Maegann Wright gets a fist bump from Bubba Wallace after he signed her shoe at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The single-car team continues to search for sponsorship. Businesses operated by team owners Andrew Murstein and Richard Petty will be on the car Saturday night for the fifth time in the last six races because no other company paid to be the primary sponsor. The team seeks a primary sponsor for more than half of the remaining 13 Cup races.

“We know how much it means to have a really good race,” Wallace told NBC Sports.

Bristol could be an equalizer for RPM because aerodynamics and finances don’t mean as much as at bigger tracks. In April, Wallace drove to the front and led six laps before a blistered left front tire relegated him to a 16th-place finish. The way Wallace drove to the front gave the crew hope this week as they prepared the same car for this race.

Such a run would provide a boost. The team has had one top-15 finish in the last 16 races, an eighth-place result at Texas in April.

The challenge is not new for Wallace. He thinks back to his early struggles in the Truck Series before he won at Martinsville in 2013, and the search for sponsorship that came up empty and forced Roush Fenway Racing to suspend operations of his Xfinity team last season.

(Photo: Dustin Long)

“Each and every step, there has been something to overcome and a hardship to be able to cross,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “I think that just makes you stronger for the next step in your journey. Being here right now and knowing our expectations … learning from those hardships that I’ve come through before, I don’t put so much pressure on myself.

“Yea, we’re struggling a little bit. But I don’t feel like I’m about to have a mental breakdown over it. It’s like why aren’t we winning all these races? Well, let’s back up a little bit. We don’t have the money and stuff like that. We have the drive, we have the passion, but that’s not what wins you races. That’s a step to help you win a race, but we’ve got to have a whole package.”

He came close in the Daytona 500, finishing second to Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing, an organization Richard Petty Motorsports is aligned with and neighbors to in Welcome, North Carolina.

For as memorable as the finish was, what happened in the media center afterward is a moment that Wallace said he’ll never forget. His mother went to the dais and embraced Wallace, telling him: “I’m so proud of you baby, I’m so proud of you. You’ve waited so long, baby.”

Wallace responded as they hugged: “You act like we won just won the race.”

“We did! We did! We did win that race. We did.”

Wallace’s mother, Desiree Gillispie-Wallace, has provided her son emotional support through the peaks and valleys of a racing career that started at age 9 and saw a steady progression of a driver some labeled the Tiger Woods of racing. Along the way, Wallace won in his first K&N Pro Series East start at age 16 and became the first African-American to win a NASCAR national series race in nearly 50 years when he won at age 20 at Martinsville, just a few miles from the hometown of Wendell Scott, who became the only African-American to win a Cup race in 1963.

“He’s still hard on himself because he feels like he’s carrying the weight of the African-American culture … kids that look up to him,” Wallace’s mother told NBC Sports. “He wants to make sure he’s doing a good job for everybody.”

Bubba Wallace speaks to the senior class at Virginia High School in Bristol. (Photo: Dustin Long)

During an appearance Thursday for the U.S. Air Force before the senior class at Virginia High School in Bristol, Wallace was asked by a black student about being the only African-American in NASCAR’s top series.

“It’s pretty cool,” Wallace told the assembly. “Wendell Scott … laid down the foundation for us all and broke the barriers and went through all that stuff. For me now, I’m one of the most accepted drivers. In our driver intros, I get huge cheers. For me, it’s about being myself … carrying that to each and every weekend. I think the fans latch on to what is real. That’s what I’m all about. There’s no switching it up when you get on camera. Me talking to you guys today is the same person you’ll see … at the race. I’ve always been like that.

“As far as the African-American side, I don’t really pay much attention to try to accomplish that. I just go out and let the driving speak for itself. You have good days that tends to shine a little bit more, the humbling days is what you need to work on, when things don’t go your way you’ve got to manage the emotion and come out on top.”

He has his team’s support.

“These guys are really sold that Bubba can drive even though I don’t think it’s fair that we haven’t given him a good car lot this year,” said Philippe Lopez, director of competition. “It’s not that we’ve given him a bad car, it’s just where we’re at he’s done a lot with it. Sometimes he’s overachieved.”

Bubba Wallace chats with shock specialist Michael Riggs at the shop earlier in the week. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Wallace also done other things that mean a lot to the crew. Visits to the shop and spending time with crew means a lot to each.

“Some drivers, they’re like straight-laced, you’ve got to be real serious with them and there’s other drivers like Bubba that you can mess around with,” said interior mechanic David Cropps, whose primary job is to make sure where Wallace sits inside the car is as safe as possible.

One of the things that struck mechanic Jerad Hewitt, who joined the team last month, was what Wallace typically does after most practices. He goes around and thanks the crew for their job.

“It’s nice to have that,” Hewitt said.

It’s something Wallace has done since he was racing in the Xfinity Series.

“The moments that we go through are all as one team, from the start of the weekend to the end, all one team,” Wallace said. “Sometimes I forget (to thank them) and I feel bad about it.

“It’s something that came about, showing the guys that I for sure care about them, they’re the ones that I put the trust in them to make sure the car is at its full 110 percent each and every weekend. Showing them the appreciation and giving them the love that they deserve is what it’s all about.”

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NASCAR penalizes four drivers in first Cup practice at Bristol

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — NASCAR announced Friday morning that Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman, David Ragan and Bubba Wallace will be held out of the last 15 minutes of the first Cup practice.

The drivers’ cars failed prerace inspection twice at Michigan International Speedway.

The first practice for Saturday night’s Food City 500 begins at 10:35 a.m. and runs through 11:55.

Qualifying for the race is at 5:40 p.m.

Dale Jr. Download: Terry Labonte tried to join Dale Earnhardt in 1999 Bristol victory lane

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Some of the best finishes at Bristol in the 1990s involved Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

Each driver came out ahead in two of the most famous of these.

In the 1995 night race, Earnhardt caught Labonte in heavy traffic on the final lap. He gave Labonte a shot in the back exiting Turn 4. Labonte nosed into the wall on the frontstretch but had enough momentum to carry his car across the finish line.

Labonte won; Earnhardt finished second.

“I wasn’t too mad about that one,” Labonte told Dale Earnhardt Jr. on this week’s edition of the Dale Jr. Download.

Labonte’s mood would be substantially different four years later.

In 1999, Earnhardt demonstrated he learned his lesson from the earlier exploit.

Labonte tapped Earnhardt coming to the white flag lap and got around him. He didn’t get far enough ahead, however, and Earnhardt spun Labonte on the backstretch.

Earnhardt won; Labonte finished eighth – the first driver one lap down.

“I was sitting there wrecked on the back straightaway and my car was nosed in the wall … so I put it in reverse,” Labonte said. “I had it running and I seen him coming down the back straightaway here and I thought, ‘That No. 3 is going to victory lane, but this No. 5 is going to be stuck in the side of it’. “

Labonte’s plan to piggy back was foiled, however.

“I had it timed perfect,” Labonte continued. “And I sat there, and I popped the clutch and that car moved about a half inch and tore reverse gear out.

“It kind of let all the wind out of my sails, so I just got out and walked to my transporter.”

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s greatest Bristol wins

For more, watch the video above.