William Byron’s special tribute prompts emotional memories of joy and pain for Hendrick Motorsports

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – William Byron’s No. 9 Chevrolet will sport a special connection to Rick Hendrick’s late son in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Darlington Raceway.

It’s far from the only reminder that Byron has been providing the NASCAR team owner lately.

As Byron, the sandy-haired 19-year-old with a fair complexion, has excelled in the Xfinity Series this season, his resemblance to Ricky Hendrick, the scion who was among 10 killed in the Oct. 24, 2004 crash of a team plane, has become more obvious – most recently when Byron won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“My daughter was watching Indy, and she texted me right after the race and said, ‘Dad, that’s spooky how much William looks like Ricky,’ ” Rick Hendrick said. “I’m kind of reliving some of Ricky’s early days with watching William now. He’s a special young man. Their mannerisms and everything. William’s super polite.”

William Byron waits in the garage during Xfinity practice at Darlington. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

During Saturday’s NASCAR America and Countdown to Green before the Xfinity race at Darlington, NBCSN ran a feature (video above) on Byron’s throwback tribute (which echoes the scheme that Ricky Hendrick drove to a 2001 win in the Camping World Truck Series) and the origins of the backward hat celebration that Ricky Hendrick inspired after every Hendrick Motorsports victory.

The tradition started through Ricky’s friendship with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who might have started the trend by wearing his hats backward during his first few seasons in NASCAR.

Ricky began mimicking Earnhardt, much to chagrin of his father, and continued the practice after retiring from driving and becoming a full-time car owner who won the 2003 title with Brian Vickers.

“I always said, ‘Don’t turn your hat around, don’t wear your hat in the garage like that,’ ” Hendrick said. “Then he won the championship with Brian Vickers, he turned his hat around on the stage that night. Everybody knew that was his trademark, but I always would tell him not to do it.”

It became a postrace victory tradition at Hendrick in the first race since the plane crash that also took the lives of team president John Hendrick, engine builder Randy Dorton, general manager Jeff Turner. After Jimmie Johnson won at Atlanta Motor Speedway, his crew turned their hats backward and pointed skyward in victory lane, which has become a part of every Hendrick Motorsports celebration.

“We were all very aware of Ricky’s like and his father’s dislike of the hat being worn in that direction,” Johnson said. “Ricky literally would design his hats to look good going backward and have Hendrick Motorsports in a certain spot, the car number in a certain spot. It was something that was just his style and what he was about. Of course, his dad being as buttoned up as he is wasn’t in love with the idea. But now it’s a great tradition, and it makes us all smile when we get to put our hats on backwards.”

It’s one of the only memories Johnson retains from the tumultuous week after the crash. The seven-time champion considered Ricky Hendrick a close friend who quietly helped lobby his father to get Johnson the No. 48 Chevrolet ride.

When Rick Hendrick called to congratulate him on the Atlanta win, both had trouble forming words.

“The emotions were so deep, I recall not being able to understand what he was saying because he was so emotional, and clearly, I was in a similar space, too,” Johnson said. “To lose 10 people, I found my mind would focus on one individual and quickly shift to another. It was almost as if we couldn’t get a break in our minds from the loss and the heartache that came with it. It was a really, really tough period of time. I still don’t know how we even got to Atlanta. It was so emotional and so tough, it’s a wonder we even got to the racetrack. That five-day stretch, there wasn’t a dry eye that entire period of time.”

Though they weren’t on the flight, Johnson’s wife, Chandra, and Rick Hendrick were on the original passenger manifest, which was read to team members after the plane went down.

“I knew my wife was with me at the track, but still that reality of hearing the manifest being read and she could have been on that airplane,” Johnson said. “Just swirling emotions in so many different directions. Just a really tough moment.”

The death of Ricky Hendrick cast doubt on the future at Hendrick Motorsports, which was grooming him to take over the company and allow his father to focus on his automotive empire.

Rick Hendrick had considered leaving NASCAR until a teamwide meeting a few weeks later at its headquarters in Concord.

“We lost so many people that day,” he said. “If you didn’t have a really unbelievably tight company, we wouldn’t have survived. They pulled together and went on to honor those folks.

“Your faith, your family and your friends are really all you’ve got, and that’s what you’re going to leave here with. And I felt that way when I saw William’s car, and I see this kid that looks like (Ricky Hendrick). It’s spiritual. It’s emotional. It’s special.”

Sammy Smith to run full Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023

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Sammy Smith will run the full Xfinity schedule in the No. 18 car, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday.

The 18-year-old Smith, a Toyota development driver, won the ARCA Menards Series East title for a second consecutive year in 2022 and also made nine Xfinity starts with JGR.

Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt will be sponsors on Smith’s car throughout the 2023 season. Jeff Meendering will be Smith’s crew chief.

“This is an opportunity I have been working towards,” Smith said in a statement from the team. “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel full-time and am looking forward to a great season. I learned a lot in 2022 that will really help me to be competitive and run up front in the Xfinity Series. Thank you to Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Toyota Racing Development for supporting me in my racing career. I am excited for next year and appreciate the opportunity.”

Said Steve DeSouza, JGR executive vice president of Xfinity Series and driver development, in a statement: “Sammy is a fantastic addition to our 2023 Xfinity lineup. He proved to have the passion and the talent to necessary to compete for wins in the races he ran for us in 2022,” .“We are excited to get him in the No. 18 full time and know he will be competitive from the jump.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers

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Some drivers carry one car number throughout their racing careers. The most famous racers in NASCAR’s 75-year history typically are associated with one number, although some have raced under several.

Victories, championships and driver personalities give life to something as generally mundane as a number. And the most popular produce even bigger numbers, as in sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most iconic NASCAR numbers:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 43 — Since Richard Petty’s emergence as a superstar in the 1960s, the number 43 has been NASCAR’s most iconic. Although Lee Petty, Richard’s father, usually drove No. 42, he actually scored the first win by the 43, in 1959. The Petty blue No. 43 carried Richard to a string of championships. He scored 192 of his 200 race wins with the number. It rolls on today with Erik Jones, who took the 43 to the Southern 500 victory lane this season.

2. 3 — The fiercely facing forward No. 3 became ultra-famous while driven by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt (although Earnhardt won his first title driving the No. 2). Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet carried the number to new heights, but Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Buddy Baker and Ricky Rudd, among others, also won in the car.

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

3. 21 — The list of drivers who have raced Wood Brothers Racing’s famous No. 21, with the familiar gold foil numbers, reads like a history of NASCAR. David Pearson brought the most fame to the number, but Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, team owner Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Dale Jarrett also have driven the 21.

4. 11 — This number is responsible for more race wins — 228 — than any other. It also has scored eight championships — three each by Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and two by Ned Jarrett. Other stars in the 11 over the years: Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and Denny Hamlin. And some guy named Mario Andretti.

5. 48 — This number was largely ignored until the arrival of Jimmie Johnson, who carried it to seven championships, including five in a row.

6. 24 — The number 24 was a lonely number until 1994 when a kid named Jeff Gordon drove it to its first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The brightly colored 24 became a regular visitor to victory lane from that point forward, carrying Gordon to four championships and becoming one of NASCAR’s most decorated numbers.

MORE: Will Kyle Busch follow footsteps of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

7. 18 — Although Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte won in the 18, Kyle Busch, draped in the bright colors of sponsor M&Ms, took it into new territory.

8. 22 — NASCAR’s first Cup champion (Red Byron) and its most recent (Joey Logano) rode with the 22. The number has produced 87 wins over the years, including victories by Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Byron and Logano.

9. 2 — Although the 2 carried Dale Earnhardt (1980) and Brad Keselowski (2012) to Cup championships, it is perhaps most identified with Rusty Wallace, whose menacing black No. 2 was powerful at Team Penske. Also successful in the 2: Bill Blair, Kurt Busch and Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

10. 9 — The 9 was basically nondescript until Bill Elliott roared out of the north Georgia mountains to turn it into a big winner in the mid-1980s. His son, Chase, continues the trend.

 

 

Truck Series: Rajah Caruth joins GMS Racing

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Rajah Caruth will drive the No. 24 truck full-time for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023, the team announced Tuesday.

The 20-year-old Caruth ran a full season in the ARCA Menards Series last year, placing third in points. He also made seven Xfinity starts and four Truck starts last year. 

“I am extremely honored, and really excited to join GMS Racing and be in the fold of a professional race team with so much history,” Caruth said in a statement from the team. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this throughout my whole career, and I’m going to do the best in my power to make the most of it.

“First and foremost, I can’t thank everybody at GMS enough for believing in me and believing that I have what it takes to drive one of their trucks. Same goes for everybody at Chevrolet for their support, we truly wouldn’t be able to make this happen without them. 

Caruth joins Grant Enfinger and Daniel Dye as GMS Racing’s full-time Craftsman Truck Series drivers. Chad Walter will be Caruth’s crew chief. Jeff Hensley will be Enfinger’s crew chief. Travis Sharpe will be Dye’s crew chief. 

The primary partner on Caruth’s truck will be the Wendell Scott Foundation. The foundation, named for the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race, seeks to provide resources and services to underprivileged Black youth communities near Scott’s hometown of Danville, Virginia. Since the foundation’s formation in 2011, more than 25 students have been awarded more than $50,000 from the Wendell Scott Legacy Scholarship programs.

“We are excited for Rajah to compete full-time with GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023,” said Dayne Pierantoni, GM Racing Program Manager for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “Through Chevrolet’s partnership with Rev Racing, we have been impressed with Rajah’s talent both on and off the track. He has proven his ability to compete at the NASCAR national level, and we look forward to seeing his continued success with a series championship winning team.”

The Truck season begins Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway. 

In other Truck Series news:

Dean Thompson will drive the No. 5 for TRICON Garage this coming season. The 21-year-old was a rookie in the series this past season. He had a season-best finish of 11th at Las Vegas.

“I am thrilled to start the next chapter of my career with TRICON Garage and Toyota Racing Development,” Thompson said in a statement from the team. “The team and manufacturer have quickly made a statement in the Truck Series as striving to be the best of the best. I’m ready to take on the challenge and live up to the expectations of being a driver for TRICON.”

McAnally Hilgemann Racing announced Tuesday that Christian Eckes and Jake Garcia will drive full-time in the Truck series for the team next season.

Eckes, who will drive the No. 19 truck, moves over from ThorSport Racing. Garcia will drive the No. 35 truck in pursuit of the series Rookie of the Year award.

NAPA AutoCare will continue as a team sponsor.

Garcia is 17 and is scheduled to make his first start March 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Because of NASCAR’s age restrictions, he will miss the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The team’s Daytona driver has not been announced.

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry

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Jarrett Companies will increase the number of races it will sponsor Josh Berry‘s No. 8 JR Motorsports ride in 2023, the Xfinity Series team announced Monday.

Jarrett Companies will sponsor Berry in six races after serving as the primary sponsor in three races in 2022. Those six races will be Phoenix (March 11), Richmond (April 1), Dover (April 29), Atlanta (July 8), Indianapolis (Aug. 12) and Texas (Sept. 23).

The deal gives Berry at least 26 races with sponsorship for next season. Bass Pro Shops will serve as the primary sponsor of Berry’s car in 11 races in 2023. Tire Pros is back with JRM and will sponsor Berry in nine races in the upcoming season.

Berry, who reached the Xfinity title race and finished fourth in the points, will have a new crew chief in 2023. Taylor Moyer will take over that role with Mike Bumgarner serving as JRM’s director of competition.

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.