Beer, Rolling Stone and rock ‘n’ roll: How Dale Earnhardt Jr. journeyed beyond NASCAR into new media

3 Comments

In this age of ubiquitous social media, how Dale Earnhardt Jr. initially emerged as among the most culturally transcendent drivers in NASCAR history now seems a virtual afterthought.

The 14-time most popular driver is as adept as any professional athlete in communicating via Twitter, a postrace regular on Periscope and the weekly host of a podcast that is the anchor of a burgeoning digital empire created by his branding team.

But the wheels were turning on leveraging Earnhardt’s renowned authenticity long before the technological platforms of the 21st century made him much more easily accessible.

There were edgier appearances in mainstream media such as Rolling Stone, Playboy and Men’s Journal. An unconventional ad campaign in which a NASCAR driver in his mid-20s was marketed more as James Dean than Jeff Gordon. And a presenting spot at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.

“I do know now better than I knew then how impactful that is and how much that does for your recognition and the sport,” Earnhardt, 43, said. “I never really did it for me or myself.”

If Gordon’s class and polish helped deliver NASCAR to Madison Avenue and Tony Stewart was the workingman’s vehicle for reaching the blue-collar fans on Main Street, the road to multicultural hipness with a technophile’s savvy was paved best by Earnhardt – the last of a retiring triumvirate of stars who led NASCAR to the heights of popularity over the past two decades.

It’s possible to draw a through line over the 18 seasons of Earnhardt’s Cup career to appreciate how the seeds were planted for him to become so comfortable in nontraditional racing mediums, but it would need to come with an asterisk that none of it was by design for an admittedly shy star who often was petrified of being in the spotlight.

“Those things, I had nothing to do with all of that,” he said. “Those things happened because of our relationship with Budweiser and (PR representative) Jade Gurss’ work ethic and his ability to get us into those doors and into those conversations with those publications.”

The Rolling Stone profile – titled “Kurt is My Co-Pilot” in reference to Earnhardt’s fandom of Nirvana and frontman Kurt Cobain – was published in May 2000 in the aftermath of the No. 8 Chevrolet driver’s first Cup win at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2, 2000. It was just days after another victory at Richmond International Raceway and a week ahead of Earnhardt’s breakthrough victory in The Winston all-star race.

Gurss remembers that stretch early in Earnhardt’s rookie season as “insane” for the doors that it opened for reaching a new wave of media outlets.

“It was really a couple of months that set in motion a lot of momentum that theoretically continues today,” said Gurss, the author of two books about Earnhardt Jr. “Obviously, the horror with his dad at the Daytona 500, that changed a lot as well. But people who think it was only because of the death of his father, this train was rolling before 2001.”

Though some of it was a driver’s affability married with sheer happenstance, there also was the multinational corporate muscle of a beer giant known for its sports marketing prowess but not for taking its NASCAR spokesmen into such uncharted quarters of the media landscape.

“It was unlike anything Anheuser-Busch had ever seen before out of the NASCAR program,” said Tim Schuler, a partner at StrongBridge Sponsorship who oversaw Anheuser-Busch’s sponsorship of Earnhardt as a senior manager from 1999-2005. “It was, ‘What can we do with Dale Jr. to take him out of NASCAR and make him more mainstream?’ A lot of things we did early on were counterculture to what NASCAR had seen before.”

Greg Busch, president of BeSpoke Sports & Entertainment and a veteran of more than 20 years working with NASCAR brands such as Miller, Lowe’s and ExxonMobil, calls it a “perfect storm” that enabled Earnhardt’s rise as a media darling to the unconventional for NASCAR.

“There’s no other way to put it,” Busch said. “He had the name, and unfortunately because of what happened to Senior, that nation needed to migrate somewhere, and it was easy to go over to Junior. So there was a built-in base. He won on the track, so it was relevant and credible. And NASCAR was at an incredible upswing. There was an appetite for drivers, especially big-name drivers with built-in name equity. And then a sponsor like Budweiser, that’s a marketing vehicle behind anybody that put his face on thousands of point of sale collateral in retail stores. They put him in commercials.

“So it was all of those things together. I wouldn’t say any one of them. And last but not least, he’s a great personality. He comes off well. He can play in those audiences. It was really just an incredible time from all fronts.”

NBCSports.com asked Earnhardt and others about their memories of some pivotal moments from his first two seasons in NASCAR’s premier series and the legacy that will be left by Earnhardt’s brand.  Here’s what they said:


THIS BUD’S FOR HIM

Earnhardt’s partnership with primary sponsor Budweiser produced one of the most iconic paint schemes on the track and one of the more ambitious driver campaigns off the track. Plastered on billboards and cardboard standups in leather jackets and backward ball caps instead of firesuits and massive logos, the selling point was exactly who Earnhardt was – a mid-20s beer drinker with a penchant for partying and a trend-setting attitude that bordered on rebellious. Though it was driven by Budweiser’s desire to enhance its demographics, Earnhardt also played a critical role in setting the tone for the approach.

Schuler: “We were looking for what do we do with him outside of that time that we could take him to more pop culture areas because Budweiser had been declining for many, many years. What could we do to try to turn that around and hopefully invigorate life into the brand itself? Instead of that drinker being a 35- to 65-year-old, we were trying to get it down to 21-35 year old. And it was interesting because Dale has learned to embrace things. He is an introvert by nature, but once you get to know him, he’s not at all. He’s very deep and very introspective.

“Early on, we brought him to St. Louis and put him through a whole day of media training. I asked, ‘How’d it go at the end, did we make some strides?’ The answer was, ‘Well, I think so. But every time we took a 10-minute break, he took a nap.’

“That was on Day 1. On Day 2, we went into what the brand wanted to do for point of sales and taglines and what the season was going to be about. We had six or seven people coming in and presenting with different agencies, and I could see his eyes just rolling into the back of his head that he wasn’t even paying attention. So toward the end of it, I said, ‘Junior, what do you think? What strikes a chord with you?’ because he was in the demographic we were going after as well.

“He stands up and went to a whiteboard in the front of the room, and he said, ‘The tagline, this is what it should be,’ and he wrote on the paper, ‘100% non-B.S.’ Budweiser’s campaign at that time was ‘True’ and about being honest, but he said, ‘No, no, don’t say, “True,” that’s not what it is. It’s “100% non-BS.” ’ I told him, ‘Well Junior, we can’t use that as the tagline,’ but it is one of those things that I savored. I went to the board, ripped off the piece of paper, and he signed it. I still have it in my collection somewhere.”

Gurss: “Our intent was to present him as he is. In that era, it felt like the drivers were very slick.”

Schuler: “Dale was great at challenging us to think better and different. He was one who didn’t like the whole merchandise line. He thought it was really uncool to wear this big Bud print over a T-shirt. He’d say, ‘That’s not what I would want to wear as a consumer.’ We brought him in, and they presented 20 different lines of clothing, and he picked out what he wanted to wear and how to wear it. He wore his hat backward for how long. ‘Junior, we get no publicity from you wearing a hat turned around.’ ‘Well, put “Bud” on the back of the hat, I’ll still flip it around.’ Sure enough, it worked. I don’t know if he started it, but he was clearly part of that evolution 17 years ago.

Gurss: “When drivers read a list of sponsors, it would drive me batty. Budweiser agreed if he just said, ‘Budweiser’ in context, they’d be thrilled. They wanted him to just be who he is and not read off a list of sponsors in every interview. He’s such a compelling personality, and they recognized it. That was a part of it. The internal discussion, it was, ‘Let’s let him be a guy that guys want to have a beer with and the ladies want to have a beer with,’ so that played into the way they did their photos and promos.”

Schuler: “He was telling us, ‘If you want to reach consumers, this is what you need to go for,’ and he was dead on. He did a lot of things for us through the early days.”

Sometimes, the driver took matters into his own hands, such as after a wreck at Pocono Raceway that Schuler recalled.

Schuler: They put more duct tape on the left-front quarter panel then I’d ever seen, they had to spray paint it. Dale took the spray paint and put a ‘DMP’ on the front of it. I’m watching at home and it’s got this huge ‘DMP.’ I called Jade to ask, ‘What is that on our car?’ ‘Junior thought it would be fun if he gave a shoutout to his friends. It’s the Dirty Mo Posse.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God. OK.’

“That’s something you can’t control, and he did it. I think he got more fans because of that than anything else, because he was ‘100% no BS.’ ”

Gurss: “He was himself and had this great attribute of about every six months, almost getting bored with something, so he had something new to discuss. He got into boxing and wanted a ring, so we could discuss that for a few months. He would always come up with unique hobbies or interests that from a media standpoint, we were always refreshing. Every time we came to Texas, we had something new to talk about vs. the same old thing.”

Schuler: “We bought an in-car camera every race, and on the first lap at Richmond, there was a skull and crossbones. I’m like, ‘Oh God, now what?’ I called Jade again and asked, ‘Why is there a skull and crossbones next to the Bud sticker on the in-car camera?’ ‘That’s the Dirty Mo Posse emblem.’ It’s also the emblem for poison, and we are a food product! So that was an uncomfortable conversation I had with Junior that he’s no longer to put poison symbols next to Bud.”


NASCAR’S ROCK AND ROLL DRIVER

In the May 11, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone (and again in 2001), Earnhardt was profiled by Touré, a pop culture writer who would become an MSNBC host and remains a well-known freelance journalist and podcaster. Despite their disparate backgrounds, driver and writer had an instant rapport.

Touré: “I don’t think I knew anything about him before they asked. But nobody in Rolling Stone knew anything about him. They asked me to do the story on Dale Jr. because I did a story on DMX, the rapper, and part of the story included a fairly vivid description of him driving around LA at night. It was like, ‘He writes really well about the literal act of driving. So let’s get him to interview Dale Jr.!’ None of us knew anything about NASCAR, and I knew the least of nothing. I was like, “Sure!’ ”

Gurss: “They sent Touré in, but not intended to be a big, major feature, but Touré and Jr. really hit it off and the first day or two of interviews went so well, it gained traction to do something a little bigger.”

After a trip to Charlotte, Touré was dispatched to spend time with Earnhardt at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the rookie qualified third in the third race that season.

Touré: “I asked very stupid questions like, ‘Why are there lights on the car if you drive during the day?’ He was very patient with me. For somebody coming from a one-on-one kind of place, I’m learning what NASCAR is about this weekend. And he was very cool about like just taking me by the hand.

“That was part of Dale’s charm, I think, that he was clearly humble enough to do that. I think he understood that some of the national media have little understanding of NASCAR, and we’re going to have to educate them — and be happy educating them and pulling them in and not be arrogant about it.

“I remember thinking I didn’t know how epic his father was at that time, so when I’m interviewing him in his trailer, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of greatness. I could tell he was a respected driver, but I didn’t realize how great he was. I remember he undressed in front of me. He was just doing his thing. He was doing his job. He probably realized I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but there’s so much to talk about in that world.”

Gurss: “I don’t know who suggested it, but we decided to walk around the track. The track lights were still on, and the three of us took a mile and a half slow walk around on the apron and banking of the Texas track. It feels like forever ago because Touré was recording on cassettes. He had all these cassettes he’d put in a box, and the very next day, he had it shipped out for someone to transcribe. Lord only knows how many cassettes he went through.”

Touré: “I remember real vividly his (qualifying) run for the trials, the time trials, and his dad was like, “How’d you do that?” “Go straight, turn left!” I thought that was pretty funny.

“There was something special about Dale as a young guy and the son of royalty. He was fun to hang out with. And then just driving around his town, it was just cool. We hung out in Mooresville a couple of times. After his dad passed, I went and spent the weekend with him. I consider that a huge compliment that in that moment when you really don’t want to talk to anybody, it was, ‘I’ve got to talk to somebody, I’ll talk to him.’ ”

Gurss: “It’s hard in context now to appreciate how impactful it was in that era. It was important to Junior as a media outlet because it was something that he and his buddies appreciated and enjoyed. It was the same thing that happened in the next couple of years with MTV Cribs. Junior wanted to do it because his buddies thought it would be cool. Some of the stuff he would do because Budweiser or I thought it would be good. He was great and went along with it. Rolling Stone and MTV meant more to him personally than other stuff we’d been doing. He felt very open about really wanting it to be a good piece.”

Touré: “It was foreign. I think something probably said, ‘Yeah, it probably would be better to be at Vegas than Daytona.’ The official NASCAR folks at the races were all very inviting and welcoming to me, they were super thrilled to have Rolling Stone there and couldn’t have been nicer. They didn’t let on to me they were nervous about how I was going to perceive them.”

Gurss: “Some at NASCAR got a little concerned because Touré shows up with short dreadlocks, and they still were under some heat about the diversity thing. Touré asked about interviewing Brian France. They got very nervous that somehow it was some sort of subterfuge that he was going to write this scathing story about the lack of diversity.”

Touré: “I don’t remember everyone saying or doing anything that made me comfortable. I remember driving around with Junior (in Mooresville), and we passed an intersection and then you don’t see another street for miles. He said someone at the other intersection had made like a face, which indicated to him, ‘What the (expletive) are you doing driving around with him?’ He pointed this out in a way that wasn’t like ‘I’m so woke!’ which wasn’t a thing at that time, but just like, ‘That guy had something to say about it. Whatever.’ He was cool to me from the first second.”

Schuler: “The Rolling Stone story was probably the biggest attention-grabber because what it meant for the brand itself. (Budweiser) was heavily trying to get in with music and trying to brand itself with various genres. It was a magazine we advertised in quite a bit. Always wanted to get different stories in there. Here’s a young kid from Mooresville, North Carolina, on the cover of Rolling Stone. That really jumped us. He also was on the cover of TV Guide. I’ve got a poster of all the different publications we did with him — Rolling Stone, TV Guide, Sports Illustrated.

“Those were big because of the attention that we could get very quickly outside of the NASCAR world and fandom. That’s what we were truly going for. Go to a NASCAR race and ask anyone if they knew Dale Jr. drove the Bud car, and it was easy to get that done. It was, ‘How do we get him out of that?’ ”

Touré: “Rolling Stone definitely liked putting a fish out of water. It really worked putting me there because I had a discovery process. I was learning about NASCAR so I could teach the audience about NASCAR as well as tell you about this guy rather than the expert. That usually works quite well, but the expert knows so much, he may not remember what the audience does not know.”


‘I CAN’T GO THERE IN A MOORESVILLE SUIT’

The following season brought more opportunities, notably introducing Linkin Park at the 2001 Video Music Awards and a candid interview in Playboy.

Earnhardt: “I was super shy. I’m going to tell you that there is no bigger fear than going to the MTV Music Awards and introducing Linkin Park. I don’t think I have experienced fear like that ever since. If it was up to me, I would have never done those things. I would have said heck no, I’m not doing that. I don’t want to do that. That is scary.”

Gurss: “He was always really nervous on Kimmel and Letterman stuff. Then he’d do it and knock it out of the park, and I’d say, ‘I told you you’d be great!’

Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards Sept. 6, 2001 in New York. (Photo by George De Sota/Getty Images)

“But I don’t want to overstate I was badgering him. Before presenting at the VMAs, he said, in one of my favorite lines, ‘I can’t just go there in a Mooresville suit.’ We’d met a stylist from New York while on a People magazine shoot in Dover. We went to her office the afternoon of the VMAs, picked out what to wear, and the town car picked us up and took us to the event. Sometimes, there was no grand plan, it was just saying, ‘Hey this will be cool. This will be fun.’ ”

Earnhardt: “(Gurss) has a knack for helping me try and understand why we should do it. What the response and the repercussions would be from that, and the positives and the opportunities that would follow that. He would say like if this happens, then this could happen and this can happen.”

Gurss: “I’ve never seen him so nervous, he was wound tight. We didn’t know what to expect or how it works. We just knew the car was there, and a volunteer would meet us to be our guide. They sent us the script that was just terrible. We’re in our high-fashion suits in the car, and he says, ‘I’m not saying this.’ I said, ‘We’ll figure something out. It’s a live telecast, they’re not going to stop the show if you don’t say exactly what’s on that.’ Our volunteer handler was a dentist, a really nice guy. We got to the red carpet fairly early, and we asked him if we could change the script. The guy disappears, comes back and says, ‘I found the person doing the teleprompter.’ He takes us back to a cubbyhole in the theater, and Dale makes up something like, ‘I like my music like I like my cars, fast as hell. Some cliché but something better than what they had, and the person just typed it in the teleprompter! We were thinking, ‘OK, don’t know if someone needed to approve that, but it’s in there.”

“I could talk for hours about that day. On the red carpet, a few people knew who he was, and the joke was, ‘Now I know how it feels to be the 43rd qualifier. I’m in the show but not Beyonce or Jay-Z. I’m just a part of it!’ We’re surrounded by all these stars. But we went backstage where the union stagehands were, and the T-shirts and diecasts come out of the woodwork, and he started autographing. It really put him at ease backstage to have all these guys working back there who were thrilled he was there.

“He did all the media afterward. They were stunned he was willing to do this, and we said, ‘That’s what the sponsor pays him to do. We do this every weekend.’ ”

Earnhardt: “That was just kind of a perfect storm between being paired with (Gurss) and having the clout that Budweiser had that could get us into those conversations. Being in the right place at the right time because if it was up to me, I would have never done those things.  I would have been like ‘Heck, no! I want to just drive.’ I’m still very scared of doing those big hits, like music awards and things in front of a lot of people is very challenging for me.”


A SUCCESSFUL LEGACY

Earnhardt’s impact on Budweiser’s business was almost immediate, leading to more freedom in the campaign.

Schuler: “It was pretty quick the transition from normal NASCAR driver to a superstar with Bud on his chest. The first year, we had to put Budweiser in there somewhere and a reference to NASCAR. The next year, it was him completely away from the car. It was a contemporary adult. Every NASCAR fan would know who he was. If someone wasn’t a NASCAR fan, it was just a 26-year-old kid or model in the store trying to get someone to choose Budweiser.

“We measured a lot of what we did with properties based on the wholesale system and how much they ordered point of sale items. Prior to Dale Jr., July 4, Memorial Day and the Olympics would garner the vast amount of excitement. The first year with Dale Jr., the NASCAR program went from No. 12 to No. 1 very quickly because he was what they wanted to use to sell Budweiser beer. That’s a metric that’s easy to see because wholesalers have to buy that stuff. They’re putting their money where their mouth is.”

Gurss: “All the cardboard standups, the neon signs, all the bar stuff — the local wholesalers and distributors have to buy that from Budweiser. In the Ricky Craven and Wally Dallenbach Jr. days, roughly 50% of the markets would buy that stuff. Within the first year or two of Dale Jr., it went to 90% plus. I always teased people I was judged by the number of cardboard standups at the 7-11. I knew my job was safe when I saw a neon sign at the bar. I was fascinated by that being a point of real numbers to help them judge the impact it was having.”

The wave of young drivers replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s generation is heavily reliant on social media, which ensures their backing sponsors and brands are built around their genuine personalities. It’s an area in which Earnhardt was ahead of the curve

Schuler: “The built-in fan base with the last name certainly helped, but it was who he was as a person. Most of those stories were prior to his dad’s passing. He already was on a trajectory that no one thought he could get to, and then the tragedy happened and elevated him to icon status.”

Earnhardt: “Those things happened because of our relationship with Budweiser, and then Jade Gurss’ work ethic and his ability to get us into those doors and into those conversations with those publications.  That happened because of a really dedicated, professional person that sees opportunity and does it just as much for himself if not for the person they are working with. I have to give Jade just a lot of credit.  He worked really hard to get those opportunities for us.”

Gurss: “It wasn’t something we’d sit around and theorize. It’s great to say in retrospect, ‘You know we had this bigger picture.’ It sounds pompous. So we didn’t sit around his bus and talk about that. It was just an awareness of trying to get him to get out of his comfort zone. He was very shy. If it were up to him, he’d stay inside and play video games and watch movies. Which is all great.”

Though Earnhardt’s father reportedly grumbled about some of his son’s interviews, he was fully supportive of his progeny taking the namesake to new audiences.

Schuler: “When Senior was alive, he was the only person who snapped Junior into what we’re trying to do and where we’re going. That was a loss for Junior in terms of, ‘How do I do this and where do I go?’ I

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with his father during the Southern 500 weekend at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend 2000. (Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images)

give him and his sister an immense amount of credit for the empire they’ve built. They’ve done it by not making a whole lot of mistakes. I’d almost call him the Derek Jeter of NASCAR. He was most eligible bachelor for how long but never a racy story. That’s a true compliment to the moral compass that Big E provided him prior to him leaving. I’m proud of the man he’s become.”

Gurss: “At that time, his dad was saying, ‘I’ve done my part. You’re up and coming. It’s time for you to do your part for NASCAR.’ His dad had instilled in him that view. When (Mike) Helton would approve, that meant a lot to him. Before his dad passed, his dad was like that. He had a bigger picture of more than himself and a sense of the sport as a whole.”

Earnhardt: “Even today, it is still something I don’t have a total grasp on. But I know now, realizing what it could do for the sport and trying to be a good representative of the sport. Having a great relationship with Helton. I love making him proud especially. He and Dad were really close. When Dad was killed, I looked at Helton a bit as a father figure at times and would go lean on him and he would tell me about how well I was doing and if I was representing the sport well. It would push me to want to do that more to make him proud of me. That had a lot to do with it, too.”

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

0 Comments

In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

0 Comments

Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

0 Comments

Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

0 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”