Wish upon a star: Dale Jr.’s dedication to ill children leaves lasting impact

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Derek Hoyt was 2 years old when doctors discovered his brain tumor. Surgery and radiation treatments followed. Two years later, the tumor returned, forcing Derek to endure more surgery and radiation treatments.

The disease went away and Derek became a “carefree” kid again, one who fell in love with NASCAR, just like his father Jeff. While Rusty Wallace was Jeff’s driver, Derek gravitated to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Derek’s Earnhardt diecast collection flourished and his assortment of Earnhardt T-shirts multiplied. Derek joined the Cub Scouts, in part, to build and race pinewood derby cars. His cars always resembled Earnhardt’s cars.

But 12 years after his second bout with a brain tumor, it returned in fall 2015. The prognosis was grave. Derek and his family were told about Make-A-Wish, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. Many children choose trips to a Disney park. Some select exotic vacations. Others seek more personal wishes.

Derek Hoyt with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in February 2016 at Daytona International Speedway (Photo: Harold Hinson)

Derek wanted to meet Earnhardt.

He and his family traveled from their Exeter, New Hampshire, home to the 2016 Daytona 500. Meeting Earnhardt was more than Derek could have imagined. They chatted as if old friends instead of strangers who had just met. Earnhardt signed many items, including a red No. 88 pinewood derby car Derek brought.

“That trip,’’ Derek’s mother, Mary, said, “was a lifetime highlight for him, seeing him that happy.’’

Derek died eight weeks later. He was 17.

Jeff and Mary can’t thank Earnhardt enough for spending time with their child and fulfilling his wish. Separately, it’s hard for them to explain what Earnhardt’s visit meant, but they find the words together.

“He’ll understand more of what he’s done for people,’’ Jeff said.

“Once he’s got a child,’’ Mary said.

POWER OF A WISH

As Earnhardt’s Cup career ends this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his fans reminisce about the special moments that still elicit goosebumps. Daytona. Talladega. Bristol. Those are just among the places Earnhardt provided many memories.

The conclusion of Earnhardt’s Cup career, though, is more personal to the children and families who met him through Make-A-Wish and similar programs. To them, he is not an action hero who drives fast cars and appears on their TV. Instead, Earnhardt is a compassionate and humble man who stood before them, sharing stories, answering questions and uplifting spirits. Those interactions made a lasting impact to the families and Earnhardt.

The prospect of meeting Earnhardt inspired one child to cope with monthly spinal taps and years of chemo treatments so he could one day meet his favorite driver. That child wasn’t the only one to use a wish as motivation. Sometimes a dream can do more than medicine.

Dr. Doug Scothorn, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, has seen the power of a wish while treating children with cancer.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. meets Make-A-Wish child Victor Couto at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“The experience is part of it,’’ Scothorn said, “but the main benefit is the hope that they have from it and recognizing that just because they’re going through a serious illness that they can still be kids and they can do stuff kids do and that their life is not defined by their disease.’’

He recommends Make-A-Wish to his patients and their families because of such benefits. The organization granted more than 15,000 wishes, a record, in fiscal year 2016-17.

Earnhardt ranks among the top 10 athletes granting wishes in the organization’s 37-year history. He’s met more than 250 children in his career.

Earnhardt met his final wish child as a full-time Cup driver last weekend at Phoenix Raceway when he was introduced to 10-year-old Victor Couto and his family. Victor, who is from Boca Raton, Florida, had heart surgery when he was 5 days old for a congenital cardiac condition. He had heart surgery again when he was 4 years old. He may need more surgery as he grows.

Gustavo Couto said that what Earnhardt did for his son “speaks to what’s good about us as people in general. Yes, he’s famous, but he’s using that in a very positive impact for kids and even families. There are good people out there. (Meeting a celebrity) doesn’t cure any disease, it doesn’t solve any problem, but it does create hope, it creates relief, it creates a moment of light. A moment of goodness.’’

Victor put it another way. He said meeting Earnhardt made him “really happy.’’

‘SCREAMING AND CLAPPING’

Sixteen-year-old Matthew Garland stood outside Earnhardt’s motorhome earlier this month at Texas Motor Speedway petting Gus, Earnhardt’s Irish Setter, who had wandered up to the Springtown, Texas, teen.

Matthew suffered a stroke when he was 6 that left him in a coma for 19 days. The left side of his face and right side of his body suffered paralysis from the stroke and his body is unable to regulate its temperature. He undergoes eight hours a day of dialysis, is in stage 3 renal failure and on the list for a kidney transplant.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to Make-A-Wish child Matthew Garland at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It was his wish to meet Earnhardt.

As Matthew pet Gus, Earnhardt appeared. Matthew was caught off guard to see his favorite driver standing in front of him. When he had been told two days before that he would meet Earnhardt, Matthew “was screaming and clapping and cheering,’’ his mother, Brenda Garland, said. Her son, so excited, couldn’t sleep that night.

But now before Earnhardt, Matthew said nothing.

“I’ve never seen him at a loss for words,’’ Brenda said. “He’s very conversational. He very rarely meets a stranger. It took him a second. He was so beside himself that he couldn’t say anything but yes.’’

Eventually Matthew talked with Earnhardt, who took off his cap and autographed it for his new friend, signed a few other items and took pictures with him.

Brenda wanted to cry for joy but she won’t let herself shed tears in front of her son. She stays strong for him.

But later that night, when they returned to the hotel, she planned to find time to be alone.

INSPIRATION

The chemo 15-year-old Cainan Yaskiewicz took during his first six months of treatment was referred to as “red devil.’’

“It speaks for itself,’’ said Cainan, diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia when he was 7 years old. “It really was a red devil. That stuff was terrible. It made you feel so weak and so sick because it just blew through your whole system. It killed every cell in its path. That would really be a bad day for me … or getting a spinal tap. Afterwards, it would just hurt so bad.’’

Dale Earnhardt Jr. meets Make-A-Wish child Cainan Yaskiewicz at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October 2013. (Photo: Yaskiewicz family)

Shannon Yaskiewicz recalls the pain her son suffered, how he screamed, growled and squeezed her hand as hard as he could to keep from crying during such times.

“I held him as much as I could, and I just let him know I wished I could take (the pain) away,’’ she said.

Earnhardt helped Cainan through those bad days. Cainan told Make-A-Wish that he wanted to meet his role model, but his wish could not be granted until his treatments were completed and his immune system restored.

Cainan’s treatments lasted more than three years.

Shannon said her son used his wish of meeting Earnhardt as “the light at the end of the tunnel’’ to get those days. 

When Cainan was a month from completing his treatments, the 11-year-old told his mother to make sure Make-A-Wish knew he would be ready to meet Earnhardt soon.

Two months later, Cainan traveled from his home in Sky Valley, Georgia, to Charlotte Motor Speedway to watch the 2013 Coca-Cola 600 and meet Earnhardt. The experience was just as special for Cainan’s parents.

“Seeing and hearing him laugh … my husband and I would just look at each other and just smile,’’ Shannon said. “It was so wonderful.

“We weren’t talking about doctor visits. We were able to go on a car ride and talk about the fun things we were going to do, meeting Dale Jr. We hadn’t seen that light in his eyes in a long time.’’

“A MOMENT OF TIME”

Jayden Crutcher spent much of summer 2013 in a hospital. He was 10 years old, a time when summer is supposed to be about playing outside, riding bicycles and swimming. Instead, he spent more than 100 days in a hospital. The few days he could leave, he was confined to home because his immune system hadn’t recovered from the high doses of chemo combating his Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

There was little doubt when given the opportunity for a wish what it would be. Jayden’s room is full of Earnhardt items, including diecast cars, a blanket and curtains.

The Mason City, Illinois, native traveled with his family to Charlotte, North Carolina, to attend the October 2013 Cup race there and meet Earnhardt.

As the golf cart with Jayden and his family approached Earnhardt’s motorcoach, Jayden nearly jumped off before it stopped.

“A moment of time just stood still,’’ Lisa Crutcher said of her son’s meeting with Earnhardt. “It brought tears. You just look at what he’s been through. His one little itty-bitty wish to meet Dale Earnhardt Jr. changed his little mind. He goes ‘nothing is going to bring me down.’ ‘’

The following Valentine’s Day, Jayden’s leukemia returned, and he underwent four months of chemo. In August 2014, Jayden had a bone marrow transplant.

He’s off any medicine now and is considered cancer-free, but the treatments caused complications, particularly with his lungs.

“We have other challenges,’’ Lisa said, “but we’ll take those.”

DALE INSTEAD OF DISNEY

Many children prepared questions to ask Earnhardt during their meeting, but the sport’s most popular driver often had one himself.

Why did they pick me?

Anything they could do and they want to come to a race and meet us,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s surprising to me. If I were a kid, I’d be like ‘I want to go to Disneyland’ and take in all the opportunities that would be there for that particular trip. You could imagine that a kid would just have the most incredible time at a place like that and they come to a race.’’

Children have chosen races for years, some wanting to meet Earnhardt’s legendary father. Earnhardt said his father “set a great example for me” and others in the sport by hosting Make-A-Wish children.

“It was important to him,’’ Earnhardt said.

As it is important to Earnhardt. He understands the impact he can have on children and their families.

“They are there for a good moment,’’ he said of their meetings. “They want to be there, the kid is excited. While there’s this side of you that wants to break down and be sad, you can’t help but be affected by it emotionally, they’re wanting to meet their favorite driver.

“I imagine they spend a lot of time around a lot of people that try to take their mind off the situation they’re in and you try to do that. You try to find anything that peaks their interest and expand on it and find what you have in common. I’m just a normal person … and you try to show them that and help them see that ‘man, this guy is just like the guy next door’ and feel very comfortable in that conversation with you.’’

It’s not just the children who benefit from such meetings. The visits made a lasting impression on Earnhardt.

“It has had a positive effect on me as I think it has on the kids and the parents,’’ he said. “It’s been something that has helped me understand some of the more important things in life and where my priorities should lie, not to take things for granted, really appreciate the people around you.’’

Earnhardt, whose wife Amy is due to deliver the couple’s first child in the spring, is inspired by the parents of children facing life-threatening illnesses.

“The parents that I have met have given me the strength to face anything,’’ he said. “Being around strong people that handle those situations the way they do gives you faith and confidence that you would be able to do a similar thing if put in that situation.’’

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Kyle Busch dominates to Truck win at Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kyle Busch extended his NASCAR Truck Series victory record to 57 in his hometown Friday night, leading 108 of 134 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion swept both stages and finished 5.958 seconds ahead of Johnny Sauter. Busch has won seven straight races in the series, including all five he entered last season.

Austin Hill was third, followed by defending series champion Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes. Grrant Enfinger, who opened the season with an overtime victory at Daytona, did not finish after an accident with 43 laps to go.

Christian Eckes was right behind Busch in the opening two stages, but he finished 23rd after an early final-stage wreck.

Results

Driver standings

Jimmie Johnson tops final Cup practice at Las Vegas

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Jimmie Johnson was the fastest driver in Friday’s second and final NASCAR Cup practice of the weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The seven-time Cup champion hasn’t won a race since 2017, but showed plenty of speed, pacing the 38 cars that took to the 1.5-mile track, clocking a best speed of 179.432 mph.

Johnson and his Chevrolet were followed by five Fords.

Clint Bowyer, who was second-fastest in the first practice earlier in the day, was once again second-fast in the final session at 179.271 mph.

Aric Almirola, who was fastest in the first practice, was third-fastest in the final session at 179.170 mph.

Rounding out the top-5 were Kevin Harvick (179.015 mph) and Matt DiBenedetto (178.814 mph).

Sixth through 10th were Ross Chastain (178.660 mph), who will be filling in for the injured Ryan Newman in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, followed by Kyle Larson (178.424), Ryan Blaney (178.359), John Hunter Nemechek (178.259) and Alex Bowman (178.089).

Final Cup practice results

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Next goals for Daytona winner Denny Hamlin: double-digit wins, Cup crown

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There was a time when Denny Hamlin’s best memories of the Daytona 500 were to just go home relatively unscathed.

Consider this: In Hamlin’s first six appearances in the Great American Race, his highest finish was 17th.

But after a breakthrough 4th-place finish in 2012, he has become the best overall performer in the 500 among active drivers.

“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said Friday during a media session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“We went a long time and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races, but not many like Talladega – I think I have one win there – but it just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”

In the last seven editions of the 500, Hamlin has finished 2nd (2014), 4th (2015), 1st (2016), 17th (2017), 3rd (2018), 1st (2019) and 1st again this past Monday.

Do the math and that’s three wins – making him only the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win the 500 three or more times – and seven overall top-5 finishes in the last nine season openers.

Hamlin knew that getting his second 500 win in a row – both outcomes being the closest finishes in the race’s 62-year history – and third in the last five years was basically going to come down to a battle between him, Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney.

With emphasis on Newman, that is, before he was involved in that horrific last lap crash on the front stretch heading toward the checkered flag.

“I pulled the block on (Newman) coming to the white (flag) and I stayed in front and I knew he was going to back up to (Blaney),” Hamlin said. “I was trying to back up myself, but once (Newman) was attached (to Blaney), I knew they were going to come with a run I could not stop.

“I just held my line because if I started going sideways, the next thing you know (Newman) starts moving sideways and (Blaney) is already hooked to him, so he’s probably going to push him sideways into me.

“I just wanted to hold a straight line to let them know hey, pass this way, and when I did I was able to back to (Blaney) and was able to unattach him from (Newman). When I slowed his momentum, that allowed me to really tuck in right behind him. I don’t know if he checked up to keep us attached but once we got attached, I knew we were going to have a run back on (Newman).

“I knew he was going to get there, I didn’t know what was going to happen when he did get there, but certainly it worked out in my favor. I thought I was going to get back around (Blaney) at the (finish) line if there was no crash, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get all the way back to (Newman). I knew those two were going to jostle and I was just hoping to be in the right place when it happened and I was.”

Not having any 500 wins of his own, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three triumphs.

“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin and how he’s adapted to the Gen 6 car in recent years. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’

“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.

“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful In making his moves and passes.”

Going forward from Daytona, Hamlin said his next goal is double-digit wins this season. If so, he’d become the first driver to earn 10 or more wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson did so in 2007 when the seven-time champ won 10 races.

“I’d be satisfied with that and then beyond that would be nice,” Hamlin said. “I think that the championship is an easy goal that anyone just throws out – win a championship, but that comes down to one race.

“If you can win a significant amount of races, it shows a bigger picture of your full year. If you make it to the Final Four, that’s a bigger picture of your entire year (Hamlin has reached the final four just twice since the format was introduced in 2014 — third that year and fourth last season). I think the championship – a successful year is making the Final Four. Anything after that is just whatever it is.

“Certainly we set lofty goals. I think everyone sets huge and lofty goals, but certainly we’re going to push ourselves to better what we did last year and it starts with Daytona and we’re able to repeat there so then let’s get a win now before we get to Texas to keep ourselves on pace or better from last year.”

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Johnny Sauter on pole for tonight’s Truck race in Las Vegas

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Johnny Sauter will start from the pole in tonight’s Strat 200 Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Sauter earned the eighth career pole of his Truck Series career – and first since 2018 – by topping the other 34 drivers that made qualifying attempts with a speed of 177.836 mph.

Sheldon Creed (177.643 mph) will start alongside Sauter on the front row for tonight’s race.

The rest of the top 10 qualifiers were Kyle Busch (177.282 mph), making his first Truck Series start of the season, followed by Christian Eckes (177.189 mph), Ty Majeski (177.189), Austin Hill (176.788 mph), Tyler Ankrum (176.275), Raphael Lessard (176.056), Grant Enfinger (176.010) and Brett Moffitt (175.890).

Tonight’s race starts shortly after 9 p.m. ET (FS1, Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Trucks qualifying results

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