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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Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, TV channel

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Four drivers will be eliminated from the Cup playoffs after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This marks the first time the track has been in the playoffs. The Saturday Cup race at Bristol will end the first round. The 16-driver field will be cut to 12.

William Byron (3 points behind the cutline), Cole Custer (-8), Matt DiBenedetto (-25) and Ryan Blaney (-27) are the four drivers out of a playoff spot. Clint Bowyer holds the final transfer spot.

Here is all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Bristol:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines is at 7:38 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:45 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup haulers enter the garage (screening and equipment unload) at 10:30 a.m. Garage access health screening begins at 12:30 p.m. Garage opens at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:10 p.m. Driver introductions will be at 7:15 p.m. The invocation is at 7:30 p.m. The national anthem will be performed by Joe Nichols, three-time Grammy nominee, at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the .533-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 7 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 62 degrees and a 2% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski won at Richmond. Martin Truex Jr. finished second. Joey Logano placed third for the second race in a row.

LAST POINTS RACE AT BRISTOL: Brad Keselowski won in May after Denny Hamlin lost the lead when he hit the wall. Chase Elliott ran into Joey Logano as they battled for the lead late in the event.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Cup starting lineup

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Friday 5: The thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney seek NASCAR history to advance

What upcoming Cup playoff races NASCAR fans can attend

Trevor Bayne says the fire remains to run more races

Trevor Bayne says fire remains to run more races

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Former Cup driver Trevor Bayne says he’d like to continue racing in NASCAR after running the past three Truck races for Niece Motorsports.

Bayne crossed the finish line fifth in Thursday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway but was disqualified when his truck failed post-race inspection.

He will not drive for the team in next weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway but looks to be back for an undetermined number of races.

“We’ll see what happens from here,” Bayne said after Thursday’s race. “Obviously, I don’t want to be done. I don’t feel like I need to be done. I’m 29 years old and I have a lot of experience and the fire to still do this thing.”

Trevor Bayne and his crew celebrate in Victory Lane after winning the 2011 Daytona 500. (Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, last competed in NASCAR in 2018 before his return.

He made 187 Cup starts from 2010-18. He won the Daytona 500 for Wood Brothers Racing in his second career series start. Bayne didn’t run a full schedule until 2015 when he moved to Roush Fenway Racing.

He ran 21 Cup races in 2018 season, sharing his ride with Matt Kenseth at Roush. Bayne was not retained after that season and had not competed until driving for Niece Motorsports at the Darlington Truck race on Sept. 6.

“I’m trying to make the most of every lap and enjoy every lap because you don’t know when it’s your last lap,” Bayne said. “For me I would love to rebuild. If I could run a truck full-time and battle for a championship, I think that would be awesome. I think that would be great. If down the road it led to a Cup deal, then I wouldn’t be mad about it, but that’s also not really the goal right now. The goal is to make the most of it at Niece Motorsports with how many races I get.”

Since losing his ride, Bayne opened Mahalo Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee shop in Knoxville, Tennessee. Bayne admits to mixed emotions since his exit from racing.

“It was a roller coaster,” he said. “There were weeks when I was blowing everybody’s phone up that I knew in racing, like, ‘Hey man, what do you got? Is there anything we can put together?’ Probably getting on everybody’s nerves. Some weeks I was just over it.”

Bayne said he decided recently to compete in Super Late Model races and was preparing a car when he got the chance with Niece Motorsports to run at Darlington.

“It’s putting a smile on my face to be turning laps,” Bayne said.

Friday 5: Thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

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Ryan Blaney’s message to competitors in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race is simple.

I caution those in front of me that I am not going to be behind them for very long if we are faster than them,” he said.

Ditto for Matt DiBenedetto.

“You’re not going to do anything stupid, he said, “but you can’t sit and wait behind them.”

Those two drivers face the biggest challenges to advance to the second round of the playoffs. DiBenedetto is 25 points behind Clint Bowyer, who holds the final transfer position entering Saturday’s race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Blaney trails Bowyer by 27 points.

No driver so far back entering an elimination race has made it to the next round since the playoff format debuted in 2014.

“I would love to say it is another race weekend, but it is our season, pretty much,” Blaney said Saturday’s race.

It will take a mix of aggression and patience during the 500-lap playoff race by Blaney and DiBenedetto to advance.

The line between aggressive and dirty driving can be blurry. Not every driver will see it the same way. With the need to move through the field and score as many points as possible — or win stages and the race — Blaney and DiBenedetto will have less patience, but where is the line?

DiBenedetto goes back to the All-Star Open in July. He restarted deep in the field after pitting in the first stage when not all the cars did. He worked his way through the field to win the final stage to advance to the All-Star Race.

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race were aggressive to get through the field,” DiBenedetto said. “Everything’s on the line and you’re trying to make the All-Star Race and it’s a very short race. 

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race, if it were a regular points race and we’re at the beginning of the race or something, some of those moves probably at that time were just considered aggressive because everyone knows what we’re doing and what’s at stake. In other situations, they could have been dirty because I moved some people out of the way. That’s a little bit of a moving target, so it’s hard to answer that question. 

“I would say for this weekend that everyone usually knows what’s on the line for different people.”

2. Out of sight but not out of mind

Crew chief Johnny Klausmeier knew that he faced a one-race suspension late in the Southern 500 when it was evident that Clint Bowyer’s car had two lug nuts not tight.

From my vantage point on the pit box, I kind of watched the tire changers, and I saw that it didn’t look like he was hitting all the lug nuts,” Klausmeier said. “He was swinging for them, but not making contact and then the car left. I kind of knew that we would have some kind of issue there, so we kind of went back and looked at the video and made sure that it wasn’t going to be a safety thing.”

Johnny Klausmeier and driver Clint Bowyer enter Bristol holding the last transfer spot to the second round. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/NASCAR via Getty Images)

The team didn’t see a safety issue so Bowyer stayed on track, finishing 10th. Had Klausmeier called his driver back to pit road to secure the lug nuts, Bowyer likely would have lost at least 10 points. Instead of holding on to the final transfer spot entering Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bowyer would have been outside the cutline.

Saving those points, though, meant that Klausmeier would miss last weekend’s race at Richmond because of the suspension.

What was it like not to be at the track and still call the race?

“I didn’t feel like it was more efficient than actually being there,” Klausmeier said. “There is a delay in the audio. There is a delay in the broadcast. There is a delay in the information transfer.

“Then just being there and when the tires come off the race car on a pit stop, being able to walk down behind the pit box and visually look at the tires and see what the wear looks like. (Also) coming up and calculating changes and things that you’re going to do based on what you see and feel looking at the racetrack and getting that information real time. 

“I do not think the role of a crew chief can be done virtually. I think you have to be there. You have to be immersed in it. You can’t just go down and get the pit crew guys rallied up. You can’t see what’s going on with the car, so you miss out on those things and there is a little bit of a delay in the communications, so it’s not ideal but we managed to do it.”

3. Pit road speeding

Pit road speeding penalties could play a key role in Saturday’s Cup race.

Twenty-one speeding penalties were called in the May Cup race there. Each of the last three Cup races at Bristol has had at least 11 speeding penalties.

Brad Keselowski overcame a pit road speeding penalty to win the May race — but he was helped by leader Denny Hamlin hitting the wall and then Chase Elliott and Joey Logano later making contact racing for the lead in the final laps.

Matt DiBenedetto was caught speeding on pit road after Stage 1. He finished the stage seventh and restarted 28th because of the penalty. DiBenedetto was 22nd when he was collected in a nine-car crash, ruining his race. He finished more than 40 laps behind the leaders.

Joey Logano and Kyle Busch also were penalized for speeding on pit road in the May race. Austin Dillon was penalized twice in May. Both times came after he was involved in a crash on Lap 330.

4. Almost there

Brandon Brown is set to clinch the final spot in the Xfinity Series playoffs Friday night at Bristol. He enters with a 49-point lead on Jeremy Clements for the final transfer spot. Brown will clinch a playoff spot provided there is not a new winner outside the top 12 in points.

Brandon Brown is in position to make the Xfinity Series playoffs on Friday night for the first time. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Brown’s family-run team has eight employees. He spends part of his time at the shop helping with the vehicles. Brown also is focused on trying to find sponsorship for this season and next year.

He has been to a simulator only once this season, going before the Daytona road course race. When he wants to get some sim time, he starts his iRacing rig. And his physical training? It’s limited to running. The gym he uses in his apartment complex is closed because of COVID-19.

So with all that around him, he’s about to clinch a playoff spot.

Brown also knows some view him as being aggressive on the track. He doesn’t hide from such viewpoints.

Getting down to the playoffs and having an opportunity like this, it’s not something that comes around for everyone,” Brown said. “So for me, it pushes me that much harder to want to make that happen.

“It’s hard to back yourself down to ‘I need to run smarter to make sure we’re bringing the car home all four corners on it.’ At the same time, I want to get everything out I can out of the car and push to get the best result possible because this is our run, our chance at the playoffs.

“Taking a little bit extra risk, to me, it’s worth it, to really put my name out and to really make something happen this year. The risk is worth the reward to me, but I’m sure that others would view it differently.”

5. Odds and ends

# Matt DiBenedetto said his contract with the Wood Brothers is through this year with options for 2021, ’22 and ’23. He said the deadline for the team to pick up the option for next season is the end of this month.

I guess I should know pretty soon,” he said. “I wish I knew now because I don’t want to go anywhere and it would put me in a pretty bad situation if something were to change, but I don’t expect any changes.”

# The Joey Logano Foundation will donate $22,000 each week of the playoffs to organizations that support children and young adults in crisis. The organizations selected help those that are homeless, within the foster care system or aging out of the foster care system.

Those organizations include Children’s Hope Alliance, The Relatives, Youth Villages, Least of These and Crossnore School & Children’s Home.

# Martin Truex Jr. has won four of the last seven races at short tracks.

# Kyle Busch has one victory in his last 50 Cup races.

# Kevin Harvick has scored 46% of his Cup wins after turning age 40.

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Bristol Truck race results, driver points

Bristol Truck race results
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Sam Mayer scored his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win Thursday night. The 17-year-old finished ahead of GMS Racing teammate Brett Moffitt.

Mayer is the youngest driver to win a Truck race at Bristol.

Tanner Gray placed third and was followed by Parker Kligerman and Chandler Smith.

Gray’s finished tied a career high. Kligerman’s finish was his best this season.

Trevor Bayne crossed the finish line fifth but his truck was disqualified for failing post-race heights in inspection.

The next race in the playoffs is Sept. 25 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Click here for race results

POINTS

Brett Moffitt leads the points after the opening race in the first round of the playoffs. He leads Sheldon Creed by nine points. Zane Smith trails Moffitt by 12 points.

Click here for points report