Drive for Diversity program gives four-time Trans Am champ Ernie Francis Jr. a shot at NASCAR

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As of two weeks ago, Ernie Francis Jr. had only driven a stock car four times.

The 19-year-old from Dania, Florida, had been behind the wheel for a test at Hickory Speedway, during the two-day tryout for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program at New Smyrna Speedway and in this year’s Xfinity Series race at Road America.

Even then, Francis still has the numbers for Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi saved in his phone.

“I’ve met personally and had meetings with and still talk on the phone with them every couple of weeks,” Franics told NBC Sports on Nov. 7 when he was announced as one of the six members of the 2018 Drive for Diversity class. “It’s been a good climate for me in meeting these people and the more connections the better.”

What does an aspiring NASCAR driver with next to no stock car racing experience talk about with two legendary car owners?

The future. Or potential ones.

“Kind of just talking about what I’m doing with my career and where I’m trying to go and what’s it going to take for me to get behind the wheel of their race cars,” Francis said. “I’ve had a lot of talks with Chip Ganassi about that and hoping every step that I take out here will get me closer to getting behind the wheel of one of those cars.”

Why would Penske and Ganassi have interest in the 19-year-old driver?

Ernie Francis Jr. waits in his car at New Smyrna Speedway on Oct. 17 in New Smyrna, Florida. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

CHANGING LANES

Francis stands in the Rev Racing shop, located less than a mile from Charlotte Motor Speedway. Overlooked by banners with the faces and accomplishments of Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez and Darrell Wallace Jr., graduates of the Drive for Diversity program, Francis isn’t intimidated.

Not by the precedence or by the boxy stock cars he’ll drive in the K&N Pro Series East’s road course races in 2018.

He’s been in much faster cars and won. A lot.

“When I hop behind the wheel of a K&N car or a Xfinity car I already know how to deal with that power and how to deal with that speed,” Francis said.

While new to NASCAR, Francis has spent the last four years breaking records in sports car racing in the Trans Am Series.

Since he was 16, Francis has won four championships with the team owned by Ernie Francis Sr., Breathless Performance Racing Team. He’s the youngest driver to reach that mark. The first three titles came in the TA4 Class and his 2017 title came in T4, driving a Ford Mustang.

He’s also won 33 races, the last coming in the season finale at Daytona three days after his introduction as part of the Drive for Diversity program.

So why make the jump to a different racing ladder?

Francis Jr., who grew up a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, sees NASCAR’s path to its top level as more likely to payoff in the long run.

“I’d say it’s about the same if not easier in stock car racing,” Francis said. “Road course racing is a very steep ladder and that’s the problem with stock car racing. The thing with stock car racing in general also is it all costs money to get to the top. Either it costs money or you’ve got to get recognized by a team. I think it’s easier to get recognized in the stock car racing world than it is in road course racing. Being that there’s so many road course racers, whether it’s in endurance racing where there’s four drivers in a car, there’s so many drivers you’re competing against compared to NASCAR when you’re out there.

“It’s smaller fields with one driver per car and it’s kind of easier to be recognized if you’re a good driver standing out in a field.”

With three test sessions and 16 Xfinity laps under his belt at Road America before an engine problem, NASCAR has turned out to be more than he expected.

“After getting out there on track I realized there’s a lot more to it,” Francis said. “It’s a lot more technical than people think. People think that it’s just going out there just running a car in a circle. There’s a whole different side to it. These cars are so intricate on the way the suspension set up is and how they need it to be to go around the track properly that I’ve had to learn in the couple of tests I’ve done. I’ve really come to appreciate that.”

In addition to his K&N road course races for Rev Racing, Francis will also compete for the program’s late model team. But there’s also the possibility of Francis driving in his first K&N oval race toward the end of the year.

“I don’t know how it’s going to be yet,” Francis said. “I need some more seat time before I get out there and just practice on one. The first goal is just going to be finishing the race and then the next one will be focusing on where we finish.”

When he does get time on an oval again, he’ll have the voice of his spotter from his first Hickory test, Lee Faulk of Lee Faulk Racing and Development, still ringing in his ears.

“He was the one yelling at me, yelling all kinds of things about how I was going too slow and pressing the brakes too much and all kinds off stuff,” Francis said. “His voice is still in my head whenever I go out there and run on the oval tracks, kind of helps me out.”

Father-Son Team

The speed and the adrenaline.

That’s why Ernie Francis Jr. chose racing over other sports while growing up in Florida

“There’s no sport where you get going 150, 200 mph on a race car flying around heading toward a wall and basically cheating death every lap you go around,” Francis said. “It’s pretty exciting.

“There’s no rush like driving a race car.”

Francis was exposed to that rush at the age of 4 by Ernie Francis Sr., when he started competing in go-karts on the regional circuit.

Francis Sr. raced in sports cars and his son helped however he could.

“My dad would take me to the track and I just wanted to watch the cars,” Francis Jr. says. “I would clean the cars. I would help strap him in as much as I could and I just loved it from the beginning.”

The relationship swapped roles once Francis Jr. got into go-kart racing, which he competed in until he was 12.

“It was just me and my dad, he was the one working on my go-kart and I was the one driving it,” Francis Jr. said.

In 2013, the year before Francis Jr. began his historic tenure in the Trans Am Series, the two raced each other for one season in the Pirelli World Challenge’s TCB Class. At 15, Francis was the youngest driver competing in the Pirelli.

Francis Jr. won seven races and finished third in the standings, also earning Rookie of the Year honors while his dad placed fifth.

 

With three Trans Am titles under his belt, the duo first visited North Carolina last year to get a tour of the Rev Racing shop Francis Jr.’s cars will be built out of and where a future that could involve the names Penske and Ganassi will begin.

The younger Francis says his father has “never really been” into NASCAR, but says “he likes” what his son is getting into.

Though Francis Sr. does have one demand.

“His main thing that he says is, if I start doing NASCAR racing he wants tickets for every race,” Francis Jr. said.

NASCAR Awards: Scene on the red carpet

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community gathered at the Music City Center to commemorate the 2022 season and celebrate Joey Logano‘s second Cup title.

The event can be seen at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock.

Here is a look at the scene on the red carpet before Thursday night’s NASCAR Awards:

Joey Logano and Brittany Logano (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ryan Blaney and Gianna Tulio (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle and Samantha Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Elliott (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Alex Bowman and Crystal Marsh (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Tyler Reddick and Alexa De Leon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Denny Hamlin and Jordan Fish (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Daniel Suarez and Julia Piquet (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Briscoe and Marissa Briscoe (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Christopher Bell and Morgan Bell (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Dillon and Whitney Dillon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle Larson (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

William Byron and Erin Blaney (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kevin Harvick (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ross Chastain and Erika Turner (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Cindric (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kurt Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Harrison Burton and Jenna Petty(Photo: Dustin Long)
Mario Andretti (Photo: Dustin Long)

Chase Elliott wins NMPA Most Popular Driver Award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott won his fifth consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver Award on Thursday.

The announcement was made during the NASCAR Awards at the Music City Center. The show will air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock.

Elliott is one of only five drivers to win the award since 1984.

Bill Elliott won it from 1984-88, 1991-2000 and 2002. Dale Earnhardt won the award posthumously in 2001. Darrell Waltrip won it in 1989-90. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won it from 2003-17. Chase Elliott has won it every year since.

Noah Gragson was voted as the Most Popular Driver in the Xfinity Series. Hailie Deegan was voted as the Most Popular Driver in the Camping World Truck Series.

Kevin Harvick to make decision on future by Daytona in February

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Former Cup champion Kevin Harvick says he’ll know by Daytona in February his plans beyond 2023.

Harvick’s contract with Stewart-Haas Racing ends after the upcoming season. 

Harvick said Thursday before the NASCAR Awards that “it could go either way at this particular point” on what he’ll do, but he affirmed that “going into Daytona, I’ll know what I’m going to do.”

The Daytona 500 is scheduled for Feb. 19. Harvick anticipates making an announcement by then.

“We’re at a point where everybody needs to know what’s going on,” Harvick said. “There’s too many tentacles to everything that happens. Whether it’s the race team, driver management company, every element needs to know. It’s not fair to anybody to have to start the season not knowing.”

Harvick turns 47 on Dec. 8. Next season will be his 23rd in Cup. His debut came a week after Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Harvick was selected by car owner Richard Childress to drive for Earnhardt’s team. 

Harvick has gone to win the 2014 Cup championship and 60 races at Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s tied with Kyle Busch for ninth on the all-time Cup wins list.

Harvick won two races last season. His victory last August at Michigan snapped a 65-race winless streak. He followed that by winning the next weekend at Richmond. 

Harvick has won at least two races in nine of the past 10 seasons. He has scored 41 of his 60 Cup wins since he turned 37 years old.

“Kevin, I think, is probably the No. 1 leader of the drivers, as he should be,” two-time Cup champion Joey Logano said Thursday. “He’s been around the longest. He’s very accomplished. He’s very smart. He’s been through the ups and downs. He’s lived it. There’s wisdom in experience. It’s great to hear his opinion on where we are as a sport.”

Harvick’s business interests include a management company that represents Cup drivers Ryan Preece, Harrison Burton and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., along with other athletes. Harvick also has worked as a broadcaster on NASCAR Xfinity races for Fox Sports, earning positive reviews. 

Harvick’s son Keelan, who is 10 years old, races and has competed in karting in Europe. 

“He’s got one more race in Italy … and then we’ll start all over again,” Harvick said of his son.

Harvick went overseas after the season finale at Phoenix to watch Keelan race.

“I think he’s definitely matured a little bit since he’s been making these trips,” Harvick said. “I think it’s important to have that culturing aspect of life to be comfortable to do things like that anywhere in the world.”

The NASCAR Awards program airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday, Dec. 3 on Peacock. To sign up for Peacock, go here.

BJ McLeod, Live Fast team move to Chevrolet

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Driver/owner BJ McLeod and Live Fast Motorsports will race in Chevrolets beginning with the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Based in Mooresville, North Carolina, Live Fast has been a Ford team.

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Live Fast is owned by McLeod, Matt Tifft and Joe Falk. Jessica McLeod, BJ’s wife, is the team’s chief operating officer.

“Our team is excited to make this transition to Chevrolet,” BJ McLeod said in a statement released by the team. “Chevrolet Camaros have proven great success on the track, and Live Fast Motorsports is looking forward to becoming a part of this advance.”

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The team will use ECR engines.

McLeod had one top-10 finish in 29 starts in the Cup Series last season.