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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.

10 coolest paint schemes from 2019

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With the year coming to a close, it’s time to reflect on what went down in 2019.

But this isn’t some serious retrospective on the events witnessed in NASCAR over the last 12 months.

Nope, we’re going to talk about paint schemes.

That’s it.

Without further ado, here are 10 of the coolest paint schemes that graced the track this year.

 

Corey LaJoie drives his Scooby-Doo car at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Corey LaJoie’s No. 32 Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine Ford

For the second year in a row, Go Fas Racing and sponsor CorvetteParts.net expressed their inner child for the Martinsville Cup race ahead of Halloween.

Following their “Peanuts” car in 2018, LaJoie’s car was transformed into the Mystery Machine from the Scooby-Doo cartoons.

It definitely echoes the Cartoon Network cars that competed in the 1990s and we don’t have a problem with that.

 

 

 

(Photo by Matthew Bolt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kurt Busch‘s No. 1 Star Nursery Chevrolet

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver didn’t wait until the Southern 500 to bring a throwback scheme to the track.

Busch had Star Nursery on his car for the spring race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A local Las Vegas sponsor, the company backed Busch when he won the 1999 Southwest Tour championship.

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

William Byron‘s No. 24 City Chevrolet … Chevrolet

Hendrick Motorsports dropped the hammer with Byron’s Southern 500 scheme, almost a direct copy of a car Cole Trickle drove in the movie Days of Thunder, which Hendrick Motorsports advised on the making of.

City Chevrolet is a real car dealership in Charlotte, North Carolina, that Rick Hendrick owns.

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Michael Annett‘s No. 1 Baby Ruth Chevrolet

JR Motorsports trotted out this tribute to Jeff Gordon’s 1992 Xfinity Series car at Darlington.

Having both the right number and the sponsor to complete the ensemble made it the MVP of the Xfinity Series’ portion of the throwback weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Alex Bowman‘s No. 88 Nationwide Patriotic Chevrolet

The Hendrick Motorsports driver arrived at Charlotte Motor Speedway with this scheme for the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

Unlike the typical red, white and blue schemes for the Memorial Day race, Bowman’s had a more subtle approach and came away with a very slick look.

 

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Bubba Wallace‘s No. 43 Air Force P-40 Warhawk Chevrolet

Richard Petty Motorsports unleashed this scheme at the Bristol night race.

A tribute to World War II fighter planes, we can imagine being startled by seeing this car approaching in the rear-view mirror.

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Lyle Setter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Miller Lite Holiday Knitwear Ford

Sure, this paint scheme was raced in Arizona in the middle of November.

But we’re not going to fault the timing of this holiday-themed car.

While it would be easy call this an “ugly Christmas sweater” design, there’s nothing ugly about it.

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick‘s No. 4 Busch Beer Gen X Ford

The folks at Busch Beer proved it’s possible to have a sequel paint scheme … or would that be a prequel?

Harvick drove this Gen X-themed scheme at Pocono in July. Two months earlier, Harvick competed in the All-Star Race with a Millennial paint scheme.

 

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Ben Rhodes‘ No. 99 Havoline Ford

Rhodes and ThorSport Racing provided a blast from the past with this sponsor and scheme in the Truck Series.

Havoline made its return as a NASCAR sponsor for the first time since 2008. It was on Rhodes truck for eight races.

 

 

 

(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Harvick Beer Ford

Using the excuse that it was tired of giving free promotion to Kyle and Kurt Busch, Busch Beer turned the No. 4 car into the “Harvick Beer” car for the playoff race at Dover International Speedway.

For anyone who has played a NASCAR video game or collected diecasts, it’s a reminder of the kid friendly cars that replaced beer names with the names of the driver.

 

 

What was your favorite paint scheme this season? Let us know in the comments.

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)