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John Hunter Nemechek’s Christmas came early with Chip Ganassi Racing ride

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Before this week, John Hunter Nemechek‘s best Christmas gift came about seven years ago.

He received an Allison Legacy car, a 3/4-scale stock car with about 110 HP. He raced it throughout the Southeast, competing at Hickory Motor Speedway and Bowman Gray Stadium and other tracks.

“That’s really the deciding factor of what I wanted to race,” Nemechek told NBC Sports on Thursday. “I wanted to get back in stock cars from motorcross. That was really the first stock car I had ever driven. So it was pretty neat to get that for Christmas.”

Nemechek, the son of former Cup driver Joe Nemechek, drove to the series championship in 2012 when he was 15. A year later, he competed in his first two Camping World Truck Series races.

“Without that Allison Legacy car, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now,” said Nemechek.

Nemechek is a few days removed from being named one of the drivers of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series next season. The move comes after he spent the last two seasons competing full-time for his family-owned NEMCO Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series, with two part-time seasons before that.

The 20-year-old driver will join Kyle Larson in sharing the ride, which boasts the same number that Nemechek’s father raced when he earned his first Cup win in 1999. Then he drove for Felix Sabates, who now a co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing.

“It’s definitely up there,” Nemcheck said of where his new ride ranks among the Christmas gifts he’s received. “I’d have to say that it’s definitely up at the top of that list.”

The news of Nemechek’s jump up NASCAR’s ladder came six months after he stood in victory lane at Gateway Motorsports Park in tears on Father’s Day.

NEMCO Motorsports struggled through multiple seasons to attract sponsorship to its No. 8 Chevrolet. By the time Gateway rolled around in June this season, there were doubts the team would be able to make it to the following race at Iowa Speedway.

Having secured a playoff spot at Gateway, Nemechek wound up winning that race too.

Nemechek’s sponsor, Fire Alarm Services, stepped to sponsor him in 12 of the season’s remaining 14 races. He narrowly advanced to the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated.

“Before Gateway it kind of was like a make-or-break season for us in the Truck Series deal,” Nemehcek said. “Not knowing how many races we were going to get to in the full year. That definitely stunk for us. Being able to make it to all those races showed what we can do. I think the (Ganassi) opportunity arose some from that and what we’ve been able to do and show in years passed.”

For two weeks before the announcement, Nemechek kept his news quiet. The rest of the NASCAR world learned he had new plans on Dec. 5, when he posted a black-and-white video on Twitter.

Three days later, he posted a picture of a car underneath a black sheet, saying the news was coming soon.

Even then, some didn’t think he was going to be racing in Xfinity or even Cup.

“There was people saying that I was still going Truck racing even though we posted that picture,” Nemechek said. “I thought that was pretty funny. ”

During his time in the Truck Series, Nemechek managed to earn five wins. With NEMCO Motorsports financial struggles, Nemechek said he never believed his NASCAR career would end in the Truck Series, though “you always have thoughts in the back of your head.”

But winning does solve problems.

“We stayed focused on one goal and that was to run as best as we could and make sure we finish races and win races and the rest will take care of itself,” Nemechek said. “We had some great partners along the way. There’s been a lot of people that have helped me get to this point, from my first ever sponsor when I ran quarter midgets all the way to now with Fire Alarm Services. We didn’t have any speculation whether or not it was going to be an Xfinity ride or whatever it may be. The goal was to keep progressing and now we’re here.”

On Thursday, two days after the news broke (with another black-and-white video), Nemechek celebrated his first Christmas with his new team at Ganassi’s holiday lunch.

Every person Ganassi employees, from NASCAR to IndyCar, was there.

“I can’t even think of the number off the top of my head,” Nemechek said.

It’s a far cry from the team Nemechek has called home for most of his race career. Outside him and his father, NEMCO Motorsports has five full-time employees.

“It’s definitely going to be different getting to know everybody’s name,” Nemechek said. “I’m sure I won’t be able to remember every single name that works here in this building.”

Nemechek’s role will also slightly change with his new employment. His only job will be in the cockpit of the No. 42.

“I definitely loved driving for dad,” Nemechek said. “I loved every second of it. He taught me a lot. He’s given me every opportunity I’ve ever gotten until now. It’s definitely going to be a different transition into not working on the vehicle every day to being focused on one thing and that’s to be a driver. I definitely think there’s going to be some different changes there as far as what I’m focusing on and hopefully that’s going to make me a better driver in the long-run.”

While all the races Nemechek will run next year have not been finalized, he does know when he’ll get to fully enjoy his early Christmas gift.

He’ll hit the track as a Chip Ganassi Racing driver for the first time on Feb. 26 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Top 10 in Charlotte Xfinity race ‘dream come true’ for Kaz Grala

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CONCORD, N.C. — Darius Grala did what any proud father would do after seeing his son do something “amazing” and “absolutely ridiculous.”

With a large grin plastered across his face, he stood on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s pit road and captured the image of Kaz Grala helping push his No. 61 Ford toward the garage.

In his first Xfinity race for Fury Race Cars, the race car building company his father formed in 2016 and that was making its first NASCAR start, Kaz Grala placed 10th.

“That 10th feels like a win to us. No joke,” Darius Grala told NBC Sports. “It’s not like we didn’t dream of having a top 10 when we loaded up to head to the race track. But I got to tell you, that was a tall order and to deliver on it is nothing short of a dream.”

The dream started with a text message from Darius Grala to crew chief Shane Wilson on May 9, formally beginning the process of putting the No. 61 team together after Kaz Grala learned he would be without his ride at JGL Racing after 10 starts.

MORE: JGL Racing owner diagnosed with liver failure.

Seventeen days later, the 19-year-old rookie earned his best result since placing fourth in the season opener at Daytona. It’s his second top 10 through 11 races.

The team, which includes most of the crew who worked on Kaz Grala’s No. 24 car at JGL Racing through the first 10 races, showed up at Charlotte on Thursday without a backup car.

Without any owner points to guarantee a starting spot, Kaz Grala was cautious in practice and Saturday’s qualifying session, which was threatened by rain. But the track was dry when the time came to qualify and the the No. 61 wound up 16th on the board.

Caution was forgotten with the green flag.

“I was aggressive as much as I could be,” Kaz Grala told media at his car afterward. “Really going for it cause I knew these guys deserved a good run. I didn’t want to be the reason they didn’t get it. I was driving my guts out out there. I think I asked for six different water bottles during that race. I was literally leaving nothing on the table. That’s the way you gotta race in the Xfinity Series. Everybody’s too freaking good to not go all out every single lap. I’m really proud of everybody. I can’t thank everyone enough. This is a dream come true.”

He was 11th when a one hour rain delay occurred with 28 laps to go.

On the restart, he lost a few spots before positioning himself for a top 10 in overtime.

“Each additional lap was an additional opportunity to pick up another position,” Darius Grala said. “On that last (run) though, we gained a couple and lost a couple and pretty much ended up where we were. But that’s OK. Top 10 is literally the best we could have possibly hoped for.”

Now the Xfinity team that didn’t exist nearly three weeks ago gets another chance to overachieve. The series heads to Pocono Raceway for a race that will see the restrictor plate package that was used last year at Indianapolis.

“I don’t know how to feel,” Kaz Grala told NBC Sports. “Pocono was one of my favorite race tracks last year. I love it. But we’ve got this weird aero package next week, which I’ve never driven with. My crew chief and most of my crew only has experience with it once, Indy last year. I don’t think they know much of what to expect and I know I definitely don’t. No expectations for us, we’re going to be learning every lap in practice. Hopefully we can have a run to follow this one up. This one’s going to be tough to follow. That’s a good problem to have.”

 

Results, points after Xfinity race at Charlotte

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Brad Keselowski won the Alsco 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, becoming the first repeat Xfinity winner of the season.

Keselowski won from the pole, beating Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler.

Click here for results.

Points

Elliott Sadler leaves Charlotte with a 38-point lead over Christopher Bell.

Sadler is the only driver to finish in the top 10 all 11 races this season.

The top five is completed by Tyler Reddick (-55), Daniel Hemric (-57) and Cole Custer (-62).

Click here for the standings.

Brad Keselowski wins Xfinity race at Charlotte in overtime finish

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CONCORD, N.C. — Brad Keselowski won the Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in an overtime finish, claiming his second win in as many starts this season.

Keselowski, who started on the pole, led 77 laps and won over Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler.

Keselowski also won at Phoenix. He is the first repeat Xfinity winner this season.

He rebounded from pit penalty on Lap 128 for crew going over the wall too soon.

The overtime finish was setup by a debris caution with two laps left in the original 200-lap distance.

The final 28 laps were ran following a one hour rain delay.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

MORE: Race results and point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Cole Custer started and finished second after also leading 29 laps. It’s his second top five of the season … Ty Dillon placed fourth for his first top five in nine Charlotte starts. It’s also his first top five and top 10 of the season .. Elliott Sadler is the only driver with top 10s in all 11 races this season. Heplaced fifth after battling mechanical issues – including a faulty cooling unit – and a speeding penalty.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: After winning the first two stages, Kyle Busch finished eighth after he spun on a restart with 39 laps to go. He had restarted 10th after pitting and got loose trying to pass Dylan Lupton into Turn 1 … Lupton was then eliminated in a wreck with Ty Majeski on the following restart … Chase Elliott placed 37th after experiencing transmission issues on the Stage 3 restart … Tyler Reddck finished 23rd after begin involved in two wrecks, including one during the overtime restart … Justin Allgaier and Jamie McMurray were eliminated in a wreck with 20 to go.

NOTABLE: Alex Labbe had to be replaced in his No. 36 Chevrolet midway through the race by Josh Williams. He was then taken to a local hospital for an undisclosed reason and was later released and cleared to race. … Kaz Grala placed 10th in his first start for Fury Race Cars, a team co-owned by his father. It’s his best result since placing fourth at Daytona for JGL Racing … Kyle Busch is winless in his last four Xfinity starts, his longest stretch since 2014 (eight races).

POST-RACE INSPECTION: Christopher Bell’s No. 20 Toyota failed post-race height inspection. Tommy Joe Martins had one loose lug nut. Any penalties will be announced next week.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I was just heartbroken whenever I saw that piece of debris fly off those lapped cars.”- Christopher Bell on the debris caution which kept Bell from making a run at Brad Keselowski.

WHAT’S NEXT: Pocono Green 250 at Pocono Raceway at 1 p.m. ET on June 2 on Fox Sports 1.

What’s next for Danica Patrick after the Indy 500? Dreams, downtime and waffles

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Danica Patrick was a 14-year-old growing up in Roscoe, Illinois, she had a firm idea of what she’d be doing 20 years later.

A reporter from her hometown newspaper recently reminded her of that in a recent interview when he brought a prescient artifact from those teenage years – an essay that she crafted as an up and coming go-kart driver about her racing accomplishments.

“I’m breezing through it, and then at the end, it said, ‘I wanted to race Indy cars,” Patrick, 36, said Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I was 14. I told him, ‘See? If this isn’t an example of “Write that shit down,” nothing is.’

“This is manifesting. You have write it down and you have to imagine what you want. So I do that as much as I can.”

Heading into the final start of her career in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, Patrick already seems to have a solid idea of the next 20 years — in part, because of having some glimpses into her post-racing life.

There has been plenty of downtime since her final NASCAR start in the Daytona 500 three months ago. She has taken vacations (including an India trip to meet the Dalai Lama with boyfriend Aaron Rodgers) and created several new routines on her suddenly free from racing weekends.

“I make waffles on Sundays now,” she said. “That’s pretty fun.  In the summer, there’s like farmers market.  I can’t wait for that.  I mean, there’s going to be probably some new stuff that I don’t know yet.

“The one thing that I am definitely looking forward to less of is less stress.  Last weekend was awesome at the end of it all because it went well with qualifying, but I was nervous for 95% of that weekend. That’s uncomfortable.”

But testing her comfort zone is appealing to Patrick, who has spent most of her adult life testing the boundaries of gender norms in her profession. Though the pressure of race weekends might disappear, her incessant quest for challenges probably will remain.

Now that racing is over, Patrick still has a winery, a clothing line, a cookbook and a fitness manual to promote – and more is on the way.

“I just have a habit for pushing myself to uncomfortable spaces, making them comfortable for me,” she said. “At least just making them comfortable enough to be able to manage.

“As an example, I went bungee jumping a long while back, like 10 years.  I’m super scared of heights.  I’m still scared of heights.  But I just like to know that if I want to do something, I am brave enough and confident enough to do it.  That doesn’t mean I’m not still scared.  That doesn’t mean it’s not still something that’s easy to me afterward. I just like to know I can get past the fear if I have to.

“I’m OK with transitioning into other things, finding a little bit of happiness and joy each day, less colorization of emotions. I’m ready for that.”

So what specifically is on tap? Talk shows? Another book?

Patrick demurs when pressed.

“I think I have definitely big dreams and aspirations for myself, for all my companies, for the kind of emotion I want to have on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a good, easy, happy, calm, joyful, exciting, adventurous life.  If I say I want it, there’s a very good chance that’s what I’ll get.”

In the short-term, there’s hosting an ESPN awards show that will keep her busy through July.

And after that, her schedule will free up just as Green Bay Packers training camp begins for Rodgers, the two-time MVP quarterback.

“I’m thinking I’m going to have plenty of time to write a cookbook in Green Bay,” she said.