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Bob Leavine reflects on his team’s rise from start-and-park car to Kasey Kahne’s new home

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — A week ago, Bob Leavine got on the phone with Andy Petree, the new vice president of competition at Richard Childress Racing.

The owner of Leavine Family Racing and its No. 95 Chevrolet told Petree his main goal for the 2018 Cup season, his team’s third as a full-time operation.

“To be the best RCR car in the alliance,” Leavine told NBC Sports and Racer.com Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “Beat all theirs. The 3 and the 31, that’s my first goal. To be the best RCR car in the alliance. If we do that, it’s like the process, the results will come. If we’re that car, we can do that, all other (goals) will come. You can read into that whatever.”

Why does Leavine have the confidence that his car could potentially up-show RCR’s flagship cars and even the No. 43 of Darrell Wallace Jr. at Richard Petty Motorsports, which is also now part of the RCR alliance?

Leavine Family Racing is coming off a 2017 season where the No. 95 Chevrolet, driven by Michael McDowell, finished 26th in the standings. He claimed one top five and top 10, in the July race at Daytona. It was a career-best result for McDowell and the team.

But McDowell no longer calls Leavine Family Racing home after four years with the team.

Not far from where Leavine answered questions was his new driver.

Kasey Kahne stood next to his No. 95. Procore Chevrolet, taking pictures with the car he’ll drive in February’s Daytona 500.

A 14-year Cup veteran and a 18-time winner, Kahne was announced as LFR’s new driver in September. Kahne comes to the team after a disappointing six-year stint with Hendrick Motorsports.

During that same six years, LFR slowly built itself up from a team that only made four races in 2011.

In 2018, Leavine says coyly, “There may be victory hats in our hauler.”

David Starr (left) and Bob Leavine (center) in 2011, the first year of Leavine Family Racing. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for TMS).

Bob Leavine had a five-year plan.

The owner of a construction company in Tyler, Texas, Leavine had originally started Leavine Family Racing in 2011 as a way to help veteran David Starr get more starts in the Cup Series.

The No. 95 was entered into eight races, but Starr only qualified for four.

That was enough for Leavine.

“That got my competitive juices going,” says Leavine, who got his start in NASCAR as a sponsor in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.

After Starr came Scott Speed, who made 15 of the 16 races LFR entered in 2012. Their best finish was 17th at Watkins Glen International.

However, the No. 95 only finished three of those 15 races.

“You couldn’t test back then,” Leavine says. “So we would use some races where you didn’t go start-and-park. You went to work on your car. Work on (getting) your guys more experience. So we were building experience by going and doing that. We’d love to be able to run the whole race, but we didn’t have enough money. We were still running out of our own pocket. So we had to pick the races we (ran) full-time. The ones with the better purse, then we’d add to it and we can run.”

It was during this time Leavine began planning out his five-year-plan to to run full-time in Cup.

In 2013, LFR made 20 races with four drivers, again finishing just three races.

The next year, Leavine hired veteran McDowell to take over the 95, which he qualified for 19 of 22 races it was entered into. This time, McDowell finished all but five races.

During all of this, Leavine saw himself as a “roadblock” to his team’s success, especially when it came to marketing and promoting the team.

“For two to three years, I didn’t worry about it,” Leavine says. “I wasn’t from marketing. I didn’t (use it) in our company in Texas, we got business by our reputation. Well, it doesn’t work that way in NASCAR. It’s sponsors and selling those things and I had no background (in it).

” … I was probably the biggest roadblock. It was me learning, figuring out what I needed to do. I could see how to put the operations side together because that’s where I came from. But the marketing and the whole strategy, none of that.”

To help in that effort, Levine brought on Jeremy Lange, who worked with Best Buy and GMR Marketing before joining the team. Lange is now the vice president and general manger of the team after having served as vice president of operations.

The team also faced the hurdle of a fire that devastated its 20,000-foot shop in May 2015, destroying four of the 12 cars they had.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Then Leavine’s five-year plan ended a year early in 2016 when NASCAR introduced the charter system, which guarantees 36 starting spots in a 40-car field.

“We were forced into (it) because there’s a big difference between a charter purse and an open purse, it really is,” Leavine says. “Then we had to get a partner and lease a charter (from Circle Sport Racing) to make that happen and we had to switch manufacturers (from Ford to Chevrolet). So we had three things going on in ’16.”

Leavine also entered a technical alliance with RCR after previously working with Team Penske. As part of that deal, Ty Dillon drove the 95 in seven races while McDowell took the rest.

“It was still a little disconnected,” Leavine says. “Ty did a great job, but that was the deal we made with RC, getting him rides.

“(In) ’17 it was us. Just us. Set up all the cars. Did it all ourselves, internally. Becoming more independent and self-sufficient. That gave us more confidence and we got better cars and faster cars. It just snowballed.”

The snowball ended – or reached its peak – with Kahne being announced as McDowell’s replacement on Sept. 19. On Tuesday, LFR announced Procore as the team’s first major sponsor with Kahne on the team. It will sponsor the team in six races each in 2018 and 2019, including the Daytona 500.

The 37-year-old driver will be the first for LFR who has a Cup win on his record.

Leavine has also been adding new team members who have seen LFR’s growth over the last few years.

The team added a new shop foreman from Richard Petty Motorsports and a front-end mechanic and a body man, both coming off championship seasons with Furniture Row Racing.

Leading the team – made up of roughly 30 employees – will be rookie crew chief Travis Mack, who comes to LFR after 14 years with Hendrick Motorsports, most recently as the car chief on the No. 88 car of now-retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Leavine feels in the last three years, after splitting his time between the team and his company in Texas, that Leavine Family Racing has finally begun to bear his “fingerprints.”

“I never really had my fingerprints on it for our culture like we had on our organization out in Texas,” Leavine says. “The majority of our people have been with us for 15, 20 years. So it’s building that culture of people, surrounding yourself and letting them do their job. That’s what we’ve done little by little in the last two-and-a-half, three years. Finding those people, doing well. Michael McDowell did a great job for us moving up through there, getting our car to run. Lot of credit to him.”

Hiring Kahne, along with the improved fortunes of the team, has grown the talent pool Leavine has to choose from.

“Having Kasey helps broaden the market we can go for,” Leavine says. “Because he’s had Farmers (Insurance) and some of those people like that. That’s important for Jeremy (Lange) in selling and marketing people. But acquiring people in the shop, (they) know ‘I’m going to work on Kasey’s car.’ So yes, it helped.”

What’s the biggest door that’s opened for the team in the two months since signing Kahne?

“It’s difficult to say,” Leavine answers. “A door or an attitude? An attitude can be a door. I think our optimism about what our future is, because you’ve got to have that person in order to carry you.”

Chase Elliott wins Cup Most Popular Driver award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott was selected as the NMPA Most Popular Driver in a fan vote announced during Thursday’s NASCAR Awards show.

It is the second consecutive victory for Elliott in the category.

“Honored to have two,” Elliott said. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

It is the 29th consecutive year that either an Elliott or Earnhardt has won the award.

The last driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt to win this award was Darrell Waltrip in 1990.

Other award winners included:

The Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not given every year, was presented to car owner Joe Gibbs for his signifiant contribution to the sport.

The NMPA Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contribution to the sport was presented to Darrell Waltrip.

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award is Joe Vaughn, who has volunteered for nearly two decades, raising both awareness and funds on behalf of the Project HOPE Foundation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifespan of services to the autism community to help families, open minds, promote inclusion and expand potential.

Watch NASCAR Cup Awards Show at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Get settled into your favorite easy chair, make sure you have plenty of snacks and beverages on hand and get ready for the last big event of 2019 on the NASCAR schedule: tonight’s NASCAR Awards Show.

The show will be broadcast on NBCSN from 8-10:30 p.m. ET from Nashville, Tennessee, for the first time. And if you miss some of the show, don’t worry, there’ll be a replay immediately afterward, also on NBCSN.

Kyle Busch will be the main attraction for tonight’s show, being celebrated for winning his second NASCAR Cup championship this past season.

Also, the 2019 NASCAR Cup Most Popular Driver award winner will be revealed. Will it be defending winner Chase Elliott, reigning champion Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Matt DiBenedetto … or someone else? You definitely need to tune in to find out.

And to get you in the mood, we’ll replay Wednesday’s Burnouts on Broadway at 7 p.m. ET, also on NBCSN.

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Will Daniel Suarez race for Richard Childress Racing in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The president of Richard Childress Racing said it is a “longshot” that Daniel Suarez will drive a third Cup entry for the organization in 2020 but said RCR would like to have Suarez drive its No. 2 Xfinity car next year.

Suarez has not decided where he’ll race in 2020 after losing his ride with Stewart-Haas Racing this year.

Suarez has been linked with RCR. A third Cup entry would require RCR to acquire another charter for that car. It also could mean that the organization would need to hire additional people if they expanded to three full-time cars.

“I think that would be a long shot in a Cup program,” Torrey Galida told NBC Sports about Suarez in a third RCR Cup entry. “We’ve talked to him about an Xfinity program. We’d love to have him in an Xfinity car, and we think we could win another championship next year with Daniel. He’s a very talented young man.”

Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Xfinity car will run the full season with multiple drivers in 2020. Myatt Snider and Anthony Alfredo have been announced to drive that car. Galida said the team is looking at Kaz Grala, Austin Dillon and possibly two-time series champ Tyler Reddick driving that car in select races.

RCR ran the No. 21 car in nine of 33 Xfinity races this past season. It ran the No. 2 car in every race.

If Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity champion, drove for RCR in the Xfinity Series next year, it would be with the organization’s No. 2 car.

“We could still do that and we would do that,” Galida said of a full-time Xfinity effort for Suarez. “That’s the kind of opportunity we would be interested in.”

Galida said it just is a matter of hearing what Suarez decides.

“I think he knows what we’ve got to offer, and I think he’s just weighing his alternatives and trying to determine what is best for him,” Galida told NBC Sports. “I’m sure that going back to the Xfinity Series is not his first choice. I think in the right equipment it could be a really good move for him.”

Galida said they could go into January before hearing from Suarez but noted that “the sooner the better. People are your biggest issue. You want to put the right people around him.”

Next April’s Xfinity race at Bristol to have new sponsor

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Bristol Motor Speedway announced Thursday that partner Alsco, along with Darden Restaurants and its Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen brand, will sponsor next April’s Xfinity Series race there.

The Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco will take place on Saturday, April 4, 2020.

Alsco is a global leader in uniform and linen rental services. In addition to its entitlement at Bristol Motor Speedway, Alsco will take part in Xfinity Series entitlements at three other Speedway Motorsports Inc. racetracks: Kentucky Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Alsco’s initial entitlement at BMS came this past April with the Alsco 300 Xfinity Series race, won by Christopher Bell, who earned a $100,000 bonus through Xfinity’s Dash 4 Cash program.

Alsco is also a sponsor for Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and JR Motorsports.

“Bristol is the place for historic finishes and close, hard-knock racing action,” said Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Alsco and our new friends at Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen understand the reputation of racing at The Last Great Colosseum and we’re ready to show them an incredible experience. The Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco is a must-see event on the NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule.”

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