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Daniel Hemric’s journey to Xfinity Series aided by loyal mechanic

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WELCOME, North Carolina — Three months ago, Daniel Hemric competed in the Xfinity Series championship race, driving Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

Hemric’s shot at a NASCAR title in his rookie season might not have been possible if not for a 1999 Ford Mustang GT.

The car became his saving grace in early 2006, but it didn’t belong to Hemric, who was weeks away from turning 15 years old.

The owner of the light Atlantic blue car was Tim Ladyga, then a rear tire changer on Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 car in the Cup Series.

At the time, Hemric was racing Bandoleros, but his career had hit a wall when it came to the financial support of his mother and stepfather, who worked as service writers at a car dealership in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area.

“That was really all we were going to be able to do,” Hemric, now 27, told NBC Sports.

That’s where Ladyga came in.

He had been friends with Hemric’s stepfather, Stephen Christopher Woods, when they raced pro stocks in the Northeast in the 1990s at tracks like Connecticut’s Thompson and Stafford Speedways.

When Ladyga moved to North Carolina in 1997, Woods invited him to Concord Speedway to watch a 6-year-old Hemric compete in a go-kart race.

Ladyga thought what he saw was “pretty cool.”

“It just got bigger, bigger and bigger,” says Ladyga. “We watched more and more and more.”

After a while, the family’s interactions trailed off. A few years went by without any contact between them.

Then one night at Millbridge Speedway, a dirt track in Salisbury, North Carolina, they crossed paths again at a go-kart race.

Ladyga spotted someone familiar competing.

“Whose that kid?’” Ladyga asked his wife, Cheryl.

“That’s Christi and Woody’s son, Daniel.”

“The kid in the go-kart back at Concord?” Ladyga responded. “God almighty, look at him.”

Ladyga described Hemric as “winning everything he drove that night.”

His interest in Hemric’s racing career rejuvenated, Ladyga began helping the family on its go-kart and Bandolero endeavors. Eventually, Woods asked him to supervise Hemric at the track one weekend when work got in the way.

“I think he kind of saw what I was doing with what I had,” Hemric says. “I was never going to get the chance to do anything else.”

The duo had a rough go at it their first weekend alone.

“I think something broke every time we went on the race track,” Hemric recalls. “He was miserable, I was miserable. When he left that race, he was like, ‘I’m going to figure out a way to get you a race car.’ At the time, the next step was Legend cars.”

Ladyga brought up the matter to Cheryl.

“We need to buy this kid a Legend car. He’s good,” Ladyga said.

“We ain’t got money for that,” Cheryl responded.

Daniel Hemric celebrates a 2014 Legend win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a car owned by Tim Ladyga. (Charlotte Motor Speedway)

Fueling the Habit

For Ladyga, auto racing is a “drug.”

“Once you get hooked on it, you can’t get out. It’s so, so intense and it’s just something you want to do. Either you do it or you don’t. It’s one or the other. Most people stay and do it. The ones that just get burned out of it never come back, you know.”

Ladyga developed his love of racing from living in a family where an uncle raced stock cars from the 1960s to early ’80s and his dad drag raced near his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut.

Eventually, Ladyga gave racing a shot. He bought a super late model for his uncle to race.

“My uncle drove it for a few races and I was like, ‘Why am I spending all this money for him to race for? Why can’t I race it?’” says Ladyga. “So I raced it. We were probably better off putting somebody else in. I tore it up more than I did good.”

When not racing, Ladyga worked at a tire company, changing tires on tractor trailers and heavy equipment. Eventually, his passion led him in 1995 to go from Connecticut to North Carolina every other weekend to help build and work on his brother’s late model.

Two years later, right after marrying his wife, the couple took two weeks of vacation in Daytona and North Carolina. Their return to Connecticut didn’t last long.

Ladyga informed his bosses he was moving of North Carolina. Four days later, the Ladygas packed a U-Haul and their cars and headed south.

Once in North Carolina, Ladyga set out to get on a national series team.

“In the beginning it’s hard and you just keep beating on doors, beating on doors, beating on doors trying to get a job,” says Ladyga. “I was working with a late model team at first. We off-road raced back with my brother in the ’80s with Walker Evans and Jimmie Johnson and Ivan Stewart and them guys. … We wound up meeting Walker down here and that’s how I got my foot in the door, working for his Truck team.”

By the time Ladyga became involved in Hemric’s racing fortunes a decade later, he had finished his first season with the No. 48 team in the Cup Series after a stint with the No. 31 car at RCR.

Even that wasn’t enough to satisfy his racing addiction.

It led to Ladyga one day arriving in front of Hemric’s house in Kannapolis, North Carolina, with a trailer.

In it was a used Legend car he bought with the money from selling his Mustang GT.

“The guy told me it was good, good car,” says Ladyga. “I didn’t know nothing about Legend cars, you know?”

Legend cars are spec vehicles built by U.S. Legend Cars International, based out of Concord, North Carolina. The cars are 5/8-scale fiberglass versions of old NASCAR modifieds.

The car Ladyga rolled out had an engine. It lacked a seat.

“Think you can drive this?” Ladyga asked.

Hemric jumped in the car and took off down the street.

GETTING THE GANG BACK TOGETHER

A decade later, Richard Childress had an important question for Daniel Hemric.

Hemric had been announced as joining RCR in September 2016 after two full-time seasons in the Camping World Truck Series.

Childress asked Hemric who he wanted as his crew chief during his rookie year.

“Right off the top of my head I knew Danny Stockman was my guy,” Hemric said. “Growing up with Austin and Ty (Dillon), I got to know Danny through Austin’s Truck (series) deal …

“As Stockman and I started working together, we knew he was going to be the leader and crew chief of our team. He already knew Ladyga and I’s relationship. He knew where we stood with each other and is as passionate about racing in general.”

At the time, Ladyga had returned to RCR to work as an underneath mechanic on its Cup operation after a tenure at Hendrick that included four straight championships with the No. 48 team.

When Hemric told Ladyga he was coming to RCR, Ladyga didn’t hesitate. He went to the team’s management and told them he wanted to work on Hemric’s car.

“Most guys, if it was their choice, once they get to the Cup level, that’s where they stay,” says Hemric. “Once they get out of that, that’s their retirement, so to say. He was willing and sacrificed everything that entails with taking a step of a tier back to make sure he was a part of our deal.”

Daniel Hemric drives his No. 21 Chevrolet during Championship weekend last November at Miami. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

SIDELINED

In more than 20 years in auto racing, Ladyga had never been seriously injured on the job. He had never missed a race he was supposed to work.

That changed last August.

Around 4:30 p.m. the Friday before the Xfinity race at Road America, Ladyga was driving a zero-turn lawn mower into the back of a truck at home.

While going up aluminum ramps, the deck of the mower hit the tailgate.

The mower turned sideways and flipped off the back of the truck. Ladyga jumped off and landed in the rock filled driveway. The impact broke the femur in his right leg, fractured his hip in six spots and tore his knee up.

Ladyga later told a paramedic they needed to hurry. He had a race to fly to in Wisconsin.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” the paramedic responded.

When a nurse entered Ladyga’s hospital room the next morning, they found him in tears.

The nurse asked what was wrong.

“This is the first time in 20 years I’ve missed a race,” Ladyga said.

A rod was placed in his leg. Doctors told him full recovery from his injuries would take six months to a year.

Without Ladyga working on the No. 21, Hemric made his march to the Championship race. As the finale neared, Hemric also lost Stockman, his car chief and an engineer to a four-race suspension for an infraction in the playoffs.

As Hemric progressed in the playoffs, Ladyga was adamant that he wanted to attend the final three races of the season.

His doctors repeatedly nixed the idea.

But three months after his accident, Ladyga made it to Homestead.

“For myself, that was huge to see him,” says Hemric, who finished fourth in the standings after mechanical problems in the race. “I think it was a great motivator for him to get back because he saw how strong we were becoming. To know that having him is just kind of the missing link to kick off 2018 all back as one group, that’s big for me. I’ve been with this guy through just about everything.”

The trip to Florida took a bit out of Ladyga.

“The old leg felt like it was ready to fall off,” he says. “But I made it through the weekend.”

The mechanic exceeded his doctor’s expectations on when he’d be back at work.

With a limp, Ladyga walked back into the RCR shop on Dec. 5.

YEAR TWO

The two sit at a conference table at RCR’s Welcome, North Carolina, campus two weeks before the start of Hemric’s sophomore Xfinity season.

Having his former Legends owner help put together his Xfinity car every week is “everything” for Hemric.

“I know I have a guy that’s willing and capable of doing anything that needs to be done,” Hemric says. “Ladyga is known, not only through my eyes, but everybody here, to be the first one here and one of the last ones to leave. Capable of doing anything on the race car that needs to be done at any given time. That’s a huge asset, not only from a race team standpoint, but from a personal standpoint. If I need something done, if I’m out of town, no matter what’s happening, he’ll figure out a way to get it done for me.”

As his racing career progressed over the last decade, Hemric says he tried emulating the work ethic and “resilience” Ladyga displays.

“He thrashed and did whatever he could, no matter what it was to provide the best for me or his wife or his race team, whoever he’s working for,” Hemric says. “He constantly gave everything he had.”

Including his car.

“Timmy’s heard me say this for 15 years, is that everything happens for a reason and you just got to have faith that it’ll work out the way it’s supposed to,” Hemric says. “I know that very moment has someway or somehow trickled down to me being here … and I’m thankful for that.”

As for the Mustang? Getting rid of the hot rod doesn’t nag at Ladyga.

“I bought it back a few years ago.”

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NASCAR America: Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. among winners, losers at Kentucky

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On Monday’s NASCAR America, Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton discussed the winners and losers among drivers in Saturday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway.

Letarte singled out Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as one of the losers after he failed to overtake Alex Bowman in the playoff standings. Bowman entered the race as the last driver above the cutoff line for the 16 driver field in the playoffs.

Bowman earned his first DNF after he crashed from a flat tire and finished last.

Meanwhile, Stenhouse finished 26th, one lap down after he had to pit twice early in Stage 1, the first time for a cut tire. He is now nine points behind Bowman for the final playoff spot.

“To only gain 10 points on a driver who finished last in the field is a huge missed opportunity,” Letarte said. “When you look at drivers scoring 30, 40, 50 points each, Paul Menard picked up over 30. So the chance was there to gain (on) that bigger group and he just didn’t do it. So when I look at what Ricky Stenhouse did, he really missed probably 15 or 20 points. I know it was a flat tire, there’s always a reason. But in the end you have to make the playoffs, you have to go out there and take it from Alex Bowman, who has put him in that position.”

Burton picked Menard as a winner. The Wood Brothers Racing driver placed 11th Saturday after finishing fifth in Stage 1 and 10th in Stage 2.

He is now 18th in the standings, 23 points back from Bowman

“They performed well, got good stage finishes and did what they needed to do,” Burton said. “This team is starting to get a little bit better every single week. I find it very interesting that back there for that 16th spot it’s really a fight of mediocrity, to be honest with you, and who is going to not mess up.”

Watch the above video for more.

Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr. benefitting from surviving Daytona

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It took until July, but it seems Erik Jones has finally found his footing at Joe Gibbs Racing.

And the 22-year-old driver is somewhat keeping pace with one of the members of the “Big Three.”

Thanks to them surviving the carnage at Daytona, Jones – who won the race – and Martin Truex Jr. are the only Cup drives enjoying active streaks of top-10 finishes.

With Truex’s win and Jones’ seventh-place finish on Saturday at Kentucky Speedway, they each have four consecutive top 10s.

The streaks began with the June 24 race at Sonoma, which Truex also won.

Jones’ Kentucky finish came after he radioed his team multiple times during the race about his concerns that his engine might blow up.

Jones needs two more top 10s to match his streak of six last season during his rookie campaign at Furniture Row Racing. That streak started at the July race at Pocono and ended with the regular-season finale at Richmond.

Here’s a look at the best top 10 streaks this season among drivers with nine or more top 10s (Jones and Ryan Blaney have nine).

Kyle Busch (15 top 10s) – Steaks of eight and six consecutive top 10s; current streak: one top 10

Kevin Harvick (15 top 10s) – Streaks of three, seven and four top 10s; current streak: one top 10

Joey Logano (14 top 10s)  – Streaks of three, six and two top 10s; Currents streak: one top 10

Martin Truex Jr. (13 top 10s) – Steaks of five and four (twice) top 10s; Current streak: four top 10s

Kyle Larson (11 tops 10s) – Streaks of four and two (twice) top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Brad Keselowski (11 top 10s) – Steaks of three and two (twice) top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Clint Bowyer (10 top 10s) – Streaks of four and three top 10s; Current streak: none

Kurt Busch (10 top 10s) – Streaks of four and two top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Denny Hamlin (10 top 10s) – Streaks of three and two (three times) top 10; Current streak: none

Erik Jones (nine top 10s) – Streaks of four and three tops 10s; Current streak: four top 10s

Ryan Blaney (nine top 10s) – Streaks of three and two tops 10s; Current streak: one top 10.

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Kentucky recap, Fantasy standings

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and recaps the storylines from the weekend’s racing at Kentucky Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Steve Letarte from Stamford, Connecticut. Jeff Burton joins them from Burton’s Garage.

On today’s show:

  • We take a look back at Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant performance on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway. Is Truex better now than in his 2017 championship season? Our experts weigh in.
  • We’ll also hear from Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, who both expressed frustration following top-five performances on Saturday. We’ll examine the ongoing competition between NASCAR’s Big Three with just seven races remaining until the playoffs.
  • Speaking of the playoffs, we’ll check in on the Bubble Boys. Paul Menard had a huge night points-wise, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. drew even closer to Alex Bowman, who currently holds the final playoff spot.
  • We’ll take a look at Christopher Bell’s winning performance in Friday’s Xfinity Series race. Plus, we’ll find out who the big winners were among the NBC broadcasters in NASCAR Fantasy.
If can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Martin Truex Jr: ‘I still pinch myself’ three years into dominance with Furniture Row

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As Martin Truex Jr. stood in the back of a truck riding around Kentucky Speedway before last Saturday’s Cup race, a fan called out to the 2017 champion.

“Let somebody else win!” he yelled.

After a beat, Truex responded with a chuckle, “No!”

Truex stayed true to his word. A few hours later, the Furniture Row Racing driver took the checkered flag to claim his fourth win of the season.

His triumph over Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski took his career win total to 19 – tying him on the all-time wins list with Joey Logano, 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Davey Allison, Greg Biffle, Hall of Famer Buddy Baker and Fonty Flock.

The victory is the 17th for the No. 78 team since 2015. Truex leads all drivers in wins since 2016 with 16.

For a driver who only won twice in his first nine full-time seasons, Truex said “I still pinch myself” over his dominance of the sport.

He doesn’t lead the series in wins after 19 races. That goes to Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who are tied at five wins each.

This marks the first time since 1974 that three drivers have won four or more races at this point in a season.

“I think all three of us have great teams,” Truex said after his win. “Those two guys are great drivers. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for them. It’s pretty amazing to be a part of this group, honestly. I think when I was a kid and you (saw) Dale (Earnhardt) and Rusty (Wallace) and guys like that, Terry Labonte and you had guys that just dominated and won everything, and watching them, it was like, ‘Man, that’s so cool, they’re heroes and they’re such a big deal,’ and to think that I’m one of those guys this year and I guess last year, too, is just ‑‑ it’s amazing to me.”

Even after he won his first Cup title last November, it didn’t occur to him until almost a month later that he will one day be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame alongside Earnhardt, Wallace and Labonte.

Truex joined Furniture Row Racing in 2014 after losing his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing, a casualty of the race manipulation scandal involving MWR in the 2013 regular season finale at Richmond Raceway.

That year, Truex went winless, led one lap and finished 24th in the standings.

The following season Truex was paired with rookie crew chief Cole Pearn. The duo won one race, earned eight top fives and made the Championship 4.

In their 126 races together, the duo has put together a record comparable to other great driver-crew chief parings in Cup history.

“Really the last three years have been just having the time of my life and just lucky to have great people around us, a great car owner (Barney Visser),” Truex said. “Just feel really lucky.  I’ve been on the other side of it before where teams were struggling and struggled to get in position to win races, and having a lot of things kind of going against you and kind of fighting that uphill battle.

“So it’s amazing to be on this side of it. I can’t tell you how proud I am of all the guys on our team and what they’ve done, and I honestly just enjoy every single one of these wins like it’s my first because you never know when they’re going to come to an end.  You never know when you’re going to have your last one. You never know what’s going to happen next. Just trying to ride the wave of momentum and enjoy it all, and my team is just so badass, I can’t even explain it.”

Truex, 38, “always felt” he “could get the job done” during the early years of his Cup career, spent with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and then MWR.

“I had enough glimpses of really good days or glimpses of greatness that I think it just kept me alive, kept me hungry enough to keep fighting for it,” said Truex, who won two Xfinity championships before moving to Cup. “I think through the years there was just ‑‑ for me personally, and I don’t know what everybody else thought, I know I had some people that probably didn’t think I was that good.

“That’s part of this deal.  You’re only as good as your last race. And if you’re not getting results now, people question your ability.  … For me personally, I always (felt) like I could be a good driver, be a great driver.  I never knew I’d get to where I was last year, and I never really knew I could go on a championship run and win (16) races in three years … That’s been amazing.”