Friday 5: Passion on and off the track

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There’s been much to talk about this season but some of the conversation has centered more on what has happened off the track.

Maybe Kyle Busch can help return the talk to the track this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

Admittedly, three of the first five races having a margin of victory of 2.6 seconds or more (last week Martin Truex Jr. won by 11.6 seconds) takes away some of the excitement for some even as Kevin Harvick won three races in a row.

Other than Harvick’s dominance, some of the buzzy topics this season has been Harvick talking about the need to build up grassroots racing, why Busch wasn’t interviewed on TV after last weekend’s race at Auto Club (and then his responses to Twitter trolls) and how Austin Dillon and members of his team got tattoos on their rear end after winning the Daytona 500.

All worthy topics to generate conversation, but the discussion on the racing hasn’t been as paramount to this point.

Martinsville comes just in time to change that. The series is back at the track for the first time since Denny Hamlin’s contact knocked Chase Elliott out of the lead late in the fall race and fans saw a level of emotion they hadn’t seen from Elliott. If you don’t recall, Busch went on to win that race.

Last spring had its excitement with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bumping Busch out of the way to stay on the lead lap, opening the door for Elliott to win a stage. Later in that race, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch engaged in a spellbinding duel before Keselowski pulled away and went on to win. Busch finished second.

Right now, Busch is one of the main drivers who stirs the drink in a sport that has seen fan favorites Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, among others, retire.

Even Earnhardt said as much on his podcast this week.

“The one thing that I’ve learned over the last several years … was the sport needs people like Kyle,’’ Earnhardt said on the Dale Jr. Download. “Even if you don’t like the guy, the sport needs all kinds of personalities, and we can’t have 40 heroes out there racing.

“We can’t have 40 Captain Americas out there competing against each other. You gotta have a Batman, you gotta have a Robin, you gotta have a Superman, you gotta have a Joker. You gotta have all of that to create storylines and create rivalries.”

The sport’s best rivalry is Keselowski and Busch. It’s one that simmers and then explodes, whether it is in their duel at Martinsville last year, their contact at Watkins Glen, Busch’s Twitter response to Keselowski after Keselowski’s comments about Toyota’s dominance entering the playoffs or Busch simply saying at the news conference before last year’s Miami championship race of Busch: “Sometimes you just don’t like a guy.’’

This weekend could be a chance for such feelings to bubble or maybe from somebody else. With an off weekend afterward, it would give fans something to talk about.

2. An impassioned defense

BK Racing car owner Ron Devine was combative at times, calling the procedure “nonsense” while on the stand for about 2 1/2 hours Thursday in federal bankruptcy court.

Devine, who turned to address the judge at times when answering questions from attorneys, was on the stand defending his right to run BK Racing despite millions of dollars in losses in recent years and unpaid bills.

Union Bank & Trust, which claims it is owed more than $8 million in loans from Devine, seeks to have a trustee put in charge of the team. Union Bank & Trust stated in documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy court that BK Racing had lost about $30 million from 2014-16.

MORE: Court filing lists expenses, revenue for each race 

MORE: Rare peek into race purses, payouts

Devine said on the stand that the team had signed a sponsor agreement Wednesday with EarthWater for $3.6 million for the rest of the season. The amount is to be paid in cash, shares of stock and product. Devine said that if the judge ruled to have a bank-appointed trustee run the team, the sponsor would not remain, noting a line that in the agreement that the deal was null and void if Devine was not running the team.

Devine, who said his organization had “low teens” in terms of full-time employees, stated that those employees would quit if a trustee took over. Devine said the only reason the bank wanted a trustee was to sell the team’s charter. He accused the bank of soliciting bids for the charter.

Turning to the judge, Devine said of having a trustee run the team instead of him: “There’s no way he can operate the team. He has no knowledge and ability to operate my team.’’

Devine estimated he had spent half a million dollars of his own money since December to offset deficits at BK Racing. During the testimony, Devine confirmed that he sold one of the team’s charters before the 2017 season to Front Row Motorsports for $2 million.

“I can run this race team,’’ Devine said in court.

The matter has been continued until Wednesday.

3. West Coast review

While Kevin Harvick dominated the West Coast swing, winning two of the three races, Kyle Busch had the best average finish for the events at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana.

Of course, Harvick’s 35th-place finish Sunday after contact with Kyle Larson ruined his average finish.

Here’s who had the best average finish for the three races:

2.3 — Kyle Busch

3.3 — Martin Truex Jr.

7.7 — Kyle Larson

8.0 — Erik Jones

8.3 — Brad Keselowski

Here’s who scored the most points in the three races:

147 — Martin Truex Jr.

146 — Kyle Busch

125 — Brad Keselowski

120 — Kyle Larson

115 — Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 75.2 percent of the laps run on the West Coast swing. Harvick led 252 laps, Busch led 200 laps and Truex led 134 laps.

4. In case you missed it …

Only three drivers scored a top-10 finish in each of the three West Coast swing races: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones.

5. Back in time

Jimmie Johnson has nine career Martinsville victories (in 32 starts for a winning percentage of 28.1 percent) but has two top-10 finishes — including a win in October 2016 — in the last seven starts there. He’s led only in two of those seven races. He once had a streak of 17 consecutive top-10 finishes there, including six wins.

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John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

NASCAR Twitter
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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.