Photo: Jake Garcia Racing

Friday 5: As the youth movement progresses, should there be minimum age limits?

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By his father’s account, 13-year-old Jake Garcia fared well while becoming the youngest driver to compete in a Late Model race at historic Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville last weekend.

Garcia finished 13th in a 19-car field in a race won by Michael House and placed ahead of former Cup driver Sterling Marlin, who was 15th. The performance came about two months after Garcia’s Late Model debut — before he had turned 13.

Garcia’s first Late Model race, though, was actually late when compared to Timmy Tyrrell, or Mini Tyrrell as he’s know around the track. Tyrrell made his first Late Model start when he was 9 years old in 2014 at Shenandoah (Virginia) Speedway. Tyrrell has won the past two Late Model track championships there.

As NASCAR celebrates a youth movement in Cup — more than 20 percent of the drivers in Monday’s race at Martinsville Speedway were age 24 or younger — children are moving up to the Late Model ranks at an earlier age.

There remain some barriers. The minimum age for a NASCAR license is 14 years old, so no one under that age can race in a NASCAR-sanctioned division at a NASCAR-sanctioned track. Tracks without such sanctioning can decide if to allow youngsters to race and some do.

That also leads to questions of if it is right to put a child in a Late Model car before they are a teenager or just as they reach that age. There are those who raise concerns since auto racing can be dangerous even with all the safety enhancements.

Timmy Tyrrell, father of Mini Tyrrell, said he’s heard the “nasty comments” about putting his son in a Late Model at such an early age and the accusations of him being “reckless” with such a decision but says that is not the case. 

“As a father, first and foremost, I want to wrap my kid in bubble wrap whatever he does,’’ Timmy Tyrrell told NBC Sports. “Nobody wants to see their child hurt. I go above and beyond, making sure his seats are perfect, his helmet, his HANS, everything.’’

Tyrrell said the decision to move his son to Late Model wasn’t done by just him but based on evaluation of others in racing. That’s the same approach Stevie Garcia used before allowing his son, Jake, to run Late Models. Jake Garcia is in a driver development program set up by Willie Allen, the 2007 Rookie of the Year in NASCAR’s Truck Series. Jake Garcia tested four times at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville — a .596-mile venue that once hosted Cup races — to learn the car and track and showing he could handle racing there.

Allen said they had cameras on the car and some data acquisition devices to help Garcia study those tests and understand what he needed to do to race there.

Garcia impressed Allen with how he performed.

“He’s super calm and composed for his age,’’ Allen told NBC Sports. “I see a lot of other drivers that worry about the wrong stuff at the race track all the time. He’s just focused on how to make himself better and attacking the track and that’s what it is all about.’’

Garcia or anyone else younger than 14 cannot run in a NASCAR-sanctioned division at South Boston (Virginia) Speedway because it is a NASCAR-sanctioned track, but General Manger Cathy Rice wonders if there will be a day when the minimum age requirement is lowered.

“Kids mature so much now, so early,’’ Rice told NBC Sports. “I’ve been in this sport, this is 30 years this year that I’ve been here, I’ve seen the trend of the maturity in the kids. Maybe NASCAR will look at 12 or 13, I don’t know, the insurance and everything you have to deal with, there’s a lot to it.’’

Former Cup champion Kyle Busch, who started in Late Models at age 15 before he was caught for being too young, says there can be cases for younger drivers to race in Late Models.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily an age thing as much as it’s an experience thing,’’ he said. “I look at go-karts, how did that particular individual do in go-karts and Bandoleros or Legend cars – what has his history been in vehicles? Has he won races? Has he been good? Has it been worth him moving up each and every time that he gets to a new vehicle?

“I don’t think it’s smart to just start at 10 or start at 13 in a Late Model, that absolutely should not be possible.’’

Busch admits the move to Late Models was significant when he made it.

“I was scared to death of the thing,,’’ he said. “With how much faster it was than a Legends car, how much cornering speed it had more than a Legends car and what anything I had ever been in and what I had been used and accustomed to as far as what the grip level was and the G-forces and things that it gives you.

“It was just a big deal at 16 years old for me. I think that there’s kids that can handle it, obviously. I don’t think that it’s all that important to be as young as some of these cats are getting in Late Models and stuff at 10 or 13 years old, whatever it is, because I look at myself not being 15 doing that, and I look at William Byron not being 15 or 16 and doing that. He got a late start like I did, so you can still have a late start and still be good and be able to make it to the big time.’’

Reigning Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. admits that “I’m sure there are some kids that are ready for it and obviously we’ve seen kids at 13, 14 or 15 be successful at short track racing, Late Models or whatever, you name it.

“I would say that there is nobody that should say you can’t do it. I guess the hard part is what happens when somebody is thrown in there that really can’t do it or he thinks he can or parents think you can.

“For me at 13, I would say I probably could have driven a full-size car, obviously it was illegal and I wasn’t allowed to in New Jersey, I had to be 18. I lost quite a few years in racing because of that, but I think I was mature enough and knew enough about racing so I guess it’s more about the individual than it is a generalization. I can’t imagine what I could have learned from the time I was 14 until I was 18 – you’re talking about four years of racing, that’s a lot of races, a lot to learn and a lot of divisions to get up through as well.’’

2. Kyle Busch Double

Kyle Busch’s runner-up finish Monday at Martinsville Speedway marked his 43rd career second-place finish. He also has 43 career Cup victories.

Busch ranks 12th in the modern era (since 1972) for most first- and second-place finishes in Cup.

Here’s the top 12 in first- and second-place finishes since 1972:

1. Jeff Gordon … 168

2. Dale Earnhardt … 146

3. Darrell Waltrip … 142

4. Jimmie Johnson … 129

5. Richard Petty … 126

6. Cale Yarborough … 112

7. Bobby Allison … 109

8. Mark Marin … 101

9. Rusty Wallace … 97

10. Tony Stewart … 93

11. Kevin Harvick … 90

12. Kyle Busch … 86

3. Leader of the pack

Kevin Harvick has led the most laps in Cup this season at 433, but he also ranks third in the Xfinity Series in laps led at 141.

Combined, he’s led 574 of the 2,667 laps run in both series — 21.5 percent — even though he’s not run in every Xfinity race.

4. No fooling

What do Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson have in common?

They all won a Cup race in the modern era (since 1972) on April 1, according to NASCAR stats.

Dale Earnhardt’s first career Cup win came at Bristol on April 1, 1979. He also won at Darlington on April 1 (1990).

Newman (2012) and Johnson (2007) won at Martinsville on April 1. Jarrett won on the date in 2001 at Texas. Waltrip won on that date in 1984 at Bristol. Pearson won on that date in 1973 at Atlanta.

5. Last break of the year

While there are two more off weekends this season for Cup (June 17 and Aug. 26), those off weekends will include Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races.

This is the final weekend without any type of NASCAR racing through the end of the season — Nov. 18 in Miami.

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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

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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.