NBC Files

25 Years Ago NASCAR lost Alan Kulwicki – a driver doing things ‘His Way’

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In a car named Sirloin because it is one of the toughest cuts of beef, Alan Kulwicki won the 1986 Rookie of the Year honor in what was then known as the Winston Cup series. Six seasons later, he beat NASCAR’s elite to capture the 1992 title.

It was one of NASCAR’s most dramatic moments in a history filled with them. From near obscurity to the pinnacle of stock car racing, fiercely independent Kulwicki did it his way as an owner/driver in a sport that was rapidly turning its back on the privateer.

Barely 4 1/2 months later—25 years ago today, April 1—Kulwicki lost his life in plane crash returning to Bristol, Tenn. for the 1993 Food City 500. He was coming from a sponsor appearance in nearby Knoxville. Kulwicki was set to defend his 1992 victory in that race.

Everyone knew the sport was changing.

At the end of 1992, Richard Petty was due to retire. A young sprint car driver named Jeff Gordon would make his first Cup start. Dale Jarrett, Ernie Irvan and Davey Allison were taking the place of the “old guard.” And Kulwicki was at still the beginning of what proved to be a very promising career.

“No matter what else you have when you talk about Alan Kulwicki, is the speculation and the loss of potential,” NBC analyst Kyle Petty told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“How many more championships could there have been? What else could he have done? So many wins. So many poles. So many things were left laying on the table that we’ll never know.”

Dave Kallmann of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel details how Kulwicki packed up his single car and headed south to Charlotte, North Carolina, with nothing more than a dream of being involved in NASCAR’s top level.

What he brought with him was more than that little bit of machinery. The most important things were inside his head — an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a burning determination and an ability to see stock car racing not as it was, but as it would soon become.

As the sport was beginning to use data in a way that was unprecedented, the college-educated driver from outside of NASCAR’s mainstream was not encumbered by the old ways of thinking.

“I will say, Alan had a leg up on everybody on understanding what came out on that computer screen,” said Petty. “He was there when the door was open, and he was able to take advantage of those first few years when the sport headed in that direction.”

And it was likely his unique way of looking at things that won Kulwicki his only championship. With six races remaining, he trailed by 278 points and chipped away at that margin until he was among the drivers with a shot at the title in the final race.

In the Hooters 500 at Atlanta, Kulwicki won the championship by crunching the numbers in his head while circling the track at 180 mph. He stayed out during a long late-race, green flag run to score enough bonus points keep Elliott from overtaking him in the standings.

Kulwicki won the title in a Ford nicknamed the “Underbird” (instead of the Thunderbird he was driving) with a pit sign made out of an image of the cartoon hero Underdog.

The sport is left to speculate what might have happened if Kulwicki had not perished in that plane crash.

Would he have eventually succumbed to the pressure that pushed most other independent, driver/owner combinations out of the sport? Or would he have won many more races and several more championships?

About that same time, Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs were establishing their teams. Kulwicki’s lone championship was wedged between four of seven earned by Dale Earnhardt.

Kulwicki’s career has been honored with four consecutive nominations to the Hall of Fame that includes a bid this year. And when he gets there, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” will play in the background, just as it did during the 1992 Winston Cup banquet.

Race results, Truck Series point standings after Eldora

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In a deal that came together at the last minute, Chase Briscoe battled ThorSport teammate Grant Enfinger during a two-lap shootout at Eldora Speedway and won the Edlora Dirt Derby for his second career win.

Along with Kyle Busch (Las Vegas Motor Speedway) and John Hunter Nemechek (Martinsville Speedway), he becomes the third driver this season to win who is not competing for Truck points.

Enfinger finished second as the two banged together crossing under the checkers.

Last year’s second-place finisher in this race, Stewart Friesen finished third while last year’s winner Matt Crafton came home fourth.

Brett Moffitt rounded out the top five.

Click here for complete results.

Despite finishing 16th, Johnny Sauter maintained the points lead by 32 over Noah Gragson.

Gragson finished sixth at Eldora.

Moffitt, Enfinger and Friesen round out the top five.

Click here for the complete points report.

Chase Briscoe wins Truck Series race at Eldora

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Chase Briscoe and ThorSport teammate Grant Enfinger banged doors as they crossed the finish line of the Eldora Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway with Briscoe winning by a bumper. It was Briscoe’s second career Truck win. His first victory came in the season finale last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He has not raced in the Camping World Truck Series since, so this gives him consecutive victories.

Briscoe lobbied Ford for the ride, but the deal came together at the last minute, Briscoe said from victory lane.

The race had an extended green flag segment during the final stage, during which USAC National Midget racer Logan Seavey pulled away from the field. Two multi-car accidents in the closing laps involving Todd Gilliland, Myatt Snider, Dalton Sargeant and several others allowed Briscoe to climb through the field and set up the green-white-checkered finish.

Stewart Friesen finished third with Matt Crafton and Brett Moffitt rounding out the top five.

Briscoe is the sixth different winner in six editions of this race. Last year’s winner Crafton was the only previous winner in the field.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Ben Rhodes

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

HEAT RACE 1 WINNER: Ben Rhodes  (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 2 WINNER: Todd Gilliland (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 3 WINNER: Chase Briscoe (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 4 WINNER: Matt Crafton (Complete Results)

HEAT RACE 5 WINNER: Stewart Friesen (Complete Results)

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIER WINNER: John Hunter Nemechek (Complete Results)

HOW CHASE BRISCOE WON: Briscoe took the lead from Seavey on the next-to-last restart before holding off Enfinger in a two-lap shootout.

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Simply making the A Main was an accomplishment for Norm Benning, who finished fourth in his heat race. He was involved in a late-race accident and finished last (32nd) … Stewart Friesen won his heat race and finished third after coming home one position short to Crafton last year. … Noah Gragson was forced to race his way into the Eldora Dirt Derby through the Last Chace Qualifier and climbed to sixth. … In his fourth career Truck race, Nick Hoffman scored his first top 10 with a 10th.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Attempting to make his first Truck race, RJ Otto walled his truck in the Last Chance Qualifier and spun with two laps remaining. …  Rhodes slapped the wall early in stage two and was forced to pit, losing two laps in the process. Rhodes spun again with 53 laps remaining. … Points leader Johnny Sauter qualified 34th, failed to race his way directly into the A Main via his heat race and spun early. He finished 16th. … Ryan Newman was collected in an accident involving Matt Crafton and Tyler Dippel. He lost four laps making repairs and finished 30th.

NOTABLE: Seavey dominated the final stage of the Eldora Dirt Derby, but a poor lane selection on the next-to-last restart cost him the lead. Restarting fourth on the final run, he was shuffled further back through the field to finish eighth, but came within four laps of winning in his Truck debut. Seavey was coming off a win at Sweet Springs (Missouri) Motor Complex, which gave him the overall victory in the USAC Mid-Atlantic Midget Week points standings.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “I wasn’t going to wear him out; I wasn’t just gonna wreck him for the win. We rubbed. I definitely let it float all the way to the wall and I’m sorry about that; it’s not how I race. But this means so much to win at Eldora. … This is our Daytona for dirt guys.” Chase Briscoe on FoxSports1.

WHAT’S NEXT: Gander Outdoors 150 at Pocono Raceway at 1 p.m. ET on July 28 on FS1.

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch would like to see more Xfinity, Truck short track races

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With the Camping World Truck Series racing their high-profile dirt race at Eldora Speedway, it opened up the question about whether the Cup or Xfinity series should also make a return to dirt.

That was a question for this week’s Bump & Run feature, and Kyle Busch also had an opportunity to weigh in Wednesday night on NASCAR America.

“I’m cool with it. I think it would be fun to see, one,” Busch said. “Two, I think it’s great that the trucks have that; let’s leave it special for the trucks.

“(The trucks) haul around dirt all the time. My Toyota Camry … ain’t gonna go around out there and haul around dirt.”

So, if Eldora doesn’t make Busch’s cut for a new venue on the Cup schedule, what would?

“I don’t know how you bring back the other venues and make it successful,” Busch said, mostly because of the limited infrastructure and seating capacity.

And while Busch is not supportive of tracks that previously held Cup races getting another date, he does believe there are options for NASCAR to explore.

“I think Trucks and Xfinity should be doing more of that than the mile-and-a-half stuff,” Busch continued. “Trucks and Xfinity should go to the Pensacolas, go to the Nashvilles, go to South Boston, go to Hickory … and make those races that anybody can sign up to run.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter.

Alex Bowman primed for playoff battle

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Any victory would be special for Alex Bowman. Not only would it be his first in Cup but also secure a playoff spot this season. But should that win come in two weeks at Watkins Glen, there would be extra reason to make that victory meaningful.

Wednesday on NASCAR America, Bowman unveiled the Nationwide Children’s Hospital car that he’ll drive next month at Watkins Glen. The car features 28 butterflies. A butterfly in flight represents optimism at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which has a staff of more than 13,000 providing state-of-the-art pediatric care during more than 1.4 million patient visits annually.

“Going to the Children’s Hospital, it’s amazing to see what they do for the kids and how little things that they do just keep the kids that much happier,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “It’s just amazing to see what they do and see how much the sports programs have raised for the Children’s Hospital through Nationwide. It’s really special just to be a small part of that, to have any role in putting smiles on kids faces.

“I would say if we were able to win with the Children’s Hospital car, it would be really special. It’s more having a patient champion’s name on the door, what it could mean to them.”

Before Bowman races at Watkins Glen, he has this weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and then Pocono the following week.

After his last-place finish at Kentucky last weekend, he leads Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by nine points and Paul Menard by 23 for that final playoff spot.

“I’m doing all that I can, and I feel like I’m doing my part,” Bowman said. “Obviously we’ve been off this year and we need to get better. Pressure for me really comes from me. I want to run better.

“There’s not a lot of added pressure from the team, the crew or media, really. I just want to run well and give the fans something to cheer for. Pressure comes from myself. I want to make the playoffs really bad, but I don’t want to make the playoffs and get eliminated in the first round.

“I want to make the playoffs and make a statement there. I think we could do that. We’re on a path to getting better. Kentucky obviously was rough for us, as the 88 team and as a company.”

Bowman also is confident in how his team stacks up against Stenhouse’s team and Menard’s team.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of pressures on those guys to try to erase that gap,” Bowman said. “Hopefully we can make them make mistakes by keeping the pressure on them, too.”

“I feel like we’ve got better race cars than the 17 (Stenhouse) most weeks, and we’ve got to better execution than the 21 (Menard) for the most part, if we can continue that.”

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