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NASCAR Next’s Will Rodgers, Hailie Deegan get boost from Kevin Harvick

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Hailie Deegan and Will Rodgers are different, from each other and the typical NASCAR driver.

Of the nine NASCAR Next members revealed May 15, Deegan, 16, is the youngest and Rodgers, 23, is the oldest.

The daughter of action sports star Brian Deegan and a mother whose “full-time job” is taking her to races, Hailie is a Southern California native who came to NASCAR from off-road racing. She listens to rap and hip hop.

Rodgers, whose father owns a brewery and his mother is a clinical social worker, was born in Hawaii and has competed in sports cars, motocross and off-road racing. He listens to classic rock and punk rock.

The two drivers have one thing in common.

They have Kevin Harvick in their corner.

Hailie Deegan gets out of her car after a practice lap before the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Twin 100’s at Tucson Raceway Park on May 5. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Hailie Deegan has a brief audio recording that she’s listened to a handful of times.

It was recorded minutes after the conclusion of her K&N Pro Series West debut on March 15 at Kern County Raceway Park in Bakersfield, California.

The recording is of her father, Brian Deegan, talking to Harvick, who was fresh from finishing fourth in the race.

The 2014 Cup champion told Brian Deegan he was impressed by his daughter’s performance. She finished seventh in the 175-lap race after starting eighth. Harvick said he’d keep in touch with them.

“He still does to this day, which is really cool,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “He always asks how I’m doing at the track, how I am doing compared to the other competitors, which is really cool on a personal level and I think that it was just something that’s not a confidence booster but a motivator.”

The day after the Kern County race, Harvick was asked at Auto Club Speedway what driving talent he’d discovered in the race.

He singled Deegan as having the “most potential.”

“I think as far as potential and reach and racing knowledge and getting in the car as young as she is, that would be the one I would pluck out of the series and say that’s the one we want to be a part of,” Harvick said.

Since then Harvick has had Deegan on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours,” she’s graduated from high school and earned her first two top fives on May 19 at Orange Show Speedway and June 9 at Colorado National Speedway. She’s seventh in points through five races.

Harvick reaffirmed his praise of her after he won last month’s All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I think Brian is really good for her because of the fact she just needs to go race and learn the ins‑and‑outs, get with the right situations as she moves up, not move too fast,” Harvick said. “She has the most potential of a female racer because she gets it. She’s very into what she’s doing. It’s not about everything else. It’s really about the race car and ‘How do I drive it faster?’ She’s just got her stuff together.”

As the only woman in the NASCAR Next program, which highlights up and coming drivers in stock car racing, Deegan recognizes that NASCAR is a sport in search of “something unique” to build its future on.

“I know they’re looking and searching for these aspects of, their fan base right now is all these people, these older generations and right now they’re looking for the new, hip generation of kids and teens coming up,” Deegan said. “The NASCAR Next program kind of plucks those kids out and sees these people with personalities and (who) want it that bad and are willing to do the off-track work, and I think that’s what NASCAR needs right now.”

Does Deegan consider herself hip?

“I don’t know if I consider myself hip, but I consider myself different.”

Kevin Harvick during last year’s K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

For Rodgers, the most surreal moment of last June’s K&N West race at Sonoma Raceway was when spotter Rick Carelli came over the radio in the closing laps.

“Third place is nowhere to be found,” Rodgers recalls Carelli saying.

It was just Rodgers and the leader.

The leader was Harvick, who was making his first start in the series since 2007.

“Oh my gosh, we’re running toe-to-toe with a Cup champion right now,” Rodgers thought at the moment.

The race, essentially at Rodgers’ home track, was the one his team “had been building up to all year.”

He qualified on the pole. Harvick started sixth.

“Now if you had told me I would race toe-to-toe with Kevin Harvick all day, that might have been a scenario again where I wouldn’t have believed you,” Rodgers said.

Harvick won the race, but he made sure to bring attention to Rodgers, who like Deegan, he had as a guest on his radio show.

“Being able to race toe-to-toe with Kevin and pull away from everybody else in the field and then for him to get out of the car and rave about me was very unique,” Rodgers said. “I’d say that’s definitely the best second place I’ll probably ever get.”

Harvick then went out of his way to celebrate with Rodgers in victory lane two months later when Rodgers earned his first career win in the K&N East race at Watkins Glen.

Rodgers also tries to keep in touch with the SHR driver despite his busy schedule.

“Whether or not Kevin has a hand in (NASCAR Next) personally, just by him being an advocate for me and then voicing me to the media, that has really opened the eyes and ears of a lot of people within NASCAR, within the industry, sponsors,” Rodgers said. “It’s helped on many levels. … My credibility has just been elevated so high after he said those things.”

This season Rodgers has competed in four of the first five K&N East races, earning two top 10s. He’s also earned two top 10s in four ARCA starts racing for Ken Schrader.

Harvick expects Rodgers to continue to rise if given the opportunity, especially when it comes to road course racing.

“I don’t think anybody would have known Will Rogers‘ name if we hadn’t run the K&N West Series race last year,” Harvick said after his All-Star win. “He’s got his stuff together. He just needs an opportunity to come out and show what he’s got. When the road course stuff shows up, Will is probably capable of being in an Xfinity race or a Cup race. In the right equipment on a road course, he’d be a top-10 competitor.”

Harvick has only competed in two K&N races in the last year, but each one has benefited someone else.

“It’s interesting to see,” Harvick said. “That’s really been our goal running the K&N races, is to expose those drivers to get opportunities. Just glad that it’s working out for a couple of them.”

 

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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 on stage. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

Completing the top five in balloting: Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney.

It is the 29th consecutive year that either an Elliott or Earnhardt has won the award. Bill Elliott won the award 16 times.

“To have 18 awards going back to Dawsonville is, I think, pretty cool,” Elliott said of the Most Popular Driver awards he and his father have won. “Obviously, I think a lot of that is due to him and his career and what he and his family built. It’s certainly isn’t all me and what I’ve done. I haven’t done anything … compared to what they did.”

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.