Behind the scenes with Dale Earnhardt Jr. the businessman: Belt buckles, brands and big plans

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MORRISVILLE, N.C. – The shiny new restaurant bar’s location is a prime one at the bustling crossroads inside Terminal 2 of Raleigh Durham International Airport.

It sits at the transitional nexus of Gates D14 to 20 (where a bevy of passengers are awaiting midmorning flights to Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Newark and Trenton, N.J.), next door to a Starbucks and adjacent to a corridor that will hum with daily foot traffic for countless destinations.

On a recent Monday morning in June, the proprietor of the establishment casually stood near its signature mechanical bull, waiting to be announced at the grand opening of the newest location for Dale Jr.’s Whisky River.

Booming over the din of an annoyingly loud airport PA crackling with boarding announcements and lost items at security, the introduction was a grand one.

“He once was known as a great race car driver … now he’s known as a great restaurateur and businessman!”

The entrepreneurial description of a two-time Daytona 500 winner might have seemed a curveball, but this also isn’t the Dale Earnhardt Jr. you’ve known for the past two decades in NASCAR.

In trading a helmet for the headset that he will don as an official broadcast analyst for the first time Friday, Earnhardt hasn’t left racing behind by a long shot, but it’s also clear that as one phase of his life ends — the competitive driving synonymous with his family’s famous surname for more than a half-century – a new chapter is unfolding that will feature some of the same ambition and competitiveness.

It’s the race to make Earnhardt more transcendent as a brand ambassador and cultural touchstone than he’s ever been — without ever taking another checkered flag.

“I don’t want to stop working or doing,” Earnhardt told NBCSports.com about his life outside racing full time for the first time since 1998. “I just didn’t want to drive a car anymore. I’ve got a lot of businesses that are growing or trying to grow.

“I didn’t retire from driving race cars to just not do anything or take a break.”

In many ways, the schedule is more harried now for the 43-year-old who’s gotten married and became a first-time father over the past 18 months.

There is the work that will begin as NBC Sports Group takes over the 2018 NASCAR schedule this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. Earnhardt will join former crew chief Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Rick Allen in the broadcast booth for a career that he hopes will go “for a long time … 10 to 20 years.”

But that’s only the most highly visible endeavor of a well-crafted business portfolio whose tentacles touch the media, automotive and food and beverage industries.

  • Whisky River, which already had bustling locations in Uptown Charlotte and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, recently opened its newest branch at RDU, soon will open a sprawling 14,000-square-foot footprint (much of it retail) in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and is planning another airport location in Fort Lauderdale.
  • The Beverly Hills-based WME talent agency has Earnhardt, its first race car driver client, slotted for three to four TV series on which he will serve as executive producer, as well as several other projects (including licensing and endorsements, an “experiential” project and more frequent speaking engagements and personal appearances that aren’t necessarily tied to racing).
  • Hammerhead Entertainment, Earnhardt’s longtime production company, will handle some of the TV work and more, while Dirty Mo Media, his burgeoning content network, has expanded his Dale Jr. Download podcast into a weekly show on NBCSN.
  • There also are the Chevrolet and Buick GMC dealerships (co-owned with former car owner Rick Hendrick’s automotive sales empire) in Tallahassee, Florida.
  • And a DIY show (“Renovation Realities: Dale Jr. and Amy”) has been providing an often lighthearted glimpse at a house restoration project in Key West, Florida (that he took on with his new wife, an interior designer whom he credits often for helping him become more comfortable in public).

He is barely seven months removed from his last start in NASCAR’s premier series, but the foundation for a full and smooth transition to beyond the wheel was being laid since Earnhardt approached his 40s.

Mike Davis, the director of brand strategy at JR Motorsports, said the discussions began five years ago “about pressing Dale to think about what life after racing would look like.” It was long before a concussion sidelined Earnhardt for the second half of 2016 and helped cement 2017 as his final season (he will detail how he wrestled with concussions and when to end his career in a new book, “Racing to the Finish,” with author Ryan McGee that will be released in October).

“For a lot of athletes, their whole identity is wrapped up in their sport that they compete,” Davis said. “When they lose that identity, get replaced and retire, and don’t have whatever needs being met, they don’t know what to do with themselves, and it affects their happiness. I was concerned about Dale in that regard. I had a feeling he had his stuff together and wasn’t going to go through, ‘What am I going to do without my racing?’ but you never know how people are going to react until you go there.”


Earnhardt has reacted by filling (but not necessarily replacing) some of the competitive void through investing more time on his businesses. Though his older sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, runs his long-term financial planning, Earnhardt is looking at his company’s monthly balance sheets more closely and asking “Why?” more often about how and when the profit and loss numbers shift (“We remodeled the house in Key West, and you had a wedding,” was a recent answer).

For Earnhardt’s millions of fans, retirement might mean a beachfront condo and cashing in the 401k in their happy golden years, yet it means something entirely different for a 15-time Most Popular Driver whose professional career has ended while arriving at a completely different station in middle age.

“I think one of the reasons he doesn’t miss being in a race car that much is that he’s got this whole new thing called marriage and family in his life,” Earnhardt Miller said. “Where a lot of people, that kind of simultaneously happens: You get married, you have kids, you build your career.

“For him it’s these two different things: He’s had this driving career for 20 years where he hasn’t had a wife traveling with him or family. So now he’s got this attention in this whole new way, and this whole new life of things he gets to do, so I think that those whys are important because of that. Because he wants to be involved and know, ‘What’s this going to do for me? What kind of effort am I putting into it? Why am I doing it?’ He wants to understand.”

And that’s driven as much by the finite realities of being a family man.

“It really isn’t the sky is the limit because with success comes responsibility and devoting more time to those things, and there’s only so much time I’m willing to spend on anything,” Earnhardt said when asked about his financial ambitions. “So it’s really going to be whatever you put in, you’re going to get out of it.

“I don’t really have a big long-term vision. We didn’t have one for JR Motorsports. It just sort of grew and had success and more success and got bigger and bigger and bigger, and you turn around one day, and you just can’t believe how much it’s grown from where we started it, and I hope that’s what I feel about all our businesses one day.”

Over the last 17 years since Kelley Earnhardt Miller came to help run the businesses, JR Motorsports, which most publicly functions as a four-car team in the Xfinity Series, has grown from six employees to more than 150.

Perhaps that exponential growth won’t happen for his businesses, but there is potential for properties such as Whisky River to expand nationally.

It will be predicated, though, on Earnhardt remaining a cross-cultural force with the commercially appealing power that he commands simply by being himself.

That’s why he has aligned with WME, which has worked to help slide pro athletes into new business ventures (Kobe Bryant, who recently won an Academy Award as the executive producer of a short animated film after five NBA championships, would be a good example).

“Dale is unique because he has really shown some of the greatest courage to go into a sport that unfortunately took his father,” said Sean Perry, a partner at WME in the non-scripted television department. “He then excelled at it both on the track and being an ambassador. He speaks to Americana in the best way. There’s really nobody that you could say, ‘Dale is like this.’ Because there is nobody like Dale.

“We think he’s only done Chapter I of his career, and there’s a lot more.”

A blueprint was left by other popular athletes, such as Magic Johnson and Peyton Manning, who have continued to leave a mark long after their playing days were over.

“Athletes with strong and monetizable personal brands that extend well beyond their careers tend to have three things going for them,” said David Carter, executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute and principal of The Sports Business Group. “They have a comprehensive approach which includes tactically marketing themselves, finding the right mix of investment options and surrounding themselves with ethical, capable advisors. They then deliver and reinforce a consistent message and do so with just the right amount of exposure.

“Earnhardt is well positioned to excel long term because he comes across as authentic and has a committed and avid following, one cultivated over a very long time.”

Former NBA Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal (another WME client) and Charles Barkley (whose renown as an NBA analyst and celebrity endorser probably exceeds the fame of his All-Star seasons) are the two retired role models for Earnhardt.

“You’ve got to still want to be a personality that people are interested in working with and have to do things like broadcasting,” Earnhardt said. “You look at Shaquille and Charles and what they were able to do with their brands after they played. They make a good living doing what they do. People still want to be involved with them. Not only just Corporate America, but people still want to be in business with them.

“Those are two guys that would be good comparisons to what you’d like to accomplish after your playing career is over. They have fun. They enjoy what they do.”


The atmosphere is loose and festive during the Whisky River grand opening at RDU.

As a guitarist strums and sings “Ring of Fire” on a low-slung stage in a corner of the restaurant, a crowd of airport dignitaries, regional business leaders and some members of the North Carolina legislature are met by carving stations offering samples off the menu (Earnhardt’s favorite is the buffalo chicken salad) and nearly 200 Mason jars filled with the bar’s most popular cocktails.

Earnhardt moves effortlessly among them, glad-handling VIPs while constantly signing autographs and taking photos with everyone from congressman to waitstaff.

He shows off a few Whisky River traditions – a wall of welded belt buckles (like Earnhardt’s tastes, it’s eclectic and ranges from the cover of The Clash’s self-titled debut album to traditional cattle drive motifs) and Junebug, the mechanical bull.

Junebug the mechanical bull.

He encourages everyone to try the latter while they can. The Charlotte airport location no longer has one “because there were so many people trying to get in, there weren’t enough seats. That’s a good problem to have.

“We took it out to pasture, but it’ll be back,” he said. “We hope to do that here.”

The CLT location has become one of the airport’s biggest restaurants in revenue, breaking some monthly sales records, according to Earnhardt. Partnering with HMS Host, which operates restaurants and stores in more than 100 airports, there could be as many as two to three dozen Whisky River terminal locations in the future.

“However many they want to put in these airports,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve got a great partner, so we’re working with people who have so much success, so they can plug us right into these airports, and we can hit the ground running. You don’t go in wondering if it’s going to work or apprehensive, you feel pretty confident going in that it’s going to have success and people are going to like it because of your involvement with HMS Host and their experience with doing business in airports.”

With nearly 12 million passengers coming through RDU last year, there’s an inherent customer base, but Earnhardt prides himself on serving “amazing food because that’s the reason people really come” to the franchises that bear his stamp.

The wall of buckles at Whisky River.

Whisky River is an offshoot of the replica Wild West town that Earnhardt built on his 200-acre property north of Charlotte, an homage to a favorite movie genre inherited from his late father (who loved the spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood).

It makes it easier to make the sales pitch.

“I tell people all the time we don’t have to give him talking points or say, “Hey, you need to say this,” because he speaks from the heart and that’s what we operated based off,” said Tony Mayhoff, Earnhardt’s director of brand marketing and partnerships. “He’s very genuinely Dale Jr. and every business has his personality.”

That’s been true from the outset for Earnhardt, a technophile and shoe maven who once had personal service agreements with Sony and Adidas, but there also have been some misses on business investments.

A standalone Whisky River in Jacksonville, Florida, closed after a four-year run (its sales couldn’t support its size, Earnhardt Miller said). An early attempt at a social network called Infield Parking might have been too far ahead of its time; a racetrack in Mobile, Alabama, never got off the drawing board; and two lines of chocolate bars and potato chips bearing his name and likeness fizzled despite strong corporate backing.

“There are certain partnerships that haven’t always materialized for some reason or another,” Earnhardt Miller said. “A lot of people come to you and think if they just put Dale’s name on something and turn it into bucks. We’ve learned through trial and error through the years of what has worked and didn’t.”

And as her younger brother has gotten older, becoming more selective with opportunities has been a byproduct. Even Whisky River, which has evolved from its origins as a bar that also was a trendy nightclub into a more accessible restaurant that also has a bar, is indicative of Earnhardt Jr. gracefully aging into family man.

“Probably 10 years ago, we could have done a few things that maybe weren’t exact alignments with him and pulled it off, but I think with his growth and maturity that it’s more important now in his businesses,” Earnhardt Miller said. “If we do things that are consistent with who Dale is, they’re going to flourish and grow in a greater way because he gets to speak to it in a real and true way. I think that just opens up opportunities for us because there’s certain things that really haven’t made sense in the past because he wasn’t married (and) didn’t have a family.”

It’s certainly a marked change from the hell-raising lifestyle of “Club E”, the parties in his basement that Earnhardt regularly threw in the early 2000s as the Budweiser-sponsored bachelor with a 200-mph ride and a famously edgy Rolling Stone interview.

Now the avid social media user often has used Instagram and Twitter to promote his love of grilling meats and BBQ. When her brother recently sent invites to his boat for a summer excursion, Earnhardt Miller cautiously asked if it would be family oriented for her oldest teenage daughter to attend.

“He was like, ‘Everything is family friendly from here on out!’ ” Earnhardt Miller said with a laugh. “OK, now I don’t have to ask anymore.”

It’s benefited his JR Motorsports’ Xfinity Series sponsors, too, as Dale Jr. and his wife, Amy, have helped marketed family products for Suave and Dove.

Marriage also earned him a deal with QALO, a silicon ring company. When the announcement was made on social media, a Twitter troll asked in a (since-deleted) tweet what he was becoming.

Earnhardt replied, “A husband and a father.”


There’s still time to be a husband, a father and a sports fan, though, and Earnhardt has made the most of NBC Sports Group’s reach.

Since January, he has filed reports or made on-air appearances at the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics and the Stanley Cup. If not for his niece’s high school graduation, he’d have watched Justify win the Belmont Stakes in person.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller met with HMS executives during the grand opening of Whiskey River at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Beyond promoting NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR coverage, the network exposure also helps Earnhardt keep his sponsors happy (he retained Nationwide and Goodyear from NASCAR).

“We weren’t after the deal that paid us the most, we were after the deal that kept us the most relevant,” said Davis, one of Earnhardt’s chief lieutenants for more than 12 years. “That’s the beauty of the NBC deal: Find me another way in which you go to the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics. That’s incredible for us.

“Relevancy is what we’re after, and that’s why this is awesome. The businesses of Dale Jr. thrive based off that. That’s the top of the pyramid.”

On a much lesser scale, the DIY show (which has drawn solid social media buzz) is another example of “staying in the conversation.” Envisioned originally as a path to defraying the costs of an expensive Key West house renovation, the financial return wasn’t as expected for a major time commitment (Dale and Amy spent most of their off days doing shoots during the second half of last year).

“We ended up breaking even on it,” Earnhardt said. “We couldn’t get deals on the parts and pieces and wood and lumber and things like that, so we ended up paying for that ourselves. Basically it was just to do the TV show to keep partners happy like Nationwide and Goodyear, you have to be relevant. That’s part of being on NBC broadcasts is to be out there. Because if you don’t, you’re out of sight, out of mind.”

The project also is indicative of how ideas get generated by Earnhardt’s brand team, which was reorganized about 18 months ago and meets weekly on big-picture ideas. Earnhardt Miller’s friendship with an HGTV producer (from a show long ago about her passion for scrapbooking) helped spur “Renovation Realities.”

As the leader of the family oriented company (Earnhardt’s aunt, Cathy, has run his retail store for years, and his mother, an uncle and cousins also work at JRM), Earnhardt Miller has been the final say on her brother’s business directions for nearly two decades, and the dynamics seem to be working well enough to impress WME, which also counts Novak Djokovic, Draymond Green, Lewis Hamilton, LeBron James, Cam Newton and Serena Williams among its clients.

“As agents, you often times get involved with a major star and make a determination of, ‘OK, who’s really good on their team, and who are we going to educate and have honest conversations with someone who doesn’t have your best interest in mind,’” Perry said. “When you look at his core team. Kelley could be the chairwoman and CEO of any company, racing or otherwise, in the country. We were most impressed that these were not just really good men and women in the racing world, he had exceptional people, a very tight-knit group all rowing the boat in the same direction.”

But the cues now also are coming frequently from Dale Jr., who is “a lot more involved, collaborative and interested,” Kelley said. “Before it was just tell him what you were doing and tell him when to show up.”

Letarte, who will be reunited with Earnhardt as an NBC co-worker after guiding him as his crew chief from 2011-14, said Earnhardt is more calculating than some realize with his business acumen.

“Dale is one of those guys who has a very original brand because it’s who he is,” Letarte said. “He doesn’t try to be anybody but himself. I think that makes him very comfortable to be his brand because it’s not make believe; what you see is what you get.

“With that said, the success and reach of the brand isn’t by just dumb luck. I think he’s way smarter than that. I don’t know if they’re all his strategies or if he’s smart enough to surround himself with people and empower people to spread his brand. I think Dale has a vision, more than anything, of surrounding himself with smart people believing in their vision.”

Dale Jr. laughs when asked about what kind of businessman he is.

“Shoot, I don’t know,” he said before a long pause. “I like to have success. Just like you do on the racetrack. I think it’s real similar as far as I’m competitive. I hate losing. I like to be the best at whatever business we’re doing, whatever we’re trying to accomplish. You want to win.”

That was driven home two months ago when he was the featured speaker for a Chevrolet dealership convention in Las Vegas.

“They entertained the top 250 managers from the top 250 dealerships across the country, and we’re not there,” Earnhardt said. “I want to be there.”

How close is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet to being there? Earnhardt, who visits the Tallahassee showrooms at least twice annually to support his staffs, shrugged as he hops out of a van and heads for a door leading to the Whiskey River grand opening.

“That’s a good question, and I just know we weren’t there,” he said. “We should be. And our dealership does great. I try to see everybody, show my appreciation and come across as appreciative to the people doing the work.

“But you got to win. You’ve got to want to win — and kick some ass and everything.”

Tune into NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Rutledge Wood will be joined by Kyle Petty and AJ Allmendinger.

In addition to discussing this weekend’s second race of the playoffs at Richmond Raceway, the guys will be taking your calls at 844-NASCAR-NBC or reach out on Twitter via #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch 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.

Ryan: Can Kyle Busch find a happy place with less horsepower?

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Kyle Busch clearly has a problem with slower cars.

We don’t mean those that got in his way Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver angrily challenged and questioned the racing acumen and credentials of Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase.

No, it’s the speed in his own No. 18 Toyota that seems to have left Busch miffed many times during a season of too much discontent for the mercurial superstar.

It’s been almost a year since the die was cast on perhaps the most controversial competition decision during Busch’s 15 seasons of racing on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

The move in 2019 to a lower horsepower, higher downforce package (i.e., slower and more stable cars with 550 hp on big speedways and 750 on shorter tracks) – a sudden reversal after years of heading mostly in the opposite direction – initially wasn’t met well within the ranks, and Busch was among many big-name drivers who voiced staunch opposition.

A case can be made that a reason behind the dissolution of the Drivers Council was its inefficacy in blunting the momentum for adopting a rules configuration that inherently affects the ability to harness a 3,400-pound stock with first-class hand-eye coordination and throttle control.

But the public grumbling gradually has subsided this season. Many stopped swimming against the strong tide, choosing to focus on their teams’ results or simply swallow their pride and accept the new rules.

The most notable resistance remained from Busch, the driver who arguably has had the most success with the 2019 rules package as anyone.

It’s somewhat remarkable that Busch, the regular-season champion who entered the playoffs with four wins and a 45-point cushion that likely will carry him to the title round at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the fifth consecutive year, would be the most high-profile remaining holdout on buying into the package, which mostly was aimed at producing closer racing at 1.5-mile tracks such as Vegas (and at least seems to achieve that on restarts, more on that below).

But it’s also perfectly understandable in the context of Busch wanting to maximize a skillset tailored to outdrive anyone when the challenge is taming stock cars that aren’t glued to the pavement as much as they are in 2019.

When Busch pouts (as he did after Vegas) that it’s impossible to pass at any track anymore (mostly because of aerodynamic turbulence for a trailing car), he is both wrong (in that winning teammate Martin Truex Jr. proved Sunday that you still can gain positions) and right (in that Busch can’t advance through the field using the same manhandling style he once did).

That makes it doubly frustrating for an already emotionally charged personality who can fly off the handle even faster than he drives.

“Kyle is just plain and simple unhappy,” analyst Jeff Burton said in the NASCAR on NBC Splash & Go weekly feature Tuesday (video above). “He wants to race a certain way, and that’s not the way we’re racing. He’s going to have to find a way to get above it. He’s going to have to find a way to focus on performance and championships and do the things that he is so good at.

“I think Kyle has convinced himself that the things he’s so good at he can no longer do, but I’ve watched from the best seat in the house every week, and people do pass and people do find a way to make things happen, but they do it differently than two years ago. I feel bad for him because he is a hell of a race car driver. He wants to drive the thing a certain way, but that’s just not how it’s going to be. He’s going to have to find a way to embrace it, but it’s obviously hard for him to do.”

This is immaterial, by the way, to how Busch carried himself with his infamous truculence as he faced a barrage of questions (mostly fair and well-stated, by the way) after Sunday’s race.

Like Tony Stewart and A.J. Foyt before him (and Smoke’s unhappiness in 2004, when he clashed often with officials and peers, is reminiscent of the current situation for Rowdy), churlishness is a byproduct of Busch’s greatness … and for some fans, it’s also part of his appeal. Even if he were completely happy with the racing, there always will be regrettable moments in the media bullpen after a race that breaks badly for Busch.

It’s his essence, and it’s unfair to ask him to be someone else, especially when the biggest casualties of his combativeness are reporters’ feelings.

On the scale of bad behavior across professional sports, Busch has been a relative choirboy.

Should he be more cognizant that postrace interviews are as much about serving fans as the media (which often is the conduit to Rowdy Nation)?

Perhaps, but if he wants to be that way and can live with potential consequences (whether the ire of series officials or sponsors), he shouldn’t be asked to change by NASCAR and a fan base that wants its drivers candid and colorful.

Busch meets those standards better than any current star (in the right mood, his interviews are articulate, insightful and steeped in history). His issues with the package aren’t about his personality or how it’s impacted.

The much bigger concern is how the dissatisfaction with 550 horsepower affects his performance behind the wheel. From when he hit the wall in the opening laps while apparently pushing the envelope after starting 20th, Busch was the weak link in the No. 18 team at Las Vegas (as Steve Letarte said on the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast).

That rarely happens with Busch, an elite talent who probably could have become a champion in any series he chose to race anywhere in the world.

But it has been true too many times this season as the 2015 series champion has seemed a victim of distracted driving on a semi-regular basis. He hit the wall with the fastest car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway two months ago and also seemed way off his game at Watkins Glen International with errors in the Xfinity and Cup races. On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Kyle Petty and Letarte said Busch’s problems with the lapped cars at Vegas were self-induced.

Drivers make mistakes, but these have been uncharacteristic for Busch, who is 13 races and more than three months removed from his most recent win.

There’s a NASCAR saying that drivers sometimes need to slow down in order to go faster.

But asking Kyle Busch to celebrate driving at medium instead of maximum power seems sacrilege.

It’s no wonder he’s struggling with it.


Chase Elliott’s move to slow down and help Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron under caution on Lap 181 was legal, but it came some risk and raises some interesting questions, as NASCAR on NBC analysts Letarte and Jeff Burton (above) explained.

After spinning in Turn 4, Byron was able to enter the pits immediately to change his flat left-side tires. But he stayed on the lead lap only because Elliott eased off the accelerator while leading and allowed the No. 24 Chevrolet to exit the pits ahead of the No. 9.

Though slowing to at least 200 feet behind the pace car, Elliott hadn’t been picked up yet as the leader under the yellow flag. Joey Logano, running second, actually accelerated past Elliot just past the finish line.

Though Burton advocated Logano speeding up even earlier to put greater pressure on NASCAR to make a call on whether Elliott was maintaining reasonable speed as the leader, NASCAR officials later relayed to Burton that Elliott would have remained in first even if Logano had made a more demonstrable challenge (because Elliott would have been ruled to be using a “cautious pace” to catch up to the pace car.

Still, NASCAR has penalized leaders for failure to maintain reasonable speed under yellow (notably Marcos Ambrose stalling on a hill at Sonoma Raceway in June 2010). And if Byron hadn’t been a teammate, or if it had been later in the playoffs, Elliott might have been on the pace car’s rear bumper to ensure trapping him a lap down.

“Chase Elliott has the ability to set that cautious pace,” Letarte said on the new playoff edition of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Did he set it to save William Byron a lap? Absolutely.

“I see a teammate playing nicer earlier in the playoff than perhaps we would have seen. If Hendrick Motorsports was dominant with 15 or 18 wins, I think Chase doesn’t care about (Byron) and tries to pin him because he sees him as (a threat). It shows perhaps Hendrick in their struggles, their relationship has been galvanized where they’re looking out for one another.”


Daniel, we hardly knew yet, but it’s fairly obvious what is coming next.

Ever since team owner Richard Childress essentially volunteered that Tyler Reddick was destined for a Cup ride during a July 30 interview, it was clear that Daniel Hemric was in trouble during a disappointing rookie season at Richard Childress Racing. Asked a few days later about Childress’ comments, Hemric seemed less than certain about his future at the team.

It also isn’t clear if the Kannapolis, North Carolina, native will remain in Cup, though there are a few lesser rides that could come open.

Hemric is unlikely to be considered for a potential top-flight opening next season, and the only vacancy likely would be at Stewart-Haas Racing, which has yet to confirm Clint Bowyer or Daniel Suarez as returning and probably would move in Cole Custer if either leaves. Things seem to be trending well for Bowyer, who won his first pole position in 12 years after making the playoffs and was ebullient in Vegas until his 25th place finish.

Suarez also ran well before finishing 20th after contact with Joey Logano, qualifying second and leading 29 laps. But he said he had no timeframe for learning if he would return to SHR for a second year. The past two seasons, the team has waited until the offseason to hire its No. 41 Ford driver.

“We’ll still working on a couple of things,” Suarez said of 2020. “We have some good opportunities sponsorship-wise. There are some good things coming, but you never know. This sport is extremely unpredictable. We’ll just have to take one day at a time.”

Though making the playoffs would have helped, Suarez believes he can make up for it with a  victory: “The past is the past. We can’t change that. What we can change is we have 10 more weeks to keep improving. We have nothing in our heads but to get wins. If we are able to make it to victory lane this year, I won’t even think about the playoffs. Who cares about the playoffs if we can make it to victory lane? If we win one of the next 10, believe me, nobody will remember that we didn’t make the playoffs.”


Also unsure of his status for next year is Ross Chastain, who is focused on trying to win a truck championship with team owner Al Niece.

“I got nothing” for next year, Chastain said last week. “No one is calling now to put me in a fast Cup car. I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon. I’m racing my butt off trying to be the best I can be. I’ve got so much opportunity now.  I’ve got more races on the Xfinity side to compete and run up front. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I’m making my living, paying my bills by driving race cars as fast as I can. And I’m driving for multiple people, and they all want me to drive.”

Chastain has maintained a working relationship at Chip Ganassi Racing despite losing an Xfinity ride with the team because of an offseason sponsor pullout. He said his job for now in Cup when he races for underfunded Premium Motorsports is “to not make the news or crash the car. Even if I don’t crash, getting in someone’s way or being in the leader’s way coming down to the end or hitting someone on pit road. All that stuff you think it’s easy, but it’s so hard to be a slow car. It’s hard. I learned a lot in doing it, and it helps when I get in something that’s fast.”


When the first NASCAR Playoff Media Day without Jimmie Johnson happened, the seven-time series champion took steps to ensure he avoided it.

Johnson shifted the days of a mountain bike trip to Bentonville, Arkansas, to try to forget being sidelined from championship contention with 10 races remaining for the first time in his 18 Cup seasons. Though hitting the trails helped, he couldn’t avoid seeing glimpses of the 16 playoff drivers making the rounds in Las Vegas when he opened social media last Thursday.

“Not being there, it stung,” Johnson said. “It’s probably good that it stung. It’s been a nice gut check for me. I should be part of that. I want to be part of that. All those things are there. In a weird way, I was glad to see the 16 drivers and all that went along with that.”

The goal the rest of the season for Johnson, who turned 44 Tuesday two days after an 11th at Vegas, is to end a two-year winless drought.

“We just have to put a stake in the ground that we’ve got to win,” he said. “We just need to see progress at a rapid pace in the right direction. We were making progress, but the sport evolves, the team evolves, and we need to take big chunks out of that gap. That’s ultimately what we need to do. If we continue to take chunks out of the gap as we have, we’ll ultimately be back in victory lane.

“It hurts not being in the playoffs. It really bothers me, but at the end of the day, it’s good to have that effect on me. I didn’t enjoy it. I’m mad I’m not in the playoffs. I’m going to use that as fuel to push us through and get us back to where we need to be.”


For this observer, Las Vegas offered the chance to watch the 550 horsepower package from a fresh vantage point. Here were a few modest observations from the 1.5-mile speedway’s frontstretch press box near the start-finish line:

–The term “Insane Restarts” (or crazy, or even psychotic, if you prefer) gets tossed around so much it probably should be trademarked, but the first few laps after every green flag are breathtaking – better than a classic restrictor-plate race at Daytona or Talladega, really.

–Five laps or so after the restart, though, the racing looked like it has for the bulk of 1.5-mile tracks for the last 25 years.

–If you’re looking, you can find passing throughout the field … just not necessarily at the point.

When Las Vegas Motor Speedway made its Cup debut on March 1, 1998 (a race also covered by this writer), it was met with mixed reviews before a sellout crowd of more than 120,000 that had been promised “insane” five-wide racing for three hours. Instead, the fans saw largely a snoozefest won by Mark Martin in which Fords took 13 of the top 15 spots and the yellow flew only twice (both for single-car spins).

Sunday’s race was much better and memorable than the debut 21 years ago, but when viewed through the prism of NASCAR’s incessant tinkering to enhance 1.5-mile racing, it loses luster. Witness the recent ranking in journalist Jeff Gluck’s poll.

Las Vegas was a crucial marker in the development of the 550 hp package because of a January test that produced spectacularly tight racing and raised hopes that this season’s races might replicate it for two to three hours at a time.

It hasn’t and probably for myriad reasons. Tests rarely simulate real-world conditions with the necessary accuracy, and teams have spent so much time developing car builds since then (and through the different routes of gaining downforce or lessening drag), that there’s likely much more disparity between drivers.

As discussed on the new NASCAR on NBC Podcast, though, the conclusion here is that three straight hours of “Insane Restarts” probably would be too much of a good thing anyway.

Short of adding more mandatory cautions to guarantee re-racking the field (that’s not a suggestion, by the way), there probably is little more that can be done to enhance racing at the ubiquitous multipurpose speedways that began littering the Cup schedule in the mid to late 1990s.

If NASCAR wants more slam-bang tight racing that is true to its roots, the solution is much simpler: Run more short tracks instead of trying to retrofit 1.5-mile ovals that always will produce a brand of racing regardless of what is done to the cars.


After qualifying Morgan Shepherd’s car in ninth with a lap for the “Qualifying Hall of Fame” (according to NASCAR on NBC broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr.), will Landon Cassill start more Xfinity races for Shepherd, who seems to be winding down his driving career?

“I’ll let him dictate that,” Cassill said of Shepherd, who turns 78 next month. “I talk to him a lot, and he’s very mindful of his future and what he wants to build. I think me driving and having some speed in his car has been a part of it. He could see himself as a car owner someday probably.”

Cassill, who made 20 laps at Vegas and finished 36th for Shepherd, also posted top-20 qualifying efforts in the No. 89 Chevrolet at Charlotte (13th) and Michigan (16th). The relationship with Shepherd began when Cassill qualified the car 24th in the 2018 season finale after it lacked speed to make the race in practice.

“He called me the hour before qualifying and asked me to hop in,” said Cassill, who was introduced to Shepherd by Xfinity team owner Johnny Davis. “Ever since then, built a relationship and a lot of trust in each other, and he’s asked me to drive it whenever I’m available.

“It definitely makes me feel good to run that well. The experience really helps me a lot and running both (Cup and Xfinity) helps a lot. The speed in his car for Morgan is encouraging. He’s trying to envision what he’s doing for the future. I think having that speed in his car can draw attention to sponsors and putting forth a full-time effort.”


Next season, Las Vegas Motor Speedway will move from opening the playoffs the past two years to opening the second round.

Though the Sept. 27 race will be nearly two weeks later and likely in cooler weather, it’s expected the track will keep the 7 p.m. ET starting time. Out of the oppressive early afternoon heat, the grandstands seemed less empty than then 2018 race, which started shortly at 3 p.m. ET.

Richard Childress to drive car Dale Earnhardt won last race in at ‘Dega

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Richard Childress will once again climb behind the wheel of a race car – but it won’t be just any race car and it won’t be at just any race track.

Childress announced Wednesday that he will pace the field prior to the start of the Oct. 13 Cup playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, driving one of the most renowned cars in the sport: the same No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo that the late Dale Earnhardt drove to the 76th and final win of his Cup career nearly 19 years earlier in the Winston 500 at Talladega on Oct. 15, 2000.

Dale Earnhardt celebrates his 76th and final Cup win at Talladega in 2000. Photo: Getty Images.

Earnhardt’s roar to the checkered flag is one of the more memorable moments in NASCAR history, going from 18th to first place in the final four laps, beating Kenny Wallace to the finish line by .119 of a second for a Talladega track record 10th career Cup win.

“Dale is a part of the history of this place,” Childress said. “He loved Talladega because it was so wide, you could move around, and I’ve seen him do things here with a race car that you don’t even think about … fitting in some of the holes. And if there wasn’t room, he would kind of make a hole.”

Talladega president Grant Lynch initially reached out to Childress, who this year is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Richard Childress Racing, to want to do something special to commemorate the special day.

Grant Lynch called me and says, ‘What do you think about bringing Dale’s car down here that he won the race with in 2000?’” Childress said during a press conference at the track. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ But how do you say no to your best friend on something like this. So I said, ‘alright, I’ll do it.’

We’re going to be running that car leading the field, which is going to be a great honor. That car hasn’t been out of our museum since we opened the doors of it, so this will be the first time we took it down, put it on the shop floor, got it all fixed, got the engine running – same engine that he had in the car that day. It’s the exact car just like the day when it left the winner’s circle here. That’s going to be the coolest thing. It gives me cold chills just thinking about it.”

Childress then joked, “I asked my guys could I run it 200 mph.”

Talladega was where Childress made his first career Cup start as a race car driver on Sept. 14, 1969. He finished 23rd in a 36-driver field. He would go on to make 285 career starts between 1969 and 1981, collecting zero wins, six top-five and 76 top-10 finishes.

 

Lynch surprised Childress with the old CRC Chemicals helmet that Childress used to wear during his own racing days before becoming solely a full-time team owner.

 

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NASCAR penalty report after Las Vegas

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NASCAR on Wednesday issued five penalties to crew chiefs in the Cup or Xfinity series following this past weekend’s racing action at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In the Cup Series, crew chiefs Greg Ives (No. 88 driven by Alex Bowman), Adam Stevens (No. 18 driven by Kyle Busch) and John Klausmeier (No. 10 driven by Aric Almirola) were each fined $10,000 apiece for lug nut(s) not properly installed, found during post-race inspection.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chiefs David Elenz (No. 9 driven by Noah Gragson) and Jeff Meendering (No. 19 driven by Brandon Jones) were each fined $5,000 apiece for lug nut(s) not properly installed, found during post-race inspection.

There were no other penalties assessed.

In addition, driver Bayley Currey was reinstated after completing NASCAR’s Road To Recovery substance abuse program.