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Long: Kasey Kahne’s exit robs NASCAR fans of one last cheer for their driver

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The end was coming. Kasey Kahne foretold that when he said in August this would be his last full-time season in NASCAR.

But Tuesday’s announcement that Kahne has not been medically cleared to run the rest of the Cup season ends a career that began with such allure and promise that some of his memorabilia had to be flown in from overseas to satisfy demand.

A career that should be celebrated ends muted and abbreviated. His time in NASCAR will be recalled as not working out the way it was supposed to — from the courtroom drama over where he would race in Cup as a rookie to near-misses on the track, changing rides, being lent to a team and his departure from the series.

It has been quite a journey.

Even before he competed in his first Cup race, two manufacturers signed him. A federal court settled the matter.  He could drive for Ray Evernham’s Dodge team

When Kahne finished second in two of his first three Cup races in 2004 (he lost at Rockingham to Matt Kenseth by one-hundredth of a second), his popularity soared. Crowds left little in his souvenir hauler. One company flew his die-cast cars from China — instead of shipping them by boat.

With penetrating blue eyes, he became one of NASCAR’s heartthrobs. Kahne was selected to People magazine’s “America’s Top 50 Bachelors” at the height of NASCAR’s popularity in the mid-2000s and had women fawn over him in those Allstate commercials.

His support grew as he came close to winning but didn’t his rookie season. Newer fans might call that a Kyle Larson-type season, noting how close Larson came to winning as a rookie without doing so.

Kahne scored his first Cup win in May 2005 at Richmond. He held off Tony Stewart in the closing laps, a point Stewart noted when he congratulated Kahne.

“I just told Kasey that down the road when they talk about his first win that I got the honor of being the guy they mentioned that he had to race for the win,” Stewart said that night.

The victories came more often. Kahne won a season-high six races in 2006, including the Coca-Cola 600 for the first of three times.

He was so popular that he replaced Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Budweiser’s driver after Earnhardt moved from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. While Kahne did not have the party reputation Earnhardt had, Kahne’s youth and good looks matched the image Budweiser sought to promote.

Kahne’s win at Sonoma in 2009 for Richard Petty Motorsports marked Petty’s first time in Victory Lane as an owner in a decade.

Kahne had so much promise that car owner Rick Hendrick signed him in 2010 even though Hendrick did not have a ride available until the 2012 season. Kahne spent that in-between year with Red Bull Racing and won a race.

In his first season at Hendrick, Kahne finished a career-high fourth in the standings. It would be the high point of his six years there. Kahne won six races for the organization, including last year’s Brickyard 400 that ended a 102-race winless streak.

“I’m going to treasure this forever,’’ Kahne told NBC Sports after the win.

But that race foreshadowed the problems that plagued Kahne this season. Kahne battled severe cramping and went to the infield care center for IV fluids before he completed his duties as winner that day.

Those issues worsened this year. Darlington proved almost too much. Kahne said “it was really hard to keep my eyes open and see” during the last 100 laps of the Southern 500 as he battled extreme dehydration. 

“I was trying to control my heart rate because it was so high,” he said. “I basically just kind of laid in the car and drove around the corners. At that point all I’m doing is focusing on my body and my health, not on what I should be actually focusing on, and that’s racing.”

He tested last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway and in less than two hours of track time could not ease doctor concerns he’d be well enough to run any Cup race this year.

So, any farewell fans wished to have these final weeks of the season will have to take place on social media or a dirt track where Kahne will race his sprint car.

That might be the best place to appreciate Kahne — back in the type of racing that led him to NASCAR, his car sliding through the corners with a rooster tail of dirt trailing.

Tyler Reddick gears up for Xfinity title defense in new territory

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Tyler Reddick wishes he had been able to be more “selfish” with his offseason.

Over the last two months, Reddick didn’t have much time to dwell on anything – past or future.

He claimed his unlikely Xfinity Series championship Nov. 17 in Miami. The following weeks were filled by a trip to Universal Studios and driving to Bloomington, Illinois, and Nashville, Tennessee, for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Between the holidays, the 23-year-old’s championship was recognized in Charlotte at the Xfinity Banquet.

After putting roughly 10,000 miles on a brand new Chevy truck in less than two months, Reddick was taken out of commission for two weeks thanks to a tonsillectomy.

“With everything thrown together, I lost track of time,” Reddick told NBC Sports.

The offseason whirlwind didn’t leave him much time to contemplate what lays ahead in 2019 – being the first Xfinity champion to return to the series to try and defend his title since Chase Elliott in 2015 after winning in 2014.

But Reddick will have to do it under vastly different circumstances from last year.

New Team

When Reddick hoisted his title trophy in Miami, it was as the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports.

But just a few weeks earlier his move to Richard Childress Racing in 2019 – where he’ll drive the No. 2 Chevrolet – was made official.

Reddick now calls RCR’s campus in Welcome, North Carolina, his professional home.

When Reddick made his first trip to RCR’s campus he was taken aback by the vastness of the team’s campus.

In addition to RCR’s Cup and Xfinity programs, the campus is home to the RCR Museum, Richard Petty Motorsports, Kaulig Racing and the newly arrived Germain Racing.

“I’ve been involved in NASCAR, I can see what’s going on and what not, right?” Reddick said. “But I had no idea they had so many buildings. It’s just insanity.”

The primary reason behind Reddick moving to his third Xfinity team in three years? He was thinking ahead.

Tyler Reddick drives his No. 31 Chevrolet during Daytona 500 practice. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“It just looked like the avenue to get to the Cup Series with a more clear path than it was at JR Motorsports,” Reddick said. “That was the bulk of it. I got along great with (crew chief) Dave (Elenz) and my whole team. I loved them. I think they loved me as well.”

That foresight paid off quickly, with Reddick set to compete in Sunday’s Daytona 500. His first Cup start will come in RCR’s No. 31 Chevrolet. He’ll start 39th after finishing 13th in his qualifying race on Thursday.

But there are other reasons Reddick likes RCR.

“The thing that makes me feel really good is Richard just has a lot of involvement in everything that goes on,” Reddick said. “Honestly, he’s the decision maker. It’s his business. A lot of these team owners and what have you that are in NASCAR have other business that have been successful. Richard, like a couple of others, not many, Richard and Chip (Ganassi) are the two that come to mind that make their living, their bread and butter is racing. So they take it very seriously and spend a lot of time around it. For me that’s important.”

No (Official) Full-Time Teammates

A year ago Reddick was able to claim three full-time teammates, all who were 10 or more years older than him.

Now he’s technically alone.

RCR will field one full-time Xfinity car in 2019, with Reddick at the helm of the No. 2.

That’s two years after RCR fielded five cars. Last year, the team ran Daniel Hemric and Matt Tifft full-time and various drivers part-time in the No. 3.

But thanks to RCR’s many partners in its technical alliance, Reddick will have the equivalent of a teammate.

Reddick’s offseason was so chaotic he had to ask NBC Sports if Kaulig Racing had officially announced Justin Haley as the driver of its No. 11 Chevrolet.

“In all seriousness, he’s going to be like my teammate,” Reddick said after being told it was official. “Even though it’s not under the RCR banner … we’re still going to be sharing everything.”

Haley, 19, enters his rookie season in Xfinity. He’s made 50 starts in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series since 2015 and earned three wins last year. He also made three Xfinity Series starts with GMS Racing.

But the move to being essentially a one-car operation makes the No. 2 a “nimble” team in the eyes of the man who leads it.

New Crew Chief

Somehow, some way Reddick made it to the end of the 2018 season with Dave Elenz as his crew chief.

“I think any other crew chief in the garage would have pulled out his hair and quit on me halfway through the year but Dave wouldn’t do it,” Reddick said. “He believed in me, more so than anybody else did in the entire garage and that’s what held us together last year and got us to Homestead.”

After Reddick’s win at Daytona last year, the No. 9 team finished in the top five just twice in the next 22 races.

Their struggles stemmed partly from a difficulty to communicate when it came to diagnosing issues on the JRM cars, which were significantly different from what he drove in 2017 at Ganassi.

Reddick took the blame, saying he wasn’t consistent enough in what he conveyed to Elenz.

“Dave was at a huge disadvantage because at the time the Chip Ganassi Racing cars drove night and day different than what JR Motorsports cars did,” Reddick said.” I feel like in the sim (simulator), the Richard Childress Racing cars and JR Motorsports cars are a little bit closer together.”

Reddick says his Ganassi experience is part of the reason he’s connected so quickly with his new crew chief, Randall Burnett.

Burnett was crew chief on the No. 2 in 2018 when it was driven by Tifft. This will be Burnett’s third season as a crew chief for RCR after two years spent in Cup working with AJ Allmendinger.

Before that, Burnett spent 10 years as an engineer at Ganassi. That tenure included working “hand-in-hand” with crew chief Mike Shiplett to build its Xfinity team, which won 14 races from 2016-18 before shutting down due to a lack of sponsorship.

“I think we’ve got a lot of common ground with our racing background, growing up racing go karts and mini-outlaw karts and this, that and the other,” Burnett said. “I think we’ve just got a lot of common ground that we kind of relate to one another and are able to communicate really well so far.”

Burnett has a history of working with a multitude of drivers in a short amount of time. In 2017 he worked with four drivers, including the final five races with Hemric during his run to the Championship 4.

“I feel like I’ve kind of got a pretty good checklist of things to learn relatively quick so I can hit the ground running with a new driver,” Burnett said.

Without any time at a track in the last two months, the duo has adapted to each other through time at the team shop, talking on the phone and in the simulator.

“That’s been a huge benefit too, trying to learn how his language is about the car’s terms that he uses,” Burnett said of the simulator time with Reddick. “Like his scaling. How loose and tight the car is on a 1-10 scaling and how big of an adjustment I need to be able to make based on that scaling.”

Compared to other drivers he’s worked with, including Hemric, Paul Menard, Ben Kennedy and Allmendinger, Burnett describes Reddick as being more “laid back” and in the form of Kyle Larson.

“Kind of not too hands-on in the car setup stuff,” Burnett said. “Just kind of tells you, ‘Hey, it’s doing this.’ Where Daniel Hemric was kind of on the other extreme of that, he’s very in-tune, building his own race cars and everything. Tyler’s kind of on the opposite end. He’s like, ‘You do your job, I’m just going to tell you what it’s doing and you all fix it.'”

‘Do It Better’

With his title defense Reddick joins Christopher Bell, who won a rookie record seven races in 2018, in having a target on his back.

But Reddick says he feels less stress entering his title defense than he did last year.

“I feel like the weight is off my shoulders,” Reddick said. “I know that I can do it again, I just want to do it better than the first time. Winning a title is really cool and it’s great, but it wasn’t a perfect year. Everyone talks about they want to have a perfect year, they want to win every game they play and they want to win the Super Bowl at the end of the season. It’s very hard to do, but I want to strive more towards perfection.”

Simply, he wants to “be more like Christopher Bell” last year, even though he proved you don’t have to be to win the title. No matter how he does it, if Reddick pulls off back-to-back titles, he’d be the first Xfinity driver to do so since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2011-12.

“We can easily, if we execute properly and be smart and kind of play to our strengths, I think we should be able to have a year like Christopher Bell put together,” Reddick said.

Kyle Busch, JGR teammates take four of seven fastest spots in first of two Cup practices

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Kyle Busch led a Joe Gibbs Racing juggernaut in Friday’s first of two NASCAR Cup practices at Daytona International Speedway.

Busch paced the 40-car field with a top speed of 200.285 mph, followed by JGR teammates Martin Truex Jr. (200.200) in second, Erik Jones in fourth (200.156) and Denny Hamlin was seventh-fastest (200.044). Ryan Preece was third-fastest in a Chevrolet at 200.169 mph, while Ryan Newman rounded out the top five at 200.093 mph.

Click here for the full practice speed chart.

The second Cup practice session of the day is scheduled later this afternoon at 3:05-3:55 p.m. ET.

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Chase Briscoe fastest in first of two Xfinity practices at Daytona

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Chase Briscoe turned in the fastest speed (196.455 mph) in the first of Friday’s two NASCAR Xfinity Series practices at Daytona International Speedway.

Defending Daytona Xfinity race winner Tyler Reddick was second-fastest (196.344 mph), followed by John Hunter Nemechek (196.202), Ross Chastain (196.002) and Justin Haley 195.135.

Click here for full results of the first practice.

Today’s second and final Xfinity practice runs from 2:05 – 2:55 p.m. ET.

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Kyle Busch Motorsports adds Canadian teen for three Truck races

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Kyle Busch Motorsports has a long history of developing young drivers such as Erik Jones and Christopher Bell.

Now, KBM has gone north of the border for its latest addition to the fold, 17-year-old Canadian teenager Raphael Lessard.

Lessard, a native of Saint Joseph de Beauce, Quebec, is slated to drive the No. 46 Toyota Tundra in three Gander Outdoors Truck Series races for KBM this season: Martinsville (March 23), Dover (May 3) and Bristol (August 15). He turns 18 in July.

“Driving for KBM I will be assured of having one of the best vehicles in the Truck Series and that will allow me to go for the win every time out,” Lessard said in a media release. “KBM is a team of winners, and I intend to take full advantage of the great situation I find myself in.”

Raphael Lessard (Photo: Kyle Busch Motorsports)

The move to Trucks is a promotion for Lessard, who competed for KBM’s Super Late Model Program in 2018. He captured two wins: the Short Track U.S. Nationals at Bristol last May, and the Red Bud 400 ARCA/CRA Super Series race at Anderson (Indiana) Speedway last July.

In 16 combined starts for KBM last season, Lessard recorded two wins, three poles, seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 2018 across the CARS Super Late Model Tour, the Southern Super Series and the ARCA/CRA Super Series.

“Raphael was really fast in our Super Late Models last season and added a couple of marquee wins to KBM’s resume,” team owner and NASCAR Cup driver Kyle Busch said in a media release. “We expect that he’ll be able to step right in and be competitive as he makes the jump to the next level.”

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