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Mike Wells set to direct final NASCAR race for NBC Sports

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For the last four Labor Day weekends, each visit to Darlington Raceway on “Throwback Weekend” has been a trip down memory lane for NASCAR.

Especially for the man who has helped oversee packaging and presenting some of the most indelible images in stock-car racing over the past four decades.

“During the (Southern 500) broadcasts, we play back historic races of Darlington, and I’m going, ‘Oh yup, I did that one, and yeah, I did that one,’” Mike Wells, who is in his 38th season of directing NASCAR races, said recently with a chuckle. “One of the most memorable races – and there’s a number of them – but Bill Elliott was the first one to get the Winston Million and I directed that one, and that was a pretty cool thing. There’s just so many different ones, quite frankly.”

Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway on NBC will mark the last chance for the 21-time Emmy Award winner to leave his stamp on creating NASCAR memories as he closes a run that began in 1981 at Rockingham Speedway.

Wells said he has lost precise count of how many hundreds of races he has directed since then, but he estimates snapping his fingers – his signature method of calling for a camera change – several hundred thousand times in production trucks at racetracks around the country.

That distinct rhythm will move to another racing circuit next year as NBC Sports takes over full coverage of the IndyCar Series, and Wells directs the Indianapolis 500 and other select races.

“Mike’s contributions to NBC Sports and NASCAR during the past 37 seasons have been immeasurable,” said Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports. “His legacy as an Emmy Award-winning director and innovator in the sport is second only to his reputation as a tremendous teammate, leader and mentor to so many who have had the privilege of working with him.

“While it’s bittersweet for this to be Mike’s final NASCAR race for us, we can’t think of a better person to direct NBC’s inaugural Indy 500 in 2019.”

Fittingly, Talladega has been the site for much of Wells’ most memorable race direction in NASCAR.

He was selecting the camera angles for the May 4, 1986 race that began with a fan stealing the pace car. Wells was in the production truck a year later at Talladega when rookie Davey Allison scored his first Cup victory and was congratulated in victory lane by his father, Bobby, whose car had flown into the frontstretch catchfence earlier in the race and caused nearly a 3-hour delay (NASCAR instituted restrictor plates the following season).

Wells also was at Talladega to frame the Oct. 15, 2000 dash by Dale Earnhardt from 18th to first in the final five laps of the last victory of his career.

The Nov. 15, 1992 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway – which marked Alan Kulwicki winning the championship in the final race of Richard Petty and the debut of Jeff Gordon – also was directed by Wells.

“Again, it was just really special to be a part of that whole thing,” said Wells, who also takes pride in directing the first Daytona 500 win, Brickyard 400 victory and championship for Jimmie Johnson during the ’06 season. He also worked Johnson’s seventh championship in the Nov. 20, 2016 season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway.

Wells said it’s tough to pick a favorite track, but he can recall many of their special moments, such as Tony Stewart’s July 2, 2005 win at Daytona International Speedway.

“He climbed up in the flagstand, and we had a camera there, and the fireworks were going off behind him,” Wells said. “My job is to capture the moments, and that was a moment.”

Raised in Milwaukee (where his house was a few miles from a speedway, and he could hear the cars on weekends), Wells’ introduction to race direction came at Eldora Speedway in 1980 when he spent time with track founder Earl Baltes during a camera survey.

“That’s kind of how I really got interested in racing, and a year later, I’m doing NASCAR,” said Wells, who was hired by NASCAR Hall of Famer Ken Squier to direct his first race. “It was pretty cool.”

Technology has changed markedly in the interim with Wells chuckling as he recalls team members once helping carry the cables on handheld cameras used to cover pit stops (they are now wireless).

Back then, just the cable for a camera was four times the size, and quite frankly, you were limited by the length of the cable or you started losing picture,” Wells said. “So now you can go an indefinite amount of miles because of the fiber. That’s probably one of the biggest technical achievements. Certainly the in-car cameras and the robocams and the BatCams, those kind of things, really are huge. It was tough getting in and out of the pit area with them tied to a cable.”

In the past two seasons, Wells also has been pleased by the positive impact on race production by the addition of stages “because you’re guaranteed restarts and now you actually get less green-flag commercials because those commercials are built in during the caution. So the fan at home actually gets to see more green-flag racing than they would have in the past.”

While he largely is responsible for what fans see as a race director, Wells constantly credits his co-workers for the quality of the broadcasts that typically involve a crew of more than 100 people.

He recently was touched when a former longtime camera operator on his crew drove from Phoenix to Las Vegas last month just to visit for an evening with Wells before he directed his last playoff opener.

“You just can’t beat that,” Wells said. “It’s such a close-knit family anyway. I keep saying we’re like a traveling gypsy show, and we are. You just feel so proud that someone would take the time to do that.”

You can hear Wells recount his career during a 2016 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast by listening below or via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or Google Play.

Five can’t-miss NASCAR Cup races in 2019 beyond Daytona 500

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We’re 32 days out from the biggest NASCAR event of the season in the Daytona 500, a race of such importance that needs no explanation.

But what else is there to look forward to?

There are 35 other Cup points races this season and they’re not all created equal.

Here are five races to pay closer attention to this season.

– Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on Feb. 24 on Fox)

The second Cup race of the season will probably have its biggest spotlight in recent memory when the 1.5-mile track is the first to host the 2019 rules package.

Derived from the 2018 All-Star Race package, it includes a tapered spacer and is intended to provide closer racing. Cars will run 550 horsepower at all tracks 1.33 miles and larger, which includes Atlanta. At tracks less than 1.33 miles, cars will have 750 horsepower.

Combine the hopeful intent behind the package and a rough track surface that’s being kept in place by the “most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C.,” and you have no excuse to not tune in and see what happens.

Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on June 30 on NBCSN)

The race that marks the start of NBC’s portion of the NASCAR schedule set an incredible precedent in 2018. The 1.5-mile track debuted in its new spot on the schedule with Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch’s dramatic last-lap battle and Busch’s win.

Was it a result of the drivers involved? The hot Chicagoland surface? Lapped traffic?

Yes.

Can it be topped?

We can only hope.

Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on Aug. 4 on NBCSN)

From the green flag last year, the Cup race on the New York road course was a barn burner, ending with a duel between Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. that resulted in Elliott’s first Cup win as Truex ran out of gas.

Races on the road course have had increasingly memorable finishes over the last seven years (beginning in 2012 with Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose). WGI shows no sign of providing a snoozer in the near future, especially as long as pit strategy is involved.

Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 29 on NBC)

The final lap of last season’s inaugural Cup race on the Charlotte Roval  had enough drama for three races on the new road course.

From Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson‘s contact in the final turn giving Ryan Blaney the win; Kyle Larson hitting the wall twice and passing a stalled car at the checkered flag to advance in the playoffs; and Aric Almirola passing enough cars to advance himself.

Do teams have the oval-road course hybrid figured out after one year? It’ll be fun to watch that question answered.

First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Oct. 27 on NBCSN)

We’re starting to run out of fingers to use to list memorable events in Martinsville’s recent history of hosting a playoff race.

You could argue it started with Dale Earnhardt Jr. banging doors with Tony Stewart to win his only Martinsville clock in 2014.

Since then?

We’ve seen Matt Kenseth’s retaliation against Joey Logano in 2015, which resulted in Jeff Gordon’s final Cup win.

Two years later, Denny Hamlin wrecked Elliott from the lead near the end of regulation. Kyle Busch then won in overtime as Martinsville’s version of “The Big One” unfolded. Afterward, an angry Elliott confronted Hamlin on the track as fans filled the air with cheers and boos.

Last year Truex and Logano provided a thrilling battle over the last six laps. Logano performed the bump-and-run on Truex in the final turn to win the battle in the “damn war” (which Logano also won in Miami).

 

New NASCAR Cup team owners invest in minor league hockey team

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You might say that the newest NASCAR Cup team owner is now in a Rush.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which recently purchased the Cup charter of former NASCAR championship team Furniture Row Racing, has branched out, taking a minority ownership share in the Rapid City (South Dakota) Rush of the 27-team East Coast Hockey League.

Spire co-founders Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr will become active minority partners in the Rush, hoping to bring the team back to past prominence.

“We aren’t going to be saviors here,” Spire co-founder Jeff Dickerson said in a press conference at the team’s Rushmore Plaza Civic Center home. “There’s no magic bullet. It’s going to take all of us to create the culture that builds excitement and value. The city loves the Rush and we hope to get it back to where it was.”

Rush majority owner, Rapid City businessman Scott Mueller, sees better days ahead for his club.

“The biggest thing is (Spire’s) sports industry knowledge,” Mueller said, according to the Rapid City Journal. “It’s about putting people in seats, selling advertising and they have a lot of knowledge on that. (Dickerson) sees so many venues, and I think he’s going to be involved in changes that are needed.

“We’ve taken some steps in the last few months. These are great days for us, and we’re really excited about our future.”

The Rush is mired in sixth place in the ECHL’s seven-team Mountain Division.

In addition to purchasing Furniture Row Racing’s charter, Spire represents several race car drivers including NASCAR’s Kyle Larson, Landon Cassill, Ross Chastain, Justin Haley, Todd Gilliland, Garrett Smithley and Vinnie Miller and IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe.

Spire isn’t the only NASCAR Cup team owner involved in other sports. Roush Fenway Racing’s co-owner John Henry owns Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool Football Club of soccer’s Premier League, while Chip Ganassi previously was a minority owner in MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates. Felix Sabates, who also holds a minority ownership stake in Chip Ganassi Racing, is also a minority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

“We have been looking for several years to find something in minor league sports and see if what we do in motorsports translates to this space,” Puchyr said, according to The Journal. “Our due diligence indicates that it does.”

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Richard Petty Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports announce crew chief changes

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Bubba Wallace will have a new crew chief in 2019 with Drew Blickensderfer leaving to take the same position with Front Row Motorsports.

Richard Petty Motorsports said in a statement it will announce a new crew chief “at the appropriate time.” Meanwhile competition director Philippe Lopez will lead the No. 43 team’s efforts to prepare for the season.

Wallace finished the 2018 season 28th in points. He earned three top 10s, including second place in the Daytona 500.

Blickensderfer, who was with RPM since 2012, heads to Front Row Motorsports, which announced its crew chief lineup Wednesday.

Blickensderfer will be paired with Michael McDowell on the No. 34 Ford. Blickensderfer replaces Derrick Finley, who will serve as FRM’s technical director.

Mike Kelley joins FRM to crew chief rookie Matt Tifft and the No. 36 Ford. Kelley was previously with Roush Fenway Racing where he was crew chief on the No. 60 Xfinity car. Kelley is a two-time Xfinity champion, winning with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2011 and 2012.

Seth Barbour will return for his second full season as crew chief on David Ragan‘s No. 38 Ford. He joined the team in the middle of the 2017 season as a crew chief for Landon Cassill.

The crew chief moves come as the team recently announced it had moved shop locations.

 

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Kyle Larson wins preliminary event at Chili Bowl

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Kyle Larson won the A feature Tuesday night to advance to Saturday night’s A main at the Chili Bowl Nationals. It was his fifth preliminary event win at the Chili Bowl. Zach Daum finished second.

Larson took the lead on Lap 6 of the 25-lap feature and went on to the win.

MORE: Tuesday night race results from Chili Bowl

MORE: Monday night race results from Chili Bowl

“We’ll move on to Saturday and try to be better,” Larson said in the press conference afterward.

NBCSN broadcaster Dillon Welch finished seventh in the 24-car field. Alex Bowman placed ninth. Tanner Berryhill, who will be a Cup rookie this season, was 10th.

The Chili Bowl continues the rest of the week, culminating with Saturday night’s main event.

JJ Yeley, Landon Cassill and Rico Abreu are among the drivers scheduled to race Wednesday night at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, event.

Thursday’s racing will include two-time defending winner Christopher Bell, Justin Allgaier and Karsyn Elledge, daughter of Kelley Earnhardt Miller. Kasey Kahne and Tanner Thorson are among those scheduled to race Friday.

Thorson won Tuesday night’s Race of Champions. Larson was second, Bell placed third and Yeley was fifth in that event.