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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.

NASCAR America: Dale Jr. Download with Mike Helton, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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On today’s Dale Jr. Download, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, Dale Earnhardt Jr. welcomes NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton.

Earnhardt has known Helton his whole life, and while the two consider each other good friends, Junior told one story where that friendship was tested a bit. 

Here’s a brief segment of what Junior had to say about Helton:

You can be an incredible friend, but the funny thing is when you need to chew somebody’s ass, you can get that done, too. There was one time you had to get after me pretty hard at Bristol Motor Speedway. … We had a car explode a brake rotor on the race track and threw brake parts all over the place.

There was about 15 laps to go and we were running under caution. Typically, NASCAR red flags the race and I was wanting them to do that, but they didn’t. I don’t see the brake stuff, everything’s great, I’m raising hell. This was in the Bud days. Tony (Eury) Sr. was on the radio and I think he was encouraging me a little bit. Our spotter came over and said they want you and Tony Sr. to come to the truck after the race. I stopped talking immediately.

That’s when I learned that Mike Helton and the guys in the booth listen to the drivers and I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, they heard me.’ … We go up in the hauler and me and Tony Sr. still feel like we’re in the right and that we’re going to tell ‘em this and tell ‘em that, and that we’re going in there thinking we’re going to tell Helton and he’s going to say ‘you’re right, we should have red-flagged the race.’

As soon as Helton’s head comes into the door jamb, Tony Sr. and I both started pleading our case. And Mike Helton said, ‘Both of y’all hush. Y’all aren’t going to talk, I’m going to talk.’ You were so mad, so angry, and when I realized how mad you were, I was so disappointed in myself for disappointing and angering him. … I realized now what I had done.’”

Tune in to hear the rest of the story on the Dale Jr. Download (the above portion starts around 51:00).

And then stick around for the following show, IndyCar Live, from Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 6-6:30 pm ET with Kevin Lee.

If you can’t catch either of today’s shows 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.

Missouri’s Lucas Oil Speedway heavily damaged by possible tornado

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Severe storms barreled through south central Missouri on Monday night, causing a number of injuries and heavy damage to the area, including significant damage to Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, about two hours southeast of Kansas City.

According to a media release from track officials, “The storm moved into the area shortly before midnight and damaged several buildings, destroyed the grandstands at the off-road track and also damaged some of the grandstands at the dirt track. There also was damage in the campground and debris was scattered throughout the facility. Several vehicles on-site were toppled, including some campers that had arrived for the weekend.”

There were several injuries reported at the RV park located nearby. Investigators were trying to determine if the storm actually spawned a tornado that caused the damage.

The storms left the track without power and forced officials to cancel this weekend’s Lucas Oil Show-Me 100, one of the its biggest races of the year.

Lucas Oil Speedway general manager Danny Lorton said in the media release that this weekend’s racing – which is considered part of the “Crown Jewel of dirt Late Models” – would be rescheduled at a future date. Lorton said the earliest some announcement may be made is Tuesday.

Also in the media release, track racing operations director Dan Robinson noted, “Our first thoughts are for the people of the Wheatland community and the area and we are thankful that there were no fatalities. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who were affected.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. opens up on why he hid his smoking and how he quit

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For the first 15 years or so of his high-profile NASCAR career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a secret that he kept from fans, media and sponsors.

But most importantly he kept it from his father.

There had been times that Dale Earnhardt had entered his son’s house unannounced and seen the ashtrays full of cigarette butts.

And while his mother, uncle and grandparents also indulged in smoking, Earnhardt’s seven-time champion father didn’t, nor did he approve of it.

“When I was a kid, everyone seemed to be smoking except for dad for whatever reason. He just never did,” Earnhardt Jr. told NBCSports.com in a phone interview Tuesday morning during a round of media appearances in which he spoke about his former habit in-depth publicly for the first time. “He knew I did, and I never, ever would have let him see me holding a cigarette. He hated it. We never had a conversation about it. He might have said a few times, ‘You need to effing quit that.’ Or something like that real short.

“I know that was something that extremely disappointed him.”

Ultimately, it was another family member who helped Earnhardt Jr. snap the habit about eight years ago.

Earnhardt’s wife, Amy, put up with his smoking the first few months after they began dating.

“I was trying to quit and tried a couple of times and failed, and it was so disappointing for her,” he said. “Eventually she said to me, ‘Look man, are you really going to get this done? Are you really going to eventually quit?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know if I can.’ And she goes well, ‘Honestly, that could be a dealbreaker for me.’ And I said, ‘Damn, really?’

“She said, ‘Yeah, if you’re not sure, and this is something that is going to be part of our relationship going forward, I just don’t know. So that was a tough conversation that had to be had, and I finally figured out how to get it out of my system when I truly wanted to quit. You have to have that conviction to do it, but it was really, really hard.”

Earnhardt, who just launched a video campaign with Nicorette to help promote its new coated ice mint lozenge that helps smokers quit, said he wanted to help be a coach on the journey for other people trying to quit.

“I figured it wasn’t a super-duper secret that I was a smoker, but maybe it might be worth exposing that little lie and secret to see if I can convince other people to quit because honestly, once I decided to quit, I didn’t realize all the things that smoking was affecting in my life,” he said. “And I was super insecure about it.

“Obviously I didn’t want anybody to know about it, but I worried about whether my car smelled, my clothes smelled, my breath smelled, and then I worried about my long-term health. I had a doctor that’s pretty straightforward, and he’s hammering on me all the time that, ‘Like, dude, you’ve got to quit.’ I seemed to get a lot of sore throats and a lot of colds more frequently than other people that weren’t smokers.

In addition to feeling much healthier, Earnhardt said it changed him for the better socially as well.

“I realized how much control (smoking) had over me,” said the NASCAR on NBC analyst, who also has been open about the impact Amy and Steve Letarte had on him getting out more. “The decisions I made every day were based around smoking. It sort of encouraged that hermit mentality that I had before me and Amy met. Where I wouldn’t go anywhere, do anything. You wouldn’t hardly see me leave the bus on a race weekend. I would shorten visits with family on holidays and just avoid activity.

“I’d just sit in the house and play video games because I could smoke. Then I realized once I got done how much that was dictating my day and predicting the choices I made every day. It was all based around my habit of smoking, and that’s pretty stupid, but it’s true.”

Earnhardt said he picked up smoking in his early 20s, just before he began running in the Xfinity Series, while being around friends who did it.

He hid the vice in public because of the worries about his persona (which already had been associated in his youth with wild partying at the “Club E” makeshift nightclub in his basement). While NASCAR also was affiliated with tobacco through having R.J. Reynolds as the title sponsor of its top series for more than 30 years, Earnhardt said there was a “negative stigma that was building” about smoking when he took it up.

“It wasn’t popular, cool or trendy,” he said. “I wasn’t so much worried about sponsors as just worried about disappointing people. I just tried not to really push it in front of anyone’s face. I wouldn’t walk up and down pit road holding a cigarette. I just thought that would be a mess.

“People would be like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Get your head on straight. You’re supposed to be this race car driver,’ and I already had people questioning my focus and my determination. If I’m walking around smoking a cigarette on Saturday between practices, I’m sure that was going to just feed into that.”

Goodyear tire info for Charlotte

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NASCAR returns for its second consecutive weekend of racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway with Saturday afternoon’s Alsco 300 Xfinity race and Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600, the longest race in NASCAR.

According to this week’s Goodyear media release, “Monster Energy NASCAR Cup teams will be running the same tire set-up for the Coca-Cola 600 that they ran during All-Star weekend at Charlotte. Based on the racing last weekend, tires will be a factor. First, All-Star teams that took four tires overcame the track position of those that did not. Second, with 12 race sets of tires for NASCAR’s longest race, the pit crews will play a big part in a team’s success, and those that master all those four-tire pit stops will help their car gain valuable spots on pit road.”

Added Greg Stucker, Goodyear director of racing, “The Coca-Cola 600 is the longest race on the schedule and it is held on one of the more temperature sensitive tracks upon which we compete, as the race starts in daylight and ends at night. We saw that fresh tires mattered last weekend during the All-Star race. Four tire pit stops should be the order of the day and teams have 12 sets of tires for the 400-lap race, so the team aspect of the sport will be on full display as the pit crews will be kept busy all night.”

According to the Goodyear media release, "Goodyear will debut a special “Honor and Remember” sidewall at Charlotte: Since 2010, for one weekend per NASCAR season, Goodyear has changed the branding on the sidewall of its racing tires in a show of support for the United States military and fallen heroes. This being the 10th year of that program, the official tire supplier to NASCAR’s top three series will work with a new organization and replace the standard “Eagle” with “Honor and Remember” for both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and NASCAR Xfinity Series races.

"Honor and Remember is a national organization based out of Virginia that has a mission to “perpetually recognize the sacrifice of America’s military fallen service members and their families,” according to its website. The organization recognizes fallen military personnel from all wars or conflicts, and with those from all branches of service. They do so primarily by dedicating the specially designed Honor and Remember flag, which is intended to fly continuously as a tangible and visible reminder to all Americans of the lives lost in defense of our national freedoms."

NOTES – Cup cars on same tire set-up as All-Star weekend: Teams in both the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series will run the same tire set-up at Charlotte this week . . . this is the same combination of left- and right-side tires that Cup teams ran during All-Star weekend last week . . . for the Cup cars, this is the same right-side tire code they ran in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 and the same left-side tire they have run the last three weeks – Dover, Kansas and All-Star . . . for the Xfinity cars, this is the same right-side tire they ran on the Charlotte oval in 2018, combined with their 2019 Dover left-side tire . . . compared to what was run at Charlotte last year, this left-side features a construction update to align it with what is run at other speedways . . . this tire set-up came out of a test on the 2019 rules package that was run at Charlotte last October . . . teams (drivers) participating in that test were Richard Childress Racing (Daniel Hemric), Joe Gibbs Racing (Erik Jones), Hendrick Motorsports (William Byron) and Stewart-Haas Racing (Aric Almirola) . . . as on all NASCAR ovals greater than one mile in length, teams are required to run inner liners in all four tire positions at Charlotte . . . air pressure in those inner liners should be 12-25 psi greater than that of the outer tire.

Here’s the tire info for this weekend’s races:

Tire: Goodyear “Honor and Remember” Speedway Radials for both Cup and Xfinity

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying and 12 sets for the race; Xfinity: 7 sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side -- D-4868; Right-side – D-4736

Tire Circumference: Left-side -- 2,227 mm (87.68 in.); Right-side -- 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front -- 19 psi; Left Rear -- 19 psi; Right Front -- 52 psi; Right Rear -- 50 psi

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