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Josh Wise is Chip Ganassi Racing’s human optimizer

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At some point in the past two years Josh Wise had to say it out loud.

He wasn’t a professional race car driver anymore.

But what is he now?

“Man, I don’t know. I struggle with titles,” Wise says while sitting in a conference room at Chip Ganassi Racing’s shop.

It turns out the 35-year-old Wise is the driver performance manager for CGR’s NASCAR operations. That’s a vague title covering the work Wise has done “optimizing humans” for the team over the last two years and that now stretches to drivers like Noah Gragson and Brett Moffitt.

But Wise has other titles that tell the story of how he became a man who molds the eating, workout and driving habits of NASCAR drivers.

Former Professional Race Car Driver

Wise concedes the end of his NASCAR career, which lasted 10 years and 318 starts, was “not very romantic” compared to Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

His last start came on Nov. 6, 2016 in the Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway. Driving the No. 30 Chevrolet for The Motorsports Group, he started and finished last. His car was parked after 257 of 293 laps due to an electrical issue.

Josh Wise during his final season in the Cup Series in 2016. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“I was really tired of racing the way that I was having to race,” Wise says of the time, which capped off a two-year stretch of dissatisfaction. “I grew up racing with just a tremendous amount of passion and love for the sport.

“The thing that I enjoyed about it was being able to push myself to limits beyond what I thought I was capable of. The position I was in as a race car driver at that point in my career wasn’t that … It just wasn’t that fun anymore.”

Wise now finds himself dedicated to a job that’s led him to say no to offers to race.

“I’ve actually turned them down because I haven’t wanted to blur the lines between wanting to be a race car driver anymore and doing what I’m doing now,” Wise says. “I really have no desire to be a race car driver anymore.”

But he had to say it out loud.

“I think at that point I told my wife (Ashley), I was like, ‘Hey, I’m done,’ ” Wise says. “She kind of knows when I draw a pretty distinct line when I say things like that. I have a bit of a switch I flip in my mind and I’m able to focus on another direction pretty efficiently.”

Iron Man

The path to Wise letting go of his racing identity began roughly a decade ago when he took part in his first Iron Man competition.

At the time, Wise was not the poster boy for driver fitness.

“I was amazed because I was a guy who had never run more than three miles in my life,” Wise says. “I had started cycling. I didn’t know how to swim. The first time I swam in a pool I didn’t make it across the pool one time before I had to stop.”

He began training himself to swim 2.5 miles, bike 112 miles and run a marathon without a break. He qualified for and competed in the Iron Man World championships in Zell am See-Kaprun, Austria, in 2015 with Landon Cassill.

During this period, Wise found himself consulted by other drivers for fitness advice. Wise trained with Jimmie Johnson, helped Trevor Bayne prepare for his own Iron Man event and worked with Erik Jones, who was racing in Xfinity at the time.

Wise became “fascinated” with the human body, its adaptability, the “fitness benchmarks” and “sensory demands” it needs to handle to process information and make decisions.

As he sought answers, the door to Wise’s future opened at the track where he made his last start. Walking through the garage at Texas Motor Speedway, he ran into Max Jones, CGR’s managing director of NASCAR operations and an acquaintance.

Wise told Jones about what he was pursuing. Jones then invited him to make a presentation to the team.

“I really just presented my philosophy and my foundation for what I was doing already and what I had hoped to build and what I thought I could bring to the table for their drivers,” Wise said. “We basically had made a commitment by the time I walked out of the room.”

Human Optimizer

Wise entered the 2018-19 offseason after two years with Ganassi.

Two seasons of controlling the exercise routines, diets and race prep for drivers.

Two years of “optimizing humans.”

That optimization helped result in four Cup wins for Kyle Larson and 11 wins in the Xfinity Series from five different drivers: Larson, Ross Chastain, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman.

What has Wise subjected his drivers to?

Food

Let’s start with trips to the grocery store.

“If there’s something in packages, I tell them no more than five ingredients and you better be able understand what every ingredient is in there,” says Wise. “Other than that, it’s all fruits, vegetables and meats as close to coming right off the animal as we can get them.”

That includes making farm-to-table restaurants a frequent destination for Ganassi teams on the road.

According to Nemechek – who has documented that he’s willing to eat grass –  one food Wise has imparted on his drivers is avocado on toast with jelly.

“That’s probably a pretty weird one,” Wise says. “It’ll blow your mind, but a good kind of whole grain toast with avocado and strawberry jelly is one of the tastiest, odd things that most people would ever try. Other than that, it just depends on what they’ve been exposed to. There’s some things that maybe I don’t what to share that I have them try that are a little bit unorthodox.”

Chastain, who was set to drive for Ganassi in the Xfinity Series in 2019 before that operation closed due to lack of sponsorship, described how Wise encourages his drivers to introduce themselves to an unusual eating pallet.

“(Wise says to) pretend you’re in the forest, and you’re going to eat all this stuff that you find and then you’re going to eat some salmon,” Chastain says. “There’s blueberries and strawberries and spinach and all this stuff and kale. Me being a (watermelon) farmer, (I ask) ‘What forest are you in? This is some enchanted forest and I want to go there and grow watermelons there because it sounds like anything can grow there.’ ”

Exercise

Among the Ganassi drivers, “everybody’s different” when it comes to a Wise-directed workout regimen.

“It’s a combination of my opinion on where they’re at in a certain area, their opinion on where they’re at in a certain area, what type of time constraints we have, what types of goals we have, what performance is showing we need,” Wise says. “Because in the end we’ve got to create on-track performance.”

He used Larson as an example on where opinions and scheduling come in to play.

“While I might think that Kyle needs to work out more, Kyle’s racing sprint cars all summer and Kyle needs to focus on recovery and Kyle needs to focus on watching video,” Wise says. “So to take resources away from that to say ‘you’ve got to run 6 miles,’ you can easily let ego make things counter productive.”

One driver who is willing to run 6 miles – and then some – is Nemechek.

Nemechek, who will compete for GMS Racing in 2019, frequently documents his running habits on social media.

In early December, he and Wise “felt guilty” after McMurray took part in a marathon.

Their solution? Run 16 miles through a very cold Davidson, North Carolina.

“Sixteen miles might be a little bit over the top,” Nemechek told Fox Sports. “But it takes about two hours to run if you’re really digging. Our races are normally, two, two-and-half-hours. … Granted it was cold, so that really didn’t help the fundamental of being hot in a race car, but still the endurance aspect is really huge.”

Eye Tracking

Reaction time is everything in auto racing, with drivers having to navigate close quarters and avoid accidents in a blink-of-an-eye.

Wise wants to help slow things down for drivers and Ganassi’s pit crews.

He used a driving simulator to highlight the significance of a driver’s vision.

“I could turn off the sound and they could go out and they could probably run a lap time,” Wise says. “Then I could turn the sound on and they’ll probably go run about the same lap time. I could turn off the feel in the steering wheel and they’ll probably go run the same lap time.”

But once you start tinkering with a driver’s visual inputs, “You’re not going to make a lap,” Wise says.

With this in mind, Wise turned to eye tracking.

Eye tracking involves a digital board that lights up with green and red dots. You touch the green dots and avoid the red ones.

The program is a product of Tobii Pro.

Tobii Pro

There are physical exercises that are also done in relation to eye tracking.

“One set would consist of something at a computer which takes a minute or two minutes and then you go and do a physical activity,” McMurray said in early 2018. “They’re not like normal exercises. You get tired and you do it again. It’s interesting. It’s hard. It’s very mind exhausting. It’s one of those things (where) you’re exhausted when it’s over and you haven’t done anything.”

McMurray, who was the oldest driver under Ganassi’s NASCAR umbrella last year at 42, actually found the eye tracking reassuring.

“I was concerned about that because I was the oldest,” McMurray said. “It just so happened that I happened to have the best eyes of all the group as far as just the typical eye chart. But there were some things that Kyle was really good at that I wasn’t at. There were some things Tyler was good at. Everyone had strengths. It was kind of good to see what are your weaknesses.”

Wise emphasizes that everything from a “decision-making and application standpoint” for a driver comes from “visual inputs.”

“All the other things are really supplementing that foundation,” Wise says. “The better that I can make them see, the better I can help them make decisions based on vision, the better the foundation they have as an athlete.”

Student-Teacher

Anyone who pays attention to Chip Ganassi’s personal Twitter account knows he likes winners.

Whether it’s with Josh Wise and Jamie McMurray in NASCAR or Dario Franchitti in IndyCar, Ganassi puts a premium on experienced drivers remaining involved in his race teams.

In 2018, that included six Xfinity Series wins and a fifth IndyCar championship with Scott Dixon.

“I think anytime you have guys that are current in the sport it’s an opportunity,” Ganassi said. “That is what guys like Josh or Dario or Jamie can bring.

“They are the most current guys that are maybe not driving for one reason or another and that is something that is invaluable in a team organization. You are constantly building this book of information and you are constantly tapping this book of knowledge or building it. You have another head in the room. It doesn’t have to be much, just one little piece of advice or one little tidbit of information can be invaluable on a race weekend.”

Wise has no intention of becoming stagnant in his one-man quest for human optimization. He plans to complete an online degree in specialized sports psychology from Capella University in the spring or summer.

“Just checking the boxes on meeting the needs for these athletes. It’s all I care about, really,” Wise says. “I want to be someone that I wish I had when I was doing this.”

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

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

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, that is correct.

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

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

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

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3. Nashville momentum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

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

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

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5. Pit road woes

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

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

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

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

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

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

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

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

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

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

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Chase Elliott wins Cup Most Popular Driver award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott was selected as the NMPA Most Popular Driver in a fan vote announced during Thursday’s NASCAR Awards show.

It is the second consecutive victory for Elliott in the category.

“Honored to have two,” Elliott said on stage. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

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

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

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

The last driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt to win this award was Darrell Waltrip in 1990.

Other award winners included:

The Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not given every year, was presented to car owner Joe Gibbs for his signifiant contribution to the sport.

The NMPA Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contribution to the sport was presented to Darrell Waltrip.

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award is Joe Vaughn, who has volunteered for nearly two decades, raising both awareness and funds on behalf of the Project HOPE Foundation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifespan of services to the autism community to help families, open minds, promote inclusion and expand potential.