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Rising NASCAR star Hailie Deegan: ‘I put my helmet on the same way everyone else does’

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At 17, Hailie Deegan is far from a conventional teenager.

At an age where many of her peers are learning to drive or getting a driver’s license for the first time, Deegan not only has been driving race cars and off-road vehicles for nearly a decade. She also has become one of the rising young female stars in NASCAR racing:

  • In late September, she became the first woman to win a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race (Meridian Speedway in Meridian, Idaho).
  • In so doing, she became only the second female race winner in NASCAR history, joining Shawna Robinson, who won three races in 1988 and ’89 in the now-defunct NASCAR Dash Series.
  • Deegan wrapped up the season by winning K&N Pro Series West rookie of the year, finishing fifth in the final standings.
  • Early last month, the Temecula, California, native was named to Forbes’ “Women In Sports to Watch in 2019.”

And now Deegan has her sights set on not only winning more races in 2019 but also to capture the K&N West championship. If she does, she’ll add another page to her NASCAR history book, becoming the first female champion in any NASCAR series.

“I’m not done, I still have so much more to accomplish,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “It’s like there’s a ladder, and this is the first step up the ladder.

“You don’t feel accomplished when you get that first step on the ladder. You feel accomplished when you’re on top of the ladder. I want to be on top, and I’m going to do everything in my ability to get there.”

A straight-A, home-schooled student who graduated high school at 16, Deegan begins her second full season in the K&N Series on Sunday at New Smyrna Speedway (to air on NBCSN on Feb. 13 at 6 pm ET), just a few miles from where she hopes to race one day: Daytona International Speedway.

Deegan drives for one of the most successful K&N teams, Bill McAnally Racing, with primary sponsorship from NAPA Auto Parts and Toyota.

“I don’t want to be cocky, but I want to win a championship and feel that with my team, I have the ability,” Deegan said.

When she and her team arrived last September to race at Meridian Speedway — a quarter-mile paved oval — she already had compiled two runner-up results and seven other top-10 finishes in her first 11 starts (she finished the K&N West season with 12 top 10s in 14 starts).

But she was hungry for that elusive first win.

“We just really had to find what worked for me, what crew guys worked well with me, and who didn’t,” Deegan said. “I think we figured that out halfway through the season, and from that point, we were running in the top three or top five almost every single race.”

Deegan and her team felt so confident about the Idaho race that they broke into song and dance beforehand to the driver’s favorite song, Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”, to get pumped up.

It’s a habit she picked up from her motorcycle and off-road racer father Brian Deegan, who also listens to music to motivate himself before his own races. One of Hailie’s crew members brought a portable speaker to continue playing the song as the team paraded and pushed her car onto the starting grid.

Deegan started fourth and stayed in the top five the entire race. On the final lap, she applied a textbook bump and run to then-teammate Cole Rouse two turns from the finish line. She sailed past to capture the checkered flag and put her name in NASCAR’s history books.

The winning maneuver was not happenstance.

“We went into that race with aggressive intentions,” Brian Deegan said. “We knew it was a short track, flat, so we went to the go-kart track and practiced bump and runs. We must have practiced 1,000 of them.

“It’s a fair race move. You just have to perfect it so you don’t knock a guy out. We went into that race and planned to do that move. When it came down to the last lap, I was like, ‘Hailie, you know what to do. We can make friends later.’”

While Rouse was initially upset at being knocked out of the way, he soon cheered for such a big achievement.

Derek Kraus, one of Deegan’s fellow teammates at Bill McAnally Racing, is also 17 and entering his third year in K&N competition with BMR. He’s watched her develop.

“She shows a lot on the racetrack,” Kraus said. “She adapted to it really well and really fast, too. It takes other drivers a little longer than what it took her to get used to K&N cars. It’s way different from what people expect. It’s a heavier stock car. You definitely have to know what you’re doing. She’s worked her tail off to get where she is.”

Kraus, of Stratford, Wisconsin, admires Deegan not just for her ability on the track but also her demeanor off it.

“She always seems to be in a happy mood and is uplifting,” Kraus said. “She’s never down, no matter how bad the night is or what happens on the racetrack. I think I’ve only seen her mad just once, and that’s pretty good for a whole season. She’s a good teammate to have around because she’s always happy and laughing.”

Kraus noted that it doesn’t make a difference that Deegan is female. Once she straps into her car, she’s a racer first and foremost.

“Her being a girl or being my age, once you put that helmet on, everyone’s the same, everyone’s equal,” Kraus said. “No matter if you’re driving against a 15-year-old or a 40-year-old, you’ll never know the difference once you get that helmet on.”

Deegan got the racing bug from her father, one of the most successful freestyle motocross riders in the United States and the most decorated rider in X Games history.

“My dad has pretty much taught me, he’s built this thing with me, he trains with me, practices with me, goes to the gym with me, we battle each other at the go-kart track,” Deegan said. “We’re so competitive with each other, and I feel like we both make each other better because we’re so hard on each other, just trying to be the best we can.”

Brian and Marissa Deegan have three children who all have become racers. Hailie is the oldest, while 12-year-old brother Haiden is a multiple champion in motocross, and 8-year-old brother Hudson is competing in both motocross and karts.

But it’s Hailie that has been the biggest chip off the old block racing-wise so far.

“I tried to teach her all my tricks and everything it takes to win and the ability to learn on her own,” Brian Deegan said. “My goal is one day (she) will surpass me.

“Hailie rode dirt bikes when she was little, which I thought was a good foundation for her to start on. But when it comes to girls in motorsports, in my opinion, the reality is there’s a lot more opportunities on four wheels than two.

“So (racing cars) is something we worked towards. It’s not by accident. Ever since she was 8 years old, she’s been racing with me. About 2009, we got her into racing trucks and go-karts, dirt, off-road karts. Each year, she got better. Then she started winning races and started winning championships, and it started snowballing from there.”

By the time she was 12 years old, Hailie told her parents she was ready to go all-in as a race car driver.

“That’s when I thought this is going to be her path,” Brian Deegan said. “It really wasn’t just our decision, it was something she wanted to do, and that’s kind of where it started.

“We’re excited to conquer this sport as a family and win the fans over. Hailie is what you see is what you get. She’s not putting on a front. She’s giggly, fun, no bad bones in her body. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say a bad word. We’re very fortunate.”

Deegan is serious about everything she does racing-wise. That includes how she revels in beating her father in regular go-kart races they compete in against each other – with a lot of good-natured trash talking between them.

“We go and have the gnarliest battles out there; we’ve actually totaled a couple karts,” she said with a giggle.

Brian Deegan also laughs about some of the on-track battles he’s had with his daughter.

“Usually, that’s where you start blaming the cars or tires, the kind of standard excuse by racers,” Brian Deegan said. “You can always find an excuse. We definitely talk crap to each other and give each other a hard time on who’s faster. That’s friendly competition, it’s what keeps you pushing to be better.

“Every day, we talk about racing. Every day, we talk about strategy. Why (and) how we’re going to win, who we’re going to beat and how are we going to do it. That’s a daily deal that we’ve done.”

It’s not every day that a lower-rung NASCAR race can be life-changing, but it certainly was in Hailie Deegan’s case. Not only did her victory in Idaho affirm that she could win a race, the national attention she’s received since might be a lot for a 17-year-old — but not her.

“At the beginning of last year, I was just completely lost,” she said. “I didn’t really know what I’m doing. I’m still learning. I didn’t know where my place is in the stock car world. I was just lost. I didn’t know the terms about the car, didn’t know what to change, and then about halfway through the season, it just clicked, and everything just fell into place.

“Ever since then, we started running up front every single race. Coming into this year, I feel a lot more confident in myself. I know I have the abilities. I know my place. I know what to do now. I know what to work on, and I know my strengths and weaknesses.

“As soon as last season ended, I was ready for it to start back up again. I’d say, ‘How many more months to go?’ I’ve literally been counting the days. I hate the offseason.”

In just a few days, she’ll be back in the driver’s seat at New Smyrna.

Much like what her teammate Kraus said, Deegan’s competitiveness rises to the surface in races. But outside her race car, she has not let the success get to her.

“There’s nothing I hate more than an over-cocky person,” she said. “I have friends that’ll be all cocky and then go out and get their butt whooped. They’re the worst.

“I don’t try to call stuff before it happens, because in the end, it’s not always going to happen. I’d rather be humble and wait for myself to succeed and then take it all in from there.”

While Deegan wants to win a championship, she remains grounded. Her maturity, savviness and philosophy belie her youth.

“My dad has kept me real good at just focusing on racing,” she said. “In the end, success comes with results, and you’ll get everything with results, so let’s just make it easy and get right to the point and get those results.”

Deegan achieved all her goals last season. For 2019, she hopes to earn at least three more K&N West wins and one in the K&N East Series (in which she will run select races), along with the West championship.

Where would she go from there?

“The best is yet to come,” Brian Deegan said of his daughter. “We’re just starting. We’re just getting in it. She has a legitimate chance of being the first girl to win a NASCAR championship, and that could happen this year.”

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Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth to start at rear at Kentucky

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Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth each will start at the rear in Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway after their cars failed pre-race inspection twice.

Truex was to have started ninth. Kenseth was to have started 17th in the 38-car field.

Truex has won two of the last three races at Kentucky. Kenseth is coming off a runner-up finish last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky: Start time, lineup and more

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The final 10-race stretch of the regular season begins for the Cup Series Sunday at Kentucky Speedway.

After years of mostly only racing under the lights there, the series will race in the daytime.

Can Kyle Busch, who starts from the pole, earn his first Cup win of 2020?

Here’s all the info you need for Sunday’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START:  The command to start engines is at 2:43 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:54 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 2:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 2:35 p.m by Darrell and Stevie Waltrip. The national anthem will be performed at 2:36 p.m. by Robert Randolph.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400.5 miles) around the 1.5-mile speedway.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 25

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 1:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms with a high of 79 degrees and a 58% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Kevin Harvick beat Matt Kenseth to win the Brickyard 400.

LAST RACE AT KENTUCKY: Kurt Busch defeated younger brother Kyle Busch for the win.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Front Row Motorsports reaching new heights without practice

NASCAR to team: Address “complacency” toward COVID-19 protocols

Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’m smarter, stronger’ after COVID-19 episode

Stage is set for Cup teams in race for points

Glow in the dark: Cup cars get new look for All-Star Race

Here is what upcoming NASCAR Cup races fans can attend

NASCAR reveals schedule through end of Cup regular season

Harvick takes hot streak to Kentucky, one of his last winless tracks

Power Rankings after Indianapolis: Kevin Harvick back to No. 1

Zach Price, Ryan Blaney’s injured tire changer, to miss Kentucky

 

Racing community mourns driver killed after crash at Langley Speedway

Photo: Mark Wertz
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Shawn Balluzzo, an 11-time track champion at Langley Speedway, died after a crash in a modified race Saturday night, the track confirmed. Balluzzo was 64.

Balluzzo, who won 16 of the Hampton, Virginia track’s 17 modified races in 2019, died after his car went over the hood of another and hit the Turn 2 wall at about 70 mph, according to The Virginian-Pilot. The newspaper reported that safety personnel cut the roof of Balluzzo’s car off to extricate him.

Saturday’s twin modified races were the first of the season for that series at the track. Belluzzo finished second in the opening race.

Balluzzo and his daughter Bryce were featured last year by WAVY TV 10, which chronicled Bryce’s battle with leukemia.

 

Tributes to Shawn Balluzzo were abundant Sunday morning and came from throughout the racing community.

 

Cole Custer ready for encore of first career Cup top-5 finish

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Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway will be a night and day difference.

In recent years, the Cup race at the 1.5-mile Sparta, Kentucky track has primarily been a nighttime affair. Teams have compiled big notebooks of data from racing under the lights.

That won’t be the case Sunday, as the green flag is slated to drop at 2:54 p.m. ET.

While this will be his first career Cup start at Kentucky, rookie Cole Custer is no stranger to the track, having won last summer’s Xfinity race there – and scored consecutive fifth-place finishes in the two preceding races in 2017 and 2018.

“It’s something that you definitely see a difference in the track, I feel like, when it’s day and when it goes to night,” Custer said in a media teleconference. “So trying to figure out how you want to adjust your car to kind of a slicker track is gonna be pretty important.

“And also the biggest difference is we don’t have all the practice sessions before the race to work in the track. You saw that Thursday night with the Xfinity race, there was dust all over. The bottom lane was not worked in very well, so it’s gonna take a little while for that bottom lane to work in. We’re gonna see how worked in it is by the time we get to our race.

“There’s a lot of differences, honestly, but, at the same time it’s still the same track. It’s a really edgy racetrack because it’s new pavement, it’s a repave, so the tires are a little bit harder. The track takes a little bit of time to get worked in and you have that PJ1 (traction compound), so you’re able to take things from the Xfinity car – what lines kind of worked there and how it changed throughout the weekend – so basic characteristics with the track you’re able to kind of carry over. But at the same time, the feel in the car is completely different and how you work traffic and things like that.”

Custer enters Sunday’s race ranked 25th in the Cup standings, the lowest position of the four major drivers in this year’s Cup rookie class (Tyler Reddick is 18th, John Hunter Nemechek is 22nd and Christopher Bell is 24th).

“There’s definitely been a lot of learning, for sure,” Custer said. “Obviously, these cars are a lot different than what the Xfinity cars were, so trying to wrap your head around that and figure out how to effect every little thing, whether it’s passing or restarts or how to work traffic or pit road, just anything about it, you’re trying to make sure you’re getting 100 percent out of it.

“It’s always going to be challenging being a rookie, but at the same time it’s probably been a little bit more challenging this year because you don’t have practice, we didn’t have rookie testing, and these cars are a big difference from the Xfinity Series. It’s hard to do that without the practice time.

“I think it pushes all of us to be better because we all want to compete against each other and make sure we’re not falling behind too much. I think it’s just a matter of you still have to focus on yourself most of the time. If you’re focused on other people, you’re not gonna be making yourself better and working on your own problems. But at the same time it does push you to make sure you’re pushing yourself as much as you can.”

Custer is coming off his first top-five finish of the season at Indianapolis last weekend. He  has just one other top 10 in the first 16 races.

Still, Custer’s finish at Indy, which included pushing Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick to the win, leaves Custer optimistic heading into this weekend.

“At that point, my best shot was to push Kevin and that might have got me in a better position to try and maybe make a move to try to win the race also,” Custer said. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking. I mean, you’re coming to that line and you’re like, ‘I’ve got to do this right. This is important right here. We need this.’

“So I’ve been in those situations before where you’ve got to push people if you’re running up front in the Xfinity cars or the Truck Series or whatever it is, so you have experience doing that kind of stuff, but doing it at this level puts that much more pressure on it and you’re at the Brickyard 400 so you want to make it happen. It was definitely nerve-wracking, but it was something that we were able to kind of control those nerves and make sure that we do our jobs right.

“Now I feel like we’re at a good point where we’re putting it all together and get close to affect all those little things. But you have to do it on a consistent basis and I think we’re gaining on that.”

The driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang has his work cut out for himself Sunday, starting 29th.

“I feel like I’ve already spent hours trying to figure that out,” Custer quipped. “It’s definitely gonna be a tough race.

“It looks like it’s gonna be a really dominant top lane kind of race, so that makes it a little bit tough to pass. But at the same time, the track is gonna be changing throughout the whole weekend, so it’s hard to tell exactly what our race is gonna be like yet.

“You’re trying to work through all the different possibilities in your mind of what our race might look like. But overall I feel like it’s gonna be a track position race. You’re gonna want to try to get towards the front on restarts and on pit road, and from there you’re just trying to run a solid race without having mistakes.”

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