Photo: Dustin Long

Kevin Harvick’s rear tire changer returns to pit road after cancer treatments

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. —  Daniel Smith stepped up to the pit wall to no fanfare. Those around Kevin Harvick’s stall focused on the cars heading toward pit road during Sunday’s Clash at Daytona instead of on the 34-year-old father of three young children.

The fans missed Smith crouch as Harvick’s car approached, then spring off the wall once the car stopped. Smith changed the right rear wheel, sprinted around the car’s rear to the left side and changed that wheel.

He was done in seconds.

Only a couple of hours earlier, the thought of doing something so common in a NASCAR race nearly brought Smith to tears.

Diagnosis

The call came the week of the Bristol night race last August, just two months after the birth of Smith’s third child.

Smith had cancer.

“Me and my wife sat on the living room floor and cried our eyes out,” he said.

Smith’s doctor couldn’t say to what extent Smith had cancer and if it had spread. More tests were needed. Smith’s mind raced.

“I just wanted to be alive to raise my kids,” said Smith, whose oldest child is 4 years old.

Rear tire changer Daniel Smith sprints during a pit stop in Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway. Photo by Dustin Long

Smith spent the day before the Bristol race undergoing scans, blood work and other tests to determine if his testicular cancer had spread.

It had.

The cancer had infected two lymph nodes in his lower abdomen and doctors also saw a spot on Smith’s lung that was concerning. The cancer was not found anywhere else.

About 24 hours later, Smith stood on the pit wall at Bristol Motor Speedway to pit Harvick’s car that night. Smith knew it could be the last time he would pit the car in a while, maybe ever.

The previous weekend Smith had been in Victory Lane after Harvick’s win at Michigan. Now Smith prepared for an uncertain future.

Recovery

Two days after the Bristol race, Smith was in surgery so doctors could remove the tumor from one of his testicles. After a few weeks to heal, chemotherapy treatments began.

Each round of treatment consisted of one week in a hospital and two weeks of recovery. Doctors ordered four rounds — 12 weeks — of this treatment.

“You can’t leave the unit,” Smith said of when he was in the hospital. “You’re hooked up either to a chemo cord or your IV all day long

Daniel Smith watches the start of Sunday’s Clash. Photo by Dustin Long

“After that first round, you don’t feel so bad. Each round, they knock you down a little bit more. You don’t get time to build all the way back up to where you were so each round got a little bit tougher.”

All the fluids made him gain weight. The chemo sapped his strength and soon his hair was falling out.

Smith soon could no longer do 10 push-up before quitting.

That was tough on the athletic Smith, who joined what was then Haas-CNC Racing in 2004 and worked his way to the pit crew. He remained with the team when it was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing and was a pit crew member on Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship team. Smith and his teammates were moved to Kevin Harvick’s team shortly before the 2014 Chase and helped Harvick win the title that year.

Smith focused on returning to the pit crew for 2019. He worked out as best he could when he was in the hospital and at home.

“It was a lot of days of just not feeling like doing anything, but I knew I needed to and just pushed myself,” he said.

Daytona

As Smith recovered, the NASCAR season continued. Harvick advanced to the Championship 4 at Miami. Smith went to that race in hopes of celebrating another title but Joey Logano won the race and the championship.

Smith’s recovery continued in the offseason as he rebuilt the strength.

After arriving at Daytona on Sunday, all that he had done to get to that day hit him.

“Just the journey,” Smith said, his voice quivering. “I get emotional now thinking about it. Everything that me and my family has gone through to get to this point and all the people that have helped us. I’ll be thinking about all those people that were so gracious to us and helped us out and being with my guys. My guys are like my brothers.

“It’s going to be me holding back tears, but they’re going to be good tears.”

One more challenge

Although Smith has returned to pit Harvick’s car, he will miss some races later this spring. Doctors want to remove the two lymph nodes that the cancer infected. The plan is to have those removed in either March or April. The operation will enhance his chances of a full recovery.

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NASCAR America Presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Kyle Busch

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This week’s episode of NASCAR America’s MotorMouths airs today from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and features 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver joins Rutledge Wood and Kyle Petty to discuss this week’s news as well as take fan phone calls.

If you can’t catch today’s show 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.

Chevrolet boss happy with three-race Cup winning streak but wants more

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Even with a three-race Cup winning streak, the head of Chevrolet’s NASCAR program wants more victories as the playoffs near.

Jim Campbell, vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet, made the comments Wednesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

In the last three races, Chevrolet has won with Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona International Speedway) and Kurt Busch (Kentucky Speedway). Until that string, Chevrolet had won only once this year with Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

Last year, Chevrolet had four Cup wins, its fewest victories in Cup since scoring three wins in 1982.

“We have really, really, I think, increased the collaboration (among Chevrolet teams) to another level, and I think we need to because we’ve got to put more wins on the board,” Campbell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The Chevy camp is used to putting 10, 12, 15 wins on the board a year. Right now we’re at four. We expect more of ourselves. I know the teams are looking for more wins and I’ll call it top-five finishes. Talladega was kind of a turbocharger for us to get everyone really working at the next level.”

Chevrolet won at Talladega after an increased effort to have its teams work together throughout the weekend and during the race. Chevrolet made the effort after seeing how successful Toyota and Ford teams were at Daytona and Talladega by working together. Until then, Chevrolet had allowed its teams and drivers to go their own way at those tracks.

“Over the years, Chevy results were pretty doggone strong without a massive work-together effort,” Campbell said during the radio interview. “I think we go back to ’16 and Toyota put together an effort to get some of the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) guys working together and I think in the fall, the Ford camp was doing that. So, it was time, it was time that we just pulled ourselves together and really worked across all of our teams.”

With seven races left until the Cup playoffs begin, Chevrolet has three drivers set for the playoffs via wins: Elliott, Bowman and Busch. Chevrolet also has three competitors who would qualify for the 16-driver playoffs as of today via points with William Byron 12th in the standings, Kyle Larson 13th and Jimmie Johnson 15th.

Johnson’s position is tenuous. He is 10 points ahead of Ford’s Ryan Newman, who holds the first spot outside a playoff position.

“I look at the trajectory,” Campbell said of Chevrolet’s progress. “Are we on the trajectory up or are we flat or are we down? I would say the momentum is going up, but it’s all performance based. We’ve got to put wins on the board, more top 10s.”

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AJ Allmendinger to drive in Watkins Glen Xfinity race for Kaulig Racing

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NASCAR On NBC analyst AJ Allmendinger will climb back behind the wheel for the August 3 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen International.

Allmendinger will pilot the No. 10 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing for the second time this season.

Allmendinger is a past winner at Watkins Glen, having won the 2014 Cup race there. He has 10 prior Cup starts at the upstate New York road course, with the win, three top-five and six top-10 finishes, plus one pole.

He also has competed in one Xfinity race at Watkins Glen, starting fourth and finishing second for GMS Racing last year.

It’s an honor to be able to compete for Kaulig Racing at one of my favorite tracks, Watkins Glen International,” Allmendinger said in a team release. “I’ve been fortunate enough to win there in the Cup Series and had a strong run finishing second last season in my only Xfinity start there.

Matt Kaulig, Chris Rice and all of the guys made Daytona so enjoyable and fun, I can’t wait to get to The Glen.”

Allmendinger raced for Kaulig Racing two weeks ago in the Circle K Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway on July 5, leading 33 laps and finishing third before the car was disqualified for failing post-race inspection, leaving Allmendinger with a last-place finish in the 38-car field.

Allmendinger has three additional Xfinity road course races scheduled with Kaulig Racing this season: Mid-Ohio (August 10), Road America (August 24) and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval race (September 28).

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NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch back to No. 1; Kurt Busch to No. 3

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When it comes to this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, all we can say is, “Oh brother” … as in siblings Kyle and Kurt Busch.

Younger brother Kyle once again regained the top spot in this week’s rankings, knocking Joey Logano from the No. 1 perch after Logano held it the last two weeks.

And after not being ranked in the top 10 last week, older bro Kurt rockets up the rankings to No. 3 by virtue of his come-from-behind win last Saturday at Kentucky Speedway.

Also making a big move is Erik Jones, who goes from unranked last week to No. 4 this week. By contrast, six drivers from last week’s rankings dropped out of this week’s tabulations.

Here’s how this week’s rankings shape up:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Tenacious performance at Kentucky puts him back atop the rankings. Last week: 2nd.

2. Joey Logano (36 points): Car wasn’t wide enough to block all those behind him on the final restart. In his last three races on a 1.5-mile speedway, he’s finished seventh (Kentucky), third (Chicagoland) and second (Charlotte). Last week: 1st.

3. Kurt Busch (32 points): What a difference a win makes. But Busch’s ranking isn’t a total surprise. He’s been knocking at the door all season. Had he not pitted at Daytona two weeks ago, he may be riding a two-race win streak now. Last week: Unranked.

4. Erik Jones (23 points): Returns to playoff territory and seems to have momentum for a finishing kick. Third-place finish was his fourth top 10 in the last five races on a 1.5-mile speedway. That includes a third at Kansas and Kentucky and a fourth at Texas. Last week: Unranked.

5. Denny Hamlin (22 points): His pit crew has been called for an uncontrolled tire violation five times this year, tying the series high. That’s unacceptable. Despite the penalty at Kentucky, Hamlin finished fifth. Last week: 7th.

6. Kyle Larson (20 points): Top 10s in three of last four races – including a second (Chicagoland) and fourth (Kentucky) – have solidified his standing for the playoffs. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Newman (16 points): Is in full grind-it-out mode for solid finishes exactly when he needs them. Finished ninth at Kentucky after starting at the rear because his car failed inspection. While he fell out of a playoff spot, he’s only two points away after scoring his fourth top-10 finish in the last five races. Last week: 8th.

8. Cole Custer (9 points): Kentucky victory in the Xfinity Series was his series-high fifth win of the year. Last week: Unranked.

9. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Ends four-race tailspin but still needs to work on amassing stage points. Last week: Unranked.

10. Chris Buescher (5 points): If all the tracks on the circuit were 1.5-milers, he’d likely be ranked higher. All four of his top 10s this year have come at 1.5-mile tracks. He’s been sixth at Charlotte, ninth  at Atlanta and 10th at Kansas and Kentucky. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Christopher Bell (4 points), Martin Truex Jr. (4 points), Tyler Ankrum (3 points).