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 Open starting lineup at Bristol

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Michael McDowell will start on the pole for the NASCAR Open at Bristol Motor Speedway after a random draw. Aric Almirola joins him on the front row.

Click here for NASCAR Open starting lineup

The winners of each segment advance to the All-Star Race, along with the fan vote winner. Last year, Kyle Larson won a segment in the Open to advance to the All-Star Race and then won that event. Other segment winners last year were William Byron and Bubba Wallace. Alex Bowman advanced through the fan vote a year ago. Bowman has already qualified for this year’s All-Star Race.

 

NASCAR Open at Bristol 

Race Time: 7 p.m. ET Wednesday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (0.533-mile speedway)

Length: 85 laps over three segments, 45.3 miles

Segments: Segment 1 is 35 laps. Segment 2 is 35 laps. Segment 3 is 15 laps.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: Saturday at Texas (200 laps, 300 miles), 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Next Truck race: Saturday at Texas (167 laps, 250.5 miles) 8 p.m. ET on FS1

Martin Truex Jr. to start on pole for All-Star Race at Bristol

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Martin Truex Jr., who is seeking his first All-Star Race win, will start on the pole for Wednesday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway after a random draw.

Truex will be joined on the front row by Alex Bowman.

Rookie Cole Custer, who earned a spot in the All-Star Race with his win Sunday at Kentucky, will start eighth.

Click here for All-Star Lineup

  • Positions 17-19 will go to segment winners from the NASCAR Open. The 20th starting spot goes to the fan vote winner, which will be announced after the NASCAR Open

Among the special rules for the race:

# The Chose Rule will be used. As drivers approach a designated spot on the track, they must commit to the inside or outside lane for the restart.

# The car number will move from the door toward the rear wheel to give sponsors more exposure.

# Cars that have automatically qualified for the All-Star Race will have underglow lights on their cars.

 

NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol 

Race Time: 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (0.533-mile speedway)

Length: 140 laps over four segments, 74.6 miles

Segments: Segment 1 is 55 laps. Segment 2 is 35 laps. Segment 3 is 35 laps. Segment 4 is 15 laps (only green flag laps count in this segment).

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: Saturday at Texas (200 laps, 300 miles), 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Next Truck race: Saturday at Texas (167 laps, 250.5 miles) 8 p.m. ET on FS1

Xfinity playoff grid after Kentucky doubleheader

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The Xfinity Series went to Kentucky Speedway for a doubleheader and Austin Cindric left the track with two wins and a spot in the playoffs.

Cindric, who claimed the first oval track NASCAR wins of his career, is now third on the playoff grid among the six drivers locked into the postseason. He has 15 playoff points.

Noah Gragson, who is second on the grid, won three of four stages in Kentucky and has 18 playoff points.

Six spots remain to be filled on the playoff grid. The last two drivers currently in the top 12 are Ryan Sieg (+57 points above cutline) and Brandon Brown (+14).

The first four drivers outside the top 12 are Myatt Snider (-14 points from cutline), Jeremy Clements (-30), Alex Labbe (-42) and Jesse Little (-47).

Cup playoff grid after Kentucky Speedway

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Cole Custer delivered the first curveball to the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff chase Sunday when he won at Kentucky Speedway.

Custer entered the race 25th in the points, nine spots back from the cutoff line for 16-driver field.

Now, Custer is one of nine drivers locked into the playoffs, meaning the cutoff for the postseason is 15th in points.

Among those currently in the playoff grid who are not locked in, the last two are William Byron (+30 points) and Jimmie Johnson (+24).

The first four drivers sitting outside a playoff spot are Austin Dillon (-24 points from cutoff), Tyler Reddick (-41), Erik Jones (-42) and Bubba Wallace (-84).