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Friday 5: Racer shares his struggles with depression, anxiety

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The challenge to race hasn’t always been about sponsorship and equipment for Cody Ware.

The 23-year-old suffers from depression and anxiety.

He wrote in a Facebook post last year that when he took a hiatus from racing and went back to school in 2015, his struggles got “so bad that I actually tried to kill myself.”

As Ware prepares to start his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, starting 37th for his family’s team, he is speaking about the mental health struggles he’s faced.

“I think most of my day-to-day struggles come internally,” he said. “The biggest step for me making the plunge into full-time Cup racing was to make sure I could mentally and emotionally handle it. Being on medication every day, it’s a constant struggle between fears and doubts and uncertainty, always kind of wondering to myself if I could get through a full 36-race season in Cup. I feel like with friends and family on board … I think with all that, it will be a good experience.

“This isn’t my story, this is a story that needs to be talked about for everybody. This is an issue that I think is way more prevalent in the country that is not discussed at all. I think that the more people have a voice and use their voice to talk about mental health and the stigma around it, that will help more people than I can even imagine. Even if all I’m doing is starting a conversation, then I’m accomplishing what I want to do.”

Ware follows a number of athletes and former athletes who have spoken about mental health struggles. NBA player DeMar DeRozan opened up about his struggles with depression and anxiety in February 2017, telling the Toronto Star: “It’s one of them things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day.”

Shortly after that, NBA player Kevin Love wrote in The Players’ Tribune about a panic attack he had during a game in 2017 and how therapy sessions have helped him. “Everyone is going through something that we can’t see,” he wrote.

Last August during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech, Brian Dawkins detailed his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts he had early in his NFL career.

The National Institute of Mental Health states that nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness — more than 40 million people. Young adults age 18-25 years have the highest prevalence of a mental illness compared to adults 26-49 years and those age 50 and older.

Ware says he was about 17 years old when he acknowledged “that I had a problem” but it wasn’t until a few years later that he said he “started actually trying to fix the problem.

“That’s kind of been the big part for me the last few years, making the conscious effort to keep fighting that fight,” he said. “It’s not something that I can just take some medication and be done with it. It’s a battle every morning when I wake up to really deal with those problems.”

He acknowledges setbacks he’s had.

“Back in 2017, I had a few issues on social media where I said and did some things that I should not have and that obviously, as it should, caused a lot of backlash on myself personally,” said Ware, who accused a fellow racer of infidelity after a disagreement over who was responsible for a crash.

“I think hitting rock bottom (after that) was the best thing that happened to me because that really gave me the wake-up call of ‘hey, this is only going to get worse, and you’re never going to come back from it unless you do something about it right now.’ That really set the stage where I’m still having to deal with a lot of that now. I own it, and I accept it and all I can do now is show that I’m making an effort to improve myself and also talk about my story.”

2. Dueling takeaways

With 21 cars per race and the inability for cars to build momentum in the bottom lane, much of the field ran single-file in both qualifying races Thursday night.

Competitors say they don’t anticipate that being as prevalent in Sunday’s Daytona 500 with a 40-car field (provided several cars are not eliminated by an accident or multiple accidents).

One driver who tried to do something in Thursday’s second qualifying race was Chase Elliott. In the final 10 laps, he often went to the bottom lane by himself and attempted to pass a car and move back to the high line. He climbed from 10th to sixth late but when he tried doing the same thing to take fifth, he lost momentum and fell back, finishing eighth.

“If they’re going to ride around the top all day long, I’ll be happy to try the bottom, at least make something for the great people that are watching up here in the stands,” Elliott said afterward.

The biggest move was Joey Logano’s maneuver from fourth to first on the final lap. He got a great push by teammate Ryan Blaney, giving Logano the momentum to go to the bottom. Blaney followed. The top three — Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola were not aligned as tight on the high line.

Logano side drafted Almirola, stalling him and still had the momentum with Blaney behind him to shoot into the lead.

“I knew I wanted to do it into (Turn 1), so I went for it,” Logano said of his winning move. “You kind of cross your fingers, hope it was good enough to break that plane where (Bowyer) couldn’t pull me back in the side draft. I was able to break that plane, come on up.

“That was a big moment once I was able to clear him. I didn’t want to get that far ahead, but I was. Being two‑wide didn’t give Bowyer a good enough run to get back to me.”

As for the single-file racing throughout the Duels, Logano said:

“It’s all driver mentality, right? It’s what everyone is thinking. I think what kind of leads the top to be strong is a few different things. 

“I think one of it is the side draft is more effective to the right side of a car. You’re able to slow down a car more from being on the right side than you can the left side. A lot of it is because of the shark fins. That’s just a theory in my mind. Seems like that is how that works.

Once that is in a driver’s head that the bottom is not going to work, you have five guys that think that, when they get to the lead they move to the wall, at that point the wall is going to be the fastest way around. It’s the best way to defend the lead.  You see those cars go up there.

I personally don’t think the bottom is that bad. When you can only get two, three, maybe five cars with you, it’s not enough. It’s not enough to do it. You have to have six, seven cars that are really committed to each other.”

3. No change needed

A question that has come up this week is if NASCAR needs to do something to help the stability of the cars to give drivers more confidence at Daytona.

Denny Hamlin said nothing needs to be changed.

“I think the cars are plenty stable and really more stable than I’ve felt them, especially when I kind of think back 10 or 15 years ago,” he said after finishing fourth in the second qualifying race Thursday. “These cars drive way better. If there’s mistakes made, it’s usually drivers, not the air or the car that’s making those mistakes.”

4. Axe the All-Star Race also?

Kevin Harvick said this week that the Clash should be eliminated — possibly foreshadowing that the Daytona 500 might not open the season in the future.

Harvick notes the cars crashed in the Clash and the payout from the race and questions the value to teams. He’s right. The Clash should go. In the last eight years, 70 percent of the cars in that event were involved in a crash. Sunday, 17 of the 20 cars were involved in the last accident before the rain came.

But why stop with the Clash? As NASCAR looks to make changes to the schedule, why not get rid of the All-Star Race? It’s a non-points event like the Clash. Eliminate both and NASCAR can tighten the schedule.

Harvick, though, says the All-Star Race should say.

“I still think that we have to have a weekend where we can show off as a sport,” Harvick said of keeping the All-Star Race. “That is really, when you look at the All-Star events, it needs to be something to where we can go to a city and have them embrace the All-Star event so you have pit stop competitions and unique parties.

“You go to a place like Nashville and have an All-Star race, you don’t have to make up formats because you are going to have a heck of a race with a great atmosphere and a market that you can have all kinds of events and excitement and enthusiasm.

“I went to the Super Bowl this year. You look at the Super Bowl and it doesn’t look like our Daytona 500. There is not as much going on here as there was there. When you look at the All-Star race and the (NBA) All-Star event that will be in Charlotte this weekend, their All-Star events move around, the Super Bowl moves around. You get enthusiasm from not doing the same thing over and over and over.”

As for the idea of an event at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, Speedway Motorsports Inc. and the group that promotes racing at Nashville Fairgrounds are working on a proposal to present to the city to upgrade the track for future NASCAR events.

5. One that got away

For as much as drivers celebrate their wins, they remember the defeats as much, if not more.

For 2017 Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, he thinks back to the 2005 season-opening race as one that got away.

I wanted to make a move on Jeff Gordon on the back straightaway on the last lap,” Busch said. “As I went to look out to make the pass, because I had a good run from the guys behind me, it was a line of Chevys. I was in a Ford that year. It was Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. behind me and I think it was Jeff Burton and a line of guys were ready to go with Dale Jr. I was going to get hung out to dry.

“I came back to second. That one stayed with me for a while.”

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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.